Gay + Christian = Celibate: A Long Tradition

What is a gay conservative Christian to do? With plenty of justification, many Americans think that conservative Catholics and evangelicals are anti-gay. A recent article in the Washington Post suggests that homosexual Christians have found a new answer to this conundrum, though those in the know know that there’s nothing new about it.

Michelle Boorstein’s article discusses the spiritual path of bloggers such as Eve Tushnet, whom Boorstein describes as a leader of 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.

When Tushnet converted to Catholicism, Boorstein describes, she felt as if she were the first gay Christian to choose celibacy. To be fair, neither Boorstein nor Tushnet claims this is brand new.  It is “easier” to be openly gay, Boorstein writes.  But not easy.  As the article discusses, such a decision opens one up to attacks from both sides. Some conservatives hope that God can “heal” homosexuals. Such folks want homosexual Christians to abjure their homosexual identities. From the other side, some gay activists argue that choosing celibacy is a terrible option, a truckling to anti-gay animus among conservatives.

What the article doesn’t examine is the long history of this question among conservative evangelicals. As one might expect, issues of sexuality and sexual attraction have long played a central role at America’s network of conservative evangelical colleges. What should young people do if they feel sexually attracted to their own gender? What should loving Christians tell them in college classes and counseling sessions? In my current round of archival research into the history of these schools, I’m seeing a long tradition of the answer “discovered” by folks such as Tushnet: Gay conservatives can remain true to their religious beliefs and true to their sexual attractions by committing to lifelong celibacy.

Certainly, as Boorstein notes, the language has changed, as have public attitudes. In the past, conservatives did not claim their homosexuality as openly or as proudly. But this does not mean that the celibacy “solution” is at all a new one.

In the 1930s, for example, among the troubles at the Denver Bible Institute was the leader’s insistence that all relationships be “continent.” This leader, Clifton Fowler, was accused of homosexual attractions. Indeed, he was accused of active homosexual sexual relationships. His solution was to insist that all married relationships—apparently all potentially sexual relationships—remain celibate. In that case, the facts were obscured by conflicting accusations on all sides. It seems clear, however, that the celibate “solution” to the perceived dilemma of homosexual attraction among Protestant fundamentalists is nearly as old as American fundamentalism itself.

In a later generation, the language used to discuss homosexuality and celibacy grew slightly more frank, while remaining just as harshly anti-gay. In 1951, a student at Biola College (now Biola University) promised counselors that he would remain celibate. As I read the record, this promise was taken at the time as a satisfactory and traditional “solution” to the problem of gay fundamentalism. Take, for example, the following explanation he offered to his dean:

as to the matter [i.e., homosexuality] that has been at the root of all my grief, I am positive that I am cured. The perverted urge will probably come upon me many times in the future but now that I know giving in to it has cost me all that I held dear, I am certain that I will be enabled to grasp the strength of the Lord to withstand.

Back in 1951, it seems, as in the late 1930s, among these conservative Christians, celibacy seemed an appropriate and acceptable solution to homosexual attractions. The student here did not suggest that being “cured” of homosexuality meant becoming heterosexual. Rather, all he promised was the ability to “withstand” what he called his “perverted urge.”

Continuing into the 1970s, leaders at evangelical schools seemed open to the idea that celibacy could be an acceptable evangelical answer for homosexuals. For instance, in a 1977 interview with Wheaton College’s student newspaper, Wheaton President Hudson Armerding offered this response:

The church should respond in love toward those with homosexuality [sic] tendencies and in humility seek to assist such persons to maintain and develop a life-style that is in obedience to the Word of God.

Armerding did not insist that evangelical homosexuals be “cured” of their sexual identity. Rather, he simply demanded that they find a “life-style”—presumably including celibacy—that went with Armerding’s understanding of God’s Word.

From the 1930s to the 1970s, then, evangelical homosexuals could remain both evangelical and homosexual by living celibate lives. Nor does the notion of celibate homosexuality seem particularly revelatory to evangelical collegians today. Julie Rodgers currently works at Wheaton College as an openly gay celibate Christian. She helps counsel students about sexual issues, among other things.

Certainly, the language these days has changed. Rodgers, for example, openly describes herself as gay. The gay celibate student at Biola College in 1951, in stark contrast, was driven to extremes in his attempt to hide his gay identity. Back in the 1930s, Clifton Fowler never admitted to any homosexual attractions, though there seems ample evidence of it.

Nevertheless, for those in the know, there is nothing new among conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists about the celibate “solution” to homosexual attractions.