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Actually Loving

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SMLGBTIn 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.

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8 thoughts on “Actually Loving

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this Trudy!

  2. This is really beautiful, Trudy, especially that last line. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for sharing this Trudy. I’m afraid the current generation of leaders in many traditionally conservative organizations will have to pass on before policies are changed. But I think the change is inevitable, thankfully. In my lifetime I have seen a flowering of tolerance towards people with varied skin colors, especially in the States, where I’ve lived almost all of my life. It seemed then as if the movement for change would never stop. But it did, and the last 30 years have been ones of re-trenchment throughout the Western world, at least. Now comes another issue, sexual identity, and the growing momentum for change. It’s nice to see things moving in that direction. I look forward to the day when the seemingly impossible happens again. Lou Florence

  4. Again, a nice job Trudy. It needed to be said that those young gays were very devout Adventists. Oh, and we did meet one lesbian from Wisconsin (not Asian though) but we weren’t confidants. I became closer friends with one Andrews alumni who came out later. Her story always makes me cry at Pride parades. I think Lou Florence is right however, there seems to be a reactionary administration in the G.C. right now. But good for the Student Movement! What wonderful nervy young people they are. So much deeper a topic than the discussion of wearing jewelery that dominated the SM in my day.

  5. I was at Andrews at the same time. By all measures there should have been a debate in 1983-84, given the circumstances under which the then-President of Andrews resigned that year, and a major student leader getting expelled for being gay. But the Student Movement of that day was not allowed to report that. You may not remember but they censored the yearbook that year too, telling students to bring in their already-published yearbook and they would cut a page out of it and replace it with a different page.

    In a world where church is about “what ought to be” the Student Movement has done what they can to describe what really is happening in real people’s lives. Although they did not touch homosexuality in those days, they did a very good issue on alcohol abuse at the time. And now 30 years later they have tackled the “what is” of homosexuality. To be fair they might have tackled it in other previous years as well. I note that they waited towards the end of the semester to try it though.

    If you watch the movie Seventh-Gay Adventists you will see that there were indeed lesbians at Andrews during our time as well.

    Steve

  6. Thank you Trudy for this thoughtful article. I was at Andrews during that time period (how on earth could you have a disproportionate number of friends from WI? lol). and one of the saddest people I ever met was a friend of mine who was gay and desperately wanted to be straight. She and I were friends for a long time before she told me. She had tried everything to be straight. She desperately wanted to be straight. She desperately wanted to be “right with God” and she found that she couldn’t change who she was, and had given up trying. She was quite sure that she was doomed to hell all because she couldn’t help who she was attracted to. We lost touch after I left Andrews and that friendship loss has been one of my huge regrets. But I will never forget that shame and despair that she carried around with her. I honestly don’t know the answer to the burning “gay debate” in churches. But I do know this. God loves all of us and because He does, there needs to be a way to include gay people in church. Maybe it is the “Practicing Gay” that should be so frowned upon – just like the “Practicing Straight person who is having premarital sex” is frowned upon, or “the Straight person who drinks/smokes” is frowned upon. But to leave people out in the cold who can’t help who they were born to be is wrong. We don’t tell people with Autism, CP, heart disease, spiteful natures, hateful attitudes, Downs Syndrome etc etc etc, that they cannot be members of our church.

  7. Trudy, I loved your piece! My name is Tim Hucks, and I was the News Editor of the SM this year, and I can tell you all about the progress that we have made as far as LGBT issues go. Still a long way to go, but in response to the paper, we got tons of messages of love and encouragement just like yours and it really made a difference. I actually have a piece about that going live in a couple hours, you might like to read it.

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