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

  1. Lindsey and Sarah, I understand you are angry and hurt by the way I see the celibate gay Christian choice and I am sorry you feel disrespected or dismissed. It is an unfortunate truth of mine that the more vehemently you protest the more I, a survivor of abuse myself, experience your argument as indicative of either SS or asexuality promoting itself as celibate homosexuality. We are locked in a terrible conundrum akin to a nefarious Escher print that prevents us from understanding the perspective of one another.

    I have read your response and still I hold to my claim that gay Christians who choose celibacy as a condition for their relationship with God or community, predicated on the lie that gay sex is a sin and an affront to God, appear to be to be suffering as abuse victims who have chosen to love and embody the will of their abuser (church, family, theology – which ever).

    To be accepted by fellow Christians in such a state is not exactly being accepted as a lesbian but more like being accepted as eunuchs who’ve accepted the mandate that we reject a sacred element of our createdness so as not not make their fellow Christians uncomfortable by challenging the heteronormative paradigm.

    Furthermore I stand by my assertion that it can be very dangerous for other gay Christians who will have (have had) their churches and families point to celibate gay Christians as proof that it can and should be done in order for them to be loved by their community and God.

    Fortunately for y’all I am but one woman, one voice, one blogger of specious merit with no where near the reach or impact as folks like RHE or NBW. Thank God indeed.

    I am sorry that we are at an impasse and I will hold you in the light hoping you will be able to do the same for me.

    • And, as usual, celibate gay people get crapped on by both sides. The bullies in the church hate us because we are gay. The bullies outside the church hate us because we are celibate.

      I have not once seen Lindsey or Sarah advocate celibacy as a condition of belonging in the Church or promote the requirement that all gay people be celibate. They simply talk about their own vocation.

      Kimberly, people like you contribute to the high rate of depression and suicidal ideation among celibate gay people every bit as much as the church does. Please take some responsibility and stop your bullying.

      • Because, as Kimberly said, your celibacy is based on the premise that gay sex is sinful. Don’t expect gay people to be overwhelmed with gratitude. If it were a matter of eschewing something wonderful (like marriage) in order to devote your life entirely to God and be a sign of his all-consuming love, I’d be the first to applaud and buy you a drink. As it is, it’s not. And you are colluding with what is arguably the worst opponent of any extension of our civil rights for decades (so am I, by the way, but I don’t defend it)

        • Lorenzo, how is it logical to assume that a celibate gay person has chosen celibacy based on the premise that gay sex is sinful. It’s also quite a stretch to suggest that celibates are colluding with opponents to gay civil rights. Lindsey and I have advocated more than once in our space for legal recognition for gay couples.

          • You come across as obfuscating. Of course it’s possible to advocate for the legalisation of things you consider immoral. I could list dozens of things that I consider very harmful but the legal banning of which I would strenuously oppose. If it’s not sinful in your eyes, just say it, you know, and put an end to the debate. But if you think it’s sinful, stop blaming people who push back.

          • We’ve explained thoroughly in our FAQ section that we are not interested in engaging in debate about the morality of sexually active same-sex relationships. That is not our purpose on this blog, and the conversation about celibacy and LGBTQ issues cannot be reduced to that one question. We’ve been involved in far too many discussions about that question, and we find them incredibly shallow and unhelpful in most cases. We are not blaming anyone who pushes back on anything we say. We’re standing up for ourselves against people who seem to be intent on bullying celibates because somehow, there’s the assumption that our celibacy must be based on fear when that is not true.

          • And by the way, simply advocating for the legal recognition of gay couples would have you sacked in many churches, e.g. the Bishop of Miami’s recent offering.

          • Neither I nor Kimberly is claiming that conversations about LGBT people and celibacy can be reduced to that one question, nor is she claiming that your celibacy is based on fear, merely that you have adopted the moral paradigm of those who oppress us.

          • There’s nothing mere about that suggestion. It’s hugely presumptuous, especially if you haven’t spoken to a particular celibate person about what celibacy means for him or her.

          • It is very interesting and telling you say you advocate for legal recognition of gay couples yet not use the word marriage. It makes the point you think that it is sinful so should not be an option for GLBT people?

          • We say “legal recognition” because we do not presume to know the specific kinds of legal recognition that would be ideal for each couple and family. Marriage is not the pinnacle of connection to another person. There are all kinds of couples, both gay and straight, who would prefer not to be married. In many European countries where civil unions are widely available for all couples, a good number choose this option instead of marriage. It is quite the assumption to make that because we don’t use the word “marriage” in a particular comment, we must be implying something about sin.

      • you may not have heard either Lindsey or Sarah advocate celibacy as a condition of belonging in the Church, but the church certainly does.

      • Really??? Show me the statistics that show that because someone is pushing against celibacy it causes depression and suicide. If anything it is the other way around because GLBT people are told they are not allowed to share themselves with someone they love. I no of no GLBT person who committed suicide because someone told them that they shouldn’t be celibate but I know many of have tried or have killed themselves because churches mandate celibacy.

