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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11 thoughts on “What does it mean to be “affirmed”?

  1. I shared this blog post on Facebook because I think it is a really import point and you articulated it very well!

    I have a gay friend who was told that he was no longer allowed to a lead a small group Bible study, participate in the choir, or interpret the sermon in ASL at his church after he spoke openly about being gay after being asked a question about it at a Bible study. His parents were also asked to step down from their leadership positions in the church, when his mother posted a status on Facebook that was pro gay rights. As a friend of his and his family I was infuriated, but he handled the situation with grace and mercy and ultimately found another church where he was affirmed.

    Anyway, that is just one example of why I think this blog post is so important and something all Christians should read. Thank you for teaching me how to be affirming to my LGBT friends in the life and especially in the church setting.

    • Hi Sarah, thanks so much for reading, your comment here, and sharing this post. The story about your gay friend is all too common in many churches, unfortunately. Many church communities have a knee-jerk response to LGBT people where LGBT people are welcome to warm the chairs and give financially but barred from further participation. Additionally, some church communities have a tendency to jump to conclusions about what is going on when a person says he or she is LGBT. We’re so sorry to hear of your friend’s experience. As a person already involved in a particular community, it sounds like he had to make a choice between being known and being loved.

  2. This is a great post. Again, your thoughtfulness in addressing the language we use has given me pause to consider my own assumptions.

    For me, the struggle to remain (or not) in the church in any meaningful way comes down to fear – my own, and fear I perceive in others, especially those in leadership. The notions of welcoming, engaging, and affirming LGBT people and engagement with LGBT-related topics has been so politicized both within and without the Church. The general tenor of any kind of politics in the United States does not allow much middle ground in which to have civil and compassionate conversation. Some of that politicization seems appropriate to me when it comes to issues of safety and equal access to important resources for LGBT folk, but it also makes it feel that anyone who expresses any kind of opinion on LGBT-related topics has thus set themselves up as a target for mud-slinging. So, it requires courage and risk to walk out there into the middle ground, stand up, open my mouth, and make myself visible. For me it feels like a very big risk because this conversation is no longer abstract, but very personal. I fear being dismissed or shut down; I fear being shuttered away in a corner (figuratively) by those in leadership; I fear being told in no uncertain terms that the community does not welcome this conversation – because I don’t know how to take that without also hearing that the community does not welcome ME. Perhaps as I grow I won’t be so quick to feel those stings as personal slights.

    I appreciate what you’ve outlined here as affirmation. I think you are right on in the effort to examine what various ‘labels’ actually mean in your (and other) contexts. Because we can shout about labels all we want, and that shouting is pretty easy, and it’s easy to find others who like the same labels we do. But when we get down to brass tacks and really talk about what labels mean and why, then we are starting to do the real work.

    • Hi Suzanne, we’re glad to hear that you’re trying to do what you can to try and encourage these conversations, even if you feel like it’s fraught with difficulties. Thanks for your transparency in acknowledging your own anxieties. If there’s anyway we can be more directly helpful for you as you try to have these tricky conversations with your local church, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

  3. In the mainstream LGBT community, there’s a debate over whether friends and family who treat you with love and respect while holding religious or political views that are critical of homosexuality should be seen as enemies who secretly hate us. I’ve always felt deeply uncomfortable with the idea that a person’s public actions towards you mean less than whether or not their privately held views are exactly the ones you’d like them to be. When I recently married my partner, we were delighted that several family members who are also members of conservative religious communities came to celebrate with us. I worry when it seems that these sorts of connections and relationships between people with different views are discouraged or prevented, and feel blessed to have those connections in my own life.

    • Thanks for reading! We’re glad you chose to comment here. We’re glad several family members could join in your celebrations, even if you all don’t agree about everything. Sometimes it’s great to show up and do life together.

  4. I liked reading this post and I wish my pastor could see it. I will send it to him. I think you two will help a lot of people learn about how to treat others better.

  5. If you don’t affirm gay marriage, you are the enemy. I don’t know how it can be any clearer. There is no such thing as loving a gay person without affirming their right to be married.

    • We disagree with that opinion, Alex, but we would be interested in hearing more about your perspective. Why would you say that a person who is kind to LGBT people but does not support same-sex marriage is automatically the enemy of LGBT people?

      • I think it is very easy. Would a person who believes interracial marriage is immoral an enemy of interracial couples even if they are kind to them. Of course we would say they are. How about a person who opposes equal rights for African Americans but are otherwise kind to them.

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