Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Reader Writes, and I Respond: "Clearly This Fellow Is Speaking in Code"

I appreciate all the valuable responses to my last posting about the recent posting and thread at America magazine's "In All Things" blog which seek to reframe the Catholic discussion of suicides of gay teens due to bullying with terms that, as some Catholic authority figures maintain, purify the discussion by ruling out the illicit political goals of gay and lesbian activists who are opposed to "traditional Catholic values."

A great deal is at stake in this discussion.  A great deal is at stake, in the first place, because gay teens are committing suicide at a rate three or four (I've seen both figures in well-respected research) times higher than that of teens as a whole in the U.S.  When the lives of young people are at stake, and when communities of faith claim to value life and to make love their ultimate objective, then it's impossible to overstate the seriousness of this conversation.

A great deal is at stake, as well, because two-thirds of Americans responding to a recent study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute report that faith communities are actually fostering the climate that results in bullying of gay teens and the suicides of some of these teens.  Fewer than one in five of those responding to this poll find that the response of communities of faith to the bullying of gay teens is adequate.  Of all religious groups reporting in this study, American Catholics find their church failing more than any other churches to address the problem of suicides of gay teens adequately.

This is the context addressed by the recent America thread to which I've just responded.  That thread also develops against the backdrop of a national discussion within the Catholic church in the U.S. of shocking rates of attrition, in which one in three American adults raised Catholic have left the church, and one in ten American adults is a former Catholic.  In addition, Robert Putnam and David Campbell's new book entitled American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us finds that religious groups' intolerance of homosexuality is the "single strongest factor" accounting for the abandonment of religious affiliation by increasing numbers of American younger people.

It is this context that the posting by Professor William Van Ornum to which I drew attention several days ago addresses: high rates of suicides of gay teens in the U.S.; the first frank national conversation we've ever had about this ongoing problem; the opening of a national discussion within American Catholicism of extremely high attrition rates within the Catholic church in the U.S.; reports by a large majority of Americans that faith communities bear a direct role of responsibility in creating the conditions for bullying of gay teens, with reports by American Catholics that their church is doing a deplorable job in this respect; and a recent finding that the primary reason younger people are leaving the churches is that they can no longer stomach the homophobia of many churches.

And how does the America posting try to frame discussion of these significant issues?  It does so by

1. Asserting the right of non-gay people to define the terms of the discussion, including even the terminology used to identify gay persons themselves (and this includes the terminology identifying teens who commit suicide after, they claim, they were bullied mercilessly precisely because they were gay);

2. Claiming that the right of non-gay persons to control the terms of the conversation--and even the terminology used to define gay and lesbian persons--is rooted in Catholic truth, which is consistent over the course of the tradition and cannot and will not change, and which non-gay believers (especially heterosexual males) own exclusively;

3. Seeking to rehabilitate long-since discarded theories that sexual orientation is not a given from birth or early in the life of a human being, and that it is not fixed and can be changed by will-power or reparative therapy;

4. Identifying all gay and lesbian persons, including those with ties to the churches who repeatedly ask for honest, frank discussions within the churches that permits their voices to be heard, as political activists with a selfish agenda of recruiting youth;

5. Characterizing these gay and lesbian people of faith as political activists who have no valid home in the Catholic faith community and who are anti-Catholic and opposed to "traditional Catholic values" and the unchanging truth on which those values rest;

6. Implicitly identifying the power and privilege of heterosexual men with "traditional Catholic values" and the unchanging truth on which those values rest;

7. Demanding that youth who begin to ask searching questions about sexual orientation in Catholic schools be challenged to conform to the model of normalcy maintained by those heterosexual men, and that they be challenged to marry and have children even when their own inclinations have caused them to question the heterosexist model of normalcy;

8. Validating even damaging, mean-spirited attacks on the humanity of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ, and even theories that run roughshod over scientific truth and fact, as one among many valid opinions about these issues which deserves particular respect since it masquerades as "traditional Catholic values" and the unchanging truth of the Catholic tradition;

9. Questioning whether gay teens who commit suicide are actually gay, and maintaining that the use of the term "gay" in this context frames the discussion in a political way that tries to impose a "gay lifestyle" on teens who are confused about gender and sexual orientation, but are not gay (since there is no such thing as a sexual orientation established at birth or early in life, and confused teens can and should choose the heterosexual lifestyle, and so the political "gay" option should be kept away from them);

10. And claiming that this obliterating of even the name that identifies what some gay teens believed they were dying for is an act of love, emulating the all-embracing love of Christ, whereas gays and lesbians cannot love gay teens and are motivated in discussions of suicides of gay teens only by selfish political reasons.

