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Hillsong Church have recently brought out a press release denying that they let gay people take leadership positions in their organisation. There was a report that they had an openly gay choir director, apparently, and they’ve been at pains to deny that gay people can be part of their leadership team. Leaving aside the extraordinary spectacle of a church hurrying into print because they’re worried people think they don’t discriminate against gay people enough, there’s a particular phrase they used which caught attention. “Gay lifestyle”. It appears a lot in discussions of sexuality in British and American Christianity, and it needs some careful scrutiny.

On the positive side, I can see that “lifestyle” might be a helpful way to organise a theology of the body which does not focus obsessively on “genital acts”, to use the prurient term which has had too much airing in Anglican discussions of sexuality over the last couple of decades.[1] “Lifestyle” might be intended to stress the way that our sexuality is part of an integrated physical and spiritual life, to avoid the statement sounding as if it is too hung up on people’s sex lives to the exclusion of the greater Gospel message. From this point of view, it might be a way of considering sex as part of a whole approach to life and love. It could be the result of anxiety about the tendency towards legalism which characterises too much Christian discussion of sexuality, what David Lodge skewered in the title of his post-Vatican II novel How Far Can You Go, and what causes so much agonising in youth groups.

But there are a number of serious problems with this term, as I see it. Or perhaps I should say there are a clutch of unpleasant insinuations which, whether intended or not, can creep in to cluster around the term. And if they aren’t intended, perhaps the phrase should be jettisoned. Firstly, “lifestyle” strongly implies choice, and a level of consumer triviality surrounding that choice. Surfers have a lifestyle, as do Goths and yuppies and techbros. I was once told by an expat in a bar in the Algarve that she moved here because it really gave her the lifestyle she wanted. A lifestyle – as opposed to a quality of life, a lifeworld or simply a life – is implicitly exchangeable, comparable and organised around the desires (or whims) of the individual. It’s a way of applying a set of principles, and rather trivial principles, to the way a life is lived. It might determine choice of clothes, favourite TV programmes, bars frequented and so on.

As far as I’m aware, this is totally inaccurate when applied to gay people. Being gay does not, if I understand it correctly, bring with it a raft of consumer goods, fashion choices and a set reading list. There is a rich and complex history of gay culture in the UK, but I don’t recognise the “gay lifestyle” which is being suggested here. Gay people have very different tastes in food, decor, music, literature; they espouse different political causes and ethical systems; they live different religious and spiritual lives, and they feel different national and social allegiances. Just as straight people do.

“Lifestyle” in this context sounds like an unworthy attempt to bracket all gay people together and narrow the human possibilities which are associated with them. As if a straight person might choose between baroque, minimalist, Classical, metal, rave, etc, but a gay person will choose the gay option. Or a straight person can consider the competing claims of political and economic arguments, but a gay person will pick the most gay one. It’s defining people by their sexuality, and then trivialising that sexuality to a set of consumer choices.

If that’s not the case, and if “lifestyle” is supposed to signal a deeper and more serious set of ethical meanings, then I think the term implies something more unpleasant. It hides under “lifestyle” all the sneers and insinuations that cannot be aired as frequently in polite discussion these days (though heaven knows they’re not gone, not even nearly.) “Lifestyle” is the euphemism for what we all know THOSE people get up to, don’t make me spell it out, but you know what goes on with THEM, all THAT sort of thing, it’s not very nice, is it. It implies by its very nonspecificity that there is something best not spoken about when it comes to gay people.

The drearily lurid smears of promiscuity, unfaithfulness, sexual predation, that we’re all familiar with. The tabloid nudges about drugs and disease, the saloon-bar jokes about dropping the soap, the obsessive, tawdry innuendo that’s directed at gay people. It murmurs that there’s something inherently corrupt about gay people, that their desires and loves orient their entire personality in a warped direction. Otherwise, what does this phrase mean? What is this “lifestyle” gay people allegedly pursue, and what – to pose the most obvious question – on earth does a “straight lifestyle” look like?

[1] Sorry, “human sexuality”. Why is it always “human sexuality”, when we all know what’s being discussed? When has the church agonised over bird sexuality, or reptile sexuality? Is it called that to give it the pseudo-objective gloss which goes with this air of calm taxonomy? But that’s another discussion…

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