It’s been a long time coming—this sharing of a sad, sad story, but now it needs to be told. Not that it will do any good at this point, but I can no longer sit by and say nothing amid self-righteous, judgmental, and condemnatory attitudes that so often now pervade the church I have loved all my life. It is not easy or pleasant to remember—less so to share, but I will share in hopes that someone will begin to understand what a significant number of people experience in the Adventist community.
He invited me to dinner, something he'd never done before.
He was my big brother—about two and a half years older than I—and as children we played together, or at least were in each other’s company most of our growing up days. We lived on a small island with the beach close at hand. I often combed the beach for precious pieces of smoothed glass, agates and tiny shells. He caught flounders and bullheads and crabs and transferred them to “holding ponds” shaped by the retreating tides behind barnacle-encrusted rocks.
Now he was catching my attention with the words "all my life," in response to my question, "how long?"
I was just a few months into a graduate program, some days commuting the 75 miles from home, and on others, staying overnight at a friend’s home. This was one of those days I was staying at my friend's. I had been pleased when he called to invite me to dinner because we didn’t see each other often. Somehow over our adult years we didn’t interact much except for the requisite holidays at our folk’s home. But then, we hadn’t lived in proximity that would allow for frequent visits either.
I knew he had recently come to live in the city, and I assumed his family was going to join him shortly. He seemed burned out from pursuing the profession that had been his passion for so many years, and I assumed he was seeking new opportunities. Little did I know.
Just a few days before, my hostess-friend shared with me her concerns over the music teacher at the academy her grandson attended. She was concerned because she thought he might be homosexual. It was the early eighties and the appellation “gay” was not yet widely used.
That evening as my brother and I visited, it was mostly me talking—chattering really—trying to fill the silence. He seemed subdued. I shared my friend’s concerns over the music teacher, knowing my brother had dealt with many difficult issues in his career as a teacher and principal. He didn’t say very much, but after awhile he stopped my babble to say he wanted to tell me something, but I must promise not to tell anyone, even my husband.
That was a hard request, something that was not easy for me to do; I didn’t keep anything from my husband. What could be behind such a request? I wondered.
It must be very important or he wouldn’t have prefaced it that way. Reluctantly, I agreed not to tell anyone.
He told me I may never want to speak to him again, and then he read me a poem. It was about someone who tried to commit suicide. As he finished, he said, “That’s me.” My shaken response was, “Why?” He reminded me of our conversation earlier about the music teacher and indicated, almost without saying it, that he was in that group. It became clear to me that he was saying he was gay.
It was then I asked, “How long?” Such a question implied that gender orientation could be changed or could be different at different times in one’s life. His reply, “All my life,” challenged that assumption.
As I look back on that conversation, I am so thankful that I did not walk away from him, hard as it was for me to try to understand. But I did try. I was taking a graduate biochemistry course at the time and after the section on fetal development I began to wonder how any of us are born what we call “normal.” I began to see the possibility of things happening in utero that could affect a person’s gender make-up and orientation. I will never ever forget my brother’s anguished question, “Why would anyone choose this?” Nor will I ever forget the comments and insights of several Seventh-day Adventist pastor/counselors who told of the extreme pain they had seen among gay persons, pain inflicted by the persons closest to them and by many calling themselves Christians.
My brother experienced such pain. When he finally was able to tell our parents, both were deeply distressed. The pain for both parents and son was palpable and profound.
My brother left his wife and adult children and a decades long teaching and administrative career in Adventist education. But that was only after years, seemingly unending years of trying to find a way to change, to become “normal.” As far as I know no one knew he counseled for years with Dr. Harold Shyrock, an academic guru of Adventist sexuality. All to no avail. And when he did leave his family, no one from the Adventist church sought him out or visited his family. After all those years he was a modern day leper. He was a wounded traveler on the road of life and the Pharisees and Levites passed by on the other side. They wouldn’t talk to his also-wounded wife, either.
Choice. Yes, I am glad I chose to remain a sister to my wounded and bruised brother. The “righteous” among us want to think that gender orientation is a choice. I would not deny that there are some who did not “start out that way” but for various reasons chose such a lifestyle. I have no idea what that percentage is, but undeniably there are those who had no choice. My brother was one of them. His daughter, my niece, wrote a beautiful piece about choice. With her permission I am sharing it with you. She called it “Choice Words.”
1984. Carl’s Jr. San Bernardino, CA.
I already knew, but he had to say the words. I sucked down the root beer, giving him time to find his courage. I was nervous too. Would he exit my life after this? How would I cope if he was just going to disappear? What would become of him?
“I’m gay,” his voice was steady, but thin. And that was it. After 50 years of trying to be what other people wanted him to be - and after 20 years of pretending to be a straight, normal, dad – my dad was putting down the first piece of solid foundation upon which we might be able to build an honest relationship.
