In the last few posts in this series on gay men and the phenomenon of falling in love (Part 1, Part 2), we have spent a bit of time framing the conversation well.
We first walked through the theological and philosophical foundations of personhood where we highlighted the positive strivings of humans over against a pathologizing of human desires. Then, we looked at how humans attach to other humans and what security and anxiety looks like within those relationships. In this third and final post, I’m going to bring both of those realities together and contextualize it for the gay celibate community in our current cultural climate.
Hopefully, by the end of this series, we will see a more complex view of what it means to have feelings for another human. We may not have concrete answers but maybe we can begin to ask the right questions.
To begin, how do we define the phenomenon of “falling in love” in our contemporary culture?
From cinematic emotional moments like Eponine’s heartbreak in Les Miserables to pop songs like Ke$ha’s “Your Love is My Drug,” our culture sends a consistent message about what it means to fall in love. Falling in love means feeling like you love the other person against all reason, struggling with being away from them for any period of time, wanting to be around them day and night, and constantly thinking about them.”Falling in love” then shares a surprising number of similarities to an anxious attachment style.
In a social system that privileges the experiences of heterosexuals over and against homosexuals or non-heterosexuals, this problem isn’t immediately apparent. Because it’s concretized in our social structures, we imagine that an anxious heterosexual couple is actually deeply in love and that intense jealousy is a sign of that love.
Almost every marriage counselor in America knows, however, that eventually those “positive highs” wear out. With time, the negative anxiety escalates until both parties have completely detached from one another, and they admit to “falling out of love.” Psychologically speaking, however, they have simply worn out their insecure attachment defense mechanisms and have realized that there is no true, deep relationality left. If they are to save their relationship, they must begin to listen and to relate to each other which for some couples is perhaps the first time they’ve ever engaged in such things.
For non-heterosexuals, especially those pursuing celibacy, their attachment anxiety feels much more dangerous because it feels as if they’ve “fallen in love” and have tainted their friendship. Because their theological convictions (for “Side B” gay Christians) and their social structure don’t facilitate easy movement into marriage, because they tend to be hyper aware of their sexuality, and because the feelings are typically unrequited, their anxiety is much more apparent. Instead of having it acknowledged as anxiety, however, it instead becomes stigmatized and morally condemned (“See! This always happens! I just try to have a normal healthy friendship and I immediately fall in love with him. My sexuality always gets in the way!”). This often results in broken relationships and leaves many feeling even more isolated and alone.
Furthermore, there are differences in how men and women demonstrate their attachment styles in their non-romantic relationships. Where women tend to be more comfortable being physically affectionate, offering bids for connection, and asking for what they need in their friendships, men, regardless of orientation, tend to struggle with these things. The developmental psychologist Niobe Way in her book Deep Secrets writes, “Boys…know by the age of 16 or 17 that emotionally intimate male friendships are no longer possible in a homophobic context. They also know that their desire to challenge this context, if they revealed it, would put them at risk for ridicule.” Men are socially expected to give up their friendships for the sake of their romantic relationships because masculinity is strongly connected with sexual behavior. The tragedy, then, is that where straight men may feel the same attachment anxiety for their male best friends that their gay peers feel, they can disavow their anxiety in favor of pursuing their romantic relationship. Celibate gay men cannot.
Thus, we often have a story like the following. A celibate gay man and a straight man become good friends. Both start to develop some sort of anxiety about the security of the attachment because these are the unconscious meanings that each learned growing up. The celibate gay man fears “falling in love” with this man and either fears sinning or fears being vulnerable with someone who will ultimately leave him. These anxieties warp and take on new meanings for the celibate man because his sexuality has been rarely validated in our heteronormative, patriarchal context and because he cannot (or will not) pursue a sexual relationship. He finds himself unable to address these issues with his friend. He may fear further invalidation, bringing to light a reality that he’s trying to deny (“Maybe I am in love with him?”), and/or confiding in his friend only to be rejected. On the other hand, his straight friend may struggle with his own internalized homophobia, shame in being rejected in the social community for having a deep friendship with a man (especially a gay one), and a strong urge to live into his heterosexual identity by being sexually active with a woman. Without grappling together, this straight man will live into the relational path of least resistance, the pursuit and privileging of an opposite sex romantic partner. The gay man may be wounded at being yet another starter relationship for another to find happiness and may leave the friendship broken-hearted.
As you can see, these situations are far more complicated than we first assume and are often the result of multiple systems of meaning clashing together, or as we say in the Wesleyan tradition, a result of complicated wickedness.
One of the really difficult things for gay (celibate) people is that they have really spent their whole lives being traumatized and retraumatized. They have existed in a world that has not welcomed them, has not validated their fears, anxieties, hopes, and dreams, and has consistently bucked against their strivings for connection and meaning. This often leaves gay folks feeling as though they are always at the mercy of their surroundings. Then, the temptation for a gay person pursuing celibacy is to either become an embittered loner apart from the community or to be an empty shell of a person capitulating to whatever yokes the community puts on him or her in order to be accepted by them.
Both of these options not only prevent human flourishing for gay celibate folk but also prevent social change within our communities. When gay celibate men and women believe the narrative that their sexualities are evil and that their normal bids for connection taint their friendships, the Christian community misses out on each member of this population’s unique personhood. God’s Church is then robbed of God’s prophetic word mediated through the lives of people who see truth because of their otherness.
In closing, one of the questions that I would encourage my gay celibate peers to ask themselves is if they fear falling in love with their best friend, why do they fear it?
I suspect that many gay celibate Christians carry the shame and trauma of a fractured sense of self. They have a terror that they are not truly humans among other humans and carry a dread to repeat rejections because of their sexualities. They have a sneaking suspicion that they cannot state their needs in a friendship without losing it and that, eventually, if they allow themselves to get too close to another person, they will once again feel the searing pain of relational rejection.
Yet, the truth is our social structures around relationships are corrupt and broken — even those (or especially those) within the Western church. God needs God’s faithful to witness to robust, real, sanctified relationships. As gay people learn to no longer pathologize their normal human strivings for intimacy and work out the anxiety they experience in their attachments, they can begin to not only deepen their own friendships but can also begin to challenge the greater social narrative. By pursuing their own flourishing, gay people can help others pursue deeper flourishing and change social systems for the better.
Thank you so much for writing this, Taylor! This speaks directly to my current experiences and has given me a lot of insight into my thoughts and actions.
As a non-celibate gay man who has been with my husband for 29 years and been in love that whole time reading this is just sad.
Grow up, dude. Your experiences are not the measure by which everyone else should be judged. I’m glad that you’ve found that the prevailing marital script within the gay community to be satisfying. But everyone who identifies as gay isn’t necessarily doing so for the same reasons that you do, and that narrative may not work for everyone. You are not the arbiter of what it means to be gay. And the mere fact that someone chooses to identify as gay doesn’t entitle you to tell them what they should necessarily desire. In fact, that’s one of things that annoys me about older gays, especially older gay men: They have a certain fundamentalist rigidity in their social understanding of what it means to be gay.
I have never seen a rationalization of self-hatred and doubt taken to such absurd and elaborate extremes. This man is at war with himself and the universe. It’s tragic.