Homosexuality: Identity and Scripts

I’d like your help.

I’m involved in some discussions about homosexuality in the church, and we’re using Mark Yarhouse’s book, Homosexuality and the Christian as our jumping-off point. There are two ideas he puts forward that I would love some broader feedback on.

First, Yarhouse issues a word of caution about quickly embracing the idea and language of gay identity.

Instead, he suggests we think about a three-tiered understanding (probably more like three points on a spectrum) of a person’s sexual predilections: (1) attraction; (2) orientation; and (3) identity.

The difference between 1 and 2 might be persistence over time or strength / prevalence of a given way of being attracted.

The third, “identity,” is something that has literally only become possible over the past century or so. To claim an identity based on sexuality is a relatively modern invention. People before wouldn’t have said, “I’m straight” or “I’m heterosexual” or “I’m homosexual.” Each is a sociological label that tends to carry with it a set of expectations of not only attractions but also practices.

And, since such an identifying label defines “who we are,” those attractions and practices tend to become normative. Living an integrated, healthy life is largely a matter of knowing who we are and acting in step with that.

Yarhouse suggests that avoiding the language of identity is important for giving people space to process how they will respond to attractions, and whether or not they will be in any sense defined or bound by them. Thus, someone might choose to say, “I am a Christian, and I am a Christian who is attracted to other men.”

This point dovetails nicely, it seems to me, with what Jenell Williams Paris wrote about in The End of Sexual Identity. We might do well to resist the notion that our sexuality defines who we are.

Do you think that such a separation is helpful?

The second place I’d like more discussion is on the idea of “scripts.” First, as we talk about scripts, it is important that we not look at these pejoratively. Each of us has an understanding of what it means to act out a part we have been given.

As a professor, I have a certain sense of what it means to faithfully teach or write or get mired in committee work that I perform based on my understanding of what script comes along with the role I’ve been assigned. Similarly, my understandings of what I do because I am husband or father.

Social setting and experience and myriad other factors come together to provide us with scripts. It’s part of life.

What Yarhouse contends in the book is that there is a powerful and compelling script for acting out the role of homosexuality on offer from the gay community, but that there is no compelling alternative coming from the Christian world–and this is a huge problem that we need to address.

Here is how Yarhouse sees the gay script (p. 49):

  • same-sex attraction signals something natural (even God-given)
  • same-sex attractions are the way you really are
  • these attractions are at the core of who you are as a person
  • same-sex behavior is an extension of that core
  • self-actualization in such behavior is crucial for your fulfillment

In other words, the script communicates quite strongly that sexuality is at the core of our identity, and that living in accordance with, and in expression of, that sexual desire is how we live healthfully.

In contrast, Yarhouse outlines what a traditionalist Christian script might look like for someone experiencing sexual attraction (p. 51):

  • same-sex attraction is but one of many distortions of nature that we all experience as part of life that is not the way it is supposed to be
  • [same-sex] attractions are not the defining element of your identity
  • you can choose to integrate same-sex attraction into a gay identity…
  • … or, you can center your identity around other aspects of your experience
  • the most compelling aspect of personhood for the Christian is one’s identity in Christ

I’m curious what you think.

Have we as Christians, both heterosexual and homosexual, bought in too much to the idea that our sexuality is at the core of our identity as persons? Do we all need to put sex on more of a back burner when it comes to who we truly are?

Also, is there a compelling, alternative Christian script–perhaps one that sits less like Yarhouse’s, as a counter-point to the homosexual script, that we should be promoting for everyone alike or for those who experience homosexual attraction in particular?

30 thoughts on “Homosexuality: Identity and Scripts”

  1. I don’t want to be too quick to dismiss the ideas of identity, perhaps precisely because I know, as a white, straight, male, that those of us in positions of power aren’t always aware of how being, say, “white” or “male” (or, yes, “straight”) have influenced our identity. We simply take these things as normative, all too often argue that it is the “other” (that is, in these examples, the “non-white” or the “female” or the “homosexual”) who have some specific “identity” growing out of those things.

    While issues of “identity” in this way could not be identified until comparatively recently, I’m not yet ready to dismiss their potential reality. We need to hear about perspectives that aren’t our own to sometimes even become aware of what we’ve always taken for granted.

  2. Having not read either of these works I can’t go off more than what is here, but I will say that I think staying away from the language of identity seems disingenuous to me.

    I think that discussing homosexuality in the church while only discussing predilections and attractions loses the idea that you’re discussing people. Especially since I can’t see a church actively being open and affirming of gay sex, rather than gay people.

