When I saw this T-shirt, I had to say something about it.
This weekend I was spending a few short days with friends in Lynchburg, VA. I got to see some friends who had just taken the Bar exam. I watched a very talented friend perform in the title role of the show "Barnum." I also met a dad who was wearing a very provocative shirt.
It took me a while to come up with that word to describe the shirt. When I first saw him enter the restaurant where I was eating, I couldn't tell what his shirt was all about. I just noticed the "LGBT" in white capital letters emblazoned across the black t-shirt, and I could tell that there were symbols above them making some kind of statement. I just couldn't tell what the symbols were.
I never expected to see a pro-LGBT t-shirt in the shadow of Liberty University's new Tower, despite an attempt by one student recently to have a "rainbow pride" flag flown from that edifice.
So naturally I assumed that this shirt was opposed to the LGBT movement, and I was not wrong.
Two friends were sitting with me, and they didn't immediately notice this t-shirt like I did. When I told them what it said, and that I really wanted to go ask some questions about it, they both encouraged me to do it. I love having bold friends.
After weighing the options for a few moments, I decided to go for it. I went over and found the man with the loud t-shirt standing by the drink dispenser. One of my friends came with me, but only stayed long enough to determine that I wasn't going to get myself into too much trouble.
I introduced myself, and asked him to see the shirt.
Each letter in the shirt corresponds to an image in white above it. The L has a picture of the Statue of Liberty, the G has a gun, the B has strips of bacon, and the T has a bust of President Trump.
"What's with the t-shirt?" I asked. "Oh, my wife got it for me." He said. "The other option was to have a 'Beer' can instead of the bacon. But I guess that wouldn't have gone over well around Liberty University."
"Great." I said, probably coming across as very unenthusiastic. I didn't really get why someone would wear a shirt like this. But I wasn't really interested in the shirt. I wanted to know about his thoughts on more serious questions.
"Can I ask you a question?" I asked.
"Sure." He answered. "I'm Jackson*, by the way." "Thanks. Nice to meet you Jackson." I responded. "I wonder, what is your opinion about Christians who have same-sex sexual attractions?"
Jackson was taken aback by this question, and fumbled around for an answer and a place to put his tea down. He set his tea near the drinks, and asked, "What, are you gay?"
"No." I answered, almost automatically and perhaps a bit defensively. Then I just watched him and waited for his answer.
"Well... do you want my honest opinion?" Jackson asked, picking his tea back up again.
"Yes, I do." I said.
Then we noticed that we were somewhat blocking the drink dispensers, and we swung around out of the way. We stood at the corner of a booth, and continued the conversation there for almost fifteen minutes.
Jackson answered the question honestly. He didn't really know how someone could be a Christian and be gay. "If Christ is in your heart, he should be working on you and transforming you. Being a Christian isn't consistent with being gay." In essence, Jackson said that being a Christian should transform behavior, and that same-sex sexual behavior was not compatible with Christianity.
"Ok." I said, not really giving anything away. "Can I ask you a follow-up question?" "Sure." Jackson said. He was very pleasant and was engaged in this conversation already. I sensed that we would be talking for a while. "I used the term 'Christian who has same-sex sexual attractions,' and you used the term, 'gay.' Do you see a difference between those two terms?" I asked.
After talking through the question for a little while, and going back and forth, Jackson ultimately didn't articulate any differences between the terms. He understood them to be essentially the same.
"Well," I said, "When you asked me if I was 'gay' I said no. I think that was misleading to you, not on purpose, because of what you're saying now. I am attracted to the same sex." I divulged.
Then I went on to describe why I think the two terms are very different, and how important the distinctions are.
"When I say that I am same-sex attracted, I am not saying anything about my identity. I don't identify myself based on the desires that I have. My identity is not founded upon who I am attracted to. 'Gay,' however, does describe a certain identity. It is also a term that almost always gets construed to include behavior. So I never say that I am 'gay.'"
Jackson and I went back and forth discussing this distinction, and he also asked me about my faith.
"So you're a Christian, though?" Jackson asked directly.
"Yes!" I said. "Not because of anything that I have done, but because of what Christ has done in me. He died for my sins, and has appropriated his righteousness to me by grace through faith."
Jackson didn't blink at the theological terms, and I could tell he had a good understanding of Christian theology. He didn't, however, have any category to understand a Christian who has same-sex sexual attractions.
"Yet you are ... ?" Jackson didn't ask if I was 'gay,' but I'm sure he still wanted to use that term.
"I'm attracted to the same-sex." I finished his question with a statement.
"This is just like other temptations that Christians face," I prompted. "We are saved by grace, but we still have temptations to sin."
"Yeah. Hey, sweetie," He said, turning to his daughter who had come up with two specialty drinks from the counter. She was probably about 16 years old. "Why don't you take the food out to the truck?" He suggested.
