what’s in a word pt. 1

We’ve had a few people ask us why we would use the label “gay Christian” when it is so charged and controversial, and I thought I would give a brief explanation of why I personally have used that phrase:

I’m lazy.

That’s a big part of it, really. Out of all the possible labels, “gay” is the most convenient, and I can hardly muster the energy to type all the extra words every time to provide the proper nuance. (It should come as no surprise that I failed miserably at Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.) Saying “I’m gay” is immediate and effective. Aside from the two or three Shakespeare majors who will think I’m just having a good day, everyone understands what I’m trying to communicate: that I’m attracted to men. We can hash out all the little details throughout the conversation.

I do need to say that “gay” is not the only charged label. Saying that “I’m a Christian who struggles with same-sex attraction” is often perceived as code for “I really don’t want to be gay. I might try therapy. I probably have depressive tendencies. I find rainbows terrifying and plan to move to New Mexico to avoid them.” (Too dramatic?)

“I have SSA” (same-sex attraction) is a common shortcut that usually betrays a conservative ethic. But a lot of people have no clue what SSA stands for, and I usually just end up saying, “It means I’m gay.”

“I’m a Christian who is exclusively attracted to men” is clunky, but I have used it to initiate conversations when I wanted to avoid any possible political overtone. It’s the least charged of the options, but it’s about as convenient and time-efficient as a trip to the DMV.

I’m actually more or less comfortable with any of those. But be careful, there are some people who refuse to identify as gay (I used to be like that), and there are others who will be offended if a “less charged” term than “gay” is offered. Listen to how people talk about themselves. Let them guide your vocabulary. Be flexible, and slow to judge.

Now, there’s another massive question attached to all of this. Should we even call ourselves “gay Christians?” Why identify ourselves by our struggles? Doesn’t this take the focus away from what Christ is doing in our lives?

I will hopefully write more about this later, but being gay does not just raise moral questions;  being gay is a social reality. I don’t think there is any weighty, theological equivalence between sexual orientation and skin color, but there is definitely a social equivalence whether the church wants to acknowledge it or not. Though I do not align myself with the LGBTQ community per se, we share some common life experiences. A group of Christians who are all attracted to the same sex is not the same as a group of Christians who struggle with anger issues because the “angry Christians” haven’t been wrongly marginalized or abused for struggling with anger like gay Christians have been for their sexuality.

This is absurdly over-simplified, but I hope it’s making some sense. I am willing to, at times, say that I’m a “gay Christian” because it conveys a social existence that would not be effectively communicated otherwise.

It’s not like I wear this as a title that I always use to qualify my Christianity. Not at all. It is Christ and only Christ who defines my identity. I am being renewed and conformed into his image and by his overwhelming grace alone have I been labeled a son of God. That is my only essential identity. But, we live in a world where it is very helpful to have other identifiers, and I do not feel like I am cheapening Christ’s work in me at all by sometimes using those three letters.

I only say “gay Christian” when I am specifically talking about my experiences as a gay man or about the topic of homosexuality as a whole. It’s not like I see “gay” as its own denomination (but if it were we would never have taupe carpet, ever!).

I had a hard time writing this because I’m not sure it makes sense unless you’ve personally experienced being gay in Christian circles… but hopefully this helps somehow. I want to do justice to the very real social difference of being gay without making it essential to who I am in Christ. This usually means evaluating conversations moment-by-moment and trying to figure out the best way to express myself to whomever I am talking. It’s a tricky thing to navigate.

So most importantly I just ask that there would be a willingness to listen and not force meanings onto labels people use until they define them. The church, and society, have been unilaterally forcing meaning and stigma onto gay people for a tragically long time, and it’s always nice to have a little freedom from that pressure. See my previous post on listening for more about that.

It is difficult for me to speak in that tension between wanting to humbly accommodate the perspective of whoever I’m talking with, making sure they are understanding what I’m saying and feeling welcomed in the conversation, and wanting to be consistent in my own self-referential vocabulary. It’s hard, and can be really frustrating when people refuse to believe I can call myself a “gay Christian” without sinning, but I’ve found it is most important to communicate the astounding goodness of God and how my life, my identity, is fully caught up in his transforming work. I hope, at least, that I have accomplished that much.

