The Vocabulary of Love: What are “Lovers?”

CoupleWhile looking up something else I came across a blog by Kate Trgovac which featured an article on "The Subtext of Stock Photography."

In it Kate describes how images of a loving same-sex couple (pictured here) appeared in her search for images to illustrate an article on furnaces.  Gay couples apparently show up when you search for the term “heat.”

"Seriously?" she wrote, "Maybe two scantily clothed men making out in front of the fireplace.  But two gay stockbrokers with their chihuahua?  Hardly… why is it that ‘gay’ in all of its forms implies a licentiousness or luridness?"

I was reminded of a quote by Yale professor John Boswell who described some of the pitfalls of translating terms for emotionally charged vocabulary related to love, relationships and marriage.

"Modern English has no standard term for same-sex partners in a permanent, committed relationship, so it is virtually impossible to translate ancient terms for this (of which there were many) accurately into contemporary English," he wrote.  "Probably the most common word in contemporary English is ‘lover,’ but it is quite misleading… A heterosexual ‘lover’ is generally not the equivalent of a spouse: it is either someone to whom a heterosexual is not married (or not yet married) or a love interest in addition to a spouse, seen on the side and usually clandestine… these associations are not apposite to ‘lover’ as applied to same-sex couples, for whom the world almost always designates the primary and exclusive focus of erotic life, usually intended to remain so permanently.  Using ‘lover’ for same-sex partners implicitly suggests that all same-sex unions are illicit relationships, comparable to what passes between a heterosexually married male and his mistress rather than to the man’s union with his wife.”

"While there have always been—and there will continue to be—men who do terrible things, that doesn’t make all men guilty. We shouldn’t be apologizing for what bad men have done any more than we should be apologizing for what bad women have done. The best thing we can do for Men (and Women) is to work to be the best people we can be today—and try to be a little bit better tomorrow—while accepting that one guy’s story, one path to Goodness, might be a lot different from another guy’s path. His story might be different, but that doesn’t make him less good, or less of a man."

— Tom Matlack, “Men: Not All the Same,” The Good Men Project


What guys tell us they do want is relationships, even though it doesn’t fit the stereotype. It doesn’t matter if we’re surveying or interviewing high-school students, undergraduates, or adults—the vast majority tell us they want to be in a relationship. And they’re serious about it: in the U.S., approximately 80 percent of high-school seniors tell us they’ve had at least one serious dating relationship. As adults, about 90 percent of guys will get married at least once in their lifetime, even though our stereotype of marriage tells these guys that they’ll rarely have sex—or fun—again after the honeymoon. While many of those relationships won’t last for 40 years, about half will. And most guys are only interested in being with one person at a time, whether that’s in the context of a marital relationship or outside of it…

If you read history, or at least watch the TV shows about ancient civilizations, you’ll notice that when they talk about families, they almost always talk about monogamous couples. That’s not fiction or convenience. Most of the adults who have ever lived on earth have been involved in monogamous relationships.


— Andre Smiler, “Are Men Natural-Born Cheaters?” The Good Men Project

It is still a bit early to talk about my novel Angel, which (publicly) doesn’t exist yet.  It is due to be released in Fall.  Talking about it too early means you’ll probably lose interest by the time it comes out and no one will buy it and I’ll starve to death, broken and bitter.  What the heck, I’ll risk it.

The novel, among other things, deals with the spiritual lives of gay characters— the specifically Christian spiritual life of these characters.  I had a hard time finding a home for it.  In part because there were too few car chases and so on, but also because of its theme.  Not edgy and sexy enough for the gay publishers, I was told.  Too gay for the Christian publishers. 

"The Christians will not touch it," was the conventional wisdom.

My strong belief is that conventional wisdom is wrong.

Our points of view are shaped largely these days, not by our actual friends and neighbors, but by the media.  Even if you do not get your news primarily from television, those outlets control what stories will be discussed elsewhere by their sheer reach, power and repetitiveness. (I never watched a news story about Charlie Sheen, and yet through the news sources in my Twitter feed, I couldn’t escape knowing that whatever was happening with him was the obsessive story of the moment.)

Television news is competing for ratings against reality tv and entertainment programs like American Idol.  The bias of the media, therefore, is not a liberal or conservative bias, but an entertainment bias.  If it’s entertaining it leads.

One result of this is that the most vocal and extreme get more airtime than the moderate voices.  Christianity, and Evangelical Christianity in particular, are represented in the public mind by haters like Terry Jones and the Westboro Baptist Church. (No wonder young people are turned off.)

Because we self-select our news and information options, people outside the Christian faith know more about what their peers say about those churches than what average people from those churches have to say.

I am not so out of touch as to say that the vast majority of Christian churches are perfectly groovy about gays and lesbians and that these questions are not contentious in 21st century religious institutions.  Discrimination exists as do loud voices preaching hate.  Yet welcoming and diversity-curious churches (those that are wrestling with the question in a clumsy but well-intentioned way) are much more common than the media might have you believe.  My sense is that they are actually becoming the norm.

Take for example this sign:

Being Gay is a Gift

The above message was displayed on an electronic billboard in Toledo, Ohio. The church issued the below statement in support of their campaign:

This simple statement is intended to be a gift to those who have experienced hurt and discrimination because of their real or perceived sexual orientation. The Church seeks nothing less than the healing of the world, and Central UMC wants to offer words and acts of healing to those hurt and marginalized. Also, declaring that being gay is a gift from God is a prophetic call to the Church to get out of the business of marginalizing gay and lesbian persons from the Church, and to welcome them as full members.

