“They are suffering from Stockholm Syndrome”: an easy way out of a challenging conversation

Since the Washington Post article on celibate gay Christians from a few weeks ago, we have seen quite a range of responses from all kinds of perspectives. They have been so voluminous that at first, we had decided not to respond to any in particular. However, this evening a Facebook friend made us aware of a newly-published blog post that we had not yet seen. This piece by Kimberly Knight, titled, “Why this Christian will never celebrate gay celibacy,” is particularly problematic in its assumptions, and both of us felt that it warranted a response. This post will serve that function and will also point out some ways in which celebrating gay celibacy would benefit Christians and the Church as a whole.

We agree with a small handful of the claims that Knight presents in her post. For example, it is true that celibate gay Christians are not a new movement. We’ve been around for years, mainly in corners of the internet that most people found entirely uninteresting until very recently. And it’s likely that we’ve been around for generations. Knight is also correct in stating that not all people are sexual beings, and that there are some people who are called to celibacy. We also agree that it is manifestly inappropriate to weaponize the story of any celibate person to manipulate an LGBT person into living a celibate life. But we find every other point in her post problematic, and some of the post’s implications are demonstrably false.

First, Knight conflates celibate gay Christians with “the same old ignorant and homophobic expectation that LGBT Christians should hide their sexuality in the dark and try to change their created orientation in order to be in relationship with God and community.” In reality, we and other celibate gay Christians have written a number of articles and blog posts demonstrating that we desire neither to hide nor change our sexual orientations. We’ll not rehash the arguments that have already been made herehere, here, herehere, here, here, and here.

Knight claims to view “so called “Side B” gay Christians as misguided literal/factual readers of scripture that are yet unable to grasp that such reading is unbiblical and frankly unfaithful.” This is one of the most shortsighted assertions we have ever seen from an opponent of gay celibacy because of the simple fact that gay celibates (or Side B, or whatever term you prefer) come from a wide variety of Christian traditions, many of which do not teach biblical literalism. The idea that the entire Side B perspective is based upon a literal/factual interpretation of the Bible is particularly odd considering how many gay celibates are Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican — traditions that discourage literalist approaches to scripture. These traditions were well established before literalist interpretations of the Bible — which are relatively new phenomena — became an issue. We do not typically use “Side A” and “Side B” language on this blog, but it’s reasonable to assume that Knight would include us in this category as we were featured in the news article she has critiqued. Speaking only for ourselves, we’ll clarify that the two of us are not literalists and literalism has never been the interpretational method for scripture in our Christian tradition.

Although Knight states in her post, “Yes, there are some people who are called to a life of celibacy for all sorts of reasons and I am not saying that celibacy is wrong for all people,” the title “Why this Christian will never celebrate gay celibacy” makes it impossible for Knight to affirm that people like us experience profound and lasting calls to celibacy. It seems that Knight regards celibacy as a deliberate disavowal of one’s sexuality where an otherwise sexual person should not be celibate. The idea that celibacy involves excising one’s sexuality is a rather common misconception about celibacy. The video below features many examples of people choosing celibacy for different reasons. While many people shared about temporarily embracing celibacy, the nun who shares about her vocation makes it clear that she does not view celibacy as renouncing her sexuality.

Knight also seems to believe that all celibate LGBT Christians are advocates for abusive celibacy mandates. We have robustly stated that we object to the celibacy mandate and that it is inappropriate to assign a person a vocation based on sexual orientation. Vocations are discovered, and the manner in which that happens differs from person to person. We have also noted that LGBTQ Christians are free to make many choices in response to how Christian traditions approach the intersection of faith, sexuality, and gender identity. All LGBTQ Christians discern the ways they answer these questions for themselves. From our read of Knight’s post, she seems to be under the impression that a gay Christian cannot choose celibacy as a way of life while still respecting (though sometimes disagreeing with) the decisions of others.

The most problematic assertion in Knight’s post is:

By choosing celibacy in an otherwise sexual body, the gay Christian has submitted to their abusers out of fear and self-preservation, appeased the abuser with vows of celibacy hoping that if they are just good enough the abuser will stop hurting them, sacrificed their personhood to maintain relationship with and love those who are abusing them and have chosen to conspire with their abuser to perpetuate the spiritually and psychologically devastating lie that gay sex is evil.

