Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Joe Does Not Recommend: Love Is an Orientation

Note 1: this is a revision of my previous post, with most of the changes occurring in my first two criticisms. I think you'll find most of the rest of the post similar to the first, although I have worked to "tone down" some of the raw emotional word choices I made in the first go. Thanks to everyone who commented and spurred me to give some more thought to these criticisms and praises.

Note 2: someone else has expressed shock over Andrew's assertion that "gay identity is sexual behavior", which has kicked off a discussion with the author over at Andrew's blog.

I’m sure everyone has had the experience of being let down, of being disappointed when high hopes go unmet. Such was my experience reading Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community by Andrew Marin.

Andrew is a conservative Christian who holds the traditional evangelical conviction that gay relationships are immoral. Andrew is no ordinary evangelical, however. During college he was stunned when all three of his best friends came out to him over the course of a month. Those jarring experiences prompted Andrew to do something I’ve never heard of another evangelical doing: after college, he immersed himself in the LGBT community. Andrew and his wife presently make their home in Boystown, a gay neighborhood on Chicago’s North side.

Andrew has spent years making friends with LGBT people and learning about their lives, their spirituality, and their experiences with evangelical Christianity. For years he has taught a Bible study class that is attended almost exclusively by LGBT folks. He writes a thoughtful blog where he posts a lot of stuff you might never find on the electronic pages of most evangelical Christians, including several posts by one of my best friends, who happens to be a gay Christian.

While Andrew’s traditional evangelical conviction that LGBT relationships are immoral has not been changed by his experience, he has nevertheless developed a wide circle of LGBT friends, developed a strong rapport with people in Chicago’s LGBT community, and seems to have amassed a wealth of experiences with LGBT folks that most folks in the traditional evangelical church have no knowledge of.

For these reasons, I had high hopes when I picked up Andrew’s book. This is a book by an evangelical for evangelicals with an excellent stated aim: to “elevate the conversation” between conservative Christians and LGBT people. I opened the book expecting to find a fresh perspective on LGBT people, see widely held Christian misconception of LGBT people cleared up, and see a new way chartered for relationship between the evangelical and LGBT communities.

I was disappointed.

Mind you, there are some glimmers of fresh perspective in the book, and I will give these special treatment to these in this review. However, I found much of the book to be nothing new as far as advancing the evangelical understanding of the LGBT community. It was disillusioning to find in Andrew’s writings many of the same distorted caricatures of LGBT people that have been presented to evangelical Christian for decades.

After reading the book cover to cover (including the Introduction and the Appendix), I passed back through the book and transcribed the notes I had made in the margins and the statements/passages they pertained to. I wound up with a 9-page Word document, and that's before I got my motor-mouth going with commentary! ;-) So I worked to prioritize my comments and have decided to present for you the parts of the book that I found most offensive/incorrect and most praiseworthy. I've included some direct quotes as well. Rest assured, there is more that I could write, but yeesh, this post is going to be long enough as it is!

Conflating Identity and Behavior/Ignoring Gay Romance, Companionship, and Love

Sexual Behavior is Gay Identity

The above is not a random sentence lifted carelessly from some obscure part of the book. This is the subtitle of an entire chapter of the book.

Chapter 2: We Are Not Your Project: Sexual Behavior Is Gay Identity

With this loaded title, Andrew kicked off the chapter of the book I found the most inaccurate and offensive. The most outrageous statements in my estimation are the following:

their sexual behavior is who they are. (p 38, emphasis in the original)

if someone were to take away their [gay people’s] sexual behavior, they would be taking away all they are as people. (p 37)

I originally got very bent out of shape over these comments. I was frustrated that Andrew seemed to be doing what so many evangelicals have done before: reducing gay people’s lives to nothing more than sex. I initially railed at this unfair caricature that completely ignores gay love, romance, affection, and companionship.

But after some thought, my emotional reaction to these statements have drained away. Why? Because these statements just don’t make any sense.

