Who Counts as LGBTQ?: Relationships that Break the Mold

Most of the time when we’ve heard the topic of mixed orientation marriage come up in the LGBTQ Christian context, discussion turns to the ex-gay movement and its history of demanding that gay people change their sexual orientations and prepare for opposite-sex marriages. The focus remains on how mixed orientation marriages rarely last for the long term and usually lead to anguish for both spouses and their children. Names like John Paulk arise as examples of how detrimental mixed orientation marriages can be. We are in complete agreement with friends who speak out against shaming LGBTQ people about their sexual orientations/gender identities and using this shame as a tool to manipulate people into marrying partners of the opposite sex. Our hearts go out to everyone who has suffered as a result of the ex-gay movement’s emphasis on marriage as a goal, or even a “cure” for homosexuality. Yet at the same time, we think mixed orientation marriage and other “unusual” relationship arrangements are important to discuss for other reasons. One of these is the fact that stories of people who choose mixed orientation marriage freely, or end up in an opposite-sex (or same-sex) relationship by happenstance, don’t get much airtime.

We’re interested in this topic and believe it is relevant to discussions of celibacy because we’ve observed similar kinds of assumptions about mixed orientation couples, celibate couples, and celibate singles. The most troubling of these are: 1) we’ve followed our particular vocational pathways for no other reason than a belief that same-sex sexual activity is sinful, 2) we want to deny/excise/cure ourselves of being sexual or gender minorities, 3) we are the new ex-gay movement, and 4) we look condescendingly and judgmentally upon LGBTQ people in sexually active same-sex relationships. The two of us are well aware that our story makes other people uncomfortable. One reason for this is our motivations for choosing celibacy, while religiously motivated, did not originate from beliefs about sin. Another is that we use LGBTQ language to describe ourselves even though we are celibate. Others find this mind-blowing. Today, we’d like to introduce you to two other stories that also challenge assumptions about what it means to be LGBTQ.

Several weeks ago, we came across two articles about couples that challenge prevalent ideas about what it means to enter a mixed orientation marriage, or relationship that is something other than marriage. One of these is about a mixed orientation relationship specifically, and the other is about a relationship that isn’t exactly mixed orientation but raises similar questions as the first article. Around the end of July, we read about EJ Levy who is a lesbian engaged to a man. In the article she wrote for Salon, she details the difficulty people in her life have experienced with accepting her continuing self-identification as a lesbian. She speaks to the misconception that if she loves and wants to marry her fiancé, she must actually be bisexual:

I know plenty of people who identify as bisexual; I am not. The term simply doesn’t apply. I am not, as a rule, attracted to men. I simply fell in love with this person and didn’t hold his gender against him. That won’t change because of our vows, any more than my eye color will. My fundamental coordinates are unaltered.

She goes on to quote Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, explaining that being gay has nothing to do with an individual’s partner. Regardless of how you feel about Robinson, the point he makes here is an important one that many LGBTQ people (especially those of us who are younger) wish others could understand:

“Gay is not something we do,” Robinson says, “it’s something we are.” It is not about whether you “practice” (though that makes perfect!), or whether you have a partner, or what you do with that partner, or even that partner’s gender (as any gay person trapped in a het marriage knows). It is about who you are, how you experience the world, the eyes you look through, the skin you’re in.

Queer people have understood this for years: For many of us, long before we “came out” as gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender, long before we had a partner to mirror back to us love and chosen identity, we had to choose ourselves. We had to consciously decide who we were and embrace it, aware that we experienced the world in a manner often at odds with the dominant culture, our lives informed by desires different from what we’re told ours should be. That doesn’t change because a partner does.

Another aspect of this article that we found interesting is that the author does not seem to have any religious reasons for entering a mixed orientation marriage. If she does, she chose not to discuss those in the article. By the way this article reads, it is clear that the author is supportive of sexually active same-sex couples. It seems highly unlikely to us that her marriage has anything to do with denying or hating her own sexuality.

A few weeks after reading Levy’s piece, a friend passed along this article by Mike Iamele at  MindBodyGreen. Mike self-identifies as straight, yet a couple of years ago while he was struggling with a serious illness, he happened to fall in love with his roommate and best friend, Garrett. He says:

We had no idea how to make this work. We had no idea if this even could work. Sometimes we still don’t. It took time — years even — to figure it out. But it’s a relationship. None of us know what we’re doing. We just try and negotiate and compromise. And, little by little, you become just another boring couple.

So, yes, I’m an otherwise straight man in love with a man. But I would never reduce Garrett down to just being a man. Because he’s more than that. He’s a pharmacist and a good cook and a great cards player. And I love him for all of those reasons and so many more. I love him for who he is, not what he is. We’re more than our gender. We’re more than one attribute. And sometimes we need to remember that.

We’re sure there are many people who would be quick to label Mike and Garrett as “gay.” Others might say that even if they aren’t gay, their relationship is a “gay relationship” simply because they are not an opposite-sex couple. Mike says nothing about the couple’s sex life, and he and Garrett have no obligation to explain this aspect of their relationship to anyone else. Yet several comments our own Facebook friends made when we posted his article on our personal pages included variations of, “Are they having sex? If they aren’t sexually active, they’re not a gay couple. They’re just close long-term roommates. If they are sexually active, then they’re gay even if they say they’re otherwise straight.” The broader question that emerges here is, how do we discuss our own identities and the identities of others in ways that make logical sense but don’t force people into boxes? Mike states:

We have this myth of identity — that who we are is the summation of a lot of choices we made in the past. That we’ve got a map for the life we’re supposed to lead, and we’ve got to stick to it. But that’s assuming that we’re all static beings, and that’s not how people work at all.

