Thou Shalt Not Forsake Thy Celibate Christian LGBTQ Brethren

More and more churches are welcoming openly gay congregants. Church of the Pilgrims in Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.

Photo by Tyler Lopez

Far from the mainstream LGBTQ experience of pride parades and marriages, Outward and the Advocate, there exists a small, tight-knit group of LGBTQ people who, though fully out, remain committed to conservative Christian prohibitions on gay sexual activity. While some refer to themselves as SSA or “same-sex attracted” as a means of distancing themselves from queer identities, others proudly use the LGBT or LGBTQ initialisms that highlight their connection to the wider community. This latter group, in straddling one of America’s deepest cultural divides, present a challenge to the tolerance of both their churches and the secular LGBTQ community.

Celibate LGBTQ Christian bloggers often refer to themselves in shorthand as “Side B” Christians. The terms Side A, for those who support marriage equality and believe that gay sex is not necessarily immoral, and Side B, for those who believe that homosexual sex is sinful and/or prohibited by the Bible, originated with a now-defunct website called Bridges Across the Divide and was created to foster respectful communication between people on opposite sides of the gay rights debate. Side B gay Christians are, by definition, committed to remaining celibate, while those on Side A can date and marry. LGBTQ people on Side A also tend to fit reasonably well inside the secular LGBTQ community. B Siders, on the other hand, can be a pretty isolated lot—while they may have friends who are secular and devout, gay, straight, and bi, they remain on the fringes in both the Christian and the LGBTQ world.

All the B Siders I talked to were eager to combat the widespread view of celibacy as necessarily leading to a life of unending loneliness and isolation. In fact, many of the discussions they have among themselves have moved past the question of whether and why to remain celibate and on to how one can do so and still live a fulfilling life. This more practical, positive focus is intended to address something they believe has long been lacking in the mostly negative messages that their faith communities have long presented to LGBTQ people.

In fact, the B siders I spoke with were quick to offer critiques of homophobia within Christian communities, which surprised me, considering that they’d organized their lives around adhering to their rules. Ron Belgau, who co-founded the Spiritual Friendship blog to address the question of how celibate LGBT people can find intimacy and connection within Christian communities, summed up their frustrations by saying: “Most of [the Roman Catholic Church’s] thinking is no you can’t have sex; no you can’t go into the priesthood—they shut various doors, but there’s a need to talk about, OK, no we can’t have sex but what can we do? How can we serve the church?” Eve Tushnet, another B sider I spoke with, is writing a book to address this same conundrum. For her, the most important issue is not rule-following but “the question of how do you lead a good, fruitful life within a Catholic tradition [and] increase the tenderness and beauty in the world?”

For those of us with a more secular mindset, this might seem like a strange point to advocate so passionately for—but in the context of a silencing, closed, homophobic church culture, these Side B voices and the challenges they present may reach conservative communities that would shut out any other sorts of LGBTQ voices. That is Belgau’s view. “I think trying to shift the conversation away on Christian terms has had a significant impact. A strident gay rights voice would not be heard by the Christian right, where remaining within Christian traditions can,” he told me.

A celibate lifestyle falls pretty far outside the mainstream for most Americans, but there’s a lot in the Side B blogosphere that can stimulate fruitful reflection for those of us beyond its borders. They tackle issues like: How are people who remain unpartnered to fill their human need for intimacy and connection? How can we foster community and connection in a modern world that grows ever more alienating and complex? Why has friendship become so devalued—and whoever said that true intimacy could only be found in the context of a romantic relationship, anyway? If you’ve ever pondered these sorts of questions (and I certainly have), then there are worse places to go looking for thoughtful discussion of them than the blogs of celibate LGBTQ Christians.

As I grew more familiar with the Side B community, I felt my sympathy for them growing. I genuinely enjoyed Ron Belgau’s honesty, his humor, and the thought he put into answering my questions. While speaking with Julie Rodgers and Matt Jones, two contributors to Spiritual Friendship, I was won over by their distinct, exuberant humanity. It began to seem inexcusable to me that they’d catch flak in their blogs’ comments from mainstream LGBTQ folks accusing them of being traitors or self-hating homophobes. But then, led by a reference in Julie’s blog, I came across the writing of someone I’ll call Rose Brattleworth, an ex-gay Christian author, and I got it.

