Author Jeff Chu on Same-Sex Marriage

"The best way to describe the relationship between homosexuality and Christianity is…complicated"

Foundation Young Leader Jeff Chu, whose first book Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America (HarperCollins) – was released in March, shares insights on the relationship between Christianity and homosexuality and the same-sex marriage debate in the United States.

Your book explores the relationship between religion and homosexuality in American society. In this diverse nation, we can assume that perceptions of how homosexuality fits within religious beliefs and practices are quite varied. How have you personally defined the relationship between these two – often considered opposing – phenomena?

I was raised in a very conservative part of the Christian faith. The relationship between homosexuality and religion in that part of the church was quite simple: there could be none—to be gay was forbidden. But it’s almost a joke these days to say “the church,” as if it is one entity. It’s a spectrum, stretching from more conservative parts including the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptists to more liberal ones like the Episcopalians. They are so far apart that the best way to describe the relationship between homosexuality and Christianity is to use a word that describes so many intimate relationships: Complicated. There are no easy answers. There are often very high tensions. There’s a lot of passion. And there’s little clarity.

In preparing Does Jesus Really Love Me?”, you traveled to 28 states and explored the various geographic cultures that define the massive social landscape of this nation. What experience from your travels was the most surprising? Who was the most interesting person you met?

I’d say that the most surprising thing was not one experience but a pattern: The willingness of total strangers to pour out their hearts about their journeys, their relationships, their fears, their faith, and even their sex lives. I am quite a private person—I can give the impression of being open and sharing if I really want to, but really, I don’t give much away — at least not at first — perhaps because I was raised in a culture (Chinese) which values discretion and privacy. In all my years as a journalist, I had never done work on something so close to people’s hearts, I suppose, and I was surprised how eager people were to tell me all about themselves.

It would be like choosing among my children to pick a most interesting person. I realized how extraordinary all these allegedly ordinary people were. There was, for instance, a lesbian woman in small-town Georgia who described for me what it was like to fall in love with a woman and divorce her husband when her children were 19, 16, 13, and 9—and then I went over to her ex-husband’s house, and he told me what it was like to watch his family fall apart and try to piece it back together. There was the gay pastor in the Midwest who is now married to a woman—who knew, before they even started dating, that he is gay. There was the Connecticut man who, born Jewish, converted to Christianity as a teenager, became a pastor, dealt secretly with his homosexuality, and then lost his job after it emerged that he had had an affair with a (male) intern at church. There was the young closeted gay man in rural Arizona who would watch as his mother, after her gay stepbrothers visited, would wipe the house down with bleach. None of these people had ever been written about. All of them have lives that could be made into movies, although I’m not sure a Hollywood producer would think their stories realistic enough!

How did writing this book change or enrich your understanding of the relationship or compatibility between religion and homosexuality?

What I learned isn’t neat and tidy enough for a lot of people. I’ve learned to have a lot more empathy for people in their journeys. I understand better than ever the pressures that exist all across the theological spectrum. I get why churches do what they do and why individuals make the choices they do. We are, for the most part, trying our best to love, but we define that word in such different ways. Some people think that love is unendingly gracious and permissive and accepting. Others feel that the most loving thing to do is to tell someone that he is going to hell for his sins. Still another believes that the right path is to walk that difficult “love the sinner, hate the sin” line. I obviously can’t agree with all of those attitudes, but working on this book has helped me to better understand why people choose the option they choose. It’s hard to empathize sometimes, but at this juncture in American life — and, I would say, in French life too — it’s more important than ever.

What role do you think has religion played in the debate on same-sex marriage in the United States, particularly the movement to maintain the status quo of marriage between man and woman?

Although it hasn’t always been portrayed this way in the media, I think religion has been central to the debate. America remains the most religious Western nation on the planet. It’s a crucial part of the nation’s culture as well as its history and its traditions. The forces that are most opposed to the legalization of gay marriage cite faith as the primary driver of that opposition. To fail to understand that — and to neglect religion and church in the discussion — is to miss much of the heart of the controversy. I fault my own industry for failing to devote the necessary resources to understanding faith, ethics, morals, and values. We devote entire sections to sports, to arts, to markets, to science, and yet many newspapers don’t have more than an article or two a week about something that is so fundamental to understanding so much of why we do what we do—in all those other arenas.

The United States, like France, is a secular nation under the Constitution. What role do you think both the explicit and implicit religious implications of marriage and the faith-based aspects of the debate on same-sex marriage have played in the legal debate?

I am not a legal analyst or a political creature at all. What I can say is that “marriage” is such a loaded word. We have trouble extracting it from our individual heritages and traditions, and for many people, that includes religion. The failure — or perhaps for some people, it is the refusal — to distinguish between civil marriage and religious marriage has had immense consequences for the civility of the debate.

You married your husband last fall. Congratulations. Beyond love and all the other reasons people marry, did you feel a sense of political or social obligation to marry, as part of the first generation of same-sex couples to wed and as the practice remains under political scrutiny? Was your decision to marry — and the wedding process itself — impacted by the political debate surrounding same-sex marriage?

Obligation of any kind is a terrible reason to marry. And if anything, political symbolism was a reason not to get married. I am a person, not a cause. I don’t want to be a poster child for anything except perhaps more reasonable dialogue and discussion. My marriage is a personal matter—though I am careful to distinguish “personal” from “private.” We got married because we wanted to stand before our loved ones and commit to one another for the rest of our lives. It was a choice, made freely, without pressure, and without consideration of political considerations—except for perhaps some familial politics.

I do have to acknowledge, though, that even if I shy away from politics, my ability to marry in the State of Massachusetts was secured by people — politicians, activists, advocates — who fought a great fight and who did engage in an arena where I am myself uncomfortable. They had to battle, in some cases for decades and at great personal and political cost, so that I could ignore the politics and enjoy the wedding day that I never thought I would have.

You took part in the French-American Foundation’s Young Leaders program in 2011 and 2012. What did you gain from your participation in the Young Leaders program? Was there one take-away from the program, whether personal or professional, that has proven particularly valuable?

“Value” is a word that has been so debased by the markets. What was most valuable for me? The experiences. The bus rides. The dollar beers in Tijuana. The walk on the beaches of Normandy. The visit to the port at Le Havre. The laughter and silly, often inappropriate, jokes. The clubbing. The memories. The joy of being welcomed into someone else’s world for a few minutes or hours. How do you put a “value” on these things? They’re beyond that.

Do you stay in contact with fellow Young Leaders? Have any contacts made through the program contributed to your career, particularly as you wrote and prepared your first book?

The friends I’ve made through the Young Leaders program have done much more than help contribute to my career, which seems so transactional. So many Young Leaders have been immensely supportive of me over the last couple of years, and I’m so grateful for the many emails, Facebook messages, and tweets of encouragement that I’ve received. Some days, when I’m particularly low, a note has popped up from, say, Estelle Youssouffa or Jane Kang—and it’s been a much-needed burst of joy. This has been in some ways a long and difficult journey—to tackle a subject as controversial as this one is just asking for trouble and criticism, because, no matter what, you’re going to piss someone off. To have the backing of a worldwide army of friends and fellow travelers has been incredible. It reminds me of the importance of community, a treasure you can’t buy at any price.

Jeff Chu is Articles Editor for Fast Company, writing on international affairs, social issues, and design and curating the brand's live events. His first book, Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, was published by HarperCollins in the spring of 2013.