When Definition Undercuts Mystery

A reflection by Sarah

“You’re not really a lesbian, Sarah.”

“Why? What do you mean?”

“You like girls, but I can’t see you ever having sex with one, much less having a real relationship with one. If you really are a lesbian, you have sex with women, or at least want it.”

It has been 11 years since my friend Daniel and I exchanged these words over chicken tacos in our college cafeteria. I’ve thought about this conversation on a handful of occasions over the past decade, but never so strongly as within the past week. As I’ve perused the usual blogs and news sources that make their way into my reading queue, I’ve been surprised at how many posts and articles have led me back to the memory of my conversation with Daniel and how it marked the beginning of our friendship’s end.

For as long as I can recall, I’ve had an uneasy relationship with labels and categories, especially those with rigid boundaries that seem arbitrary. Labels and categories have utility. I’m not denying that. But almost always, attempts to define where lines should be drawn result in privileging some experiences while disqualifying others altogether. Because my own experience of sexuality and sexual orientation is not what most would consider typical, I’m entirely uncomfortable with drawing neatly-defined categorical boxes around LGBTQ terminology. Furthermore, I consider the search for one common factor that qualifies certain people but not others as LGBTQ to be a fool’s errand.

More frequently now than ever, I see people defining sexual orientation in a narrow manner. Some people will say that sexual orientation is all about sex or the desire for the sex, or that it should be defined primarily by sexual desire even if it encompasses multiple attributes. Others believe that sexual orientation should be defined by a person’s current level of sexual activity, or the sexual orientation/gender identity of a person’s partner. These ways of defining sexual orientation are often rooted in the definer’s experience of sexuality. If one experiences one’s own sexuality as a desire for sex, then it can be easy to assert that everyone of the same sexual orientation experiences sexuality in this way. I can understand the temptation to this because in the LGBTQ community, it’s common for people to gravitate towards others who have similar experiences of sexuality. For some, having shared definitions for terms like “gay” and “lesbian” provides a sense of unity and comfort.

However, I did not come out as a lesbian because I had an acute, burning desire for sexual intimacy with people of my same sex. For most of my life, I’d had an inkling that something about me was different from other females I knew. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what that meant or what was at the core of it, but everything began to make much more sense once I met other lesbians. Over time, I started to see sexuality and gender as profoundly mysterious. I came to believe that the mystery of sex, sexuality, and gender exists to draw us deeply into meaningful relationships with other people.

As I reflect on my conversation with Daniel, I can’t help but ask myself why we are so uncomfortable with the idea of sex, sexuality, and gender as mystery. Sometimes, answering with “It’s a mystery” is a cop-out and an attempt to quiet discussion. Yet as I take this approach to understanding myself and my lesbian sexual orientation, I am amazed at how much I continue to learn about what it means that I and others around me are sexual beings. I find myself eager to explore further what exactly it means that I am a lesbian, trusting that as God teaches me more about myself I’ll be brought to greater awareness of what my sexual orientation means as part of my identity. Let me be clear: I am not confused about my sexual orientation, and I do not expect one day to wake up and be straight, bisexual, or of some other orientation. But I do believe that God still has much more to show me about who he has created me to be.

Had I not come to a sense of peace in approaching sexuality as a mystery and accepting that it might be beyond definition and categorization, I wouldn’t have been able to make any sense of my sexuality and sexual orientation whatsoever up to this point. I am a lesbian. I experience attraction to women. Occasionally that attraction does include sexual thoughts. However, I experience sexual desire rather infrequently. I can’t even remember the last time I had a desire for sex. I am committed to sharing life with a partner whom I love, but to whom I am not sexually attracted, and who has trouble picking out which letters of the alphabet soup are the best fit. We’re committed to living a celibate way of life together. When I discuss my sexuality with others, some people will assert that I’m not a lesbian if I’m not having sex. Others will say that perhaps I used to be a lesbian but am no longer because I haven’t experienced the desire for sex in such a long while. Then there are those who will tell me that “partner” is not the right word to describe my relationship with Lindsey because I’m not sexually attracted to Lindsey. This latter group will assert that friendship is the only term that can rightly describe our relationship, or that we must be lying about our commitment to celibacy and failing to see that we’re just imitating marriage. Some people assert that I cannot know my sexual orientation because Lindsey hasn’t yet decided on a particular label for Lindsey.

