It could have been me.

“There but for the grace of God go I.” There are moments in life when you get a frightening glimpse into what you could have been, had things turned out just a little differently. What I could have been is absolutely terrifying. Over the weekend, I watched ‘For the Bible tells me so’a feature-length documentary telling the stories of American families who had been biblical literalists. And their gay children. The stories themselves are a mixture of heartbreaking and heart-warming, largely dependent on whether those involved managed to break away from fundamentalism, and find a faith that has space for them to love their children for who they are rather than in spite of it. But the tears I found myself wiping away by the end of the film were not only of despair for some, nor only of inspiration from others.

They were tears for what I saw of myself on-screen. Tears for who I could have become. Tears for the damage I could have inflicted. 

Back in the days of AOL instant messenger, I had a conversation with a school friend, who was herself attracted to other girls. Off-loading the various stresses and struggles of my teenage life to her, I concluded a list of mainly genuine difficulties with, “…and besides all that, I’ve got a gay mum.”

I’m grateful that my friend was incredibly gracious in the way she gently asked me to consider whether it was such a bad thing to have a gay mum. But I’m ashamed that I ever typed those words in the first place.

Much like the families in the documentary, I grew up with a mostly literal understanding of the Bible. I knew that a lot of what I believed was unpopular, but that only made me more determined to hold on to it. God said it so I believed it, tough as that may be.  There was a kind of inherent virtue in standing up for an interpretation of the Bible that was hated by everyone else.

To me, homosexuality seemed a bit like the temptation to have sex outside of marriage – it was just temptation to have ‘wrong sex’. Just like I could pray against my own pre-marital temptations and hope they went away for long enough to make it to the altar, I thought gay people needed to pray against theirs and hope it went away… well, forever. I was sure God could save them from it. 

I squirmed at the thought of it. I didn’t like the look of it. I couldn’t understand it. I definitely didn’t want my mum involved in it. I wished she’d just choose not to accept that identity. I wished she wouldn’t be herself.

I loved my mum anyway, sure. I assured her as much when she first told me she was gay.

I still love you just the same, Mum. 

The ‘anyway’ was implicit. I love you, even though I don’t love that. I love you anyway, because I don’t accept the gay thing as part of you. It’s not you, really. I love you despite this bit that I refuse to love.

Those are the kinds of words that some of the parents on this film spoke and wrote to their gay kids when they came out. Those words represent the supposedly ‘nicer face’ of a deep prejudice, expressed in so many nastier ways. Those are the kinds of words that led a young woman to hang herself, as acknowledged by her now repentant mother who had written them.

I know what I would have said, a few years ago. I would have said I was accepting my mum as she truly was, but not acknowledging sin as part of her identity. As if I was doing her a favour. Just like, I’d have said, my true identity is not in the lies I tell or the gossip I spread or the ways I hurt other people. I am not ‘Liar’ or ‘Cheat’ or ‘Bully’ even though I might do those things, so my mum was not ‘Gay’, whatever life she led.

I can’t quite believe how damaging that perspective is. How incredibly damaging to equate one person’s deep love for another person with my lies and anger and gossip. It sickens me now that I thought that way, that I called someone else’s love ‘sin’, that I could consider the very best in them ‘evil’, that I could pour shame on the most natural way in which we mirror God, by loving others.

I’m so sorry for the damage I did simply by holding and expressing that view. Those people on that film… they could have been me.

I wish there were stronger words to say it, but I’ll make do with the ones I have:

I love Mum.

Not anyway, not despite, not except. I love who she is, and I love how she loves. I love her love for me, for her friends, for her church, for her partner. I love the way she models to me how to love better. I love how she models Jesus to me.

Of course I don’t think Mum’s perfect, and I know she’d be the first to stand up and say it. There are things I wish she’d do more, others I wish she’d do less. But I will not, I cannot ever again, say that I wish she loved less. It makes absolutely no sense for someone with faith in a God who is Love to say that a person’s love is wrong. The Bible doesn’t say it and I won’t say it.

I’m convinced that as I’m called to follow Jesus, I’m called to fight prejudice. I’m called to challenge ignorance. I’m called to celebrate love as something holy and beautiful, and to learn from it much more about the God who loves me. 

I hope you can forgive me, Mum. Thanks for bearing with me. All the love in the world x

About Claire

@claireylegs Keen on Jesus. Keen on justice. Ministry assistant in the Great North East. Blogger. Find me in: coffee shop / church / pub / bed.
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6 Responses to It could have been me.

  1. Query says:

    Do you think you would ever have realised that gay people were worthy of compassion and love for being who God made them to be if you hadn’t have had the first-hand experience of knowing a gay person and realising they were still a wonderful person?

    • Claire says:

      Good question. I don’t think I ever thought that gay people were intrinsically worse than anyone else. I thought we all had our own struggles and temptations, and homosexuality was the temptation for some. The difference from knowing my mum’s life and having close gay friends was seeing their sexuality as more than just ‘wanting to have sex with people you shouldn’t want to have sex with’. When I started to understand about attraction, and relationships, and love, I came to believe that was a good thing in itself, and part of their God-given identity.

