Why We Don’t Review Ex-Gay Books

For the past few months, we have been reviewing various resources that touch on LGBT Christian topics. So far, we have discussed:

We do our best to review a wide range of resources from diverse viewpoints. We’re always open to receiving suggestions. Occasionally, people pass us a book, we read the work, and we conclude that there’s no way we’d review the book for our readers because these books exclusively promulgate ex-gay narratives. Some readers have written to us and asked why we don’t review certain books of this type, and we think this is a good question. Our celibacy has led to many inquiries about why we use LGBTQ terminology when describing ourselves, and whether we benefit from resources that suggest such terminology only applies to sexually active people. We’ll save the “Why identify as gay?” topic for another post, but in lieu of a book review for the month of September, today we’ll address the reasoning behind our choices for resource reviews.

It can be tricky to draw lines as to when a book is loaded with ex-gay rhetoric. We saw some object to The Third Way film because people associated with the film’s production and distribution have advanced ex-gay messages in other venues. When we watched the documentary, we concluded that as a whole, it did not emphasize orientation change and encouraging formerly gay people to enter into heterosexual marriage. Nonetheless, we did conclude that aspects of the documentary would be instantly recognizable by and disturbing to former clients of ex-gay ministries because the film pulled so readily on various theories of what causes homosexuality, and some interviewees claimed that they were no longer gay.

Ex-gay narratives frequently contain many, if not all, of the following elements: theorizing various causes of homosexuality, using questionable statistics and studies employing faulty methodologies to argue for orientation change, emphasizing promiscuity and other risky behaviors as constituent parts of “the gay lifestyle,” heavily referencing 7 passages of Scripture that speak to same-sex sexual activity, asserting that God created all people with the capacity for heterosexual relationships, and suggesting that it’s possible for someone to go from gay to straight. Older books of this type sometimes promote opposite-sex marriage as a goal for gay people after “orientation change.” Newer varieties of literature that we would classify as part of the ex-gay genre writ large promote celibacy as a goal while conflating sexual orientation with sexual behavior. Mixing these elements together can create incredibly toxic messages that do considerable harm. We’ve shared more about our own experiences with Christian ministries that promote ex-gay ideologies.

We don’t review ex-gay books because we’re not interested in giving these authors more press. The arguments within these resources have been weighed, measured, and found wanting. It’s becoming obvious to more and more Christians today that orientation change efforts are almost always futile and damaging. In spaces where people still do see orientation change as a goal, the focus tends to be on behavior modification rather than eventual marriage. Because of this, it’s rare that we receive suggestions to review resources of the older 1970-2000 variety. However, we do get a lot of requests to review books of what we see as the new kind of ex-gay material. Sometimes, both readers and straight Christians who know us in person will pass along a recommendation for a resource that offers a “compassionate approach to gay people in the Church.” We’ll read/watch it and discover that the only difference between it and older ex-gay materials is a chapter about celibacy tacked onto the end. All the same messages, minus “you must prepare for an opposite-sex marriage,” are there, and the author discusses celibacy as the end result of “leaving homosexuality” for Christ. Such resources are filled with logical fallacies and other kinds of false information (e.g. “There’s no definitive evidence that sexual orientation is present from birth, so we can conclude that gayness isn’t part of God’s creation”), and they also do poorly at discussing celibacy as a way of life.

We hope to continue reviewing items from a variety of viewpoints, but one of our standards for discussing a resource here is that it clearly makes an honest attempt at grappling with the tough issues without defaulting to stereotypes about LGBTQ people. We’re not interested in reviewing the work of an author who sees celibacy as good but refuses to acknowledge that LGBTQ identity is not just about sexual activity, and limits the discussion of celibacy to “gay sex is a sin.” There are many books that argue for a traditional sexual ethic but do not rely on ex-gay messages, and we hope to review some of these in the future.

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: LGBT People on the Margins of Pastoral Care

Hello readers! Happy Saturday. We’re spending our weekend at an ASL retreat. Sarah has been immersed in voice-off environments for a few hours at a time, and the retreat will be Lindsey’s first time using ASL in a completely voice-off situation. For a little more context as to why learning ASL is so important to us, consider reading Lindsey’s reflection from a few weeks ago.

Quick announcement: if you’re planning on attending the next Gay Christian Network Conference in Portland, Oregon, early bird registration ends on October 3. Limited scholarships are available provided you apply before September 30. We attend the conference ever year, and it’s always a fantastic experience.

