Homophobia at Yale

April 4, 2011 Leave a comment

About a week ago, I watched a re-run of an episode of Seinfeld called “The Outing,” which aired for the first time about twenty years ago (1993), part of the fourth season (you can watch a series of clips from this episode on Youtube: catch the panic about 4 mins in).  I had seen it before, but this time around, I found myself a bit more attuned to the episode’s primary message–one that is actually quite brilliant at capturing a public attitude, particularly resonant for those of us who consider ourselves rather accepting or affirming of our LGBTQ friends, neighbors, or family members. In short, Jerry and George demonstrate for us a rather pervasive species of homophobia that is, from my experience, very prevalent at Yale University.

Then, this morning, I came upon this report by Good Morning America, which is reporting that Yale is under investigation for sexual harassment (see: Yale University Under Investigation for ‘Hostile Sexual Environment’).  It’s an excellent report of the rather blatantly sexually-abusive goings-on at Yale between students, particularly relevant in the wake of the 40th anniversary of Yale’s admitting women.  The question of the report is: Do women feel safe on campus, and free to take advantage of the educational opportunities there?  The consensus is that they are not.

Particularly ironic is the fact that halfway through the interview with Good Morning America, a male student shouts a sexually-explicit remark from a distance, which is caught on tape (and one which, apparently, you don’t want your mother to hear).  Yale stands to lose $500M in federal funding if the problem is not resolved.

So, what do Jerry Seinfeld and Yale University have in common?

In the Seinfeld episode, a report circulates in a national newspaper that Jerry and George are a gay couple.   The rumor unravels before them, as they try desperately to maintain a “straight” image before friends and family, which ends up playing like cooking sieves trying to contain water.  No one believes them, and they are unable to quell the rumor with success.  At every moment, however, that they offer a hopeless “No, we’re not gay!,” they follow it with: “Not that there’s anything wrong with it”… and we all laugh.

Although the show claims to be about nothing, Seinfeld has brought to us a tidy demonstration of some of our more serious neuroses.  And we laugh, I believe, because we can see ourselves in them.

When I was a student at Yale, I discovered a type of homophobia that very much caught me by surprise, and which has left me with a sour sense of misfortune for an institution that generally seems to pride itself in being at the forefront of a progressive movement.  But, upon reflecting, however, I am far less astonished after reading this report from Good Morning America.

One afternoon, during a Greek New Testament class, studying the Gospel of Luke at the Divinity School, I made a comment anticipating our discussion on the reading for the day, which must have been, apparently, less-masculine and less-heterosexual than some of my classmates would have liked (and, for those who know me, this is probably no surprise).  I caught three students to my right, a way off, gawking at the comment to one another, which I suppose they didn’t know I had heard (but, I’m not sure they would have cared if I did).  For the remainder of that term (and, really, my stay at Yale), I felt less safe.  I had not encountered this type of homophobia since high school in the northeast mountains of Arizona (to be frank, is Arizona’s Laramie, WY if you get the connection, only without the benefits of a state university in context).  At the time, I recoiled as I was used to as a result of the pervasive bullying I experienced in Arizona, as sort of a instinctual reaction to the (and, when all is said and done, most-likely not) physically threatening manner of my classmates’ reaction to my comment.

Students at Yale, for the most part, are concerned with maintaining a safe public image of themselves, according to what they consider to be the “goods” of public mores.  Be smart.  Excel.  Stay focused.  Don’t look homosexual (not that there’s anything wrong with it).

For the most part, my straight classmates at Yale would not be gawking in Greek class, but be right at my side if I asked them to join me at a gay pride parade, or to help me fight for my right to marry someone I love.  Most likely, they would be equally enthusiastic, with signs and posters; they’d draft up the most convincing speeches, tight with rhetorical soundness.  They might even hit their parents up for a donation.   On the surface, there’s no question that I they would appear to be entirely on board with an effort to fight for my rights, and demonstrate their support. But, within the same breath–as it often went–the very ones I speak of would find it offensive to the core if I suggested to them that I thought s/he were him/herself a homosexual, even if I did so in jest.   And that resistance–the substance of which is rooted in their offense–is an example, case in point, of a rather sinister form of homophobia.   Sinister, because the obscene, and often violent epithets are easier to place.  Such comments, which were so prevalent and to which I was so accustomed growing up, are merely coming from bigoted, heartless, and often confused “others,” right?  (Or, so we reason).  Most of the time, we don’t know them personally, and can quickly disregard them, after having had enough time to process them.

