A Review of “Mom, I’m Gay” by Susan Cottrell

This month, we’re double-dipping on book reviews because another author has generously provided us with a copy of her book. For the first time, we will be reviewing a resource aimed at parents of LGBTQ children. Susan Cottrell‘s “Mom, I’m Gay”: Loving your LGBTQ Child without Sacrificing Your Faith is a quick, straightforward read with lots of little gems throughout. We are deeply grateful to her for sharing her book with us.

We write all of our reviews with two central questions in mind: What does this book have to say to LGBT Christians who are living celibacy or exploring the possibility of celibate vocations? How does this book contribute to conversation about celibacy as a way of life that LGBT Christians might choose? We would like to maintain that focus as much as possible, but given the nature of this resource we will also be discussing what this book has to offer for parents, particularly moms and dads of celibates but also parents of LGBTQ children in general.

Cottrell blogs regularly at FreedHearts, which we’ve linked in the first paragraph. She is a Christian and mother of five, and her family includes children who are part of the LGBT community. FreedHearts is her full-time ministry, and she is passionate about helping LGBTQ individuals and their parents. To be honest, we were hesitant when we began reading “Mom, I’m Gay” because neither of us is a parent and we feel somewhat under qualified to review it. But as we progressed through its pages we found ourselves reflecting on our relationships with our own parents and found many points of connection with our stories, particularly Sarah’s.

The first thing we noticed about Cottrell’s work is that the book is very simply put together with short chapters. There is nothing lofty or complicated about “Mom, I’m Gay” and that is one of its greatest advantages. It’s a collection of short reflections on Cottrell’s own process of coming to embrace her daughter. Every parent who struggles earnestly with questions of how to respond to an LGBTQ son or daughter has likely experienced the emotions and thoughts: fear, uncertainty, exasperation, love. While reading, a recurring image for us was that of troubled parent picking up this book during a coffee break at work, perhaps even taking it to the bathroom to read a chapter and shed a few tears. Not a single chapter is too long to be read within 10 minutes, which makes the book a good resource for readers with limited emotional bandwidth. Parents who are grasping at straws for a way even to begin thinking about LGBTQ issues will find gentleness and compassion in each brief chapter.

LGBTQ people who read this book may find it challenging or soothing…or both. It’s not easy for us to put ourselves in our parents’ shoes and make an honest effort to see things from their points of view. “Mom, I’m Gay” challenged us to think back on our own coming out experiences and the interactions we’ve had with our parents since then. Our four parents’ beliefs on sexual ethics range from very conservative to very liberal, and it was helpful for us to consider their different struggles and how each might respond to Cottrell’s message. Some passages, like this one, had us exclaiming, “Yes! Every parent of an LGBTQ child should know this!”:

Life is ephemeral, beyond our control, easy to snuff out. Put first things first. You have a beautiful child. Do not let this issue overshadow that truth. Ask God whatever you need to, and let him guide you through this maze. But do not let anything diminish the blessed gift your child is and their place in your family. Now is the perfect time to embrace, kiss, encourage, affirm, and love your child.

Whatever conclusions parents and their LGBTQ children reach about the morality of same-sex sexual activity, bits like these will have strong resonance. Life is short. We are called to love one another. Sometimes, it’s not immediately clear how we should do that, but this should not stop us from recognizing the image and likeness of God in every human being. This nugget of wisdom is just as true for LGBTQ children who are frustrated with their parents as it is for parents sorting through tough emotions after a child’s coming out.

We found chapters 11 and 12 especially meaningful. Chapter 11 focuses on people-pleasing, an issue that both of us have struggled with mightily. We imagine that one or more of our parents probably has too. There’s a great deal of social pressure in Christianity  for parents to reject LGBTQ children. Likewise, there’s a significant push for LGBTQ people to leave the Church, “change” sexual orientations, and view ourselves as “people who struggle with same-sex attraction.” While Cottrell writes from a perspective that is firmly in support of committed, sexually active same-sex relationships, the message of this chapter has meaning for all people who are involved in this discussion, trying their best to follow Christ and live out their callings. People-pleasing harms us. If we’re more concerned about listening to what others think than we are about hearing God’s voice in all of this, our priorities need reexamination. As celibate LGBTQ Christians, the two of us sometimes experience difficulty in separating the judgmental messages we hear from straight Christians (and, to be honest, non-celibate LGBTQ Christians). This chapter encouraged us to continue examining our own behaviors and ask, “Is this coming from God or from respectability politics?”