As my posting notes, the preceding agenda, which is developed at length in the America posting to which I drew readers' attention a day ago, and in the thread that follows, began with an editorial discussion at America in which the magazine's editors and their psychological expert on matters homosexual, Professor Van Ornum, decided to stop using the term "gay," which the magazine had used in previous discussions of these issues, and to begin using the term "homosexual."

In my posting, I noted the serious implications of this linguistic way of framing the discussion of suicide of gay teens:

1. It asserts the rights of those who are not gay or lesbian--specifically, of heterosexual men--to name even the reality and the lives of gay and lesbian persons.

2. It refuses to respect the request of a large proportion of gay and lesbian persons that the term "gay" be used to identify us and our lives, rather than the term "homosexual."

3. It imposes on the lives of gay and lesbian persons a clinical term that began to come into common usage at the turn of the 19th-20th century, which has a scientific provenance and has come to connote a reductionistic understanding of gay and lesbian lives that focuses exclusively on sexuality as it defines those lives.

4.Significantly, it has become the term of choice used in political and religious movements that want to attack gay and lesbian people, deny rights to us or remove rights from us, keep us marginalized, and, whenever possible, return us to the closet.

5. The term "homosexual" is used as a term of choice by these repressive movements precisely because it continues to identify gay and lesbian persons and our lives, in the minds of the public, with sexuality; it continues the reductionistic view of us as sexual animals and not full, multi-faceted human beings.

6. The term "homosexual" becomes a way for those using it in the discussion of gay teen suicide to play games with well-grounded scientific findings about how sexual orientation is established at birth or early in life, and to deny these findings and to speak of the "choice" that young people have to reject the "gay lifestyle" and live normal heterosexual lives--even when their inclinations point in an opposite direction.

7. It also becomes another way in which those using this term in Catholic discussions continue the marginalization of their gay brothers and sisters as anti-Catholic political activists who pursue a "gay agenda" counter to" traditional Catholic values" and the unchanging truth on which those values rest.

8.  The term "homosexual" thus permits those engaged in the most anti-Catholic impulse of all--the savage exclusion of an entire group of their brothers and sisters, solely because of who those brothers and sisters happen to be by birth--to justify their dehumanizing treatment of these brothers and sisters, to deny their humanity, and to call these actions holy and Catholic.

9.  For all the preceding reasons, most style sheets for academic publications and even for many popular newspapers today insist that writers discard the bias-laden term "homosexual" and use the term preferred by gay and lesbian persons themselves to describe gay people and gay lives, except when the discussion is touching on historical terminology for sexual orientation.

10. In short, today, use of the term "homosexual," particularly by members of faith communities discussing these issues, situates those using it within political movements with a strongly anti-gay stance and a strongly anti-gay agenda.

Deliberate choices of journals of religious groups to use the term "homosexual" and discard the term "gay" in these discussions signal the choice of those journals to endorse the goals of anti-gay movements and to shut real gay and lesbian voices out of intra-church discussions of gay issues.  This is all the more important to note as studies are demonstrating that if you substitute the word "homosexual" for "gay" in questions about gay rights, people who were inclined to answer positively about gay rights are more inclined to answer negatively when homosexual rights are under consideration.

I have developed the preceding summary points in response to a good reader of my previous posting, Kallisti, who posted the following comment in response to my last posting:

I can't blame you for your decision.  But I have learned something from you as well, about terminology.  Clearly this fellow is speaking in code, and it's a code designed for people who share his odd, parochial worldview.  It makes no sense to anyone else. 

