Beyond Sexual Identity: Not Whether But How

Gay, straight, heterosexual, homosexual: All these terms have a history, all represent the fears and desires of specific cultures and moments, and all will eventually be superseded. In a hundred years I don’t think people in their flying cars, with their marriages to toasters, will be calling themselves gay or straight. The conflict over sexuality which has so deeply marked not only personal identity but (tragically) the identities of our churches will be replaced–probably replaced by other conflicts, or at least by other ways of understanding and playing out conflicts over sexuality.

How can Catholics make it more likely that “the end of sexual identity” will be the beginning of a more-Catholic way of looking at the world, and not a less-Catholic one?

I’ve said that I agree with much of the historical analysis in The End of Sexual Identity and (to a lesser extent) “Against Heterosexuality.” What I don’t think they offer is a way through the conflict they depict. In fact, I think their approaches reinforce the very identities they intend to deconstruct (Paris) or discredit (Hannon).

Partly this is because they focus on the thing they wish to dissolve. By targeting the way individuals identify, you’re necessarily drawing attention to it. It’s hard to get “beyond” something you’re constantly scrutinizing and policing.

And partly I’m so struck by the way Paris’s and Hannon’s analyses sideline any discussion of the mistreatment of gay people. The most painful parts of our shared experience are mostly invisible in their accounts. (If Hannon mentions anti-gay attitudes or actions at all I missed it. Paris does mention stigma, mistreatment at church, and discrimination, though quite briefly. She clearly thinks those things are wrong, which is refreshing…) If we can’t just bluntly say “because I’m gay,” a lot of those painful experiences become much harder to speak about. If you can’t call yourself “gay” it’s harder to describe or explain why you’re confused, scared, unwelcome, or stigmatized; even why you’ve been targeted for harassment, discrimination, violence, or rejection. And “Don’t call yourself gay”–which, frankly, is what 95% if not 100% of the practical recommendations of Paris and Hannon boil down to–helps to separate us from people with whom we might otherwise find solidarity. It encourages Christians who are same-sex attracted to view “gay people” as other, rather than as brothers to whom we have a special connection and responsibility. It encourages us to view our own positive experiences in gay communities, when we’ve had them, as something we need to completely reject rather than seeking ways to baptize what is good in those communities.

But also, as regards the specific subject of this post, we can note that the abuse suffered by gay people reinforces gay identity. If you share terrible experiences with someone, of course you will often feel deepened solidarity with them. If some aspect of your identity comes under intense, painful pressure, of course that aspect of your identity will be more important to you. And if gay people are a stigmatized class, everyone in the society ends up scrutinizing their desires to see if they might be a part of that class; any desire which deviates even slightly from what’s considered “enough” or “the right kind” of attraction to the same sex becomes a source of fear and shame. What we fear in our own psyches, what we’re ashamed of, and especially what we’re ashamed to offer to God, often grows bigger in the rich soil of our anxiety.

So if we want to move “beyond sexual identity,” here are three things we need to do:

First, give people safety and shelter from anti-gay attitudes. Remove the brutal pressure under which gay identity in our culture is formed.

Second, turn down the heat. Make this question of identity as uninflamed, as non-fraught, as possible. We should all care less about how other people identify, y’all. The less of a big deal it is, the easier it will be to move past.

And third, try out alternative frameworks for understanding the longings which we currently organize as “homosexuality” or “being gay” and “heterosexuality.”

There are many different kinds of homosexuality and heterosexuality–it would be better to talk of “homosexualities”–and we can unbundle some of the elements which we currently shove into the same box. For example, Ron Belgau has suggested St Aelred’s distinction between carnal and spiritual friendships as one more-Catholic way of talking about some of the longings and experiences which many of us now interpret as “being gay.” I think that framework speaks to a lot of people–it helps me make sense of some of my own lesbianism. Other alternative frameworks might include the language of vocation. The End of Sexual Identity makes this suggestion and obviously I think it’s a good one: organizing our longings and experiences under the structure of vocational discernment/acceptance. But I think we’re just at the beginning of offering these alternative languages to the language of sexual identity.

As we wait for the culture to shift, different people will find that different languages serve their vocation. I generally think people should use whichever identity-terms help them lead fruitful and God-centered lives: whatever helps them express the truth about their lives; whatever conveys solidarity with the groups to which they actually owe something, especially the marginalized groups; whatever helps them find community and models for their future. Both “gay” and “same-sex attracted” do this for different people. Disputed Mutability gives a good account of her own discernment that she needed to “forsake gay identity“; there are many reasons self-identifying as “gay” (or any other sexual-orientation term) would be wrong for a particular person or a particular season of life. Others will find that their vocations are best served by using terms like “gay” and “lesbian.”

In the future I fully intend to stand on my porch and shake my cane at all the young whippersnappers and their toaster-brides. “Oh, Miss Eve,” they’ll say (DC will still be pretty Southern in the future, apparently), “nobody says ‘gay’ anymore!”

“Well, what do they say?” I’ll ask.

Whether the answer helps people live out their God-given vocations, or hinders them, will depend in part on how Christians behave now.

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