Chapter 12 is titled, “Bear Their Burdens,” and it speaks to the need for parents to support their children even in the most difficult of circumstances. Cottrell challenges readers to see the person first and the perceived problem second. On page 59 she says, “Don’t shift all that to your child but instead help lift that burden. Let the weight of the discomfort rest on you. Your child is carrying enough as it is.” What struck us here was that as Christians, all of us are called to bear one another’s burdens. The “It’s not my problem” attitude doesn’t come from Christianity — it comes from our own discomfort. We wonder what it will mean for us to bear the burdens of others. Will it inconvenience us? Will it get us in over our heads. Back to chapter 11 again, will it cause people to think negatively of us if we’re seen as giving even the slightest support to a gay person, a pregnant teenager, an addict? Cottrell makes it clear: your child should not have to journey alone through the difficult questions of life. Likewise, no person should have to travel a difficult road without support. As Christians, we should always be ready and willing to extend a loving hand. This is one area where the Church has failed LGBTQ Christians the most. Celibate LGBTQ Christians, like all LGBTQ people, have experienced painful rejection, and much of this is because it’s hard for the Body of Christ to be the Body of Christ. It’s easier to dismiss people as risks for scandal than to reflect seriously on how we can support vocational discernment and progress toward maturity. Cottrell’s book nudged us to think about how we can do better at bearing the burdens of others.

We would love to engage in more conversation with the author about how her ideas can be applied to parents of celibate LGBTQ children. There is no generic pathway that all Christian families follow as children come to accept their sexual orientations. Some parents hope that their children will choose celibacy, but this doesn’t happen. The parents might respond with condemnation or with an “agree to disagree” attitude. Other parents demand that their children choose celibacy and will not accept the possibility of any different outcome. Still, other parents are completely accepting of sexually active LGBTQ relationships, but their children choose celibacy anyway either because they have discerned a calling to celibacy or because their sexual ethics are more conservative than those of their parents. Some celibate LGBTQ Christians, like Sarah, have one parent with a very liberal sexual ethic and another who believes that sexual orientation is a choice. We’re curious to know if there is anything else Cottrell might have to say about family situations like these.

Also, we would push back on the idea presented in some places like chapter 19 that finding a gay-affirming church is a necessary part of embracing one’s LGBTQ child. We would like to ask the author if she, as a person who supports sexually active same-sex relationships, sees any possible pathway for being a loving and accepting parent who believes in the teachings of a conservative Christian tradition.

In general, we would recommend “Mom, I’m Gay” to others interested in LGBTQ Christian issues. So much of this book is basic Christianity: love other people and never forget that they are made in God’s image.

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.

A Review of Two Words by Emily Timbol

Today, we’re delighted to review Emily Timbol’s book entitled, Two Words: Why Hearing “I’m Gay” Changed My Straight Christian Life. In the interest of full disclosure, Timbol sent us a copy of the book. On Twitter several weeks ago, Timbol was sharing about how Christian media outlets found her book inappropriate for Christians to discuss. Our natural response was to read the book and review it here.

As with all of the resources we’ve reviewed, our review of Two Words will focus on two primary questions: What does this book have to say to LGBT Christians who are living celibacy or exploring the possibility of celibate vocations? How does this book contribute to conversation about celibacy as a way of life that LGBT Christians might choose?

To begin, Two Words doesn’t have any apparent message to LGBT Christians who are living celibacy or exploring the possibility of celibate vocations. It’s a memoir of how one straight Christian learned to love her gay friends. Emily (as she refers to herself by first name throughout the book) became introduced to the LGBT community when her close friend Chris told her that he’s gay. Chris waited a while before coming out to Emily even though they had been friends. Emily was forced to reconsider everything she knew about gay people and directly confront her misconceptions. Her book is full of stories about the questions she began asking herself. Consider this excerpt detailing when Chris came out:

I leaned forward. “Can I ask you something?”

Chris nodded.

“Were you afraid if you told me, I wouldn’t be your friend anymore, because I was so religious?”

“Yeah,” he said without pause, “that’s probably the biggest reason I never told you.”

His confession ripped through me. How could he ever think I would cut our friendship off over his sexuality? (pg.18-19)

We appreciated how Emily shows love to the gay community by taking friendship as the first principle. We enjoyed learning about how Emily got to know the gay community by hanging out with her existing friends and making new friends along the way. The book is jam-packed with anecdotes of real people, transporting readers with Emily along her journey.

