Some Thoughts on the Debate – 1 – Competing Anthropologies and Moralities

This is the first of a short series of posts sharing my thoughts on the current position of the sexuality debate within the Anglican Church. Please feel free to comment below.

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I get more than the occasional email from those on the pro-gay side who accuse me of deceit in my account of my life. The emails tend to take one of the following lines of argument:

"Your testimony is a lie because you

a) are deceiving yourself – you are in fact simply continuing to ‘repress’ your homosexuality and pretending to be ‘straight’. In fact there has been no change at all in your orientation.
b) weren’t ever gay in the first place. You are simply a confused heterosexual / bisexual who has now finally worked out what you are / shifted to emphasis your heterosexuality (delete as applicable)"

I’m not going to give a response to either of those two criticisms at this time, but rather I want to ask the question, "why do these criticisms come"? What is the reason that so many people have to be so violently opposed to what I have said and written, to the extent that they accuse me of a gross act of disemblance?

The reason is, I believe, simply this – the story of my life disproves the anthropology that pro-gay activists work within, in a way that the story of their lives doesn’t upset my anthropology.

Let me explain. Time and time again I meet pro-gay activists, both those who self-identify as gay and those who don’t, who come out with the simple but easy to understand phrase – "People who are gay are born gay and there’s nothing they can do to change it – they/we need to accept it and move on". I meet plenty of men who would claim such an anthropology, and indeed I can see why they would believe as much. For most men who self-identify as gay, it’s not even vaguely a choice to be attracted to those of the same sex, and whenever you first become aware of sexual feelings towards the opposite sex (in my own case in my early twenties), it’s very easy to look back on your childhood and to see both non-sexual attraction to those of the same-sex but also a sense of being ‘different’ from the other boys. For most of us who self-identify as gay or at one time did it makes perfect sense that this is not just something that happened to us in our teens, but an inherent part of who we are from the word go.

And while there is still no discovery of a gay gene, or combination of genes, there are bits of evidence published each year that would point in the direction of a biological root for sexual attraction. Whether it’s research that shows increasing levels of self-identification as gay in younger brothers (which some suggest might be caused by hormonal responses to testosterone in the womb from male foetuses) or variations in the chromosomes of mothers of self-identified homosexuals, it all seems to come together to indicate that homosexuality is indeed something which one has no control over. All this contributes to the construction of an anthropology that sees men and women as fundamentally gay or straight, an orientation that is fixed before birth and over which one has little or no control.

But this is not the only anthroplogy that Christians believe. As a conservative Christian, my understanding of Scripture and science, combined with my pastoral experience, has led me (and many others) to believe that the above anthropology is flawed. Instead, the traditional anthropology suggests that idea of a "gay" christian is misleading. It does so on the basis that while the Scriptures clearly see particular differentiations in humans (male/female, greek/barbarian, slave/free), it never ever refers to sexual attraction as a defining observation of human beings. While some of the Scriptural understandings of human differentiation are biological (sex, race), others are situational (economic status). None however are to do with the activity that a human performs, but rather the setting within which activities are performed.

Indeed, the conservative anthropology ethically understands actions to be, on the whole, separated from the setting of the action. So for example, the commandment "Thou shalt not steal" is not predicated by the context of the theft. That is not to say that one might argue that a particular theft (the stealing of a gun about to be used for a murder) may not itself by a moral action, but rather the conservative anthropology says that the morality of an action is not affected by the person performing it (i.e. it doesn’t matter whether a man or woman murders someone, the action is still murder).

This is in contrast to the pro-gay anthroplogy that often argues that since a desire is present, and it causes no obvious, human defined, harm, it must necessarily be "good". For example, when arguing on the subject of homosexual practice, the position is forwarded that since homosexual practice does not harm anyone else (and when consensual is not perceived to by self-harming or to receive harm from the other partner), and since the desire for such activity is in-born, then the action cannot be deemed unvirtuous. Such an argument then views the apparently (from a conservative position) clear Scriptural case against any homosexual activity, and suggests that since the situational approach indicates that such actions are moral, that our plain reading of the Scripture must be incorrect. There must be an understanding of the text that fits in with the understanding that has come from human reasoning and experience.

