What does it mean to be “affirmed”?

Pro-gay and anti-gay, Side A and Side B, liberal and orthodox. We’ve heard these terms thrown around regularly in discussions about LGBT issues within both Christian and secular contexts. Some people refer to these dichotomies as though the terminology is interchangeable, which causes great confusion (i.e. many people who would identify with the term “orthodox” would not consider themselves “anti-gay”). Within the past couple of years, we’ve noticed that another set of dichotomous terms has emerged within the conversation: affirming and non-affirming. This language seems to be taking off both within the LGBT Christian blogosphere and in published works on this topic, and as far as we can tell it is used almost exclusively by people who believe in a progressive sexual ethic. When we have asked our friends who prefer the terms “affirming” and “non-affirming” as opposed to others for describing one’s viewpoint on sexual ethics, the most common response we’ve received is, “Those descriptions are less stigmatizing than others and are more conducive to dialogue about LGBT Christian issues.”

To be honest, we have trouble seeing that perspective. It seems to us that interchanging “anti-gay,” “Side B,” and “orthodox” as though they’re attempting to communicate the exact same concept is problematic enough, and replacing these terms with the word “non-affirming” only exacerbates the problem. The same issue exists when replacing “pro-gay,” “Side A,” and “liberal” with “affirming.” As we see it, no one is actually asking the question, “What does it mean to be affirmed?” Rather, the assumption is that in order to be “affirming,” a person must hold theological beliefs that sexually active same-sex relationships are morally equivalent to sexually active opposite sex relationships, and that same-sex marriages should be performed within all Christian traditions.

Last week on Facebook, one of our straight friends observed that, “No matter how much you love and care about an LGBT, ‘Side A’ person, if you don’t support modern sexual ethics, you might as well be in league with the Westboro Baptist Church.” It’s a bit of hyperbole, but something in that statement resonated with us because of the challenges we’ve faced in advocating for our own needs for affirmation. We’ve observed that the process of defining the terms “affirming” and “non-affirming” privileges the perspectives of LGBT people with progressive sexual ethics and ignores the experiences of those who hold to a traditional sexual ethic. While we’re interested in hearing all stories that other LGBT Christians are willing to share with us, including those from people whose beliefs are different from ours, we feel it’s time to share a different take on what it means to be affirmed. Today, we’re going to tell you more about what makes the two of us, and many other LGBT celibates, feel affirmed within our faith communities.

We feel affirmed when other Christians ask questions and avoid making assumptions about what words mean, what we believe, and what our doing life together means to us. It’s comforting when we know that the other folks in our parish are able to talk to us openly and honestly just like they are with everyone else. We appreciate it when our fellow parishioners are willing to ask us, “Why do you prefer to use the language of LGBT?” instead of insisting, “If you’re not having sex, you’re not really LGBT. You should say instead that you ‘struggle with same-sex attraction (SSA).'” When folks ask us about our sexual ethic instead of presuming that it must be progressive because we’re LGBT, we feel welcomed in church exactly as we are. And we feel especially affirmed when members of our parish show interest in talking with us about how we see our way of life as opposed to glancing at us with suspicion every Sunday. We appreciate people who have gone the extra mile to invite us into their homes for dinner in order to have these conversations because it shows they really care about getting to know us.

We feel affirmed when other Christians are willing to engage in thoughtful conversation with us about areas of disagreement. Whether we’re interacting with someone whose sexual ethic is more liberal than ours or someone who disagrees with our approach to living celibacy together instead of apart, it’s important to us that we can participate in civil and edifying discussions about LGBT Christian issues. If a person only wants to preach at us without listening to our perspective, or alternatively is too afraid to express disagreement with us on any issue, we feel unwelcome. For us, an important part of affirmation is knowing that other Christians would consider involving us in tough conversations just as readily as they would ask us to participate in discussion of less contentious matters.

We feel affirmed when other Christians are friendly and hospitable to us and also allow us the opportunity to extend them friendship and hospitality. Being the Church is about being community–one that is not only united in belief, but is also united in commitment to loving each person. When members of our parish are able to connect with us somewhere within the 99% of life that has nothing to do with sexual ethics, we feel like we are truly part of one big family. We appreciate it when others can see us as Lindsey and Sarah with all our virtues, vices, interests, and personality traits instead of viewing us as “the LGBT couple” or “the celibate LGBT couple.” We love getting to know everyone in our parish, and being able to practice hospitality toward our fellow parishioners is an important part of what makes us feel affirmed.

