Our Core Identity

The following post is from Shawn Harrison. Shawn is a youth pastor and he regularly blogs at six11.wordpress.com.

“Shawn are you ex-gay?”  “Nope.”

“Then are you gay?”  “Nope.”

“Wait, what?  Then what are you?”

I hate this conversation.

Throughout my life, I have struggled to embrace my true, core identity.  I’ve been all over the spectrum in this pursuit.  As a teen, being gay was the center of my life.  Everything I did, everything I was about revolved around being gay and proud.  When I became a Christian, I changed my identity to ex-gay, reflecting my newfound faith.  I was told to reject the past and embrace what Christ had done.  I was no longer gay; I was hetero.  However, I didn’t feel quite hetero, as I was still attracted to guys.  I believed what the Bible said, but I was struggling to mesh the truth of scripture with my attractions to men.  Changing my identity to gay Christian, then, seemed logical to do.

For me, though, that stint didn’t last long.  In due time, I underwent another identity change and eventually became a husband, then a father.  My same-sex attractions haven’t ceased totally, and this of course confuses many people.  They either want me to pick a side or they want me to deny my attractions altogether.  Yet, I refuse to pick a side or deny what’s going on inside.  To me, all of these characteristics make me the unique person I am today.  However, at this point in my life, I refuse to be labeled by the terms “ex-gay,” “gay,” or even “mixed-orientation marriage.”  None of these labels make-up the core of who I am.  My wife, my kids, nor my role as a pastor defines my core identity.  My life centers around one core truth that my identity is shaped around: child of God.

Everything I do centers around this one, simple, yet all-freeing truth.  Outside of this, nothing else matters.  In my experience as a pastor, most people form their identity around talents, work, heritage, sexuality, and church affiliation.  While these are all true characteristics of one’s identity, they do not make up one’s core identity.  See, if the core of who we are centers around anything other than being God’s child, if these things pass away, we lose who we are.  Being God’s child can never be taken from us.  Being God’s child is what we were originally created and called to be.  Moreover, as we continue to move closer to Him, as Christians, the Holy Spirit continues to mold us into God’s likeness, as His children.  These truths should be very freeing to us.  For more about who you are in Christ, go to this page on my blog.

The verse that has set this idea aflame in my heart and life is 1 John 3:1, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”  Other scriptures highlight this truth too, but I find great freedom and assurance in this particular passage.  There is a universal truth extended here that holds the depth of God’s love for people despite who they are or what they’ve done.  It speaks of a love that He has initiated with us, and it’s love that is beyond our comprehension.  Yet, it’s a truth and a identity that few of us model our lives around.  Rather it serves as an attachment, or a side-thought, to something we hold in greater importance.  What, though, could be greater than being called a child of God?

For me, I don’t reject being a husband, a father, a pastor, a writer, an artist, a reader, a evangelical Christian, and so forth.  I love all of these traits about me, but they are a part of something greater that I choose to center my identity around.  My sexuality is a part of this great identity, too.  My attractions aren’t the totality of who I am.  They simply add to my uniqueness.  For me, I choose to be known as God’s child, primarily, and everything else is secondary.  If people can’t accept that, well, that’s not my problem.  I live to please no one else, nor answer to anyone else, but God alone.  I know exactly who I am, and I am quite content with life and myself.

“What am I?  I’m God’s child; that’s who I am.”

Much love.


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  • Bryan

    Not that I enjoy criticizing, but it seems to me that this author has shifted from one extreme to another extreme. From saying “X defines everything about me!” to “If people ask if I am X, I will say no, because X doesn’t define me. Christ defines me.” The first extreme is definitely wrong, but I think the second extreme is wrong too. Let me explain why. Labels don’t exist to define. When people first described homosexuality, it wasn’t for the purpose of putting gay people in a box. They did it because they observed some realities and then made a name to express these realities. To deny the description “gay” (although, to make it clear, I would feel the same way about any descriptive word) is, from my perspective at least, to deny the full reality of the situation. And I can’t see that as being healthy. Can you imagine someone saying, “I’m not autistic, I’m a Christian”? Or “I’m not Hispanic, I’m a Christian”? No, and I think some people might even take offense to such a statement. So then why do we think it’s okay for people to say, “I’m not gay, I’m a Christian”? I’m all for taking our identity from Christ and not anything else. Certainly defining our identity by our gender, ethnic background, sexual orientation or any other thing is unwise. But to then say that means certain descriptive words no longer apply to you? To say I’m not male because Christ defines me or I’m no longer Asian because Christ defines me? Being gay is (for all intents and purposes of this argument) as immutable as gender and race, so you can’t just say you’re not gay when you are gay, and then say it’s acceptable to misrepresent yourself in such a way because you have a good spiritual reason behind it. When you do that, you’re just making flat-out false statements and needlessly confusing other people.