If these statements were true, then I am only gay when I am having sex with my husband. That’s silly. I identify as gay all the time. I’m no less gay when I am at work, preparing dinner, watching an episode of “the Office” than when I am making love to the man I love. Gay identity is not about sexual behavior; in fact, I would say it has almost nothing to do with behavior. In my mind, gay identity is all about attraction—or to use a buzzword, it’s all about orientation. I am attracted to/oriented towards guys, therefore I identify as gay.

But there’s more here. To be sure, gay attraction includes sexual attraction, but it’s so much richer than that. I am also romantically attracted to guys. A core part of my being desires companionship with another person, to care for and receive care from another person, to share the difficult and tender moments of my life with another person—another guy. That’s what makes me gay.

My gay identity and my sexual behavior are not the same things. My identity is not a result of my behavior; rather my behavior is a result of my identity. My sex life with my husband is a natural result of the fact that we are emotionally, romantically, and sexually attracted to each other, as well as the fact that we fell in love three years ago, dated for two years, and were married last summer. My identity is point A, my behavior is point B. They aren’t the same things at all.

Oh, and you could totally remove my sex life and I would still be gay (gay and freaking pissed off that someone was preventing me from being intimate with the man I love)! The idea that eliminating sexual behavior destroys gay identity or “all I am as a person” is just ludicrous.

I would hazard to guess Andrew would never write that his heterosexual identity "is" the sex he has with his wife or that to remove his sexual behavior would remove all he is as a person. Such a statement would be a bizarre conflation of attraction and behavior as well as a horribly unfair reduction of his multifaceted relationship with the woman he loves. Yet Andrew spends an entire chapter of his book confusing and reducing of the lives and identities of LGBT people.

Criticism #2: Factually Incorrect Claims about Scientific Literature

There are hundreds of books and academic research articles that claim they have found the final, definitive answer in proving or disproving that same-sex attraction is either genetic or environmental. (p 39)

This sentence—at least insofar as it addresses books and articles claiming proof that orientation is either genetic or environmental—is simply untrue. Further, I would argue that this sentence is provably untrue.

I once held a similar opinion of the academic literature. Then, I started reading it for myself. I spend 9 months in university libraries reading some five decades worth of research on LGBT people. I’ve read the famous and controversial works of Kinsey, Hooker, Bailey & Packard, Spitzer, and many others. To the best of my knowledge, no academic book or paper published in the last 50 years makes such a claim.

although there has been a historic push over the last decade to complete a research study that infallibly shows a link from homosexuality to a specific gene(s), none have been able to be successfully duplicated to validate that claim." (p 75)

Again, this is simply untrue. Provably untrue. No peer-reviewed scientific work I am aware of has ever made such a claim, therefore there have been no vain attempts at duplication these nonexistent studies.

Perhaps Andrew is aware of references I am not, but I strongly doubt it.

My conclusion from reading the statements above is that Andrew has not read the academic literature. Why does this matter? Because his audience doesn’t know any better. Andrew presents himself as an expert on orientation and mentions multiple times in the book that he is himself conducting “a unique research project—the largest of its kind—looking into the religious convictions and experiences of the GLBT community throughout the United States." (p 22) I imagine that the evangelical audience reading Andrew’s book will accept as accurate his statements above which misreport the academic literature.

Why do I care what evangelicals think about science on LGBT people? Well, for one, I personally labored for years in academia and I know the blood, sweat, and tears that researchers go through to collect and analyze data and prepare papers and then to endure the oftentimes grueling peer-review process. I believe Andrew’s statements above unfairly misrepresent and maligns the hard work of many, many people. For a researcher, I believe this is unethical. For a Christian, this is bearing false witness.

But there’s more. The statements above do more than misreport the scientific literature. In these sentences, Andrew seems to dismiss the research on LGBT people that has been conducted to date, as if to say there is little or nothing of use that the decades of legitimate, scientific study of LGBT people can offer to the “conversation” between evangelicals and gays. This is simply not the case.

Academic research has cleared up many myths about LGBT people that some evangelicals continue to hold today. Like the ideas that LGBT people are mentally ill, that LGBT orientation is the same as pedophilia, that the children of LGBT people are worse off than children of heterosexual parents, and many others.

I see a great opportunity for “elevating the conversation” here. I would love to see Andrew dig into the scientific literature and read the source material for himself. The information he finds would be a fantastic resource to share with the evangelical church.

