Thursday, January 26, 2012

Legislating Morality: Five Parts

PART ONE


If you missed the chance to read the last short story I wrote in my short-story-a-week year (called Conventional), that was seriously your loss. Not just because I feel it would be best for everyone in the entire world to read every word I ever write (twice)*; but also because I think Story is always a better way to make a point, since it brings you along on an emotional journey, drawing you into the protagonist's arc and (at its best) forcing you to collaborate or contend with him** in his decisions.

The one thing a story doesn't do, though, is allow you to bash somebody over the head with a message. When that happens, it stops being a story and starts being propaganda - which usually results in people getting hurt. I don't like hurting people, but I do want to get specific about a shift I've been undergoing regarding my understanding of gay rights, so I'm gonna do the next best thing and tell you my story, the one I've been living ever since Ma and Pa Barkey had a particularly enjoyable evening, roughly thirty-three years ago. 

A complete discussion of gay rights would have to involve a perfect understanding of my own internal sexual politics. This is, of course, impossible, so instead I'll focus on a few lowlights, to give you an idea of the soil in which my own sexuality grew. Without going into too much lurid detail, let's just say that at the age of six, I went over to a friend's house in the Amazon basin of Peru, South America for a sleepover. Over the course of the evening, we ended up hiding under his bed and playing one of those "oh, you-have-one-of-those-too" games that are a fairly standard part of growing up and figuring out what it means to be a human male. It all felt very exciting and, although we couldn't have said precisely why, incredibly naughty.


I doubt very much that I would have had at the time a very specific understanding of "the gay thing" - or of any kind of sexuality at all - so this experience did not make me wonder about myself along those lines. What it (and subsequent, similar experiences) did accomplish was to fill me with a vague, treacle-thick guilt so pervasive that I was to bear it forward into every single sexuality-related conversation or experience I was to have for the next twenty-three or so years.

This may sound strange to someone not raised in the meticulously-preserved pseudo-innocence of an overseas, protestant missionary compound, but this shame was such a real and pressing part of my sexual identity for so long that it kind of baffles me how I can write of it so easily now, in such a public forum as the internet.

When I was in jr. high and high school, I allowed myself no such grace or freedom to be honest; and as the adults in my life began to take it upon themselves to more directly and explicitly instruct me on the forms they figured my sexuality ought to be taking, I brought to each hearing, discussion, fantasy and sexuality-related experience a deep sense of shame and guilt. I believed the story I was told - that human sexuality is ugly and vile outside of marriage - and from this story extrapolated the following moral: that I, the unmarried, teenage Josh Barkey, was an ugly, vile person, because of every single sexuality-related experience I had ever had.

Breathe, Barkey. 

It was my intention, as I began to write this, to bang out all my thoughts in one monster post. But it's becoming clear to me that I ought to take it one slow piece at a time, giving my various ruminant juices the opportunity to do their work.

So let me finish by saying that whatever mind-mangle might have been done to me by the adults, friends, and films that comprised the faculty of my early School-of-Sexuality, I bear no ill will for any of it. Human sexuality is a difficult sea for anyone to navigate, and as the father of a young boy, I know all too well how easy it is to pass on your fears and failings to a child.

The purpose of this series, as explained in the "preface," is not to staple identifying name-tags onto the foreheads of villains. Rather, it is to argue that deep down, we all fight a hard battle - that we are all a mysterious admixture of the same rotten (and wonderful!) motivations. My hope is that if we can admit this, we can move together toward the sort of love and grace necessary for a little real, honest-to-God sexual healing. And maybe, in time, we can stop arguing about Rights and start living about Love.  

- - -

*Insert sarcasm here, to disguise the dirty little secret that part of me really, really means it.

**I try to be as gender-neutral in my pronoun usage as possible, but in this case it didn't make sense. Plus, everyone in the story in question is male.