At times, dealing with these assertions becomes maddening. If I were to devote any amount of my precious energy to sorting how my experience squares with established definitions instead of rolling with the terminology that feels most right to me, I wouldn’t have any strength left to focus on loving other people. And one thing I can say for sure about my sexuality is that every part of it involves a broader pattern of loving, relating to, and interacting with others.

I find it irksome when conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity become so caught up in definitions that differences in lived experience never enter the discussion. Eventually, Daniel’s insistence upon defining my sexuality for me led to the very painful decision that ending our friendship was necessary. Lately, I’ve seen the same pattern of conversation happening when it comes to issues of LGBTQ people in the Church. People across a wide range of positions look to rigid boundaries around what it means to be LGBTQ. I wonder if people are so protective of labels and categories because they believe that keeping definitions narrow and based on their own experiences is the only way to ensure that their voices are heard. I wonder if we fail to leave space for the mystery of sexuality and gender because many people see labels and their definitions as valuable guideposts. Perhaps there’s a fear that saying, “I don’t know” in a conversation about sexuality gives critics a new opportunity for attack. But sometimes, at least in my experience, the more I learn about my sexuality, the more I see how little I actually know about this mystery. And sometimes, “I don’t know” are the three most freeing words I can possibly say.

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.

Saturday Symposium: Reasons for Choosing Celibacy

Good morning, readers. By the time you see this post on Saturday morning, the two of us will be almost a full day into a weekend retreat with some of our dearest friends. Please pray for us during this time of much-needed spiritual rejuvenation. We’ll be (mostly) unplugged until Sunday evening, so it’s going to take us a bit of extra time to reply to all responses from last week’s surprisingly popular question. We’ve read them all and have spent the whole week reflecting. We’re eager to get back to you with our thoughts.

Even though we’re out of town and away from the internet for the weekend, we didn’t want to leave you without a new 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: “Why did you choose celibacy?” is probably the most predictable question we receive, both in real time and from blog readers. It seems almost everyone involved in the conversation about Christianity and the LGBT community has an opinion about celibacy, particularly the issue of why some LGBT people choose to become celibate. There are hundreds of reasons a person might choose a celibate way of life. In your opinion, are some of these reasons better than others? Are some more problematic than others? Do a person’s reasons for choosing celibacy matter? Do they matter more for LGBT people than for heterosexual, cisgender people who choose 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.

Ask Yourself These Questions Before Entering a Celibate Relationship

As you can probably imagine, many people ask us for advice about celibate relationships, how realistic that concept is, and how to make such a relationship work. Several people can be frustrated by our typical reply: we don’t think we’re very good at giving advice. However when enough people ask us the same question, we think we ought to address it to the best of our ability. We know a fair number of people who are living in celibate partnerships, have moved from celibate relationships to non-celibate relationships, or have experienced failed celibate relationships. Newcomers to our blog often ask us if we think celibate partnerships could be a viable vocational option for LGBT Christians more broadly. In responding to that question, we have to keep in mind that we’ve seen so many people hurt within celibate partnerships. That this happens (and probably quite often) doesn’t surprise us. There’s no real guidance from any Christian tradition on what this way of life might mean or look like.

In our own lives, we’ve learned that reflecting on celibacy periodically helps us discern what God would have us do together. We wanted to share some of the questions we encourage others to consider when thinking about celibate partnership as a way of living out a vocation to celibacy. Since we do not consider ourselves capable of making judgments as to whether another person should enter a celibate partnership, we hope the questions that follow might support people discerning whether entering a celibate partnership is a good decision.

1. Is loneliness my primary motivation for seeking a celibate relationship? If the answer is yes, know that being in a relationship (celibate or not) with another person isn’t a cure-all for loneliness. Everyone feels lonely sometimes–even people who are in committed relationships. But if that’s why you’re seeking a celibate relationship, more than likely you’ll find that a significant other will not fill the void.

2. Do I have a strong sense of what my sexual ethic is? If the answer is no, it’s probably wise to take more time to discern your sexual ethic within the context of your Christian tradition before entering a celibate relationship. For any relationship to be healthy, it’s necessary that both partners can talk candidly about this topic, even if there are disagreements. You’ll need to know how committed the other person is to celibacy. If you’re entering an intentionally celibate relationship with a person whose sexual ethic differs from yours, it’s especially important to have your own sorted.

