What Is “Gay”?

Several months ago, I got into a discussion with Wes Hill and Matt Anderson about Wes’s post, Is Being Gay Sanctifiable? At the time, I drafted a post in response to that conversation, but did not have time to polish it for publication. In light of the more recent discussions of language (including Wes’s On Disagreeing About “Homosexuality”: A Thought Experiment and Matt’s Can Christians be gay? An Inquiry), I decided to revise and expand the draft.

I want to reflect on what the word “gay” is about—that is, what experience or set of experiences does it point to? (I also want to ask similar questions about “friendship.”) But before doing so, I want us to think about a very different example: the word “ship.” Consider Eustace Scrubb’s response when he found himself magically transported into Narnia and embarked on the Dawn Treader, he wrote in his diary,

It’s madness to come out into the sea in a rotten little thing like this. Not much bigger than a lifeboat. And, of course, absolutely primitive indoors. No proper saloon, no radio, no bathrooms, no deck-chairs. I was dragged all over it yesterday evening and it would make anyone sick to hear Caspian showing off his funny little toy boat as if it was the Queen Mary. I tried to tell him what real ships are like, but he’s too dense.

For Eustace, “ship” referred to a modern ocean modern liner like the Queen Mary; while for the Narnians, “ship” meant a small sailing vessel like the Dawn Treader. The word is the same, and certain key elements of the concept are the same, but what the word is about is different.

MV Coho in Victoria Harbour. Photo by Steve Voght via Wikimedia Commons.

MV Coho in Victoria Harbour. Photo by Steve Voght via Wikimedia Commons.

When I was a boy and read Luke’s description of the Apostle Paul’s journey on a “ship” (in Acts 20-21), I imagined him getting on board something like the MV Coho (above), which I rode several times a year from Port Angeles to Victoria and back again. When I got a little older and realized that Paul had been on a sailing ship, my mental imagery tended to be drawn from the ships of the Age of Discovery, because that was the kind of sailing ship I most frequently encountered in my non-Biblical reading.

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What “Not Reducible” Means

Yesterday, Wesley Hill started a helpful discussion about the way that different people use words like “gay” to mean different things. One reply, given by Denny Burk, is a common one I’ve heard many times before. The basic idea is that talking about a “gay” (or, in my case, “bisexual”) orientation is by definition referring to something sexual, and desires for things like friendship are desires I share with straight people and shouldn’t be lumped together in the same category.

The practical problem I have with this way of thinking is that I can’t always separate my feelings neatly into these two categories of desire. They often seem to arise from the same phenomenon. I think this experience is something I share with many others, and why we talk about how our orientation is “not reducible” to lust or a desire to have sex. This manner of speaking seems kind of fuzzy, but I think this is so precisely because the underlying phenomenon is hard to categorize.

In order to partially get across what I’m talking about with my “orientation,” why that is “not reducible” to wanting to have sex, and why I can’t separate everything out as nicely as people (including myself!) might like, I think it would be most helpful to talk about my experience. Of course, I can’t speak universally for everyone, and others may have different experiences.

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On Disagreeing About “Homosexuality”: A Thought Experiment

As Mark Yarhouse pointed out yesterday, Julie Rodgers (and by extension many of the rest of us who blog here at Spiritual Friendship) has recently been facing criticism from her fellow Christians for the way she describes her sexuality and her faith. She writes:

A gay orientation can be understood as an overall draw toward someone of the same sex, which is usually a desire for a deeper level intimacy with those of the same sex. Just like a heterosexual orientation can’t be reduced to a desire for straight sex, a gay orientation can’t be reduced to a desire for gay sex. This longing for intimacy is usually experienced as a desire for nearness, for partnership, for close friendship, rich conversation, and an overall appreciation of beauty. The best way I can describe my experience of “being gay” is that with certain women I feel the “it” factor: that sense of chemistry that longs to share life with them, to know and be known by them, to be drawn outside of myself in self-giving love for them. When I feel all Lesbiany, I experience it as a desire to build a home with a woman that will create an energizing love that spills over into the kind of hospitality that actually provides guests with clean sheets and something other than protein bars. Most women feel that chemistry or longing for other men (even though it can’t be reduced to a desire to have sex with other men), while I usually feel like “bros” with men. This causes me to see the world through a different lens than my straight peers, to exist in the world in a slightly different way. As God has redeemed and transformed me, he’s tapped into those gay parts of me that now overflow into compassion for marginalized people and empathy for social outcasts—he’s used my gay way of being for His glory rather than making me straight.

Here’s an example of the kind of pushback Julie has received: Owen Strachan, an assistant professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College, has argued that this way of speaking

is deeply problematic. It is flawed at the core. Our sins do not enrich our perspective on life; our sins twist God’s good gifts and obscure the purposes of our bodies and our world. Sin never improves your outlook on the world. It always distorts it. Please hear me: there is nothing redemptive about sin. Grace, on the other hand, is the very substance of redemption. But sin has nothing to do with goodness. As far as the east is from the west, so far is sin from any positive moral component.