Notice of Copyright Infringement: Technically, I sold the rights to use my twisted cupid drawing to the EMI record label, for use as cover art on the Stabilo album, Cupid?. But given the current, flailing state of the recording industry, I figure they've got bigger problems than a little copyright infringement on my part.



PART TWO:

High school sexuality (shudder) is a minefield; a cesspool; a venomous, black pit. If I felt like a sexual dirtbag because of the childhood experience previously described in hazy, self-protective detail, in high school my sense of dirt-bagginess was compounded by the fact that I was a late, late bloomer, weighing in at only a hundred-twenty-something pounds and four-or-five armpit hairs by graduation.

This meant I experienced the typical ravages of puberty in slow motion; which contributed, perhaps, to the ability I developed to identify with outsiders - with people who, like me, did not fit the mainstream conception of what they "ought" to be. My biological exclusion made me depressive and hyper-sensitive, and while it is humiliating to be a high school male who cries easily, I now see it as a gift. There are very few men in this world who really learn to "mourn with those who mourn," but me - I mourned with everybody. I was a natural-born empathy-machine.

I was, however, still a kid, and knew very little of anything about anything. I certainly didn't know about homosexuality, beyond its vague inclusion in a long line of sexual behaviors I was supposed, at all costs, to avoid. I'm a little hazy on the history, here; but either homosexuality was still a peripheral aspect of American politics at that point, or down in Peru we were so far removed from that whole boiler-room environment that it never really made it onto our radar.

Whatever the case, the underlying assumption was that homosexuality was a sin you came to after having descended through progressively evil levels of sexual deviance (and was a short stop on the way to baby-raping), so it was not given a lot of attention. There was the more pressing issue of masturbation to worry about, after all, and "normal" fornication.

My senior year I did once overhear one of my friends confess to someone from outside our missionary community that he'd had some feelings of attraction for other guys; but that was the night I came home late from Bible Study and - rather than wake my parents to unlock the door - ended up sleeping on a lawn chair in the yard... so I tucked the knowledge of my friend's confession down deep, figuring it was none of my business. I was, after all, a degenerate who'd broken curfew by staying late at Bible Study - so who was I to judge?

Then I went off to University - to a private, Christian liberal arts school where "the gay issue" was discussed openly, and often. On one side, there were the macho, brash dorm-mates who slung insulting, unrepeatable euphemisms for homosexuals left and right and used "gay" as an epithet for anything negative. These were the sorts of people who would call me a "faggot" for trying to get them to calm down and just have fun during a game of pick-up soccer.

On the other side, there was the quieter minority, who were patiently trying to talk their way to a better understanding.

Me, I floundered somewhere in the middle. I was illustrator for the school paper, played a little soccer, and did my best to disappear into a crowd and culture I could not, as an outsider, ever fully understand. When the school paper printed a "Sex Issue" and ran an anonymous survey in which a significant* percentage of the respondents self-identified as homosexual, I mostly kept my head down and said whatever felt safest - a fairly typical, human response, but not one of which I am particularly proud.

I did write one pompous, poorly-considered article on "the gay issue" for the online version of the school paper, and although I mostly only did it to respond to a (I thought) badly-written, badly-reasoned position piece by one of the paper's staff writers, I am happy to report that I was able to convince them to expunge the regrettable thing (I think... I hope) from the internet. So I can now smile and nod and rewrite history, maintaining that I was above all that - that I kept quiet and stayed out of it. The truth, as always, is probably a lot more complicated. I was a part of the very human world in which I lived, and change comes slow and hard to humans.

Still, it is fair enough to say that while there were those who got riled up about gay rights at my school, I was not one of them. Politics overwhelmed me to the point of boredom. I was an artist, after all - and what has art to do with politics? That, at least, was my thinking at the time. But art has a way of forcing you to take long, hard looks, and I was headed for a crash-course in humility.

- - -

*Significant, considering that students at our school had to sign a "community standards" agreement that required them to refrain from homosexual activity - a matter of some contention that brought the school, my senior year, all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.