3. Have I come to a sense of peace and acceptance concerning my sexual orientation? We’re going to be blunter than usual with this one: if the answer is no, then you are certainly not ready to begin a celibate relationship. If you try, it is highly likely that you will both end up feeling miserable and the relationship will fail. We have seen this happen many times to people we know and love. We know what it’s like to have trouble accepting oneself as LGBT, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to finding peace and a sense of comfort within your own skin. But if you’re not there yet, please don’t commit to a celibate relationship at this time.

4. Do I have an idea of what celibacy might mean for me? It’s vital that a person who chooses celibacy explores the meaning of this state of life. Some people choose celibacy because they feel called by God. Others choose celibacy in obedience to their Christian traditions even though they don’t feel called. People choose celibacy for the short-term, for the long-term, and indefinitely. Every celibate person is different, but willingness to ask, “What does it mean for me?” is necessary for living a sustainable way of life whether single or coupled.

5. Am I willing to receive and accept spiritual counsel within my faith community regarding my way of life? This one can be particularly tough because most humans struggle with pride, and many LGBT people experience fear after negative past experiences of seeking spiritual guidance. However, it’s necessary to ask this question because we can’t always see clearly the areas of our lives where we are failing to be Christlike. This is especially true when undertaking roads less traveled, such as living a celibate vocation in the same household as another person. It’s okay that saying yes to this one is hard, but if you aren’t willing to do it you are probably setting yourself up for failure by entering a celibate relationship.

6. Do I understand celibate partnership as a loophole within a legalistic celibacy mandate? If you read our blog regularly, you know that we prefer to discuss LGBT celibacy in terms of vocation rather than in terms of mandates. Some LGBT celibates do view celibacy within the framework of a mandate and are comfortable with that. Either way you understand celibacy, it’s not a good idea enter a celibate relationship if you understand the decision as “barely on the right side of God’s law.” This understanding of celibate partnership will likely lead to unhealthy obsessions with line-drawing.

7. Is fear of being sexually active my primary motivation for seeking a celibate relationship? If a friend told us that he/she had chosen celibacy either temporarily or permanently because of fearing sexual relationships, we would gently encourage that friend to seek counseling. If that same friend mentioned thoughts of beginning a celibate relationship in order to avoid dealing with these fears permanently, we would do everything possible to discourage that decision. Fear of sexual intimacy is often linked to fear of other types of intimacy. Entering a celibate relationship will not shelter you from ever having to experience intimacy with someone else.

8. Am I seeking an arrangement that is effectively a same-sex marriage without the sex? It’s possible that there are some celibate couples who do view themselves as celibate marriages, or marriages minus sex. We’re not here to judge those people or those relationships. But the healthiest celibate partnerships we’ve known among our friends have been those that come from very different places than desire to imitate marriage. Controversial statement here: if you do view your celibate relationship as “marriage lite,” it’s unlikely that the relationship will remain celibate. Before entering a celibate relationship, consider how you might learn from monastics and singles as well as married people as you continue to discern your vocation.

9. Do I envision being part of a celibate relationship that is inwardly focused? If the answer is yes, you’re envisioning something quite different from a vocation. Any relationship that is totally focused on itself with no concern for the broader world will likely have difficulty manifesting the Kingdom of God. We believe that this is true for celibate partnerships, other ways of living celibacy, and marriages. If you’re interested in a relationship that involves romantic dates but no greater purpose than making each other happy, you’re missing the point of vocation entirely.

10. Am I willing to take both the good and the bad when it comes to doing life with another person if we decide to live our celibate vocations together long-term? Anytime people commit to living the rest of their lives together, there will be seasons of fast and seasons of famine–spiritually, financially, physically, emotionally, in every way. This is true for marriages, monastics, and other ways of doing life in community. If you’re seeking a long-term celibate partnership, you must have a willingness to be there for the other person even during difficult times. If you can’t do that, you’re probably not ready for a celibate partnership or any lifelong vocational commitment.

11. Am I prepared for the reality that I will make mistakes? If you think life as a celibate pair will be perfect, free from all sin, and ideal in every way, think again. You’re human. You will make mistakes. You will sin against others. If you’re in a celibate (or non-celibate) partnership, you will sin against your partner, yourself, and God at some point (and no, we are not necessarily talking about sexual sin here). If you cannot accept the fact that celibate partnerships aren’t sin-free, you are not ready to enter one.

