Saturday Symposium: Choosing a Letter of the Alphabet Soup

Hello, folks! It’s been another great week here on the blog. Some of this week’s discussions have taken off in directions we never would have considered. We like being challenged, so keep it coming. Our retreat last weekend was a refreshing experience. Thanks to everyone who prayed for us.

Now let’s discuss our new Saturday Symposium question:

How this works: It’s very simple. We ask a multi-part question related to a topic we’ve blogged about during the past week or are considering blogging about in the near future, and you, our readers, share your responses in the comments section. Feel free to be open, reflective, and vulnerable…and to challenge us. But as always, be mindful of the comment policy that ends each of our posts. Usually, we respond fairly quickly to each comment, but in order to give you time to think, come back, add more later if you want, and discuss with other readers, we will wait until after Monday to respond to comments on Saturday Symposium questions.

This week’s Saturday Symposium question: We’ve written before on the LGBTQ alphabet soup and why some people might prefer certain terms over others, and this week   Sarah wrote a personal reflection on the difficulty of defining LGBTQ terminology without undercutting the mysterious aspects of sexuality and gender. People have many different ways of determining what terminology suits them best, and we’re wondering what you think about choosing letters of the alphabet soup. Are there necessary “criteria” for identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer? For example, can a person who experiences romantic and emotional attraction to the same sex but not sexual attraction rightly consider himself/herself gay/lesbian? Does a person have to be interested in medical transition in order to identify as transgender? Is it even appropriate to attempt to qualify who is and who isn’t LGBTQ?

We look forward to reading your responses. If you’re concerned about having your comment publicly associated with your name, please consider using the Contact Us page to submit your comment. We can post it under a pseudonym (i.e. John says, “your comment”) or summarize your comment in our own words (i.e. One person observed…). Participating in this kind of public dialogue can be risky, and we want to do what we can to protect you even if that means we preserve your anonymity. Have a wonderful weekend!


Sarah and Lindsey

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18 thoughts on “Saturday Symposium: Choosing a Letter of the Alphabet Soup

  1. I believe the deciding vote on self identification belongs to the person involved both because life and people and sexuality are diverse and multi-faceted and especially self naming is a sacred right and calling people out of their names a form of emotional and verbal abuse–spiritual abuse also if done in a spiritual context. (Which is why it breaks my heart to see the two of you and other celibate LGBTQ people attacked in this way from both sides). As a bisexual woman in a long term straight marriage I struggle with when and how to claim my “B” because on the one hand I want to take a stand as a proud member of the queer community and especially to educate people about my orientation (I am delighted to hold this space for my kids, for instance)–and to fight the wrongness of the biggest myth about us, promiscuity. (Which is why I almost always modify the phrase in the previous sentence to “long term, faithful, straight marriage”–then think how much I hate that I have to!) Yet on the other hand though I have suffered greatly on the emotional and spiritual levels from the church’s homophobia–especially in the area of recovering from clergy sexual abuse–my marriage means I can pass as straight, usually do especially in church circles, and enjoy a lot of straight privilege–so I remind myself that I am a “junior member” of the alphabet soup family and try to be especially respectful and supportive of out folks who face discrimination on a daily basis.

    I think about this issue and these dynamics also as a female priest because some of us prefer Mother, some Reverend, and a very few Father (as in “if you’re going to call God and the male priest Father that’s what you’re calling me too!). Some Episcopal and Old/Independent Catholic communities, and some of our brother clergy, get that it’s our choice and make a point of respecting it–while some places have a double standard for male and female clergy (she’s Pastor or Reverend, and not from personal preference, and he is Father). And some brother clergy want to dictate our choices either to their own personal preference or through demanding a uniform standard for all women clergy rather than recognizing that the lack of one term as they have is itself a witness to the injustice of our being excluded from ordained ministry for the last eight-nine hundred years and the newness and sacrifices of our restoration….And that they can and should make a small step to support us and minimize the hurtfulness of their male privilege by taking the time to ask and to honor our preference–just as when privileged to celebrate a gay wedding I always ask whether they want to be declared husbands/wives, spouses, or some other option of, duh, *their* choice. The glorious memory of my own priesting was tainted for years because the male bishop who ordained me raised me from my knees, face shining in wonder and palms still dripping with oil–and violated me at that most sacred moment, by introduced me as “Fr. Laura” — the equivalent of calling us Mr. and Mrs. Husband’s Name at our wedding through not having bothered to ask and find out that I was keeping my birth name. In contrast to the case of my sister priests who choose this name for their own empowerment–as I choose Mother to honor both Mother God and the holiness of my own physical and spiritual motherhood of four precious souls, and the truth that this is a major gift that me like Jesus rather than the lie that it disqualifies me — he was taking the usual oppressor’s position of thinking the greatest compliment to an oppressed person is to be called an honorary member of the privileged group, e.g you. you don’t look/sound/act Black–and would never make amends. (Thankfully through the years, a lot of prayer, and the gracious generosity of so many people who honor and even delight in my priestly name–like the wonderful people here–have helped to finally heal that memory. And hopefully my respectful challenge to him after the fact taught him something even if he wasn’t, well, man enough to admit it!)

