Not to make too stark a transition from babies to homosexuals, but – I really liked what Eve Tushnet wrote in response to the question of why, as a Catholic faithful to Church teaching, she continues to self-identify as gay.
Replace “gay” with “Jewish” in several paragraphs, and Eve’s text may sound familiar to readers of this blog. Which is not to say that the story of every minority in the Church is the same story. But there is a shared story of simply being a minority, specifically one with a strong sense of identity – reinforced by society, or history, or family. That story is worth telling, and Eve tells it well.
For some reason I can’t figure out how to link just to the relevant post, so here goes the whole text:
I was kind of startled that the “Why do you identify as ‘gay’?” question didn’t come up in Denver. Possibly that’s just because I talked way too long, so the q&a was cut short. Anyway my impression is that lots of people, both straight and not-so-much, really want to know about this question. I don’t know if I understand the question too well since it isn’t one which has ever exercised me–but here’s where my thinking is right now, on what some people may be hearing when I say I’m gay and what I’m actually saying. (A previous post on this subject, written in a sort of galumphing-drunken-elephant style, is here.)
First, I think for some people taking on a gay identity is seen as setting up a competing community to the Church, which commands our loyalties in the way only Christ should. It’s seen as surrender to something other than Christ. I’m sympathetic to this since I do think our surrender to Christ must be total and unique, and it’s obvious that other communities and identity groups can compete with that surrender. The most obvious example for me is nationality: It’s clear that one’s self-concept as an American can compromise one’s identity as a Christian.
And yet when somebody says he’s Greek, the response of the non-Greek Christians around him isn’t immediately to respond, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek!” and to assume compromised faith on his part. There’s an understanding that national identity both must and can be taken lightly, considered as a part of one’s situation rather than a warped lens through which the Gospel is distorted. (The majority of people to whom I describe myself as “gay” view that identity the same way. They don’t actually perceive any contradiction–they might see an added and maybe weird difficulty, but not an internal contradiction–in saying that I’m gay and celibate.)
Second, “gay” describes a community (or really, a big, contradictory, feisty tussle of communities) and a relationship to that community, and if you don’t have any notable or positive relationship to that community then that is a fact about you which presumably would lead you to identify differently. My sense is that people who have had very little experience with gay communities, or whose experiences have been largely negative, are a lot more likely to identify as “same-sex attracted” and resist identifying as gay. My own relationship to queer communities has been important to me, largely positive, and characterized by belonging, and that’s what I mean when I say I’m gay.
But there really are no terms which don’t in some way mark out a community. “Same-sex attracted” is identity-jargon too, delineating a specific way of understanding one’s eros: a new way, a way which would be as difficult to explain to St. Aelred (for example) as “gay.”
I’ve written before (from a somewhat different perspective than the one I have now) about my coming-out process: that click of recognition, the key turning in the lock. I thought at the time that my alienation was explained by my sexual orientation. “Oh, so that’s all it was!” That turns out to be only partly true–my alienation stems really from the Fall, not from being queer, but queerness is one way I’ve experienced a heightened or stylized version of that universal alienation. That experience was really important to me–and, ultimately, important to my conversion to Catholicism. Explaining it without “self-identifying” as queer would feel really artificial and strained.
Similarly, look, I was a pretty self-centered kid. I don’t know how much progress I’ve made there, but I know that gay and queer communities were among the places where I learned to try to listen to other people, admit my own faults and blind spots, and generally be more giving and less awful. I’ve said before that I was a better girlfriend to girls than to guys and I expect that’s related to my self-identification as well: “Gay” names a place where I became a somewhat better person. I want to honor the people who put up with me.
My sense is that if you’re Christian and you’ve had experiences like these, you’re more likely to self-identify as gay, and if you haven’t, you’re more likely to self-identify as same-sex attracted. (Although for a contrasting perspective, see here.)
Also, notice the real but limited role played by sexual desire in this description. “Because I’m gay” I’ve been sexually drawn to women; but also, “because I’m gay” I’ve felt intense difference from those around me, felt recognition and a sort of exhilaration when I found writers and musicians and artists who described queer experience, felt a need to be of service to women, and been a part of various communities which shaped me. Collapsing all of these elements of my “gay experience” into wanting to have gay sex seems to me to be a misunderstanding of eros–and a willful erasure of every possible element of gay experience which might form part of a positive path toward Christ and conversion. It seems like a demand that the path from the gay community to Christ must be a path of rejection rather than reunderstanding.
Christianity has always confronted specific communities which were held together by elements which seemed inimical to the Gospel. One major response has been to identify the “unknown gods” in those communities, the places where their own self-understandings indicated a longing for Christ. The community could then be baptized rather than rejected or destroyed. One reason I really loved Frederick W. Roden’s Same-Sex Desire in Victorian Religious Culture is that he talks about the ways in which the cultures and communities which eventually transformed into “gay culture” had intrinsic affinities for Catholic faith. It’s obvious to me how my eros could be baptized, and I’ve written about that stuff a lot here.
Third, I persist in thinking that the tangle of experiences we’ve decided to call “being gay” is interesting. I’ve said, cattily, that I oppose gay marriage because I think homosexuality is interesting rather than banal. A lot of the “don’t identify as gay” stuff seems to me to be an attempt to gloss over real differences in experience, to pretend that homosexuality makes no important difference in one’s life path as a Christian in contemporary society. That seems to me to be an effort to understand gay difference and gay experience as banal. (“I’m not married, so I have to be chaste too! Our situations are just the same. So why are you acting like you’re different and special?” No. Our situations may have important lessons for one another. Your situation may be harder than mine in various ways, e.g. I don’t sit up nights wondering why I haven’t found a nice girl to marry me. But solidarity requires acknowledgment of difference, not suppression of it.)
And finally, “gay” is a blunt term, a quick tabloid kind of term, garish and in-your-face. I like that in a girl!