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Gay Christian conversations: is it time to leave behind "side A" and "side B"?
The language should change and develop to serve us, rather than the other way around.
We're all just entering existing conversations. I entered the "gay Christians affirming a traditional Christian sexual ethic but rejecting conversion therapy" conversation roughly in 2012. People sometimes take it for granted that spaces like Spiritual Friendship, Eden Invitation, and Revoice provide public spaces for this conversation to occur. But there was a time before these spaces.
Before the public Spiritual Friendship blog, there was the private blog. Over a few years, Ron Belgau and others had been managing a private blog asking questions about theology, desire, sexuality, friendship, and community. The private blog grew to hundreds of participants. I always thought that one of the strengths of Spiritual Friendship was that it didn't consist of a handful of writers picked for their prominence and influence. Instead, the private blog gave spaces for various conversations to bubble up, with the most thoughtful voices becoming evident over time. When the Spiritual Friendship blog launched, it was not a new initiative. It was an existing conversation coming out into public.
Part of that conversation involved a pre-existing vocabulary. We would often talk about "sides" for LGBTQ+ Christians, framed themselves as part of a previous conversation. In 2001, the Gay Christian Network (GCN) was founded by Justin Lee as an online forum to support gay Christians, whatever their beliefs. As conversations developed, language needed to be cultivated so that gay Christians could have productive conversations across divides. GCN wanted to hold space for both for gay Christians who affirmed the blessing of same-sex marriage and sexual activity and for gay Christians both who affirmed a "traditional sexual ethic." "Side A" was the term created for the former, with "side B" for the latter. (This language originated from Bridges Across the Divide, as is noted in the comments below.) The idea was to have a language of two "sides" in order to limit pejorative or incendiary references by or about either group. GCN was invested in holding space for both. Belgau was deeply involved in helping to cultivate this conversation from a "side B" perspective, with Justin Lee representing the "side A" perspective. (Later, the term "side X" came to be used for Christians who believed in the necessity of orientation change efforts.)
The "side A" and "side B" language was developed to serve gay Christians across divides. It was meant to facilitate fruitful dialogue and to be able to talk about each other without demonizing each other. While recognizing the importance of the divide, it sought to hold space for gay Christians who generally were marginalized in our broader communities, whatever views we held. We could provide mutual sympathy and support and challenge our communities to do better.
A lot has changed over the years. GCN has become the Q Christian Network. It is still committed to "teaching and modeling radical belonging in God's family, despite differences of belief regarding sexual ethics." It still includes side B speakers at its annual conferences, and also sets aside time at them for a side B "affinity gathering." But its primary focus has moved away from facilitating conversations across divides and towards "cultivating radical belonging for LGBTQ+ Christians and allies." The change is subtle, but important. LGBTQ+ Christians are less invested in creating space for all of us generally, and are more invested in creating space in our communities as side A or as side B.
These changes also came with shifts in how we approach one another. There's always been some fighting. The attacks across these divides have been vicious at times. One group is accused at times of not really being gay, while the other group is accused at times of not really being Christian. And we're often used by non-LGBTQ+ Christians in attacks on the LGBTQ+ community generally. If LGBTQ+ persons were once accused of mental illness, disability, and psycho-sexual immaturity by Christians generally, this charge is now leveled against side B Christians as a group. (I've personally seen a lot of mental illness and psycho-sexual immaturity in the side B world, but there should be a more nuanced conversation than the conversation that just mirrors older claims against LGBTQ+ people: "You have mental illness/psycho-sexual immaturity because you choose to be this way.") And if side B churches once sought to exclude LGBTQ+ Christians generally from membership, they now use side B members as a way to continue exclusion of other LGBTQ+ persons in a way that they can allege is "inclusive."
In both circumstances, churches have identified "the good LGBTQ+ people" and have used this identification to marginalize, pitting LGBTQ+ persons against each other as part of this process. This represents a significant change. While "side A" and "side B" were invented to bridge divides, allow for dialogue, and facilitate mutual support, the terms often now function as a litmus test. They now identify and entrench divides, and help churches identify "the good gays" and marginalize "the bad gays."
