Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal; grant this, O heavenly Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

What Is Side B Anyway?

And the Church must be forever building, and always decaying, and always being restored.
For every ill deed in the past we suffer the consequence:
For sloth, for avarice, gluttony, neglect of the word of GOD,
For pride, for lechery, treachery, for every act of sin.
And of all that was done that was good, you have the inheritance.
For good and ill deeds belong to a man alone, when he stands alone on the other side of death,
But here upon earth you have the reward of the the good and ill that was done by those who have gone before you.
And all that is ill you may repair if you walk together in humble repentance, expiating the sins of your fathers;
And all that was good you must fight to keep with hearts as devoted as those of your fathers who fought to gain it.
The Church must be forever building, for it is forever decaying within and attacked from without;
For this is the law of life ... 
—T. S. Eliot, Choruses from 'The Rock'
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Given the response a number of people have had to the Q Christian Fellowship’s announcement about representatives of Side B at their upcoming conference, I thought it might be as well to outline what, exactly, Side B is and what its implications are (with a hat tip to the Liturgical Queer, who inspired me). I haven’t done this before, for the rather silly but simple reason that it never occurred to me. This is partly because I’d thought it was clearer than, apparently, it is.

For one thing, a lot of people think that Side B is just ex-gay thought, but without its guarantees of successful orientation change. This isn’t the case at all. Side B was formed as a response to, and a rejection of, ex-gay thought, just like Side A was. It’s true that Side B takes a traditional ethical viewpoint, in contrast to Side A; but in general the origin, culture, and identity of Side B bear more resemblance to Side A than they do to anything out of Exodus or NARTH.

For another, a lot of people think that Side B Christians want to convert everyone to Side B beliefs. I’ll concede that we are very eager to convert our own churches to Side B beliefs: which largely means, getting them to treat us with the love, respect, and solidarity they profess (to a great extent falsely) to have for us. But, while I’m certain there are individuals who consider it their mission to convert Side A people to a Side B viewpoint, I can’t actually think of any. Most of us are—or more accurately, would be, considering the suspicion of our heterosexual brethren—perfectly willing to live and let live, not because the truth doesn’t matter (it does) but because it is neither our business nor particularly effective to go around browbeating people with your beliefs. Within a given church, since it’s a community defined by belief, it may make sense to have such discussions, but that’s quite different.

Now, I don’t want to paint Side B with too broad a brush; there’s a diversity of views, to be sure. The essential parameters are these:
- a traditional sexual ethic (i.e., sex belongs in a one-man, one-woman marriage)
- rejection of ex-gay practices and narratives
That’s it.

This obviously leaves a lot of space for what a given Side B person might think. Like I said, there are different versions of Side B, just as there are different versions of being gay in general. A Side A transman might believe firmly in monogamy, where a secular lesbian might think there’s nothing wrong with sleeping with a different person every night. Are they both right? No. Are they both queer? Yes. Likewise here: I think what I’ve laid out is typical of Side B, but there are many skeins in the rich tapestry of the community.

Some representative areas where Side B and Side A can work together include:

1. Refugee and asylum sponsorship, advocacy, and work. There are still a lot of places in the world, especially in Africa and Asia, where is it dangerous to be LGBT. I’m talking about everything from socially approved harassment to execution by stoning. The worst places include: Chechnya, part of the Russian Federation, in which men reputed to be gay are currently being shut in concentration camps; Iran, which executes adult men for homosexual behavior, but only requires 74 lashes for underage males; Nigeria, in which, if you get caught, you’d better hope it’s in the south and you merely have to languish in prison for a decade or so, because in the north they just kill you; Tanzania, which recently embarked on a large-scale anti-gay witch hunt; Saudi Arabia, which allows anything from an arbitrarily long imprisonment to flogging to castration to execution, and accents that last one for repeat offenders; Somalia, which allows the death penalty, but is at least chaotic enough that you can hope they forget to bother; and Uganda, which narrowly avoided instituting the death penalty in 2013 and settled for life imprisonment. Keep in mind, these are just some of the places in the world where your life and liberty could be endangered if you come out, or get outed by someone else, because everyone including the government will come after you. We know only too well that even ostensibly gay-friendly places like, say, Orlando can suddenly become scenes of horror and tragedy.

Getting LGBT people out of these countries and into safer parts of the world should be a no-brainer to everybody. It’s certainly a no-brainer to Side B. Rainbow Railroad is one organization I know of that does this. This of course goes hand in hand with our next point.

