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.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Queer Identity, Excursus: A Response to Brandon Ambrosino

Brandon Ambrosino's recent, highly controversial essay in which he says "I choose to be gay" takes Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' extremely popular song "Same Love" as its jumping-off point. The chorus, sung by Mary Lambert, runs thus:

And I can't change
Even if I tried
Even if I wanted to
And I can't change
Even if I tried
Even if I wanted to
My love, my love, my love
She keeps me warm

Man, sung by a woman, those lyrics come off as totally lesb-- wait a minute.

It's easy to see why, especially for those of us with experiences in the ex-gay world and/or a strictly religious upbringing, these words would resonate. (Personally I dislike the song, not on grounds of its politics, but because I find it hamfistedly preachy and boring -- if I want a gay anthem I'll go to "Born This Way" or "Titanium" or "Two Men In Love," or several other songs. Hell, if even if I want Macklemore I'm gonna go for "Thrift Shop" over "Same Love" any day of the week.) Mr. Ambrosino, however, has the following to say:
[T]he chorus bugs me. By its logic, none of us has any control over our sexual identities. We are what we are, and there's not a damn thing we can do about that, so let's just stop trying to change. That's wrong. It's time for the LGBT community to stop fearing the word "choice," and to reclaim the dignity of sexual autonomy. ... To say it rather crassly: I've convinced a few men to try out my sexuality, but I've never managed to get them to try on my skin color. In other words, one's sexuality isn't as biologically determined as race. ... Whenever someone accepts me merely because she feels obligated to do so by my genetic code, I feel degraded rather than empowered. It's like saying, "You can't help it, sugar. You were born this way. Me, I was born with astigmatism and a wonky knee. We can't change our limitations even if we wanted to." ... I can't help wondering whether Macklemore would have thought I deserved a song even if I told him that I could, in fact, change this if I tried, if I wanted to.
Whether you agree with his approach or not, I think he makes a compelling point. Is it, in fact, that big a victory for the gay rights movement if the reason that LGBT people have been accepted is because "they can't help it"? For that matter, is it even particularly secure? The fact that rats can't help being rats doesn't seem to motivate many people not to put out traps. We live in one of the more tolerant cultures worldwide -- right now. Tomorrow may be an altogether different story.

Now, I shrink from saying that "being gay is a choice" without further explanation. But I shrink equally from saying "you're born gay" without further explanation. I don't believe either of those ways of describing sexual orientation do justice to the reality -- not just because some people do experience sexual fluidity, but because I think the kind of things that sexual orientation and identity are, are not exactly inborn or chosen.

"No, it's jam every other day. Jam tomorrow, and jam yesterday, but never jam to-day."

I realize that sounds weird, at best; would to God ye could bear with me a little in my folly. My own belief -- or maybe it'd be better to call it a hunch -- is that the confluence of choice, determinism, and identity is a complex reality in which no one element, considered alone, can adequately explain the outcome. Dorothy Sayers, writing about creating characters in her novels and plays, puts the matter well:
[I]f the characters and the situation are rightly conceived together, as integral parts of the same unity, then there will be no need to force them to the right solution of that situation. If each is allowed to develop in conformity with its proper nature, all will arrive of their own accord at a point of unity, which will be the same unity that pre-existed in the original idea. In language to which we are accustomed in other connections, neither predestination nor free will is everything, but, if the will acts freely in accordance with its true nature, it achieves by grace and not by judgment the eternal will of its maker, though possibly by a process unlike, and longer than, that which might have been imposed upon it by force. ... I could add a further example of the same kind of thing. In Murder Must Advertise [one of her mystery novels] I undertook (not very successfully) to present a contrast of two "cardboard" worlds, equally fictitious -- that of advertising and the world of the post-war Bright Young People. ... I mentioned this intention to a reader, who instantly replied, "Yes; and Peter Wimsey, who represents reality, never appears in either world except in disguise." It was perfectly true; and I had never noticed it. With all its defects of realism, there had been some measure of integral truth about the book's Idea, since it issued, without my conscious connivance, in a true symbolism. -- The Mind of the Maker, pp. 75, 77
I don't think that identity, sexual or otherwise, is either primarily deterministic or primarily chosen. I think that the thing that God has made us specifically to be, our individual identity (as opposed to what we ontologically are, the universal category: human beings), is something objectively there*; but the extent to which we lay hold of that objective identity is determined partly by external factors -- some of those factors, in a fallen world, including sin and the effects of sin -- and partly, also, by our own choices. Not to turn this into a quotefest, but I'm going to turn this into a quotefest:
What am I? I am myself a word spoken by God. Can God speak a word that does not have any meaning? Yet am I sure that the meaning of my life is the meaning God intends for it? Does God impose a meaning on my life from the outside, through event, custom, routine, law, system, impact with others in society? Or am I called to create from within, with him, with his grace, a meaning which reflects his truth and makes me his "word" spoken freely in my personal situation? My true identity lies hidden in God's call to my freedom and my response to him. This means I must use my freedom in order to love, with full responsibility and authenticity, not merely receiving a form imposed on me by external forces ... but directing my love to the personal reality of my brother, and embracing God's will in its naked, often unpenetrable mystery. -- Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer, pp. 46-47
Choice is an act of creation, and we are made in the image of the Creator; the only thing we are told about God before being told that we are made in His image is precisely that He makes things. But God alone makes out of nothing. We make out of things that are already there. That is why our creation can be authentic or inauthentic, including our co-creation of our very selves. The freedom of ourselves as makers of ourselves, the integrity of the self which is our medium of working, and the purpose of beauty and worthiness in the final self that is made -- the artist, the medium, the artwork -- must all be respected; and in this trinity none is afore, or after other; none is greater, or less than another; but the whole three are coeternal together, and coequal.

