Gay Boys and Their Evangelical Parents

While in Arkansas this past weekend for a belated Thanksgiving, I went with my parents to see Boy Erased, the film version of Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name about surviving a stint in a now-shuttered ex-gay treatment program in Memphis, Tennessee called Love in Action.

Conley’s story is in some ways discomfitingly similar to mine. He was the son of a Baptist preacher in Arkansas and realized he was gay sometime during his teenage years. I was the son of the most devout lay Baptists you could imagine, and, also from Arkansas, I knew I was gay from about the age of 13. My own brush with so-called “conversion therapy” was negligible compared to Conley’s, but I did imbibe a lot of its ideas over the radio waves during my adolescence. As I would later write when I was in my mid-twenties:

I remember listening to James Dobson’s Focus on the Family radio broadcast occasionally with my mother as we rode somewhere in the car together. My ears would perk up when the subject of homosexuality came up, which it did often, since this was the mid-’90s, and the “gay rights” movement was gaining steam. Dobson talked a lot about the “causes” of homosexuality — childhood sexual abuse, an emotionally distant father, the absence of affectionate male role models. I remember scrutinizing my past and present experiences. Did I fit these categories? I had never been sexually abused by anyone, let alone my parents. Was I close enough to my dad? I could think of one time I tried to initiate a weekly time of reading Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline with him and praying together, but it flopped. Plus, I never learned to play golf with him, nor did I want to take up deer hunting, as he seemed to hope I would sometimes. Did that mean I was suffering from a lack of paternal intimacy?

Dobson was one of the biggest promoters of the kind of therapeutic approaches depicted harrowingly and powerfully in Boy Erased. He advocated a popularized, lightly Christianized version of the Freudian origin story for same-sex desire. If homosexuality in boys is traceable to the toxic cocktail of an overbearing mother and a distant father, then it stood to reason that it could be treated — or even prevented. (Dobson viewed this as a compassionate, pastoral approach compared to the one that said to gay people, “You’re choosing to be gay, so, just stop it.”)

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Weariness

We don’t attach other modifiers to our Christian faith when the modifier in question originates with sin or natures that are the product of the fall. We should no more endorse “gay Christianity” or “gay identity” than we should alcoholic Christianity, racist Christianity, or slanderous Christianity. We ought not modify our Christian walk with attributes born of fallen desires.

That’s from Andrew Walker’s review of David Bennett’s new book A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus. I can’t tell y’all how weary I am of hearing that criticism from my fellow traditionalist Christians.

In the first place, it takes no account of the way we “Side B” folks have qualified — again and again and again and… — what “gay” means to us. David himself qualifies it carefully in his book:

The word gay does not necessarily refer to sexual behavior; it can just as easily refer to one’s sexual preference or orientation and say nothing, one way or the other, about how one is choosing to express that orientation. So, whereas “stealing Christian” describes a believer who actively steals as an acted behavior, “gay Christian” may simply refer to one’s orientation and nothing more. This is why I rarely, if ever, use the phrase gay Christian without adding the adjective celibate, meaning committed to a life of chasteness in Christ. To call myself a celibate gay Christian specifies both my sexual orientation and the way I’m choosing to live it out.

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Herald of the Good News

Over a lunch last summer, a new friend and I discovered that we had a mutual friend in David Bennett, a current doctoral student at Oxford and a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. I have known David for a few years as a thoughtful writer and a delightfully larger-than-life personality. He has written powerfully about his conversion from atheism — he worked as a non-religious gay activist in his native Australia before migrating to the UK — to Christianity. And, as someone who accepts the historic Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality, David has also written movingly about his calling to a life of celibacy and the way he tries to live out that calling in community.

As we swapped anecdotes about David, my new friend paused and said, “At heart, David is an evangelist.” I immediately nodded. Although David is many things (a catholic reader, a charismatic “prayer warrior,” an enthusiastic host and friend-maker), he is, above all, someone who loves those who don’t (yet) love Jesus. He is, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, a herald of the good news. He wants you to know that Jesus has invaded his life — and can transform yours too.

