Thursday, June 23, 2011

Why "Mormonism" Will Ultimately Liberate "the Gays"

Andrew recently offered a post explaining why he thinks "queer theory" holds more promise for the gay community than "GLBT activism," grounded as it supposedly is in "essentialist" or "essentializing" approaches to sexuality. Of course, there are plenty of LGBT activists who subscribe to "deconstructionist" "queer theory," so I'm not sure it's quite accurate to characterize this as a question of queer theory versus GLBT activism. However, it's probably* true that the vast majority of gay men and lesbians in this country -- including activists -- subscribe to what he would characterize as an "essentialist" approach to sexuality. I.e., You're either gay or straight (or bisexual). We just "are" this way.

Now, what's interesting is that queer theorists themselves seem to be at least a little bit troubled by the fact that their views of sexuality seem to converge with the views of the extreme, homophobic Christian right, which insists that homosexuality is an illusion/delusion, that sexualities are completely socially constructed and are, in essence, whatever we want them to be. What I find a little bit troubling (apart from the fact that this view of sexuality doesn't actually seem to correspond to the real-life experience of the vast majority of gay men and lesbians), is that in order to get around this itsy bitsy little problem, queer theorists will in turn argue that the problem with the Christian right view is that it insists on there being a right and a wrong. Take morality out of the equation, and it doesn't matter how polymorphously perverse our sexualities are. We have a right to do whatever we please, so it shouldn't matter if there's no such thing as homosexuality. There's no such thing as heterosexuality either. So there!

That view of sexuality is "liberating" for about two seconds. Usually the two seconds can be lengthened out to four or five years if you're in some cutting edge liberal arts program at a major secular University. It is liberating precisely until you realize, as a gay man or lesbian, that you do in fact find the most fulfillment in a loving relationship with a person of the same-sex, and despite all your efforts or wishes that that not be the case, it is. And so some queer theorist telling you that you're supposed to revel in your polymorphous perversity, and some Christian right therapist telling you that your homosexuality is due to your fear of connecting with your own masculinity or a Satanic deception -- none of that helps in the least. What helps us is what helps everyone else in the world: love, freedom, acceptance, community, commitment. And guess what? Morality.

There's a reason why the vast majority of "queer" folk take a more essentialist perspective for granted. It's because it fits with our experience. And it works best for us. Now I'll grant that the inner workings of sexuality are likely complex. I'll grant that just because the sun appears to rotate around the earth doesn't mean that it in fact does. Just because I have to rely on Newtonian mechanics to ride my bike and go about my business day-to-day doesn't mean that Einstein was wrong about time and space being relative. Nevertheless, the sun still rises every morning outside my eastern window, and I still organize my day around the very Newtonian clock hanging on my wall. Einstein isn't particularly helpful for running my life. And queer theorists (not to mention Christian right therapists) are a long way away from showing that their speculations about the nature of sexuality are anything like natural law. Eve Sedgwick is no Einstein (even though she's almost as difficult to read).

There came a point in my life where I realized that in order for my life to have a meaning, it needed a center. I spent a lot of time and energy searching for that center. I tried to find it in academics, in humanism, in political activism, in artistic endeavor. I certainly tried to find it in my relationship with my husband. I pondered whether a meaningful life could even be possible if it was centered merely in the self, in myself; though that's always seemed least promising of all. My best efforts to make sense of my life and find a center in anything but God ultimately failed.

The most meaningful parts of my life -- including my coming out and coming to terms with my sexuality, and the establishment of my relationship with my husband -- were the parts of my life that literally had been touched by God. And so opening my heart to the Spirit, and accepting the Spirit's invitation to "come home" was ultimately simply an acknowledgment of that fact. And it was the single most liberating act of my life.

I am willing to say that opening my heart to God would and could be liberation enough. But as I followed the Spirit's invitation to "come home," and to enter as fully as I could into the path of faith, without self-condemnation and without fear, I began to learn that the Restored Gospel offered very specific hope and liberation to me as a gay man that I didn't see anywhere else.

