At a conference where I spoke this week, the question came up again: “Why would you call yourself a ‘gay Christian’?” Others have posted about this—I’m thinking of Joshua Gonnerman and Melinda Selmys and Eve Tushnet—but I never have, so here’s my brief take on the question.
First, what’s behind the question? One of my interlocutors this week suggested that a parallel case would be if someone were to label himself an “adulterous Christian” or a “stealing Christian.” Those terms are self-evidently problematic in that they make sinful behaviors part of an identity description for believers, and therefore gay Christians should find their chosen label equally problematic. My response to this is that those are not, in fact, parallel cases. “Gay” in current parlance doesn’t necessarily refer to sexual behavior; it can just as easily refer to one’s sexual orientation and say nothing, one way or the other, about how one is choosing to express that orientation. So, whereas “stealing Christian” certainly denotes the behavior of stealing, “gay Christian” may simply refer to the erotic inclinations of the Christian who claims that identity and leave open the question of whether he or she is sexually active with members of his or her own sex.
This is why, by the way, I rarely use the phrase “gay Christian” without adding another adjective: “celibate.” To call myself a “celibate gay Christian” specifies both my sexual orientation and the way I’m choosing to live it out. (More on that in a moment.)
But I take it there’s a second, deeper question lurking under the “Why do you call yourself a ‘gay Christian’?” question, and it’s this: “By using the label ‘gay’ for yourself, aren’t you simply accepting that same-sex attraction is an unalterable part of your personality and thereby giving up on the possibility of healing and change?”
At least two things strike me as important to say in response to this. First, the best scientific study we have of sexual orientation change efforts urges caution in holding out the possibility of “change” to any and all gay Christians (see Warren Throckmorton’s comments on the Jones/Yarhouse study’s already circumspect conclusions). Reflecting on the results of this study, Joshua Gonnerman concludes:
We need not absolutely reject orientation change. But it is frequently presented as a strong hope, an ideal to be striven towards, with good chances of success. For a person who is deeply struggling with her sexuality, who desperately wants, as many people do, and as I once did, not to be gay, the ready offer of orientation change can become an object of fixation, even an idol in which all of one’s hope is placed…
Too often, I have seen people who placed their hope in orientation change in this way come crashing down when they realized it wasn’t working. On a psychological level, it can lead to depression, to self-loathing, to suicidal tendencies. The message that the absence of successful change makes one a lesser Christian or some kind of failure is always present, either explicitly or implicitly.
This brings me to a second response to the question, “Have you given up hope?” On the contrary, calling oneself a “celibate gay Christian” may be a way of expressing, not giving up, hope—but expressing it in a way that doesn’t link that hope to orientation change. Claiming the label “celibate gay Christian” means, for me, recognizing my homosexual orientation as a kind of “thorn in the flesh.” When the apostle Paul used that phrase in his correspondence with the Corinthian church, he made clear that his “thorn” was indeed an unwelcome source of pain (2 Corinthians 12:7). But he also made clear that it had become the very occasion for his experience of the power of the risen Christ and, therefore, a paradoxical site of grace (2 Corinthians 12:8). Paul, I think, would have had no qualms about labeling himself a “thorn-pricked Christian”—not because he recognized his thorn as a good thing, in and of itself, but because it had become for him the means by which he encountered the power of Christ. Likewise, living with an unchanged homosexual orientation may be for many of us the means by which we discover new depths of grace, as well as new vocations of service to others.
Commenting on 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and the homosexual partnerships that some of Paul’s readers had been involved in prior to their baptism, J. I. Packer writes about Paul’s gospel:
With some of the Corinthian Christians, Paul was celebrating the moral empowering of the Holy Spirit in heterosexual terms; with others of the Corinthians, today’s homosexuals are called to prove, live out, and celebrate the moral empowering of the Holy Spirit in homosexual terms.
Finding the moral empowering—and the grace and consolation—of the Holy Spirit “in homosexual terms” is, it seems to me, what leads many of us to label ourselves “celibate gay Christians.”