In the fall of 1983 I landed on the campus of Andrews University, one of the largest and most diverse Seventh-day Adventist colleges in North America. I felt out of place in many ways: unlike kids who came from large Adventist high schools together, I had no cohort: none of the handful of Adventist kids in my high school class had ended up at AU. I knew exactly one person: my cousin, who was older, cooler, and already had a collection of friends from the previous year. I had a mild case of what I would not then have labelled social anxiety: I just knew that talking to new people was hard, but it had to be done. And I was out of place in the rah-rah of freshman orientation because I had completed my first year and a half of classes at Memorial University back home, so I wasn’t even actually taking first-year courses.
Despite all that, I got to know people and found friends. One of the first close friends I made that fall semester at Andrews was a guy I’ll call G., primarily because that letter doesn’t appear anywhere in his real name. G and I hit it off immediately: we had the same sense of humour and lots of the same interests, two elements noticably lacking in my relationships with most of the guys I’d met back home. Although I had dreamed for years of going to college and meeting a nice Adventist guy who was smart and sarcastic and hilarious, it was obvious from the beginning that my friendship with G was not going down a romantic path. The attraction just wasn’t there, on either side. We quickly became, and remained throughout those first couple of years in college, good friends.
It was a few months before G confessed his big secret to me: he was attracted to other guys. This quickly became an open secret in our group of friends, and also a subject of much discussion, both with G and behind his back. All the friends I’d made at Andrews were devout Adventists — we went to church, chapel and Bible studies without being reminded or threatened; we sometimes prayed with or for each other; we were all serious about following Jesus and doing what was right. For me, at least, the news that one of my best friends was, um, homosexual (we didn’t even start to use the word “gay” in conversation with and about G til later that year), introduced something entirely new into the equation.
We had been taught to grapple with the big, burning question of whether it was OK for guys and girls to have sex with each other before marriage (it wasn’t, but endless debates were possible about whether there were loopholes to that rule and how far you could go before you violated it). The question of guys with guys, or girls with girls, was entirely outside my realm of thinking at the age of 18. I knew, in a vague general sense, that the Bible said it was a sin, but it wasn’t a sin I’d ever heard addressed or discussed in church or the Adventist high school I’d attended. I didn’t know a single gay person until I met G. Any conversation about the rights and wrongs of homosexuality was as purely theoretical to me as talking about whether it was a sin to play the roulette wheel at a Vegas casino — I knew it probably was, but that particular sin was so far outside my personal experience that it didn’t seem to matter.
And then it did matter, because I had a gay friend who wanted to be a good Christian, indeed a good Adventist, and saw no path open to him. Most of the “help” open to young gay Christians on an Adventist campus in 1983 involved counselling and “change ministries,” with the goal of re-orienting yourself to be a bit more straight, if possible. Watching G struggle through this kind of “help” reinforced for me how ineffective it was — not just ineffective but in some cases actually harmful, making an already unhappy person much unhappier.
I met, and in some cases became friends with, several other gay men during my years at Andrews. I wasn’t actively seeking out gay friends; it was just the same process by which my cohort of friends and acquaintances ended up containing a disproportionate number of Asians and people from Wisconsin (though no gay Asians from Wisconsin). You get to know one person and you meet the friends with whom they share something in common. With G and his gay friends, what they shared was a sense of being a misunderstood and disapproved minority, a secret society about which even they were ambivalent belonging to. There were times when I felt like they enjoyed being “out” among a small group of friends, like the time G and another gay guy and I went to the mall and entertained ourselves by ogling hunky male pop stars on posters in the record shop (yes, children, there was a record shop). And there were times when I was a confidante for their serious attempts to align their lives with what we all perceived as God’s will — that is, to make themselves straight.
