Could Jesus have been gay? This is not a new question for many theologians, and certainly not for me. I've played the central role of Joshua in Terrence McNally's gay passion play Corpus Christi for the past nine years now. And with that exploration has come this beautiful yin and yang of backlash and catharsis that has transcended art and completely transformed my life as I knew it -- not much unlike the journey of Jesus Himself.
Since our film came out last year, and with recent social and cultural movements unfolding, that exploration has gotten much deeper. On a small scale, the Christ-like image of me that we've used to promote the play since our production's inception was recently banned on Facebook for showing "too much skin," even though I'm constantly seeing half-naked men in my News Feed in one form or another. (Part of Facebook's gay algorithm, I'm guessing?) This combined with the larger movement of religious profiling and discriminatory bills passed against the LGBTQ+ community suddenly brought awareness to the very heart of the issue: The separation of church and state is actually the separation of sexuality and spirituality.
"I can love the sinner, but I can't love the sin."
This is the foundation of most of the emails I receive on a daily basis, the sinner being me, the sin being my homosexuality. It's challenging to debate a point with someone when you believe it is faulty at its core, but it is one I can understand on an intellectual level, because it's exactly what I believed to be true when I was growing up. I was baptized as a Catholic in St. Louis, Missouri; went to Sunday school every week; and had my First Communion and final Confirmation. I grew up in love with Jesus, believing in my heart of hearts that no matter what I was experiencing or being challenged by, there was someone who put me first and loved me unconditionally. I remember being whipped with my daddy's belt at a young age for doing something wrong, looking up at the crucifix hanging on the wall and, through wallops and tears streaming down my face, feeling a close connection to Jesus during His lashing. I remember showing my playmates in elementary school how to suck the honey out of the honeysuckle blossoms and explaining that they were sipping Jesus' nectar. And I remember being pushed into lockers, spit on while riding the bus, and told that "Jesus doesn't like faggots," then running to the bathroom and eating lunch alone in the stalls, pondering these words through my tears. I didn't know what that meant, but I knew it couldn't be right. Jesus loves everyone, doesn't He? How could He not love any thing?
I went to Father George the next week to ask him for clarity, and that's when he told me that Jesus didn't approve of homosexuality, and that if you were homosexual, you were going to hell. I didn't know I was gay at the time -- in fact, I didn't really even understand what "homosexual" meant -- but in my heart that sentiment felt false. How could someone whom I was taught loved all God's creatures even contemplate being discriminatory in His love? In my pastor's office, at 12 years of age, I burst into tears. The thought shattered my conception of His all-loving self, and I was heartbroken. The scene clearly threw my pastor; in a haste he told me to go pray 13 Hail Marys on my rosary and quickly ushered me out of his office.
That was the day I left the church.
In retrospect I can see that my subconscious self, who had not yet dealt with his gay identity, felt ostracized from the only community he'd ever felt a sense of belonging to. Even at a young age, sitting in that shiny, wooden church pew, holding the sapphire-blue beads in my trembling fingers and staring up that the crucifix hanging ominously over the alter, I wondered, "Is this what Jesus felt?"
There is a deep separation from your surroundings when you don't feel a sense of belonging. Of course, my departure from the church led me into other spiritual communities that I ended up studying intensely through my adolescence and young adulthood, and it allowed me to open myself up to creating a family of friends whom I loved and who loved me in return. It also took me down dark paths of sexual exploration as I tried to find my own footing in a world of chaos and confusion. My spirit was being tested around every corner, and a few times it almost didn't survive. But through it all, a nagging question always persisted: Why didn't Jesus love me?
Enter stage left: the play Corpus Christi. At first it brought up every wound I'd worked so hard to put Band-Aids over for the past two decades of my life. The stories and journey were familiar, but I didn't I feel I could bring truth to something that still brought me such sadness and anger. But through the words of this play, I began to deeply immerse myself in Jesus' teachings from a new-found personal perspective. I was now a young gay man exploring the words and stories I'd grown up loving, then hating, and understanding them in a visceral way that was much more intimate than reading them from a Bible. This rekindled feelings I had long since thrown aside, a reflection of my feeling thrown aside by Him, and for the first time since that morning sitting in the church pew, I felt a connection to His love once again.
The question I get asked over and over again is how I could "blaspheme the Savior by making Him gay." My answer is simple: Because it's not blasphemous. Being gay is simply one aspect of my multifaceted being, but at the same time, living in a marginalized faction of society has been a great catalyst of growth for me. My sexuality alone is not the cause of my journey; the many layered feelings behind the exploration of that side of my being is. Similarly, the character in this play explores His spiritual existence through all the layered feelings of being human, one of which is His sexuality. If you believe Jesus lived on this Earth as a human, then you must also deduce that He had human interactions and feelings. If He felt anger at the temple, as illustrated in one story, how could He have excluded other natural human desires and feelings? In this play His sexuality is the impetus for His journey toward becoming a spiritual leader. I found my own spirituality through my sexuality, and to me, being gay is the greatest gift I could have ever been given. Through this exploration I have found an untouchable love for myself within, similar to that unconditional love I felt from Him as a child. And when you can experience His teachings through a deeply personal and familiar lens, there is a greater connection to His love. Isn't that ultimately what He asked of each of us?
Jesus did not discriminate. In fact, reading the Bible over and over again, you will know He was actually the antithesis of discrimination; He was the embodiment of inclusive love. To say and act otherwise means you are actually blaspheming the Lord. You cannot say, "I accept Jesus, but I can't accept you" without fully contradicting His ultimate message: that all of God's children are equal. Jesus not only recognized this but actually embraced it as the foundation of His teachings. And that marginalized faction of society I feel a part of? I've come to understand that Jesus not only didn't reject us but actually walked over to us first. You may have already thrown the first stone, but remember that simple truth the next time you are ready to throw another.
Our journey with the play continues to this day, because the message of inclusivity is more important now than ever. We may still walk through picketers who yell at us, call us names, and try to keep us marginalized, but we continue moving forward with our heads held high, because this journey has given each of us a greater sense of purpose and connection to ourselves through love. And through this I find myself asking again, as I did many years ago as a child: I wonder if this is what Jesus felt?
Follow Brandon on Twitter @JBJustBE for more as he continues a nationwide tour of the play, film, and community open dialogue through the I AM Love Campaign, and watch the film at iamlovecampaign.org.