Coming Out

How My Son's Attempted Suicide Changed My View on Homosexuality

Long Family

By D. Stephen Long
Special to United Methodist Insight

Nine years ago, on a day seared in my memory–the day before Ash Wednesday 2010–my son attempted to take his life.

I was giving my final lecture for the day when my phone buzzed repeatedly in my pocket. The moment class finished I checked my messages only to hear this one from my son’s college roommate: “Jonathan left a suicide note and we cannot find him. We called security.”

Panic ensued. I fled back to my office frantically calling anyone who might have information. His roommate called again and told me that security found him and rushed him to the ER. After repeated calls to the hospital and what seemed an eternity of not-knowing, we discovered that he had arrived in time and was in stable condition. My wife Ricka and I drove through the night from Chicago to Cincinnati passing into a season of Lent. (Above, Jonathan, Stephen and Ricka Long. [Long Family Photo])

We were surprised by our son’s suicide attempt. He appeared happy and successful–active in church and youth group, a member of theater, the symphony, the choir, an all-conference swimmer surrounded by friends and family. We did not see it coming. Nor was his attempt one of those half-hearted attempts confused adolescents sometimes make. Had security not found him in the nick of time, he would have died.

When we retrieved him from the hospital on Ash Wednesday, we saw a young man we hardly recognized–broken, disheveled, irrational, embarrassed, defiant. We drove him home and institutionalized him close to us so we could visit daily. We had no idea what to expect when we brought him home. After six months of close supervision, he seemed healthy enough to return to the university.

Shortly after that our son called to tell us that he was dating someone—a man. His coming out did not take us completely by surprise. He had dated women in high school and college; he was dating a woman when he attempted suicide, so we were caught somewhat off guard; but women never turned his head. I confess that there was some grief when he came out to us, but not because he was gay. We had too many gay friends, colleagues and family members to find homosexuality itself a source of grief. The grief was found in my own imagining what his future life would be, something I had to learn to abandon because it had more to do with me than him.

Time to tell the story

Sufficient time has passed for me to tell this story. My son is in a healthy place these days and I have his permission as well as his and my family’s encouragement to tell it. I resist telling it not because I am ashamed of him. Quite the contrary, the remarkable journey he has been on the past nine years fills me with nothing but admiration. Nor do I fear telling it because it signals my own failures as parent, pastor, or theologian. Confession and conversion are essential in each of those roles.

Truth be told, it is not quite right to say I don’t want to tell it. We have never kept this story private, and have shared it with friends, family, acquaintances. It is more that I don’t want to communicate it through writing. Writing makes it less personal, less intimate. It gives me less control over the narrative. I don’t know how you, the reader, might read and receive this story that is very intimate to me and my family. I fear that you might use it to condemn or harm my son. I fear that you will misperceive my intention. You might read our family’s personal story as a moral object lesson, as nothing but special pleading in a tiresome culture war. The last thing I want is to reduce the richness of my family’s history to that. Nor do I want someone to think that our personal trauma settles a moral argument. I don’t think that it does. Experience alone, even traumatic ones, never suffice for a theological or moral argument.

I had given much thought to homosexuality prior to my son’s coming out, having written two essays on it. The issue was familiar since my days at Taylor University when my first gay friend came out to me in 1981. He and I prayed together for several semesters that God would remove his same-sex attraction. He was earnest and sincere. Our prayers were never answered. It did not occur to me that his attraction was as natural to him as opposite-sex attraction was natural to me. Of course, a sexual orientation is not in itself a normative, moral position, and not all desires are in themselves “natural.” There are “unnatural” desires. By “natural” here I mean those creaturely dispositions that can be directed to good ends. Both of us would have to learn how to act morally on our orientation. My friend and I never made it to that discussion.

Prior to his coming out, homosexuality was an abstraction to me. Anita Bryant came to my small Midwestern town when I was in high school, sponsored by several local churches. She was a leading voice back in the 1970s in spreading a message that the “gay agenda” would destroy Western civilization. I attended the rally as an evangelical Christian and even then was disturbed at the vitriol directed toward gay persons. It did not seem to fit with what I read in Scripture about loving one’s neighbor. I heard friends, supposedly evangelical Christians, say that they would beat “those gays” up if they came into our town, with little awareness that they were already there or that violence exercised toward gays would somehow invite God’s displeasure rather than pleasure.

