Celibate Gay Christians, Recovering Addicts, and Communities of Abstinence

A reflection by Sarah

It seems that once every few weeks, there’s a news story about some pastor, activist, celebrity, or politician who has made a comparison between recovering addicts and gay people who abstain from sexual activity. The most recent of these has resulted from a post on the Family Research Council’s blog, in which Peter Sprigg uses Robin Williams’ death and history of addictions treatment as a jumping off point for an argument in favor of sexual orientation change efforts. As I read that post, I was absolutely mortified. It has made me even more certain that the topic of “homosexuality and addiction” warrants further discussion. As of now, the conversation is relatively shallow: mostly folks on one side of the aisle or the other yelling back and forth about whether they’re looking at apples and oranges, or apples and apples.

I wrote once before on why making certain comparisons between homosexuality and addiction is problematic. It doesn’t matter if the person making the analogy is suggesting that gay people can become straight or sexually active gay people could become celibate if treatment programs were offered. The comparison between homosexuality and addiction is rife with misconceptions about both gay people and addicts, and I believe that dispelling these is exceptionally important. But when we who write on this topic focus exclusively on pointing out all the ways that homosexuality is or is not like addiction, we miss opportunities to consider this topic from alternative angles. Today, I’d like to begin exploring one of these other dimensions.

After publishing my own post about why homosexuality and addiction analogies fall short, I began to reflect on some of the the unexpected similarities between communities that celibate LGBT people form and fellowships that recovering addicts form. As I have shared before, I am both a celibate gay Christian and a recovering addict. Over time, I’ve come across phenomenal groups of people in each of these worlds, and I’ve found that the best communities of celibate gay Christians share certain attributes in common with the best recovery communities. But unfortunately, both tend to be characterized incorrectly in similar ways by outsiders. Those looking in from the outside often assume that these communities are focused exclusively on abstinence and have little else to offer their members.

I’ve had dozens of conversations with people who have not experienced either type of community, but nonetheless envision both celibates and recovering addicts as constantly white-knuckling their abstinence. All too frequently, outsiders frame addiction recovery as, “Just stop doing/using (the addictive behavior or substance).” And I must admit, I held this assumption when I first began addressing my own addictions. When I began seeking treatment for bulimia, I believed naively that if I could learn how to force myself to eat normally, all would be perfect in my universe. It didn’t take long before I realized that nothing about recovery is this simple. When an addict tries to explain that it’s difficult to stop using a substance or engaging in a behavior, it’s easy for those who don’t understand this experience to imagine that the addict will spend the rest of his or her life hanging onto a metaphorical ledge by a fingernail.  Every minute a person spends abstaining is then perceived as torturous. With some regularity, I have to clarify that this is not my experience of recovery, and after doing so I’m often met with confusion: “If you and most of your friends at your meetings aren’t struggling regularly to stay in recovery, why go? What’s the point?” Similarly, many outsiders to celibate LGBT communities posit that celibacy is nearly impossible, and that those who do succeed must live in constant agony, ready to bend and break at any moment. Once I began discussing my celibacy openly, I noticed that the majority of people in my life had the same reactions as when I’d become more comfortable sharing my seriousness about recovery: “That’s a long, hard road, Sarah. You’ll be fighting temptation for the rest of your life. What a struggle it must be for you to avoid slipping.” And I’ve lost count of how many friends have suggested that I’m denying myself one of life’s greatest pleasures, and I must have no reason to interact with other gay celibates beyond helping them not to have sex and asking them to support me in not having sex.

A related misunderstanding about both addiction recovery and celibate LGBT communities is that when we aren’t white-knuckling together, we must be commiserating instead. Truth be told, trying to live intentionally — whether as a husband or wife, a celibate, a person in recovery, or a person in any number of other life situations — is full of difficulties. Sometimes, making decisions aligned with a particular way of life is incredibly hard. However, neither my recovery journey nor my commitment to celibacy can be characterized only by the tough parts. It’s not unusual for people in my life to ask me about my support group meetings, “Do you all just sit around and talk about how much it sucks not to be able to do x, y, or z anymore?” And as I share about my experience of fellowship with other celibate gay Christians, the same folks usually ask the exact same question. Non-celibate people, both LGBT and straight, often want to know what celibate LGBT spaces, both in person and online, are like. But it can be challenging to hold that discussion with interested outsiders who first conceive of these spaces as dreary, mournful corners of the internet where everyone bemoans his or her sexual orientation and the challenges of living celibacy. It takes a great deal of time to show others that a commitment to celibacy doesn’t necessarily indicate that life is absolutely horrible and meaningless on just about every metric of human flourishing.

A third common misconception about these two types of communities is that we look down upon others who are not part of our circles. To an extent, outsiders who perceive our communities in this way probably have good reasons. When a person adopts a new way of life, he or she can be especially zealous. For example, it’s not unheard of for an alcoholic who has just begun attending recovery meetings to begin assessing all of his or her friends’ levels of alcohol use. Similarly, I’ve known folks who have spent their first few months of committed celibacy critically examining their other LGBT friends’ non-celibacy. Very few people are comfortably “out” regarding their statuses as recovering addicts or celibate LGBT Christians. But because so many people in my life have had negative experiences with folks in either group (or both), I am told with some regularity that forcing others into a certain way of life is the only reason someone might share openly about his or her journey in a community of abstinence. I’ve lost count of the number of times an acquaintance has told me, “The problem with celibate gays is they all demand that every other gay person has to become celibate.” Yet despite these sentiments from people outside the celibate gay community, rarely have I met a celibate gay Christian who would actively approach a non-celibate gay person with a wagging finger, spouting choice bits of Christianese, and inquiring about the specifics of that person’s sexual behaviors. Likewise, I’ve found that members of addiction recovery communities who would engage in this sort of behavior toward outsiders are very much in the minority.

Healthy communities of any kind focus on a positive vision for life. If someone where to ask me how I’ve benefited from participation in addiction recovery communities and celibate gay communities, I couldn’t conceive of responding with a simple, “They helped me to stop doing a, b, and c.” My active participation in addiction recovery communities has brought numerous gifts. I have received support for living a way of life that is purposeful and fulfilling. I’ve come to see that being accountable is not merely providing an answer to, “Have you avoided particular behaviors?” but is instead thinking deeply, “Am I living a way of life that promotes wellness on multiple axes?” I know that no matter what, I will find acceptance, love, and compassion in these communities. No one is going to shame, berate, browbeat, or belittle me if I experience a relapse. Instead, they’re all going to be there for me as they love me, embrace me warmly, care for me, and remain with me through my challenges. They won’t see me as a hypocrite; they’ll see me as a human. They can witness my struggles and defects of character while at the same time seeing me as a human being worthy of love. I’ve been blessed to observe these same dynamics at play in celibate gay communities. Members of celibate gay communities know that it’s essential to help each other discern a way of life that extends far beyond what we aren’t doing: most of us are much more interested in learning how to draw near to God than in policing whether anyone else is having sex. Having a foot in both of these worlds has taught me that any community of abstinence is healthiest when it is uplifting and welcoming rather than fear-based and forceful.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

When Marriage Becomes the Default Vocation

One benefit of cultivating a celibate vocation is that we get to know other people who live celibacy. It can be reasonably challenging to find celibates until one figures out where to look for them. Unfortunately, it’s rare to see celibacy discussed much, if at all, in the majority of Christian traditions outside the question of whether LGBT people should be celibate. Some argue that LGBT people do not have any opportunity to discern their vocations because so many Christian traditions seem to present celibacy as the default option. We’ve seen these types of conversations ourselves, so we have no doubts that some churches give LGBT people unfunded mandates to be celibate without providing any practical support. Additionally, we believe that many who criticize “celibacy as a default” overlook how conversations about sexual ethics in some traditions emphasize marriage as the default vocation for all people.

