The Celibacy Mandate

In our post addressing 7 Misconceptions about Celibacy, we highlighted the misconception that celibate people are only celibate because of oppressive, conservative religion. Unfortunately, the idea that Christianity in particular tries to suppress the sexuality of LGBT people has significant evidence in its favor.

Last week on Twitter, we saw a friend offer this tweet:

We know better than to consider this kind of biting comment an isolated instance. In too many Christian communities, insults directed at LGBT people are accepted as a part of Christian discourse. Many LGBT people feel as though they need to try and mimic the normative experience of heterosexual people before even setting foot in a church near them. Some “Christian” advocates will attend Gay Pride events to suggest that “God has a better way” where LGBT people can become straight or celibate. Many LGBT people (rightly) perceive that some conservative churches “reach out” to the LGBT community in order to encourage LGBT individuals to excise their sexualities.

Straight Christians will frequently quote Bible verses (and official Church documents, if applicable) that explicitly condemn homosexual acts. This kind of approach draws a line that an LGBT person can never pass over if that LGBT person wants to remain “acceptable” to the Church, and to God. In these contexts, celibacy can be experienced as an unfunded mandate where the LGBT person is left to his or her own devices to figure out how to live a celibate way of life. These contexts rarely provide a person with a positive definition of celibacy.

To say it very succinctly, we hate this kind of celibacy mandate.

To put a bit more flesh on our objection, we believe this kind of celibacy mandate prevents the Church from developing a framework for a life-giving, generous approach to celibacy outside of religious life. This celibacy mandate excuses the Church from all responsibility to help LGBT people integrate their sexualities within a broader, embodied sense of self. After all, the counsel for managing one’s sexuality boils down to, “Don’t have sex.” You can fit “Don’t have sex” 8 times within 1 tweet on Twitter. It is far too simplistic a message to be the sum total of all advice the Church has to offer an individual seeking life in Christ.

Another thing we have observed is that often, Christian communities telling LGBT people that they must be celibate have very underdeveloped views of both celibacy and marriage. In many of these communities, the vast majority of the congregation is happily heterosexually married with children. If statistics are to be believed, several of these families might be comprised of people who have remarried after securing a divorce. We would call these churches “American Dream” churches. In an “American Dream” church, marriage is frequently treated as a rite of passage: Boy meets Girl. Girl and Boy fall in love. Boy proposes to Girl. Girl (and Boy) plan wedding. Boy and Girl get married in some venue using a self-designed service presided over by a clergy person of their choice. Girl and Boy live happily ever after. When something important like your wedding is a necessary adult rite of passage, then it seems heartless and even cruel to deny anyone access to this kind of event.

We would rather be a part of a Church that encourages every person to find abundant life in Christ. We are grateful to be a part of a Christian tradition that has a rather clear theological vision for marriage. In our Christian tradition, it does not make a lot of sense to view marriage as a necessary rite of passage. At every parish we have attended, we see people of all ages actively trying to discern their vocation. We are blessed to know other people who think that God is not calling them to work out their salvation within the vocation of marriage.

It’s worth mentioning that the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches are frequently portrayed as issuing the celibacy mandate to all LGBT people. However, we think that the popular perception of these liturgical traditions overlooks a lot of how they present a theological vision of marriage and celibacy. We do agree that the liturgical churches could do a better job of presenting a more holistic view of their teachings on marriage and celibacy. And honestly, we wouldn’t be surprised if LGBT Christians in some Catholic and Orthodox parishes experience a sense of an unfunded celibacy mandate within their local communities. We challenge those parishes to do better.

Consider the following scenario. You are a straight person. You have grown up all of your life with messages that in order to find yourself fully in Christ, you must get married. Failure to marry is evidence that you lack faith, are completely undesirable, and have no gifts to offer your community. You try to comply with the expectations, entering into various dating relationships, but nothing seems to work. Eventually, you reach an age at which your church offers various mixers so adults above a certain age can meet and greet. Pressure from your family mounts. Finally, they have no choice but inform you that you will be entering an arranged marriage in 3 months or face shunning from your faith community.

