Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Queer Identity, Part I: To Be, Or To Be?

In the wake of the column of mine published in Crisis recently, and of the comments -- and also of this piece by Brandon Ambrosino at New Republic, which has inspired a rather unpleasant and, in my opinion, unfair backlash; and this very nice and sensible piece by Elizabeth Scalia on First Things, also in response to the Ruse controversy -- I thought I'd do a series on gay identity. Discussions of LGBT rights in the civil sphere, our role in the Church, what language to use, &c., do seem to come back and back to this. Hitherto I haven't talked much about it, except as it was related to other subjects, but it has reasserted itself with such remorseless persistence that there doesn't seem to be anything to do but tackle the matter direct.

Leech Seed probably wouldn't work in this situation anyway, and only fools use Growl. 

The statement "I'm gay" gets a multitude of responses from Christians in my experience (Catholics particularly). "I know" was the most unexpected reply, and rather anticlimactic for me, since I'd spent a couple of days psyching myself up to have the conversation with that person in the first place. "Are you sure you're not just confused?" struck me as the stupidest, though in fairness my reply then was even stupider. "Congratulations" was fairly confusing -- I mean, even without my beliefs, it's never easy to be a member of a minority, sexual or otherwise. "First of all, you're not gay," delivered once in the confessional, was the most exasperating, though I understand the motivation behind it a good deal better now than I did. My favorite was the friend of mine (who shall remain nameless) who said "No you're not," and began arguing with me that I was clearly straight; my second favorite was probably another friend who took a couple of steps away from me and then started making gay jokes within five minutes. Suave, that one.

It's tempting to begin with the terminology, not least because it's the most obviously labyrinthine aspect of the movement (except for the people who are into polyamory). However, I take that to be a false start. There's only so much good to be had out of knowing what to call something if you don't know what the something is -- the only catch being, of course, that you have to call it something in the meantime.

However. I think we can circumvent that for my purposes here. What I'm discussing is, in substance, but in a less formal style, the same thing that Ron Belgau has already written about here on Spiritual Friendship, and a perennial theme of the gay Christian movement: does the word "gay" imply a particular understanding of gayness -- or rather, and more particularly, is gayness inborn, immutable, and part of who someone is so intimately that we are a different kind of thing from straight people? In other words, is the difference between a gay man and a straight man as essential and inseparable from their personhood as the difference between a straight man and a straight woman?

Hopefully with this many symbols we can make it through however many orientations there are.

I don't believe that it is, and I don't really see a case to do so. Here's why.

1. The Catholic Church teaches otherwise. The only essential difference that the Church recognizes among human beings is that between men and women. So far as I know, this teaching has not been given the stamp of infallibility, and it'd surprise me a little if it had -- I mean, the question was chiefly raised within the last several decades; the Church rarely defines anything so rapidly. But I digress. So far as I know, the teaching that sex proper -- i.e., male and female -- is the only part of sexuality that actually constitutes part of a person's intrinsic identity, has not been declared with the Church's full authority. But that doesn't mean we should casually ignore it. Indeed, looking at the matter with detachment, we could just as easily ask whether such a recently coined concept as sexual orientation deserves the place that postmodern Western culture (and it alone) is inclined to bestow upon it. Of course, not all Christians, let alone everyone everywhere, accepts that the Catholic Church is infallible in the first instance; but whatever weight the Church's voice does have falls squarely on the side of regarding gayness as solely an attribute of a person, not as their essence.

2. Sexuality, like many things, can be fluid. Not only do people engage in sexual activity with people not of their preferred gender, and pretty regularly (think of straight men engaging in homosexual sex in prison or, once upon a time, at sea), but there are also people who experience shifts in which gender they prefer, sexually and emotionally. This does not happen to everyone, nor does it necessarily happen for similar reasons in every case; and it is not useful evidence to support the idea that therapeutic or medical techniques can change orientation, because the fact that change can happen doesn't mean it can be compelled -- it doesn't even mean it can be deliberately encouraged. But it does sometimes happen, in one way or another, to one degree or another; and if the idea of gayness being intrinsic were true, it seems as though it ought to be impossible.*

3. It isn't necessary. Ockham's Razor states that "It is vain to do with many entities what can be done with fewer"; or, in a more modern rephrasing, "The simplest explanation is probably the correct one"; or, in my father's rephrasing, "Don't make shit up." The idea that gay people are a different kind of thing from straight people simply isn't needed to explain the facts. All that's needed is a difference in dispositions and sexual interests, and God knows we have no shortage of those. I mean, we're on the internet here.

Where this happens.**

However, being an attribute rather than an essence doesn't mean that something is unimportant. It doesn't even mean that that attribute isn't an authentic expression of your personality, or that it doesn't have a right to be part of your sense of self. Now, sense of self is a little bit different from identity -- it's something more like our picture of ourselves, or the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, where identity is the bedrock reality that we're trying to depict or talk about when we come up with such pictures and stories. There's more (and less) to our sense of self than our identity, because our sense of self is our perspective on who we are, grounded in an identity that we know imperfectly, and bound up with all of the decisions and relationships and external events that make up our own history. Relationships especially. For human beings always exist in relationship to other people. I believe it was Pope Benedict who said that the doctrine of the Trinity is precisely a doctrine that God exists in relationship, and indeed, as relationship.

So I think we can say "I'm gay" as Christians, insofar as we mean, "This is one aspect of my sense of self; this is one of the things that dictates how I relate to people; this is a part of my experience as a human being." The word gay isn't central to such an affirmation, which everyone would have to put in language that was relevant and rational from their own perspective, naturally; I don't care if someone prefers anything from same-sex attracted to androphile.*** I'll deal with that in more detail in my next. 

What is central is dealing honestly with one's experience as a human being. For every other virtue, deprived of honesty, will ultimately fail. Without a commitment to truthfully and authentically facing the facts, the mind and the spirit have nothing to rest on.

*There are probably varieties of "essentialism" (a term I use for lack of knowing a better one) that are willing to make room for these fluctuations in orientation, perhaps by expanding the category of bisexuality, or by appealing to the potential for repression and denial. However, the APA accepts the reality of sexual fluidity even as it actively discourages reparative therapy; and the fluidity of sexual orientation was a commonplace to prominent sexologists of the twentieth century, such as Sigmund Freud and Alfred Kinsey.

**xkcd 262. "Hey, at least I ran out of staples."

***Actually I find the word androphile quite euphonious, and it's more correct linguistically than homosexual, which is compounded of Greek and Latin roots. But of course the suffix makes it a sadly unattractive term.


  1. "However, being an attribute rather than an essence doesn't mean that something is unimportant."

    True, but my nose is an attribute of my body, but I would be speaking rather nonsensically if I started to describe everything about myself and my body by constantly referencing my nose. For example: "I'm forty-seven noses tall" or perhaps the phrase: "I am smell." Focusing on one attribute alone makes one's thoughts rather myopic and ignorant of the complete whole. It has a nice literary value, sure, just like Edward Lear's poems have literary value, but it's not a holistic approach. We have five senses and not just one. The relative importance of the complete set of senses is far greater than that of any one of the senses alone in particular, especially when discerning the truth, such as in science.

    1. That is a good and valid point; I mean to spend the bulk of my next post explaining why I give being gay the place I do, among the elements of my sense of self.