Friday, May 6, 2011

15-for-15 V: Who I Am, or Identity, Equality, and Value

I know who I am.  More or less.


It's easy to say that sexuality is just a small part of our lives, that it's not "who we are."  It's also easy to say that sexuality is our entire life, that it's all we are.

When I say that I am gay, and thereby oppose the words that headline the first entry in this series, I equate myself with my sexual orientation, I own that part of myself, and I use it to define myself.  I am Chris, but saying that is not quite the same way of defining self, because "Chris" doesn't have a definition in itself.

Saying "I am cold," similarly, describes a passing state or feeling.  "I am rich," or "I am poor," too, might get at something true for a while, which shapes who we are and how we are, but these descriptors are not necessarily identity characteristics.  Our "net worth" does not come in how much money we have in the bank the day before the stock market crashes and wipes out our assets.

Yet people debate the extent to which sexuality is a passing phase, essential to our beings or a choice, or a product of our doing.

I think that sexuality is a very big part of our lives, because it affects how we relate to ourselves, others, our society, religions, and to every huge factor in our lives.  Sexuality goes far beyond those with whom one has sex, far beyond one's private domain, and indeed beyond one's "personal preferences" or "lifestyle choice."  The term "lifestyle choice," in fact, has always been both nebulous and insulting, highlighting an ornamental, act-based idea of sexuality that somehow people might chose out of boredom with the "normal" way of life.  It doesn't get at such a large part of what I think is connoted by the term "sexual identity"--the source of one's passions.

What "turns you on"?  What "floats your boat"?  What gets your blood pumping, and what paints your sky? What brings a flush to your cheek, or a spring to your step? Sexuality is in our blood, and blood is thicker than water. The sinoatrial node might physically produce the electrical force behind the beating of our hearts, but sexuality is the metaphoric animating principle behind that and every aspect of our creative lives.

Sexuality goes a long way beyond T & A.  (Especially if you're gay.)

II.  Defined by Difference?  Enlivened by Equality?

Being different gives a person the opportunity to spend a lot of time thinking about things that people who are not different probably don't think much about.  Some might take exception with my use of the term "different."  But when you're defined in ways that lead to a different set of rules for how you can live your life, you're different.

Difference, in the case of sexual identity, means that you do not necessarily follow the life patterns and roles that are set in place for you when you're born.  The consequence of that difference is that society sets out for you the same expectations, but a different set of rules.

I'll be the first to own that sometimes those of us with this difference of sexuality, or any difference, spend too much time thinking and talking about it, and not enough time living it.  That is because justice has not yet come for many of us, and because our siblings in difference around the world and on our own shores are still being mocked, beaten, assaulted, shamed into self-hatred and worse, and indeed put to violent death.  We think about this difference because our world won't let us forget.

In thinking about this difference, we often talk about "equality."  Frankly, the more I think of it, the more insulting the idea of asking for "equality" is.

It is insulting to argue for equality, because we are equal, and we don't ask anyone else to be equal to us. I would never look at someone and say, "Prove that you are equal to me."  People who don't realize that LGBT people are fully equal in our humanity and our relationships are fully equal in their legitimacy will not do so because we say they are.  

We spend so much time defending, and that leaves less time actually to live.

My leap came when I realized the value of my own feelings, at least to myself, not that they were equal, but that they were valuable.


Sexuality is a value.  And one person's sexuality is no more a value than another's.

Sexuality is a value in what it does to enliven and paint the skies of our lives.  It is also a value in how it challenges and points out our brokenness.  Everyone has a broken aspect to their sexuality.  This is one of the chief reasons why same-sex attraction scares people--because thinking of it as an attraction that is fully broken, wrong, diseased, or criminal, gives people who think like that a way to avoid confronting their own brokenness.

It's hard to name all of the discrete experiences of our lives that name our sexuality in one way or another.  Holding hands in the movie show, as one old song put it, is something that people without a difference would not think twice about doing, and might indeed take pleasure and gain social status by being seen "together."

One can name one's sexuality in any number of subtle ways, in a look or a few carefully placed words, in whose names one mentions casually in conversation, in pictures that adorn one's public spaces, or in the stories that we tell about important experiences in our lives that involve other people.

People who cannot be public about their sexuality find any number of ways to avoid it becoming known.  My most potent memory from my high school years involved sitting in the library on a study break with some guys who began talking about how a girl was admiring another guy's ass.  I interjected, without realizing that I was in danger of totally outing myself to some of the not nicer people:  "Oh, she could do better."  Snap!

This comment did not escape their attention.  One shot back with a look on his face that I've seen a couple of other times, in dangerous situations where they see the gay within you and don't like what they see. The words exploded, "Oh yeah??  Who??!"

A breathless moment passed.  It seemed like they had gotten me, and that all I had feared would now come to pass.

From out of nowhere, the word came into my head and out my mouth with as little thought as I had given when I initiated this crisis just seconds ago:


And with that, they laughed their asses off, and I breathed an internal sigh of release.  Way too close for comfort.

That's such an innocuous experience, and yet given the context of being forced to avoid saying any little thing that might "tip them off," I had just dodged what I feared would be metaphoric and literal bullets.

Just imagine all of the experiences, in all of the years, that all of those who do not want to be "found out" go through, and the weight that puts on one's shoulders.

Every experience that one might have to pass through in order to stay in the closet is an experience in which sexuality makes itself known outwardly in our lives.

Who I am, who you are, is partially defined by the weight we carry, what we do with it, and what we let it do to us.

But we are also defined by what lifts us.

And someday, hopefully within my lifetime, the widest part of our society will support the enlivening force that takes us through each day, that connects with the Holy Spirit and taps us into God, that is our muse for writing, singing, and creating beautiful things, the enlivening force that makes our relationships live, and our words take flight, that sends our rockets to the farthest reaches of physical space, and gives us the energy to dream a better world, while living with greater fulfillment in the one we have.

Who will we be then?

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