Saturday Symposium: Feeling Affirmed

Good morning, folks. It’s a lovely Saturday here where we live, and we hope all of you are having an enjoyable weekend wherever you are. As usual, please allow us a bit of time to catch up on email. We’ve gotten a lot the past couple of weeks!

It’s time once again for today’s Saturday Symposium question:

How this works: It’s very simple. We ask a multi-part question related to a topic we’ve blogged about during the past week or are considering blogging about in the near future, and you, our readers, share your responses in the comments section. Feel free to be open, reflective, and vulnerable…and to challenge us. But as always, be mindful of the comment policy that ends each of our posts. Usually, we respond fairly quickly to each comment, but in order to give you time to think, come back, add more later if you want, and discuss with other readers, we will wait until after Monday to respond to comments on Saturday Symposium questions.

This week’s Saturday Symposium question: This week’s question is on a topic we would like to explore further in a future post. We’ve noticed that recently, language within the LGBT Christian conversation has been shifting. One shift we’ve observed is that many LGBT (and ally) Christian authors and bloggers are beginning to use the terms “affirming” and “non-affirming” instead of “pro-gay” and “anti-gay” (or “Side A” and “Side B”) to describe progressive and traditional positions on sexual ethics. We’re wondering: from your perspective, what does it mean to affirm LGBT Christians? If you are an LGBT Christian, what sort of things make you feel affirmed within your faith community? In general, what are your thoughts on using the terms “affirming” and “non-affirming” to describe ethical positions related to LGBT sexual practice/celibacy?

We look forward to reading your responses. If you’re concerned about having your comment publicly associated with your name, please consider using the Contact Us page to submit your comment. We can post it under a pseudonym (i.e. John says, “your comment”) or summarize your comment in our own words (i.e. One person observed…). Participating in this kind of public dialogue can be risky, and we want to do what we can to protect you even if that means we preserve your anonymity. Have a wonderful weekend!


Sarah and Lindsey

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Discerning Our Vocation as a Community of Two

Recently, we have encountered some criticism about our way of life in other places of the internet. It has been suggested that our using words like “partner” and “family” indicates we are trying to mimic marriage as opposed to embracing an intentionally celibate vocation. According to these critics, because we frequently use the word “partner” to describe our relationship, we must have lustful desires towards one another and cannot not possibly be living chastely. (If you don’t have any idea what we’re talking about, our post entitled Clearing the Air on “When Celibacy Fails” can direct you a bit more specifically to one of the relevant blogs.)

We do understand how people might be confused about our use of the word “partner” in our relationship. We do describe ourselves as a celibate, LGBT, Christian couple. If you look to the way “partner” is used in the broader culture, you would rarely see the couple who is using that term living into a celibate vocation. We spend a lot of time talking about important conversations we’d like to have on the blog. For several months, we’ve been discussing that we could say more about how our understanding of our vocation has been significantly shaped by monasticism. It seems to us that this latest conversation about the word “partner” provides an excellent launching point for such a conversation.

From the beginning, we have been up front about our acknowledgement that we do not have all the answers. Sarah has shared about some of the difficulty we’ve had in finding a language to describe our shared life. Lindsey frequently says that when it comes to the exact nature of our vocation, we’re building the plane while flying it. Our Christian tradition does not have a well-developed understanding of lay celibacy, so we have tried to learn as much as we can about our vocation from both married couples and monastics. We regard ourselves as works in progress, and we hope that our readers can extend us charity as we sort through some of this muddle.

In Lindsey’s post on Actively Cultivating a Celibate Vocation, Lindsey highlighted the importance of getting to know people who are living celibacy. Even before we met one another, both of us devoted significant energies to meeting various vowed religious. We have read many accounts of monastics, traveled to various monasteries, and journeyed alongside others who have been discerning specific religious vocations that carry the expectation of celibacy.

One of the most important things we’ve noticed about monasteries is that no two monasteries are the same. Each monastery has its unique sense of community that affects how the members see themselves as a monastic family extending hospitality to others. Some monasteries have the capability of hosting a huge number of pilgrims at a time, and other monasteries will welcome a small handful of overnight guests. The guest quarters in the smallest monasteries we’ve visited amount to little more than a spare room in the house. At the risk of overgeneralizing a bit, visiting large monasteries can make one feel like one has entered another world while visiting small monasteries can leave one feeling remarkably impressed by the mundaneness of the everyday. Some of the larger monasteries seem to serve every liturgical service available in well-equipped chapels, while many of the smaller monasteries pray a basic set of morning and evening prayer on either side of the work day. We’ve even had the privilege of visiting monastics who live in urban areas and work full-time during the day in a way that aligns their professional gifts with the mission of the Church.

