Thank God for Lisa: A Story of Why I’m Affirming
At 16, I learned that my aunt Lisa is gay.
My parents had done well teaching me to show kindness and respect to people even if you disagree. But I grew up in rural Appalachia in East Tennessee, an area not known for being too liberal. I don’t remember any stories from childhood about LGBTQ people where they weren’t antagonists in some way. They certainly weren’t the heroes.
I remember knowing the best way to make fun of someone, and the best way to make a “tough guy” rage, was to call them “gay, queer, fag” or something similar—language my parents were quick to challenge whenever they heard it from me. And yet, when one of the bigger athletes wanted to assert his dominance on one of the littler athletes—like me—he would pin me in my locker, or over the dugout bench, and pretend to hump me. Though I didn’t realize it then, this said as much about the culture of homophobia as it did about the culture of rape, or what some dismiss as “locker-room behavior.”
I stayed away from anything remotely gay—I didn’t want to get bullied after all—and I mocked anything remotely gay. My determination to not be bullied fed my perpetuation of prejudice. And after a while, you start actually believing the stuff you’re pretending to believe. When Brokeback Mountain came out during high school, I looked with suspicion at anyone who’d watched it.
Stories shape the expanses of our imagination, and mine was limited on this for a good while.
But at 16, when I learned Lisa was gay and Tammy wasn’t “just a friend,” I felt confused. “I love Lisa. How can she be gay?” Asking that question opened up great possibility for me. And despite not knowing quite what to do with that revelation about my aunt, I did know that I could not and would not use “gay” as an insult ever again. All that nonsense ended then and there.
I went through many positions over the next years: I’m supposed to love all people, but I wish these people wouldn’t choose that lifestyle; I love gay people, but I can’t love what they do; I think it’s perfectly fine to be gay—in fact, you may even be born that way—but you just have to live a celibate life; etc.
I had lots of questions, mostly about theology, and always believing I was somehow entitled to interrogate the lives of everyone around me. I felt compelled to “get it right” lest I find myself on the wrong side of God. Eventually, I settled these questions for myself, all the while evolving through encounters with those whose worth, liberties, dangers, capabilities, and identities I was querying.
I continue to learn how proximity matters.
There’s a story in Mark’s Gospel when Jesus meets a blind man. Jesus spits in the man’s eyes and lays hands on him, and the man says he can now see people walking, but the people look like trees. So Jesus puts his hands on the man’s eyes again, and this time, the man can see clearly. The moment when I learned about Lisa and Tammy was like the first time Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. I waited years for the second. It finally came in Belfast in 2012 with two men, Pádraig and Paul.
Pádraig Ó Tuama was the first person I met when I moved to Belfast for grad school. Soon after arriving, I went to a poetry reading for Pádraig’s new Readings from the Book of Exile. I devoured the wise little book.
In it, there’s a love poem for his partner Paul called “While he was in Malta.” It is simple, gorgeous, romantic, and tender. It speaks of longing, absence, ache, and intimacy. As I became friends with Pádraig and Paul, listened to their stories at the Tenx9 event they ran, and read and reread “While he was in Malta,” I recognized something that I knew well from my own life—love. Genuine love.
I watched the way they touched each other’s faces and hands with tenderness, said each other’s names with affection, missed each other when the other was away—and I knew exactly what all that felt like. I no longer saw what difference it made if it were for someone of the same sex.
At that moment, all the politics and debating and antagonism suddenly boiled down to this: Does anyone have the right to tell two consenting adults whom they may love?
When I asked myself that question, sitting alone on my bed in Belfast, I remembering answering aloud, “Hell no.”
I know many people aren’t where I am; some still have questions that feel big to them. I just don’t anymore. I think one of the things the above Gospel story teaches is that change comes in steps. For some, that may be two steps; for others, 2,000. As Pádraig wrote once, “most people do what seems reasonable to them at the time, most of the time” (Ó Tuama, In the Shelter, 93).
And being affirming seems reasonable to me—even more than that, it seems right.
Lisa and Tammy woke me up, so to speak, and Pádraig and Paul kept me awake. My vision was still blurred, but then they put their hands on my eyes for the second time.
I saw that the people looked like people, and their capacity for love was no different than mine.