Responding to Concerns with LGBT+ Terminology

Responding to Concerns with LGBT+ Terminology
February 28, 2019
The following blog is written by Greg Coles and is part 6 of our series, "Gay" vs. '"Same Sex Attraction:" A Dialogue. Greg is part of The Center's collaborative team and is the author of the book Single, Gay, Christian

Rachel Gilson is one of my favorite people to disagree with. By that, I don’t mean that she’s easy to disagree with.[i] And I certainly don’t mean that, given the choice between agreeing with her and disagreeing, I’d choose the latter. What I mean is that, if I must disagree with someone, I’m glad for it to be someone like Rachel, because her concerns are so clearly motivated by her heart for Jesus. She’s not seeking to tear me down personally (I don’t think) or make a mockery of my perspective in order to win “points” before a watching audience. Instead, I believe she genuinely desires to build up, and to be built up by, the body of Christ. She brings the iron of her insight and I bring the iron of mine—and together, we seek to sharpen one another.


It’s in that spirit that I want to respond to Rachel’s critiques of my view on LGBT+ terminology: not as an antagonist, but as a trusted friend. She identifies three “troubles” with words like “gay” and “queer”: troubles on mission, troubles in the church, and troubles for the self. Let me address each one in turn.


1) Troubles on Mission

Rachel’s concern here, in brief, is that terms like “gay” imply a trajectory toward sexual activity for most of their hearers. Thus, when I call myself “gay,” I’m assumed by many people to be pursuing same-sex sexual activity until I clarify my view about biblical sexual ethics. Rachel writes:


These students I work with have contemporary assumptions about what the word gay means, and the most natural understanding is not only attraction but also pursuit of fulfilling those attractions. It would not be intuitive for them at all to have someone identify as gay but not be seeking to enter in to romantic and sexual relationships that could be described as gay.


To this last statement, I say a hearty “amen.” Of course it isn’t intuitive to identify as gay but choose never to pursue a sexual relationship.[ii] The choices we make in obedience to Jesus are often counterintuitive when viewed apart from the upside-down logic of the kingdom of heaven. As I’ve previously written for The Center’s blog, “Our lives were meant to be written in code, indecipherable to onlookers except through the cipher of Jesus.”

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Do we tell our stories of encountering Jesus in ways that feel counterintuitive to people who don’t yet know him? I certainly hope so. If we don’t, it’s entirely possible that we’ve ceased communicating the gospel.


When Rachel writes that “the most natural understanding” of the term gay “is not only attraction but pursuit of fulfilling those attractions,” I think she rightly diagnoses how the majority of the contemporary Western world understands any kind of sexual attraction.[iii] What she describes is not so much a linguistic phenomenon restricted to “gay”as it is an ideological phenomenon in which sexual fulfillment is presumed paramount.[iv] It is unusual for any sexually mature Westerner, regardless of sexual orientation, to pursue chastity in the 21st century. This is why the current season of The Bachelor is getting so much mileage out of bachelor Colton Underwood’s virginity. Failure to pursue and fulfill one’s sexual attraction is understood as almost freakishly nonnormative in 2019, even if you’re as heterosexual as a man simultaneously dating 30 women on TV. (Disclaimer: I’ve never actually watched The Bachelor. Click that last link at your own peril.)


Rachel’s fundamental points here—that clarity is important and that the word gay has the potential to be misunderstood—are well taken. But of the imperfect words available to us, I would argue that “gay” in fact has the least capacity (by a substantial margin) to be misunderstood in missional settings. If the concern about calling myself “gay” is that people will be surprised and confused when I clarify that I’m also celibate, I’ll gladly accept their surprise and confusion as an invitation to talk about the glorious weirdness of life with Jesus.


2) Troubles in the Church

It’s chuckle-worthy, I think, that one of Rachel’s reasons for avoiding the word “gay” is closely related to one of the reasons I find the word so valuable.


Rachel worries that the term gay “creates confusion for many people in the church.” She rightly diagnoses the etiology of this confusion, I believe, when she writes, “Most people in the church are not paying close attention to the nuances in the conversation the traditional church is having about sexuality.” These many Christians who pay only scant attention to the complexities of sexuality are prone, she explains, to assume that the word “gay” is inseparable from sexual activity. And so, she finally concludes, those of us who might otherwise call ourselves “gay” should perhaps instead “constrain our own freedoms for the sake of the consciences of other Christians.”


