I often hear in conservative Christian circles, especially those that frown upon the label “gay” or even “same-sex attracted,” that sexual desires for the same sex should be treated just like any other sinful desires that are an occasion of temptation. As such, the story goes, we should not encourage people to identity with their “sinful tendencies” to same-sex activity any more than we should encourage people to identify with their “sinful temptations” to lust, steal, etc.
I think there are deep problems with putting same-sex desires in the same category as sinful desires more generally. At the most fundamental level, I think it elides a very important distinction between moral character and weakness/infirmity. Let’s take lust as our control case. Lust can be a part of one’s character (the complex of desires and emotions which comprise who we are), a voluntary choice, or both. Insofar as someone is lustful in character or lustful in behavior, he or she is blameworthy, precisely because, with God’s grace, it is possible to alter both one’s behavior and one’s character.
But sexual attraction itself–whether gay or straight–is an involuntary phenomenon that is typically unalterable by any act of the will. While it is true that traditional Christian ethics commits us to saying that having a gay orientation is “not the way God intended us to be,” or something along those lines, it does not follow that gay orientation is a fault of moral character, something that is alterable via moral effort. And this is where the analogy to sins like lust breaks down. Lustful character (and behavior) is something we can change. Same-sex orientation is not.
Without this distinction in hand, it becomes very easy to judge those who still have same-sex desires as lacking holiness or faithfulness. Frank discussion of enduring and exclusive same-sex desires becomes “identifying with sinful desires” or “identifying with temptation to sin,” when in reality it is just an honest description of the gay experience. It’s true that same-sex desires can be a source of temptation, like anything else, including our most natural desires. But it makes far more sense to speak of gay orientation as a weakness or infirmity rather than as a fault of character. There is an irreducibly non-moral component to being gay that is missed by many conservative Christians, and it causes them to put same-sex desires in the same category of lustful desires, which surely is a conflation of the categories of character and weakness, a conflation not without harmful consequences.