Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Four-Part Series on Gay Marriage and Prop 8

I finally finished a detailed blog post on gay marriage--and have decided to split it into four parts, which will appear over the next four days. Comments will be closed on the first three parts and open at the end of the fourth.

"I think I'm going to write about gay marriage," I told my sister.

She sighed. "I wouldn't touch that issue with a ten-foot pole," she said.

"Oh, I've avoided it plenty," I said, "but I think it's time."

So wish me luck. And remind yourself to speak kindly to others on all sides of the issue should you make it to the end and choose to comment.

Part One: Let Me Take a Step Back

My grandpa, Gurcharan Singh Gill, taught college math classes for several decades. My parents used to tell me I was free to ask him for help on my homework, but I'd better be ready to get the whole history of mathematics starting with Pythagoras before he'd help me find the answer.

Like grandpa, I suppose, like grandson. Before I get to California in 2008, I'm going to wander through the Bible and Shakespeare and ancient Greece (and maybe even try to tie in the disco era to make my journey through the canonized History of the Western World complete).

Why? Because our current way of thinking about same-sex relationships—sexual or not—is hardly the only way to think about them.

Let’s start in the Bible. Sociologist Rodney Stark describes ancient Jewish culture as radically “pro-natal,” what with all the promises of descendants like stars in the heavens or sands in the sea and all the talk about tell your children this, teach them that. Given beliefs that put such emphasis on children and future generations, it’s no surprise that Jewish thought was for sexual bonding in the context of male-female marriages and against any other kind of sexual activity or relationship.

But if we were to take a time machine back, most modern Americans would probably think the majority of Biblical-era men they’d see were “totally gay.” Read the Bible: men don't just give awkward half-hugs, the phrasing is often more like "fell on his neck" to describe an embrace. They don't give quick Latin-style air kisses to each other—in 2 Sam 20:9, it seems to be standard practice that Joab takes Amasa's face in his hand before a kiss. And men in the Bible are not afraid of deep same-sex emotional attachments: it’s beautiful to them when “the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.”

And it’s not just the Bible. From a historical perspective, current American expectations about the limits of appropriate levels and expressions of affection between men are extremely rigid. Most cultures have valued close, deep emotional bonds between men far more than Americans do today.

Take Shakespeare's plays as a second example. In the climax of Two Gentleman of Verona, Valentine offers his girlfriend to his best friend as a token of reconciliation in their friendship. That's pretty offensive to modern audiences (especially given the circumstances!), but was probably moving to many men in Shakespeare's time--who took their own closest friendships more seriously than their marriages. In Twelfth Night, the pirate captain Antonio takes huge risks for Sebastian because of an admiration or affection which sounds downright passionate in its intensity--and no other characters seem to think this is particularly strange or "queer." For them, seeing one man deeply drawn to another probably seemed perfectly normal and did not raise questions about "sexual identity" or corresponding minority status.

I put "sexual identity" in quotes there because the idea that an individual's attractions defined his/her identity or belonging to a group is fairly recent in Western cultures. Ancient Greek culture did not distinguish between gay and straight people the way we do today, and Plato seems to have felt that a love between men which combined intellectual engagement and sexual energy was far superior to the merely procreative sexual relationships that took place between men and women. According to Plutarch, the generals of the Greek city-state Thebes successfully channeled the power of sexual bonds into military might by forming a unit known as the Sacred Band made up entirely of male couples. Soldiers might desert their comrades, the generals' reasoning went, but would fight to the death for their lovers. And it seems to have worked: no one defeated the Sacred Band until they all fought to what the Greeks considered deeply noble deaths in a desperate last stand against Philip of Macedon.

Philip's son Alexander had a famously close relationship with his friend and comrade Hephaestion. Though each later married a daughter of the deposed Persian emperor, their relationship with each other was likely sexual in their youth and may have remained sexual throughout their lives. And though Alexander had conquered most of the known world and seen plenty of suffering, he was still inconsolable when Hephaestion died. Ancient sources say that Alexander mourned over Hephaestion's body all day long, at which point he had to be physically dragged away by his remaining companions.

And though we rarely talk about it, stories like Alexander's are probably not confined to the ancient world. I've read convincing arguments that in upper-class Victorian single-gender boarding schools, strong same-sex attraction was fairly common: sometimes leading to intense friendships, other times to relationships that were also sexual. I've also read and heard that in a context like a naval ship mission, where an almost exclusively male population is isolated for an extended period of time, men who would otherwise consider themselves heterosexual find themselves drawn to members of the same gender.

There are two main lessons I think we can learn from all this:

1) "Gay" and "straight" isn't an on/off switch. A few people may be exclusively attracted to members of the same gender regardless of culture and context. A few people may be exclusively attracted to members of the opposite gender regardless of culture and context. But the vast majority of us are somewhere on a spectrum in between, at least theoretically capable of feeling a variety of levels of attraction, admiration, and emotional investment in members of the same sex. It is historically strange, to say the least, that we view so many manifestations of male connection and affection as signaling membership in a separate "gay" minority group. We stigmatize feelings and ways of relating today which are probably normal components of human nature for almost everyone.

2) The 1960s and '70s gay rights movement used language of sexual liberation and personal freedom from social accountability, which created a common public association between homosexuality and casual sex or promiscuity--but that's not necessarily representative of same-sex relationships now or throughout history. There have been and are many same-sex couples who are deeply committed and faithful to one another. And I think we do ourselves a collective disservice if we treat the emotional reality of those bonds lightly as we decide which legal framework to use for same-sex relationships in a democratic society where subjective experience should carry weight.

Continued in Part Two: Gay Rights in Our Time and Place


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