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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30 thoughts on “When Definition Undercuts Mystery

  1. I rather like labels. It helps me define myself, my place in the world and helps me process others’ reaction to me. I think some people are extremely rigid and defensive about roles etc out of fear. The fear is that may have been wrong about things all along. The thought that they have invested their entire life in something that may not be right for them is too painful.

    • There are some labels that I find helpful too. I find the label “lesbian” helpful. And I think you’re right about one of the reasons people hang on to some labels so tightly. I guess I don’t have as much of a problem with labels and categories themselves as I do with the rigid definitions some propose for them. -Sarah

  2. This is so beautiful…and so heartbreaking when hearing how people call you out of your name and sacred self understanding…and so moving when I see your peace and confidence despite that and willingness to speak your truth and protect yourself without attacking anyone else. It’s also a model for me as I begin writing a requested blogpost on a similar thorny issue: the pros and cons of men claiming the title of feminist.

      • Honored to, Sarah, and I would really appreciate your prayers as I continue to write it for a deadline one week from today. I am asking that progressive men express their support with humbler terms like ally, supporter, or male pro-feminist due to some really painful experiences by men (some egregiously sexist and hostile to loving confrontation, some just clueless and more open to dialogue) who confidently proclaim themselves feminists and then trashtalk nonfeminist women and/or deny the term to feminist women they disagree with like prolife feminists. So I want to speak the truth in love, as persuasively and prophetically as I can (to men and also the well meaning women who enable this behavior!)…and I want to share a bit about the personal experiences that led to my stand, calling out hurtfulness while not transgressing the bounds of charity.

  3. “It seemed to me the height of disingenuousness, absurdity, and indeed disrespect to tell someone it is okay to ‘be’ gay, but not necessarily okay to engage in gay sex. What do they think being gay means?” (Georgetown University Law Professor Chai Feldblum, now head of EEOC, in a 2006 Becket Fund conference) I got the same response from a local gay activist in debate some years ago.
    This no doubt is something akin to what Daniel meant. By that view, anyone who’s celibate is presumably unsexed, ungendered, sexless or whatever term you prefer. But it’s a common view, still, and remains for me the main reason why your blog’s title remains jarring and seems open to great misinterpretation.

    • I’m sure this is akin to what Daniel meant. Yes, we’ve received a lot of feedback about our blog’s title. I believe it’s a good thing that the title is jarring. It challenges people to look beyond the title and see what we’re about, and also to see that LGBTQ Christians are not all exactly alike as some people assume. We’ve gotten several emails from people who have begun to rethink their opposition to LGBTQ identity markers as a result of reading our blog and other people’s blogs. It’s a risky title, yes. But we put considerable thought into it before beginning the blog, and we think it’s worth the risk. -Sarah

  4. I think it’s important to keep our priorities straight (no pun intended 🙂 ). We are second to Jesus Christ and the Word of God. What we want, what we believe, how we behave should be colored by that, rather than the other way around. By that, I mean prioritizing our own experiences *over* the word of God, and using our desires to determine what God really meant. And I see this error on both sides of the gay-straight issue.

    For me, I know I can be wrong about a lot of things and I probably am. I’m human. I’m fallible. My desires are MY desires. And hopefully, they align with God’s desires as well. But whether they do or don’t, my driver must be his Word and not my experiences. I must at least be *trying* to align my will with his, not his will to mine.

    I see this on both sides of the debate. So I admit that I may be wrong about what the Bible *means*, I may be wrong about God’s *intent*. I may be wrong about what is literal, what is not, what can be set aside, and what cannot. But at the end of the day, I have scripture to guide me. It’s the only solid anchor I have. And if I’m wrong about what the anchor means, then I’m wrong. But at least God is my anchor, not society, not issues, not poverty or wealth or the topic-o-the-day. What do I think the Bible says, and then go by that.

    I am hesitant to say how I interpret it, but let’s just say I interpret it more liberally than evangelicals and more conservatively than most in this audience. Nevertheless, the greatest commandment is to Love the Lord your God with all your being, and love your neighbor as yourself. That doesn’t say whether LGBTQ is right or wrong, or ordained or not, or part of god’s design or not. It says love your neighbor, and the body of Christ is forgetting to do that.

    Here’s what I see: I see LGBTQ people who have come to different conclusions than I have, yet we seem to be focused on the same prize: Jesus Christ. How can that be? I don’t know but maybe, just maybe, there’s more to this than my piddly mind can wrap itself around. Maybe, just maybe, you’re on to something. Maybe, just maybe, love should come first and let God sort out the particulars.

