Thursday, June 25, 2009

Myopic Media

I thought that I would stop by one of the big gltb news sites to see if I could find something interesting, new, and cutting edge to blog about. No such luck. What I was surprised -- perhaps unreasonably -- by, was the fact that the news site I was surfing reminded me of several single-issue Catholic sites that I've been on. It's a matter, I think, of there being too little news spread over too many articles, or of a need to produce something to say on a specific topic, even if there is nothing to say at all.
In this case, the cutting edge news was that some gay celebrity had called some straight celebrity a "faggot," which of course had produced statements by GLAAD, and a general outcry of utterly ludicrous proportions. But this is not limited to the gay community, or even the politically correct community. The same sort of thing crops up on the right-wing side of the fence when the spotlight is turned on any person or agency that might have said something that could have been construed as being pro-abortion, or because a Catholic organization allowed someone who once voted for a gay-rights bill to speak on an unrelated subject at a dinner, and so on and so forth.
There's a kind of pettiness about this, no matter who does it. It's the culture wars equivalent of sending out the troops to defend a couple square centimetres of squalid, barren, shrapnel covered ground, and it produces an interminable squabble in which the stakes are practically nothing at all. Worse, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth of anyone who comes across it and is not firmly on-side, and it helps to trivialize the issues.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Transgendering History

I forgot about Elagabalus. I knew I'd missed one of those Romans, but this one is worth discussing in a little bit more detail, because he points to one of the absurdities that emerges in the entire discussion of same-sex relations. To boot: I was reading through the Wikipedia article on "the history of same-sex unions" and whomever composed the article seemed to be of the opinion that Elagabalus might have been transgendered.
Now, I will grant you this: the man's habit, dress, etc. were extremely effeminate, but the reasons for this are clear, and they are fundamentally religious. Elagabalus was from the orient (Syria, not China), and was interested in the oriental mystery cults, several of which involved the sort of "spiritual marriage" motif that characterizes both ancient and modern gnosticism and some of Jungian psychology. This is the idea that within the individual live both the feminine and the masculine principle, and that it is necessary to bring both of these out in order to achieve internal balance and harmony. It was not uncommon for men within these religions to consent to become eunuchs in order to achieve union with the gods and goddesses that they served. (Salammbo includes a priest of Tanit who is an absolutely wonderful character within this genre -- rendered with Flaubert's typical devotion to historical detail.)
Reading the modern notion of "transgender" into the eunuch-theology of the mystery religions is typical of a kind of anachronistic compression of history, in which myopic contemporary ideologies are pasted pell-mell onto the past, without any respect for context or culture. Post-modern queer theorists have pointed out -- often in award-winning books and theses -- that this is sloppy and absurd.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Gay-Roman-Emperor Gene

An odd bit of evidence against the theory that sexual orientation is a fixed variable, more or less constant across populations, with a genetic origin, evenly distributed amongst the various strata and occupations of society:
I was reading Gibbon, and was struck by his wry little footnote where he reflects that of the first fifteen Roman Emperors, "Claudius was the only one whose taste in love was entirely correct." Even if we assume that Kinsey's inflated "one in ten" statistic is accurate, we should only expect that 1.3 of these men would be homosexual/bisexual in his inclinations. Two would be within normal statistical deviation, three would be a little odd but perhaps explicable if we theorized that the Claudians were carrying a male homosexuality gene, but twelve of thirteen does seem a little improbable.
Perhaps the numbers could be trimmed a little. We could assume the Julius Ceasar's alleged carryings-on with a certain foreign King were just scandal cooked up by his detractors. We might admit that Augustus was subject to similar scurrility. With Tiberius and Caligula, however, their sexual proclivities are well substantiated; Nero married male eunuchs on two occasions; Trajan's male lovers were widely known, and Hadrian had his favourite, Antinous, deified. Even if we go out of our way to doubt the evidence of bisexuality amongst Roman Emperors, it has to be admitted that at least fifty percent of them were involved in same-sex relationships.
Which means that the cause of their same-sex attractions was not inborn. It was not the result of social ostracism during their formative years. It was not caused by the uterine environment. The only possible reasonable hypothesis is to conclude that their same-sex interests were caused by cultural and environmental factors -- by the availability of handsome youths interested in a bit of political prostitution, by the social ideals surrounding homosexuality in high Roman society, by the privileges of imperial power, and so on. Not by DNA.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Culture wars and conflict

