On Telling People How To Navigate Sexual Identity

imagesSeveral people have asked me over the years about what I think about creative ways to live as a Christian sexual minority. I’m thinking of a conservative Christian sexual minority. Not long ago, the primary way to do it was to get into an ex-gay ministry of one kind or another. The way to live as a sexual minority was to no longer be a sexual minority by virtue of a change to heterosexuality. Even when that narrative was in full swing (and it still is in many places in the US and worldwide), I was asked about things like platonic partnerships or what people would talk about as lifelong relationships in which the two people who are either emotionally or sexually attracted to one another define the limits of their relationship in a way that reflects a traditional Christian sexual ethic.

If you are reading this and saying, “Why don’t they just get married?!?” or “Why put themselves through that kind of hell?!?” — it may help to understand that the people asking these questions are traditionally believing Christians. That is, they are Christians who adhere to a sexual ethic that states that sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman would be wrong. That’s not a discussion I’m getting into today. There is a place for that discussion, but let’s go with the premise that we are respecting a person’s stated beliefs and values surrounding sexual morality. What then?

I have conducted research on people who have tried to change their sexual orientation through involvement in religious ministries. Among other observations, I would say that most people did not have as much success in experiencing a shift along a continuum as they wanted coming into the ministry. There is more that could be said about that whole area, but I’ll leave it at that for now. I have for years supported folks who believe this is the best path for them, and I know several people who would continue to say this is the best direction for them.

I have also conducted several studies of people in mixed orientation marriages. That is, marriages in which one partner is straight and the other is a sexual minority (i.e., experiences same-sex attractions independent of sexual behavior or identity labels). These relationships are intriguing. I do not promote them–particularly one’s steeped in an ex-gay narrative of 180-degree change–but I do try to support people who are in them. I think there is a new generation of mixed orientation marriages that are coming out of a very different storyline (different than the ex-gay narrative), and I am curious to see what those marriages look like over time. I also want to support folks in these marriages.

Then there are Christians who decide that the best resolution is celibacy. To some, they have emerged as a new voice in the discussions about navigating sexual identity as a Christian. I want to support them as well, and I agree with those who say that we should conduct research to look at what this experience is like for a larger number of people over time (perhaps with a comparison group of single heterosexuals and married straight and gay persons–now that would be an interesting study).

But what about Christians who enter into a platonic partnership of some kind? (There could be many variations on this theme.) I am raising this question not only because I’ve been asked this question several times over the years, but also because of a new blog that is getting some attention. The blog is A Queer Calling, and it is written by two women who describe themselves as “a celibate LGBT Christian couple.”

cropped-prayerful-catI don’t really take a position that says such an arrangement is “right” or “wrong”. It’s kind of like the question I get about whether it’s ok for a Christian who experiences same-sex attraction to refer to him/herself as “gay.” I just don’t weigh in as though I have the deciding vote on whether its ok or not. Part of my thinking is this: I don’t face this issue in my life. For those Christians who do face this issue, I want to be supportive as they navigate this terrain. I imagine it’s hard enough to navigate without having the crowd in the stands telling them exactly how to do it. I also want to foster the kind of spiritual atmosphere and maturity that will aid them in decision-making.

You might ask what will come of hosting a public blog about that personal decision, but it is what they feel they can do, and perhaps they hope it will foster a kind of discussion about various options or life trajectories. I suspect that for them it feels like the “risks” (if you will) associated with a partnership of this kind outweigh the potential for loneliness or isolation many people report in remaining single. You might argue that they could do something more communal, which could in theory increase some of the intimacy while reducing some of the temptation. But each relationship you add creates a new set of expectations and obligations that would also need to be navigated for the kind of sustained/lifetime intimacy that is being sought.

No one resolution will fit every person’s experience. I’m not saying there is no “right” and “wrong”, but I am saying that it has been useful to show some humility as the very people involved try to sort this out. This may feel like new territory to many conservative Christian sexual minorities, and it would be good to support them, to come alongside them–even in circumstances in which you may believe they are not getting it exactly right–rather than keep them at arm’s length or judge them from a distance. If a couple is struggling to honor God with their lives together, and they are fully cognizant of the upsides and downsides of the various paths, then I would want to enter in and help them (pray for them, encourage them) in their exploration of creative alternatives.

I also want to promote discussions among Christian sexual minorities–so that they are able to talk to one another about this. Wouldn’t that be more helpful? How does trying to live as a celibate LGBT Christian couple sit with other Christian sexual minorities who share their values and are trying to figure all of this out? I imagine some would encourage a path to intimacy that reflects sharing more of a life in community rather than in an exclusive relationship, but others might disagree. In any case, I’m interested to hear their take on it.

6 thoughts on “On Telling People How To Navigate Sexual Identity

  1. I think the documentary “(A)sexual” (you can find it on Netflix; the trailer is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYMh9zkt6r4) is a good object lesson for why being more “communal” simply doesn’t work to meet intimacy needs in many cases. David Jay (the film-maker, creator of the website asexuality.org, and the voice of the asexual movement – if you can call it that) documents his attempts to build deep, lasting community with friends. The problem? All those friends weren’t asexual, so they went off and got marriages of their own, and – lo and behold, just as the Apostle Paul predicted – they were consumed with the affairs of their own spouses, and left poor David in the dust. Not intentionally, not in a mean way, and it’s not as if they were no longer friends with him. But their emotional energy went into their own families, so the closeness of bond and the previous extravagance of quality time simply was no longer there. David learned the hard way that this is what most of us need: quality time from someone devoted to us for the long haul. In this world where families up and move whenever the next amazing job offer comes along, there really is only one social unit where we have this sort of devotion: marriage. Now David is looking for an asexual partner to marry, so that he can have his intimacy needs met.

