Do I love Christians?

Dear Brian Houston, Senior Pastor at Hillsong Church (a global network of evangelical Christian churches with hundreds of thousands of worshippers),

I read with interest a few days ago your blog post entitled Do I Love Gay People? It struck such a chord with me as a gay man who tried hard to be a Christian for over 20 years that I had to share with you with my response. As people who read my blog regularly will know, I tend to go in for writing satirical (and hopefully mildly witty and amusing) letters but this is not going to be one of those letters. This issue is too close to my heart for light-hearted ribbing or satire. It’s too close to the hearts of the young men and women who are growing up in your worldwide network of churches struggling with the idea that they might be gay in an environment that would really rather they weren’t.

I “became” a Christian when I was 7 years old. I say “became” in inverted commas because I don’t know if I ever really believed all that I read and was told about Jesus and God. But over the next twenty years you would never have known that from the outside. I strived to believe as fervently as I could because I wanted to do the right thing. I was a good boy. I didn’t want to upset people. I didn’t want to upset God. I needed goodness to hide the “bad stuff”. And boy did I have a lot of “bad stuff” to hide.

At the age of 11, I left primary school, where I was the outgoing life and soul of the party, and moved to secondary school, where I became almost instantly shy; painfully, painfully so. Almost overnight, I began to flush the brightest red you have ever seen every time a teacher moved their gaze in my direction, suggesting that I might have to speak in front of the whole class, even though I was academic and intelligent and could have contributed very useful points. I sat on my own on the bus every day, with children younger than me laughing in my direction. I loved hockey and badminton but was so self-conscious that I didn’t dare pursue these interests for fear that I wouldn’t be good enough and that others would laugh. And laugh they often did because when a child is chronically self-conscious, they quickly gain a reputation for being worth ridiculing.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, it’s because throughout all of this I was praying. I was doing what I’d been told to do when things were tough. I was being a good boy. I was doing my Bible study in my room every day (and beating myself up inside every time I skipped it); going to Christian Union (at school and university); and playing the piano for church, singing in choirs and, eventually, leading worship in several churches that were not at all dissimilar to your own and where I regularly led the congregation in songs that were written by your own internationally-famous worship leaders. I was as good as good could be. And yet my self-confidence was still non-existent. I could not see that I had talents; that I wasn’t disgusting to look at; that I was kind; that people genuinely wanted to spend time with me. For all I saw in the mirror and in my heart was a talentless, ugly, selfish nobody. And I couldn’t understand why God wasn’t helping me to change.

This carried on into my university years. I studied at the University of Sheffield and joined a massive, now very well-known, church, whose congregation, swelled by students, regularly topped the thousands. It was here that I first played the songs written by members of your church and I met some very nice people. It was also here that I began to try to tackle what I believed was the underlying cause of my shyness and lack of self-esteem – the “bad stuff” that I’d been trying to smother with goodness all these years.

You see, ever since the age of 11 (coincidentally at the time I moved to secondary school…) I’d been looking at boys. And finding them attractive. This, of course, was not good. Unable to stop this attraction to members of my own sex as I grew older, and desperate to stay a good Christian boy because the Bible, and pastors like you, had always told me that being gay was wrong, I warped those feelings. Subconsciously, I told myself that I didn’t “fancy” those boys; I was only looking at them because I recognised in them the handsome features and attractiveness that I didn’t have. In short, I told myself I was looking at them not because I was gay but because I wished I looked like them.

And this went on, for years and years and years, guilt about looking at other boys warped and compounded into self-hatred about the way I looked. And still I couldn’t understand why God wouldn’t give me the confidence I so desperately desired and stop me from looking at other men. I know now that I was living a half-life, if that. I wasn’t living my life, the life I had been born to live. I was desperately trying to live the life that pastors like you had taught me I should live. And that’s why it wasn’t working.

And this is the crux of why I had to write to you. In your church, and the many other Hillsong churches around the world this very day, there will be boys and girls growing up struggling with the idea that they might be gay. They, like I did, will be striving to be good by reading their Bible and attending church and by attempting to suppress the feelings they have towards people of the same sex. And that suppression, like it did me, will damage them. It might not make them painfully shy and lacking in all confidence like it did me, but it will damage them all the same. Why? Because it is stopping them from being who they were naturally born to be. And every time you, or the other pastors in your churches, say that you “do not affirm a gay lifestyle” you are stopping gay people from being who they were naturally born to be.

You see, it wasn’t being gay that turned me into a shy, self-loathing child, adolescent and young adult, it was being told that it wasn’t OK to be gay that turned me into a shy, self-loathing child, adolescent and young adult. If I had grown up outside of the church, or even in an accepting church, I would have been a very different person. I would still have had difficulties in life, of course. Everyone does. But I probably wouldn’t have spent 27 years thinking I was damaged, unloveable and ugly.

And that’s where you come in. Not to make me feel good. I did that by myself. I left the church when I met my first boyfriend at 27, came out and, with help and support, started to love myself and now, generally, feel great. No, this is where you can change lives within your own church. At the moment, you condemn your young gay people to a life of suppression and depression by saying things like: “So if you are gay, are you welcome at Hillsong Church? Of course!…But (this is where it gets vexing), can you take an active leadership role? No.”. You believe that you are being welcoming and tolerant by having such a policy, but I’m afraid that you have simply found another way to say that being gay is unacceptable. And in so doing have found another way to tell young gay people that they themselves are unacceptable. And from there will stem a whole array of deep psychological self-esteem problems. Believe me, I’ve experienced them.

I know you have heartfelt beliefs about the Bible and that you believe that homosexuality is wrong. I don’t expect my letter to change your mind. But I can’t let your pseudo-welcoming blog post go unchallenged. I’ve been on the receiving end of your beliefs and it’s really, really damaging. I implore you to think of the gay children, men and women in your churches. You are doing immeasurable damage to their self-esteem by telling them that their “lifestyle” is not supported by the church. It’s not a lifestyle, it’s who they are. Imagine being told that your straight lifestyle was not supported by the church and trying to suppress your attraction to women. It would be damaging and it would be wrong. Yet that is what you ask gay people in your church to do. Not overtly, of course, for you say that all gay people are welcome. But telling them that they can never hold a position of authority because they are gay tells them that they are not as good or as worthy as their peers who happen to be straight. Is that what Christianity has become? An exercise in damaging self-esteem? If that’s the case, I’m glad I got out when I did.

Thanks for reading (if you got this far). I know you’ve tried to be kind and accepting in your post and it’s nice that you haven’t used any anti-gay rhetoric but your words are as wounding, perhaps even more so, than those of the most virulently homophobic southern preacher. Gay people cannot change who they are, but people like you (and the vicars and pastors I encountered) make them believe that they should. It’s this irreconcilable dichotomy that leads to the kind of depression and self-loathing I experienced in my own life. Do you really want to be someone who actively generates these feelings in young people? Or do you want to be someone who says ‘enough is enough’? These are people’s lives we’re talking about. They’re bigger than you. They’re bigger than the Bible.

Yours

R

P.S. If this letter has given you any pause for thought, try visiting some churches that don’t believe that homosexuality is wrong. Talk to their pastors. See how they reconcile their beliefs with the words of the Bible. Maybe, just maybe, they’ve got it right. Or you could try talking to my mum – a Christian lady who doesn’t have the slightest problem with who I am. She loves a good chat.