Gay Celibacy Is the New Ex-Gay Therapy
‘Hate the sin, not the sinner’ has led evangelicals to push gay celibacy as a way to accept homosexuals. But is it any better than conversion therapy?
“I’m gayyyyyy,” Matt Jones answers when I ask him how he identifies sexually. “Add or remove one of the y’s as you see fit.”
See, Jones is gay. But the letters act as a buffer of sorts: He’s a Christian and believes that sex is reserved for marriage between one man and one woman. And therefore, though he’s attracted to men (that’s the “gay” part) he practices celibacy (that’s the “yyyyy” part).
Jones is a blogger for Spiritual Friendship, a site devoted to exploring gay celibacy, a issue of increasing interest in Christian circles.
Last fall, The Washington Post reported that gay celibates were “emerging from the shadows.” Gay Christians, it seemed, had found a new way to reconcile their faith with their sexual orientation. It also gave the somewhat misleading impression that there was this new group of gay Christians doing something that hadn’t been tried before.
However, if you strip away the culturally-sensitive language, is there any substantial difference between this new movement and earlier versions of ex-gay therapy? Is gay celibacy really just Ex-Gay 2.0? Is it the same “Love the gay/hate the gay sex” we’ve been hearing for decades, only with gentler language and bloggers?
This month, Julie Rodgers, a lesbian, who, in her own words, “lives the gay Christian questions”— i.e., she’s at times been conflicted about how her sexuality works together with her faith—made waves in many different religious communities when she came out in support of same-sex relationships. While she admittedly struggles with understanding how exactly to apply the Bible to contemporary marriage debates, Rodgers says she’s “become increasingly troubled by the unintended consequences of messages that insist all LGBT people commit to lifelong celibacy.”
"No matter how graciously it’s framed, that message tends to contribute to feelings of shame and alienation for gay Christians. It leaves folks feeling like love and acceptance are contingent upon them not-gay-marrying and not-falling-in-gay-love. When that’s the case … it’s hard to believe we’re actually wanted in our churches. It’s hard to believe the God who loves us actually likes us."
Part of what made this announcement so shocking was that Rodgers has long been associated with Christian movements that claim to help gay, lesbian, and same-sex attracted people lead God-honoring Christian lives—by encouraging them not to pursue same-sex romantic and erotic relationships.
At the beginning of her journey, over a decade ago, this meant participating in ministries that embraced some version of now-discredited “reparative therapy,” a method in which ministers attempted to “cure” gay people of their same-sex attraction.
In the last few years, however, Rodgers, like many other gay Christian leaders, has made a concerted effort to distance herself from the harsher language and dubious science of the ex-gay movement. Rather than preach that orientation change is possible, Rodgers added her voice to a growing chorus of Christians encouraging gays and lesbians to pursue celibacy.
This message led her to the chaplain’s office at Wheaton College, an evangelical institution in Illinois, where she worked with LGBT students. Though some conservatives bristled at the thought of an openly gay employee on the campus of a flagship Evangelical college, many were supportive of her post.
After all, what wasn’t to like? Rodgers was a gay person who believed homosexual activity was sinful—something that was particularly useful for conservative Christians fighting a culture war.
Once Rodgers came out in favor of same-sex relationships, she withdrew from her Wheaton position, and many Christians who in the past had been supportive of her ministry, suddenly and very publicly disagreed with her change of heart. Spiritual Friendship, the go-to blog of the gay celibacy movement, announced it was severing ties with her.
Wesley Hill, celibate Gay Christian and author of Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian, wrote about Rodgers’s decision in an op-ed in The Washington Post. Hill, an editor of the Spiritual Friendship blog, took particular issue with Rodgers’s claim that gay-celibacy advocates, regardless of how compassionately they “frame” their message, end up contributing to “feelings of shame and alienation for gay Christians.”
While he agrees with Rodgers’s point that Christian communities can sometimes be “straight up homophobic,” he disagrees that “such tragedies are the result of the traditional Christian teaching on marriage and sex in and of itself.” That is, there is nothing about preaching celibacy to gay people that is necessarily alienating to them, says Hill. Indeed, he argues, choosing celibacy can bring a gay person honor. To make his case, he refers to Jesus’ teachings on eunuchs, written about in the Gospel of Matthew:
For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have “been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
As Hill explains it, Jesus is praising both those who choose celibacy, and those who are celibate because of circumstances. Hill uses the term “unfree-obedience” to describe those in the second category—a category he metaphorically applies to gay people. “Jesus recognizes that some of us will be asked to shoulder burdens that we wouldn’t have wanted if we’d been given an option,” he says. But never fear, Hill argues, because those who choose to be metaphorical eunuchs are the ones that Jesus promises will be first in the Kingdom of Heaven.
