Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Authentic Dialogue Is Possible


By Melinda Selmys

Last year I was invited to give a talk at the University of Notre Dame on the subject of homosexuality and identity. I arrived at the lecture hall to find a group of demonstrators from the campus’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) contingent reading “queer poetry” as a form of protest against my appearance. They distributed a small note, explaining the reasons why they objected to an “ex-gay” speaker talking at Notre Dame. The main objection: They thought I was going to say that “homosexuality [is] curable, thus pathologizing it.”

It was not an easy climate in which to speak. Several recent scandals had justly ignited the ire of the LGBTQ crowd at Notre Dame. The protest itself only served to deepen the divide: Most of the people attending the event were conservative Catholics who were stunned by the poetry, which came off as obscene. Campus security surrounded the building, and there was talk of calling the police. I put aside my prepared speech and decided that, instead of talking about dialogue with the gay community, I would try to do it.

I’m sure the results were frustrating for some of the Catholics in attendance. Prof. Randall B. Smith, in his article “Call the Police, It’s an Academic Lecture!” in the January-February issue of the NOR, noted that the question-and-answer period was dominated by the LGBTQ crowd, and wondered whether true dialogue was even possible. Yet, in spite of the obstacles and difficulties, I think that some small headway was made: If nothing else, at the end of my talk several of the protest organizers came up and thanked me for having come to speak.

A Long History
In order to understand the frustrations of the LGBTQ people and their fear of having an “ex-gay” speak in a public venue, it helps to understand the history of homosexual politics in the Western world. It is an uncomfortable fact that for a long time a campaign of hatred and persecution has been waged against those who experience same-sex attractions. The reasons for this are many, one of which is that the early Christian response to homosexuality was based on the way it was practiced in the Greco-Roman world.

When the Seleucid Greeks conquered the Jews, they brought with them a culture that was both alien and, in many cases, inimical to Jewish culture. One of the atrocities that earns particular opprobrium in the book of Maccabees is the establishment of a gymnasium in Jerusalem (2 Macc. 4:9-15). Part of the problem was that, according to Greek custom, exercise was done in the nude. This had two important implications for the Jews. The first, and the most often talked about in biblical criticism, is that this practice allowed the Greek rulers to easily identify practicing Jews, whose circumcision would be conspicuous. The second was that Greek culture at the time openly encouraged the practice of pederasty. Jewish parents, anxious that their children should keep the Law of Moses, were understandably aghast at the thought of old Greek men ogling their naked sons from the sidelines.

The horror that this inspired in the Jewish mind did not diminish when the Greeks were replaced by the Romans. Homosexuality in ancient Rome was not much better than it was in Greece: The open adulation of the “love of boys” was certainly less common, but the practice was still widespread. Edward Gibbon, in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, notes that “of the first fifteen emperors, Claudius was the only one whose taste in love was entirely correct.” The Romans replaced the Greek notion of an older “lover” and a younger “beloved” (ideally a beardless youth) with a model of homosexuality that was based on Patrician notions of virility. Homosexuality was socially acceptable — provided you were the active partner. This created an atmosphere in which homosexual relationships were, more often than not, expressions of dominance. Usually, the passive partner was either a social inferior or a slave. The contempt with which St. Paul, Epictetus, and other writers of the period refer to “catamites” reflects the fact that when such relationships were consensual at all, the passive partner usually got involved only to further his career, for the sake of monetary gain, or because he lacked the moral courage to refuse.

To a large extent, these patterns continued through­out most of European and Middle Eastern history. Louis Crompton’s impressive Homosexuality and Civilization chronicles the documentary evidence of homo-erotic practice from ancient times to the Enlightenment. In spite of his valiant attempt to provide a historical basis for the modern gay community, the fact is that the historical evidence indicates that the great majority of homosexual relationships were based on exploitation. The history of homosexuality in the West prior to the French Revolution is largely a history of what we now call child abuse.

This needs to be taken into account when reading the vitriol that is poured out against “sodomites” in the writings of early Christians. The modern notion of homosexuality as a consenting, ideally long-lasting union between adults was practically unheard of. Sodomy was implicitly connected with sexual predation in the minds of the late Roman, Byzantine, and medieval Christians. This led to widespread, often savage, persecution of those who practiced it. Castration, pillorying, and burning at the stake were common punishments for those charged with the “sin that dare not speak its name.”

