Just How Controversial Are Celibate Gay and Lesbian People?

This past Sunday, The Washington Post printed a story about the growing movement of celibate lesbian and gay Christians.  One of the leaders of this movement is Eve Tushnet, a convert to Catholicism who recently published a book on celibacy and friendship entitled Gay and Catholic.

Eve Tushnet

For the record, I have not read Tushnet’s book yet, but I have read other things that she has written and heard her speak. In some ways, I find her to be a very credible spokesperson for celibacy because, while embracing the orthodox Catholic position for lesbian and gay people, she never insists that everyone embrace this option.  She remains non-judgmental about lesbian and gay people who choose to be part of a committed sexual relationship.  Her primary form of argument is to explain why celibacy is a life-giving option for herself.  I applaud both her free decision to choose celibacy and the first-person way in which she addresses the topic.

The Post article seemed to be trying to search for a controversy in this topic.  For example, the reporter, Michelle Boorstein, seems to want to make it seem that celibate gay and lesbian people are not accepted by non-celibate ones.  She writes:

“. . . [T]hey are also met with criticism from many quarters, including from other gays and lesbians who say celibacy is both untenable and a denial of equality.

“ ‘We’ve been told for so long that there’s something wrong with us,’ said Arthur Fitzmaurice, resource director of the Catholic Association for Lesbian and Gay Ministry. Acceptance in exchange for celibacy ‘is not sufficient,’ he said. ‘There’s a perception that [LGBT] people who choose celibacy are not living authentic lives.’ ”

I have been working in the field of LGBT Catholic ministry for over 20 years, and I honestly do not ever remember anyone ever disparaging someone’s free choice for celibacy.  I disagree that a perception exists that those “who choose celibacy are not living authentic lives.”   It is true that many Catholics–gay, lesbian, heterosexual–perceive forced celibacy as a person’s only moral option to be not just inauthentic, but potentially damaging.  But that is different from people who freely choose celibacy as the way that will bring them most happiness and deepest connection to others and God.

Fitzmaurice’s statement that acceptance in exchange for celibacy is not sufficient is, however, a very important idea.  Celibacy should never be seen as something required for adults, and it certainly shouldn’t be an “admission ticket” for church participation.  I don’t disagree with Fitzmaurice here, but I do disagree with Boorstein seeing this part of his statement as an indication that celibacy is controversial.

Commenting on Boorstein’s article, Autumn Kunkel, writing at TheBGNews.com criticized this notion of celibacy as a requirement for acceptance into a faith community:

“. . . [T]here is absolutely nothing tolerant about someone saying, ‘I accept gays and lesbians as members of the Christian faith as long as they don’t have sex.’

‘This ideal, in and of itself, is homophobic and prejudiced. It’s dehumanizing.

‘It’s saying, ‘You can be an active member of this faith as long as you abide by special rules which no one else is required to follow.’

‘People who are born a certain way shouldn’t have to follow special rules just to be accepted. If they do, then they’re not really being accepted, are they?”

The controversy about celibate gay and lesbian Christians seems to come not from progressive Christians rejecting them but with conservative Christians being uncomfortable with their sexual orientation.   Boorstein quotes Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who while praising the option of celibacy, also is leery of self-identified gay and lesbian people:

“. . . Mohler said he believes that sexual orientation can change ‘by the power of the Gospel.’ He said he is not comfortable with the way in which some celibate gay Christians proudly label themselves as gay or queer.”

The article notes that there has been more opportunity for people to come out as gay and lesbian people in their faith communities, and that this new social phenomenon has encouraged those who are celibate to be a part of those revelations.

Billy Hallowell, writing about Boorstein’s article at TheBlaze.comsees that the celibate Christian movement forces people to rethink their ideas:

“Consider that embracing celibate gays forces some to concede that homosexuality might not be a choice after all; likewise, it also forces some critics to abandon the notion that it’s possible to change one’s sexuality.”

Hallowell, however, also oversteps the evidence and tries to make it seem that sexually active gay and lesbian people are at odds with those who are celibate:

“The dynamic tends to also frustrate gays and lesbians who are fighting for a level of marriage equality that would allow them to be in same-sex relationships, while also participating in church communities. To these people, celibacy simply isn’t an option.”

Again,  I don’t know any gay or lesbian people who feel that sexual activity is compulsory.  Quite the opposite.  Having been castigated so long for their sexuality, lesbian and gay people are usually more accepting than others of a person’s freedom to live a sexual life that is most life-giving for the individual.

Celibacy, like homosexuality, is not something that a majority of people experience.  As a result, like homosexuality, it can often be misunderstood, and even railed against.  Let’s pray for a day when all people are comfortable expressing their sexual identities and life choices in both church and society.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related posts

Bondings 2.0: Is Celibacy the New Form of Reparative Therapy for Lesbians and Gays?