Celibate LGBT Christians might find this book challenging to read after catching a glimpse of Emily’s openness to questioning what she has always been taught. Immediately after Chris came out to her, Emily found herself reflecting on the day she learned her new friend at church, Craig, was gay. Craig recounted his story of trying to pray away the gay, coming out, getting kicked out of his parents’ house, and finding support from friends. Emily records the story in detail and includes this climax:

“After praying, I started to feel God’s presence again. I felt Him tell me He loved me for who I was, and He didn’t want me to be alone. That it wasn’t wrong for me to want to be in a relationship. I was still His child.”

He stopped talking. Leaned his head back against the seat and sighed. Silence filled the car.

My mind reeled, thinking of the implications of what Craig just said. Could it be true? If it was, it went against everything I was taught. But I felt a fluttering in my heart. The one I’d experienced at different times all my life. The feeling that let me know that the Holy Spirit was present. Like God was in the car with us, wanting me to speak.

“Thank you,” I said, “for sharing this with me. I think… God loves you very much, and there is nothing that can tear you away from Him if you want to be in His presence.”

The words came out before I could process the ramification of what I was saying. It was the first time I’d ever spoken a contradiction of scripture. Or rather, my previous interpretation of what the scripture meant. Instead of feeling the urge to take them back, I felt at peace. Almost as if the words hadn’t come from me, but the Holy Spirit. (pg. 23)

Regardless of your perspective on sexual ethics, you might be tempted to stop reading because you’ve heard it all before and you know exactly where Emily is going next. There are various culture war talking points scattered throughout, and most of the stories do have predictable endings. Nonetheless, for readers who can appreciate the stories rather than focus on these talking points, the book is a welcome invitation to move beyond the culture war mentality in order to see that all people have the option to choose to love the real LGBT people in front of them. Following Emily’s journey, readers might find themselves confronted with the reality that loving other people well is incredibly, tremendously, and unbelievably hard. There is a lesson in this for celibates as well as non-celibates.

As celibate LGBT Christians ourselves, we couldn’t help but see that Emily’s commitment to loving her LGBT friends likely extends just as much to us as to her friends Chris, Craig, and Tyler. However, we couldn’t help but notice that Emily did not have any personal story related to an LGBT Christian living out celibacy or discerning the possibility of a celibate vocation. Consider the following exchange with Emily and her pastor Lee with our emphasis added:

I interrupted [Lee]. “Look, I don’t want you to think that I’m trying to say that the church is hateful, or bigoted, or bad in anyway. It’s not. In fact, I would feel totally comfortable bringing any of my gay friends here on Sunday. The problem is, most of my gay friends are married, and active in the community and want to serve. So it’s hard to invite me to a church where they couldn’t do that.”

“We’ve never had that situation, ” Lee said.

“What?” I asked.

“Well, like I’ve told you before, we have several gay leaders in the church right now, who believe the best way to serve God is for them to be celibate, but we’ve never had a gay married couple, who were believers, ask to lead.”

“Are you saying you wouldn’t flat out reject them?”

He leaned back in his chair. “I… whew, that’d be hard. If they were married and spiritually healthy? I don’t know, I’d really have to pray and seek advice and wisdom from others. That’s not something I’ve ever thought about.” (pg. 171)

If the church had celibate gay Christians in leadership roles, we wonder why Emily didn’t include any of their stories. It’s possible that she doesn’t know any of these leaders personally. However, it’s also possible that such stories were excluded intentionally for one reason or another. We’re not here to make accusations, but would be interested in learning about whether any celibate LGBT Christians have played a role in shaping Emily’s journey as an ally.

Finally, this book raises two very clear issues relevant to LGBT Christians living celibacy or exploring the possibility of celibate vocations, and for straight allies who want to support them:

1. LGBT Christians might experience difficulty seeking ways to share their lives more holistically within the Church. Though this book contains no stories of interactions with celibates, unwelcoming circumstances in church are just as present for celibates as for non-celibates. We know that this is a challenge because we’ve been counseled many times ourselves that we should never mention being LGBT, especially in church settings. This book led us to wonder, what might happen if churches helped allies committed to loving the LGBT community connect with their celibate LGBT members?

