“I believe God does not require celibacy for LGBT people. How do I support my struggling celibate friend?”

We’re grateful for all of our readers. We know that we have many readers who hold various forms of progressive sexual ethics appreciate that our blog helps them think more about the nature of celibacy. Many believe that people who have the gift of celibacy should be able to choose a celibate vocation independent of considering sexual orientation as a motivating factor. These readers share our frustration with the tendency of some church communities to issue celibacy mandates to LGBT Christians while making no effort to create healthier spiritual environments for vocational discernment. Recently, we’ve received some questions like this one:

I like reading your blog because it’s very clear that you personally feel called to celibacy and find your celibate vocations life-giving. However, what is the best way to support and encourage someone who struggles with imperfect celibacy? I completely understand why some people who don’t have the gift of celibacy nevertheless interpret Scripture or their own personal calling to be to follow that path. But it seems like sometimes some of the most sensitive, caring, and spiritual people still struggle with this. I don’t mean a case where celibacy is imposed by someone else, but when someone truly has a deep spiritual conviction to be celibate and yet struggles and fails at that. Their lives seem dominated by struggle, guilt, shame, and occasionally risky sexual behavior where I struggle to see how celibacy is bearing good fruit in their lives. I want to respect their convictions while, at the same time, helping to paint a positive picture of what life in Christ could look like. I don’t want to elevate my own same-sex marriage as a potential answer for my friends in this position, but…. what can I do?

This is a good question, and it doesn’t have an easy answer. It points to our collective difficulties in understanding celibacy and vocation. Often, there are gaps between our vocational aspirations and our lived experiences in the here and now. Some of the most intense times of spiritual bitterness can happen when people are confronted with how their actual vocations differ from the vocations to which they aspire. It’s not uncommon to experience “imperfect celibacy.” In fact, we would guess that most intentionally celibate people live celibacy imperfectly. Yes, there are some ways to fail within a celibate vocation that cause friends more distress than other kinds of failures. Here are some thoughts about how we approach these questions with our own friends:

Try to understand the vocation to which your friend aspires. Sometimes it can be helpful to ask what hopes and dreams a person has for living into a celibate vocation. Many of our hopes and dreams have their roots in improving our abilities to practice radical hospitality. We believe that any vocation should help a person grow towards Christ. Especially if a person is in his/her twenties or thirties, looking to the future (without ruminating on it unhealthily) can sometimes be helpful. Often in times of immediate vocational crisis, people can feel as though their current or past conduct has disqualified them from particular ways of life. The grief over this is real. Nonetheless, sometimes people in these situations overstate the repercussions of how they fear their actions have closed doors. We’ve found it beneficial to use reflective listening techniques to try and help friends in vocational crises identify immediately accessible things that can help them live into their aspirational vocations just a little more.

Reflect on, and possibly share, your own experience being transformed by Christ in the midst of vocational struggles. We all have places where there is a gap between our convictions and our abilities to live out those convictions. Thinking more deeply about specific places where God has helped us grow towards our own convictions can be useful. Lindsey has experienced a profound sense of God opening up hospitality as a way of life. Although Lindsey has always wanted to be generous and welcoming, Lindsey has had to work to find ways to practice authentic hospitality as an introvert. Likewise, Sarah has always wanted to be a mother, but typically celibate vocations do not involve having biological children. Sarah has had to (and continues to) discern how strong maternal instincts can fit into a celibate vocation. Throughout our respective processes, we’ve both experienced amazing transformational moments. Cultivating deep empathy for a friend becomes possible when you bring to mind times and places where you need to have deep empathy for your former self.

Appreciate differences between your own spirituality and your friend’s spirituality. Discerning vocation is about finding one’s life in Christ. A variety of spiritual disciplines that aid in vocational discernment exist within different Christian traditions. We find ourselves writing constantly about making the kingdom of God visible because we’ve found that this core idea resonates with readers from diverse Christian traditions. However, we know that vocation is profoundly personal where each individual needs to connect with his or her own Christian tradition at many steps along the way. When we are talking with friends struggling to live their vocations, we do our best to center conversation within their specific Christian traditions rather than exalting our own.

Encourage and respect your friend’s search for compassionate spiritual direction within his or her Christian tradition. At the end of the day, we don’t consider it our job to provide a specific spiritual prescription during times of vocational crisis. We reserve that task for spiritual directors who commit to walking alongside the people to whom they minister. We believe ardently that every person needs a spiritual director. It’s essential for those struggling with vocation to find compassionate spiritual directors who can meet them where they are at right now, appreciate how Christ is calling them to participate fully in the Kingdom of God, and make wise recommendations about how to bridge the gap between a person’s current lived experience of vocation and his or her aspirational vocation. When a friend shares about his or her struggles with imperfect living of vocation, our natural next question is, “Do you have a spiritual director who is helping you with these struggles?” Spiritual directors are awesome because they have studied the wisdom of particular Christian traditions to guide people through life’s difficulties. If our friend says that he or she does have a spiritual director who is offering sound, compassionate, and wise counsel within the context of his or her Christian tradition, we trust that our friend is in good hands and remind our friend that nobody can snap a finger and live vocation perfectly.

We’re never terribly surprised when any person has trouble living out his or her vocation. Living into the fullness of what Christ is calling one towards is hard! As always, we welcome discussion in the comments. Feel free to ask follow-up questions, respond to our suggestions, and make suggestions of your own.

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.

A Review of “Mom, I’m Gay” by Susan Cottrell

This month, we’re double-dipping on book reviews because another author has generously provided us with a copy of her book. For the first time, we will be reviewing a resource aimed at parents of LGBTQ children. Susan Cottrell‘s “Mom, I’m Gay”: Loving your LGBTQ Child without Sacrificing Your Faith is a quick, straightforward read with lots of little gems throughout. We are deeply grateful to her for sharing her book with us.

We write all of our reviews with two central questions in mind: What does this book have to say to LGBT Christians who are living celibacy or exploring the possibility of celibate vocations? How does this book contribute to conversation about celibacy as a way of life that LGBT Christians might choose? We would like to maintain that focus as much as possible, but given the nature of this resource we will also be discussing what this book has to offer for parents, particularly moms and dads of celibates but also parents of LGBTQ children in general.

Cottrell blogs regularly at FreedHearts, which we’ve linked in the first paragraph. She is a Christian and mother of five, and her family includes children who are part of the LGBT community. FreedHearts is her full-time ministry, and she is passionate about helping LGBTQ individuals and their parents. To be honest, we were hesitant when we began reading “Mom, I’m Gay” because neither of us is a parent and we feel somewhat under qualified to review it. But as we progressed through its pages we found ourselves reflecting on our relationships with our own parents and found many points of connection with our stories, particularly Sarah’s.