His conversion memoir, A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus, releases today, and I hope you’ll consider reading it. Here is what I wrote for the back cover:

Imagine a gay comedian like Stephen Fry writing a conversion memoir like C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy or Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy, and you’ll have some idea of the laughter and the tears that await you in these exuberant, aching, Jesus-obsessed pages. David Bennett has found that, far from eliminating his love for men, Christ’s call to take up his cross and follow the path of celibacy has led him deeper into love. David’s story of embracing that call is disarming, captivating, and — most of all — hope-giving.

I mean that endorsement, and I hope it might entice you to pick up the book.

And congratulations to you, David, on your pub day!

Loneliness and the Celibate Gay Christian

Solitary TreeThis is a guest post by Julia Sadusky, a doctoral candidate in the Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology at Regent University, where she previously served as the Research Assistant for the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity and completed clinical rotations in the Sexual and Gender Identity Clinic. Julia recently defended her dissertation, which was a qualitative study of loneliness among celibate gay Christians.


My dissertation, “Loneliness and the Celibate, Gay Christian,” delved into the lives of individuals navigating the intersection of faith and same-sex sexuality, in order to understand their experience of celibacy, loneliness, and coping. I hope to share some of the findings, which may have relevance to some of the Spiritual Friendship readership.

Purpose & Methods:

The aim was to understand the experience of loneliness for Christian sexual minorities who are not involved in sexual relationships. All participants were adult Christians experiencing same-sex sexuality who made a commitment to celibacy five or more years ago. After asking participants open-ended questions, each case was analyzed individually, by constructing themes based on the consensus of a team including the principal investigator, multiple coders, and an external auditor, according to an analysis process called Consensual Qualitative Research (CQR.) Due to the limited research in this area, open-ended prompts allowed participants to describe their experience more vividly.

Research Questions:

Within the study, four research questions were asked: 1) What factors contribute to the decision to choose celibacy for those who do so? 2) Do celibate, gay Christians who commit to celibacy experience loneliness as a result of their decision to forego same-sex sexual relationships? 3) What are the impacts of loneliness for those who report it? 4) What coping skills have celibate, gay Christians used in coping with loneliness and which of these have they found helpful?

Who we interviewed:

We interviewed fourteen participants between the ages of 18 and 60+. There was an even split with regard to gender and denomination (Roman Catholic and Protestant participants). When it came to the use of labels, participants varied. Two did not use any sexual identity label (gay, same-sex attracted, lesbian), although they reported same-sex sexuality. Some individuals privately labeled themselves as “gay” to describe their enduring same-sex attractions, but publicly identified as same-sex attracted or allowed others to assume heterosexuality.  Some individuals previously identified as gay, but at the time of the study no longer used that label.

Relevant Factors in Pursuit of Celibacy:

The most commonly reported factors that impacted the pursuit of celibacy were personal faith, one’s view of celibacy, social influences, and interpretation of scripture around marriage and sexuality. For personal faith, one participant said, “I am abstinent because I know that God loves me.  That is who I am, and I do not have to change anything for God to love me… And my way to love God, you know, my reaction of being loved is in loving God back, and in doing so, I would like to follow his teachings.  And these Christian teachings say that same-sex attraction is okay but the action, using your sexual/genitals, is not the way that God intended it to be.”

When it came to view of celibacy, most participants felt celibacy was a choice they made. For one female participant, “…obviously it’s a requirement for a Christian to live sexually as is prescribed in scripture which is in marriage between a man and a woman…  It’s still my choice whether or not to do it.  I mean I can choose any number of things that are outside of a biblical way of living and this is just one more of those that I have chosen to live without.” Others perceived celibacy as a calling or a spiritual discipline, much like fasting, or the only viable option in light of enduring experiences of same-sex attraction. When it came to social influences, the primary source of this was one’s faith community. Less common supports, although they were integral for those who reported them, included mentors, spiritual directors, ministry groups, and role-models.

