20 September 2011

Gay films

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a terrible connoisseur of movies.
“Have you seen such-and-such?” “Um, no.”
“How about this movie?” “Ummmm, maybe, but I can’t remember.”
I just don’t get very motivated to watch films I guess, but once I start a movie I usually cannot leave it. In the process of coming out, I wanted to expose myself to gay films. I don’t think I had even seen one before June of this calendar year! I haven’t seen very many yet, but I like most of the ones I’ve viewed so far. Here are a few:

The Bubble. This is a film that takes place in Israel and the Palestinian territories. An Israeli man (who is quite cute) meets a Palestinian man at an army checkpoint. The Palestinian man later comes to find the Israeli man at his apartment in Tel Aviv and they start a relationship. The Palestinian man stays for some time with the Israeli man and his roommates in Israel, but his identity as a Palestinian eventually leaks out to the neighborhood and due to fear he returns to his family in the Palestinian territories. Because the Israeli man is in love, he is depressed for days about separation from his lover, so he sneaks into the hometown of his lover with his female roommate, they meet, and kiss. Unfortunately they are caught kissing by the soon-to-be brother in law, a scary man linked to terrorist activities. The couple has one more happy meeting in Israel, but then there is a tragic end to the movie (which I won’t give away). It is an emotional film because it combines the tension of homosexual love and conservative religion with the broader societal conflict in the Middle East. I was touched by a scene centered on a Nazi-era play that the couple went together to see. The actors in the play – two gay men interred in a concentration camp – act out a very sexual scene without even touching or removing clothes. What?? Well, you’ll just have to see it. Apparently during the oppression of Nazi Germany, gays would touch a finger just above the eye and move it towards the side of the head as a secret sign to say “I love you”. I love that!

Prayers for Bobby and Save Me. I’ve combined these films because they both deal with a theme also touched on to some degree in The Bubble: the heart wrenching conflict between conservative monotheistic religion and homosexual love. Prayers for Bobby is about a teenager who is brought up in a conservative Christian family adamantly opposed to homosexuality. He acknowledges that he is gay to his brother who in turn tells the parents. For some time, Bobby and mom (especially) work on ways to overcome his sexual orientation. Though Bobby is on board with the plan for some time, he gradually comes to accept that he is gay and that he will not change. He becomes more rebellious against his family’s efforts to cure him and about the time he comes of age, he moves for a while to Portland. Bobby meets a somewhat older man and they have a relationship, but the boyfriend betrays him. Bobby ends his life by jumping from a bridge into a highway. The rest of the film deals with the spiritual transformation of Bobby’s mother as she wrestles deeply with the pain of losing her son and her long-held belief of the sinfulness of homosexuality. Like Bobby, her transformation is gradual and she comes to a place of peace about who her son was.

Save Me was actually the first gay film that I watched. It is centered on a Christian retreat run by a husband and wife that attempts to cure young men of their homosexuality.  A young man, deeply involved in drugs and seemingly unhealthy gay sexual relationships, is admitted to the group against his wishes at a very dark time in his life. Over time he becomes a model example of “transformation” and becomes the favorite “pupil” of the wife (who is a more zealous “therapist” than her husband). However, he falls in love with another man at the retreat and they begin a relationship. The couple eventually leaves the group to the great dismay of the wife. Strangely enough perhaps, I think I felt very empathetic towards the wife. Though the suppression of true love (homosexual or otherwise) seems a nearly futile endeavor (and it was great to see the young man turn from his wild life to a healthy loving relationship), I empathized with the heartache she went through as she felt the deep sting of failure in something she believed so deeply in.

Brokeback Mountain. This was difficult film for me. Set in Wyoming several decades ago, two sheep herders (Jack and Ennis) labor temporarily for the summer in the outback and fall in love. At the end of the summer, each returns to his small hometown and each eventually marries and starts a family. After several years, they reunite and thereafter meet periodically to spend short spans of time together in the wilderness. Though they form a deep bond, their relationship is rocky and even violent at times; neither is able to be honest about the extra-marital relationship with their spouses. Ennis eventually divorces, but never is able to develop a relationship with Jack that goes beyond their periodic encounters; he seems increasingly like a broken man as time passes. Jack, who’s devotion to Ennis is perhaps greater than that offered by Ennis, is eventually killed by a mob; Ennis learns of his death by telephone from Jack’s wife who tells him a false story about his death. The ugly and painful oppression of homophobia pervades this movie, even being manifest in Ennis who seems to have a lifelong battle fully accepting his sexuality.

Shelter. Ahhhh….finally a gay movie with a happy ending. Shelter takes place in southern California and centers on two young adult surfers who develop a relationship. It takes some time for the younger man to accept his sexuality and their relationship suffers vicissitudes because of this. Both of the actors are straight in real life; I think they did quite a good job playing gay roles!
So there are a few pretty good gay films. To my straight Mormon friends who might be reading this, I’d encourage you to see a few of these. They are pretty much all rated R, but take the plunge anyway! To my gay friends: since I’ve only seen a few more films than the ones listed here, please share your recommendations.

