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Coming to Terms…

When I came out nearly 22 years ago, the concept of “same-sex attraction” was very new to me. The only words I knew to describe the feelings I had been experiencing for quite some time weren’t anything I wanted to be called.

Obviously there were the slurs and degrading terms that I’d heard as long as I could remember. And the only word I knew from a Christian perspective was “homosexual.”

From all the derogatory comments I’d heard associated with this term, I couldn’t imagine using it to describe myself. Plus it had such a clinical sound to it. I didn’t want anyone calling me “a homosexual.”

Nor did I want anyone referring to me as “gay,” or calling me a “lesbian.” Those words, in my mind, were associated with perversion and promiscuity. Honestly, I didn’t hear those words used when I was growing up, and by the time I did hear them, they carried a connotation of sexual immorality. In my younger years, referring to someone as “gay” or “lesbian” meant that they were sexually promiscuous.

connotation vs. denotation

Keep in mind that was the connotation, or personal meaning, that I associated with those words, based on where I had heard them and how they were used to describe people. That doesn’t mean it was an accurate definition.

And none of those words described me.

So when I heard “same-sex attraction” for the first time, it was a relief. I found language that more accurately reflected what I was experiencing. The phrase explained that I felt attraction toward my own sex without labeling me as someone who was clinically ill or having sex with anyone that moved.

For I was not.

Being able to say that I experienced same-sex attraction was a big step in lifting the burden of shame that I had carried for two decades of my life. The words, along with the nonverbal communication that often accompanied them – the looks of disgust, the shaking of heads, the raised voices and angry threats, the hand gestures, mimicry, and laughter – had created such shame in me. The phrase, “same-sex attraction,” gave me language to lift my head.

But somewhere over the last two decades terminology has shifted.

The words, “gay” and “lesbian,” don’t carry the same connotations to me as they once did. While “homosexual” sounds even more antiquated and clinical, “gay” and “lesbian” no longer connote sexual promiscuity. People describing themselves as gay or lesbian doesn’t automatically label that person as sexually promiscuous.

The terms were originally adopted decades ago to replace the derogatory slurs used to insult someone who was attracted to their own gender. “Gay” simply refers to a male who is romantically/emotionally/physically attracted to other males. “Lesbian” refers to a female who is romantically/emotionally/physically attracted to other females. The terms simply refer to a sexual orientation that isn’t heterosexual, but they in no way automatically imply that someone who identifies as gay or lesbian is sexually active. I know younger Christians who identify as gay and lesbian who have committed to a life of celibacy.

When I wrote my memoir, Loves God, Likes Girls, several years ago, I used the terms, “homosexual” and “homosexuality,” in the book because I was writing to an older audience – my generation and beyond – who had grown up with those words. I also interchanged the phrase, “same-sex attraction.” Many who read the book told me they learned the phrase “same-sex attraction” for the first time there. Learning new language requires using words that your audience is familiar with, while introducing them to new terminology.

I talk to a lot of Christians who still have trouble with this terminology, associating it with promiscuity as I did in my youth. But to younger generations, it doesn’t mean this at all.

Language is quickly evolving in this area. To illustrate just how quickly, the phrase, “same-sex attraction,” has already become troublesome as well.

Just this past week we received two messages asking why we continued to use the phrase, “same-sex attraction,” in CenterPeace materials. Legitimate concerns were expressed, because depending on your audience, words take on different meanings.

And one misplaced word or phrase can send an entirely different meaning that we never intended.

Within the LGBTQ+ community, the use of the phrase, “same-sex attraction,” has been associated with old ideas and methodologies, such as reparative therapy which attempted to change sexual orientation and caused much harm. Therefore, the mere mention of this phrase triggers the notion that we in some way are promoting that line of thinking. I can assure you, we are not.

Here are our reasons for using the phrase, “same-sex attraction.”

For the same reason that it helped me 22 years ago, it’s still helping give people a voice who are just now learning that phrase. For people who have been raised in strictly conservative backgrounds, it provides a bridge to overcoming the shame that has been heaped on through teaching that any acknowledgement of attraction to your own sex is sinful. This phrase was the first step in helping me to realize that my attraction was not by my willful choice, nor were those feelings wrong. Sadly, I know many Christians who still need this transition language to overcome their feelings of shame. Others don’t choose to identify within the LGBTQ+ spectrum and feel more comfortable saying that they “experience same-sex attraction.” Some would even describe their feelings as a “struggle with same-sex attraction,” believing that to act on their sexual desire with someone of the same sex would be sinful.

We use the phrase, “same-sex attraction,” for the same reason we use the acronym, “LGBTQ+” – to keep the door open to conversation for anyone who isn’t comfortable with other language.

We will continue to use the most inclusive language possible. We’re committed to updating our language as it evolves in a culture that is constantly changing and growing in our understanding of everything, including sexuality. We appreciate the questions, the voiced concerns about terminology that might seem to exclude, unintentionally.

inclusive community hands

Please continue to educate us.

Please understand that we’re attempting to provide safe space for conversation with anyone who wants to engage in peaceful ways, respectful of others’ perspectives.

So please be patient as we’re coming to terms with ourselves, each other, and new ways of communicating.

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