I’ve written before about how often gay or same-sex attracted people are treated as if the central spiritual and moral issues of our lives are all sexual. For some reason this story strikes me as the most poignant example. But we’re subjected to so many demands that we repeat, “I’m chaste! I’m celibate!” in order to earn an uncertain welcome in the church.
Some straight Christians seem to view everything we bring to our churches solely through the lens of our sexuality. I just heard a couple heartbreaking stories from friends who were told that the abuse they had suffered, or their struggles with addiction, were the result of their homosexuality. I’ve had friends whose pastors assessed friendships and other relationships solely on the basis of whether they helped the friend remain chaste—as if chastity were the only virtue, and friendship was a sort of chastity accountability partnership. Basically, gay people are sometimes treated as if all our experiences are unusually sexually-charged, and all our relationships are either a) focused solely on chastity, or b) near occasions of sin.
This sexualization harms us (and our churches) in a lot of ways.
It makes gay or same-sex attracted people afraid of intimacy, because every close relationship with someone of the same sex could be a temptation to sexual sin. It leads us to doubt God’s love for us, because we’re set apart from other Christians, treated as eternal outsiders no matter how much we strive to prove ourselves. (It can make our relationship with God and with the church become all about proving ourselves, or proving our chastity, rather than helping us trust that God and church are there for us when we fail.) It can lead us to ignore other sins and temptations we experience, such as temptations to despair or to self-righteousness.
It reduces us to our sexuality, which is dehumanizing.
And what I find sort of grimly ironic is that the assumption that gay people’s spiritual and moral problems center around chastity makes chastity harder.
I think there are two main ways that this happens. First of all, if your attention is constantly being drawn to the ways in which a relationship may become sexually-charged, guess what? You are more likely to associate that relationship with sex. When you’re constantly scrutinizing your emotions and reactions for any hint of sexual attraction (don’t think of a sexy elephant!), your response to every sensual stimulus becomes as if inflamed. Everything is heightened, frightening, thrilling in a terrifying kind of way.
I don’t know if everyone reacts this way. But I think it’s relatively common. One reason I really like the practice that, whenever I notice that I’m attracted to a woman, I (try to remember to) thank God for her beauty, is that it makes attraction less inflamed, less overwhelming. I get to rest in gratitude, instead of enduring the unresting scrutiny of my emotions. I recall that God loves me and I can trust Him. This mindset is quiet and calm, not intent on attainment of perfection through personal effort. It’s a mindset which I think is relatively conducive to chastity.
The other reason that the sexualization of gay or same-sex attracted Christians makes it harder for us to be chaste is that it causes us to choose loneliness and fear instead of relationship with others. When people are stressed, anxious, and alone, one obvious coping mechanism is lust. When we flee other people because they might tempt us, we often learn that we brought more than enough temptation in our own heads.
A final note: Ron saw an earlier draft of this post and said that it could be part of a series: “What you’re doing pastorally is probably self-defeating”! We could certainly add more examples, e.g. “Making marriage the only intelligible adult Christian vocation is bad for marriage”….
Eve Tushnet Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at Patheos and is working on a book on vocations for gay Catholics. She can be followed on Twitter: @EveTushnet
I recently made some similar comments about avoiding knee-jerk reactions to seeing attractive people in my last blog post–I agree running away and pretending not to notice is far less healthy than situating the attraction toward something good and beautiful within the context of our creator.
God bless you Eve and everyone in Spiritual Friendship. I have learned so much from you and, because of you, I feel so much more prepare to open my heart and mind to people of all sorts but particularly gay people. Thank you.
I really want to see the other posts in the “sexy elephant” tag.
I personally don’t understand what is sinful about it. I’m trying to, but I’ve never heard an argument that makes sense to me. But what’s really baffling is how pastors attribute self-harm and suicide among LGBT youth to the damaging effects of that “lifestyle,” when really it’s about the rejection and bullying they receive after coming out.
Do you think that pre-marital sex is wrong? Because it is about the same as gay sex…
That really doesn’t answer my question at all, and is completely besides the point.
I will give you my perspective as a Christian. Please be patient with me.
As I Christian I know that a sin is something that God forbids. He does not impose these boundaries arbitrarily but because outside of these boundaries there is disorder, confusion and hurt. When He created the world He saw that everything was good, including man. Then we decided we could figure out what it is good and what it is bad on our own, without Him, and things started to get confusing and disorganized. But God didn’t abandon us and he gave us his commandments. Everything that violates his commandments is sin and it hurts us.
For a Christian, there is not only the dimension of the body (of what we can see and touch), but there is also the dimension of the soul (the supernatural, what we can’t see or touch). Persons have bodies and souls. Sins hurt both, bodies and souls. All sins do.