For one thing, it quickly became clear to me that religious traditions, like Protestantism, that are rooted in a scripture-based authority paradigm, will never be able to resolve the problem posed by homosexuality in a satisfactory manner. All they will be able to do is engage in a never-ending argument about how the scripture applies to homosexuality; an argument that becomes increasingly irrelevant as historical/textual criticism of the Bible undermines people's faith that what the Bible may or may not say about homosexuality really matters anyway. This is not helpful to gays. But a revelation-based authority paradigm, in which human beings seek wisdom directly from God, in which human beings are in a dynamic, historically contingent and ever-evolving relationship with a living and eternal God, a God who is progressively revealing to them line upon line and precept upon precept the truth of their own natures, and the truth of God's nature as revealed through them.... This holds promise.

Religious traditions, both eastern and western, that hold that spirit is somehow beyond and/or superior to matter; that hold that physical existence is a trap or a delusion or tainted with sin; these traditions couldn't really help me either. Perhaps I could find peace in some path of asceticism. My husband has frequently accused me of being a "monk," of having too little interest in material things. It's probably true that without him, I would be living something like a monk. I was seriously tempted by monasticism in my mid-twenties. But ultimately I realized that while I might find "peace" in this approach to the spirit and the flesh, I would never find what is best captured by a turn of phrase in Section 93 of the Doctrine & Covenants: "fullness of joy." Namely, that thing that we find in the eternal union of "spirit and element, inseparably connected."

Our bodies are real, and they matter. And they are good. Very, very good. And it is God's intention, according to "Mormonism," God's "work" and God's "glory," to enable us to enter into that fullness of joy. My fellow Latter-day Saints may not understand what my relationship with my husband means to me (though it's not that difficult to understand, if you are happily companioned, it's not that huge of a leap of imagination). They may believe that my homosexuality is somehow the flawed by-product of a sin-filled creation; that God would never intend to make me this way because to do so would undermine his whole plan for creation. But what others know or don't know can't determine my happiness, nor does it set the limits for what God can and can't do. And God is in my life, so I have it on good authority that my life is headed toward something very, very good.

So I choose to be patient, and to walk down this path step by step. The only reason at this point in my life I might trade up what I have for whatever elusive dreams reparative therapists or queer theorists might offer me would be if I somehow abandoned the connection to the Spirit that has so filled my life with faith, hope and love in recent years.

But what would be the point in that?


* I don't have any survey data to back me up on this. My impression that the vast majority of gays and lesbians hold more "essentialist" views of sexuality is based on personal observation of many, many friends and acquaintances, and involvement in a wide variety of gay organizations. In fact, I dare say that the only people I know who insist on a more "deconstructionist" view of sexuality are people in academia.


Andrew S said...

A few strawmen: it's not that queer theorists feel troubled that their views of sexuality "converge" with the extreme homophobic Christian right. The very idea of "ex-gay" tries to reify the homo- and heterosexuality that queer theorists point as constructed. (that's why it's problematic for them to insist a right and a wrong...because the things they are calling "right" or "wrong" are inconsistent, yet persisting constructs that they take for granted.)

The troubling part is more of the point that social construction reaches extremely deep, to the point that all across the spectrums (of race, sex and gender, and sexuality too) people seem to find it intuitive that there is an essential idea to these things. It seems intuitive to classify people on the skin color and then describe traits based on shared skin color and features -- maybe even to someone of that skin color -- when we can very easily conceptualize of this as being a construct, and more importantly, one that would marginalize less if it were deconstructed.

Since real-life experience is not pure of the social constructions we are raised in, it's no surprise that people of all sorts of construct backgrounds can intuitively identify with their constructs -- even when these constructs are harmful, limiting, or hold them back.

And it's not that one abandons any sense of morality...but rather they challenge the current moral system as being inadequate and suggests that we construct a new one.

I know plenty of people who "just aren't attracted" to (insert x race.) I'm sure that this seems intuitive to them. It's "just the way it is." I'm sure they find the idea of racial liberation just as quaint a concept -- but at the end of the day, their lived experience is that they are attracted to people with certain features and that's that.

...yet this doesn't reify race or reify some kind of inborn attraction to some races or not the other. (And to those who are attracted by the exotically other...same deal.) We should at the very least be willing to support the idea of falling in love with people, not collections of racialized features...rather than just saying, "Well, who people are attracted to is just the way things are" uncritically.

The fact that we can begin to do this already shows that we CAN challenge constructs. Who's to say we couldn't do that with other popular classifications of features?

Andrew S said...

p.s., I do understand your counter, though, about the immediacy of lived experience. Constructionist arguments have an uphill struggle against the intuitiveness of essentialist arguments.

J G-W said...

Andrew - I've said all along that sexual identity is constructed, as is racial identity.

