“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.

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.

Crossing the Chasm between Ex-Gay Ministry and Celibacy

A reflection by Lindsey

Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen many bloggers asking the question, “Is celibacy the newest ex-gay ministry?” They note that some LGBT Christians, after spending years in ex-gay ministries, have decided to embrace celibacy. Exodus International closed down after conceding that sexual orientation change efforts rarely succeed and often do harm. We’ve shared previously about our own past experiences in ministries with ex-gay ideologies. As I’ve been reading all the recent articles and blog posts suggesting that LGBT celibacy is simply the new face of the ex-gay movement, I’ve found it striking how many commenters overlook the chasm between the sexual ethics of ex-gay ministries and the charisms of a celibate vocation.

On one level, I understand the confusion. I participated in ex-gay ministries for three years in college. These ministries had connections with churches and promised to help people with same-sex attractions lead holy lives. Slogans like “Change is possible,” and “The opposite of homosexuality isn’t heterosexuality, it’s holiness,” still ring through my ears when I think back to that time in my life.

However, ex-gay ministries have a particular kind of sexual ethic — one that I and many other celibate LGBT Christians consider colossally unhelpful. Ex-gay ministries focus on helping people avoid sexual sins. Sexual purity takes on a particular kind of theological importance. In the ex-gay ministry I was a part of, we spoke of lust, pornography, and masturbation as the “unholy trinity.” People did their best to reorient themselves towards Christ whenever they had lustful thoughts. We frequently reminded each other that we were commanded to “take every thought captive” so we could submit everything to Christ. We talked about the proper place of sex within marriage, the benefits of keeping ourselves pure for a future opposite-sex spouse, and the importance of confessing past transgressions in order to receive forgiveness. When it came to discussing sexual morality, these ministries stressed the importance of keeping the marriage bed holy. There was no discussion of celibacy, but there was significant conversation about marriage and abstinence.

Eventually, I wore out my welcome in ex-gay ministries. I started asking questions about how the ministry interpreted Scriptures. Many ex-gay ministries justify their existence by quoting from 1 Corinthians 6. According to these teachers, Paul clearly lists homosexuals among those who will not inherit the kingdom of God. Christians had hope to change because Paul tells those in Corinth, “such were some of you.” I got into trouble because I started asking questions about the implications of the passage as a whole:

Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated? No, you yourselves do wrong and cheat, and you do these things to your brethren! Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.

Why was Paul talking about lawsuits? Given Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, would it be possible for Christians to say rightly that there was no chance they were ever idolaters, thieves, covetous, or extortioners? When the ex-gay ministry I was a part of dismissed my inquiries as being little more than a distraction, I couldn’t help but question the ministry as a whole.

Eventually, I came to see ex-gay ministries as purveyors of spiritual abuse. They used any information they could think of to showcase the evils of the “gay lifestyle.” They taught people to fear most forms of human interaction lest they find themselves falling down the slippery slope to inappropriate sexual intimacy. I was watching people leave the ministry with their faith in tatters, noting how the pastors in charge of the ministry expected everyone to revere their every word.

Embracing my celibate vocation required that I distance myself from nearly everything ex-gay ministries taught about sexual ethics. Things began to crumble when I started asking questions like, “Why am I trying so hard to be straight when I have no desire for children?” and “How could a ministry teach people to be afraid of every peer relationship?”

When I made a choice to cultivate a celibate vocation, I had to look at relationships differently. It was far from a linear journey as I came to define celibacy. I’ve reflected more on my journey elsewhere on the blog. As I’ve read authors who equate celibacy with ex-gay ministry, I have to wonder where they got their information on celibacy. It does not seem like they have talked to anyone living celibate vocations. I recognize a lot of their talking points as coming straight from mischaracterizations of celibacy promoted by people who have had negative experiences with celibacy. I am puzzled as to why nearly all of these authors are implying that LGBT Christians are only just now pursuing celibacy because ex-gay ministries have closed their doors.

