Celibacy vs. Mixed Orientation Marriage: Is there too much celibacy talk in Side B?

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.

29 thoughts on “Celibacy vs. Mixed Orientation Marriage: Is there too much celibacy talk in Side B?

  1. Hi Mike,

    Well, like you (and Kyle), I guess I’m a member of this “minority of a minority of a minority”. It kinda makes a person feel like a rare gemstone … or a trace contaminant measured in parts per billion. :-p

    Or maybe it isn’t as rare as that. Perhaps just not as widely known or admitted or reported.

    I’m going on 37, and I’ve been married to my wife for just about four years now. It was a long and wild journey getting to this point, growing up more or less in a church context but being predominantly sexually attracted to other males. And at different seasons of my adult life as a believer, I’ve been a part of different church contexts that have stressed one or another of the various overemphases you described. Eventually, I came under the care of a pastor who didn’t really minister in those terms; he’s very “anciently Augustinian” in his outlook. He said marriage would be good for me on the whole, and it had nothing to do one way or another with “fixing” me as others have intended in years past—just that he thought I could do it.

    I’ve been blessed along the way to have a lot of friends that just see me as another believer with a life in the process of sanctification like we all need it for whatever issue it is. I haven’t had to hide anything from them about my sexuality. I suspect that there’s something to be said for all of us (all believers and even all people) to embrace the idea that we’re complicated, messy, and perhaps more fluid (about all sorts of desires) to varying degrees than we think we can be if given enough time and the right circumstances.

    To the point in your article, I’ve also anecdotally observed comments and wondered more recently if there is a falsely and excessively pristine view of marriage (regarding the heteronormativity of the spouses) that pushes against supporting the formation of a “mixed-orientation marriage” (where the spouses know this going into it). Maybe I could put it like this by example: Plenty of Christian gals are good and accepting of a Side-B guy being a friend and fellow church attender, but not so many of those gals are keen on the idea of marrying a Side-B guy who’s developing an interest and the capacity for it. I don’t know how much that’s the case, but I wonder.

    Just some thoughts.

    • Hey Aaron,

      Thanks for sharing your story here! I could relate to just about everything you wrote.

      And I like your thoughts in the final paragraph. When talking about whether or not a gay Christian might consider a MOM viable, it’s also important to remember that this depends equally on the willingness of straight Christians to enter into such marriages and to take on some of the unique challenges that they may bring. That points to why this really should be a more mainstream conversation.

    • I loved this part of your story, especially the description of your pastor as having an “anciently Augustinian” outlook: 🙂

      “Eventually, I came under the care of a pastor who didn’t really minister in those terms; he’s very “anciently Augustinian” in his outlook. He said marriage would be good for me on the whole, and it had nothing to do one way or another with “fixing” me as others have intended in years past—just that he thought I could do it.”

      Also, to what you said in the paragraph after that… yay, good friends seeing you just as another believer in the process of sanctification – yes!

  2. Another member of the “minority of a minority of a minority” here, for the past 23 years. Thanks for posting your article, Mike. Courageous and inspiring.

    • Hi JC,

      Thanks for the comment. 23 years! Unless this is an interesting coincidence, I’m guessing you’re the same person I just connected with on Facebook.

      At any rate, I love how each time I write on the subject of mixed orientation marriage, I meet more people who are walking this path, in many cases, far longer than the seven and a half years my wife and I have. Thanks again for commenting!

  3. As someone from a heterosexual standpoint this post really touched me.

    I often struggle with how to best approach the issue of sexuality with friends who are in the church and of LGBTQ orientation.

    I think in large part we have failed numerous times out of our own ignorance and dumbing down a diverse and deep subject.

    It’s amazing to see how rich the discussion has become for those most affected and how gracious you have all been in to us in the institutions who have probably caused a great deal of hurt and or alienation due to our short comings and lack of understanding/knowledge in a subject that was quite foreign to many of us.

    I think it may be through many of you and a general discussion by Gods grace that a lot of harmony and communion is restored.

    I guess that is usually the way of God though. Empowering those who have become victims and or seemingly powerless/marginalized to raise up and better be a witness to the strength of love and understanding and to be remembered in glory for that witness.

    Anyway such a great post, really enjoyed it 🙂

    -The Smiling Pilgrim

    • Wow, thanks for the kind words!

      I hope that we who are having these conversations here and in other settings will live into those words. And I appreciate the interest you’ve taken here, and I hope you’ll continue to “listen in” from time to time and don’t be shy to engage. That’s the best way for any of us to grow in understanding, I think.

      Again, thanks for the comment!

