Thursday, October 29, 2015

Of Mormons and Bridges and the World Congress of Families

In June 2012, a group of about 350 Mormons astonished the world by marching in the Salt Lake City LGBT Pride parade under the banner "Mormons Building Bridges." The sum total of their message was "We are Mormon and we love you unconditionally." It was not the most radical of messages, though to those of us in Mormon circles accustomed to a rhetoric about LGBT Pride that made it something akin to the Devil's Christmas, the gesture was revolutionary. It signaled something brand new in the relationship between the Mormon and gay communities.

2012 was a pivotal and contentious year in LGBT politics. Three states were facing ballot initiatives that would have banned same-sex marriage. Previous to that year, no such measure had ever failed. To many in the LGBT community, Mormons Building Bridges was taking the easy road by refusing to comment on or take a stand on the issue of the day: marriage. Some accused MBB of being a propaganda tool of the LDS Church, and of trying to co-opt the gay rights movement. Taking fire from both sides, it took courage for MBB to stand up.

This past week, Mormons Building Bridges did something equally momentous. With the arrival in Salt Lake of the World Congress of Families, notorious for the extreme anti-gay rhetoric of some of its leaders and for its support of extreme anti-gay legislation in Russia and Nigeria (HRC and the Southern Poverty Law Center have labeled WCF a hate group), MBB decided to organize groups of individuals who could attend and be a presence at the conference. Their core message was that the Gospel of Jesus Christ inspired them to stand up for inclusion of LGBT people in our families and in society. They went with the stated intention of engaging in dialog -- both listening for greater understanding, but also sharing their unique perspective on LGBT issues.

Of concern to many was the high profile way in which the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would be participating in the conference. Elder M. Russell Ballard was a featured speaker at the opening plenary, and the Tabernacle Choir was going to perform at the conference. Of course the presence of the conference in Salt Lake meant that large numbers of Latter-day Saints were going to attend and participate.

In the week before the conference, Erika Munson, a member of the MBB community, published an editorial in the Salt Lake Tribune criticizing the "natural family" rhetoric of WCF. MBB members attending WCF wanted to engage in dialog about the ways that "natural family" rhetoric could harm and exclude LGBT people. Showing up at the conference identified by yellow MBB stickers, they wanted to be a visible presence in support of LGBT inclusion.

I was able to be a part of this amazing, tiny band of souls, and what I witnessed was truly amazing. I was one of several LGBT participants in MBB's contingent, including Kendall Wilcox, Berta Marquez, and Samy Galvez. There were not huge numbers of us, but MBB's presence had an impact far out of proportion with our small numbers.

My impression of the conference was that it consisted of a very large number of people with concerns that had nothing at all to do with same-sex marriage or LGBT rights. Many -- perhaps most -- of the conference participants were concerned primarily about things like children growing up in poverty and in single parent homes, divorce (and it's disproportionately negative impact on women), and social ills like drug-abuse and homelessness that are the consequence of failed homes and parental neglect. They were concerned, in other words, about many of the things that I and other members of MBB are concerned about.

The Mormon participation in WCF actually seemed to be a kind of moderate leaven in the mix. The most virulent and hateful anti-gay rhetoric at WCF was coming from non-Mormons like Raphael Cruz (the father of the presidential candidate) and Brian S. Brown, President of the National Organization for Marriage. Elder M. Russell Ballard's opening plenary talk emphasized the importance of compromise (much in the vein of Elder Dallin H. Oaks' address exactly one week previous), diversity and fairness for all, and acknowledged the LDS Church's support for legal protections for LGBT people (he used the term "LGBT"). Notably, Elder Ballard avoided the use of the loaded phrase "natural family." Mormon speaker Wendy Ulrich was applauded by MBB participants for her gender inclusive language. She as well as Linda and Richard Eyring, other LDS speakers at the conference, were appreciated for staying away from same-sex marriage, and focusing on the principles that make for any successful marriage -- principles that all applied as well to same-sex couples as to opposite-sex couples.

MBB members were listening to talks to get a sense of what people's primary concerns were, and were striking up conversations with conference participants that remained friendly and open, even as the conversations occasionally broached areas of disagreement. During the question and answer session of one of the panels, Berta Marquez introduced herself as an LGBT attendee, and invited individuals to come speak to her in person afterwards if they wanted firsthand experience with an actual LGBT person, rather than third party information. Eleven conference participants took her up on her offer. Six exchanged contact information with her, and three set up lunch dates.

