My dad was in the military, but after he got out, we settled in south Georgia. South Georgia’s a funny place. I can’t really remember sexuality ever being talked about, certainly not in church. Maybe we talked about it in a “true love waits” kind of way in youth group, but we never talked about sexuality, especially not homosexuality. And, you know, when you’re in that kind of sheltered world, things don’t seem real. By high school I definitely knew what “gay” was, and knew that there were gay people in the world, but there were no gay people in my world, if that makes sense. It’s amazing to me what you can convince yourself of. At one point in high school I remember thinking to myself, “There must be no attractive girls in my high school because I’m not attracted to any of them.” And looking back, I went to a high school of about 1,100 students, a pretty good mix, half and half male and female. Out of about 500 women I couldn’t find one attractive, and that didn’t seem odd to me. I just assumed they weren’t attractive. Looking back I think there were plenty of attractive girls in my school, I just—I wasn’t attracted to them, so they weren’t attractive to me.
So I went off to college and had no idea about my sexuality. And my whole world shook when I met someone who was gay. All of a sudden I had to start reevaluating everything I knew about myself, all those little thoughts that I’d had. First of all, this guy wasn’t so weird. Being from South Georgia, I’d never met anyone who was openly gay. Gay people were the stereotypes that I saw on TV and in movies, and were flamboyant men who wore women’s clothing, and, you know, even as I’m saying it now I realize just how absurd my stereotypes were of gay people. But it was also enough to where I could disconnect myself from it and say, “That’s not me, so clearly I’m not gay.” And you know, meeting this guy in college really kinda shifted my worldview, cause he was just a normal guy, and that was a little surprising.
He also came to my campus ministry, which was really surprising, cause even thought we’d never talked about it in church, there was just an understanding that being gay was wrong, and clearly gay people wouldn’t go to church, because why would someone who was gay to church? Meeting him was kinda one of those moments in life where it was just the right thing at the right moment to make things click in my head. And it began a thought process.
It probably took me another year before I could admit that I had attractions to other men. Certainly I wasn’t ready to call myself gay yet. In fact I was still convinced at that point that it was something that I’d have to work through and then I could get married and have a wife and kids and, you know, still live out the dream that I had—cause I think all of us, or most of us, at some point dream of having a family, and when all the families you grow up around are heterosexual families, that’s just what you assume you want. I think it’s also kind of ingrained in our American society that that’s what people should want—a wife and 2.5 kids and the dog and the fenced-in yard. At least where I grew up, I can only speak from my experience, but—I remember that feeling very normal to me. And so this whole, like, being attracted to guys thing really threw me for a loop, cause I was like, “This is not the way it’s supposed to be!” And I was never abused. I had a mom—I mean I think all moms, or most moms, are a little overprotective of their children, but I never felt like she was overbearing, and my relationship with my dad was hit or miss but I didn’t feel like that was detrimental to me. And so I was really confused by this whole thing.
One of the big things for me was, after realizing I was attracted to other guys, I really wanted to kiss another guy, which sounds simple. In my mind doing that would be absolutely, horrendously wrong, and so I wanted to not do it. But at the same time, if I saw an attractive guy my mind would wander, and I’d be like, “I wonder what it’d be like—oh wait, don’t think that! You can’t think about kissing a guy, that’s wrong. Jesus wouldn’t approve.”
It was around the same time I was kind of discovering my real faith, and grounding myself in that faith. So I did a lot of soul-searching, a lot of Bible-searching, a lot of arguing back and forth with myself that would take hours to talk about. I came to a conclusion after probably about two years of really wrestling with this attraction to men, this clear lack of attraction to women: this is not going to change, and to continue to focus on trying to change something that’s not going to change is not productive, and it’s only causing me to be dishonest.
[Until] that point I didn’t want to tell anybody cause I was ashamed of this thing, and I was hoping I’d get over it so then I’d never have to tell anybody. My campus ministry friends, people who in many ways had become my family at school, I knew most or all of them would not take it well. I had a lot of concerns: “What happens if I start to come out, and I lose everybody?” I didn’t want to tell my family either, cause there was no way they could accept this. I had this feeling that I had to do better, and I was worried that this would kind of be a cementing of the fact that I was going to be the black sheep forever, that I was going to be the one who was going to be less received in the family.