    The identity of people within minority groups or less socially privileged groups is important to them, it’s how they feel power and community within a society that otherwise rejects them. To strip them of that identity or fail to acknowledge it, even if you disagree with it’s binding element, within a church that is supposed to be embracing all people no matter their identity seems backwards.

    1. Greg, I think the response would be: it’s not to forget we’re discussing people, but that as people we can allow certain things to define what our personhood is about. I recall a friend with Diabetes being furious when she was referred to as “a diabetic” (substantive use of the adjective). She found that such an identification of her person with this one dynamic of her life was demeaning. I think that’s the sort of thing Yarhouse is going for (but not with “disease” connotations–please hear me, that’s not the point of comparison!).

      1. Your example of the diabetic label is a great one but doesn’t the act of a (potential) sexual relationship with another human being surpass it? It is more serious. Sexuality does define a person more than a disease, career position etc. I am black, I can’t change that and it does largely contribute to who I am as a person. Of course sexuality being intertwined with a persons identity is prevalent because of our culture but I think it is rightfully so. A person who has practices same-sex thinks (and acts) completely different than someone who doesn’t.

  3. The idea of s “Christian Script” is interesting, but “my sexuality is natural, yours is distorted, and there is room for both of us in the church”, doesn’t work so well for me.

  4. 1. A dark skin color is but one of many distortions of nature that we all experience as part of life that is not the way it is supposed to be
    2. Being black is not the defining element of your identity
    3. You can choose to integrate being black into a distinct African-American identity
    4… or, you can center your identity around other aspects of your experience
    5.the most compelling aspect of personhood for the Christian is one’s identity in Christ

    This one doesn’t make sense. Neither does one which starts out that one feels attracted to people of the same sex. Why? Because they are both arbitrary characteristics. This book seems to be just another example of a hetero-normative society (from a Christian perspective) attempting to wrestle homosexuals into its expectations.

    1. Greg, I see the point in the replacement you just made.

      But when you say that they are both arbitrary characteristics, doesn’t that play into the idea that they should not be definitive of our identity?

      The book (and the conversations I’m part of in person) is definitely from a hetero-normative perspective, and I’m appreciating the push-back that comes from putting the conversation in a broader sphere. Thanks.

      1. Brilliant example, Greg! They are arbitrary characteristics. Identity formation is especially important for marginalized groups. One could argue that entirety of the Bible, in various ways, is a formation of the identity of Israel. But this identity is impossible without the empires of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. “Israel” was constantly defining its identities over-and-against its oppressors.
        This is strongly taken up by the post-structural neo-marxists of the late 20th century, mainly through identity politics. Feminists, colonizers and colonized, lgbtq, are all negotiation of identities over and against various “kyriarchies.” The African-American identity is abritrary in nature, but in the face of racial prejudice and oppression it becomes a meaningful group identity for resistance. The same for lgbtq issues, especially in and around the church. And the same can be said for the “99%.” All arbitrary identities formed around resistance.

        1. Precisely. I don’t spend my time defining myself as a white, middle-class, college-educated, heterosexual, male because, well, those characteristics are normative and therefore assumed. I’ve never been restricted in anyway–by government, society, or church–because of my education, gender, race, or class. Its easy, then, for those of us in positions of privilege to say to those in oppressed groups “Stop making the locus of your identity. Geez. You don’t see me walking around asserting a identity.” Even if sexuality shouldn’t define anyone (and I think it should, at lease somewhat), it is far easier for those of us who are heterosexual, and therefore not oppressed on the basis of our sexuality, to assert that it should not define us than it is for someone who is oppressed on the basis of sexuality to assert that it should not define her, especially because the dominant group is insistent on defining the oppressed group according to the characteristic that has led to the oppression in the first place. This is one reason, I suspect, that oppressed groups insist on reclaiming oppressive language (like the N-word) and want to assert a contrary and positive identity about what it means to be gay, black, feminine, etc. . .

          1. My comment didn’t post in the way I intended it to. Something got left out. Here is my corrective:

            Precisely. I don’t spend my time defining myself as a white, middle-class, college-educated, heterosexual, male because, well, those characteristics are normative and therefore assumed. I’ve never been restricted in anyway–by government, society, or church–because of my education, gender, race, or class. Its easy, then, for those of us in positions of privilege to say to those in oppressed groups “Stop making the locus of your identity (insert characteristic of the oppressed group). Geez. You don’t see me walking around asserting a identity of (insert characteristic of dominant group.” Even if sexuality shouldn’t define anyone (and I think it should, at lease somewhat), it is far easier for those of us who are heterosexual, and therefore not oppressed on the basis of our sexuality, to assert that it should not define us than it is for someone who is oppressed on the basis of sexuality to assert that it should not define her, especially because the dominant group is insistent on defining the oppressed group according to the characteristic that has led to the oppression in the first place. This is one reason, I suspect, that oppressed groups insist on reclaiming oppressive language (like the N-word) and want to assert a contrary and positive identity about what it means to be gay, black, feminine, etc. . .

