Clapback Comes for the Archbishop, Excursus: LGBT Language

Clapback Comes for the Archbishop, Excursus: LGBT Language September 30, 2019

Part One; Part Two

Before I move to His Excellency’s next point, I’d like to linger on the issue of language just a little longer. The dispute over appropriate language—inane though the issue may seem to a lot of people—is conducted with as much heat as anything else in Christian-LGBT discourse. As Fr Martin indicated in the article from America that I linked to in my last, LGBT people are particularly sensitive to matters of language, and not only because the technical terminology of Catholic theology is rather unappealing on this point. There is a a long history of abusive, pathologizing, and equivocal use of language to describe LGBT people, much of it woven into the disgraceful story of the ex-gay movement.

To begin with we may consider the medical origins of the term same-sex attracted, which has gained popular currency among Christians, Catholic and Protestant, who are concerned to disown any and every form of queer identity. (1) In itself, it is harmlessly (if clinically) descriptive, and if life were fair that would be the end of the matter.

To my lasting regret, I have discovered by personal investigation that life is not fair. Even before being taken up by organizations like Exodus and NARTH, the phrase same-sex attracted was being used by an experimentally-minded psychotherapeutic establishment, which tried everything from Behaviorist-style conditioning to electroshock therapy to testicular transplants in attempts to cure or reverse homosexuality. Spoiler: it didn’t work. The term same-sex attracted still retains a whiff of the laboratory for this reason—and the corresponding reaction on the part of queer people that we don’t want to be lab rats.

But then, of course, the phrase was picked up by the ex-gay movement. It provided a convenient way of dissociating attractions from the people who felt them, and thus striking a blow against the very notion of queer identity. It also gave a kind of cover for the failure of the movement. As it became increasingly, unavoidably clear that actual sexual attractions could not be changed (2) and the promises made by the movement and its leaders were hollow, the goal posts were quietly moved to a change in self-concept. “People can change” and “ex-gay” were now to mean a change in how you thought of yourself, not necessarily in your feelings or experiences. Those things didn’t define you; they didn’t matter.

The problem here is that those things do matter. Our attractions, whether sexual or romantic, don’t define us in the sense of exhausting who we are, but they are (for most people) a major influence on our relationships and sense of self, and there is no gain to be had from pretending they’re not. That is repression, and repression makes integration—which is the primary goal of chastity—harder. You can’t master your passions even for the sake of refusing them if you won’t be honest with yourself about what they are.

And no matter how often Christian clergy repeat that LGBT language is “identifying with sin,” it’s not. The word gay just means “I’m a guy who’s interested in other guys the way guys are usually interested in women.” Lesbian just means “I’m a woman who likes other women the way most women like guys.” These words are adjectives. They’re not political affiliations or statements of an ontological stance. It isn’t a character flaw to have and use words for these experiences; they are no more self-imprisoning than the statement “I’m a redhead.”

Does this mean that every person who feels some interest in their own sex has to use LGBT language? No. But honestly, I recommend it. I’ve seen same-sex attracted used as an excuse to avoid sincere self-knowledge too often to be comfortable with it. It is a personal decision, of course, and I am not recommending that anybody’s preferences be ignored; but I’m partisan enough to think that using LGBT language is, normally, in our cultural context, the best decision.


(1) Given that I’m writing about how sensitive an issue language is, many readers may be surprised or even shocked that I use the word queer, since it originated as a slur. However, queer has been largely reappropriated by the LGBT community, especially in academic and political contexts, and is one of the more usable umbrella terms at our disposal. There are still LGBT-identifying people who consider it offensive—and to them I apologize for any offense given—but it appears to me to be one of the least-bad compromises available.

(2) I.e., could not be changed by applying psychological or spiritual techniques. Attractions can and do fluctuate (more so in women than in men, it seems); but there is a difference between organic fluidity and decision-based modification: a difference as stark as that between a sapling growing taller in the sun, and a sapling being accidentally pulled up by an impatient gardener who thinks tugging upward on the plant will make it grow faster.

Images via Pixabay


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  • Naters

    This all seems to show how much the hierarchy just doesn’t get it when it comes to gays. They’ve spent so much time behind seminary walls that they’ve lost touch with the world around them.

  • Irksome1

    I don’t know that the hierarchy is where your problems principally lie. Rather, I think it’s the various opinion-makers and commentators who supply crude talking points to the masses that are of graver concern. But, what would you have the hierarchy do/say differently?

  • Naters

    Again, I’m not sure. But there are so many problems with their language. Sex is, as Chris Damian puts it, an “aspiration in search of charity”, so you really can’t treat two men who really love each other who also happen to be sexual partners the same as someone who goes hopping around having sex with a bunch of men.

  • Irksome1

    I suppose that’s right, at least pastorally. But, in terms of objective assessment, both the monogamous couple and the bed-hopper are performing sexual acts that the Church condemns and could be mortal in nature. So, while our approach to each might be different, it’s different in the way that our approach to perjury in a civil case might be different from perjury in a capital case.

  • Naters

    If you acknowledge that the language is a problem, why continue to use it? St. Paul says the worst offense against truth is to keep saying the same things the same way knowing that no one is listening.