Monday, April 23, 2007

How Christians and gays talk past each other, part 3

(For parts 1 and 2 of this series see here and here.)

Recently a gay reader wrote in about my use of the terms "homosexual" and "gay":
To many of us, "homosexual" used to describe a person is faintly (or not so faintly) insulting, since it really describes a behavior, and we are not a behavior -- we are people, which is rather more complicated. "Gay" denotes an identity (which has as wide a range of variation as you will find in any other group); "homosexual" merely denotes an act.

I am aware that many gays feel this way about those terms. However, not all the readers of this blog are gay. Many are also straight conservative Christians who are admirably trying to grapple with these issues. And guess what? Conservative Christians view these terms in exactly the opposite way. To many Christians calling someone "gay" suggests they are living a promiscuous and morally irresponsible lifestyle, whereas the term "homosexual" is more generic and polite.

Case in point, check out this excerpt from SeeJaneMom (the Republican, conservative Christian wife and mother I linked to a couple of weeks ago):

Hear me. Jane does not hate homosexuals. I am not "afraid" of homosexuals. Homosexuals are created by God in His image and given traits we find different from the norm. Nothing more. They exist in our midst and we might never know unless they choose to tell us.

However, "Gays" are a creation of Hedonistic American Pop Culture and are nothing more than self-loathing moral relativists who seek acceptance for their flamboyant behavior by attempting to co-opt society's most norming institutions to project their Liberal values on larger society.

To underscore my point, go back and reread the email at the top. That was written by a gay man. Now reread SeeJaneMom's blurb. That was written by a conservative Christian straight woman. See the problem?

Frankly, I think we ought to call people what they prefer to be called. That is just good manners. When I am with someone who is gay I call them gay. I talk about gay people, gays and lesbians, the gay community, etc.

However, when I'm at church I use the term "homosexual" if I want to play it safe, especially when I'm talking to someone who is over 40 years old. It's a cultural thing. It's also a generational thing. At church I will talk about my friends who are homosexual, or how I'm studying the issue of homosexuality, or what I think is a biblical view of homosexual people. There is already so much potential for misunderstanding on the broader issues. Why make it worse with misunderstood terminology?

What do I do about this blog? I prefer the terms "gay" and "lesbian," particularly in contexts where I am referring to real people I've gotten to know and befriend. However I will use the term "homosexual" when I am putting words in the mouths of Christians who are expressing their point of view on gay issues. I will write about Christians who believe people "choose to be homosexual" or who condemn the "homosexual agenda." But when I present my own view, I use the terms I think my gay readers would prefer. ("Being gay isn't a choice." "Gay and lesbian people are asking for basic rights, not special privileges." Etc.)

My advice to gays is to realize that Christians who use the term "homosexual" think they are engaging in civil dialogue. Try to remember that in their minds, the reason they are not calling you "gay" is because they don't want to sound like they are passing judgment on your morals. Besides, if you really think about it, you are probably more offended by the context in which Christians use the term "homosexual" than the term itself. Focus on what's wrong with what they are saying rather than the label they've chosen.

My advice to Christians is to get used to hearing, and maybe even using, the term "gay." Nowadays "homosexual" sounds backwards and somewhat ignorant. If you look around, you'll realize that most people under the age of 30, whether gay or straight, are now comfortable using the term "gay." People will talk about having a gay neighbor, a gay relative, a gay friend. It sounds better than saying, "My nephew is a homosexual." I mean, come on, right? "Homosexual" sounds cold, almost clinical. It is not a word you would want to use when referring to someone you know and care about, whom you are seeking to love with the love of Christ.