PART THREE:


At University, I learned about the existence of human hermaphrodites.

For the un-initiated, wikipedia defines a human hermaphrodite as "any person incompatible with the biological gender binary," and adds that the term "has recently been replaced by 'intersex' in medicine." This means that these people are not exactly male or female, in a physiological sense. Although there is some debate over the number of people born with the condition, it is real, and it iscommon enough that it's quite possible you and I have met an intersex person in our lifetime.

If you weren't raised as I was, your response to this revelation might be "so what?" But I was taught that there are only two models of humans,A and B, and that these models come with an extensive list of pre-determined gender characteristics - characteristics that ranged from the presence or absence of dangly or bumpy bits, to an affinity for either frilly dresses or guns. "You can keep a little boy away from guns all you want," they'd say, "but he'll just bite his toast into a revolver shape and start shooting people."

The upshot of this was that I believed that gender was in your genes, and that people who deviated from the gender expectations of their culture were doing so by willful choice. Like, say, the way my dad used to choose to wear purple-and-white polka-dotted shorts. Dad was an aberration, and even though in our missionary community he got some extra slack for being a Canadian, the general assumption was that his weird sartorial choices were just that - choices. It stood to reason, therefore, that when I thought about human sexuality and human sexual expression, I believed that whenever anyone deviated from what was generally considered the norm, it was because they chose to do so.

But what about these intersex people, formerly known as "hermaphrodites?" They did not choose their condition, and they don't fit into category A or B - was I supposed to think of them as somehow cursed by God - a flaw? Was I supposed to believe that whatever sexual desire they happened to feel was automatically more corrupt than my own, just because they didn't really fit? That just didn't sit right with me.

I learned that some intersex persons, if they wanted to have a more "normal" gendered existence, would have to make the choice (or have it made for them at birth by their parents) to endure painful surgeries and "treatments." How just was that? How was I to fit their experience into my tidy, pre-packaged little universe? These questions began to gnaw away at me and, ultimately, to affect the way I thought about "the gay issue." I got confused. I had a lot of opinions, but very little information or experience.

At that point in my life I knew exactly zero openly gay persons. None. Zilch. Nada.

I had never had a single conversation about sexuality with any gay person, open or publicly closeted. There was a guy in one of my classes who was rumored to be gay, and once in a while I'd get hit on by a gay guy (apparently, as a consolation prize for being beanpole-thin, I have a bit of a pretty face), but I'd not yet actually conversed with someone I knew to be gay. What's more, I didn't know of anyone who was a lesbian. For all I knew, lesbians didn't even exist.

But sexual and gender identity are important parts of identity as a whole, so it's not as though my ignorance would get me out of making any kind of judgement at all. Sure, it would have been wise to reserve judgment; but with who I was, and the culture I was in, this wasn't possible. My opinion was demanded, and so I gave it. I tried to be kind - to hedge my words with the humility of ignorance - but I spoke nonetheless, opening my mouth and, as the proverb says, "removing all doubt" about my own foolishness. 

I am tired of acting like I know more than I do. It's exhausting, and always leaves me afraid that my fraudery will be exposed. I am tired of accepting second and third-hand reports about a group of people I've barely just begun to get to know - to care about - to love. In the words of old-school reggae/pop bandUB4O, "Every hour of every day I'm learning more. The more I learn, the less I know about before. The less I know, the more I want to look around... digging deep for clues on higher ground."

What is gender? What is sexuality? And how do I, a dust mote on the sun-beam of eternity, begin to comprehend any other dust motes; or the sunbeam; or even the sun itself? I do not know.

I'm not saying there are no answers, just that I've become far less confident in my ability to apprehend them. 