        • There may not be any statistics. If there are, I don’t know of them. But my own personal experience with depression has ben very much linked to different kinds of shaming, including both gay and straight people shaming me for my own life choices regarding celibacy. It goes both ways. -Sarah

    • Kimberly, we think you misunderstand our intentions with our post. Specifically, our goal in writing was to problematize applying an interpretation that applies for some people to an entire category of people. We had hoped that you would consider softening, if even slightly, the absolute nature of your claims. As it’s currently written your post applies to all celibate LGBT Christians. We are inclined to say that your claims may be true for a rather limited subset of celibate LGBT Christians, particularly if they have made a conscious choice to remain in a pastoral relationship with a person in spiritual authority who used abusive tactics to encourage fear-based obedience. We found it distressing that you would so readily apply your reasoning to every celibate LGBT Christian.

      We have made zero effort to decry the frames you have used to process your own experience. We can understand why you might find usefulness in appealing to Stockholm Syndrome when making sense of why you entered into and remained in a mixed-orientation marriage for some time. We’ve never suggested otherwise.

      Many LGBT Christians, ourselves included, have endured criticisms from Christians on every side of the ideological spectrum who rely on cherry-picking choice information to dismiss LGBT Christian experiences. We find this practice exceptionally problematic because it is spiritually abusive. Any time Christians assert that they know better than another person why that person has chosen a specific vocation, they are denying that person the opportunity to share his or her experience.

      The spiritual abuse of ex-gay ministries follows a similar pattern as your comments to us. Specifically, abusers pathologize others’ actions as mental health problems, attempt to force people to adopt a vocabulary alien to their own experience, and refuse to give any legitimacy to others’ experiences. We would like to note that neither one of us is asexual (and Sarah has specifically discussed that label in this post). We consider using people’s own language for themselves as a first rule of respect, and we’ve addressed why we refer to ourselves as LGBT people with a queer calling and why we call ourselves a celibate LGBT Christian couple.

      We do see that you make a distinction between people advocating for celibacy mandates and people who are not. However, it is unclear what this distinction looks like in practice because we don’t see any space in your framework for a gay person to experience a call to celibacy. It seems that you understand following one’s own conscience and entering into celibacy as a result to be the same as advocating spiritual abuse. We will certainly hold you in the light. We know that it is not your intention to be hostile, but we wonder how you would perceive a person who has never met you but nonetheless makes judgments about your psychological state and your relationship to your Christian tradition. For all of your concerns about protecting LGBT Christians from spiritual abuse, you seem to be absolutely okay with using the same tactics to make assumptions about celibates as hardcore conservatives have long used to silence all LGBT people. The easy way out of a challenging conversation is to discredit a person whom one disagrees with as confused, mentally ill, or an unknowing victim of abuse who cannot possibly have a valid point. We do not expect to change your mind, and we are certainly not attempting to convert you into adopting a celibate way of life. We respect your decisions and your agency regardless of where our disagreements lie. It would be nice if voices on the other side of the aisle would treat celibates in the same manner.

  2. In fact, I’m going to add to what I just said, assuming what I said passes moderation. When I was a kid and being beat up by four or five guys on the playground for being gay, there were other kids and teachers who stood by and told me, “if you would just stand up for yourself, bullies are cowards and will run away.” Really? when the odds are 5 to one? Hey, you know what, instead of blaming me for getting kicked in the groin, if you guys had helped out, maybe i would not be getting beat up. That’s who you are Kimberly. One of those people standing on the sidelines saying, “if only you would have sex, I would respect you. But since you don’t I guess I’ll help the bullies kick you around.”

  3. I think Kimberly Knight knows very little about the history of the Christian Church.
    Much is known by historians concerning monastic life and the rich histories of convents throughout the world for centuries. The Russian Orthodox Church during past centuries had great respect and reverence for celibate people. Much was written about the practices of celibacy.

    We are not attacking or being critical of Ms. Knight, but we do believe in religious freedom to explore celibacy. I love Lindsay and Sarah, and feel very sad that they are under harsh criticism by Ms. Knight. When Jesus walked upon this earth in a human body, He too was laughed at and cursed and ridiculed. Today my beloved new friends Lindsay and Sarah have shown me that they are exactly like Our Eternal Father. I refer to Jesus, The Lamb of God.


    • As I read her, Kimberly is not denying your belief ‘in religious freedom to explore celibacy.’ God speed to you. Just try to introduce yourself as gay in your local orthodox church (not in the US, mind you) and see how much they value you. Even straight-as-arrows orthodox theologians who do not tow the line perfectly get rather hassled. Try googling David Dunn.

  4. Sarah and Lindsey, I respect your irenic spirit and your studied commitment to maintaining a respectful tone in your essays and responses regardless of the tone with which your comments are received. At the outset, I should state that as happily married husband to my wife of 35 years I have no axe to grind in this conversation, though I will say that I regard your vocation with the utmost respect.

    Reading these recent interchanges I wonder whether at the core of Ms. Knight’s critique is a basic assumption that your responses have failed to clarify and thus have contributed to the frustration evidenced by her and those supporting her point of view. It seems to me that her attack rests on the following syllogism: Celibacy is premised on the sinfulness of same sex activity (SSA), and because SSA is not sinful, celibacy is an evil that must be exposed.