18 September 2011

"Gender confusion"

LDS leaders and lay members use a lot of code words. A whole set of vocabulary has accrued around the Mormon experience: “ward”; “stake”; “Relief Society”; “temple worthy”; “celestial glory”; “member/non-member”; “active/less-active”; “the brethren”; “conference”; “worthy”; “in the covenant”….

One pair of terms that appears from time to time in Church-centered discussions of sexual morality is “gender confusion” and “gender disorientation”. The exact meaning of “gender confusion” as used by church leaders or members in any given instance can be quite elusive to me; it is unclear if it is given in reference to the transgender experience or in reference to sexual orientation. Or perhaps, it is given in reference to both. Or perhaps it is given in reference to a more general concern that Church leaders have over the blending of gender roles in family life or individual behavior.

Here are a few quotations:
Using terms such as “gender confusion” in discussions of sexuality just creates, well, confusion. It may not be a tacit objective of Church leadership, but exacerbating confusion about sexual orientation keeps it unappealing, mysterious and dark. Perhaps a likely reason why such terms are used on occasion is that Church leaders and members are often too uncomfortable discussing anything having to do with sexuality in general, so using code words simplifies and sanitizes the discussion. Gay Mormons reading this may be reminded that the Church often preferentially uses the sanitized terms “same-gender attraction” and “same-sex attraction” in reference to homosexuality. I suspect, that like other things in Mormon culture (evolution and anthropology, free-masonry, and quirky or disturbing events in Church history) there can also be a tendency to avoid anything more than scratching the surface of controversial or complex topics.

I’m not a sociologist or reproductive biologist, but I’m going to try some clarification:

Biological sex. Sex – as a term of identity or classification, not reproduction – refers to the biological sex into which a person can be categorized. At the genetic level it refers to the type of sex chromosomes that a person has in each cell of the body. There are only two genetic configurations of biological sex, XX and XY, right? Wrong. In a small percentage of the human population, there are a few other chromosomal patterns (e.g., XXY) that can occur because of variation in how chromatids separate during meiosis. Aside from the genetic encoding of biological sex, people have reproductive organ systems and secondary sexual characteristics that usually correspond to the male or female biological sex. Like genetic variation, however, a certain percentage of people do not have distinctly male or female reproductive anatomy. Some people may be born with intermediary sex organs, for instance. So genetically and developmentally, most humans fall into a simple male/female dichotomy, but all do not.

Gender. The word gender is often used interchangeably with sex to refer to the two most common biological sexes in mammals: male and female. Another use of the word gender is in reference to a set of behavioral and identity attributes that are usually associated with a particular biological sex, but not as a synonym of biological sex. In other words, gender describes behaviors and personalities. It is thus in part a social construct; the ideas of what is feminine and what is masculine are more culturally determined than biologically immutable. An individual’s gender is an expression of a set of masculine or feminine traits. In a very general sense, masculinity corresponds with biological males and femininity with biological females. However, a couple of important lines of evidence support the idea that gender is as much social as it is inherently biological:

   (1) Over time the roles of men and women in families in western society have changed. At work and in the home, patterns of women’s and men’s behaviors and responsibilities are different today than they were several decades ago.  
   (2) Definitions of masculine and feminine roles, attributes, and behaviors vary from culture to culture. In the Judeo-Christian west, we often arrogantly think that our sociological patterns reflect fundamental human, even divine, optima (truth) and ignore the diversity of cultural expressions of things like gender.
   (3) Most individuals are a complex mixture of “masculine” and “feminine” traits. Even if there was some cosmic law that decreed that compassion, for example, was a solely “feminine” trait, or that assertiveness was a solely “masculine” trait, gender-wise most human beings would be a complex chimera of attributes.  Thus there would be all kinds of genders.

Sexual orientation.  Sexual orientation refers to the biological sex to which a person is attracted. Heterosexuals are primarily or exclusively attracted to the opposite sex, homosexuals are attracted primarily or exclusively to the same sex and bisexuals are attracted more or less to both sexes. Orientation often does not solely involve sexual attraction, but can include emotional and spiritual attraction as well. Asexuals are not very interested in sex, but may have heterosocial, homosocial or other attractions.

Sexual orientation does not necessarily have anything to do with gender identity or gender attributes. True, a number of gay men for example, are more “feminine” with respect to certain behavioral attributes, but plenty of other homosexually-oriented men exhibit mostly traits that are usually associated with masculinity. I generally count myself as one of these latter types of gays (though my lack of interest in football and NASCAR races are two strikes against my masculinity). Some heterosexual males are more feminine, and some straight women are more masculine than others.  The flamboyant male homosexual may get a lot of media attention and be the nucleus of stereotype formation, but gay males represent a spectrum of personality types. A gay LDS blog writer discussed being both gay and generally masculine here.  Another, humorous, blog entry discusses the gender-sexuality confusion that exists to some degree in LDS culture here.