The Reformation altered the situation somewhat. Generally, prior to the rise of Lutheranism, very little was said about homosexuality in the northern parts of Europe. Trial records, indecent poems, and ringing denunciations of the “sin of Sodom” are easily found in the Mediterranean countries, but north of Germany there is virtual silence. With the rise of the Reformation, homosexuality suddenly became a “Catholic” sin, a product of priestly celibacy and monastic enclosure, evidence of a decadent Church on the road to ruin. The persecution of “sodomites” and the persecution of Catholics often went hand-in-hand.

The quiet, previously subterranean homosexuality of northern Europe was now brought to light. Here, for the first time in European history, we find widespread evidence of homosexual relationships between people of roughly the same age and social status. It is here, in the midst of some of the most savage anti-homosexual persecutions of the past two thousand years, that the modern model of homosexuality was being born.

This type of homosexuality, and the repulsion against it, were both brought to America by the early Protestant settlers. Yet, as the theories of the Enlightenment gained currency in American culture, the understanding of homosexuality began to shift. Slowly, over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, homosexuality ceased to be seen as a particularly odious sin, and was instead perceived as a psychological or biological defect. This led, in the early twentieth century, to a bevy of experiments being performed on American homosexuals in order to “cure” them. In many cases, these experiments were extremely harmful, involving testicular transplants, electro-shock therapies, and Clockwork Orange-style behavioral conditioning. The subjects were often mental patients or prison inmates who had been incarcerated for homosexual behavior; in many cases, they were simply not given a choice or were told that if they submitted to treatment they would receive their freedom.

The effect of this history on the contemporary situation in North America cannot be overestimated. For people within the LGBTQ community, and particularly for people of the older generations, the fear of anti-homosexual sentiment is not simply a fear of name-calling and rejection; it is a fear of the very real violence that was often inflicted in the name of Christianity, or in the pursuit of a “cure” for homosexuality.

The Genesis of the Homosexual Identity
One of the consequences of the historical persecution of homosexuals is the emergence, in the twentieth century, of the idea of a homosexual identity. In previous eras, homosexuality was seen, for the most part, as a taste, a pattern of desire, a sin, a temptation, or a lifestyle choice. Bisexuality was much more common than exclusive homosexuality, and, especially in strongly patriarchal cultures like Rome or Imperial China, most practicing homosexuals were married to members of the opposite sex.

The idea of homosexuality as a fixed element of personality, subject to scientific scrutiny and biological or psychological determinism, changed this. Previously, the persecution of homosexuality had taken the form of punishment for an action; now it was presented as a cure for a personality defect. The pathologization of the homosexual person produced a strong counter-reaction. For the most part, gays and lesbians have accepted that homosexuality really is an element of personality and really is caused by biological and/or psychological factors that lie outside of the will of the individual. But they reject the notion that it is pathological.

Instead, gay and lesbian activists throughout the twentieth century began to construct an idea of homosexual identity as something distinct, unique, and valid. The homosexual community transformed itself from a subterranean complex of means by which same-sex attracted individuals could find like-minded partners, and took on its contemporary form as a complete subculture.

The implications of this are tremendous. According to their construction, a “homosexual identity” is not merely a matter of same-sex attraction: There are plenty of people who are, at various times in their lives, attracted to members of their own sex but who never identify as gay or lesbian. Rather, the homosexual identity cements same-sex attraction as a crucial element of personality, and places it in a privileged category along with culture, religion, ethnicity, and gender. People who adopt this identity refuse to give up the practice of homosexuality because they see it as an essential part of themselves.

Identity & Conversion
My own conversion, and the conversions of others whom I have seen leave a gay or lesbian life for the sake of Catholicism, hinged on this question of identity. I didn’t leave my same-sex partner because I ceased to be attracted to women or because I was miraculously “cured” of homosexuality. I left because my identity as a Catholic was more important to me than my identity as a lesbian. At the time, I really believed that my sexuality was fixed and that I would spend the rest of my life struggling to subordinate my same-sex desires to my intellectual convictions. I was content to accept this because I had first accepted the premises that I possessed free will, that I was in a position to make autonomous decisions about my own sexuality, and that rational, philosophical, and religious convictions were more essential than sexual desires.

I did not end up struggling for the rest of my life. As I moved away from a lesbian identity, I realized that the theories that were supposed to account for my attractions were neither satisfying nor adequate. This was equally true of the genetic theories favored by pro-gay advocates, and of the psychological theories in vogue among the Christian Right. I don’t deny that there are people who turn to homosexuality for psychological reasons — clearly there are women who turn to lesbianism because of their experiences with rape or abusive heterosexual relationships, and men who turn to older male sexual partners in search of a substitute for the affection of a distant father, and so forth. Psychological trauma, family dysfunction, and peer rejection can all be contributing factors, but so can aesthetic preference, ideological conviction, sexual opportunity, and positive experiences with the LGBTQ community.