The first thing we noticed about Cottrell’s work is that the book is very simply put together with short chapters. There is nothing lofty or complicated about “Mom, I’m Gay” and that is one of its greatest advantages. It’s a collection of short reflections on Cottrell’s own process of coming to embrace her daughter. Every parent who struggles earnestly with questions of how to respond to an LGBTQ son or daughter has likely experienced the emotions and thoughts: fear, uncertainty, exasperation, love. While reading, a recurring image for us was that of troubled parent picking up this book during a coffee break at work, perhaps even taking it to the bathroom to read a chapter and shed a few tears. Not a single chapter is too long to be read within 10 minutes, which makes the book a good resource for readers with limited emotional bandwidth. Parents who are grasping at straws for a way even to begin thinking about LGBTQ issues will find gentleness and compassion in each brief chapter.

LGBTQ people who read this book may find it challenging or soothing…or both. It’s not easy for us to put ourselves in our parents’ shoes and make an honest effort to see things from their points of view. “Mom, I’m Gay” challenged us to think back on our own coming out experiences and the interactions we’ve had with our parents since then. Our four parents’ beliefs on sexual ethics range from very conservative to very liberal, and it was helpful for us to consider their different struggles and how each might respond to Cottrell’s message. Some passages, like this one, had us exclaiming, “Yes! Every parent of an LGBTQ child should know this!”:

Life is ephemeral, beyond our control, easy to snuff out. Put first things first. You have a beautiful child. Do not let this issue overshadow that truth. Ask God whatever you need to, and let him guide you through this maze. But do not let anything diminish the blessed gift your child is and their place in your family. Now is the perfect time to embrace, kiss, encourage, affirm, and love your child.

Whatever conclusions parents and their LGBTQ children reach about the morality of same-sex sexual activity, bits like these will have strong resonance. Life is short. We are called to love one another. Sometimes, it’s not immediately clear how we should do that, but this should not stop us from recognizing the image and likeness of God in every human being. This nugget of wisdom is just as true for LGBTQ children who are frustrated with their parents as it is for parents sorting through tough emotions after a child’s coming out.

We found chapters 11 and 12 especially meaningful. Chapter 11 focuses on people-pleasing, an issue that both of us have struggled with mightily. We imagine that one or more of our parents probably has too. There’s a great deal of social pressure in Christianity  for parents to reject LGBTQ children. Likewise, there’s a significant push for LGBTQ people to leave the Church, “change” sexual orientations, and view ourselves as “people who struggle with same-sex attraction.” While Cottrell writes from a perspective that is firmly in support of committed, sexually active same-sex relationships, the message of this chapter has meaning for all people who are involved in this discussion, trying their best to follow Christ and live out their callings. People-pleasing harms us. If we’re more concerned about listening to what others think than we are about hearing God’s voice in all of this, our priorities need reexamination. As celibate LGBTQ Christians, the two of us sometimes experience difficulty in separating the judgmental messages we hear from straight Christians (and, to be honest, non-celibate LGBTQ Christians). This chapter encouraged us to continue examining our own behaviors and ask, “Is this coming from God or from respectability politics?”

Chapter 12 is titled, “Bear Their Burdens,” and it speaks to the need for parents to support their children even in the most difficult of circumstances. Cottrell challenges readers to see the person first and the perceived problem second. On page 59 she says, “Don’t shift all that to your child but instead help lift that burden. Let the weight of the discomfort rest on you. Your child is carrying enough as it is.” What struck us here was that as Christians, all of us are called to bear one another’s burdens. The “It’s not my problem” attitude doesn’t come from Christianity — it comes from our own discomfort. We wonder what it will mean for us to bear the burdens of others. Will it inconvenience us? Will it get us in over our heads. Back to chapter 11 again, will it cause people to think negatively of us if we’re seen as giving even the slightest support to a gay person, a pregnant teenager, an addict? Cottrell makes it clear: your child should not have to journey alone through the difficult questions of life. Likewise, no person should have to travel a difficult road without support. As Christians, we should always be ready and willing to extend a loving hand. This is one area where the Church has failed LGBTQ Christians the most. Celibate LGBTQ Christians, like all LGBTQ people, have experienced painful rejection, and much of this is because it’s hard for the Body of Christ to be the Body of Christ. It’s easier to dismiss people as risks for scandal than to reflect seriously on how we can support vocational discernment and progress toward maturity. Cottrell’s book nudged us to think about how we can do better at bearing the burdens of others.

We would love to engage in more conversation with the author about how her ideas can be applied to parents of celibate LGBTQ children. There is no generic pathway that all Christian families follow as children come to accept their sexual orientations. Some parents hope that their children will choose celibacy, but this doesn’t happen. The parents might respond with condemnation or with an “agree to disagree” attitude. Other parents demand that their children choose celibacy and will not accept the possibility of any different outcome. Still, other parents are completely accepting of sexually active LGBTQ relationships, but their children choose celibacy anyway either because they have discerned a calling to celibacy or because their sexual ethics are more conservative than those of their parents. Some celibate LGBTQ Christians, like Sarah, have one parent with a very liberal sexual ethic and another who believes that sexual orientation is a choice. We’re curious to know if there is anything else Cottrell might have to say about family situations like these.

Also, we would push back on the idea presented in some places like chapter 19 that finding a gay-affirming church is a necessary part of embracing one’s LGBTQ child. We would like to ask the author if she, as a person who supports sexually active same-sex relationships, sees any possible pathway for being a loving and accepting parent who believes in the teachings of a conservative Christian tradition.

In general, we would recommend “Mom, I’m Gay” to others interested in LGBTQ Christian issues. So much of this book is basic Christianity: love other people and never forget that they are made in God’s image.

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: Developing Understandings of Vocation

Hello readers. Another week has come and gone. It’s been a busy week here at A Queer Calling, and we’ve enjoyed talking about various topics with you all. We know that many of our readers in the United States are in the midst of last-minute Thanksgiving plans. Therefore, this week we’re praying especially for our readers who are traveling and/or are dealing with difficult family situations. Please don’t hesitate to let us know how we can be praying for you.

Let’s get on with our weekly 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: This week, we’ve shared a lot about things we wish we would have known about celibacy as teenagers in addition to sharing how our own understanding of celibacy has changed within the past year. We know that we’re not the only people who have changed our understanding of vocation as we’ve continued to live out our lives. We’d be interested in hearing from our readers about your experiences with your vocations: What kind of things do you wish people would have told you when you were a teenager about vocation? How did you come to embrace your vocation? How has your understanding of vocation changed as you’ve tried to live out your specific vocation? How have you encountered support and resistance as you’ve sought Christ in the context of your vocation?

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.

