Sunday, September 20, 2009

Eunuchs to the Left of Me, Eunuchs to the Right of Me

The "Would Jesus Discriminate?" campaign (hell yeah, he would) does more than claim that Jesus "affirmed a gay couple." Two of its billboards try to claim a gay-positive early Christianity by reconceptualizing eunuchs -- castrated men -- as gay men.

The passage of Acts cited here tells of an encounter between the apostle Philip and an Ethiopian eunuch. After converting Samaria, Philip was directed by an angel of Yahweh to go to the desert road between Jerusalem and Gaza. There he encountered the eunuch, an official of the court of the Ethiopian queen, on his way home from worshipping in Jerusalem. He had stopped his chariot to read from Isaiah 53:7-8:
He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He did not open His mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth.
8By oppression and judgment He was taken away;
And as for His generation, who considered
That He was cut off out of the land of the living
For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?
(This passage has been interpreted by Christians as a description of Jesus and his mission; it's not very convincing, but that's another topic.)

Philip preached Jesus to the eunuch, converted and baptized him, and "When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; and the eunuch no longer saw him, but went on his way rejoicing" (Acts 8:39). That's a handy means of transport; the early Christians could have used a good deal more of it.

It's an interesting story. If the Queen's treasurer had gone to Jerusalem to worship, he must have been Jewish; there was, and still is, an Ethiopian Jewish community of great antiquity. Although Deuteronomy 23:1 forbade any emasculated man from entering the assembly of Yahweh, Acts is vague as to whether the Ethiopian had been allowed to worship or not. In a later interview, with Isaiah, Yahweh had promised that the eunuch who kept his covenant and his sabbaths would be given a name that would never be cut off. (Unfortunate pun, that, but it's in the text.)

So, what does this have to do with a gay man? Castrated men were often assumed to be sexually receptive to other men -- or at least sexually accessible to them. The page at Would Jesus Discriminate, apparently also excerpted from Jeff Miner and John Tyler Connoley's tract The Children Are Free, which expands on the billboard slogan first tweaks people who stereotype:
Once they find out someone is gay, it is as if that person has a neon sign on his or her forehead, flashing, “Gay! Gay! Gay!” But God sees people differently, looking past incidental labels and seeing into the core of each being.
But the writers then do exactly that. They write, "It is clear from the ancient literature that eunuchs as a class had a reputation for being attracted sexually to men, rather than women", and assume that this reputation was accurate. They support this by claiming that eunuchs were castrated because (and evidently after) they had shown a "disinterest" in women and an interest in men, and conclude:
This does not mean all were gay. But clearly, as a class, they were strongly associated with homosexual desire in the popular mind. To introduce one’s self as a eunuch in ancient times was roughly akin to introducing one’s self today as a hairdresser from San Francisco.
Evidently the writers are as invested in stereotypes as the people they criticize. (This is clear from their attack on "radical fairies," which I quoted before.) If eunuchs had a reputation for sex with men, then by golly, the Ethiopian eunuch must have been gay, and Philip knew it, and that settles it.

As far as I can tell, they have it backwards. The authorities they cite that I've been able to check don't back up their claim. At best, it appears that the idea of men who were eunuchs as it were by nature developed later in antiquity, after the time of Jesus and long after Acts of the Apostles was written. I'm hoping to look into this more before long, though as you'll see, it's not all that important to this issue.

There's another problem with their account. If Miner and Connoley were correct and eunuchs were primarily men who were not interested in women, if they were naturally impotent -- then why did anyone bother to castrate them at all? Women in the harems would have been safe from them even if their testicles were intact; they wouldn't have been interested in them, and if they were impotent, couldn't have done anything with them anyway.

Gay men, however, are generally not impotent -- certainly not with other males, and often not with females. (When I was younger and more naive, I was surprised at how many drag queens and other effeminate gay men had been heterosexually married and were fathers. There are powerful social and other reasons why this should be true, but it belies any notion that gay men's reproductive organs don't function.) It seems that Miner and Connoley are also buying into the batty, if popular, notion that "gay" men are only and always penetrated by other males, and that the men who penetrate them are not gay. This sort of confusion is hard to understand from two gay men, Christian though they be.

They confirm their confusion in their explication of the next billboard, "Jesus said some are born gay."

In this passage, Jesus forbade divorce, overturning the permission Yahweh had given to Moses. Marriage was indissoluble, and a person who divorced and remarried was committing adultery against the former spouse.
10The disciples said to Him, "If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry."

11But He said to them, "Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given.

12"For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother's womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it."

This little witticism has given Christian interpreters no end of difficulty. For now, it's enough to notice that if Jesus was saying that "some" are born gay, then he was also saying that others are made gay by men, and others become gay for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven -- in short, for "some", being gay is a "choice", an idea that is anathema to today's gay Christians and the American gay rights movement. But it's probably truer to say that, read in context, Jesus was not talking about gay men in this passage. (And where do lesbians come in? That's another post, coming soon I hope.)

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Gay people should not be spreading misinformation -- that's what bigots are paid to do. The misinformation about Christianity that gay Christians spread is their business, I suppose, but it doesn't distinguish them importantly from their opponents.