Marx & Paul: Leaving Shame Behind
Shame. It’s a feeling of being unworthy, bad, or wrong.
Shame tells us that we are defective.
That we are unworthy of being known and loved.
That we are a mistake.
As researcher Brené Brown tells us, shame is not guilt — shame is focus on self. Guilt is focus on behavior. Shame is when we believe we are inherently bad. Guilt is when we feel bad for doing something wrong.
Shame is paralyzing and debilitating. It causes depression and angst. Shame stops us dead in our tracks. It keeps us from our dreams and makes us stagnant.
In many ways, I feel like shame of being secretly gay stole my 20s. I have a whole decade that I often wonder how it would have gone differently if I hadn’t let shame control me. What dreams would I have pursued? What relationships would I have taken a chance on?
I’m so glad my friends Paul Stephens and Marx Vazquez sat down with us and shared their story of conquering shame. Both of them worked at the same megachurch in Southern California, where they met, started dating, came out together, and then eventually both left their jobs together.
I find them to be so inspiring, and I hope you will too.
So you just moved into your first place together? Where?
Marx: Lincoln Heights.
So how crazy is that? Did you ever think you would move in with a boyfriend?
Paul: No, I never thought that.
M: We didn’t talk about moving in together until two months ago. It just felt right. And then we started looking and found the right place, and said, let’s do it.
Has it been hard to process?
M: Before we even got together, the thought of being in a relationship with a man, and living in a home with a man, was the farthest thing from my mind. I would have never thought that would happen…until we started dating.
P: With every stage of our relationship I’ve had to reconstruct what I believe. Because even at the beginning, when we were in a relationship, I kept pushing him away and saying to him and others that we weren’t in a relationship. But in reality we were definitely in a relationship, and it was a good thing!
How would you say your faith has changed?
M: I think for me it was very different because I didn’t grow up Christian. I grew up Catholic. So when I became a Christian it was very much about doing the right thing, and there was a lot of shame if I didn’t. In the Evangelical church, the theology is very atonement-based, and we were taught that we were born inherently bad. That weighed heavily on me, even more so because I knew I was gay. But ever since I came out, I can’t remember the last time I felt shame, which is probably the biggest thing for me. I now don’t feel like I’m a terrible person.
Was your shame always tied to you thinking that you were gay?
M: Yes, and I think it affected every area of my life because I was gay. And there was this underlying thing that I could never get rid of no matter how hard I tried. It affected my relationships, my school, my jobs, everything.
The biggest difference in my life now is losing the shame. All the theology and everything else has become second to that. I honestly can’t remember the last time I’ve felt shame since I came out. Sure, I still make mistakes, and I think, “oh, I shouldn’t have done this or that.” But I am clear that it was something that I did, and not something I am. It’s not something I need to carry around with me.
That’s so liberating, RIGHT?
M: I really think this is where the Evangelical church misses it. Because if you look at the creation story, first you were good and God was pleased, but instead all we hear growing up is that we are born sinful. When I moved away from believing that I was “inherently sinful” I began the process of self-acceptance. And still to this day I am learning how to love myself.
P: I always grew up being afraid of my “sin-nature” and being told I was born into sin. It was all about not “living in the flesh.” But what does that really mean? I tried so hard to just deny my flesh so that I could be righteous and holy. But I ended up cutting off part of myself and seeing that part as really bad and sinful, especially the part of me that is gay. Then I tried really hard to make the “non-flesh” part more holy. That was the part that was reading my Bible, going to church every Sunday, trying to be the perfect Christian. That was the holy part. But I ended up with these two separate parts of myself. And I think that does a lot more harm than we realize because deep down we’re quietly hating ourselves. And worse yet, we begin thinking it’s holy to hate ourselves because our desires are part of our flesh. I’m still unpacking all of this self-hatred.
P: Even now.
M: Isn’t that crazy? Everyone that I meet that knows Paul says, “oh, he’s such a nice guy.” He is truly the nicest guy. But he internally struggles with this self-hate because of the way he was brought up in the Evangelical church.
How long do you think it will take for you to work through that?
P: Probably my whole life. I remember as a kid being so afraid before going to bed at night. I wouldn’t be able to go to sleep because I was feeling so guilty about what happened that day. I tried to recall every action … Did I tell a lie? Was I mean to someone? And I would be in tears and tell my parents that I wanted to “confess my sins.” Now that is some serious shame.
And around that age, my sexuality was starting to come into place. And there would be things that would happen— like getting dressed around other boys and feeling aroused— and I would feel so guilty for it.
The whole conversation we’re finding right now is really looking at scripture and how we decide to do church and community today. When you look at what’s happening with LGBTQ+ Christians, they are the ones that are having to decide to put in the work if they want to belong, as I am sure you have had to. How has this affected your experience?
P : I think the LGBTQ+ community is the gateway into the whole conversation. Because when you’re gay and Christian, you have to face this stuff head on. You have to figure it out if you still want to be Christian. And then it kind of opens the door for all these other questions that come with it.
What were some of the roadblocks you faced when you were deconstructing your faith?
M: For me it was the idea of losing people: family, friends, communities we were in. Those were probably the bigger factors because no one wants to live alone. Everyone wants to have a community that they can belong to. Now I look at the relationships we have and they are 1000% stronger than what we had before.
Now that you’ve moved in together, do you think that will change your relationship?
M: I think our relationship is that much stronger because we never thought we’d be here. We had to fight just to have a normal life.
So now you’re able to have all this lIFE which you never thought you would have, what’s next? Marriage? Kids?
M: I think I want to deconstruct all of that. There are 1000 different ways our lives can go, and it doesn’t have to follow the structures we were given growing up. We’re just living in the moment.
I think that’s such an important concept. We really are not taught to do that in the Evangelical church. You’re living in the moment because what you have is real.
M: I think the biggest thing I’ve learned in our relationship is that it doesn’t have to look like what anyone else has done. We all get to where we are going in different ways. It doesn’t have to be one way.
In closing, could each of you share what pride means to you?
P: It has taken so long for me to actually accept myself. And now that I have begun to do that, the next step is to truly be proud of who I am and who God has created me to be. I’ve spent way too much time in my life thinking that something was wrong with me and that I was unworthy and bad. But now I am leaving all of that behind and learning how to take pride in every part of me. To be honest, I am not there yet. There are still nights I lie awake, afraid of what people think of me. But I wake up the next morning choosing to be proud, even if I don’t feel it 100% of the time.
M: Pride to me is not only accepting who I am, but thriving in who that person is. I have learned to love myself and not shame parts of me or try to hide specifically the fact that I am a gay man. I used to make excuses for people who disagreed with my life or the fact that I am gay. I have since realized that no one gets to politely disagree with my existence (shout out to Matt Bernstein for that one). I am here, I am proud, and I am thriving. Gay, shameless, and all!