And this approach explains why stories of change and variation/mutability of sexual attraction are treated by the pro-gay lobby with such scorn. If the starting point of ethical debate is *not* the Bible but rather human reason and experience, then the existence of personal experiences that seems to contradict an experience sourced anthropology ("I have always felt different or gay, so I must always have been gay") is a threat to any ethical system based upon that anthropology. If the ethical discussion is predicated by an assumption that sexuality is fixed, then a personal testimony that sexuality is fluid presents a challenge to the pattern of morality that has been carefully constructed upon the assumptions mentioned above (the immutabilty of sexual desire).

This is, I believe, why I receive so much correspondence and comment on this blog expressing sheer disbelief at my story and communicating the clear suggestion that I am lying when I relate that my sexual attractions have remarkably altered. The rejection of my story is not because the rejector has any scientific evidence to suggest that such a change has not occured. The fact of the matter is that ultimately same-sex attraction is a self-reported phenomenom and cannot be identified biologically in the same way that race or sex can (and that is not to suggest that that in itself proves in any way that homosexual attraction is not biologic in origin, rather that it cannot be diagnosed the same way that other human "ontologies" can be, independently of any social observation of the subject), and therefore the collation of the experience of same-sex attraction *must* take the same form as the collation of the experience of variance in sexual attraction. If someone says that are attracted to people of the same-sex they are intrinsically believed by the pro-gay camp. If they report that this used to be the case but now they are attracted to people of the other sex they are disbelieved.

I want to suggest therefore that the rejection of such testimonies comes not from any scientific basis, but rather because the acceptance of such testimonies would fundamentally undermine the anthropology that has been assumed by the pro-gay argument. If the argument about the morality of same-sex activity rests in part upon the immutability of same-sex attraction, then that argument collapses when sexual attraction is shown to be mutable. The response therefore is to simply deny that such a variation in sexual attraction has occured, not through any scientific observation but unconscioulsy on the basis that accepting such a testimony destroys one’s own paradigm upon which so many life choices have been made.

Of course, the conservative position does not have this problem. The conservative anthropology is absolutely content to accept that many, many people who self-identify as homosexual have experienced a dissonance from their peers from a very early age. It can even accept the self-reporting of those who have attempted to change their sexual orientation and have seen little or no change. None of these things in any sense impact upon its axiomatic basis. The (well though out) conservative anthropology, while refusing to define people by their sexual attractions or to permit any prescription of sexual behaviour on that basis, is equally not perturbed by scientific developments which suggest that there may indeed be some form of biological constituent in the development of sexual attraction. None of these things affect the conservative anthropology, because the ethical framework it has developed upon its anthropology is not altered by any of these things. Even if it is clearly demonstrated that homosexual attraction is 90% biological, that does not change the basis of the moral judgement, based on Scripture, that all homosexual practice is sinful. Such a moral judgement does not in any sense rest upon the causation of homosexual attraction but rather is concerned with the ethicisity of homosexual activity as defined by Scripture, not human experience or reason.

And this ultimately is why the conservative anthropology is vastly superior to the pro-gay anthropology, for it can encompass within its understanding of human being and behaviour the pro-gay experience in a manner that the pro-gay anthropology cannot do with the conservative post-gay experience. This is a crucial problem for the pro-gay side and under any possible understanding of logic means that they fall foul of the simple principle of Occam’s Razor, that the understanding that makes the fewest assumptions is the most logically reasonable. The pro-gay argument *must* assume that the self-reporting of variation in sexual attraction of conservative post-gays is falacious – the conservative anthropology does not have to make such an assumption about the self-reporting of sexual attraction by self-identified gays.

In all my conversations with liberals and conservatives I have yet to hear a reasonable response to this problem I am asserting with the pro-gay argument. It is not just a huge logical hole in the pro-gay anthropology, it is the practical reason why I and others receive so much scorn from those on the other side of the argument. Were there to be absolutely any acceptance that our testimonies were true (indeed if just one of our testimonies were true) then a whole series of ethical judgements, life-style choices and theological reflections by the pro-gay side are instantly undermined. Such an acceptance of the fallacy of their position is inconceivable to them, so instead they attempt to denigrate and deny that which would otherwise remove the basis of their anthropology.

