Figuring out marriage as a gay christian couple. Many within the church still question whether two people of the same sex can live in holy union with each other. We want to document our process so that other people, gay and straight alike, can see at least one way in which gay Christian marriage can be done.
Earlier this month, David and I attended the annual Q Christian Fellowship conference. It was a good opportunity to see old friends and meet some of our readers. It was fun to answer, in person, some of the questions we usually get through email. Among the people we met was a couple we really liked, J and her wife. They approached us after a talk we gave about the effects shame has on relationships and shared that, although they’ve been married a few years, J still has trouble introducing her wife as such when they meet new people.
J had tears in her eyes as her wife told us that this is a sore point in their marriage. It’s clear that J’s reluctance to recognize her wife’s role in public hurts the latter’s feelings, and understandably so. But it was also evident that J feels terrible about it. As the four of us spoke, it was J’s wife who kept comforting her, softly touching her, as if saying “I want you to get past this shame, because it hurts me, but I also see how it hurts you.”
J and her wife shared this with us because David talked about our early dating days, when he still felt shame about being gay. In fact, being in a relationship had exposed just how ashamed he was of himself. He shared a story about a time, when we had recently become “official,” that ran into some friends who had never met me. Instead of saying “This is my boyfriend, Tino,” he had simply said “This is Tino.” He talked about how he perceived that it had hurt my feelings, and how he determined that next time he’d introduce me as his boyfriend.
What’s interesting about that story to me is that I actually don’t remember it. I have a very clear memory, however, of the first time David introduced me as his boyfriend. We were at the restaurant where he worked while writing the first book in his historical fiction series. I was sitting at the bar, and he introduced me to a coworker. He was wearing a tight, olive green henley shirt that showcased his muscles, but what stands out most in my memory is the adorable smile that spread across his face as soon as he said “my boyfriend.” Now, it’s true that I melt every time I see him smile, but I just died that evening when I saw the look in his eyes as he turned to me. It was like that of a puppy who has done a “very good boy” kind of thing and knows he’s about to get a pat on the head. He was so happy, and I was so proud of him.
In hindsight, I realize that as honored as I felt to receive the title of David’s boyfriend, bestowing it was even more meaningful to him than it was to me. The pain he perceived in me when he introduced me just as “Tino” was a projection of the pain he felt. His inability to use the word boyfriend hurt him because it came from a place of inner dissonance. I think he expected more of himself than I did at that point. I knew he was still grappling with shame, and I knew stepping into relationship felt scary. I felt grace and compassion for him. But all he felt was that division within himself.
While shame isn’t the exclusive province of LGBTQ couples, straight couples aren’t likely to feel ashamed of their relationship itself.
David needed to overcome his shame, and heal, for his own sake. I’m glad our relationship was the catalyst, because it was also the beneficiary. I’ve thought of J and her wife often in the weeks since we met them, because they seemed truly in love and well-suited for each other, and I’m rooting for their marriage to thrive. While shame isn’t the exclusive province of LGBTQ couples, straight couples aren’t likely to feel ashamed of their relationship itself. They also often have stronger support networks than we do. J and her wife live in a part of the country where affirming spaces (especially churches) are still hard to find. That means they will have to work through this mostly on their own.
Despite the conflicts that a situation like this can create in a relationship, marriage can also be the most healing context for it to be resolved. The commitment and promises J and her wife have made to each other create a safe place for J to work through her shame and through the hangups she has about acknowledging the role her wife plays in her life. One of the perks of marriage and committed relationship is that you can use the intimacy and privacy of your home as a kind of testing ground or relationship laboratory. Our advice to J might sound funny, but we suggested she start calling her spouse “wife” at home, sort of as a pet name, until the word becomes comfortable—getting used to how it sounds, in private, until she doesn’t feel ashamed to use it in public.
Intimate relationships are a mirror. They help us see parts of ourselves that need work, and we sometimes see pain in our spouse that is really just a reflection of the wounds we carry ourselves. But in that mirror we can also see our own beauty. Our prayer for J and others in her predicament is that she can see, in the love she receives from her wife, the beauty of the love she feels herself. Leaning into that beauty, which also reflects the love God feels for us, she will find healing—she will see the beauty of telling the world that the woman she loves is her wife.
As Christmas approaches, we answer a reader question about integrating a partner into your family’s holidays traditions when there is some resistance. Have a question about faith, sexuality, or relationship from an LGBTQ perspective? Submit your own question to our Mailbag.
My partner and I have been together for almost a year and a half. We grew up pretty differently — I am very close to my family, which lives about 10 minutes from us, whereas she is not. Despite my parents being relatively conservative, they are very kind and welcoming, and my mom is really one of my best friends. We are going there for Thanksgiving, and my family is very tradition-oriented (we wake early to watch the parade while drinking cider and having Thanksgiving lunch, etc). My partner is coming and offered on her own accord to bring a dish. However, she was less than enthused (grumpy) about waking early and spending most of the day with the family. She has told me previously during a conversation about family that she has a hard time getting close to family. This is strange to me because she has admired a close friend of ours closeness to her family, which her partner is part of. I just wish we could have that too. My mom always invites her to functions. I want to be patient but this also hurts me. Any advice?
For many of us, the holidays can be stressful just facing our families on our own. Adding a partner into the mix can complicate the festivities exponentially, especially if there are members of your family who are not affirming. As the bridge between your family and your partner, it’s important to be sensitive to these dynamics.
First, I think it’s reasonable for you to want and ask that your partner take part in important traditions your family has established. If you two have chosen to attend the family festivities, then you’re electing to participate in whichever way the family celebrates. When you accept an invitation to attend a celebration, it’s polite to yield to the hosts’ plans, even when it doesn't sound fun. Otherwise, it may be better not to go at all. To participate, but only on one’s own terms, might send the wrong message. Being a good sport is especially valuable when someone is forming new relationships with a partner’s family.
Having said that, your partner will be yielding a lot to you by doing something that she doesn't want to do. Spending long periods of time with a partner’s family can feel vulnerable and scary. It’s important to recognize the sacrifice she is making and be willing to respond in kind. If she agrees to participate fully in your family’s holiday traditions (with a good attitude!), perhaps you can offer to do something she wants to do later on, either that weekend or on some other upcoming day. Or, maybe next holiday you give her the decision about what to do — maybe you two spend the day with friends or do something else together by yourselves. There may be times in the future when you need to decline your family’s important events in favor of doing what your partner wants to do. That’s what effective compromise in a relationship is all about.
