A Primer and Critique of the Side B Movement of Celibate Gay Christians
The Side B Movement, which is (now) largely synonymous with Celibate Gay Christianity, isn’t something particularly recognizable or familiar to most folks, even most Christians.
I want to make a sketch of it as I’ve observed the colony living and evolving over the past several years. I hope to be essentially informative in my sketch of the movements of the beehive. But I know I can’t, won’t, and shouldn’t avoid expressing my concerns and criticisms.
I playfully use bee and hive imagery because it’s common playful imagery used by many folks in the Side B Movement to identify themselves.
So, is Side B actually a movement? There’s been some debate about that. In my opinion, when it’s got a recognized hashtag (#LGBTinChrist as distinct from #FaithfullyLGBT for Side A) and emoji combo (🏳️🌈🐝), a large Facebook Group (ASBC: A Side B Community), Bee merchandise, and regional and nation conferences, gatherings, and retreats, then I consider it a movement.
The prior map of the terrain from about a decade ago was Side A vs Side B. The imagery of a classic cassette tape meant as neutral terminology that came out of conversation at the Gay Christian Network by those willing to engage with one another as fellow professing Christians. It’s neutral terminology in the sense that it was meant to provide a common deflationary verbiage and avoid inciting continual disputes about “homophobic” vs “loving” or “faithful” vs “revisionist” language. It wasn’t and isn’t meant to imply the equal validity of the two views.
The divide between Side A and Side B was a question of the sanctifiability of gay marriage as a viable context to express gay romantic and sexual passions and find fulfillment, i.e. the ethics of sexual conduct. In that discourse, Side A was the affirming side; Side B was the non-affirming side that held to traditional biblical sexual ethics. In its (now) more traditional usage — if you can actually call ten-years-ago “traditional” — Side B refers to anyone affirming the traditional biblical sexual ethic. The old and new usages have to be borne in mind, because equivocation happens, which can and does lead to bait-and-switch maneuvers and motte-and-bailey fallacies.
Rapidly over a handful of years, this landscape has changed significantly; it’s developed more features, contours, and ecosystems as the locus for Side B thought has further distinguished itself from other groups occupying the shared land of traditional biblical sexual ethics.
The terminology has shifted from Side A and Side B of a cassette tape to the buttons on a video game console. I’m pretty sure it’s an Xbox controller even though I see “GayStation” mentioned. What would I know? I’m a classic Nintendo nerd.
So, here’s a current map of the terrain as I’ve straightforwardly received it from Side B folks who are in the know. I’ve simply visually adapted it to a honeycomb motif.
|Cell A||Affirming a gay identity through a fully expressed sexuality|
|Cell C1||Transition zone of uncertainty between Side A and Side B|
|Cell B||Affirming a gay identity while rejecting all gay sexual conduct|
|Cell C2||Transition zone of uncertainty between Side B and Side Y|
|Cell Y||Rejecting a gay identity while admitting to homosexual inclinations|
|Cell C3||Transition zone of uncertainty between Side Y and Side X|
|Cell X||Refraining from discussing enduring homosexual desire or “ex-gay”|
This is a statement about the cartographer as much as (or more so than) it’s a statement about the landscape. This is the framework by which Side B sees itself and its neighbors.
This is a map of the same terrain previously mapped as Side A vs Side B only a few years ago. Old Side B has become a spectrum of gradations delineated by the priorities and the interests of those in the new Side B group. Side Y and Side X aren’t the self-conceptions of the people categorized in those groups; they’re the conceptions which Side B projects upon those they classify as Side Y and Side X.
Note that Side A hasn’t been broken down into any sort of spectrum. Perhaps it could be. Perhaps to the folks on that side, there’s some meaningful difference between sanctified gay marriage and sanctified polyamory, etc. But that’s their cross to bear, and those are their mind-games to play among themselves.
This expansion of detail in the cartography of the same sexual landscape tells me that the basis of surveying and landmarking has changed. It’s becoming far more subjective, and it’s being driven by those for whom a subjective sexual sense of themselves is critical and fairly central to their overall self-conception and identity curation and presentation.
The fact that this framework recognizes its transition zones as identified positions speaks to its inherent subjectivity as a product of personal self-perception and self-understanding more than a representation of one’s public professions and practices, even if the former doesn’t rule out some engagement with the latter.
This layout also aligns with the theologico-sociopolitical landscape; it’s openly affirmed as such. It’s a spectrum from progressive to conservative. The sheer fact that religious and sociopolitical convictions map neatly onto this spectrum of sexual identification in itself merits any number of questions and concerns about its implications. One fairly obvious implication is that conservatives have no comfortable or functional place in Side B. And Nick Roen said as much when he distanced himself from the Side B label in June 2019. I can readily identify with Nick’s thoughts and concerns.
