Friday, January 26, 2007

It’s not just the Pope, Evangelicals, or fanatical Muslims…

Readers of this blog will have noted that I frequently attribute much of the problem we as gays have in achieving self- acceptance and social equality stems from monotheistic religion. Although I have made it clear that my objection is to all monotheistic religions, I have come down hardest on Evangelical Christianity, while other commentators have aimed their barbs at the Pope, priests, and the imams. Since, however, as I have mentioned, I was born and raised Jewish, and since I still remain to a very large extent influenced by the Jewish intellectual tradition, I should make it clear that I in no way exclude my own religious background from my J’accuse. I point the finger not only at the centuries old Jewish tradition, but also at threatening and dangerous elements within the contemporary Jewish community.

It probably is the case that the Children of Israel, along with their invention of monotheism, invented homophobia. The ancient world was otherwise relatively free of this curse. One can argue whether homosexual relations enjoyed the same status as heterosexual sex among the Greeks and Romans; nevertheless, prominent figures of the ancient world, Hadrian and Alexander, for example, were recorded uncritically by contemporary chroniclers as having had homosexual relations. David and Jonathan aside, not so with Judaism.

While it may be that some of the authors of the David and Jonathan story did, in fact, imply a homosexual relationship between these Biblical heroes, this aspect of the scriptures has never even been seriously positively discussed by rabbinical commentators, who, in fact, determined the intellectual and spiritual direction of Judaism. The possible Biblical “gay” couple may very well be the vestiges of a pre Biblical Judaic legend, developed before the Children of Israel decided to separate themselves from the rest of the ancient world. The story of David and Jonathan, while providing some vain hope for homosexual religious Jews, is really not of any significance in terms of the formation of Jewish attitudes toward homosexuality.

It can be claimed that Judaism’s Biblical injunctions against homosexuality began as a survival tactic encouraging every possibility for procreation of a small, numerically weak tribe struggling for a foothold among powerful neighbors. It also can be debated that Christianity and Islam, both much more transcendental than Judaism, and therefore having greater problems with sex in general because of its physical, non spiritual nature, would have developed homophobia without Judaism’s prodding. Whatever the case concerning the origins, rationale, and influence of Jewish homophobia, scriptural Judaism must bear the responsibility of having presented this “gift” to western civilization.

It is, of course, true that Judaism, because of its very firm, non transcendental nature, has much less of a doctrinal problem with sex in general than do the other monotheistic religions. It would seem, then, that its problem with homosexuality would be more easily overcome. In addition, the rabbis have historically been very skilled at explaining away Biblical injunctions that they no longer see as convenient, so, the famous injunctions against homosexuality are not really an insurmountable obstacle. I’m sure they could explain them away, if they wanted to. What, then is the problem?

It seems that the same material definition of reality that protected Judaism from the pleasure depriving transcendentalism that plagues Christianity and Islam exacts its toll on Judaism when it comes to homosexuality. The problem for Jews ultimately is that homosexuality is, in the traditional view of things, not socially productive, or in concrete terms, no grandchildren for Mom and Dad.

The rabbis condemn homosexuality in essentially socially utilitarian terms; even the most mystical, theistically oriented Jews, such as the Lubovicher Hassidim, condemn homosexuality almost exclusively on these grounds. It offends God only indirectly, in that it supposedly harms society. But for a Jew raised to define himself essentially in terms of his role and use in society, this is a pretty wrenching condemnation. The young gay Jewish adolescent winds up being tortured by the idea that he is failing his family and his people; for a young Jew this is as painful a sense of guilt as sinning directly against God and getting on the train for Hell is for a Christian.

In a way, gay Christians have it harder at the beginning but perhaps are better off in the long run. Since a desire in itself can be sinful even without attempting to fulfill that desire, they are forced to confront homosexual desire head on. The lucky ones understand how absurd this all is, and turn their backs on the religion that put them through such agony.

