Gay or Same-Sex-Attracted? Navigating the LGBT Language Police

Gay or Same-Sex-Attracted? Navigating the LGBT Language Police

This is the first post in a 7-part series called “Gay or Same-Sex-Attracted?”

To be honest, it didn’t begin as a series. In fact, it began as something of a “listicle” that I thought would be short and sweet. But as I began writing, I soon realized that I was trying to pack way more content than would fit into a manageable piece. So I’ve spread things out over the next two weeks instead. I’ll be publishing every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and each post will cover a new reason to use the words “gay” and “lesbian” as a Christian. Please feel free to share your thoughts. I love having dialogue and feedback!

To check out other posts in this series:

  1. Gay or Same-Sex-Attracted? Navigating the LGBT Language Police
  2. Christianese Like Same-Sex-Attracted Pushes Away the LGBT Community
  3. Gay Doesn’t Mean ‘Sin’ And Neither Does Same-Sex-Attracted Mean ‘Holy’ 
  4. Why Gay and Lesbian Identities Don’t Undermine Identity in Christ
  5. Why Homosexual Christians Are Called To Identify With Gays And Lesbians
  6. LGBT Words Are More Precise than the ‘Same-Sex-Attracted’ Umbrella
  7. Gay or Same-Sex-Attracted? Answering Some Lingering Questions

Or to read the full article:

Also, I feel the need to clarify that I am a celibate lesbian and fully committed to a traditional sexual ethic as outlined by Scripture. If you haven’t read my About page or previous posts, this could get lost in the conversation. I want to avoid misunderstandings as much as possible, so hopefully this information is clear!

Should LGBT Christians be allowed to use words like "gay" and "lesbian"? Or should they stick to same-sex-attracted?


Here it comes. It always does.

I finish coming out, establish that I’m celibate, and reiterate that I uphold the traditionally biblical understanding of marriage. I cross every “t” and dot every last “i” — and then they ask. They always ask.

“Why choose to identify as gay?”

I look at them warily, wondering if their question comes out of genuine curiosity or out of a desire to “set right” the one flaw in my thinking. When I begin my response, I hardly communicate a fraction of my thoughts before we get lost in the crossfire of counter-arguments for all the reasons why “gay” and “lesbian” are unacceptable terms for the Christian.

I usually give up. I say something to the effect of, “Let’s agree to disagree,” and move on. But the expression on their face betrays… what? Disappointment? Or is it frustration? Frustration that I started the conversation by coming out as a lesbian and ended the conversation by remaining a lesbian. Yes, a lesbian. I don’t primarily call myself a “same-sex-attracted Christian.”

Navigating the LGBT Language Police

I understand too well that calling yourself a “gay Christian” is out of vogue in traditional, evangelical circles. “Same-sex-attracted” is the preferred terminology. It’s a clinical-sounding product of Christianese that allows the church to acknowledge the existence of its gay members while simultaneously distancing itself from the gay community.

Lest you think that I’m biased, I actually considered myself a member of the “same-sex-attracted” bandwagon not too long ago. I refused to “label” myself, insisting that such labels only obscured my Christian identity as a woman of God.

But about four years ago, I began to think more deeply about this topic, and as a result, I started using the word “gay” for the first time in my life. I remain firmly rooted in Christ, in whom I’ll always find my everlasting identity. But I’m no longer afraid to use words like “gay” and “lesbian.”

In fact, I firmly believe that using “gay” and “lesbian” is not only admissible but preferable for homosexuals in the church. You ask why? To start things off, I want to talk about categories.

The Categorical Beauty of the Human Brain

Categories are as old as the human race. In fact, our ability to “put things in a box” remains a key trait distinguishing mankind from robots. Ever wonder why websites have those annoying “I am not a robot” CAPTCHAs? It’s because we can do something robots can’t. We have the uncanny ability to recognize something like an “A” when we see it, even if it’s all garbled and twisted up.

It’s not that we’ve memorized every single variation of the letter “A” that could possibly exist. It’s that our brain is able to comprehend the essential qualities of an “A” that distinguish it from the rest of the alphabet while somehow being flexible enough to recognize that a Times New Roman “A” is the same exact thing as a Comic Sans “A,” even though they’re completely different. Our brain has a little box called “A,” and it knows when something belongs there.

Computers can’t do that. At least not in the same way. Computers are stuck with rote memorization. If a robot came across a variant of the letter “A” it had never seen — maybe one with a curly cue or little spikes along the side — it would be lost. Take the following image as an example:

Only a human could recognize that the scraggly little words in the above image say “morning overlooks.” A computer would just get confused. And that’s the reason why those little images are so effective at detecting non-humans. It asks us to do something that we wired to do. Something no robot can duplicate (at least… not yet).

