Joy of Being Wrong Essays, Part 6.2--Our Fear of a Genderless World

In the previous post, I took a look at the idea of a taboo, and whether people are freaking out about homosexuality because it is a taboo.  If homosexuality is a taboo, we would expect it to be "protecting" some social division or structure.  And I think homosexuality is "protecting" a social division--the division between men and women, and the notion that this division manifests itself in rigid roles respective to each gender.

Let's go back to St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians.

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3: 26-28.

Other than the resurrection accounts, I think this is the most radical passage of the New Testament.  St. Paul is naming three of the most profound divisions in his society and declaring them to be irrelevant in light of the coming of Jesus.  It is Christianity as a message of liberation at its most direct and most profound.

 But on the surface it presents a quandary.  "Jew" and "Greek," "slave" and "free"--these are social categories, so it is easy for us to imagine a world in which such categories do not exist.  If you are enslaved, you can be made free without any sort of ontological change to who you are as a person; likewise, with the exception of circumcision (which Paul spends a large chunk of Galatians criticizing and working through), there is no physical difference between being a Jew and being a non-Jew.

But "male" and "female" are, at least on their face, biological categories (though, that biological reality is far more contingent that many like to believe).  We can see physical differences between men and women in a way that we do not with regard to those other categories.  A literalistic reading of this passage suggests that Paul is calling on us to become "sexless as the bees," a kind of forced androgyny.  

On the other hand, "male" and "female" are not just biological categories.  In all societies and cultures, they are also full of social and cultural significance.  What is tricky about the social and cultural norms associated with gender is that it is easy to use the biological realities to bootstrap them to the level of givens--to assert that the cultural and social norms associated with gender are not in fact products of society and culture, but are instead "natural."  Thus, it was once routinely asserted that women couldn't be doctors or lawyers because of "natural" differences in the temperament and constitution of women.  In truth, there was nothing natural about these distinctions whatsoever--they existed purely to enshrine male and female roles as fixed castes in society.  But the physical differences that exist between men and women are a useful "hook" to attach a suite of other social norms, and to place them beyond consideration or question.

This rigid gender schema has been under attack, at least in the West, for the last 50 or 100 years.  And, for many folks, this attack has been a source of serious concern, resulting in push-backs of various types.  The (*ahem*) problematic Duggar family has taken up the torch in the United States for this resistance.  The Catholic Church has not shied away from this resistance as well, under the banner of the amorphous concept of "complementarity."  For many people, gender does incorporate a set of fixed social and cultural roles that are far more expansive than can be directly deduced from the physical differences between men and women.  For them, these roles are important, and worth protecting.

What does any of this have to do with homosexuality?

Until the modern concept of "homosexuality" came to be, same-sex sexuality was always understood in a gendered context.  Leviticus 18:32 says "[y]ou shall not lie with a male as with a woman," suggesting that on some level the problem is that male-male sexual activity is understood as a kind of gender-bending.  One of the two, highly controversial, words used in 1st Corinthians that is often translated as in Bibles as "homosexual"--malakoi--is  more literally translated as "effeminate."  Romans 1:26-27 is more explicit:

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

The taboo against homosexuality can be seen as part and parcel of an effort to police the sharp boundaries between men and women.  Homosexuality was seen as transgressing those boundaries--a man who has sex with a man is seen as "becoming" a woman on some level, and vice versa with lesbian sex.  That was the real social violation, the one that the ban on same-sex sexual conduct was designed to protect against.

To take a modern example, consider Iran.  Iran is second in the world in the number of gender-reassignment surgeries per capita (behind Thailand), but homosexuality is punished by death.  That seems inconsistent to a Western audience, but it has an internal coherency.  In a society like Iran, where gender roles are so rigidly enforced, homosexuality transgresses those boundaries.  By contrast, a person who transitions from one gender to another can still be encompassed by the social scheme of their new gender.  By pushing gay men to transition to women and lesbians to become men, you "solve" the problem of people who are blurring the lines between the genders, via shoehorning them into the pre-established, socially recognized roles.

Even cultures that were more tolerant of same-sex sexual conduct often insisted nonetheless on rigid gender identities.  In Roman society, it was considered completely acceptable for a freeborn man to penetrate another man (usually a slave or other social inferior), but completely unacceptable to be the one penetrated--Julius Caesar's political opponents smeared him with the claim that he enjoyed being the passive partner with other men.  The basic idea is that what is important is maintaining one's "maleness," expressed as penetration.  At least for the people that mattered in society, it was important to maintain the bright line of gender identity and role, and there were social costs associated with crossing over.

