Shifting the Conversation Is Not Silence: A Response to Maria McDowell

One of the first things we did before launching A Queer Calling was create a joint email account. Both of us take great joy in engaging in conversation about celibacy and related issues, so when the new mail alert dings we race one another to read what has arrived. We are grateful for all of our readers and commenters because everyone brings his or her unique voice to the dialogue. In the seven months we’ve been blogging, we’ve been impressed by the level of respectful conversation we’ve seen in the comment box.

Last week, we received an email notification that Maria McDowell had responded to “Our Celibate Gay Agenda” in a post at the Women in Theology blog. We appreciate Maria’s generosity in her analysis of our post and our blog in general, and we hope to offer just as thoughtful a response to her as she as given us.

Maria differs from many bloggers in that she sees how celibate vocations can be life-giving for LGBTQ Christians who choose them. She also agrees with our point that in general, modern society erroneously views celibacy as a strange and harmful self-denial. We were especially glad to see this coming from an LGBTQ Christian who asserts that she does not feel called to celibacy. Maria’s discussion about examples of people living celibate vocations immediately caused us to think back to a post Sarah wrote months ago that included brief profiles of three very different female celibates. We hope to provide our readers with more examples of real people and their celibate vocations. We live at a time when more and more Christians are living as celibates in the world because not everyone feels a call to marriage or monasticism. Perhaps there is something more we can do to help foster greater acceptance and appreciation for celibate vocations in general and not just within the LGBTQ context.

Maria also references her own experience of knowing celibate couples who have been ostracized within their faith communities after someone “outed” them and no one knew they were celibate. It’s entirely true that this happens, and probably with great regularity because, as Maria says, “Such things are not publicized, and often not talked about even among the LGBTQ community for fear of ridicule. Most humans, straight or otherwise, can’t imagine why one would choose to live with someone AND be celibate, oh, the horror!” We know firsthand how real those sentiments are among church folk and within the LGBTQ community, and we’re also aware of how often coupled celibates are expected, or even directly instructed, to keep quiet.

Many LGBTQ people have told us that we should be quiet because sharing about our celibacy could be dangerous and set back decades of work for LGBTQ acceptance. We’ve lost track of the number of times church folk have told us that we should be quiet about our celibacy because, if we’re truly being obedient to our Christian tradition, why should discussing our celibacy matter? When celibate, LGBTQ people are instructed to remain silent about their celibacy, their sexual orientations, and their gender identities, the real experiences remain hidden. This prevents other Christians from acknowledging that, yes, there are celibate LGBTQ members of their churches. We know for a fact that we’re not the only celibate couple within our Christian tradition. We have many conversations where people thank us for being willing to open up about our experiences, challenge them to raise awkward questions, and deal with any negativity that may come our way as a result. We were glad to see Maria’s acknowledgement that celibate LGBTQ Christians are not automatically protected from judgment and discrimination.

While we are grateful that Maria trusts our agenda without qualification and does not believe, as some do, that everyone has an agenda that can be categorized into one of two polar extremes, we have to disagree with her assertion that stories are never just stories. People tell stories for all kinds of different reasons that are agenda-driven, but this isn’t always the case. The two of us frequently play random games of “Tell me a story.” Typically, Lindsey will interrupt something else that’s going on just to hear a story. Sarah may share a fun memory from childhood that just happens to come to mind, a completely fictional story, or a story about the adventures of a hamster. We tell stories to each other like we want to tell stories to children. Not every story needs to be a morality play. Humans often tell stories to have fun and to get to know one another in different, deeper, and more intimate ways. It’s true that most often, there is some specific reason for the stories we tell on the blog, but usually the point we are trying to make by telling a story is obvious. And we’ve never told a story intended to convince anyone that our lives are more moral than another person’s.

We also disagree with Maria’s assessment that we are silent on issues explicitly relevant to non-celibate members of the LGBTQ community. If we read her correctly, she seems to believe that when LGBTQ celibates share our stories, we ought to indicate to the hearers where we stand on the question, “Is same-sex sexual activity sinful?” and celibates who don’t are failing to show support for non-celibate LGBTQ people. As we read the second half of Maria’s blog post, we thought of several instances where we’ve discussed our relationships with non-celibate friends. We’ve written posts about lessons we’ve learned from our friends in non-celibate relationships and ways that our non-celibate LGBTQ friends have been supportive of us during difficult seasons of life. We’ve also discussed a variety of issues that affect both celibate and non-celibate LGBTQ people such as workplace discriminationlegal protections to ensure that couples can meet healthcare and other needs, language policing, and the use of false information to “prove” that LGBTQ people are ill or have chosen their orientations. Given these, we wonder how a non-celibate LGBTQ person could possibly read our blog regularly and come to the conclusion that we only offer significant support for other celibates.