Before I challenge this line of reasoning, let me first note a significant point of agreement. I think Rachel is correct that many traditionally minded Christians are far more willing to listen sympathetically to a “same-sex attracted” person than to a “gay” person (celibacy notwithstanding). And for this reason, I thank God that he has allowed Rachel (and others like her) to develop a linguistic conviction that equips her to more readily receive the sympathy of such Christians. I hope and pray she stewards this gift well.


Having said this, let me pose two challenges to Rachel’s claim that it would be wiser for me to “constrain [my] own freedoms for the sake of the consciences of other Christians.”


First, as Rachel and I wholeheartedly agree, the Christians most prone to be confused by my self-identification as a “celibate gay Christian” are those “not paying close attention to the nuances” of the sexuality conversation. The fact that these Christians have not invested much effort in this conversation is telling. It suggests that LGBTQ issues are probably not of great significance in these Christians’ own lives. On the other hand, Christians for whom same-sex sexuality is personally significant, whether because of their own experience or the experience of a loved one, are far more likely to be attentive to the nuances of this conversation, because they are more highly incentivized to pay attention.


Rachel’s argument about constraint alludes to Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, in which Paul urges his readers not to exercise their Christian freedoms in ways that will cause others to stumble. When straight Christian conservatives with little personal stake in the sexuality conversation choose to immediately dismiss me as a heretic because of my use of the word “gay,” ignoring the plentiful clarification I offer, I am not causing them to stumble, per se. I’m simply freaking them out by refusing to cater to their preferences. If freaking religious people out and refusing to cater to their preferences is bad, we need to seriously rethink why Jesus and the apostle Paul form the heart of our New Testament canon.


Second, as Rachel observes, I am sometimes misunderstood among Christian conservatives precisely because Christian conservatives tend to assume that the term “gay” is by definition a reference to sexual activity.[v] This, in fact, is one of the reasons I believe my use of “gay” can be a gift to the church. Since the common Christian perception of the word is both inaccurate and damaging to our Christian witness in the world, I have no desire to speak in a way that furthers this disparity between The Christian Dictionary and Everybody Else’s Dictionary. I have no desire to linguistically accommodate Christians who make declarations like, “You can’t be both gay and Christian,” thereby falsely communicating to a listening world that same-sex-oriented people are incapable of following Jesus. I’d much rather speak in a way that confronts and corrects the failures of The Christian Dictionary while being most likely to communicate God’s truth in the language of Everybody Else’s Dictionary.


As I wrote in my previous post, the confusion and discomfort which the word “gay” introduces into many traditional Christian spaces is, I believe, a tremendous gift. Our job is not to cater to the church’s deficiencies and keep her comfortably complacent. Our job is to love her enough that we urge her to be better.


3) Troubles for the Self

We now arrive at the most pressing, and the most nebulous, of the objections to the term “gay.” As Rachel ably presents it, the central concern here is that “gay” carries unavoidable implications about the primacy of a person’s sexuality to their identity. Thus, to use the adjective “gay” in describing oneself is always to risk inviting—or perhaps to have already accepted—an unhealthy fixation on one’s own sexuality.


What makes this line of argumentation compelling for so many people is, I believe, that it contains nuggets of truth within it. To be sure, it is unwise for followers of Jesus to accord too much significance to our sexuality. To be sure, this temptation exists for many of us.[vi] To be sure, we live in a society that often accords great significance to sexuality, and when we adopt the language used by our society, we must be cautious not to smuggle in unhealthy societal values packed up in the suitcases of our society’s words. Insofar as Rachel’s appeal to me is an appeal to remain faithful to Jesus by continuing to resist unbiblical societal norms and the deceitful tugs of my own fallen flesh in the realm of sexuality, I gladly welcome her words.


Where this argument errs, I believe, is in its speculative assertion that these dangers are inevitably—and exclusively—bound to the word “gay.”


The word “gay,” as I’ve already demonstrated, is one of Western society’s plainest terms for the experience of attraction to the same sex. A portion of Western society believes that sexuality ought to be a determinative component of human meaning-making and assumes that sexual attraction will be ordered toward sexual fulfillment. So it’s no surprise that these cultural beliefs are often held in concert with the word “gay.” But words and their meanings are not inherently bound to the ideological assumptions of the people who use them.


