Between the faction of gay Christians who are happy with their sexual identity and "ex-gays," who say they've removed their homosexual yearnings, is a third group that gets little attention. These so-called Side B Christians identify as gay and believe it's not sinful to do so. But because they see acting on their orientation as ungodly, they commit to a life of celibacy.
Now, for the first time, a sociologist has taken an in-depth look at what makes Side Bs tick, particularly how they navigate their same-sex desires and their awkward position as stuck in the middle of ex-gay groups and content gay Christians. The study is small, but finds that Side Bs experience both tension and connection with these two groups. (The origins of the "Side B" term are foggy, but the terminology seems to come from the organization the Gay Christian Network, which labels gay Christians who do not see their sexuality as sinful as "Side A" and those who do as "Side B.")
"The networks overlap with these two groups very strongly, and they did often feel kind of caught in the middle, certainly," said study researcher S.J. Creek, a sociologist at Hollins University in Virginia. [5 Myths About Gay People, Debunked]
Christian and gay
The study of Side B Christians grew out of a larger research project by Creek looking into the lives of ex-gay Christians. This movement, which centers largely around the organization Exodus International, claims that same-sex desire can be stifled and that sexual orientation can be changed — hence the term "ex-gay." Numbers on ex-gay individuals are hard to come by, but Exodus International claims 3,000 people worldwide attend one of its ministry events each week.
In interviewing people who had sought help from ex-gay groups and then left, Creek found two distinct groups: Side As, who reconciled their sexuality with their religion and believe being gay and Christian is not contradictory; and Side Bs, who accept their orientation but commit to celibacy in order to remain in line with anti-homosexuality tenets.
"How each group thought about and acted on desire was different," Creek said.
For her new study, published May 13 in the journal Symbolic Interaction, Creek interviewed five Side B Christians about their emotions and interactions. Four of the interviewees were men and one was a woman; one of the men was married to a lesbian who also struggled with her desires.
Dealing with desire
The interviews revealed that desire was a complex problem for the Side Bs. "Allen," the 30-something man married to a lesbian, noted that he'd even had gay friends try to seduce him to test his limits. Such an experience is not uncommon among abstinent people, Creek wrote. [10 Milestones in Gay Rights History]
Admitting to same-sex desires is also a problem for Side Bs interacting with ex-gays, as the ex-gay philosophy holds that even homosexual desire is not OK. Creek's interviewees reported keeping their sexuality and their celibacy closeted in many cases.
"I tend to categorize myself as a gay, celibate Christian, but I am very hesitant using that [description] because in secular society, the word 'gay' means attracted to men, and in Evangelical Christian subculture, it means ‘sleeps with everybody ﬁve days a week,’" said one interviewee, called "James" in the report. Dealing with the connotations of the term was often too much of a headache, James said, so he frequently kept the information to himself.
At other times, claiming a gay identity was a way to connect with other Christians, both gay and straight. "Erin," a celibate lesbian, told Creek she found a connection with married couples in her Orthodox Church who also tried to lead chaste lives. Allen told a story of a straight Christian retreat administrator who stood up for him, pointing out that Christian straight men and Christian gay men have similar struggles.
"Every day, Allen wakes up and looks around, and he sees guys he wants to have sex with — and he doesn't have sex with them because he's following Jesus," the male administrator said. "And every day, I wake up, and I see girls I want to have sex with — and I don’t have sex with them because I’m following Jesus. So, we’re both not getting any because we’re following Jesus."
The study can’t be generalized to Christian gays as a group, or even to celibate Christian gays, Creek said. Nor can it answer the burning question of who is happier: ex-gays, Side As or Side Bs.
"Ex-gays are always telling people why gays are deeply unhappy. And many gay activists are going to tell you why ex-gay activists are deeply unhappy," Creek said. "Every group seems to think the other group isn't quite as happy as they are."
However, the Side B Christians interviewed by Creek may place a different priority on their sexuality than outsiders might, Creek said.
"Their Christian identities are incredibly important to them, and they would be deeply unhappy if they felt they were compromising those identities," she said.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.