#9 Are gay, lesbian, transgender & straight people fundamentally different kinds of people?

Note:  As detailed elsewhere, children’s art invokes the curiosity, wonder, and “beginner’s mind” that makes for an especially productive conversation across difference. “As children we fall in love with the wonder of being alive,” teaches Tsoknyi Rinpoche. What would it mean to regain that kind of curiosity and wonder? 

It is not uncommon in the LGBT-RC conversation to hear this kind of a question:

  • “If the world changed and [religious conservative] churches said you could only be worthy if you married a man. Would that be ‘workable’ for you?”
  • “If the rules were reversed and the leaders of the church told you that you, as a man, were expected to only have sexual relations with another man would that be acceptable to you?…Would there be a space for you in that plan?”
  • “Let’s say the church said every member had to be in a same-sex partnership….And that heterosexuals would have to stop heterosexual behavior of any sort. They could not express their love or attraction to the opposite sex, because God said so…could you completely ignore your biological nature to be drawn to the opposite gender?”

For me, this kind of a Flip-it-Backward question functions pretty powerfully as an invitation towards empathy, encouraging those who do not experience same-sex attraction to consider how it might sound or feel for others to hear the Judeo-Christian imperative towards man-woman marriage.

Other times, however, this question comes up as a kind of definitive Check Mate, containing an implicit assertion of how completely unfeasible (and silly) religious conservative expectations, norms and teachings can seem to be for “LGBT people.”

And that’s where another related curiosity comes up for me. How fundamentally different are we as “gay” and “straight” people?  Could it be that we’re not on the same page in the LGBT-RC conversation about how fundamentally different (or similar) we are – as ‘kinds of people’? And if so, would this matter to the larger conversation?

Taking for granted fundamental differences. As odd as this question may sound, it’s also been asked in other domains, like race. As with sexuality, it’s most often seems taken for granted in other cultural conversations on race, ethnicity, class and gender, that we’re dealing with fundamentally different kinds of people (aka men are from mars, women from venus).

In the conversation about race, others have pushed back – saying “No” – pointing out that the degree to which our “fundamental” racial differences are simply not confirmed by genetic research (see this from the New York Times in 2000 and this from Newsweek in 2014)

Even so, racial and ethnic groups continue to be emphasized (more and more) as representing fundamentally distinct groups. And that’s how gender and sexual identity are now being discussed.

Rather than a philosophical or abstract distinction, I would argue this particular frame has significant real-life consequences.  For instance, if we are fundamentally different – then it becomes a whole lot harder to reach understanding, cooperation, collaboration across these differences (all of which seem to getting harder and harder in America right now).

If we are not fundamentally different, maybe all that stuff gets easier too?

Then again, depending on our worldview, these fundamental differences may be crucial.  So often when progressives talk (about race, gender & sexual orientation), I get a sense (of an underlying narrative) that the different demographics are seen in their worldview as representing “fundamentally different kinds of people.”

 And when (religious) conservatives talk about the same things, it’s not hard to pick up the opposite sense – that the different demographics are seen in their worldview as representing “fundamentally similar people.” [By conservatives, I’m not talking about Trumpians, mind you – who seem to go beyond what reasonable liberals or conservatives feel comfortable with. I’m talking about We Are All Children of God conservatives]
I’m interested in how our different sense of (fundamental) difference & commonality play out in this conversation – recognizing, as you’ve done nicely, how all our identity constructs (including Mormon, American, Refugee, Man, Woman, White, Black, Gay) involve social constructions to some degree.
On that level, for instance, if gay and straight folks are seen as fundamentally different, then religious conservative teaching become impossibly ridiculous for those in the gay community, as reflected in the following statement:  “LGBTQ members CANNOT go through the temple [a Mormon contemplative sanctuary]. Well, they can…IF they pretend not to be gay and not act upon it. How much turmoil would one go through by pretending to be something other than they are.” One person describes “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex” members as “Different than you or I who are fitting the hetero-normative Great Plan of Happiness.”

From this perspective, some people fit in the religious conservative teachings – and other people simply don’t.  Those latter people are, from this perspective, a very different kind of people – and so asking them to follow the same path makes very little sense. One person put it this way:  “A gay person would never ask a non-gay person to pretend they’re gay, or not to act on their attractions to people of the opposite sex.  Why do heterosexuals ask that of religious gays?”

