Thursday, November 11, 2010

Daniel Maguire: "Heterosexism, Not Homosexuality, is the Problem"

When he was in the Twin Cities last month, speaking on why Catholics can and should support gay marriage, theologian Daniel Maguire generously gifted me with a copy of Heterosexism in Contemporary World Religions: Problem and Prospect.

Daniel’s contribution to this important anthology is a tract entitled “Heterosexism, Not Homosexuality, is the Problem,” which serves as the book's introduction. At one point he writes:

Homosexuality, like heterosexuality, is morally neutral. It is primarily how persons live and relate to other persons and to their parent earth that gives persons their main identity. In healthier cultures, the “is” of a person is not established by sexual orientation or by height, but by moral commitments. The object of one’s passion and love does not stigmatize the lover. We know more of what makes a person a person by finding his or her lived-out attraction to compassion and justice. . . . This same healing theme appears here and there like an aspiring leitmotif in all those flawed but powerful classics called world religions. The healthy emphasis on the moral character of persons – rather than with whom they fall in love – strips away and embarrasses the moralistic pretensions of heterosexist cultures. Seeing persons through heterosexist lenses is radically distortional.

Heterosexism in Contemporary World Religion: Problem and Prospect, notes Daniel, is a much-needed invitation to exit that terrible, damaging and corrupting closet of fear that heterosexism forces us into. The scope of the book’s content provides the guiding light for this exodus journey. Co-editor Judith Plaskow, for instance, explores the dismantling of the gender binary within Judaism; Ann-Marie Hsiung examines gender and same-sex relations in Confucianism and Taoism; Yu-Chen Li reconstructs Buddhist perspectives on homosexuality; Mary E. Hunt shares insights and advice on eradicating the sin of heterosexism; Ghazala Anwar offers a defense of same-sex marriage based on the Qur’an and other Muslim sources; Kelly Brown Douglas examines heterosexism and the Black American Church community; Anantanand Rambachan highlights the irreconcilability of Hinduism and homophobia; and co-editor Marvin Ellison defends same-sex marriage on Christian grounds.

Without doubt it’s an essential book in the ongoing quest to banish heterosexism from our lives and from our religious and cultural institutions.

Following (with added images and links) is an excerpt from Daniel Maguire's “Heterosexism, Not Homosexuality, is the Problem.”


Homosexuality is not a problem: heterosexism is a problem, and not just for sexual minorities. To think of homosexuality as “problem” – which even persons of liberal bent can do - is a distraction and a surrender to the unjust and poisonous prejudice of heterosexism.

Homophobia has, in irony, been called “the last respectable prejudice,” but, of course, no prejudice merits respect. All prejudice metastasizes into other sites and spreads its malignancy into policy, law, custom, and culture. Any prejudice tolerated makes other prejudices seem more natural. By its nature, prejudice “outgroups” persons, disenfranchising them of their human rights. It marks persons out for special and negative handling simply because of who they are.

Unlike its cousins anti-Semitism, sexism, and racism, heterosexism has enjoyed undue immunity from critique, especially religious critique. Worse yet, religious have been the major offenders in fomenting prejudices against sexual minorities. The pope says gays cannot be priests. As theologian Mary E. Hunt points out in chapter 6, heterosexual Catholics have seven sacraments; gays and lesbians have only six since the sacrament of matrimony is denied them. Some Episcopalians want to split their church apart to prevent same-sex marital bonding. The stress on reproduction in all religions often disparages non-reproductive sex, thus tabooing and insulting all homosexual relationships. Religious prejudices seep deeply into culture. Thus, sexual minorities not only cannot be clergy, they also cannot be teachers or even soldiers.

Religions are always active and influential in defining the meaning of the bonding called family and have regularly shrunken it into a gated preserve for heterosexuals. This gives religious blessing to a heterosexual monopoly on committed love. It transforms marriage from a human right into an award for being heterosexual. Sexual pleasure itself is put on trial; it must be justified or validated by reproductivity. Sexual joy in its own right is stripped of its natural legitimacy. Sexual minorities are thus not the only victims of heterosexist brutality. The damage is so much broader.

