Excerpt: The confusion is simply this: our queer bodies tell us one thing and Heidi tells us the Bible tells our queer bodies to be something else, but that’s OK because she loves us. Even straight people find that confusing.
HOUSTON, TEXAS. by REV. STEPHEN PARELLI. JANUARY 12, 2016
On my first full-day at the Gay Christian Network annual conference, meeting in Houston, Texas, January 2016, I met a gay man, my age mate, who told me that for the past twenty years he has lived his gay Christian life committed to celibacy, but no more. Relatively recently, a pastor of a Southern Baptist church from his home state told him he could fully embrace his sexual orientation as a gift from God and enter into a same-sex marriage if he so desired. The man was, to use the expression, bursting with joy as he told me this. After all, he’s been twenty years on “Side B” of the Side A/Side B mutually exclusive options showcased at the Gay Christian Network.
He told me that prior to his commitment to celibacy he had been living in a wonderful gay relationship, that sadly his partner had died, and that subsequent to his partner’s death he became a “born again” Christian and, under the guidance of his first-ever evangelical pastor, committed himself to celibacy.
SIDE A AND SIDE B
Side A and Side B are the labels used at the Gay Christian Network to distinguish between the two major opposing opinions which to a very large degree, but by no means completely, defines what it means to take part in the on-going conversations within the Gay Christian Network at its annual conferences.
Side B believes its ok to be gay and Christian; you just can’t ever be in a loving relationship in which intimacy would include sex. Side A believes its ok to be gay and Christian and that you can enter into a sexual relationship with a committed same-gender partner. Both use scripture to defend their respective positions.
In orientation class at the conference for first time participants – like myself, a first time attendee – we were informed that both sides of the debate have existed right from the inception of the Gay Christian Network and that tolerance, mutual respect and the use of “I statements” is the glue that holds Side A and Side B together year after year during the annual conferences which, this year, ran from Thursday evening to Sunday night, January 7 – 10. After the conference, I assume, Side A and Side B ministries will go their separate ways to their separate spheres of influence and continue their year-round activism as either marriage equality proponents like The Reformation Project (Side A) or celibacy defenders like Love Boldly (Side B).
MISTY IRONS, A POWERFUL PROPONENT FOR CELIBACY
Misty Irons, a proponent of the Side B celibacy position, was the speaker in the second general session. She told her audience of around 1,500 people that she would if she could be a Side A proponent, and that she did mentally place herself on the Side A side of the debate to see if she could be comfortable there, but that it lasted only minutes. She had to return to the Side B position that gay Christians must remain celibate.
In the same talk, Irons told her audience that the evangelical “ex-gay” movement had admittedly failed – a movement that, since the 1970s, had claimed that Jesus can change homosexuals. If I recall correctly, cheers went up in the room when she noted the fact that the one-time oppressive “ex-gay” movement is now debunked. I found it a conundrum that Irons, a Side B proponent for celibacy, would expose the “ex-gay” movement as a myth while defending celibacy, the exact same practical outcome of the “ex-gay” movement. No matter how I tried to tease it a part, I could not find the silver lining in Iron’s Side B position of celibacy verses the “ex-gay” hope-for-change celibacy which she rejected.
Actually, the major ex-gay leaders of the 1990’s – in all their books, to a one – while the titles on their book covers promised “hope” and “change” and “coming out of homosexuality” – the pages within these books told a different story, that “change” is another word for employing life-long coping skills, that really there is no change, that instead there is just decade after decade of celibacy or, if one choses, a mix-orientation marriage for those who claim to have changed enough to marry. (See my “ex-gay” paper; a digest of the paper was published in Gay and Lesbian Review.)
I could see no real practical difference between Iron’s position on celibacy and the “ex-gay” movement’s position on celibacy.
HEIDI, FOUNDER OF LOVE BOLDY – A MINISTRY ESPOUSING CELIBACY
Thursday evening, the first evening of the conference, Antonio Spiridonov of Russia and I had the privilege of dining with Heidi M. Weaver, Founder and President of Love Boldly. We happened to arrive at the same local restaurant at the same time wearing our conference badges. Not knowing who she was, we asked her to join us, something the conference encourages its attendees to do.
Love Boldly, Heidi told us, is a Side B ministry. Heidi, herself straight, started her ministry after getting to know gay men on a one-to-one personal basis, talking here, talking there with gay people. Now, she says, she tells pastors and churches that “Hey, the LGBT community is not so bad a bunch of people once you get to know them” and that as long as queer Christians promise to live their lives as though they are all asexual, then the church should welcome them in.
