When Eve Tushnet converted to Catholicism in 1998, she thought she might be the world’s first celibate Catholic lesbian.
Having grown up in a liberal, upper Northwest Washington home before moving on to Yale University, the then-19-year-old knew no other gay Catholics who embraced the church’s ban on sex outside heterosexual marriage. Her decision to abstain made her an outlier.
“Everyone I knew totally rejected it,” she said of the church’s teaching on gay sexuality.
Today, Tushnet is a leader in a small but growing movement of celibate gay Christians who find it easier than before to be out of the closet in their traditional churches because they’re celibate. She is busy speaking at conservative Christian conferences with other celibate Catholics and Protestants and is the most well-known of 20 bloggers who post on spiritualfriendship.org, a site for celibate gay and lesbian Christians that draws thousands of visitors each month.
Celibacy “allows you to give yourself more freely to God,” said Tushnet (rhymes with RUSH-net), a 36-year-old writer and resident of Petworth in the District. The focus of celibacy, she says, should be not on the absence of sex but on deepening friendships and other relationships, a lesson valuable even for people in heterosexual marriages.
Celibate Christian LGBT people are stepping out into the open for the same reason LGBT people in general are: Society has become so much more accepting, including in religious circles. But among conservative Christians, efforts toward more acceptance have collided with the basic teaching that sex belongs only among married men and women. The celibacy movement helps reconcile those concerns.
However, they 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.”
The reaction among church leaders themselves has been mixed, with some praising the celibacy movement as a valid way to be both gay and Christian. But others have returned to the central question of how far Christianity can go in embracing homosexuality — even if people abstain from sex.
Al Mohler, president of the flagship Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and one of the country’s most respected conservative evangelical leaders, said in an interview that there is “growing and widespread admiration” for Tushnet and others, including Wesley Hill, an evangelical scholar who founded the spiritualfriendship blog.
Given that LGBT people are coming out and “being welcomed,” he said, “it is now safe and necessary to discuss these things aloud in evangelical churches — and that’s hugely important.”
But echoing the ambivalence of some conservative Christians, 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.
“Even if someone is struggling with same-sex attraction, I’d be concerned about reducing them to the word ‘gay,’ ” Mohler said.
Josh Gonnerman, 29, a theology PhD student at Catholic University, writes for the spiritualfriendship site and speaks easily about embracing his gayness. When he came out in the mid-2000s, Gonnerman says, church leaders weren’t speaking about celibacy because they had “sort of thrown their lot in with the Republican Party” and wouldn’t talk inclusively in any way about LGBT people. The LGBT group he and Tushnet are part of at Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, he said, has gone from more of a “support group” to something more upbeat that organizes social and spiritual activities for members — not all of whom accept church teaching on celibacy.
“There is this shift from the more negative to the more positive,” he said. “In the past, the Catholic approach was: ‘Oh, sucks for you’ [that you’re gay]. The emphasis was on the difficulty. Celibacy is being reimagined.”
Julie Rodgers was hired this fall to engage frankly with these topics. A lesbian, she is the first staffer charged with serving the gay and lesbian community in the chaplain’s office of Wheaton College, a highly prominent evangelical school in Illinois.
Raised in a conservative Southern Baptist home in Texas, Rodgers went through years of now-discredited “reparative therapy” — a practice purported to turn gay people straight that many conservative churches are abandoning. After deciding it was damaging, she embraced celibacy.
Rodgers avoids speaking too judgmentally but says she “can’t get behind” the idea that God would bless a same-sex relationship. She is focused, she said, on trying to heal injustices done to gay people by the church.
“Evangelicals are really trying to figure out what to do. There is a real panic about how to move forward. How do we think and talk about sexuality? We haven’t had a robust understanding around celibacy in the past,” she said. “We are trying to find a congruence between faith and spirituality that does not try to align with traditional marriage but does recognize that we can live without sex, but we can’t live without intimacy.”
But what does that intimacy look like, specifically?
The desire of these new celibacy advocates to emphasize the positive and to not have LGBT people defined by their sex lives has left what can look like a gaping hole: Virtual silence on the difficulty of not having sex. Or about sex in general. Many of the essays on the blog tend toward the academic, removed from physical human passions or desires.
Some say they are simply hesitant to speak or write publicly about topics, such as whether it’s okay to think about sex, or to masturbate, and whether they find celibacy difficult. Gay Christians considering or trying celibacy do sometimes discuss such things in private settings, Gonnerman says.
Tushnet, a writer, anticipates some of these questions in her memoir “Gay and Catholic,” which positions her as kind of a non-judgmental Dear Abby to the celibate LGBT set.
“How do I deal with crushes? In terms of physical affection, how far can you go?” she asks in a “Frequently Asked Questions” section in her book.
She urges people not to focus so much on the sex they can’t have and instead find other places to pursue intimacy, such as deeper friendships that could be seen as spouselike, co-living arrangements, public service and the arts as ways to express intimacy.
“I use the image of a kaleidoscope — the jewels inside are desires. If you turn it one way, it’s lesbianism. If you rearrange them, it can be community service or devotion to Mary,” she said during a recent interview.
But Tushnet knows her background makes it hard for her to identify with so many gay and lesbian people who experienced rejection and exclusion, having grown up in a nominally Jewish home in upper Northwest Washington, the daughter of two liberal law professors, and graduating from the liberal bastion of Yale. Before she became celibate, she had a positive experience in the mainstream gay community — something she thinks makes her a good envoy for celibacy.
“You can see love, solidarity and beauty in gay communities and still believe there is even more love and beauty in Christianity,” she says.
More typical is the experience of Charleigh Linde, 24, who said she was sick of “lying all the time” and came out last year to her community at the conservative evangelical megachurch McLean Bible, in Vienna, which she calls incredibly warm — “like family.” Her pastor told her she could remain as a leader of young adult ministry but only if she was celibate. Many at the church told her that they were praying for her to become straight, yet several of her McLean friends went with her last month to a conference called the Reformation Project, where hundreds of gay Christians trained at ways to promote what they see as full equality — not celibacy — at their conservative churches. These are people who aren’t comfortable with the liturgy or theology of liberal churches.
“Maybe it’s the service, or that they don’t put as much emphasis on the Bible. I wouldn’t want to go to a gay church because I don’t want that to be the focus. It’s about Jesus,” Linde said of affirming churches. The theology around celibacy doesn’t make sense to her either, and Linde now says she believes gay relationships are okay. She expects this will eventually force her to leave McLean. Yet she considers it progress that she remains — for now — in leadership as an openly gay person.
The Reformation Project was run by gay author Matthew Vines, whose recent popular book “God and the Gay Christian” was considered so dangerous by some conservative leaders that Mohler and others immediately penned a counter-argument book and made it available for free.
At the ground level are people like Lindsey and Sarah, a celibate lesbian couple who live in Northeast Washington. The women, who asked that their last names not be used for fear of harassment, write about their experience at aqueercalling.com. They hope to launch talks about intimacy and friendship — and not just the question of whether gay sex is a sin.
“It’s not that we don’t have moral convictions of our own, but we are tired of that conversation. We really wish people could look past the black and white thinking,” Sarah said. “But since same-sex relationships are being talked about more openly, there’s more space to talk about celibacy — this is the ideal time to be having this conversation.”
This article has been updated to clarify a quote in the last paragraph.