Sunday, February 01, 2009

Talking About Words, Again

Hey everyone! It looks like once-a-week posting is the best I will be able to do for awhile. I actually like scheduling it that way, since everything else in my life seems to be similarly scheduled right about now. Blogging topics are still being a little difficult to come by, but fortunately I stumbled across something to which I think I can contribute some thoughts.

With fallen pastor Ted Haggard's media blitz concerning his recent HBO documentary, a lot of people (both online and in real life) who know about my "issues" have been asking me my opinion. Usually it's something like this: "I couldn't care less." But of course that's not really the nicest attitude to take, especially since Haggard is, like it or not, one of the most visible examples of someone caught between religion and their sexuality right now (and bridging that gap is somewhat of my personal blogging forte).

Of course, I still don't think I have much to say. My personal opinion has been that Haggard should disappear from the media. I mean, I was sad to learn that he felt he was a "failure" simply because he was reduced to selling insurance and taking University of Phoenix classes, as if there aren't thousands of Americans for whom those things are pretty standard. It's odd how these high-profile Evangelicals don't seem to cope with living, you know, a normal life. But cope is what I expected him to do. Have a normal life and work on the healing that his family obviously needs, and just face the fact that he's not going to be a celebrity anymore.

Wendy Gritter of Bridging the Gap actually made a very good post about the whole situation, and I especially liked this quote of hers:
It would seem that Haggard associates a number of other descriptions to the word gay other than the common cultural understanding that the term gay simply describes someone who experiences same-gender attraction. It seems that he is sensitive to the common evangelical assumption that to say you are gay assumes that you are sexually active with members of your own gender. Clearly, in fidelity to Christ AND to his wife, he does not want to say that. But it seems to leave him in a no-man’s land of struggling for authenticity – and being unsure of how to express that - with the knowledge that evangelicals are watching him carefully. Personally, I believe it is unfortunate that stereotypes about gay people continue to afflict the common evangelical understanding – leaving those who are persistently attracted to their own gender with very few options to express that honestly without a whole lot of extra baggage.

I think this search for authenticity is not only a problem for Haggard, but for many SSA guys. It can be very annoying, when asked about my sexual issues or identity, to say things like, "Oh, I'm just a son of Christ. I'm just Jay." That's certainly true, but the fact of the matter is I'm also a son of Christ who is consistently attracted to men. I don't like the word "gay," I'll admit, and if anyone ever point-blank asks me what my sexual orientation is (which doesn't happen too often, mind you), I just say I'm attracted to men and don't use any specific label. And yes, that means they will likely call me "gay." Oh well, big deal. Nothing I can do about what others think of me, especially if they refuse to actually get to know me in the first place.

There is just such a problem with language in the ex-gay/post-gay/whatever community. In fact, frequent commenter Jeff S. recently wrote about that on his blog. I believe that words such as "ex-gay" and terms such as "freedom from homosexuality" just really take the discussion to improper assumptions. The fact of the matter is that ex-gay men who proclaim freedom from homosexuality are usually still attracted to men, which means that the culture (again, like it or not) is going to call them "gay" and "homosexual." And based on the dictionary, they won't be wrong. Instead of getting up in arms about it, however, and trying to change the language, I think the best option is simply to just speak clearly. Say, "Well, I don't like that term. I'm still attracted to men, and you can call me what you want, but I don't use that term." But don't expect everyone else to conform to your terminology.

By the way, that was a bit of a tangent (but what would you expect?) I'm not saying Haggard is doing any of those things (although he does have a problem with speaking clearly). It's just something that I've noticed in the ex-gay world over the years, and frankly, I'm just getting a little tired of it. Luckily, it appears things are getting better.

And with that, comment away. Take care!


Jeff S. said...

I submitted my post to Revelife which ended up featuring it, which created a little firestorm of comments for anyone interested in reading or commenting.

Jay said...

I have a feeling a lot of those folks wouldn't exactly agree with my take on this issue. :)

Here's the thing, though. I don't think saying, "Hey, I'm attracted to men!" is "identifying" by my struggles. Nor is attaching the labels "gay" or "SSA" to myself. They're accurate nouns, not overarching identities.

RikFleming said...

This may sound kinda funny, but I am reading a book on wine analysis that was originally written in French and has been translated into English by someone else. It is a very technical book with a lot of philosophical lingo concerning aesthetics thrown in as well.