Furthermore, I am longing for someone to explain to the evangelical community that heterosexual orientation is every bit as complex as LGBT orientations are. Just as no study has shown that gay orientation is defined by genetics or environment, so also have no studies been able to find a source for heterosexual orientation.

Criticism #3: LGBT Portrayed Almost Exclusively as Miserable

I noticed a bizarre trend as I read the book: almost every personal story Andrew chose as illustrations for the book involves a miserable LGBT person. Seriously; I think I counted one or two stories total in the entire book that didn’t involve a gay person crying.

This feature of the book reminded me of similar literature exclusively depicting unhappy LGBT people that I read while growing up in the evangelical church and during my five years in ex-gay ministries. Illustrations such as these paint a single, monolithic portrayal of LGBT people as tortured, miserable souls. I'm not sure if this was Andrew's intent in selecting only sad stories for the book. I think his primary intention may have been to illustrate the pain that Christians and society have inflicted on gay people—and if so, he certainly accomplishes that. But I fear the effect of his stories may go further than that.

Because his stories are almost exclusively dark, sad, and miserable, I left the book wondering if Andrew actually feels deep down that LGBT people are sad, miserable people. I wonder if evangelicals reading the book will leave it with the conclusion that all LGBT people are tortured souls.

I fear the nonstop stories of loneliness, abadonment, disease, and death in this book may illicit pity, not compassion, from the audience. I'm not so sure that's a good thing.

Criticism #4: Conflating "LGBT Community" with LGBT People Reared in Conservative Christian Environments

Throughout the book, Andrew makes statements about the "LGBT community" (or, for accuracy’s sake, Andrew always writes "GLBT” not “LGBT”. For some reason I'm more accustomed to the L and the G being the other way around so I always write “LGBT”. Whatever. No biggie. I just wanted to make sure I quoted him accurately.).

As I hope I've made clear so far, I took issue with many of the things he claimed were true of the LGBT community. However, at one point in the book, he makes a statement about the community that makes me think his definition of LGBT community and mine may be different.

The GLBT community feels a constant unnamed pressure from both sides--an invisible Christian ideal that they can't see themselves living up to, and an overt push from the gay-friendly culture to just 'come out' and be OK with it. (p 48)

Originally, I made a note about this because I felt this was a myopic view of the LGBT community. I think many in the community never feel a pressure to live up to "an invisible Christian ideal." Why? Not everyone grows up in Christian families or communities. Not everyone grows up thinking the Christian ideal is, well, ideal or something to be lived up to at all.

But as I've thought about this more, perhaps this statement is a clue to understanding some of Andrew's claims about the LGBT community elsewhere in the book that I find so untrue. Perhaps Andrew is friends primarily with (only with) LGBT folks who come from conservative Christian backgrounds.

I wonder what it would be like if to re-read Andrew's book and replace "LGBT community" with "those in the LGBT community who were reared in conservative Christian environments." It’s clunky, but it might make more sense.

However, this is far from all of the LGBT community. The community is as religiously diverse as the world is. I think Andrew understands this, but the statement above left me wondering.

Missing the Point Entirely: Jerry Falwell

Now this caught me completely off guard. In the first chapter, Andrew tells the story of when he watched the cable news coverage of the death of Jerry Falwell, which included denunciations of the late evangelical pastor by many LGBT leaders.

I anticipated Andrew would immediately explain that the LGBT community was and continues to be deeply hurt not only by Falwell's vitriolic statements about LGBT people but also by the powerful political movement Falwell helped assemble that continues to oppose LGBT rights long after his death. I thought Andrew was setting up a teaching moment in which he would counter Falwell's acerbic, antagonistic relationship to gay folks with his own friendly, live-together-learn-together approach.

Instead, Andrew wrote the following bizarre sentences:

the majority of people negatively talking about Jerry Falwell that night had never met him. But there is an undercurrent of preexisting negative perceptions of Christianity's traditional belief system that utterly repulses gays and lesbians. (p 31)

Huh? "Preexisting negative perceptions of Christianity's traditional belief system" are the reasons why LGBT people don't like Jerry Falwell? Wha?

