Saturday, April 4, 2009

Queer Science

I sat down, the other day, to watch an old cinema verité film called Titicut Follies. Overall, I am inclined to agree with other reviewers on the movie: it is one of the best documentary films that I've ever seen, and I don't recommend that you view it. It is definitely very good, and it is, equally definitely, extremely disturbing and hard to watch.

It is a documentary about a mental asylum in the late 1960's, and it confirms an apprehension that I have always had about the psychiatric profession: that it contains more than a few men who are, in fact, far more dangerously and pervasively insane than their patients. This is not to say that all, or even most, people in the psychological professions are evil scientists, mad-men, or Nazi doctors, but that there is a definite risk of a certain sort of pathological personality considering itself fit to correct the neuroses that it perceives in others.

What has this to do with homosexuality? Objectively, probably not very much. Subjectively, it connected with several things that were already on my mind. First of all, my viewing of the film happened to coincide with re-reading the sections of Simon LeVay's Queer Science that concern the “treatments” given to homosexual offenders by contemporaries of the doctors portrayed in Titicut, often in similar institutions and under similar conditions. Secondarily, it played into a larger dialogue that I've been carrying on with myself about the problem of reorientation therapies.

Now obviously most modern reorientation therapists would never even consider using aversion therapy, or electroshock, or any of the weird drugs that were invented and tried over the course of twentieth century to “cure” homosexuals of their inclinations. They are careful to belabour the point that the kind of therapy that they offer will be of benefit to the client even if a heterosexual orientation is never achieved, and so on and so forth. Still, I find myself with a sort of uncomfortable misgiving surrounding the topic.

Perhaps it is the emphasis on heterosexuality that raises my shackles – not because I think that some people are fundamentally gay and that it is harmful to try to force them to change their orientation, but because I don't think that anyone is fundamentally gay, so when the emphasis is on “orientation” change, I'm forced to wonder exactly what it is that the clinician and his patient are trying to change? Or perhaps it is that some of the techniques that I know have been used – and some of the techniques that are still in use in some places – seem to have much more to do with achieving heterosexuality than with achieving peace in Christ.

It is not that heterosexuality, or rather, freedom from disordered sexual impulses of any kind (and there are more than enough disordered heterosexual fantasies and inclinations floating about), is not a desirable goal, but that it has to be the fruit of a higher pursuit. It's rather like searching for a husband: most of the people I know who desperately want to get married are wholly unable to form a lasting relationship with a member of the opposite sex. Some of them are unable to form any kind of relationship with the opposite sex at all. The reason in simple: they've put the cart before the horse. Marriage, at least in a culture that doesn't do the arranged marriage thing, is the fruit of a relationship. If you start out trying to figure out whether this person is or is not the “one,” even before there is the slightest scrap of a real relationship from which to make such a determination, you're almost guaranteed to behave in ways that prevent a real relationship from ever forming. If you forget about getting married, and get on with the business of forming human relationships and of doing whatever you're supposed to be doing with yourself in the present, then marriage, if you are called to it, will follow. If you stare myopically into the pool of potential marriage candidates, on the other hand, you will probably end up a spinster.

The same thing is true of chastity. It is something that arises as the fruit of a relationship with God, and it is something that happens in accord with the timing of grace. A therapist might, in some cases, be able to be an instrument of that grace but only, I think, if the purpose of the therapy is to achieve interior freedom, and not to achieve heterosexual functioning, or a heterosexual “orientation.” As in the case of the single person, the homosexual who is trying to achieve chastity needs to put the horse first, and the cart second; to work on relating to Christ and to others in his or her life in a healthy, fulfilling way. If heterosexual attractions are supposed to arise as a result of this, they will. If a call to the married life is in the cards, it will happen. Indeed, I'm inclined to say that if it is supposed to happen, it will happen so easily, so naturally, and so surprisingly that all the hullabaloo about the struggle and difficulty of reorientation will seem like a very bizarre sort of joke.


  1. Melinda's post brings up the interesting question of the APA's removal of homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. Given the history of the attempt to treat homosexuality as an illness, this might have been a good step forward no matter what "side of the issue" you are on. I am very suspect of the term "mental illness". I suppose a mentally healthy individual would be someone who has perfect control over all his faculties and always behaves in a rational manner. Some forms of mysticism and ascetic monasticism set this as a secondary goal of their exercises, but apart from the great masters of those traditions, it seems that we are all to some extent mentally ill. So, I don't find the category of "mental illness" a very useful one.

    Likewise, if we frame the question of sexual orientation in terms of chastity, we find that the "sexual orientation" category is also a conceptual tool that has been suddenly rendered useless. Now, let's not be confused about what chastity is. It's not the stuffy puritan stricture with all the unacceptable aesthetic that goes along with it in North America. It is that purity of heart that makes selfless love possible. It is a rejection of all the constant bargaining and emotional greed. It is that awesome beauty that radiates out from certain individuals-- Zen rojis on mountaintops, martyrs whose severed heads speak blessing and forgiveness to their executioners and great great grandmothers with toothless grins permanently chiseled onto their faces. People roll their eyes when they hear the word chastity-- and rightly so if they have the wrong idea of it. Chastity allows us to love one another without wanting anything in return. Those who possess it have fought an epic battle to attain it. They have stormed the veil between heaven and earth and brought back a dizzying radiance. If we catch some of that radiance we will see our contemporary sexual politics for what it is-- just more politics. It can be important, it can be occasionally worth discussing, but most of the time we'll be so sick of it that we'll get on with the real business of living.

    I won't make any secret of the fact that I believe homosexual behaviour (and lots of other things-- I'm an old stick-in-the-mud, believe me) to be unethical. But if you and I are staring into the fact of eternal beauty, neither of us will care about my opinions anymore.

  2. What a great thought, thank you. I totally agree.


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