We hope it comes as no surprise to our readers that we have made a concerted effort to learn from these various small monastic communities about how we might pattern our lives as a community of two. Specifically, we have been drawn to the concept of a skete. Sketes are small monastic communities where two or three celibates live together. Because it’s rarely practical for a community of two or three to be completely self-sustaining, skete monastics frequently interact with more sizable monastic communities or with the world at large in order to support themselves. Skete monastics often choose very particular forms of ministry to do together and may describe themselves as partners in ministry. Like other monasteries, sketes exist because of a bishop’s blessing. Many large monasteries have a skete at their origins. It’s not terribly uncommon to see a small monastic community living as a skete entreating God to give the increase to their humble beginnings.

While we do not see ourselves as establishing an actual skete, we do try to pattern our lives significantly after what we have seen from skete monastics. We see ourselves as working hard to establish a sense of what lay celibacy in the world might look like, particularly when lived together as a pair. Specifically, we have a commitment to being an open book with our spiritual fathers about our life and ministry together. We earnestly desire to live into the fullness of our Christian tradition’s teachings, and we participate regularly in our local parish. Additionally, we regularly pray and discuss our shared ministry as a team of two (some might say “partnership”).

We have been living together for just over a year; it takes time to discern what work we should be giving ourselves to. We want God to guide our steps as we consider a multitude of ministry possibilities. We try to maintain a balanced rhythm in our life together. We have established dinner as a sacred time to share with one another. For example, it works best for us when Lindsey cooks and Sarah handles the after-dinner clean-up. We also try and balance the time we have together with time we spend in larger communities of one kind or another. We view our relationship as being principally oriented outward to serve the world, and we thank God for the ways we’ve found to use our ministry gifts that are unlocked by the presence of the other to love various people we have met.

There are certain monastics that stand out to us as we think about who has taught us about our vocation. Lindsey once stayed with a nun working in a local parish. This nun served as a critical backbone to her community, observing a daily cycle of morning and evening prayer. When she wasn’t in her chapel or attending to local services, she met regularly with students to offer spiritual direction. She carried forward the work she had begun with another nun, even after her partner in ministry was moved by the bishop to another city.

Sarah has never experienced more extravagant hospitality than was showcased by a hospice nurse who attended to Sarah’s grandmother. Sarah’s grandmother had reached the last few weeks of her life. This hospice nun absolutely lit up the room while providing palliative care to Sarah’s grandmother and getting to know everyone in Sarah’s family. Eleven-year-old Sarah had taken to making a fashion statement of wearing mismatched socks. The hospice nurse told the other nursing staff about Sarah’s self-expression and encouraged them to make a special cake in Sarah’s honor: the cake had two different colors of frosting, one on each side, much like Sarah’s socks. The nun made herself emotionally available to everyone in Sarah’s family during this difficult time. Nearly 18 years later, Sarah remembers this nun teaching that whenever a person or family experiences a time of significant distress, there needs to be someone else capable of giving his or her complete self in order to care for those ailing. Although it’s wonderful when people can give a little bit in those situations, the world needs people who can give everything by turning themselves fully outward to care for those who need it.

To be sure, we’re still working on embodying the virtues we see in monastics. A shared rule of prayer is one core attribute of monasticism we want God to open up to us more fully. Because our daily schedules are so variable, we struggle to discern a common prayer rule that we can keep together. Both of us keep individual rules of prayer, we have a disciplined practice of always blessing our food together, and we occasionally share times of spontaneous prayer. Nevertheless, we do hope that God will guide us towards a shared rule of prayer that we can keep together on a daily basis. Additionally, we regard vulnerability and hospitality as defining attributes of a celibate vocation. We frequently perceive ourselves as doing reasonably well in both of these areas, but we know that God still wants us to grow towards increasing vulnerability and hospitality. Lastly, although we believe strongly that God is calling us to a shared form of ministry, we know God is still telling us more about the work we are to do together. We don’t have everything figured out already–not by a long shot.

