Several months ago, I had a conversation with a dear lesbian friend of mine who believes that, while it is okay to have a gay orientation, it would be sinful for her to act on her desires and be sexually or romantically involved with another woman. (This view is commonly referred to as “Side B”, while “Side A” is the belief that God blesses same sex unions. And yes, yes, I know, it is far more complicated than just the simple polarities of two “sides”, but, Lord have mercy, I don’t have the time or energy to go down that rabbit hole in this post.) During that conversation, she told me, “I feel like it is part of my job to show the world that celibacy isn’t the death sentence that everyone says it is.” I’ve been thinking about that statement ever since, because I think that, buried within it, is one of the ideas that frustrates me the most about the traditional sexual ethic.
First, though, allow me to make an important caveat. When I first wrote this piece several weeks ago, I was much angrier and made far more sweeping, all encompassing statements. As I re-read the piece, I realized that I was speaking for all gay people and the beliefs of all Side B people, when I should have only been speaking about my own personal experience as a gay man, and my own personal encounters with Side B. I don’t want to be unfair. So I want to acknowledge that everything I’m writing is very much about my own journey, my own relationships, and my own experiences. I will let others decide how universal they are.
Based on my my reading of Side B authors, my conversations with Side B people, and my own personal experience of trying to live the traditional ethic, I don’t think it is too great a stretch (please correct me and help me understand if I am wrong) to say that the traditional ethic on homosexuality assumes that everyone is capable of living a celibate life. That must be the assumption, as the most logical conclusion of Side B is that celibacy is demanded of every gay person on the planet who cannot cultivate a heterosexual relationship.
When put that way – that everyone can live a life of celibacy – I cannot technically disagree with it. People live with all sorts of things that I wish they didn’t have to, and often at great and terrible cost. To me, the statement, “all gay people can live a celibate life,” addresses the wrong concern. The question should really be, “should all people live a celibate life? And if so, what will it cost them? Will it cost them their sustainability, their livelihood, their health, their life? Will it result in a life of unending anguish? Will it impair their capacity better to follow Christ?”
The Side B crowd is, perhaps, so insistent that celibacy is not a death sentence because they want to counter the oversexualization of our culture and the idolatry of marriage and romantic love as the only path to true happiness in this life. They want to re-establish friendship as an important crucible for fulfillment, and as equally valid as romantic love. They want to counter the myth that all celibate gay people are white-knuckling, emotionally stunted, ashamed individuals who lead lives of abject misery. They also want both the church and the gay community to accept them as they are: gay, celibate, devoutly committed to their convictions, and, perhaps most unsettling to us, happy.
That’s all good, and I stand with them on every bit of it. I believe the Church and the gay community should accept them as they are, no matter how uncomfortable that may make us feel in the process. I also believe that the vocation of celibacy is important to the life of the church – when the church loses celibate people, we all suffer. I believe, now just as much as I did when I myself was Side B, that friendship is a love as powerful, as intimate, and as important as Eros. I believe we should allow Side B gay people to challenge both the church’s and the gay community’s assumptions about happiness, fulfillment, and sexuality. I believe that, at the very least, Side B people are very good medicine for an American culture that has difficulty processing the lives they are trying to lead.
But I fear that, in trying to advocate for all these various causes, something truly vital is lost. That something vital seems to me to be empathy: the ability to recognize and experience the complexity of other people’s experiences, even if they don’t align with our own. And please, please don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying that side B people are unempathetic, but that their words can come across that way. When I hear a Side B person say, as many of my Side B mentors said to me, “Everyone is capable of living a life of celibacy”, I hear a lack of ability to de-centralize from their own experience. To say that celibacy is universally sustainable is to say to me and others like me who find celibacy destructive, “Your experience does not matter. My healthy experience of celibacy proves that you can have a healthy experience, as well.” I, for one, find this dismissal deeply, deeply invalidating, and I think that some of the pushback the Side B community may encounter from the larger gay community is rooted in precisely this experience of invalidation and dismissal.
As I have already described at length on this blog, my personal experience of trying to commit to celibacy was harrowing. After spending probably hundreds of hours reflecting and praying over my experience in trying to live Side B, this is where I am now, with no embellishment, no hyperbole, no over-the-top hysterics: I would rather die than go back. If I were someday convinced by reason and the conviction of the Holy Spirit that Side B is correct (I possibility I must consider, despite how painful that would be for me) I fear I would consider suicide an option. Unless God did something miraculous to make the burden possible for me to carry, I would truly prefer lethal injection.
While this current season of my life has by no means been easy, it has, without question, been the happiest, the most stable, the most healthy, and the most tranquil. I know a great deal of that has to do with leaving my convictions behind. I’m not saying that because because happiness through full self-acceptance is the cultural “script” for me as a gay man. I am saying it because, for me, it happens to be true.
