I like it when blog readers submit questions they want me to address here. It helps create a real sens eof dialogue, which is part of the point of this blog. One reader asked me this today:
“Can you put up a post on the difference between saying “I am gay” rather than “I struggle with Homosexuality”? Or maybe that there is no difference. Just thought it might be an interesting post to understand the difference between the way that is phrased and the significance that each statement takes on.”
People who have known me for a while (and known about my struggle) know that for 17 years — really up until 2-3 months ago — I was pretty insistent on using the phrase “I struggle with same-sex attraction” or “I struggle with homosexuality” as opposed to acknowledging that “I am gay”. For a variety of reasons, starting a few months ago, I have changed the way I talk about my situation and now just say “I am gay.”
Knowing a lot of Christians who deal with this issue, I know that there are a lot of opinions as to what is the best way to talk about the issue. Among more Conservative Christians, generally the language used is “struggle with same-sex attraction” or “struggle with homosexuality” as opposed to saying that you are gay. The argument goes that to say you are gay is to (1) affirm something that is sinful; (2) make your sexuality your identity (as opposed to your identity in Christ); (3) denies the ability of God to change you; and (4) the term “gay” connotes or implies a “lifestyle” or “political agenda” that Christians should not be a part of.
For 17 years I used that language for these reasons. I have no problem or objection to people using this language. I think it is a very personal issue and each person will decide differently. I also think everyone’s situation is different.
Here is why I have changed how I talk about the issue and now just say “I am gay”…
(1) I AM GAY
I know that is not super helpful to the discussion, but I do believe that sometimes it is just best to call things what they are. The truth is that I am gay. I am also no longer ashamed to say that and I don’t think that there is anything intrinsically wrong with being gay — it is what it is.
To say it any other way is a bit of a way of hiding what is reality. Part of my commitment moving forward is to not duck and hide anymore. So I think it is better to just say it.
(2) MINIMIZATION, RATIONALIZATION, COMPARTMENTALIZATION & DENIAL
This is an issue I’ve talked about a lot in my small group and with both my counselor and mentor. In fact, my mentor was pretty instrumental in helping me change my language. By saying things like “I struggle with same-sex attraction” or “I struggle with homosexuality” was a way to minimize the issue in my life. It also allowed the people who knew to minimize it — and therefore not ask me the kinds of questions that would have been helpful. The language helped me deny (and therefore rationalized hiding) the issue. The language is part of how I was able to deny, hide, minimize and rationalize my situation. It also allowed me to compartmentalize the issue which I think is part of why I allowed myself to violate such obvious boundaries. To say the least, that wasn’t helpful.
(3) IT’S NOT MY PRIMARY IDENTITY, BUT IT IS PART OF WHO I AM
People get worked up about this issue. But the truth is we all have multiple sub-identities in addition to our identity as a Christian. My primary identity is as a follower of Jesus Christ, redeemed by his love, beloved by the Father, sealed by the Holy Spirit. But I have other identities too. We all do. For example, I routinely call myself a Jewish Christian. Why? Because I am Jewish. That is part of my identity. Is it primary or more important than my identity in Christ? No. But it is part of who I am. Calling myself gay does not imply that this identity is more important than being a Christian. People argue that sexuality shouldn’t be a part of our identity at all as Christians. But people have no problem calling themselves straight or heterosexual. They say you shouldn’t call yourself gay because it is sinful. But being gay — that is attracted to people of the same gender — is not in and of itself a sin. There are lots of ways to sin as a gay person (as there are as a straight person) but being gay itself is not a sin. It is something that is existential.
I actually think this is pretty important to understand. One of the issues I have really struggled with is a sense of self-hatred and self-loathing over the years. When we begin to confuse these issues, it is easy to fall into both self-hatred and a sense of defeatism. If I mere attraction to guys (physical, emotional, etc) is sin (which clearly in scripture it is not) then something at my very core (and outside my control) makes me evil, bad, unlovable. To say that has a negative impact on your sense of self is an understatement. Also, if the mere existential state of attraction is sinful, you have failed before you even tried… making it pretty easy to just give up and give in. (To put it bluntly, if I am screwed anyway/already, then why not just screw around.)
Also, let me address the “lifestyle” issue/question.