Bondings 2.0: Mandating Celibacy for Gay People Reveals Deep Incoherence in Church’s Teachings


12 replies
  1. Sarah and Lindsey
    Sarah and Lindsey says:

    Hi. The two of us and our blog were featured in the Washington Post article. We know most of the people featured in the article, including Arthur Fitzmaurice. Arthur is a friend of ours, and we could never see him personally suggesting that celibate LGBT people live inauthentic lives. We took Arthur’s comment to mean that there is a *perception* amongst many non-celibates that celibates are living inauthentic lives. Our own experiences have shown us how true this is. We get significant criticism from conservatives who don’t want us to identify as gay, but the bulk of criticisms we receive come from non-celibate gay people and liberal allies who insist that we are self-loathing and that people like Eve, Joshua, and us are secretly trying to force everyone into celibacy. That may not be your experience, but it has been ours. Also, about the line regarding acceptance in churches: everyone we’ve spoken to who was featured in this article has objected to that line. We know very few people whose celibacy is motivated by a desire for greater acceptance in their parishes.

    • newwaysministryblog
      newwaysministryblog says:

      Thanks for your comment, Sarah and Lindsey. I know Arthur, too, and I did not mean to suggest that he thinks that that celibate gay and lesbian people are inauthentic. My disagreement with his statement was that I did not believe that there was even a perception that celibate gay and lesbian people are leading inauthentic lives. I don’t mean this to invalidate your experience at all, and I am very sorry to learn that you experience criticism from non-celibate gay and lesbian people and their allies. Perhaps the reason that I have not encountered such criticism is because I mostly deal with LGBT people of faith, primarily Catholic, and I think these people, on the whole, tend to be respectful of people’s sexuality and the many holy ways that are possible to live it. At least, that has been my experience.

      I have heard criticism, even from people of faith, of people who insist that celibacy is the requirement for every lesbian and gay person, even those who do not feel called to this way of life. I have also heard criticism of people who feel forced to live celibately, even though they would rather not do so. I don’t believe that either of these situations fit the people that the article was describing.

      As I stated in the blog post, and in a previous blog post, I think celibacy is a very authentic choice of lifestyle for those who are called to it.

      Thank you for your clarifications and thank you for your ministry of support and advocacy for people who desire to live celibately.

      Francis DeBernardo

  2. John ODonnell
    John ODonnell says:

    I would like to ask Rev. Al Mohler and others who believe one’s sexuality can be changed whether they have ever considered changing their sexuality from straight to gay; and, if not, why not?

  3. Friends
    Friends says:

    Perhaps you should clarify whether “celibacy” necessarily implies abstaining, not merely from direct physical communion with another human being, but from private sexual fantasy, self-stimulation and erotic dreaming as well. If the latter totalitarian abstentions are necessarily encompassed in the definition of celibacy, then you could probably count the number of genuinely celibate human beings on this planet without exhausting all ten of your fingers! Our Protestant and Jewish brothers and sisters seem to understand this basic fact. Why don’t Catholics understand it as well?

      • Friends
        Friends says:

        Good point. Amend it to say “erotic daydreams”, and we’ll be back in sync! My underlying contention is that totalitarian celibacy is a vanishingly rare attainment…and it hardly seems to be a necessary precondition for salvation — unless the number of people in Heaven would fit comfortably into a small bistro, with everyone else cast into the “Outer Darkness” by a wrathful God. Is this really the sort of “God” we would even want to hang out with…and for all eternity to boot? Something in the equation does not compute.

  4. Richard
    Richard says:

    Eve Tushnet may not believe in forced celibacy for gays and lesbians but the Roman Catholic Church does! In fact, they require it as a condition for access to the sacraments and for salvation itself!

    • Friends
      Friends says:

      Depends on which “Roman Catholic Church” you’re viewing and attending! There are gay-friendly parishes in a number of large cities — notably New York and San Francisco, but other significant cities as well — in which faithfully-partnered gay couples are welcomed into full participation, including Eucharistic participation. A whole lot depends upon the political and pastoral vision of the local pastor, as well as his boss, the diocesan bishop. It’s now very clear that Pope Francis’ own pastoral instinct is to be tolerant and accepting toward ALL professing Catholics, regardless of their sexual orientation. That’s what “Who am I to judge?” was about. But some of the ultra-conservative American bishops are simply not getting the message being sent from Rome. That’s the current conundrum. Is this explanation at least somewhat helpful?

      • John ODonnell
        John ODonnell says:

        The fact that welcoming gay couples, and singles, into full participation depends on the goodwill of a local pastor and his bishop is not acceptable. That welcome can change with a change in leadership. We must insist on nothing less than full acceptance of all sexual minorities in all places and at all times; it ought not be remarkable. Anything less is mere tolerance. Mere tolerance of racial minorities was seen as hatred under a different guise and is true of tolerance for sexual minorities.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] to the hierarchy’s articulation of Catholic teaching around homosexuality. Bondings 2.0 has covered this topic, which feature figures like Eve Tushnet and Joshua Gonnerman. Linker rightly suggests that […]

  2. […] see those comments but then I see other liberal blogs like New Ways Ministry writing about having respect for people like Eve Tushnet because she doesn’t insist that everyone embrace celibacy. As a heterosexual woman who cares […]

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