Sunday, June 28, 2009


Happy Gay Day, everybody! Craig and I are celebrating by going to the gym (we've been very good gay men lately) and then to the parade. This year, I really actually feel it. Pride was exciting my first time. But this year, I really, really feel the pride. I'm proud to be a queer and wouldn't be anything else.

One of my students, a lovely young woman named Clara Kang, was writing a paper on homosexuality and Christianity and asked to interview me for the paper. I'd never before been the subject of research—it was quite an honor. In fact, she's sent it to me and I really need to sit down and read it. I gave her a few letters I'd written, but sadly, I got them to her late and she was unable to use them in her paper. But when she read a letter that I wrote to my Aunt Charlotte (who passed away last year, God rest her soul), she asked if she could give it to a friend who was struggling both with her Christian belief and her homosexuality. I was more than happy to do this. I thought that maybe I ought to put it out there. It might help someone. Moreover, it's probably one of the more respectable faces that I show the world. I remember when I interviewed for Junior Fellows back in college. Dave Prindle, my first political science teacher, told me, "I barely recognized you in there. You were almost respectable." I've taken that phrase as a badge of honor ever since. This piece is probably one of the few instances of me getting just a little beyond my "almost respectable" limit.

* * *

August 25, 2005

Dear Auntie Char,

There are some letters that are just a little more difficult to write than others, letters in which one must measure one’s words carefully. I’m afraid that this is that sort of letter, so I beg your indulgence if I’m clumsy; I’m trying very hard.

I know that Mom has already told you that I’m gay and that Craig is my partner. I can only imagine that came as something of a shock, especially given its timing. I haven’t said anything to you myself; with Gramma’s passing, it was clearly not the time. I didn’t want you, however, to think that I’ve been off leading some sort of surreptitious life while trying to deceive my closest relations. I thought if I told you the context of how things have happened, you would see that I didn’t intend any disrespect.

I first became very aware of my sexuality in 2001. I’d just received the diagnosis of MS, which had come after two very difficult years in Washington with USAID and in Cincinnati with Mom and Dad. I was effectively derailed. I realized at that point that I had, since I was a teenager, propelled myself forward into my career with as much momentum and force as I could. Moving very quickly tends to warp one’s vision. Being derailed means sitting by the tracks for a time, gathering one’s wits. The end result was that, for the first time in many years, I actually stopped and looked around.

Well, one thing I saw was other people. The first and most blatant thing I saw was that guys did something for me that girls didn’t. I don’t think I’d ever thought consciously about that before. I’d always assumed (in my mind) that I would eventually meet and marry a woman. That was “normal,” that was “natural.” I’d never really spent any time with either my heart or my body when thinking about the subject. I came to realize that when I was about 12, I had started off where all the other boys were, but that over the years, they’d all gone off into relationships with women and I was now standing alone. When I asked my other friends how it had happened, it sounded like it was something that they didn’t try at—they felt attraction and went up to girls and asked them out. Yes, they worried about making fools of themselves, but the attraction they felt won out over those fears, they followed their instincts and they got into relationships. I’d never really done that. I’d fallen in love with a girl in high school, but nothing after. I’d dated less than a handful of women and never made it past the first date with any of them. If I was interested, they weren’t and vice versa. Suddenly, the pattern made sense.

I joined the gay rugby team here in Seattle because while I was pretty sure I was queer, I wasn’t all that keen on “swishy” guys. And on the gay rugby team, I met all sorts of guys from drag queens to hyper-masculine guys who were good at auto repair, only drink whiskey and only drive trucks. I realized that when you don’t fit into society’s narrative about masculinity and you know it, you simply don’t internalize it without question. You get creative. You can do anything from reject it completely, to still internalizing it virtually completely, to anything in between. I realized that being queer didn’t mean liking Barbara Streisand, sashaying about and shopping at Ikea. It could mean that or it could mean anything. It’s what you make of it.

I realized that the fear of rejection that I felt when I tried dating women was disproportionate. After it first registered on me that I was attracted to men, and I’d mulled over the disturbing fact enough to become open to it (this took about two years) I discovered something: everything my friends told me about “not thinking too much” and “trusting my instincts” worked! The catch for me was that it just didn’t work with girls. When I started dating guys, I turned out to be obscenely good at it. I had instincts that I never even knew about. Unlike when dealing with girls, with guys, I instinctively knew the right things to say next, when to make the next move, etc. Indeed, I knew these things before I knew them and found my conscious mind amazed at the fact that I knew what to say and do even before I thought about it.