Attributions about Experience of Loneliness:

The next research question asked whether or not participants attributed their experiences of loneliness to their state in life as celibate, single Christians. Research describes loneliness as a universal experience, although celibate Christian sexual minorities could be more at risk for loneliness since intimate partners serve as a buffer against loneliness. All but one of the participants attributed their experiences of loneliness to celibacy. The lack of intimate relationships, and the lack of companionship and lack of sexual intimacy that are part of those intimate relationships resulted in loneliness. Another common theme was that, being celibate made forming community much more difficult, in that there is a lack of societal structure for celibacy. They were often not well-accompanied by the church because of their status as single people, as sexual minorities, and as celibate people. One participant said, “…we have got the theological reasoning down pat, in terms of the fact that gay people shouldn’t be getting married and having sex. But the church, we the church have failed because we don’t have the intermediate structures institutionally to make that a plausible, livable, life choice and option for a lot of people.”

At the same time, participants made other attributions for their experience of loneliness, indicating it as a universal experience (“…Loneliness is just a very human feeling.  Everyone will feel [it] in their lifetime in many times.  I think it is a signal or indicator that you desire to be connected to something meaningful,”) as a result of low social support, or as a consequence of marginalization that would exist whether they were celibate or not (“I am no more lonely as a celibate person as I was when I was sexually active.”)

Aspects of Life Impacted By Loneliness:

When identifying aspects of life impacted by loneliness, participants noted: universal impacts, social impacts, psychological impacts, spiritual impacts, and physical impacts (exhaustion, difficulty sleeping). Social impacts included isolation from others, dissatisfaction with friendships or community they do have, a perceived lack of belonging (“…I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere… I wasn’t straight, I wasn’t gay, I wasn’t married, I wasn’t…wasn’t…wasn’t”) and, conversely, perceived closeness with others, in the event that loneliness drove them to reach out for support.

Psychological effects were both cognitive and emotional. When lonely, individuals might reconsider celibacy, be hyperaware of singleness and ruminate on this, and negatively self-evaluate as a result of their feelings of loneliness. Participants described a range of negative affective experiences, such as sadness, feelings of powerlessness, self-pity, hopelessness, lack of motivation, depressed mood, and suicidal thoughts. Conversely, some reported increased motivation to mitigate loneliness through reaching out to God or others, despite the negative state they were in.

When it came to spiritual impacts, some participants spoke of distance from God (“…it’s feeling that you are not capable of facing your problems.  And then, it can sort of spiral so that you also feel really distant from God and that is really painful and distressing.  Because kind of obviously, if you aren’t capable of handling your problems, God is, but if God also feels super far away, then it is hard to know who you can turn to,”) and others reported increased intimacy with God (“… I don’t think that I would have the intimacy with God that I have now. I can definitely see his guiding hand in bringing these difficulties into my life and this difficulty in particular, because it has really pressed me toward him…”) For one person, loneliness led to an acute longing for heaven (“…stuff in this world is not the way it is supposed to be.  And we are yearning forward to a goal that has not yet been completed or achieved, um.  I think I have a more acute longing for heaven than other people I know and encounter, um, because there is something pretty substantial in my life that I don’t have that many other people do have.  And so I do look toward that in that way…”)

Coping with Loneliness:

The final research question explored helpful and unhelpful coping skills to manage loneliness. When it came to helpful coping skills, there were general coping strategies (engaging in enjoyable activities, reading, occupation, volunteering/service, physical activity/exercise, projects/chores, travel, Netflix, and creative expression through art, journaling, and poetry reading), cognitive coping strategies (reframing circumstances, using gratitude to call to mind what they  appreciate about life, focusing on the present moment, focusing on the needs of those around them and serving others, and gaining insight into triggers of loneliness), social coping strategies (investing in friendships or pursuing new friendships, group involvement through ministry groups or, as one person put it, “…find(ing) your people…I interact with people who are also gay/lesbian/transgender/nonbinary and share their struggles…I try to make multiple communities, in different things that I identify myself with. This helps a lot with loneliness.  I don’t really feel lonely.  I have people who care about me.”)

