Expectations of Perfection

As LGBT Christians in our late 20s and early 30s, we’ve seen many differences in the way people are urged to develop healthy senses of sexuality. Throughout our own journeys in uniting faith and sexuality, we’ve observed time and time again the way many Christian traditions assert that if an LGBT person is sincerely a Christian, then he or she simply will not make any mistakes in the area of sexual morality. This line of thought might come from a belief that it’s adequate to tell a faithful, LGBT Christian to avoid every appearance of evil and give no further counsel.

Why might cisgender, heterosexual Christians expect LGBT Christians to be perfect? Perhaps these expectations come from cisgender, heterosexual Christians trying to get their heads around the idea that “Yes, it is possible to be a gay Christian.” People willing to extend a gay person the benefit of the doubt at times draw what seems to be a razor-thin line that differentiates the “good” gays from the “bad” gays. “Good” gays don’t have sex. When some conservative Christians draw these lines, anything less than perfect abstinence falls short and is understood as evidence that the Holy Spirit is not at work in the life of that gay “Christian.” Here, we see indications of a bit of neo-Pelagianism creeping into the forefront: a faithful gay Christian should be able to provide ample evidence of faithfulness because that person is capable of reigning in his/her sexual energies.

An unhealthy obsession with perfection enters because the LGBT person trying to live a faithful life in the Church zooms in on doing whatever it takes to prevent sexual sin, no matter how extreme. This kind of expectation puts insurmountable pressures on LGBT Christians and leads many of them down the road of questioning their commitment to Christ, their suitability to be in a church community, and their right to continue to draw air. LGBT Christians live on a spiritual fault line where one action has the potential to separate them from the Church. The expectation of perfection creates indescribable fear where they can become terrified to talk with their spiritual mentors, dreading interactions as one would dread a terrorist attack. LGBT Christians can develop practices of rehearsing their parts of the conversation when approaching spiritual direction, if they go at all.

To cope with this pressure, LGBT Christians can acquire a lexicon of various code-switching phrases to try to discuss sexuality safely… but may consistently feel under attack when a member of the clergy decides to read more into that choice of words than the person intended. For example, if the LGBT Christian is talking about concerns involving a close friend, some spiritual directors might assume the person has a sexually active relationship without ever asking if this is the case. Additionally, we’ve noticed that many spiritual directors are more comfortable with particular lexicons. These spiritual directors might encourage people to say they “experience same-sex attraction” rather than saying that they are “gay” or “lesbian,” sometimes going so far as to tell them, “Identifying as ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ is denouncing your identity in Christ!”

Expectations of perfection may also emerge because many providers of pastoral care tend to view sexual sin as a type of sin that is around forever and must always be carefully contained. Some of this attitude may stem from how Christian traditions emphasize purity and virginity, especially when encouraging youth to wait until marriage before having sex. Any sexual sin in an LGBT person’s life can lead to extreme consequences within his/her faith community. Once as a young college student, Sarah sought counsel from a priest about how to develop a healthy relationship with a woman after they had experimented with some above-the-waist touching. The priest provided a stern directive that Sarah should never speak to this woman ever again and avoid her in every situation possible because Sarah’s salvation was at risk. Within the same week, one of Sarah’s heterosexual male friends sought advice from the same priest after engaging in sexual intercourse with his girlfriend. Sarah’s friend later told Sarah that the priest’s counsel was simply, “Obey the Church’s teaching that sex is reserved for marriage, and avoid situations like this one with your girlfriend in the future.” When LGBT people have spiritual directors bellowing over them that failure to be perfect endangers their salvation, it should come as no surprise that LGBT Christians can become so focused on trying to be perfect that they begin to hate themselves for being human.

Cisgender, heterosexual people can (and should!) encounter a lot of grace in navigating questions around sexuality, gender identity, and gender expression. Most LGBT Christians are not so fortunate. Part of adolescence involves exploring, finding yourself, and figuring out how to get up when you fall down. No one expects a teenager to have instant control over the hormones raging through his or her body, and everyone can acknowledge the need for gracious support as young adults work to discover themselves in Christ. There’s a certain collection of behaviors that we tend to associate with people at different stages in sexual development. It’s good to match our words of advice with a healthy understanding of a particular person’s likely stage in sexual development. LGBT people need to be afforded the same courtesy as cisgender, heterosexual people. To expect LGBT Christians to prove their faithfulness over and over and over (and over….) again by remaining without sexual sin is to tie up heavy burdens on people without any willingness to lift a finger to help them manage the load.

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.