Why would a Christian identify as gay?”
That was the question posed by many who read my previous piece for First Things, “Dan Savage Was Right.” Of course, there are many gay people who identify as Christian. But commenters were particularly confused because I am a gay man who accepts Christ’s teaching that sex is to be reserved for marriage, and that marriage is between a man and a woman.
This question has been addressed a few times, most recently by my friend Eve Tushnet. But identity questions are nuanced enough that every answer can only be to the question: Why do I identify as gay? Before I can touch on that, I will address some common objections”or rather, one objection that, on being answered, tends to shift its shape and come again.
“You can’t identify as gay,” many said, “because to do so is to say that the label ‘gay’ encompasses you in your totality.” I have no taste for identity politics, but the truth is that all of us do, in fact, navigate complex identities. I identify first as a Christian, secondly as an orthodox Roman Catholic. After that, we find a slew of monikers; an Augustinian, a scholar, a theologian, an American, a single person, a theatergoer, a cook, a pedestrian, and—here comes the controversy—a gay or queer person.
The central locus of my identity, which shapes all other aspects of it, is Christ. But no one, upon honest self-reflection, can realistically claim that this entirely does away with all other aspects of one’s identity. Christ is the foundation which shows how other aspects of my identity can and cannot be expressed, but other aspects of who I am do say something significant about me.
In response, some say specifically that one should not regard homosexuality as a significant part of who one is; the line of reasoning here seems to be that it is exclusively a matter of temptation, and thus is something one fights against (the same variation, differently framed, says that being gay means engaging in or being open to engaging in homosexual activity). For some, this may be true to their experience, and I would agree in that case. It is not, however, my experience (on which, see the interesting thoughts Melinda Selmys offers on her blog distinguishing ordered desire from concupiscent, or lustful, desire).
A further nuance is to claim that any sexual identity is inappropriate for a Christian. While there are interesting questions about whether it is good that sexual identity exists in our culture, the simple fact is that it does exist; further everyone is assumed to be straight until proven otherwise. Someone who meets me will be more likely to assume that I am struck by a beautiful actress than by a beautiful actor. So if I’m going to be classified—and we often classify for a good reason, in an effort to know something or someone—I would rather be classified truthfully.
The strangest form of the argument I have seen is the claim that gay identity simply does not exist. Of course, the fact that people identify as gay not only proves, but actually constitutes, the existence of gay identity. It is a subjective reality, certainly, but no less real for that.
So, then, we are presented with two different sexual identities for the homosexually-inclined. To identify as “gay” usually means to experience one’s homosexuality, in some way, as valuable. The competing sexual identity (known by many names, but most often “same-sex attracted” or “struggling with same-sex attraction”), indicates, in general, an experience of one’s sexuality as entirely problematic, and thus to be overcome (though, again, “overcoming” has a wide range of meanings here).
Yet there are many things I find valuable about my experience of being gay. Any number of studies indicate that there are real trends of difference between gay people and straight people, however difficult to define. Gay Christians are, perhaps, “called to otherness” as Elizabeth Scalia’s suggested on these pages in an article I consider one of the best things written on the subject. Her suggestion is that people with same-sex desire experience a kind of attraction that, when not concupiscent, is a gift to the Church”a sign of contradiction.
My otherness as a gay man is shared with other people, and we in our shared otherness make a community (community in otherness being an experience I learned to value in the churches of my youth, as we sang with gusto of being “a peculiar people”). Being a gay Christian does not mean one must be separated from one’s gay brothers and sisters or dissent from the teaching of the Church. The more people are willing to stand up and be counted, the more the rift between the church and gay people can be healed, and that’s a goal I, at least, feel the obligation to pursue.
Joshua Gonnerman lives in Washington, D. C., where he is a doctoral student in historical theology at the Catholic University of America.
Elizabeth Scalia, Homosexuality: A Call to Otherness?