Other strategies included religious/spiritual coping strategies (religious practices, whether communally through worship, prayer and sacraments, or individual through prayer and spiritual readings, faith community involvement, Christian friendships and spiritual direction, experiences of intimacy with God in prayer by way of identifying with Christ’s suffering or seeing their relationship with God as spousal), and coping through self-disclosure of sexual identity: (“the greatest defense against loneliness is giving people the chance to know you…when I feel known, I feel less lonely…it always is really cathartic and really meaningful,”) and psychological interventions, such as therapy and medication.

When it came to unhelpful coping, the most common were compulsive behaviors (overeating, pornography, masturbation, excessive shopping, substance abuse), isolation, and unhelpful thoughts (rumination, negative self-talk). Others included lashing out at others and self-harm behaviors. These are labeled unhelpful in that they ended up, in the long-term, increasing the loneliness participants felt, even if they relieved loneliness temporarily.

Where do we go from here?

The results of the study show that many of the participants lacked a support system where they felt that they belonged fully. Without a nuclear family as they got older, there were fears of the sustainability of singleness, especially in bouts of loneliness. Participants highlighted that, even more than the lack of a romantic partner, it was the lack of access to supports that many married people have, such as avenues for intimacy, companionship, healthy models of celibacy, and a vision for a future they could thrive in, that made celibacy challenging. Participants showed that loneliness often leads to negative thoughts of self and affective experiences that make engaging in meaningful relationships difficult. Participants described this as a domino effect, where their focus on self led to negative beliefs about themselves and negative expectations of their future.  The positive impacts of loneliness included the opportunity for personal growth through painful moments, increased closeness with God and others, and increased motivation to mitigate loneliness.  When it comes to coping, social coping offered the sense that a person uniquely belonged. For Christian sexual minorities, though, there are barriers to social coping, such as the fact that, in Christian circles, there is more emphasis on the value of romantic relationships over singleness and building community hinges on having nuclear family. While self-disclosure facilitates intimacy with community, many participants did not engage in this, for fear of rejection from others.

Addressing Mental Health

It seems that few participants looked to therapy as a means of coping with loneliness. Therapy could be an excellent space to begin to address compulsive behaviors which exacerbate loneliness, incorporate principles such as gratitude and reframing circumstances to challenge negative thoughts that can come with loneliness, identify triggers of loneliness (such as attending weddings), developing a plan for engaging in meaningful connections when lonely, and considering religious practices that are personal and/or communal to engage in.

A Need for Discipleship

Christian churches can play an essential role in helping celibate Christians navigate loneliness, but there is much work to be done in this regard. Pastoral care ought to attend to the whole person, considering both short-term and long-term negative and far-reaching impacts of loneliness, making referrals to mental health professionals when necessary.  It is important to be attentive to the way loneliness can hurt one’s sense of closeness with God and others in their community, making the very strategies that help manage loneliness difficult to access.

It is clear that celibate sexual minorities are hesitant to share their experience of loneliness, for fear of disclosing their sexual orientation to their church family. Few turn to means such as mentoring, spiritual direction, or Christian friendships as they cope with loneliness. Many fear burdening others or expect negative reactions if they share about their same-sex sexuality, and thus suffer their loneliness in isolation. It would be beneficial for sexual minorities to experience faith communities where there is openness to dialogue that normalizes loneliness as a universal experience, without negating the unique challenges they face.  Participants often felt so unique that they could not be offered discipleship, as if they were the only ones struggling to feel like they belong, perpetuating the loneliness they already feel.