During the two years of mulling things over, I spent a great deal of time reading about human sexuality. I wanted to know how it was that I am this way. I certainly never intended this. What I learned is that the evidence is now fairly good that differences in human sexuality are, for the most part genetically determined. First, studies show that (just like multiple sclerosis, ironically) that if one identical twin is gay, the other will be as well at a rate of about 66%. Now, like most genetically determined conditions, this means that some environmental factor plays a role, as two people with identical genetic make-up will not necessarily develop the same condition. Now, environmental conditioning could be anything from the presence of certain chemicals in the mother’s womb, to anti-bodies, to upbringing, to anything. Scientists still don’t have a full explanation for this phenomenon (just like MS).

Nonetheless, while scientists have not yet isolated a specific gene that determines whether a person is homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual, they have narrowed this down to a gene cluster that seems to differ in homosexual and heterosexual individuals. They have gone further with simpler life-forms and can now genetically engineer homosexual fruit flies who, with high degrees of predictability, initiate mating with other flies of the same sex. This feat is use to support the notion that not only is homosexuality genetically determined in non-engineered flies who engage in such sex (and homosexual contact exists between sexed animals of virtually every species on the planet) but we know the cause so precisely that we can replicate it in a laboratory.

That said, in no way does the cause of homosexuality being rooted in an individual’s genes mean that certain behaviors are ipso facto acceptable. Scientists may well discover that the impulse of sexual attraction that pederasts feel toward children may be the result of genetics; in no way does that mean molesting a child is moral or should be tolerated. Likewise, addiction has already been very clearly shown to have a genetic basis: someone with the proper genetic basis experiences a far greater high than a normal person and a far worse crash, encouraging further use. In no way does this condition justify remaining an addict; it simply explains the phenomenon’s empirical existence. The moral meaning of the action is up for debate. The Church’s response to homosexuality as of the 1994 catechism is as follows:

Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are gravely disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. They do not choose their homosexual condition; for most of them it is a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

I spent a good deal of time reflecting on that, trying to sort out what homosexuality meant morally. Knowing how well you know the Bible, I know you must be thinking of Leviticus 18:22 “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; such a thing is an abomination,” and Leviticus 20:13 “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them shall be put to death for their abominable deed; they have forfeited their lives.” I admit that these injunctions are severe. The contemporary Church is kinder; it acknowledges that I may not be able to help my sexuality, but cannot permit me to act on it.

Obviously, I wouldn’t be writing you this letter had I accepted the Church’s teaching. I did want you to know that I did not disregard it lightly, however, nor without reflection. I thought if I showed you how I came to the conclusion that I did, while you might not agree with it, you would at least see that I had not been callous. I don’t want you to think that I did this with any malice or that I intended any disrespect to my family in doing it.

For what it is worth, I think Christ complicates the sort of injunctions contained in Leviticus when He teaches in the following vein:

Then some Pharisees came up and as a test began to ask him whether it was permissible for a husband to divorce his wife. In reply, he said, “What command did Moses give you?” They answered, “Moses permitted divorce and the writing of a decree of divorce.” But Jesus told them: “He wrote that commandment for you because of your stubbornness. At the beginning of creation God made them male and female; for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother. They are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore, let no man separate what God has joined.” Back in the house again, the disciples began to question him again. He told them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her and the woman who divorces her husband and marries another commits adultery (Mark 10:2-12).

Once on a sabbath, Jesus was walking through the standing grain. His disciples were pulling off grain-heads, shelling them with their hands and eating them. Some of the Pharisees asked, “Why are you doing what is prohibited on the sabbath?” Jesus said to them: “Have you not read what David did when he and his men were hungry—how he entered God’s house and took and ate the holy bread and gave it to his men, even though only priests are allowed to eat it?” Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is Lord even of the sabbath.”

On another sabbath he came to teach in a synagogue where there was a man whose right hand was withered. The Scribes and the Pharisees were on the watch to see if he would perform a cure on the sabbath so that they could find a charge against him. He knew their thoughts, however, and said to the man whose hand was withered, “Get up and stand here in front.” The man rose and remained standing. Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good on the sabbath, or evil? To preserve life or destroy it?” He looked around at them all and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” The man did so and his hand was perfectly restored.