Across side B churches
This language can also suggest an inaccurate sense of unity. One thing many often don't realize about the side B world is its heterogeneity. The lack of general consensus among side B Christians has often been underestimated and underexamined, both by the group's detractors and by its advocates. The failure of the group to recognize this creates a number of internal problems.
Back when I was a side B speaker, associated both with Spiritual Friendship and (briefly) with Revoice, I had some discomfort about heterogeneity. For example, certain views on desire that make sense within Catholicism today are just not compatible with Calvinism. I often spoke in spaces with large numbers of both Catholic and PCA (Presbyterian Church of America) Christians, and when I did I often provided a disclaimer that my views were distinctly Catholic.
There are also important ecclesial differences across the various churches that have sponsored side b events and spaces. For example, Catholicism in recent years has been more comfortable dealing with disagreements and suspicions of heterodoxy within itself. Disagreements within Catholicism rarely lead to formal divides or excommunications. Many Protestant denominations, on the other hand, have resolved controversial issues through denominational splits. To put it simply, Catholicism in recent years has been much more tolerant of heterodoxy, which creates spaces for theological conversations that can't occur in the open in other denominations.
In addition, there are disagreements about gender and gender norms across side B communities that have important implications for how one manages side B thinking and practice. Southern Baptists with stricter gender roles and expectations are right to be wary of side b Catholics. Gender has always been an unwieldy concept in Catholicism in ways that other side b communities don't have space for.
What much of the above means is that side b Catholics don't have clean general alignment with side b non-Catholic Christians. Often, underlying ideologies in Catholicism have cleaner alignment with side a positions, which are open to, for example, dynamic positive accounts of erotic desire, theological diversity, and gender fluidity. Depending on who sets the terms for the side b position, Catholicism may not be so much a side b church" as it is a church that holds certain side b positions.
Nonetheless, the "official" position of Catholicism is often taken to be side b. I would argue that this is in part because of the socio-political position of American Christianity. Catholicism aligned in many ways with conservative Christian churches in opposition to abortion, and the alignment on this issue has often led to an unreflective alignment on other issues as well. That is, Catholic acceptance of the terms and divides set by the culture wars have malformed our theological positioning at times. And I suspect it will continue to do so unless we can work through realignment.
This is partly why I don't get worked up when other Christian churches make changes to how they relate to LGBTQ+ people. Churches need to work under the terms of their own theologies, not under the terms of my theology and my expectations. If Catholicism is a side b church, we cannot always be a side b church in the way that the Orthodox Church of America is a side b church.
Moving beyond the "sides"
At this point, I wonder if it makes sense to move beyond "side a" and "side b." These terms should serve LGBTQ+ Christians. They should promote community and solidarity, both within and across these groups. To the extent that they marginalize, divide, and turn us against each other, they have lost their original purpose. To the extent that the terms marginalize, divide, and turn us against each other, they go directly against their original purpose.
Of course, some may still find these terms helpful and conducive for mutual understanding and support across divides. To the extent this is true, the terms continue to have ongoing value. Many side b Christians recognize the above issues. One of the things I appreciated about being a writer for Spiritual Friendship was the recognition of disagreements and heterogeneity in the group. While a number of positions held us together as a group, we felt it was important that these positions could be held for different reasons and in different ways. This recognition helped to resist many cult dynamics I've seen in other side b communities. Interestingly, many of those I experienced who were the most strict in their positions and expectations are now side a.
Rather than prioritizing the language of side a/side b, I would argue that LGBTQ+ Christians should create spaces for solidarity and support grounded in key positions established for particular contexts. Support for parents when kids come out don't have to be specific to Christians on one side or the other of the marriage debate. For Christians who hold a "traditional sexual ethic," spaces for solidarity and support should be grounded in a list of key positions that hold space to ground and manifest those positions in different ways.
We need to keep in mind that we're all part of a developing conversation. The language should change and develop to serve us, rather than the other way around. When the language serves to divide and marginalize, it's time for a change.