Making Sense of Life as a Celibate, Partnered Lesbian After Marriage Equality

A reflection by Sarah

It’s June 29, 2015. I just got back from the vet with our dog, Gemma. She has a bacterial infection on her two front elbows, which should clear up with antibiotics in a week or so. I’ll spend the afternoon lying down to regain some energy before going out this evening for some ASL practice. I’ll spend the next two weeks counting down the days to a surgical procedure that could either give me some quality of life back or make my balance problem worse. It’s a pretty typical Monday for me…except for the fact that now, I could marry Lindsey legally in any state in the U.S. if that was what we wanted.

I woke up this Monday morning from a dream that a member of our former parish had broken into our apartment, taken photos of our living quarters, and sent them to our bishop. Of course this didn’t really happen. All that happened is last night, Lindsey received a personal email from an anonymous troll in our Christian tradition, threatening to report us to our bishop simply for being gay. I can’t decide which is worse — this, or the mixed bag of messages we’ve gotten over the past four days from other members of the LGBTQ community and allies.

I don’t know what to feel today. I am truly happy for my friends who no longer have to worry about whether marriage to their partners will afford them equal legal rights across the country. I understand the stresses associated with wanting to care for someone you love and living with worry that you will not be permitted to do so when it matters most. I’m worried about the behavior I’ve seen from members of my Christian tradition on the internet and how their vitriol will impact LGBTQ people of faith. I’m grateful that Lindsey and I are now part of a parish where we can blend in without worry, and even make friends and be an active part of the community with no one gossiping about what sins they imagine we are committing. I’m also grateful that so many people in our lives truly support us and respect our commitment to celibacy whether they understand and agree with it or not. I spent the weekend exhausted, but today I’m mostly weepy.

Being a celibate, partnered lesbian after marriage equality means being pressured to marry my partner legally even though we do not consider our relationship a marriage and are committed to obeying what our faith tradition has asked of us. It means that I have to explain over and over again, “Yes, I believe that civil and sacramental marriage are two different institutions. But my bishop sees it differently, and we are not going to disobey him.” It means being prepared upon saying that to be dismissed by the other person because he or she sees me as suffering from Stockholm syndrome, being brainwashed, contributing to the oppression of the LGBTQ community, caring more about “man-made religion” than I do about Lindsey, and being closed-minded or just plain obstinate. About 90% of the time, it means watching the other person laugh in my face or roll eyes when I say that obedience is a gift freely given — it can never be forced.

Being a celibate, partnered lesbian after marriage equality means knowing that the majority of the LGBTQ community would not lose a moment of sleep if Lindsey’s workplace were to decide to stop offering domestic partner benefits. It means working harder than ever to make sure that the two of us are protected, having awkward conversations with the powers that be at Lindsey’s places of employment, and running to the Department of Health as swiftly as possible to get an official certificate of domestic partnership before such things inevitably go the way of the dodo. It means living every day with even more uncertainty than we faced before, since no one seems to have any idea at this point what marriage equality will mean for those of us to will not be marrying for whatever reason. It means going into a major surgery in two weeks wondering whether I’ll have access to health insurance at this time next year. It means coming to terms with the fact that if I lose access to Lindsey’s health insurance, we’ll end up in dire straits financially because even the best of plans on the exchange will not cover enough of my medical expenses for us to make it financially.

Being a celibate, partnered lesbian after marriage equality means avoiding people in my faith tradition unless they are close friends or part of my wonderful parish family. It means living in fear of someone accusing Lindsey and me of scandal and doing everything possible to force our priest into not communing us. It means being Church with people whose hearts are filled with hatred for people like me, and with people who want to love me but have no idea how to do that. It means doing my best to accept what comes my way as a cross that can unite me to the suffering of Christ. It means I have been given a backhanded gift in the form of an opportunity to learn more about living the two great commandments. It also means being hypervigilant: you may think I am speaking from a place of paranoia, but I have already lost count of how many times within the past four days I have seen on Facebook that people like me are abominations, lustful perverts, and child molesters who are unworthy to darken the doorstep of any church.

Being a celibate, partnered lesbian after marriage equality means accepting my current reality as a test of faith. It means focusing on my relationship with God and trusting that no matter what happens, he will provide for Lindsey and me. It means staying strong in my knowledge that we are doing what he is calling us to do, and that by living our vocation we are responding to his invitation to unite ourselves more fully to him. It means being just as vulnerable as ever with my spiritual father and encouraging Lindsey to do the same. But most of all, it means that when I am weary I will take off my hearing aids and sit in silence with the one who gave his life for me — the one with whom I am passionately in love, the one whose presence in my life has begun a radical transformation.