We also wonder why many involved in this discussion tend to reduce the idea of “support” to making the statement, “I don’t think it’s a sin if you have sex.” Neither one of us could ever imagine telling any person — gay, straight, or otherwise — “I affirm you and your sex life.” The thought of doing so strikes us as absurd, condescending, and presumptuous. As we once expounded upon at length in a comment, we believe that it’s far better to be good to people and to build close relationships with them when possible than to make direct judgments about the specifics of their intimate lives. The latter would require having detailed knowledge of their intimate lives, which are none of our business. We are curious: in what other areas of life would one suggest that showing support for a person requires an overt assertion of agreement with his or her beliefs and decisions? Take, for example, how we as cat owners interact with other cat owners. Regardless of what we believe about the morality of declawing cats, being there for someone who is raising a newly declawed kitten does not require us to state publicly that declawing isn’t sinful. And we’re pretty sure that our refraining from such a statement wouldn’t lead our feline-loving friends to think we would only visit if we’re allowed to inspect kitty paws before dinner. Some might argue that this example is trivial, but we would hypothesize that most people have meaningful relationships with others where no one is expected to proclaim boldly an opinion on the morality of everything. We don’t see why questions about someone’s level of sexual activity should be a special exception where everyone must state a judgment to the world.

Maria is not the first person to suggest that our abstention from discussing this issue indirectly validates the position opposite hers. We wonder whether she would still say, “The very polarization which A Queer Calling decries is embedded in the silence that they keep,” if she knew that very conservative people often assume that our “silence” somehow affirms gay sexual activity. Not long ago, we received a remarkably similar (although private) response from a priest who was convinced that we must be “flaming liberals” because we don’t say otherwise. To one reader, our story “looks an awful lot like an agreement that gay sexual activity, even within the bounds of marriage, remains ethically unacceptable for Christians.” To another, it appears to be just another cog in the “gay agenda.” Everyone interprets stories with their own experiences and biases in mind. Naturally, different hearers will extrapolate different meanings from any story. Sometimes, only the teller knows the full context of a story’s meaning.

It troubles us to think that the current conversation about LGBTQ people and the Church has become singularly focused on publicly affirming or condemning someone’s private behavior. We would estimate that about 40% of the email correspondence we receive comes from people — both conservatives and liberals — who insist that we are not participating properly in this conversation because we have chosen to frame our discussions of difficult issues differently than “gay sex is a sin” or “gay sex is not a sin.” Should you be interested in more information about to why we frame our contribution to the conversation differently, consider reading this post. Every time we get an email saying that we’re approaching this discussion in the wrong way, we suspect we’ve said something that might be making a person uncomfortable because we’ve forced him or her think about a new set of questions.

Experimenting with shifting the conversation is not the same as silence. We believe the time has come to expand dialogue beyond the question, “Is gay sex a sin?” The two of us collectively have spent several years engaging in both real life and internet discussions about how acceptable or unacceptable same-sex sexual activity is for Christians. To be sure, there are advantages associated with talking about the issues in these terms. But it limits the conversation to one question — a question that is often answered with a simple “Yes” or “No” by people who already have set convictions. We find ourselves bemused when some authors who call for more nuance in dialogue about sexuality, gender identity, relationships, and Christian discipleship include an obligatory statement — in every post they write — of, “Gay sexual activity can never be affirmed,” or “We must always affirm people’s personal choices to enter sexual relationships.” We imagine this is an attempt to signal, “Hey, it’s okay to read my stuff because I’m on your side in this debate.” If other writers see it as necessary to assert these beliefs frequently, they are free to do so. But that doesn’t obligate us to do the same. Last time we checked, no one individual owns this conversation. The issue of whether same-sex sexual activity is sinful or not matters. It’s extremely important. However, we think that there are other important questions to discuss when talking about LGBTQ people and the Church, and we see it as unreasonable for some bloggers to insist that every other blogger must offer a public affirmation or condemnation of gay sex.

When we began A Queer Calling, the two of us were of one mind about attempting to initiate a different kind of conversation here than what we have seen and continue to see in other places. As LGBTQ Christians, our struggles to find love within the Church, the challenges we face in the world, and the joys we experience are far more complex than what we choose to do (or not) in our private lives. We do not believe for an instant that our approach here is some superior, enlightened pathway between harmful extremes, but we do find it odd that so many people seem to be waiting around for us to start arguing for one side or the other. If that’s you, we inform you without regret that you’re in for a very long wait. Maria is absolutely right to assert that what one says publicly has consequences, and sometimes the cost is high. This isn’t just for people who make public statements about gay sexual activity. The road we’ve chosen also comes at a great cost. Because of our difference in approach, there are some celibate and non-celibate LGBTQ and ally voices who would probably never consider agreeing with us publicly on anything. But we believe strongly in the purpose we’ve made clear from our very first day of blogging, and we’re willing to accept that reality and continue interacting with everyone who is interested in talking with us.