And we’re back to the Flip-back question!  At this point, I would argue that how to interpret that question depends largely on how fundamentally different we assume gay and straight people are.

For those who see homosexual and heterosexual people as fundamentally different kinds of people, naturally a fundamentally different life path to find happiness is in order. And to question or resist or deny is just silly.

This is understandable, of course. For those who see their same-sex attraction as a fundamental and enduring feature of both their identity and the life they want, it’s completely understandable how impossible religious conservative teachings may seem to be.

But what about those who don’t see their same-sex attraction in this way – instead seeing it as an experience they are having?

Considering fundamentally different experiences.  Rather than seeing people as fundamentally different, how might it change to see gay and straight people as representing fundamentally different experiences?

It’s common in contemplative and mindfulness circles to invite more granular attention on experience itself – calling into question all the names, labels and judgments (good, bad and ugly) we apply to that experience.

Dating back to the Buddha’s original teachings, one key to alleviate suffering was to begin to question all these stories and judgments we add to our lives – especially those stories concerning our identity.

Rather than debating whether “this is who you really are” – and how different we are as people…imagine a conversation that simply acknowledged different experiences.

In one sense, that allows for a more universal underlying commonality of ‘who we are.’ From this perspective, African-Americans are not fundamentally different kinds of people, nor are liberals nor conservatives, nor anorexics.

Nor are gay or straight people. We are fundamentally the ‘same kind of people’ – having different kinds of experiences.

If that’s true and we are not fundamentally different people, then perhaps we do not have fundamentally different requirements – with fundamentally different requisite paths.

In this way, maybe personal degrees of freedom open up as well.  Rather than seeing only One True Path to happiness, those with same-sex attraction may have options in how to work with their sexuality, spirituality, etc.

From this vantage point, religious conservative teachings or expectations may not be so crazy or silly. And from this vantage point, the flip-back examples above are simply not equivalent. As another example, one person asked how people would feel walking away from heterosexuality:  “Why is this distinction of identity and behavior only relevant to gay people? Do you think of yourself as ‘acting’ straight? If you were told to stop ‘following through’ on your straightness, would you even know what to do?”

He continued, “I’ll take their requirements seriously when one of them takes a vow of lifelong celibacy and moves out of the residence he shares with his opposite-sex partner, just to show queer Mormons how achievable and healthy that is.”

Once again, it makes no sense to “reverse the rules” because the rules (from this perspective) never only applied to one group.  They were always – and will always apply to everyone…since the possibility is there for all to follow them (since we are all fundamentally the same kinds of people).

From this other perspective, not only is this achievable in the future, it will lend to the highest health and happiness.

The conversation to have.  It seems clear that religious conservative and LGBT communities have reached different conclusions about the degree to which they represent fundamentally “different kind of people.”

If that’s true, then can we talk about it?

For another eloquent exploration of this same terrain, check out Ty Mansfield’s “There are no [hetero]sexual members of the Church

Also relevant is Chapter 6 in a Third Space: Misrepresenting LGBT/Religious Conservative Disagreements: Pleading for an Honest Conversation about What (Really) Divides Us

Jacob Hess is the author of 13 peer reviewed articles exploring contrasting narratives of mental health and socio-political issues.  He currently directs the health non-profit All of Life which offers free online classes exploring applications of mindfulness for those facing mental health challenges. Jacob has (co)authored three books: You’re Not  as Crazy as I Thought, But You’re Still WrongOnce Upon a Time…He Wasn’t Feeling It Anymore and A Third Space: Proposing Another Way Forward in the LGBT/Religious Conservative Impasse (Disagreement Practice, Treasonous Friendship & Trustworthy Rivalry in the Face of Irreconcilable Difference). Two other projects – Red Blue Dictionary and My Science Can Beat Up Your Science, will be released this fall.  His work with Phil Neisser at State University of New York has been featured on This American Life and was recently honored by Public Conversations Project. His many wonderful writing collaborators and dialogue partners disagree in all sorts of ways with Jacob’s religious conservative views, and this essay only represents his own convictions. As a proud partner of Living Room Conversations, the Village Square and a long-term member of the National Coalition of Dialogue & Deliberation, Jacob’s life work is dedicated to making space for thoughtful, good-hearted people to find understanding (and affection) while exploring together the deepest of disagreements.

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