Celibate Gay Christians, Recovering Addicts, and Communities of Abstinence

A reflection by Sarah

It seems that once every few weeks, there’s a news story about some pastor, activist, celebrity, or politician who has made a comparison between recovering addicts and gay people who abstain from sexual activity. The most recent of these has resulted from a post on the Family Research Council’s blog, in which Peter Sprigg uses Robin Williams’ death and history of addictions treatment as a jumping off point for an argument in favor of sexual orientation change efforts. As I read that post, I was absolutely mortified. It has made me even more certain that the topic of “homosexuality and addiction” warrants further discussion. As of now, the conversation is relatively shallow: mostly folks on one side of the aisle or the other yelling back and forth about whether they’re looking at apples and oranges, or apples and apples.

I wrote once before on why making certain comparisons between homosexuality and addiction is problematic. It doesn’t matter if the person making the analogy is suggesting that gay people can become straight or sexually active gay people could become celibate if treatment programs were offered. The comparison between homosexuality and addiction is rife with misconceptions about both gay people and addicts, and I believe that dispelling these is exceptionally important. But when we who write on this topic focus exclusively on pointing out all the ways that homosexuality is or is not like addiction, we miss opportunities to consider this topic from alternative angles. Today, I’d like to begin exploring one of these other dimensions.

After publishing my own post about why homosexuality and addiction analogies fall short, I began to reflect on some of the the unexpected similarities between communities that celibate LGBT people form and fellowships that recovering addicts form. As I have shared before, I am both a celibate gay Christian and a recovering addict. Over time, I’ve come across phenomenal groups of people in each of these worlds, and I’ve found that the best communities of celibate gay Christians share certain attributes in common with the best recovery communities. But unfortunately, both tend to be characterized incorrectly in similar ways by outsiders. Those looking in from the outside often assume that these communities are focused exclusively on abstinence and have little else to offer their members.

I’ve had dozens of conversations with people who have not experienced either type of community, but nonetheless envision both celibates and recovering addicts as constantly white-knuckling their abstinence. All too frequently, outsiders frame addiction recovery as, “Just stop doing/using (the addictive behavior or substance).” And I must admit, I held this assumption when I first began addressing my own addictions. When I began seeking treatment for bulimia, I believed naively that if I could learn how to force myself to eat normally, all would be perfect in my universe. It didn’t take long before I realized that nothing about recovery is this simple. When an addict tries to explain that it’s difficult to stop using a substance or engaging in a behavior, it’s easy for those who don’t understand this experience to imagine that the addict will spend the rest of his or her life hanging onto a metaphorical ledge by a fingernail.  Every minute a person spends abstaining is then perceived as torturous. With some regularity, I have to clarify that this is not my experience of recovery, and after doing so I’m often met with confusion: “If you and most of your friends at your meetings aren’t struggling regularly to stay in recovery, why go? What’s the point?” Similarly, many outsiders to celibate LGBT communities posit that celibacy is nearly impossible, and that those who do succeed must live in constant agony, ready to bend and break at any moment. Once I began discussing my celibacy openly, I noticed that the majority of people in my life had the same reactions as when I’d become more comfortable sharing my seriousness about recovery: “That’s a long, hard road, Sarah. You’ll be fighting temptation for the rest of your life. What a struggle it must be for you to avoid slipping.” And I’ve lost count of how many friends have suggested that I’m denying myself one of life’s greatest pleasures, and I must have no reason to interact with other gay celibates beyond helping them not to have sex and asking them to support me in not having sex.

A related misunderstanding about both addiction recovery and celibate LGBT communities is that when we aren’t white-knuckling together, we must be commiserating instead. Truth be told, trying to live intentionally — whether as a husband or wife, a celibate, a person in recovery, or a person in any number of other life situations — is full of difficulties. Sometimes, making decisions aligned with a particular way of life is incredibly hard. However, neither my recovery journey nor my commitment to celibacy can be characterized only by the tough parts. It’s not unusual for people in my life to ask me about my support group meetings, “Do you all just sit around and talk about how much it sucks not to be able to do x, y, or z anymore?” And as I share about my experience of fellowship with other celibate gay Christians, the same folks usually ask the exact same question. Non-celibate people, both LGBT and straight, often want to know what celibate LGBT spaces, both in person and online, are like. But it can be challenging to hold that discussion with interested outsiders who first conceive of these spaces as dreary, mournful corners of the internet where everyone bemoans his or her sexual orientation and the challenges of living celibacy. It takes a great deal of time to show others that a commitment to celibacy doesn’t necessarily indicate that life is absolutely horrible and meaningless on just about every metric of human flourishing.

A third common misconception about these two types of communities is that we look down upon others who are not part of our circles. To an extent, outsiders who perceive our communities in this way probably have good reasons. When a person adopts a new way of life, he or she can be especially zealous. For example, it’s not unheard of for an alcoholic who has just begun attending recovery meetings to begin assessing all of his or her friends’ levels of alcohol use. Similarly, I’ve known folks who have spent their first few months of committed celibacy critically examining their other LGBT friends’ non-celibacy. Very few people are comfortably “out” regarding their statuses as recovering addicts or celibate LGBT Christians. But because so many people in my life have had negative experiences with folks in either group (or both), I am told with some regularity that forcing others into a certain way of life is the only reason someone might share openly about his or her journey in a community of abstinence. I’ve lost count of the number of times an acquaintance has told me, “The problem with celibate gays is they all demand that every other gay person has to become celibate.” Yet despite these sentiments from people outside the celibate gay community, rarely have I met a celibate gay Christian who would actively approach a non-celibate gay person with a wagging finger, spouting choice bits of Christianese, and inquiring about the specifics of that person’s sexual behaviors. Likewise, I’ve found that members of addiction recovery communities who would engage in this sort of behavior toward outsiders are very much in the minority.

Healthy communities of any kind focus on a positive vision for life. If someone where to ask me how I’ve benefited from participation in addiction recovery communities and celibate gay communities, I couldn’t conceive of responding with a simple, “They helped me to stop doing a, b, and c.” My active participation in addiction recovery communities has brought numerous gifts. I have received support for living a way of life that is purposeful and fulfilling. I’ve come to see that being accountable is not merely providing an answer to, “Have you avoided particular behaviors?” but is instead thinking deeply, “Am I living a way of life that promotes wellness on multiple axes?” I know that no matter what, I will find acceptance, love, and compassion in these communities. No one is going to shame, berate, browbeat, or belittle me if I experience a relapse. Instead, they’re all going to be there for me as they love me, embrace me warmly, care for me, and remain with me through my challenges. They won’t see me as a hypocrite; they’ll see me as a human. They can witness my struggles and defects of character while at the same time seeing me as a human being worthy of love. I’ve been blessed to observe these same dynamics at play in celibate gay communities. Members of celibate gay communities know that it’s essential to help each other discern a way of life that extends far beyond what we aren’t doing: most of us are much more interested in learning how to draw near to God than in policing whether anyone else is having sex. Having a foot in both of these worlds has taught me that any community of abstinence is healthiest when it is uplifting and welcoming rather than fear-based and forceful.

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