The next post in this series on identity in relation to faith and sexuality is from Kevin Harris. Kevin is the Director of Community Relations and the Administrative Assistant at The Marin Foundation.
What? Why do you identify as gay? Aren’t you a Christian?
Bring up the topic of homosexuality and identity (or gender identity that does not adhere to the norm) with Christians, and you may feel like you’re talking about spam. Like the meat, it’s either a mystery to many Christians since our identity is to be in Christ, or it’s met with aversion out of contempt for the unpalatable matter being presented before them.
I fully believe that the redemptive story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection has implications for our identity that are to supersede any other competing claims vying for the foundational basis upon which our identity is to rest. I also fully believe that followers of Jesus have been grafted onto the body of Christ that transcends any other identifier or label (generation, nationality, race, ethnic identity, gender, sexuality, occupation, etc.). However, I do not see how that rules out the use of secondary identifiers. I feel it is very important to root our primary identity in Christ (which I have written about here) and, while I see myself as God’s beloved, I have also seen the need to name and identify my reality as a gay man.
Functioning in a heteronormative society where heterosexual individuals do not have to identify themselves as such or announce their sexuality because it is the norm to which everyone else is compared (and individuals are assumed to be such unless noted otherwise), I have found that it is easy to become invisible as a queer person and have my reality silenced. This is especially true in many Christian circles where sermons and discussions are littered with language that assumes heterosexual and cisgender (assigned gender at birth matches current gender identity) identity and only acknowledges the realities that are deemed as acceptable. A disappointing exception to this is where the LGBT community is mentioned in the context of being solely looked upon as a mission field or ministry project that is deserving of compassion. Attentiveness to such language stemming from a place of heteronormativity and the labels we employ within language are important as they have the capacity to make individuals outside of the heterosexual mainstream feel like outsiders or that they do not belong if we are not intentional about the language we utilize. You can read more about straight privilege that is a byproduct of heteronormativity here. While labels used in regard to sexuality can be limiting and restrictive, I have found that they can be helpful in filtering information, navigating the world, and simply being present in relationships. But if we are going to use labels in regards to sexuality, it is important that we start allowing individuals to define the labels they claim rather than allowing labels to define individuals. The inherent challenge in this is that we are called to invest in conversations and ask individuals what they mean when they use certain words and how they experience the realities they name and claim.
Rather than allowing labels like gay and lesbian to be descriptive and relate reality as it is experienced, belief systems are often attached to them or the labels become sexualized. One such belief paradigm is revealed through the fact that homosexuality is often only spoken of in terms of attraction and desire, or it becomes only sexualized where sexual activity is primarily presumed to be present, being viewed as genitalized behavior. In her book, The End of Sexual Identity (which is a really well written book that I would recommend even though I personally disagree with the main conclusion inferred by the title), Jennell Williams Paris makes the case that sexual attractions and desires are not a trustworthy indicator of human identity and they should not become a part of our identity since they merely refer to attractions as she states that “The sexual identity framework fixates on who people want to have sex with (p 93).” Such a view is a rather simple and reductionistic take on sexuality. Sure, when I talk about being gay that includes being mentally, emotionally and physically attracted to other men. But it goes beyond that to describe how I long to experience the fulfillment of my desires for intimacy with a partner in a more holistic sense than just a physical relationship. Beyond desires, it is indicative of the type of person that I would compliment in a relationship, for the purpose of sacrificing for them and striving to encourage and build up their relationship with God. And while it does not define my experience, it influences how I navigate the world around me and how I interpret some experiences and information. Being gay has an impact on how I relate my personhood to those around me and even the social circles I decide to invest in and surround myself by. The way that I express myself cannot be detached from the reality of being same-sex attracted, at least not in a healthy way. It is interrelated with things like my creativity and other aspects of my personhood. It reaches all the way to my relationship with God since being gay is one of a number of lenses through which I approach and seek to interact with God (regardless of what is correct about etiology and theology).
There was a point in time during college with regards to my sexuality and relationship with God where I prayed on a nightly basis for weeks on end that God would take my life in my sleep since I did not want to be gay. As I sought to push forward from that point and to seek God, I have found (over years) that my experience as a gay man has played a significant role in helping me to develop certain attributes and to further step into caring more about some of the things that I perceive God caring about. Sifting through my own journey over time with faith and sexuality has contributed to developing patience in general and compassion for individuals wrestling with different issues. Being able to have some experience as an ‘other’ in the Christian world (as small as that experience has been at times considering I still possess immense amounts of privilege as a middle-class college educated white cisgender male who can pass as heterosexual without too much difficulty) has helped to deepen my concern for those who are oppressed and marginalized. I may not have been as motivated to seek out the heart of God or learn about how God views me if it were not for the need for support that arose out of living in a heteronormative society. I’m thankful for the ways that my sexuality has influenced my relationship with God and I would not change it to become heterosexual if I could. While my sexuality has not been the only factor in this process by any means as other experiences and people have played significant roles in my journey with God, it has nevertheless been an important factor. Even though I am not currently pursuing or engaged in a romantic or physical relationship, I am very much a “practicing homosexual” as some Christians might say. Thus, in a more comprehensive sense (at least as it relates to my story), sexual identity is more encompassing than who someone is attracted to and wants to have sex with.
I have experienced what it is like to operate out of a compartmentalized and fragmented sense of self as it relates to things like disassociating myself from being gay or “struggling with same-sex attractions” as if they are another occasional temptation as opposed to something intertwined with how I experience, interpret and navigate the world. After experiencing such a divided sense of self and fragmented reality, I want to bring my whole self into my relationships with vulnerability and authenticity. Part of that journey has included reclaiming my identity as it relates to sexuality. Churches are big on being authentic…..except when it comes to naming your reality if you happen to be queer. As I pursue authenticity and sexual holiness, I want to seek that holiness (like any other Christian regardless of their sexual orientation) as Paris describes in her book as seeking to give and receive love with God and with other people in and through my sexuality (p 83). God, the Church, and those that I love do not deserve any less, and certainly do not deserve just a fragment of me.