Consider the ways Christians are taught about sexual ethics. Many denominations exhort people to “save sex until marriage” and believe that “true love waits.” We know several LGBT Christians with relatively progressive sexual ethics in terms of same-sex marriage who are completely committed to waiting until they are married to have sex. Justin Lee, the executive director of the Gay Christian Network, articulates his convictions that sex should be reserved for marriage. Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian, has defended his commitment to stay abstinent until his wedding day. So many people define a Christian sexual ethic as not having sex outside of the marriage covenant. But by presenting sexual ethics solely in this manner, many traditions unwittingly overlook how Christians cultivate chastity by learning to steward their bodies responsibly.

We have engaged in conversations where people argue that sexual ethics should focus primarily on the choices humans make about when and with whom to have sex. We agree resolutely that the choice to have sex is deeply personal. Whether any other person on the planet is having sex is none of our business. However, emphasizing the permissibility of sex as the primary issue makes an assumption that every person is looking for an opportunity to have sex.

Celibacy is not a new idea within Christianity. Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and some other Christian traditions have well developed views on the marital vocation, celibate vocations, and the discernment process. The two of us have had different levels of experience with a range of other Christian traditions and have discovered that celibacy is rarely discussed, except in the context of spiritual gifts. Lindsey has seen spiritual gift inventories that ask people questions about their levels of sexual desire in an effort to discern the gift of celibacy. Often, these inventories posit that only asexual people or those with very low sex drives have been gifted with celibacy. We’re left asking, “What happens when any person who does not fit this description wants to explore the possibilities of celibacy?”

Experience has shown us that many Christians tend to diminish the presence people exploring celibacy. If someone visits a new congregation alone, greeters will ask the visitor if he or she is married and has children. Newly engaged friends can tell all their single friends not to worry because, “Eventually, your day will come.” Singles ministries provide people with ample time to mix and mingle. Conversations at church frequently check in on how someone’s children are doing. When you comment that you’re not married, some people go so far as to shoot you a pitiful glance before quickly exiting the conversation. In Lindsey’s former Christian tradition, Lindsey frequently heard other people laughing and ridiculing the idea that anyone would have the “gift of celibacy.” They would ask jokingly, “How is it even possible that a person has such a low level of sexual desire?” and imply that Paul must have been crazy if he suggested not wanting sex was a spiritual gift.

Within some Christian traditions, an LGBT person who indicates that he or she might be considering celibacy frequently receives a hostile reception. Celibacy is treated as a code word for internalized homophobia, self-hatred, self-loathing, religious oppression, patriarchy, absurd self-denial, or sexual deviancy. In the last two weeks alone on the internet, we’ve seen significant evidence of this hostility. One author suggested that people pursuing celibacy “will almost always end up having sex on the DL anyway, and that leads to higher rates of HIV transmission” and lead lives that are analogous to cutting fruits and vegetables out of their diets. Another author said that encouraging celibacy is linked to any number of negative health outcomes including “depression, anxiety, self-destructive behavior, sexual dysfunction, avoidance of intimacy, loss of faith and spirituality, and the reinforcement of internalized homophobia and self-hatred, to name a few.” A recent internet meme portrays a celibate person as experiencing intense desires for sex only to say, “No! I mustn’t!” Another recent article runs through a list of passages, which we’ve termed the other clobber passages, to make an argument that celibacy is rare, difficult, and a “nearly impossible vocation.” These assertions, while disappointing, are far from surprising as we’ve encountered similar sentiments when we’ve visited Open and Affirming congregations.

The net consequence of these discussions is that it’s incredibly easy for people to get the message that marriage is the default vocation for all. Marriage becomes a rite of passage to adulthood, and being unmarried is a stigma in some faith communities. When people within a Christian tradition argue that the celibate vocation is incredibly rare, they are making an argument that essentially says, “99.99% of people marry. There might be a very small number of people gifted with celibacy, but the chances that you might be one of this minority are slim. So there’s no real reason to consider the possibility.” We believe that the Church as a whole is impoverished when Christians never anticipate meeting a person with a celibate vocation.

We understand why people want to affirm that some are gifted with celibacy and emphasize that this gift may be rare. Paul clearly references the gift of celibacy in the Scriptures. But of equal importance is that people have diverse reasons for entering celibate vocations. These reasons include, but are not limited to, having a passion to love and serve the world differently than a married person, developing an affinity for a particular monastic community, not perceiving a call towards parenthood, deciding one’s spirituality is more focused on God when one is not pursuing a marriage relationship, enjoying one’s life as it is without marital obligations, or sensing that one has the gift of celibacy. It’s also not terribly uncommon for people to embrace the celibate vocation out of obedience: they sense that God is asking them to commit to celibacy for reasons they do not understand, they respect their Christian tradition’s teachings on marriage and realize that they are not keen on embracing a marital vocation, or they want to remain faithful to their sexual ethics despite an extended season of involuntary celibacy. The exact reasons why people have embraced celibacy are between them and their spiritual advisors unless they choose to share with others.

When people acknowledge and affirm a broader set of reasons to embrace celibate vocations, it becomes more obvious that God is not asking every person to enter a martial relationship. Vocational discernment becomes prayerfully seeking answers to the questions, “God, what would You have me do as I seek to love You more? Who have You created to me to be? How can I more fully image Christ’s likeness to everyone I meet?”

Christians need to stop mocking the gift of celibacy by suggesting that living the celibate vocation requires superhuman strength and a nearly complete absence of sexual desire. When celibacy is presented in this way, it becomes an inhuman way of life to the point of being seen as inhumane. However, celibacy is an entirely human vocation. Real men and women have borne witness to the kingdom of God for centuries through myriad celibate vocations. Christians would benefit from getting to know real people who live celibacy — some of whom might be in their midst without their awareness. Why did they embrace celibacy? How did celibacy provide a way for them to learn to love themselves, their neighbors, and God? What gifts did they share with the world as they embraced their vocations fully?

(Stay tuned for more profiles of real celibates!)

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

 

Saturday Symposium: The Conflation of Celibacy and Ex-Gay Ministries

Hello readers! It’s been an exciting month in our household. Lindsey has returned to full-time work and is having a blast. Thank you so much for your prayers and support over the last several months. We remember many of you and your loved ones in our prayers.

Now let’s discuss our new Saturday Symposium question:

How this works: It’s very simple. We ask a multi-part question related to a topic we’ve blogged about during the past week or are considering blogging about in the near future, and you, our readers, share your responses in the comments section. Feel free to be open, reflective, and vulnerable…and to challenge us. But as always, be mindful of the comment policy that ends each of our posts. Usually, we respond fairly quickly to each comment, but in order to give you time to think, come back, add more later if you want, and discuss with other readers, we will wait until after Monday to respond to comments on Saturday Symposium questions.

This week’s Saturday Symposium question: We’ve seen a lot of articles lately discussing LGBT celibacy. With ex-gay ministries like Exodus closing their doors, Christians opposed to homosexuality are having a harder time saying, “God can help a gay person to become straight.” Several authors have argued that Christians opposed to homosexuality are increasingly saying, “God can help a gay person be celibate.” Yesterday, Lindsey reflected upon how embracing a celibate vocation requires rejecting the sexual ethics of ex-gay ministries. This week, we are interested in how people could critically discuss the sexual ethics found in many ex-gay ministries. Why are so many people falsely equating celibacy with ex-gay ministries? How can people affirm the celibate vocations of LGBT people? Is there a way to talk about LGBT people choosing celibacy out of obedience to their Christian tradition without equating this choice to ex-gay approaches? What rhetorical traps have you observed people falling into when arguing against celibacy? Are there ways to talk about destructive messages associated with conservative sexual ethics that do not also promulgate a different set of stereotypes about LGBT celibates?   