The site talked about Rose having once been a feminist lesbian in a committed partnership with another woman, before having been moved to convert to Christianity. The story ends with how she’s now happily married to a (male) pastor, with some number of homeschooled children—and, somehow, there’s not a word about what happened to the lesbian partner. In this sort of Christian ex-gay narrative, a former life partner can be erased, made unimportant, except as an example of past sins. I found it impossible not to take it personally. The thought that this so-called “Christian love” could lead me to reject my wife, that this “love” could somehow be pure or true or right—or even that anyone would ask me to accept such a thought uncritically—overcame my objectivity completely. I remembered articles, such as this one by Catholic Side B blogger Joseph Prever, which suggested that non-celibate gays were like children who ate sand, or this one by Eve Tushnet, arguing against gay marriage, and I was filled with a desire to argue and confront the B Siders, to force them to choose sides and reveal themselves as enemies of queer people.

But, of course, none of the people I’d spoken with had suggested that I leave my wife. They hadn’t condemned me or attempted to convert me—in fact, several had gone out of their way to explain that they weren’t trying to judge others or convince anyone to follow their belief system. My previous experiences with Christian condemnation of gay people, had jumped ahead, filling in the gaps, lodging in my throat and making it hard to treat these people as individuals and really listen to what each of them was telling me. If I know anything, it’s that I’m not a perfect celestial being made of love. I am a human, and I feel things. And, some of the things I felt as I engaged with celibate gay Christians were anger and fear relating to the many times the public face of Christianity has aligned itself with bigotry and oppression. If all that happened to me, writing this story, how can I expect more of my gay readers, or of the larger LGBTQ community?

And yet, I do.

I can’t deny that however friendly and relatable the B Siders were, they would occasionally say things that made me cringe. Even Julie Rodgers, the sort of down to earth lesbian bro I’d love to have for a friend, made me self-conscious as she explained the misconceptions of traditional Christians about gay people, leading me to consider whether I might be considered just a little lustful and hypersexual. However, each one of the B Siders I interacted with also related stories from their past that spoke to the larger LGBTQ experience. Matt Jones talked about how he was unable to come out prior to working at an orphanage in South America, and later losing an internship after his pastor encouraged him to come out to his parish council. Joseph Prever told me how, for years, he’d felt nervous and inadequate around other men, unable to become friends with them because of his discomfort with his homosexuality. Julie Rodgers and I talked about how the constant need to curb any subtly masculine mannerisms had left her feeling disconnected and unloved, as if she could never be accepted as she was. Make no mistake—celibate or not, these people are a part of the LGBTQ community. They share the same fears we do, experience the same stigma, and have felt the same tension, between hiding and safety on one side and openness and self-acceptance on the other, that defines the LGBTQ experience in 21st-century America.

“There’s a sense that the fight over marriage has significantly polarized the discussion. Those on Side B are isolated, without a real home in the Christian community or in the secular LGBT community,” Ron Belgau told me. He talked about the difficulties he’d had socializing with gay co-workers, because of their assumptions that he was immature and just needed to get over his religious convictions and “really come out already.”

On a similar note, Joe Prever told me, “I’m much more at ease talking to other Catholics about how I’m gay than I am talking to other gays about how I’m Catholic. … I get a little bit insecure that people will see me as some sort of stunted individual, or oppressed by the Church in some way.”

Asked how the LGBTQ community could be more welcoming, Matt Jones told me, “The least that could happen is to stop saying that I am a self-hating homosexual. I get a little tired of that. I’m open with my sexuality—I’m not ashamed.”

Are B Siders ashamed? Are they needlessly denying themselves full participation in adult life? Even if they are, they’ve heard all these judgments before, and they’re no more likely to change their religious views than I am to divorce my wife. “I think people for whom religion is not a daily part of life don’t understand that, for someone like me, religion is not separable from life, it’s kind of what life is,” was how Joe Prever put it. Julie Rodgers said, “My convictions about how I am expected to honor God are as integral to who I am as being gay is.” If that sounds odd, so be it. But while no one should be expected to extend tolerance to someone who is bigoted or intolerant, there’s no need to assume that this particular brand of oddness carries with it any hostility or enmity to the mainstream LGBTQ community. We’ve fought for the recognition of our own diversity—let’s not make any unnecessary rules to limit it.