Monday, May 13, 2013

Gay rights for Straights!

O.k., the last post tried to address a question; “Why do Christians receive very little flack for their negative views of sex before marriage, and a much greater and more virulent amount for their disapproval of homosexuality?” 

I never really could get stuck into answering it. The problem was that the question contained too many assumptions and prejudices. I spent the whole post deconstructing the question. It turned out to be the wrong approach to the topic that I want to address, namely that the conversation over whether gay people should have sex (Are you paying close attention gay people? Or are you over it?) is actually a question in which people who aren't gay are attempting to resolve arguments that don’t particularly have anything to do with gay peoples lives. Gay sex is the site over which non-gay specific battles are being fought (hence the title of this post).

Firstly we should recognize that the question as to whether or not gay people should have sex is in fact a transformation of another question; whether or not people should have gay sex. (You may have to read them closely to notice the difference). What has caused this transformation is that we have a concept of gay people not just gay sex now. We have such a concept largely because we have a concept of heterosexual people. Men and women do not generally view their relationships as an obligation to come together and commit the gross indecency of sex for the purposes of procreation according to their parents’ wishes, except perhaps if they’re royals. Instead heterosexual relationships are viewed as consequences of deep attraction by people seeking life partners. That attraction is not just physical. It is a type of love that while different to the love of parent to child is no less love. One aspect that distinguishes that love from others is the appropriateness of its physical expression in sex. The experience of that love for people of the opposite gender is what we understand by heterosexuality.

The Christian bible was written long before any common concept of heterosexuality permeated society. In fact a darn good case can be made for blaming the Bible for our concept of sexuality (particularly Paul) and the whole modern relationship between sex and love – but it’s a complicated one and it took several centuries for it to bear fruit. I won’t go into it here. It’s sufficient to say that in Christendom until relatively recently sexual expression of any kind was not generally treated as the consequence of sexuality. Homosexuality has been historically understood as just the pursuit of a base pleasure that anyone might enjoy, or as an act of deliberate rebellion.

Sexuality and its benefits is the first subtext of the conversation about gay sex. People in sex-less heterosexual marriages (and there are many of them) for example find an expression of their pain in the language of sexuality. These people do not feel that they are just missing out on some pleasure like a good wank, they feel like they are living out a diminished life. They feel like an important part of their self-hood is denied them. This is a new articulation; that sexual expression belongs to a part of our self-hood called sexuality. When people argue over whether gay people can be expected to be celibate, these people in sex-less heterosexual marriages find themselves answering no because it is the answer which respects the concept of sexuality and therefore their own story and suffering.

Now of course it is not just people in sex-less (love-less to use a more common term) marriages who are using gay rights arguments to represent their own sexual situation. Obviously gay people are doing it too. But gay people form a minority of the population and gay rights is increasingly a majority concern. It is for all of us that sexuality has become about much more than just having sex because we ought to. Sexuality is a part of an expectation of quality of life and significance for our feelings that is becoming more and more universal.

Are arranged marriages wrong for example? If your answer to that is generally yes then you are possibly relying on a human right to a sexuality that is going to decide your opinion on gay marriage as well. It is the concept of sexuality as being the good expression of our own attractions that both condemns arranged marriages and supports gay ones. Note that this expression is not limitless. No-one gets to marry whoever they want to – you have to woo them first. There are also matters of consent and cruelty and probably even the carbon footprint of it all will become relevant. It’s not a free for all. However there is still within those limits a right to sexual expression according to this idea called sexuality.

This is why the limits to sexuality can’t just be arbitrarily set. Any limits to sexuality have to take the value of sexuality into account. That’s part and parcel of treating our sexuality with respect. We need to balance respect for our sexuality with other respects (such as for other peoples sexuality)  but there’s a default healthiness and goodness to our desires that ought to see the light of day in some manner. This is the positive personal script for straights that is expressed by supporting gay relationships.

Another subtext to straight peoples support for gay and lesbian relationships is around a redefinition of their own relationships. What does it mean to be distinctly heterosexual – to see your relationship as remarkably different to a gay relationship? One the one hand it is merely noticing the sex category of the partners. It may even be noticing the socially privileged status of your relationship. On the other hand though, to be distinctly heterosexual is to elevate the heterosexual aspect of your relationship to one of primary moral or health importance. It is to say that each person’s gender in the relationship should have significance. Putting that personally it would mean that I as a guy think my own guyness and my partners womanhood ought to be important in how we interact with each other and with others.

