Over at First Things, Michael Hannon has a long essay arguing that we ought to move beyond our dependency on ‘sexual orientation’. He writes:
“These [conservative] Christian compatriots of mine are wrong to cling so tightly to sexual orientation, confusing our unprecedented and unsuccessful apologia for chastity with its eternal foundation. We do not need “heteronormativity” to defend against debauchery. On the contrary, it is just getting in our way.”
I’m on board with the general useleness of ‘orientation’ as a category for self or moral reflection. In fact, I would go a step beyond Hannon and raise questions about the entire “identity” regime, as it tends to be less useful for getting about in the world than people sometimes think. The language of character, virtue, vice, desires, acts, intentions, obligations, goods, and the rest of the forgotten language of moral analysis is still abundantly fruitful for self-knowledge and for understanding society.
Hannon commends the old way of analyzing sex in relation to its created ends, but also seems to want to hold on to all the language of identities: “I will have all sorts of identities, to be sure, especially in our crazily over-psychoanalytic age. But at the very least, none of these identities should be essentially defined by my attraction to that which separates me from God.” One way of ensuring that doesn’t happen might be to not fragment ourselves into a bundle of mini-“identities” to begin with.
I have other worries, though, about Hannon’s essay. For instance, while he notes as an aside that heterosexuality and homosexuality are mutually interdependent as categories, he deploys his strongest rhetoric against ‘heterosexuality’ and ‘heteronormativity.’ (Or so it seems to me, anyway. Your reading may vary.)
There’s a way in which Hannon’s understanding is almost right: I have argued that in evangelical circles the rampant and often unnoticed sexual idolatry starting in the 1960s undermined our ability to negotiate and respond to the challenges of homosexuality that arose within our community the past two decade. So I have a lot of sympathy for the notion that an overwhelming focus on other people’s sinful desires blinds us to the troubles in our own lives.
But it was not a peculiar attachment to ‘heterosexuality’ that stood beneath this idolatry, so much as a pursuit and defense of sexual pleasure within marriage as an apologetic against the sexual liberation movement. The vice is no more laudable, of course, and has produced its own harvest of rotten fruit. But if we are to find the solution to conservative Christianity’s troubles, it is important to appropriately identify the disease. Hannon’s suggestion that the problem is an attachment to ‘heteronormativity’ both fails as a diagnosis and misconstrues how identity formation happens in each respective ‘orientation.’
Consider Hannon’s opening claim: “Nevertheless, many conservative-minded Christians today feel that we should continue to enshrine the gay–straight divide and the heterosexual ideal in our popular catechesis, since that still seems to them the best way to make our moral maxims appear reasonable and attractive.” Hannon expands this with the bit I led off with above: that these conservative-minded Christians are “wrong to cling so tightly to sexual orientation…”
If by ‘heterosexual ideal’ Hannon means the proposition that marriage is between a man and a woman, then yes, conservative-minded Christians are clinging tightly to that. If it means that the *norm* for human sexual desires is that they are brought into conformity with the notion that marriage is between *one* man and one woman, and habituate themselves (as much as possible) so that those desires are *stably directed* toward one’s spouse or future spouse, then yes, conservative-minded Christians are invested in that too.
But ironically, it is many of those ‘conservative-minded Christians’ who have been the loudest objecting to the very ‘orientation’ conception that Hannon wants to toss overboard. The notion of a “gay Christian” is controversial among many evangelical circles, for instance, not because they are willfully ignorant that some people have stable desires toward members of the same-sex–as the laughable misreading at Slate managed to suggest today–but because they worry about how those desires are further integrated person’s character and self-understanding by incorporating the ‘gay’ nomenclature into their self-description. That’s Hannon’s reason for being worried about it, too. But the irony is that the same people that Hannon would accuse of being wrapped up in being “heteronormative” who are most likely to be on board with his concerns.
Or maybe not. To be honest, I have no idea which heterosexuals Hannon has in mind in his critique of them or how exactly their heterosexuality breeds the vices that he attributes to it. For instance, Hannon writes, “The most pernicious aspect of the orientation-identity system is that it tends to exempt heterosexuals from moral evaluation.” I have to confess that sentence made me laugh. Anyone who has spent a day on an evangelical college campus talking with students would realize that there is no temptation to exempt heterosexuals from moral evaluation. The disputes and arguments that the Christian community has seen over the past year about “modesty” are only one small part of the incredibly stringent moral code that exists within the evangelical world about any form of sex. Guys spend hours in their “accountability groups” rehearsing the litany of struggles around pornography and those who venture into sexual activity often have to keep it under wraps from peers and friends. All this has troubles of its own, to be sure. But the notion that conservative Christians who embrace the orientation paradigm are laissez-faire about their own sexual morality simply does not fit the facts.