The first chapter is written by the translator and he discusses the difficulty of translating certain terms from French into English because there are many words in French that have no exact equivalent in English or there are certain connotations that don't quite make it in the translation.

As I read this chapter I reminded me of the same thing that goes on when I translate Hebrew/Greek into English or when we use psychological terms to define people. Words like "gay" or "homosexual" have different meanings depending on who is using them, whether there are certain moral connotations tied to them or if there is a particular political or religious agenda involved.

The is why I have chosen not to translate arsenokotai as "gay" or "homosexuals" but rather has "men who have sex with other men." This keeps it clear that 1 Cor. 6:9 and other texts are referring to ACTIONS and not ATTRACTIONS.

My ATTRACTIONS do not determine my ACTIONS, nor do they define me.

Maduin said...

If we refuse to use words just because of what someone might think of us, don't we risk falling into a kind of linguistic relativism--where words no longer have any agreed upon meaning?

Brandon said...

I feel like you about all this. I get so tired of everyone having all their different terminologies. It just makes everything all the more complicated. I don't really like to call myself "gay", but I do recognize that's probably what most would think of me that know about my attractions. But, really, I've always found it sort of a stupid thing for one to label themselves something based upon their sexuality, as if that's all there is to know about them.

Dealing with Haggard, I think his situation is an unfortunate one. But I hate to hear he thinks of himself as a failure. Yeah, he messed up, but that doesn't take away from the fact that he led hundreds of people to the Lord. I personally think everyone should just get off his back and let him live his life already. I do find it a curious thing how so many Christians talk about forgiveness but don't seem too willing to offer it to him. Sort of makes you think some, doesn't it?

Anyway, interesting post. :)

Glenn Houtchens said...

Hey Jay- good post.

I recently wrote an article about fallen pastors called "The Blessing Does Not Leave" with some thoughts and a personal experience of my own.

Thanks for expressing your thoughts so well in your columns. You are more of a blessing than you know!


Joe said...


The term 'post-gay' was first used in the early 1990s and originally meant 'post gay identity politics'. It was coined by a generation of gay men who wanted to go beyond having to say "I am gay" and just use everyday language to describe their feelings/attractions/relationships. It was supposed to mark the death of the word "gay" but it never really caught on - partly because people still ask "Are you gay?" if you say something like, "My boyfriend works for.... wants to move to... is a huge fan of..." etc. Anyone adopting a post-gay identity in this sense would almost certainly be out to everyone.

In the SSA world - the label post-gay is an improvement on ex-gay but they both fall into the trap of flagging up the very thing they seek to deny or go beyond.

I'm toying with the idea of being 'post-gay' in the original sense of the word - by just stating my feelings/attractions (as and when appropriate) and using the label "single [Christian]" to describe myself. Of course that won't stop people saying, "Are you gay?"

A. Friend said...

And it alienates people who have never "lived the lifestyle".
I remember when I was just beginning to read up on this topic looking for help; you have all these people talking about how they were "freed for the lifestyle".
At which point I would think: "I don't have a lifestyle to be freed from. What's in it for me? I'm trying to sort out these feelings to see if they will go away and you're offering to help me "escape this lifestyle"?"

The next thing that annoys me is this:
Who needs "help" to "leave a lifestyle"?
This is not a drug addiction.
Do straight men have groups to help them stop sleeping with women they are unmarried to?

Nobody needs help to stop going to gay bars. That is not an addiction.

What they need help to do is to reconcile their feeling with their Christian walk--not to stop going to gay pride parades.

David said...

Honestly, Jay, I think this is just another aspect of many evangelicals using a form of Newspeak, and I just get tired of dealing with it. In fact, I find the definitions of other words such as 'truth', 'liberty', 'freedom', and 'love' are so radically different between evangelicals and the rest of the world that I simply try to avoid them in conversation with evangelicals. 'Gay', of course, among many evangelicals does not mean 'one attracted to members of the same sex' or even the more narrow definition of men attracted to other men, but it means 'doing drugs and living promiscuously with members of the same sex.' One would think that this would be something one could overcome by simply explaining definitions (as one uses a word and confusion results) and leaving it at that... but sadly that's not how it works - this is a lot more about how a person is conditioned to perceive a category than the word itself.