Now, onto our 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: This week, we’ve been talking a lot about conventional wisdom when helping an LGBT person discern pathways forward. On Wednesday, we talked about how progressive resources geared especially at those who are coming out frequently suggest that LGB and T lives follow particular trajectories. Yesterday, we expressed our frustration that many conservative churches who say “No” to same-sex marriage also actively campaign against helping LGBT people sort their legal affairs. Today, our questions are: how have you felt on the margins of conservative and/or progressive approaches to directing LGBT people? Do you have positive experiences of people who hold a particular view adapting their approach to speak more directly to your concerns? How has sharing your story with others influenced how these people talk about LGBT people?

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.

When Churches Talk from Both Sides of Their Mouths

In the past week, friends have shared with us two news stories where gay men active in church communities have been effectively forced out of their churches after they entered into same-sex marriages. The first story we saw concerned a Montana gay couple who have been a relationship for 30 years before marrying in Seattle in 2013. The couple was asked to secure a civil divorce, cease living together, and write a statement affirming marriage as being between one man and one woman. The second story we saw involved a Minnesota church music director being asked to resign after marrying his long-term partner. In today’s post, we wanted to focus on one aspect of these developing stories. If you click the above link about the gay couple in Montana, you can read:

Huff and Wojtowick both said they never intended to force the issue of same-sex marriage, or to provoke a conflict with the Catholic Church. If fact, neither man is entirely comfortable in describing their relationship as a marriage, preferring instead to refer to it as a civil union or a domestic partnership.

“Neither one of us believes the term should have been marriage,” Huff said. “We understand that marriage is a union between heterosexual couples.”

Instead, Huff and Wojtowick said they sought a legal union to safeguard their joint financial interests heading toward the later years of their lives.

“We’re getting old,” Huff said. “There is no other avenue for us in the Catholic Church to protect ourselves financially — our Social Security benefits or our home, which is in both our names. If something happened to one of us, we need some protection.”

Let’s begin by clearing the air about our intentions in writing this post. We are not making an argument in favor of same-sex marriage. We are also not arguing that any Christian tradition should change its understanding about the nature of marriage. We are calling out the hypocrisy that results when churches say they want to protect LGBT people from unjust discrimination while also actively campaigning against every form of legal arrangement that would allow couples to commit to caring for one another until the end of their earthly lives.

First, we wonder if some of these churches are at all willing hear why LGBT people want legal recognition in the first place. The gay couple in Montana had been living together for 30 years before seeking legal recognition for their relationship. According to every news source we’ve read, they travelled quietly to Seattle in search of a legally-binding civil acknowledgment. Now 66 and 73, these two men decided it would be a good idea to start arranging for retirement benefits, joint assets, and end-of-life care. We wouldn’t be surprised if when the younger partner hit 65, both men realized, “Wow, we’re getting pretty old,” then began exploring their options for fear of being disenfranchised in the event of one partner’s illness or death. As we’ve read the articles, we’ve found ourselves scratching our heads and wondering, “Is the pastor of this church even listening to the couple’s concerns about retirement and end-of-life issues?” Accessing various forms of legal protection requires that people have legally recognized relationships. When churches resist every possible legal arrangement that confers rights to LGBT couples, those churches effectively communicate that they don’t care about hospital visitation, health care proxies, inequities in employment and housing, financial stability, and end-of-life care. Some people might say, “The church is just protecting marriage.” While one could make that argument, it’s also true that many churches have fought hard to prevent civil unions, domestic partnerships, and other legal options for LGBT couples. Marriage is but one form of legal acknowledgment, and over the past three decades, conservative churches have resisted all forms of legal recognition.

Second, we wonder if conservative churches realize how the “choices” they offer LGBT people are formulated in terms of all-or-nothing. Again, the Montana couple had lived together for 30 years while attending their church on a weekly basis. Everyone knew that the two men were a couple. They’re from a small town. Yet, the pastor asked the couple to divorce civilly and to stop living together even though their living arrangement did not result from their getting a civil marriage. For all we know, this couple might be a celibate pair like us. It’s possible. We’ve known other celibate pairs who have sought civil marriages because after researching legal options, they felt they had no other choice for meeting their legal needs. Our own experiences have shown us that conservative churches are rarely interested in listening to the problems their LGBT members are facing because it’s easier to parrot, “Just don’t have sex. Don’t have close relationships with people of the same sex, or of the opposite sex. Spend the rest of your life making sure that no one thinks you’re sinning sexually.” Lindsey remembers seeking spiritual direction where all of the pastoral advice centered upon avoiding any appearance of evil lest there be scandal. One person when so far as to recommend that Lindsey live on the outskirts of a monastic community. When churches insist that all LGBT members live single and celibate lives that could never possibly be construed as experiencing emotional or spiritual intimacy with others, churches effectively send a message that it’s far preferable for LGBT people to come home to an empty house every night to fight intense battles with loneliness and isolation than to grow from rich human connection. Along with this comes the message that the way a legal arrangement “appears” to others is more important than preventing injustice against LGBT people.

