Gay marriage: Space for healthy disagreement?

As promised, here’s an excerpt from You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (Potomac Books, 2012). This selection is about gay marriage.

Beginning statement of Jacob’s position:  I’ve often heard individuals claim that the questions posed by Proposition 8 and homosexuality are fairly clear and simple. For instance, members of conservative religious communities are sometimes challenged on this issue with queries such as “Shouldn’t you love others for who they are?” or “Can’t you truly accept others who are different?” Such language is understandable because the issue of sexual orientation is intimately linked with identity itself. When individuals first publicly state that they identify as gay or lesbian, they typically present being gay or lesbian as connected to the core of who they are. It makes sense, then, Phil, that any criticism of those self-understandings would be difficult to hear. At a minimum, religious conservatives could better recognize how painful certain kinds of language can be and speak out against tasteless jokes, epithets of disgust, and aggressive condemnations. Respecting an individual’s choice to identify as gay or lesbian is something basic that conservatives can do, I think–and do better than we are currently doing.

Having said this, Phil, some activists would ask religious conservatives to do much more. For these, showing respect and love is not enough; until conservatives also accept an individuals’ own views and beliefs about themselves they are somehow being intolerant.

What those activists do not understand is that for us, doing what they ask is no small thing. I was once asked to explain why the Church of Jesus Christ believed what it did about traditional marriage during a weekly “diversity seminar” in graduate school. I said in response, “The first thing you need to understand is that our focus on the traditional family is not about hating or fearing those in the LGBT community or just ‘because the Bible says so.’ Instead, our endorsement of the traditional family comes from a core belief that we are children of a God who we see as our literal parent—or, more precisely, our parents: two divine beings who were and are the actual Father and Mother of our spirits. For us, then, the traditional family is more than a ‘social construct’ developed at some point in history. The family institution is a reflection of our own identity— who we see ourselves to be on a fundamental, spiritual level. Creating and cultivating this kind of family and home, then, is one of the most powerful ways that we can become more like our Heavenly Parents.”

Given this, Phil, questions of gender, sexuality, and family are deeply connected to the purpose of life, as we see it. I would even go so far as to say that our self-understandings and core identity as a people are as closely connected to these questions, as they are for the LGBT community.

Granted, the ideas I shared with my classmates are those of a particular faith, that of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. And while many other Christians and conservative religionists likewise embrace monogamous heterosexual marriage as the proper form of adult intimate relationships, they of course do so based on somewhat different ideas about God and human nature. From all these points of view, however, embracing an LGBT person’s view of their own identity—however personally and passionately held it is—is no simple question of tolerance or acceptance, as in “If the conservatives would just be more accepting, everything would be resolved.” Across different traditions providing the asked-for acceptance would essentially require conservatives to revise some of their core convictions about identity and purpose.

Rather than only asking, then, “Do you accept my identity as I understand it?” we might also consider asking a related question: “What is the nature of identity?” or “Which view of identity do you embrace?” That approach would make room for further questions that lie at the heart of today’s debate: e.g., “Is identity fixed?” “Is identity chosen?” and “Do humans possess an authentic God-given identity?” In other words, rather than insisting on only one legitimate way of thinking about identity in relation to same-sex attraction, the approach acknowledges that there are competing views of identity currently vying for acceptance.

Beginning Response from Phil: Well . . . Based on what you have said thus far, Jacob (and you have said a lot) my guess is that we’re not going to agree on much in this chapter. I strongly believe in equally including LGBT individuals and homosexuality itself into our society and our culture. Also, as far as I’m concerned, the evidence is overwhelming: homosexuality is a natural disposition; it’s a harmless, healthy variation in human desire; it’s a form of love just as good as any other; and it’s something that appears in every human population in relatively fixed percentages. In other words, gays and lesbians really are gays and lesbians, all the way down.

Let me begin, then, with areas where we perhaps do agree. First: yes, the issue is not as simple as “just be more accepting.” After all, no one will disagree that there are some human behaviors that should not be “accepted” regardless of whether or not they are a result of someone’s “identity.” For example, if it were part of my identity to kill randomly, that would not justify me doing so. If a given behavior is truly wrong then it’s wrong. And therefore if you think that homosexual love is somehow wrong, then it doesn’t make sense, nor would it be fair, for me to respond by simply saying “come on, Jacob, be more accepting.” I also respect the fact that your position is rooted in your beliefs, not merely in your “attitude.” Accordingly: I don’t expect it to be easy for you, or for others, to overcome the centuries of tradition and culture that declare homosexuality to be unnatural, a sin, against God’s wishes and design, and so on.

I also agree that there are competing views of identity in play in our society. You believe, for example, that there’s an original, God given and God sanctioned pre-birth identity and lifestyle that humans need to recreate in order to achieve authentic self-fulfillment. Likewise, many defenders of gay and lesbian relationships make their claims using the language of identity, tolerance, and/or acceptance, just as you say.