    I’m sure that the author is a great person and a sincere Christian. It’s just that this argument has always bothered me for the reasons I stated above, and it’s one I’ve seen come up quite a few times now. It makes people completely misrepresent themselves and think they are serving Christ in doing so. My belief is if Christ is our core identity, why should we deny any part of what makes us, us? Christ is the center in the end, and he accepts us fully, so why should we deny a part of that fullness to others? Maybe here Shawn is able to describe enough to clear up further confusion, but what if he or someone else in his situation, didn’t have that same amount of time to clarify? I can only imagine that leading to a number of problems or false impressions.

    That’s my two cents anyway. What does everyone else think? I’m open to discussing. (And, again, nothing against Shawn personally here.)

    • carter

      Labels don’t exist to define.
      actually, they do. that is the purpose of a label – to define something.

      When people first described homosexuality, it wasn’t for the purpose of putting gay people in a box. They did it because they observed some realities and then made a name to express these realities.
      ‘a name to express these realities’ is a longer way of saying definition – they wanted a word to define what they were seeing, so they created that word – that label – to do just that. these labels could be useful to some who need to define the sexuality of other people, or themselves, but they can also serve to put people, not just homosexuals, in a box. the fact that these labels exist can create the illusion that the labels are necessary, which can create the desire to place them on everyone. this creates definitions that are not always accurate, that are too broad or too narrow, that are harmful, and do not fit everyone.

      To deny the description “gay” (although, to make it clear, I would feel the same way about any descriptive word) is, from my perspective at least, to deny the full reality of the situation.
      actually, to label this person as gay would be to deny the full reality of the situation. to label this person as gay would be to invalidate his marriage to a woman, because it would imply that he did not have any romantic or sexual attraction to her, and that their marriage isn’t valid. also, to label him as gay would be more beneficial for you than for him.

  • I think I agree with elements of what both Shawn (in this post) and Bryan (in his comment) are saying. Yes, I do agree with the importance of placing our identity firmly in Christ. Yes, I am a child of God. And at the same time, the person of who I am is comprised of all these other things. Each component of me doesn’t make me any less me. It just means to understand who I am requires relationship with me – the time needed to put each piece together.

    I think authenticity is a crucial element to identity.

    It’s important to be authentic about the parts of me that form the whole of me. After all, in relationship, part of the goal is to be known. In order for a person to fully know me, they must be introduced to my faith, my interests, my purpose, my talents, my opinions, etc. I think that as individuals, we are too complex to be put in a singular box – even if that box is being a child of God. Because, while I may say that I am a child of God, that speaks nothing about the fact that I enjoyed Harry Potter and that I am somewhat ashamed to say that yes I did watch all the movies of the Twilight Saga.

    In getting to know the rest of me, including being a child of God, I think it brings further context to who I am. Through authentic relationship, you might discover not only that I operate a community non-profit organization, but also the heart behind why I started it and why I invest so much of my time, energy, and resources giving to others. You’ll discover the things that make me laugh and the things that make me cry.

    Frankly, knowing more context that I am a man of faith who loves Jesus and is attracted to other males, has been “out” authentically for more than five years, went on a few dates but have remained single and thus have never been in a romantic relationship my entire life . . . . this context informs you with more substance about the reality of my longings and loneliness.

    So yes, I do agree with Shawn that our identity in Christ is primary and other characteristics, tidbits and factoids may be secondary. However, I also believe that authenticity requires relationship in getting to know all of me, and that includes my own personal willingness to let you know those various things about me.

    My thoughts. Thanks!


  • James W

    Good thoughts from Shawn. I wish there was more clarity between having same sex attraction versus saying one is gay (meaning a core, ontological identity). There is a difference.