But, homophobia from a friend or a family member, which communicates even implicitly that the suggestion imposed upon them that they belong to an alternative sexual orientation is an offense, roots itself much deeper in the system, and lingers far longer.  And more tragically than not, the LGBTQ friend, daughter, son, brother, etc., who comes to know such homophobia, believes that there really is something fundamentally flawed about them–after all, a trusted friend, classmate, family member, etc. communicated it to us.

The “charitable” offering from our straight allies, when clothed with the kind of pretention I hope I have demonstrated here, is more of an offense than an aid.

This is not merely an issue of wanting to be treated equally, but to be seen equally.   As long as the message continues to be something like: “I will fight for your cause and be your ally, but don’t, for the sake of all that’s holy, ever presume to suggest that I’m that horrible thing that you are, for the very suggestion is repulsive to me…,” we will never be able to realize the equality we all seem to be fighting for.

When I was accepted to Yale, my dad told everyone. I was actually rather embarrassed over his exuberance before his colleagues, friends and neighbors, and other family members.  For the most part, I believe my dad has always been aware of my homosexuality, but when I started dating–started really “coming out,” my dad was far less proud.  He’s supportive, but it’s hardly something he’s shouting from the rooftops.  I’m not sure I’ve ever heard him declare to someone with equal pride, “Did I tell you, my son is gay?”

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Coming “Face to Face” with Sexual Orientation

March 26, 2011 Leave a comment

“For the longest time, that is, loving God meant not loving men.  I knew this was absurd, however, even before I embarked on the mission.” … “Now, some ten years later, I’m listening…again with new possibilities in mind.”

I just finished listening to a song by Kenneth Cope (not Cole) called “Face to Face”–the first time I have heard it through since shortly after I completed my Mormon mission. I can’t post the MP3 of the song itself, but there’s a link, here, on Youtube if you’d like to listen to it.  It’s a song for believers, no question, but it has always inspired me.

The song expresses the composer’s desire to share the love of God with people around so as to participate in a process of changing people’s lives for the better.  He wonders if this love, when encountered authentically, necessarily leads to a power that softens hearts and heals.  He never goes so far as to answer for us explicitly if these speculations are true, but declares, nonetheless, that he will seek God “all his days” for this purpose.  His faith, that is, is in Christ’s ability to heal and change one’s heart.

I discovered this song during the last phase of my mission.  Cope articulated well the kind of urgency I felt, and the same sort of desire to experience “change” within–specifically of my sexual orientation.

I served a full 24 mos in Washington D.C. between 1999-2001.  Part of my reason for doing so was to confront the issue of my sexuality, with a bright hope that the experience would prepare me for the chance to return home, get married (to a woman), have kids, and continue through Mormonism’s “plan of happiness” (often, more officially called the “Plan of Salvation”).  Heterosexual orientation is a component to “salvation” in Mormonism in a way that is very much unique to it (for a better explanation on this see: Plan of Salvation (Wikipedia) or see Seth Payne’s answer to the question why the Mormon Church forbids same-sex marriage.)

When I returned from my mission, I was devastated in the realization that I was not only still falling in love with other men, but even more so than before I left.  So, over the next five years or so, I began working it out–confronting the issue “face to face,” so to speak, oftentimes arguing for and defending every possible position I might take in favor of the Church and in keeping its standards.

At 26, I developed a relationship with someone that taught me something of my capacity to love that I had never touched upon before.  There is no way that I can characterize this for you adequately, so I won’t try–except to say that I happened upon a species of love that reconstructed my sense of self, ultimately ingraining confidence in healthy expressions of my orientation.  This form of love is one that I believe everyone in the world should have the chance to encounter, and one in which no one, morally speaking, should have the right to forbid, suppress, or attempt to limit.

