Following the Hashtag Rabbit Trail

The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention is hosting a Summit from April 21 to 23, and the topic is “The Gospel and Human Sexuality.” Last night, after the panel had discussed “The Gospel and Homosexuality,” I was scrolling through tweets from people I follow who had been listening in to the livestream. You can access the tweets here, with the hashtag #erlcsummit, and I’ll just note that Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s are the most informative.

It’s probably definitely unwise to make an assessment of a conference based on a Twitter stream, and I’ll almost certainly regret writing this post tomorrow, but a couple of things struck me as especially comment-worthy. (Apparently the video sessions will be available to watch after the summit concludes, which means that I won’t get to them for another day or two.)

First, look at this tweet from Jeff Chu, who’s a journalist with Fast Company and author of a book about being gay and searching for authentic Christian faith in America today:

It really is fascinating that @jdgreear seems to be avoiding the word “gay” and only using “homosexual” both as adj and n. #erlcsummit

And then this reply, from Ben Moberg, who’s also gay and a Christian:

It’s a way to dehumanize, reduce people to sexual orientation

Although I used “homosexual” (along with “gay” and other terms) a lot in my Washed and Waiting, I wish I could go back and edit out all those uses for the reason Ben identifies here. Not only is “homosexual” a pretty clinical term, it also doesn’t respect the way most gay people prefer to be identified.

But here’s the other thing. As I was scrolling through all these tweets last night and wondering how I (slowly and imperceptibly, it now seems in retrospect) started thinking of myself as “gay,” I realized that this shift in self-identification coincided with a shift in my understanding of my calling or task as a Christian.

Here’s what I mean: When I initially came out to myself and then to pastors, counselors, family, and friends, I thought that my future should be one of (a) learning to pinpoint the cause of my same-sex attractions in my childhood or adolescence, (b) seeking, if possible, to have those feelings diminished, and (c) seeking, if possible, to get married to someone of the opposite sex.

But as time went on and I talked with counselors and studied more of the relevant literature, I became convinced that there was no one cause (such as absent father, overbearing mother, sexual abuse, failure to bond with same-sex peers, etc.) that explained my sexuality. I fit none of the usual profiles, as I’d heard them articulated by conservative Christians. Nor did my same-sex attractions seem to be diminishing at all. And, consequently, I grew less and less hopeful—not to mention less interested—in the possibility of marriage.

For all those reasons, the story I’d been led to believe was likely true—that I was originally born with a latent opposite-sex attraction that somehow became interrupted or snuffed out somewhere in childhood or adolescence—well, that story started to seem far less compelling than it once had. When you do find that story compelling, perhaps a certain sort of language seems more appropriate to you: You “have” same-sex attractions (implying a set of feelings that’s neatly separable from other inclinations and feelings), or you are “struggling with homosexuality.” But once you begin to entertain the idea that your sexuality was probably shaped by a mysterious mix of biological and environmental factors (parsed by Christian theology as “being born into a fallen world”) then it makes more sense, or at least it did to me, to find a better descriptor for yourself than “I am same-sex attracted.” For me, now, “being gay” seems a much more truthful descriptor of my actual lived experience of my sexuality, in which “the desire to have sex” plays a small part in a much more complex array of feelings, inclinations, proclivities, and preferences.

(I remember, for instance, reading this paragraph from an Eve Tushnet blog post and thinking Yes! This describes my experience too, albeit with the gender of whom I’m attracted to changed: “If sexual desire can be easily tweezed away from nonsexual longing and love and adoration then yeah, sure, I guess I can see the point of calling homosexual desire ‘disordered.’ But that’s not how eros actually works! My lesbianism is part of why I form the friendships I form. It’s part of why I volunteer at a pregnancy center. Not because I’m attracted to the women I counsel, but because my connection to other women does have an adoring and erotic component, and I wanted to find a way to express that connection through works of mercy. My lesbianism is part of why I love the authors I love. It’s inextricable from who I am and how I live in the world. Therefore I can’t help but think it’s inextricable from my vocation.”)

