Thursday, April 5, 2012

Celebrating Adrienne Rich: The Refusal to Live Split and Closeted

During the week on which I was on a blogging hiatus, poet-essayist-feminist thinker-activist Adrienne Rich died.  To commemorate Rich, whose work has influenced me significantly, I want to retrieve an observation of hers I posted on 18 June 2009.  It's about the damage that oppressive authority structures do to stigmatized minorities, to minorities stigmatized because of some aspect of their humanity that the stigmatizing authority structure wants to regard as defective.

In her set of essays entitled On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (NY: W.W. Norton, 1979), Rich observes that living split--living with what the great African-American thinker W.E.B. Dubois called the "double consciousness" that racist societies impose on African Americans--is an extremely painful experience.  Yet it is what oppressive authority structures have long demanded of some stigmatized minority groups, including gays and lesbians, who have been (and still are, in many cultures) expected to live as if an essential component of our creative selves is monstrous and to be suppressed as the price for our interaction with the social mainstream:

It is an extremely painful way to live—split between a publicly acceptable persona, and a part of yourself that you perceive as the essential, the creative and powerful self, yet also as possibly unacceptable, perhaps even monstrous (p. 175).

What Rich says here inevitably brings to mind, for me, the attempt of the current pope Benedict XVI to maintain a definition of the very nature of gay human beings as intrinsically disordered.  In his 1986 document on the pastoral care of homosexual persons, writing as Cardinal Ratzinger and as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Benedict coined the phrase "intrinsic disorder" to define those who are gay, and this phrase has now entered Catholic magisterial teaching in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

I have maintained in previous postings that it is not accidental that this action by Benedict came along in the decade after the the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from its list of diagnostic disorders, noting, as it did so, that no well-conducted empirical studies have demonstrated a correlation between a homosexual orientation and mental illness.  The de-stigmatization of homosexuality by all the leading medical professional organizations throughout the world in the final decades of the 20th century has proven extremely threatening to the leaders of patriarchal religious groups that have invested everything in asserting male heterosexual (or pretend-heterosexual, in the case of many Catholic leaders) control of church and world.

In my view, the Catholic magisterium has coined the phrase "intrinsic disorder" quite deliberately to re-stigmatize gay human beings at a point in time in which medical authorities have extinguished stigmatizing references to sexual orientation.  The magisterium intends to continue speaking of gay humanity as disordered because it wants, intently, to control gay humanity--to keep gay humanity in its place.  To keep it in its despised place . . . .

And so Benedict's 1986 document, misleadingly called a statement about pastoral "care" of those who are gay, suggests--astonishingly--that when those who are gay come out of the closet, claim and affirm their God-given nature, they can and should expect various forms of violence and repression to be practiced against them in response.  The document claims to deplore such anti-gay violence.

But it also mounts a blame-the-victim argument to excuse this homophobic violence, and demands that gay persons continue to remain hidden, apologetic, filled with guilt and fear simply for being who God has made and called us to be.  The document states that if gay persons expect violence not to be done to them, they must remain in the closet.  At a fundamental level, the response of the leaders of the Catholic community from the final decades of the 20th century up to the present to gay human beings and gay Catholics has been to do everything possible to keep stigmatization and repression alive.

Here's how far some leaders of the Catholic church are now willing to go in their desperate crusade to re-stigmatize homosexuality and to shove gay human beings back into the closet: the archbishop of Minneapolis-St. Paul John Nienstedt, who has denied communion to those wearing rainbow sashes in  solidarity with gay folks, who has invested huge amounts of money to produce politically oriented videos attacking gay marriage in an attempt to throw elections, who has organized teams to turn every Catholic parish in the state into a political machine to fight against marriage equality, is now sending teams of priests and married couples to Catholic high schools to inform students that homosexuality is equivalent to bestiality.

As the statement by John Becker of Truth Wins Out to which I've just linked notes, when Archbishop Nienstedt tried this at DeLaSalle high school in Minneapolis recently, there was pushback.  There was pushback from Catholic high school students who know and love someone who is gay, and who refuse to sit silently through church-organized sessions of defamation attacking the humanity, the very nature, of people they love.

The response of these Minneapolis Catholic high school students to the attempt of the leaders of their church to re-stigmatize gay human beings suggests to me that this attempt is doomed to failure.  It's doomed to failure for reasons Adrienne Rich implicitly outlines in the snippet of her work I've excerpted above.

Even when draconian structures of oppressive authority do everything possible to convince targeted groups of human beings that who they are is unacceptable, insofar as who they are does not coincide with the authority structure's definition of normalcy, there will always be those within stigmatized minority communities who refuse to accept the definition of abnormality imposed on them from above.  There will always be those who resist because, as Rich rightly notes, those being defined as subnormal or intrinsically disordered do not experience and understand their own human nature in the way that the oppressive authority figure does.

Those of us who are gay frequently undergo spiritual journeys full of pain and hardship in which we begin to understand that the very thing about ourselves being stigmatized and repressed by communities of faith and other patriarchal authority structures is the ground of our creativity, of our ability to love others, of our humanity itself.  And we will not pay the price demanded of us by these authority structures to live in the world they want to create in the patriarchal image.  We will not repudiate our God-given human nature to satisfy the control needs of oppressive authority structures.

We choose, instead, to claim and celebrate our God-given humanity as a precondition for living in the world, and a precondition for celebrating the divine presence in the world.  The problem then becomes, for rigid, oppressive patriarchal authority structures, that of dealing with those who will no longer permit themselves to be shoved into closets and to be stigmatized.

And who will no longer permit their lives to be identified as problematic, when the real problem to be confronted here is the problem of the pathology of people and institutions that have such a ravenous need to lie about some of their fellow human beings, and to define those who are gay as bestial.  In the name of Christ . . . .

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