Yes, there was a kind of dark humour to some of it — like the guy who was convinced he was going straight because he was dating a girl, when everyone could see he picked her because he had a mad crush on her brother. And sometimes it was enlightening — I’ll never forget the friend who told me that even when he was a small child and pictured growing up to get married and have kids, he always pictured doing it with another guy, long before he had any feelings he could label as “sexual.” But mostly it was just sad — watching people wrestle with something as basic as who they were attracted to and try to change or deny that, watching obviously devout young people who loved God struggle with the fact that without ever touching another human being, they were committing what everyone around them perceived as an unforgivable sin. It’s no surprise that in the years after college most of these young men turned away from our church and some away from God altogether.
Once you know something’s there, it’s hard to understand how you ever missed it. The underground gay subculture at Andrews was apparent as soon as I met someone who showed me it was there; without G., I might have gone through my three years there blissfully unaware that there were any gay students (I never met a lesbian my entire time at Andrews, but I’m sure they existed as well — I just didn’t happen to make a friend who gave me access to that world).
That underground life was coming close enough to the surface during my years at Andrews that the university administration felt the need to address it publicly at least once — by bringing in a popular Adventist “ex-gay” speaker who ran a ministry that aimed to help gay people become straight. He gave a popular and well-attended chapel talk at which he got a huge round of laughs for reminding the audience that “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” (it was 1984 and the first time most of us had heard this joke).
That speaker and his “ministry” were, I hardly even need add, later discredited when he was found out to be, well, not so ex-gay after all. But even when he was still speaking on Adventist campuses and riding the crest of the popularity wave, I could see that the “victory in Jesus” he was offering simply wasn’t working for my gay friends.
I came away from three years at Andrews with many things (including, fortunately, a B.A.), but one thing I took away from those years were questions about our church’s stand (which, at that time, was the stand of almost all churches) on homosexuality. It was many years before I was ready to “come out” as an ally of LGBT people, but the friends I made at Andrews had already taught me two key things: that there was no question of someone “choosing a lifestyle” when it came to orientation, and that all the faith, prayer and desire to change in the world wasn’t enough to make someone’s orientation align with what the church and the Bible said it should be. I didn’t have any answers about the “right” way to deal with gays and lesbians in our midst, but I left my college years convinced that what we, as a church, were doing was not only inadequate and unloving but often actively damaging.
That lengthy preamble (cheers if you read it all!) is all there to explain why my heart lifted when I heard about this issue of the Andrews University paper, The Student Movement, published last week. An issue of the student paper dedicated not to debate about “The Issue” but to telling at least a few of the stories of actual LGBTQ students (even if some of them still feel the need to publish their pieces as “Anonymous”) is something that wouldn’t and couldn’t have happened 30 years ago. And the touching editorial “Love Actually,” by Melodie Roschman, comes from the perspective of a young straight Adventist whose experience was much the same as mine — except that it happened in today’s world rather than in the early 80s, where society’s awareness and discussion of LGBT issues is far more open, and thus far more of an open challenge for the church.
It’s not like my church is about to change, about to throw open its arms and become an affirming body that embraces all kinds of people. In fact, the same week as the Andrews Student paper published this encouraging and ground-breaking issue, Adventist church leaders voted a motion that strengthens its traditional position denying membership to those with “alternative sexual practices.” As we’ve never been an affirming church, making a point of passing such a motion is pretty clearly being done to send a message to vocal, questioning members (like those behind the Student Movement issue) that no, church policy is not going to change anytime soon. And that is deeply discouraging.
But in spite of the need of leaders to entrench and defend the traditional position and the traditional reading of the Bible that underpins it, change is in the air. And if it’s a change that allows LGBT kids on Adventist campuses to talk openly about their experiences in a way my friend G and his friends couldn’t do in 1983, then that’s a change for the better. A change toward openness, toward real dialogue that listens to people rather than just preaching at them. A change from insisting that we “hate the sin but love the sinner” toward actually loving people.
Listening to G’s story, thirty years ago, changed the person I became. Listening changes us. Listening changes everything.
Because, as I’ve said before, if you say you love someone but you aren’t willing to listen to their story, you don’t really love them.