Celibacy The First Time.
I was taught one thing about sex: don’t have it until you’re married. That’s it. That was the entirety of my sexual education. I wasn’t taught about intimacy or consent or safer sex. I wasn’t even taught about the mechanics of it. It was assumed that since sex was natural once you got married you’d just figure it out. In fact, that was pretty much promised: if you waited until you got married to have sex you would have a wonderful and fulfilling sex life. But only if you were heterosexual.
Ah yes. Queer and transgender people weren’t supposed to exist. And when they did exist they were supposed to either cease existing or, barring that, remain celibate forever.
I grew up with all of these messages that basically said sex was either super dirty and wrong or a holy mystical union between a man and his wife. And I felt on the outside of both conversations.
As I was coming to terms with the fact that I wasn’t straight (I had no language for gender identity at this point) I wasn’t all that interested in sex. Probably because I didn’t know anything about it. What I was interested in was intimacy. I wanted to be close to another person. I wanted to hold and be held. I wanted to kiss someone. I wanted to not feel so damn alone. I was also determined to still be a good evangelical Christian. I promised myself (and anyone who would listen) that I was going to be celibate forever. I thought that was the only way to honor God.
The truth? It was the only way to make my conservative Christian church (and family) happy. I held firm in my commitment to celibacy…until I fell in love. Those who ask us to remain celibate forever ask us to deny ourselves of companionship and closeness. I do believe there are people who are called to celibacy (either for a certain time or for a lifetime) but it is not all queer people; that belief is toxic and needs to go.
No Sex Until Marriage.
I didn’t mean to fall in love it just did. I wrestled with my faith again and decided that I would simply wait to have sex until I was married. Sure, the church wouldn’t recognize my marriage, but so what. I would still be honoring what I thought was right.
Now here’s where it gets really complicated. I was with someone I was really attracted to. I wanted to have sex. But I didn’t think I could have sex until I was married. So we rushed into marriage. From the time we met to the time we got married it was only about a year.
Looking back I cringe because we were clearly not ready to get married. Neither of us were financially secure. We still were getting to know one another. There were all sorts of red flags that I ignored and so much of it is because of sex.
We were attracted to one another, definitely. But ready for a lifetime commitment? No.
We waited until we got engaged and then we had sex. And it was okay. Not great. It wasn’t the life changing thing I had been promised. Now, some people will say that’s because we were queer. Or not married yet.
I think it’s because no one had told me a damn thing about how to have sex.
Look, sex is natural. And it’s also a skill that needs to be learned. You need to know your body. You need to learn your partner’s body. You need to learn how to communicate in the heat of the moment. That doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen instantly even if you’ve had sex a million times before or if this is your first time. There are new things to learn.
And now that we were having sex I also felt like we couldn’t break up. I had given my virginity away! No one else would ever want me! We had to stay together forever! Sounds bonkers, right? Except that’s what the evangelical church tells people. If you have sex you are basically ruined. So don’t have it. And if you do…well….
So now I’m married and sex is still complicated and crowded with guilt. I can’t talk to anyone about it because my Christian friends still think I am living in sin and my queer friends don’t really understand my hang ups. Plus, I’ve never talked about sex so I don’t really know how to do it. It makes me uncomfortable, as if I am talking about something dirty or wrong. I don’t feel dirty or wrong when I’m having sex. I don’t feel like I am doing anything wrong. But still these weird feelings about what one can and cannot talk about linger. And so I don’t have anyone to talk to to see if what I am experiencing is normal or good. I don’t have anyone to learn from. It just feels complicated and hard. And honestly? I feel a little cheated. I was promised that if I waited sex would be mind blowing all the time and every time from the jump. And it’s not. So what, exactly had I been waiting for? Then I start to wonder if I had really been ready to get married. If sex had been off the table would we still have chosen to get married? Maybe if we had just had sex we would have dated longer or moved in together first and waited to see if we were actually compatible.
And then I transitioned to male. Now we add gender into an already swirling mix of life and sex and religion and the center could not hold. We tried. We went to counseling. I tried to be less of who I was, but even that was too much for her. She told me she was no longer attracted to me as I laid shirtless in our bed, bearing the scars of my relatively recent chest surgery. My first thought? Shame about my body. I asked her to hand me a shirt. I covered myself up.
We went our separate ways and it felt like every doomsday prophecy ever spoken over my life had come to pass. Queer people couldn’t find lasting relationships. Transgender people had weird bodies that no one would ever really love. And once again I had no one to talk to.
I dipped a toe into the online dating world. I even went on one date. The whole thing just felt exhausting. I either had to not put that I was transgender in my profile and then worry about coming out or rejection or I could put it in my profile and spend all of my time explaining what being transgender meant. Through it all the voices of my ex rang in my head, “I’m not attracted to you anymore.” That voice danced with my own insecurities about my body; about who would want a body like mine.