We look forward to reading your responses. If you’re concerned about having your comment publicly associated with your name, please consider using the Contact Us page to submit your comment. We can post it under a pseudonym (i.e. John says, “your comment”) or summarize your comment in our own words (i.e. One person observed…). Participating in this kind of public dialogue can be risky, and we want to do what we can to protect you even if that means we preserve your anonymity. Have a wonderful weekend!

Blessings,

Sarah and Lindsey

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Crossing the Chasm between Ex-Gay Ministry and Celibacy

A reflection by Lindsey

Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen many bloggers asking the question, “Is celibacy the newest ex-gay ministry?” They note that some LGBT Christians, after spending years in ex-gay ministries, have decided to embrace celibacy. Exodus International closed down after conceding that sexual orientation change efforts rarely succeed and often do harm. We’ve shared previously about our own past experiences in ministries with ex-gay ideologies. As I’ve been reading all the recent articles and blog posts suggesting that LGBT celibacy is simply the new face of the ex-gay movement, I’ve found it striking how many commenters overlook the chasm between the sexual ethics of ex-gay ministries and the charisms of a celibate vocation.

On one level, I understand the confusion. I participated in ex-gay ministries for three years in college. These ministries had connections with churches and promised to help people with same-sex attractions lead holy lives. Slogans like “Change is possible,” and “The opposite of homosexuality isn’t heterosexuality, it’s holiness,” still ring through my ears when I think back to that time in my life.

However, ex-gay ministries have a particular kind of sexual ethic — one that I and many other celibate LGBT Christians consider colossally unhelpful. Ex-gay ministries focus on helping people avoid sexual sins. Sexual purity takes on a particular kind of theological importance. In the ex-gay ministry I was a part of, we spoke of lust, pornography, and masturbation as the “unholy trinity.” People did their best to reorient themselves towards Christ whenever they had lustful thoughts. We frequently reminded each other that we were commanded to “take every thought captive” so we could submit everything to Christ. We talked about the proper place of sex within marriage, the benefits of keeping ourselves pure for a future opposite-sex spouse, and the importance of confessing past transgressions in order to receive forgiveness. When it came to discussing sexual morality, these ministries stressed the importance of keeping the marriage bed holy. There was no discussion of celibacy, but there was significant conversation about marriage and abstinence.

Eventually, I wore out my welcome in ex-gay ministries. I started asking questions about how the ministry interpreted Scriptures. Many ex-gay ministries justify their existence by quoting from 1 Corinthians 6. According to these teachers, Paul clearly lists homosexuals among those who will not inherit the kingdom of God. Christians had hope to change because Paul tells those in Corinth, “such were some of you.” I got into trouble because I started asking questions about the implications of the passage as a whole:

Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated? No, you yourselves do wrong and cheat, and you do these things to your brethren! Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.

Why was Paul talking about lawsuits? Given Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, would it be possible for Christians to say rightly that there was no chance they were ever idolaters, thieves, covetous, or extortioners? When the ex-gay ministry I was a part of dismissed my inquiries as being little more than a distraction, I couldn’t help but question the ministry as a whole.

Eventually, I came to see ex-gay ministries as purveyors of spiritual abuse. They used any information they could think of to showcase the evils of the “gay lifestyle.” They taught people to fear most forms of human interaction lest they find themselves falling down the slippery slope to inappropriate sexual intimacy. I was watching people leave the ministry with their faith in tatters, noting how the pastors in charge of the ministry expected everyone to revere their every word.

Embracing my celibate vocation required that I distance myself from nearly everything ex-gay ministries taught about sexual ethics. Things began to crumble when I started asking questions like, “Why am I trying so hard to be straight when I have no desire for children?” and “How could a ministry teach people to be afraid of every peer relationship?”

When I made a choice to cultivate a celibate vocation, I had to look at relationships differently. It was far from a linear journey as I came to define celibacy. I’ve reflected more on my journey elsewhere on the blog. As I’ve read authors who equate celibacy with ex-gay ministry, I have to wonder where they got their information on celibacy. It does not seem like they have talked to anyone living celibate vocations. I recognize a lot of their talking points as coming straight from mischaracterizations of celibacy promoted by people who have had negative experiences with celibacy. I am puzzled as to why nearly all of these authors are implying that LGBT Christians are only just now pursuing celibacy because ex-gay ministries have closed their doors.

This might come as a surprise, but celibacy is not a new idea. Christians of all sexual orientations and gender identities have been choosing celibacy for well over 1500 years. As I’ve discerned my own celibate vocation, I have sought both historic and current examples of people who have lived and who are living celibacy. Embracing a celibate vocation required me to embrace my sexuality rather than repress my sexuality. Along my way, I read author after author who affirmed the absolute need for celibates to integrate their sexualities. Discerning a celibate vocation allowed me to affirm and celebrate my uniqueness as an LGBT person. I was able to move beyond the destructive navel-gazing that characterized so much of my experience in ex-gay ministries. I learned to see myself as Lindsey rather than as a liability who should be accepted in community as a charity case.

Finding my celibate vocation required adopting a more holistic view of Scripture. Indeed, even reading the chapters that contained the oft-quoted verses began to shift my thinking away from what the ex-gay ministry said a particular verse meant. I sought the Holy Spirit’s guidance for what passages of Scripture might be especially important for me to ponder as I developed my sense of vocation. I learned to listen to the Scriptures within a particular Christian tradition, seeing how men and women through the ages have allowed the Bible to shape their vocational journeys. If you want more specifics on that aspect of my journey, you can read about how I discerned my sexual ethic. I’m quite honestly baffled that anyone could read my writing and suggest that I’m somehow a hardcore biblical literalist or that I don’t accept queer sexual orientations. I can’t think of any celibate LGBT person I know who fits these stereotypes.

To be completely fair, I think most people don’t understand that there is a chasm between the sexual ethics of ex-gay ministries and the charisms of a celibate vocation. Researching celibacy is challenging. It can be far too tempting to dismiss celibate people as “those weirdos who don’t want to have sex.” If you throw a sense of religious obligation into the mix, then one might think of repression, angst, existential crises, and really all the makings of a great soap opera. The net effect is characterizing celibate LGBT people with a stereotype of pitiful souls who have no conception of God’s love, who cower in fear and spend their whole lives trying to entrap other members of the LGBT community. On a certain level, that incorrect characterization makes sense to me if a person conceives of celibacy as nothing more than doing one’s best to white-knuckle sexual abstinence. However, that notion of celibacy saddens me in the extreme because it completely denies how celibates are able to love and serve the world — especially other human beings — with joy.

I can relate to people who say that nothing could ever make them go back to ex-gay ministry. I agree with them whole-heartedly. The sexual ethics of ex-gay ministries are fear-based and spiritually abusive. Discerning and living into my celibate vocation has brought me immense joy where I have rich relationships with other people. Embracing celibacy has changed my approach to the Christian life, and I sit here amazed at how God has given me such a wonderful gift to challenge me to grow in love.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

In Defense of Moms Like Mine

A reflection by Sarah

Today, I’m writing something that I never thought I would write. It’s a defense of my mom and all Christian parents like her. I’ll admit upfront that this is a difficult post for me because my mom and I don’t have a very close relationship. We’re as different as daylight and dark and have always struggled to understand each other. Rarely do we find ourselves being of one mind on any serious issue. Yet for reasons mysterious, far beyond our comprehension, God saw fit to put us into relationship as mother and daughter. And perhaps this is why I would fight to the death to protect her from being maligned.

