What’s in a Name? LGBT, SSA, and Alphabet Soup

Sharing one’s story as a celibate LGBT or same-sex attracted Christian, single or coupled, rarely comes without controversy. Many people experience a good deal of cognitive dissonance when they first meet folks like us, often navigating some degree of paradox. How can a person be both LGBT and celibate? Why is it so important to talk about issues of sexuality in the first place? Why might a same-sex couple regard celibacy as an important aspect of their partnership? As we’ve been blogging, we have seen several different attempts to reconcile our own story, and the language we use to tell it, with a range of preconceived notions about sexual orientation, gender identity, spirituality, and theology.

Celibate people navigating questions of sexual orientation and gender identity frequently choose between two sets of descriptors. Increasingly, people have shown willingness to use one or more LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender) terms to describe their experiences. However, many others prefer to describe themselves as SSA (same-sex attracted) or struggling with SSA. Because the two of us prefer LGBT language and do not view our sexualities as struggles, people ask us a barrage of questions: “What do you think about people who advocate for gay marriage? If you’re celibate, shouldn’t you shun all language associated with the LGBT community, including partnership? Why don’t you spend more time describing your struggles against homosexual sins? Shouldn’t you describe yourselves as people who experience same-sex attraction instead of LGBT?” At the same time, we’ve noticed that people who have stories markedly different from ours also get bombarded with questions: “If you’re a guy who’s sexually attracted to guys, what’s the big deal with saying that you’re gay? Wouldn’t it be better for you to get a boyfriend and settle down? Are you simply using the language your church wants you to use in a desperate attempt to please people?”

Questions are not bad things. But at times, those who pose questions do so in attempt to convince the recipient to change his or her mind. Every leading question hides myriad assumptions about what is best while also asserting, whether implicitly or explicitly, that the questioner already has the answers. We’ve noted that this conversation trend seems especially pronounced when people discuss what labels best describe a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity, or inquire as to whether any label should be used at all. Even among celibate LGBT/SSA people, there can be considerable controversy regarding labels. Some people feel very strongly about always using particular monikers, while other people see the language they choose as a question of “What fits best, so I can communicate with my current audience?”

LGBT/SSA Christians navigate their personal questions of coming out very differently. Within some conservative Christian traditions, there are concerns that using LGBT language could lead a person could adopt an ungodly identity. People on both sides of the linguistic divide can appoint themselves representatives of the language police. Overlapping concerns of sexual orientation and gender identity can lead to questions about how gender is used in the world practically. Voices from all corners can forget that particular terminology arose in response to specific cultural controversies. Equally, people have navigated questions about what terms mean in diverse contexts. For example, the word “gay” is likely to have a different meaning for a person who used to frequent gay bars in order to find nightly hookups than it has for a person whose introduction to LGBT people happened at an inclusive church.

Because non-celibate people do not always understand why celibate LGBT/SSA people choose the language we use to describe ourselves, we thought sharing a bit about our own processes might be helpful. From our perspective, it is important that all people have language they can use to their describe their own experiences as they understand them. We respect that every person has unique considerations when determining what language he or she is going to use. We believe that fostering civil conversation about LGBT/SSA people and the Church requires telling stories with integrity. We would never deny an individual the opportunity to tell his or her personal story, and we resist weaponizing narratives from a certain subset of the population to enforce a single linguistic code as uniformly acceptable.

