“Gay”: Clarity or Obfuscation? (Part 1)

In contemporary culture, “gay” is the most common word for describing homosexual persons. This has become so much a part of the default language that Pope Francis used it as a neutral description of a person’s sexual attractions in response to a question at a recent press conference.

I think a lot of the language debates that go on around homosexuality make mountains out of molehills (I could link to examples, but why give traffic to posts I think are hurting the discussion?). I am more interested in talking about vocation, friendship, celibacy, and other questions which I think address more important needs.

Still, language can cause confusion, and stirs up a lot of debate. So I’m going to say something about it, even though I think the arguments have been blown out of proportion.

The word “gay” emerged from the gay liberation movement, a political and cultural crusade whose premises are deeply at odds with a Catholic or Christian understanding of the human person, marriage, and human sexuality. For most who came of age in the first decades of the gay liberation movement, calling oneself “gay” meant identifying with the aims and beliefs (which are not monolithic) of this movement.

However, there is a significant generation gap in the use of this language. For many younger people, “gay” is just the default term for a man who is sexually attracted to other men, and doesn’t have the same sense of political commitment.

Because of this ambiguity, in Always Our Children, the Bishops’ Committee on Marriage and Family offered this caution about language:

Some homosexual persons want to be known publicly as gay or lesbian. These terms often express a person’s level of self-awareness and self-acceptance within society. Though you might find the terms offensive because of political or social connotations, it is necessary to be sensitive to how your son or daughter is using them. Language should not be a barrier to building trust and honest communication.

Nevertheless, some argue that because of the possible political and identity connotations of the word “gay,” Christians who are committed to a traditional sexual ethic should never use this label to describe themselves. Rather, they should use the term “same sex attracted” (or “SSA”) to describe their attractions, while rejecting the word “gay.” Some say that this is because “gay” means that one embraces the goals of the gay liberation movement, while others recognize it could have multiple meanings, but say that it is still likely to cause confusion.

I’m a philosopher, and I like precise language. Since I publicly acknowledge my attraction to other men, but reject pursuing those attractions in a sexual relationship, it makes sense to have a way of making this distinction clear in my writing.

The problem, however, is that the term “gay” is ambiguous, and many of the same individuals and groups that make a big deal out of this distinction between “gay” and “same-sex attraction” end up playing (consciously or not) on that ambiguity in other circumstances.

In this post, I will look at how this ambiguity results in making misleading promises to others. In a follow-up post, I will look at how it can be used to mislead others about the speaker.

In the misleading promises department, consider this:

You Dont Have To Be Gay

Will most people understand this to mean “You don’t have to join the gay liberation movement”? Or “You can acknowledge your same-sex attractions, but you don’t have to act on them”?

Or will many people read this as, “You don’t have to be attracted to men”?

Consider Paul Fromberg’s story:

I went to one of the world’s biggest Evangelical seminaries. At the crossroad of the campus there was a bulletin board where students could post fliers and advertisements. I was walking by one morning when I stopped and saw a flier that said, “You Don’t Have To Be Gay. Talk to us, we can help.” Below the headline was a name and number.

“You Don’t Have To Be Gay.” The thought was a revelation to me. I’d never thought of being gay. It wasn’t something I wanted or understood. I thought of myself as having this little fenced off part of my life that kept falling in love with my roommates. But I wasn’t gay; I could manage it. I wasn’t gay. I wasn’t. I pretended to look at another posting while I wrote the name and number on the palm of my hand.

I remember going back to my dorm room, getting out a sheet of notepaper, sitting down on my bed and writing: “My name is Paul. I saw the note on the community board and I would like to talk to you. I have struggled with being gay for a long time…”

That was the first time I ever wrote the first person pronoun and the word gay in the same sentence. I felt absolutely strange about it. There it was in black and white. I was gay. And I was going to be fixed, because You Don’t Have To Be Gay.

It is unlikely that an advertisement posted on the bulletin board at a large Evangelical seminary was directed at those who embraced a gay affirming socio-political identity. Such people are generally not found at Evangelical seminaries. Instead, it was directed at those who, like Paul, saw themselves as gay because they were attracted to other men, and wanted to be “fixed.”

On p. 92 of Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs-Christians Debate, Justin Lee provides the following quote from an older version of the Exodus International website:

Are you struggling with unwanted same-sex attractions?…

You have come to the right place! For over thirty years, Exodus International has offered hope and help to people seeking freedom from homosexuality….

The bottom line – you don’t have to be gay!

Justin comments (quoting me):

I showed this page to my friend Ron, a gay Christian who has committed himself to lifelong celibacy. “Of course you don’t have to be gay,” he joked drily. “You can be ‘SSA’ [same-sex attracted] instead. All you have to do is to drop that nasty three-letter word and put a lovely three-letter acronym in its place.”

