A reflection by Sarah
Over time, I’ve grown accustomed to hearing the claim that no Christian should use words like “gay,” “lesbian,” or “bisexual” to describe himself or herself. I’ve heard just about every variety of this opinion. Some Christians holding a traditional sexual ethic argue that “same-sex attracted” is more appropriate as a descriptor because the other terms are necessarily linked to the “homosexual agenda.” Others, particularly straight people who would do not understand how LGB people define our terms, say that using words like these means identifying with sin. An extension of this idea is that adopting any label for one’s sexuality is a denial of one’s true identity as a man or woman made in God’s image, and of one’s identity as a Christian. These statements differ slightly, but they all posit that any identity label other than “man,” “woman,” and “Christian” (or perhaps specifically Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant) is ungodly and should be avoided at all costs.
My reaction to these claims? As my favorite high school English teacher Ms. Chafin would have said, “Horse feathers.” In all my years of trying to learn what it means to practice a Christian sexual ethic, I’ve never once come across any evidence that describing myself as “gay” or “lesbian” has caused me to forget the saving work Christ has done and continues to do in my life. Further, it seems flagrantly hypocritical that people who chastise LGB Christians for our preferred labels have no trouble describing their own identities as multifaceted (i.e. a Christian who is also a white, Republican, Kentuckian deer hunter). But at the same time, on some level I can understand the concern that theoretically, using identity descriptors of any kind could cause misplacement of priorities. I’ve experienced this myself, but in a manner irrelevant to my sexual orientation. Though I’ve been a Christian my entire life, for several years I did not see “follower of Christ” as the core of my identity.
Since before I started school as a young child, I’ve thrived on academic challenges. Nothing made me happier than to visit the home of my paternal grandmother, a retired elementary school teacher, and work my way through a reader three or four grade levels above mine. In eighth grade, I was a member of my middle school’s first-ever state championship academic team. In twelfth grade, I became the first student from my high school ever to bring home an individual title at the state academic championship. During my younger years, I was an intolerable know-it-all much like Hermione Granger. My number one goal in life was to achieve as much as possible academically . I knew that I didn’t fit well with the culture in which I was raised, and concentrating all my energies on earning straight A’s and exceptional test scores was the only means of individuating I knew. I could be “Sarah” by being “the achiever.” This pattern continued with me into college and graduate school, and eventually the new standard of achievement became presenting as many conference papers and publishing as many articles as possible.
Somewhere along the way, the desire to learn got lost and the compulsion to achieve took over completely. Though theology and other humanities subjects were my primary areas of academic work after high school, my spiritual life suffered because I struggled to remember the big picture reasons I had wanted to study these subjects in the first place. One might think devoting so much time to learning about theological developments would lead to a greater sense of connection with the Christian identity, but often this was not so for me. It was only about five years ago that I began to see how dependent my sense of self worth was on academic achievement. A therapist I was seeing at one point asked me a very simple question: “Who are you?” Immediately, I began to reply that I was a graduate student and a young teacher within my first few years of classroom experience. She cut me off mid-sentence. “That’s what you do,” she interjected. “I asked who you are.” It occurred to me then that I had no idea how to answer the question without focusing on my perceived accomplishments…and that terrified me.
Now, my priorities are different. It’s been a couple of years since my last conference presentation, and I don’t find myself obsessing over the achievement checkboxes very much anymore. I’ve made a decided effort to be more intentional in my work, and to remind myself frequently that studying (especially in theology) is not meant to be a self-serving pursuit. I’ve sought a lot of counsel from spiritual directors about how to direct my love of learning and my interests in theology toward the greater purpose of glorifying God. It became a bit easier to curb the achievement obsession when I entered my late twenties and realized that in life, there are no gold stars for super achievers. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not interested in becoming an underachiever. Hard work is necessary to achieve one’s goals, yet there’s a whole lot of life (most importantly, life in Christ) to be missed when trying so desperately to be the best at everything.
Currently, I live in a city where such a statement is considered anathema. Here, more so than many other places, one’s worth is determined by one’s highest recorded salary and level of social and political connectedness. When I first moved here, I was in a relationship with someone who considered me a pathetic failure for being unable to crank out my doctoral dissertation (which I’m still working on) within her preferred time frame. Even though I’ve come see life as more gratifying and purposeful when I focus on being Sarah instead of “Sarah the super achiever,” I’m still learning how to cope when others disagree with me on that.
Returning to my original point, I do understand in some ways why conservative Christians might feel compelled to warn LGB Christians about the dangers of becoming encapsulated by an identity marker not clearly tied to Christ. That said, I wonder why none of the people who have admonished me to stop identifying as a lesbian have ever seen a problem with the overachiever identity that actually did draw me farther away from Christ. In fact, many of them were my greatest encouragers to be the best, achieve the highest, and think little of the negative consequences. Some of my acquaintances who insist that identifying as a lesbian means identifying with sin have been equally quick to tell me, “Being a good person gets you nowhere in life. Having a long list of accomplishments is far more important than being virtuous. You’ll have time for virtue when you’re old.” There’s an obvious double standard here.
I do not mean to suggest that all conservative Christians have cultivated this attitude. If that were true, I would feel very worried for the future of the Church. However, I do believe the pressure straight Christians place on LGBT Christians to identify with certain terms rather than others is unnecessary, and is often counterproductive. It’s also disproportionate to reactions against other types of potentially problematic identity markers. Lindsey and I don’t like to do much advice-giving because we consider ourselves poorly suited to it in most circumstances, but I’ll close with these thoughts: working through the unhealthy parts of my own self-concept has helped me to show greater empathy to other people whose preferred descriptors don’t meet with my approval. Still, I’m far from perfect at subduing the entitlement I sometimes feel to question another person’s identity markers. Lately, I’ve been thinking that it might serve all of us to focus more internally on our own varieties of ungodly identity and less on presuming to know exactly what’s going on in another person’s mind and heart.
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