LGBTQ+ Christians as “Friendship Researchers”

As the Ontario GS community prepares to gather for our 6th annual Ontario Generous Space Retreat (OGSR), we’re inviting our retreat participants and the broader GS community into some of our team’s reflections on this year’s theme: friendship. Our first reflection was by our E.D., Wendy VanderWal-Gritter. This reflection is from our Director of Community, Beth Carlson-Malena.

Check out those 80s lasers!

I’m excited to talk about friendship at this year’s Ontario Generous Space Retreat, because I think LGBTQ+ people, whether they know it or not, are lifelong friendship researchers… we just don’t stop very often to consider our findings!

Here are some snapshots from my journey…

Like many other LGBTQ+ people, in my early school years, my friends were my barometers of “normal.” I grew up subconsciously noticing ways I differed from them. They talked about opposite-sex celebrity crushes, and I would choose one at random that sounded good (Leonardo DiCaprio is supposed to be hot, right?), even though I suspected I felt something less than what they felt. I was always testing my friends’ reactions to my gender expression – if they made a sarcastic comment about a particular baggy sweater or a pair of cargo pants from the men’s section, I’d dial back the “butch” for a while.

In my teenage years, friendship became confusing. I often felt like I wanted more from my female friends than they wanted from me – more time, more investment, more exclusivity. I grew especially jealous when they’d start dating guys. I was constantly worried my intensity would scare them off, constantly wondering if my expressions of friendly love were acceptable. Are sleepovers okay? Can we spoon? Can I tell them how much they mean to me? In my young adult years, I began reading books about codependency, convinced something was wrong with me. (Nope, I was just gay.)

Some of my favourite cargo pants.

With my male friends, I felt more chill. But every so often I would accept an invitation to do something with one of them, and discover halfway through that in their minds, it was a “date.” (Sometimes I guessed what was happening when they showed up dressed in their best, and I was wearing… well, probably a baggy sweater and cargo pants.) Cue extreme awkwardness, hurt feelings, and accusations of “leading them on,” though I was oblivious that I was doing so. I soon vowed to mainly hang out with guys in groups, only rarely one-on-one… I now kind of regret that.

Fast forward to my 20s. Danice, who’s now my wife, started out as my housemate and friend. I had read C.S. Lewis’ “The Four Loves” and believed there was a clear delineation between “philia” (friendship) and “eros” (romance), but after a couple years with Danice, we found ourselves in a sort of no man’s land (haha) between the platonic and the romantic. I began to understand love not so much as a category with distinct subcategories, but as a single God-given drive to connect with others that can be shaped in different ways according to our choices. I do think there are negative consequences when two people actively repress or deny their physical attraction over the long term, but I believe that with openness & honesty, Danice and I could have made choices that led to a lifelong “platonic” friendship. Still, I’m grateful we made the choice to also express our love romantically, and that our marriage is now four years strong.

Coming out usually either deepens or weakens friendships – it’s a high-stakes friendship event. When Danice and I came out, most of our close friends rose to the occasion and became much-needed sources of support. Some of my female friends pulled back, perhaps worried I might develop attractions for them – I can only guess. My friendships with men generally deepened with new levels of vulnerability; the doors I closed through my lack of sexual desire for them seemed to let both of us to relax into our friendship. Best of all, by getting involved in the queer community, I also gained rich and rewarding friendships with trans and non-binary folks.

I think talking about friendship, loneliness and love is always valuable, but I’m especially excited to talk next weekend with my LGBTQ+ Christian peers who have had similar “life research” experiences around friendship, gender and sexuality.

I want to see if those from different generations or different cultural backgrounds can relate to what I’ve shared. I want to hear from celibate people who have been so intentional in considering the value and necessity of friendship. I want to hear from men who perhaps have less societally-acceptable room for physical affection in their friendships – does this limit the “no man’s land” between friendship and romance? I want to hear from those who have undergone gender transition, or who have come out as non-binary, and how this changed or didn’t change their friendships. I want to hear how bisexual and pansexual folks navigate the sometimes-blurry lines of friendship and attraction. So many of us rely on “chosen family” – can we talk about what distinguishes family-love from friend-love, or whether that’s another grey area? We live between a world that is chastened by evidence of rampant sexual abuse (#metoo, #churchtoo) and a Christian world can also sometimes be overly fearful of cross-gender friendship (e.g. Mike Pence’s “Billy Graham rule”)… what wisdom might we bring as LGBTQ+ folks?

If you’re coming to the retreat, I can’t wait to hear about your own journey with friendship, and discuss all of your “research findings” with you! If you’re not coming, feel free to leave any insights or ideas in the comments.

~ Beth Carlson-Malena

For more blogs related to our 2018 Generous Space Retreats – click here.

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