Two weeks ago, we published a post on the need for better conversations about issues of LGBT suicide and parental acceptance. In response to our claim that conservative Christian parents approach their relationships with LGBTQ children (minor and adult) in a variety of ways, more than one reader suggested that these parents are always caught in a choice between loving God and loving their children. A few readers found our confidence that it would be possible for parents with a traditional sexual ethic to maintain authentic relationships with their LGBTQ children overly optimistic and a bit foolhardy. Some offered that for many LGBTQ people, even being around a parent with a traditional sexual ethic is inescapably destructive and dangerous. I can’t speak to the life circumstances of another person and do not wish to invalidate the stories of others. Nonetheless, as I was interacting with our readers on this topic I couldn’t help but think of my relationship with my mom because, although we have remarkably different views on sexuality and scripture, I cannot imagine her ever treating me as a lesser human being because of my sexual orientation.

My mom is a longtime attendee of services in a conservative Christian denomination that many would consider fundamentalist. If not a total biblical literalist, she’s remarkably close (except at times when my dad teases her about male headship — she’s not too fond of Ephesians 5 and 1 Timothy 2 when interpreted literally). For my mom, questions about the morality of homosexuality usually come down to a simple quoting of “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is abomination” (Leviticus 18:22). Make your best emphatic statement of “Abomination!” with an Eastern Kentucky accent, and you’ve pretty much summed up my mom’s views on non-heterosexual orientations. Occasionally in the past, my mom has cited 1 Corinthians 6 to hint that I could magically become straight, but it’s always been in the general sense of “Well, Sarah Ann, God can change our hearts if we let him.” My mom has always believed that being gay is a choice, and she holds that belief alongside others that make sense within a biblical literalist framework. For example, my mom would argue that the world was created in six actual days, the Old Testament is a literal record of historical events, and the discussion of every moral question should begin with, “Well, you know, what the Bible says…”

However, I have no doubt that my mom loves Jesus and has always desired that I encounter Christ personally. She’s shared with me that before I was born and she was unsure of her ability to bear children, she prayed — as Hannah did before the birth of Samuel — that if God would give her a child, she would do everything possible to dedicate that child to God’s work. My earliest memories of faith formation involve reading children’s Bible stories with my mom, and my mom reading to my sister and me from her own Bible. Sometimes, she would even plan sick day Sunday school lessons for me at home when I had a cold that was just pesky enough to keep me from attending any church service. My mom is a faith first sort of person if ever there was one. I can’t imagine she’s ever made a decision that wasn’t informed by her relationship with Christ.

When I first came out to my mom, like most conservative parents she didn’t take it well. The news caught her off-guard and rendered her speechless. She had no idea what to say or do. She was a good Christian mom and had done her best to raise me as a person of faith. My mom began zooming in on various theories as to why I “thought” I was a lesbian. Some theories focused on my history of sexual abuse. Others involved speculation that my emotionally difficult breakup with my high school boyfriend might have turned me gay. Occasionally, my mom pulled in even stranger theories such as the idea that seeing two  possibly-lesbian women refereeing my elementary school basketball games made the “gay lifestyle” appealing to me. My mom has spent years adjusting to the reality that I’m not going to become straight, my sexual orientation is not a phase, and I’m never going to bring home a prospective son-in-law for parental inspection. However, in the midst of all of this, she has always made clear that she loves me. She has constantly stressed that I am welcome in her household, and from the beginning has promised that she will never, ever reject me. We’ve certainly had our disagreements over the years since I came out. Some have led to weeks, even months of communication breaks. But I’ve never feared being cast aside from my family. If my mom’s love can survive my coming home with a tattoo within a month after starting college, there is absolutely no doubt that it will survive anything else that she considers a transgression.

At this point you might be saying, “Hey, that doesn’t count. You’re celibate. It would be different if you and Lindsey were sexually active.” Not all of my past relationships have been celibate. One of my previous non-celibate relationships was with a women who was emotionally abusive, manipulative, and selfish. If my parents had wanted to reject this partner on the grounds that she treated me terribly, they would have had good cause to do so. Nonetheless, when I introduced her to my parents, my mom did everything she could think to do in order to make her feel welcome. After that relationship ended, my mom said, “You know, Sarah, I’m glad you’re not with that woman anymore.” I became tense and expected to hear a mini-sermon about the evils of homosexuality, but my mom surprised me by instead citing instances when this past partner had mistreated me. My mom highlighted her observation that this person made many and frequent unreasonable requests of me and became angry when I did not meet expectations: regularly, she would demand that I alter my own daily schedule to run litanies of errands, none of which I ever seemed to perform well enough. My mom reminded me of a time when this partner had chosen a restaurant to take all of us for dinner: she hadn’t considered that this establishment wouldn’t have any food that met my dietary needs, and then became angry with me for ordering an off-the-menu cheese sandwich because I couldn’t eat anything else. My mom played back her memory reel of all the times my partner had made fun of me for being too nerdy, not thin enough, and too religious. At no point did my mom mention anything about “homosexuality.” Instead, shared that she had spent hours praying for me that I would not be stuck in an abusive relationship for the rest of my life.

When my mom met Lindsey, I had to do a double-take that I was actually watching her in action. Every bit of Southern hospitality was on display, and anyone present would have thought that Lindsey had been part of the family for decades. Granted, my mom still makes a point to tell me that she thinks homosexuality is wrong, but she shares this view with me personally and privately — never in front of Lindsey. In the next breath, she’ll ask me a litany of questions to learn about Lindsey’s favorite foods so that they can be on the menu when we visit. I’ve never seen my mom go to such lengths to apologize for her preparation of green beans than when she couldn’t find the freshest bunch to serve to Lindsey. Thanks to my mom (and also my pistol-packing grandmother), Lindsey was included immediately in the Christmas gift circle, on the birthday card list, and on the list of questions for the family to ask before the end of a call every time they phone me. Lindsey and I had been together as a couple for over a year before I shared with my mom that we are committed to living celibacy together. I didn’t think telling her that we were celibate would matter much because my mom tends to view homosexuality as a choice, full stop. Discussing celibacy with my mom has not changed how she interacts with Lindsey and me, and my decision to become celibate has had no effect on my mom’s theological position on homosexuality. Despite this (and maybe even despite herself), my mom really does appreciate and respect Lindsey because she likes seeing how well Lindsey treats me and how much I’ve grown spiritually since the beginning of our relationship.

When I reflect on how my mom has treated me over the years, I cannot help but become enraged when people suggest that because of her extremely conservative sexual ethic, she is exactly the same as parents who have thrown their kids out on the street, demanded that they participate in ex-gay ministries, or forced them into fear-based celibacy or heterosexual marriages. I’ll be frank: my mom would much rather I had the capacity to enter a heterosexual marriage. If my mom had her way, I’d be married to a man with a great job while living no more than a twenty-minute drive from her and my dad. By the time she was the age I am now, she had been married to my dad for 8 years and already had two children. In my mom’s dream world, I’d probably be raising children of my own by this point. To say that my relationship with my mom hasn’t been the best is a significant understatement. My close friends can attest to how conflicts about things other than sexual orientation have had nearly enough power to end my relationship with my mom. Nonetheless, I find it imperative to give credit where credit is due.

