I Used to Hide My Shame. Now I Take Shelter Under the Gospel.

How a gay atheist teenager discovered Jesus and stopped living undercover.
I Used to Hide My Shame. Now I Take Shelter Under the Gospel.
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source images: Courtesy of Greg Johnson

Bill, I’m gay.”

The word vomited out of my mouth. I had never actually said it before. Not out loud, at least. We were in a mostly empty chapel on the grounds of the University of Virginia, and a dozen or more Campus Crusaders were gathering up on the stage to pray. Bill looked up at the stage, then back down at me.

He nodded toward the door. His tone was hushed. “How about we step outside and talk,” he said. “Someplace more private.”

I imagined that everyone had heard me say what I’d said. I glanced up as others quickly averted their gaze. “I don’t care, Bill,” I told him. “I have to get this out. I’ve never told anyone.”

This was the early 1990s, and I was a newly minted follower of Jesus.

I wasn’t raised Christian. My dad was a senior executive in the federal government, and I was raised in a good secular family in suburban Washington, DC. I had never gone to church or synagogue. I had never read the Bible. I definitely did not believe some ancient Near Eastern sky god was secretly pulling the ropes somewhere. A friend named Spencer once told me I was an atheist. I didn’t argue.

There were two sons in our happy secular household. I was the gay one.

My ‘Velvet Rage’

Though I made crude attempts to hide it, something about me always appeared different. At age six I asked for an Easy-Bake Oven and a miniature porcelain tea set for Christmas so I could serve a proper English afternoon tea with my stuffed animals. Somewhere there’s a photo of me holding a miniature teacup between my thumb and index finger, pinky sticking out like a rainbow flag. I got my Easy-Bake Oven. But then I was sentenced to not one but two terms on a boys’ soccer team.

It didn’t work.

At age 11 the realization hit me. The fact was that I felt toward other guys the way they felt toward girls. 1984 was a terrible time to realize you’re gay. As the year progressed, around 100 gay men in the US were dying of AIDS every week. It would grow to nearly 1,000 per week over the next decade. All the young men like me were getting sick and dying. And the kids around me were cracking jokes about it. The shame was crushing me. I lived in constant dread that someone would find out. The school locker room left me in a state of near panic. What if I saw something? What if it affected me?

On the first day of seventh grade, I sprang into action. I decorated the inside of my locker with a dozen shiny yet tasteful pin-ups of Madonna. Holiday. I was fitfully trying to conceal what psychologist Alan Downs calls the “velvet rage” of shame and self-hatred, hoping to make myself lovable and normal and definitely not queer. I had no idea Madonna would become a gay icon.

So there I was. A gay atheist teenager trying to cover over my shame.

The thing that began to crack this whole life open happened in the summer of 1988, as I watched pro-life protesters get arrested in Atlanta. I can’t say I had any sympathy at all for their cause, but I was deeply struck by the fact that these clean-cut, middle-class people who had jobs were willingly going to jail for something like an embryo. Jail occupied a most terrifying place in my 15-year-old imagination. Jail was the place where people like me got raped. Clearly, these Christians were serious about what they believed.

That year I was assigned a school project to write a paper on a controversial issue. I chose abortion. And as I spent hours researching the topic in libraries, I felt my heart begin to sink. I realized what this was. That realization left me in a very difficult place.

Did I believe it was wrong to take human life? If it was okay, then human life had no meaning or value at all. But if I concluded that it was wrong to take human life, then that would mean that evil was real. And if evil was real, then goodness must be real. And for goodness to be real, there must be a ground for goodness. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was sliding down the slippery slope of the moral argument for the existence of God. By the time I graduated high school, I knew there had to be something to it. I suspected that the god I was beginning to believe in was the Judeo-Christian God, mainly because I had seen Christians willingly give up their freedom. But I knew nothing about this God.

My shame sat ubiquitously in the middle of it all. I remember begging God to forgive my sin. “God,” I prayed, “I don’t know who or what you are, but will you please forgive me for masturbating? For being gay? Will you please stop the killing? I’m willing to die for you if that’s what you want. But I don’t know what’s wrong with me or what I’m supposed to do.” The shame ran deep.

I didn’t know any Christians. No one had ever talked to me about Jesus except a grandmother years earlier, and I couldn’t remember what she had said or whether it was even applicable to gay people who had never gone to church.

I first learned about Jesus while studying architecture at the University of Virginia. I heard that sinful people were the only class of people Jesus came to save. I heard that Jesus took all the weight of my guilt and shame, and he bore it all in his own body for me so that I wouldn’t have to bear it anymore. I heard that God actually loved people like me. At age 20, I was baptized and became a member of the Presbyterian Church in America. The following year, I moved to St. Louis to enroll at Covenant Seminary, not because I had any interest in ever being a pastor—that took another decade—but because I wanted to understand the Bible and theology. It was there that I began to experience the gospel’s power to cover over my shame.

Decades have passed, and at age 46 I’m still a virgin fighting a constant battle for sexual holiness. (Goodness knows, for the last 15 years I haven’t been able to trust myself with an unmonitored internet connection.) Mike Rosebush, former director of Exodus International’s Professional Counselors’ Network, has said that he has yet to identify a single instance in which same-sex attraction disappeared. While sexuality has a degree of fluidity in some people, the real change for me has not been in my sexual orientation but in my life orientation. Jesus has rescued me. That’s everything.

Wanting to Be an ‘Average Joe’

So I’ve lived my life as a unicorn in a field of horses, constantly hoping that no one notices the horn. Years ago I was teaching a group of seminarians who were learning to preach, and one of the students mentioned in a sermon illustration how “nobody wants to be an Average Joe.” I was dumbfounded. I’ve never wanted anything more than to be an Average Joe. I’m inundated with invitations for me and my spouse. I have to decide which friend’s phone number to put on the back of my diabetic ID bracelet. When I welcome people to my fantastic little condo with my Saarinen table and Corbusier chairs, I compulsively mention that my undergrad was in architecture. It’s an instinctive strategy to obfuscate their gaydar.

In the late 1990s, I sought out a pastor I respected, and I opened up with him about wanting to share my story with my church. I was fatigued from a lifetime of trying to hide my shame. “Do not do it!” he thundered. “If your church knew, they would never be able to accept you.” I was still young and impressionable, and I accepted his voice as the voice of God. For decades, I’ve had Christian leaders asking me to please not share my Christian testimony, despite my thorough agreement with the church’s historic teaching on sexuality. Even the language of same-sex attraction—which many believers have found helpful as a way to disassociate themselves from assumptions about being gay—feels to many others like a tool of concealment, as though I were laboring to minimize the ongoing reality of sexual orientations that in practice seldom change.

I’m thankful that a campus minister named Bill loved me. He didn’t try to fix me, control me, or ship me off to a conversion therapy camp. He loved me, welcomed me into his home, sat with me, and invested so many hours in me. He was the first person to suggest I pray about going to seminary.

Jesus hasn’t made me straight. But he covers over my shame. Jesus really loves gay people.

The gospel doesn’t erase this part of my story so much as it redeems it. My sexual orientation doesn’t define me. It’s not the most important or most interesting thing about me. It is the backdrop for that, the backdrop for the story of Jesus who rescued me.

Greg Johnson is lead pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, the host church for the Revoice18 conference. He is the author of The World According to God: A Biblical View of Culture, Work, Science, Sex & Everything Else (InterVarsity Press).

June
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