[Part two of two parts]
Some of the difficulty in coming to grips with issues of sexual orientation both on an individual as well as at a societal level has revolved around the use of the term homophobia to describe prejudicial feelings regarding non-heterosexual orientations and the behaviors which flow from them. Initially cast in the language of psychopathology, the use of the suffix “phobia” suggested a morbid fear of aspects of the natural world which many people might find discomforting yet without any sense of compulsion in their avoidance. The terrified responses some feel when encountering snakes or spiders are good examples of phobic reactions.
While prejudice toward same sex behaviors is ancient in origins, the use of psychopathological language to describe this prejudice dates only to the late 1960s when a psychologist first used the term to described the internalized homophobia of men who feared that others thought they might be gay. Time Magazine quickly picked up the usage and thus homophobia entered into the American lexicon as a somewhat imprecise means of describing a wide range of negative reactions to homosexuality.
Not surprisingly, many who held such negative reactions objected to having their prejudices psychologized. Many men, intent on defending their masculinity, readily proclaimed they were hardly afraid of gay men, didn’t dislike them, they just saw them in negative terms.
Religious conservatives often insist that their prejudices were somehow located in the mind of G-d and thus they had no choice about the matter given the appearance of what they interpreted as anti-gay understandings in Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Of course, any assertion that one has no choice of what to believe is ultimately intellectually dishonest.
No child comes into the world with a belief structure already formed and irrevocably cemented into place. Beliefs are by definition the product of choice making and for all of us that process has included many instances of changing our mind along the way. That one may find one’s current choice compelling and the alternative appalling does not mean a choice has not been made or that different choices could not be made now.
It is here that levels of moral and spiritual development come into play. The question of how to see one’s fellow children of G_d who happen to be LBGTQ draws into stark contrast the Great Commandments to love one’s neighbor as oneself – a post-conventional level of moral reasoning reflecting the thought of Jesus himself – and a legalistic appropriation of scripture – a tribal conventional moral reasoning more reflective of the Pharisees and scribes Jesus so often confronted.
Given that most people operate out of tribal or societal conventional levels of moral reasoning and corresponding levels of spiritual development, it is hardly surprising that lower level legalistic understandings emerge victorious here. Religious conservatives have often sought to avoid that contradiction with a convenient and often insufferably smarmy response of “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” a mantra big on the purity-based judgment of tribal legalism but devoid of anything resembling the unconditional love the commandments Jesus deferred to actually require.
Yet, recent studies have found that negative understandings of homosexuality actually come unbidden for most people. A wide range of studies on the “ick factor” in the last two decades has revealed that the degree to which one experiences a physiological reaction to disgusting stimuli such as human excrement and worms being eaten is a strong predictor for conservative positions on homosexuality and a wide range of other sex and reproduction issues.
That’s particularly true when such reactions are based in internalized homophobia. Fear of being seen as gay is particularly salient for those for whom repressed homoerotic responses arise unbidden according to a study from the University of Georgia.
What emerges from the last half century of changing understandings and perceptions is the realization that homosexual feelings and behaviors are part of the natural order which explains why they have been reported from the beginning of human history along with negative responses to the same. The recognition that homosexuality is the subordinate expression of sexuality in humans along with a host of other animal species means that it is a consistent part of the human sexual spectrum. Contrary to years of negative construction, predominately homosexual orientations are indeed a part of the natural order. They are uncommon but normal for those among whom they occur.
That is the reality, the noumenon, the biological fact seen in the light of reason and empirical evidence with which human subjects must now come to grips. And it is in that light that the descriptor homophobia becomes salient.
The current Merriam-Webster working defines homophobia as an “irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals.” The key word in the definition is “irrational.” How that irrationality plays out could vary from an immediate, overpowering fear such as that found in cases of “homosexual panic” to the more garden variety of prejudice found in everything from middle school banter to slurs among multi-millionaire sports and rock stars trying to convince the public (and perhaps themselves) of their heterosexuality.
This is where irrationality comes into the picture:
- It is not reasonable to demonize a subordinate expression of human sexuality whether by garden variety prejudices or through the heavy handed use of the law in criminalizing it. When the latter occurs, regardless of its jurisdiction, it is a classic example of the tyranny of the majority at work.
- It is not reasonable to deny same sex couples the same rights, privileges and immunities as spouses and partners that differently sexed couples presume their entitlement. In a democratic society, that is the definition of injustice.
- And it is not reasonable to presume that the G-d from which all being arises and to which all being returns would create a small subset of human beings who over their lifetime realize that they are not heterosexual only to condemn them because they have chosen to be honest with themselves and the world about who they are. That evidences the idolatry of a rather tyrannical deity who unsurprisingly holds the same prejudices as the believer.