We’ve found that by focusing our writings in direction that most people are not accustomed to seeing on LGBTQ Christian blogs, we can extend hospitality and a place for conversation to folks who would otherwise be without a space they see as safe for their participation. We feel honored each time someone contacts us to say that he or she was completely exasperated by the current conversation until finding our blog. Because we believe that hospitality is a central component of our celibate vocation, we strive to be as welcoming as possible to everyone who comes our way. If Maria were to visit our city, we would, without qualification, invite her to stay in our home as a guest and participate — as much as she felt inclined — in every aspect of our daily prayer life and other activities. We would sit around our dining room table with her and enjoy shared meals and stories. We would also invite her to attend church with us on Sunday. The extent to which she would be permitted to participate in the service would be between her and our priest, as is true for all visitors we and other parishioners bring. We would treat Maria exactly as we treat all who enter our doorway regardless of their celibacy or non-celibacy, and we fail to understand why someone would perceive us as keeping him or her from a table at which we are welcome.

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6 thoughts on “Shifting the Conversation Is Not Silence: A Response to Maria McDowell

  1. Hi Sarah and Lindsay, I found your blog via the WIT post. I’ve been perusing it since, so I figured here was as good a place as any to comment. I’ve appreciated your frank discussion of various relational topics, and you’ve challenged me to see a whole type of relationships I hadn’t considered. Mainly, this idea of celibate partnerships, which Maria also mentioned in her post. I have to say I was confused. Like you, I think genital expression’s presence or absence is a poor way to define celibacy, but had you asked before, I would have said celibacy was abstaining from marriage and family life (influenced by my Catholic background.) So the idea of a committed, presumably lifelong cohabiting partnership based on mutual affection and interpersonal compatibility that’s still celibate threw me off.

    I appreciated, then, the post you linked above describing three celibate women. The first was married and you describe her and her husband becoming celibate later in life. Are there other examples of this? I hate to steer the discussion back to the majority group, but because heterosexual marriages are more familiar to our church as a relational model perhaps this is a good place to further define celibate couplehood. Do you think celibacy is compatible with marriage vows? Should celibate partnerships have their own vows, just as marriage and celibate single life (e.g. Catholic sisters, brothers, and priests) have vows? If not, then would you consider, say, a cohabiting couple who are engaged and living traditional chastity to be celibate up until their marriage? What about the scores of marriages which do not include sex anymore due to injury, infirmity, or general loss of that inclination? [How] do these differ from the first couple, and if so, is that where the definition of celibacy lies?

    • Hi Meg! Thanks for your comment. We’re sorry it’s taken us a bit to get back to you.

      For us, a key component of our celibate vocations is directing our lives towards others. We constantly think about how we can love and serve the world around us. Living together helps us live out that vocation more fully because we can support one another. We described this aspect of our live together when we talked about discerning our vocation as a community of two:

      There are many historical examples of men and women who entered a celibate way of life after being married. The vast majority of these examples take the form of a widow or widower entering monastic life. We’re hesitant to say anything concrete about marriage vows as so many people write their own promises and some Christian traditions do not include the exchange of vows as a part of the marriage.

      We hope to see you again in the comments!

    • My wife and I made the decision years ago to orient our sexuality entirely to procreation, under an NFP model. This isn’t celibacy, we’d love more children than the one God has seen fit to provide us, but it does mean awareness of her fertility and the prayer to God for more children means a heck of a lot more to us than romance or even sexual pleasure.

      Once she is menopausal, I can easily see our marriage becoming celibate. And I think our borderline infertility has certainly colored my opinion of the entire debate around the sexual revolution, both hetero and homo.

      • Hi Theodore, my prayers are with your family and may God continue to make your marriage fertile – whether through more children or other kinds of growth.

        If it’s not too personal, may I ask what you mean by celibate? One thing that became clear over in the latest response at WIT is that the Catholics were using celibate to mean “without commitment to traditional family life” while the Orthodox tradition and perhaps others mean “sexually abstinent.” This clearly colors my view of celibate partnership, because I cannot understand a sexually abstinent marriage as celibate if the spouses are still primarily committed to each other’s flourishing and intend to “love and honor” each other as spouses until death.

        Also, another super personal question you can choose not to answer: do you mean that you use NFP to align sexual intimacy to the fertile times only? That’s kind of opposite of most NFP users in any given month, so I’d be interested in hearing your and your wife’s unique perspectives on the benefits of NFP – though you may need your own blog to do so!

        • I mean sexually abstinent, except for procreation. Beyond that….I consider our story to be an NFP failure story. It isn’t the fault of the NFP. We are doing it the opposite of most NFP users in a given month, but the results have NOT been as expected- one child in 15 years of marriage. One special needs child.

          That has severely colored my view of alternative sexuality in general. Why do some people seem to get children at the drop of a hat, when we’ve been working at it for 11 years straight without a sibling for my darling boy?

          What a waste paternal abandonment is! What a waste abortion is!

  2. Pingback: Silence, Solidarity and Grief: responding again to A Queer Calling | WIT

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