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

  1. I pray that you will find a path forward for the time being which allows you time to heal and gives you as much spiritual sustenance as is possible. I ask God to open the hearts of your church community with genuine empathy and understanding.

  2. I’m Praying for you two! Keep up the good fight.

    It takes God’s Spirit, and time to do the work you are doing. When both of you faithful ladies show up on Sundays and shine the light of Christ through your words and actions, people do take note. They may not change their minds quickly, but many will over time.

    It helps when people know ‘who’ we are before knowing ‘what’ we are. As sad as that is, and as small as that little three letter word is, it is what I have discovered over the years. It is impossible not to notice that our ‘gay’ terminology is like waving a red flag in front of a bull to many Christians. My approach is a bit softer these days…my gay brothers and sisters may think I’ve sold out, or am settling for less than I deserve…I just prefer to use my actions rather than words to try to win this battle. Using St. Francis of Assisi as my role model.

    Blessings, Laura

    • Hi Matt. Thanks for reading, and for your prayers. I *will* return your email as well. I’ve been a bit exhausted, but you’ll hear from me soon. -Sarah

  3. This is an important contribution to the ongoing discussions in many faith traditions. More importantly, it is, sadly, a post born out of years of unkindness, misunderstanding, and alienation, by brothers and sisters who do not imitate the Head of our Family.

    • I was very sad that I needed to write this post. Praying for a day when such posts are no longer necessary. -Sarah

  4. Lindsey and Sarah,
    I can so relate to that pain of alienation, and frustration, and exhaustion, when it comes to being stuck in the middle of this destructive culture war – a “war” in which so many people seem largely uninterested in the fundamental human desire, to be known wholly and graciously, that motivates LGBT Christians (and non-Christians) to claim whatever identity label fits them best.
    My heart goes out to you. I have so appreciated your own prayers for me – I left a pretty angsty comment several months back – and I just want you to know I am certainly thinking of you, and praying for you when I do pray.

  5. Thanks. I go back and forth on whether or not to use the term “gay” to describe myself.

    I would not say that I’m exclusively attracted to members of the same sex. As Matt remarks in his post, I think it’s far broader. One of its manifestations lies in having a predominant attraction–whether sexual, aesthetic, interpersonal, physical (non-sexual), and/or emotional–to members of the same sex. But I think it’s broader than that. When I meet other people who are gay, I find that we share certain common ways of viewing the world that non-gay people lack. For example, when I came out of the closet about a year ago, I first came out to my three closest male friends. I had never felt any strong sexual attraction to any of these guys, but did feel a certain camaraderie with them that was difficult to explain. They saw the world in the same way that I did, and I didn’t have to explain myself to them. In all three instances, these guys responded that they too were closeted gay guys.

    We live in a hyper-sexualized culture that bombards us with messages that seek to persuade us that nearly every desire we experience has its fruition in sex. So, it’s probably not an accident that we tend to accept the notion that “being gay” is about wanting to have sex with others of the same sex. So, in electing to be a celibate gay person, we’re not just denying ourselves something that’s allegedly central to our identity as gay people. To the contrary, we’re freeing ourselves to put the culture’s assumptions aside and to explore the broader contours of what it means to be gay. I find that to be far more fascinating than the banal act of sleeping with another guy.

    Now that the stigmatization we’ve faced is finally receding, it gives us the freedom to come out of the closet and to start exploring what it means to be gay. I feel like throwing myself into a same-sex relationship is too simple of a response to that freedom. Besides, I’m 40 and have largely lost the sex drive of my 20s. Any sex drive that remains is expended by my triathlon training.

    • I think you’re bringing up a good example of why it’s best to let people define themselves on their own terms. There are different generational associations with different terms, and we also change our relationships with terms over time. -Sarah

  6. Sarah –

    Thank you so much for this. I appreciate your vulnerability. It’s a gift.

    I too, am exhaused…and it’s of my own doing. I’m not sure which of you I was conversing with via twitter during the ERLC, but those contributions were awesome…thank you for that.

    I was particularly offended that Matt Moore tried to disinvite affirming Christians like me from the communion table saying he wouldn’t consider us siblings in Christ. Luckily for me, that’s not his invitation to revoke.

    Mark Yarhouse, in his book Homosexuality and the Christian, identified two (non-peer-reviewed) “scripts” by which people develop their sexual identity. The first is to accept sexuality and synthesize it as part of one’s person, the second is to reject it and find identity in Christ. This language has been adopted by many conservative Christians and has been used to shame and stigmatize gay people. [My personal favorite is “you’re making your identity something God calls an abomonation.”]

    The whole argument is bogus, of course, unless it also applies to anyone who is straight.

    It’s so disheartening to me that Julie Rodgers and Mark Yarhouse are out there teaching this shame-based message to youth pastors (The next one’s scheduled for next week – I’m not sure if you accept links, but I’d be happy to link to the presentation).

    Sorry for the rambling thoughts. My sincere best to you.
    Ford

    • Hi Ford, thanks for your comment. Sorry for the delay in response. You were talking with me (Lindsey) on Twitter so I thought it would be best for me to reply.

      The dialogue on all “sides” of the debate can be exhausting indeed. It can be hard to find respite.

      I have some personal familiarity with Mark Yarhouse’s research. He employs qualitative research methods in order to make a series of claims. As a qualitative researcher myself, I can appreciate the challenge of smoothing the data into coherent, useful narratives. My own experience with faith and sexuality suggests that there are many nuances in how people integrate the two together where each story has its distinct texture. Research in general privileges the majority stories, and it’s all too easy to try and force-fit a minority story into the larger narrative.

