Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Feeding Christians to the Homophobic Lions.

Being queer and being Christian in our culture have a fair few things in common at the moment.

For example, there are people who disapprove of Christians and/or LGBT people who believe that
  • it's something people ultimately choose to be and therefore could reason themselves out of. 
  • it's a fact that reflects on one's whole personality, one's hobbies and interests and especially one's politics.
  • it's something that fills one with smugness about one's superior lifestyle. 
  • it's something that one is compelled to spread around at every opportunity, encouraging if not coercing other people to be the same. 
  • it's something that makes you a bad influence on children.
Yet queerness and Christianity are often spoken about as if they are not only mutuality exclusive identities, but as if the rights of one contradict the rights of the other.  This isn't true.

The people who argue that this is true are predominantly Christian homophobes, who would very much like it to be true.  Homophobia is becoming increasingly unacceptable and, in certain contexts, illegal. For some people, this presents all the righteous indignation of being persecuted and a sense of justification in their hatred, without anything very bad actually happening to them. Which is a bad thing for queer people and good Christians alike.

Now, there are many obvious differences between sexuality and religion, where these things come from, how likely they are to change in a lifetime and how much power we have over them.  Clearly, some religious ideas are actually wrong and we can reason them away, whereas, there is no right or wrong - nor rhyme nor reason - about who we love and how we love them.

However, all this is mostly about love that others find confusing. Love for a God who may not exist.  Love for a human being of the same gender. Some folk, who have never experienced these things themselves (and a few folk who have and wish they hadn't) find it so strange they think it must be wrong.

There are also big differences between the way that Christianity and queerness are treated within our culture.  In politics, queerness is a much less acceptable and Christianity is almost default; the Conservative Party has precisely one out homosexual MP and Nick Clegg is the very first leader of any political party to be an open atheist. Our head of State is also the head of the Church of England and there are twenty-six places in the House of Lords reserved for C of E bishops. All kinds of political events as well as legal oaths, decrees etc., invoke Christianity by default. (Historically - such when I was a kid - these privileges were much greater; Christian assembly at school every day, non-church goers banned from adoption, blasphemy laws etc.. I can't think of any other group who have lost quite so much social and political privilege, quite so rapidly.)

In popular culture, Christianity is not at all cool.  It is far more acceptable to mock Christians than gay people on TV (I mean Christians, not Churches which, like many institutions, deserve mocking and in some cases, outright condemnation). In popular entertainment, it is easier to be openly gay than Christian. In British fiction, especially television drama, Christians are almost universally aggressive, delusional zealots or effete figures of ridicule. Writers and artists continue to use Christian religious imagery combined with sexual, violent or scatterlogical imagery to make their work shocking (I realise some artists use religious imagery as part of self-expression, but it is at least often about garnering attention.)

One trouble is... how things are in the US.

To most Britons, religion in the United States is baffling, hilarious and deeply disturbing. Of course, we only hear about the extreme stuff, about TV evangelists, creationists, people who bomb abortion clinics and people who use God to justify gun ownership and capital punishment. Their laws allow people to picket funerals to shout abuse at the mourners because they think that's what God wants. They have large groups of people being persuaded that the world is about to end. And religion really really matters in US politics. Politicians talk about God all the time, in the most bizarre contexts. In the UK, politicians sometimes mention faith or Christianity specifically (e.g. "This is a Christian country."), but never ever mention the old man in the sky.

Often, Christianity in the UK is criticised as if it was operated in the same way, or had the same political power, as it does in the US (worse, a caricature of the way things are in the US). I would say that the different ways in which Christianity is understood are a particularly profound illustration of the massive cultural differences between our two countries.

Another trouble is... The Catholic Church

Not Catholics. Blaming Catholics for the considerable sins of the Catholic Church would be like blaming the people of an undemocratic country for the sins of the current administration. Sure, they could leave their country, but they love their country and anyway, that's where they grew up, where their family is and where they feel at peace.  However, senior members of the Catholic Church are still trying to wriggle their way out of responsibility for decades of covering up for and enabling child rape and other abuse. They are still spreading myths about condoms to people for whom HIV/AIDS and overcrowding are the two greatest threats to health and happiness. And they are still talking about homosexuality as if that's a worse thing, worse than all this - worse than climate change!  The Catholic Church is in big trouble, both morally and in terms of its place in the modern world.

I don't know about Catholics around the world, but British Catholics are certainly not represented at all well by their Church.  However, Catholics and their church are frequently lumped together, with Catholics assumed to be guilt-ridden prudes, obsessed with what other people get up to in the bedroom.

A third trouble is...

There are people who get very angry about Christianity - not just angry at the bad things done in Christianity's name, but angry at its very existence -  and in my experience, they're almost always people who with few natural predators when it comes to freedom and social justice.  People who genuinely think that in the UK, in 2012, calling oneself an atheist is a daring act of rebellion against society itself.

