Saturday, November 26, 2011

My 'Inspiring' Story

One of my readers reprimanded me for the content of my previous post "Gay Cooties." The substance of the argument was that my story is inspiring, but that being outraged by homophobia in the Christian world isn't helping my ministry. I've considered this very seriously, however on reflection I've realized that the opposite is true.

My inspiring conversion story is not inspiring to LGBTQ people. I've never once had a letter, or a comment on my blog, or a phone call, or someone come up to me after a talk and say "I have same-sex attractions and I'm really inspired by your story." I've had dozens of people tell me that my story is a real inspiration, and a testimony to the grace of God, but every single one of them, to a woman (they're almost all women) is straight. Really conspicuously not even questioning. This doesn't mean that I don't have a ministry to LGBTQ people. I have had same-sex attracted people come up to me, and thank me, and ask me questions about Catholic sexual morality, but it's not because they were inspired by my conversion story. LGBTQ people generally just think "Oh. So she's bisexual and she's chosen a Catholic marriage. I guess that's her choice." The one thing that gives me any credibility with the same-sex attracted crowd is that fact that I'm willing to stand up and tell the faithful Catholics that they're not better than the gays.

After I noticed this, I thought, "Oh. But what about the story of the Prodigal son?" When Jesus went out to preach to the tax-collectors and the sinners, He told them a story about a boy who goes and squanders his inheritance in the city, who sinks into a mire of depravity, and who then repents and returns to his father's home where he is joyfully welcomed. If that's not an inspiring conversion story, I don't know what is. So I flipped open my Jerusalem Bible to chapter 15 of Luke, and re-read the story -- but this time I noticed something that I've never noticed before. Christ does not tell the story of the Prodigal son to the tax-collectors and the sinners. He tells it to the Pharisees. The whole story with the sinner in the pig-sty is just a set-up for the part at the end about the kid who complains that his father has never given him a goat. The parable is actually the parable of the Good Son.

Now this isn't to point a finger and threaten all Catholics with brimstone. I think it's important to remember that the Pharisees ought not to be stereotyped and judged any more than the rainbow folks. The Pharisees were people who genuinely wanted to do good, to serve God, and to obey His ordinances. Several of them are spoken of very highly in the gospels, and some were converts to Christianity. St. Paul, the prototypical Christian convert, was a Pharisee. So Pharisee shouldn't be a dirty word. The purpose of drawing the parallel between faithful Christians of today, and the Pharisees of yesterday, is that just as gay-sex is a perennial temptation to queer folks, self-righteous pride is a perennial temptation for religious types. The moment that we forget this, that we start to think that we're okay, that we begin to thank God that we're not like those homosexuals down at the bathhouse, that's when it's time to look again at all of the things that Christ said to those who thought they were good.

p.s. There's a fabulous Nick Cave song called The Good Son, about this parable, and I highly recommend it to all.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Shame and Guilt and Guilt and Shame and Guilt

I am officially calmer now than I was yesterday, so I'm going to try to write something more coherent about homophobia, what it is, and what it does.

In conservative Catholic circles, the general going theory is that “homophobia” is a fictitious psychological disorder made up by people in the LGBTQ contingent in order to shame Catholics into silence. (Oddly enough, this is exactly that the same way that LGBTQ people feel about “homosexuality” being defined as a psychological disorder...) In so far as the term refers to an alleged mental illness, this is fair enough. There are cases of real homophobia, mostly, as far as I can make out, in men who were sexually assaulted as young boys or in men with strong and severely repressed same-sex attractions. This is the disorder that leads to fag-beating and other forms of violence against homosexual persons, and admittedly it's not widespread within the Catholic world. However, the term is also used in a more colloquial way. Just as people will casually refer to particular behaviours as “obsessive compulsive” even when they occur in folks who don't fit the DSM-IV's definition of OCD, people will refer to other behaviours as “homophobic” even if they are not on the level of an actual, literal phobia.

Homophobia, as it is used colloquially, refers to an unreasonable fear of homosexual persons. This can be a fear that one will become “infected” with homosexuality, that one's children will be seduced, that gays are going to destroy civilization by having anal sex, that all gay men are sexual predators, that being around gay people will inevitably scandalize one's children, etc. Basically, when straight people are more apprehensive about being in the presence of homosexuals than they would be about being in the presence of other groups of sinners who are committing comparably severe sins, this is homophobia. It is often ideological, cultural or spiritual much more than it is psychological. To put it into Catholic language, it is the sin committed by people who are tempted to neglect the paragraph in the Catechism about avoiding unjust discrimination against homosexual persons, and it is a sin against charity.

