The following blog is written by Rachel Gilson and is part 4 of our series, "Gay" vs. '"Same Sex Attraction:" A Dialogue. Rachel is the director of theological development for Cru Northeast. You can find more of her writing at rachelgilson.com.
The concerns of my brother Greg are stated with charity and gentleness but are ultimately unpersuasive given the world we live in right now.
He is absolutely right that in some corners, “same-sex attracted” carries significant ex-gay baggage. I have met several Christians who had such difficult experiences in that movement as to make use of language those ministries preferred impossible. This is entirely understandable and should be accommodated.
However, that language affected only a very small percentage of the general population of the Western world. And any Christian who is a young millennial or generation Z has an even smaller chance of having been affected by it. Most humans, on the mention of same-sex attraction, would have absolutely no prior experience with the term. So little, that it would be impossible to sound like “Christianese,” because there’s nothing inherently Christian about it. This is why the secular self-identified lesbian sociologist Lisa Diamond uses it – it’s a simple way to refer to a real phenomenon that doesn’t have all the extra associations of the word “gay.”
When I have used “same-sex attraction” with highly secular young people, they don’t stare at me in open-mouthed confusion. The words all make sense, and they make sense in a unit together. Is it occasionally cumbersome? Mildly. But there is no baggage there, and we are off and running in conversations about what sexuality is and what God has to say about our bodies.
In fact, I would assert that “same-sex attraction” works just as well using Greg’s three-point rubric, and perhaps even better than “gay,” among those who are not Christians. Gay signals things I don’t mean to this crowd; same-sex attraction does not. SSA isn’t a taboo, because people largely haven’t heard of it. And three, I’m avoiding “homosexual” and other such weighted terms, which would definitely ring alarm bells for the secular audience. I’m able to challenge their notions about sexuality, about what a Christian is allowed to feel, precisely in my choices as a missionary to use this language. They can see that I’m comfortable in my own skin, and that Jesus is very precious to me.
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I’m not trying to deny that this language has a history – as someone who adores context, that would be abhorrent to me. But given the demographic realities of the West, those associations are overstated, and ignore that LGBT+ language actually poses more risk for misunderstanding given its everyday usage. It can also ignore the history of the “gay and straight” language project (see Hanne Blank’s excellent Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality), and obscure the fact that the majority of people who experience attractions toward people of the same gender do not use words like gay and lesbian, because their attractions are not exclusively towards the same-sex. Same-sex attraction is a great term for the vast number of people who experience some level of fluidity and variability in their attractions (see the research by aforementioned Lisa Diamond on this), and also works for those who experience exclusive or near exclusive attractional patterns.
I’m more compelled by Greg’s words on critiquing the church. We have sowed so many problematic seeds, and yet act surprised at what we’re reaping – or like it’s only the world that came in with weeds. Until we repent of harmful and unbiblical ways we have treated people and talked about sexuality, there will be no healing. God is not honored.
In this effort to bring recognition of sin and error in the church, many tactics are needed. As in any movement of reform of a large group, there are broadly three types of agitators for change: radicals, progressives, and moderates. When a conservative body is presented with only moderates, no change happens. Comfort continues. This would be a tragic result. If faced with only radicals, there is dismissal and again, little change. Progressives can fall into either place, with attempts to accommodate them and dismiss them alternating. If you want to see this dynamic happening large, study the history of the abolition movement in the United States. There were many styles of attacking slavery, none of them perfect. And all were needed to turn the ship, even as each group attacked each other for being foolish and lacking strategy.
So too, it is not surprising that we see a variety of tactics to reveal to the church her sins and complacency. And I think there can be a place to strategically use LGBT+ language in these efforts. But again, the most helpful correction I think comes from using language that doesn’t put up walls, so that hard ideas have a chance to penetrate. That makes “same-sex attracted” ideal for use in most church settings. It smooths the path to biblical conviction when used well.
Greg’s concerns are valid, but unconvincing. Same-sex attraction does not pose the missional threat that is claimed, nor is it unhelpful in correcting the conservative church. We do need to adopt special care with those who by age and experience have pain with the term; to not recognize this is to not act in love. These siblings are an important demographic in this conversation, and not to be brushed aside. But our largest demographics of concern – the young and unchurched, as well as conservative churches – are going to be best served by non-LGBT+ language, and same-sex attraction serves well.