    • We agree that there’s a sense of sacredness in self-identification, and a person’s understanding of his or her own identity should always be respected. Thanks for sharing that story with us.

  2. I’ve always felt that while most people should be given the benefit of the doubt, there are limits on how far the ethos of self-identification should go. A person who regularly experiences attraction to men (or sleeps with them) is not a lesbian, even if she prefers women. And some people who identify as trans are confused or seeking attention and will eventually de-transition.

    I wrote in Slate Friday about how I’ve felt tempted, at times, to identify as something other than a woman, even though I ultimately stuck with a female identity ( While I didn’t go into all the details in the piece, many of the things that are true for some trans people are true for me as well- if it were cheap, safe, and easy I’d prefer not having breasts to having them, and I’ve often thought that my entire life could have been so much easier if I had just been born a boy because there’s so much about me that would fit better in this world if I wasn’t a woman. My feelings on why I haven’t chosen a trans or queer gender identity have a lot to do with sexism, and the worry that my impulse to distance myself from being a woman might come from a sexist place, but I don’t that there’s anything wrong with people who are similar to me who choose to identify as queer, genderqueer, etc, rather than as female. But, there are differences between border cases (like myself in regards to a trans or queer gender identity), and people who are just twisting the definition of some of these words completely out of recognition. At some point, words do need to have some sort of meaning to them.

    • So would you say the self-identified lesbian who sometimes sleeps with men must instead call herself bi?

      Analogously how about the many men in prison who consider themselves straight despite regularly raping other men? (Like the older boys abusing younger ones in British boarding schools, about whom C.S. Lewis remarked that many “would have preferred girls if they could have got them). Does this action (and/or the presence of at least enough desire to carry it out) make them gay?

      • “Lesbians” who sleep with men, plural, out of a sexual attraction to those men (so not just one time, and not for reasons other than feelings of attraction to those men) ought to call themselves bi. I’ve gotten into arguments about this before, but really, this is just a simple matter of words meaning something. Bi is the word we use for people who are attracted to men and women. Lesbian is the word we use for women attracted to women only.

        In the case of men in prison, it again gets down to attraction. It might be a nearly unanswerable question, but the men who have sex with other men out of feelings of attraction to those men ought to think of themselves as gay or bi. Those doing it for other reasons, not necessarily.

        Of course, at the end of the day, you just have to accept what people say their inner motivations/attractions are, but if we have words that mean “same sex attracted exclusively” and another word that means “attracted to both sexes” then they should be applied consistently, I think. Not just based on whichever word gives a person a good feeling.

        • Thanks for explaining your stance here. I guess these are the debates at hand–first, does lesbian/gay mean same sex attracted exclusively or just primarily? Which gets into who gets a vote, if there does need to be agreement/external standards beyond self-identification, which can be kind of circular if we grant lesbians, for instance, more of a vote which seems reasonable–but then have women in your camp and theirs both claiming to be lesbians. Which is complicated even more since research seems to show orientation is somewhat more fluid for women over their lifetime–and since it’s not a neutral/identical question for both genders in a male dominated society where some women are drawn to lesbian practice and/or identity out of feminism (analogously to some of your concerns about identifying as trans shared in your first comment).

          Second debate, how much does sexual attraction dictate orientation and how much can also be emotional attraction and other factors– often cited especially by celibate self-affirming LGBT folks defending themselves and their naming as such on both sides from some conservatives who say they are affirming sin or at least sinful tendencies and some liberals who say sexual attraction is the only or primary criteria. Eg the recent debates between Katie Grimes and folks at Spiritual Friendship.

          • I just went to read your linked reflections on gender and gender identity which are really cool, thanks…and couldn’t figure out how to comment there so am doing it here.

          • I’m not really trying to be the gender identity or orientation police, here. I always try to err on the side of taking people at their word, and I don’t think there are so many people applying these terms in ways I’d consider incorrect to be worth getting too upset over it.

            But when you meet someone and they tell you something that doesn’t pass the smell test- if they’re a lesbian who’s super into dudes, or a genderqueer that looks, dresses, and acts in ways that are totally congruent with their birth gender… I think it’s okay to think, and say if it’s appropriate, that they’re full of it.

            Asexual people, if they find their same sex romantic attractions to be significant, are welcome to identify as lesbian or gay as far as I’m concerned. As for fluidity- I’d call that bisexuality. I think people have a lot of discomfort with claiming bi as an identity. I’ve often called myself “theoretically bi” because, in theory, maybe I could find a man attractive- it’s just never happened yet, so I have to go with that. If I ever found myself experiencing opposite-sex attractions I’d be glad to call myself bi, though. No shame in it, as far as I’m concerned.

          • Thanks for sharing some more on your perspective–that’s really helpful. And appreciated as a bi woman myself since sometimes there is misunderstanding from general/heteronormative society that we are promiscuous and always need at least one partner of each gender or something…and sometimes harsh judgment or suspicion (sometimes meanish but also sometimes rooted in reaction to irresponsible experimentation and wild fluctuation by someone bi-identified) from the more solidly L or G side of the spectrum.

