Some time ago I wrote a massive 3500+-word post ‘Okay to be gay?’, which I naively hoped would cover all the major points in the debate about homosexuality and Christianity. It didn’t, not by a long chalk.
So here’s a follow-up to address some (not all) of the issues I forgot to include – or simply wasn’t aware of – first time round. But please do read the other post as well to get the fuller picture.
And firstly, just to answer the title question posed by that post – yes, it’s surely okay to be gay. Indeed, I don’t see how one who finds him- or herself to be gay can do anything about it. There seems to be little evidence that trying to change one’s sexuality or orientation is ever successful (or indeed psychologically healthy) in the long-term, and plenty that it isn’t. The collapse of the leading ex-gay ministry Exodus in 2013 testifies fairly strongly to this.
The big question then is not whether it’s okay to be gay, but whether it’s ever okay to do gay – to act out of homosexual orientation; to partake in actively sexual gay relationships. And this question is far more complex and difficult.
What is homosexuality?
One of the big issues is that we do not have a time-honoured consensus view on what manner of phenomenon homosexuality is; how we are to classify or understand it.
Is sexual orientation an innate attribute which can’t (and shouldn’t) be changed, or is it a disorder or condition like, say, OCD that can (and perhaps should) be overcome or at least managed? Or both, or neither?
For a long time, and up until comparatively recently, homosexuality was classified as a sexual deviation or even perversion, generally attributed to psychological disorder or regression. Until 1974, homosexuality was placed at the top of a list of sexual disorders or deviations (now termed paraphilias) including fetishism, zoophilia, paedophilia, necrophilia, coprophilia etc.
Classified in such a way, it’s of course hard to see homosexuality as ever being morally acceptable or socially ‘normal’. And if we do accept it as in any way normal, the argument goes that we open the floodgates to any or all of the other paraphilias becoming normalised (the old ‘slippery slope’/’thin end of the wedge’ argument). And while we can use the consensuality or mutuality argument against some like paedophilia or zoophilia, there are others where this doesn’t apply.
However, over the last 40 years the scientific understanding of homosexuality has shifted radically, to the extent that many experts now (rightly or wrongly) regard homosexuality as not to be classed as a paraphilia or a perversion, but as an entirely different kind of phenomenon. Thus saith Wikipedia:
“Martin Kafka writes, ‘Sexual disorders once considered paraphilias (e.g. homosexuality) are now regarded as variants of normal sexuality’. A 2012 literature study by James Cantor, clinical psychologist, comparing homosexuality with paraphilias found that homosexuality was sufficiently dissimilar from the paraphilias as to be considered an unrelated construct.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paraphilia#Homosexuality
It certainly seems to me that there is a qualitative difference between mutual adult relationships between two men or two women and any of the other paraphilias. Of course, this could simply mean that I’ve already become accustomed to homosexuality; it’s been ‘normalised’. (Though if so, this does rather tell against the thin-end-of-the-wedge argument, as it certainly doesn’t lead me to want to normalise any of the other paraphilias.)
A natural variation?
So there is now increasingly a view that same-sex orientation should be viewed more as a natural variation, somewhat akin to left-handedness (a ‘condition’ that was also viewed with great suspicion in many cultures until comparatively recently). In any population, a proportion will be left-handed, and a proportion will be homosexually oriented. Viewed in that way, the orientation itself loses many of its negative connotations.
Of course, this still doesn’t speak directly to whether homosexual practices are morally acceptable or not. It may be perfectly normal, natural and non-deviant to experience homosexual attraction, but it’s a leap of logic to assume that this makes it necessarily morally okay to enter into homosexual acts. Nonetheless, it would remove a major barrier. If the orientation or attraction itself is non-deviant, then it’s perhaps not altogether illogical to assume that the active expression of it – in an appropriate relational context – may also be acceptable.
Please note that I’m here speaking only to innate homosexual orientation, assuming such a thing exists. I do believe that it’s morally problematic for a heterosexual person to engage in homosexual sex; but then I also think it may be morally problematic for a homosexual person to engage in heterosexual sex. Both of these might arguably be ‘against nature’, as Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans.
However, a further difficulty arises in that often sexuality appears to be a spectrum rather than a binary polarity. Not everyone is either clearly hetero or homosexual; many appear to be somewhere in the middle, or a bit of both. In these cases then it’s far harder to decide what is ‘against nature’ and so what is or isn’t morally acceptable by that argument.
