As I’ve struggled through questions of faith and homosexuality and arrived at a more affirming position, I have found myself on the receiving end of some persistent and annoying assumptions. Granted, some of these might be stereotypes of affirming gay people for a reason, but I feel that these assumptions become blocks, disengaging people from the uncomfortable and redeeming act of listening to each other.
While I can’t even begin to address all of the assumptions people make about gay people, I will go ahead and list the ones I most frequently run into here.
1. I believe marriage is easy.
I cannot count the times I’ve heard variations of this particular narrative; and I even used it myself when I was non-affirming. It goes something like this: “look, I know you are in pain. I know perpetual singleness is hard, and that you struggle every day with loneliness. But you think that marriage will somehow make that better. You think that (as one friend of mine said to my face) marriage is a silver bullet for all your loneliness and sexual frustration.”
Here’s what I actually believe about marriage and loneliness: that nothing in all this world will ever fully cure us of loneliness, not even someone sharing your life, your bed, your body and your soul. Nothing will ever take away that cold, dark pit of loneliness we feel as we fall asleep at night. It may fluctuate, it may grow or shrink with the seasons of our life, and there may be whole seasons or even years when we don’t notice it at all. But it will never be cured. Saying marriage (or any other relationship) cures the human condition of loneliness is like saying sweet tea cures cancer. Only God can meet us in our deepest loneliness – if marriage, parenthood, or friendship could, then we would be worshiping each other, not God.
I don’t believe that marriage is easy, or a way out. Sometimes, marriage means a commitment to anguish, frustration, sacrifice, and very little fulfillment – and that is just as true for gay people as it is for straight people. I’ve seen too many marriages to believe that marriage is easy or pretty. It is not, and never has been a way out.
What I do believe about marriage: that it is sacramental, and maybe even a sacrament. That it is absolutely, gloriously beautiful. That it is sacred. That it is worth it. That, even though it is not easy and does not satisfy our loneliness, some people will shrivel up and die without it. That, for some people, the anguish of marriage is somehow better and healthier and holier than the pain and anguish of being single or celibate. That this does not make them weak, or spiritually immature, just beautifully human.
I believe that our need for marriage and friendship reflects the mystery of Adam in the garden: Adam lived in perfect intimacy with God and creation, but such perfection and intimacy could not fulfill his need for a partner and community. God did not respond to his loneliness as so many modern Christians do by saying, “you just need to develop a better prayer life.” Instead, God gave him Eve. In the perfection of Eden, God created Adam with a need that had to be fulfilled in a tangible, physical way by someone other than God, but someone who could only be provided by God. I believe that it’s complicated – wonderfully, unfathomably, beautifully complicated.
2. I believe that celibacy means loneliness (AKA, I don’t value friendship enough.)
I heard this one bounced around all the time when I was in non-affirming gay communities commited to celibacy. The reasoning goes: “most people place all their hope for love and fulfillment into marriage, and believe that being committed to celibacy means having no one who is a soul-mate, a Jonathan to your King David, a Roland to your Oliver. That it means living a life deprived of intimacy, family, community, love, and relational fulfillment.”
It may be true that many people believe this, but I don’t. I never have. I believe that a life without intimate, spiritual friendship is a life of deep poverty. I would rather have many great friends who knew my soul like their own than have a spouse but live in relational isolation.
While I may be single, I am not lonely. I have friends whom I call “beloved” and “soul-mate” without shame, without any marital, erotic or romantic implications. But none of this displaces my deep, soul-level need for a partner with whom I can share not just my soul but also my body. One does not fulfill the other.
Human love is infinitely complex, and I wonder, at times, if it is like an ecosystem. There are different species of love, and they simply cannot replace each other. Love is not a single entity, but a vast diversity. Saying that friendship should satisfy my need for marital love is like saying friendship should fulfill my need for the love of a father, or a mother, or that loving a best friend should take the place of loving my own child – or that food should satisfy my thirst, or water my hunger. The loves are different, and most people will not be able to substitute one for the other. Those who can substitute one for the other might have the remarkable gift of sustainable celibacy. But I certainly couldn’t, and now that I am no longer closed to the possibility of romantic love, I find that I am capable of loving my friends more fully.
3. I didn’t do celibacy “the right way”
At the end of the day, many people assume that I walked away from a commitment to lifelong celibacy and opened myself to the possibility of a monogomous partnership because I did celibacy wrong. They assume that I had the wrong attitude, that I didn’t pray the right prayers, that I over valued romance and marriage and undervalued community and friendship, that I didn’t practice sufficient spiritual disciplines. Some have even assumed that I didn’t submit to God in the “right way,” and I did He would finally step in and empower me to be celibate in a way that didn’t involve excessive amounts of self-loathing, cutting, or suicidal ideation.
Of all the assumptions out there, this one might hurt the most. After fighting to the death to do celibacy in a sustainable way, there was nothing harder or more terrifying than choosing to walk away and open myself to the possibility of marriage. It felt like treason, like betrayal, like heresy. I also knew that my life of celibacy wasn’t much good to God if I ended up dead. That wasn’t the hill I wanted to die on.
And let me be clear: it was not the pain of chastity or singleness that broke me. Do not confuse the pain of mandatory lifelong celibacy with the universal, necessary, and redemptive struggles of chastity and singleness, as so many well-intentioned Christians do. After nearly dying on the hill of mandatory celibacy, the pain of chastity feels like the breath of life: it is sustainable, and there is redemption, purpose and hope in the pain when it does become a cross to carry (which, for me is often.) I still believe what I used to about sex: that all are called to chastity, both within marriage and outside of marriage, and that sex is only appropriate in a marriage covenant bond. While that used to crush me, it now brings me life.
At the end of the day, I did try. But it didn’t work. I knew all the answers, knew all the prayers, but they couldn’t save me. That might be because I did it wrong, or it might be because “it is better for a man to marry than to burn with passion.” I could not find a way to live a celibate life without internalized shame and suppressing my sexuality to a dangerous degree. Please accept that, and don’t make assumptions about how I didn’t measure up. If I did fail, if I did have shortcomings, acknowledge them not because of assumptions you’ve made about my journey, but because you have taken the time to engage with my unique story.
Most importantly, let’s try to engage with each others’ true narratives instead of the ones we imagine – the imaginary stories that make more sense, that make us more comfortable, that make our own excuses for our own lives more sensible. Our assumptions are ultimately made at the expense of our brothers and sisters.