At this they became frenzied and began asking one another what could be done about Jesus (Luke 6:1-11).

The Pharisees and some of the experts in the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him. They had observed a few of his disciples eating meals without having purified—that is to say, washed—their hands. The Pharisees, and in fact all Jews, cling to the custom of their ancestors and never eat without scrupulously washing their hands. Moreover, they never eat anything from the market without first sprinkling it. There are many other traditions they observe—for example the washing of cups and jugs and kettles. So the Pharisees and the scribes questioned him: “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of our ancestors, but instead take food without purifying their hands?” He said to them: “How accurately Isaiah prophesied about you hypocrites when he wrote
“This people pays me lip service
but their heart is far from me.
Empty is the reverence they do me
because they teach as dogmas
mere human precepts.”
You disregard God’s commandment and cling to what is human tradition.”

He went on to say: “You have made a fine art of setting aside God’s commandment in the interest of keeping your traditions! For example, Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother”; and in another place, ‘Whoever curses father or mother shall be put to death.’ Yet you declare, “If a person says to his father or mother, Any support you might have had from me is korban’ (that is, dedicated to God), you allow him to do nothing more for his father or mother. That is the way you nullify God’s word in favor of the traditions you have handed on. And you have many other such practices besides.” He summoned the crowd again and said to them: “Hear me, all of you, and try to understand. Nothing that enters a man from outside can make him impure; that which comes out of him, and only that, constitutes impurity. Let everyone heed what the hears!”

When he got home, away from the crowd. His disciples questioned him about the proverb. “Are you, too, incapable of understanding?” he asked them. “Do you not see that nothing that enters a man from outside can make him impure? It does not penetrate his being, but enters his stomach only and passes into the latrine.” Thus did he render all foods clean. He went on: “What emerges from within a man, that and nothing else is what makes him impure.”

Wicked designs come from the deep recesses of the heart; acts of fornication, theft, murder, adulterous conduct, greed, maliciousness, deceit, sensuality, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, and obtuse spirit. All these evils come within and render a man impure.” (Mark 7:1-23).

It seems to me that in all of these passages, Jesus challenges us as interpreters of scripture. He dichotomizes a legalistic interpretation of text with a more meaningful interpretation, an interpretation dealing with treating other human beings with love. It seems to me that Christ is more concerned with us being fully thinking and feeling human beings who reflect on the meaning of our action in terms of the lives of others than with us being excellent lawyers who do only what is legal. He is certainly not interested in us being clever lawyers who find loopholes to further our self-interested agendas. However, the thing that I note is that Christ believes in this type of interpretation to such an extent that he is willing to nullify whole passages of the Old Testament in support of his view, arguing that Moses relented and gave in to the stubborn in his law regarding divorce, or that the Pharisees’ greed has nullified the meaning of the law with regard to how one must treat one’s parents. Certainly, he seems far more interested in how we treat one another than in what we eat or how many paces away from our tents we go when we relieve ourselves.

The Jesus of the Gospels does not address homosexuality. Indeed, the concept did not yet exist, even if the actual sexual act itself is ancient. He does however address sexuality in more general terms. In the passages above, he does not permit divorce and lists fornication first on his list of evil designs. He tells those who would stone Mary Magdalene for adultery that only he who is without sin should cast the first stone. When her accusers abandon her, Christ tells her that He also does not condemn her. Nonetheless, He calls on her to avoid this sin. (John 8:1-11). Moreover, the very passages I have quoted here condemn fornication and refer to marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman. If that means fornication means “sex outside of marriage” and marriage is only a relationship between a man and a woman, I haven’t a leg to stand on.

