Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Leggo My Micronarrative

I got two different things in my mail-box yesterday dealing with my animosity towards psychological models of homosexuality. One of them is posted in the comments on "The Straight Story," the other is a private e-mail from an old friend of mine. I'd like to try to disambiguate.

I'm not going to deny that there is animosity, but the animosity is not towards the model. I don't really have a problem with the idea that some gay men may have deep-seated problems which stem from their relationships with their fathers, and I see no reason why men in that situation wouldn't have recourse to psychological healing. Dan in Michigan is absolutely right when he says that just because something is subjective, that doesn't mean that it's made up. When I say that the psychological narratives are subjective, and that they are constructed, I don't mean that they bear no relationship to reality -- to be perfectly honest, I think that subjective reality is more real than objective reality because the objective material universe is transient, it is that which will pass away, whereas the heart of the human subject is eternal. The narratives that shape a human life are absolutely real and legitimate, they are the works of art which we make out of our experiences and which we will humbly submit to the Creator at the end of time in the hopes that He will accept our little stories for inclusion in His masterwork. They are, however, works in process: people constantly edit and revise these narratives, and rightly so, in order to polish and improve them. In that sense, they are less reliable, less "real" than say, a tree, which God has produced once and for all in its final form. In any case, my claim that narratives are subjective and constructed is not intended to be dismissive or belittling; it comes within the context of a general belief that the Enlightenment's idolatry of Objective Truth(TM) is hubristic and absurd.

That said, I also agree that there are real variations in parenting styles, that some mothers really do behave in ways which almost any child would perceive as smothering, and that some fathers really are absent a lot of the time. The emotional experiences in such cases are just reasonable reactions to the facts. So far, there is no narrative. Where this turns into a narrative is when the gay man says "My mother's overinvolvement during childhood has made me come to perceive the love of women as cloying and controlling, while my father's absence left me without adequate male role-models and damaged my male self-confidence. That's why I'm gay." The facts are objectively true, the emotional reaction to the facts is legitimate, the narrative, however, is a much more complicated beast: it's a story that weaves together these facts and interrelates them with the present in order to provide meaning and significance in an archetypally satisfying way. All of this is absolutely legitimate. It is not only the right, but also the obligation of every human person to order his or her experience towards goodness, beauty and truth, and this includes imbuing it with both rational and aesthetic value. If the smothering mother/distant father narrative has deep emotional meaning for a particular homosexual person, if it resonates with his experience, seems to be supported by the facts, and provides a rubric within which he can forgive and heal, then it is True. It corresponds to the kind of Truth which is also Beauty, and the embrace of this narrative, and of the demands which it makes on him as a person, will lead to Goodness.

So far, so good. Where the animosity comes in, is when people try to aggressively project such narratives onto others. It's one thing to say "My mother really was smothering, my father really was absent, and that really did leave me in a headspace where I feel driven to have sex with men in order to reconnect with my damaged masculinity," it's another thing to say, "That guy over there is just saying that he had a perfectly normal childhood because he's unwilling to confront the pain of the deep wounds which his parents left on his psyche." That guy over there has an absolute and inalienable right, for as long as he is alive, to wrestle with his own experience in his own way, to seek the Truth of it within himself, and to construct whatever narratives he requires to provide for his own spiritual and psychological needs. When he dies, God will have the right to judge the narratives that he's created, but until then that little square of headspace is his own, it is his most intimate and private property, and nobody has the right to tell him that he's narcissistic and immature because he refuses to accept the narratives that they want to impose on him.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Queer Taxonomy

I'm planning to blog soon about the whole question of whether or not homosexuality is rightly conceived of as a psychological disorder by conservative Christians, but as a prelude to that I'd like to establish some distinctions. The blanket term "homosexual" has a number of different, related but distinct meanings: there are several groups of people who are covered by this term, and there are significant variations between them.