2. Straight, Christian friends might be more supportive of you, your identity, and your vocation than you might otherwise think. One thing we most appreciated about Two Words is that it lets readers look in on three years of friendship. There are a lot of stories that show Emily’s commitment to loving her friends unconditionally. We think that celibate LGBT Christians who feel disconnected from their church communities might be encouraged by the possibility that one of their straight friends has a heart similar to Emily’s. If you get up the courage to come out as a celibate LGBT Christian, then you might find a friend who is willing to continue in friendship, pray with you and for you, and love you with no strings attached.

In closing, we do wish that more straight Christians would consider sharing the following message from Emily with LGBT people in every kind of life situation:

The point, is how messed up the church is, when it comes to people like Chris. The church is not a welcoming place for anyone who’s gay. And lots of them want nothing to do with the church. It doesn’t really matter what I think about whether it’s a sin or not, because I know what IS a sin. The way most Christians treat LGBT people. That’s what I want my ministry to be. Reaching out to the LGBT community and showing them that God loves them. (pg. 47)

And after reading Two Words, we’d certainly welcome a chance to get to know Emily and her husband Ryan much better.

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.

An Interview with Eve Tushnet

After reading and reviewing Eve Tushnet’s newly released book, Gay and Catholic, we were eager to learn more about the author’s perspectives on related topics beyond the scope of her recent work. She kindly agreed to let us interview her on the blog today. If you enjoyed the book or are thinking about reading it but haven’t had the opportunity yet, you’ll be interested in the thoughts she has to share this morning. A quick heads up before we get into our questions: this interview is longer than the majority of our regular posts.

Let’s begin…

AQC: Eve, we’re delighted to have you with us today. There have been a lot of books published about gay Christian issues in the past several years. Where would you situate your book relative to the others? From your perspective, what is your book’s unique contribution to discussions of LGBT issues in the Church?

ET: There are two big differences with my book: It doesn’t attempt a theological argument for the Catholic position on sexuality, and it focuses on the many vocations open to gay people. Most of the other books we have are either theology/exegesis, or personal memoir. I do memoir because I think our stories are important, but most of the book is almost a guide to vocational discernment. It’s an attempt to help people think through the question, “Okay, so let’s say that I buy the Catholic sexual ethic. What on earth can my future look like other than pointless loneliness? How can I give and receive love?”

I wrote it largely because I really wish that when I first became Christian somebody had told me to focus on what God was calling me to do with my life, and not on what I can’t do or why I can’t do it.

AQC: One item that stands out in your biography is that you are openly lesbian. We’ve noticed that people are constantly challenging us our use of LGBT, saying that using LGBT language needlessly inflames the conversation in the Church. Why have you chosen to use the words lesbian and gay? Does your use of the words lesbian and gay mean you identify with the LGBT community? Why or why not?

ET:  I have a lot of reasons for using “lesbian” and “gay” for myself. I do try in the book to remember that this is just one set of self-identifiers and there are lots of others, from “same-sex attracted” to “queer” to “I don’t really label myself,” all of which have their advantages and disadvantages when it comes to understanding oneself and being understood by others. But for me it was important to say “gay.”

Partly that’s because I am so grateful for my experiences in gay communities. I talk quite a bit in the book about how gay and lesbian communities were places where I learned to care for others and listen to others, to be less of a privileged jackass and less of an adolescent narcissist. Gay communities made me a better person and I want it to be clear that you can accept Catholic teaching and still have strongly positive associations with the term “gay.” Or to put it another way, I think the Church can relate to gay communities by seeking to baptize what’s best in them, learn from these communities and be changed by them while changing them, not just reject them totally.

The most important reason I wanted the cover to say “Gay,” though, is just that if you’re a scared Christian teenager that’s the word you’re eventually going to realize refers to you. There’s going to be a moment when you think, “Oh no–when people say ‘gay’ they mean me.” I think that’s almost always true for same-sex attracted kids in this culture regardless of how they end up identifying. And I really wanted kids in that position to have some evidence that there is a future for them in the Church.

Also it’s short. You can put it in a tabloid headline.

AQC: Sometimes Protestants dismiss celibacy as “the thing things Catholic priests do.” What are some of the most important things that you have learned about celibacy that are broadly applicable across the range of Christian traditions?

ET: To be honest, I don’t know how much I have learned about celibacy. I’m still right at the beginning of learning about it. I used to sort of assume that it was just a kind of guardrail or feature of the landscape, at best a tool which helps you live out your vocation rather than a calling in itself. So I’m not sure how much there is in the book about “what is celibacy”; it’s more about “what are forms of love open to celibate people.” I’m only now beginning to see what it might look like to experience a call to celibacy, to have celibacy as a color in one’s life rather than an absence of certain other colors. Your blog has helped a lot in that respect.

