RELIGION & SEXUALITY
Love Is All: A Conversation with Religious Scholars on Sexuality
by Christopher Smith and Verdell Wright
Christopher Smith and Verdell Wright go way back. They’ve been involved in numerous Christian organizations that taught them conservative views on sexuality. As time went on, the two earned theological degrees from Howard University and Wesley Theological Seminary, both in DC. They also embarked on distinct yet similar journeys of exploring their sexuality. While the lessons they both learned warrant a documentary series (NETFLIX or BUST #2022), the two share their experiences on how they developed a healthier approach to sexuality than what they were taught.
The two major influences in my youth were the southern Baptist church and my conservative household. In all fairness, both influences were possibly working to their best to provide guidance in how to navigate life. Unfortunately, both implanted an undeniable fear and ignorance towards sexual exploration. Even in college I was a part of religious organizations that advocated for openness and progression yet still maintained the same toxic views. Homosexual/same gender loving people were stereotyped as sick minded, demon filled, lust driven beings and bisexuality was not even considered as real. Even though sex was frequently discussed, I was never prepared to explore my attractions or figure out what they meant for me.
After I separated myself from the church and my conservative family, I fought to look at sexual and relationship expression differently. I studied multiple religions and societies to try to find alternative views on relationships and sexuality. I expanded my historical knowledge and came to find I was not alone in how I thought; history was LITERALLY BEHIND ME. I learned that homosexuality, pansexuality, bisexuality, polyamory, and polygamy are consistent human occurrences. My studies equipped me with the courage and information to advocate for all sexualities.
Sexuality is not something YOU ARE, it is something YOU DO. Nothing defines your sexuality absolutely but what you allow, so I choose to be the author and finisher for mine. Most importantly. I challenged myself to accept even the most uncomfortable aspects of my own attractions. Healthiness arrived when I valued my authenticity and transparency more than opinions.
Sexuality wasn’t discussed in my house. I grew up in a situation that I’d call “church-adjacent.” I had the stereotypical praying grandmother. I went to church here and there. I knew the basic ideas. But church and formal Christian practice wasn’t a large part of my upbringing.
That doesn’t mean that I was able to avoid conservative ideas around sex. Like in many Black households, it was “don’t ask don’t tell.” I’m sure my parents were aware of my curiosities. I had girlfriends. My mom noticed that I grieved the ending of a male friendship in a way that would suggest deeper feelings. Still, the extent of my sexual education from my parents was small. I didn’t get anything from my father. My mom told me that I’d have to get a job if I got someone pregnant. Everything else I learned was from hearsay, music, magazines, or pornography.
My Christian formation ramped up in college. I joined a non-denominational church up the street from Rutgers University. It was a charismatic, vibrant, and conservative church. We had testimonies of men being “delivered” from homosexuality. Descriptions of soul ties and other negative effects of premarital sex were a regular discussion. There was an emphasis on the relationships of King David and the teaching that every David needs a Jonathan to be vulnerable with them. It’s hilarious to reflect on that teaching now. I’m sure they weren’t aware that most scholars think that David and Jonathan were in a sexual relationship.
I also joined a Christian fraternity during this time. I met some of the most devoted, creative people I’ve even known. I also saw first-hand how Christian sexual politics can ruin whole communities. We didn’t want visibly feminine brothers because many brothers thought that it made us look weak. Men led the women because we had to cover them. Homosexuality was a spirit or a struggle. Getting pregnant before marriage all but rendered you as a malfunctioned believer, incapable of making quality contributions in ministry. Same if you were openly gay. In a conversation about how young a woman they would date, a brother lauded for his character remarked, “If there’s grass on the field, play ball.” That should tell you just how much of a mess our collective ideas around sex were.
Though the journey of sexuality is never ending there are a couple of tips we have discovered on our paths that may assist in navigating to and maintaining a healthier view of sexuality:
Tips from Christopher Smith:
Accept Your Desires and Emotions as Authentic
Your attractions, what you feel and what you need sexually are OKAY. Those desires are not a result of deviance, they are not a result of sin. The love that you share with someone, regardless of gender/sex, identity is real.
Prepare for Loss and Mourning
In life you will lose or experience loss; particularly in the journey toward healthier sexuality. Take the time to mourn the things that you lose and allow yourself to feel the full range of emotion. If there is one thing Jesus Christ displays through religious text is his ability to express a full range of emotion while working through life.
Do Your Own Research
No matter what the “experts” may say always search for information yourself. To live your life by somebody else’s understandings is to continually put yourself in danger to be controlled by ignorant sources. Listen to people, get multiple sources, and search your ass off on Google. The key to creating something new for yourself is having the tools to do so, information is one of them.
Engrain Yourself Into Welcoming Spaces
Support goes a long way. You may have to go outside your comfort zone to get it. Try to stay away from places where you have to constantly defend yourself, even if they are familiar. You deserve peace. Unfortunately, family is not always what we are conditioned to think family should be, and neither is friendship. Be willing to step into new spaces where your ideas, explorations, and curiosity are accepted. Your social circle can always be replaced by another.
Yeah, But Did You Die?
Buddhist philosophy teaches that the nature of existence is impermanent, interdependent, and non- substantial. As the leaves grow so do they fall, as the baby is awakened to life the old returns to sleep. The movement of life will take you many different ways and confront you with experiences that draw on your full emotional range. Understand that everything is just one point in time in life. Take the lessons and they will help you in the future.
Tips from Verdell Wright:
Learn to Love Your Body
Many religious backgrounds treat the body as a burden and vehicle for sin. Your body is a sacred creation. The feelings and desires that you have are not evil. Your body is a vehicle to interact with the world around you, and that is a gift to be enjoyed. Any religion that teaches you otherwise is one that you need to adjust or walk away from.
Go At Your Own Pace
Contrary to popular belief, you are free to explore your sexuality when it’s comfortable to you. There is no time table that applies to everyone. I’m actually glad that I didn’t become sexually active well into my adulthood because that gave me the time to figure myself out. I was able to make decisions that made sense for me with the wisdom capacity of an adult. This allowed me to avoid many of the pitfalls that come with early sexual exploration, which often takes place before many are emotionally and mentally prepared to handle the consequences and responsibilities of sex.
Your Sexuality Is Not Your Character
Gay people were always discussed as deviant or somehow immoral. I had to work through all of that as I learned to accept my sexuality. I also had to work through many stereotypes of what a gay man could be. Unfortunately, some of those stereotypes are even upheld by other gay men. Your character, your personality, your sense of how you want to move through the world is yours to decide. There is not one way to be gay, Black, or anything else. No expression is better than another, so long as it doesn’t denigrate anyone else’s.
A rigorous understanding of consent is vital to healthy sexuality. Given how prevalent sexual assault is in all communities, it’s important to know what consent is in order to protect yourself. It’s also important to know to avoid offending someone else’s boundaries. Most conservative religious spaces don’t teach consent. Their only word is “don’t do it.” That’s not helpful or instructive. There are lots of excellent resources online discussing consent. For now, grasp the understanding that a “yes” to any sexual activity should be an enthusiastic yes (why would you want to have sex with someone who isn’t excited about it?) and a “no” means stop without any qualification.
Christopher N. Smith is an educator, community builder, father, relationship advocate and passionate about increasing awareness and support for non-monogamous relationships structures.
Instagram & Twitter: @MrTenability
Verdell Wright is a preacher, speaker, and teacher who loves to highlight alternative routes for spiritual practice. @Verdell.org.