Sexuality is fundamentally personal and subjective. Introspection and self-knowledge are often difficult. We need to be careful when we consider using (or not using) labels to describe ourselves and others.

Labels are words that we create, assign and use to describe feelings, senses, actions, experiences and ways of being (or for social/political alignment). Common sexual identity labels include straight, gay, bi-curious, questioning, lesbian, down-low, queer, same-gender-loving, bisexual and transgender.

What’s the difference between the labels you assign (or don’t) to yourself and how others perceive you? How do you describe your sexual identity? The following is a list of some things that might contribute to how you would label yourself (or your preferences) publicly and privately:

  • your sexual attractions
  • whether you were born male or female
  • how masculine or feminine you feel
  • what you intend to do with the attractions you have
  • what you actually do with the attractions you have
  • your beliefs and values about your sexual attractions and behaviors
  • your religious or spiritual beliefs

Of the seven listed, which are the most important factors that determine how you describe your sexual identity PUBLICLY?

Which are the most important factors that determines how you describe your sexual identity PRIVATELY?

Which factors influence you to use one sexual identity label over another?


Contributing Factors: A Personal Example

Our public and private sexual identities can be the same, or they can be different. How we identify ourselves is a decision based on a number of variables working in numerous and complicated ways. In addition to the contributing factors/influences listed above, I could also include . . .

  • my racial heritage (black)
  • my personality or temperament (introvert, quiet, analytical, conscientious, empathic)
  • where I grew up (small town in the southeastern region of the United States)
  • the generational, political and cultural climate of my youth (Generation X, the contention and strife of the late 1980s and the early 1990s)

I became aware of consistent homosexual feelings around the age of 15. Instead of acting on my emotional and physical desire to experience romance or sex with another guy, I lived out large chunks of my teenage and young adulthood in emotional isolation and social detachment. I quietly kept in and fiercely guarded my emotions, thoughts and needs.

Being a shy, black, male teenager in a small town in the South weighed upon how I saw myself and how I fit into the racial, religious and social communities I grew up in. Since the age of 20 I have routinely shared the essence of my sexuality (the feelings, attractions, needs, etc.) with the people closest to me. The purpose of my self-disclosure was/is to foster greater transparency in my relationships.

I affirm a traditional Christian sexual ethic. My faith identity in Christ is most important to me. So, it is my desire to line up my identity and behavior with my values and beliefs; to be authentic in my life and in my relationship with the Lord on His terms. Therefore, I have not (and I have no intention to) pursue a sexual relationship with another guy.

Among the many reasons why I chose to abstain, caring too much about the emotional, psychological and spiritual well-being of any potential partner ranks high. It is my conviction that I would not be serving the image of God in another man (that is, loving and honoring him spiritually) by pursuing a romantic or sexual relationship with him.

It was/is my deliberate choice not to integrate my attraction to other men into a gay identity for myself. Yet there have been a few times when I have actually described my sense of being as having a homosexual orientation because (a) the sexual feelings have always been oriented toward other men and (b) the sheer strength and persistence of the attractions for over 20 years.


Watch Your Language

When discussing sexuality without adequate context, the terminology and language used can make conversations contentious and understanding difficult. When (if) you use a label, I urge you to be as descriptive as possible. Allow (encourage) others to be descriptive as they discuss and sort out their own sense of identity. . .

  • A person reports vague feelings of sexual attraction towards his own gender or towards a specific guy. Don’t pressure him to say he is gay. Don’t label him as gay. Don’t assume he is gay.
  • Some people experience some same-sex erotic attraction but are completely comfortable saying that their sexual orientation is still heterosexual. I believe they (and their view of themselves) should be respected.
  • An individual self-identifies as a gay Christian. Don’t make assumptions about his sexual behavior. Don’t presume to know his social, political or theological beliefs. Don’t speculate about the validity and sincerity of his spiritual faith. Only God really knows someone’s faith and the intent behind all their actions. We don’t know how the Lord is accomplishing His will in his life.
  • Similarly, many of the younger generation of same-sex attracted individuals use the word “gay” as a helpful adjective to describe their reality. They may reject nuanced language and labels such as “post-gay”, “ex-gay” and “same-sex attraction”. I acknowledge and respect their decision to do so.

Give individuals the time, the intellectual space and the emotional space they need. Exercise grace. Validate what they are experiencing. Seek to understand them first. Remember – we must earn the right to speak into someone’s life. We can’t afford to prejudge a situation or a person we know little about.

Put aside language that you know will alienate the person you are communicating with. Instead of looking at people through the world’s eyes, we need to look at the world through their eyes. Understand how people think before trying to connect and engage with them. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, let us maintain a godly and spiritual perspective while exercising spiritual discernment.


Why should we consider sexual identity?

By describing your experiences/feelings, you open yourself up to the opportunity to look at other aspects of your identity before labeling yourself based on your sexuality.

  • Sexual identity is a developmental process – usually a slow and a difficult process.
  • One’s sexual identity is not the same as one’s sexual attractions or one’s sexual orientation.
  • How we think about our attractions is more than a thought exercise. Further explore how you make sense of your attractions. Use your thoughts from this article to explore the complexity of your sense of being; your life story.
  • It is important to realize that individuals do not choose to be gay. A person’s attractions or orientation is not something he or she chooses. They simply find themselves being attracted (or experiencing attraction) to the same-sex.
  • We do, however, have choices to make regarding what we believe about our sexual identity and the sexual behaviors that express that identity.


© Darrell Martin and, 2014.

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