I love ideas. I love them. I love abstracted, philosophical, complex ways of looking at things. There is something alluring about them to me, something that is so grand, and so large. They make me feel like anything is possible; free, endless. Ideas also create sense and order. They can be like a warm blanket—something that reassures and comforts. They sharpen a blurry image. For me, I suppose, ideas are inextricably linked to meaning.
I have to be real with myself: I’m not an atheist or a nihilist. At the end of the day, I cannot bring myself to believe in any philosophical construct that rejects meaning. To me, philosophy’s goal is to make sense, figure stuff out. If something can’t be figured out, then what’s the point? It’s all a wild goose chase? I can’t believe that. If everything is meaningless, then I’d rather make myself think that it was, otherwise I’d just slowly seep away into a black hole and I would contribute nothing to this life. Perhaps it’s how I was raised, and I can’t bring myself to reject everything that I’ve ever known. Who knows?
So, taking for granted that meaning exists, that patterns can be drawn between events, and that natural processes and identities can have a purpose, I raise and examine the question: What accounts for the existence of gay people?
If I was a nihilist, the answer would be simple: nothing. In the traditional view of the Christian church, the answer would be: sin, temptation. I reject both.
I will address the former later on, but in regards to the latter—in my experience, having feelings and impulses towards members of my sex came naturally. They may not have always felt natural, but I explain that by the environment in which I lived: I did not know any openly gay people in my early close circles, and I did not hear or know of any gay-affirming ideologies. Once I had, the truth of my feelings became clear, strengthened by the fact that they did not disappear and grew over time. Reconciling my identification with being gay, and allowing those feelings to be expressed, helped me become a more actualized and authentic version of myself. I cannot, by any stretch of my imagination, think of gay identity as a result of sin/temptation by an evil force. Aside from struggles of acceptance, expressing my genuine gay self has brought nothing but joy in my life (Another rebuke of the “sin” viewpoint is the well-documented failure of ex-gay ministries).
So, if being gay is not an aberration, but something natural, and if we focus on the philosophy that nature’s processes have meaning, what is the meaning of gay existence? Perhaps first, it is worth asking what is gay existence? Or: what is the gay identity? Inextricably linked with the question of our existence (the why?), is the question of gay identity itself (the what?).
Is it even possible—the idea that all gays share a common denominator, that all gays have similar traits? I mean, obviously every person is an individual and it’s impossible to speak for everyone. But, the truth that our personal erotic desires lie outside of the dominant culture of man-woman/procreative love has to account for something. This status as an outsider places gay people in a position that is unlike that of our straight counterparts. Everybody makes their own choices and has their own backgrounds and experiences, but perhaps being gay is best described as a non-dominant social-sexual position.
I have just finished reading Extraordinary Hearts: Reclaiming Gay Sensibility’s Central Role in the Progress of Civilization by journalist and theologian Nicholas F. Benton (I’ve been reading it all summer for god’s sake), that is a compilation of one hundred columns published under the title, “Nick Benton’s Gay Science” on consecutive weeks from October 2010 through September 2012 on the web site of the Falls Church News-Press and in print in the Metro Weekly (a prominent LGBT newspaper for the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area). Benton’s over-arching purpose for the column is to find purpose in the existence of gay people. As a result of his experiences, from his part in the early gay liberation movement post-Stonewall, to his abrupt exit from the same movement in the mid-1970s, along with his personal and theological beliefs (he lived through the AIDS crisis; he obtained a masters of divinity degree in 1969), Benton identifies core values that he believes link gay individuals throughout human history, and should be the rallying cry behind which the LGBT community moves forward.
Benton’s beliefs rest on his core definitions of gay identity: (1) “preponderant qualities of heightened empathy and compassion for the underdog,” (2) “an alternate sensual perspective applied to all aspects of life,” and (3) “a constructive non-conformity that account for the amazing contributions our ‘tribe’ has brought to the benefit of all humanity for thousands of years” (Benton 340).
So—wait, what? Let’s break this down. Benton talks at length about each of these traits, and recapitulates his central themes over and over, bringing new evidence to support his statements with each sequential entry. His writing is a manifesto on identity, which expresses strongly-held beliefs and views.
First, he describes the “heightened empathy” of gays as our tendency to oppose tyranny (AKA patriarchy) and its domination over women, children, and subjugated peoples. He sees gay people as pacifists, generally, as those who see the folly in derived territorial and resource-perceived requirements that cause wars. In the grand scheme of things, gay people help “stand in the way of male dominion’s total lust for conquest and control” (188). We liberate the oppressed, as Walt Whitman says: “great poets” (gays) “cheer up slaves and horrify despots” (Leaves of Grass).
Second, our “alternate sensual perspective.” This relates to what I mentioned above concerning our “non-dominant social-sexual position”—because of that, we are not procreative and focused on species reproduction, but rather on “beauty and forms that elevate and humanize the spirit” (Benton 188). This can be seen in gay people’s sense of style, design, and creative spirit. While not all gay people identify as artists, there is certainly a larger percentage of gay people that are artists than straight people (walk into any theater and you can see it with your own eyes). And even if a gay person isn’t an artist, Benton would contend that they would bring a creative essence to whatever they’re involved in (if they were being their authentic selves).
The third identifier, “constructive non-conformity” is defined by Benton as our recognition that we will “never, nor should, fit in to male-dominated society” and that “it is in our very core to counter its influence in a myriad of ways” (188), whether it be our sass and camp, our public service, or the ways in which we service our individual specialties/subject. Benton sees this as a “natural impulse” of gay people.
I’m sure some of this sounds high-falutin’ and pretentious, but I think Benton is really getting at something here. His ideas really excite me. I want to go into all of this further, but I feel that this post is already getting on the lengthy side. So, we will continue on in the next post! Coming up: more thoughts on Benton’s core gay identifiers and why this relates to my original question (What accounts for the existence of gay people?), as well as how these views sit in the context of the post-Stonewall gay movement and postmodernist philosophies of the past century.
[Benton, Nicholas F. Extraordinary Hearts: Reclaiming Gay Sensibility’s Central Role in the Progress of Civilization. Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe, 2013. Print.]