Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Joe Does Not Recommend: Love Is an Orientation

I’m sure everyone has had the experience of being let down by someone, 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 evangelical Christian who holds the traditional evangelical conviction that gay relationships are immoral. Andrew is no traditional evangelical, however. During college he was stunned when all three of his best friends came out to him over the course of a month. After college, Andrew did something I’ve never heard of another evangelical doing: 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 traditional 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 the LGBT community in Chicago, 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. I was expecting to find a fresh evangelical perspective on LGBT people, see widely held misconceptions cleared up, and see a new way chartered for relationship between the evangelical and LGBT communities.

I was deeply disappointed.

Mind you, there are some glimmers of wisdom and fresh perspective in the book, and I want to make sure these receive credit (I will give these special treatment momentarily). However, I want to be clear when I say that the lion’s share of the book is not new. Over and over as I read the book I recalled scores of ex-gay books I have read who said identical things—incorrect things.

Misconceptions about LGBT people common in evangelical churches and ex-gay literature are sadly reiterated in Andrew’s book. Further, on two occasions, Andrew completely misreports the academic scholarship on LGBT people—a fact that deeply disturbs me coming from a man who claims to be himself conducting research, “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)

This book, I am afraid, does little to “elevate the conversation with the gay community” as its subtitle aspires. Rather than elevating the conversation, I believe with few exceptions Andrew’s book leaves its Christian audience in the same spot he found them, while reinforcing misinformation about the LGBT community they have probably heard before.

I have a lot to say about this book. My raw notes on the book total 9 pages in Microsoft Word—far too long for this blog posting! If you want my full download, just say so in a comment and leave your email address for me. Here on the blog I'll do my best to whittle my thoughts down to the most important topics.

Criticism #1: “Sexual Behavior is Gay Identity”

This is not just a sentence lifted from some obscure part of the book. This is the subtitle of an entire chapter of the book--the second chapter at that.
Chapter 2: We Are Not Your Project: Sexual Behavior Is Gay Identity
With this dubious title, Andrew proceeds to kick the book off to a decidedly bad start. In fact, Chapter 2 is so full of misinformation about and reductions of gay people that I initially concluded the book was doomed to be just another rehash of the standard evangelical misinformation rubbish about the gays. After reading the following statements, I decided I would not continue reading the book:
if someone were to take away their sexual behavior, they would be taking away all they are as people. (p 37)
their sexual behavior is who they are. [emphasis Andrew’s, not mine] (p 38)
This is horrific. These words are so dehumanizing and so misrepresentative of me and the LGBT people I know that I couldn't bear to read any further. What an unfair reduction of the lives of LGBT people.

I’m a guy. I’m an engineer. I’m a brother, a friend, and a son. I’m a husband. I like to teach. I like to read. I like to landscape, and hike, and spend time with friends.

I happen to be gay. Without question I enjoy making love with my husband. Hell, "enjoy" is too mild a word--I absolutely and unapologetically love making love to the man I love :-) Gay sex is a wonderful part of my life. But it is just that--a part. Sex is far, far, far from being all of me or being the core of my identity! You could easily remove the gay part of my life and you’d still have a person who is all the roles I mentioned above and who likes all the things I mentioned above—just minus the gay part. That’s all.

But there's more to be said here. Gay sexual behavior is far, far, far from being all of my gay identity. Andrew deeply disappointed me by never once addressing gay romance. I mentioned above that my husband and I share a wonderful sex life, yet sex represents by far the minority of the time we spend together. If I were to define "gay identity" it would start with loving, caring for, and being attracted to a person of the same gender. Sexual attraction is in there, to be sure. But my understanding of "gay identity" includes romance, companionship, caring for my husband and receiving care, pursing common goals and dreams—all these things are a part of my gay identity.

I daresay Andrew would never write that his "heterosexual identity" "is" the sex he has with his wife. That would be a horrible reduction of his multifaceted relationship with the woman he loves.

