Some Clarifications Regarding Sexual Orientation and Spiritual Friendship

In contemporary Western culture, it’s common to describe oneself as gay, straight, or bi, depending on whether one’s sexual attractions are primarily directed to the same sex, the opposite sex, or both sexes. This way of thinking is so pervasive that it is difficult to avoid either the terminology or the assumptions behind it.

As I have said before, I think that the contrast between carnal and spiritual friendship, as described by Aelred of Rievaulx, ultimately provides a more helpful framework for understanding Christian teaching on same-sex friendship and homosexuality than the framework that categorizes people based on sexual orientation. However, sexual orientation categories are difficult to avoid. It’s not just a matter of words used: it’s also a matter of much deeper assumptions that shape the way people interpret their experience.

School of Athens

In this post, I want to examine these categories more closely. Doing so will, I hope, provide insight into why the writers at Spiritual Friendship have been willing to engage with—and how we have tried to challenge—the categories of sexual orientation and sexual identity in contemporary culture.

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Same-Sex Attraction in Real Life

The great evangelical preacher Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, “You can be so interested in great theological and intellectual and philosophical problems that you tend to forget that you are going to die.” At the heart of this admonition is, I think, a reminder that ideas and issues and controversies are only relevant as they relate to people, human beings with real lives and real souls.

Nowhere is this reminder more needed in our day than within the Christian conversation regarding same-sex attraction and homosexuality. It is so easy to discuss the “issue” of homosexuality in our culture while forgetting that gay people aren’t simply an “issue” to be sorted out. Furthermore, when we quarantine the conversation to the theoretical realm divorced from the lived experience of folks with SSA, the conversation inevitably becomes blurry, ambiguous, lacking in clarity. This is no knock on philosophy or theory; these things are needed and helpful. But pushing our musings from the realm of hypothetical reflection toward concrete examples of everyday life tends to blow away the haze and bring the fuzzy corners into focus.

Therefore, I want to take many of the ideas often discussed here at Spiritual Friendship and apply them to a real person: me. In doing so, I am not claiming that I have everything figured out or especially that I am representing the views of everyone who writes for Spiritual Friendship. I simply know my own experience best, and my hope is that this exercise will help clear up a lot of what I am and am not saying about SSA.

For this example, I will use a composite of many of my real friendships and combine them into one specific story. That story is about my friendship with Rick (fake name, real experiences).

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Three Cheers for Eve Tushnet!

Tushnet book cover

Over at Christianity Today, I’ve got a review up of our own Eve Tushnet’s new book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.

The first part of the review is my very personal story of stumbling upon Eve’s blog—now hosted by Patheos—several years ago:

Sometime in 2007 I discovered Eve Tushnet’s writing. I can’t recall exactly how I found her non-flashy, off-the-beaten-path blog, tagged with the teasing moniker “Conservatism reborn in twisted sisterhood,” but somehow I landed there, following a trail of hyperlinks. I used to read her posts in the morning, while sipping coffee, huddled over my laptop in my cell-like flat in England, when I was just starting graduate school.

Tushnet is a gay Catholic writer who embraces her church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. By the time I learned about her, I’d been admitting to myself for a few years that I was gay, though I hadn’t told many other people yet. I was still too frightened and unsure of what kind of welcome (or lack thereof) I’d receive. You know those novels and movies about the yearning, aching twentysomethings who are trying to disentangle and sort out their erotic and religious longings, while dreading loneliness and rejection above all else? That was me. Imagine Charles Ryder from Brideshead Revisited, all angsty and insecure, but with a small-town-USA upbringing, and you’ll get the picture. I needed a lifeline. I was hungry to know I wasn’t alone.

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Understanding Gender Dysphoria

A primary emphasis at Spiritual Friendship is the experience of navigating sexual identity in light of one’s Christian identity. Another topic that is often a part of cultural discussions of sex and gender is Gender Dysphoria. It is not the same thing as sexual identity, but the topic of Gender Dysphoria and the increased visibility of gender variant persons has raised questions related to how Christians engage a most complex topic and be Christ in a meaningful way to those who are navigating gender identity concerns.

