Gay Christians who are celibate for religious reasons are having a small coming-out party of sorts. We’ve seen recent articles exploring my exotic new sub-sub-sub-subculture in Slate, Religion News Service, and even The Advocate. I’m thrilled to see these pieces and I deeply appreciate the respect the authors showed despite, in some cases, intense and personal theological differences.
But there’s always going to be some dissonance when a community is represented by outsiders. The aspects of our lives which are most salient to an introductory, glimpse-behind-the-curtain piece at Slate aren’t necessarily the aspects most important to actual gay Christians who accept the historic Christian understanding in which sex is reserved for marriage between a man and a woman. (I apologize for the clunky phrasing. Nobody’s figured out a cute nickname yet.) So here are a few thoughts on one aspect of gay, celibate Christian lives which these three generous pieces left out.
That aspect is: Celibacy isn’t really the point. I know “celibate gay Christians” is way shorter than “gay Christians who accept the blah blah blah” like I wrote above. But our community does include gay/queer/same-sex attracted people who are in “mixed-orientation marriages,” like Melinda Selmys and Kyle Keating. These people are forging a way of life which, if you read their writings, seems quite different from the old wishful-thinking or closeted marriages, in which one partner believed or hoped that he had been “cured” of his homosexuality.
More importantly, focusing on celibacy won’t necessarily help you discern your own path in life, if you’re a gay or queer young person who accepts blah blah blah. The main issue for most of us isn’t celibacy per se, but vocation. Some of us do perceive a specific call to celibacy, but many of us, like me, don’t. I’m celibate because I’m gay and Catholic, not because I perceive either a gift for or a call to celibacy specifically.
God is calling me: He’s calling me to pour out my life in love and service, to give and receive love, mostly through friendship and through service to women in need. A lot of writing by celibate gay Christians focuses on friendship and on community life because these are the places where God is calling us to love and serve—not as a default, not as a second-best, but as an imitation of Christ.
And celibacy in itself isn’t the main source of my spiritual struggles. Focusing on celibacy can make it seem like simply avoiding sex should be the goal of a gay Christian life. This approach focuses on the negative of sin-avoidance, rather than the positive of growing in love of Christ and neighbor. It can lead to tragic overreactions in which people are counseled to avoid any close, intimate relationships with people of the same sex. And it sexualizes gay Christians (something which often happens to gay people in general), treating us as if all our problems are “really” about sexuality. Here’s a good, blunt piece about what happened when a woman’s Christian community assumed that her spiritual life revolved around being gay and celibate.
If we think of celibacy as the main point of “gay Christian who accepts please someone help me think of a nickname” life, we do get some countercultural Christian witness. Celibacy is shocking in a hypersexualized culture. Accepting celibacy, without the resentment and entitlement of (for example) straight men who blame women for “friend-zoning” them, is perhaps even more countercultural.
But the biggest cultural critique offered by celibate gay Christian lives isn’t about sex but about love. We offer witness that friendship, “chosen family,” intentional community life, and service to those in need are forms of real and sacrificial love which can shape a life as decisively as marriage and parenthood—if we let them. We offer hope that one day our churches and our communities will honor devoted friendship, extended family such as godparents, and lives of service. These are forms of love the Christian churches once honored publicly as part of the structure of society. Instead of maintaining this honor, we narrowed the public, “adult” forms of love down to the nuclear family and eventually the postnuclear family. I hope that by exploring our vocations, celibate gay Christians can suggest that there is more than one way to make a life filled with love. This witness will, of course, be relevant not only to our small subgroup, but to all Christians, regardless of sexual orientation or beliefs about sexuality.
Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She was received into the Catholic Church in 1998. She has written on gay Christian life for The Atlantic, The American Conservative, Commonweal, Crisis, and other publications, and is working on a book on finding your vocation as a gay Christian, forthcoming from Ave Maria Press in Fall 2014. She also does speaking engagements, including Theology on Tap (NYC, Denver, Maryland) and conference presentations. She blogs at Patheos.