Working with Language

I’ve been pondering for some time the need to write a new article regarding language usage in the conversation at the intersection of faith and sexuality. Then I ran across an article dealing with transgender terminology that was so clear and helpful, it was the catalyst that I needed. In the last section, I’ll simply cut and paste a major section from Melinda Harris’ article to help us understand current usage of language when engaging matters of gender identity. But there are some things to say more generally about the L and G before we get to the T of LGBTQ.

Let’s start with the acronym: LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer. Some people have joked about the never-ending acronym because you may encounter a number of additional letters such as LGBTTTQQI. Some of the extra letters may stand for transsexual, two-spirited, questioning and intersex. (Two-spirited is an aboriginal term to describe someone who does not fit a heteronormative sexuality.)

There are some Christians who would view this acronym as a political statement with the assumption that it communicates a particular theological or political position. In my experience, the common social usage is simply an attempt to be more inclusive than simply saying ‘gay community’ and there isn’t an implicit political message in its usage.

There are two terms that I have begun to use more regularly, though not without some questioning and controversy.

Outside the heterosexual mainstream: An older gay friend advised me, as a straight person, that using a word like queer as an attempt to be inclusive could be perceived as offensive to some people. So when I came across this phrase, I wondered if it could serve a similar purpose. I ran it by a number of gay friends who came from diverse backgrounds and positions – and none of them had a problem with it. They viewed it as descriptive. And descriptive language is always preferred. I have recently encountered some folks who feel that is highlights what people are outside of and that it could therefore be perceived to be contributing to an inequitable way to view those who are not heterosexual. These are important concerns to listen to. I have found that it is a phrase that can be helpful when speaking to mainly straight or mixed audiences and particularly so within the faith community. It seems to be received as a fairly value-neutral term which can be a very helpful starting point. It doesn’t seem to be perceived as a political description – and for most straight people it wouldn’t occur to them that it could perpetuate a sense of inequity. My conclusion is that it can be a helpful term when speaking to the church. If I’m speaking to predominantly LGBTQ audiences I will use different language.

The other term I’ve been using is: sexual minorities. This could carry the same critique as above – namely that by focusing on the minority element it perpetuates a sense of inequity. However, if the emphasis is on being descriptive, it is again a fairly value neutral term which is more inclusive than simply saying gay. Because it is a term a lot of church folks won’t have heard, it can open up a conversation when they inquire what I actually mean when I say sexual minorities. I think another helpful thing it can communicate – without getting into the argument about causation – is the simple reality that a minority of people around us experience a different sense of sexuality than the majority do. This can be very helpful to set the tone of, “it is what it is – how now shall we live”. This little phrase can mean a couple of things. First, for the individual themselves, it is an invitation to accept their experience of sexuality for what it is and to focus their attention and energy on determining the manner in which they will move forward through life and relationships given this reality. Secondly, for the community, it is an invitation to accept that people in their group experience a different sense of sexuality than they do, may have different beliefs and values than they do, and may choose to live their life in a different manner than they do, but we are still called, as followers of Jesus, to be good neighbours to whoever is in our community. We therefore need to figure out a way to live together in peace and to work towards the shalom of our neighbours.

You may notice, that I use the word reality a lot. I like this word because of its neutrality. A reality just is. One might feel like it is good or bad – but you would need to come up with additional words to describe that. To use the word reality instead of a word like “issue” invites a different kind of entry way to acceptance. Sometimes, to avoid being overly redundant with the word reality, I will use words like ‘subject’, ‘topic’, ‘conversation’ – all of which carry the same sense of neutrality.

In a lot of my presentations, I spend some time talking about the word gay. General social usage of the word in today’s context is descriptive. So if someone says, “I’m gay” they are communicating something descriptive about themselves and it is simply this – that they experience same-sex attraction. When someone says that they are gay you actually don’t know much about them – you don’t know where they land on the political or theological spectrum. You do not know if they are sexually active or what their personal beliefs and boundaries around sexual behaviour might be. You do not know if they are partnered, open to having a partner or committed to celibacy. All you know is that they experience same-sex attraction and that they have accepted this as a reality in their life. The only way you can come to know the answer to some of the other questions is if you take the time to get to know them, listen to their story, and earn the right by building authentic trust to hear such intimate details of their life. The only way you can build such trust is to take a genuine interest in them as a person and express genuine care for them.

