A few days ago, Stephanie Drury (Stuff Christian Culture Likes) posted a link to Set Apart Girl Magazine. Nearly everything about it makes me cringe. Even the title is awful. I have a list of words that, as a woman, I do not want to be called. At the top of the list is using female as a noun when referring to humans. Second only to that is calling adult women girls. Right off the bat this magazine has me wanting to punch something.
Feel free to read through the magazine if you want to, but bring boots and a shovel. Meanwhile, I’m going to highlight the article that grabbed my attention: “Unnatural Affections.” It’s about exactly what you think it is–and yet also not.
“Unnatural Affections” is the tragic tale of a friendship gone “too far.” The young woman in the story, Sarah, has developed a friendship with one of her college classmates, Meredith. The relationship is close, and it includes long talks, Bible studies, and physical affection. And then the nightmare spiral into Meredith stalking and controlling Sarah . . . oh, wait. No, that’s not what happens.
What actually happens is that Sarah’s family and her boyfriend become “concerned” for her that she’s spending too much of the wrong kind of time with Meredith. Her boyfriend, in a creepy-as-hell turn, even demands that she choose between him and her friendship. In the end, Sarah caves and ditches Meredith so as not to hamper her future intimacy with her boyfriend (when they’re properly married, of course). Just to prove what a parasite Meredith is, she apparently gloms onto another young woman to repeat her pattern.
This is a lovely little morality play, but there is so much wrong with it that I’m hardly sure where to start. First, the relationship as described is not in any way abusive. I’ve been in an abusive friendship, and it doesn’t look anything like that. It looks like a friend who not only demands your time and attention but deliberately sabotages your other relationships. It looks like an expectation to praise her every move. It looks like her telling you that she thinks your boyfriend–who is well-liked by everyone else–is “condescending” and “too smart.” It looks gossiping about you behind your back, cleverly disguising it as “prayer requests.” It looks like demanding you give up friendships with people she doesn’t like. It does not look like hugs and hair-braiding and long talks cuddling up while watching a movie.
Second, we women cannot win. No matter what we do, we are seen as impure. If we spend too much time with a boyfriend, we’re putting him before God. If we spend too much time with another woman, we’re putting her before God. If we have sex before we’re married, we’re “damaged goods.” If we have a physically affection friendship, we’re failing to keep our bodies pure. Essentially, young women are to be starved of loving touch until marriage, at which point it will magically become okay–as long as it’s only with our husbands. What kind of sick joke is that? It sounds like another variation of body = bad, soul = good.
Third, the whole thing is a clear example of why I’m still stubbornly writing about homophobia in the church. See, here’s the thing. A person doesn’t even have to actually be gay to find him- or herself victimized by the church. One only has to give the appearance of doing something the church disapproves of. In this case, the Big Bad was having a physically affectionate relationship with a friend; The article even refers to it as “subtly sensual.”
As a youth, I heard all about how I should “avoid even the appearance of evil” and “not cause my brothers to stumble.” That meant I had to obsess over every single action I took, because I might somehow do something that could be interpreted as sinful. I recall a youth leader explaining that it meant she didn’t drink wine when out at a restaurant because she couldn’t be sure there wasn’t a teenager or a recovering alcoholic in the restaurant, and she didn’t want to give the teen the wrong impression or tempt the alcoholic to drink. That may sound extreme, but it’s another example of exactly what’s going on in the story of Sarah and Meredith. It doesn’t matter one bit whether they were actually in a sexual relationship–what matters is that they appeared as though they were.
I appreciate that some people may be hurt by having assumptions made about their sexuality (actually, no, I really don’t care about that at all; suck it up). But I’m far more concerned about the message this sends to LGBTQ people: “You are so bad that we don’t even want anyone doing stuff that looks like you.” Is there anything else the church believes to be sin that’s treated with such utter contempt?
Yesterday, some of the people I follow on Twitter were expressing the desire to stop coddling people who are not LGBTQ allies–to stop pretending that it’s just a difference of opinion and that it’s okay. I’m all for that. It’s not remotely okay to find every possible way to shame and humiliate people for who they are. It’s not okay to tell lies about LGBTQ people from the pulpit. It’s not okay to attach unnecessary subtext to a friendship based on those lies. It’s not okay to sit back and tolerate other people doing it, either.
To the Sarahs and Merediths of the world, there is nothing wrong with you. Whether it truly is just a friendship or whether you’ve discovered you’re in love with each other, take both as blessings. You’ve found a valuable gift if you have a friend or a lover with whom you can talk about your love for God and the Bible. Go find your joy in one another, and screw the loveless people who shame you for what you have.