In conclusion, we are grateful for all of the ways God helps us to discern our vocation as a community of two, revealing to us more over time how he would have us serve the world as team of two and partners in ministry. We have learned so much from monastics, especially those who live in sketes. We are lay celibates living in the world, and as such we do not pretend for an instant that we embody monastic life fully. But we rejoice because each of our failures has given us room to grow towards Christ in ways we had never imagined.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Reading Romans 1 Differently

A reflection by Lindsey

Much of my personal sense of spirituality has been shaped by various evangelical movements within Christian traditions. When people ask me to describe my spirituality, I’ll frequently say something like “evangelical with a small ‘e.'” I understand the Gospel of Christ to be fundamentally good news, even the absolute best news to be delivered to this planet. I have a special love for the Gospel of Luke, the book written to present the story of Christ clearly to a Gentile audience. I am grateful for everyone I have met who has helped me learn how to read the Scriptures, to learn from them, and to apply them to my life.

There are certain Scriptures I’ve heard so often that they pop into my head completely unannounced. When I’m waiting for clarity in a decision, I’ll hear, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” As I take a moment to ponder the Resurrection, my heart leaps into a chorus of “Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered.” After I have presented a request to Christ in prayer, my brain reminds me, “His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.'” When I ponder the usefulness of reading the Scriptures, I find myself hearing, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

As much as there are certain Scriptures that organically spring to mind, there are also certain verses that often get thrown at me. Virtually every LGBT person who is or has been a Christian can talk about run-ins with 6 specific passages. Romans 1 ranks high on the list. What LGBT Christian has not sat down to lunch with a concerned Christian friend who pulls out his or her Bible to “share” these verses:

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

One of the things that always struck me about these lunchtime “heart to hearts” was how rarely the person sharing the verses thought they applied at all to him or her. After all, these verses have made the short list of what you should say when your friend indicates that he or she might be gay. I think it’s time to read Romans 1 differently. Specifically, what would happen if people began reading the Bible with the intention of seeing how the Scriptures spoke into their own lives as readers rather than focusing on how they might apply to others?

Throughout history, Scriptures have been abused by assertions that a certain verse applies exclusively to condemn a particular group of people. It’s a bit different when you start to consider yourself one of the out-group. I remember being in high school and performing in a passion play at my church. Turning to face the person playing the role of Jesus and shouting “Crucify Him!” caused me to read Matthew 27:25 a bit differently. Matthew 27:25 reads, “All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us and on our children!'” This verse historically has been used as a justification that the Jewish people bear a blood-guilt for killing Jesus. I cannot imagine the number of Christians who have used this particular verse in an attempt to justify anti-Semitic behavior.

However, it’s possible to read Matthew 27:25 differently. It’s possible for us as Christians to reflect on how we need Christ’s blood to cover us because we are people who have fallen short of the glory of God. Perhaps we will see how the crowd included those who, not even a week before, had greeted Jesus as a triumphant king. What would happen if we started to search our own hearts for ways that we all too easily reverse our attitudes towards God? My high school youth group showed me that I too could stand in the crowd shouting “Crucify Him!” More than a decade later, I can still play that memory back in full color.

The crowd gathered at the trial was the same crowd as the throng of people greeting Christ with palms shouting Hosanna. This discussion of Matthew 27:25 is relevant to how we might learn to read Romans 1 differently. After all, Romans 1 includes a significant discussion of how people have turned their backs on God: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools.”

I think all of us would benefit from reflecting on Romans 1:24, which says, “ Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.” The lusts of our hearts are many. We thirst for power, prestige, favor, and glory. In these pursuits, we often find ourselves dishonoring our bodies in countless ways. We punish our bodies through fad dieting and the latest exercise trends. We use our bodies to enact violence on other people or on creation. We run on the ever-present hamster wheel of materialism and deny our bodies adequate rest, nourishment, and refreshment. And that’s to say nothing about our diverse battles with concerns about sexual purity. Who among us has a perfect record of always honoring the body?

