Christian Maturity Manual
BY JERRY MCKAY
For me, an article or a book can be an event. With respect to my orientation, I always found the Bible a challenging event. I found the chapter on homosexuality in the Adventist Health Encyclopedia, You and Your Health, a negative event. The Colin Cook interview in Ministry magazine was a life-altering event. To this list of published events, I would add a chapter I came across shortly after returning from my second visit with Colin.
Since I was unemployed, I had plenty of time to browse bookstores. On one occasion, I discovered the Christian Maturity Manual by David Wilkerson. The author’s name caught my attention because I had seen the movie adaptation of his book The Cross and The Switchblade when in college. I bought the 70-page 1977 revised edition and took it home.
The first chapters of the booklet focused on topics related to practicing the Christian faith: Salvation, the Holy Spirit, Bible Study, Prayer, and Witnessing, among others. The second half switched to sins and vices! Understandably, I made a beeline to the chapter on Homosexuality and Lesbianism. That chapter was nestled among topics like Petting, Sex without Marriage, Venereal Disease, Masturbation, Smut, and Witchcraft. Clearly, my problem put me in bad company. Every chapter had pictures. “My” chapter pictured men loitering on city street corners holding hands and a woman grasping for the hand of a potential female “friend.”
Before I go further into describing my experience with this chapter, it is important to add that I do so through the eyes of the person I was in 1982 and who I am now. While I agreed with Wilkerson on some things, on another level, little of what he said reflected my experience. Because this was coming from a supposed authority on the topic, this confused me.
I was a little startled by Wilkerson’s opening. “Homosexuals are not queers.” I knew that to be “queer as a three-dollar bill” had a derogatory edge to it, but I had never heard the expression used as a slur directed at me. It was disconcerting to read Wilkerson’s summary of what Christians might think and say about me, but I was reassured to hear him rebuke the religious world. He saw it as “absolutely un-Christian” to think of people like me as freaks, oddballs, or sex maniacs; for parents to disown their sons and daughters because of their experience; and to write off “these people” as hopeless addicts who deserve only the wrath of God. People like me weren’t to be ridiculed, because they, he wrote, are fighting the loneliest battle known to mankind. I can think of lonelier battles now, but at the time, his comment did not feel like hyperbole.
Although I believed that Wilkerson was attempting to give me hope and educate those who might encounter people like me, his criticism of Christians had the effect of lessening my desire to share my experience with my church family. I started to identify more with the lepers of Jesus’ day than I had before. While I had never been banished to a gay equivalent of a leper colony, I had lived in self-imposed psychological caves. Now, like the leper, I had more grounds to fear what people would do if they discovered I walked freely among them. Despite my new apprehensions, I pressed on with reading his perspective on the topic.
As one would expect, Wilkerson talked about the causes of homosexuality. He insisted that people like me are “made, not born” that way. He cited the usual culprits—a possessive mother and a cruel and unconcerned father. I could tell he wasn’t convinced by the family-dynamic theory because he offered other “made that way” scenarios such as unsatisfying sexual experiences, a wrong indoctrination about sex, and enforced isolation from the opposite sex.
Some would regard these as interesting notions for discussion. I, however, wasted a great deal of time and energy in needless self-examination over them.
While my sexual experiences with female friends had been unsatisfying—in that there hadn`t been any—it was a stretch for me to believe that this had created my orientation. I spent a lot of time trying to rework Wilkerson’s “wrong indoctrination about sex” hypothesis to fit the dysfunctional relationship model Colin advocated. But, when I thought about it, I felt that, if anything, their poor relationship had more to do with making me suspicious of the institution of marriage than explaining why I didn’t find the female body appealing. The idea of “enforced isolation” from the opposite sex reminded me of a comment my father had made when I came out to him several weeks earlier. Dad wondered if “living with men in dormitories had done it!”
Wilkerson seemed convinced, based on his claim of having interviewed hundreds of homosexuals, that many had become that way from “feeding their minds on homosexual pornography.” His pornography suggestion puzzled me most since I could not relate at all.
My father, although he drank and smoked, never kept pornography around. If he had, it would have been heterosexual in nature. As a child, the most explicit pornographic images I saw were on calendars tacked up on the dingy walls of local garages where dad had our cars repaired. Those “heterosexual” images of very naked and very voluptuous women were fascinating, but they neither created heterosexual desire in me nor did they drive me into homosexuality.