This might come as a surprise, but celibacy is not a new idea. Christians of all sexual orientations and gender identities have been choosing celibacy for well over 1500 years. As I’ve discerned my own celibate vocation, I have sought both historic and current examples of people who have lived and who are living celibacy. Embracing a celibate vocation required me to embrace my sexuality rather than repress my sexuality. Along my way, I read author after author who affirmed the absolute need for celibates to integrate their sexualities. Discerning a celibate vocation allowed me to affirm and celebrate my uniqueness as an LGBT person. I was able to move beyond the destructive navel-gazing that characterized so much of my experience in ex-gay ministries. I learned to see myself as Lindsey rather than as a liability who should be accepted in community as a charity case.

Finding my celibate vocation required adopting a more holistic view of Scripture. Indeed, even reading the chapters that contained the oft-quoted verses began to shift my thinking away from what the ex-gay ministry said a particular verse meant. I sought the Holy Spirit’s guidance for what passages of Scripture might be especially important for me to ponder as I developed my sense of vocation. I learned to listen to the Scriptures within a particular Christian tradition, seeing how men and women through the ages have allowed the Bible to shape their vocational journeys. If you want more specifics on that aspect of my journey, you can read about how I discerned my sexual ethic. I’m quite honestly baffled that anyone could read my writing and suggest that I’m somehow a hardcore biblical literalist or that I don’t accept queer sexual orientations. I can’t think of any celibate LGBT person I know who fits these stereotypes.

To be completely fair, I think most people don’t understand that there is a chasm between the sexual ethics of ex-gay ministries and the charisms of a celibate vocation. Researching celibacy is challenging. It can be far too tempting to dismiss celibate people as “those weirdos who don’t want to have sex.” If you throw a sense of religious obligation into the mix, then one might think of repression, angst, existential crises, and really all the makings of a great soap opera. The net effect is characterizing celibate LGBT people with a stereotype of pitiful souls who have no conception of God’s love, who cower in fear and spend their whole lives trying to entrap other members of the LGBT community. On a certain level, that incorrect characterization makes sense to me if a person conceives of celibacy as nothing more than doing one’s best to white-knuckle sexual abstinence. However, that notion of celibacy saddens me in the extreme because it completely denies how celibates are able to love and serve the world — especially other human beings — with joy.

I can relate to people who say that nothing could ever make them go back to ex-gay ministry. I agree with them whole-heartedly. The sexual ethics of ex-gay ministries are fear-based and spiritually abusive. Discerning and living into my celibate vocation has brought me immense joy where I have rich relationships with other people. Embracing celibacy has changed my approach to the Christian life, and I sit here amazed at how God has given me such a wonderful gift to challenge me to grow in love.

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.

Speaking of Sexual Trauma

A reflection by Sarah

It’s never easy to talk about sexual trauma. No matter how often a related story appears within national, international, and local media, no matter what we’ve learned from child protection trainings, no matter how regularly we’re exposed to it in a culture saturated with sexually-charged messages, this is a topic that makes almost everyone uncomfortable. And that’s because most people haven’t the foggiest clue how to talk about it. I’ve been broaching the subject for years within my own circle of friends, slowly challenging my comfort zone, including more people in the discussion, and I still don’t know the best way to talk about it…especially within the context of LGBT issues.

Where I grew up in Eastern Kentucky, people didn’t talk about sex. It wasn’t considered appropriate for polite conversation. I came into puberty knowing virtually nothing about sexuality, and most of my peers weren’t much better off. And I’d venture a guess that almost no one–not even our parents–had any idea how to recognize the signs of sexual abuse. I was taught that sex offenders are suspicious, shadowy figures who lie in wait for children who wander away from their parents, that “good” people–especially those who are active in the local community and church–can never be predators, and that old men can’t be held accountable for sexual touching because they might be senile so their actions don’t count as abuse. My parents brought me up to believe that once I entered puberty, it was my responsibility to watch out for men who weren’t able to keep their hands to themselves. I simply had to understand that most of these men weren’t raised properly and might not be able to handle seeing a pretty girl who was beginning to develop at a younger age than average. If a man was a close friend of my parents, he certainly didn’t fall into this group. Any suggestion that such a person might be unsafe was categorically unbelievable. And most of all, if anything ever happened to me, I was never to tell a soul other than my parents–who would be the sole determiners of whether I was telling the truth–for fear of making waves in the community and gaining a reputation as a loose young woman. I was 23 years old and nearly overcome by PTSD before learning that everything I thought I knew about sexual abuse was a falsehood.