Drawing from distinctively Christian themes

There are valuable Christian themes that helped individuals make meaning out of loneliness and cope with it without a loss of faith or purpose. Meaning-making buffered against negative thinking patterns such as “I am defective” or “I will always be alone.” In the face of loneliness, seeing one’s relationship with God as spousal, and identifying with Christ’s own suffering were unifying experiences that helped lessen the effects of loneliness. It was also helpful to normalize the moments of perceived distance from God. This validated that individuals were not deficient or lacking faith when they felt lonely or far from God in their suffering. Some participants found solace in historical Christian reflections on the redemptive value of suffering, even when suffering is unwanted and does not seem to have an expiration date on this side of eternity. Rediscovering the value of celibacy and singleness, seeing these states in life as opportunities to serve Christ and others, and inviting the church to embody a “family” are other essential steps in making celibacy a sustainable and life-giving reality for those who pursue it. Without these, Christian sexual minorities are left to wonder how they could live out the life they believe God has called them to, and thrive within that call.

Limitations:

Limitations of this study include, convenience sampling, which puts constraints on the generalizeability to individuals who do have access to the supports of the ministry organizations. Further, the sample was mostly homogenous in terms of race and educational level. Biases also limit the findings, such as the fact that the data relies on self-report about the experience of loneliness. Much is left to be understood about how to come alongside those integrating their faith and sexuality in this way, and the hope is that future research will help us in this endeavor.

10 Surprising Facts about the 1980 RPCES Report on ‘Homosexual Christians’

When the northern Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod joined the predominantly southern Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) in 1982, the RPCES brought with them 189 churches including historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia (many of these churches with elected deaconesses) and 400 ordained clergy with names like Francis Schaeffer, David Jones and Robert G. Rayburn to join the PCA’s own 480 pastors. They also brought with them Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia and Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.

And they brought with them a position paper on Homosexual Christians.

As regional presbyteries investigate recent goings-on in St. Louis to support believers who are “same-sex attracted” or “gay,” it might be helpful for us to consider the historical backdrop of our churches. Before we perceive a “slippery slope” in the language some have used recently concerning sexuality, consider these 10 things that were true in our RPCES churches back in 1980. Many of our local Missouri Presbytery (PCA) churches were originally RPCES, and 38 years later, there remains incredible continuity in Missouri Presbytery’s current perspective and the 1980 RPCES report on homosexuality. This study offers a window on conservative evangelicalism before either the culture war or the ex-gay movement had picked up steam.

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Crying Out To Heaven For Vengeance: Catholic Reflections on Scripture, Sodom, and Justice

Then the Lord said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry which has come to me; and if not, I will know.” – Genesis 18:20-21 (RSVC)

Sodom and the City of God

Introduction: Principles and Consistency

One of the defining moments in my Catholic education was the realization that Church teaching on sexual ethics formed a sort of “seamless garment”, unified by an internal logic that accounts for every sexual prohibition – from contraception, to masturbation, to homosexuality – in a fairly intuitive manner. For when analyzing sexual activity itself from a Catholic “natural law” perspective, if the procreative dimension can be eliminated as optional and a barrier can legitimately be placed between the man and the woman, then the body of each person is related to the other as little better than any other physical body. At that point, it hardly seems to make a significant difference if the man derives sexual pleasure from a woman, or his own hand, or an inanimate object, or even the bodies of multiple other people. Provided that all persons involved freely consent, the objective difference between any two non-procreative actions becomes so thin as to render them nearly morally equivalent. Sever the link to procreation at the start, and all of the philosophical “natural law” objections to traditionally forbidden sexual activities slowly (but inevitably, and logically) collapse, with nothing but personal preference and consent to hold it back.

Thus, I came to value the Catholic approach to sexual ethics as something built on an airtight logic, according to which it would be impossible for the Church to abandon its condemnation of contraception or homosexual activity without (inevitably, and logically) surrendering everything it has always taught about the necessary procreative dimension of sexual activity.[1] As an ethic that is not the least bit arbitrary in its details, but rather is seamlessly tied together through and through, we can see that the whole thing must stand or fall together. Reject the argument that sexual activity has any fundamental or indispensable and natural link to procreation – as our culture has done at least since the sexual revolution – and the inexorable result (apart from appeals to Scripture) is a radical new path toward embracing the conclusion that everything can be permitted. The only remaining moral condition is that there must be genuine consent from all involved, such that no individual is harmed, exploited, or otherwise violated against their will. This much, at least, is still observed by our culture as an intuitive moral principle.