2. Supporting national and international legal reforms. This includes advocating legally classifying anti-gay crimes as hate crimes, for example, or supporting efforts to make gender identity and sexual orientation protected categories with respect to things like housing, employment, and access to public goods and facilities. Sodomy laws were of course struck down in the US as of Lawrence vs Texas, but they still stand in other places, and extending aid to those who are working to repeal them in other countries definitely qualifies.

I’d add supporting LGBT civil unions on an international basis, too. Some Side B folks do support civil gay marriage, since they consider their beliefs about marriage strictly religious. Some others, myself included, can’t unhesitatingly endorse gay marriage per se, but I think I’m right in guessing that an overwhelming majority of us are in favor of civil unions at the least. ‘Found family’ is one of the things that’s always laid at the heart of the gay movement, especially due to the fraught relationships so many of us have with our biological families; civil unions are a legal way of recognizing that. Adoption is in a distinct but analogous position here, and a Side B person can definitely support gay adoption (I certainly do).

3. Combating false and demeaning stereotypes about LGBT people, especially those that prevail among Christians. An example would be some of the more prejudiced reactions to the recent resurgence of scandal in the Catholic Church: calls for total bans on same-sex attracted men being admitted to seminaries were widespread, and remain a cause célèbre among many conservative or traditionalist Catholics. One individual, a rare instance of an uncloseted man with SSA (his preferred term), wrote an article published in First Things titled ‘Why Men Like Me Should Not Be Priests,’ asserting that chastity is disproportionately hard for homosexual men as such, and that we are accordingly unsuitable for such a demanding vocation. He adduced his own experiences struggling with chastity, and slipping into hookup culture at times, in support of his argument. The problem with these claims is not just that they’re detrimental to gay people (though they certainly are), but that they’re a bad reading of the evidence.

Traditional Christian culture, Catholic and evangelical alike, punishes not only homosexual acts, but homoerotic feelings, and deviations from quite rigid gender norms—a friend of mine, for example, was told that in order to be confirmed at his Anglican parish, he had to not only cut off all contact with his LGBT friends, but dress and speak differently (and this man was married to a woman). Moreover, while hookups can be treated as discrete, individual sins that can be repented and forgiven, anything that would humanize gay sex, like placing it in the context of a loving relationship, is typically treated as a more serious violation of chastity because it’s ‘living in sin’ instead of merely sinning. Without, quite, saying that the distinction has no value, I will point out that in this case, it makes hookups more appealing, not less: they satisfying both the craving of sexual lust for physical release, but also the intense psychological need that homosexual release should be a sordid and animalistic thing, without sincere affection or loyalty. A chastely celibate partnership between two uncloseted gay men is more of a threat to that identity than any number of anonymous blowjobs in a back room.

This is only one example of damaging preconceptions about LGBT people, and of how the shame and repression they inculcate can easily turn what was a calumny into a self-fulfilling prophecy. On wholly Side B premises with a thoroughgoing commitment to the most rigorous interpretations of Catholic sexual ethics, there is no reason to presuppose that a gay person is any less fit than a straight one to serve as a Catholic institution’s teacher, organist, secretary, youth minister, therapist, nurse, or priest. Each one of us must be examined not on our orientation, but on our merits—which is exactly what these positions call for anyway. Besides, given the incessant lectures we receive about how we shouldn’t reduce ourselves to our sexuality (from confessors and pastors, fellow parishioners, and total strangers in Christian media), it’d be nice if other people would stop doing it to us.

4. Demanding clarity from churches about how LGBT Christians can and can’t serve in them, along with the relevant circumstances and the justification. This alone is going to turn up a lot of homophobic subsoil. Vague assurances of ‘welcome’ are no match for a lived experience of exclusion, heteronormativity, and gaslighting., which I discovered through Twitter, is a great example of an effort to get churches to move from generalized affirmations of love to a concrete explanation of what their love is going to look like—which empowers LGBT believers of all sorts of convictions to make an informed choice about going to this or that church.

What Churchclarity is doing, however, is (and professes to be) just one part of this. If, for example, a given church won’t hire LGBT employees or won’t ordain LGBT Christians because they believe they’re more prone to sexual misconduct, that’s a deeply problematic justification for a stance that is admittedly clear. My own Catholic tradition is particularly frustrating on this point: her teaching that homosexual persons, like all persons, are to be treated with ‘respect, compassion, and sensitivity’ is in theory straightforward; but then she goes and ruins it with a bunch of well-actually-ing about what does and doesn’t count as prejudice and unjust treatment. As a Side B person, I strongly advocate for reform in the Catholic Church’s attitudes and policies, and especially for an examination of the extent to which her pastoral habits have been formed by discredited psychological theories of homosexuality. (The ex-gay claims and personal licentiousness of Msgr. Anatrella, recently disgraced along similar lines to ex-Cardinal McCarrick, spring to mind, given his former influence with the Vatican.)

