Saturday, April 22, 2006

Never Enough Heteronormative Religionists Department

Lately I've been reading Amin Maalouf's In The Name Of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, a thin but thought-provoking text from a decade ago that I've been reading as research into one of my long-term projects. It did occur to me, in light of Blog Against Normativity Day, to write about identity and violence in terms of heterosexual and non-heterosexual identities, and religion's role in it all. Identity being tied to one's affiliations, it's instructional to start with example what makes up affiliations:

"What determines a person's affiliation to a given group is essentially the influence of others: the influence of those about him — relatives, fellow countrymen, co-religionists — who try to make him one of them; together with the influence of those on the other side, who do their best to exclude him." (p. 25)

While sexuality may be pre-determined, affiliation is learned through friend and foe alike. Think about so-called "ex-gays" that deny their native sexuality because they came to the realization that said sexuality is evil. While one may wonder if some ex-gays might have a single bad encounter that drove them from a queer identity, don't think that they only recently came to that conclusion. In a heteronormative society, where people are assumed and expected to be heterosexual, homosexuality is automatically banned to the realms of the Other, and it's easy to accept this judgement, especially if a religious leader describes homosexuality in loathesome and fearful terms, climaxing with the threat of God's rejection and eternal punishment. Only the creation of the Gay Pride movement, in the wake of Stonewall, formed an effective counter to this heteronormative judgement. Before then, few defied heteronormativity without guilt and shame. Those who knew they were gay were often left to masquerade, sometimes as married heterosexuals with furtive affairs, sometimes as committed bachelors and spinsters who had companions or roommates — with whom they had furtive affairs.

Likewise, heterosexuality becomes a part of one's identity, albeit usually not in the fore unless challenged either directly with taunts, or else indirectly through contrast. To further quote Maalouf:

"The apprenticeship starts very soon, in early childhood. Deliberatey or otherwise, those around him mould him, shape him, instil into him family beliefs, rituals, attitudes and conventions ... and also certain fears, aspirations, prejudices and grudges, not forgetting various feelings of affiliation and non-affiliation, belonging and not belonging.

"And soon, at home, at school and in the next street, he will suffer the first knocks. By their words and by their looks, other people will make him feel he is poor, or lame, short or lanky, swarthy or too fair, circumcised or uncircumcised, or an orphan ...." (p. 25)

...And don't forget fag/dyke or straight.

So if it is the nature of heteronormative society to challenge its own commitment to heterosexuality as a means of reinforcing it, especially for males brought up to be more openly prone to violence, then it becomes clear that heterosexual attitudes must be modified until they are less and less of a threat to anyone — including, and especially heterosexuals. I believe that advances in knowledge, global communications and free travel have done much to lessen the need to maintain heterosexuality as the status quo and, in contrast, treat homosexuality, transgenderism, and other excluded forms of sex/gender expression as "deviances" to be shunned as weird, insane, depraved, fatal and damnable. Even so, there are no guarantees of constant progress or safety and every reason to believe that the tides of history do occasionally shift aganst those of us putting our queer toes into the waters, and threatens to pull us under.

"Take the case of an Italian homosexual in the days of fascism. I imagine that for the man himself that particular aspect of his personality had up till then been important, but not more so than his professional activity, his political choices or his religious beliefs. But suddenly state repression swoops down on him and he feels threatened with humiliation, deportation or death. It's the recollection of certain books I've read and films I've seen that leads me to choose this example. [emphasis added] This man, who a few years earlier was a patriot, perhaps even a nationalist, was no longer able to exult at the sight of the Italian army marching by; he may even have come to wish for its defeat. Because of the persecution to which he was subjected, his sexual preferences came to outweigh his other affiliations, among them even the nationalism which at the time was at its height. Only after the war, in a more tolerant Italy, would our man have felt entirely Italian once more." (p. 14)

I find it curious that Maalouf feels the urge to explain why he chose this example. Is he asserting his own heterosexuality in the face of talking about identity in the case of homosexuality? Does this reinforce heteronormativity? What of the phrase "sexual preferences" — does Maalouf now, a decade after writing the above paragraph, think differently of homosexuality than he does now?

And yet, his point here is well made. Each of us is an amalgam of allegiances, and each allegiance forms a portion of the individual's identity; but attack one allegiance and it comes to the fore, seeming to be the most important part of that identity as long as the individual feels under attack. The religious right complains that gays, lesbians, bisexuals and the transgendered insist on being, to use the common expression, in their face when it comes to their sexuality and gender expression — and yet, would it even be an issue if these same right-wing religionists weren't constantly attacking the very ones over which they complain? Would there be gay pride rallies if there wasn't an emphasis on shame in our culture over one's sexuality? And for that matter, what if the religious right didn't feel as if their way of life was under attack? Would they bother to attack in defense of their identity?

I little doubt that heteronormativity can be relieved by more visible, sympathetic, dare-I-say mainstream presentations of queers. But were I to choose to go this path — and I likely would not — would the challenge to heterosexual norms result in more violence and hatred? I tend to doubt it, but I cannot rule out the possibility of another Shepherd, another Araujo — or perhaps worse still.

