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.
When my same-sex attraction was the one thing that couldn’t be talked about, the one social reality that I wasn’t allowed to name, it became this leaden haze that weighed me down and corroded my vision. But now as I am doing ministry alongside friends and neighbors who know my story, with whom I can be honest and vulnerable and casually bring up my sexuality without everything else being shoved off the table, it simply ceases to be a big deal at all. When I’m with them I’m just Matt, their friend, and I am freer to earnestly love God and neighbor. That this makes the traditional sexual ethic seem more sustainable and good should go without saying.
This doesn’t mean my sexuality is erased or repressed, not at all, but rather it just takes its proper place as one strand in the web of my existence. I am seen and known and loved comprehensively as myself – something that is rarely experienced by those who must incessantly try to keep their social experiences undetectable.
The next question might be, then, even if one accepts that self-describing as ‘gay’ isn’t all that controversial, what reasons are there to continue intentionally doing so?
Much has been said about this in other posts, so I want to focus on a particular aspect of this whole thing that isn’t commonly addressed: social experience. So much angst has been spilled over inner identity that I’m afraid we have neglected the fact that ‘gay’ is not reducible to an “inner” term. What I mean is, by fact of being attracted to other guys I am automatically understood to be ‘gay’ by the majority of society; I cannot just comprehensively opt out.
Because, whether Christians acknowledge it or not, the ‘gay experience’ is so much broader than simply sex or the desire for sex. I’ve never had a romantic experience with another man and yet simply by virtue of how parts of society treat and have treated people who are attracted to the same sex I find I share certain experiences in common with many other sexual minorities regardless of their personal ethic:
I’ve felt the fear of being in a room with people making ignorant or vicious anti-gay comments; I’ve lost an internship because the leaders “didn’t approve of my lifestyle” (i.e. simply being attracted to guys*); I’ve had to wrestle with intense self-image problems because I was being told my body was evil or exceptionally messed up; I’ve had to, for a time, walk across the broken shards of my family’s dreams for me; or, less dramatically, I’ve daily been made aware in a million little ways that I don’t quite fit the ‘standard’ narrative. In short, like almost every person who is a sexual minority I’ve experienced moments of unjust isolation or harassment in communities that lack room for people who fall outside the cisgendered heterosexual norm. Things may be changing rapidly in some places, but in others they definitely are not.
While many Christians are spending their time worrying that self-describing as ‘gay’ might imply a connection to ‘gay sex’ there are still numerous contexts where ‘gay’ is used as a weapon by non-gay people to communicate that someone is weak, gross, dangerous, or worthy of abuse. These “contexts,” reprehensibly, are frequently churches or Christian institutions.
More soberingly, it is important to remember that people have even been killed simply for appearing to be a sexual minority.
It should be clear that the social experience of being a sexual minority isn’t just about self-description or “sexual behavior,” and trying to reduce it to either of those things is a grave mistake.
In high school, before I ever used the word ‘gay,’ before I had even admitted to myself that I wasn’t attracted to women, I was being psychologically torn to pieces by other Christians’ (and my own) manner of talking about gay people. Even as I trumpeted things like, “There’s no such thing as a gay Christian,” “They chose to be that way,” and other homophobic aphorisms, I knew that something about me was a lot like something about them and that I could never, ever be open about it.
By trying to clearly maintain a linguistic boundary between gay people and people in the church, Christians not only make Church teaching unnecessarily unintelligible to non-Christian gay people (and, really, non-Christians in general) but run the risk of inflicting harm on young people in the church. Whether people want it or not, some youth in the church will see aspects of their experience reflected in the broader culture under the social category of ‘gay’ and not be able to simply divorce their self-understanding from it. Nor should they have to.
I choose at times to use the label ‘gay’ both to remind church communities that they cannot talk about LGBT+ people as if they aren’t sitting in their congregations or aren’t beloved friends and family and to provide a visible example that might help other sexual minorities who are wrestling with their self-understanding to avoid some of the trauma I experienced. I didn’t have any role models for this while I was growing up and I desperately needed one. Out of fear of compromising its sexual ethic the Church has inadvertently compromised its more foundational witness of God’s reconciling movement toward humanity.
Much of this has been said before, and I am not saying that this ends the conversation; there will be a number of people who never feel comfortable with the label or whose contexts problematize things, and so it’s up to them to decide.
It’s just extremely frustrating that many Christians continue to be far more upset by a lesbian woman referring to herself as a lesbian than by the fact that beloved children of God are suffocating and suffering in communities that are supposed to embody the abundant life of Christ. We are accountable for how we use our time and energy, and this currently prevalent myopia regarding labels renders us worthy of judgment.
* And/or binge-eating pita bread and hummus all the time. I never got a read on how much info they gathered.
P.S. If you have particular concerns with areas I didn’t address adequately, please check out the veritable hoard of posts that SF has already written on the topic. There are so many, and they are frequently very high quality.
P.P.S. Deepest apologies for those of you who came here while Googling organizational aids.