In the world of Side B bloggers, articles about labels abound. Answering the “why say gay” question is Side B 101 material. But if one thing remains clear as I continue to have conversations with people and read things on the internet, it’s that we have not exhausted the topic.
On the What is Side B page, I’ve provided links to two of what I consider the best, most succinct and articulate articles on the matter. They’ve usually been my quick, go-to resources whenever anyone has approached me with questions or concerns, and I encourage all who take issue with a Christian’s use of the word “gay” to click over and give them a read. There’s a wealth of additional material further making the case, much of which can be found on the Spiritual Friendship website, where the aforementioned articles were posted. But with this post, I’m adding my own drop in the bucket of resources explaining why we insist on using that controversial little three-letter word.
Definition of Terms
One more time, everyone. When many Christians say the word “gay,” they have in mind the act of gay sex. To them, if you are “gay,” you are sexually active with people of the same sex, and you believe this to be a morally right thing to do.
Here’s the thing: almost nobody in the 21st century defines the word that way. Is it a legitimate use of the word? Yes. But the only definition for the word that is less widely used than this one is the one implied in the title sequence of The Flintstones.
To most people, saying that a person is gay means that he/she is attracted to the same sex. That’s it. It doesn’t say anything about the person’s worldview, values, or behavior. Would most people assume that a gay person is having gay sex? Yes, I think they would. But they would also assume that a straight person is having straight sex, regardless of marital status. That is because our culture’s view of sex is that it is necessary for human flourishing. So the thing here that’s at odds with the biblical worldview is not the word “gay”, but our culture’s sex ethic. And that’s what we need to focus our attention on.
I’ve found that non Christians never have difficulty understanding what I mean when I tell them that I am gay, but my religious convictions lead me away from gay romantic or sexual relationships. They’re not hung up on the word. Instead, they are sometimes puzzled that I would make such a choice, or that I would be happy with it. Even more surprising to them is the fact that my wife and I have a happy, healthy marriage. Again, it’s the Christian sexual ethic and view of marriage that is so counter-cultural here. The language I use is a moot point.
Even when they understand what I mean when I use the word “gay”, some warn that it is unwise to use the word because as a Christian, I am a new creation, and Christ is my identity.
This is probably one of the most popular false dichotomies among contemporary Christians. It sounds logical, and it sounds wise, and it even references a bible verse. But who said that once you’re a Christian, you can’t have any more identities?
All kinds of things work together to make up who you are. Some of those things include your nationality, your ethnicity, your race, your gender, your socioeconomic level, your family history, your religious background, your profession, and particularly in the modern western world, your sexual orientation.
Those things don’t just go away if you become a Christian. And they shape you in one way or another. And that’s ok. You can admit it. And admitting this doesn’t mean that you are making God compete with other things.
Think about it this way. Chances are, you or someone you know has been a victim of identity theft. When we say that someone stole your identity, we don’t mean that they stole the core of who you are, the most important thing about you. We mean that they stole information like your name, your race, your gender, etc. Several things that are important identifiers of who you are.
Do some gay people put too much emphasis on their sexual identity? Absolutely. But I’m certain that if you are an American reading this, you know at least a few people who put too much emphasis on their identities as Americans. There are people who put an unhealthy emphasis on their career as their identity. Others, being a parent. The same can be said for just about any aspect of oneself. If being a child of God is not a priority for you, something will fill that space.
Rather than the false dichotomy that says “nothing but Christ can define you,” I think a more appropriate way to look at it is that we are individuals whose identities are made up of myriad things, and as Christians, our ultimate identity is found in Jesus. And those other identities don’t go away, but they are subordinate to who we are in him.
As some have thoughtfully pointed out, some of the assumptions surrounding the modern idea of sexual orientation are problematic. After all, the bible doesn’t place people into categories such as gay, straight, or bi. Such categories are part of a modern social construct that has no historical precedence. So, the argument goes, we should reject the language of sexual orientation and encourage others to do so as well.
