Ex-gays often compare homosexuality to alcoholism, in order to demonstrate a moral point. They’ll say things like: “An alcoholic can’t reverse his alcoholism. But that doesn’t make it okay for him to drink.” The comparison is as inapt as it is annoying. Homosexuality is, plainly, not an addiction, and shouldn’t be seen as one.
1. Whereas alcoholics, by definition, are addicted to drink, not all homosexuals are addicted to gay sex, entrapped in “the lifestyle”, or obsessively immersed in gay thoughts and fantasies.
2. To be an alcoholic, one must already be addicted to alcohol. This is plainly not the case for self-identifying gays. Aaron Taylor (in response to comments on a post of his) puts it perfectly:
Hmm. There are plenty of gay Christian virgins, but probably no alcoholics that never drank a drink, or porn addicts that never looked at porn. Sex can be an addiction. Sexuality can’t, I don’t think.
I would add that many individuals who self-identify as gay confess they were aware of their orientation at early age, sometimes well before puberty, certainly before any sexual activity later in life. And of those who only discovered they were gay later in life, plenty choose to remain celibate. To liken either group to drunkards is to misrepresent them grossly: it unfairly stigmatizes the innocent (in both cases, but especially that of prepubescent gays), while dismissively downplaying the efforts and commitments of the faithful (in the case of gay celibates).
3. The rehab treatment/support group culture attached to alcoholism doesn’t readily lend itself to the situation of many gays. Unfortunately, though, this is essentially the model used by ex-gay ministries like (by what was formerly) Exodus International. Homosexual orientation, on this picture, is a problem that needs to be mitigated, controlled, managed. Hence, the euphemism of “unwanted same-sex attractions” (a mouthful compared to the easier “gay celibate”). This is what comes to mind for many conservative evangelicals who are faced with having to deal with gays in the Church: they reference them to a local ex-gay ministry.
One of the first things I was recommended, when I finally came out to a church leader back in college, was to join a “Celebrate Recovery” group. Naturally, I was confused. What did I have to “recover” from? I never asked, but my best guess (today) would be that he was presupposing the conventional ex-gay wisdom of the time that a developmental model of the root causes of homosexuality was largely correct, and therefore my homosexual tendencies, which owed their origins to some sort of family-of-origin wounds, were in need of healing (a process, I suppose, succeeded by “recovery”).
4. A “rehab” attitude toward homosexuality casts it in purely a negative light. Alcoholics see alcohol as their demise–a reminder of old hurts and mistakes, a continuing source of temptation, and a likely cause for relapse. There is nothing good about their addiction; only bad. This sort of hatred for the object of one’s addiction, when applied to homosexuality, can only produce internalized homophobia–hatred of one’s own sexual preferences. Taken to heart, this erodes one’s sense of self, of which orientation is an undeniable part. Perhaps the only positive thing that can be said about it is the opportunity it presents for further growth and sanctification: how it enables God to work through one’s weakness. I’m not denying that this is a very real and important aspect of the experience of many gay Christian celibates, who do see their homosexuality as their “cross to bear” or “thorn in the flesh”: the means of their sanctification. I don’t think we have to see it that way, however. And to see one’s homosexual desires as just that, in my judgment, is a rather limiting view. I much prefer the idea (articulated here) that one’s homoerotic attractions need not express themselves sexually, but can nevertheless enrich one’s friendships and enable one to love those around him in a deeper, fulfilling way.
True, some Christians who “struggle with same-sex attractions” liken themselves to alchoholics, insofar as they desire something they know to be ungodly and immoral, just as many addicts drink despite not wanting to. But this is true of plenty of other situations, like those wanting to leave an unhealthy relationship but stuck out of fear of change; or those finding it nearly impossible to break away from their involvement in certain cult groups, given how heavily invested they are. To fixate on this one aspect of homosexuality–the prohibition–is to lose sight of the potential good in it all.
For these reasons, I support dropping this tired “alcoholism” analogy altogether. It’s inaccurate. It’s reductionist. It’s unhelpful. But worst of all, it prevents us from seeing the good that our gay brethren have to offer.