This seems to so completely misunderstand the reasons why LGBT opposed Jerry Falwell that I don't know what to say. Perhaps I'll let Wikipedia explain it using Falwell's own words:

Falwell told one crowd, "Gay folks would just as soon kill you as look at you."

When the mostly gay Metropolitcan Community Church was almost accepted into the World Council of Churches, Falwell called them "brute beasts" and stated, "this vile and satanic system will one day be utterly annihilated and there'll be a celebration in heaven."

Falwell also regularly linked the AIDS pandemic to LGBT issues and stated, “AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals, it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.”

Amongst many remarks over the years he is probably most known for statements attributed to him about a Teletubby being a gay role model for homosexual recruitment and stating that gays and lesbians were amongst those in some way responsible for the September 11 attacks.

I am flabbergasted that Andrew seems to have completely missed the point on Jerry Falwell--especially given the context of a book calling the evangelical church to repent of its past sins against LGBT folks and engage in friendly, respectful dialogue.

Excellent Step in the Right Direction: Begin Conversations about Morality with a Discussion of Beliefs about the Bible

On pages 67 and 68, Andrew recounts a stunning conversation with a nasty-tempered pastor. Meeting ostensibly to discuss the morality of LGBT relationships, the pastor surprised Andrew by opening the conversation with a statement of his belief that entire sections of the Bible "are not correct, not inspired" (p 67). Andrew titles this section "The Words I Never Thought I'd Hear from a Pastor" and devotes several paragraphs to explaining his utter shock that a Christian pastor might not believe the Bible to be infallible.

This stunning revelation appears to have been helpful to Andrew, however, and eleven pages later Andrew advises his readers to begin discussions of LGBT morality in a similar manner: couch discussions of morality in the larger context of overall biblical theology:

Find a gay church with a gay pastor; ask to get together with them so you can listen and learn. The best approach to doig this is to open with something like the following: "Can you please tell me what you believe the Bible says about same-sex sexual attraction and how you arrived at your conclusions?" (p 78)

I feel Andrew is absolutely on the right track here. So much of evangelical Christian's opposition to LGBT people is wrapped up in the interpretation of a few verses of the Bible that very often the arguments about morality start and end with splicing and dicing a few sentences. However, the better place to begin is with a bigger-picture view.

I would argue that the best place to begin is perhaps one step beyond what Andrew has presented: begin with an entirely separate discussion of the nature and significance of the Bible. I actually believe the first question an evangelical Christian should ask a gay Christian should have nothing whatsoever to do with morality of gay relationships. Instead, I feel the opening question should be "what do you believe about the Bible? Is it infallible? Is it inerrant? Are the words of the Bible the words of God?"

The second person I came out to in my present job is a devout Mennonite Christian. He was stunned to learn I was a gay Quaker and asked if we could meet outside of work to discuss. We agreed to meet up for dinner one evening… but it turned out that our discussion didn’t need to go into many small details. Instead of starting with Romans 1 or Leviticus 18, we started our discussion by laying out what we believe the Bible is and its relationship to God and people. Realizing that we differed at the very high level, we avoided entirely any need for quarrelling over minutia.

Andrew has absolutely identified the right angle here; shifting the discussion from minute details to a bigger-picture is an excellent way to "elevate" a conversation. In the LGBT-Christian conversation, the big-picture to start with is beliefs about the Bible as a whole.

Right On: Claim to the Term "Christian" Is up to the Person Who Claims It

My final praise for the book references Andrew's discussion of the terms "gay" and "Christian" and whether the two make sense together.

On pages 69-72, Andrew tells the life story of Tim, one of his friends who is employed by a large evangelical church in Chicago and who happens to be attracted to men. Tim's story is related in his own words, and concludes with his expression that he would like to one day be married and raise a family (although Tim is careful to say that getting married and having kids would not indicate his gay attractions had dissipated or that he had been "healed".)

