What should conservatives tell gay kids? One writer suggests that kids should learn that they’re not really gay. But that writer, Michael Hannon, also wants us to tell non-gay kids that they’re not really straight.
Hannon’s original argument suggested that the construction of the notion of sexual identities in the nineteenth century doomed conservative Christians to a double danger. First, it led some people to identify as homosexuals. According to Hannon, such an identity enshrines sinful behavior as the core of a person’s identity. To Hannon, anyway, it seems there is no moral way to have sex as a homosexual, since gay marriage is not for him a moral possibility and sex outside of marriage is immoral.
But heterosexuality is just as bad. By allowing conservatives who identify as heterosexuals to rest satisfied that they had the “right” sexual identity, heterosexuality left people clueless about the abundant dangers of the entire idea of sexual identity.
In other words, if I understand him correctly, Hannon hoped religious conservatives would take their argument up one level. Instead of suggesting that homosexuality was sinful and heterosexuality was not, Hannon wants us to recognize that the concept of a sexual identity—any sexual identity—was deeply problematic. As he elaborated in a recent follow-up, Hannon argued that the real goal of religious people must not be Hollywood’s marriage-as-happy-ending, but a more complicated goal of spiritual friendship.
This is not the usual semi-hysterical “homosexual agenda” talk we hear from some religious pundits. Over and over, conservative activists have warned that “sneaky” homosexuals are using public schools to infect young minds with gayness. Hannon is making a much more subtle argument.
To be clear, Hannon does indeed think that homosexuality tends to promote sinful behavior. As he put it,
Self-describing as a “homosexual” tends to multiply occasions of sin for those who adopt the label. . . . Whereas the infusion of the theological virtues sets the Christian free, identifying as homosexual only further enslaves the sinner. It intensifies lust, a sad distortion of love, by amplifying the apparent significance of concupiscent desires. It fosters a despairing self-pity, harming hope, which is meant to motivate moral virtues. And it encourages a strong sense of entitlement, which often undermines the obedience of faith by demanding the overthrow of doctrines that seem to repress “who I really am.”
But this is not the only problem of sexual identities. Too many conservatives, Hannon charges, accept heterosexuality as a healthy sexual identity. They yearn for boy-meets-girl and scorn boy-meets-boy or girl-meets-girl, but in essence such conservatives miss the point. Encouraging young people to understand themselves as primarily sexual beings—gay or straight—puts too much emphasis on sexual identities entirely.
What should young people hear about sexual identities? Neither that they are inherently gay nor straight, Hannon says. Rather, that sex is part of humanity, but never should make up the core of a person’s identity.
Critic John Corvino doesn’t buy it. According to Corvino, Hannon seems to be
asking for something much more difficult for us moderns to imagine: a world without sexual orientation as we understand it. Yet it’s hard to see how to avoid the closet as a necessary first step toward this goal. Worse, one worries that aiming for this goal would at most achieve a disastrous middle ground: a world where orientation categories were still salient but where the taboo against voicing them would leave those with same-sex desires lonely and miserable.
How about you? Do you think Hannon’s argument has legs? Can religious conservatives get out of their culture-war pickle by moving away from a condemnation of homosexuality and instead to a broader distaste for sexual identities as a whole?