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.

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21 thoughts on “The Good Gays and the Bad Gays

    • Thanks for the comment, Julia. Glad you enjoyed the post. I wrote the initial draft in a frenzy of emotion immediately following the interaction I described in the opening paragraphs. I wasn’t exactly sure of how articulate it would sound! But I’m loving the fact that everyday life experiences are providing us with lots of topics to address. Hope to see you in the comments section again! -Sarah

  1. It is extremely difficult to shake almost 1500 years of behaviorally based moral theology! I still find it all too often in my own thoughts about “good” and “eeeeevul”! But, I have made some progress in my own wandering mind in considering it to be more about relationship with God than it is whether I dotted all the tittles correctly. As a seventh grade catechist, I am finding that the paradigm is being shifted, but it will take time, probably more than I have on this Earth (and the next too, after I travel in space!).

    • Thanks once again for your thoughts, Ed. I agree that it will likely take a long time for the paradigm to shift. I’m glad to hear that it seems to be happening somewhat, at least where your kids in catechesis are concerned. -Sarah

  2. 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.

    I hear you. I find it really hard not to laugh sometimes at how desperately my fellow Christians seem to need to let other people know exactly what they think of them. Whenever these sort of issues come up, from pre marital sex to abortion to gay marriage, the most important question always seems to be ‘yes yes but how can I make it clear I don’t agree with what they’re doing?’ (because that’s what my non-Christian friends regularly complain about – Christians being too open minded and just a bit too accepting) which does nothing to shake off our reputation as a load of busy body moralists!

    On the other hand… it is tough because whilst there is a huge emphasis on personal holiness within Christianity, there are not many concrete examples of how to live it (and plenty that are wholly contradictory). Many Christians not only believe that they are to personally refrain from sin, but they cannot enable sin in any way – hence why some advocate for welfare states, others for being allowed to discriminate against gay couples seeking a service for their wedding/blessing etc etc – which is probably where a lot of the anti-sin brigade behaviour comes from. In the UK there was a case where a Christian couple who owned a B&B, refused to allow a gay couple to share the same room – they would argue that they were treating the visiting couple with dignity and respect according to a Christian ideal whilst the gay couple would (and did) argue otherwise. On this particular issue, the problem is that what it means to treat people with dignity and respect isn’t always clear. One person’s vision of respect can be quite different from anothers and I’m beginning to wonder how this can be reconciled, if at all.

    • And I don’t mean to be contrarian – I really liked the post – it’s just something I’ve been pondering having experienced a bit of bruising in a rather boring discussion about gay marriage and celibacy on youtube.

      • No need to be apologetic. You’ve shared some great thoughts. 🙂

        I think there are several things to take into consideration in any situation that involves differences of opinion regarding what is respectful behavior toward another person and what is not. My own opinion related to the story I shared in the opening of this piece: I wasn’t so much offended that the family member hadn’t wanted to let us stay in the guest room. It’s her house, so it’s her choice…whether I agree with it or not. What I found offensive was that after she found out about my celibacy, she felt differently about what she had previously said about the guest room. This tells me that–whether she acknowledged it consciously or not–her objection to the idea of Lindsey’s and my staying in the guest room was that she didn’t want to condone gay sex taking place under her roof and/or be seen supporting a sexually active gay relationship. The logical conclusion is that she made a judgment about me based on her assumptions about my sexual activity status, and *that* is what, in my opinion, shows the greatest lack of respect. It’s the same reason I find it offensive that conservative friends who previously vilified me for being gay sometimes glorify my celibacy, and liberal friends who previously admired me for being openly gay sometimes speak negatively of me now that they know I’m celibate. So the main point of this was not meant to be, “It’s unfair that we didn’t get to stay in the guest room.” It was meant to be, “The assumptions straight people make about the sexual activity status of gay people–one way or the other–very often end up affecting the way they treat gay people, and this isn’t very respectful.”

        I hope that helps, and I totally understand the concern about different people having different ideas of what it means to treat a person with respect. I might address this topic again from a different angle in a future post.