Sexual identity. Terms such as “straight”, “gay”, “lesbian”, and “bisexual” are identity labels that individuals choose to apply to themselves. Sexual identity is more reflective of sexual behaviors than sexual orientation. Sexual orientation and sexual identity are sometimes not the same. For instance, some gays live celibate lives or are married to a person of the opposite sex; these individuals, frequently for religious reasons, may self identify as straight even though their orientation remains homosexual. Closeted gays are likely to identify themselves as heterosexual even though inclinations, fantasies, etc. link their orientation clearly to homosexuality.


Unfortunately the Church seems to be very much in the dark about sexual orientation. I think this arises because the Church views sexuality though a single narrow lens – one informed principally by a modest number of passages about sexuality in an old text from an ancient middle eastern culture. The Church's perspective has also been informed by social developments in sexuality and American family life in the last several hundred years, but like other social issues, it seems to be at least a decade or two behind more mainstream perspectives. The Church adamantly insists that it does not bend to political or social pressures in matters of doctrine, but changes in Church policies like polygamy and extension of the priesthood to males of African ancestry, strongly suggest otherwise historically.

Older Mormon texts that treat homosexuality (e.g., President Spencer W. Kimball’s Miracle of Forgiveness) are contemptuous and contain misinformation. There is a real dearth of positive and scientifically-informed discussion of homosexuality in local Church classes and in more general settings such as General Conference. Homosexuality has been so marginalized and stigmatized in Church culture for so long that it can be a hostile and intimidating environment for homosexual Church members. These negative conditions are not universal, but they are pervasive enough to create generally unhealthy conditions for many out gay Latter-day Saints. LDS members who deny their sexuality or treat it as an undesirable affliction or temptation generally can manage to stay active members, but they internalize the dissonance between the doctrine and their orientation. There are a few gay members who have found ways to reconcile their non-heterosexual sexual orientation with continued activity in the Church. If such believers are homosexually active however, they are likely to only be able to do so as excommunicated members with limited Church privileges.

Discussions of homosexuality in the Church should incorporate sensitivity to the terminology that is used. This is not because all homosexuals demand political correctness. It is because gross misunderstanding of these terms reveals an underlying ignorance about important dimensions of the human experience such as gender identity and sexual orientation. Definitions of the terms given above can vary from group to group, but if they are seldom discussed in Church settings in the first place, ignorance about the nature of sexuality and the real experiences of gay people will continue.  Visceral disgust towards homosexuality may drive some member's rejection of homosexuality and gay persons, but ignorance is probably a more pervasive problem.

Radical changes in the Church’s position on homosexuality seem unlikely, at least in the near future. The Church’s doctrines about the family and morality are too entrenched in what it means to be Mormon that a radical shift in direction in this area would be an unacceptable earthquake that would rock the Church. But the Church’s emphasis on missionary work, and the fact that ultimately Church leadership is to some degree sensitive to the needs and views of its members (which needs and views are invariably influenced by the broader society in which its members live), suggest that modest changes in position with respect to homosexuality in the future are possible. At a very minimum, the other important doctrines of Mormonism – namely, the love of Christ – demand that members and the leadership take a more tolerant and inclusive approach to gay people. Mormon families casting out gay children is shameful. Mormon parents refusing to meet the gay partners of gay children is petty and damaging. Disparaging comments about homosexuality in the halls of Church buildings are unacceptable.  Thankfully Church culture is making some progress, even if as one friend discussed, the pace of progress seems glacial.

01 September 2011

Experiencing more

There is a place for idealism in my heart. It gets beat up by reality on a regular basis, but it lives on.
As I get a little older, sometimes the sobering thought that life is finite will settle in my mind for a short time. In the course of my life I will only meet a small fraction of the world’s people. But each person holds a lifetime of experience and dreams, failures and successes. What do I learn from each person? What do I contribute in return? In my short life, I will only read and ponder a tiny sampling of all the knowledge accumulated by thinking men and women throughout history. So thus I must choose my education and entertainment wisely. Is every day a lecture, every walk through nature an instructive reminder of silent ageless lessons? In my few decades, I will only visit a handful of fascinating and beautiful places built by human hands or nature’s laws. Therefore to be in more places I must imagine, I must look as carefully at the microscopic as I do at the majestic landscapes visible below a mountaintop. Do I see the beauty of where I am presently? In my transitory life, I will only sample a small percentage of the great wealth of human experience. Therefore, I must savor the good in each experience that I’m a part of. Am I grateful for the past, energetic in the present, optimistic about the future?
The body often limits us, but the mind seems capable of extending us. Antiquated human structures and age old patterns built on superstition also often tie us down, but creativity and knowledge can free us. Body and mind, reality and hope, the finite versus imagination … these are the twin voices of reality and idealism. We need them both I suppose. But in my idealistic musings, I like to think that you…me…all of us together, we visit more, we learn more, we experience more, and we connect more than each of us alone. Thus by our shared journeys we transcend the finite each of us is born into.