On Queer Theory and Practical Engagement

Following a recent engagement with an advocate of Queer Theory, I had the opportunity to reflect on some of the challenges that arise in establishing meaningful lines of communication. Although I was not being asked to participant in a dialogue in this specific exchange, the engagement highlighted for me several of the challenges that would present themselves had that been the format.

Queer Theory is an academic lens that is primarily focused on how we know things to be true and what counts as knowledge, both of which are part of epistemology. Queer Theory is indebted to the writings of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, among others, particularly those who identify existing structures of authority as sources of oppression that must be deconstructed.

For example, Judith Butler, in her book Gender Trouble, stresses the need to deconstruct not only gender, which is widely viewed as socially constructed, but also sex, which is widely viewed as fixed and stable aspect of personhood steeped in biology:

Is there a history of how the duality of sex was established, a genealogy that might expose the binary options as a variable construction? Are the ostensibly natural facts of sex discursively produced by various scientific discourses in the service of other political and social interests? If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called “sex” is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all.

Whereas the biological distinction between male/female had been considered rather immutable, as we can see, there are those who wish to recast sex as just as socially constructed as gender.

That topic alone is worthy of extended analysis. However, I want to focus on the practical challenges associated with entering into dialogue with true believers of Queer Theory. In the exchange I am reflecting on, I was struck by how the appeal by proponents to concepts like microaggressions and, more recently, trigger events, function to manage community discourse on topics of genuine theological debate. (Trigger events are those circumstances that could cause symptoms to surface among those diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.)

Before we go further, let me state that I believe microaggressions exist. In fact, my research institute has studied the experiences of same-sex attracted students at faith-based institutions of higher education and documented the occurrence of subtle verbal and nonverbal insults and offenses. Microaggressions are real and should be a topic of study.

But what happens if every rational point of disagreement is referred to as a microaggression?

In a recent exchange a Queer Theorist identified the phrase “Love the sinner; hate the sin” as a microaggression. I found this fascinating because, as I mentioned in the exchange, I take a completely different approach to foster cognitive complexity and empathy. I try to understand this phrase through the mind of those who use it. I find that while I do not encourage the use of this particular phrase, I understand how it frequently functions as a heuristic for traditionally believing Christians who wish to hold two claims simultaneously. The first claim being that same-sex behavior falls outside of God’s revealed will for genital sexual expression. The second claim being that there is intrinsic value and worth and dignity in all persons.

One of my goals in these kinds of exchanges is to understand the views of those with whom I disagree. I can appreciate how the “Love the sinner…” language, being as over-used as it has been, has been a source of great consternation to Queer Theorists and the broader LGBT community.

I have not seen this kind of mutual understanding as the goal of Queer Theorists. Rather, my experience has been that it is strategically necessary to frame any contrary assertion – regardless of rational argument – as a microaggression and summarily dismiss it and (by extension) those for whom it has functioned as a meaningful heuristic.

The same claim was made in response to the traditionally-believing Christian’s view that marriage is founded in the creation story as it depicts a male/female union. In other words, this perspective was also deemed a microaggression. I thought this was incredible at the time. Although I marveled at the Queer Theorist’s consistency, I was struck by how this maneuver functions in public discourse about sexual ethics: It shuts down meaningful discussion. There is little that can be said in response to the assertion that ones rational account of sexual ethics is nothing more than an aggressive and dehumanizing source of oppression.

I think a response that could be worth exploring would be to ask the Queer Theorist what kind of assertion could be made to express disagreement with the lens through which the Queer Theorist views the world. In other words, I know that I can argue my case and the case of those with whom I disagree. Can the Queer Theorist articulate a perspective that is not a microaggression or trigger point but which also stands in clear disagreement with the conclusions the person holds as an adherent of Queer Theory? If so, it may be an argument worthy of analysis. If not, it may be best to retire the notion that this was ever a rational dialogue.

9 thoughts on “On Queer Theory and Practical Engagement

  1. Hi Dr. Yarhouse,

    Can “the traditionally-believing Christian’s view that marriage is founded in the creation story as it depicts a male/female union” really be considered a “rational account of sexual ethics”?

    To be rational, it must be presumed that believing one particular biblical interpretation out of many is logical and not merely an individual’s arbitrary choice (or the result of arbitrary circumstance such as childhood indoctrination). Further, it must be presumed that religious belielf is itself rational.

    I don’t think it’s inappropriate or inaccruate to call a statement of traditionalist belief a microaggression. All other sins I can think of are grounded in the potential for injury to self or others – that’s what makes moral disapproval of those behaviors rational. In the case of religious animus toward gay relationships, there is no such grounding. “Because bible” is not objectively rational; it’s simply how traditionalists (consciously or not) attempt to diminish the humanity of people who are gay.

