Saturday Symposium: LGBT Celibates and the Media

Over past couple of weeks, more than one of our celibate LGBT friends has been represented in questionable ways by journalists. At the same time, we were featured in a Washington Post article about LGBT celibates that we were reasonably happy with save a claim that celibate LGBT Christians “find it easier than before to be out of the closet in their traditional churches because they are celibate.” For a while now, we have been thinking that it might be helpful to tell our readers more about our approaches to interactions with journalists. It’s easy for stories to be used as weapons, either against other groups of people (e.g. a celibate’s story being used to bully non-celibate LGBT folks) or against the interviewee (e.g. a celibate’s story being used to argue that there’s actually no such person as a “celibate LGBT Christian”).

Unfortunately, it’s possible for factors beyond the interviewee’s control to yield harmful results. We are not blaming any of our friends for how they have been portrayed recently, and we are not going to name or link the specific articles because in the the interest of fairness we would need to contact their authors for comment, and we aren’t about to open conversation with writers who are only interested in publishing polemics about celibate LGBT Christians. That said, we would like to open today’s Saturday Symposium conversation a bit differently than usual. We’ll offer some of our own thoughts on how we have managed and continue to manage media interactions, and we would like to hear our readers’ thoughts on the questions we ask at the end.

When considering giving an interview to a journalist, we believe it is important to consider this question first: “How could the author’s proposed project further the discussion about celibate LGBT people in the Church?” Every author has an audience. We’re curious how sharing our story with a specific author’s audience might contribute something positive to the broader conversation.

Though journalists with questionable senses of ethics are a dime a dozen and therefore not always possible to identify, we think it’s a good idea to have a response plan in place in the event that the published article, book, or video resource uses our story dishonestly. Having an idea of how one might respond in the immediate and farther down the road when criticisms arise is an essential part of participating in any controversial discussion. We can’t promise that we’ll always do it perfectly, but our general response to any discrepancy between what we said and how it was reported in a given situation is to publish our own statement as quickly as possible afterward. As of now, our own statements of clarification and challenge have been directed toward other bloggers (and one journalist) who have used quotes from our blog out of context and without citation or linking. We have not yet experienced anything similar resulting from an actual interview, but if this were to happen our response would be much the same as the ones we have already needed to publish. It’s very important to us that our story not be used to abuse or bully.

That said, we’ve had many fruitful interactions with journalists in the past as well. There are several writers who have a genuine interest in exploring issues raised by LGBT celibates and introducing their own fan bases to LGBT stories that don’t fit the mold. We believe that the media does play an important role in continuing and broadening conversations that we have been participating in for years on a smaller scale. Beginning and maintaining positive relationships with journalists can be beneficial for all involved: in our experience, writers who have interviewed us in the past often continue interacting with us and raising questions that challenge us in ways that we need to be challenged.

Now, onto our usual set of weekend questions…

This week’s Saturday Symposium question: Where have you seen articles, books, videos, etc. that have contributed positively to existing conversations about LGBT people in the Church? What kinds of media contributions would you like to see on LGBT Christian topics in the future? In your opinion, which topics move conversation along, hold back needed conversation, or even set back a conversation that has already advanced? What roles do journalists, bloggers, church members, and others have in advancing the discussion?

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!


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.

On Celibacy, Ménière’s Disease, and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans

A reflection by Sarah

Yesterday, a friend sent me an audiology journal article. It was a review of studies on positive experiences of hearing loss, tinnitus, and Ménière’s disease. He thought I would be interested because of the article’s inquiring about the positives of what most people see as negative life experiences, and he was absolutely right. I spent hours nerding out over all the citations. Then, I began thinking about celibacy and some responses I’ve seen to the recent Washington Post article on celibate gay Christians.

