Space at the Table: Conversations Between an Evangelical Theologian and His Gay Son invites readers into the messy mixture of love and fear that both father and son experienced throughout the coming out process. In this excerpt, Drew is compelled by his counselor to disclose his first sexual experience to his father, Brad.
As a kid I was never any good at holding a guilty secret. I would try, but before long my tender soul would acquire the toxicity of W.C. Fields’ late-career liver.
I’m not sure how long it took me before I broke down in full confession to my counselor, Taylor, but it was probably within a week after my first sexual experience with another boy. He was comforting in his assurance that nothing I could ever do would separate me from the gracious forgiveness of Jesus, but stern in his diagnosis that I had crossed a line. My body had known sin.
It was incumbent upon me, he said gently, to tell you and Mom. With expansive benevolence, Taylor said it would be no problem for me to tell you both in his office during my next session. He let you know that your presence was requested the following week, but left it a mystery as to what the reason might be.
Over the following days, the tension in our house was palpable. As always, the three conspirators—you, Mom, and me—took pains to make it seem that nothing was the matter, so as not to spook the horses. I’m sure we thought we did a great job of hiding all this from “the kids,” a delusion I labored under until a few years ago when little brother Corey informed me that, even at the tender age of 7, “I always knew there was s**t going down. Duh. You guys really thought you were subtle. You weren’t.”
It was early evening the day before our scheduled meeting when you called me out onto the porch. The sinking sun lit up the massive cedar trees in our backyard, and you were sitting in a green, plastic deck chair, your face a furrowed mask of pain and an emotion I had only once seen you wear before—fear.
My stomach dropped.
“There’s something I have to ask you before we go into our meeting tomorrow,” you said. He knows. My mind raced. He knows I’ve had oral sex. He’s going to ask me if I’ve had sex with a guy, and I’m going to have to tell him.
I tried to steel myself against terrified resignation. There is no hiding from the Lord as He walks through Eden in the cool of the evening. You would ask me if I had eaten the apple, and I would have to say “yes.” And there was no Eve, no Serpent to pass the blame onto. Just me and my sin.
“Does what you have to tell us tomorrow…” you paused, closing your eyes for an instant before turning to face me, “…does what you have to talk to us about tomorrow have anything to do with children?”
It took me a second to realize what you were asking. But then it dawned on me. I’ll never forget that moment.
My first sexual experience itself wasn’t what would haunt me; it was your reaction to it that broke my heart and left me reeling for years.
The fear on your face—the emotion I had only ever seen on the day you returned from having been kidnapped by a schizophrenic member of the church you pastored who told you he was going to kill you before you escaped out of his moving car—this abject terror was because you feared your son was a pedophile. A predator. You were so afraid, in fact, that you couldn’t wait another 24 hours to know.
At that moment, something inside me died, and it was never again alive after that. If my own father, the man who knew me better than anyone on earth, who loved me and saw all the ways in which I strove to emulate my parents’ goodness, could be so terrified that I had preyed on one of the beautiful and innocent children with whom I was often entrusted… what did that mean for me?
What kind of monster am I?
What the hell is wrong with me?
I hate conflict, and when it comes up I want it to be dealt with right away. Having to wait to resolve a difficult situation with someone I love is like being sent to the principal’s office only to be told to sit and wait for him to deal with me in an hour.
So when you told us that you had something serious to talk to Mom and me about, but that it would have to wait until your next appointment with your ex-gay counselor, it was torture for me. I ran through half-a-dozen scenarios, even wondering—and I say this to my shame now—if you had sexually abused one of the kids you were babysitting. Worse, I asked you about that even before we went to the appointment. You were horrified and deeply hurt. I was relieved, while also sorry that my assumption was so painful for you. Only later did I realize that I had made the same tragic and uninformed assumption so many conservative straight people do—quietly believing the lie that if you are gay, you are probably also a pedophile.
When we finally had the meeting with your counselor, you told us about the middle school graduation party and the bisexual boy coming out publicly. I can only imagine how his revelation must have hit you. Around you were students who were appalled, disgusted, but going through your mind, I’m sure, was something like, “Dear God! I’m not alone!” So far, all this was no big deal, but then you dropped the bomb—this boy’s public announcement led to your first sexual experience.
My initial response was not one of anger, disappointment, or despair. I would describe it as carefully controlled panic. After all, I was a former pastor in an evangelical church. I was a theologian at an evangelical college, known by hundreds of students who looked to me as an example of a well-lived Christian life. How will what Drew’s done reflect on me?
Thank God that those self-centered thoughts were fleeting.
This was not about me. It was about you—my beloved son.
Brad Harper has been a professor of theology at Multnomah University and Biblical Seminary in Portland, OR, since 1999. Before that he served as a pastor and church planter in two evangelical churches in St. Louis, MO. Inspired by his relationship with his son, Brad has spent years building bridges and friendships in the gay community. He has also listened to the coming out stories of many evangelical college students behind the closed door of his office.
Drew Stafford Harper is a freelance journalist and actor, so he lives where the work is. Drew has played a bestselling author on stage, but this is his first book in real life.
This excerpt from Space at the Table: Conversations Between an Evangelical Theologian and His Gay Son is provided by Zeal Books. Copyright 2015, Zeal Books.