An Exercise in the Removal of Saccharine

more-reflections-smallI love the exchange between Melinda Selmys and her husband recounted in the opening pages of Sexual Authenticity: More Reflections. They are discussing her earlier book, Sexual Authenticity, and he says of it: “It’s shit. It’s fake. It’s saccharine. It’s not honest. It’s not you. Write it again.”

That is part of the backdrop for the book Sexual Authenticity: More Reflections.

Another part of her motivation to offer further reflections was the way in which she and her book had been surreptitiously brought into a larger culture war. Reflecting on one of her first public interviews in which she shared the spotlight with a reparative therapist, she writes, “I felt like a fraud. I’d written a book about how the Culture Wars mentality was wrong, and suddenly I was in the thick of that war, an artillery piece in the battle against the Gay Agenda.”

But Selmys has another personal reaction I have not known:

Moreover, I knew that the politicization of my sexuality was an obstacle to the work that I actually wanted to be doing. I was producing the kind of ex-gay narrative that appeals to good Catholic mothers and father and sisters and brothers who dearly want their loved one’s to be able to achieve a full, vibrant, healthy, happy heterosexuality – the kind of ex-gay narrative that has failed the LGBTQ community so badly because it falls afoul of the real experience of many people with SSA [same-sex attraction]. (p. 37)

selmysI haven’t had this reaction because I do not personally experience my sexuality in this way. As an academic who conducts research on sexual identity, however, I have seen my research used toward political ends in ways that I, too, believe have not been helpful to sexual minorities who are navigating this terrain. I am thinking primarily of the Ex-Gays? study. The reality is that 90% of my research is actually on sexual identity development and the experiences of sexual minorities of faith in Christian colleges and universities, in mixed orientation marriages, and in navigating family relationships. So I appreciated her transparency in sharing this motivation to offer more reflections.

The sections that were particularly compelling to me were her personal accounts of how trying to follow the expectations of others (and their related narratives) did great damage to her and her marriage. It gets into the whole area of what to do with one’s same-sex sexuality. Celebrate it? Keep it at arm’s length? Vilify it? Selmys comes to the conclusion that her same-sex sexuality is not “accidental” to her sense of self or her marriage. That doesn’t mean that her same-sex sexuality is central either. She is committed to naming false dichotomies:

Nor is [my homosexuality] accidental to my marriage. I did a lot of damage, both to my identity and to my relationship with my husband, by trying to conform to some sort of one-size-fits all narrative of sexual complementarity. Because I could not acknowledge the part of me that is “queer” in the early years of our relationship, I withheld that part of me from our marriage and tried to replace it with a simulacrum of “authentic femininity” which was not in any way authentic to me. This was a significant omission in my gift of self. (p. 67)

Readers of her blog will recognize many section of the book. She will offer a post and then reflect on it as she has clearly interacted with readers around significant themes that have shaped her thinking in an area. That may sound like it would be somewhat disjointed, but the book does not read that way at all. It is well-written and flows from reflection to reflection in ways that readers will appreciate. The two things that stand out to me as possibly “difficult” about her book are that (1) Selmys, as a Catholic, engages with Catholic theology and philosophy in ways that may not be as familiar to evangelical Protestants, and (2) she pulls no punches. I found the connections to Catholic theology interesting and helpful. Too often evangelicals limit their connections to what John Piper or Tim Keller have said. It’s not that these pastors and theologians are the concerns–it’s that evangelicals can forget the broader theological landscape that is in front of them.

As for the punches not being pulled, let me offer this as an aside: Melinda helped me with a writing project on gender dysphoria (a workbook soon to be available through the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity), and she has no qualms about telling a writer what she thinks about his/her work. Within a matter of weeks, I was fully aware of the sections of my writing that she did not like. It was refreshing and humbling. Well, More Reflections is kind of like that. Her writing is refreshing and honest in ways that are just not that comfortable for the existing narratives for faithful sexual minorities in the church today. Those narratives, of course, are largely “ex-gay”, reflecting a clean transformation into a pure heterosexuality, which has not been her experience (she names and challenges an array of narratives on pp. 56ff). And I don’t think it is most people’s experience, and it is THAT narrative (not any one narrative but dozens and dozens of comparable narratives) that needs to be told for the church to come to a more realistic understanding of what pastoral care to sexual minorities can look like.

