How do you rescue someone who doesn’t want to be rescued? How do you rescue someone you love, for whom you would kill or die, who wants to destroy himself by socially sanctioned means? What do you do when a close friend calls you in the middle of the night and tells you he wants to commit suicide? What do you do when you are only 23, have no money, no car and live 100 miles away?
As I ask this, I am remembering the time, about 25 years ago, when my best-beloved friend called me in the middle of the night to explain exactly how he planned to bring about his death by becoming a gay prostitute. My friend was someone with whom I had become intensely close, as possibly only people our age and in our situation could become. Neither of us had any family, neither of us had steady jobs or prospects for one. Neither had any guidance or real idea how to get on in life.
We met, I don’t even remember how, and just instinctively clung to each other in a mutual attempt simply to stay afloat in life. We were both fighting every day to keep going, to figure out what to do next, where the next meal was coming from. The kind of aspirations that probably seem normal to most middle class white North Americans were utterly beyond our reach, or so we assumed. But more importantly, both of us struggled more than anything else to figure out why we should keep going.
Shortly after I left my hometown, I got a call from James. He was on a low, which meant he had been at the clubs. He told me that he had figured out how to commit suicide without actually killing himself directly. He would become a gay prostitute.
My friend, “James,” was estranged from his Protestant family back east because he was gay and either they could not accept him that way, or he could not accept their rejection of his choice to participate in the lifestyle. I never found out which. He had left home as soon as it was legal to do so, and I had done the same somewhat before the legal age.
Both of us deeply distrusted authority, particularly male authority, and both were drawn in desperate longing toward anyone who would stand in the place of a loving father. James was someone who instinctively got the one most important factor of my character and development: that I had no parents, no father to protect me. Neither of us had any idea what “stability” meant. We spent a lot of our time together talking each other down from various ledges.
He was lurching through undergraduate courses and oscillating between attending a non-denominational church and the local gay nightclub with the regularity of a metronome. It was about the exact historical moment when AIDS appeared on the global scene. At some point, he started volunteering for a local agency that helped people with the disease, many of whom had long since turned away from their families and who had often been abandoned by their boyfriends.
James, never a happy young man, told me once that his most recent bout of severe depression, the kind that makes it impossible to feed or dress oneself, had come after he had gone on a sexual bender. He had spent the previous two weeks arranging and attending funerals for clients and had snapped, gone to the club and spent the following week bedding down with any man who happened along.
James had introduced me to The Scene in our town, and there was no doubt that it was, as advertised, a non-judgmental and welcoming environment. This subculture was made up almost entirely of deeply damaged people who had turned to each other in desperation and did indeed care for each other as much as their own emotional and social limitations allowed. At that time, the “gay scene” was more broad that it is now, and, oddly, more inclusive. You could be straight, you could be just confused, or just lonely and frightened. There were drugs around, but neither I nor James used. The one thing everyone had in common was we were misfits, people who had either rejected or been rejected by “mainstream” culture.
And there were a lot of us, mostly in our late teens and early 20s. This was the cohort that would later be called Generation X, raised in the 60s and 70s by the hippie Boomers who had ushered in the era of “free love” and had abandoned us to pursue their grand social experiment. One night, after a bottle of something, James confided that he thought the reason he was gay was the sexual abuse he had endured from a male relative when he was a child, that no one stopped. I have since spoken with psychologists who have all told me that this is a very common confession from gay men.
Shortly after I left my hometown, I got a call from James, with whom I had remained closely in touch. He was on a low, which meant he had been at the clubs. He told me that he had figured out how to commit suicide without actually killing himself directly. He would become a gay prostitute and simply contract one of the killer diseases and let it run its course. God couldn’t blame him for that, right?At some point, I did what most people in British Columbia do and moved to Vancouver. I hated the gloomy city, but was able to start piecing together a comparatively sane and intelligible life. And I started going to Mass there, which I suppose was the start of the journey that has ended where I am sitting today.
