Thursday, December 15, 2011

I Can Talk!

My husband has had me in public speaking boot-camp for the last couple of weeks. He's trying to train me not to say “umm...”, or “you know” about issues where my audience could not possibly know, and to eliminate my tendency to giggle awkwardly at my own jokes. And, glory be to God, there has been some improvement. Therefore I am introducing to the world a series of talks on homosexuality that I've been developing. If anyone reading is aware of an organization that might be interested in having me speak, please write me and let me know. My e-mail address is melinda@vulgatamagazine.org.

Yours Queerly – Through the story of my conversion and marriage, I explore the issues surrounding gender, sex, attraction and identity. This talk contrasts the stereotypes of “ex-gays” that appear both in Christian propaganda and in LGBTQ discourse in order to understand how someone with same-sex attractions or a queer gender identity can be a faithful Catholic without ceasing to be herself.

(Ideal for youth groups and parishes.)

Loneliness and Gender – By examining of the role that socialization plays in forming sexual identities, and the advantages and disadvantages that befall the “outsider,” I discuss how Catholics can more effectively understand LGBTQ people, and how we can provide the sort of environment that supports the genuine interior freedom of people with same-sex attractions.

(Ideal for high-school classes or other venues where the audience may not be sympathetic to Catholic teaching)

Somewhat Over the Rainbow – Catholic teaching provides both a unique form of hope, and also a unique form of challenge for people who have same-sex attractions or unusual gender characteristics. This talk looks deeply at the difficulties involved in living chastely, preserving the positive aspects of an LGBTQ identity, avoiding the repression trap, and coming to love and accept oneself while living in accord with magisterial teaching.

(Ideal for same-sex attracted Catholics, their families and friends.)

Objects of Scorn, Subjects of Love – The Church is losing the culture war on the homosexual front because our efforts are directed towards homosexual issues rather than towards homosexual persons. Our hatred for the sin is palpable, our love for the sinner is mostly abstract. In this talk, I look at the ways that Catholics can avoid alienating and demonizing the homosexual person, I examine the reasons why we should want more gays and lesbians in our Churches, and I ask how we can more effectively minister to our LGBTQ sisters and brothers.

(Ideal for educators, priests, counselors and others involved in ministry to homosexual persons.)

Queers in Heaven – Homosexual tendencies and queer genders are not sinful, and are not incompatible with sanctity or wisdom. Men and women from Socrates to Joan of Arc have found unique paths to virtue, not by repressing or denying their atypical sexual identities, but rather by finding a way to incorporate their “queer” personalities into the search for truth, beauty and goodness. This talk looks at role-models for LGBTQ people that both affirm their fundamental human dignity, and at the same time provide models for chaste spirituality.

(Ideal for highly polarized audiences in which both sides of the “culture war” are well represented.)

Language of the Body – We examine the meaning of sexuality and the role which language plays in shaping the discourse surrounding sex. How can Catholics use the queer language of the postmodern world in order to convey truths about human sexuality in a way that will reach the heart of contemporary men and women? We will also look at the meanings which are inherent in the body itself, in order to understand the profound underlying logic of Catholic teaching on homosexuality.

(Ideal for a more educated, academic audience.)

Wake Me When I'm Straight

I've been thinking a lot about reparative therapy recently, and I think I've figured out why I find it hard to relate to. My difficulty begins with a deep suspicion about the social sciences: I don't think that there are accessible, fixed, “objective” truths about subjective human experiences. I don't know what happened in my past, and I can't know, at least not in a scientific sense. The information that pours in over the course of a human life is just too much: it can't all be processed, much less intercorrelated and accurately interpreted. The problem begins with primary data: when you're living, at the very moment when you're intaking information from your surroundings, you're always filtering, deciding what's left out and what's left in. That means that a large proportion of your experience isn't even accessed at the point when it is immediately present. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that when you're looking back, accessing the small quantity of pre-filtered data that you actually recorded for recall, it's still far too much to make sense of it all. Most of it can't even be reliably brought to mind, but the parts of it that can are still a mass of information far too large to be looked at simultaneously. The result is that people are constantly forced to produce narratives – sort of like editing together a single, coherent, two hour long documentary out of ten-thousand hours of footage.

