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Monday, January 17, 2011

Is a Homosexual Lifestyle a "Choice"? Does It Matter if It Is?

Christian conservatives argue that God created males and females, ordered them to multiply and replenish the earth, making sex between them a divine imperative, and charge that same-sex acts are therefore against God’s (or nature’s) design.  They further argue a homosexual lifestyle is a “choice” made in contravention of that design and should not be governmentally endorsed by laws that give same-sex couples rights identical to those of heterosexual couples.  Gays and lesbians have countered that they were born the way they are and have no choice in the matter.  Their same-sex attraction cannot, therefore, be wrong or deviant, just different.  Is it wrong or abnormal for one person to have black hair or skin while another is blond or brunette and light complected?  Of course not.  The I-have-no-choice-in-my-sexual-orientation advocates therefore make a valid point, but I see things a little differently.

The first time I experienced an unintentional orgasm, I was fourteen years old.  My girl friend and I, two active young Mormons, were on a bus trip with the Las Vegas North Stake Youth Choir to Salt Lake City.  Our conductor, a single, smart-looking, brunette dynamo (who never married and never had any children), had decided to take us to “West Side Story,” the movie, after we had sung on Temple Square.  The movie had just been released, was playing in Salt Lake, but had not yet made it to Las Vegas.

I loved the movie—the pulsating beat of “America,” the romantic lyricism of “One Hand, One Heart,” and the comic preening that accompanied “I Feel Pretty.”  My blood was boiling.  On our way back home, my girl friend and I, in the throes of excitement, made out for hours.  At some point, my emotions boiled over, and I ended up with a big, gooey glob inside my shorts that soon penetrated my baby blue plaid polyester bell-bottoms, which, I was sure, were the most beautiful pants that had ever been made.  Did I have a choice in shooting my spunk?  To be honest, I didn’t even know it could happen.  It had taken me by complete surprise.  I would therefore say, given the level of stimulation I had achieved, that I had no choice in the matter—it had just happened.  Did I have a choice in making out with my girl friend, feeling her breasts through her sweater, and shoving my tongue halfway down her throat as she moaned?  You bet.

Sometime in the early 1980s, I, by then a married law student, was a columnist for “The Columbia Law School News.”  Another classmate, Chuck, wrote a gay column that always appeared either right above or right below mine.  Since our columns were accompanied by our mug shots, I knew what he looked like, but it was several weeks before I met him live.  We were at the gym.  The minute I saw him, I was intrigued by his energy and focus and found his intensity magnetic.  Over the next few weeks, we became close friends, and I finally got up the nerve to ask him about gay sex.  Since my only real understanding of gay proclivities had come from the media (this was just before AIDS broke as the so-called “gay disease”), I shared the common misunderstandings that prevailed at the time.  Until I met Chuck (who was given to Levis and black leather jackets), I thought all gay men wore dresses and, when engaged in sex, wanted to be women.  It did not occur to me that many, if not most, exulted in their maleness, had never thought of being a woman (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and most definitely wanted to be men.  I was aware of lesbians, but only vaguely.  I had a glancing familiarity with a few famous figures I’d run across in literature—primarily Gertrude Stein, Sappho, Colette, and Virginia Woolf.  But I was very unclear as to what it all meant.

Chuck filled me in (he was a strict “top” at a time when things like that more likely mattered but asserted that many others were not) and asked me what I thought.  I said I could appreciate what he had described to me and would like to try it myself sometime, if only to see what my reaction would be.  (As a former English major, I had long since learned not to judge a book by its cover.)  Chuck, who by then had dined at my house with me and my wife, Zena (not her real name), several times, gamely replied, “You can try it, David, but trust me—you’re not gay.”

In September of 1981, I accompanied Zena as she registered for the fall semester at New York University (NYU).  While she was completing her paper work at the Student Center, I dipped inside the men’s room and took a stall for the very real reason that I needed to use it.  I had not expected the hand that suddenly reached toward me from under the partition to my right, but when its fingers summoned me, I understood the invitation, and thought, “Shall I?”  Then I made a choice.  Regardless of the reason for which nature had called, I dropped to my knees and within seconds had experienced my first intentional guy-to-guy sex.

