By Rachel Gilson (adapted by Kaley Payne from Episode 24 ‘LGBTI Christian’ of the Undeceptions Podcast)
I spent a lot of my first years as a Christian looking backwards.
I knew that part of Christ’s claim on me was that I needed to change certain things about my life, but I still held onto these little treasures. I had a box full of letters and photos and little artefacts from my first serious girlfriend. When I went back to it, I would get a wistful nostalgia for the life that I had left – a life that I could have jumped back into.
It wasn’t until I was several years into my marriage and I was talking to a good friend, when I told her about my treasure box. And I remember this look of concern crossing her face and thinking, “Uh-oh, what does she think of this?” She very gently suggested to me that maybe it wasn’t healthy for my heart, to still cling to something that instead of offering me a pipeline to freedom were actually still keeping me enslaved.
At first I felt extremely defensive. But eventually I felt she was right. So I sat with the box. I mean, so many times I’d sat with this box and opened it up, ready to feed the nostalgia. I’m kind of a melancholy person, I like that mood. I remember sitting with it and thinking, could I really trash this whole thing? It was a kind of break with my old life that I’d said I’d already made. But there’s something more real about the actual artefacts going into the garbage.
It was in high school that I started to recognise that my romantic and sexual home was with other women, not with men. And even though I had never been mistreated by a Christian, I knew enough from culture that Christians were not okay with my sexuality.
I knew enough from culture that Christians were not okay with my sexuality.
I saw it enough in the world broadly to understand that Christians were not very smart people and they were also quite bigoted people. My perception was that Christians were people who didn’t want to think about answers to the big questions of life for themselves. They just wanted to receive something simple, something saccharine and then just move on with their lives.
But I have always been interested in ideas. It’s just part of my makeup. I grew up in an area where there were a lot of people who went to church, so I started talking to my peers about what they thought and I would just get these blank stares or stammering answers. It just seemed sort of silly, not really relevant to the questions I wanted to ask.
A place for someone like me
When I went to university at Yale, a lecture on Rene Descartes and his ‘I think therefore I am’ proof sparked my interest in whether there was proof of God. I didn’t much care for Descarte’s idea and wondered if there was something better.
I wanted to be a well-informed atheist. At the same time, though, I also felt like my sexuality was a barrier as I approached theological things. Religious people didn’t like who I wanted to connect with romantically.
The only two people I knew at Yale who identified as Christian were two women who were dating each other. They seemed like quite pleasant people. I thought, well, maybe they have access to something I don’t know. They gave me a packet of information explaining how the Bible actually affirms same-sex relationships, and I really wanted to believe in the information they were giving me. Not even necessarily because I wanted to become a Christian – because at that point I didn’t.
I just thought that it would be so freeing that this ancient thing – this powerful thing – could have space for someone like me.
I just thought that it would be so freeing that this ancient thing – this powerful thing – could have space for someone like me. That seemed quite attractive. I ripped through that packet and it had a great sense of internal consistency. It made sense as I was reading it and that felt very comforting. So then I thought, “Well, I should probably actually read the Bible verses that it’s claiming to interpret.”
I didn’t have a Bible, so I had to look them up on the computer (back when computers were ancient, heavy things!) I found the Bible verses, and read some of the things around it for context. But what this packet of information was saying, I couldn’t find the actual connection in the Bible. My heart just sort of sank. I felt duped, like I had been swindled a little bit. I was sort of angry at myself for thinking that there was a loophole.
An actual revelation
A little while later, I was flicking through a copy of CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity – it was more interesting than the homework I should have been doing. I was sitting there, about in the middle of the book, and just felt overwhelmed all of a sudden. It’s hard to explain if you’ve never had an experience like it, but there was like a pause, like a check in my heart. I didn’t see anything physically, like with a vision, but mentally it was clear as day to me that not only did God exist like a God, but that the God who existed was transcendent, was perfect, was everywhere, and had made me and therefore I was going to owe him an account.
In that moment where I felt fear, I also recognised that the only way to be safe was to run towards God, not away from him.
What I was perceiving was the fact that God is Holy, though I didn’t know what that word meant at the time. It was the feeling of those attributes of his and my natural relationship to him that just suddenly bored down on me.
I’ve always been anti-supernatural. I was a materialist. I thought everything that we see is everything there is. So it’s not like I was a person who was into new age type stuff or who was particularly interested in astrology, where you read the signs. I thought that was all hocus pocus. So to have an experience that really was both intellectual but highly spiritual … I was out of my element immediately and I also felt a lot of fear.
It’s been 16 years and my attractions to women haven’t gone anywhere, still.
In that moment where I felt fear, I also recognised that the only way to be safe was to run towards God, not away from him. I couldn’t just pretend it’s not true because it’s inconvenient for my life.
I got involved in Yale’s Christian fellowship, but immediately it was clear to me that God’s Word said no to same-sex lust and sexual relationships. I’ve since learned Greek and Hebrew and it’s still clear to me in the texts.
