Kids: You’re Not Really Gay

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?



Leave a comment


  1. Agellius

     /  August 18, 2014

    It’s been a while since I read it, but I understood his argument to be that homosexuality and heterosexuality are social constructions, and therefore should not be taken by people to be of the essence of their identity.

    As I read it, his main concern is that this is an inadequate grounding for sexual morality in the Christian context. Such thinking is “foreign to our faith, inadequate for justifying sexual norms”. “[R]esurrecting our own tradition of familial-teleological chastity is the only way to adequately explain Christian sexual ethics.”

    On another tack, it’s ironic that gender, which is indisputably built into our very bodies, is considered by many to be a social construct, while sexual orientation is considered essential to “who we are”. It makes a lot more sense to me, to see it the other way around.

  2. He misses the boat if he thinks that folks are neither inherently straight nor inherently gay. The predominant determinant for sexual orientation is biological. Like Agellius, I always thought that gender basically meant sex – male, female or hermaphrodite. But as many use it today, there are numerous gender identities that are defined as an odd mix of biological facts and social constructs – Facebook has 51 I believe.

  3. Our sexuality may not define us, but it certainly contributes to life choices. Deciding whether or not to marry, and whom to marry; remaining childless or choosing to raise a child; celibacy vs intimacy–how we express our sexuality certainly plays a role in all of our social lives. To teach otherwise seems silly. Why not embrace the fact that human sexuality is a continuum? Seems much simpler that way, to me, anyway.

  4. Tim

     /  August 21, 2014

    I appreciate being pointed to both Hannon’s articles and Corvino’s response. The question of whether Hannon’s argument has legs can be taken in a number of different ways.

    Hannon agrees with Michel Foucoult (and others, and offers a small amount of historical support) that our modern concept of sexual orientations as a biological or natural categories is socially constructed and of fairly recent (around 150 years) origin. According to Hannon, some queer theorists would like the categories to go away. He would also like them to go away, for different reasons, but importantly, he predicts that they will go away, regardless of his wishes, the wishes of those who are socially conservative, the wishes of queer theorists, or anyone else. They will go away because they will not for much longer serve any social purpose: initially their social purpose was the condemnation of homosexual acts (and the validation of hetero sex) on a pseudo-scientific basis of psychological normality as Western culture modernized. More recently, their purpose has been to secure rights for members of protected groups. The first purpose is long gone; the second is disappearing as, for example, same-sex marriage is increasingly being recognized as a constitutional right.

    I think Hannon’s account of the social construction of sexual orientation is simply factual. His analysis of the purposes it has served is reasonable. About his prediction that it will go away, I’m not entirely convinced. A social construction that has lasted 150 years may last another 50 or a 100 years before it disappears or is replaced by something else. However, it does seem to me that the proliferation of gender categories, as well as increasing categories of sexual orientations, may be a sign that the construct is in the process of breaking down or transforming. Douglas E. says that people are inherently straight or gay and that the predominant determinant for that is biological. I would agree that has been the dominant perception or perspective in the US and Europe during the last century, but I think there is evidence that that way of looking at people is changing.

    Will religious conservatives embrace or resist the disappearance of the idea of sexual orientations as natural categories? I don’t know. Part of Hannon’s analysis is that since the 1860s, and even up to the present, the socially constructed category of heterosexuality has benefitted religious conservatives, so their may be some reluctance for them to accept its deconstruction. If, however, they do embrace its disappearance, that may at the least pave the way to better sex education of their own children. It may also allow them to have a conversation with the mainstream culture on the topic of sexual morality in a way that is less war-like.

  5. Just a slight clarification on the biological contribution to sexual orientation – I did not mean to imply that there is some sort of binary choice/distribution of straight vs gay. I believe that there is a spectrum of orientations from those who cannot imagine a sexual relationship with a person of the same sex to those who cannot imagine one with a person of the opposite sex. I know that I fall at the end of the spectrum of the former and I also have very good friends who fall at the end of the spectrum of the latter. I believe that such orientations are predominantly biological and thus there would be virtually nothing that would change our orientations. The Kinsey-Klein-Epstein-etc. grids are useful but likely incomplete descriptors of orientation, but at least give some insight as to where someone might fall on the orientation spectrum.

  6. Tim

     /  August 22, 2014

    I think the idea of a spectrum between homosexuality and heterosexuality, with an acknowledgement of the existence of asexuality, has gained currency since Kinsey. Prior to Kinsey, the perspective was probably more binary. But why not a spectrum between men exclusively attracted to blondes (or blonds) vs men exclusively attracted to brunettes and redheads (of either sex) and variants in between? It’s likely just as feasible to categorize people that way, although some squares on your grid would have very small populations (as does the Kinsey grid for that matter). But we don’t commonly refer to people as “blond/blonde-lovers” mainly because there’s no social purpose served in dividing people that way and assigning them to their particular group-box which they must (in larger society’s conception of their identity) occupy for life.


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