We know that scenario sounds nuts. It was supposed to sound nuts. But that’s how we imagine churches might behave if they issued a marriage mandate. Minus the bit about entering into an arranged marriage, we know several middle-aged Christians who are single who have felt a ton of pressure from their faith communities to get married. However, instead of presenting marriage as a mandate, many Christian communities spend time talking about what a marriage might look like, how God can bless people through marriage, and what the Church can do and is doing to support families. Christian churches are constantly describing marriage as a possibility for people in their congregation. The ideal of marriage is almost never presented as a mandate, a demand from a holy God, or an oppressive burden.

We think that many LGBT people encountering the Celibacy Mandate live that nightmare scenario as it relates to being celibate. What is most tragic, in our opinion, is that many Christian communities who believe that celibacy is the best vocational choice for LGBT people tend to avoid talking about celibacy as a possibility that can be absolutely life-giving.

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.

Good Luck Charlie, Susan and Cheryl, …and Sarah and Lindsey

Last Sunday night, the Disney Channel made news by including a same-sex couple in an episode of Good Luck Charlie. By Wednesday morning, various organizations such as One Million Moms had succeeded in broadcasting this 1-minute clip across diverse news outlets. More pointedly, by Wednesday morning, the news had hit our Facebook feeds where knee-jerk reactions and commentary reigned supreme. Some of our LGBT friends were celebrating Disney’s inclusiveness, and a good many more of our conservative Christian friends expressed outrage over Disney’s broadcasting “the homosexual lifestyle” into their living rooms.

Because we both value intellectual integrity, our first course of action was to see what Disney actually broadcasted. The 58-second clip shows a dialogue in which Taylor comes over to Charlie’s house for a play date. Our conservative Christian friends were particularly aghast because Taylor has two moms. If, on the off chance you haven’t already seen the clip, we’d encourage you to watch it for yourself:

After watching the clip, Lindsey was especially bemused that conservative Christians were more concerned about the morality of Taylor having two mommies than about the way Amy (Charlie’s mom) seems to belittle and dismiss Bob (Charlie’s dad) at every opportunity. Somehow, it’s perfectly acceptable to Christians that Disney places a laugh reel right after Amy goes after Bob by saying, “Are you sure that I’m right and you’re wrong? Always.” Sarah noted that this clip is nothing more than two parents bringing their child to a play date. The show does not use the words gaylesbian, or sex. Bob resolves his confusion over Taylor’s mom’s name by simply remarking, “Oh! Taylor has two moms.” There are no public displays of affection of any kind, between any characters in the clip.

But, there’s a world of difference between what actually aired on Disney and how conservative Christians have reacted to the event. Yesterday, Sarah’s friends took to filling Sarah’s Facebook inbox with messages after Sarah commented about the event. Sarah received messages like the following: (1) “I love you, but I don’t agree with your lifestyle choice. I just don’t want my daughter exposed to that lifestyle.”; (2) “I have no problem with you gay people, but you shouldn’t get to take over everything even television. It’s not fair to innocent children.”; (3) “I’ve always liked and respected you, Sarah, but putting a gay couple on children’s television is just a ploy to indoctrinate them with liberalism and gay marriage.”; (4) “I don’t agree with homosexuality, period. The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it. Live your life the way you choose, but don’t put it on my kid’s TV show.”; and (5) “Please don’t take this personally. It’s not about about you. I just want my kids to grow up normal, you know? You and Lindsey are celibate. Why should this bother you?”

Why did we take the time to type out some of these messages? We’re not interested in ratting out Sarah’s friends or gaining sympathy for ourselves. We started this blog with the intention of sharing our story, and the things we post here are things that have actually happened. Sure, yesterday’s comments were fueled by reactions to a lesbian couple on a children’s television show. But, comments in the past (and if trends hold, comments in the future) can be triggered by something as simple as walking through a doorway together into a person’s church, family reunion, or living room.

