Every morning a miracle occurs. I open my eyes and by powers largely unknown to me, I am awake and I see. I see the sky and trees and cars and flowers and animals and people. Sometimes the colors are so vibrant, so rich and bursting with life that it’s hard to imagine there could exist anything beyond what I see. This infinitesimal fragment of reality is teeming with wonder already, and yet somehow the universe is still vast beyond all measure.
The colors that I see are my perception of that tiny portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the human eye. Strangely, this means an object that appears red is not itself red, but instead has physical characteristics which cause it to reflect, transmit, or emit wavelengths of light that stimulate the cone cells in my eyes, which in turn communicate to my brain the sensation of a particular color.
This is not what we tell children when first they open their innocent, shining eyes to absorb all the nuanced beauty of the world. We start with simple things. This is mommy, this is daddy. The sky is blue, the grass is green. But children mature, their minds develop, and slowly they come to understand that reality is more complicated, that it often transcends the simple categories we use to construct order and meaning.
Most electromagnetic radiation is invisible. This means that every second of every day, there is so much more to the intricate web of reality that is bubbling and pulsing all around us than we could ever hope to glimpse.
Outside of the human world, other animal species perceive light and color differently. For example, dogs see mostly blue and yellow. They can’t see red, because their eyes don’t have the same red sensitive cone cells that humans possess. Sparrows can see ultraviolet light, and so they enjoy a much broader visible light spectrum. Butterflies have more eye receptors than humans and can see colors within our own visible spectrum that we have no names for, colors that exist in between the subtle shades we can differentiate.
Interestingly, human perception of color may not boil down to genetics alone. Evidence from ancient texts suggests that throughout human history words associated with different colors have come into language gradually — as a general rule, red has come first and blue last. When a color hasn’t been naturally abundant in the surrounding environment, cultures have been less likely to invent a word for it.
The Himba in Namibia, for example, don’t have a separate word for “blue.” In the past, when researchers presented them with images of green and blue, the Himba had difficulty seeing a difference even though their eyes have the same capability as ours to differentiate these colors. So in some sense, having a word for “blue” unlocks the ability to perceive it as a distinct feature (Abumrad and Krulwich). In other words, the language we use shapes our reality.
I didn’t know all these things when I was a five year old. No one would have expected that of me. But as children grow, parents eventually start their sentences with, “Yes, but…” and “Well, actually…” And teachers take out their jewel-like prisms to magically transform sunlight into rainbows.
We live in a time of unprecedented access to information. Whether this is more a blessing or a curse is up for debate. On one hand, there is so much we can learn from one another through the tiny computers most of us carry in our pockets. On the other hand, as Christians some of what we learn will inevitably challenge our long held beliefs and force us to either rethink our worldviews, or become further entrenched in and defensive of them.
Today’s scientific research suggests that, like light, sexual orientation and gender exist on a spectrum. It suggests that there is much more to human sexuality and identity than I, a cisgender heterosexual male, can perceive from my limited perspective.
Several years ago claims like this were nothing new. But the internet, and social media especially, opened the door to a whole new world. I’d known a handful of people, mostly non-Christians, who identified as gay or lesbian, but this new technology brought the stories of countless others into view and amplified their voices so I could no longer dismiss them as extreme outliers in an otherwise heteronormative world.
They told heartbreaking stories, like Timothy’s, about yearning to belong, about being full of love and yet willing to make sacrifices far beyond any that I’ve ever made to remain within the good graces of their faith communities. They told stories, like Julie’s, about believing with their whole hearts that God would change them, and then after years of struggle realizing the devastating truth that He wouldn’t. Not for lack of trying, they would remain abominations.
These were powerfully emotional stories, like J.J.’s and Tabitha’s, of anxiety and depression and shame and suicide. Stories, like Josh and Lolly’s, of bravely embarking down the road of heterosexual marriage only to see relationships disintegrate. Stories, like Patrick’s, of forced celibacy and emptiness. Stories, like Rachel’s, of feeling trapped in bodies that could never accurately reflect to the outside world the persons within. All because God has one rigid design for human sexuality, and anything that lies outside it is unacceptable.
Deeply convicted by their struggles, I tried to walk in the shoes of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters — to imagine what I’d feel if my faith community told me that my way of being was fundamentally wrong. I knew I’d never made a conscious choice to be straight and that it felt completely natural to be a male. If suddenly the tables turned, I had no idea how I’d even begin to suppress, let alone change, my deeply-rooted natural inclination to share life with a woman if it were required to remain a faithful Christian. But I was still unwilling to go much further than this thought experiment, unwilling to ask the uncomfortable question of whether all this bad fruit might be proof that our traditional Biblical understanding of sexuality and gender needed to evolve.