On the other hand, we disagree about all-important details. I see being gay or lesbian as a disposition and physical fact, rather than something that can be done away with. And, I also see it as essentially just like heterosexuality when it comes to its value as a way of being and acting in the world. So as far as I’m concerned, it poses no threat.

Perhaps I should explain a little more about identity. I realize that some LGBT individuals speak about the issue of their acceptance using the language of identity, but in my view that should not be taken to mean that being gay or lesbian is an identity in the same way that some people “identify” with—say—a political party, an urban area, or a particular hobby. Those latter examples all imply an element of choice. But for millions of gays and lesbians from around the world and over the centuries, their homosexuality is something they discover, not something they choose. It’s only after that discovery that the issue of identity comes in. Some who discover homosexuality within themselves deny it throughout their lives. Some muddle through with a combination of acceptance and denial, perhaps by leading a double life. And some kill themselves in the face of the travail they experience. Fortunately, more and more gays and lesbians instead come to fully identify as homosexual. And those who do that and also come out of the closet are surely the most likely of the entire bunch to be healthy and happy.

Jacob: That is indeed one place we disagree, Phil. This is the point at which people dig in their heels to debate the meaning of depression and suicide statistics within the LGBT community. I’m not interested in doing that, since the same thing happens among observers of the Mormon community, with mention of the numbers often functioning (in both cases) as verbal attacks. What I can say is that my friends who openly identify as gay and lesbian show plenty of real love and happiness reflected in their lives. As with anyone, of course, they sometimes face emotional sorrow as well. I am aware, for instance, of the heartache they can experience from scorn, disgust, and hostile condemnations from some individuals around them.

Having said all this, from both my theology and my personal reading of the data, I am not convinced there isn’t even greater happiness to be found by these friends in following other directions. This brings me to a second point. All aspects of identity, from masculinity to religiosity to race, involve some meaningful degree of intentionality. This includes those who identify as gay or lesbian. I’m not talking about the silly contention that being gay is a simple choice: “Gee, I think I will be gay today.” Instead, I’m referring to the implicit and ongoing contribution of one’s own intentionality to an evolving persona and being. In other words, we cannot escape directing, to some degree, our own self-understanding and identity.

Phil: When I speak of an “identity,” Jacob, I, like you, am speaking of something that is created, even if also something no one person has control over. More exactly: while every person has identities handed to them by the society around them, every person also has some say in how they deal with what’s handed to them. All in all, I see identity as the result of an ongoing process of gathering up possibilities and using them to define oneself in relation to other people and other things. Thus every identity necessarily incorporates history and culture as reflected in language, symbols, institutions, rules, and the like. In other words, by my lights there’s simply no such thing as authentic identity. And as a result, the language I use to talk about LGBT issues leans less on the idea of protecting authentic identities than on the idea that there’s simply nothing wrong, harmful, or unnatural about homosexuality.

The idea of authentic identity is, moreover, dangerous. That’s because it can be, and has been, used to justify oppressive attacks on existing identities, as in the missionary schools that were used to tear apart Native American families and Native American culture, the Cultural Revolution in Maoist China, reeducation camps in 1970s Vietnam, psychological prisons in the Soviet Union of the same time period, and so on. Granted, when that has happened it’s been because people combined the idea of authenticity with other dangerous ideas such as “the laws of history,” “revolutionary consciousness,” “civilization,” and “the white man’s burden.” Nonetheless, I find the idea of authenticity scary in and of itself; I think it’s best to stay away from thinking that people have some sort of real or true self that lies hidden and that needs to be brought out by others.

This of course brings me, Jacob, to your creation story. To me, yours is just one of many stories invented by humans and as such it bears the marks of everything else human: point of view, culturally formed desire, political ideas, inherited visions of the good, and so on. For example, you call your preferred family form “traditional,” when in fact many other family forms also have a long and venerable history, even in Mormon communities of the past.

Also—and I’m sure you have gleaned this already—to me your creation story has a dangerous side. To be clear, I have the utmost respect for you, for your intentions, and for the intentions of your faith community. But think about it from my point of view. You say that humans have an original identity and even an original pre-historical family and that this reality is available only to a few humans via revelation. Can you think of a more perfect mechanism by which some people might take their merely human ideas about how people ought to live and get others to believe in them?

Jacob: Let me interject to clarify a misunderstanding here. The experience of gaining assurance from God is an experience not reserved to a select group, but something available to everyone and anyone willing to be taught in God’s subtle, no-drama way. In a culture where fewer and fewer individuals even care to read, let alone pray or ponder, this is no small condition. But even if you don’t believe us, don’t misunderstand us—as ecclesiastical epistemologies go, ours is radically egalitarian.

In the absence of such deep and abiding confirmations available to every individual, trusting in authorities who claim to speak for God, I would agree, can be dangerous. By contrast, when each individual relies on his or her own calm, enduring witness, there is protection from the kind of mindless following of authority often seen in religious communities. The very process of conversion itself, for us, cannot happen through unilateral manipulation. It requires authentically free and informed choice.