When I first started conducting research on sexual identity, I participated in a think tank with many folks on the topic of sexuality and marriage. (Let me say outright that I love think tanks. This one met in Lourdes, France, and…well…we were there to think. Not a bad arrangement in my view.) One of the other participants was the late Fr. John Harvey, the founder of Courage, a ministry to homosexuals in the Catholic Church. I enjoyed Fr. Harvey as a faithful man with a gentle spirit. I would have loved to have had a “beer summit” with he and Melinda to discuss pastoral care to the sexual minority. In fact, these two would not have needed me; I’d be there for the beer. But to have them engage in a thoughtful, honest discussion about the lives of Christian sexual minorities is the kind of exchange that is needed with many Christian leaders to move the church away from the culture wars and toward genuine pastoral care. I did not experience Fr. Harvey as interested in the culture wars, either, but so many Christian leaders today are–and there is an important shift that simply needs to take place.

Pastoral care based on a saccharine-based sexual identity narrative will only offer peace to those of us who do not experience sexual identity conflicts. That’s not pastoral care at all. It’s stress management for the majority while our brothers and sisters suffer in the trenches of a battle they should never have had to face on their own.

I have been encouraged lately by the voices of many Christians who are engaging this topic from the standpoint of their own lived reality. People like Melinda Selmys. People like Wesley Hill, Ron Belgau and Julie Rodgers. Others who write alongside them at Spiritual Friendship. This is a book that will stand alongside others like it and alongside the thoughtful wave of younger, devout Christians who are engaging this topic and the church in a more public and honest way.

7 thoughts on “An Exercise in the Removal of Saccharine

  1. I am intrigued that all the voices you mention are voices of celibates. This concerns me greatly because the implication is that in order to be a good Christian, you must forever forego all romantic relationships which might be satisfying (on the same level that heterosexuals experience them – a level which is known to be quite healthy in many ways according to available evidence). In other words, you are forcing the majority of LGB Christians into a “new” corner (i.e., forced, terminal celibacy) which I think will prove to be no more more natural or healthy than the old, ineffective, harmful corner of ex-gaydom.

    I too appreciate the evolution that Christianity seems to be experiencing concerning LGBT living. This “thoughtful wave of younger, devout Christians who are engaging this topic and the church in a more public and honest way” is admittedly a step in the right direction. But I fear that it is soon to be lauded as the new standard which doesn’t really leave most LGB Christians any better off than The Great Ex-gay Experiment did.

  2. I appreciate your thoughts, DJ. Let me offer you a couple of points for consideration. When the ex-gay narrative was the primary narrative for Christian ministry (and I acknowledge that in some circles, it remains the primary narrative), many critics strongly voiced that behavior and identity could change but not orientation. It has been interesting to watch as fewer people appear to endorse an ex-gay narrative that the criticism has now shifted toward those who attempt to live out celibacy (the behavior change that we were told was possible provided people don’t attempt change of orientation). It seems that the only position that some people will really affirm is one that endorses same-sex relationships. Yet there are these gay Christians who are choosing another path. I don’t see a problem with supporting their efforts, particularly as it seems consistent with a traditional Christian sexual ethic (which has been widely endorsed historically and is still widely supported globally). You mention a fear that celibacy will become the new standard. It is actually a pretty old standard. But even if increasing numbers endorse same-sex relationships, there will still be discussions about standards, and some of these will be newer standards. For example, there is no consensus about serial monogamy, lifelong monogamy, open relationships, or emotionally faithful relationships with physical openness. Which standards are people to follow and on what basis? I think these are important discussions for gay Christians to have, and I empathize with the folks I mentioned (and others) who are navigating this difficult terrain.

  3. So I agree with much of what you’ve stated, Mark, but notice that you did not address my point of concern, at least not that I could tell (perhaps it was too subtle for my comprehension). The concern is that what you are implying is that for the LGBT person to be a good Christian, then celibacy is the answer (unless you happen to be part of the small minority of people for whom ex-gaydom is a somewhat well-adjusted lifestyle). You have previously acknowledged that changing orientation is ineffective for most Christians. What makes you think that forcing lifelong loneliness and celibacy on LGBT Christians is any better? In the end, the result is the same: you CANNOT experience healthy, romantic relating that we know to be very healthy for most heterosexuals.

