Last week I had a great lunch w/another gay Christian woman. We differ pretty strongly on how one follows Christ, both in terms of communion/church (she’s a Protestant) and, relatedly, in terms of chastity. But the difference which I found most striking wasn’t a difference in belief; it was our respective emotional responses to some of the terms people use to describe “my side” of the Christian discussion of sexual orientation and chastity.
My new friend described me as “single,” which for her was a neutral to positive term. “Celibate,” which is the term I usually use for myself, sounded really negative to her. I wish we’d talked about this longer, since I don’t know exactly what she associated with “celibacy”: repression, frigidity, spinsterhood, perversion? I do know what I associate with the term “single,” though: stressed-out straight women made miserable by the unhappy prospect of dating (or, and this is sometimes even worse, not dating) straight men.
That’s obviously a caricature. Plenty of my friends are single (of various sexual orientations) and leading good, fruitful lives. I know full well that “Sex and the City” isn’t a realistic depiction of single life, and neither is my morbid fantasy of a woman curled up watching “Sex and the City” with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and her seven cats. (Actually, change SATC to figure skating and that sounds like a great evening, so maybe I shouldn’t judge….) But I do associate “singleness” with yearning for a romantic relationship, worrying about relationships (why don’t I have one? what happened with my last one? should I pursue this next one?), and a certain disconnection from others. I mean, isn’t it right there in the name, single? I said in “First Things” that singleness sounds like “a rope tied only on one end,” and I basically still feel that way. [ETA: It sounds temporary, to me. That painful yearning and questioning is part of how most people end up in their actual vocations, of course, but I wouldn’t identify myself with that state as a long-term plan.]
Celibacy, by contrast, is a term with a long Christian history. It makes me think of vowed religious, who have done some of the most useful writing on making a celibate life fruitful; their writing often discusses how to integrate one’s sexuality into a celibate life, which strikes me as a notably unrepressed, un-frigid way of handling things.
But talking with this woman made me wonder if my emotional reactions are a) not the norm and b) getting in the way of my ability to communicate with others. So I guess I’ll just ask: What do you guys hear when people say “celibate” or “single”? How do you describe yourself? What do you wish you could communicate quickly when you’re describing your own vocation?
I think this is part of a bigger, future-oriented conversation about shifting our emphasis from sexual orientation as an identity category to vocation as an identity category. I really dislike the language of moving “beyond” sexual orientation, but I do hope that thirty years from now we’re identifying ourselves primarily by vocation and not by orientation. So I’d be interested in people’s thoughts on that, too.