Homophobic Christians avoid contact with homosexual persons. They resist forming close friendships with gays and lesbians and may counsel others that it is “sinful,” “scandalous” or “imprudent” to associate with “obstinate” homosexual sinners. They often justify this with the belief that somehow by ostracizing, shunning or otherwise refusing to associate with gays and lesbians they are sending a clear message about the evils of homosexuality: they are showing LGBTQ people that their sins are objectively damaging to society. In doing so they believe that they are witnessing to the truth in a charitable way. They tend to be afraid that if they take part in social situations where gay or lesbian couples are behaving in a normal way, they are helping to “normalize” same-sex relationships, and that they are thus guilty of scandal.

These beliefs are dangerously untrue. I know a lot of LGBTQ people, many of them people within the Church. I've read numerous conversion stories by LGBTQ folks who converted to Christianity. In absolutely not a single one of these stories was the shame or guilt associated with being shunned and cold-shouldered by Christians a source of edification, or a spur to repentance. On the contrary, one of the primary reasons which LGBTQ people give for leaving or despising Christian communities is that they were constantly subjected to homophobic behaviours and attitudes on the part of well-meaning Christians. Contrary to the claims made by people who are ideologically committed to homophobia, these behaviours and attitudes are not generally directed at homosexual acts, but at homosexual persons themselves. The claim that by being together with a partner a homosexual person is “flaunting” their sin justifies a series of behaviours which, if we directed them towards any other people, would clearly just be rude.

More to the point, a lot of LGBTQ people have been deeply affected by homophobic reactions on the part of Christians. Often these behaviours do actually have the intended effect: that is, they cause feelings of shame and guilt in their targets. The problem is that homosexuality is deeply connected with experiences of ostracism and loneliness, particularly on the part of same-sex peers. When a person feels ashamed, guilty and isolated because of their homosexual inclinations, this produces feelings of profound self-hatred and despair. It makes people feel “dirty.” They come to believe that God hates them, and they often end up acting out homosexually, either in order to assuage their loneliness, or to take solace in sensual pleasure, or because they despair of salvation, or out of a self-destructive impulse. In other words, what homophobic reactions actually do is not call the sinner to repentance, but put the sinner in a situation where they are compulsively driven back to their sin in order to gain some sort of relief.

The same can be said for sexual sinners of all kinds which is, I believe, the reason why Christ was so gentle with those who sinned according to the flesh. He told them about salvation, forgave their sins, delivered them from persecution, and bestowed on them the dignity and self-respect necessary to go and sin no more. The fire-and-brimstone diatribes he saved for the wealthy, the complacent and the self-righteous.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Gay Cooties

I'm blogging today about something that I found on the Catholic Answers Forum. Here is the featured question from yesterday:
Re: Should I be forced to celebrate Thanksgiving with a gay "married" couple?

My sister-in-law invited her gay brother and his "husband," who are "married" -- as defined by our judicial system here in Massachusetts. There will be about twelve adults and ten children attending, children ages 13-19. I have a big problem with this being forced on me and am not going to be with my family this Thanksgiving. I feel that it is thrust upon me and confusing the children about what we believe as Catholics. I'd like to do the charitable route and go, but I feel I must stand up for what we believe and be a witness of our faith to both the adults and the kids. What do you think?

Michelle Arnold's Response:

Before I get to the point at which I basically agree with you, which I plan to do, let's first look at this from your sister-in-law's point of view.

Thanksgiving is a family holiday, one at which your sister-in-law evidently has taken responsibility to host for her husband's family -- a family that, by your estimation, will include over twenty people. Is it surprising that your sister-in-law would like to include her family in this celebration by inviting her own brother to the event? If she is not Catholic, or is not convinced of the Catholic position on homosexuality, she may even consider it rude not to invite her brother and his "husband." (Of course, it may be that your sister-in-law invited her brother and his "spouse" to someone else's home for Thanksgiving. In that case, take up the matter with whoever is hosting the event.)