Central Appalachia is not the only area where such things happen, and I am not the only woman who has had such an experience. More to the point of today’s post, I’m not the only lesbian or the only member of the LGBT community who has survived sexual trauma. Yet we can’t seem to talk about it. It’s uncomfortable. It doesn’t sound nice. It could be used to discredit LGBT people. The discussion could be used to discredit liberals, or conservatives, or feminists, or anti-feminists, or affirmers, or non-affirmers. So on rare occasions when we do discuss LGBT survivors of sexual trauma, we’re good at building agenda-driven walls around the ways people are permitted to share their stories.

Yesterday morning, I was rereading our review of The Third Way. Specifically, I was reflecting on the story of sexual abuse shared by Julie, one of the documentary’s interviewees. Julie claims that her lesbian sexual orientation is linked to the fact that she endured sexual trauma as a young girl. She makes clear that after being abused, she began to view men as perpetrators and wanted nothing more to do with them. In our review, Lindsey and I discussed Julie’s story as one example of the film’s ex-gay undertones, and we stand by our criticism that overall, The Third Way privileges an ex-gay narrative while ignoring the diversity of celibate LGBT experiences. But regardless of the documentary’s shortcomings in piecing together a more comprehensive metanarrative, as an individual, Julie has a right tell to her own story as she understands it. She has lived it, and it would be absolutely unjust for me to say that I know it better than she does. It would also be unjust for another person to force me, or any other survivor, into Julie’s framework for understanding possible intersections of sexual orientation and trauma.

Speaking of sexual trauma as an LGBT person requires walking on eggshells. Our stories have political capital, whether we want them to or not. In my experience, the broader LGBT community expects survivors to defend the idea that sexual abuse rarely, if ever, is a determining factor in one’s sexual orientation. On the other extreme, most of the conservative Christian community is convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that if an LGBT person was sexually abused at some point in life, surely that must be the cause of his or her sexual orientation.

A survivor with a story like Julie’s will inevitably face the criticism, “Your story is harmful to all other survivors in the LGBT community! Studies show that there are just as many straight women as lesbians who have histories of sexual trauma.” A survivor who is confident that his/her sexual trauma was not a causal factor for sexual orientation will face the opposite criticism: “You’re in denial. Prove that the abuse is unrelated to your orientation. Until there’s proof that sexual trauma never impacts sexual orientation, your story isn’t worth discussing.” Those of us who have chosen celibacy are accustomed to getting blasted equally from both sides, with conservative friends arguing that the trauma caused our gayness and liberal friends assuming that the trauma is our reason for being celibate. Not to mention that on top of these stigmas, we face all the same stereotypes and judgments (i.e. attention-seeking, it didn’t really happen if the perpetrator didn’t go to jail, we’re at fault) as do straight survivors.

Speaking of sexual trauma should not have to be re-traumatizing. Nor should it have to be like a multiple choice exam where you get 100% for bubbling in all the correct answers. I have no interest in being someone’s political pawn, whether inside or outside the Church. But I’m very interested in beginning a conversation about sexual trauma that invites all LGBT survivors to full participation. If you believe your sexual trauma is totally unrelated to your sexual orientation, if you see those two life experiences as completely intertwined, if you think the two might be related but you aren’t sure how and would like to explore further, or if you’ve never even considered the question before, we’d be honored if you felt safe to share more of your story with us.

It’s time for others to stop using narratives of sexual trauma in an effort to discredit LGBT survivors; it’s time for others to start listening to survivors telling their own stories. The last thing an LGBT survivor needs is to walk on more eggshells. The constant politicization of narratives regarding sexual abuse means that any LGBT survivor who opens up at all about his or her own story faces a loaded cannon of criticism. This post is our initial attempt at saying we’d like to change the tenor of the conversation. We’d like to foster a hospitable place here at A Queer Calling where survivors can know that all stories will be heard.