More important than solving your particular holiday dilemma, however, is understanding the feelings behind your partner’s resistance. Gently ask her what her feelings are about, without trying to fix them. I doubt her real reason is that she doesn't want to get up early; it's likely something deeper than that. For example, does it feel like too much work or pressure to spend a whole day with your family? Does she feel uncomfortable or anxious around them, despite their welcoming nature? Does she have trouble knowing how to navigate and belong in a family that is close? Does she feel jealous of what you have, or feel like she doesn't belong? It sounds like she loves the idea of a close family, and her offer to bring a dish shows a basic desire to be a “good sport.” But it also sounds as if something internal is getting in the way of her working toward greater closeness. In a loving and nonjudgmental way, initiate conversation about her resistance to going — not just to solve the issue around the holiday, but in an effort to know and understand her better.
She herself may not even know what her resistance is about, so it may take some time for her to process. But if you can create a safe space for her to discover/articulate her feelings and share them with you, you may be better equipped to develop ways to mitigate that resistance. For example, perhaps spending a whole day with your family makes her anxious. As a solution, maybe you can promise that sometime during the day the two of you will take a break and go on a long walk alone. Or maybe you will promise not to leave her alone with the family, or you’ll commit to protecting her from one family member she feels especially uneasy around.
Building relationships with a partner’s family is a universally nerve-wracking experience. Give each other a lot of grace as those relationships develop. Commit to talking about family interactions, both before they happen so that you can set expectations, and afterward so that you can share feelings about how it went.
Constantino and I recently returned from a much-needed vacation to celebrate the completion of our book on marriage (or, perhaps more accurately, to celebrate having survived co-writing a book on marriage). We spent a couple of weeks in Europe, which afforded us the opportunity to visit some of our friends who now live there. One of them is a good friend I’ve had since middle school, who is gay and has been partnered more than 15 years. The visit was not only a chance to catch up, but a chance to apologize for how I failed him years ago when he first came out to me.
My friend came out to me in our early twenties, when I was neck deep in my own reparative therapy experience. Not only had I drank the Kool-Aid, I was swimming laps in a pool of it. My beliefs in the theory behind reparative therapy and its power to “cure” me held me in a suspended state between feelings of tremendous hope and utter brokenness. This therapy told me I was fundamentally flawed, and yet it promised to offer me something close to a “normal” existence.
So, when my friend told me he was gay at a party one summer, I felt compelled to share the “good news” with him. I’m typically not so outspoken about my beliefs, but this was someone I loved and someone I was willing to risk sounding foolish for. I even felt as if God had put me there, in that moment, to give my friend the answers he needed. “It’s like being an alcoholic,” I told him. “You’ll never be cured of your desires, but you can learn to manage and suppress them.” Try putting those words on an inspirational poster.
“Manage and suppress” was a tactic employed by reparative therapy, but its roots are in the church and the church’s approach to sexuality. I grew up in an era of “purity culture,” in the heyday of conservative “family values” organizations. In our book, we write about the way the church stunted and warped the sexuality of our generation:
The conservative church’s solution to sex has been a three-pronged attack: ignore, suppress, and distract. It ignores the issue of sex as if the elephant in the room were not stomping about, knocking over lamps and chewing on the furniture. Many of our friends who come from homes more religious than ours grew up utterly ignorant about sex. No one ever gave them “the talk.” One straight friend’s father only offered to tell him about sex as he and his wife were about to leave their wedding reception to spend their first night as a married couple—too little, and much too late. If and when the church reluctantly recognizes sex, its solution for young adults is to suppress it: to chain the elephant up, starve it, and hope it withers away before it breaks any of the fine china. Young adults who can’t tear their eyes away from the starved, chained beast are then distracted with Bible verses, prayer circles, and visualizations of the “reward” of a future spouse, when the beast can finally be unchained.
As twisted as that model is, there is at least a kind of logic in it for straight Christians: they are promised an idyllic union blessed by God. LGBTQ Christians, however, are never promised a future spouse or the joys of building a family. If God doesn’t change their sexual feelings and ignite a (safe, controllable) desire for the opposite sex, they are ushered into the next room, that of celibacy. There is no elephant in that room, only white padded walls with no windows. The problem is that the church confuses the elephant for sin when really it’s just sex. Sex is not a transgression against God but rather a divine desire built deeply into the core of our beings. If we are forcibly separated from our sexuality, it’s not the elephant that will wither and starve, but us. Celibacy in the Bible is always framed as a gift from God, not a sentence handed down by the church. We respect and honor those who feel moved to celibacy and choose it freely for themselves, but treating it as a lifelong solution to “aberrant” sexual desire is a flawed premise from the get-go.
For years, I had tried to ignore my sexuality. My youth was full of chaste school dances, immortalized by awkward photos posing at arm’s length with female “dates.” When I faced my sexuality head-on in college, reparative therapy taught me to suppress it. It promised to alleviate my desires if I could bond with men in healthy ways — as if the good friendships I already had weren’t healthy enough. When that failed, I jumped into a frenzy of church service, trying to distract myself from myself.
Back at that party so many years ago, I must not have sounded like the posterboy of healthy living, because my friend wasn’t buying the “manage and suppress” approach. My proselytizing sounded less like good news and more like a terminal diagnosis. Fortunately, he had the good sense to avoid contact with me for the next few years while he continued on the journey of discovering his own sexuality. I’m glad he distanced himself during that season, and I’m glad we were able to reconcile years later.
There may have been others I tried to convert using the gospel of reparative therapy but, I don’t think I ever succeeded. I squirm whenever I recall the me of that era, but I also know I need to give myself grace for where I was at. I was genuinely trying to find out the truth about myself, even if it led me through an unhealthy detour. But that was part of my process, and I have to honor that season and the lessons learned from it. When we are on a journey of self-discovery, there are no wrong turns.
David Khalaf is a fiction writer living in Portland. He and his husband, Constantino, are the authors of Modern Kinship: A Queer Guide to Christian Marriage, forthcoming from Westminster John Knox Press, January 2019.
Photo by CEBImagery, used with permission through Flickr Creative Commons.
I was never a fan of dating. I think I’ve shared that. I had little patience for the proverbial “games people play.” The flakiness, the leading on, the ghosting—I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks it’s more than a bit exhausting. And then there are the pitfalls—the common mistakes we all make on the voyage to romance. I’ve found, through my experience, and that of friends, that there are two major dating blunders: the relationship that burns too hot, and the one that drags on but never really ignites at all.
First, the fire: I had a few boyfriends with whom we hit it off immediately. The chemistry I felt with those guys was off the charts. They were fun, attraction was intense, and our conversations were stimulating. And yet those relationships never lasted more than a few weeks. Some suddenly extinguished, with one of us abruptly losing interest, while others turned unhealthy and drama-filled very quickly.
