And why that is a stupid title for what I’m writing about
I wrote this originally on Wednesday 21st August, 2019. I hope it helps to clarify what I mean when I use certain words and gives you a little window into some of my thinking.
First up, I want to acknowledge and repent of the click-baity title. Hopefully as you read on, you’ll see that I don’t think this is a helpful way of framing the discussion. It is, however, the way the discussion is usually framed, for example in this notable series of blog posts, or in the seminar at the Christian conference I was at yesterday that was literally titled “Gay vs Same-sex Attracted: Why the Debate and What’s Behind It?”
For better or for worse, this is a discussion that many Christian leaders have a bee in their bonnet about. There are so many important conversations to have about sexuality and faith, but for some reason this particular argument about word choice continues to dominate the Straight Agenda™. I found it quite interesting that yesterday’s conference devoted an entire seminar to discussing preferred terminology instead of other pastoral issues actually affecting LGB/SSA people.
To summarise for those who haven’t been following the discussion, what I’m referring to is a debate over whether Christians who are exclusively attracted to the same sex should describe themselves as “gay” or “same-sex attracted.” As a generalisation, conservative Christians are typically uncomfortable using the word “gay,” preferring the alternative “same-sex attracted,” while people who self-describe as “gay” risk facing shame and losing the trust of their church communities. A couple recently left my church congregation because my pastor and I had both referred to me as a “celibate gay Christian” at a public evangelistic talk. They were uncomfortable with the use of the word “gay,” and decided it was a deal-breaker, so decided to leave our community.
While I’d much rather spend my time discussing more important issues, this does seem to be a big deal to conservative straight people, so here’s my obligatory blog post outlining my thoughts on the topic.
In this post I will:
- Identify three problems with the way this discussion is typically framed,
- Present what I think is a more helpful way to frame the discussion, and
- Offer a few snapshots of how this approach plays out in my own experience and conversations.
Three problems with the way this discussion is typically framed:
- It should not be an either/or question.
- No one knows exactly what is meant by “identity.”
- Lack of consistency with other linguistic choices.
It Should Not be an Either/Or Question
Why does it need to be either “gay” or “same-sex attracted?” The nature of synonyms is that there are multiple words with similar (though differently nuanced) meanings, so a speaker can draw from any/all of the synonyms that best communicate their meaning. You don’t hear musicians arguing about whether they refer to themselves only as “musicians,” “performing artists,” or “instrumentalists.” While many musicians would have a preference for one of those words, it would be silly and unnecessary to adopt that label to the exclusion of all others because it is ‘superior.’ I typically refer to myself as a musician, but I am also a bassoonist, flautist, pianist, singer, instrumentalist, and performing artist as well. When I meet someone who tells me they play bassoon, I will respond with, “Hey, I am a bassoonist as well!” When I meet a ballet dancer, I would be more likely to refer to myself as a performing artist. (And if I meet an opera singer… well, I just run the other way.) The nature of synonyms means there are many options that a speaker has to clearly articulate their meaning. To make it an either/or debate is to create unnecessary pressure to choose a side, serving only to polarise people and encourage tribalism. If you think a word should be avoided for a legitimate reason, make the case for that. But framing the discussion as an either/or question turns it into a debate with “for” and “against” sides, and the last thing we same-sex attracted Christians need from our brothers and sisters right now is them taking a stance against us on the basis of word choice.
No One Knows Exactly What is Meant by Identity
At its core, this debate seems to be centered around questions of identity. The argument goes: “If a Christian’s identity should be their status in Christ alone, then how can you justify using words that place your identity in other things like being gay?”
First off, I have never heard someone clearly define how they understand the word “identity” in this context. Do they mean the way someone views themselves? The source of someone’s ultimate significance? The source of their sense of value? To add to the confusion, people seem to use several different definitions of the word interchangeably; I’ve heard a pastor say that a person’s identity should be in Jesus alone, not one’s sexuality, then later in the same sermon talk about how he identifies as an extrovert. What makes it okay to identify as an extrovert but not okay to identify as being gay? Or way makes it wrong to identify as gay but okay to identify as same-sex attracted, for that matter?
The “gay vs. SSA” debate is typically framed as being centred around the identity question… but how does a word intrinsically contain identity statements? Many would argue it’s the association of a word with frequent identity statements that render it unhelpful or even inappropriate for a christian to use. They would say the word “gay” isn’t intrinsically about identity (after all, how can a word be intrinsically anything?), but the common usage of the word to describe a sexual identity and a way of life associate it firmly with identity in a way that “same-sex attracted” is not. This may be true, but if it is mere associations that makes a word inappropriate, that raises serious questions of how we can apply this principle consistently:
Lack of consistency with other linguistic choices
When my professional musician colleagues call themselves “musicians,” they are typically describing the most important thing in their life, the primary way they see themselves. For most of them, being a musician is at the core of their identity. Does this mean a Christian musician should then find an alternative way of labelling themselves to avoid making inadvertent identity statements? Should they avoid the word “musician” altogether and refer to themselves as “sound artists,” or even, to be totally unambiguous, “Christian sound artists?” Should Christian doctors start calling themselves “medical clinicians,” or Christian lawyers “licensed statutory practitioners” to avoid the unhealthy identity issues of their respective industries? That sounds ridiculous, but it is a legitimate question if these words in their cultural contexts have come to carry strong associations with identity statements. There are so many words that are associated with identity, because our world is so desperately seeking identity in diverse places. Does this mean every time a word becomes associated with identity claims, Christians should invent linguistic alternatives like “same-sex attracted?”
