A recurring theme that shows up in many articles at Spiritual Friendship is the concept of unchosen gay celibacy. As I’m in a mixed orientation marriage, it’s to be expected that I have a complicated relationship with that idea. In this post, I’d like to share some thoughts on unchosen gay celibacy from the perspective of a gay man who has chosen marriage to a woman. This is not a refutation or criticism of what’s already been written on the topic. Rather, I see it as a sort of addendum to what I believe are excellent articles that have no doubt ministered to celibate gay Christians who face the particular challenges associated with that calling.
My marital status notwithstanding, so much of what’s written here, here, and here resonates deeply with me. That’s because I’m not just nominally gay. It’s a real part of my life. Yet the calling of celibacy that those articles, as well as most of the relevant material out there, assume for gay Christians does not pertain to me. So what is the difference maker? What’s different about those of us who are contributors or who frequently participate in the conversation here at SF for whom marriage, not celibacy, is God’s calling?
For many, the idea that marriage to someone of the opposite sex is not a real option for gay people is self evident. There exists in the gay person, by virtue of their being gay, a lack of certain elements that opposite-sex marriage requires. That’s to say nothing of the presence of desires that cannot truly be met by such a union. So are those of us in MOMs just a little less gay than other gay Christians? Are we really somewhere closer to bisexual? Or have we experienced some level of orientation change?
Perhaps something like that is true of some people in MOMs. I can only speak from my own experience and from the testimony of friends who are in similar situations. I can say that, while my wife and I do enjoy all the kinds of intimacy that are expected in marriage, I am no less gay than I was ten years ago when I was anticipating lifelong singleness.
I’ve experienced no orientation change. I’m never, for a moment, even slightly tempted to lust for or have impure thoughts of a woman, and I never find myself struck by the beauty of a woman on the street or on the metro or in a movie. When I have those experiences, they are always directed toward men. But far be it from me to reduce gay orientation to mere physical attraction.
When I was in college, and my straight friends would express their desires for a wife, I could relate in a very general sense. Like them, I wanted the permanence of emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and yes, physical intimacy that marriage could offer. But I simply could not connect with their yearning for that permanence of relationship with a woman. When given the option of a hypothetical man or a hypothetical woman with whom to spend my life in partnership and commitment, it was only the latter that created in me any sense of longing or that elicited in me the desire to give of myself sacrificially.
Even now, still speaking hypothetically, the idea of marriage to a man is in many respects more appealing to me than the idea of marriage to a woman. Not only that, but even when barring same sex marriage from the discussion, the idea of being celibate and having close, committed male friends is still more appealing to me than the idea of marriage to a woman.
But I’m not just married to a woman. I’m married to my wife. I’m married to a person with whom I have experienced so many hardships and received so many blessings and on whom I’ve chosen to place my love and commitment. That shared history and that commitment before God make our relationship far more valuable to me than anything I might have had instead. When the choice is not between hypotheticals but between my actual marriage and anything else, my perspective is turned on end. The reason for that is not because I am some special kind of gay. It’s because of God’s grace, my wife’s impressive resilience, and the biblical sex ethic that we both believe in.
So is gay celibacy really unchosen? I would go as far as to say that anyone who subscribes to the idea expressed in my third paragraph, and for that reason, feels that mixed orientation marriage is unrealistic and the only biblical option is celibacy, is working off of incorrect presuppositions about sexuality, marriage, and possibly even what it means to be gay.
Spiritual Friendship is at the forefront of the Side B gay Christian movement to recover the lost theology of friendship and to correct the wrong assumptions about sexuality and marriage that place unnecessary burdens on the backs of gay people who wish to live according to biblical teaching. But if we see celibacy vs. mixed orientation marriage as a false choice, it could be that we are viewing things through the same lens as the culture that we’re trying to correct.
If we discount the viability of a mixed orientation marriage because of the absence of butterflies and infatuation, or because of a lack of natural physical attraction, are we not romanticizing marriage in the same way that our secular (and far too often, our church) culture does? If the overlap that we acknowledge exists between eros and philia alters the way we think about friendship, shouldn’t it alter the way we think about marriage?
I believe that the celibate gay Christians who have the healthiest approach to this are those who don’t see mixed orientation marriage as something they can’t attain, but something that they just don’t want. And here’s the thing: they are under no moral or spiritual obligation to want it. In fact, the alternative of celibacy is an honored choice, and it is one that the New Testament opens up to those who do not have a desire for or feel called to marriage to someone of the opposite sex (which is the only kind of marriage with which the biblical authors had anything to do). Ironically, in this small way, true biblical sex ethics have a little more in common with the early gay rights movement, in terms of liberating people from the obligation to enter traditional marriage, than the contemporary movement or even gay affirming Christianity does.
So as long as unchosen gay celibacy only means unchosen abstinence from same sex marriage, and doesn’t imply that traditional marriage is out of reach for gay people, then I think we’re on the right track. But let’s not find ourselves guilty of the same wrong-headed ideas that ex-gay theology taught us – that successful opposite sex marriage is possible if (and only if) we somehow achieve “whole heterosexual relating.”
That said, I certainly don’t want to cast mixed orientation marriage in an unrealistic light, as if it’s just no big deal that at least one of the spouses is gay! In my first post for Spiritual Friendship, I wrote about some of the unique challenges in my own marriage. As I look back on it, much of what I wrote doesn’t seem to be as relevant to my marriage as it was at the time. But even then, I was only able to write about it with the level of honesty that I did because we had recently been brought very, very low, past the point of keeping up appearances, and felt an obligation to share some of our story so that others might benefit from it.
It could have gone very differently for my wife and me when I was in the throes of a nasty faith/identity crisis a few years ago and had come to feel that God, if He was real, may not be good at all. That a friend of sinners He may be, but not a friend of lgbtq folks. And I had started to fear that I had made a tragic mistake when I married my wife. One that had severe, lasting effects on both of us.
The cross given to the gay Christian to take up is not the hardest imaginable. And none of us have resisted temptation to the point of death. But the particular cross that we do have to bear is one that many of us buckle under. It’s one thing to fall when you’re celibate. It’s another when your fall affects not only yourself but also a spouse and children.
So a decision to enter into a MOM should be made with sobriety and caution. The weight of the commitment being made before God must be at the forefront and must be foundational to the relationship. And it will take a lot of relying on God to make it work.
But in truth, this is the case for all marriages. Single straight people fall and married straight people fall, and the ramifications are obviously more far reaching and devastating when it happens within a marriage. So at the end of the day, while caution and care is advised for gay people considering mixed orientation marriage, there is no more reason to discourage MOMs than any other marriage between a man and a woman.
Now in making those statements, I don’t want to make room for straight or married Christians or the collective church to wash their hands of any responsibility in regards to their celibate gay brothers and sisters. It simply won’t do to say that, if a gay Christian is experiencing deep loneliness or sadness in celibacy, it’s that person’s own fault for choosing to forgo marriage.
The scriptures teach us that it is not good for us to be alone. And the scriptures also teach us that celibacy is a good thing. Therefore, celibacy cannot equal aloneness. Yet it all too often does. And even the ways that many celibate gay Christians find to combat this problem while still remaining within the parameters of traditional sex ethics are met with suspicion or outright hostility. And that must change.
So what we need is a holistic approach. It should be made clear that a healthy, whole marriage to someone of the opposite sex is not an impossibility for anyone solely because of that person’s sexual orientation. But a person’s choice not to pursue such a marriage should not be a sentence to a life devoid of deep relational intimacy.