Reading God’s mind about gays

The New York TimesMarch 22, 2013 

Jeff Chu was married in September, on the lawn of a house on Cape Cod, against the backdrop of an ivy-covered fence. About 80 people came.

His mother and father weren’t among them.

His mother sent an email just beforehand, to let him know that she was thinking of him. But to be a part of the ceremony? To celebrate the day? That much she couldn’t do, because Jeff was pledging his devotion to another man. And his parents, strict Southern Baptists, have always deemed such a love sinful, and against God’s wishes.

Against God’s wishes.

That notion – that argument – is probably the most stubborn barrier to the full acceptance of gay and lesbian Americans, a last bastion and engine of bigotry. It’s what many preachers still thunder. It’s what some politicians still maintain.

It’s what Jeff himself once feared.

“How many nights have I spent sweaty and panicked and drained of tears, because I thought I would go to hell – for being gay, for being me?” he asks.

And how often, he adds, did he pray “that God would take these feelings from me?”

Those words come from a book he wrote, its title yet another question: “Does Jesus Really Love Me?” It will be published this month, and is largely a travelogue.

For the span of a year, Jeff, who has written for Time magazine and many other publications, roamed the country, visiting Christian churches and groups of diverse theological stripes to explore their attitudes toward homosexuality. He also talked with devout Christians who’d dealt with homosexual feelings in different ways: by repressing them, by embracing them, by trying to divert them.

One man had elected celibacy. Another had married a woman and resolved to appreciate sex with her. He told Jeff: “It’s not like pizza or french fries – it’s more an acquired taste that I’ve come to like even better. It’s like olives.”

In the book Jeff, now 35, also shares his own story, which we discussed further in his Brooklyn townhouse recently.

His parents came to America from Hong Kong with the conservative beliefs that Baptist missionaries had spread through that area of the world. They reared Jeff in their religion, sending him to a Christian high school in Miami. One of his vivid memories from those years was the sudden banishment of a favorite teacher after the school discovered that he was involved with another man.

Jeff knew even then that he had feelings like the teacher’s, and writes: “This was the lesson that I learned: Nobody could ever, ever find out, because if they did, I would be damned and cast out, just like he was.”

At Princeton, he dated women. But in London for graduate school, he began to date men, and to wonder how that orientation could be wrong, when God had presumably made him the way he was.

Although his book doesn’t focus on the scattered references in the Bible to homosexuality, Jeff knows them well. And, yes, a few seem to condemn same-sex intimacy.

But have they been translated correctly? Interpreted the right way? Are they timeless verities or – more logically – reflections of an outmoded culture and obsolete mindset? And if all of the Bible is to be taken literally, shouldn’t Christians refrain from planting multiple kinds of seed in one field or letting women speak in church or charging interest to the poor?

“You can twist the Bible any way you want,” Jeff told me, adding, “We overemphasize sexual morality, as if God puts a premium on what we do in the bedroom over what we do at the bank.”

He’s right. He’s also humble. He doesn’t claim, in his book or in conversation, to have definitive answers. He hasn’t determined beyond any doubt that his life and love are in concert with God’s wishes, because he thinks it arrogant to insist, as the zealots who condemn gay people do, that God’s will is so easily known.

And in light of that, he thinks it wrong for anyone to try to consign gays to the shame that so many of them have endured.

The stories in Jeff’s book made me sad, and they made me angry. How much needless pain have people like him been put through, and in God’s name no less?

But Jeff’s own story makes me hopeful. It’s one of grace. He still attends church, though not a Southern Baptist one. He’s patient with his parents; they’re struggling, too.

His mother actually plans to visit, and stay with, him and his husband this summer.

“I pull her along and she pulls me along, and we grow,” Jeff said, describing a dynamic and a tension not unlike America’s. “It’s uncomfortable for both of us. But it’s the path we have to take.”

The New York Times

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