Learning from the LGBT Community

Very few people today would approve of state interference in citizens’ private lives – that ship has sailed, crashed into an iceberg and happily sunk to the bottom of the deep blue sea – but in practice, when push comes to proverbial shove, there’s a lot of important decisions we’re more than willing to fob off on police and government.

There’s a strange idea that public legislation is some kind of cure for private vice – that by throwing somebody in jail, applying all kinds of intimidation and interrogation techniques, battering them over the head with the full weight of 21st Century psychobabble and welfare-waffle, you’ll stop people sinning – and they’ll thank you for it.

To be sure, this is a certain kind of concern. It’s the kind of love that wears jackboots and carries a megaphone in one hand, and a taser in the other.

Which is not to say that the rule of law isn’t fundamental, a cornerstone of conflict resolution and post-conflict peace building, a safeguard that keeps corruption and vigilantism at bay. But the rule of law should have no right to intervene in our private lives.

It is prudent to prosecute drug traffickers because their lethal and highly addictive wares are a scourge to society – but does it make sense to criminalize drug addiction? Pimping should be illegal, but does it make much sense to prosecute prostitutes, or the individuals who resort to their services? What about the illegality of producing and marketing pornography, vs actually using it?

It seems important to recognize that this difference has more to do with the kinds of offenses being committed, and the purpose of legislating against them. If a person commits sin because they hope to secure a financial reward, then harsh laws are entirely justified. The risk of penalties and the availability of socially acceptable incentives, designed to lead people towards more productive lifestyles, would convince the more rational members of society to act decently. Probably.

But a sin of weakness isn’t like that. There’s no utilitarian equation that results in the prospect of pleasure outweighing potential pain for people who abuse drugs, visit prostitutes or view pornography. Rather than transforming people’s behaviours, jail-time and penalties and fines will produce precisely the opposite result. The scrutiny of Big Brother’s presumed social concern will only encourage paranoia and stress in those of us dealing with addictive behaviours that are already an unhealthy coping mechanism for painful situations, habitual fears and loneliness.

The state is unable to offer any real help to people in these situations, even at its most compassionate and paternalistic. It isn’t capable of resolving underlying issues, nor should it be encouraged in ham-fisted attempts at reaching out, because there’s only one abiding solution – relationships built on trust, support and genuine personal compassion.

There’s a depth of humility necessary that no government sponsored psychologist (as well intentioned as many of them doubtless are) can provide, helping not from a position of authoritarian superiority but most radically, as a fellow sinner.

This is the sort of access beyond the barriers of shame and secrecy that do not violate a person’s need for privacy at their most vulnerable moments. And that’s the responsibility we are each called to assume.

Now – how can this kind of reasoning be applied when we talk about individuals who identify with non-normative sexualities? Even talking about a plurality of sexual expressions is difficult.

In order to access the levels of intimacy necessary to effect real change, we must share common ground as mutual sinners – but (governmental involvement or not) the Catholic assumption remains that “not being heterosexual is disordered”, and starting dialogue from this position has proved to be a major stumbling block.

Attraction calls us to many things – honesty, vulnerability, caring and profound love. We nakedly give of ourselves without the kinds of defense we normally reserve for the outside world, and the “Others” in it. At its most basic, love requires that we put ourselves in another person’s shoes, and walk a while.

What seems to be missing from much religious discourse that revolves around themes of disorder, ideas about personhood as somehow diminished, and allegations of abuse as the root cause of “deviancy”, is this painful failure to empathize.

And the underlying reason (given by too many people who misrepresent the Catholic argument) behind the validity of heterosexual relationships is equally reductive – it all hinges on the question, “can you make a baby together?”

As though the immense complexity of our human embodiment could be reduced to this meeting of sperm and egg, subsuming everything else about us in a powerfully reductionist manner. The idea that we are nothing more than “legacy machines”, carriers of genetic material that needs desperate propagation, is just as damaging.

Before requiring the LGBT community to engage in a titanic struggle against the very concept of being “gay”, divesting itself of a relatively young form of identity expression that’s been harshly branded as ‘troubling’, ‘superficial’ and ‘disordered’, and in its place offering the dream of ethical ennoblement and a heroic struggle against sin, Catholics must tread lightly.

We should place ourselves in a position of vulnerability, and reach out ready to learn something in the process. Nothing will change if faith communities enter dialogue while acting like patronizing conquerors, with truths to dispense and unbelievers to defeat (blind to the consequences of their actions) – we must begin as we mean to continue, as a people who have ourselves already been conquered by the love of God.

Pete Farrugia is a researcher and practitioner in the areas interfaith dialogue and community peacebuilding. He is a graduate of the University of Malta, George Mason University, and the University of Cambridge.

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