    Personally, I also say my identity is male. The Bible is clear God created two genders – male and female. With the rare exception where there is physical/genetic issues, we all fall into one of these two categories, and I believe they are more than culturally defined. So Shawn’s Identity is as a Christian who is male. His attraction at times to men is not an identity but rather a response to living in a sinful world that has caused all of us to face struggles.


  • Thanks guys for your responses.

    I find agreement with what you are saying. I’m not suggesting that we forget about the things that make us up (faith, sexuality, status, career, etc); rather, let’s not make these things the center of our life or being. In a way, I’m saying let’s move beyond the sexual identity debate – we are more than just people that have/deal with/struggle with/ same-sex attractions. There is a greater – core – identity for those of us in Christ, and this is the identity that should consume us above all others.

    The New Testament is constantly calling people back to the original image: God’s image. Christ constantly calls us to be found in Himself. We’ve been given a name, an identity, from God Himself that cannot be taken away and that should not be taken lightly. It’s a truth that will change our lives, forever, if we truly grasp what He is saying to us.

    For me, this is what I choose to center my life around. I got tired of people heckling me to pick a sexual identity. I don’t fit into either box nicely. And really, I’m much more than a man who, at times, deals with same-sex attractions. Again, while it may be a part of me, it’s not the core of who I am.

  • I wish I could find this place that you seem to have found….cause the abyss is killing me…………

  • jpd7906

    I appreciate Shawn’s heart and his journey. I think it is always important to allow an individual to label/identify himself or herself in whatever way(s) are authentic for them. However, I become uncomfortable when anyone asserts that because they have chosen to identify a certain way, that everyone with a similar set of circumstances should/must identify in the same way. When it comes to the issue of homosexuality, I often see these assertions coming from “both sides”. Many in the LGBT community may say that if someone is attracted to the same sex that they should/must accept themselves as gay and identify that way to others. While some Christians, with a theology opposed to homosexual expression, might say that anyone who is gay and desires a relationship with God must reject that identity as a reflection of their genuine faith and commitment. While I recognize that this type of sentiment often comes from both sides, I have never felt shamed or manipulated by the LGBT community. Sadly, I have experienced and have witnessed many other LGBT identified people shamed and manipulated by Christians who hold the view that one cannot be both gay and Christian. Therefore, as someone who loves Jesus and wants others to know Him, I take greater offense at this Christian notion. Effectively, an entire group of people has been lead to believe that there is no room for them in the Kingdom of God.
    While I’m happy that Shawn, in a conservative evangelical mainstream, has the privilege and freedom to say, “For me, I choose to be known as God’s child, primarily, and everything else is secondary. If people can’t accept that, well, that’s not my problem” it cannot be overlooked that LGBT people are often not afforded the same privilege and freedom to say in the Church “I’m gay and I hold dear my genuine, abiding, and mature faith in Christ”.

    I recently read “The End of Sexual Identity” by Janell William Paris who argued that our culture’s mechanism of labels and identities based on our sexuality is something we as Christians should avoid in order to “not conform any longer to the pattern of this world.” Paris is a self-professed evangelical who holds the theological view that homosexual expression is sinful. So it seems that while many conservative evangelicals maybe shifting away from “orientation change” they are heading more and more in the direction of “reject your sexual identity all together.” Paris presents some great challenges and even some exciting ideals. I especially found her criticism of heterosexuality, and how it provides grounds for Christians to feel morally superior to homosexuals, refreshing. Paris seems to say that one of her biggest problems with labels like gay and straight is that it creates separate categories that reinforces inequality. According to Paris, when we all see each other and ourselves as God’s beloved, we won’t put ourselves above or below the other. That sounds amazing! But here is the rub for me… When Christians who have same-sex attractions imply that it is necessary to reject a LGBT label/identity and espouse to have done so themselves, they climb right back on that morally superior ground to all the other “less spiritual” “less mature” LGBT folk who refuse to do the same.

    It is true that, in Christ, we are all God’s children and God loves us all. It is also true that some of God’s children are white, some are black, some are male, some are transgender, some are attracted to the opposite sex, and some are lesbian. I think it is also important to consider that when it comes to minorities, labels provide identity, identity provides community, and community provides a voice for the silenced. Perhaps we can all move past our sexual identities and labels when some of us are not excluded, rejected, marginalized, and silenced because of them.

