You shall love your crooked neighbor / with your crooked heart
OR, “GAY” IS A GENRE.
I wrote that gay Christians have about five choices when it comes to expressing their sexuality in the context of a religious community. Eve Tushnet proposes a sixth in an Inside Catholic column on the coincidence of Corpus Christi and Gay Pride Weekend: to take a vow of sexually abstinent lifelong friendship (as in the “brother-making” rituals of Eastern Orthodoxy). She contends that the Catholic church could offer gay Christians the possibility of exclusive lifelong friendship “without any compromise on the … teaching about the proper use of our bodies and our sexuality.” The larger point of the piece is that Catholicism, with its rich liturgical corporeality, has more to nourish gay Christians than other forms of Christianity.
Responses to the column are mostly negative – they either criticize Tushnet for “defining” herself by a “disorder” or they see same-sex eros as inherently lustful. One reader accuses her of “trying to see the world through the prism of same-sex attraction.” But I wonder if it would be more accurate to say that she simply notices some of the ways in which Catholicism enables celibate same-sex attracted Christians to receive God’s love in a physical, not just a spiritual, way. And here I’m thinking of her column in relation to Rowan Williams’ essay “The Body’s Grace.”
For Williams, the concept of embodiment is central to the question of same-sex sexual ethics. This is because the mutual vulnerability of sex teaches us the important Christian lesson that we are not autonomous, that we cannot author ourselves: “in sexual relation I am no longer in charge of what I am … I cannot of myself satisfy my wants without distorting or trivialising them.” Sex is “a collaborative way of making sense of our whole material selves,” because “my joy depends on someone else’s as theirs does on mine”:
For my body to be the cause of joy, the end of homecoming, for me, it must be there for someone else, be perceived, accepted, nurtured; and that means being given over to the creation of joy in that other, because only as directed to the enjoyment, the happiness, of the other does it become unreservedly lovable … We are pleased because we are pleasing.
(Williams defines perversion as “the effort to bring my happiness back under my control and to refuse to let my body be recreated by another person’s perception.” It is an avoidance of vulnerability.)
Single people, too, need the lessons of embodied love:
All those taking up the single vocation – whether or not they are, in the disagreeable clinical idiom, genitally intact – must know something about desiring and being desired if their single vocation is not to be sterile and evasive. Their decision (as risky as the commitment to sexual fidelity) is to see if they can find themselves, their bodily selves, in a life dependent simply upon trust in the generous delight of God – that other who, by definition, cannot want us to supply deficiencies in the bliss of a divine ego, but whose whole life is a “being-for,” a movement of gift.
I’ve thus often bristled at the fact that so much of the Biblical picture-language for God’s love focuses on heterosexual marriage. How can a Christian lesbian experience the tenor of divine love when her attractions exclude her from the vehicle of these metaphors? I think Eve’s point that a Catholic lesbian can sublimate her same-sex desire through e.g. Marian devotion indicates a possible solution:
And the Catholic Church gave men and women an image of Woman whom they could truly love. Catholic lesbians can yearn for Mother Church; we can yearn for the Virgin. Catholicism offered same-sex attracted women the images of womanhood that helped them render their desires sublime. Beatrice makes sense not only to Dante but to me.
The comments that equate eros and lust remind me of something that the English poet W.H. Auden, a gay convert to Christianity, once said in a letter to Wendell Stacy Johnson (c. 1952):
Have you seen the C of E report on homosexuality? In its wish to be fair, it falls into the odd position of declaring that only the act is sinful which is, of course, heretical and, from a practical point of view, ineffective. Nobody, where there is mutual consent and pleasure, can possibly feel an act is wrong: if it is, the reason must lie in the personal relationship which desires the acts.
Part of me thinks: Yeah. How can we extract genital acts from a relationship and view them as sinful if we think the rest of the relationship is fine? If the vowed lifelong friendship structurally resembles marriage (e.g. joint finances, helping to care for the friend’s aging parents), what makes adding sex to it so bad from a theological standpoint?
On the other hand, I understand from experience that not all erotically charged relationships “point toward sex,” as Eve puts it in one of the comments:
A friend of mine – a striking, very intelligent woman – has deeply reshaped my thinking and affected how I lead my life. I am pretty sure this relationship would have been less intense had I been heterosexual …
Yet at no point did I ever actually want to sleep with her. That just wasn’t where the eros in our friendship pointed – it pointed toward education, common interests, lovingkindness, etc.
Could one argue that it would be wrong to add sex to a specific relationship like this because it would redirect eros? That, instead of blazing outward into goods that bless many, eros would turn the lovers in upon themselves? Yet there are marriages in which eros points in multiple directions, toward the bed and the book.
So the viability of publicly vowed, sexually abstinent lifelong friendship rests, I think, on the strength of the discernment process behind it. It would be important to join couples for whom eros very obviously didn’t point toward sex. Priests, close friends, and family would have to be involved in the decision, helping the couple to see if this were the case for them. And the community of discernment ought to be present with the couple throughout their lives: if eros changed directions for one or both of the friends, it would be important to have people around holding them accountable to, say, living separately.
I think a traditionalist-friendly Catholic case for renewing adelphopoiesis-like rites might build on Eve’s suggestion, “Think of ‘gay’ as a genre!” The genre of lyric poetry (construed as the subjective expression of feeling) didn’t exist before twentieth-century critics, thinking in nineteenth-century terms, retroactively imposed the category on all sorts of disparate literary texts. And while the imposition of the genre is distorting, in some ways it highlights an important thread running through literary history. One could say the same thing about the concept of gayness: it’s misleading to talk about nineteenth-century romantic friends as if they perceived their relationships in the same way as twentieth-century gay lovers, but neither does it make sense to think of the two relationship models as completely unrelated phenomena. Gay love re-imagines romantic friendship just as Michael Field’s poems rework Sappho’s. Writers and lovers play with and refine the conventions of their genres.
A traditionalist could make the case, then, that renewing same-sex friendship blessing would encourage skepticism about the way twenty-first-century Westerners understand what Tushnet elsewhere calls “the tangle of experiences we’ve decided to call being gay.” Consider what would happen if gay youth had the option of brother- or sister-making to look forward to. Vows of sexually abstinent lifelong friendship would be a way, not just of sublimating particular instances of same-sex desire, but of changing the meaning of sexuality.
But for me, right now, all of this remains a thought experiment. I know I would find a lifelong vow of sexless yet intimate friendship much easier to undertake with a gay or straight man – and maybe even with a straight woman – than with another lesbian: it would probably be heartache to live with a beautiful woman who also loved women and to stay sexually abstinent.