“Forced or freely chosen celibacy: how can I tell the difference?”

Last week this question came in from a reader. It relates to a broader issue that we discuss regularly: how people involved in discussions about LGBT issues in the Church use the descriptors “forced” and “freely chosen” when talking about celibacy. A reader who identifies herself as Mariya expresses uncertainty about how she sees non-celibate LGBT people and straight allies commenting on the lives of celibates:

“Congratulations on making the Washington Post! I’ve been reading responses to the article and I keep coming back to comments like this one: ‘If these people choose celibacy for themselves this isn’t a real story. It’s a story because the ex-gay movement is dead now and these people are its replacement. They’re brainwashed into celibacy and they want to brainwash the rest of us too. It would be different if they didn’t want to make us all deny our sexuality.’

I see those comments but then I see other liberal blogs like New Ways Ministry writing about having respect for people like Eve Tushnet because she doesn’t insist that everyone embrace celibacy. As a heterosexual woman who cares about the gay people at my church, I wish someone would tell me how to tell the difference between someone who is forced into celibacy and someone who chooses it because they want to be celibate. I also want to know about the difference between celibate people forcing others to be celibate or just believing in and practicing what the Bible says without shaming anybody else for not doing that.

Some people see it as the same thing, but is it? Can someone like Eve for example be both forced and not forced, forcing others but not forcing others all at the same time? It’s not just Eve. I see people saying the same things about you two. Can you help me understand?

This is a heavy topic. We’ll begin by saying that most of the time we are also confused by what other people on the internet say about “forced” and “freely chosen” celibacy. We think a great deal of the confusion stems from disagreement about the basic meanings of these two descriptors. Some people would begin a discussion on this topic by asserting that in a truly free society, no one can be forced into doing anything. One might engage in or avoid a particular behavior because of legal, social, or other types of consequences, but the existence of these consequences does not mean that the person is being forced to behave in a certain way. Example: if you are an adult who lives in a free society and is not required to belong to any religious group, pressure to remain celibate within a conservative Christian tradition does not mean that anyone is taking your freedom away or forcing you to to anything. However, others would argue that the presence of any kind of pressure concerning what to do or not to do means that the person making the decision cannot make it freely. Example: if you are part of a religious tradition and that tradition is clear in its teaching that celibacy and heterosexual marriage are the only two vocations, gay people who want to be faithful do not actually have free choices when it comes to vocation.

Both perspectives have a strong presence in the LGBT Christian conversation, and both are represented by very loud advocates. We’ll use a fairly benign example to illustrate our own perspective: in almost every society where vehicles are used, there is some kind of regulation on speed of travel. In the United States, nearly every driver we know has some gripe about speed limits. No one likes them, and most experienced drivers have been pulled over for speeding at one time or another. It is an expectation that drivers obey speed limits, even if most of us know that it’s unlikely to be pulled over for speeding unless one is driving 10+ miles per hour over the speed limit. We know that we have the option of disobeying, and that regardless of reason this decision may result in consequences such as fines, driving sanctions, car insurance rate increases, and traffic accidents. Yet two of us have never met a driver who would claim to be forced into obeying posted speed limits. If you think speed limits are ridiculous, unnecessary, or oppressive, you can break them even when faced with consequence after consequence. You also have the option of giving up on driving entirely: you can choose not to drive or even have a driver’s license. If you are unhappy with traffic laws in this country to the point that it makes your life miserable, you can move to another country where maximum speeds are higher or almost nonexistent. You could also continue living here and attempt to debate the matter with the powers that be. Oppositely, if you are intent on obeying the speed limit exactly as posted and find yourself frustrated with all the speeders along your commute who expect you to give into their pressure, you can stay in the slow lane as everyone else honks and blows past.

