Label Makers

Well, here we are, talking about labels and identity. Again.

[throws taupe confetti in the air]

Among those who think people shouldn’t describe themselves as ‘gay’, the most common objection is that it intrinsically compromises one’s core identity as a Christian (or, in some cases, as a man or woman). The supporting claims are varied and come from a few different directions, but near their center is a belief that saying ‘gay’ identifies one too closely with one’s sexuality or certain possible sins.

The thing is, those of us who are fine with using ‘gay’ as a social label are similarly concerned by the way many people’s self-perception, regardless of orientation, is dominated by their sexuality. The difference, of course, is that as far as we can tell it is this obsession over language and labels that is one of the primary causes of this myopia in churches.

I never feel more defined by my sexuality than when Christians obsess over how I sometimes describe myself. In my current communities, where people are pretty chill and understand how and why I occasionally describe myself as gay, I find my self-perception has much more balance and integrity; I feel like a whole person with various facets held together by my relationship with God rather than any one particular label. Thus I don’t only find the fervent ‘don’t say gay’ movement socially harmful and theologically errant but also practically self-defeating.

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More On Coming Out Part 2: How Open Should You Be?

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m often asked by other sexual minority Christians how open they should be about their sexuality. There is no single answer for everyone, so I would like to offer some reflections on the process of discernment. Towards that end, in my previous post I discussed my own story of getting to where I am today. In this post I will offer my advice for others, using the second person for convenience.

Rainier Waterfall Crossing

One thing I want to point out from the beginning is that there are very few cases where I’d say you are actually obligated to discuss your sexuality. About the only case I can think of is that your spouse or even potential spouse, if you have one, needs to know as early as possible. Otherwise, it’s ultimately your own decision how widely you want to open up. As I’ve discussed before, I think you really ought to open up to a few people for your own good, but it’s your decision how broadly to do that.

For my straight readers, I should offer the aside that it’s really important to respect a sexual minority person’s choices about who to come out to. If someone has trusted you with a secret about their sexuality, you need to keep it secret. If you think he or she would do well to open up to a particular person or group, you can encourage him or her to do so, but never do the sharing yourself without permission.

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More On Coming Out Part 1: How I Got Here

Back in 2013, I wrote a post about the importance of “coming out” and how I first started coming out to people. (In that post, as well as this one, by “coming out” I simply mean disclosing my orientation.) I previously focused on the initial process of coming out to a few friends and/or family members for support. As should be obvious from the fact I’m blogging here under my real name, that was only the beginning of a trajectory towards becoming much more open.

Given what I’ve been doing, I’ve found that a lot of sexual minority Christians have been asking me about how open they should be about their sexuality. I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer to that question. Rather, it’s a process of discernment that depends on individual circumstances.

I’d like to offer some reflections on that process. In the past, people have found it helpful when I’ve put my practical reflections in the context of my own experience, so in this post I will offer a summary of how I got to where I am today.

Steve, Jeremy, Karen, and Brent

I blame these folks.

.

When I initially started coming out to people, it was about pursuing emotional health and, to a significant degree, change in orientation. Although I never found the orientation change I was looking for, I did come to a place of peace. I had enough people in my life who knew about my sexuality to feel that I was being known, and I wasn’t so overwhelmed by shame. I didn’t really see the need to open up more broadly, though I did know that as I moved to new places for graduate school and employment I would need to develop new support networks.

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Some Clarifications Regarding Sexual Orientation and Spiritual Friendship

In contemporary Western culture, it’s common to describe oneself as gay, straight, or bi, depending on whether one’s sexual attractions are primarily directed to the same sex, the opposite sex, or both sexes. This way of thinking is so pervasive that it is difficult to avoid either the terminology or the assumptions behind it.

