Celibacy as a “Layover”

“Celibacy is a necessary holding pattern for many LGBT people who are recovering from their experiences in the ex-gay world. I’m okay with talking about this way of life with the understanding that it isn’t meant to be permanent. After you gain a few more years of life experience and become more comfortable in your identities, you’ll be able to appreciate celibacy as a stop along the way to full acceptance of yourselves as LGBT Christians.”

This isn’t an exact quote, but rather a summary of dozens of messages that regularly hit our inbox. In response to several posts we’ve written (like this one, this one, and this one), some readers have sent us messages such as the one above, and others have contacted us to request that we write on the particular misconception about celibacy implicit in these messages.

As we’ve participated in the broader LGBT Christian conversation over the years, we’ve noticed prevalence in the idea that celibacy is a “layover” along the journey to self- acceptance. Usually, this assumption will come up in discussion the very first time we even mention the c-word to folks who know we are part of the LGBT community. At this point, we’ve lost count of how many times we’ve been told some variation of: “One day, you’ll come to accept yourselves as you are and you’ll not have to be celibate anymore.” Because we and other LGBT celibates hear this message so often, we think it’s important to address it directly in a post. We believe this message is unhelpful and inappropriate for several reasons.

Before we speak to some of these specifically, we want to be clear in our acknowledgement that for some people, temporary celibacy is part of a longer process that culminates in the embrace of a progressive sexual ethic. The purpose of this post is not to deny that this experience exists or to make a judgment about LGBT people who have come to view celibacy as a “layover” rather than a permanent way of life. Our intention is to discuss the assumption that all LGBT celibates will eventually come to view celibacy in this way and move on to sexually active relationships.

Having said that, here are the top three reasons we see the “celibacy as layover” message as problematic:

It degrades singleness and various kinds of intimate relationships that are not sexual. As we’ve written about in other posts, many people see marriage and other types of sexual relationships as rites of passage from adolescence into adulthood. In some Christian circles, it almost seems that there is a marriage mandate: if you aren’t married, others believe that something must be wrong with you. Though we did not address this directly in our first post on marriage, while preparing for it we heard from people of all sexual orientations and gender identities who find this pressure to marry troubling. It seems to us that seeing LGBT self-acceptance as contingent upon openness to sexual activity is not much different from seeing a sexually active way of life as the only “normal” vocation for any person. Both messages place harmful limits on the diversity of human experience, and neither leaves room for the stories of people who find fulfillment and connectedness in monastic or lay celibate life.

It posits incorrectly that all LGBT celibates are celibate for the same reasons. One variety of life experience that debates on LGBT sexual ethics frequently ignore is that of the person who has chosen celibacy but not because of a belief that same-sex sexual activity is sinful. He or she might not feel well suited to a lifelong partnership. Perhaps he or she finds that emotionally intimate friendships and other relationships meet all his or her needs for companionship. The “celibacy as layover” message seeks to make these types of experiences into something pathological, finding internalized homophobia even if there is none. Additionally, it suggests that all LGBT celibates either experience self-hatred on a personal level or are blindly obedient to an institution that promotes contempt against the LGBT community. It leaves no space for the possibility that an LGBT person has given his or her full consent to living a celibate vocation and is answering a call from God.

It labels LGBT celibates as poor, unfortunate souls who need help to reach liberation through expression of sexuality. This is possibly the most upsetting aspect of the “celibacy as layover” message for an LGBT celibate who has chosen his or her vocation freely after significant prayer and reflection. It negates the entirety of a person’s process of coming to terms with his or her sexuality, assuming that there must be some element missing from that process if sexual activity does not become part of an LGBT person’s life. Though not always the case, we hear this notion most often from straight people. To us, that makes it even more troubling because the person offering the message is implying that he or she knows better than we do what is best for us. Every time we hear others’ opinions on how pitiful, deluded, and frightened we must be to have chosen celibacy and how much more liberated we would feel if we would just give in and have sex, we wonder about what “liberation” actually means to the person making these statements. In what sense is pressuring another human being to engage in a sexual relationship “liberating”?

The common thread amongst all uses of the “celibacy as layover” message as we’ve heard it is that it’s often posed as an affirming statement to help people integrate faith and sexuality. Once again, we do not wish to deny the experiences of LGBT people who have lived celibacy temporarily and have later adopted other ways of life. But it’s erroneous to suggest that all LGBT celibates will eventually engage in sexual activity or else spend the rest of our lives in misery. We wonder what other kinds of messages might be intended as affirming and helpful, but can actually be limiting, oppressive, or harmful to members of the LGBT community. If you have thoughts on this, please share in the comments.

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