    I say all of that to say this: I know what I think the Bible teaches about the LGBTQ issue. And I know I’m not the smartest guy in the world. So I set my focus on Christ, do my best to do what I think he wants me to do, and love people with all my might. Because there ARE gay people, and they were created by God, and I do not believe gay-straight is a choice. Ever. So that leaves me in a bit of a conundrum about how militant I want to be about what *I* think God meant … the gospel according to Mike.

    • I want to add that I do not think experiences are irrelevant. On the contrary, neglecting people’s experiences is, I think, the primary reason we have issues like this that no one is willing to cross. Your experiences matter! My experiences matter! I’m just saying they don’t determine what scripture is. Our experiences are reality, and they need to be acknowledged in light of scripture. I’m just saying if our experiences make us want to make scripture say something it doesn’t, that’s a dangerous proposition. And I’m speaking to people on both sides of the issue. Evangelicals do it as much as everyone else – they take their straight experience and use it to carve scripture into a shiv to be used against the LGBTQ. That’s not right.

      • Hi Mike. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us today. I think when engaging in this discussion, it helps to realize that we don’t know everything and we all have blind spots. None of us knows the answers to all the questions. I totally agree with you on these points, and I admire the humility with which you approach these conversations. It’s something I hope to emulate. -Sarah

  5. It sounds like you’re asexual and that would make you different from people who are lesbians. If you’re asexual there’s nothing hard about celibacy. This is the first time I knew you didn’t have sexual attractions after I read your blog. I thought you and Lindsey had sexual feelings for each other. It sounds like you don’t have sexual feelings very much. Have you heard about asexuality? It sounds like celibacy is easy for you. If that’s so it’s cruel to think things about LGBT people that don’t have things so easy. You really shoudl have said you were asexual before you started your blog.

    • Hi Belinda. No, I am not asexual. Yours is the first comment we’ve received on the blog itself suggesting that I am, but other folks have suggested it on Facebook and Twitter, so perhaps there’s something I need to clarify about this post. It’s true that I am not sexually attracted to Lindsey. I stated this in the post. But that doesn’t make me asexual. It just makes me not sexually attracted to my partner. I do experience sexual attraction to women, and like I said in the post, even that is pretty rare. Yes, I have heard of asexuality. No, the fact that I don’t experience sexual desire often does not mean that a celibate way of life is easy for me. To the penultimate sentence in your comment: I’m not sure what you mean. Could you clarify? I don’t know what things I think about LGBT people that you perceive as cruel. -Sarah

      • If you don’t have more sexual attraction than that you are asexual, or if you like “gray-sexual” (experience minimal sex drive) even if you don’t like that word. People are what they are and they need to accept that. I meant it’s cruel to tell other LGBT people what it’s like for you to be celibate if you’re really just asexual.

        • Hi Belinda, I usually let Sarah respond to comments on Sarah’s reflections. However, I perceive that it’s definitely time to remind you of our comment policy. Specifically, I’d like to stress the following: “Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. … Practice being human.”

          I find it wholly inappropriate for any person to grill another person about how often he or she experiences a desire for sexual congress. It’s not a question I can imagine asking my parents, and that’s sort of the line we have chosen to draw around what questions are considered respectful. Sarah and I both respect that there are certainly some LGB people who consistently, regularly, and frequently experience a desire for sexual congress with members of their same sex on a daily basis. However, I would never contend that a certain level of sexual desire is an absolute requirement for choosing a letter of the alphabet soup. I don’t spend much, if any, time questioning how often friends experience sexual desire. I can freely accept that the phenomenon of desiring another person sexually is often fleeting, elusive, and even mysterious. Additionally, the desire for sexual congress is a particular kind of desire that also sits alongside desires for other forms of physical, emotional, and spiritual intimacy, where it is entirely possible to have a very strong experience of an LGB sexual identity without having frequent desires for sexual congress.

          We share our experience as a celibate, LGBT, Christian couple because 1) other LGBT friends wanted to learn more about our life together and 2) we have done a lot of hard work to understand the nature of celibate vocations in our modern context. As we shared very early on in our blogging, celibacy ought not be defined as “the absence of sexual relations.” We have postulated that we understand celibacy as being principally about vulnerability, radical hospitality, a shared spiritual life, and commitment.

          As we share our experiences on the blog, we always invite readers to share their experiences. Yet, it’s absolutely critical that people respect one another. Your comments on this post not only judge Sarah in an wholly inappropriate manner, but they also make a number of unfounded assumptions about how I experience my sexuality. You say precious little about your own experiences, and we would be entirely interested in learning more about you and your journey with faith and sexuality. -Lindsey

          • Well it doesn’t matter that you say gay and lesbian if you aren’t doing it and say you’re never going to do it for the rest of your life. I am married to my wife. That is all you need to know about me.

