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?