The remainder of the conversation I don’t recall in detail, but the gist of it, yes, I can tell you about that. It was about choice, acceptance, family, and love. He said he would understand if I didn’t ever want to see him again, that he would accept whatever choice I made, that he wanted to always be a part of my life, and that I should have some time to think about it.
“Time? Time for what? To decide if I want you in my life? Why wouldn’t I want my dad in my life? What kind of insanity is that? How is this even a question? You’re my dad. I can’t live my life without you. Why would you think that’s even an option?” I didn’t say any of these things, but my mind churned through them in about two seconds. And then the realization struck. My fears were baseless. He wasn’t going anywhere. He was giving me the choice. He would always be there for me. It was he who was afraid that I would exclude him.
It was a freeing moment. My dad had given me an incredible gift and lesson, but it wasn’t until today (the day the Supreme Court made gay marriage lawful nation-wide) that I understood the dark tangle of choice and how it has been misused. When we believe non-heterosexuality is a choice, we put the onus on the other person and side-step having to make a choice for ourselves. It becomes their fault that we can’t welcome them into our home, our church, or our club. In effect we demand that they bear the burden of choice while simultaneously freeing ourselves from having to make a choice. It’s lazy, ugly, unkind, unloving, without compassion, and if you’re a Christian like me – unchristian. The choice is not about sexuality or preference, but about acceptance, kindness, understanding, and love. Choice rests not with the gay person, but with the straight person.
Decades of debate and frenzy cannot be undone by a high court ruling. That change remains to be worked within each person. Take a cue from my dad and put down a foundation that understands choice is not an option when it comes to sexual preference, but a state of humanity where we have the opportunity to convey love and acceptance.
Thanks for the lesson dad. I wish you were here so I could take you to lunch and celebrate the choice you gave me at a moment when you had no choice.
Choice. Yes, like my niece, I’m so thankful that I made a choice to stay in my brother’s life, difficult as that life became. I cannot affirm her words strongly enough. All too often so-called Christians forget the beams in their own eyes and try to pull out the specks in the eyes of others, often with the biggest slip-joint pliers they can find. There’s no healing, only damage, great damage.
After a few weeks I had to tell my husband. He treated my brother kindly and over the next several years he stood by me as I spent time with my brother. We did whatever we could to support him even as his life was spinning out of control. In a throwback to our childhood years my brother and I visited the beach, a different one albeit, but a beach nonetheless, walking and talking, trying to understand each other. He said, “How come your view of God is so different from mine? We both grew up in the same home, we went to the same schools, we heard many of the same sermons.” He was angry with God, very angry with God for “making me this way.” I didn’t have a good answer then. I wished I did, but I didn’t. I just knew my view was different from his. He shared the pain he had experienced, not just in the present, but all his life. It was a story of hearing family members making judgments of others like him, of fear, of disappointments, some in himself. He told of being “hard on my kids,” of being a perfectionist in everything he could because he thought if everything else was OK, maybe this wouldn’t be such a problem; maybe it would be overlooked.
As time went on I watched my brother’s health deteriorate under the onslaught of AIDS, the purple sores, the pneumonia, the mental decline, interspersed with multiple hospitalizations. One day I went to a most trusted and beloved teacher and mentor, Elder Paul Heubach. I told him of my brother’s circumstances and my concerns. As we concluded our conversation he said words that ring as loud and true in my mind and heart today as they did then: “Don’t close the gates of heaven on him.”
Recently I read again the Sermon on the Mount. And I wonder about that beam in my own eye. Then there’s Jesus’ statement, “You have heard it said, . . . but I say to you.” I would invite those who support a more strict rendering of the fundamental belief of Adventists stating that marriage is “between one man and one woman” rather than saying “partners” to think about the issue of divorce. It was not in the original design, but Jesus said because of the hardness of men’s hearts, it was given. Because of what has happened in our old world it was given as a way to deal with a difficult problem.
We have another even more difficult problem today. What would Jesus say? I think He would say, “You have heard it said, but I say to you. . .” I believe He would express understanding for what genetics, deteriorated over millennia, has determined and offer a way to meet today’s problem.
When will we stop judging and start loving, really loving? When will we follow His example and become an inclusive, not insular and exclusive, body of believers, known by how they treat others in loving, kind ways? Who welcome anyone into their churches, their potlucks, their Sabbath School classes? I remember a pastor telling the music committee not to invite a certain person to sing very often. You know why.
And so I say, don’t close our hearts; don’t close our minds to new understanding; don’t close our church doors on those who want to worship with us; and don’t close the gates of heaven.
The author of this article requested to remain unnamed in order to protect those whose experiences are described here.
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