Forgetting Former things by Shawn Harrison
“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” Isaiah 43:18-19 (NIV)
I remember watching a news segment that showed two guys kissing each other. I don’t remember what the news report was about, but I do remember saying to myself, “That’s what I am … gay.” Ever since I could remember, I have liked guys. Sure, I tried dating girls and I even tried having sex with girls; but for the most part, those physical things never went to the heart, as my attractions for guys did.
I remember acting more “feminine” while growing up than “being a man.” I did not hunt, play football, or work on cars. I did not follow sports religiously. I hated gym class. I had more girls that were friends than I did boys. I loved art class, theatre, music, writing poetry, shopping, and talking on the phone (though now I hate to shop and talk on the phone, which I think is a good thing).
I moved a lot when I was kid, and my parents were divorced, so while I had two homes I never really felt at home anywhere. Growing up I always felt that I was living two lives: one at my mom’s house and one at my dad’s house. It is not that it was a bad thing, to have two homes; I am just saying it was hard to connect with those around my house – so naturally I kept to myself a lot.
My parents tried their best to give me a good life. Looking back, I know they loved me and wanted the best for me. At the time, though, I thought that my parents were against me and did not care much what I did as long as I did not embarrass them. (It is amazing the perspectives on life a child has compared to an adult!)
I grew up in an Irish Catholic family, though we mostly only went to church for two reasons: holidays and whenever I served as an altar boy (though during those times, it was mostly my step-dad and I who would go). He would sit in the back on the church when I was “doing Mass” and try to make me laugh during the service. Laughing – distracting the congregation – was forbidden when serving as an altar boy. I used to laugh a lot when I did Mass, so my altar boy days were short-lived.
Even with going to Catholic school for 8 years, I never really had a relationship with God, let alone knowledge of Him wanting to be “personal” with me. I was always under the impression – which was never really disputed by my teachers – that unless I was perfect then God would not interact with me. After all, in Catholic history, only the “Saints of Old” had one-on-one connections with God; everyone else had no such luck. After moving to a new Catholic school, and failing through it, my parents thought it would be good for me to attend public school.
In light of this move, I had no problem leaving behind my so-called-shallow-faith in order to embrace a world of agnosticism. Besides, I was determined to make a difference within myself in this new school. As the school year drew on, I tried to define myself in many ways, but nothing seemed to work. In the summer before ninth grade, a friend from school and I started to become closer. I finally had what I considered a best-friend relationship. It was sweet. At first, our friendship was normal; but then we started to “play card games” and my world would never be the same again.
This was not my first “experience” with a guy. The summer before, a neighborhood boy and I did some things. Although this new encounter I had with my friend more or less closed the deal on my sexuality: I was definitely gay. My attractions for guys had always been a pondering question in my mind; but when my friend and I “hooked up”, it was like everything became clear and I “knew” this was who I was. I cannot explain it, other than I just knew what I felt to be true. I remember we both came out to each other at the same time. It was a causal conversation, nothing big and dramatic (I was doing dishes at the time). We determined, though, to keep our gayness a secret; we were not sure how people would take our new found identity, especially our parents.
Down the Road
My four years of high school were hell. Though I have some good experiences from it, for the most part I hated every day of those four years. I came out to my friends in the middle of ninth grade. Although my friends accepted me for me, I faced hate, ignorance, death threats, name calling, and the like from peers. Some things came from the jocks of the school, but most of the things came from Christians. In fact, more than anyone else, the Christians referred to me as “faggot” or damned me to hell. Their hate towards me only fueled my response to flaunt my sexuality even more. If their God hated me, which is how they put it, then I hated Him too … the more they yelled at me and condemned me, the more I built a wall of resistance against anything dealing with God and His followers.
I learned to disregard my pain and rejection, and focus on helping other people. Sure, it was a defense mechanism, but it got me through the turmoil of school, and besides, I was not strong enough to deal with everything that lay underneath – waiting to erupt forth. So, I helped raise awareness for AIDS education and helped many other gay teens accept their sexuality as being normal. I was vocal about the discrimination I faced, and I made sure my “oppressors” knew I was not going to go away quietly. My thought was if I could help someone not go through what I went through, then my battle scars were not in vain. For the most part, it worked.
However, there was a big difference between my being out and open at school, then at home. I had waited about a year from coming out before I told my parents anything about my sexuality. I was sure they would have confronted me by then, but they had not, so I finally told them. By this point, my mom and step-dad were divorced, and so I was living with my mom and younger brother.
