“Gay”: Clarity or Obfuscation? (Part 2)

In my last post, I pointed out the way that some Christians have exploited the ambiguous meaning of the word “gay” to make misleading promises (like “You don’t have to be gay”) to others.

Today, I want to look at how the word is sometimes used to mislead others—including other Christians—about the speaker’s own life and experiences.

Consider, for example, the sad case of Dr. George Rekers. He helped co-found the Family Research Council, and was for many years a member of the board and scientific advisor for the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). He was a leading opponent of gay rights and advocate of reparative therapy for several decades.

In 2010, he hired a man who worked as a male prostitute to accompany him on a trip to Europe. Allegedly, his travel assistant provided him with daily sexual massage services during the trip.

When these accusations became public, Dr. Rekers denied that he was gay.

To most people, this amounts to a denial of the whole story. People who are not gay do not hire gay prostitutes. But, if you know anything about the way that the word “gay” works in Dr. Rekers’s circles, you know that in fact this denial was a non sequitur. In fact, with the private definition the word “gay” is given among reparative therapists and exgays, Rekers was not lying, even if every accusation against him was true.

Here’s how it works. When someone says, “I’m gay,” according to this way of speaking, what that person means is that that person embraces the gay community, promotes the gay lifestyle, thinks gay sex is morally acceptable, etc.

What you learn very quickly, if you have had any experience with support groups affiliated with Courage or (formerly) Exodus, is that just knowing that someone does not “identify as gay” tells you nothing about either their sexual attractions or their sexual behavior. This is not to say that everyone in those groups is engaged in illicit behavior: many of them lead chaste lives. But others do not, and are still encouraged, in the parlance of these groups, to deny that they are gay, because “gay” is more about their beliefs than it is about their behavior.

In making this point, I am not denying that changing the way we talk about ourselves can be helpful in changing how we think about ourselves. For some men, saying “I’m gay” meant embracing the goals of the gay liberation movement. If the word has that connotation for them, then not using the word may be a psychologically helpful step for them in breaking away from the self-understanding that led them to become sexually active, even if their actual behavior doesn’t change right away. This is a legitimate insight, and I don’t begrudge anyone who has rejected the word for themselves on those grounds.

However, if you’ve been in academia for any length of time, you know that sometimes people make linguistic distinctions out of a desire for precision of thought and speech. At other times, this shades into pedantry. And sometimes it dives into Jesuitical obfuscation, where precise linguistic distinctions are employed to mislead and and even to deliberately deceive.

When I describe myself as a “gay,” it is always clear from the broader context that I am not using “gay” to mean that I embrace and affirm my sexual desires in a way contrary to Catholic teaching. For example, if I describe myself as a “celibate gay Christian,” only someone who is being deliberately obtuse (hello there, comboxers!) can construe that as an affirmation of gay sex.

It’s also worth noting that when I say that I’m gay and celibate, I am making a public commitment to a certain standard of behavior. Saying “I’m not gay,” in the way it is said among ex-gays, in Courage, or in NARTH, makes no such commitment. Lots of people in these groups who do not “identify as gay” are nevertheless sexually active.

Church teaching draws a distinction between same-sex attractions (which are temptations, and not sinful), and homosexual acts (which are sinful). When I say that I am gay and celibate, I acknowledge my attractions in the language that is most familiar to contemporary culture, but also commit to following the Church’s teaching with respect to homosexual acts.

How closely does the distinction between same-sex attraction vs. gay identity actually track with the Church’s teaching? On paper, it is supposed to track exactly.

However, here’s an interesting phenomenon which I have observed first-hand, and which others have reported to me. (To be clear, I am not saying this happens everywhere, just that I’ve heard of multiple instances.)

Someone goes to a Courage group, says “I’m gay and celibate,” and gets immediate push-back, with other members of the group insisting that you should not “identify as gay.” At the same group meeting, someone else admits to a grave sexual sin (e. g., a married man admits to cheating on his wife with other men) and is told that everyone understands that it’s a tough struggle and they want to be there for to provide help and support.

I’m not saying that those who have engaged in sexual sin should be condemned or shamed. Far from it. But along with saying, “neither do I condemn you,” it’s also important to say, “go and sin no more.” How sexual sin is handled differs a lot from group to group. But I have heard multiple reports, involving different groups, in which the group reacted more forcefully to someone who said, “I’m gay and celibate” than they reacted to someone who was actively involved in sexual sin.

If, in a particular support group, arguments about the words we use to describe ourselves have become more important than pursuing chastity, then that support group has lost its way.

It is important to communicate the Church’s teaching clearly. That teaching is that homosexual acts are always contrary to God’s plan, and that the desire for such acts is a temptation.

The language that we use for expressing that teaching is important, but it is important because we need to communicate clearly. If the language we use is communicating false promises to others and obfuscating about the speaker’s ongoing struggles with sin, then there is a problem.

This week, we’ve been publishing a series of posts from Chris Damian. Chris is a recent Notre Dame grad, now studying law and Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas. I’ve known him for several years now. He was a great Catholic student leader at Notre Dame, and I expect he’ll continue to do great things at University of St. Thomas.

Although he describes himself as gay, he also makes clear that he is deeply committed to Church teaching, and tries to work through some of the nuances and complexities of how to talk about his situation. He has a solid grasp of the different ways that the word “gay” can be used, and tries to explain the different senses of the word, in order to explain both Catholic teaching and his commitment to living that teaching in a way that will be understandable to his peers.

