I wonder how often the average person gets asked questions about their sex lives by a complete stranger. I’d say it was a fairly rare occurrence and that when it does happen, it’s rightly met with zipped lips. Sex is a private matter. It’s something that generally happens behind closed doors and if we do discuss it with people other than our partners, those people are usually trusted friends rather than miscellaneous randoms who don’t even know our favourite band or our middle name.
However, as an LGBT Christian who has largely attended conservative evangelical churches, I have (almost) got used to being regularly asked about my sexual status (active or not active), amongst a tacit assumption that if I am reluctant to answer, it is an admission of ‘guilt’.
On one level, this is explainable. However open minded we are, it’s inevitable that we try to categorise one another. When we look at a stranger in the queue in front of us at the supermarket, we are likely to idly ask ourselves a series of questions that help us to make certain assumptions about that person: How they are dressed; what kind of food they are buying (economy or organic); how much alcohol they’re buying; whether they’re buying fruit and vegetables or bags and bags of crisps. By the time the customer has swiped their Nectar card, you will have formed an idea of who they are, and you’ll probably have subtly judged them a little bit, too. This kind of thing is a sociological necessity to some extent – when we meet someone new, we need to make quick assessments of people based on a series of visual cues and assumptions (as well as prejudices) in order to decide how to proceed with them. On its most primal level, this is about keeping us safe (is this person likely to kill me?) but we unconsciously do it regardless of safety as a matter of course in our 21st century modern world as we make instinctive decisions about friendships and relationships with the people we meet.
We also do this in Christian settings. As we’re getting to know people, we might ask which church they go to. If we’ve heard of it, we can immediately make a series of short cut assumptions about what tribe of Christian we are talking to. Are they conservative or liberal? Charismatic or traditional? Do they believe that miraculous healing takes place today? What kinds of worship songs will they be familiar with? Which conference or festival are they likely to attend? Which names of authors or speakers will connect or divide us? In short, are they in my tribe or are they one of the Others (Others, being those Christians who are wrong about important things, according to us)?
This is also what is behind The Sex Question for the LGBT Christian. If I turn up and leave church each week with the same, same-gender person; or I share a flat with someone of the same sex and we’re both gay; or if I always go on holiday with the same same-sex friend, People in church may wonder what the nature of our relationship is. They may listen out for how we describe one another – partner? Friend? They may wonder if we sleep in separate bedrooms or share a bed. Without knowing the answer to these questions, the watching Christian doesn’t know how to define the LGBT person. Are they Side A or Side B? For many people the answer to this question will define whether that person is a Real Christian or not. Church leaders may wonder whether a Serious Pastoral Conversation needs to take place. People worry about these things…and so the LGBT person gets asked the Sex Question. I have been asked it many, many times, sometimes by close friends, but often by complete strangers in the church: “Are you and X in a sexual relationship?” I often feel that the truest answer to this question is “None of your bloody business”. What I am or am not doing sexually, is my business and it’s my choice who I share it with.
Sometimes however, the theological conviction of a church leader is such that the answer to this question would define membership status in the church, or whether or not a person can be given a leadership role, or whether or not there may be wider pastoral implications within the church. Whether this is the case, or whether someone is asking simply because they want to be best informed to allow them to judge me accurately, I think it’s possible to rethink the black and white thinking that defines people according to the answer to one, simplistic question.
If the question is necessary from a church leadership point of view, try not starting with it. Try getting to know the whole story of a whole person with a view to understanding the context of how they got to wherever they are today. If they are celibate, why? Do they have the necessary support around them to live that very difficult vocation? Are you as a church leader informed about the kinds of pressures this person lives with and do you have anything in place to make life a little less painful and to help this person experience love and community? If they are in a committed, sexual relationship, what else is going on? Do you know both members of that partnership? Do you know their stories? Do you know how God has gifted them and how He may be using them in the lives of others? Are you able to look at this person as a person, beyond The Sex Question? If they are living promiscuously, what led them to this place? What other relationships do they have in their lives and are they nurturing? Is this person hurting? How can you best love them where they are at right now?
Part of the answer to avoiding defining people according to their answer to The Sex Question is to throw out our obsession with taxonomy – there is an alternative to labelling and categorising one another in order to create short cuts to knowing each other. We are people. By nature, people are complex. We are Christians. By nature, we are defined by nuances of belief and behaviour that may or may not remain static or subject to reappraisal. So, though it’s natural to want to create short cuts to knowing people, my hope is that we will all try to throw out our short cuts and commit to listening to one other properly. Valuing one another’s stories as they evolve and change. Seeing people as complex wholes rather than a series of categories that can be boiled down to something as deceptively simple as a side A or B. In general, if we find ourselves wanting to ask the Sex Question, or the Healing Question or whatever other question might define someone’s Christian tribe, let’s try to remember that no single question can sum up a person. Let’s replace our divisive questions with dialogue, relationship, grace and learning from one another’s stories.