- It is also not reasonable to appropriate scriptures in a selectively literalist manner in which prohibitions against eating shellfish (an abomination) are studiously ignored while the prohibitions against men lying with men as they would with women (which, of course, presumes that they would lie with women in the first place) from the same chapters are seen as inviolable. It is not reasonable to approach all the scriptural justifications for slavery and sexism with a scalpel of critical reason while approaching the provisions regarding same sex behaviors with kid gloves. To do so is to evidence the hermeneutic of homophobia.
- Finally, it is not reasonable to conflate an ancient social prejudice with the fundamental doctrinal tenets of an otherwise venerable religious tradition. Socially constructed understandings of sexual orientation are simply not in the same conceptual universe as theological beliefs about the Trinity. And it is not reasonable to deny faithful adherents of any religion, particularly one centered in the Golden Rule, their full place at the table of that tradition simply because of who they are and their willingness to be honest about that reality.
The Loss of the Luxury of Naïveté
In alcohol and addictions treatment, there is a phenomenon known as the loss of the luxury of naïveté. The first time the hungover alcohol abuser wakes up and cannot remember how s/he got home last night, that luxury is gone. There is a problem that cannot be ignored or easily explained away. And chances are, it may well get worse before it gets better.
The same is true of those who insist upon holding onto negative understandings of homosexuality in light of all the evidence which reveals those understandings to be irrational. While democratic societies protect their rights to form, hold and express their beliefs as they see fit, they do not guarantee that the beliefs themselves must be respected. Indeed, given the irrational nature of these particular beliefs, not only are they not respectable, their irrationality ultimately provides a legitimate basis for the assessment of those beliefs as homophobic.
We do ourselves no favors when we refuse to look at this reality and see it for what it is. If we are serious in our desires to understand this pattern of thinking and behavior, we must start by calling it what it is.
But there is one more piece to this puzzle we must consider.
Even as we recognize this thinking and the negative, unbidden feelings which often inform it to be irrational - and thus homophobic - it is critical that we do not engage in the same kind of reductionist behaviors that have in the past led the holders of these same prejudices to sum up complex human beings in dismissive reductionist terms: queer, fag, homo, lesbo.
No one is just a homophobe even if they cling to homophobic understandings in the face of knowing better. Human beings are too complex for such thoughtless description and the most imperfect of us remains a human being bearing the image of G_d even as we may fail to recognize it in the other. That was true of those prosecuting racist agendas during the 1950s, sexist agendas during the 1960s and the Know-Nothing rhetoric of the current election cycle. Sister Helen Prejean, who ministers among death row inmates in Louisiana, is very clear that no one – including convicted murderers – can ever be summed up by the worst thing they ever did (or thought or said).
Speaking from my own life experience, it has taken many of us who were raised in our version of Plato’s Cave - an overtly racist, segregated South - our entire lifetime to come to grips with the understandings and unbidden feelings about race that were planted in our tabula rasa infant souls. Like the popular (though I believe largely unhelpful) constructions of arrested addictive behaviors, we may well always be “in recovery.” We will always need to be mindful of our thought processes, particularly when under stress we begin down well-worn mental processing paths without conscious thinking.
All of us infected with that racist prejudice have come only as far as we have because we have been willing to learn from our mistakes and because those we have harmed with our racist understandings and feelings have been patient and gracious enough to help us grow and develop out of them. The same is true of those struggling with homophobia – including many LBGTQ people for whom the demons of homophobia are alive and well, repressed into the Shadow and expressing themselves as self-denigrating, self-defeating and sometimes self-destructive behaviors.
These understandings are the product of many millennia of human culture. They did not arise overnight and they will not go away overnight.
For folks like the religious leader referenced in the opening of this essay, a heuristic composite of my dealings with several leaders across many different religious traditions, this will be a long, hard road. But it is the road to which all of us as human beings in varying states of consciousness are called: to recognize, name, confront and heal from the misanthropies we have absorbed and developed over our lifetimes.
In the Episcopal tradition, when anyone is baptized, we all recite a Baptismal Covenant in which we pledge to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves…” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” These vows reflect a decidedly post-conventional moral reasoning and spiritual development. And because we know that none of us can do this alone, we make our pledge by responding “I will with God’s help.”
Letting go of eons of socially constructed human prejudices is never easy, particularly in a culture which continues to reinforce those prejudices in blatant as well as in subtle, often unrecognized ways. It will take both human determination as well as divine grace to make the changes that loving our neighbors as ourselves and respecting the dignity of every human being requires. It will mean reconsideration of what we thought we knew and recognition of the harm done by those previous understandings, a process called repentance in religious terms. But as the response in the Covenant reflects, that process of repentance and change always begins with a simple “I will….”
Even for religious leaders.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)