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.


Let’s Talk About Sex Bay-bee…

The crew over at Patheos have come up with their next Forward Thinking question. The series of questions are designed to counter the assumption a lack of religion equals a lack of values or morals. The question this time: What would you tell teenagers about sex? Libby Anne at LoveJoyFeminism says this:

“I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about the problems of the purity culture’s elevation of virginity. The evangelicalism I grew up in made abstinence before marriage a critical matter of faith, and did it’s [sic] utmost to persuade of [sic] scare teens out of having sex. Misinformation was rife. But like many similar blogs, I spend more time talking about how the purity culture “does it wrong” than about what it looks like to be doing it right.”

I haven’t thought deeply about this question in a while, and never in a nonreligious context. I do have a son a few years away from being a teenager, though, and issues surround sex have started to pop up more often. The issue used to be simple for me, because sex was only permissible within marriage. On the surface of things, then, teenage sex shouldn’t have been an issue. Of course, it’s not as simple as that. But, setting aside the trauma it causes the teenage mind to have the body and mainstream society telling you one thing and religious culture telling you another, one can see the reasoning behind the marriage approach. The difficulty of determining the appropriateness of sexual relations in every particular case is mitigated by a simple prohibition against its practice except in very limited circumstances.

Georges Bataille discusses the “juridification” of sex in his Death and Sensuality, the process of bringing sexual relations within the bounds of the law. As I’ve noted before, society as a whole (meaning not any one individual necessarily) benefits from monogamous relationships. With the norm of marriage in place the individual can assent to the rule and focus his or her attention elsewhere. This is certainly not to say that the tension between desire and the law goes away; however, it is difficult to imagine what it would be like without the norm.

This is where I think the most liberal forms of this discussion go wrong. I agree with those that rail against the arbitrariness the origin for sexual prohibitions as well as the misinformation that goes on within religious circles. However, I doubt that the destruction of sexual taboos would make for a better situation. Nor is it valid to say that “kids are going to do it anyway,” the same argument trotted out for war or gun control, which serves to maintain the status quo. We do significant work with the ideas of sexual norms, whether we abide by them or violate them. For some “violators,” it is the very notion of a violation that gives the sexual encounter much of its appeal. For some “abiders,” it is only the notion of the prohibition that keeps them in their relationship. Tension over sex and desire gives the world of advertising its largest source of ideas for generating revenue.

That is to say that the answer to teenage sex is not to downplay it. The ubiquity of sexual desire in all our communications makes any attempt to dismiss it hypocritical. Dealing productively with the issue of teenage sex will take more creativity than has been set forth thus far. Christianity’s success in keeping me from having sex until marriage was borne primarily from fear, fear of what would happen if I did. In my teenage mind, STDs were God’s consequence for screwing around. Instead, I just got married as quick as I could. (This will not be part of my recommendation to my son.) From my admittedly anecdotal evidence, the teenage brain is remarkably less equipped to handle the intricacies of an intimate relationship in balance with school, work, and life in general. It’s not impossible; I think, however, it is rare. My teenage identity was pretty wrapped up in being a “smart” kid, but nearly all of that intelligence disappeared when the sex drive turned on. So, I don’t think that “information” about sex is enough. As strange as it may sound, some sort of inculcation is necessary.

Parents should certainly take the dominant role in teaching teenagers about sex, and it should involve some effort to discern where they are at in terms of deciding the approach to take. It might be that the approach is “Do not do it. Under any circumstances. Until you graduate.” While some would argue that will just backfire, it doesn’t have to if it is spoken in a context of a loving and caring relationship. Of course it won’t work if the parent-child relationship is constituted only by the giving and receiving of commands. My hope is that, along with other “moral” issues, I will be able to put as much responsibility on my son as I think he can handle to make the right decision, neither burdening him with the weight of it all or removing his obvious will from the situation. While I will not argue that he should only have sex in marriage, I will likely recommend that the best scenario for him to engage in sex is one in which he has a handle on other areas of his life and thus is prepared to deal with the pleasures and consequences of his actions. This, for me, would be later, rather than earlier, in a committed relationship, where the chances of one partner taking advantage of another have decreased, if ever so slightly.

