Last week I gave an extended lecture to a group of students in our School of Divinity on sexual identity and the Christian. At the Q&A time, I was asked about Christians who believe in a traditional Christian sexual ethic but refer to themselves as “gay.” Essentially, the question is this: “What do you think of the decision by some Christians to refer to themselves as ‘gay Christians’?”
Obviously, many people do refer to themselves as “gay Christians,” but I get questions about an increasingly visible group of Christians who refer to themselves as “gay Christians” or “celibate gay Christians”; they believe that genital sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage between one man and one woman. In the language of the Gay Christian Network, they are “Side B” gay Christians. (Side A being gay Christians who believe that same-sex behavior and relationships are morally permissible.)
I hadn’t really thought much of this question until last year when I was speaking to a group of Christians in London. It was at that forum that I met Wes Hill, a Wheaton grad who refers to himself often as a “celibate gay Christian”. The audience there seemed a bit uneasy with this designation, and Wes graciously unpacked why he is comfortable with it. Since that time, it seems I have been asked that question quite frequently.
Joshua Gonnerman, in his essay in First Things, offers several points for consideration, among them a contrast between those who see nothing of value in their same-sex sexuality (thus referring to themselves a “struggler” or someone who “contends” against same-sex attractions) and those who do not experience their same-sex sexuality as exclusively a source of temptation. This is the language of many Christian ministries today.
Gonnerman’s observations are in keeping with a friend of mine who shared with me recently that part of the reason same-sex sexuality is not reduced to only a source of temptation is that many sexual minority people have other common experiences that are not simply about impulses or attractions. For example, many experience some degree of gender atypicality by which is meant this: they do not experiences their masculinity or femininity in some of the more common, stereotypical ways others and the culture has defined masculinity/femininity. So we are talking here about interests and games in childhood, as well as other interess that develop in adolescence and beyond. Still others I know would point to their creativity or ability to relate to others in a different way — all as a part of their same-sex sexuality, with little to do with impulses to have sex per se.
This friend has also discussed with me the importance of naming one’s experiences. For some people, describing their experiences (“I experience same-sex attractions”) will be sufficient and actually helpful in terms of safeguarding them from identity in ways that are difficult for them, at least at the present time. So this may be why so many Christian ministries adopt this language. For others, however, descriptive language is not sufficient for naming their reality. So they have preferred “gay Christian” to get at something that is there that is not being fully acknowledged in the more descriptive (or, for them, reductionistic) language of “same-sex attractions.”
Wes HIll, in his book, Washed and Waiting, takes a similar view and describes himself as either a “gay Christian” or a “celibate gay Christian.” As I said, I was with Wes speaking to a group when the question came up about referring to himself in this manner. There was a fair amount of dis-ease among many in the audience who were not comfortable hearing these two words together.
So what did I say when I was asked for my opinion? I said this: “This is not my personal experience (to experience same-sex attractions), so I want to enter into any discussion of pastoral care or pastoral accommodations with a healthy dose of humility. I want to be careful not to place standards, rules, or obligations on people that go beyond what Christians believe Scripture teaches in this area. Keep in mind that we are talking about brothers and sisters in Christ who are trying to live faithfully before God in terms of not entering into same-sex relationship. When they say that using “gay” as an adjective helps them in these specific ways, I want to listen to them, come to a better understanding of their experiences, and support them.”
In many ways, it seems like a reasonable pastoral accommodation and something we would do well to discuss together, especially across groups of individuals who are actually navigating this terrain. Let’s come to a better understanding of why some people prefer to describe their experiences of attraction, while others feel it does not sufficiently name their reality. What other language has been helpful and why? How do our religious backgrounds and denominational differences enter into the discussion and shape it? Is there a process here? A trajectory that for some means certain phrases and language will be helpful early on but not later?
I don’t know that we have a lot of precedent here, and it’s in those moments that we do well to demonstrate more humility and grace, to come alongside rather than criticize.