Last night a friend shared those words with me. We were reflecting on the hopes and dreams we had for ourselves as teenagers when we came to an awareness of our sexuality. What does a young Christian teen dream for themselves when they realise they’re gay?
What we realised was that we didn’t dream of anything. We had no picture of what life could–or should–look like for people like us.
What sort of life could we aspire to? Or rather, what dreams were we inheriting from our culture?
See, we rarely make up our own dreams. Usually we adopt them from the culture we exist in. We might be as oblivious to our culture as a fish is to water, but our culture is still shaping us and forming our values whether we notice or not. One of the powerful ways culture shapes us is through the idea of a “cultural script.”
Mark Yarhouse (Christian clinical psychologist and researcher) defines a cultural script in his most recent book and writes about a particular script that he calls a “gay script.”
“A script is a shorthand way of speaking of cultural expectations for behaviour and relationships. Cultural expectations inform many of our behaviours, ranging from such quotidian habits as how we greet one another to major behaviours and life decisions. These behaviours and life decisions might include cultural expectations for when single people ‘should’ marry or when married couples ‘should’ start a family. When we discuss a gay script, then, we are discussing cultural expectations for understanding one’s same-sex sexuality.”Mark Yarhouse, Costly Obedience: What We Can Learn from the Celibate Gay Christian Community, 67-68.
In the second chapter of this book, Yarhouse engages with the idea of a gay script that exists in Western secular culture. Or to be more precise, he acknowledges the existence of gay scripts as a plural, but refers to a particularly predominant script that he identifies as influential in shaping LGBTQ+ culture. His description of that script reminds me of a passage in another book I’m reading by a clinical psychologist and gay man, Alan Downs:
“Remember when you first knew you were gay and imagined how your life would be? You probably imagined meeting a handsome fellow, falling madly in love, and living your lives together with a few dogs or, if you were really progressive, even children. You imagined your family would eventually accept your lover as a part of the family and you’d live happily together for a lifetime.”Alan Downs, The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World, 23.
What I found striking about this cultural script is that it feels utterly foreign to me. That’s not a dream I could relate to as a teenager, and it’s not one I can relate to now. As a celibate gay Christian, I am technically included in the LGBTQ+ population, but this sort of cultural script doesn’t speak to my experience at all. As I’ve written about before, it took years of having crushes on guys to even realise I was gay because the culture I grew up in didn’t acknowledge being gay as an option. Even after I realised I was attracted to men, I still convinced myself that “gay” was not something that applied to me. And so I grew up not really aspiring to those dreams of finding a man for my ‘happily ever after.’ At the same time, I was relinquishing other inherited dreams, like the heterosexual cultural script that looked something like “white picket fences and a dog, a trophy bride and children,” as I slowly realised in all likelihood I would never marry a woman either.
I had to grieve the loss of the heterosexual dream. Then try to navigate the void of not having an alternative dream for myself as gay Christian. What was life even supposed to look like for me?
There may be a very influential scrip telling gay people where their identity is to be found, how to express their sexuality, and what a life of flourishing looks like… but this script feels devoid of meaning to me as a Christian with a fundamentally different experience of sexuality.
This, in part, is Yarhouse’s point, and why he raises the existence of such a gay script; it illustrates the unique and confusing position celibate gay Christians occupy within the LGBTQ+ community. On one level, we belong to this subset as sexual minorities, and yet the existence of scripts like this can remind us of how much we don’t belong in that culture.
But even Alan Downs, writing from the perspective of a gay man who is not a Christian, acknowledges the inadequacy of this gay script. Eventually, he says, we become disillusioned to find that the pursuit of a sexual romantic relationship isn’t enough to give our lives meaning:
“Is this enough? I am a man. I need to be loved. I need to love myself. I need to feel strong and to cry. I need to feel alive and to grieve my losses. I need to know that there is someone in this world who truly loves me. I need to love someone. I need a safe, stable, and committed home. Truth is, I need all these things much more than I need great sex.”Alan Downs, The Velvet Rage, 22.
