When I was young, I was tested by public school psychologists for mental disabilities and intelligence levels, and after the testing was done the psychologists gave my parents this withering verdict: “He is just one notch above retarded. Take him home and love him, because it is all he will be good for.”
Well, clearly I’m not developmentally disabled. What I actually am is enormously dyslexic with massive amounts of sensitivity and anxiety. Consequently, just about everything involving school, math, counting, or filling out paperwork has been the bane of my existence and can cause me to shrink away in terror. Through school, I learned in a million different ways that the world could not accommodate me. I learned to view the school system as a monstrous and inhuman regime where every day I felt discarded and dehumanized, instead of a place meant to encourage growth, learning, and empowerment.
My one lifeline was my father. A severe dyslexic himself, he grew up in an academic world far more ruthless towards the learning disabled than I did, yet built a life as an author, teacher, and pastor. At the moments in my schooling career when I had given up completely, his words gave me enough shadow of hope to keep moving forward. “You’re not broken, Stephen. This is a huge gift, and you have to see it as a gift. The school system is what’s wrong, not you. It’s stupid and unfair and wrong, and they test you and judge you by your weaknesses, not your strengths. And the rest of the world will simply have no concept of how hard it is for you, or how frustrating it is to know you are brilliant and yet not be able to do things that other kids do with ease. It’s a stupid, broken system, but you have to get through it so you can finally do your own thing. It isn’t fair, but you have to get through it.”
My parents went to war for me, and as a family we fought like Spartans in what felt like the most unappreciated battle of the century. (Seriously, any kind of disabled people, be it physically or mentally, and their families are the unsung heroes of our age.) And it was indeed an ugly battle. I barely got through high school, with a GPA that reflected my gifts and intelligence about as much as a puddle of mud can reflect my face.
Despite the ferocity of my struggle with school, my parents taught me something that would go on to shape me and perhaps even save my life. It was a beautifully simple message: embrace what you cannot change.
Dyslexia was and is an unchangeable part of my life. Running from it would only cripple me further. Denying it would kill me. Curing it would be a useless and potentially harmful endeavor. Any abstract talk about whether or not dyslexia is a result of brokenness or the fall, or a divine accident is totally theoretical and useless in real life. I knew that being ashamed of my struggles and difference, or not acknowledging them, would lead to a life of misery and failure.
The only option left was to embrace the dyslexia. Embrace it, celebrate it, enjoy it, explore it, work with it, count it as one of the million things that has shaped me into the unique being I am today. Thank God for how it has strengthened me, and how it gives me a unique lens through which I can enjoy the world. In a word: own it.
Ownership of my dyslexia and all the other little quirks that make me who I am was and is the only way I survive as a dyslexic person. It is ownership of my dyslexia that enabled me to learn how to write and read in my own unique way instead of remaining crippled, even though it took me several years longer than most children to learn these skills. I have learned how to use tools like yoga to keep my mind clear. Inevitably, working with something means not being ashamed of that thing. Misguided Christians suggested that I was normalizing fallen conditions, and that I should pray for healing instead of embracing dyslexia as an unchangeable part of my life, but that started to seem too simple a solution for a complex reality. Somewhere along the journey, with my parents’ help, dyslexia was transformed from a curse to a strange, beautiful, and aggravating gift. I realized that being ashamed of my “learning disability” was as useless and silly as being ashamed of my skin. If I wanted to be myself, I was going to have to be dyslexic as well. I learned an important lesson as a teenager that I have since come to strive for in every corner of my life: if something is to be part of my life, it will be there with grace, ownership, and beauty, even if it is unconventional.
In high school, I started to come face to face with another “disorder”, something far more terrifying and sinister than dyslexia: homosexuality. As with dyslexia, I spent many years trying to ignore my homosexuality because the shame attached to it was acute and pervasive. If dyslexia made me feel like an intellectual and academic failure, homosexuality made me feel like a sexual, masculine, and spiritual failure.
And then, when it didn’t go away, I tried to heal it. I got involved in ex-gay programs, believing with certainty that, if I prayed the right prayers, made the right kind of friendships, and set my life in pursuit of God, he would heal me. For three years – from when I was 17 to 19, I was immersed in ex-gay communities. It all fell apart for me, as I realized that not only was I not changing, but no one else in my community was, either. I realized that I was living an absurd and exhausting existence, living every day in the hope that God would “heal me.” My life was built upon that promise. It was like living my life with the assumption that I would one day win the lottery, or become a rock star. I finally could not handle another day of it, so, when I was 20, I came out of the closet and walked away.
