I know very few people who enjoy swimming against the tide. But for centuries, those with same-sex attraction have been forced to do so. They have been marginalised and reviled by society, and by far too many in the church. They didn’t conform, they were different, they were forced to hide or pretend. That attitudes have softened over the last half-century has to be positive. That the church has much to regret, and repent of, is indisputable. As Andrew Brown’s article makes clear, “even among conservative evangelicals, it is no longer possible to deal with gay people, and the problems their existence poses, by simple repression”. Nevertheless, many Christians – especially those with same-sex attraction – fear being greatly misunderstood in current debates.
Labels (like slogans) have, of course, regularly been weapons of oppression or demonisation. They encourage a lazy rhetorical shorthand, which only excites passions and precludes charity (much as “socialist” might in US politics). One defence has been to appropriate the label. This was done with the word “queer”; ironically, it was also done with “Christian” (its first New Testament appearance is in reference to a pejorative usage).
The danger in any conflict is for both sides’ tactics to become indistinguishable, as seems to be happening in the west’s so-called culture wars. So in 1996, American anthropologist and Christian, Jenell Williams Paris produced some joint research with Mindy Michels, a lesbian scholar working in a similar field. They observed how the rhetoric on each side had an uncomfortable symmetry, especially in their common use of bellicose and aggressive rhetoric. Neither were constructive at all. So could not the casual insults like “homophobic”, “bigoted” and “offensive”, serve merely to silence and marginalise, just as “queer” did in the past?
Furthermore, reductionism is always risky – but when human identity is reduced to sexuality labels, there are significant problems. The irony is that “heterosexual” and “homosexual” were both originally coined by 19th-century medics to describe what was then considered an aberration. Archaic and ludicrous though this may seem today, they needed terms for so-called “deviants [who] pursued sexual pleasure without concern for procreation“. Of course, this is not the way they are used now, but this serves to illustrate the shifting sands of meaning. And for many (whether with same-sex attraction or not), they both carry too much baggage. Someone may be married with children – but what is to be gained from being identified as “straight”? The label is reductionistic and (perhaps deliberately) exclusive.
Of course, it’s easy to see why terms like gay, queer, and the ever-growing letters added to LGBT acronyms, are felt to be necessary. An identity based on an orientation offers an understandable route to like-minded and safe communities in the face of real hostility. It’s also difficult to fight political campaigns for rights and tolerance unless there is a clear sense of the identity of those being fought for.
But these labels simply do not do justice to the reality of human identity. This is actually why many Christians are still profoundly uncomfortable with the terms of the debate that is currently raging. I work in a multinational church with members from over 60 different countries, and with links with churches all over the world – but I know no one who wants to see what has been pejoratively described as a “Nigerian or Ugandan view of homosexuality”. I know no one who argues that this behaviour should be criminalised or discriminated against in public life. But disagreeing with someone need not mean rejection. I don’t believe it ever should.
Besides, the real Christian objection is much deeper. We don’t believe desire is a reliable guide in life. Sometimes it leads us to what is true and good. Sometimes it flickers and deceives. Instead, Christianity offers a far more radical proposition: we are not defined by the things we want or own. So we are not defined by our sexuality, social status, wealth, education, looks or even by which newspaper we read. Instead, we are defined by two key things: that we are each created in God’s image, and that in Christ we are redeemed by God’s astonishing love. It is on this foundation that we can surely move beyond a battle of derogatory stereotypes to a real discussion of what it means to be human.”