Discourse on Sexuality & Reframing the Discussion
In a recent thread in our Listening group, we have had some discussion about whether it is worth bringing up disagreeing views presented by those who are not sympathetic to the idea of full inclusion of homosexuals in the life of the Church, whether this be about same-sex marriage, allowing LGBTQ people participation in communion, or what to do with gay couples who seek baptism for their children. In the same thread, Vladyka Lazar posted some reflections based on his observations of Gay Pride parades. My own reading lately has taken me into the works of a few queer theorists and I’d like to lay out a couple of initial observations from those readings that feel relevant to this conversation.
First, in reference to the articles mostly reposted on John Sanidopoulos’s Mystagogy blog, we’ve had some conflict over whether we should mention these types of articles at all or perhaps simply ignore them. I find myself sympathizing with the point of view that suggests not dignifying these things with our acknowledgments of their existence: many of us are familiar with these oft-repeated arguments and there’s not really anything new here. And there is a certain power granted to acknowledging, engaging, and countering these arguments.
However, many of us come to the discussion at different levels of exposure and experience with these arguments. Some may feel the conversation has been closed down too quickly if we just say “move on,” while others feel that we are beating the same old dead horse. In some ways, perhaps, it is better as a newcomer to listen first, or read what has been written before to see if an area has been addressed. In this process we may find that our concerns have already been addressed.
[Clarification: While the referenced post has served as a lightning rod for these frustrations, in this particular instance Inga’s own requests that we move on were more focused on insinuations about John Sanidopoulos. However, we have discussed the utility of digging up oppositional voices in the Internet in the past on several occasions.]
In this case, I don’t feel that we have given a fully expressed argument for why we might ignore the texts. So I’m offering these thoughts to see if we can get some conversation around the rhetorical strategies that are deployed in the back and forth—or what Foucault would call a discourse. This is not really about addressing each single argument – something we have definitely done with many of these arguments in the past year in a piecemeal fashion. But rather, I believe it’s worth looking at the larger picture.
In his biography of Michel Foucault, queer theorist David Halperin makes the following observation: “The discourses of homophobia, moreover, cannot be refuted by means of rational argument (although many of the individual propositions that constitute them are easily falsifiable); they can only be resisted. That is because homophobic discourses are not reducible to a set of statements with a specifiable truth-content that can be rationally tested. Rather, homophobic discourses function as part of more general and systematic strategies of delegitimation.” (Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography, p. 32)
Halperin goes on to say: “Homophobic discourses contain no fixed propositional content. They are composed of a potentially infinite number of different but functionally interchangeable assertions, such that one—even one with a content exactly contrary to the original one—can be neatly and effectively substituted for it.” (p. 33)
Many of the individual arguments that are used by traditionalists can be argued over in isolation:
- there are proof-texts from scripture that are kept at hand to prove that homosexuality is sinful
- there are arguments over the inability of a same-sex couple to biologically mate and produce offspring
- there are arguments around gender complementarity and “plumbing” analogies that attack specific sexual acts
- there are psychological arguments that tend to cast homosexuals as somehow defective heterosexuals that can (sometimes) be repaired through the appropriate treatment
- there are appeals to tradition and the inevitable fall of past civilizations that have allowed open homosexual practices
- there are ad hominem attacks against individuals and attacks against gay and lesbian straw people who stand in for a very diverse population of LGBTQI folks
- there are scare tactics designed to make straight folk sweat and fret over the idea of a tyrannical sexual minority come to take away their rights in a zero-sum game…
- I’m sure with a little thought each of us could add our own observations about other sorts of related attacks…
But what Halperin (and Foucault before him) are driving at is that we can spend all day long taking about each of these individual arguments and refuting them. However, after a certain point, that doesn’t really get us anywhere. All we’ve done is allowed the conversation to be controlled at the level of the original attack when what we need to do is resist the current discourse and reframe the discussion by asking our own questions.