Posted in Anglican Communion, Ethics, Identity, Sexuality Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
  • rybam

    Peter, you get (perhaps unfairly) a hard time because you are in essence claiming to be cured of something you were never actually doing in the first place.  Plus I myself used to be sci-fi geek with problems relating to women (and knew lots of guys in the same situation) and seriously doubt that there is some sort of progression (or regression) from that to actual gay sex or desire. Homosexuality is not a consolation prize.
    Attitude had an interest piece recently on the nature/nurture debate and made the point that the morality of homosexuality does not depend on it being established as an innate race/sex style trait. I’m sorry that you are not offered very good arguments by the gays you encounter; and it is also equally possible that they devalue experiences like yours because they are very aytpical and therefore little can be gained by focusing on them. If for every ex or post gay there are ten unchangeable homosexuals then what can be gained by focusing on, as opposed to merely ackowledging, the former group?

    For what it’s worthy, I certainly don’t doubt that you’re present sexual relationship with your wife is authentic.

    • I really need to pick you up on this comment.

      Peter, you get (perhaps unfairly) a hard time because you are in essence claiming to be cured of something you were never actually doing in the first place.

      This is just a factually incorrect presentation of my position. Firstly I am not claiming a “cure”, I am claiming a change in my sexual orientation. Secondly, the fact that you seem to suggest that just because one has never had gay sex (that’s what you’re implying, though I’m not sure where you base that assumption about my life upon) that in some way means I wasn’t exclusively homosexual in my attractions and affections.

      You’ve actually demonstrated the entire point of this post – you simply aren’t prepared to accept my self-reporting as correct, though you will happily accept the self-reporting of anybody who is content with their same-sex attractions.

      • rybam

         Did you miss the “perhaps unfairly”? I am reporting on how (I think) you are perceived by pro-gays and why this so. I wasn’t necessarily defending this position. Where did I imply that I, personally, don’t believe you when it comes to your account of your sexuality?  Gay lib, in any case, is essentially about human rights so it matters very little that conservative meta-anaylsis/anthropology/whatever is,to you, more satisfying.  Plenty of gay men defy the development of homosexuality models that NARTH types offer too.

        Have read accounts of your testimony in various places, and I think perhaps a thread you contributed to on ex-gay watch? that confirmed that you hadn’t had any gay sex. Is this wrong? I agree it’s not necessarily important.

        • rybam,

          I’m sorry if I misunderstood your first sentence. I took it to mean that you too didn’t believe my story.

          I want to suggest to you that there are two major strands of gay thought around the right to same-sex activity. The first is an argument based in the anthropological assumption I describe above. The second is an argument based in a much broader sense of queer or plasticised sexuality, where orientation has little moral baring upon one’s sexual activity. You’re right that such an argument is not what I’m arguing against here, but it is not the position of the pro-gay camp in TEC, or at least it is only the position of a minority and certainly not that of the main players (Integrity etc). Indeed, it is rejected by the main players because it is quite clearly an argument for “pretty much anything goes” which is not where these lobby groups are actually at.

          • rybam

             Peter,

            Do these groups deny that people like yourself can and have changed? I don’t see why they can’t accept the validity of your testimony but still say that for most people sexuality is inate, invoke APA documents on the apparent harm of sexual reorientation therapy etc. I thought that gay lib is grouped by liberal types under the LGBT label, which is a move towards ( I would have thought) queer theory?
            I know some evangelical types who don’t believe that homosexuality is inante unchangeable etc due to Paul’s “that is what some of you were” lines, but I don’t see why you can’t use to indict homosexual practise in those with heterosexual drives too and still say that some people very much are gay and need to be celibate.

            • In answer to your first question, the answer is “yes”. To fully accept my story is to challenge their own axiomatic basis. Once you accept that someone who was exclusively homosexual in their attractions changed, you then undermine your own claim that your sexuality is innate and unchangeable. If me then why not them?

