Part 1: A bit of history and a lesson in semantics
I’ve wanted to write on clarifying our use of identity language for a few weeks now. It started back when the “blogisphere” was lit up with the Louie-Giglio-inaugural-prayer situation (you can read all about it here, here, here, here, here, and … well, there are plenty more posts, but you can Google it if you happened to be out of the loop).
That incident and the barrage of social media’s use of the term evangelical got me to really thinking about what that word REALLY means versus what the identity label has come to mean. Which, of course then reminded me of the same problem that we have in the study of and writings about sexual identity.
You see, in it’s bare, stripped-down meaning, evangelical means to proclaim good news. The root word, evangel comes from the Greek euangelion which is good news, gospel. So in reality, if you are an evangelical, you are someone who tells other people good news. But how many of us honestly hear “you are someone who tells others good news” when we hear about another evangelical in the media? There is so much negative connotation now with this particular identity label that I personally don’t want any part of it. Though I do desperately want to be someone who tells other people good news…I don’t know about you, but I hate sharing bad news.
And if we then turn to the study of sexual identity and check out what those labels really mean, we again come up short. Because, as most of you know, gay really means to be cheerful or joyous, lighthearted. A lesbian is really a person from the Greek island of Lesbos. And queer is strange or odd. But none of those meanings is what we hear today when someone is called gay, lesbian, or queer. We often hear (at best) “homosexual,” “a man who loves men,” “a woman who loves other women,” “someone who is artistic or creative,” “someone with differing sexual preferences,” and so on. At worst we hear “fag,” “dyke,” “pervert,” “sinner,” “abomination,” and at times for gay we hear “stupid” or “idiotic.”
It seems, for many of these identity labels that we place on ourselves and others, that the negative connotations tend to win out over the more descriptive or more accurate meanings. But society has a way of shaping culture. And movements of people banning together to make statements also shape cultural ideals.
For instance, more socially conservative and outspoken Christians who like to share the good news of the Gospel of Christ very loudly and boldly without much grace or tact can do a really good job of ruining the label of evangelical for all Christians who just like to tell people about the Jesus who saved them from themselves and whom they dearly love.
The same has been true about the labels we use for sexual identities. One just has to remember the late 1960’s and 70’s (that is, if one is old enough to remember them—for the rest of us, we have to watch movies or read about the era). There was a tremendous sexual revolution; people who had been marginalized and beaten and jailed and killed for their attractions and behaviors finally fought back and started to make their presence known in society. And many wanted to do so highlighting their joyful, lighthearted natures.
Thus, in addition to calling themselves homosexuals (which is not really a noun, by the way), they called themselves gay. Granted this term was used prior to the ‘60s to indicate that someone was a sexual minority, but it was not done so as proudly, boldly, and so fervently as during this cultural shift.
Unfortunately, it was also during this time that many negative connotations were associated with the label “gay.” One of which was sexual promiscuity. This mentality—that all gay people are sexually promiscuous—seems to have stuck around and still plagues us today.
What we see is that over time, and through societal and cultural shifts, words gain different meanings. At the same time, they are very powerful. Words create reality. This is true across the globe and throughout history. So with these changes in meaning and the power associated with words, we need to be mindful of the words we use and how we use them.
This hasn’t been the greatest history or semantic lesson, but I wanted to give you a little background before going off on my next rant…
Check back for part 2 tomorrow!
In Christ’s love and mine…