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.

The Obscuring of Orthodoxy (or, When Half-Truths Reign Supreme)

A reflection by Sarah

One day eleven years ago when I was a university freshman, some Christian friends and I decided to spend a Friday evening listening to a presentation about faith and human sexuality. We pooled our money for gasoline, piled into someone’s mother’s minivan, and began the two-hour drive to the church hosting the event. All my friends had heard fantastic reviews of the speaker. One had heard his presentation before and considered it near perfection, insofar as that’s possible for a human to achieve. She built up his image as nothing short of a living saint, and though I was skeptical of the high praises I found myself intrigued and ready to hear the message with an open mind and heart.

That evening, I sat in a folding chair on the floor of the parish school’s gymnasium, friends at my side, surrounded by two-hundred other young adults and teens. The speaker implored us to listen for the gentle voice of the Holy Spirit as true, theologically orthodox teaching was proclaimed. He was quite charismatic and used simple metaphors. He explained that God’s plan for human sexuality exists because of the great love our Creator has for us, and that using sexuality as God intended brings an exquisite sense of inner freedom and peace. Enamored gazes emerged from nearly all the girls when he posited that women have a special place in God’s plan, and a woman’s womb is like a tabernacle in that it bears new life into the world. His words painted a romantic landscape of what life looks like when one both believes in and practices a traditional sexual ethic, stating that settling for anything else is like voluntarily drinking contaminated water while having access to a fresh natural spring.

Then, the topic turned to homosexuality…and when it did, the speaker’s mannerisms changed entirely. He proclaimed boldly that homosexuals are confused people who accept comfortable lies instead of the truth, are incapable of seeing their true identities in Christ, and should not be admitted to the sacraments under any circumstances short of repentance for their ungodly identities. He rattled off a litany of statistics and claims that homosexual people are more likely to be pedophiles than heterosexual people, everyone experiencing same-sex attraction was molested during childhood, people choose and can change their sexual orientations, and those in same-sex relationships are unfit parents. At that point, I tuned out completely. “If this is what a traditional sexual ethic means,” I told myself, “I want nothing to do with it. This is nothing but hatred and stereotyping.”

Roll the video of my life forward a decade, and things look quite differently than my nineteen-year-old self imagined they would. But I think back on that presentation once every few months when I see conservative religious news headlines like, “Priest Speaks the Truth in Love at School Assembly; Parents Outraged” and “Pastor Persecuted for Upholding Biblical Teaching at Youth Convention.” In each of these articles the story gets pitched as an injustice: an innocent Christian who is doing nothing more than speaking the teachings of his or her faith gets the shaft because of liberal infidels who want to change the Church. Without fail, every internet combox fills with inane rants of, “We’re living in the last days. It’s time to stand up for morals, values, and the TRUTH of Church teaching!” and oppositely, “The homophobic, misogynistic ‘Church’ is a crumbling institution, and I can’t wait to watch it topple.” Then, I research the details of the stories, I read the conversations about them, and I think back to nearly every experience I’ve had with a speaker promoting a traditional sexual ethic. Why? Because in my estimation, the same problem exists among most conservative Christian presentations on human sexuality: questionable claims, flawed statistics, citations of studies employing faulty methodologies, demonizing stereotypes, a wee bit of valuable catechesis thrown in for good measure…and all of it presented under the banner of theological orthodoxy.

Faith and sexuality speakers claiming theological orthodoxy have a tough task ahead of them. They have set out to sell an unpopular product to a market where the majority of consumers are uninterested. There’s nothing easy about explaining the traditional Christian position on human sexuality to a generation of young people who have likely had far more exposure to an “anything goes” sexual ethic. I appreciate the difficulty of this task, and as a celibate LGBT Christian I believe it is important to discuss openly the reasons that some LGBT people choose celibacy, and the Church teachings that might inspire a person to make this decision. Some speakers–perhaps the minority–do this very well. But most of the time, I’m sorely disappointed in the messages I hear at these presentations with young people as their target audiences. Most of the time, at least in my experience, they’re not simply sharing the teachings of their faith. Intentionally or not, many of them offer misleading representations of homosexuality and intertwine the stereotypes with orthodox Christian doctrine such that most attendees will likely have trouble seeing the difference.