  • Bravo!  Well said!  Excellent post and I agree with you 100%!  Looking forward to the rest of your posts in this series.

  • Jay

    “People who are gay are born gay and there’s nothing they can do to change it – they/we need to accept it and move on”

    I think I’ve found a way to work within this anthropology even though I’m a conservative.  If “gay” is simply a term that describes the trait or condition of having same-sex attractions (and I think it can be, though it is often much more culturally loaded), then I am gay.  (Even C.S. Lewis referred to celibate same-sex attracted Christians as “homosexuals” in a letter I recently commented about on my blog).

    I also think that research that indicates a biological component to orientation does work out for me.  My mother was in her mid-40’s when she had me.  I am the youngest boy out of my siblings.  And by process of elimination, I don’t have the strained experiences with my father or mother than would lend itself to the more traditional causation theories regarding homosexuality.

    So those first two parts (being born gay and being gay) work out for me.  Even from a Christian perspective, the part about “there being nothing they can do to change it” works out.  I really don’t think that any amount of psychological counseling, or prayer, or healthy relationships with same-sex peers, would necessarily cause my orientation to change.  If I did experience orientation change, it would be up to God, not forced by me or anything I was doing.  My only goal would be to achieve bodily and mental holiness, which is something that any man, no matter how he is oriented, should do.

    The gay community is surprisingly tolerant of their own members who — for non-religious reasons — experience fluidity in attraction.  I can think of the director Stephen Daldry, who directed the Nicole Kidman movie “The Hours.”  After living as a gay man, he married a woman and together they had a child, and even though he claims to be totally faithful to her (and says they are sexually active) he still refers to himself as gay.  On the outside, his experience doesn’t look any different from that of a post-gay.  I think the added element of religion, which inherently says, “I think you should be doing what I’m doing,” causes the debates more than anything.

  • rybam

     Peter,

    Is the question of how typical your story is not as pertinant? Liberals may not object to the validity of your story per se but do have a problem with giving it weight it does not deserve when it comes to formulating models of sexuality. Certainly for evangelicals to present your experience as the “truth” on the sexuality debate (certainly any gay man whose been around will recognise familiar cliches invoked about sexuality – there were zionists baptists handing out “The Gay Who Found The Way” tracts at +Gene’s Eucharist in Glasgow which featured the usual promiscuity, father issues, messed up as a child therefore became a homosexual etc tropes). If your experience is exactly as you’ve described it -as I have no problem accepting -but there are 100 born that homosexuals for every one of you, then is that really much of a victory for the conservative/evangelical model of sexuality? I remember you discussing the Scottish Episcopal Church’s listening day on sexuality and questioning the amount of ex-gays that were attending (although as I think you know this day was entirely anonymous, so the lack of data on it is unsuprising and hardly sinister); wouldn’t giving more emphasis to unrepresentative voices than common experience actually be a quite significant intellectual error, irrespective of one’s thoughts on the morality of homosexual practise?

     

  • Jay and Rybam, thanks for your latest comments.

    Jay, I think I agree with you that the aim isn’t to be “straight” but rather to live a life of holiness. You might be right in the suggestion that it is the religious dimension of stories of change that causes conflict, but why should that be? Is it because when a secularist who denies a higher power chooses to change their life arrangements, then that implies a personal choice, but when someone claims some form of divine intervention he or she is making paradigmatic claims that impinge upon someone else’s worldview? This I think is the problem many people have with what I have to say, that the spiritual element of my testimony has implications on their life and perspectives that the testimony of someone who changes, but simply claims to do so through personal choice, does not.

    Rybam (what is your name by the way), you raise a good point, and one that I intend to tackle in another post shortly. Let me say now that I am not one of those conservatives who claim that everybody can change. Rather, my experience is that everyone who brings their brokeness to God does find healing, but sometimes that healing is the ability to live with the dissonance of their wounds. I’ve come to this conclusion both through pastoral observation, but also through accepting theologically what I believe is the proper Scriptural anthropology, that labels of “gay” and “straight” and what it’s about, and that to try and become “straight” isn’t the goal of any journey of wholeness (and indeed since the Bible makes no such demands upon a person, the failure to become “straight” often leads to disillusionment).

