On Otherness, Alienation, and “Don’t Say Gay”

A reflection by Sarah

Last night, I dreamed of myself lying on an operating table, wide awake as my own blood pooled in my open body and began to drain from it. The surgeon loomed over my torso, aware of my consciousness and abject terror but unable to see that I was dying. He tugged at my innards, working calmly and methodically, remarking several times along the way that he understood my pain but cared too much about my wellbeing to try a different protocol. Then, I woke up.

Once again, I’m writing a post on a day when we don’t usually publish. I’m doing this not to be dramatic or whiny, but because during the past four days I’ve reached new levels of spiritual exhaustion, and while I’ve attempted to reach out to others for support I still have a profound sense of alienation. As I write, I feel as though I’m bleeding out spiritually and no one from within my tradition is noticing — least of all, those whose counsel I have trusted and respected since before my conversion. And all of this began with quibbles over a three-letter word and its impact upon straight, conservative Christians.

I’m not about to give you a detailed defense of why the word “gay” is an acceptable layer of identity for a Christian who is exclusively attracted to people of the same sex. There have been several brilliant blog posts written on this topic already. I find more resonance with some of these than others. If you’re a straight Christian who is wondering why gay Christians find the word “gay” so important you should begin by reading these items by Joshua Gonnerman, Wesley Hill, Melinda Selmys, Jeremy Erickson, Julie Rodgers, Brent Bailey, and Eve Tushnet. In the future, I would like to write my own post that delves more deeply into the compatibility of “gay” as a cultural identity with “Christian” as my most important identity, but for now I’ll just link Lindsey’s and my post on why we call ourselves a celibate LGBT Christian couple and a past reflection of mine where I talked about gayness and Christian identity on a very basic level. I’ll also be completely forward in admitting that my thoughts on this topic need more time to marinate before I can articulate a full defense of the term “gay Christian.” Anyway, moving on…

I’ve noticed an increase in language policing lately, both in my parish and in the blogosphere. A couple of days ago, I found this blog post by Matt Moore who claims that he “loves Jesus too much” to refer to himself as a gay Christian. While I respect Moore’s own personal story for what it is, his post smacks of condescension, implying that same-sex attracted people who identify as gay love Christ less than those who don’t. (Gay Christians who read it and were left with a similar impression as mine should be made aware of Andrew Asdell’s response piece.) Reading Moore’s post was especially painful this week because I was (and still am) incredibly emotionally raw from a conversation that Lindsey and I were involved in after church on Sunday. If you’ve been reading our posts recently, you’re probably already aware that we’ve had some challenging experiences related to acceptance within our parish. Most people have come a very long way and are slowly coming to embrace us as part of the community, and for that we are grateful. Given that, you might be wondering, “What’s the problem? People are starting to welcome you. What more do you want?” To put it bluntly, the problem is that because we are being welcomed any instance of unwelcome we attempt to address is thrown back in our faces, blamed on the fact that we identify as “gay.” This is true even when there is some acknowledgement that Person X or Person Y was behaving inappropriately toward us.

To be clear, we are not claiming to be victims or martyrs. We are members of the Body of Christ, just like every person at our church, and our stories matter. Our lives matter. No one in our Christian tradition would argue otherwise. Many would likely cite how much they love us and care about our lives as their primary reason for admonishing us to find identity in Christ and reject terminology that’s easily associated with sin. What goes unnoticed — sometimes willfully ignored — is the spiritual toxicity of this admonishment when it’s offered to gay Christians. We’re all different, and it’s true that some Christians with same-sex attraction don’t find it helpful to use the word “gay.” I don’t advocate forcing anyone to use the same language as I use for myself. I believe that the best way to understand a person’s individual needs is to have a candid conversation with that person. In that spirit, here is what I have to say to Christians who think policing LGBT language is a good idea:

If you tell me to turn away from the word “gay” because it keeps me from finding my identity in Christ, you are refusing to believe me that the most sacred, treasured layer of who I am is my identity as a follower of Christ. If you tell me this in one breath and state in the next that I’m an exemplary person (which is far too high a compliment for me), you’re sending me mixed messages. Is something in my behavior leading you to question my commitment to Christ and my willingness to make sacrifices in order to follow him? If so, why are you calling me exemplary? Cognitive dissonance much?

If you imply a hope that at some point in my spiritual journey I will grow out of using the word “gay” and come into a holier form of identity, you are not hearing me when I tell you that understanding myself as “gay” has only increased as Christ has drawn me nearer and nearer to himself over time. You are communicating to me an assumption that people only begin to see themselves as gay when they have fallen away from God. That is not my story. Though I have been through periods of living as an especially bad Christian, I had never yet been sexually active at the time when I came out as gay. If I thought it would do any good, I would explain in detail how much I’ve changed for the better since coming out. I would tell you how strange my family and peers thought I was as a child, how I began to notice in the 3rd grade that my perception of beauty was different from that of other girls, and how at that age I experienced my first crush on the teenage girl playing the lead role in a community theatre show. I’d fast-forward to the 7th grade and tell you how baffled I was to realize that the feelings I had for other girls were the same feelings all my female friends had for boys, and how I dated the same boy throughout high school to force myself into opposite-sex attractions that would never come. I would tell you how devastated I was when we broke up because I truly believed that he was the only person in the world who would put up with such a freak. Then, I’d detail my journey of self-acceptance. I’d glow while sharing with you the peace and connectedness to Christ that I felt when I could finally say, “I’m not a mistake. I’m just gay. God didn’t mess up when he created me.”