Calvin - Understanding Gender Dysphoria

I was recently invited to speak on the topic of Gender Dysphoria at Calvin College in the context of the Sexuality Series held there. The talk is based on a book that is forthcoming from InterVarsity Press Academic. In this talk I define key terms, discuss prevalence and presentation, as well as some of the discussions surrounding etiology and resolutions. I also introduce three competing frameworks people rely upon in these discussions: the integrity framework, the disability framework, and the diversity framework. These are presented with reference to an integrated framework that may be useful to Christians interested in meaningful engagement and care.

In any case, here is the link to the recent talk, Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture.

Mark Yarhouse is Professor of Psychology and the Hughes Endowed Chair at Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA, where he directs the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity. He can be found on Twitter@markyarhouse.

“Brian, What Makes You Tick?”

Brian GeeIn the last few weeks, we’ve published a number of posts tackling different practical questions about celibacy, mixed orientation marriage, and committed friendship. Today, we’re introducing another mixed orientation marriage couple, Brian and Monica Gee. As with the Nate and Sara Collins interview we published last week, this post is taken, with permission, from an interview by Preston Sprinkle for his blog, Theology in the Raw. We’re grateful to Preston for being willing to share this interview with us, and encourage you to check out his blog. You can follow Brian and Monica on Twitter: @briansgee and @deliber8mama.

Preston Sprinkle: Thanks, Brian and Monica, for being willing to answer some questions on my blog. Would you mind starting off by telling us about how you both met?

Brian Gee: Thanks for having us on the blog. We’re both nerds at heart, so it’s no surprise that we first met each other through our shared Biblical Greek and Orchestra classes at a small, conservative Christian college in California. For a full semester, we knew each other from an arm’s length, but we didn’t really get to know each other. I also didn’t know that by the end of that semester, Monica had developed a crush on me.

By that point in college, I had been out as gay (actually, at the time, I would have said that I was same-sex attracted) to myself and to a growing group of others for some time, and I wasn’t looking to date or marry. Based on my conservative theology and commitments, I generally assumed I would be celibate. I remember telling God that while I also wouldn’t outright dismiss heterosexual marriage, I wouldn’t consider or look for it unless he made it very obvious that it’s what I should do.

At the start of Spring semester of 2005, I had at least eight friends in a span of two or three weeks ask me if I had considered dating Monica. The night that the eighth friend asked me, Monica and I were both at a friend’s recital. Afterward, we were standing outside the recital hall when Monica came up to me and said, “Brian Gee, what makes you tick?”

At that point, I had started to pay more attention to Monica. I wanted to know what she was all about and whether or not God was actually taking my caveat more seriously than I had thought he would. When she asked me that question, I told her that I’d need more than a couple of minutes to talk about it. That question led to our first four-hour conversation where we both realized how we were probably meant for each other. I also started to experience something I very much was not expecting—attraction to her.

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Before and After

This is the manuscript I spoke from when I gave a talk last Friday, February 6, in a chapel service at Houghton College in New York.

This morning I want to talk about before and after.

We often tell our stories using those words—before and after.

It’s the language we are given in church. “I once was lost, but now am found / Was blind, but now I see,” we sing.

Before and after.

It’s the language of our “testimonies,” if you grew up in a church that had those. “Before I came to faith, I was wandering far from God. But now, after I met Christ, I am different.”

It’s also the language of the Bible. Jesus tells a story about a young man who bilked his father for his inheritance, burned through it on wild parties and rebellious behavior, and then came to his senses, having hit rock bottom. He gets up and begins to walk home and before he can even utter an apology, his father is already stringing up the “Welcome Back” banner and catering a big feast in his honor.

Before and after.

I’d like us to spend a few minutes looking at one of the stories in the Gospels. I want to tell you my personal “before and after” story, but before I do that, I want us to hear from Jesus.

In the Fourth Gospel, chapter 9, there is a character who was born blind. And Jesus sees him on the side of the road. Turning to him, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world,” and then, memorably, he spits on the ground, makes a paste of mud and applies it to the man’s eyes, and then tells him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. “Then,” the Gospel says, “he went and washed and came back able to see.”

This is a very famous “before and after” story. But the “after” part isn’t exactly what we might expect.

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Gay, or Nay? A Question of Identity

The demand for an identity, and the injunction to break that identity, both feel, in the same way, abusive.” — Michel Foucault.