It’s true that sexual orientation is a social construct. But like other social constructs, it is based on some subjective and objective realities that exist outside of the idea itself. The term “gay” refers to people who experience exclusive same sex attractions. Such people would exist whether or not we had the idea of sexual orientation or the word “gay”. Such people have existed in history. We have no good reason to assert that they did not exist before the advent of the idea of sexual orientation.
Those who would prohibit the word “gay” may mean well, but totally erasing the gay identity of same-sex attracted Christians often has some very negative consequences. Let’s learn from another facet of identity.
Race, like sexual orientation, is a social construct. Different countries and regions have different numbers of recognized races. For example, there are a number of racial categories in Brazil and South Africa that would all be considered black in the US. The social construct of race has been used to divide, discriminate, and persecute. If we understood that human is the only true race, the foundation of these injustices would crumble.
And yet, choosing to ignore race and insist that we refer to people only as people and not as black, white, asian, etc. doesn’t help solve the problem. What it serves to do is silence minorities and make it more difficult to address racism and to achieve genuine racial reconciliation.
Likewise, the word “gay” is a social construct, but the people that it describes are not. And their shared experience is not. The attitudes toward them and the ways in which many people have misunderstood them and sometimes even sinned against them in Jesus’ name are not. The unique challenges gay Christians often face as they try to live faithfully and be an integral part of the church are not. And by limiting the conversation to dictating how gay people should describe themselves, we further ensure that these problems will not be addressed.
In other words, wholesale rejection of sexual orientation language is this conversation’s “I don’t see color.” “Don’t say gay” is this conversation’s “all lives matter”.
Engaging The Culture
Still, I understand the fear that giving credence to the notion of sexual orientation might lead people to a fatalistic perspective concerning sexuality. That’s a real issue that we need to deal with. What I have found to be a better approach than language policing is to take a page from Paul’s book.
Paul encountered many extra-biblical ideas on his missionary journeys. In his interactions with the Greeks, he engaged with philosophies, religious beliefs, and superstitions that were quite foreign to the teachings of the Hebrew Bible. Aratus meant something very different when he wrote of Zeus, “In him we live and move and have our being” than Paul did when he quoted him before the men of Athens in Acts 17. Hades was the Greek underworld, and very different from anything taught in the scriptures. Yet Paul used the word as a reference point when talking about hell and judgement. The idol to the unknown god was meant to appease any overlooked deity that was more or less average, as far as gods go, but again, Paul used it as a reference point to proclaim the gospel of the one true God.
Time and again, Paul’s way of engaging the culture was not to reject the extra-biblical terminology they used. Instead, he used the language and ideas that the Greeks understood and could relate to, and he put them in proper perspective in light of the gospel and the revealed truth about God as found in the Bible.
That is what people like me are trying to do. We are saying, “Yes I’m gay, but that is not the most important thing about me. I’m gay, and while that has important implications for my life, it is not the deciding factor in my life choices. I’m gay, but following Jesus is more important to me than pursuing a relationship with a man. I’m gay, and though our culture says that sexual and romantic fulfillment with someone of the same sex is necessary for me to experience a fulfilled life, I am more than willing to reject that for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ.” And in my case, I’m saying that a gay person, as our culture understands it, can in some cases have a real and thriving marriage to a member of the opposite sex. I know several others who are saying the same thing.
I think this is one of the best ways that we have to present the kingdom of God as a treasure hidden in a field, that it’s worth selling all one has in order to gain it. (Matthew 13:44)
I recognize that this is a complex issue. I know that some Christians who experience same sex attractions don’t feel comfortable describing themselves as gay. I wouldn’t want to force a label onto anyone who doesn’t want it. But for the reasons mentioned above, I have found it to be a useful tool. For me, the pros of the Side B gay approach far outweigh the cons. And I would hope that those who don’t use the same language as I do would come to see that we are ultimately saying the same thing, and that debates over terminology are a distraction from the real issues. I also hope that those who are new to the conversation will take time to hear me out and try and understand where I’m coming from and why I use the words I do. Perhaps this post will help to that end.