If you’ve been involved in conversations about LGBT people and the Church for even a few weeks, you’ve probably heard at least one person suggesting that celibacy is fine for those who experience it in positive ways, but damaging for those who experience it in negative ways. There’s some truth to this. I embrace my celibate vocation joyously and have never felt as though celibacy was being thrust upon me against my will. It’s probably accurate to say that this plays a role in my positive experience of celibacy, and there is probably a strong correlation between negative experiences of celibacy and perceptions of celibacy as “damaging.” But I wonder…what does it mean to have a “positive” experience of celibacy as opposed to a “negative” experience? What counts as positive, and what counts as negative? If celibacy is thrust upon a person against his or her will (which, again, I do not advocate), does that necessarily mean he or she will have no positive experiences of celibacy?

Unlike celibacy, Ménière’s disease is a reality that was thrust upon me. Though by the time of my diagnosis I already had friends in the Deaf community and was interested in learning ASL, I did not choose to experience rapidly progressive hearing loss, constant tinnitus, and unpredictable vertigo. Quitting my doctoral program due to the severity of these symptoms after reaching ABD status and writing three dissertation chapters was not what I had planned or wanted for my life. If someone had asked me in years prior to my diagnosis, “How would you feel if you found out that you were going deaf?” I’m sure I would have responded with one word: “Devastated.”

Ménière’s disease is a condition that most people would consider a negative-only life experience, yet in every study referenced in the article I read yesterday, significant numbers of participants were reporting multiple kinds of positive experiences. Some of these I would not consider positive even though other people do (e.g. being undisturbed by the sounds of other people). My own experience of this condition has included many aspects that I consider positive even though others might not. I’ve noticed that my visual experience of the world is changing in some fascinating ways. Before I draw or paint, my mental images of what I’m about to put on paper or canvas are more vibrant now than they have been in the past. My color-grapheme synesthesia is stronger. I’m experiencing my relationship with God, His Mother, and the saints in new and helpful ways. I’m growing in compassion for others with disabilities and different abilities, and my sense of how God is calling me to love is changing for the better. I’m finding friendship and community with other late-deafened adults and people who have grown up culturally Deaf. Each of these items is a kind of positive experience that I wouldn’t have imagined possible in my life before Ménière’s disease. Everything on this list is a reason to rejoice. It’s true that often, I find myself exhausted and frustrated after putting every ounce of energy into making the best out of days when the spinning just doesn’t stop, but acknowledging this does not negate all other aspects of my experience.

In conversations about celibacy, Christianity, and the LGBT community, there is a tendency to see everything in black and white. Some people will not dialogue at all unless you’re interested in debating whether or not gay sex is a sin, or whether or not churches should bless same-sex marriages. Others cannot see celibacy outside of, “It’s fine for people who experience it positively, but not for people who experience it negatively.” In real life, few kinds of human experience are wholly positive or wholly negative. Most are mixed bags — or to use a Harry Potter analogy, boxes of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans. There’s plenty of cinnamon and peppermint, but somewhere in the box there’s also vomit and troll bogey. Sometimes I think I’m about to begin chewing on a toffee and it turns out to be earwax instead. This is just as likely to be true whether I’m referencing celibacy, hearing loss, my relationship with Lindsey, or almost any other reality of my life at present. Why pretend that celibacy or any other life experience must be either a chocolate frog or an acid pop? Why does it have to be one or the other?

Insisting that a person’s decision to live celibacy inevitably leads either to joy or despair and that the latter is far more common ignores the lived experiences of almost every celibate person I know. I’m interested in hearing from people who have felt thrust into celibacy in a similar way as I’ve felt thrust into Ménière’s disease: have you experienced anything positive as a result? I’m also interested in learning about other opinions on what kinds of experiences count as “positive” and “negative.” For example, does, “I don’t have to worry about STDs” or “I am at peace because I know I’m being faithful to my Christian tradition” count as a positive experience? Or must a positive experience of celibacy be more along the lines of, “I feel happy and fulfilled most days”? Can we determine objectively what constitutes a positive or negative experience of celibacy? Is it ever appropriate to suggest that another person’s “positive” experience is actually a “negative” experience and that he/she is wrong but may not realize it yet? Rather than sharing my current opinions on these questions, I welcome our readers to share theirs in the comments.