A Review of Two Words by Emily Timbol

Today, we’re delighted to review Emily Timbol’s book entitled, Two Words: Why Hearing “I’m Gay” Changed My Straight Christian Life. In the interest of full disclosure, Timbol sent us a copy of the book. On Twitter several weeks ago, Timbol was sharing about how Christian media outlets found her book inappropriate for Christians to discuss. Our natural response was to read the book and review it here.

As with all of the resources we’ve reviewed, our review of Two Words will focus on two primary questions: What does this book have to say to LGBT Christians who are living celibacy or exploring the possibility of celibate vocations? How does this book contribute to conversation about celibacy as a way of life that LGBT Christians might choose?

To begin, Two Words doesn’t have any apparent message to LGBT Christians who are living celibacy or exploring the possibility of celibate vocations. It’s a memoir of how one straight Christian learned to love her gay friends. Emily (as she refers to herself by first name throughout the book) became introduced to the LGBT community when her close friend Chris told her that he’s gay. Chris waited a while before coming out to Emily even though they had been friends. Emily was forced to reconsider everything she knew about gay people and directly confront her misconceptions. Her book is full of stories about the questions she began asking herself. Consider this excerpt detailing when Chris came out:

I leaned forward. “Can I ask you something?”

Chris nodded.

“Were you afraid if you told me, I wouldn’t be your friend anymore, because I was so religious?”

“Yeah,” he said without pause, “that’s probably the biggest reason I never told you.”

His confession ripped through me. How could he ever think I would cut our friendship off over his sexuality? (pg.18-19)

We appreciated how Emily shows love to the gay community by taking friendship as the first principle. We enjoyed learning about how Emily got to know the gay community by hanging out with her existing friends and making new friends along the way. The book is jam-packed with anecdotes of real people, transporting readers with Emily along her journey.

Celibate LGBT Christians might find this book challenging to read after catching a glimpse of Emily’s openness to questioning what she has always been taught. Immediately after Chris came out to her, Emily found herself reflecting on the day she learned her new friend at church, Craig, was gay. Craig recounted his story of trying to pray away the gay, coming out, getting kicked out of his parents’ house, and finding support from friends. Emily records the story in detail and includes this climax:

“After praying, I started to feel God’s presence again. I felt Him tell me He loved me for who I was, and He didn’t want me to be alone. That it wasn’t wrong for me to want to be in a relationship. I was still His child.”

He stopped talking. Leaned his head back against the seat and sighed. Silence filled the car.

My mind reeled, thinking of the implications of what Craig just said. Could it be true? If it was, it went against everything I was taught. But I felt a fluttering in my heart. The one I’d experienced at different times all my life. The feeling that let me know that the Holy Spirit was present. Like God was in the car with us, wanting me to speak.

“Thank you,” I said, “for sharing this with me. I think… God loves you very much, and there is nothing that can tear you away from Him if you want to be in His presence.”

The words came out before I could process the ramification of what I was saying. It was the first time I’d ever spoken a contradiction of scripture. Or rather, my previous interpretation of what the scripture meant. Instead of feeling the urge to take them back, I felt at peace. Almost as if the words hadn’t come from me, but the Holy Spirit. (pg. 23)

Regardless of your perspective on sexual ethics, you might be tempted to stop reading because you’ve heard it all before and you know exactly where Emily is going next. There are various culture war talking points scattered throughout, and most of the stories do have predictable endings. Nonetheless, for readers who can appreciate the stories rather than focus on these talking points, the book is a welcome invitation to move beyond the culture war mentality in order to see that all people have the option to choose to love the real LGBT people in front of them. Following Emily’s journey, readers might find themselves confronted with the reality that loving other people well is incredibly, tremendously, and unbelievably hard. There is a lesson in this for celibates as well as non-celibates.

As celibate LGBT Christians ourselves, we couldn’t help but see that Emily’s commitment to loving her LGBT friends likely extends just as much to us as to her friends Chris, Craig, and Tyler. However, we couldn’t help but notice that Emily did not have any personal story related to an LGBT Christian living out celibacy or discerning the possibility of a celibate vocation. Consider the following exchange with Emily and her pastor Lee with our emphasis added:

I interrupted [Lee]. “Look, I don’t want you to think that I’m trying to say that the church is hateful, or bigoted, or bad in anyway. It’s not. In fact, I would feel totally comfortable bringing any of my gay friends here on Sunday. The problem is, most of my gay friends are married, and active in the community and want to serve. So it’s hard to invite me to a church where they couldn’t do that.”

“We’ve never had that situation, ” Lee said.

“What?” I asked.

“Well, like I’ve told you before, we have several gay leaders in the church right now, who believe the best way to serve God is for them to be celibate, but we’ve never had a gay married couple, who were believers, ask to lead.”

“Are you saying you wouldn’t flat out reject them?”

He leaned back in his chair. “I… whew, that’d be hard. If they were married and spiritually healthy? I don’t know, I’d really have to pray and seek advice and wisdom from others. That’s not something I’ve ever thought about.” (pg. 171)

If the church had celibate gay Christians in leadership roles, we wonder why Emily didn’t include any of their stories. It’s possible that she doesn’t know any of these leaders personally. However, it’s also possible that such stories were excluded intentionally for one reason or another. We’re not here to make accusations, but would be interested in learning about whether any celibate LGBT Christians have played a role in shaping Emily’s journey as an ally.

Finally, this book raises two very clear issues relevant to LGBT Christians living celibacy or exploring the possibility of celibate vocations, and for straight allies who want to support them:

1. LGBT Christians might experience difficulty seeking ways to share their lives more holistically within the Church. Though this book contains no stories of interactions with celibates, unwelcoming circumstances in church are just as present for celibates as for non-celibates. We know that this is a challenge because we’ve been counseled many times ourselves that we should never mention being LGBT, especially in church settings. This book led us to wonder, what might happen if churches helped allies committed to loving the LGBT community connect with their celibate LGBT members?

2. Straight, Christian friends might be more supportive of you, your identity, and your vocation than you might otherwise think. One thing we most appreciated about Two Words is that it lets readers look in on three years of friendship. There are a lot of stories that show Emily’s commitment to loving her friends unconditionally. We think that celibate LGBT Christians who feel disconnected from their church communities might be encouraged by the possibility that one of their straight friends has a heart similar to Emily’s. If you get up the courage to come out as a celibate LGBT Christian, then you might find a friend who is willing to continue in friendship, pray with you and for you, and love you with no strings attached.