The short of it is, genuine love does, in fact, transform. And even though I recognize that I am utilizing a cliche, it is true that it does so in unexpected ways.  In my effort to force my affections into tidy categories of what I had inherited to believe are or are not acceptable or appropriate, something far more effective (and healthy) taught me otherwise–taught me of my capacity to love other people beyond what I had previously known or thought was acceptable.  This was both good and bad news for me, as in the discovery itself, I had to rework much of something very much ingrained in the network of almost everything that was (and still very much is) who I am.

For most of my life, loving Jesus never meant being able to love other men, beyond the constraints of very debilitating limitations.  Nor could I imagine that I was, or ever could be, doing the work of God–i.e., to spread His love–if ever strayed from the standards of celibacy and heteronormativity I had come to adopt and defend so ardently prior to this experience.  During this last phase of my mission, Kenneth Cope’s testimony resonated with me, as well as my desire to keep, maintain, practice, and pass along a type of love that I had learned about–indeed, come “face to face” with as a missionary, and later as an undergraduate at the University of Utah.  And the twain seemed opposed.  For the longest time, that is, loving God meant not loving men. I knew this was absurd, however, even before I embarked on the mission.  I was in Church one Sunday morning, in Cambridge MA, preparing assiduously to serve the mission, when I felt a liberating impression (in all of the ways, mind you, that Mormons are taught the Holy Spirit will communicate with us) to view my orientation as something acceptable; I felt permission from God to entreat a gay relationship–i.e., to explore a kind of love I was aware existed, but never had the courage to welcome.

The impression came to me as I recalled a line from the Sound of Music.  Bear with me on this.  At the end of Act One, Maria, in distress, appeals to the Rev Mother to return to the Abby, because she has fallen in love with Capt Von Trapp.  After a discussion, and just prior to her singing “Climb Every Mountain,” the Rev Mother says to Maria: “My daughter, if you love this man, it doesn’t mean that you love God less.”

Now, some ten years later, I’m listening to Kenneth Cope again with new possibilities in mind.  I don’t feel anymore that my love for God and my love for other men, as expressed as a byproduct of my homosexual orientation, are all that opposed to one another, in spite of what I learned in this regard.  And I never want to forsake the enterprise of spreading this kind of love, nor discontinuing the practice of trying to understand it.

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Tattooed Irony: Just Keep Reading

February 26, 2011 5 comments

A friend of mine, Will Andrews, posted a picture on his Facebook page titled: “Why is this anti-gay Leviticus tattoo extra absurd?” Will Andrews’s post calls attention to a separate post, found on the website Technoccult, of its own by a guy named Andrew Sullivan, who has tattooed his right arm with Leviticus 18:22–the nauseatingly oft-recited scripture, detailing how a man should not lie with another man.  The irony is, as the post points out, the fact that Leviticus 19:28 (which, of course, rests between the other, even more homicidal scripture from Leviticus in chapter 20 that condemns same-sex, sexual activity between men to death) says: “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord” (see the NRSV translation).

Could Mr. Sullivan better demonstrate for us the wantonly irresponsible way in which we utilize scripture to persona-fy our sense of superiority to the world by means of an appeal to the Bible?

Over the last week or so, I’ve been having my own little “crisis” (albeit, a very healthy one) of theological faith, due to the harsh and mean-spirited nature of some of Bible’s most telling scriptures, which I have usually overlooked, idealized, or excused by use of clever (or, even better, mentally exhausting) apologetic strategies.  For instance, in Matthew 10, Jesus tells us that he has not come to bring peace, but a sword to divide families for the sake of the Gospel (see Matthew 10:34-35).  These passages parallel Luke 12:49-53 and 14:25-33.  The former recalls the “I do not bring peace” language of Jesus; the latter, a rather chilling remark encouraging a hatred for “life itself.”