We have an odd sort of situation. If people just meet Sarah, it is very rare that their gaydars ping. The second people see the two of us together, unfortunately it’s all too clear that we are members of the LGBT community. Lindsey has never had an especially strong gender-conforming appearance and, as such, negotiates a good deal of behind-the-back gossip. When we walk into our home parish together and stand together in the front row, we know other parishioners are aware that an LGBT couple stands in their midst.

There’s another odd dynamic at play. To use a Bostonian saying, we’re both wicked smaht. Sarah regularly gets asked to help our friends’ kids and teenagers conjugate Latin verbs, finalize essays, and solve assorted math problems. Lindsey is frequently pinged if a kid ever needs help with math or science homework. And there’s the occasional situation in which Sarah pings Lindsey because Sarah has been assisting with a math homework set that has turned to physics. In these situations, to use an expression of ours, no one gives two figs about our sexual orientations, our gender identities, our relationship status, or our tendency to tag-team when helping kids with diverse problems. To the parents and their children, we become an available combined brain that’s more reliable than Wikipedia and more conversant than Google…. at least when it comes to high schoolers and their homework.

The different dynamics at play remind Lindsey of past experiences in some Christian communities. As soon as Lindsey disclosed anything related to LGBT status, Lindsey was no longer welcome in lay ministry but could warm a pew and could tithe. If you have ever been in that situation personally, we’d venture a guess that you bristled. That reaction is totally normal and totally okay. If you’re a reader who doesn’t understand why that kind of statement might make people bristle, here’s the deal. That statement says, “We’re not interested in getting to know you as a person, but we’ll gladly fill out a receipt for you.” And now, we’re back to Good Luck Charlie. You see, many of the friends who sent Sarah assorted Facebook messages, who don’t want their kids “exposed to the gay lifestyle,” are the same people who send their kids to Sarah (and occasionally Lindsey by proxy) for homework help.

As we’ve shared before, our vocation to celibacy does not make us immune to discrimination. We are just as much members of the LGBT community as people who are currently sexually active or who desire to be sexually active some day. We could very easily be in exactly the same situation as the couple featured in Good Luck Charlie if we were ever to bring a child over to another child’s house to play. Enabling two children to play together is, fundamentally, an act that invites relationship rather than the exchanging of services. When our friends tell us that they don’t want a gay couple broadcast into their living room by television, we immediately question whether we would even want to visit their house for dinner. After all, if a person is threatened by a 58-second display of another’s humanity, how could we possibly feel comfortable being present for 58 minutes to eat dinner… or 30 minutes to play a board game… or 3 days to help them recoup from surgery… or… or… or… The activities people share when they are honestly in relationship with each other are myriad and endless.

It’s especially challenging when so many people who are reacting to the seemingly benign relational exchange in Good Luck Charlie begin their reactions with “I like you and I respect you, but…” We find it incredible that, for some people, the only time they will utter the words, “I like you” in our general direction will be before they issue a scathing critique of our way of life. Are they really rejecting our commitment to radical hospitality that spurs us to be available when their kids need help with their homework? Do they object to our commitment to eat dinner together every night barring truly extraordinary circumstances? Do they want to pathologize our relationship with Christ and with our church family? How could it be that, even though we generally open our lives up to those around us, these “friends” have seen nothing worth praising or viewing as positive?

Sometimes it seems that where many straight, conservative Christians are concerned, LGBT couples have so many strikes against us before ever setting foot in the door. We can only say, “Good luck, Susan and Cheryl. Thanks for your courage in searching for suitable playmate for Taylor.”

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 if you just went to an Open and Affirming church?”

We regularly receive questions from people asking us whether we have considered attending an Open and Affirming Church instead of our current home parish. These questions have increased as we shared our “10 Things We Wish Our Church Family Knew” post because many people were mystified as to why we would remain in a church community in which any of those concerns are present. Some people have asked us the question because they know we live in a large city where it’s easy to find a church that has adopted an official stance as an Open and Affirming Church. [We know the specific language that church communities can use to indicate a high degree of acceptance of LGBT people varies across different Christian traditions, but for simplicity we’re going to run with the term “Open and Affirming” throughout this post.]

