I’ve had the opportunity to meet other LGBT+ Christians with very different walks of life and within many kinds of Christian traditions. Most of the folks I interact with are more theologically progressive than I am and are understandably skeptical of someone who strives for celibacy within a conservative tradition. Sometimes I receive remarks that the only reason I’m celibate and hold to traditional sexual ethics is because it keeps me in good graces with conservative straight people.
As someone who rarely has positive interactions with conservative Christians when I share my story, this particular assumption didn’t resonate with me. The more I thought about it, though, it made sense when I looked beyond my individual narrative and reflected on the macro LGBT narrative in conservative Christian discourse. What are the popular stories within conservative churches when framing the topic of sexuality? The lived experience of traditional sexual ethics typically relies on testimonies of cisgender men and women who “struggle” against their sexuality with very specific requirements for their vocation to be seen as holy or faithful.
My progressive friends aren’t thinking of my LGBT+ friends who wear gender non-conforming clothes, proudly paint their nails, or attend PRIDE marches every year; and yet, my friends hold to a traditional view of marriage and sexuality. These are some of the queerest folks I know but their stories of faithfulness to traditional theology will never be amplified in their respective culture religious communities.
Here’s a list of ten requirements for gender and sexual minorities if they want to be given a platform in the conservative church:
1. Avoid terms like gay, bi, queer, etc.
Your non-straight sexual orientation should always be referred to as “same-sex attraction”. Because the three-letter word “gay” indicates making your sexuality the totality of your identity, then clearly the three-letter abbreviation of SSA does not! If you use LGBT+ language, then you will look too liberal for the theological gatekeepers for your voice to recommended as authoritative. You might get away with using it if you frame yourself as similar to someone calling themselves an “alcoholic” and naming their sin; or maybe as a missiological vocabulary to reach lost souls.
2. Frame your sexuality as purely a struggle.
Your sexuality might be a thorn in your flesh, stumbling block, cross, or temptation, but it certainly can’t be a blessing. Do not talk about your queerness as a connection to a beautiful subculture or community. Anything associated with your sexuality besides suffering will result in people assuming that you are playing “identity politics” or “creating an identity based on sinful inclinations”. For most conservative folks, they see queerness through a lens of sexual sin and not a relation to beauty in this world or in other people.
3. Add a qualifier of hope to your “persistent same-sex attractions”.
Make it abundantly clear that even though it’s not required to become straight, you pray that God will heal you of your gayness in the future. There might be a way to get around this one; you could at least lament your attractions like Paul’s thorn in his flesh. You will need many justifications for why you do not trust God enough to let go of your broken sexuality (as if gay orientations are the only kinds of broken sexualities).
4. Do not enter into celibate partnerships or vowed friendships with other people of the same sex.
This is definitely a dealbreaker. Your credibility on this topic will be utterly comprised if you are living celibacy in a community of two. If you are partnered and celibate, you will have virtually no platform in conservative spaces, even traditional LGBT+ Christian spaces. If you are not in one of these partnerships, you may be able to say positive things about them on occasion as long as you add warnings that they are “risky” and not for most LGBT+ people. In addition to this, your conception of “family” should be strictly reduced to the straight nuclear family; no concept of queer family allowed.
5. Do not use your cisgender voice to support trans folks.
Discussing trans experiences will have you immediately written off as a social justice liberal with no theological credibility. As sloppy as the Church is at helping sexual minorities, it’s nothing compared to the lack of education on gender minorities. You will look like you’ve gone off the deep end if you suggest using preferred pronouns or calling a trans person by their new name.
6. You’re allowed to talk about singleness but talk about marriage more.
The Church is improving on discussing the role of singles in the local church. Gay celibates are sometimes welcome to share the hardships of singleness (it’s better than partnerships at least) but they must realize these problems could be solved through a mixed- orientation marriage (marrying someone of the opposite sex). If you say God is not calling you to marriage, you may be accused of not trusting God.
7. You must conform to a narrow view of gender.
Your clothing choices, tone, and gestures can’t be “too gay” if you want to share your experience as a sexual minority. If you’re a gay man who likes makeup and feminine clothing and says “Yaaas” while sipping your iced coffee, then no platform for you! You will be given direction on “biblical manhood” with a list of rules that are ironically absent from the Bible.
8. Do not speak positively about your non-celibate, progressive LGBT+ siblings.
If you call your LGBT+ friends fellow believers who disagree on a nuanced issue, that crosses a line of fellowship. You must frame yourself as the obedient Christian and them as disobedient sinners who only care about the desires of the flesh. Any hint of extending grace on this complex theological topic will raise eyebrows, following with accusations that you are watering down the Gospel or relativizing morality. You must reject any kind of statement that would suggest your friends in same-sex relationships have anything to teach you in becoming more like Christ.
9. Do not attempt to exercise any spiritual wisdom as a lay celibate.
You can’t rebuke or correct homophobia for fear of being labeled an insubordinate. You can’t disciple anyone. You can rarely serve in leadership if you’re out of the closet. The default assumption is that you cannot possibly have any insight to offer people on this issue because you’re biased (as if straight people who have been conditioned to dehumanize and despise gay people are any less biased).
10. Don’t hang out with a lot of LGBT+ folks.
If you spend significant amounts of time with non-straight Christians, there will be concerns that you are isolating yourself from church and community, as if you’re in a queer bubble. Although surprisingly, you won’t hear anyone complaining about a straight bubble when most people hang out exclusively with heterosexuals. There’s also a hidden assumption that gay people are not part of the Body of Christ with their own gifts to minister to others. It’s imperative for you to stop hanging out with “stumbling blocks” and start spending time with actual Christians.
I understand that progressive Christians possess a narrative that is a tougher sell; that God blesses same-sex sexual relationships as marriages. But the idea that my story is one the scores points is simply false. My story rarely goes well when I share it with conservative Christians even after telling them I accept and follow the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality. When straight Christians respond positively, it’s a rare surprise. Usually at best, Christian friends say nothing; at worst they gossip or say dehumanizing things.
I see myself in a position where I deeply know and love many LGBT+ Christians with a wide array of perspectives. I can easily point to acquaintances in diverging camps and say, “Yep, those two would click as good friends easily” and yet, they’ll never meet because of this ideological wedge. We assume based on the answers to the questions “What is marriage?” and “In what context is sexual activity pleasing to God?” that we know all the elements of someone’s story, worldview and their perception of us. I’m just as guilty of this and I want to do better.
If you’re a progressive Christian, sit with my rule guide above and ask yourself if your imagination of celibacy is broad enough to accurately level a statement like, “Anthony’s narrative is just his way of appeasing conservatives”.
If you’re a celibate LGBT+ Christian, take my rule guide and throw it in the trash.