“Invite people into your life who don’t look like you, don’t think like you, don’t act like you, don’t come from where you come from. And you might find that they will challenge your assumptions and make you grow as a person.” – Melody Hobson
Update: For Part II, click here.
The following interview is one that my friend and I have been thinking about for a while now. I met him a few years ago when I was attending the Norwood Seventh-day Adventist Church while I was living in Montreal. We found out that we both were Torontonians (perhaps me more so), and we both were attending McGill. We also realized that we both were quite open-minded and critical when it came to social issues compared to some others in our peer group and so he and I quickly became fast friends.
While hanging out with him, I started to suspect that he was gay, but I left it at that — a suspicion. However, my suspicions were confirmed when one night, when he was walking me home from salsa dancing, he came out and told me that he was gay. We sat in my apartment lobby as I peppered him with questions and began putting two and two together. We had a really good conversation. I asked him to let me know if my questions came off as intrusive or daft, and to let me know if I had ever said anything that offended him. He said I hadn’t. I had never met someone like him before – a gay Seventh-day Adventist. So my biggest question was how he managed to reconcile being gay and being an Adventist. How did he/does he reconcile his religiosity with his sexuality? Can they be reconciled?
As Adventists, or even as Christians in general, when we talk about homosexuality and sexual minorities in the church, we often do so from a distant, ignorant, ill-informed, theoretical and disingenuous standpoint. It’s easy to misunderstand and uphold stereotypical views of a certain group when you don’t personally know any members who belong to that group – whether Black people, Muslim people, or, in this case, gay people.
With that view in mind, my friend and I thought it would be an interesting exercise to talk about his experiences as a gay Christian in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
I’m not pushing any agenda, and I’m not taking any sides. All I’m doing is giving someone a voice – a voice we don’t often hear. I think there is value in hearing the lived experiences of people – all people. I think that by hearing the stories from each other, we can learn from each other and perhaps even do better. And since this is my blog, from time to time I want to share the experience of people I love, such as my dear friend. Hear him out. I think if we did more listening to people than judging we’d get a lot further in life.
We wanted a more conversational vibe to this interview. He came over and we had a convo – him sitting on my couch and me sitting on the other end, me in my PJs and glasses, Sunday morning sunshine streaming in. He’s asked me to withhold his name until later on in this blog post (you’ll have to read ’til the end to find out who he is! 😉 ). Here’s what I learned and here’s what he had to say:
Simone: Tell me about your self?
Friend: Where do I begin? Honestly… I grew up in a typical Seventh-day Adventist family. Ummm…I was born in Toronto, we moved around the United States, the southern states particularly, and we finally moved to Florida… and I grew up in Florida. I was raised up in the church, I was a part of Sabbath school, I dressed up in a white shirt, black pants, and with a black tie – typical [dressed] Adventist boy. [As a typical Adventist child] I went through the Adventist school system – preschool to high school.
Simone: … and you did about a year at Southern? [Southern Adventist University is one of many universities operated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Southern Adventist University is in Collegedale, Tennessee.]
Friend: Six weeks at Southern…but that’s another story that I’ll explain later in this interview. I went to undergrad in Florida [Shout out to Florida Gulf Coast University] and I moved up to Canada to go to McGill University.
Simone: Where you met me!!
Friend: …Where I finally met you at Norwood Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Simone: Anything else?
Friend: I’m a scientist working at the world-renowned respiratory laboratory. I love cycling… and when I’m happy I love cooking.
Simone: Yeah, you make a mean fried chicken…
Friend: and I enjoy being with my many friends and family. I’m a family man. That’s me in a nutshell. Canadian-born but American bred.
Simone: So what’s your coming out story?