Now, the fire-resistant: There were the long-term relationships that just weren’t meant to be. One of mine lasted nine years—living together for seven of them. My ex was a great guy. Truly, one of the kindest, smartest, funniest people I’ve ever known. He was handsome, too. We had many interests in common, and we loved each other. But the truth is, we really should’ve just been friends. Our relationship was comfortable, and easy-going, but it lacked passion. And at a gut level, I knew it from the very beginning—I broke up with him briefly three times in our first two years, and thought about it many more.
Are you familiar with the Greek myth of Scylla and Charybdis? They were two sea monsters who lived in the strait between Sicily and the Italian peninsula. Scylla had six heads and when a ship sailed too close to her, she'd eat a man with each head. Charybdis lived underwater, creating whirlpools that swallowed up entire ships, which she then devoured. They sat on opposite sides of the strait, so sailors navigating those waters had to be careful not to stray too close to one to avoid the other—either would lead to certain death.
Dating is like sailing between Scylla and Charybdis. On one side, there's the danger of falling hard and fast for "exciting" but tumultuous, unhealthy, or simply non-viable relationships. On the other, there's the danger of becoming complacent in a relationship that is adequate but has no deep sexual and romantic chemistry—a relationship with a person who could perhaps be a great friend, but not a lover. Both dangers lead to the eventual death of the relationship—one quickly, as if eaten by Scylla, the other slowly, as the ship sinks into Charybdis. Either death is bound to be painful.
Dating is like sailing between Scylla and Charybdis. On one side, there’s the danger of falling hard and fast... On the other, there’s the danger of becoming complacent.
What I’ve observed through the years I’ve spent sailing and watching others sail is that most people seem more drawn to one monster than the other. It may be that they’re so scared of the one that they always course-correct too far toward the other, or perhaps it’s just that they are blind to that one danger altogether.
If you’re currently sailing the dating straits, and find that you just can’t get through, take some time to discern which monster poses the greater danger to you. Do you fall too fast, pinning all hope on one person after the other, always thinking “this is the one” after five minutes of conversation? Or do you find yourself dating partners who are “good enough”—ones who tick off the major boxes but never feel quite right?
Be on the lookout for both Scylla and Charybdis. They sit close to each other, and getting past them requires self-awareness. If you find yourself constantly heading straight into the mouths of Scylla, learn to pace yourself. Accept that you simply cannot know that this one person you’ve met this time is most definitely the one. Get comfortable with conversations at arm’s length before you pull a stranger into a close embrace. If you find yourself drifting toward Charybdis, mindlessly (or perhaps anxiously) in a relationship that falls short of what you really want, don’t be afraid to break up; don’t stay in it simply because you don’t want to be single or can’t make up your mind.
I’ve faced both monsters, and I’ve lost to both. Thankfully, like in an old-school arcade, losing a life just brings you back to the beginning, and you get to try sailing the strait again. At one point I was even certain I had seen the dark screen of “Game Over,” but after a break I grabbed another token and got the game going again. In David I found the perfect co-captain for my ship, and together we’ve sailed into the waters of marriage (which have their own dangers).
Dating is frustrating. It is confusing. It is sometimes painful. But it can also be a lot of fun. And it can of course be fruitful—in addition to my husband, I initially met some of my dearest friends as dates. You can even see dating as an avenue for growth. So get to know yourself; figure out what poses the biggest dangers for you, and sail on.
Last Sunday, I had the honor of sharing my heart at our church here in Portland, Pearl Church. It was an opportunity to tell a bit of my personal story, and also share my hopes and dreams for our little church. More than anything, though, my talk was a love letter to our church and to those like it that have suffered in the name of generous inclusiveness.
Our church experienced massive losses in attendance a few years ago when it changed its marriage practice to include same-sex couples. This was a bold decision to validate our stories and welcome in people historically on the fringes. Although there are a lot of personal references to our church in my reflection, there's a universal message about how the stories of LGBTQ people fit into the overarching story of humankind. I invite you to listen. Or, if you prefer, I've posted the transcript below with some minor edits. Enjoy.
My name is David Khalaf and I’m a member of the Oversight Team. For those of you who have been here for the past few weeks, you know that for the month of August we’ve been hearing from members of the board and learning about them and their hearts for this church. We heard first from Mo Hawthorne and her thoughts around how we approach church and faith with Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese: “You don’t have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.” Wasn’t that beautiful?
Then we heard from Karyn Lush, who talked about how when we come together every Sunday, we are a room full of hopes and dreams and struggles and pain. It’s tender and joyous and tragic and beautiful, and it all belongs. She also spoke about the extensive visioning process we undertook over the past year, and so if you didn’t listen to it, I highly recommend going back to hear about the incremental but significant ways in which we hope to thoughtfully grow and develop both Pearl and the people who call it home. And then last week Mike Roth posed the question: Who has the capacity, ownership, and authority at our church to make space for others? And the truth is, no matter how new you are, we’re all invited to take ownership of our church, to be a cover for others and welcome them with generous inclusiveness. He used a poem by Warsan Shire that starts with “Come with every wound” and ends with “I’ve never seen anything more beautiful than you.” We are a community that invites you to come as you are, where every part of you belongs.
I’m wrapping up this series of reflections before we return to our regularly scheduled programming next week. The nice part about going last is that I use up half my time just recapping everybody else. This is my first time giving a reflection at Pearl. I came onto the board last November and I was the newest member of the Oversight Team until Chuck Tsen earned that honor a couple of weeks ago. I’m so pleased to have Chuck on the board. Mo and Karyn can now finally stop hazing me and focus all of their attention on him.
Today I want to talk about stories. My story. Our stories. Pearl’s story. I love hearing the stories of the other Oversight Team members in their reflections. Even when I think I know them I always learn something new. For example, Karyn began her reflection with stories of when she was a teenager in Pennsylvania, and how for summer jobs they would thin the branches of trees in an apple orchard. Had I known this about her, I would have invited her over for whiskey at our house (that’s a thing I do know about her — she has excellent taste in whiskey) and I would have solicited her advice in thinning the apple tree in our backyard, which nearly broke in half this summer under the weight of its fruit. You see, my husband Tino and I bought our first house in November, and with it came trees and shrubs and plants and all sorts of green sprouty things I had no idea what to do with. I come from the suburbs of Orange County, down in Southern California, which has a higher concentration of Applebee’s than apple trees. Although my parents have an unusually large backyard in which we planted fruit trees, herbs, and vegetables, I never really worked the land in the way a farmer does. I am not an agriculturalist. I lived in Los Angeles most of my adult life and Tino in New York, so we plucked our fruits and vegetables from the grocery store and local bodegas.