To the traditionally minded Catholic, however, an awkward tension quickly presents itself. On the one hand, the moral difference between homosexual and contraceptive and masturbatory actions seems to be very thin: for all such actions are considered illicit, intrinsically and gravely disordered, on account of the same fundamental rationale. And yet, homosexual actions are frequently identified as something far worse than the others: for the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is one of only four sins described in Scripture as “crying out to heaven for vengeance”. In this essay I will explore the foundation of that tension, and attempt to articulate an interpretive lens that can offer a principled resolution.

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Review: What Does It Mean to Be Welcoming?

What does it mean to be welcoming

Travis Collins’ new book What Does It Mean to Be Welcoming: Navigating LGBT Questions in Your Church (IVP Press, 2018) starts with fairly basic points:

  • We are speaking about people, not mere issues. “This conversation, however, is not about dispassionate topics, academic subjects, and isolated matters.” He declares, “This is a conversation about people — people created in the image of God. People who love and are loved.”
  • The conversations are complex, our motives are complex, our denominations and congregations, which can be complex in their diversity, are all things pastors and all those in the life of Christ’s church must contend.

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How to Evade the Real Issues

In the weeks following the Revoice Conference, quite a number of critical responses have focused on “identity.” The primary objection seems to be that we make being LGB into an “identity,” which isn’t a biblical way to talk. As I’ve written before, it’s not clear what our critics mean by “identity.” What exactly is the objection? Oftentimes, it just seems to be using words or phrases like “gay” or “sexual minority” in reference to ourselves; the same objections do not usually arise regarding those who use “same-sex attracted” instead.

rosariarevoice

Rosaria Butterfield claims that many of us are “not converted” and “cannot have union with Christ” because we have “made an identity” out of our sexuality. (Source)

This has always struck me as an odd way to argue, and I have wondered why ideas around “identity” and “ontology” are so frequently central to criticism of Revoice and Spiritual Friendship. I do think there are legitimate concerns surrounding identity, and in particular how we are to view ourselves as Christians. And those of us who contribute to Spiritual Friendship are fallible humans who may get these questions wrong at times. But I’ve found that at least in some cases, there is more going on than the “iron sharpens iron” discussion I would hope we can have. Continue reading

More Reflections on Revoice

Today over at First Things, I’ve got a piece up reflecting on this year’s Revoice conference, which was the highlight of my summer. Here’s a snippet:

In a line that’s become a kind of mantra among Revoice attendees and presenters, the celibate lesbian Catholic writer Eve Tushnet has said: “[Y]ou can’t have a vocation of not-gay-marrying and not-having-sex. You can’t have a vocation of No.” What Revoice offers—and, please God, will go on offering for years to come—is a way of thinking Christianly about homosexuality and other non-straight sexual orientations that moves beyond enumerating the sins we’re called to renounce. Revoice is trying to pose the deeper question: To which forms of love and friendship and service are we called to say yes?

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Where Else Could We Go? Reflections on #Revoice18

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” – John 6:68

Revoice Worship

As other reflections start to trickle in and I’ve had the chance to consider what the past few days of the Revoice conference have meant to me, I keep coming back to the words of Simon Peter in the Gospel of John, words that were echoed multiple times in different seminars, testimonies, and conversations over the weekend. They come after one of Jesus’ hardest teachings—one so difficult that many of his followers turn away: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,” Jesus says, using such seemingly uncareful language that later on the Romans would accuse the early church of practicing cannibalism.

In one sense Peter’s confession is not particularly encouraging—in fact it feels like a sort of backhanded compliment. “Yes Jesus we’ll keep following you, because there isn’t any other better option”—the apparent implication that if there was, the disciples would be right there with the rest of Jesus’ followers whose retreating backs were all that remained of their loyalty. And yet Peter’s declaration of allegiance to Christ contains the very thing that holds any of us near to Christ despite sin, suffering, and opposition: “You have the words of eternal life.”

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