Trigger Warning: Depictions of violence and self-harm
In April 2012, while working as a Chaplain Resident at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, GA, I was startled by the information presented at the interdisciplinary team meeting on my surgery unit. It was reported by the social worker that Joseph Christian (name changed due to matters of confidentiality), a twenty-three year old African-American male, made an attempt to castrate himself with a circular saw.
There was no diagnosis of a mental health disorder; however, psychiatry would be making a visit to Joseph for evaluation. Joseph was part of a very religious family and had voiced struggles with his sexuality. With this information, I committed to seeing Joseph, with warning from other staff that his father was very “peculiar” and “protective” and may not welcome my visit.
My heart swelled with compassion and anger simultaneously: compassion for Joseph and anger for the violent religious fanaticism I can only imagine he heard from his pulpit with persistent reinforcement from his family.
The queries sweltering in my mind were: Did the religious berating of queer identity drive Joseph into a psychosis, complicating his mental health? Was an undiagnosed mental health disorder already present prior to his attempted castration? Or was it a combination of both?
What responsibility does Christian religiosity bear for our Christian LGBTQ brothers and sisters who battle with suicidal ideation and attempt, those who resort to cutting because they have numbed themselves from feeling the painfulness that integrating their spirituality and sexuality can bring, those who have experienced fasting (to no longer have same-gender attraction) that has led them to anorexia or bulimia, or those that suffer from an isolating clinical depression because they have been told they are an abomination?
With these questions I found myself knocking on the door of A2603, Joseph’s hospital room.
Upon entering Joseph’s room I introduced myself as Chaplain Frazier and asked if I could visit with him. He welcomed me in, and I observed that his father was not present. I sat and our dialogue unfolded. To take away any mystery he may have had to my knowledge of why he was in the hospital, I opened the conversation by articulating to him that I was familiar with what brought him to the hospital due to reading his chart. I let him know that I was concerned and cared about what he was experiencing, and was present in case he wanted someone to listen, needed prayer, or wanted to be in conversation.
He initially shied away from the conversation expressing that he was uncomfortable speaking of the actual act. I assured him that those details were not important to me, but I was more interested in why he made the decision to follow through. With further assurance from me that he was in a safe space, Joseph began disclosing to me his struggle with his sexuality.
Joseph shared that he was attracted to men but was “raised in the church.” He explained that his family knew of his attraction to men, and that his father was vehemently opposed to the “homosexual lifestyle.”
Joseph then began to justify his father’s and his church’s reasoning, saying that it was a “sin to be gay” and “an abomination before God.” He further explicated that he felt that God was calling him to be a “holy eunuch”, directing me to Matthew 19:12: “For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
After Joseph’s sharing I asked if he would be willing to hear a different perspective, and he said he was. I informed Joseph of the history of eunuchs, of which he was unaware. I shared with him that eunuchs carried a particular function for societies during that historical context and were often pre-pubescent boys castrated so they would be reliable servants for a royal court. In addition, I shared that there were other interpretations for eunuchs, such as men who were impotent or celibate.
I then shared with Joseph my own initial struggle with my sexuality, letting him know that he was not alone in the journey.
With this new information he jokingly asked, “Do you have any guy friends you can introduce me to?” We would continue our conversation for another hour and a half. A conversation filled with Joseph’s questioning of why I was okay being a lesbian and his defense of why being gay was wrong. His occasional inquiry of what men I could introduce him to, as well as discussion on the type of men he liked, made us both laugh.
I ended our conversation by leaving a book with him, ‘What the Bible Says About Homosexuality’. In good humor I told him not to “lose” my book, secretly hoping that “lose” meant that he would keep it. The following day I returned to his room, and indeed the book was lost. My hope is that this book has become a resource for Joseph when he is in need of a different conversation partner, an alternative to the teachings from his pulpit.
My hope is that this book led Joseph to gain more conversation partners, amplifying the voices of clergypersons, scholars and churches who affirm his sexuality and invite him to engage Scripture through a different lens.
Unfortunately, this blog cannot conclude neatly. The voices of Christian traditionalists and enthusiasts continue to saturate social media and have found their way into countries like Uganda, where being gay is a matter of life and death. How do we, persons who love God and work for justice and equality, magnify our voices even more?
The religious right can no longer monopolize conversations on Christianity; it is indeed detrimental to the health of not only Joseph, but us all. How do we amplify our voices?
Photo via flickr Daniel Hoherd