When it comes to my sexual orientation, my mom has never once indicated in any way that her love for me is conditional upon my “becoming straight” or choosing celibacy. Instead, she has managed to affirm my full humanity and treat me as a person of equal worth (even though we’re still working on, “Please, treat me like a grown woman.”). My mom has done nothing to make me feel like less of a person because I’m a lesbian. She has taught me so much about affirming the dignity of other people because she always goes the extra mile to do so in her own life. In a rural county that’s nearly 99% white and probably more than 99% fundamentalist Christian, my mom haalways been the first person to defend members of religious minorities when the town gossips start clucking about what a pity it is that the few nice Hindu and Muslim families in the area “aren’t saved.” She’s constantly responding to those remarks with, “I believe Christ is the only way, but there are things about how He works that we don’t understand.” As I think about how my mom has approached all of her doubts and wrestling with the questions that emerged after I told her I was a lesbian, I am confident that she has spilled out all of her anguish at the foot of the cross so that she can continue to love me — and every LGBTQ person she has ever met — with no strings attached.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Shifting the Conversation Is Not Silence: A Response to Maria McDowell

One of the first things we did before launching A Queer Calling was create a joint email account. Both of us take great joy in engaging in conversation about celibacy and related issues, so when the new mail alert dings we race one another to read what has arrived. We are grateful for all of our readers and commenters because everyone brings his or her unique voice to the dialogue. In the seven months we’ve been blogging, we’ve been impressed by the level of respectful conversation we’ve seen in the comment box.

Last week, we received an email notification that Maria McDowell had responded to “Our Celibate Gay Agenda” in a post at the Women in Theology blog. We appreciate Maria’s generosity in her analysis of our post and our blog in general, and we hope to offer just as thoughtful a response to her as she as given us.

Maria differs from many bloggers in that she sees how celibate vocations can be life-giving for LGBTQ Christians who choose them. She also agrees with our point that in general, modern society erroneously views celibacy as a strange and harmful self-denial. We were especially glad to see this coming from an LGBTQ Christian who asserts that she does not feel called to celibacy. Maria’s discussion about examples of people living celibate vocations immediately caused us to think back to a post Sarah wrote months ago that included brief profiles of three very different female celibates. We hope to provide our readers with more examples of real people and their celibate vocations. We live at a time when more and more Christians are living as celibates in the world because not everyone feels a call to marriage or monasticism. Perhaps there is something more we can do to help foster greater acceptance and appreciation for celibate vocations in general and not just within the LGBTQ context.

Maria also references her own experience of knowing celibate couples who have been ostracized within their faith communities after someone “outed” them and no one knew they were celibate. It’s entirely true that this happens, and probably with great regularity because, as Maria says, “Such things are not publicized, and often not talked about even among the LGBTQ community for fear of ridicule. Most humans, straight or otherwise, can’t imagine why one would choose to live with someone AND be celibate, oh, the horror!” We know firsthand how real those sentiments are among church folk and within the LGBTQ community, and we’re also aware of how often coupled celibates are expected, or even directly instructed, to keep quiet.

Many LGBTQ people have told us that we should be quiet because sharing about our celibacy could be dangerous and set back decades of work for LGBTQ acceptance. We’ve lost track of the number of times church folk have told us that we should be quiet about our celibacy because, if we’re truly being obedient to our Christian tradition, why should discussing our celibacy matter? When celibate, LGBTQ people are instructed to remain silent about their celibacy, their sexual orientations, and their gender identities, the real experiences remain hidden. This prevents other Christians from acknowledging that, yes, there are celibate LGBTQ members of their churches. We know for a fact that we’re not the only celibate couple within our Christian tradition. We have many conversations where people thank us for being willing to open up about our experiences, challenge them to raise awkward questions, and deal with any negativity that may come our way as a result. We were glad to see Maria’s acknowledgement that celibate LGBTQ Christians are not automatically protected from judgment and discrimination.

While we are grateful that Maria trusts our agenda without qualification and does not believe, as some do, that everyone has an agenda that can be categorized into one of two polar extremes, we have to disagree with her assertion that stories are never just stories. People tell stories for all kinds of different reasons that are agenda-driven, but this isn’t always the case. The two of us frequently play random games of “Tell me a story.” Typically, Lindsey will interrupt something else that’s going on just to hear a story. Sarah may share a fun memory from childhood that just happens to come to mind, a completely fictional story, or a story about the adventures of a hamster. We tell stories to each other like we want to tell stories to children. Not every story needs to be a morality play. Humans often tell stories to have fun and to get to know one another in different, deeper, and more intimate ways. It’s true that most often, there is some specific reason for the stories we tell on the blog, but usually the point we are trying to make by telling a story is obvious. And we’ve never told a story intended to convince anyone that our lives are more moral than another person’s.

We also disagree with Maria’s assessment that we are silent on issues explicitly relevant to non-celibate members of the LGBTQ community. If we read her correctly, she seems to believe that when LGBTQ celibates share our stories, we ought to indicate to the hearers where we stand on the question, “Is same-sex sexual activity sinful?” and celibates who don’t are failing to show support for non-celibate LGBTQ people. As we read the second half of Maria’s blog post, we thought of several instances where we’ve discussed our relationships with non-celibate friends. We’ve written posts about lessons we’ve learned from our friends in non-celibate relationships and ways that our non-celibate LGBTQ friends have been supportive of us during difficult seasons of life. We’ve also discussed a variety of issues that affect both celibate and non-celibate LGBTQ people such as workplace discriminationlegal protections to ensure that couples can meet healthcare and other needs, language policing, and the use of false information to “prove” that LGBTQ people are ill or have chosen their orientations. Given these, we wonder how a non-celibate LGBTQ person could possibly read our blog regularly and come to the conclusion that we only offer significant support for other celibates.

We also wonder why many involved in this discussion tend to reduce the idea of “support” to making the statement, “I don’t think it’s a sin if you have sex.” Neither one of us could ever imagine telling any person — gay, straight, or otherwise — “I affirm you and your sex life.” The thought of doing so strikes us as absurd, condescending, and presumptuous. As we once expounded upon at length in a comment, we believe that it’s far better to be good to people and to build close relationships with them when possible than to make direct judgments about the specifics of their intimate lives. The latter would require having detailed knowledge of their intimate lives, which are none of our business. We are curious: in what other areas of life would one suggest that showing support for a person requires an overt assertion of agreement with his or her beliefs and decisions? Take, for example, how we as cat owners interact with other cat owners. Regardless of what we believe about the morality of declawing cats, being there for someone who is raising a newly declawed kitten does not require us to state publicly that declawing isn’t sinful. And we’re pretty sure that our refraining from such a statement wouldn’t lead our feline-loving friends to think we would only visit if we’re allowed to inspect kitty paws before dinner. Some might argue that this example is trivial, but we would hypothesize that most people have meaningful relationships with others where no one is expected to proclaim boldly an opinion on the morality of everything. We don’t see why questions about someone’s level of sexual activity should be a special exception where everyone must state a judgment to the world.

Maria is not the first person to suggest that our abstention from discussing this issue indirectly validates the position opposite hers. We wonder whether she would still say, “The very polarization which A Queer Calling decries is embedded in the silence that they keep,” if she knew that very conservative people often assume that our “silence” somehow affirms gay sexual activity. Not long ago, we received a remarkably similar (although private) response from a priest who was convinced that we must be “flaming liberals” because we don’t say otherwise. To one reader, our story “looks an awful lot like an agreement that gay sexual activity, even within the bounds of marriage, remains ethically unacceptable for Christians.” To another, it appears to be just another cog in the “gay agenda.” Everyone interprets stories with their own experiences and biases in mind. Naturally, different hearers will extrapolate different meanings from any story. Sometimes, only the teller knows the full context of a story’s meaning.