When we truly embrace that all Scripture is useful for teaching, we can see that we need to consider ourselves first among students. None of us can claim to be the head of the class. It can be hard to look at a particular passage and discern, “How does this text speak to my life? How can I possibly share how the Holy Spirit is inspiring me along my journey with Christ?” It’s all too easy to read the Scriptures and envision ourselves as the various protagonists: we can emulate Christ as he says, “Go and sin no more,” we can be the publican who prays humbly in the temple, and we can be prodigal son who has done the right thing in returning to the house of the father. It’s much harder for us to ask the Holy Spirit to show us how we might embody the people who are clearly on the wrong side of God’s judgement. How are we the Pharisees who have tied up heavy loads? How are we Judas who has betrayed Christ? And how are we like those who have exchanged the truth of God for a lie?

When we start asking those kinds of questions, we might just start reading Romans 1 a bit differently.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

On Feeling Betrayed

A reflection by Sarah

Everyone experiences betrayal at one time or another. It’s something we have to accept as part of the fallen world in which we exist. Sometimes people betray others intentionally; at other times, people inadvertently and carelessly betray one another. But regardless of the betrayer’s intentions, it can be very difficult to recover from the resulting harm.

Like most people, I’ve experienced betrayal in relationships. Heart-wrenching is the only term I know to describe how I felt upon learning that one of my exes had been having affairs with men and women behind my back in two different parts of the country. This feeling magnified when she decided to betray me still further by assassinating my character to our mutual friends during and after our breakup. Everyone has these kinds of stories. Nearly all adults can provide at least one tale of a relationship gone sour. But in addition to experiencing betrayal at the hands of specific friends, loved ones, and acquaintances, we can also feel betrayed by groups of people. While it’s possible to distance oneself from individuals, it’s not always possible to seek distance from certain groups, especially when you are part of those groups no matter how challenging it may be to engage with others on the inside. As a celibate, LGBT, Christian who is one-half of a celibate, LGBT couple, I find myself in a perpetual struggle with feeling betrayed by both conservative Christianity and the LGBT community. Quite often I get the impression that on the whole, neither group is willing to acknowledge my existence.

It’s probably not surprising to hear that as an LGBT person, I have felt marginalized in the Church, both in my current Christian tradition and in my former Christian tradition. I’ve been a Christian my entire life, and with the exception of some time I spent exploring more progressive Christian thought in college and early in graduate school, I have always been part of a conservative tradition of one kind or another. Over time as I’ve journeyed within traditional Christianity, I have developed a deep and abiding peace where I feel content, fulfilled, and (in the most positive sense) challenged by the Church’s wisdom. However, I cannot shake the feeling that there is nothing I can do to reconcile my faith and sexuality adequately in the eyes of conservative Christianity. There will always be someone who tells me, “Don’t do it this way. Do it that way.” There will always be a person who finds fault with my language, my process, and my way of life.

At one point in my former Christian tradition, I shared with a close friend that I was a lesbian thinking she would be supportive, and might even be willing to walk with me as I was navigating the tough questions of sexual ethics. Her immediate response was, “Don’t say that too quickly. People can always change.” For many dedicated straight Christians, it seems that an LGBT person’s embracing a celibate vocation will never be good enough. No matter what that person does, it seems that there will always be others ready to shake  fingers and pronounce, “There’s no such thing as a gay Christian.” If a person displays any willingness to use language of the LGBT community, then he or she is immediately suspect as a rabble rouser out to upend the Church.

Furthermore, many people with the conservative Church have no appreciation for how their words might affect LGBT Christians. I’ve experienced instance after instance of people getting away with incredibly hurtful and damaging comments, even when I have tried to express, “What you just said about gay people being child molesters is untrue and unnecessary.” As I have sought redress for comments people within the Church have made to me and others, more often than not the ball has been thrown back in my court because according to the majority of priests I’ve known, I must have done something morally questionable that invited the hostile remark. I must have said something that gave people legitimate cause to wonder about my willingness to live a holy life.

Within many conservative church settings, I’ve interacted with people who have fought tooth and nail to block any sort of legal recognition for LGBT people. These people have positioned themselves as “defending marriage” without realizing that much of what they are advocating has nothing to do with the definition of marriage. I have heard Christians argue that LGBT people should not have access to housing or should not be able to find jobs. In recent years, some of the more egregious examples have gone out of fashion and, as far as society is concerned, are now relegated to the “only true bigots believe that” category of ideas. However, I’ve noticed that the same folks I knew ten years ago who were willing to wage war over the possibility that LGBT couples might be able to have legally recognized relationships of any kind are the same folks who are now touting the possibility of civil partnerships as an alternative to gay marriage. From where I’ve sat on the sidelines of much of the marriage equality battle, I can’t help but observe that on some level, reactions from conservative Christian churches have given significant steam to the marriage equality movement. Perhaps the most profound way I feel betrayed by conservative Christianity is that, by all appearances, it has devoted so much energy to painting me into a legal corner with as few options as possible for meeting significant needs.

