Among my Christian friends, I’m the token gay friend.
Among my queer friends, I’m the token Christian friend.
There are non-religious queer people who follow this blog for whom I am the only Christian influence in their lives, then there are Christians who follow this blog who don’t have any close friends who are gay except me.
So somehow I’m caught in this bizarre position of trying to speak to both types of people simultaneously. I sometimes feel like a dual citizen of two countries, belonging to two different communities and trying to explain the language, culture, and values of my people to each other. It’s exciting, it’s weird, and it’s exhausting.
As a child of an immigrant parent, cultural heritage has always been a weird experience for me. My mixed heritage also means I don’t always have a fixed, stable concept of who I am, but the way I see myself can vary depending on the context and people around me. Most of the time I forget my dad was born overseas, and bizarrely I usually think of myself as white despite my obviously well-tanned skin tone (technically my mum is white but that hasn’t done much for my skin colour). I’ve lived my entire life in Australia (except for two weeks travelling in Germany), I only speak English, and I grew up in a comfortable, Aussie, middle-class family. At Filipino family reunions I feel very white and out of place when I don’t recognise half the food and I can’t speak my extended family’s mother tongue. But occasionally in some environments, my self-concept switches and as I feel my Filipino heritage more strongly. When it comes to food and hospitality, my inner Asian emerges and I realise how much I have been shaped by my father’s culture. I can’t bear the thought of food waste, so I will eat week-old leftover chicken and rice without a second thought rather than throwing it out, and my idea of hospitality is over-catering so much food that I need to send guests home with take-away containers of the abundant leftovers. I don’t usually identify as Asian, except when I do… like when I’m cracking Asian jokes that resonate with my family culture. But then I also make constant ‘white people’ jokes and take digs at white culture (seriously, what is up with “gender reveal parties?!?!”)… though in these moments I’m never quite sure if I mean the joke as a critique from the outside (“you white folks are so strange”) or self-deprecating humour (“haha that’s so us!”). Sometimes that approach switches back and forth many times in the same conversation depending on how much I identify with the cultural trait in question. Having a mixed heritage has always been a little strange for me, and navigating a fluid, constantly adapting self-image is a big part of that.
Imagine how much weirder it is being gay, celibate, and Christian. At least when people ask my ethnic background I can answer “My dad is Filipino and my mum is Caucasian Aussie,” and people will just nod their heads in quiet acceptance. But if I should ever mention that I’m gay and Christian, I can expect people to raise their eyebrows in confusion as they immediately ask the obvious follow-up question: “How do you reconcile those things?” as if there’s some massive incompatibility that means I shouldn’t be both. In most people’s minds, the Venn diagram of Christians and queer people would be two non-overlapping circles at different ends of the box.
Instead, there a number of us who hold ‘dual citizenship,’ occupying both worlds and trying to navigate the overlap without getting “lost in the in-between.”
So what’s it like being a dual citizen? As I shared in this post, there are times when the solidarity feels strong, when I can connect deeply over shared experiences and when I can be an “us.” But then there are times when it feels like two parts of me battling with each other or when these two communities are facing hostility from each other and I feel ashamed and unsafe.
A lot of the time I feel incredibly privileged to be able to stand in the middle and help people understand each other better. I’ll share some stories about that privilege below.
But sometimes I feel worn out from always playing the role of advocate. Acting as an interpreter between communities can be exhausting, and even when I’m not trying to interpret for others, I’m still left having to translate my own experiences just to be understood by close friends. I’m not just talking about switching different linguistic expressions, though obviously that is a significant part of it as seen in the exhausting “Gay vs SSA” debate on terminology. It’s also code-switching: censoring one’s tone of voice, body language, whole conversations topics, and other expressions in certain contexts where being associated with those behaviours could lead to misunderstanding and marginalisation. It’s also about a phenomenon that Dr Twyla Baker has termed “translation exhaustion,” where a person from a minority group engaging with the larger population has to constantly educate their listeners on the background issues and experiences in order to meaningfully engage in certain topics at all.
She describes the exhaustion of having to explain complex experiences constantly and notes the added frustration that “the point of a given original conversation can be lost, due to the length of time it takes to do the translating – therefore, the initial reason for the labor is lost.” I think of the times I might be hanging with friends after church and a Christian mate asks me if I’m dating or interested in anyone. In that moment, I have two choices:
- I could give a simple “Not at the moment,” and withhold all my actual feelings about how I am, in fact, interested in a guy and navigating very complex emotions about him but have no intentions of pursuing a romantic relationship due to my convictions. This response feels inauthentic and hypocritical for someone who claims to value honest vulnerability.