In closing, we do wish that more straight Christians would consider sharing the following message from Emily with LGBT people in every kind of life situation:

The point, is how messed up the church is, when it comes to people like Chris. The church is not a welcoming place for anyone who’s gay. And lots of them want nothing to do with the church. It doesn’t really matter what I think about whether it’s a sin or not, because I know what IS a sin. The way most Christians treat LGBT people. That’s what I want my ministry to be. Reaching out to the LGBT community and showing them that God loves them. (pg. 47)

And after reading Two Words, we’d certainly welcome a chance to get to know Emily and her husband Ryan much better.

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.

Reflections on Transgender Day of Remembrance

A reflection by Lindsey

Today is the International Transgender Day of Remembrance. It’s a sobering day for me. I have experienced increased hostility in various (thankfully, former) workplaces after people started suspecting that I’m somewhere on the LGBT spectrum due to my self-expression. I’ve witnessed friends being harassed for their gender identities and expressions. I’ve listened to a significant number of them tell stories of being harassed, and I’ve watched more than one video documenting physical violence of transgender people. Transgender Day of Remembrance reminds me that many transgender people have not lived to tell the tale.

I chose to write a reflection for the Transgender Day of Remembrance because I wanted to reflect more deeply on issues of gender expression and gender identity. One way I’ve found helpful to think about gender identity is that it’s a profoundly mysterious part of a person that bubbles to the surface in forms of gender expression. From my experience, we as a society have different conventions for how we collapse various forms of gender expression into two binary options of male and female. Gender is treated as a basic part of polite discourse. I’ve been thinking a lot about how transgender and genderqueer people often face violence unless they clearly fit into either male or female categories, or pass. In LGBTQ circles, passing frequently refers to one’s ability to be perceived as a gender-normative straight person. Passing concerns how other people perceive you. One’s ability to pass can be critically important if one longs for strangers to use the proper personal gender pronoun immediately. For many transgender people, being able to pass acceptably in the vast majority of social situations can be seen as essential to survival.

In a reflection I wrote several months ago on affirming kids in a gendered world, I claimed:

Kids have natural ways of expressing themselves. Freedom to explore different hobbies and personal sense of style can go a long way in helping kids become comfortable in their own skin. Will the world come screeching to a halt if a 4-year-old wants a buzz cut, a 10-year-old wants to learn how to solder electronics, a 7-year-old wants long flowing locks, a 6-year-old wears a suit and tie, a 3-year-old brings a doll everywhere, a 12-year-old begs to take babysitting classes, or an 8-year-old wears a dress?

However, even as I wrote this reflection, I was painfully aware that society has ways of disciplining kids who push the envelope of gender too far through nothing more than their existence. I can’t think of any usual social situations where a 4-year-old girl with a buzz cut would be accepted as a “real” girl or an 8-year-old boy wearing a fabulous floral dress would be accepted as a “real” boy. I’ve seen far too many parents bitterly embarrassed by, for example, their little girl’s appearance after the child had “discovered” scissors or her older brother had put a big wad of gum in her hair. I’ve also seen far too many examples of young boys’ being shamed and ostracized because they were seen in dresses. To be sure, some children might have parents willing to model bold resiliency skills; however this kind of parent is incredibly rare. Many parents would rather their gender-variant child learn to “fit in.”

With that pressure to fit in, transgender and genderqueer children can face some awful trade-offs between simply being themselves and avoiding undue negative attention. Some transgender and genderqueer children learn to pass even though a small part of them dies a little bit when they make an active choice to turn away from the gender expression that comes to them naturally and turn towards more socially acceptable gender scripts. Concerns about being accepted socially can lead some people to feel like they have no other option but to edit, and perhaps to try and censor, how their gender identity bubbles to the surface. When some transgender and genderqueer children think about how they would like to share themselves with the world, the ever-important social need to pass can cause them to reject their first, second, third, and perhaps even tenth most natural forms of self-expression.

I think we all have an inherent sense of what works for us on an individual level when it comes to self-expression. If I say, “Button-down shirt and khakis” many people experience a reaction of things like: “That’s definitely me.” or “That’s the antithesis of who I am.” or “I really can’t be bothered to have an opinion.” That sense of me or not me matters. But when it comes to various gender scripts in society, that sense of me or not me gets amplified one thousand fold. When society consistently genders a person wrongly, that person can feel completely invisible and insignificant.

Consider a person who tells a male cheerleader that “he’s picked a great way to meet a lot of, *wink* ladies.” What is the cheerleader to do when presented with such an obviously gendered script? Does the cheerleader chuckle nervously and awkwardly while ignoring the comment? Does this person look the questioner in the eye in order to give a knowing nod and a smirk? Or perhaps redirect the conversation towards developing broad skills of athleticism and teamwork? Does the cheerleader strongly defend his participation on the squad because four of his female friends begged him to join the team in order to qualify for co-ed competitions? Or open up and share about a passion for encouraging others to be enthusiastic supports of a team even when that team performs poorly? Likely, the original comment has nothing to do with the cheerleader’s motivation for joining the squad and has much more to do with asking a male cheerleader to assert his masculinity.

Asking a male-appearing person to assert his masculinity relies on various social scripts to determine whether one is safely the “right” gender. These tests have a range of socially acceptable answers. Being able to pass these tests successfully requires matching the message from one’s physical body to the words that come from one’s mouth with a socially acceptable answer. For transgender and genderqueer individuals, trying to fit into acceptable social scripts can lead to deep dissonance. Every test opens up a chasm between the answers they would love to be able to give and the answer that they feel compelled to give in order to fit in with social expectations. It can feel impossible to give any answer with any degree of integrity.

On each Transgender Day of Remembrance, I can’t help but remember those who fell into the chasm. Many tests of a man’s masculinity or a woman’s femininity pull upon a vast collection of gender stereotypes. It’s all too common for interrogators to rely on sexism and misogyny, asking questions with distinct tones and postures to pressure a person into answering rightly… or else. Transgender Day of Remembrance is an attempt to highlight how demanding another person assert his or her gender clearly and properly can quickly escalate to violence. What is more, fear of transphobic violence often compels the urgency with which some transgender and genderqueer people seek ways to pass. Some people may even be crushed spiritually by trying to pass. Constantly conforming to other people’s gendered expectations can leave transgender and genderqueer people feeling adrift and out of touch with themselves. It’s far too easy to fall into despair if one feels like one has betrayed oneself.

And so, on the Transgender Day of Remembrance, I remember that we still have a long way to go if we want to create spaces for kids to be themselves in an incredibly gendered world.

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.

“I love you, but…” doesn’t cut it

Discussing our celibacy publicly has its advantages and its disadvantages. We love any chance to talk about what celibacy in our context as a celibate partnership. However, we’re disheartened when our discussions of celibacy get overshadowed by people demanding that we state whether we think certain sexual acts can be permitted in Christian traditions. As we see it, many churches have obsessed over sexual morality to the point where church is the last place people feel as though they will be loved if something goes wrong in their sex lives.

