Three Concerns with the Term “Same-Sex Attracted”

Three Concerns with the Term “Same-Sex Attracted”
February 19, 2019
The following blog is written by Greg Coles and is part 3 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

I don’t invest much effort trying to proselytize Christians who call themselves “same-sex attracted” (or “SSA”) into using the word “gay” (or “queer,” or any term from the LGBTQ umbrella) instead. For one thing, I believe those of us who hold a traditional biblical sexual ethic and remain persistently oriented toward the same sex have much bigger proverbial fish to fry than which adjectives we prefer. Yes, I love language, and I think it’s quite important. (If you don’t believe me, I’d be glad to tell you all about my PhD dissertation.) But when terms are as fluid and polysemous as “gay” and “SSA”—when they’ve been taken up by so many different voices in so many different contexts for so many different purposes—it’s a fool’s errand to make claims about how they will always function at all times for all people.


Language is messy. Don’t let anyone—especially not me—tell you otherwise.


Another reason I’m reluctant to proselytize people into calling themselves “gay” is that many Christians who prefer the term “same-sex attracted” explain their decision as a matter of personal conscience, a way of fostering greater obedience to Christ in the realm of sexuality. They find the word “gay” personally unhelpful because it lures their hearts toward lustfulness. If this is indeed true, then I bless and honor them in their decision to avoid it. I don’t believe lustfulness is an inevitable consequence of the word “gay”—if I did, I wouldn’t be using it—but I do believe that followers of Christ must make space for one another’s differences in matters of conscience, á la the generosity modeled in Romans 14. (This, incidentally, is a generosity I wish more advocates of “SSA” would extend to me. But I digress.)


And yet, although I’m no gay-terminology-evangelist, this doesn’t mean I’m fully in favor of SSA terminology. I have a handful of concerns with SSA language and its impact on the world. I don’t believe these concerns necessitate that everyone who thinks differently from me must be browbeaten into submission. But I do believe these are important considerations for anyone wishing to hold an informed position in the “gay vs. SSA” debate.


Concern #1: Ex-Gay Baggage


Forgive me some shameless self-quotation from my book Single, Gay, Christian (IVP, 2017, p. 62-63):


The language of SSA was popularized by the Christian ex-gay movement, which vigorously promoted orientation change as the best hope for gay Christians, even while evidence piled up that such change was extraordinarily rare. By talking in terms of attraction instead of sexual orientation, ex-gay advocates were better equipped to treat homosexuality like a passing phase, a problem which might come and go as readily as a foot cramp.


In the end, the ex-gay movement didn’t turn out straight Christians. It turned out people who were confused and disillusioned and still gay, people inured in promises that never seemed to come true. Were they failing God, not wanting to change enough, not believing enough? Or was God failing them? Was he just a sadist, a fairy tale, an opiate for the masses that began with euphoria and ended with a brutal letdown?


The diminishing popularity—and, in some cases, the total collapse—of ex-gay ministries in recent years reflects more than just a changing cultural landscape. It speaks to decades of human casualties, people damaged by the broken promise of change. Many LGBTQ survivors of ex-gay theology have given up on their faith altogether, choosing to hate God rather than to hate themselves. Others cling to faith with tired, bloodied fingers, like castaways clinging to driftwood in a storm, able to believe in God only in spite of what the church has told them.


In its plainest interpretation, the phrase “same-sex attraction” isn’t necessarily an endorsement of sexual orientation change efforts. But language is good at taking on baggage that reaches far beyond its plainest interpretation, especially when the rise of its use is motivated by a particular societal moment. Take the phrase “All Lives Matter” as an example. In its plainest interpretation, this phrase simply means that everybody’s life matters. But when spoken in response to the “Black Lives Matter” movement, as a way of rejecting narratives about disproportionate police brutality against people of color, “All Lives Matter” comes affixed to a specific political agenda and takes on a meaning distinct from its most obvious meaning.


Words’ histories don’t define or limit their possibilities in the current moment. But when we use words without confronting their histories, we risk communicating messages we never meant to communicate.


The point, then, is not that SSA language is always and only ex-gay. Rather, the point is that this nomenclature rose to prominence through the influence of the ex-gay movement. In fact, the ex-gay movement deserves much of the credit for our current evangelical obsession with the terminology of sexuality. (This is a relatively new obsession, after all. C.S. Lewis, back in the old days, had no qualms about referring to a sexually abstinent same-sex-oriented man as “a pious male homosexual.”) When ex-gay ministries like Exodus International began to recognize that they were accomplishing little in the way of turning people straight, they started laying an even greater emphasis on the necessity of a terminological shift from “gay” to “SSA.” As long as people stopped calling themselves “gay,” these people could be tabulated as success stories of the ex-gay narrative. If their orientation couldn’t be changed, at least their label could be.


Most LGBTQ people tend—quite rightly, in my view—to be repulsed by anything that smacks of ex-gay thinking. For many of us, because of its history, SSA language calls to mind “decades of human casualties, people damaged [and lives lost to suicide] by the broken promise of change.” Can you blame us for searching out a different label?