I remember the day I came out, as if it was yesterday. I had stayed home “sick” from school. I knew I had to tell my parents about what I was going through, especially since it was eating me up inside every day I did not say anything. I phoned my step-mom and through stutters and stammers told her, I am gay. I asked her to tell my dad – I had no clue what to even say to him. Then I wrote a letter, to my mom, which I would place in her car the next morning – so she could read it while at work (I know, nice, huh?!). I could not tell my step-dad … which to this day I still do not know why. In fact, he would not find out about my “gay life” until years later.
My parents reacted differently about me coming out, but they all had one reaction in common: no one talked to me about it. My dad (from what I have heard) called people and said that if anyone had a problem with me being gay they can just talk to him about it. My step-mom really did not express approval or disapproval over the fact. My mom took it the hardest, from what I saw anyways. She came into my room that night, kissed me, and said that she loved me regardless. That was really the last time we ever talked about me being gay.
While I was glad to not be rejected “physically” by my parents, their silence about the issue was deafening, and in that silence, I felt rejected “emotionally.” My best friends mom, who by now was my boyfriend, took him and I to a support group for gay teens. Finally, I saw that I was not alone; others had experiences like my best friend and I. It was a great feeling. Looking back, I wished my parents had also taken the time to find me help and support – I think that would have helped both of us through everything.
Being “out and about,” I was happy. However, inwardly, I struggled to find true peace with my life and myself. I spent many days depressed, struggling to even get out of bed. I tried to kill myself a few times, I tried pot, I flung myself into relationship after relationship (all being sexual), and I even tried running away from home. Except for the relationships, I did not follow through on anything, because I knew that was not the answer for me either. I was confused, because in one sense I knew who I was, and yet, I felt extremely lost. Except for a few friends knowing everything, I struggled internally alone and afraid.
While in eleventh grade, I met a Christian named Yvonne, who wanted to befriend me. She was already in the “in-crowd” with other friends of mine, but to me I wanted proof that she was not going to bash me like the other Christians. To my surprise, she was not like that at all. Yvonne was not perfect by any means (she was a normal teenage girl with problem) but what she possessed was something I was highly interested in, I just did not know what that “something” was exactly.
I remember Yvonne coming up to me and saying such healing words: “I don’t agree with what you do, Shawn. But I like you. I want to be your friend.” She did not force Christianity on me, she did not force the Bible down my throat, and she did not damn me to hell. Instead, she loved on my and my friends, which meant the world to me. In eleventh grade, my friends meant a lot to me, especially since my home life felt unstable. My best friend, Yvonne, and I would become very close that year and the next. Looking back, I could see God’s hand in it all.
A couple of months before graduation, I really thought that my life was starting to come together. My friendships were secure, and I was in a “loving” relationship with a guy. My depression started to ease up. Things with my mom were getting better. High School was ending, and I was thinking about going to school to teach art. Things seemed good. Graduation quickly came and went; another chapter of my life had closed, and the summer was shaping up to offer a promising new chapter.
Then Jesus came into my life and wrecked everything!
A New Direction
July 14, 1996. I had just moved up to a motel room with my boyfriend. No one knew where I was (including my family and friends). I had all my graduation money in my pocket, and a trash bag full of clothes. We were supposed to move into an apartment together, but things suddenly (and mysteriously) fell through. So, down the street from my boyfriend’s job, we found a cheap motel to stay in until we figured out what we were going to do.
As I lay in bed, watching T.V., I suddenly became ill. I was sweating and yet cold all at once. I could not move anything. I started to feel scared. What was happening to me? I was alone in the room with no way to reach out for help. After a few minutes of feeling paralyzed, I managed to get up and walk towards the door. I remember looking around the room and wondering, What am I doing here? I opened the door and stepped out into the rain. I remember looking up and feeling the rain beat against my skin – it felt good. I faced heaven and spoke up: God, if you are real then I need You to help me out of this.
I stepped back inside, took a bath, wrote my boyfriend a “Dear John” letter, packed my things, and phoned a friend to come pick me up. I walked out of the room an hour later, without thinking twice about my decision. For the first time in my life, I had honestly felt true happiness, deep within, starting to push through the uncertainty.
After spending some time down at the Shore with some friends, I returned home and phoned Yvonne and my best friend. I excitedly told them what happened and that I had become a “Christian” but I was not sure. Yvonne assured me that I had in fact accepted God into my life; in which she was happy to hear, but my best friend was not. I could not explain my “change” to my friend other than I was happy with whatever I decided to change about myself.
