Labels and Definitions and Who I Am


by: Neil Ellis Orts

I recall a young woman, a class mate, in college. Despite the color of her skin, she was told by some other classmates that she was not black enough and should consider taking black lessons.

"What does that mean, 'black enough'?" she asked me. "I'm black. What else am I supposed to be?"

Being the sort of white person that has never been told he wasn't white enough, I had no answer for her. I understood what our other classmates were saying, but I also knew for this woman to be "black enough" was for her to lose something of who she was as simply a person.

Every subculture has its dominant images and voices. I think of this woman when I come across someone who doesn't think I'm "gay enough". I'm attracted to people of my own gender. Isn't that enough?

Well, apparently not, as I don't meet certain dress codes or read the right books or listen to the right music or see the right movies. It's hit and miss, but mostly I look at one those "you might be gay if . . . " lists and while I might find them amusing, I don't always see myself.

The same thing happens when I think of being a Christian. There are certain expectations of what a Christian is, and the expectations change from one group of Christians to another.

And of course, there is the dilemma of being a gay Christian, because neither the gay community nor the Christian community is, generally speaking, open, one to the other. I have stated my religious affiliation within a mixed group of gay folk and watched the room temperature drop a few degrees. I have also seen a the temperature rise in a room full of Christians at the mere mention of the word "homosexual."

It is sometimes fun, but more often frustrating, to have these supposedly mutually exclusive terms live inside my skin. It is fun to expose these aspects of myself to someone who is unchurched. I have found these labels have been helpful in expressing Good News to people who have pretty much written off the church as a place of bad news, condemnations and shalt nots. Being a gay Christian has given me entree to some conversations that straight evangelists can only dream of. On the other hand, I have been dismissed by other Christians as an oxymoron, as someone who shouldn't exist.

Labels are convenient and confounding things. With three letters, I can explain why I'm not married and also possibly limit my potential for job promotions. By stating I am a Christian, I can either set folks at ease or arouse suspicions.

What is most confounding is that even when someone doesn't have negative connotations of the label, they may still be hearing something I don't recognize as myself. When I contemplate the question, "who am I?" I am caught between the desire to give a succinct list of labels and the need to qualify each label with my own definition. I am a gay man but, a Christian but, a writer but, a comic book fan but, a Texan but but BUT not a "typical" one.

For this reason, I don't always tell new acquaintances that I am either gay or a Christian. While I agree that gay Christians need to be more visible to the world at large, there is also a bit of self-preservation involved in withholding this information. Why open myself up for a bad experience? On the other hand, waiting until I know the working definitions of some labels is helpful to me when I do come to the point of disclosure. I will know by that point if I can drop the news casually or with one eye on the door, running shoes on.

Labels are convenient and confounding things because every subculture has its dominant images and voices. Do I fit in with the dominant voices of the gay community? Do I look like the dominant Christian image? It may be convenient to call myself a gay Christian, but by doing so, I fit in with few images of either gay or Christian.

The important thing, I think, is to be true to myself. I'm not able to succinctly state who I am as a gay Christian, but I am able, usually, to tell when I am compromising some part of me that is bigger than either label. I'm always angry with myself when I do that. There is a sense that I am responsible to a larger community but that God has made me unique and I am therefore ultimately most responsible to my Creator. History has shown us that anytime someone follows Christ, toes are bound to be stepped upon and it should come as no surprise when those toes belong to the subset of humanity that bears similar labels or characteristics.

So, what does one do? To be honest, I write this more from a place of exploration more than definition. God isn't finished with me yet, and I find that definitions for myself are still changing and coalescing, at least as far as being a gay Christian goes. There also comes a point that we cannot worry what other people hear when we say the word gay or Christian.

Perhaps the lesson to be learned is that it matters little how people define gay or Christian or white or black or whatever other term may fit us, however uncomfortably, upon a first meeting.

What really matters is how they define the terms after they get to know us.


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Other Writings By Neil Orts:

Ambiguous Blessings

Morality and Me







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