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Haggard's fall from grace

Haggard's fall from grace


It's easy to delight in disgraced evangelical leader Ted Haggard's very public humiliation. Perhaps he deserves that and more. But to stay in harsh judgment would do a great disservice to ourselves and to our hard-won self-respect.

I once went out with a guy who called his penis "Jackson." Out of nowhere, he'd say, "Jackson likes this," or "Jackson likes that," as if the appendage were actually a separate entity. It didn't take long for Jackson, his handler, and me to part company, and not just because I wasn't interested in three-ways. Jackson was the only part of him that wasn't ashamed to be gay.

I thought of Jackson when evangelical leader Ted Haggard and his three-year relationship with a gay hooker made the headlines. Until he was dismissed in disgrace by his church on November 4, Haggard danced around the fundamental questions of just who he is and what he has done like a champ, dodging and weaving to keep from acknowledging a truth he could no longer avoid.

Haggard and Jackson's handler had one thing in common--they came from evangelical churches where there was no tolerance for gay sex. Taught that homosexuality is shameful and evil, they did their best to keep a tight lid on impulses that percolated just under the surface. As a coping mechanism, Jackson's handler could block out that he'd just had sex seconds after the act was done; listening to Haggard's emphatic denials, I wouldn't be surprised if pastor Ted did exactly the same thing.

No one may know what actually happened during his trysts with escort Mike Jones, but it was telling to hear Haggard acknowledge what he perceived as smaller sins, buying meth and paying for massages, and studiously denying the big question about a sexual relationship. His was the posture of an addict in denial.

I've known too many evangelical men who learn to survive the same way. They live a terrible contradiction with no easy way out. They love God and want to serve him. But they are taught that God hates homosexuality. In such a construct they have no choice. To serve God they must suppress that part of their identity, locking it away in a Pandora's box.

At some point many of them self-destruct, unable to maintain a life of deception and self-denial. They take greater and greater risks, unconsciously longing for exposure so they can be released from a prison of their own making. The opening prayer to Haggard's last sermon before the scandal broke says it all: "Father, we pray lies would be exposed and deception exposed."

The exposure he prayed for came within the week; it took him down, along with his shell-shocked wife and children. The children are the innocent victims of their father's deceit; in one video clip, you can see the terror in their eyes when dozens of reporters' microphones were thrust through the windows of the family minivan. Theirs will be a long, hard road.

I feel for them, for Mrs. Haggard, and even for pastor Ted. While there's no excuse for his endorsement of antigay amendments and condemnation of homosexual behavior from the pulpit, imagine how he must feel knowing what his deception has done to his family.

I've been there, done that, albeit on a much smaller scale. After a conversion experience in college, I joined an evangelical campus ministry, eventually serving as a campus pastor after graduation. I saw the ministry and my church as a safety net, a way to keep in check the attraction I had to other men.

I told myself that if I believed strongly enough, prayed hard enough, served diligently enough, God would take these feelings away. But the feelings never left. And like pastor Ted, I acted out in secret.

All through college and after I engaged in anonymous sex in the restrooms of one of the campus buildings, along with dozens of other men who hung out there in late afternoons. I'd leave each encounter ashamed, and if I ever saw someone I'd met on campus, I'd turn the other way. To acknowledge the other party as a real person would make those anonymous acts too personal and too real, no longer an abstraction I could walk away from.

When my neighbor Neera invited me to dinner with her gay friend Tom, he was the first out gay man I'd ever actually talked to. He was a sweet and gentle guy, and suddenly I found myself desperate for a connection to someone who could understand what I'd hidden away for so long. With Neera looking on like a satisfied yenta, we talked nonstop through dessert and beyond. I thought I was falling in love.

That reality provoked the greatest crisis of faith if my young life. I shared my dilemma with my very Christian roommate, who warned me I was on the road to destruction and demanded that I never see Tom again. I couldn't make that promise; I'd tasted the forbidden fruit and found it good. So my roommate, in the name of Christian charity, called my supervisor at the ministry where I worked and the pastor of my church.

The next day, I was jobless and expelled from my church. At the ripe old age of 26, suddenly friendless and without a job, I felt like my life had ended. But it was the greatest gift I could have been given.

I was forced to face myself: a gay man who was spiritual, a spiritual man who happened to be gay. I couldn't begin to imagine how my sexuality and spirituality could fit together--but the long process of integration had begun.

For a lot of gay people, especially those who have experienced rejection at the hands of evangelical churches, it is easy to delight in Haggard's very public humiliation. Perhaps he deserves that and more.

But to stay in that harsh judgment would do a great disservice to ourselves and to our hard-won self-respect. True, Haggard's a hypocrite; true, he lied and covered up and lied again. But at its core his story is that of a man who was so thoroughly enmeshed in self-denial that he has no clue where to start to learn to live with and accept who he is.

For that he deserves our pity. And perhaps a helping hand, an offer from fellow travelers who know something of the road he must now walk.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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John Sonego