What is My “Identity?”

Blue Question

In discussions surrounding LGBTQ people, people often talk about “identity” or “who someone is.” For example, people might argue that it’s wrong to prevent people sexually active in gay relationships from participating in certain ministry positions because of “who they are.” On the flip side, there are Christians who argue that gay “identity” is something wrong that we must reject.

At least from my perspective as someone who has studied math and computer science, this discussion is quite confusing. When making arguments, I’m used to having clear definitions of the terms at play, or at least being able to ask for them. So for example, in mathematics the word “identity” is used in a precise sense, like “tan(x) = sin(x) / cos(x)” being an identity because it’s true for all x. But I don’t see such a precise meaning at play here.

What does it mean for something to be “who someone is?” And is that the same thing as it being their “identity?” It seems most people would say that “human” and “male” are components of my identity, but “hungry” is not. Some languages like Spanish have different words for “to be.” Are the rules for “identity” ones that would be familiar to speakers of those languages? What are the rules at play here?

Without an answer to that question, there are two problems that seem obvious to me. One is that we’re likely to fall into equivocation, where the same word or concept is used with two different definitions in the same argument. This leads to unwarranted conclusions. The other is that people using different definitions end up talking past one another. And when one or both participants are equivocating as well, the problem multiplies.

And these problems are not just theoretical. They appear in discussions around LGBTQ people all the time. As an example, consider the example of employment discrimination. One one side, people complain about denying someone a job based on “who the person is.” Some conservative Christians will then respond that LGBTQ labels do not represent valid “identities,” because it’s a category that we do not see in Scripture and that is relatively novel.

I think the person complaining about the employment discrimination is really trying to say this: an LGBTQ person didn’t choose to have whatever experience the label denotes. For example, a gay man did not choose to experience sexual attraction to other men. The argument is really that it’s wrong to deny someone a job based on something the person didn’t choose, unless it’s something that is directly relevant to the job. Language about “who a person is” carries emotional weight, but ultimately obscures the point.

The Christian who makes an argument about LGBTQ identities is not responding to the argument the person is trying to make. Instead, he or she is arguing that we should only use a concept of “identity” found in Scripture to make such judgments. I think there’s some equivocation going on here. The Christian is often defining “identity” as “the thing God considers when evaluating the state of a person’s soul” or some such thing. Then “identity” is used to indicate something like “the things about a person that might be used to make unfair hiring decisions.” Although I’m not sure what definitions are at play exactly, because the argument is so unclear.

I do have some particular frustrations with Christian discussions of “identity.” For one, they are not usually applied consistently. For example, the modern political categories of “liberal” and “conservative” are never found as such in Scripture, but Christians are as likely as anyone else to judge people based on which category (if either) they fall into. I always find a deep irony in a claim that someone is not being “conservative” enough if he or she describes himself or herself as “gay,” based on a need to use Scriptural identities.

Another frustration is the use of a poorly-defined concept of “identity” to obscure more fundamental discussions. Any time I see discourse on whether “gay identity” is OK for Christians, I think this is going on to some degree. Someone who says that “gay identity” is wrong is often trying to ignore important pastoral issues. If someone’s response to the claim that orientation doesn’t usually change is to argue that “gay identity” is wrong, then he or she has not actually responded to the issue at hand. Someone who says that “gay identity” is fine often ignores real dangers involved if people put too much weight on their sexuality in contexts where it doesn’t deserve so much weight. For example, if a gay guy is primarily concerned about having close gay friends and believes that straight people can never be as significant a source of fellowship and intimacy, I tend to think he’s giving his sexuality too much weight and hurting himself in the process. Or if he lusts after a guy and sees it as just “what gay guys do,” it’s justifying sin in the same way as a straight guy who lusts after a girl and sees it as just “what guys do.”

I’d actually advocate for avoiding references to “who a person is” or their “identity” a lot of the time. I think we could have clearer thinking and discussion if we used alternatives that more clearly indicated what we actually meant. For example, if one is really making an argument about whether Christians should describe themselves as “gay,” he or she should really just mention “terminology” explicitly instead of couching the discussion in terms of a vaguely-defined “identity.” Or if a person is arguing that it’s wrong to treat a person a certain way because of “who that person is,” it’s probably better to just say “on the basis of a characteristic that person didn’t choose and that isn’t likely to change.” When “identity” language is preferred, it should be clearly defined.

I’m hopeful that by trying to do this, we can both think more clearly and have better discussions with people we disagree with. Often when I’m wrong, being forced to be more precise is what I need to do to see the error of my ways. I’d like to be able to better understand what people are actually saying so that I can better evaluate it and improve my own thinking.

2 thoughts on “What is My “Identity?”

  1. Some of this appears to be generational. For my age group homosexual is something people don’t choose but gay referred to a lifestyle choice that included an active sex life. Gay and celibate were oxymorons. For many of my generation who entered the gay lifestyle by choice when young and who later also chose to leave it, the continued use of the term gay would be unthinkable. For many young people gay simply referred to having the attractions and being gay and celibate was not more strange than being straight and celibate, but then again being celibate in today’s culture regardless of predilection is countercultureal.

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