The word gay and related terms like LGBTQ should be avoided for a deeper reason. They are insufficiently respectful of the human beings who are described in this way. Such identifiers sell humanity short by suggesting that sexual desire amounts to the most important fact about an individual. However well-intentioned (or not), these terms advance a reductionist view of men and women incommensurate with the reality that we are infinitely rich and complicated beings, created in the image of God.
It is bad enough when the wider culture, interested in exploiting carnal desires for commercial or prurient reasons, objectifies human beings in this way. When religious authorities do the same, the damage is worse. I’m reminded of Fr. Arne Panula, a prominent Washington, D.C., priest of manifest goodness and wisdom who died last year. In one of our last conversations, he mentioned meeting a friend-of-a-friend in Italy. This friend felt compelled to tell him, “Fr. Arne, I’m gay.” To which the priest replied, “No, you’re not. You’re a child of God.” Fr. Arne was making the point that the most important fact about this man was not his erotic leanings.
I have heard some version of this argument many times and I have never understood it. Are there any other adjectives or descriptors that Eberstadt sees as having the same character?
For instance, imagine that I had just met Fr. Arne, and as we chatted he started telling me, with the evident sense that this would mean something to me, that he loved the city of Montreal and thought that the RCMP is an especially admirable institution that other countries should imitate. Imagine further that, in order to head off any misunderstanding, I said, “Fr. Arne, I’m American.” Would he reply, “No, you’re not. You’re a child of God”? And if not, why not? (We can easily imagine other situations in which I might say “I’m white” or “I’m Southern.”)
Adjectives and similar descriptors tend to be circumstantial in this way. Were I to say, in the imagined context, “I’m American,” I would not therefore be affirming that being American is intrinsic to my identity or the most important thing about me. I would, rather, be affirming that my status as an American was contextually relevant. And aren’t there other contexts in which “I’m gay” or “I’m straight” would be similarly relevant?
At this point in writing this post I realized that what I’m saying sounded familiar to me, and I thought a while, and remembered that Ron Belgau has already made my point: “English speakers say, ‘I am X’ all the time without meaning that ‘X’ is either a defining or constitutive element in their identity….” Belgau concludes, definitively: “I do not think that ‘gay’ describes any deep fact about who I am in Christ.” And yet no matter how many times he and his colleagues make these denials, someone always turns up to say Yes you do, you totally think that.
The insistence I see in so many quarters on policing this very particular bit of English usage is very strange to me, and I am losing the ability to see it as anything but a power play, a way of saying to gay and lesbian Christians You’ll use the language we decide you should use, or else. It’s become a non-fatal shibboleth, this demand that a certain word or set of words be used or not be used as a precondition of full fellowship. Isn’t it past time just to let this go?