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.
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