Let’s be honest: communicating love through sexual expression is challenging for most sexually active people at one time or another (or maybe all the time) for different reasons. If you’re a sexually active person who believes that continuous consent is important, it’s natural to wonder whether your sexual partner has been able to communicate consent throughout the entire experience. If a married couple is having more sex than usual in a deliberate effort to conceive a baby, they might be concerned that “baby-making” is more important than communicating love. If you’ve been a victim of sexual violence, experiencing sex as a communication of love might be difficult. There’s an endless stream of scenarios that complicate decisions regarding sexual expression. It’s unfortunate that so few people feel like they can discuss their ethical dilemmas related to sexual morality for fear that Christians will be quick to condemn.

Today we write with a simple intention: we want you to know that we will love you no matter what ethical dilemmas you face regarding your sex life. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing all of the “right” things. We’re all too aware of efforts to dress up sexual legalism in the guise of “Christian” consensus. We don’t devote any time to wondering if any of our friends are doing the “wrong” things, sexually or otherwise. We think oftentimes, “It’s complicated” can be the most accurate Facebook relationship status. We consider it a distinct honor and privilege when friends decide they trust us enough to share something with us about how they understand sex.

We often hear criticisms that celibate LGBT Christians are judgmental not only of non-celibate LGBT people but also of anyone who engages in behaviors outside of a traditional sexual ethic. It’s probably true that celibate LGBT Christians could do a lot more to express unconditional love. Unfortunately, the loudest voices calling for traditional Christian sexual ethics attempt to discourage celibate LGBT Christians from saying anything remotely positive about non-celibate LGBT people. Some voices exalt celibate LGBT Christians as the examples to follow and speak in strong opposition to the idea that non-celibates have anything valuable to say. This approach prioritizes demanding celibacy over showing love. At times, we wonder whether certain participants in this conversation care more about preventing gay sex than preaching the Gospel in the first place.

So here’s where we cut to the chase: our love for you is not dependent on what you do (or don’t do) with your genitals. It’s also not dependent on what kinds of relationships you engage in or with whom.

To us, this seems like basic Christian hospitality. We wonder why this is so hard for so many people. Why is it that Christians are so afraid to show love without including an obligatory morality lesson? Why is there such fear that showing love signals approval for something one considers morally objectionable? Why is it that saying “I love you no matter what” can get a person branded a moral relativist? In our opinion, I love you should never be followed by but… Christ’s love does not come with conditions. Christ’s love is absolutely unconditional. He loves the wicked as much as he loves the righteous. It’s not our place to start imposing qualifications on Christ’s unconditional love. We’re tired of being pulled into conversations where we’re asked to justify our treatment of non-celibate LGBT Christians because, “It can’t possibly be the same as how you treat other celibates.” We simply do not and will not ever consider whether a person is sexually active before welcoming him or her as our friend. We’re committed to loving people with no strings attached, and that means no strings. Whether you’re L, G, B, T, Q, straight, or otherwise, we want you to know that when you visit our home, we’re not going to interrogate you about what you do or don’t do with your genitals. We won’t waste a single moment even wondering about it. Those questions truly are none of our business. They are between you, God, and your spiritual director. If you’re a Christian, we trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in your life and is encouraging you to continue moving towards Jesus.

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.

Theologically Gendered: Some Thoughts on How the Bible Bears Witness to Gender Minorities

A reflection by Lindsey

This week is Transgender Awareness Week. We make an intentional point of using the acronym “LGBT” throughout the blog. This post could be incredibly brave or needlessly foolhardy. I hope to bring some substantive questions to light by discussing some dominant narratives.

Before I get into my discussion, I’d like to say that I’ve pretty much spent my whole life on the “non-conforming” side of gender. Growing up, it wasn’t that big of deal. I’ve discovered ways to be comfortable in my own skin, even if some of those ways defy convention. Amidst an explosion of gender identity labels in LGBT circles, I don’t exactly know which words add value to my efforts in communicating my experiences more widely. There are some words that seem to fit better than others, but I have yet to discover any word other than “Lindsey” for which I am prepared to take on absolutely every commonly-held assertion about its meaning.

I’ve heard a lot of people assert that there’s no need to think critically about the experience of gender minorities. The dominant narrative goes something like, “In the beginning God created people male and female to be fruitful and multiply.” In this view, gender is understood principally in terms of reproductive sex. Since God has knit all people together in their mothers’ wombs where we are fearfully and wonderfully made, it’s absurd to suggest that God has made an error in something so important as one’s reproductive organs. Because genitals form in the womb as a part of the reproductive system, it seems fitting to gender a person at birth. In the rare cases of ambiguous genitals, doctors should do everything possible to ensure that the child has a reasonable chance at reproducing.

However, this “Back to Genesis” approach to gender identity overlooks a substantial Biblical witness about gender minorities. Even when Jesus affirms the Genesis narrative, he creates space for gender minorities:

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

From where I sit, it’s clear that the Bible bears witness to the reality of gender minorities, but the Scriptures bear limited witness to how gender minorities should navigate present social realities.

For the sake of discussion, I’m going to talk about hair length because I view it as a culturally benign issue. I personally believe that hair style should be a nonissue in the 21st century. It’s socially acceptable for men and women to wear their hair at any length. I regard my hairstyle in much of the same way I regard my glasses. It’s a general part of my presentation to the world that I much prefer to keep static rather than dynamic. Recognizing 7th grade as an exception, my hairstyle has been the same since I was five years old. There are a lot of reasons my hairstyle suits me, and I’ll likely be wearing the same hairstyle for at least 20 years more.

But Christians can do strange things when their dominant views of gender get challenged. Some Christians go the route of talking with me about certain Scriptures addressing hair length. However, uncomfortable Christians will more frequently talk to me about the hazards of identifying with LGBT language and try to coach me back toward gender conforming behaviors. I don’t express myself the way that I do in an effort to attract attention. For me, my self-expression hinges upon having a desirable from-bed-to-door time in the morning, modestly covering my body, and staying thermally regulated. Social pressures to violate my own priorities can create intense discomfort. I hate feeling like I have to choose between other people being uncomfortable looking at my self-expression and me being completely detached from my own skin.

Many people on the transgender spectrum spend considerable time, energy, and effort trying to connect with their own bodies. Complete medical, legal, and social transition is often treated as the gold standard method for establishing this connection. However, I think that there’s some correlation between what’s socially acceptable relative to gender norms and when people feel like they have no choice but to transition completely. People socialized as men often confront narrower views of gender than people socialized as women. Nonetheless, if people push too hard against gender expectations, they are increasingly likely to experience violence. Anyone making the choice between beginning hormone replacement therapy and trying to survive increasingly hostile forms of violence needs to be treated with compassion. As we rapidly approach the Transgender Day of Remembrance, we ought to remember that far too many people have had to pay for their physical presentation with their lives. That level of violence is completely unacceptable and should be appalling to anyone claiming to follow Christ. For my part, I’m so grateful that growing up I had family and friends who robustly affirmed me as Lindsey where I was able to feel insulated from many of the social expectations around gender.