But as much as I’ve experienced a sense of betrayal within the Church, I have experienced just as much alienation and disappointment within the LGBT community. For starters, many LGBT people have no place for those who are intentionally celibate. Celibacy is cast as an oddity at best and a sign of sexual dysfunction or self-hatred at worst. I’ve experienced consistent pressure from the LGBT community (both the secular and liberal Christian factions) to be sexually active. This pressure significantly delayed my readiness to embrace my own vocation, even though I felt called to celibacy comparatively early in life. Other LGBT folks I’ve known from different contexts in my young adulthood have been quick to tell me that my experience of life is not possible, and I shouldn’t talk about my relationship with Lindsey in terms of celibacy because others have been forced into celibacy against their will. People have gone as far as bluntly commanding me to shut up because, despite our total renouncement of ex-gay ideology, Lindsey’s and my story reminds them too much of past trauma associated with celibacy. By that same logic, would it be appropriate to suggest that non-celibate couples shouldn’t get to talk about their relationships out of respect for those who have been traumatized by sexual activity…or even by marriage?

Outside of the explicitly Christian subset, I have always sensed the presence of a strong animosity towards organized religion within the LGBT community. For a community that sees itself as accepting of just about every kind of diversity, I’ve found that very few LGBT circles include space for people who practice Christianity, particularly of a traditional variety. Very soon after I moved to a new city for graduate school, I realized that a local gay bar was the only place I could go to find other people who shared some of my experiences. Since I lived only a couple of blocks away, I went regularly and tried to get involved in various lesbian social groups. However, as soon as the other women learned I was a graduate student in theology, a significant majority would stare at me–to borrow Jean Shepherd’s line from A Christmas Story–“as though I had lobsters crawling out of my ears.” I became accustomed to receiving questions like, “How can you study something that is so oppressive?” and, “Why did you sign up for that graduate program? Vestiges of internalized homophobia?” There was joking among some of my lesbian friends that I would become a nun, enter into an illicit lesbian relationship with another nun from the convent, and eventually ride off with her like Thelma and Louise, throwing caution to the wind.

And for all of its distrust of organized religion, the LGBT community has surprising bandwidth as it relates to organized politics. There seems to be an assumption that all of us want to be activists and are waiting for every opportunity to flex the community’s political muscle. Last year, Lindsey and I experienced what we perceived as betrayal by someone who was either part of the LGBT community or a strong ally. I had posted on my personal Facebook account about our being treated in a way that I regarded as discriminatory, and one of my Facebook friends decided to forward my name and email address to various media outlets without my consent. I began to receive contacts. As Lindsey and I discussed how to handle the situation, we made some decisions that might not have been the best for protecting our privacy, but we tried to be fair to us and to the party that had caused the discrimination in the first place. We received all sorts of criticism from members of the LGBT community about how we chose to treat the party that had wronged us. Several people asserted that we “owed it to the LGBT community” to broadcast the story in as many ways as possible. While we did get great support from many of our close friends, strangers from within the LGBT community cared more about leveraging our story for political purposes than about how the incident had impacted our lives. And of course, there was no interest in how our faith informed our choices as we navigated the situation.

Let’s not forget the marriage equality issue either. A few years ago, I encountered significant diversity amongst LGBT people concerning views on marriage. Some friends thought the fight for marriage equality was stupid because they viewed marriage as a patriarchal institution that could not be redeemed. Others had different reasons for being critical of the marriage equality movement, but those thoughts were usually heard and validated (unless they were religious). However, today–at least in my circles–things look very different. Any criticism of the marriage equality movement, even if it comes from a place of believing that some LGBT people should be able to marry, gets met with hostility.