The “Gay” Category Doesn’t Go Away Just Because You Change the Word

Unlike computers, human beings depend upon categories in order to make meaning out of the world. What’s more, we can’t avoid them once they form. Now that your brain has a category called “A,” you can’t ever go back. You’re cursed. You’ll see the letter “A” for the rest of your life — in the clouds, in your soup, in the freckles on a person’s face. You’ll see it, and once you see it, you’ll recognize it, even if you’d rather not.

And this applies to more than just the alphabet. We categorize people too. We recognize black from white, blondes from brunettes, ugly ducklings from pretty swans. And yes, even gay from straight. Our brains just do it. Whether we like it or not.

So what would happen if we erased all the words associated with “gay” from our vocabulary? Not very much, to be honest, because the category would still exist in our minds. Even if we eliminated every LGBT word we could find, we’d just make up new words to talk about the same thing.

We might begin with clunky phrases, like instead of saying, “He’s gay,” we might say, “He’s one of those people.” But we’d know what we meant. We might not use the word “gay,” but the idea of “gay” would be firmly rooted in our mind. Even if we change the word, we nevertheless know exactly what we’re talking about. We’re talking about a homosexual.

And yes, being “same-sex-attracted” works the same exact way. Replacing the word “gay” with “same-sex-attracted” ain’t foolin’ a soul. Everyone thinks you’re gay, even if you don’t admit it. Even if they don’t admit it.

So why do I call myself gay? Because language gymnastics won’t change what I’m talking about. I’d much rather speak in good ole’ plain English than to hedge around the elephant in the room. In short, being gay is unavoidable, whether I say the word or not. So I’d rather just say it.

Coming up…

We’ll continue this discussion on “gay” or “same-sex-attracted” over the next two weeks. This Monday, in my next post, we’ll talk about the ways in which hoity-toity Christianese — like “same-sex-attracted” — pushes away the LGBT community.

In the meantime, what are your initial thoughts on the topic? Do you have any firm opinions? Or do you prefer to not take sides? I’d love to hear what you think!

Next Post in Series: Christianese Like Same-Sex-Attracted Pushes Away the LGBT Community

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  • Deanna Duby
    Posted at 22:46h, 30 June Reply

    Thank you for sharing, Bridget! I think this is a really important topic and I can’t wait to read the rest of your series! Keep up the good work! I really look forward to learning more from you.

    • Traveling Nun
      Posted at 06:41h, 01 July Reply

      Thank you so much, Deanna! I really appreciate the feedback and truly hope that what I write is beneficial. Thank you for reading!

  • Jazmyn
    Posted at 13:43h, 08 July Reply

    Cannot say that I fully agree, although I am a person who I identifies with both. Looking forward to reading the rest nonetheless.

    • Traveling Nun
      Posted at 02:37h, 09 July Reply

      Interesting that you identify with both! I’ve interacted with some people who prefer this approach. Depending on who they are with, they will use one term or the other. Not sure if this is your own perspective, but that’s at least what I’ve learned when talking with others. 🙂 And thank you for commenting!

  • Lanai
    Posted at 22:09h, 08 July Reply

    I am in LOVE with this series. I love your take & perspective on this. Reading from afar but I feel so closely connected to the heart you’re speaking from. Well done.

  • rjael
    Posted at 18:48h, 14 August Reply

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Bridget! Very insightful.

    It seems to me that the difference between “gay” and “someone with same-sex attraction” – though meaning inherently the same thing categorically – is that the words carry different weight in relation to identity.

    For example, I’ve heard a mom of a special needs child that it’s preferable to say “a child with Downs Syndrome” rather than ” a Down Syndrome child” (because though Down Syndrome is undeniably part of the child’s reality, it isn’t the most important thing about them – it doesn’t define who they are).

    Is that similar to why Christians might tend to say ”someone with same-sex attraction” rather than “a gay person”?

    I might be showing my ignorance here (which is likely!) So please forgive me if I’m misunderstanding you in anyway.

    Just my thoughts. 🙂

    • Bridget Eileen
      Posted at 22:33h, 21 August Reply

      Hi there! I definitely think that there are important nuances when it comes to language used for people with special needs or disabilities. There’s a big difference, for instance, between saying, “She’s autistic,” and, “She’s on the autism spectrum.”