In every moment, we’re changing and evolving and growing. In every moment, we’re reconstructing our identity. We’re not defined by our decisions from two years ago. We’re not even defined by our decisions from two minutes ago. We’re defined by who we choose to be in this very moment.

We’ll never be “figured out.” Over the course of our lives, we’ll constantly be transforming into a more and more authentic version of ourselves. Our preferences will change. Our passions will change. And we have to be brave enough to choose the thing that makes up happiest in each individual moment.

When I chose to tell Garrett that I loved him, it didn’t matter if it didn’t fit my identity. It didn’t matter if it didn’t fit my sexuality. It just mattered if it brought me love. In truth, that’s all that ever really matters.

We have a lot of empathy for Mike and Garrett because of our own frustrations with labels — not only how others have tried to label us, but the ways we see others being labeled as well. As Sarah wrote in one post, defining labels rigidly can undercut mystery and stifle personal and spiritual growth. We can also identify with Mike and Garrett’s experience of falling into a loving relationship by happenstance, and being brought closer together by one partner’s need for extra support during a time of illness. It’s not only the unusualness of our relationship, but also the way our relationship began that often leads others to describe us in their terms instead of our own.

You might be thinking, “These relationships are minorities. They don’t represent many LGBTQ people.” But how do we know this? That a particular kind of story hasn’t been told often doesn’t mean it is uncommon, or that it is unimportant. And isn’t the LGBTQ community known for giving space to those whose experiences of sexual orientation and gender identity are minority experiences?

We’re interested in reading your thoughts on relationships like these and how they fit (or don’t) into the identity labels currently in use for describing sexual orientation and gender identity. We would also love to hear from others in relationships that don’t quite fit the mold in one way or another.

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.

Why We Don’t Review Ex-Gay Books

For the past few months, we have been reviewing various resources that touch on LGBT Christian topics. So far, we have discussed:

We do our best to review a wide range of resources from diverse viewpoints. We’re always open to receiving suggestions. Occasionally, people pass us a book, we read the work, and we conclude that there’s no way we’d review the book for our readers because these books exclusively promulgate ex-gay narratives. Some readers have written to us and asked why we don’t review certain books of this type, and we think this is a good question. Our celibacy has led to many inquiries about why we use LGBTQ terminology when describing ourselves, and whether we benefit from resources that suggest such terminology only applies to sexually active people. We’ll save the “Why identify as gay?” topic for another post, but in lieu of a book review for the month of September, today we’ll address the reasoning behind our choices for resource reviews.

It can be tricky to draw lines as to when a book is loaded with ex-gay rhetoric. We saw some object to The Third Way film because people associated with the film’s production and distribution have advanced ex-gay messages in other venues. When we watched the documentary, we concluded that as a whole, it did not emphasize orientation change and encouraging formerly gay people to enter into heterosexual marriage. Nonetheless, we did conclude that aspects of the documentary would be instantly recognizable by and disturbing to former clients of ex-gay ministries because the film pulled so readily on various theories of what causes homosexuality, and some interviewees claimed that they were no longer gay.

Ex-gay narratives frequently contain many, if not all, of the following elements: theorizing various causes of homosexuality, using questionable statistics and studies employing faulty methodologies to argue for orientation change, emphasizing promiscuity and other risky behaviors as constituent parts of “the gay lifestyle,” heavily referencing 7 passages of Scripture that speak to same-sex sexual activity, asserting that God created all people with the capacity for heterosexual relationships, and suggesting that it’s possible for someone to go from gay to straight. Older books of this type sometimes promote opposite-sex marriage as a goal for gay people after “orientation change.” Newer varieties of literature that we would classify as part of the ex-gay genre writ large promote celibacy as a goal while conflating sexual orientation with sexual behavior. Mixing these elements together can create incredibly toxic messages that do considerable harm. We’ve shared more about our own experiences with Christian ministries that promote ex-gay ideologies.

We don’t review ex-gay books because we’re not interested in giving these authors more press. The arguments within these resources have been weighed, measured, and found wanting. It’s becoming obvious to more and more Christians today that orientation change efforts are almost always futile and damaging. In spaces where people still do see orientation change as a goal, the focus tends to be on behavior modification rather than eventual marriage. Because of this, it’s rare that we receive suggestions to review resources of the older 1970-2000 variety. However, we do get a lot of requests to review books of what we see as the new kind of ex-gay material. Sometimes, both readers and straight Christians who know us in person will pass along a recommendation for a resource that offers a “compassionate approach to gay people in the Church.” We’ll read/watch it and discover that the only difference between it and older ex-gay materials is a chapter about celibacy tacked onto the end. All the same messages, minus “you must prepare for an opposite-sex marriage,” are there, and the author discusses celibacy as the end result of “leaving homosexuality” for Christ. Such resources are filled with logical fallacies and other kinds of false information (e.g. “There’s no definitive evidence that sexual orientation is present from birth, so we can conclude that gayness isn’t part of God’s creation”), and they also do poorly at discussing celibacy as a way of life.

We hope to continue reviewing items from a variety of viewpoints, but one of our standards for discussing a resource here is that it clearly makes an honest attempt at grappling with the tough issues without defaulting to stereotypes about LGBTQ people. We’re not interested in reviewing the work of an author who sees celibacy as good but refuses to acknowledge that LGBTQ identity is not just about sexual activity, and limits the discussion of celibacy to “gay sex is a sin.” There are many books that argue for a traditional sexual ethic but do not rely on ex-gay messages, and we hope to review some of these in the future.