This she calls Love Boldly, another “bait and switch” title like the “Coming Out of Homosexuality” titled-book I own from the 1990s. How telling me to live a celibate life is loving me boldly, I’ll never know. And, how talking to gay men led her to be a proponent of celibacy for gay men is a riddle without an answer. Either Heidi isn’t listening or gay men aren’t talking. Or, she simply needs to have a frank conversation with her straight male friends about men and sex . It’s kind of important, sex. And in a relationship where love and intimacy flourish, then meaningful, fulfilling sex (whatever that might look like for the couple) is the gift we give our spouses and ourselves (if we can).
SHE DOESN’T REALLY KNOW GAYS
Back in our room at the conference hotel Antonio said, “Heidi doesn’t know me!” He did not say, “Heidi doesn’t speak for me,” but more perceptively, “Heidi doesn’t know me!” In other words, Heidi who has built her ministry on knowing gay men really doesn’t know gay men, not if she can call them to a life of celibacy. [Note: It was Antonio who told me his statement must be written with an exclamation point.]
Side A/Side B really does, to a very large degree, characterize the Gay Christian Network annual conference, and if you get too much of the Side B interaction, it can be a downer, just like it was for Antonio.
WHY THE SIDE B PHENOMENON?
That said, I did some reflecting. What is the elation so many gay Christians are experiencing here, and expressing here, at the conference, and what is the reason for the Side B phenomenon, and how are these two things – elation and the allowance for Side B (celibacy) – interconnected when they seem so mutually exclusive: “Hey, I’m elated; God loves me as gay; now let’s go live in the hole of celibacy!” – That doesn’t work too well.
The answer is really quite simple. Let me first talk about the elation part, then the Side B phenomenon which is really all about being Bible-focused to the exclusion of extra-Biblical sources.
TO ILLUSTRATE: EX-GAY AND REPARATIVE THERAPY
To illustrate the elation part of what is happening at Gay Christian Network in spite of the presence of Side B celibacy proponents, let me begin with my own life experiences as an example.
At age 43, in 1996, as a closeted gay Baptist pastor, I discovered “ex-gay” ministries in the classified section of the magazine Christianity Today. I was coming apart at the seams emotionally and mentally and was thrilled that such a ministry existed. At long last I would be able to look square in the face of another gay Christian man like myself and talk, and ask, and tell him what it is like to be Christian and gay. Through the classified ad, I found an ex-gay support group in my area and as I drove to my first ex-gay meeting I cried all the way. I was elated, my crushed soul at last broke open and tears flowed uncontrollably. Yes, someone like me really exists.
Subsequently, and even more importantly to illustrate my point, I was in weekly counseling sessions with Reparative Therapist Joseph Nicolosi of NARTH for a period of about nine months, a man nationally despised by the queer community for his practice of Reparative/Conversion Therapy. In spite of his well-deserved infamous reputation within the gay community and the professional world of psychology, I will always be grateful for the counseling sessions I had with Nicolosi for the simple reason that on at least two counts he decidedly impacted my life in real significant ways. In addition, Nicolosi was literally my life line for the duration of my counseling sessions with him.
In both cases, in the final analysis, Reparative Therapy and “ex-gay” were dead-end streets for me, just like Heidi’s Love Boldly will be for the church and the queer community. Neither Reparative Therapy nor “ex-gay” could give me what I now have – an 18 year marriage with a life-partner I dearly love. (Ironically, I did meet my spouse at an “ex-gay” support group and Nicolosi did give me permission to hold my now-spouse for days at a time. In both cases, “ex-gay” and Reparative Therapy gave me exactly what they tried to withhold from me. Similarly, a Love Boldly seminar on celibacy might just be the place you’ll meet your spouse.)
For a brief moment, “ex-gay” and Joseph Nicolosi, the first-ever contacts by which I had any sense of “love” as a gay man (except my now ex-wife who knew I was gay before we married), filled me with elation, hope, and a willing commitment to carry on in the program each were offering me. It was great for the time being! Thankfully however, within 18 months I was done with both “ex-gay” and Reparative/Conversion Therapy. I fortunately saw them for what they were largely because I read the books both Nicolosi and the ex-gay leaders had written.
Now, let’s apply my “ex-gay”/reparative-therapy feelings of elation to the phenomenon of Side B (celibacy) and love-starved evangelical gay Christians who attend the Gay Christian Network. It should be obvious. We need love, acceptance and validation, and sometimes we’ll settle for celibacy (or “ex-gay” or Reparative Therapy) if it means we can belong to the larger evangelical group, church or family.
STORIES THAT HURT AND THE ELATION THAT FOLLOWS
Here’s a perfect example right from the conference. One young attendee told this story. As staff member in ministry at an evangelical church, he felt he should tell his pastor that he is a gay man and that as long as he is a minister of the church he would remain single. Upon telling the pastor, the pastor immediately fired him.
