April 25, 2013, will mark the twentieth anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. I was among the million-plus marchers marching down Pennsylvania Avenue and the National Mall waving little rainbow flags on the bright and warm Sunday. For me, the march was nothing short of monumental: for that whole weekend, my home city of Washington was transformed into a sea of joyous gay men and women from all over the country. Not only had I never seen that many gay people packed into one city, I had never seen that much collective human joy. For those of us who were a part of it, the experience of the march was unlike any other.
Yet of all the extraordinary memories that were packed into that weekend, the standout for me was the Saturday night before the march when the gay a cappella group the Flirtations gave a benefit concert for SMYAL, an extraordinary D.C. organization serving the needs of LGBT youth. It was the second time I had seen the Flirtations, and the second and last time I got to meet one of kindest and bravest men I’ve ever met: the singer and AIDS activist Michael Callen.
Callen, who died in December of 1993 of AIDS at the age of thirty-eight, knew he was dying and was not afraid to share his reality with the community he loved. Though he died young, Callen led an extraordinary life. There is a YouTube clip from 1983 when a twenty-seven-year-old Callen, as a gay man living with AIDS, demanded change in the sexual behaviors of his fellow gays. In the televised editorial, the young gay man displays how unafraid he is to push the buttons of his own community, calmly but forcefully taking the “Stonewall Generation” to task for turning sex into a commodity, and for permitting “sex and affection to become separated.”
We have no way of knowing what people with independent minds who have long since passed would think of current social and political realities. Much as I might like to contemplate what Michael Callen would think about this or that development in the gay rights movement, or on America’s post-9/11 descent into militarism, or the gun worship culture, or any number of matters, the more important thing for me, twenty years after I met him for the last time, is just to savor, and give thanks for, his spirit.
Things have indeed changed over the course of the last twenty years since the March on Washington, some for the better, some for the worse. With the gay pride and rights marches of yesteryear, the responses from mainstream society to homosexual people marching down city boulevards or the National Mall was either the sound of vitriolic hatred, or a tepid tolerance. Now, a slight majority of Americans favor full marriage equality for same-sex couples, and there is an outside chance that the Supreme Court may declare state bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, or at least end same-sex marriage discrimination in California. Now, twenty after the march, a majority of U.S. senators favor same-sex marriage rights.
The gay rights movement sought to convince a majority of Americans that gays were worthy of equal rights, including the right to marry. According to numerous polls, mission accomplished. In most of America, however, men and women who seek same-sex romantic partners still must tread with extreme caution, and can only do so in segregated homoaffective contexts: bars, nightclubs, leisure groups, and of course, the virtual gay ghettoes of the internet.
More fundamentally, a core problem with the gay rights movement remains: its promulgation of a firmly held dogma that there is genetic basis for homosexuality. It is a dogma that sacrifices a deeper discussion of human psychosexual development and sexual ethics in the service of civil rights. Whether or not one believes that such a sacrifice is without any consequence whatsoever will ultimately hinge on one’s own attitude toward homosexuality itself: Is this capacity between two grown men or two grown women to achieve the height of romantic and sexual intimacy an objective good—as I believed twenty years ago when I marched down Pennsylvania Avenue and still believe it to be—or is it simply an unfortunate circumstance that requires “compassion” for those who were born with an as yet unidentified genetic marker? The gay movement’s mantra-posed-as-question, “Who would ever choose to be gay?” confirms that many gays, like many religious conservatives, believe that living homosexually is a less than fortunate way to live life, albeit for different reasons.
No matter the degree of hostility from society, I have always rejected this contention, and have always embraced homosexuality as a gift from God. Even though I don’t believe that my homosexuality has any basis in biology, I cherish a quote from the man with a heart of gold that he offered in an HBO documentary from the early 90s. Again, knowing he would die young, Michael Callen said, “Even after all the pain and all the torture, and even having AIDS, I can honestly say being gay is the greatest gift I was ever given. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
In a 2013 social and political context in which gay rights activists relentlessly entreat mainstream society to support their rights on the grounds that they “would never choose to be gay,” I am grateful that I was able to hear, very early on in my life, the different and evermore dignified song of Michael Callen.
Looking forward, one of the things I hope for in a post-prejudice society would be the ability to have more open, rigorous discourse about scriptures that in some way relate to the subject of homosexuality.
For example, what can the Bible story about the sexual threats of the men of Sodom teach us about men’s capacity to treat not only women, but men too, as nothing more than sex objects? How do we as a society avoid descending to that level? That discussion can’t take place in a context where one side’s sole intent is to demonstrate, defensively, that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah had nothing whatsoever to do with homosexuality.