Yet, we do not feel particularly welcome or safe at Open and Affirming Churches either. Our goal in this post is not to critique Open and Affirming Churches. We are grateful for all of the work of so many Open and Affirming Churches do to provide sanctuary to LGBT Christians and those who love them. Our goal in this post is to highlight some of the shortcomings we see with the question “What if you just went to an Open and Affirming church?”

It is important to remember that churches who decide to become Open and Affirming also have statements regarding other theologically important issues. Even though we are members of the LGBT community, we do not regard how a church approaches LGBT people as the single most important of all theological issues. We are not saying that approaches to LGBT people don’t matter. After all, we found it critical to point out areas in which our own parish community falls short when it comes to accepting us as a couple. But to put it succinctly, we are not comfortable selecting a church or, more broadly, a type of Christian tradition based upon its teachings on LGBT issues when we are more concerned with its theological views on Christology, salvation, scripture, grace, and sacraments, to name a few. Responding to our concerns about our current parish with, “What if you just went to an Open and Affirming church?” implies that we should be able to forgo all other theological concerns for the sake of being in a church where people would support the presence of an LGBT couple. We understand and respect that many LGBT individuals and couples do make the the decision to leave more conservative traditions for Open and Affirming churches, and we do not wish to make light of that decision. Experiencing constant rejection is incredibly painful. Many LGBT Christians have been able to find Open and Affirming churches that embrace teachings they consider theologically sound. Different people find diverse ways of balancing the need for acceptance in a local parish with the need for a particular theological approach. All we ask is that others who reach different conclusions than ours on this issue respect our decision to remain in our current parish and our Christian tradition instead of leave.

We are both of a very firm conviction that being in the Church is supposed to be challenging. We believe that the Church envisioned by Jesus Christ is a place where absolutely everyone has the opportunity to connect with Him. What Christ calls us to is not supposed to be easy. We doubt that His vision for the Church included its members gathering in segregated rooms, each of us choosing the room where everyone looks like us, agrees with us, and enjoys the same music we do. The question “Why don’t you just find an Open and Affirming church?” suggests that the best course of action is for us is to forsake trying to be Church with our current congregation in order to find another community where we would be welcomed as an LGBT Christian couple. Every person in our current parish, even the ones capable of making extremely unkind remarks about LGBT people and issues, challenges us to be better Christians. We are doing our best to journey with this current parish as long as we are geographically able. We are very careful to consider what might be necessary reasons to change churches. We are skeptical of the idea that a person is obligated to move to a different church because of conflict with other members. Some of the coolest stories we know have come from situations where an LGBT person was committed to doing life within one church community that previously had no positive experience with LGBT issues. At the Gay Christian Network Conference in Chicago, we heard of a church who decided to break fellowship with their denomination rather than deny a lesbian couple membership. That sort of story cannot happen if people are constantly hopping around churches.

And, if we’re really honest (and hey, we do believe in vulnerability), then we need to say that we do not feel especially welcome in Open and Affirming churches either. The Gay Christian Network has connected us with fantastic, fabulous, and generally wonderful LGBT Christians. Every year, GCN hosts a conference where we gather as an incredibly diverse group and do our best to show Christ to one another. In a way, it is like attending our own Open and Affirming church once a year. A very large percentage of conference attendees are lay members or clergy within various Open and Affirming churches. However, despite knowing and loving these people for a very long time, we have seen that many of our friends from Open and Affirming churches have an odd way of balking at the idea that we have a vocation to celibacy. We often get questions like, “Don’t you know that Jesus will still love you if you have sex?” or “Are you still recovering from your time in ex-gay ministry?” We also get statements like, “Let us know how celibacy is working out for you in 5 years.” or “You really have a great way of glorifying the fact that you hate yourself.” When we try to share our personal struggles with these friends, we occasionally hear things like “I’m sure I’d have trouble believing God loved me if I thought I could never have sex,” and “Of course you’re struggling in areas of your life. You are so sexually repressed.” It seems to us that many Open and Affirming churches have a “zone of acceptability” for what constitutes a valid LGBT relationship; since we are not sexually active, we find ourselves outside of that zone. It’s worth saying that, at this current juncture, we have had more critical questions about our lack of a sex life from people with a liberal sexual ethic than we have had biting statements about our relationship from people with a conservative sexual ethic.