That said, I have learned from reading and speaking with celibate people in various forms of vowed religious life that celibacy requires integration of one’s sexuality. You get a lot of this in literature directed at priests and people in religious orders. You need to find some way of accepting and living out your sexuality. You can sacrifice sexual desire–sacrificing it can be a way of acknowledging it and honoring it. Desire becomes a costly gift you give to God. Or you can find ways to transform and sublimate desire into mystical prayer, service, friendship, etc. But just repressing it and hoping it goes away is a path to disaster.

AQC: What parts of the book were most enjoyable and/or challenging for you to write inasmuch as they enable you to live more fully into the celibate vocation?

ET: The two hardest things were writing the memoir part and reining in my constant, compulsive need to give advice. It’s an advice book! I need to own that fact. There is advice just crawling over every page. But I am so skeptical of our ability to give advice; so much advice is ego-driven projection, and so much of it, too, is heard in a very different way from the way it was meant. I’ve received some great advice in my life, and even taken some of it, so I do think fruitful advice-giving is possible. But rare.

The memoir was hard because I have the memory of a mayfly, and because I had to confront not only my drinking problem but the hypocrisy and compartmentalization which allowed me to drink addictively for over a decade while being a professed (and public!) Catholic.

The most rewarding things were getting to share the books I love with other people, and getting to quote insightful stuff said by my friends.

I see that none of that actually involves “living into the celibate vocation”! But see above re: my understanding of celibacy as a vocation is super-rudimentary.

AQC: Regarding same-sex attraction and same-sex friendships: you talk about how society gives LGBT individuals the opportunity for rather extensive experience in cultivating non-sexual friendships with people of their same-sex, even from early ages. Many people see this as a risk to chastity. What would you say to a person who views encouraging friendships between two individuals who experience same-sex attractions as too risky?

ET: My answer would depend on who the person is. If I’m talking to an actual same-sex attracted person, I’d ask some questions about their personal experience–are they afraid that painful patterns from their past will recur? are they trying to be obedient to advice they were given by someone else?–and, depending on their circumstances, encourage them to speak with someone they trust. I’d definitely encourage them not to be afraid of their sexuality. Being attracted to another guy or girl doesn’t make you toxic, and it doesn’t harm the person you’re attracted to. It doesn’t mean that you will inevitably damage yourself or the other person if you get to know them. That said, some people do have a really tough time being friends with someone to whom they are/were sexually attracted, so this is an area where you really have to know yourself and your patterns.

I guess my biggest advice (THERE IT IS AGAIN) to someone in that situation would be that they really need to be completely honest with themselves, with God, and with someone they trust. Denial of one’s own feelings, or demanding that another person play the role we’ve assigned them in our internal fantasy world, sets you up for misery.

I’d also try to see if they can get to know same-sex attracted people who have deep friendships with people of the same sex. Once you see that it can be done you might find it easier to intuit how it can be done. If the person asking me about this stuff is straight, I might go over some of the “what it’s like growing up gay” stuff from the book. We spend a lot of adolescent hours in single-sex environments, and we’re also a sexual minority so most of the people we fall for are basically never going to reciprocate our attractions, and that teaches many of us–not all–some important lessons about how to be friends with someone of the sex we’re typically attracted to.

Or I might just say, “Can you trust me that it happens?” Intimate same-sex friendship has been so fruitful in the lives of so many gay or same-sex attracted people I know. There’s so much personal testimony to the effect that same-sex friendship can be one of the most beautiful parts of our lives.

I would probably also talk about several aspects of what I’ve called the “sexualization” of gay people: We’re often treated as if we’re driven mad by lust for every person of the same sex that we like or spend time with; our friendships are viewed with intense suspicion even when we’re not actually attracted to our friends! Moreover, people assume that sexual temptation is the biggest temptation for us, when in fact loneliness or despair might be much more pressing problems. Being without intimate friendships is incredibly risky, if we’re talking about risks. The “safety first, don’t do anything which might possibly lead to sexual temptation!” model is unsafe, because it leaves gay people isolated, frightened to have friends.

AQC: People often accuse us of not defining celibacy as a way of life wholly distinct from marriage. Do you think it’s helpful to define both marriage and celibacy in terms so specific that every celibate vocation must be wholly distinct from marriage in its characteristics?