Some scholars have pointed out the textual parallels in the passage with Exodus, when Moses commands the sons of Levi to kill some 1,000 Israelite apostates with the “sword.”  It is very common for the Gospel writers to recall stories and scriptures from Hebrew tradition to make a point.  Thus, it is very likely, they argue, that the scriptures in Luke and Matthew are meant to recall Exodus (see the Harper Collins Study Bible).

Recognizing, of course, that there are as many interpretations of these scriptures, and apologetic explanations for them, as there are, perhaps, denominations and people in those denominations, including the very probable explanation that these verses are an addition to the original sayings of Jesus (in an attempt to explain the fall of the temple in the year 70, and the sign that it purported to be of the end of times), we cannot forget that such verses are so often recalled to justify serious horrors against people who do not believe “as we do”–or better, as God does.

I want to note that the scripture in Matthew rests in the context of one of Matthew’s most touching themes. Deirdre Good writes “Jesus’ Family Values” (published 2006), which I had the privilege of reading for class this week, and which I recommend (especially for those of us who feel certain that the Christian family ethic is a timeless phenomenon).  In dealing with the Gospel of Matthew, she demonstrates rather moving ways in which the Matthean Jesus has it in mind to set up a family (in a very literal sense) under a heavenly Father, by use of His language, His choice to use (or not use) significant appellations, etc.  The short of it is, according to Good, the Matthean Jesus is concerned about extending the boundaries of the Christian community to those who are sincerely devoted to His call to follow the will of God.  She writes:

“So as Matthew understands it, the community of Jesus’ followers constitutes a new family based not on biology but on behavior.  Those who associate themselves with Jesus by doing the will of the heavenly Father become the brothers and sisters and mothers of Jesus, and offspring of the Father in heaven, and are therefore related to each other as brothers and sisters.  There is no role for the human father in this community; the male who begets has equal standing with his offspring as a brother of Jesus and a child of the heavenly Father.  The authority of the heavenly Father overrides any obligations of biological kinship and is mediated by the community as a whole” (see page 71).

When I read this, I applied it to the part of myself that feels a sense of connection with a much-needed relationship with a heavenly Father (especially considering rather pivotal moments in my own development).  However, in doing so, I realized that the comfort I have drawn from this scripture is, indeed, the byproduct of my own personal take on the meaning of these scriptures, and what it is that I need these scriptures to do for me.

Am I doing the same thing with the scriptures, in basic principle, as Andrew Sullivan?  That is, am I pulling from the scriptures what I “need” them to say?  What happens if that need becomes malevolent or homicidal?

What if I have instituted a belief in God for the purpose of responding to and sanctioning the craving I feel for peace and human connections?  What does it say of me that I, too, have picked and chosen this or that passage of scripture in the Bible, so as to justify my own private desires to construct a world that looks a certain way, according to the ways in which I need it to look or function?

I think that this entry could easily end here.  The question is very much rhetorical.  I have come up with an answer that I believe satisfies, but it requires that we presuppose the existence of God… and not just that, but the existence of a God I am not yet ready to relinquish (if I must do so).

It seems like a no-brainer to say that there is no consistent, harmonized theme in holy scripture–especially the Bible, and especially when considering other scriptures outside the Jewish or Christian traditions.  The Bible is not “all about” love and peace.  It is not “all about” social justice, nor is it “all about” heteronormative privilege.  It is “all about” whatever we want (and perhaps need) it to be “all about.”  And I believe that therein lies the real test of religious practice and belief.  What if it’s the case that God has designed (or, at least, allowed) it to be this way, just to see what and how we will negotiate it?  It is almost as if, in every step of our respective religious journeys, we are constructing an image of what we think God is–what we think is important to God, how we idealize God, etc.–in the things we choose to select out of the scriptures, and how we choose to apply them to other people.  Levinas argues (more or less) that it is in the encounter with the face of other people that [our] Gods come alive.