It troubles us to think that the current conversation about LGBTQ people and the Church has become singularly focused on publicly affirming or condemning someone’s private behavior. We would estimate that about 40% of the email correspondence we receive comes from people — both conservatives and liberals — who insist that we are not participating properly in this conversation because we have chosen to frame our discussions of difficult issues differently than “gay sex is a sin” or “gay sex is not a sin.” Should you be interested in more information about to why we frame our contribution to the conversation differently, consider reading this post. Every time we get an email saying that we’re approaching this discussion in the wrong way, we suspect we’ve said something that might be making a person uncomfortable because we’ve forced him or her think about a new set of questions.

Experimenting with shifting the conversation is not the same as silence. We believe the time has come to expand dialogue beyond the question, “Is gay sex a sin?” The two of us collectively have spent several years engaging in both real life and internet discussions about how acceptable or unacceptable same-sex sexual activity is for Christians. To be sure, there are advantages associated with talking about the issues in these terms. But it limits the conversation to one question — a question that is often answered with a simple “Yes” or “No” by people who already have set convictions. We find ourselves bemused when some authors who call for more nuance in dialogue about sexuality, gender identity, relationships, and Christian discipleship include an obligatory statement — in every post they write — of, “Gay sexual activity can never be affirmed,” or “We must always affirm people’s personal choices to enter sexual relationships.” We imagine this is an attempt to signal, “Hey, it’s okay to read my stuff because I’m on your side in this debate.” If other writers see it as necessary to assert these beliefs frequently, they are free to do so. But that doesn’t obligate us to do the same. Last time we checked, no one individual owns this conversation. The issue of whether same-sex sexual activity is sinful or not matters. It’s extremely important. However, we think that there are other important questions to discuss when talking about LGBTQ people and the Church, and we see it as unreasonable for some bloggers to insist that every other blogger must offer a public affirmation or condemnation of gay sex.

When we began A Queer Calling, the two of us were of one mind about attempting to initiate a different kind of conversation here than what we have seen and continue to see in other places. As LGBTQ Christians, our struggles to find love within the Church, the challenges we face in the world, and the joys we experience are far more complex than what we choose to do (or not) in our private lives. We do not believe for an instant that our approach here is some superior, enlightened pathway between harmful extremes, but we do find it odd that so many people seem to be waiting around for us to start arguing for one side or the other. If that’s you, we inform you without regret that you’re in for a very long wait. Maria is absolutely right to assert that what one says publicly has consequences, and sometimes the cost is high. This isn’t just for people who make public statements about gay sexual activity. The road we’ve chosen also comes at a great cost. Because of our difference in approach, there are some celibate and non-celibate LGBTQ and ally voices who would probably never consider agreeing with us publicly on anything. But we believe strongly in the purpose we’ve made clear from our very first day of blogging, and we’re willing to accept that reality and continue interacting with everyone who is interested in talking with us.

We’ve found that by focusing our writings in direction that most people are not accustomed to seeing on LGBTQ Christian blogs, we can extend hospitality and a place for conversation to folks who would otherwise be without a space they see as safe for their participation. We feel honored each time someone contacts us to say that he or she was completely exasperated by the current conversation until finding our blog. Because we believe that hospitality is a central component of our celibate vocation, we strive to be as welcoming as possible to everyone who comes our way. If Maria were to visit our city, we would, without qualification, invite her to stay in our home as a guest and participate — as much as she felt inclined — in every aspect of our daily prayer life and other activities. We would sit around our dining room table with her and enjoy shared meals and stories. We would also invite her to attend church with us on Sunday. The extent to which she would be permitted to participate in the service would be between her and our priest, as is true for all visitors we and other parishioners bring. We would treat Maria exactly as we treat all who enter our doorway regardless of their celibacy or non-celibacy, and we fail to understand why someone would perceive us as keeping him or her from a table at which we are welcome.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Saturday Symposium: Accountability and LGBT Christians

Good morning everyone! This week has been an exceptionally busy week on the blog with an unexpected bonus post from Sarah on Thursday. We’ve had some great conversations with readers. Talking with you all makes our blogging project here so much more rewarding. Thanks for being awesome.

Now let’s discuss our new Saturday Symposium question:

How this works: It’s very simple. We ask a multi-part question related to a topic we’ve blogged about during the past week or are considering blogging about in the near future, and you, our readers, share your responses in the comments section. Feel free to be open, reflective, and vulnerable…and to challenge us. But as always, be mindful of the comment policy that ends each of our posts. Usually, we respond fairly quickly to each comment, but in order to give you time to think, come back, add more later if you want, and discuss with other readers, we will wait until after Monday to respond to comments on Saturday Symposium questions.

This week’s Saturday Symposium question: Yesterday, we saw discussion erupt on Facebook after we shared our reflections on a podcast by Frederica Mathewes-Green. In the podcast, she asserts that it’s not the place of a newcomer to a parish to ask prying questions into an LGBT person’s sex life because “it’s none of your business.” She is speaking expressly in the context of the Orthodox Church where priests regularly hear people’s confessions and provide spiritual direction. However, some of our readers from other Christian traditions found her advice problematic because many communities typically do not have the same clergy/laity distinction. We’d love to hear your thoughts on how LGBT Christians might be able to seek spiritual counsel, direction, and accountability when it comes to living into their sexual ethics. What obligations do Christians have to one another regarding sexual ethics? How does your Christian community help members discern celibate and marital vocations? Who might people talk to if they are concerned about how someone else appears to be living out his or her vocation? What should a person do if he or she is concerned about another person’s sexual conduct?

We look forward to reading your responses. If you’re concerned about having your comment publicly associated with your name, please consider using the Contact Us page to submit your comment. We can post it under a pseudonym (i.e. John says, “your comment”) or summarize your comment in our own words (i.e. One person observed…). Participating in this kind of public dialogue can be risky, and we want to do what we can to protect you even if that means we preserve your anonymity. Have a wonderful weekend!

Blessings,

Sarah and Lindsey

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Is the Gay Couple at Your Church Having Sex? It’s None of Your Business.

A few months ago, one of our readers forwarded us a link to a short Ancient Faith Radio podcast where Frederica Mathewes-Green, a writer and speaker within the Orthodox Christian tradition, offers her thoughts on pastors and same-sex attraction. It was recorded in 2012, and we haven’t gotten the links to the mp3 and podcast download to work properly. If you’re interested in listening to it before reading the rest of this post, it’s best to click the “play” button on the page itself after you’ve followed our link. Though this podcast isn’t new and isn’t nearly long enough for a full resource review, we wanted to share some of our thoughts on its content and welcome our readers to share their own thoughts in the comments.

We’ll say up front that if you hold a progressive sexual ethic, you will likely disagree with a significant part of this podcast’s content. If you hold some form of traditional sexual ethic, you will likely find yourself agreeing with at least some parts of what Mathewes-Green has to say, but may also find yourself challenged. Regardless, today’s post should not be taken as a blanket endorsement of everything Mathewes-Green has said publicly about LGBT issues.

In this talk, Mathewes-Green offers her opinion on the question, “What is the proper response if I find myself at an Orthodox parish where two people who seem to be a gay couple are accepted, and are even receiving communion?” Part if her response is that what fellow parishioners are or aren’t doing in their private lives “Is really none of your business.” She states that matters such as whether a person is engaging in sexual activity with a same-sex partner should be left between that individual and his or her confessor. She also says that it is appropriate for a parishioner to ask a priest where he stands on sexual ethics issues generally, and to use that information in the process of determining whether to remain at that parish or to continue seeing that priest for confession and other pastoral care needs.

No matter what kind of sexual ethic a person holds, there’s something to learn from this podcast. Prying into the lives of others is not Christian. Accusing another person of wrongdoing on vague suspicion is not how Christ calls us to treat our brothers and sisters. Making assumptions about what someone else is or is not working on in spiritual direction is destructive for both the person making the assumptions and the person on the receiving end. Everyone’s privacy should be respected. These statements apply across the board when it comes to questions of whether someone is committing sin.