The simplest definition of a homosexual is a person who has attractions for members of his or her own sex: SSA. This is the meaning that the Vatican tends to use in Her documents on homosexuality, and it is the definition which most people assume when they hear the word. The word "homosexual" in this sense does present some problems: it assumes that people who engage in homosexuality have some sort of underlying sexual preference or inclination which directs their sexual behaviour. It assumes that a person who has gay sex does so because they are attracted to members of their own sex, and not for other reasons. The people of Sodom, for example, were probably not homosexual in this sense: their demand to have sex with the angels was probably not a manifestation of sexual attraction, but was more likely a form of ritual domination, or of politically organized violence designed to keep unwanted outsiders out of their city, to send a clear message to Abraham who was camped nearby with his men, and/or to exercise magical or religious power over potential enemies. Prison homosexuality, lesbianism in harems, and pederasty in single-sex boarding schools are other examples of homosexuality in which people are likely to practice homosexual sex without necessarily having any same-sex attraction. The term "homosexual" in this sense also tends to assume a bipolar sexuality in which people are either exclusively SSA, or exclusively OSA (opposite sex attracted), and it doesn't account for the fact that vast majority of SSA people have some degree of OSA as well.

A second possible definition, one that is fairly popular in contemporary discourse, is that a homosexual is a person who has an LGBTQ identity. A person who comes out of the closet as gay, is homosexual. That's straightforward enough. Certainly when studies or research into homosexuality are undertaken, the LGBTQ community is the primary focus -- both because it is incalculably easier to recruit people for studies when they are willing to identify themselves, and because people who identify as LGBTQ are more likely to access products and services which are directed towards a gay demographic. The problem with this definition is that it excludes all SSA people who, for one reason or another, do not want to identify themselves with the gay movement. Some people reject LGBTQ identities for religious or political reasons (Courage, Exodus and other Christian groups often explicitly discourage their members from identifying as gay, on the reasoning that it cements a link between personal identity and sexual sin, and that it may be a barrier to spiritual healing). Others reject LGBTQ identities because they reject gay culture, or because they have negative stereotypes associated with words like "gay" or "lesbian" that they feel do not apply to them. Still others reject an LGBTQ identity out of a feeling that labels are restrictive or artificial: they feel that their own sexuality cannot be adequately described or constrained by any of the available terms. Finally, SSA people may reject these identities because they want to keep their sexual preferences private, or because they don't feel that their sexual desires are an important part of their identity at all. On the other hand, people who are not SSA may identify as LGBTQ either because they wish to access gay culture and gay services, or because they feel non-sexual romantic attractions to members of their own sex, or because they experience some variant of gender-queerness without SSA, or because they routinely have sex with members of their own sex even though they do not have strong same-sex attractions. (This latter category might seem a bit bizarre, but think, for example, of the situation of an OSA woman who has been raped and is now too terrified to have sexual relationships with men, and who therefore seeks out lesbian encounters in which she employs heterosexual mental imagery during sex.)

Finally, a third definition of homosexual, also seemingly intuitive and straightforward, is "someone who has sexual relations with members of his/her own sex." The terms MSM (man who has sex with men) and WSW (woman who has sex with women) are often used in social studies research in order to precisely indicate this type of homosexual -- studies of HIV/AIDS, for example, will tend to focus on MSMs regardless of attractions or sexual identities because HIV is spread by behaviours, not by desires or labels. The problem with this definition is that it would exclude all successfully chaste SSA people from ministries directed at homosexuals, and it would exclude all non-sexually active (or exclusively heterosexually active) LGBTQ people from public services, anti-bullying strategies, political protections, etc. which are designed to help or protect sexual minorities. It also fails to address the problem, mentioned above, of opportunistic or ideologically motivated homosexual sex by heterosexual people.

The bottom line is that these three groups, SSA folks, LGBTQ people, and MSMs/WSWs, are all in some sense "homosexual," but they do not represent a homogeneous, or coterminous population. Any statement, study, or research about "homosexuals" must take this into account, it must resist the sloppy temptation to equivocate between these terms, to assume that statistical information or clinical observations of any one of these populations can be automatically applied to the others.