Tuesday 17 April 2012

Ex gay, post gay and London buses

Those of us in North Britain seem to have been spared the incessant bus wars which rumble on down south. (Although we do have our exciting native sports of chucking bricks at them or watching them slalom around the tram works in Auld Reekie.) No arguments about bendy buses. No exchanges about the existence or non existence of God. Just ads urging us to see pandas or the latest holiday offering from Hollywood.

But the banning of the above bus ad by Boris Johnson raises interesting questions, not just about free speech, but about what precisely is being objected to here. I'll put aside the free speech issues here and just concentrate on the substance of the objections. Is the objection to a type of therapy or to the very idea that identities may change? Or is this, as I suspect, another one of those totemic issues, such as same sex marriage, where the nuances of the specific case are swept away in the rush to support one side or another?

The usual gloss is that this is an advert advocating the 'gay cure': psychological therapy to cure homosexuality. But it doesn't actually say that. So we're left with two possibilities: either the organizations which promote the advert are so identified with this therapy that the ad in promoting them promotes the therapy; or that the wording of the ad clearly implies the therapy.

Turning to the first possibility, as a Catholic, I've no particular brief in supporting either Core Issues (which comes very much from an evangelical Protestant background) or Anglican Mainstream (which represents a conservative strand of Anglicanism). Anglican Mainstream certainly isn't exclusively or even primarily concerned with 'reparative' therapy or even homosexuality: its remit is rather that general conservative/liberal struggle that is taking place in the Anglican Communion. Core Issues certainly does claim to work

with people who voluntarily seek to change from a “gay” lifestyle to a gender-affirming one. This is sometimes referred to as a “sexual re-orientation” process.

On the other hand

Homosexuality isn't a 'disease' so we're not looking for a 'cure'. (here)

Focusing on Core Issues, then, there seem to be two sorts of possible objections: a) that the idea of exploring identity particularly with a view to not identifying as gay is in principle wrong; and b) that whilst the exploration of identity is, in principle, not wrong, in practice, the methods used by Core Issues are objectionable. So far as I can see from a google search on the web and on my 'must go to' blog on such issues (Peter Ould), the main objection to Core Issues as an organization seem to be the one based on principle rather than specific practice. Indeed, the article at Wikipedia changes the Core Issues wording on its website in a significant way. Wikipedia has:

The group purports to offer educational 'therapeutic support' and counseling for homosexuals, with a view to changing their "homosexual behavior and feelings".

The actual Core Issues wording referenced in those quotes has:

Another thing people say is that in seeking, or offering help to those seeking to change homosexual behaviour and feelings we 'pathologise' such individuals. It might infact be that we are in danger of pathologising society when we claim that individuals unappy with homosexuality have somehow absorbed negative societal values.(Here, my emphasis.)

There is a significant difference between an organization which seeks to change behaviour and feelings, and one which seeks to help individuals who want to change behaviour and feelings.

So while I don't have enough specific knowledge of either organization to rule out the possibility that we are dealing here with bodies whose response to homosexuality is some modern analogy of witch pricking and the rack, I can't see any evidence that this is really the case. Given that, what is the objection, in principle, to a counselling process which offers a) individuals a chance to explore their sexual identity; and b) support for a desired change in that identity?

Whatever your final views in this area, there's a lot to be said for the three tiered distinction suggested by Mark Yarhouse between sexual attraction, orientation and identity. (And even this may be insufficiently complex: are all attractions transparent and self identifying? What is the precise phenomenological difference between liking someone of the same sex and finding them sexually attractive? In short, where does the sexual end and a broader erotic begin? Quiet Riot Girl seems to be mulling over this in the comboxes here.) One may have (occasional) homosexual desire, or may have (predominantly) homosexual desires and thus an orientation, or one may have a homosexual identity. I think the key jump here is between orientation and identity: just because I have predominant or exclusive homosexual desires, does it follow that I have a gay identity? (An interesting piece on the way one person changed identities here.) 

Given these distinctions, it seems to be the wording 'ex gay' and 'post gay' that are the root of the objections here. 'Ex gay' does, as a term, seem to be closely identified with reparative therapy. (Although it's hard to see why it has to be.) But 'post gay' doesn't. It either refers to active homosexuals who reject gay identity on the queer theory grounds of the general fluidity of identity, or to those such as Peter Ould who reject such an identity on the grounds that their (non fluid, God given) identity does not depend on their orientation. More to the point here, why should anyone object to the idea that identities (as opposed to orientations) do change?

I don't much like public sloganizing and I certainly don't like the idea that there is a medical cure for homosexual attraction. But we are existing in a period when a blind commitment to essentialism in sexual identity is becoming the unthinking norm and where even such a mild challenge to that norm as embodied in the bus ads has become 'unacceptable'. Sartre's term 'bad faith' describes the dehumanizing effect of embracing such rigid identities well:

Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tight-rope-walker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually re-establishes by a light movement of the arm and hand. All his behavior seems to us a game. He applies himself to chaining his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seem to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe. There is nothing there to surprise us. The game is a kind of marking out and investigation. The child plays with his body in order to explore it, to take inventory of it; the waiter in the cafe plays with his condition in order to realize it. This obligation is not different from that which is imposed on all tradesmen. Their condition is wholly one of ceremony. The public demands of them that they realize it as a ceremony; there is the dance of the grocer, of the tailor, of the auctioneer, by which they endeavor to persuade their clientele that they are nothing but a grocer, an auctioneer, a tailor. A grocer who dreams is offensive to the buyer, because such a grocer is not wholly a grocer. Society demands that he limit himself to his function as a grocer, just as the soldier at attention makes himself into a soldier-thing with a direct regard which does not see at all, which is no longer meant to see, since it is the rule and not the interest of the moment which determines the point he must fix his eyes on (the sight "fixed at ten paces"). There are indeed many precautions to imprison a man in what he is, as if we lived in perpetual fear that he might escape from it, that he might break away and suddenly elude his condition.

(Being and Nothingness.)

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