Was it good?  For me, it was terrific, a really big bang, and I was surprised by how much it made me feel like a man.  But did it change my life?  Yes and no.  As I thought about it over the next few days, I reached a conclusion that went something like this:  Well, that was fun, but am I actually unhappy as a married man?  Am I doing something that’s not in my nature?  No.  Does it make sense to give up the happiness and satisfaction I feel for something that might, in the long run, prove less rewarding?  Not really.  So, not feeling deprived in any way, and sexually fulfilled at home, I decided to keep things the way they were.  It had been an interesting experience, and I now knew I could identify closely with the feelings expressed by my gay friend Chuck, but I did not, as he said he did, have something inside me that compelled me to live a different way.

A few months later, on New Year’s Eve, I asked my wife if we were going to Times Square to watch the ball drop (that had been our tradition since moving to New York in 1977).  She looked up at me from her chair at the dining table, perhaps having made a New Year’s resolution, and said, “David, there’s something I think I’d better tell you.”  “Oh, what’s that?”  “I think I’ve fallen in love with my sociology professor at NYU.”  “Are you sure?”  “Yes.”

When I heard her words I felt a deep, sinking feeling, a pang of regret, a sense of loss.  Nevertheless, after wiping the tears from my eyes, I said, “Well, there’s something I guess I’d better tell you, too.  I think I might be gay, or at least bi-sexual.”  Zena, without missing a beat, said, “Oh, come on, David.  You can’t fool me.  I know you better than that.”

Fast-forward 30 years.  Zena, now on her second marriage, still lives with the man who was then her sociology professor.  I have had the same male partner for the past 15 years.  My partner of the previous 14 years remains one of my best friends.  All five of us often spend our holidays together.  All of us love each other.

My point is this:  What difference does it make if having a male lover, as opposed to a female one, was my choice?  It clearly was my choice.  Am I not entitled to make it?  Based on what authority?

Of one thing I am quite certain:  I—as the person given my particular set of genes and personality characteristics—clearly have the capacity to love and have sex with both men and women.  My innate nature allows me to choose among them and find the partner who’s best for me.  I’m not worried about the human race becoming extinct.  I’m more worried about treating the earth in a way that makes life sustainable, not only for us, but also for the many other species who suffer because of our ability to destroy or significantly harm the environment.  I’m more worried about overpopulation than the failure of some same-sex couples to reproduce.

Those who believe the Bible to be the only document by which people should live should face another issue.  In Egypt and other countries, where Christians are not a majority, they are sometimes the objects of persecution.  Do people choose to be Christians?  Of course they do.  If it were otherwise, then the world would be comprised of nothing but Christians.  Should people have the right to choose to be Christians?  Of course.  Then what underlying principle should be guiding us?

I believe that as long as what we choose does no harm to others, we should be free to choose it.  The pursuit of happiness—unless it infringes on the rights of or harms others—should be ours.  My choice of a male partner does not preclude my male neighbor from choosing a female one or my female neighbor across the hall from choosing a female companion.  All of us can be happy.  What matters is that we treat each other with dignity and respect and honor the choices each individual has made, provided those choices do no literal harm to anyone.

If someone wants to be a Christian, fine.  That does not harm me unless, by banding together, a majority, which has made its own choice, tries to deprive me of making mine.  My choice is to live with the man I love, and I have never been happier.  Come.  Join us for dinner.  You’ll see what I mean.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Why the Religious Atheist?

I was born the ninth child in a fifth-generation Mormon family.  Mormons have some beliefs about family life that are not shared by other Christians.  (Yes, Mormons believe in Christ.)  They believe that as long as everyone in the family remains worthy, they will dwell together after death.  When I was young, we referred to what followed death as the “afterlife,” but Church leaders decided that implied too much—that our individual existence ceased with death.  In order to clarify that we continue to be ourselves beyond the grave, the “afterlife” was given the somewhat cumbersome name of the “post-mortal existence.”