One aspect of this podcast that we liked was Mathewes-Green’s reminder that no one can know fully what is happening in another person’s life unless that person shares it, and that person has no obligation to do so when met with rude demands by a fellow parishioner. A common stereotype of conservative churches is that devout members of these communities are obsessed with the sex lives of others. There’s a bit of truth in many stereotypes, and the two of us have experienced more than our share of mistreatment within both our former and current traditions because of assumptions other Christians have made about us. As we’ve written before, our celibacy does little to protect us from hurtful rumors and vindictive actions. But there’s no reason that straight people with traditional sexual ethics have to behave in this way toward LGBT (or suspected LGBT) members of their congregations. Fairly often, we hear it suggested that only in liberal congregations will members take a “none of my business” approach to other people’s private matters. Yet that appears to be Mathewes-Green’s approach, and if you’ve listened to even one minute of the podcast, it should be abundantly clear that she is no liberal.

The other bit we found helpful was Mathewes-Green’s emphasis on the pastor’s role in providing spiritual direction. When we leave questions like, “Who is permitted to commune?” and “Is so-and-so living in a way that’s informed by our Christian tradition?” as private discussions between a parishioner and the pastor, we trust that pastor and God to help all members of the parish sort out complicated issues in the best way possible. We develop even greater trust in our church leaders by making inquiries about where they stand on controversial matters and leaving it to them to apply Christian teaching in individual circumstances. The two of us have found much comfort in knowing that we can ask our own priests questions about where they stand on theological, liturgical, and practical matters. We’ve grown a lot in our own spiritual lives as a result. We’re also grateful that we and others have the freedom to decide who will serve as our spiritual fathers. It seems to us that trusting pastors to do their jobs and seeking guidance elsewhere if we have doubts is healthier than declaring ourselves parish inquisitors and obsessing over why someone isn’t fasting with the rest of us, why a family hasn’t been at church in two months even though we’ve seen them at a baseball game, or why a child doesn’t realize that stomping an anthill in the parish courtyard is poor care for God’s creation. Trusting those charged with providing spiritual guidance to all these folks is not the same as saying, “Anything goes. Let’s all be relativists!”

We wonder, how would conservative Christian traditions respond differently to LGBT members of their faith communities if more people took Mathewes-Green’s approach to the presence of same-sex couples? Would such a shift create space for churches to be more welcoming while not compromising their convictions? How might LGBT members of conservative churches react differently?

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Celibacy, Choice, and Obedience: In Defense of the “Forced”

A reflection by Sarah

We’ve shifted to a Monday, Wednesday, Friday, plus Saturday Symposium posting schedule, so I feel a bit odd writing an additional post for today. But the writing bug bit me, and I figured I could take a quick break from working on my dissertation and the response we’re currently writing to Maria McDowell’s recent piece at the WIT blog (that will be coming out on Monday, in case anyone was wondering. We’ve received a ton of email about it).

Over the past few weeks, gay celibates have been receiving quite a bit of media attention. It began with this article at Slate by Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart. Then more recently, Sarah Pulliam Bailey at Religion News Service wrote another article on gay celibacy featuring Julie Rodgers, and Eliel Cruz at The Advocate published an op-ed defending the place of celibate gay Christians in both the Church and the LGBTQ community. Several responses have been written already. Eve Tushnet, a celibate gay Catholic, published this article yesterday, arguing that celibacy (as understood solely in terms of “sexual abstinence”) is not really the point: vocation is. Francis DeBernardo wrote a post on New Ways Ministry’s blog suggesting that celibacy is becoming the new reparative therapy for LGBTQ Christians, and that it is harmful to those who don’t feel a sense of call to celibate vocations. Then, Stephen Long at Sacred Tension published a post today reflecting on Cruz’s piece and stating, “I do believe that it should be a private choice and that neither the church nor the gay community should pressure them. But, as long as the church believes that gay sex is universally sinful, I honestly wonder if that will ever fully be a reality.”

As I’ve read each of these and the comment responses they’ve received, I’ve seen a troubling implication arising over and over again — that there are two types of celibate gay people: those who choose celibacy because they feel called, and those who are forced into celibacy by their faith traditions. I’ve never been good at following the first rule of the internet (“Don’t read the comments!”), so over the past few days I’ve been devouring the comments sections on the three news articles and responses. I’ve seen hundreds of statements such as, “I don’t mind celibate gays as long as they don’t try to force me to be celibate,” and “There’s nothing wrong with gay people who feel called to celibacy. It’s a spiritual gift for some people. But gay people who are celibate just because their church says they have to be are oppressed and delusional.” These comments show a grave misunderstanding of the commitments that some LGBTQ Christians make to celibacy. They fail to consider that regardless of the reason for choosing celibacy, many LGBTQ celibates are — like Eve Tushnet says in her article linked above — more concerned about developing a meaningful, Christlike way of life than with simply abstaining from sex or telling other people they shouldn’t be having sex.

As Lindsey and I have stated repeatedly on this blog, our choice to live celibacy comes from the deep sense of call. We are, like Francis DeBernardo says, the sort of LGBTQ people whose “celibacy is a calling, a response, and a choice.  For them, it is a joy.” We are the category of people Stephen Long says he isn’t talking about in his response to the Cruz piece. It would be all too easy (not to mention prideful) for us to pat ourselves on the back and say, “People are recognizing that some LGBTQ Christians feel called to celibacy. Maybe we’ve had a small role in helping folks to see this.” But that’s not what we’re doing today. Instead, we grieve the false dichotomy that this discussion has furthered.

One of our primary purposes on this blog has been to discuss celibacy as a vocation, and that discussion falls shamefully short when limited to celibates whose stories are like Lindsey’s and mine. We wrote recently that celibacy as a vocation can be meaningful regardless of the celibate person’s level of choice. For a person who is truly interested in making a lifelong commitment to celibacy, whatever the reason, that way of life has to be meaningful in order for it to be sustainable. Lindsey and I did not come to celibacy in the same way as many of our celibate LGBTQ brothers and sisters, but all of us deal with the common struggle of living, as best we can, as imitations of Christ. And we see that as far more important than the question of why a person chose celibacy in the first place.

We use the word “choice” very often in our own writings. We also hear it from others, and it has become a sort of buzzword within the past week. But it seems to us that “choice” does not have the same meaning every time it’s included in an internet comment. Most of the commenters I’ve read this week have implied that celibacy can only be good and valuable when, to borrow Aaron Taylor’s analogy, it’s just another option in a well-stocked grocery store. There’s a common assumption that in order for a choice to be a choice in the truest sense, there must be at least one other available alternative. Most folks who advocate for celibacy being a “choice” rather than a “mandate” are actually saying that celibacy can’t be a choice unless gay marriage is also an available choice within every Christian tradition. They see no possibility that an LGBTQ person could choose celibacy freely as a response to his/her Christian tradition’s more conservative theologies of marriage and sexuality. But people like Eve Tushnet and many of the folks at Spiritual Friendship often counter this assertion when they discuss celibacy as a choice to obey the teachings of their churches.

When I think of the word “choice,” I cannot separate it from the word, “obedience.” All the choices I make every day, no matter what they are, have some connection to my obedience to Christ. For a Christian, no choice can occur in a vacuum. Some of my choices seem freer than others. Whether they actually are or not is up for philosophical and theological debate. Perhaps material for another post.

