Ed. note: Yesterday, Justin VanLeeuwen told of his gradual, troubling discovery while a high school freshman at Bob Jones Academy that he is gay. Today, Justin takes us through the painful internal struggle he faced in the wake of this realization in the hyper-spiritualized environment at fundamentalism’s “Fortress of Faith” as a high school and college student.
I entered high school with a rather severe religious reputation – the little archangel had been hard at work. The full picture was rather more complex. Yes, I had made a profession of faith at the age of five, and all my memories indicate that I took it very seriously and sincerely. Yes, I implicitly believed everything I was taught. Yes, I was one of the good kids. But I also remember a time in my very early adolescence when my religious confidence weakened, not so much in what I believed but in myself. I began to doubt my salvation (as so many do) and to pray repeatedly for assurance, for the peace promised in God. With the onset of my sexual struggles, my self-doubt increased, even more so when I recognized my orientation.
In another environment I might have been able to seek help and counsel from peers and adults. But in fundamentalism – where a reputation (so I heard countless times) is like a pane of glass that, once broken, can never be repaired (one failing, particularly of a sexual nature, can forever disqualify a person from various ministry opportunities); where to be suspected of a spiritual problem or to admit to one by way of seeking help results in a loss of trust and that prized reputation as well as a re-categorization as a deviant; where scripture is in its text (and more often than not in its interpretation) inerrant; where a white, patriarchal, western European cultural tradition is so blurred with religion and scripture that it often takes on equal power; where to question either of these openly is seen as rebellious by authority and shameful to the family – in this fundamentalism I felt trapped by the reputation I had constructed, that reputation that can never be repaired. I was the good kid, a spiritual leader, and with that came expectations. The momentum was self perpetuating. If I stopped or slowed down, I would instantaneously raise suspicion of religious backsliding, and with that would come scrutiny. I could only continue forward at full tilt. I could only carry on fulfilling every one’s expectations while battling internally with what I believed.
I had to hide for the sake of my own survival. But inside I oscillated constantly between a strong, sincere abhorrence of myself coupled with my intent determination to follow God and a mindset not so much of rebellion as of a surrender and resignation to a forbidding inevitability. Of course internal conflict cannot be fully contained, and it bubbled to the surface in my desperate attempts to squelch the struggle and find wholeness by religioning my gayness out of existence. After one of the evangelistic services on campus, I dedicated my life to God. During both my freshman and senior years of high school I made new public professions of faith in which I thought I was finally finding God for the first time.
The profession I made during my senior year was truly monumental because I finally admitted my attraction to men. On the last night of the week that Academy seniors spend at THE WILDS Christian camp for spiritual revival, they hold a rather bizarre service at the end of which each student is provided with a stick which he or she is then supposed to throw on a fire in symbolic self-abnegation. And this gem of an event is merely the capstone of a week of intense emotional pressure which frequently leads teens to so-called “mountaintop” religious experiences and decisions that rarely have any lasting value and leave those same teens feeling a guilty emptiness over their failure to maintain what is an unsustainable level of emotional fervor. Coming into this week, my pendulum had swung against religion and God in the defiance of defeat. Despair of victory over my sexual orientation had at last inspired in me an anger against God for his betrayal of my sincerest efforts to find holiness in him. As this final service neared, I had every intention of remaining solidly in my seat. The now conscious hypocrisy had worn heavily on me, and I craved some honesty. However, as I have always been emotionally susceptible to proffered guilt, the strain of the week and that moment were too much. When my cabin was called to throw our sticks on the fire, after a mere moment’s hesitation, I rose, walked to the back, and asked to speak to a teacher. I spent what I recall being over an hour talking with him, during which conversation I told him about my struggle with homosexuality. I don’t remember what he said, but that night for the final time, I prayed that Jesus would forgive me of my sin and give me victory over it. The next day I told my class of my salvation. I went home, still on an emotional high, and I told my parents, including in my account to them my struggles with my sexuality. They seemed rather shaken, and my mother expressed her firm conviction that I ought not tell anybody. While my mom’s advice further cemented in my mind the shame of my condition, following it probably saved me from extended counseling when I went and confessed my issue with pornography to the assistant principal. Thankfully, that possibility never seemed to cross his mind.