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Meeting People in Sickness

A reflection by Lindsey

Lent is a time of year when people frequently ask me how God has been challenging me to grow spiritually. As far as the Church year goes, it’s the season where I feel most in touch with my humanity. Lent is a time where it seems absolutely normal to reflect on my sin, my frailty, my limitations, and Christ’s power in the midst of everything. This Lent has proven to be typical in these regards.

I’ve been watching a lot of suffering this season. An older friend of mine died recently because of congestive heart failure. Many of my friends have been experiencing profound grief after their friend was killed in a car accident, leaving behind his wife and six children. I’ve also seen firsthand what it means for Sarah to have an extremely aggressive form of Meniere’s disease. Sarah’s balance continues to decline, where Sarah is chronically exhausted from all of the different ways the body tries to compensate for vestibular system losses. And because it’s Lent, I find myself more inclined to say, “Okay God, what’s going on here? What are you trying to show me?”

The first thing I’ve realized is that it’s hard to make space for people who are sick. Many people have asked me if I’m praying for God to heal Sarah. In my lived experience, expecting God to heal Sarah miraculously creates much more pain and anger. I have a naive view of healing where God makes everything “all better” and it was like the sickness was little more than a bad dream. Praying for God to restore every aspect of Sarah’s health before the Meniere’s diagnosis feels futile as much, even as I do pray every day that God is ever-present, active, and bringing peace that surpasses all understanding. My sense of the miraculous has been recalibrated where I see how God might be active in the small bits of the day. When Sarah is laid out with a vertigo attack, I find myself praying that God would bring this spell to an end as quickly as possible and that the various medical treatments Sarah has tried would have some positive effect. I have also discovered that I spend a lot of time praying for myself that I would be patient, provide comfort, and remain present.

I have been convicted about how meeting people in sickness involves practicing radical hospitality. I can’t think of anyone I know who likes sickness. I have been around healthcare professionals my whole life. People work in healthcare because they want to see others get well, they want to alleviate suffering, and they want to provide a degree of care that others cannot provide; people do not work in healthcare because they think sickness is a good thing. Keeping vigil with a sick person can be exhausting work. Bearing witness to another’s pain, doing the limited things you can do to bring comfort, and voluntarily entering spaces that no one wants to be in require surrendering your own will. Meeting people in sickness takes commitment. If you’re healthy, you frequently have the option to seek respite. It’s hard to find balance between making good self-care choices and acknowledging how chronic illness affects the every-minute reality of your loved one.

Being present has tremendous power. I’ve been amazed at how simply being myself has provided so much comfort to Sarah. As I have prayed about remaining present through various iterations of our “new normal,” God has been a constant source of reassurance. I have noticed features of what I do as a caregiver. Sarah and I have seen glimpses of what God might be asking us to do as a community of two, and we pray about this together regularly. Our community has expanded to include Gemma, a two-year-old chocolate Labrador that we plan to train as a service dog. I’m learning to differentiate between sickness, disability, and realities that are simply different ways of experiencing the world. I have learned a lot about how hearing people and deaf people experience noise, silence, and motion differently. Helping Sarah move between where we parked our car and our target destination has given me new appreciation for people with mobility disabilities. I have learned to ask questions when people tell me that they’re not feeling well. I find myself more attentive to other people’s needs and more forthcoming when it comes to sharing my needs with others.

I can’t help but feel like I’m becoming just that much more human.

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Praying the [insert identity here] Away

A reflection by Sarah

I’ve been trying to find the right words for this post for nearly two weeks. I’m a bit afraid to write it because I don’t like sounding preachy (which I can be at times) or snarky (which I am most of the time). Most of all I fear coming across as ungrateful even though I’m not. There’s a bit of wisdom from my Christian tradition that says “Lord have mercy” is the best prayer we can pray in any circumstance because prayer is meant to acknowledge our smallness and God’s greatness and express our desire to become fully united to God. If you feel so inclined, I’d appreciate a few repetitions of those words for me as you read this.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been stuffing a lot of difficult emotions. Not surprising. I tend to do that until things burst out on their own in some way that’s self-destructive. I fall into this pattern especially easily when I don’t know how to discuss situations where I’ve felt hurt or shamed because of someone else’s words stated with the best of intentions. Prime example: interacting with my mother who has always believed that my lesbian sexual orientation is a choice, and that I could become straight if I really tried hard enough. As I wrote once before, I respect the sincerity of her convictions and her wanting what she thinks is best for me, and I can still do this while believing with all my heart that she’s dead wrong. I’ve always been grateful when she tells me that she’s praying for me, even though at times I suspect this means she’s praying that someday I’ll stop being attracted to women. As time goes on, it becomes less stressful to take this in, sit with the anger and sadness it brings up, and appreciate my mother’s intentions for what they are. I’ve had time to grow a thicker skin where this is concerned. But that’s not true for similar situations that are newer to me.