So, I suppose the main point of this post is: Whether or not you believe in the anthropomorphic, white-bearded God on the thrown somewhere in a dimension we know nothing of, or if God is more pantheistic or created in discourse (or, of course, something in between), it remains an obvious fact that our Gods come alive in how we allow scripture or any given revelation dictate where we will place ourselves in “human hierarchy,” and by what ultimate ethic we will chose to govern our lives.

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Joel Osteen, Viktor Frankl, and Our Perverted Sin

January 25, 2011 4 comments

“And when a gay child hears, from influential (and, in spite of how much a member of the clergy will deny it, judgmental) ministers of megachurch religion, that his or her expressions of love, which s/he knows is a primary motivational factor, are a perverted sin, so much that s/he begins to believe it, s/he loses a reason to live.”

On the way from Chicago to Pennsylvania this Christmas, I decided to re-read highlighted passages from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.  In the book, Frankl details some of his experiences as a prisoner at Auschwitz, which he uses to make an important point about what is necessary to survive the kinds of evils he faced there, as well as to present his psychological theory of what he calls “logotherapy.”

There is certainly no way to represent his story with justice.  Indeed, even Frankl himself admits of the impossibility to transfer his experiences at Auschwitz adequately.  So, I won’t even try.  Suffice it to say, Dr. Frankl’s book has sold over twelve-million copies, and has seen five editions, since it was originally published in 1959.

There are two passages from his autobiographical narrative, which I want to highlight in juxtaposition.  In a moment of contemplating his wife (who, unknown to Frankl, had already been killed), he writes of an epiphany, which came to him while toiling alongside other prisoners:

“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers.  The truth–that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.  Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved” (Beacon Press, 2006, pg. 37).  He then continues: “Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved.  It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self.  Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance” (38).  Then, in somber contrast with his surroundings, he exclaims: “How beautiful the world could be!” (40).

There are very few passages in literature dealing with the Holocaust, or with any subject, for that matter, which demonstrate such ardent wisdom for what we, as a human family, might perhaps consider to be one of the greatest truths concerning our often misunderstood or sometimes confused existence.  The short of it is: you may put me in hell, but I will not relinquish my love!

When I came to this passage, I naturally interposed myself into his situation–as best as I could, at any rate.  What would I do?  Of whom would I think?  I have been in love before, and I have come to know what it feels like to be loved back.  And that love, the effects of which I have, I consider now and I hope forever, to be one of the most important gifts of my life.  With the obvious present–i.e., that I have not been and most likely will never be in a situation like Auschwitz–I imagined that I would  hold on to this love as he did, and allow it to feed what I know would be a broken soul.

Then, I came upon another passage.  As part of his project to offer a psychological analysis of the effects of camp life on the human psyche, Frankl writes of how the conditions of the camp made it so that common sexual urges were eliminated among the prisoners.  He then goes on to say: “Apart from the initial effects of shock, this [i.e., undernourishment] appears to be the only explanation of a phenomenon which a psychologist was bound to observe in those all-male camps: that, as opposed to all other strictly male establishments–such as army barracks–there was little sexual perversion” (32-33).

I think his point is obvious: he means to say that the male prisoners, at least to his awareness, were not caught in homosexual activities.  The shock of the camp’s brutality, and the serious want for food, prevented prisoners from participating in what would ordinarily be a common practice, given an all-male environment.

The problem, here, is not so much with the practice itself, but Frankl’s characterization of it, especially in light of his comments on the power of love for one’s beloved.  When I read this, and admittedly, quite disheartened, I put the book away–after mumbling a few select curse words to myself.  My choice to discontinue the read was not because I was disappointed over the fact that the prisoners were not participating in homosexual activity (I hope this is obvious), but because I was (and am), quite frankly, over and done with being told that homosexual love is a perversion.