As I have said before, I think that the contrast between carnal and spiritual friendship, as described by Aelred of Rievaulx, ultimately provides a more helpful framework for understanding Christian teaching on same-sex friendship and homosexuality than the framework that categorizes people based on sexual orientation. However, sexual orientation categories are difficult to avoid. It’s not just a matter of words used: it’s also a matter of much deeper assumptions that shape the way people interpret their experience.

School of Athens

In this post, I want to examine these categories more closely. Doing so will, I hope, provide insight into why the writers at Spiritual Friendship have been willing to engage with—and how we have tried to challenge—the categories of sexual orientation and sexual identity in contemporary culture.

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Same-Sex Attraction in Real Life

The great evangelical preacher Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, “You can be so interested in great theological and intellectual and philosophical problems that you tend to forget that you are going to die.” At the heart of this admonition is, I think, a reminder that ideas and issues and controversies are only relevant as they relate to people, human beings with real lives and real souls.

Nowhere is this reminder more needed in our day than within the Christian conversation regarding same-sex attraction and homosexuality. It is so easy to discuss the “issue” of homosexuality in our culture while forgetting that gay people aren’t simply an “issue” to be sorted out. Furthermore, when we quarantine the conversation to the theoretical realm divorced from the lived experience of folks with SSA, the conversation inevitably becomes blurry, ambiguous, lacking in clarity. This is no knock on philosophy or theory; these things are needed and helpful. But pushing our musings from the realm of hypothetical reflection toward concrete examples of everyday life tends to blow away the haze and bring the fuzzy corners into focus.

Therefore, I want to take many of the ideas often discussed here at Spiritual Friendship and apply them to a real person: me. In doing so, I am not claiming that I have everything figured out or especially that I am representing the views of everyone who writes for Spiritual Friendship. I simply know my own experience best, and my hope is that this exercise will help clear up a lot of what I am and am not saying about SSA.

For this example, I will use a composite of many of my real friendships and combine them into one specific story. That story is about my friendship with Rick (fake name, real experiences).

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Three Cheers for Eve Tushnet!

Tushnet book cover

Over at Christianity Today, I’ve got a review up of our own Eve Tushnet’s new book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.

The first part of the review is my very personal story of stumbling upon Eve’s blog—now hosted by Patheos—several years ago:

Sometime in 2007 I discovered Eve Tushnet’s writing. I can’t recall exactly how I found her non-flashy, off-the-beaten-path blog, tagged with the teasing moniker “Conservatism reborn in twisted sisterhood,” but somehow I landed there, following a trail of hyperlinks. I used to read her posts in the morning, while sipping coffee, huddled over my laptop in my cell-like flat in England, when I was just starting graduate school.

Tushnet is a gay Catholic writer who embraces her church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. By the time I learned about her, I’d been admitting to myself for a few years that I was gay, though I hadn’t told many other people yet. I was still too frightened and unsure of what kind of welcome (or lack thereof) I’d receive. You know those novels and movies about the yearning, aching twentysomethings who are trying to disentangle and sort out their erotic and religious longings, while dreading loneliness and rejection above all else? That was me. Imagine Charles Ryder from Brideshead Revisited, all angsty and insecure, but with a small-town-USA upbringing, and you’ll get the picture. I needed a lifeline. I was hungry to know I wasn’t alone.

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Understanding Gender Dysphoria

A primary emphasis at Spiritual Friendship is the experience of navigating sexual identity in light of one’s Christian identity. Another topic that is often a part of cultural discussions of sex and gender is Gender Dysphoria. It is not the same thing as sexual identity, but the topic of Gender Dysphoria and the increased visibility of gender variant persons has raised questions related to how Christians engage a most complex topic and be Christ in a meaningful way to those who are navigating gender identity concerns.

Calvin - Understanding Gender Dysphoria

I was recently invited to speak on the topic of Gender Dysphoria at Calvin College in the context of the Sexuality Series held there. The talk is based on a book that is forthcoming from InterVarsity Press Academic. In this talk I define key terms, discuss prevalence and presentation, as well as some of the discussions surrounding etiology and resolutions. I also introduce three competing frameworks people rely upon in these discussions: the integrity framework, the disability framework, and the diversity framework. These are presented with reference to an integrated framework that may be useful to Christians interested in meaningful engagement and care.