Phil: Fair enough, Jacob. What if I suppose, however, that humans do indeed have an original, divine family? Suppose even that it offers the model of family and sexual behavior you say it offers? In that case the question of authority arises that we discussed in chapter 1. Why should people shape their lives according to that divine model? Maybe they should improve on it? I know that my parents did the best they could and that in many respects they did well. And I’m grateful to them. But their power and position in my life don’t tell me if their beliefs and practices were right. And that leads me to ask why God is any different. Perhaps, however, I said enough about that issue in our first chapter.

Jacob: You make me laugh sometimes, Phil: “Even if God exists, who says he can tell me what to do?!” You’re right, of course, that just because someone lives a certain way—however venerable that person is—doesn’t mean you or I “have to” do the same. Even if a certain choice will lead to a child’s greatest happiness, we all know that parents who force or pressure their child in a certain direction are violating that child’s basic freedom to choose.

Phil: …Maybe you’re saying that what’s important is that gayness, while a physical fact of sorts, is nonetheless malleable. If so, are you thereby suggesting that it would be good if science could “cure” people away from same-sex attraction? Is that what you’re hoping for? Should we take advantage of that malleability by engaging in scientifically informed interventions? If so, my response can only be that that would be an abusive misuse of scientific knowledge. Or, to be gentler about it, it seems to me that the scientific discoveries you describe, while interesting, don’t really do anything to alter the choices we face. They certainly don’t give us any reason to think that people should not be lesbian, gay, or bisexual or refrain from changing their gender by means of surgery and hormones.

Jacob: I agree that biological malleability does not imply one particular evaluation or another about sexual orientation. That’s the good news—at least if we care about open, loving dialogue in our culture. No one can or should leverage these findings as a “power play” to exert pressure or force their particular evaluation on others. This includes individuals who embrace an identity as gay or lesbian, as well as those who do not. One of my close personal friends, for example, has experienced sexual attraction to men for a number of years; he does not, however, see these attractions as a reflection of his core identity and he therefore does not want to embrace them. Should this man be pressed into thinking he is being “untrue” to who he is, Phil? That is precisely what some in the LGBT community have attempted with him. This is what I mean by opening up the conversation—reserving space for my friend to make the choice he wants, with others deserving the same. In short, individuals ought to be given the basic space and respect to be who they see and experience themselves to be—whether or not that fits your view of this issue, Phil, or mine (or neither of us).

Of course, if it were actually true that no evidence existed for the individual evolution of sexual orientation over time, then citizens—religious or otherwise—should accept the fact of differing sexual orientations as reality, even if that conflicts with their own previous views. But to deny the validity of stories from many men and women who claim to have experienced just such an evolution of feeling over time—to simply write off their experiences as categorically reflecting some kind of false consciousness or religious pressure— is both disheartening and anti-intellectual. Once again, just as conservative Christians should not deny basic space to those who experience and see themselves as gay or lesbian, others should not deny the same space to those who report wanting or having experienced significant changes in the orientation of their sexual feelings and behavior.

Phil: Putting it your way, Jacob, makes it sound like the people you refer to changed on their own, when they might have instead changed in response to (1) the pressure of a culture and set of institutions that celebrate and normalize heterosexuality, (2) the fact that most people are heterosexual, and (3) specific reeducation efforts that encouraged them to find inside themselves their (supposed) inner heterosexuality. And if people have changed in response to such pressures, how do we know that they really changed at all? Maybe they pushed themselves back into denial and self-repression. And maybe in ten years or so they will once again feel those gay or lesbian feelings, perhaps thereby profoundly devastating loving spouses who thought they were married to a heterosexual.

Jacob: Those same forces you refer to are clearly operating in the other direction as well: a community celebrating and normalizing homosexuality, specific education efforts to encourage people to find their true selves and come out of the closet, etc. Thus, which socializing forces are responsible for the devastation you refer to (for family, spouses, etc.) is an issue we will continue to disagree on.

To answer your question, no, I am not opposed to efforts to help those who experience LGBT tendencies to move in another direction—and even to “live in accordance with the teachings of their faith.” I would say those who attempt to brand Christian therapeutic efforts as unethical are contributing to the same hostile atmosphere they claim to be opposed to in other ways. What I’m saying, once more, is simply that the same basic space LGBT activists ask for individuals who identify as gay or lesbian could and should be given to those individuals who do not embrace this identity and who desire professional or clerical help to move in another direction. Both are issues of freedom, and neither should be denied outright. Thus, while I feel strongly about this issue, on a personal level, I can and should respect my cousin’s choice to participate in the LGBT community. And while she feels just as strongly, she can and should respect my friend’s choice not to participate in the LGBT community. Does that make sense?

Phil: Yes, Jacob, that makes sense. I’m hearing you say that people deal in varying ways with feelings of same-sex attraction, unhappiness with their given bodies, and conflicts within themselves about who they are or how they should live. If that is the case, then let’s respect people’s choices to take different paths (yours or mine). That much I agree with.

Reprinted with permission from Potomac Books, Inc. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced in any form without prior permission from Potomac Books, Inc.

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