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.
In contemporary Western culture, it’s common to describe oneself as gay, straight, or bi, depending on whether one’s sexual attractions are primarily directed to the same sex, the opposite sex, or both sexes. This way of thinking is so pervasive that it is difficult to avoid either the terminology or the assumptions behind it.
As I have said before, I think that the contrast between carnal and spiritual friendship, as described by Aelred of Rievaulx, ultimately provides a more helpful framework for understanding Christian teaching on same-sex friendship and homosexuality than the framework that categorizes people based on sexual orientation. However, sexual orientation categories are difficult to avoid. It’s not just a matter of words used: it’s also a matter of much deeper assumptions that shape the way people interpret their experience.
In this post, I want to examine these categories more closely. Doing so will, I hope, provide insight into why the writers at Spiritual Friendship have been willing to engage with—and how we have tried to challenge—the categories of sexual orientation and sexual identity in contemporary culture.
Here we go again. I might just be a glutton for punishment in bringing up this topic yet again. However, I really think that the inability to at least consider helpful uses of LGBT language has the potential to impede gospel proclamation in certain contexts.
The specific question that seems to keep coming up is whether it is ever appropriate to use the term “gay” or “homosexual orientation” to describe the experience of a Christian who is same-sex attracted. Is the label “I am gay” ever a wise use of language, or is “a Christian who experiences SSA” the only appropriate wording? These are only some of the words and phrases that are being debated.
I want to reflect on what the word “gay” is about—that is, what experience or set of experiences does it point to? (I also want to ask similar questions about “friendship.”) But before doing so, I want us to think about a very different example: the word “ship.” Consider Eustace Scrubb’s response when he found himself magically transported into Narnia and embarked on the Dawn Treader. He wrote in his diary,
It’s madness to come out into the sea in a rotten little thing like this. Not much bigger than a lifeboat. And, of course, absolutely primitive indoors. No proper saloon, no radio, no bathrooms, no deck-chairs. I was dragged all over it yesterday evening and it would make anyone sick to hear Caspian showing off his funny little toy boat as if it was the Queen Mary. I tried to tell him what real ships are like, but he’s too dense.
For Eustace, “ship” referred to a modern ocean modern liner like the Queen Mary; while for the Narnians, “ship” meant a small sailing vessel like the Dawn Treader. The word is the same, and certain key elements of the concept are the same, but what the word is about is different.
MV Coho in Victoria Harbour. Photo by Steve Voght via Wikimedia Commons.
When, as a boy, I read Luke’s description of the Apostle Paul’s journey on a “ship” (in Acts 20-21), I imagined him getting on board something like the MV Coho (above), which I rode several times a year from Port Angeles to Victoria and back again. When I got a little older and realized that Paul had been on a sailing ship, my mental imagery tended to be drawn from the ships of the Age of Discovery, because that was the kind of sailing ship I most frequently encountered in my non-Biblical reading.
Yesterday, Wesley Hill started a helpful discussion about the way that different people use words like “gay” to mean different things. One reply, given by Denny Burk, is a common one I’ve heard many times before. The basic idea is that talking about a “gay” (or, in my case, “bisexual”) orientation is by definition referring to something sexual, and desires for things like friendship are desires I share with straight people and shouldn’t be lumped together in the same category.
The practical problem I have with this way of thinking is that I can’t always separate my feelings neatly into these two categories of desire. They often seem to arise from the same phenomenon. I think this experience is something I share with many others, and why we talk about how our orientation is “not reducible” to lust or a desire to have sex. This manner of speaking seems kind of fuzzy, but I think this is so precisely because the underlying phenomenon is hard to categorize.
In order to partially get across what I’m talking about with my “orientation,” why that is “not reducible” to wanting to have sex, and why I can’t separate everything out as nicely as people (including myself!) might like, I think it would be most helpful to talk about my experience. Of course, I can’t speak universally for everyone, and others may have different experiences.
A recent World Magazinearticle centers on the hiring of Julie Rodgers at Wheaton College. Julie is a self-described celibate gay Christian who works as an associated in the chaplain’s office at the college. I consider Julie a friend, and I am an alumni of Wheaton (’98) and I have served as an adjunct professor there for the past decade. I also blog occasionally at Spiritual Friendship which is mentioned in the article.