We have noticed that positive change happens slowly and surely. Even in our own parish, we have seen positive change. It is clear that a lot this change has happened through various people who love us sitting down and having a cup of coffee with other people who have been immensely challenged by our presence. Both of us have also seen this kind of change in other parishes that we attended before the beginning of our relationship. We would venture a guess that virtually every church has at least one person or family willing to get to know an LGBT individual as a real person in order to try and share life together. While these friends might be precious and few, they are also the same people who show interest in getting to know just about every other person in the church community. When we have shared stories about how Helen has made us feel a bit unwelcome in the parish with our close friends, nine times out of ten our close friends will make a point to talk a bit more with Helen. Those conversations make a huge difference. Additionally, we are our own best advocates when we go to church to encounter Christ, to pray, and to participate in the life of His Church. We should never discount the power of quiet fidelity.

In summary, we are exceptionally grateful for all our friends committed to walking on this journey with us. Sometimes, the best way to support us on our journey is to listen. There is power in being heard. The question, “Why don’t you just find an Open and Affirming church?” is much more seeking a solution for a perceived problem. We hope this post has been beneficial in helping you to understand how that particular solution carries with it its own difficulties.

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.

The Good Gays and the Bad Gays

A reflection by Sarah

About a week ago, two members of my family, whom I’ll call George and Ann, had been reading our blog and decided to ask me some questions. George, who at one time believed many conservative Christian stereotypes about LGBT people, now holds to a much more liberal perspective on the morality of same-sex sexual activity. His wife Ann has always believed in a traditional Christian sexual ethic, not only where LGBT people are concerned, but also for heterosexuals. At one time, Ann also believed that homosexuality is a choice, but I’m unclear on whether or not she still believes this. Regardless, both George and Ann like Lindsey as a person and want to be involved in our lives.

With the exception of the season of life when I was discerning the possibility of a monastic vocation, neither George nor Ann had ever heard me mention celibacy before, so they had many queries. The two major ones were: “Do you and Lindsey feel called to this way of life until marriage, or in perpetuity?” and “Why have you never mentioned this to us?” I answered the first by stating that we believe God has called us to lifelong celibacy as a couple. The second question was a bit more awkward. I didn’t see any reason for us ever to have needed to clarify that Lindsey and I are celibate. It’s not exactly the way you introduce your partner to your loved ones, and no one ever expects relatives in sexually active relationships to announce their status as such at the family Christmas dinner. I wondered why it mattered to George and Ann. In terms of respecting our dignity as human beings, what difference would it make to any member of my family what Lindsey and I do or don’t do in our private lives? If any other couple told me that they felt called to live celibacy together, I couldn’t imagine myself asking why they hadn’t mentioned it earlier. A few moments later in the conversation, Ann dropped the bomb that I had been afraid was on its way: “If I had known, I would have felt differently about my decision not to let you stay in our guest room when you came to visit.” 

I bristled. The tone in my voice changed to defensive. A minor argument ensued. New questions popped back and forth between us like popcorn kernels in a skillet. As much as I respect Ann’s right to set her own rules for her own household, her statement struck me as ill-placed; it indicated to me that simply because I’m gay, she had made an assumption about my level of sexual activity, and now, she was making new assumptions because of my celibacy. Feeling that this was incredibly unfair, I noticed the initial, knee-jerk reactions that were flooding my thoughts. If she had known we were celibate, that would have changed her mind about the arrangements for our visit? Based on her previous assumption that we were sexually active, what would she have expected to happen during our visit? Gay sex in the guest room? Does she think sexually active gay people do nothing but have sex every time they’re behind closed doors? Was I really hearing that Ann was prepared to treat me differently than she had in the past, but only because she had learned about my celibacy? Ann could tell that her statement had offended me, and she apologized for the offense. But what bothered me most was that neither liberal George nor conservative Ann wanted to talk about why I had found Ann’s statement inappropriate. Both knew that Ann hadn’t intended to offend me, and I knew it too. But that wasn’t the point. I attempted, quite unsuccessfully, to explain my perspective: that my decision to blog with Lindsey about our celibate partnership ought to have no effect on the level of hospitality family members are willing to show us, and we understand and respect that Ann might not be comfortable having any two unmarried people stay together in her guest room, but it’s hurtful to know she would consider welcoming us to stay overnight in the guest room only now that she doesn’t have to worry about “condoning sin.”

