Introit for the Third Sunday in Lent

Mine eyes are ever looking unto the Lord, for he shall pluck my feet out of the net: look thou upon me, and have mercy upon me, for I am desolate and in misery.
Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul: my God, in thee have I trusted; let me not be confounded.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Queer Identity, Part II: Mirror, Mirror

(Mirror, Mirror is also the title of an album by the arresting band The Irrepressibles. But I digress, and haven't even begun.)

This is my only exception to my normal anti-clown rule (the normal rule being "Kill it! Kill it!").

Percipient readers will notice that my use of the word identity, in this post and forward, doesn't correspond to the strict use I employed in Queer Identity, Part I. I am somewhat disappointed about the inconsistency; but it seemed impossible to maintain the accessible tone I'm aiming for here, while at the same time being academically strict about the word identity, among others. Here and elsewhere, I use identity in the more colloquial sense, where it corresponds to what I described in the above post as a person's sense of self. I recognize and uphold the intellectual (and, indeed, theological) distinction between the two things, and ask those readers who, like me, are afflicted with a pedantic and appropriate desire for exactness of language to work with me. Language, when defied, has a tendency to avenge itself; and provided the ideas remain the same, I feel that linguistic imperfection is behovely, but all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

Now then.

I wrote in my last about the theory that being gay means being metaphysically different from straight people, and why I don't accept that theory. Gay men, straight men, and everybody in between are all fundamentally men, with different qualities attached to them, and some of those different qualities include sexuality. The same, naturally, would apply to lesbians and heterosexual women.

In that case, though, why bother to speak of a queer identity at all? Even as a loose way of speaking about sense of self, or as an analogy or whatever. As a commenter pointed out, your nose is part of you too, but measuring and describing everything about yourself in terms of your nose would be weird. And even if we consider more serious aspects of a person like, say, political convictions or religious beliefs -- well, we've all met people whose devotion to some party or devotion or other pet cause has kind of taken over their psyche, and they aren't an attractive bunch as human beings.

Or, if they are, it isn't really cause for comfort.

And of course we've all met people whose sexuality has dominated every other aspect of them: I've run into it more frequently in the LGBT world -- which I put down to that particular sort of defiance characteristic of minorities of various sorts, carried to an extreme, as not infrequently happens among people who are or feel bullied and rejected -- but I think you see it in the womanizing machismaniac or the oversexed party girl in the same degree.* Anyone, not just evil queens, can look into a mirror with no concern except who wants their body the most, and most of us have, now and again.

But I do think that sexuality has a right to a place, and may even have a prominent place, in our sense of self. That is, not only our sex and gender, but our sexual orientation, have a claim on our self-concept.

What precise role sexual orientation should take, relative to other aspects of our sense of self -- vocation, ethnicity, religious tradition, chocolate preference** -- I don't propose to define strictly. This is partly because I'm not at all sure, and partly, too, because I expect that every person's own hierarchy of aspects will rightly differ. Not that they'll differ unlimitedly (I don't think it would be right, for instance, to place your national identity in such a relationship to your religious identity that you could conscientiously declare the head of state to be the rightful head of the Church). But there will be legitimate variation; and I am specially concerned not to insist that everybody who experiences exclusive or predominant homosexual attraction has some sort of obligation to identify as gay. That, in my view, is as inappropriately dogmatic as the insistence that nobody should.

What case, then, within the principles of the Catholic faith, can be made for thinking and speaking of yourself as lesbian or gay or whatever? What case can be made for treating it as being that important? I think the key can be found in the Catechism, paragraphs 2331-2332:
"God is love and in himself he lives a mystery of personal loving communion. Creating the human race in his own image ..., God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion." ... Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others.
Now, in its context, this is part of a larger discourse on the Sixth Commandment,*** and primarily refers to the bond of love between husband and wife. But the specific mention of the affections and the general aptitude for human fellowship as being mediated by sexuality suggests, I think, that sexual orientation -- being an element of sexuality, and one that influences the kinds of relationships we form (both friendships and romances) pretty strongly -- is correspondingly an important part of us. That which has a say in how we relate to people, has a say in how we think of ourselves; for human beings are by nature social creatures, that is, creatures that relate to one another, voluntarily and involuntarily (none of us chose to be born, and maternity and paternity are pretty formative relationships).

Of course there is more to us than our sexual orientation. More; but not less. I don't find it helpful or life-giving to have my sexuality, one of the primary elements in how I relate to others, reduced to the status of a condition, to be hidden and managed and shamefacedly apologized for. That doesn't mean I approve of every element of my sexuality -- I don't, by a long shot. But that would be true if I were straight, too. There hasn't been an unfallen experience of sexuality on the planet earth since the Mother of God was assumed, still in her virginity; and I tend to doubt that that sort of thing can be expected to recur.