    I know one-half of the couple on A Queer Calling. She has done what I think is about the healthiest thing for her, given her religious beliefs and her very human intimacy needs: she has found a marriage partner who is as committed to celibacy as she is. I’d love this to be a great option for most gay Christians, but I just don’t think a lot of them have the low sex drives required to make it happen.

    At the end of the day, I wish Christians would just exercise their empathy muscles just a little bit more. If you’re going to criticize this couple, just ask yourself: if you had the choice between living single for the rest of your life, or having a committed partner to do life with (whom you were reasonably sure you would not have sexual relations with), which would you choose? It irks me that this is so difficult for so many people to fathom, quite frankly. Taking some proverbial steps in others’ shoes would take the Church pretty far on this issue. But I digress…

    As for the study you speak of, I was very interested in doing that very thing for my dissertation, but it seems sort of unfeasible. Too many arms for a dissertation. What I’m working with now is simply a comparison of gay celibate and gay-affirming LG Christians. A mixed methods study (the qualitative piece would be just of the celibate population to explore some of the unique advantages and challenges to being a gay celibate Christian). I’m closely following some work out of Utah State University with Renee Galliher and John Dehlin who have been looking at LGBTQ Mormons. They looked at over 1600 people, and this sounds like the closest sort of study to what you proposed. Interestingly, it appears as if the most healthy option for the grand majority of these folks is gay marriage, with change efforts and celibacy showing very low quality of life scores. (His TED talk has preliminary findings, starting at the 12 minute mark: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MxCXjfAunk). I will be interested in perusing the study and looking specifically at what QOL measures they used, but on the surface, this appears to be fairly compelling data.

    • DJ, fancy runnin’ into you in various corners of the internet! I can’t wait to hear more about your dissertation as you dig deeper into the research.

      You raise some good points about the potential for a community to fall apart as people pair off and pour their emotional energy into their families. I’ve spent a good bit of time thinking about it, since the more communal idea is the ideal long term solution for me personally (for a number of reasons, with some relating to the challenges you mentioned). Do you think it might be possible, though, for a situation like A Queer Calling to be expanded a little, with a small community of people being just as devoted to the community as those two are to one another? I’ve talked to quite a few people who desire something like that (men and women, gay and straight—okay mostly gay) and I imagine there could at least be a core group of people who would commit to that and remain. It could be young idealism since I’m still in my twenties, but if people went into it with common goals and values, it seems like it could be just as stable as a partnership. Why do you think that would be any more likely to disband than a partnership if it was entered into with the same mindset? I’m really curious to hear your thoughts since you always have a lot of insight.

      And we can definitely stack hands on the desire to see more Christians exercising their empathy muscles.

  2. DJ, thanks for pointing me in the direction of “(A)sexual”; it brings up several interesting points about sustained relationships and community. I can appreciate your concerns better for having viewed it.

  3. Jules! Great question. The kind of community you speak of has been tried, of course. The most “successful” (at least on the surface) would be monastic communities. I haven’t reviewed much evidence for this, however, I’m not sure that these communities have actually been particularly successful with their chastity. Folks like Shane Claibourne have attempted something similar to what you describe here…except there is no expectation that these folks would be together for life.

    Those who wish to create and join such communities, I give my full blessing. However, there’s a reason most straight people have opted for marriage over committed communities: it is better suited to meet hard-wired needs. The type of community you speak of may have great intentions, but what keeps them together for the long-haul…the life haul? For instance, let’s just speak logistics here. People in this community must stay employed. What happens when someone gets a great job offer elsewhere? In marriage, the expectation is that we move as a unit. And it is HARD to negotiate two individual’s wills, needs, and desires for self-actualization. REAL HARD! Now multiply that by 3, 4, or however many others are in this hypothetical community you speak of. And then of course, you have the issue of a community of gay people together, who have sexual needs, who aren’t allowed to act on them, even though they’re living together and doing life together? I’ve heard of this before…it was called Love In Action. It didn’t work so well. (Yes, of course, I know that they had the added EXTREMELY unhelpful element of orientation change, but the end result is the same: it requires magnificent sexual suppression to pull something like this off in a sustainable way.)

    I’m not saying that what you propose is impossible, or even a bad option for some. I’m simply saying that it’s not a whole lot like marriage. Marriage is uniquely designed to meet many emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs while not overly stressing the system in terms of individual self-actualization. This is largely why I think polyamory doesn’t work. Sure, you will find some people who are well-adjusted and for whom it works well, but it simply won’t work for most who attempt it. Marriage is a human (Divine?) institution that has been fine-tuned over millennia. It has lasted this long as the primary source of human connection and contact for a reason. I understand the need that many LGBT Christians have for going back to square one to think about what might be the healthiest form of relationship for them (i.e., a desire to live by literal Biblical mandates), but it seems silly to me to discount the obvious: marriage has stood the test of time as being the best option for most people as they emerge out of adolescence.

    That being said, I think that someone like you could potentially find great comfort, meaning, and happiness in the type of community you describe. But I can’t think of many people for whom that would be a healthy long-term option.

  4. […] about how we have chosen to live our lives as LGBT Christians. In this post, he writes, “I suspect that for them it feels like the ‘risks’ (if you will) associated with a partne…” Here, Yarhouse seems to be suggesting that we embarked on our partnership together with an […]

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