The year is 2002, and I’m in middle school. The girls seem freakishly tall and wear a lot of eyeshadow. The boys are mostly obsessed with video games.
In youth group, they split us up sometimes. The eyeshadow-wearing girls go off into one room, and the video-game-playing boys go off into another. I’m never quite sure what the girls are hearing in these sessions. (Although one time, when we reconvened at the end of the night, they were all carrying white roses.) Most of the time, the boys hear some variation of the following:
“You want to look at naked women and have sex with them. Don’t do it. God loves you, and he designed you to want to look at a naked woman and have sex with her, but you’ve got to wait until marriage.”
I have no desire to look at naked women. I pretend I do, just to fit in. I nod my head at all the correct moments and look appropriately penitent. But the truth—the truth I don’t even have words for yet—is that I want to look at naked men instead. Maybe I’m in the wrong room. Maybe I’m in the wrong building.
I’m gay, and I’m terrified.
A lot of things will happen in the fifteen years between 2002 and 2017. I’m going to do a lot of praying that God makes me straight. (And God, in his love, will do a lot of saying “no.”) I’m going to try (and going to fail) at dating one of my closest female friends. I’m going to revisit the Bible, asking God if he’ll allow me to interpret it in such a way that I can pursue a monogamous relationship with another guy. (And God, in his love, will keep on saying “no.”)
I’m going to decide to be celibate. I’m going to discover what a heartbreaking and beautiful thing it is to love a two-thousand-year-old Jewish guy who also happens to be the savior of the world.
I’m going to start telling people my story. I’m going to learn that being loved and being honest don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
I’m going to be okay.
But there are so many people—so many living, breathing, bleeding LGBTQ people like me—who won’t be okay.
There are people who will be kicked out of their families, people who will be homeless, people who will be driven to suicide. There are people who will be told by their churches that simply experiencing attraction for the same sex—simply “being gay,” apart from any decision or sexual action—is a ticket straight to hell. There are people who will be told that Jesus only receives the righteous, the cleaned-up-and-polished, that they must conform before they can belong.
In 2002, I don’t know which of those stories will be mine. I don’t know if my sexuality or my theology will change. I don’t know how my family and my church community will respond to me.
With every beat of my twelve-year-old heart, I wish I could be sure that when Christians talked about loving their neighbors, they were including me. No matter what.
I wish that people who shared pews with me in church talked about gay people the way they talked about diplomats and florists and concierges, as if we were just people. I wish they didn’t see us as the enemy camp of a protracted culture war. I wish they were more interested in my pursuit of Jesus than in who I was tempted to have sex with.
I wish that Christians saw gay people not following Jesus and straight people not following Jesus as all equally in need of Jesus. I wish we spent more time talking about the gospel and less time talking about what the gospel would mean for certain people’s sex lives.
I wish that when the boys and girls split up in youth group, someone had said, “Maybe the people you’re attracted to are other guys. That can happen too. There’s still a way for you to follow Jesus, and it’s still absolutely worth it.”
I wish you could see me—all of me. I wish you knew that the fears I face, the temptations I battle, and the future hope I cling to might look different from yours. I wish you could see our differences without seeing me any differently.
I wish I weren’t so afraid for you to see me.
Your gay neighbor is closer than you think. He’s the shy seventh grader in your youth group, the one who’s terrible at video games and nods silently through every sex talk. She’s the college student who throws herself into Bible studies and talks about Jesus with a glint of desperation in her eyes. We’re not special cases. We’re not the rejects God has given up on. We’re just ordinary people, in need of the same ordinary, extraordinary grace as everyone else.
I’m your gay neighbor, and I’ll be leading worship from the piano this Sunday. Will you love me enough to chase Jesus with me?
Gregory Coles is the author of Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity. He’s also a piano player, a baker, a worship leader, and a PhD candidate in English, not necessarily in that order. Learn more at www.gregorycoles.com.