(Sorry, Ron, for stealing for your title)
We’ve written a lot here at SF about Crisis Magazine’s profiling of the “New Homophiles” over the past couple of weeks. I think a lot of the response is because this is the closest that we’ve come to direct engagement with the people that tend to cause us frustration: the people who seem to be responsible for behaviours that we would characterize as “homophobic.” For me, at least, there’s always a hope of being able to engage in constructive dialogue both with the LGBTQ community, and also with those within the Christian community who struggle to be able to present an even remotely charitable response to homosexuals. In one of Ron’s earlier blog projects he used the image of a bridge, and I always thought it a very beautiful image for what it is that we try to do: we are attempting to make of our lives, our thoughts, even our bodies a bridge connecting the Christians church with LGBTQ people.
The response that we’ve received from Crisis shows us that, at least with some people we still have an awfully long way to go. Today Ron tweeted a link to the forums at Suscipe Domine, which you shouldn’t read unless you have a deep desire to go home and cry into your oatmeal. (As you can see, I’ve included the link in order to help you in this project. Please consider offering up your tears for the GCN conference this weekend.)
The discourse at Suscipe Domine is more extreme than the com-box at Crisis, but in the same vein. The question that I think we need to consider is how can we be more effective in reaching these people? We spend a lot of time thinking about how to bring the gospel more effectively to LGBTQ people, and that really is super important, but it’s also important to ask how we can help homophobic Christians to be more welcoming and supportive of their queer brothers and sisters.
One of my long time friends and correspondants is an older Catholic with SSA. She regularly thanks me for the work that we do here at Spritual Friendship, and encourages me in my own work, but she also admits that she has a lot of trouble getting her head around the things that we say. She talks about the difference between the generation of SSA people who have grown up in the post-Stonewall world, and the generations that preceded us.
For a lot of older Christians homophobia is normal, and even good. I remember listening to the Bishop’s sermon at the 2012 Courage conference where I was a speaker. He talked about how much the world had changed since he was young, and specifically spoke with a kind of weird nostalgia about how he had known a “queer” man in seminary – and how that man had known that there was “something wrong” with him. To the bishop in question the decrease in wide-spread internalized homophobia amongst modern same-sex attracted people was a cultural tragedy that needed to be mourned. For obvious reasons I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone.
Over the years, I’ve spoken with a lot of Catholics who grew up in the years prior to ’69. They’ve talked about how they feel queasy, or even violated, if they see images of same-sex couples making out. How uncomfortable even the idea of gayness makes them. It seems that the Christian Church, for many years, really did achieve the program that Plato dreamed of in The Laws: it made homosexuality as unthinkable, and as viscerally repugnant to most members of society, as incest.
I’ve really struggled a lot with these reactions. To me, the sight of two men kissing is just a non-issue. I frankly feel more turned-off by condom ads than by gay couples getting it on in the movies. My reactions to homosexuality really and actually are intellectual rather than visceral. I am able to say with complete honesty that my reservations about gay marriage have to do with a concern for the definition of marriage and not with any kind of homophobic response to gay sex.
But I really do think that for a lot of Christians this is a kind of intellectual posture that is assumed for the sake of public discourse. I’ve seen way too much evidence that the basic charge of homophobia is justified in a lot of cases: sure, the intellectual reservations exist as well, but they exist alongside a gut-level sense of revulsion towards the idea of same-sex intimacy.
Dealing with this issue is not simple because it interacts on a basic level with the mechanisms that allow for the functioning of conscience. As Joseph Ratzinger observed, the conscience is not so much as oracle as an organ. Like reason the conscience is trained and educated through the practices of socialization. This includes conditioning that causes us to feel uneasy about doing wrong, and comfortable or uplifted about doing right. Obviously the simplest form of this conditioning is a parent or other authority figure’s approval or disapproval of our behaviour. Over time, as we are punished or rewarded we come to feel a sense of guilt or shame for behaviours that are wrong (even if we are never caught) and a sense of inner security and self-worth for behaviours that are good (even if we are never lauded.) This basic mechanism of conscience is fundamentally good – even essential for building up a coherent society.
The problem is that conscience isn’t magic any more than reason is. A person can be taught to have a lax, or lazy conscience: a conscience that doesn’t react to specific evils; or a person can be taught to have a scrupulous or oversensitive conscience: a conscience that responds to neutral or non-sinful behaviours as though they were bad. The original education that a conscience receives is very deep seated and extremely hard to uproot – as evidenced by adults who continue to scrupulously, and even neurotically observe rules that were enforced during their childhoods even if they rationally know that those rules are completely arbitrary or even wrong.
In the case of homosexuality, a lot of older people (and also younger people raised in extreme religious communities) have been conscientiously conditioned to see not only the behaviour but even the inclination as sinful and repugnant. For example, in the 50’s homosexuals were explicitly portrayed as evil, predatory, and possibly murderous monsters who would pull the unwary and unsuspecting in their traps. Homosexuality was understood as a form of dangerous mental illness, and the person who suffered from it was understood in much that same way of most people today would conceive of a paedophile. As is easily observed if you read a lot of right-wing press, many of these memes are still alive and circulating – and for people who have been conditioned by them the idea of a “chaste, Christian homosexual” is a really hard swallow.
I think that thinking about this in terms of our own reactions to paedophilia can help to make the resistance of people in this position a little easier to relate to. If we think about it hard enough, and engage in genuine compassion, it’s reasonably easy to see that there have to be a lot of people out there who have paedophiliac tendencies through no fault of their own. It stands to reason that a certain percentage of these people conscientiously avoid acting on their desires. Some of these people are almost certainly saints. But unless we know such a person intimately, that isn’t a comfortable idea. The word “paedophile” conveys a whole host of meanings, most of which are associated with practices that we find gut-wrenchingly abhorrent. Excavating the person from beneath that word is an act of charity that most people would never even think to engage in.
This is, however, what we are asking of people who have been conscientiously conditioned to view homophobia as a just reaction to homosexual sex. For them, the words “gay” and “homosexual” have the same kind of emotional baggage. I’m not saying that this is good, or that it’s right, or that we need to just accept that as it is. I’m saying, rather, that in responding to people in that position we need to be aware of the difficulty of what we are asking. We must ask it – and it is certainly the duty of Christians to extend this charity. But we must ask it in the recognition that for many it is a hard saying, and we must be patient and forgiving with those who find it hard to accept.
Melinda 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.