A second and related dynamic that entered into our conversation was something that Halperin discusses in relation to Eve Sedgwick’s work on The Epistemology of the Closet. In many of the same ways, the mechanisms that work to delegitimize gay people through sometimes contradictory statements are present here as well. In Halperin’s words: “The closet is an impossibly contradictory place, moreover, because when you do come out, it’s both too soon and too late… because if you had been honest you would have come out earlier.” (p. 35)
There are moments when I feel that comments like those made by Vladyka Lazar in the thread referenced above may unwittingly play into this rhetorical strategy. [And Vladyka, I bear no animosity toward you. Your comment just provided me with the occasion to think about some of these things. What follows are some specific thoughts about your comments, but also some general thoughts that are not directed at you.]
For example, Vladyka Lazar notes that “Nowhere have we seen a cenotaph made by Gay people commemorating the huge sacrifice made by Gay soldiers, sailors and airmen in two world wars and Korea: and the sacrifice was all the greater since it was being made by men (later women) who were being persecuted and denies basic constitutional rights by the very nation they loved and offered their lives in defence of.”
Aside from the basic facts—monuments cost huge amounts of money, require land and permits granted and issued by a heterosexist government, and there is no unified organization of gays to head such a project—we might also consider the blowback from even proposing such a project:
- Gays would immediately be ridiculed for singling themselves out as somehow sacrificing more than every straight soldier, sailor, or airman who died in our wars.
- The sacrifice of the soldiers would automatically be overshadowed by lurid imaginings of their sex lives in fox holes.
- Oppositional rhetoric would immediately decry the attempt to honor these fallen soldiers as another strategy in the secret gay agenda [which I still haven’t gotten a copy of after being out for 26 years 😉 ]
All methods of delegitimizing what such a monument would stand for.
(I’m also not convinced that such a monument is necessary. In the end, there are not separate cenotaphs for Blacks, or Hispanics, or women who have died in combat. Rather, I believe a more effective strategy might be epitaphs on grave markers. For example, the headstone of Leonard Matlovich in the congressional cemetery reads, “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”)
Vladyka Lazar refers to the “revolting ‘Pride Parades'” of LGBTQ folk and their straight allies, reducing them to one element – “… shamelessly demonstrating the most degenerate level of the community, which is what we always do see.”
Examining the rhetoric associated with discourse around Gay Pride, I’d like to offer a few thoughts:
- First, if what we always see is the “degenerate” level of community, then perhaps it behooves us to take a step back and examine our news sources. For example, in the recent kerfuffle here in Chicago over the changes in our annual Pride parade and the potential conflict with Sunday services at a local Catholic church, the local FOX News coverage led off with archival footage of a float with drag queens and four men in speedos.
This is the only image that most of my friends commented on. No one saw the next float full of folks in t-shirts and cargo shorts. It is doubtful that anyone was paying attention any longer to the next float with four drag queens dressed in red. Instead, like properly trained media consumers, everyone just remembers the four men in speedos who become emblematic of the entire parade. Everyone they remember in that clip was scantily clad in speedos… an image chosen to lead the story by the video production team at FOX News… It’s also worth noting that with those four men there were several others in drag on the very same float who made no lasting impression at all…
I have gone to Pride parades; I have marched for equality in Washington, DC; I have visited gay bars and dance clubs with a primarily gay clientele. And while there are some folks who can get away with next to no clothing in this body-obsessed society that we live in, I can assure you that the overwhelming majority of folks in these venues are fully dressed. Many of them carry so much shame about the shape of their bodies they would never be caught dead in speedos… and yet, that’s the image that everyone recalls.
- Second, when the Church does her best to drive away God’s LGBT children, we stand in no position to criticize people’s choices at the Pride parade. Further, I am of the firm opinion that gyrating half-naked young men on a float are playing out what they’ve been told they are by a society (and the Church) that condemns them. Like the Gerasene demoniac, these young people become the outcasts at the edge of society, hanging out in metaphorical graveyards, serving as a repository for the culture’s projections regarding its own sexuality.