The word “choice” is certainly an interesting one to invoke. If you believe that homosexuality is a sin, then the logical conclusion of that belief is that gay people are obligated to abstain from that sin. No amount of theological or linguistic gymnastics can get around that. This is what Rodgers was getting at.
You can see, then, why Rodgers and others feel that this message is painful for LGBT people, regardless of how compassionately it’s been framed. It obligates them to lifelong singlehood. (As some have ever so generously noted, gay and lesbian people are permitted to marry partners of the opposite sex if they wish. But even while acknowledging that this is certainly possible, the argument seems perplexing, if not downright absurd.)
So is gay celibacy the new Ex-Gay?
Alan Chambers thinks so. Chambers, former president of Exodus International, the infamous ex-gay ministry that closed its doors in 2013, told me over the phone that he doesn’t see much of a difference between Exodus’s stance in its final years and the gay celibacy movement. “From my standpoint, towards the end, we were the beginning of the celibacy movement.” That is, after realizing that orientation change wasn’t really possible, Chambers’s focus shifted to encouraging same-sex attracted people (his term) to choose celibacy.
Chambers’s tone and stance on gay people have changed over the years. Notably, he apologized for the hurt his organization caused to gay people, and he now supports gay marriage, which he sees as “a wonderful option for people of faith who want a lifelong monogamous relationship.” Still, he knows that Exodus has left an indelible strain on Christian/gay relations. And it’s that strain, he thinks, that those associated with the gay celibate movement are trying to steer clear from. The new leaders, says Chambers, remain just as rigid in their beliefs about sex and marriage as Exodus, but their names aren’t “tarnished by the reputation of an ex-gay organization.”
Jeff Chu, author of Does Jesus Really Love Me?, doesn’t think it’s accurate to call celibates the new ex-gays. For one thing, he wrote to me in an email, the movement isn’t monolithic. “There are such diverse voices among those who have felt a call to celibacy,” he said. Another difference, says Chu, is that celibates are “reluctant to push their conclusions on others.” He’s certainly right: I’ve spoken with dozens of gay celibates who, when I ask if they think homosexuality is sinful, steer the conversation in a different direction. Eve Tushnet, for example, a Catholic and a celibate lesbian, prefers to discuss celibacy in terms of vocation. That is, she writes, just as it is for Catholic priests in the Western rite, celibacy for gays is “a consequence of vocation + circumstances, not (necessarily) a calling in itself.”
Jones, the gayyyyyy blogger, also thinks calling gay celibacy the new ex-gay is, while not “entirely wrong, still “an unfair caricature.” To him, the biggest difference has to do with responsibility. While ex-gay philosophy makes change the sole responsibility of the gay person, gay celibates call for the entire Christian community, gay and straight, to transform into safe, welcoming places for sexual minorities. Writes Jones, “Unless the switch from the ex-gay narrative to the … narrative of celibacy/chastity coincides with a shift in one’s understanding of church community and personal responsibility, then the ‘traditional sexual ethic’ becomes a rather cruel farce, a perpetuation of unequal power structures and shame.”
Again, the framing, which is both theologically sound and not discernibly homophobic, seems affirming enough, but at its heart is the conviction that homosexual activity is sinful.
When I asked Hill over the phone if he believed homosexuality was sinful, he went to great lengths to avoid that word. Instead, he told me that he believed same-sex attraction is an effect of the fall. In other words, when Adam and Eve sinned, creation became broken—same-sex orientation, to Hill, is just one example of that brokenness.
One thing that leaders of various gay celibacy movements prize themselves on is affirming the gay identities of those in their ranks. And in this respect, Chu is right: They are incredibly different than the many ex-gay ministries who taught their members that orientation change was possible.
But if the theological bedrock informing gay celibates’ “choice” to abstain from sex and romance is that the desire for those things is itself disordered, in what sense can the world “affirming” truly be used?
Last week, I wrote an article in Pacific Standard arguing that the Bible, no matter how inspired, is still a product of its ancient Near Eastern context. And as such, Christians aren’t compelled to follow every jot and tittle of its admonitions against homosexuality, just like we aren’t obligated to believe in a literal seven-day creation. Conservative Christians took to Twitter to rebut my argument, as I expected. I was taken aback, however, when they started tweeting about me as a “gay Christian,” the scare quotes intended to cast dispersion on one or both of those descriptions. Others referred to me as a “self-identified gay Christian,” obviating the fact that they disagree with my self-description.
To me, any ministry that advises gay people that they are obligated by Christ to abstain from same-sex sexual activity, even within the context of marriage, is guilty of putting gay people’s identities in scare quotes. No matter how much it claims to affirm a person’s gay identity, the belief about the innate brokenness of homosexual desire—regardless of how it’s framed—gives it the lie.