ET: I didn’t really define celibacy in the book. I do think it’s got to have “not planning to marry” as part of its makeup, but I really like how you two take that for granted and explore what might be other aspects of a celibate vocation, like hospitality. (Sorry, I’m not sure I have much interesting to say on this one!)

AQC: A reader asked: “Could you please ask Eve about celibate marriages where one partner has come out as gay or lesbian to the partner only, yet the couple remains together because of a child or children. Seems to me there should be some pastoral care for both partners in this instance because it can be very isolating for each side – sure, the couple has things in common and care about each other, even share kisses and affection, but, the lack of sexual intimacy has it’s struggles at times…”

ET: Oh, this is definitely a situation where both spouses need trustworthy spiritual guides. These situations are so specific to the individuals involved that I’m not sure I can say much more than, Find someone you trust and can confide in and be guided by. You need somebody who is spiritually grounded in prayer, obedient to the Church but without a rigid tendency to act as if his or her own personal opinion is the voice of God. Beyond that I’m hesitant to generalize.

AQC: Now that your book is out on shelves, what book or books do you think are still missing from the conversation? What are some of the books on LGBT people in the Church that you’d love to see a different author write?

ET: There are so many more books to be written! There’s a whole book to be done about celibacy in partnership. There should be a book directed more toward pastors, spiritual directors, counselors etc. There should be a book which engages more with lesbian history–I was pretty cavalier about sticking to history of men’s friendships, but there’s a lot of material about women’s same-sex devotion as well.

And I think there’s a whole book to be done about class issues for Christian celibates. Everything from, How do I cope with economic turmoil when I don’t have a spouse? (How can the parish truly act as a family for me?), to, How can celibate people shore up the families we love when times are hard?, to, Why is so much Gay Christian Stuff written from an overeducated, typically white-and-fairly-wealthy perspective, and what do people outside that narrow demographic have to say about their experience of gay/ssa/same-gender loving celibacy? I think that should be an anthology, so if you have thoughts on that stuff, get in touch with me.

That’s just for starters. There really is so much to explore here.

AQC: That’s a lot of food for thought! Thanks for sharing with us and our readers today. Readers, you can also check out Eve’s series of book extras at her blog.

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.

A Review of Gay and Catholic by Eve Tushnet

We are so excited to be featuring Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith by our friend Eve Tushnet. We’ve been eagerly awaiting this book for several months.

As with our other reviews, our review of Gay and Catholic will focus on two primary questions: What does this book have to say to LGBT Christians who are living celibacy or exploring the possibility of celibate vocations? How does this book contribute to conversation about celibacy as a way of life that LGBT Christians might choose?

At the risk of being too causal, we’re going to begin by stating that this book is awesome. Seriously, it’s great. We’d even encourage you to go buy yourself a copy right now and check out the book extras on her blog in the meantime. Keep reading to see why we’re recommending this book so enthusiastically.

Tushnet takes a fantastically conversational approach to discussing faith and sexuality. The reading pace of the book reminds us of a stand-up comic’s routine. We simply couldn’t put it down. It’s whimsical, it’s fun, it’s engaging, and it broaches intense topics with compassion and lots of dry humor. Gay and Catholic can journey with you whether you’re relaxing at the beach or trembling before the meeting with your pastor when you intend to tell him or her that you’re, uhm…er…uhm…<deep breath, exhale>… gay.

If you’re looking for a book that makes an argument for a traditional sexual ethic, we’d recommend searching for an alternative. Unlike many books written by people who hold conservative beliefs on Christian sexual morality, Gay and Catholic isn’t an apologetic. Tushnet takes the traditional sexual ethic as a given and admits that she doesn’t always understand the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings on human sexuality, noting that one can strive to live in accordance with teachings while still having a lot of questions. We find it absolutely refreshing that this book is not an argument for LGBT celibacy.

We found ourselves cheering as Sarah would for the St. Louis Cardinals or Lindsey for the Boston Red Sox when we read Tushnet’s description of how her approach to sexual ethics has changed:

When I first entered the Catholic Church I thought of my role–a lesbian-gay-bisexual-queer-same-sex-attracted Christian–as having two parts: the negative act of not having gay sex and the positive act of intellectually understanding the Church’s teachings. I now see my task much more simply, as the discernment and living out of my vocations: figuring out how God is calling me to love and then pouring myself out into that love. p.4-5

A great deal of our life together as a celibate couple has been seeking God’s will for how we are to love the world around us. Tushnet emphasizes what happens when celibate people say “Yes” to God and offers an authentic discussion of the various ups and downs associated with celibate ways of life. LGBT people exploring the possibilities of celibacy will be inspired by this book’s focus on all the ways God says, “Yes.”