          • You have to be really wanting and doing gay things to be gay. It doesn’t count if it’s just emotional. That doesn’t matter to me. You have to want to do things with women if you’re a woman and with men if you’re a man.

          • Another question for especially for my L and G sisters and brothers: as a bi woman in a straight marriage how much am I part of the LGBT community and how can I support you? Is it helpful to the cause of justice and acceptance and education for me–when safe, given my work contexts of Christian theology and ministry– to claim membership? Junior membership?” To come out generally as queer and specifically as bi? I am torn between wanting to take a stand knowing the power of truth speaking and the importance of faithful Christians–whatever their diverse beliefs and practices on sexual ethics–coming out to support each other and educate society and especially the church. (Including about the widely understood B option). And it is healing for me personally given the inner trauma I have experienced from churchy homophobia esp. as a survivor–yet I really don’t want to ignore my extensive straight privilege cause of my marriage or co-opt an oppressed identity that does not belong to me.

          • I’d encourage you to come out to straight people as often and full throatedly as possible. I’d consider someone like you an asset to the wider LGBT community, a bridge between us and people who may think they don’t know any LGBT people, or that LGBT people are a breed apart, who can’t be found anywhere and everywhere that there are other people.

            Now, mind you, I’m the journalist who recently defended celibate LGBT Christians place in our community on Slate, which puts me a bit to the right of the mainstream among queer folks. But I’d encourage you to see your place in the LGBT community as being as valid and worthy as anybody else’s, and not to take those who would say different too seriously. Most of us have some form of privilege- this reality, while important to acknowledge should not negate our voices or silence our unique perspectives.

          • Thank you so much for these affirming and inspiring words…and the mission of coming out– whenever appropriate safe and possible– which I choose to accept! Especially given the typo in my question–the B option is misunderstood, obviously, not understood!

    • The conversation in this whole comment thread is really important, in our opinion. It’s a good discussion of the problems that exist when we don’t respect the way others self-identify and also the problems and confusion that can occur when we say that definitions don’t matter at all. Honestly, we’re not sure of how best to address these problems. We can see both sides of the issue, and though we tend to lean more toward saying that people should be able to identify as they want, we know that definitions and categories can be helpful for understanding how the world works. Thanks to all of you for participating in this conversation. It’s given us much to think about over the past week.

  3. While we are on the naming issue may I ask you two 1) how you refer to each other both in places where it’s safe to be out (teammate? partner?) and where it’s not (friend? roommate?) and why different options feel right or not?

    And may I ask other celibate couples 2) what kinds of words feel right for your relationship? In particular, I wonder if partner ever would or whether it is too culturally tied to sexually active LGBT unions?

    Thanks so much for considering these requests and if they are too intrusive please forgive me and let me know that so I can do better.

    • I responded to this a bit on your other comment on one of our other posts, but I’ll restate here in case others are following along. We usually refer to ourselves as “partners,” “family,” and “team” when it’s safe to use all three terms. Which one we select from those really depends on the day. Some days, we don’t feel as much like a team–perhaps we’ve had a recent argument about an important issue and are dealing with being at an impasse for that moment in time. And some days after such a conflict, we will feel even more like a team because we’ve worked the issue out together. That’s just one example, but on some days, some words feel more right than others. I think a lot of it depends upon what we’re learning during a given season of life about who God is calling us to be and what work God is calling us to together. When it’s not safe to be out, we just call ourselves, “Sarah and Lindsey.”

      As for other celibate couples, some of our friends in celibate partnerships who don’t feel comfortable leaving their own comment have talked to us about this. I think all of us in these kinds of relationships struggle to know what to call each other. Some use the word, “partner.” Others identify as “friends.” Sometimes, there’s disagreement even within the couple about how to identify. We hope that in time, more celibate couples will feel comfortable coming forward to share their thoughts on this topic and others.


  4. The mis-identification that I find bothersome is when an LGBT person claims that they’ve “come out of homosexuality” and become straight thanks to reparative therapy, exorcism, or plain old prayer in order to harass other LGBT people who haven’t experienced or don’t care to try for orientation change. Beyond that, I don’t feel any desire to be the orientation police for my fellow residents on the spectrum.

    • That’s a tough one for us. We strive to respect everyone’s stories and where they are at given points in life. We don’t believe reparative therapy and other orientation change efforts work or are helpful. We’ve had encounters with the ex-gay movement ourselves in the past, and we’ve been wounded by the associated rhetoric time and time again. But at the same time, when a person tells us that he/she “used to be gay” or “is no longer gay,” we don’t feel right telling that person, “No, you’re wrong. You’re actually gay and in denial.” People’s stories are complicated. Sometimes it’s hard to know how to respect where other people are during certain seasons of life. During the brief period of time when I identified as asexual, people would have been correct if they had told me that I wasn’t actually asexual. But because I wasn’t yet ready to admit that I was sexual, I wouldn’t have benefited from that. So, yes, the “come out of homosexuality” rhetoric bothers us. It bothers us a great deal. But it’s tough to know how to have conversations about that topic without becoming language police.


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