There’s No Winning the Language Debate, but It’s Still Worth Asking the Question

“I felt ashamed.”

“But of what? Psyche, they hadn’t stripped you naked or anything?”

“No, no, Maia. Ashamed of looking like a mortal — of being a mortal.”

“But how could you help that?”

“Don’t you think the things people are most ashamed of are things they can’t help?”

-C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

——————–

For as long as I’ve been aware of myself as a sexual being, I’ve been aware that my sexual and romantic desires have only ever been for other guys.

In the world I grew up in, there was a cultural script that I was aware of enough to know what was happening. The pervasiveness of this script had somehow even penetrated my conservative world. There was a single word that captured the complex set of feelings and attractions that I was trying to come to terms with, and that word was gay. I don’t know where I first learned it, but I finally and defeatedly admitted to myself that it was a word that applied to me. It was a word I was going to have to use when I finally told someone. I have this vague memory of lying on my bed, just staring straight up, and whispering it out loud for the first time, as if to confess to myself: “I’m gay.” It was a word that I resisted out of shame because in my community, it was only ever used to describe bad people, people who should be ashamed.

But all it meant was that I was romantically and sexually attracted to other guys. That’s why I intuitively knew that it applied to me even before I considered how I was supposed to respond to it. I wasn’t making any kind of moral judgement or ontological claim about my soul (as if I could have even understood the ontological/phenomenological distinction as a thirteen-year-old). It was a statement of fact about on ongoing set of feelings that were not likely to stop anytime soon. 

And that’s all I’ve ever meant by it since.

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I understand the anxiety around language when Christians like me share our stories. We live in a culture that has wholeheartedly and uncritically embraced the claims of the sexual revolution, and we have embraced them very quickly over the last twenty years and especially the last ten. We show no signs as a people of rethinking this anytime soon. That many otherwise-orthodox believers are also embracing these claims is alarming. In this cultural (and ecclesial) landscape, even the tiniest hint that one might be compromising what the Church has always taught about sexuality and marriage sets off alarms in people’s heads. I understand when someone hears me refer to myself as gay and has questions. 

And yet, at the same time, the solution isn’t as simple as embracing different language, going from “I’m gay” to “I struggle with same-sex attraction,” or “I’m same-sex attracted.” All of this language has baggage, and all of it is imperfect. Yes, gay might accidentally communicate something I don’t want communicated, but the same is true for same-sex attracted. There is no winning the language debate. But I do think it’s important for those of us who do experience same-sex attraction to think about why we use the words we use. At least, it’s been helpful for me to think through this recently.

I’ll pause, and say that the best version of this discussion is found in a series of blog posts here. Rachel Gilson and Greg Coles are friends with each other, who both share my experience of being same-sex attracted/gay and come down on different sides of this question. If it isn’t clear, I resonate deeply with Greg’s viewpoints: both about language and also his deep respect for Rachel. If you don’t have a lot of time to devote to this, skip the rest of my blog post and go read theirs. I have little to add to the actual, more abstract defense Greg gives for why some believers like me use the word gay to talk about ourselves. 

But I’ll return to my point, that there is no clear answer here, but it’s still worth asking the question. Both Rachel and Greg appeal to their stories first when they explain why they landed where they did on language, and I think this approach is exactly right. Words do have power and meaning in shaping how we think about ourselves, but they only have that meaning in the context of stories

With that in mind, I’ve been reflecting on why I use the language I do, why I tell my story the way that I do, and I want to offer those thoughts here. My official “position” on the language debate is, again, that there is no winning it. I think it is an area of Christian liberty, which is not to say that it’s a free-for-all, but rather that it is something each of us who experience same-sex attraction must work through and think about, seeking wisdom in prayer and counsel from friends who know us best. What I ask for in return is charity from other Christians who haven’t always been charitable when it comes to this topic. Here’s the story of how I personally have worked the question of language so far.

——————–

As I said above, by the time I realized what was happening as I started to go through puberty, I already had a word for it, and that word was gay. So of course this is the word I used when I told my best friend at fifteen, and then my parents a few months later. The only context in which I had ever heard the phrase “same-sex attraction” and its many variations was in the context of ex-gay ministries (still active, though folding quickly when I was a young teenager. I came out to my parents in 2010, and Exodus International closed by 2013). It was clear that the only people who used this strange Christianese to name the exact same experience that the rest of the world called “being gay” were people who also thought that it was possible, through prayer and counseling, to become heterosexual. That was an idea that I did not entertain very long, because the evidence was so obvious that such change hardly ever actually happened, and that these kinds of efforts weren’t even just neutral, but usually psychologically and spiritually harmful.