Tushnet is exceptionally candid about how she did not have any role models for a faithful gay Catholic life. The process of discerning one’s vocation is neither a linear process nor without struggle, and she has plenty to say about its joys and sorrows. Tushnet’s candor includes her disclosing about how struggles with alcoholism shaped her understanding of vocation.

As I’ve said, when I first converted, I basically thought that chastity for a gay Catholic was purely a negative rule or outer boundary: don’t have sex with girls. Over time I learned that you need to structure your life in such a way that you are living out a positive vocation to love. You are called to something, not merely away from something. And similarly, I don’t think sobriety is the same as not drinking. I don’t think my task is best understood as a negative one of avoiding drunkenness or avoiding alcohol. My project right now is to build a way of life in keeping with my God-given vocation. pg 59

We appreciated how Tushnet discusses her struggle with alcohol alongside comparatively easy acceptance of her same-sex attractions. As a person in recovery from multiple addictions, Sarah found this aspect of the book especially relatable. Many who will read this book are well aware of how ex-gay ministries and some denominations as a whole counsel gay Christians to say that they “struggle with same-sex attractions” instead of “identify as LGBT.” Those who have experienced such language policing will find comfort in Tushnet’s clear message that all Christians struggle to live our vocations, and it’s unhelpful to limit the challenges celibate gay Christians face to “lust.” As we read, we kept coming back to the reality that similar problems manifest differently in different people, and we did a lot of reflecting on our own areas of spiritual difficulty. Noting Tushnet’s observations of her struggle with alcoholism, celibate LGBT Christians might find it beneficial to consider individual spiritual struggles rather than assuming that same-sex attractions are necessarily at the root of their spiritual difficulties. Tushnet’s writing has pushed us to think more deeply about how pride, anger, envy, greed, and other passions impede purposeful living. She rightly describes the spiritual struggle as searching for paths aligned with your God-given vocation.

We found Chapter 6 “What Vocation Is and Is Not” one of the most helpful sections of the book. To give you a taste of how Tushnet defines vocation:

A vocation is a path or way of life in which God is calling us to pour out our love for him and for other particular human beings. Vocation is always a positive act of love, not a refraining-from-action. So celibacy, in and of itself, isn’t a vocation in this sense, although it can be a discipline that frees one up for one’s vocations. pg. 75.

Tushnet defines vocations holistically where most people have more than one vocation. There is a great diversity in how we can pour out our love for God and for other people. We can pray. We can teach Sunday School. We can spend hours in theological study… and we can care for the sick, we can design buildings that maximize their ability for social good, we can teach, we can play with children…She offers many insights into what it means to live a vocation. According to Tushnet, vocations emerge at the intersection of our choices and God’s call. Rightly discerning vocation requires a realization that “every vocation has a cross as well as a crown” (pg. 78). Tushnet says that learning to love people is the key to doing one’s vocation well. Our vocations should draw us towards God.

At the close of the book, Tushnet includes three appendices to assist people along their journeys. The first appendix provides additional resources, most of which are specific to the Roman Catholic Church. The second appendix features Tushnet’s responses to frequently asked questions where answers didn’t fold neatly into the rest of the book. The third appendix — which we found especially helpful — muses on what churches can do to be more welcoming to LGBT Christians. Given some of our own recent experiences at church, we wanted to point out a paragraph from that section, where Tushnet urges church communities to reflect on what “be more welcoming” actually means:

Be honest about what you’re praying for. It’s easy to say that we want our churches to be places of refuge and welcome for gay and same-sex attracted people. But then somebody takes us seriously! Somebody shows up with her partner and wants to get their kids baptized, or somebody seeks to become a member of the church and wants to have tough conversations about Scripture. Maybe the pastor asks your newly welcome churchgoer to give a testimony of how Jesus rescued him from homosexuality, but he points out that that isn’t how he sees his life at all.