Spiritual Friendship contributor Jordan Monge in her post observes that the increased acceptance of homosexuality is likely connected to increased homophobia.
“A consequence of our bizarre cultural blend of both open homosexuality and yet still deep-seated homophobia is that people worry that open displays of affection for people of the opposite gender will provoke misinterpretations of orientation. As college freshmen, I remember the first time that my best friend and I were walking around Cambridge, MA holding hands; we noted after a while that people would probably think us lesbians and promptly ceased such public displays of affection. We had no such concerns back home in more conservative Irvine, California.
It’s precisely the dearth of this physical intimacy within normal friendships that makes celibacy in the modern world so difficult. Man was made with a need for physical intimacy, but in our rather touch-phobic society, it’s difficult to meet that need outside of a romantic relationship.”
I’m inclined to agree. It’s a very worrisome trend in our culture today that friends don’t feel the freedom to exercise chaste physical affection, without fear of having their actions misinterpreted or stigmatized.
Yet the Church doesn’t appear to be exempt from fault. True, Christians on average—as Monge rightly observes—do seem better at showing physical affection than their secular counterparts, in a society where touch is taboo; and credit must be given where it’s due. But it’s doubtful whether this is enough.
Gay celibates in conservative evangelical churches are often warned against the dangers of physical intimacy with members of the same sex. Such admonishments make one suspect whether Christians really understand the true nature of friendship. It’s only natural for friends to want to express their love for one another through physical affection. The fact that we deliberately refrain from such public displays of affection, out of fear of being misunderstood, is unfortunate.
Touch communicates affection and trust. Withholding it signals distrust; discomfort; distance. Without it, we lose a vital way of telling another that we care for them. To deny yourself touch is to deprive yourself of care in that form. Yet this is exactly what we are told to do: “cut off the hand or eye that causes you to sin.” In that way, it is said, we may avoid sexual temptation, meaning less opportunity for sexual sin.
Such advice, however well-intended, does more harm than good, and affirms neither the need for physical intimacy nor its normalcy in friendship.
The continued absence of touch makes it virtually impossible to pursue chastity. Any celibate gay Christian can attest to the importance of affectionate friendships: how the presence and comfort of close friends plays an integral role in one’s survival and sanity.
Moreover, I have my doubts as to whether there are usually any real dangers of sexual transgression, at least in–if I may coin the term–mixed orientation friendships. Let’s be honest. Is there any real danger of a hug turning into some unguarded moment of intense homoerotic passion, when the other person is straight? That happens only in our dreams (and perhaps our friends’ worst nightmares!). Yes, a hug might lead to unhealthy fantasizing; feeding unhealthy patterns or temptations, for one to act on, alone, in private. But this is an issue of conscience and of private purity: an opportunity for us to exercise our discretion; a judgment call for us to make, not for others to decide. Plus, even if the possibility of sexual activity is real, this is the last thing any sensible gay celibate Christian wants. Perhaps it crosses his mind, but the cost of losing a close friend is too risky. I doubt that’s a gamble any gay Christian, who seriously considers his options, wants to make.
Yet shouldn’t we watch our for our weaker brother’s conscience? Whatever lip service paid to Paul’s admonition not to “stumble one’s brother” has, in my experience, proved unconvincing: a veneer of spirituality disguising a refusal to confront our elemental discomfort towards friendly touch in western culture.
In some respects, the situation is even worse for celibate gay believers. Not only are perfectly innocent forms of physical intimacy (or what ought to be recognized as such) still stigmatized to some degree in the Church, worse yet—there’s a moral stigma attached to it, since nobody wants to be seen or suspected as the closeted homosexual who’s secretly “living in sin”.
This worry is always there, with or without an audience. There’s obviously the fear of coming across as gay in public or in front of other people. But image maintenance is a symptom of something far more entrenched. Even in the absence of public judgment or peer pressure, we are afraid of touch. Our culture discourages any serious expression of physical intimacy between two friends—even when no one else is looking.