What premarital sex and homosexual sex have in common (along with many other sexual sins such as contraception) is that the hurt to people is not obvious. These sins are not like murder, rape or the kind. With these there is a clear victim. Somebody has been clearly hurt and people immediately recognize them as wrong/bad/evil. We clearly see these evils with our eyes.
The hurt that premarital sex and homosexuality inflict in the body is not necessarily obvious. Not even the hurt that they inflict on the soul is obvious. But it is there, and how do we know this? Precisely because God doesn’t allow these types of behaviors. These behaviors our outside His commandments.
Beth, everyone wants to be happy, me included. In order to be happy we want to satisfy our desires. Sometimes satisfying these desires mean breaking God commandments. If I am in love with my boyfriend and I feel this very strong attraction towards him, why not have sex? What is so wrong about having sex with him? The drive is so strong and the feelings are so right… What can possibly be wrong about it? Who am I hurting? No one, right? I’m not saying you think this way but I know many people think this way. Same with homosexual sex.
However, if one is a follower of Christ, one must attempt to find happiness within the constraints that Christ imposes on us, within God’s commandments. Doing this is hard work. It implies the purification of the senses, of the mind, of the heart and of the will. It implies not breaking God’s commandments while walking mostly by faith, even if it is not readily clear (our eyes can’t see)why His commandments are what they are. Knowing by faith that if one perseveres happiness surely will come.
I don’t know if I have answer your question. I have attempted to do so from the Christian perspective.
To answer your question I need to know what is sinful to you.
Basically I need to know where our differences lie. I need to understand what would you consider sinful and what would you consider non sinful.
To me gay sex is as sinful as premarital sex and for the same reasons. Do you see premarital sex as sinful?
No I don’t approve of premarital sex but I don’t see what that has to do with anything. My question about homosexuality is about confusion as to why it’s sinful, because it makes no sense to me. I’d appreciate it if you could stop tap dancing around the real issue and offer something useful.
Beth, My answer is above. Sorry, I made a mistake in placing it up there.
I will give you another example of sin with no obvious consequences. It occurred to me after my last post.
I am in charge of driving my daughter (8 years old) to school everyday. I’m trying to teach my daughter the importance of prayer and so, after we get in the car every morning I asked her to give thanks to God and then I give thanks to God myself, out loud. this past week I had to travel for work and my husband took my daughter to work. When I returned she was so happy because my husband allowed her to use the iPad in the car while driving to school. Today in the morning I asked her if she had prayed while I was away, she said no. I was not mad at her but I gently told her “Natalia haven’t I told you that God always comes first? Why didn’t you pray?”, “Dad did not ask me to…” “Dad doesn’t understand, still you should have taught him to pray with you. You have placed God in second place after the iPad…” then we prayed and she gave thanks and ended her prayer saying “… and I’m sorry about placing You in second place”. My hope is she is getting the message.
Did she hurt anyone by not praying? She broke the first commandment so yes, she did, she hurt herself and even her dad by not giving example to him. Is it an obvious hurt to the body? No. Can we see this hurt? Not immediately because initially it is a very subtle evil. But I know that if there is any hope that she will understand that premarital sex is wrong I have to teach her that God is first.
The same happens with going to church on Sunday. Do we hurt ourselves or others by not going to Church? Yes we do. Is it an obvious hurt, and obvious wrong? No it is not. It is subtle at the beginning but it is generates disorder in the long run. It generates hurt. It is a sin because it goes against God’s commandments.
I’m just hoping that you understand my position as a Christian. And please forgive my awful English.
Beth, you are using different words. You don’t “approve” of premarital sex but do you accept that it is sinful? Non-approval could indicate that it is your own personal choice – rather than a standard that applies to everyone.
Nothing, Beth, and the best proof is that reasons alleged for its sinfulness have changed enormously through the ages: from chasing earthquakes and provoking G-d to angrily destroy the Roman empire a la Sodom and Gomorrah (Theodosius, Justinian…), to the invention of sodomy (St Peter Damian), to it being non-reproductive and worse therefore than rape (Aquinas), to the more recent ‘not proceeding from a necessary complementarity.’ Only the animus against gay people has remained constant. The justifications really look like they are made up to fit the hate, for want of a better word.
causing earthquakes, I meant.
Depends on the church in question. For protestant sects, it falls to specific interpretation. Obviously the Southern Baptist is quite different from the more liberal Methodist here. For Catholics it is because they believe the Church is infallible and never wrong when it comes to doctrine. They are allegedly prevented from being wrong about Scripture by the Holy Spirit. How the Holy Spirit manages this without invalidating free will? One of many theological issues that led to me being a former Catholic.
As far as understanding goes, you have to share their theological convictions to understand. Strip away the theology and you are basically trying to understand advanced calculus without first understanding how basic algebra works. Without a foundation of faith in Church or doctrine/the Bible you can’t really understand this because it is one of those things that doesn’t really have an effect on conscience. No personal connection, I find.