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Love and the Layers of Vocation

On November 18th a group of young adults gathered in DC to talk about Eve Tushnet’s book, Gay and Catholic at a discussion hosted by Fare Forward. The focus wasn’t on the morality of queer sexual relationships, but on the opportunities our churches and communities offer parishioners (gay and straight) to offer deep, sacrificial love outside the “default” paths of marriage and monasteries/ordination. The discussion explored alternative ways to offer love and service (whether through vowed friendship, intentional communities, moving in with family, or choice of work).

Below is the the reflection we wrote on this discussion. Due to many circumstances beyond anyone’s control, it was not able to be published on Fare Foreward’s website. We offer it here for our readers, and we also offer our thanks to Fare Forward for giving us the opportunity to write this piece. 

The two of us have grown accustomed to feeling alone in our own discernment processes, but gathering with over twenty young adults to discuss Gay and Catholic helped us realize just how many people yearn for more concrete vocational guidance from their Christian traditions. Despite the title, Tushnet’s work casts a wide net; all of us gathered sought common ground on the question, “What is vocation in the first place?”

Throughout the discussion, we noticed the focus shifting to questions of loving others well: vocations are not discrete, mutually exclusionary pathways. Husbands, wives, and monks have vocations that extend beyond marriage and monkhood.

Tushnet has discussed some strategies for how one can discern vocation by cultivating the practice of “doing the next right thing.” Being fully present in the moment can enable God to show you something different. We enjoyed trading stories about places we’ve experienced some sense of direction while simultaneously hoping for more supportive forms of community. For example, one participant shared how at his university, fourteen Christians from radically different faith traditions gathered to pray together regularly. We also spent a considerable amount of time discussing how we can borrow from various vocations to help us give shape to our specific vocations.

Taking inventories of different needs, we began to think about how we could become more active in making Christian communities just that much better for people seeking spiritual support. Saying Compline together seemed like a natural first step. As we left the gathering, the two of us found ourselves wondering what the right next thing will be to make our own spiritual community that much stronger. Throughout our late twenties and early thirties, we have heard a lot of people bemoaning the fact that young adults often leave the church only to come back when they are ready to baptize their children. Yet as we consider our own experiences in and our observations of other people our age discerning vocations, we note that many young adults desire guidance, help, and support in the church, but cannot find vibrant Christian communities willing or knowledgeable of how to do so.

Churches often put a band-aid on the problem by hosting an occasional meet-and-greet for single adults while simultaneously behaving as if meeting that “special someone” is the normative solution for a person’s vocational confusion. But in the discussion, Tushnet’s book struck a chord with people wanting more from life than the daily grind of thriving professionally. Direction matters. One participant joked, “So many people wind up as investment bankers because at least then they are told what to do next.” Repeatedly throughout the discussion, we wondered how the Church might minister more effectively if it would become normative for Christians to seek spiritual guidance at all times rather than exclusively in times of great need.

If you are interested in learning more about Gay and Catholic by Eve Tushnet, you can also check out our review of the book and our interview with the author.

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Mechanisms of Affection

A reflection by Lindsey

The discussion about faith and sexuality features some enduring questions that Sarah and I end up answering at least once a week. One such enduring question is, “What expressions of affection are permissible given a particular form of relationship?” As people in a celibate partnership, we frequently have people asking us how we express affection to each other. Christians as a whole are used to drawing lines around “acceptable” forms of affection. These lines of thought turn affection into a mechanical system of inputs and outputs, assuming that certain affectional inputs will always result in sexual intimacy or at minimum, a near occasion of sin for the unmarried.

I’m an engineer, and I honestly love mechanisms. Mechanisms are cool. I’m always jazzed to encounter something, anything, that has exposed mechanisms. I love seeing how things work. A mechanism is a remarkable thing that converts doable human actions, such as turning a crank, to do any number of things like sharpening a pencil, opening a can of food, sewing, or riding a bike. Assembled rightly, mechanisms allow us to connect input x with logical output y. Mechanisms assume a bounded set of initial conditions, like the switch is either on or off. Mechanisms only work in one or two ways. The crank turns clockwise or counterclockwise. If the crank moves side to side, then it’s either broken or on a slider. I love mechanisms because they are startlingly predictable.