Inversely, public displays of affection between friends do appear to be less stigmatized in those societies where homosexuality remains a largely hidden and unrecognized phenomenon. For instance, in Korea, having a gay orientation, I’m told, isn’t even acknowledged by older generations to be an existing “thing”. (Although people there are beginning to develop a greater awareness of homosexuality, as it enters into the mainstream, e.g. through film.) Some people tell me that many Korean-American church subcultures are like this too: the possibility that someone in their congregation might actually be gay doesn’t even cross their mind. (“Jaekwon–gay? No! He just dresses well… Or maybe…”)
This isn’t to advocate a return to a former state of society where homosexuality isn’t recognized–which is neither possible nor feasible. The homophobic coloring of same-sex touch that discourages physical intimacy among friends is a problem that calls for a return to a richer, healthier understanding of friendship love, not a regress to an outdated conception of sexual orientation.
One of the special moments of tenderness between two male friends that appears in the gospel accounts is when Jesus allows John to lean his head up against his chest.
After saying these things, Jesus was troubled in his spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke. One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus’ side, so Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So that disciple, leaning back against Jesus, said to him, “Lord, who is it?” (John 13:21-25, ESV)
Common translations describe John as lying at Jesus’ side. The KJV translates it more accurately as leaning on Jesus’ bosom. That better conveys the intimacy of the moment.
I’d love to see a painting of this scene, if only just to see what artistic choices were made in depicting it. (An aside: does anyone familiar with art history know if this moment was ever captured in art form?) If I were a master artist, I’d want to capture the moment when John, upon having their enjoyable fellowship disrupted by the abrupt news of Jesus’ betrayal–hence slightly confused, not having fully taken in what was just said, but with a glint of worry beginning to form on his brow, having already immediately sensed a hint of unease and tightness forming in his friend’s throat, then clearly hearing a note of trouble or sorrow in his voice–slowly lifts his head from Jesus’ chest, where just a second ago it lay comfortably and perfectly still, and starts to turn his head to face Jesus in order to look at him squarely eye to eye, and listen intently, so that he might learn what is so profoundly troubling his friend.
Evidently, it is John who is closest to Jesus–in both senses of the word, that is, in terms of both literal proximity and intimacy of relationship–for the other disciples to rely on him to pop the uncomfortable question “Who is it?” It’s at this moment, tender as it is tense, when Jesus reveals the identity of his betrayer. (It’s a confusing moment, no doubt. Nobody seems to get that it’s Judas, even when Jesus hands him the piece of bread while announcing, rather straightforwardly, in no ambiguous terms, that this act will identify his betrayer.)
Jesus speaks to close friends. He shares things that must be held in the strictest confidence (at least for the time being). It’s in this setting, with John’s head resting against his chest, that he chooses to say some of his greatest prophetic words immediately preceding his passion, death and resurrection.
A word about timing. This takes places just after the foot washing ceremony Jesus chooses to hold before enjoying a nice passover dinner with his disciples. It is the same scene in which Peter–stupidly–requests a full-body wash, thinking it is extra spiritual and will bring him closer to Jesus. (It’s worth noting that John–maybe because, being the favored apostle, he was more secure in Christ’s love and didn’t feel the need to prove himself?–never feels the need to make–at least he never expresses–such a silly request. Or perhaps it’s partly for this very reason that he was Jesus’ favorite. Mind you, it’s only moments later when Philip hastily places another request–one equally dumb as Peter’s but even more obnoxious–that Jesus “Show us the Father.”)
Older depictions of physical intimacy in same-sex friendships can already be found in the Old Testament, when David and Jonathan are found kissing and weeping as they say their tearful goodbyes. They are the paradigm ancient example of how two straight men can not only put on (what would be by today’s standards count as) embarrassing displays of affection without fear of “sinning” or having their sexual preferences misunderstood. There is nothing untoward in expressing such love. David himself was unafraid to proclaim the wonders of a love “more wonderful than that of women” (2 Samuel 1:26).
The example of Jesus and John, perhaps to a lesser degree, suggests the same lesson: as Christians, we shouldn’t be afraid of tangible expressions of affection between friends.
