Phillip Henry died yesterday at 29 years of age.

That was the short, somber text message on my phone. No! Not Phillip! I thought. He was such a close friend.

That last thought was only a half-truth. My friendship with Phillip had only just begun, and I’d had such hopes for it. Now, he was gone.

I’d only heard of Phillip six months before after listening to one of the tapes that my Bible study leader had given me to encourage me in my Christian walk. To be honest, most of the tapes in the box weren’t really anything that I found useful as a 29-year-old disabled gay man simply trying to figure things out.

Phillip’s tape-testimony was different, however.

Like me, Phillip had lived a less than stellar life. Although not gay, he too was disabled and had been shunned many times by what he called “Sunday Christians.”

I listened to his homemade tape countless times over the months and wanted to have an in-depth conversation with him about it.

Why didn’t I have said conversation earlier, you ask? While I could list many reasons, I honestly believe the heart of the matter was a concept I didn’t even know about yet — “internalized homophobia.” There was this emotional line I couldn’t let myself cross with any other man, especially one who I over-related with, even before getting to know.

I thought, He’s my age, I’ll have plenty of time.

Other times I thought, Will he think I’m some type of awkward stalking guy if I tell him how many times his testimony has encouraged my fragile faith?

Phillip wasn’t able to make most of our biweekly Bible studies. He worked a lot, and his job had him traveling. Furthermore he had family obligations and a newborn son.

I did get to visit him a few times, and it was the beginning of what I truly believe would have been a wonderful friendship — and, indeed, brotherhood.

One such meeting was at our Sunday School department’s Christmas party. This was in the middle of that six-month period. He walked up to me and wished me a merry Christmas. I returned the greeting, and after some small talk I just blurted out, “Man, your taped testimony has really helped me get though some stuff. We have had similar life experiences.”

While we did talk a while about some of the more difficult things we shared in common in our young lives, I honestly wanted the mood to be light for a Christmas party, of all things! I met and chatted with Phillip only a handful of times after the night of the Christmas party. I never really told Phillip about how his story had touched me so deeply, and I never got to ask the questions that can come up after hearing a 45-minute testimony.

The days, weeks, and even months after Phillip’s death, I went through periods of serious depression and even questioning if I’d had some secret crush on him that was perhaps unhealthy for a Christian man to have for another man. Eventually one of my friends who was much closer to me than Phillip asked me rather bluntly, “What’s up with you, man? You didn’t even know Phillip that well. How can you miss someone so much who you didn’t even really know?”

That was it though! I hadn’t known Phillip that well . . . and yet I did. Yes! At that deep level of heavy burdens that I don’t think all people can feel, let alone articulate, I had actually gotten to know Phillip quite well.

I tuned my grief outward in attempting to minister to Phillip’s parents. While I was truly trying to be there for them in their loss, I must also admit seeking some solace of my own. In a very special phone call with Phillip’s mother, she said, “Thank you so much for being Phillip’s friend as best as the circumstances would allow.”

That was such a comforting phrase to me: as circumstances would allow.

Later, Phillip’s mother met with me and gave me his Bible (including his study notes, a Bible which I still use today), and we had a conversation about friendship, loss, and our hope in Jesus. The other issue at play was my severe internalized homophobia!

At the time I certainly knew I was “same-sex attracted” (SSA), as the ex-gay movement had instilled in my vocabulary all too well. In that same rhetoric and teaching I had been taught to be cautious of deep male friendships.

I now follow the exact opposite of such advice after this tragic lesson with Phillip. Many years later, I am (somewhat) more comfortable with both my gayness and my disability.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if our postmodern churches, and indeed our postmodern culture at large, could encourage comfortable spaces to make attempting deeper friendships more the norm?

Maybe doing so would assist people like my younger self see internalized homophobia give way to healthier same-sex friendships.

Have you ever been afraid to connect with another man for fear of how that would be received? How have you experienced internalized homophobia in your relationships?

About the Author

  • Matthew’s story reminds us of how much we need a bond with our fellow human beings, especially as gay men with another man.

  • Hi, Matthew… I fully agree with you. Being afraid others perceive me as a “f*g” (in fact I am bi) surely blocked me specially during my teens…fears of communal nudity, buddies’s touch, affective/spicy speech, male connection etc… I know that time is over, but I hope to appreciate some new opportunities, now at 40+…Best wishes!

  • Matthew, there are so many parts of this story that take me back as well. Jesus knows the power of the testimony He has written for us. And that story is enough to reshape a community! Just think of the guy in scripture whom Jesus went across the lake to encounter in the tombs. He is depicted as being severely afflicted by a multiplicity of demons (who said the were Legion), with no one able to bind him as he screamed out night and day and would let no one pass through. Remember how Jesus heals him and the Text says suddenly he is sitting and clothed and in his right mind. The town that came down to see this spectacle was not only terrified at the loss of the herd of pigs because of this guy, but they were freaked out enough to beg Jesus to leave.

    And the formerly demon-possessed man begs to go back with Jesus. (The disciples never got out of the boat.) But what does He decide? He tells the man to go back to town and tell people what manner of things God has done for him. And guess what, we in these shoes are tasked with the same thing. Jesus writes your story and your story is enough. That man shared his story around town and when Jesus returns at a later time, it’s the scene where God gathers over 4,000 people and feeds them with actual miraculous food but also the Bread of heaven. So I’m the background, that man’s story of restoration was God’s way of making the “fields” ripe for harvest by Jesus. 🤯🤯

    Anyways, this seems disconnected to your account of this lost connection opportunity with Phillip. But I see things down the road for what you shared. Phillip’s impact on you was 100% intentional. So now it will be fascinating to see where the fruitfulness multiplies. Did I miss what part of his testimony you hit you the hardest?

    • How I love that connection between the bizarre “stay home” command Jesus gives Man Formerly Known as Legion, and the later seismic feeding of thousands. The power of story. The power of stability. I come back to that story again and again whenever I feel I’m “missing out” on some greater story elsewhere. What if God has me right where He wants me?

      • I know it’s wild, right? I’d be like, “Jesus, throw this crazy guy in the boat with us!!” I hope I wasn’t stretching too much to connect it to today’s post.

  • Enjoyed your story…thank you. In recent months, I have been able to connect with a terrific Christian brother. He’s also a single, celibate gay guy. I have dreamed about this for a long time, but thought it would never happen. But…God has provided in ways that I could have only dreamed about. We have talked for many hours, and pray together after each conversation. Our talks flow naturally and freely, and I always feel uplifted and edified after each one. Quite frankly, it has been one of the nicest things that has ever happened in my life, and it has been a blessing.

    There are times I feel so unworthy of a friendship like this, but we are building it on trust, encouragement and prayer.

  • Thanks, Matthew, for the personal account that encourages me to put fear and unhealthy self-awareness aside and just learn to launch into relationships, even the ones that feel threatening or exposing. Perhaps that level of exposure is exactly what is needed most in that moment – for me and the person I am interacting with.
    You are so right: suddenly and very unexpectedly it is too late (for any number of reasons). I so appreciate the twist Mike gives to all of this with his faith-filled vision of something very fruitful being the result of this short-lived relationship, something that God means only for good!

  • Can’t tell you how many times I’ve recoiled in male friendship (gay and straight ones) for fear of either appearing too gay or that I was inching closer and closer to some proverbial fire. I’ve had to learn the wisdom of keeping proper boundaries, yes, but also of proper boundary-pushing, if that makes sense. A ship was made to steer out into the sea, not stay at harbor, and so too were we made for relationship, community, connection. Not distance and isolation.

    I loved, loved this post. Thanks for writing again for us, Matthew!

  • >