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What do you do? I asked him not to. I asked him if he had been in touch with his sister recently. We talked for an hour and he hung up. I slept late the next day, and then wrote his family back east, saying that I had never heard him so unhappy, that I knew he would probably never want to speak to me again, but that I didn’t know what else to do. I was right, he never did, and all my letters to him over the previous year arrived in the post without a note.
What do you do when you know that your friend is involved with a dangerous lifestyle and, at best, has frivolous and irresponsible companions? I didn’t know what to do, and this time something, maybe just his tone of voice, had made me desperately afraid for him. I may have made the wrong choice, but to this day I don’t think so. There were so few options and doing nothing was not among them.
Flight to sanity
My friend and I both survived, but when the storms were over and we made it to the relatively safe shores of our 30s, I found I was on a far distant beach in a completely different country, both literally and figuratively. He stayed in the scene and continued to work in health care. There was no going back for me, and James stayed in that old world that I knew I could not survive in.
I suppose James would consider me an ideological enemy or opponent, today. I wish it weren’t so.
My own discontent was ultimately incurable, and I could not reconcile the cognitive, or I should say the moral dissonance that had tormented me through my lonely, confused and aimless teens and 20s. I knew there was something horribly wrong with the world. My parents’ divorce when I was four was my first clue, and that was before the world started getting completely incomprehensible. I knew that things weren’t working the way they were supposed to, and that people were being hurt. Many weren’t surviving.
Maybe it was this distant, muffled sense of alarm that finally drew me out and helped me to make the decision to leave. In 1997 I took a road trip across the country and never returned to the West Coast. In a small red Moleskine notebook I kept a travel diary, and nearly every page has some expression of profound relief that I was leaving that dark and gloomy part of the world, and that miserable subculture.
Though I had no particular plans at the time, with each mile that ran under the car’s wheels, I knew more firmly that I was never, ever going back. I knew that whatever was next it would be different. The story of my involvement in the Church and finally in the pro-life movement is the story of me figuring out what that “something wrong” was. But after more than two decades and nearly unimaginable changes in life, I still find that I miss my friend, my “best friend” from when I was in the most vulnerable and difficult stage of my life. Love never really dies.
Which brings me back to the question that I posed at the beginning of this piece. How do you help someone who knows he needs help, who longs to be rescued, but who would refuse any real attempt?
It’s a question a small and apparently ever-shrinking section of Christianity is asking itself now about the culture in general. It seems as if this culture is determined to destroy itself, as Christians involved in the Culture Wars seem to be moving into a new phase. A capitulatory phase. An apologetic phase. The losing phase.
I’ve been thinking about this as more of what the Americans used to call the “Christian right” jumps onto “LGBT” political juggernaut bandwagon. I suppose I understand. No one wants to be screeched at and called nasty things. But I keep on coming back to one thing: who is going to help these people? Who is going to rescue those who are trapped in and being destroyed by the “gay lifestyle”? While Christians and other former social conservatives are busy assuring the political left how much they agree with the complaints of this latest phase of the Sexual Revolution, the few of us who have not yet succumbed to the brain-fog of Stockholm Syndrome are left to wonder how to help the people most caught up in, and damaged by the lie at its core: that there is “nothing wrong” with homosexual acts, that they are morally, psychologically and physically equivalent to natural sexual relations.
Now it’s not too hard to imagine that I’m going to be accused of brazen political pandering: “Some of my best friends are gay.” Well, no. Not any more. I suppose James would consider me an ideological enemy or opponent, today. I wish it weren’t so.
The last twenty years has seen such a violent sundering of our societies along these polemical fault lines that in most circles the very words “Christian” or “Catholic” are a mark of Cain. It seems impossible to convince anyone that we really mean it when we say we don’t “hate” gay people, that what we hate and fear is the harm that the gay lifestyle brings about.
But it might be useful to know that some of us at least understand first hand what life in that subculture is like, how harmful and dangerous it really is, and how desperately it is needed by the people in it who have, rightly or not, felt rejected and who see it as their only refuge.
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