by John Allen
[This article originally began as a letter to several close but straight friends, attempting to explain the changes in my current situation.]
My life partner of 26 years, and wife for 22 of these years (running consecutively at the end of that time, I might add) recently died, victim of a fast-growing cancer. The normal process of grief that envelops a surviving spouse left me reeling, lost and alone, wandering through the shattered remnants of her existence. As is true with every death, grief is a solitary journey. This is my story. It is not unique, but it is unusual.
When I met my wife I was gay. Indelibly, undeniably attracted to men. Not that accepting that identity came easily. Raised in a fundamental Christian church, I spent much of my adolescence with the assurance that the hottest fires of hell burned exclusively for me. Learning to accept my same-sex feelings was a slow, painful process. “Gay Liberation” included splinter groups that attempted to incorporate God, but organized religion was generally shunned and reviled in response to years of perceived persecution. I eventually found my way to a more liberal church, and settled into an uneasy peace with God.
In the meantime, my wife-to-be was a wonderful friend, but the potential for romance simply did not exist. I chanted that mantra across the first two years of our relationship as I fell more deeply in love with her, and continued to attempt to avoid these feelings, in a through-the-looking-glass parody of the normal process of denial. Eventually, she believed me and began to distance herself, emotionally and physically. As I watched her fade into the periphery of my social circle, the reality of the loss struck me, and I offered a compromise: live together as a committed, monogamous couple to see whether the chemistry and the experiment would work. Suffice to say, it did, and one year later, in the presence of our families and closest friends, we sealed the commitment.
It might be said that I abandoned my same-sex desires for my wife, but that would be inaccurate. I did not change for love; love changed me. For those many years it was often a wonderful, head-over-heels affair. A healthy awareness of attractive men never ceased, any more than a straight man who marries ceases to retain a healthy awareness of attractive women other than his wife. And yet I was at peace with the one person with whom I wanted to share my life.
Over time the relationship between my spirituality and my sexuality eased as well. This gave me the freedom to be tolerant of both sides of the fractious issues of the day: gays in the church, followed by ordination of gays, followed by gay marriage. It was hard to see “right and wrong” as much as opposing views. Accepting who I could be (a gay man) with no plans to act on that identity left me at a comfortable distance from the true pain of these issues.
And then came my wife’s illness and death. In those initial weeks and months of shock and loss, I had no thought of my self-perceptions. Over time however, I realized that the “me” who had been living the straight suburban life was morphing into something different: a gay man once again. It was not a burgeoning sexual awareness; no, the transition was much more subtle. The way in which I related and wanted to relate to women, the experience of being with male friends, all began to drift back to an almost-forgotten set of dynamics that spoke of an essential same-sex orientation in my life. The distinction is subtle but unyielding, a view of self and the world that emerges from a place in which one accepts and embraces a powerful and different set of emotions.
Ironically, some of my closest friends – who have loved and supported me through my wife’s illness and death – are those who believe that a same-sex lifestyle is evil. Because I love and respect them, they have no idea how I value their opinions, and how I weigh their compassionate, but nevertheless firm judgments. I continue to believe that God has created a world in which there are diverse values. My best hope is to someday find myself cradled in His arms as He says gently, “My son, your beliefs were so often wrong, and you failed so many, many times. I still love you. Welcome home.” For that reason, I cannot fault those who believe that homosexuality is a sin. They must live their lives by the moral compass that God has given them, which may well be pointing to true north, while I am following a naïve and misguided Christian path. And yet these are the reasons that I choose to follow the path that I do.
I have seen, and been a party to, so much pain in the world. However, when we turn to each other in the more pure forms of love, I cannot believe that it is evil. When two people share a romance, one is saying to the other “I love you for the person you are, and because you can share your love with me.” That gift, whether it ultimately ends in procreation or simple physical fulfillment, is a way of reaching out. When that true equality of understanding and caring exists between adults, other boundaries become artificial.
If only being “gay” were as simple as a sexual desire for other men, the issue might be more easily resolved. That is not the case. It is interwoven into the fabric of our interpersonal relationships, a sexual, emotional, and spiritual experience that separates us from the majority. And yet I can say unequivocally that my wife gave me an understanding of love I would otherwise never have had. As I make sense of the tragedy of her early death, and the life that is left to me, my prayers lead me full circle to the tolerance I found while she was alive.
We need not accept each other as morally “right,” or following the true path. We do need to accept each other as flawed beings, dedicated believers pursuing our goals in vastly different ways. Oscar Wilde once said “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Gays reach for the heavens from the gutter of prejudice and contempt, while Christians seek a spirituality which the greater world has rejected. And yet, who is to say that as each group looks among the stars, they may one day find themselves facing the other, seeking God in the same enlightened firmament.
© 2008 John Allen
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