Saturday, November 17, 2012

Homophobia is Irrelevant

After the recent election, it is increasingly clear that America has reached a tipping point in its acceptance of homosexuality as something natural, normal, healthy and acceptable.  Voters in Maine and Maryland approved same-sex marriage, and in Wisconsin the first openly gay US senator was elected.  Of course, the country remains divided, with gay acceptance being very limited among certain groups, especially in the Southern states.  But looking back over the last two decades, the progress of the gay rights movement has been rather stunning.

Gay rights is commonly compared with the anti-racist civil rights movement, which has now reached the point where it is entirely socially unacceptable to advocate against the equal treatment of ethnic and racial groups.  On its face, the similarities are obvious: an historically discriminated against minority group, subjected to irrational, unscientific hostility by a majority group whose main argument rests simply in an appeal to tradition.  Like blacks, gays have routinely been terrorized, ostracized, oppressed, discriminated against both informally and in law.  Pseudo-scientific theories have been invented to justify bigotry.

Yet proponents of discrimination against gays still cling to one key difference between gay rights and civil rights based on gender or race.  While interpretations of religious text have for centuries been used to justify the oppression of women and minorities, viewing them as deserving status second-class citizens, they have largely been abandoned as backward and misguided.  This owes in large part to the paucity of clear references in religious texts to the subordination of these groups.  While with some work, cases can be made for interpretations that support bigoted views, modern progressive opinion, at least in the West, has largely abandoned such explicit justification.  Discrimination surely still exists, as minority and female representation in positions of power is still limited.  However, defense of this status quo rarely appeals to religious text, instead preferring the subtleties of other cultural traditions or social norms.

With homosexuality, things are quite different.  Religious texts still stand as the primary justification for viewing homosexuals as second-class citizens.  The reason for this is clear.  Religious texts, especially the Old Testament, very clearly condemns homosexuality as specifically immoral and unnatural.  Combined with centuries of unquestioned cultural norms of anti-gay discrimination, the verses seem clear as day.  While many other practices are explicitly prescribed in religious texts that would be seen as beyond the pale (at least in most societies), their practice ended so long ago that it is easy to think of them as antiquated and retrograde. 

So it may go with interpretations of religious texts that explicitly view homosexuality as sinful.  However, especially in light of the passion with which so many conservative religious groups seem to have invested themselves in the condemnation of homosexuality not only as an individual sin, but the acceptance of which is emblematic of a larger social and cultural decline word-wide, religious-based opposition to homosexuality seems especially intransigent.

It is undeniable that there has always been a component of hatred to the tradition of anti-gay cultural norms.  Anti-black, or anti-female sentiment has always been expressed not only in codified discrimination, but in literal violence against those groups, whether through rape or lynchings.  History is replete with justifications of bigotry generally rooted in nothing more profound than simple feelings of disgust at some innate quality of women or blacks.  This disgust is a feeling that becomes so powerful that it gives rise to outward expressions of discrimination or even physical violence.

However, the interesting question is where this feeling has come from.  It certainly isn't something innate.  Rather, it is a social construction.  While there is good reason to believe that as a species, we have a tendency towards a fear of the "other" in cultural relations, there is also plenty of evidence that through social construction, we can overcome this fear by mitigating it with patterns of cultural conduct that both pre-emptively inhibit what may be perfectly natural, yet irrational dispositions towards xenophobia and the fear of the unknown.  Further, we can establish norms of social and self-reflection that seek to provide a continual "check" on current social norms, ensuring that they are rational, moral and just.  Looking over the centuries, it isn't hard to see an arc of moral progress in which old social norms have died away, and been replaced by enlightened perspectives.  As such, old "disgusts" that we may have felt in prior centuries past - say, at seeing a woman bathing in a two piece swimsuit or driving a car, a child arguing with a parent, a black man kissing a white woman - would be hard to imagine today.  Their social context has changed, and the construction of assumptions and expectations has been altered in such a way that disgust has been de-activated.

Yet in churches and radio stations across the country, the social construction of homosexuality as immoral and sinful is being activated on a regular basis.  While at the same time it is being deconstructed by a continuous march of reality - one in which homosexuals engage in public activity no differently, and with no different effects than heterosexuals - there exist wide swaths of society that refuse to acknowledge its benevolence.

With feminism and minority rights, there was less for the religiously conservative to lose.  Little in religious texts explicitly calls them inherently sinful.  Religious interpretations that called for the subjugation of women and minorities could be slowly forgotten, or at least, as in the case of women, re-imagined in more benign terms - in rhetoric women could indeed be powerful, however the more enlightened among them would make an honest attempt to stick closer to home and define themselves within the context of traditional marriage.  Having a female or black president wasn't necessarily a threat to civilization as we know it, as long as the general order of patriarchal and Christian supremacy was assumed.  The union of man and woman, under God producing the next generation of Christian youth was intact.

But homosexuality undermines this vision.  Not only do religious texts repeatedly describe homosexuality as outright unholy, but as a social norm, it calls into question the larger holy alliance of male and female procreation under God.  This institutional construction is seen as at the very core of the faith itself.  Breaking it would call into question the fundamental purpose of life on Earth, under God's plan.  The implications extend far beyond homosexuality: sex-before-marriage, a woman's place in the home, a parent's relationship with his child, traditional gender roles - all of these are possibly under threat.  Nothing less than a total realignment could possibly be in store if one were to go down the road towards accepting homosexuality as something neither sinful nor immoral.  As Maggie Gallagher, prominent conservative critic of gay marriage, wrote apocalyptically after the recent election, "The Obama electorate defeated marriage."  Gays didn't win marriage.  Heterosexuals lost it - the entire institution
This is not to say that a massive shift cannot occur.  History is filled with examples of religious interpretation shifting alongside social changes.  Plenty of religious people today have found ways to reconcile an understanding of homosexuality as something perfectly natural with their faith.  But unlike gender and racial equality, homosexuality is going to cause much more soul-searching.

In the meantime, there will be a debate as to whether religious intransigence represents mere principled devotion to faith, or a post-hoc religious justification for homophobic bigotry.  This is a question that is impossible to answer clearly.  We just don't have the opportunity to peer into the mind of our fellow man with the resolution required to determine from where his convictions arise.  Without a textual case to be made, when anti-gay feelings are expressed, there is little to explain them other than simple homophobic disgust.  Yet religious texts, by definition, are powerful sources of ideological guidance. 

The original purpose of gender and racial equality arose not from rational, doctrinal interpretation, but from the supremely personal, human experience of inequality and injustice.  This was the only truth that mattered - that which was real and felt in the minds and hearts of millions.  Despite religious prevarication, so the truth of gay rights lies not in the words on any printed page, but rather in the lived experience of millions.  The only question, in the end, is whether or not to trust in the loving bonds we cannot help but feel for our fellow man.  When asked, in an honest, deliberate comparison of our feelings of hateful disgust versus our capacity for empathy, empathy will win out, especially in the context of widespread social pressure.   However, the attempt must be made, either forced by social pressure or otherwise.  Will the tide of gay acceptance reach the church walls, overwhelming calculation and fear with love and truth?  Or will polarization drive the walls ever higher?  My guess is, eventually, the former.  But given the implications - real or perceived - for religious conservatism's driving against the liberalism it sees homosexuality as representing, the road will be a long one.

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