You can read the rest of his argument here, which can be summarized in three points: “1. The Bible never speaks of positive components of our sins… 2. Homosexuality in Scripture is not neutral. It is evil… 3. Homosexual orientation, therefore, does not yield an enhanced Christian spirituality.”

I’m still trying to understand for myself exactly where the disagreement lies, so this post isn’t going to be my last word on the subject. For now, I just want to try out a thought experiment. I want to suggest that these sharply differing views—Julie’s and Owen Strachan’s—are, in part, the result of different understandings of what “homosexuality” fundamentally is.

As I pointed out a few weeks ago, depending on which historical era you lived in, you thought about same-sex desire and same-sex sexual expression differently. If you were a Christian in the medieval era, for instance, you probably thought of same-sex sexual behavior as an instance of lust giving birth to passionate transgression. What was in your sights wasn’t “gay culture” or “being gay” but acting wrongly or desiring wrongly (i.e., being tempted, nurturing lustful imaginations, etc.). You thought about sex between persons of the same sex as a vice that could potentially befall anyone, and you knew that Christianity condemned it categorically, no matter who committed it or what extenuating circumstances there might have been. Continue reading

On the Expectation of Change

A recent World Magazine article centers on the hiring of Julie Rodgers at Wheaton College. Julie is a self-described celibate gay Christian who works as an associated in the chaplain’s office at the college. I consider Julie a friend, and I am an alumni of Wheaton (’98) and I have served as an adjunct professor there for the past decade. I also blog occasionally at Spiritual Friendship which is mentioned in the article.

Julie RodgersI was surprised to see my research cited in the article about the hiring of Julie. The way the argument was set up was to express concern for Wheaton as the flagship evangelical college hiring a staff member who is known to be gay and who actually uses the word “gay” as an adjective to describe herself to others. Julie had spent about 10 years in Exodus International attempting to change her sexual orientation, and I have spoken with Julie on several occasions about this. She is gracious and positive about her own personal experience with the Exodus member ministries she participated in. However, speaking graciously about involvement in a ministry and declaring that it made her straight are two different things. She, like many other people who have attempted to change, did not experience a dramatic shift in her attractions as a result of ministry.

In my view, the article would serve the Body of Christ better if it were about this reality.

I am co-author of the study cited in the World magazine article about Julie and Wheaton. That study was published in book form in 2007 and then again as a peer-reviewed journal article in 2011, after six years of attempted change. If I were to summarize my view of the findings, I would put it this way: While on average people reported a modest shift along a continuum of attraction, most people did not experience as much of a shift as they would have liked, particularly as people entering ministry envision change as a 180-degree shift from gay to straight.

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Is It OK for Christians to Identify as Divorced?

A Catholic friend of mine is divorced. He has not sought—and does not believe he could obtain—an annulment. His ex-wife is still living and in good health, so he expects to remain single for the rest of his life.

Moody Radio recently asked the question, “Is it OK for Christians to identify as gay and celibate?” The host’s answer seemed to be no. It would seem, if we follow her logic—and the logic of other critics like her—that it would also be wrong for my friend to ever say, “I am divorced.” Doing so would involve defining himself based on something evil: “I hate divorce,” God says (Malachi 2:16).

For obvious reasons, I don’t follow Christian debates about remarriage and divorce nearly as closely as I follow debates about homosexuality. But I am not ignorant of them, either. And so far as I know, nobody—no matter where they lie on the spectrum of Christian beliefs about divorce and remarriage—has ever argued that people who have been divorced should not say, “I’m divorced.” Most people recognize that there are lots of practical reasons why someone would sometimes want to say that, why saying it would be relevant.

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Washington Post: Gay Christians choosing celibacy emerge from the shadows

Despite encountering criticism, the LGBT community is finding greater acceptance, even in religious circles

Josh Gonnerman and Eve Tushnet, both of Washington, are shown on Oct. 22 in the District. Gonnerman and Tushnet are gay and choosing the path of celibacy. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Josh Gonnerman and Eve Tushnet, both of Washington, are shown on Oct. 22 in the District. Gonnerman and Tushnet are gay and choosing the path of celibacy. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

 

The Washington Post has recently published a story by Michelle Boorstein that talks about celibate gay Christians:

When Eve Tushnet converted to Catholicism in 1998, she thought she might be the world’s first celibate Catholic lesbian.

Having grown up in a liberal, upper Northwest Washington home before moving on to Yale University, the then-19-year-old knew no other gay Catholics who embraced the church’s ban on sex outside heterosexual marriage. Her decision to abstain made her an outlier.

