On Referring to Oneself as a “Gay Christian”

cropped-identity.jpgLast week I gave an extended lecture to a group of students in our School of Divinity on sexual identity and the Christian. At the Q&A time, I was asked about Christians who believe in a traditional Christian sexual ethic but refer to themselves as “gay.” Essentially, the question is this: “What do you think of the decision by some Christians to refer to themselves as ‘gay Christians’?”

Obviously, many people do refer to themselves as “gay Christians,” but I get questions about an increasingly visible group of Christians who refer to themselves as “gay Christians” or “celibate gay Christians”; they believe that genital sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage between one man and one woman. In the language of the Gay Christian Network, they are “Side B” gay Christians. (Side A being gay Christians who believe that same-sex behavior and relationships are morally permissible.)

I hadn’t really thought much of this question until last year when I was speaking to a group of Christians in London. It was at that forum that I met Wes Hill, a Wheaton grad who refers to himself often as a “celibate gay Christian”. The audience there seemed a bit uneasy with this designation, and Wes graciously unpacked why he is comfortable with it. Since that time, it seems I have been asked that question quite frequently.

Joshua Gonnerman, in his essay in First Things, offers several points for consideration, among them a contrast between those who see nothing of value in their same-sex sexuality (thus referring to themselves a “struggler” or someone who “contends” against same-sex attractions) and those who do not experience their same-sex sexuality as exclusively a source of temptation. This is the language of many Christian ministries today.

Gonnerman’s observations are in keeping with a friend of mine who shared with me recently that part of the reason same-sex sexuality is not reduced to only a source of temptation is that many sexual minority people have other common experiences that are not simply about impulses or attractions. For example, many experience some degree of gender atypicality by which is meant this: they do not experiences their masculinity or femininity in some of the more common, stereotypical ways others and the culture has defined masculinity/femininity. So we are talking here about interests and games in childhood, as well as other interess that develop in adolescence and beyond. Still others I know would point to their creativity or ability to relate to others in a different way — all as a part of their same-sex sexuality, with little to do with impulses to have sex per se.

This friend has also discussed with me the importance of naming one’s experiences. For some people, describing their experiences (“I experience same-sex attractions”) will be sufficient and actually helpful in terms of safeguarding them from identity in ways that are difficult for them, at least at the present time. So this may be why so many Christian ministries adopt this language. For others, however, descriptive language is not sufficient for naming their reality. So they have preferred “gay Christian” to get at something that is there that is not being fully acknowledged in the more descriptive (or, for them, reductionistic) language of “same-sex attractions.”

Wes HIll, in his book, Washed and Waiting, takes a similar view and describes himself as either a “gay Christian” or a “celibate gay Christian.” As I said, I was with Wes speaking to a group when the question came up about referring to himself in this manner. There was a fair amount of dis-ease among many in the audience who were not comfortable hearing these two words together.

So what did I say when I was asked for my opinion? I said this: “This is not my personal experience (to experience same-sex attractions), so I want to enter into any discussion of pastoral care or pastoral accommodations with a healthy dose of humility. I want to be careful not to place standards, rules, or obligations on people that go beyond what Christians believe Scripture teaches in this area. Keep in mind that we are talking about brothers and sisters in Christ who are trying to live faithfully before God in terms of not entering into same-sex relationship. When they say that using “gay” as an adjective helps them in these specific ways, I want to listen to them, come to a better understanding of their experiences, and support them.”

In many ways, it seems like a reasonable pastoral accommodation and something we would do well to discuss together, especially across groups of individuals who are actually navigating this terrain. Let’s come to a better understanding of why some people prefer to describe their experiences of attraction, while others feel it does not sufficiently name their reality. What other language has been helpful and why? How do our religious backgrounds and denominational differences enter into the discussion and shape it? Is there a process here? A trajectory that for some means certain phrases and language will be helpful early on but not later?

I don’t know that we have a lot of precedent here, and it’s in those moments that we do well to demonstrate more humility and grace, to come alongside rather than criticize.

13 Comments

  1. This is something that I have been thinking through as well. I think it is partially generational but also partially experiential. I think younger Christians are more comfortable with ‘gay’ even if they believe relationships aren’t appropriate. For them the word doesn’t have the same connotations that it may have or had for older people. Also I think we are seeing a group of SSA Christians who simply haven’t had broad experience in the secular gay community. In that world, I believe, gay means more than just attracted to my gender. I was reading a gay newspaper recently and a piece in the editorial section was discussing how gay has always meant sexual freedom and that a sense of throwing off traditional sexual morality is inherent in the word/identity. In my generation gay definitely had a ‘bad boy’ connotation sexually. As young SSA Christians adopt that word I wonder whether they understand its origins and its broader moral connotations when used by non-Christian SSA persons or the culture at large.

    • I have understood the origins of the word “gay” to mean sexualized and unconstrained (or at least it meant that at some point in history prior to reference to persons with a homosexual orientation). But the meaning is changing among younger people, as you note. In a book I’m currently working on, I am distinguishing Gay (as identity) from gay (as adjective) to help introduce some of the Side B gay Christian considerations into the discussion.

  2. David, ” I was reading a gay newspaper recently and a piece in the editorial section was discussing how gay has always meant sexual freedom and that a sense of throwing off traditional sexual morality is inherent in the word/identity.”

    Do you ever read stories of married gay men who commit themselves to monogamy as part of their marriage vows, “forsaking all others”? I do, plenty of them.