At various chastity and sexuality talks I’ve attended since my teen years, I’ve heard it stated as fact that people gay people choose to be gay, no one is born gay, and homosexuality is a psychological disorder. In reality, there are no conclusive scientific answers about the origin of a person’s sexual orientation, but several studies suggest that both genetic and non-genetic biological factors play a role. And according to the American Psychological Association homosexuality is not a psychological disorder, and most people have no (or little) choice regarding their own sexual orientations.

I’ve also heard speakers pronounce as fact that childhood sexual abuse is an automatic ticket to same-sex attraction as a teen or adult, and that gay men pose a danger to children because of their sexually deviant tendencies. In reality, there is little difference between the numbers of gay/lesbian and straight people who have survived sexual trauma, and gay men are no more likely than straight men to abuse children.

Many a Christian sexuality presentation I’ve attended has posited that we know as fact how terribly underdeveloped, unhappy, and abnormal children turn out when raised by same-sex parents. In reality, no study employing proper methodology has ever come to this conclusion. One reputable longitudinal study has indicated that children raised by same-sex parents thrive at even higher levels than children raised by opposite-sex parents.

Frequently I have heard speakers express as fact that gay men and lesbians have significantly shorter lifespans than heterosexual people. In reality, the study that reached this conclusion was conducted using flawed methodology.

And most harmfully, nearly every Christian sexuality speaker I’ve encountered has preached as fact that gay men and lesbians can change their sexual orientations by undergoing therapy, attending support groups, and praying. In reality, every reputable psychology and mental health organization in the United States has rejected and spoken out against reparative therapy. People who have endured abuses because of reparative therapy have experienced depression and anxiety as a result. Some have attempted or successfully completed suicide.

Why are all these half-truths and outright falsehoods being presented alongside a traditional sexual ethic as though they are not only factually verifiable, but also an integral part of Christian teaching? Why are we okay knowing that there are young people who leave human sexuality talks with, “The Church is against being gay, and being gay is bad for you and others” as their main takeaways? As I’ve raised these questions since making my own commitment to celibacy, I’ve been met with three types of responses.

First, there’s what I call the purity at any price” response. This response usually comes from parents, pastors, and youth ministers who are absolutely committed to ensuring that their children and teens practice a traditional sexual ethic. These folks want what they perceive as best for the young people in their lives, and are willing to do anything to give them the tools for making good decisions aligned with Christian teaching. The “purity at any price” response goes something like, “There’s nothing wrong with the information in these speeches because it keeps my kid from making big mistakes. She won’t try something if she’s terrified of the potential consequences. As far as I’m concerned, tell her anything that will prevent her from having a child out of wedlock or turning out a lesbian.”

Second, there’s the “not unorthodox” response. I’ve heard this one most often from priests, pastors, and other purveyors of “what the Church/a particular denomination really teaches.” It comes from people who are ready to defend the Church against all false teachings, who are especially concerned with conveying correct information so long as it’s about theology. The “not unorthodox” response asserts that the primary responsibility of Christian sexuality speakers is to assure that doctrine is presented accurately, and no claim contradicts any orthodox teaching. Responders of this type have said to me, “The presenter taught correctly that the Church cannot accept homosexual acts. The other claims and statistics they used are from actual studies, and they only added to the main point. What’s the problem?”

The third is the “caricature” response, an ad hominem where the person who hears my question retorts that I’ve not given a fair assessment of the situation. This response typically involves multiple jabs at my credibility and sounds something like, “You’ve imagined a version of what’s going on here that suits your own liberal, lesbian agenda. What you describe is nothing like what young people are being taught about Christian morality. Clearly, you have an axe to grind. I’ll bet you don’t practice a traditional sexual ethic yourself.”

