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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8 thoughts on “Terms of Engagement

    • Hi Camille. Thank you for reading. We’re glad to see you here in the comments section, and we hope to see you again! -Sarah

  1. Lindsey and Sarah, congratulations! On both your mutual commitment to the crazy adventures of doing life together, and on clearly claiming the space & language for the reality of your lives in the midst of dominant ‘compartmentalizing,’ black-and-white attitudes about relationships in our society. Wow that was a really long sentence fragment.

    I want you to know you may count me among your unapologetic supporters. I came to your blog via sacredtension a few months ago and have been quietly enjoying learning about your story and perspectives. I myself am in the midst of discerning how (sometimes if!) to engage my own faith tradition as I grow into adulthood, a process that is complicated (sometimes clarified!) by a growing awareness of my own queerness. I’ve found that for me the ‘sex question’ is really not the important question to answer right now – rather, how shall I build a good life and honor ambiguity (my reality!) in the middle of this perceived “culture war”? So, finding your blog has been a real boon to me. I appreciate your unapologetic honesty in telling your story even when many people insist, naively or arrogantly, that your particular experience of life doesn’t, can’t, or shouldn’t exist. I actually feel safer to stand here in my own presently ambivalent space because you are so graciously sharing your experiences of standing in spaces “between” or different from the accepted/expected. If that isn’t an outworking of radical hospitality, I don’t know what is.
    Thank you. I wish you many years of growth and fruitful adventuring together.

    • Hi Suzanne. Thanks for your very thoughtful and kind comment. We’re glad to have you as a reader, and are excited to engage more with you in the conversations we’re having here. Knowing how best to engage with one’s faith tradition regarding questions of LGBT Christian issues can be quite challenging. We’ll keep you in our prayers, and are grateful for your encouragement! -Sarah

  2. I’m trying to catch up on many posts (both of your blog and others that I’ve read), but I don’t think this is something that you’ve touched on before. Do either of you desire to have children one day? Since you are in a same-sex relationship, I wouldn’t think that this would “go against” (for lack of a better term) you vocation of celibacy. However, I don’t know if along with celibacy comes an assumption that kids wouldn’t be a part of that vocation (i.e–nuns or a priests would not have biological children). It’s something I’ve been thinking of lately because a married lesbian couple that I know recently became pregnant and it made me think that it would be very convenient for me at this point in my life if I was a lesbian. I would ideally like to have children but my body is not capable of that at this moment and obviously my husband cannot—and surrogates are not in our budget. It would be nice to have a choice of wombs right now!

    • Hi Emily. Great questions. Here’s a piece I wrote recently about children: http://aqueercalling.com/2014/03/17/children-connectedness-and-the-vocation-to-celibacy. There’s no easy way to answer your questions because honestly, we aren’t sure right now of how children fit into our vocation to celibacy. We believe that we are called to be radically hospitable to all people who come our way, which necessarily includes kids, but we have no idea how God might bring children into our lives. It might be that we’re called to be there for our future nieces and nephews in ways that their parents can’t be. It might be that God calls us to foster parenting. It might be something else. Right now, we’re trying to focus on listening to God’s voice on this issue. -Sarah

  3. Hi Lindsey and Sarah,

    Thank you so much for your blog! I think I’ve seen on here somewhere a post/posts (maybe?) where you explain your definition of marriage and how it’s different in the less obvious ways to your calling. Can you please link me to that post? If I made that up and really haven’t seen it, would you mind clarifying?

    So grateful to you both for sharing your journey!


    • Hello Shae,

      Thanks for commenting. The discussion on our blog tends to focus on our definitions of celibacy. We have one post where we asked married people to define marriage. We also reflected on why we don’t see marriage and celibacy as polar opposites in our post Defining Celibacy, Revisited, which is more closely related to our understanding of our vocation.

      We hope to see you in the comments again!
      Lindsey and Sarah

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