We find this comparison helpful for breaking down the false dichotomy between “forced” and “freely chosen” celibacy because most of time when people claim to be forced into something, there’s actually more to the story. Not long ago, the two of us were talking about a speeding ticket that Sarah had received on the way to work. Sarah’s first reaction to getting the ticket was, “I had to break the speed limit. Otherwise I would’ve been late for work. My students would have left the classroom by the time of my arrival, the class would have gotten behind, and it would have ruined my plan to spend two whole weeks on the next unit.” All of that is true, except for one sentence: the first. Sarah had the option to obey the speed limit but chose not to because in the balance of things, the possible consequences of being late for work seemed to outweigh the possible consequences of speeding. Being behind normal commute schedule and needing to make a difficult decision is not the same as being forced and having no options. In the same way, belonging to a Christian tradition with conservative teachings on sexual ethics is not the same as being forced into celibacy as an LGBT Christian. You can stay within the tradition and disobey its teachings, you can leave the tradition for a different one, you can take your disagreement up with a pastor, priest, or bishop, or you can be like the person in the slow lane on the freeway who obeys the law even when all other drivers are blaring their horns and giving you the finger. The last option is not the one most people choose, but it is an option nonetheless.

Now for the other part of our reader’s question: from where we stand, it doesn’t make sense to say that a person voicing a desire to live into a traditional sexual ethic is necessarily attempting to force beliefs or practices anyone else. That goes for major voices in the discussion as well as the average Joe or Mary in your parish.

Some celibate LGBT people do engage with non-celibates primarily through aggressive proselytization for celibacy. We’ve run into celibate people who are ready to condemn and make non-celibate people’s sex lives their business. We do not support this approach to discussing celibacy. But there are also celibate LGBT folks who do their best to obey the teachings of their Christian traditions while speaking publicly about their experiences for the benefit of anyone interested…and that’s all: no intention of insisting that every person make that same decision. These people understand that obedience cannot be forced because it is, by definition, a gift freely given. Most likely if asked, they will tell you about their convictions in a way that is neither self-righteous nor condemning.

These two approaches have almost nothing in common except that both are talking about celibacy. Conflating the two is no different from conflating the perspective a gay person who is openly involved with hookup culture and that of a gay person who is waiting until marriage to have sex with his/her partner. Both believe same-sex sexual activity is morally acceptable, but no one on the more liberal side of this discussion would ever argue that these two people are the same in ideology and approach. It would be equally ridiculous to argue that every celibate LGBT voice is part of some broader agenda to oppress everyone else in the LGBT community.

It’s important to discuss the very real problem of churches issuing celibacy mandates and having no further discussions about what it means to live celibacy as a vocation. We hope that conversation will happen within all Christian traditions. However, dwelling on descriptors like “forced celibacy” and “freely chosen celibacy” does more to hold back productive dialogue than help people who are sorting out sexual ethics questions in real life. We would encourage everyone involved in these discussions to stop fixating on “forced” or “chosen” and instead ask, “What can I do to support people in my parish who may be discerning a celibate vocation? If I am one of those discerning, how can I invite my faith community into this journey so they can support me?”

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 Celibates and the Media

Over past couple of weeks, more than one of our celibate LGBT friends has been represented in questionable ways by journalists. At the same time, we were featured in a Washington Post article about LGBT celibates that we were reasonably happy with save a claim that celibate LGBT Christians “find it easier than before to be out of the closet in their traditional churches because they are celibate.” For a while now, we have been thinking that it might be helpful to tell our readers more about our approaches to interactions with journalists. It’s easy for stories to be used as weapons, either against other groups of people (e.g. a celibate’s story being used to bully non-celibate LGBT folks) or against the interviewee (e.g. a celibate’s story being used to argue that there’s actually no such person as a “celibate LGBT Christian”).

Unfortunately, it’s possible for factors beyond the interviewee’s control to yield harmful results. We are not blaming any of our friends for how they have been portrayed recently, and we are not going to name or link the specific articles because in the the interest of fairness we would need to contact their authors for comment, and we aren’t about to open conversation with writers who are only interested in publishing polemics about celibate LGBT Christians. That said, we would like to open today’s Saturday Symposium conversation a bit differently than usual. We’ll offer some of our own thoughts on how we have managed and continue to manage media interactions, and we would like to hear our readers’ thoughts on the questions we ask at the end.

When considering giving an interview to a journalist, we believe it is important to consider this question first: “How could the author’s proposed project further the discussion about celibate LGBT people in the Church?” Every author has an audience. We’re curious how sharing our story with a specific author’s audience might contribute something positive to the broader conversation.