On the block of our new home we have neighbors who keep chickens for eggs, and others who keep bees for honey. So this summer I was determined to grow, raise, or cultivate something that didn’t come with a price tag. Now, our house came with planter boxes, and, Hillary Marshall, who’s in our small group, had some leftover seed packets from the school where she works. So, really, I had no excuses. I gotta say, doing bona fide gardening has been pure delight and pure torture. The joy of seeing a first sprout. The agony of discovering your cauliflower devoured by slugs. What I didn’t expect was how it made the Bible so much more relevant. As I would be planting things, I would be thinking about all of those farming parables and have a these sudden revelations, like, “Oh, that finally makes sense to me!” Especially the parable of Matthew 13, which starts: “Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Then he told them many things. A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up.” I had something similar happen, but it was squirrels we inherited with the house. I planted edamame beans, and as far as I can figure out, the squirrels dug them up and ate them. Apparently Portland squirrels have a palette for Japanese cuisine.
The parable goes on: “Some seeds fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.” This happened too, in a way. I got some vegetable starts in these tiny pots but I was too slow to plant them, so they just grew tall and then fell over and died under the heat of this hellacious Portland summer.
Parable: “Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants.” Our yard was pretty much a weed farm all spring long, so I get that one.
Parable: “Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” I finally cleared out one of our planter boxes, filled it up with that overpriced Miracle Gro soil and — bam — we’ve got kale coming out the wazoo. I’ve been so happy to finally achieve success that we haven’t actually eaten any of it. It looks too pretty.
My point of all this is, Jesus spoke parables — which are just types of stories — that people of that time would relate to. He was sharing an important message about the nature of man and the nature of God through stories people would implicitly understand. And it got me thinking, what happens when those stories lose their relevance because of changes in time, culture, and technology? What happens when there’s a disconnect? When we don’t feel like those stories are our stories? Not everyone is a farmer. Not everyone is a fisherman. How, then, do we still get to the fundamental Good News of the gospels today?
My million-dollar idea is to write a hipster version of the Bible. Just imagine the parables: “Jesus sat down by the Stumptown Roasters, and there he Snapchatted many things. A group of people were trying to get to work Downtown. One woman took a car, not realizing that it was rush hour and that the Fremont Bridge was a cluster at 8 a.m. She was late to work. A man took a motorized scooter, which died because it couldn’t make it up the incline over the West Hills. He was late to work. Another woman gave her bike a tune-up and mapped the route on Waze. She took the Springwater Corridor and arrived on time. Whoever has EarPods, let them hear.”
Now, I doubt any of us wants to change the parables of the Bible, but I think we can all understand the desire to hear our stories in the overarching story of humanity. The old parables are perfectly fine, but I think we can also grasp that, as we have changes in time, culture, and technology, there can be new examples that illustrate the same fundamental messages. It’s a new story, but the underlying message is the same. If we can grasp that idea, why is it so hard for some of the faithful to understand God in this way, as a concept that is both fixed and changing? As a being who is both constant and dynamic? What I want for Pearl, and the reason Tino and I were drawn to it in the first place, is a community that can grasp this seeming paradox. Our community has a humble openness to seeing new facets of God through the new stories we encounter.
Here’s my story: My experience of faith growing up was fixed and static. I have vague memories of Sunday school teachers doling out Bible stories out like history lessons, all fact and no mystery. Faith was a simple equation. Be good and God will love you. God was something to be learned, not experienced. If you wonder why I volunteer in the children’s ministry and why I advocate for Pearl pouring more resources into kids and the new youth program, is that I was frankly turned off by God early on. He was kinda dull. I don’t want that to happen with our kids here.
Even so, I believed in the stories of the Bible. I believed in parted seas and virgin births and walks on water not even so much because I actually believed them, but because authority figures told me it was true. And being a 3 on the Enneagram (I had to fit in a reference somewhere) my fundamental desire is to earn affirmation, particularly from authority figures. And so I performed belief really well as a child. Not only did I say the standard bedtime prayers every night — “Now I lay me down to sleep…” — I improved upon them. Addendum after addendum, like some kind of celestial contract. May I share with you my bedtime prayer as an 9- or 10-year-old boy? This may be the first time I have ever spoken this aloud to anyone.
Now I lay be down to sleep, I pray the Lord Jesus my soul to keep. Guide me safely through the night and wake me up with morning light. Amen.
Please God bless my Mommy, Daddy, Tammy, and David, Rascal, Misty, Nana, Papa, Nana Sue, and Tata. All my aunts, uncles, friends, cousins and Sunshine. Please let us all live long, happy, healthy, and wealthy lives, and in those lives let us stay close to each other and close to you. Amen. And don’t let us have any bad or evil thoughts or experiences. Amen.
How did I not become a lawyer? It actually goes on longer than that. That was the story I had learned about God. Do this. Say this. Believe this. Cover all your bases. And everything will turn out just fine.
But everything didn’t turn out just fine. Believing in parted seas and virgin births and walks on water wasn’t a promise of easy living. By the time I stopped attending church, I also began to become vaguely aware of my sexuality. And that was not OK. I was not OK. Because I had a story that did not fit into the anthology of Bible stories. Or, rather, the only stories there were seemed to be cautionary tales. Those who taught me the Bible taught me I was something perverse, deviant, fundamentally flawed. “But Jesus loves you!”
And so I stopped going to church — throughout junior high, high school, and college — a good 15 years — I had no want of it and it seemed to have little want of me. And of all places, I found God again in my early twenties in reparative therapy. Reparative therapy, AKA conversion therapy, AKA ex-gay therapy. I did it on and off for six years — far longer than most people put up with it because, you know, Enneagram 3. That therapy was damaging to me in many ways I need not go into in this talk, but it was because of this therapy that I started asking the big questions: If I’m trying to change my sexuality, why? Who am I doing it for? If I’m doing it for me, then why? Because it’s wrong? Well, why? Because it’s a sin? Who says? God? Who is God? Does God even exist?
I decided I really needed to dig in to faith and figure it out. I did something I hadn’t done before: I picked up the Bible and read it cover to cover, twice. And I’ll be honest — it coulda been tightened up a little bit. I gave it four stars on GoodReads. Kidding. Although I didn’t get or appreciate every part of this massive text, I began to notice some recurring themes. And what struck me most was the recurring theme of paradox in the Bible. God is repeatedly depicted as polar opposites: the Alpha and the Omega, the lion and the lamb, the father and the child. The Trinity in itself is a paradox: a single being that somehow expresses itself as three beings. A solitary being that somehow exists in perfect community with him-, her-, or itself.