Sometimes it’s absolutely exhausting to be deeply connected to two worlds where I’m constantly hearing messages about how and who I ought to be. As I’ve gotten closer to 30, I’ve become comfortable asserting, “I am who I am. What you see is what you get. And if you don’t like it, tough.” I’m not going to change who I am just to appease the sensibilities of a conservative Christian who thinks I’m the scourge of society or an LGBT person who says I’m not a real lesbian. But a tough exterior doesn’t change the fact I’ve felt so deeply betrayed by both communities, and I show a marked hesitation each time I interact with either. It has been made abundantly clear to me that both conservative Christianity and the LGBT community would rather assert that people like me do not exist.  The LGBT community would welcome me with open arms, until someone learns that I am celibate and I become the target of ridicule and pointed criticism. As for the conservative Christian community, my sense of betrayal stems from being excluded from the people of God. And when I consider how these different betrayals have manifested in my own life, I’m not surprised that many LGBT Christians have made choices to distance themselves from the Church, the LGBT community, or both.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Phasing out Civil Unions for the Sake of Marriage Equality is a Bad Idea

Last week, each of us independently posted an article from the Catholic Herald called “Don’t convert same-sex civil partnerships automatically into marriages, urge bishops” on our personal Facebook pages. Bishops in the UK are concerned that gay and lesbian Catholics who entered into civil partnerships in order to access legal protections will find themselves at odds with their faith tradition’s teachings on marriage if these partnerships are automatically converted into marriages without their consent. We thought the article from the UK context would generate a lot of interesting conversation because we both have diverse circles of friends with a wide range of views on sexual ethics and marriage equality. Upon seeing our friends’ responses, we were surprised by two things. 1) Very few of our American friends realized that some US states have already converted existing civil unions into marriages. 2) Many of our American friends with a more progressive sexual ethic were mystified as to why any LGBT couple would have a problem with their legal relationship being named a marriage. In today’s post, we want to highlight the reality that civil unions are being phased out while also discussing real concerns we have as a celibate, LGBT couple related to our various legal options.

In the United States, civil unions were once available in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Federal courts in those states have ruled that civil unions are a kind of “marriage lite” and violate equal protection. Therefore, the named states are in the process of phasing out civil unions entirely and some (e.g. Connecticut) are automatically converting or have already converted them into marriages. Civil unions are still available in some places: Colorado, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Illinois. However, we are concerned that it’s only a matter of time before civil unions become a relic of history rather than an available legal option.

We wish more Americans were talking about this issue. Why do we so readily accept marriage as the only viable legal pathway to gain certain rights and responsibilities to another significant person in your life? How is it that it is so easy to overlook the different kinds of people who benefited from the availability of civil unions? According to Cyril Ghosh of The Guardian:

“There are a number of good reasons why both heterosexual and homosexual couples may wish to enter into a civil union instead of a marriage. For example, for many couples, civil unions provide a secular alternative to marriage that aligns with their values. Some may not be ready for a commitment like “marriage” – a word that’s laden with history and tradition. Others may not wish to enter into a marriage contract because they believe the institution carries distinctly religious connotations. They may also see marriage as a patriarchal institution and be ideologically opposed to it. Finally, many couples that have been married and divorced may not be ready to marry again, even though they might want to codify their relationship with their current partners and lovers in some way.”

Civil unions also filled a void in elder care law by allowing widows and widowers legal pathways of supporting one another in various health care systems. It has been difficult for us to see civil unions as a unique concern of LGBT people. We know many who think that government should only be offering civil partnerships while letting various religious traditions retain control of the word “marriage,” and we’re mostly in agreement with that position. An oft-cited article from the New York Times highlights that as of 2010 in France where civil unions continue to be available, there are two civil unions for every three marriages. The vast majority of civil unions are amongst heterosexual people. Civil unions are slightly less popular in the Netherlands where there is one civil union for every eight marriages. Nonetheless, civil unions are thriving in these countries. They aren’t viewed as evidence of an oppressive “separate, but equal” system. They are important options for people who are willing to accept the responsibilities of being legally attached to another person, but do not, for whatever reason, want that relationship to be considered a marriage.

We should say at this point that it is not our intention to shame any of our friends and readers who have entered into same-sex marriages legally, religiously, or both. Today’s post is not meant as an argument against gay marriage, and if you’ve read many of our other posts you are likely aware that we believe all committed LGBT couples should be protected under the law and should be able to select the best available option for their particular situations and be informed by their faith traditions when making this decision. That said, we also believe it is important to ask ourselves whether the current progress of the marriage equality movement is in some ways hindering the freedoms of LGBT people who seek legal protection for their relationships, but do not want to enter into marriages.

