I went to an all boys high school (comprehensive) in 1980s/90s Northern Ireland, a place where a friend’s mother bluntly informed me that she would struggle to send her dog, and where an adult once told me that the pupils ‘played tig with hatchets’. The teaching standards in the school were superb, the behavioural and cultural standards were not, and it was a huge adjustment as a 12 year old boy to move into that kind of environment. A number of my contemporaries would ultimately follow their fathers’ footsteps into the paramilitaries and prison, and at least one of those in my circle of acquaintance was murdered as a young man.
There were, ostensibly, no gay pupils in the school. While there was a lot of hardcore talk around sex, homosexuality was only ever referenced as an epithet (on the part of pupils and teachers).
There was a story, though, about barbed wire boy.
I don’t know if this pupil ever existed (I suspect that he didn’t), and I don’t know if his narrative survived throughout the school or only in my year group, but his imagined biography was tragic and one dimensional. There was, so the story went, a boy who came out as gay (we didn’t use the word ‘come out’). Upon discovery of this fact he was wrapped in barbed wire by his classmates and rolled along the playing fields until he bled and wept, and he promised to never return to the school afterwards. Barbed wire boy was a fantasied lynching, he was a warning shot in an all male environment about the destiny of those who might be gay. He was both a conversation starter, and stopper.
This phenomenon might have been put down to William-Golding-style adolescent barbarity were it not for the fact that the adults in my world occasionally told their own version. A friend’s father, working in a Belfast coal yard, told the story of a worker on the benches who was discovered to be homosexual and in a relationship with a prominent broadcaster. At the end of a working day the yard workers surrounded him, warning him never to return to his place of work on pain of death. He never showed up again. In a city ringing with gunshots and rumbling with explosive devices, such a story might have sounded somewhat normal to many ears, regardless of whether it was true or not.
I record these narratives for three main reasons, detailed below.
They are a reminder that homophobia was, and is, real
Words and wounds often go hand in hand. Popular discourse at the time was not reasoned or respectful around these issues, and violent rhetoric was seldom far from the surface – a control mechanism which was bound to have been effective in silencing many. My great shame is that Christians were not vocal in their condemnation of such speech, nor courageous in withstanding those who perpetrated, imagined, or transmitted such atrocities. The bottom line was that many of us had no idea about biblical teaching on sexuality, and certainly no grounding in the ideas of liberty of conscience and doing good to all, which have become clearer to me over time. We were content to let barbed wire boy be metaphorically wrapped tighter and tighter, and bleed more profusely, without a word. I find myself recoiling even at the written expression of that sentiment.
They make me conscious of the context in which I hold my views
I am a Christian. I believe in the plenary inspiration of Scripture, I believe in interpreting the Bible as literally as its given genres allow, and I believe in taking seriously what it says about every area of life. I have thought deeply about my theology, but I believe in it simply and fundamentally. The Bible regulates how I trust, how I think, how I relate, how I hope, how I repent, how I love – it is authoritative in a proximate and immediate way for me in the everyday. This is so, firstly and predominantly, in the personal realm of my own heart and my own need for grace. Less personally, I have conspicuously non-modern views on all of human sexuality, believing that digression from the biblical covenantal heterosexual model of marriage is a transgression of God’s order. This extends through every other expression of human sexuality, from the propensity to entertain lustful thoughts, the devastations of adultery, sex outside of marriage, and homosexual practice. I don’t dwell on these matters every day, but they are part of the wider anthropology that the Bible gives to me and I accept them. I have questioned the foundations of these beliefs many times, I have examined them historically, exegetically, culturally, and I find that I need to do violence to the text or inspiration of Scripture to arrive at another perspective. I have not arrived at my conclusion through tradition, and I am not particularly interested in the status quo per se.
If you’re not a Christian and you have read this far, the paragraph prior to this one might have brought barbed wire to mind. Upholding a biblically conservative view of human sexuality is often portrayed as being bigoted, intolerant, and inherently abusive. This is often a caricature, a hopeless straw man, but his survival has been sponsored by my silences, by my unwillingness to differentiate myself from the cultural parasitism which could occasionally be the modus operandi of some evangelicals in the previous generation. The militant nature of the LGBT lobby must, at least in part, be a reaction against the casual verbal/literal violence of recent times; and its focus on Christianity must, at least in part, be due to the fact that Christians tolerated/propounded/exploited such fear tactics.
They make me determined to separate myself from hatred
This places me in the most narrow of passes, between the proverbial rock and its corresponding hard place. I don’t want a bar of the homophobia of the past or the present, and I harbour no persecuting zeal whatsoever against anyone within society; and yet I have personal convictions which have become socially unacceptable. I am happy both to listen respectfully to the views of those who think and believe differently than I do, and am likewise happy to explain where my own principles come from. My convictions are deep but they are not jagged, they are firmly held but they are not violently thrown, they govern my life but I do not expect them to govern the lives of those who do not share my beliefs. I am happy, in short, to live and let live, to occupy a space where I can affirm and articulate what I believe without the intent of hurting others.
But the barbed wire is always there, the cultural pedigree of Christian thinking in this area is never absent, and it falls to me to fight every hateful word which might be mistaken for my own, to defend the freedoms of others where I do not share their views, and to insist on respect for everyone by my actions and by my words. It falls to me to make sure that the default assumption I have towards everyone I meet is that I love them, that I will listen to them, that I will not silence them, or tolerate anyone else doing the same. I was quiet in my youth, I must never be so again. I can disagree with you, but I do love you, and I mean you no harm. The fact that such things have to be said surely speaks volumes about how far biblical belief and biblical expression have been allowed to drift from one another in the past.