Changes in my ideological outlook, my understanding of femininity, and my sexual behaviors were enough to allow me to be open to the possibility of a genuinely intimate, emotionally open heterosexual relationship. I didn’t fixate on “praying away the gay” or on eliminating all vestiges of same-sex desire; I figured that anyone entering into a marriage was likely to be occasionally troubled with extra-marital attractions and that it didn’t particularly matter whether they were directed toward members of the same or the opposite sex. In both cases, chastity and self-control were going to be required. There was nothing about same-sex attraction that made it somehow more urgent or problematic than any other form of unwanted attraction.

Effective Outreach
Several factors made my conversion possible, and I think that they’re worth considering because they provide a blueprint for how Christians can effectively reach out to people within the LGBTQ community. First, I was able to put aside the idea of a lesbian identity because I was not reliant on a lesbian community in order to provide for my social needs. Furthermore, my conversion did not happen in isolation: I was surrounded by friends who were also on the road to conversion at the same time I was. This is absolutely essential. Many people identify as gay or lesbian because they find love and acceptance within the LGBTQ community and nowhere else. A great deal of damage is done when Christian communities are openly homophobic, when effeminate men or masculine women are treated with contempt, and when cruel jokes or dismissive speech are used to demean people who have same-sex attractions. I was a girl with a shaved head who wore weird clothes and who did not behave in a traditionally feminine manner. If I had had to rely on the lukewarm support of the local Newman club and the mainstream Catholic community, I probably would have given up within the first year and written it off as my “Catholic phase.”

Second, I was able to find ways of integrating my Catholic identity, and Marian spirituality, with an atypical femininity. Many people seek sanctuary within the LGBTQ community because their own particular expression of masculinity or femininity is not “normal” in the mainstream culture. The more restrictive the gender roles within a given subcommunity, the truer this is: In parts of the U.S. poor hand-eye coordination in childhood is a predictor of a gay identity later in life. This is not because a “gay gene” causes boys to be bad at baseball; it is far more likely that a severely limited understanding of what makes a male a male leads to exclusion, name-calling, and gender confusion among boys who aren’t sufficiently skilled in sports. Christians who reach out to LGBTQ folks need to remember to practice liberality in nonessentials. Conformity with cultural gender expectations is not a precondition of salvation in Christ.

Finally, I was converted, not by arguments against homosexuality, but by the love of Christ. I was aware of the arguments years before I converted and even found them relatively coherent. I could see that if you believed in a God who had designed the universe, and that the natural creation was a manifestation of His wisdom, and that sexuality was ordered and designed for the union of spouses and the procreation of children, then obviously homosexuality had to be immoral. I didn’t believe in such a God. Nor would I have been willing to give up one of the most important relationships in my life for anything less than the person of Christ Himself.

Effective outreach to the homosexual community will be possible only when Catholics are willing to acknowledge that there are real reasons why gays and lesbians choose to identify with their sexuality and that these reasons have to do with more than just sex. Only then can authentic and fruitful dialogue take place. It is not enough to offer arguments, however rational, against the morality of homosexual acts. If the Church does not offer adequate emotional and spiritual support for people with same-sex attractions who wish to live out a full Catholic life in accord with magisterial teaching, then Catholic witness is doomed to failure. A small minority will be willing to tough it out, but the vast majority will turn to the gay subculture and the LGBTQ community, where there is at least a strong and concerted effort to see that their emotional needs are being met.

It is also essential that Catholics enter into this dialogue with humility, and recognize that our own attitudes, and the attitudes expressed by Christians in the past, have caused real and substantial harm to people with same-sex attractions. Often the simple acknowledgment of another person’s grievances, and the willingness to listen and to respond with compassion and contrition, is enough to break down the barriers that prevent real understanding.

Melinda Selmys is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism (Our Sunday Visitor, 2009). A regular columnist for the National Catholic Register, her articles have appeared in numerous Catholic publications, including This Rock, The Catholic Answer, and Envoy. She writes from Canada, where she and her husband are awaiting the birth of their sixth child. Melinda Selmys' article, "Authentic Dialogue Is Possible" originally appeared in the New Oxford Review (May 2011), and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.