I enjoyed this recent article on Outward about celibate LGBT Christians. What is the place of celibate people in the LGBT community? And what is the relationship among religion, the choice to partner or be celibate, and LGBT lives?
Although author Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart throws around “LGBT” and “LGBTQ” like free condoms at a Pride parade, the piece is really about celibate gay and lesbian Christians, as far as I can tell. These are not ex-gay culture warriors, but people who accept and openly share their gay/lesbian orientations, who choose a life of celibacy in accordance with their religious convictions. Unfortunately, celibate gay/lesbian Christians face ignorance and hostility both in their conservative Christian communities and in the mainstream LGBT community. This question is a bit different for trans people, as sex and marriage aren’t the be-all, end-all of acceptance issues for us. However, I think there are also some transgender people who embrace their gender identities and choose celibacy based on the teachings of their traditions.
First, I’d like to say I have total respect for all LGBT people who are making meaningful lives that work for them. We’re not all the same, and we don’t have to be. We can respect each other and work together, and live very different lives–indeed, we already do.
One complaint with the article: Vitiello Urquhart sets up a dichotomy between religious, celibate, LGBT Christians on the one hand, and the mainstream, secular LGBT community on the other. These two groups both exist, but they are far from the whole story.
This convenience obscures several important axes of diversity among LGBT people. First, of course, Christianity is not the only religion with LGBT followers. There are many LGBT people within Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Native American religions, etc. Within these religions are many communities, with different views on LGBT issues. And there are also many Christian communities that support sex and marriage for LGBT people.
I imagine this issue in terms of 4 possible perspectives:
Sex & marriage permitted
Sex & marriage permitted
To be complete, the conversation must span the full range of viewpoints in our community. That means including religions beyond Christianity, and viewpoints beyond just 1 and 4. Viewpoint 3 is held by pretty much no one and not all that relevant, so count that out.
But what about viewpoint 2–religious people who support sex and marriage for LGBT people? We make up sizeable contingents of both LGBT people and religious people. What those holding views 1 and 4 may not understand is that we support full inclusion for LGBT people directly because of our religious beliefs.
My own views on LGBT acceptance are grounded in my faith and the teachings of my tradition. This runs so deep, I’m not even sure how to capture it. I can cite verses and traditions that support my views, but really, this isn’t about one teaching–this about the basic orientation of Judaism to human life. Consider this story.
A man wanted to convert to Judaism, on one peculiar condition: that a rabbi could teach him the whole of the Torah while he stood on one foot (i.e., very quickly). The man went to Rabbi Shammai, who responded with anger and ridicule and chased him away. So the man went to Rabbi Hillel, who agreed. Rabbi Hillel said, “Treat others as you would like to be treated. That is the whole of the Law; the rest is commentary. Now go and study!”
Shammai and Hillel are epic foils, contrasted over and over in many stories like this one. Shammai takes the strict, literal, often cruel interpretation, while Hillel gives more lenient interpretations that place compassion first. The tradition favors Hillel, who is admired as a person of great wisdom and peace.
This reveals the core impulses of Judaism as I know it. Compassion is primary. Interpretation is a feature, not a bug. When the law causes a cruel result, we have misunderstood the law. Never mistake writings about the truth for Truth itself (the rest is commentary)–but return again and again to the wisdom of the ages (go and study).
This also relates, of course, to basic religious/culture attitudes about sexuality. In the Jewish tradition, there is no particular virtue seen in celibacy. If anything, chosen, lifelong celibacy could be seen as an abdication of the responsibility to form a Jewish home and raise Jewish children. I remember hearing a radio program in which a father contemplated his daughters’ futures, concluding, “It is perfectly fine if they marry women–so long as the women are Jewish” (to paraphrase). Indeed, in many Jewish communities in the US, inter-faith marriage is much more controversial than LGBT inclusion. In any city in the US, one can find a rabbi to bless a same-sex marriage or the marriage of a transgender person–but it can be really difficult to find a rabbi who will officiate an inter-faith ceremony. (For this very reason, my parents were married by a rabbi who’d recently been booted from his synagogue for having an affair with a congregant. He was the only one they could find willing to marry a Catholic and a Jew.)
This is in stark contrast to the Catholic tradition, for example, in which celibacy is valued in and of itself as an ascetic practice. People choose celibacy for many reasons, notably priests, monks and nuns. In such a context, LGBT celibacy is an entirely different proposition. I can see how celibacy could be a wonderful way of a life for, e.g., a gay conservative Catholic.
So often, the most important thing in life is the meaning we make. The requirement that LGBT people be celibate seems cruel and misguided to me, because in my culture, there is no good reason for such a requirement–and many good reasons against it. However, in other communities, there may be compelling, deeply felt motivations around this requirement, and fewer reasons to favor sex and marriage for LGBT folks. Of course, I truly believe my views are right–otherwise I wouldn’t hold them! Nonetheless I am honored to live in a pluralistic society in which we are free to pursue our convictions and continue our traditions. My greatest hope is not to be right, but to see human beings flourishing in peace with one another. Flourishing looks different for different people.
We share some very important views in common. We know that there is nothing wrong with being LGBT, that we were created this way, that we can’t change at will, that we are worthy of love and respect, that we are important members of our communities. In a world where many do not hold those views–and in fact advocate and enforce the exclusion, elimination, and silence of LGBT people–the question of celibacy versus partnership is a smaller issue.
It is a preposterous disgrace that celibate LGBT Christians would be made to feel unwelcome in LGBT spaces. It’s on us–the non-celibate majority–to find a better way. At the end of the day, there’s no debate here. We just have to believe each other when we talk about what is most important to us. Celibate Christians can respect our choice to marry and form families, and we can respect their choice not to.