heart on sleeve

Hiding Behind a Label

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user Scott Garner

 

I can be a little needy. There’s a little boy in my soul that screams “Love me! See me! Don’t leave me!” I tend to look for validation from others rather than listening to myself, or more importantly, God. I sometimes feel like I missed out on something as a home school kid growing up in a church with only older people. If I’m honest, I feel very uncool. I’m quiet and slightly awkward. I depend a lot on my gay identity, especially how it interacts with my religious faith. It defines me. My sexual orientation pinpoints my differences from other people. It gives me purpose; it helps define a core aspect of my personhood. But my world is shrinking. I’m no longer the only gay Christian person I know. I’m not all that different.

Last month The Gay Christian Network held its yearly conference in Chicago¹. A lot of gay Christians I knew were there. I told a couple of folks I was so jealous. It would have been incredible to meet a lot of the people I respect and follow in person. But I wasn’t entirely honest either. The idea of going to the conference scared me. I had a lot of obvious excuses why I couldn’t go (and they will probably not change next year for Portland—sorry guys), but nonetheless, I did not want to be there. I feared an identity crisis. The thing that defined me in Alabama would become suddenly meaningless among hundreds of gay Christians in Chicago.

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GCN Conference

When I come out to compassionate and open-minded straight Christians, there is curiosity. People may see me as brave, interesting, and well, cool. Kyle Donn, a Christian blogger, refers to this as “Sexy Christianity,” radical faith that can be glorifying to God, but can just as easily be a way to promote ourselves. Donn writes, “This kind of Christianity is dangerously cool. And that’s the thing… It’s dangerous. Here and there, it’s spot on; but my fear is that it flirts with the edge and settles for the empty satisfaction of a cultural ego-trip –- thirsty to hear cool people say: ‘Wow! You’re doing great things for God!’” As I processed by thoughts for preparing and launching this blog, I realized I had made an idol out of my sexual identity. I wear my heart on my sleeve, and I was trying to cover it up with an edgy label. Being gay was my ticket to the attention and validation I crave.

If I went to the GCN conference, that would mean leveling out the playing field. I didn’t want to be around gay people who naturally exude confidence and coolness that just doesn’t come naturally for me. I didn’t want to enter a new world of cliques, striving to get the “cool kids’” attention. What a Christian attitude, right? I envisioned looking into a storefront window, seeing all the amazing activity inside and feeling unable to participate–wishing desperately I was back in Alabama instead of freezing in Chicago.

If my identity centers on me, on this silly pedestal I’ve formed in my mind, it will fall over. If you didn’t notice earlier, I’m a broken guy. I’m gradually coming out publicly to encourage people (gay and straight) to live without masks. If my focus centers on pleasing others to maintain the applause, then I will only trade one façade for another. I’m going to screw up. But failure is part of growing, and abundant grace flourishes despite my clumsy attempts of reflecting God’s love.

I was reminded in a phone conversation recently with another gay Christian blogger that it’s ok to recognize my own need for love and validation. I tend to vilify this yearning, fearing I won’t be able to tame it. But a balance can be found somewhere between my unhealthy neediness and isolationist individualism (the very American mindset that I can deal with my problems by myself). One person cannot meet all my needs. Husbands and wives who place all their chips on a spouse for their joy and contentment in life will be severely disappointed. We are designed to thrive in a rich, diverse community, not an isolated family unit.

My concern about the conference makes me laugh now. On the one hand, I’ve had gay friends for a number of years since graduating from Bryan College. While our shared experience as sexual minorities originally drew us together, it is far from the only dynamic that makes our friendships work. One gay Christian friend in particular has been a dear brother to me for several years though we’ve only met once in person. He’s been my rock through many emotional and spiritual struggles. I don’t feel pressured to be anything but who I am when we interact. Certainly not some kind of perfect super-gay-Christian.

Wherever this blogs leads. I hope that feeling will continue to be my framework of ministry. No mask, just Seth–but at the same time I don’t want to lose myself in a black hole of self-obsession. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. If there are people I feel drawn to befriend but they don’t reciprocate my interest in friendship and/or connection, that’s fine. God will provide for my emotional needs. If I’m seen as cool for ministering to LGBTs as an openly gay Christian man myself, great. More props to God. If people ignore or hate me for what I have to say, then this is still worth doing. The truly cool people in this world are the ones who seek to humble their hearts, slay their pride, and love without worry of how they’re perceived by their peers. That’s the kind of man I want to be.

 

1. The Gay Christian Network promotion pictures taken from HeyoDavo

  • Stephen McAlister

    I hope you get the chance to attend a GCN conference soon. My experience in 2013 was that I actually shed a shadow of shame I didn’t know existed and I discovered a new level of comfortability in my own skin that had not been evident before. Being part of a crowd is rewarding when the crowd is your own tribe for once. It strengthens the idea that you’re not alone.

    • That’s awesome, Stephen. I’m so glad the conferences have been beneficial and spiritually and emotionally nourishing for you. That’s similar to what I’ve heard from at least one friend who went last month. Hopefully I’ll go to one soon. Grace and peace to you, man.

  • Ben Andrews

    Seth,

    Thanks for the vulnerability. I had previously read that post about “Sexy Christianity” and found it quite helpful. I saw in myself the same tendencies you mentioned – Need me! Love me! Don’t leave me! – and the subtle belief that if people don’t, I need to simply become more interesting and desirable. I know I use my career goals, my passions, and other pieces of my identity to impress people into keeping me around (which, I’ve realized, is a little sad; my friends keep me around because they love me, not because I’m so awesome). This is definitely true of my faith in many ways. I need to impress others (and God) in hopes that they will love me. After reading this article, I’m increasingly grateful that neither God nor my friends are especially impressed with my attempts to be “worthwhile” and that to them, I was worthwhile the whole time.

    • I definitely have to thank you and Lauren for that conversation in Panera Bread last month. It sparked the idea for this post.
      It is a silly endeavor when we’re already so loved by those in our lives. The harder struggle is learning to be patient when forming new attachments or desiring to make a friendship that never comes to fruition. I’ve experienced a lot of the latter. It’s easy to take those failed friendships personally.

  • So, are you considering going to the GCN conference in 2016?