…Then Someone’s Not Being: A Reply to Elizabeth

Maestro Wilde

Today, in First Things, my mentor, gaffer and friend Elizabeth Scalia does a very gutsy thing. She talks about homosexuality in a way that affirms nobody’s orthodoxy: Wondering whether being born gay might constitute a “call to otherness,” she continues:

I have a theory that our gay brothers and sisters are, in fact, planned, loved-into-being “necessary others,” and that they are meant to show us something of God from a perspective that we cannot otherwise broach. I suspect art is a part of it. I do not presume to guess what attractions Michelangelo felt, but I could not view his stunning work throughout the Vatican and in Rome without recalling a quip someone (I believe Camille Paglia) once made, that when gays were closeted and presumably less active sexually, their energies had been subsumed into creating transcendent, living, time-smashing masterpieces. Now that they were “out”, said the wag, their art was mundane, mostly unmemorable, often lazy and insubstantial.

I know I am entering deep and destructive currents by even daring to swim here, but homosexual questions are all around us—gay marriage, certainly is at the forefront (and there again, we may actually have some instruction from Christ, in Matthew 19) but there is also the issue of recognizing the many homosexuals in our church who are excellent, joyful priests, faithful to their vows and their flocks—and they are questions begging for temperate, reasonable and loving dialogue.

There’s so much good stuff here — where to start? First of all, I really like the idea that eccentricity is no accident. General Patton liked to say that if everybody’s thinking alike, somebody’s not thinking. (Or rather, George C. Scott said that in the biopic; I’m taking it on faith he was quoting the original.) To me, it always seemed self-evidently true that if everyone’s being alike, someone’s not being.

Most Catholic would probably agree. The Public Religion Research Institute reports that “a majority of Catholics supports legal rights for gays and lesbians.” Whatever your own opinion of gay marriage, you’ll allow that those who support it probably believe that gay people: 1) are born gay; and 2) not for no good reason.

But some of the especially devout, I’ve noticed, bind themselves to a much older covenant. Believing homosexuality to be a character flaw, if not a curse, they agree to overlook it until someone wrestles them to the ground and rubs it right in their faces. In this, they believe they’re doing gay people a favor — giving them the benefit of the doubt.

This arrangement produces its comical moments. At my old parish, there was a religious sister who firmly believed that homosexuality was a choice. I’ve never really picked her brain on the subject, but I suppose she believes that gay can be prayed, willed or even married away, the good Lord willing. A friend tells me that one year, a gay parishioner showed up at her birthday party on the arm of, well, a trick — a much younger man, recently acquired, possibly on the street. As the evening wound down, the trick scurried about the room, draining the dregs from everyone’s wine glass while Sister looked on, poleaxed.

Most of her paralysis, I’m sure, came from simple good manners. Few people raised in omes with good china would be able to say, “Hey! Quit minesweeping, you disgusting slob!” with enough force to carry the point. But I’m convinced the imperative to denial, deeply ingrained as it was, played a big part, too. “Leave my glasses alone” would have been one breath away from “Keep your pickups out of my house,” which would have dumped a big jar of nightcrawlers onto the gleaming linoleum of Sister’s worldview.

Call me an unreflective product of my generation, but I think it would have been better for all concerned if Sister had been able to say, “Listen, I know you’re called to be different, but as long as you’re in my house, you’re called to behave like civilized damn human beings!”

Now onto Elizabeth’s other point, that gays are more productive when most deeply closeted, “and presumably less active sexually” — Oscar Wilde might have agreed. He spoke ruefully of having put his talent into his art and his genius into his life. It’s certainly true that if convention had not obliged him to be a hypocrite, he wouldn’t have been able to speak so profoundly about — and against — hypocrisy, as he did in The Importance of Being Earnest.

But I’m not sure I’m ready to take Wilde completely at his word. He was a vain man, inclined to overlook his own faults — he spends the first part of De Profundis blaming all his misfortunes on Bosie Douglas. Exaggerating the extent to which his work failed to reflect his potential seems to me very much in character.

Even if he were right, would it follow that a sexless life — or a safe one with Constance, Cyril, and Vyvyan at Tite Street– would have provided him more fertile ground for his genius? I doubt it. The mid 1880s, when Wilde’s gay life was at its most dormant — or at any rate, at its tamest — also represented somewhat of a creative doldrums. Wilde’s work took off only later, in tandem with his passions for John Gray and Bosie Douglas. W.H. Auden once wrote that Bosie spurred Wilde’s productivity by presenting him with enormous hotel bills to pay off. Probably. But in The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde, Joseph Pearce points out that Wilde’s work came most to resemble Christian allegory in those times when his life was at its most chaotic. The more he sinned, and courted danger thereby — “feasting with panthers” was his own expression — the better he came to appreciate virtue and redemption, at least in the abstract.

I doubt there’s any single foolproof recipe for creativity — if there is, it would have to include talent, a quality denied even many gay people. But from this one example, it would seem that sex with a sense of sin works at least as well as the sense of sin would by itself.