It seems to me, furthermore, that what this world and this time need from me is not so much clear-cut answers to life's pressing questions, as much as the slow, boring, healing balm of love. It is therefore much less interesting to me, now, how someone came to have certain a-typical (statistically speaking) sexual drives, than it is to figure out how to love them, better,where they actually are today

To put the question in a framework for which I do have some context, I look to my own relational history. I do not entirely understand how I came to have an ex-wife. I did not willingly choose it - she chose it for me. But now that I do, in fact, have an ex-wife, how I came to have one is kind of a moot point. While I may study the question in my head, from time to time, in hopes of avoiding repeating the experience, in my day-to-day interactions I choose instead to do my best to set it aside and be in the moment, now, with love. 

Sometimes, however, love demands that we not set the questions aside. Sometimes, love asks us to stop hedging and start expressing the truth as we see it. I hope that I've revealed my history, perspective and self enough that anyone who reads my conclusions will know - wherever they might happen to fall in their opinion on gay rights - that I am doing my utmost to explore the question with love and humility. And I hope (fool that I am) that I will be able to spark off some genuine conversation, and promote the growth of love and ever more love




PART FOUR:



Memory is weird. I (obviously) can't begin to tell you all the wondrous, amazing, unforgettable things I've completely forgotten in my lifetime; but sometimes it's the simplest, dumbest things that have stuck with me, year after year.

Like the time my tall Dutch friend, Aren, convinced me that weed should be legal. Aren and I were sitting in my beloved diesel Jetta (may she rest in peace) in the parking lot at Mt. Seymour Ski Resort back in 2001, our bare feet up on the dash as we wiggled our toes over the vent. I had broken a binding, and Aren was keeping me company as we waited for our friends, so after covering the usual topics (girls, sex), we turned our conversation to helmet laws and then, of course, to marijuana.

With his annoying Dutch logic and relentless Dutch stubbornness, Aren wore me down and eventually convinced me of his main premise - that you cannot legislate morality

This is sort of a no-brainer that jives perfectly with the Christ-faith Aren and I both grew up in (which, in keeping with Jesus' teachings, refuses to judge or condemn another person's heart), but is completely at odds with a lot of mainstream Christian Religion, which seems bent on using force to suppress any and all behavior it thinks may be indicative of a bad heart... an attitude I now find hard to describe as anything other than Evil. 

I call it capital-E-Evil (as in, the Froo-itts of the Deh-veel) because it is, ultimately, dehumanizing. It treats people as things; taking an amazingly complex, wondrous creature like a human being and pretending to be able to deduce, by means of a few scattered observations, the content of that person's heart. This is ridiculous. People are not things, and no one knows the content of anyone else's heart. Heck, I've been self-obsessing for around thirty years, and I'm barely starting to begin to get a grasp of a few of the more obvious aspects of my own.

That is why, before jumping into the issue of gay rights, I've taken you on this rabbit trail through some of the more salient points along the timeline of my own awakening sexual consciousness. Because I believe that when I've gone and said my piece, it is more than likely that you'll end up making a judgment on my heart, taking my position and grafting it onto your life experience and your heart-assumptions about what people who say the sorts of things that I do are really like.

If you're going to place a moral judgment on my heart, I figure I ought to at least make you sit through a good chunk of my story, in the hope that maybe then, you'll see where I'm coming from and that idea-graft will have a better chance of "taking," growing, and blossoming into some new and exciting hybrid fruit.

While we're on the topic of vegetation, though, I should add that I do not smoke weed (except for that one time, when I got that second-hand high from my friend and his stupid vaporizer - thanks, Jesse), and in fact, I don't think anyone else should smoke weed, either - at least, not anywhere it's still illegal.

On this, I take a bit of a Gandhi-esque approach and say that you shouldn't break any laws unless it can be clearly demonstrated that love will be diminished and real harm done by compliance. That way, you'll have the moral credibility to break an unjust law when it becomes necessary to do so. I do not currently believe the demonstrable harm argument can honestly be made by (actual) non-medical marijuana users, so I still think smoking weed where it's illegal is wrong. Not like, "kill-your-parents" wrong, but still...

