Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Do You Know What I Lost?

In the Victorian era there was an image articulated of female sexuality: virginal and yet motherly, soft, lambent, with liquid eyes and a charming sweetness that flowed out of every pore. Her mind could be easily overtaxed by complex ideas, her sensibilities offended by the rough world of politics or by the exigencies of the marketplace. She was to be kept in a protected world, cared for and provided for by her husband, given the space and the means to fulfill herself as a wife and a mother. This bourgeois Victorian notion of femininity, and its descendent -- the picket-fences housewife of the '50s with her shiny-happy-children and her apple pie – have come to be associated by some conservative women with “traditional femininity.” These feminine stylistics which were articulated at a particular point in history, in response to a particular set of cultural concerns, have come to be seen by a small subculture within the Christian world as timeless, enduring, essential. The Catholicism that I came to know in the early years of my marriage was heavily shaped by these beliefs. I would become truly woman, would help to build the Culture of Life, would conform myself to the image of the Virgin Mother by sinking myself into the spirituality of the housewife. Obviously, as John Paul II pointed out in Mulieris Dignitatem, women could participate in other areas of social and cultural life – but many of the Catholic women I met seemed to subtly imply that these activities were best undertaken by single women, or women whose children had moved out of the house. While I had young kids, my vocation was to stay at home and secure my salvation by making an offering of all of my small, domestic sacrifices. One well-meaning priest actually advised me not to bother with writing, because my energies were supposed to be directed towards raising my family and being a good wife. So I tried. I became a grand-master at the art of children's birthday cake decorating. I accumulated a vast wardrobe of ugly, swishy skirts and grew my hair long. I tried to formulate a coherent strategy for permanently slaying the laundry monster. I convinced myself that by crucifying my talents and personality I was becoming humble, holy, submissive to the will of God – more like Mary every day. Yet this did not produce the expected fruit of marital bliss and domestic harmony. I became increasingly frustrated with my children, and terrified of becoming pregnant again. My husband and my male friends started complaining that I had completely lost my personality, that I no longer had anything interesting to say. I became sexually frigid, perceived even the most loving advances as reductionistic and lustful, and I went to the marriage bed like a martyr to the pyre – as a good and chaste Christian woman ought. My prayer life became increasingly shallow and ritualistic as I tried to buy God's love with rosary marathons and holy medals. One day, as I was falling asleep, I realized that I had just gone an entire week without having a single interesting or original thought. I was lying in bed laying plans for how to get the marker stains off of my coffee table, when I realized that this was not right. I wasn't good at being a housewife. It didn't complete and fulfill the deepest longings of my feminine heart. I had become Virginia Wolf's self-deprecating “angel of the house,” crucifying myself for absolutely nothing. As I cried myself to sleep, I thought, “Finally, I understand what feminism was really all about.” (part 3 of 12)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

We Interrupt This Narrative...

I realized that I forgot to post a link to an interesting debate at Pepperdine concerning the Christian response to LGBTQ issues. Ron Belgau and Justin Lee present the two different "sides" of the debate from a Christian perspective -- Ron presenting the traditional view that marriage and sex are designed to be between a man and a woman, and Justin arguing that there is room within Christianity for gay relationships. What's really nice about it is that the dialogue is deeply respectful, a disagreement between two men who know and like each other, who are both committed Christians, and who both actually have same-sex attractions, which means that it's an engaging and intelligent discussion rather than political mud-slinging. Recommended. The next part of my story should hopefully be up tomorrow. My husband, who is my straight-eye for the queer-gal go-to guy -- the one who tries to keep me from going off the deep-end in fits of Socratic madness that will inevitably leave straight readers shaking their heads in confusion and consternation -- says that my most recent draft is "much improved" but still needs some line editing to make it relatable...

Saturday, May 26, 2012

I Just Wanna Be a Woman

13 years ago, I undertook a strange quest. I was a young lesbian woman, I had just converted to Catholicism, and I was going to conform myself to the Church's teachings on human sexuality and femininity.

People who have read a lot of my stuff will know the narrative: my paternal grandmother had visited me several times over the course of my conversion, and had pointed me towards a shining figure of beautiful femininity: fair as the moon, bright as the sun, gentle as my grandmother herself – grandma, with her green peacock cookie bin always full of fresh-baked cookies, her quiet grace, her soft smell of make-up, cigarettes and hairspray. Through her intercession, I came to understand that the beautiful lady whom I was coming to adore was not a goddess, but a Virgin Mother, Mary, mother of Jesus Christ.

In the first few months following my decision to become a Catholic, my understanding of femininity started to radically shift. I'd never been much good at being feminine, not at being feminine by the standards of my culture in any case. I had never fit in with the girls, never liked make-up, bra shopping, or watching Thursday night drama's and romantic comedies. This feeling of alienation from other women led me to develop a severe sour-grapes complex. Femininity, I determined, was weakness, blathering superficiality, back-biting slanderousness, self-conscious promiscuity, a lack of self-respect, and a general willingness to lie down and let men take advantage of you. The entire notion of traditional femininity, I thought, had been constructed by men, for the benefit of men, in order to subordinate, subjugate and sexualize women. I wanted nothing to do with it.

