Gay Celibacy and Sublimated Desire

For the past year or so, I’ve been lurking on a Christian website called Your Other Brothers, which features the daily struggles of men pursuing gay celibacy, or marriages with women.

I’m somewhat infatuated with YOB, because it is such a startling window into the gay celibate world I inhabited in high school and college. It’s been a catalyst for self-reflection, and a good opportunity to sort through that era of my life.

YOB is also an excellent window into a world that many people may not comprehend. I encourage everyone to visit their blog and peruse it – it’s an alien, threatening world to many, but I also know that they are good guys trying to do the best they can with what life has given them. I can speak with confidence on that front – I know some of them, and I admire their integrity. And, just a few years ago, I was one of them.

If my former views of sexuality, and the views of the YOB blog, could be summed up, it seems to me that the central thesis is this: male same sex attraction orbits around a loss and/or attainment of genuine, pure, and wholesome affection between men. While central, the connection is not entirely clear. Is this loss of loving affection between men the cause of homosexuality, or is it simply the cure? And is it a long-term cure, resulting in a complete restoration of heterosexuality, or is a hug from a good male friend simply a temporary relief from the lifelong thorn of homosexuality? Is friendship a sacred refuge from the ongoing ravages of same sex desire? There is no clear answer, and nearly every celibate gay person I’ve talked to has a slightly different variation. The theme remains the same, though: many gay men who believe homosexuality is wrong are infatuated with male friendship and connection.

For me, this resulted in quasi-romantic fantasies of male friendship. Admittedly, I might be projecting, but I see this same quasi-romantic aching in the writings of other non-affirming gay people. They have given up the sexual self, but the desperation for union with the masculine remains the same. It’s be reframed, Platonized, removed from the body. Now it is in the realm of the spirit and the heavenly spheres – an emotional adoration untouched by the fallenness and banality of bodies, penises, body fluids and orgasm.

I spent years of my life believing that friendship – specifically, intimate male friendship – was the antidote, or at least the mild relief, for my disordered orientation. I remember vividly the experiences this brought on: the aching loneliness, the yearning for masculine union in a higher, nobler, spiritual way. Of course, friendship is magnificent and intimate friendships are a reality, but I and some other celibate gays take it to a whole other level of love and adoration. It was beautiful and mournful and absolutely desperate. It bordered on idolatry. And the rareness and impossibility of what we are looking for with another man – a man who could fill the void in us without falling in love, without kissing, without descending into the erotic realm in thought or deed – just inflamed me with more fantasy and more yearning. I fixated on the words of C.S. Lewis, idolizing friendship as the most spiritual of all loves:

To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.

I agree with Lewis entirely. In fact, if there is one piece of gold that I have taken from my gay celibate life, it is my enduring respect for friendship as a love equal to that of Eros.

However, when we sublimate our human need for sexual and romantic union and chase after friendship, we find ourselves in some awkwardness. The body and soul don’t know that they are separate, and they don’t much care that we think they should be. Therefore, this belief that deep friendship with other men is the solution for disordered gay attractions turns out to be a problem unto itself. What happens when we become emotionally dependent on a male friend? What happens when we fantasize about masturbating with another friend? What happens when we fall in love? What Lewis writes of heterosexuals in The Four Loves is equally applicable to gay people:

When the two people who thus discover that they are on the same secret road [of friendship] are of different sexes, the friendship which arises between them will very easily pass – may pass in the first half hour – into erotic love. Indeed, unless they are physically repulsive to each other or unless one or both already loves elsewhere, it is almost certain to do so sooner or later.

Is this always the case? Certainly not. But I’ve learned that it is usually the case, and it is foolish to resist that fact. In my experience, the failure to embrace my orientation as fully and intimately as I can is also a failure to love other people healthily.

The great irony here is that I’ve only recently discovered my capacity for deep friendship with other men – and other people of any sex – when I accepted that I’m gay. I love men – I love having sex with men, I love kissing men,I love falling in love with men, I love looking at men – just as any straight man does with women. Accepting this reality fully with no shame allows me in turn have very good, non-sexual relationships with men. For the first time, I discovered I could have profound camaraderie with other guys.

Some conservative celibate readers of mine may criticize me by saying that I am assuming that celibate, conservative gay people are not fully integrated with their sexuality, or are not fully accepting of their orientation. I assume that because, in my experience, it is usually true. Of the many celibate gay people I’ve met over the years, I’ve met only a very, very small handful who seem at peace with who they are.

A very wise friend of mine once said to me, “repression is not a fine instrument, with which you can go into your psyche and cut away the undesirable aspects of your being. It is a blunt instrument, that stamps out many other important functions. If you shut down your sexuality and romantic love, you very easily shut down your capacity for other forms of love, too.”

Because here’s the reality: I’m gay. Sublimating that desire into other things does exactly that: it sublimates it but does not alter it, and allows erotic energy to complicate and entangle many good friendships. It leaves me aching and hurting and yearning for a sort of spiritual romantic relationship with a straight man that is, at the end of the day, nothing more than fantasy and codependency. The yearning leaves me unable to see the good friend before me. It’s when I accept my sexuality, when I allow myself to be what I am, and allow myself healthy and loving intimacy with my partner, that I’m able to experience the real sort of camaraderie that C.S. Lewis so admired in the Four Loves.

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