Diversity Phobia

Humanity needs its exuberant diversity, but humans tend to flee from it. William Sloane Coffin writes: “Diversity may be the hardest thing for a society to live with – and perhaps the most dangerous thing to live without.” (1) This self-protective hunger for a cowering monism could indeed be the fatal flaw of our species. We either learn to live with and exult in the wealth of our natural and cultural differences – religious, ethnic, racial, sexual – or we perish.

The fervor that animates homophobia seeks ill-fated support from zoology, hoping to show that nature requires heteronormativity. Alas, the desired evidence is not there, and contrary evidence abounds. In his extensive study Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, biologist Bruce Bagemihl shows that homosexuality is part of our evolutional heritage as primates. He reports that more than 450 species regularly engage in a wide range of same-sex activities ranging from copulation to long-term bonding. Even the assumed male/female dimorphism is not fixed in nature. “Many animals live without two distinct genders, or with multiple genders.” (2) Finding evidence that our preferred social arrangements are exemplified in edifying animal conduct is also doomed. The lovely mallards sometimes form “trio-bonds” with one male and two females or one female with two males. (3)

Homophobia and Fear of Change

A similar and related timidity makes us fear change. Extreme conservatives seem to be saying that “nothing should be done for the first time.” Yet change is of the essence. From the molecular micro to the macro of the universe, flux is normative and incessant. “First times” are an unending feature of nature. Clearly many changes would come to society if heterosexism with its multiple noxious ramifications were banished from our cultural lexicon and buried with evils of the past, such as cannibalism and the divine right of kings. The extent of change, it seems, is keenly felt.

If the patriarchally conceived models of marriage were changed and more egalitarian forms of marriage and family were legitimated, a lynchpin would be yanked out of current social constructions. As Marvin M. Ellison points out in chapter 2, governments might have to support people on the basis of need and not of conformity to a narrow definition of family. His words: “Making status the exclusive conduit for these benefits does little to correct the entrenched patterns of social and economic inequities that are rapidly expanding within the global capitalist social order.”

Patriarchal marriage has long been the building block of society, and through its symbolic power it finds reflection in governments and corporate structures. It weaves hierarchical assumptions into the expression of power. Heterosexist and biased definitions of normalcy attach to the central nerves in the economic and political arrangements now in place. Change in these matters is not just personal; it is political and important, and powerholders know it. Hence the frenzy and uproar in church and state when regnant notions of marriage and family are threatened by new thought.

Fear of two persons who love each other and want to bond permanently, legally, and if they choose, religiously, would not, on its face, seem to presage social disaster. Why does it engender such panic?

It does seem to be the rule of life that when an issue becomes suddenly inflamed in society, it rarely has anything to do with the issue. It has everything to do with power. Powerholders, like animals who sense earthquakes before others, first feel the distant tremors that threaten their foundations and their privileges.

All of this helps to explain the shocking enigma of misplaced moral indignation in the political arena and among religious people. One would think that the ongoing starvation of 1.3 billion people in absolute poverty would command our moral attention. If not that, then one would hope that the double basting of the planet in CO2 with catastrophes of melting polar and glacial ice already happening would focus our minds. How compatible it would be with the peace-passions and empathy traditions of all the world’s major religions to mount campaigns against bloated military budgets that suck the blood out of our economies while children starve and wars and illiteracy spread, with health-care needs unforgivably unmet.

But no. In countries such as the United States, a demonic, fear-driven pelvic orthodoxy, with scandalous over-absorption in issues like same-sex marriage, contraception, and abortion, consumes politics, churches, legislatures, and judiciaries.

The widely unappreciated truth is that heterosexism with its attendant assumptions forces us into a closet of fear – terrible, damaging, corrupting fear. [Heterosexism in Contemporary World Religion: Problem and Prospect] is written as an invitation to exit that closet.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Daniel Maguire in Minneapolis
A Catholic Statement of Support for Same-Sex Marriage
A Christian Case for Same-Sex Marriage
John Corvino on the "Always and Everywhere" Argument Against Gay Marriage
Patrick Ryan on the "Defense of Traditional Marriage" Argument
Nathanial Frank on the "Natural Law" Argument
Steve Chapman: Time is On the Side of Gay Marriage
Lowell Erdahl on "Unlearning the Things That Used to Be Obvious
Daniel Maguire on the Progressive Core of Catholicism
Daniel Maguire on Catholicism's "Long History of Demeaning Sexuality"
Daniel Maguire on Sex as Liturgy
Daniel Maguire on the Wedding of Spirituality and Sexuality
Honoring (and Learning from) the Passion of Saints Sergius and Bacchus


Mark said...