The very existence of these responses makes me angry. Providing questionable claims and flawed statistics about homosexuality in order to keep young people away from the “gay lifestyle” is dishonest and totally inexcusable. Finding and using the fullest, most correct account of facts possible–not just those that align with your thesis–is a basic skill that high school and college students learn when writing research papers. Why aren’t we holding these speakers accountable for the information they are presenting as true? And to the person who offers the “caricature” response, I realize there is nothing I can do or say on my own behalf to change your assumptions about me or my motives. I challenge you to attend a talk on human sexuality from a Christian perspective that’s aimed at teenagers and young college students. Stay afterward and chat with a handful of attendees under the age of 24. See how many of them can tell you what it means to believe in a traditional sexual ethic and what they learned from the speaker about LGBT persons. Ask them why they (or other people they know) embrace a traditional Christian position on same-sex sexual activity.

When some of these kids eventually see through the smoke and mirrors and know they are being told half-truths and outright lies, many will feel betrayed. If my own personal experience is any indication, some will take years to realize that practicing a traditional sexual ethic does not require believing that the LGBT community is a bunch of mentally ill criminals who have chosen to defy the Word of God. Some may be so wounded that they will never be able to consider the possibility that orthodoxy ≠ hatred. Conservative Christianity on the whole has failed to teach a traditional sexual ethic without slandering LGBT people in the process, and has failed to acknowledge us as humans with inherent dignity, created in the image and likeness of God. And that, brothers and sisters, is absolutely shameful. Anyone who orders prime rib at the best restaurant in town would be appalled to see it served on a platter with greasy McDonald’s french fries. If we truly believe that the Church is the best place to receive sound formation, why aren’t we raising hell when we see sacred doctrine being served up with a side of falsehood and fear-mongering? It’s time to hold Christian speakers accountable for peddling half-truths about biology, anthropology, sociology, and psychology. It’s time to bring an end to the obscuring of orthodoxy.

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.

Our Experiences of the Ex-Gay Movement

Not long ago, a reader emailed us to ask if we would be willing to share in greater detail about our experiences of the ex-gay movement and how it was harmful to us. We’ve referenced this vaguely in other posts because it’s an important part of both our stories, but it has taken us a few weeks to determine our readiness to discuss this topic more specifically. Even some people who know us very well have, up to this point, been unaware of our experiences in the ex-gay world. We’re a bit surprised that only one reader has asked about our histories with this issue because we’ve received a fair number of accusations that because we are celibate, we must be covertly ex-gay. This is absolutely untrue, and we would venture a guess that we’ve experienced just as much pain as a result of these “ministries” as have LGBT people who are sexually active. In the future, we will probably elect to write more on the topic of the ex-gay world. Today, we take our first step towards more open conversation on this matter. The purpose of this post is to initiate discussion on our blog about the detrimental effects of ex-gay ministries upon LGBT Christians.

We’ve decided to structure this post around three general subtopics, but before we get there, we’ll provide you with some background on our individual past involvement with ex-gay ministries. Lindsey joined an ex-gay ministry during college after becoming more aware of Lindsey’s sexuality. Lindsey sought support from ex-gay ministry because Lindsey wasn’t interested in being a cause of scandal for Lindsey’s Christian fellowship on campus. Despite living in a big city at the time, Lindsey couldn’t find many local resources that fit Lindsey’s situation so Lindsey participated in an online forum. The online forum provided a space for young adults to talk about their struggles with same-sex attraction, positing different mechanisms behind the struggles and the victories. In this community, the “opposite” of homosexuality was holiness and members worked very hard at overcoming any areas of sexual sin.

Sarah’s experience did not originate with the intention of participating in an ex-gay ministry. Instead, Sarah was seeking affordable eating disorder treatment resources. Sarah had run out of health insurance coverage and did not have the ability to pay for most professional services due to being a full-time student with limited income. Sarah stumbled accidentally upon a free Christian treatment provider, and was unaware that this provider viewed homosexuality, eating disorders, addictions, and all sorts of maladaptive means of coping with life as the results of demonic possession. When Sarah began receiving services from this provider, Sarah had no idea that “treatment” would focus on attempts to pray away all parts of Sarah’s life that a Christian counselor had deemed contrary to God’s will.

Years after our experiences in the ex-gay movement, we’ve been able to identify three major categories of harm that both of us experienced as a result of being involved with these “ministries.” The rest of this post will provide explanations and examples of those.