Of course, the Blessed Virgin never was one to do things the normal way.

So under what conditions do I espouse gayness as part of my sense of self -- or, to use the briefer and more popular way of putting it, in what sense do I identify as gay? It's a part of me; a part, not the sum and substance; it's part of how I relate to people; but I'm a whole man, not a sex drive with a human face attached. Just as a mirror reflects the body but not the soul, not because mirrors are bad,**** but because that's all they're made for -- in the same way, the statement "I'm gay" provides an incomplete picture because it was never intended to provide a complete picture. It shouldn't have to; no one should expect it to.

*I'd add the caution that, when it comes to getting a clear picture of the LGBT world from its spokesmen, this can be somewhat challenging -- not because of dishonesty, but because by nature advocacy has to talk about the thing that it advocates for, repeatedly and thoroughly. Since there isn't really such a thing as heterosexual advocacy, there is no straight equivalent; and therefore, the concern with sexuality and identity displayed by LGBT advocates does wind up looking extremely disproportional, relative to the concern with sexuality and identity in the heterosexual community. My own hunch is that the difference is, not entirely, yet mostly illusory -- a product of the discourse rather than of any quality intrinsic to queer people.

**Dark chocolate -- 60% cocoa or higher -- is the best. But this is a free society, and other people have the legal right to be in error about this subject.

***For those of you who gleefully caught The Mask of Zorro misnumbering the commandments in the confessional scene, Catholics number the Ten Commandments differently: the standard Protestant first and second are treated as one, and the commandment not to covet is split into not coveting thy neighbor's wife and not coveting thy neighbor's possessions. Hence, the Sixth Commandment in our numbering is Thou shalt not commit adultery. This is treated by Catholic moralists as referring not solely to violations of the marriage bed's exclusiveness, but of the universal call to chastity, in every state and stage of life.

****But no one tell Tertullian or he'll get upset and start lecturing you about the evils of promiscuity and warfare and dyeing wool.


  1. I'm not sure what "academically strict" definition of "identity" you're referring to in the beginning of this post (versus the "looser" one you admit to using in this post).

    If you can show me where "identity" is used as a strict theological category anywhere, I'd like to see it. It seems that the "strict usage" of "identity" conservatives nitpick with the gays over was create whole-cloth to be used as a bludgeon in this particular issue and no other.

    1. I don't know that the Church uses the word "identity" as technically as she uses certain other terms (like "substance"), but it isn't uncommon in my experience for Catholics to mean something very particular by it -- which I discussed in Part I. The gist of my point there was that identity was what a thing or person is at the most fundamental level, ontologically; so an Englishman and an Irishman, for instance, are different in certain ways (and with some emphasis), but they don't in this sense have different identities -- rather, they have different qualities inhering in the same identity (namely, humanity). I couldn't cite sources here really -- it's just something I've seen done. I haven't seen it used exclusively in discourse on sexual orientation, though I have run into it there more than anywhere else.

  2. "I am specially concerned not to insist that everybody who experiences exclusive or predominant homosexual attraction has some sort of obligation to identify as gay. That, in my view, is as inappropriately dogmatic as the insistence that nobody should."

    I'm not sure what this means, even. Not forcing people to come out is one thing (people may be discreet.) Preferring a certain label and trying to respect that is something too.

    But at the end of the day, "gay" just means "predominantly homosexually attracted" and there is a moral obligation to HONESTY, no?

    It's one thing for a black person to say "I prefer African American." It's another if a federal investigator asks him on the phone, point-blank, "Are you black?" and he says "No" with the mental reservation "Because I don't really like that label and it's associations, I prefer African American." In that case he's perjured himself because at the end of the day the denotation of "black" IS "African American."

    "SSA" folk can use whatever labels and mental twisting they want, and no one is saying they HAVE to say anything at all. But if they DO consent to give an answer to the question, "Are you gay?" it had better be "Yes" rather than "No" (even if qualified with something like, "But I prefer the term same-sex attracted to distance myself from liberals" or something like that). Otherwise they are just a liar.

    1. I don't think that criticism is altogether just. The word "gay" does sometimes indicate other things than homosexual attractions simply -- which is one reason why some people who fully and frankly admit, and even identify with, their attractions distance themselves from it; self-styled androphiles, for example. In other words, I think that connotations and cultural implications are important enough that I wouldn't regard it as lying for someone who is exclusively attracted to the same sex to deny being gay -- provided that they aren't doing so in such a way as to claim to be straight.