My relationship with Mary changed this. I realized through her that many of the attributes of traditional femininity which I associated with weakness were actually manifestations of a deep interior strength. I realized that many aspects of women's subjugation were really manifestations of profound internal liberation. I realized that I had adopted a very masculine, misogynistic, dismissive and demeaning vision of the female sex – that I had allowed my desire to escape the jaws of patriarchy to lure me into an androcentric vision of womanhood which was even more insulting and constricting than the shallow, sexually saturated femininity that I had rejected in the first place.

This was an experience of profound liberation. Suddenly I was free to be a woman. To be truly woman. To be united to the archetype of womanhood, the New Eve, to become a daughter of God, and a Bride of Christ, and a tabernacle of the Spirit, radiant, resplendent, receptive and yet powerful, seductive and yet chaste, beautiful, beloved, fruitful, feminine. Amen.

Within a very short period of time, this re-envisioning of my femininity had born visible fruit. I found myself able to open wide the doors of my heart, to receive there a suitor, to accept the love of a man, not as a challenge, or a competition, or an imposition, or a threat, but as a gift. I was beloved not only of God, but of a particular human being, a man named Christian Selmys. His love invited me to explore my newfound femininity, to celebrate and rejoice in it, and very soon we were exploring the spousal meaning of the body together...admittedly not always in ways acceptable to the full meaning and purpose of human sexuality, but we were both recent converts, not especially well-catechized, fumbling towards Truth with all the zeal that we could muster, but with a certain amount of ignorance and human weakness getting in the way.

Eventually we married. We had children. I became a mother myself. Now, surely, I was on my way to a full realization of the complete glory of woman as she had been designed and created by God in the Beginning. I crucified my homosexuality. I crucified my feminism. I waited for the miracle: waited for God to send down a Blue Fairy of heterosexuality who would wave her magic wand over my game of dress-up, my playing house, my wooden womanhood, to turn me into a real girl at last.

(part 2, hopefully of 12)

Friday, May 25, 2012

Total Honesty

Okay. There's a long, long narrative that I've been wary of sharing up until now because I wasn't sure how it was going to turn out, or how it would resolve, and I was kind of scared that it would all end in disaster and I'd just end up leading other souls alongside me down the primrose path to despair and damnation. I'm pretty confident at this point that the path does not end there. I've let the tree grow a little, I've examined its fruits, they seem to be sound, and good, and beautiful, and true, and all of that, so it's time to share.

Some people are not going to like what I say here. They're going to be quick to get up in the com-box and tell me that I'm deviating from the strict letter of Church teaching. I don't think I am, and I'll get to that in due course, but I am certainly deviating from the standard tropes for same-sex attracted Catholics. I'd like to point out that these tropes are not identical with Church teaching: the Church has always been very careful to state that the psychological genesis of homosexuality is unknown, so I think that it stands to reason that one need not conform to any particular psychogenetic theory in order to be orthodox. I would also like to suggest that the various pastoral approaches that have been developed out of the popular psychogenic tropes can also not be construed to be absolute Truth, applicable to all homosexual persons in all situations. This is not to say that these approaches are not valid, that they are not helpful, that they are evil, or misguided, or ineffectual – just that they do not work for me. Think, in this respect, about the difference between Jesuit spirituality and Franciscan spirituality, the spirituality of warriors and the spirituality of gardeners: there is more than one approach that leads to truth, and Rome has always encouraged a variety of spiritualities under the aegis of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. I'm not seeking to spread disunity, but diversity. Those who've followed my previous writings on narrative will understand what I mean.

Finally, I'd like to defend this project on the grounds of authenticity. Ever since I was a teenager, I've believed several important things about truth:

1. It must be rational and coherent. 2. It must be possible to live as if it is true. 3. Truth is good for people; that which is not good for the human person is not true. 4. Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty 5. I will not believe in any philosophy that leads me to believe that suicide is my best option. 6. Authenticity is essential in the search for truth.

So I'm going to be honest here, authentic. I believe and hope and pray that Truth absolute will not in any way be obscured, dishonoured, or offended by my little truth. If I am in error, or if what I say is scandalous, please correct me: but please do so in the understanding that I'm familiar with the documents. Quotations alone will not suffice. All of the authoritative texts on this subject are open to multiple hermeneutics, and for me, the interpretation that I bring to them seems true because it is vouchsafed by my own experience, it resonates within my heart. The other hermeneutics do not resonate. They make me angry. Not angry with the people who tell me these things – I understand that those people are guided by genuine pastoral concern, by a desire to perform the spiritual work of mercy we call “fraternal correction,” by the desire to speak the truth out of love. Angry none the less. Angry because something which is utterly alien to my own heart, something which has caused me pain, is promulgated as though it were the immutable will of my God.

I can't believe that.

Let me explain.