That's another issue entirely, but it brings in the key point - demonstrable harm - of my whole argument on gay rights. It's complicated, though, and as I'm coming down with some bug and am worn out from wrastling a four-year-old all morning, I do believe I'll save that final huzzah for later.

Let me finish, instead, with a confession: That story about Aren and I in the car at Mt. Seymour? ...I might have just made that up. While Aren and I did go snowboarding a few times and did once sit in the car waiting for friends (undoubtedly talking about girls and sex), I cannot be entirely sure if it was thenthat he convinced me that people should be allowed to do dumb things like frazzle their brains with weed if they darn well pleased. I'm dealing, after all, with a human mind: flawed, fickle, and given to re-writing reality to fit whatever story my life is trying to tell.

Next, I hope to tell a story in which gay rights don't look as scary to people who, like me, were erroneously taught that the way to defeat a perceived evil is with a rigorous, unflinching application of force and fear. That is, if I can remember what I'd planned to say.




PART FIVE: 



If you've got some free time, I recommend you pop on over to Harvard and sign up for Michael Sandel's "Justice" course. But if, like me, you haven't got an extra pile of money sitting around and the time to jet to Cambridge once a week, I'd suggest you take the course for free, online, at THIS OVERSTATED LINK RIGHT HERE. You won't regret it.

Sandel uses a mash-up Socratic style (questions, questions, questions) to edge his students toward a better understanding of the ethical and moral principles underpinning the American legal system. There's a lot of good stuff there, but the principle most salient to my point on gay rights is that Law exists to protect the weak from being taken advantage of by the strong. I'm seriously cribbing/simplifying/mis-remembering, here, but I think that's the gist of what he said about the Law. It is not here to tell us what is bad or good, it is here to keep us from hurting each other. 

I'd heard this before, of course. I can remember my high school U.S. History teacher, Pigeon-Man Willie, telling us that Law was about preserving the truism that "your right to swing your fist ends where my face begins." Somewhere along the way, though, as I allowed myself to be molded into a good little North American citizen, I began to conflate legality with morality. I ignored all the many wrong things I do (being selfish with my pie, for instance) that I do not believe ought to be legislated, and began to float along with the hazy idea that if it was illegal, it was therefore bad.

This, obviously,  is not necessarily the case. For example, there is apparently a law still on the books where I live in North Carolina that says that Elephants may not be used to plow cotton fields; but I say, heck, if some poor sharecropper kid finds a neglected circus elephant and wants to nurse it back to health so it can help him save the family farm, let him try!

The law may run parallel to morality, but it does not contain it. And while I believe, as previously stated, that it's important to obey the law unless you have a compelling reason for non-compliance, this is not a good argument for confusing the two. While our morality may/must/will inform our judicial system, the purpose of law is not to define or protect our moral systems, it is to protect us from each other

Here's another truism from high school U.S. History: "power corrupts."

The best metaphor I know for this is the one J.R.R. Tolkien came up with, with all those Rings of his. The rings were about power. They were about control. They were about seeing without being seen, approaching without being approachable. It was only those humblest, most earthy, elemental and community-centric creatures - the Hobbits - who could carry the ring of power for a while, in order to get it away from the forces of evil and then destroy it. But even the Hobbits - Tolkein's stand-in for his English countrymen of World War II - were irreversibly marked... nay, wounded... by the tarnish of power's awesome allure.

I guess what I'm saying with this hobbit-trail is that when we talk about gay rights (or not-gay-rights, or whatever), what we're really talking about is the very human desire to control other people into behaving in accordance with our own conception of what is good.

I'm not saying that people who argue against gay rights are ignorant about what the law is for, because one of the first things they set out to do is to prove demonstrable harm - to show how, by their reckoning, gay marriage (or gays in the military, or gays teaching in schools, or gays being allowed to use public water fountains) would really harm others in a big enough way that it ought to be prohibited by Law.

But this doesn't really seem to be what they're actually trying to do.