  5. “Instead, he suggests we think about a three-tiered understanding (probably more like three points on a spectrum) of a person’s sexual predilections: (1) attraction; (2) orientation; and (3) identity.”

    This is a great reference point for anyone who wishes to work with, understand or love same-sex folks. Many people (homosexual and heterosexual) have attractions to other people. Think married people being attracted to someone other than their spouse. The issue enters when it moves to orientation and identity. I would argue against same-sex orientation and identity.

  6. Two things:

    1) I think the desire to get all sexuality out of the core of our identity script is laudable, but I wonder if it is possible. I think it is laudable because it does not reinscribe the dominant “hetero-normative” script, but offers a completely new script to replace it. I doubt it is possible because appeals to the dominant “hetero-normative” script have to be made to make the point that a new script is being offered. In other words, the “new script” is relying on the “old script” to make its case.

    2) “same-sex attraction is but one of many distortions of nature that we all experience as part of life that is not the way it is supposed to be” – This assumes subscription to a certain theology (i.e. The Fall) and thereby a certain anthropology. Your conversation partners may all subscribe to these, but it is still important, I think, to point out the massive assumptions being made by a statement like this.

    Make that three things.

    3) I think thinking in public like this, as well as in smaller conversation groups, is a great exercise that helps us ask questions we hadn’t thought of and proposes answers we may have missed.

  7. Are we assuming a distinction between “gender” and “identity”? I’ve always had a problem with the “5 genders” view. God did create us male and female (2 genders). However, if identity is decoupled then his categories make more sense for me. And yes, I would say it becomes more of a backburner piece of identity.

  8. ’1. A dark skin color is but one of many distortions of nature that we all experience as part of life that is not the way it is supposed to be
    2. Being black is not the defining element of your identity
    3. You can choose to integrate being black into a distinct African-American identity
    4… or, you can center your identity around other aspects of your experience
    5.the most compelling aspect of personhood for the Christian is one’s identity in Christ’

    I wonder how this would have looked before slavery? All these identities are epistomological, products of history, culture, and the resulting human discourse. My wife insists – as do many others – that there were no gays in Africa before the white man went there. In a sense, she’s right. There were obviously people attracted to the same sex, but no gay identity, or straight identity either, since these are European inventions.

    I think part of the problem is that we mistake the epistomological for the ontological. Racism is an obvious example, based on the idea that black people are somehow biologically inferior. It’s not hard to show that this was invented by plantation owners in the late 18th Century who used emerging biological ideas to argue that black people were closer to the grat apes than to white people. It was politically convenient so it stuck. Most or all people at my church (which is 80% black) would agree with points 2,3, 4 and 5. Point 1 would be seen as an obscenity.

    Sexuality is more complex. It may be inborn; it certainly goes deep enough for there to be a very strong argument that it’s ontological, though I think there’s probably more of a spectrum than current Western ideas allow. That leaves me extremely uncomfortable with the conservative Christian view.

    We need a lot more dialogue, and a more open one than I see happening at the moment. On the one hand, we need to ask how viable sexual identity politics really is in the long run, and on the other, we need to find a viable response to people’s real needs, not merely a dogmatic one.

    1. “There were obviously people attracted to the same sex, but no gay identity, or straight identity either, since these are European inventions.”

      I’m not convinced that these are–as you say–European inventions. Granted, I’m citing a Wikipedia article and a movie that was released within the last decade, but for what it’s worth:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two-Spirit_Identity_Theory

      “Two-Spirit People … , an English term that emerged in 1990 … describes Indigenous North Americans who fulfill one of many mixed gender roles found traditionally among many Native Americans and Canadian First Nations indigenous groups.”

  9. This is really intriguing, Daniel. A couple months ago, I had a chance conversation with a guy (who happened to be gay) and I was trying to express to him my frustration with this very issue.

    I find myself frustrated with both sides of the conversation – the church and the LGBT community – because we place sexual orientation at the core of identity. To do that with any aspect of our person would be to dishonor the whole of that person.

