Reclaiming ‘Gay’ and Rainbows

Late last week, Pastor Ken Hutcherson spoke out and made a rather surprising claim: he wrote that he is the “gayest man [he] know[s].”

This, of course, brought on a bit of controversy. His closest friends, including his wife and kids, all knew this about him, apparently. What he meant, however, was not what I expected.

What I had expected and, frankly, hoped for was this: I was hoping this would be an example of someone who recognized their homosexual struggles and tendencies, but had fought temptation and overcome it. This would show that the Church has space for those who struggle with sin, even life-directing sorts of sins, so long as they actually struggle, rather than tacitly accept their position.

If that hadn’t been the case (it wasn’t), I suspected this would be the intended meaning: surely Pastor Hutcherson wanted to preach a message about how it was okay to be a homosexual. It seemed like this might have been a familiar statement with an emphasis on the love of God. This, also, was not what Pastor Hutcherson wanted to accomplish.

What he wanted to accomplish was this: Pastor Ken Hutcherson is happy. He wanted to proclaim to the world that he is happy. And, it turns out he isn’t happy about the definition shift of the word ‘gay':

My frustration is that some groups have taken words and symbols away from the Church and from society in general. When I say I’m ‘gay,’ what I mean is that I am happy, that I am joyful and that I love people. That is precisely what a Christian ought to be so in my opinion we just need to be as gay as we can.

This strikes me as an odd thing to reclaim; a word is a word, after all, and words are generally given meaning by societies at large. While I do believe words matter–in fact, I think our words matter a great deal–words only matter when people know what you are saying. The point here is this: if we want to use the term ‘gay’ as a synonym of ‘happy,’ rather than ‘homosexual,’ we’ll need to convince the majority of English speakers to use the term consistently.

I’m not really convinced that we need to ‘redeem’ the word, anyway. The whole concept of taking back a word strikes me as odd: our vocabulary, as a society, expanded in order to properly reflect where we were going, whether we liked it or not. You can’t will social change by making claims about your happiness in terms currently understood to mean ‘homosexual.’ It just doesn’t work that way.

Words are symbols, after all, and symbols need to communicate to express their full power. Some symbols have become inextricably linked to our minds–the Cross comes to mind–in spite of their abuses or misrepresentations. Words like ‘gay’ don’t seem to have that sort of power, and I’m not sure they are worth the fight.

Some words may be worth taking up arms: I might argue that the term ‘religion’ has taken a beating in certain Evangelical circles in recent years, but may be worth reclaiming. I’ve argued as much previously, though I may need to do so again.

Pastor Hutcherson does touch on ‘reclaiming’ another symbol: the rainbow. In describing our associations, he says:

[A rainbow] used to be understood as the sign God put in the sky to remind us that even when He’s angry about sin, He’d never again destroy the earth with a global flood. But of course, that’s not what most people associate a rainbow with today.

Here is where the discussion starts to take ground: words may not be worth saving, but isn’t a symbol from God worth preserving? I believe it probably is, but I’m not quite sure how to go about that. Of course, I recall loving rainbows as a child, but the LGBTQ movement hadn’t co-opted the image just yet. I suspect that most people, even today, do not associate a visible rainbow in the sky (that is, a real one, not a drawing or image) with homosexuality; we marvel at the beauty in the sky. We can only remember God’s promise if we teach that promise to our children.

As a final point: can a symbol mean two things? Sort of like a homophone has two meanings but only one sound? Perhaps a rainbow can appropriately mean precisely what God intended–a promise–while also meaning the refraction of light through moisture. And if some pocket of society decides that the refraction is a way to express their beliefs about the nature of human sexuality and orientation, this doesn’t suggest to me that either of the other meanings become somehow defunct.

Image via Flickr.

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J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).