Yes yes, there are contexts, families, certain work environments, school catchment areas, where this can be genuinely uncomfortable. But atheists, agnostics and other non-religious people are not subject to nearly so much religious-based violence or harassment as even Church of England Christians, let alone other groups. This may be partly because we're not so easy to identify; there's no non-religious clothing or symbols and we don't congregate in and around prominent landmarks, but even so. My atheist church organist brother-in-law is frequently invited along to Christian events with church friends who add, "It is quite a religious thing, and we wouldn't want you to feel uncomfortable."

And then there's homophobia.

Homophobia is often presented as the preserve of religion - specifically Christianity, in most contexts within our culture - for a number of reasons. These include:

  • It's a picture that appeals to the news media, who tend to see only the word sex in sexuality. If it's Christians complaining about gay people, then that's sex and religion in the same story and if you can somehow throw politics into that mix, you've as good as struck gold!
  • We're all inclined to simplify the stories we tell about people and behaviour. Religious oppression is a much easier story to tell than the complex social, cultural, sexual and religious reasons why a proportion of the population is still homophobic.
  • If it was all down to religion, it would be much easier to sort out. 
  • If it was all down to religion, then all non-religious or not-especially-religious people could wash their hands of responsibility for homophobia.
  • Some vocal Christian homophobes talk about their homophobia if that's what their religion is all about - that bars to hate speech and discrimination against LBGT people are bars to their religious expression.  
By some queer fluke of my social circle, about half the Christians I know are gay.  The rest are a mix of egalitarians and social conservatives. Yet none of my socially conservative Christian friends or family members have ever said anything homophobic in my presence. 

As far as I can make out, none of them understand homosexuality to be some great bane on the human race. They may see it as wrong, but wrong in the same way other consensual sexual behaviour can be, like infidelity or having sex with a member of UKIP - a private wrong, and something that is between a person, their partners and their God, not something that decent people pass judgement on in polite conversation. Many of my friends are ethically vegan or vegetarian, but I don't hear them telling others that meat is murder. I think most people who object to homosexuality on religious grounds see it a bit like that; believing that this not the best way of doing things, but it's kind of up to individuals to work that out for themselves. 

This must be one reason why the Church of Scotland, having sent out 200, 000 postcards for church attendees to simply sign and be sent to the consultation on equal marriage, got a little over 10% back; either most church-goers are in favour of equal marriage or they simply have more pressing things (like poverty and deprivation at home and abroad) to concern themselves with.

This, compared to the bonafide homophobes I know. People who make lewd jokes about LGBT people, who use gayness as a insult, a mockery, who make sweeping statements about what queer people are like, the damage they do, who don't want queer people near their children and who spend a hell of a lot of the time worrying about whether anything they do might possibly be perceived as a little bit gay.  The ones I know are too polite to shout at people in the street or throw bricks through windows, but it's all in that same infected vein. 

And these people are not religious. They are people who grew up anxious about sexuality, because we have live in a world obsessed by but disgusted by sex and sexual expression. They are people who grew up anxious about gender roles and the near impossibility of fully conforming to them. They are people who grew up with a sense that love is precious in a way that means it should be rationed. They are people used to blaming perceived outsiders - pretty much any perceived outsiders - for the social and economic problems in their own lives. They are people whose humour is very heavily based on mocking other people - again, especially supposed outsiders. They are people who very easily adopt a position of victimhood in the face of changing social attitudes, which they call political correctness.

If they were religious too, they'd claim it was a position of faith and throw a few Bible verses in there (if they'd actually read the book) but it couldn't make it any worse.

I think everyone needs to get behind equality, and religious tolerance is part of this.  It would be ludicrous to make concessions to discrimination law - or indeed, common behaviourial standards of any kind - on the grounds of religion.  But Christians are not the enemy of queer people.  Homophobia, in all its weird and horrible forms, is.

I know this post is all about Christianity and a lot of the same things apply to other faiths, but there are some major differences (like Christianity's unique place in our culture and history), and Christianity is the religion I know by far the most about.


Anonymous said...

This is actually really interesting.

I find it telling that in describing American Christians, you talk about people using God to justify gun ownership and capital punishment as having an extreme position right up there with "TV evangelists, creationists [and] people who bomb abortion clinics". I find it really telling to look at the difference between how that would be viewed by an American and how that is viewed by people in the UK. I don't think there are any Americans out there (except immigrants) who think that supporting gun ownership and capital punishment is an extreme position. Even the ones who disagree aren't shocked by it. I just find it interesting to think about how differently Britons and Americans define what does and does not constitute a reasonable position.