Though journalists with questionable senses of ethics are a dime a dozen and therefore not always possible to identify, we think it’s a good idea to have a response plan in place in the event that the published article, book, or video resource uses our story dishonestly. Having an idea of how one might respond in the immediate and farther down the road when criticisms arise is an essential part of participating in any controversial discussion. We can’t promise that we’ll always do it perfectly, but our general response to any discrepancy between what we said and how it was reported in a given situation is to publish our own statement as quickly as possible afterward. As of now, our own statements of clarification and challenge have been directed toward other bloggers (and one journalist) who have used quotes from our blog out of context and without citation or linking. We have not yet experienced anything similar resulting from an actual interview, but if this were to happen our response would be much the same as the ones we have already needed to publish. It’s very important to us that our story not be used to abuse or bully.

That said, we’ve had many fruitful interactions with journalists in the past as well. There are several writers who have a genuine interest in exploring issues raised by LGBT celibates and introducing their own fan bases to LGBT stories that don’t fit the mold. We believe that the media does play an important role in continuing and broadening conversations that we have been participating in for years on a smaller scale. Beginning and maintaining positive relationships with journalists can be beneficial for all involved: in our experience, writers who have interviewed us in the past often continue interacting with us and raising questions that challenge us in ways that we need to be challenged.

Now, onto our usual set of weekend questions…

This week’s Saturday Symposium question: Where have you seen articles, books, videos, etc. that have contributed positively to existing conversations about LGBT people in the Church? What kinds of media contributions would you like to see on LGBT Christian topics in the future? In your opinion, which topics move conversation along, hold back needed conversation, or even set back a conversation that has already advanced? What roles do journalists, bloggers, church members, and others have in advancing the discussion?

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.

On Celibacy, Ménière’s Disease, and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans

A reflection by Sarah

Yesterday, a friend sent me an audiology journal article. It was a review of studies on positive experiences of hearing loss, tinnitus, and Ménière’s disease. He thought I would be interested because of the article’s inquiring about the positives of what most people see as negative life experiences, and he was absolutely right. I spent hours nerding out over all the citations. Then, I began thinking about celibacy and some responses I’ve seen to the recent Washington Post article on celibate gay Christians.

If you’ve been involved in conversations about LGBT people and the Church for even a few weeks, you’ve probably heard at least one person suggesting that celibacy is fine for those who experience it in positive ways, but damaging for those who experience it in negative ways. There’s some truth to this. I embrace my celibate vocation joyously and have never felt as though celibacy was being thrust upon me against my will. It’s probably accurate to say that this plays a role in my positive experience of celibacy, and there is probably a strong correlation between negative experiences of celibacy and perceptions of celibacy as “damaging.” But I wonder…what does it mean to have a “positive” experience of celibacy as opposed to a “negative” experience? What counts as positive, and what counts as negative? If celibacy is thrust upon a person against his or her will (which, again, I do not advocate), does that necessarily mean he or she will have no positive experiences of celibacy?

Unlike celibacy, Ménière’s disease is a reality that was thrust upon me. Though by the time of my diagnosis I already had friends in the Deaf community and was interested in learning ASL, I did not choose to experience rapidly progressive hearing loss, constant tinnitus, and unpredictable vertigo. Quitting my doctoral program due to the severity of these symptoms after reaching ABD status and writing three dissertation chapters was not what I had planned or wanted for my life. If someone had asked me in years prior to my diagnosis, “How would you feel if you found out that you were losing your hearing?” I’m sure I would have responded with one word: “Devastated.”

Ménière’s disease is a condition that most people would consider a negative-only life experience, yet in every study referenced in the article I read yesterday, significant numbers of participants were reporting multiple kinds of positive experiences. Some of these I would not consider positive even though other people do (e.g. being undisturbed by the sounds of other people). My own experience of this condition has included many aspects that I consider positive even though others might not. I’ve noticed that my visual experience of the world is changing in some fascinating ways. Before I draw or paint, my mental images of what I’m about to put on paper or canvas are more vibrant now than they have been in the past. My color-grapheme synesthesia is stronger. I’m experiencing my relationship with God, His Mother, and the saints in new and helpful ways. I’m growing in compassion for others with disabilities, and my sense of how God is calling me to love is changing for the better. I’m finding friendship and community with late-deafened adults and people who have grown up culturally Deaf. Each of these items is a kind of positive experience that I wouldn’t have imagined possible in my life before Ménière’s disease. Everything on this list is a reason to rejoice. It’s true that often, I find myself exhausted and frustrated after putting every ounce of energy into making the best out of days when the spinning just doesn’t stop, but acknowledging this does not negate all other aspects of my experience.