Though we eventually resolved the issue, this situation is a relatively mild example from the many occasions on which I have been viewed as a different kind of gay person once someone in my life has found out about my celibacy. I’ve experienced both conservative friends treating me more kindly and liberal friends distancing themselves from me after learning this piece of information. I’ve been told that I am brave, self-sacrificing, and faithful for choosing celibacy. I’ve also been told that I’m a person of dubious intentions who represents everything that is wrong with traditional Christianity. It’s amazing how easily interpersonal relationships can take a sharp left turn because of assumptions about what a person does or doesn’t do with his or her genitals.

Western Christian culture has a tendency to use legalistic approaches when defining morality. To many modern lay Christians, a “bad” person is bad solely because of his or her engagement in certain sinful behaviors, and conversely, a “good” person is good because of the avoidance of those same behaviors. When the legalistic mindset is taken to the extreme, vocation becomes defined in the negative: being a sexually moral single means not having sex until marriage, or not having sex at all if one remains single permanently. Being a sexually moral married person means not having sex with anyone except one’s spouse, and in some Christian traditions, avoiding inappropriate sexual activity (e.g. oral sex, use of contraceptives) with one’s spouse. In this way of thinking, a “good” gay person doesn’t have sex, and a “bad” gay person does. Many Christians also believe that simply identifying as gay means one is having sex, and being with a partner certainly means this. It’s the default assumption, and it influences the way straight Christians treat LGBT people, both celibate and sexually active. A “good” gay person is worthy of love, welcome, and hospitality, but only if he or she makes his or her celibacy known to the world. A “bad” gay person is worthy of love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin-style admonishment, frequent reminders of Christian religious beliefs about gay sex, and the message, “You would be welcome here if only you would be celibate (or choose to become straight).”

Just don’t do the wrong things and we’ll accept you. Just don’t behave badly and we’ll never have to tell you our moral convictions. Just don’t sin and I’ll welcome you to sleep under my roof. As I see it, all of this amounts to: “Just don’t be human and the rest of us sanctified beings will leave you alone.” I do not wish to downplay the importance of morality in the Christian life or the significance of the big questions in sexual ethics. Furthermore, I do not wish to imply that we should all become moral relativists with no absolutes, or that the Church would be a better place if it adopted a laissez faire, “whatever floats your boat” attitude regarding sex. But sometimes I wonder how we got to a place at which members of the Church are more concerned with monitoring for the presence of sinful behavior than walking alongside and helping each other to work out our salvation.

Before my baptism, I was heathen as any human child born into this world. The Church is a hospital for sinners, and I fit the bill just as much as any soul who walks through the doors on Sunday morning. I am not a saint, a martyr, a courageous witness, a shining exemplar, or–yes, I’ll say it–an idol because I am celibate. Taking a peek under the hood of my soul would reveal, I imagine, that I struggle with just as many sinful passions as the next person–gay or straight, sexually active or celibate. I refuse to define my life as a celibate, gay Christian by whether or not I follow a set of mechanical criteria for what counts as sex. Celebrating the heroism of celibate gays while demeaning and vilifying those who are sexually active (and those who say nothing to indicate sexual activity status) is a dangerous business, and I believe it is contrary to the Gospel. To my mind, there are no “good” gays and “bad” gays. There are only people–sinners, all of us. And saying so is not the same as sugarcoating the reality of sin or dismissing the wisdom and teachings of the Church. While it does matter theologically and philosophically what conclusions we reach on tough ethical questions, a person’s behavior–what it actually is or what we presume it to be–should have no bearing on our decision to treat him or her with dignity and respect.

