on September 17, 2018
I’ve read dozens of books in the same genre of Christian titles of which “Gay Girl Good God” by Jackie Hill Perry is the latest entry. Perry’s first book is a memoir of her life thus far from “gay girl once” to “what God’s goodness will do to a soul once grace gets to it.” (p. 1)
Memoirs are challenging to review because we each have a story uniquely our own. Still I am reviewing this book because what I most care about is how stories like Perry’s are used.
Though it may not be the intention of the author to tell LGBTQ people that they too can be “once” gay and go on to marry heterosexually, this will become the message as the book is “gifted” to, or read by LGBTQ Christians. And, the book will be idolized by many parents with gay children as a solution for their own children if they would just try harder, or submit more fully to God.
You can search my profile on Amazon and see that I have reviewed dozens of this sort of book over the years. Many memoir-style once-I-was-gay books have indeed become sacred weapons in the hands of straight Christians, parents, pastors, and leaders.
I don’t get to tell Perry, or anyone, what they should or should not do. What I am offering some historical background of same-sex behavior, our understanding, and how the Christian church has engaged LGBTQ people, in particular, those who identify as Christian. Then, I’ll place Perry’s story in context of that foundation. Next, you get to decide if the framework we’ve constructed in the Christian church should be imposed on LGBTQ Christians, and if Perry’s story is a fully viable option for other LGBTQ Christians, maybe even yourself.
Perry’s chapter titles throughout her book reflect a series of time spans; my format mirrors that.
6,000 BC—AD 1870
In Chapter 2, Perry recounts the Creation story using beautiful language, telling of the introduction of desires and sin into the world. She writes: “Desires exist because God gave them to us. But homosexual desires exist because sin does.” (p. 20)
Attributing homosexuality to The Fall is common. Though I do not agree with a young earth view of creation, I will honor it in the context of this review. From whenever the beginning of humans was through about 1870, the views and understanding of sex, sexual relationships, and the roles of men and women both sexually and socially have little resemblance to how we understand these topics today.
Historically, in ancient cultures, including the entire time in which the Bible was written, women were little more than fertile planting grounds for a man’s semen. His semen was believed to hold the entirety of a human. Hence, where he placed that semen was important. Procreation was important. So masturbation and other forms of non-procreative sex were taboo, or, in biblical language, abominations. Almost unbelievably, it was not until 1870 that scientists discovered that women contributed an egg to the process of procreation.
Women, or those abased and placed in the role of a woman (lesser men, the conquered, male prostitutes, or boys) were socially inferior, placed in a submissive role, and sexually penetrated.
Penetration of a male always reduced him to the feminine submissive state. We see examples of rape, even in the Bible, used to humiliate and debase men (the Sodom rape of angels).
Then, beginning in the 1870s, a few men observing and studying human sexuality offered an alternate way of viewing sexual relationships. Rather than defining people by male/masculine/penetrator or female/feminine/penetrated, they suggested a new concept with a complete shift. They categorized people according to the partners they were attracted to: was that partner the same or opposite sex?
How we looked at sexuality began a slow, very slow, shift over the next sixty years from the role you played (male/masculine/penetrator or female/feminine/penetrated) to who you were attracted to (men, women, or both men and women). We call this sexual orientation today. They did not even have that terminology and would not for another century.
Obviously, Scripture passages, including those used to condemn same-sex relationships today, were written through the lens of the role you took in sex, not who you were attracted to. You simply cannot impose our categories or understanding of human sexuality onto an ancient culture.
Though it is likely clear, it must be stated again: any writings in ancient times, the Bible included, could have never envisioned people of the same sex engaging in emotional, romantic and sexual relationships that did not place one person in power and dominance while rendering the other powerless and submissive.
Sex was not something you did with someone, it was something you did to someone. It was a zero sum game; one person gained power, one person lost power.
The words homosexual and heterosexual were coined in Germany. Throughout the next sixty years, sex experts primarily in Germany struggled to understand how people were attracted to the same sex, and what may have caused it.
It wasn’t just homosexuals that were the focus of sex experts. They were also trying to understand anyone who participated in sex for erotic pleasure without the intent to procreate, what we now call heterosexuals were included in that scrutiny. So, even men and women, married or not, who had sex without intent to procreate (there are lots of ways men and women have sex that are not procreative, right?), or just for the fun of it, were similarly viewed as “perverted.” Hard to believe, isn’t it?
By about the 1920s, sex slowly became unhinged from procreation, and passion in sex moved from perversion to normal.
Homosexuality, still a mystery to sex experts, became a topic of speculation as to what may have caused it. Was it incomplete childhood psychosexual development? An immature heterosexuality? Did an overprotective mother and distant father create a gay child? By the 1940s, it was generally settled on that homosexuality was a mental illness. Heterosexuality, the kind that was once a perversion, the non-procreative, erotic kind takes it place as “normal sexuality.”