Another way of looking at sexual orientation is to compare it to the appetite for food. Humans have widely differing tastes in food – ‘one man’s meat is another man’s poison’. I view vinegar as an abomination and can’t understand why anyone would wish to douse their chips with something so foul-smelling. My wife loves vinegar and hates peanut butter, which I consider to be the food of the gods.
And of course there are also widely differing views on what it is morally or ethically acceptable to eat – hence the food laws in Judaism and Islam, and the requirement of vegetarianism within Hinduism. (The reasons for these prohibitions include practical matters of health and hygiene as well as religious or cultural reasons, acting as a marker of purity and belonging.)
Christianity interestingly has no such food laws or prohibitions, apart from the ban on ‘meat sacrificed to idols’, which is primarily an ethical/spiritual issue relating to what the food has been used for rather than to its basic nature.
(I mentioned the parallel between eating and sex in my earlier post on homosexuality, and suggested that Jesus’ lifting of the Judaic food laws might also indicate a possible lifting of the ban on homosexual relationships.)
However, the vast majority of us would probably agree that certain things are simply not meant to be eaten, and an appetite for them would clearly be twisted or perverse – human flesh, faeces, poison berries, ground glass. (I’d add vinegar to the list😉 )
So, if any parallel can be drawn with sexuality, the question would be whether a homosexual ‘appetite’ falls into the category of ‘a matter of taste’ (like vinegar or peanut butter), or whether it’s a matter of variable prohibition (like differing religious food laws), or whether it falls into the category of perverse (like an appetite for dung). Personally I would be inclined to put it in one of the first two categories, but it’s a moot point.
Procreation and gay marriage
Now some argue that homosexual relationships can never be classed as marriage, partly because (in their view) marriage has to include at least the possibility of procreation, of bringing children into the world. Some go further and see procreation as the primary or even sole purpose of marriage.
Yet of course some couples simply cannot have children for one reason or another – age, infertility, genetic disorders in one or both partners that would be wrong to pass on to offspring. Others could have children but choose not to, perhaps because they feel they would not be good parents, or that there are already enough people on the planet.
I do not believe that the inability or unwillingness to procreate invalidates a marriage. A childless couple can have a rich and meaningful relationship, including a sexual element, and be of great value to their communities.
And of course there is always the possibility of adoption, which I believe is a great and good calling and one which I do not believe homosexual couples should necessarily be excluded from offering.
I understand that some – not only Christians or religious people – feel that extending the definition of marriage to include homosexual relationships undermines and devalues the whole institution. I don’t share this view. I find it hard to see how allowing gay people to marry has any significant effect (detrimental or otherwise) on heterosexual marriage, the family, children, or society as a whole.
Some feel that children should be brought up by a mother and father, and that without this they miss out on vital areas of childhood development. I can see some possible validity in this concern. However, I’d argue that the vaunted ‘ideal’ is probably not fully met for the majority of children in our society, regardless of the orientation of their parents. And so long as there are significant adult figures of both genders in a child’s life, such lack can usually be made up for.
I’ll freely admit that I have no hard evidence to call on here. If you have good evidence either that children brought up by gay parents are lacking in some vital way or that they are not, please do put it forward.
Questions of conscience
The bottom line is that we just don’t know for certain what causes homosexuality (which I looked at in my previous post), or what manner of phenomenon it is. Nor do we know exactly what if any long-term effect, detrimental or positive, the normalising of homosexual relationships and acts would have on society as a whole. And I’d argue we can’t even be certain of the biblical witness, consisting as it does of a handful of somewhat scattered proof-texts subject to widely differing possible interpretations (see earlier post again).
We’re therefore all too often arguing – on either side – from speculation, popular opinion, prejudice, personal preference or just emotion. (Or of course religious dogma, which is hard to argue against – but also hard to justify).
Given that we don’t know for sure, I think we need to see it as a matter of conscience rather than of science or dogma. Which means that we should be free to disagree and dissent on this with mutual respect, not vilifying our ‘opponents’. I think there should – somehow – be room within Christ’s church both for those whose conscience leads them to support (and even conduct) gay marriages, and those who in conscience cannot. Those who support gay marriage should not be removed from church office; equally those who oppose it on grounds of conscience should not be sacked from their secular jobs or positions.
And I’d suggest that we need a large body of peer-reviewed scientific, neurological, psychological and sociological research into the causes, nature and effects of homosexuality before we can say anything more conclusive. Anyone care to take up the challenge?