    • Belinda, I understand why maybe you think that, but asexuality isn’t the same as celibacy, and it isn’t the same as a low sex drive either. People that are asexual don’t want to have sex with anybody because they don’t have the want for sex at all. This post didn’t write about asexuality.

      • I know it’s not the same as celibacy. They should write about that instead of celibacy if that’s how they feel.

  6. As someone who has always experienced very frequent and strong feelings of sexual attraction to other women (although these do ebb and flow, at times in my life having been near constant and at others being fairly rare), I don’t think there’s any basis for someone to tell you that you’re not a lesbian because your feelings of sexual attraction are fairly rare, but it does make me wonder how much empathy you can have for those of us with stronger sex drives. Do you think celibacy is a calling more suited to those whose libido is fairly low to begin with? Or that God/prayer/etc is keeping your libido low, and all of us could have as little interest in sex if we were living more like you do?

    • I’m not sure if empathy can be quantified. I try to be empathic toward every person I meet regardless of differences in our experiences of life. Empathy doesn’t require being able to relate 100%. And I’m glad it doesn’t because if it did, I’d probably not find another person on earth who could empathize with certain aspects of my life. I’m probably not the best person to give advice on managing a higher sex drive while trying to cultivate a celibate vocation. Lindsey experiences sexual desire more frequently than I do, so even amongst the two of us our perspectives on dealing with desire are very different. To answer your questions: 1) No, I don’t think celibacy is a calling better suited to those with a lower sex drive. There are (and historically, have been) people who have higher and lower sex drives living celibate vocations. St. Mary of Egypt is a good historical example of a person who almost certainly had a high sex drive, but went on to live as a celibate. 2) I do not see myself as a good example of someone who prays as much as she ought. I struggle constantly to maintain the prayer life to which God calls me. I fail often in that regard. I do not think for an instant that being more like me will result in having less interest in sex. I believe that my lesser sexual desires are part of who God made me to be, but I don’t know why or how that is. -Sarah

      • “I do not think for an instant that being more like me will result in having less interest in sex. I believe that my lesser sexual desires are part of who God made me to be, but I don’t know why or how that is.”

        Oh, the wisdom in that statement! If humanity as a rule could take this position on their lot in life, whatever it is – the position that that “I do not think for an instant that being more like me will result in [my virtue in you]. I believe that my [God-given abilities in my virtue] are part of who God made me to be, but I don’t know why or how that is.”

        We all have God-given strengths and weaknesses, abilities and disabilities. What a beautiful picture of the body of Christ!

        Romans 12:4-8
        4 For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 HAVING GIFTS THAT DIFFER ACCORDING TO THE GRACE GIVEN TO US, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

  7. Identity is such a personal thing, and I find labels so helpful for personal definition, that to me, turning personal labels into matters of objective truth that can then be weaponized and moralized over is disrespectful to the point of being offensive. It drives me nuts when I hear Christians invalidate LGBTQ language, and it’s baffling and frustrating to me that anyone might define sexual orientation based on sexual activity or even sexual desire alone.

    I am hetero, and–maybe like Sarah–I am far more prone to experiencing emotional and romantic desire than physical desire. But the way I relate to men and look to them for affirmation, consolation, and a host of other things has never left me with any doubt that I am oriented toward erotic relationships with men. Why the rules would necessarily be different for lesbian or gay orientation, I can’t imagine.

    • We were just having a conversation about LGBT vs. SSA language today. It seems to us that not only is there an ideological difference about which language a person should used, but there’s a generational difference as well. It seems to us that many more conservative people in the Baby Boomer generation are uncomfortable with LGBT language because it comes across to them as necessarily political. We hardly know of anyone our age who sees his or her sexual identity as necessarily tied up in a specific approach to politics. It also seems to us that people of other generations have a harder time seeing how one can value an LGBT label without elevating it above one’s identity as a child of God. -Sarah

      • As someone who fits into the “conservative people in the Baby Boomer generation” I think your assessment of us (me, at least) is spot on. I perceive the phrase “LGBT” with a political edge to it. So you may be right – it may be purely generational. Your last sentence was also true of me on a “reactionary” basis. I’ve learned not to, but it’s like I had to “undo” something in my core to get here.

        I LOVE this blog because you screw with my head – you mess with my theology. I love it!

      • “uncomfortable with LGBT language because it comes across to them as necessarily political.”
        Hm.
        I’m of a younger generation, and I don’t feel that way about “LGBT” and the terms it acronymizes, but I do feel something like that about “queer.” It feels to me like it comes with a lot of political stance.

        • That is interesting. We don’t really associate either LGBT or queer with political movements. We’ve always interpreted “queer” to mean “none of the other terms feel right for me, or I know that one of them fits but I’m not sure which one.”

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