Friend: So, basically I was a normal kid. I had normal fears like everybody else. I wanted the same toys as anybody else. Normal kid. I’d hang out with my guy friends and my girl friends. And when I mean normal, don’t take it out of context saying…. ok we’ll get to that later… I don’t want to say normal as saying being gay is not normal. I was just a regular kid with regular fears. It wasn’t until puberty where I noticed something was different. Instead of me looking at Betty or Lilly, I saw myself looking at Bill and Tim on the playground and I was worried because at that time I was noticing that I wasn’t fully engaged in the typical middle school boy discussions [talking about girls]. I kind of brushed it off at first… telling myself that this probably happens to everybody [homosexual tendencies and thoughts]. I just need to discover myself and I’m gonna be fine. But the more I got older, attending baptismal classes and getting baptised, I really thought “ok this is an issue I need to address.” I was taught from a very young age that you can find all the answers in the Bible or from Ellen G. White [Adventists hold her writings in high esteem]. So in my family… my mother always had a huge bookcase and we had all the writings of Ellen G. White and… [especially] the red books from Ellen G. White. I would literally come home every single day at around 3 pm. Now I think I was in 9th grade. I would come home and pick out an Ellen G. White book and I would read for 30 mins to 40 mins and I would read the Bible and then I would take moments to be silent. I would lock myself in a room for about an hour. This went on for about 6 months. I was there in this room because I was struggling so much with my identity and I wanted an answer. I was at that moment in time crying myself to sleep, petitioning God, begging God for Him to change me. This is when YouTube started coming out. That was the best way for me to see other people’s life stories. I would listen to their stories and pastors would always be saying you’re not praying hard enough. The common theme I would be hearing over and over and over again, especially with Adventists is “You’re not praying hard enough. God can change you.”
So I really took a hold of that message, and I said “ok, if I pray hard enough, I can change.” I continued doing my little monk lifestyle – coming home from school reading and reading and praying and praying until I was like I‘m done with this, I want my answer.
I prayed, and I said “Lord does it matter ….” Now I shoulda asked does it matter if I’m gay. But I said “Does it matter the way people dress?” I heard, for the first time, a voice saying “No, it doesn’t matter.” And I was like wow. So I tried it again and said “Does it matter if I’m gay?” and I didn’t hear anything.
Friend: *laughter* So maybe it was a one-time deal. So after that time, because during puberty it’s a huge struggle – the body that you thought you knew…when you’re 11 or 12 years old you think you know your body but it is changing on you. So you have an identity crisis with your personality and your physical features. You may not like that you have thick brows or hair on your toes or chest and you’re like “Freak! I’m only in 9th grade.” Or if you’re a woman, you’re wondering what’s gonna happen down there, will it hurt. There’s a lot of things that kids have to deal with and they are not emotionally or physically prepared for this. So there was a lot of things going on and I had to put my sexual identity on hold– you know I thought maybe this is something I can ignore. So I went from ignoring my sexual identity all the way up until the age of 18. It wasn’t until the age of 18 when I had to address this.
I took this course with an Italian Professor who taught English Literature and it was such a properly themed class that I will never forget because it was about self-discovery… American literature was having its own identity crisis and having its own discovery of its self [Elements of the United States being a British subject and then becoming a nation of its own]. Every story we read was chosen to help [us] understand who these characters were and how they over came and changed from their past self. It was all about character growth. The first day of class she said that she wanted discussions, she wanted us to identify the character growth seen in poetry, lectures, and fictional short-stories and “I want to see it within you.” She told us to get out a blank sheet of paper and to write our names and the date and“Who am I?” and list the qualities that describe ourselves.
I was looking at that blank paper and I couldn’t write anything down. I was looking at it for 30 mins. After the 30 mins she said “Ok, let’s move to something else” so I folded the piece of paper and she said she “doesn’t need to see these; they are for you.” I kept that piece of paper for the whole semester. Now we read Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Maya Angelou, etc…but each assignment that we read it was like “wow – they [characters] were really struggling up until the point of acceptance.” That was a key thing in my life, because up until that point I hadn’t accepted… Later when that semester ended I brought out that same piece of paper. She said, “write down who you are now and compare your list from the sheet that was written in the beginning of the semester.”
The first thing I wrote was “I am gay.” But then, that’s just a part of me. That’s the main thing and a lot of people get confused and identify that I’m just a gay person. I’m more than that. I’m funny, I’m intelligent, I can be humble at some times…
Friend: I’m helpful…
Simone: *Nods head.* You are helpful.
Friend: the list went on. It went from character attributes of mine to things that I was good at. Character qualities. But the list was flowing. I was open. That was the day that I was like “this is it.”
I feel like it is the same with a lot of gay people. I said it out loud and so that is when it becomes real.
I didn’t consider myself gay until that day.
Simone: When you were 18.
Friend: When I was 18.
So at that point, I knew I was gay, and …but it was another thing to tell people. Because at first I thought I don’t need to tell anybody. Because it would only bring pain. I grew up in this church where I felt being gay was the ultimate sin. We know that the ultimate sin is the pure separation between you and Jesus Christ. That is the “unpardonable sin.”
