One of the many reasons I love our Adventist Education is the emphasis it reveals about us being a global church. This is transmitted in our schools by emphasizing mission trips, both domestically and internationally, as well as encouraging students to study abroad through Adventist Colleges Abroad. I was fortunate enough to spend a year abroad at Collonge-Sous-Saleve in what was probably the best year of my life. Spanish is my first language which gave me a bit of an edge to learn a third language. I prepared the year before by taking beginner French courses, learning French grammar (which is not at all easy to learn), and practicing what phrases I could. When the time came for me to go abroad, I could butcher some basic phrases… enough for about a two minute conversation with a French native. My year abroad taught me how important language was.
Did you know a bad pronunciation for “beacoup” which means “a lot” in English can be “nice ass”? Well I didn’t. I was just trying to say “Merci Beacoup” or “Thank you” to my teacher, and I ended up inappropriately complementing her. (My French teacher quickly told me, “that’s incorrect”—that is after bursting into laughter.) I wasn’t only there to learn the language, I wanted to learn French culture also. And no matter how many French culture courses I took, it wasn’t until I became fluent in French that I was able to understand the culture. The subtle nuances in their language were blind to me before. There were times I had been taught to use some proper French terms which French people didn’t use anymore. Other times, I was told that sentences I pieced together were “technically” correct, but there was a more effective way of communicating what I wanted. I had to immerse myself in the culture, allow French people to correct me, and experience the French way of life in order for me to truly understand the language.
The same happens between Christians and LGBT individuals in conversations. While most LGBT individuals (at least in the U.S.) understand Christianity and likely were even raised in a church, most Christians have little true experience or real relationships with LGBT individuals. As someone who straddles the line between these two groups, I often see them talk past each other, mostly because they are not actually speaking the same language. I’m not talking about English. I’m talking about definitions, phrases, connotations, and assumptions.
For example, when someone identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual; we mean it’s our sexual orientation, or in the case of transgender people it’s their gender identity. It’s a deeply integral part of who we are and how we see and experience the world. But, for a lot of Christians, when they hear someone identify themselves as gay, they assume that means that the person is having sex. Being bisexual doesn’t mean I’m sexually active. It just means I acknowledge the capability of being romantically attracted to both men and women. You don’t become straight when you lose your virginity (which is on your wedding night amirite?). You realize you’re straight right about, if not before, puberty when you start to notice your attractions to someone of the opposite sex. Here we end up using the same terms, but we mean two totally different things. Too often Christians use the term “homosexuality” while referring to their theological paradigm about same-sex sex. Christians will then condemn “homosexuality” saying the bible is against it. The problem with this is that gay people, who typically would never use the term “homosexuality” anymore except in a clinical setting, hear that their sexual orientation, which they experience as innate, is condemned. It sends a message that they are condemned as a person. Is that really the message we want to be sending?
There are also terms that are exclusive to the Christian community. For example, the phrase “gay lifestyle.” What do you actually mean when you say that? As someone who identifies as part of the LGBT community, I understand it as a phrase that stereotypically categorizes a large and diverse group of people into one “lifestyle.” What exactly does a straight lifestyle look like? Many times people actually use this phrase as a euphemism for “having gay sex.” But this is almost always based on the (misguided) assumption that identifying as LGBT equates being sexually active. Can you see where we start to miss each other with just a few key words?
In order for us to be on the same page, Christians need to learn to talk the talk of the LGBT community.
In order for us to be on the same page, Christians need to learn to talk the talk of the LGBT community. It’s really a minimal step that shows respect and genuine interest in knowing someone beyond a label. When I speak about a particular demographic, I go to great trouble to make sure I understand the terms that community uses when referring to themselves (and that evolves over time too). Christians need to be using the terms LGBT people use to identify ourselves with, in order to talk with us. You might be saying here, “Well Eliel, why don’t they learn our words and definitions?” Could you imagine me telling my French teacher “Now, I know this is your language, and you have used it for a much longer time period than me, but I think this way would be better. Do it my way.” That would have only accomplished personal academic failure and the perpetuation of the “Americans are arrogant” stereotype that many French have.
I had the time of my life abroad. I got to meet some of the most amazing people, and I would have never been able to get to know them if I didn’t learn their language and at least try to pronounce it the right way. If your goal as a Christian is to lovingly engage with people of the LGBT community, start by learning the language. Take a walk in our shoes. Ask a lot of respectful questions—and listen to our responses with no agenda but to learn what our lives are like. Learn about our community. BEFORE you jump in that heated conversation on a Facebook thread, think “How will someone in the LGBT community receive this message?”
It’ll save a lot of wounds when we start speaking the same language.
Eliel Cruz is a contributor on religion, sexuality and media & culture at The Advocate, Mic, and Religion News Service. He’s the co-founder and former president of Intercollegiate Adventist Gay-Straight Alliance Coalition, an organization that advocates for safe spaces for LGBT students at Seventh-day Adventist colleges. He studies international business and French studies at Andrews University in Michigan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.[/box_holder]