Part 1, hopefully of 12

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Looking to Desire

I'd like to expand a little on the points that I made in my last post, particularly with regards to moving from Eros to Ethos – from the experience of desire towards the appreciation of that “Beauty ever ancient, ever new” who is the rightful object of our worship and adoration. This comes in the context of an article by Robert Sungenis, “Creating the Illusion of 'Chaste' Gays,” critiquing Joshua Gonnerman's recent First Things article “Dan Savage was Right.” Sungenis' article is fairly typical of sanctimonious conservative diatribe: it opens with a passive-aggressive attack on Gonnerman's assertion that he is chaste, proceeds to describe people like myself and Mark Shea as covert accomplices of the gay agenda, and then makes the usual claim that the proper thing for gay Christians to do is to hide shamefacedly in the closet and ruthlessly uproot every trace of homosexuality from their heart.

Sungenis' vitriol is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be gay. Gayness is not reduceable to homosexual sex, or the desire to have homosexual sex. It is a way of relating to other people, a way of appreciating human beauty, and a way of relating to one's own gender. Most people who identify as chaste, gay Christians, are referring to involuntary currents of homoeroticism and gender-queerness that run through the personality. Sungenis appears to believe that these currents are so fundamentally disordered that the only proper response to them is one of outright warfare, that the personality must have surgery performed on it in order to eliminate every vestige of queerness in order that it might be rendered fit for salvation.

I think that there are two serious problems with this approach. First, people who engage in this kind of argument seem to think that the question of to be, or not to be same-sex attracted is an open question in the lives of gay people. This point is obvious to those of us with SSA, but apparently not to everyone else: for a homosexual person, same-sex attraction is a given. We can have a heated debate about whether or not people ought to have these attractions, just as we can have a lively argument about whether or not men ought to have spontaneous erections (a subject that has produced considerable discursive excitement over the centuries, mostly amongst ivory tower academics), but the fact is that for all practical purposes the question is settled – no amount of theological speculation has ever proved capable of preventing “concupiscent movements of the flesh,” nor can any amount of moralistic diatribe prevent homosexual persons from having homoerotic desires.

Secondly, hard-line traditionalists tend to assume that same-sex attraction is fundamentally objectively disordered in all of its aspects. The Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops, in their recent document on Youth with Same-Sex Attractions, were very careful to explicitly spell out the fact that homosexual inclinations are objectively disordered in so far as they concern the desire to have same-sex genital relations. That is, in so far as same-sex attractions are concupiscent, they are objectively disordered: a nice little tautology which only stands in need of clarification because it is counterintuitive to contemporary secular culture. What this means is that same-sex attractions, in so far as they are not concupiscent, are not disordered: another tautology, but one that is equally counterintuitive to many moral conservatives.

To understand the difference between concupiscent desire, and ordered desire, let's follow John Paul II's lead and return to the Beginning. I'd like to analyze, specifically, Genesis 3:6: “The woman saw that the tree was good to eat and pleasing to the eye, and that it was enticing for the wisdom that it could give.” Surely this is a case of disordered desire, right? Eve wants what she's not supposed to have, and as a result of that desire, she sins.

Sed contra, Eve at this moment is still in a state of Original Innocence. She does not have concupiscence clouding her judgement. What she sees at the moment is objectively true: the fruit really is good to eat, it really is pleasing to the eye, and it really is desirable for the wisdom that it could give. What is false is her conclusion, that because of these properties, it is justifiable for her to take and eat what has been denied to her by God.

I'd like to apply the same hermeneutic to same-sex attraction. When I look at a woman, and see that she is beautiful, that she is desirable, that she is enticing, I'm seeing something that is objectively true: she is objectively a manifestation of the imago dei, she is objectively attractive, and it is objectively legitimate for me to desire to be united with her in the vast communio personarum which is constituted by the Church and by the whole human race. My desire is not disordered in and of itself: it becomes disordered when I direct it, or allow it direct itself, towards something which is forbidden. If it leads me to fantasize about homosexual acts, or to think of the woman as a sex object, then it becomes disordered, that is ordered towards an end which is not in conformity with Truth and with the dignity of the person. But what if I make the act of will to redirect that desire, to use it as an opportunity to give glory to God for the beauty which He has made manifest in that particular woman? Or to meditate on my desire for the one-flesh union of the entire humanum in the Eucharist where there is neither Gentile nor Jew, slave nor free, woman nor man? Or as an opportunity to contemplate the relationship between the doctrines of the Communion of Saints and of the resurrection of the Body? What if, by an act of will, I take that desire and order it towards its proper end: towards the Good, the Beautiful and the True?

This is what I mean when I speak of sublimation, and it relates to what Joshua and other gay Christians mean when they speak of being both gay and chaste. It means that the word “gay” is being used to refer to the fact that some of us are more easily able to experience the goodness and beauty of the body in the bodies our own sex than we are in the bodies of the opposite sex. Obviously that leaves us open to homosexual temptation, just as the ability of most men and women to more easily appreciate bodily beauty in the opposite sex leaves them open to heterosexual temptations (to pre-marital sex, to adultery, to pornography, to sexual fantasy, etc.) Obviously in so far as it leads to homosexual temptation, it is disordered. But the word “gay” can refer to the orientation of that initial erotic impulse, irregardless of whether it develops towards disordered lust, or towards an appreciation of Christ playing “lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not His.” Which is why, in my submission, gay chastity is a calling, not a myth.