Role models are so important to me. It’s a powerful thing when you finally find someone who has walked down this path ahead of you, then circled back to walk shoulder-to-shoulder with you, like a kind of tour guide through this confusing and scary world.
It’s even more than that for me, though. As this insightful quote by Sonia Sotomayor points out, sometimes the very existence of a role model can affirm: “someone like me can do this.” Or I would add, “someone like me can be this.”
Sometimes I think that married and straight people have so many role models that they’re probably not even conscious of half of them. Their parents, their grandparents, most likely their pastors, teachers, and family friends are constantly modelling what life as a married and/or heterosexual person can look like. When you’re a majority, you can become so inundated with people modelling that experience that it’s easy to stop seeing them as influential role models and start thinking “this is just the way people are.”
What about the young gay person? Who is modelling for him how to relate to his male friends during adolescence as he suddenly develops anxious and complicated feelings towards his closest mates? Who is modelling for her what it means to be a woman when she loves other women but lives in a world where a woman’s role is too often defined in relation to men? Who is modelling for a same-sex attracted Christian teenager the different options he has in living out his faith as he comes to an awareness of his sexuality?
I’m not just talking about books and seminars with generic teaching on gender and sexuality. Where are the actual real-life, embodied role models, the people who are woven into the fabric of our day-to-day routines who teach us valuable lessons just by walking through life ahead of us?
In many minority experiences, a child grows up in a minority group raised by other minority people, naturally inheriting a few key role models. An African-American child will be born to African-American parents, often in an African-American community. A Mormon person is often (though not always) born into a family that holds that worldview and raises them in a religious community.
So what about the gay kid that gets born to a heterosexual couple? And let’s be honest, that’s most of us gay kids. When you stop to think about it, it’s a little strange that your own parents, who share your DNA and have known you all your life, cannot relate to the way you experience the world in such a profound way. Add to that the typical experience of keeping your sexuality a secret for the first 15-20 years of your life, and it’s pretty easy to see how it can be a very lonely journey without people to guide you. Of course, sexuality isn’t the most fundamental part of your personhood, but it does massively affect your day-to-day experience of the world and the way you relate to people.
I should acknowledge that I have been deeply enriched by role models who are straight and/or married; they have so much wisdom, experience, and love to give me. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without Rodney, an older married guy who showed me compassion and a listening ear when I was in a dark place as a teenager. The same is true of Peter, who mentored me as a uni student, encouraged me in my faith, asked the real questions, and then continued asking those questions for some years after uni with regular phone calls after I moved interstate. I also enjoy a weekly catchup with Nathan, my pastor and supervisor who, apart from being one of the best allies a straight married man can be, is a role model to me in his thoughtfulness, care for people, and love of the gospel. I’m privileged to have such role models in my life.
But there is something special about seeing role models who are walking a similar pathway to me; people at whom I can look and see myself in ten years’ time. To quote another part of Sonia Sotomayor’s words, nobody wants to be the person who, “grows up without proximate living examples of what she may aspire to become.” I can look at married straight people and learn from their character and ministry, but it’s hard to imagine myself married to the opposite sex and raising kids. As a celibate gay Christian, I suspect my future will look radically different from theirs. So who are the role models I look at and think: “His or her very existence is confirmation of possibilities… ‘Yes, someone like me can do this?”
I have been blessed with a few of these people in my life:
My first mentor was Dave. I met Dave the first year I moved out of home and went to uni. He was staffworker doing student ministry at my uni, and a [straight] single guy. He didn’t make a big fuss of the fact that he was unmarried, but devoted himself to lovingly pastoring the many students who looked up to him. For the first time I really saw the advantages of singleness as I noticed how he had more time and emotional energy to invest deeply in these relationships than any married person I’d known. When Dave preached at a conference about how the church is, in a very real sense, “family,” those words came alive in a real way, because he had shown us through his life how a single person without a family of their own still belonged to an even truer Family in their church community. Seeing Dave’s example of flourishing friendships and ministry made me celebrate singleness and even aspire to it myself.
The first role model I had who also experienced same-sex attraction was Vaughan Roberts. Vaughan is a famous speaker and author in the UK, and I’ve only had the privilege of seeing him in person once, but even from afar, his life and ministry are an important model for me. When I met Vaughan, I was 20, in my third year of uni, and I’d been speaking more openly with friends about my sexuality for a couple of years. In all this time, though, I still had never met a real-life same-sex attracted Christian. I’d read all the books and blogs I could find, and those stories had shaped me from afar, but I craved the face-to-face companionship of a real-life person who could look into my eyes and say, “I get it, Matthew.”
When Dave (the guy above) helped arrange a meeting with Vaughan in the middle of a conference Vaughan was speaking at, I was overwhelmed: both excited and terrified. What kind of keynote speaker takes a whole hour in between talks to sit down with a total stranger and listens to them pour out their heart? Well, Vaughan Roberts. Any fears I’d had about it being weird or awkward were allayed as he warmly reached out and showed me a kindness and compassion I hadn’t earned.
