I Can’t Change, Can I?

This last month has been an exciting one for the LGBT community. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (signed into law by President Clinton) was ruled unconstitutional and the appeal to overturn the overturning of the Prop 8 ban—just as confusing now as it was when Californians voted on it—was rejected. Additionally, the long-standing Christian organization Exodus International, which sought to make gays “ex-gays” through prayer and a stronger relationship with God, has shut down, or at least decided to do a major reboot.

Screen Shot 2013-07-03 at 9.50.59 PMAs I was reading through the responses to these events, though, I was reminded of an argument that has bothered me as a defense of non-heterosexual orientation. Lately, it has been popularized in the Macklemore song, “Same Love.” As the refrain goes: “I can’t change, even if I try, even if I wanted to.” It echoes the argument that sexual orientation or gender identity are not choices  but…something else. What this something else is varies from an explicit genetic predisposition to just “who I am.”

I think that I understand the motivation behind this approach. Choice seems casual, something that can be changed on a whim, while a biological root, core identity trait, or divine origin seems to be a more substantial and immovable foundation. Surely society cannot and should not blame gays for being the way they are if they did not choose their sexual orientation? Given that the most consistent voices against non-“normative” sexuality are Christians, I’m not convinced that the “I can’t help it” strategy is the most effective response .

The nature/nurture dichotomy fights the battle for equality on religion’s terms. If one is in the position of being both Christian and gay, I can see some merit to this argument. After all, conservative Christians will argue against LGBT rights using a whole host of hypothetical outcomes ranging from disease to decline of values to destruction of traditional families, but the root motivation is a conviction that according to God, homosexuality or any non-traditional sexual orientation is wrong. (To be charitable, we’ll set aside for the moment instances of polygamy, rape, and incest in the Bible). The conflict between LGBT identity and the normative sexuality of the Christian tradition obviously creates existential dissonance for gay Christians, many of whom would rather conclude, considering that their sexual orientation is “who they are,” that God made them that way. Whoever gets God on their side wins the battle.

Yet the rest of us outside religious communities are caught in the same dichotomous thinking. Made that way (legitimate) or choice (illegitimate)? Many substitute science for religion and make the same argument. All sides seem to agree that if root sexual orientation is rooted in something completely or partly out of our conscious control, we should accept it. This does have the effect of neatly circumscribing the argument, but I think it unfairly denigrates the effect and importance of choice. (It also cannot account for those whose sexual identity changes in different stages of life without marginalizing one of their choices.)

It’s difficult to argue that campaigns such as that of Exodus International never work. Against the backdrop of a historically hetero-normative culture, organizations like it have obviously succeeded in “curing” many people. Proponents of the “way I am” argument must contend that these people are acting against their true selves, and were thus unhappy. This is likely often correct. But the church and culture has helped keep thousands of couples in unhappy monogamous relationships as well, and popular culture helps much of society feel unhappy with their bodies. The happiness of each individual is not the primary goal in social organization. (I’d argue that a consistent feeling of happiness as life-goal misses the mark anyway, but we operate as if that is what we want.)

Existentialism explains some of why I’d rather have the element of choice play a stronger role in the argument. We are ultimately responsible for our choices, no matter how limited they are; in fact, we cannot not be responsible for our choices. However, the “way I am” approach cedes the discourse of choice to the conservative side. For the Christian, choice is often a euphemism for sin, since it boils down to God’s way or the wrong way, particularly with sexual orientation. But for those not beholden to a religious tradition, why not embrace the element of choice? Limiting our own choices is a way to palliate our anxiety over the innumerable decisions we have about out existence. The more I can attribute or cede to someone else, the less I have to actively evaluate myself. “It’s the law” or “the Bible says so” become causes themselves, and I don’t have to evaluate their effects on others or the innumerable possibilities for change.

I’m not suggesting that we have sole control over all aspects of our lives. From the perspective of social enculturation, I am certainly born with my choices very limited. As a Christian, I grew up homophobic, not in the macho kind of way, but in the way that you fear what you don’t understand and attribute to sin what might actually be a legitimate way of living. Despite all the changes in my beliefs, I still feel “gut” hetero-normative reactions to situations and people that I’d like to think all my education has overcome. My choices are in that way limited by my past, but I don’t expect anyone to take that as an excuse for homophobic behavior.

Neither am I saying there is no biological aspect to sexual orientation; I’m certain that there is, but that doesn’t negate the element of choice either. Ignoring this element is a way to ignore the relative arbitrariness of our moral values. Yet recognizing that nearly all the elements of our society are “chosen” and not “given” would change the nature of this debate.

