Gay Christian celibacy is sexy…apparently. I mean, it’s sexy in the way that something is the new black; so fetch, tres chouette. The Huffington Post Religion News Service recently published a spot on Julie Rodgers and other gay Christians who have ‘come out’ but refrain from any sort of sexual relations. Rather, they favor choosing the tale-as-old-as-time Christian practice of celibacy.
But celibacy has always remained the song-as-old-as-rhyme option for Christians who wrestled with same-sex attraction. Everyone knew that lively bachelor with all of the girl friends; everyone knew that spinster woman that was always too busy for a man, but no one knew the hidden struggle they faced [but oh did they talk!].
But now, gay Christians, they who have experienced liberation from the oppression of their hidden sexuality, are still choosing the celibate life. Why? It is the belief of many religious traditions that being gay in and of itself is not a sin, but choosing to act on it constitutes sin. So, if someone’s gay but does not act on it, they’re effectively ‘in the clear.’
A gay Christian who chooses to be celibate is not necessarily a bad thing, but if it is a result of bad faith, it is a bad thing. It is my argument that this phenomenon is a result of bad faith, but it does not have to be. I want to explore this phenomenon, critically examining the context of the movement in hopes to unmask the structural disenfranchisement levied upon LGBTQ Christians by heteronormative Christianity.
My hope is not for LGBTQ Christians who have chosen the celibate life to relent. Rather, it is my hope for them to recognize the significance of their context and consciousness as LGBTQ Christians. This is in contrast to the reception of a faith that imposes its will upon the subject without consideration of them; in this case heteronormative faith imposing demands upon LGBTQ faith. In short, I want LGBTQ Christians to become the co-authors of their faith and not the passive inheritors of a mere straight-faith. So, let us begin.
Wherefore Celibacy? Our Context
Acknowledging at least two phenomena is required for understanding the option of celibacy as a public option for gay Christians: the particular queer kairos we are in and the response of the evangelical and/or fundamentalist consciousness.
I marked the downfall of Exodus International as a particularly powerful event within this queer kairos, and it seems as though the Huffington Post agrees. But how kairoi work— as clearly evidenced by the Christ kairos, which some argue as being the Kairos to end all kairoi— is that there are prophecies, undercurrents, hints, glimmers, promises, and signs before the fact. All the more so, —as kairoi work out as well—when we are in the midst of one change occurs at a startling rate. That’s what these last few years have felt like; what an exciting time to live in! It is also an exciting time to come out, but we must always remember the prophets who came before us, whose lives to whom we are indebted.
But enter the evangelical and/or fundamentalist consciousness and its response to the queer kairos. I need to differentiate the two by the mechanism of relationality that each embody. When fundamentalism tries to understand something other than itself, simply put: it doesn’t! The fundamentalist’s relation to that-which-is-other is polemical; it tries to ignore it, invalidate it, or destroy it.
The evangelical, however, actually engages with the object of its attempted understanding. However, the mode of understanding is still couched in its own rules of the game. In understanding the other, the evangelical baptizes the other into its own understanding; the evangelical cannot understand the other without establishing the rules, language, and conditions of their own context as being the parameters of dialog. By doing this, the evangelical assures the dialog will result in the convincing of the other into accepting the evangelical’s truth claims. In short, the goal of evangelical apologetics is assimilation.
The Rules of the Language Game: Christian Sexual Identity
What have been the rules of the game for Christians-who-happen-to-be-gay? The article spells it out well: “leave their faith, ignore their sexuality or try to change.” However, the article uplifts Rodgers as “among those who embrace a different model: celibate gay Christians, who seek to be true to both their sexuality and their faith.”
I agree that Rodgers et al are seeking to remain ‘true to their faith,’ but are they being true to their sexuality? For evangelical apologetics, this question makes no sense; it does not fit within the paradigm of the apologetic itself. As I have addressed elsewhere, a common mode of navigating the Christian/gay identity problem is through compatibilism, where the two identities are compatible in so far as the Christian identity is superior to the gay identity. But I expand that argument: Christian identity is not simply superior to sexual identity; it defines the parameters of the identities subservient to it.
In the article, this language game is so explicit. A ‘former lesbian’ and “mother of four whose conversion story went viral after it was published in Christianity Today,” Rosaria Butterfield’s linguistics lesson illustrates this:
While she affirms celibate gay Christians, she says they should not use “gay” as a descriptive adjective. “The job of the adjective is to change the noun (…) [O]ur sexuality exists on a continuum, but our Christianity does not.”
Oh but it does, Ms. Butterfield; Christianity has always existed on continuums, flow charts, bubble graphs, et cetera. There are Catholics, Orthodox folk, Protestants; and within these phylums there are classes upon orders upon families. Ms. Butterfield’s claim is a prime example of the dynamics of the evangelical/fundamentalist consciousness I illustrated earlier. Viewing their faith as a culturally-immune pinnacle of revelation, the evangelical consciousness becomes the imperial determiner of reality—or at least the reality that really matters: the spiritual one.
But is it really Ms. Butterfield’s fault? By no means! But this is illustrative of the power of religion, the power of any ideology, upon the consciousness of its adherents. This is made all the more fascinating when ideologies intersect, when identity allocations and hierarchies are demanded. In the case of Ms. Butterfield, her ideology has dictated the rules of the game concerning the relationship between her Christian and sexual identities. The sexuality continuum is open, but the Christianity continuum is closed. The possibility of entertaining the concept of sexuality from a Christian standpoint is expressed, but the inverse is not.
Made Eunuchs by Other People: Choosing Celibacy
Rodgers reflects on the misunderstanding ‘both sides of the culture war’ have on celibate gay Christians:
“For those who have a more affirming position, it’s as if we’re repressed, self-hated homophobes, encouraging the church to stand in its position on sexuality. And conservative Christians think that those who shift on sexuality are being rebellious.”
As a representative of the former positions, I don’t think Rodgers et al are encouraging the church to stand in its position on sexuality. Rather, I think the Church (note the big ‘C’) is ‘encouraging’ Rodgers et al to stand under the church’s position on sexuality. This is because the Church—the ideological institution and the institutional ideology historically engrained in patriarchy, racism, and heteronormativity—has historically been the structural disenfranchisement levied upon LGBTQ Christians. By ignoring the cultural and contextual importance of persons, religion can impose male-centered theology on women, white-centered theology on persons of color, and heteronormative theology on LGBTQ persons.
I believe this is the central problem of the gay Christian conversation: the incommensurable relationship between their sexuality and their faith/spirituality that is enforced by this institutional entrenchment. This incommensurability must be resolved. LGBTQ Christians are not fully liberated if they are not liberated from heteronormative faith that makes LGBTQ persons veritable eunuchs through the arrest of authenticity and freedom to be. Whether this is enforced through a literal reading of Scripture or a pastor’s admonition, a faith that is incongruous with the experience of LGBTQ persons is not and cannot be the faith of LGBTQ persons.
The best part of all of this is: it does not have to be! ‘Gay Christians’ must recognize the importance their culture and context has on their faith in addition to the importance the history of faith has on LGBTQ culture and contexts. The problem? You guessed it, the incommensurability. For the LGBTQ Christian, the choice to be celibate must come out from queer faith and spirituality, and not from the heteronormative demands of some religions. LGBTQ Christians, you are invited to your faith, a faith that takes seriously the import of your experience as an LGBTQ person, and not in spite of it. Navigating these queer invitations to Christian faith and spirituality is part of the journey to which LGBTQ Christians are liberated to respond.