The word lesbian is not one I find myself using a lot unless I’m with a friend who prefers to describe herself that way. Some same-sex attracted women I know prefer lesbian – others do not like it at all. The best rule of thumb is to simply listen to your friends and adopt the language that they use provided it doesn’t conflict with your conscience.

Bisexual is a term that describes someone who experiences attraction to both the same and opposite genders. In my earliest days with New Direction I heard an ex-gay ministry leader answer a query about this term by saying that it was essentially someone with a sexual addiction. This kind of description is completely unhelpful. Bisexuality is distinct from the idea of sexual fluidity. Fluidity refers to a shifting in direction of attraction over time. Some individuals, may want to explore the potential of fluidity in their sexuality or try to uncover some level of bisexual functioning so that they can enter into heterosexual marriage in a manner that is in line with their beliefs and values. I spoke more about this in the previous post on “Absolutes Part 1”.

One of the things that I learned early on and still continue to practice is to try to use terms like gay or lesbian or bisexual as adjectives rather than nouns. When I listen to others, including other gay people, I hear both usages. My sense has been that the adjectival use, particularly by someone who is straight, communicates a level of respect. For example, I will refer to gay people not gays. The flip side of that is sometimes it is unnecessary to indicate this descriptor. This can be a bit tricky – especially for someone who is speaks on this subject but not in purely social contexts. For example, I was speaking at our annual event and told a story about my gay friend. Because I wanted to protect the identity of the individual I did not use their name. I wanted my audience to know that the story I was about to tell involved someone who had connected with me through New Direction. Afterwards, one of my other gay friends chided me and said he felt like I’d had to make this big emphasis about my gay friend. There is some tension here that can only be navigated successfully with ongoing conversation, a willingness to listen, and extend respect while giving one another some grace.

There are some words and phrases that I continue to hear within the church community that just make me cringe – and I really wish that we could make the transition to remove them from our vocabulary.

The gay lifestyle: This is my standard line when speaking to the church, “If you meet one hundred gay people you may well encounter 100 different gay lifestyles.” In other words, there is great diversity among LGBT people in how they live their lives and steward their relationships and sexual behaviour – as there is among straight people. Using this phrase reveals that an individual really hasn’t taken the time to listen to and get to know a variety of gay people. It smacks of stereotypes and caricatures – and it is really unhelpful. The church is called into relationship with real people where they are at. We erect a barrier when we use this kind of generalizing, negative language.

Practicing homosexual: My response, “Are you practicing heterosexuals? How often do you practice?” etc. Most people use this phrase because they are trying to differentiate between those who hold to a traditional interpretation of Scripture and those who hold a more affirming perspective. Its usage, however, would be demeaning to someone who has been in a committed relationship for years. I have found that a better alternative is to simply say that an individual is partnered, open to having a partner, or single and/or celibate. This seems to me to be more respectful and accurate in its descriptions.

The use of the word homosexual in general conversation can also be a disconnect. This word choice has a clinical overtone that seems impersonal and distant. So rather than referring to someone as a homosexual, simply say that someone is gay. If that person doesn’t describe themselves as gay – or if you are unsure about that – then you can simply say same-sex attracted. Instead of saying the homosexual community, simply say LGBT community or gay community. Of course, speaking of that, it is important to remember that there is no monolithic gay community. Rather, it is an attempt to concisely refer to the group of people who do not identify as heterosexual or who experience gender identity differently. I would suggest limiting the use of gay community for those reasons.

For a season in my tenure with New Direction, we really emphasized the use of same-gender attracted. In fact you may find that in older parts of this or other websites hosted by us. We originally made this emphasis because it was descriptive. We used the word gender instead of sex in an attempt to highlight the reality that the experience of same-sex attraction ought not to be reduced to being only about sex. The thought behind it might have been good – but in some contexts the word gender just sparks off a whole other kind of conversation so that in the end, it wasn’t the best language choice. Both phrases, same-sex attracted and same-gender attracted, are relatively neutral if not somewhat cumbersome to use. If a person is uncomfortable, for whatever reason, with describing themselves as gay this may be their preference. If, however, someone has come out and regularly describes themselves as gay, they may be insulted if you refer to them as same-sex attracted. Best to use the same language that the individual uses for themselves.

I have been speaking more about personhood in connection with sexuality. This is one way to deconstruct the reductionism that has a lot of people focused on genital interaction when they think of same-sex sexuality. This post elaborates on that.

In the rest of this section, I want