We’ve found that many people are interested in exploring celibate relationships before they stop to consider their own motivations for desiring these kinds of arrangements. In our own lives together, we’ve realized that entering a celibate partnership and keeping the focus on celibacy takes considerable intentionality. It’s not impossible, but doing so involves commitment to prayerfulness, mutual support, and (sometimes brutal) honesty. We thought through all of our own questions before we decided to explore the possibility that we, as Sarah and Lindsey, would make a good team for the long haul. And we expect that there will be seasons of life in the future when we will need to return to our previous responses for further reflection.

The comments section is open, and we would love to hear your thoughts!

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.

The Idolatry of People-Pleasing

It’s no secret that LGBT people in the Church frequently deal with criticism. We’ve spoken to how it can be challenging for LGBT Christians to find a church home, ways that people draw lines to separate the “good” gays from the “bad” gays, how LGBT people are expected to conform perfectly to standards of morality, and how some churches can regard the mere presence of an identifiable LGBT person as a distinct threat. The question is not whether the criticism will come, but is instead how we will deal with that criticism that will inevitably arise. Sometimes, responding directly to others’ opinions and critiques is necessary and helpful. Meaningful conversation would not be possible without some level of disagreement; no one experiences intellectual growth as a result of interacting only with people who share one’s worldview in totality. But at other times we wonder if the urge to respond to real or perceived criticism introduces toxicity into our lives.

In our position as a celibate couple who blog regularly, we feel under the microscope quite often, and that’s to be expected because of our choice to share publicly about our personal experiences. We are coming to realize that there will always be people who claim our relationship is something that it’s not, tell us that we ought to wear our celibacy on our foreheads if we don’t want to be perceived as a threat, claim for any number of reasons that we should stop talking about celibacy altogether, and/or disapprove of our lives in one way or another without ever telling us directly. Learning how to cope with these various levels of scrutiny is a challenge. It’s no wonder that a lot of LGBT Christians, ourselves included, develop people-pleasing tendencies. Though the temptation to please others has an obvious source, we have to admit that focusing our efforts on appeasing others’ judgments is unhealthy.

There’s a fine line between defending oneself and engaging in people-pleasing. In today’s political climate, almost every LGBT person encounters situations where he or she needs to respond to another person’s comment or action. Many LGBT Christians can feel like our place in churches we call “home” is precarious. Saying the wrong thing in the wrong environment can lead to significant consequences. However, always sitting on the edge of one’s seat because one expects to be shown the door can cause an any person to shift from standing up for himself or herself towards dangerous forms of people-pleasing. It’s even possible for people-pleasing to become idolatrous.

Constant people-pleasing behaviors can lead to obsession over what others think. When a person has experienced significant judgment from others, he or she can develop a habit of trying to get inside of the critic’s head. When we assume what another is thinking, we can imagine the worst even in the best of situations. A snowball effect can begin wherein we observe that a member of our parish has glanced at us with an odd facial expression and, not even five minutes later, we are imagining that person must be one step away from complaining about us to our priest. All this happens entirely inside our own heads without any external conversation. In the absence of dialogue, panic arises from envisioning that everyone else is making assumptions about how we live our lives. But regardless of how common a reaction this is, people-pleasing tendencies are destructive because they can put a stopper on real conversation.

People-pleasing can get in the way of seeing where we actually fall short. Obsessing over what other people think can prevent us from searching our own hearts. Feeling the need to prove constantly that we are living faithful lives can block our abilities to appreciate how sin interferes with our relationship with God. Constantly worrying about whether a particular person from church thinks we are not living a proper sexual ethic takes up the headspace necessary to contemplate our tendencies toward pride, anger, and other passions that have nothing to do with sex. From time to time, we notice ourselves thinking more about what might be offending other people in our faith tradition than taking inventory of the real ways we are offending God. We could be a lot more patient, loving, joyous, thankful, and forgiving if we did not devote so much of our time to worrying about other people’s thoughts. The noise created when a person cares so much about what other people think can block God’s still, small voice almost entirely.

When we get caught up in people-pleasing, we do a disservice to others by catering to unreasonable expectations. Doing everything possible to appease another’s sensibilities can be harmful to that person’s spirituality. In instances where others really are making unfair judgments about us, changing totally innocent behavior just to please them effectively removes from them all responsibility for taking a look at their own spiritual lives. Oftentimes, the things that offend us are indicative of the sin lurking in our own hearts and minds. When we make aggressive attempts to people-please, we can enable the judgment within another’s heart and discourage him or her from examining that.

