A few weeks ago I stood under a tree at a church cookout and listened for more than an hour as a young, black pastor poured out his reasons against fully accepting and affirming the LGBTQ community. No one else was in ear shot. He wasn’t trying to argue with me – he knows where I stand. And so I did not try to answer his reasons even when he wound down and asked if I wanted to respond. He was pouring out the commitments and convictions of his heart, his concerns and the conclusions they brought him to. I told him I wanted to sit with what he’d said and reflect on it. I wanted him to know I was working to hear him and not just react.
I don’t know if that was the best response or not; I do know it felt appropriate to the moment and the relationship and the context. I can be all too good at the ready argument and answer. He and his context deserve more consideration (something I hope I am growing in recognizing).
One thing he said is something I can easily imagine myself saying not so many years ago. I’d be surprised if I didn’t say something very like it at some point.
“Stop saying this is about love. It’s about sex, and they aren’t the same thing.”
He’s not entirely wrong – sex and love are not the same thing. But he’s not right either. It is very much about love.
I spent most of my life believing that sexual orientation was just about sex. That’s easy for someone whose attractions fit the traditional man-woman scripts to believe. We’ve never had to ask questions about our orientation and its impact on our whole lives. It’s not so hard for us to make a “straightforward” distinction between sex and love.
But that doesn’t mean we understand ourselves or the relationship between our sexual orientation and how we love.
Getting to know LGBTQ folks was an incredible gift to me (one I didn’t even know to look for) in part because they have had to ask those questions, and their answers made me look at myself and my own life and sexuality in new ways.
Sexual orientation impacts our whole selves and how we engage everyone in our lives. It’s part of how we relate to ourselves as well as to God, whether we recognize it or not. Sexual orientation shades how we interact with everyone — not just potential sexual partners, but our parents, siblings, and children, as well as coworkers, friends, and aquaintances.
That can make straight people uncomfortable, like we are sexualizing relationships where sex doesn’t (or shouldn’t) come in the picture. And so we can miss the ways our sexuality shapes our lives and relationships when having sex isn’t part of those lives and relationships.
I relate to men and women differently. I always have. As an infant in church, the story goes, I was uninterested in all the women trying to make me smile, but would perk up as soon as a man walked up. I was a daddy’s girl and my favorite family members were boys and men, not because I wanted to be like them, but because I liked and was drawn to them.
It wasn’t about sex, but it is intertwined with my own sexual orientation as a straight woman.
That doesn’t mean that my experiences will be just like those of other straight women. We are all different – gay, straight, bi, and all the ranges in between. We experience ourselves, each other, and the world differently.
But our world has been set up to assume certain norms about sexuality, and those norms are ones that fit a particular range of straight people. If our attractions fit those norms, a lot may remain invisible to us. We don’t even notice. We feel like that’s just the way things are, and even that it’s good that way.
And when those norms are challenged by someone who doesn’t fit them, it can be confusing and even scary for us. We often try to understand others based on how we ourselves function in the world, and we can miss so much.
Sexual orientation isn’t just about the way we have sex and who we have it with. It’s very much about how we love. It’s about how we love romantic partners, yes, but it’s also about how we love everyone else – and maybe most importantly, how we love ourselves.
Love is messy and sprawls across every part of our lives. It confuses clear cut rules and remakes the order we thought was unshakable. Because love is always bigger than principle.
Love always looks at the particular. Love always allows for nuance and incompleteness. Love looks for what is good, and celebrates and builds on that.
It’s a much harder path. It’s so much easier when we can just apply the principle, the rule that tells us how things are supposed to be, what is best and safest for us. But love calls for greater discernment, for deeper listening to the other and even ourselves. Love is open to something different, a new and better way.
Love really is stronger than death.
Love really is love is love.