When you really think about it, language is kind of silly. Its entire purpose is to communicate ideas, but once words escape my mouth (or in this case my keyboard) and they’re out for the world to see, I immediately forfeit control over what ideas are contained in those words. I can try my best to structure my sentences in order to help convey the exact ideas I want communicated, but ultimately there’s no way to make you understand exactly what I want you to. Language tends to acquire a mind of its own, and every word is laden with unspoken meaning that changes from reader to reader.
Some of you will walk away with more insights than I explicitly present; that would be awesome. Some of you will completely misunderstand me; that’s not so ideal but also not totally unexpected.
This happens no matter what I say, but this principle is never more evident than when I use the three-letter bombshell: gay.
It calls to mind a plethora of images — and if you grew up a conservative Christian fundie like I did, none of them are good: rainbow flags, crossdressers, a sign of the end times, and the reason our country is damned. You know, just casual things.
Perhaps your associations with the word aren’t quite as drastic, but it’s still about the bar scene, one-night stands, and fighting for legal permission to marry whom you please.
While I certainly can’t deny those connotations, “gay” means something much simpler to me. It means that, by no choice of my own, I’m a guy who is exclusively attracted to guys.
I used to hate the word because of the baggage it carried. For a short time after I realized my attractions were only to men, I identified as “same-sex attracted,” or “SSA.” It was more church-friendly, and fewer people grabbed bricks in self-defense when they heard “I’m struggling with same-sex attractions.” But it still felt so impersonal, so clinical, so sanitized. It felt like I was reporting my diagnosis for a disease (a deceptively “curable” one, at that), and the number of syllables I had to wade through just made me tired of saying it. It detracted from the human experience and I didn’t appreciate how removed it made me sound.
“Gay,” with all its wonderfully complex and somewhat edgy overtones, began to look more appealing. But it’s still not as if I woke up one morning and thought, Today I want to be gay! Not even close. The prevailing definition of the word simply describes someone who is solely attracted to members of their own sex, regardless of the stereotypes and associations. Not taking into account the extra meanings, that sounded like me. And to the rest of the world, by virtue of my attractions, I would be considered gay by definition; it wasn’t a label I could so easily avoid.
Apart from the immediate looks of confusion and/or concern and/or revulsion I sometimes expect from fellow Christians after I tell them I’m gay, the reasons I still use the word are mostly positive. For me, it says nothing about my behavior, just my neurology. It allows me to stand in solidarity with an entire community of marginalized peoples, and in so doing, expands my ability to extend compassion to them. It concisely summarizes years of pain and self-hate, culminating in an exploration of my own identity that draws me closer to Jesus every day. It’s a symbol of the journey I will no longer let myself be ashamed of, and it’s also a reminder that a little three-letter word wields enough power to turn an entire assembly of people against me. It drips with precariousness, as if the idea it contains is more unstable than uranium, but is also more precious than gold.
I’ve had Christians get mad at me when I use the phrase “gay Christian.” While I can understand that they’re mostly concerned for my spiritual and semantic health, I do often wonder if they pour too much extra meaning into the word.
It’s not as if I’m predisposed to making bad decisions or more bent towards sin than any straight Christian. My propensity to engage in extramarital sex is exactly the same, if not even less. I’m not a Biblical revisionist; while I might be a tad more liberal than I was five years ago, Scriptural authority still reigns over my life. If there’s anything I wish people would understand, it’s that I’m not a potential sex act that needs to be stopped. Please don’t assume just because I’m gay that I’m having wild, unprotected, ceremonially unclean sex with every man I meet, or that I even want to, for that matter. As far as I’m concerned, my love life is nonexistent, and I suppose morally conservative Christians should be happy about that.
That said, I think labels suck. As a product of imperfect communication methods, labels help language-wielders consolidate ideas into fun-size boxes that quickly summarize an identity. They can be useful at times, but they lack the nuance that ultimately captures an image of the person behind the label. So when I come out to someone as gay, I try my best to nuance my labels with backstory so as to avoid confusion. Sometimes I still use “SSA” in certain situations where inflaming the conversation with loaded terms is unhelpful.
Ultimately labels are something we can’t live with or without (like cables, or for some of us, men); they’re a necessarily evil that capitalizes on the fine balance between convention and connotation.
But often times, when it comes to a label as loaded as “gay,” we have to realize that my “gay” is not your “gay.” It might mean something dirty or sinful to you, but to me it’s like a scar with a story. I feel it deeply and personally; it gives me purpose in the ways I minister and I press on with a life I could have given up on, but didn’t. It’s a symbol much like the cross, which tells of past tribulation but also of new life. Even if you don’t agree with my usage of the word, it means the world to me when you respect the label I identify with.
The thing is, though, the language any of us uses to describe ourselves is far less important than how we describe ourselves through our actions. Character is not a simple semantic issue; what we do with what God has given says more about us than whatever labels we choose to plaster on our foreheads. For me, it doesn’t really matter if I call myself gay, so long as I can draw upon my experience as a gay Christian to further the work that I’m called to. I don’t need to say a word to feed the hungry, to care for the orphan, or to comfort the widow.
Because, hopefully, my God is still your God.
First post, yay! If you’re reading this, thanks! I hope I can be responsible and actually blog from time to time.
If you’re interested in reading more about this topic, Matt Jones wrote a great post in a similar vein over at Spiritual Friendship. I highly recommend it.
EDIT: My friend Donald wrote a great response to this post over at his blog. You can read it here.