  4. Many thanks, Mike, for bringing this topic back to the front burner.

    I was in a mixed orientation marriage for over 18 years until my wife succumbed to cancer five years ago. I have dealt with same-sex attraction from my earliest recollection, but chose to marry my opposite-sex partner at the age of 29. I told her about my attractions to men early into our dating relationship, but she did not sense that it would be an impediment to our relationship. Later, when we were planning to be married, we participated in extensive premarital counselling. At one point when we were discussing potential barriers to a successful marriage, it became necessary to reveal my same-sex attraction to our counsellor. I fully expected that he would declare it to be a deal-breaker. However, when I asked him if he felt it would be a problem, he said, “Nope. I know you. It won’t be a problem.” Looking back, I often wonder if he was being overly naïve, but he was right – it wasn’t.

    My decision to marry was based on my understanding of 1 Corinthians 7. I believe that God gives all men two options: to remain single or to marry a woman. Both are good, but the deciding factor is whether or not a man can keep his sexual passions under control. If yes, then it is better to remain single. If not, then marry. Simplistic? Perhaps. But I feel that we seriously over-complicate the issue when we drag ‘gay/straight’ into the discussion. Paul doesn’t declare that the marriage option is only for heterosexual men. He assumes that it is for all men. Despite my unique temptations and lusts, I’m still a man, so that makes me eligible for the two options Paul presents…and it means that an opposite-sex marriage is a perfectly legitimate possibility for me. It was on this belief that I staked my claim, exercised my faith, and proceeded with my decision to marry. Like all men, I learned that I had to rein in my passions and my wandering eyes so that I could remain faithful to my wife. Like all men, I had to walk a narrow road and say No to temptations that could have derailed a successful marriage. Like all men, I had to rely on the Lord to strengthen and deepen my marriage vows. Like all men, I came to realize that I am a man – always was, always will be.

    I chose marriage not to ‘pass for straight’, and not to ‘get healed’, but to pursue a relationship where I could share an acceptable form of sexual expression and move more fully into the masculinity that God created within me. The living out of this decision would have been impossible without the tender and devoted love of my wife. She consistently fanned into flame the masculine characteristics that had been dormant to that point. Now that she is gone, I’m grateful for every moment we shared together and I miss her constant love and encouragement.

    Today, I’m alone (by choice) and content. My same-sex attractions are as prevalent as they ever were, but I’m not ruled or defined by them. I have never confessed any of this to my children, my family or my church. Very few people know me as ‘gay’, but everyone knows me as a man – hopefully as a man of God – and that’s all they need to know.

    • Thanks so much for including your story here, elhata.

      I remember that you shared some of this last year on my first Spiritual Friendship post about MOMs. I’m truly sorry for your loss, but I’m happy that you and your wife had all of those years to grow in love together.

      I think that reading your account illustrates for me the importance of being exposed to a variety of stories. So much of it resonates with me, and then there are key differences.

      I agree wholeheartedly that one’s being gay should not be the one deciding factor in whether or not (s)he should get married. And I think there’s some real wisdom to be gleaned from your statements on the matter. But I don’t know… I’m just not prepared to say that we shouldn’t bring that into it at all. There are all kinds of things that I think we’d say a person should consider carefully when weighing the options of whether or not they should marry, things beyond whether or not they burn with passion. And I can’t imagine something like exclusive same sex attractions not being one of those.

      Also, I’m not sure that I ever felt I needed marriage in order to live into my masculinity. Before I decided to marry my wife, I expected to live a celibate (though my evangelical self called it single) life, and I don’t think I had the idea that I was somehow never going to fully live into my masculinity. I dunno, maybe I’m missing something in that comment.

      Anyway, I value your story as one that demonstrates a life of continued faithfulness, in a variety of circumstances and contexts (both marriage and celibacy). I can respect that for the most part, you have not seen a need to disclose your same sex attractions to those in your daily life. I can’t say that that approach was working for me, but my meager math skills and awareness of recent shifts in American culture tell me we’ve likely had very different formative environments. I’m also glad you’ve entered into this online community and brought your experiences and point of view to bear in the conversation.

      Thanks again for commenting!

    • I appreciate your story and I’m so sorry for the loss of your spouse. I do disagree with this statement though: “but the deciding factor is whether or not a man can keep his sexual passions under control. If yes, then it is better to remain single. If not, then marry. ” This statement is an oversimplification of a truly complicated issue. What does “keep his sexual passions under control” mean? Are you saying that people who have terribly weak will-power are the ones who should get married? By and large opposite-sex marriage is not something that will ever be viable for most gay people – whether they feel they can “control their urges” or not and whether or not they crave a family. Celibacy isn’t just for the spiritually strong, and its much needed revival and importance in the Christian struggle is a reason I fell in love with this site – that and the ongoing attempt to bring back an ancient and important understanding of intimate friendship. To push marriage in this way hearkens back to some of the damaging things that Ex-gay and other conservative groups used to (and still do) preach.