In any case, here is the link to the recent talk, Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture.

Mark Yarhouse is Professor of Psychology and the Hughes Endowed Chair at Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA, where he directs the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity. He can be found on Twitter@markyarhouse.

“Brian, What Makes You Tick?”

Brian GeeIn the last few weeks, we’ve published a number of posts tackling different practical questions about celibacy, mixed orientation marriage, and committed friendship. Today, we’re introducing another mixed orientation marriage couple, Brian and Monica Gee. As with the Nate and Sara Collins interview we published last week, this post is taken, with permission, from an interview by Preston Sprinkle for his blog, Theology in the Raw. We’re grateful to Preston for being willing to share this interview with us, and encourage you to check out his blog. You can follow Brian and Monica on Twitter: @briansgee and @deliber8mama.

Preston Sprinkle: Thanks, Brian and Monica, for being willing to answer some questions on my blog. Would you mind starting off by telling us about how you both met?

Brian Gee: Thanks for having us on the blog. We’re both nerds at heart, so it’s no surprise that we first met each other through our shared Biblical Greek and Orchestra classes at a small, conservative Christian college in California. For a full semester, we knew each other from an arm’s length, but we didn’t really get to know each other. I also didn’t know that by the end of that semester, Monica had developed a crush on me.

By that point in college, I had been out as gay (actually, at the time, I would have said that I was same-sex attracted) to myself and to a growing group of others for some time, and I wasn’t looking to date or marry. Based on my conservative theology and commitments, I generally assumed I would be celibate. I remember telling God that while I also wouldn’t outright dismiss heterosexual marriage, I wouldn’t consider or look for it unless he made it very obvious that it’s what I should do.

At the start of Spring semester of 2005, I had at least eight friends in a span of two or three weeks ask me if I had considered dating Monica. The night that the eighth friend asked me, Monica and I were both at a friend’s recital. Afterward, we were standing outside the recital hall when Monica came up to me and said, “Brian Gee, what makes you tick?”

At that point, I had started to pay more attention to Monica. I wanted to know what she was all about and whether or not God was actually taking my caveat more seriously than I had thought he would. When she asked me that question, I told her that I’d need more than a couple of minutes to talk about it. That question led to our first four-hour conversation where we both realized how we were probably meant for each other. I also started to experience something I very much was not expecting—attraction to her.

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Before and After

This is the manuscript I spoke from when I gave a talk last Friday, February 6, in a chapel service at Houghton College in New York.

This morning I want to talk about before and after.

We often tell our stories using those words—before and after.

It’s the language we are given in church. “I once was lost, but now am found / Was blind, but now I see,” we sing.

Before and after.

It’s the language of our “testimonies,” if you grew up in a church that had those. “Before I came to faith, I was wandering far from God. But now, after I met Christ, I am different.”

It’s also the language of the Bible. Jesus tells a story about a young man who bilked his father for his inheritance, burned through it on wild parties and rebellious behavior, and then came to his senses, having hit rock bottom. He gets up and begins to walk home and before he can even utter an apology, his father is already stringing up the “Welcome Back” banner and catering a big feast in his honor.

Before and after.

I’d like us to spend a few minutes looking at one of the stories in the Gospels. I want to tell you my personal “before and after” story, but before I do that, I want us to hear from Jesus.

In the Fourth Gospel, chapter 9, there is a character who was born blind. And Jesus sees him on the side of the road. Turning to him, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world,” and then, memorably, he spits on the ground, makes a paste of mud and applies it to the man’s eyes, and then tells him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. “Then,” the Gospel says, “he went and washed and came back able to see.”

This is a very famous “before and after” story. But the “after” part isn’t exactly what we might expect.

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