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This all true and good for us to hear. But one source for this idea that the only thing gay people care about is sex and accepting gay people means you approve of sexual sin is the theme of the propaganda of New Ways Ministry/Dignity/enemies of Church teaching.
A friend of mine heard from a Protestant friend that Catholics worship Mary. She concluded that worshipping Mary was a good thing. We should know better than believe those we disagree with, but sometimes we fall for it.
I’d be interested to hear how you think organizations such as New Ways Ministries or Dignity perpetuate a “gay is all about sex” message. Is there something specific you’ve seen from these organizations that promotes this idea, or is it just that the church tends to talk only about sex because it needs to respond to people who don’t believe gay sex is sinful?
Not that the Church tends to talk about sex, but because that’s how New Ways and Dignity and dissenters from the Church’s sexual teachings pick their friends and enemies. Here’s an example: https://www.dignityusa.org/faq/what-hope-there-future . If you think sexual activity outside of marriage is a sin, you’re their enemy. If you think it’s not, you’re their friend. There’s no other criteria.
Ok. Thanks. I’m not certain how that relates to the OP, but I think I understand you to be saying that these organizations don’t accept the idea that gay people are truly accepted in the church because church teaching forbids gay coupling.
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It’s not entirely surprising that Christians would try to place gay Christians in the context of (visible) gay culture – which is and has always been highly sexualised.
The first generation of ‘out’ gay life (roughly 1965 to 1985) was all about sexual liberation and hedonism. The second generation of gay men (1985 to 2005), spooked by AIDS, made more of an effort to promote other aspects of community life – friendship, political solidarity etc – but it was still mostly about bars and clubs where people could meet to find a sexual partner. Lesbians never created a culture that had the same high profile as this “gay scene”. The commercial gay scene peaked in the 1990s. A few bars remain in major cities but this artificial “community” of individuals from very different social backgrounds is slowly disappearing. People with similar life experiences/values can now find each other on the Internet or use phone apps to find a friend or partner in their home town. 20-30 years ago more conservative types had two options – die of loneliness at home or move to a big city and adapt to a gay culture founded by and for sexual libertines.
Gay conservatives Christians played only a very small part in that social history and now want to claim that they are a more “representative” (ie. social acceptable) face of the gay community – but insofar as it existed a visible gay culture was mostly about sexual desire. Straight Christians can be forgiven for having taken it at face value.
You pretty much nailed half of it. These days it is an out of date view of homosexual men as hypersexual and shallow bar-hoppers that leads to this sort of view of defining people by their sexuality. These days, there are stories aplenty about monogamous gay men who have been together for decades to counteract the stereotype.
The other half is that the LGBT community has enemies who want us gone from sight and mind. Eve and the folks here may not be on the same side as me when it comes to views on sin but they are brother and sister LGBT just like me and, for a number of people, that is all it takes to make you their enemy. Those who creep up whenever the discussion of nomenclature comes up. The same people also have issues with anything approaching physical closeness or exclusiveness in relationships between celibate gay people as well. They crop up in the comments section here and elsewhere to peddle their honeyed poison.
The purpose of pushing this nomenclature to identify us as purely sexual deviants and the purpose of trying to bar even celibates from relationships of any fulfilling nature is to kill us, pure and simple. They wouldn’t admit it but that is what it is for. Isolate us in the hopes we make mistakes, act out, or kill ourselves so they can blame our homosexuality on it and kill even more of us based on the justification.
I once commented on an Eve Tushnet story that I respected her and the people here for living amongst wolves as examples of LGBT people. I stand by it. Their presence is needed for the younger LGBT folks in the churches. Without them, our enemies in the pews will completely control the rhetoric and they will use that power to kill as many of our us as possible.
Eve, many helpful things are in this article. I fully appreciate the endeavors to purity and chastity of those on this site.
What I maintain though is that by self-identifying as Gay Christian within the church community generally, this will most likely continue to be the inevitable outcome. It will only be by Not claiming a Gay identity that we will be able to place ourselves within the true brotherhood and sisterhood of the Church, in unity with one another, despite our socially defined or biologically inherited differences.
As long as we continue to relate to our Church families as “other”, we will not fully appreciate our full adoption as Children of God. If we continue to push the notions of “other”, we will continue to perceive the presence of “in” and “out” groups with in our church bodies despite the best efforts of those in leadership to welcome all and create a redemptive environment for people of all backgrounds.
It’s not gay people who first described themselves as ‘other’ – it was church communities (and society in general) that decided sexual minorities were ‘other’ and worthy of shame, stigma, and controversy.
I still managed to get kicked out of an internship at a church just because I was same-sex attracted. I didn’t even use the word gay, but that didn’t stop the church leaders from deciding the presence of non-heterosexual attractions made me unfit for leadership.
Your suggestion is a bit like saying black people should just be quiet about their experience of racial marginalization. It’s a false unity, an oppressive unity, and thus not unity at all.
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