And one more thing about the tweets from the Summit. Here’s Jeff Chu again:

“A woman who gets raped doesn’t get unraped” was just used as parallel for gay person not turning un-gay upon Xn conversion. #erlcsummit

The point the speaker was trying to make, I’m sure, is that even if you think having gay sex is sinful, you still wouldn’t be obliged to think that when a gay person becomes a Christian, their entire pattern of sexual desire and experiences would shift automatically. Nevertheless, Jeff was right to single this statement out for special attention because the parallel—being raped and being gay—is so shockingly, offensively unseemly. Comparing being gay to being sexually violated, just like the comparison of being gay to being a racist, doesn’t begin to do justice to the experience of tenderness and affection and care and kindness that is so much a part of the experiences of gay couples.

On this point, let me quote an earlier post of mine:

The traditional Christian proscription of same-sex sexual partnerships does not require us to draw such specious comparisons or to say that there is nothing good at all in gay partnerships. On the contrary, even Karl Barth, who uncompromisingly rejects homosexual partnerships as out of step with the Creator’s intention, writes that such unions are often “redolent of sanctity” (Church Dogmatics III/4, p. 166) because they are about the struggle to give and receive love.

And then there’s C. S. Lewis’ judgment from Surprised by Joy, which made a big impact on me when I first read it:

People commonly talk as if every other evil were more tolerable than [homosexuality]. But why? … If those of us who have known a school like Wyvern dared to speak the truth, we should have to say that it was, in that time and place, the only foothold or cranny left for certain good things. It was the only counterpoise to the social struggle; the one oasis… in the burning desert of competitive ambition. In his unnatural love-affairs, and perhaps only there, the Blood went a little out of himself, forgot for a few hours that he was One of the Most Important People There Are. It softens the picture.

According to Barth and Lewis, a misdirected expression of eros—and here Barth and Lewis stand with the orthodox Christian teaching on the meaning of marriage and the place of sex—is still a search for genuine love. For the sake of charity and for the sake of truth, we have to acknowledge it as such, even while we still try to point eros to its true fulfillment in Christ.

20 thoughts on “Following the Hashtag Rabbit Trail

  1. The use of ‘Homosexual’ (especially as a noun) is a give-away sign that a conservative Christian speaker doesn’t actually know any real gay people – so it serves some purpose.

    • It’s also a defiant, albeit covert, profession to whomever their speaking that they will not be influenced by cultural mores, choosing rather to offend their neighbor than respect and understand them. How can productive dialogue and effective ministry result from such a mindset?

      Excellent thoughts, Wes. Thanks for risking the potential regret. :)

    • To be honest, this is the first time I’m hearing such negative reactions to the term “homosexual” as a noun, and I definitely know gay people, both Christian and non-Christian, so it could also be a dead give-away that the person is a little naive and just needs to be enlightened.

      • Most secular LGBT rights organizations now list “homosexual” as an offensive term. I don’t think many gay men and women are offended by it but it does sound a bit inappropriate in 2014 – like referring to someone as colored instead of black.

  2. Wesley, what you say rings so true, even though I don’t have firsthand experience of being gay. But as a struggling evangelical, I am so glad you are in this conversation.

  3. I think it’s worth noting that both of the terms acceptable in conservative Christian circles–“homosexual” and “same-sex attracted”–contain the word “sex.” I think there’s an underlying effort to reduce gay people to “people who engage in gross sexual acts,” I don’t think the presence of the word in both of the terms–which are used despite being rejected by most of the people they are used of–is accidental.

    I know when I was a teen and heard “homosexual” used derogatively at Church, one of the things that led me to prefer “gay” to “homosexual” was precisely the fact that “homosexual” put the focus on sex, whereas gay did not. In my mind, it was precisely the focus on sex that made “homosexual” (and later, “same-sex attracted”) undesirable as words for describing my attractions–which are not, in fact, primarily desires for sexual acts forbidden in the Bible.

    (I know, of course, that etymologically, “sex” in “homosexual” and “same-sex attracted” refer to physical sex–male or female–and not to sexual activity. But the association with sexual activity is certainly there in many people’s minds.)

    • I haven’t listened to any of the conference talks (my interest and reading in the area of Southern Baptists and ethics hasn’t gone far beyond—admittedly rather extensive—discussion with someone doing archival research on the historic development of their views on abortion). That said, I wonder whether there are a number of things going on here.

