The Mystery of Sexual Orientation

Her name was Stephanie. This much I've figured out: She had everything I didn't. She was cute, with long, dark hair and store-bought clothes. She was athletic—at least more so than a skinny, awkward kid like me. Most of all she was popular. I was not.

We were only 7. But I vividly remember my first crush on a girl.

It is possible that my attraction was born of loneliness. My family had just moved, for the eighth or ninth time. My parents married at 19, then moved here and there while my father went to college, medical school, internship, residency, a stint in Vietnam.

My older sister took it all in stride. I did not.

By 7, I had become extremely shy. I had no friends. I still see, feel and smell what it was like to stand outside the back door of my school during recess, shivering in the cold. I had no one to play with, and I'd wait there for someone to open the door so a blast of air could momentarily warm me. You'd see me hunched, hands shoved in pockets, right beside the other outcast: an Indian girl named Abha Sangal. We never spoke. Funny how I remember her name.

When the invitations for Stephanie's birthday party were handed out, all but two girls were invited, if I remember correctly: Abha Sangal. And me.

I'm sure a lot of girls went through something similar. But as I grew older, some things changed with my peers but not with me. They were boy-crazy. I was not.

They obsessed over their hair, their dresses, their dolls. I could not have cared less.

Girly girls, in fact, bored me to death. Still do. My parents gave me dolls—the reciprocity thing, since my sister already had them. My mother laughs about it now: My Barbies were always naked. Since all they could do was change their clothes—so dull—I made plastic parachutes for them and hurled them up into the trees. My mother bought me black Barbie dolls, hoping they'd spark some interest. They ended up flying through the trees as well.

In adolescence, this mildly unusual lack of interest in "girl" things took a sharp turn. I began feeling a strong, almost overwhelming attraction for other girls. It had nothing to do with sex; it was affection and comfort that I craved from a girl. I was interested in boys too, but the interest was purely sexual, though not acted upon. This dichotomy of desire was inward, powerful and so frightening to me that I didn't dare put words to it, much less confide in anyone. At the same time I began to experience depression, a darkness that seemed to rest on me, envelop me, for days at a time.

Now you can draw your own conclusions here, and I'm sure you will. Gay? Bisexual? Confused? Just plain weird?

Today I will say that sexual orientation is a mystery. It does frustrate me greatly when evangelicals talk about "sexual preference." In gay activist Mel White's book, Religion Gone Bad, which I wrote about last week (unflatteringly), he tells how Pat Robertson pointedly refers to homosexuality as a "preference."

Hmm...let's see. Today I'll have a Wild Cherry Pepsi. Tomorrow I'll have a can of Squirt.

I don't entirely blame Robertson; he just doesn't know what he's talking about. The truth is we are all born broken--so often in the area of sexual identity, something that touches the core of who we are and what we were created to be.

That, I believe, is the authentic biblical view: born broken, children of original sin. Desperately in need of a savior--who then tells us we must be "born again." Sexual brokenness takes so many forms: homosexuality, children who've been violated, the middle-aged man who frantically pursues younger women.

Most evangelicals and gays have this in common: They fixate on the question of whether homosexuality is a genetically ordained condition. The majority of evangelicals, of course, say it is not; most gays believe it is. There is intriguing but maddeningly inconclusive scientific evidence for each side of the argument. How you read it reveals mostly your preconceptions.

Let me say a thing or two about my extended family: On one side is a seemingly inherited predisposition for depression. Two suicides—brothers—in one family, plus a serious attempt (which that individual wrote about in a well-reviewed, semi-autobiographical book). I suffered from depression for years. So did other relatives.

On the other side of the family are several gays and lesbians spanning multiple generations, including those of an era in which such a lifestyle was dangerously taboo. There are also instances of what I would call sexual sin: adultery, a man who molested children.

So, did I inherit depression? Did I inherit homosexuality?

Maybe, maybe not. As a follower of Jesus Christ, I say it doesn't matter. That's right—it doesn't matter.

What? What? you say.

Let me continue my story. I remember a time as a teenager when I wrote a letter to my mom, telling her I was attracted to girls. (I don't remember the words, but I somehow got across the point that I was sexually conflicted.) I wrote it in tears, in smudgy blue ink. I pleaded for her help, because I respected her Christian faith. I tucked it in an envelope, ran across the street and stuck it in our mailbox. It wasn't long before I ran across the street again and plucked it back. I tore it up in tiny pieces.

