Yesterday, we published 12 Ways People with a Traditional Sexual Ethic Can Be More Supportive of Celibate LGBT Christians, and we received a lot of great feedback. Today’s post is its complement, written specifically for straight people with a modern, liberal sexual ethic who would like to be more supportive of celibate LGBT Christians. Some points might also be helpful for LGBT Christians holding a progressive sexual ethic, and we plan to do a post in a couple of weeks focusing on the same topic with that audience in mind. If we’ve left anything out, please feel free to add more helpful tips in the comments. We hope you enjoy!
1. Respect our choice to live celibacy. Choosing celibacy can be just as difficult as choosing a sexually active way of life. For a person with progressive views on sexual ethics, respecting our decisions on this matter should be no different than respecting others’ decisions to be in (or be open to) sexually active relationships. It’s easy to assume that celibacy is not a free choice, especially since many celibate LGBT people are members of Christian denominations that teach a traditional sexual ethic. We believe that in general, people do have choices to accept or reject their Christian traditions’ teachings on marriage and sexuality. People in most developed societies have the freedom to join whatever faith tradition they wish, and nothing is keeping a person who sees a liberal sexual ethic as a primary theological concern from finding a denomination or church that teaches a liberal sexual ethic or accepts that members will have differences of opinion on sexual ethics. For most LGBT people who are legally of age, remaining in a denomination that teaches a traditional sexual ethic (and living by that sexual ethic) is a free choice. Please acknowledge this, even if you don’t agree with our choices.
2. Make friends with the question mark. Ask us why we chose celibacy. Do not assume that all celibate LGBT Christians have chosen celibacy for the same reasons. Some might have chosen celibacy because they feel that is how God is calling them, personally, to live. Others might have chosen celibacy because that way of life feels most natural to them, and things just sort of fell into place as they sometimes do with people who feel called to marriage. Still, others might respond with, “I’m celibate because I believe gay sex is a sin,” or “I’m celibate because I believe God calls all lesbian, gay, transgender (and some bisexual) Christians to celibacy.” But you’ll never know why a person chose celibacy unless you ask. There are a million and one possible reasons for decisions people make in life, and this decision is no different.
3. Affirm that God calls some people to live celibate lives. The fact that God calls some people to celibacy is entirely scriptural. There are a number of biblical references to celibacy and its goodness, including St. Paul’s discussion of marriage and celibacy as ways of life in 1 Corinthians 7. We notice that sometimes, people who take a modern, liberal approach to sexual ethics aren’t very quick to affirm celibacy as a God-given vocation for anyone. We’ve been told on occasion by liberal Christians that celibacy is “unnatural” and “oppressive” in all circumstances, despite the reality that it has been an integral part of the Christian tradition since the early Church. Throwing misconceptions about celibacy in our faces will only alienate us. Even if you don’t agree with our approach to sexual ethics, and even if you don’t believe us when we say that we feel called to celibacy, acknowledging that God calls at least some people to celibacy can go a long way toward supporting celibate LGBT Christians.
4. Consider that LGBT people have a variety of different ideas about what it means to be accepted fully in the Church. Legal gay marriage is a hot-button issue in American society today. Sacramental or denominationally-recognized gay marriage is a hot-button issue within Christian traditions. We get this, and we also see how much pain contention over the issue has caused in several churches. We don’t want to minimize that. Yet, we find it important to point out that some Christians with a progressive sexual ethic assume LGBT people will feel welcome only in Christian traditions that bless same-sex marriages. For most celibate LGBT Christians (single and coupled), sacramental marriage for same-sex couples is not a priority. Many of us would even advocate against our specific denominations’ recognizing gay marriages. Some of us accept that there are other denominations that will perform gay marriages and are completely within their rights to do so. People with a modern, liberal sexual ethic should not assume that all celibate LGBT people would suddenly be liberated and not need to live celibacy anymore if all Christian denominations were to begin blessing same-sex marriages. Speaking for the two of us, even if our Christian tradition were to change its teachings on marriage and sexuality tomorrow, we would still be committed to celibacy. As for acceptance within one’s church, celibate LGBT Christians might be more concerned with other issues: will my denomination prevent me from receiving the Eucharist? Will I be asked to leave my faith community? Will a religious leader try to force me to change my sexual orientation? Consider these issues and do not focus solely on marriage.
5. Promote non-discrimination in employment and housing. Even looking at legal issues, supporting LGBT people goes far beyond the issue of marriage. Celibate LGBT Christians hold many different opinions on legal (as opposed to sacramental) gay marriage, and there are a number of other legal issues affecting LGBT people regardless of sexual activity status. The two that come to mind most prominently for us are employment and housing issues. In many states, it is completely legal for employers to fire people (or not hire in the first place) even on suspicion that they are part of the LGBT community. This issue is very important to the two of us, as Lindsey has experienced more than one wrongful termination. It’s also legal in many places to turn a worthy applicant away from a potential housing arrangement on suspicion that the person is LGBT. Neither of us has personally experienced housing discrimination, but we know people who have. Celibate or not, LGBT people need allies advocating for these laws and policies to change. But because so many allies focus all their energies on the issue of marriage equality, advocacy on these other issues ends up getting shortchanged.