Once, perhaps twice, when childhood friends and I were searching the ditches at the side of the road for pop bottles to trade in for candy at the corner store, we would come across a page torn from a Play Boy or Penthouse magazine which had been thrown from a passing car. By the time we discovered it, the sun and rain had reduced the image to a faded relic of its former glory. Again, women were featured in the images, not men. I have vague memories of wishing men were featured, but my curiosity did not create my orientation. As an adolescent, the men’s underwear sections of the Simpson, Sears, or Eaton’s catalogues—which were delivered to our door—was the only “homosexual” material I had access to!
When I moved to Oshawa to attend the Adventist boarding school, I had plenty of opportunity to access pornography at the small strip mall off campus had I wanted to. I knew that pornographic magazines were on the top shelf of the magazine rack or behind the curtain at the back of the store. Religious conviction and a lack of interest kept me from even wanting to purchase a magazine until June 1973. Because Play Girl featured men, its release was written about in most popular news magazines. Learning of its existence did not make me homosexual, but the tension its existence created in me indicated where my attractions already lay.
My most extensive exposure to pornography was when a missionary in Japan. It was not uncommon to walk past questionable establishments with sidewalk placards covered in pornographic images. As well, male-oriented “adult” comic books were everywhere. But, again, those placards and books were targeted at heterosexual men.
This recounting of the absence of homosexual pornography in my life should dispel the idea that my orientation was the result of my feeding on a stash I kept under my mattress!
As he continued, Wilkerson offered further speculations. Homosexuality, he wrote, was not the result of glandular chemical imbalance but the result of a spiritual imbalance. Even though he saw this as significant, he did not elaborate, leaving me to speculate as to what “spiritual imbalance” meant and how it had made me homosexual.
At that time, I couldn’t help but think of Romans chapter one. Again, I wondered if my orientation were some form of collateral damage from God’s having “handed the world over” to the consequences of failing to worship God properly—as Colin’s interpretation of Romans suggested. Or perhaps, as my father had warned, too much religion had made me “crazy in the head.” Just maybe spending too much time in solitude contemplating the life of Jesus, instead of engaging with women, had resulted in my orientation!
When Wilkerson dealt with two well-known Bible passages that supposedly talk about homosexuality, he reinforced in me several harmful conclusions while missing the point of the texts.
When addressing the Sodom story, he concluded that the men who confronted Lot were homosexuals because the objects of their interest were also men. Then, to lessen my sense of condemnation by association, he insisted that God had not singled out homosexuals for special judgment, because there were also “thieves and murderers and despisers of mankind” in Sodom.
Implying that those who forced themselves sexually on the visitors were homosexual felt like a convenient way of dismissing the possibility of sexual violence in general. Heterosexual man-on-man sexual assault is not unheard of. Heterosexual men can and do rape other men to humiliate or dehumanize. My point—a homosexual act does not a homosexual make.
If Wilkerson had allowed the Bible to interpret itself, we would have noted the prophet Ezekiel’s commentary on Sodom. Because Ezekiel chapter sixteen uses the “gentler” euphemism of neglecting the poor and needy, the violent nature of the inhabitants of the city is obscured. Excess, neglect, and violence, however, is the Biblical explanation for Sodom’s destruction.
When commenting on Romans chapter one, Wilkerson again tried to grant me some compassion. He suggested that God was not cursing “just” homosexuals in this passage, even though here “God had nevertheless given homosexuals over to corrupt minds.” At the time, I think I felt a bit better knowing that heterosexuals were included in the curse.
Now, however, I realize that, despite his attempt at compassion, Wilkerson was drawing the same harmful conclusion he did in his Sodom commentary—that the people who engage in sexual acts with people of the same sex were homosexual in orientation. The text does not support this conclusion. The text only says men and women exchanged their natural sexual relations for unnatural. This was done in the context of worshiping the creation rather than the Creator. And this is the crux of Paul’s thinking.
For Paul, worship of the creation rather than the Creator is what led to or characterized a “corrupt mind.” And if, for example, one believed that a god, or the gods, needed to be coerced into providing a good harvest, then perhaps a good unnatural sexual ritual might do the trick! Believing that God wants or needs this is a corrupt mind!
While I knew intellectually that the men of Sodom need not be homosexual to sexually assault other men, or that the worshippers in Romans need not be homosexual to engage in same-sex acts of worship, it was difficult for me to hold that distinction in my heart and not be overwhelmed psychologically and spiritually.