  • rybam

     Thanks for that Peter. I’m ryan (as featured on multiple scottish episcopal blogs and Facebook!)and rybam I fear does not translate well outside of glasgow.  It is perhaps stressing that much of my support for gay lib is largely on human rights grounds; certainly I have known (sadly) more than a few evangelical/conservitives who would (unbliblically) have regarded you as just a big a poof or pervert as any active homosexual. I think many ex/post gays would have been as disgusted by the Christian contribution to, say, the section 2A debate as I was.  I also tend not to believe in Elim/Florida style miraculous healings of any sort, but I’d imagine people who do would find changing someone from gay to straight as very small beer when compared to raising people from the dead (which they claim to do too).

  • david

    Hi Peter,  this is a little off topic but I thought it might interest you or the folk at AM (who don’t seem to have an email address anymore).  

    The BBC Forum on 28th September had an HIV epidemiologist who was wanting to say that political and PC concerns were leading countries to not target their HIV detection and prevention program correctly.

    She stated that there are 2 epidemics:
    1. Sub-Saharan Africa caused by the near-ubiquitous practice of having several concurrent male-female sexual partnerships (though mostly not admitted to in society).

    2. In most of the rest of the world (Indonesia as much as the UK and Europe) associated with three groups: sex workers, intravenous drugs users, and men who have anal sex with multiple “partners”.  

    In other words AID is a behavioural problem!!!

    She said that covering this up, for political reasons, was just obscuring the problem.  I wonder if she will keep her job!?  
    You can hear it, starting at 23 minutes,  here:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/specials/1246_the_forum/page2.shtml

    • Blair

      David – just quickly I’m sure the epidemiologist you mention, has recently published a book. Can’t for the life of me think of her name though, or the book title… so not much help really…

      Peter (and rybam and Jay) – with complete predictability I’ve lots of comments, but want to make just a few.

      Peter, I think your original post is more a cogent answer to people who disagree with you (or simply slag you off or worse), than a look at where things are at in the Anglican church, but I may be wrong / unfair. Anyhow, I do think there’s a bit of a tension in your own position. You say to rybam that “Once you accept that someone who was exclusively homosexual in their attractions changed, you then undermine your own claim that your sexuality is innate and unchangeable”; but later add that you are “not one of those conservatives who claim that everybody can change”. Your honest admission does rather take the force out of your challenge, “If me then why not them?”.

      It seems to me that rybam’s point about “how typical your story is”, is crucial. And not only how typical but also, dare I say, how significant – granted that your story is truthful, what then? One difficulty is that change in orientation does not seem to happen ‘trustably’ if you will – and as Jay said, it also happens without the person having been involved in any ex-gay or similar programme. Jackie Clune (comedian) would be another example to add to Stephen Daldry (she wrote a Guardian article about it), and in fiction so would Bob and Rose. The problem for me is, what does all this mean? You’ve experienced “a change in my sexual orientation”, I haven’t – what does that mean, how / in what framework should it be viewed? What does it mean that some folks’ orientation changes without them going near an ex-gay programme, while others struggle within such programmes and their attractions don’t shift a jot? That ex-gay prorgammes are superfluous? That God works outside of them as well as inside? Am being flippant as I don’t have a good answer.

      Meanwhile, I know I’ve said this before, but Peter your original post doesn’t address the argument that a close reading of the Biblical texts usually cited, can raise reasonable doubts about the conservative position – i.e. it’s not always a matter of ‘pro-gays’ experience trumping ‘conservatives’ Scripture. And at the risk of just nit-picking, it could be thought odd that you criticise pro-gays / liberals for relying on “human reasoning and experience” and an “experience sourced anthropology”. For you to insist on your story is surely also to rely on experience to some degree.
      Anyway, to bed… I’m sure that’s more than enough.
       
      in friendship, Blair

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