    I personally hate the words Same Sex Attracted. It is such a diminution of who gay men and lesbian women are. I would never call myself or other heterosexuals, opposite sex attracted, although I am that. When we speak of sexual ethics in a Christian context do we speak to young people about their “opposite sex attractions”? Do we use those three words. The problem with using the words, “same sex attracted” is IMMEDIATELY after saying “same sex attracted” gay men and lesbian women will not hear another single word you have to say. Because it is religiously contexted and they already know without you bringing this to their attention, as if you have this big revelation to share with them, they already know that you the speaker addressing them as “same sex attracted” are calling them a sinner. Is that what you want? Is that what you are hoping to accomplish? To speak and have the listener immediately reject you? You might as well be holding a four foot cross over their heads like a bludgeon when you say the words “same sex attracted”.

    The truth is those words are the words YOU want to hear. Words that are acceptable to YOU. The term “same sex attracted” is used exclusively in a religious context. And for most gay people NOT in a good way. If you would like to keep driving people away from your religion keep on saying the words that YOU like. Even when they repeat your words back to you they are only doings so to gain your acceptance *on the surface* as deep down they DO think of themselves as gay. These ARE words that make YOU very comfortable. I would suggest changing them to “Gay Christian”.

    • I don’t disagree that there are committed monogamous gay couples. I was referencing the origins of the word gay because of the content of the article not to imply that all gay persons are promiscuous. So, I wasn’t debating which term is more appropriate but only meant to say that the meaning of the word gay appears to be changing in our culture especially among Christians who are attracted to the same gender.

  3. And then I read this today. A Gay Christian Man and his sons. I don’t know how to describe myself, softie, I guess. I am such a softie that reading these articles literally makes me shed a tear. I cry over these stories. I watched the video yesterday of the child street hurling Bible Hate, then today I read this.
    http://evolequals.com/

  4. Gay men and women have been arguing over how helpful it is to associate the word gay with ‘gender atypicality’ or other outsider identities since the 1960s. For most people today (who describe themselves as gay) the word simply means same-sex attracted.

    I agree with str8grandmother – Christians who substitute gay with same-sex attracted actually drive people away from religion because it is a way of declaring to your audience “We will not listen to you and address you by the name you call yourself” – which is rude.

  5. “Christians who are attracted to the same gender” not quite “Gay Christian” but still better than if you would have said, “Same Sex Attracted Christians”. đŸ˜‰

    I’m older, ya know I’m a grandmother, so I don’t really understand what you are referring to as the “old” connotation of Gay is, even though I am older. A gay person has never to me meant that a person is promiscuous. In other words gay ≠ promiscuous. A gay person just has always meant to me that the man is attracted to people of his same gender and nothing more than that.

    People should be able to self identify, if some men want to claim that they are not gay merely same sex attracted, that is fine. But I think the way they describe themselves has to come from them, and which ever term they use is fine. Rather than gay I like “member of the rainbow tribe” I think it is more inclusive and recognizes that just like a rainbow of many colors, there are many variations in people, and these variations make a beautiful rainbow.

    Especially for young people, self esteem and self worth are so important. I think for a young person being told and picturing themselves as one of the beautiful colors in the rainbow would be good for their self image. Some Rainbow Tribe member may choose to follow their faith and remain celibate, others not, but still, the rainbow has many colors and whichever they decide it is all good, they are a member of the Rainbow Tribe. Belonging to a tribe gives you a sense of belonging, that you are not alone. Thinking of yourself alone not fitting in anywhere is a very depressing thing, no matter your age but especially true I would think for a young person. Rainbow Tribe member. Don’t laugh, think of how reassuring this can be knowing that there are a lot of people just like you in the Tribe.

      • Actually – in the company of other SSA Christians they use (or don’t mind other people) using the word gay. It is only in wider Christian circles that SSA Christians feel obliged to adopt the longer descriptive term.

        Clearly ‘SSA’ communicates (to Christians) that the person in question is not “in the lifestyle”. But the commonplace definition of ‘gay’ doesn’t actually say anything about a person’s private life – or younger people today are not intending to reveal anything about their private life when they describe themselves as gay.

      • Hi Joe, welcome to the site. Thanks for your thoughts. I am sure that you are describing what you’ve experienced with gay Christians. In some of the Exodus ministry circles I’m familiar with, I don’t see that same level of comfort, particularly among those who may be more charismatic and express concerns about the power of naming and labeling. As you suggest, I can only speak to how people talk to me about it, and what I hear when we interview people, so it could be filtered. Good thoughts, though.

      • Mark, my experience (after years in ministry at Living Hope Youth) is similar to Joe’s. Amongst ourselves, we often bandied the term “gay” in a light-hearted sort of way to refer to ourselves, but when we talked about “identity” or were in the company of spiritually-minded folk, we would talk about “SSA” (actually, we used the term “SGA” in LHY). So I think grandma’s right…there is often a lot of posturing among many in the ex-gay circles to appease and appear “OK” since we’re already blighted with this dirty sin…best not to talk about it in a way that makes me even dirtier (i.e., by identifying with the dirtiest sinners of all: the highly promiscuous gays who hate Jesus). But among equals (i.e., other dirty little “gay” Christian sinners), we were generally fine with the term…if for no other reason than it was just a simple way to unpack a lot of information w/o a lot of qualifying words.

        But then, we were young. So this may counter what you hear among older “SSA Christians”. As has been previously commented on…younger folks are generally more comfortable with the term to begin with.

  6. Thanks for chiming in, DJ. That’s a helpful explanation that makes sense to me. I have not been in those inner circles, and interviews (and other points of access) only exposes the researcher to what a person chooses to disclose.

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