In college I dated a girl. As is true of a large number of gay guys, I did not date girls of my own volition. I had taken girls to the obligatory events in high school though thankfully and ironically the enforced platonic nature of any dating encounters removed any expectation that I would make physical advances and the scrutiny that inaction on my part would otherwise have invited. Now the university has what one might humorously call a straight agenda – the overtly expressed desire that as many students as possible find their life-long spouse while at school; even Bible Conference* services were advertised from the pulpit as an excellent dating opportunity. In an environment such as this, a confirmed bachelor does not escape notice. I remember countless questions by friends and coworkers concerning when I was going to get a girlfriend (the summer they learned I was going on a mission trip in which I was the only college male on the team they ratcheted up the pressure quite a bit). While it may have been well intentioned on their part, to me it felt like an interrogation; had they guessed the truth, it very well might have been.
So the second semester of my sophomore year I found myself dating a girl. I can honestly say that for this episode of my life I feel great guilt and shame. I did not want to date her. She was a truly sweet girl; we had fun together; we were really good friends. And then it got away from me. Suddenly we were dating. I had not intended for that to happen, and I had actually tried to derail the process earlier. But when it came to a head, I found my curiosity – my hope that maybe I could be happy with a girl – was greater than my honesty and my will to protect her. I had succumbed to the pressure of a religious, heteronormative worldview. I thought I’d give it a try, treat it like an experiment. And I desperately wanted it to work. Long warned against the dangers of women to a man’s thought-life, I tried ever so hard to fall into that pit of temptation, but no matter how many times I hurled myself over the cliff, I always found myself back where I started. I realized that I would never be able to look at her with love, insatiable desire, lust–call it what you will. She would never see that in my eyes when she looked at me, and she deserved to. Nor was she unaware of the disconnect between us, and had we pursued our relationship into marriage, it would have proven an ever distancing barrier and source of frustration and insecurity. I eventually revealed my struggles to her. To her credit, that did not repulse her. Nonetheless, I soon found that the best I could offer was to avoid hurting her; I found myself managing the decline of a relationship.
That year SoulForce visited Bob Jones University. More has been said about this visit in earlier posts, so I will share just two memories that remain with me. First, the University assigned each of the riders to a faculty or staff person for prayer. I remember going from office to office while on my job as an IT technician and seeing print-outs of people my age with short biographical descriptions taped to the walls above computers. I felt an inexpressible connection to these people who would be banned from entering the campus upon their arrival. I could only too easily imagine my face pasted to the wall, an image of some unmentionable fear. Second, following the visit of Soulforce, Stephen Jones gave a series of sermons on homosexuality followed by a “practical” discussion from the former Dean of Men, Tony Miller. Not only did he conveniently and almost completely ignore women (lesbians earned a brief mention about how they became lesbian by virtue of having been raped), but he also somehow managed to moralize gender expression (as if masculinity were a footnote to the ten commandments engraved in the very same stone) and to tout the distant father and overbearing mother. I can only say I was seething with the indignity and the insult of it all. I actually half expected Stephen Jones to apologize for the idiocy and insensitivity of what I had just heard and was somewhat shocked when he did not. I could hardly find any gratitude in my heart that Mr. Miller had been so gracious as to distinguish me from a pedophile. Somehow the reality of my situation had never sunk in so deeply before.
To be continued…
* Ed. note: Each year, in lieu of a spring break, Bob Jones University hosts a week-long Bible Conference, where invited speakers preach from the Founder’s Memorial Amphitorium’s big pulpit to the assembled “University family” throughout the day each day. Classes are suspended for this week, because the students’ attendance at each of these services is mandatory. Coincidentally with this blog posting, BJU’s annual Bible Conference is currently under way.