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.
“With ex-gay ministries, it gave me the space to be honest about my sexuality,” said Rodgers, now 28. Yet that same honesty eventually led her away from ex-gay ministries.
Rodgers 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.
When Exodus shut down in 2013, some said it spelled the end of ex-gay ministries that encourage reparative or conversion therapy for gays to become straight. Ex-gay groups such as Restored Hope Network stepped into the gap, but many religious leaders are now encouraging those with same-sex orientation or attraction to consider a life of celibacy.
For years, those who were gay or struggled with homosexuality felt like they had few good options: leave their faith, ignore their sexuality or try to change. But as groups like Exodus 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 LGBT community. Those 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 that 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.
A number of leaders of the ex-gay movement have renounced the very teachings they once embraced. John Paulk, who was once a poster boy for the ex-gay movement, apologized in 2013 for the reparative therapy he used to promote. Yvette Schneider, who formerly worked for groups such as the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America and Exodus, recently published a “coming out” interview with GLAAD calling for bans on reparative therapy. Last week, nine former ex-gay leaders denounced conversion therapy.
Mark Yarhouse, a Regent University psychology professor who has done research on ex-gay Christians, is just now 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 that’s 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,” said Chambers, who has been married to his wife for 16 years. “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.
In a 2013 study in the journal Symbolic Interaction, Hollins University sociologist S.J. Creek found that celibate gay Christians tend to prioritize their sexuality differently than others might, unwilling to compromise their Christianity.
For some like Tushnet, the loneliness of celibacy has been tempered by communities such as 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.
“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.”
Naming and claiming
The mere presence of self-identifying celibate gay Christians requires other Christians to wrestle with theological challenges, says Matthew Vines, a Presbyterian and author of God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. Vines doesn’t promote sex outside of marriage but believes gay Christians can make a theological case for same-sex marriage.
“It’s a subtle but significant shift,” said Vines, who is openly gay, of celibate gay Christians. “They’re saying, ‘There’s nothing wrong with being gay in and of itself,’ and that is a big change.”
In fact, that’s the teaching of major religious traditions, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Methodist Church and even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Homosexuality only becomes sinful when a person chooses to act on it.
Moody Bible Institute professor Christopher Yuan has been countering progressive messages like Vines’ with a more traditional message of celibacy for those who, like him, are attracted to the same sex. In his book review of Vines’ book for Christianity Today, however, Yuan, too, took a harsh look at conversion therapy.
“Sanctification is not getting rid of our temptations, but pursuing holiness in the midst of them,” Yuan wrote. “If our goal is making people straight, then we are practicing a false gospel.”
Some Christians are less eager to use the term “gay.” After Grady Smith’s widely shared article for the Gospel Coalition about coming out as a Christian while he worked for Entertainment Weekly, he also wrote a post about coming out as gay to other Christians. In an email, he said he regretted identifying as a “gay Christian” because of how it might define him as a person.
“I knew it was writerly and provocative and expressed attractions I've felt, and I hoped it was bridge-building,” he wrote. “But it in no way describes the life I am living ― and I think most people interpret ‘gay’ to mean the cultural box of the gay, sexually expressed lifestyle.”
Some pastors, like John Piper, a respected Minneapolis preacher and author, still encourage the possibility of change for those who have same-sex attractions. And some Christians are debating over whether identifying as gay or having a same-sex orientation is itself unbiblical.
“My conclusion is that if sexual orientation is one’s enduring pattern of sexual attraction, then the Bible teaches both same-sex behavior and same-sex orientation to be sinful,” Denny Burk, a biblical studies professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote in a blog post for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
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.”