Emphasis on certain life experiences and problems as “causes” of homosexuality

According to ex-gay organizations, almost any life experience that deviates slightly from what leaders consider “normal” is a likely candidate for the cause of a person’s sexual orientation. For example, a person’s gender identity is especially suspect as LGB people do not have appropriate understandings of their “true” genders in Christ. Within this framework, a woman who has preferred short hair and jeans to long hair and dresses since childhood likely ended up a lesbian because she was never taught to live into her true feminine identity. The same goes for a man who likes the color pink and prefers dancing over football. Guys are encouraged to see themselves as men of God, embracing a strong masculine identity. When members of Lindsey’s ex-gay ministry got together, the guys would be encouraged to play sports while the girls would be encouraged to explore makeovers. Leaders of this ministry lived in the southern United States where various southern gender ideals were promoted aggressively. This organization’s framework postulated that same-sex desire grew from a perceived deficiency of gender where the same-sex attracted person sought out what he or she was missing from another person of the same sex. Lindsey’s rather ambiguous gender presentation was actively challenged. It was exceptionally hurtful for Lindsey to hear that Lindsey’s stable gender presentation was an active attempt to proclaim LGBT status rather than Lindsey’s natural self-expression.

In ex-gay ministries, a person who has experienced any sort of physical boundary violation at any point in life is said to be deficient in his or her understanding of God’s plan for marriage and sexuality. If a person was ever the victim of sexual violence, leaders of the ministry will insist that the incident was what led that person to “sexual deviance.” There is no consideration of the fact that a large percentage of heterosexual people also have histories of sexual abuse, assault, and rape. People who can’t remember ever having experienced a violation of physical boundaries are urged to try harder at remembering—there must be something that happened in one’s past because according to many ex-gay Christian counselors, “Every gay man or lesbian I’ve ever known has been sexually abused or raped.” For a person who has never had such an experience, repetition of these messages can lead to false memories. For a person who has had such an experience, it becomes impossible to discuss trauma, especially sexual trauma, in any meaningful way because the counselor will always tie it to one’s sexual orientation. Sarah experienced a significant amount of this conflation. Sarah sees Sarah’s own history of trauma as directly related to Sarah’s eating disorder. However, Sarah is confident that this trauma is in no way related to sexual orientation. No matter how much Sarah attempted to discuss trauma within the context of the eating disorder, it was unsuccessful because the counselor’s reply was always something like, “Your experience made you susceptible to demons. The Holy Spirit told me that the demon causing your bulimia will not leave unless you’re willing to let Jesus heal your evil sexual desires.” What usually followed was a spiritually abusive style of free-formed prayer that left Sarah cowering while the counselor commanded the “demons” to leave in Jesus’ name. Sarah’s participation in this unscientific form of treatment not only set Sarah back in terms of recovery, but also left Sarah feeling more stigmatized than ever regarding the trauma.

Manipulation, mind control, and questioning the motives of all actions

For both of us, ex-gay ministries were highly manipulative. Ex-gay ministries assume they know one’s story from the instant one first makes contact. While reportedly trying to help individuals cultivate healthy same-sex friendships, ex-gay ministries frequently insert theories of homosexuality that make friendships difficult. Cultivating appropriate emotional intimacy becomes hard as ministries tout claims of “emotional dependency” as what causes a “normal” same-sex friendship to turn in a necessarily sexual direction. According to this mindset, the only way to determine if one is moving towards “emotional dependency” is to examine one’s motives rigorously and ruthlessly. Lindsey had difficulty having conversations with both men and women as the ministry constantly argued that close opposite-sex friendships should be investigated for marriage potential and that close same-sex friendships needed to be interrogated lest sexual desire arise. Feeling constant pressure to question motives in all these friendships, Lindsey found it easier to remain isolated rather than attempt to build friendships even though isolation significantly fueled Lindsey’s depression. When Lindsey would try to push back on the accepted narrative, Lindsey would be sharply chastised. Eventually, Lindsey’s questioning the ministry’s interpretation of 1 Cor 6:9-11 lead to a rupture in the relationship.