Ron knows, as I do, that “not being gay” in Exodus lingo means changing the word you use for yourself and calling it a change in “identity.” It doesn’t mean actually becoming straight. Exodus can’t promise to help gay people become straight. They can’t promise that God will change people’s attractions, no matter how much faith they have. But misleading language like this—telling people with “unwanted same-sex attractions” that they “don’t have to be gay”—leads a lot of Christians to believe that that’s exactly what Exodus and groups like them are offering.

One of the problems with the narrow way that many conservative Christians define the word “gay” is that they then use that definition to make promises which are not exactly false (provided you interpret them according to the narrow definition they have given to the word “gay”) but which are still misleading.

Moreover, as I pointed out above, younger people often think that “gay” is just the default term for describing being sexually attracted to your own sex. So when Christians promise, “you don’t have to be gay!” many people assume that they are promising a change in sexual orientation. If they’re not, then they’ve just mislead a big chunk of their audience.

It’s important, when we speak to others, to talk in a way that fosters trust and honest communication. When others learn that we weren’t promising what we seemed to be promising, they feel (legitimately!) betrayed and angry.

A traditional Christian sexual ethic distinguishes between two things. First, it teaches that the desire to have sex with others of our own sex is a  temptation to sin which is a result of the fall, but it is not, in itself, sinful (nor can we necessarily choose who we are attracted to). Second, it teaches that homosexual activity is a sin, because we can choose how we act in response to our desires.

I have been, at times, willing to use the  word “gay” to describe myself. But when I have done so, I have always been very careful to make clear that I do not embrace the whole socio-political identity which some conservatives associate with the word. Saying that I’m “gay and celibate” acknowledges my ongoing struggles with temptation, but expresses a commitment to following the Church’s sexual ethic.

It’s not perfect, but it’s a good-faith effort to communicate my own experience of sexual attraction and commitment to the Church’s teaching in a language that will be familiar to the surrounding culture, without giving others false hopes about orientation change.

I wish it weren’t necessary to argue about this. As long as you’re making a good faith effort to describe your experiences and convictions, you don’t have to use the same language I do. I’m happy with different approaches to language, as long as there is a sincere commitment to Church teaching and honest communication.

But experience has taught me that a number of Christians will make a big deal out of my language choices. Hopefully, this explanation will help at least some people understand why I don’t think the distinction between “gay” and “same-sex attraction” is actually as helpful as many orthodox Catholics (and Evangelicals) believe.

Ron BelgauRon Belgau is completing a PhD in Philosophy, and teaches medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion.

14 thoughts on ““Gay”: Clarity or Obfuscation? (Part 1)

  1. It is possible to get by without using any labels (that freedom is one of the major achievements of the gay liberation movement). So when someone asks “Have you ever been in love?” you answer “Yes, there was a guy I met in college….” But conservative Christians hate that more than the label gay.

  2. I would like to add that “same sex attraction” is ambiguous in a way that is destructive. The type of attraction is not specified, only the object of the attraction. All people should have some level of same sex attraction because we need relationships with people of the same sex.The question is the end and effect of that attraction, not the object. In particular, when I was subject to these therapies an unhealthy scrutiny and suspicion developed of all of my attractions which I think only made matters worse. Ergo, drop SSA it is more hurtful than helpful.

  3. Hi, Aaron, thanks for the comment. In this post, I was paying more attention to issues with the way the exgay/Courage/NARTH crowd uses the word “gay” in potentially misleading ways. I mentioned “same-sex attraction” a couple of times as their preferred alternative, but I wasn’t really focused on that term. Sounds like a good topic for a future post, however.

    Still, I agree with your concern, and I think if you looked closely at the post, you will see I was trying to avoid the problematic aspects you point to with the language of “same-sex attraction.”

    For example, I wrote that “for many younger people, ‘gay’ is just the default term for a man who is sexually attracted to other men.” I specified that I was talking about sexual attraction, because there are other kinds of attraction that can exist between men that are not problematic in the way that sexual desire is. Of course, one would want to say more here about what makes a desire “sexual,” but, as I say, I wasn’t talking about SSA specifically here.

    A little later, I said that “since I publicly acknowledge my attraction to other men, but reject pursuing those attractions in a sexual relationship.” Here, I did not specify that my attraction to other men is sexual, because it can be, but there are also other forms of attraction that I feel toward other men. What I highlighted here was that I would not allow those attractions to lead me into a sexual relationship, again putting a narrowed focus on which attractions I regard as problematic.

    I also wrote that a traditional sexual ethic “teaches that the desire to have sex with others of our own sex is a temptation to sin.” Again, rather than just talking about “attraction” to the same sex in general, I specified sexual desire as the kind of attraction which is a source of temptation.

    I probably should think about this and try to write a more in-depth post later. But I am aware of the issue you raise, and agree that “same-sex attraction” is a problematic expression.

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  9. Only conservative Christians are confused about the meaning of the word “gay”. Everyone else knows what it means and use it as such, but just younger people. That’s the standard meaning of the word in the dictionary.

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