For Jews, however, a desire is morally neutral unless acted upon. The potentially gay Jewish adolescent is tortured by his homosexual desires not because they are a sin against God, but because he understands the anathema they will bring down upon him and his family if he acts on them. He understands that if he can just bring himself to marry a woman and have children, everything will be “all right” despite his desires. No rabbi will ever condemn him because he gets hard thinking about a man, even if he confesses it to him; just as long as he’s a good boy and doesn’t act on his longings. So, his religion and his homosexuality in itself never come into open conflict; all he has to do is deny a large portion of himself.

In short, while Christianity offers no quarter for a homosexual since his desires themselves are sinful, Orthodox Judaism offers a solution for a gay Jew, but at an extremely high price. As a result, many gay Evangelicals and Catholics from religious homes finally leave the church and are free. Orthodox and even more liberal traditional Jews, however, tend to pay the price and remain in the religious community. Of course, it would be better if they left, and in that sense, Christians are better off.

The Orthodox Jewish community has now mobilized and formed an organization, JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality), which regards homosexuality as a curable illness and claims it can help homosexual Jews change their sexual orientation. Although the organization is clearly homophobic, the expressed motivation for its foundation was not exactly homophobia; it’s that previously, the only organizations offering such a service were Christian, and these organizations had converted several Jews seeking their services to Christianity. (Nothing drives the Jewish community crazier than conversion of Jews to Christianity; they’d rather we suck cock!) In fact, being so concerned with emotional motivation, as I suggested, is not really very Jewish; what matters is what you do. Essentially, the Orthodox community has adopted a Christian attitude and methodology to block conversions to Christianity.

If you have a strong stomach and steady nerves, I suggest a stroll around the JONAH web site. Or maybe prepare yourself with a few stiff drinks. This is no Bible thumping, fire and brimstone on- line ministry. It’s put together by extremely sophisticated people, and its on- line library of readings--- with articles fully reproduced--- contains some well crafted (but nevertheless revolting) pieces by major conservative Jewish intellectuals, such as Norman Podhoretz.

The secular, liberal East Coast Jewish community may essentially be on our side, but they’re obviously not the whole story. If you thought that contemporary Judaism might be a safe haven for gays, think again.

(An extremely thorough, intelligent and detailed discussion on the topic of Judaism and homosexuality by Ian Silver can be found here)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

On childhood wounds

A few days ago I read a post describing the pain and humiliation of a gay man who had overheard someone referring to him with a homophobic epithet. I could empathize fully. I’ve felt that same pain and sense of shame in similar circumstances. What interests me, however, is why we, even those of us, men ostensibly quite comfortable with our sexual orientation, react with such hurt and humiliation. When we were still in the closet we thought that once we were out, that gnawing fear of being called a faggot would go away. It didn’t, and it won’t.

Many of us have come to quite solid terms with our homosexuality. We are out to family, friends, and at work. Many of us are in partnerships, some of these partnerships even recognized by the state, and do not in any way hide or disguise our sexual orientation even to total strangers. If, then, we are so comfortable with our homosexuality, why does it hurt so much when someone calls us a fag or a queer?

I can't accept that this vulnerability belies any residual self- hate concerning our homosexuality. Just because you cringe when someone calls you a faggot does not at all necessarily mean that you are in any realized manner uncomfortable with your gay identity.

The fellow writing the post likened his reaction to the pain he suffered when he was taunted with being a faggot or sissy as a child, and he wonders why he feels the same way as a man. I would suggest that the pain we now feel in such circumstances is not just similar to the pain we felt as children; it is, in fact a reawakening of that same pain. The wounds our childhood tormentors left on our defenseless and vulnerable hearts are evidently still there, incurable and permanent.

I would offer as substantiation that other types of insults, unrelated to childhood torments, can produce anger or even shame, but they do not produce the same searing humiliation. You can insult my looks, my intelligence, my ambition, my nationality, my politics, etc, and you will make me uncomfortable, even provoke me, but you will not make me want to go and hide, as you do when you call me a faggot. The only other type of offense that makes me burn with humiliation is anti-Semitism, another theme of childhood nightmares.