Yet Andrew has devoted an entire chapter of his book on "elevating the conversation with the gay community" to a similar unfari reduction of the lives and identities of LGBT people. As I mentioned before, I was so deeply offended by Chapter 2 that I put down the book never to return again.

As chance would have it, though, I happened to be trapped in the car with the book on a 1000 mile trip to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. So, somewhere in the boredom around Saginaw, Michigan, I reluctantly reopened the book and continued reading. It turned out that Chapter 2 was the worst of the book. To be sure, I have a few other major disagreements with what Andrew had to say after Chapter 2, but I nothing struck me as being quite as grievous as that Chapter.

Moreover, I also found Andrew wrote some things that I felt were steps in the right direction. I'll get to these momentarily.

Criticism #2: Factually Incorrect Claims about Academic 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)
If only I had a nickle for every time I've heard statements similar to this. This sentence is simply untrue. I have read dozens of academic studies of orientation, including the famous and controversial works of Kinsey, Hooker, Bailey & Packard, Spitzer and others. I am not aware of any academic book or paper published in the last 50 years that makes such a claim.

Unfortunately, Andrew appears to be unaware of this. However, rather than admitting his unfamiliarity with the academic literature or simply remaining silent about this matter, he voices myth:
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. No work has made such a claim, therefore there has been no vain attempts to duplication. Arrrrrrrrrggggghhh! This is so frustrating. Statements like this are vintage Exodus; stuff like this are flippantly tossed around in session after session at ex-gay conferences (just ask me, I've been to four) by people who have never once read an academic journal article. Arrrrrrrrrrggggghhhh. I had honestly thought Andrew was better informed than this. What a huge let-down.

The average layperson—evangelical or not—does not whether the statements above are true. But Andrew does not present himself as an average layperson. In fact, he states that his foundation is currently conducting the research study of its own "the largest of its kind". It disturbs me that someone heading such a project would so completely misrepresent the existing academic literature on LGBT people.

Criticism #3: LGBT Portrayed Almost Exclusively as Miserable

Whereas my first and second criticsm are of things Andrew wrote that I simply believe are untrue, this third criticism is more along the lines of something I found strange and ill-advised.

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 in the entire book that didn’t involve a gay person crying.

This feature of the book reminded me of literature about gay people I read growing up in the evangelical church as well as during my five years in ex-gay ministries: these illustrations 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. But, by the same token, I'm not convinced that this was not his intent.

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. His nonstop stories of loneliness, abadonment, disease, and death illicited pity from me. I'm not so sure that's a good thing.

I’m puzzled that a person like Andrew, who apparently has interacted with hundreds of LGBT folks over the course of many years, couldn’t choose more emotionally balanced stories. Is it possible that all—or almost all—of his gay friends are miserable? I find this very hard to believe. And if it is the case, I’d love to introduce him to my friends so he can have he pleasure of knowing some happy LGBT folks :-)

I am also aware that some evangelical readers of Andrew's book won't know many (or any) gay people themselves. While this is increasingly rare, for some Andrew's stories may be all they know of the lives of LGBT people. I feel a more emotionally balanced mix of stories would have helped to highlight that fact that some LGBT folks live peaceful, fulfilled lives. I find that awareness of the dignity of a people cause tales of injustice done to those people to illicit righteous indignation and corrective action, not pity. If corrective action is Andrew's goal, I feel more emotionally representative illustrations are advised.

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

Throughout the book, Andrew makes statements about the "LGBT community" (or, actually, he always writes "GLBT". for some reason I'm accustomed to the L and the G being the other way around. whatever). As I hope I'm 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 a LGBT community and mine are 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 thinking the Christian ideal is, well, ideal.

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 familiar only with LGBT folks who come from conservative Christian backgrounds.

However, this is far from all of the LGBT community. The community is as religiously diverse as the world is. I expected Andrew would understand that, but the statement above has left me wondering.