(I don't think any Americans would agree with you that American politicians talk about God in bizarre contexts, either. Of course, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find an American who could think of a context where talking about God would be bizarre. Annoying, maybe, but not bizarre.)

This is a really insightful and surprising post, and also illustrative of a point that has nothing at all to do with what you were saying, sorry.

kethry said...

I was watching a DVD series, Diarmaid MacCulloch's history of Christianity series the other day. He's gay himself, and towards the end he talked to the vicar of St. Martin in the Fields, in Trafalgar Square about reconciling christianity and homosexuality. He said something like (and don't quote me on this cos i'm going from memory) that he thought the issue was the fact that there were no gay relationships in the bible, and that the prohibition against gay sex was more to do with indiscriminate sex, because in times of strong homophobia, lets face it, people couldn't live openly as gay so would have settle for short, temporary encounters, and that he thought that was wrong (and destructive), rather than a loving, stable relationship - which just happened to be between 2 men or 2 women.

I've seen another theory from someone who thinks that the sections of the bible to do with prohibitions against all kinds of sex (some of which society still disagrees with), is more to do with their associations with certain pagan religions that were prevalent at the time the passage was written, and the prohibitions were about keeping people away from anything associated with the paganistic orgies, than anything else, which again, is an interesting theory.

I don't think we'll ever know, and despite finding comfort in very occasionally going to church with my mother (childhood religion, I guess) and receiving an immense feeling of peace when the vicar blessed me on xmas eve, last christmas, I don't really believe in the whole christianity thing. I certainly don't believe in the bible except as a socio-cultural-vaguely-historical-collection of documents. I can see far too many fallacies in the bible for it to be treated as anything else, and I'm very very aware that you can usually find something in the bible to support your stated position.

Interesting and thought provoking post, Goldfish, thank you!

Anonymous said...

(I don't think any Americans would agree with you that American politicians talk about God in bizarre contexts, either. Of course, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find an American who could think of a context where talking about God would be bizarre. Annoying, maybe, but not bizarre.)

This one would agree, actually. But, I am also coming from a (non-immigrant) cultural background where religion is considered a very personal subject, and it's hideously rude to go around trying to cram your ideas on the matter down other people's throat's. Politicians are not helping themselves where I'm from with the increasing amount of inappropriate--and, yes, often bizarre-sounding-- God talk, unlike what seems to be the case in some other regions and (sub)cultures. It's more like this: http://satwcomic.com/the-easy-way

But, indeed, there are enough people who are OK with that behavior that they keep trying to pander to the Religious Right. And it mostly seems to be working for them, which I continue to find disturbing.

They also have trouble seating juries for death penalty cases where I'm from, so yeah. (That's also a region of Virginia--which ranks second, after Texas, in sheer numbers of executions. :/) Support for that still comes across as an extreme and unsavory position. IME, things are not much if any more uniform than looking at the entire EU together, underneath the "melting pot" overlay. A good bit of the point here.

Back to the OP, I have found the differences in perceptions and popular representations interesting, living in the UK. I also think it's a mistake to conflate Christians and homophobes; besides unfairly painting a lot of respectful-acting (not to mention queer, yes) religious people, that does help let an awful lot of hateful people off the hook.

Interesting post, overall.

Myrin said...

What an interesting and articulate and well-written and thoughtful article I agree with wholeheartedly!

I especially like how what you describe here for Britain also holds true for Germany (where I'm from; I'm sure there are other countries where it's the same but I don't live in them so I can't really tell). To stick with the example one of the above commentors made, I and everyone I know would for certain file gun ownership and capital punishment under "extreme position", just because it's not something you could even dream of having here. It's so far away from our lives and everyday happenings that we (or at least I) mostly can't comprehend them because I just go all WHAAAAAAT?!? because it's just so bizarre, as you correctly put it.

I personally may have a somewhat strange relationship with religion: I'm a Catholic but find the pope disgusting (that might sound extreme but it's accurately how I feel about him, sorry) and abhor most of the stuff the church as an institution talks about all the time. I somehow believe in god and somehow don't and I can't even explain it. I minor in theology because I love learning about religion(s) and all of my professors are lovely people with lovely views who'd prove every Christian hater out there wrong with their very down-to-earth stance on religion.
For me religion is just a very personal thing and how I think about certain groups of people doesn't have anything to do with it. I mean, seriously? Not liking someone's sexual orientation because it's written in some book? Maybe just try thinking and not blindly repeating stuff you've heard/read, gosh!

Interestingly, it's really just as you say. The people who I've heart spouting the crappiest homophobic crap ever crapped where also those who, upon hearing I stuy theology, were like "Oooooh, so you're some kind of super religious person? [I'm not.] Wouldn't have thought that of you!" So at least in my direct environment people finding gays "disgusting" aren't those you'd associate with religion at all. (I don't even understand what's their idea then. "Disgusting" seems to be the most prominent "reason" they have, but seriously? When you think about it, sex in itself can be viewed as "disgusting", what with all the body fluids and nasty sweat and sticking body parts into other body parts. Their argument is invalid.)