    This may in fact be your position, though it does not appear to me to be the case by what you have written, but if it were then her argument would have some merit. Your choice to be celibate would in fact be premised on a muted, gracious, loving but implicit condemnation of SSA. I think this what drives the vehemence of her rhetoric. However, if in your eyes her major premise is wrong: SSA is not inherently sinful, and thus your option for celibacy is merely a vocational decision, not a categorical rejection of SSA, then Ms. Knight’s argument, including her broad-brush judgments of dismissal, would be shown to be well wide of the mark, at best.

    For the sake of full disclosure and clarity in dialogue, and to assist those seeking to live in the light as well as discuss questions in the light, I think it would be helpful if you could clarify that one point. If nothing else, I think it might be of help to Ms. Knight who may not quite recognize the major assumption upon which her essay is based and on which her repudiation of celibacy rests.

    • Hello and thanks for commenting. We are deeply appreciative of your measured, respectful approach to engaging in this conversation.

      As we’ve stated from the beginning of our blogging project, we are not going to throw our hat into the ring on the question of what is or is not sinful regarding sexual activity. We’re always a bit confused as to why folks consider discussing this issue to be necessary for “full disclosure.” We’ve shared in a number of posts why we choose not to engage in that discussion, but we’ll summarize those briefly in list form for the sake of clarity:

      1) We’re not interested in debating sexual morality. We’ve engaged in far too many of those conversations over the years and find them colossally unhelpful and polarizing. Plus, there are all kinds of other places on the internet where folks can discuss that if they want.

      2) We *are* interested in supporting people (especially LGBTQ people) who have chosen celibacy, are attempting to live celibacy but struggling (whatever “struggling” means for them), are discerning a celibate vocation, or are just interested in thinking a bit more deeply about celibacy. Throwing ourselves into debate about LGBTQ sexual morality would do nothing to forward that purpose.

      3) We are very intentionally attempting to shift the conversation and to have a different kind of dialogue here at AQC than people have in other similar spaces. In dialogues about LGBTQ Christian issues, people are very quick to label others as “my ally” or “my enemy.” This often results in dialogues becoming shouting matches wherein one is constantly seeking out what one wants to hear from one’s allies and shouting, “You’re wrong!” at one’s enemies. A lot of talking past each other happens in these situations, and it’s quite unfortunate because more measured discussion could be a great opportunity for iron to sharpen iron. We’re all seeking Christ, and we’re all in different places. It is an absolute shame when all folks are interested in doing is deciding who is a good guy and who is a bad guy.

      4) We do realize that a few people (very few, as we’ve seen thus far in our blogging experience) take our decision not to make a declaration about sexual morality as a reason to suspect us of something sinister. We would like to push back on that a bit: the very thought that we have a hidden agenda because of what we *don’t* include in the purpose of our blog is a result of the problem mentioned above in item #3. If people in this discussion weren’t so intent on separating the sheep from the goats, there would not be a reason to consider people like us suspect. It would be more acceptable to have conversations about celibacy and sexuality from multiple starting points and through multiple lenses of experience.

      We hope this helps in clarifying for you why we have made a firm decision to refrain from participating in the “Is gay sex a sin?” debate.

  5. Thanks for the clarification. To pursue this a bit further if I may, do you think it a mistake to conclude that a good deal of the vehemence directed at Gay but Celibate is prompted by a reaction against a perceived condemnation of gay sex? It would be akin to the dieter piling lettuce on her plate as you fill yours with ribs, buttered corn, and a stack of biscuits and gravy. Though she says nothing, you may well interpret her selection as a silent but thunderous judgment which makes you angry and defensive–though the dieter means nothing by it. Is that an unfair comparison?

    • Sorry it took a bit for us to get back to you. We do think a good deal of the vehemence directed at gay celibates comes from the assumption that gay celibates are condemning other people’s sex lives. I think the comparison you’ve made is a good one. The two of us have always believed that other people’s sex lives are none of our business. So much of this conflict could be resolved if we were all more concerned with living into our callings and less concerned with what may or may not be happening in someone else’s bedroom.

  6. I don’t normally post on this blog but I have to honestly say that after reading pretty closely for the last several months, I do not see anything that has ever been said that LGBT Christians should select celibacy because of scriptural mandates. They are simply sharing why they are celibate and why it works for them. I am a Side A Christian who is in a non-celibate relationship. I can agree with Knight in the aspects with regard to Gay Christians who have been told the only path is celibacy–it is VERY toxic and there is NO scriptural mandate that requires Gay Christians to adhere to this way of life.

    • Thanks Jack. If we were going to make a pie chart of all of the different topics we talk about, we think the “discussion of Biblical texts” section would be a small sliver of that pie. Our most generous estimate for this sliver would be 3%, and we’re certainly not writing apologetics.

      If folks caught some of the live-tweets from our GCN Conference workshop feed, they’d see that we’re exceptionally critical of the celibacy mandate. We’ve written about the celibacy mandate before and have a plan of addressing the topic again very soon.

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