        Sarah

        • Ah, I understand much better now and I totally agree – I think when one is gay and celibate and a Christian, it does contribute to the feeling of being between a rock and a hard place. Thanks for clarifying – it’s also an important reminder to those of us who are celibate about we might be tempted to judge those who aren’t.

  3. I sit here thinking of my 15 year old who has known she was “different” since she was 7. Yes, there are no “good” or “bad” gays. There are simply beautiful, brilliant, children of God. There are also moms, and dads, and other folk who don’t aways see how we really just don’t get it.

  4. I appreciate your feelings, and certainly it is faithfulness to the Gospel to have an instinctive abhorrence at any categorization of people in “good” and “bad” slots. We are certainly all sinners unqualified to judge other people, and we are all beloved children of the Living God.

    With that being said, I do think you are being somewhat unfair here.

    First of all, it does seem a little unrealistic to blame someone for assuming that two people who live together are sexually active with each other. I mean, come on. That’s just the way the world is. It’s not to make a moral judgement or appreciation to say that your life situation is, from a purely statistical perspective, highly unusual.

    Second of all, praising someone for choosing to live a chaste life–which I do believe to be praiseworthy, as the Gospel itself says–does not in any way, by itself, entail “demeaning and vilifying” those who do not.

    Third of all, while, yes, we are all sinners in need of mercy and unqualified to pass judgement on others, there is such a thing as “living in sin”, that is to say to make life choices that are contrary to what the Gospel tells us God wants for us. It is a betrayal of the Gospel to say so-and-so lives in sin therefore they’re a bad person and I don’t therefore I’m a good person, but there is nonetheless a difference between living in a state of sin and living in a state that is not sinful, even not “living in sin” doesn’t make you any less a sinner. In 1 Cor 5 Paul orders the exclusion from table fellowship of a member of the Church who lives in a state of sexual sin, “for the mortification of the flesh”, that is to say as a medicinal measure and a ‘wake up call’ so that this person will repent and return to table fellowship, not as a pharisaical statement of moral superiority. The point isn’t that all sexually active LGBT people should be excommunicated. But nonetheless, the Gospel clearly assigns value and social consequences to making life choices contrary to God’s will.

    For myself, if my daughter is unmarried and has a boyfriend, you bet I won’t let them stay in the same room under my roof, regardless of what they get up to outside. But then again, if my daughter was in a committed, unchaste relationship with another woman, I’m not sure what I would do–after a point, assigning them separate beds would just be hypocritical, and maybe even insulting. But this reflection seems to me to point to the fact that this is a domain where there are gray areas, where it’s easier to screw up, and where therefore we should cut each other some slack.

    • I understand what you’re saying, but I’m going to push back a bit here. I don’t think I’m being at all unfair.

      Of course many people will assume that two folks who live together are sexually active. However, that doesn’t make it right or okay for the person to hold that assumption, and that doesn’t mean it’s wrong for me to challenge it. I’ve found myself in other types of life situations where I’ve made understandable assumptions about other people. But as understandable as those assumptions may have been, I’m glad that I was corrected and told about how my words caused others to feel.

      Praising someone for living a celibate way of life *is* a good thing. But there are different ways of doing it, and some of them do vilify others. I can appreciate, “I’m glad you’ve chosen a celibate vocation, and I believe it’s the right thing to do in your situation.” But I have a problem with, “You’re an amazing beacon of light for all those other queers who are in the process of sending themselves to hell.” The latter is not an exact quote, but it’s pretty close to something I was once told by an acquaintance.

      Regarding who should or shouldn’t be excommunicated, I’d rather leave that decision between the person in question and his or her spiritual father. This should not be an item of discussion for the laity about an individual within the parish.

      I’m a lot more inclined to cut people some slack on this issue when they’re willing to do the same for me. When people aren’t willing to see me as a regular human being as opposed to “someone who sins more than everyone else” or “a saintly example” (I’ve heard that one too), that’s when we have problems. In my experience, LGBT folks are asked to cut people some slack much more often that straight folks are willing to do the same for us.