"We have only to review the events of the last few years to see that any human community that feels humilated or fears for its existence will tend to produce killers. And these killers will commit the most dreadful atrocities in the belief that they are right to do so and deserve the admiration of their fellows in this world and bliss in the next. (p. 28)

So why is religion so important in this equation? In the case of heteronormativity, Abrahamic religion would appear to be a reinforcement, its rules on sex and sexuality borne out of a need to form an identity distinct from the other monotheistic Semites in post-Exile Asia Minor, who often used sex of all kinds, with all sorts of gender transformations and transgressions, as a path to their divinity. Hence, three major world religions can claim laws against homosexuality, crossdressing and pretty much any non-procreative sex between husband and wife, and thus form an identity based on sexual taboos. The more modern theological invention that procreation is the only divine aspect of sex, and all else is sin and obscenity, only justifies an identity that is challenged not just by the behavior of the LGBT community, but by science, birth control, sex education and increased cultural significance on pleasure. In the West the religious view on sex is gradually giving away but is moving faster by globalization and its resulting cultural cross-semination, and this along with other modern pressures whips extremist reactionary thought into a bloodlust.

"The ever-increasing speed of globalization undoubtedly reinforces, by way of reactionk, people's need for identity. And because of the existential anguish that accompanies such sudden changes it also strengthens their need for spirituality. But only religious allegiance meets, or seeks to meet, both these needs." (p. 93)

"It is not enough now to separate Church and State: what has to do with religion must be kept apart from what has to do with identity. And if we want that amalgam to stop feeding fanaticism, terror, and ... wars, we must find other ways of satisfying the need for identity." (p. 96)

It seems that the only real way to strip identity from religion, however, would be to strip away all those things that make it religion. Let's face facts: The word "religion" may well derive from the Latin "religare", to bind again; and does that not describe a spiritual community somehow? Without common rituals, dogma, theological points of view, etc., what is left but an anarchism of spirituality? Despite Maalouf's insistence a page before that he is not arguing for the abolition of religion, it's hard to see how religion would survive the destruction of its ability to create identifications. Still, one might wonder if it's possible to create a sense of identity that is spiritual in nature but still stripped of the negative effects of religious overidentification. Religious humanism, maybe? Ah, but that's under attack by the religionists too, and for the same reason homosexuality and its fellow travellers are under attack — because they think they were attacked first.

"[E]veryone nowadays [feels] himself to be living to a certain extent in a minority, in exile. This is because all communities and cultures have a sense that they are up against others stronger than they, a feeling that they can no longer keep their heritage safe. Looked at from the South and the East, it is the West that dominates. Looked at from Paris, it is America that holds sway. But if you go to the United States, then what do you see? You see minorities reflecting all the diversity in the world, all needing to assert their original allegiances. And when you have met all these minorities and have been told a hundred times that power is in the hands of white males, or of Anglo-Saxon Protestants, you suddenly hear the sound of a huge explosion in Oklahoma City. And who are the people responsible? Some white male Anglo-Saxon Protestants who regard themselves as members of the most neglected and despised of minorities, and who believe that globalisation is sounding the knell of 'their' America." (p. 124)

Hence, a heterosexual's insecurity does not simply come from the internal challenges to his/her own heterosexuality; it is also because he/she feels his/her world changing into something he/she doesn't recognize — no longer is sure of his/her own place in it. From that point of view, a Gay Pride rally is a palpable sign of that change, and therefore a threat. But contrarywise, the Gay Pride rally arose because, as a persecuted minority, LGBT folk felt a need to carve out a place in that world. While it may be worrisome that heteronormative extremists feel a need to reproduce in excess in order to maintain their numbers, generally speaking their time is short. Eventually their children will be exposed to a greater slice of the world, and may in time discover the contradiction between the wonders of modernity and the values they were taught. They may yet conclude that there are greater values than those they were taught, and increasingly come to regard the LGBT community in the light of shared humanity. Meanwhile modern heteronormativity gives way to a world where hatred and fear of homosexuality no longer remain viable options.

"So who does the world really belong to? Not to any particular race or any particular country. [Nor any particular sexuality. — Lil] More than at any other time in history it belongs to all those who want to make a place for themselves in it. It belongs to all those who endeavour to understand the new rules of the game, however bewildering they may be, and try to use them to their own advantage." (p. 124-5)


belledame222 said...

Great post, lots to chew on.

We were actually just talking about "religiare" as the root of "religion" in my pagan study group. It's interesting that we tend to forget that, the religious and non-religious among us alike; "religion" has come to connote more "dogma," or perhaps "fearful superstitition."

I've been mulling over the connection between spirituality and sexuality for a while. For me at least they go together; in both cases I was struggling to articulate something outside the parameters of exisitng structures, at least that I knew of.

I also think this is really key:

|Hence, a heterosexual's insecurity does not simply come from the internal challenges to his/her own heterosexuality; it is also because he/she feels his/her world changing into something he/she doesn't recognize &emdash; no longer is sure of his/her own place in it|

"Oh dearie dearie me, this is none of I." That feeling of strangeness, and the experience of it as something froghtening and dangerous, is totally important, and isn't talked about nearly enough. It's at the root of all fundamentalisms, I think.

Koan said...

This post is featured in the sixth edition of the Carnival of Bent Attractions - enjoy! :-) Koan