These few years of college were just all of these things spinning around: Who am I? Who am I gonna be in the future? Who is gonna be in my life in the future? Especially towards the end of being able to accept myself as a gay man, I wrestled a lot with the idea of, where’s my life gonna go? What am gonna do? Who am I gonna have? Is there anyone around here who’s going to accept me? I’d really wrapped myself up in a conservative United Methodist world. Down south, the church is still very conservative, despite our more liberal leanings in other places, like here in the D.C. area. Down there being gay was so bad that we didn’t talk about it at all. In many ways I think I would have rather to have people talk about it, because then at least it would have been something that was out there, it would have been something maybe I could talk about. I think I would have felt more comfortable approaching people and saying, “This is what I’m going through, and I don’t understand it, and I don’t necessarily want it, but it’s going on and I don’t know what all that means.”
A couple of times I did talk to people, and it wasn’t necessarily all by choice. There was my campus minister who, God bless him, was trying his best within his understanding of sexuality and Biblical sexual ethic. He really was trying his best to help me. But he was convinced that this was sin and there was no place for it in the church. It was my senior year of college, and at that point I’d been out somewhat to people for almost a year. I found myself taking it one day at a time, trying to figure this whole “gay” thing out. I’d stayed in the campus ministry because I loved ministry. I loved the church, I loved God. I knew I had a faith that was very strong and real. I’d even reconciled that faith by that point with my sexuality and felt there was a compatibility with the two, and even if nobody else around me believed it, I believed it, and that’s all that really mattered, because for me it was about my personal relationship with God was what my faith was based on. This whole coming-out process really challenged all that because the campus minister said, “Well, if you’re gonna call yourself gay, you can’t speak for us.” I wasn’t exactly a leader in the group in any official way, but I would sometimes give devotionals at the monthly lunch we would have. I thought of myself as someone who was very present with the ministry, a face that could be associated with the ministry, and then, basically he said, “I can’t allow you to speak for us, because to do so while you consider yourself gay would be to seem like we approve of your lifestyle and we don’t.”
I ended up coming to the realization that that word “lifestyle” is really misused in the world, because I was told my “lifestyle” was wrong. And I looked back at it, I was like, “I’m not drinking, I’m not doing the drugs, I’m not having sex. I don’t even have a boyfriend! I’ve never had a boyfriend. How is my lifestyle wrong? What is wrong with my lifestyle?”
This chapter of my life of college came to a close with those questions of, “What does it mean for me to be a gay man of faith?” Because I knew at that point that my faith wasn’t going anywhere, but neither was my sexuality. I felt very comfortable in both, I felt that I had a place in both, and so I decided to just live my life and see what happened.
I think what really changed my life was the realization that I didn’t want others to struggle like I did in college. I began to realize that God was calling me to a ministry, to reach out to people, and to reach out especially to those who are hurting, to those who are like me, and not just in terms of sexuality, but those people who’ve felt pushed to the margins.
I’m highly critical of the Southern church because I saw a lot of not-very-Christian stuff happen there. And in many ways church was like the country club and only certain people were allowed in. You had to be dressed the right way and look the right way and do the right things and say the right things to fit in. My church would never have kicked anyone out, they never would have told someone, “Don’t come back,” but they certainly wouldn’t have made it comfortable for people. And so I really feel like God placed this passion in my heart to go out and be for people that welcoming voice that says, “You know what? I love you, because you’re you, and God created you, and there’s nothing else I need to know about you to know that I love you.”
And oddly enough, then God told me to go to seminary, which was the biggest shock of my life. My original life plan was to be a lawyer, and shortly after college I decided not to do that, but to go to Seminary and pursue ordination was the furthest thing from my mind. I’ve since come to realize that this is, this is my way of pushing back against some of these really negative things that I grew up with that are still out there in the world. And I think about everything that’s going on in the world in 2013, marriage equality is going up everywhere, yet there are still plenty of places that are like, “absolutely not!” There are still places that are just like it was when I was growing up, ten years ago when I was in high school. There are kids who are awakening to their sexuality and they’re in churches and they’re in places of faith and those aren’t necessarily easy places to come out in.
