(Uh, if you aren’t familiar with Abe Lincoln’s riddle, the answer is: Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.)
After talking to several ex-gays with opinions differing from my own, I’ve come to realize that their definitions of homosexual and heterosexual don’t seem to line up with Merriam-Webster’s, if you know what I mean. Mike Ensley and I once discussed the hullabaloo surrounding the “gay-identity” issue within ex-gay ministries, and he said something that I found somewhat interesting:
“I’ve developed a deep (and very freeing) conviction that homosexuality is just an experience some people have–it’s not a thing a person can be. Even people who identify as gay aren’t homosexuals.”
[Jay links to his conversation with Ensley here...]
I could be wrong, but I’ve gotten a sense that many within ex-gay ministries hold a belief that, because all humans were meant to be perfectly heterosexual, then that is the way one should define oneself, no matter what one’s actual feelings are. It seems to me reminiscent of “Name It and Claim It” ideology. I personally don’t hold too much ill-will towards such a view, but I do think it is impractical and misleading.
This post is all about emphatically agreeing with Jay. The idiosyncrasies of exgay language, in my humble opinion, have gotten completely out of control.
I know that I personally feel that I have no grip on what people are talking about anymore when they claim to be “heterosexual”. I know enough to not naively draw the wrong conclusions, but not enough to know what the heck is going on. And I am someone who, while not a mainstream exgay herself, has read most of the classic exgay texts, has spent years in exgay groups, etc. And it’s not just me being dense–I know others who feel the same way.
To give you an idea of what I’m concerned with, let me share a few examples of Fun With The Word ‘Heterosexual’. The first two are specific instances with links, the latter two are more general observations:
- –John Smid supposedly said to John Paulk, while trying to encourage him in the midst of his struggles, “The label of ex-gay is still connected with your past. … So from now on … you’re not an ex-gay; you’re a man. And not just a man, but a heterosexual. That’s how everyone sees you.” Now, in fairness I must state that I am borrowing this quote from Ralph Blair’s review of Paulk’s book, and he is hardly an unbiased reviewer. I myself have not read the book, I do not have access to it, and I do not plan to buy it. If this quote, fraught with ellipses as it is, distorts what Paulk wrote, please let me know either via the comments or email. But to me it seems representative of other things I’ve heard and read in exgay circles.
- –This next one is discussed well by Box Turtle Bulletin. Alan Chambers states in God’s Grace and the Homosexual Next Door that he is “completely heterosexual.” But then in his CNN appearance discussing Haggard, he’s much more conservative and nuanced in his claims, about how he “will never be as though [he] never was,” that he’s still human and could be homosexually tempted again, that his feelings are “diminished” and “different”, that he chooses to “live beyond [his] feelings.” All of that is fine, but it’s certainly not what first comes to mind when someone tells me that he’s “completely heterosexual.” (On a side note, this talk about “living beyond your feelings” sounds creepily detached and denial-ish to me. I don’t live beyond my feelings. I just don’t do everything my feelings tell me to. The difference seems significant to me.)
- –I’ve heard exgays come up with definitions of heterosexuality that have nothing to do with being interested in the opposite sex. So, for example, I’ve heard that heterosexuality is about being secure in one’s identity in God. Or, alternatively, that heterosexuality is about being mature and comfortable with oneself as a man or woman. Or, heterosexuality is about having healed your childhood root issues–once those are dealt with, you’re healed, you’re heterosexual, even though you may not feel anything for the opposite sex. Or, heterosexuality is about not being tangled up in a gay identity or “the gay lifestyle,” regardless of who you’re hot for, or how many guys you inexplicably find yourself in random sexual encounters with.
- –And then there’s that infamous old saw, “There are no homosexuals, only heterosexuals with homosexual problems.”
Of course, accompanying all these bizarre uses of the word “heterosexual,” there are also parallel uses of words like “homosexual” and “gay.” People profess to not be gay and not be homosexual, or they say that they are no longer gay, or no longer homosexual, but you can’t draw any conclusions from that about their sexual attractions. (At least, if you’re smart, you won’t draw any conclusions.)