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: LGBT People on the Margins of Pastoral Care

Hello readers! Happy Saturday. We’re spending our weekend at an ASL retreat. Sarah has been immersed in voice-off environments for a few hours at a time, and the retreat will be Lindsey’s first time using ASL in a completely voice-off situation. For a little more context as to why learning ASL is so important to us, consider reading Lindsey’s reflection from a few weeks ago.

Quick announcement: if you’re planning on attending the next Gay Christian Network Conference in Portland, Oregon, early bird registration ends on October 3. Limited scholarships are available provided you apply before September 30. We attend the conference ever year, and it’s always a fantastic experience.

Now, onto 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: This week, we’ve been talking a lot about conventional wisdom when helping an LGBT person discern pathways forward. On Wednesday, we talked about how progressive resources geared especially at those who are coming out frequently suggest that LGB and T lives follow particular trajectories. Yesterday, we expressed our frustration that many conservative churches who say “No” to same-sex marriage also actively campaign against helping LGBT people sort their legal affairs. Today, our questions are: how have you felt on the margins of conservative and/or progressive approaches to directing LGBT people? Do you have positive experiences of people who hold a particular view adapting their approach to speak more directly to your concerns? How has sharing your story with others influenced how these people talk about LGBT people?

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.

When Churches Talk from Both Sides of Their Mouths

In the past week, friends have shared with us two news stories where gay men active in church communities have been effectively forced out of their churches after they entered into same-sex marriages. The first story we saw concerned a Montana gay couple who have been a relationship for 30 years before marrying in Seattle in 2013. The couple was asked to secure a civil divorce, cease living together, and write a statement affirming marriage as being between one man and one woman. The second story we saw involved a Minnesota church music director being asked to resign after marrying his long-term partner. In today’s post, we wanted to focus on one aspect of these developing stories. If you click the above link about the gay couple in Montana, you can read:

Huff and Wojtowick both said they never intended to force the issue of same-sex marriage, or to provoke a conflict with the Catholic Church. If fact, neither man is entirely comfortable in describing their relationship as a marriage, preferring instead to refer to it as a civil union or a domestic partnership.

“Neither one of us believes the term should have been marriage,” Huff said. “We understand that marriage is a union between heterosexual couples.”

Instead, Huff and Wojtowick said they sought a legal union to safeguard their joint financial interests heading toward the later years of their lives.

“We’re getting old,” Huff said. “There is no other avenue for us in the Catholic Church to protect ourselves financially — our Social Security benefits or our home, which is in both our names. If something happened to one of us, we need some protection.”

Let’s begin by clearing the air about our intentions in writing this post. We are not making an argument in favor of same-sex marriage. We are also not arguing that any Christian tradition should change its understanding about the nature of marriage. We are calling out the hypocrisy that results when churches say they want to protect LGBT people from unjust discrimination while also actively campaigning against every form of legal arrangement that would allow couples to commit to caring for one another until the end of their earthly lives.

First, we wonder if some of these churches are at all willing hear why LGBT people want legal recognition in the first place. The gay couple in Montana had been living together for 30 years before seeking legal recognition for their relationship. According to every news source we’ve read, they travelled quietly to Seattle in search of a legally-binding civil acknowledgment. Now 66 and 73, these two men decided it would be a good idea to start arranging for retirement benefits, joint assets, and end-of-life care. We wouldn’t be surprised if when the younger partner hit 65, both men realized, “Wow, we’re getting pretty old,” then began exploring their options for fear of being disenfranchised in the event of one partner’s illness or death. As we’ve read the articles, we’ve found ourselves scratching our heads and wondering, “Is the pastor of this church even listening to the couple’s concerns about retirement and end-of-life issues?” Accessing various forms of legal protection requires that people have legally recognized relationships. When churches resist every possible legal arrangement that confers rights to LGBT couples, those churches effectively communicate that they don’t care about hospital visitation, health care proxies, inequities in employment and housing, financial stability, and end-of-life care. Some people might say, “The church is just protecting marriage.” While one could make that argument, it’s also true that many churches have fought hard to prevent civil unions, domestic partnerships, and other legal options for LGBT couples. Marriage is but one form of legal acknowledgment, and over the past three decades, conservative churches have resisted all forms of legal recognition.

Second, we wonder if conservative churches realize how the “choices” they offer LGBT people are formulated in terms of all-or-nothing. Again, the Montana couple had lived together for 30 years while attending their church on a weekly basis. Everyone knew that the two men were a couple. They’re from a small town. Yet, the pastor asked the couple to divorce civilly and to stop living together even though their living arrangement did not result from their getting a civil marriage. For all we know, this couple might be a celibate pair like us. It’s possible. We’ve known other celibate pairs who have sought civil marriages because after researching legal options, they felt they had no other choice for meeting their legal needs. Our own experiences have shown us that conservative churches are rarely interested in listening to the problems their LGBT members are facing because it’s easier to parrot, “Just don’t have sex. Don’t have close relationships with people of the same sex, or of the opposite sex. Spend the rest of your life making sure that no one thinks you’re sinning sexually.” Lindsey remembers seeking spiritual direction where all of the pastoral advice centered upon avoiding any appearance of evil lest there be scandal. One person when so far as to recommend that Lindsey live on the outskirts of a monastic community. When churches insist that all LGBT members live single and celibate lives that could never possibly be construed as experiencing emotional or spiritual intimacy with others, churches effectively send a message that it’s far preferable for LGBT people to come home to an empty house every night to fight intense battles with loneliness and isolation than to grow from rich human connection. Along with this comes the message that the way a legal arrangement “appears” to others is more important than preventing injustice against LGBT people.

