On Wednesday, I asked a question: “If you believe being gay is a choice, upon what evidence do you base that claim?” Over the next couple days, I heard from a number of thoughtful, patient people who expressed why they believe, or previously believed, being gay is a choice, and their answers were enlightening. (Check out, for example, all the comments on Wednesday’s post: I’ve rarely seen a comment thread with such effective, productive communication.) My goal was to seek clarity on a perspective I didn’t understand, and my question was evidently a source of curiosity for a few of you, so I want to offer some scattered summarizing notes and commentary on what I learned from the comments and other conversations.
- Many people speaking in the past tense acknowledged there was a time when their attitudes about gay people were largely uninformed and unconcerned. If these people would have said, “Being gay is a choice,” it was because they’d had no reason to give the question much attention and were working from uncritical assumptions. For some, these assumptions were closely tied to the absence of same-sex attraction in their own experience. Because they’d never felt attracted to someone of the same sex, it had simply never occurred to them that someone else might be so inclined, so they weren’t thinking about the question in terms of orientation vs. behavior. In their minds, some people chose to live, or to experiment or to dabble, in an entirely alternative way of life. For others, these assumptions resulted from a theology that said, “If gay sex is a sin, God wouldn’t create someone who was inclined toward gay sex, so people must be choosing this. At the very least, they’re picking up that desire along the way.” For others, a general aversion to the influence of science or secular disciplines—and to the politics associated with those—led to a resistance to the increased presence of the message that sexual orientation is not a choice.
- A few also acknowledged how much their perceptions resulted from the environment of a certain church or the influence of a particular minister. There’s a side of me that wants to say: “We all have a responsibility to be well informed, so we can’t rely on a church/minister to shape our perceptions.” But there’s also a side of me that acknowledges many of us simply don’t have the time or energy required to become well informed on a number of different topics, including sexuality, and in those cases, we tend to trust the influence of significant figures in our lives. We don’t all get to spend three years in seminary! For that reason, I would say that if you do happen to be a minister who’s in a position to influence people’s attitudes about sexuality and gay people, you have a dire responsibility to be as informed as possible and to do the hard work of thinking critically about this stuff. If you’re influencing people about anything—in this case, about sexuality—you don’t have the luxury of relying on simple assumptions. So, if you aren’t going to do the hard work of thinking critically, find someone who has done that work and who can speak to your context.
- I get a sense there’s a lot of disagreement within the conservative Christian subculture about how to talk about sexuality and orientation. Some people use the word “gay” exclusively in reference to someone’s behavior, so for these people, being “gay”—i.e., engaging in gay sex—is incompatible with a traditional Christian sexual ethic. Others (including a portion of my friends who are predominantly same-sex attracted) resist the label “gay” because it carries hefty cultural baggage for them. The word implies behavior, yes, but it also implies a whole set of assumptions about values and ideology and allegiance that makes them uncomfortable, especially if the sum of those assumptions feels substantial enough to take the place of a central Christ identity. Others expressed a general dissatisfaction with the way our culture has come to talk about sexuality: For them, it seems efforts to expand cultural assumptions about sexuality to make room for the experiences of sexual minorities have actually, in a way, given us a more limited view of human sexuality—one that diminishes people to nothing more than an array of (sexual) desires. (Let me say here I have no interest in replacing common misconceptions with equally problematic misconceptions.)
- …that means Christians aren’t thinking or talking about sexuality in the same way, even with details like the meanings of the words we use. Some people see this as nothing more than a peculiar linguistic anomaly. For others, though, it’s a crisis and an injustice. One friend pointed out to me that while adult Christians casually discuss amongst themselves what it means to be “gay,” vulnerable kids (and non-kids) are overhearing their messaging and often receiving disastrous, toxic messages about themselves. Let’s imagine a 12-year-old boy who comes to realize he’s unconsciously attracted to other boys—that, much to his surprise, and against his will, he finds himself noticing his male classmates at a reflexive level, no matter how much he tries to avert his eyes or focus his attention elsewhere. Because the boy is a 12-year-old in the year 2013, the word he learns to associate with himself is “gay.” Now, imagine that boy has come to believe that God’s opinion of him is more important than any person’s opinion of him, and then imagine the boy comes to believe that merely by being “gay”—a reality that is, for him, nothing more than an unconscious inclination toward other boys—he’s displeasing or upsetting God (i.e., the one whose opinion matters most). What might that belief do to the boy’s sense of his own self-worth and value? In this case, the inability of Christians to speak clearly and coherently—to speak in a way that 12-year-olds will understand—is dangerous and potentially destructive.
- Along those lines: I’ll confess one of the statistics from that Gay Christian Network video left me utterly baffled. For the question, “What if a gay person is celibate for life?” 54% of straight, Side B Christians responded, “It’s still a sin,” and 18% answered, “Unsure.” The only way I can comprehend the answer “It’s still a sin” is that the respondents assume “gay” means “having sex” and that “celibate” means only unmarried and not necessarily chaste. (Even that’s questionable to me, though, because in my experience, evangelical Christians tend to use the terms “celibate” and “chaste” synonymously.) If I’m a 24-year-old man who has given this stuff a lot of thought and still can’t really understand that answer—the answer that is, according to this survey, the majority attitude among straight, Side B Christians—how on earth is a 12-year-old boy supposed to make sense of it? The message that boy receives is, in many cases, quite clear: “If you’re inclined toward people of your same sex, you’re living in perpetual unrepentant sin unless you find a way to change your inclinations.”
- On that note, a few people argued (as I described above) it’s important for us to maintain some language of “choice” in our discussions about sexuality, even if we believe orientation is unchosen, simply because we want people to know (maybe even as a contrast to messages they receive outside the church) they do have control over what happens in their bedrooms. I’m sympathetic to this attitude and often feel frustrated with what I perceive as our culture’s idolatry of our sexual appetites. On the other hand, Christians have to be so careful whenever they’re going to use the language of “choice” and “change” related to the experiences of sexual minorities because the message of complete orientation change (e.g., “Anyone who is predominantly same-sex attracted can choose to become predominantly opposite-sex attracted.”) has become nearly ubiquitous in the conservative Christian world. I’ve written elsewhere about where that message came from and why I predict it will decrease, but it’s recent enough that I think Christians simply have to use caution with their words. They can’t leave any room for misunderstanding, because people are going to assume they’re still talking about complete orientation change.
- Finally, I’d argue Christians aren’t the only ones in our culture who disagree about how to talk about sexuality and orientation. My sense is that outside church walls, and even within the broader gay community, people assume different things when they say “gay.” This isn’t a case in which conservative Christians mean one thing and nonreligious gay people mean something else; instead, we’re simply in the midst of a significant cultural transition in which we’re all collectively determining, often through mistakes, a universal language to talk about the rich diversity of human experiences related to sexuality.
Thanks to everyone who provided input on this discussion. Like I said, it’s been enlightening for me, and I hope it’s helped clarify your thoughts as well.