6. Listen, listen, listen. Get to know us as people. Learn about who we are and what is important to us. We’re people, not symbols of the progressive side of a culture war. If we tell you that you’ve done something we perceive as hurtful or discriminatory, be willing to communicate with us about that. Don’t assume that you’re above reproach because you have a long history as an ally. We appreciate that many of you have risked your own reputations to support the LGBT community and we are very grateful for that, but even folks with the best of intentions can make serious mistakes. Being able to admit your mistakes as an ally is one thing that will lead more celibate LGBT people to see you as a safe person. Too often, Christian allies dismiss the concerns of LGBT celibates because of theological disagreement. This is a serious mistake. If you’re going to support LGBT Christians, be willing to support all of us—not just those whose theologies match yours.
7. Allow us to define ourselves and our relationships in our preferred ways. If a celibate LGB Christian wants to use the term “same-sex attracted” instead of “gay,” “lesbian,” or “bisexual,” respect that. Don’t insist that in order to come to a place of self-acceptance, the person must use the term you prefer. Don’t insist that a transgender person use the pronouns with which you are most comfortable. And as evidenced by the existence of our blog, celibate LGBT couples do exist. Not all of us define those relationships in the same ways. Some may use terms like “platonic partnership” or “covenant friendship.” Others (like the two of us) might not know exactly what to call ourselves, but have a sense that words like “family” and “team” come closest to ideal. Celibate couples might change their term preferences over time as we come to a greater understanding of what our relationships mean. We need the space to explore this in our own ways. Please allow us the courtesy of defining (or intentionally not defining) our own relationships. Insisting that you know better than we do what to call us crosses many lines of appropriateness.
8. Don’t assume we’re judging sexually active LGBT people. It’s true that most celibate LGBT people hold to traditional, conservative beliefs on marriage and sexuality. However, this does not mean that celibates necessarily sit in places of judgment, looking down on the lives of sexually active LGBT couples and shaking our fingers in loud (or quiet) condemnation. Yes, there are celibate LGBT people who do judge sexually active LGBT people, but many of us feel that we have no business contemplating what may or may not be happening in another person’s sex life. Regardless of the reasons for our celibacy, many of us are concerned with keeping our eyes on our own paper, so to speak. That’s true for disagreements on several other theological issues too, not just same-sex sexual activity. Speaking for the two of us specifically, we can’t see any benefit that would come from spending any amount of time imagining what other people are or aren’t doing in bed. Working out one’s own salvation is a full time job. If you are interested in supporting celibate LGBT people, start real conversations with us on any number of issues and skip the lecture about how our way of life is supposedly a judgment of someone else’s way of life.
9. Avoid speaking ill of our Christian traditions. If you take a modern, liberal approach to sexual ethics, you might not be too fond of Christian traditions that disagree with you on this point. It may be tempting to say unkind things about the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Seventh Day Adventist Church, Presbyterian Church in America, Southern Baptist Church, and so on. We want to discourage you from doing this. Many celibate LGBT Christians come from these traditions and others that teach a more conservative sexual ethic. If you’re really interested in supporting us, bashing our churches for being “backward,” “sexist,” and “homophobic” is not the way to do it. Celibate LGBT Christians who are part of these traditions likely understand and agree with their respective teachings on marriage and sexuality. Often, this acceptance has come after much careful thought and prayer. Please honor the care we have taken in forming our consciences and avoid reducing our beliefs to, “Don’t have sex because a homophobic church says so.” It’s also possible that you might have a misunderstanding about what our Christian traditions teach on marriage and human sexuality. Asking us about this instead of relying solely on your own biases is a much better way to start a supportive conversation.
10. Understand that celibate LGBT people will have different experiences of celibacy. There are celibate LGBT people who feel happy, fulfilled, and blessed in their vocations. There are also celibate LGBT people who see celibacy as misery and a most horrible cross to bear. Both realities exist. The presence of one does not negate the presence of the other. It is not helpful for any of us if you make blanket statements about celibacy as an oppressive manner of living. Celibacy is hard because all vocations are hard. Insisting that celibacy brings nothing but suffering invalidates the experiences of people who find joy in celibacy. It also robs people who are struggling with celibacy of any hope that they might find happiness in this way of life. Things haven’t always been peaches and cream for the two of us, and sometimes that’s still true. But if during past difficult times we had only encountered other Christians who degraded celibacy, we may have given up and might never have come to experience the joy we now find in our vocation.
11. Pray for us. Just like all other Christians, we need prayer. We have worries, fears, anxieties, and struggles. We endure trials in life, and we also experience times when we want to join with all our friends in prayers of praise and thanksgiving. All vocations bring challenges, and we need your prayers just as much as your sexually active LGBT friends need them. Instead of praying that God shows us how wrong we are to pursue celibacy, pray that we will be strengthened in our vocations. If you have a close relationship with us, it’s likely that we’re already praying for the same thing for you.
12. Love us just like you love all other LGBT people. As a person with a modern, liberal sexual ethic, you probably know more than most how often LGBT people experience affronts to our dignity and worth. Both celibate and sexually active LGBT people suffer because of hatred and intolerance of all kinds. One of the best things you can do to support celibate LGBT Christians is to remind us of how much God loves us, and to show us that love in your own words and actions. This means loving us just as we are rather than in spite of our celibacy. This means desiring what is best for us, even if that doesn’t square with what you want for us. This also means standing up for us just as you would stand up for any other person experiencing an injustice, and helping to make sure we don’t experience a double dose of discrimination because of how few people in today’s world respect the celibate way of life.
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