Third, we wonder if churches can see the ways they often force LGBT people to endure public humiliation. Several of our LGBT Christian friends have raised questions about whether other congregants would be asked to write a formal statement affirming a particular set of theological ideas. Should an engaged straight couple have to write a formal statement affirming their belief in teachings on premarital sex? Looking at the local news coverage, we think it’s clear that the two men would be much more comfortable with language like civil union or domestic partnership to describe their relationship because of how they understand the word marriage. The first news story we saw focused on 300 congregants preparing to meet with the bishop to discuss the situation. It seems these two men never imagined that 300 people would even become aware of their civil marriage in the first place. Again, the couple sought to establish a civil arrangement quietly out of state. It doesn’t seem like they wanted to be the center of attention. When churches actively resist every form of legal arrangement that permits LGBT people to care for one another, churches actually create situations that shine a spotlight on LGBT people even when no attention is being sought.

Fourth, we wonder if churches realize how harmful it is to emphasize swift discipline over spiritual direction in an ongoing relationship with the pastor. A little-known detail of the Montana story is that the pastor had only been with the congregation for four days. We don’t know how the pastor even became aware of the couple’s out-of-state arrangement. The couple went to Seattle over a year ago for the purpose of becoming legally recognized, and according to their own statements, they weren’t interested in proclaiming this to the world. Not knowing the full details of the events in Montana, we are left to question whether a person who thought the couple may have made legal arrangements combed public records to prove the couple had indeed married. Yes, this actually happens in churches, and it’s a lot more common than some people might think. Sarah remembers a time at one of Sarah’s former churches when a heterosexual couple contracted their marriage civilly before meeting with their pastor to discuss having their marriage blessed by the church. The couple intended on abstaining from communion until they could have a meeting with the pastor. Before the couple could schedule a meeting, a congregant had searched the public record and had alerted the pastor that the couple had married. The pastor’s immediate response was to deny the couple communion in a public manner before ever discussing the matter with them (despite the fact that they were not seeking to commune at that time). The couple was a bit confused as to how the pastor knew before they had told him what happened, and that the situation played out as it did because another parishioner had searched the public record. While we do not know exactly what happened in Montana, we think this is an important issue to raise more generally because we’ve seen a pattern of people using public records to out others in pastorally difficult circumstances. In situations like the one Sarah witnessed, claiming that the actions of the couple caused scandal seems disingenuous when the matter would not have become public at all if it hadn’t been for the actions of another parishioner. It seems to us that the record-comber is largely responsible for the ensuing public scandal. When churches demand that everyone in the congregation actively resists the evils of same-sex marriage at all costs, including opposing any legal options that could possibly lead to the legalizing of same-sex marriage in the future, churches can inadvertently turn their congregations into guard dogs with a penchant for gossip.

We’ve written a couple of times before about our own legal difficulties, and our frustration with the phasing out of civil unions. Though we intend to follow our own priest’s counsel about working out legal protections for our relationship and we have no interest in getting a civil marriage, the Montana story, the stories of LGBT firings from parishes and religious schools, and other stories like these worry us greatly. Sometimes we find ourselves so worn from the way these issues are discussed in conservative churches that even going to church feels like a chore. If a member of our parish were to ask us what advice we would offer conservative churches for how they discuss LGBT legal issues, our first response would be, “Stop talking out of both sides of your mouth, and acknowledge that issues like healthcare, end of life care, and retirement benefits are not just red herrings in the gay marriage debate.” Conservative churches that are serious about preventing injustice against LGBT people need to, as Lindsey often says, make friends with the question mark. Learn about the real legal problems we face, and the experiences of our daily lives. Consider that supporting a person in solving legal difficulties is not the same approving of same-sex marriage. Ask us what we see as injustices. A church that is truly behaving in a Christian manner cannot speak out against LGBT discrimination while intentionally drowning out the legal concerns of its own LGBT members.

