Are Celibate Gay Christians Prohibited From Same-Sex Romance?

A question Kyle and I receive often is, “Do you consider yourselves to be in a romantic relationship?” As two Christian men who uphold a traditional ethic on sex and marriage (Side B), people are surprised when our answer is yes.

Let me explain. Side B is the belief that the covenant of marriage is a union of one man and one woman, and sexual intercourse is reserved for that union alone. Both Kyle and I come from Christian traditions that teach this ethic. As members of these churches, we are obedient to this doctrine. 

Many Side B Christians share their experience in blogs and testimonies of “being forbidden from romantic relationships with people of the same sex”. But I honestly don’t think they are forbidden from romantic relationships ,at least depending on what they mean by romantic. There are a few reasons why I find the term “romance” unhelpful as it relates to sexual ethics. 

1. Romance is too ambiguous of a concept

I’ve yet to hear a good working definition of what constitutes a romantic action or relationship. Is holding hands romantic? What about pouring a glass of champagne for your friend or partner?

I know romance when I see it; I’m just unsure of how to define it. When Kyle takes me out to dinner and sits in the booth beside me, it’s a romantic gesture; there’s special affection between us in our shared experience. But I have affections that are reserved for other friends too that wouldn’t be considered immoral.

It seems romance requires social and cultural context. I don’t see a relevant Scriptural passage for the Christian that prohibits romantic gestures between two people of the same sex, especially because friends engage in these gestures all the time. For example, if kissing is romantic, then David and Jonathan in the Old Testament must have been a gay couple. 

Without a clear working definition, I’m afraid prohibiting “romantic” relationships will only cause LGBT+ Christians to sever emotional intimacy from people of the same sex for fear of it turning into sin. 

2. Romantic doesn’t equal sexual 

This seems obvious to me. If we thought all romance was sexual, then Christians should force all unmarried heterosexual couples to be completely aromantic until marriage, lest they be flirting with sin. 

It doesn’t take a theologian to see a boyfriend buying his girlfriend a rose for Valentine’s Day as a romantic gesture but not a sexual one. It’s easy to sexualize every action between LGBT+ people because we aren’t acknowledging orientation as multi-faceted and complex; we only see queer people as walking sex drives. 

I’m thankful for Kyle taking me out on dates, placing his hand on my knee when I’m upset, or verbalizing compassionate affirmation without worrying that it’s the made-up sin of romanticism. 

3. Connecting romance to sex erases the experience of asexual people

This is a point I don’t have personal experience with, but we can take some wisdom from it. If sex and romance are inherently interconnected, then we risk marginalizing asexual (ace) people, many of whom have romantic relationships but not sexual ones. It’s possible for non-ace people to have romantic non-sexual relationships too, since gay people aren’t sexually attracted to every member of the same sex, or even desire a sexual relationship. 

In my experience, a virtue of the LGBT+ community is its commitment to platonic physical affection. I hold hands and cuddle with close friends I trust, but most Americans would see that as inherently romantic. 

4. Romance isn’t a necessary theological condition for marriage

This might surprise our contemporary culture, but I don’t think marriage has to be romantic in order to be a valid sacrament. If aromantic people are called to marriage, then  we should support them. Aromantic people can be capable spouses and parents. Certainly, not all examples of marriage in the Bible were romantic relationships. 

In my Orthodox tradition, marriage is the one-flesh union of husband and wife. Spouses manifest the Kingdom of God by supporting one another’s path to Heaven and raising in the faith any children that were conceived. Marriage reflects the intimacy of Christ and his Church in a physical, sacramental way. Adding romance as a necessary condition is extrabiblical.

Put it this way: In criticizing same-sex partnerships as “quasi-marriages” because they’re romantic, you may be just as guilty of revising the definition of marriage as progressives. Marriage isn’t about romance or shared living space, it’s a coming together of two spouses as “one flesh”. 

So what does this all mean?

My conclusion is that I find the whole idea of romance unhelpful as it relates to the morality of LGBT+relationships. Romance is a real, yet socially constructed concept. I know romance when I see it, even if I can’t always define it. 

For Side B Christians and their allies, I would recommend leaving the word “romance” out of your definition of marriage and clarify what you think is sexually permissible or impermissible in human relationships. Otherwise LGBT+ Christians may  waste time and anxiety worrying about sin that simply isn’t there. 

This is personal to us. Kyle and I have had friends and even clergy profess judgment  for our relationship because it was “too romantic”. This was done without taking the time to explore the dynamic of our relationship or providing an explanation for how our “romance” dishonors God. LGBT+ people should have the freedom to pursue holy same-sex love without having to struggle to articulate theological nuances every time they discuss people they are pursuing intentional friendships with. Even I struggle with this, and I love theology!