But saying that sexuality is constructed is analogous to saying that skin pigment doesn't exist. It's like saying race doesn't exist because there are no physical variations between people. That's just demonstrably false. There are people with dark skin, light skin and everything in between, just as there are people who are attracted predominantly to men, people who are attracted predominantly to women, and people who are attracted more or less equally to both men and women. This variation and these attractions exist. Should we categorize people as gay, straight or bi? Not necessarily helpful.

But do we insist that these attractions simply don't actually exist? That's the extreme to which queer theorists want to go, and I just can't go there with them. It took me a lot of work just to come to the point where I could accept my attractions, and now you want to tell me my sexuality isn't really real, and I could be straight except that I've been socially constructed this way for some reason that nobody's sure of??

I understand your point about "racial attraction." But that doesn't even compare to sexual orientation. I personally wasn't particularly attracted to black men, but I made a choice when I started dating that I would date people regardless of race... People have told me stupid things like "Oh, you must be attracted to people of color." I dated Vietnamese, South Asian, American Indian, Mexican, and black guys, but I dated far more white guys. I ended up marrying a black guy to whom I have always been very attracted. But I would say whatever aversion I had to dating men who are not white was very easily overcome... That just doesn't seem to fall into the same category at all as my sexual orientation.

Sean said...

Somewhere in the psuedo-intellectualistic exercises I missed the whys or even the hows Mormonism was going to cause such liberation. I saw mostly personal rationalizations of why it is for you, not the gay community at large.

To me it seems like exponentially large mental gymnastics to keep making that equation valid... x = "the church is true," or -x = "the church is true."

Liberation and LDS theology are incompatible culturally, socially and dogmatically. Unless they jettison their proof texting of the Bible to justify the Book of Mormon. Not going to happen unless a Mormon is in the white house and the church gets everything its wanted for the last 150 some odd years. You cannot have anything freeing from an institution whose "bondage" theology and structure demands dependence on the institution. To suggest otherwise IMO is purely illusion to keep the equation valid. It is then an intentional, but perhaps unconscious, skewing of reality.

I would find it much more interesting to see good TBM's try and work out what would happen if the church wasn't true than trying to find everything in creation to attempt to make it appear true. It follows the same logic of trying to be or become perfect in an unperfected and imperfectible state for really no logical reason.

J G-W said...

Sean, I guess I wouldn't have expected this post to vibe with you.

I guess I'm curious why you read my blog, since I'm generally pretty upbeat in relation to the Church, and that just seems to irritate you?

Not that I'm not glad to have you reading and even commenting once in a while...!

Quiet Song said...

An interesting post. More academic than I care to get. But interesting because this is my first visit back to the Moho blogosphere for some time and I was just pondering today what it means to be me:

1) I'm a woman, who really is maybe just a little bit of a man.

2) I'm a woman who has been attracted to other women, but never acted on it. Therefore, no test is ever going to really label me as gay or bi.

3) On the other hand, perhaps if I were not a devout Mormon, perhaps I would have done things that took me further down the continuum and more easily labeled.

4) I doubt that gay people would see me as gay.

5) But, I also know I'm not only straight.

So as I was running through all this today (hours before getting on the internet), believe it or not, I said to myself: You know, Quiet Song, you are what you are and it ok where you are and the gospel (i.e. Mormonism) helps you to be ok with where you are. This is not to say I didn't have my own internal crisis which is well documented back on my blog.

But, now, today, I did feel liberated and I would have to attribute that to my testimony of the gospel refined as it was by my experience in dealing with those internal conflicts.

Alex said...

Fascinating post. As a fellow "pseudo-intellectual" I'd like to add my two cents. It's a bit scattered, forgive that, but I hope interesting.