Growing up, Lindsey did not have much exposure to the LGBT community. Once Lindsey started exploring sexuality-related questions in high school, Lindsey resisted counsel from secular gay organizations that seemed to advocate for sexually active relationships as a necessary means of self-acceptance. An introvert, Lindsey has never had any particular interest in going to gay bars or attending any event where the only commonality between people is sexual orientation. Lindsey has typically gravitated much more towards opportunities for Christian fellowship, but in college found resistance within a number of ministries aimed at young people. Many of these ministry organizations considered any LGBT affiliation a cause for scandal but tried to help people conform themselves to cisgender, heterosexual norms. These groups taught that a subset of cisgender, heterosexual people occasionally “struggled with same-gender attractions” but that Christ could empower everyone to live a holy life. Lindsey grew increasingly disillusioned about how these groups treated Scripture, failed to establish any sense of positive community, and constantly assumed everyone was seconds away from acting out sexually. Eventually, Lindsey connected with the Gay Christian Network and appreciated how this organization encouraged LGBT people to focus on Christ’s light and love as empowering holy living. Lindsey has always had a slightly complicated relationship with various letters of the alphabet soup, but appreciates the umbrella nature of LGBT to capture the nuances of Lindsey’s experience, however imperfectly.

Sarah had no exposure to the broader LGBT community until college. During Sarah’s formative years, Sarah heard significant vitriol from family members and occasionally from folks at church anytime the word “gay” arose in conversation. Within religious contexts sexuality was never discussed, so it took Sarah several years to make the connection that the word “gay” had anything to do with sexuality. As Sarah began to ponder questions of sexual orientation and seek spiritual counsel, Sarah’s spiritual directors dismissed these questions. Immediately, some asserted that defining oneself as gay or lesbian would be the same as defining oneself as a murderer or a rapist, so it was best for Sarah to say “I struggle with same-sex attraction.” However, Sarah knew people who were openly LGBT, both celibate and non-celibate, who were not promiscuous or living the stereotypical “gay lifestyle,” and this was confusing. For Sarah, over time the term SSA began to seem like a tool used to oppress and clobber people because Sarah’s spiritual directors aggressively forced the language. Sarah understood sexuality as being a broader construct than simply one’s sex drive or the kinds of sexual encounters one would like to have. For Sarah, sexuality was about a pattern of relating to the world. From Sarah’s vantage point, the term SSA was much more focused than LGBT language on sex and sexual acts, so using the language of SSA would actually go against the spirit of the spiritual director’s counsel. Eventually, Sarah met a priest who could understand that Sarah’s experience of sexuality is about far more than questions of desire. Sarah uses the word “lesbian” because Sarah does not see sexual orientation as being principally about wanting to leap into bed with a person of a particular sex. In Sarah’s view, sexual orientation involves perception of beauty, human connectedness, and comfort in one’s own skin.

Having said all of this about our own experiences, we also understand why some people feel more comfortable using the language of SSA. Some folks experience extreme distress when they realize their sexual attractions are oriented towards members of the same sex. When these people go through puberty, they might ask themselves, “Why do I like people of the same sex instead of the opposite sex like all of my friends?” Describing oneself as same-sex attracted, for some, can be an effort to assert a reasonably high degree of sameness with other people, i.e. “I have the same moral values you do, but I’m attracted to people of my same sex.” We understand that people can experience sexuality in very different ways. There are people who see sexual desire as the defining attribute of sexuality. When trying to live chastely, it’s not uncommon for some to experience intrusive sexual impulses they want to resist. If these impulses are constantly directed towards members of the same sex, then a person might say that he or she “struggles with same-sex attraction” and wants to make moral choices that align with a celibate way of life. The widespread availability of pornography can also impact a person’s sexual development by providing a particular lens of what it means to be gay or lesbian. Rejecting the label of “gay” might be an effort to distance oneself from gay pornography or other highly sexualized parts of the gay community.

We’ve only scratched the surface as to why people might prefer using LGBT, SSA, or other monikers to describe their sexual orientations and gender identities. Nothing in our reflection should be read as a comprehensive explanation or applicable to all people who use a particular term. We’d love to hear from our readers about why you use the language you do to describe your own sexual orientations and gender identities. Additionally, we’re curious about how you decide what language best describes a friend’s sexual orientation and gender identity. We look forward to some excellent discussion in the comment box.

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13 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? LGBT, SSA, and Alphabet Soup

  1. I recently met a man in my community who, when he discovered I was a minister, introduced himself saying “Hi, I’m ___, I like men, I don’t like any of those letter things, so just know me as ___.”

