I was catching up on news on my Kindle this morning (the main way I read the paper these days), and I came across an interesting article from this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. It was by Benoit Denizet-Lewis and was titled My Ex-Gay Friend. It describes the author’s visit to Michael, a friend who has declared he is no longer gay.
If you check out the article, you’ll see that it has generated a lot of comments, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to add anything to the mix, except a few things intrigued me about the piece. I was generally impressed with Denzet-Lewis’ attempt to be evenhanded in his effort to discover why someone he had worked with closely and knew very well had made this transition, which came as a result of his friend’s decision to become a Christian. He interviewed his friend, his friend’s former boyfriend, and some of his former colleagues at the magazine where they both worked. There were two passages I found especially interesting. The first is an account of a conversation with Michael’s former boyfriend, Ben:
As Ben and I reminisced, I couldn’t help wondering if Michael’s new philosophy might, in a strange way, be a logical extension of what he believed back then — that “gay” is a limiting category and that sexual identities can change. Ben nodded. “A radical queer activist and a fundamentalist Christian aren’t always as different as they might seem,” he said, adding that they’re ideologues who can railroad over nuance and claim a monopoly on the truth.
Ben went on. “To me, Michael is a victim of this insane society we live in, where we grow up with all these conflicting messages and pressures around sexuality and religion, and where we divide into these camps where we’re always right and the other side is always wrong. Some people are susceptible to buying into that, and I think Michael is one of them.”
The second quotation comes from a conversation the author has with Michael himself, in which Denizet-Lewis asks Michael to reflect on his former lifestyle/identity:
“Do you regret that time?” I asked him.
“I think God had to take me to a lot of different places, and let me study many different perspectives and religions, for me to finally know the truth,” he said. “XY was just a part of that journey.”
I told Michael about a recent conversation I had with our former boss at XY, Peter Ian Cummings, who surprised me by wondering aloud if Michael was ever truly gay. “In retrospect, more than you or me or anyone else who worked at the magazine, his sexuality almost felt more theoretical than real to me,” Peter told me. “At a very young age, he had all these very well thought out theories about identity and sexuality. Maybe this gay or queer identity that fascinated him, and that he had taken on, wasn’t really true for him. It doesn’t explain why he says such ridiculous things about gay people now, but maybe, just maybe, he’s not in denial about his own sexuality.”
The first quotation acknowledges or claims the fluidity of sexuality, the idea that a person isn’t automatically this or that, which is both intriguing and controversial, given our current cultural climate.
I find the second quotation even more intriguing, however, because it contains the actual rhetorical position referenced in the other quote: the idea that there must be a black and white explanation for everything. The editor, Peter Cummings, says in essence what some Christians say about someone who has left the fold: their experience must not have been genuine or authentic, or else they wouldn’t have left.
Whether Denizet-Lewis realized it or not, his article becomes an essay not so much about understanding the startling decision of a friend as an exploration of how we know what we think we know—which actually is the definition of epistemology. The author finds himself caught squarely between two philosophical poles: using experience to define what is true and using truth (a belief set) to define one’s experience. For those in the article content to live at the level of theory, experience takes the upper hand. For those with a more activist perspective, consensus regarding what is true becomes paramount.
As I was pondering all of this, I thought of a passage out of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 7, Jesus has a lot to say about judging others (which some would latch onto as a foundation for a relativistic perspective on truth), and he has a lot to say about what it means to be a true disciple, or follower. In saying this, he rejects the idea that truth is whatever we want it to be or whatever feels true at a particular moment in our lives. He does, however, declare that not everyone who thinks they are following him is actually doing so; the evidence shows itself in what is generated in that person’s life—their character and actions over the span of their life. This is not saying their actions make them worthy but that a relationship with the One who called himself Truth will always yield truth over time.
Of course that doesn’t help Denizet-Lewis answer his question in the short run, because there isn’t a short-run answer that he would find satisfying. I hope he keeps asking it, nonetheless, and I hope he continues to keep up with his friend—and that Michael does the same in return; it would be good for both of them.