I was talking with a friend of mine the other day about the message we send to gay people who are trying to figure out what to do with their sexuality in light of their desire to live faithfully as Christians. He, like me, is a gay man in a mixed orientation marriage. So much of what Side B writers have communicated resonates strongly with him and certainly reflects his own experience, as it does mine.
Still, when you’re a minority of a minority of a minority, as is the case when you’re a Side B gay Christian in a mixed orientation marriage, the conversation often defaults to something that doesn’t really pertain to your situation. And my friend challenged the status quo of the Side B conversation, warning against a determinist attitude that sort of forces gay Christians into celibacy, rather than allowing them to receive it as a vocation. This is certainly not a new critique; it has been brought up before by Side A writers and thinkers, as well as those who would oppose the very language of sexual orientation. But is there something to it? Something that even Side B Christians can acknowledge should be tweaked or corrected—or at least clarified—in our remarks on faithful Christian living for gays and lesbians?
I think it’s safe to say that when writers like Eve Tushnet, Wesley Hill, and others write about celibacy, about the beauty and the struggle of it, they don’t see it as an imposition on gay people. Quite the contrary, I think they would see it as a liberation of sorts: that yes, even in our culture that says romantic relationships are absolutely necessary, gay people can live authentic lives while remaining true to biblical teaching. I think this is the same attitude that Paul had about celibacy when he extolled its virtue and benefits in 1 Corinthians 7.
But my friend is coming into this conversation with a very different set of experiences than I – and I suspect many who’ve written on this topic – have had. He recalls spending many of his single years in a church in which celibacy was pushed as the default vocation for gay people, even to the extent of discouraging marriage to someone of the opposite sex. This runs so counter to my own experience in churches, where I’ve only heard blanket condemnation, orientation change, or silence. I can only imagine that this was some sort of reactionary stance in my friend’s church, attempting to avoid the mess that ex-gay teaching has created over the years, or simply to prevent secretly gay Christians from entering into heterosexual marriages hoping that it will just go away. But my friend who, in spite of considering himself fiercely independent, did see himself getting married and having a family one day, experienced it as oppressive and limiting. Far from feeling liberated from the world’s ethic or even a heteronormative Christian one, he felt that he was being forced into a scenario that he didn’t sense was God’s calling on his life.
And so, my friend interacts with Side B with some level of caution, perhaps even of frustration. He recognizes the good in what websites like Spiritual Friendship are doing in trying to get us to reassess our approach to marriage and friendship. But he wonders if celibate gay Christians don’t sometimes eliminate marriage as a legitimate option for themselves by viewing things through the very same contemporary Western lens that they are trying to adjust. That is an intriguing question that deserves its own article. My friend wonders, and after our conversation, I wonder with him, if a significant shift in the way Christians think about our relationships would result not only in an increase in celibate people living abundant lives, but also an increase in mixed orientation marriages within the church.
I think there is a fine line to be walked here. For far too long, gay Christians have been pressured to become something they couldn’t and made to feel that they’d failed God or that he’d abandoned them when it didn’t happen. And for far too long, gay Christians for whom the only foreseeable path of obedience has been singleness and celibacy have been left to figure out what that looks like alone, in a Christian culture that idolizes romantic relationships just about as much as the secular culture does. So the work of Side B Christians who are attempting to restore the honor and, indeed, viability of celibacy is immensely important.
But I do want to be careful not to swing the proverbial pendulum and inadvertently limit those gay Christians who have a vision for family life. In fact, my own story is a testament to the fact that such a vision is not a pipe dream. Wouldn’t it be a powerful statement in our culture if the church were made up of thriving celibates and married couples, with gay and straight people represented greatly in both groups? And what should be added to the current Side B conversation to promote such a reality?
For its part, Spiritual Friendship has made the effort to include the stories of those in mixed orientation marriages in its body of work. Still, it’s a noticeably small part of the conversation. There are, no doubt, several factors contributing to this, some more obvious than others. For one, there are simply fewer people out there to write from the perspective of a healthy mixed orientation marriage (that whole “minority of a minority of a minority” thing).
But there are other elements at play here. When I first approached Ron about posting this article, he brought up some interesting points. On the one hand, there are many gay Christians who have a bit of a sore spot concerning marriage, depending on their experience with ex-gay ministry and are, in Ron’s words, “actively hostile” to the idea of marriage. That’s understandable. I was never really involved in ex-gay ministry and was only briefly influenced by it, but that was enough to leave me extremely weary.
On the other hand, the lack of voices of people in MOMs can also partially be accounted for by the fact that there’s just more to lose. If a gay man or woman decides to write about marriage to his or her opposite-sex spouse, how will it effect that spouse or their children? And since marriage can afford gay Christians the ability to “pass for straight” they have to determine if they’re willing to give up some of that artificial privilege by speaking out. Personally, I think that if people in mixed orientation marriages realized the benefit of transparency over the hardship of silently feeling alienated from other married couples, they would all willingly lay that down. But fear and self preservation can be powerful motivators.
This post represents only the very beginning of my thinking about these questions: why doesn’t mixed orientation marriage play a bigger role in the Side B conversation, and should it? I’m interested to see what others, with varying backgrounds and experiences, have to say on the matter.