And as I began to become comfortable with this idea of the paradox of God, I began to wonder about the paradoxical nature of my own story. Could it both fit and not fit? Could my story not belong in the culture and time around which the Bible was written, and also fit within the overarching story of humankind? Could my story and those like me of shame and rejection and ostracism be both new and something that has happened in different shapes and forms throughout all of history?
I have a background in screenwriting, and a common saying in the film industry is: “Give me something different but the same.” By that they mean, take a popular story and tell it all over again but make it feel new. “Give me something different but the same.” I like to give the movie Bridesmaids as an example. When it came out in 2011, it was a typical buddy comedy, but fresh in its own way because it was a comedy with a nearly all-female cast, and it was raunchy. And, surprise! Women can be funny. And they can be raunchy. And it works. And so all over Hollywood for the next few years, producers were saying, “Get me the new Bridesmaids. Get me a fresh, funny, raunchy female comedy. Give me something different but the same.”
If you’ve studied any creative writing, you’ll at some point hear that there are a set number of basic story plots in the entire craft of storytelling. Some say it’s seven, others 10, some a few more. But they all agree that no matter what story you tell, it will fall within one of these archetypal story plots. It’s funny when you think about it. We come up with new stories all the time in film, TV, comics, and literature — collectively, storytelling is a multi-billion market — and yet they are the same stories rehashed over and over, just in slightly different ways.
And so it’s only natural to ask the question: In our day and age, could God be telling new stories, but ones that are the same? Could the stories of the 21st Century include new characters and new situations, but still be consistent with God’s values and the nature of who God is? As time and culture changes, is God giving us something different, but the same?
This has been my experience at Pearl: a community collectively awakening to God’s new stories. And it has been so meaningful to me because one of those new stories, one of those stories that never before belonged, has been MY story. Pearl made a conscious decision to validate my story — to say to me, “Your story is different, but you’re the same. You’re one of us. You belong.”
Before coming to Pearl I had regularly been attending church for about 12 years, but I had never once had my story validated on a Sunday morning. Except for those of you who share a story like mine, you may never truly understand what it is like to have to shrug off a fundamental part of yourself before entering the church doors, like leaving a coat at coat check — but more like leaving your very skin at coat check. You can never truly understand. Or maybe you can. Maybe you were a previous incarnation of the outsider. Maybe you were the interracial couple or the divorcée or the pregnant unwed mother. Maybe you were the beggar or the leper or the thief or the addict or the victim or even the remorseful perpetrator. Perhaps you do know what it is like to have your story rejected, to have a part of you on the outside of the circle. Perhaps all of us, at one time, have had our stories dismissed and rejected and that is why we are all here together now, at this particular place and time, in this particular community we call Pearl. Because we understand that not every story is the same, but they all belong. Different stories, but the same.
I was hesitant to join the Oversight Team. My experience at this church has been magical and I didn’t want to break the spell. I was afraid to see how the sausage was made. I’ve seen glimpses behind the curtain at other churches and it has often been a distasteful experience. But I figured it was more important to see Pearl how it really is rather than my starry-eyed view of it. I value authenticity over idealization. And in case you’re wondering, I can tell you that Pearl does not operate as a magical utopia where everyone fellowships in perfect harmony. It can’t be, for we all bring our stories and no story is a utopia. Every story has some hurt, some blindness, some unique perspective, and of course some glory. And so we sometimes bump and jostle each other like inner tubes floating down a river, but like those inner tubes we’ll all moving together in the the same direction. And it is all good, very good. Although my view of Pearl has changed is some ways, it is at its core still consistent. How I see our church is now different, but the same. This has been a huge relief to me, knowing that the outward-facing appearance of Pearl was genuinely reflecting its inward heart. It is still a community guided by its values and rhythms, being shaped by a sacred tory, sharing at a common table, and being animated by divine love.
Digging deeper into Pearl has been like the stages of falling in love with my husband. My first impression of Tino was alluring, with our thought-provoking conversations and his infectious laugh and smile. His accent, which he hates, I love, because it is uniquely him. Early flirting, with its starry-eyed idealization, before there were deep commitments and difficult conversations, seemed so easy. But now, seeing all facets of Tino and loving him authentically, in the midst of conflict, flaws and all (and likewise mine for him), is where I feel real relationship between us happens. It’s a deeper form of love. I love Pearl all the more because I get to see Pearl more clearly.
And I guess that’s what I want for all of us at this church. I want our stories to intertwine deeply and meaningfully and authentically. I want us to risk showing all facets of ourselves, not just the shiny sides. I want you to dig in to life here and get involved beyond Sunday mornings. I want all of our stories to belong, and I want us to continue to challenge ourselves to consider what stories today we think don’t belong. I believe God is a being of perpetual revelation and also fundamental consistency; I believe God can be showing up in ways that are different but the same. If we can remain people who have open minds and hearts, and who are committed to understanding the nature of God, we can play a part in the trajectory of our faith rather than being a roadblock to it. But that requires listening to the stories on the fringes — ones we may have never heard before or ever thought would fit inside these walls.
And I want our church to grow. Not for the sake of growing, but because we have something special here that I want to generously share with Portland. I want people searching to come into our community and feel safe and welcome and free to flourish. I want them to come, and I want us to tell them:
You don’t have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
Your hopes and dreams and struggles and pain are welcome here.
We’ve never seen anything more beautiful than you.
Our stories — they’re different, but they’re same. Welcome.
David Khalaf is a fiction writer living in Portland. He and his husband, Constantino, are the authors of Modern Kinship: A Queer Guide to Christian Marriage, forthcoming from Westminster John Knox Press, January 2019.
This post discusses suicide. If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. For LGBTQ-specific help, please reach out to the Trevor Project by calling 1-866-488-7386 or texting “TREVOR” at 1-202-304-1200. If you are outside the United States, please visit TrevorSpace, an online international peer-to-peer community for LGBTQ young people and their friends. For long-term counseling and online therapy, please visit The Christian Closet.
Mailbag is an occasional Q&A of your inquiries regarding faith, sexuality, and relationship from an LGBTQ perspective. We aren't theologians or counselors, but we're walking the same path as many of you and will do our best to answer the questions you have. You can submit your own question here.
Hi Dave and Tino,
As you know, LGBTQ Christians face high rates of depression and suicide. This can come from a multitude of different factors, but I wanted to reach out to ask you about one that I don't think has been addressed before. I've read about a dozen books and hundreds of articles on sexuality, including James Brownson and Eugene Rogers, and although I'm pretty confident of the affirming interpretation, I'm afraid of what if I'm wrong.
