Who Counts as LGBTQ?: Relationships that Break the Mold

Most of the time when we’ve heard the topic of mixed orientation marriage come up in the LGBTQ Christian context, discussion turns to the ex-gay movement and its history of demanding that gay people change their sexual orientations and prepare for opposite-sex marriages. The focus remains on how mixed orientation marriages rarely last for the long term and usually lead to anguish for both spouses and their children. Names like John Paulk arise as examples of how detrimental mixed orientation marriages can be. We are in complete agreement with friends who speak out against shaming LGBTQ people about their sexual orientations/gender identities and using this shame as a tool to manipulate people into marrying partners of the opposite sex. Our hearts go out to everyone who has suffered as a result of the ex-gay movement’s emphasis on marriage as a goal, or even a “cure” for homosexuality. Yet at the same time, we think mixed orientation marriage and other “unusual” relationship arrangements are important to discuss for other reasons. One of these is the fact that stories of people who choose mixed orientation marriage freely, or end up in an opposite-sex (or same-sex) relationship by happenstance, don’t get much airtime.

We’re interested in this topic and believe it is relevant to discussions of celibacy because we’ve observed similar kinds of assumptions about mixed orientation couples, celibate couples, and celibate singles. The most troubling of these are: 1) we’ve followed our particular vocational pathways for no other reason than a belief that same-sex sexual activity is sinful, 2) we want to deny/excise/cure ourselves of being sexual or gender minorities, 3) we are the new ex-gay movement, and 4) we look condescendingly and judgmentally upon LGBTQ people in sexually active same-sex relationships. The two of us are well aware that our story makes other people uncomfortable. One reason for this is our motivations for choosing celibacy, while religiously motivated, did not originate from beliefs about sin. Another is that we use LGBTQ language to describe ourselves even though we are celibate. Others find this mind-blowing. Today, we’d like to introduce you to two other stories that also challenge assumptions about what it means to be LGBTQ.

Several weeks ago, we came across two articles about couples that challenge prevalent ideas about what it means to enter a mixed orientation marriage, or relationship that is something other than marriage. One of these is about a mixed orientation relationship specifically, and the other is about a relationship that isn’t exactly mixed orientation but raises similar questions as the first article. Around the end of July, we read about EJ Levy who is a lesbian engaged to a man. In the article she wrote for Salon, she details the difficulty people in her life have experienced with accepting her continuing self-identification as a lesbian. She speaks to the misconception that if she loves and wants to marry her fiancé, she must actually be bisexual:

I know plenty of people who identify as bisexual; I am not. The term simply doesn’t apply. I am not, as a rule, attracted to men. I simply fell in love with this person and didn’t hold his gender against him. That won’t change because of our vows, any more than my eye color will. My fundamental coordinates are unaltered.

She goes on to quote Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, explaining that being gay has nothing to do with an individual’s partner. Regardless of how you feel about Robinson, the point he makes here is an important one that many LGBTQ people (especially those of us who are younger) wish others could understand:

“Gay is not something we do,” Robinson says, “it’s something we are.” It is not about whether you “practice” (though that makes perfect!), or whether you have a partner, or what you do with that partner, or even that partner’s gender (as any gay person trapped in a het marriage knows). It is about who you are, how you experience the world, the eyes you look through, the skin you’re in.

Queer people have understood this for years: For many of us, long before we “came out” as gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender, long before we had a partner to mirror back to us love and chosen identity, we had to choose ourselves. We had to consciously decide who we were and embrace it, aware that we experienced the world in a manner often at odds with the dominant culture, our lives informed by desires different from what we’re told ours should be. That doesn’t change because a partner does.

Another aspect of this article that we found interesting is that the author does not seem to have any religious reasons for entering a mixed orientation marriage. If she does, she chose not to discuss those in the article. By the way this article reads, it is clear that the author is supportive of sexually active same-sex couples. It seems highly unlikely to us that her marriage has anything to do with denying or hating her own sexuality.

A few weeks after reading Levy’s piece, a friend passed along this article by Mike Iamele at  MindBodyGreen. Mike self-identifies as straight, yet a couple of years ago while he was struggling with a serious illness, he happened to fall in love with his roommate and best friend, Garrett. He says:

We had no idea how to make this work. We had no idea if this even could work. Sometimes we still don’t. It took time — years even — to figure it out. But it’s a relationship. None of us know what we’re doing. We just try and negotiate and compromise. And, little by little, you become just another boring couple.

So, yes, I’m an otherwise straight man in love with a man. But I would never reduce Garrett down to just being a man. Because he’s more than that. He’s a pharmacist and a good cook and a great cards player. And I love him for all of those reasons and so many more. I love him for who he is, not what he is. We’re more than our gender. We’re more than one attribute. And sometimes we need to remember that.

We’re sure there are many people who would be quick to label Mike and Garrett as “gay.” Others might say that even if they aren’t gay, their relationship is a “gay relationship” simply because they are not an opposite-sex couple. Mike says nothing about the couple’s sex life, and he and Garrett have no obligation to explain this aspect of their relationship to anyone else. Yet several comments our own Facebook friends made when we posted his article on our personal pages included variations of, “Are they having sex? If they aren’t sexually active, they’re not a gay couple. They’re just close long-term roommates. If they are sexually active, then they’re gay even if they say they’re otherwise straight.” The broader question that emerges here is, how do we discuss our own identities and the identities of others in ways that make logical sense but don’t force people into boxes? Mike states:

We have this myth of identity — that who we are is the summation of a lot of choices we made in the past. That we’ve got a map for the life we’re supposed to lead, and we’ve got to stick to it. But that’s assuming that we’re all static beings, and that’s not how people work at all.

In every moment, we’re changing and evolving and growing. In every moment, we’re reconstructing our identity. We’re not defined by our decisions from two years ago. We’re not even defined by our decisions from two minutes ago. We’re defined by who we choose to be in this very moment.

We’ll never be “figured out.” Over the course of our lives, we’ll constantly be transforming into a more and more authentic version of ourselves. Our preferences will change. Our passions will change. And we have to be brave enough to choose the thing that makes up happiest in each individual moment.

When I chose to tell Garrett that I loved him, it didn’t matter if it didn’t fit my identity. It didn’t matter if it didn’t fit my sexuality. It just mattered if it brought me love. In truth, that’s all that ever really matters.

We have a lot of empathy for Mike and Garrett because of our own frustrations with labels — not only how others have tried to label us, but the ways we see others being labeled as well. As Sarah wrote in one post, defining labels rigidly can undercut mystery and stifle personal and spiritual growth. We can also identify with Mike and Garrett’s experience of falling into a loving relationship by happenstance, and being brought closer together by one partner’s need for extra support during a time of illness. It’s not only the unusualness of our relationship, but also the way our relationship began that often leads others to describe us in their terms instead of our own.

You might be thinking, “These relationships are minorities. They don’t represent many LGBTQ people.” But how do we know this? That a particular kind of story hasn’t been told often doesn’t mean it is uncommon, or that it is unimportant. And isn’t the LGBTQ community known for giving space to those whose experiences of sexual orientation and gender identity are minority experiences?

We’re interested in reading your thoughts on relationships like these and how they fit (or don’t) into the identity labels currently in use for describing sexual orientation and gender identity. We would also love to hear from others in relationships that don’t quite fit the mold in one way or another.

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