Much has changed since then, and I think undoubtedly for the better. Gay, lesbian, transgender and intersex persons need no longer hide in the shadows. They are not forced into lifeless heterosexual marriages. They are less in danger of losing their jobs, facing criminal charges, or being harassed and beaten by people who consider themselves to be executing divine judgment. Anyone who does not recognize this change for the better not only lacks a moral compass but also poses an existential threat to my family and many others. Civil rights extended to persons who are gay, lesbian, transgender, or intersex is a remarkable achievement, something I celebrate with joy and something most churches now affirm. I think of this progress similar to how I think about civil rights extended to African Americans. When I was a boy, I saw “white only” and “black only” signs on restrooms. The memory is that fresh. My children never saw those signs. I’m grateful.

My son’s attempted suicide made the challenges of homosexuality real. Now I knew it in a way that was less theoretical. I knew the statistics that gay and lesbian adolescents were more likely to commit suicide than others. After his recovery and coming out, my son’s emotional and mental health vastly improved.

My son’s coming out also challenged me. How would I bring together my role as a parent to him, as a United Methodist elder under orders to my church, and as a moral theologian?

Necessary to speak once again

I have not written on homosexuality since 2010. Given that the church I love will most likely split over what my son represents, I find it necessary once again to speak to this issue. I don’t know what it will mean for our church to split. There is the possibility that I will not be able to attend some churches with him and his partner, or that he would be excluded from the Eucharist. He and his partner will not be allowed to have their covenant blessed. In that sense, the church will not be able to offer him some similar moral guidance on how to exercise his sexual orientation as it has offered o me, making possible my own life-giving marriage. If the church continues to condemn his same-sex orientation and practice, it will only tell him, without offering any kind of formation, “be celibate or disappear.”

What have I learned in the last decade from our son’s experience? Here is where I hesitate to write because I fear the sides are so entrenched, so incapable of theological reflection and patient listening that it has all become reduced to nothing but an exercise of power, each seeking to rid the church of the other through the inadequate means of voting. Some will see my affirmation of my son’s sexual orientation as natural to him as a betrayal of “orthodoxy.” Others will see it as my coming around finally to be a good liberal Protestant committed to “progressive” causes. In affirming my son’s orientation, which I have little doubt is as natural to him as is mine to me, I want to avoid both these interpretations.

Here is what I think I’ve learned. The first lesson has already been stated. Same-sex attraction is natural to some people. This first lesson should be recognized as a scientific advance similar to the fact that the earth is round and not the center of the universe, and humans evolved from previous life forms. Despite popular narratives around these issues, the church did not universally deny them but found ways to read scripture well without abandoning reason even when these facts appeared to conflict with straightforward interpretations of Genesis 1. Such a flat-footed reading of Scripture had been rejected by theologians as early as the second century when careful exegetes recognized that the sun and the moon, necessary for a day, were created on the fourth day. Whatever “day” signified in Genesis 1, it could not mean the same as what day means for us. Scripture was not abandoned but read with richer allegorical and moral meanings.

We, too, must not abandon Scripture. It also appears to reject homosexuality. For example, biblical scholars have determined that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 – from which the inaccurate gay epithet “sodomite” derives – is not about homosexuality but about inhospitality (Ezekiel 16:49-50).

The crucial passage for most people is Leviticus 18:22: “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman. It is an abomination.” This passage occurs in the context of Moses reminding Israel that they are not to be like the other nations. They are not to be like the Egyptians from whom they have been redeemed nor like those in Canaan to whom God is bringing them (Leviticus 18:4). They are to be holy as God is holy. How they exercise their sexuality will be a sign of that holiness. The mission of these instructions is not to be like the nations for the sake of the nations (Gen. 12:1-3). Sexual activity is not singled out as an issue apart from that mission, which is to transform the Hebrews from pseudo-Egyptians (having lived in that culture for four centuries) into the people of God. Leviticus 18:22, then, makes sense in terms of this mission. If a passage is taken out of the context of the mission to holiness and turned into a moral teaching on its own, then it will lose its intelligibility.

