Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Post-script: On the Retirement of John the Oppressor

Homophobia – the elephant in the room

When the story in the Sentinel ran, I held my breath fearing an onslaught of comments that would bash anyone who dared to actually criticize this self-styled heroic bishop of Central Florida. To my relief, only one comment was offered from a writer identifying himself as JohnOS who said, “I good (sic) to see an article about a person who maintains the traditional views on sexuality without using the pejorative of homophobe to describe him.”

In all fairness, JohnOS reflects perhaps the dominant view about the use of the descriptor “homophobe” within most institutional religious bodies today. JohnOS describes it as a “perjorative” while many church leaders call it “a discussion stopper.” But, as the Wizard of Oz said to Dorothy and company, “Not so fast, not so fast!”

An overused epithet

I would readily agree that the usage of the term homophobe in its various incarnations is often too loose and too frequent to be terribly meaningful. There is a difference between a mindless acquiescence to heteronormative understandings of the world and an irrational aversion to anything remotely non-heterosexual.

For instance, it’s fairly common if not predictable to hear people argue that marriage is a relationship between members of the opposite sex given that for much of its history that has been its primary if not exclusive practice. Clearly that has been due in part to discrimination against those who wanted to marry members of their own sex but were not permitted by law and social convention to do so, particularly in recent years. But for much of human history, those questions have simply not been asked. The resulting heteronormative understanding is thus a rather unconscious default to a “common sense” that simply has never been required to think about any alternatives.

But what folks like JohnOS are trying to argue is not an innocent default to common sense. The reality is that there are good reasons why people of the same sex should not be discriminated against in any manner including their very human desires to marry the person they love. Those reasons have been widely discussed, supported with evidence and argued in public forums. And there is a ton of reasons which gravitate against a starting place which sees heterosexuality as normative for everyone in the light of massive research demonstrating the problems with such understandings.

While it is common that human beings often seek sources which confirm their biases and foregone conclusions, one would have to have been living in the depths of Plato’s Cave for the past two decades not to be aware of the problems with a view of heterosexuality as normative for everyone. And nowhere have those problems been hashed out with regularity more than in the venues of organized religion.

It’s when a steadfast denial encounters disaffirming evidence which makes holding onto one’s heteronormative view in good faith impossible that the descriptor homophobic begins to come into the picture. At that point, the benefit of the doubt can no longer go to the denier. An ongoing denial in the face of disconfirming evidence points towards something deeper than an opinion in which one has become invested; it points toward an irrational attachment to that position for any number of possible reasons most of which are largely beyond the holder's ability to articulate.

There is very little rational about asserting that other people choose their sexual orientations - inevitably asserted about those who see themselves in non-heterosexual terms by those who have no experience of the same - in the face of testimony from those persons that no such choice ever occurred. Indeed, there is no small amount of presumptiveness on the part of those who make such arguments in that everyone is either like them or ought to be.

There is also little rational about asserting that heterosexuality is the natural state for all living beings given the avalanche of evidence to the contrary. That includes the social science documenting a consistent self-reporting non- heterosexual population among human animals as well as evidence from natural science documenting homosexual behavioral patterns in virtually every other species of animals.

This, in turn, brings heteronormative theological constructions into question. Given the reality of a sexually diverse animal kingdom combined with the religious belief that a Creator G-d is the author of that kingdom, there is little rational about asserting that heteronormativity is somehow the divine intent for the universe. At that point the social construction which would be legitimated with the divine imprimatur reveals itself.

Demanding a pass on one's prejudices

There is a hint in JohnOS’ comment and among many within organized religion that religious people should somehow get a pass on being called on their irrational views, their resulting discriminatory actions as well as the harm their attitudes and actions inflict on their fellow children of G-d. The argument seems to be that if one’s religion ordains homophobia, it somehow is cleansed of its misanthropic nature. In other words, if one’s religion asserts homophobia as one of its core values, it really isn’t homophobia.

Why would that be?