My point is that someone is going to a lot of trouble to host over twenty people for Thanksgiving dinner this year, and either chose to include or chose to allow someone else to invite a family member and his "significant other." For another guest to make a fuss that two men are being welcomed over to someone else's home for one of the biggest family holidays of the year is going to appear to them to be churlish.

Now, back to your point of view. I completely sympathize with your discomfort over the idea of seeing teens given an example of "gay married life" over their turkey and cornbread, especially if the men are not willing to behave for the sake of the children as if they are merely platonic friends. By attending such an event, and appearing to sanction such a relationship, you could indeed be contributing to the corruption of the morals of children. In that light, attending such an event is hardly "charitable." I also completely sympathize with your outrage at feeling that you are not able to spend Thanksgiving with your family because one family member did not feel the need to consult with other adults in the family about the appropriateness of including this couple at a family event at which children would be in attendance. But, just because you are correct, does not mean that you need to contribute to the family drama by making a show of your disapproval.

Here's one possible plan of action:

* Call the host with your regrets. * Simply say that "something has come up" that prevents you from attending. (This is true.) * Do not allow yourself to be pressed into explaining what came up. (This will make it all the more obvious what the problem was without you appearing to be a "spoilsport.") Just keep reiterating how sorry you are that you're unable to attend. * Arrange your own Thanksgiving celebration this year. * As early as possible for next year, perhaps over Christmas this year, let your family know that you would like to host the family Thanksgiving next year. * If your sister-in-law asks if her brother and his "spouse" can come to your home for Thanksgiving, regretfully explain that you already have a "full house." * Then allow her to decide where she and her immediate family will spend Thanksgiving.

I've attempted to stir up some controversy over this in the forums but I'd also like to post a response here.

This is a category of question that I've seen a lot of times, and it basically rests on the assumption that if we agree to do everyday normal things in the presence of people who are in gay relationships, that we are somehow sanctioning their relationships. The corollary is the belief that by refusing to participate, we send a clear message about the morality of same-sex relationships and we witness to the truth about homosexuality.

When we refuse to get involved in the lives of LGBTQ people, we do send a very clear message, but the message has nothing to do with the truth. We send the message that we are bigoted homophobes who think that gays are icky. We send the message that Catholics don't want anything to do with those nasty fags, and that we're afraid that our children will catch homosexuality like a disease if they're brought into even the most casual contact with gay couples. We send a message that we really care a lot about hating the sin, but that we're not even willing to eat at the same table as the sinner.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Feminine Socialization

Maura has pointed out that the activities which I was not able to comfortably participate in as an adolescent girl are not essential to femininity, that they are superficial and culture bound. I think it's important to acknowledge that the superficial, cultural expressions of femininity are not actually irrelevant. These are the social activities that women perform in order to socialize one another. Feminine social grooming takes place at the mall, in the cafeteria, at sleepover parties where girls give each other makeovers, and so forth. Girls get together as girls and they learn from one another how to be feminine, how to present themselves as feminine in the wider culture, and how to think and identify as women. Basically, there's a set of techniques for developing the self, a stylistics that communicates and signals femininity to other people. When a woman develops a feminine aesthetic that is acceptable to her culture, it also produces a corresponding sense of comfort within her own psyche. Her femininity is constantly reinforced and buttressed within the social sphere, and this contributes in a substantial way to her ability to relate to herself and to other women in a way that is conceived as “feminine.” This whole process happens very naturally for women who are “cisgendered,” that is, who are largely or completely comfortable with the identity between their physical sex and their social/psychological gender.

There are any number of reasons why this might not happen for a particular woman. Sometimes it's a matter of social opportunities, isolation, exclusion and so forth, in which case I would say that a person is accidentally queer – they have gender confusion as a result of having been left out of the loop during the process of gender-socialization in childhood and adolescence. On the other hand, I think that there are characteristics that are related to femininity in all cultures which some women lack. Excitement and apprehension about the development of female sex characteristics is, for example, a more universal feminine experience; it's normal for a girl in any culture to have a desire for womanhood and to work that out in the context of a female social sphere where her feelings are validated, shared and possibly given some sort of ritual catharsis. That's why I think that there's some basis for gender-queerness that goes a little deeper than mere socialization. If it were just that I found the cultural expressions of femininity in postmodern North America alienating and dull, that would be a fairly superficial matter. The problem is that there are certain elements of female development and female psychology that are generally included in notions of “essential” femininity which I happen to lack.