Knight’s wording conjures up an image of a gay Christian who has kelt before a leader (or tradition), begging for a particular kind of treatment to stop, and made vows of celibacy with the intention of preserving relationships with that leader (or tradition).

We both have experiences in ex-gay ministry, and Lindsey’s story is particularly illustrative of why Knight’s assertion is so problematic. In the past, Lindsey was a part of a Christian tradition that encouraged any gay person to undergo efforts to become straight. In this tradition, being gay was treated with absolute suspicion and a sign that a person was probably not a real Christian. In this framework, a Christian was obligated to do everything possible to become straight. Lindsey tried for a bit, recognizing that spiritual growth occurs over time. When it became increasingly evident to Lindsey that the spiritual exercises recommended by this ministry were harming Lindsey’s spiritual life, Lindsey started querying the limitations of the approach with the people in charge. Their answers were entirely unsatisfying and lacked substantive engagement with the Christian tradition that supposedly justified the ministry’s approach. Specifically, the ministry had superficial interpretations of key biblical texts and no space to affirm that some people might not be called to heterosexual marriage.

Lindsey ran and has had no further engagement with that particular ministry save reconnecting with other participants and critiquing its pastoral approach. Breaking ties so quickly with one ministry created a challenge within Lindsey’s church. This church expected that all members “struggling with same-sex attractions” actively sought help from ex-gay ministries. Lindsey began looking for alternate churches in the area. Over time, Lindsey found refuge at the Gay Christian Network and had space to ask previously forbidden questions about faith and sexuality. Lindsey found a new Christian tradition and has managed to make a clean break with the particularly problematic parts of Lindsey’s former Christian tradition.

We share Lindsey’s story because Lindsey was affiliated with a Christian tradition that actively promoted an expectation that LGBT people would make every effort to hide and denounce their sexuality. Leaving that tradition behind allowed Lindsey to begin the work of discerning Lindsey’s vocation. We’d never hesitate to describe Lindsey’s experience in ex-gay ministries as spiritual abuse; we’ve written elsewhere about healing from spiritual abuse. We don’t believe that it’s essential for LGBT Christians to align with a different Christian tradition full-stop, but Knight’s assertion that any celibate LGBT Christian is essentially bargaining with key teachers within their tradition is false.

We believe that gay celibacy can and should be celebrated. We know many celibate LGBTQ Christians. We’ve seen remarkable creativity as every person we know has discerned, with God’s help, a life-giving vocation. We’ve taken great joy in discerning our vocation as a community of two. We frequently remark that we feel like we’re building the plane while flying it. It’s been entirely empowering to define celibacy as we go along. We know other LGBTQ people thriving in celibate vocations and find it entirely appropriate to celebrate their discernment processes with them. Celebrating gay celibacy has lead to more churches being willing to talk about celibacy in general. Some Christians appear to be more willing to consider the diversity of celibate vocations after engaging in conversations with gay celibates. Far too many churches have relegated celibacy to the background, effectively making marriage the default vocation. Embracing the vocations of queer celibates makes space for more stories. Not all LGBTQ people see a same-sex marriage or a sexually active same-sex relationship as essential to their flourishing, and dialogue needs to move beyond the assumption that sex = liberating; celibacy = oppressive.

Stating that celibate LGBTQ Christians suffer from Stockholm Syndrome is the easy way out of engaging in a conversation about how LGBTQ Christians understand their celibacy, their reasons for choosing celibacy, and their experiences within their Christian traditions. Scholars have noted Stockholm Syndrome is not found in any international diagnostic system for psychiatric disorders, lacks clear diagnostic criteria, and appears to be a media phenomenon. It’s easy to suggest that a person has fallen in love with an abuser if that person has made a choice you wouldn’t make for yourself. Knight wrote about how she has used Stockholm Syndrome as a way to make sense of her decision to enter a mixed-orientation marriage, and we agree that many LGBTQ Christians find themselves in spiritually abusive circumstances. Unfortunately, Knight seems unwilling to consider how her own story could be weaponized to convince other people in vaguely similar circumstances that they should follow her path. Asserting that gay celibacy can only exist in an environment marked by biblical literalism and spiritual abuse hides the experiences of many LGBTQ celibates. Overall, Knight’s post reflects more of her own experience in entering and exiting a mixed-orientation marriage than thoughtful engagement on issues pertinent to celibacy and the LGBTQ Christian community.

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