Spurred on by the surge of LGBTQ Christian voices in my newsfeeds, I continued to learn more.
The Trevor Project, a national organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth, claims that LGB teens are up to 4 times more likely than other teens to attempt suicide, and 8.4 times more likely if they come from “highly rejecting” households. As a result of family rejection, discrimination, and other factors LGBTQ youth also comprise roughly 40% of the homeless youth population in the United States. Of that 40%, more than half are likely to attempt suicide.
In 2001, still several years before a majority of Americans would support legalizing same sex marriage, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher issued a report that stated, “there is no valid evidence showing that sexual orientation can be changed.” In the years since, ex-gay and conversion therapies as well as other sexual orientation change efforts that became popular among Evangelicals in the 1980s and 90s have been widely discredited. Many former leaders have even united in opposition to the movement they helped create. Alan Chambers, who led Exodus International, the nation’s largest ex-gay ministry, from 2001 to 2013, stated in 2015 that, “99.9 percent of people I met through Exodus’ ministries had not experienced a change in orientation.” Exodus cofounder Michael Bussee who left the organization in 1979 has claimed that “conversion therapy is nothing more than abuse.”
While there are exceptions, mixed-orientation marriages — in which one partner is straight and the other is gay or lesbian — don’t seem to work. Dr. Amity Pierce Buxton, founder of The Straight Spouse Network, an organization based in California that provides support to people in mixed-orientation marriages, estimates based on the self reports of over 10,000 people that have been in contact with her organization that more than two-thirds of such relationships eventually end in divorce (Buxton, p. 317).
Sometimes the truth hurts. Sometimes our natural inclinations, whether toward anger, selfishness, hatred, or unrestrained sexual desire, are not the best things for us. It can be painful to admit we need to change or deny ourselves, and more painful still to follow through once we have. But the truth about human sexuality and gender shouldn’t be this painful — it shouldn’t lead to isolation and anguish — not for so many LGBTQ people who desire only to belong to a community and participate in mutually respectful, loving relationships with their partners of choice like so many of the rest of us do.
For me, the stench from this growing pile of rotten fruit finally became too strong to ignore, and the resilience of LGBTQ Christians striving to accept themselves as they are and still follow Jesus too radiant and lovely to denounce. These factors overpowered any argument, scriptural or otherwise, that would suggest that being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer was fundamentally sinful.
Through social media their stories introduced new, achingly beautiful words into my vocabulary and made it impossible for me to continue seeing the world as I once had, like a prism refracting white sunlight to reveal the rainbow hidden inside — always present, but just out of sight.
I think that God, in His boundless love and enduring patience, has approached humanity’s development as a whole in much the same way that parents approach the educational development of their children.
Young children have the potential to learn about the electromagnetic spectrum and even the mathematics that physicists use to harness its power, but first they reach out their chubby fingers to discover there’s a world outside themselves and stare intently to memorize the contours of their loved ones’ faces. Starting with unintelligible mouthfuls of gibberish, they eventually learn to speak in complete sentences. At first cautiously sounding out each letter on the page, with time they begin reading entire novels and textbooks.
At each unique stage of development, loving parents communicate with their children in ways they will understand, knowing full well they are presenting a simplified version of reality that will need to be fleshed out when the time is right.
Now the time is right.
To start facing the facts about human sexuality and gender.
To recognize how, even if unintentionally, our words and actions have made those in the LGBTQIA+ community feel less than, unworthy, inhuman.
To open our eyes wide to see the luminous spectrum that is humanity.
In a recent podcast interview, author Paul Young said, “Not only is scripture an unfolding revelation of the nature and character of God, it is a revelation of the depths of the lostness of humanity. Within scripture, God submits to human beings who are lost in their religious ideology.”
Maybe we haven’t misunderstood the Bible’s teachings about sexuality and gender. But maybe we have misunderstood the nature of the Bible’s authority as a body of divinely inspired and yet utterly human writings, and therefore have lagged behind what the Holy Spirit is doing in the world, often through those whom we would least expect — the oppressed, the marginalized, the stranger. Through the disarming words of the least of these, She leads the way onward into all truth and beckons us to follow.
All the stories, all the brave people who have told them and continue to tell them, all their diverse, beautiful colors, their loves and heartaches, desires and dreams — I can’t unsee them. They are real, and finally I see they are good.