How do you ask for love from a friend?
Among the different forms of love language, touch is a difficult one to ask for. By this, I mean the sort of physical intimacy that’s normal of a healthy friendship: a warm welcome embrace; hugging someone goodbye for more than five seconds, to show you’ll really miss them; offering a neck rub after a sore workout; giving a pat on the shoulder for encouragement; the occasional roughhousing; leaning against someone’s shoulder while sitting down (or their leg, if they’re on the couch and you’re sitting on the ground); resting your head on their lap while reclining.
As believers, we should, of all people, be unafraid of such open displays of affection. Our Lord himself sets the precedent (though to call it a biblical “precedent” is weird–this should arise naturally between close friends, and isn’t the sort of thing that requires an example to be set first). The gospel of John captures a special moment of tenderness between friends when Jesus allows John to lean his head up against his chest (John 13:25).
Unfortunately, our culture today is touch-phobic, and shuns same-sex physical intimacy. Guys don’t walk down the street with their arms around each other, for fear of appearing “gay” or “homo”. Exceptions are rare, but noteworthy. Just the other week, I saw two friends walking by the poolside, when one of the guys put his arm around his friend’s shoulder, and the two casually went their way (mind you, it was his friend, not lover–anyone attuned to cues in body language can tell the difference). In my head, I wanted to stand up in front of everyone and commend them: the one guy for initiating such a public display of affection without any hesitation; the other for receiving it just as easily. Of course, I exercised restraint, and saved myself the embarrassingly inappropriate episode of appearing a lunatic. Secretly though, I wished I had more friendships of my own where that kind of freedom of touch could be exercised, without fear of sending wrong signals or of being misunderstood.
Apparently, American society wasn’t always like this, as this series of vintage photographs shows. (How I wish it never changed!) As an Asian American, in particular, I feel somewhat conflicted over the issue of touch. It’s still easier to find my touch needs met in the company of my Chinese and Korean friends. Asians are good at that sort of thing. You’ll be lounging around studying or drinking boba (<= stereotypical Asian activities–and stereotypical for good reason), when someone comes up from behind and gives you a shoulder rub. Nobody bats an eye. That sums up much of my experience in college when I attended an Asian American church. I can safely say that it was never an issue–getting my own touch needs met–when I was part of that group. During large group hangouts at Asian church or fellowship functions, there was always somebody to go up to and randomly hug or mess around with. Asian guys love physical affection, and aren’t afraid to show it.
Asian parenting styles, however, are less conducive to physical affection. I speak from personal experience: I would have liked more from my own dad. Typical Asian fathers are physically distant, and don’t hug their children. Severe introversion might have something to do with this fact. (YouTube sensation KevJumba’s dad is a notable exception.) It’s no secret about Asian kids growing up: we all envied our white friends, whose parents–dads and moms alike–are openly affectionate, and generous with hugs.
Ironically, white people, though frequently open to showing their own children physical affection, aren’t as good at giving touch when it comes to their peers. Physical intimacy is usually reserved for one’s spouse. Your wife is the only proper recipient of your touch. To attempt physical closeness with one of your guy friends is deemed too risky. I suspect this has more to do with the perception of risk than one’s actual assessment of risk. What real risk is there if you have two completely straight guys? Though I’ll admit: the matter’s a bit more complicated for those of us gay celibates who desire physical intimacy with straight friends. (Read more below.)
You can see how this problem gets exacerbated if you’re a gay celibate, who craves physical intimacy with other guys, but lives in a culture where guys are afraid how this might look or come off. You want the very thing others fear giving. Worse, they might be even more hesitant to be physically intimate with you, lest it lead to temptation on your part–all out of good intentions not to “stumble” their brother. Which in turn makes you even less inclined to ask for it, out of fear of being rejected. As a result you feel even more lonely and desperate for physical connection.