MBB members actively participated in the question and answer sessions at panels, especially where an anti-gay message was being promoted. There was at least one instance of an MBB member being subjected to hostile and intimidating behavior by other conference participants. During a question and answer session at a panel, she asked "What advice would you give to parents if their child tells them he's gay?" She was shouted down by some attendees and then after the session was surrounded by people taking photos of her credentials and her MBB sticker. A woman who identified herself as a member of the organizing committee of the WCF asked this MBB member why she was being disruptive, and then began denigrating Mormons Building Bridges. Though the MBB participant tried to leave the conversation politely, this woman continued to harangue her for about half an hour. After this she and a number of other MBB participants were being followed by security who backed off when the MBB women spoke with them, and they realized that they were not being disruptive nor a threat.

Fortunately, there were other WCF participants who came to this MBB participant and apologized for what they perceived as horrendous behavior by the people who had harassed her. Despite this awful incident, it seemed that there were more instances of individuals having positive conversations and making positive connections, including with individuals and groups who expressed a desire to stay in touch and learn more about MBB.

I left WCF with a handful of literature that was passed out to conference participants, which included some fairly innocuous looking material about parenting and principles of a happy marriage, some libertarian political tracts, a copy of the Proclamation on the Family, a magazine with an article critical of Pope Francis for giving "confusing signs" about LGBT issues, and then a couple of really awful homophobic tracts. One was an advertisement for a book that shouted, "GOODBYE Marriage. GOODBYE Mothers & Fathers. GOODBYE Male & Female. In a World gone MAD, Children are in DANGER." Another described ways to identify victims of "the Sexual Revolution," which included "refugees" from "the gay lifestyle." This mix of handouts was pretty exemplary of what I and others witnessed at WCF.

My sense was that there were a lot of people at WCF with whom I and other LGBT rights supporters could dialog. There were many people whose genuine concern was the welfare of children and the promotion of marital stability and happiness, who didn't have a particularly anti-gay ax to grind. To the extent that they were worried about same-sex marriage, it seemed to me that it was because they had a lack of information or because they had only been exposed to lurid rhetoric about the gay lifestyle or fear-mongering about "religious freedom." In light of the language of compromise in Elder Ballard's keynote, it seemed to me that many of those folks might be moved once they realized that promoting stable, loving relationships of same-sex couples was actually part of the solution to the challenges facing families in the 21st century.

My sense was also that there are some hard-core anti-gay activists at WCF who do have an ax to grind, and who have made gay people the scapegoat for everything they think is wrong about the world. NOM President Brian S. Brown and Raphael Cruz were the standard bearers there for that hard-line position. The Mormon Church -- as conservative as it is on this issue -- is clearly not in the same camp with these folks. And I can't help but think that the anti-gay extremists will leave Salt Lake feeling frustrated by the lack of help coming to them from Mormon quarters. I believe that MBB had more in common with all the other Mormons at the conference than any Mormon had with many Fundamentalist Christians there.

MBB made an impression, for good or for ill. We were sought out by media, which gave us a platform to express concerns about "natural family" rhetoric, and to communicate a desire for families, churches and societies fully inclusive of LGBT individuals. We used social media to get our message out to WCF participants (using WCF hashtags as well as our own #StrengthenAllFamilies hashtag). We had powerful one-on-one conversations with like-minded as well as with other-minded. We participated in question and answer sessions to raise concerns whenever an extreme anti-gay agenda was promoted.

It was one thing for Mormons Building Bridges to march in Pride. That took courage, and it certainly was momentous. It was another thing entirely, and took a completely different kind of courage, to go somewhere members felt much less safe, in defense of their gay, lesbian, bi and transgender family and friends. Slow but steady, Mormons Building Bridges will help us win this race.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Colonizing Narratives/Annihilating Narratives

Historically the majority of social narratives about gay people have been social constructionist narratives.

This is different than saying the narratives have been socially constructed. Not a majority but all  narratives are socially constructed. But a social constructionist narrative about gay people says that gay people are not really gay. They are a group of people who have constructed a social identity that makes them gay. There is, lurking behind every social constructionist narrative of sexual identity, an essentialist premise about the nature of human sexuality. Strict social constructionists may deny that there is an essentialist premise behind their theories. But even if that were possible, the problem is that into the intellectual vacuum created by the denial that we can actually know what anything is in itself essentialist assumptions rush. Human nature abhors a vacuum.