It's all quite straightforward.

Hence, I don't think it quite right to say that gayness is primarily a chosen thing. And I'm not at all certain that Mr. Ambrosino was saying that it is primarily chosen -- he is careful throughout to state that he and some other queer people experience at least some degree of choice in their sexual identity, but also says that he doesn't dispute those who feel that their sexuality is inborn. From the small amount (out of a great deal) that I've read of his critics on this subject, they would have done well to read more carefully.

While, simultaneously, I shy away from the idea that gayness is fixed and immutable on account of being deterministic, biologically or otherwise. There do seem to be good reasons for thinking that biology, though not genetics exactly, plays a large role in sexual orientation, but that, to my mind, does not explain it, for the same reason that appealing to paint and plaster is not an adequate explanation for The Last Judgment if the idea of Michelangelo as the painter is excluded: true, he could hardly use tools that weren't there or weren't appropriate to the piece, but that just is not the whole story. Or, as C. S. Lewis' Ramandu tells Eustace when the latter informs him that "In our world a star is a huge ball of flaming gas": "Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of."

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame.
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells,
Each hung bell's bow swung
Finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells.
Selves, goes itself; Myself it speaks and spells,
Crying, What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is --
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his,
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

-- Gerard Manley Hopkins, S. J.

*To use Existentialist language, if you care for that sort of thing, I believe that essence precedes existence, rather than the other way around. This is one of the reasons that, although I get a lot out of certain Existentialists -- Kierkegaard especially -- I don't think I fundamentally am one. Or am I? It does sometimes seem more like a mood than a philosophical school, and I've had the mood pretty bad for something like sixteen years now.


  1. It seems to m e that when Ambrosino writes, "To say it rather crassly: I've convinced a few men to try out my sexuality, but I've never managed to get them to try on my skin color. In other words, one's sexuality isn't as biologically determined as race," he's using the word "sexuality" in an ambiguous way which invites the response he's getting — even if a very careful reading would clarify that — as Yogi Berra once put it — "[he] didn't say the things [he] said."

    I mean, most of the time, when we speak of our sexuality, we mean our orientation, which is stable — even if not fixed in all of us — and generally not perceived as chosen in any meaningful sense. It seems to me that the distinction between orientation and activity is clear enough and valid enough that thie sentence I quoted merely sows confusion.

    As for whether we are accepted merely because we can't help it: I think if all gays could choose to be straight, it would in fact probably lead to greatly diminished acceptance — although I'd suggest that even so there would be a basic level of respect for persons to which all are entitled and which all owe to others. But IMO it's a moot point because I remain unconvinced that we choose to be gay in any way that makes it valid to speak as if our orientation were a real choice.

    In summary, therefore, I think if Ambrosino had a valid point, he expressed it so obscurely as to hinder understanding.

