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A Note about Terminology


 

Imagine this scene if you will:  a liberal gay activist and a conservative Christian activist stand almost nose to nose, glaring at each other.

"Why don't you support equal rights for gays?" asks the gay activist.

"I do," replies the Christian activist, "but you already have those.  What I don't support is special rights."

"We're not asking for special rights," retorts the gay activist.  "We just want to be protected from discrimination in employment, housing, and so forth -- the same as any discriminated-against minority group."

"But you're not a minority like racial minorities."

"Why not?"

"Because homosexuality is a choice, and an immoral choice at that."

"I didn't choose to be gay.  And who are you to enforce your beliefs on me anyway?"

"God doesn't make anyone sin.  And homosexuality is a sin, according to God's Word."

"How can love be a sin?  What difference does it make who I love?"

"If you really loved them, you wouldn't encourage them to sin."
 

And so the debate rages on, seemingly without end.  Perhaps you've taken part in a conversation like this one.  The arguments are usually more complex, but the principles are the same.  It seems almost like the two sides are talking right past each other, as if they were talking about totally different issues.  And that's where terminology comes into play.  Because the terms we use are absolutely crucial if we want to get our messages across to people who don't agree with us.  For example, what are "equal rights" and what are "special rights"?  There is not always a consensus on these terms, and this leads to conflicts in political discussions.

But this is not a political site.  There is a much more important distinction to be made here.  Look at the use of words like "homosexuality" and "gay" in the conversation above.  Neither individual explains exactly what he means when he uses these words, but he seems to assume that the other guy is using them the same way.

When the Christian activist says, "Homosexuality is a choice," what he probably means is, "No one makes you have sex with people of your own gender.  You choose the way you're going to live your life, whereas an African-American cannot choose the color of his or her skin."

In other words, the Christian activist is associating the term "homosexuality" with a behavior -- namely, sexual activity between two people of the same gender.

When the gay activist says, "I didn't choose to be gay," what he probably means is, "Guys are attractive to me and girls are not.  I didn't just wake up one morning and decide to be different; and I can't make myself get turned on by girls and not by guys, because that's not how I really feel."  (See Is It a Choice?)

In other words, the gay activist is associating the term "gay" with a feeling -- namely, physical attraction to other people of the same gender.

But both of these men have failed to make that important distinction between sexual behavior and sexual attraction.  Since they don't realize that they're using terms differently, they can keep arguing forever and never see eye-to-eye.

So how can we avoid this trap?

It is important to define our terms clearly ahead of time, and, when possible, to use more specific language that makes our meaning clear.  For example, instead of talking about "homosexuality", we might want to talk about "same-gender sexual behavior" or "same-gender attraction".  The Christian could say, "I believe that you didn't choose to feel the way you do, but I don't think that your feelings make it okay for you to have gay sex."  This is much clearer than "Homosexuality is a sin."

As far as the terminology on this site, I have made my best efforts to be specific when possible.  When I use controversial terms like "gay" or "ex-gay", I try to use them the way they are most often used by those communities.

Although some people see "gay" as a political identity, by and large the modern gay community (in America, at least) defines "gay" to mean "physically attracted to one's own gender and not to the opposite gender".  "Straight" is seen as the opposite (physically attracted only to the opposite gender) and "bisexual" is used to refer to people who experience physical attraction to both genders.  "Homosexual" and "heterosexual" can also be used as synonyms for "gay" and "straight".  Please note that on my site, I will use these terms to refer exclusively to a person's sexual attractions, not to his or her sexual behavior.

There is some confusion over the use of the term "ex-gay".  (See Asparagus and Sexuality.)  Again, I will use the ex-gay community's own definition of the term in my writing.  Many ex-gay people associate a particular identity or lifestyle with the term "gay", and for reasons of their own, choose not to identify themselves as gay.  A person who no longer identifies as "gay", therefore, may be considered an "ex-gay", regardless of his or her sexual attractions.

As you can see, this brings immediate conflict between the "gay" community and the "ex-gay" community, since the former believes that "gay" means "same-gender attracted", while the latter believes that a person can be "ex-gay" and still be same-gender attracted.  I will, therefore, do each individual the courtesy of referring to him or her with the label he or she feels is most appropriate.

 


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