Creaturely good

God created male and female for a purpose. Our creation as male and female is a creaturely good that serves the command “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1: 27). Any rejection of male and femaleness is a rejection of fulfilling Scripture’s first command. New Testament rejection of homosexuality in Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and 1 Timothy 1:10 most likely assumes the prohibition in Leviticus 18:22, the mission in Genesis 12, and the purpose for male and female in Genesis 1 (See Robert Song’s Covenant and Calling for a good discussion of these passages).

Should this mean that all male and female creatures are required to fulfill the command to procreate? Is this the sole reason for our sex and gender? If so, then Jesus did not fulfill the law. Celibacy shows that the command in Genesis 1 is not intrinsic to being male and female. Nor do we consider infertility divine judgment against sexually active heterosexual couples; we do not consider infertile, heterosexual marriages invalid. Nor do we consider marriage among people past child-bearing ages improper. Nor do we consider that all sex in marriage is morally permissible only when it issues in offspring. Catholics prohibit artificial contraception, but they do not teach that married couples should only have sex when a woman’s cycle makes her most open to pregnancy. In fact, they encourage natural family planning–a practice that intends sexual relations that will not issue in offspring. Protestants permit artificial contraception, but most still assume that a creaturely good of marriage is openness to children. As a moral theologian, I think the vocation of heterosexual marriage requires openness to procreation except under extraordinary circumstances. Yet all churches recognize that there are goods of marriage beyond the good of procreation. What purpose does the prohibition against homosexuality serve? Is it a violation of creaturely goods present in created order?

Let me take these two questions in order. What purpose does the prohibition against homosexuality serve? The question may seem odd–a prohibition is a prohibition. If Scripture condemns something, who are we to ask about what purpose it serves? But this is a necessary question because no one takes every prohibition in Scripture as a bare prohibition without asking what purpose the law, principle, or rule serves. Jesus himself set the context of the law in its fulfilment not in its bare observance. Consider the following two examples of many possibilities.

  1. Jesus said, “But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the grounds of unchastity, makes her an adulteress, and whoever marries a divorce woman commits adultery” (Matt 5:32)
  2. Jesus said, “Lend, expecting nothing in return” (Luke 6:36).

In each of these cases, the bare observance of the law without concern for the purpose that it serves could have the effect of keeping the law but violating its purpose.

(1) Jesus said nothing about homosexuality but he explicitly condemned divorce and remarriage. Most Protestant churches regularly remarry divorced people with little concern for the letter of the law. How did that come about? It could be a failure of biblical obedience, and perhaps on some occasions it is. But it is also because we know of situations in which divorce and remarriage is more merciful than requiring people to stay together. When one person is being abused by another physically or emotionally such that the purposes of fidelity and friendship in marriage are so marred that they are no longer recognized, divorce and the possibility of remarriage fulfills the purpose of marriage better than forcing persons to stay in miserable conditions.

(2) Who is kept up at night worrying that their savings and investments are making money in direct violation of Jesus’ teaching to lend without interest? This could be a result of greed, but it is also because we recognize that investments can generate non-exploitative profits that can be socially shared contributing to human flourishing. The bare observance of a prohibition because it is a prohibition is an act of fideism that makes it impossible to sustain ordinary moral living. It cannot take place with the bare observance of biblical law and the regular enforcement of every violation. It never has and it never will. This by no means entails that every precept, rule, or law should regularly be violated. It requires recognizing that laws are not an end in themselves but require an acknowledgement of their purposes. As Thomas Aquinas puts it, law directs human acts to virtuous ends. Lose those ends and the law becomes arbitrary. It serves no purpose.

Is homosexuality a violation?

Is homosexuality a violation of creaturely goods present in created order? Should we treat Leviticus 18:22 like we treat Matthew 5:32 and Luke 6:36, or should we treat it like we treat the prohibition against incest in Leviticus 18:9 or offering your children as sacrifices in Leviticus 18:21 that do violate creaturely goods causing serious harm?