Now he learns about Side B gay Christians and he’s elated. “Wow,” he says, “I’m talking face-to-face with other committed gay evangelicals who have chosen to remain celibate as long as they are in ministry!” Or, he’s elated because he meets a Heidi M. Weaver who tells him that as a straight ally she would have told his pastor gays should be loved if they choose to remain celibate. He’s elated because unlike his pastor who could not love him at all, Side B loves him in the exact same context he was loving himself, i.e, that God does not judge the same-sex attraction orientation but only the sinful “lifestyle” of marriage equality. He is loved and he is reinforced in his view that God judges all same-gender sex acts.
At this stage, he’s getting a lot. He gets love. He gets validation. He gets the fellowship of other celibate gay Christians. He’s elated. It is just like attending an “ex-gay” support group for the first time. But the returns on celibacy will be forever decreasing over time. Like “ex-gay” and Reparative Therapy, celibacy is a dead end street for gay Christians. It amazes me that Side B cannot see the history in which they are living. Reparative Therapy and “ex-gay” have both been widely denounced by professionals, and the evangelical “ex-gay” ministry has openly confessed its own moral and ethical failings. How do Side B proponents not see their irrelevancy in the lessons of living history?
One former Side B person told me he had adopted celibacy for four years. He said it was lonely. He said people committed to celibacy whom he knew seemed lost and adrift. It was depressing for him. He said it was four years of his life wasted, which is something you would hear former “ex-gay” people say all the time about their lost years in “ex-gay” support groups.
Another person, perhaps in his 50s, told me he was confused over the Side A/Side B debate and that in addition to the confusion, he had never met a same-sex married couple before me and that my marriage of 18 years told him it could happen, that he could trust the idea of a long-lasting marriage. He said he had always put having a relationship out of his mind because he had never seen it modeled. Obviously, Side B won’t model marriage for him.
Another attendee, an evangelical mom of a gay son told other like-mothers, as they sat in a circle, that her gay son has left the church and denounced God all together. He confesses to be an atheist. She’s hoping for his return to the church. A simple observation: What’s the likelihood of her son returning to evangelical faith if the church is a Side B church. Here’s the message: we love you, just remain sexless for the rest of your life. To be sure, it isn’t about the sex per se, it’s about the audacity of the church telling the gay community how to live out their same-sex attraction orientation (celibate) while making the claim to love and welcome him or her into the church. This is not loving us boldly.
Talking to another man, perhaps in his late 40s, at the final event of the conference, he told me he’s confused. He has a university professor in love with him who wants to marry him. He wants to do what is right. Is Side A right or is Side B right? In the eyes of God, can he marry or must he remain single throughout his life?
THE DARK SIDE: SIDE X
One workshop presenter, a straight ally Side A person (gay Christians can marry) became a Side A person only after becoming a Side B person. He became a Side B person (celibacy) only after abandoning his position and practice of having personally separated from all queer people. Some have called this the Side X position, to have to separate from all queer people. He called it the Side X position, too. I gather Side X is, for example, the evangelical parents who would throw their son or daughter out of the house for simply disclosing their sexual orientation. For this workshop presenter, to have moved from Side X to Side B, it must have been a major eye-opening upheaval for him. And that’s where the elation comes in. Any major shift in one’s world and life view, as scary as that can be, can also be euphoric, a spiritual experience.
And, in my opinion, that is what is happening for some at the Gay Christian Network when attendees are euphoric in spite of the low bar of expectations they are offered by the Side B position.
HER PARADIGM SHIFT IS NOT ENOUGH
Which brings me back to Heidi M. Weaver and her major shift from her Side X experience to her Side B ministry (that gays must remain celibate). During our Thursday evening diner, Heidi conveyed that at one time, as an evangelical (which she still is), she had had the most absolute horrific disgusting opinion of gays as people. She conveyed that she saw them as part of the failing moral fabric of American society. But her views of gays as people changed when a gay friend invited her to investigate for herself if gay people were as bad as she thought. So she did just that, starting in a gay bar, meeting LGBT people. Her personal change of mind from “gays are awful people” to “gays are just like everyone else” was a major paradigm shift for Heidi. The experience was, no doubt, somewhat euphoric, revelatory and epiphany-like. It must have been because she’s started a whole ministry around her experience.
If celibacy and Love Boldly is the best evangelical churches can do in America for her gay evangelical children, then they are taking us back to the dark ages of the 1970s inception of the oppressive, misguided evangelical “ex-gay” movement.
Heidi is elated about her experience; she does bring to the conference her fascinating story of a paradigm shift and how she now loves the queer community. But her love is all conditioned on celibacy. In the end, she loses the LGBT community and she confuses first-time seekers, gay or straight. The confusion is simply this: our queer bodies tell us one thing and Heidi tells us the Bible tells our queer bodies to be something else, but that’s OK because she loves us. Even straight people find that confusing.