  2. Gabriel, have you read Charles Taylor's 'Sources of the Self'? I've been rather curious about the notion of identity in general lately, and Taylor has an interesting passage about what might be generally meant by 'identity' and how that sense has developed, or changed, from antiquity to the modern sense. I've been trying to square his thing with gay/queer identity, especially from a Side B usage, and I've been wondering about it. What are your thoughts?

    (I hate quoting out of context (and adding to the quotefest—sounds like a party, on that note), but here:)

    People may see their identity as defined partly by some moral or spiritual commitment, say as a Catholic, or an anarchist. Or they may define it in part by the nation or tradition they belong to, as an Armenian, say, or a Qu├ębecois. What they are saying by this is not just that they are strongly attached to this spiritual view or background; rather it is that this provides the frame within which they can determine where they stand on questions of what is good, or worthwhile, or admirable, or of value. Put counterfactually, they are saying that were they to lose this commitment or identification, they would be at sea, as it were; they would know anymore, for an important range of questions, what they significance of things was for them.

    And this situation does, of course, arise for some people. It’s what we call an ‘identity crisis’, an acute form of disorientation, which people often express in terms of not knowing who they are, but which can also be seen as a radical uncertainty of where they stand. They lack a frame or horizon within which things can take on a stable significance, within which some life possibilities can be seen as good or meaningful, others as bad or trivial. The meaning of all these possibilities is unfixed, labile, or undetermined. This is a painful and frightening experience.

    What this brings to light is the essential link between identity and a kind of orientation. To know who you are is to be oriented in moral space, a space in which questions arise about what is good or bad, what is worth doing and what not, what has meaning and importance for you and what is trivial and secondary. I feel myself drawn here to use a spatial metaphor; but I believe this to be more than personal predilection. There are signs that they link with spatial orientation lies very deep in the human psyche. In some very extreme cases of what are described as “narcissistic personality disorders”, which take the form of a radical uncertainty about oneself and about what is of value to one, patients show signs of spatial disorientation as well at moments of acute crisis. The disorientation and uncertainty about where one stands as a person seems to spill over into a loss of grip on one’s stance in physical space.

  3. (and second part of quote:)

    Why this link between identity and orientation? Or perhaps we could put the question this way: What induces us to talk about moral orientation in terms of the question, Who are we? This second formulation points us towards the fact that we haven’t always done so. Talk about ‘identity’ in the modern sense would have been incomprehensible to our forebears of a couple of centuries ago. Erikson has made the perceptive study of Luther’s crisis of faith and reads it in the light of contemporary identity crises, but Luther himself, of course, would have found this description reprehensible if not utterly incomprehensible. Underlying our modern talk of identity is the notion that questions of moral orientation cannot all be solved in simply universal terms. And this is connected to our post-Romanitc understanding of individual differences as well as to the importance we give to expression in each person’s discovery of his or her moral horizon. For someone in Luther’s age, the issue of the basic moral frame of orienting one’s action could only be put in universal terms. Nothing else made sense. This is linked, of course, with the crisis of Luther turning around the acute sense of condemnation and irremediable exile, rather than around a modern sense of meaninglessness, or lack of purpose, or emptiness.

    So one part of the answer to our question is historical; certain developments in our self-understanding are a precondition of our putting the issue in terms of identity. Seeing this will also prevent us from exaggerating our differences with earlier ages. For most of us, certain fundamental moral questions are still put in universal terms: those, for instance, which we stated in section I.I, dealing with people’s rights to life and integrity. What differentiates us from our forebears is just that we don’t see all such questions as framed in these terms as a matter of course. But this also means that our identities, as defined by whatever gives us our fundamental orientation, are in fact complex and many-tiered. We are all framed by what we see as universally valid commitments (being a Catholic or an anarchist, in my example above) and also by what we understand as particular identifications (being an Armenian or a Qu├ębecois). We often declare our identity as defined by only one of these, because this is what is salient in our lives, or what is put in question. But in fact our identity is deeper and more many-sided than any of our possible articulations of it.

    1. I haven't read the author you speak of. Judging from this extract he seems interesting and insightful -- thank you for putting this up.

    2. Someday I'll blog about his 'Sources of the Self' ( I read too much and journal too little these days, and people panic when I tell them to read random title-throws anyway.