I'd actually planned to say something about "homosexuality" in the Old Testament - stuff I know from my studies and I've read a lot about - but I don't want to spam your comment section with exegesis and things like that (unless you want me to^^) so I'll stop now.

Elizabeth McClung said...

I was glad in the UK of LGCN, the lesbian gay christian network, as well as those which met in pubs, as many had been traumatised coming out in their church. The 'accepting chuch' wasn't and the other churches were extreme (as generally the most out of touch and two generations back thinking is in charge).

I found that homophobia went like this: Level 1: love gay presenters on BBC but make hurtful comments when talking about gays, lesbians, equal rights, ets. Level 2: a person who is drunk, and then emerges as homophobic with comments or action. Level 3: The people who 'work with' someone gay, say nothing until it is a family member or as close and then behave exactly like the most extreme homophobe, based usually on some idea of being personally betrayed, Level 4: The person who hates gays and doesn't bother to hide it - you don't need to have their sibling or pour liquor into them to get a spew of vitriol.

I agree that there is a huge level of apathy. Most people, with their assumptions try to emphasis and support a heterosexual only world view. Like the police officer we saw recently, who was corrected four times that we were not sisters but kept referring to Linda as 'your sister', or the partner who stands there, says nothing, except, 'I'm not involved' - active homophobic, or just one active and one passive. Even in the 'inclusive church' they went ballistic when a child felt god should bless gay people and wanted to make sure none of the people around the children were GAY.

Elizabeth McClung said...

Perhaps my experience with so many Christians has lead me to find that many are not vocal, but not vocal doesn't mean accepting. (tried the sound capcha and Satan came out of the voice box, soooo scary).

The Goldfish said...

Thank you all for your comments on this. :-)

Chordatesrock - I don't mean to suggest that all these positions are equal - clearly, acts of random violence are far more serious than the ideas people have. But, while some people support capital punishment in the UK (gun ownership is not an issue at all), I have never heard it argued for from a religious perspective here. In fact, I've always heard religious groups argue against it; "What you do unto the least of men, you do unto me" and so forth. I'm not saying that's the correct theological interpretation, but that's what I hear.

Kethry - I think the history of homophobia in Christianity is probably as complex as the history of homophobia in the Western world. There have been times when it's not been an issue - there have even been Christian marriages between men. In the Bible, the only explicit condemnation of homosexuality is in Leviticus, at a time when the Hebrews were in dire straits and extremely anxious about bodily fluids (so much time spent on menstruation, but other discharges to) probably partly because of infection control, partly because of energy spent on something not completely essential to survival and procreation. But then a few chapters later there's David and Jonathon who defy the wrath of a king to be together, love each other intensely, fall into one another's arms and kiss... It's not my book, so it's not mine to interpret, but I think Christianity and homosexuality have been like that ever since - as it is with women's rights, somewhat off and on!

Urycon - As I understand it, the death penalty only happens in certain states anyway, so I presumed at least some people were against it. I do find the religious difference stuff fascinating, and I suppose heartening that out of 200 million people, there is some variation.

Myrin, it has also been my experience that people who are homophobic are frequently suspicious of, if not hostile to, religious people. I think because both identities are considered somewhat "soft" - the stereotype of the gay man (because when such people think of gay people, they almost always think of men) being weak and unmasculine, and the stereotype of the Christian being a do-gooder, love-thy-neighbour, turn-the-other-cheek type (which to me sounds just fine, but not so much to others).

The Goldfish said...

Elizabeth, nice to see you here.

I think like all prejudice, there's a lot of variation and complexity. Often on TV depictions, there are low-level bigots who make crass jokes but can be completely reformed with a single revelation (their kid is gay or whatever) or there are absolutely vile bigots who are deeply unpleasant in every way and will never change, and nothing in between.

My parents are homophobic, and it's extremely complicated. I know they feel very anxious about the whole thing (my sexuality, which they are aware of, adds another complication). They say different things in my presence at different times and they most certainly disapprove of the people they regard as bigots, apparently unaware of how they come across.

But they did worry for my nephew when he was a baby and my sister & her partner had a gay male friend living in their spare room for a few months. They really did have this idea that this young man was some kind of menace to the child. I don't think they expected abuse, but rather felt that he had magic gay powers that could somehow make the baby turn gay... I'm pretty sure they guy in question was oblivious to this concern (I really hope so!), and as a pansexual woman, I am apparently completely safe as major figure in the life of my nephew and niece.

I wonder if having a male partner keeps my magic powers in check, or women just don't have those powers, I really don't know...