November 2, 2011

Hidden in (Not So) Plain Sight

One of the more interesting discussions at the recent conference I attended in South Africa concerned the nature of homosexuality in those parts of Africa where its presence is most vehemently denied or persecuted. Several of the lay and clergy leaders from those areas indicated that “homosexuality” was widely seen as some kind of alien import. They allowed, however, that as long as a man was married and had children, a concurrent sexual relationship with another man could — while still being viewed with opprobrium — likely be given a pass. Such a man would not be labeled as “homosexual.”

This reminds me, of course, of the situation in many communities even in the United States — thinking in particular of some Latino and African-American communities — based on their cultural construction of homosexuality. That is, a “man who sleeps with men” might well not be seen as “homosexual,” while an effeminate man or sissy-boy might be described as such even if he is a virgin and completely heterosexual in his orientation.

This is in part due to the confusion of the many variable axes that combine in human personality to define one’s identity. It isn’t just a matter of male and female (biological sex, and allowing for the reality of intersexuality), but of feminine and masculine (cultural or societal gender), attracted to one’s own sex or the other (sexual orientation), and so on. The simple fact, put simply, is that many gay men are not effeminate, and many effeminate men are not gay.

More importantly, the African situation reminds me of how it is that David and Jonathan’s relationship (with the emphasis on Jonathan’s attraction and attachment to David) can also be covered from perception as a same-sex relationship (which it no doubt is, regardless of whether acted upon erotically). The fact that both are “manly men” and warriors, both married (in David’s case we have quite a bit of evidence along that line), shields them — in cultures that cannot distinguish sexual orientation from notions of gender — from any suggestion of being what C.S. Lewis so revealingly called pansies. (The Four Loves, 62) While it is questionable to attempt to craft a psychological profile at such a remove, it is fair to say that David’s relationships with women all seem to be based either on the desire to possess and control or some kind of political or dynastic interest (as indeed may be true of his relationship with Jonathan in taking advantage of the latter’s attraction to him), while the relationship of Jonathan to David appears to be one of deep and lasting love. At least that is the language of the text. “Pansies”? No. Oriented towards a romantic relationship towards each other?” Very likely yes. At least David is not reported to have shed any tears over his female partners, and Jonathan’s testimony of complete dedication and what the text reveals as “love at first sight” is amply clear.

The role of choice

The question, “Is homosexuality natural or a choice?” also came up at the Conference in South Africa. The implication is that if it is a choice, it is a wrong choice, or at the least a choice that need not have been made, or could have been made otherwise. In earlier times it was assumed that the choice was a conscious act to choose wrongly — a perversity: doing deliberately and willfully what is known to be wrong.

Most gay and lesbian persons do not feel their orientation to be a choice, but something about which they become aware at some point in their life — just as do heterosexual persons of their sexual orientation. Most people, it seems, do not have much of a conscious awareness of sexual attraction in very early childhood, and begin to become aware of sexual attraction later in childhood or in early adolescence.

At this point the question of choice arises: do I choose to accept my inclinations? to act on them? to suppress them? Some people choose celibacy, while others choose relationship.

This leads me to reflect on the question, “Is choice a bad thing?” Aren’t we blessed to be chosen by the one who chooses us for life? The language of choosing and taking to oneself is intimately (!) connected with both salvation history and the life of human relationships; so much so that marriage is held to be an image of God’s relation to God’s Chosen.

Can this apply to same-sex relationships? Let me take another look at the relationship from Scripture that is often held up (and at the same time denied) as being homosexual, to which I alluded above: the story of the love of David and Jonathan. This is clearly a relationship between two men, but some do not see it as sexual in nature. It is true that sexual acts are not clearly recorded (though in a few places suggested) in the text — but this is true in large part of the Scriptural attitude towards descriptions of sex, which are usually veiled in metaphor or euphemism.

But let me start with a strongly negative view of the relationship between David and Jonathan from the text of Scripture itself. Jonathan’s father Saul verbally assails his son, when he says, “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman, do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your confusion, and the confusion of your mother’s nakedness.” (1 Samuel 20:30) Jonathan’s choice, is of course a choice, but it does not come from perversity. He has no wish to see the kingdom of his father fall to confusion, and to see the swift end of that dynasty. But Jonathan knows that he had little power not to chose the one whom he has chosen; the one to whom he knew his whole being to be bound when he first laid eyes on him, the one whom he loved as his own soul. (1 Samuel 18:1) This covenanted love (1 Samuel 18:3; 20:8,16,41-42; 23:18) was the greatest love he would ever know, the love for which he would eventually risk everything (1 Samuel 20:33) and lose his life; this wonderful love surpassing the love of women. (2 Samuel 1:26)

Was Jonathan wrong so to choose? I don’t think so.