After spending way too much time scrolling through OK Cupid, feeling distracted as I thought about dating, and still feeling weary over the break up of my marriage, I decided that I would be celibate again. This time it was different, though. I wasn’t choosing celibacy because I thought sex was wrong or because I thought it was required of me, I was choosing it because I wanted to focus on other things. By taking dating off of the table I was able to invest in my writing, starting QueerTheology.com, working toward ordination, and a host of other things. I chose celibacy for reasons that had very little to do with sex, but instead had to do with where I wanted to invest my energy. The years I spent celibate mostly healed me from the break up of my marriage. I was able to get really clear on who I was and what I wanted. I was able to figure out what the truth was about my personality. What things were actual flaws and what were damaging messages that were untrue? I finally had time to figure out my identity, to figure out what I wanted out of my life, to figure out what I liked and didn’t like. I was amazed to find how disconnected I had become from my own self. Celibacy gave me the time and space to reconnect.
Celibacy also taught me a lot about other people and my relationships with them. It taught me how to love people freely without expecting anything from them. I was able to enter into relationships without the awkwardness of trying to figure out what the other person was thinking about me. With dating and sex off the table I was simply able to get to know people, to invest in their lives, to come to the table freely and without striving.
I was able to be more generous with my time. I could show up for people at any hour of the day, do the late night airport run, stay up until three in the morning talking. I could field the middle of the night phone call.
I learned to not be anxious about being single. Even when I was the only single person in the room. Since I had chosen celibacy I could happily be the third or fifth wheel. It didn’t feel weird for me to go out to dinner or the movies with couples. I didn’t feel like something was missing from my life. I didn’t feel less than. I simply felt like me. My friends were simply my friends. I felt healthy and whole.
Some people didn’t understand my choice. They thought it was weird or I was doing it because I was afraid. They thought it was unnatural. They seemed to think that I was making the decision lightly or foolishly.
I always told people that I wasn’t closing myself off from a relationship forever. This wasn’t a vow that I had taken, nothing was required of me. But I didn’t like the person I became when I was desperate to be in a relationship. I didn’t like how online dating distracted me and took up my emotional bandwith. So I told people that I would consider dating again, but the person would have to pretty much fall into my lap. I wasn’t going to go looking. I said that, but honestly it was more for other people’s benefit than it was for my own. They needed to hear that I wasn’t closing myself off. And I wasn’t, but I didn’t think that anyone would come along. I was content. I was happy. I was settled.
Enter Actress. Stage Right.
A couple of years ago I started a theatre company called Uprising. We do plays that raise ethical questions and then partner with local organizations already working on those issues to channel the energy and empathy created by theatre into concrete change. It was the next step in my journey to figure out where to best use my gifts. I had always loved theatre and I was passionate about justice work. What would happen if we could combine the two? No one else was doing it and so we began. For our very first show I needed a woman who could play an incredibly difficult part. It was one of the hardest roles in the show and I knew I needed someone great. A woman came in to audition and she was fantastic. I cast her in the part. We were playing boyfriend and girlfriend, but we were strangers to one another. Throughout the rehearsal period we became friends and got to know one another. I came to appreciate the instincts she brought to the production. She knew her stuff. We went out for dinner and drinks with the rest of the cast, shared laughs at rehearsal, and that was about it.
It wasn’t until very late in the process, almost opening, that I realized I had a bit of a crush on her. Now, this wasn’t the first time I had had a crush in my years of celibacy. I had had crushes before. And what I had learned is that if you don’t give the crush energy, it goes away. I figured there was no way that the crush was reciprocal, so all I had to do was get through the production and then we would go our separate ways and my crush would fade and all would be well. I also didn’t want to mess anything up with her because she is very talented and I hoped she would work with the theatre company again.
After the show opened we had several days off before the next weekend’s performances. It was the first time in ages that we had had time off. It felt weird. She invited me to come over to her place and watch a movie. I wondered if maybe this crush was reciprocal. And if so, what then?
At this point I still didn’t know if she knew that I was transgender. I hadn’t talked about it during the run of the show because it didn’t come up. But I also knew that if this crush was going somewhere she needed to know. We watched the movie and then talked. Sometime during the evening I blurted out, “you know I’m transgender right?” She nodded yes and I went on with my story. I breathed a sigh of relief that now it was out. But I still didn’t know how she felt. And we still had another weekend of shows. On closing night I gave her a note that I hoped was vague enough to not freak her out but clear enough to show that a door was open for me to exploring where this could go. We started hanging out. She asked if she could kiss me. We started seeing each other, though neither of us were quite ready to call it dating. But we liked being with one another. We were attracted to each other. We liked kissing each other.
And then suddenly I was back in the throes of evangelical angst around sex. Where the hell did that come from?
I hadn’t been in the evangelical church for over 12 years at this point. I no longer believed that sex is only between a man and a woman in marriage. I no longer believed that pre-marital sex was wrong. But here I was feeling anxious about sex. When was too soon? Did we need to be officially in a relationship? Did we need to be able to call each other boyfriend and girlfriend? Should we say “I love you” first? How did I know what was right?