From the beginning, we envisioned our relationship as something different from marriage. Part of this is influenced by the fact that we are part of a Christian tradition that teaches a traditional sexual ethic, and we strive to be obedient to all our tradition’s teachings. (If you’re thinking, “Why don’t you just go to a different church?” read this. We’ve already answered that question.) But the more significant reason is the conviction we share that God has called us in a very personal way to celibacy, and using the term “marriage” would introduce confusion regarding how we understand our celibate vocation. As we’ve stated in other posts, even in the unlikely event that our Christian tradition were to change its teachings on marriage and sexuality, we still wouldn’t be interested in getting married because we don’t see “marriage” as a fitting term for the ways we relate to each other. We don’t see our relationship as a romantic one. However, it is our wish to be considered each other’s next of kin in terms of health care, end of life, financial, housing, and other kinds of legal decisions, and an arrangement of the kind previously available through civil unions in some states would have met most (though not all) of our needs.

We’ve been counseled by friends to prepare certain types of legal documents (power of attorney, healthcare directives, wills, etc.) for ourselves, and we’re in the process of doing that. Still, those types of documents only go so far. They don’t solve other problems like access to retirement funds and access to assets (of which we currently have none, but hope to have someday) without a significant tax imposed when one of us reposes. They also don’t solve the problem that when Lindsey begins a new job this August, the health insurance policy offered by the job will require the two of us to be married in order for Sarah to access benefits. As Sarah–who experiences some significant health problems–does not receive health insurance through Sarah’s own job, and we’ve already had trouble trying to acquire it through the individual marketplace, this issue is particularly pressing. We’re not suggesting that civil unions are the panacea for all these issues, but we find it interesting that the message we keep hearing from everyone we contact for help is, “Why don’t you just get married???” The specifics of what a civil union does and does not provide for isn’t really the point here. It’s that phasing out civil unions narrows the conversation about how to make sure couples who can’t get married are protected.

Our own legal knowledge is very limited and perhaps an attorney can help us sort all these matters in one way or another. But it will likely be expensive, and many of our concerns would be resolved if, like other countries, the United States had some form of civil union in every state for both opposite-sex and same-sex couples. As things stand now with the marriage equality movement, it’s unlikely that civil unions will last much longer because they have become so strongly associated with inequality. If you’re wondering at this point, “Why don’t you go somewhere that performs civil unions and get one there?” the answer is simple. Civil unions are not recognized in all US states or internationally, and there’s no guarantee that eventually the civil unions currently being performed in Illinois, Hawaii, Colorado, and New Jersey will not be automatically converted into marriages at some point within the next few years. Where we live now, we do have the option of entering into a domestic partnership, but the rights associated with this legal relationship are minimal, and they are not recognized across state lines. We also have the option of legally marrying, but to do so would not only excommunicate us within our faith tradition but would also be an act of dishonesty since we do not understand our relationship as a marriage.

The most serious problem with phasing out civil unions and converting existing ones to marriages is that it forces all people within a particular state who desire a legally recognized relationship with their significant other to achieve that by getting married (with a domestic partnership option being available only in select places). We’re grateful for the strides that the marriage equality movement has made in terms of ending certain legally-sanctioned prejudices against LGBT people and couples, but at the same time we question the belief that “freedom to marry” means freedom for all members of the LGBT community. How is it freeing to know that the only option you have for full legal recognition is marriage when you don’t want your relationship referred to as such for religious or other reasons?

We’ve been told that we’re ungrateful to want a civil union considering how many people have struggled and fought for our right to marry each other. We’ve been asked, “Isn’t marriage good enough for you?” and we’ve even been told, “If you choose not to marry, any legal problems you face are of your own making.” All this from the same people who have claimed that American society before gay marriage showed no empathy or concern for the needs of LGBT couples. Please tell us, where is the empathy and concern for celibate LGBT couples, or do we not matter because many of us belong to conservative religious traditions? And what about all other groups of people who have benefited from the availability of civil unions? When fewer people could marry, more seemed to be interested in holding conversation about the needs of those who couldn’t marry. This dialogue included a diversity of concerns that reached beyond those of LGBT people wishing to marry their partners. How have we managed to forget that diverse needs require diverse legal options, and that marriage still leaves those needs unmet for many?

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