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.

Overcoming “Oppression” and the Challenge of Being Yourself

Many resources designed to help people who are questioning their sexual orientations and gender identities can be strikingly simplistic. These resources suggest a particular set of normative actions to take if you think you might be LGBT. Gay men and lesbians are encouraged to tell their friends and family about their sexual orientations when ready, and eventually dating people of the same sex. Transgender people are encouraged to have conversations with professionals about beginning hormone replacement therapies, having surgeries, and navigating various legal webs to change their gender identity markers on official documents. In some ways, such resources present the coming out process as the first step in a natural set of life cycle rituals that unfold reasonably uniformly for all LGBT people. Ultimately, these resources articulate an LGB life where everyone feels free to enter into sexually active same-sex relationships, or a T life where almost everyone eventually chooses to transition medically and correct gender on legal documents. Failure to accept these particular narratives can lead to assertions that an LGBT person simply has not yet “accepted” himself or herself. If one claims to have a happy life outside of these norms, one might find oneself accused of caving to fundamentally oppressive social systems.

As we see it, many “coming out” resources attempt to replace a restrictive conservative message with an equally restrictive progressive message. Typical conservative messages are laced with religious overtones to induce fear and suggest that feeling any resonance with LGBT experience is fundamentally suspect and likely immoral. However, we’ve noticed that many progressive messages are full of troubling undertones that the fullness of an LGBT person’s life can be objectively observed by an outsider. Progressive messages act as a gatekeeper of LGBT identities. We’ve encountered countless people who ask themselves, “Can I be LGBT if I have absolutely no desire to attend Gay Pride events?” Yet, many progressive narratives view attending one’s first Gay Pride event as a rite of passage associated with the coming out progress. Both conservative and progressive messages can be used to manipulate LGBT people into conformity to the expectations of others. People questioning their sexual orientations and gender identities can find themselves torn between these two narratives even if neither fits their experiences.

We have to wonder if’s better to encourage LGBT people to be their true selves on their own terms, recognizing that everyone is constantly deepening his or her self-understanding. As members of gender and sexual minorities, it’s only natural to seek someone to validate our experiences. After all, feeling different from everyone else often plays into a person’s initial questioning of his or her sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s fantastically freeing when you can find someone who says, “Wow, what you’re saying really resonates with me.” It’s also wonderfully refreshing when you can find someone who says, “Your experience sounds different from mine, but I’m interested in hearing more of your story and walking with you as you find your way.”

Sometimes, LGBT people can need concrete affirmation that it is okay to understand sexual orientations and gender identities differently. A 2013 survey of transgender people revealed that 23% of respondents identify as gay, 25% identify as bisexual, 23% identify as straight, 4% identify as asexual, 2% identify as other, and 23% identify as queer. While some LGB people feel a strong resonance with the word “queer,” the vast majority of LGB prefer LGB terms because they identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. A transgender person who is negotiating the complexities of his or her own sex and gender and the sexes and genders of people he or she is attracted to might find terms like “gay” and “straight” incredibly limiting.

It’s good to listen to what people have to say about themselves. We have friends on the transgender spectrum who say, “I have a body. I am male. Therefore, I have a male body,” well before ever even thinking about pursuing medically-facilitated transition. This line of thought can be incredibly empowering to another transgender person because it permits a person to affirm his body as male immediately after becoming aware of his male identity. These thoughts grate against many dominant conservative and progressive messages about sexual orientation and gender: conservative messages usually assert that since one’s body has identifiably female parts, then one has a female body, and some progressive messages assert that the next rational step is to consult a doctor, effectively prescribing medical treatment. Transgender people who would rather not pursue medical interventions should not need to worry about losing the claim on their gender identities.

To offer another example, we also know know gay, lesbian, and bisexual people interested in entering monastic life. Many conservative voices argue that LGB people are unsuited to monastic life because they are likely to corrupt the monastery with sexual immorality. However, many progressive voices actively discourage LGB people from pursuing any kind of celibate lifestyle lest they fail to become fully actualized people in the context of sexually active relationships. In rare instances when progressive messages affirm that an LGB person should be able to choose celibacy, the statement almost always followed up with, “…but only if your reason for being celibate has nothing to do with your sexual orientation.” This leaves no room for the possibility that one can fully embrace his or her sexual orientation while still understanding it as a factor in discerning vocation. It also doesn’t make sense if one applies the same standard to expectations for how straight people discern vocation. We’ve never met anyone, conservative or progressive, who would advise a straight person considering celibacy to follow this pathway only if the decision is completely unrelated to sexual orientation.