Tobias Stanislas Haller


Tim said...

Thank you Tobias, for your prescient and measured discussion on this rather sensitive topic. What strikes me most is that the REAL discussion is how we handle/react to what is, not the 'what is'.

I recently addressed this very subject myself, albeit from a different angle, here and here.

Daniel Weir said...

I have to the conclusion that much of the bullying in adolescence is not about sexual orientation, but about gender expression. For many of those bullied the matter of sexual attraction has hardly been a factor, but dress and other things that are seen as gender-specific mark the teens as different.

Tim said...

@Daniel: I believe you hit the nail squarely on the head. It is all of the negative aspects of dealing with 'the Other'. (insert homily about Good Samaritan)

JCF said...

the African situation reminds me of how it is that David and Jonathan’s relationship (with the emphasis on Jonathan’s attraction and attachment to David) can also be covered from perception as a same-sex relationship (which it no doubt is, regardless of whether acted upon erotically).

GREAT phrase, Tobias!

Something similar occurred to me, while watching (my vice!) EWTN recently.

The same More-Catholic-Than-the-Pope network which entirely supports the Vatican's "No (More) Gay Priests---Root Them Out of the Seminaries!" policy...

...can also not only repeatedly run old "Life Is Worth Living" programs, but also advocate for the CANONIZATION of its host, Archbishop Fulton J Sheen. Sheen, who can only be described as FLAMINGLY Queen-y (if, like David&Jonathan, we can't be sure if he ever acted on his apparent orientation)

"Covered from perception": that's how they do it.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Tim and Daniel. As Quentin Crisp noted in the Naked Civil Servant, the hyper-masculine queer-basher may in fact be taking out on an effeminate man his own self-directed anger from internalized homophobia. It is likely also a matter of misogyny. The irony is that many men hate effeminancy, whether in women or in men!

JDF, I think you are illustrating the problem. I by no means assume FJS was gay, active or otherwise, on the basis of perceived effeminacy. My point here is that effeminacy in men is NOT correlated with sexual orientation. My guess is that at least a portion of effeminate boys (or tom-boy girls) are socially pressured into same-sex behavior that is not based on their real orientation, and which may help to explain some of the pain -- and rare success in "reorientation" --- in people who have an +ego-dystonic+ experience. This also goes the other way -- and many "straight acting" married men and women really are oriented towards same-sexuality, but social pressure keeps them married, with perhaps "adventures" on the side -- and a dollop of expressed homophobia!

In short, it is much more complicated than it appears.

Erika Baker said...

And then there are people like me, true bisexuals, who do indeed have a choice. And I have yet to come across a single credible reason why I should not have chosen love just because my beloved is a woman.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Indeed, Erika. This ultimately comes down to the desire to categorize. Many societies -- especially sexist ones -- find ambiguity as intolerable as nonconformity.

June Butler said...

My elder son was fair, blond, slender, and straight, and he was teased unmercifully by a few bullies in junior high and high school. Why? I suppose he did not have enough of the look of a manly man.

My younger son, who had pretty much the same complexion and coloring but a bit more heft, was left alone.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Sorry (above) that should be JCF. And I don't mean to sound to hard on you -- I fall prey to the same syndrome and have now decided my gaydar is broken, and unless I know someone is oriented towards and attracted to members of the same sex I will no longer make any assumptions based on other "characteristics." There is just too much variability. (Which also reminds me that there is another "axis" in all of this, and that is the "degree of expression."

Mimi, children can be as cruel as adults. I wonder how much of this is a deep seated genetic urge to purge the community of difference or "otherness." I'm thinking of how male lions who take over a pride kill all the kits of his predecessor -- as they are "different" from him. Conformity is a survival tool for species that flock... Might make an interesting reflection in relation to bullying patterns.

JCF said...

But is "oriented towards the same-sex" the same as "flamingly queen-y"? [I believe the latter is a FACT, determined by observation, of FJS. I am of no opinion re the former.]

And does it matter to Vatican KGB snooping the seminaries today?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

JCF, yes, the Vatican is (wrongly) concerned about effeminacy -- as they too have bought the fallacy that this is an indication of the Dreaded Disorder. My point here is precisely that "gender-stereotypical-behavior" does not correlate with "sexual orientation." In short, to refer back to your original comment, the effeminacy does not make the orientation "apparent." It only tells us the person is effeminate, not gay.