But my attractions to women weren’t going anywhere. It’s been 16 years and my attractions to women haven’t gone anywhere, still. So I was sitting in a puddle, asking God why he says these things. It thought if He could just tell me why, then I would obey with perfect joy and obedience, which is ridiculous!
One of the things that God really pressed me on at that time was, “What if the most important question isn’t why am I saying this, why am I asking this of you? But what if the more important question is, can you trust the one who’s asking it?”
When it comes down to taking a huge risk that we don’t understand, it has to be made in the context of trust. If a stranger comes up to me and asks me to do something ridiculous, I’m going to blow him off. Right? But if one of my best friends in the world comes up to me and says, “Hey, I can’t explain this right now, but I need you to do X, Y, Z, and X, Y, Z looks terrifying but I really trust her, I’m much more likely to say, okay, I know you, you wouldn’t ask this of me unless it was important, unless it was meaningful.”
How can I possibly say no to this? How do I possibly have the strength to say no to this?
I think God was saying, “Hey, what if you’re making this too much about the rules disconnected from me? Like you’re sitting above them like the judge. How does that not make you God? What if God is God?”
The question I had to go back to again and again was, is God trustworthy?
A new Christian
As a new Christian, I still had to deal with all of these desires that welled up within me. It’s not like I needed to stoke them; they came ready spring-loaded. There was this tension where I knew what I was supposed to do and I also knew what I wanted to do. And they didn’’t always line up. I could sort of white-knuckle it for a while – you know, just say “obey, obey, obey, obey, obey” on my own strength. But then didn’t work all the time, when the object of desire was so powerful. It’s not like talking about just wanting a bunch of cookies!
It was particularly powerful with this girl who I had a relationship with briefly in college. She was a beautiful human being – not just beautiful physically, but the way that we connected was so powerful. It felt like, how can I possibly say no to this? How do I possibly have the strength to say no to this?
And I think part of what God led me through was actually that I didn’t have the strength to say no to this. He needed to give me the strength.
I think sometimes the church can talk as if the things that entice us aren’t actually that great. Sometimes that’s true. Some of the things that we desire aren’t actually as good for us as we think they’re going to be. But I think there was something helpful in my first years of trying to navigate this open dumpster fire I was creating of my discipleship, recognising that the things that I was desiring in this relationship – intimacy, connection, that depth of relationship that I’m actually built for – is happening in this space, but it cannot on its own fill what God is meant to fill.
Part of the reason this other relationship felt so powerful is that it is partially meeting the needs that I was created to receive. So, it’s not all bad. There’s actually pieces of it that do reflect something that I’m made for. I’m made for that type of intimacy.
On some level when we want to connect to another human being in that depth, we’re looking for home, we’re looking for family and we can feel the edges of it in good relationships.
But God says in his word, if you try to do this outside of me, you might be able to do it somewhat convincingly for a while. He’s given us the types of skills to, you know, MacGyver your way into something that looks similar. But because of sin – because of even just our finiteness – wer’e not going to be able to create for ourselves the home in relationship that God is and that His church is.
I think, on some level when we want to connect to another human being in that depth, we’re looking for home, we’re looking for family and we can feel the edges of it in good relationships.
Some people might say that I’m denying my true self, my true identity, but not acting on my same-sex desires. But I do wonder where we get the idea that our authentic self is every single desire that we have?
Your desires don’t own you. I own you. Your desires aren’t going to take care of you. Your desires don’t care at all what happens to you, but I care what happens to you.
It seems sort of given in this culture that is now all over the Western world that you dig deep to find your true self, and whatever you find at the bottom – whatever that desire is – that’s you. But I think all of us have the experience of knowing that there are certain desires we have that if we fulfilled them would destroy us, wouldn’t make us happy. Is that my actual self?
I don’t feel very convinced by that. There was a plenty of time before I came to Christ where my natural response was just to give in to every desire that I had just to feed it. I thought that’s the answer of desire. Don’t pretend I don’t have it. Constantly feed it. And sometimes it brought me joy. Just as often it brought me misery and it brought me pain.
One of the most beautiful things that I’ve discovered in Christianity is God saying to me: “You are owned by me.” In any other context, to be owned by another person is terrifying. But because God’s character is good, he’s saying, “Your desires don’t own you. I own you. Your desires aren’t going to take care of you. Your desires don’t care at all what happens to you, but I care what happens to you. I cared to the point of shedding my blood about what happens to you.”
So, how in the world did I end up married to a man?
And then, in 2007, I married a man.
People might say, “Oh, so you married a man so you never were really attracted to women anyway.” But I still experience attraction to women. Or some might say, “You married a man so you’re just trying to make yourself straight or something.” But marriage isn’t about that at all.
So, how in the world did I end up married to a man?
Andrew and I met when we were 19 – we were like babies really. We were on this little Christian mission together and we both had a crush on the same girl. Not exactly the typical start to your love story.