If you say that my using the word “gay” might cause a weaker brother to stumble because the majority of straight people think all gay people are sexually active, you are making excuses for my brother’s sin and asking me to take responsibility for it. This tells me that you care more about my brother’s welfare than mine, and you’re not fully willing to remind my brother that behaving hatefully and judgmentally toward others is a sin. Or perhaps you’re willing to talk to him about this — now that I think about it, you probably are. But you’re still blaming me to an extent for another person’s moral failing, and frankly I have enough moral failings of my own to keep track of without worrying about someone else’s. Not that I want to be a source of scandal, but obsessing over other people’s neuroses is not spiritually healthy. And let’s be honest: people in the Church have a nasty tendency to be scandalized by things that are not scandalous, then respond by scandalizing the person who was supposedly the source of scandal in the first place.

If you tell me that “gay” is an inappropriate word for a Christian to use for herself, you are communicating to me that there is nothing that makes my experience of life different from straight people’s experiences, and that any discrimination I face in the Church is not real. You may not be intending to do this, but you’re creating more space for even greater hostility by minimizing my experiences and telling me that offenses I experience must be projections of past hurt onto a current situation. In saying that I might encounter less hostility if I stopped identifying as gay, what you’re really telling me is that the easiest way to deal with discriminatory behavior is to ignore it and tell myself that I’m no different from anyone else. Bring on the pat answers and generic solutions for real instances of cruelty: “Someone talked about you in uncharitable ways at coffee hour? If you stop saying ‘gay,’ maybe he won’t do it anymore.” Reminds me of my fourth grade science teacher who advised that if only I’d cut off my long hair, maybe little Justin wouldn’t be so tempted to yank at my braid every five minutes.

If you are worried about what words I use to describe myself when I don’t even use them at church anyway, you are telling me that celibacy is not enough. Our Christian tradition teaches that sex ought not to take place outside of marriage, and marriage was intended to unite one man and one woman in an eternal commitment that is open to children. Okay. My partner and I are celibate and draw much of our model of doing life from monastic patterns of living. Our relationship does not include anything that our Christian tradition teaches as reserved for marriage. The tradition recognizes two types of vocations: married and celibate. We’re trying our best to figure out what a celibate life in the world ought to look like, and I think we’re not doing too terribly considering that non-monastic celibacy is a relatively new topic for discussion. Why isn’t that enough? How is it that I can be making every possible effort to live into the vocation to which God has called me, and a three-letter word has the power to diminish what I’m doing? Somehow, I just can’t see Jesus caring as much about the word “gay” as Christians do.

If you will not even consider my words when I tell you that I see being gay as a kind of “otherness” that is just as beautiful and valuable as other kinds of human differences, you are denying my experience of life. You are denying that I exist. This is perhaps the most detrimental, alienating, soul-crushing aspect of shaming a gay Christian for how he or she self-identifies. No, it doesn’t help to tell us that we do exist, but as people made in the image and likeness of God, not as gay people. I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument that gayness couldn’t possibly be a kind of otherness that is good and meaningful. Until I do hear one, I’m going to continue saying that straight Christians ought to listen to those of us who describe our experiences in this way. Not to suggest that racial minorities experience life in remotely the same way as sexual minorities, but saying to a gay person, “We’re all the same in Christ” is like saying to a black person, “The Church should be colorblind.” Try telling a black person that there is nothing good in the black identity, a poor person that there is no good in the poor identity, a Deaf person that there is no good in the Deaf identity, or an addict that there is no good in the addict identity. Try telling a Russian, Romanian, or Greek person that there’s no good in any form of ethnic identity. The reactions would not be pleasant. By telling me, “Don’t say gay,” you are attempting to strip me of a different yet equally meaningful cultural identity.

If you insist that “gay” means only what you — a straight, conservative Christian — think it means, you are closing yourself and your parish off from a vibrant, committed, faithful group of people who are eager to serve Christ. Instead of showing us love, you’re showing us the exit. You are telling us that you would rather we bleed out on the operating table than give us the support we need to heal from past wounds that other Christians have caused. You’re implying that policing the language of the LGBT community is more important to you than leading LGBT people to Christ. Don’t you realize that there are LGBT people who would love to be part of your church community if only you would help us with our real spiritual problems and stop assuming that the gay identity is a spiritual problem? You need to know that even celibate gay Christians feel unwelcome at church — even forced out — by your inability to consider how we understand identity. It might be easier to think after we’ve left, “They’ve fallen out of the faith. They’ve gone back out into the gay lifestyle because they love their homosexuality more than they love Christ.” I don’t know a single gay person who has left church because of a desire to have sex. Not one. But I know hundreds who have left because of alienation.

Speaking of alienation, that’s the emotional space I find myself in at present. In the spirit of our value vulnerability, I’ll admit that right now the idea of setting foot in church makes me feel hatred toward myself and anger at God and the Church. I don’t understand how it’s possible that the Church has failed so miserably to minister to such an expansive group of people. It makes no sense to me that even the best parish experiences I’ve ever had have come along with undertones of authoritarianism, spiritual abuse, and stubborn refusal to hear the cries of wounded parishioners. I don’t see why it’s so difficult just to be loving, and to reevaluate one’s approach when someone else points out, “I know you’re saying x, y, and z out of love, but these assumptions are causing harm to people who are different from you.” I have no idea what I’m going to do this Sunday, or any Sunday in the near future. When the options are 1) risk triggering depression and addiction in order to receive the Body of Christ at Liturgy, or 2) spend Sunday at home with Lindsey, God, and the angels and saints in our prayer corner, the decision is not straightforward. I have no intention of apostatizing. I love Christ far too much, and no matter the negativity I experience at church I simply cannot stop loving him. But I might need to be an inactive non-communicant for a bit. At the moment, it may be the best survival strategy I can pull together.

(In case anyone is about to tell me that I should “just go to an open and affirming church,” read this first. Also, stay tuned. Lindsey will be reflecting tomorrow on the same topic I addressed today.)

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