When Julie Kerr was about 12 or 13, she decided that, like many other Christians, she would try to wait until she was married to have sex. That part wasn’t especially surprising. She grew up in a small town in Virginia with a Baptist minister for a father.
It was also around that time that she discovered something about herself that was less conventional in her circle: She liked women.
To her, the two are not incompatible. She never took a formal purity pledge, but, “it's mainly through [my faith] that I felt a calling to wait until marriage, or waiting until I meet the love of my life. For me, the love of my life is definitely going to be a woman.”
Demographically, Kerr is unusual in at least two respects. A prominent 2006 study found that 95 percent of Americans did not wait for marriage to have sex. “Premarital sex is nearly universal among Americans,” that study’s title proclaimed decisively, “and has been for decades.” And gay people are much less likely to identify as Christian than straight people are, which means there are precious few gay “waiters,” as they are sometimes called. (“I know of like two, three, four, … five?” Kerr said, trailing off.)
Still, their ranks may grow. As religious institutions become more accepting of homosexuality, Kerr might find more (though perhaps not many more) kindred spirits. The 48 percent of LGBT Americans who identified as Christian in 2014 is up slightly from the 42 percent who did so in 2013—even as religious affiliation declined among all Americans in the same timeframe.
Mark A. Yarhouse, a professor of psychology at Regent University, suggested that now that the question of whether gay Americans should be allowed to marry has been settled by the Supreme Court, “there is more room for a discussion of sexual ethics aside from the very basic question of whether same-sex sexual behavior is morally permissible.”
Gay couples are now presented with the same relational options straight couples are—including the option to wait until their wedding night.
Like Kerr, Matthew Vines, an author and activist who promotes the inclusion of gay people within Christianity, grew up in a church where waiting until marriage was the norm. He saw no reason to change his plan simply because he came to terms with being gay.
He said via email that though abstinence until marriage is still rare within the gay community, “as more LGBT people from Evangelical backgrounds come out and receive at least some support from their churches and families, I think waiting until marriage will become relatively more common.”
Kerr, now 33, works as a barista and as a caregiver for the elderly in Oakland, California. She said the longer she waited, the more she wanted her first time to have meaning.
I asked her something I thought Christians and atheists alike might wonder: Why she accepted the Bible’s prohibition on premarital sex, but not what many Christians believe to be its ban on homosexuality. (Some gay Christians reconcile this quandary by remaining celibate.)
Kerr doesn’t believe homosexuality is a sin, however, or that God or Jesus is homophobic. “A lot of times Christianity can be unkind to gay people,” she said. “It's too bad that a lot of Christians are judgmental. They're missing the point.”
Similarly, Vines interprets the Bible as frowning upon fleeting same-sex relationships, not lasting ones. “Many LGBT Christians see same-sex marriages as consistent with the Bible's ideals of covenantal love,” he said, “but those ideals also carry with them boundaries around appropriate sexual behavior.”
Kerr has found support through sites and Facebook groups where fellow “waiters” gather. But not everyone on those forums accepts her lifestyle. It’s less homophobia, she said, and more “a cold freeze-out. Like they don't know how to talk to a gay person.”
She also faces occasional skepticism from the LGBT community. In less progressive times, straight people would sometimes ask newly out gay people how they “know” they’re not straight. Similarly, some lesbians ask Kerr how she knows she’s gay, since she’s never had sex with a woman. “If I say I'm gay, I'm associating myself with sexuality, but I’m not exercising it,” she said. “In the Bay Area ... some people are like, ‘that's sweet and that's awesome,’ but some people are like, ‘what the fuck?’”
There have been times Kerr has considered giving it all up and running out for a late-night booty call. “You can feel your body wanting sex,” she said. But instead, she prays. She exercises. She watches Charlie's Angels, which “gets that out of your system.”
Kerr has starred in the TLC reality show The Virgin Diaries and is putting the finishing touches on a movie she made, Geek Loves Punk, about a religious, geeky, virgin who falls for a promiscuous agnostic.
The plot is somewhat true to life. She’s never sure when to tell romantic prospects about her decision. The first date is too soon. Wait too long, though, and you risk emotionally attaching to someone for whom mere kissing and cuddling does not a relationship make.
Kerr usually waits till date three or four. Some women bolt—and Kerr understands. She knows eventually, it “will be worth the wait, because it will be someone I'm in love with.”