As a gay Christian, I am looking at two possibilities for my life: I could marry another man, and live the rest of my life with nagging doubts that I have sacrificed my relationship with God for this marriage. Or, I could choose not to marry a man, and blame God for the loneliness that I feel. I'm already depressed, and going on dates with men is one of the few things that helps me feel alive at all. I think if I chose this second option, I'd end up looking for sex in secret on Grindr, and hating God. Either way, I feel like I'm risking my salvation.
There's a third option, and that's to kill myself now, while I still am in good relationship with God. I'm aware that it seems pretty distorted for me to claim that suicide is not going to cost me my salvation while staying alive will. But that's where I'm at, and I would love to hear any thoughts you have.
I know you'll probably feel a need to append a list of suicide hotlines, etc. to any response you give. That's fine, but I do want to reassure you that I'm in counseling, I'm not an immediate risk, and I know about the obvious resources, like the national suicide hotline and The Trevor Project. If you have anything to say, it could be very helpful, but my life is not depending on your ability to say the right things.
Thank you for trusting us with this vulnerable and honest email. David and I are neither theologians nor trained counselors. We can only pray that whatever empathy we can offer is in some way helpful.
I want to start by saying that we honor your dignity and self-awareness. We believe you when you say that you are not in imminent danger and we are glad to read that you are already in counseling and seeking the help you need with your depression. We believe you when you say you know how to access suicide prevention resources such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Trevor Project, and we trust that you would take advantage of them if you sensed yourself in danger.
I, too, once took an intellectual, almost detached, approach to the question of suicide similar to what I sense from you. I tried discussing it with a friend, and it resulted in him panicking and almost attempting an intervention. I appreciated and understood his concern, but it wasn’t what I was seeking either. My reasons for considering it were not the same as yours. I didn't fear that my being gay and in a relationship would threaten my salvation. I found Christ when I was a self-accepting adult gay man, and I never sensed Spirit placing any kind of barrier between us. I was lucky to have been spared the messages of mere humans who, pretending to speak for God, have caused so many LGBTQ people to turn away from their Creator. The reasons why I explored the question of suicide were informed by my desire to be in full communion with God—I am, at heart, a very impatient person, and in my loneliness I wondered if suicide was a shortcut to that higher state of being. I concluded it wasn't a shortcut at all, and that it would only cause me to miss out on the beautiful, integrated existence for which the Divine so lovingly created us.
It saddens me to think that the theology you have been taught has led you to believe that suicide can be a means to secure your salvation. I believe that distorts the message of the Gospel, for the mysteries of the incarnation and Jesus’ bodily resurrection teach us that the body matters just as much as the soul. But as I said, neither David nor I are theologians. We have found arguments made by some biblical scholars enlightening, and they have helped us reconcile the incarnate reality we know with the wisdom we’ve found in Scripture. And over the years we’ve heard the still, small voice of Spirit whispering in our hearts, giving us the peace we needed to trust that God wanted us to come together in a covenant of marriage. We believe God called us to marriage in order to ease our individual aloneness and to help us better serve our community as a team. You sound like a smart, well-read man, and I suspect there's little David and I can add that would fully satisfy your theological and philosophical concerns about the sanctity of same-sex relationships. This is a question you must ultimately answer yourself — or, perhaps, not answer at all.
Despite life’s uncertainty (or perhaps because of it), I believe we can live out God-honoring stories that are full, meaningful, and deeply satisfying.
I don’t know how old you are, but I’d like to share something that has taken me by surprise now that I see my 40th birthday on the horizon. I recently came across some essays I wrote between the ages of 23 and 30. It struck me to see how confident I was back then about so many propositions—how certain I was of all my beliefs. In contrast, I now find myself living comfortably with mysteries and doubts that would have driven my younger self crazy—things that would have made me, back then, want to read and read, and think and think, until I could utter my favorite words: "I'm sure."
What surprised me was not that I used to be so sure of so much—or that I so ardently used to crave certainty. What surprised me was how truly OK I am now saying "I’m not sure" about, well, so much. It’s not that I've become a relativist. I think universal truth exists, and I think it is attainable. It's just that I've come to realize that seeking truth is a quest for eternity. And after all these years, I think God is finally teaching me some patience. After all these years, I'm learning that full communion with the Divine requires that patience, that trust, and that level of comfort with doubts. Despite life's uncertainty (or perhaps because of it), I believe we can live out God-honoring stories that are full, meaningful, and deeply satisfying.
David and I both hope you discover that life is worth living. More than anything, we hope you choose to stay alive so that you may pursue that discovery. We hope you choose the path that will bring growth in your relationship with God. It sounds like, for you, that path may lead you to a marriage to another man—“a helper fit for you” (Gen. 2:18)—if you allow it. We hope you choose life because the one thing we are sure of is that a path that brings you love can only bring you closer to the Divine, who is the very essence of Life and the truest form of Love.
God bless you and keep you, friend.
Photo by Alex O'Neal, used with permission through Flickr Creative Commons.
It’s wedding season! For engaged LGBTQ couples, it’s a time of immense joy that is often paired with a fair amount of grief. This summer we’ve been exploring challenges specific to the months leading up to marriage. For our fourth and last installment of the series, we’re talking about "Listening"—one of the habits a couple can learn during their engagement that will help them in marriage.
It’s easy to look back on our engagement season with rose-colored glasses. It was, truly, a beautiful time. We grew closer to each other than either of us had ever been to anyone. We started this blog. We were celebrated by loving friends, and experienced for the first time what it means to be fully embraced by a church community. But the full truth, of course, is that they weren’t all halcyon days. We’ve mostly filtered out of our memories the bickering and headbutting leading up to that day, perhaps because during that time we developed tools to manage and mitigate it. Learning how to listen became one of our most important methods in learning how to love.
Most of the friction we experienced during that time stemmed from the different priorities we had when it came to wedding planning. We were on the same page regarding all the basics: We both wanted a small wedding, neither wanted to spend too much money, and we wanted the day to capture both our individual personalities and the values we’ve embraced as a couple. That made making all the big decisions pretty easy.
We had no trouble choosing a location—Cathedral Park in Portland, underneath the beautiful St. John’s Bridge. Picking a caterer was no problem—a Middle Eastern food truck serving gyros, hummus, and plenty of yogurt sauce. Dessert? Piece of cake! Or, actually, no cake at all—just donuts, served out of boxes we picked up that morning. We didn’t want a photographer, a DJ, and definitely not a wedding planner. And most of all, we both wanted to avoid the spotlight as much as one can on one’s wedding day. Scroll through the gallery below for some pictures of that day.
