Since we wrote on 10 Things We Wish Our Church Family Knew and 9 Things We Wish Straight Allies Knew, we’ve been reflecting on the best advice to offer straight Christians who are interested in being more supportive of, specifically, celibate LGBT Christians. Here, we’ve listed 12 items that we see as most important for people who believe in a traditional sexual ethic to understand. Please comment at the bottom of this post if you can think of other bits of helpful advice. Tomorrow, we will be releasing a similar post aimed at straight Christians who hold to a modern, liberal sexual ethic. Update: you can read that post here.
1. Treat us as you would treat any other member of your church. We are people, and we are sinners just like every other person in your congregation. Expect that we will have many of the same interests and concerns as other members of your church. Know that we want to be just as involved in the life of the parish as everyone else. Treating us as though we are somehow different can be hurtful, whether your assumption is benign as, “Those people must be here to make a statement,” or as egregious as, “Those people are sexual deviants who are here to corrupt my children.”
2. Look beyond the culture wars. Even if you believe there is a “gay agenda,” we can assure you that the only agenda most LGBT people are concerned with is being able to live our daily lives in peace. Be mindful of the language you use when expressing disapproval of LGBT-related events, movements, and legislation. The LGBT members of your church likely have varied opinions on culture war issues like gay marriage, and it is incorrect to assume that an LGBT person who attends your church is actively trying to change your denomination’s theology of marriage and sexuality. It’s likely that if the person has chosen celibacy, he/she accepts your denomination’s stance on these issues. But whether this is true or not for a particular celibate LGBT Christian, it’s still painful for all of us to be forced hear how “Gay people are destroying the social and moral fabric of America” at coffee hour. Also, don’t try to assign us a special duty to show sexually active LGBT Christians “the error of their ways.” We aren’t perfect, and we don’t sit a place of judgment. Any sexually active LGBT Christian who is interested in our celibacy is free to approach us to talk about this matter.
3. Show us that you’re a safe person. This can begin with something as simple as flashing us a smile or saying a friendly hello after the service has ended. Tell us that we’re welcome at church, and introduce us to other members of the congregation who we may not know so well. Open up to us about aspects of your own life as you feel comfortable. Indicate that you see us as people. It might take a while for us to reach back once you’ve reached out, but please do not take this as an insult. Many of us could do better at being communicative, but this is a challenge because we’ve experienced so much hurt in church environments in the past.
4. Get to know us. Invite us over for homemade pizza night. Have a board game day and ask us to bring Ticket to Ride. Ask about our hobbies and interests. Sarah enjoys sewing and could likely help your child with a project for scouts. Engineer Lindsey might be interested in bonding with your family over a model rocketry project. You might discover that we and your own family are crazy about The Chronicles of Narnia and an evening spent watching a movie together is just the thing all of us need after a stressful week of work and school. Find out what’s going on in our lives and ask us how we’re doing. Check in on us if you haven’t seen us at church in a couple of weeks. All these things let us know that you care about us.
5. Engage us in topics of conversation that don’t involve sexual morality. This may be hard to believe given the prominence of LGBT issues in the news, but most LGBT people probably don’t spend any more time thinking about sex than you do. As such, we might be interested in discussing sexual morality, but we might not. Celibate LGBT Christians do not need to be told again and again what the Bible says and what the Church teaches about same-sex sexual activity. We already know, and often we see denominational teachings on marriage and sexuality as vital elements in understanding our own vocations. We can engage in fruitful conversations with you about a wide range of spiritual and theological topics that do not involve sexuality: prayer, the ecumenical councils, our understandings of Christ, scripture readings, favorite saints, new spiritual disciplines we are trying, etc. Not every conversation you have with us needs to be about our views on chastity.
6. When we indicate that we’re comfortable talking about questions of sexual ethics, engage with us. As we said above, not every discussion needs to focus on sexuality, but that doesn’t mean the topic is off limits altogether. We might not always feel comfortable talking about it. Don’t push us, but don’t be afraid to ask questions. The worst we could say is, “We’re not comfortable talking about that right now.” We’re more likely to be willing if you’ve shown us that you’re a safe person. When we’re ready to discuss sexuality issues, we’ll be glad to have those conversations with you. Always be respectful of our boundaries and consider the purpose of the questions you’re asking. Is your query motivated by curiosity? If so, tell us that and leave us the option of not answering if we become uncomfortable mid-discussion. Does the question come from a desire to understand the lives of celibate LGBT Christians more fully? Those are our favorite types of questions to answer, and we’ll do so if it’s safe. Are you asking out of a desire to gauge our theological orthodoxy so you can report your findings to a religious leader in hopes that he’ll “rein us in” or force us to leave the church? This is not a good reason for asking us questions, and if this is the case, it’s likely we’ll be able to see through why you’ve suddenly become interested in us.