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  • http://piercework.typepad.com Jennifer

    Nice twin to Elizabeth’s piece. I had a comment but your filter insulted it by calling it spammy. My comment’s feelings were very hurt. It was utterly and completely profound. But now it has been othered, cast off. Ironic, no?

    I’m just kidding–really nice piece.

  • DWiss

    There is disagreement about what percentage of the population is gay. 3%, 5%, 7% maybe. Not 10%, a number that was tossed around for awhile.

    So, it seems to me that a subject that is of concern to a single digit portion of us is absolutely controlling almost every conversation. I like Elizabeth’s different view of homosexuality. I can believe that God had a purpose in creating some people gay. No problem. But I think we should talk about it a lot less.

    But since we’re talking about it now, why are we falling all over ourselves to redifine marriage to suit the tiny minority? Because once you’ve allowed same sex marriage you have to allow any other variety of marriage as well. Is that what we want? I don’t think so. Leviticus kind of lumps three things together in condemning them: homosexuality, incest and bestiality (you could look it up). So let your imaginations run wild.

    Let gays be gay. It doesn’t bother me at all, even if I side completely with the Catholic church in describing it as sin. I have my own sins – but that’s not one of them. What I do resent more and more is having the subject thrown in my face all the time. You know, I just can’t expect the church – or society – to redefine my sins as virtues just because I can’t quite shake the temptation.

  • NMcK

    Why do people still associate homosexuality almost exclusively with gay male dancers, interior decorators, fashion designers, etc.?

    Come on up to the other end of my street and hang with the gay gals of Bernal Hts. (if their Presa Canarios don’t kill you first…).

    Not all gay people, or even most gay people, closted, active, or anywhere in between, are creative, artistic or sensitive to any remarkable degree.

  • Aimee

    @DWiss–I like your post–and it seems worth noting that the percentage varies depending on time and place, leading to the difficult distinction between “actually gay” versus “culturally gay”, etc.–which seems to me to lead us right back to the old, Biblical view of sexuality. And NMcK, so true, so true; the stereotypes really seem to leave out lesbians, for one, as well as the misogyny that’s often a big part of gay male culture (historically, at least).

  • Holly in Nebraska

    But maybe it’s more than just sex w/sin. I remember some time ago an article about a priest who was either a musician/writer/artist (I forgot) who left the priesthood because he said he couldn’t be creative without sex. If you think of sex as “aggressive, outward movement” (for a man anyway) and creativity as “aggressive, outward movement”, there may be something to that for some people. (Here I don’t mean aggressive in a negative sense).

    Maybe for some people the two are so close one can’t exist without the other.

  • Michelle

    Elizabeth’s article and your response claim that God makes people gay or, to put it accurately, that God gives people same-sex attraction. Where do you get this? The Church in the CCC, as we know, calls homosexuality “intrinsically disordered”. In other words, it’s outside the order of nature. God did not make it.

    Sexual activity between two men or two women can never be good. Feeling a desire for this isn’t a sin, but it can never be good. Let’s stop kidding ourselves.

    God’s calling is simple: know, love, and serve Him and be happy with Him for eternity. He created us with dignity. We live that dignity when we’re chaste. Not celibate. Chaste. If you don’t know the difference, look it up.

  • http://eagerfortheinfinite.wordpress.com B_Faith

    This is just food for thought…

    To say that a person IS BORN with a TENDENCY (in varying degrees) for same sex attraction is not incongruous with the reality that God, Himself, created each and every one of us. Now, I am an Orthodox Catholic, 100% aligned with Church teaching, but I still think that it is possible that a person can be born with such a tendency – which, often times, life experience can cause to snowball into identifying oneself as gay and embracing the sub-culture and lifestyle.

    I agree and acknowledge that The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) says that it is “disordered,” but, I’ll tell you what sister, I was created intrinsically disordered too. I was born with asthma, allergies, a birthmark on my face, and a skin disorder called eczema (which completely wounded my little heart, creating a very insecure person, and I deal with the consequences of that, consciously and subconsciously, daily). And what about siamese twins? What about a person born without any limbs whatsoever? Now, tell me that’s not “disordered” – meaning, “not according to the perfect order which God intended a human being to live.”

    We live in a fallen world where God has mysteriously allowed all of this “disorder” to bombard our lives and color our existence. But it doesn’t make anyone bad. It doesn’t take an iota away from our dignity, or how much we are personally known, loved and cherished by God. But, I know, I know…it’s how that “act out” that makes it sinful. Well, because of the way I came to exist in my disordered way, causing deep insecurity (and, honestly, a subconscious self-hatred and loathing – which is much better now as I grow and heal) I also sinnned. I overate = gluttony. I would assume people thought I was disgusting and then treat them badly as a defense mechanism.

    I guess that’s all I wanted to say. Disorder…it makes sense to me….is going to lead to sin. We need Christ to put order into our hearts, and bring light and truth into the lies and darkness of our soul. We were all born intrinsically disordered. I don’t know about you but I was born in original sin; a fallen human being. And then, we all come into this world with our very unique disorders and crosses. None of us are any better than anyone else.

    I just – can’t. ever. judge. Not me, man…

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