Orientation Change vs. Mixed Orientation Marriage

I wanted to talk about the difference between a narrative of “orientation change” and one of “mixed orientation marriage,” and how I see that from a Catholic perspective.

I’ve struggled for a long time with the notion of “sexual orientation.” In some ways, the Courage party line, that there are no homosexuals, just heterosexuals with same-sex attraction, is true. Ontologically, theologically, it would seem to be a justifiable statement. The problem is, no one really talks ontologically in daily life. We say “I’m depressed,” not “I am a human being who is experiencing depression,” or “I’m a Liverpool fan” not “I am a person with Liverpool Football Attractions (LFA).”

The difficulty with this in terms of the “gay” debate, is that a lot of people do intend the term “gay” or “queer” ontologically. Today this is perhaps less true than it was in the 90’s, but the basic meme “I’m gay. That’s who I am” is still alive and well and living in San Francisco. This means that if someone like myself, or Josh Gonnerman, says “I’m gay/queer…and Catholic, and chaste,” it raises some eyebrows. Do I mean that I’m “queer” in the depths of my identity, that I am a queer child of God, or am I using language casually, I’m “queer” in the same way that I’m a board-game geek?

The fork here involves a dialectic distinction between two different kinds of identity: objective identity, as something which derives from outside of the self, and subjective identity, as something which is self-generated. I’m not sure that this distinction can be drawn quite so sharply. An authentic identity has multiple sources, including whatever is given, in the form of genetics, early socialization, blood relationships, and that spark of Divine genius that kindles the soul at the moment of conception; but also including whatever is chosen, the way that a person lives and understands him or herself. As David Foster Wallace puts it, “the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle.” Our true identities are not deducible a priori. They are the result of a creative co-operation between God and the self, they do not really exist until the moment of death when the work is complete. Hence the image of the white stone in the Book of Revelation which contains the person’s true name: the word by which the individual is incarnated absolutely, and which could not come to be except as a product of the journey through the vale of tears.

My homosexuality and/or gender issues are not accidental to my self. They are an important part of the quest by which I am becoming myself. They’re not the bedrock of my identity and they’re not the sine qua non of my existence. They may not be inscribed in my genetic code, and it may be that the fullness of my journey towards God will only be completed by overcoming and reconciling these difficulties, but the difficulties are still an absolutely essential part of the process of my self-becoming. To deny my queerness, or hold it at arm’s length as something completely outside the self, is in some sense to miss its import and its significance. “The truth unsaid, and the blessing gone if I forget my Babylon” (Leonard Cohen)

Nor is it accidental to my marriage. I did a lot of damage, both to my identity and to my relationship with my husband, by trying to conform to some sort of one-size-fits all narrative of sexual complementarity. Because I could not acknowledge the part of me that is “queer” in the early years of our relationship, I withheld that part of me from our marriage and tried to replace it with a simulacrum of “authentic femininity” which was not in any way authentic to me. This was a significant omission in my gift of self. By pretending to be “straight,” and by trying to conform my life to a narrative of “orientation change” I deprived both myself and my husband of the full truth about who I am.

That’s why I prefer the language of “mixed-orientation marriage (MOM),” to traditional “ex-gay” tropes. To me, the former opens up the possibility of creating a model for conjugal relationships between gay people and opposite sex partners that is positive, appealing and that retains everything that is really authentic and important about queer identities. It makes it possible to discuss the ways in which sexual complementarity is different in an MOM than it is in other heterosexual marriages. It invites a conversation about the role of philia in gay-straight marriages, and of the ways in which friendship can mediate eros. It also makes it possible to discuss what value a gay person might derive from being in a heterosexual marriage. It takes the discussion beyond the notion of “change,” the notion of trying to become a different person in the hopes of playing a particular social role in the future, and it resituates it in terms of a realistic option for the person as he or she is in the present.

Melinda SelmysMelinda Selmys is a Catholic writer, blogger, and speaker. She is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism and she blogs at Sexual Authenticity. Melinda can be followed on Twitter: @melindaselmys.

[Cross-posted from Sexual Authenticity.]

10 thoughts on “Orientation Change vs. Mixed Orientation Marriage

  1. There are some good distinctions in here; thank you for drawing attention to them. I want to, perhaps unfarily, focus on one line in your article, since I think that it will help to identify some categories that I think are worth rehabilitating.

