Protected by celibacy?

As we’ve been blogging, from time to time people have approached us with questions like, “Why do you care about LGBT people in the Church? You’re celibate. You don’t have anything to worry about.” People assume that because we’re celibate, we’ve checked the proverbial box that ensures that we’re safe in all Christian environments. Not to put too fine a point on our response, but that assumption couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Some people think that if we’re celibate, we’re not identifiable as members of the LGBT community. In truth, Lindsey’s never been able to pass as a cisgender, heterosexual person in terms of physical appearance. With a rather ambiguous build, short hair, and a penchant for khakis and button-down shirts, Lindsey fits many people’s stereotypes of what an LGBT person looks like. It doesn’t matter that Lindsey’s appearance has been mostly static since middle school. When Sarah is not with Lindsey, people generally assume Sarah–who has an unmistakably feminine appearance–is straight. However, we as a couple lose any privileges associated with passing as straight the instant Lindsey appears on the scene. To many people, that we show up as a pair and that and Lindsey is so visibly a member of the LGBT community are enough for them to make assumptions about our sexual ethics. Celibacy doesn’t even enter the picture.

Equally, our celibacy does not protect Sarah from facing backlash once people see us together. We’ve noticed in situation after situation how easily people’s comfort levels with Sarah change once they meet Lindsey and realize we’re together. One example of this came about when Lindsey was in the process of moving to Sarah’s city. During visits prior to the move, Lindsey attended services at Sarah’s parish with Sarah. Sarah had recently made that parish home, and was still relatively new there. While many people initially treated Sarah just like any other person, that began to change once they met Lindsey—and this was well before anyone had come to know us as a couple. Simply seeing us attend church together was enough to cause some to distance themselves from Sarah and hesitate to socialize with Lindsey at all.

Another issue is that a great many people have no understanding of what celibacy is and/or think “being gay” automatically means having sex. To these folks, the idea of celibacy as a way of life an LGBT person might adopt is foreign. The question they ask is not, “What is an appropriate sexual ethic for an LGBT person?” Instead, it’s, “Why isn’t this person willing to stop being gay?” When we are in the presence of people holding this perspective, our celibacy means nothing in conversation. If we try at all to discuss celibacy in response to someone’s assertion of, “The Church says you can’t be gay,” that gets us nowhere more often than not. Sometimes, the person will counter with, “Well, if you aren’t having sex, then you aren’t really gay,” followed by, “You could still get married to someone of the opposite sex if you wanted.” But generally, we don’t even get that much of a conversation going. The more typical response we hear is, “Huh?” with no further attempt at engaging us in discussion ever again. In these situations, our celibacy does nothing to protect us because the person isn’t comfortable talking about sexual ethics in the first place.

Additionally, people frequently associate celibacy with singleness. To these people, we cannot be celibate because we are in a relationship with one another. We find this assumption to be entirely problematic because it misrepresents celibacy. Celibacy as a way of life is deeply rooted in community. Monastic communities provide insight into how people have lived Christ-centered celibate lives for hundreds of years. Conversely, living alone in an apartment far from one’s family of origin is arguably one of the newest ways of life. Yet, an identifiably solitary life is the dominant image most people have of modern celibacy. Because many people associate celibacy with singleness, they cannot grasp the idea that we’re a celibate couple, let alone consider what that might mean for our lives as LGBT Christians. These people can only see us members of the LGBT community and make assumptions about our activity from there. We’re no strangers to the accusation that we have rejected a celibate way of life because we’re in a relationship.

We totally understand that celibacy is a queer calling. Many people just don’t get it. While at first glance it may seem that celibate LGBT people are protected by their celibacy, we (and other individuals in similar situations) often encounter a double helping of misconceptions about both celibacy and LGBT topics. We’re consistently read in social situations as “not heterosexual,” a reading which in and of itself invites a considerable amount of accusations.

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6 thoughts on “Protected by celibacy?

  1. Thank you for sharing your story and perspective! I don’t hear voices like yours, unfortunately, and I’m grateful for finding this. I’m interested in reading more from you and engaging in thoughtful dialogue – particularly about the damage that the church does by resisting honest engagement of a broader sexual ethic. The Christian ethic that assumes only heterosexuality and only sex after marriage is not the reality for many people. The church could serve people better by offering real love, grace, and support no matter who you are or what you’re doing or not doing. For example, Justin Lee’s recent blog entry on really loving gay people even if you don’t agree. ( Or a different example, I recently heard Nadia Bolz-Weber talk about harm reduction and realized how rarely the church does this. Instead of helping people use clean needles, the church only preaches NO needles. Well, how can we still be Jesus to the person who is using? Some forms of the church are doing so much good – and some could with only a shift in perspective. Supporting humans in their human experiences on this planet is not the same thing as approving or even understanding. As a Christian lesbian wife and mother, these are some of the reasons I’m starting seminary in the fall. I believe that the church can be a powerful tool of love and change for good in this world.

    • Hi Bethany, thanks for your comment. Lots of food for thought to be sure. I think the the challenge to offer love, grace, and support is a bit different than questions of harm reduction. I’d definitely agree that many Christian communities could do a much better job at showing love, grace, and support. Justin’s post is a great example of how people might show love, grace, and support to LGBT people. Regarding harm reduction, I’m not entirely sure it’s possible for the Church to speak to any myriad of potential ways people harm themselves and others. I’ve actually never been in a church that talks about issues around needle use (either in a “Just say no” kind of way or with a harm reduction approach). Many of the churches I have participated in have been more of the ilk that we all harm ourselves and one another in any myriad of ways where “sin” operates as a catch-all category. Sin doesn’t necessarily have to be a legal construct where we try to avoid getting marks on a balance sheet.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment! -Lindsey

  2. Dear Sarah and Lindsey,
    It is so very sad that peoples assumptions cause you so much distress and leave you marginalised. I am delighted that you enjoy being with each other however you choose to express that, and you sound like lovely interesting people who I would love to know if we even lived on the same continent. I will not pretend to understand your choice to be celibate and I feel so sad that anyone should think this is a choice that might protect them, and make it for this reason, not that I am implying that you have taken this choice for this reason. I hope you will come to have absolute freedom in expressing your natures and your feelings for each other in any way you wish without constraint or hesitation. There is no sin in this, only love.

  3. Thanks for sharing. It’s a concept I personally struggle with. When I finally meet a beautiful loving woman that loves me I ask myself should I remain celibate? Wouldn’t I just turn off potential partners? Will I be single for the rest of my life?

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