    • Just to clarify, I’m not saying everyone has to do this or else. I was asked to share why I don’t label myself gay, ex-gay, or in a mixed-marriage orientation. This is where I am in this journey. If others aren’t, I can’t force them, nor would I. You can’t force a relationship with Jesus onto others, nor can you force something that has to be received personally and authentically.

      If people thought I was forcing my view onto others, I’m sorry. I was merely sharing my story.

  • jpd7906

    Thank you or the clarification and for sharing your journey. I think your experiences and your voice are very important elements of the greater conversation about faith and sexuality that is being had in our culture and in the Church. Truly, nobody can force anything onto anyone regardless if that was their intent or not. I wasn’t necessarily commenting on your individual journey or beliefs as much as I was intending to coment on the larger idea of rejcting one’s sexual identity in the name of their faith. If you believe you must reject all sexual labels to walk faithfully with the Lord, then I think we as the body and as your brothers and sisters should support you in that. I just also hapen to believe that LGBT identified people can and do walk just as faithfully with the Lord while also keeping their sexual identities. I wish the body of Christ at large would provide the same welcome, encouragement, and support for these brothers and sisters.

    • Again, I’m not saying that we should reject the things that make us who we are, but that we shouldn’t center our lives around these things. As Christians, I believe we should center our lives around but only one thing: Christ. This doesn’t mean that we reject everything else and pretend we’re not unique. It means that we first find ourselves in Christ, and that in life, all that we are and do stems from our relationship and identity in Christ.

      FYI, I’ve held this belief long before the book by Paris was written, so my ideas aren’t influenced by her. Haven’t even read the book … too many others to read right now 🙂

  • Shawn, I “get” what you’re saying! Peace for your journey. I have a friend who does not identify with any of the labels. His response if someone asks – “It’s a mystery to me. When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.” He moves about equally well in LGBT or straight settings. I feel no need to put a label on him other than “child of God, one of whom God is very fond”.

    I agree – Our identity is in Christ. All else is secondary.

  • Jack Harris

    Something important to remember is that many Gay Christians DO center themselves in Christ and still strongly identify with the GLBT community. It is important to remember that “community” is very important especially for GBLT youth or people just coming out. In many cases, its (usually) a safe place to just be comfortable in your own skin.

  • Jeffrey Fried

    To say that the center of our lives should be Christ and therefore i should drop my identity as an LGBT person may be heartfelt, but it is also inconsistent in that it is asymmetric. It appears that the author of this blog has moved from a gay identity into a Christ centric identity that somehow included heterosexual marriage, but at the same time he does not support the idea that a gay/lesbian person could also be Christ identifying and take some one of the same gender into marriage for the same reasons he took a person of the opposite gender into marriage. It sounds as if the author is saying that by becoming Christ centric, one eventually becomes heterosexual. While the words are far more pleasant than the usual anti-gay Christian rheteroic, the result is no different from those who are screaming, “if you’re gay you’re evil and denied Christ”, in that we who are lesbian/gay are still being told we are outside the church, outside the body of Christ, unless we are willing to deny that we love someone of the same gender. [Note that i carefully didn’t say identify because the term is overloaded.]

    I am a gay man who worshipped at a Vineyard church for approximately 10 years. During a period when most people are developing skills to find a life partner i gave them up out of my belief that it made me unacceptable to God. Over time i met more than a few gay men who pretended to be straight in order to align themselves with the church and later found themselves giving up on their marriage, or worse having sex with someone of the same gender outside of that marriage. Sadly, i had bought into the dichotomy presented to us by the religious right, we are either heterosexual, and right with Christ, or we are terrible hedonists who are outside Christ’s redemption. Am i without Christ, NO, but i am without the body of Christ, and while i miss the church, i am not interested in feigning heterosexuality or pretending it is alright to spend a life alone; the last thing i want to do is be a model for some LGBT person that a life alone is a good way to live.