Two things would have to take place for this to work. First, choice would need to stop being equated with happiness. Choices are often painful, and needing to make choices in the first place is painful. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t or shouldn’t take part in them. I’m wagering that consciousness and acceptance of as many of our choices as possible is better than shifting responsibility elsewhere. The lines aren’t easy to draw, but we should continue to try. If that can happen, then choice/responsibility can be turned against other institutional norms, such as the Christian element that bears much of the burden of stigmatizing sexuality in the first place. The intolerance and violence that has often accompanied “God’s plan” throughout history must be wrestled with more seriously if it is seen as intolerance and violence based on the choices of humanity and not God. If all we have are choices, then no one has a moral high ground and we have to work together to resolve our issues.

For what it’s worth (and it’s worth very little), I voted against Prop 8 and I believe that non-traditional partners should have the same legal and civil rights as heterosexual couples. Will it open the door to other legal challenges and further dilution of traditional marriage? Maybe, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s certainly not a reason in and of itself to hinder steps toward legal equality.

I’d love to hear other perspectives on this issue.


Change of Heart: If you’re a senator, you must have compassion for the world

I’m late to the punch on this one, but I was intrigued by the news last month about Republican senator Rob Portman supporting marriage equality and claiming his gay son as the significant reason for his change of heart. He has subsequently been criticized by some saying that the only reason he changed his mind was because he was able to put a face to the issue. And no doubt they are right. An article in Slate commented that since the senator doesn’t have relatives with no health insurance or exposed to the consequences of environmental destruction, he doesn’t care about those things. He argues, “But if Portman can turn around on one issue once he realizes how it touches his family personally, shouldn’t he take some time to think about how he might feel about other issues that don’t happen to touch him personally?”

Caryn Riswold at feminismxianity acknowledges the influence of what psychologists call the contact hypothesis, in which people are more likely to be influenced to change their views on a particular issue when face-to-face with another who embodies the other side. Yet she also laments that people can’t show that compassion as part of the human family, rather than just their own family.

There is a problem with this line of analysis that has caused a misreading of the senator’s actions. The problem is that by making clear his change of heart was motivated by personal influence, he pierced the liberal and religious facade that says we should have compassion for everyone and showed his compassion was much more narrow-minded. Note how quickly the Slate article characterized Portman’s move as one from not caring to caring, which is not warranted by his actions, and allows the article to claim he doesn’t “care” about other issues. But the compassion involved in relationships with family and friends is not the same as that with one’s constituents, or others one doesn’t know. To say that I care about, love, or have compassion for the millions of people I will never meet is a largely meaningless statement. The fact is that most of us care more about our families and friends as well. Yet because Portman admitted the personal factor in his shift, his opponents want to exploit it.

Thus, to construe the senator’s positions on a spectrum of caring and not caring is irrelevant and hypocritical. There is a political facade here as well, one more closely tied with a religious one than we would like to admit, that suggests that politicians are motivated by their constituents and make policy based on what is “right” rather than what gets lobbied for the hardest. Although the corrupt politician is the trope of more movies and television shows than I can count, we yet hold to an ideal of governance in the interest of all—that “all” dependent on ones perspective—and are thus consistently confused by the actions of our government.

Riswold pinpoints the religious character of this wishful thinking, in which we envision people in power caring about all the things that we care about. For her it is no doubt based upon a Christian model of all-encompassing love. That model is impossible to achieve, but stands in the way of moderate and incremental change. This model of compassion, if expanded to its logical conclusion by wider and wider concentric circles, will reach a point where it will make nearly every liberal and Christian heart flinch. When expanded to the poor, when expanded to those of other religious traditions, when expanded to opposing nations, when expanded to “terrorists,” the feelings of compassion begin to shrivel and dry up, or become mere rhetoric. This compassion is based on a religious model that is designed to be impossible and require the intervention of a divinity to complete its action. There are of course some who have served as examples to us all and have cited this sort of love as a motivator. But if I was a betting man, I would not continue to play those odds. Why continue to hold to this model?

The point is that none of us act as compassionate as we think we are. But we can much more easily see that in others than ourselves. This absolutely is not a suggestion that we should all be more like Jesus. Rather, it is a suggestion to put more realistic boundaries around our means of motivation to action. I agree with those commentators who regret that we still live in a world where it is the responsibility of minorities to assert their equality. But it has historically always been that world, and it will always be a tiring fight for minorities. But there are also victories. It is an encouragement to me that personal exposure can break through the dogma of politics, as it can for that of religion. I have not felt the identity crisis that is involved in hiding your sexual orientation, or having the courage to share it and experiencing the fallout from it. But if it is anything like the existential crisis of leaving faith, perhaps I can relate. Dogma is impersonal and universal; it cares little for the individual. Individuals, however, personal relationships, can break through and override dogma, and the way to change beliefs is to show people the possibility of another way.