      First, a not insignificant number of the people being spoken of may not identify as ‘gay’. While the self-designation will be liberating for some, for others it will not be regarded in the same manner. ‘Gay’ has different connotations for different people. For some it may be a designation not too different from something such as ‘Aspie’, the recognition that one shares a condition with psychological and behavioural dimensions (one of my friends recently discovered that he had Aspergers and it led to a remarkably liberating change in his self-understanding, bringing tremendous clarity to his formerly opaque behaviour and integration to his identity). However, for many others—and, I would suspect, many of those speaking at and attending the ERLC conference—‘gay’ connotes the specific cultural forms of expression that one would encounter at a Gay Pride parade, forms of expression that would be deeply problematic for many Christians. It also connotes a certain set of ideological stances relative to and arising from that experience, which would also raise concern.

      Further, being ‘gay’ is a form of identity that is somewhat culturally contingent and relatively novel, not least on account of a degree of self-reflexivity that is arguably historically unprecedented. To refer to persons of previous eras, or even of some other contemporary cultures, as ‘gay’—or ‘homosexual’, for that matter—is something of an anachronism or misnomer. While preferred self-designations should be used in most contexts, there are other contexts where a more ‘clinical’ or objective designation may be necessary. Also, for a natural reality with so much variety in the forms of its expression over history, across cultures, and even within our own culture, it seems inappropriate to allow one subset of persons’ self-designation to claim the experience and identities of all others. Can we speak of these existential phenomena without thereby committing ourselves to a culturally and personally constructed account of what they are? Is there another term with which we can adumbrate the psychological and sexual dimensions of a less defined shared experience in a manner that is more appropriate to the underlying resemblances, yet also calculated not to cause offence?

    • It sounds like part of the problem is simply understading the definition of the word “gay”. I think what you, and Wes both, have indirectly proposed is that there is misunderstanding of the defintion, and, dare I say, a need to take back the word from the culture? :D If I am to understand correctly, to identify oneself as gay captures the complexity of the personal nature far beyond the assumed “gross sexual acts” or “unbiblical lifestyle”. Our culture says “This is what it means to be gay”, but what I *think* I hear you guys say is that “No, in light of Christ and the Gospel, not necessarily”.
      As the church wrestles with how to continue forward in a loving, and gracious way, hopefully the vunacular will reflect that. Because what I think has happened is the church is poorly reacting to the culture, (as she typically does, verses being proactive about important issues), and using “homosexuality” and “same-sex attraction” as a feeble and futile means of being counter cultural. I’m not saying it’s right, or that I’m right, but just my observation.
      On a personal note, I would add two things. The first is I have often thought that God has revealed the hardness of heart of the Church specifically through her response to LGBT community. I have experienced this first hand as God has broken my heart in wake of friendships with those who are gay identified, and revealed my own self-righteousness and a greater understanding of my need of the Cross and Jesus. My prayer is that the Church would have her heart broken, because she needs it just like I needed it. Secondly, I have never verbalized it to friends, but I have always hesisted to uses *any* of the terms above simply because I have felt it impressed upon me to remember that our identity is first and foremost in Jesus Christ. With that said it is helpful to read words here, as it has revealed where I still have much to learn and much to understand on such a complex issue.

      • Rachael,

        I know what you mean. I too was self-righteous but not only towards LGBT people but towards all sexual behaviors outside marriage. This hurt me and others many times. I now realized that we can make idols out of moral values and no matter how good our moral values are we shouldn’t make them into idols. Only worship God. It is the first commandment. My heart was also broken and I agree the Church’s heart needs to be broken to be made holly. Being here at SF and reading everyone… It is a blessing but I keep thinking, how can I help? How can I help in concrete ways to ease the burden of my brothers and sisters?

    • I agree with Ron that the terms “homosexual” and “same-sex attracted” both emphasize sex, but I think they do so in different ways. Calling someone a homosexual errs on the side of reducing someone to their sexual attractions, as if their sexuality is the totality of their being. “Same-sex attracted” does the opposite.

      To me, “same-sex attracted” has always sounded like an attempt to sever someone’s sexuality from them, almost in a clinical way. I’ve typically heard it in phrases similar to “same-sex attracted person” or “a person with same-sex attraction” or even “a person with SSA,” all of which put distance between “same-sex” and the “person,” both in wording and in effect. We tend to do this language shift with things that we don’t want to define or limit us, particularly medical conditions. Instead of “a disabled person” we say “a person with disabilities,” and instead of “a depressed person” we say “a person struggling with depression,” to ensure that the person isn’t defined by their particular condition and in doing so prioritizing their humanity over that condition. I don’t think we do this sort of mindful separation with things typically considered positive.

