Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Renegotiating Gender Roles, Building Gay-Inclusive Societies: The Continuing Task

Another of those blast-from-the-past postings, which retrieve material I’m finding in my journals from previous years, as I page through them for various pieces of information I need these days. This entry is from January 1993, a period in which (as I've noted previously) I was coping with soul-searching questions about how to live my vocation as a theologian who happens to be gay in a church that will not permit one to be openly, honestly gay, questions provoked by my expulsion from the small Catholic college outside Charlotte, North Carolina, which gave me an unexplained one-year terminal contract in the same semester:

What threatens many Catholics re: reorienting our understanding of gender is that what seems “traditional” has for so long oriented and shaped social structures. Is the current reexamination and renegotiation and concomitant reexamination of homosexuality merely destructive? Or can it provide an ethos for a new, better society?

As Catholic ethics have always seen (building on Stoic philosophy), ethical decisions are about doing the normally, ordinarily right thing in this or that situation. Thus shift what we think re: the normal itself (and what shift could be more profound than that having to do with gender?), and we seem to call into question the very idea of normalcy, the foundations of society.

Yet Catholicism has also always been re: living tradition, tradition that moves and does not stay static, that corrects and reinvigorates itself by contact with culture, the God who manifests Godself in the world. The appeal to tradition can never be a univocal appeal to an unchanging tradition. It has to be a multivocal appeal to a complex, often richer and fissiparous tradition. The difficulty is thus to know what anyone—you or I—means by tradition.

The question: how to see reorienting gender as a constructive way to build a new social ethos? How to tease out of tradition those strands most useful for building a new world, and discard those that have caused such destructive effects?

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And this analysis seems still timely to me, more than fifteen years after I wrote it. Note, for instance, Greta Christina’s commentary on the recent kerfuffle staged by FOX’s “So You Think You Can Dance” show, which deliberately used two men dancing to make ugly slurs about gender roles and gay people:

It's the aspect of homophobia that's about a deep attachment to rigid gender roles, and that sees homosexuality as upsetting those roles. (Which, in fact, it is.) It's the aspect of homophobia that sees certain kinds of interactions -- in this case, partner dancing -- as being about one person expressing masculinity and the other person expressing femininity, with the two fitting together in some sort of magically ordained way ... and that gets confused at best, and upset at worst, when people call those roles and assumptions into question.

With the FOX network and other pop-culture venues that set the tone for so much of our cultural analysis at the popular level, we still see, even now, even as our culture moves beyond renegotiation of traditional gender roles to acceptance of LGBT persons, blatant attempts to play on fears about this process of cultural change, with the obvious intent to produce backlash against anyone questioning traditional gender roles and calling for inclusion of gays and lesbians in our society.

And then (again, I’m noting the continuing pertinence of my analysis of the searching questions that renegotiation of gender roles raises, in connection with questions about acceptance of LGBT persons) there’s Aaron Traister’s article at Salon today entitled “Dude, Man Up and Start Acting Like a Mom.” Traister analyses how his experience as a stay-at-home father (a “mom”) has made him a better man:

I was also discovering a side of myself I had never really known before. Being Mr. Mom was turning me into the man I had always aspired to be; I was becoming dependable.

Traister concludes,

We keep hearing that women will surpass men in the workforce during this recession. As many of us (for whatever reason) find ourselves in a fiduciary timeout, we should not only think about how to repower the American worker but how to reimagine the American man. The moment our mothers entered the workforce and shattered expectations, the rules about gender roles in this country changed completely, even if our perceptions didn't. Trying to live like our grandfathers is no longer an option.

As I’ve said before, if the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church want to be convincing about their consistent ethic of life, they’re going to have to stop acting like dysfunctional fathers and begin acting like mothers. If Aaron Traister is correct, the best way to become a good father (and a real man) today may be via motherhood: when men adopt and embrace virtues traditionally thought of as maternal, they may enhance and fulfill their own masculinity.

The Catholic church and all the other churches today that are hell-bent on elevating some fictitious “natural” complementary of men and women to the level of salvific truth need to stop trying to bolster a threatened patriarchal system that has done incalculable damage to men, women, and all of creation. The churches need to begin recognizing and cherishing “feminine” and maternal virtues. Their salvation and the survival of their churches may well depend on this massive Spirit-led shift, as John McNeill has so prophetically reminded his readers for quite some time now.