But, speaking from my generational viewpoint, I don't (or at least I didn't) see anything negative in the term "homosexual" per se.  To me, (and my age cohort) it was just another mundane use characterizing word, akin to "heterosexual."  I think, in conversation with under 30 folks, this attempt to skew outlook fails completely, because we don't process it in the same way.  

This is an outstanding observation for a variety of reasons, and I want to respond to it carefully.  Last point first, Kallisti: I think you're right that increasing numbers of younger folks are impatient with these tortured linguistic discussions, and have moved beyond them.  The terminology itself and the intense focus on it in the past several decades are becoming baffling to younger people who are moving to a post-gay worldview in which it is not of such crucial importance to label groups of human beings and put themselves into their places, vis-a-vis sexual orientation.

But on the other hand, you also make an outstanding point when you say that those using the term "homosexuality" in these faith-based discussions of gay and lesbian people and gay and lesbian lives are "speaking in code," and it's very important for us to crack the code, if we don't want to let the coded language skew the discussion.  And that's precisely what I've been trying to do in this posting and my last one: crack the code, which deliberately seeks to frame the Catholic discussion of gay teen suicides to validate the viewpoint of anti-gay movements and to exclude authentic gay and lesbian voices from Catholic discussions of these issues.

Language shapes how we view the world.  It frames our understanding of issues.  It sets the terms for discussions.  It is not accidental that any movement for the liberation of oppressed groups of people early on confronts the terminology used by a group's oppressors, and tries to wrest control of the definition of the oppressed group from the hands of the oppressor.

I became sensitized to this dynamic growing up in the middle of the Civil Rights movement in the American South.  One of the first ways in which that movement made an impact on my own life was through linguistics.  As a white Southerner, I had been schooled from the earliest period of my life in a code of linguistic etiquette that governed all my interactions with people of color.

That code taught me to use "nice" terms to identify people of color, and to avoid "ugly" terms.  Both the nice and the ugly terms were of our own making, it is important to note.  They were not developed by the people we were characterizing as "colored" or as "n-----s."  We did not and certainly would not consult those whom we were defining with our own language, to hear what they thought of these terms.  What mattered was what we thought.  What mattered was the language we, who had all the power in our hands (or who imagined we did), were imposing on the discussion.

These were our terms imposed on the lives, perspective, viewpoint, and aspirations of another group of people.  People whom we intended to keep in their place and to denigrate and marginalize even as we pretended to be "nice" to these people, since we were good Christian people, we white Southerners, who attended church every Sunday and who couldn't possibly be doing harm to anyone . . . . We owned Christ just as we owned colored people.

And so very early on in the movement for black civil rights, people of color began to demand that the culture at large stop imposing its terminology on people of color, and pay attention to what people of color preferred to be called--black or African American or people of color.  It was crucially important that those seeking freedom from oppression reframe the discussion linguistically, at the very outset of the Civil Rights movement, because that linguistic reframing recognized the most fundamental principle for which African Americans were struggling: the right to define lives defined by oppressive others in a new way, in their own way, beyond the control of those whose primary intent was to continue oppressing.

The linguistic shift took time, and it was painful, especially for white Southerners like me who were used to doing the defining and who thought of ourselves as benign, Christlike paternalistic savior figures who should not be questioned, as we allocated social power and privilege.  And ultimately, the shift was successful, and from this initial linguistic framing in the Civil Rights movement, much of the progress African Americans made in marching towards freedom from oppression flowed.

And now it would be unthinkable for any reputable academic or popular journal to revert to terminology imposed on the African-American community by outsiders, by its oppressors, or for faith communities to do this, in the name of purifying discussions of race within the church of the "political" "agenda" of brothers and sisters in Christ.  We have moved on.

As we need to do in the handling of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ within the churches.  We have to move on to a point at which we begin to permit the authentic voices of real gay and lesbian believers to be a part of the discussion.  We have to stop trying to delegitimate those voices as political and selfish, or as anti-Christian.  And we have, above all, to stop illicitly legitimating the outlook and perspective of the most privileged group of all, heterosexual men, as normalcy itself.

Or, within the tortured and very mean little worldview that has come to dominate increasing numbers of movers and shakers of American Catholicism, as "the" Catholic viewpoint.  And the embodiment of Catholic truth. 

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