Is there a bigger source of loneliness-inducing trauma in our community than religious trauma?
This is Craig's story.
You don’t seek out and then read articles about loneliness as a gay or queer man unless you’ve come to the realisation that you’re lonely. The stigma and shame you feel is real, and it takes a lot of courage to even engage with the subject.
I’m proud of you for opening this article. I recognise and admire your courage. Now that you’re here, let’s start getting you connected to yourself, those most important to you and to your community.
This article was written in Āotearoa / New Zealand and published on Ngunnawal country. I wish to acknowledge and respect the Ngunnawal people’s continuing culture and the contribution they make to the life of Canberra and the surrounding region. I would also like to acknowledge and welcome other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – and other First Nations people - who may read these words.
The words you’re about to read from my friend Craig were shared with me back in 2021. I haven’t published them before because I was scared.
I feared getting such an important source of SO MANY thoughts and feelings of loneliness affecting gay men wrong. I struggle to think of a bigger source of loneliness-inducing trauma than religious trauma in the LGBTIQA+ community.
The subject of gay loneliness and religion is enormous and it touches so many of our lives – whether we’ve ever been religious or not. Religious dogma is a factor in how others relate to you individually and us as an entity. It is a factor in how you relate to yourself, too.
Forgive the metaphor, but it felt like I was waiting to take the perfect picture by capturing an entire complex landscape through the viewfinder of my work.
I realised that my fear was not serving you and helping you feel supported, served, challenged and inspired. We all have an experience of how faith and religion has shaped us and influenced – even if for the barest of moments – how we perceive ourselves and our worthiness for being loved and feeling belonging just as we are.
Rather than trying to capture the entire issue, just like in photography, I want to narrow the focus and ensure that our stories of loneliness and connection are told in the way they each deserve.
You’re about to read Craig’s story. It may trigger a response in you. Be kind to yourself. And reach out to me for support if you need to.
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As a Christian we are taught that we are never alone. We have a church full of people and we have the creator of the universe to guide us. However, despite having many friends at church, I still felt alone.
I remember as a five-year-old moving to a beach community north of Auckland and walking in the doors of our new church, holding the hands of my two younger sisters. What I didn’t understand then, was that I was starting my journey with a conservative Baptist church which would last for 24 years. During this time, I was a worship leader, a youth pastor and ran all the social events.
I was popular. The church loved me. But that’s probably because I was lying to them.
Like most gay guys, I started to notice that I was having feelings towards guys at my primary school, the same way they were having them for my female friends. I didn’t know why; it was all so strange for me. These feelings didn’t stop when I reached high school, instead they became stronger. But of course, I became an expert at hiding my feelings. See at church we were taught that God, the creator of all the universe, designed Adam and Eve as a symbol to us all, that a man can only have a relationship with a woman. Any other form of a relationship was a dirty sin. This meant there was absolutely no way that I could ‘come out’.
I went to confession instead and sought the guidance of my pastor for help. Naturally he told me that it was a sin to think of men like that, and that I needed to seek forgiveness and guidance from God.
This is when I mastered the art of hiding my sexuality. I made up girlfriends, played more sports and did more traditionally manly things to hide the fact that my hormones were raging for the attention of another man. When my pastor would ‘check in’ with me, I would simply lie and say, “it was all under control”. And naturally I couldn’t tell anyone what was going on, I had to deal with this on my own.
I was stuck in this anomaly. On one hand I was a raging gay that wanted to express this side of me and join the parades, gay bars, and other community groups. I wanted to explore my sexuality and experiment. But I also believed in God. Like God wasn’t a pretend character anymore. God was a real and alive part of who I was.
Being gay and Christian was like joining two opposing magnets. They just wouldn’t work.
I had values around sex and relationships that didn’t seem to align with the gay community and the gay community had so much hurt and rejections from the Christian community that the two groups just seemed to naturally oppose each other. This made my isolation feel even more real. I knew no-one like me and had no-one I could get advice from.
At one point in my life, I felt so hopeless, that I went back to my pastor and told them that I was still struggling and really needed something serious to get rid of these attractions I was feeling. He recommended me to a specialist ‘in changing someone’s sexuality’. I started with weekly sessions where I would explain the intimate fantasies I was masturbating over, and the therapist would offer me methods to reprogram my brain.
After a course of six months, I was promoted to group therapy. This meant I sat in a room with 12 men, all twice my age, and again illustrated our fantasy life and pornography addictions and then clap each other when we conquered our thoughts. Looking back at these times, I feel a deep sickening feeling and ask the question, why did no one allow me to celebrate the feelings and fantasies I was dreaming of.
As you can imagine, this therapy fucked up my life even more. I wasn’t being honest with anyone.