Simone: You never hear people talk about that anymore.
Friend: NO we don’t! But being gay is pretty close up there. Or that’s how I conceived the idea. So it was really like I don’t need to say it [being gay] to anyone, I don’t need to come out to anybody, I can live alone and be happy because maybe this is what God wants.
So it wasn’t up until the following year at the age of 19 I went to Southern [University] to study with my cousin. I always wanted to go to an Adventist university because as a young child, this is where you’re gonna find your mate. And at that time I was like well, I’m not going to be here for my soulmate because my soulmate will be a man if I ever have one or if there is a soulmate for me. But I wanted to go up there for friends. I loved my Adventist schools. I loved the friends that I had and I loved the Adventist culture. And so that’s why I was there. I wanted to get an Adventist education with a science degree – biology – at that time I knew I wanted to do that.
So being at Southern in a boys’ dorm, you already feel secluded from everyone else because everyone is looking for their “wifey.” They used that term! They were like “we gotta find you a wifey.” We would say in the cafeteria “oh she’s wifey material. She could cook this for me.”
I already felt secluded because I wasn’t looking for “wifey material” and I always felt like I’m living a lie – I’m not really truly being myself and that brings up a point that I will bring up later – what commandments gay people are really breaking.
So at that point, I needed an ally at this Adventist university because I was always alone and I needed someone I could be 100 percent true with. So I told my cousin “let’s go for a walk” and there was a nice path along the stream and railroad at Southern. I was so nervous but I told myself “you have to say it” but you know what? I couldn’t even say it out loud. I was trying to whisper [in her ear] but she couldn’t even hear me. I had to write it on the ground. I took a stick and said “[name of cousin has been redacted] I am… Look at the ground.” *pointed to the ground*
And it shocked me how well received it was. She was so comfortable with me. After that, I talked with her. Anytime I could bring up the discussion I would do it, but I knew she didn’t totally understand me. That’s why I admire my cousin because she didn’t [completely] understand what I was going through but she was there to listen. No judgment. There were many times where she wouldn’t say anything and that was totally fine. I was talking to a human being.
That’s basically my coming out story.
After that, slowly but surely I went to a different school for undergrad – finished undergrad in Florida. I was completely “out” to my school there. I told my old friends I was gay. More of my family knew and so it’s just been a slow outing for everybody. I didn’t have one big bash of “Hey I’m gay, and there’s glitter coming out of my mouth when I speak, there is no rainbow flag on my shirt and pants and I’m not pooping out skittles while I’m jogging…”
Simone: *laughter* Let’s talk about what’s it like to be gay in the Adventist church. You’ll remember that when we talked after salsa I was like I’ve never met someone like you before. I remember you just being completely open with me and you telling me that you wanted me to see you as a friend — not my “gay” friend.
Friend: *Nods head* There was a lot of shame. It’s just this piling of shame built up and feeling like you are the lowest of the low. This is the thing. We’re told that gays are always breaking this one commandment – this Leviticus commandment – man should not lie with man. Growing up in the Adventist church, we believe that we are the most Biblically -adherent Christians out of the other many Christians denominations. But growing up, I realized at a young age we [the church] pick and choose what we want to listen to and what we want to practice [Considering other churches we do a good job]. But the two words we use to allow us to pick and choose is, “oh, that’s historical fact.”
Simone: We say that?
Friend: Yes. We do say that. Many times, with pastors and with teachers, we say that doesn’t apply to us because that’s historical.
Simone: I’ve heard more so Adventists make the distinction between moral law and ceremonial law, or historical context versus enduring, relevant principle…
Friend: Same thing. We don’t kick our women out when they are on their periods…
Simone: You sound like Donald Trump. ‘Bout “our women.”
Friend: …We don’t stone our children when they disobey us. We wear clothing with two different types of linen.
Simone: But I will say that there is more to Adventists being against homosexuality than just that one line in Leviticus.
Friend: That is very true. That’s exactly true. But that is still the favourite verse that is often raised. So me growing up and having this pick and choosing process, I really had to say to myself, “Jon, you’re a Seventh-day Adventist. You believe in the Seventh-day Sabbath. You believe Jesus is coming back. So by definition that makes me a Seventh-day Adventist,” but I also consider myself more as a “ten commandment follower” because those were the laws that God himself wrote down.
