Victims of the Narrative
Last Friday, popular TV presenter Phillip Schofield came out as gay. Schofield released a statement on social media and was then interviewed by his This Morning co-host and friend, Holly Willoughby. In response, many celebrities posted their support for Schofield on social media.
The journey to this point has clearly been a difficult one for Schofield. He shared about some of the difficulties he has experienced personally and the hurt that it has caused to his wife and daughters. At the close of his statement, he asked people to be kind, especially to his family.
It is right that we respond with compassion towards Schofield and his family because of the pain they have experienced. There is also likely much we don’t know about Schofield’s story. Some people enter into opposite-sex marriages in the hope they will experience a change in their attractions and then struggle when this doesn’t happen. Others hold out great hope for their marriages but find that their attraction to those of the same sex proves more problematic to the relationship than expected. We don’t know if these or other experiences are true of Schofield, but they are reasons to be cautious in what we say and compassionate in our response.
But I think there’s also another reason to be compassionate: both Schofield and his family seem to be victims of the cultural narrative of internal identity applied to sexuality. Many people look at the secular approach to sexuality and think there are only winners and no victims. Schofield’s experience shows a different story.
Coming Out and Internal Identity
The narrative of internal identity is one of the most prominent cultural narratives shaping secular views of sexuality in our day. The narrative says that our internal desires – including our romantic and sexual attractions – are our identity, and therefore we must embrace, express, and act upon these desires to experience fullness of life.
In Schofield’s story, this narrative is most clearly visible in Willoughby’s words in the interview. In response to Schofield’s feelings of guilt about the hurt he is causing his family, Willoughby reassures him, ‘You can’t change who you are though.’ For Willoughby, this is an identity issue – ‘who you are’. The same narrative can be seen in many of the online responses. Like Willoughby, David Walliams used the language of identity: ‘Let’s hope we are moving towards a world where no-one has to come out anymore, they can just be who they are and celebrate that’, and Ian H Watkins referred to coming out as ‘being your authentic self’.
It’s worth noting here that coming out doesn’t have to involve accepting this narrative. The assumption that it does is often why people feel nervous about Christians coming out as gay. Coming out can mean simply being open about the reality of experiencing romantic and sexual desires for those of the same sex. But often in coming out stories, you can hear this narrative at work.
For Schofield, coming out seems to be not just openness about part of his life experience, but an embracing of this part of his experience as identity with the assumption that it needs to be embraced and expressed in order to find fullness of life. This point seems to be confirmed at the end of the interview with Willoughby. Although Schofield’s intentions in terms of his marriage and potential future relationships haven’t been explicitly stated, when the final question of the interview implied he could now be free to pursue relationships with men, Schofield made no objection to the implication. For Schofield, ‘I’m gay’ seems to be a statement about identity which would naturally flow into action.
Victims of the Narrative
While Schofield’s coming out and the popular response could be seen as a triumph for the internal identity narrative, a closer look reveals some of the ways it can cause pain and do damage.
First, it can do damage to the individual themselves. Building identity on the internal puts pressure on people to embrace and express their desires whatever the cost, and it causes people to believe that they can never truly be satisfied until they do so. This is part of the reason why so many single people feel unsatisfied – since most of us experience romantic and sexual attractions, if we believe this narrative we can’t also believe that we can experience fullness of life if we don’t get an opportunity to express these desires.
It looks like this negative impact is at work in Schofield’s story. He talks about experiencing pain and confusion because of the hurt he is causing his family, and yet there seems to be more going on. The fact that he has felt the need to embrace his internal desires as an identity that needs to be acted upon, despite the hurt it will cause to others, suggests that the lack of freedom to do this was also part of his inner turmoil. It seems that for many years, the narrative of internal identity has not been freeing for Schofield, it’s been suffocating.
The cultural narrative of internal identity also does damage to those around the individual who embraces it. If our identity, and so the route to fulfillment, is built on our internal desires, then our desires are given permission to trump anything else that gets in their way, including existing relationship commitments. One person’s step into freedom can become another person’s doorway to pain.
In Schofield’s story, the person who suffers most is his wife. An identity based on internal desires is being allowed to trump the covenant commitment of marriage. To Schofield’s credit, he has exhibited an acute awareness of the hurt his wife and daughters are experiencing and expresses feelings of pain and guilt about this. And yet immediately after mentioning this guilt, he also acknowledges the pride he feels in himself for taking this step. He sees the pain being caused, but the internal identity narrative trumps even that.
When we think about sexuality, it’s easy to think that the secular approach doesn’t have any victims. The portrayal we often see in the media is that throwing off the shackles of the historic Christian sexual ethic is universally life-giving, and yet, when we look closer, we find the damage it is leaving in its wake. The Christian vision of identity received from God, desires submitted to Christ, fullness of life flowing from relationship with our creator, and celibate singleness or a covenant commitment to self-sacrificial love in opposite-sex marriage is far more life-giving. Culture thinks it has a good narrative, but we have the best narrative.