When I was a Church of the Nazarene pastor, I would read Christianity Today somewhat regularly. It’s like Time magazine for evangelical pastors, only with smaller words and an even smaller world-view. It had been a very long time since browsing through its pages. Recently, the senior pastor handed me a copy with an article that he thought I might find interesting. Below is that article and following the article is my response. I did send my response to Christianity Today, but have no illusions of them choosing to print it.
My Dirty Little Former Secret by Dennis Belkofer
Christianity Today, April 2006
Angry … curious … guilty. That’s how I felt after watching the preview of Brokeback Mountain, a movie about a homosexual love affair between Wyoming ranch hand Ennis Del Mar and rodeo cowboy Jack Twist. Ennis, played by Heath Ledger, and Jack, by Jake Gyllenhaal, begin their affair as 19-year-old sheepherders one summer on Wyoming’s Brokeback Mountain. Except for telling each other they aren’t queer, Ennis and Jack never talk about their sexual involvement, and at the end of the summer, they part ways, marry, and become fathers. Later, they reunite and renew their secret homosexual relationship, which lasts for the next 20 years.
Ennis’s wife, Alma, played by Michelle Williams, discovers that her husband and Jack are involved sexually and for years keeps it to herself for the sake of their two daughters. It isn’t until she divorces Ennis that Alma tells him she has known all along. Ennis, afraid that others believe he is gay, progressively isolates himself emotionally from everyone but his two daughters and Jack. Eventually, Ennis meets a cute waitress who falls in love with him. Unable to respond to her love, he pushes her away and breaks her heart. Jack is killed a short time later, and Ennis is left with little more than memories of their relationship.
Perhaps if I had known what Brokeback Mountain was about, I would have reacted differently to its preview. During those five short minutes, I unexpectedly relived the bumper-car ride that had been my own secret struggle with homosexuality. That angered me. But I also identified with the bond between Ennis and Jack that seemed to defy who they really were. I, too, had known the forbidden fruit of a secret homosexual relationship when I was in my early 20s. It was a relationship driven by desires, feelings, and emotions I didn’t understand or want. Yet they were there. Watching Ennis and Jack took me back to my own Brokeback Mountain, which made me curious to learn more about Jack and Ennis’s relationship. That curiosity made me feel guilty. Fully aware of my past, I knew going to see Brokeback Mountain could be risky business.
I wish I could say that I prayed to get God’s okay to see the movie, but I didn’t. Against my better judgment and what the Lord may have thought, I went. I entered the theater one afternoon on a day I took off from work to go Christmas shopping. I hoped to avoid running into someone I knew. But there was one person I couldn’t avoid-God. He knew I was there in the dark, buried in my seat. And I was about to learn in a new way just how far his grace can extend.
I became a Christian in 1966, during my sophomore year in college. Six years earlier, at the age of 14, I had been molested. It was then my homosexual feelings started. Ashamed of what happened, I told no one. During high school and college, I made plenty of friends, hung out with the jocks, and dated the prettiest girls. No one knew that I was secretly attracted to men.
After becoming a Christian, I got involved with Campus Crusade for Christ and had dreams of joining the ministry full-time. It never happened. As I filled out the customary application, I stopped dead cold when I came to the last question: “Have you ever had homosexual tendencies? If so, please explain.”
How could I do that’? 1 didn’t understand and couldn’t articulate those feelings myself.
Frustrated, hurt, and confused, I tore up the application and threw it in the garbage can, along with my dreams of serving the Lord, through Campus Crusade. Right after that, I visited my own Brokeback Mountain.
I met Bill at a party two months after I graduated in January 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in education. Both of us were Christians. Both of us struggled with homosexuality. In June, we moved in together. A year later, unable to reconcile our relationship with Scripture, I repented and moved out. In March 1972, I met a Christian girl from North Carolina who, to my surprise, told me she struggled with lesbianism. Her forthrightness motivated me to tell her about my homosexual struggle. Four months later, without counseling or taking time to get to know each other, let alone fall in love, we married and settled in North Carolina, thinking marriage would grant us new and happy lives as heterosexuals.