What seems more likely is that people who try to make this argument are attempting, when you get right down to it, to legislate morality. But if we're going to shift focus and make Law about legislating morality, I think we have to ask ourselves - given the obvious impossibility of moral perfection - where it will end.

How far are is the Religious Right willing to go to preserve their mythological ideal of marriage as a union of one flawless, virginal man and one flawless, virginal woman? And are they then going to translate that legislation into all aspects of life? Should men and women applying for marriage licenses be required to submit to a porn-search of their computer hard drives?

If they are going to use their (culturally-biased, temporally-influenced) version of Biblical morality as an ultimate standard for the establishment of law, it would seem they ought to maybe take more seriously the fact that gluttony, not homosexuality, is on "The List" of the things God really, really hates. Why not pass a law that denies marriage to any obese person who cannot prove that his or her weight is the result of a medical condition?

And why isn't gossip illegal? Gossip is also on the "God-Hates-This" list, and I've seen firsthand the way gossip has "destroyed the very fabric of society," to use the language of those with whom I am disagreeing. Should "unrepentant" gossips, also, be prohibited from marrying?

The application is inconsistent, and to me, this seems to indicate that it is not a question of proving demonstrable harm at all. It's about picking one particular behavior (one they perhaps do not, themselves, indulge in) and privileging it above all others, ramping up the fear and the pride that drives them to pretend to be better than someone else, perhaps so they don't have to think about all the ways in which they fall short of the impossible ideal towards which they must unendingly pretend in order to be in with their particular in crowd.

I also think this is a political game - that people under the thrall of power are using this issue to appeal to the worst in voters, in order to garner ever more power for themselves. And setting aside, for the moment, any arguments about demonstrable harm, it seems to me that making this the fight Christians are known for is just one more way of expressing unmerited attachment to our own way of thinking, and our own, tiny morality - a moral system seemingly obsessed with sexuality, to the exclusion of all else.

Law is a complicated, confusing thing, about which I am extremely unqualified to speak. Nonetheless, it seems to me that on this issue, we are not talking about law at all. We are talking about ourselves. And the question we need to start asking ourselves is this: are we as Christians willing to become the sort of people who define ourselves by conflating law and morality... aligning ourselves so closely to one, transient system of government that history will judge us by the harsh criteria it will inevitably apply to that government, as it has to unjust governmental systems in our past?

I said at the very beginning of this internet ramble of mine that I was going to be a little less-than-nice to the people with whom I disagreed, and if that's what I've done, then I am okay with it. I don't want to be nice. I want to be loving. Besides, the reason I can pretend to understand so well their pride-choked ways is that I, too, used to be sorta/kinda just like them.

In fine, rather than embroil myself in quibbling arguments over whether or not clear, dramatic, demonstrable harm would be done by allowing gay marriage to happen, I think I would rather ask those-with-whom-I-disagree to take a long, hard look at their own hearts and ask if, perhaps, they might hold their position not because of a careful exploration of justice and the purposes of Law, but rather because being all bombastic on this one makes them feel like they're the good guys. I would ask them if, perchance, what is at stake here is not the slippery concept of "the sanctity of marriage," but rather the very clear and present question of whether they are willing to abandon their pride in favor of being kind, loving, humble and unafraid.

There are places, I think, where the principle of harm is being violated, and a serious legal fight might be worth it - like, say, with regard to abortion (which I wrote about in the hopefully kind, loving, and nuanced post, "A Time to Kill?"). But this, it seems to me, is not one of those places. In this case, we are sidingagainst love... and it needs to stop.

- - -

Post Script: I know that both sides of the issue would probably prefer that I define what, exactly, I think homosexual attraction and behavior is. Gay activists would prefer me to admit that it is a biological part of their inherent nature, and anti-gay activists would prefer that I admit that it is a heinous sin.

I have intentionally avoided this question because: A. I do not think it is relevant to the question at hand - a question of law and love; and B. I know very little about anything, and am mostly just an ignorant cuss who's trying to be less of a jerk than he was yesterday. 

I invite your comments and discussion.





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