What’s in a name?

A few weeks ago, a new acquaintance, who had read some of my essays about homosexuality, asked me what words I use to describe myself. Would I describe myself as gay? Homosexual? Same-sex attracted? When I tried to deflect the question with something about not being too concerned about what words to use, he responded with surprise: shouldn’t a philosopher be very concerned about using precisely the right word?

He’s right, of course. I certainly think a lot about how best to describe myself. As a celibate Christian, I think about my sexuality in the a way that is, at least in some important respects, very different from the way Ellen DeGeneres, Neil Patrick Harris, or Lady Gaga think about theirs. So why would I call myself “gay”?

This is an important question. But in most debates about this question among Christians—I am thinking particularly here of the way the issue is treated by support groups like Exodus International or Courage—the focus is on labels, with the preferred label these days being “same-sex attracted.” (When I was first trying to figure out this issue in the 1990′s, the preferred label was “homosexual,” and I was told by Dr. Nicolosi and others that I should think of myself as a “non-gay homosexual.” More recently, a speaker at the 2011 Courage Conference suggested that I should see myself as a “person affected by the homosexual condition” or as a “person suffering from same-sex attraction.” I can only speculate what the ecclesiastically correct terminology will be ten years hence.)

This debate is usually presented as a debate about identity; but identity is a much deeper and more complex question than this, and in fact, the point being made in most of these debates is really about labeling. We are encouraged to describe ourselves as same-sex attracted, and encouraged not to describe ourselves as gay. If I say “I’m gay” at a Courage meeting, I will immediately be met with raised eyebrows and worried questions. If I say “I’m same-sex attracted,” no one will ask any follow-up questions about how I think about my sexuality in relation to my identity. Surely, however, the right attitude toward my sexuality involves much more than just the words I use to describe it.

(It reminds me a little of the story of the Turkish astronomer in The Little Prince: when he made a presentation at a scientific conference wearing a traditional Turkish costume, his report was ignored and greeted with skepticism. But when he made the same presentation in traditional western clothes, everyone accepted what he had to say.)

It is true enough that philosophers care about words, and choose them carefully. But we care about words because we are concerned with conceptual precision. Within Courage and Exodus, we are repeatedly told that to say “I’m gay” is to identify myself with my sexuality, while saying “I’m same-sex attracted” acknowledges who I am attracted to without identifying myself with that or affirming homosexual activity.

This just seems implausible to me. If I say, “I’m human,” I am, indeed, saying something essential about myself. But if I say “I’m blond” or “I’m right-handed” or “I’m short” or “I’m seasick,” I am not telling you anything about my fundamental identity.

It is, indeed, true that many people have asserted that their sexual orientation is essential to their identity, more comparable to their humanity than to their hair color or stature. But if someone views sexual orientation in that light, it doesn’t matter whether I say “I’m gay” or “I’m same-sex attracted.” Either way, they will assume that my attraction to men is an essential element of who I am.

If someone thinks that their sexual attractions are essential to their identity in such a way that to fail to act on those attractions would deny their nature in some essential way, then we have a very deep disagreement. But in order to address that disagreement, I need to go deeper than just saying, “I’m same-sex attracted.”

I have spent the last decade and a bit trying to explain Christian sexual ethics, particularly with regard to homosexuality. For a number of years, I avoided using the word “gay” to describe myself, simply because I knew it would create an enormous amount of confusion in conservative Christian circles if I did so. However, I found that using terms like “same-sex attracted”—which were supposed to bring clarity and precision to the discussion—in fact produced greater confusion or hostility on the part of many of those I was trying to reach.

If I had to describe myself with regard to my sexuality in some short sentence, I would probably say, “I’m a celibate gay Christian.” It’s a fairly simple formula, which not only describes my attractions but also identifies the moral stance I have taken to them (celibate) and the reason for doing so (my Christian faith).

Note, however, that the fact I would use this phrase in a context where I needed to say something about my sexuality does not mean that I regard this as the most fundamental description of my identity. If you introduce yourself to me at a party and ask me to describe myself, I probably won’t say “I’m gay” or “I’m same-sex  attracted” or even “I’m celibate.” I’ll probably tell you that I’m interested in airplanes or that I teach medical ethics or that I grew up in Washington state or that I like hiking or that I think Peter Wimsey is a much more interesting character than Hercule Poirot. And even if I decide at some point to tell you that I’m gay, you should not assume that I think of that adjective as the most important of any of the adjectives I could apply to myself.

6 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. The problem is that the implications of words are affected by the way others use them, not just us. The problem with “gay” and “homosexual” is that although not necessarily originally having that meaning, due to problems in our culture those words have come to be strongly associated with the idea of an actively homosexual and immoral lifestyle. Similarly, the word “feminist” didn’t originally mean a man-hater who thinks part of women’s rights is killing unborn babies; but it mostly has that association now. So women who are concerned about the proper treatment of women but are not pro-abortion nor have antipathy to all men usually don’t call themselves feminists…for clarity’s sake.

  2. When asked by The Barna Group what words or phrases best describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was “antihomosexual.” For a staggering 91 percent of non-Christians, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith. The same was true for 80 percent of young churchgoers.

    Given this, and assuming you are not “anti-homosexual,” would you be willing to stop describing yourself as a Christian, just “for clarity’s sake”?

    • Mmm…I think it depends on who I’m talking to. If I can get more traction with someone by introducing myself as someone who tries to follow the teachings of Jesus, then I will. I’m not going to take the approach with everyone (i.e. it’s not a wholesale change “for clarity’s sake”), but if the Spirit leads me to do so, then for the other’s sake I will. Regardless of the terminology, these terms will always have to be “unpacked”, however I think not using “gay” in certain cases has certainly helped me to get further into more meaningful discussion than using it. So maybe “clarity” is relative to the audience in a particular time and place…which i guess really doesn’t make it “clear” at all *smile* Either way, I think we should say whatever is most effective for sharing the Gospel (1 Corin. 9:19-22).

      • Just to be clear, I was not suggesting giving up using the term “Christian.” I was responding to Persis’s argument, and pointing out that if he or she took that line on words like “gay” or “feminist,” then the same logic would force him or her to give up the word “Christian.”

        But the point of my comment was to challenge that whole line of argument, not to suggest that we should give up words just because they will be misunderstood by some people.

      • Thanks for your response. I agree that giving up a title to avoid confusion could lead down a slippery slope, comparable to giving up a title for convenience, and Im not advocating one should do this in All cases. My point is simply that the existence of that danger doesnt mean that we should never change a title in a particular case/event, if it truly improves understanding for the other person. In such as case, we would always need God’s wisdom. Your point is nonetheless taken.

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