Two weeks ago, I found myself awkwardly at the center of attention in a very large group of people as Lindsey shared about some of the difficulties we’ve been experiencing within the past year. My one ear that can still hear speech was full of fluid that day. I can read lips only when I’m standing very close to someone, so I was relying almost exclusively on a friend who volunteered to interpret for me. I watched as Lindsey spoke tearfully about my health problems and the issues that led us to leave our last parish. Soon, Lindsey was motioning for me to come forward. A bit bewildered, I came and everyone began to pray for us before I had any sense of what was happening. The mix of emotions I experienced within the minute or so that followed cannot be expressed in words. I was grateful to be surrounded by kind and loving people from all forms of Christianity who are willing to pray for us when some in our own tradition will not. I was anxious because I had no idea what was being prayed since the prayer was not interpreted. But the most overwhelming feeling came on slowly and hit hard within the few hours after: angst like none I’ve ever experienced at any point after adolescence. Angst that began to surface as soon as I realized that most of the crowd was probably praying for something very different than what Lindsey and I have been focusing on in our own prayers.

I tried to get some rest that night. All my mental focus on reading lips during the day contributed to a significant vertigo episode, and I just wanted to forget about what had happened and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. But the next day when I could hear somewhat more, I found the events of the previous evening difficult to put behind me. Dozens of people — folks who have been shamed and harassed by others intent on praying their gay away — were approaching Lindsey and me, offering to pray my deafness away. Within less than 24 hours, I was told of three different herbs that supposedly cure deafness, two different scriptural passages that might cast out the “spirit of deafness,” and God only knows how many bits of advice for passing as a hearing person. Eventually, I stopped engaging in conversation when the issue arose. Every time someone stopped me to ask if I’m the person who is losing hearing, I came up with some reason to end the discussion quickly. It didn’t take long for me to identify that I had experienced exactly the same feelings several years ago — the first time my mother told me I could choose to be straight if I wanted, and that she would be praying for me.

I think perhaps I’ve made reference to the similarities between coming out as a lesbian and becoming a late-deafened adult. I can’t remember the post. Maybe I’m just imagining that I’ve written about it before. Regardless, the resemblance between my life now and my life at 17 is uncanny. It’s bizarre to be feeling teenage angst during my 30s. It’s maddening to encounter well-meaning people almost daily who tell me that I should be working harder to avoid ever telling anyone about my hearing loss, that I should be medicalizing my hearing loss just as much as my vertigo, that they are praying I don’t become more dependent on sign language, that God will certainly restore my hearing in the Eschaton, that because I have the ability to talk I should be using my voice all the time, or that it would be irresponsible for me to decide against getting cochlear implants eventually. I’m tired of seeing people begin to cry when I tell them that I have a deaf ear. I’m tired of reading course evaluation comments from students who are skeptical of my intelligence and listening to people comparing hearing loss to suicide. All this is even harder to manage when the messages come from people in the Church. It’s no wonder so many serious Christians who have been deaf from birth are inclined to look for churches that welcome Deaf culture even if their personal beliefs are at odds with the theologies taught at those churches. It’s also no wonder that so many Deaf people are completely uninterested in going to church at all. I’ve not been dealing with this for nearly as long as some people, and already I find myself wanting to yell (or sign) obscenities.

None of us understand fully the needs of other people. Only God does. I wonder how often in my own prayer life, I’m asking God for something on behalf of another person that would actually be hurtful and disrespectful to that person. So often we see every struggle in a person’s life as a problem that can be lifted away with divine intervention. If something is hard or seems hard to us from an outsider’s perspective, we want to do everything we can to make things easier. But sometimes, what one person sees as benevolence another sees as condescension. Sometimes without even realizing it, we assume that one state of being is superior to another just because one is our experience and the other is a different experience that seems like it would be unpleasant or limiting. Sometimes when we pray with the intention that a person’s life would improve, we ask for the wrong things — things that might, should they happen, bring about reduction in that person’s quality of life. We need to stop praying away the gay, the deaf, the blind, the poor…the aspects of life that make people who they are. We also need to stop assuming that we necessarily know what is best for everyone who is different from us. And I need to stop writing because I’m starting to get preachy. But if there is anything I’ve learned from my own experiences thus far, it’s that “How can I pray for you?” is a question that cannot be asked enough. And when I’m entirely clueless about what another person needs from God at a given time, it’s best to stick with “Lord have mercy.”