A translation team working on the Revised Standard Version translates two Greek words, arsenokoitai and malakoi, which had meaning most closely related to: one who uses another sexually, and one who is penetrated, as a woman is penetrated, to the single word “homosexual.” The word “homosexual” had only been in a U.S. dictionary since 1934. It was a poor translation choice for the two Greek words, but in a culture where homosexuality was a mystery and contrary to procreative sex, the word was unfortunately used. The translation to homosexual was culturally and ideologically based, not theologically rooted.
Very few people seemed to care or notice the word “homosexual” in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. Homosexuality was considered a mental illness. Virtually no church leaders used the Bible to condemn those who are homosexual during this time period.
Homosexuality was not a moral issue. It was considered a mental illness, or a criminal issue. There was no theology around homosexuality. That would not be created until about 30 years after the RSV introduction of the word. Another hard to believe concept.
Homosexuality was depatholigized by mental health care professionals, meaning, it was seen as a normal part of the spectrum of human sexuality.
Homosexuality, no longer considered a mental illness by experts, becomes a moral issue and sin in conservative Christian circles.
In 1971, The Living Bible, a paraphrase, inserted “homosexuality” into two more passages: Romans 1 and Leviticus 18.
For some, the beginning of the gay rights movement in the late 1960s indicated a moral crisis in America. Conveniently, it was used by some, mostly televangelists of the day, as both a donation tool, and a wedge issue motivating voters to side with conservative social and religious issues.
Theology to support this stance was created for the first time. That may be tough to envision, but all historical records of books, journals, and denominational newsletters support this assertion. Christian organizations promising to change homosexuals to heterosexuals envisioned transformation to be so effective that they could even successfully enter into heterosexual marriages.
Subsequent translators after the RSV, for the most part, neglected to revisit those original assumptions and ignorance on the part of the 1946 translation team.
Perry is born into this culture.
Perry grows up and falls in love with a woman.
LGBTQ Christians in church environments were told they were an abomination to God, and could change according to Scriptures, even those these very passages that had never been used in this way before the 1970s.
Contrary to the expert opinions of medical professionals, Christian organizations and reparative therapy counseling boom with the promise to change gay people into straight people. Gay Christians are given a few options: leave the faith altogether, find a new church that welcomes them, hide their orientation, submit to change therapy, marry heterosexually, or remain celibate for life.
Perry, a lesbian, becomes a Christian in this environment. As would be expected, to identify as a Christian, she has few options open to her. She chooses to leave the relationship with the woman she loves.
Perry grows in her faith and begins a difficult heterosexual relationship with Preston. Eventually they get married and have two children. Again, this is one of the acceptable options placed on gay Christians remaining in conservative faith environments.
Though I’ve created a long and seemingly tedious timeline on which to place Perry’s story, I hope it’s an effective tool showing that discussions around human sexuality and orientation has progressed toward fuller understanding EXCEPT in conservative faith environments. As medical experts better understood sexuality and orientation, conservative Christians took a step backwards to about the 1950s and created a theology to substantiate that move.
Now to Perry’s story in particular.
As one would expect, to remain in a conservative faith environments, Perry views homosexuality as sin. She admits she still struggles with being drawn to women, but, rather than identifying as a “gay Christian,” along with many of her peers, she opts for a semantics and nuanced angle calling herself “same-sex attracted.”
Admonishing those who would identify as “gay Christian,” Perry writes our (Christian’s) identity is to be rooted in Christ. I can partially agree with her reasoning, our identity is to be in Christ.
But, consider this, my fellow heterosexual Christians, Christianity and the lens through which the Bible was written and interpreted, has revolved around us and a strict male with female only scenario based on roles for millenia.
Historically, LGBTQ people have not even had the language to express their life experiences that existed outside the binary of men with women and women with men. Now, they have the language and a way to express that their feelings and experiences. Is it really so difficult to allow people the space, language, and community to define their experience as unlike yours (mine)?
Believers in Jesus have no hesitation declaring our denominational loyalties saying “I am a Baptist, I am an evangelical, I am a Nazarene.” No one yells back, “No, you are not, we are all one in Christ Jesus and just Christians.” No, we allow ourselves to be grouped by experiences, beliefs with and an array of labels. It is quite common for people to form groups of shared experiences and label themselves as such.
Using an identity label of “gay” does not negate Jesus or supercede Jesus, or limit a rich spiritual life. We straight Christians don’t need to label ourselves. We don’t need to say heterosexual Christians. We are the default; we are the “normal.”
Yet, Perry and others are adamant about using the term same-sex attracted rather than “gay.” This is surprisingly a major issue for many conservative Christians, including Perry. She says, “I don’t believe it is wise or truthful to the power of the gospel to identify oneself by the sins of one’s past or the temptation of one’s present but rather to only be defined by the Christ who’s overcome both for those He calls His own.” (p. 148) Additionally, “LGBT culture has done an excellent job of renewing or should I say destroying, the mind of many, mainly by consistently using words as their greatest tool in their efforts to draw people into finding greater joy in identifying with their sin rather than their Creator.” (p. 150)
If using self identifiers common to the culture is enough to keep one from heaven or even from greater joy in God, that is a darn weak gospel.