In all fairness, the book was first published in 1959; at the time, especially building upon Freudian (et al) psychoanalytic ideas about sexuality, Frankl’s judgment was a popular and acceptable one.  However, one may note that the book has also been republished in four other editions (1962, 1984, 1992, 2006).  We all know that, since the first edition of this book, the psychiatric community has removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).  For whatever reason, he or the editors did not remove this allusion, however obvious it is, in the latest edition.  Whether this was an oversight or a conscious choice, the author’s message is clear: the love of which I am talking–the kind which can give a person a reason to live, even amidst the horrors of a place like Auschwitz–is reserved only for those who have it for someone of the opposite sex… otherwise, we shall call it a perversion.  It is a declaration–a requisition–of a monopoly on the only acceptable expression of love.  This message, whether set forth blatantly or in discretion, is one that we in the gay community hear ubiquitously from our pulpits and on paper, our political establishments, our schools, our trusted communities, our homes, and our religious institutions.  And the unfortunate fact of the whole of it is, for those of us walking through our own small, big, or whatever, versions of our own private encounters with the face of hell, some of us–many of us–believe that this love really is perverted, and we cut ourselves off from the power it can provide us–indeed, the very power that Dr. Frankl is looking to promote in his testimony.  We lose sight of the affect that makes us human–the sort that, more often than not, gives us a motivation and purpose to live.

Homosexual youth are killing themselves, because external forces have been successful at convincing them that their natural, good, and healthy expressions of love are a fundamental perversion of who they are.  Bullying is certainly a major cause, but it is also what’s behind the bullying, and what the bullied homosexual internalizes in the clear messages of disdain and disgust that bullying advances and instills.  They convince us that the very best and most motivational part of ourselves is perverted; and the more we hear it, the more we believe it, even against our conscience.  Can you blame us for our desperate and forceful expressions of gay pride (the very ones that often make you so uncomfortable)?  Some of us are trying to force your voices out of our hearts and minds, and reclaim what we know you have taken from us without due justice or good cause. Can you blame us for our promiscuity and drug use?  Are you giving us a good enough reason not to participate in these activities?

Then Joel Osteen comes out on CNN last Wednesday and reports for us, once again (and, in a way, we might add, that only shows he was ready for the answer, and looking rather forward to giving it), that homosexuality is a sin.

Thanks Osteen.

You’ve built a megachurch on the principle that God’s love can and will build, strengthen, and lend worth to the believer.  And you have justified your platform on the testimony that you are a servant to what the Bible says.  Are you really that ignorant of your own flexibility?  Do you really believe that there is no belief or injunction in the Bible that you have not relinquished, because of its obvious immoral, destructive (or even just absurd) effect it can have on the people you love?  Are you going to stone the child who is disrespectful to his parents?  Are you eating shellfish or pork?  Are women not speaking in your congregation?  Are your clergymen not marrying?  Are you charging interest on your investments?  Have you given everything you’ve got to the poor?

And when a gay child hears, from influential (and, in spite of how much a member of the clergy will deny it, judgmental) ministers of megachurch religion, that his or her expressions of love, which s/he knows is a primary motivational factor, are a perverted sin, so much that s/he begins to believe it, s/he loses a reason to live.

Now, in all fairness, Joel Osteen does admit that he doesn’t understand this issue.  I wonder if he should be commenting on it, then.

My advice (for whatever it’s worth):  Stop thinking about what we are doing in our bedrooms. Start thinking about all the other aspects of sexuality–of your sexuality–that make up the whole of what it means to love and show love for another human being, especially someone in particular that you might chose to call “beloved.”  Begin a concerted habit of asking yourself (and, perhaps, God?) if that love is as perverted as you’ve been taught to think it is. Get to know us a little in our relationships, and come to know us for something actually quite normal in them.  We’re paying taxes, trying to raise children, stressing over mortgage and student loans every bit as much as the next couple, only, more often than not, we don’t have the securities and fortifications of the law and religion that you probably enjoy.  We’re doing it in spite of the fact that we know many of you will seek to take these securities away, which you know–you have to know–assist you to have the frame of mind necessary to keep such relationships alive and intact.

I am dedicating this blog for the purpose of promoting a stronger sense of self, family, and love in relationships that I know is possible for those of us in the LGBTQ community–and, of course, beyond.  I really do believe that when we encourage others to love according to the heart and conscience, we give ourselves permission to do the same.

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