WASHINGTON (RNS)—When Julie Rodgers came out as a lesbian at age 17, her mom responded by taking her to an ex-gay ministry in Dallas. Rodgers had grown up in a nondenominational evangelical church, where she assumed being gay wasn’t an option.
Rodgers, now 28, spent several years in Exodus, the now-defunct ex-gay ministry, before deciding she couldn’t become straight after trying to date men. Instead, she has chosen celibacy.
For years, those who were gay or struggled with homosexuality felt they had few good options—leave their faith, ignore their sexuality or try to change. But as groups like Exodus and reparative or conversion therapy have become increasingly unpopular, Rodgers is among those who embrace a different model—celibate gay Christians, who seek to be true to both their sexuality and their faith.
Straddling one of America’s deepest cultural divides, Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart wrote in a recent piece for Slate that celibate gay Christians present a challenge to the tolerance of both their churches and the secular lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Celibate gay Christians often find themselves trying to translate one side for the other. But frequently, neither side really understands what it’s hearing.
“We can be easily misunderstood, to put it nicely, by both sides of the culture war,” Rodgers said. “For those who have a more affirming position, it’s as if we’re repressed, self-hated homophobes, encouraging the church to stand in its position on sexuality. And conservative Christians think that those who shift on sexuality are being rebellious.”
Moving from ex-gay
Christians’ shift away from ex-gay therapy came amid larger cultural changes, including a wider societal acceptance of homosexuality and a rapid embrace of same-sex civil marriage.
In 2009, the American Psychological Association adopted a resolution that mental health professionals should avoid telling clients they can change their sexual orientation. Since then, California and New Jersey have passed laws banning conversion therapy for minors, and several other states have considered similar measures.
Earlier this year, the 50,000-member American Association of Christian Counselors amended its code of ethics to eliminate the promotion of reparative therapy and encouraged celibacy instead.
“Counselors acknowledge the client’s fundamental right to self-determination and further understand that deeply held religious values and beliefs may conflict with same-sex attraction and/or behavior, resulting in anxiety, depression, stress and inner turmoil,” the revised code says.
Mark Yarhouse, a Regent University psychology professor who has done research on ex-gay Christians, just now is beginning to study celibate gay Christians. “Evangelicals are so enamored with marriage, it’s been hard for them to value singleness and celibacy,” he said.
Some Christians left ex-gay ministries and eventually began to embrace a position more affirming of gays and lesbians. Josh Wolff, a gay 2009 graduate of Biola University’s Rosemead School of Psychology who is now a licensed clinical psychologist, said he went to reparative therapy for nearly two years before fully embracing his sexuality.
“I’ve seen a real shift away from some of the language (that) you need to go to counseling, you can experience healing that can make you straight,” Wolff said. “When Exodus came forward and said, ‘We’re sorry for some of the harm that we’ve done,’ I think it was a wake-up call to many members of faith communities that for the vast majority of people, these treatments don’t work.”
Celibacy is a better trend for Christians than conversion therapy was, said Alan Chambers, who led Exodus before shuttering it last year.
“Celibacy is an age-old concept, so I think it’s a great option for a lot of people. People have been so afraid of it,” Chambers said. “The only option before it was to stay completely silent or adopt this ex-gay mentality.”
Some evangelicals mine Catholicism’s centuries-old tradition of celibacy, said Wesley Hill, a professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry, who wrote Washed and Waiting, a 2010 book on being gay and celibate.
“They already have a rich history of celibacy that I had to discover as an evangelical,” Hill said. “Twenty years ago, being gay would be considered irredeemably bad, something to be delivered from or be changed. (Celibacy) leads me to form close bonds with friends, to have self-denial and sacrifice.”
Eve Tushnet, a 35-year-old whose book Gay and Catholic comes out in October, is fast emerging as a significant voice on sexuality and Catholic teaching.
“I felt like there’s a lot of things I don’t understand, but I can do my wrestling and doubting from within the church,” she said.
Tushnet grew up somewhere between agnosticism and Judaism, and when she became a Catholic in 1998, she didn’t know of other openly gay Christians who were following the church’s teaching on sexuality.
“Because marriage, the standard American solution to the problem of the human heart, is typically unavailable to gay Christians, we’ve had to confront loneliness earlier and more publicly than many of our peers,” she wrote in The American Conservative.
Spiritual Friendship, a blog for celibate gay Christians. Hill co-founded the blog with Ron Belgau, who grew up Baptist and converted to Catholicism at 24. Belgau said celibacy was one of the things that attracted him to the Catholic Church.For some like Tushnet, the loneliness of celibacy has been tempered by communities such as
“The ex-gay message was appealing, because the problem was solved, and we didn’t need to talk about it,” said Belgau, who spent some time in the Catholic Church’s Courage ministry that encourages celibacy for gays and lesbians.
“If you realize that a lot of people will have an ongoing attraction to same-sex and can be kept secret, you have to deal with as a church how we’re going to talk about this. With the ex-gay message, we can farm this out and continue with our nuclear family model.”
Major religious traditions, including the Roman Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), teach homosexuality only becomes sinful when a person chooses to act on it.
“Sanctification is not getting rid of our temptations, but pursuing holiness in the midst of them,” Moody Bible Institute professor Christopher Yuan wrote in Christianity Today. “If our goal is making people straight, then we are practicing a false gospel.”
But some Christians are debating whether identifying as gay or having a same-sex orientation is itself unbiblical.
Rosaria Butterfield, a former lesbian who rejects the “ex-gay” label and the movement behind it, disputes Burk’s interpretation of sexual orientation.
“The Bible doesn’t speak against attraction,” said Butterfield, a mother of four whose conversion story went viral after it was published in Christianity Today. “It speaks against attraction that becomes lust.”
While she affirms celibate gay Christians, she says they should not use “gay” as a descriptive adjective.
“The job of the adjective is to change the noun,” said Butterfield, who will speak at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s fall conference on sexuality. “Our sexuality exists on a continuum, but our Christianity does not.”