So, I would argue that in the past homosexuality was a taboo because homosexuality was perceived to be a form of gender-bending.  But the modern LGBT rights movement has become taboo for a slightly different reason, one that is ultimately more challenging to the rigid conception of gender.  It's one thing for two men or two women to have sex with each other, such that one or both parties are seen as taking on the other gender.  It is something entirely different when two men or two women forming a relationship while insisting on maintaining their own gender.  If two men can be in a permanent, long-term relationship without either of them having to "become" a woman (and likewise with two women without any of them "becoming" a man), it means that these rigid gendered social roles are not really all that necessary in the first place.  Because, if it truly was "natural" and essential for men and women to function in a "complementary" manner, a relationship of two women who insisted on being women would be like trying to push together the positive poles of two magnets--they would naturally repel each other. If complementarity is a thing in the way its defenders insist it is, these same sex relationships should never be able to get off the ground, or function in any way analogous to opposite sex relationships.   And yet, appear to function in more or less exactly the same way as opposite sex relationships.

It is very hard to support the idea that long-term romantic relationships require a very specific and fixed understanding of the roles of the respective genders when the "respective gender" part appears to be optional to a working relationship.  And that's the rub--two men or two women forming a long-term union is a demonstration that neither gay folks nor straight folks need to be bound by an a priori, fixed vision of what gender means.  Those distinctions, which for so long have been seen as the immutable rock on which society is built, can be seen as entirely optional.  The Emperor has no clothes.

If I'm right about this, then there are a couple of take-aways.  First, the claim that "gay marriage will harm traditional family structures" is true, but only insofar as "traditional marriage" is defined to mean the rigid gender roles that characterize most accounts of "complementarity."  A gay couple getting married does indeed undermine the rationale behind, for example, the Duggars' marriage.  But gay marriage will have no effect whatsoever on the equal, companionate marriages (or, at least, marriages that strive for that as an ideal) that folks like my parents have, or that most of the people that I know who are married have.  For those marriages, the ban on homosexuality is trying to scuttle a ship that has already left the dock, because they have already discarded most or all of that complementarian superstructure long before the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell.

On the flip side, conservatives don't need to craft elaborate conspiracy theories about the "gay agenda" to explain the breathtakingly fast evolution in the public's attitudes toward gay marriage.  The underlying social structure that the taboo of homosexuality supported has been collapsing in the West.  If no one actually believes in rigid gender roles anymore, then the rationale for the taboo is lost, and it becomes only a matter of time before it gets swept away.  No matter how persuasive and well-crafted the pro gay marriage campaign was (and it was), it wouldn't have been effective if a significant majority of folks were already primed to go in that direction.  This was Melinda Selmys's point back when Obergefell came out, and while she laments the passing of the ancien regime (which, to my mind, is insane), she highlights the fact that the fault line fundamentally lies not between straight marriage and gay marriage, but between two different visions of straight marriage.

The second point has to do with the claim made, perhaps most clearly by the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, that supporting same-sex marriage is a product of Christian discipleship, as opposed to a repudiation of it.  This Girardian reading can provide powerful support for that view.  Christian history provides examples of social and theological distinctions that were once seen as being a core part of the Gospel message and are now seen as pure acts of scapegoating, and thus necessarily antithetical to the Gospel message--anti-Semitism comes especially to mind.  One hundred years ago, the kinds of statements decrying anti-Semitism that get thrown around by Pope Francis and others almost casually would be a one way ticket to a heresy charge.  It has happened before, and it can happen again.

But that is going to be hard work.  It is going to have serious consequences for the way we approach our history, and even the Scriptures.  If this reading is right, Galatians 3 and Romans 1 are in tension, if not directly contradictory.  It means that St. Paul might not have fully understood the full significance of what he was saying in Galatians 3, or even perhaps retreated from the radical message that the coming of Christ signified.  I think you can do that and still maintain a robust sense of the Christian faith, but it is a tough ask and it is going to be tough for many people to swallow.

We are not all the way there yet.  But one of the most encouraging messages of The Joy of Being Wrong is that the moment of awareness and the moment of forgiveness are the same moment.  Said another way, the first moment that you realize you have a problem is the first moment that you are able to overcome that problem.  In days past, we were all far too locked into our rigid structure of gender taboos to see the way in which what we said about LGBT folks was a product of that system.  The fact we can recognize and talk about this, even when the talking takes the form of condemnation and strident reiterations of old positions, is a sign we are moving past these taboos.  I recognize this is limited comfort to people on the receiving end of these condemnations, but it is and should be real comfort nonetheless.  We are on the road to St. Paul's vision in Galatians, even if we have a ways still to travel.


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