As to the viability of the celibacy option offered to LGBTQ Christians, this too is a newly created “theology.”
Once Christians started the attempts to change LGBTQ Christians in the late 1970s, the goalposts of expectations have been constantly on the move.
In the late 1970s to 2010s when Christian reparative therapy was introduced, the expectation was a change to heterosexuality, marrying heterosexually, or remaining celibate for life. The blame for being gay gradually shifted from bad parenting to rebellion against God on the part of gay people themselves, and onto to the sinful result of The Fall. More recently, with focus on the ineffectiveness and damaging effects of reparative therapy, in some Christian environments, a “same-sex attraction” identity has become more acceptable, but with it, remains a lifelong demand for celibacy.
As laws banning reparative/change therapy are being introduced and passed in many states, there is a new option to the offering: “reintegrative therapy. With it, the LGBTQ community is being asked to step back to the 1960s-ish.
Perry invests about 30 pages telling her readers of the struggle to trust and fall in love with her husband, Preston.
I’ve heard hundreds, actually likely thousands, of stories of LGBTQ people heterosexually marrying. Some can and do accomplish this with minimal tension. In most instances that do work, there is some degree of bisexuality, a natural attraction to both sexes. Deceptive and dishonestly, bisexuality is never written about as a real scenario in these sorts of books.
For the overwhelming majority, did I say OVERWHELMING majority, a mixed-orientation marriage, as it is called, is not a healthy option for either partner. Once out of a heterosexual marriage, these same LGBTQ folks go on to same-sex relationships and marriages and flourish emotionally and spiritually.
Again, Perry’s scenario may work marvelously for her, but clearly her story is not at all typical.
After the marriage, she leaves the readers almost flatly at the altar. I know that I was curious. How is that working? Are you both fulfilled, happy, joyous? I really would have wanted to read about the love and joy they experience as a married couple, but the reader is shut out of that insight.
Credit to Perry where it is due. Her telling of her journey to relationship with God is lovely and moving. Her language in many places is poetic, though in other places it feels forced and too ethereal for the point she is making, like a writing assignment where a student is told to use a maximum amount of word pictures.
The writing throughout the book is unfocused. The reader goes from wandering in a sea of Jungian like-dream sequences to a jammed in oh-yeah-it’s-not-okay-to-be-gay point. Really awkward.
Like others before this (Christopher Yuan and Rosaria Butterfield’s books—I reviewed those as well), it is highly likely that this book will be used as the latest sacred tool shoved as a burden on the backs of LGBTQ Christians, particularly young women. The message offered, unspoken or not, is “Look, Jackie is married with kids. You can do this too, if you really try.”
If you are tempted to do this to another person (in love, of course), please really consider the history that I laid out at the start of this review. This entire category of “what to do with the gays in churches” is a new one in Christianity.
Perry doesn’t deal with the passages used to condemn same-sex behavior. So if your intention is to compel an LGBTQ person to change via Scripture, that’s not included in this book.
This is Perry’s story only—unfocused, ethereal, flat, and forced in content. It’s the kind of writing that for me would typically only merit a skimming, but I read all of it because I take the task of book reviews seriously.
Perry is a successful spoken word artist, as is her husband. It’s evident that she does have a gift for words and the blending of them into effective mind pictures, but a book of this sort is not the communication mechanism for that gifting.
Finally, I try to imagine what the reaction might be if this book were given to my LGBTQ Christian friends. The supposition that they have not tried hard enough, not read those secret verses in the Bible, not submitted to God enough, not practiced submission deeply enough, not sought after God as hard as Jackie is false. For the most part, the majority of LGBTQ Christians I know have struggled with verses and God far more than any person who hands them yet another “hopeful, “loving” book.
So, here is my suggestion. Skip the book-giving. Skip reading the book if you think you are going to get insights into the lives of those who identify as LGBTQ Christians.
Rather, ask an LGBTQ Christian about their relationship with God, about the person they love, about their journey in life and with God has looked like for them. And then, listen some more. If you don’t personally know any LGBTQ Christians, start with Justin Lee’s wonderful memoir, “Torn,” or maybe Amber Cantora’s “ReFocusing My Family.”
You may find, as I did, that it’s not LGBTQ Christians that need to change. It is the exclusionary conservative church that needs to revisit wrong assumptions and bad translations and get a good education in the history of human sexuality.
If you are LGBTQ and Christian, also check out Lee’s or Cantorna’s book, or one of many LGBTQ affirming faith organizations can help you find your journey and story.
Skip Perry’s “Gay Girl Good God,” but do listen to her spoken word loveliness on other topics. She has a gift, it’s just misplaced in this book.