I wrote recently about the importance of language, and why it is important to use correct and appropriate language. Because I hope that a large part of my audience are Christians, I thought it might be helpful to actually parse out some terms that, in the past, took work for me to incorporate into my vocabulary correctly.
I have to give tons of credit to Mark Yarhouse (a professor of psychology and researcher of gender and sexuality issues). His books, research, and explanations have proven invaluable to me. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge a close friend who has patiently shared about and explained the host of topics related to sexuality that I’ve struggled with over the years. Without these people, I’d have little to write about.
I like to write as I talk—simply. So hopefully, these explanations will be simple and to the point. Though I would love feedback if you have thoughts on a better explanation!
The letters that make up the LGBTQ are sexual identity labels (with the exception of the “T” for transgender—which is a gender identity label—I’ll talk about this next week!).
Lesbian. Gay. Bisexual. Queer. There are more letters, but these are enough for this discussion.
Sexual identity is how a person identifies themselves related to their sexuality. Generally this is related to which gender they experience attraction to. For those for whom these attractions are unwanted, finding a way to describe how you experience this part of your person and life can be challenging. It’s a choice to refer to yourself with a certain label. Two different people who both experience attraction exclusively to the same gender may choose to identify themselves differently. Overall, attraction to the same gender is referred to as homosexual attraction.
Some Christians are comfortable with referring to themselves as “gay.” others prefer the term “same sex attracted.” And you can’t necessarily make conclusions about a person’s behavior or beliefs based on how they identify themselves.
For example, I have two friends who are both exclusively attracted to the same gender. They would both use the term “gay" to refer to themselves. One believes that God affirms same-sex marriage and the other does not. And this influences their behavior. One is in a same-sex relationship and the other intends to be chaste (to abstain from sexual intercourse).
Basically, identity is how someone thinks of themselves. There are tons of factors that make up my “identity.” First, I am a daughter of the King, a Christian, a believer in Jesus Christ. I would say that that is my primary identity. But following that, I am a wife, mother, friend, program director, substitute teacher, blog writer, and youth leader. I am female, and I am straight (or heterosexual). Really, the list could go on and on. Certain situations bring out various parts of my identity at different times.
So sexual identity is how I think of myself in the sexuality department. Who am I attracted to? How much a part of my overall identity are those attractions? How do I intend to act as a result of these attractions? How do I actually act?
Mark Yarhouse uses three tiers to portion out these terms:
First tier: Same-sex attraction. This is the part of the equation they can’t control. Certain people, regardless of the cause, have experiences of attraction to the same sex. This fact doesn’t say anything about either their identity or their behavior. It is descriptive.
Second tier: Homosexual orientation. When people talk about having a homosexual orientation, they are essentially saying that they experience a same-sex attraction that is strong enough, durable enough, and persistent enough for them to feel that they are oriented toward the same sex. No one knows how much attraction to the same sex is necessary for a person to feel that their orientation is now homosexual (or bisexual if there is attraction to both sexes). Some people may experience some same-sex attraction but are completely comfortable saying that their sexual orientation is still heterosexual.
Third tier: Gay identity. It is a sociocultural label that people use to describe themselves, and it is a label that is imbued with meaning in our culture. Although homosexual behavior has been practiced in other cultures throughout history, we are the first culture in which people refer to themselves in this way. Talking about a gay identity is part of a modern, contemporary movement.
For me, there are several advantages of teasing out these three tiers:
First, it allows a person to describe with simplicity their feelings and attractions.
Secondly, because saying the word “gay” has cultural meanings, it allows a person to take time to assess their attraction and orientation before (if ever) using a label.
Finally, it slows down the process of labeling. In talking with people working through often newly expressed homosexual desires, it helps so much to be able to slow things down and allow for time and space to sit and give the Lord opportunity to speak and have access to those desires.
You may have a knee-jerk reaction to the use of the word “gay” by someone who also identifies as a believer or Christian. We aren’t going to spend time discussing that, but I have a lot of thoughts written here on that topic.
We are also not going to discuss whether or not sexual orientation is changeable, but you can read my thoughts here.
I simply want you to walk away from this post able to describe and define sexual orientation and sexual identity. So that as you dialogue in whatever context you find yourself, you can begin to use language appropriately and with nuance.
Lesbian: A sexual identity label used by females who are attracted to females.
Gay: A sexual identity label used by both males and females who are attracted to the same sex.
Bisexual: A sexual identity label used by persons attracted to both males and females.
Queer: An umbrella term for sexual and gender minorities who are not heterosexual. We will be discussing gender next week!
Language matters. Language used correctly conveys love and care. We want to convey love and care, so take the time to learn how people use language.