Concern #2: Missional Ineffectiveness


If you asked me for tips about how to use language thoughtfully when communicating the gospel to those who don’t yet believe it—or those still deciding whether to believe it—I’d give you at least three suggestions:


  1. Use contextual language most likely to be understood by people.
  2. Steer clear of linguistic taboos that unnecessarily shut down relationship.
  3. Avoid reinforcing false perceptions of Christianity that exist among the people you want to reach.


Guided by these three suggestions, I worry that SSA language has little merit in terms of missional effectiveness. Beyond the walls of the church (and even inside some walls, especially among younger people), “gay” communicates far more clearly than “SSA.” As evidenced by phrases like “being born gay” (which, if it were to occur [i], would always precede sexual activity) and “coming out as gay” (which often precedes sexual activity), most people attuned to Western cultural discourse don’t understand the word “gay” as necessarily including sexual activity. Rather, we take it to mean something like “experiencing persistent (exclusive) attraction toward the same sex.” Nor does “gay” always imply a particular political presence or an affinity with the preponderance of the LGBTQ community, as the existence of people like Milo Yiannopoulos and Chadwick Moore demonstrates. Some LGBTQ people might argue that these two and others of their ilk are an embarrassment to the LGBTQ community; but I’ve never heard anyone argue that the political and social affinities of Yiannopoulos and Moore make them no longer gay. In short, if we’re looking for the word that the most people in the West take as the most straightforward name for attraction to the same sex, “gay” is that word.


“SSA,” to the contrary, has no such clarity. To some, it sounds like impenetrable Christianese—not malicious, but also not something meant for them. Those LGBTQ people outside the church who are familiar with SSA language likely know it within the context of ex-gay ministries—and this, as I’ve said above, is hardly an honorific connotation to carry. Whether or not those who use “SSA” intendit as a subtle nod to the virtue of orientation change, it is easily received that way by LGBTQ people. Why would I want to use a term that causes unnecessary offense among the very people I’m trying to communicate with?


Finally, on the matter of false perceptions: I know far too many LGBTQ people (and really, wouldn’t one person be too many?) who have heard and believed that it’s impossible for them to be both gay and a follower of Jesus. When I call myself gay, I have the privilege of automatically confronting the lie that “being gay” puts a person irreparably outside of the love of God. On this count, SSA language is a missed opportunity. When we refuse to acknowledge ourselves as “gay,” we not only distance ourselves from others, but we risk subtly reinforcing the condemnation for which Christianity has become tragically and rightfully infamous.


Concern #3: Insufficient Critique of the Christian Status Quo


Perhaps I’ve been implying until now that “SSA” is better for communicating to comfortably ensconced evangelical Christians, whereas “gay” is more effective among other crowds. In one sense, this is absolutely true: “SSA” is far more easily received by the evangelical powers-that-be, whereas “gay” tends to be a disruptive term in these circles. But I’d like to propose that the disruption of “gay” is actually a remarkably healthy thing for these ensconced evangelicals.


I’m not a rabble rouser by nature. This is one of the reasons why, as I said in my last post, the obsequiously evangelical part of me would have preferred to identify as SSA. But one of the dangers of choosing language that fits too comfortably within a given community is that such language tends to foster the prolongation of the status quo. When our language is less confrontational, we less automatically confront the attitudes and habits of our evangelical communities—including those that merit confrontation.


SSA language fits comfortably within church systems where singleness is treated as inferior to marriage. It fits comfortably within church systems that revolve around the nuclear family and leave unmarried people starving for intimacy. It fits comfortably within church systems where same-sex-oriented people will be urged to pursue sexual orientation change efforts, and where their success or failure in these efforts will be used to measure the depth of their love for Jesus.


That is, SSA language fits comfortably into status-quo evangelical Christianity, and status-quo evangelical Christianity continues to be guilty of all these things.


To be clear, I’m absolutely not saying that people who use SSA language are always complicit in the church’s current crises vis-à-vis sexual minorities. I know many remarkable followers of Jesus who call themselves “same-sex attracted” and are vocally opposed to these facets of the Christian status quo. I’m deeply grateful for these friends, and I cheer them on in their worthy work. But I sometimes wonder if their choice of a less confrontational label means that the depth of the radicalness of their message may at times be lost on those who hear it.


When I call myself “gay” in evangelical spaces, I commit the Christian-cultural equivalent of pulling a fire alarm. “Gay” declares without apology the likely permanence of my state during this lifetime and the need for Christian churches to seriously reckon with the presence of people like me in their midst. In the moment of its utterance, “gay” can’t help but critique the evangelical status quo. One way or another, I’d love to see more of my same-sex-attracted sisters and brothers join me in pulling this fire alarm.


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[i] I’m inclined, in keeping with the best research I’m aware of, to answer the “nature vs. nurture” question by saying, “It’s complicated.” But my point here is not to weigh in on the nature/nurture debate, about which I am happily agnostic. My point is that the very framing of this debate (“can you be born gay?”) suggests, at least on the progressive side of the conversation, that “gay” is a thing people can be independent of any decision they make in response to their experience of sexuality.