(RNS) — When Grant Hartley first discovered he was gay at age 13, he adopted what he calls an “ex-gay mindset.” He saw his attractions as a sort of test, something he could overcome with faith. But no amount of prayer changed him.
“I started to think of it more as a gift, as a strength,” said Hartley, now 28 and openly gay. “Maybe there is something about the beauty I am able to see that straight men are not able to see.”
This kind of evolution isn’t unusual among the roughly 4-million LGBTQ Christians in the U.S. But perhaps less commonly, since coming out, Hartley has also chosen to pursue celibacy. While grateful for the experience of being gay, Hartley sees his gay identity as something that goes beyond just sex — “I never say that I’m grateful for same-sex sexual desire,” he said — it also includes aesthetics, culture and worldview.
Hartley is part of a small group of openly LGBTQ Christians who, while embracing their sexual orientation, also believe God designs sex and marriage to occur exclusively between a man and a woman. The group, called “Side B” (as opposed to Side A Christians who celebrate same-sex marriage and sex), is a largely virtual community that sits in a rare liminal space between two sides of a culture war.
Despite their relatively small numbers, the group is experiencing its own renaissance, with thought leaders (like Hartley) producing podcasts and publishing books and group members gathering at conferences.
Many credit Episcopal priest Wesley Hill, now an associate professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, with being one of the first to outline a “Side B” perspective in 2010. As Side B discourse was finding its way into online forums, the flagship Christian ex-gay organization Exodus International closed its doors in 2013 after decades of using conversion therapy on LGBTQ individuals. Many LGBTQ Christians who had been harmed by the ex-gay approach — but still held to traditional church teachings on marriage — turned to Side B for a more accepting community.
At first, Side B was mostly offering a theological pathway for Christians to both accept LBGTQ as a God-given identity and uphold a traditional stance on sex and marriage. Now, Hartley said, the group has taken on a cultural weight.
“Over time, Side B has felt less like a theological position and more like a distinct sub subculture,” he said.
Many Side B Christians feel called to celibacy, and a select few are in celibate same-sex partnerships or mixed-orientation marriages where one party is straight and the other is not. These experiences have led Side B Christians to develop alternate models of belonging that honor single, celibate lifestyles.
One such model, Hill says, is spiritual friendship, a deeply committed relationship that’s more spiritual vocation than casual Facebook acquaintance. Hill says these sorts of intentional, celibate friendships deserve public recognition and support. Side B folks also find community by creating chosen families — mutual support systems made up of non-related members — or, in the case of Eve Tushnet, through communal acts of service.
“There’s a wide range of ways to give and receive love,” said Tushnet, a gay celibate Catholic writer and speaker with a forthcoming book. “For me personally, my friendships are a huge part of that, and my volunteer work. I volunteer almost exclusively with women. That was the first thing I sought out, when I was trying to figure out, how am I going to lead a life that is in some ways shaped by the love of women.”
As Side B has solidified, not all members are thrilled with the emerging group’s name. Bridget Eileen Rivera, a celibate gay Christian and author of “Heavy Burdens: Seven Ways LGTBQ Christians Experience Harm in the Church,” doesn’t use the Side B label. In part, she says, it’s because it creates a false dichotomy that ignores the more fluid experiences of most LGBTQ Christians, whose beliefs about sexuality, gender, sex and marriage are rarely static.
“I often feel like it’s unhelpful, pitting two sides against each other,” said Rivera. “Our theological differences don’t have to be such big dividing lines.”
Greg Johnson, a gay pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and author of a forthcoming book, believes the Side B language can be useful. “When a gay person lands in the more conservative, traditional camp, it’s helpful to distinguish them from those who are really theologically in a different place,” he said.
In 2018, Nate Collins, a Side B author and ministry president, founded the first Revoice conference, a gathering place explicitly for Side B LGBTQ Christians and their allies. Born partly in response to the Nashville Statement, a 2017 document signed by more than 150 conservative evangelical heavyweights that condemned identifying as LGBTQ, it attracted 425 attendees, many of whom said they felt an overwhelming sense of joy and belonging. But external backlash was swift.
Conservative critics condemned members of Side B for using LGBTQ language to describe themselves and for being part of what they feared was a slippery slope toward full affirmation of same-sex marriage and sex.
When Johnson’s Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis hosted the 2018 Revoice gathering, it triggered a denominational court case targeting Johnson for identifying as gay. The PCA case concluded on Oct. 22, 2021, and was decided in Johnson’s favor. But this summer, the PCA also passed two overtures designed to bar those who identify as LGBTQ or same-sex attracted from ordination, even if they have chosen to be celibate. The overtures still require additional votes but could go into effect as early as next summer.
On the flip side, some progressive critics, who are fewer in number, said Hill and Hartley, see Side B as another iteration of the ex-gay movement or a form of respectability politics where LGBTQ individuals repress their sexuality to win approval from the broader church. Side B members say these are mischaracterizations.
“The idea that Side B is just the ex-gay movement with a different veneer ignores or minimizes the fact that Side B people are fleeing ex-gay movements and ex-gay churches,” said Hartley. “Many of us have gone through reparative therapy and have really bad experiences, and we’re invested in fighting against ex-gay theology as well. We’ve been victims of it.”
Tushnet agreed and added that the motivations behind Side B and the ex-gay movement are entirely different; one is trying to make gay people straight, and the other is trying to expand how the church views love and kinship.
Not everyone in Side B is on the same page about how to interact with Side A. Rivera believes Side A and Side B share ample common ground, especially when it comes to how the church has mistreated them. Hill agrees that Side A and B share common causes such as opposition to conversion therapy and concern about LGBTQ homelessness and depression but also said the difference in theology can pose challenges.
“A lot of us feel some awkwardness around what it looks like to celebrate our Side A friends and their lives,” Hill said, describing how some in Side B have wrestled with whether to be in or attend a Side A friend’s same-sex wedding.
Collins said many in Side B are deciding whether they have more in common with the LGBTQ identity found in Side A or the traditional sexual ethic found in ex-gay approaches. “There is this undercurrent of, who do Side B people feel more connected to or in solidarity with?” said Collins. “Do people have more shared ground with Side A people who are Christians or with the old ex-gay approach?”
As Side B has evolved, it has broadened its ecumenical tent. According to Collins, the 2020 virtual Revoice conference welcomed 2,000 attendees from all 50 states, 39 countries and a host of Christian backgrounds. The expansion means Side B Christians share different views about whether to pursue celibate same-sex partnerships or mixed-orientation marriages, how they think trans and nonbinary identity aligns with Scripture and to what extent Side B Christians should embrace broader LGBTQ culture (think rainbow flags and pride parades).
Hartley says the diversity within Side B is a strength. “Side B came out of dissatisfaction with the simple and easy answers of the ex-gay movement,” said Hartley, “and so, embracing complexity or allowing complexity is in contrast to that insistence on uniformity.”
Despite the diversity, Side B has remained a predominately white group. Hill acknowledges that he and others who helped shape the movement initially should have foregrounded racial diversity in earlier conversations. But he believes change is happening, if slowly.
As Side B continues to grow, Hill says it has many gifts to offer the broader church, including robust understandings of spiritual friendship and singleness. “I think we challenge the way evangelicalism has often romanticized marriage and child rearing, as though if you want to be mature, you need to be married and having children,” he said.
Hartley agrees that Side B has a message to share.
“The closet experience for many Side B folks, and LGBTQ folks in general, means that we have a really visceral experience of death and resurrection,” said Hartley. “That can turn out to be a huge strength, and I think it can actually equip the church to live out the gospel better.”