Some would argue yes. This, in part, is why many Christians in recent decades, including the community my own family grew up in, would avoid describing their relationships as “dating” for fear of being associated with sinful dating practices, and instead would describe themselves as “courting” their partner. Many even feel uncomfortable referring to their courtship partner as their “boyfriend” or “girlfriend,” again, not wanting to draw connections to a worldly set of beliefs and practices. The point here is that if we are uncomfortable with using and reclaiming words from our culture’s vernacular, we will eventually have to create a wholly new dialect of Christianese to be consistent. This is what some fundamentalist Christian communities will do, and to their credit, at least they are acting consistently. Having lived among such a community, I can tell you this is no small undertaking. As a child, I remember being rebuked for using ‘worldly’ words like “cool” and seeing fictional characters in Christian published material ridiculed for using the worldly “yeah/nah” instead of the acceptable “yes/no.” If that sounds crazy and extremist to you, take a second to step back and realise that’s exactly how the “gay vs. SSA” debate sounds to most people outside the church today (and a great many inside the church, too). If you choose to avoid all words that have unhelpful associations, you are free to do that, but please do it consistently.
Having noted some of the limitations of framing the discussion in these ways, I would like to put forward another way of framing the discussion that I believe will yield more fruitful conversations.
An Alternative Framework
Instead of framing the discussion in terms of identity and arguing about which words comprise identity statements, I would love to frame the discussion in terms of a differentiation versus solidarity paradigm.
After many hours of careful listening to different perspectives on this debate, I’ve identified one key factor that influences the linguistic choices people make. It is not, as you might expect, a view of identity. All of the Christian leaders I respect find their identity first and foremost in Jesus, including those who use the word “gay.” Rather, the key factor is one’s posture towards the secular LGBTIQ population and one’s willingness to associate oneself with such a community.
One approach seeks to distance themselves from secular LGBTIQ people, not necessarily in proximity but certainly in association. This approach may show deep love, compassion and friendship to LGBTIQ people, but is hesitant to be associated as one of them. A Christian attracted to the same sex who takes this approach may have strong ties to the LGBTIQ community, but would still be careful to distinguish oneself from them: ‘We’re friends, but I’m not one of you’ is the impression often given. Such a commitment to being distinct from the LGBTIQ population would see alternative language being employed to clearly differentiate. This is why many people would avoid the description of “gay” and instead opt for the less mainstream “same-sex attracted.” This can be helpful in advocating for a distinctly Christian sexual ethic and avoiding ambiguity. It can be particularly helpful for creating accountability for people who have a personal history of pursuing same-sex sexual relationships but have since committed to following Jesus in chaste obedience, and who are seeking to ‘put to death’ their old habits and identity.
A second approach seeks to step towards LGBTIQ people and say ‘I’m one of you. We can relate to each other’s experiences of being sexual minorities.’ Of course, for the celibate singe same-sex attracted Christian, there will be plenty of areas of our experience that are not common to non-Christian LGBTIQ people, but this approach aims to highlight the commonalities and express solidarity. The motivations for this approach can either be missional (taking a step into ‘their world’ with the hope of eventually welcoming them into ‘our world’ of God’s family), or a personal motivation (seeking a community where one can feel understood, supported and loved in their minority experience), or a combination of these motivations. In an attempt to show other LGBTIQ people that we can personally connect with their experience, people taking this approach are more inclined to use language like “gay” or “lesbian.” The missional impacts of this are tremendous; I have spoken to many non-Christian gay people who tell me they love the idea of the Christian faith, but they feel disqualified from coming to church because they are gay. Despite having close Christian friends, including same-sex attracted Christians, these people had no concept of a gay person becoming a Christian because they had never heard of a “gay Christian” before. Simply by describing my orientation as “gay,” I am able to subvert this assumption that gay people cannot be Christians. If something as simple as a word choice can communicate to someone that they are not disqualified from God’s grace, what a privilege it would be to proclaim God’s grace one word at a time!
