Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Acting Homosexual: Meet the New Pope, Pretty Much the Same as the Old Pope

Some people I know got all excited about some remarks the new Pope uttered on his way back to Rome from Brazil.  I'm still looking for a more complete transcript, but Democracy Now! gave me more than the National Catholic Reporter today:
Pope Francis: "Everyone writes about the gay lobby. I still haven’t found anyone who gives me an identity card in the Vatican with 'gay' written on it. They say that there are these people. I think when someone finds themselves with a person like this, they need to make a distinction between being a gay person and that of being part of a lobby. All lobbies are not good, that is the bad thing. If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?"
That's dependent on his (or her?) not engaging in sexual activity, of course.  The NCR adds "They shouldn't be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem ... they're our brothers" right after "to judge him?"  Some writers have noticed that Francis was not saying anything new: the distinction between "the tendency" and the activity remains in place.  It's okay to be gay, but not to act on it.  As one writer at Time pointed out,
the accompanying message in the catechism that while a gay person is to be accepted, acting out on homosexual acts is to be deplored: “Under no circumstances can they be approved … Homosexual persons are called to chastity.” Francis, who cited the catechism in his answers to reporters, said nothing to contradict this. Asked for his position on gay marriage, he answered: “You know perfectly the position of the church.”
As another writer at Time explained -- a remarkable sentiment to appear at what used to be a very right-wing and antigay magazine -- Francis' remarks don't signal any change at all in doctrine.  "The Vatican’s catechismal stance regarding the LGBTs in our midst remains the same: The church may love the sinner, but it hates the sin."

A friend linked to this piece (letter or op-ed, I'm not sure which) in a Muncie, Indiana newspaper.  The Unitarian Universalist church there spoke out against "the position" expressed by a presumably Christian writer in the same paper a couple of weeks ago.  Unitarians, as you're probably aware, are much more liberal than the Catholic Church, but they don't seem to be a lot more sensible:
Sin as an explanation for homosexuality is wrong, unfair and hurtful. Homosexuals continue to be victims of discrimination and ignorance in our culture. As happened with discrimination against women and people of color, the tide is turning, and in a generation or so our great-grandchildren will wonder what we were thinking.

Each of us is born somewhere on the sexual orientation continuum. Most of us are heterosexual, some of us are bisexual, some of us are homosexual. Did those of us with heterosexual orientation decide to be straight? Was there a moment when we made a conscious decision? Of course not.
The first quoted sentence makes no particular sense, but I presume the writer is thinking of Romans 1, where the apostle Paul explains male homosexuality as the result of a refusal to believe in Yahweh.  "Wrong, unfair and hurtful"?  This is God we're talking about here, buddy -- his ways are not our ways.  "Victims of discrimination and ignorance"?  Well, that's exactly what antigay Christians want, though of course they believe themselves to have knowledge, not ignorance.  The Unitarian writer is in no position to cast the first stone, since he goes on to show his own ignorance: there is no basis whatever for his claim that "Each of us is born somewhere on the sexual orientation continuum."  Even if you grant for the sake of argument the incoherent science of sexual orientation that is current today (which I don't), it makes no claim to explain a person's precise location "on the sexual orientation continuum."  The continuum itself is a fiction, borrowed from Alfred Kinsey's work, where it was developed as a way to visualize the diversity in people's sexual history, not their orientation.  Since many people move around on that scale during their lifetimes, it cannot be about an inborn, congenital, immutable sexual orientation.

There's a lot of confusion about terminology in this area, as I've argued before.  Many people talk about "orientation" as if it were a physical trait which we know to exist; it's not.  Many people talk about "orientation" as if it could be measured and quantified; it can't.  We have no way of measuring or detecting a sexual orientation.  At best we can try to elicit someone's sexual history, but the picture we'll get will necessarily be incomplete at best.  But beyond "orientation," people talk about "being gay" as if "being" could be separated from acting on it -- which simply plays into the hands of the Vatican, accepting their invidious distinction between the acceptable disposition and the sinful actions.  Years ago, after reading and listening to various antigay people, I realized that they were using "becoming gay" where pro-gay people would use "coming out."  That is, you "become gay" by getting to know other gay people, and engaging in homosexual activity.  They prefer not to think about what you may have thought or felt before.  They also assume that if they don't know you're gay, you are by definition straight, so you become gay by coming out in the post-Stonewall sense, by beginning to tell the truth about yourself and your relationships.

But many people, gay or not, use "being gay" in a similarly confusing way.  "Being gay," for many, means not just harboring the Gay Gene in yourself, it means living your life as a gay person -- which, for most of us, means having sex with other people of our own sex.  Not just copulating, of course: "sex" and "sexuality" reasonably include romantic love and interpersonal relationships.  But in that case, trying to use "being gay" at other times as if having sex played no part in it, is dishonest.  People are not at their best or most rational when they're under attack, I know, but it is possible to do better, and to be honest about it.  Our allies do no good by fostering misinformation, as that well-meaning Unitarian spokesman did.

I think we should stop worrying about the question of acts vs. orientation.  Even if homosexuality were simply a matter of sexual acts, what would be wrong with that?  There is nothing wrong with homosexual sex per se, though of course some acts may be performed by selfish, manipulative, even abusive people for selfish, manipulative, or abusive ends.  I think a major reason many people, gay or straight, want to think in terms of a congenital "orientation" is that they still think same-sex sex (especially anal copulation) is bad, and that gay people can only be excused if our genes make us do it.  I think this is quite a horrible position to take.  No one really believes that if you're out of control and go around doing horrible things, it's okay and other people should tolerate it.  Gay people get indignant if someone compares homosexuality to, say, alcoholism; but it is gay people who've made the comparison, since they generally accept that alcoholism is inborn, even genetically determined.  They don't want to be judged negatively for being gay, though, so they reject the comparison; but they do feel ashamed of having sex with other men or with other women.  If gay people were out of control, the proper measure would be to restrain us.  Others might pity us, and refrain from judging us (like Pope Francis), but they wouldn't allow us to go around doing awful things.  The proper response is to deny that homosexual sex is awful, and to declare that it doesn't matter why we do it.

Until we can affirm our loves, our desires, and our sexual practices, we're on very shaky ground.  Appealing to biology won't do the job.  First, many people, not all of them religious, won't accept the biological explanation; second, they shouldn't accept it, because it's invalid as biology; third, it's irrelevant, because biology alone can't tell us whether we should or shouldn't be gay.  Biology -- rather like religion -- has no ethical content or moral authority.  It will be harder to fight the belief that sex between males or between females is sinful, but that's what we must do.  In the long run it may not matter, because so many people nowadays seem to be abandoning the belief that homosexual sex is a sin.  This is not, apparently, because they've been convinced by reason or by science, but because they know gay people and don't see anything wrong with us.  (A similar change has occurred in many right-wing Christians' attitude to interracial unions: where they once insisted that Scripture forbade miscegenation, they now admit that it doesn't.)  So the right and wrong of sexual behavior may not matter.  Myself, I'm not ready to go with the flow on this or any other matter.  I do think the burden of argument should lie on the bigots: it's up to them to come up with good reasons why homosexuality is unacceptable.  They've had a long time to come up with some, and so far they've come up dry.