"I think I'm pretty good at figuring out when someone is gay."
I was catching up with a friend a few weeks ago, and the conversation turned to current events--specifically, the hot-button issue of gay marriage. We were talking about the Church's response and what it looks like for Christians to engage the discussion with both truth and grace. Then, my very well-meaning friend (who loves Jesus very much) told me about his skill of deciphering people's sexual orientation.
It was difficult not to laugh at the irony.
While I smiled inwardly, secretly wishing I could tell him his "gaydar" needed some serious re-calibration, I also felt the grim satisfaction that, once again, the disguise had held. The mask was intact.
For Christians who secretly struggle with same-sex attraction, discussing anything related to homosexuality is usually fraught with peril. Clearly, this is an important discussion for Christians in today's society. And as someone with a particular interest in the Church's response to same-sex attracted brethren, it's a discussion I'm eager to participate in. But there's always the question of just how much you should participate. When will questions and quiet suspicions start stirring in your friends' minds? Will they wonder why you seem so passionate about this topic? Why you have such great insight into the hearts of gay people? Can you get away with citing that book or that blog, or will that beg the obvious question of why were you reading that in the first place?
And then it happens. Your friend makes an ignorant or hurtful comment about gay people. You challenge them on it, on its lack of truth or its lack of grace (or both). There's an awkward pause. Were you too strong? Did you show too much? You feel the mask start to crack, you start to panic, but wait...you've been here before. You've faced these situations more times than you can count. You're a pro.
"I mean, isn't that the gospel?" you ask. "Aren't we supposed to love people even when we don't understand them? I can't even begin to understand what's going on in the mind of a gay. It grosses me out. It's twisted! But somehow, we gotta love them anyhow. Love the sinner, hate the sin, right?"
Masterful. You distanced yourself from "them," and you cloaked it with the gospel. You even threw in that ever-popular evangelical maxim, which "solves" the problem of responding to sexual brokenness in six simple words! Everyone nods in agreement, and the conversation continues. Someone tells a joke about a "bunch of fags." Everyone laughs...and you do too.
It's an all-too-familiar scenario. I've lied, manipulated, said hurtful things, and even bullied others in desperate attempts to maintain the disguise. It's not a good feeling.
As my conversation with my "perceptive" friend moved on to a new subject, I felt safe in my mask. He didn't have a clue, and that was precisely my intention. There was so much more I wanted to say, but it was all things that my mask wasn't supposed to know.
I remember vividly the first time I ever heard the word "gay." I was in late elementary school, watching an episode of "Touched by an Angel" with my family. I remember the whole concept of a man wanting to marry another man seemed absolutely ridiculous. It wouldn't be until puberty struck a couple years later that the feelings I had toward other guys began to cause me concern. Still, though, there was no connection in my mind between my feelings and this word, "gay." Even as the hormones raged and the attractions grew stronger, it wasn't until the latter part of my college career that I ever started to wonder if this word, this term that described the people I had learned to condemn, might actually describe me too.
Growing up, I never thought of myself as "gay." It never even occurred to me. Honestly, I still resist the label for myself, mostly because of all the connotations and assumptions with which it's loaded But even without a category to put my feelings in, I still inherently knew that those feelings could never, ever be revealed.
I don't remember creating my mask, or the day I first put it on. In some sense, I've always worn it, and as I've grown, it's grown along with me. Sometimes, it's hard to tell where the mask ends and where I begin. I long to take the mask off and breathe, to feel the breeze against my skin, but while the mask is stifling and constricting, it's also safe. Years of constantly, obsessively perfecting it have made it nearly impenetrable. Besides, if I took it off, I don't even know what my real face would look like.
I often feel a deep sense of distrust in my friendships and relationships. Sure, they like "me." They love "me." They accept "me." But this "me" that they like, love, and accept...is it really me, or is it the mask? If it's mask, that's no real comfort, because of course they love my mask. I've specifically designed it that way. I've painted my mask in ways they couldn't help but love. But what would they think if they saw behind it...
Over the past few years, I've had the opportunity to let a few good friends do just that, and the experience has been more life-giving than I could have ever expected. As I share my heart, my story, and my struggles with these mentors and brothers, I have experienced love, grace, and compassion. They have pointed me to the Cross, and they have encouraged me in my convictions and pursuit of holiness.
Ultimately, these brothers point me to my Savior, who has never been fooled by my mask. He has always seen my heart, my innermost being. He's seen the brokenness, the deceit, the idolatry. He saw me, all of me, before I was ever born, and he loved me so much that he died to make me his.
As I write this blog, I still have my mask. However, for the first time in my life, I'm finally starting to see the mask for what is. I'm also starting to see myself, and see myself in the way that Christ sees me. While others in my position have found the freedom to remove their mask completely as they share their stories of struggle, grace, and redemption, I have not yet reached that point. I don't know if I ever will publicly, or what that would even look like.
For now, I remain your brother behind the mask, but this is why I'm writing this blog. I write to say what I wish I could have said graciously to my friend: don't be so sure. It's easy to view homosexuality as an "us" vs. "them" dichotomy, but it's not that simple. The Christians and "the gays" are not distinct and mutually exclusive categories. Many of your brothers and sisters in Christ wear this mask, and we wear it very well. Before the Church can speak to the issue of homosexuality in the culture at large, she must first learn how to respond to her own members that find themselves in the midst of this silent struggle. The Church must learn to be a safe place for people to take their masks off.
And really, we all wear masks. Yours may not be covering an unwanted same-sex attraction, but it's covering something. We all have elaborate schemes to hide our shame. Jesus meets us in our shame, and he lovingly reaches for our masks, the fig leaves we've desperately strung around us. My prayer is that as I learn what it means to trust Jesus with my mask, you will also learn to trust him with yours. May we lay down our striving, may we gaze on his matchless beauty, and may we rest in the arms of our Savior.
Grace to you, and peace in Christ,
Your Brother Behind the Mask