The problem with “homosexuality.”

Today I have a question for all of you: Do you support or oppose homosexuality?

Think about that question for a moment.

Here, I’ll play some Jeopardy music for you.

Ba-da, dun dun, ba-da, dunnn, ba-da, ba-da, dee, ba-dadadada, ba-da, dun dun, ba-da, dunnn, ba, da-da-da, da, da, da, BUM BUM.

Okay, got your answer? Well, it was a trick question. I hope you didn’t wager too much.

I hear people all the time talking about their views on “homosexuality,” as if homosexuality were a thing. Spoiler alert: It’s not. But that doesn’t stop people from saying it: “I don’t approve of homosexuality.” “Homosexuality is a sin.” “We shouldn’t normalize homosexuality.”

But wait… what is homosexuality?

To make this clearer, suppose I asked you, “Do you support or oppose heterosexuality?”

But wait, before you answer, let’s make it even more specific.

Do you support or oppose heterosexuality before marriage?

Do you support or oppose teenage heterosexuality?

Well, it makes a great deal of difference what I mean by “heterosexuality,” doesn’t it? If I asked for your feelings about unmarried teens having heterosexual sex, that’s a question you could answer. But that’s not what I asked. I asked if you support or oppose heterosexuality, a term so vague that it could refer to any number of things. If you say you oppose “teenage heterosexuality,” I could easily interpret your words to mean that you oppose teenagers who go on dates before marriage or even the very idea of teenagers being straight at all.

But surely you wouldn’t have meant to condemn Billy for noticing that Julie is attractive; the problem is that terms like heterosexuality and homosexuality are just far too vague to have any real meaning in a conversation like this.

There are basically four different things someone might mean when they say “homosexuality,” and they are often confused.

1. Orientation. A person’s orientation tells you only who they are emotionally and physically attracted to. I call myself gay because that is my orientation: I’m attracted to guys, not girls. People don’t choose their orientation. Some people use the word temptations to describe their orientation.

2. Lust. A lot of people confuse orientation with lust, but they’re not the same thing at all. Lust is more than just being attracted to someone; it has to do with how you respond to those attractions in your mind. Lust is a sin regardless of whether you’re lusting for women, men, or even your neighbor’s snazzy new car. The same Greek word translated lust in the Bible also means covet. (More on this in another post.)

3. Sex. This is really what most people are talking about when they say that “homosexuality is a sin.” They mean that they disapprove of gay sex, but to someone like me, it sounds like you just disapprove of my unchosen orientation.

4. Relationship. When gay people talk about wanting to get married, it’s not sex they’re after, but rather, a relationship. Just as straight people (hopefully) don’t get married for the sex, gay people don’t either; we want love, commitment, understanding, and someone to come home to at night and talk about our day. For Christians who disapprove of gay sex, a challenging question can be how to respond to gay relationships. If there’s no sex in the relationship but there is romance, is it still acceptable? And would you assume two gay people are having sex if you see them holding hands? (Would you assume a straight couple is having sex if you see them holding hands?)

I said that there are four main things someone might mean when they talk about homosexuality, but there’s actually a fifth one. For many folks (and I confess this was true of me as well for years), the word homosexuality conjures up images of debauchery, promiscuity, and the worst stereotypes of the gay community. But of course, that’s not what it is to be gay at all, just as images of Mardi Gras don’t convey what it is to be straight.

So next time you hear someone tell you what their view of homosexuality is, challenge them to be more specific. What are they really talking about?