Then there were the other fears: What if she doesn’t like my body? What if she’s freaked out by the fact that I’m transgender? What if she doesn’t know to be freaked out, but then she’ll be freaked out when we’re undressing and then I’ll get super hurt and everything will suck?
And how much of anxiety over when to have sex was actually related to my anxiety that she would reject me?
Could this be any more complicated?
I kept thinking back to my marriage, to the situation that got me into my marriage. The fact that having this timeline in my head of how things were “supposed to be” made me rush things I wasn’t ready for. I didn’t want to make that mistake again. I also didn’t want to be casual or careless with sex.
Finally, though, I had someone to talk to. Brian and I were able to talk a lot about sex and what it means to be both of us. He was able to challenge some of the assumptions I was making and ask if there wasn’t really something else going on. I was able to finally sort through and figure out what mattered for me when it came to sex. I was able to figure out my own sexual ethic.
Finally I was freed from everything being a zero sum game. I was freed from making decisions about my sexual life based on what other people thought I should do or told me I should do. I was able to extricate my sexuality from my evangelical moralistic upbringing. I was able to divorce myself from respectability politics that said I had to conform to certain standards in order to be an acceptable Christian. (Even though, often, even being an acceptable Christian isn’t enough when you’re queer).
Here’s what I’ve learned:
It’s totally possible to take sex seriously, to believe that sex matters and means something, while also not wrapping a million moral clauses around it.
It’s possible for different people to have different views about sex and have them both be respectful and healthy and good. I don’t do casual sex. It doesn’t work for me. Other people do, it works for them. Neither of these views negate the validity of the other view.
We have to free ourselves from one size fits all sexuality. What works for one person doesn’t work for someone else. What one person needs someone else doesn’t need.
What matters is health, consent, communication, and respect. What matters is your intrinsic understanding of who you are and what you need.
How do we get there?
Unpacking years of harmful messages about sex and sexuality takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t even happen after you’ve had a first amazing sexual experience with another person; guilt and shame can still rear their ugly heads and make you feel like you’ve done something wrong (even though you haven’t).
How do you create a sexual ethic if you’ve never been taught? If you’ve not been allowed to even entertain the thought that you were allowed?
Here’s some of what has helped me:
Get clear on what sex means to you. Not what you think it should mean, not what other people have told you it means, what does it actually mean to you?
Separate out other people’s voices from your voice. Which voices are the church? Which voices are your parents? Which ones are your friends? Which ones are media? Which ones are you? This can take quite a while, so be patient with yourself.
If the condemnation of the church or your parents were off the table, what would you do? What decisions would you make?
Are the decisions you are making to please anyone but you and your partner? Are you choosing celibacy because you feel like you have to? Because you feel like it’s what God or your church demands? Are you choosing to wait until marriage because otherwise you won’t get to be a part of your church community? Are you not having sex because you think it’s sinful? Really examine these beliefs. I firmly believe that you can choose to wait until marriage to have sex and have that be the right decision for you. I also believe you can choose celibacy out of healthy and well grounded reasons. But most of the people I see making these choices are making them because they feel like they have to. Maybe they sugarcoat it with conversations about how it works for them or they agree with their church teachings, but the reality is that choice is rooted in the belief that queer sex is inherently wrong and sinful. That belief is toxic and must be rooted out and tossed in the fire.
If you enter into (or withhold yourself from) a sexual relationship believing that queer sex (or any sex at all outside of marriage) is sinful and shameful this belief will mess you up. It will. It will impact your whole life negatively.
If you continue to struggle with guilt and shame around sex, I urge you to seek out a licensed therapist. By this I mean a therapist that actually has a degree and a license and isn’t just a “church counselor.” Also make sure that therapist is knowledgable about queer sexuality and identity. You do not need to be educating your therapist nor do you need to convince your therapist that queer sexuality is acceptable. If you really need to see a Christian therapist make sure they have an actual degree and license and are fully accepting of LGBTQ identity. If you seek out an unaffirming therapist they will damage you.
Finally, what do you want to do? For those of us raised in the evangelical church this seems like a scandalous question. We were taught that it doesn’t matter what we want, it matters what God wants! But really that’s just a shield. God gave us minds to think for ourselves. God gave us intuition and instincts. God gave us our bodies. God gave us free will and the ability to discern. The church is afraid that if we really listen to ourselves that we’ll tune in to the truth: our desires matter. Our instincts matter. We don’t need an outside authority telling us what is right for us; we have all that we need in our hearts and souls and minds. So sit with your body. Sit with your heart. Ask yourself, “What do I want?” Your body will tell you. Your spirit will tell you. You just need to listen.
Sexuality doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be a source of joy, of pleasure, of connection, of fun. But we have to do the work to unpack those harmful messages we received. We have to do the work of communication and consent. We have to do the work of listening to ourselves and learning what we need.
I promise, it’s worth it.