I've read and enjoyed Biological Exuberance, but remember that perennial problem in philosophy & ethics: you don't necessarily get an "ought" from an "is."

Michael J. Bayly said...

I think we have to be very mindful that for centuries gay people have been told that their desires and relationships are "unnatural" and that heterosexuality and procreative sex are the only "natural" and thus God-approved expression of and purpose for sex. It's important to educate people on just how expansive and diverse nature actually is when it comes to sex and sexuality.

That doesn't mean, of course, that we translate that automatically into meaning that "anything goes" for humans. There's still work to be done, issues to be discussed, and thoughtful decisions to be made. But establishing the naturalness of homosexuality is an important starting point and a solid (and thus for some, evidence of a legitimate) basis from which we can and should ask some important questions: For humans, can homosexual relationships be loving and just? Do such relationships help individuals to flourish? Are they empowered by these relationships to help others and society flourish? Can God's gifts of the Spirit be discerned in gay lives and relationships?

The tragedy is that the clerical leadership of the Church seems incapable of even acknowledging these questions, let alone engaging them. This leadership has a closed-circuit belief system about gay people and experiences. Unless we all view our sexuality as a "disorder" and our sexual relationships as "mortal sin," our experiences and insights are never sought or listened to so as to further the "official" Church's understanding of homosexuality.

I view this as a betrayal of an authentically Catholic way of being in the world -- a way that values reason and is profoundly sacramental in its view of the world. By this I mean we should be open to seeking, discerning, and responding to God in, as I like to say, all manner of places and faces -- including the lives and relationships of LGBT people.



Mark said...

"Natural" in Thomistic & Aristotelian sense is not synonymous with "occurs in nature." There is an additional sense of telos - acting towards an end - that is missing in many current uses of the word "nature."

Based on Jesus behavior in the Christian scriptures, I think there is evidence that telos was always read through the lens of "the Father's will." The result was agape - not eros.

Michael, your four questions:

- [C]an homosexual relationships be loving and just?

- Do such relationships help individuals to flourish?

- Are they empowered by these relationships to help others and society flourish?

- Can God's gifts of the Spirit be discerned in gay lives and relationships?

have to be seen as questions that could only be asked and answered in modernity. I suggest that Jesus, as a man of his time, place and culture, would not have a concept of these questions.

First century CE Jews, suffering under Roman occupation, were interested in how mores (sexual and otherwise) maintained the Jews self-understanding as a "people set apart," having a unique relationship with the Eternal. A proper intimate relationship was one approved by the Jewish Law. Any other type of intimate relationship was, be definition, improper.

Preceding your questions I'd ask:

- Which of the ancient mores are applicable in our modern situation? Why?

- Which aren't? Why?

Mareczku said...

Excellent comments here, Michael. I still can't deal with this disordered business. I went to 12 years of Catholic school and never heard this. (I graduated in the 1970's before that infamous 1986 letter.) I have only been aware of these documents in the last 5 years. So the anti-gay currents in the Church are something that is foreign to me. I belong to a large, diverse parish and have never heard one word spoken against homosexuality or gay people.

Michael J. Bayly said...


In this day and age I don't think we should limit ourselves to thinking in Thomistic and Aristotelian terms. We no longer allow past thinking on, say, medicine to dictate how we perform operations. And yet in philosophical and theological discussions we're often asked to limit our thinking and development. Why is this?

I think most people would agree that there are many things in life -- including sex -- that have more that one end or "telos."

I'm all for discerning these "ends" through "God's will" (although that's not the language I'd use), but then the question becomes: How do we discern God's will?

One important way (supported fully by the Catholic tradition) is via people's lived experiences and the reading of the "signs of the times." Given this, the questions I pose in my previous comment are valid.

Those who oppose homosexuality and gay marriage tend to discount and ignore the experiences of the sacred in the lives and relationships of gay people. Thankfully this is changing, even in Roman Catholicism -- though, as yet, not at the official level.