I'm working today on an outline for a book about post-modernism. It's a curious subject, one that I was thinking about quite a bit when I was writing Sexual Authenticity, because there are a lot of places where the gay community and the post-modern culture overlap. The most obvious, of course, is Foucault's homosexuality, but there is also a strong link between modern/post-modern art and homosexuality in general.
In any case, that's not what I wanted to say. There was a point, where I was working on the book, and I was wandering around in conflict about the state of the culture. I had written several times over that I didn't think that the "culture wars" mentality was especially helpful in most ways -- it's fine if by "culture war" you mean "spiritual warfare that takes place within the context of the society at large, and which is really just a reflection of the interior war against powers and principalities that takes place within the soul of the individual." If your idea of "fighting the culture war" is "becoming a Saint," then that's a good thing. But usually it means running around and trying to "win back" the culture by rolling back the clock to 1950, or standing around and waving signs at gay pride parades, or fighting battles against the right of Krispy Kreme doughnuts to use the word "choice" (in a completely non-abortion related way) in some of their advertising.
So I was thinking about the culture, and the culture wars, and I was sitting in a cafe down the street, and leafing through a copy of Toronto Life. There was a story there about a group of young people who were waging a campaign to "reclaim public space." They weren't going to do anything particularly anarchic -- just go down to Yongue St., dance to some relatively lame music, and wave glow-in-the-dark batons around in the air in order to proclaim that community is still alive in Toronto. The word "pomo" appeared in the text, to describe the sort of play-becomes-rebellion mentality that prompted this activity.
My reaction was, perhaps, not the typical right-wing conservative response. I didn't think, "young radicals making trouble," or "what a bunch of lame posers." For a moment I caught a glimmer of something that underlies the entire appeal of post-modernity: it is the reaction of my generation to the fact that we live in a really quite spectacularly insane and dysfunctional environment. It is a reaction against the "Culture of Death" -- a culture so concerned with efficiency that it actually becomes an act of social rebellion to wave around light rods in the street, or sing songs while you wash your windows, or go out "guerilla gardening" (for those who don't know, this means descending on a piece of ugly public space during the middle of the night, armed with spades and flowers, and planting things without going through the proper channels and getting city permission.) It is not the post-modernists who are crazy; it's the people who think you would have to be crazy to do anything in down-town Toronto except shuffle mindlessly down the street and mumble into your cell-phone.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

HIV Disclosure

The newest thing around Toronto is a series of bill-boards running the slogan "If you were turned down every time you disclosed, would you?" The campaign is sponsored by hivstigma.com -- it's not really a new issue from the perspective of the gay community, but Catholics that I know are baffled to find that such an apparently bizarre question is coming into the mainstream.
The issue is whether or not there should be a legal obligation for persons infected with HIV to tell potential sexual partners about their serostatus. From a Catholic point of view this is a total no-brainer: not only is it unjustifiable to knowingly expose someone to the risk of a deadly illness without telling them, it is gravely immoral to expose them to that risk even if you do tell them.
The issue is not, however, that simple. What you are looking at here is a sub-culture of men who have been encouraged to root their identity in their sexuality, who have been told that being "who they are" is synonymous with celebrating a gay lifestyle, and who are accustomed to see any attempt to curtail or moderate their sexual activities as stigmatization or condemnation. On a deeper level, there is the fact that many people involved in homosexuality have an essentially compulsive relationship with their sexuality -- the experience of being wholly unable to give up same-sex activities is genuine, and in many cases habit and psychological dependency really do diminish culpability. Like any compulsive behaviour, the urge to engage is particularly aggravated during times of extreme stress or loneliness -- and there are few things more stressful, or more isolating, than a seropositive result on an HIV test.
Now this does not mean, in my opinion, that laws holding HIV positive individual accountable for their sexual activities should be struck down. According to the HIVstigma web-site, 1 in 4 men who have sex with other men in Toronto are HIV positive. Despite the various sophistic arguments to the contrary, the reality is that disclosure is a very real moral obligation weighing on those who are infected -- not for the sake of the "good, upright," monogamous Christian folk, who really have no personal stake in the issue at all, but for the sake of the 3 in 4 gay men who have not yet felt the sword of Damacles dangling over their beds. It does mean, however, that the issue has to be dealt with compassionately, in a way that helps men in this position to discover that that moral obligations are a means of freedom, and not merely another way of stigmatizing homosexuals.