Friday, February 13, 2009

The "Ex-Gay" Movement: Getting to the Heart of the Matter

So, as the week winds down, I’m trying to figure out what perturbs me in particular about the “ex-gay” movement ( I'm thinking, that is, about the center of my critique, about where it comes from and what it wants to address as core issues.

Somehow, for me, the heart of the matter has to do with an observation I made in my reflections on this topic yesterday. I stated,

Look through the screen of lies the ex-gay movement tells about gay human beings and you will not see a single recognizable face of a single recognizable gay human being you know. You will see human faces on which a screen of lies have been imposed to distort those faces for the pleasure of the "ex-gay" movement.

And as I think about that observation, I flash back to a session I attended in the 1990s at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. This was when I still thought it worthwhile to attend those gargantuan circus-like expositions of the bewildering diversity of American religious life in academic mode. As theology and religious studies programs continued, year after year, to turn out that endless line of indistinguishable bearded straight men wearing tweed jackets and sporting wedding rings that dominates American religious life both academic and non-academic, I gave up.* I found no place among them.

The session I’m remembering here was a meeting of the Lesbian Feminist workgroup. It’s possible to find anything at AAR, from papers on snake charming in Timbuktu as a hermeneutic of suspicion of postmodernity, to ponderous expositions of the earth-shaking doctrinal differences between Campbellites and Reformed Baptists. As the title of the workgroup whose session I attended suggests, it’s possible, even, to find refreshing little islands of gay and lesbian discourse in the all-engulfing sea of male heteronormative discourse about the Word-as-parsed-for-everyone-else.

On this occasion, here’s what I recall, very vividly: someone—a woman scholar of religion who identifies publicly as lesbian—gave a paper whose subject I can’t recall. I do remember that it was a good paper, as refreshing as a cold drink of water on a hot day in the middle of the desert, after the many papers (the Word-as-parsed-for-everyone-else) I had been hearing from the bearded talking heads for several days.

As she read her paper, a group of men stood at a distance at the back of the room. Scowling men, pacing men, men ready to spring into action when she had finished. I saw it coming, and I’m sure anyone in the room who happened to look over her or his shoulder did so, too.

The presenter finished, the moderator asked if anyone had questions or comments, and immediately, one of the pacing men sprang to life: “Yes. I wonder if you realize you are a sinner. And that you are headed to hell if you do not repent. You’re every bit as much of a sinner as a murderer or an alcoholic who won’t come to terms with his problem.”

After the gentleman had made his “point,” total silence—baffled silence. None of us had, I imagine, ever attended an AAR session in which anything remotely like this had happened. AAR? I seriously doubt that any of us had ever even heard the word “sin” at an AAR session, let alone heard someone called a sinner, a sinner damned to hell.

And right to her face. AAR is all about—defiantly about—a tolerance and diversity that trumps even the most innocuous questions about truth or universal, transhistorical ethical norms. Tolerance and diversity are the unofficial, official ideology of this annual meeting of American scholars of religion, and one defies that prevailing ideology—overtly, at least—at his or her peril. Or so we thought, until this session.

And here we were, a large roomful of scholars of religion, all with advanced degrees in the filed, most of us, I imagine, gay or lesbian, listening to ourselves harangued by a group of fellow scholars of religion, every bit like guilty schoolchildren at a retreat led by a badgering hell-fire-and-damnation. We hung our heads. A woman in front of me muttered, but not loud enough to be heard, “I resent being compared to a murderer.”

I think most of us were in shock. This kind of frontal assault is not supposed to happen at AAR meetings. The violation of the organization’s unwritten canons of decency was so gross and so unexpected that I imagine none of us knew what to do—at least not initially, not until one of the skilled moderators took the situation in hand and defused it. At which point the group of scowling men made their scowling exit from the room.

Here’s what strikes me about that scenario: there is something astonishing about the presupposition of anyone that he ought (and is warranted) to enter a room full of people discussing an academic issue and inform them, lest they be unaware of it, that they are headed to hell. On what basis does anyone feel such entitlement? And such certainty of his own absolutely unquestionable right to own God and the scriptures? And such dispensation from the strictures of the most elementary human decency? And the ability so to discern among the many sins on rich display in any large human gathering, that he knows he ought to home in on one sin and that sin alone in his lust to bring others to his salvation?

These are the questions I bring to my reflections on the “ex-gay” movement and those who belong to that movement. They’re ones that inform what I wrote about that movement yesterday, and will continue to inform any further comments I make about that movement in the future. I suspect that the critique of religion that arises from many gay folks' experience of life may remain perplexing to many non-gay people until those who are not gay begin to understand that many of us who are gay and who have had contact with religious groups have been subjected to such inhumane experiences—and repeatedly so.

* Things may have changed. I hope so.