Of course, religions have historically baptized cultural values as a means of legitimating them from the beginning of time. A lot of crazy notions have maintained themselves throughout the years this way, notions like the superiority of Europeans vis-à-vis the inhabitants of the New World; notions of women as the source of original sin and thus of all resulting evil in the world; notions of Negroid peoples as somehow divinely ordained for slavery because they are seen as bearing the mark of Cain or the dark skin of Ham.

It is always a lot easier to practice destructive human prejudices like racism, misogyny and homophobia if one sees themselves in possession of “Hate One Group of Human Beings Free” card from a deity which affirms the elect and encourages them to demonize the damned outside their limited circle of righteousness. As writer Annie Lamott observes, "You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do."

There is also a hint in JohnOS’ comment of an argument I frequently hear from my undergrads when this issue arises: “Well, I’m a ______ (your religious/political persuasion here) and therefore I have to feel this way about ______(your religious/political position here).” Such a statement suggests the holder of this view has no choice but to hold it.

Of course, such is never true. Indeed, it is not even empirically accurate in this case as study after study indicates that people of good faith within religious traditions from evangelical Protestantism to Roman Catholicism still find ways to support gay rights even as they remain devoted believers. “I had no choice” is rarely a credible argument and in this case, it’s simply a thinly veiled means of attempting to avoid accountability for the choices one has actually made or at least continues to acquiesce to.

If homophobia had no implications for others, it would not be an issue. JohnOS would never have felt the need to preemptively defend his bishop from such charges if it were no big deal. As Americans we fervently believe that everyone is entitled to their opinions even if they arise from misanthropy and xenophobia.

But the corollary that many uncritically add to this premise that we’re all entitled to our opinions is NOT like unto it: and thus every opinion is not entitled to respect. It is one thing to respect the dignity of a fellow human being by tolerating their speech and affirming their right to express themselves even if we fervently disagree with their perspective. It’s quite another to insist that every opinion must be equally respected regardless of content. And when irrational views about sexual orientation are coupled with actions which discriminate against and dehumanize others, they become fair game to be called what they are - homophobia. Indeed, a healthy body politic requires such truth telling in its most fundamental form.

No one wants to be called a bigot

The reality is that no one wants to see themselves as misanthropes. That’s particularly true of adherents of religious traditions that construct elaborate collective personae of righteousness designed to provide members with feelings of being chosen and affirmed by the deity. A common expression of such a collective persona can be found in the Episcopal hymnal in a hymn entitled “Child of the Light.” Its lyrics include the following: "I want to be like a child of the light, I want to be like Jesus….In him there is no darkness at all.” It’s my observation that such aspirations are not consistent with a healthy human self-understanding.

Carl Jung observed that the Persona is constructed of socially acceptable qualities – thus, among such observable qualities “there is no darkness at all.” But the shadow content, the aspects of ourselves that prove socially unacceptable, brutally repressed in the quest for righteousness, has to go somewhere. So it’s hardly surprising it gets projected onto those least able to defend themselves against such projections, designated scapegoats such as LBGQT people. And it’s hardly surprising that this scapegoating occurs more frequently among religious people who feel a burden to maintain personae obsessed with righteousness than with others.

Folks like JohnOS demand that others give them a sweet deal. They want to continue holding onto their dehumanizing views of gay and lesbian people in the face of evidence which reveals their views as irrational and the results of their views as destructive. They want to continue the discriminatory policies that flow from such views with impunity. And at the same time they demand that others never call them on it.

In short, JohnOS asks too much for people of critical reason and good faith.

Policies like those which marked John Howe’s bishopric must be called what they actually were if we would avoid compounding the sin of the effects of a destructive social prejudice with that of dishonesty. And what those policies must be called in the name of utter candor with ourselves and truth-telling with others is pretty obvious: homophobic, an irrational aversion to anything remotely non-heteronormative. And while those who hold such views do not have to like this designation- indeed they shouldn’t - they simply do not get a pass by playing the G-d card.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando



If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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