I was surprised to see my research cited in the article about the hiring of Julie. The way the argument was set up was to express concern for Wheaton as the flagship evangelical college hiring a staff member who is known to be gay and who actually uses the word “gay” as an adjective to describe herself to others. Julie had spent about 10 years in Exodus International attempting to change her sexual orientation, and I have spoken with Julie on several occasions about this. She is gracious and positive about her own personal experience with the Exodus member ministries she participated in. However, speaking graciously about involvement in a ministry and declaring that it made her straight are two different things. She, like many other people who have attempted to change, did not experience a dramatic shift in her attractions as a result of ministry.
In my view, the article would serve the Body of Christ better if it were about this reality.
I am co-author of the study cited in the World magazine article about Julie and Wheaton. That study was published in book form in 2007 and then again as a peer-reviewed journal article in 2011, after six years of attempted change. If I were to summarize my view of the findings, I would put it this way: While on average people reported a modest shift along a continuum of attraction, most people did not experience as much of a shift as they would have liked, particularly as people entering ministry envision change as a 180-degree shift from gay to straight.
A Catholic friend of mine is divorced. He has not sought—and does not believe he could obtain—an annulment. His ex-wife is still living and in good health, so he expects to remain single for the rest of his life.
Moody Radio recently asked the question, “Is it OK for Christians to identify as gay and celibate?” The host’s answer seemed to be no. It would seem, if we follow her logic—and the logic of other critics like her—that it would also be wrong for my friend to ever say, “I am divorced.” Doing so would involve defining himself based on something evil: “I hate divorce,” God says (Malachi 2:16).
For obvious reasons, I don’t follow Christian debates about remarriage and divorce nearly as closely as I follow debates about homosexuality. But I am not ignorant of them, either. And so far as I know, nobody—no matter where they lie on the spectrum of Christian beliefs about divorce and remarriage—has ever argued that people who have been divorced should not say, “I’m divorced.” Most people recognize that there are lots of practical reasons why someone would sometimes want to say that, why saying it would be relevant.
I’m sure the last thing that most of us want to read is yet another pontification on the term “gay”. Hear me out.
In his book, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, the great Reformed theologian John Murray makes a helpful observation that sheds some light on our modern discussion of LGBT terminology. Discussing the Calvinist teaching of Limited Atonement, he asks whether or not the title of the doctrine is a fair representation of the content. He concludes, “But it is not the term used that is important; it is that which it denotes.”
I bring this up, not to discuss controversial doctrines, but because John Murray has unintentionally put his finger on one of the main issues in the gay debate. It seems that one of the questions of perennial interest in this conversation about sexuality is, “What does the term ‘gay’ denote?” Does it denote a particular behavior or sinful lifestyle? Or does it simply describe an experience of sexuality, and say nothing one way or the other about how that experience is lived out? Many conservatives insist on anathematizing the term because they argue it necessarily entails a sinful expression of sexuality. They assert that people who label themselves as gay usually mean to say that they also engage in gay sex.
We here at Spiritual Friendship are living testaments to the fact that this is a false assumption. There are many people that mean no such thing by labeling themselves as gay. In fact, I truly believe that most people in our culture, even unbelievers, do not normally give the term “gay” such a meaning that would denote sexual activity. So why, then, is it such a widely held assumption?
Many of the folks tweeting have been voicing frustration, anger, and hurt over what’s being said at the conference. I haven’t been watching any of the livestream, but I imagine some of the frustration is warranted. But, then again, I also imagine much of the hostility to the conference has to do with dismay that the SBC still holds the view of marriage that I do—which is that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman and any sexual activity outside of that context is prohibited for Christians. In other words, I imagine many people’s frustration boils down to (a) incredulity that the SBC still holds this view and (b) fervent desire that it would change.
What I was asking myself today, though, was—once again—why the “traditional view of marriage” provokes so much anger in our culture. I can certainly imagine some legitimate reasons for it to do so, since the people expressing that view have often been hypocritical, upholding “traditional marriage” while also getting divorced at roughly the same rates as more “liberal” folk and behaving with shocking insensitivity toward LGBT people. (The latter is something I know from personal experience, having grown up in the SBC trying to keep my own same-sex desire secret.) But, even granting that, why is it that so many people in our culture, even friends of mine who might otherwise be very sympathetic with much of what the ERLC stands for, are so up in arms about Christianity’s traditional stance on gay sex?