So all this has me thinking: what alternative scripts is the church offering to gay people? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard Christians criticise this gay script as inadequate, but I can count on one hand the number of times Christians have even attempted to offer an alternative dream. Is it enough to tell a gay teenager that the secular gay script fails to reflect the beauty and coherence of God’s design and then walk away from the conversation? Sure, we might hammer them with theological concepts or even topical books, but what do we actually offer in the way of a tangible, concrete dream to aspire to?
If we’re calling on gay Christians to consider giving up their hopes and dreams for a same-sex relationship, what are we inviting them to aspire to instead? Because no one aspires to a lack of something. Nobody thrives with what Eve Tushnet calls “a vocation of ‘no,’” where queer people in the church are only ever told “no” in regards to what they cannot do with no clear vision to what we are saying “yes” to when we choose celibacy. What is the Christian picture of a flourishing life for a gay person?
The thing about a cultural script is that it’s not just doctrines and teaching; we often absorb cultural scripts without ever hearing a word on the topic. We simply learn the expectations and values of our culture from our interactions within it and from observing people who model that way of life for us. You don’t need to tell a kid in a youth group that you expect them to marry in their 20s and raise a family; they will see the church culture, the older people modelling this script around them, the way people in the community respond, the milestones the community celebrates, the things we talk about, and the things we stay silent on. They will hear the cultural script loud and clear, and even if they’re not conscious of the script, before long it will shape their values and behaviour.
Straight people might say, “But no one gets the luxury of a script for their life; we all just work it out as we go along.” There’s some truth to that, but think about your 15-year-old self and ask how many straight and/or married Christians were in your life, modelling to you what a life of following Jesus might look like for a straight married person. Now ask yourself how many gay Christians your 15-year-old self could have named. Without realising it, we’ve inherited certain cultural scripts in our DNA, but for those of us who don’t marry and/or are same-sex attracted, we are desperately in need of cultural scripts to guide us in everyday life.
So I wonder what the gay person walking into your church will find. What are your community’s expectations for how a gay person will live their lives? What does your church culture say about marriage? About parenting? What does the culture say to those who are unmarried and childless? How does the church culture offer meaning to the experience of same-sex attraction? What script does it give for how a gay person might find a life of flourishing?
What are your dreams for us? What dreams should we have for ourselves?
I don’t just mean generic copypastas like “you should aspire to a life of faithfully following Jesus.” Yes. We all should. But what specifically might that look like in the daily reality of a gay person?
As a teenager, I had no dream for what the flourishing life might look like for me as a gay Christian. Most gay Christians tell me that when they realised they were gay, the one thing they were certain of was that they aspired to take their secret to the grave. Nobody could ever know.
The strongest hope they had for themselves was that no one would ever see that deeply into their heart. The only long-term aspiration we held was hoping that our secret died with us.
That’s not an aspiration.
That’s not a dream.
We need a new dream, a dream fed to us by our community and centered on the good news of Jesus. A dream where family is redefined the way Jesus defined it that includes single people meaningfully. A dream where marginalised people are shown the special tenderness and love that Jesus showed them. A dream where intimacy and love are given and received in so many ways outside of a sexual relationship. A dream where this life isn’t the final word and we are part of an eternal redemption story.
I’ve been trying to re-write my cultural script for years. I have some ideas of where we can start that I’ll share in another post. But I don’t want to do that here. Not yet. Because the thing about a cultural script is that you don’t learn it from reading someone else’s ideas. You learn it from seeing it embodied in your culture. So I want to leave you reflecting on what your own community has to offer. I want you to start scrutinising your community’s practices, noticing the unspoken scripts that reveal your culture’s values.
What sort of cultural script does your church offer to the 15-year-old who’s just realised he’s gay?
What aspirations of flourishing does your community dream for him for when he’s a 70-year-old single man?
What do you dream of for us?