I previously posted a blurb about Bring Your Gay Teen to Church Day, June 25-26.

Far from being an issue Christians “won’t touch” it is an issue that is touching Christian communities every day.

I have posted the video above to show how at least some modern Evangelicals are discussing these questions.  The clip is from a panel on the “Speaking of Faith” radio program, Chuck Colson, Greg Boyd, and Shane Claiborne discuss evangelical attitudes towards and dealings with homosexuality.  You will hear familiar “hate the sin love the sinner” rhetoric but the tone may surprise you if your views of Evangelicals are shaped by clips of fallen hypocritical preachers (railing against the sin of homosexuality before being caught in a hotel with a boy— great television, that!) and the Westboro Baptist Hatemongers.  No red faces proclaiming that the Bible says gays should be stoned to death in this clip.

My hope is that we can spend more time talking to each other instead of about each other.  Oh yeah, and that you’ll buy my book when it comes out in fall.  It’s going to be called Angel, and I hope you’ll like it.

"Happens to Be"

I love the expression “happens to be.” 

We say it when we are pointing out something about someone’s social identity.  The thing we are identifying is held, by some groups, to be a pejorative.  Using the expression says that you are not one of those small minded people.  You are mentioning a distinction in passing, but it is not that important to you.  It doesn’t define how you see that person.  You hardly even notice it really.

Except you pretty much only use the expression in a context  in which the distinction actually is important.  You would probably not say, for example, “I handed my friend Julie, who happens to be a lesbian, the book.”  That would be weird.

You’re much more apt to use it when you’re speaking in a context in which the information about the person’s race/religion/political affiliation/gender identity is relevant. For example, you are talking about how the state of Virginia combined Martin Luther King Jr day with a celebration of Confederate soldiers and ended up with a compromise that pleases no one— “Lee Jackson King Day.” 

One of your friends had something pithy to say about this and, by the way, she “happens to be” African-American.  In this context, you bring her race up because her perspective as a person of color is actually a relevant part of the story.

Yet you don’t want the listener to think you just go around all the time calling Lois “My Black Friend.”  “Happens to be” signifies that we’re comfortable with the difference we’re pointing out.  That’s what we’re trying to say with the words.  What we’re also saying, less intentionally, is that we’re uncomfortable talking about this difference.  That’s a lot of work for three little words to do.

Watch the video first.  It is enjoyable and fascinating on many levels to see how people react— or don’t— to the surprising discovery of money literally growing on trees.

This video once again confirms the “invisible gorilla” trick, which I wrote about on my blog Broke is Beautiful.  There is another even more stunning experiment in which a clerk ducks behind a counter and a different man pops up and most people do not notice the change at all.  (I could not quickly recall how to find the video, but you should be able to find it on Youtube with a little effort.)

In another experiment I read about several years ago, subjects were asked to rate how lucky they were. Then they were given a task. They had to read a newspaper and count the number of times a particular word appeared. In big block lettering in the paper was a line saying “Congratulations! You have won $100, come up to the experimenter to collect your prize!”

Most of the subjects were so focused on their counting task that they did not even notice the message. There was a correlation, however, between calling yourself “lucky” and seeing the message. The self-described “lucky” spotted it and won. The self-described unlucky did not. The moral as I understood it was that being open to the unexpected makes you lucky.

If you have a mental framework that allows for money growing on trees, you can see it.  If you do not— you will walk right by.

I have been generally critical of the positive thinking school that claims that visualizing an outcome vividly enough will draw it to you like magic.

Barbara Ehrenreich challenged this culture in Bright-Sided:

"In the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, positive thoughts were flowing out into the universe in unprecedented volumes… If anyone— deity or alien being— possessed the means of transforming these emanations into comprehensible form, they would have been overwhelmed by images of slimmer bodies, larger homes, quick promotions, and sudden acquisitions of great wealth.  But the universe refused to play its assigned role as a ‘big mail order department.’  In complete defiance of the ‘law of attraction,’… things were getting worse for most Americans, not better."

Experiments like the ones above have made me rethink my position on creative visualization a bit.  There is something to it- but it is not magic.  (Although I see nothing wrong with using the language of religion, mysticism and angels to describe it if you’re comfortable with that.)

There is a perfectly logical explanation as to why creative visualization might work, and some circumstances under which it will not work.  It does not work when the “request” or the visualization is too goal oriented, too concrete and too inflexible.

If you visualize a promotion and focus all your energies on that, you may not see opportunities to get what you really want— more security, more responsibility, more respect—from other avenues.

If you are determined not to diverge from your chosen path, you will fail to recognize the slightly different opportunity that is right in front of you. 

On the other hand, if you visualize what you would like to do in your life, and see yourself as someone who can do it— your mind is primed to see things related to this focus. That is why people often have the experience of finding an want ad for an ideal job on a newspaper they would normally have thrown away.  The person is looking for it, and it catches their eye.

It’s all about finding the right balance.  Being less rigid in goals can give a broader view, and keep you from having blinders, but articulating what you really desire, believing it is out there and there is a way to have it, allows you to spot opportunities. 

A mystically inclined friend calls it “intention without striving.”  This is the same sort of thing that people talk about when they “say a prayer and leave it in God’s hands.” Or when they say “believe in miracles.”

Be open to surprises.  They happen every day.