This is the fifth and final in a series of posts about the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s conference on “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage.” Read the first post here, second post here, third post here, and fourth post here.
NASHVILLE, TN — Anyone who followed all of the speeches from last week’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) conference would have heard multiple variations of the following messages shared with the 1,200 evangelical pastors in attendance:
- Being single is good and we should do more to minister to single people.
- Being celibate is good and we should do more to support people who are celibate.
- Marrying is good and we should encourage more people to marry.
- Sex is good and we should talk about having sex more.
These too were all communicated at some point:
- Sexual orientation is not a choice.
- Sexual orientation cannot be changed through ex-gay therapy.
- Some people have changed their sexual orientation.
- We shouldn’t even use the phrase “sexual orientation.”
- People with same-sex orientations should live a life of celibacy.
- Some people who previously had same-sex attractions marry and have kids.
Such were the mixed messages of the Southern Baptist Convention. But all of these ideas coexist according to the theology these Christians follow: God reserves sex for marriage between a man and a woman, and all other sexual behavior, including all same-sex relations, are forbidden. Thus, all single people are called to be celibate, as are all gays and lesbians. That theology may have allowed room for a few significant advances in tone, but it continues to be an obstacle to true acceptance of LGBT people.
Multiple speeches at the ERLC conference were from individuals who identified as heterosexual about how great it is to be single. These almost seemed geared to soften the blow that a same-sex orientation means a life without love, companionship, or a family of one’s own. Conference attendees told ThinkProgress that celibacy for gay people was no different than for single people, rejecting the notion that the potential of marriage still communicated something different to those with different-sex attractions.
One of the highlights of the conference was certainly when ERLC President Russell Moore declared that ex-gay therapy doesn’t work. Truth Wins Out, an organization that advocates against ex-gay therapy, praised Moore for “calling for a more loving approach and rejecting solidly discredited junk science.” While no longer falsely promising a change of sexual orientation is a step up, there was still a lot of problematic messaging about what gay people can and should actually do with their lives.
Two of the speakers, Rosaria Butterfield and Jackie Hill-Perry, both identify as “former homosexuals,” have married men, and either have had children or are expecting. Neither spoke specifically about how they made that change, but both have previously told stories about the influence their faith has had on their sexuality. At face value, these narratives ignore that women’s sexuality has been found to be more fluid, and other women’s ex-gay stories have been debunked as individuals who were simply bi in the first place and never actually experienced a change in their fundamental orientation. Two men who identified as “same-sex attracted,” but celibate, also spoke.
These speakers’ narratives contain several tropes that are common to ex-gay narratives. Hill-Perry describes experiencing sexual abuse as a child that led to “gender confusion,” which coalesced as same-sex attractions. Though no study has ever found a connection between sexual orientation and experiences of abuse, this is the very same talking point that Liberty Counsel is using to defend ex-gay therapy against legislative bans. The trauma of sexual abuse certainly could make someone more vulnerable to the promises of ex-gay therapy, which is probably why it has become a trope in ex-gay narratives.
Christopher Yuan’s testimony tells of incredibly promiscuous sex, drug dealing, and being diagnosed as HIV+ before finding God while he was sitting in jail. Conservatives often use these tropes to imply that being gay is unhealthy or to suggest that these outcomes are the direct experience of being gay. What studies have actually shown though is that stigma and family rejection often cause depression in gay people and can lead to self-destructive behaviors like drug abuse. Yuan specifically talks about how his parents felt “ashamed, betrayed, rejected, devastated, and full of sorry,” suggesting family rejection played a significant role in his own journey.
Even if these tropes are framed in the ERLC’s new context that sexual orientation is not a choice, not something that can be changed, and not something that families should reject, that doesn’t mean its message that gay people’s only life choice is celibacy isn’t still harmful. The gay celibacy movement has largely been celebrated as an improvement over the ex-gay movement, but most of the messages as to why gay people should be celibate are carbon-copied from the same harmful shame that motivated ex-gay therapy.
Last year, the organization Beyond Ex-Gay, which provides support to survivors of ex-gay therapy, conducted an informal study about the consequences of attempting to “pray away the gay.” The survey provides some compelling qualitative details about what aspects of ex-gay therapy were most harmful to individuals. Some of the most common reasons respondents said they entered ex-gay therapy included “to be a better Christian,” “I believed it was what God wanted me to do,” and “I feared I would be condemned by God.” Their attempts to reject their sexuality resulted in the following kinds of harm: shame, emotional harm, depression, reinforced self-hate, fear, anger disappointment, lack of self-esteem, and even spiritual harm.
Celibacy, as opposed to abstinence until marriage, is largely considered a pro-active choice that reflects an intended kind of relationship with God. Living Out, the gay celibacy organization run by Sam Allberry, who also spoke at the ERLC conference, advocates that “sexualities can be valued by self-control as much as by sexual intercourse.” The pro-celibacy website “Celibrate” similarly suggests that “celibacy is to be treasured and that we should support and encourage those who choose this path.”
But what the Southern Baptist Convention is advising its pastors to preach is no choice at all. The only way for people with same-sex orientations to be right with God, according to their interpretation of theology, is to never have sex — to be like what Living Out describes as “the same-sex attracted man who remains a virgin until his dying day — out of his love for God.” Though research on celibacy is lacking, the intent behind the prescription for all gay people to be celibate could well impose the same harms as the intent behind ex-gay therapy.
Nevertheless, the conference’s confusing comparisons to single heterosexuals had convinced attendees that there was little difference between them and gays and lesbians. Several who spoke to ThinkProgress referred to the idea of an “Old Maid,” suggesting her life without sex is no different than the kind of lives gay people are called to live. This is besides the fact that it remains incredibly rare that heterosexuals who are not called to ministry choose to never have sex.
At the end of the day, the message to gay people hasn’t really changed. There were some positive advances in the nuance, but clearly not everybody even agrees on those. (Plenty of evangelical ex-gay advocates have lambasted ERLC over the past week.) The theology declaring that homosexuality is sinful and transgender identities are an affront to God, is still the guiding force for everything else.
And this reporter’s biggest takeaway from the conference was how one-sided this theological perspective is. The conference was criticized for not including any LGBT-affirming voices, but the bigger problem was attendees’ conflation of intent and effect. Every pastor who spoke with ThinkProgress defended the idea that theirs is a theology of love, of wanting people to be as close to Christ as they can be. But none were particularly concerned about how that message is received by LGBT people; in fact, many couldn’t understand why so many LGBT people were accusing the conference of being “hateful” on Twitter — the pro-discrimination rhetoric notwithstanding. They were surprised to learn that even their most compassionate delivery of these beliefs could still be heard by many people as condemnation. As a perfect example, Pastor Denny Burk has since defended his incredibly harmful rejection of transgender people’s identities to ThinkProgress by claiming, “I want them to have life and to have it more abundantly (John 10:10).”
The way humanity understands sexual orientation and gender identity is unique to modernity, beginning in the late 19th Century at the earliest. The advents of psychology and other social sciences in the mid-20th Century have advanced that understanding at an astounding rate. How the Southern Baptist Convention reads the Bible simply does not allow for what the world now knows about LGBT people, their mental health needs, and the kinds of lives they can now lead. Until the theology can account for the decades of research about these identities and the testimony of millions of LGBT people, it will continue to be perceived as being responsible for perpetuating anti-LGBT stigma.