Hannon goes further, though, and suggests that “the self-declared heterosexual” who makes themselves a member of the “normal group” displaces Jesus as the norm for moral reflection and so is the “height of folly.” He goes on: “But heterosexuality, in its pretensions to act as the norm for assessing our sexual customs, is marked by something even worse: pride, which St. Thomas Aquinas classifies as the queen of all vices.”
Now, it may be the case that a self-identified heterosexual allows their heterosexuality to displace Jesus as the norm for moral reflection. The question, though, is whether that displacement is necessarily tied to the conceptual framework of heterosexuality. That is a much harder argument to make, and I don’t think Hannon has succeeded at it, precisely because he overlooks the differences between how “heterosexual” and “homosexual” function as identifiers in their respective communities.
Hannon’s claim emphasizes those who take ownership of the “heterosexual” label: his polemic is against those who are “self-proclaimed” as or people who are “identifying as” heterosexuals. But few heterosexuals think of their own sexual identity the way those with same-sex attraction tend to think of themselves *as* gay or lesbian. Their majority sexuality is simply the tacit backdrop on which people live out their lives rather than that-by-which they are differentiated.
My friend John Corvino will sometimes talk about heterosexual folks who take a line akin to “it’s fine if gay folks do their think, so long as they don’t flaunt it in public.” Only “flaunt it” happens to mean holding hands, or kissing, or doing what opposite-sex couples do in public all the time. Many heterosexual folks don’t feel the asymmetry, as we are unaware of the extent to which sexuality structures our lives outside the bedroom. But that also means the emergence of heterosexual desires in a person lacks the same kind of formative power that the emergence of opposite-sex desires often has. I doubt most “heterosexuals” would ever recognize themselves in the term, at least not without someone who makes it a question for them: they don’t need to, precisely because being a part of the “normal group” frees them from the burden of self-ascription.
Which means that if such a pride does exist within heterosexuals, it must either be so tacit and structural that it is invisible to them and so outside the boundaries of conscious repentance or it is not structurally tied to their “heterosexuality.” The latter is more likely. The notion that pride necessarily accompanies “heterosexuality” is a difficult argument to make. If orientation as a category *does* exist for ethics, then on the traditional Christian view there is nothing *per se* wrong with being ‘a heterosexual,’ if by that we mean ‘a person whose sexual desires are generally stable in being directed toward the opposite sex under certain conditions.’ There are other questions to ply toward those desires, as I noted above conservative Christians so frequently do. But as the Catholic catechism would put it, the sexual inclination toward the same-sex–whether stable and recurrent or not–is itself “objectively disordered.” Heterosexuals may be prideful, and may be proud that they do not have same-sex attraction, but the pride has little to nothing to do with the substance of their “orientation” or its role in identity or social formation.
In fact, “heterosexuality” only seems to dethrone Jesus as the norm if we think that Jesus’s life and ministry somehow subverts the normative (creation) order of opposite-sex sexual desires, even if we don’t then describe those desires as an “orientation.” The singleness of Jesus does not put same-sex desires and opposite-sex desires on the same moral plane. It is, after all, not simply sexual acts that Christ suggests he is interested in, but the whole stable of thoughts, intentions, and dispositions that make up our inner life. These also need reformation, to be brought to conformity to the witness of the Gospel not only in the manner that we have them but also in their objects.
Recurring sexual desires of any sort are not themselves a sign of holiness: but recurring sexual desires toward a member of the same-sex raise questions that such desires toward a member of the opposite sex do not. Eliminating the aspect of “recurring stability” from those desires–or what has come to be known in shorthand as our ‘orientation’–doesn’t eliminate the deeper “heteronormativity” implied in the logic of Scripture. If nothing else, Jesus has a bride, and there is no understanding his life as the pattern for our lives without grasping the deep, mutually fulfilling stable and recurring desires at the heart of their union.
“Heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” need to be done away with. Hannon and I agree on this. But the reasons we provide for tossing them overboard still matter, and we ought be careful what we send over with them.