Monday, January 21, 2013

Too Big and Too Close


I've given Bernadette Barton a hard time for most of Pray the Gay Away, so I want to praise her for making a good point.
Instead of receiving the support they need to weather tough times, same-sex couples who are open about their relationships are frequently censured by heterosexuals as well as other gay people for "flaunting" their homosexuality.  In my role as a teacher and public speaker on such issues, I have listened as heterosexuals have explained that they don't have an issue with homosexuality, they just don't understand why so many gay people need to flaunt it because no one goes around announcing their heterosexuality.  This is a problematic statement for three reasons.  First of all, it's wrong.  Heterosexuals constantly flaunt their heterosexuality.  Every time a heterosexual wears a wedding ring, discusses his children, and vacations, and all the routine activities he did last weekend with his spouse, he announces heterosexuality [107].
... And so on. She devotes most of three pages to the topic, and does a very good job of it.  Credit where credit's due, with extra points for noticing and acknowledging that some gay people play this game too.

There are other worthwhile parts to Pray the Gay Away, such as Barton's account of her ethnographic field observations of an Exodus International convention.  Exodus is probably the best-known of the ex-gay ministries.  It's a pity that Barton has nothing to say about Exodus' repudiation of change therapy last summer; it took place years after her observations, probably while the book was in press.  In any case, Barton found the conference disturbingly comfortable, even alluring.  Despite Exodus' embrace (at the time) of the idea that homosexuality comes from disturbance in the formation of "gender identity" -- boys acting girly and vice versa -- the conference had plenty of room for sissies and bulldaggers: Barton "considered approximately 40% of the people I encountered during the conference to be gender non-conforming, that is, their gender presentation did not conform to heterosexist standards of butch men and feminine women, including leaders of the organization, Christine Sneeringer and Alan Chambers" (125).  That, I'd say, compares favorably with mainstream gay organizations, which have also traditionally been concerned with gender presentation for defensive PR purposes, but also, depressingly often, from self-hatred.

Barton tells how several of her Bible Belt gay interviewees reported "meeting partners, flirting with, having sex, and developing crushes on people they met in ex-gay ministries, particularly at Exodus conferences" (127).  I've always thought that ex-gay groups would be a good place to meet guys, though dating people so mired in self-hatred is not a good idea.

But then Barton quotes the president of Exodus, Alan Chambers, on gay protesters outside the conference:
As I think of them, the image that comes to my mind is of those hungry, starving, balloon-bellied babies in Africa, and your eyes well up in tears seeing them living in a dust bowl and you think, "Sure, I'll give 18 cents a day" [129].
Meeoww!  Barton finds Chambers's remarks disturbing, however.
Chambers's analogy comparing the demonstrators to starving babies in Africa disturbed me as it framed LBGT activists not only as severely lacking spiritual nourishment but also drew on racist and colonialist imagery [129]. 
Of course Barton and her Bible Belt gay informants feel the same way about antigay Christians, to say nothing of those struggling with ex-homosexuality.  These tactics can be and are used by both sides.  Later she mentions a speaker at the conference who worked with a quotation from Ephesians, and it struck me that "spiritual seekers" like Barton are fond of quotations too. This is what Walter Kaufmann called exegetical thinking: reading one's own beliefs into a text and getting them back endowed with authority.  Spiritual seekers draw on a wider range of sources, not limiting themselves to the Bible, and they interpret them as freely as any fundamentalist uses the Bible, respecting neither literary nor historical context. Many of those quotations are bogus, as can be seen on Facebook, but it’s just one more outlet for them.  Again and again I noticed how sure she is about what a god should do; and how she assumes – in the face of so much evidence to the contrary – that a god would want us to be happy and sexually fulfilled. Maybe so, maybe not, but I think it needs to be argued, not assumed. Barton believes "that living one’s whole life without sexual intimacy is not 'God’s miracle of celibacy' but rather unsustainable and unhealthy" (141). As long as she knows – and I don’t think she does – that other "spiritual seekers," including Jesus and the Buddha, have disagreed with her.

Also interesting is her account of a field trip she made with a group of her students to the Creation Museum nearby in Petersburg, Kentucky.  It proved to be a stressful experience from the time of arrival:
Museum signage alerts guests that improper [or “inappropriate”?] actions and/or statements are grounds for dismissal from the facility. In other words, dissenting thoughts and action are evidence of sin that might have otherworldly (that is, keeping one out of heaven) and material (that is, barring entrance to the museum) consequences.
Could be, but it sounds to me like the Museum just wants to be a Safe Space.  A safe space for me might not be a safe space for thee, however. but Barton and her students thought that they should be allowed to set the terms of safety on other people's premises.  (Sort of like Americans who think that foreigners should learn English before coming to visit the US, because this is America and we speak English here -- but also that foreigners should learn English to deal with Americans even in their home countries, because the US is a dominant economic force in the world and foreigners need to adjust to that reality.)  One complained of "several disappointing remarks re: gay marriage and homosexuality (164), but come now: they'd have been disappointed if those remarks hadn't been there.  In the Creationist mindset, Barton intones, "Evolutionists are of Satan; Creationists are of God" (166).  Silly Creationists!  Barton could have told them that it's the other way around.