On another point, St. Paul openly admitted he was spiritually tortured by passions of the flesh, though he never reveals the object of his fleshly desires: men, women, or both. How would a repressed homosexual desire have affected Paul’s intense opposition to homosexuality, at least what he saw of it, and/or experienced it personally, in the ancient world? Again, we can’t really have that kind of discussion when one side wishes to minimize just how intensely Paul felt about the subject, out of fear the other side will use the Pauline corpus to attack gay civil rights.
Having a more frank discussion about homosexuality and its role in the cosmos would benefit us all. For the sake of a more loving, tender, compassionate human sexual experience, I hope that the legal issues, and same-sex marriage equality in particular, will soon be settled so we can move beyond the ideological confines of LGBT-ism.
In fact, two London-based therapists, Dominic Davies and Pamela Gawler-Wright, are already advocating for a cultural shift away from the LGBT identity framework that essentially has a monopoly on all public discussion of homosexuality, and are pointing to a new sexuality and gender paradigm that is more intellectually expansive. Namely, the therapists suggest adopting Gender and Sexual Diversities, or GSD, as a framework to replace the decades-old LGBT paradigm. What remains to be seen is whether the GSD framework that Davies and Gawler-Wright have proposed will encompass people who do not believe in the concept of sexual orientation, or at least not for themselves, but who have nonetheless come to embrace the spiritual treasures of same-sex love and sexual expression.
The fact that some people (like actress Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City fame) have expressed the belief that their homosexuality is a choice causes no small degree of consternation among LGBT activists, who fear that this discourse of choice will erode public support for gay civil rights. Last year, when Nixon tried to push the envelope on the public discussion of sexuality, she was promptly attacked by some in the gay community. In 2012 Ms. Nixon, in a moment of rare authenticity in America’s sexuality discourse, told the New York Times:
I gave a speech recently, an empowerment speech to a gay audience, and it included the line ‘I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better.’ And they tried to get me to change it, because they said it implies that homosexuality can be a choice. And for me, it is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me. A certain section of our community is very concerned that it not be seen as a choice, because if it’s a choice, then we could opt out. I say it doesn’t matter if we flew here or we swam here, it matters that we are here and we are one group and let us stop trying to make a litmus test for who is considered gay and who is not.
Nixon later issued a backtracking statement to the effect that most human beings do not choose their sexual orientation. It was a statement which no doubt came as a relief to all those dogmatic hardliners, gay and straight, who adamantly reject the notion that homosexuality can ever be profoundly beautiful, profoundly moral, and profoundly spiritual without any genetic marker, save being a human, to guide the way.
The Cynthia Nixon dust-up was a testament to just how disinterested many gays are in a broader sexuality discussion that would in any way, shape or form challenge deeply entrenched heteronormative concepts of human sexual ethics—including the very heteronormative concept that homosexuality can only be morally acceptable when a person “can’t help it.” Yet if the more expansive GSD framework for human sexuality and gender that Davies and Gawler-Wright are advancing were to ever gain steam, the LGBT framework may no longer have a monopoly on virtually all public discussion of homosexuality.
When I asked Clinton Anderson, Director of the LGBT Concerns Office of the American Psychological Association, if he would favor an expansion of our cultural discourse beyond the LGBT framework, his response was far more “small d” democratic than the dogmatic activists who gave Cynthia Nixon a hard time. Dr. Anderson said:
It is what people in their cultural and personal developments favor that are important. I think we do need to always try to be as open and respectful toward those processes as we can, but of course our capacity for openness and respect has to evolve and develop over time, as well.
Arguably, for the women and men of the world who embrace homosexuality and who desire to incorporate same-sex sexual expression into their lives, but who simply may not adhere to the established dogmas on homosexuality, be they from religious leaders or gay rights leaders, such evolution could not come quickly enough.
In that respect, spiritual progressives from all religious backgrounds who publicly profess their support for the right of same-sex couples to marry could be of a great help. They could do so by stating that sexual relationships between two consenting adults of the same-sex can be good and holy, and therefore should be afforded equal status under the laws, irrespective of whether they adopt a specific sexual identity label, and irrespective of whether they attribute their love and sexual union to the concept of sexual orientation.
By expressing support for same-sex romance and sexual unions, and how those unions should be treated equally under the law, as opposed to more talk about labels and sexual orientation, spiritual progressives could help to finally bring our discourse on the subject of human sexuality into the twenty-first century.
I hope it will be a century filled with people who can engage in meaningful and critical discussion of sexuality and sexual ethics, but who can also respect that the sexual intimacy between consenting adults is—like God—beyond any individual’s or group’s right to own and label, and therefore control.
To hear the Flirtations song “Everything Possible” led by the late Michael Callen, click here or play the video below: