It seems to me that when it comes to the language surrounding people who are gay, folks can often talk past each other. The use of language is challenging. Different people can mean different things when they say exactly the same thing. And these different meanings arise from different experiences, cultures, and backgrounds. Not only that, but as a non-same-gender attracted person trying to use language in a helpful, sensitive way, my head spins sometimes when one person says to say it this way to be helpful and then another comes along and says the complete opposite. One person is offended and then another offended by what the first person suggested as an alternative. Is there a way through this linguistic mess so that we can actually hear one another without assumptions, misperceptions, and caricaturizations?
I thought I would take a stab at describing what I’m hearing …. And then invite others to weigh in with their thoughts.
The word gay: When I talk to people who use gay to identify themselves, most say that they consider gay to be descriptive of their experiences of same-gender attraction. It seems that they are not trying to make any additional statement about their beliefs and values, their sexual involvement – or lack thereof, or their political views. Given that this seems to be the common usage, you really can’t assume anything about a person’s life or lifestyle based on their use of the word gay to describe themselves. Some people who are comfortable saying, “I’m gay” hold to a very traditional understanding of Biblical sexual ethics. They may be celibate. They may be living a chaste single life. They may be seeking to be faithful within a heterosexual marriage despite their experience of same-gender attraction. Others, who use gay to describe themselves, may be in a committed same-sex partnership. They may be sexually active outside of a committed partnership. The word gay, in and of itself, actually doesn’t tell us that much about a person other than that they experience the reality of same-gender attraction.
I encounter a different understanding when I am listening to some within conservative Christian circles. To them, the word gay seems to connote a whole package deal. If someone says they’re gay in these circles it may likely be interpreted to mean: • Sexually active with members of their own gender (and likely promiscuous) • Lacking in sincere Christian faith • Capitulated to and part of promoting the ‘gay agenda’ (which seems to often be assumed to mean they are trying to attack Christianity) • Sees their entire identity as wrapped in gay subculture (which seems to often be assumed to be anti-Christian)
These descriptions are generalizations – and I am sure that many conservative Christians would say they are much more nuanced in their understandings of the word gay than these descriptions. Unfortunately, I run into these sorts of assumptions on a regular enough basis to know that they are still alive and well within church circles. I’ve had people come up to me and tell me that they are offended by my usage of the word gay in a seminar. Others have told me they are still angry that “homosexual people co-opted the word gay from its original meaning” (like that isn’t a regular occurrence with any number of words and their use). Sometimes I encounter those who don’t really want to hear any other explanations of how people who are gay understand and use the term – they want to hold onto their assumptions and offense. When we were filming Justin Lee, Executive Director of the Gay Christian Network, he shared about encountering Christians who told him that if he wasn’t sexually active he shouldn’t call himself gay. To which Justin said, “Why should I not use the word gay just because I don’t fit your stereotype of what a gay person is? Your stereotype needs to change.” Exactly.
When language is descriptive, I think we can find a way forward. When language is used to label, I think we all face feeling boxed in and misunderstood.
Christians, understandably, have concerns about how people identify themselves – especially if they are fellow believers. If a person wants to be known as a follower of Christ, then Scripture has a lot to say about what it means to be a disciple and to accept Christ as not only Saviour but Lord. Submitting to the Lordship of Christ means that we put Christ ahead of everything else – including our sexuality. In this sense, there is a legitimate call to ensure that our primary identity is connected to our relationship with Christ. Note: Our primary identity. That doesn’t mean we don’t use other words to describe parts of ourselves – things that make up our comprehensive sense of who we are.
I am a follower of Christ. I am the Beloved of God. I am also a wife, a mother, a ministry leader, a daughter of Dutch immigrants, a member of the Christian Reformed denomination, an avid reader, a volleyball player, a home renovation TV show addict, a recovering bulimic, a contemplative, a student, a lover of people, a wanna-be writer, a Facebook wordtwist & tetris junkie……. My identity is influenced by all these things and more. My identity is fluid – it continues to be impacted by my experiences, the ways I’m growing and still maturing. I don’t want anyone to make assumptions about my character, my lifestyle, my decisions and choices based simply on the words I used to describe myself and the things that influence my identity. No matter how I describe myself, it will always be incomplete. I don’t want emails giving advice for recovering bulimics or ways to break TV and Facebook addiction……. If my friends want to sit me down and have an intervention that would be one thing – but I don’t want people who barely know me other than through my blog writings to presume they have the answers for my life.
Why would it be any different for the person who identifies as gay – among the many other things that describe who they are?
I don’t think that describing yourself as gay precludes you from embracing a primary identity as the Beloved of God. There are many Christians who experience same-gender attraction who choose to move beyond gay as a descriptor they use for themselves. There are many other Christians who experience same-gender attraction and find the use of the descriptor gay to be an expression of honesty and authenticity. One ought not to make any other presumptions about faith, values, sexual activity, motivations, cultural engagement etc. until you sit down and get to know them, hear their story & heart, and discover through conversation and relationship the answers to those kinds of questions.
But ….. I’m not same-gender attracted. I’m not faced with the choice to identify or not identify with the description gay.
For those of you who are and those of you who do ….. what do you think?