This dishonesty formed a wedge between my friends, family, and community groups. I would present a version of myself that people liked to events and church, all while my true self was at home alone, hiding.
When I was 29, I fled to London. I had no significant relationship here in Auckland, so I felt I had nothing to lose. London was crazy. So many people. I remember on my first day in this new city, I got off the smelly warm tube and appeared on the street of Oxford Circus. This is one of London’s busiest shopping areas. I was immediately overwhelmed with how many people were rushing past me. I was not in Kansas anymore. Now I was living in one of the most diverse cities in the world. For every one Aucklander, London had eight more people. After living there for a few years, I discovered this meant that for every one of me, a gay Christian, there were eight like me. Finally, I wasn’t alone. [continued below]
What I discovered was that there was a small, often hidden, community of people who were proud to gay and Christian. Some were loud and dragged me along to the Pride Parade in Soho, and others quietly arrived at a home group that was created for people like me to talk and explore this unique way of life.
Finding people like me helped me rewrite my own internal narrative about who I thought I was.
I was no longer defined by what I had learnt from my conservative upbringing, but now I was able to observe other people and decide which parts of those people felt right for me. One evening I was babysitting a friend’s toddler, and during the evening I was given a book to read. The book was a brightly colours picture book about a caterpillar making the transition to a butterfly. As I was reading the book, I could not help feel like I was that caterpillar inside the cocoon. Right now, I was changing from something I had been lying to myself about, to something new, unique and me.
When I returned to New Zealand, I had the daunting task of ‘coming out’ to all the people who knew the old me.
It started with family and close friends, then I needed to extend this process to my church community, whom many I was still in touch with. What I wasn’t ready for was the alone feeling to rush back in.
As I was ‘coming out’, I realised that I was a trailblazer to most of the people I was talking to. No one had experienced a gay person before, let alone one who was also Christian.
There was no guide for them or me to follow and more importantly, now there was no small intimate community of gay Christians for me to lean on and find rest with. As you can imagine, the coming out process was not smooth sailing. Christians are obsessed with what happens after you die. Will you go to heaven? Will God judge you and cast you to the fiery hell? We all want to know.
I remember one ‘friend’ thanking me for sharing with him so honestly, and likened my homosexuality to steeling a pencil. “It was not a big enough crime for me to wind up in jail, but it was still a crime”. Meaning that being gay was not enough to stop me from going to heaven, but it was still a sin.
But I wasn’t going to let these bad experiences send me backwards. I knew I needed to find more people like me. They had to be out there. So like any good person in 2016 would do, I turned to the the internet. I googled Gay and Christian. After scrolling through pages of horrid sermons, books that promised to change you, and counselling services, I found a church in Auckland that was specifically setup for LGBTQ+ Christians.
I found my people.
One Sunday evening, I drove into the big city of Auckland, went into this huge stone church and as I entered the main room a rainbow flag caught my attention. Then I noticed the priest in a rainbow robe. These symbols immediately relaxed me and I felt like all of me could be safe. Later that evening I met with a number of my people. They told me about other churches and groups that were full on my people.
I finally wasn’t alone.
This aloneness, the feelings and mental health issues that caused me, drove me to do more for my community. I knew there must be people like me all over New Zealand, hiding in tiny towns, feeling alone.
With the help of some friends, we started an online network of LGBTQ+ Christians. We created a home where they could find books, local safe churches and testimonies from normal people like me that would hopefully encourage those people to ‘come out’ and join a community that would no longer let them be alone. Diverse Church held it first conference in 2017 and over 100 people came from all over Āotearoa to be with their people and fellowship in a safe and affirming environment.
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Craig – I simply love and admire you and your courage. I’m thrilled that you’ve found your place and that you advocate for others in Āotearoa/New Zealand to feel accepted in their faith and their sexuality.
Thank you for sharing your story with the world. I just know that your experience and the way you captured it will really speak to so many gay and queer men experiencing loneliness.
Sending you enormous hugs from this side of the Tasman.
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Friend, Craig's words may have upset you.
If you want to take a step towards exploring your loneliness from being Christian an gay register for the Connection Session on the last weekend in March 2023. It's a small group call led by me (Phil). Register now as places are limited. Register here.
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Otherwise check out my services page when you’re ready for my 1-on-1 support and guidance.
I’ll also have a coffee and a chat with you, Craig and life coach Eric Feltes on being Christian and gay on the next episode of Connection over Coffee with The Loneliness Guy.
Important notice: All views expressed above are my own/the authors and are intended to support, challenge and inspire gay men to consider the issue of loneliness and increase awareness of the need for authentic connection with themselves, with others and their communities as an antidote to chronic loneliness. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional. Please consult the Services page if you feel that you need the services of a licensed helping professional where you are in the world.