Narrative construction, like essay-writing, generally begins with a thesis or a script. There's some sort of concept that will be developed, and mnemonic proof texts will be brought forward to support whatever hypothesis the mind has settled on. Several classics come immediately to mind:

1. The Conversion Narrative: After a religious conversion, the person often goes back into her past and finds the evidence of God acting in silence before she knew that He was there. 2. The “Born Gay” Narrative: The gay-identified man reaches into his childhood for evidence of early SSA. (There's actually a lesbian writer who re-wrote her autobiography after the gay-gene hypothesis mainstreamed, in order to more cleanly dovetail her recollections with that theory.) 3. The Hand of Fate Narrative: A person imagines that he is fated to fulfill a particular great role, and seeks signs and portents in the past which indicate his future glory. 4. The Emotional Abuse Narrative: After a divorce, a woman comes to construe her entire marriage as a series of degradations, manipulations and delusions. Obviously, we could multiply this list more or less infinitely, and there are countless private variations. The point is that the data of the past is organized in order to fit the psychological purposes of the present, and in order to create a coherent story that locates the individual within a teleological framework that provides life with meaning.

Psychoanalysis is basically the art of helping people to construct productive and useful narratives. The anchoring illusion of objectivity provided by the scientific metanarrative bolsters the feeling that a person is discovering the “truth” about him or herself, and this gives the process additional authority, and therefore additional psychic force. When a psychologist goes delving around in a person's childhood to find the “cause” of their present sufferings, what they're actually doing is finding evidence that will help the person to build up a coherent narrative to explain present problems. By establishing a series of archetypal struggles and images, the psychologist is able to provide the patient with a means of resolving their suffering by symbolically or actually defeating whatever bogeymen get summoned up to fulfill the role of the antagonist. So, for example, if someone “discovers” that their insecurities are the “result” of an over-critical mother, they can then find a way to reconcile with, or stand up to, or otherwise confront the spectre of that mother. If done properly, this confrontation will bring relief, and the insecurity will begin to subside.

The difficulty is that the therapist has to present a narrative that the patient is able to accept and believe in. Reparative therapy has several such narratives on tap: the “father wound”, the “sports wound”, “peer-rejection”, etc. These childhood origin stories purport to explain SSA, and to be fair, I have encountered some people for whom they are able to fulfill this role. However, as Eve Tushnet puts it, “there are all kinds of cases where family dynamics don't explain very much. And honestly--family dynamics are often a reductive and boring explanation for homosexuality.” To me, this really sums it up: the narrative of healing that Nicolosi and company put forward is boring. It's not that I can't find evidence to support it if I go rooting around in my past, it's that if this is the archetypal journey that I'm being asked to undertake then I can't be bothered. Neither the villain nor the prize is sufficiently interesting to justify the quest.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Morbid Beauty

I have an on-going difficulty with telling my conversion story, because the part of it that is the least interesting to me is the part that other people are most interested in. They want to know how I went from being a lesbian to being straight. The truth is, I don't think that I even necessarily did that: it's very rare for anyone to be exclusively homosexual (that is, to be unable to have reasonably successful sex with members of the opposite sex.) If you make a clear and unilateral decision not to have same-sex relationships, there's a certain chance that your libido will take the path of least resistance and swing in the opposite direction. In any case, I never made a conscious decision that I was going to get myself hitched to some man. I was pretty happy with the idea that I would simply not have romantic or sexual relationships as a part of my life, I had never really believed in “love” in the erotic sense anyways, and I didn't believe in orientation change. I made a decision to break up with my girlfriend, that's all, really.

My conversion didn't have much to do with homosexuality. It wasn't a big deal. That sounds really counter-intuitive, until you consider what it is that conversion is, what it entails. There I was, a little baby dyke with short purple hair and a wardrobe that I'd stolen from John Paul Sartre. I had an intense love-hate relationship with God that had been going on for years. On the one hand, I just couldn't get it out of my head that there must be some sort of ordering force behind the universe, that I was a character living in a created world and that there was an author filling in symbolic values and prodding me towards a meaningful narrative in a multipotential Free-Will Positive space. On the other hand, the image of a crucified man who was God terrified me. Literally, terrified. I looked up at the cross and I saw the total sacrifice of humanity to the most terrible suffering, the acceptance of the unacceptable, the moral contradiction which Christians placed at the heart of the world. I couldn't have it. I wouldn't. If that was the sort of universe that I lived in, then I would respectfully return my ticket.