At the time Sarah was receiving therapeutic services from the Christian treatment provider, Sarah frequently heard the message that all problems Sarah experienced in life were somehow related to sexuality. Whether the issue was a struggle to remain behavior-free, a difficult experience in grocery shopping, frustration about relationships with family, or a sense of being overwhelmed by academic work, the counselor found some reason to suggest that the problem would cease to exist (or at least, would not be as serious) if Sarah would only choose to “become straight.” The counselor created visions of an ideal life that Sarah could lead as a “sexually healed” person, complete with a husband, children, a fulfilling career, emotional peace, and financial security. Sarah never actually believed any of this, but because of how ill Sarah had become with the eating disorder before, Sarah felt desperate to find an affordable resource–any resource–that would provide some semblance of tools for wellness. That’s why Sarah continued receiving services from this organization, and despite the best of attempts at getting something useful out of therapy while ignoring harmful messages, Sarah began to feel manipulated and sense that this ministry was trying to gain control over Sarah. Regularly, the counselor would meet Sarah in the most vulnerable of moments with assumptive statements about Sarah’s sexual history, claiming the Holy Spirit had revealed to her that Sarah had engaged in immoral sexual activity just the night before. In reality, Sarah was single and sexually abstinent the entire time. However, that didn’t stop Sarah from beginning to scrutinize and obsess over all of Sarah’s actions. At one point, Sarah had a flashback to a therapy session while admiring the aesthetics of a lovely painting featuring full-figured Roman goddesses in the local art museum.

Spiritual and social consequences for questioning and leaving the organization

Ex-gay ministries do what they do because they portray themselves as committed to God’s work. People who leave these ministries to explore a different sense of their LGBT identities are equated with people who have left Christ, who have not fought the good fight, and who will not inherit the kingdom of God. Leavers are people who have been deceived by Satan and are unable to accept their true identities in Christ. Lindsey left the ex-gay ministry after violating a provision in the code of conduct that members were not to have any unmoderated contact with one another. It should have been a red flag that no amount of adherence to group expectations would have been enough to create an environment of trust. After Lindsey left one ex-gay ministry, Lindsey looked for other options in order to be permitted to continue volunteering at church. But without actively participating in an ex-gay ministry of some kind, Lindsey was unable to do anything in the church because church leaders felt uncomfortable with Lindsey’s involvement in the congregation.

It took a few months for Sarah to see that no possible benefit could be gleaned from continuing to receive counseling services from an organization with such strong ex-gay views. Sarah did not have any other treatment plan in place at the time, but was certain that leaving this resource was the only viable decision. When Sarah first informed the counselor of this, the manipulation intensified in attempt to get Sarah to remain affiliated and continue receiving services. The counselor told Sarah that leaving would bring profound spiritual danger and begged Sarah to pray with her for salvation and deliverance. When Sarah refused, the counselor reminded Sarah of an agreement for receiving a full six months of services that Sarah had signed only three months prior. Eventually when the counselor saw that Sarah would not budge on the decision, she resorted to playing upon Sarah’s worst fear: that leaving would mean giving up hope of ever recovering. “There’s not a treatment facility anywhere in the world that will be able to help you if you’re unwilling to surrender,” she asserted. Sarah did leave and never looked back, but it took a few years to get past the associations Sarah had formed amongst harmful behaviors, sexual orientation, and accusations of being untrue to Christ. Fortunately, Sarah began a relationship with a compassionate spiritual director within Sarah’s own Christian tradition less than a week after this incident. He was able to help Sarah deconstruct the poor theological and psychological claims made within the ex-gay world and encourage Sarah to spend time listening to God.

Our experiences of ex-gay ministry are radically different, yet eerily similar. Lindsey sought ex-gay ministry voluntarily, and Sarah stumbled unknowingly across a ministry with ex-gay ideals. We think it’s important to note that many Christian organizations that do not outwardly claim to be ex-gay have an implicit predisposition to try and force LGBT people towards cisgender, heterosexual norms. The tactics used are highly manipulative and become spiritually abusive far too easily. Under no circumstances do we approve of ministries seeking to help LGBT Christians become straight.

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.