    So you see, I have no problem whatsoever with the voices you speak of. In no way did I insinuate that the only position worth affirming is one that endorses same-sex relationships. I affirm those Side B individuals like Julie (who is a great friend of mine) and the others that you mentioned because I believe in autonomy and healthy self-actualization. I simply see a danger in SOLELY affirming those voices, because again, the implication is that all other voices are sinful and not good Christians. I think this puts an unnecessary choke-hold on many LGBT individuals who are seeking a healthy life for themselves in the context of their spirituality, much in the same way that the narrow Ex-gay narrative did (and as you suggested, still does in some circles).

    The reason that gay celibacy has gotten a lot more criticism lately is precisely because of this point. The gay celibacy movement is growing just as the ex-gay movement is declining. So in that sense, it is quite a new standard. New in the sense that in previous generations, the Church and its followers did not have an understanding of homosexuality the way that we currently do (for good or for bad). So the homosexual Christian of yesteryear either married a woman because that’s what everyone was expected to do, became a priest (and available data seems to suggest that celibacy was more of a cerebral goal rather than a well-lived actualization for most of them), or stayed single (and we can not be at all sure how many of these single people actually lived well-adjusted lives and how many went underground to get their needs met in rather risky ways). So the landscape has changed, and so too has the Church’s response, i.e., The Ex-gay Experiment, and now a growing pressure towards forced, terminal celibacy. My question to you is this: does it give you pause to suggest that celibacy is a healthy, achievable lifestyle for gay Christians, given the failure of the previous conventional Christian wisdom that orientation change was a good way to go? To put it another way, how much of the inefficacy of SOCE is due to an inability to change one’s sexual orientation, and how much of it is due to the inherent unhealthiness of asking social creatures to not engage in meaningful romantic intimacy? There is of course a scientific way to answer this. From my vantage point, the best answer would be “it’s unclear, we do not have adequate data to answer that question.” And while I’d be curious to know the scientific reasons why you think that SOCE is largely ineffective, I’m MUCH more interested in you speaking from your heart and/or gut. What effect do you think it will have on the Church to laud only one set of voices (celibate voices)? What implications do you think this has for LGBT people in the Church, particularly for those who suffer tremendously under the weight of loneliness? Can you see that this exalting of one narrative is subtle but powerful social pressure? Do you think there might be some potential harm in that?

    • I think I understand what you are saying, DJ. I hear you asking about a “both/and” understanding (both celibacy and other resolutions) rather than a resolution exclusively focused on celibacy. I can appreciate that. The whole topic gives me pause, to be honest with you. I try to be supportive of gay Christians who are trying to be faithful in how they navigate these issues. I study the experiences of gay Christians regardless of resolution–in part because I want to come to a better understanding of how people experience these different trajectories. I know some have pursued and been content in an intimate relationship with a same-sex partner. Others have pursued celibacy and seem content. Still others have entered into platonic partnerships. Others have entered into mixed orientation marriages (Selmys falls into this category, by the way). Other have been pretty content with something like an ex-gay narrative. From a mental health standpoint, it seems to me that each of these directions seems quite viable. Are they ‘equally’ viable from a mental health standpoint? I doubt it, but I think more research is needed to come to a better understanding of which is relatively “better.” I doubt that research will be done due to the culture wars and politics associated with it. Also, to be honest with you, I don’t know how helpful that research would be. Different people might find contentment (congruence?) with different trajectories and resolutions, and I am skeptical that mental health measures are going to be the preferred reference point for some individuals based on their personal and deeply held religious convictions. Let me back up for a second, though. I think the starting point for many people in the church is a traditional sexual ethic. That’s probably why the ex-gay narrative and the celibacy resolution have been given more attention. Both are ways in which a person lives within that ethic. So, too, a mixed orientation marriage. (I’m not thinking here of a mixed orientation marriage based upon an ex-gay narrative but more like what Selmys experiences–one in which a person goes into it with his or her eyes wide open and fully aware.) I do take seriously the “weight of loneliness” you reference. I see that as a reflection of multiple and complex issues, including a failure on the part of the church (not the institution but the actual individuals who make up the church) to be family to gay and lesbian persons–much like the church has failed to be family/community to single straight Christians. (I know there are differences between single straight and gay Christians, but there is in my view sufficient overlap for the purposes of this reference to failure on the part of the church.) I think various segments of the church are in the process of thinking through what to laud, but many (most? depending on where you live) cannot start from a reference point that is outside of a traditional sexual ethic, if that makes sense.

