One thing I can tell you confidently is fiction: last week's unusual attempt to make sense of the mechanics and matter behind "coming out." The article won me about as many friends as I expected (very few), and left some others confused.
Another fiction is that "being gay" is easier to understand—especially for many of us who don't claim it—than the idea of "being X-ray."
The fact is, fictions exist. The trouble is that our ever-increasing zeal for authenticity, especially in the arena of sexuality, forces our hand on these fictions—to absolutize them in the direction either of universal truth or undeniable falsehood.
Michael W. Hannon has once again done a tremendous job shedding a bit of light on the otherwise murky depths of fact, fiction, and gay identity. In last week's piece for First Things, Hannon expounds two reasons for believing that "sexual identity" is a not a very "constructive construct."
First of all, the heterosexuality-homosexuality distinction is a construct that is dishonest about its identity as a construct, masquerading as it does as a natural categorization [more on that here], applicable to all people in all times and places according to the typical objects of their sexual desires (albeit with perhaps a few more menu items on offer for the more politically correct categorizers). Claiming to be not simply an accidental nineteenth-century invention but a timeless truth about human sexual nature, this framework puts on airs, deceiving those who adopt its distinctions into believing that they are worth far more than they really are.
A second reason for doubting the value of "sexual identity," he says, is that
its introduction into our sexual discourse has not noticeably increased the virtues—intellectual or moral—of those who utilize it. On the contrary, it has bred both intellectual obscurity and moral disarray. Our young people, for instance, now regularly find themselves agonizing over their sexual identity, navel-gazing in an attempt to discern their place in this allegedly natural framework of orientations. Such obsessions invite far more heat than light, and focus our already sexually excited adolescents on discerning extraneous dimensions of their own sexual makeup.
As I've come to expect, Hannon propounds his views with the seriousness and charity that any public discussion of sexuality should maintain. He's not afraid, however, to point out that certain concepts aren't befitting of a reflective and worthwhile cultural or moral tradition. Moreover, some related terms must even be actively purged from the lexicon.
Sometimes, this must be done with help from those outside the phenomena to be explained, bringing a vantage point to the subject that those caught up in the occurrence do not have, and offering an explanation that they may not be able to craft for themselves. All this is simply to say that, while it is true that we must meet people where they are, it does not follow that we must begin by agreeing with their account of the location.
This last comment is invaluable. It gives confidence to those who wish to be both kind and keen, and reminds us that drawing distinctions, even in emotionally chaotic moments, can sometimes be valuable—sometimes even dutiful.
Last week's "Coming Out as X-Ray" was perceived by most to be an argument; yet by others it was taken to be a joke, or even crass mocking. It was none of these—at least not entirely. On the other hand, it was an attempt to understand the anatomy of "being gay" from a dispassionate, third-party perspective. Hannon had exercised the syllogistic approach, so I took the anecdotal one. Of course, I had my opinions going in—it's no secret that I tend to side with Hannon on the "don't say gay" debate—but fiction, like a careful argument, helps to remove undue bias by leveling the playing field and opening it up to all sides.
While my rendition of embracing the "X-ray identity" was pure fiction, however, the ideas behind it were not. A few things became obvious in discussions that followed. First, and most importantly, it became clear that the intelligibility of "coming out" is bound almost entirely to homosexual identity: people approached and emailed me, saying "I don't get it." Of course, to "get" fiction isn't a normal concern (at least not outside of a graduate literature course). A princess's sifting through suitors based on their sensitivity to produce doesn't raise any eyebrows; but a story—using equally common language—about a guy coming to terms with his Superman-like abilities makes us ask, "What's the point?" The lines were quickly drawn: either the story was a defense of something vital, or a simplistic attack on something I just don't understand.
A second, related clarification was that the term "being gay" refers to a whole tangle of things. This isn't really news: Hannon makes the point with respect to a "messy web of attractions and drives and temptations." What proved interesting, here, was that the tangle was acknowledged from either side, yet in neither case were its components considered less than prima facie obvious. In other words, I never saw a response or received a comment to the effect that the fictional account clarified something that was lacking, or built a case (or failed to build a case) for something commonly misunderstood. But across the board, reactions tended to claim some sort of decisive victory or failure; or at least total confusion. That should sound a little strange.
Naturally, I don't believe this all represents much progress in breaking apart the deeply entrenched and bitterly defended language of "being gay." Maybe the most my article permitted were a few "meta-linguistic" awakenings: certainly not what I hoped for, but worth keeping around nonetheless. For what they tell us, at least in this case, is that the rift between "pro-gay" and "pro-nature" is vast and insurmountable, at least so far as conventional experience is concerned; and that any bridge building across that divide must plan for a broader span than perhaps was previously expected.
As far as fiction goes, the type of realism that permits "being X-ray" to stand in for "being gay" isn't going to cut it. What's required here, maybe, is something more akin to the fairy tale realism that Chesterton advocates in Orthodoxy, which merits and illuminates not by the fact that it's exact, but precisely because it's so incredibly fantastic.