A Shift in Our Language

I’m taking a detour from my posts about challenging our thinking to reflect on the idea of inclusiveness as it relates to LGBT people.

That’s a mighty fancy buzz word these days.  Everyone has an opinion about what it means.  I’m not going to define it, describe it, or defend it.  At this point, and in many churches, it has little meaning.  We can’t even begin to open the conversation about being “inclusive” versus “exclusive” until we retire the words we use to talk about our fellow humans.  Until we clean up our language, there are no rules, regulations, allowances, or changes in policy that will make our LGBT brothers and sisters feel included.

It’s a lot like public education.  I used to work as a school nurse.  When I first started, most of the kids with IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) were in classrooms with other special needs children.  After I had been there about a year and a half, the school began a process to move the majority of those kids into inclusion classrooms—an educational setting where students both with and without IEPs could learn together, with the help of classroom aides and push-in special education teachers.  Before beginning the process, building staff were instructed on how to make the transition smooth.  This included helping adults and students learn sensitive language and caring behaviors.  Without high expectations that we would all speak respectfully and instruct the children to do the same, it would have been much harder.

The same is true when it comes to inclusion of LGBT people in the church.  We have to be sure that our words and actions are not going to alienate people.  Obviously, the use of anti-gay slurs is important.  But there are subtle things people may say which still devalue people.

Allow me to share some examples of what I mean.  Every single one of the following words or phrases has been used at my current church when talking about LGBT people.  My church is non-affirming.  However, when it comes to relationships, they usually get it right.  Even so, these are real examples of the kind of thing that needs to go away before we tackle inclusion:

“I tell people, that’s fine that you’re gay; just go be it somewhere else.  I don’t want to see it.”

“We pick on [another student] because he’s, you know, kinda gay.  But he knows we’re just kidding.

“I don’t want [my daughter] to participate in the Day of Silence [for anti-gay bullying].  I want her to be a friend to those people, but in a way that shows she doesn’t approve of their lifestyle.”

“My [relative] is into the gay lifestyle.”

“I don’t know how ‘into’ the gay lifestyle [so-and-so] is.”

“I’m so sick of the gay agenda.”

Those people.  Kinda gay.  Gay lifestyle.  Gay agenda.  These are words that aim to make some people “other.”  The thing is, I know all the people who said those things.  They are otherwise kind, caring people.  Kids who look out for their friends.  Moms and Dads.  People who serve in the church.  I’m not even sure that they meant to hurt with their words (except maybe the one who picks on a classmate).

We don’t do this with other things that the church considers sinful.  Try replacing the anti-LGBT language in the above examples with just about any other sin.  And we don’t do it when it comes to other differences among people such as race or ethnicity (at least, I hope not).  So why do we do it when it comes to LGBT people?  Why do we allow those words to creep into our vocabulary and cut us off from fully loving and serving the people who walk through our doors?

We’re all okay with LGBT people showing up, as long as they don’t act gay.  We’re okay with being nice to gay people, as long as they know we disapprove.  We’re okay with the idea of gay people, as long as they’re not in a relationship (which is what the euphemism “lifestyle” really means—same-sex intimacy).  We’re fine with talking to gay people, as long as they don’t ask for the same rights we have.

Unless we stop segregating people with our words, we will never be able to stop segregating them with our actions.  If we can’t lay aside our fears and prejudices, we won’t be able to open the conversation about how we can reach out, draw in, and include our LGBT loved ones.

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2 thoughts on “A Shift in Our Language

  1. I really like what you are exploring in this post about changing out language. Being a gay christian I also am trying to find how the best way to keep my language from isolating both my fellow LGBT brothers and sisters – expressing the freedom I have in my faith, but also not casting judgement on those who are attempting to live an ex-gay life. There are some people I know that are married in an opposite sex relationship where at least one is “ex-gay”. I have the dilemma of living open and free at church, I haven’t talked to this person, but everyone knows me and my husband and we make no apologies for believing that I am not just living in the freedom Jesus gives me, but that I simple have come to a different interpretation of scripture that validates gays. It’s not that I’ve even had a chance to talk to them about it, although my husband has shared via email that basis of why we have come to the conclusion of our beliefs. For myself, my approach has been to say very little – basically nothing more than what was said in my introduction to first meeting our pastor for coffee and once at dinner at his house. The other people I’m talking about haven’t had to hear me boast – I’m just trying to be a living example without saying a word, until I’m am personally asked questions on the topic. While I would love everyone else that is living “ex-gay” to understand and know the freedom I have, I also do not want to be the cause of someone finding freedom to simply “be” who they are at the cost of the pain of a break up. I’ve lived that, having been married before. After the pain and lost of break up, my ex-wife and I are still friends – my husband even does her hair every month or so. I know that sounds ideal, but more rare I’m guessing. So, I too amy expecting to deal with being sensitive about my language in the flip side if the issue.

    • Great thoughts! I am ashamed to admit that I hadn’t even considered the other side of the coin. I suppose I know far too many people who have been really, really hurt by the church, and I also used to take a pretty uncharitable position. It took me more than ten years to fully love and accept the people in my life. It makes a big difference to have actually lived it, though. Another reason why we need to be sure that the way we speak doesn’t isolate and exclude. Everyone comes to the table with his or her own experiences. Now I want to explore that idea further, inclusive language that does not shame those who are “ex-gay” or are trying to live celibate lives.

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