Creative Commons Copyright License - Thierry Ehrmann - Cropped borders

From 1979 to 2000 John Shelby Spong was Bishop of Newark in the Episcopal Church. Spong denied that Jesus is the sole savior of humankind and rejected the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection. Rubbishing traditional modes of belief in God’s existence, he once claimed that “theism, as a way of defining God, is dead.” Spong was a noted social liberal who affirmed the equal legitimacy of homosexual relationships, though he was not himself gay.

In 2003, Gene Robinson, who is gay, was consecrated Bishop of New Hampshire. Robinson’s consecration precipitated a schism in the Episcopal Church. Why, we might ask, was it Robinson’s consecration, and not Spong’s, that precipitated a schism?

Take another case: In Minnesota last year Catholic school teacher Kristen Ostendorf was allegedly asked to resign after she came out to her colleagues as a lesbian. After refusing to resign, Ostendorf was fired for an “unspecified reason.” Ostendorf’s case followed fast on the heels of the resignation of Bill Hudson—President of another Minnesota Catholic school—after he admitted to being in a same-sex relationship. Elsewhere in Minnesota, at least one Catholic parish appears to be celebrating non-Christian rituals, blessing stones which are claimed to be the bones of the “Earth Mother.” I don’t want to start a discussion about the politics of liturgical inculturation. But its worth asking why Catholic authorities in Minnesota appear much more anxious to remove homosexuals from positions of influence than priests who practice what seems to be a form of paganism (since I cannot imagine that the Archdiocese is keen on either).

Cases like these can be multiplied ad nauseam. It would be easy to posit simple hypocrisy as the explanation. Too easy, in fact. Something more insidious and complex is at play.

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To Celibacy!—Part 2

As I related in a recent post, I made a vow, six years ago, to be celibate. I invited a hundred friends and family together for the ceremony. Friends did a skit about my journey out of the closet, Jesse sang Orphan Girl, Dan sang If it Be Your Will, Debbie preached from Scripture and quoted Jayber Crow, and Dale officiated as I made promises. Afterwards we ate, danced, and testified.

The Closet-1

I’ve wondered if I made too big a deal of it. Did I try to valorize a simple step of obedience that God was asking me to take? Was it an enormous exercise of ego? Was it my inner drama queen coming out? Was it a jealous, “I’m gonna have my wedding day too?”

I’m sure my pride was a motivating factor. But here is the outcome I didn’t expect: on that day I felt overwhelmingly, euphorically, well-loved. I emerged from that day feeling commissioned, blessed, humbled by care, and stuffed full of grace.

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“Chaste, Gay Couples” and the Church

I’ve noticed curiosity recently about the idea of “chaste, gay couples”—couples who accept the Church’s historic teaching on sexuality, yet live together in an exclusive, committed partnership.

Celibate, LGBT, Christian couple Lindsey and Sarah have been blogging for just over a year now at A Queer Calling—an excellent resource that is popular with many people I know (including myself). Eve Tushnet devotes space to talking about “vowed friendships” in her new book Gay and Catholic (I think Tushnet is talking about something slightly different from couplehood—but this point has been lost on some of her critics). And, late last year, the Anchoress hosted a discussion at Patheos entitled, “Homosexuality, Celibacy and Partnership: An Awkward Question,” in which Ben Conroy asks:

If we accept some of the distinctions these writers [at Spiritual Friendship] have made—that to be gay is not reducible to what the catechism calls “deep-seated homosexual tendencies”, that being gay can be a call to particular, unique kinds of virtue, that the modern, Western notion of sexual and romantic partnership has appropriated kinds of love that historically were also found in non-sexual relationships—doesn’t that open up a space for the idea of a committed, lifelong, celibate partnership between two gay people as being a valid vocation, a holy thing, a place where virtue and love might flourish? [emphasis in original]

Two Friends

I can’t possibly hope to answer that question fully now, so what I offer here are two pointers for further conversation about this issue. One is positive, the other cautionary, since I’ve noticed two common reactions to the idea of chaste couplehood—firstly, censorious condemnations from right-wing Christians, but also, over-enthusiasm from some young gay Christians.

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