I wasn’t interested in him romantically, but he’s a wonderful guy. Kind, affectionate, tender, full of integrity, like the kind of guy who makes friends really easily.
Some time after the mission, I had fallen into an incident with my first girlfriend which kind of ripped me apart. And Andrew came back into my life right at that point just to check in on me. We reignited our friendship in a place where I was just really tender and needed the encouragement of a Christian brother.
I started noticing quickly, “Oh, I think he might like me”, and panicked. That’s not how I felt about him. But he was really great and it was very confusing. Andrew asked me out and I thought — it’s not like I’m gonna marry the guy! I thought that maybe I should give him a chance. It terrified me. I remember being with my best friend and saying, “I don’t want to date Andrew Gilson!” And she just started laughing at me cause we were like really just processing, what even is this? You know?
We started dating and my affection for Andrew grew. I also thought that there was some level of romantic and sexual attraction. One of the biggest difficulties was that in the major relationships I’d had with women, the romantic and sexual piece was like a conflagration. It was just sort of like fireworks and butterflies and all the big things you read about in songs that you can’t miss it. A giant bonfire from miles away. And when I considered the romantic and sexual elements that were beginning to grow in my dating relationship with Andrew, if it was a fire at all, it was like a tiny little flame. It was certainly not the same as the other things I’d experienced. And I sort of looked from one to the other and asked myself, “Could I possibly build a future on this little thing?”
It drove me back to the Scriptures. Does God require romantic passion to be a part of marriage? You absolutely can have romance in marriage, but marriage is about so much more than that. It’s meant to actually share the gospel, to be a picture of God’s relationship with his people.
It is a covenant, a promise to care for each other, to stand by each other, to pursue a household together, to pursue gospel ministry together. Yes, sex was a part of it, but just a part. When I looked at the whole picture of my relationship with Andrew, I saw something that looked really fruitful. Maybe this is actually the type of partnership that God calls marriage to be.
I think, because of my same-sex attraction, I entered into marriage more soberly than some people who just kind of fall into it because they’re so in love and then wake up in two years and think: ‘Was this actually the life partner who was best for me to connect with?
When I looked at Andrew, I loved him but thought that perhaps I wasn’t in love with him. I wasn’t sure if that was allowed. But the gospel gave me freedom.
I have been married now for 12 years and I wouldn’t go back for anything.I definitely had to process. But I really have found love and joy and purpose. There is a delight in my home life that has been steady and vibrant.
I think everybody has to figure out what sex is going to look like in their marriage.
What has been helpful to remember is for God to call me into one marriage, He doesn’t need to make me attracted to all men. I just need to be attracted to the one man he’s called me to. And in some circumstances, it’s quite nice to not be attracted to all the other men!
Even people who identify as straight know that they’re not attracted to all people of the other gender. They’re attracted usually to a certain subset. What I noticed in dating Andrew, that allowed me to enter into marriage was that I did have a level of sexual attraction there. It was small but I could build into it. And so honestly, I just tried to sow into that, to cultivate that. And there was joy in figuring each other out.
I think everybody has to figure out what sex is going to look like in their marriage. It’s not like straight people immediately enter into marriage and are having perfect sex forever. There are a lot of couples that are figuring out that one person int he couple has more desire than the other, or sex can be painful – there are all kinds of issues that can happen in a sexual relationship in marriage. I think the ways that I’ve built into my sex life with my husband are pretty normal, and sex has become even more enjoyable as we’ve gotten better at it over the course 12 years.
I’m only able to say no to these things which on their own do look deeply attractive and have even provided me some source of comfort because what I’m turning to instead is a bigger yes, and that’s the life I find in Jesus Christ,
I absolutely resonate people who might be reading my story and thinking, there’s no way I could do that. It would be the end of me. We both feel that internally, but there’s also this messaging in the world that the way to be yourself is to fully live into your sexual desires. There’s this multi-directional message telling us this is your life. And honestly, if God isn’t real, what else do you have?
But the thing is I think the Lord is real. I think he has revealed himself in the scriptures to be beautiful and worthy of our love. Even worthy to the point of death. There are some things it feels like to say no to them would be death. And if we were saying no to them and just walking into drudgery, yeah, that’s death. But I think I’m only able to say no to these things which on their own do look deeply attractive and have even provided me some source of comfort because what I’m turning to instead is a bigger yes, and that’s the life I find in Jesus Christ, in his word and his spirit and his church, in the promises I’ve been given, in the love that I’ve received. That’s worth saying no to everything else.
That does not mean it’s easy. There have been times where I have been confused or I’ve made mistakes. But the thing that brought me back again and again was the goodness of Jesus Christ. There were times where I could have left the faith. Who would even care? I could’ve gone back into my old life with a wonderful woman and built a life there.But having tasted what life with Christ was like, I couldn’t pull the trigger. It wasn’t worth it without him.