Mormon families who live together in the post-mortal existence don’t dwell just anywhere.  They will live in the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom, in the physical presence of God.  Exactly how they will be housed there is a bit unclear, but we do know this:  When a man and woman marry in a Mormon temple here on earth, they are sealed together for “time and all eternity.”  Once sealed to a man, a woman joins her husband’s family.  Should the family she was born into also achieve the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom in the post-mortal existence, she will not live with it.  She will live with her husband’s family, just as her own male children will remain part of the family she has joined, but her female children, once married, will not.  They will belong to their men. 

My particular Mormon family will undoubtedly not arrive in the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom intact.  My father died in the early 1990s, at the age of 83.  During his lifetime he was married in the Mormon temple three times to women who all outlived him.  He was divorced civilly from two of his wives, although he was never civilly married to more than one wife at any given time, and he remained married (civilly) to the third wife until his death.  He practiced what anthropologists call “serial monogamy.”  As far as the Church is concerned, though, because he took no action to dissolve his temple marriages while he was here on earth, my father remains wed to all three spouses in the post-mortal existence.  Should they all be worthy—and it is fairly certain that my own mother, who, like me, became an atheist, will wear her unworthiness on her bosom like a brightly emblazoned “A”—he would have a leg up on most of his contemporaries.  All three women would end up in the same post-mortal household, having joined the Larkin family.  My father has therefore already succeeded in achieving potential post-mortal polygamy (which the Church refers to as “plural marriage”), even though polygamy is against the laws of the United States here on earth.  God, incidentally, has no problem with that.

But one of the reasons my family is unlikely to arrive in the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom intact is me.  I was excommunicated from the Church in the late 1970s, at my own request, after being charged with, and found guilty of, apostasy, defined as “denial of the Holy Ghost.”   I left the Church for many reasons, some of which I hope to explore through this blog, but at the moment I will say only this:  The housing situation in which I found myself as a child struck me as less than inspired by a perfect being, otherwise known as God.

I was grateful to leave behind what I saw as the closed-mindedness of my upbringing (the failures of our household, for example, could not be openly discussed and therefore dealt with), but I missed its warmth and support.  In fact, it took me several years to admit, but I missed church.  I missed association with people who seemed to have a purpose beyond themselves.  I missed people striving for perfection, no matter how far short of it they fell.  I missed a forum that provided the chance to give back to the community some of what had been given to me.  And I solved that loss by doing what made sense—I returned to church.

I did not go back to the Mormon Church, however.  I do not believe Church members would have welcomed an atheist in their midst.  I am told that my father, who made peace with me before his death, prayed every night he was alive that “the devil” would leave me.  But I have found several places here in New York City that have provided just the sort of community and support I needed.  I have been a soup kitchen cook at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Greenwich Village since February of 1983 (that’s 27 years and counting).  I sang in the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church choir for 13 years.  I currently attend the Church of the Holy Apostles (Episcopal) in Chelsea (it runs the City’s largest church-sponsored soup kitchen).  And I feel at home there.

Why?  Because it is a thinking, caring community that puts into action the things it preaches, and it does so in as non-discriminatory a way as I have come across.  In the meantime, the church, which was rebuilt after a fire, provides an environment that embraces beauty, love, good music, fellowship, and service to the poor.  When they speak from the pulpit of Christ-like ideals, do I know what they’re talking about?  You bet I do.  Do I endorse them?  All of them that make sense to me.  Does it provide a space within which to yearn for the good, the best that can be achieved by all of us?  Absolutely.  Can I even say, “Praise be to God!” along with them?  Yes, because the ability to praise—the creation of a life that warrants praise—is what we all need.  The closer we get to it, the more godlike we will become, whether we dwell in God’s house in the next world or not.