What is the worst possible time to question your sexuality? To begin to admit you are something other than straight? Probably when you’re a student at a conservative seminary, relentlessly pursuing the calling you know you’ve received from God.
What could make it even worse? Probably being a woman in the Seventh-day Adventist church, afraid that any rumor or suspicion of your sexuality would doom your already slim chances of being hired.
This is the exact situation I found myself in. At the time I believed, though tenuously, that same-sex relationships were wrong. Despite the fact that my beliefs were orthodox, I didn’t trust anyone with the knowledge that my private feelings of attraction were not entirely directed towards the opposite gender.
So when I found myself in the office of a seminary counselor, smack in the middle of a row of professor’s offices, only sheer desperation that lead me to ask for help.
Sitting down in his office, I surveyed the vents near the ceiling, wondering if sound could carry through them to the offices next door. I looked at the stern face across the desk from me as he assumed a practiced expression of concern. I wondered if he could really be trusted to keep my secret.
“Is there anything you would like to talk about?” He asked.
“There is something it would probably be good to talk about. Could you tell me, what is your policy of confidentiality? Would you be willing to now write anything down about the conversation we have?”
I was completely paranoid. On his shelves, stacked one on top of another, was a veritable library on “homosexuality.” It was clearly something he cared about. I hoped he could help me.
He assured me that our conversation would be confidential, but that he does keep a record of his sessions. I could hardly stand the thought that somewhere in the seminary would be a written record of my deviant sexual feelings. But like I said, I was desperate. My feelings seemed uncontrollable. What was more terrifying, I found myself less and less willing to control them.
It had begun with one woman, a friend of mine. It’s taken me years to acknowledge to myself the obvious reality that I’d fallen in love with her. Barely, and I still don’t know how I managed it, I brought my feelings under control, somehow without ever crossing the line of trying to be with her or God forbid trying to kiss her. Not that she was interested. And maybe that’s the only way I had survived, believing she wasn’t. God only knows what I would have done if she would have loved me back. We all have our limits, after all.
To my dismay, it didn’t stop with her. Suddenly I was experiencing life in an entirely different and terrifying way. I would smile at a woman I met out and about, with no intention but simple friendliness, then I would feel an energy pass between us and wonder, did she feel that? Is she attracted to me? Am I attracted to her?
Despite my best efforts, I was definitely attracted to women. I was never safe. I could feel the pull at any time, drawing me to certain women with an intensity I hadn’t realized before, making friendship seem perilous. At all costs my inner life must stay a secret. But secrets breed fear, shame, and anxiety. I was coming apart.
There I was: desperate enough to seek help when the slightest hint could destroy me, desperate enough to turn to someone who could drop that hint.
Somehow I found the words. “I’ve realized that I’m attracted to women. It’s not something I was aware of before. I think I’m handling it okay, but it would probably be good for me to talk about it.”
I might as well have casually placed a live grenade between us and asked him to keep his cool about it. He was obviously uncomfortable. This is more than he had bargained for with his innocent question. He fell back on what was clearly a familiar metaphor for him.
“Think about it like a picture gallery. You have several images on the wall in your mind, and you can choose to walk over and look at them, or you can choose to leave them be. That’s what lust is like. It’s up to you whether or not you choose to dwell on these images.”
Lust!? He thinks this is about lust? Little does he know that not once, not even one solitary time have I allowed myself to fantasize sexually about a woman. If self-control were an Olympic sport I would be standing on the podium listening to my national anthem. You can’t control your dreams, but I never chosen to dwell on the image of a woman in my mind.
Lust was not the problem. The problem was that despite my total commitment to not lusting after women, I was drawn to them. The problem was love. It was a desire deep in my heart that I was fighting every day. It was an undeniable instinct that there was something beautiful waiting for me in the arms of a woman.
This is the strange part, though. In those days, before I had accepted myself, the sexual part of it didn’t even sound appealing. It seemed strange. I had accepted what I had heard again and again. I had been the recipient of a million images of straight intimacy and none of same-sex intimacy. At the time, it seemed like an excellent safe-guard. But it wasn’t enough. No matter now much I was able to control my lust and my sexual desire, I knew in my bones that the right woman could make me happy for the rest of my life.
Of course I was drawn to the sexual experience of being with a woman despite how strange it seemed, but it was something that I never, ever, ever allowed myself the luxury of pondering. This was war. And in the battle with lust, I was winning. But in the battle with love, it was a losing fight. It was war against my own, natural sense of beauty and goodness. I could not convince myself that goodness was sin.
How could I explain all this? All I said was, “No, that’s not it. It isn’t lust.”
He changed his approach, “Do you really want to be in a lesbian relationship?”
There it was. I was pinned down with no escape. “Lesbian relationship.” Was this who I was? Those words, so long used to describe the reprobate, the enemies of Christ, the lost people of the world. And that’s exactly what this man meant when he used them. That’s exactly what the esteemed professors sitting all around me in their offices would think of me. These people on whom my future was entirely dependent would lose all respect for me. I prayed no one else could hear his question through the vents.
I shifted in my chair, suddenly unable to find a comfortable position. My face reddened. I stammered. Somehow I found words to dismiss the whole idea, “No, I’m not really thinking about having a relationships with anyone. It’s just something I’ve been feeling lately.”
“So this isn’t something you are considering with one one right now?”
“No. It’s just something I’ve been feeling.”
“Okay. Come back sometime and let me know how it’s going. And by the way, this isn’t the kind of thing I usually write down.”
This thing was too much even for a professional to write down in confidentiality. In fact, it was more than he even wanted to talk about. I was out of his office within ten minutes of entering. I never returned.
Later I learned more about the approach he uses for counseling, and that what he said to me that day was intended to bring a sense of guilt and shame, in order to keep me from sinning.
I can’t tell you what it looks like to tell lesbian, gay, and bisexual people that their sense of love and connection is sinful, and not do us harm. I don’t know how the theology that our sense of love and connection is sinful is part of the good news of the gospel.
I do know that sometimes people who study it the most, who dedicate large portions of their careers to helping people like me, and who churches turn to with their questions, are failing miserably. I was ready to do anything that day and every day for years to be faithful.
I didn’t come to these realizations about myself until much later in life than most, and I had personal and emotional resources that only come with age. Many struggling with these questions are just kids, vulnerable and scared about their future. What do non-affirming churches offer to them? How do they help them? What is the impact of this type of teaching on their young lives?