This and that

There was a clip circulating online yesterday that was hard to watch, a short exchange between Billy Eichner and Colton Underwood, the former Bachelor contestant who came out as gay. It’s a cameo Billy made during Colton’s season, a season that had portrayed Colton with a kind of naivety it connected explicitly to his Christian faith. Billy teases Colton: “I’m gay. I know that’s a shock, Colton. And that, I think, you should look into. Maybe you’re the first gay Bachelor and we don’t even know!” Colton stammers—“I, I…”—and then breaks into laughter. When it aired in 2019, the moment played as Colton uncomfortably trying to play along, freezing up as he tries to calculate a winsome reply. 

In light of Colton’s disclosure yesterday, though, the laugh is wholly recognizable to me. It’s the laugh of, “It will be years before I can openly acknowledge that what you’re saying is true, but I am at least self-aware enough to recognize that denial would be dishonesty, so the only honest response I can give is deflection.” It’s the laugh of, “If I imply that even the possibility that I might be gay is laughable, the time it buys me is worth the pain of tearing myself in half again.” It’s the laugh of, “How is it possible that I’ve spent so many years obsessively afraid that what you’re saying is true—even worse, that someone else might recognize and name it before I can—and in all that time I spent worrying, it never occurred to me to come up with an answer in case someone did?”

It’s a laugh I know well from ages 13 to 22, approximately, a decade in which I was profoundly divided within myself because of how deeply I bought into the lie that this has nothing to do with that, the this of my Christian identity and the that of my gay orientation. I don’t think anyone ever told me the lie in explicit terms, but the weighty silence at church was enough to lay the foundation in my adolescence. It feels a little like understatement to say I believed a Christian couldn’t be gay, because “believe” implies at least a little conscious volition, and for adolescent me the lie was pre-conscious. The lie was water. And the lie was a solid wall, fully segregating this from that, leaving me divided, which is the opposite of integrated.

By the time I enrolled as a freshman at Abilene Christian University, I was a true believer: I still wasn’t out to myself (hoping, and praying, against hope that I’d start feeling for women what I felt for men), and I think I genuinely believed there were no other queer people on campus. But the lie was beginning to crack, and it would take many more years of me scrambling to hold it together (through active denial, through secrecy, through ex-gay therapy) before the lie finally collapsed and allowed this and that to begin commingling in my body and mind and spirit, delicately or violently, depending on the day. What helped it collapse was when ex-gay therapy failed to change me, and when another friend (and another, and another) came out to me, and when I found an entire world of people just like me on the internet.

The animating tension of so much of my adult life has been the painful toil of trying to tear down the lie and to eradicate all the little remnants that reveal themselves from time to time, the places where I still say, consciously or not, this has nothing to do with that, no matter how often I think I should be done with the work by now. Of course there’s been joyful work, too, the work of discovering all the ways this and that do intersect and inform and interpret each other. The goal is wholeness, integration, true-self-iness, unity. Believing things that are not true does not serve that goal.

I sheepishly started watching Bachelor shows with friends a few years ago, including Colton’s season, in spite of all my misgivings. It’s entertaining background noise for housework and fun fodder for chattering with family in another state. I think I’ve always known it was serving some kind of subconscious emotional role for me, in terms of how sincerely it embraces a certain fantasy of (heterosexual) romance and marriage (maybe more consistently and successfully than any other pop culture institution) while simultaneously caricaturing and undermining the same fantasy. Colton’s disclosure yesterday (and the naive surprise I felt—“Wait, this has something to do with that?”) revealed another layer to my fascination: The show’s veneration of a specific relationship trajectory has as a shadow the forceful, even demanding, enforcement of that trajectory. For all the ways the series wrings drama out of contestants breaking the rules (and for how often a given season ends *without* a couple happily engaged), the expected outcome hangs in the air of every season like a warning: “Be careful not to forget there is a way this is supposed to go.” It’s a warning that is wholly recognizable to me from so many of the spaces I’ve occupied.

That someone gay could be so deeply committed to the lie that they apply to star in the leading role of such a series, even in 2019, is not especially surprising. (That he might do great harm to someone else in that disintegrated state is, while inexcusable, also not surprising.) It’s no more surprising than someone gay being so deeply committed to the lie that they convince themselves they’re the only queer person on a campus of thousands, or pursue months of therapy to become straight, or respond only with wordless laughter when someone suggests they might be gay. What is surprising is the miracle that tears down the wall, if we’ll let it, and the grace that holds us together as it falls.

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