When Definition Undercuts Mystery

A reflection by Sarah

“You’re not really a lesbian, Sarah.”

“Why? What do you mean?”

“You like girls, but I can’t see you ever having sex with one, much less having a real relationship with one. If you really are a lesbian, you have sex with women, or at least want it.”

It has been 11 years since my friend Daniel and I exchanged these words over chicken tacos in our college cafeteria. I’ve thought about this conversation on a handful of occasions over the past decade, but never so strongly as within the past week. As I’ve perused the usual blogs and news sources that make their way into my reading queue, I’ve been surprised at how many posts and articles have led me back to the memory of my conversation with Daniel and how it marked the beginning of our friendship’s end.

For as long as I can recall, I’ve had an uneasy relationship with labels and categories, especially those with rigid boundaries that seem arbitrary. Labels and categories have utility. I’m not denying that. But almost always, attempts to define where lines should be drawn result in privileging some experiences while disqualifying others altogether. Because my own experience of sexuality and sexual orientation is not what most would consider typical, I’m entirely uncomfortable with drawing neatly-defined categorical boxes around LGBTQ terminology. Furthermore, I consider the search for one common factor that qualifies certain people but not others as LGBTQ to be a fool’s errand.

More frequently now than ever, I see people defining sexual orientation in a narrow manner. Some people will say that sexual orientation is all about sex or the desire for the sex, or that it should be defined primarily by sexual desire even if it encompasses multiple attributes. Others believe that sexual orientation should be defined by a person’s current level of sexual activity, or the sexual orientation/gender identity of a person’s partner. These ways of defining sexual orientation are often rooted in the definer’s experience of sexuality. If one experiences one’s own sexuality as a desire for sex, then it can be easy to assert that everyone of the same sexual orientation experiences sexuality in this way. I can understand the temptation to this because in the LGBTQ community, it’s common for people to gravitate towards others who have similar experiences of sexuality. For some, having shared definitions for terms like “gay” and “lesbian” provides a sense of unity and comfort.

However, I did not come out as a lesbian because I had an acute, burning desire for sexual intimacy with people of my same sex. For most of my life, I’d had an inkling that something about me was different from other females I knew. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what that meant or what was at the core of it, but everything began to make much more sense once I met other lesbians. Over time, I started to see sexuality and gender as profoundly mysterious. I came to believe that the mystery of sex, sexuality, and gender exists to draw us deeply into meaningful relationships with other people.

As I reflect on my conversation with Daniel, I can’t help but ask myself why we are so uncomfortable with the idea of sex, sexuality, and gender as mystery. Sometimes, answering with “It’s a mystery” is a cop-out and an attempt to quiet discussion. Yet as I take this approach to understanding myself and my lesbian sexual orientation, I am amazed at how much I continue to learn about what it means that I and others around me are sexual beings. I find myself eager to explore further what exactly it means that I am a lesbian, trusting that as God teaches me more about myself I’ll be brought to greater awareness of what my sexual orientation means as part of my identity. Let me be clear: I am not confused about my sexual orientation, and I do not expect one day to wake up and be straight, bisexual, or of some other orientation. But I do believe that God still has much more to show me about who he has created me to be.

Had I not come to a sense of peace in approaching sexuality as a mystery and accepting that it might be beyond definition and categorization, I wouldn’t have been able to make any sense of my sexuality and sexual orientation whatsoever up to this point. I am a lesbian. I experience attraction to women. Occasionally that attraction does include sexual thoughts. However, I experience sexual desire rather infrequently. I can’t even remember the last time I had a desire for sex. I am committed to sharing life with a partner whom I love, but to whom I am not sexually attracted, and who has trouble picking out which letters of the alphabet soup are the best fit. We’re committed to living a celibate way of life together. When I discuss my sexuality with others, some people will assert that I’m not a lesbian if I’m not having sex. Others will say that perhaps I used to be a lesbian but am no longer because I haven’t experienced the desire for sex in such a long while. Then there are those who will tell me that “partner” is not the right word to describe my relationship with Lindsey because I’m not sexually attracted to Lindsey. This latter group will assert that friendship is the only term that can rightly describe our relationship, or that we must be lying about our commitment to celibacy and failing to see that we’re just imitating marriage. Some people assert that I cannot know my sexual orientation because Lindsey hasn’t yet decided on a particular label for Lindsey.

At times, dealing with these assertions becomes maddening. If I were to devote any amount of my precious energy to sorting how my experience squares with established definitions instead of rolling with the terminology that feels most right to me, I wouldn’t have any strength left to focus on loving other people. And one thing I can say for sure about my sexuality is that every part of it involves a broader pattern of loving, relating to, and interacting with others.

I find it irksome when conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity become so caught up in definitions that differences in lived experience never enter the discussion. Eventually, Daniel’s insistence upon defining my sexuality for me led to the very painful decision that ending our friendship was necessary. Lately, I’ve seen the same pattern of conversation happening when it comes to issues of LGBTQ people in the Church. People across a wide range of positions look to rigid boundaries around what it means to be LGBTQ. I wonder if people are so protective of labels and categories because they believe that keeping definitions narrow and based on their own experiences is the only way to ensure that their voices are heard. I wonder if we fail to leave space for the mystery of sexuality and gender because many people see labels and their definitions as valuable guideposts. Perhaps there’s a fear that saying, “I don’t know” in a conversation about sexuality gives critics a new opportunity for attack. But sometimes, at least in my experience, the more I learn about my sexuality, the more I see how little I actually know about this mystery. And sometimes, “I don’t know” are the three most freeing words I can possibly say.

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