I think this is a bit of a straw-man argument based on stereotypes and serious naivety (or worse, actual homophobia and hatred of gays). The idea of the “gay lifestyle” or “gay agenda” is I think a misguided tool of the Conservative right. These are code words that have little to do with reality and more to do with a conservative political agenda (imho). Perhaps there is a distinction to be made between being gay and being queer or “queer culture”. I am not 100% sure on this issue, but I do know that a gay friend recently told me “you might be gay, but you aren’t queer” (I think he meant it as an insult/challenge in terms of not understanding the “queer community”, but again I am not 100% sure… I take it as a compliment of sorts, for what that is worth).
(4) IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT SEX
I will blog about this issue more in-depth later, but let me say a few things about it now. A lot of people want to treat the issue as merely a sinful sexual fetish. Talking about is just “struggling with homosexuality” or “struggling with same-sex attraction” implies that (1) it is just about sex (in the case of homosexuality); and (2) attraction itself is the problem and is sin. For a long time I thought it was just about sex. And if it was just about sex, then it was no different than any other single Christian. How hard could it be to not have sex? But the problem is that it is not just about sex — it is about a whole lot more. Part of the reason I pretty much killed my emotional life for 17 years is because I tried to make it all about sex. The damage this did to my heart, my soul and my relationships is hard to over-state. I think until I could acknowledge that this issue is not just about sex, I was never in a place where I could even begin to process it and deal with it in a healthy and Christ-honoring way.
It has also been really helpful for me to distinguish between the sex issue and the broader issue. As I have written about on this blog, one of the things I am doing is going to a support/recovery/accountability group for men dealing with sexually addictive behavior. There is no doubt that I have some addictive tendencies in this area and that needs to be dealt with (whether they play out in gay, straight, whatever contexts). But understanding how being gay and the sex addiction are not the same thing has been critical to my
recovery of sexual integrity.
I think there is some integrity in calling things what they are. I also think that by acknowledging the issue for what it is allows me to have more integrity and accountability in the context of Christian community. Being gay impacts huge areas of my life — beyond just temptation in the sexual area. And the truth is our lives aren’t as compartmentalized (or shouldn’t be) as we might hope. For me to have real integrity and accountability in community means having friends who ask me not just did I break my sexual sobriety, but how am I doing emotionally, relationally, etc? How is my heart doing? And being gay is as much about heart and emotion and relationships as it is about sex. (Again, I will blog more in-depth about this issue soon).
One more issue to address: understanding how different people are different.
As for the first, I think there are people who struggle with same-sex attraction and homosexuality, but are not gay. I think sexuality is really on a continuum. I know he is controversial, but the Kinsey Scale is a helpful tool for understanding this. The scale runs from 0 (meaning exclusively heterosexual) to 6 (meaning exclusively homosexual). The reality is that most people fall somewhere between 0 and 6. I know some men who struggle with homosexual activity (for a variety of reasons) but are essentially heterosexual. They are attracted to women, desire marriage and a family, etc. I think there is a lot of hope for people in this situation, with good counseling, go live healthy and fulfilling heterosexual lives. I know others who are probably best described as bisexual. And many bisexuals, for religious reasons or other reasons, choose to subdue their same-sex attraction and live in committed and healthy heterosexual relationships. Even if they have a history of same-sex activity, they can still live as successful heterosexuals. Then there are people who are pretty exclusively gay. I think the likelihood of “change” for these people is pretty slim. These people end up living their lives as actively gay people. For Christians, these folks need to decide how to live in this situation in a God-honoring way (see my previous post on “Choosing Sides” — and I think calling yourself gay does not imply which side you have chosen).
At this point in my life, having actively wrestled with this issue for 17 years — and really 28+ years — I am pretty confident that I am in the solidly gay group. I think when ex-Gay ministries talk about successful conversion (and let’s be clear, there are lots of examples of successful change… and lots of unsuccessful change) they are talking less about change than heterosexuals who were involved with homosexual activity stopping their homosexual activity (and sometimes even the temptation) and/or bisexuals learning to live as heterosexuals.
What is the relevance to this conversation? Some Christians who deal with homosexuality are gay, others are bisexual and others may even be fundamentally heterosexual but “struggle with homosexuality” or “same-sex attraction.”
I’m gay… so that is what I say.
I hope that makes sense. Feel free to comment, ask questions or chime in. I would love to hear from people who have decided personally to take a different approach too… would love to hear your stories.