Everybody wants to wants to take in a shivering kitten. Not everybody wants to deal with a grown up cat. (pg. 209)

In sum, Tushnet’s book is awesome, but it makes no claim of being perfect. We did have some trouble relating to Tushnet’s discussion of her childhood, relatively easy acceptance of sexual orientation, and minimal experiences of discrimination. She admits that especially regarding the latter two, many LGBT Christians have had more difficult experiences. Because of this, there are parts of the book where some readers will find themselves unable to relate to Tushnet’s story. Still, Gay and Catholic has arguably the most thorough discussion of how an LGBT person might discern his or her celibate vocations…and it’s fantastically fun to read. Get your own copy, and drop us a line in the comments about your thoughts. We have plans to interview Tushnet in the near future and publish her responses on the blog. Please feel free to submit your questions for our consideration.

Happy reading!

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.

Why We Don’t Review Ex-Gay Books

For the past few months, we have been reviewing various resources that touch on LGBT Christian topics. So far, we have discussed:

We do our best to review a wide range of resources from diverse viewpoints. We’re always open to receiving suggestions. Occasionally, people pass us a book, we read the work, and we conclude that there’s no way we’d review the book for our readers because these books exclusively promulgate ex-gay narratives. Some readers have written to us and asked why we don’t review certain books of this type, and we think this is a good question. Our celibacy has led to many inquiries about why we use LGBTQ terminology when describing ourselves, and whether we benefit from resources that suggest such terminology only applies to sexually active people. We’ll save the “Why identify as gay?” topic for another post, but in lieu of a book review for the month of September, today we’ll address the reasoning behind our choices for resource reviews.

It can be tricky to draw lines as to when a book is loaded with ex-gay rhetoric. We saw some object to The Third Way film because people associated with the film’s production and distribution have advanced ex-gay messages in other venues. When we watched the documentary, we concluded that as a whole, it did not emphasize orientation change and encouraging formerly gay people to enter into heterosexual marriage. Nonetheless, we did conclude that aspects of the documentary would be instantly recognizable by and disturbing to former clients of ex-gay ministries because the film pulled so readily on various theories of what causes homosexuality, and some interviewees claimed that they were no longer gay.

Ex-gay narratives frequently contain many, if not all, of the following elements: theorizing various causes of homosexuality, using questionable statistics and studies employing faulty methodologies to argue for orientation change, emphasizing promiscuity and other risky behaviors as constituent parts of “the gay lifestyle,” heavily referencing 7 passages of Scripture that speak to same-sex sexual activity, asserting that God created all people with the capacity for heterosexual relationships, and suggesting that it’s possible for someone to go from gay to straight. Older books of this type sometimes promote opposite-sex marriage as a goal for gay people after “orientation change.” Newer varieties of literature that we would classify as part of the ex-gay genre writ large promote celibacy as a goal while conflating sexual orientation with sexual behavior. Mixing these elements together can create incredibly toxic messages that do considerable harm. We’ve shared more about our own experiences with Christian ministries that promote ex-gay ideologies.

We don’t review ex-gay books because we’re not interested in giving these authors more press. The arguments within these resources have been weighed, measured, and found wanting. It’s becoming obvious to more and more Christians today that orientation change efforts are almost always futile and damaging. In spaces where people still do see orientation change as a goal, the focus tends to be on behavior modification rather than eventual marriage. Because of this, it’s rare that we receive suggestions to review resources of the older 1970-2000 variety. However, we do get a lot of requests to review books of what we see as the new kind of ex-gay material. Sometimes, both readers and straight Christians who know us in person will pass along a recommendation for a resource that offers a “compassionate approach to gay people in the Church.” We’ll read/watch it and discover that the only difference between it and older ex-gay materials is a chapter about celibacy tacked onto the end. All the same messages, minus “you must prepare for an opposite-sex marriage,” are there, and the author discusses celibacy as the end result of “leaving homosexuality” for Christ. Such resources are filled with logical fallacies and other kinds of false information (e.g. “There’s no definitive evidence that sexual orientation is present from birth, so we can conclude that gayness isn’t part of God’s creation”), and they also do poorly at discussing celibacy as a way of life.

We hope to continue reviewing items from a variety of viewpoints, but one of our standards for discussing a resource here is that it clearly makes an honest attempt at grappling with the tough issues without defaulting to stereotypes about LGBTQ people. We’re not interested in reviewing the work of an author who sees celibacy as good but refuses to acknowledge that LGBTQ identity is not just about sexual activity, and limits the discussion of celibacy to “gay sex is a sin.” There are many books that argue for a traditional sexual ethic but do not rely on ex-gay messages, and we hope to review some of these in the future.

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.