Jordan

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14 thoughts on “what’s in a word pt. 1

  1. There you go again, hitting nails directly on heads.

    For me personally, I started using the same-sex-attracted label around freshman year at Wheaton. And it was a relief — I finally had something to call all of those pesky attractions I was having and I could still justify that I wasn’t gay. And it was much easier to come out at Wheaton as same-sex-attracted than to come out and say that I was gay (which, of course, at the time I believed I was not).

    Later on, after I had realized that reorientation therapy was probably mostly a crock and had accepted my orientation as a pretty undeniably stable part of my life, I mentally toyed with the idea of calling myself gay. I then felt that I was given permission to do so when I met Steve Slagg, who has been mentioned in this blog before as the author of the “Gay at Wheaton” article that Tony found so meaningful.

    As soon as I began identifying as gay, an enormous weight lifted off me. That three-letter label was a lens that made so much sense of my life experience up to that point. And my life improved in other ways — there was less anxiety about the whole “Am I gay?” thing. There was less anxiety about my masculinity because, if I was identifying as gay, people already expected me not to be so stereotypically masculine, so then I could be my not-quite-alpha-male self and feel comfortable in my skin.

    At the time I hadn’t yet discerned what God’s intention was for Christians experiencing same-sex attraction, but nonetheless I knew God’s will for me at that point — that is, since I was at Wheaton and attending an Anglican (not Episcopal) church, I should be celibate. So when people were frustrated that I considered myself gay and Christian, I would make a distinction between what I called lowercase-g gay and capital-g Gay.

    Among people with hearing loss, there is a similar distinction. Being lowercase-d “deaf” simply refers to a medical reality: they cannot hear. Being capital-d “Deaf” refers to those medically deaf/hard-of-hearing individuals who learn sign language, engage with the Deaf community, and take part in Deaf culture. So by calling myself “gay” but not “Gay,” I was communicating that I was attracted to men but not necessarily that I was doing anything about it. Unfortunately, by the time I had explained the distinction, I usually already felt judged.

    It’s such a shame that Christians who hold to a so-called “traditional” sexual ethic are not freely permitted the identity option of “gay.” I am confident that it could solve a lot of issues. Not only does it have the possibility of providing a more meaningful self-understanding, for those concerned about avoiding sexual behavior it can also actually ironically encourage that. Think about it, if I insist that I’m not gay, then I’m not going to prepare to avoid temptation as though I were; if I identify as gay, I know what my weaknesses are and will plan responses for when I face them.

    The main point of what I’m saying is that I strongly agree with your “just ask[ing] that there would be a willingness to listen and not force meanings onto labels people use until they define them.” And since what I’ve said is summed up in that, this reply might’ve been a purposeless endeavor. I hope not fully so.

    • You are seriously encouraging. I appreciate the words and insight. It’s nice to know I wasn’t completely crazy by writing what I did.

      I think we underestimate how helpful it is to have easy ways to talk about oneself. I can nuance things to death if I want, and at times that is necessary, but if I have to qualify absolutely everything I say about my sexuality with a hundred different asides it can really wear me out.

      The unrelenting complexity can be a scary thing, but it’s not too bad if I ditch the notion that I *always* have to have something to say.

      Jordan

    • Dear Benjamin,
      Although I do not think it is your intent to say that being Deaf is sinful I bristle at the fact that you used that comparison with gay/Gay. If I am reading your comment right, and I might be reading it wrong, you made the distinction between capital and lower case because the capital is considered shameful. This is what I bristle at when it comes to the Deaf comparison because there is nothing shameful with being Deaf. I know that you said in the same paragraph you said you felt judged before you finished making the analogy. Please don’t believe I am judging you or attacking you. I am merely stating that I take offense to that comparison coming from a household of Deaf parents.