If we’re going to discuss gender thoughtfully as Christians, we should be mindful that Christ himself affirmed the presence of gender minorities. We would also do well to investigate ways where we needlessly use gender as a strong dividing line in society.

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.

Musings on the Meaning of Celibacy

Almost exactly four months ago, we published this post on questions to ask oneself if considering the possibility of entering a celibate partnership. Commenters on that post challenged us to think more deeply about our own questions, particularly #4: “Do I have an idea of what celibacy might mean for me?” We think this is one of the most important items on our list, and we hope that we’ll always be asking ourselves this question as we continue living our celibate vocations together. If you’ve been with us since the beginning of our blog 10 months ago, you’ve likely read our “Why celibacy?” and “Defining celibacy” posts. Newer readers may have seen our post from two months ago where we revisited these. If you’ve perused the “Celibacy and Vocation” section of our index page, you can probably tell that our understandings of celibacy and vocation are constantly evolving. When we launched A Queer Calling on January 16, 2014, our concept of celibate vocation lived in partnership was very basic. One of our original hopes for AQC was that God would use our blog to help us mature in our vocations. Ten months in, we’re already seeing that the question “What does celibacy mean for us?” doesn’t have a simple, consistent answer. As we look through old posts and comment responses, we notice that over time there have been shifts — mostly subtle, a few more dramatic — in how we discuss the same topics we began broaching in January.

We think the best example of this is how we conceive of the four core values of celibacy that we laid out during week 1: hospitality, vulnerability, commitment, and shared spiritual life. One of the criticisms we’ve received over and over again is that our definition of celibacy says nothing about sexual abstinence. That was intentional because at the time we began blogging, we took sexual abstinence as a given when discussing celibate vocations. It’s obvious that part of a celibate vocation is not having sex, so our questions ten months ago focused on, “But what else? Christian vocations aren’t reducible to ‘having sex,’ or ‘not having sex.’ Vocations are more than that. Where is the more in celibacy?” Spending almost a year pondering the four values intensely has brought us a lovely surprise: at this point, hospitality, vulnerability, commitment, and shared spiritual life are becoming as much a given for us as sexual abstinence was in the beginning. We find that we no longer need to set aside specific, intentional times to think and pray about these issues. This focus is happening automatically, every day, and is often woven seamlessly into other aspects of our lives. It’s present even during seasons when we’re blogging more about LGBT issues than celibacy.

Last night over dinner, we were talking about how our approach to hospitality has changed since we first began our life together. While we’ve always wanted to be available for friends and acquaintances who need us, we used to be a bit more selective about how we would offer hospitality. Our primary questions for extending hospitality were once, “Is meeting x need something we can do without much trouble? How will extending hospitality in this way force us to make adjustments to our everyday lives?” As we enjoyed our salads and sandwiches, we reflected on the fact that neither of those questions enters our minds much anymore. Instead, we’re thinking, “How can we be most welcoming to this person? What are the needs, and how can we help?” We’re observing more unity of mind in our relationship as we discern how to best use what we have to welcome other people. If someone we know needs a place to stay short-term or long-term, we don’t even have to discuss pros and cons: without saying anything, we are already in agreement that this person can live in our guest room and dine at our table for as long as he or she needs. If a friend living several hours away is in trouble and has no one local to reach out to, we’re on the road as soon as work is over that day: Lindsey is packing bags and Sarah is planning logistics, and neither of us has ever questioned whether we would go. “Hows” instead of “whethers” have come to dominate our discussions of hospitality.

We’ve noticed that as we’ve spent more time thinking (and blogging) about celibacy, vulnerability as become less painful and more freeing for both of us. Our conversations at home, with celibate and non-celibate friends, at church, and in our professional lives have deepened beyond imagination. Both of us have already shared far more vulnerably at AQC than we ever thought possible. When we began this blog, Sarah had absolutely no intention of writing anything too specific about Sarah’s history of sexual trauma, eating disorders, and addiction. Lindsey had never dreamed of being able to share anything about celibacy or LGBT issues with people from our own Christian tradition. Our attempt to live the value of vulnerability has opened dozens of doors for conversation. We’ve been contacted by family members who had no idea what we’ve experienced while coming into our own as gay adults in the Christian faith, former classmates who wanted to apologize for haranguing us in middle school and high school, people we met in graduate school who never quite new how to engage thoughtfully with LGBT Christians, and folks from across the globe who are trying their best to discern what non-monastic celibacy looks like. In contacting us, they have gifted us with their vulnerability. At this point in our lives, we see vulnerability becoming so much more natural in our relationship with each other, our friends, and even people we don’t know that well. We’re learning that living into the value of vulnerability allows us to give of ourselves more freely.

Also, our commitments to each other, our Christian tradition, our faith community, our family of choice, and other people in general have grown in complexity and breadth since January. At the beginning, we really didn’t know what we were doing. We had been a couple for a little over a year, we had discerned vocations to celibacy lived in the world, and sensed that God was calling us into celibacy in partnership together. We were unsure of how this would manifest. How would we honor the commitment we have to one another, and what would be the best terminology for describing that? Would the people who had been telling us that we’re nothing more than “marriage without the sex” turn out to be right? As our relationship developed, would it come to look more like marriage, monasticism, or neither? The uncertainty hung over our heads like heavy rainclouds even though we had spent years independently pondering celibacy, marriage, and vocation. It has become clear to us over the past few months that we don’t need the perfect label to describe our mutual commitment or the commitments we have to God and others. For some things, there are no words — only wonder and mystery. We’ve learned that word choice isn’t what solidifies our willingness to be there for each other through thick and thin for the rest of our lives. We’ve also learned that as other people interact with our community of two in whatever ways they will, we don’t necessarily require language to describe our commitments to them either. A friend moves into our guest room for an indefinite period of time: does that make him a “member” of our community? Is he now part of our family? Another friend lives several hours away but is as emotionally and spiritually close to us as a brother: who is he to us, and how does that fit in with our vocation? We don’t worry about these things anymore. They’re distractions. Living celibacy is teaching us what it means to have faith that God — not humanity — is who truly makes vocations and relationships what they are.