  2. Fishywishy says:

    The assumption, of course, being that God defines love the same way that society does. I watched Casablanca recently, and there was an interesting line in it near the end- one of the characters said “love has triumphed over virtue”. I think this shows very clearly what I’m getting at here- that some people think they can refer to a desire for someone as “love”, even when that desire is in completely the wrong place and takes precedent over what is known to be right. To compare that kind of love with the God who is love is an insult. 1 Corinthians 13 tells us that love is not at odds with either truth or virtue- if it is, then it must not be love.

    • Claire says:

      This is so circular Hannah – defining love by what you ‘know to be right’ and deciding what you ‘know to be right’ by how you define love. I know that it comes from your interpretation of the Bible, but that in itself is so often circular too – it is for all of us.

      I refuse to say that my experience of love, when it’s heterosexual, is better, more God-like, more pure, more *anything* than someone else’s experience of love. That would be a shocking insult. I don’t think you can ever say that love is a misplaced desire. You might be confusing love and sex here – sex can be a misplaced desire, sure, when it’s desire to rape or abuse or hurt. But love is not misplaced.

      • Fishywishy says:

        Hmm, it seems I wasn’t clear.

        I wasn’t actually talking about sex at all, although sexual desire and physical attraction certainly came into play in the fictitious situation I quoted. The situation was person A having a desire for a relationship with person B (not just to have sex) which appeared to take precedence over person A’s conscience- person A seemed willing to sacrifice lives in order to be with person B. Note- not to save person B’s life, not even to make person B happy, but to gain a relationship with person B. How does that square with “(love) does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth;” (1 Cor 13:6, NKJV)?

        Deciding what I know to be right by how I define love? Not quite. OK, I was defining love (or rather, restricting its definition) by what I know to be right, but I think there’s decent Biblical justification for that. God is love, but God also gave us laws. Jesus said that they can all be summed up in love for God and for our neighbour, but I suspect that he wasn’t saying that you can call anything you like “love” and that that would make it right, commanded even. If your “love” is against God’s word, then you have two options. You can either hold on to it and call God a liar, ignorant, or at least fickle enough to change his mind, and reject the Bible as your rule of faith and practice; or you can hold on to God’s word and call your “love” a deception.

        If the human heart is deceitful, surely it’s not stretching the imagination too far to suggest that someone might think they’re doing the right thing, and actually be sinning? After all, the condemnation repeated towards the end of Judges was that everyone did what was right in his own eyes. What’s wrong with that? Well, maybe they’d lost sight of what was actually right, they’d lost sight of God’s standards, which is why the last few chapters are so ugly to read.

        Coming back to your blog subject, if I were to leave my husband for someone else then that would be wrong. Even if my sexual preference changed, that would be wrong. It would be wrong if I decided I preferred some other guy, or a different type of guy, or even a woman. Even if you accept homosexuality in general, I can’t see how you could accept it to the point where it would be OK for me to leave my husband if I decided I were gay. I made him a promise and the right thing to do is to keep that promise, whether I feel like it or not.

        And incidentally, I have found that I’m not completely helpless in the face of my sexual desires. I never have been, and I suspect that I’m not that unusual. When I was attracted to a guy but my conscience said no for whatever reason, that guy was totally resistable. I still enjoyed being around him in some cases, but I never found myself unable to avoid doing anything inappropriate. It wasn’t always easy to drag my mind away from him, but it was possible.

        Equally, I’m not always completely in love with my husband- when you live with someone who gets sweaty, tired, and grumpy, someone who takes certain things for granted that are totally alien concepts to you, on a level with claiming that chips should be purple, you have to work at being in love. (Just for the record, he also has to work at being in love with me for precisely those reasons- except the sweat, he wishes I sweated more from doing more exercise :p) You have to choose what to focus on, choose to keep trying, choose to let go of your resentment, choose to be grateful for little things and not just drift whichever way your feelings carry you. I may not have decades of marital experience behind me, but I knew that one after less than a year and it REALLY bugs me when people older and supposedly wiser seem completely oblivious to it.

        • Claire says:

          If you’re talking about love rather than sex, I think your biblical justification completely falls down. Same-sex love is absolutely not mentioned in the Bible. At least if we’re talking about sex between members of the same sex, we can talk about the few verses that mention it. In your example, the authority is ‘conscience’ that tells someone that their gay relationship is wrong. Most people’s conscience doesn’t tell them that. Our consciences are often a poor guide anyway, because of what we’ve been taught to feel guilty about.

          You talk about someone’s “love” being against God’s word. That’s the point. It can’t be. There’s nowhere in God’s word that talks about a certain type of love being wrong. It just doesn’t exist. As I say, if you want to talk about gay sex, we’ve got some Bible stuff to work with. But what the Bible tells me about love, for instance in 1 Corinthians 13 as you mentioned, is exactly what I see demonstrated in as many gay relationships as straight relationships: patience, kindness, forgiveness, protection, trust, hope, perseverance. By that definition, I can know that God’s word tells me that what I’ve seen in gay relationships and straight relationships is love.

          You talk about leaving your husband “if I decided I were gay”. If you want to tell me homosexuality is a choice we’ve got a whole different discussion to have. You’ll struggle to find many, even conservative Christians, who will agree with you there.

          I never suggested gay people are helpless in the face of their sexual desires either, I’m not sure what you’re getting at there. Also yes, I’m sure marriage is hard. Again not sure what your point is with that one.

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