But people don’t work the same way. The process of growing in love for another person is both dynamic and unpredictable. Interactions between two people are incredibly nuanced. The relationship between two people changes all of the time. All sorts of things influence how we interact with one another. The same action has different meaning depending on the context. A hug can offer comfort, intrude into someone’s personal space, signal close friendship, demonstrate one person’s ability to control another person’s movement, assure safety, or welcome more physical intimacy. There is nothing mechanistic about how affection “works.”

Some people I’ve met seem to have a paranoia around physical intimacy. In American Christian churches, any expression of affection gets met with skepticism, mistrust, and anxiety. We seem to be so preoccupied in having “right” forms of intimacy that we miss the point of intimacy all together. Alternately, we may perceive that our culture has rendered sex essential and sees nearly every affectionate action as a prelude to sexual intimacy. Focusing on mechanisms of affection (where again, action x has outcome y) blocks our ability to see critical components of physical intimacy: intentions and circumstances.

When people query how I express affection with Sarah and others, my answer has two components: 1) it depends and 2) it’s none of your business. The first component is the most important to me. There are few, if any, universal precepts to say that a particular form of affection always communicates love. I don’t see myself pulling actions out of an affection toolbox. I am trying to respond to a real person in front of me at a particular time. My responses vary depending on the circumstances in which I find myself. The second component comes because I do not feel obligated to explain why I determined that a particular expression of affection would be loving in a specific instance.

I’ve discerned over time that some actions do more to foster my celibate vocation than other actions do. I find myself surprised at the way regularly eating dinner together, even if that means eating at odd hours, helps me to understand hospitality better. Before I met Sarah, I viewed dinner hospitality as a kind of dinner party that had a solid start time. Dinner is at six! However, I’ve learned that approach simply doesn’t work for us or the people with whom we want to share dinner. Now I see dinner hospitality as an opportunity to create space for others to be themselves while letting them be honest about their needs. Because I’m the person who enjoys cooking, I usually handle preparing the meal. I’ve now come to see meals as a sacred time where people share vulnerably. Along the way, I’ve learned that I’m never just chopping vegetables to make soup… and sharing about the ins-and-outs with someone who wasn’t present frequently seems to impinge on sacred territory. Sometimes it’s best to invite that person over for dinner, knowing that particular dinner will have a mysterious quality to it all its 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.

“What do celibate gay Christians long for in this life? In the Eschaton?”

We had originally planned a different post for today, but yesterday we received a very thoughtful question that we wanted to address right away because of its timeliness:

“In thinking about Advent, what would you say that you and other gay Christians pray and long for with regard to your sexuality? What are you looking for in the eschaton? In this life?”

That’s a heavy question with a complicated answer, and the two of us spent a few hours yesterday discussing it. As with most questions of this sort, there is a variety of possible answers. How a celibate gay Christian would respond depends largely upon his/her reasons for choosing celibacy and whether he/she sees his/her sexuality as something to be excised or something to be integrated.

We know folks who would say, “In this life I hope to remain faithful to the scriptures and the teachings of my Christian tradition, and in the Eschaton I hope that I’ll finally have freedom from same-sex attraction.” People who hold this perspective tend to see being gay (or same-sex attracted, whichever type of language they prefer) as a painful cross to bear. Some face continual struggles with promiscuity or pornography. Some celibate gay Christians have experienced their sexual orientations exclusively in ways that cause distress. But this certainly isn’t everyone, and we would guess that it is not the majority. We know people who hope that everyone will be heterosexual in the Eschaton. We also know people who hope that they’ll come to understand sexuality as a gift in the way that married people have experienced it. Additionally, we know people who hope that all humans will become nonsexual beings in the Eschaton.