    Like your friend with diabetes, it is dishonoring to her to address her as only (or perhaps even primarily) as a diabetic. It is dishonoring to you to treat you as only a seminary professor. It is dishonoring to me to treat me as primarily white or male or a New Englander or whatever. There is so much more to each person and we need to treat one another as wholes.

    That said, these identification labels are helpful as shorthand referents, just like the scripts above are helpful for self-orientation. So I wouldn’t go so far as to eliminate sexuality from our identities, but it ought not be the foremost identity marker. Especially if the church wants to engage in conversation with the LGBT community, it has to approach from a different perspective.

  10. Daniel,

    Here’s my 2 cents: the more mainstream a sexuality is the less it will function as a core piece of identity, whereas the further away from sexual conventions the more necessary it becomes to assert that sexuality as an integral component of one’s identity.

    As a straight person, I do not need to consciously think, assert and define myself in “straight” terms. Since the homosexual community is more marginalized than it’s straight counterparts, there is more of a need to define themselves as “gay” or whatever they choose. So on one level I can understand the homomosexual movement as a normalization of a sexual practice, which may spell a less conscious need to aggressively define themselves as homosexual.

    Scripts no doubt play a huge role as grids by which we filter things. A more pertinent question is whether homosexuality has any place at all in the script of the kingdom of God people. And the answer is not so easy to give as it might appear.

    If we were in the ancient world, they would say that the proclivities that you were born with is part of fate and all one could do was adopt a particular attitude/reaction to one’s lot in life. So as in a Greek tragedy one may not be able to change events, but one’s reaction or attitude defines that person as a hero or not. So I think a homosexual Christian is possible, but such a person must either wrestle or make peace with that script he/she is born with, and that shapes a godly or ungodly strugggle.

    Yuri

    1. I wonder if a good place to start with considering identity is considering how the church has used sexuality to categorize and identify people and therefore divide from them. I certainly have encountered christians and non-christians who have used sexuality to define a persons identity before and sometimes without reference to their core identity as children of God.
      I find I encounter problems when either the church, or a specific social group, starts to elevate a particular aspect of themselves (gender, race, orientation, political persuasion) and make it the main focus of vision and activity over and above identity as God’s loved and created children. Replacing our God-given identity (made in His image) with an identity based on other aspects will result in factions.
      A church or individual that elevates the secondary identity of orientation, gender, race, political stance etc. over identity of child of God, in my mind ceases to be speaking as church or christian and becomes rather an activist/political group or individual.

  11. Speaking of identifications, I noticed a lack of female voices on this one, so thought I would just make a brief remark.

    I think that these identifications are important and empowering for individuals, especially marginalized voices in our society. However, I think that in our (postmodern, American, etc.) culture, sexual identification is a little more sensitive than other identifiers. It is often over-used, or mis-used, as a weapon and thus actually limits the potential of the individual.

    These sexual identifications end up saying a lot that more than just sexual identity; in many cases, I think that they say too much, and are limiting in that they hold theological and political attachments, to name a few.

    Thus, I find that labels in the case of sexuality, at this point in our cultural “moment”, are not as helpful as they are limiting, especially in the Evangelical corner of the world. Until our culture sort of “grows up” a little more with regard to this issue, especially in the Evangelical world, using these identifiers are not the most helpful to honest and truth-seeking discussions.

  12. I was just wondering if the Genesis singular but binary identity of mankind as ‘image and likeness’ and ‘male and female’ has any relevance in this discussion. If so, it seems that sexual identity and differentiation borders on the matter of person and person identity. This would necessarily include the elements of attraction, orientation, and identity. Now complicate this basic binary division by the well-known condition of intersexuality (the regular estimates are that about one in two thousand infants are born with mixed parts of male and female anatomy). Suddenly, the landscape becomes more complex and what is ‘normal’ becomes a bit more challenging when it comes to rules or ethics. Add to this confusion the seemingly very real phenomena of the psychological mis-sexed individuals who don’t feel they are properly what their physical bodies say they are. How does the church accommodate these modern insights into human sexuality? And should homosexuality be viewed as one of these exception-to-the-rule conditions that we need to properly esteem and regard as part of the present/not-yet world that we live in. After all, the issue is not one that violates the Christ-given law of love when consenting same-sex partners are not personally involved in any sort of violence or harm toward one another. Some things in our not-yet world need to be given up at spiritual conversion, other things can wait until the consummation. Any way, I’m not trying to advocate here, but simply raise questions that bug me.

  13. This is a fascinating discussion. I know I’m not as erudite as most of the folks who post here, but I do have some thoughts gleaned from the experience of ministering to those with sexual and relational brokenness issues.