I know that my deadly experience with Side B is not universal. I know that it is all bound up in my personal blocks and history and experiences, and the uniqueness of my situation. I know that, despite my best efforts, in the wise and supportive people who surrounded me, I couldn’t divorce celibacy from shame. I couldn’t grasp the celibacy mandate as an expression of God’s love for me or detach it from a punishment that I did nothing to deserve, no matter how much I wanted to believe otherwise. I knew the answers, I knew the ways forward, I knew that “celibacy isn’t really the point,” and I had wonderful people supporting me, but that didn’t seem to matter – I was coming up against the uniqueness of my own situation. And the only way I have been able to get away from those negative messages is to get away from Side B.
And that exactly illustrates my point. People don’t live in vacuums. People don’t always live with the perfect conditions – both internally and externally – that make celibacy possible or healthy. People have real histories and real struggles and real contexts that are complex and diverse and that can block them from ever being healthy in a certain way of life. This shouldn’t surprise us, because it is human nature.
When I was doing my yoga therapy training, the first thing we learned is that different people have different limitations. “Sometimes,” my teacher said, “we come up against the uniqueness of someone’s body in therapy, and we will have to work with them in a different way. We will have to modify their practice to accommodate their uniqueness, so that they will be restored instead of destroyed.”
This where I have to reveal one of my deepest passions and perhaps one of my greatest biases. I am, to my very bones, a therapist. I was put on this earth to help people with pain, be it emotional, physical, or relational. I can listen to the stories of sustainable, joyful celibacy from people who hold the traditional ethic and rejoice in what I hear. But the question I always ask – the question I can’t help asking – is, “okay, now what implications does this have for everyone else? What does the prohibition against homosexuality, the belief gay sex is intrinsically disordered, mean for the gay couple of 40 years, the 15 year old, the closeted athlete, the gay husband of a woman?” Maybe it’s the wrong question, but it’s the question I have to ask. And when I hear articulations of the traditional ethic, my immediate, gut level, overwhelming response is the desire to protect other people. I never, ever want another human soul – especially a teenager or young adult – to experience what I experienced. It’s also why I become deeply distressed when many people confide in me their own personal horror stories regarding celibacy; I want nothing more than to find some kind of solution.
In a perfect world, we could all run marathons. We wouldn’t have degenerative arthritis in our joints, we wouldn’t have unique blocks and differences and histories. We wouldn’t have congenital, chronic conditions that narrow the scope of what we can and cannot do with our bodies. We wouldn’t have injuries that limit our movement – but we do. Even great athletes have unique limitations, and when we try just to push through – when we choose to ignore our uniqueness instead of work with it – that’s when we kill ourselves. That isn’t just true for our bodies, that is true for the whole spectrum of our being.
Sometimes, the uniqueness of someone’s history, emotional makeup, and context prohibits them from reaching sustainable celibacy. That’s the way it was for me, and that’s the way it is for many people I know. I have a friend who bought chemical castration pills, had them in his hand ready to swallow them, because he felt that it was the only way to live up to his convictions. Ryan Robertson, the son of my friends Rob and Linda Robertson, ran away from home and eventually died of a drug overdose because, in part, he had absorbed the message, at the age of 17, that he was uniquely forbidden from ever having the kind of marriage relationship that his parents had so beautifully modeled. The stories are endless.
What disturbs and angers me (the caretaker and therapist in me) is what feels like the dismissal or lack of recognition of such unique blocks in people’s lives. I don’t know if it is denial or simply a worldview issue, but it troubles me, especially when the very same people who seem unwilling to accept the possibility that celibacy is destructive for some are rallying for their own acceptance as celibate gay people. The human experience of sexuality is vast – is it not vast enough to include stories of both fulfilling and destructive celibacy? Why does it have to be just one or the other? Why are we so resistant to that possibility?
We acknowledge a myriad of reasons why someone may uniquely be blocked from marriage. We look at people who have been single for decades and come to peace with the fact that, for whatever reason, the uniqueness of their situation did not allow them to marry. I am fascinated – absolutely fascinated – as to why we don’t recognize that there might also be such blocks and complexity with celibacy. Is it because we view celibacy as an ultimately passive state? Or a waiting room for marriage? Or as merely the “off setting” to marriage’s “on setting”? Whatever the reason, it reveals our underlying misunderstanding about celibacy and marriage: neither are passive states. Celibacy is just as sexual, just as active, as marriage.
Do not misunderstand me: I am not saying that all people who hold the the traditional ethic should abandon their beliefs. I am, instead, asking that people struggle more deeply with the reality of the unique blocks different people face. I am not even saying that such a struggle will result in you agreeing with me about the morality of gay marriage. Instead, I hope that such a struggle will result in something better and more compassionate than what the traditional church currently offers gay people.
The statement, “everyone can be celibate” simply does not account for the complexity of human reality. What disturbs me about the church’s “all gays must be celibate” approach is that it seems to have an utterly different, theoretical humanity in mind – a humanity that is perfect, untouched by the complexity of life’s blocks. What does that say about our theology? What does that say about how the church interacts with gay people? I fear it reveals the attitude that gay people are theoretical, a statistic rather than real human beings with complex lives. At the very least, It means that our own theology about gay people lacks the nature of Jesus the Word, Who put on flesh and walked among us, meeting the complexity of human experience with open arms.