09 April 2009

Should Faithful LDS Refer to Themselves as "Gay"?

In an online discussion group I'm in, I mentioned that within LDS circles where homosexuality is being discussed (in this case, an online discussion group), faithful LDS people are sometimes (not always, but sometimes) criticized for referring to themselves as "gay" because of the baggage the term "gay" carries and the risk one runs of identifying with a culture that is not supportive of church standards. "George" and "Sasha" responded with reasonable arguments for why throwing around the word "gay" can be problematic. I wrote this response but refrained from posting it because it's long and distracted from the main topic of discussion. My response:

I didn't want to go into this. I am, in fact, tired of going over this, as George pointed out (like the slap of a glove to the face, the punk), but now I feel like my judgment has been challenged by unfortunately intelligent people (*sigh* harder to dismiss) as the result of an incidental mention (can I just go back and use a different example? No? Dang). Admittedly an emotional reaction on my part. So I'm gonna get all defensive here and explain my perspective. I don't do it to convince anyone to use my terminology but to offer perspective on where _I_ am coming from, in the offchance anyone is interested in understanding it a little better. And I figure for every 5-6 times I "just let it go", I'm allowed to spout off. So spout I will.


I don't dispute the validity of the points George and Sasha made--they are, in fact, quite valid and important to consider and might go overlooked if I were the only person you talked to--even up to perceptions about the word "gay" not coming only from "provincial, conservative Utahns" (something I don't think I even implied and don't believe). George, I think you imply that if everyone were saying "gay this" "gay that", new members who hold very understandable prejudices towards the word would likely feel uncomfortable and leave unless someone took the time to explain to them that here, it doesn't mean "seeking same-sex partnership" or "defying church standards". I agree with that. It's much easier to not have to explain that to them, so we definitely have to be cautious of our wording to ensure that the tone of the community is appropriate to its mission and values. Sasha, I'll address some of your comments below as I go into the more personal aspects of my position.


I believe some things are the way they are primarily because nobody has had the energy or desire to change the way they are, to stand up, be counted, and challenge paradigms by one's own existence. I know many active, faithful LDS who have no problem referring to themselves as "gay", except sometimes for the perception others will likely have, which will only ever change if people step forward and redefine it with their own lives.


I just don't think that particular change is important to most people, so that's not a battle they choose to engage in with all the other more important efforts in their lives. So be it. I can respect that and let it be. So please lend me the same respect, and please don't tell me what I should or should not call myself. It pisses me off big time when I can't even mention it in passing without someone calling me on it and trying to prove their point, usually in a group setting where they want to make sure other impressionable people do not commit my same error. I fully understand the desire to be a voice of caution, and I also remind myself that this is simply the annoying risk I assume in choosing to refer to myself as "gay", so I generally try to get over my pissedoffness as quickly as possible, hope that one day things will be different, and move on.


In formal writing, especially institutional, it is NOT direct, interpersonal communication with an individual whom people know personally and say, "I know you, and you're not what I think of when I hear 'gay', so I'm beginning to see that word in a different light." No, it's an impersonal forum or audience. I believe that unless you want to take a page to explain your use of the word "gay", the term should generally be avoided to avoid misunderstanding. Until a loaded word ceases to be loaded or cultural understanding of its meaning changes to the point where clarification wouldn't be necessary, an organization such as Evergreen or North Star is wise to avoid using that term where possible to avoid controversy and maintain credibility with those whose support is essential. I think that's why "gay" doesn't turn up much if you search for it on North Star, for example, except in reference to external articles or links.


I mentioned that I know a few active, faithful LDS who refer to themselves as "gay" in casual conversation and in private heart-to-hearts (though they won't do so in a private conversation with someone they suspect will disapprove of their using the word "gay" to avoid the debate, myself included), and they have for some time. I've also known many guys who wouldn't call themselves "gay" who've secretly fooled around with men to an astonishing degree when not at church or who've had boyfriend after boyfriend but refused to call them boyfriends. Despite this, I agree--believe it or not--with Sasha's observation that those who retain the term "gay" often are on their way out of the church or are already out, and that those who remain faithful most often (not always) drop the term, at least for a time and often permanently. My experience over the last four years supports the correlation, but I don't believe it's a causation. I think most people, including SSA/gay people, don't look beyond the social stigmas of "gay" to see it as a simple adjective. BECAUSE they are just as steeped in loaded labels as the next person, IF they're calling themselves gay, it's BECAUSE they are beginning to identify with "gay culture", by which I mean nothing more than "those who are seeking or open to same-sex relationships". And IF someone drops the label because they're coming back to church, it's typically BECAUSE they don't care to risk people's judgement (yes, that's an accepted spelling and the one I prefer) or to expend energy or effort trying to redefine the term "gay" for every new acquaintance they make. They'd rather just leave "gay" to the people who fit the currently accepted perceptions and go on with their lives. And let's be honest, being the "gay" guy in the ward might dampen a guy's dating prospects if he hopes to fall in love with and marry a woman someday. So it's not worth it to many people. I think the choice of terminology is often an indicator of attitude but not an actual step in one direction or another.


I caution newbies (those recently facing or dealing with their homosexuality) about the ramifications of identifying as "gay" because of the company they're likely to attract or the identifications they may unintentionally make. Referring to myself as "gay" makes me feel no more connected with any particular "gay culture". It's an adjective, a simple descriptor, not a clan. BUT for people who are hungry for belonging, eager to have a group of people who really understand them (we all are to some extent, aren't we?), saying they are "gay" may, in fact, be a powerful alignment and identification with people who "get them". If that means their sense of belonging is found in a community that openly defies church standards, that's problematic for someone who wants to live by church standards. For someone to say they are lefthanded reminds them they are a part of a social minority who do things a little differently. To use more of a label beyond a simple adjective (I see "gay" as a simple adjective more than a cultural label, though I understand I'm probably in the minority), saying I am "LDS" reminds me I'm part of a large body of saints, a family of people who believe in or subscribe to similar doctrine and standards, and that reminder can make me accountable to act more "like a mormon" when I say I'm LDS to others. So I definitely see how the same could go for the word "gay" if the individual regards it as a cultural label.

But for someone with a strong sense of self and confidence in their own identity, and who disregards cultural associations of adjectives and is willing to let people judge them until they get to know them better (which took me a good three years or so to reach where the "gay" label was concerned), and to let those who never do learn better just go on misjudging to their own detriment, I think the situation is different. I support challenging perceptions in healthy or productive ways. To some, it IS worth it to initiate the change.


Maybe that's where we differ. I don't dispute whether "gay" is a loaded word carrying a lot of worldly baggage most people in the church would rather not have associated with them. But I am interested in changing perception, shifting paradigms bit by bit, by adding my face to the word. Maybe it just doesn't matter to most people if "gay" can include people who are happily married to someone of the opposite sex, or someone who is not open to a same-sex relationship. Maybe most are just happier letting "gay" be what most people think it is and use other terminology to refer to themselves. I totally get that. TOTALLY. I used to be there. Maybe one day, when I'm more faithful again, I'll re-adopt that attitude. It's possible. I don't have a sense of mission or crusade around insisting people call themselves "gay". I just love the fact that, among my friends, everyone knows they can use the word "gay" without it meaning I have sex with men. It's so nice that they don't have to walk on eggshells with me or carefully choose their words to avoid offending me or having me correct them. I believe it can be that way for more people.

Why do I even care about changing people's perceptions of the word "gay"? Is it convenience over saying "same-sex attracted"? Is it because I want to distance myself from the stigma around "SSA"? Is it because I don't want ANOTHER word to describe myself, like SSA, when there's already one I think is equal that more of society accepts and understands? Is it because I'm just plain stubborn? Probably all of the above.


Heh, that said, I do have a bit of a negative gut reaction about referring to myself as "SGA" or even "SSA" because to a lot of people who have been around other "SSA" folks in the past, that means a really conflicted, awkward guy who won't fully admit his attractions because he wants to save face and find an unsuspecting girl he can marry to fulfill his sense of acceptable gender roles and get his ticket to the celestial kingdom to the poor girl's detriment, but in the meantime is "slipping up" with guys left and right, making him more promiscuous than many "gay" people they know. Which is poppycock. While there are some out there who fit that description to some extent, "SSA" doesn't mean that at all. But I still have that association to deal with. So I understand having a gut reaction against certain labels and having logical or cultural reasons for those reactions.

As I said, I also agree with George and Sasha that certain assumptions are also made about the word "gay" that may not be accurate to many or most of us, such as "dates members of the same sex". And there are many other mostly negative characteristics that may be associated with "gay", like promiscuity, substance abuse, lack of standards or morals, shallowness, materialism, etc.