"You're right," he said to me when his daughter had gone out. "It's just like me when I face temptations." He shared some about his own temptations, which I guess is why he asked his daughter to go outside first.
"Exactly." I agreed.
"But let me ask you," he started, "were you raised in a Christian home?" "Yup." I said. "My parents are strong Christians."
"What's your educational background?" Jackson asked.
"I was homeschooled." I answered.
"And yet you have these temptations?" He said, looking surprised because I didn't meet the stereotypes for men who have same-sex attraction.
"Yes." I said simply.
"I just can't get my mind around that." Jackson said. "I'll be honest with you, I used to be an extreme homophobe."
"What do you mean by that?" I asked, genuinely interested.
"Well, I wouldn't even shake someone's hand who was like that." He said. "I had a co-worker, a woman, and she was gay. I used to never talk to her."
I was honored to have him make these confessions to me. He clearly sounded remorseful for the way he had previously behaved. Then he described how he had learned about the way God would actually have him treat his neighbors. He said it quickly, and I don't remember what actually brought about the change. It may have been a speaker, or a conference. But I can't remember what he said. I couldn't remember what he said almost immediately. I was more focused on the question of how we ought to behave that on where he heard that in the first place.
"Now I see," he continued, "that she is someone who is a great person, and I don't look only at her behavior."
"That's really how we ought to see people." I said eagerly. "God sees us that way. He doesn't look at our sinful behavior on the outside. He looks at us as people who he loves, and he died for us in spite of our sin."
"It's really great that you are starting to look at people that way. I know that I am trying to be more like God and see his image bearers in the way that he sees them." I continued. "And yet, we don't want to ignore sin, either. God doesn't ignore our sins, he died to pay the penalty for them. So while you learn to see your co-worker as a beautiful image bearer of the Holy God, don't stop calling for repentance from sin."
Jackson smiled as I said this, and then said, "Gay people must hate you."
I laughed out loud at that. Sadly, I think it's true many times.
"I'm also staunchly pro-life," I said, smiling, "so I'm used to being hated."
After laughing for a bit, Jackson asked me a very pointed question. This question was awkward, and I have never been asked it before. (At least, I don't remember being asked it.)
"What is it about men that you find attractive?" Jackson asked.
"Well. That's an awkward question to answer, Jackson." I answered, not sure where to begin an answer - or if I should answer.
"True, but this is an awkward conversation for me." Jackson replied. "I've never met anyone like you before, and have never had anyone talk to me about this in a restaurant."
"That's fair." I said. Then I thought long and hard about how to answer his question. It was not a comfortable question, and I didn't really know how to put it into words. I almost asked him, 'What is it about women that you find attractive?' but decided against it. He had no frame of reference to understand my struggle. It was fair of him to ask, I suppose. But would it be beneficial to answer? How could I answer in a way that would help him to understand, and perhaps help him in his future responses?
So I answered how best I knew how. Perhaps it's not a good answer. Perhaps it's not helpful. Perhaps I shouldn't publish it here.
"I think what I am most attracted to men by is the idea of being desired and pursued by another man." I answered.
Jackson didn't ask any follow-up questions to that. Which I appreciated.
He moved the conversation to what I'm doing now, and I was happy to let him know that I am an attorney and am working for The Family Foundation as the Grassroots Coordinator. He was eager to tell me about his daughter who wants to go to law school. And he invited me out to his truck to meet his wife and his daughter.
After at least ten minutes of conversation, but probably closer to fifteen minutes, I was surprised that Jackson's wife and three kids were waiting in the truck! They were all waiting to eat because I was distracting him. But Jackson wouldn't hear anything of an apology. He was thrilled to continue talking, and wanted me to go over everything again with his wife.
She listened to my super-condensed version of what I told Jackson: I am a Christian faithfully following Jesus as best I can despite my temptations toward the same-sex. I may be same-sex attracted, but I am not 'gay.' My identity is in Christ alone.
Then she encouraged me in my walk with Christ and agreed that Christians face various temptations and shouldn't be treated dismissively based on the temptations that they have. His daughter was in the car and we talked about law school for a little while.
After leaving Jackson to eat with his family, I went back and joined my friends.
"Sheesh. You left us for half an hour." My friend said, playing a faux injury.
"You encouraged me." I said, giving a playful defense to my socially inappropriate behavior.
Jackson could not have been more enthusiastic about meeting me. As we said goodbye to him on our way out of the parking lot he kept going on about how encouraged he was.
It was not the reaction that I was expecting when I first saw the t-shirt. I never expected to go on for any length of time with the wearer, and certainly didn't expect him to be so open and honest about his own positions with me.
I'm curious whether he'll continue to wear the shirt.
*not his real name