The lack of interest in my nascent femininity during adolescence is one example. Another is the fact that I'm generally oblivious to social cues and body language. Most people who try to describe essential femininity will include the idea that women are more sensitive to other people's emotions and to the subtextual cues in social interaction. One of the classic examples in the Catholic world is of Mary noticing that the wine has run out at the Wedding at Cana. She sees this and intervenes to remedy the situation before it becomes socially embarassing. It's generally felt that this kind of awareness is one of the great strengths of femininity – and it's something that I don't have. Now I happen to know that the reason I don't have it is that I come from a family where practically everyone can be pegged somewhere on the autism spectrum. If I was at the Wedding at Cana, I wouldn't notice anything: I'd be suffering from massive information overload and would be only vaguely aware of my surroundings at all. In a social situation there's simply too much information to process, so my mind either fixates on a single person or a single activity and becomes completely oblivious to everything else, or else I sort of sink into a cloudy haze where I'm not even conscious of what I'm doing or saying. In a private conversation, I'm almost completely blind to the subtle cues being given off by the other person – this is another classic high-functioning autistic attribute. My ability to process or read other people's emotions is exceedingly primative, and I often get it wrong. I miss massive clues and I'm unaware of subtle shades of meaning. In this respect I'm more incompetent than a lot of perfectly “masculine” men. Needless to say, the inability to participate in conversation and social life in this respect serves as a massive impediment to full inclusion in the female social world. I come across as weird, masculine, “queer.” This creates a sort of self-perpetuating cycle, where because I'm inept at being included, I am excluded, and because I am excluded I become increasingly inept.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Yours Queerly

I've had a couple of commentators ask about the whole gender and homosexuality issue, so I'm going to try to cover some of what I think about that. This is an issue that weighs pretty heavily on my mind, because it comes to the heart of the question about whether “sexual orientation” is something that can be changed. The LGBTQ position is that sexual orientation is fixed, that it cannot be changed, and that if you're gay, you were born that way. The right-wing Christian position is that it can be changed, and there are numerous ex-gay ministries that are supposed to bring this change about.

I weigh in somewhere in between these two positions. I think that most people who are gay, lesbian, bi or transgendered really are queer – that is they possess distinctive traits that are either innate or fixed so early in childhood that they can't possibly be considered culpable, and that they cannot be altered. For example, there are certain formative experiences that have to do with gender-identity development that have to happen during a certain, relatively brief period in a person's life. In some cases, these events don't take place. In my case I never went through the part of adolescence where a girl looks forward to becoming a woman, where she wants to wear training bras, and hopes to get her period, and twitters excitedly with her girl friends about the cute boys in her classes. I read Are You There God, It's Me Margaret, and I felt totally alienated: I couldn't relate to this normal teenage girl who was anxious and excited about her emerging femininity. Reparative therapists tend to opine that experiences like mine are the result of failed socialization, that a lack of close female friendships cause women to be adrift when it comes to developing feminine feelings. I don't think that's how it worked for me, though: I remember the point when the other girls on the playground were discussing these things, and I remember having the opportunity to participate in those discussions. I made the decision to walk away and not get involved, because the subject made me uncomfortable, it didn't seem to concern me, and I wasn't interested in it. The point is that that discomfort and disinterest weren't the result of social ostracization: the causality was the other way. As I reached the age at which other girls were increasingly interested in distinctly feminine activities and concerns, I became increasingly unable to relate to them, and I dissociated myself quite naturally from their world. Instead of hanging with the girls and talking about the New Kids on the Block, I went and hung around with the shy, sissy flute-playing soprano boy who I'm sure has since gone on to be a wonderfully talented gay musician.

The conservative party line is that I was suffering from “gender-identity disorder,” and that presumably I could have been fixed if I'd been taken aside and taught how to conform to certain standard gender development patterns. I've seen enough testimonies from people who were put through that personality-normalization wringer to be extremely wary of this claim. I also have my own experience of trying to gender-normalize myself during late middle-school and early high-school. I made a concerted attempt to enjoy going to the mall, to watch Melrose Place to talk about girly things and to care about the back-biting politics of the high-school popularity scene. I managed to work up a couple of artificial crushes on boys so that I'd be able to participate in the whole adolescent erotic game, but the effect of it was an increasing feeling of depression, isolation and inauthenticity, accompanied by a profound compulsion to escape. A lot of the time I would get out of class, and would be time to head to the lunch room and gab with my girl friends, and I would have this intensive feeling of dread. More and more over the course of those years, my reaction was simply to flee: to get out of the building and go down to the ravine where I could walk along the side of the bubbling creek and lay in the sunlight on the big flat rock that jutted out into the stream, and where I could immerse myself in the worlds of beauty, imagination, melancholy and Truth.