Calling every congregation, parish, diocese, synod, presbytery, and communion to implement policies that actually promote the dignity and well-being they claim to desire for LGBT believers is what’s at stake here. A church that wants to call itself Side B in its doctrine needs to put its money where its mouth is and prove that it doesn’t discriminate against homosexually attracted believers simply because of their attractions—by doing things like employing and ordaining qualified gay Christians, and treating our gifts as being just as valuable as those of straight brothers and sisters by allowing us to exercise them for the good of the body. If your policies demand that LGBT believers, even the ones who are in complete theological agreement with you and live out the chastity they confess, must assume the roles of dependent recipients of your gifts and never more, then whatever your stated beliefs, your behavior is homophobic. And it’s wrong.

5. Attending to medical and social issues that confront LGBT people. People think of HIV here, which isn’t totally false (especially when you had a creep like Martin Shkreli on the loose), though it is recycling a trope that wasn’t entirely true even in the 1980s. But of course, even with Truvada and other godsend medical advances, HIV is still an issue in the gay community. Similar half-truths abound with respect to suicide and substance abuse.

A more pertinent example would be homelessness among LGBT young people: studies over the last twenty years suggest that anywhere from 11 to 40% of homeless youth are LGBT (as opposed to around 3% of the general populace), and that domestic abuse or family expulsion are leading factors here. It is sad and infuriating to think that a minister should need to tell the parents among his flock not to savage, molest, or evict their children for their sexuality or gender identity; sadder and more infuriating that many do not. Drawing attention to this societal travesty, and urging believers of whatever convictions to open their homes and hearts to young people who need to get off the street, are fundamental responsibilities of Christian compassion.

6. Defending the legitimacy of LGBT terminology and identities for Christians. It still leaves me baffled that so many Christians have a problem with words like ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian,’ especially since so few of them have a problem with the word ‘straight’ (or ‘bisexual,’ for some reason). Saying I’m gay is not a theological, political, philosophical, or moral statement. It is not an assertion about my sexual activity or lack thereof. It is not an assertion that this is the most important part of who I am, any more than any other I’m statement is such an assertion (I’m an American, I’m a teacher, I’m a nerd …). It’s just using the normal adjective that most speakers of English use to denote a guy who likes guys the way most guys like women.

That said, I personally am prepared to take it a step further and say that queer identities are not incompatible with even a robustly Side B Catholicism. Because what is identity? A lot of things. There are ontological identities like ‘rational agent,’ but when most people talk about their identity I’m prepared to bet they don’t have ontology in mind. Sense of self would be a closer synonym: a narrative of experiences, principles, relationships, ideas, and so forth that we find deeply important. Given that our sexual orientation has a profound impact on our experiences, emotions, and relationships, I see no reason to exclude it from identity in this sense.

And even beyond this, when we look at how groups of people work, we find that group identities are forged by shared experience and especially shared suffering. The early Christians, who were frequently persecuted in fact and could be persecuted at any moment in theory, are an example: the letter to the Hebrews and the Apocalypse are eminent examples of a kind of resistance literature, books that reminded the addresses of who they were, of the solidarity of the Church, of their purpose and their hope—in a word, of their identity. In a very different way, blackness in the US can be regarded as a social identity, forged primarily through suffering and chronic social injustice: ‘black’ isn’t an ethnic group the way Swedish or Korean are ethnic groups, but the shared historical experience of black people in the United States, regardless of their diverse ancestry, created a common identity that reflects a common history.

In the same way, LGBT people in general know what it’s like to grow up different, confused, maybe scared, often mocked or excluded, because of our attractions. We know what it is to realize that what we’re feeling for other boys is what they’re feeling for girls—the chasm that opens up in an instant between us and them, between us and the future we were raised to anticipate. We know collectively what it is like to live and move in a world that was designed by, and caters to, people whose relationships are to a large extent radically different from ours, even when we share their convictions.

These six points are general, exemplary categories, not an exhaustive list or some sort of authoritative confession. But I hope they help clarify for our more hostile or skittish Side A sisters and brothers why we are, precisely, sisters and brothers, both as Christians and as queer family; and that they rouse and spur our heterosexual fellow believers to treat us better.

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