I guess that the horrible fact is that there is no way, no matter what we do later in life, that we can heal those deeply planted wounds from childhood. No matter how secure we feel as gay men, we carry those wounds within us; they are ready to open up and bleed at the least provocation.

Each of us copes with these wounds in his own way. I honed my intelligence and wit dagger sharp and at an early age learned how to strike back very effectively against homophobic taunts. The price of this defense, of course, was that I grew up regarding my intellectual faculties as a weapon instead of a source of pleasure and understanding. It took me years of emotional reorientation to begin to set this right. Other guys become painfully shy, avoiding contact wherever possible. Yet others are “in your face,” flaunting their “queerness” before anyone can attack them for it. I wonder how much of our lives are formed around protecting ourselves from the pain that prodding these wounds causes.

Recently, I ran a post discussing the limited usefulness of the generally shared gay practice of making lists of illustrious gays. Obviously, such lists are an attempt to cope with these wounds. I, frankly, don’t think they do much good in this regard. They remind me of my father’s attempts at consoling me after anti-Semitic incidents by reminding me that Freud, Einstein, and Marx (We were proudly pink-o) were Jews. It didn’t do a damn bit of good. There isn’t any effective balm; we can only try to protect future generations.

There should be some way to protect potentially gay children from this spiritual mutilation. What such childhood taunts do to people who develop gay and the stubborn permanence of the wounds they leave should be part of all teacher education programs, and gay organizations should be insistent on this point.

That the immediate perpetrators of this damage are other children is, in fact, irrelevant. Children are no longer permitted to taunt other children because of their race or religion. Any school that would allow this would soon find itself with legal problems. There is no reason why such a standard of behavior should not be applied to sexually related taunts.

In addition, it was not always the other children who inflicted these wounds. Frequently, it was the teachers themselves who encouraged these taunts, either directly, through derogatory comments they themselves made, or indirectly by showing indifference to the sadism and bullying of some of the children in their charge. The possibilities of taking legal, or at least professional disciplinary action against such teachers should be investigated.

In recent years we have developed, especially in the US but now increasingly in Europe, a heightened consciousness of psychological dangers to children. You can’t pat the head of a neighbor’s child without arousing fears of pedophilia. Nevertheless, we as a society still permit and even condone merciless, sadistic taunting of potentially gay children. The agents themselves may be children, but it is most frequently adults who form the context that not only allows but also encourages this behavior.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

On Gay Role Models

The other day I posted a piece discussing the limitations of making lists of illustrious gays in order to combat homophobia, both from without and from within ourselves. To clarify, such lists have little, if anything to do with searching for or providing gay role models.

Identifying people whose lives and work provide us with intellectual and spiritual guidance and inspiration is essential for our growth, both as individuals and as a community. This is especially the case for us gay men and women since we have so long been victims of oppression and prejudice that there are few of us who can honestly deny having had sexual orientation related self- esteem problems, at least at some point in their lives.

But this is quite different from simply composing a list of famous people who happened to be homosexual. As a homosexual man, I find little strength or consolation in the figure of a homosexual artist or political figure who occasionally, or even frequently, snuck off to have a secret tryst with another man. Federico García Lorca is among the greatest poets of the XX century and even a courageous political figure who was murdered by the fascists, but his tortured and clandestine homosexuality hardly provides us with a useful role model.

Even men such as Leonardo da Vinci, whose homosexuality was well known but essentially unrelated to his accomplishments, don’t, as I see it, provide us with very useful homosexual role models. Leonardo is a source of constant admiration, almost veneration, for me as a civilized man (I like to think of myself as such), but in his case, the homosexual context is pretty much irrelevant.