Take the word “queer” as an example. For most of the twentieth century, the word “queer” (when used of gay people) was exclusively derogatory. Beginning around 1990, gay activists reclaimed the word as a term of honor, calling themselves “queer” and inviting others to do the same. Today, “queer” is considered by many people to be a category term with no inherent derogation. Denotatively, the word’s meaning has not changed, insofar as it is still being used to name people who diverge from the heterosexual norm. Ideologically, however, the word took on new sociocultural possibilities when it was claimed by a group of people who challenged the presumptive ideology formerly inhabiting it.


Simply put: words’ histories don’t always determine their futures. (If you don’t believe me, just look at words like “Quaker,” “Methodist,” and “Protestant”—those all started out as insults too.)


This capacity of words to change their function according to the purposes of their users is absent from the otherwise excellent Jonathan Merritt interview which Rachel references. Merritt relies on an overly totalizing view of linguistic determinism: as if words, once chosen, have absolute sovereignty over their users and cannot be influenced in turn by those users.[vii] Merritt’s argument against the celibate use of “gay” could equally have been made in 1990 about early activist use of the word “queer.” Such an argument would have been roundly disproven by the subsequent three decades.


Words have power, yes. But the people who use them are responsible in part for defining and redefining that power. Language can’t possibly be monolithic when the people speaking it are so varied.


In light of the complexity and multiplicity of language, critics of “celibate gay” terminology commit a grave error in believing that they can infallibly assess, from the outside, the inevitable internal impact of the word “gay” on those of us who use it. One person’s limited perspective of what a disputed word can accomplish is an insufficient ground upon which to censure those whose linguistic consciences differ.[viii]


Rachel writes, “To repeatedly use the word ‘gay’ about oneself is to invite enshrining in the inner self that these attractions are who I am, as opposed to how I am.” This statement concerns me for two reasons. First, I confess to being skeptical of the value gained by grammatical games like this one. Between 2013 and 2018, when new acquaintances asked me, “Who are you?” my answer often included a sentence like, “I am a graduate student.” Grammatically, this statement was ontological, because it was structured around the copular verb “am.” It was also, in a meaningful way, a statement of identity: being a graduate student shaped much of my experience of the world and informed the nature of my life and discipleship. But as of a few months ago, I am no longer a graduate student; my identity has shifted.[ix] When I told people “who I was” by talking about my grad-student-ness, I was never trying to say that being a grad student was an immobile part of my deepest spiritual essence since the beginning of creation and on into perpetuity. I was just saying that I was a grad student. It would be foolish of us to grant to grammatical ontology some kind of mystical power that it simply does not possess.


Second, Rachel neglects to acknowledge the reality that this human temptation to fixate excessively on sexuality exists for all people, regardless of our experience of sexuality or the words we believe are most helpful to describe that experience. Substitution of the label “same-sex attracted” for “gay” does not immunize people from this temptation, though SSA language is often lauded in conservative Christian circles for accomplishing precisely that immunization. Rachel oversimplifies the situation by attributing to the word “gay” a danger which is far more pervasive and far more insidious. Thus, she levels her criticism against those of us who self-identify as gay (despite our frequent clarifications that our intention is not to idolize our sexuality), while leaving uncritiqued those whose language practices might appear more benign but whose hearts are no less prone to wander.


Indulge me for a few moments of make-believe. Let’s imagine that, observing how attitudes toward money in American society are often tainted with greed, I conclude that greediness is inextricable from the word “money” itself. I redefine the word “money” to reflect the societal dangers I perceive within it, declaring that those who speak favorably about acquiring “money” are dangerously flirting with greed, if not already actively guilty of it. In place of the word “money,” I create a neologism, a new word made by Christians and for Christians with none of the bad cultural baggage carried by “money.” My new word (which only my fellow Christians and I use or understand) allows me to never speak of “money” in anything but condemnatory terms.


Now imagine that when I meet Christians who haven’t adopted my neologism—Christians who still call their money “money”—I look askance at them. Imagine that I warn them of the slippery slope they’re on, telling them that I know better than they do what the word “money” really means and what impact it is likely to have on their souls.


If you can imagine all this, you can also imagine what it feels like to me when people tell me about the dangers of the word “gay.”


The analogy is imperfect, of course, as analogies are wont to be. But it illustrates both my sympathy to the debate at hand and my great frustration with it. Just as greed rightly merits concern among Christians,[x] so too does the idolatry of sexuality that may at times be accompanied by the word “gay.” But just as banning the word “money” does not solve the problem of greed, so banning the word “gay” does not solve the problem of sexual idolatry. Nor are those who use the word “money” inherently guilty of greed or inviting greed to enshrine itself in their hearts.