    You say that: “My homosexuality and/or gender issues are not accidental to my self.” You then go on to explain that by this you mean that although homosexuality is not at the bedrock of who you most truly are, you would be wrong to ignore its import and significance in your life. This is true: our sexual attractions, as well as other features of our personalities related in various and complex ways to our sexuality, condition the way that we live, the way that we understand ourselves, and the way that we interact with others.

    There is another important sense, though, in which homosexuality is “accidental” to the self; I think that it would be good to rehabilitate this sense, since it allows us to understand ourselves in a category not readily available to our culture. This is the sense meant by Aristotle, Aquinas, and their followers when they distinguish between essential and accidental properties. By essential properties, they mean those features that are constitutive of the kind of thing that something is. For example, cats, Aquinas might say, are essentially carnivorous. Part of what it is to be a cat is to be carnivorous; this feature, together with the other essential features of being a cat, is what makes cats different in kind from other kinds of things. Accidental properties, on the other hand, are all of the properties that are not constitutive or essential to the kind of thing that something is. In this sense, accidental does not mean unimportant or not part of God’s creative work; it just means not essential to the kind of thing that one is.

    Homosexuality is in this sense accidental to human beings, as is heterosexuality. This is because human beings are still human beings whether heterosexual or homosexual. If we claim, however, rightly or wrongly, that human beings are essentially ordered toward community, or essentially directed toward fulfillment in God, or essentially good, or essentially physical, or any number of other things, we are saying that there is no such thing as a human without these features. And to the extent that we identify these features correctly, we can begin to understand what it is to be a member of our kind, a part of the human race (a good start, I would argue, to understanding the meaning of our lives). If we identify these features incorrectly, we fail in that respect to understand who we essentially are. For instance, there have been those that have thought that race is an essential property, with white people and black people being different kinds of things, members of different species. The solution to this isn’t ‘color-blindness’, believing that race is not a genuine feature; rather, we should recognize that race is accidental in the Aristotelian sense — it does not make for a difference in kind. Similarly for homosexuality and heterosexuality, or being married or celibate: these don’t make for different sorts of creatures. Whether homosexual or heterosexual, married or not, we are members of the same kind of things; our essence is humanity, not our sexuality or our conjugal state. This is not, to emphasize the point, because our particular sexuality is not a part of us (it is!); it is rather because sexual orientation is not part of what we are (as the philosophers put it) qua member of the human race.

    More distinctions should be made — not all accidental properties come alike — but this is a start.

  2. This is very interesting. I, like you, did not deal honestly with my homosexuality/SSA/whatever we might call it early on in my marriage, and I’ve been dealing with the repercussions for a while.

    Only recently am I trying to face this part of me head on in hopes of becoming a more whole person and Christian and a better husband to my wife.

    Again, really enjoyed reading this.

  3. I once read that sin is characterized by confusion and disgust. Well, there is certainly a lot of of confusion over “labels” and “names” in this discussion of homosexuality.
    In all this confusion we miss the point – Jesus Christ. And we miss the answer – seek Christ.

    • I get this sentiment. And I think in large part, I agree. There certainly is no use in delving into endless introspection and vain philosophy. The cross is where we should be fixing our eyes.

      But there is a danger in oversimplifying things and not really dealing honestly with the sin and brokenness that exists in us as fallen individuals. I think that’s the overall point here.

      I think I was a casualty of the over-simplistic attitude toward homosexuality (or sexual sin in general, really) that I’m talking about. Yes, Christ is the answer. But if I’m not even honest with myself about who I am, I’m certainly not going to be honest with Him.

      After neglecting these hard questions for a long time, I’ve only found myself frustrated and getting nowhere. For me personally, I think it’s time for a different approach.

  4. Very interesting! I don’t even know where to start. I really think I should just read your book. Do you discuss marriage issues in your book? I have a close friend who lived the gay lifestyle. had two serious partners one for 5 yrs and another for 3, but through a conversion experience he left that life 4 or 5 years ago. He is know dating a beautiful and very good woman but I can’t help always worrying about him.

    I fear one of those stories you hear once in a while about an “ex-gay” who is “happily married” and then ten years in he’s found at a rest stop doing you know what. As a Catholic he sees the situation probably more realistically than other Christians but I still worry for him. He seems happy but I know he still feels strong attractions to men.

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