I’ve run into the problem where some of my friends aren’t all that physically affectionate. For them, touch doesn’t come naturally–not because they prefer not to touch or be touched, but simply because it’s just not very important to them. They themselves won’t go out of their way to give a hug or pat on the shoulder. But neither will they mind if I initiate every now and then. And I do, whenever I get the chance to–the casual photo pose where my arm is slung around their shoulder (and theirs around mine), the swimming excursions before which I ask if they would apply suntan lotion to my back (even though I could reach, if I really tried), the movie nights where I simply want us to be able to sit side by side and not be afraid of brushing knees.
Sometimes, I want more though. More not just from anyone, but from that one particular friend. Coming from anyone else, it’s nice. But from him? A single gesture from him can do wonders. Being unafraid to exhibit one’s physical affection toward another shows camaraderie; solidarity; trust. His arm slung around my shoulder can say what might otherwise be too forced or contrived to put in words: “Guy, I like hanging out with you and I enjoy your company.” Touch can be the most eloquent of affirmations. Yet when it goes missing, so does that affirmation. Sometimes I really would like to be shown some physical affection by that one friend, if only as a reminder that I’m valued; that my company is enjoyable. But I’m afraid to ask for it. I’m afraid of making him uncomfortable. I don’t want to come off as demanding; or worse, appear needy or creepy.
Hence the fear of asking. You don’t want to violate that person’s comfort zone or intrude upon their personal space or sense of comfort. Yet you secretly wish they would hug you: just once. Voice that desire out loud, and you fear you might push them away.
How do you then figure out whether someone is okay with giving and receiving touch?
One strategy is simply to ask.
I recall how in college, an older friend–I’ll call him Andrew–offered to give me and another guy a head rub. He started with my friend, only to quickly stop: “Oh, I should have asked first. You like getting your head rubbed? Some people don’t like it.” My other friend simply shrugged. He didn’t seem to mind, but didn’t look like he was really enjoying it either. Andrew turned to me, and asked “What about you?” He started massaging the back of my neck. I must have immediately grinned, because he continued, chuckling at how I was obviously enjoying it, then cracking a joke about how our other friend wasn’t grateful (don’t ask–it’s an older Asian brother thing).
If you’re unsure how comfortable your friend is with a certain form of physical affection, I find this a good general rule of thumb: when in doubt, just ask. There are, believe it or not, non-awkward ways of doing this. You can test the waters without fear of rejection. Confidence is key. If you’re comfortable enough in your own skin, it won’t be awkward.
Granted, some things should be based on personal preference. I personally enjoy head rubs. Others don’t like them. “I’m not a dog,” a friend once told me when I tried to pat his head. I respected his wishes not to be shown that type of physical affection, but added, “Sorry, that’s just how I show affection”–showing that I didn’t mean to belittle him in any way or invade his personal space, while respecting his boundaries.
I conclude with a special plea.
Straight guys: please do your gay neighbor a favor, and don’t be scared to show him a little physical affection. He won’t take advantage of you. Give him the benefit of the doubt, and trust him in that. Even if there is the slight element of attraction (a disquieting thought, perhaps, and not as impossible as you might believe–or rather, refuse to believe), he values your friendship over anything else, and would never let that ruin the great thing you have. For celibate gay males, crossing the line with their straight buddies is the last thing they want to do. Their friendships are too precious to discard by foolishly chasing after impossible fantasies. I speak from experience when I say that gay celibates who truly love their friends know the difference between bromance and romance; philia and eros (and their respective manifestations of storge); friendship and feelings; care and caresses. Give them the freedom to exercise their own conscience and discretion. Don’t jump to conclusions or harbor suspicions. It might be impossible to completely ignore the reality of their homosexual attractions, despite your honest intentions of wanting to treat them like you would any other normal friend, but don’t let that stand in the way of what you can offer: which is your tangible love. You may never fully understand their need to be affirmed, reaffirmed, and affirmed again through such simple acts of affection. But give it anyway; it won’t cost you much. Denying it is harsh. Don’t refuse your affection out of fear. Love your neighbor as you would want to be loved. Your gay friend will undoubtedly be pleased. The only one more pleased than him will probably be the Lord himself, for your having shown kindness to “the least of these”.