“None of us,” writes Rachel, “has so mastered the flesh that it cannot deceive us.” On this count, Rachel and I are in complete agreement. And this is why I’m delighted to have sisters like Rachel in my life, cautioning me against the danger of letting my sexuality become totalizing. This is why we need one another in the body of Christ: to call one another ever closer to Jesus.


But when critics of “celibate gay” terminology declare that I am enshrining an unhealthy obsession with my sexuality, they are not calling me closer to Jesus. Instead, their voices become the voice of the Accuser in my ear, speaking condemnation and death over me instead of life. When I begin to listen to these voices—when I begin to believe them—I am more tempted than ever to succumb to the idolatry of which they accuse me. (Why not just give up, if they say I have already lost?)


If you love me in Christ, I beg you to stop telling me that I have already chosen, or have begun along the path toward choosing, “to look to [my sexuality] for affirmation, purpose, and identity.” I beg you to stop prognosticating the destruction of my soul. Instead, I wish you would remind me of where my affirmation and purpose do come from. I wish you would remind me that Christ is the source and substance of my identity, the all-consuming essence by which every other facet of my identity is ordered.


Lord knows I need as many reminders as I can get.


And so, perhaps, do you.



[i] On the contrary, whenever somebody as smart and godly as Rachel disagrees with me, I immediately start considering the possibility that I might be wrong.  And even when I conclude that I’m still right, I know she’s going to give me a run for my money.


[ii] As to the question of “romantic” relationship, I want to leave that aside for the time being. Many of the emotions and behaviors commonly classified as “romance” in our present parlance are not biblically restricted to marital bonds. The modern phenomenon of the “bromance” speaks, for instance, to our blossoming societal recognition that casting the “romantic” net too broadly and then restricting this emotional category to marital or sexual relationships deprives people (especially men) of healthy non-sexual same-sex intimacy. We might note, too, that David’s biblical description of Jonathan’s love as “more wonderful than that of women” (2 Sam. 1:26) has a degree of emotional intensity that outshines much of our current conception of “romance.” The matter is worthy of a lengthier consideration than I can give it here without getting thoroughly waylaid.


[iii] That is, to be fair, I suspect the word “straight” would equally imply this trajectory. In addition, just as some straight people have nonreligious reasons for abstaining from sex temporarily or even permanently, so too do some gay people. Treating “gay” as a special case tends to reify an oversexualized perception of gay people, which does no one any favors.


[iv] Thus it is that Merriam-Webster and the ubiquitous Google dictionary (here and here) define the adjective gay exclusively in terms of attraction, while the Oxford English Dictionary definition (here and here) addresses “sexual or romantic attraction… or sexual activity.” These definitions rightly reflect our contemporary denotative understanding of the word gay as primarily addressing an attraction or orientation rather than always naming sexual behavior. The presumptive leap that takes listeners from sexual attraction to inevitable sexual expression is thus embedded in the word gay only connotatively, if at all, and language often works in ways that purposefully violate connotative norms to reshape ideological assumption. Certainly, language and ideology are perpetual bedfellows and cannot be understood in isolation from one another. Nonetheless, a given terminology is neither commensurate with nor reducible to a singular corresponding ideology, as I’ll discuss further in the final section of my response.


[v] This is in contrast, as I’ve argued, to folks outside the church, who tend to understand “gay” at a definitional level as referring to sexual orientation, and who then subsequently assume that that orientation will likely be expressed in sexual activity.


[vi] Straight readers, nota bene: you’re not exempt from this temptation either.


[vii] Moreover, he speaks as if this view is a recent development which has been unquestionably proven by language scholars, when in fact the scholarly conversation is both far more longstanding and far more complicated. Anyone wishing to climb down this rabbit hole might want to begin with Benjamin Lee Whorf’s Language, Thought, and Reality, then progress to the uptakes and criticisms of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in the seven decades since.


[viii] And here, to be clear, I’m responding to other, more vitriolic opponents of “gay celibate” language far more than I am to thoughtful and nuanced critics like Rachel. Still, just as Rachel’s criticisms bear vestiges of the criticisms of others, so my response to her bears vestiges of the more impassioned response I might be tempted to proffer to others.


[ix] I’ve now become a semi-employed academic job seeker who still feels awkward when people refer to him as “Dr. Coles.” I haven’t yet decided if this is an improvement on my former ontological state.


[x] Far more concern, I would posit, than currently exists in many American Christian circles.