      • Thank you, jayhuck, for your response to my story. I shared mine because Mike asked for comments from people with “varying backgrounds and experience”. If the statements about my experience seem over-simplified, it is because I believe that Paul’s words in 1 Cor 7:36-38 are simple. I paraphrase his statement like this: “If you can’t control your passions, then marry. If you can, then remain single.” He doesn’t elaborate; he just presents the options. The working out of this simple scenario was something that I, as a gay man at the age of 29, had to figure out for myself. I saw two roads before me: marriage or celibacy – both declared good, both with their pros and cons, both with joys and challenges. I chose marriage and walked into it with God’s help and blessing. It was a hard decision, and it was never simple to live out. Indeed, marriage was one of the greatest challenges of my life, but the rewards outweighed the difficulties. My initial mistake was to fall for the notion that I, the gay partner, would forever be the crippled one in my marriage, but I soon realized that my wife and I both brought our own unique sets of challenges to our marriage. (Gay men do not necessarily hold the monopoly on marriage complications.)

        Mike’s question at the top of this post is one that I ask myself frequently, “Is there too much celibacy talk in Side B?” As much as I am a strong proponent of the celibacy option – after all, I’m living it myself these days – I am growing frustrated by the lack of respectability given to the marriage option. “It’s not fair to the gay man, and it’s certainly not fair to his spouse.” “It’s too difficult.” “It goes against who he really is.” “SO many mixed-orientation marriages end in failure!” No one said that marriage would be easy, but it doesn’t have to be as complicated as we make it out to be. God is fully capable of making the two, one, even if one of the partners is gay. I’m sincerely grateful for the prominence that is being given to celibacy these days, but I firmly believe that mixed-orientation marriage should not be discounted. It isn’t for everyone – no one said that it was – but if Paul recommended it, and God is capable of blessing it, then we need to give it serious consideration.

    • I agree we should give it serious consideration but it should be done with the understanding that most gay people will not be able to live this life, even if they want to. False hope is also not something that we need to be promoting. Exodus and conservative churches for FAR too long have pushed marriage as some sort of panacea or real-possibility for gay people, and celibacy was always that thing to be spoken of in almost hushed tones – the life-long celibate who wasn’t in a monastery was pitied and looked down upon and marriage was elevated to a status it should never have had, and many individuals and marriages paid the price. So I understand what you are saying, but we have to be SO careful not to slip back into old and damaging habits. Paul was not that great a fan of marriage and our best role model to date, Jesus, was not married. Proceed but with extreme caution is all I’m suggesting and let’s continue to strive to bring celibacy a thing back on par with marriage 🙂

      • Your cautionary note is duly noted and I agree completely with your comments. Thanks for taking the time to discuss this issue with me. I rarely (if ever) have an opportunity to express my opinions in this area, so this forum is greatly appreciated!

  5. Thanks for this article.

    I too am bothered by the whole notion of gay celibacy, and for several reasons.

    First, it wrongly gives into the Freudian notion that marriage is centrally about sexual attraction. It’s not, or at least it shouldn’t be. It wasn’t until the past 100 years that we came to view marriage in this way, and it’s probably time to dispense with it. Marriage today is too socially scripted, particularly around sexual attraction, and the church needs to do more to end that.

    Second, it wrongly gives into the notion that being gay is a real thing. I would identify as gay. Even so, I view it as little more than a social construction. In fact, when I travel abroad, I feel far less gay than I feel in the US. That’s because the social code for being masculine is less rigid in places besides the US.

    Third, related to these points, it assumes that there’s something wrong with same-sex attraction. Any historical survey would reveal that same-sex attraction is common, if not natural. The Freudian efforts to pathologize it has produced much of the dilemma we face today. If we simply accepted it as natural, we could decouple sexual orientation from marriage, and move toward a society where sexual attractions are less central to people’s social identities.

    As Michael Hannon noted some time ago, the problem is with “heterosexuality,” not anything else. By perpetuating the false notion of heterosexuality, we force people to lie, force burdens onto marriage that the institution wasn’t intended to carry, and force honest people to face a life of social isolation.

