Saturday, November 08, 2008

From the journals: "Origin Stories: Same-Sex Sexuality and Christian Right Politics"

This journal article is much more obviously relevant to GLBT issues: "Origin Stories: Same-Sex Sexuality and Christian Right Politics", by Jyl Josephson and Cynthia Burack, published in volume 6, issue 3, of the journal "Culture and Religion" in 2005.

The article notes that there are two ways in which opponents of gay rights understand how homosexuality originates: there's the "narrative of choice", which is the one gay activists usually work against, but there is also the "narrative of development". There's some overlap between the two narratives, but they also contradict each other in some areas. I think it's important to understand the developmental narrative, as it usually gets neglected in political advocacy.

The developmental narrative claims that homosexuality is not consciously chosen. It instead views homosexuality as an aberrant development, an emotional malfunction caused by some sort of psychological disruption in childhood. The exact type of "disruption" varies depending on which anti-gay group you ask, but the finger usually gets pointed at either sexual abuse, or at parents who failed to have the "right" type of emotional relationship with their offspring. For example, Dr Nicholosi of NARTH, a proponent of the idea that homosexuality is caused by a lack of emotional bonding between father and son, has told people that "if fathers don't hug their sons, then some other man will".

According to the article's authors, the narrative of development treats homosexuality as something adopted without conscious intention; a "homosexual identity" gets unconsciously incorporated into an individual through behavioural reinforcement. It accepts that homosexuality is something that cannot be easily changed in those that have already gone down a "homosexual path", so to speak, but it also maintains that prevention is possible: "pre-homosexuals" or "proto-homosexuals" who have undergone the triggering disruption but have not yet accepted and embraced their same-sex attractions can be "saved".

There's some overlap with the narrative of choice here, in that it's implied that people can choose whether or not to embrace their homosexual identity or to fight against it, but where the developmental narrative gets real serious play is when talking about those individuals who are not yet able to make any kind of "choice" for themselves: children.

You can see the narrative at play in the excuse-making for Lawrence King's murder, in particular the placing of blame on the lesbian principal for allowing Lawrence to engage in such "reinforcing" behavioural acts as wearing high-heel shoes and flirting with boys. As Gaywired put it: "The assistant principal, our lesbian heroine, was questioned for pushing a gay agenda on a sleepy, otherwise happy middle school." The developmental narrative would have people believe that a principal acting properly could have (and definitely should have) been able to address the issues effectively by guiding the emotionally disturbed young boy Larry away from the "problem" of homosexuality that he was developing. That's one way of interpreting what "pushing a gay agenda" means: the belief that Larry could have been straight if the lesbian hadn't interfered.

There's a wide latitude in anti-gay rhetoric about what could lead a child to "develop" (not "choose") homosexuality. A contributing factor could be as simple as growing up in an environment where homosexuality is not condemned. Take this comment from a gay marriage opponent: "It worries me deeply that my kids could grow up in a world that accepts homosexualality [sic]. I do not want my children to come home from school and tell me that they learned it is ok for them to have a homosexual relationship." In the developmental understanding, being taught that homosexuality is ok may not necessarily encourage homosexuality, but it will make it that much harder to discourage it. In other words, many opponents of gay marriage really do believe that legalising gay marriage, and having their existence so much as mentioned in schools, will make it more likely that their own children will embrace any homosexual tendencies they might develop, and that it is their moral duty to stop this happening.

I think existing gay rights organisations have neglected this developmental understanding of homosexuality to their detriment. The fight against the idea of "homosexuality as perverse and degenerate choice" has been relatively successful against stopping individual mistreatment, but neglecting the other narrative has led to a situation in which the most common refrain from our opponents is "I've got nothing against homosexuals as people, but I object to them pushing their agenda on society". They tolerate gay people as individuals but fight any measure that could be perceived as encouraging the "development" of homosexuality. This includes explicit legal recognition of gay marriage. They'll accept a "civil union" compromise for those poor be-knighted gay souls who are beyond "help", but will fight tooth and nail against any measure that makes homosexuality and heterosexuality look even slightly morally equivalent. After all, they believe their children are at stake.


stacy (la, ca) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Z said...

Stacy, I'm bi. The terminology in my case is even more problematic than just "homosexual" vs "gay"....

In any case, I view my same-sex attractions as the moral and emotional equivalent to my opposite-sex attractions. Anything else makes no sense to me.

Perhaps I need to work on my writing skills, because I didn't want to suggest that I in any way agree with the anti-gay understandings of the origins of homosexuality I'm describing here. I want gay rights movements to engage with these ideas about "choice" or "development" because I think those ideas are WRONG, and they need to be confronted head-on. I also think it's only possible to do that if you fully understand what those ideas are, so you can point out exactly where they go wrong.