Terms: What did you just call me?!

Gay. Queer. Sexual Minority. Same-sex attracted person. Homosexual. LGBTQTIAA...Terms are often the first barrier to meaningful relationships with sexual minorities. Two people can have very different meanings for the same word. Each term carries with it decades of meaning. From our fear of using the wrong term, we may decide to avoid conversations or relationships all together.

There are lots of options, and by my calculation, no perfect term. I rotate between many of them depending on my audience. Here’s how I’ve come to understand and use these terms and a recommendation for future conversation:

Experience/Deal with/Struggle with Same-Sex Attraction: Christians in the recent past have preferred this term because it is self-evident, describing only a person’s attraction. However, because of its use by ex-gay ministries and others, describing someone as experiencing same-sex attraction has developed extra meaning for those in the Gay community, communicating something to the effect of “experiences same-sex attraction plus rejects his or her gay identity, expression of that gay identity, and the Gay community all together."

Gay: A general term to refer to men and women that experience same-sex attraction (i.e. the gay community) or more specifically to refer to men who experience same-sex attraction. In the past, this term was used to describe a person who experienced same-sex attraction, identified with the gay community, and/or expressed that gay identity. But if you went up to a middle schooler today, he or she would probably say that a gay person is just someone who is attracted to people of the same sex.

Sexual Minority: This umbrella term includes gay, lesbian, bisexual, and asexual people—anyone with a non-majority sexual experience. The benefits of this term is that it seems clean and non-political, but perhaps too clean—like something out of a psychology publication. Amid the culture war and conversations about political correctness, some might push back against this term arguing that sexual orientation is a choice and therefore should not be considered a minority needing civil protection.

Queer: A newly-reclaimed, umbrella term that includes sexual and gender minorities (anyone with a gender non-conforming experience). Queer is the preferred term by many hoping to find power in taking back the word and using it in place of LGBQTIAA.

Gay Celibate Christian: More recently, Christians that experience same-sex attraction but are committed to celibacy have begun describing themselves as gay celibate Christians. This term benefits from its specificity and is part of a larger conversation about whether being gay is sanctifiable. Some push back that same-sex attraction is a temporary condition, so a Christian should not accept gay as his or her identity. Others would caution that describing oneself as celibate communicates to many a permanent commitment to celibacy while many who would identify as gay celibate Christians leave open the possibility for marriage to a person of the opposite sex.

There isn't an international organization that sets the definitions of these words. Just because you think a term ought to mean a certain thing doesn’t mean the majority of people who use that term agree with you. What I have found to be the safest strategy is mirroring. If you are in a conversation with a sexual minority, listen to how they describe themselves or ask them, and then mirror them. Use the term they prefer in the way they use it. Term mirroring requires intention, but it removes the obstacle terms can traditionally create and provides an opportunity for meaningful and clarifying conversation from the start!