The problem of suffering was the crux of the issue (pun unintended). I had encountered Jesus, semi-accidentally, on some Good Friday when I went to church to please my mother. The story of Gethsemene just stuck in my head, and the idea of a man, a morally perfect individual, choosing to give up His life in that way was so profoundly beautiful and unsettling. I think I cried. Not in the Church, of course, there I was too busy meditating on how I liked all of the black and purple, and the morbid beauty of the Good Friday celebration, but how, at the same time, I felt alienated by Christianity. It was later, when I got home, I dug through the junk on my bedroom floor and unearthed a copy of the Bible that I kept there so that I could go rooting around for contradictions when I had nothing to do at night. I felt as though I had been sucked into the text and I was there, standing in the garden, confronting Him. I had nothing to say. I was literally in awe. The strength, and weight, and depth of human free will, and all of its moral dimensions were there, represented in that figure. Yet He was a figure that I couldn't bring myself to accept.

I dealt with this by busily trying to construct an alternative narrative where Christ was just a man, a figure like Socrates, whose beautiful sacrifice had been co-opted by this mechanical heteropatriarchal hierarchy. I don't know. It wasn't rationally coherent. My aesthetic sense told me unequivocally that Christ's sacrifice was beautiful, and that God existed, and that the perennial human fascination with death and tears and blood pointed towards some deep magic that undergirded the world. Since beauty was basically my religion I couldn't discard this evidence. On the other hand, my defences against the reality of suffering in the world. It was about accepting God's creation on God's terms. It was about wanting beauty badly enough to accept the price-tag attached to it. It was about falling in love with the one who had made me. And once I was in love with Him, how could my lesbian lover possibly compete?reason was adamant that it was all nonsense, and the most dangerous kind of nonsense at that.

Conversion, then, wasn't about homosexuality at all. It was about laying down my rational defences against the reality of suffering in the world. It was about accepting God's creation on God's terms. It was about wanting beauty badly enough to accept the price-tag attached to it. It was about falling in love with the one who had made me. And once I was in love with Him, how could my lesbian lover possibly compete?

Friday, December 9, 2011

Creative life, communion and the gift of self

There's a question that I didn't get asked tonight on Catholic Answers Live (listen here) that I had prepared a lovely answer for, so I'm going to post my preparatory notes in a slightly expanded form:

The question is, what should a person do if they have same-sex attractions and they want to try to live a chaste life in accord with the teachings of the magisterium. This is one that I did some research on, and I'd like to express my indebtedness to Ron Belgau and Eve Tushnet (Eve has a blog that is definitely worth a look) for insights that I've pillaged from their writings.

Basically, I think that there are three basic psychological needs which are fulfilled through sex and family life in the case of married people. These are creativity, communion and self-giving. If a celibate person does not find a way to express these elements of personality in other ways, they will find themselves inevitable, and perhaps compulsively drawn to sex as a means of assuaging the hunger. Eve observes that you need to develop a strong relationship with artistic beauty, and I would add that for most people having a creative outlet is essential. Also, as Socrates observes, the road to Truth is very often, perhaps most often, via the Beautiful. The need for communion has to be fulfilled through strong friendships, same-sex friendships in particular in the case of queer people. Same-sex attraction, at least in my mind, is constituted by a disordered sexualization of an ordered desire for close communion with members of one's own sex. Finally, the role of self-giving is essential. John Paul II relates masculinity and femininity, in their most essential forms, to fatherhood and motherhood – and points out that these elements of personality can be expressed spiritually by those who are not biological parents. People who wish to live a celibate life need to make some sort of corporal work of mercy a major part of their spirituality. I would add that works which concentrate on ministering to the needs of those who are deeply lonely, outcast, alienated or ostracized by society is probably a good idea for LGBTQ folks, because let's face it, most of us have a pretty deep experience of alienation ourselves. Eve references prison ministry. I personally did ministry to the homeless. I would also add that AIDS hospices are desperately in need of volunteers, and that Catholic outreach in this area is lacking, to say that least.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Little Lost Boiz

The tone of my last few posts has been towards the bitter end of the spectrum...if I may be permitted to understate the case. I would like to make it clear that I don't resent the kind, straight Catholic ladies who are inspired by my story. It's good for people to be inspired by seeing the power of God working other people's lives. It's one of those feminine tastes that I tend to think of as sentimental, and it's a vibe that I find it really hard to get into, but I'm able to see that it's a good thing. Also, just as God's way of making fun of me, since my last post two different people with SSA have confessed to being “inspired” by my story...

