On Sexuality, Christianity, and Language

The knight Richard Puller von Hohenburg and his servant, burned before the walls of Zürich for sodomy, 1482. (Source)

The recent controversy in ACNA about the language of homosexuality has been deeply unedifying. It has been aggravated in the last few days by an open, co-signed letter that, while doing the bare minimum, nevertheless was far more affirming than the original pastoral statement to which it replied. In a move I can only describe as scandalous, the principal author’s bishop then stepped in and ordered him to take it down.

I am for the most part uninterested in the internal politics of ACNA. I have friends in that communion, and after all, it is neither my circus nor my monkeys. I am, however, keenly interested in the issue at stake: what kinds of language sexual-minority Christians use, why, and what this says about their broader place within Christianity. Especially as some of these same issues have come up repeatedly in the Catholic context as well. That relevance to my own situation moves me to write, when I might otherwise keep silence.

When the original statement came out last month (no pun intended), a gay Christian friend of mine wrote, “I am starting to think that this tired conversation about sexual identity language is actually *designed* to keep the Church from caring for sexual minorities by addressing its pervasive homophobia.” Much of what follows therefore comes from what I wrote in reply, with a few edits and additions here and there.

It seems to me that this debate about language – the alleged moral valences of words like “homosexual” or “gay,” and whether or not it is appropriate for Christians to self-identify with these words – serves a multipronged function:

(1) It distracts from urgent issues, like sexual minorities being disproportionately subject to homelessness, political oppression, intimidation, healthcare discrimination, targeted murder, and suicide.

(2) It subsequently distracts from the historical and ongoing complicity of heterosexual Christians in these phenomena, and absolves them of any effort to help fix it.

(3) It puts the entire onus of subjectivity-formation on the gay Christian individual and thus places them in a defensive posture which prevents them from making further demands. It does this in three ways:

(4) It deprives them of a language in which to articulate their own subjectivity and needs.

(5) It isolates them by preventing them from using the language by which they can form bonds of solidarity with other sexual minorities.

(6) It further isolates them by cutting them off from the history of other sexual minorities, whatever terms they may have used (sodomites, inverts, homosexuals, fairies, queers, gays, LGBT, etc.).

(7) All of which is to say, the debate mainly functions to control sexual minority Christians by making their own experience more and more illegible to them.

(8) It works very well because it exhausts a lot of emotional energy from LGBTQ+ Christians. This is intrinsic to the debate’s function as a mechanism of control.

(9) It is doubly effective when, as in the ACNA document, it reverts to the most clinical and pathologized language imaginable. “Christians afflicted with” or “who struggle with same-sex attraction” is not only unwieldy, it’s obviously stigmatizing. SSA might as well be leprosy.

(10 This is not to say that gay Christians who feel that the language of “same-sex attraction” or SSA best expresses their experience shouldn’t use it. We should all use the language that best fits our own embodied story. But when straight Christians use it this way, they are robbing them of the freedom to make that decision for themselves.

(11) In the Roman Catholic Church, there is the added rigmarole around vocations. No man with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” can be ordained…but what does this mean? If you have sex with men (or at least want to) but don’t call yourself gay, do you have these tendencies? What are we to make of the considerable number of gay priests that are already ordained? It hides hypocrisy.

(12) I am reminded, for instance, of what Roy Cohn says in Angels in America.

(13) The most insidious thing about the ACNA statement, though, isn’t even the matter of terminology. It’s the deeper point from which the terminological discussion grew: a claim that homosexuals can become straight again.

(14) If this were coming from an old-school queer theorist or even second-wave feminist who insisted on the radical flexibility of gender and sexuality, I wouldn’t have too much of an issue. But the obvious problem here is the latent moral imperative that moves from is to ought (also the erasure of bisexuals, but that’s a bit of a tangent).

(15) Going from “some people can move between kinds of attraction” to “you must become attracted to the opposite sex,” as this document does implicitly, is an awful lapse into conversion-therapy thinking. And we know how harmful this is, especially to queer youth.

(16) But this pathologization is itself, once again, a mechanism of control. Religions are social bodies that require adherents in order to survive. And like it or not, gays have historically been a major part of the Christian fold – including in Anglicanism!

(17) The reasoning advanced by ACNA is thus, quite precisely, an ideology. It is a logic that helps the oppressed buy into their own oppression. They are hardly unique in this; many in our own Church of Rome offer the same false narrative for the same ends.

(18) I would like to end this thread on a hopeful note, though I have very little hope to speak of. The best I can say is that LGBT Christians need to make their own communities. We need to use the terms that best express our own subjectivity. This is quite apart from the issue of sexual ethics, which does not hinge on what we call ourselves.

(19) Straight Christians, including Catholics, should accept that we are going to use the terms that we choose. It is not up to them. Their time would be better spent helping on the very urgent issues I outlined earlier. And maybe trying to understand what it’s like for (Christian) sexual minorities in the Church and in society at large.

(20) Finally – the best thing to help on the issues of terminology is for sexual-minority Christians, where it is safe to do so, to come out. Even clergy. Articulating your own experience is truly liberating, even as it opens up a new vulnerability. But freedom is worth it. Honesty is worth it. Visibility is worth it. Life is worth it.

A New Book for a Divided Country

I would like to draw my readers’ attention to a new book that will, I am sure, prove to be one of the more important and provocative publications this year. Dr. James Mumford’s Vexed: Ethics Beyond Political Tribes has just been released today in this country after having been out in the UK for a few months. So far it’s been getting compelling reviews. To quote one reviewer,

Vexed is that kind of book: less interested in hard-and-fast answers than undermining supposedly concrete certainties. That may suggest that Mumford indulges in ethics as a kind of academic sport, but at the heart of what he writes is something much more serious than that. The key argument of his book is that failures of what Mumford calls “moral imagination” do not just sully our political discourse.

John Harris, The Guardian

You can hear Dr. Mumford discuss the book himself here.

For me, this publication means something more. I worked as Dr. Mumford’s research assistant in the early stages of the project, as did my old friend Tatiana Lozano (who has written her own blurb about the book on her website). It was, in fact, my first research job. Coming at the end of my undergraduate career, I look back on that experience as a formative stepping-stone in my own scholarly journey.

I don’t know if I’ll agree with everything in the book, as I haven’t yet read it. But it’s wonderful to see a project to which I contributed – however small that contribution may have been – come to completion. I wish Dr. Mumford all the best, and commend the book to my readers.

Cover of Vexed, by James Mumford. (Source)

Elsewhere: A Brief Note on the Napoleonic Church

1200px-Allégorie_du_Concordat_de_1801

Allegory of the Concordat of 1801, Pierre Joseph Célestin François. Here’s some heavy-handed metanarrative for you. (Source)

Or, rather, the post-Napoleonic Church. Fascinating stuff about canonical life after Napoleon over at Canticum Salomonis. Some of my own research covers precisely this period, so I appreciate finding a contemporary Catholic blogger willing to post excerpted material of this nature. One does rather wish that he (I’m assuming it’s a he) had also provided the name of the original author, or at least the date of publication. Alas. The content is still very interesting.