In my previous post, I examined how evangelicals talk about “finding their identity Christ” — that is, regarding God as their supreme significant other. Here, I’ll explore what “identity” means to LGBT people: personal self-definition and an acknowledgment of social realities.
Taking on a gay identity doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. For some people, it just means being out. For others, it entails a more sweeping re-orientation to the world in terms of beliefs, values, and habits. Either way, for gay people, “identity” is, at its core, about self-definition, not self-worth. Self-definition is simply a person’s right to tell the truth about who they are. While self-worth involves a value judgment, self-definition is simply descriptive.
When someone says “I identify as . . .”, it reflects their decision about how to explain an important part of who they are. If someone identifies themselves as a “gay Christian,” it’s because they value that part of who they are and think it’s important that other people know as well. It seems wrong to a lot of people to append anything to “Christian,” but other people do it without anyone wondering whether they are subordinating “Christian” to something else — “Arab Christian,” “southern Christian.” It’s not common but it’s not unprecedented.
Unfortunately, gay identity isn’t always something that people get to choose for themselves. For many people, it’s acknowledgment of the social reality that to a large extent — in mainstream American society as well as evangelicalism — gay people are singled out as different from “the rest of us.” It’s not just that being gay is uncommon; in our society it’s labelled (implicitly if not explicitly) as abnormal. In Christian contexts, the fact that someone is gay is often seen as the most important thing about them. If someone identifies as a “gay Christian,” it’s may be because they people around made the decision about their identity for them.
Christian identity and gay identity aren’t incompatible, and neither are two different uses of the term “identity.” We need to make sure we understand the words people are using before we use them to draw social dividing lines.