- Third, in the midst of every Pride parade and fair ground I’ve ever been to, there is ALWAYS a contingent of folks from gay affirming churches. They don’t make FOX News or the immediate photos that pop up when you search images on Google, but they’re there. And more frequently now, there are mainstream denominations that are starting to understand their own role in systemic oppression of LGBTQ folk and their own culpability in our current situation. (More on this below.)
Vladyka Lazar asked why there aren’t any tasteful floats with veterans, and yet there are:
We have monuments too: http://peace.maripo.com/p_glbt.htm
We remember the Holocaust:
In fact, since my youth the pink triangle worn by homosexual men in the Nazi concentration camps has been a symbol of gay liberation, reminding us of the persecution of homosexuals in generations before us. Try visiting a Pride parade and counting how many you see:
And we do try to raise consciousness of our gay “forebears,” including both
* Alan Turing: http://www.audioactivism.org/2006/02/27/pride-in-alan-turing/ and
* Pytor Ilych Tchaikovsky: http://www.ukgaynews.org.uk/Archive/08/May/3107.htm
And we know about many others: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_gay,_lesbian_or_bisexual_people
But when we point these things out—when the dominant culture notices our attempts to find familiar faces in the past—we are immediately criticized for “revising” history. This, too, is a part of the interlocking, contradictory mechanisms of the discourse that holds us “in our place.” (If I get the strength, I’ll have more to say about this in another post and its intersection with iconography…)
Sedgwick’s epistemology of the closet is also useful in unmasking the bind we’re in. Frequently we hear that we’re to blame for our own plight if we don’t come out. After all, if we don’t tell the Church that we’re gay and in their midst, then we’re “hiding.” And no change can ever be affected if we don’t stand up and witness to our sexuality.
So we’re supposed to seek understanding from the broader society with its mechanisms of oppression. And we’re supposed to come out to a Church that stands at the ready to bar us from communion.
And when we do come out, there are rules by which we have to do it – many of which have a lot more to do with making sure that we’re as non-threatening to straight people as is humanly possible.
We’re supposed to look just like straight people when we come out. And if we deviate from the norm, then we’re flaunting it in straight people’s faces and demanding surrender. And any deviation from that norm at all means we’re flaunting:
- if we hold hands or otherwise express affection for our mates, we’re flaunting our sexuality
- if we wear clothing anything (down to a lapel pin) that indicates our sexual orientation, we’re flaunting our sexuality
- if we mention our partners or boyfriends or girlfriends, we’re flaunting our sexuality
We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. This is all a part of the epistemology of the closet.
REFRAMING THE DISCUSSION
I’m not here to answer all the questions. But I think it’s worth looking at these tactics and thinking about how we as Christians are often complicit in their execution. Though I don’t have all the answers, I think that one place to start is with admitting our own complicity in the system of violence against sexual minorities. (And, yes, silence in the face of oppression is complicity…)
Instead of spending our time critiquing Pride parades, imagine what it might look like if we began to acknowledge the violence we’ve been complicit with:
[The signs read, “I’m Sorry for how the Church has Treated You” and “I USED TO BE A BIBLE-BANGING HOMOPHOBE. I’M SORRY!”]
When I first saw this picture, I was reminded of the story of the prodigal son… and the father who was more concerned with the return of his boy than the state that he was in or what he’d been up to. So often the church plays the role of the dutiful son who has stayed close to the father’s house. All too often we stand ready to judge the one who has strayed…
Imagine what it would look like if a bunch of Orthodox folks could find it in themselves to do what the Christians in the photo above are doing?
What would it look like to actively seek out and really listen to the stories of LGBTQ folks that the Church has rejected? And to seek reconciliation? [Kudos here to Vladyka Lazar, who has done some of this work with homeless youth in his area.]
What would happen if we took the time to listen to how God has been present in the lives of those that the Church writes off as abominations?
What would happen if, for example, each person in this group took a Sunday to visit an affirming church ministry with open eyes and heart, asking the Holy Spirit to show us what’s up in the Church at large? [I realize that this will set some readers on edge who have identified the contours of the Church with Orthodoxy, but the question still stands…]