I did not accept Jesus the week before because I was scared of going to hell. I did not accept Him because I wanted to be a Christian. I certainly did not accept Him so that I could be straight. Rather, I accepted Jesus because of His love and peace. I was at a desperate point in my life where I needed something real to hold on to, because although things looked at peace, they were not. Simply put, I took a gamble on God and His love.
I had no clue what I was doing, much less even how to start being a Christian. I did not even have a Bible to read! Although, through some weird “religious experiences,” some mentoring-relationships, and Bible study, I began to understand the point of Christianity. What I lagged in was a deep understanding of God’s love, especially in regards to His views about me.
I quickly became attuned to the fact that I could not live a Christian life and be gay. There was too much guilt attached to what I wanted to do and how I wanted to grow in my relationship with Jesus. For me, there was too much to compromise if I choose to live both lives out fully. So, I choose to start suppressing my gay feelings in order to grow closer to Christ. In this light, I started dating a girl, and I even became somewhat sexual in my relationships with her; but I still was tempted to fool around with guys (which I did, unfortunately).
In March of 1998, my brother committed suicide, and once again, I told God to take a hike. With the pressures of my inward struggles (with being gay), my depression coming back, my brother’s death, and other things, I figured that this “God-thing” was not really worth the battle it was shaping up to be. Everything that I was trying to suppress and forget was coming to head. Through some events, I came crawling back to God … again, not knowing what I was doing or what I was after, but I knew this: I needed Him. This season of my life would prove to be the “beginning-of-the-end” for me. My faith was shattered at my brother’s death, and it would take another major turning point in my life to turn me back around.
Because of my inward struggles, I submersed myself in more bible studies, more prayer groups, more retreats, more events, and more times of spiritual cleansing. All the while dealing with two natures: a Christian one and a gay one. How could I join the two together? Could I really be gay and a Christian? What did God’s Word really say about being gay? These were all questions I faced inwardly, as I went about life, not allowing any of my friends in on my crippling struggles. During this time, I had befriended an old classmate, Pete, and we soon became very close. It was the first “safe-Godly” male friendship that I ever had. We did everything together. Pete really helped me grow in my relationship with Christ, and really helped to affirm in me what God was doing. Although, I could not bring myself to tell him who I really was or what I was dealing with, I did not want to ruin what we had: a pure friendship.
I knew having gay feelings was wrong, but I also knew that I could not help having them. I prayed to be straight. I prayed that these “wrong” feelings would pass away. I even tried looking at straight porn to “fix” myself, but nothing I tried seemed to work. I was in counseling and had a great support of friends (who struggled like me) in Philly, near where I lived, but even all of these things still didn’t help me overcome my struggles of sexual identity. I began to think that I was a hopeless cause and that I would be gay for the rest of my life. I determined I was not going to marry or have kids. My church friends thought I was just messing around, but truly I thought: who would want to marry a guy like me anyways? In my eyes, despite what scripture said and what people prayed over me (even what I sang during worship times), I believed I was unlovable and unwanted.
Finally, I secretly accepted my gayness and reconciled it to my faith. I would strive to believe what scripture taught, about living a life for God, but I would skip over the verses that talked about “homosexuals.” In May of 2000, I went to One Day and felt my relationship with God had taken a new level. I was on fire. That June I would work at a Christian camp, as a counselor to campers. Using the basis of Romans 12:1-2 (which was the Camp’s Theme verse), God challenged me through deep refinement in ridding myself of my past and drawing closer to Him.
I would go home during the weekends, head to the gay bars, hit church on Sunday, and be back at Camp for Sunday night’s gathering. I did this throughout the summer, thinking to myself, Yes, I can do this! I was growing in the Lord, and many considered me a “fearless leader for Jesus.” Little did I know that I was setting myself up to being exposed – completely!
At the time, I was living with a gay friend (who was a Pastor), and he helped me fully embrace who God truly made me to be – gay. I did not understand it all, but it made more sense to me than trying to deny something that seemed so “inborn.” About two weeks after camp ended, I remember sitting at the computer and seeing visions of myself.
I saw a huge hand holding me, and then dropping me. I saw myself falling down a deep pit, with no bottom. I could not reach out to stop myself; I just fell, as the Person who once held me watched. One can easily understand, I was falling away from God, who’s grip on my was being loosened because I needed to fall in order to rise up. I accepted my vision as truth, and continued to “fall” day after day, until I hit the bottom. I was finally broken.