In our own experiences and those shared with us by friends and readers, we’ve seen that people on both ends of the ideological spectrum can have impossible expectations for LGBT people without even realizing it. If you believe the only way for an LGBT person to follow Christ is to “become straight” and enter a heterosexual marriage, you’re probably not inclined to listen to the stories of people who have been harmed by these standards. Today, more people are challenging this narrative, and we’re glad for that. But few are quick to challenge the opposite set of expectations — the one that excludes LGBT people who don’t fit the mold assumed in progressive literature about the coming out process. The one that insists a person is caving to bad theology and toxic religious norms if he or she is not open to the idea of marriage or has no intention of taking up membership at a queer church. The one that inadvertently (sometimes even directly) forces some to the margins of an already marginalized group. We hope that as LGBT people continue to become more visible, there will be more questioning of what constitutes oppression and who gets to determine the meaning of “be yourself.”

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.

On Tokenism

A reflection by Lindsey

I’ve been meaning to write this reflection for months. The idea came into my head when Jake Dockter started tweeting various Christian conferences about the diversity of their speaking lineups. Jake’s questions focused on why so many conferences tend to headline older white fathers. If memory serves me correctly, one particular conference he pointed out had over 30 speakers where only 4 were women and not a single speaker was clearly non-white. Then a couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post discussing why it matters when white people don’t have black friends. I figured now is a good time to write down some thoughts on tokenism.

If you’ve ever been the minority in any context, chances are reasonably good that you been tokenized in one way or another. As one-half of a celibate LGBT Christian couple, I often feel like I’m a minority within a minority within a minority. I wonder why people value diversity, especially when it seems that “being diverse” seems more about filling a dance card with people who are different from one another than it is about being inclusive.

I think we hadn’t been blogging for more than a month before we received our first inquiry about whether we would consider a speaking engagement. We were thrilled at the possibility of speaking because that particular organization has a reputation of hosting a wide array of LGBT Christian speakers. We could appreciate how our being a celibate couple would offer a different perspective than other speakers who were invited. However, we’d hesitate before accepting an invitation to speak at an event for any organization wanted to promote our way of life as the “answer” for LGBT Christians. The first approach is about being inclusive while the second approach strikes me as checking the “diversity” box.

I don’t want to be anyone’s “LGBT Christian friend.” I can always tell when I’m in that role because I shift into having to educate other people more often than usual. It’s exhausting. I can respect the fact that because I’ve done a lot of thinking and writing about what celibate living might look like for a lay person, many people are interested in hearing my thoughts on celibacy. Yet I cringe every time I hear someone say, “This is my friend Lindsey, an LGBT person living celibacy.” Even other celibate LGBT people can weaponize Sarah’s and my stories to say that anyone is capable of living a celibate vocation.

I hope that more people can begin to see tokenism for what it is. Tokenism happens when we are interested in checking off a box. Once someone has a gay friend (or a black friend or a hispanic friend), then he/she can stop making efforts. I’d contend that being inclusive is remaining open to letting one’s friend circle grow and stretch through conscientious engagement with the world.

I don’t mind being someone’s first LGBT friend. I consider myself to be a worthwhile person to know, and if my new friend hangs out with me for any length of time, then he or she will likely realize I have other awesome friends. I didn’t consider any black people among my circle of real friends until I lived with my black roommate during my sophomore year of college. Chris and I had a habit of going out for chai tea and playing cribbage whenever we were stressed about anything, but getting to know Chris as my friend helped me respond better when other black students I knew tried to increase my awareness of social injustices facing black Americans. As Chris and I sipped chai tea, we had a natural place to share our lives, to ask questions, to listen to each other, and to grow as human beings. Getting to know each other helped me do the hard work of reflecting on my experience of whiteness and made it easier for me to build friendships with people that have very different experiences with regard to race and ethnicity. My friendship with Chris and working through my own experience of race and ethnicity helped me be more inclusive because I could see some social structures a bit more clearly. One reason why I feel so adamant that people not represent Sarah’s and my stories as absolutely representative of all LGBT people is I know for a fact that our stories are different from those of most other LGBT people.

Our friendships with people different from us cause us to think more deeply about our own experiences, enabling us to empathize with each other. When we learn this empathy, we can move beyond tokenism and into a more naturally inclusive way of living.

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.