    Considering the demonstrable harm caused by traditionalist doctrine, the burden is on traditionalists to explain why that harm is necessary. “Because bible” doesn’t hack it and is rightfully dismissed by those injured by harmful beliefs.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, David. I’ll offer a few thoughts on some of the questions you asked and points you raised, but I suspect we are coming at this from pretty different starting points. For example, I do think that a religious position can be a rational account of sexual ethics. I agree with you that such a belief presumes that religious belief is itself rational.

    If I am reading you correctly, you are saying you define as rational moral disapproval that can identify harm to self or other “…that’s what makes moral disapproval of those behaviors rational.” I can appreciate that; however, it is not the only definition of what counts as rational, which is commonly defined as based upon reason rather than emotions/feelings. So there are many ethical systems that are based on reason but not focused on consequences/harm (deontological, virtue ethics, etc.).

    On the question of microaggressions, I think we’ll have to agree to disagree about whether such claims should be deemed exclusively as microaggressions. As I wrote, I want to listen and be sensitive to ways in which such statements/assertions have been experienced as harmful to others. In the spirit of fostering mutual understanding, I would also like for people to take the time to understand ways in which those statements/assertions can function in meaningful ways in the life and mind of the person who adheres to them (and communities that have have them as part of a larger doctrinal view and theology of the person and of sexuality).

    Thanks again for your questions and thoughts.

  3. Mark, I’m not sure what you’re getting at here. It seems that you are making a rather large assumption that those who disagree with your foundational, traditional beliefs *haven’t* taken time to understand ways in which statements like “love the sinner; hate the sin” can function in meaningful ways for people. In fact, most of the people who have little tolerance for that phrase grew up knowing fully well how it functioned. So it’s not that they haven’t necessarily taken the time to understand, it’s that they have taken an extraordinary amount of time, and found it lacking in any real sort of love. I for one was born and raised in a Christian home, my father was a minister, and I myself used that phrase in what I thought were very genuine ways for many, many years. So I think I’m in a good position to state that it’s not only unhelpful, it’s actually dismissive and counterproductive. The dismissive part is key. Because while it does – in the minds of those who use it – function to assuage their guilt about the way they “must” treat (“because Bible”) some poor, sinning homoSESHual, it very clearly is a sign that they are not considering the person to whom the cliche is thrown. That is, it refuses to see that the person IS a same-sex loving person, not simply a heterosexual with a little homo problem. Thus, the “sin” about which they speak is about personhood. It cannot be separated from the person. So to hate the “sin” is essentially to hate the person. Refusal to “take time to understand ways in which” this functions for people on the receiving end of this condemnation is just plain wrong. And by now, most of those who use the term have heard at least once (if not myriad times) how much it hurts LGBT people. So there can be no justifying this sort of behavior. It is BECAUSE I understand its function that I am able to look even deeper and understand the inherent dismissive nature of those who use it. Those who continue to use a phrase that they know to be demeaning and hurtful to others are simply wrong and unchristlike. Or, in the words of Paul “be all things to all people.” I would assume that means not saying things that are unnecessarily hurtful in order to get a point across. There is a distinction to be made about that cliche, and thoughtfully explaining why one believes that same-sex love should be proscribed. It seems to me that what you want people to do is consider how Christians can be sincerely loving even while holding anti-gay beliefs, not why they should be able to continue to use unBiblical statements that they already know are hurtful to the LGBT community. The former is worth consideration, but you do not help your plea by using the latter as an example. Abandon ship, friend. The mere fact that you would use a trigger like that as an example of your larger point is precisely the kind of insensitivity to the issue that makes the LGBT community so angry. So I find it somewhat amusing that you would wonder why LGBT people don’t seem to take time for understanding. Perhaps they understand more than you realize…perhaps you do not fully appreciate why that particular area of the conversation is a non-starter.

  4. DJ, always good to hear from you. I appreciate you trying to get me off a sinking ship and back to shore; a lot of folks would just say, “Enjoy the swim!”

    The main thing I’m getting at is how impressed I’ve been with the energy it takes to see the world through the eyes of the other. Perhaps in my circles, I see more of that in one direction than in the both directions. It sounds like you’ve had a very different experience, and I respect that. I definitely do not defend the use of the phrase, nor would I normally bring it up as an example. But this specific question about that specific phrase came up from another source in this exchange and was the beginning of a longer discussion in which the creation story, too, was cited as a microaggression. I think at the time I experienced it as a lost opportunity, as bringing dialogue to a close rather than opening it up to a deeper place of mutual understanding and cognitive complexity. Thanks again, DJ. I’m keeping these feet firmly on the shore!