Of course, there are risks associated with the solidarity approach. Any approach that steps towards people who don’t share our faith and says “I am one of you” runs the risk of ambiguity and miscommunication. While we do share many rich experiences in common with other LGBTIQ people, there are of course fundamental worldview differences that cannot be trivialised! This is one of the reasons why Christians who describe themselves as gay will typically clarify their meaning by using the entire phrase “celibate gay Christian.” Even then, there are many people (mostly religious folk) who are baffled by such a phrase or would even call it an oxymoron. Rosaria Butterfield is on record as stating emphatically that “there is no such thing as a gay Christian,” assuming the term to be a statement of identity or self-conception that cannot be squared with a Christian worldview. By associating themselves so closely with other LGBTIQ people, “celibate gay Christians” have risked causing scandal. Regardless of their actual moral conduct, celibate gay Christians often perceived by other Christians as being deviant, theologically liberal, or morally bankrupt simply by their close association with other gay people. Understandably, many Christians would prefer to avoid causing scandal by opting for the safety of unambiguous terms that clearly differentiate themselves.
At this point, I can’t help but think of the scandals Jesus caused by being associated with the minorities and moral outcasts of his day. One of the most frequent accusations the religions leaders made against Jesus was about his scandalous association with outcasts and sinners. I’m not just talking about victims of circumstance, the forgotten and marginalised. Jesus partied with the sinners, the tax collectors and the prostitutes. The Pharisees and lawyers in Luke 7 vehemently criticise Jesus as being “a friend of sinners.” He allowed his reputation to be tarnished to stand alongside people in need of God’s grace. This was absolutely scandalous. Most of the people I know who adopt descriptors like “celibate gay Christian” do so to model Jesus’ attitude of showing solidarity and compassion to others, even at great cost to themselves and their reputation amongst religious folk.
Using an integrated approach
One of the huge advantages of using the differentiation versus solidarity paradigm is that it creates space to move between the different approaches at different times. There is a time and a place for standing alongside a community and showing solidarity. There is a time and a place for standing apart and showing a distinctiveness that comes from our Christian identity. When it is no longer an either/or debate that forces people to pick sides, there is great freedom to employ the strategies that will best achieve God’s purposes in a particular circumstance.
Another key benefit to this model is that it allows the discussion to be far less divisive. Seeing someone take a different approach ought not to be a deal-breaker for the Christian. Framing the discussion in terms of identity tends to cause massive tension, because placing identity in something other than Jesus is a very serious problem for a Christian. But framing the discussion in these terms of differentiation versus solidarity creates space for different perspectives and respectful dialogue without creating unnecessary division.
What does it look like in practice?
So how does this differentiation versus solidarity paradigm work in practice? Here are a few insights into how it has played out for me personally:
When I first came out to my parents, I was worried they would misunderstand me as saying I was turning my back on God and pursuing a same-sex relationship. This is probably how they would have understood the sentence “I’m gay,” without further explanation. So for clarity’s sake, I chose to describe myself as “same-sex attracted” to show unambiguously that my loyalty is to Jesus, and he is lord even over my sexuality. This is typically the language I’ve used when coming out to Christians in the early days. When coming out to other Christians I’ve wanted to communicate two things: my sexual orientation and my ongoing commitment to Jesus. Describing myself as “same-sex attracted” has been the easiest way to do that.
Speaking at a public evangelistic event on campus a few months ago on the topic of faith and sexuality, I described myself as a “gay Christian.” In fact the event title, in all our public promotions of the event, was “My Journey as a Gay Christian.” As the event was designed to bring outsiders in and help them to hear the good news of Jesus, we wanted to clearly communicate that not only were gay people welcome, but the event was for gay people and by a gay speaker. In showing solidarity with other LGBTIQ people, we were able to gain the trust of the Queer Collective on campus who attended the event and even promoted it to their community. Students from the Queer Collective who attended felt so warmly embraced that they stuck around for an hour after the talk to keep talking about faith and sexuality over coffee.
I recently found myself after a concert having drinks around a table with six other queer people (and one straight person), with extremely varied experiences in the group ranging from lesbian women to gender-non-conforming people. As we listened to each other’s stories and reflected deeply on our experiences as sexual/gender minorities, I found myself resonating deeply with these stories, and naturally referring to “us” and “our” experiences as “queer people.” I hadn’t described myself as queer before that night, but in that moment, it seemed to pretty naturally describe both the diversity but also the solidarity we felt as we listened to each other’s stories.
I presented a talk on the Bible and sexuality recently for a youth group in regional Queensland. This town was known as one of the most conservative parts of Australia on social issues, especially sexuality. The pastor of this church described the local culture as being 15 years behind the rest of Australia in its understanding of sexuality. Not wanting to cause unnecessary division or confusion, I quickly decided to avoid using the word “gay” in relation to myself during the talk. In fact, I didn’t even refer to myself as “same-sex attracted,” but avoided labels altogether and simply described my experience growing up and realising I was attracted to other boys. Given that I wasn’t local to this youth group and didn’t have the opportunity to clarify meaning in follow-up conversations, I avoided words with cultural baggage and chose the clearest communication I could for that culture.
The way I choose to describe myself is entirely dependent on who I’m speaking with. I love that the English language is rich with synonyms that all carry slightly different meanings. I love that I have the freedom to differentiate myself as distinctively Christian, and I love that I also have the freedom to share scandalously close solidarity with my LGBTIQ community. I love that in all these things, my identity is in Christ, and that doesn’t change no matter what words I may use.