Language for Navigating Sexual Identity

Posted by on Feb 5, 2015 in ISSI Blog

Language for Navigating Sexual Identity

Silander Illustration

“Struggling,” “overcoming,” “same-sex attracted,” “gay,” “gay Christian,” “celibate gay Christian,” “LGBTI,” “sexual minority”…

One can adopt an array of descriptive words to denote an identity that many would simply label “gay.” However, the interaction between same-sex attraction and religious beliefs that condemn or condone same-sex behavior and sexually intimate relationships may result in a range of preferred labels to describe one’s sexual identity… Ways that are perceived as much more accurate and nuanced for one’s lived experience. After all, sexual attraction and sexual orientations differ simply in the strength of the attractions and how they persist.

Although there are many considerations in adopting, or not adopting, a specific sexual identity label, we focus on two particularly challenging areas: same-sex sexuality and one’s religious beliefs and values. Same-sex sexuality may include one’s same-sex attraction and/or orientation, sexual behavior and desire to pursue ongoing and intimate same-sex relationships. Religious beliefs and values are informed by one’s religious affiliation, spiritual/religious values and belief systems, participation in a spiritual/religious community, and so on. How an individual with a strong religious affiliation/identity and strong same-sex attractions arrives at sexual identity label, or no label, is worthy of much more reflection.

The label “gay” can denote both orientation and identity, but using it for the latter risks increasing stigmatization that many sexual minorities experience. Additionally, the label “gay” may represent an encouraging source of pride, but it can be perceived as inflammatory and connotation-laden by conservative religious individuals. When trying to reconcile one’s sexual identity, avoiding a label or utilizing “struggling” or “same-sex attracted” may feel as though he or she is denying or undermining an integral part of the self, or it could in fact feel extremely liberating to be free of linguistic social constraints. Hoping to harmonize one’s religious and sexual identities is noble but at times, attached to unintended outcomes. A “gay Christian” label could be perceived as false by those in the conservative church community, and “celibate gay Christian” could potentially alienate a sexual minority from the LGBTI community and the conservative Christian community. Other labels can include “LGBTI” and “sexual minority,” and as with other labels, they may suit a given individual or not depending on a variety of factors, such as religious and social values, community affiliations, social pressures, and more.

The experiences of sexual minorities are frequently punctuated by challenges and overwhelming emotions. Forming a cohesive identity can often involve labels that are difficult to create. So responding with compassion, understanding, and an awareness for social and linguistic is key to supporting the journey they navigate.

-ISSI Staff



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