My hope in being a pastor, in being United Methodist clergy is that I can take my credentials and say, “But look, I’m a pastor and I’m gay, and these things are not incompatible. You are not incompatible with your faith just because you’re an LGBT person; you are exactly who God created you to be and you should embrace that. You should love that, because God loved you enough to make you that way.”
That’s what kind of propelled me into this thing called ministry, and [now I am] exploring what it is for me as a gay man in a denomination which doesn’t welcome me into clergy, at least not as someone who is what we call “self-avowed and practicing.” I’m technically self-avowed to the denomination but I’m not openly practicing, and so it’s this weird place—I’m telling other people they’re accepted while I’m actually not accepted completely for who I am and what I’m passionate about, and, with all humility, I’m really good at. I think that’s a sign that I’m clearly gifted to share what God has placed on my heart each week and to be a person who can be a beacon of hope and light in what can be a very dark world. And yet I still struggle with the fact that I’m not really allowed to be me in the church.
And I think that I struggle most when the ladies of the church want to know, “Well, when are you getting married?” I was visiting a nice member just a couple weeks ago. One of the benefits of my job is that I get a house, and one of the first things she said to me is, “Are you living in that big old house all by yourself?” Cause it’s a full family house, a three-bedroom house, that’s a big house for one person. “Well, I’ve got me and my dog, but yeah, it’s pretty much just the two of us,” and she goes, “Well, you know, you just need to find yourself a bride and have yourself some kids and fill up that house.” And she really meant that in the most innocent and sincere kind of way. For me it’s hard that I can’t be like, “Well, but actually I’m not looking for a bride, I’m more looking for a groom.” But I can’t say that. Or at least I don’t feel comfortable saying that, because the fact is there’s a decent chance that at some point in my career the church is going to come after me if we don’t change our policies, because I don’t fit what is supposed to be for clergy, because I’m gay. Because I happen to be attracted to other men and the person that I’d like to fall in love with is going to be a guy. Theoretical person, who may or may not be out there somewhere. And that’s tough. Particularly when we debate these things. To hear people debate sexuality, and debate me in the abstract. Because that’s what it feels like, it feels like they’re debating me.
For anyone who knows anything about the United Methodist process, it’s not an easy process for anyone. They put you through the rigors, I mean you’ve gottta do three years of seminary, earn a master of divinity degree, which is a 90-hour graduate-level degree, which is twice as much as most Master’s degrees. And it’s a very rigorous degree. And then with all your theological studies you also go through the Board of Ordained Ministry and all through this process they’re evaluating you, and you have to write sermons and preach and write Bible studies. There’s all these steps in the way because they want to make sure that we have good quality clergy.
I keep thinking to myself, “If I go through this whole process, and I become fully ordained in the United Methodist church as a full Elder, I could lose it all in the snap of my fingers because someone finds out that I have a partner.” Not because I’m doing anything different than any of my heterosexual colleagues. One of our foundational things for clergy is celibacy in singleness and monogamy in marriage, and we take that very seriously. If a pastor is found to be cheating on their spouse, that is a serious charge. You can have your clergy credentials suspended from you. We take those things seriously. And I, if and when I ever find somebody, I will too. And I just don’t know that I’m really different. I get up every morning and I read my Bible, and I go to the office, and I visit people. And, you know, take this weekend for example where I’m doing a wedding tomorrow and I’m serving communion on Sunday and I’m doing a funeral on Monday. And so I’m with people in all points in their life.
I think I’m a pretty moral and young adult, which we desperately need in the church. And yet I’m not completely welcome.
This text is condensed and edited from a Queerituality story Rev. Joey Heath recorded on August 2, 2013 in Washington, D.C. It was transcribed by volunteer Haley Campbell. Thanks to the Religion & Faith group at the Human Rights Campaign for allowing us to use their space.