THETHERED TO THE BIBLE
The second component to understanding the phenomenon of the Side A/Side B debate (and this is the key to understanding evangelicals in general, whatever the issue), is this: Evangelicals are forever tethered to the Bible. Like a ball tethered to a pole, it must remain attached to the pole to play the game. The pole for evangelicals is the Bible, and to play the game, well, there’s no removing the ball (which is the subject in question, like homosexuality in this case) from the pole (the Bible). We can play the ball one way, or the other way, but it must always go around the pole, the Bible. American evangelicals have been playing tether ball (whatever the topic) with each other for decades, hitting the ball back and forth against each other: the Bible says this, no the Bible says that. (Here’s my view on what the Bible does and does not say about homosexuality, I, too, can play tether ball with evangelicals.)
ANOTHER APPROACH TO THE BIBLE
John Wesley, father of Methodism, had a different idea when it came to revelation and knowledge for the discerning Christian. The Bible is but one source for truth. He maintained there are three other sources outside of the Bible for knowing truth, one of which encompasses experience. If our Bible interpretation doesn’t square with overall life experiences, then most likely it is our Bible interpretation that is incorrect and not what everyone else in the world is experiencing.
Evangelicals tend to say we must never trust experience; that we are to bring every experience under the scrutiny of what the Bible is saying. Experience can be wrong, the Bible never. This is the reason we had the “ex-gay” movement and it is the reason we now have a Side B celibate position: The Bible and our view of the Bible and the place we evangelicals give it in our lives (which some have called bibliolatry which is the worship of the Bible).
Sunday evening, before the final food-and-fun event at a local establishment, some of the conference attendees enjoyed the pool and jacuzzi during the late afternoon free time. At the jacuzzi, I met an interesting evangelical lesbian couple who have been together for about three years now. The younger of the two was in her early twenties. She told me she knows what she feels as a lesbian and that the Bible can’t supersede her feelings. Without ever having heard of John Wesley, she had the common sense of a John Wesley. In this way – trusting her experience, she was totally free of the evangelical Bible-only mindset. On the other side of the Bible-only-vs-experience divide, her evangelical/fundamentalist family tethered to the Bible only, had totally ostracized their daughter.
WHAT MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONALS WOULD SAY
On the third night – Saturday following the testimonials, in a phone call to my husband, I told him the Side B thing was wearing on me. When I told him some of the above stories I was getting from attendees, and what some of the Side B speakers were saying, he became indignant with the thought that celibacy was being prescribed by some who are referencing themselves as LGBT allies. He’s a guidance counselor in the Bronx public schools. It matters to him when people get caught in the cross-fire. “There isn’t a mental health professional out there that would support stipulated-celibacy for gay people (Side B)” he said, and then continued to expound on this so much so, and so intelligently, that I insisted he must write a blog one day.
ARE EVANGELICAL GAY CHRISTIANS EVER REALLY FREE?
At the end of our first full day at the conference, Friday night, and back in our hotel room, I asked Antonio of Russia, the gentleman who travelled with me to the conference, what he thought of the conference so far. He’s only been in America since December 11, 2015; it is his first time outside of Russia, and he is gay and Christian and takes his faith seriously (I’ve watched him, he’s been living with my husband and me in our home since he arrived in the USA); and here’s what he told me, and I’m paraphrasing: “These gay Christians at the conference aren’t like the Maranatha gays of The Riverside Church back in New York City. The Riverside Church gays are free; they accept themselves; they seem open and happy. Here, at the Gay Christian Network conference, gays aren’t too accepting of themselves. I don’t get the same feeling with Gay Christian Network gays that I get with The Riverside Church gays.”
No wonder! Being evangelical does a number on you. After all, I was a Side B evangelical Baptist pastor until age 44 when, at last, I came out and left the ministry and began to live in integrity with myself. (See my spiritual journey after coming out.)
On Saturday evening at the general assembly in which individuals came to the mic to share their thoughts, Antonio of Russia said, “I’m proud to be gay and wish you to be proud too.”
A message direct from Russia. What about it gay Christian, are you proud to be gay? As far as Antonio is concerned, you appear to be beaten down to some degree, and the evangelical church can do just that! Are you holding back? And if so, what is keeping you from living out your sexual life like any other human being? Is it the Bible, God, or the church that is holding you back? If so, let it go. Let it go. Be free.
This blog was written in Houston, Texas, over a period of three days, from Saturday, January 9 to Monday, January 11, 2016. It was published to the Internet from Houston, Texas, on January 12, 2016. On Wednesday, January 13, 2016, in the Bronx, New York, a few minor word changes were made and a couple new phrases were added to, or deleted from, the blog.
Photos in this blog were taken by, and photo shopped by, Steve Parelli