Thabiti Anyabwile|9:20 am CT

They Said It Far Better Than I Could

Recently I’ve attempted to argue that in our discourse about homosexuality we need to return the discussion to the basic description of the acts themselves. I’ve suggested  that on two grounds, one fairly implicit, the other stated explicitly. Implicit in my previous posts was the assumption that the entire premise of homosexuality as social identity needs to be questioned. I didn’t develop this thought, but it was working in my description of how the public conversation about homosexuality turned so quickly and decisively. The more explicit statement was that we need to turn the conversation to the sex acts themselves because the success of the pro-homosexuality campaign depends on our not considering those things actively.

This week a couple of pieces make those points far more eloquently and  helpfully than I could  ever do.

Understanding the Perception and Rhetoric

The first comes from a New Yorker profile of Edith Windsor, the plaintiff in the DOMA case. At one point in the interview, the discussion turns toward rhetorical strategy and public perception. Here’s the relevant bit:

When selecting the ideal plaintiff, one experienced movement attorney told me, “Women are better than men, post-sexual is better than young.” From the Bible onward, two men having intercourse has been viewed as more disturbing to the social order than two women doing whatever it is that lesbians do. For people to embrace same-sex marriage, they needed to focus on the universal desire for romantic love and committed intimacy. Contemplating the difference between gay people and straight people made it acceptable to treat their relationships unequally, and the difference between homosexuality and heterosexuality is sexuality. Provided that Kaplan kept her client muzzled on the topic, Americans could imagine that Edie Windsor had aged out of carnality.

This interview accomplishes in a paragraph what I clumsily tried to illustrate by retelling that private public policy discussion from a decade ago. The ability to make homosexuality an accepted practice in the minds of the mainstream public depends upon a public presentation of homosexuality as effectively “aged  out of carnality.” Or to put it another way, it depends on dulling the conscience by avoiding those behaviors widely rejected by the public. Unless we understand that this is the intentional, active strategy of one side (and I don’t blame them one bit for making their best case; it’s what we all do!), then we won’t be engaged in an honest conversation. Those who oppose certain laws that enshrine homosexuality as “good and right” (like so-called “gay marriage”) will continue to joust the windmill of public perception rigged by a political presentation of the case. Here you have the rhetorical strategy described in the words of those supportive of gay rights. Opponents would do well to adjust accordingly.

Questioning the Very Construct of Homosexuality

Of course, the most fundamental form of this discussion requires we consider the concept of homosexuality itself. What was once known as sodomy and universally regarded a sin has become a “sexual orientation” considered a product of nature by many. Many people would like to call that debate “closed” and consider the matter settled firmly on the side of nature rather than nurture.

First Things posted a thoughtful and engaging piece today entitled, “Sexual Disorientation: The Trouble with Talking about ‘Gayness’.” Michael Hannon asks, “perhaps it is worth asking whether the premises themselves, and the formal framework in which they operate, should not be rejected wholesale. I wonder in particular whether employing the concept “gay people” with such nonchalance may communicate a familiarity and friendliness with this concept that is unmerited by its pedigree.” The entire piece is worth reading, but here are the salient points regarding how we think and talk about homosexuality.

1. “In his Histoire de la Sexualité, Michel Foucault argues that homosexuality is a social construct, and one constructed terribly recently at that.”

2. “Of course, that homosexuality is a social construct does not automatically render it evil or necessitate our rejection of it.”

3. “Still, while social constructs may be often benign, and may be sometimes even beneficial or necessary, there is good reason to doubt that sexual orientation is such a constructive construct.” Hannon elaborates:

First of all, the heterosexuality-homosexuality distinction is a construct that is dishonest about its identity as a construct, masquerading as it does as a natural categorization, applicable to all people in all times and places according to the typical objects of their sexual desires (albeit with perhaps a few more menu items on offer for the more politically correct categorizers). Claiming to be not simply an accidental nineteenth-century invention but a timeless truth about human sexual nature, this framework puts on airs, deceiving those who adopt its distinctions into believing that they are worth far more than they really are.

A second reason to doubt whether this concept is one that we Christians should readily employ is that its introduction into our sexual discourse has not noticeably increased the virtues—intellectual or moral—of those who utilize it. On the contrary, it has bred both intellectual obscurity and moral disarray. Our young people, for instance, now regularly find themselves agonizing over their sexual identity, navel-gazing in an attempt to discern their place in this allegedly natural framework of orientations. Such obsessions invite far more heat than light, and focus our already sexually excited adolescents on discerning extraneous dimensions of their own sexual makeup. This becomes thornier yet for those who discern in themselves a “homosexual orientation,” as they adopt an identity distinguished essentially by a set of genital sexual desires that cannot morally be fulfilled.

Again, the entire piece is worth reading and considering. Its most helpful virtue is its attempt to put us back on first things (appropriate for the magazine!), to help us ask the most basic questions lest we continue to find ourselves swept along by the winds of political spin, careening toward experiments and ideas contrary to historical facts, nature, and revelation.

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