In conversations about celibacy, Christianity, and the LGBT community, there is a tendency to see everything in black and white. Some people will not dialogue at all unless you’re interested in debating whether or not gay sex is a sin, or whether or not churches should bless same-sex marriages. Others cannot see celibacy outside of, “It’s fine for people who experience it positively, but not for people who experience it negatively.” In real life, few kinds of human experience are wholly positive or wholly negative. Most are mixed bags — or to use a Harry Potter analogy, boxes of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans. There’s plenty of cinnamon and peppermint, but somewhere in the box there’s also vomit and troll bogey. Sometimes I think I’m about to begin chewing on a toffee and it turns out to be earwax instead. This is just as likely to be true whether I’m referencing celibacy, hearing loss, my relationship with Lindsey, or almost any other reality of my life at present. Why pretend that celibacy or any other life experience must be either a chocolate frog or an acid pop? Why does it have to be one or the other?

Insisting that a person’s decision to live celibacy inevitably leads either to joy or despair and that the latter is far more common ignores the lived experiences of almost every celibate person I know. I’m interested in hearing from people who have felt thrust into celibacy in a similar way as I’ve felt thrust into Ménière’s disease: have you experienced anything positive as a result? I’m also interested in learning about other opinions on what kinds of experiences count as “positive” and “negative.” For example, does, “I don’t have to worry about STDs” or “I am at peace because I know I’m being faithful to my Christian tradition” count as a positive experience? Or must a positive experience of celibacy be more along the lines of, “I feel happy and fulfilled most days”? Can we determine objectively what constitutes a positive or negative experience of celibacy? Is it ever appropriate to suggest that another person’s “positive” experience is actually a “negative” experience and that he/she is wrong but may not realize it yet? Rather than sharing my current opinions on these questions, I welcome our readers to share theirs in the comments.

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.

Love and the Layers of Vocation

On November 18th a group of young adults gathered in DC to talk about Eve Tushnet’s book, Gay and Catholic at a discussion hosted by Fare Forward. The focus wasn’t on the morality of queer sexual relationships, but on the opportunities our churches and communities offer parishioners (gay and straight) to offer deep, sacrificial love outside the “default” paths of marriage and monasteries/ordination. The discussion explored alternative ways to offer love and service (whether through vowed friendship, intentional communities, moving in with family, or choice of work).

Below is the the reflection we wrote on this discussion. Due to many circumstances beyond anyone’s control, it was not able to be published on Fare Foreward’s website. We offer it here for our readers, and we also offer our thanks to Fare Forward for giving us the opportunity to write this piece. 

The two of us have grown accustomed to feeling alone in our own discernment processes, but gathering with over twenty young adults to discuss Gay and Catholic helped us realize just how many people yearn for more concrete vocational guidance from their Christian traditions. Despite the title, Tushnet’s work casts a wide net; all of us gathered sought common ground on the question, “What is vocation in the first place?”

Throughout the discussion, we noticed the focus shifting to questions of loving others well: vocations are not discrete, mutually exclusionary pathways. Husbands, wives, and monks have vocations that extend beyond marriage and monkhood.

Tushnet has discussed some strategies for how one can discern vocation by cultivating the practice of “doing the next right thing.” Being fully present in the moment can enable God to show you something different. We enjoyed trading stories about places we’ve experienced some sense of direction while simultaneously hoping for more supportive forms of community. For example, one participant shared how at his university, fourteen Christians from radically different faith traditions gathered to pray together regularly. We also spent a considerable amount of time discussing how we can borrow from various vocations to help us give shape to our specific vocations.

Taking inventories of different needs, we began to think about how we could become more active in making Christian communities just that much better for people seeking spiritual support. Saying Compline together seemed like a natural first step. As we left the gathering, the two of us found ourselves wondering what the right next thing will be to make our own spiritual community that much stronger. Throughout our late twenties and early thirties, we have heard a lot of people bemoaning the fact that young adults often leave the church only to come back when they are ready to baptize their children. Yet as we consider our own experiences in and our observations of other people our age discerning vocations, we note that many young adults desire guidance, help, and support in the church, but cannot find vibrant Christian communities willing or knowledgeable of how to do so.