    • I see. I can certainly understand that. Honestly, my first reaction to hearing about the creation story as a microaggression was surprise. As I think about it though, I can begin to understand why that would be the case for someone with a particular history (perhaps one not unlike my own). You are correct. It does take an incredible amount of time, energy, and intent to see the world through the eyes of The Other. Though, I can’t say that my experience is that Queer Theorists are any worse at this than Christians are. I think that’s a cultural epidemic – a result of a highly individualistic society. Moreover, I would assert that the burden is not on Queer Theorists to engage in this kind of work (though I know of many who have) … no more than the burden should be on African Americans to understand why some slave owners sincerely and genuinely thought that slavery was better for Blacks and society at large. As an African American, I can sympathize with how someone in that sociohistoric milieu might delude themselves into thinking in such a way, but I hardly find it excusable. No response, other than 100% regret, repentance, and ingratiation seems at all appropriate. Likewise, I believe the burden is on Christians to bend over backwards and ingratiate themselves to the LGBTQ community for the hurt and damage teachings, actions, and sincerely held beliefs have caused innocent people. In general, an aggressor or oppressor (no matter how nice or kind or genuine their actual intent) is not going to garner much favor or listening until they’ve done the real work of apology and repentance.

  5. Fascinating post and feedback.

    The post states “Queer Theory is an academic lens that is primarily focused on how we know things to be true and what counts as knowledge”

    Ive never thought of it that way, but Im no expert in queer theory. Ive read a book that evaluated queer theory. And Ive read a slice of a queer theory text book, and Ive spent some time in a queer academic environment, at the undergrad student level. Id summarise queer theory as being about deconstructing the sexual and gender norms, and about elevating the value of non-binary gender expressions, and of non-heterosexual expressions of sexuality, so that all are regarded as valid and healthy.

    The post also states that “Trigger events are those circumstances that could cause symptoms to surface among those diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Well in my experience, whether PTSD is diagnosed or not, is irrelevant. Some talk of triggers as being anything that may bring discomfort to someone who has experienced past trauma arising from oppression. EG talk of rape, racism or anti-gay attitudes, especially if it’s a quote from an ‘oppressor’. Even quoting an anti-homosex Bible verse might be prefixed with a trigger warning, in case it causes stress.

    Coming from an evangelical Christian perspective, and as someone with highly valued connections to the GLBTIQ communities, Im very comfortable with the term “Love the sinner; hate the sin”. I fundamentally differ with DJ’s perspective on this. I used the term myself earlier today, when I came across a man who identified as Christian, but who appeared quite anti-gay. I said to him “Hey, what happened to LOVE the sinner, hate the sin?” I think our interaction was a positive teaching moment.

    In regards to the overall question posed by this post, I suggest that we need to recognise that to be homosexual is very hard for those who are not comfortable with their orientation. The reality is that for some it’s so hard that they cant handle it. For those people, rational discussion about the Christian perspective can be a bridge too far, meaning that shutting down the conversation is the best way they know of handling the stress. For other queer theorists, who feel more secure either in atheism or whatever worldview they subscribe to, the discussion isnt so hard, and it can be more open and honest. It depends on the individual. Overall though, challenges to queer theory will be received better by queer theorists, if those challenges are not perceived as affirming the position of an oppressor. EG a given older hard core queer theorist might oppose marriage as an institution due to perceiving it as being a tool of heteronormativity. That particular older hard core queer theorist might consider Jesus talk of marriage, to be a microaggression, but might perceive advocacy for gay marriage to not be a microaggression.

    • Stasis, it’s not surprising that you would agree with it. After all, you are Evangelical, and you do use the term with other Christians. (In stating this, I’m making an assumption that you are not LGBTQ, but please let me know if I am mistaken there, because if so, I would have to rephrase that last sentence.)

      Regardless, your example is a confusing one. Of course that phrasing is helpful in heteronormative and anti-gay milieus (particularly religious ones). But the more important issue is whether that phrasing is a conversation stopper when Christians use it when talking to LGBTQ people. Is the direction of the phrasing important? I submit that it is. I would be interested to hear what your fundamental disagreement is to that. (Also, understand that I am talking in generalities about large communities. Thus, this is not an issue about what YOU are comfortable using, regardless of how you identify, but rather what in general is a non-starter in broader communities.)

      • DJ, it’s not a phrase that is well received in LGBTIQ circles. In my experience it’s not a conversation stopper, but rather it fires up levels of offence. Often the offence is based on misunderstanding. As you wrote above, it’s often perceived by the GLBTIQ person that the sin about which they speak is about personhood; that the sin and the person cant be separated. My response of course is that everyone is a sinner, and God still loves us all, while not loving the sins what we commit.

      • Hmmm. I guess I’m still not seeing your “fundamental disagreement.” If it fires up offense that is driven by misunderstanding, then there is no longer a conversation happening, no? At this point, it becomes a debate, not a conversation.

        For instance, if you were to say to me, “Darren, when it comes to the African American issue, I think you just need to understand that we as Christian love the sinner, not the sin.” Is it reasonable for me to continue conversation with you if you consider my skin color and cultural heritage/identity to be a sin? The necessary response is: FULL STOP on conversation. Now I’m angry. Now we’re debating.

        That phrase is a conversation stopper between Christians and LGBTQ people. If it’s not helpful, why use it?

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