Political figures such as Barney Frank, or the openly gay mayors of Paris and Berlin, or even political figures from the ancient world, such as the Roman emperor Hadrian, on the other hand, are much a different matter, as are artists such as Cavafy, E.M.Foster, Alan Ginsberg, Gide, Caravaggio, Lucien Freud, Fassbinder and Almodóvar. These are all men who integrated their homosexual identities with their political or artistic accomplishments. The politicians fully represent all their constituencies, unabashedly including themselves and us as gays (or, as Hadrian, set up monuments throughout the empire honoring his lover); the artists have created a universal art in which the acceptance of homosexuality is an implied imperative.

It’s not necessary, however, to limit our consideration of homosexual role models to those who have taken a public stance or created works with overtly gay themes. I also accept as homosexual role models men such as John Maynard Keynes and Walt Whitman who were privately open about their homosexuality, quite at peace with it, allowed it to inform a good deal of their work, but because of their times and social situation, could not be more direct and public concerning their sexual orientation.

I refrain from elaborating much further on the categories from which our role models should be selected. I have no intention of trying to establish a canon for qualifying as a gay culture hero. Those criteria should, in fact, be open ended and forever subject to discussion. Such discussion itself would be a sign of health and vitality within the gay community. My point is simply that in order to provide a useful role model, a figure should be something more than just illustrious and gay.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

On gay accomplishments, homophobia, human rights, and self esteem

Many gay men and women, in defending themselves against homophobic attacks, or in justifying their sexual orientation to themselves, go through a list of illustrious artists, scientists, and public figures who were homosexual. Composing such a list is quite understandable; it feels good to be such company, especially when being attacked, either by others or by oneself. But I wonder how useful such a list is as a defense tactic.

Citing great gays of today and yesteryear as a justification for our sexual orientation frames the argument in the wrong context. That many great men and women were and are gay is ultimately irrelevant. We would have a right to love whom we please and to live our lives in freedom and dignity even if there were no great gay painters, poets, or political figures. It is the nature of human rights that a group does not have to earn them. We have them simply because we are human.

I would go even further and say that composing such a list, even just to help us deal ourselves with our own homosexuality is, in fact, symptomatic of our oppression. People who feel empowered don’t need to go around composing lists of the accomplishments of their social group. The Catholic Church, the Evangelicals, Muslims, and Ultra- orthodox Jews, for example, when attacked, either from without or within, don’t waste their time composing lists of famous men who belonged to their group. They use their political, social, economic, and even military might to counter the threat.

The gay defense reaction reminds me, frankly, of the reaction of Jews of past generations who were not only physically and practically, but also psychologically damaged by anti-Semitism. Jews who grew up in the 1950s and 60s, when overt anti-Semitism was much more prevalent and socially acceptable than it is now, I’m sure can remember being told pointedly by their parents which great men of the past and present were Jewish. As a gay Jew, I had two lists: Freud, Marx, Einstein..., and Leonardo, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Keynes, Proust…. The lists never helped very much, either to defend myself against prejudice or to lead me accept my own identity, most likely because I was vaguely aware that my gentile, heterosexual friends didn’t have to make such lists.

Perhaps, you may say, I’m being too austere. If it gives them some consolation, why not let gays struggling to accept their sexual orientation look to lists of gay accomplishments, if it lets them feel a bit better? I would counter that a symptom of oppression can’t help you free yourself from it. It is a useless distraction from the real issue: We have human rights because we’re human, not because Leonardo da Vinci liked boys.

Another problem with these lists of gay culture heroes is that they help create and perpetrate the myth of gay superiority. It may be that gays as a group have contributed disproportionately much to the advance of civilization, but I simply can’t accept that there is a direct relationship between sucking cock and painting the Sistine Chapel. There is absolutely no evidence to substantiate such a connection. What may, in fact, be the case is that it has something to do with the general human need for some form of immortality. Since most gay men don’t have children, which are a form of continuation of oneself past the grave, they are propelled to extend themselves in other ways--- accomplishments in the arts, sciences, public life, etc. But it is a mistake to think that your sexual orientation in itself gives you a claim to a higher level of talent and accomplishment. Believing in gay superiority is only the flip side of believing in gay inferiority.