You Can’t Buy Flowers if You Don’t Get Right with Jesus

The owner of a flower shop in Washington state recently denied service to a gay couple who asked to use her services for their wedding ceremony. She told the customer that she couldn’t help in the wedding because of her relationship with Jesus Christ. According to the news story, the florist had served the customers for years, even as the couple had sent flowers to each other, but declined to participate in the wedding because she believes in exclusively heterosexual marriage. The customer was shocked, and the story gained popularity when he told about his experience on Facebook.

The situation has  legal, commercial, and ideological aspects, and much of the controversy in these situations is not “discriminating” between them. The clearest evidence of this is in the term ‘discrimination,’ evoked in this and nearly all other cases like it. At least one lawyer says that this is a violation of Washington’s law against discrimination, while the store owner claims she does not discriminate. She is of course responding to the issue in legal terms, because she is clearly discriminating, in that she decided not to provide service based on a given set of criteria; namely, a normative understanding of marriage. Of course, neither of them knows whether the case involves legal discrimination, since the law has no power until its judgment, and a case hasn’t been made formally yet. This is an interesting point in itself, that according to the report the couple is not certain whether they will pursue a case, but there are certainly those who want to use cases like these to advance a principle. There’s no problem with this necessarily, but it would take determination for the couple to decide not to take action. In any case, discrimination is something we all use in our daily decision making, and is necessarily the case in terms of religious belief.

In terms of the commercial aspects of the case, one could make an argument either that the florist should not be in business if she is not going to provide equal service, or that the couple should go somewhere else if they have a problem with her treatment. In a purely capitalistic sense, it makes little sense that either the store owner should refuse the transaction or that the customers should force the issue when they could receive better service elsewhere. My guess is that the story will not end well for the florist, because those customers who are offended will stop giving her business, and those who give her moral support will not likely actually support her business. But in terms of the woman’s religious convictions or the legality of the issue, the commercial aspects are irrelevant.

In terms of the moral or religious justification, there is more logic in the florist’s actions than she is given credit for. For the vast majority of Christians, their beliefs do not require them to hate gay people, though it’s clear that a vocal minority seem to. Most are told and attempt to make a distinction between “sinner” and “sin,” a distinction that is not fully appreciated by outsiders, to whom the florist’s actions seem erratic or contradictory. She feels free to employ and befriend gay people (in theory—chances are she doesn’t have an extensive list of gay friends), but participating in their wedding is different. Why? Well, typically the florist’s level of involvement at a wedding goes beyond preparing the arrangements in the shop and handing them to the customer. Often it means being onsite and helping in preparation for the ceremony. Whether that is the case or not, it becomes an issue because she (like the couple) views the ceremony as sacred, as involving powers higher than herself. (I have no idea whether the couple is religious or not. They may simply want the civil benefits that marriage offers, but it likely has more significance. Either way, they have entrusted the state with giving their relationship a significance that it would not otherwise have.) Marriage is a relationship with important religious significance in Christianity, as well as other traditions.

Those who would claim that the woman has been deceived by her preacher into discriminating against gays miss the bigger picture. It is not a misinterpretation of Christianity to be against gay marriage. A normative understanding of heterosexual marriage has been the dominant interpretation for the tradition’s entire history. It certainly behooves the religious hierarchy to reinforce beliefs that keep their congregants reliant upon their services (e.g., that marriage is sacred and that marriages should be religious in nature), but this issue extends throughout history. Is it possible that Christianity could be interpreted in a way that makes it more favorable to gay couples? Yes, but it hasn’t been. The situation is not solved by taking a liberal stance that asks, “What’s the big deal?”

The point is that someone loses in this situation. Either the couple loses their ability to engage in transactions without being discriminated against, or the florist is forced to provide a service that violates her religious belief. For what little it’s worth, I wish that the situation were such that the florist just performed the services for her customers and everyone was happy. If I were a florist at right this moment, that’s what I think I would do. But I don’t have the conviction of a tightly defined understanding of marriage. I would bank on the idea that the world is not going to fall apart if more gay couples get married, but many think that gay marriage is a symptom of societal decline. The fact that the belief is sincere does not automatically make it legitimate, but it does mean that it shouldn’t be belittled as unimportant, or the response of heartless bigotry. A way forward might involve a more sincere public discourse about the importance of the positions of both sides, a discourse that exposes the malleability both of religious and legal interpretation behind the rigid exteriors that both sides put forward.

Do you see a win-win situation here? Should there be one? If not, why not?