Midweek musing: out of the shadows

People have participated in loving, committed, life-long same-sex partnerships for ever such a long time. Until relatively recently in human history, they have participated in those relationships in the shadows.* But now, society is changing, and same-sex relationships are in the light - rather uncomfortably in the spotlight in this heightened time of readjustment of our understanding and ordering of society - but no longer hidden, shamed, punished.**

Why were same-sex relationships so shunned?

Why was heterosexuality so insisted upon?

I suppose for the survival of a species that reproduces by means of the uniting of male and female genetic material, the natural inclination of most of the species will be in that direction. So this establishes a 'norm'. And what differs from the 'norm' is feared.

At a most basic level and in the earliest history of humanity, perhaps that fear has to do with survival of the species - if male and female DNA is not united, the species does not continue.

Also pretty basic for humans is a fear of difference, for it makes us uncertain if we are unsure about who we are. And there is so much in human experience and living that unsettles our confidence in our identity.

In the more recent, post-industrial, human history, however, norms have been capitalised upon and exploited by advertisers seeking to sell the wares of producers. If the majority of the target market are heterosexual, then heterosexuality features in the stories the advertisers tell. This story is perpetuated in other forms of media to the extent that we begin to believe that this story is not only the story most of us live, but that we all should live.

The story that gets told more often than any other is that of boy meets girl and falls in love and after some rough patch or another marries the girl. They have lots of children and live happily ever after.
I remember a boy telling me on a beach one night that he wanted to pick me up and carry me away into the sunset. But he was telling me this as he was putting an end to a relationship that never really started, because I think he saw the solitary person I am before I understood myself. I wanted so desperately to live the narrative my culture told me I should, though I am healthily solitary and community oriented in the way I participate in relationships. The irony of that dominant narrative is that I came to know it and desire it through the stories of such writers as Jane Austen, whose own story was one of a solitary woman by choice or circumstance, but frustrated by her inability to truly be independent.  It is her struggle that makes me grateful for the times in which I live.

A consequence of the norms of a society is the shaping of its laws to protect people. Many women were vulnerable for the longest time in human history because they were seen as property under the care and protection of the men in their family. Laws like those restricting divorce were the wider society's response to that vulnerability, attempts to protect women (and children) from abandonment.

Women are (mostly) viewed now as humans of the same dignity, worth, and independent agency as men, and laws and customs relating to marriage and divorce (and much more of life) have adapted. A couple separating their shared life are protected as two humans of equal dignity and vulnerability.

Laws are changed, introduced, repealed, in response to the growth and development of human societies. Marriage laws have changed so many times; marriage customs have changed over time.

However, I suppose the norm has remained fairly stable, in the light, for a long time, and it has become comfortable. The dominant narrative has pushed not only people of same-sex relationships into the shadows, but people choosing singleness out of the light as well, to the extent that it's not even a celebrated or even understood and affirmed choice any more to join a celibate religious order.

Why are we so incredibly afraid in Australia - a developed nation very slow to introduce laws supporting same-sex marriage - of another change to a fluid and responsive custom?

Shining the light on what is different is making people uncomfortable. Those who seem most uncomfortable, or are the loudest about it, seem to be within the Christian tradition. Is the discomfort due to the exposure of inadequate knowledge of our scriptures, or complacency with shallow or outdated understanding?

Christianity was founded on the counter-cultural way that Jesus lived and taught. Even maintaining the norms of gender roles within his community (the women served in his group of followers, carried out the rituals pertaining to burial, etc.),*** Jesus' relationships with women, seeing them not as a threat to one's honour with their inherent tendency to bring shame, but as humans of dignity and worth, challenged both Jewish and Greco-Roman culture. He seems not to have married, himself, and thus through his living challenged the normative path into marriage set by the culture of his time.

I think Christianity has found itself buying into the norms exploited and perpetuated by the empire of capitalism in the West. Christianity has long privileged a dominant narrative of marriage for all women and men to a man or a woman, and been supported in its view by the narrative of the world in which we dwell, but of which we are not called to be.

People of LGBT identity are claiming their identity and stepping out of the shadows, demanding their dignity and worth. This seems to me to be consistent with the way that Jesus lived. Claiming our dignity, nurturing our wellbeing, living with love and kindness, not fear and cruelty - that is the life in its fulness for which Jesus lived and died and lives again.

To change the laws governing marriage is to act with love and kindness, to celebrate love and kindness. Not to do so is to be cruel and to act out of fear, which is wholly inconsistent with the narrative of Jesus, the narrative to which every Christian has ascribed.

* A caveat: I am bemused by the fascination humans have with sex, sexuality, and what others are doing with theirs. There really is a lot more to life, you know (though I suppose there isn't any life without it, so ...).

** I've been re-watching Call the Midwife, with its stories of the really quite terrible treatment, criminalisation, and ostracising of homosexuality in the very recent past.

*** I've been reading William Loader's work on sexuality and the Bible. This may be a more accessible discussion, though.
ABC Religion & Ethics also have some helpful contributions from other Australian biblical scholars such as Sean Winter, Geoff Thompson, and Robyn Whitaker.


Heather said…
I agree that fear of change or difference is a strong motivator, Sarah.
Consciously or subconsciously, I think power over others also has a lot to do with what we view as acceptable. To some extent the adjustment of marriage laws (to include LGBTQI couples) disrupts established gender roles in heterosexual marriages and in society more generally. Familiar gender roles tend to hold traditional powers in place.
Thank you for your thoughts.
Glenys said…
Well said. A gentle opening up of the wider subject.So much fear amongst the desire to love and be loved.

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