Someone out there is going to object that none of those things listed above are inherently unfeminine, and I'll agree. However when the kind of beauty that appeals is the beauty of the female body, and the kind of Truth that appeals is the rationalism of Immanuel Kant or the Stoicism of Epictetus, and the imagination tends to favour either extremely masculine female role-models or an outright retreat into an explicitly male headspace, then it becomes increasingly clear that gender-identity is at stake. It's not that I'm transgendered, though I think that if I were to honestly peg myself using the LGBTQ taxonomy of sexual identities, I'd have to admit I'm gender-queer.

For obvious reasons, this is an issue that requires a much longer discussion than I have space for in one post. I'll try to return to it soon, particularly in terms of whether alternative gender identities can fruitfully be categorized as “disorders,” whether these identities are fixed or malleable, and what relationship that has with the whole sexual orientation change debate.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Loneliness and Gender

There's been more than one occasion where I've been talking to someone who has strong, even compulsive same-sex attractions, and where it is clear that the fundamental underlying issue is a profound loneliness. Many reparative therapists have argued that SSA is basically caused by a failure to connect properly with same-sex peers during childhood and adolescence. One formulation of this theory is the EBE, or “Exotic becomes erotic” hypothesis. According to this account, a person's sexual attractions are formed on the basis of a feeling of difference, distance, and therefore desire. It's very similar, actually, to the account of desire that Socrates gives in the Symposium, where he suggests that distance and lack of a thing are absolutely essential to Eros (love, desire, attraction.) So basically, if an adolescent is starved for same-sex companionship, that desire will become sexualized in the heady atmosphere of high-school hormones.

There may be something in that. Research (even research done by people sympathetic to the gay cause) suggests that teenagers with same-sex attractions are more likely to be drawn to solitary activities. The chicken and egg phenomenon of course exists – does the “difference” involved in being gay cause a person to be alienated from “straight” peers, such that they naturally turn to solitary pursuits in order to amuse themselves, or does the interest in solitary pursuits lead to social exclusion and from there to this EBE sexuality and hence homosexual attraction. Frankly, I think that it's one of those inextricably linked phenomena, where you have two factors that feed into and play off of one another, and where neither of those two factors are wholly or exclusively responsible for the result that you get.

In any case, irregardless of which side of the pro hoc propter hoc divide you find yourself on, the fact is that a lot of people with same-sex attractions are lonely – gay because they're lonely, or lonely because they're gay, it really doesn't matter. The loneliness itself is worth discussing, because regardless of which is the cause, and which is the effect, there is no question that sexual temptations of any kind are amplified by loneliness.

The difficulty is that no matter how you slice it, most people in the LGBTQ crowd really and actually are different. Not everyone, but most. It's something that I still deal with in my own life, because frankly all of the personality traits and weird gender-attributes that made me think I was lesbian in the first place are still here, and they're not going away. It means that it's difficult, in many cases, for LGBTQ people to form friendships with straight folks – and especially with straight people of their own gender. I've met a lot of lesbians who think that straight girls are just weird. For gay guys, it's often even harder because the general opinion of most men, if you get them outside of a context where they feel that they have to be politically correct, is that gay men are effeminate and fruity. This leads to emotional distrust which is difficult to overcome.

Reparative therapy tends to try to deal with this by getting people to adopt behaviours and interests that are more typical of their gender, in order that they'll be able to become more acceptable and better able to make friends. I'm not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, there are things that are kind of like that that I do myself. On the other hand, I think it's really important to do that in a way that is “natural,” in the sense of being compatible with my own personality. What this means, in terms of Catholic outreach, is that it's really, really important for Catholics to understand that the “faggy” or “butch” behaviours of LGBTQ people aren't necessarily affectations, and they're not necessarily some sort of psychological disorder that needs to be overcome. They're differences, but it is the responsibility of those who would become Christ to the world to accept and love those who the rest of the world is inclined to reject.