I loved every part of that hour, sitting in the hot Australian sunshine which I relished and he tolerated (Englishmen, amirite?), looking out over a gently bubbling fountain and sharing stories with each other.
I loved that I would only have to start telling half a story before he’d ‘get it.’ He was patient and let me ramble as long as I wanted. I never needed to finish a story, though, because he intuitively understood the emotions and experiences I shared. He could just relate to it all so naturally. I was used to labouring to articulate those feelings to straight people, like trying to describe colour to a blind person. But for the first time, someone else could see those colours too. I felt seen, because someone finally saw the world I saw.
He didn’t necessarily see me more deeply than my close friends who knew me very well. But he did see into a part of my experience that no one had fully seen before, and it made me feel more human than I’d thought possible. It was a complicated feeling. I felt very vulnerable and CRAZY anxious afterwards, having just invited someone to look into a part of my life that was so private, so untouched by others. It was also deeply healing to let someone see ALL of me—even the shameful parts—and yet still be affirmed of love despite that.
I was still a bit starstruck at having one of my favourite authors agree to meet me, but as we wrapped up that conversation, Vaughan went the extra mile. He promised to pray for me personally. Granted, he said it wouldn’t be all the time, and it would be alongside a list of other people he prayed for, but he did promise to pray for me personally by name. That kind of personal devotion to someone he’d just met and would never see again has really shaped me.
He also left me with some parting advice about what to expect later in life as a celibate SSA Christian. At this point he could have said literally anything, and I would be fawning over the fact that someone understood me enough to give me life advice. He told me that as a same-sex attracted guy, I was likely to be the sort of person that others would confide in and share deeply personal conversations with. He said, for some reason, we SSA folk seem to have an innate knack for being trusted confidants. He said I should be prepared to handle these conversations when they happened, because they may be emotionally heavy and complex. But this was all a part of our unique gifting and ministry as SSA folk. I literally laughed out loud as he said it, because it was like he was describing my life exactly… except he couldn’t possibly have known that about me because he had literally just met me. After the initial disappointment of realising I’m not that special, but just some generic gay Christian empath™, it started to sink in that we are special. We as a minority group have unique giftings and insights that are worth treasuring and cultivating. It took another ‘one of us’ to show me that. In that one hour, Vaughan cemented his place in my life as a formative role model, and one I still look up to and aspire to follow from a distance.
As a side-note, it is pretty revealing that it took a high-profile speaker travelling from the other side of the world for me to meet a real-life same-sex attracted Christian. What does that say about our communities and the sorts of role models on offer?
I think it means two things. First, there aren’t many celibate SSA Christian role models to start with. Part of the minority experience is that it’s always going to be hard to find people who relate to that aspect of your life.
But I also think that there are people modelling flourishing lives to us who we have failed to recognise as role models. Partly this might be because we have such a specific idea of what flourishing must look like that we disregard non-traditional lifestyles. When we imagine a flourishing life, we typically don’t imagine a single person living alone in their 40s, so when we see those people we may overlook the fact that they are, in fact, thriving. Even if these people are loved and respected members of our community, it’s likely that we feel uncomfortable publicly celebrating their stories because they are so different from the usual flourishing stories we expect. Where an older married couple may be brought to your attention upon reaching their 50-year anniversary (and that is, in fact, an incredible feat worthy of celebration!), the older woman who has just reached 50 years of faithful singleness might be quietly admired for her love and joy, but we would be uncomfortable drawing attention to that milestone. After all, isn’t singleness a source of suffering and shame? We might admire her joy and resilience despite her singleness, but we tend not to aspire to a life like hers. Or even if we did, we’d feel sensitive to her own feelings of disappointment, knowing singleness isn’t easy and is rarely chosen. So at best, we quietly admire such a person and move along. The stories are there and they may be admirable, but we aren’t telling them, so they slip past unnoticed.
Those stories have so much to teach us. They teach us all the valuable things that books and sermons can never teach. Things like what it really means for church to be our Family when we have no nuclear family of our own. Things like if and when it’s okay to stop ‘waiting’ for a partner and do scary things like buy a house on your own. Things like how to do hospitality when you live alone. Things like how to deal with unrequited love when you’re 50 and all your married friends stopped talking about crushes decades ago. Things like what a vision of a flourishing life post-retirement might look like for a single person.
A role model can teach all those things and more without even saying a word. That’s the power of the stories we live. And the stories we tell.
Over the last 3 months since writing the above post, I’ve tried to pay more attention to the single and/or SSA role models hidden in my life, and I keep seeing more incredible people who I hadn’t previously acknowledged as role models. Some were hidden as friends—as mates I connect with so well that I’d failed to notice the wisdom and experience they have to offer. Others were hidden as quiet members in my church community who are such a constant and faithful presence that I treated them like part of the furniture and overlooked the non-traditional pathways to flourishing right in front of me. I could write another whole series of posts on the role models I’ve discovered and what I’ve learned from them… but maybe I’ll tell those stories another day.
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