Are we Defined by our Sexuality?

First published at on March 18, 2011

Why does “love the sinner; hate the sin” ring so hollow in the gay-rights debate?

One reason, as I’ve argued before [], is that part of loving the “sinner” is making an effort to understand him—something our opponents seldom do. If they did make that effort, it would be a lot harder for them to classify our intimate relationships as “sin.”

But there’s another, related problem, and it’s worth reflecting on.

The so-called “sin” here is not an isolated misstep, like fudging one’s tax returns or being mean to one’s little sister. It’s a key part of the fundamental relationships around which we organize our lives. It’s a conduit to intimacy.

Some actions, dispositions, and relationships are deeply connected to personal identity. In such cases, the “sin” and the “sinner”—“what we do” and “who we are”—are not so easily separated.

This is a point that is easy to misunderstand, even for those who are making an admirable effort. Take Andrew Marin, founder and president of The Marin Foundation [], a non-profit organization that works to build bridges between the LGBT community and the Christian Church. Marin’s book “Love is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community” is a sincere bridge-building effort, the kind of all-too-rare attempt at understanding I mentioned above.

His second chapter, “We Are Not Your Project” is subtitled “Sexual Behavior Is Gay Identity”—a statement Marin has heard from many of the gays he’s spoken with.

I don’t doubt that some gays make such a statement: “Sexual behavior is gay identity.” But without further qualification, it’s a very odd thing to say.

It’s odd partly because gay relationships, like straight relationships, include countless behaviors beyond sex: movie dates, long walks on the beach, quiet evenings at home, and plenty of mundane “for better and for worse” stuff.

It’s also odd because gay identity is usually connected to gay community, where the vast majority of relationships are non-sexual.

And it’s odd—to my ears, anyway—because Marin uses it as a way of contrasting the self-understanding of gay people with the self-understanding of straight people, particularly straight Christians: “when it comes to Christian behavior and identity, what we do is not necessarily who we are; and who we are is not necessarily what we do….The GLBT community’s filtration system, however, is once again different from our own…”

I’m not so sure that it is.

To the extent that my sexual behavior is a key part of my identity, it’s because that behavior is tied closely to my experience of intimacy and isolation, pride and shame, power and vulnerability, joy and loss—all profound human emotions.

It’s because that behavior is a distinctive way in which I communicate my affection for my partner of ten years, Mark.

Are straight people radically different? Ask any straight person in a happy long-term romantic relationship to imagine life with that relationship gone, and see if that wouldn’t affect his or her sense of identity. There are reasons, after all, why many people (usually women) change their names upon getting married, or why they refer to their romantic partners as their “significant others.”

Of course, not all gay people—or straight people—are in relationships. Even for single people, however, sexuality is tied to those profound human emotions, which in turn are identity-shaping.

For the record, I’ve corresponded with Marin, and he shared with me that his thoughts have evolved on this point. He’s written about that evolution and its sources on his blog,

But confusion on this point is widespread.

I recall an argument with my mother from two decades ago, when I first came out of the closet. She was adjusting to my newly-embraced gayness, and she wished I would keep quieter about it.

“I just don’t get it,” she said in frustration. “Your father and I are not open about our sexuality!”

It’s not nice to laugh at one’s mother, but that sentence was a howler: “YOUR FATHER AND I are not open about our sexuality.”

My mother, like most people, is plenty open about her sexuality: her relationship with my father, for example, and the fact that it (sexually) resulted in two children. Her sexuality is a key part of her identity. She just never articulates it that way.

It’s true that gay people tend to think about their “gay identity” more than straight people think about their “straight identity.” That’s mainly because, in a hetero-normative world, embracing gay identity requires a lot more effort.

That effort would be mitigated if the “Love the sinner” crowd would do more listening (like Marin) and less rushing to judgment.