“Everyone I knew totally rejected it,” she said of the church’s teaching on gay sexuality.

Today, Tushnet is a leader in a small but growing movement of celibate gay Christians who find it easier than before to be out of the closet in their traditional churches because they’re celibate. She is busy speaking at conservative Christian conferences with other celibate Catholics and Protestants and is the most well-known of 20 bloggers who post on spiritualfriendship.org, a site for celibate gay and lesbian Christians that draws thousands of visitors each month.

Check out the whole story.

What’s Next for Love and Marriage?

I published a column in Notre Dame’s Observer today. The Observer has had some debate over marriage in recent weeks, and I thought I would give some thoughts from a gay Catholic perspective:

The first dozen times I came out I cried. For many of my friends, it was the first time they had seen me cry. Ever. A high school friend once told me that I had two emotions: happy, and more happy. She was wrong. I felt a lot of things, but I had to hide them.

Before coming out, many LGBT kids worry that all love is conditional: conditional upon a secret, conditional upon an unmanifested condition, conditional upon being normal. Reading Tyrel London’s viewpoint, “Overcoming Hate” brought back memories of my undergraduate years. Almost no one knew. I suffered. At one point, an evaluator through health services said I may be suffering from major depression, PTSD, social phobia and agoraphobia. The screening urged me to contact a mental health professional. I started looking at graduation requirements at other universities. A semester abroad eventually gave me an escape from Notre Dame without having to answer awkward questions.

The semester away helped me to finally share my secret. Coming out was painful for me. It was painful, not because I was rejected, but because I was accepted. When you spend so much time fearing rejection, acceptance is something that cuts deep into you. It hurts to be loved in the places you’ve been ashamed of. I found acceptance, and I started to accept myself. But even after receiving acceptance from my friends and family, many questions were unanswered. How do I move forward? What does it mean to be gay and Catholic? How do I love?

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John Corvino: Remembering Robert

Today is World AIDS Day. According to UNAIDS, over 75 million people have been infected by HIV, and over 35 million of those have died. Behind each of those lives and deaths is a story. I thought I’d share this story (originally written in 2002), from my friend John Corvino. It’s a reminder that—despite protease inhibitors and drug cocktails and “the end of the plague”—AIDS still kills:

johncorvinoLast month I learned of the death of an ex-partner.  It’s an odd feeling to lose to death someone whom one has already lost to painful separation.  But it’s a loss nevertheless.

Robert and I met as graduate students in philosophy at the University of Texas.  I had just “escaped” from Notre Dame, and I had high hopes for Austin.  It was 1991: Ann Richards was governor, and the UT student-body president was an African-American lesbian socialist.  (“Toto, we’re not in South Bend anymore.”)

Robert approached me at the new students’ party.  Physically, he wasn’t my type, but there was something about him I found mesmerizing.  He had a keen intellect and a razor wit.  We got into an argument during that party—the good kind, the kind that philosophers thrive on.  We quickly became friends, and then something more.

The relationship is hard to explain to people who didn’t know us (and even to some who did).  It was passionate but not sexual; full of conflict yet strangely comfortable.  The contradictions suited us.  Most people were unaware that we didn’t have sex, which was fine with us.  (How many of us know the details of our partnered friends’ sex lives?)  Some would say the relationship didn’t “count”, but it counted to us, and that was what mattered.

He had a brilliant sense of humor.  Robert, who had grown up in Odessa, often poked fun at his West Texas roots.  He used to steal phone-message pads from the philosophy department secretary and then leave notes in my office mailbox, often beginning with “Robert Ramirez, of Paris, New York, and Odessa, called…”

Read the rest of the article on John’s site >>

Coming Out Again

Earlier this week I was talking briefly online with a friend who’s still in the middle of the process of coming out to family and friends. It’s been a few years since I was in his shoes, and hearing him describe both the newfound freedom and the emotional exhaustion of coming out took me back to those moments of my own life.

I think, for instance, of sitting with a friend at her kitchen table late one night. I’d come upstairs from my basement apartment to where she and her husband lived on the third floor of the house, having decided this would be the night I confided in her, dear friend that she was. And even though I counted on it going well, and even though I’d had the same conversation with other friends a half dozen times in the previous weeks, I still felt jittery. Imagine knowing you are about to describe some hitherto hidden part of your psyche and your life’s narrative that, somehow, isn’t just one discrete part but rather something that suffuses the whole. (My hands are sweating a little as I type these words now, even recalling that moment about ten years later.)

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Panel on the Sinfulness, or Otherwise, of “Sexual Orientation”

This past weekend I was in San Diego for the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, where I presented a paper-length version of my “Is Being Gay Sanctifiable?” post from a few months ago. I’m not quite ready to post the paper here, since I think there are various weaknesses and not-quite-clear arguments in it, but I hope to revisit the main ideas at some point in the future. Stay tuned.

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