I was thus left with an impossible question: what am I supposed to do with my homosexuality if it cannot be cured? It seemed, back then, that the only possible road forward was to be eternally divided against myself. Many misguided heterosexuals draw comparisons between the struggles of being gay and struggles with lust, but that is woefully off. If my orientation couldn’t change, and my orientation was sinful, that meant that my very sexuality was itself evil. It wasn’t just my capacity to lust and promiscuity that was sinful, it was also my capacity for monogamy, and marriage, and faithfulness that was sinful, too.
The consequences of believing that a whole part of my being was fundamentally broken, less-than, and distorted led me into deep caverns of torture. It was as though my life was a modern retelling of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – sharing my innermost being with a piece of myself that was utterly incapable of goodness, beauty, or transformation. It was as though the lens through which I viewed the world – the lens of homosexuality that drew me persistently to other men – was broken and could never be fixed. I had to tell myself, over and over, that what I felt were to be beautiful, honorable dreams of being with a man in fidelity and love were actually hallucinations – that my most natural and intuitive sense of what was love, and goodness, and beauty was irreparably broken. I mostly spent my college years wanting to kill myself, and failing numerous classes, because of how it all consumed me. The simple answer was that, through the process of sanctification, God would remove my internal Mr. Hyde as I grew closer to Him, but He didn’t – not for me, and not for anyone I knew.
Finally, in 2012, I reached a crossroads. The cycles of denial, despair, self-injury and self loathing had become so fierce that I knew I had to do something about it. I knew that the only way for me to stop hurting myself – and hurting others close to me – was to embrace my sexuality. I had to own it.
For the first time in my life, I decided to stop being afraid of the label “gay”, and tried it on for size. (I had tried it on several times before, of course, but the experience had always been so terrifying for me that I usually went back into denial immediately after trying the word.) This time, I let the word and my psyche get used to each other. I went to a local gay pride event. I went to a Christian retreat for celibate gay people. As with my learning disability, I decided to stop being afraid of my differences. I chose to embrace them, knowing that as long as I fought them, I would exist in torture.
The relief I felt at finally just letting myself be who I am cannot be expressed in words. It was the most blissful collapse from exhaustion, the most exquisite letting go. Maybe a gay orientation is imperfect, maybe it is fallen, maybe it was a distortion of the way God had intended the human race to function, but it was also who I was, and no amount of fighting could change that. I had to work with it, instead of perpetually fight against it. I understood that vitality and strength would come, not from denying and fighting myself, but from working with and acknowledging myself. My illness had become an identity, and that identity gave me ownership and the only relief from my psychic pain. For the first time, the persistent agony I had lived with for years began to recede.
We have imperfect and shallow words to describe our sexual identities: gay, straight, bi. There are problems with these words, and they have created an unofficial moral caste system in our society: a moral and chaste gay man is seen as degenerate next to a sexually deviant straight man in our churches. But these words also give people the power of ownership over their internal experiences.
Gay, Bi, straight, and all the other terms in the sexual identity rainbow may be imperfect and some a bit silly, but they are the tools people use to live bearable, integrated lives. The words are vital, and when we in the church rob people of the words, when we strip them of the capacity to use identifiers because it somehow clashes with their identity in Christ, we are robbing them of the tools of ownership. And it is ownership and mindfulness of our differences, not denial, aggression towards, or fear and hatred of our differences, that leads to vitality.
I am gay. Maybe it’s a tragic result of humanity’s rebellion against God – a curse akin to the thorns that aggravate Adam’s work in the field and the pain Eve has in childbearing – and it is something to be endured and sanctified through; Paul’s thorn in the side. Or maybe it is just another part of the vast diversity of God’s creation, another facet of His magnificent and beautiful imagination. Honestly, the more I gaze into the seemingly infinite complexity of the universe, my own assumptions about what is normal in the natural world are thwarted. Beyond sins, disease, and death, I don’t believe any longer that I can objectively say what is and is not “part of the original created order” in the universe, and I don’t know if I am supposed to.
What I can say is this: as long as I fight against this unchanging part of who I am, I will forever be unstable. The word gay has been a gift to me, and as long as the church bars people from using it, we will be hurting people, not helping them.