Following Tim's story, Andrew had this to say:

What if Tim didn't want to get married and instead remained celibate? Would he be a gay Christian in your eyes--because I know many people in Tim's exact situation who still call themselves gay Christians. What about men and women who are actively involved in the GLBT community and profess to be Christians? Are they gay Christians as well? If they are, are they the same gay Christian that Tim calls himself? Does he still identify with them--is that even OK? These are all question for Tim, not for those of us who do not feel same-sex attractions. Christians should not be answering these question for them, but living life with those who have them. [emphasis Andrew's]

Embedded in the paragraph above are some of the most generous words I've ever seen written by an evangelical Christian about gay Christians. Let me just repeat them again

These are all question for Tim, not for those of us who do not feel same-sex attractions.

Amen.

I'd add my own comments, but I fear I'd detract from the power of this simple thought.

(Aisde: It's kind of fun to point out that Tim happens to be one of my friends, too :-) Tim and I met when we were involved in the same ex-gay ministry in the early 2000s. Ironically, I'm writing this blog entry in the central Illinois city where Tim grew up. But I digress...)

And on these two positive notes, I'll draw my review of Andrew Marin's Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community to a close. Phew! Congratulations to all of you who made it this far without falling asleep :-) Never fear, my next two reviews will be far shorter. Until next time...

7 comments:

Peterson Tocano said...

Thanks for taking the time to read and analyze Andrew's book. Disappointing indeed. I wonder though if Andrew's is being 100% honest about his beliefs and feelings. I wonder if behind closed doors he has a much more affirming, embracing and well, informed message about LGBT people. Evangelical speakers run the risk of losing their book contracts and speaker engagements if they cross the line on this issue. So I wonder if they tamp down their message, massage it, bidding their time, believing they are building an audience. Perhaps one day they will reveal their real feelings about these issues. I don't know. How long can someone walk with compromised integrity? How does that undermine the message when the person finally comes clean?

D.J. Free! said...

Hey J,

As of the time of this comment, Andy has now spoken to the questions I raised, and I hope he'll speak further to them.

I still think that your criticisms miss the crux of Andy's message. I think you're kinda doing what many conservies do with the Bible: attempting to extract exact, scientific proofs from stories, historical accounts, and prose.

But I see where you're coming from. I get it. NOW can I invite Andy over to read and respond? Pretty please?? :)

Joe Moderate said...

Peterson, thanks for your comments. I actually have never thought about what you just wrote--that evangelicals might not actually believe some of the things they say about LGBT folks. Very interesting.


DJ, thanks for the head's up! I just caught up on Andrew's blog conversation about the identity=behavior statement. Still didn't understand, so I posted a question in a comment of my own. His response has floored me--for exactly the reasons I identified in this post. Wow. I guess I didn't misunderstand what he was saying.

Is it your sense that I have missed the forest of Andrew's book for the trees of a few isolated sentences with which I disagree? That's okay. It's a free country; you have the right to be wrong. LOL.

I'm sorry if I've given the impression that my issues with the book are just the few sentences I discussed above. I assure you there are many more that I took issue with (Before I started writing this blog post, I went back through the book and transcribed all the comments I had made in the margins and the related statements in the book. I wound up with a 9 page document in Word--and that was before I added commentary! I had to prioritize the statements and select for the blog post the top few I thought were the most egregious and most praiseworthy)

Have you had a chance to read the entire book yet? I know you read Chapter 2 to get a sense of the context for Andy's identity=sexual behavior equation and my criticism of it. But have you had a chance to read all of the book? I'm curious if you're balking at my criticisms because you're reading them against the context of your interaction with Andrew Marin *outside* the book or if you're reading them against the context of the book.

You mention that you sense I have missed the "crux of Andy's message". Do you mean Andy's message outside the book or inside it? As I mentioned in the intro of my blog post, I found the words in the book to not fit with the guy I had thought Andrew Marin was before I read the book. Put another way, what I thought was the crux of Andy's message is not what I found to be the crux of the book. It's the whole reason I was disappointed. What do you think?

As for inviting Andrew to the blog, I appreciate you holding off until I'm ready--and I'm still not ready :-) But I think I'm close. I'm *very* interested in what Andrew is saying on the says in identity=sexual behavior issue, and I'd rather not distract from that preeminently important point of disagreement (it is, after all, my principal criticism of the book). Let's see what happens with the discussion in the comments on his blog and I'll let you know when I'm ready for Andrew to address all my criticisms and praises.