Are all celibate partnerships romantic? No. Is mine? Possibly, but I don’t always know exactly what that means. I know Kyle and I have many sins to work through as a celibate gay couple. . . but this isn’t one one of them. 

Celibacy as a Pair

In my previous relationships with women, there was always excitement from friends and acquaintances when my Facebook status changed from “Single” to “In a Relationship”. Last week, my relationship status did the same change, except this time it was “In a Relationship” with a man.

I met another guy, Kyle, in a “Side B” (traditional sexual ethic) LGBT Christian group, became friends, and realized there was mutual attraction. While we were certainly friends, there was mutual attraction and desire to orient our lives toward Christ together. This prompted several people to reach out to us, wondering if we’ve decided to abandon our traditional sexual ethic and eventually settle into a same-sex marriage.

We haven’t. Kyle and I are in the early stages of discerning a celibate partnership.

Since I’ve blogged and spoken rather publicly on my vocation to celibacy, I think it’s a fair question. Here are a few questions I’ve encountered. I hope these answers provide some clarity.

Has your view changed on celibacy or sexual ethics?

No. If you know me pretty well, you’ve probably heard me vocalize support for celibate same-sex partnerships in the last three years. Kyle and I both believe God is calling us to live our celibate vocations as a couple. We both hold to the definition of marriage set forth by our individual Christian traditions (Mine Orthodox; his non-denominational Protestant).

Do you see your relationship as a marriage?

We do not. Neither of us belong to a Christian tradition that blesses same-sex relationships as marriages and we do not see our church memberships changing. Even if both of us believed in a progressive sexual ethic, we wouldn’t see our relationship as a marriage. Sharing life together in love, intimacy, commitment, and trust is not exclusive to marriage.

Aren’t you opening yourself up to sexual temptation and sin?

Every human relationship contains sin, sexual or non-sexual. Of course we will sin against one another in some way, though I’m not sure that it will be sexual. Marriages open up the possibility of divorce and adultery, but it’s not a good reason to avoid marriage all together. Celibate partnerships have their own risks, but with good spiritual direction, boundaries, and communication they can be successful like any other relationship.

Aren’t you setting yourselves up for sadness and resentment trying to get as close to the line (marriage and sex) as possible?

We find this question quite odd. First, it assumes that our relationship is built on sexual attraction to one another, but that’s not why I find Kyle to be an attractive man and vice-versa. I’m attracted to the man that Kyle is, and that includes his passion for celibacy. Second, it assumes that every person needs or wants marriage or sex. Marriage is not the only valid way to live. We aren’t attempting to imitate marriage or a sexual relationship, because that is not the kind of life we feel called to. We are in a relationship precisely because Kyle makes me a better celibate and I make him a better celibate.  Both of us spend very little time fretting over line-drawing. When someone is asking “How much can I get away with before it becomes a sin?” then we know they are asking the wrong question.

You might not be having sex, but you are causing scandal. Using terms like partner, boyfriend, couple, and relationship give people the wrong idea.

It doesn’t bother or surprise me when people initially think Kyle and I are having sex. Most same-sex relationships are sexual. My issue is that this assumption isn’t applied consistently. Data from the National Survey of Family Growth stated that in 2002, 77% of Americans had sex by age 20, and of that percent, 75% had premarital sex. Public health reports in 2007 indicated this trend was only rising. Over 90% of people are heterosexual, so keeping this data in mind, aren’t non-married straight couples “causing scandal” when they publicly announce that they are in an exclusive, committed relationship? Shouldn’t we assume all straight couples are committing sexual sin until proven otherwise? My answer to this question is another question: Why are you thinking about what your Christian brother or sister may or may not be doing with their genitals?

If you two aren’t having sex, then aren’t you just friends? If you two choose to do life together eventually, then aren’t you just super close roommates?

First, we resent the phrase “just friends”. Friendship is a holy, beautiful vocation and is placed on the back-burner far too often in contemporary society. Second, Kyle and I are close friends. But the word “friend” doesn’t describe all the dynamics of our relationship. We are still in the early stages as a couple, but if we continue our relationship long-term, then our lives will look in such a way that goes beyond the common understanding of friendship. We would live together, share finances, write each other into our wills, care for one another if we become sick or unemployed, and call ourselves a chosen family. We are partners in ministry, along with being friends.

Did you come up with the idea of celibate partnerships on your own?

Many people who hear about our relationship have never heard of celibate partnerships before. That is understandable. LGBTQ people are already a minority. LGBTQ Christians, an even smaller demographic. LGBTQ Christians pursuing celibacy? Much smaller. LGBTQ Christians in celibate partnerships? Yeah, I know, it seems like you’re more likely to see a unicorn. But in our case, we both personally know several same-sex celibate couples, who belong to Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions. Some of these couples started out as sexual relationships and others didn’t. We are excited to learn from these couples and receive their feedback.