      Although it’s a little different when talking about LGBT language, largely because the term “same-sex-attraction” is loaded with so much baggage for most LGBT people, I do think that the comparison can still be helpful. One thing that we have to remember in any conversation about language is that it’s always wisest to use the terminology preferred by the people it actually affects. They are the ones who are going to be most intimately acquainted with the pain that terminology can cause. If someone with Down syndrome prefers to be described as a “person with Down syndrome” rather than a “Down’s kid,” then I should respect that! I think the same can be said when it comes to LGBT language. If a homosexual calls himself “gay,” and you instead choose to call him “same-sex-attracted,” you are guaranteed to offend! Even if a gay person is polite and doesn’t show their offense, it will definitely still be there! Especially when the term “same-sex-attracted” carries so much baggage for many people, this is very important to be sensitive to.

      But it also goes both ways. If someone chooses to call him or herself “same-sex-attracted,” I would never in a million years call them gay or lesbian or anything other than how they described themselves! That’s just being respectful to the other person, allowing them to use the terms that they are most comfortable with using. Unfortunately, for many LGBT people in the church, this level of respect is not always afforded to them, as the minute they mention words like “gay” or “lesbian,” they are told to use “same-sex-attracted” instead.

      So yes, I think you definitely bring up an aspect of this that rings true for many Christians! If a homosexual Christian prefers “same-sex-attracted” and has good reasons for preferring it, then he has the right to use the term as he sees fit without anyone judging him for it. I think the same freedom should be given to a homosexual Christian who prefers “gay” or “lesbian.”

      And thank you for the comment! You brought up a good comparison, and I appreciate your thoughts!

  • Andrew @FtFtLive (@FtFtLive)
    Posted at 04:52h, 02 February Reply

    I think your point about being willing to use the term the person themselves employs is very important. However, there is another angle on this terminology that I think is missing from your article here (though I admit I haven’t read all the articles in the series yet!)

    The term “same-sex attracted” may be thought of by some to be “Christianese”, but similar terms are used elsewhere in very different ways: for example, Lisa Diamond (who has published extensively on the topic of sexuality and comes from an entirely non-Christian perspective) prefers to use “same-sex sexuality” as the generic term.

    This is because she quite correctly sees same-sex sexuality as much more complex than the simple gay/lesbian/straight/bisexual terminology is able to conceptualize.

    (Lisa Diamond has written extensively on the subject of sexual fluidity in women, but recently there has been more published on the parallel phenomenon in men: for example Ritch Savin-Williams’s Mostly Gay and Jane Ward’s Not Gay).

    So there is in fact a large number of people who have experiences of same-sex sexuality (or what is probably conceptualized better for some people as same-sex attraction — particularly for those who feel it but have never acted on it) who are not at all served by the more specific categories, which are, after all, culturally specific.

    I don’t think this is to disagree with anything you have written above, but I think it’s important to mention because to stay too attached to what is now the established Western terminology is to stay too attached to our contemporary culture’s conceptualization of the whole issue of same-sex sexuality, whereas I think Christians — as much as people whose identities will not easily fit into the Western categories — would be better served by pulling these categories apart a little and trying to look further than the categorical boxes permit.

    • Bridget Eileen
      Posted at 21:37h, 03 February Reply

      I think you definitely bring up a good point that I’m missing in this series — maybe a good reason to revisit it in the future with an additional post. Language is constantly evolving and shifting, especially with terms around sexuality. Many believe that the use of terms like “gay” and “lesbian” are going to slowly fade from contemporary vocabularies in favor of a language similar to what you described, one that better captures the fluidity of sexuality. I can definitely see value in choosing to use “same-sex-attracted” for the reasons you described and, with that understanding, could theoretically use it myself. However, I’ve generally found that in common vernacular, when I’m having conversations with everyday people, all of this still very much exists on the academic level. Outside of intellectual queer circles, people just don’t talk like that. And I’m more inclined to use the common vernacular for the sake of connecting with people as opposed to putting up walls, if that makes sense. I do think that this deserves more attention though, so I might try to return to it in the future. Good thoughts!

  • Jessie
    Posted at 16:58h, 02 February Reply

    This might sound crazy, but I did read your series and I’m still confused as to why you would identify as a lesbian if you don’t act on it and believe in the Biblical definition of marriage. I’ve just never heard of a Christian that has done this. I guess the only way I could relate is how, at my Celebrate Recovery group, I say “I’m a believe in Jesus Christ who struggles with alcoholism.” When I say I’m an alcoholic, it’s a reminder to me that I can’t drink. Period. So i keep the label of that sin as a reminder. Is that sort of the same thing? I’m genuinely curious. Thanks –

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