Saturday, December 22, 2012

Orientation Change vs. Mixed Orientation Marriage


Yet another interruption to my series...

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.


  1. I have found that the more I nurture the self-identification as gay or queer, the harder it is to overcome temptation to sin. Asserting my identity as a married man has had an effect over time of diminishing the strength of the disordered attraction. I have, as you have described elsewhere, gradually become less same-sex attracted, and more my-wife-attracted. I am neither a homosexual nor a heterosexual but a my-wife-sexual. Whereas self-identifying as 'gay' ends up leading to a stronger impulse towards same-sex attraction. My confessor describes it as a battle, and it's one I know and have accepted that I will have to wage for a lifetime. Perhaps it's different for a woman than it is for a man, but I find that even intellectually walking the road you describe ends up increasing my propensity to yield to sin. I have found it more helpful to not self-identify as queer for the sake of the progress I have made to this point. Even the attachment to sin is sinful, and treading water in the intellectual deep-end where one clings to a false idea of self seems a waste of energy. Embrace the identity that God has given you, and that which is not of God must ultimately be released. I have found devotion to St. Joseph invaluable in this regard.

  2. Sorry I have to post anonymously. I'm away from home and don't have by google password.

    I wonder if the phrase mixed-orientation marriage really capture what your trying to say. What would you call a marriage between two homosexuals: a gay man and a lesbian? They wouldn't have mixed sexual orientations since they're both gay. But they would have the trait that you seem to be trying to capture. Their sexual orientation doesn't tend to lead them to be attracted to the gender of their spouse. I don't know how to say all that in a simple word or phrase. Perhaps cross orientation marriage?

    To anonymous,
    Melinda seems to understand her sexual orientation as more the mere same sex attraction, but as part of how she understands her expression of womanhood in all it's various dimensions. I wonder if this is why she feels comfortable exploring her "queerness".


  3. I am always amazed and challenged by your blog. There's not really anything else like this online. Thank you!

  4. I was thrilled with this piece.

    My experience (though I ought to note that I'm unmarried) has been very different from that of the first respondent. I found it notably harder and more painful to deal with my sexuality before I was willing to (for lack of a better way of putting it) identify as queer. Moreover, while it is connected with my homosexual attractions, I do think that genderqueerness -- by which I mean a societally unusual experience of gender, not a blurring of its theological nature -- is a different, and in some ways a profounder, thing from simple attraction to the same sex. I have know a few straight men whom I would describe as genderqueer in this sense, so it isn't simply an extension of attraction. With that in mind, I believe genderqueerness, whatever difficulties usually attend it, to be a positive thing, at least potentially.

    However, I take most of this to be a matter of personal preference and need; some homosexually attracted people like elements of LGBT culture, others don't, and (more importantly) some find their experiences and outlook markedly different from that of heterosexual peers while others do not. Insofar as identifying as gay, straight, or anything else, is really a relative thing -- which seems to be part of what Mrs. Selmys is saying anyway -- I see no reason to suppose there is any one-size-fits-all answer to the question of how we ought to identify.

  5. I envy you and your husband, Melinda. My wife's decades-long struggles with repressed same-sex attractions, her years of unanswered prayers, have completely destroyed her faith. And so we've gone from a low-sex to a no-sex marriage. And my own faith has been shaken to its foundations. How can a loving God lead two people who were searching for and trying to follow His will for their lives into such pain and barrenness? She appreciated the other day that I seemed to be more at peace, and that she no longer felt any pressure for sex from me. I said that I'm glad she feels that, but that I feel that I'm still in the process of amputating my own leg with my penknife, without an anesthetic, like the climber in that film. And then I hope to be able to walk towards fullness and plenitude with one leg missing...


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