    My identity is in Christ, and yes like most Christian heterosexuals, i have a desire for a personal relationship with another human being, only my desire is for someone of the same gender. So, do i miss the church, yes, do i believe that if i focus on Christ i will become heterosexual or not miss the joy, and challenges, of a deep personal relationship with another human being as is hoped for in marriage, no. Am i willing to live a lie, to obtain social acceptability within the church, no, it is inconsistent with my faith in Christ.

    • Hey Jeff,

      Thanks for responding. In answering your comments, I want to make some clarifications.

      First, I’m not asking you to drop your gay identity. The point I am making is that we, as Christians, should make Christ our core identity. Everything else – who we are, what we do, where we live, etc – revolves around our identity in Christ.

      Second, I am still out on the whole marriage issue, quite honestly. But I never said or hinted to the fact that being in Christ leads to a heterosexual marriage. In fact, marriage has nothing to do with one being in Christ – or not being in Christ.

      Third, like above, I never said that being in Christ makes one straight. I think Christ cares more about your connectedness to Him than He does your sexuality. God is after our hearts … the center stage of our hearts and lives.

      I’m sorry that you have not found a “safe-place” within the body of Christ. I sincerely hope and pray you do find a place with open doors. The Church isn’t perfect, but some of us are trying to change that. As Paul says, “All parts of the body our needed … not just some.”

      Thanks again, Jeff.


  • It saddens me that we can’t figure this out — that we can’t figure out that everytime we argue with each other, fight among ourselves over what we call ourselves or how we label ourselves then those who wish to keep us oppressed win. It dosn’t really matter if we use a label or if we choose not to use a label. It’s a personal decision. It’s a personal choice.

    Shawn is choosing to make tie his identity not to a temporal definition or label, but rather an eternal one. Many of us choose this same path. It doesn’t mean we ask everyone to do likewise, just that this is our choice.

    Like it or not, we gotta stop fighting with each other over secondary issues. Or…..not…..and then, they keep winning.

  • Jack Harris

    I continue to read this thread and still get the distinct feeling that there is still a fair amount miscommunication regarding what is being said and apparently misunderstood. I think this is due largely in part to the fact that those of us who are GBLT like myself, filter things through a different set of lenses. While I would not want to put words in ANYONE’S mouths I would just speak from my perspective as a gay partnered male.

    I, for one, have no problem identifying as gay–in fact I find the label quite comforting. For so many years, I muddled through my teenage and early college years always wondering who I was or why I had “gay feelings”. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a mainline liberal protestant church that gave me the space to grow in the love of Christ without being told that being gay was wrong or a broken thing to be.

    I would say that taking on the label “gay” was liberating as I finally understood that I was not the only one that had similiar feelings. In fact I learned that there was a much larger community that could support me and help me be more comfortable in my own skin.

    Having said this, I would also say that I am also very comfortable with so many other labels as well–Christian Episcopalian, Husband, Southerner, Welsh Descent, South Carolina Native –you get the point. I am comfortable attaching many labels to myself including gay. Is Christ at the center of who I am–absolutely. Is being a Gay Christian married to a wonderful man with a wonderful family and career also part of who I am–you bet.

    I say all of this only to point out that young gay people must be made to understand that being gay, having a wonderful partner, career and loving family –and STILL have Christ at the center of their lives IS possible. There are many MANY wonderful gay affirming churches out there available to support folks who wish to go on that journey.

    If someone who is struggling with this –if you don’t hear anything that I have just said–listen to this — You do not have to throw off the gay label or be ashamed of it–it is ok to embrace the fact that God created you this way. You can have the love of Christ and the love of your same sex partner. We need loving companions along the journey –if we decide that is what we feel that will make the road a little easier.

    Don’t be afraid to stand up and say I am Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgendered AND Christian. Choosing a life of celibacy does not have to be the only road to take–you MAY in time choose that route but realize that its not the ONLY one. Jack

    • frank

      What terrible advice! It’s not possible to live fully outside of God’s will. Homosexual behavior is outside of God’s will. So while accepting that someone has homosexual attractions is important and should not be shied away from, choosing to live out those feelings is not Gods will and will not lead to the full life Christ has promised.

      Celibacy is the only choice outside of marriage and since God defines marriage as one man and one woman, homosexual marriage is not possible. So the best path for someone who only has same sex feelings and attractions is celibacy. Everything else is outside of Gods plans and has detrimental consequences.