Third, we wonder if churches can see the ways they often force LGBT people to endure public humiliation. Several of our LGBT Christian friends have raised questions about whether other congregants would be asked to write a formal statement affirming a particular set of theological ideas. Should an engaged straight couple have to write a formal statement affirming their belief in teachings on premarital sex? Looking at the local news coverage, we think it’s clear that the two men would be much more comfortable with language like civil union or domestic partnership to describe their relationship because of how they understand the word marriage. The first news story we saw focused on 300 congregants preparing to meet with the bishop to discuss the situation. It seems these two men never imagined that 300 people would even become aware of their civil marriage in the first place. Again, the couple sought to establish a civil arrangement quietly out of state. It doesn’t seem like they wanted to be the center of attention. When churches actively resist every form of legal arrangement that permits LGBT people to care for one another, churches actually create situations that shine a spotlight on LGBT people even when no attention is being sought.

Fourth, we wonder if churches realize how harmful it is to emphasize swift discipline over spiritual direction in an ongoing relationship with the pastor. A little-known detail of the Montana story is that the pastor had only been with the congregation for four days. We don’t know how the pastor even became aware of the couple’s out-of-state arrangement. The couple went to Seattle over a year ago for the purpose of becoming legally recognized, and according to their own statements, they weren’t interested in proclaiming this to the world. Not knowing the full details of the events in Montana, we are left to question whether a person who thought the couple may have made legal arrangements combed public records to prove the couple had indeed married. Yes, this actually happens in churches, and it’s a lot more common than some people might think. Sarah remembers a time at one of Sarah’s former churches when a heterosexual couple contracted their marriage civilly before meeting with their pastor to discuss having their marriage blessed by the church. The couple intended on abstaining from communion until they could have a meeting with the pastor. Before the couple could schedule a meeting, a congregant had searched the public record and had alerted the pastor that the couple had married. The pastor’s immediate response was to deny the couple communion in a public manner before ever discussing the matter with them (despite the fact that they were not seeking to commune at that time). The couple was a bit confused as to how the pastor knew before they had told him what happened, and that the situation played out as it did because another parishioner had searched the public record. While we do not know exactly what happened in Montana, we think this is an important issue to raise more generally because we’ve seen a pattern of people using public records to out others in pastorally difficult circumstances. In situations like the one Sarah witnessed, claiming that the actions of the couple caused scandal seems disingenuous when the matter would not have become public at all if it hadn’t been for the actions of another parishioner. It seems to us that the record-comber is largely responsible for the ensuing public scandal. When churches demand that everyone in the congregation actively resists the evils of same-sex marriage at all costs, including opposing any legal options that could possibly lead to the legalizing of same-sex marriage in the future, churches can inadvertently turn their congregations into guard dogs with a penchant for gossip.

We’ve written a couple of times before about our own legal difficulties, and our frustration with the phasing out of civil unions. Though we intend to follow our own priest’s counsel about working out legal protections for our relationship and we have no interest in getting a civil marriage, the Montana story, the stories of LGBT firings from parishes and religious schools, and other stories like these worry us greatly. Sometimes we find ourselves so worn from the way these issues are discussed in conservative churches that even going to church feels like a chore. If a member of our parish were to ask us what advice we would offer conservative churches for how they discuss LGBT legal issues, our first response would be, “Stop talking out of both sides of your mouth, and acknowledge that issues like healthcare, end of life care, and retirement benefits are not just red herrings in the gay marriage debate.” Conservative churches that are serious about preventing injustice against LGBT people need to, as Lindsey often says, make friends with the question mark. Learn about the real legal problems we face, and the experiences of our daily lives. Consider that supporting a person in solving legal difficulties is not the same approving of same-sex marriage. Ask us what we see as injustices. A church that is truly behaving in a Christian manner cannot speak out against LGBT discrimination while intentionally drowning out the legal concerns of its own LGBT members.

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.

Overcoming “Oppression” and the Challenge of Being Yourself

Many resources designed to help people who are questioning their sexual orientations and gender identities can be strikingly simplistic. These resources suggest a particular set of normative actions to take if you think you might be LGBT. Gay men and lesbians are encouraged to tell their friends and family about their sexual orientations when ready, and eventually dating people of the same sex. Transgender people are encouraged to have conversations with professionals about beginning hormone replacement therapies, having surgeries, and navigating various legal webs to change their gender identity markers on official documents. In some ways, such resources present the coming out process as the first step in a natural set of life cycle rituals that unfold reasonably uniformly for all LGBT people. Ultimately, these resources articulate an LGB life where everyone feels free to enter into sexually active same-sex relationships, or a T life where almost everyone eventually chooses to transition medically and correct gender on legal documents. Failure to accept these particular narratives can lead to assertions that an LGBT person simply has not yet “accepted” himself or herself. If one claims to have a happy life outside of these norms, one might find oneself accused of caving to fundamentally oppressive social systems.

