The already confused and conflicted world of gay Christianity has become a little more confused and conflicted lately. In July, Kevin Kanouse, an Evangelical Lutheran bishop, came out as gay, sharing personal feelings about growing up in a conservative social climate and voicing his respect for married same-sex couples—along with his personal determination to remain married to his wife. Bill Dickinson, a gay former Catholic priest, wrote about ways in which the Catholic Church could change its approach to LGBTQ people without reforming the church’s doctrine on sexuality. And earlier in the month, Julie Rodgers, a blogger in the “Side B” celibate Christian community, wrote of her evolution toward support for same-sex couples and resigned her position as a spiritual counselor at evangelical-affiliated Wheaton College in Illinois.
Discussions of these three brave statements on social media and in the LGBTQ blogosphere have tended to focus on the criticisms these three individuals made of their respective religious communities. But in addition to calling for change in conservative groups, each of the three underscored the values they still share with those communities, along with their hope that gays and lesbians could be welcomed into them. They did not reject those communities wholesale or say anything to suggest they’d joined the liberal consensus on sexual ethics.
When it comes to sexual matters, our country divides into those with a liberal sexual ethic and those with a conservative one (this sometimes, but not always, matches the political division between Democrats and Republicans). Those of us with a liberal sexual ethic place a high value on consent, freedom, and individual expression in sexual matters. Conservatives, on the other hand, emphasize stability, tradition, and obedience to authority instead. When those conservative views on sex are codified into law, it will inevitably lead to repression and punishment for those who do not share conservative sexual values. Liberal values, however, are completely consistent with allowing some individuals to choose stability, tradition, and obedience over personal expression. While we can’t, and shouldn’t, expect the queer community and its allies to practice tolerance toward the bigots and haters who would stop at nothing to bring us down, there’s nothing incompatible with the liberal stance if some individuals freely choose to follow religious teachings about sex and/or to abstain from sex outside of a lifelong romantic commitment.
If gay sexuality isn’t fundamentally different from straight sexuality—if the only difference between heterosexuals and homosexuals is the object of their attentions—then a conservative sexual ethic is no less compatible with being gay than it is with being straight. In the relatively brief history of the gay rights movement, we’ve seen the social stigma against gays and lesbians virtually eradicated in the most liberal, sexually awakened parts of the country. In more conservative areas, the gains have been slower, but the trends are clearly pointing toward increasing acceptance and integration of gays and lesbians throughout the country.
If this trend continues, trailblazers like Kanouse, Rodgers, and Dickinson are just the tip of the iceberg. As tolerance pushes outward from its old borders and into parts of the country where a more conservative, churchgoing culture persists, gays and lesbians who grew up in these areas will have less reason to remain in the closet, and young people raised in those cultures will feel less pressure to escape to more liberal climes. As this happens, we can’t expect them to conform to the liberal, sexually progressive model we’ve come to expect of members of the LGBTQ community. Instead, they’ll experiment with new ways of being gay, and of integrating a homosexual orientation into rich, full lives without losing their connection to the value systems they were brought up with. Whether the liberal LGBTQ community is flexible enough to accommodate new ways of being gay is a test of our liberal principles, and one with implications beyond a handful of celibate Christians and members of the clergy.
The question of whether the LGBTQ community can expand to encompass a wider variety of social and political stances is often framed as a debate between assimilationists and gay cultural separatists. In the past, I’ve accepted this dichotomy and argued playfully for the assimilationist side. The more deeply I think about this question, however, the more troubled I am about this way of framing what could also be seen as tensions between people of different cultures and experiences who share a crucial, but not all-defining, trait. Gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals can be found in every corner of the globe. They are rich and poor, old and young, black, white, and brown. The culture of progressive, sexually liberal gays—the culture most people still think of when they think about what gayness is—cannot and should not be expected to suffice for all. We’re seeing hopeful signs that conservative cultures may be capable of changing enough to allow a place for minority sexual expression. Mainstream gay culture, which until now has generally meant progressive and sexually liberal gay culture, needs to learn to show the same flexibility and openness to difference that we’ve demanded other groups show to us.