I've studied a bit of queer theory and feminism, and the essentialist argument is I think a strawman often set up by these theorists. But it can be useful. It's often used in the context of criticizing the idea that I'm a woman so I must perform this way, or I'm a man and I must act this way. It's usually a liberating thing to argue against essentialism; queer theorists embrace this saying it liberates us to enjoy new sexualities and freedom to construct new identities.
But they themselves fall into a new essentialism. You are gay, do this. You are bi, do this. You are straight do this. Is this right or wrong?
Is gender an essential characteristic of eternal identity and purpose? Or isn't it?
I don't know. Is there something essential about queerness that makes it impossible to be in a relationship with someone of the opposite sex? Most of the blogging scene seems to say that yes, you are gay, you aren't living authentically. But the term gay is a social construction used to describe a phenomenon. But it isn't the physiological thing itself.
I personally don't agree with Butler's idea that gender is performed. I think in an effort to avoid essentialism, she ignores biology. I like Judith Butler and think she offers some interesting perspectives. For her, even sex is constructed. She has a point, but I like Anna Fausto Sterling's take on it better. For her, there is a relationship between gender identity and biology. Her book Sexing the Body takes a more middle ground approach, where you don't have to scientifically prove the origin of homosexuality to believe that same-sex relationships are valid. In fact, she argues that this will essentially fail LGBT activists, because science will not convince conservative Christians that their relationships are valid.
Another point: Just because something is constructed doesn't mean it can be easily changed. It's as real as we can know, and within theoretical discourse many argue that you can't escape or get outside of constructions. It's useful to see them, but they form a meaningful and inescapable part of our existence.
Getting down to a more practical level, if gender is simply performed then why can't I just perform as a heterosexual? At least theoretically there was no reason I couldn't or shouldn't be married to my wife. In fact, I did "perform" as a heterosexual. But did that change my orientation? No. There are realities to biology and attraction that make me more aroused by a man than a woman. It wasn't a choice. But it isn't totally wrong to say that identity is a choice. I'm not going to get into the morality of choosing one identity or another right now, but on some level, a homosexually oriented man or woman has the right to determine how to best live their life and even how they want to identify themselves.

J G-W said...

Alex, thanks -- some helpful perspectives.

Andrew S said...

I totally forgot about this post!


For whatever it's worth, queer theorists oppose the "new essentialism" that you mention. Current essentialism says "You are gay, do this." "You are bi, do this." "You are straight, do this."

The queer theoretical response is to point out that "gay," "bi," and "straight" are inconsistent or limiting constructs, so we ought deconstruct them to construct differing ones.

To go even further, basically, it's one level of critique to criticize the idea that "because I am a man, I must act this way." But this level of criticism doesn't reach far enough, because it still assumes there is an "essence" to what a "man" is untouched by discourse. Constructionism would argue against that.

In this way, there is NOTHING essential about "queerness" that makes it impossible to be in a relationship with someone of the opposite sex. Those who say otherwise conflate queerness with the LGBT movement. But to be "queer" is not to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or whatever. To be "queer" is to not fit within the dominant social construction --of which homosexuality is a part.

I was reading an article about disablement vs. impairment along the same lines...and one thing the article there (it was a lawyer...the article is linked at feminist lawyers, I believe) pointed out is that queer theorists and other constructionists are NOT ignoring biology. The author even had a quotations from Judith Butler -- even she was aware of a "immediacy" of feeling, experience, etc.,

But what all of these theorists are arguing is that we can't discuss biology without discourse, and so we can't interact without biology without discourse. Biology is real, but the only way to interact with it is to interact with it as it is impacted by constructions.

Constructionism isn't saying that something is "fake" or baseless. Instead, recognizing that constructs pervade everything, we must recognize that constructs are very real and have very real impacts.

John G-W,

I guess with respect to the skin pigmentation/race/sexuality/identity point, I'd argue a few things.

That skin pigment exist doesn't mean we are locked into a discourse about skin pigmentation. The skin pigmentation is neutral and tells us nothing. So, no, denying "race" (a discourse about skin pigmentation) is NOT the same thing as denying skin pigmentation.

At the same time, I don't think every concern can be "outsourced" to a concern about "identity." Namely, one could say that without discourse, skin pigmentation doesn't exist. (Color doesn't exist objectively, for example. Light waves frequencies exist, but color is the subjective response of the eye, brain, our perceptual systems, and our classifying discourse.)

I think your point about racial attraction proves my point. Changing the discourse about attraction (e.g., not saying "I am attracted to x race" or "I am not attracted to x race") all of a sudden changes your actions and behaviors. By forgoing statements like, "I am exclusively attracted to x" (which seems like it would be a biological point that precedes any discourse) or even "I am predominantly attracted to x," this doesn't even become a factor.

Is that a matter of you denying identity, or of you not buying into a particular concept about sexuality?

To the extent that racial aversions (if any) were easy to overcome (they often AREN'T for many other people, in manyareas), then that just points out that more people are aware of the constructed nature of race now than they are of gender and sex.