The answer to this second question will depend upon the answer to the question “what purpose does the prohibition against homosexuality serve?” An answer to that question returns us to Genesis 1. What God gave to Israel that neither the Egyptians nor the Canaanites had was a creation story in which being created as male and female was a creaturely good. What some fear about homosexuality is first that it will lose this creaturely good. The body becomes an inert thing with no moral significance until we exercise our will upon it. I find this to be a legitimate concern in late modern capitalist society when people are being reduced to commodities intended solely for producing and consuming.

Second, some fear a kind of dystopian future in which no child will be attributed a gender at birth, but parents will be required to wait until the child is of age to decide for her or himself what his or her gender will be. Then, after that decision, gender assignment will take place. What I learned most from my son’s journey over the past nine years is that the latter fear is misplaced and homosexuality raises little concerns about the former. Oh, there will always be some foolish academic somewhere who will make outrageous claims like the current philosophical anti-natalists who judge every birth as an act of injustice. But the fear that we will lose the creaturely goods of male-femaleness because we allow same-sex marriage manifests a fear that creaturely goods are neither “creaturely” nor “goods.”

In other words, “creaturely goods” are what they are because God has made them to reflect God’s own goodness. Their goodness will endure. That my son’s same-sex orientation is as natural to him as my opposite-sex orientation is to me in no way violates that we are both male, because what it means to be male is not simply that a person is willing to fulfill the command in Genesis 1. In fact, my grandfather “fulfilled” that command five times with my grandmother and then abandoned her and his children to poverty and the generosity of others for their sustenance.

Surely sex serves other purpose than mere procreation. Celibacy is possible. Non-procreative elderly marriages are possible. Non-procreative infertile marriages are possible. Non-procreative heterosexual marriages for the sake of mission or under some dire consequences should be possible. What is before the life of the church is the possibility that non-procreative same-sex marriages might be possible as ways to fulfill the mission laid out in Genesis 12. Such marriages could fulfill the purposes of fidelity, friendship and openness to life signifying the union between Christ and his church, drawing natural same-sex orientations into a grace-filled, sanctifying relationship.

‘Marriage’ needs clarity

The term “marriage” needs some clarity. There is, on the one hand, secular or civil marriage which is a legal contract people enter into on the basis of rights. In the United States of America, such marriage is now open to all on an equal basis, as it should be.

There is, on the other hand, the Christian vocation to marriage. As a vocation, marriage is a calling to a specific form of life. It is the task of the local ecclesial community to determine if any two persons are called to marriage. Such determination would include for heterosexual couples an openness to children through biological reproduction insofar as that is possible. Bearing and raising children is a moral endeavor grounded in creaturely goods that is part of the vocation of marriage. We all came into existence through the creation of male and female. To deny this is to deny the conditions for our own existence.

There are also other forms of the marriage vocation–the marriage of the elderly for the sake of companionship and that of those who have a natural same-sex orientation for similar reasons. Some same-sex oriented persons, like other-sex oriented persons, might be called to celibacy, but celibacy should not be forced upon anyone–not even the clergy. When celibacy is demanded, it is an invitation to deception. The Reformers were right about that. If Protestants are to recover the vocation of celibacy, we will need to relearn monastic practices and that may serve those called to singleness and celibacy well. Even if we do that, no one should be forced to be celibate. It, too, is a calling to be discerned by a community.

Gay, lesbian and transgender persons and communities need the church as much as straight persons and communities do. They pose no greater challenge to creaturely goodness than do straight persons. That some people are born both male and female, a biological fact that makes possible a non-binary account of gender, need not challenge the creaturely goodness of male and female either, although their presence among us does challenge what it means to be either male or female. If gay, lesbian, transgender, or intersex persons were incapable of recognizing sexual difference they would be unrecognizable as gay, lesbian, transgender, and intersex persons.

Fear not. We are not headed into a dystopian future. We are attempting to make space for persons made in the image of God whose natural desires, orientations, and biological realities need sanctifying grace that will require something other than individual moral heroism because the only option the church gives them is “voluntarily” to choose enforced celibacy. “Enforced” and “voluntary” contradict each other.