Additionally, we often end up drawing artificial lines and second-guessing behaviors that are totally innocuous. We fret over questions that arise in our own minds: “Will someone find it inappropriate for Lindsey to refill Sarah’s water glass when we’re eating together at church? Is sitting next to or across from each other at the table more likely to result in gossip about the intimacy of our relationship?” As we write this, we’re a bit ashamed of how absurd those questions sound. Maybe some people do analyze our every move in public. Maybe no one does. But whenever we listen to the internal voice that compels us to worry about that, we stop relating to the world as our authentic selves, and we start putting on various masks to everyone else around us. More often than not, attempting to please others leads us to behave rigidly and create arbitrary boundaries that we would never consider implementing during times when we’re tension-free and hanging out with the folks who know us best.

Focusing so much on how certain people see us prevents us from being able to connect meaningfully with others. If we’re worried constantly about what other people think, it’s virtually impossible to get to know those folks as people. When interacting with a person who we know holds some kind of unfair judgment against us, sometimes we have difficulty seeing beyond that judgment. We have trouble remembering that the person we are looking at is a human being who bears the image of God and cannot be reduced to his or her incorrect judgment on the issue in question. Seeing a person as nothing more than a puppet for a particular ideology is dehumanizing and unchristian, and we need to put a stop to that.

Caving to the temptation of people-pleasing distracts us from living into and discerning our vocation. When we do this, we shift away from living a vocation of hospitality, intimacy, vulnerability, and shared spiritual life that is turned outward to the world. Instead we adopt a vocation of, “Do what’s necessary to keep everyone happy with us and prevent them all from realizing that we’re actually human.” This latter “vocation” is no vocation at all. When we are trying to avoid doing anything that rubs another person the wrong way, we can find ourselves paralyzed and doing nothing at all. Vocations involve striving to manifest the Kingdom of God to the world. Doing nothing for fear of upsetting another is a poor witness. We might even go as far as saying it’s burying our talent in the ground. Not only that, it is entirely self-centered and self-serving to behave as though one’s purpose in life is nothing more than, “get through while ruffling the fewest feathers.”

We know we’re not the only LGBT Christians who struggle with the temptation towards people-pleasing. Sometimes it can seem that the only way to have one’s voice heard is strict adherence to all of the expected social and cultural norms of one’s faith community, even if there’s space for more varied discussion in one’s Christian tradition broadly. Perhaps one of the most widely destructive aspects of people-pleasing within the LGBT Christian conversation is privileging of certain terms and key phrases (e.g. “Side B” and “gay sex is a sin”) as the only possible indicators of a person’s theological orthodoxy. Naming the ways that we drift towards people-pleasing personally has been challenging, but we hope that discussing some of its effects on our lives will encourage everyone participating in conversation about LGBT people in the Church to consider ways in which this behavior stunts further development of dialogue. We’re grateful for all of your prayers for us and our vocation as we, with God’s help, work towards ridding our lives of this and other destructive tendencies.

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.

8 Thoughts on Employment Non-Discrimination Legislation

Over the past couple of weeks, several readers have asked us about our thoughts on the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the fact that some religiously affiliated organizations are seeking exemptions, and the recent withdrawal of support from some groups on the left. Other LGBT Christian bloggers have been touching on this subject recently, so we thought we would add our voice to the discussion. We’ve mentioned before that we really don’t enjoy politics, and we’re both boringly moderate, leaning slightly left or slightly right depending upon the issue. Because of this, we’ve decided to approach the topic by listing a few random thoughts on employment non-discrimination legislation and the varied ways we’ve observed friends and acquaintances reacting to news about the ENDA. Here they are, in no particular order:

Both celibate and non-celibate LGBT people face discrimination in hiring and in the workplace. As you can read more about in this post, Lindsey has had firsthand experience with workplace discrimination. This has occurred despite the fact that Lindsey has never had a job where Lindsey has even felt safe to mention Sarah, and it happened at one job years before the two of us had ever met. We’ve also heard about experiences of discrimination that celibate LGBT friends of ours have experienced at their jobs. Because of this, it would be hard to convince us that most religiously affiliated organizations would hire any LGBT person living a traditional sexual ethic and are only concerned about being forced to hire non-celibate LGBT people.

Religiously affiliated employers can elect not to receive federal funding. If the ENDA were to pass and there were no/few provisions for religious exemption, any religiously affiliated organization that did not want to hire LGBT people could elect to stop receiving federal funds in order to be able to continue their current hiring practices. We’re not saying this would be easy, ideal, or even possible in all cases. Some religiously affiliated employers would no longer be able to keep their doors open without the money they currently receive from the government. But it’s incorrect to say that passing the ENDA would mean all these organizations would be banned from existing if they failed to adopt the new regulations. It’s also incorrect to suggest that these employers are being threatened with criminal charges.