So, basically, I have a big problem with all of this.
We have an important responsiblity to communicate clearly, honestly, and accurately. We might find it unfortunate that the world should use and understand words in a certain way. But we have a responsibility to be aware of how our words will be understood, and to take care that people will not get the wrong idea. Civilization as we know it depends on words not being able to mean whatever we want them to mean. If I am “completely heterosexual,” all is permitted.
I understand that people have their reasons for using words the way they do.
For example, I know some people use words a little differently because they think our society places too much importance on sexual attractions, and it surely does. If we want to be coy about where out sexual attractions are at, or if we don’t think it’s anyone’s business, that’s fine. It probably isn’t anyone’s business, unless we choose to make it theirs by using our professed orientation change as grounds for some political argument. But let’s not cloak that coyness or reticence in words that will mislead.
I know we were all created to be heterosexual, in attraction and activity. I don’t mean to deny that. But the fact is, this little thing called The Fall happened, and it screwed that all up. And we need to be honest with ourselves and with others about how it has affected us. I don’t think there’s any virtue in being in denial with ourselves or misleading others about the impact of the Fall on our lives.
Some people may feel it’s helpful for the purposes of encouraging “self-talk” in identity matters to call themselves straight or hetero. Perhaps kind of like how I have occasionally in the past called myself a “rockstar” or a “champ” while psyching myself up to do something I was really anxious about, like taking an exam or giving a talk. I’m kind of uneasy with people doing that in the realm of sexuality, but I suppose it’s okay. Still, I don’t bring my bathroom mirror pep-talk routine into my communications with others, and I don’t take it very seriously in any case. I don’t let other people (or myself) actually believe that I’m a famous musician or a middleweight titleholder!
Somewhat relatedly, I know some people are into the whole name-it-and-claim-it theology. I’ll be blunt with you, I absolutely abhor that stuff. But even I did accept it, I would not extend my “naming and claiming” to situations where it would actively misinform other people. Maybe (although I seriously doubt it) it would be fine in your private devotional life, or in a small group of believers who know you well and understand what you are doing. But if someone is asking you whether you are heterosexual, because they are curious about what sorts of change have occurred in your life, it is not the time or the place to start claiming in faith all sorts of changes that have not yet happened for you.
And finally, I know that some people use words in the way they do as an expression of rebellion against our society’s way of thinking and talking about sexuality, a rebellion to which I am deeply sympathetic. I find the concept of sexual orientation that is in common currency today really unhelpful, and I hope to explore this further in a series of posts on the subject of gay identity that’s on the way. The world asks, “Are you gay or straight?” and if the answer is “gay”, then it says that “being true to yourself” and your life fulfillment hinges on embracing your attractions and pursuing sex or relationships with others like you. Homosexual attractions are taken to be indicative of some deep fact about one’s nature and identity which must be obeyed, rather than being just another temptation or sin struggle. I understand why people want to rebel against this, why using their language feels like playing along with something we don’t want to play along with.
But the way I see it, none of these reasons can be an excuse for speaking deceptively. And the fact is, unless we explain things very clearly, if we claim to be heterosexual, people will understand that to primarily mean that we are attracted solely to the opposite sex. Again, unless we explain things very clearly, if we deny being gay or homosexual, people will understand us to primarily be saying that we are not attracted to the same sex (unless we say that we are bisexual). This may be frustrating and lamentable, but it is the way it is. We can do what we can to try to change the discourse, but in the meantime I feel that honesty demands that we not cause others to have false beliefs about our sexualities and attractions, that we be responsible stewards of our words. And toward that end, I would make three suggestions.
