A Few Thoughts on Celibacy and Socioeconomic Status

A reflection by Sarah

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was planning to write a post on celibacy and socioeconomic status. I’ve spent considerable time trying to pull my thoughts together on this topic and have decided that I’d like to explore it in bits and pieces over time. Not much has been written on celibacy and class issues, especially from within the gay Christian blogosphere, so while I see this topic as very important I don’t intend to tackle all of it immediately or even within the near future. Today, I begin by offering some brief, scattered thoughts.

In some ways, I feel as though I may not be the right person to write on this topic. Though I grew up in one of the poorest regions of America and my upbringing did involve some socioeconomic challenges we were certainly not the poorest people in Appalachia. As I type this, I can hear my mom’s voice ringing in my head: “You didn’t have it bad. You had more than a lot of kids in this county.” I wouldn’t contest that. It’s entirely true. I’m not writing this to get sympathy or to suggest that I’m an expert on class issues. That isn’t my area of academic expertise. I’m also not about to perpetuate the myth that poverty is bad. It isn’t. Life below the poverty line can be just as fulfilling as life above it. In my adulthood thus far, I’ve lived on both sides long enough to know. What compelled me to write this post is my observation that nearly all my friends who write on celibacy and LGBT Christian issues come from similar upper middle class or middle middle class backgrounds, and sometimes in our discussions I feel like the odd person out. The thoughts that follow come from that sense of difference.

Leading a richly connected life is a challenge for any celibate person, but for the person who has fewer resources, there’s additional difficulty. Staying connected with my family of origin is not nearly as easy for me as it is for some of my friends living celibacy. I do not have the resources to visit my parents, sister, and brother-in-law more than once per year if even then. Likewise, my parents do not have the resources to fly me back to my hometown even a few times a year, or to visit me where I am. This is further complicated by the fact that the nearest airports are two hours away from where they live, and the nearest interstate highway is an hour’s drive. It would be impossible for me to be present for every special moment that my relatives experience. I’ve not had the option of attending birthday parties, baptisms, and graduations for my younger cousins. I’ve not had the opportunity to visit my aunt who has survived two kinds of lymphoma since the last time I saw her. I had to miss the funeral of my favorite high school English teacher who inspired me toward both teaching and celibacy, and whom I considered a member of my family by default. I make choices regularly that result in a weakened connection to my family. Some of these choices are motivated by other factors, but socioeconomic issues play a significant role.

I would guess that social class also plays a role in a person’s discernment of how and within what context to live celibacy. In past generations, it was common for children from poor families to grow up and become nuns, monks, or celibate priests. I’ll admit to not knowing how common this is today, but everyone I know personally who has pursued one of these vocations has come from a more privileged background than my own. My friends who entered religious orders after giving away all their possessions have had the assurance of knowing that if their postulancies didn’t work out for whatever reason, they would be able to go home and live with their parents while getting back on their feet and reintegrating into the world. A serious concern that I took into consideration when discerning was my knowledge that I could not do this. I’m sure that my parents would never allow me to be homeless if I had absolutely no other place to live, but I knew as a college student discerning the possibility of religious life that I had to be absolutely certain of my calling to a specific community before joining because my parents would not have been able to foot the bill for a restart on adult life.

Similarly, I have to admit that my decision to live celibacy in partnership is — to an extent — socioeconomically motivated. Where I grew up, people marry early. A large percentage of my high school class married immediately after graduation. A few who went to college married after college graduation. And a few married while still in high school. Growing up in an area where employment is sparse and it can be difficult to make ends meet, I learned from an early age that the ability to marry someone simply because you’re in love is a privilege. I remember my mother telling me as a pre-teen, “Love won’t pay the bills. It’s good to be in love with the person you marry. But if you marry a man who can’t support you and your kids, you’ll be hurting for the rest of your life.” Where I was raised, it was expected that people would pair up and marry. The idea of voluntary celibacy was unheard of, and the rare celibate women in the community were viewed as “old maids.” The assumption was that these women had sought husbands and failed continuously along the way. I think these attitudes have multiple roots, but one of them is the simple fact that in poor areas it is hard, if not impossible, to make a decent living on one’s own with no support from a spouse or other family members. The “old maid” state of life is bemoaned partly because of the assumption that these women will have no one to take care of them in their old age because they won’t benefit from a husband’s savings. Setting the gender issues aside for the time being (that could be another post), if a person is poor or lower middle class, it makes sense to prepare for the possibility of having to support oneself financially but do everything possible to avoid that actually being necessary. This is just as true for gay people as for straight people. I know a fair number of folks in my hometown who are gay, whether they identify as gay or not, but willingly entered into opposite sex marriages because they didn’t see another financially viable option for their lives. I can appreciate this because I know that if Lindsey and I were not living our celibate vocations under the same roof, my expenses would be crushing. Many of my single celibate friends have trouble understanding that being able to live celibacy on one’s own, even with roommates who aren’t economically attached beyond rent payments, is a privilege.

My last item of reflection for the day is a link I see amongst socioeconomic status, education, and discernment of a celibate vocation. It’s often assumed that upper middle class Americans are more educated and intellectually capable than poor and lower middle class Americans. There’s a grain of truth in that: generally, people from upper middle class backgrounds have far greater educational opportunities and far more space to spend time discerning vocation. When you come from a lower socioeconomic class, you learn quickly that getting through life is about making the best possible plays with the cards you’re dealt. If you’re dealt a bad hand, it doesn’t matter. It’s what you have, so you accept it and work with it. There’s no expectation that in the course of life, you’ll move up from a pair of twos to a full house. In my senior year of college, I came to realize that vocational discernment is about both what you desire and what God is calling you to do in life. Before, I had always thought that how you lived your life was simply a matter of getting through each day and letting the chips fall where they may.

It seems to me that within the current discussion of LGBT celibacy, there’s a pervasive assumption that every gay person has the privilege of spending time in thoughtful vocational discernment, reading and learning about historic Christian models of marriage and celibacy, and asking the tough questions of sexual ethics. If you’re not from a solidly middle class family who can provide for most of your major needs in college, graduate school, or young adulthood general, it’s likely that you don’t have the spare time to devote to these intellectual pursuits. While I’ve always been an egghead, I can also say that during my early and mid 20s I was far more concerned with the tips I made as a bartender than I was with the finer points of Church teaching about sexuality and vocation. Yes, this was true even of me as a theology student, and I’m still convinced that my opportunity to attend graduate school at an expensive Catholic university was more about luck than my intellectual ability. For poor and lower middle class people, vocation is not about discernment, decisions, or morality. It’s about going to or looking for work every day and putting food on the table. Celibacy has minimal connection to either of these. Sometimes, I wonder if more people from poor communities would recognize a natural inclination toward celibate vocations if they had the same space for discernment as folks from more privileged backgrounds.

These thoughts are only a beginning to a more thorough treatment of this topic. I’m hoping that at least some of them make sense or will at least initiate some interesting discussion. As a final note, I realize that my own experience of life will naturally differ from the experiences of other people who have been poor or lower middle class. Any generalizations in this post should be taken as rooted in my personal experience and not with the intention to make assumptions about others. I look forward to discussing more with you in the comments.

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