Bullying and other forms of discrimination are difficult to address if sexual orientation and gender identity are not protected categories. Both of us have experienced tension within workplaces where the company non-discrimination statement fails to include sexual orientation and gender identity. In these kinds of workplaces, reporting derogatory statements and gay/trans jokes or even confronting a coworker personally about hurtful remarks and actions means outing oneself. It means making oneself even more of a potential target for harassment, and sometimes risking one’s job. We think it’s absurd that an attempt to make one’s workplace safer could result in becoming unemployed. We also find it unreasonable to expect that workplace discrimination will lessen over time if some kind of non-discrimination legislation isn’t passed.

We’re very uncomfortable with the idea that employers should be free to pry into the personal lives of their employees and potential hires. Many LGBT people never mention their sexual orientations/gender identities to employers or prospective employers. As mentioned above, Lindsey has never worked in an environment where it has felt comfortable to mention Sarah. Sarah is also extremely guarded about mentioning Lindsey to anyone at work. The only way a person at our jobs who is not a friend would learn about our LGBT status is to ask us about it directly. We wonder why some employers would consider very private matters like one’s sexual activity or lack thereof indicative of one’s ability to do well in a job…unless of course the job has something to do with sex.

But at the same time, some organizations do have narrowly-defined missions and mandates. Some religiously affiliated organizations feel strongly that all their employees should follow a core set of behavioral standards because they represent their employers publicly and their employers represent the associated religions publicly. Many religious organizations want to be able to hire selectively from a pool of candidates who are part of a certain religion or are at least willing to sign a statement of commitment to upholding certain values. It doesn’t make sense to expect an employer to hire someone whose values do not align with those of the organization. Both of us have worked for religious employers who have required that we sign values statements. It makes sense to us that if this is an expectation for being hired and the potential hire disagrees with the content of such a document, the employer should not have to hire that person. This has nothing to do with one’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Freedom of religion is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. One assertion we hear often is that religious organizations and religiously affiliated employers should “catch up with the times.” According to this claim, if a religiously affiliated employer’s values do not coincide with particular values of secular society, the government should be able to impose restrictions upon that employer so its religious values will not be forced upon others. But this argument places artificial boundaries upon the constitutional right to freedom of religion. This is a complicated issue because the right to freedom of religion naturally fosters a pluralistic society in which deeply held beliefs will collide with one another. When organizations have explicit religious tenets at the core of their missions and a piece of legislation could potentially threaten their ability to carry out those missions, concerns about this should be taken seriously and not automatically dismissed as attempts to force one religion’s values upon society as a whole.

Federal non-discrimination legislation is not a cure-all for LGBT discrimination, bullying, and harassment in the workplace and in the hiring process. As much as we believe that there is a need for legislation to make sexual orientation and gender identity protected categories nationwide, we realize that if the ENDA eventually passes, it will not solve the larger problem entirely. It’s likely that there will always be employers who do not want to hire LGBT people or do not want to keep them on staff once they have been hired. The same is true for other protected categories such as sex, race, religion, and national origin. Non-discrimination legislation isn’t going to stop all employers from discriminating — many will just adopt more indirect ways of doing it that can’t be proven in a court of law. This doesn’t mean the ENDA would be useless, but it does mean that the problem of LGBT workplace and hiring discrimination needs to be addressed in other ways as well.

In general, there’s a glaring need for better conversation about this topic and all its intricate parts. Most people we know who feel strongly one way or another about the ENDA and other non-discrimination legislation have good reasons for holding the positions they do. The LGBT community is rightly concerned about workplace and hiring discrimination. Religiously affiliated employers are rightly concerned about religious freedom. But the caricatures that emerge from debate about the ENDA do no favors to anyone on either side, or anywhere in the middle. It doesn’t help when progressives paint religious conservatives as hateful bigots who are obsessed with sex, and it only contributes to further vitriol when religious conservatives describe progressives (especially of the LGBT variety) as entitled crybabies who are out to destroy Christianity and American freedom. These discussions require significant nuance and appreciation for different perspectives. A little humility from all parties involved wouldn’t hurt either.

Do you have more thoughts on employment non-discrimination legislation, ENDA or otherwise? We would enjoy discussing those with you in the comments.

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.