There are two basic essentialist premises that have typically undergirded social constructionist narratives. One is that all human beings are by nature heterosexual. In this narrative, homosexuality is caused by a fault or a flaw: usually either perverse intention on the part of the homosexual him or herself ("this man/woman sinned") or because of failed upbringing on the part of the parents ("his/her parents sinned").

The other essentialist premise behind social constructionist theories of gayness is that all human beings are, by nature, bisexual. "Normal" upbringing will inculcate the heterosexuality required for the propagation of the race; while failed upbringing will cause people to fixate on homosexual yearnings. That was basically Sigmund Freud's theory about homosexuality.

In late 19th- and early 20th-century Germany we saw a third type of essentialist premise behind a social constructionist theory of homosexuality that was embraced by the masculinist wings of the German homosexual rights movement: that all men (they were really unconcerned with women) are by nature homoerotic, and that homoeroticism is therefore the basis of all higher civilization. There's a tragic irony in that particular story, as recounted by Robert Beachy in Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity. Masculinist homosexuals embraced the rise of Nazism, and many hailed Hitler as the charismatic, "homoerotic" leader their theories predicted would rise in any "Männerbund" or "male society." Hitler and the Nazis, of course, did not return the favor. Adolf Brand, a leader of one of the masculinist factions of the German gay rights movement of this era saw what was happening only too late: "The former [Community of the Special] members have now given their trust and support to the very person [who] has publicly declared that if the [Nazi] Party comes to power, all homosexuals will be strung up from the gallows" (p. 239).

Social constructionist narratives are by their nature universalizing and colonizing. They tell gay people that we don't actually know what we are. Philosophical types who want to deny that anybody can know anything I'm sure find this very intellectually pleasing. But in its final analysis, when imposed on others it is patronizing and disempowering -- even annihilating. As Friedrich Radzuweit, a German gay rights activist in the 1920s and 30s protested, "the claim that human beings shared a fundamental bisexuality... undermined not only the experience and identity of most homosexuals but also the moral and pragmatic arguments for legal reform" (p. 235). The Nazis, as Beachy points out, were only too happy to embrace a social constructionist narrative of homosexuality, to justify the murder of gay men and women in Nazi concentration camps (pp. 237-238).

Is there legitimate debate and discussion about the construction of gay identities? Absolutely! Again, citing Beachy's study of the late 19th- and early 20th-century gay rights movement in Germany, we see a number of competing views. One viewed homosexuality as a "third sex," i..e., homosexuality as a gender identity (of which gay rights activist Magnus Hirschfeld was an advocate). Another insisted that to be gay is merely a sexual orientation that has nothing to do with gender identity (of which Friedrich Radzuweit was a vocal advocate, and which Hirschfeld was willing to allow). I confess I don't have much patience for the homo-supremacist, misogynist and anti-Semitic theories of people like Adolf Brand or Hans Blüher. But I'm interested in (and love to discuss) the ways we create identities on the foundation of our sexuality as we experience it.

But gay experience deserves to be treated with respect. You can tell me that my experience of my sexuality as a gay man as something that is innate, immutable, and natural is merely a social construct. Please don't be offended if I protest that you are colonizing me, that your construction of my sexuality doesn't leave me a legitimate social space.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

"Inventing" Homosexuality

For my birthday, a friend gave me a new and highly acclaimed book in the field of gay studies and gay history, Gay Berlin: Birth of a Modern Identity, by Robert Beachy.

The book's title and the book's introduction clearly point to the author's analytical frame, which draws on the "social construction of homosexuality" model that has come to dominate much of the field of Queer Studies. The social construction model seeks to explain why there is no "gay rights" movement before the nineteenth century, not to mention no people identifying as openly "gay," no "gay community," etc. It also conveniently relies on the fact that we simply have no scientific data about sexuality that dates back any further than the late nineteenth century. Social construction theory focuses on discourse. It focuses on social ideas and images, which we can study from the period of ancient history on by examining literature, law and art. Radical social construction theory suggests that there is no scientific basis for "gayness" as an identity. Without discourse about gayness, gayness does not exist. And while social constructionists loudly protest that their work is misused by social conservatives who want to make the case that gayness should not exist, the truth is that the radical social constructionist argument readily lends itself to those uses.