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

A reflection by Sarah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Celibacy, Family, and Caregiving

A reflection by Lindsey

Certain events have a way of etching themselves into one’s memory. I remember one day last April when Sarah was headed to work. We were finishing a conversation from earlier that morning as Sarah drove. Sarah had the phone on speaker in the passenger seat. I knew Sarah was approaching work and was only a few minutes away, but I was slow to get off the phone. Next thing I knew, Sarah was stammering frantically about another car speeding around the corner, seconds from impact. I heard the awful crunching sounds of a car accident. Less than 3 minutes later, I was driving with haste while hoping Sarah would call me back so I could pinpoint exactly where the accident occurred.

I couldn’t envisage anyone else living locally who knows Sarah well enough to be useful in a similar situation. Once I got to Sarah, we realized we needed to move Sarah’s car to a safe parking lot and take Sarah to the emergency room to be evaluated. While en route to the ER, I asked a bunch of questions to learn what happened. This proved useful after Sarah was triaged to the head of the line but then started to suffer clear symptoms of a mild concussion. I had watched Sarah’s memory go in and out. As I lingered in the waiting area while Sarah was being taken to a bed, Sarah began texting me with questions like, “What happened? Where are you? Why does my head hurt?” I found it comparatively easy to decide that I could be most helpful by sitting with Sarah through the doctor’s evaluation. It was not my first ER vigil with Sarah nor has it been my last.

Even though many people agree that caregiving is an integral part of family life, many fail to appreciate how caregiving deeply connects celibates to one another. On the one hand, I can appreciate the lack of understanding. I’m 31 years old and generally a healthy young adult. It’s all too easy for me to conceive of “health problems” as “things you deal with as you start getting older.” In my immediate circle of friends, chronic health challenges are comparatively rare. On the other hand, caregiving has been a central component of the life I share with Sarah. I understand that people deal with “people things,” and I do my best to avoid shaming anyone who happens to need extra support at a given time. I consider it a deep honor to help people with eating disorders feel safe while eating dinner and to accompany Sarah and others on various healing journeys. Such a sojourn connects me more deeply with my own humanity. I’m more likely to pray for my own needs when I’m praying for others.

To be able to provide care for another person, one must permit that person to be vulnerable. Vulnerability opens a mysterious door to intimacy where the connections defy easy categorization.

We’ve shared about how we draw a lot of inspiration for our life together from monastics. I’ve spent the last seven years trying to get to know people living in a number of monastic communities. Monasteries are great places to find people who can model purposeful celibate living that includes caregiving. Someone at virtually every community I’ve visited has taken it upon himself or herself to tell me a personal caregiving story.

Talking about caregiving as LGBT person is risky. I’ve spent many years in ex-gay ministries that blasted any form of caregiving as a place ripe for “emotional dependency.” Some people within addiction recovery culture have been quick to label me “codependent” or an “enabler” that seeks to protect Sarah from natural consequences of destructive forms of behavior. These people fail to realize that I constantly reflect on what good caregiving is and how it taxes my energies, rigorously question my own limitations, and try to help Sarah locate additional support resources when needed.

All of this causes cognitive dissonance for others when they realize that Sarah is a part of my family. People understand the value of putting family first and appreciate the importance of being there for one’s family in any range of circumstances. It’s worth noting that nearly all of the monastic communities I’ve visited describe themselves as a family, especially as it relates to the demands of caregiving.

Many people object to our using the word family to describe ourselves. At one point, a reader accused us of launching a “hateful attack” on true families for referring to ourselves with this term. Some people assert that there’s no way that we can be family because we’re celibate. Other people assert that we should talk about our relationship principally as a friendship and avoid the word family so as not to confuse and mislead. We wonder what these people would say to an elderly monastic in need of care. Should an aging nun be shipped off to a nursing home as soon as she needs more regular care? Or should she be able to rely on her monastic family? Is there any Christian who would object to this nun’s considering her monastic sisters to be her family? We wonder if Christians have taken any note of celibate LGBT singles who regularly express concerns about their potential needs for caregiving, either now or in the distant future. Continually, I’m struck by the interconnectedness of caregiving and loneliness: when one doubts whether one has the freedom to receive care from others, one is much more likely to feel lonely.

Caregiving is a tricky process. When caregiving is done rightly, it draws us into meaningful relationships with those for whom we provide care. Vulnerability gets negotiated such that one person isn’t always having to make the hard disclosures. Handled rightly, vulnerability becomes trust. I’d contend that only in an environment of trust can true caregiving happen. Serving others in love and humility and allowing others to care for us is transformative. Somehow, every rightly orientated care response draws us into healthy forms of interdependence where we become that much more alive to Christ’s work on earth. Every day I find myself praying for the wisdom to provide Sarah with true care that is sourced from how God loves each of us. In so doing, I become that much more human.

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