Sexual Orientation: Practice or Politics?

Under a headline reading “Homosexuality in Priesthood Is Under Increasing Scrutiny,” The New York Times the other day began an

Under a headline reading “Homosexuality in Priesthood Is Under Increasing Scrutiny,” The New York Times the other day began an article with the following lead: “With the Roman Catholic Church weathering one case after another of priests who sexually abused boys, the Catholic faithful are asking whether there is a closeted culture of homosexuality in the priesthood, and if so whether it is connected to the sexual abuse problem.”

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After that, the newspaper vanished in what you might call a definitional miasma with such sentences as: “Scientists who have studied sexual offenders warn that the scandal in the church has caused two distinct issues, homosexuality and child abuse, to become erroneously and recklessly intertwined. They note that homosexuals are no more likely than heterosexuals to be pedophiles.” It sounds from this that we are being asked to believe that pedophiles are neither heterosexual nor homosexual. So what does that leave us with? Hermaphroditism? Of course, this discussion is being carried on in the context of religion, where, given articles of faith like the virgin birth, everything is possible-including, one might suppose, sex without gender.

From there, the article and the thinking behind it only get murkier: “Experts also say that few of the abusive priests can be considered genuine pedophiles because many of their victims were not children, but teenagers. A person attracted exclusively to adolescents is an ephebophile, but researchers disagree whether the abuse has been caused by priests actually suffering from ephebophilia, or by those who have preyed on teenagers simply because they are accessible.”

Can you make any sense of the above? I can’t. What is the difference between a man suffering from ephebophilia (a dreadful word of new coinage) and a guy who goes after what we used to call “jail bait,” or what The Times’ experts call men “who have preyed on teenagers simply because they are accessible”? This is gibbering nonsense.

Whenever terms like “homosexual,” “gay,” “lesbian,” etc. are used, the discussion is in immediate danger of degenerating into the nubilous or densely cloudy. None of the major, commonly used terms have anything approximating precise meaning. Even the basic word “homosexual” awaits a definition that can withstand logical scrutiny. Is a homosexual someone who declares himself or herself to be one, and is recognized as such by others? Then what about those in the closet-that is, people who have sex with other people of the same gender in secret? Is one secret encounter enough for a person to be so labeled? Or should 10 be the defining number, or should the term be applied to somebody who does it frequently or habitually? If that weren’t confusing enough, now we’re being told that people who have sex with other people who are the same gender but below the age of consent are not indulging in homosexual sex at all, at all, at all, but are practicing ephebolism (if you’ll permit me to coin a simply terrible word that I hope will never appear in print again).

Sometimes homosexuality isn’t defined by behavior, but by a person’s feelings. A man or woman is a homosexual if he or she feels they are, which can and does mean a variety of things that defy useful description. So to add to the confusion, we have expressions such as “He’s a homosexual, but not a practicing one.” God only knows what that means.

The whole area is an epistemological quagmire. The term and the idea that same-sexers are somehow a breed apart from the rest of humankind are the brainchildren of Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902), a pioneer in the study of sexual psychology. The word “homosexual” was first translated into English in 1892, so you might say that gay people have only been around for 110 years. The great 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, published in 1910, has no entry for “homosexual.”

Which is not to say that prior to the invention of the word “homosexuality,” there was not a quantity of he-and-he-ing and she-and-she-ing taking place. As the Bible teaches us, it was a highly frowned-upon activity, but it shows us that prior to 1892, same-sexing was something that people did, not something that people were. Now it’s what people are, not what they do-which, of course, we don’t really know, so confusion reigneth.

Although there has never been precise criteria for who fits the category, once the word was born, it was presumed that those so labeled were deviant, abnormal and in need of treatment of some kind or other. For many years, then, homosexuality was regarded as a medical condition or a disease, until the psychiatrists got in a room somewhere and voted that it wasn’t a disease or a medical condition-all of which may or may not reveal something about the labelers or un-labelers, but little else. Voting is not science. Voting is politics, so the current chaotic definitions spring from conviction, passion, social viewpoint, but not from a testable body of knowledge.

Was there prejudice and discrimination against homosexuals before there were homosexuals-that is, back in the days when the act was merely a sin and an abomination? There was anger and condemnation and unspeakable punishment meted out to the people caught doing it, but otherwise, no, there was no prejudice against homosexuals, because they didn’t exist. It was simply a vice, not a condition of being. Hence, you can argue that the creation of this new category of human being has been the trigger for the ill treatment of people publicly identified as homosexuals, however defined. Now we live in the era of Gay Pride Day or Week or Month or whatever, when some are happy to tell the world that they are gay and glad of it-and if they’re harmed in any way, the perpetrator will be accused of a hate crime.

Unlike being an African-American, being homosexual seems to be a voluntary social condition. Skirting the debate about whether people are born gay or not, to be publicly homosexual-that is, to lift the banner of gay pride-is something a person decides to do, as contrasted to the decisions open to most African-Americans. Those people who do lift the banner may or may not partake of what the newspaper calls a “closeted culture of homosexuality.” Maybe the Pope knows what that may mean, but short of a direct communication from above, this expression only adds more confusion. I suspect that there are any number of people living with same-sex partners who aren’t “closeted” and yet don’t think of themselves as gay or homosexual, but who can say? The fog is everywhere.

After all, homosexuality is only an intellectual construct of a 19th-century German who may have been a great social investigator or a madman. Being a homosexual-as opposed to having sex on whatever basis with members of one’s own gender-is like being a member of a political party or church: Members internalize specific attitudes, behaviors, ritual thinking and group orthodoxies which we might call a “homosexual culture,” or we might not.

In the face of all this, it is time to consult William of Ockham (thought to have died about 1349 A.D.) and borrow his famous razor, which is the name for his proposition that in rational investigations, one should cut out consideration of all things not known to exist. Or we could take Ockham’s razor and simply slit our throats with it.

Sexual Orientation: Practice or Politics?