Also, if you haven't had a chance to read the entire book, I'd love for you to do that before Andrew gets involved here. I'd really like to see how your and my estimations of the book align or do not align once you've had a chance to read it all.

D.J. Free! said...

Hey J,

When you guys come, I would really love to expound on those many other notes in the margins of your book!

As for "missing the crux" of the book, could you please tell me . . . what DO you think the crux of the book is? What is the overall message that you feel is communicated in Andy's book?

It is a fair question you ask: whether I'm reading within the context of my personal relationship with Andy, or with the book itself. Though, if you think about it, how could I possibly divorce those 2 things. I'm necessarily going to read Andy's words with the filter of our relationship, and my knowledge of him. People will always read a book differently when they have had interactions with the author than if they've never had any.

But for what it's worth, I'm *trying* to look at this more objectively, and nit-pick it in that way. My fiancee (it's so cool to say that!) and I read through a little over half of the book when we drove back from Vermont. And from that half, I still have to say that your critiques still demonstrate to me that you're not seeing the forest for the trees. To work off of a previous analogy, I think you're being the engineer when you should be the bard. Of course, my opinion may change while reading through the latter half of the book. We'll see . . .

Either way, it will make for GREAT conversation when you and your guy come to meet me and mine :)

OK, battery's runnin' low! Gotta go!

DJ

Joe Moderate said...

Hey DJ, I've got limited time this morning, so I'll have to respond to your specific comments later. But in the mean time, I have a great suggestion to start us off: How about you post your own review of Andrew's book to your blog?

I have a sense that you and I are going to ultimately disagree on details and overall opinion of the book, so rather than us trying to bang my review of Andrew's book into your opinion, how about you just express your opinion in total yourself?

I'm enjoying this back and forth on the book, and I'd love to do it some with the roles reversed :-)

That said, I'll address some of the specifics later on. Hasta!

Joe Moderate said...

DJ,

so first off, I am guilty as charged: this is indeed an engineer's  review of the book.  :-)  In fact, this review appears in the format of the peer-reviews my publications in the academic literature have received and the format of the reviews I have provided others in the academic community when I have served as a peer-reviewer.   The structure is as follows:

1. Approval suggestion (in the literature this is typically: "accept for publication", "revise and resubmit", or "reject"; here I have opted for "Joe recommends or "Joe does not recommend")
2. Overview and general comments backing up approval suggestion, general style comments/readability/etc.
3. Specific comments backing up approval suggestion.  Particular care is made to inaccuracies/mathematical inaccuracies/unsubstantiated claims.

So yes, I am guilty as charged for writing an engineer's review.  It's the type of review I am trained to read and write... and have come to love and respect, actually.  I deeply appreciate the engineering focus on accuracy, truth, and what conclusions can be legitimately be drawn from evidence. 

You have written that you would like me to be a bard.  Please teach me :-)  Actually, please teach me and show me--would you please write a bard's review of the book containing your own opinion?  Seriously, I'm interested to know what you mean--as well as the entirety of your opinion on Andrew's book!  I feel that the majority of your thoughts that I've heard on the book have thus far been reactions to what I have said.  I'm interested to see your opinion in total.

As for the crux of Andrew's argument: hmm.  I'm not sure what to say about the crux of Andrew's life and ministry outside the book; my sense is that his goal is to reduce the distance between the evangelical church and the LGBT community--for the purpose of converting as many LGBT people as possible to the faith he believes to be true.

As for the book: my sense is the purpose of the book is to be a missionary's report--to teach the evangelical church what he has learned from living among a particular people group (in this case, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people) and what techniques have proven most effective for interacting with them--for the purpose of converting as many LGBT people as possible to the faith he believes to be true.

Hmm.  So maybe I'm teasing out his life purpose as I write the above.  I guess I would say the crux of his life is to convert as many people as possible to the faith he believes to be true.

Do you feel these conclusions I have drawn are accurate?

Pomoprophet said...

My BF just informed me that he ordered this book. I pointed him to your blog to get your approach to it. You are a great mind. So is he. I look forward to his thoughts as well :)