Simone: We’ve had much discussion about this…
Jonathan: Yes. Those were the laws that He wrote down and gave Moses. So I’m a ten commandment follower. This goes back to what I was saying — which commandment do gays really break? And the only one gays break is “thou shalt not lie” because we constantly lie about who we are.
So coming back to the original question, how did I feel growing up in the SDA church — I felt loved, I felt supported, I felt everything was at my finger tips that I wanted. I played the organ…
Simone: Yes you did!! Which was part of the reason I was so surprised when you came out to me!! The organist is gay!!!!
Jonathan: *Bowls over in laughter.* Oh yes… I was a tutor at the Adventist school. I was the bell choir director of the Adventist school. I felt everything I wanted was there but that was the “Jonathan that was not gay.” I knew that if I came out to my church community back then, all of those opportunities would be taken away because you would not be able to have a gay man up on that organ chair, directing choir, saying prayer, asking for offertory, being a deacon and doing call to worship.
How can I say that so firmly? Because there was a man at my church who was gay, but not open, discreet, but he would not lie if asked. And people kept asking him why he didn’t have a girlfriend. They kicked him out of the choir when he told them he was gay. They didn’t want a gay man on the rostrum.
Simone: I hear you about the picking and choosing in the Adventist church. Our church does the same kind of picking and choosing when it comes to mothers with children born out of wedlock.
Jonathan: We’re getting so much better with this though. There was a girl at my home church who had a baby out of wedlock and all of the mothers came together and the church said “no, she can’t have a baby shower,” but the mothers of the church said that we’ll do it at our own place, we won’t put it in the church bulletin, but we will tell everyone. And the shower was very nice.
This is the thing – people have their own opinion. But one thing our church can do better is no judgement and have more love.
I know this “love word” gets thrown a lot…
Simone: What do you mean?
Jonathan: People often say we need more love. But church people often say “yeah but we need structure and rules.” But they don’t realize a little love and being inclusive can go so much farther than telling someone who already knows they did something wrong that “you did wrong!”
Simone: I totally agree… Out of curiosity, what’s your biggest fear?
Jonathan: My biggest fear is…I know I come off as a tough person and say… and I’ve said this to you Simone many times… I realize that the friends in your life are going to be like revolving doors. There are only a few friends who will still stay with you. Sometimes it’s a graceful exit and sometimes it’s far from it. I would be lying to say it doesn’t hurt to lose someone. My biggest fear is not being gay, but it is for people, friends but for sure family, to see me as just a gay person and give up on me.
People deleting me on Facebook that’s fine. I have too many friends on Facebook anyways. For family to have nothing more to do with me or not love me or give up on me, that does hurt. And it’s my biggest fear.
Simone: What do you wish Adventists knew about you or gay people?
Jonathan: I will speak for myself and I will speak in general. We are like everybody else. We’re not freaks. We’re not highly sexualized. We have the same struggles as everybody else. Bills, work, employment… You’ve been with me at one of these talks at AY [AY is the Adventist version of a youth group meeting, typically held on a Saturday afternoon]…
Jonathan: Someone said that people turn gay to get free trips and cruises.
Simone: I remember that. Oh my gosh…
Jonathan: It goes back to what I was saying before. Normal. I was praying for so long to be normal when I was younger. “You’re not praying hard enough.” It’s been a theme I’ve heard my whole life, even up to that evening at AY.
There was a question asked that evening at AY – “is being gay wrong?” And I put my hand up and I asked is being 6 foot 2 wrong? Is having red hair wrong? Is being a black woman wrong? They said “Of course not.” I followed up with a second question: “can you pray and ask for those things to be changed? For a black person to change to white?” The only person who has done that is Michael Jackson…
Simone and Jonathan: *Howls of laughter*
Jonathan: All I’m saying is that we have these physical characterises and we have emotional, personality characteristics. These are not going to change.
But what I want to say is: we are here. We are in your church. We are sitting right next to you. We are singing the same hymns together. We are praying together. We want that corporate worship to continue when we come out to you.
We’re not taking people’s rights. We’re not distorting the message. This is our personal journey. Every gay SDA has their own personal journey. Unless I am directly hurting you and your personal journey, then we should talk about that. But up until that point, we are just like everyone else. We want to be saved.