As we see it, many “coming out” resources attempt to replace a restrictive conservative message with an equally restrictive progressive message. Typical conservative messages are laced with religious overtones to induce fear and suggest that feeling any resonance with LGBT experience is fundamentally suspect and likely immoral. However, we’ve noticed that many progressive messages are full of troubling undertones that the fullness of an LGBT person’s life can be objectively observed by an outsider. Progressive messages act as a gatekeeper of LGBT identities. We’ve encountered countless people who ask themselves, “Can I be LGBT if I have absolutely no desire to attend Gay Pride events?” Yet, many progressive narratives view attending one’s first Gay Pride event as a rite of passage associated with the coming out progress. Both conservative and progressive messages can be used to manipulate LGBT people into conformity to the expectations of others. People questioning their sexual orientations and gender identities can find themselves torn between these two narratives even if neither fits their experiences.

We have to wonder if’s better to encourage LGBT people to be their true selves on their own terms, recognizing that everyone is constantly deepening his or her self-understanding. As members of gender and sexual minorities, it’s only natural to seek someone to validate our experiences. After all, feeling different from everyone else often plays into a person’s initial questioning of his or her sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s fantastically freeing when you can find someone who says, “Wow, what you’re saying really resonates with me.” It’s also wonderfully refreshing when you can find someone who says, “Your experience sounds different from mine, but I’m interested in hearing more of your story and walking with you as you find your way.”

Sometimes, LGBT people can need concrete affirmation that it is okay to understand sexual orientations and gender identities differently. A 2013 survey of transgender people revealed that 23% of respondents identify as gay, 25% identify as bisexual, 23% identify as straight, 4% identify as asexual, 2% identify as other, and 23% identify as queer. While some LGB people feel a strong resonance with the word “queer,” the vast majority of LGB prefer LGB terms because they identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. A transgender person who is negotiating the complexities of his or her own sex and gender and the sexes and genders of people he or she is attracted to might find terms like “gay” and “straight” incredibly limiting.

It’s good to listen to what people have to say about themselves. We have friends on the transgender spectrum who say, “I have a body. I am male. Therefore, I have a male body,” well before ever even thinking about pursuing medically-facilitated transition. This line of thought can be incredibly empowering to another transgender person because it permits a person to affirm his body as male immediately after becoming aware of his male identity. These thoughts grate against many dominant conservative and progressive messages about sexual orientation and gender: conservative messages usually assert that since one’s body has identifiably female parts, then one has a female body, and some progressive messages assert that the next rational step is to consult a doctor, effectively prescribing medical treatment. Transgender people who would rather not pursue medical interventions should not need to worry about losing the claim on their gender identities.

To offer another example, we also know know gay, lesbian, and bisexual people interested in entering monastic life. Many conservative voices argue that LGB people are unsuited to monastic life because they are likely to corrupt the monastery with sexual immorality. However, many progressive voices actively discourage LGB people from pursuing any kind of celibate lifestyle lest they fail to become fully actualized people in the context of sexually active relationships. In rare instances when progressive messages affirm that an LGB person should be able to choose celibacy, the statement almost always followed up with, “…but only if your reason for being celibate has nothing to do with your sexual orientation.” This leaves no room for the possibility that one can fully embrace his or her sexual orientation while still understanding it as a factor in discerning vocation. It also doesn’t make sense if one applies the same standard to expectations for how straight people discern vocation. We’ve never met anyone, conservative or progressive, who would advise a straight person considering celibacy to follow this pathway only if the decision is completely unrelated to sexual orientation.

In our own experiences and those shared with us by friends and readers, we’ve seen that people on both ends of the ideological spectrum can have impossible expectations for LGBT people without even realizing it. If you believe the only way for an LGBT person to follow Christ is to “become straight” and enter a heterosexual marriage, you’re probably not inclined to listen to the stories of people who have been harmed by these standards. Today, more people are challenging this narrative, and we’re glad for that. But few are quick to challenge the opposite set of expectations — the one that excludes LGBT people who don’t fit the mold assumed in progressive literature about the coming out process. The one that insists a person is caving to bad theology and toxic religious norms if he or she is not open to the idea of marriage or has no intention of taking up membership at a queer church. The one that inadvertently (sometimes even directly) forces some to the margins of an already marginalized group. We hope that as LGBT people continue to become more visible, there will be more questioning of what constitutes oppression and who gets to determine the meaning of “be yourself.”

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 Tokenism

A reflection by Lindsey

I’ve been meaning to write this reflection for months. The idea came into my head when Jake Dockter started tweeting various Christian conferences about the diversity of their speaking lineups. Jake’s questions focused on why so many conferences tend to headline older white fathers. If memory serves me correctly, one particular conference he pointed out had over 30 speakers where only 4 were women and not a single speaker was clearly non-white. Then a couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post discussing why it matters when white people don’t have black friends. I figured now is a good time to write down some thoughts on tokenism.

If you’ve ever been the minority in any context, chances are reasonably good that you been tokenized in one way or another. As one-half of a celibate LGBT Christian couple, I often feel like I’m a minority within a minority within a minority. I wonder why people value diversity, especially when it seems that “being diverse” seems more about filling a dance card with people who are different from one another than it is about being inclusive.

I think we hadn’t been blogging for more than a month before we received our first inquiry about whether we would consider a speaking engagement. We were thrilled at the possibility of speaking because that particular organization has a reputation of hosting a wide array of LGBT Christian speakers. We could appreciate how our being a celibate couple would offer a different perspective than other speakers who were invited. However, we’d hesitate before accepting an invitation to speak at an event for any organization wanted to promote our way of life as the “answer” for LGBT Christians. The first approach is about being inclusive while the second approach strikes me as checking the “diversity” box.