7. Respect the language we use when describing ourselves. Words like “gay” and “transgender” may not mean what you think they mean. When most gay people use the word “gay” as a descriptor, it is in reference to sexual orientation, not level of sexual activity. It’s inappropriate to tell a celibate gay Christian, “If you aren’t having sex, you aren’t gay.” It’s equally condescending to tell a celibate bisexual Christian, “If you meet someone of the opposite sex and decide to marry him/her, you’ll not be bisexual anymore.” Likewise, it is not correct to assume that a person identifying as “transgender” is necessarily interested in surgically altering his/her body, and the message, “You’re really a girl even though you feel like a boy,” can be profoundly alienating to a transgender person. Assigning the term “same-sex attracted” to a person just because you’re uncomfortable with your own presumptions about his/her preferred language is harmful and disrespectful of that person’s experience. At the same time, if a person would rather you use the term “same-sex attracted,” then use it. It’s always a good idea to ask a person about his/her preferred language, and it should never be assumed that someone’s choice of terms means a denial of his/her identity in Christ.
8. Acknowledge that you can learn from us and we can learn from you. As celibate LGBT Christians, we are just as much part of the Body of Christ as are all other Christians. Sometimes we do things well, other times we make mistakes. Sometimes we do what God asks of us, other times we fall short. Regardless, we are not your project, and you are not ours. We do not come to church for the experience of heterosexual, cisgender people teaching us “the right way” to follow Christ. Nor do we come to church with the attitude that because of our celibacy, we can teach you and everyone else “the right way” to follow Christ. We’re fallible, and we believe that Jesus is the best teacher for all of us. And along our shared journey towards Him, there are ways in which everyone can learn from everyone else.
9. Don’t assume that remaining celibate is our primary spiritual struggle. Not every heterosexual, cisgender Christian lives in a constant battle to maintain chastity. The same can be said for LGBT Christians. People, no matter their sexual orientations and gender identities, have varying levels of sexual desire. It doesn’t make sense to suggest that because someone is part of the LGBT community, living celibacy is any harder than it is for a heterosexual, cisgender person. Do not assume that a celibate LGBT Christian sees his/her sexual orientation or gender identity as “a cross to bear.” Many of us are just as comfortable with our choice to pursue celibacy as we are with all other aspects of life. And we deal with the same sins as you do: pride, anger, greed, etc. Often, the potential for engaging in these sins is much greater than the potential for engaging in sexual sin.
10. If we are struggling with celibacy, show compassion. Sometimes, we do struggle with celibacy because no vocation is easy. The demands of serving Christ in the world as celibate singles or celibate couples are great, and no Christian tradition provides us with all the guidance we need for living celibacy outside a monastery. Some celibate LGBT people do see their sexualities and gender identities as crosses. This doesn’t mean that those of us who take joy in celibacy are morally or spiritually stronger than those of us who don’t. Telling a person who is struggling with celibacy to, “Just bear your cross, do what God asks, and stay on the straight and narrow path,” isn’t helpful. Even we who feel greatly blessed within our celibate vocations sometimes need the space to cry out, “I just can’t do this anymore!” We imagine that on occasion, people who live the vocations of marriage and monasticism feel similarly. When we’re experiencing difficult seasons of life, say, “That sounds challenging. I’m sorry you’re hurting. How can I support you during this time?” We might not know how to respond in the moment, but we will be glad that you’ve asked.
11. Pray for us. We need prayer just like all other members of the Body of Christ. Prayer strengthens us in our vocations and gives us comfort when things are really hard. Our prayer needs will be similar to other Christians’ prayer needs, but might also be different. Celibacy as a way of life poses a unique set of challenges. However, if we request your prayers, please do not assume that necessarily means, “Sarah and Lindsey want me to pray that they can keep themselves from having sex. They’re struggling with sexual temptations.” There are LGBT Christians who do ask for prayer as they work towards living chastely, but it’s important to remember that celibacy is not just about sexual abstinence. When we are struggling in our celibate vocation, that could mean we’re experiencing difficulty in living radical hospitality, that we aren’t able to be as vulnerable as we would like, that our emotional intimacy needs aren’t being met, or that we’ve fallen away from certain spiritual disciplines.
12. Love us, and all LGBT people. As LGBT Christians, we hear a lot of, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” and, “I love you enough to tell you that being gay is wrong.” But it’s rare that we see love from conservative, heterosexual, cisgender Christians. If you really love us so much, be willing to show us that by treating us as human beings with dignity and worth. And that includes all LGBT people, not just celibate LGBT Christians. God calls us to love people even if we don’t agree with their approaches to sexual morality and other matters. You can show us how much you love us by taking a stand when your coworker makes an inappropriate joke about sexual orientation, advocating for an end to discriminatory employment practices, and speaking out against LGBT-related human rights abuses in countries like Uganda. We’ll believe that you love us when you demonstrate it on a regular basis.
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