So much for the limitations of such lists in helping us deal with ourselves. I am even more convinced of their uselessness, and even counter- productivity, in helping us deal with homophobia.

No one, guys, has ever accused gays as a group of being stupid or untalented. We are disgusting, dangerous, devious, degenerate, even disturbed, but not dumb. Therefore, throwing lists of gay accomplishments in the homophobes’ faces convinces them of nothing; I would venture that it even makes the situation worse by reminding them of our talents and how much civilization owes us. Again, the analogy with Jews comes to mind. The Nazis were perfectly aware of the contribution of Jews to German and Austrian culture. They were perfectly willing to forego enjoyment or utilization of Jewish contributions to culture and science. Awareness of how much was owed to Jews culturally made their anti-Semitism even more hysterical.

So, if you must, go ahead and take your homophobic Evangelical neighbors to the next Caravaggio exhibition at your local museum, but if it doesn’t work, don’t say I didn’t tell you so.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

What persecution has done to gay people in much of the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa

Many of us in Europe and North America have read reports of the oppression, including executions and long term imprisonment, of gay people in many non- Western countries, but it may be difficult for some of us comprehend the dimensions of the damage that this oppression has created not only to the bodies but also in the hearts and souls of its victims. It has not only created an atmosphere in which gay men and women are filled with self loathing and afraid to realize themselves by acting on their sexual orientation; it has resulted in a situation in which gays are so paralyzed by fear and lack of self esteem that they do no even run for their lives or seek relief from their oppression.

Officially, at least, there is a way out for many gays suffering persecution or fear of such in Africa and Asia: an asylum claim in the West. There are, however, very few gay men and women from countries such as Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or many African countries, where homosexuality is punishable by death or long prison terms, who have sought asylum in Europe or North America.

Most European and even North American governments would be practically obliged by their asylum laws and policies to grant them refugee status under the 1951 Geneva Convention as members of a persecuted social group. Even if those applying have not been directly persecuted, they would qualify because they could be judged as having a reasonable fear of persecution. With few exceptions, the few cases that have been presented in the West with such a claim, especially from countries where homosexuality between consenting adults is illegal and severely punished, have been positively adjudicated.

Since April 1993 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has recognized in several Advisory Opinions that gays and lesbians qualify as members of a "particular social group" for the purposes of the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. In its publication "Protecting Refugees," the UNHCR states: "Homosexuals may be eligible for refugee status on the basis of persecution because of their membership of a particular social group. It is the policy of the UNHCR that persons facing attack, inhuman treatment, or serious discrimination because of their homosexuality, and whose governments are unable or unwilling to protect them, should be recognized as refugees." (UNHCR/PI/Q&A-UK1.PM5/Feb. 1996)

There are, of course, large numbers of people from these countries trying to enter Western countries for economic reasons and who file spurious refugee claims. Many gay people from such countries, on the other hand, should not have much trouble receiving legal, refugee status if they would, in fact, apply on the grounds of persecution or fear of such because of their sexual orientation. Nevertheless, in my over 25 years of experience working in refugee assistance programs in North America, Europe, and Africa, and after having heard the claims of persecution from literally thousands of asylum applicants over the course of the years, I have never received a claim of persecution from someone because of sexual orientation.

Of course, leaving one’s native country and culture is not easy. There is, of course, also the risk that a gay person may have the bad luck of having a homophobic asylum adjudicator or judge handle his asylum request when he arrives in the West. But here he would have the support not only of an organized gay community, but also of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Even in the off chance that his initial request would be rejected, the chances of his winning on appeal or at least being given permission to stay in the West are very good.

That so few gay people have chosen to use this option is good indication of the devastating psychological effect of growing up gay in such an environment. One could posit that they are so ashamed of their sexuality, still so afraid to admit it, even to themselves, that they cannot utilize this path of escape.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Are you part of nature’s population control mechanism?