    It never crossed my mind to question him about why he didn’t want to be labeled by letters, so when you say questions are not bad things, I immediate thought, “Yeah, but they are pretty darn condesending when the questioner assumes they know anything about that person.”

    Seems to me that no one should ever assume that another person requires any particular label. I answer to my name and my title, but they do not define me. Why are folks so concerned with labeling each other? ___ taught me a valuable lesson. He taught me to get to know him as a person, not as a letter of the alphabet.

    Love you both and your blog, I am inspired and reminded frequently that God calls us to some truely wondrous and beautiful callings. Peace.

  2. I love your analytical approach. For me, when I’m referring to my friends, I have no problem referring to them as gay or lesbian. When I’m talking to church people (I run in conservative circles), I’ve never paid attention but I probably use SSA terminology more, because using the phrase “LGBTQ” in church causes immediate defenses to go up and the conversation is dead. In a LGBTQ environment (that is, talking with friends comfortable with the subject), and I would have no problem using “LGBTQ.”

    Maybe in some sense, “SSA” is Christianese for “LGBTQ” and I’m OK with that. If I need to speak their language to keep the conversation alive, that’s cool. Whatever.

    Just because I’m comfortable with the terminology doesn’t mean anyone else in my circle of influence is, so I tailor it to keep the conversation alive. Not that we talk about homosexuality much anyway. The big thing, I think, is LISTEN to your audience and then use language they are comfortable with. It’s not hypocritical to be kind.

    • Thanks Mike. We’re glad that this post resonated with you. “Use the language of your audience” is great counsel when trying to build authentic responses. It’s also worth noting that many people will explain what they mean by certain words. Asking, “I’ve heard you using _____ to describe you (or your group). Could you tell me how you understand the word _____?” can show you care about really listening to the person with whom you’re talking.

  3. I use lesbian or gay because “ssa” (the only time I see it) is when someone is talking about gay being a choice, reparative therapy, etc. So I literally get a stomach pain from the quotation.

    • Hi Bridget, thanks for sharing how your stomach responds. We know that SSA that is very commonly found in groups advocating reparative therapy. Where you first encounter a word definitely colors its enduring definition.

  4. So far I highly appreciate your bloggings. I have a hard time finding Christian and gay meshed together, let alone in a context I can read and well….respect. like similar blogs seem more political ( and a no go…because traditional. I tend to be in the middle) while you both focus more on the spiritual. This is just more approachable. I like your use of lgbt terminology, it’s endearing vs homosexual or ssa. I identify as a lesbian because of my attraction and to some extent my relationship. I would prefer using gay or queer because I dislike the way lesbian sounds out loud.

    • Hello! We’re glad you’ve found our blog. We always enjoy meeting new readers. We know many people who share your perspective on the word “lesbian.” The language we use to describe ourselves should naturally flow off the tongue.

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  6. Thank you for your insightful comments! I always know I am enjoying and uniting with an article when I catch myself saying “uh-hu” out loud while reading! I have wrestled with the apparent conundrum of labeling, identification, and “name” calling as I have come to acknowledge the nature of my sexual orientation. For me, I feel compelled to consider my orientation through the broader lens of sexuality. I have come to realize that sexuality is not merely sexual or erotic attraction towards other people (regardless of gender or orientation) but also includes the manner in which I love and relate to other people. If my sexuality is one of the most intimate reflections of how I am made in the image and likeness of God then I must do God, others, and myself justice by acknowledging the way in which I love. I am gay…..and in a moment of light-heartedness “practicing Catholic non-practicing lesbian”.

    • Hi Kacie. Your description of sexual orientation being broader than sexual or erotic attraction really resonates with us. I see my sexuality is being primarily about relationships with other people in general and not confined to sexual desire. Thanks for commenting. We hope you will return and interact with us again. -Sarah

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