It’s wedding season! For engaged LGBTQ couples, it’s a time of immense joy that is often paired with a fair amount of grief, too. This summer we’re exploring challenges specific to the months leading up to marriage. This week, we’re talking about friendships who seem supportive of an LGBTQ relationship—until the couple gets engaged. One of our readers wrote into our Mailbag with the following question:
My partner and I are getting married in October, and we're faced with a lot of heartache that we didn't know existed. Particularly, friends who have been friends with us for years suddenly decided they won't be attending our wedding because they don't agree with us being "gay married." I'm wondering if you two faced this surprise heartache as well, and how you two dealt with it. There are many people we know already who will not be attending our wedding, but it's out of the blue when someone you've known for the past 10 years suddenly decide there was a limit, a glass ceiling, to our friendship; and that limit hits at marriage.
We’re both so sorry to hear about your friends who have surprised you by rejecting your wedding invitation and, by extension, your relationship. What a disappointment that must be, and what a betrayal that must feel like. In some ways it must be easier to accept the friends and family who rejected you upfront rather than ones who sprung this on you without any previous indication of their beliefs.
I try to put myself in their shoes to see if I can understand their choices, and if possible to give them the benefit of the doubt. I imagine that in the years leading up to your engagement, they were trying to be supportive and loving in spite of their views; to them, this meant hiding their true beliefs and trying to stay in relationship with you. At first glance this sounds like a valiant effort to preserve friendship, but relationship can't thrive on a ruse — it thrives on authenticity, even if that authenticity brings conflict.
What would have been more genuine is if your friends had expressed their reservations early on with love — if they had talked to you about their views truthfully, without trying to change you and while still actively pursuing friendship. Perhaps then you could have come to a mutual understanding, even if you never saw eye-to-eye. Perhaps this authenticity could have saved the friendship, and perhaps even grown it into something deeper and more meaningful.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Instead, they hid their beliefs on homosexuality until your engagement forced the issue. In a situation like this, in which you were blindsided, I don’t see how you could have done anything different or better to preserve the friendship. As for the future of your friendships, it would be wonderful if you were able to have some productive conversations with them to mend the relationship; this is possible if both of you are willing to respect where the other is at, and if all of you are committed to leaning into friendship. But that’s a tall order to fill given the circumstances. A more likely outcome is that the deep and sudden hurt caused from this incident will cause distance, and that distance may cause the friendships to fade. If that happens, care for yourself and take time to grieve the friendship. The loss is real.
I can relate to your story. For most of the friends we invited to our wedding, we tried to have conversations explicit enough to know that they were supportive, or at least supportive enough to attend our wedding even if they still had some reservations. We tried not to invite anyone we weren't sure about because we wanted the day to be celebratory and didn't want specter of rejection haunting our special day.
Even so, there were a couple friends we invited who didn’t attend, and only later did we learn it was because they were unsupportive of us getting married. We felt duped by them, and we felt unsure where our friendships stood. Ultimately, it spelled the end for these friendships; we felt hurt and I think they felt guilty, and so our contact just kind of drifted apart. I feel as if our friendships might have been saved had they been more forthcoming, rather than springing their beliefs on us at such a critical moment. It was a jarring way to learn the news.
We believe community is an essential aspect of a healthy marriage, perhaps even more in the early years. Friends can help see us through a season full of changes, and they can help us thrive as we’re learning to navigate the challenges of new marriage. That makes this sudden rejection by your friends doubly painful: It’s the loss of friendships right at the moment when you’ll need them most.
Despite your heartache over these friends, try not to let it ruin your day of celebration. Lean into your future spouse, and lean on the friends who do support you. Have faith that you are working toward something big and wonderful in your life, and that even if there is pain involved as you move toward your nuptials, your marriage is worth it. Your soon-to-be husband is worth it. What you are losing is valuable, but what you are gaining is so much more.
David Khalaf is a fiction writer living in Portland. He and his husband, Constantino, are the authors of Modern Kinship: A Queer Guide to Christian Marriage, forthcoming from Westminster John Knox Press, January 2019.
It’s wedding season! For engaged LGBTQ couples, it’s a time of immense joy that is often paired with a fair amount of grief, too. This summer we’re exploring challenges specific to the months leading up to marriage. This week, we’re talking about what it means for two to become one.
I got home about an hour later than planned recently. I was biking, and the first thing David said when he saw me was, “I was worried.” I recognized both the worry and the relief I saw in his face as we kissed hello. They’re feelings I’m all too familiar with. I worry all the time about something happening to him when he bikes. I don’t know what life would be without him. And as he said a couple nights later, he doesn’t know what his life would be without me.
Some might think this is strange, or might judge us for being too attached. But this awareness that we have come to need each other doesn’t faze either of us. In fact, we’re glad of it. We are secure enough in our own persons and our own identities. We are so different in so many ways, that it would be impossible for one of us to ever lose himself to the other. I will always be Constantino, uniquely flawed and gifted. David will always be David, practically flawless as far as I’m concerned (David vehemently disagrees with this assessment), and so very talented. But we’re also now, as our friends know us, the Khalafs. And we like being the Khalafs. The Khalafs are a unique, third entity that now seems an inextricable part of our lives.
Healthy dependence is good for a marriage, and it’s good for you as an individual. But it’s not something that just happens on its own. Learning to rely on another person can be difficult, especially if you get married later in life, when you’ve already lived years as a self-sufficient adult. The season of engagement affords couples an opportunity to start practicing dependence, to start yielding to each other and learning how to accept each other’s influence. Healthy dependence isn’t just emotional attachment to one another — it’s two people integrating into a symbiotic whole, engaging in a perpetual cycle of give and take.
Guarding one’s independence is much easier than allowing deep connection. Walls require less engineering than bridges. And the work we put into ‘becoming one’ allows us to grow into healthier, better adjusted individuals.
Looking back, it is clear to me that we didn’t become the Khalafs at our wedding—that was really just our naming ceremony. The Khalafs were born when we met, and they have been slowly growing since that day. Writing in our forthcoming book about the camping retreat where we met, David says, “I felt instantly comfortable with him, so much so that throughout that weekend people thought we were dating. For me, the word that kept coming to mind when I thought of Constantino was ‘teammate.’ I remember it clearly because it was such a strange word for someone I had just met, and not in the least bit romantic.” I remember thinking something very similar. That unexpected team was the embryonic form of who we are now as a couple.