It doesn't necessarily follow that if a person feels distinctly heterosexual in this way that they have to be opposed to gay relationships. They can simply imagine that different boats float differently. However it is impossible to hold a strong opposition to gay relationships without believing in such a distinct heterosexuality. This is why even the more benign organizations which have problems with same sex attraction believe in the notion of people fundamentally and spiritually divided into men and women. Meanwhile the less subtle an organizations disapproval of homosexuality, the more patriarchal their politics. There is a relationship between calling gay relationships sinful and a belief in such ideas as male-headship and women’s special roles of submission.

The relationship between the two is partly governed by the biblical fundamentalism which supports both. However the rejection of the two isn't anything to do with biblicism. It’s to do with feminism. I would be genuinely offended if someone at the bank or the ballot box for example treated my partner differently to me on the basis of her gender. Although gender might well matter to us erotically our practice of it is a matter for our own selves. It’s a role-play to which nobody else is invited. We don’t want our genders to be political or social categories.

This belief broadly held in Australia by all ages but especially the young, means that politically and socially we are all in gay relationships. That is to say that where gender is understood as a political and social category we want to belong to the same one as our partners. The conservative detractors were right that feminism could ultimately lead to universal lesbianism – they just didn't see that some of those lesbians would be men.

The above is a bit of hyperbole; this is still a pretty straight world. Most people are still presuming opposite-sex attraction of most other people most of the time, certainly in Bendigo where I live. However we are increasingly presuming that gender roles in families have no common definition. This makes it a private matter for a relationship to be gay even in the midst of straight cultures. Consider the following much-tweeted quote from Ellen DeGeneres;
“Asking who's "the man" and who's "the woman" in a same sex relationship is like asking which chopstick is the fork.”Couldn't a similar claim be made for every modern relationship? Who is the fork or knife in your relationship?

These are two ways in which the opposition some have towards homosexuality runs foul of matters important to straight peoples own agendas. We oppose the politicization of our genders in our straight relationships in the way that is necessary to disapprove of gay relationships. We don’t want to be distinctly heterosexual. We also want to live out our own sexuality fully – treating our romantic and sexual feelings with respect. We see our best chance to do that tied to the rights of gay people to do the same.

There is another big battle that is being fought out over gay people’s lives I've yet to mention. It has to do with how we allow morality and God to be defined. It particularly has to do with whether we tolerate inexplicable morals and victim-less crimes as the will of God. I won’t touch it in this post but I may get to this point next. Because it is a battle that especially interests myself and others of a theological bent we possibly overstate it's influence anyway.

Truth is we're not grappling with theology so much as we're just looking for someone to love.


  1. Umm do I get this?
    1) Most younger people think we should be free of discrimination socially or politically based on gender or sexual preference.
    2) Sex for love (not just procreation) is Christian and therefor homosexual love is should be OK within Christian morals
    3) Historically sex for pleasure is unChristian and therefore both homosexual and heterosexual "wank" sex is not OK (by Christian morals)
    4) Ultimately, what "floats your boat" is a personal choice between two consenting adults regardless of gender - emphasis on the consenting.
    5) How "consenting" is defined, individually, socially and spiritually is yet to be discussed.

  2. Thanks Sara, Work has kept me from replying for a bit. I'm pretty sure I would agree with all your points except maybe 3. I think right and wrong in Christianity are often all over the place historically and it is one strong theme you have identified but I'd be careful about suggesting its the only one.
    Personally I think a design based ethics (ie. sex is meant for this) is overstated in modern Christianity and I expect it to continue to be critiqued from inside and outside Christianity.
    It is still possible to have an objection to wank sex with others purely because its generally bad for others welfare. It can treat others as tools and it is an unsafe framework for all the potential consequences of sex. This is different to opposing it because it is an out of bounds type of sex as defined by a sexual ideal.
    Basically we can return to your own well-stated point on my last post that; a secondary rule like no wank sex as a guideline for living out the golden rule in practice - not an additional rule in itself.