Sexual authenticity

By  Melinda Selmys, Catholic Register Special
  • March 1, 2009
{mosimage}It was the Marquis de Sade who first put into writing the idea that homosexuality is, for some, an inclination that emerges in childhood and remains more or less fixed throughout life. This view developed, over several centuries, into the modern notion of sexual orientation: same-sex attraction ceased to be a temptation or inclination from which some people suffered at various points in their lives and became something fixed, immutable and fundamental to the personality.

This understanding of same-sex attraction is held more or less universally in mainstream modern culture. Looking at the writings of the press, the gay and lesbian organizations and the North American psychological establishment, one gets the impression that the matter is very simple. Some people are born gay, some people are born straight and some people are born bisexual. It is as unnatural and unhealthy to expect a gay person to have heterosexual relationships as it would be for a straight person to seek out same-sex partners. Whatever your orientation is, it’s that way for life and it cannot be changed.

Outside of the West, and of countries specifically influenced by Western dogma, different views prevail. Within our culture, however, there are only two groups that challenge the simplistic understanding of homoeroticism expressed by the gay-straight-bisexual trichotomy: the Christian “ex-gay” movement and queer theorists within the homosexual community. In other words, it is questioned only by people who have actually experienced and analysed same-sex attractions from an interior perspective.

The problem we have with the theory of immutable sexual orientation is that sexual orientation is very difficult to define. Studies of “ex-gays” are consistently criticized on the basis that they do not adhere to rigourously defined standards for determining who is, and is not, gay to begin with. Unfortunately, it is a Catch 22: no such rigourous standards exist. Susan D. Cochran, a psychologist who won the APA’s 2001 Award for Distinguished Contributions to Research in Public Policy, defines sexual orientation as “a multidimensional concept including intercorrelated dimensions of sexual attraction, behaviour and fantasies, as well as emotional, social and lifestyle preference.” Far from presenting a rigourous standard, the most distinguished theorists in the field seem hard pressed to present any sort of coherent definition at all.

Nor do monolithic models of same-sex attraction reflect the actual experiences of same-sex attracted people very accurately. The vast majority of people with same-sex attractions also experience some degree of opposite-sex attraction, most have sexual experience with partners of both sexes and many are increasingly uncomfortable with biological explanations of their sexuality. The younger generation is increasingly inclined to reject categorical sexual-identity labels and to describe shades of attraction as opposed to fixed sexual orientations.

Still, when it comes to someone deliberately leaving a homosexual lifestyle or entering into a heterosexual marriage, for religious reasons, the monolithic model endures. “Ex-gays” are routinely assumed to be deluded neurotics, filled with self-hatred, upon whose weaknesses the Christian establishment thrives.

Attempts to demonstrate that a change of “sexual orientation” is actually possible are doomed to fail. They are doomed because the notion of sexual orientation includes the presumption of a fixed variable. It is rather like Calvinist predestinarianism: those who leave the fold were either never really part of it in the first place or they are stray sheep who will inevitably return.

I have confronted this myself, on both sides; I converted to Catholicism out of a long-term lesbian relationship, and later married heterosexually. Those who believe that I really was a lesbian early in my life believe that I must be unhappy and self-destructive now. Those who accept that I am happily married in the present think that I was never really a lesbian.

Other people who I know who left homosexuality for religious reasons have faced the same dilemma. So long as we were identified as gay/lesbian/transsexual/bisexual etc. we were assumed competent to define our own sexuality, to know, better than anyone else, what the most authentic way for us to express our sexual feelings was. Now that our sexuality has shifted in response to our spiritual, intellectual and emotional development, it is presumed that we are stupid, dishonest or deluded.

The reality is that human sexuality is a complicated matter. There are no simple categories of “gay” and “straight.” There are no magical genetic buttons that turn same-sex attracted people into sexual automatons, devoid of personal responsibility. There is nothing special about homosexual desire that makes it a moral imperative instead of an ordinary urge. There are just human beings who are every one of them owed the dignity of being allowed to subordinate their sexual inclinations to the needs and convictions of the higher elements of their personalities.

(Selmys is a freelance writer in Toronto.)

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