A Queer Calling came to be at a time when we felt a need for more meaningful interaction with other people on topics such as celibacy, vocation, spirituality, and LGBT Christian issues. It began as a project to help us explore where God is calling us, and to give us something new to enjoy together during Lindsey’s period of unemployment. We write because we see celibacy as an important topic that far too many people dismiss as old-fashioned, oppressive, and indicative of a lack of self-acceptance. And that’s all.
Without qualification, I trust the “agenda” of A Queer Calling. I appreciate that they are clear that their story is not meant to be used against others who do not share their theological view or family practices. More importantly, I respect and admire the way they carefully discuss difficult topics and the respect they convey through their analysis. I respect the choice of Sarah and Lindsey to share a celibate life together, to tell their story, and to advocate for their place as supported celibates within their communities.
Their primary question is challenging:
Have you ever considered the possibility that the discussion (as it is now) about LGBT issues in Christianity could be making celibates less and less welcome in our church communities? Do you think it’s possible that non-celibate LGBT people aren’t the only ones fighting for the ability to be known and loved?
I actually have considered this, in large part because I know many celibate gay and lesbian Christians who have struggled to remain in the Eastern Orthodox church. Eastern Orthodoxy has come a long way in the last few decades, moving from disgust and rejection to at least a semi-official concession that the problem is not attraction or orientation but activity. So, in theory, as long as one is not having sex, then attraction is simply the “cross you bear.” However, not all celibate gay Christians are as open about their celibacy as Sarah and Lindsey. I know celibate, coupled Orthodox Christians who have been ‘outed’ and shamed, losing their place in beloved ministries, because it was known they were gay. What was not known is that they were also celibate. Such things are not publicized, and often not talked about even among the LGBTQ community for fear of ridicule. Most humans, straight or otherwise, can’t imagine why one would choose to live with someone AND be celibate, oh, the horror!
Humor aside, I am acutely aware that even my own public discussion of same-sex marriage within Orthodoxy has caused at minimum discomfort among some of my gay and lesbian friends. At worst, I have lost the friendship of those whose position feels so precarious to them that they cannot associate with someone who rocks their fragile boat. Sarah and Lindsey are right: the love our church is willing to show some of us is too often withdrawn in disapproval or discomfort. It happens all the time. Sometimes, it is small, the odd glances, the lack of invitations, the brief but not at all engaging smiles. Sometimes, it results in denial of participation in the life of the community.
A Queer Calling makes an important point about celibacy: celibacy is wrongly dismissed as a form of bizarre repression, whether of same or other-sexed desire. This is clear in the secular world. But even in Eastern Orthodoxy, where monasticism is highly esteemed, celibacy is perceived as constitutive of a monastic calling. All others are celibate by circumstance, probably simply waiting to be married. Those who might not want to be married, but who also do not feel called to cenobitic monasticism, are left with little support. Models such as Mother Maria Skobtsova, who engaged in urban monasticism and often had harsh words for monastics who chose their life as a perceived escape from the concerns of the world, are few and far between. The Communities of New Skete are one of the few places which support male, female and married monastics, and they are frequently looked at askance by many Orthodox. Yet for some, myself included, it is these broader images of committed lives, which include celibacy, that are compelling forms of monasticism. I seriously considered both forms of monastic life. Yet it is not my calling. I have no doubt about this at all, even as I treasure the gifts given to me through the writing of Mother Maria, and the friendship of the nuns and monks of New Skete.
It is important to point out however, that celibacy is a not the primary calling of any of those listed above. Rather, celibacy is part of a life committed to others, whether via prayer “for the life of the world” or serving soup in a Parisian rental to hungry immigrants. My sisters and brothers in Christ at “Spiritual Friendship and A Queer Calling are engaged in an important exploration of celibacy in a culture that cannot imagine that choosing not to act on sexual desire is sometimes a path of strength and focus for those who want to become better lovers of God and neighbor. The only reason for Christians to do anything is to better love others. The commitment to celibacy can be a powerful element in a life committed to others, a life in the pursuit and practice of theosis. As Sarah and Lindsey note, no one should use their particular story as an illustration that celibacy is easy, or to condemn anyone else’s life. Anyone who has been celibate for good reason, and those who discover that they did so for the wrong reasons, can tell you that misplaced celibacy is destructive.
Given the centrality that sex has in any conversation about gays and lesbians, A Queer Calling rightly fears
the possibility that a time may be approaching when celibate LGBT Christians have only two options: 1) attend a church with a liberal sexual ethic where, in many cases, celibacy is frowned upon or misunderstood and celibates are not supported adequately; or, 2) attend a church with a conservative sexual ethic where celibates are expected to deny their sexual orientations or leave.