Not only did Wilkerson confuse behavior with orientation, he conflated everything into addiction. I was already primed to think of my orientation having some elements of addiction because of my association with Colin. Often, when Colin spoke about "change," he was, in fact, speaking about freedom from episodic addictive-like behavior. Wilkerson used “addicted to” and “hooked by” several times. “Those who are hooked by homosexuality,” he wrote, “are tangled in a strange web and need help with their urges.”
Although I had bought into this addiction idea, Wilkerson’s use of the word urge bugged me. An “urge” did not describe my experience.
During the night, I often have the urge to go to the bathroom. After lunch, I frequently have the urge to eat something sweet. These days I occasionally have the urge to walk out of church because of some uninformed and inflammatory comment made about LGBTQ people. By contrast, I have never had the urge to be intimate with a woman. My orientation is far more than an urge. My orientation is how I experience myself in relation to the world—how I feel in my body— how I relate to women versus how I relate to men.
Wilkerson further muddied the water with another term—the “confirmed” homosexual. No matter how strong my urges were, he insisted, they need not be permanent. The few that “grow out of the habit,” he suggested, were not confirmed homosexuals. I believe that in his mind, these “confirmed” homosexuals were heterosexual men hopelessly addicted to having sex with other heterosexual men. To this day, I am confronted with this simplistic notion and must go to great lengths to explain otherwise.
Wilkerson warned that confirmed homosexuals stood very little chance of being cured unless they became desperate, despised their homosexuality (read being addicted to sex with other men), and believed it possible to be cured.
For him to suggest that hope lay in despising myself only increased my sense of shame. Experience has taught me that far too many LGBTQ people have despised themselves into oblivion—figuratively and literally—for thinking this way.
Very reminiscent of the article in the Adventist health Encyclopedia, You and Your Health, Wilkerson wrote that cure was more likely for those under 25 years of age and for those who had not developed a strong attachment to one person. This gave me some hope as I was still within that window age wise and not attached to anyone. Having this hope was important, because without it, I was in for a very gloomy future according to Wilkerson. “I have never met a truly happy homosexual,” he wrote. “The majority are sad, lonely, filled with fear, shame, guilt, anxiety, and torment. Loneliness describes their condition most accurately.”
While there is some truth in this last statement, it lacked serious reflection. I could create a list of situations for which people feel the same way. Fear, shame, guilt, anxiety, and loneliness, however, are not inherent in my orientation. At that time, I experienced those emotions because of internalizing what I believed God thought of me. Today, I can re-experience these feelings when shamed and marginalized by the comments and actions of the people around me.
In the fall of 1982, I believed, like Wilkerson, that “so-called homosexual Christians can never be acceptable in the eyes of God if they lived in their sin.” Still, there was something about this “unacceptable” and “living in sin” statement that nagged at me. When he implored me, the homosexual reader, to admit that homosexuality was “not of God,” I felt a resistant shift in my body. Wilkerson was implying that if an aspect of the human condition were deemed some type of brokenness, it was “not of God,” and therefore morally unacceptable. In my case, at least, that's how it seemed!
The reason for my resistant response was close to home. I couldn’t help but compare my “defect” with that of my sister’s Tetralogy of Fallot, a congenital heart defect with four life-threatening characteristics.
I am aware of the objections people have to my thinking of my orientation as a defect. The reasons are obvious. A defect can imply I am less than and in need of a fix. History has demonstrated that the fixes foisted on us have sorely failed us. The cures offered have wreaked more havoc than the so-called illness. At the time, however, it was Wilkerson’s “not-of-God” comment that triggered the comparison of my experience with that of my sister. The difference between how my “not-of-God” defect was regarded versus hers was not lost on me.
Marilyn’s heart defect had always been viewed as “not of God.” No one ever suggested it was of God. She was told she was perfect just the way she was, her “not-of-God” condition notwithstanding. Even more significant, she was never told to despise herself or her condition. I was.
Because of my exposure to Colin’s interpretation and application of Romans chapter one to sexual orientation, I had been thinking a lot about the apostle Paul's notion. Given Paul’s logic in Romans chapter one, it could be said that my sister’s heart defect was just as much a manifestation of God’s handing the world over to the consequences of The Fall as was mine! In fact, it could be argued that our defects had genetic and or environmental causes. Deeming my "condition" “not-of-God” and immoral and other conditions morally neutral was a source of great spiritual agitation.
