Phil (not his real name) and I walked into his favorite gay bar. I entered with some fear and trepidation (OK a LOT of sheer terror) expecting to find that I was in a house of iniquity where every kind of perversion was practiced. I expected there would be men in butt exposing leather chaps, and lewd things happening in the booths for all to see, and “cruisers” who would see that I was straight and pounce on me to turn me gay. Instead, it just looked like any other bar; there were straight folks, some lesbian and gay couples, a couple of cross dressers, assorted single folks and us, a gay man and a straight pastor.
I guess it would be helpful to tell how I got there, eh?
I was serving as pastor in a small town church; it was early in my life as a pastor so I was pretty green. One evening I got a call from Phil; he seemed desperate to talk. We met in my office and he shared that he was gay, married, and in a job that wouldn’t tolerate gays at all. He had children and a good family, yet he was miserable and had to daily fight a herculean battle to stay true to his wedding vows; he was full of guilt and self-loathing. I was completely out of my league and really didn’t know how to help him. He sensed I was clueless about gays, so he challenged me to come with him to a gay bar so I could see the “gay life” for myself and gain some insight into his struggle. I told him “sure,” but was thinking “yeah, I’ll go right after hell installs an ICEE machine.” He said, Great, let’s go now; I had no way out. So, like a lamb being led to its slaughter, I fell in stride with Phil, quietly composing my parting sermon for the coming Sunday.
Among all the surprises that greeted me upon entering the bar, the one that struck me the most was the change in Phil. He quickly changed into a Phil that I had never seen before. The moment we walked into the place, he became very gregarious, outgoing, relaxed, and happy. It was like black and white. He wasn’t flirty or anything, just “at home.” I said, “Phil, you look like a man whose terminal cancer diagnosis turned out to be just an infected hangnail. What’s with the happiness?” He said, “This is the only place on earth I can be my authentic self, free from guilt, fear, shame, and worry about who is going to find out I’m gay.” He shed tears as he told me of the incredible burden that all that pretending had become and how hypocritical he felt and how alone he was in his fear, shame, and pain. It was then that my soul first delivered that haunting message, “Saay, something’s wrong here.”
Phil and I met in his bar from then forward. He shared openly and honestly, and I cried with him and laughed with him. Then one day his wife came to see me and told me he had left her and his kids and moved to parts unknown. I’ve never seen him nor heard from him since. I have shed a lot of tears since that time, asking what I could have done. I felt I had let him down, but I really didn’t know anywhere he could have gone to find the acceptance he craved. Simply said, I had failed to give him hope. That experience haunted me for many years. I still pray for Phil and hope he has found the peace and joy of Christ in his heart and found a church that would accept his authentic self.
Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was like a Pharisee, putting the law above love. This small battle was just beginning, and I was still able to quash it and hang on to my certainties. But that was just the beginning of a thirty-plus year battle for my heart and soul.