      • Dear sir/ma’am,

        I would never ever compare say that being Deaf was shameful! One of my closest friends during my early college years was Deaf, and I became conversationally fluent in sign language and attended a Deaf church for half a year. Please reread the distinction I made between lowercase-g gay (“I’m attracted to dudes”) and capital-g Gay (“I’m attracted to dudes…and I date them, have gay friends, view being gay as a big part of my identity.”)

        For the record, I do not consider being “capital-g Gay” shameful either.

      • Dear Benjamin,
        I apologize. I might be a little overly sensitive on both subjects so I wasn’t able to carefully read your comment after I saw the comparison. I am happy to know you have experience in the Deaf culture and can see now how you would have reason to use the comparison.
        sincerely,
        ma’am

  2. In calling yourself “gay”, you perhaps have forgotten (or never knew) the term formerly used:QUEER/ You are not really gay in the adjectival term of the word. You are really queer, in the sense that most of us find your feelings to be strange. Or queer. But then, I am ninety years old, so I have long since stopped using the word queer, Negro, et al. We do get smarter, however slowly.

    • Hey there! The fact that you are taking the time to read this blog and think through the topic is deeply humbling for me. I hope as I grow older I can show the same commitment to growth and understanding as you are modeling now.

      The word “queer” is actually a modern word now, having been reappropriated by a sizable portion of the LGBT community (hence the common reference to LGBTQ). It has it’s own meaning that is not quite the same as “I’m attracted to the same sex.” It can be an umbrella term, encompassing any “non-standard” sexual preference, or it can be a specific identifier that some people find describes them more accurately than other options. Usually people who identify as queer have a more fluid conception of their sexuality than I do.

      However, some members of the LGBT community hate the word queer because of its abusive history.

      Thanks for your post!

      Jordan

  3. I don’t think I’ve ever referred to myself as a gay Christian, until I started reading this and other blogs on the subject. It was always just Christian (and gay in my own head, and to the two or three people I’ve confided in about my sexuality).

    I keep saying thanks for these posts, and I really do mean it! Thanks guys, you are speaking to my heart and my mind on issues I’ve been trying to decipher on my own for years!

    • I’m glad they are helpful in some way!!

      The whole “labels” things really is complex… I’ve just settled for being really fluid about how I choose to describe myself. Because I am confident that my identity is found in Christ alone, I feel comfortable interchangeably using external identifiers. Still, it can be nice to have a way to easily communicate important aspects of my experience, and I’ve found “gay” packs that rhetorical punch.

      Thanks for the encouragement, man, it means so much to us. I hope you continue to know the power of God’s grace as you journey along this path. Blessings!

      Jordan

  4. “…I find rainbows terrifying and plan to move to New Mexico to avoid them.” (Too dramatic?)”

    Not too dramatic at all! Thanks for the bit of humor…definitely great timing for that.

    In all seriousness–I found you blog through Steve Gershom and am currently reading my way through your posts. As I was with Steve’s blog, I am completely astonished to read what seems to be my very own life through what you’ve shared. I would love to send you an email for some more in depth questions. In the meantime, may our Lord strengthen you both and guide you with peace and love.

    Thanks for sharing–it means the world 🙂

  5. Bingo. Now I have a post to point people to that says exactly what I think needs to be said about the “gay” label. About the only difference between my use of terminology and yours is that I say “bi” or “bisexual,” and “attracted to both sexes” instead of “exclusively attracted to men” when talking about myself. But that’s just a matter of being in a different situation.

  6. I really like the analogu that Benjamin gave about lowercase and upper case g in “gay”!! I really have been struggling with seeing who I am in this world!! Ive been trying to figure out for myself how I am gay and Christian…and I know like youve stated Jordan, that society conjures up diffferent meaning with the labels we give ourselves!!! I guess that is why I have been having such a hard time defining who I am! I am a gay Christian, but first and foremost my idenity is that of Christ! It is very encouraging to read the blogs you have written because it gives me hope that I am not the only one dealing with all that has been given to me in this life….some days are harder and a bit depressing than others, I’ll be honest!!!

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