      Sarah

      • I’ll have to admit, my first thought was the one that this gentleman initially put. When two people are living together and are seen as a “couple” (rather than just legitimate housemates), the completely normal view is that they are having sex. I definitely see the other side of this, in that we’re making assumptions, but they are assumptions based on a pretty large data set. I’ve lived with guys, and I’ve had guy housemates, and when the guy was my partner, it never would have occurred to us, when we were living together, that we would be celibate. Otherwise, why bother?

        I think you and your partner should be able to live your lives any way you wish, but to a great many people, your insistence that you are a couple that lives together, but you’re “not having sex” is going to be seen as disingenuous. Maybe that’s wrong, and we need to have a broader outlook about the nature of relationships and the role of sex in them.

        Much food for thought here. I enjoyed this post, and I’ll be back. Thank you.

        • The point you raise is one reason I see such a need to challenge assumptions. What good does it do to let assumptions about unmarried people who live together go unchallenged? To my way of thinking, sitting by and saying “It’s okay that this is what people usually think” is enabling the sins of others. We’re eel aware that some people see us as disingenuous, but that’s really not our problem. Anytime someone assumes that another person is committing sin and spends time ruminating and judging without even knowing the real situation, he himself is sinning. That’s one of the points I was hoping to make in this post. On one level, it’s understandable that people think certain things because of social norms. But on another level, I wonder why some people consider this particular social norm unchallengeable. Not sure if any of that made sense…I’m feeling a bit off today health-wise, and I apologize in advance if this didn’t come off as I intended. Glad you enjoyed the post, and we hope to see you here again! -Sarah

          • Can you unpack how this lack of assumption would be applied to all human encounters? Also, I would love to hear reflections on how to encourage each other to live out faithfulness in areas of common human temptation.

          • Hi Sam, Lindsey here. Sarah’s been having some difficult health problems and hasn’t had as much bandwidth to respond to comments.

            People make all sorts of assumptions about why other folks do certain things. I’ve had to learn to check myself and make friends with the question mark. I have noticed that negative judgments rise up in me when I honestly haven’t taken the time to ask the person any questions. Discerning what questions to ask is a bit of an art because a question can honestly desire the answer or be an effort to justify my existing judgment. Think about a person who enters into a public place wearing a coat that is clearly two or three sizes too small. If you’re like me, a litany of questions run through your head. Reflecting even for half a second on the questions that pop into my head, I realize that most are clearly inappropriate and laden with assumptions. It’s really hard to get to know the person wearing the coat as a person. However, we’re called to do just that.

    • We’re glad you’re finding out posts helpful. Please let us know if there’s anything you would like to see us address. Hope to see you in the comment box again :). -Sarah

  5. To those who think they have an obligation to assess and correct sinfulness in other people’s lives, I recommend a novel by Alice McDermott, “Someone.” This story of a woman growing up in a an Irish Catholic neighborhood in Brooklyn in the 1940s and living there as a mother well into her 70s is rich in revelations about wrong judgments people make –one small example among many more destructive ones being the vignette about women neighbors who assumed that a friend was an alcoholic (and prayed in for her recovery) since, while walking to church with her child, she always stopped at a nearby store and bought mints. Only much later did the main character find out that this woman purchased the mints so she could receive change at the checkout counter, which she then gave to her child in order to provide her with with something to drop in he collection basket. She was teaching her child about genuine care and responsibility for others, whie the neighbors were succumbing to a far more serious “sin” (I’m trying hard not to judge them!) than alcoholism or most behaviors related to sex. As part of her fictional story, McDermott portrays judgments about homosexuality that have a devastating effect from childhood all the way through life in the central character’s family.

    • P.S. Forgot to mention: the great irony of the book is that even the reader is invited (tricked? Tempted?) to make judgments, or at least guesses, regarding the sexual orientation of one of the major characters.

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