      In using these particular examples I am not trying to suggest that identifying one way or the other way is preferable or right. I use them because I hear “same-sex attracted” in the same way. “A person with SSA” sounds like someone with a less-than-desirable medical condition that hinders you, when in fact, as Eve’s piece suggests, our sexuality is inextricable from who we are and can indeed be the source of a lot of good. “SSA” sounds like a disease or infection, like MRSA, SARS, or AIDS.

      In summary, I think “homosexual” tends to incriminate by defining and limiting someone to an act or an orientation while “same-sex attracted” attempts to sanitize someone by separating them from their sexuality. Neither seems particularly healthy to me, which is why I like “gay.” It is a descriptive label that mercifully omits judgment of the orientation and judgment of the sexual acts one may or may not be participating in.

      • Hi Samuel,
        I’m still trying to grapple with what these terms mean. If I may respond to this, I wouldn’t quite characterize the use of “same-sex attracted” and “homosexual” as you put them, although I would agree they express something different in meaning and use. It seems to me that “same-sex attracted” is the most precise way of stating something particular, namely your attractions and the direction of them. I think of it of it as “SSA” being the most particular, to “gay” being more broad, and “homosexual” broader still–kindof like the “all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares” kind of thing (I’m not calling anyone a square). The words are used to describe something particular about a person or about the person as a whole. The term “SSA” simply means one who is attracted or has attractions to the same-sex, and is talking specifically about someone’s attractions. This is what I think many conservatives/traditionalist have in mind when they use the term. “Gay” (from what I understand Wes and Ron to be saying) includes “SSA” but is more broad than the “SSA” term in the sense that the term includes not just attractions but a way of being. This would include character traits, likings, emphasis on certain intentions, sexuality (although not necessarily an emphasis on SEX) and other characteristics that seeps into tho overall being of a person, allowing it to influence more areas of person’s life. The term “homosexual”, as I think many people understand it, includes all of the things “SSA” and “gay” does, but including more of the person’s identity with a heavier emphasis on the sexual preferences.

        Therefore, if one who takes the conservative use of terms, “SSA” will seem safer and more specific because it’s talking about a very particular area of a person’s identity, whereas “gay” would include more areas of self-identification including sex, which is why I think it has been avoided language in conservative circles (along with the fact the LGBT community uses the term). “Homesexual”, also used by conservatives, includes much more of what makes up a person and with emphasis on sex, which may be a reason many in the LGBT community avoid it.

        Thoughts? Perhaps I am wrong in this model, I am trying to make sense of why people use the terms, and exactly what they mean. Please correct me if there is a misrepresentation of a term.

    • Thanks for pointing that out. I’d forgotten about that. The AFA is one of the main DC-based lobbying groups for evangelicals. So, it’s hard to believe that the speakers’ use of the term wasn’t meant for ill.

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  8. Honestly, my response to this discussion is hopelessness. It appears that no term is inoffensive. I have heard people react strongly to the term “gay” being applied to them. Now I learn that not using that word brands me either, preferring “to offend their neighbor than respect and understand them” or demonstrates that I “(don’t) actually know any real gay people”. It seems I can either offend people who prefer describe themselves as dealing with “same sex attraction”, “homosexual”, or people who call themselves “gay”. This was hard enough before. Now I want to quit.

    On this forum, my husband and I use the term “bisexual” to describe him. We never do that in person. It is a quick way to give a sense of his experience. It is faster than saying that he deals with attraction to men as well as women (which is what he is more likely to say). Perhaps this is because there does really seem to be things that strongly contributed to this from his childhood. It isn’t a part of his identity. We would also say he dealt with SSA, but that he was also attracted to women (primarily me).

    As referencetobridge said SSA refers only to a person’s attractions. This used to seem like a safer alternative, but it contains the word “sex”. (I primarily use that word to refer to “male” or “female”, but perhaps I am archaic.)

    My goal is not to offend. My goal is to learn how to better love and support people; but these terms are all loaded. I don’t want to engage anymore, in case one explodes in my face.

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