I’m not trying to be the language police about what particular words Christians with this particular lived experience can or should use in expressing ourselves to other Christians or to outsiders. But I do believe words are not benign. Neither is the way in which we use and inhabit those words. I’m not concerned about incidental words. I’m concerned about the sort of ethos and micro-culture that the Side B Movement is continually constructing and inhabiting. My concern is that the evolution of Side B is in the hands of folks who are truly Side A Lite.
This reminds me of the modern Reformed proverb: There’s a reason it’s called semi-Pelagianism instead of semi-Augustinianism. We know what the underlying driving motivation is.
I see that trajectory when I see a notable attrition rate from Side B to Side A but little or no attrition from Side B to Side Y or Side X. Or maybe the attrition’s form speaks for itself. Attrition from Side B to Side A is a(nother) coming-out ritual while attrition from Side B to Side Y/X is a quiet withdrawal. That contrast is informative.
The Side B Movement isn’t about affirming a particular sexual ethic; it’s about embracing a particular micro-culture. Insofar as predilections for certain music and hobbies and the possession of culinary skills constitute prominent subcultural features, Side B is a part of the broad and vague Gay Culture that is juxtaposed to a Straight Culture. Personally, I’d say what Sue Sylvester said about it to Kurt Hummel on Glee:
See, that’s the problem with your generation. You’re obsessed with labels. So you like show tunes. Big deal. That doesn’t make you gay. It just makes you awful [or awesome if you prefer].
I get concerned when I encounter fanciful queer theorizing about present, prelapsarian, and post-resurrection anthropologies and an attendant assortment of polysyllabic sexual neologisms among Side B folks in dialogue with Side A Lite folks and Side A converts. It leads me to my ongoing concern that the Side B subculture has a pervasive problem with malakia or moral softness as understood in ancient and medieval Christian ethics. It’s not exaggerated performative hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity focusing every effort on picking the low-hanging fruit of personality traits and quirks as easy targets.
The chief forms of moral softness among Side A Lite that alarm me are manifestations such as:
- Queer theorizing about human sexuality before the Fall which seeks to subvert any reasonable and responsible construction of it as functionally heteronormative, and doing so apparently so as to avoid reckoning with the profoundly disordered nature of homosexual and transgender impulses and inclinations according to traditional Christian sexual ethics
- Tabling vital discussions of cross-dressing, drag behavior, pride marching, celibate partnerships, bro-cuddling, and the like as though it’s sexual adiaphora when it’s all very plausibly sexual immorality deserving of ecclesiastical rebuke and discipline as understood by those who are theologico-sociopolitically conservative
- Transgenderism and Queer Culture generally receiving a free pass from scrutiny or special privileges of victimhood empathy and never being addressed with regard to Christian sexual ethics concerning appropriate gendered behavior
- Recurrent public displays of acedia and bitterness that chip away slowly at biblical convictions, the fear of the Lord, and the attendant holiness he expects from those who bear and are called by his Name
These manifestations of malakia make it hard for me to trust the worth and substance of any claim about holding to a traditional biblical sexual ethic that amounts to anything more than crass notions of who can or cannot rub genitals with whom and under what circumstances. That’s simply nowhere near a comprehensive Christian sexual ethic. To me, this is looking less like a docile beehive and more like a hornet’s nest of trouble.
Some Follow-Up Comments on Terminology …
The Side B Movement … is largely synonymous with Celibate Gay Christianity
Yes and no. It’s complicated. Generally and increasingly, yes. But not exhaustively. I don’t regard the Side B Movement to be the same thing as a group like Spiritual Friendship for instance.
In the short and rapidly paced history of things, the Side B Movement has some relationship with Spiritual Friendship. But Side B is going placed that SF hasn’t gone and isn’t going. I have the sense that Side B has presently purchased or co-opted the “Celibate Gay Christian” brand name from SF. And I think it’s a matter of deserved recognition and respect to distinguish men and women at Spiritual Friendship and their efforts.
In the marketplace of movements, the majority shares in the “Gay Christianity” brand are held by the affirming theologically revisionist camp. In the older Side A vs Side B dialogue and framework, Side A had and still holds the larger numbers. ‘Celibate’ was the modifier that folks like those at Spiritual Friendship chose in their efforts at careful articulation of language and a presentation of their concept and framework. The newer Side B wave isn’t as careful and conservative in its language and self-conception.
There’s a reason it’s called semi-Pelagianism instead of semi-Augustinianism.
– Reformed Proverb
The underlying driving motivation of the evolution of Side B is Side A Lite in my opinion. Would Side B like the label or wish to own the idea that they’re Side A Lite? I highly doubt they would. The folks on the leading edge of Side B probably don’t want to think of themselves as Side A Lite. But Side B has an excessively minimalist definition of traditional sex ethics, and it doesn’t have the same perspective as I have on how far gone from a robust traditional Christian sexual ethic it is.
