Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Why So Gay?

There's been some discussion in the Moho Facebook group about the terms Same-Sex Attraction (SSA), Same-Gender Attraction (SGA), Homosexual, Gay, Queer, etc. Whatever words we might use to describe men who love men and women who love women.

I guess we'll be perennially condemned to have this discussion over and over again. That sort of comes with the territory of belonging to a despised minority. My perception is that as people become more comfortable with who they are, they become less preoccupied with what they call themselves.

I've never been a fan of the SSA and SGA terms. My gut level response to the terms is, it's about so much more than mere "attraction." Other words that I'd use to describe the feelings I feel toward men would include "connection" or "bonding." Furthermore, SSA and SGA tend to connote mere sexual attraction (though there's no reason why they couldn't connote more). And I'd really prefer a word that speaks more to the totality of feeling a connection to men that includes social, emotional and spiritual components, as well as a physical component.

Of the available choices, I guess I still prefer "gay." But that deserves to be unpacked too. If I prefer it, why that term as opposed to something like "SSA"? I mean, the bald meaning of the word is "cheerful" or "happy." Does this mean I'm never sad? Taken literally, it could be kind of silly as a self descriptor.

However, words are symbols. They are short hand. As short hand, "gay" is not a bad word, because cheer, happiness, exuberance, or gaiety is definitely what I feel in the company of men. I like a word that says something positive about how I feel about being whatever it is that I am that has to do with my desire to be pair-bonded for life with another man. I like that the word is not sexually oriented, that it doesn't single out my sexual attraction as the trait that defines me.

I also prefer the word gay because it has a history of being used by people like me to self-identify. Of the available choices, "gay" is one of the few words that hasn't been imposed on me and others like me by some medical or religious establishment. The history of a word often has more to do with its acceptability as a descriptor than anything else. That's one reason I believe "queer" will never be widely accepted, and other words like "faggot" will remain almost universally rejected.

And that's ultimately what the use of words needs to boil down to. It is disrespectful to insist on calling people by a name that they themselves are uncomfortable with. It is respectful to call people by the name that they have stated a preference for.

There are, for instance, at Church, some folks who insist on calling me "John Wrathall." I don't object to that. I will never make a fuss about that. That is my name. But the only reason it is my legal name is because I live in a society that makes it difficult and costly to legally change my name, even though I consider myself married, and even though my marital name would be "Gustav-Wrathall." "Gustav-Wrathall" is the name that I have chosen to signify that I have intertwined my life's fortunes with a man whose name prior to our relationship was "Gustav." "Gustav-Wrathall" is the name that we both have chosen to signify our commitment to each other and the mutual life we have chosen to build together. So I have a preference for that name. I have used it to describe myself for almost two decades. And my feeling is that -- whether or not people regard my relationship with Göran as valid -- if they have respect for me as a person, they will refer to me by the name I (we) have chosen: "Gustav-Wrathall".

It's a little more challenging when we're dealing with terms that are used to describe large numbers of people. Not everyone who might be described by the term "gay" likes the term "gay."

In my experience, the vast majority of people who are "same-sex attracted" prefer the term gay -- especially once they have come to a place of self-acceptance. We tend to embrace terms like "same-sex attraction" when we still feel tentative and uncomfortable with this aspect of ourselves. People who use terms like SSA or SGA tend to do so in order to minimize the "same-sex attraction" and distance themselves from it. That in itself says something about the terms.

I've never felt that being gay "defines" me in any way. I am many, many things: a human being, a male, a Finnish-American, a historian, right-handed, a paralegal, partnered; I am loving, spiritual, intellectually curious; I am many, many things. And gay. But I don't feel any need to distance myself from my gayness or minimize that aspect of my life. I am gay. My gayness is what it is. At different times in my life, my gayness has seemed more or less important, depending on what issues I happened to be dealing with at that time in my life. It was a huge issue when I was coming out; at other times in my life, it hasn't really registered. It is neither the most important nor the least important aspect of who and what I am. It just is a part of me, like my right-handedness.

But because many people do feel conflicted about being gay, and because this is a difficult issue, I think we are called upon to exercise sensitivity and charity when speaking or writing about this. In any given situation, I try to pay attention to what terms people are using, and then I try to match my language to be sensitive to their feelings and concerns. Because ultimately, showing respect and having unhindered dialog is more important to me than insisting on being called "gay."

Whatever you choose to call me, I am what I am.


GeckoMan said...

I prefer to call you "Dear Brother."

J G-W said...


That works!

Pablo said...

Lovely, thoughtful post. Thank you.

Bravone said...

I like very much. I too try to adapt my wording to most effectively help the audience understand, and sometimes that is by using the terms sga, gay, ssa, or homosexual. I'm personally not offended or troubled by any of the terms, but likewise prefer gay.

J G-W said...

Pablo, thanks!

Bravone, I kinda figured we were on the same page with this one, especially given some of the comments you made in the Moho Facebook group on the same subject.

Words are kinda important, but it helps if we don't get our egos wrapped up in them; since language is by its very nature contingent and symbolic...

Brian said...

Nice Post,John

I, too, prefer the term "gay" and I like your reasons. As a guy who is now very comfortable within his own skin, and beginning to develop many friendships with other guys which are not sexual,I like your emphasis on the emotional bonding.
Some of my gay friendships are much more deeply emotionally open and intimate than straight men would rarely experience, it at all.
Thanks for your wonderful posts..this is my first comment here. I've not attended LDS church for some months now, but I may go tomorrow. I'm still in tune with many of the church's doctrines, but didn't feel comfortable going back until I felt more "whole" and secure within myself.

Your blog has given me much to think about.....much appreciated :)

Paul said...

Great post. I like the part about self-acceptance being a precursor to feeling comfortable with the term "gay." It's amazing how long that stage is lasting for me - almost 2 years. I guess it doesn't help that the only gay person I know is my partner and I still have all the internalized the negative thoughts of my religious background and upbringing. Thanks for sharing your insight.

J G-W said...

Brian, Paul - Thank you!

Brian, I experienced the same thing... Growth and stability in my relationship with my husband is what, I think more than anything else, laid a groundwork for me emotionally and spiritually to come back to Church. I'm seeing that in other gay men as well.

So isn't that another, interesting twist? Fully loving and accepting myself has made it possible for me to embrace another identity: "Latter-day Saint" and "Child of God." Being comfortable with those identities goes hand in hand with learning to love and embrace ALL of me...