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.

7 Misconceptions about Celibacy

Since starting this blog, we’ve become even more aware than we already were of how other people can misunderstand the celibate vocation. Many people have never heard of a person living a celibate life unless that person is a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. As readers have been engaging with our various posts via comments and email, it has been suggested that we must be caving to religious oppression, that we are glorifying “lesbian bed death,” and that we are fooling ourselves into thinking that we are not actually living in sin…. to name a few. We understand that the call to live a celibate life in a partnership is indeed a queer calling. We knew from the beginning that people would have questions and misgivings.

We have already taken some time to answer the question, “Why celibacy?” and have made our first attempt at defining celibacy. Lindsey also talked about why defining celibacy as merely avoiding sexual acts is especially problematic. We think it would be helpful at this point to discuss some of the most common misconceptions about celibacy. Our intention in this post is to give a brief overview of these different misconceptions based on our personal experiences of celibacy, and we’ll likely expound upon these ideas further in future posts. Some of these myths have overlapping features, so please consider reading the post in its entirety as we tried to avoid repeating ourselves.

1. Celibate people deny their sexualities.

There are two main ways that celibate people treat their sexualities. Some celibate people do actively try to cut themselves off from sexual desire, treating all forms of sexual attraction and interest as a temptation that ought to be resisted. Other celibate people work to integrate their sexualities within their broader self-understandings. When a celibate person is integrating his or her sexuality, that individual can more readily embrace moments of attraction. Attraction becomes a useful orientating tool where God connects a celibate person to other people, to professional pursuits, to times of spiritual growth, or to opportunities for recreation. Both the specific instant of attraction and the underlying sexual orientation and gender identity that fuels attraction are treated as a great mystery, wherein God orchestrates the diverse relationships that enable a celibate person to live a richly connected life.

Both of us tend to be very outspoken when advocating for celibate people to pursue a pathway of integrating their sexualities. We have known far too many people harmed by the more surgical approaches, and we grieve deeply that so many “ministries” have encouraged LGBT people to adopt an approach of trying to excise their sexualities altogether.

2. Celibate people are only celibate because of oppressive, conservative religion.

We can definitely appreciate that some people feel forced into celibacy because of their religious convictions. However, nothing could be further from the truth for many celibate people. Often, celibate people who have chosen celibacy because of religious convictions feel that this decision is exceptionally life-giving. We plan to address the topic of involuntary, forced celibacy in a future post. Taking a brief look at history, we can see that religion has created pathways that allowed people (especially women) to choose to live celibate lives. It used to happen that families would marry off their daughters in arranged marriages. The rise of celibate communities gave an alternative to that reality. We may get back to that point in a future post as well. This particular misconception about celibacy also downplays the reasons why people might choose to live celibate lives. Many celibate people we have met report choosing celibacy because a celibate life has enabled them to love and serve the world differently than if they were married. They wanted that different way of life.

3. Celibacy is unnatural.

This misconception is quite paradoxical because it assumes that a “natural” vocation necessarily involves sex. It is sometimes pointed out to us that celibate communities cannot reproduce, eventually die off completely, and are therefore living exactly the opposite of how nature intended. One of the most common examples of this is the Shakers, who were once a thriving community of unmarried men, unmarried women, and adopted children, but have vanished almost completely in the modern world.

The claim celibacy is unnatural places the natural order of reproduction as humanity’s highest concern. However, a population of people cannot die off because a fraction of people are called to live celibate lives. If a person places an emphasis on the “natural” order of reproduction to decide what sort of relationships are permissible, then we’d like to know if and how they think about contraception and sexually active same-sex relationships. We would especially like to challenge those people who use a liberal sexual ethic to say that celibacy is unnatural because, all too frequently, many people holding a more conservative sexual ethic are quick to decry sexually active same-sex relationships as unnatural. We would venture a guess that many who dismiss celibacy on the basis of its “unnaturalness” would not say the same about homosexuality.