- Admit that I am interested in someone, but that someone is a guy, and yes, that means I’m gay, but wait no, I didn’t mean to say “gay” because of course that word means something different to conservative Christians, what I meant to say was I’m same-sex attracted, but no, it’s not a lifestyle choice and no, I wasn’t abused as a kid but thanks for asking, actually I’ve felt this way for as long as I can remember, and yes, I have prayed about it but God hasn’t reversed my sexual orientation and I don’t expect him to, but no, that doesn’t mean I don’t trust God, and actually did you know that the Bible celebrates singleness as a desirable and preferable way of life? Okay now I see I’m going to have to break down your assumptions about heterosexual marriage being the meaning of life and the source of all human love so let’s start with biblical theology of Marriage and Family 101 so I can justify my existence as a celibate gay Christian to you right now.
It gets exhausting having to translate these experiences all the time just to have an authentic conversation about ordinary topics. It’s even more exhausting when you have to translate a totally different set of ideas to a different group of people. Imagine the same conversation, but this time with a non-Christian colleague at after-work drinks: “So, are you dating or interested in anyone at the moment?” Again, I have two choices:
- Withhold, give the short answer and save myself the trouble of being understood. “Not at the moment.” Sometimes it’s easier not being seen.
- Alternatively, I could give the honest answer, and in doing so, disclose that [long breath] I am attracted to men but actually I’m not interested in dating even though I have strong desires to be in a relationship with a man, then have to deal with the follow-up questions and give an overview of my Christian convictions on sexual ethics and my high view of celibacy as a legitimate pathway to flourishing, all while making sure to affirm that I am not homophobic and even though these are my personal convictions, I am still supportive of my gay friends and colleagues and their partners, and I don’t want them to feel unsafe or marginalised by me. Now you try doing that in a light-hearted chat at Friday drinks.
The translation exhaustion is real. I feel like I’m constantly forced to choose between making conversations way more intense and exhausting than they should be, or choosing to just not be seen because it’s too much effort. You’d think being a dual citizen means being perfectly understood by both communities, but sometimes it feels more like neither community understands the whole me.
Some days I long to be able to speak my mother tongue with all of its mixed dialects and to have someone just understand fluently. Instead I’m usually self-editing my speech on the fly, constantly translating different experiences that would seem foreign to the listener and reframing it in an effort to be understood. It’s not that no one understands us, it’s that we need to constantly translate for ourselves to be understood. I think that’s why it’s so refreshing to meet other celibate gay Christians; we can finally speak our mother tongue unfiltered and be understood with ease. I met a guy this week who is a same-sex attracted Christian who is out to all the people in his Christian community. But he has felt starved for opportunities to talk about his experience of sexuality, because none of the straight Christians in his life ‘get it.’ He’s tried having these conversations numerous times, but the straight Christians showed little interest or understanding. At the same time, he doesn’t feel so comfortable coming out to non-Christian friends, because he fears they are less likely to understand his faith and his decision to remain celibate. So it was an absolute pleasure for us to meet each other and compare experiences, hearing each other use words that articulated our own feelings better than we could have done ourselves and feeling seen in in a whole new way. He was a complete stranger I had just met, but during that conversation we experienced a profound solidarity—a mutual understanding of everything we said and so many things we didn’t even have to say.
It reminds me of that weird phenomenon when you’re travelling overseas and you meet someone from your own country. When I was in Germany auditioning for music academies, I met a few Aussies in a youth hostel in Munich, and we immediately bonded over our shared heritage. We enjoyed dinner together finally able to speak English to people who fully understood all our regionalisms and slang. On my trip I occasionally came across New Zealanders or Americans, and to me, even that was enough of a kindred spirit for me to relish the opportunity to speak English with them. I’d never noticed what a privilege it was to have people who intuitively understand my own language and culture until I was alone in Germany, a country where I didn’t know the language, culture, or people. Of course, the moment I landed back in Australia and got off the plane, I reverted back to seeing Aussies as regular annoying strangers whom I mostly ignored. Where a week earlier I would stay up late talking to a stranger in a hostel just because he understood my mother tongue, here I was in my own country ignoring thousands of people who spoke my language fluently and who could relate to the vast majority of my experiences. (Side note: Is being straight like living in a world where everyone speaks your language?) When you spend enough time in a majority, you forget how foreign your language and culture is to other people, and you start to think ‘this is just the way people are.’
But as dual citizens, we don’t always have that privilege. We’re constantly reminded of how foreign our experiences are to people. We might be experts at adapting and we might look like we fit in perfectly, but you have no idea how many thoughts we are translating or experiences we are censoring to appear ‘just like you’ and fit in. You might assume that being fluent in two cultures would make it easier to fit in to both, like wherever we go, we just ‘belong,’ and there’s some truth to that. But just like my experience of mixed ethnic heritage, I tend to feel my heritage most when it sticks out as foreign to my surrounding. And because I’m not two distinct halves but an integrated whole person, I can’t leave one part of my experience at the door when I step into a community. Wherever I go is a part of me that feels a little bit foreign no matter how I dress it up. The most acutely I’ve ever felt this was during the same-sex marriage plebiscite when I felt my worlds colliding together. I’ll write more about this experience later this week; hopefully it will give more detailed insights into what it’s like living as a dual citizen.
