Let’s get technical.
Wes Hill recently published a piece over at First Things about why, as someone who thinks about his same-sex attractions “as a kind of ‘thorn in the flesh,’” he chooses to identify as a “celibate gay Christian” rather, I imagine, than merely referring to something like “a struggle with same-sex attraction.” The article was helpfully eloquent (as Hill typically is), but I found myself distracted by the phenomenon of the article itself—namely, that it’s a question audiences continue to ask Hill and that comments on the post continue to take issue with Hill’s self-identification. (It’s not just happening to Wes. This conversation is nearly ubiquitous in circles talking about homosexuality from a non-affirming perspective.)
In my experience, people who choose not to use words like “gay” and “bisexual” for themselves or for others are doing so because they desire (or want to walk alongside people who have expressed a desire) to avoid same-sex sexual activity. Identifying as “gay” sounds to many non-affirming ears like taking one more step down a road to sin: First you identify as “gay,” then you perceive your same-sex attractions as an essential and God-given component of your identity, then your perceptions of same-sex relationships shift from disordered to ordained, then etc., etc., etc. If you mean to abstain from sexual activity, so the thinking goes, why give sinful desires such a foothold by claiming they somehow constitute some component of who you are? (Hill explains well why he uses the “gay” label and points to three other articles that give other shades of nuance to the discussion.) Identifying as “gay” also sounds to many non-affirming ears like idolatry, since many perceive a cultural “gay identity” (something, from what I can tell, associated with flags and political action and certain behaviors) that could potentially compete with a Christ-identity for the Christian who labels him- or herself “gay.” I don’t want to suggest inaccurately that Christians of any orientation who reject sexual identity labels necessarily lack empathy or don’t take the experiences of sexual minorities seriously, and I rather appreciate the way they seem so quick to compare homosexuality to other behaviors they consider sinful—it’s a nice contrast to the way Christians often elevate the severity of sexual ethics. Nevertheless, I think those who condemn others for using a gay identity label are at an increased risk of conflating orientation with lust and of ignoring the vast differences in experience between gay and straight Christians.
First, orientation and lust: Ten years from now, I expect we’ll still be having rich and fierce debates about the morality of same-sex relationships, but I also expect we’ll have moved past the way many present-day debates talk about homosexual orientation in terms of lust and temptation as if merely acknowledging one’s same-sex inclination is necessarily the same as walking a road (even if only in one’s mind) towards sinful sexual activity. In my experience, many gay Christians do often trifle with lust initially as they seek to understand their sexual orientation, just as many straight Christians similarly trifle with lust; when sexual attraction first arrives, humans tend not to know precisely what to do with it. But I also think many Christians (gay or straight) who eventually decide to remain celibate manage to incorporate their sexual attractions into their experience of the world in a way they consider both honest and God-honoring. In other words, they learn what to do with their sexual attraction, just like every Christian eventually learns how to satisfy appropriately their desire for food or rest or possessions or affirmation. Hill points to a post by Melinda Selmys, who effectively demonstrates how someone who experiences same-sex attraction but perceives same-sex relationships as sinful can take ownership of her sexuality as a means of connecting to God and other people. She draws a clear distinction between orientation (which is amoral) and the kinds of temptation orientation tends to engender. Until we can all make this distinction, I think we’ll remain stuck thinking Christians who recognize a same-sex inclination as an enduring, central part of their experience and label that inclination “gay” are necessarily at odds with Christian communities who do not affirm same-sex relationships.
Second, differences in experience: I think comparing homosexuality to other behaviors can be theologically productive but is rather useless in practical terms. Here’s what I mean: Theologically speaking, I appreciate it when someone who considers homosexuality sinful is able to express how other behaviors, like taking more than you need or speaking falsely, are equally (or, in the context of life together, maybe more) problematic. Practically speaking, though, I don’t think there’s much to learn from comparing my experiences as a gay Christian to those of a Christian who struggles with greed or dishonesty, simply because I don’t want to downplay how drastically my experience seems to differ from the experiences of my straight peers. I don’t say this out of a masochistic desire to dwell on how strange I am, and I’d be the first to tell you how much more drastically my experience synchronizes with my peers’ in the most significant ways. But if sexuality is so centrally tied to who we are as people and how we connect with other people—I mean, people all across the spectrum of belief get that sexuality is a big deal—then living as someone whose experience of sexuality is atypical suggests my life is going to differ in some fundamental ways, and it’s helpful for me and for the people in my life to keep those differences in mind as we seek to connect with one another: like how how my well-intentioned interactions with women have often done harm because I did not consider the perceptions they might naturally generate; or how those gender-specific environments that provide a relaxing, head-clearing respite from sexual temptation for straight people (like locker rooms or all-male Bible studies) are sometimes the most confusing and charged environments for me; or how my earliest feelings of romantic attraction were sources of fear and confusion rather than delight and thrill; or how a compliment from a man is more likely to flatter me toward vanity than is a compliment from a woman; or how the Super Bowl commercials that make me uncomfortable may be different from the ones that make straight men uncomfortable; or how I feel an increased risk of misreading demonstrations of affection from both men and women. Each of these scenarios involves more complexity than simply a difference in orientation (e.g., locker rooms aren’t confusing because I’m gay but because I am, like many men, tempted to lust), but each of them remains directly tied to the fact that I’m gay and not straight. They also have the power to provoke feelings of intense isolation and loneliness, both because I feel different and because others may not realize how different I feel unless I make a point to assert those differences.
That’s why, I think, our particular cultural setting makes a “gay” label so very useful and accurate for same-sex attracted Christians, including even those who are abstaining from same-sex relationships. In another of the articles Hill mentions, Joshua Gonnerman describes this usefulness:
"While there are interesting questions about whether it is good that sexual identity exists in our culture, the simple fact is that it does exist; further everyone is assumed to be straight until proven otherwise. Someone who meets me will be more likely to assume that I am struck by a beautiful actress than by a beautiful actor. So if I’m going to be classified—and we often classify for a good reason, in an effort to know something or someone—I would rather be classified truthfully."
My ability to connect with any given faith community depends upon my ability to understand them and their ability to understand me, and people seem to understand me better within the framework of “gay” (even as everyone from LGBT activists to ex-gay therapists decries the limitations of that shallow term) than they did when they thought of me as “straight.” “Gay” is, like any of the other ways we identify ourselves, a starting point, a place of introduction into the fullness of my hopes, dreams, flaws, inadequacies, and identity. As a starting point, it’s a concise, potent, and even provocative reminder that my perceptions and experiences are different from those of my straight peers. When a connection forms, I can explore through thick relationships within that faith community what God desires for me and how the community might encourage me toward those ethics. That connection is difficult to nurture, though, in contexts in which people reject my self-identification as “gay” and thereby risk framing my orientation exclusively in terms of lust or disregarding the uniqueness of the experiences that have shaped me.
(One other note, just for clarification: I don’t think Wes or many other gay Christians, regardless of their theology, would primarily identify themselves as a “gay Christian” instead of just a “Christian,” as if “gay Christian” were some new category of person or “Gay Christianity” were a distinct branch of practice. I know that’s the case for me: Only rarely will I actually say the phrase “gay Christian,” since in most cases I’m either talking about myself as Christian or as a gay person. The phrase “gay Christian” is merely a means of suggesting the two realities aren’t mutually exclusive, in the vein of “male Christian” or “brown-haired Christian.”)
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