Whose story counts, anyway?

A reflection by Sarah

In semesters when World Religions is part of my teaching load, the question “Who has the right to claim a particular religion as his/her own?” emerges regularly. When it does, students are always quick to draw lines regarding who should and shouldn’t be allowed to identify with one religion or another. My Muslim students insist that the terrorists who planned and carried out the attacks on September 11, 2001 weren’t truly following Islam. Likewise, my Christian students passionately declare that members of Westboro Baptist Church and the Ku Klux Klan aren’t true Christians. One student will assert, “Only people who follow the teachings of [holy text] are the real followers of [religion],” and the others begin nodding vigorously. I’ll ask my usual follow-up: “Who determines how to interpret [holy text] properly?” For the better portion of the class period, we’ll discuss who has ownership of certain religious texts and terms. Can Mormons rightly claim the label “Christian” while believing that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist as three separate personages rather than an undivided Holy Trinity? Is it appropriate for a white American who has never visited India and has no Indian heritage to become a self-proclaimed Hindu? What are the boundaries of these terms, and who gets to decide in the first place?

On the day this discussion arises, each semester, without fail, I spend my evening commute pondering an unrelated, yet similar question: who has the right to claim the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, genderqueer, and so forth? Whose story counts as a legitimate expression of an LGBT experience? This question may appear unnecessary, even ridiculous. On some level, I’m inclined to believe that it is both. But nevertheless, I feel the need to ask it.

Over the years since coming out, I’ve experienced a lot of people in a lot of different contexts telling me, “You aren’t really gay/a lesbian.” A young gay man I knew in college said this to me on the grounds that I was neither “butch enough” nor “femme enough,” and he couldn’t see me ending up in a same-sex relationship long term. My mother uttered those words to me when I was in my early twenties, using the fact that I had dated a boy all four years of high school as evidence for her claim. A number of priests have stated this upon seeing me in confession, asserting that in using the terms gay and lesbian, I am labeling myself by desires rather than by my identity in Christ. One even told me that use of these words marks me for Cesar instead of God. An acquaintance in graduate school informed me that he would not be convinced I was a lesbian unless I was willing to recount having a previous sexual experience with a man, thereby proving I am not attracted to men. And with some regularity, I hear from other members of the LGBT community (and sometimes allies too) that if I’m celibate, I’m not “one of them.” In other words, being celibate means “denying” my sexual orientation. My story doesn’t fit normative expectations, so according to some, I shouldn’t be allowed to use the terms “gay” and “lesbian.”

Not long ago, Lindsey and I received an email from a reader stating the following: “You people have no idea what it means to be gay. If somebody doesn’t support my right to have sex, they aren’t a real gay person. You’re trying to get people to think we can all be gay and not have sex. You’re going to make all of us be held back in the world.” Sometimes, people go so far as to tell us that we’re actually anti-gay. We’ve also received Facebook messages like this one: “Despair to all gay, anti-gay persons. Verily I say! DESPAIR to all gay, anti-gay persons!” I can’t say I was surprised by either message because I’ve heard such claims and exhortations time and time again. Lindsey and I hear almost weekly from people who consider us hypocritical for supporting legal recognition for same-sex couples while not calling our own relationship a “marriage.” Those of us who feel called to celibacy, celibate partnership, or mixed-orientation marriage have to defend ourselves against this judgmental rhetoric constantly. Our supporters, regardless of their own sexual orientations, face these claims—and sometimes the associated dangers—as well. A few weeks ago as I read Nate Craddock’s response to the death threat he received, tears filled my eyes and my heart began to ache. I wondered, how could someone who has undoubtedly endured rejection, bullying, and discrimination of all kinds be so quick to subject others to the same cruel treatment? Doesn’t this person realize that many of the same folks who have harassed and degraded him or her probably do the same to all LGBT people, regardless of life situation?

The idea that only a certain type of LGBT person’s story actually counts is troubling. It contributes to the “us vs. them” mentality that is already far too pervasive in the conversation about LGBT issues in the Church. It harms relationships amongst LGBT people and the few conservative straight Christians who are genuinely interested in the LGBT Christian experience. It vilifies and even dehumanizes members of the LGBT community who hold to a traditional Christian sexual ethic (or support those who do), casting such people as enemies of gay rights, who don’t know what it’s like to experience discrimination or judgment within the Church and society. It assumes that celibacy and mixed-orientation marriages provide some magical form of protection, and that we who choose these ways of life are motivated by self-loathing and fear of the Church. Forget the possibility that some of us might have chosen our vocations freely and find them sustainable, fulfilling, and joyous. And perhaps most strikingly, it leads the LGBT community, a community that prides itself on acceptance of all kinds of diversity, dangerously close to becoming just another elitist clique, where some people are welcome and others get the door slammed in their faces.

Not long ago, a group of students at Wheaton College made headlines for protesting their school’s unwillingness to host LGBT speakers who have reached more liberal conclusions on questions of sexual morality. I commend the students for speaking out on this issue because I believe all stories are worthy of being told and heard. It’s entirely fair to ask why a speaker like Justin Lee would not be permitted to engage students with his story while speakers like Wesley Hill and Rosaria Butterfield are welcomed. After reading several reports, I do not think the students were trying to suggest an interest in hearing only from LGBT Christians who will present modern interpretations of scripture and sexual ethics. It seems what they wanted was appreciation for diversity. I think the LGBT community could learn a great deal from these students and their protest. Willingness to hear just one type of story places an arbitrary limit not only on LGBT experiences, but also on the broader experience of being human. It doesn’t matter whether the story being silenced is about a lesbian couple whose church wouldn’t baptize their son, a gay man who feels called to a celibate vocation in a Roman Catholic religious order, or a woman who chose to marry a man even though she knew that in general, she wasn’t attracted to men. To silence one type of story is to place the freedom to tell any story in jeopardy.

What makes us so uncomfortable with hearing stories different from our own? I’ve been pondering that over the past few weeks of blogging. I don’t have the answer to this question, but I’ve wondered if perhaps, “Your story threatens me,” actually means, “There are people who aren’t willing to listen to my story, but are willing to listen to yours. I’m afraid they will use yours to try and squelch mine.” I could respond flippantly, “That’s not my problem. I’m just telling my story.” But truthfully, it is my problem. When one of my brothers or sisters is being silenced, mistreated, and abused, it is my responsibility to take a stand against these injustices. If someone does use my story against another person, does that obligate me to stop telling it? Not at all. But at the moment I close my mind to that person’s experience of life, I become a rank hypocrite. Christians, myself included, need to do better at listening to other people’s experiences, regardless of whether we agree theologically.

Six days a week, I write with Lindsey as we use this blog to share our own varieties of LGBT experience. My story, and our story together, might not fit within the boxed set of expectations that other people assert as “normal.” But I am who I am, we are who we are as a couple, and we aren’t going to stop writing because there are people in the world who aren’t willing to give us the time of day. I am a celibate, partnered, lesbian woman who attempts to be a faithful Christian and fails daily. I am, as a prayer in my tradition says, the chief of sinners. I am a teacher, a doctoral student, an extrovert, and a gentle person who can easily turn into a bulldog if I learn that a friend or loved one is being mistreated. My life isn’t perfect, but there’s nothing I’d ever consider trading for what I share with Lindsey—every aspect of it, celibacy included. That’s my story, and it might not resonate with your own LGBT experience, but I hope we can leave enough room under this umbrella for both of us.

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