Of course, there are perks to holding dual citizenship, too. Amazing perks. I feel like I have a passport into unique and beautiful places that most people are not privileged to see. I’m able to have sincere and meaningful conversations with extraordinary people and hear deeply personal stories that few other ears have heard. I’m extraordinarily grateful, and I hope this is a privilege I won’t squander. Part of the decision to start this blog was a desire to share some of these stories with the world, knowing that Christians and non-Christians, straight people and queer people alike could all benefit from hearing real stories outside their bubble. When we hear stories from outside our bubble, we gain deeper empathy for people who experience the world differently to ourselves.
Sometimes I have the privilege of representing queer people to Christians. As I was in the middle of writing this just now, I was interrupted by an invitation to contribute to a position paper on “Gay Identity and Entire Sanctification” for a Christian denomination in the US. Among the other people researching and writing for this paper are a number of other ‘dual citizens’ like myself whose Christian faith and experience of sexuality has led them to think deeply about these things over many years. The theological depth and pastoral sensitivity of a position paper like this is greatly enriched for having people like this contributing to it from a wealth of personal stories.
At other times, I enjoy representing my Christian faith to queer people and other non-Christians. This week in my Facebook memories I saw that exactly one year ago I was invited to speak on campus at Griffith University on “My Journey as a Gay Christian.” It was part of a week-long series of public engagement events on campus called “Jesus Week” run by Griffith Christian Students. They invited people of all faiths and backgrounds to come along and explore how faith in Jesus affects experiences like suffering, sexuality, and other topics.
At first I was a bit anxious about possible public backlash to having an evangelical Christian speaking at a public event about something as controversial as sexuality. I know that some people would characterise my personal beliefs as “homophobic” or “oppressive.” I’d heard stories of people I know—kind, compassionate, and sensitive people—who had been asked to speak at similar university events about sexuality but were forced to withdraw after receiving threats and hostility. But what I experienced was a very warm welcome from students who engaged deeply and wanted to talk more over coffee. Even the Griffith Uni Rainbow Society saw the value someone sharing personal stories about the intersection of Christian faith and sexuality, and they promoted not just this event, but all the Jesus Week events on their public page. You can see the post here and read for yourself how kind and gracious they were.
Some of the Rainbow Society’s student executive came along to the event and instead of hostility expressed their deep gratitude for it. They joined us for a coffee afterwards and chatted for over an hour. For me, it was a beautiful moment of celebrating the doors opened by holding dual citizenship and sharing stories that resonated with both communities in different ways. We saw a space open up in the ‘in-between’ where people of different communities could come together and dialogue with mutual respect and compassion. It was such a stark contrast to the more hostile conflict that tends to result when straight Christians are quick to speak and slow to listen, as noted in this article about the event.
(Credit where credit is due: This was also largely due to the ministry coordinator doing an outstanding job of building trust with the Rainbow Society over some years and being a great example of listening humbly.)
Perhaps the most touching part of that whole experience for me was the way my church supported me and celebrated that story. They are my family in a very real sense, so having such overwhelming support meant the world to me. Sometimes when I speak about being gay and Christian, I feel like I am highlighting all the ways I’m different, all the ways I don’t fit in. I worry that everyone ends up seeing me as a foreign ‘other.’ So to have my church family affirm me and my place in God’s family made me feel seen and loved. In a public post, my pastor said this: “It’s this picture of radical inclusion that shapes how we try to live together as a church family, and we’re thankful for Matt, and others, who make our church community richer.”
Despite all the challenges of feeling like a foreign citizen, dual citizenship is a privilege, especially when I truly feel ‘home’ among my church family. Perhaps the metaphor of dual citizenship breaks down here, since deep down I feel a truer sense of belonging to my home country. As the Apostle Paul writes in Philippians 3:20, “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Experientially and theologically, I feel my primary identity is wrapped up in belonging to God and his people. I do have the privilege of existing in other communities where I feel genuine solidarity, but they don’t feel like my home country as much as my spiritual family that share my deepest values, convictions and purpose. While the language of dual citizenship might suggest two competing halves of who I am, there’s much, much more to me than these two aspects. The metaphor doesn’t do it justice because the faith part of who I am isn’t just half of me or even a larger portion, but a pervasive identity that permeates and reshapes every other experience of my personhood. It’s the lens through which I see and understand the rest of the world, as Tim Keller notes here:
“An American who first moves to a foreign country is shocked to discover how many of her intuitions and practices that she considered common sense and universal are actually particularly American ones—and are ridiculous to many other people. By living in another culture she gets a new vantage point from which she can be critical of herself, and as a result she will slowly change, dropping some attitudes and adopting others. Becoming a Christian is a lot like moving to a new country; only it is more profound, because it gives us a new perspective on every culture, every worldview, and every field of work.”Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavour (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2012), 181-182.