Tommy, not his real name, was a good friend of mine. We met in the ’80s at our local Southern Baptist Church, where I served as a deacon and Sunday school teacher. At the time we were both young, single and took our faith seriously.
We were also “backsliding” Baptists, which meant we enjoyed dancing. Every so often we would invite fellow church singles to join us for a night of fellowship, conversation, music and, if truth be told, dancing. We all became close friends; a family that at times planned vacations together.
One night, Tommy stopped by my house for a talk. Considering our youth and availability, it should not be surprising that our conversation eventually led to the topic of sex.
I shared with him the struggles I was undergoing with my commitment to celibacy. The temptations, I felt, were many. I shared with Tommy about a particular young lady, whom I feared would be a stumbling block, making it difficult to maintain my present sexual abstinence, if I started dating her.
At this point Tommy shared that he too struggled with sexual temptation; however, for him, the temptation was for other males.
Tommy, to my shock and horror, was gay. How, I thought, could a good committed Christian, let alone a Southern Baptist, be a homosexual?
There was a long silence. Tommy wondered if his confession would end our friendship. I feared he might make a pass at me.
I finally broke the silence by reminding him that homosexuality is a sin, an abomination before God and a free choice he was making that was morally indefensible. How did I know this? Because my church told me.
I converted to Christianity in my early 20s. The church I joined was a large, loving congregation. For the first time in my life, I felt as if I belonged. People embraced me as if I were family.
These loving, gentle people began to teach me about God, the Bible, and what it meant to be a Christian. They told me homosexuality was a sin. Why would I doubt people I admired and wanted to emulate? Why would they purposely lead me astray? They pointed to the chapters and verses in the Bible that showed God’s anger towards gays.
Prior to my conversion I was a gay-basher, participating in contributing to their public humiliation. Now the church taught me the Christian response was to hate homosexuality, while still loving the sinner.
If I wanted to belong to this group of Christians, I had to make sure that my actions toward gays were consistent with what my church said was God’s view toward homosexuals–essentially a kinder, gentler form of gay-bashing.
So here I was with my dear friend Tommy. We had become close, so shunning him was no longer an option. How could I hate the sin while loving the sinner?
I asked Tommy if he wanted to break free from the bondage of sin. He said yes. I asked him if he had repented from his sins, taken Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior and believed that through the power of prayer he could become a new creature in Christ.
With tears in his eyes he said yes. I asked him if he wanted to be a heterosexual. “Dear God Almighty, yes,” he burst out before emotionally breaking down. Tommy, I felt, was well on the road to healing and salvation.
I agreed to be his spiritual partner in the struggle. We covenanted to pray together. We fasted. We cast out the demon of homosexuality.
If anyone ever truly wanted to be a heterosexual, if anyone ever truly wanted to stop finding men attractive, if anyone ever truly humbled himself before God to faithfully live a Christian life, it was Tommy.
Years went by, and you know what? Tommy was still gay. Tommy did not change, but I did.
In a very real sense, Tommy taught me something important about God: either God lacked the power to save a willing believer from his sin, or maybe–just maybe–I have been taught to read the Bible through the eyes of homophobics, regardless of how loving they appeared.
Many years have passed since Tommy and I were buddies. I married and moved away from Miami. Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida and I lost touch with almost all of my old church friends.
I still often think of Tommy. I regret the additional spiritual burdens that I placed upon him due to my own biblical ignorance and naivete. Rather that sharing the good news that God loves him just as God created him, I added to his sense of self-loathing.
For this I will remain eternally sorry, while grateful to Tommy for showing me that he no more chose his homosexual orientation than I chose my heterosexual orientation.
And, I will always be grateful for the role he unwittingly played in my own conversion from being a gay-basher to someone who is now committed to seeking justice for all who are disenfranchised.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.