Saturday, December 22, 2012
Orientation Change vs. Mixed Orientation Marriage
I wanted to talk about the difference between a narrative of “orientation change” and one of “mixed orientation marriage,” and how I see that from a Catholic perspective.
I've struggled for a long time with the notion of “sexual orientation.” In some ways, the Courage party line, that there are no homosexuals, just heterosexuals with same-sex attraction, is true. Ontologically, theologically, it would seem to be a justifiable statement. The problem is, no one really talks ontologically in daily life. We say “I'm depressed,” not “I am a human being who is experiencing depression,” or “I'm a Liverpool fan” not “I am a person with Liverpool Football Attractions (LFA).”
The difficulty with this in terms of the “gay” debate, is that a lot of people do intend the term “gay” or “queer” ontologically. Today this is perhaps less true than it was in the 90's, but the basic meme “I'm gay. That's who I am” is still alive and well and living in San Francisco. This means that if someone like myself, or Josh Gonnerman, says “I'm gay/queer...and Catholic, and chaste,” it raises some eyebrows. Do I mean that I'm “queer” in the depths of my identity, that I am a queer child of God, or am I using language casually, I'm “queer” in the same way that I'm a board-game geek.
The fork here involves a dialectic distinction between two different kind of identity: objective identity, as something which derives from outside of the self, and subjective identity, as something which is self-generated. I'm not sure that this distinction can be drawn quite so sharply. An authentic identity has multiple sources, including whatever is given, in the form of genetics, early socialization, blood relationships, and that spark of Divine genius that kindles the soul at the moment of conception; but also including whatever is chosen, the way that a person lives and understands him or herself. As David Foster Wallace puts it, “the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseperable from that horrific struggle.” Our true identities are not deducable a priori. They are the result of a creative co-operation between God and the self, they do not really exist until the moment of death when the work is complete. Hence the image of the white stone in the Book of Revelations which contains the person's true name: the word by which the indiviual is incarnated absolutely, and which could not come to be except as a product of the journey through the vale of tears.
My homosexuality and/or gender issues are not accidental to my self. They are an important part of the quest by which I am becoming myself. They're not the bedrock of my identity and they're not the sine qua non of my existence. They may not be inscribed in my genetic code, and it may be that the fullness of my journey towards God will only be completed by overcoming and reconciling these difficulties, but the difficulties are still an absolutely essential part of the process of my self-becoming. To deny my queerness, or hold it at arm's length as something completely outside the self, is in some sense to miss its import and its significance. “The truth unsaid, and the blessing gone if I forget my Babylon” (Leonard Cohen)
Nor is it accidental to my marriage. I did a lot of damage, both to my identity and to my relationship with my husband, by trying to conform to some sort of one-size-fits all narrative of sexual complementarity. Because I could not acknowledge the part of me that is “queer” in the early years of our relationship, I withheld that part of me from our marriage and tried to replace it with a simulacrum of “authentic femininity” which was not in any way authentic to me. This was a significant ommission in my gift of self. By pretending to be “straight,” and by trying to conform my life to a narrative of “orientation change” I deprived both myself and my husband of the full truth about who I am.
That's why I prefer the language of “mixed-orientation marriage (MOM),” to traditional “ex-gay” tropes. To me, the former opens up the possibility of creating a model for conjugal relationships between gay people and opposite sex partners that is positive, appealing and that retains everything that is really authentic and important about queer identities. It makes it possible to discuss the ways in which sexual complementarity is different in an MOM than it is in other heterosexual marriages. It invites a conversation about the role of philia in gay-straight marriages, and of the ways in which friendship can mediate eros. It also makes it possible to discuss what value a gay person might derive from being in a heterosexual marriage. It takes the discussion beyond the notion of “change,” the notion of trying to become a different person in the hopes of playing a particular social role in the future, and it resituates it in terms of a realistic option for the person as he or she is in the present.