Churches often put a band-aid on the problem by hosting an occasional meet-and-greet for single adults while simultaneously behaving as if meeting that “special someone” is the normative solution for a person’s vocational confusion. But in the discussion, Tushnet’s book struck a chord with people wanting more from life than the daily grind of thriving professionally. Direction matters. One participant joked, “So many people wind up as investment bankers because at least then they are told what to do next.” Repeatedly throughout the discussion, we wondered how the Church might minister more effectively if it would become normative for Christians to seek spiritual guidance at all times rather than exclusively in times of great need.

If you are interested in learning more about Gay and Catholic by Eve Tushnet, you can also check out our review of the book and our interview with the author.

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.

Mechanisms of Affection

A reflection by Lindsey

The discussion about faith and sexuality features some enduring questions that Sarah and I end up answering at least once a week. One such enduring question is, “What expressions of affection are permissible given a particular form of relationship?” As people in a celibate partnership, we frequently have people asking us how we express affection to each other. Christians as a whole are used to drawing lines around “acceptable” forms of affection. These lines of thought turn affection into a mechanical system of inputs and outputs, assuming that certain affectional inputs will always result in sexual intimacy or at minimum, a near occasion of sin for the unmarried.

I’m an engineer, and I honestly love mechanisms. Mechanisms are cool. I’m always jazzed to encounter something, anything, that has exposed mechanisms. I love seeing how things work. A mechanism is a remarkable thing that converts doable human actions, such as turning a crank, to do any number of things like sharpening a pencil, opening a can of food, sewing, or riding a bike. Assembled rightly, mechanisms allow us to connect input x with logical output y. Mechanisms assume a bounded set of initial conditions, like the switch is either on or off. Mechanisms only work in one or two ways. The crank turns clockwise or counterclockwise. If the crank moves side to side, then it’s either broken or on a slider. I love mechanisms because they are startlingly predictable.

But people don’t work the same way. The process of growing in love for another person is both dynamic and unpredictable. Interactions between two people are incredibly nuanced. The relationship between two people changes all of the time. All sorts of things influence how we interact with one another. The same action has different meaning depending on the context. A hug can offer comfort, intrude into someone’s personal space, signal close friendship, demonstrate one person’s ability to control another person’s movement, assure safety, or welcome more physical intimacy. There is nothing mechanistic about how affection “works.”

Some people I’ve met seem to have a paranoia around physical intimacy. In American Christian churches, any expression of affection gets met with skepticism, mistrust, and anxiety. We seem to be so preoccupied in having “right” forms of intimacy that we miss the point of intimacy all together. Alternately, we may perceive that our culture has rendered sex essential and sees nearly every affectionate action as a prelude to sexual intimacy. Focusing on mechanisms of affection (where again, action x has outcome y) blocks our ability to see critical components of physical intimacy: intentions and circumstances.

When people query how I express affection with Sarah and others, my answer has two components: 1) it depends and 2) it’s none of your business. The first component is the most important to me. There are few, if any, universal precepts to say that a particular form of affection always communicates love. I don’t see myself pulling actions out of an affection toolbox. I am trying to respond to a real person in front of me at a particular time. My responses vary depending on the circumstances in which I find myself. The second component comes because I do not feel obligated to explain why I determined that a particular expression of affection would be loving in a specific instance.

I’ve discerned over time that some actions do more to foster my celibate vocation than other actions do. I find myself surprised at the way regularly eating dinner together, even if that means eating at odd hours, helps me to understand hospitality better. Before I met Sarah, I viewed dinner hospitality as a kind of dinner party that had a solid start time. Dinner is at six! However, I’ve learned that approach simply doesn’t work for us or the people with whom we want to share dinner. Now I see dinner hospitality as an opportunity to create space for others to be themselves while letting them be honest about their needs. Because I’m the person who enjoys cooking, I usually handle preparing the meal. I’ve now come to see meals as a sacred time where people share vulnerably. Along the way, I’ve learned that I’m never just chopping vegetables to make soup… and sharing about the ins-and-outs with someone who wasn’t present frequently seems to impinge on sacred territory. Sometimes it’s best to invite that person over for dinner, knowing that particular dinner will have a mysterious quality to it all its own.

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.