But what I find fascinating about this study -- which is comparable to George Chauncey's Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940 -- is that in turning a microscope to the "invention" of homosexuality in its historical specificity (not in the abstract, theoretical way in which Michel Foucault discovered it), we always find that homosexuality is not in fact "invented," but "discovered." We would never say that Columbus "invented" America, though one could certainly compellingly argue that the concept of "America" was an invented one, that it posited a mythical "Western" world conceived of as radically different from the "Old World," etc.

Similarly, homosexual people certainly existed prior to 1867 when the German term Homosexualität was coined. A plethora of concepts and ideas have been used to attempt to frame and tame the existence of gay people for public consumption and for a variety of political and social purposes, some beneficent and some maleficent. But gay people have always existed. The recency of a publicly articulated gay identity and gay rights movement is no more proof that homosexuality does not exist per se, than, say, the recency of Copernicus' heliocentric model of the solar system is proof that the sun actually rotates around the earth. Both are proof, rather, that human understanding is collectively capable of progressing, that we actually know more about the way the universe functions, just as we know more about human sexuality, by applying scientific methods.

I think the best evidence of the falsehood of radical social construction theory in studies such as Beachy's and Chauncey's is how the concept of homosexuality emerged in the modern world from two primary sources: first, from gay people themselves; and second, from the medical and social work professions that were among the first to seriously consider gay people's testimony of their own experience as a source of data about sexuality. Nobody told Karl Heinrich Ulrichs that his attraction to men was innate, natural and immutable. In fact, everybody in his life, his devout Lutheran family, his colleagues in the legal profession (which ultimately disbarred him), the editors of newspapers that derided him, and his political opponents (virtually everybody with power in the nascent German state) all told him exactly the opposite. It was in consulting his own feelings and his experience that he came to know they were wrong. And when he bravely spoke publicly about his experience, he became a laughing stock in German society at large, but a hero to other gay people or "urnings" (the name he coined for homosexuals by drawing on classical mythology), who understood and related very immediately and personally to his account of his experience.

The truth is that "homosexuality" or "gayness" became possible as a modern identity not so much thanks to the scientific professions (though science has validated the identity) but thanks to the rise of modern mass democracy and urban, industrial economies. "Gayness" has not existed till now not because gay people did not exist, but because familial and social structures prior to the late nineteenth century exacted too high a price for gay self-expression. The gay community exists today because liberal institutions allow gay people to express ourselves and to tell our stories, and they allow us to form relationships that make sense to us and communities that support us and our relationships. And the gay rights movement exists because liberal democracy allows us to have a say in the laws that govern us.

Much has been made in the literature on gay history of the "medicalization" of homosexuality.  I remember as a graduate student reading about Karl Heinrich Ulrichs' gay rights activism in Germany. At that time, Queer Studies was barely on its feet as a discipline. (I was one of the organizers of the third national queer studies conferences for grad students.) I remember reading about Ulrichs' quaint theory of homosexuals as a "third sex," an idea that was taken up by Magnus Hirschfeld and the Scientific Humanitarian Committee (based in Berlin), and that was rejected by other German homosexuals, who preferred a more "manly" definition of what it meant to be a man who loved men. At the time I too rejected the notion of gay men and women as a third sex. I felt it played too much to "stereotypes." Of course gay men could be masculine sports heroes, and gay women could be feminine nurturers. That in spite of the fact that as a boy I hated sports and preferred bookish and artistic pursuits, enjoyed playing house with my brother, fell in love with Judy Garland, secretly played with my sisters' Barbie dolls, and snuck into my parents' bedroom when they were gone so I could surreptitiously try on my mother's lipstick and high heels. Those kinds of stories are common enough among gay men and women, it's hard to deny that it points to something. Ulrichs and Hirschfeld were trying to make sense of biographical data that are striking for their consistency with what anybody familiar with gay men and women will still observe today.

What is also striking to me is how eerily similar to present-day understandings nineteenth-century gay rights activists' analysis of the problems gay people face in a heterosexual society and their proposed solutions are. They identified family rejection, social isolation, religious intolerance, refusal to recognize gay relationships, and the specter of suicide driven by extreme rejection. Ulrichs also engaged with religion, with the God of the Lutheran faith he was raised in. God must love gays, he insisted, because He made us.

Of course, ultimately, an "essentialist" view of gay history can't be proven much better than a social constructionist view. To do it we'd need data that we just don't have and can never get for bygone ages. But what we can see of the emergence of public homosexual identities in the nineteenth century to me suggests more of a "coming out" than a creation.