Anyways, with regards to the bitterness, it's partially because I've been reading a whole bunch of stuff from the reparative therapy crowd recently. I'm not ready to try to write about that. I think there's too much anger for me to see it clearly, and I'm still in the process of researching. The point is, that it's reminded me of the connection between same-sex attraction and childhood ostracization/bullying. This is one of the few connections that is generally admitted by both sides of the debate (though, of course, there are dissenters in both camps...) The causal relationship is not agreed on: groups like NARTH say that bullying and rejection by same-sex peers causes SSA later in life, while LGBTQ groups say that homophobia causes people who are innately gay to be bullied in childhood. Anyway, the thing that really got to me is that apparently there's this diagnostic test that will allow the shrinks to pick out the gays, and one of the main things that allows them to suss us out is that we will be able to name very few, or no close same-sex friends during childhood.

So it becomes a sort of feed-back loop. All of the kids that no one wanted to hang out with on the playground grow up to be the adults that no one wants to hang out with because we're “unnatural” and “objectively disordered.” I realize that's not what the Vatican means, but it really is what's meant by a lot of Christians who aren't able to distinguish between “disorder” as a moral-theological term, and “disorder” as a psychological illness label.

Thinking about this has also dredged up a lot of stuff from my own childhood. Like there was this monkey-bar climber at school, and I remember that the popular girls used to come along and tell me that I had to get off of it, because it was “theirs.” I also know that I hurt myself on that climber, and dislocated my shoulder, and something in my brain keeps telling me that these two things are related – that I fell and dislocated my shoulder because I was being pushed off the monkey-bars by the popular girls. But I can't remember whether that's true or not, and if it is true, I'm pretty sure I never told anyone. It's really bothering me, at least in part because it draws attention to the malleability of memory, to the fact that all of our past selves are deeply self-constructed.

The irony is that some of the traits that caused me to be excluded and picked on as a kid were feminine traits. I liked to wear frilly girly dresses with puffed sleeves, or pioneer pinafores that reminded me of Anne of Green Gables. All of the other kids were wearing blue jeans, spandex bicycle shorts and hypercolour t-shirts. I also refused to watch any movies or TV shows that were violent or gross – though if I'm going to honestly deconstruct that one, it wasn't out of any feminine sensibility, but out of a belief that such programs were immoral. I liked Nancy Drew, and Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, but it was hard to find other kids who could sympathize with that at ten years old.

My experience seems to fit in with Riche Savin-William's finding that children who go on to develop SSA tend to gravitate not towards gender-bending activities, but rather towards solitary activities which are not gender specific. (From The New Gay Teenager) What this suggests, at least to me, is that a big part of the difficulty facing queer kids is that our society has a needlessly narrow understanding of what constitutes “feminine” or “masculine” behaviour: that there is an excessive concentration of attention on particular masculine or feminine stereotypes, and the kids who don't fit into these one way or another get singled out as weird, sissy, or queer.

Calling All Reparative Therapy Success Stories

I'm going to be on the radio on Friday (Catholic Answers Live -- 7pm ET December 9) I fear that I might be asked about reparative therapy, father wounds, NARTH and all that jazz. I have never personally been involved with any of that, and I've heard a lot of bad press from the ex-ex-gay movement, and from various people that I know within the Catholic SSA community. I know that the reparative therapists themselves claim to have had lots of successes, and happy clientele, but I've never actually met one of these people or had a chance to talk to them about their experiences, so I feel that I'm rather in the dark when it comes to that side of the issue. I'm putting out a general call for reparative therapy clients to contact me and let me know about their experiences, good or bad. If you have been through this, or know someone who has, please send me a comment or e-mail me at melinda@vulgatamagazine.org. Thanks for the help.