The most conservative possible interpretation of Christianity can run something like this: “Jesus was God and changed the rules. The old rules had been corrupted by men and Christ came and set us straight. Anything he changed we accept as changed and we should assume the rest is still the same.” This type of interpretation is reassuring in the sense that we cover our bases. It reduces the room for error. Those among us who wish to be justified by our actions can make recourse to not violating the law. This is the essence of conservative fear, but it seems to me that Jesus rejects that conservative fear. Fear of God may be the beginning of knowledge (Proverbs 1:7) but it does not seem to be its end. I think we have good evidence to the contrary. Jesus goes to great pains to make people think about their actions. This choice is seen in the most pronounced way in his technique of teaching. Rather than speaking plainly, he speaks in parables that even his disciples need help to interpret (e.g. Matthew 13:36-43, Mark 4:10-19). I can only imagine that he does this because he wants us to think about morality in the context in which it occurs and not as an abstract set of rules. Indeed, Jesus was famous for “going to see.” He did not hang out with the Pharisees and Sadducees, but with sinners. He didn’t read about them in a book; he lived with them and knew them as they were.

Until I started having these feelings, I hadn’t even done that much. When I was young, I’d never known anyone who was openly gay. At the time, I guess I must have assumed that someone who would have sex with someone of the same sex was doing it to be iconoclastic. When I was older, I began to meet (a very few) openly gay people. I got along with them well. I’ve always believed in political and social toleration, but I didn’t really reconcile the existence of these people who seemed remarkably normal to me with that image. The contradiction was blatant, but when one is uncomfortable, one tends to edge away from a problem, not to look at it. And I didn’t look at it. And no one had ever called me on it.

Now I knew that the feelings were real. I felt them. I could no more help feeling them than I could sprout wings and fly to the moon. Certainly, as even the Church acknowledges, it was not a matter of choice. Well, many homosexuals are the victims of violence and discrimination. I realized in my ambivalence that I had abetted in the suffering of others. No Christian would willingly do that. A Christian loves the poor and helps the suffering. A Christian loves as Christ loves. The unconscious problems and contradictions had been flushed out into the open. The Christianity that proscribed my sexuality was the Christianity that told me I had to help those who suffered because that sexuality was proscribed. Christianity is a tradition. Tradition works as rhetoric because it is sacred, that is, timeless and, quite literally, in this case having its ultimate source in God. If it is changing, revised, contradictory and subject to radical reinterpretation, it isn’t tradition.

I accepted that tradition as a tenet of faith. That faith had yielded the capacity to love that was, and still is, the meaning of my life. The contradiction was obvious: be queer, you can’t be Christian; be Christian, you can’t be queer. They didn’t fit together, but I was both. I wasn’t able to separate myself from either. I wasn’t capable of resolving the situation. My existence negated the meaning of my life. It was stressful.

St. Paul said that God’s plan is “to be carried out in the fullness of time” (Ephesians 2:10). It seems to me that while God does not change over time, our understanding of our religion does the more we study and experience. It is not that the God of Genesis is vengeful and spiteful and the God of the Gospels is loving and merciful. It’s that our relationship with God and our understanding of God has developed over time. As our understanding changes, so too changes our religion. Our encounter with Scripture must be a living interpretation and not the dead interpretation we give the law. In any case, it seems to me that Jesus is indeed actively interested in human beings developing their own moral judgment, rather than following rules the way a computer program follows code. He gave us good criteria for doing so. He said:

“A good tree does not produce decayed fruit any more than a decayed tree produces good fruit. Each tree is known by its yield. Figs are not taken from thornbushes, nor grapes picked from brambles. A good man produces goodness from the good in his heart; an evil produces evil out of his store of evil. Each man speaks from his heart’s abundance.” (Luke 7:43-45)

Auntie Char, I hope I speak from own heart’s abundance when I tell you that I don’t believe my love for Craig is “depraved” or “gravely disordered.” No one who knows us, right down to our couples’ therapist (who is also a Lutheran minister!) believes that our love does “not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity.” We both work very hard at our relationship and I truly believe that most straight couples would envy what we have together.

You are my beloved aunt who has loved me as a mother loves her child. All I can do is ask you to come and judge the fruit our love has born and say whether or not you find it good. I hope you will consider accepting the invitation that Craig and I have enclosed to our commitment ceremony in September. I believe that if you see the life that we live together, you will be satisfied that it is good.




K said...

Talal --
Thank you so much for sharing this letter with the world. I know it's old now (and I'm sure you've advanced in all sorts of ways since you wrote it) but it truly is helpful to read about how others have articulated their experiences to family members and other loved ones who misapprehend or are hostile.

Thank you and bless you. :)

Cuphound said...

Dear KM,

I'm so glad I could help!