Both Chris and I (as well as other writers on this blog) are open to constructive dialogue about how to speak more clearly about the Church’s teaching. However, I have repeatedly had the experience of just being accused of being wrong and undermining the Church’s teaching because I will sometimes speak of myself as gay and celibate. If I believed that the people who said this were communicating clearly, and that I was confusing the issue, I would understand the criticism.

However, I’m not talking about an abstract intellectual problem here. I’ve been pursuing chastity for over 20 years now. Over and over again, I’ve been offered misleading promises and heard misleading testimonies. Instead of practical advice about how to live chastely, I got a lot of Freudian psychobabble about identity.

When there has been so much misleading and ineffective communication for so long, it is frustrating when some insist that the only possible way to defend the truth is to go on using language with such a long track record of obfuscation.

I agree that we need to think carefully about the language we use to talk about homosexuality. I don’t think we should uncritically use the language of contemporary culture. But uncritically using the language developed decades ago in ex-gay ministries is not much of an improvement (especially when Exodus itself has recognized that their previous messaging had serious problems).

I’m open to constructive dialogue about the language we use. I recognize that saying “I’m gay and celibate” is open to misunderstanding (or, at the very least, that it is frequently misunderstood by otherwise intelligent Christian readers). But this dialogue needs to be a two-way street. In addition to listening to constructive criticism of the way that “celibate gay Christian” is open to misunderstanding, we also need to look critically at the way that the language that has been used by Courage/Exodus/NARTH is also open to misunderstanding and has been used in misleading ways.

Above all, if we want to communicate the Church’s teaching to the surrounding culture, we need a commitment to honest communication about expectations and experiences, and we need to use words with an awareness of the way they are used in the culture. Using private or outdated meanings undermines our ability to communicate honestly to others about what they can expect from Christian discipleship, and what we have experienced in following Christ. Without honest communication, we undermine trust, and without trust, people have no reason to believe that the Church teaching we are trying communicate is true.

Ron BelgauRon Belgau is completing a PhD in Philosophy, and teaches medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion. He can be followed on Twitter: @RonBelgau.

9 thoughts on ““Gay”: Clarity or Obfuscation? (Part 2)

  1. Very good post.

    For me there are three reasons why I use the label “gay Christians” or, sometimes, “celibate gay Christian” to describe myself even though many pastors insist that “one should not identify one’s self by one’s sexuality but only by one’s inclusion in the Body of Christ as a ‘Christian.'”

    Firstly, when we insist people drop the label “gay” if they are Christian, this sends the message to the kids out there that you can not be attracted to your own sex and still be Christian. The thought on every same-sex attracted kid’s mind when he realizes he is attracted to other boys is “I can’t be gay, I’m Christian.” He is forced to choose between the label “gay” and the label “Christian.” Since he can not deny his attractions he begins to question his inclusion in the Body of Christ (as do his parents if they find out). Too often these kids are lost because of despair and shame, thinking their feelings made them unqualified for Christ’s kingdom.

    Secondly, I adopt the label “gay Christian” to remind the Church that the focus of ministry should not be on our culture but on individuals and that the Church is called to provide spiritual care to those of us within her fold who ARE attracted to our own gender. She has never been called to save culture or a nation. We need to refocus our priorities from speaking truth to power to speaking mercy to people.

    Thirdly, because gay people have been misled (unintentionally, I believe) by ex-gay ministries that seemed to promise more than they could deliver, I think it is important to be honest and to say “I am still attracted to guys and probably always will be. I accept celibacy because I choose to place certain values above sexuality, not because God has “straightened me out.” Calling myself a celibate gay Christian seems to be the most efficient way to send that message.

  2. I choose not to use the word “Gay” to describe my sexual attractions for other men, but still use the ol’ SSA tag for several reasons. For one, I’m married (to a woman) and I find it unhelpful in the context of my marriage when talking with my wife to refer to myself as gay. It leaves her feeling unattractive or undesirable to me, which is far from true. Also, because the word “gay” has such strong connotations towards exclusive same-sex attractions, it doesn’t have much room to include my “wife-attractions,” so I leave it out of my identity vocab. In Lisa Diamond’s book, “Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire” she presents the concept of person-based attractions. When I read that book in college, I latched on and started to say I was _______sexual (filling in the blank with my wife’s name). At the time, it was helpful for her and for me, but I never went around telling people because the few that I did tell just stared at me in confusion wondering if I had drank too much of the Sociology Kool-aid. So, to cut myself short, I just stick with same-sex attracted. It’s easier for me.

    • I’m glad to see that Jake is honest about this discussion. I was in a mixed orientation marriage and know the challenges of it. Instead of talking about it, I focused on therapy and God trying to cure me. Thus we kept this secret to ourselves and did not find the support we needed to succeed.

  3. Hi, Jake,

    I think Lisa Diamond has some good insights for thinking about how someone who is primarily attracted to their own sex sexually can nevertheless have a meaningful relationship with someone of the opposite sex. I’ve used her essay, “What Does Sexual Orientation Orient?: A Biobehavioral Model Distinguishing Romantic Love and Sexual Desire” in my Philosophy of the Human Person class as a way of challenging how students think about desire for a person.

    I think the concerns that you raise about using the word “gay” in the context of your marriage are legitimate. As I said in the post, I’m open to different ways of talking about these things as long as we are trying to communicate honestly, which it seems like you are trying to do.

    Thanks for chiming in.

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