“Gay” is the first word I remember being afraid of.
I’d been afraid of plenty of other things before then. Afraid of robbers. Afraid of serial killers murdering me in a dark alley. Afraid of skeletal shadows cast by the plastic clothes hangers just visible from my open bedroom door at night. But I’d never been afraid of words—not even obscure five-syllable words I had to look up in the dictionary while reading Calvin and Hobbes cartoons. I didn’t know what it felt like to fear language until I discovered the word “gay.”
Of course, it wasn’t just the word that scared me. I also feared the internal experience it named, that unwelcome middle school discovery of my attraction to other guys. But mostly, I was afraid that my name and the word “gay” might end up in the same sentence. I was afraid of being discovered, of being labeled, of having people whisper about me as I walked by, “Have you heard he’s gay?”
It never crossed my mind to think of “gay” as synonymous with sexual activity or even same-sex lust. Years later, when people would tell me that the word “gay” was by definition inseparable from a particular set of behaviors called “the gay lifestyle” (whatever that was), I wondered who had written our dictionaries so differently. As I understood the word “gay”—as most people seemed to understand it—it simply meant you were attracted to the same sex. And that alone was plenty to terrify a good Christian boy like me.
I knew evangelical Christian subculture well enough to know what havoc “gay” could wreak on a person’s reputation. And truth be told, I was fond of the A-Grade Evangelical Reputation that came easily to me in my teens and early twenties. I was fond of leading worship, of preaching, of being sought out for theological discussion and wise counsel. I was fond of having people believe me when I said I loved Jesus.
“Gay” was the Jenga block at my tower’s tottering center, threatening to bring everything crashing down the moment someone pulled it into the open.
Short of becoming straight (which eluded my best attempts), there were three ways I could think of to avoid “being gay.” I could stay in the closet forever, never needing words for my sexuality because I would never need to speak of it. I could eschew labels of any kind and speak only in circumlocutions. Or I could choose the label preferred by my ex-gay-leaning evangelical friends, “same-sex attracted,” as a way of distancing myself from the dreaded “gay” and its accompanying stigma.
All three strategies held some allure for me. But one by one, like Jenga blocks, they were pulled away, leaving my Evangelical Reputation ever more precarious.
The closet was the first to go, in a slow-but-steady stream during my early twenties, then all at once at the age of twenty-six with a Facebook post and a book contract. So much for Jenga block #1.
In my earliest comings out, I spoke of my sexuality exclusively in long, tortuous sentences, bending over backwards to keep labels out of my vocabulary. Eventually, this dance with language began to feel counterproductive. I’d already spent most of my life trying to avoid my sexuality. Avoidance hadn’t made me any holier then, and it wasn’t making me any holier now. If I was going to speak about sexuality at all, I figured, I might as well speak efficiently. I might as well confront with my words the same realities I was confronting in my heart. Adios, Jenga block #2.
I don’t regret taking my time as I journeyed into the brave new world of labels. Labels adopted prematurely or foolishly can force people into damaging patterns of life and behavior, making these patterns feel inevitable on the basis of who we think we are. If I were to discover that the adjective “gay,” or even “same-sex attracted,” committed me inevitably to any brand of sexual immorality, I’d back away in a heartbeat and spend the rest of my life speaking in circumlocutions.
Then again, when we find a truthful adjective that communicates effectively to others, eschewing that adjective is an equally unwise move. Labels, at their best, help us understand ourselves and others more clearly, equipping us to respond well to the world around us. When we reject every attempt to categorize with language, we miss out on this insight. (As Silvio tells Lionel in the Netflix show Dear White People, “Labels keep people in Florida from drinking Windex.”)
So came the final decision: if I was going to take up a label, which one would I adopt? Would I be “same-sex attracted,” in keeping with my good-church-boy persona of yore? Or would I face down my old linguistic fear and use the word I’d been using in my own head for years? Would I call myself “gay” and let the Jenga tower fall?
Neither of my choices came without historical baggage. Neither seemed to communicate perfectly to all the people I wanted to speak to. And I didn’t have the luxury of inventing a perfect new word for myself. (Language, alas, is not a solo sport.)
In one sense, I would have preferred to choose “same-sex attracted.” I could have fit more comfortably into my evangelical circles by speaking fluent Christianese. I could have clung to every available strand of Evangelical Reputation, even if it meant distancing myself from other sexual minorities in the process.
If I had chosen to call myself “same-sex attracted,” I would have done it in an effort to prove to other Christians how much I loved God.[i] But ultimately, I decided, it mattered more for other LGBTQ people to know how much God loved them. I wanted them to know that no one is disqualified from following Jesus on the basis of sexual orientation. And the best way I knew to say this was to use the language most LGBTQ people used; not to distance myself from them, but to draw relationally and linguistically near.
In Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable of a Pharisee who prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector” (v. 11). Left to my own devices, this is the prayer I’m inclined to pray: the prayer of the Good Upstanding Evangelical, the guy making sure all his religious friends know how different he is from the tax collector beside him. But this is precisely the prayer Jesus declares worthless.
When I chose to call myself “gay,” I had to let go of at least this one tiny fraction of my pride. I had to give up on drawing artificial lines between myself and other LGBTQ people, when the most that could possibly differentiate me from anyone else was some theological conviction and a whole truckload of grace. I had to give up on proving to the religious crowd how much I loved Jesus and invest more effort in simply loving him.
I was right to fear the word “gay.” It wreaked havoc on my Evangelical Reputation, exactly as advertised. For that, I’m grateful.
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[i] I know that not everyone arrives at “same-sex attracted” terminology this way. My friend Laurie Krieg tells a nearly opposite story: how much she would have preferred, for the sake of her pride, to identify as “gay”; and how God, for the sake of her humility, led her to call herself “same-sex attracted.” Humility, I daresay, isn’t a one-size-fits-all affair; like J.K. Rowling’s boggart, its shape is constantly shifting, according to the particular needs of the person being humbled.