  6. Every experience in every church I’ve ever been a part of throughout my life has been delivering the message that marriage is the panacea for EVERYONE. Marriage is favored, marriage is expected, etc, etc. So to find a site and group of people extolling and rediscovering if you will the virtues of celibacy and chastity as things/virtues that are on par with marriage, well it has been a comforting and amazingly blessed experience. I understand that people in MOM need to have their stories told, but they are not, in many ways, new ones. Many MANY gay men and women for decades married people of the opposite sex before others came along and paved a way for them to be more considerate of their mostly same sex sexuality. I agree that the MOM stories need to be told – AND heard, but to think for one minute that that it is something that the vast majority of gay people will be able to live with is misleading – and to detract from what is a pretty recent revival of celibacy could be potentially devastating. We must continue to help people, especially gay people rediscover the importance of celibacy and revive an ancient understanding of intimate and committed friendship without losing site of the minorities within minorities in our care

    • Jay,

      I largely agree with you, but that’s a separate issue. I think a certain fraction of people are likely called to singleness, but the church tends to have a deep suspicion of singleness. In my experience, there’s not a substantive difference between the evangelical church’s treatment of single guys and its treatment of same-sex couples.

      I think we have to move away from the notion that marriage is normative. And we have to move away from construing it as primarily about heterosexual gratification.

  7. Hi Evan,

    I’ve generally found your thoughts intriguing whenever I’ve read them in the comments section of various SF articles.

    I suppose I’d have to give it more time and consideration, but most of what you wrote above strikes me as true and as something I could get behind.

    Regarding overseas life, I can definitely relate to what you’re talking about. I first moved to China in 2007, and one of the first things I noticed is how the way so many of my Chinese friends interacted was so similar to how my old gay friends did. Additionally, I helped lead a youth group here for four years, and so many of the things that the kids would do without giving it a second thought would have amounted to Coming Out and subsequent social suicide in my rural Georgia high school!

    That said, I don’t think that Chinese people who experience predominant or exclusive same sex attractions have any better time of things. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. Whether they give it a name or not, the experience is one of great shame, and they often suffer in silence.

    These days, though I still live in China, I’m in a very American work environment. Furthermore, most of my American coworkers are conservative Evangelicals. If there’s any context in which I feel more gay than in the general American culture, it’s the conservative Evangelical one. The one that insists my gayness is a problem to be rectified or a force to be fought in a culture war – a force whose name I’d better not dare speak. It almost feels like “gay” is spelled V-O-L-D- — shhhh!!!

    Thanks again, Evan, for your thought-provoking comments!

    • Thanks. I think every culture presents different issues. But I’d agree with you regarding evangelical culture. I never felt more gay–or more like a social pariah–than when I was among evangelicals. Now that I’ve largely left evangelicalism, I’m much less conscious of my same-sex attractions.

      I also suspect that people’s experiences vary. I’m basically asexual and a-romantic. Even so, I’m emotionally attracted almost exclusively to members of the same sex.

    • People do accept very different understandings of marriage even in the West. 10 years ago one of my work colleagues decided to go to India to find a wife. For him marriage was simply a case of booking a vacation, along with his brother who also thought it was the right time to get married and start a family, contacting a local matchmaker and marrying a suitable woman 24 hours later. His bride didn’t speak a word of English. OK he was Muslim but he was also totally ‘modern – as evidenced by our conversations about comedy shows (we both loved South Park).

      Everyone in the office thought it was an odd thing to do and cracked a few under-the-radar jokes about it but the “ethnic divide” made it seem plausible.(or too risky to challenge openly). No doubt he was also sold on full blown Islamist ideology (and might be blowing stuff up in the future!) but he was every bit as ‘contemporary Western’ as I am.

      • I’ve had several colleagues of Indian descent who’ve done the same. Few cultures sexualize marriage to the degree that the West does. And few subcultures within the West sexualize marriage to the extent that American evangelicals do. I suspect that most of my colleagues would find Mark Driscoll’s view of marriage to be as other-worldly as those of the Indian guys who married women they’d known for fewer than 48 hours.

      • Many people (me included) don’t need 24 to 48 hours to figure out if they are sexually attracted, neutral, or repulsed by someone.

        I work with folks–mostly from the Indian subcontinent–who had arranged marriages—mostly Hindu or Sikh, but also a couple Muslims. They say they had veto power over the marriages, i.e. they weren’t required, or even encouraged, to marry someone they knew they were not attracted to.

        Given that, plus the general similarity of backgrounds that are a rationale for arranged marriages, they seemed to do as well, or as poorly, as their American contemporaries who did not have parental involvement in the choice of spouse.

        I don’t think their success can be used as evidence that sexual attraction is not important in a marriage. Obviously there are exceptions to every rule, but there is a reason that most people require at least an initial attraction before they marry. It can help carry the couple over rough spots.

      • I always suspected my Muslim colleague was also gay. As far as I know the marriage worked out. They are well on their way to having the usual big Muslim family. Who knows? He once admitted to real anger problems. Maybe he will “slip up” on Grindr, get caught out and then groomed/recruited by online Jihadist networks to blow up a gay bar to bring ‘honor’ back to his family/culture!

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