Published November/December 2015 in Connection
You and Your Health is a three-volume set focusing on concerns and questions related to health. I don't remember the first time I pulled it off the library shelf; but, when I did, I did so surreptitiously to avoid being asked what I was reading. I know I looked at it several times during high school and college. Browsing through it was not a good experience. Before I look at the article, I have two questions.
First, who is most likely to pick up a reference book to do research on homosexuality? I hope you answered, Someone wondering about his or her own experience.
The follow-up question would be what that person might hope to find there? I hope you said, Helpful information on the subject.
This was why I turned to this reference book.
I should have known from looking at the general index that I was in for a disappointment. Under the heading homosexuality, there were two subheadings: causes and warnings. In order for you to get a good sense of what reading this article was like for me, I'm going to take you through most of the entry.
The first sentence reads, “As a teenager you need to be warned against the possibility of becoming involved in a sentimental crush with someone of the same sex.”
That sentence is a little bit ambiguous. Is it a warning about initiating a sentimental crush or being lured into one? Any confusion was quickly cleared up. The article immediately moved in the direction of caution about being lured by the homosexual.
Remember, I was in my teens and early twenties looking for helpful information when I read:
“A teenager should be on guard whenever someone of his own sex, perhaps under the guise of helpfulness or friendliness, begins to express a sentimental interest. Usually, such a person is a few months or even a few years older than the one being approached. The sentimental interest is sometimes expressed by the writing of love notes, sometimes by the request to sleep in the same bed, sometimes by the expression of jealousy if the person being ‘courted’ spurns the other’s advances.
“A conversation which becomes centered on the sexual functions or a gesture by which someone of the same sex attempts to explore the intimate parts of one’s body should cause a young person to repulse the proffered friendship and, if necessary, seek the help of an older person in planning a proper means of self-protection.
“The telltale evidences are quite clear; and, when they appear, they should be warning enough to keep the teenager from falling into the trap set by someone who identifies himself as a friend but whose motives are to find a partner for homosexual intimacies.”
There you have it. In the 1971 edition of You and Your Health, instead of reading something that might have helped me, I read about all the tricks I might use to seduce a friend.
The shaming continued as the writer expressed puzzlement over how this blemish could exist.
“This development of a personal fondness between two women (lesbianism) or between two men (homosexuality) is one of the perversions of love which blemishes society today. How is it that two men can relate themselves to each other as sweethearts? Or how can two women become so fond of each other that they lose their natural desire to be courted by a man? Such attachment is difficult to understand.”
The author’s difficulty to understand the nature of this phenomenon was not lost on me. I had been asking myself those how-is-it-that questions for a decade already. While I could deal with the author’s bewilderment, it was his authoritative opinion that I was a blemish that wounded me deeply.
The only other reference I had for being a blemish was a Biblical one. I knew that in the Old Testament no blind or lame man, no hunchback or dwarf, no man with a mutilated face or crushed testicle could “come near to offer the Lord’s offering.” As well, I knew the little lambs were rejected as offerings to the Lord because of some defective blemish.
Intellectually, I understood that these descendants of Aaron were not permitted to serve in the temple with a blemish because they were representing God and their defect marred that representation. Emotionally, however, it was very hard not to feel the sting of this exclusion personally.
The article did touch on some of the typical explanations of cause: the failure to develop normally; a traumatic experience at an important stage of development – the sudden death of a mother; being overly fond of a parent– a “mamma’s boy” or a “daddy’s girl”; or being introduced to masturbation by someone of my own sex.
Given my background, I could see myself in all of these categories. Many of us could! These explanations were not uncommon for the time and are still expressed today. The list could be stretched the length of my arm. I won’t elaborate on causes now since I will address them later.
I was not encouraged as I continued reading. “The tragedy of homosexuality” the article stated, “is that it unfits a person for normal adult living.” This comment was followed by a gloomy prognosis.
“Once a person’s sexual responses have become conditioned to those of his own sex, a normal adjustment in marriage is difficult if not impossible. The cure is difficult. Some psychiatrists go so far as to say the cure of homosexuality is impossible beyond the age of 21 or 22 years. And this should not be taken to mean that the cure is easy before the age of 22. The sexual responses are powerful; and once they have become conditioned to one sex or the other, the conditioning tends to control one’s conduct thereafter.”
As I said, I don’t remember when I first read this, but I would have been closing in on the best-before-date with respect to fixing my orientation. Whether one accepts the cause-and-affect link between homosexuality and trauma in the formative years of childhood or not, this was the one piece of insight I should have listened to. (It should be noted that many LGBT people testify to no traumatic events in childhood.) Had I listened to it, I would not have spent so much time, money, and emotional energy trying to change my orientation. Had the church listened to its own advice, it would have made fewer mistakes in the future with respect to reparative therapy. However, acknowledging that orientation “tends to control one’s conduct thereafter” is not a sentiment people like to hear.
As I approached the end of the article, there was a feeble call for compassion: “A person who manifests homosexuality is necessarily a poorly adjusted person who actually deserves pity.”
The hint of pity was immediately followed by a final kick in the gut. “But,” the article continued, “…in manifesting pity, we dare not allow the influence of such a person to endanger the welfare of an innocent young person.”
