This past Sunday, The Washington Post printed a story about the growing movement of celibate lesbian and gay Christians. One of the leaders of this movement is Eve Tushnet, a convert to Catholicism who recently published a book on celibacy and friendship entitled Gay and Catholic.
For the record, I have not read Tushnet’s book yet, but I have read other things that she has written and heard her speak. In some ways, I find her to be a very credible spokesperson for celibacy because, while embracing the orthodox Catholic position for lesbian and gay people, she never insists that everyone embrace this option. She remains non-judgmental about lesbian and gay people who choose to be part of a committed sexual relationship. Her primary form of argument is to explain why celibacy is a life-giving option for herself. I applaud both her free decision to choose celibacy and the first-person way in which she addresses the topic.
The Post article seemed to be trying to search for a controversy in this topic. For example, the reporter, Michelle Boorstein, seems to want to make it seem that celibate gay and lesbian people are not accepted by non-celibate ones. She writes:
“. . . [T]hey are also met with criticism from many quarters, including from other gays and lesbians who say celibacy is both untenable and a denial of equality.
“ ‘We’ve been told for so long that there’s something wrong with us,’ said Arthur Fitzmaurice, resource director of the Catholic Association for Lesbian and Gay Ministry. Acceptance in exchange for celibacy ‘is not sufficient,’ he said. ‘There’s a perception that [LGBT] people who choose celibacy are not living authentic lives.’ ”
I have been working in the field of LGBT Catholic ministry for over 20 years, and I honestly do not ever remember anyone ever disparaging someone’s free choice for celibacy. I disagree that a perception exists that those “who choose celibacy are not living authentic lives.” It is true that many Catholics–gay, lesbian, heterosexual–perceive forced celibacy as a person’s only moral option to be not just inauthentic, but potentially damaging. But that is different from people who freely choose celibacy as the way that will bring them most happiness and deepest connection to others and God.
Fitzmaurice’s statement that acceptance in exchange for celibacy is not sufficient is, however, a very important idea. Celibacy should never be seen as something required for adults, and it certainly shouldn’t be an “admission ticket” for church participation. I don’t disagree with Fitzmaurice here, but I do disagree with Boorstein seeing this part of his statement as an indication that celibacy is controversial.
Commenting on Boorstein’s article, Autumn Kunkel, writing at TheBGNews.com criticized this notion of celibacy as a requirement for acceptance into a faith community:
“. . . [T]here is absolutely nothing tolerant about someone saying, ‘I accept gays and lesbians as members of the Christian faith as long as they don’t have sex.’
‘This ideal, in and of itself, is homophobic and prejudiced. It’s dehumanizing.
‘It’s saying, ‘You can be an active member of this faith as long as you abide by special rules which no one else is required to follow.’
‘People who are born a certain way shouldn’t have to follow special rules just to be accepted. If they do, then they’re not really being accepted, are they?”
The controversy about celibate gay and lesbian Christians seems to come not from progressive Christians rejecting them but with conservative Christians being uncomfortable with their sexual orientation. Boorstein quotes Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who while praising the option of celibacy, also is leery of self-identified gay and lesbian people:
“. . . Mohler said he believes that sexual orientation can change ‘by the power of the Gospel.’ He said he is not comfortable with the way in which some celibate gay Christians proudly label themselves as gay or queer.”
The article notes that there has been more opportunity for people to come out as gay and lesbian people in their faith communities, and that this new social phenomenon has encouraged those who are celibate to be a part of those revelations.
Billy Hallowell, writing about Boorstein’s article at TheBlaze.com, sees that the celibate Christian movement forces people to rethink their ideas:
“Consider that embracing celibate gays forces some to concede that homosexuality might not be a choice after all; likewise, it also forces some critics to abandon the notion that it’s possible to change one’s sexuality.”
Hallowell, however, also oversteps the evidence and tries to make it seem that sexually active gay and lesbian people are at odds with those who are celibate:
“The dynamic tends to also frustrate gays and lesbians who are fighting for a level of marriage equality that would allow them to be in same-sex relationships, while also participating in church communities. To these people, celibacy simply isn’t an option.”
Again, I don’t know any gay or lesbian people who feel that sexual activity is compulsory. Quite the opposite. Having been castigated so long for their sexuality, lesbian and gay people are usually more accepting than others of a person’s freedom to live a sexual life that is most life-giving for the individual.
Celibacy, like homosexuality, is not something that a majority of people experience. As a result, like homosexuality, it can often be misunderstood, and even railed against. Let’s pray for a day when all people are comfortable expressing their sexual identities and life choices in both church and society.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry