I’ve heard Christian leaders state their problem with people using “queer labels” e.g. lesbian, gay, trans, bisexual, or others. Generally these arguments follow a train of thought that by identifying as L, G, B, T or Q you reduce or override your identity in Christ and replace that with an identity in “the LGBTIQA+ community” or “LGBTIQA+ lifestyle”. While there are problems in believing a universal queer subculture or lifestyle exists – as if a contrasting heterosexual cisgender lifestyle also exists – I wanted to talk about some of the complications I see in these positions about labels…
Firstly, there are words that give us descriptions of who we are. It had me thinking, I could easily describe myself as an “extroverted, optimistic, beach person”… Is it problematic to describe myself as an ‘extrovert’ because it emphasises the way I draw energy from other people and that could detract from the energy I draw from Christ? Does calling myself as an ‘optimist’ and labeling my natural hopefulness oppose the hopefulness I have first and foremost in Christ? Do I need to refrain from telling people that I’m a ‘beach person’ because I’m only allowed to be a ‘Jesus person’?
Ben Law’s essay on Safe Schools describes how words can equip and empower us with concepts that align with our lived experience, and allow us to say: “aha, yes, that’s me”. What’s even more important about queer labels is that, we often aren’t given the opportunity to freely choose which words best describe us. LGBTIQA+ people have words given to us that aren’t necessarily true, and we spend a lot of time trying to work out why we don’t feel right. We expend a lot of energy thinking there’s something wrong with us, simply because we have labels already given to us that aren’t actually true.
For example, when I was born I was given the label ‘heterosexual’ without knowing it, and without ever confirming it. As part of this label, as I moved through my childhood and into puberty, it was expected of me to grow into certain behaviours associated with this description; to crush on boys, date boys, dance with boys, kiss boys, marry a boy, have kids with a boy… end up “happily heterosexually ever after”. However, instead, what I really enjoyed were my close female friendships, I loved the feeling of making other girls laugh, dressing up in male costumes for school dances and more… I was never given the option to choose words for myself that best described my experiences.
Thankfully I found the word ‘gay’ and it helped give descriptions to my internal experiences. Later, I found the word ‘queer’ and it did the same. So, I think it’s helpful to tell you what these labels mean for me:
Gay: Explains my exclusive, unchangeable orientation towards finding love and partnership with someone of the same gender as me. Something that’s always been part of me, but only recently acknowledged through this label.
Queer: Encompasses my expression of gender. Queer means I like to buy from all sides of a clothing store, I have short hair, people can refer to me using male or female pronouns and it really doesn’t bother me, I stopped shaving my legs. It means that living into gendered behaviour is less important to me than living into valued behaviours of faith, love, justice and integrity.
So I am gay, just like I’m a people person. I am queer, just like I’m a beach person. These words, among many others, describe the uniqueness of who I am. They help me see the gifts I have to bring to the world and the flaws I bring with them also. They don’t need to detract from my identity in Christ. They also don’t own me, they just describe me. And they may change as I change.
They can also help me more fully find the ways that Jesus comes alive in my life. The process of learning how to love and care for others involves looking deeply into myself, becoming aware of who I am and then assessing how that may do good or do harm. And then responding with change if need be. You could call this process “repentance”. My own gender and the gender of the person I fall in love with are the least of my concerns. But being attune to who I will love, allows me to become aware of how I will love. Will I love with mutual sacrifice, with selflessness, with a motivation to see a relationship as an overflowing of unconditional love from God?
However, I believe the Church has made queer labels controversial and unhelpful.
The way we use queer labels in churches has becomes deeply problematic, because I have experienced that as soon as someone uses a queer label, the church plants a big list of other labels on top of them, too.
When I realise I am…
You label me as…
Unfit for leadership.
What’s actually happening, is that the Church removes my labels of being renewed and healed and loved, the Church removes my identity in Christ and the Church replaces that with something else.
When I started using the word ‘gay’ to describe my lived reality, everything about my identity as a disciple of Jesus changed. I was a part of the community of Christ, then I was an outsider. I was loved by God, then suddenly I was not worthy of love. I was part of God’s family, then I was not. I was a Christian, then I was someone without faith.
What’s incredibly hard is that because the Church strips me and clouds me with all of these other identities, my own identification with Christ becomes almost impossible. They focus in on these labels so much that I can start to believe they’re more important than the label I find in Jesus.
I love the song Who You Say I Am because it reminds me that the labels that God gives me are the only ones that matter. Any extra labels we give to ourselves may be helpful in figuring out who we are and how we embody our faith. But whatever your labels are, you’ll always be a beloved child of God.
“Who the Son sets free
Oh is free indeed
I’m a child of God
Yes I am
I am chosen
I am who You say I am”
If you’re feeling what I’m feeling, you should take a listen*…