We feel affirmed when our priest and other Christians welcome us to full participation within the life of the parish. We are very blessed to have a priest who invites us to use our gifts for the good of the whole community. We’re grateful that in our parish, we are able to participate in all ways that are available to unordained members of our Christian tradition. Shortly after we joined our current parish, we were invited to fill a slot in the rotation for families serving coffee hour. Sarah assists with teaching Sunday school. On the Feast of Pentecost this year when our worship service included readings of Acts 2:2-4 in multiple languages, Lindsey contributed by reading in Spanish and Sarah participated by signing the passage in American Sign Language. We feel not only welcome but also encouraged to participate in service projects, educational activities, and all other aspects of parish life just like everyone else.

We feel affirmed when other Christians acknowledge our humanity and dignity. When we know that the people at our church view us as people and not a project, we can relax and be ourselves. So many Christians claim license to tell LGBT people what we should or shouldn’t be doing. People who respect that we are human beings with dignity, created in God’s image and likeness are usually not interested in speculating on or policing decisions we make in our personal lives. We feel welcomed at church when other members of our faith community do not take it upon themselves to give us ethics lessons every Sunday and are instead willing to let our spiritual fathers counsel us as needed.

As we were listing and explaining each of the above points, we couldn’t help but notice that what makes us feel affirmed in church is the same basic set of items that would likely come across as “affirming” or at least “welcoming” for LGBT and heterosexual, cisgender people alike. Do not most Christians seek faith communities where members are willing to ask questions, listen, engage in conversation, be friendly and hospitable, welcome others to full participation, and recognize the divine image in each person?

For one of our Saturday Symposium questions, we asked our readers what they think it means to be affirmed. Some (both on the post itself and on Twitter) responded that true affirmation necessitates blessing marriages for same-sex couples. But others broadened the focus to helping people feel welcome and loved in general. One commenter, Jonas Weaver, stated that in his opinion support of same-sex relationships is part of the issue, but, “Affirmation is treating them with full weight and dignity and allowing them the freedom of conscience. Oddly, true affirmation sounds a heck of a lot like friendship.” Another commenter, LJ, mentioned, “It would be helpful to have a term to describe people who don’t believe that same sex ‘consummated’ relationships are ok, but basically aren’t jerks to LGBT folks.” It gladdens us to know that there are people with a liberal sexual ethic who do not reduce the issue of affirmation to a statement of, “I’m okay with it if you and your same-sex partner have sex and get married.”

More often than not, we feel caught between a rock and a hard place where the concept of “affirmation” is concerned. Most LGBT people we know would insist that for an individual or church to be considered “affirming,” he/she/it must support the blessing of same-sex marriages and hold that same-sex sexual activity is no different morally from opposite sex sexual activity. However, this approach to defining “affirming” removes freedom of conscience from the picture altogether. If a person or church must reach a particular moral conclusion on this issue in order to be “affirming” in the truest sense, isn’t this basically saying that those people and churches who offer an authentic hand of friendship to everyone while maintaining a traditional sexual ethic are actually hateful and homophobic? Is this manner of thinking about “affirming” and “non-affirming” suggesting that those with a traditional sexual ethic don’t know how to love? Perhaps refuse to love? Do one’s intellectual capacities for sorting this issue deserve respect only if one reaches a liberal conclusion?

Most of the time, we feel disenfranchised because progress within the marriage equality movement seems to throw couples like us, and arguably LGBT celibate singles as well, under the bus. It’s easy to assume that all LGBT people, even the conservative ones, are eagerly awaiting a future in which every Christian tradition will perform same-sex marriages and everyone will be “free to marry.” But what many people, including several friends of ours, consider “affirming” would actually cause us to feel oppressed within our Christian tradition. One concern that continues to grow for us is that as people with a progressive sexual ethic claim the word “affirming” for themselves, conservative straight Christians may become less and less willing to engage with LGBT Christians at all. It would be a profound loss if straight people with a traditional sexual ethic felt they could no longer extend a hand of friendship to any LGBT person for fear that doing so would inadvertently communicate theological agreement. We’re already seeing this happening. The word “affirm” has two dictionary definitions: 1) State as a fact. Assert strongly and publicly; and 2) Offer someone emotional support or encouragement. As we see it, the world would be a much better place if all of us could focus on the second definition.

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