Then, in 2015, I read Washed and Waiting for the first time, and my whole world shifted. I became convicted that the Bible really did teach that sex was only for marriage, and marriage was only to be a covenant between a man and a woman. This was obviously hard to swallow as a nineteen-year-old college freshman, but at the same time (also thanks to Washed and Waiting), I saw in Scripture that singleness was a unique calling, worthy of dignity and honor. In God’s kingdom, singleness was worth pursuing, not just as a way to steward oneself while waiting for marriage (how it is almost universally conceived among evangelical Christians), but as a worthy calling in its own right. It was something I could realistically pursue.

But here’s the thing: even as the Spirit moved in me to convict me of the traditional Christian ethic, I never once conceived of this as a story of someone who was gay becoming “not gay” in any sense. And this is for the simple reason that that didn’t happen. This was surely a huge turning point in my story; things were changing. But my experience wasn’t. So it never occurred to me to stop calling myself gay, because for all intents and purposes, I still was (and am) gay, at least as I had always used the word. My convictions were changing in deep, Spirit-led ways, but the way I experienced the world, and other humans, wasn’t. It continued to be true that the only people I ever felt romantic and sexual attraction to were other guys, and it continued to be true that I never experienced feelings like that toward any of my female friends, even though I was usually closer to them in many ways than my guy friends. 

What did change, in a big way, was what I now believed I was called to pursue. And that was celibacy. If there is a place in my story where I believe I have gotten language wrong, it is here. There have been times and contexts (mostly right after I had my “Side B conversion,” in non-Christian spaces) in which I’ve openly identified myself as gay and not said a word about being celibate, and I think this was wrong. 

My thought process is this: there is a claim that gets repeated that to call myself gay is to make my whole identity my sexuality, or to put my identity in my sin. Now this seems to me to be an incredibly shallow notion of “identity” and where it comes from,* but I do think there is a point to be made by this objection. Sexuality surely is at least a part of everyone’s identity, and probably a fairly significant part (this is why we all know intuitively that to violate someone sexually is especially evil). Gay, then, definitely is a word that communicates something about sexual identity. In the same way, celibate is a marker of sexual identity. In our current culture, one of those is celebrated, and one of those is, at best, puzzling, and at worst, seen as an obvious sign that one is not a well-adjusted, healthy citizen. There are contexts, especially when I was in college, in which it would have very much left me ostracized if I were to so much as suggest that I think gay sex and gay marriage are unethical by clarifying that I’m celibate. I knew this, and so I chose to be ambiguous and therefore remain “safe” socially. In those contexts, I had no problem openly identifying as gay, but I almost never added that I was celibate. This was done out of fear and a sense of shame; I was ashamed of that to which God had called me, and so I hid it. I think this was wrong.** This is why I’ve landed at a place in which my conviction is that if I am in a context in which I am willing to call myself gay, I should, in the very same breath, clarify that I’m celibate. This has implications for the phrase “gay Christian,” the obvious being that I should only ever use that phrase if I insert the word “celibate” somewhere in there. To be honest, “gay Christian” is not a phrase I have ever used anyway; given its use by Side A (gay marriage affirming) people, and the prevalence of such figures like Matthew Vines who use it, it is a phrase particularly prone to miscommunication.

——————–

A question naturally arises at this point, or at least it did for me, and I’ve been wrestling with it for awhile now. Why not same-sex attracted? After all, it seems to strictly describe an experience more clearly than the word gay does. Rachel Gilson makes the good point that most people, especially young people, haven’t actually been exposed to ex-gay theology. The phrase doesn’t have the baggage for them that it has for me. It will surely invite questions, the same way gay and celibate would, but probably without the (apparent) downsides of the word gay

This is where I will appeal to my story. It has taken me awhile to realize why the phrase “same-sex attracted” doesn’t quite fit, but I think it has to do with shame. 

A little over a year ago, I graduated college and started my first job as a campus ministry intern. For the first time in years, I was almost exclusively interacting with other Christians in explicitly Christian spaces. And for the first three months of my job, I was closeted for the first time since I was 17. 

The point has been made far and wide by gay people, Christian or otherwise, that the closet basically functions as a chamber for soaking in shame, subtly harming all your relationships. Maybe it was the fact that all of my relationships were new or that my new job more or less boiled down to “build relationships with students,” but the closet started to work its poison on me frighteningly quickly, within weeks. I was starting to get to know and love these students, but the voice was louder and louder in the back of my head: Will they still like me when they find out? Will they still want to be my friend? Will they still trust me as a person on a campus ministry staff? This is the same voice that tells you to stay hidden, stay in the closet. Stay safe. 

Eventually, I felt like I was starting to go crazy, and I asked if I could share my testimony to a smaller group of our students at our next meeting. What I’d realized in those first three months is that this group tended to be more culturally conservative than I was used to. I expected my new campus to be more similar to my old campus than it was. At my college, coming out as intentionally celibate would almost surely be the point of controversy to most people. At my new campus, what I was perceiving from this group of Christian students was that coming out as gay would probably be more controversial. 