Grace perfects nature

Here is what I have learned in the past nine years.

Stephen Long and his son, Jonathan (Photo Courtesy of Stephen Long)LGBTQI communities are no more redemptive in themselves than straight or cis-gendered communities. They are communities of natural orientations that require something other than nature for their redemption.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for the LA Gay Men’s Choir that welcomed my son and gave him a home away from home where he could discover what it meant, and didn’t mean, for him to be a gay man. The friendship and camaraderie he experienced there has been beautiful to behold. I wish the church had been able to function for him like the Gay Men’s Choir did. The church can learn a great deal from such communities. But that choir does not have the means of sanctifying grace that makes possible a re-orientation of all our desires. Grace perfects nature.

Seven years prior to my son’s attempted suicide, I wrote an essay similar to this one in a book that argued that we should “stay the course” in the church and not change our marriage practices. I stand by much that was written in that essay but now come to a different conclusion. We ask too much of those with natural same-sex attraction to stay the course. We ask them to be moral heroes. Perhaps some can rise to that occasion, but many cannot. It is time to let our gay brothers and sisters lay down the burden under which they labor and hear Jesus’ merciful words:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, NRSV*).

I am no more asking the church to affirm homosexuality as such than I am asking it to affirm heterosexuality as such. My grandfather’s exercise of his heterosexuality leaves me much more concerned than that of my son. My grandfather’s behavior did significant harm. We all need the tender mercies of Christ to make sense of our natural desires. Local communities should have the freedom to make that determination when it comes to the vocation of marriage because they are the ones with the practical wisdom to discern vocation.

Readers may say that I have only come to these arguments and conclusion because of the trauma of my son’s attempted suicide. My answer is yes, of course. Ordinary life can be an excellent moral teacher. The difficulty of being same-sex-oriented almost destroyed his life as it has many other lives. I enter every Lent with gratitude that unlike many, my son was restored to me. Yes, that restoration made me rethink things, but it made me rethink things. It pressed me to read and ponder how to be an orthodox Christian, a faithful Methodist elder, a thoughtful moral theologian, and a good father.

My son is a musician. Reflecting back on his own dark night of the soul, he wrote a song, “Excuse me Lord.” Let me conclude with the lyrics he wrote.

Excuse me lord,
but would you mind,
If I prayed to you,
I know it's been some time
but I've lost my way,
when I found myself,
refused help but now I realize.

I need someone,
someone like you,
someone who knows,
what we do when we've got something,
we've misplaced,
we just can’t say,
It's on the heart,
it's on the brain,
It's something I just can't explain.

It's like when you've been broken down,
It's like when you've been beat around, listen to the sound,
It can't be found maybe,
It's way too loud maybe,
I scream and shout but it don't come out and now I'm drowning in it.
They tell me:

The way you live is not allowed,
your presence just might change a crowd,
You're just a sinner, baby,
It's unforgiven, baby,
There's something wrong and you don't belong,
but I'm still praying lately!

I can't see how this will play out,
but the lights have dimmed and I'm overwhelmed
thinking I'm the one that it’s all about
and I'm scared with how it will all turn out,
but the show goes on with you or without
and they still believe even with a doubt,
that the ones they love just might be pushed out,
just because you are something that stands out.

I can't see how this will play out,
but the lights have dimmed and I'm overwhelmed
thinking I'm the one that it’s all about
and I'm scared with how it will all turn out,
but the show goes on with you or without
and they still believe even with a doubt,
that the ones they love just might be pushed out,
just because you are something that stands out.

Click below to hear Jonathan Long perform "Excuse Me, Lord." 

The Rev. D. Stephen Long is Cary M. Maguire University Professor of Ethics at United Methodist-related Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and an elder in the Indiana Annual Conference.

Jonathan Long is a musician living in Los Angeles and teaching at the Renaissance Arts School.

*NRSV New Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Committee on Education of the National Council of the Church of Christ in the USA. All rights reserved. Used by permission.