I don’t want to be anyone’s “LGBT Christian friend.” I can always tell when I’m in that role because I shift into having to educate other people more often than usual. It’s exhausting. I can respect the fact that because I’ve done a lot of thinking and writing about what celibate living might look like for a lay person, many people are interested in hearing my thoughts on celibacy. Yet I cringe every time I hear someone say, “This is my friend Lindsey, an LGBT person living celibacy.” Even other celibate LGBT people can weaponize Sarah’s and my stories to say that anyone is capable of living a celibate vocation.

I hope that more people can begin to see tokenism for what it is. Tokenism happens when we are interested in checking off a box. Once someone has a gay friend (or a black friend or a hispanic friend), then he/she can stop making efforts. I’d contend that being inclusive is remaining open to letting one’s friend circle grow and stretch through conscientious engagement with the world.

I don’t mind being someone’s first LGBT friend. I consider myself to be a worthwhile person to know, and if my new friend hangs out with me for any length of time, then he or she will likely realize I have other awesome friends. I didn’t consider any black people among my circle of real friends until I lived with my black roommate during my sophomore year of college. Chris and I had a habit of going out for chai tea and playing cribbage whenever we were stressed about anything, but getting to know Chris as my friend helped me respond better when other black students I knew tried to increase my awareness of social injustices facing black Americans. As Chris and I sipped chai tea, we had a natural place to share our lives, to ask questions, to listen to each other, and to grow as human beings. Getting to know each other helped me do the hard work of reflecting on my experience of whiteness and made it easier for me to build friendships with people that have very different experiences with regard to race and ethnicity. My friendship with Chris and working through my own experience of race and ethnicity helped me be more inclusive because I could see some social structures a bit more clearly. One reason why I feel so adamant that people not represent Sarah’s and my stories as absolutely representative of all LGBT people is I know for a fact that our stories are different from those of most other LGBT people.

Our friendships with people different from us cause us to think more deeply about our own experiences, enabling us to empathize with each other. When we learn this empathy, we can move beyond tokenism and into a more naturally inclusive way of living.

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 “What Ifs”

It’s Saturday again! We hope you’re all having a nice day.

Quick announcement: if you’re planning on attending the next Gay Christian Network Conference in Portland, Oregon, early bird registration ends on October 3. We attend the conference ever year, and it’s always a fantastic experience.

Now, onto 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: This week, Sarah wrote a post on vocation and grief. Sarah pointed out that all vocations are good, but none allow a person to do everything (e.g.. being married means one cannot be a nun). Our question for you: do you ever experience grief over what your vocation is not? How do you cope with the “what ifs” that can arise when one thinks about the limitations of his/her 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.

Do celibate partners “complete” each other?

We’ve been approached by many people who wonder why our relationship began in the first place and why it’s not “good enough” for us to live as celibate singles. Frequently, people assume that we’re together because it’s the best way of coping the loneliness of celibacy. At the same time, it’s not uncommon for those who have met us in person to suggest that we are absolutely perfect fits for one another. We addressed the loneliness question a while ago; today, we’d like to share briefly about perfect fits and the idea that partners should “complete” each other.

We have a lot of fun together as we embark on one adventure after another. We’re reasonably confident that sharing our lives enables us to become our best selves. We are confident that Lindsey empowers Sarah to do things that would otherwise be impossible for Sarah, and vice versa. We love working as a team through thick and thin. Nevertheless, we are also certain that neither one of us could ever meet all of the other person’s needs.

When we tell the story of how we met, we reference that we fell into a pattern of sharing life together easily and unexpectedly. Our friendship continued to grow where we found ourselves naturally supporting each other across many areas of life. We’re grateful for the ways that we stretch and push each other to be better people.

But stretching to share life with another person doesn’t complete anyone. In many ways, sharing life introduces new challenges. No matter the level of sexual activity, every couple encounters problems that affect each partner differently. Relationships require adjustment when the lesser-affected person chooses to opt into a new way of life. Even the seemingly benign choice of sharing life together creates a rippling of change where all of a sudden little things really matter. People in committed relationships have to compromise, adapt, and embrace never-before-considered opportunities. Not only that, but they also need to learn to recognize instances in which certain needs can’t be met within the context of the partnership or marriage alone.

We think it’s especially problematic, to the point of being deeply spiritually harmful, when partners believe that they can or should be able to complete each other. We think this for several reasons, one being that such an approach to committed relationships risks isolating the couple from their friends, geographical community, and faith community. Leah Libresco at The American Conservative wrote an insightful article in July 2014 on problems with marital completionism, stating the following:

Spouses shouldn’t wind up completely sated by a relationship, able to retreat from the rest of the world. Married people, just like singles, have some needs that are best met by a friend or by a neighbor or by family. Our mutual, unsated needs draw us together in service to each other.

Few partners will be in danger of making a complete retreat, utterly emotionally self-sufficient as a dyad, but aiming at this goal is as destructive as achieving it. Spouses in this situation are likely to sell their friendships short, failing to rely on them, as the theatre-going wife does.

We couldn’t agree more. Whether a relationship is a marriage or some other kind of committed partnership, it’s curious that so many 21st century westerners (particularly Americans) assume that the goal of doing life with another person is finding total satisfaction in that relationship. It seems unlikely to us that many partnerships that strive for such will actually become islands unto themselves, but even attempting is a recipe for destruction.