I didn’t recognize it at the time, but I was trying to make sense of the assumed wisdom and counsel of people who couldn’t make up their minds as to what or when something was moral or immoral. Both Wilkerson and Colin brought this confusion into their approach to therapy. It went something like this:
After the concerned pastor would lump me in with the “not-of-God” Sodomites and the godless worshipers of Romans chapter one, the compassionate counselor would emerge. The counselor—the Christian counselor I might add, as though hoping to soften my sense of shame and condemnation—would speak of my orientation as a morally benign brokenness caused by some childhood trauma. The counselor would tell me that these traumatic forces in childhood had had such an impact on my life that the very essence of who I was had been transformed. Then, in an instant, this psycho-dynamic family of origins explanation of my experience would vanish. Before my eyes, the pastor would re-emerge and insist that all my attractions and subsequent behaviors were “not-of-God,” morally laden, and could threaten my salvation. When my guilt and shame would resurface, the pastor would retreat and the counselor would assure me that my behavior was just a misguided attempt, on my part, to “heal” myself. Before I got too comfortable with that, the pastor would re-emerge to remind me that my orientation was “not of God” and would never be acceptable to God.
I can guarantee that this crazy-making approach to reparative therapy continues to this day—practiced by the well-meaning.
Wilkerson listed five things that I should do to aid in a cure. The contrast between the lifestyle he assumed I was living, and my reality was striking. This alone should have been a sign to me to reject the simplistic assumptions and counsel being offered in this two-page chapter. I was to:
- Quit blaming others for my problems. Until I was introduced to reparative therapy, I did not realize that others were to blame. I blamed myself!
- Quit doing so much talking, making excuses, and start listening. Since adolescence, I had only hinted at my “problem” let alone make excuses for it. When I did talk about it, it was only to God.
- Avoid alcohol. According to Wilkerson, while not all alcoholics are homosexuals nearly all homosexuals are alcoholics. As a practicing Seventh-day Adventist, I wasn’t even drinking coffee, let alone alcohol! Again, while there is truth in this statement, it lacked reflection. There is often a logic to alcohol and drug abuse. People cannot “despise” themselves for extended periods of time and not be inclined to self-medicate in order to either feel something or feel nothing! Although Wilkerson wrote as though drinking would be the nail in my coffin, he didn’t make any link between the things people say and do to me and the creation of an environment where I might need to drink myself into an emotion-numbing stupor.
- Reject my sin and ask God for a miracle. The only homosexuals who had been completely cured, in his opinion, were those who in desperation had cried out to God for deliverance. I had been consciously and unconsciously crying out for a miracle for years. When I thought my miracle had arrived—via the Ministry magazine interview—my real nightmare began.
- Forsake my old [homosexual] friends like poison, cut them off like cancer, and lean hard on Jesus. Until 1981, I had no homosexual friends. My world had been exclusively heterosexual and Christian. Throughout my life, I had leaned on Jesus—daily. I often had moments of peace and hope when I hid myself in God in prayer; but, over time, the loneliness that Wilkerson insisted was common to homosexuals increased, despite my hours in prayer.
- Quit blaming others for my problems. Until I was introduced to reparative therapy, I did not realize that others were to blame. I blamed myself!
Although the reader wouldn’t have seen the confusion Wilkerson’s article added to my experience, it was there. Trying to make sense of and balance conflicting ideas often overwhelmed me. My sanity was preserved, and my faith sustained, however, by clinging to a familiar story in the New Treatment.
After a confrontation with the Pharisees—the pastors-cum-counselors of Jesus’ day—Jesus made a controversial yet powerful declaration. There was something greater than the law and temple in their presence. Himself! The work of that “something greater” was to inform the world that God desired mercy, not sacrifice. Jesus later expanded on his thinking by quoting from Isaiah 42:1-3. In Isaiah, God’s servant is described as proclaiming justice to the nations. A significant part of this justice would be expressed in what God promised not to do. God would not snap off broken reeds or snuff out smoldering wicks.
By the very nature of my experience, I frequently felt like a broken reed and a smoldering wick. Because I was trying to juggle two opposing realities—change my orientation and follow an intense need to understand myself in relation to others—it took tremendous effort on my part to hold onto this promise and move forward. In faith, I started to move well beyond familiar personal and spiritual boundaries in the fall of 1982.