I was ready to leave my gay identity. I was tired of living a life of compromise – between what I wanted to be true (I’m gay and can’t change) and what I knew was true (I’m gay and can change). I was tired of living in secret. I was tired of pretending. I was tired of the one-night stands. I was tired of drinking away my problems. I was tired of abusing my body (and allowing it to be abused by others). I was tired …
In the days that followed I would come clean about my situation and struggles with my friends and move in with my step-dad and his family. Once again, I did not know exactly what I was after, but I wanted whatever God had for me. I did not care if I ever stopped liking guys, or if I became straight; I did not care if I ever got married, or had kids. All I wanted in my life at this time was God. I wanted Him to wrap His arms around me, and hold me. I wanted Him to speak into my life and affirm me. I wanted Him to wash away my pain, scars, and insecurities. I wanted to be His and His alone.
This new focus, though sounding simple, was very freeing to me because I realized my focus before was so self-centered, instead of Christ-centered. I had asked God to change me, but I wanted Him to change me into what I wanted to be. I had asked Him to grow me, but I wanted Him to grow me in my timing and standards. When I began to let go of what I wanted and grasp hold of what He wanted for me, I began to feel the chains I had placed around my neck begin to fall off.
I stepped out in faith, and landed in His wholeness.
A Journey Without Chains
The strange thing about God’s Wholeness is that it is a two-part process. I believe it comes down upon us, to start our journey, but then it continues to fall on us and refine us through the days we choose to walk in it.
I was clearly in a new position with Christ. Not only did I feel free, I knew I was free. I quickly began reading Acts, and started to pray for God’s Spirit and healing to fall upon me just as it did back then. I wanted whatever God had for me, and I was ready for whatever He was calling me to. I began having dreams about Him and I – dreams that I believe He spoke to me through. I was content with where I was in life, and once again, I felt true happiness.
Then I met a girl and fell in love.
I had no clue what was going on. I had accepted the fact that I most likely was not going to get married. I had accepted the fact that I would never have affections for women. I was fine with all of that, really. I had met Emily through working at the Camp, and when I had visited some friends one day who were still working there, I saw her again … and my heart jumped.
I remember asking her out, thinking to myself, What are you doing! I remember telling my friends that we were going out, and them saying, What are you doing! (Pete was over in Africa in missions by this time, so he really did not give me his opinion, though I am sure he thought the same.) Still, I felt that my dating Emily was a good thing. I soon told her me entire story and at the end, she still expressed hstruggeer love and support for me. As three months passed, I proposed. She accepted.
While I was truly in love – for the first time in my entire life – I was hesitant about getting married, not on her part but on mine. Could I really do this? Could I really be a faithful husband? Could I trust God in all of this? Could I trust myself? I was torn between what my “flesh” wanted and what my “spirit” wanted.
All my old feelings and “temptations” of what I had walked away from started rushing back. While it was very tempting at times to just give up and go back to the way I used to live, I was determined to stay the course. After a long battle with myself, a break-up with Emily, and lots of affirming counseling from friends and the Spirit of God, I married my true love on May 27, 2001.
I had (foolishly) hoped my temptations would disappear after that day, but they did not. I learned (through mistakes and triumphs) that it is a daily process to not give in to what your body “longs for” at times. I had to refocus my desires … renew my mind (Romans 12:1-2) … rely on God’s grace to get me through the days and nights (2 Corinthians 12:9-10, which by the way is my life verse). It has not been easy, and it has taken many years to comprehend and put into daily practice these truths from God, but the journey has been worth every step.
Do I still struggle? Yes. Do my struggles get easier, over time? Yes! However, just as I do not allow my past to define me, I also do not allow my struggles to define me. As I will talk about in later chapters*, I see myself as God’s child … I seek His identity, over my own. In this (His identity), I find my reason and strength to press on towards the goal, forgetting what is behind me, and striving for what lies ahead (Philippians 3:7-14).
God has used my wife in amazing ways in my journey of healing and restoration. I stand amazed by her love and grace for me; knowing full well, that it is God’s love and grace working through her. She is my best friend. She is the mother of my two kids. She is my companion in this journey of life. She is my biggest cheerleader in all of this.
Do I think that this same outcome can be true for others? Absolutely! I believe in the power of God’s Word, the saving work of Christ’s cross, and the transforming presence of the Holy Spirit. Though I believe that we each have a different calling in life, I believe that our focus in life is the same: God’s Identity and Wholeness. It is through this lens that I write the following posts of encouragement and challenge.