    I have a problem with the assumption put forth by the LGBTQ community that this is who they ARE. Born that way…God-given. It has become the very essence of identity…and very often, those who say otherwise are labeled as homophobic or hating, no matter how loving we are. I have a friend in the “gay Christian” movement who is very bothered by that label as her identity is first as a Jesus-follower. So she, and others, think it should be called the “Christian gay” movement, which I know for some would be an oxymoron. But I digress…

    Looking through the biblical grid that heterosexuality is God’s design (which I know not everyone agrees with) then homosexuality becomes a temptation and/or sin like any other temptation/sin, with perhaps more complicated origins that take time to unravel. We’re all sinners and so all sin is “normal” and “natural” but that doesn’t make it right or God’s design for us. And it certainly shouldn’t be the core of our identity. It’s one thing to have a propensity for certain sins and to struggle in that area (for instance, I’ve had an overeating problem since childhood), but it’s a far different thing to make it a lifestyle and identity marker of who I am. “I’m a glutton, I was born this way, God loves and accepts me this way, I’m happy living a gluttonous lifestyle and the Church needs to affirm my choices. And if they won’t, I’ll form my own church where gluttons feel welcomed, accepted and affirmed.” Sounds kind of ridiculous, but when it’s all boiled down, that’s what’s going on, isn’t it?

    A major part of the healing process for someone struggling with same-sex attraction is to find their identity firmly in Christ first and to recognize the core longings that have not been met and to begin the process of healing the pattern of looking to someone of the same gender to meet those needs. When someone says, “I’ve always felt this way” I do not doubt that. There are patterns that begin even before a person can talk, but the brain has already wired together those patterns. It takes quite awhile to unravel, but it is possible. However, with the cultural position of “accept this as who you are” more and more people aren’t “struggling” but are giving into the feelings and deciding God made them that way. And the church is behind the times and better get with the program. *sigh*

    I’m not sure what the answer is to the original question of whether we should remove sexuality from our identity. But I do think it has done a lot of harm to a lot of people to quickly label them as gay and allow them to embrace that identity without looking at the complex issues lying underneath the feelings and behaviors.

  14. I admit that I have not read the book nor have I read all the comments above. But what I have done is experienced a bunch of the issue at hand. God brought a few intense discussions to me right before I discovered a few youth I knew were working through this. So here is how I tackled it within youth ministry: I did talk about identity, but reclaimed it for the sake of “in Christ,” being made in the image and likeness of God, bringing our identity back to being made in the image and likeness of Christ. This included sexuality, in that God created us Male and Female, but the forefront of identity was in the image and likeness of God. So I guess sexuality was in the identity for me. I am not sure if the church has bought into the identity of sexuality, but our world sure has and our churches are full of people in the world. I am sure there is some influence happening there.

    Encountering homosexuality directly, I brought it back to the state of sin of mankind. It is a part of our broken world. It is an escape and rebellion by man away from God. It is a rebellion away from the way God intended for it to be (assuming the beginning is the way he meant it to be and also in light of what is said about the end). There is my experience and thoughts.

  15. I long for the day when gay people can feasibily live not as gay people but as people.
    For me the dividing of sexuality in terms of the gender of your attraction is made sensible by heteronormative values. Gay is an answer to heteronormative questions. Where does that leave people who don’t want to privilege that concern and its classification?
    I am seeing more and more people reject any of the classic sexual identitys saying “I’m just me, I love who I love.” That includes “straight” people refusing a straight identity – refusing to preclude making a same sex choice of lover in their future. that’s the “global” sexual identity where similaritys are emphasised – the pansexual or the Queer identity. More common still is where the gay, straight, bi identity becomes less important than other identities. You see it wherever repression/oppression on the basis of sexual identity is less.
    At the same time there is a “balkanisation” trend where some people have even more fragmented sexual identities through roles (dominant, submissive etc) or fetishes. These worry me that perhaps sexual identity isn’t just reactive but a tendency that without repression will be driven by consumption instead.
    Personally I feel all sexual identities distance ourselves from the particular and personal of our sexuality. I would include in that, the “Christian” identity where a man and woman are performing Gods plan for sexuality or even representing Jesus and his church.
    Seriously wouldn’t you rather you were being kissed for you in some unique way, not because you conform to the right type for your kisser to kiss?

  16. “Have we as Christians, both heterosexual and homosexual, bought in too much to the idea that our sexuality is at the core of our identity as persons?”

    Dale Kuehne’s book Sex and the I-World argues that the answer to your question is yes.

  17. This is exactly what I have been thinking about homosexuality. I’m so glad someone else has written the book so now I don’t have to.

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