The spiritual life we share began as a shared prayer rule. At the beginning of our relationship, we made a commitment to say Matins and Compline together every day, even if that meant one of us was reading while the other was driving to work. We experienced difficulty in honoring and appreciating the two very different spiritualities we bring into our current shared Christian tradition. Sarah’s inner Catholic and Lindsey’s inner evangelical had more than a few clashes at the beginning. As we’ve grown in our vocation, we’ve seen that a shared spiritual life involves significantly more than a daily prayer rule and debates over which variety of Christian music should blast from the car radio. Over time, we’ve experienced greater ease in discussing spiritual matters. We never hesitate to share openly about our personal spiritual lives with one another. Talking about our different experiences of sin and the graces of confession no longer has to be a theological debate and in hypothetical terms. These days in our home, “I’ve been struggling with x lately,” is met more often with, “I know and I’ve been waiting for you to talk with me about that,” than, “Really? What’s going on?” We’ve come to greater unity of mind when it comes to dealing with problems at church as well. We used to spend significantly more time thinking through dozens of possible approaches to troubled relationships with other parishioners and even more for broaching complicated issues with our priest. As it is now, we come to a sense of oneness very quickly most of the time when such issues arise. And if we’re in the midst of a difficult conversation with someone at church, we don’t have to wait for privacy to ask each other how to do better next time. We’re becoming a proficient team when it comes to managing the toughest parts of interaction with other humans.

When we started writing this post, we didn’t realize it would get lengthy this quickly! But we also wanted to touch upon a couple of other issues. This morning before publishing the post, we asked each other, “What do you think God is using our shared celibate vocation to teach you right now?” Lindsey’s answer focused on caregiving — that acts of providing and caring intimately for another person are not and should not be confined to marriage. We can both see how living celibacy is teaching us about the larger need for Christians (especially in the West) to rethink the artificial boundaries our societies have created around acts of care. Sarah’s response focused on the countercultural nature of celibacy — that an abundant Christian life in the world does not require marrying and having children, and that often, marriage has a way of locking people into certain cultural expectations. Celibacy poses challenges to the expectations our societies have for “responsible” adults, and it puts Christian traditions face to face with the idol we’ve made of marriage. We would like to delve more deeply into both these topics in later posts.

We’re grateful for all the lessons God has been teaching us as we strive to live our celibate vocations, and we’re awaiting eagerly what is to come. Circling back to the question at the beginning of the post: each day we see increasing evidence that, “Do I have an idea of what celibacy might mean for me?” is not truly a “yes or no” question. It’s a question that requires continuous and thorough self-examination in order to respond honestly. And our answer has become more organic and dynamic than either of us ever could have dreamed.

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.

What I Wish I’d Known About Celibacy and Vocation As a Teenager, Part 2

A reflection by Lindsey

Yesterday, Sarah wrote a surprise reflection about talking with teenagers about celibacy and vocation. I thought I’d follow suit with my own reflection on the same topic. Sarah and I grew up in radically different contexts, so I had different things I needed to learn about celibacy and vocation while growing up. Here are some of the things I wish I had learned about celibacy and vocation during my teenage years.

Not everyone marries. On the surface, it might be surprising to think that I needed to learn that not everyone marries. However, I grew up surrounded by couples. I knew marriages occasionally ended in divorce, but it seemed like every adult I knew had at least tried marriage. I can think of three adults I knew who weren’t married. I knew identically one nun, and I had two teachers who most deemed unable to attract a spouse. Growing up I thought every older single woman was a frumpy cat lady while every older single man was inept at dating. It was perfectly acceptable to mock older single people while regularly gossiping about why they were still single or how they were likely having a clandestine affair with each other.

Celibacy is a thing. To be honest, I can’t even remember hearing the word celibate as a teenager. I think I was 24 years old before I heard anyone talking about celibacy. I knew that some people failed to marry and were still single. Being single at 40 was a true tragedy. I learned to pity the two adults I knew who were unmarried, and I never once conceived of the idea that they might be actively loving and serving the world. It’s next to impossible to discern one’s vocation if one doesn’t even know about celibate lives.

One doesn’t need to “work for the church” in order to have a life-giving celibate vocation. When I started college, I became aware that some Christians decided to forgo marriage for the sake of God’s kingdom. People were actively encouraging me and my friends to become missionaries right after college. Many friends from college entered more formal kinds of ministry. I had this whacky idea that I’d somehow make it as a college professor who did college ministry on the side. My parents had instilled a profound sense of work-life balance in me. It made sense to me that I would divide my energies between being a professor and being a campus minister. I couldn’t imagine teaching and ministering to college students if I had a family to attend to. I saw every minister who worked as a “tentmaker” attempting to fund his or her own ministry efforts as bi-vocational. Other single people who were viewed highly by my college friends were people who did leave everything to become overseas missionaries. Celibacy made sense to me in the context of church-commissioned, full-time ministry. I would have liked to talk with people who had a broader view of vocation.

When discerning vocation, pay attention to which Scriptures speak to you… and which Scriptures don’t. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like Scripture passages specifically discussing marriage spoke directly to my heart about how God wanted me to live my life. While I found the story of the Wedding at Cana intriguing, I also found it almost bewildering when my friends would start spouting off how badly they wanted to invite Jesus to their weddings. Was I a freak for wanting to understand more what Mary meant when she commanded the servants to do whatever Jesus told them to do? When I thought about the Scriptures that made me positively swoon in crazy hopes and dreams, why did I keep coming back to Luke 10? I would have loved to hear a spiritual director telling me that certain Scriptures had a way of depositing themselves into my heart for a reason and that it was okay for my set of most relatable Scriptures to be wholly distinct from those of other people in my Christian fellowship.

In many ways, I wish these lessons were more pervasive in the Church as a whole. I’d love to hear your thoughts on why celibate vocations are rarely discussed holistically in many Christian circles.

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.

What I Wish I’d Known About Celibacy and Vocation As a Teenager

A reflection by Sarah

Of all conversations Lindsey and I engage in, some of the most interesting have been with people who are curious to know how we would talk with teenagers about celibate vocations. Parents and catechists in our own Christian tradition and others have reached out to ask us for input on discussing celibacy in church school and youth group contexts. A variety of other people have contacted us to express concern that because Lindsey and I are a celibate LGBT couple, we must be promoting a message that is toxic to teenagers, especially those who are or might be LGBT. On occasion we’ve been told, “I have to oppose what you’re doing at A Queer Calling because gay adults’ talking about celibacy leads LGBT youth to suicide.” Though I’ll admit upfront that I find this claim ridiculous, I can understand why readers are interested to know how Lindsey and I would talk about vocation with a group of teens if we had the opportunity for such a conversation. (By the way, up to this point such an opportunity has not arisen for us.) Sometimes readers also inform us that they are displeased with the way other celibate LGBT adults talk about celibacy with teenagers. My advice for dealing with this concern is that it’s best to address it with the person/people in question rather than holding us responsible for counsel offered by someone else.