1. We ought not to be absolutely allergic to speaking in terms that people will understand.
Even though we may dislike certain words with their common meanings, sometimes they are the best way to convey the truth. Sometimes, if someone asks you if you are gay or homosexual, the best answer is “Yes, but…” or “Well, sort of, but…” We have to recognize that in most cases people who ask us these sorts of questions, though their conceptual foundations may be messed up, are primarily interested in our sexual attractions, or sometimes our behavior. They are generally not primarily interested in our sense of identity, especially if they already know what our beliefs are. So we need to acknowledge this in the answers we give to them, and answer in a way that communicates the truth. If our attractions are predominantly homosexual, and we are responding to the questions of someone who may not be able to understand a complex explanation of our views, sometimes the most accurate, honest, and even most God-honoring answer to the question “Are you gay?” or “Are you homosexual?” is “Yes.”
2. We can turn our conversations toward a vocabulary we find more suitable.
We’ve done this pretty well with “same-sex attracted,” I think. (I personally prefer “homosexually-attracted” or “homo-attracted”, partly because they’re easier to understand, and partly because I think a lot of people just need to get a grip when it comes to applying any “homo-” word to themselves, but whatever.) Some of us don’t feel that words like “gay” or “homosexual” accurately convey what we’re talking about, so we use different terminology.
I think it’s fine to tell our conversational partners that we can’t express our views fully in their preferred vocabulary, and to share our own with them. And with minimal creativity and effort, we can explain our sexuality and our convictions without using any orientationist buzzwords at all. We can say things like, “Well, I’m attracted to men, but because of my religious beliefs that sex belongs in the context of marriage between a man and a woman, I’m not looking for a sexual relationship.”
I honestly think this is the best way to handle both how we present ourselves to others and how we think of ourselves. If you’re really worried about gay identity, then stop thinking and speaking of yourself in gay-related terms altogether! Saying “I’m not gay!” buys into a gay identity worldview just as much as saying “I’m gay!” does. You cannot “move beyond” the latter without moving beyond the former as well. The same goes for “heterosexual” and “homosexual.”
If we don’t like the orientationist vocabulary of “gay,” “homosexual,” “heterosexual,” “sexual orientation,” and the like, we can simply decline to use it, for the most part. We do not have to abuse it by employing it in a way that misleads others.
3. If we’re going to use the world’s words differently from how others are using them, we ought to make that clear.
So, my personal feeling is that we ought not apply the adjective “heterosexual” to ourselves unless we are overwhelmingly predominantly attracted to the opposite sex. And, we ought not to describe ourselves to outsiders as “not gay” or “not homosexual” if our attractions are predominantly directed towards people of the same sex. (Within exgay circles and with those Christians who understand what their words mean, I suppose people can use whatever lingo or dialect they want. I’m mostly concerned with how we present ourselves to those who won’t understand our linguistic eccentricities.)
But, if some of us feel that we absolutely must say, “I’m not homosexual,” then we ought to explain why: “…because I believe that nobody is really homosexual,” or whatever the reason is. If we are predominantly same-sex attracted and we say, ”I’m not gay…” we had better add “but you see, I think that gayness is a matter of identity rather than attraction.” Specifically, if we are going to talk in non-standard terms, we ought to be explicitly crystal clear about our attractions. “I consider myself heterosexual…but when I’m real stressed and tired and lonely, I sometimes still get turned on by a good-looking guy.” Yes, we might sound like idiots, but better to sound like an idiot than to deceive others. And that fact that saying those things sounds idiotic may indicate something about whether we should be saying them at all! (See my two preceding suggestions.)
I know that some people don’t want to be explicit about their attractions, because they’re ashamed of them. I don’t think they should be ashamed–I think such shame generally stems from an unhealthy embrace of the pathologizing Freudian stuff, which we all know I hate. Or, it stems from the false belief that this sin, this temptation, is worse than others, that the fact that you experience is says something exceptionally bad about you as a person or a Christian, which we all know I’m not a big fan of either. But I don’t want to beat up on the ashamed people for being ashamed–I know they’ve got enough problems without me ragging on them. So all I will say is that if you are too ashamed of your attractions to tell the truth about them, then don’t talk about them at all. If someone asks you, tell them it’s none of their business. Just don’t mislead others. That, in my opinion, is something that is much more appropriate to be ashamed of.