We struggle to understand why the completionism model appeals to couples in the first place. It’s rooted in our culture’s myth that romantic love is the solution to most of life’s major problems, and that there’s one special person somewhere in the world who is meant for each of us. Many churches help to perpetuate this myth by upholding marriage as an ideal state of life for Christians and emphasizing “the two become one flesh” to the point of shaming married people who seek out support and love from the community as individuals. But our question is, why is this arrangement desirable? It’s possible that more people than not see marital completionism as an expectation. People learn from their churches and the broader culture that most aspects of married life should be exclusive to the two partners, and this becomes a goal for the couple — sometimes unconsciously. Still, we wonder why more people aren’t challenging it.

Though our relationship is not a marriage, we see regular evidence of marital completionist ideology in our interactions with folks who are interested in learning more about how our relationship works. We get questions like, “How can celibacy possibly be challenging or sacrificial for either of you? You have each other,” and, “Why are you experiencing a problem with x, y, or z? You’re going to love each other no matter what.” It’s true that our life as a celibate couple differs in many ways from the lives of celibate singles, and that we’re always going to love each other no matter what comes our way. But we don’t complete each other. Being in a loving relationship does not mean that we have all the resources between the two of us to face every possible life issue that could arise. It also doesn’t mean that having each other is or should be “enough” to prevent loneliness, sadness, boredom, or frustration. We feel so strongly about this that when other people tell us, “You two fit perfectly together like pieces of an incomplete puzzle,” we are quick to remind them that even small puzzles usually have more pieces than two. We never would have found each other if either of us had been looking for the person who would make us perfectly happy. To quote from Leah’s article again:

In the meantime, they’ll be missing out on the best part of marriage—the presence of a partner in the ongoing project of becoming better versions of yourself. The spouse you pick shouldn’t be the one who makes you happiest, but the one who makes you more kind, prudent, and generous, and to whom you can give the same gift. You join to grow, not to accommodate the desires of your present self.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. This is just as true for celibate partnerships as it is for marriages. Though we do bring each other a great deal of happiness, our relationship works not because we bring pleasure into each other’s lives, but because we are better people together than we are apart. Sometimes, one of us is not at all happy with the way the other is posing a challenge in a given moment. It’s a ding to the ego. Spiritual growth can be painful as well as joyous, and we’re willing to stand by each other through all of it as well as reach out to our friends and community during good times and bad. As we see it, marital/partnership completionism stands in the way of growth toward unity with God, and this does no one any favors.

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.

Mid-September Links of Interest

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve found several interesting articles, blog posts, and videos. We also realized that it’s been a while since we last linked our readers to what we’ve been reading and discussing at home and with friends. Today, we’re giving ourselves a break from writing, and we encourage you to check out the following if you haven’t already:

We were excited to find this six-minute video featuring several people who have chosen celibacy or sexual abstinence for varying lengths of time and for many different reasons. We enjoyed the diversity showcased in the video, and we’re happy to see that these kinds of stories are being told.

Last week, Melinda Selmys at Spiritual Friendship wrote a thoughtful post on misconceptions about the transgender community.

This article from Inside Higher Ed was published in July, but we’ve noticed that it continues to generate discussion amongst our friends. It gives a brief overview of what’s happening at two Christian colleges that have won exemptions to Title IX.

Speaking of Christian colleges, Julie Rodgers wrote a blog post about her recent move to Chicago to take a job at Wheaton College. Though neither of us attended Wheaton, we related to Julie’s reflections on her own experience as a freshman there:

I was recruited to play basketball and I had to sit out the second half of the season because I failed fitness class. I failed fitness class because gay Christian angst (along with doubt and despair) made getting up for an 11am class feel impossible. My perception was that I was the only student on campus that wasn’t memorizing entire books of the Bible while taking 18 hours of upper level coursework and leading early morning discipleship groups. It wasn’t until years later that I learned I hadn’t been alone. Now, after a decade of being shaped by God’s grace, I’ve been given the opportunity to tell students in similar places they’re not alone either.

Speaking of the gay Christian angst Julie references, Stephen Long at Sacred Tension wrote a compelling post a couple of weeks ago on this topic.

If you’re interested in reading or participating in discussion on Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian (which we reviewed a while ago), you’ll want to check out this invitation to dialogue that Rachel Held Evans has issued to her readers.

Yesterday, Lindsey found an insightful post at Swinging from Grapevines titled, “Please Stop Telling Us Why We’re Leaving the Church.” It offers a millennial’s perspective on why members of the millennial generation are becoming uninterested in and disengaged from faith communities.

If you live near the University of Notre Dame, you might want to consider attending the Gay in Christ: Dimensions of Fidelity colloquium on October 31 and November 1, 2014. It’s free and open to the public, but attendees need to register.

Eve Tushnet’s new book, Gay and Catholic, will be released soon. We’re super excited to review it. In the meantime, read Eve’s series of book extras that she’s publishing on her blog. They’re all tagged “Gay Catholic Whatnot.”

Because we’ve had a couple of recent posts about wildlife and respect for God’s creation, we wanted to share this opinion piece by Richard Conniff. Our favorite quote from the article:

Wildlife is and should be useless in the same way art, music, poetry and even sports are useless. They are useless in the sense that they do nothing more than raise our spirits, make us laugh or cry, frighten, disturb and delight us. They connect us not just to what’s weird, different, other, but to a world where we humans do not matter nearly as much as we like to think.

And continuing with that theme, within the past week the Wildlife Center of Virginia has released two of its rehabilitated bald eaglet patients. You can see the videos here.

That’s all for today. Have a blessed Wednesday!

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.