We soon discovered our mistake. There was no passion between us. No desire for emotional intimacy. No tenderness. No real communication, only remorse that we had acted so quickly. I was willing to try and make the marriage work, but she wasn’t, and she left me after seven months. The divorce became official in 1974. Tired of crying not to be gay, I threw myself into the gay lifestyle in Chicago. On the outside, I was happy. But after six years, something, or rather someone, was missing in my life: Jesus. He wanted back in.
In July 1981, my sister, Rachel, also a Christian, died of brain cancer. Her final words to me would change my life. “Denny,” she said, “the Lord told me you’re gay. You’ll never find true peace and love until you comeback to Jesus.” A week later Rachel died.
On the train back from her memorial service in Ohio, I began to miss Jesus like one misses a friend. I knew that I couldn’t live without him any longer. The next day I ended my homosexual relationship and asked my partner to move out I also decided to totally remove myself from the gay social scene. More importantly, I cried out to the Lord for forgiveness and came home to the one I should never have left in the first place, the Lord
To my great joy, he was waiting for me with open arms.
During the 25 years since then, I’ve been used by the Lord, and I praise him for his goodness. Yet no one knows, except the Lord of the shame I bear because of my past. Only the Lord knows my pain for never having fulfilled my dream of joining Campus Crusade only God knows that I went into public education because I felt homosexuality barred me from ever serving him in full-time ministry – though that dream has remained, like an ember that dimmed but never went out.
Homosexuality has been like a ghost, hiding in the shadows of my shame, telling me I can never reach my full potential as a Christian. As strange and contradictory as it may sound, seeing Brokeback Mountain helped me bury that ghost and begin moving forward.
What I saw in Brokeback Mountain tore my heart apart. I cried with Alma when she discovered the truth about Ennis and Jack. I also cried for the countless wives in real life who know that their husbands are leading a secret existence. I cried even harder for the men, more in number than we realize, who are trapped in sexual sin and don’t know how to escape it And as I wept, I wondered if God could use me to reach some of them with his grace and delivering power.
No scene touched me more than the one in which Ennis’ daughter pays him a visit after Jack dies and tells him he needs to buy some furniture to liven up his cold and barren trailer. Ennis responds, “If you ain’t got nothin’ you don’t need nothin’.” I made up my mind then and there that I would not let homosexuality rob me like it had robbed Ennis. To my surprise I left the theater with the determination to quit holding back and to allow the Lord to help me achieve all that he has for me to do.
A few weeks later, my pastor began a series on biblical prosperity – the peace and contentment that comes from allowing God to heal our wounds and move us forward spiritually in him. All through the service, I thought about Ennis and my determination not to end up like him. During lunch that afternoon I told several of my Christian friends for the first time about my homosexual past and my desire to move forward spiritually, as well as my desire to continue working on a book about worship I had previously been too ashamed to write. Each pledged their love and support. I’ve also told my pastor, and I look forward to the support and accountability he and the church leaders will provide.
Do I promote Brokeback Mountain as a must see? Absolutely not! But God specializes in working all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purposes. That’s what he’s doing in my life with this controversial movie.
Dennis Belkofer lives in Chicago and is an active member of the Chicago Tabernacle, a plant of the Brooklyn Tabernacle.
My Dirty Little Former Secret: A Response
Like Dennis Belkofer, I too cried while watching Brokeback Mountain … but I cried for very different reasons. I cried because I felt someone finally understood me. They understood that I can be in love … they understood that it can be dangerous for me to be who I am … they understood that my failure to embrace the truth about myself causes pain for all the people around, including myself.
I knew I was gay from my earliest memories. I knew God loved me from my earliest memories. The church provided me a language for understanding and talking about my love for God but in a small rural town like La Grande, Oregon there was no one to help me with a language about my sexual orientation. I remember vividly that rainy afternoon, standing in front of the card catalogue of the public library looking up the word “homosexuality.” There was one book listed, but I was terrified of locating it on the shelf.
I was not molested as a child or teenager. I had loving and caring father. I was active in all phases of church life and felt the call to become a pastor at age thirteen. I was keenly aware of my sexual orientation but I made a decision to suppress it all. I poured myself into being a “good Christian boy.” But on the inside I was dying.