I was so ashamed. Never told a soul until just a few years ago, because I was raised in evangelical and fundamentalist churches. Saved in a Baptist church at 4. Wore white tights and patent leather shoes to church, with a zipper-enclosed King James Bible clutched in my sweaty paw. Deeply interested in spiritual matters from an early age, something my parents recognized and encouraged. I understood the fear of God, and I understood sin. All sex outside of marriage was sin to me; homosexuality, out of the question.

I can't remember what triggered my almost-confession. I'm sure depression was wrapped up in it somehow. I'd had a vision--in a semi-conscious state--of spinning in a vortex, being pulled up (yes, up) to hell. Never saw it, but I knew it was hell.

I was sexually conflicted in my early 20s but also abstinent. (Sex does complicate things, and I did not have to deal with those complications.) I had boyfriends. I never had a sexual relationship with a woman, however. That fear of God was ever before me, even though I wasn't particularly devout at the time.

I know some will read this and say I never was or still am. We're so wedded to preconceptions. Since you don't know me, all I can say is this: My experience is no more than it is, no less than it is.

At 23, I was despondent, too indifferent about life to contemplate suicide. That's when I began looking for an authentic faith in Jesus Christ, something different from all the phoniness and superficiality I encountered as a kid.

I won't get into too much detail here, but I had a supernatural experience when I was finally water-baptized at the age of 25. At 26, three dear friends from Northern Ireland prayed for me to be healed of depression. Hereditary depression, I believe, were the words they used. There were no fireworks that evening, just quiet faith.

I am free of that depression today.

Obviously, I experience sorrow and sadness, which are reactions to circumstances. I still have a generally introverted disposition. (Jesus isn't in the lobotomy business.) But the depression I used to suffer, independent of circumstance, triggered at times by something as inexplicable as an old song, is no longer a part of my life. (In all honesty, I have experienced something that felt similar to the old depression on two occasions: a few days after I gave birth to my son, which I suspect was a purely chemical matter, and earlier this year. The pastor of my church prayed for me, and the depression departed again.)

You might have guessed where I'm going now. The same thing happened concerning my sexual identity. Shortly before I got married, a Christian counselor prayed to break a "curse of sexual perversion" on my life. Oooh, I know that's a rough word, perversion. But that's what she said. My head didn't spin around; I didn't hurl pea soup. Yet something spiritual broke loose.

Today I've been happily married for 16 years. (OK. Gotta be totally honest again. I'd say about 14 of those 16 years have been very happy. The other two, less so.) Now you're never gonna make a girly girl out of me, but then why would you want to?

The Apostle Paul said, "For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ." This is how I've come to understand his words: You don't know who you really are, who you were really meant to be until you have a relationship with Jesus Christ. Until you've surrendered your all to him—including your broken sexuality, in whatever form that has taken. That's the death Paul is talking about. You must allow Jesus to remake your life as he sees fit.

I am leaving out many pieces of the story. Four final points:

1. My "deliverance" from depression and a broken sexual identity did involve choices. I ultimately wanted to obey God more than I wanted to sin. And, as I wrote last week, I do believe homosexuality is a sin. I needed supernatural help making a clean break, and I got that through faith, the prayers of others and believing God is who he says he is in Scripture. I also made a decision to put away the trappings of my broken past, such as sexual fantasizing. I still make that decision, and I still call upon God to help me.

2. I had issues with the ideal of womanhood offered to me in the evangelical church. To me, evangelicals are terribly guilty of pushing noxious stereotypes of men and women—there's an entire corner of the Christian publishing industry devoted to that stuff. Like the women's books with the soft-focus covers, the curly writing and the pictures of flowers. No wonder I had identity issues.

3. I married a great man who has always loved me as I am.

4. I ended up in a church of misfits, of people who once led busted lives. Former drunks and crack addicts and people who once suffered from documented mental illnesses. All manner of bad boys and girls. We were people who desperately needed intervention from above—go-for-broke kind of folks. General admonitions to be good and to be kind and to study our Bibles daily just weren't gonna cut it. We needed God's supernatural power. In that kind of atmosphere, people who want it bad enough get healed.

Paul understood this fully. He wrote to the bad-boy church in Corinth: "Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders...will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were."

Thank God for the past tense.

I believe Jesus Christ has the power to totally transform a person's life. That used to be what evangelicals believed. Now they're so cowed by issues like gay marriage, so desperate to fit in, that they've grown faint of heart and faith.

Next week: Bible Girl decodes Jesus Camp.

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Julie Lyons
Contact: Julie Lyons