Ready to fall flat on my face and take a nap, I stumbled into my Christian Vocations class thinking, “Today, I just can’t even.”
And I was right. I just didn’t know how much I couldn’t even until my teacher’s introduction to the day’s lecture was something along the lines of “Guys, I don’t hate gay people.”
The lecture of the day was the social construct of homosexuality. Michael Hannon put it pretty well himself when he wrote:
“Alasdair MacIntyre once quipped that ‘facts, like telescopes and wigs for gentlemen, were a seventeenth-century invention.’ Something similar can be said about sexual orientation: Heterosexuals, like typewriters and urinals…were an invention of the 1860s. Contrary to our cultural preconceptions and the lies of what has come to be called ‘orientation essentialism,’ ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ are not ageless absolutes. Sexual orientation is a conceptual scheme with a history…”
The argument made a lot of sense: the social movement to create categories based on one mere aspect of a rich individual’s life created reductive labels for people. These categories, Fr. Brown argued, generated stereotypes which disparaged the “gay community,” an arbitrary banding together of individuals who simultaneously sought to empower its members while excluding queer persons who didn’t fit in. He concluded that “gay-ness” was thus not real and, just like “straight-ness,” was just another obstacle on the path to God.
For a straight man looking in, he wasn’t all that incorrect. The gay community, ironically, is not the most inclusive place. The permutations of ill relations are too many to enumerate, but I’m fairly confident that you will understand the concept with these two brief (and real, though nameless) examples: the “I’m-so-manly” athlete who refuses to associate with the “I’m-loud-and-proud” GSA president and vise versa. The “lipstick lesbian” who doesn’t really understand why transgendered persons are grouped with them.
The war within the LGBTQ+ community is a topic for another day, but my point right now is that my well-intentioned teacher was ultimately wrong. We can’t just get rid of “gay” and “straight” as labels, not yet. The very existence of such inter-communal hostility is evidence of an important claim: that although sexual identity is an unreliable factor to predict how people will get along, the continued existence of such a conflicted community testifies to how necessary such a grouping is as a means of resistance.
I think comparing the “colorblind” movement to the “LGBTQ-blind” movement is particularly apt. Race is an arbitrary social construct. Genetic diversity between different tribes in Africa with the same skin color is more statistically relevant than the difference between a black American and a white American. This means that skin pigment is not an accurate predictor of genetic relatedness, rendering the pseudo-scientific studies comparing the traits of black persons v. white persons utterly meaningless. Moreover, the census categorizations of distinct races change as time and geography changes. What “white” means in South America is not what “white” means in North America (one can be white in Brazil, for example, and Hispanic in the U.S.); and what “black” meant in the 1860’s is not what “black” means today. And yet, with three distinct reasons for why blackness is an arbitrary social grouping, there exists an accepted community of black individuals written about extensively in academia, poetry, and prose.
This phenomenon is not imaginary. The black community, just as diverse as the gay community, bands together because of their shared experiences of oppression in a white man’s world. Likewise, the gay community exists as a mode of resistance in a straight man’s world. Egan makes a great point in her Slate article that an identity’s social construction does not negate its realness. Being a part of the gay community has tangible effects; the heteronormativity I’ve waded through all my life has indeed affected the way I view myself. Although Roberts actually disagrees with me in the end, his quote from a friend is a great portrayal of one type of heterosexual privilege:
“Heterosexual folks…take a line akin to ‘it’s fine if gay folks do their think, so long as they don’t flaunt it in public.’ Only ‘flaunt it’ happens to mean holding hands, or kissing, or doing what opposite-sex couples do in public all the time. Many heterosexual folks don’t feel the asymmetry, as we are unaware of the extent to which sexuality structures our lives outside the bedroom. But that also means the emergence of heterosexual desires in a person lacks the same kind of formative power that the emergence of opposite-sex desires often has. I doubt most “heterosexuals” would ever recognize themselves in the term, at least not without: they don’t need to, precisely because being a part of the “normal group” frees them from the burden of self-ascription.”
He really does put it perfectly in the last sentence. Fr. Brown, like many other straight intellectuals in philosophy, theology, and politics, is an outsider looking in. His heterosexuality is the standard by which other “deviant” sexual identities is compared; he doesn’t feel that his sexuality is central to his identity because he wasn’t inundated with uncomfortable societal messages about his desires. They said he was healthy. They said he was normal.
But they told me I wasn’t.
To simply dis-identify with the LGBTQ+ community is easier said than done. How exactly am I supposed to do that when, for most of my life, my goal was to reconcile my self-acknowledged difference with external standards which didn’t fit? How do I just ditch the labels without leaving the only people that say they understand and actually mean it—the people who know how much it sucks to be prohibited from taking a boyfriend to prom, the same people whose hearts skip a beat when they hear “faggot” in the hallway, only to reassure themselves, “Chill out. You’re safe. That wasn’t you.”
Glossing over difference in abstract philosophy doesn’t do anyone a favor. It may be true that sexual orientation is not theoretically real, but it’s no different from being real for the millions of LGBTQ+ persons around the world who suffer from cultural perceptions and policies rooted in heterosexual privilege. Just as “colorblindness” allows people to ignore conveniently that certain economic and criminal justice policies disproportionately affect people of color, this “queer-blindness” allows both the common person and policy-makers to ignore important trends like the fact that LBGTQ+ individuals are 3-4 times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers.
So, yes, we may all be people. But no, we are not cookie-cutter copies; and it’s about time that people accept that being treated with equal dignity does not entail ignoring socially meaningful differences, especially differences which are unconsciously punished by the same people who champion their indifference to diversity.
CDC. Sexual Identity, Sex of Sexual Contacts, and Health-Risk Behaviors Among Students in Grades 9-12: Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Egan, Jesi. “Sexuality Is a “Social Construct”—but That Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Real.” Slate Magazine. Slate Magazine, n.d. Web. 29 May 2014. <http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2014/03/04/sexuality_as_social_construct_foucault_is_misunderstood_by_conservatives.html>.
IMPACT. Mental health disorders, psychological distress, and suicidality in a diverse sample of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youths. American Journal of Public Health. 100(12), 2426-32.
Hannon, Michael W. “Against Heterosexuality.” First Things. First Things, 14 Mar. 2014. Web. 30 May 2014. <http://www.firstthings.com/article/2014/03/against-heterosexuality>.
Roberts, Alasdair. “Response to Hannon on Heterosexuality.” Alastairs Adversaria. Alastairs Adversaria, n.d. Web. 30 May 2014. <http://alastairadversaria.wordpress.com/2014/02/26/response-to-hannon-on-heterosexuality/>.