From time to time posts appear on gay blogs countering the idea that homosexuality is “unnatural.” These posts sometimes justify homosexuality on anthropological grounds as nature’s population control mechanism.

I certainly sympathize with the desire to explain homosexuality as a natural condition (Any gay man who has been in love with another man, and has been loved in return, has no doubt as to the naturalness and “rightness” of his condition. But this is, of course, an emotional, and not a rational explanation.) I do, however, have doubts as to the function of human homosexuality as simply a population control mechanism.

The problem lies in the mistaken linking of human sexuality too closely, or too narrowly to reproduction. Let’s look, for a moment at the possible functions of sexuality in general.

Why, for example, are people still sexually active not only past the age of female fertility but also past the age in which their offspring would need the protection of parents? Obviously, this sexual attraction that exists frequently overtly, but always subliminally, in geriatrics serves simply to keep people together. Once the children are no longer dependent on their parents, the bonding of post- menopausal parents that is helped, or even caused by sexuality, can only be an end in itself.

Moreover, this social function of sexuality seems to be a uniquely human phenomenon. Although homosexuality exists in other animals, sexual attraction with other animals seems to be more clearly linked to reproduction. In other mammals, the female is attractive to the male and accepts him only during the fertile days of her cycle. Humans have long broken free of the fertility link to sexuality.

Because of the narrow linkage between sexuality and reproduction in other animals, one could possibly accept the population control explanation of homosexuality for them. But in the case of humans, where sexual attraction is so clearly free of having a simply reproductive function, this explanation simply won’t wash. An anthropological function of homosexuality in humans, therefore, doesn’t seem to make much sense.

Moreover, when Mother Nature wants to remove a certain percentage of a species from the gene pool, she is generally quite brutal about it, not caring about the sexual fulfillment of those removed. She simply renders them sterile, impotent, frigid, or sexually repulsive to the opposite sex. Why bother making them homosexual?

In addition, homosexuals don’t seem to be carrying genes that would act to the detriment of the species. When they have children, their children are of the same genetic quality as those produced by their straight counterparts. In general, according to Darwinian evolutionary theory, when Mother Nature wants to remove a group from the reproductive pool, there is a genetic logic behind her decision. The link between homosexuality and (non) reproduction, however, is really quite unclear.

It is a generally accepted thesis that we all are, to one degree or another, attracted to both sexes. The question as to whether one defines himself as, and acts as, a homo- or a heterosexual depends upon the degree to which that type of attraction is active within him. He has, however, no choice in the matter; he naturally is bound to his dominant sexual orientation.

The thesis continues to posit that since sexuality is an essential part of all human relationships, it is still a factor even in our relationships to the sex to which we are not primarily attracted. It posits that without a certain amount of sexual attraction, affection or even friendly relationships to people to which we are not overtly sexually attracted would be impossible.

This thesis seems to be borne out by vague feelings of sexual attraction that most gay men can admit to having had at least once in their lives towards a woman. Most lesbians have had some attraction to a man, and many have actually had heterosexual contact. It is necessary also for male bonding among straight men, and its suppressed version is generally credited with causing homosexual panic and even homophobia in essentially straight men. Also, when straight men are deprived of a heterosexual outlet, many have no problem in opting for a homosexual alternative (prisons, puritanical societies that allow no contact between sexes before marriage).

It is clear, then, that our sexuality serves a function quite above and beyond simple physical reproduction. Dr. Freud perhaps overestimated the role of sexuality in informing a large part of our lives not directly related to the sex act itself, but in humans it obviously plays a role much greater than that of the physical continuation of the human race. It perhaps would not be an exaggeration to claim that it is the mortar that holds the building blocks of society together.

I would, moreover, suggest that the need for a procreative (or even population control) explanation of sexuality is a manifestation of general discomfort with sexuality in general. Why must we justify it any further than accepting it as a natural mechanism allowing us, even commanding us, driving us, if you will, to love each other?

But what about the question of why some people are gay and some straight? Ah, sweet mystery of life!