Back to the topic at hand, I make choices all the time that are for my own good rather than because I necessarily want to select a certain option. Due to a recent diagnosis of Meniere’s disease, I’ve had to shift my diet entirely to very low sodium foods. If you know me in real life and are aware of how much I enjoy sushi, Thai food, and other high sodium cuisines, you probably have a sense of how much I resent that choice. But I made it anyway because I wanted to do everything possible to prevent further permanent hearing loss and minimize my number of missed work days due to vertigo. I chose to obey my doctor because he knows better than I do what will minimize this condition’s damage to my hearing and balance. Some might be thinking, “But you didn’t have a choice. You were forced into that choice because of your medical condition.” Actually, that’s not true. I could be choosing to eat California rolls with extra soy sauce every day. Some days, I do make that choice. And I pay for it with my health, because all choices have consequences. In this situation, the best choice is not the choice I like. It’s a choice that limits how I get to experience certain aspects of life. Some days, it even makes me depressed. It’s a choice I made because there was no other healthy alternative. But it was still my choice. There was a point at which I finally felt ready to say to my doctor, “You’ve told me this is what I have to do in order to be healthy. I don’t understand it, I don’t like it, I’d rather be making a different decision, but I’ll trust you on this one.” However, I hope that someday, I will be able to say that I’ve found a sustainable way of life as a person with Meniere’s disease. It’s because of experiences like this one that I can see why a person might choose celibacy out of a sense of obedience, but still see celibacy in vocational terms.

Obedience is a gift freely given. True obedience comes from a desire to do what is being asked of you, even if you don’t have a full understanding of why it’s necessary or why other possible options would be worse for you in the long run . It does not come from being beaten into submission. If you’ve ever watched a child for an afternoon, you know that it’s impossible to make a child obey if she is absolutely intent on being disobedient. If you’re a good caregiver, you’ll be firm without resorting to abusive tactics to get the child to do what you’re asking of her for her own good. In many cases, the child will eventually come around and choose to obey. But if you’re abusive, she will probably come to resent you. If she does what you ask her to at all in this case, it’s likely coming from survival instinct rather than true obedience. When I hear people talking about forced celibacy, I have to wonder whether they’re speaking strictly of churches that abuse and bully their LGBTQ children into submission, churches that ask all their children to practice a conservative sexual ethic, or both. Most of the time, I think people conflate the two. I get this impression every time I hear someone suggest that people like Eve Tushnet, Ron Belgau, and Wesley Hill have been “forced” into celibacy and are delusional. Have they chosen celibacy in obedience to the teachings of their Christian traditions? Absolutely. But is this the same as being sexually abstinent because of fear that abuse will come your way otherwise? I don’t think so at all.

I think we need to change the direction of the recent conversation on “chosen” versus “forced” celibacy and “gay celibates who feel called” versus “gay celibates who are celibate because they have to be.” The truth is, we’re all the same in that we’re living every day, making choices, and trying our hardest with God’s help to be Christlike. Lindsey and I would never advocate shaming, beating, manipulating, harassing, or bullying anyone into celibacy. Neither would any of the other LGBTQ celibates we know personally, yet they’re accused of such regularly just because they chose celibacy from a place of obedience rather than a place of, “This is my personal calling from God.” I think the number of people who are actually forced into celibacy through abusive means and stick with it is very, very low. But the number of people who have experienced these sorts of abuses and have eventually chosen non-celibacy is very, very high. Perhaps that’s what leads so many to slap the label of “forced celibacy” onto celibates who don’t feel a “call” to it, but chose to pursue it as part of their Christian vocation because that’s what their churches ask them to do. I hope that future discussions about this topic will involve more kindness, compassion, and questioning. Attempting to judge who chose celibacy for the “right” reasons and who chose it for the “wrong-and-not-even-a-real-choice” reasons benefits no one.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

On the Decline of Hugging

A reflection by Lindsey

Everyone who knows me knows that I love hugging. I regard Lindsey hugs as a global public good. Hugging can tell you a lot about people, especially if you’re lucky enough to embrace another person who knows how to speak the language of Hug. Yes, I firmly believe that hugging is a language. And unfortunately, hugging is quickly on the decline.

I have some hypotheses as to why people have stopped hugging. However, I don’t find any of these possible reasons especially convincing. So I wonder, why are people so willing to send hugging to the margins of acceptable touch?

The word acceptable gives us some clues. Somehow, some way, an untold number of westerners have bought into a cultural myth that hugging belongs only in one’s family. You can hug your mom, dad, aunts, uncles, grandmas, cousins, siblings, grandpas, and anyone else who might receive regular invitations to your family reunions. Venture outside of these limits of acceptable hugging, and all of a sudden, you’re somehow indicating a romantic interest.

I’ve been in plenty of venues where I find myself asking, “What message is this hug sending?” But more so, I wonder what the other person is communicating to me. Is he/she nervous, confident, stressed, jubilant, comfortable, completely weirded out, or some other mash-up of various emotions? When one speaks Hug, one can learn an untold number of things about another person from a single embrace. Hug speakers expect that no two hugs are ever the same because no two people are ever exactly the same. It’s not enough to know that, “Bill likes to have every last bit of air squeezed out of his lungs,” and, “Sam would always prefer a high-five over a hug.” Huggers need to be adaptable, adjusting their hugs to meet people wherever they are.

Good hugging requires a high degree of emotional awareness. You need to know what’s going on in yourself, read what’s going on in another person, and make adjustments accordingly. Good hugging is hard. It allows the two people a level of connection they may not otherwise experience. And I think most people just aren’t comfortable with that much vulnerability. After all, if you’re going to hug someone properly, you have to share physical space for a bit. It can be easier to keep your distance from others.

I think the world is a better place when huggers can hug. I do understand that not everyone is a hugger and I wouldn’t want to pressure anyone to change his or her hugging style. However, I do think many Western cultural contexts frown mightily on hugging and put huggers in a proverbial straight jacket: keep those hugs to yourself! Many people would caution celibates to avoid hugging lest hugging lead down the slippery slope of sexual temptation.

From my perspective, freedom to hug is part of the wonder and joy of my celibate vocation. I see hugging as an overflow of radical hospitality. It’s a part of my vocation I’ve always been good at. I remember working at Scout camp and giving good night hugs. Some weeks, the campers literally lined up for my hugs. The trend has continued. It’s rare for me to visit friends and not spend a good chunk of my day giving hugs. I love it when people say, “Lindsey hugs are the best part of these gatherings.”

It’s never quite computed in my mind why people assert that a celibate vocation means cutting oneself off from all forms of intimacy with others. I believe that celibate vocations open us up to the possibility of deep human connection. For me, that connection frequently comes through hugging. Something about hugging helps me feel deeply connected to myself and to another person. I’m able to come alive in a different way than usual. Not everyone has the same appetite for hugging, but different people can meet the same need in other ways. For Sarah, that same sense of connection comes from long, energetic, enthusiastic conversations. I occasionally experience a desire to be incredibly excited for long stretches at a time. There are some select friends I’ll share those experiences with because I want to be accepted exactly as I am in those moments. But my intimacy needs aren’t the same as Sarah’s, so Sarah’s way of connecting with others doesn’t work quite as well for me as hugging.

I have to wonder if hugging is quickly on the decline because people would prefer to avoid being vulnerable with one another. It’s humbling to be asked for a hug. It can be even harder to ask for a hug yourself when you need one. No one wants to be the emotionally high-maintenance friend. We avoid conceiving of ourselves as interdependent on anyone, making occasional exceptions for our close family. However, when we draw firm and static lines around who we can be vulnerable with, we also find ourselves talking about “acceptable” people to hug. I think those lines do much more to hurt us than to help us. And so, one hug at a time, I hope to create more space for people to share their vulnerability with me and experience acceptance.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.