Monday, November 21, 2011

Yours Queerly

I've had a couple of commentators ask about the whole gender and homosexuality issue, so I'm going to try to cover some of what I think about that. This is an issue that weighs pretty heavily on my mind, because it comes to the heart of the question about whether “sexual orientation” is something that can be changed. The LGBTQ position is that sexual orientation is fixed, that it cannot be changed, and that if you're gay, you were born that way. The right-wing Christian position is that it can be changed, and there are numerous ex-gay ministries that are supposed to bring this change about.

I weigh in somewhere in between these two positions. I think that most people who are gay, lesbian, bi or transgendered really are queer – that is they possess distinctive traits that are either innate or fixed so early in childhood that they can't possibly be considered culpable, and that they cannot be altered. For example, there are certain formative experiences that have to do with gender-identity development that have to happen during a certain, relatively brief period in a person's life. In some cases, these events don't take place. In my case I never went through the part of adolescence where a girl looks forward to becoming a woman, where she wants to wear training bras, and hopes to get her period, and twitters excitedly with her girl friends about the cute boys in her classes. I read Are You There God, It's Me Margaret, and I felt totally alienated: I couldn't relate to this normal teenage girl who was anxious and excited about her emerging femininity. Reparative therapists tend to opine that experiences like mine are the result of failed socialization, that a lack of close female friendships cause women to be adrift when it comes to developing feminine feelings. I don't think that's how it worked for me, though: I remember the point when the other girls on the playground were discussing these things, and I remember having the opportunity to participate in those discussions. I made the decision to walk away and not get involved, because the subject made me uncomfortable, it didn't seem to concern me, and I wasn't interested in it. The point is that that discomfort and disinterest weren't the result of social ostracization: the causality was the other way. As I reached the age at which other girls were increasingly interested in distinctly feminine activities and concerns, I became increasingly unable to relate to them, and I dissociated myself quite naturally from their world. Instead of hanging with the girls and talking about the New Kids on the Block, I went and hung around with the shy, sissy flute-playing soprano boy who I'm sure has since gone on to be a wonderfully talented gay musician.

The conservative party line is that I was suffering from “gender-identity disorder,” and that presumably I could have been fixed if I'd been taken aside and taught how to conform to certain standard gender development patterns. I've seen enough testimonies from people who were put through that personality-normalization wringer to be extremely wary of this claim. I also have my own experience of trying to gender-normalize myself during late middle-school and early high-school. I made a concerted attempt to enjoy going to the mall, to watch Melrose Place to talk about girly things and to care about the back-biting politics of the high-school popularity scene. I managed to work up a couple of artificial crushes on boys so that I'd be able to participate in the whole adolescent erotic game, but the effect of it was an increasing feeling of depression, isolation and inauthenticity, accompanied by a profound compulsion to escape. A lot of the time I would get out of class, and would be time to head to the lunch room and gab with my girl friends, and I would have this intensive feeling of dread. More and more over the course of those years, my reaction was simply to flee: to get out of the building and go down to the ravine where I could walk along the side of the bubbling creek and lay in the sunlight on the big flat rock that jutted out into the stream, and where I could immerse myself in the worlds of beauty, imagination, melancholy and Truth.

Someone out there is going to object that none of those things listed above are inherently unfeminine, and I'll agree. However when the kind of beauty that appeals is the beauty of the female body, and the kind of Truth that appeals is the rationalism of Immanuel Kant or the Stoicism of Epictetus, and the imagination tends to favour either extremely masculine female role-models or an outright retreat into an explicitly male headspace, then it becomes increasingly clear that gender-identity is at stake. It's not that I'm transgendered, though I think that if I were to honestly peg myself using the LGBTQ taxonomy of sexual identities, I'd have to admit I'm gender-queer.

For obvious reasons, this is an issue that requires a much longer discussion than I have space for in one post. I'll try to return to it soon, particularly in terms of whether alternative gender identities can fruitfully be categorized as “disorders,” whether these identities are fixed or malleable, and what relationship that has with the whole sexual orientation change debate.

2 comments:

  1. The narrow sort of "feminine" activities you describe among your peers - and that you fled from - seem to be quite shallow, cultural-based aspects of femininity. The question is not that you should have tried to fit yourself into that mold, but why would you want to? I recognize your plight because a) my daughter is and was much like you - and is now a member of the gay community, and b)I come from a family where gender roles tend to get blurred.

    Richard Cohen, who is a Jewish therapist (not right-wing Christian) - and former homosexual - agrees with the theory that gender confusion begins at a very early age, so early that the person can never remember being any other way. The way I see it, the LGBT person has an extreme take on the gender roles - perceiving them in much the same way as the stereotypes you see on TV. On the other hand, someone with a healthy gender identity sees more than the gay person sees - sees that girls and women are capable of being artistic and sensitive, intelligent, thoughtful, that they can be philosophers and scientists, and doesn't flee to the opposite gender as the only apparent way to express that part of themselves. In other words, the initial impression of one's own gender is already flawed at an emotional level so that the perceptions are skewed. Part of the life journey for all of us is learning to be our authentic selves, man and woman as God created us, who are capable of loving one another. Culture very often gets in the way of rather than helps with that.

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  2. Melinda,

    I'm glad you are touching upon this issue because I think it is at the very core of the debate and culture war. Personally as a man who identifies as gay and catholic, I have struggled with this question of root causes of homosexuality for many years and I have come to realize I may not ever know the true causes. Personally I feel its probably a combination of genetics and environment as most things are, however I agree 100% that no one can be held morally responsible for inclinations which they feel they have. As far as reperative therapies are concerned, I'm not sure they are valid nor unharmful, there is so much political spin going on in either direction it is hard to ascertain the truth of this. However, I have found myself increasingly feeling as though reperative therapies are NOT the way to go. The entire child/parent relationship which reparative therapies in great part endorse may be seen in some homosexuals, but there are many others who will swear up and down that they had great relationships with their parents. Nicolosi who is the spearheader of the group NARTH has always seemed to be somewhat questionable figure to me (and just personally to me, unlikable, which says nothing of his work).

    Short answer is I simply don't know what causes homosexuality and we many never know. The chruch for her part (and the laity) need to work on not ostrasizing an entire group of her children for inclinations which are obviously not chosen. The Church just doesn't seem to know exactly what to do with us other than throw a blanket of celibacy on the lot of us (which is a VERY hard calling in this day and age no matter who you are). As I do not think the church will ever endorse homosexual relations, it certainly becomes easy to see how an entire group of homosexually inclined people suddenly don't know what to do with themselves or what to believe, caught in between a church they may love and a culture telling them it is all a crock. This is a huge amount of tension, pressure and stress and a lot of people (me included) feel caught in the middle of this ever widening chasm. That is why I am happy you are at least attempting to build some bridges.

    I think also this tension is why many homosexual people move to entirely disavow any sort of religion whatsoever and with it religous morality. Thus we have the new types of relationships forming within the gay community like: open, three and four person relationships and in general a lot of sexual promiscuity. There is no longer any sort of moral compass to adhere to and no one and nothing to abide by but ones own pleasure seeking. I have seen this and experienced this A LOT. New studies on both sides of the debate are showing open relationships are becoming very prevalent, at least among gay men.

    Reparative therapies are very questionable and I don't feel they should be pushed on anyone, nor demanded. Still, I'm at a loss of what to make of all of this. Anyone who has homosexual inclinations has A LOT of struggles and needs the compassion of the church more than anyone!

    C

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