That's why I can't really help but roll my eyes at language like 'SSA', 'ex-gay', 'post-gay', 'I transcend the labels of sexuality'. It all seems to me to be an elaborate (and rather obvious) attempt at obscuring reality to conform it to what a group (in this case, many evangelicals) would find most appealing and unoffensive. It's more than a euphemism, it's a subtle lie: 'there aren't really any persons who are "gay", that nasty word that refers to something at the heart of a person; but there are people who experience attractions (not part of a person's being, like straightness or heterosexuality - there are no "OSA" people - but rather "SSA" is something else exterior to personhood); people who have matured past "gay" or recanted (again meaning that "gay" is not a central part of the person); etc.' Words have meanings. Attempts to shift word meanings and substitute them with different words and different meanings seem to me an attempt to suppress a part of reality someone or other doesn't want to acknowledge. From all we currently know, orientation is a real phenomenon. It is not a transient passion or attraction, but very much a part of a person, whether straight or gay. What's wrong with saying 'celibate gay' or 'gay celibate man'? Then you can go into the religious reasons for the 'celibate' bit, and explain how it is your dedication to God, understanding of holiness, and your belief in Jesus that enable you to follow through in that. This gets everything across that's needed to get across without trying to deny the reality of homosexual members of the human race (not confused, not maimed, but real flesh-and-blood persons with real biological-and-psychological sexual orientations), these people who exist, and like all reality, that existence needs to be acknowledged despite anyone or any group's preferences or thoughts about how reality should be instead.

Jay said...

I actually know several people who use OSA as well as SSA. Okay, I may roll my eyes a bit too, but I don't exactly see the nefariousness that you do. Heck, even out-and-proud gay people can reject the "gay" term, be it the "post-gays" of the 90s which Joe mentioned or the current "queer" movement (I know a few people who ask not be called "gay" or "lesbian" but "queer" instead).

Besides, "gay" itself is a former slang term that had been adopted, and could very well be replaced down the line by another term. Seeing as it used to most commonly mean "lighthearted," or be a reference to a female prostitute, it's not like it's a word whose meaning is 100% defined.

Now you know me and you know that I do use "gay but celibate" most of the time. Actually, I rarely even need a label because if I'm going to have this conversation, it takes awhile, it's with a personal friend, and they can call me whatever they want afterward.

And you also know that I do my best to destroy stereotypes and rebuke those who would classify GLBT people in the kind of subhuman category which you speak of. So exactly who are you getting defensive at here?

David said...

I'd be curious to hear who you know uses the term 'OSA' and if you have ever heard it from the mouth of someone not involved in an ex-gay organization. I have never heard it myself, and most plain vanilla straight people I know will identify themselves as 'straight' (not 'OSA' or anything else).

I know you do your best to destroy stereotypes (and you do usually identify as celibate). I'm not getting 'defensive' as much as I am trying to point out that (from my perspective) this trend of arguing about the meaning of 'gay' and fishing around for other terms that one could use is counter-productive at best and deceptive and promulgates negative stereotypes at worst. I understand the desire to get away from stereotypes - I would like to, too - but how will we express that some people are 'gay' or 'homosexual' if those words (and their meanings: i.e., a certain sexual orientation) are taboo? And the frustration I see expressed in the comments and elsewhere in the ex-gay world about how to label oneself seems to me a bit absurd. It is possible to make any label one's 'identity': 'Texan', 'American', 'liberal', 'Republican', 'straight', 'CEO', 'multi-millionaire', etc. (Well, none of us here fall into the last two categories, but some people somewhere do.) And all of these labels have stereotypes attached, but that doesn't mean they can't be used. We use labels and descriptors because they're meaningful, and if one describes us we don't need to make up a new one to put ourselves in, but we can admit it and then say 'But that's not all of who I am, or the most important part of who I am.' I don't think that YOU are trying to place GLB people in a subhuman category, but I do think that defining them away from terms like 'gay', 'lesbian', 'homosexual' tends to downplay the existence of that part of human sexuality.

In short, what Maduin said above, which is worth repeating:

"If we refuse to use words just because of what someone might think of us, don't we risk falling into a kind of linguistic relativism--where words no longer have any agreed upon meaning?"