I guess I’m finding that sex retains a certain sacredness for me. Part of me thinks that this is only the heritage of religious indoctrination. Yet I can’t imagine casual sexual partners being in the best long-term interest of all the parties involved, not to mention the unbalanced way in which judgment falls predominantly on women for “promiscuity.” Since long term planning is not a strong suit for many, and particularly not those in their teenage years, it seems best to err on the side of caution.

I’m curious to hear what others think.


Love and Marriage, Love and Marriage…

The type of love I think about most often is in relation to marriage. I have been married for over sixteen years, since I was eighteen years old (no, I won’t recommend it to my son), so it is one area where I have a little more longevity than most my age. It is the also an area of love where you get the little help from pop culture. All the movies end at precisely the point where two free-spirited individuals overcome all obstacles (especially that climax point where she finds out about that horrible thing she thinks he did and he has to come find her in the rain on his motorcycle on the beach as she’s getting on a plane to fly to the other side of the world and never coming back) and tie the knot. So the popular message is that love relationships culminate in marriage and…good luck after that, because it’s too boring to be movie material.

But what exactly is the relationship between love and marriage? I might say that the decline in marriage rates is directly correlated to the increasing valuation of a particular type of love in marriage. Simply, the other cultural factors that coordinated to keep an otherwise unhappy couple together have lost the grip they once had. Those who point to the decline in spirituality are at least partially correct; the Church has been and is a place that exerts social pressure on individuals to get and remain paired.

The primary reason my testosterone-addled teenage brain wanted to get married one month out of high school was that I wanted to have sex and was too scared to do it outside of marriage. My motto was from the apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians: “It is better to get married than burn in lust.” Likely because it was the issue I was most concerned about, I thought that sex outside of marriage was a death sentence, likely leading to dancing, drugs, drinking, gambling, and death, in no particular order. It was like one of those commercials for a revolutionary new prescription drug that promises great results, the side effects of which include everything from nausea to slow expiration from internal bleeding. So I followed the rules as much as a teenager can be expected to do.

So was the Church, the institution, wrong in trying to get me to confine intimacy to monogamous relationship? I don’t think so, even if the tactics they use to enforce their policies are sometimes inappropriate or desperate. It is in the best interest of the institution, of the social body, for you to be married. From his study of primates (and really, we’re all kind of like monkeys when we’re in love, right?), Frans de Waal has suggested that the pair-bond serves a definite developmental and sustaining societal function, eliminating an element of competition for species propagation. In other words, if most people are paired off, then I don’t have to worry as much about others jeopardizing my success in procreation. My mate will not be stolen from me when I am away; I get along with others more and I can concentrate more of my energy elsewhere. It is not surprising that many different social organizations coordinate to promote the benefits of marriage.

A biological explanation fails to convince me of a connection with love, however. Here’s my point: there is no necessary relationship between love and marriage. I was told that the love of a marriage relationship on earth is an analogy to the relationship between Jesus and the Church. (As an aside, try to read the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament strictly as an allegory to the love God has for Christians—it is a good mental exercise.) But it is first and foremost a social convenience. I am not saying that this is grounds on which marriage should be done away with, because insofar as marriage is still a part of society (and will continue to be for some time), it performs a significant cultural role. Even those who disparage the value of marriage rely on it in their day-to-day socio-cultural negotiations. What I am saying is that the link between love and marriage is one in which we collude with social institutions, equating the two in order to avoid the anxiety of existence in that area of being.

Marriage is no guarantee of love, of the preference I referred to in my last post. Loveless marriages exist everywhere, as do loving pair-bond relationships outside of marriage. There are consequences to mandating marriage as the norm, which I have seen in the second-class treatment of adult single or divorced folks in Christianity. My argument, then, is not to let marriage do the dirty work of love for you. Love is a fragile thing, and belief that marriage is its only proper container is a denial of its nature. It is open, exposed, and vulnerable. Consequently, we can view the relationship between love and marriage as a beneficial one…as long as it is beneficial. We cannot overlook the fact that it has no sanction outside of what we give it. Why get married? There are certainly some societal benefits. But the safety and security that are thought to come with it have no standing of their own. They are projections of our own battles against uncertainty.