Are you saying this type of relationship is best for all LGBTQ people?

Absolutely not. Celibate partnerships are not the right vocation for everyone, just as marriage isn’t the right vocation for everyone.

Aren’t you two just stirring the pot? Why do you have to be public about your relationship?

This is probably the most hurtful question. We both think hiding our relationship implies we are doing something wrong. Relationships, romantic or otherwise, should be public because they invite celebration, joy, accountability, transparency, and support. Yes, some people find our relationship unnerving. That doesn’t mean it’s our responsibility to be quiet. Even deeper, both of us desire our relationship to be a Christian testament to holy same-sex love. This is a reality the Church must reckon with, whether She wants to or not. In the coming decades, same-sex couples and their families are going to convert to denominations with traditional teachings on marriage and sexuality. Is the Church really going to say these couples and their children must be broken up in order to live holy lives? Lord, have mercy; I hope not.

I hope this clarifies a lot for many. I’m incredibly excited for both of us as we walk together with Jesus Christ. Please keep us in your prayers; we will do the same for you.

I love you but…

This morning, I came across a heartbreaking post on a Facebook friend’s profile:

Received tonight from a great-grandmother (one of the most poignant responses I have received yet)…

“Thirty four years ago this week, our family created an unnecessarily empty chair at our Thanksgiving table. Earlier that Autumn of 1983, our second of four sons had revealed to my husband and me that he was homosexual. While the story is too long and intricate to share in detail in this forum, suffice it to say, we absolutely drove him away. Though we didn’t mean to, that is exactly what we did. We told him that we loved him BUT…and then he was gone. GONE. DISAPPEARED.

Oh, for sure, we felt righteously justified, year after year, by the emptiness of the chair — heartbroken but righteous, with the righteousness obviously more important to us than the heartbreak. After all, the Apostle Paul had taught in First Corinthians 5, ‘With such a one, do not even eat.’ So we didn’t. We were good Christians but terrible parents.

While a book could be, and deserves to be, written here, I just wanted you to know that our son died nine years later of AIDS. And while the people in our church ‘knew’ this was ‘the wages of sin,’ I knew then, and know now, it had nothing to do with his sin and everything to do with ours.

So please keep doing what you are doing and saying what you are saying. It matters.

P.S. This Thanksgiving, one of our granddaughters, who happens to be homosexual, sat in the chair of an uncle she doesn’t remember. And she said the Thanksgiving prayer. It was beautiful.

And I was heartbroken and grateful.

I look forward to the day when I can sit again at the table with her uncle and my boy. Heaven must give me the chance to tell him I am sorry.”

This was the first thing I read this morning. It hit me so hard that I started weeping. My familial estrangement isn’t related to my sexuality, yet so much of this story resonated with me. Placing the conjunction “but” on love in a vulnerable moment alienates LGBT people from the Church, rather than running to Her as Mother.

As a gay man, I never stop coming out. Every person I meet initiates a complex process of emotional calculation: When do I mention it to this person? Do I wait for it to come up naturally? What if they ask me a question about marriage or dating? Am I lying by omission if I answer a question vaguely? Is this person safe?

Coming out is a vulnerable ordeal, especially within the context of faith communities. A consistent response I receive from Christians when I come out is, “I love you, but I can’t support same-sex marriage” or “I love you, but I can’t support sin.” Setting aside the constant assumption of what my sexual ethic looks like or what does/does not happen in my bedroom, that response just doesn’t sit right with me.

To be clear, I’m not saying you need to adopt a liberal sexual ethic to love LGBT people. I’m not saying you can’t find specific sexual behaviors immoral while simultaneously loving sexual and gender minorities. I think LGBT people like myself find the “I love you, but…” response so frustrating because it’s uniquely applied to us and not to straight people.

Imagine if your friend broke down one day and shared the present difficulties within her marriage. I certainly hope your response wouldn’t be, “I love you, but I can’t support divorce.” Your response would assume a lot about her decisions, context, and culpability in the situation. It would also miss an opportunity to meet your friend’s need for love that she isn’t currently receiving from her husband.

Back to the original post:

What I love about the reflection from the woman in this story, is that she didn’t specificy what her current theological stance is on same-sex marriage and gay sex. She didn’t need to. She recognized sin as a communal disorder where her actions had the direct spiritual impact on her son. She repented. She is doing her best to love her granddaughter. And she earnestly looks to the day of Resurrection when “He will wipe every tear from [our] eyes” (Rev 21:4) and experience eternal communion with her son. This email could have been written by a woman who has a traditional sexual ethic or a liberal sexual ethic, and I’m genuinely grateful for her courage.

When I put in the emotional labor to tell you I’m gay, switch up the conjunction. Try: “I love you and nothing you just told me will ever change that.”