That is what concerns and frustrates me. And it's not 'words' in the abstract in this case but words describing people with homosexual orientations (though at other times it is other words - and liberal PC-ness is sometimes just as bad about this in other ways!).

And btw, I get just as frustrated with people who want to use 'queer' too - what does 'queer' mean? Anything you want, really: a hetero punk rocker with lots of piercings can call himself 'queer' as much as the lesbian owner of a lesbian bar. I don't see the term used to have any exclusive meaning in the realm of sexuality and it mostly means 'outside the norm' in some way.

Jay said...

But you're making it sound as though the words "gay" and "homosexual" are unambiguous in their meaning, but in my experience (and I think in the experience of many here), it really depends on context. In my liberal college environment, people understand "gay" to simply mean someone attracted to the same sex, which is why I don't often have too much of a problem when that word is attached to me.

In more conservative environments, the word "gay" implies action. In fact, I've had people online tell me that "gay and celibate" is a contradictory phrase because to be "gay" implies that one is actively having sex with a member of the same gender. I don't agree with that definition, but it's not totally inaccurate. According to Merriam Webster's, a "homosexual" (and thus, any subsequent slang terms) can be defined by desire or activity.

So who am I to tell someone how they should label themselves? It's not really my place to say, "Well, this is what you are so this is what you should call yourself." All I can do (and all I'm doing here) is tell people to take time to speak clearly and define their labels, and also not to be afraid or concerned if people attach a label to them that they themselves would not attach.

That's why I say I don't mind what word someone uses. I'm not going to criticize someone who labels themselves "queer" or someone who labels themselves "SSA," as long as they take the time to define it and don't try to impose their labels on me. I'm just not going to tell someone else how they should identify. It's not my business.

Rose said...

So wander back over to Randy's blog and have this conversation there too. Obviously these words are meaningful at this time and point in history, *especially* where there are such legal distinctions between gay and straight.

For example, I never identify as "right-handed" because it's utterly irrelevant. But if it were suddenly illegal to be right-handed, I'd be forced consider my handedness explicitly. (Or, indeed, if I became a professional (baseball) pitcher.)

naturgesetz said...

I resist using the word "gay" to refer to myself even when blogging among others who experience SSA. The reason is that to me it *does* connote same-sex activity (or a very "camp" persona). I think I became aware of the use of the word to describe homosexual men sometime in the 1960's. At that time it appeared to be the self-chosen designation of out homosexual men. So to me the activity connotation has nothing to do with Evangelicals (I'm Catholic, as you may recall); it's something that has been there from the beginning.

What does that have to do with today? Perhaps for some people "gay" now means no more than "experiencing SSA," but it is certainly not the case for everybody. The word is ambiguous, probably beyond repair in the years (hopefully) left to me on this earth. So I will not apply a description to myself which will almost certainly mislead many people.

Fortunately, perhaps, I don't get asked about my orientation. I like to think I'd tell people who did not have a real right to know, that another person's orientation is none of their business. If that didn't seem adequate, I think I'd say I'm celibate and try to leave it at that.

TRiG said...

Seeing as it used to most commonly mean "lighthearted," or be a reference to a female prostitute, it's not like it's a word whose meaning is 100% defined.

And when have you ever come across a word whose meaning was 100% defined?

Okay, it does happen, in specific fields. The word energy has a very specific tightly defined meaning in the field of physics, and a looser definition everywhere else. The word theory is another good example, where the meaning in general discourse is quite different to the meaning in science. Other fields -- music, psychology, wine appreciation, theology, etc. -- will have their own tightly defined definitions of certain words.

However, in the general language, words are defined by their users, and yes, this does lead to "linguistic relativism".

Silly boy.

Dialects are all there is, and we all use language differently. By and large, however, the meaning of a word is defined by the majority of the speakers of the language.


TRiG said...

I tend to use the word homosexuality to refer to a sexual attraction to members of the same sex, and gayness to refer to being homosexual and being comfortable with that.

Or, as I put it once, you're gay if you can say you are without wincing.

How any of this applies to a person who acknowledges his same-sex attractions but works against them, I don't know.

To the extent that "gayness" is an identity, I wouldn't think of you as gay, Jay. In my mind, a gay person, even if he isn't, for whatever reasons, living a sexually active life at the moment, has no objections to gay sex in principle. You do.

But ultimately, we all get to define our own labels. And labels are only a starting-point anyway.