We’ve been around “the ‘gay’ identity label” block so many times before — see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here — but I had a conversation this week that made me wonder if one more post just may be worthwhile.
The basic question is this: Should Christians who experience sexual and romantic desire for members of the same sex, and who want to live chastely in accord with biblical and traditional Christian teaching, describe themselves with identity labels like “lesbian,” “gay,” or “bi”?
The case for a No answer has been put pretty well by our friends over at the Living Out site:
The Bible knows nothing of the concept of “sexual orientation” — so no-one is ever referred to in the Bible as being gay, lesbian, straight, or bisexual. God’s word speaks only of sexual practices, i.e., those which are pleasing to God (sex within marriage, which is between one man and one woman) and those which are not (all other sex, whatever the context). I now have a new identity, one which is based not on who I’m sexually attracted to, but rooted in my most important relationship of all, that is my relationship with Jesus Christ…. “If anyone is in Christ,” writes the Apostle Paul to Christians in Corinth, where some had been converted to faith in Christ from a background of same-sex practice, “he is a new creation; the old has gone the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). For me, part of the “old” that “has gone” is this idea of identifying myself and describing myself according to my sexual attractions. If I were to hold on to that label “gay”, as if it’s somehow intrinsic to who I am now, then by denying myself a same-sex relationship it would feel as if I’d be denying who I really am (an accusation some of my gay friends already level at me). If my true identity is in Christ, however, then denying myself a same-sex relationship seems like a much more positive outworking of my commitment to follow Jesus Christ and to put him first in my life.
I don’t want to rehash my case for a Yes answer — you can follow the links above if you want to see some examples of such a case. Instead, I want to ask you, dear readers, about a different reason entirely for answering the question in the negative.
Just this past week I was chatting with a new friend who describes himself as “a Christian who is same-sex attracted” (rather than “gay”). At one point in the conversation, the topic of labels emerged, and I asked him about his preference for “SSA.” His answer surprised me. It was nothing like the quote above. My friend spoke rather of a feeling of deference and respect for LGBTQ communities and his desire, as a Christian, not to offend them or put any obstacle in the way of ongoing conversation.
He told me about a gay friend of his who was not a Christian who told my friend (confused yet?!) that he would find it odd for a Christian committed to celibacy to identify as “gay.” The reason, he suggested, is that it represents a kind of conservative Christian takeover of a word that was originally developed, by a persecuted minority, as a means of solidarity.
“Gay” is a label that was forged by embattled people (think: Stonewall and all its resonant associations) who refused to let their sex lives be treated as sickness or perversion. “Gay” was their protest: we aren’t just sinners, we aren’t willfully rebellious, we don’t belong on psych wards; this is the way we act because it’s the way we are. Now, it would seem highly ironic — and perhaps even offensive — for Christians who intentionally give up gay sex to keep using the label that was practically designed to ennoble and safeguard precisely that kind of sex (among other things).
(I’ve encountered a version of this argument before, from my uber-smart queer atheist friend Jacob Bacharach: “I defy anyone to claim that any modern Christian acceptance of gay identity, whether or not it also accepts gay sexual acts, was the proximate result of anything other than the social and political activities of men and women who did, in fact, have sex with people of the same sex. These impermissible acts were, in addition to being expressions of love and desire, inherently political and inherently moral; gay sex expanded the moral imagination.”)
Anyway, I think this is a really interesting angle on the label/identity debate, and I can begin to imagine a Christian response — what if “gay” isn’t so much your choice as it is chosen for you (e.g., by your bullying teammates)? and what if, despite or even because of your Christian faith, gay communities are the primary communities to which you feel special responsibility? — but mainly I wanted to offer this as a question to all of you: If you’re a Christian, have you ever had anyone object to your calling yourself “lesbian” or “gay” for these secular, cultural kinds of reasons? And if you’re not a Christian and are LGBT, how does it strike you when a celibate, traditional sort of Christian guy like me keeps on calling himself “gay”? I really want to hear from you on this!