      Youth pastors face similar challenges as elementary school teachers in that youth pastors are expected to have all the answers when it comes to Christian youth. We haven’t seen what Julie Rodgers and Mark Yarhouse present, especially as we keep our video viewing to a minimum. If there’s a text-based link, we’d be happy to take a look!

      Best,
      Lindsey

  7. Hey,

    Keep in mind that my personality tends to be more analytical than emotional…more matter-of fact, if you will. I’ve received a whole lot more flack from that than I ever have for being sexually broken. I like the Jesus that called a spade a spade; vipers, hypocrites, white washed tombs so much more that the Mr. Rogers version we normally see.

    *** 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.***

    That sentence should cause you great pause…All of this because of the word “GAY”. If you are going to use the word you are going to have to put up with all the confusion surrounding it. It does not have one universal meaning for everyone. For that reason alone we should tread with extreme caution on where and when to use it…and learn to not take personally the animosity surrounding it when we do.

    “Our “gayness” is more than who we are attracted to”.

    I read this a lot, it seems to be the battle cry of the so called “Gay Christian” crowd”.

    I think you guys put way more into this being “gay” than you should. It’s detrimental and confusing to the general population. What’s the difference between you guys and the latest celebrity who comes out as gay? The general public certainly sees no difference…

    If you must cling to the gay label, try this…from Peter Ould.

    I’m post-gay because I chose to leave “gay” behind. I chose to no longer accept “gay” as an explanation of who I am and instead I begin a journey away from it. I chose to do so because I am convinced from the Scriptures that “gay” wasn’t a suitable way to describe myself, that it isn’t a valid way for a Christian to establish an identity. I am compelled not just by reading the normal passages on the subject but also from the story in John 8:1-11 of the woman caught in adultery. In particular Jesus’ last words to her are “Go now and leave your life of sin”.

    He doesn’t magically transform the women from a harlot to a saint, but rather simply gives her an instruction of direction – leave this place you’re at (adultery) and move on from it. His command is vectorial, not ontological. It is the call of discipleship – it says “follow me to wherever I take you – I don’t promise you riches or immediate perfection, but I do promise you hope”.

    This is why post-gay is a far better description for those who have left homosexuality behind. It describes a journey away from a false identity constructed around one’s emotions and a true one constructed in following Jesus. For some of us that journey involves changes in our sexual orientation, perhaps marriage and kids. For others they see no change in their sexual attractions, but they have left behind the place of false-identity, of seeing themselves as “gay” and that as a defining a unchangeable aspect of their being.

    Some aspects of that journey have been clearly marked for us. A dispassionate reading of the Scriptures shows very clearly that God didn’t intend for us to have sex outside of the marriage of male and female. So I can see very clearly that that life option (same-sex activity) and those things that celebrated it (“gay”) were not the direction God wanted me to take. But other parts of the journey only become apparent as we set out to walk the road God has called us onto.

    Our solidarity should be with fellow pilgrims on this same journey called discipleship, not with fellow LGTB..efg’s?, who for the most part are on a different journey.

    The church is slowly coming around, they are starting to see the difference between people and their particular struggles, but when you guys INSIST on being called “Gay” is just confuses the issue. Some church’s have now gone beyond the pale in trying to appease the homosexual lobby by blessing same sex unions.

    Please rethink your position, carefully? Try getting out of your own head and seeing it from the straight worlds point of view, and go from there.

    • Hello JDJoe,

      We’re also very inclined to call a spade a spade when we see one. It seems like you’re holding “analytical” over “emotional” in an attempt to assert that the only perspective that matters is that of the straight, or heterosexually-attracted, Christian. If you want to get into matters of white-washed tombs, we can certainly go there in the future.

      Emotional realities are as much a part of reality as any other facet of human experience. Building relationships requires understanding emotional realities, even when a person operates in a different emotional space than you do.

      It’s amazing to us how so many people can attend to nuances in other aspects of life. If one introduces oneself as a teacher, one is likely to get a whole host of questions in an attempt to triangulate just what teaching means. If parents brag on their child’s military experience, most American Christians won’t have their thoughts jump immediately to “Trained (and likely experienced) Killer.” We’ve seen plenty of people stumble around asking us respectful questions about who we are, what we do, and how we understand life together. The people who are most inclined to harass, belittle, and demean us are those who have never made any effort to have even a 5 minute conversation with us (about any topic).

      When talking about sexuality, every word imaginable carries with it some baggage whether we’re talking about gay, lesbian, bisexual, post-gay, ex-gay, same-sex attracted, celibate, queer, homosexual lifestyle, or homosexuality. We’re not people who would tell Peter Ould how he ought to describe himself or his journey. However, we’d invite you to get to know us and our lives before asserting that the ways we live out our celibate vocations are in a matter consonant with adultery.

      It’s very strange that you would say that we INSIST on being called “gay” when you know nothing about us and how we conduct ourselves in church. We are incredibly aware, that from the straight Christian’s world point of view, there are remarkable tendencies towards gossip, slander, hostility, anger, and malice when Lindsey has the gall to darken the doorstep of a church. We experienced how the straight Christian world was perfectly happy to interact with Sarah until a) this world met Lindsey when Lindsey attended church and b) this world had to deal with Sarah’s changing abilities to hear the services.

      Dealing with difference is hard. Casting aside our preconceived judgments for the purpose of honestly getting to know others is exceptionally challenging. Doing life with people who grate on your nerves the instant they walk in the door is next to impossible. Yet, those seem to be the normative expectations Christ established for the Church. And so we press on setting our eyes on Christ.

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