4. A loving God would not ask people to be celibate.

Many people, both Christians and critics of Christianity, have somehow adopted the notion that if a person feels called by God to be celibate, then that call is inherently oppressive. A lot of people think that God’s calls come in the form, “If you don’t do (insert kind of call here), then you’ll die.” In this paradigm, everything God might call a person to do would be experienced as oppression.

In particular, once people start talking about a call to celibacy, some also seem to conflate understandings of different kinds of love. Some assume that a celibate person is incapable of experiencing and expressing eros and simultaneously neglect how God might provide opportunities for experiencing and expressing agape within the context of celibacy. These people conclude that because celibacy does not provide an outlet to express eros, then a God who is love would never call a person to a celibate vocation…. or that God only calls people to a celibate vocation if those people are not particularly inclined towards eros.

However, God has infinite perspective on what will bring abundant life to every person who finds himself or herself in Christ. With regard to those living a celibate vocation, many celibate people experience a profound sense of loving connection to the world. Elder Porphyrious devotes an entire chapter in his book Wounded by Love (so named in honor of the mythical pelican who pierces herself in order to nurture her young) to the experience of Divine eros. One way the two of us think about the role of eros in the celibate life is that the Divine eros overflows and makes radical hospitality possible.

5. Celibate people are afraid of sexual intimacy.

While this misconception is not without basis because some celibate people do become so in order to avoid having sex, the majority of celibate people are not afraid of sexual intimacy. Based upon when and where we frequently hear this objection to celibacy, we think that most people who promulgate this particular misconception are sexually active themselves and do not have personal experience with living a celibate vocation. Some sexually active people may see their sexual lives as adding a necessary spark to other aspects of their lives and will go to great lengths to preserve their ability to have and enjoy sex. When a person is making a significant investment in preserving his or her sexual life, then the presence of a celibate person could be perceived as threatening.

Many organizations that are a part of the ex-gay movement also rely on this myth to challenge an LGBT person’s statement of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Ex-gay organizations can be quick to say that gay people are simply afraid of having sex with a person of the opposite sex, gay people are trying to cope with a history of traumatic sexual experiences, and gay people are unable to deal with having experienced other types of negative sexual encounters.

At this juncture, we think it’s worth mentioning that celibate people choose to become celibate at different stages in their lives. Part of the misconception that celibate people are afraid of sex comes from the assumption that all celibate people are virgins. This assumption simply does not hold true when considered against verifiable evidence. Many people choose celibacy much later in life than many people might expect. For example, there is a well-established tradition of widows and widowers embracing a celibate, monastic life after their spouses repose.

6. Celibate people judge sexually active people.

People choose celibacy for a plethora of reasons. Those reasons may or may not include the idea that sexual activity (same-sex or otherwise) is inappropriate. Even if a person’s choice to embrace celibacy is partly motivated by a belief that sexual activity is inappropriate, that does not mean he or she is intrinsically judging another’s sexually active relationship. Many celibate people affirm the role that marriage can play in drawing people towards God and towards a holy way of living.

7. Celibate people are asexual or have low sex drives. For such people, celibacy is easy.

This misconception actively defines celibacy as merely the absence of sex. People who share this misconception are often looking for some sort of mechanism that makes it possible for an individual to live life without having sex, which many believe to be an impossible reality. However, this misconception makes a blanket assumption about the kind of person who chooses celibacy without being informed by the experience of celibate people. As we have talked with many different monastics about the intersection of celibacy and sexuality, almost all of them have remarked that they expect to navigate various kinds of sexual attractions and desires until they have been lying in their grave for a few days.

Both of us know a significant number of people trying to live celibate lives. At our recent workshop at the Gay Christian Network Conference, all of our nearly forty attendees agreed that celibacy is hard. We think it’s worth pointing out that most people we know who feel especially called and gifted towards marriage would be equally inclined to say that marriage is hard.

In conclusion, we’ve tried to expound a bit on 7 misconceptions about celibacy and explain why they are misconceptions. We hope this post was helpful for you in thinking about celibacy and encourage you to share your reactions, questions, and feedback in the comments. We appreciate your readership!

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