  4. Yes, makes perfect sense. I think what you expressed here is the very sort of nuance that I was speaking to. Thank you πŸ™‚

    Being the son of a preacher, and raised most of my life in a Black, rather conservative, Evangelical milieu, I certainly understand the fact that there are large swaths of Christendom that will limit acceptable approaches to ex-gay narratives, some more progressive ones will extend the bounds of acceptable behavior to celibacy (which is much easier for Catholics who have a long – but complicated – history with lifelong celibacy, but Protestants have a harder time with this because of theological and sociological assumptions about marriage). I simply fear for the LGBT people for whom those narratives will not lead to healthy spirituality or living. And my assumption is that that would be MOST LGBT Christians (and from my experience, I’d say that would be about 70-80% of LGBT Christians). I do recognize that doing research in this area is perhaps somewhat difficult given the Culture Wars, but I can’t say that I agree that such research would not be helpful. I think that it would be quite helpful, especially if my assumption holds true. Shouldn’t the Church know that 80% of the people they are squeezing into these little boxes (ex-gay and celibacy) are going to be emotionally, relationally, and spiritually handicapped? (Again, this is making many assumptions – but I think the point stands even if we’re talking just 50% or 40% or 25%.)

    As for the Church and singles/celibates. I would agree with you wholeheartedly that their handling of singles has not been nearly adequate, and for LGBT people has been absolutely abysmal. On the other hand, I’m honestly not sure what the church (or anyone) could do on a broad scale that would come anywhere close to providing the type of satisfying intimacy and partnership that a spouse offers. I’m not sure about your marriage status, but if you had a choice between rousing, perfect support from your church and your wife, which would you choose? That’s a pretty easy choice for me: hands down I’m choosing my husband. But that’s the wonderful part about having the option of a healthy, satisfying relationship – being a married gay man doesn’t necessitate I make such an odd choice. I have the life-giving intimacy of a mate AND the critical intimacy of a community. But I think asking the question in that way makes a crucial point, one which I have yet to see gay celibates broadly acknowledge, despite great efforts to elevate the conversation about the necessity for “spiritual friendship”: for most of humanity, there simply is no good substitute for a mate. Mates are uniquely positioned to meet any number of social, emotional, and psychological needs inherent to most human beings that non-mates simply never could. In saying this, I do not want to disparage the role of “spiritual friendship” in any way. Western Society, for example, tends to glorify the role of the mate beyond what is proper, thus many of us expect our spouses to meet ALL of our needs. In my opinion, this is just as unnatural and unhealthy as the assumption that Christian gay people should all be expected to do well on “spiritual friendship” alone. Again, I think I’m returning to the point of both/and rather than either/or. There are some Ron Belgau’s and Wes Hill’s who are quite well-adjusted to a spiritual-friendship-alone way of living, but broadly speaking, most human beings simply would not fall into this category if asked to forego having a mate because of some expressed aspect of their genetics or personality over which they had no control. Not for any lack of faith or conviction, but simply because of how they were divinely constructed and evolved. For all but sociopaths, we do seem to do best with a combination of mate and non-mate intimacy.

    I’m not even sure why I’m typing all of this. I’m just rambling. It’s kind of not germane to the original point I was making, which – as I said – I think you acknowledged. So I’ll quit πŸ™‚

    • DJ. This was exceptionally well said – with an abundant amount of grace that often escapes me in this conversation. I would add one thought.

      There is a distinction to be made between individual believers and a system of belief. I can (and do) support anyone who has made the difficult commitment to celibacy; and I am often inspired by their desire to live a holy life.

      However, doctrine is a conscious choice rather than a moral certainty or eternal truth. It is our best guess at what we’re seeing in the dim mirror. The traditional teaching fully acknowledges the suffering it imposes on people who are gay. To Mark’s earlier point, those who choose to cleave to the traditional ethic are arguably unconcerned about the well being of gay people. They, as a community, make demands that are patently destructive to many (most) people who are gay. I personally see the traditional ethic as emotionally and spiritually abusive and the suffering of young gay people as unjust.

      With the undeniable carnage caused by traditionalist theology – diminishing the humanity of gay people, driving some of God’s children to despair and self harm, breaking apart families and communities, causing people to run away from the cross – the morality of this belief, and the churches that subscribe to it, is questionable. If the Church is serious about loving people who are gay better, we must change our theology. We must believe in a way that doesn’t cause harm.

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