What it REALLY means to be gay and other identity labels: Part 2

Part 2: Why I disagree with someone I greatly admire

I absolutely love Justin Lee’s post from Sunday: When ex-gays aren’t ex-gay: It’s not about hypocrisy. It’s about language. He has so many things spot on and his gracious spirit exudes through his writing. I admire Justin greatly for many reasons. One of which is that it is evident that he is passionate and caring all the while wanting to correct misconceptions. I even sent out a tweet right after reading his post on Monday saying:

@DrTristaCarr Great post-gracious & spot on! When ex-gays aren’t ex-gay: It’s not about hypocrisy. It’s about language. by @GCNJustin http://gcnjustin.tumblr.com/post/42688921577/when-ex-gays-arent-ex-gay-its-not-about-hypocrisy 

But I feel like I need to clarify something. Because, I too am someone who is passionate and caring and I desperately want to clarify misconceptions that can do potential harm. About two-thirds down in Justin’s post he says:

“So let’s be clear about this. The word ‘gay’ means ‘same-sex attracted.’ Same-sex-attracted people are, according to the popular definition of the term, ‘gay’” (¶ 19).

Unfortunately, I have to disagree with this statement. I think this is one of the very few statements in this entire post with which I do not agree. And frankly, I cringe when I hear this type of blanket statement—that all same-sex attracted people are gay and that all gay people are same-sex attracted. As if the words are synonymous.

Just as Justin’s post was about language and the misuse of it, so shall this post be.

(For a more thorough history and lesson in semantics surrounding identity labels see my previous post.)

Justin does a wonderful job of separating out behavior from orientation and identity in his post—that just because someone might claim a gay identity it does not necessarily mean that he or she is sexually active with a same-sex (or opposite-sex) partner. And, that all too often many folks tend to lump the gay label in with gay sex. Well, I’m concerned that all too often the experiences of same-sex attraction get lumped into a gay identity—that just because someone has same-sex attractions that means, inherently, that the individual is gay.

The truth, in short:
gay = same-sex attracted (at least to some degree)
same-sex attracted (to any degree) ≠ gay

Gay, lesbian, queer, bi, bi-curious, straight, ex-gay, and others are labels. They are socially constructed, socio-political identity labels that we place on ourselves to connect us with others who are like us. They do give us some information about some things, but they do not completely or fully define everything about us as individuals or about us as sexual beings.

These identity labels are linguistic heuristics—shortcuts, quick links you could say—to help us put each other into neat categories that make sense to us. Yes, for the most part, someone who claims a gay or lesbian identity is someone who has same-sex attractions and might even say that those attractions are consistent and persistent over time such that this person would say that he or she has a homosexual orientation or is oriented to people of the same sex. But, it is not necessarily true that ALL people who experience same-sex attraction, to some degree or another, claim gay, lesbian, bisexual, or queer identities.

I previously wrote that I had nearly half of the participants in the “gay Christian” category in my dissertation study indicate that they had more socially conservative morals regarding sexual behavior. What I didn’t share in that post was that I also had a significant number (12% of my total population) of individuals who experienced same-sex attractions (many of whom so much so that they would indicate having homosexual orientations) but who did not claim a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or queer identities.

Labels carry weight. And some labels carry a negative weight, or are used in negative ways to hurt or demean others. Some people attempt to reclaim labels, or re-purpose them for good. But other people, regardless of the new meanings, or potentially positive spins, still choose not to take on labels with negative social stigma. Or maybe they just don’t take on the labels because they don’t want to be prescribed to a certain social box.

And that’s ok.

It’s ok to not slap a label on yourself that is uncomfortable or that you find to be superfluous. It’s ok to not want to be shoved into a box into which you might not fit perfectly. It’s ok to not want to be called gay, lesbian, bi, queer, or an evangelical for that matter.

And, for those people who do choose to use these labels, it is perfectly ok to take on labels and wear them proudly, to reclaim them for your purposes. It is perfectly acceptable to create your own meaning for your chosen labels. And it’s ok to use a label for yourself just because it’s easier (and quicker) than trying to explain everything about yourself.

But, whatever you do, please do not make blanket statements that squash all people’s experiences into your ideation of what it should be based on your circumstances. As best as possible, try to speak descriptively.