      In the parallel you give, yes, I'd regard that as dishonesty, if the speaker left what they said unmodified. Similarly, if the reason a person doesn't identify as gay is because they are pretending to be straight, then yes, that seems to me dishonest. But there are other reasons a person might decline to identify as gay: maybe their sexual dimension simply doesn't feel important enough to justify calling it anything, or maybe they are averse to the social or political connotations of the word "gay," or maybe they don't yet know what their sexual orientation is. Space should be made for that sort of thing. After all, other people's sexuality is not, in the long run, our business, unless we are their marital partner and have a corresponding right to know.

    2. Mr. Jones, I think your thought experiment undersells the complexity of both sexuality and ethnicity. Your situation describes a black person being asked whether he is black; how, though, has it been determined that said person is, in fact, black? Is Barack Obama black? Is Jason Kidd? Both have African (or African-American) fathers and white mothers. If you judged based upon the way that they speak and the job that they hold or held, you would almost certainly assume that Obama was white and Kidd black. If you knew absolutely nothing about them, and simply saw them on the street, you would almost certainly assume that Kidd was white and Obama black. So, what do they respond to the federal investigator? How do we take into account issues of "passing" in the context of race OR sexuality, bearing in mind that it is often easier (not psychologically but practically) to "pass" in the context of sexuality than race? If Jason Kidd looks white and identifies as white based on his lived experiences (and I am most definitely not claiming that he does), is it dishonest for him to respond that he is not black because his father is African-American?

      To bring this around to sexuality, if someone identifies as gay, it would indeed seem to me dishonest for them to simply deny being gay (although they might have any number of good reasons for doing so in any number of situations); that, however, begs the question and returns to the issue of asking a "black man" if he's black. What do we do for a person who feels same sex attractions (either in addition to or in place of heterosexual attractions), but has not (for whatever reason) come to the conclusion that same sex attractions are his/her defining and enduring sexual interest? Gabriel has written eloquently about the fluidity of sexual attraction, in both historical and modern terms; some people are heterosexually attracted all of the time, some people are homosexually attracted all of the time, but some people find their attractions mixed or changeable. Is a person gay if they have any homosexual attractions for any length of time? Is a person gay if they only experience homosexual attraction? Is a person only gay during periods in which they experience that homosexual attraction? Is it wrong (or dishonest) for a person who is struggling with their sexuality to respond "I don't know" when asked if they are gay, as long as they have ever felt homosexual attraction?

      I don't really have answers to any of these questions, I simply hope that they keep us grounded in the complexity of the issues we're discussing here.

    3. Good points, but I'd argue that neither race nor sexuality (or any social category) is all about self-identification, but also about how others perceive you. So an answer does not merely need to take into account self-identification, but also something like whether many or most people in society would call you something based on [how you look, if they knew your feelings/experiences, etc]

      So, yes, there might be more complex answers like "I don't really think of that way, but most people would probably say so," or "I'm not worried about a label, but yeah lots of people would probably put me in that category." But that's different from a downright "no." Especially when someone admits to being "SSA" publicly, saying "no" to "LGBT?" is clearly just a verbal obfuscation and a lie at least if, as Gabriel says (and would usually be the case), this "no" is taken to mean "straight."

  3. People whose sexuality has dominated every other aspect of them and people whose religious fight against the same has dominated every aspect of them, what's the difference?

  4. I have difficulty understanding where you "place" something like "sexual orientation" into a workable framework of personal identity. When "I" am thinking, for example, in terms of Descartes' cogito, I am quite separate from most of my senses which delude me. I exist in my own thoughts, whereas my "body" could be an illusion. That would be the rationalist framework. On the reverse side we would have someone like Hume for whom personal identity does not exist at all and "we" ourselves are merely the bundles of our perceptions at any point in time. But even then, I am not defined by any one "sexual" thought or perception no more than any of the other bundles define "me" as there is no "me." There are only the perceptions. This would be something like the empiricist school.

    Then, of course, there is the question of whether or not you are a metaphysical sexual optimist or a metaphysical sexual pessimist, when regarding sexuality itself. Like Freud, Kant and St. Augustine, I am a metaphysical sexual pessimist and view sexual aberrations and even excessive sexual indulgence as having the power to warp one's intellect, preventing clarity about what is truly good. So how could a "sexually-oriented" self-identity contribute in any way to what is truly good? But maybe you can disagree with me on that point.