Terms of Engagement

A reflection by Sarah

On January 8, 2014, one evening before the opening session of the Gay Christian Network Conference, Lindsey and I visited a small, independent bookstore in Chicago. We had spent the entire day driving to the Midwest from our city, since 3 AM in fact, and were exhausted. I was still shaken from a car accident we had experienced just hours earlier, and after meeting up with our friend Alison at the last minute for dinner at a nearby Mediterranean restaurant I was ready to turn in for the evening. Still, Lindsey insisted that we take some time to stroll around the bookstore and see what hidden gems we might find. We split off into different sections for a while. Later, Lindsey met me in the adventure books where I was perusing a copy of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. We began talking about all the amusing situations we’ve found ourselves in since we first met, and I noticed a positive shift in my mood. Ultimately, we ended up in a conversation about how our life together is turning out to be the craziest adventure upon which either of us has ever embarked.

That discussion was one I’m sure I’ll never forget. It was the evening when, after months of discernment, Lindsey and I affirmed to each other that we feel called to continue living our celibate vocations together for the rest of our lives. We came to a decision that after spending the next year to reflect further, we will pursue some form of legal protection and find the most appropriate way to honor and celebrate our family. A couple pursuing marriage (however one defines that term) might consider such discussions characteristic of “engagement.” But we aren’t preparing to enter a marriage, so most people we know are baffled by our discussions of commitment and share life.

As I’ve reflected before, Lindsey and I have always struggled to find the best words to describe our relationship and our way of life. The English language and societal expectations don’t make it an easy task: there isn’t exactly a concise term for “couple committed to living a celibate vocation together that isn’t a marriage, but still allows for financial security, the ability to make health care decisions for each other, etc., etc., etc.” There’s no option for “preparing to live fully into a lifelong celibate partnership” on Facebook’s “relationship” dropdown menu. Even more significant a complicating factor is that our Christian tradition offers us little language beyond “celibacy” for describing our vocation and no guidance at all for developing a meaningful way of life in our specific circumstance.

Another layer of difficulty in determining what language to employ is that people in our lives don’t always understand why we believe it important to use certain descriptors and not others. At one extreme, we have acquaintances who urge us not even to identify as being in a relationship with each other. They encourage us to describe ourselves as “best friends” and “roommates.” In most cases, these same people become uncomfortable when we use the phrase “lifelong commitment” in relation to each other, but experience no discomfort with the idea that monastics enter lifelong commitments to each other in their communities. On the other hand, we know people who have trouble recognizing why, as an LGBT couple doing life together in a committed relationship, we wouldn’t want that referred to as a marriage. Many of these folks urge us to discuss our relationship in spousal terms, and some have indicated that our disinterest in doing so sets us in opposition to the movement for marriage equality. With minimal availability of comfortable terminology and an abundant presence of people ready to tell us how we ought to define ourselves, the quest for the best words can leave a person (or a couple) feeling very isolated. Yet despite these experiences, we are heartened by the number of people who, in diverse ways, have been unapologetically supportive of us in our vocation. We have many friends who offer us encouragement daily and show interest in helping us engage with the tough questions, regardless of what conclusions we reach and how those may or may not match with their own conclusions.

As of now, we find that the terms “family” and “team” roll most naturally off the tongue when describing ourselves to others. “Partners” also seems to fit well because this word implies shared work and a shared journey. Despite the fact that many equate the word “partnership” with “sexually active relationship,” we feel drawn to the basic meaning of this term, as we do understand our vocation to be shared responsibility for serving others and serving Christ.

It’s regrettable that people in various types of relationships aren’t always free to define those relationships such that all involved parties feel comfortable with the language used. Language around relationships is highly politicized. How one identifies one’s relationship can raise all kinds of associations for other people. In America, both religions and the government define marriage. In the eyes of a public audience, one’s willingness or unwillingness to define a particular relationship as a marriage often carries ideological connotations, regardless of whether one actually identifies with said ideologies. If any freedom to define one’s relationship and not be pigeonholed into a political category ever did exist, it seems that freedom is now gone. The terms of engagement for discussing our own life situation do not belong to us, and that will never change unless we make an active decision to take them back. With this post, consider it done. Lindsey and I are a team, a family, and a partnership, even if those words don’t have the same meanings for you as they do for us.

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