I also recognize that "SSA" isn't the only alternative to "gay" but am using it as an example because I think it's the most-used alternative in LDS circles.


I also remind myself that "SSA" (which you will not find in Merriam Webster's dictionary except in association with a shaky government agency) culturally implies someone who is attracted to people of their same sex but probably wishes not to pursue a relationship with such, and I try to get past the many cultural associations that come with it so maybe people will see that not all self-denying homos are neurotic messes like they inaccurately thought. I think to some people, SSA maybe even carries some nuance of a range of emotional and physical attractions subtly connected to the ideas of emotional needs unmet, etc, which play into theories of therapy for homosexuality, so perhaps SSA really is your more accurate choice if that's your perspective. To me, most of that nuance is fluff and isn't inherent or inextricably connected with the label, but to others, it's significant to their understanding and to framing things in a way that works for them in eschewing associations with certain behaviors or groups from which they need to distance themselves to focus on their goals.

"Gay", according to Merriam Webster, means: of, relating to, or characterized by a tendency to direct sexual desire toward another of the same sex. Pretty direct, even if it does use the word "sexual" as if it doesn't include other forms of desire or attraction. Culturally, it does traditionally imply one who is open to pursuing such feelings, but I shrug that off 'cause it's not the definition.

Though I generally choose "gay" in casual conversation, I don't correct people when they call me "SSA", though if they showed any hesitation in knowing how to refer to me, I'll sometimes say, "It's OK to use the word 'gay' with me." And I don't insist that those who prefer to call themselves "SSA" change to referring to themselves as "gay". I realize some do, but I do not.


Different people just see things differently, and sometimes it's not clearly right or wrong. Institutionally, I think "gay" carries too much baggage for an organization such as North Star or Evergreen to use the word. Individuals within the "LDS SSA" community, however, should use whatever term they feel most comfortable with to describe themselves and should respect other members' choices, which I think most already do. Those who do opt to refer to themselves as "gay" should be able to do so without being corrected or told that when they're more spiritually mature or more faithful, they'll stop using it. Those who refer to themselves as "SSA" should be able to do so without being called self-deceptive or homophobic or told that when they learn to really love themselves, they'll stop using it.

OK, you've heard far more than anyone would want from me by now. And let me be up front: I'm in a pretty questioning phase of life right now. If I were to end up leaving the church, that would confirm Sasha's observations with one more example. Keep that in mind. But I don't think it invalidates what I've said.


Samantha said...

My two cents:

I'm tired of people telling me what words I can and cannot use to describe myself. I use the word "lesbian" in reference to myself, and also the word "gay". But I also care more about spots on my carpet than I do about whether or not people are judging what I do in my private life.

Seriously, try saying "same-sex attraction" five times, fast...so much easier to say "gay" or "lesbian" (and although I'm all about allowing people to choose what they call themselves, I do suggest, Original Mohomie, that you limit your use of "lesbian" as a descriptor of yourself--not that it will make any difference to me, personally...)

Okay, my comment is quickly becoming inane. So I'm stopping.

Original Mohomie said...

lol, thanks for the laugh. I enjoyed that. I'll stop calling myself a lesbian, per your suggestion.

robert said...

I think the word "fag" is actually preferable to gay as it places the disdain and homophobia in its place. To know that "fag" or "faggot" reaches back into the history of burning homosexuals at the stake makes a compelling argument for its continued use by those who are still oppressed by the Church of their ancestors.

blj1224 said...

You should seriously consider writing a book.

Original Mohomie said...

robert--...I don't know what to say to that, so I will say no more.

blj1224--I think this post IS a book.

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean. My best friend hates that I call myself gay. But he was the one who lived with his boyfriend for three years, and he refuses to say that he is/was gay. SSA/SGA is BS. He's had a lot more gay experience than I have had, but since he won't use the G word, it's all okay.

Original Mohomie said...

Anonymous--I can understand your frustration. I do, however, want to clarify that I am not saying or implying anyone should be criticized for choosing SSA over gay. I think that is a respectable choice. They do, as I mentioned, have their own valid reasons for doing so, even if some people don't understand them or don't feel those reasons apply to themselves. It comes down to respecting each other's choices even after offering perspective that may be contrary. My main beef is with people insisting I shouldn't refer to myself as gay. I understand the concern, but I don't agree that their reasons apply to me the way they might to someone else.