When it comes to speaking about individuals who have same-sex attractions in a predominantly heterosexually-attracted society, why not be descriptive and call these individuals sexual minorities. We are not ALL gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, ex-gay, or any other socio-political term. But those of us with same-sex attractions are all minorities in a mostly opposite-sex attracted world. In that we stand in solidarity!

That is a blanket statement with which I can live!

And thank you for bearing with my nit-picking, hair-splitting, potentially over-the-top sensitivity to semantics while addressing the experiences of the marginalized within a minority. Have a great week!

In Christ’s love and mine…

5 thoughts on “What it REALLY means to be gay and other identity labels: Part 2

  1. I appreciate your thoughts Dr. Carr. Since I identify as straight, I can’t fully speak into this but I think ‘queer’ is actually more beneficial to use than anything else.

    Queer is not only an umbrella term for LGBTQI, but refers to anyone who is a sexual minority. While queer is intertwined within socio-political constructions, one does not necessarily have to claim the queer identity (whatever that is) to have a queer (different or minority) sexuality. Additionally, if queer sexuality is “continually undergoing negotiation and dissemination rather than as a mere natural (let alone medical) fact” then the blanket references to individuals with “same-sex attraction” only deepens the binaries in which you are speaking against. So to make your argument stronger, I would replace any references to SSA by referring to queer because queer is undefinable, while same-sex attraction is defined as something.

  2. Pingback: An audience of One | iam...

  3. Hi Trista, I feel you might be missing Justin’s point. He seems to be speaking from a particular lexical perspective while you are speaking of “socially constructed, socio-political identity labels.” I think what Justin would say, and I agree, is that “gay” no longer refers to only a socio-political label. In the past that might have been true. But much more frequently it is now an adjective that has simply replaced the term “homosexual”–a term than many do not like to use because of its clinical and archaic sound. Language changes. I completely respect that some people still associate the term gay with a socio-political identity and so they are uncomfortable using it. However, others, like myself do not associate it with a socio-political identity. Instead I use it as a simple adjective.

    Take the lexical options presented by Dictionary.com. The first definition given is: “pertaining to, or exhibiting sexual desire or behavior directed toward a person or persons of one’s own sex; homosexual.” In this case “same-sex attracted” would, in fact, equal “gay” according to proper usage in the English language. However, there is a second definition offered that states: “indicating, or supporting homosexual interests or issues: a gay organization.” You seem to be especially attentive to this second type of definition. Of course the dictionary also says “gay” means “having or showing a merry, lively mood.” None of these definitions cancel out each other. As with most words, there is a lexical range.

    All this to say, I think you are misunderstanding Justin because you are not recognizing his lexical use of the term which would be the first definition, and not any socio-political connotation you are ascribing. In other words, the semantic range for the word “gay” has increased and changed over time. What becomes confusing–and something I find very problematic–is when the majority of people in a particular context are using definition 1 and someone tells this group s/he is “not gay” but still has same-sex attraction. This comes across as deceptive because in that context it is a violation of that group’s lexical understanding of the term. Of course in another context–such as a conservative Church group–to use the word “gay” without clarifying the definition could also lead to misunderstanding. Thus, I think its important to understand contexts.

    I would argue that based on the accepted lexical meaning of “gay”–persistent and exclusive same-sex attraction *does* always mean gay. But “gay” does not always mean a social-political identity.

    • Thank you for your thoughts, Karen. I hear how you are using the term, gay, from a lexical context. In psychology, we tend to speak of and research attractions, orientation, sexual orientation identity, and sexual identity. And it sees like what you are discussing here is the more recent construct of sexual orientation identity. This is an identity comprised of orientation and attractions alone, not including behaviors. Thus, to this degree, gay could indeed be equivalent to persistently and consistently same-sex attracted (i.e., having an homosexual orientation). Folks like you and me and Justin tend to pick apart these words much more so than others precisely because we have tried to make sense of our experiences of being sexual minorities. In the larger framework of society though, most people seem to think folks like us are splitting hairs. Eh! So be it! 🙂 I think the overall point I wanted to make is that we would all be better served if we tried not to make overarching statements of identity claims for all sexual minorities when there are folks who do not claim such words as descriptors for themselves. And unfortunately, the word gay, in-and-of-itself, is still heavy laden with negative sentiments for a good portion of more conservative Christians, thus why I tend to shy away from using it when speaking of sexual minorities.

      Thanks again for your thoughts and input.

      Many blessings on you and your work. Keep on keeping on…

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