Grieving What My Vocation Is Not

A reflection by Sarah

When I was in college, I listened to vocations speakers frequently. Every talk I heard emphasized how God calls people to their vocations because he cares about our happiness and our ability to use our gifts to serve the world around us. The speakers stressed how vocational discernment shouldn’t be terrifying since God is speaking to our hearts, and all we need to do is listen and obey. Since vocations are gifts given by God, they emphasized, there is no need to be frightened by the prospect of discerning vocation.

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on that time in my life. I remember how terrified I was of discerning vocation despite all of those reassurances. What would happen if I made the wrong decision? Surely there were people who were supposed to have been married but who entered monasteries. Likewise, I thought, there must be married people who have experienced a call to monasticism, but chose marriage instead. What would happen if I turned out to be one of those people who would make the wrong choice? Would I be miserable because I hadn’t properly discerned God’s will for my life? The vocations speakers that I heard sounded so incredibly peaceful and full of joy when talking about what God had called them to. I thought, “If they are so happy, then they must have properly and perfectly discerned God’s call. They are so lucky to have discerned their vocations correctly.” As I recall these thoughts now, I see that I had an underdeveloped view of vocation and discernment at the time. I’d assumed that if a person was happy in his/her vocation and had discerned what God’s will truly was, then he/she would never experience any grief over what might have been if things had turned out differently. I was naive enough to think that once I figured out what God was calling me to, he would remove any inkling of desires for a different way of life. While I’m absolutely confident that doing your best to follow where God leads will ultimately lead you to joy and union with God, I believe now that grief along the way is frequently part of the process.

I’ve heard people suggest that because there is a significant part of me that desires to be a mother and to have children, that it would be better for me to leave the committed celibate relationship I have with Lindsey and seek out a heterosexual marriage. Sometimes it’s even been suggested that Lindsey is selfish for preventing me from finding a husband and marrying. I find these notions ludicrous for several reasons, but two in particular. For one, the people who make such comments are not considering the likelihood that, as a lesbian, I would be miserable in a heterosexual marriage even if that marriage did provide me a way to become a biological mother. However, there’s a deeper reason that I find these comments troubling. They imply that vocations should be able to meet all of our desires for every good and holy thing. If you desire something and it is a holy desire, this line of thinking asserts an automatic belief that God is calling you to it. I think this idea is hugely problematic.

No matter what vocational pathways we take, following Christ costs us something. We all make choices that prevent us from making other choices. [Economists are able to talk about "opportunity cost" with good reason.] When a person decides to pursue a vocation to marriage, that person is giving up the possibility of entering any kind of celibate vocation (unless his/her spouse reposes and their children have become adults). When a person decides to enter a monastery, he or she is giving up the possibility of being married and raising a family. We make choices and do our best to allow God to lead us rightly. That’s the nature of discernment. Both celibacy and marriage are good ways of life, but neither enables a person to do everything. At this point, the question is, “Is it okay for a person to grieve what his or her vocation is not?” Is it acceptable for a married person to grieve aspects of the celibate life that he/she will never know fully in this lifetime? Is there something wrong with a celibate person who is experiencing sadness over not being married or having children? I would argue that not only is this sort of grief okay, but that it’s entirely normal.

I think one of the reasons I didn’t settle into a celibate vocation earlier than my late twenties is that I spent years pondering how God could be calling me to a way of life that would bring me grief as well as joy. In having to choose just one way of life, I’d certainly miss out on something great found in a different vocation. If any one of those vocational pathways would involve sadness over aspects that were not a part of that particular pathway, how was I supposed to experience the deep and profound joy all of the different vocations speakers referenced in their talks? I came to see that taking the plunge into any vocation has its risks. Once you give a vocation a try, you risk finding out that it fits…or that it doesn’t. It was a huge risk for me to say that I was committing to celibacy, especially after having been in non-celibate relationships. It was an even greater risk when I decided that I was going to commit the rest of my life to a celibate partnership with Lindsey. I can’t get over how much we experience joy, both as individuals and together.

Nonetheless, I have to be real about the fact my vocation is not just joyous moment after joyous moment after joyous moment. There are times when I feel the emotional pangs associated with sensing that God is not calling me to certain things I’ve felt somewhat drawn to in the past. For me, the one that is especially trying is knowing that I will never be a biological mother. There is a part of me that absolutely aches with desire to carry a child in my womb. Some days it’s very hard to cope with that reality. But I’ve realized that not all of my desires — even for good things– are what God is actually calling me to. I don’t think it’s bad that I have a strong desire for motherhood. It’s not a problem to be remedied. The fact that intuition tells me I would make a good mother does not mean that my call to celibacy is less real. It also does not mean that my relationship with Lindsey is going to end because I’m not getting everything I could possibly want out of life, or that Lindsey and I should try to brainstorm solutions for me to become a mother.

I believe that if you experience this kind of sadness, it’s healthy to sit with the feeling and allow it to be. Another lesson I learned in my 20s is that life isn’t about being happy. It’s about seeking union with God, and that search involves the entire spectrum of emotions.  Sorrow, frustration, anger, and grief are not maladies to be cured. When I find myself feeling a bit overwhelmed because of what my vocation is not, it’s beneficial to pray about what it is and can be as Lindsey and I continue discerning throughout our lives together. It’s also helpful to be thinking about other ways I can direct my desire for motherhood. My greatest comfort is in knowing that Christ and His Holy Mother are here waiting to embrace me anytime I’m grieving over anything at all…and knowing it’s okay to let them do just that.

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.