I want to spend this, my first blog post of 2014, addressing how we think about the subject of homosexual attractions and actions. For what it’s worth, much of this applies to heterosexual attractions and inclinations, as well. I think an overhaul in our thinking on the subject is long overdue. Hear me out, then let me know what you think.
|Lothar Meggendorfer, illustration from
What Should I Be? (1888)
In a piece arguing against the use of the phrase “the mentally ill,” Carey Goldberg advocates for “people first” language, because it avoids defining people by their diagnosis:
Some newly minted peer specialists sat me down and re-educated me about the wrongness of using “the mentally ill” and the rightness of using “people first” language. A person is not defined by a diagnosis, they said. If you have a mental illness it doesn’t define you any more than your heart disease defines you if you’re a cardiac patient. A person is a person who happens to have depression or schizophrenia; the correct term is “people with mental illness.”
That’s the phrase I’ve used ever since, and I’ve come across “people first” language in other contexts. I once referred to patients as “diabetics” in a story about diabetes, but quickly converted it to “people with diabetes” when a specialist corrected me.
When I was writing recently about obesity and the increasingly widespread concept that it is a chronic disease, it made instant sense to me when advocates told me that I should write “people who have obesity” instead of “the obese” or “obese people.”
Yes, “people first” language is less concise. But a couple of added words seem a small price to pay for according greater dignity to people facing extra challenges.
As Goldberg notes, the AP style guide has tried to move towards such “people first” language in several areas. It explained its decision in this way:
The AP’s decision to stop using “illegal immigrant” is part of a larger shift away from labeling people and toward labeling behaviors. For example, the new entry on mental illness says to refer to people “diagnosed with schizophrenia” instead of “schizophrenics.”
The drawback of “people first” language is that it is clunky: adjectives typically precede nouns in English, so it can be cumbersome to reword. Plus, much of the “people first” language is obnoxiously euphemistic, like referring to people with mental illness “people with mental health experiences,” an apparently-meaningless jumble of words (do people without mental illness not have “mental health experiences”?).
Still, while the approach is not without its drawbacks, it’s a healthy reminder of who we are at heart. Most fundamentally, we are persons, not “the obese,” or schizophrenics, or “illegal immigrants” … or “homosexuals.”
There’s a reason that the Catechism uses the phrase “men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies” (CCC 2358) instead of “gays,” and it’s not because it sounds better. It’s because, just as it’s not fair (or accurate) to define a person by their weight, or diagnosis, or immigration status, neither is it fair to define a person by their sexual attractions or orientations.
Here are three reasons to reject the standard way we speak (and more importantly, think) about sexual orientation:
Fr. Paul Scalia put this brilliantly by arguing that GLAAD and the Westboro Baptist Church are, in many ways, two sides of the same coin. Both take a reductionist view of the human person to a bundle of sexual impulses. Instead of being men and women who are attracted to the same (or opposite) sex, we’re “heterosexuals” or “homosexuals” (etc.), and we’re not fully ourselves unless we’re expressing this “identity,” by acting upon these sexual impulses and attractions.
This has obvious implications, of course. If we are our sexual urges, then we’re not really “us” unless we’re acting on those urges. And you’ll hear this sort of loose language thrown around: people defending their lifestyle choices by saying that they have to “be themselves,” etc.
But a few moments reflection will show the absurdity, even insanity, of such a view. Within this view, the person most fully themselves is the person who mindlessly indulges all of their sexual impulses, without regard for their actions’ impact on others – or indeed, on themselves.
And the implications of such a view are particularly troubling: the American Psychiatric Association recently caused a stir by listing pedophilia as a “sexual orientation,” a decision it quickly walked back. Surely, we can all agree that some people have urges that shouldn’t be acted upon, right? If so, it certainly seems that a view that defines us as our urges is dangerous and wrongheaded.
|“’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone,
‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’”
Peter Newell, illustration to
“Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There” (1902).
Not so fast.
When Human Rights Campaign claims that a principal was fired for “being gay,” they don’t mean that she was fired for her attractions. They mean that she was fired after board members raised concerns about her “lifestyle,” that is, about the decisions she made in response to her sexual attractions. They’re using the same term to mean two radically different things.
This obfuscation is widespread, but surely, the distinction is incredibly significant when speaking of the morality of homosexuality. Our inclinations are often outside of our control, and to that extent, aren’t within the realm of moral analysis. But our actions, to the extent that they are within our control, are within the realm of moral analysis.
One of the common reactions to Phil Robertson’s recent comments on homosexuality was that his “homophobia clearly extends beyond the ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ framing that opponents of LGBT equality use to sugarcoat their bigotry.”
|Anonymous, Drunken Old Woman (c. 200 B.C.)|
Part of this is probably our fault: that we haven’t done a good enough job of expressing that love, or showing that our opposition to homosexual activity is precisely because we think it’s dangerous and harmful to the individuals involved. Our opposition to the lifestyle is based upon our love of the individuals involved, and our concern for their well-being. When we fail to express that underlying love, our opposition looks incoherent and hateful.
A healthier approach, a “people first” approach, to homosexual actions and attractions starts by rejecting the lie that people who are defined by their sexual urges or history. Reject the narrative pushed by GLAAD and by Westboro Baptist, because it’s a fundamentally false one.
This rejection probably should involve eschewing terms like “gay,” since they are reductionist, and obscure more than they express. Admittedly, most other terms (“persons with same sex attraction,” etc.) sound clunky and clinical, so I understand the hesitation with making the shift. But it’s worth the effort, because words matter.
As a friend of mine said: “it is the underlying attitude which is most important, but I believe that is best expressed through proper terminology, and I am not a “gay man who is celibate,” but rather a Catholic Christian man who has same-sex tendencies. And, for the most part, I am simply a Catholic man.” Of course, it’s even more important to make the mental shift: to keep that distinction clear and present in your mind, and not to fall into the trap of obfuscating inclinations, actions, and individual identities.
|Jacopo Pontormo, Madonna and Child with Saints (1518).
Welcome to the family.
But this shift is more than a rejection, much more. Most especially, it involves an affirmation: that what defines us is that we are sons and daughters of the Most High God. As 1 John 3:1 says, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him.”
That is, there’s something much more important, much more exciting, about you than your sexual preferences: you are a child of God. The world doesn’t tell you this, and doesn’t see this about you, because it doesn’t know God. But once you come to see this – once you learn more about God, and about yourself – this fact should be the bedrock of your identity.
Do you have attractions and temptations towards a lifestyle contrary to what’s fitting for a child of God, contrary to what’s pleasing to God? Join the club. Have you fallen, done things you know displeased God, things which harmed you and those you loved, things you desperately wish you could take back? Do you continue to struggle with sins? Again: join the club.
We’re not children of God because we’re so good. We’re children of God because He’s so good.
Of course, this isn’t a call to go “sin boldly.” It’s a call to turn our lives over to God, to give Him even our sins, that they may be burned up in the fire of His Mercy.
Always remember that you are loved by the All-Powerful God of the Universe. But more than that, you are a child of this God, and have been promised a divine inheritance and eternal life with Him, if you but persevere through the tough times (Romans 8:15-17):
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!”it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
Your lifestyle should reflect this. You should live in a way that reflects your royal status: “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming” (1 John 2:27).
That’s who you are, at heart, and that’s what you’re called to. Never let anyone tell you otherwise.