In both cases, the choice to be sexually inactive while continuing to be sexual human beings is unsupported. Like Sarah and Lindsey, I do not think everyone has an agenda that can be “lumped into one of two categories that are polar opposites,” and our debates should not assume the worst about people.
Yet in answer to their final question, I do not think there has ever been or will be a point when our stories are just stories, especially on this topic. Why? Because stories are how we share what is good and holy, and what is destructive and unholy. Stories are always formative, whether biblical stories, the lives of the saints, or anecdotes about who did what with whom and how they totally messed up their lives as a result. We tell stories with an agenda, to share who we are, who we failed to be, who we want to be.
Herein lies what I see as the problem: Most advocates of gay celibacy offer little to no explicit support for gay and lesbian Christians for whom sexual activity is a beautiful and good expression of one aspect of their loving commitment. As a result, gay celibacy looks an awful like like an agreement that gay sexual activity, even within the bounds of marriage, remains ethically unacceptable for Christians. Take for instance, Eve Tushnet (who has received quite a bit of attention on Women in Theology recently, I know). When she states that “I felt like there’s a lot of things I don’t understand, but I can do my wrestling and doubting from within the church,” her doubt remains an affirmation of the Catholic Church’s official teaching that gay desire is inherently disordered and gay sexual activity is wrong. The consequence of this is clear: gays and lesbians may not be married within the Catholic Church, and those that are may or may not find welcome in any given parish. It is up to the whim of the priest, a thing Orthodoxy shares with its Catholic relatives. The entire context of the HuffPost article in which Tushnet is quoted sets up gay celibacy as an alternative to ex-gay therapy. This alone raises some valid concerns as to whether gay celibacy advocates are supportive of lesbian and gay Christians who choose to engage in sexual activity as a part of their committed relationship, just like their non-gay married counterparts, or if they are just finding another way to avoid what they continue to consider as sin.
The truth is, I love A Queer Calling’s stories. It is also true that I struggle every time I read them because they never say the one thing I want them to say: that they recognize in committed gay and lesbian relationships the same pursuit of vocation that they are discovering in their own committed celibacy. In part, what I want to hear from them is an echo of my story in their story. I am not asking that they tell my story for me, or that they modify their own story. But their silence begs the question in a society that is desperately seeking answers, and is using human experience shared through stories to arrive at conclusions we can all live with. What I want from advocates and practitioners of gay celibacy is that either they openly affirm that a story such as my own is also a relationship that bears the fruits of the Spirit, that it too is place where our common Christian vocation is lived.
It is possible that A Queer Calling, or the folks at Spiritual Friendship cannot affirm a committed lesbian vocation which includes sexual activity because they truly do believe that same-sex sex is wrong. I respect that even if I disagree with it. I can respect it, disagree with it, and simultaneously applaud all of them for exploring celibacy as a vocation crucial to their ongoing movement into God. I can publicly and repeatedly applaud their vocation, and I will grieve the difficulty their vocation causes in their lives and their churches. I can also advocate that they are fully welcomed at the table of their churches. I DO advocate such a thing.
But I am acutely aware that many who speak strongly in support of gay celibacy do not also advocate for me. The very polarization which A Queer Calling decries is embedded in the silence that they keep. Sarah and Lindsey may have good reason to keep their silence. Actually, I trust that they do have good reason. I don’t even need to know their reasons. But their silence, and the silence of others, matters. Taking ’sides’ is unavoidable because at some level, we may either eat together at the table of God, or not. This is what all these stories and conversations are really about: being known and being loved.
Until our stories can be heard as affirmations of diverse expressions of our common Christian vocation, there simply is no such thing as stories that are just stories. Until our stories do not come at the price of inclusion and participation, whether because we choose committed celibacy or committed non-celibacy, all stories have a cost. Right now, stories are the means of our inclusion or exclusion. They are the way we signal who is welcome and who is not. They are the way we invite and the way we reject.
The truth is, I do not resent the place that celibate gay Christians have at the table. I do not believe that all of them have hidden motives (I certainly believe some do). For those who do not think that the church can ever affirm gay and lesbian committed relationships, that is, what we call marriage, I do not resent their silence for no other reason than it is just one less person to argue with. For those who are celibate in part because they do not believe it is right to engage in gay or lesbian sex with their marriage partner, and who say so, I do not resent them either, though I will publicly disagree. Frankly, I prefer their honesty as I know where I stand, or sit, with them.
But I am deeply angered by the silence of those, straight or not, who share and affirm lesbian and gay marriage, and say nothing. I understand there are many reasons for doing so, and there is much to lose: family, friends, communities, one’s job, one’s beloved church. But their silence is a silence that excludes me from a table at which they are welcome.
And that makes me very very angry.