I was celibate for 45 years. I majored in music education to please my father, but knew that I was called to be a pastor. I worked in local churches after college and eventually went to an evangelical seminary in Kansas City, MO. I eventually went into full-time Christian service and finally realized my dream of becoming a pastor. And there was a shadow over all of this … the shadow of what I saw as MY dirty little secret.
I had shared that secret with only a handful of people. My pastor, who told me it was a phase … my father, who told me I was his son and he would always love me … a spiritual mentor who had no practical advice, but stood by me as a friend.
I was forty-five when I had my first sexual experience. My first experience was not truly sexual. I simply asked a friend to hold me while we slept. He embraced me and pulled me to his chest and said, “David, you deserve to be held.” That, however, broke the dam and I determined that I would seek to be both gay and Christian.
While my theological roots are evangelical/fundamentalist, my father taught me to look at scripture through lenses of love and grace. He taught me that the Bible was not an easy book with rote answers but the Living Word of God that is full of paradoxes and difficult truths.
When I had my first sexual experience at age 45, I was fearful that all I would feel would be guilt and shame. Instead, I was filled with joy, hope, love and most of all grace. It was the closest that I had ever felt to God. It gave me hope that I would not simply melt like an unloved snowman … untouched by the heart and hands of another person.
I was fortunate that in the first months of coming out to find a group of gay Christian men that sought to embrace Jesus, one another, and their sexual orientation. We gathered for a meal, for a reflection on the life of Christ, for prayer and communion … every week. I went to see Brokeback Mountain with these men. We cried because every frame of the film was filled with the message of love and grace.
The final moments of the film are the most telling. Ennis is in his trailer. He had failed to take the risks of love and connection and all that remained was a faded photograph of what might have been. And oddly, a pair of worn-out shirts intertwined with each other and covered in blood and sweat becomes the presence of Christ.
I cried as I read the testimony of Dennis Belkofer. How can one escape the haunting words of a dying sister? How can one escape the judgmental decrees of the evangelical church telling you to “fix yourself before coming to God”?
There is a lot of brokenness in Brokeback Mountain. My journey has had its share of brokenness and disconnect. But I take heart that Jesus gave one of his finest sermons from Brokeback Mountain. He whispered words that transform us, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God … blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.” His life became a message of … blessed are the broken for until you are broken who can never be whole.
On Sunday, May 7, 2006 I conducted a funeral for a friend who was a part of the spiritual men’s group that I have been a part of for nearly a decade. It was a highly emotional evening for me on several levels. Bob Terry was the first person in this group of men to pass on and in conducting that service I found that there was still a small part of me that wanted to be a pastor. I took today off from work to sort through some of those feelings of loss.
I had intended to get a few chores done today as well, but the day passed with little productivity. Feeling guilty I decided to clean my bedroom and make the bed, the least I could do.
As I was making the bed I noticed a brown piece of paper slightly hidden underneath the bed. I had noticed it before but was too lazy to reach under and pick it up. I would let the dust bunnies eat it. But today, I picked it up and when I did I discovered it was an envelope with my name on it. I recognized the writing as Sam’s.
Sam and I have been dating for nearly a year. We are quite different on many levels. I am a wild-eyed romantic and he is a level-headed engineer type. So I was not surprised on Valentine’s Day when he did not give me a valentine. He warned me he was not a hearts and flowers kind of guy. Next year I would be more aggressive in letting him know I need that sort of thing from time to time.
I opened the card that I found on the floor. It was dated 14, February, 2006. My eyes filled with tears as I read his note. It was the most beautiful thing anyone had ever said to me. Sam closed with words about his feelings for me, “I’m not sure they all have names – but they’ve all been good. Thank you, All my love, Sam.” It would have been nice to hear them in February, but I really needed to hear them today.
If Hallmark ever decides to do a gay greeting card commercial, I will sell them the rights to my story so that Sam and I can take a train trip to Vancouver, BC or at least make enough money for Sam to buy me flowers next year!