Allowing that third entity to be born out of our relationship has been both the most beautiful and most challenging experience of my life. Depending on your spouse—allowing yourself to need them—is scary. Modern society places great value on autonomy, and couples are advised to differentiate—to make sure they don’t merge too much. But truth is, guarding one’s independence is much easier than allowing deep connection. Walls require less engineering than bridges. And the work we put into “becoming one” allows us to grow into healthier, better adjusted individuals.
If you’re one of the many couples heading to the proverbial altar this summer, start talking about the ways in which you find it easy to depend on each other, and the ways in which you find it challenging. Take some time, perhaps, to draft a culture covenant for your marriage, intentionally discussing who you want to be as a couple. The third entity that has already emerged from your union has its own needs, independent of each of yours. Take this season to learn how to identify what those needs are, and what each of you can do to meet them. And when the wedding comes, celebrate the fact that you’re not becoming one, but rather, have already become three.
Constantino Khalaf is a writer living in Portland. He and his husband, David, are the authors of Modern Kinship: A Queer Guide to Christian Marriage, forthcoming from Westminster John Knox Press, January 2019.
It’s wedding season! For engaged LGBTQ couples, it’s a time of immense joy that is often paired with a fair amount of grief, too. For the next four weeks we’re exploring challenges specific to the months leading up to marriage. This week, we’re talking about in-laws.
My experience with in-laws is a bit of an anomaly—I have them, but I haven’t met most of them. The only members of Constantino’s family I’ve met are two of his wonderful sisters, who flew long distance to attend our wedding. Because of Constantino’s semi-estranged relationship with his parents, I don’t know if I ever will meet them or his extended family. I’ve heard that his folks are polite people who would treat me hospitably, but I know too that their disapproval of our marriage would make relationship with them difficult. Part of me feels robbed, that I’m missing out on an opportunity to know Constantino better through his familial relationships; the other part of me wonders if perhaps it’s for the best.
We have a number of LGBTQ friends getting married this year—three same-sex couples at our church alone are engaged!—and it has reminded us of the diversity of the in-law experience. We have one friend whose future in-laws have welcomed him into the family unconditionally, even while some of them were still working through their beliefs about same-sex marriage. And we have another friend at the opposite end of the spectrum, whose in-laws have unequivocally rejected him (and by extension, their own son). Their marriage last year was, sadly, the end of their relationship with that side of the family. The in-law experience is not monolithic.
More frequently, however, LGBTQ couples may face a situation somewhere in-between. The in-laws may not support the relationship, but they may not cut ties, either. That can leave us in the awkward position of trying to build relationships with people who don’t seem particularly interested in having us around.
For example, we have some friends getting married this summer who are fully affirmed by one family, but not the other. They live near the unaffirming folks and frequently spend time with them. For the woman who is about to marry into this family, it has resulted in some awkward and uncomfortable conversations. She’s allowed in, but she’s not fully welcome. She has a relationship with her future in-laws, but it occurs at arm’s length. Some of her future relatives have even confronted her with harsh words. She is the tangible manifestation of what they disapprove, so it is easier for them to direct their hostility toward her.
In situations like this, the most important thing for the couple to do is turn toward each other as an anchor. If you are the one who has been affronted by your in-laws, share this with your partner. Speak from a place of vulnerability, being mindful that your partner may not see their parents or siblings in the same light that you do. Don’t use accusatory language such as, “Your mom always does this” or “Your brother is so...” Instead, share with your partner how you feel: “I felt diminished today when this happened;” “It was frustrating to me the other day when...”
In turn, the one hearing unwelcome observations about their family must prioritize listening to their partner and understanding their feelings. Avoid defensiveness, and if you disagree with their read of the situation, address the disagreement as you would any other conflict in your relationship—first working through it yourselves, and then facing the outside world together as a unified front. Sharing openly with each other, and secure in the support you give each other, you can then act as a team. No one should be expected to face hostility from in-laws on their own. The partner whose family of origin it is must be both the bridge that facilitates relationship and the moat that protects his or her spouse (or future spouse) when the family goes on the attack.
FAMILIES MUST QUICKLY LEARN THAT CONTEMPT FOR OR EXCLUSION OF ONE’S SPOUSE WON’T BE TOLERATED. ESTABLISHING THESE RULES EARLY ON CAN SET THE GROUNDWORK FOR CIVILITY IF NOT ACCEPTANCE.
When boundaries have to be drawn, the one whose family is being problematic is better prepared to enforce them. With our own families, we at least understand the relational dynamics and we probably have a good sense of who’s going to affirm our marriage and who’s going to reject it. With in-laws, we’re working at a disadvantage. We don’t fully understand the complex family histories, and we’re on the outside hoping to gain admittance into the circle. We’re trying to be liked, and so we may find ourselves biting our tongues in certain circumstances even when our jaws are clenched in anger. If these are people who are going to be a part of our lives—for the rest of our lives—it makes sense to keep the peace. This is why, if you face a situation that requires a good cop/bad cop routine, the latter is better played by the person who has always been part of the family.
Families must quickly learn that contempt for or exclusion of one’s spouse won’t be tolerated. Establishing these rules early on can set the groundwork for civility if not acceptance. If, for example, I’m invited to a family function and my husband is not, it’s a no-go. If a crazy uncle were to say something derogatory about him, I need to be the first person to stand up and call it out. This can be difficult if you’re someone who seeks your family’s approval, or if you’ve never really had to stand up to your family in this way. But it must be done for the health of your marriage.
When Constantino and I got married, it took time for me to learn that he was my new family—my new priority. I’ve been loyal to my birth family for so long that it was difficult for me to imagine someone else taking precedence. But if the situation arises, I have to be ready to defend and protect my husband, even if it’s from the other people in life I love most. Your spouse always come first, and your parents, siblings, and extended family must know and respect this. Fortunately for us, Constantino has a great relationship with my family, and they have generously invited him into relationship. Knowing that we have the support of one side of the family makes our estrangement from the other much more tolerable.
Family conflicts are a part of life. When they arise, you must be prepared to address them and work through them as a team. The season of engagement is a great time to start laying the groundwork for how you will operate in marriage. This is when you must set your extended families’ expectations, and make it clear to them that the person you are marrying—the person becoming your new next of kin—will henceforth have your primary loyalty. But let that firmness be tempered with kindness toward your in-laws; benevolence is a salve that has a way of seeping into the cracks of even the hardest facades.
David Khalaf is a fiction writer living in Portland. He and his husband, Constantino, are the authors of Modern Kinship: A Queer Guide to Christian Marriage, forthcoming from Westminster John Knox Press, January 2019.
Photo by JD Hancock, used with permission through Flickr Creative Commons.