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

Completely Missed the Point: Jerry Falwell

Now this caught me completely off guard. In the first chapter, Andrew discusses watching the CNN 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 he 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)
WTF? "Preexisting negative perceptions of Christianity's traditional belief system" are the reasons why LGBT people don't like Jerry Falwell? This so completely misses the point 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 at how Andrew has 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.

"Preexisting negative perceptions of Christianity's traditional belief system"? Unbelievable.

...

While I found most of Andrew's book to be disappointing, he did include several solid concepts that, if implemented, I feel would greatly improve the interaction between LGBT folks and conservative Christians. They are as follows:

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 rather ill-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 couch discussions of LGBT morality in the context of the Bible:
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 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 ou believe about the Bible? Is it infallible? Is it inerrant? Are the words of the Bible the words of God?"

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 dissippated or that he had been "healed".)

Following Tim's story, Andrew had this to say:
What f 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 inovled 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 generous words I've ever seen written by an evangelical. 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...

Three Reviews

During a recent week of vacation, my husband and I read one book and viewed two DVDs that all address the same issue: the interaction between evangelical Christianity and the LGBT community. Each of these media come from sources we esteem.
  1. The book Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community was written by Andrew Marin, a (straight) conservative evangelical who has made his home in a gay neighborhood in Chicago and has invested several years in relationships in that community.

  2. The DVD Through My Eyes: An Eye-Opening Experience was produced by the Gay Christian Network, an online community of self-identified gay Christians who hold a range of beliefs on whether God blesses or opposes gay relationships.

  3. The DVD Bridging the Gap: Conversations on Befriending our Gay Neighbours (that's right, neighbours; it was produced in Canada, so they can write stuff like that) was produced by New Directions, an evangelical ministry based in Toronto that reaches out both to the gay community and to churches and Christians.
Although I was initially excited about all of these materials, I was not uniformly pleased with them. In fact, I found one of them so disappointing that I fear it may actually further the misinformation that divides evangelical Christians and LGBT folks.

Spoiler alert: I want to get the negative stuff over first, so I'm going to begin with the one I found disappointing and work up to the one I recommend the highest.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Where Was Barack Obama Born?

ROFL; this is the best clip on The Daily Show in a long time.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

New Yarhouse Study of Mixed-Orientation Marriages

Regent University professor Mark Yarhouse, co-author of the recent Intervarsity book Ex-Gays? A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation, is apparently conducting a study of mixed-orientation marriages.

Yarhouse's prior work with participants of ex-gay ministries was quite controversial, perhaps chiefly due to the unusally restricted sample population used for his book. In that study, Exodus exclusively supplied all participants for the study. In this study, however, Yarhouse is soliciting participation from anyone who will complete an online survey.

My hope is that, if the response to this study's call for participants is sufficiently broad and sufficiently diverse, the study may return more representative (and hence more useful) results.

If you presently are or have ever been married to a person with an orientation different from your own, I encourage you to participate in this study. Participation is anonymous and involves completing an online survey (see the study website for more information).

Here's hoping for a large, representative turnout and a healthy peer review of the study's results.

Hat tip: my friend DJ Free

Laid Off

This week I am officially unemployed. As an austerity measure, my employer is temporarily laying off employees in various divisions for 1, 3, even 6 weeks out of 2009. As I am fortunate to work in one of the more profitable divisions of the company, this week is my only week of layoff--so far (more temporary layoffs may be announced once the second-quarter earnings have been analyzed). But for the time being, everyone in my division--from the vice-president to the janitor--is laid off for one week. The company saves ~$1.25 million in salaries, and we get to return to our jobs on Monday.

All in all, it's not a bad deal. I've been able to enjoy an extra week off from work and five extra nights cuddling with my husband :-) Granted, I'm not making much money (the supplemental unemployment benefit is roughly 37% of my normal salary), but it's nice to have some extra down time to enjoy the summer. And did I mention the cuddles? :-D

But I gotta admit it was a surreal experience to file for unemployment this past Monday. A surreal experience felt by all too many Americans recently :-/ I'm grateful that my unemployment is only temporary.