While on the topic of singleness and celibacy, I think it would be helpful to talk about some of the practical ways that things are different for a lot of people who are celibate because they’re exclusively gay. I’ll start with my standard disclaimer that as someone who is attracted to both sexes, I am not entirely speaking out of experience. However, this is something I’ve discussed quite a bit with others, and I think my experience brings something to bear as well. I’m not trying to say that the situation of exclusively gay people is entirely unique, but there are some practical differences people don’t always think about.
Many straight Christians are celibate by choice. They may discern a specific call to celibacy as a form of dedication to God. Those who find celibacy forced upon them by circumstances, regardless of sexual orientation, will have unique difficulties. Ron Belgau offered some initial reflections on these issues in Seeds of Celibacy, and I offered some related thoughts in The Gift of Celibacy. Even in these cases, however, there are some important differences between involuntary celibacy for straight people and involuntary celibacy for gay and lesbian people.
First and foremost is the age at which people realize they’re likely facing lifelong celibacy. For a lot of straight people who just don’t find a spouse, the first significant realization comes in the 20s or 30s. Before then, they just assume they’re going to meet someone eventually. When a person is facing celibacy due to being exclusively gay, that realization can happen around puberty. One of the primary ways Christians promote abstinence is by telling teenagers that they will have more fulfilling married sex if they abstain before then. This does not work for someone who is already developing an awareness that married sex may never happen, even though he or she is facing the same hormonal surge that any other teenager faces.
There’s also the psychological weight of knowing they will likely be dealing with unwanted singleness for the rest of their lives even if they fall in love. It’s not just about the sex. Straight people know that falling in love can lead to companionship and blessing even in dating relationships, and that it may eventually lead to marriage. Not everyone has that blessing. Falling in love with someone of the same sex can not only fail to bring blessing, but can actually be a trial when a person must resist it. As Matthew Vines powerfully put it, “…within the traditional interpretation of Scripture, falling in love is one of the worst things that could happen to a gay person.” (from The Gay Debate: The Bible and Homosexuality)
We also need to be mindful that celibacy does not occur in a vacuum. When it comes to the surrounding context, there’s a lot of commonality with my experience. When you grow up in a conservative Christian home and find yourself attracted to your own sex, you get used to being talked about as the obvious example of someone who can’t really be a Christian and is political enemy number one. Though no one is mentioning you specifically because they don’t know about your sexuality, you know what they’re talking about. I’m even speaking as a virgin who has never gotten into porn. You get used to hearing about how LGBT people are these disgusting perverts who hate God and want to rape children. When the topic comes up in Christian circles, you’re used to hearing about Romans 1 and how LGBT people are those God has given over to extreme depravity. (Matt Jones mentions some of the same themes in Going Public, Part 1.) None of this makes any sense if you’re trying to follow God and maintain sexual purity, but it’s the only way so many Christians talk about anything having to do with what you’re dealing with. You can maintain some distance by realizing that you’re not really who your friends and family are complaining about, but it still hurts, and they might not have the same realization even if they knew about you. A message you definitely get is that you can’t open up about what you’re feeling or you might be ostracized, and this can lead to a lot of shame and loneliness. Feeling like you have to hide something like that is a big weight. (I touched on this a bit more in On Coming Out.)
So it’s not just the weight of celibacy, but the weight of celibacy on top of already feeling stigmatized, alone, and ashamed. And the way some Christians talk about it, people in this situation who find it difficult must really be disgusting perverts that hate God. It’s no wonder some people feel like they’re being “condemned to singleness” because they’re “not worthy of romantic love.” They’re used to being talked about as though they were subhuman, so they see any moral argument (particularly one asking them to do something difficult) from this perspective.
Eve Tushnet, who has also posted on Spiritual Friendship, has a really helpful reflection on some of what I’ve brought up at Celibacy as a Mandate. Not the Fun Kind.
Jeremy Erickson is a Ph.D. student in Computer Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He previously studied Mathematics and Computer Science at Taylor University in Upland, IN.