In some ways, Side A Lite seems to like the fact that it’s a murky place but doesn’t think of it as a mess. I get the impression that it’s regarded as a place of freedom, creativity, and dignified diversity. And I see that made possible by a low view of scriptural inspiration and the accompanying theological revisionism and progressivism that come into play. They do so by thinning or emptying out a traditional biblical anthropology with its emphasis on corrupting sinfulness.
Many Side B folks seem to be comfortable being experienced as affirming by Side A folks or expressing how they’re comfortable having fellowship with Side A and Side B equally. This goes hand-in-hand with the perception and the confessions of Side B folks that they don’t regard the Side A position as spiritually perilous and devastating. This adds all the more to Side A Lite being an apropos characterization.
Side Y and Side X aren’t the self-conceptions of the people categorized in those groups; they’re the conceptions which Side B projects upon those they classify as Side Y and Side X.
If you ask me, the way Side B often makes distinctions between itself and Side Y or Side X and between Side Y and Side X, it’s sometimes just a metric for how annoyed Side B folks get or how hurt they feel with what you tell them they can or can’t do or how they should or shouldn’t express themselves. When it’s not that, it’s merely a charitable disagreement about those same do’s and don’ts.
Side Y means Christians who are willing to acknowledge and speak (usually publicly or in a less guarded or closed off fashion) about the fact they experience same-sex attraction or homoerotic and homosexual desires. But they don’t adopt a gay identity, whether a public presentation or a private self-conception. Again, “traditionally” for Side B, Side Y is about an unwillingness to describe oneself as gay.
But more and more, it’s not a matter of one’s willingness to use stipulated language in conversation; it’s an insistence or urgency about whether or not to adopt a “gay” brand identity as a prominent feature of your public self-presentation. Side B does that. Side Y does not. Because Side Y doesn’t operate according to the extent it desires to embrace a gay self-conception, a Side Y individual doesn’t think about himself or herself in the way a Side B individual thinks about a Side Y individual.
Frequently, Side X functionally means those Christians experiencing same-sex attraction who annoy and upset Side B people. Side X means Rosaria Butterfield, Christopher Yuan, and so forth. And Side X means any number of ultraconservative Christians who oppose the Side B construction and trajectory.
To Side B folks, Side X means people unwilling to candidly vulnerably talk about the fact that they still experience same-sex attraction. It tends to amount to Side B folks disliking the fact that Side X folks won’t talk in the way Side B folks desire to hear.
To Side B folks, Side X also means folks who insist everyone says “same-sex attraction” because any talk about being “gay” or more so the self-conception of identifying as “gay” is sinful.
Or it’s X for Side X folks, because it’s the new ex-gay meaning advocacy for conversion therapy or promotion of efforts at orientation change. It’s supposedly also a category for those who claim or give the impression they are no longer same-sex attracted.
I personally suspect that’s a misunderstanding or self-deceit on the part of Side B folks in some cases.
So Side X is a catch-all for a lot of things. A lot of things that Side B folks don’t like. And a lot of things that have genuinely hurt Side B folks in the past. There’s no denying that.
I don’t see many of those who are categorized as Side X as being Ex-Gay 2.0, a rebirth of the debacle that was Exodus International. Can you find plenty of Christians who talk as though homosexuals should or will become functioning heterosexuals as a part of their genuine repentance and conversion to the Faith? Yes, you can find those. And they’re a sect that’s quite out of touch with what we know about the anthropology of this matter along with the anthropology the Scriptures give us about this matter. And they always have been out of touch in these ways.
More and more for younger people who are Side B, “gay” language is about how you see yourself. But for the wider culture, and especially for an older generation, being gay has much more to do with how you live.
So for folks like Rosaria Butterfield and Christopher Yuan who lived for a time in their lives in active rebellion against God and carried it out in sexual immorality, it’s a very different experience from how they were living then to how they’re living now. It’s not confused and angst-ridden Christian teenagers who are regularly lamenting an urge for gay intimacy that they’ve never experienced and aren’t allowed to experience. There’s no sense of what they’ve escaped and renounced, only a sense of what they’re experiencing.
More and more, it seems that a ritual of the Side B Movement is wearing one’s weighty homosexual burden as an odd badge of honor or special privilege due to victimhood or grievance status. It’s not intended that way, but it comes across that way. It’s a felt need to signal about the unique burden. But someone who won’t do that and insists that it’s inappropriate for Christians to make such public displays of acedia about it will get categorized as Side X.
So, a trajectory from the old Side B to the new Side B is a growing matter of the Side B folks finding and expressing solidarity in the shared sexual self-perception with those who are Side A. It’s the solidarity of shared sexuality that Side X and Side Y Christians don’t want and find distantly secondary and rather fleeting compared to the solidarity they have with fellow Christians as fellow members of one Body and one Faith.