I was that young person! I was looking for answers! Instead, I read about what others should do to protect themselves from me. “A teenager,” I read, “should associate with boys and girls near his own age and participate in a wholesome manner in mixed social activities. Following this advice should ensure safety from the influence of someone with homosexual tendencies.”
If this were not enough, there was a highlighted box at the edge of the page reiterating the warning signs. In bold letters, I read:
TEENAGERS - BEWARE OF THE “FRIEND” OF YOUR OWN SEX WHO…
• Is too “nice” to be true.
• Wants to spend time with you alone.
• Proposes that you be roommates and sleep in the same bed.
• Writes you love notes as to a sweetheart.
• Directs the conversation to intimate matters.
• Wants to touch the private parts of your body.
THESE ARE SOME OF THE TRADEMARKS OF HOMOSEXUALITY.
This article was not written for me, it was written about me. More precisely, it was written to warn others of some dark and sinister caricature of me.
While I can give the author some leeway, considering when this was published, most of it troubles me. My criticism of this article is similar to that of many appearing in church publications since then.
First, this article perpetuates the myth that sexual orientation is synonymous with shadowy figures that endanger anyone within their reach. Without saying so directly, the article equates sexual orientation with pedophilia. Pedophilia is a phenomenon that crosses all orientation boundaries and should be addressed as such.
This is not to say that some same-sex attracted people have not sought companionship in the shadowy ways described in this article. My criticism here, however, is that there is no effort to understand the cause-and-effect link of that sad reality. No one asks how we get from a traumatized child to an adult who furtively seeks out others for “homosexual intimacies.”
Such a shadowy figure is not created in a vacuum. There is cause and effect in operation here, but this is never examined. In this article, this adult simply emerges from the shadows a predator because he is homosexual.
From my own experience, I can illustrate how this monster-creating apparatus might work.
Even though I was at a Christian school surrounded by Christian friends and immersed in Christian activities, I was beginning to compartmentalize my life in unhealthy ways. At the same time, being attracted to the same-sex did not diminish my God-given need for human companionship and intimacy.
What happens when human need meets with years of psychological isolation? What happens when a naïve plain-reading of Romans chapter one combines with the shame-filled message in You and Your Health?
Sadly, I would suggest, a person is set up for the kind of experience that moves one to the margins of society. It is not sexual orientation that creates a “poorly adjusted adult.” It is the shaming, self-loathing, and secrecy that does this. This is what moves people to the margins. It is on those margins that despair and loneliness flourish, and from those margins desperate choices are made.
As I said, I was psychologically moving toward those margins. While nothing happened in high school, the older I got the greater the potential there was for me to cross some line. Had I crossed a line because of my increasing loneliness and been caught seeking homosexual intimacies, I would have become a case-in-point example for You and Your Health. All of that could have happened with little thought given to how I got to that point. I would have been expelled from school and become an item of gossip whispered about in dormitory hallways.
While I am describing a hypothetical situation, others have not been so lucky. Even today, simply being known to have homosexual tendencies is enough to destroy a reputation. After forty years of watching the church respond to situations like this, I have noticed one thing consistently absent from the discussion. There is little sense of culpability on the part of the church for creating the monsters it portrays. Once created and exposed, these monsters are vilified. The humanity of the person is lost in uniformed and abstract discussion.
When I think about my experience with Romans chapter one and You and Your Health, the expression “cognitive dissonance” comes to mind.
Cognitive dissonance is defined as the mental distress experienced by someone who holds to or is confronted by two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. While that may define cognitive dissonance, it fails to capture the experience of the LGBT Christian who takes his or her faith seriously.
Sexual orientation is more than conflicting beliefs, ideas, or values. We are talking about a personal experience at the level where identity is formed – where bone and marrow meet. Conflict at this level is not cognitive dissonance. This is where insanity is made. This is the stuff that has driven people I have known to take their own lives – to kill themselves.
This article offered a hollow call for pity, intensified my shame, and presented the most dismal picture of my future. Instead of enlightening people, material like this has contributed to the systematic lack of accurate information within the church about the complex nature of sexual orientation. My church has been feeding on this diet for decades.
There were two other consequences for having read this article and Romans one.
Although both seemed to talk about my experience on some level, their description of homosexuality was so unlike my experience that it prevented me from naming what I was dealing with. Because I was not the sinister character they depicted, my denial and confusion was prolonged.
The You and Your Health article also caused me to second guess all of my interactions with my male friends. How was I to feel when a ‘younger’ friend asked to be my roommate? When I expressed a kindness toward a male friend, was I to question every motive? What was I to think when I enjoyed any physical contact from a friend or worse yet – longed for more?
As well, both articles created the psychological environment which cultivated my habit of burying my feelings and needs. Except for people who knew me very well, I was becoming emotionally unreadable. Even by the end of high school, I had learned to ignore my needs and understate everything I felt – my joys as well as my sorrows. Many friends had told me that there was always something mysterious and unreachable about me. Even for my closest friends, I was an enigma. “There was something otherworldly about you,” I was once told.
They were right about my being an enigma but wrong about my being otherworldly. I was very much a part of this world, but I was becoming emotionally numb. I was a young Christian slowly disconnecting from myself and others and growing increasingly afraid of who I was in the world.
All of this I carried with me as I continued my education and signed up for a great adventure.