Because we’ve been getting related queries more often in recent weeks, I’m reflecting on this topic today instead of posting one of our usual Saturday Symposium questions. For my part, I wish that teenage Sarah had known more adults who were willing to have no-holds-barred discussions of marriage, celibacy, and vocation with young people. I would have benefited immensely from this, and I see the absence of such conversation as a deficiency in my adolescent faith formation. In this post, I offer a list of things I wish someone would have told me about celibacy and vocation during my teen years. This list would be my starting point, should I ever be asked to give a talk to a church school or youth group.

Celibacy is not just for Catholic/Orthodox monastics and Catholic priests. There are lay people living in the world as celibates, and they are present in virtually every local community. Most of them have never had the opportunity to share their stories, and some would be delighted to talk with you about their lives. As you are coming into adulthood, you’ll develop a broader appreciation of what it means to be an adult in the Christian tradition if you engage in conversation with people living into different vocations. During middle school, high school, and college, challenge yourself to learn from the adults who are unmarried and unattached to monastic communities as well as those who are. As you do this, you will come to see that marriage is not the only way a person can participate fully in the life of the Church.

Celibacy is a vocation. Or depending upon how you look at it, we might also say that celibacy can be part of a vocation. Celibacy is not a punishment, mandate, or death sentence. It is a mature, adult way of life that enables people to manifest and participate in the Kingdom of God. This is also true of marriage. Just as there’s a lot more to marriage than having a spouse and welcoming children, there’s more to celibacy than sexual abstinence. If you are considering a celibate vocation, it is unhealthy and limiting to think of your purpose in life as “not having sex.” At fifteen, it’s tough to imagine what celibacy could possibly be if it’s not just about avoiding sex. That’s why it’s very important to get to know adults living celibate vocations. Exploring what it means to live a celibate vocation will enrich your understanding of the Christian tradition, even if once you reach adulthood you discern that God is calling you to marriage.

Celibacy can be a gift, but God sometimes calls people to do things for which they are not specially gifted or well equipped. Just like the vocation to marriage, a celibate vocation will involve joys as well as sorrows. You might have the gift of celibacy, or you might not. You may have a strong sense of this right now, or you may need to spend the next few years thinking about it. But you don’t have to figure that out right now, and it should not be the sole determining factor for answering the question, “How is God calling me to spend my life?” The key word in all of this is not gift — it’s calling. In the course of your lifetime, it’s likely that God will call you to at least one thing for which you do not feel prepared. That could be a career you never imagined yourself pursuing, missionary work in a faraway place that seems frightening, or friendship with a person who is struggling with a problem you have never experienced. If God calls you to parenthood, you may never sense that you are specially gifted as a mother or father. Jonah in the Old Testament was neither equipped nor eager when God commanded him to prophesy against Nineveh. Do not dismiss the possibility that the same can be true (and often is true) of those God calls to celibacy. I know a large number of celibate people in a variety of vocational contexts, and very few of them would say that their celibacy comes from a special gift. Some people may tell you that unless you know in your heart that God has given you the “gift of celibacy,” you should not consider pursuing a celibate vocation. These same people will probably never be able to give you a straight answer as to how you would know if you have this gift or not. Focusing on the gift of celibacy can be a distraction, especially if you grow up and do not sense giftedness toward any particular vocation. Think instead about “God’s calling to celibacy” and “God’s calling to marriage,” and find a compassionate spiritual director to help you ponder how God might be asking you to spend your life.

Celibacy and purity are not the same. Western Christianity, particularly in America, has come to emphasize purity so strongly that the practice of celibacy as lost its meaning in some traditions. While making morally sound decisions regarding sex is an important part of the Christian life, God knows that humans don’t do morality perfectly. If you have been or are currently sexually active, that does not make you unfit or ineligible for living a celibate vocation. If another person has sinned against you sexually, if you have been abused, assaulted, or raped, you are not at fault. You are not responsible for the sins others have committed against you. No matter what you have done and no matter what others have done to you, you are not a half-eaten candy bar, a wad of chewed gum, or a piece of tape that has lost its stickiness. Anyone who tells you such things is misleading you. Living fully into any vocation is a goal, not a lifelong state of perfection. Separate celibacy and purity in your mind right now. Committing a sin or being sinned against does not taint your body and soul for life. Living perfectly in accordance with conservative American purity standards from cradle to grave is not a requirement for answering God’s call to a celibate vocation.

Celibacy does not mean denying or repressing your sexuality, and God may be calling you to celibacy even if you find the idea of “having sex” appealing. Celibate people have sex drives just like married people. Most people who are called to celibacy do find the idea of sex appealing and often experience the desire for sex. While asexuality is real, the vast majority of celibates are not asexual. Celibacy is not a miserable state of getting through each day while trying every tip and trick possible to quiet unsatisfied sexual desire. If God is calling you to celibacy, the only way to live into that sustainably is to accept yourself as a sexual person (unless you are asexual, in which case accepting one’s asexuality would also be central to living celibacy sustainably). Where you are in life right now, it’s probably difficult to understand that it’s possible for a celibate person to integrate rather than excise his or her sexuality. This integration begins with honesty and open conversations. Depending upon your situation, it may also require learning to let go of shame.

Coming to understand and accept your sexual orientation might play into your vocational discernment process. Or it might not. For some people, discerning God’s call to marriage or to celibacy is primarily about the question, “To which type of vocation am I better suited?” For others, it’s about a deep sense of call that has been present from childhood onward. Still for others, the desire (or lack of desire) for a spouse and children is a starting point. There are probably as many possible motivators for considering celibacy and marriage as there are people discerning. Amongst many people across the sexual ethics ideological spectrum, the idea that sexual orientation could be a primary factor in vocational discernment is unpopular and sometimes met with hostility. You might be told by one person that if sexual orientation plays any role in your discernment process, you are engaging in self-loathing. You may hear from others that sexual orientation does not actually exist, and that people who “struggle with same-sex attraction” should work hard to prepare themselves for opposite-sex marriages. Avoid internalizing these messages and instead focus on asking God, “What are you calling me to do? How will I know what you are calling me to do?” Be open to the possibility that your sexual orientation could play a role in how you approach those questions. I’m not here to tell you that it necessarily should or must, but for some people it does and there’s nothing wrong with that.

In the spirit of our Saturday Symposium questions, I’m going to end this post by inviting our readers to reflect on the following: what do you wish an adult had told you about celibacy and vocation when you were a teenager? How would you use what you know now to help today’s tweens, teens, and young adults navigate difficult questions of sexuality and vocation? I look forward to reading your thoughts in the comments.

Update: Lindsey wrote a brief companion piece to this one.

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