Not too long ago, I sat across a brewery table from a new friend who told me, “I used to experience same-sex attraction.” 1
“Fascinating,” I said. “I’d love to hear more about what you mean by that.”
So she graciously explained her story. She had been attracted to both men and women in her teenage years. She ended up marrying a man, but about a decade into her marriage, she had an affair with a close friend—another married woman. After feeling the Holy Spirit’s conviction, they broke off their relationship. My new friend and her husband subsequently divorced (for other reasons). She is now single and celibate.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” I said after she concluded the story, “when you describe same-sex attraction as something you used to experience, are you saying that you’re exclusively attracted to the opposite sex now?” 2
“Actually,” she said, “I haven’t been attracted to anybody in quite a while.”
I pried further: “Do you think you’ll ever experience any attraction in the future? Or do you think you’re all done experiencing any kind of attraction?”
“I’m content with being single right now,” she said, “so it’s convenient not being attracted to anyone. But I don’t want to be naïve and say I’d never be attracted to anyone again. No one is immune to temptation; it probably wouldn’t be wise for me to act like I am.”
“And if you did wind up experiencing attraction again,” I said slowly, straining the limits of my own nosiness, “do you have a guess as to whether the person you’d be attracted to would be…?”
She smiled at my brazenness. “I guess, if I were attracted to someone in the future, it might be a man or a woman.”
I didn’t say anything in reply, but my face must have betrayed me.
“Does that surprise you?” she asked.
I shook my head. “What’s so interesting to me is that, if I were in charge of picking words to describe your experience of sexuality, based on what you’ve just told me, I wouldn’t describe you as someone who ‘used to experience same-sex attraction.’ Not that it’s my job,” I hastily added, “to tell you what words to use—that’s between you and Jesus!”
“You’re okay,” she laughed. “What words would you use?”
“Well,” I said, “given that your past attractions have been directed towards both women and men, and you anticipate that your future attractions could also be towards either women or men, I’d probably say something like ‘bisexual’ or ‘both same-sex attracted and opposite-sex attracted.’ I think of those terms as being related to the direction of a person’s attractions, not the frequency of their attractions.”
“I’m guessing that’s what you mean when you use the word ‘gay’ about yourself?” she asked.
“Exactly!” I gestured toward the nearly empty brewery around us. “I’m definitely not experiencing any same-sex attraction at this exact moment. And I’d be perfectly happy, just like you, to go for the rest of my life without ever being sexually attracted to anyone again. But I wouldn’t say that I’ve stopped being gay, because I know what the pattern of my attractions has been like over time. I know that, if and when I find myself attracted to someone in the future, that person is overwhelmingly likely to be a man.”
She nodded thoughtfully. “So when you heard me say that I used to be same-sex attracted, it sounded to you like I was claiming that the direction of my attractions had changed and I’m exclusively attracted to men now. But that’s not really what I meant. Even though it’s been a while since I’ve been attracted to a woman, it could happen again. And I do try to be careful about how I develop close friendships with other women, because I know that I need to check my heart and make sure I’m not starting to fall for one of my close friends.”
“That’s another reason,” I said, “that I find it helpful to call myself ‘gay’—because it helps me make wise long-term decisions. I don’t just want language for how I’m attracted or not attracted right at this moment. I also want language that helps me think realistically about what I should anticipate in the future.”
I’ve thought a lot since that conversation about the linguistic differences between my new friend and me. When she talked about sexuality, she was inclined to speak of her current experiences of attraction (or lack thereof). I, on the other hand, was looking for language that spoke to patterns of attraction over time, regardless of how long I’d gone without being attracted to someone. I described my attractions according to their direction, with no commentary on their likely future frequency. She described her attractions by their frequency, with no commentary on their likely future direction.
Still, despite the differences in our language, our experiences were similar in many ways: Both of us had a general lifelong pattern that included attraction to the same sex. Neither of us was having a specific experience of attraction as we spoke. Both of us anticipated that any future attraction we experienced could potentially (in her case) or almost certainly would (in my case) be directed towards a person of the same sex.
I was “gay.” She “used to be same-sex attracted.” Heard from the outside, without further investigation, our two labels might have sounded like opposites.
But sometimes, mercifully, two people sit across from each other at a brewery table and find out what we really mean.
1. Let the record show that, since this first conversation, my friend has shifted some of the ways she uses language. Her story is, like all of ours, a work in progress!
2. Let the record also show that I don’t make a regular habit of asking women I’ve just met (or anyone, for that matter) about the patterns of their sexual attraction. But given that she’d already been incredibly vulnerable with me about other parts of her story, this particular question didn’t feel untoward.