I eventually shared my testimony one night, and it went fine, which is more a testament to my students than me. I stumbled through what I wanted to say, unsure if I was clear in explaining how God had brought me to where I was. But something unexpected happened, and it was the only thing I could think about all evening afterward: I could barely look up for the whole fifteen or so minutes that I was talking. All I could imagine is that I was ruining these students’ opinions of me as I told them the truth, and I wanted to be anywhere but in front of them, uttering those words, “I’m gay.” I was surprised that this happened, because I had never thought of myself as someone who struggles with shame. I came out at fifteen, for goodness’ sake, well ahead of schedule for a conservative Christian Southern kid (at least, according to the studies). Why was I suddenly ashamed of being gay? I didn’t have a clear answer to this question, but it was obvious to me for the first time that I did (and do) carry shame about this.

Here is how this relates to language: what I realize now, that I’m thankful I did not even think about then, is how convenient the phrase same-sex attracted would have been to me that night. I think I would have been tempted to use it as a Christian smoke-screen, a subtle virtue-signal to a group that I perceived to have culturally conservative sensibilities. It would not have been out of a sense of conviction, but out of a sense of wanting people not to see me as I (still) am.

Let me pause and say, again, that I think there is no winning the language debate. What I mean is that there are legitimately good reasons on either side, and faithful, wise believers come to different conclusions here. Each of us with this experience has to work through this on our own, and some have legitimately come to the conclusion that they should only ever identify as same-sex attracted because of their story and how language has functioned for them. I am not suggesting that everyone who uses SSA language does so out of shame. But I am saying that for me, right now, to start using that language would not be for the right reasons. 

I realized this because of another situation that happened recently. In short, I was in a conversation with someone who doesn’t know me very well, and they started talking about questions they had about homosexuality. It became clear that 1) they were coming from a very conservative background, and 2) that it would be appropriate to come out to them so I could openly speak from experience to their questions. With all these thoughts about language being on my mind recently, I suddenly didn’t know what words to use (even though I had done this many times before). In the midst of the wave of anxiety that always comes the moment before I come out to someone new, I ended up referring to myself as same-sex attracted, and the second it left my mouth it felt like a lie. I knew that some part of me wanted to be respectful of where this person was in their thoughts about homosexuality (and this was a good impulse!). But I think our motives will always be mixed in this life, and even if there was a small part of me that was truly trying to care for this person, a much bigger part of me was scared of being outright rejected. That bigger part of me wanted to hide behind what I intuitively knew they would recognize as Christianese, wanted to assure them of my own goodness and worthiness by demonstrating that I am a Christian insider. What I didn’t want was for them to see me as I had always seen myself: gay. By using the phrase samesex attracted, I got my message across: “I only experience sexual and romantic attractions to guys, but I’m not gay.” To me, the implication is clear: this phrase and this word are naming the exact same reality, but gay is something shameful, something to be hidden. And in the end, I don’t think shame is a good reason to use a phrase.

Gay and celibate communicates efficiently and clearly the way I experience sexuality and the way I believe I’m supposed to respond to it in light of the Gospel. Same-sex attracted does the same thing, in a more subtle way. But for me, gay and celibate fits better because it carries no baggage of a culture that taught me that I should be especially ashamed, in a way other guys aren’t, because of my sexual brokenness. I need to fight back against that feeling in myself that wants to hide from people when I tell my story and that believes that this part of me is not something God has worked through and continues to work through. And so I will continue to refer to myself as a gay person. In doing so, I hope that I can push back a little against a Christian culture that still considers gay people to be especially broken and somehow more in need of grace than straight people. That culture has made it all too easy for me to believe the lies that my shame tells me: the lie that God can’t use me because of my sexuality, the lie that I have no business being in ministry, and the lie that I believe all too often, the lie at the root of all the other ones. When believers honestly look at ourselves and see all our fallenness, and call it what it is, this is the lie Satan whispers in our ear to discourage us: “The Gospel is true for everyone except you. You are too broken for God.”

Against this lie, Jesus’ true words come to me again: “I am making all things new.” Including a gay kid from Memphis, still struggling to overcome his shame. 

Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died–more than that, who was raised–who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? … For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. -Romans 8


——————–

*This really is the bigger question behind the language debate, and it’s the more important one. I want to write more about how I’ve thought about this question of identity soon, but alas, there are only so many hours in the day. In short, though: asking “What language does someone use?” to try to understand how someone thinks of himself is assuming that individual words are much more powerful than they actually are. A much better and more interesting question is, “What narrative(s) does this person take as their own? What story does he see himself in?” 

**The caveat that I want to add here is that there are also contexts in which it would have been unwise, I think, to mark myself out, or to start a conversation in the wrong time or place. While each unique situation required wisdom that I didn’t have at the time, what I know is that there are times I should have spoken up and didn’t, and times I didn’t speak up and this was the wise choice. I have to believe that God’s grace is enough for those times that I was wrong in discerning my own motives.

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