As for the two of us, these are our prayers and longings for this life with regard to our sexuality:

That God will continue to help us use our sexuality and vocation in ways that glorify him and bring forth his Kingdom. Traditionally, Christianity has considered celibacy to be a higher calling. That does not mean we are more virtuous or righteous than married people. It means that in certain ways, more is expected of us. This is not something to be prideful about: it’s intimidating and often frightening. We can only make feeble attempts at living into what God calls us to do and be, but we hope that with God’s help we will continue to improve.

That churches will see value in celibacy and support people in creating a positive vision of celibate vocations. Celibates have always been the minority in Christianity, and celibacy has been a countercultural way of life in nearly every Christian historical context. Living celibacy is often an attempt to meet a high spiritual expectation while existing in a culture that sees celibate people as freaks, and this is especially true for celibates who live in the world rather than monasteries or some form of religious life. In Orthodoxy, there are almost no discussions at this point about non-monastic celibacy. In Catholicism, there is a recognition that lay celibates in the world have a vocation, but there is almost no guidance about what this means or how one should live it out other than “don’t have sex.” In most Protestant denominations, celibacy has been dismissed as unfavorable at best, abnormal at worst. And there are many people in all three branches of Christianity who have made an idol of marriage. We hope to see these problems addressed, and we desire to be part of the solution.

That the language policing in both conservative and liberal churches will stop. Gay people who are intentionally celibate are often met with hostility simply because we use LGBT language. We know heterosexual Christians who behave as though celibacy means nothing if one also identifies as gay. Sometimes we think these folks would rather see us excise LGBT language from our vocabularies than see us grow into our vocations positively, and that is absolutely depressing. What’s even more depressing is that some seem to view preaching the message of celibacy as more important than preaching the Gospel. This has often been our experience of conservative churches, but liberal churches can also have unhelpful ways of language policing. If a celibate person in one of these contexts chooses to use the language of “same-sex attraction” rather than “LGBT,” more often than not it will be assumed that he or she is engaging in self-hatred and is perhaps delusional. We know heterosexual Christians and non-celibate LGBT Christians who refuse to discuss celibacy in any positive way and behave as though preaching the message of “it’s okay to identify as gay” is more important than preaching the Gospel. One of our greatest hopes for this lifetime is that people who are not gay and celibate (or insert whichever word you choose) will spend more time listening, less time language policing, and a lot less time presuming that they understand the gay celibate experience better than we do.

We also have these prayers and longings for the Eschaton:

That we will see our vocations perfected and experience the angelic life of celibacy more fully. We do not know much about how the ideal celibate life should manifest. We sense little glimpses and write about these ideas (which are only prayerfully considered guesses) on the blog at times, but it would be impossible for us to offer a comprehensive vision of what lay celibacy should or could be at its fullest. In the Eschaton, we hope to see completely what we have seen only faint glimmers of in this lifetime.

That we will understand fully how God redeems culture, language, ethnic heritage, class, ability, gender, and sexuality. All we know about the Eschaton is that we will be ourselves, but glorified. It’s impossible to know in this lifetime what “glorified” actually means. To what extent will all of us be the same, and to what extent will we maintain the differences that once formed our identities at incarnate beings? It doesn’t seem right to us to declare that because we’ll all be unified in the Eschaton, we’ll necessarily be the same in every possible way. To our way of thinking, it’s impossible to know whether redemption of ethnic heritage means that people who were Russian, Greek, Nigerian, etc. in earthly life will be stripped of all ethnic and cultural differences. Or an example that has hit home for us within the past year: will d/Deaf people become hearing people in the Eschaton, or do hearing people assume this will happen simply because they see hearing as a state superior to deafness? Right now we have more questions than answers about the Eschaton, and those questions include sexuality and gender identity. We do not think it is possible to know that in the Eschaton, all people will be nonsexual, or heterosexual, or whatever sexual orientation they experienced in their incarnate bodies. But we do hope that everything beautiful and God-honoring about all layers of our identities will carry over into our glorified state.

Whether you are a celibate gay Christian or not, what do you pray and long for in this life and in the Eschaton? This could make for a wonderful discussion in the comments.

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.