In any contentious debate, it is useful to reconsider the views that are taken for granted in order to facilitate dialogue. This is especially important for views that are shared by both sides, which may by their falsity enforce a sterile debate. One key tenet in much of the “gay marriage” debates, held by “liberals” and “conservatives” alike, is that each person’s sexuality defines them as a person. Your “sexual orientation” is an essential trait, perhaps the most essential trait, to your human personhood. On reflection, this is preposterous, and both conservatives and liberals should jettison the notion. This will enable much more fruitful discussion on contentious issues.
There is very little debate among academics that the notion of “sexuality” or “sexual orientation” is of rather recent vintage. While sexual attraction is as old as humanity, it was only in the past 150 years that sexual attraction came under the categorizing impulse of late nineteenth-century social scientific reflection, with the result that it came to be considered “an individual trait.” But this implied that, in contrast to the many fleeting attractions that adults feel for other adults throughout their days (and nights), sexual attraction was instead thought to be relatively stable rather than episodic. And if it was an individual trait, then people could be classified into buckets based on their metastasized sexual attraction in general.
Yet individual traits need be no more consequential than eye color. It was Freud’s work in psychotherapy which ascribed to each person’s sexual health the dominant causal force in their entire mental health. And with the progressive secularization of European and American society in the twentieth century, quick acceptance was bestowed on theories, like Freud’s, which challenged traditional Christian assessments of morality and the human person. Thus Freud’s rather bizarre theories (almost all have now been discredited) were at the time warmly received by a public which saw therapy as a potential “scientific” replacement for religion. The prestige of psychotherapy and the widespread acceptance of eugenic theories required cultural elites to establish their credentials as mentally healthy, and thus not sexually stunted or perverted. And thus “sexuality,” which had in the prior century assumed a new-found stability in a person, became a way of classifying people as other, and homosexuality (“sexual inversion”) became a “psychological disorder” instead of a “sin.” This is still how many vocal American opponents of gay marriage view homosexuality today.
But the “scientific certainty” of the early twentieth century did not weather the liberalization of the postwar sexual revolution. As American society jettisoned many earlier sexual norms in a tumultuous denunciation of “Victorian prudery” (though most of those sexual norms long preceded the Victorian era), the categorization of homosexuality as a psychological disorder was likewise successfully challenged, and psychotherapists came to the conclusion that it was not in fact a disorder, after all. Sexual health, and therefore mental health, was redefined to be the normal and consensual expression of whatever intrinsic sexuality was found in each individual, rather than an exclusively heterosexual dimension. If the categorization of sexuality lost its earlier foundational role undergirding all psychological problems, it nevertheless remained its fundamental importance as the single most important feature of any individual, reframed by the late 1970s in terms of the newly discovered value of diversity. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, a self-conscious “Gay Rights Movement” modeled itself on the earlier Civil Rights and feminist movements, encouraging people who identified as gay or lesbian to “come out of the closet” and identify primarily with their sexual orientation, their single most important individual trait. Many arguments in favor of gay marriage take this line, explicitly likening sexual orientation to race or gender as defining traits of each individual, and calling foul at any attempt to define “gay love” as different from or inferior to “straight love.”
That’s the source of the notion that we are defined primarily by our sexual orientation. But such a view is easily refuted when so framed.
We are so much more than our sexual attractions. Our other traits include physical characteristics such as hair color, skin color, eye color, height, weight, shape of a smile, sound of a laugh, and muscle tone (or, as in my case, the lack thereof). Then there are the personality traits such as intelligence, self-awareness and other-awareness, likes and dislikes, talkativeness, listening ability, principles. Nor are individual traits the only things that define us! In fact, we are often defined most by the important relationships in our lives, relationships with parents, siblings, a spouse or lover, children, teachers, co-workers, and relationships with important groups, such as recreational clubs, professional associations, and religious affiliations. Sexuality is only one small part of who we are.
The notion that sexuality needs to be expressed in order to avoid great personal harm is also easily disproven by almost universal human experience. Almost all adults (there are rare exceptions) feel sexual desire at times. And those desires are often somewhat unruly, with the result that I suspect the majority of people (or at least, due to a hyper-sexualizing socialization, the vast majority of American men) feel sexual attraction to someone who is not attracted to them in return. The only safe response to that situation is to stuff it, and everyone does this much of the time. (This is also the safest response to sexual attraction to someone other than your spouse, and marriages seem to be strongest when this option is most assiduously taken.) Even in a “hot marriage,” where each spouse finds the other very sexy, there are times when sexual attraction needs to be ignored so that one partner can go to work, or go grocery shopping. I would venture to say that every adult who has felt sexual desire has also encountered times in which sexual desire needs to take lower priority to other necessities. Thus we all seek to control our sexual appetites. This is not Victorian prudery but rational prioritization, and our ability to differentiate our interests from our sexual desires reveals that we are more than our sexualities.
The unruliness of our sexual desires does make controlling our sexualities sometimes difficult, and sexual attraction sometimes strikes us from surprising angles seemingly outside of our control. Almost everyone, gay or straight, reports that their sexual orientation is not something they chose for themselves. And we sometimes use our sexuality to harm others, or even ourselves. Humans are walking messes. This is where God is gracious, and all-powerful, and good, to clean up the mess and offer us forgiveness in his Son Jesus Christ for the ways we have been destructive. This is the redemptive message of Christianity. It presumes that sexual attraction, like everything else about us, is messed up, and it proclaims a way out. By contrast, reducing humanity to sexual orientation cheapens each human person and embraces a form of fatalism, trapping all of us in the mess in which we find ourselves.