Thursday, 29 October 2009

Queer by Any Other Name: Mark Jordan on Terminology

In the beginning was a word, and the word was “queer”. But this was seen as offensive, so we changed it to “gay”.  Many women felt they were not clearly included, so the words became “gay and lesbian”. Some thought this was a tautology, so it was spelt out: “gay men and lesbians”, sometimes “lesbians and gay men”.  “What about us?” asked the bisexuals, so it became “lesbians, gay men and bisexuals”.  But some men didn’t like being called gay, they were just “men who have sex with “men” – MSM. Then we realised there were others who were excluded – but lesbian gay bisexual and transgendered was too much of a mouthful, so it became LGBT, later extended to LGBTQI – so adding “queer” (now including all other sexual minorities, or none) and “intersex”.
Yesterday, Michael Bayley and I had a short interchange in the comments thread to a post at Wild Reed (an important one, which I plan to address separately.  In the meantime, read and think about the post at “An exciting endeavour”, or just read the comments.)
In yet another example of staggering synchronicity, one of the first news reports I saw this morning on my personalised Google News page was a report of a lecture by Mark Jordan on exactly this topic, together with a comment which pretty will sums up my feelings – but ever so much more eloquently.
(Before giving you Prof Jordan’s remarks, I should clarify may own stance on this blog.  I don’t like any of the terms that are used, but my preference is “Queer”, with a very specific new meaning.  But I recognise that many people either dislike the term, or are not familiar with the modern usage.    So, in a spirit of inclusiveness, I try to use a range of the less offensive terms without discrimination – and with no attempt to be consistent).
Here follow extracts from the lecture (from Yale Daily News):

According to Harvard Divinity School professor Mark Jordan, the terms LGBT and queer are confusing and unnecessary.

“No one knows what queer means, and no one can know what queer means,” Jordan said in a lecture Tuesday before an audience of more than 50 Yale students and faculty in the Yale Divinity School’s Niebuhr Lecture Hall. Critiquing homosexual labels, Jordan said Christians adopt these terms — which he called scientific and psychological but not religious — and use these words to create polarized arguments either attacking or embracing homosexuality.

In the lecture, Jordan argued that Christians should adopt a term that both includes homosexuals in their community and embodies Christian values based on biblical canon. But in a question-and-answer session after the lecture, he said he could not describe what the term should be.

Jordan began his lecture by recounting the story of a 16-year-old boy named Zach Stark, whose Christian parents in 2005 sent him to a religious “ex-gay” therapy program called Love in Action after he revealed his sexuality to his parents. As Stark participated in the program, he documented his troubled, occasionally suicidal thoughts in a blog that was soon picked up by the online media.

Jordan said the media coverage on Stark — and the term “ex-gay” itself — resulted in polarized debates nationwide. This example, he said, shows how the general public, using terms of sexuality, often simplifies the relationship between religion and homosexuality, condemning Christians as the enemies of homosexuals.

Jordan said a problem arises when Christianity “borrows” too many of the terms of sexual orientation from the scientific and political communities. Thus, he argued, because Christians do not have their own term to express sexual orientation, Christian organizations have not accepted homosexuals as readily as secular institutions.

“When we measure by other standards, we don’t measure progress for [Christians],” he said.

Jordan said in the lecture that the term LGBT is not a cohesive descriptor of sexuality, rather a laundry list of non-heterosexual “subdivisions.” To create a more precise term, Jordan said, churches should look to the Bible.

“What we need is the positive equivalent of the sodomite,” he said, referring to the residents of the Biblical city Sodom who engaged in homosexual and heterosexual acts depicted as perverse.

In an interview after the lecture, Yale Co-op Co-coordinator Rachel Schiff ’10, who did not attend the event, said the use of specific and limiting labels, such as ‘gay’, instead of all-inclusive terms, such as ‘LGBT’ — lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer — and transsexual, ignore the diversity of the non-heterosexual community because terms such as ‘gay’ have the connotation of applying only to homosexual men.

“The term ‘queer’ is being used and reclaimed by the younger LGBT movement to embrace and celebrate the diversity of sexuality and gender identity in our community,” Schiff said.
(A prominent Christian ethicist and scholar of philosopher Thomas Aquinas, Jordan said he now focuses his research on the relationship between Christianity and sexuality. His latest works, including “The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism” and “Bless Same-Sex Unions: The Perils of Queer Romance and the Confusions of Christian Marriage,” explores controversial religious topics, such as whether the Christian clergy should bless same-sex unions.)
From the comment thread:

“What the Niebuhr lecturer from Harvard Divinity School, Mr. Mark Jordan, is tacitly acknowledging in his lecture at Yale Divinity School outlining his search for a new label from the Bible to describe same gender sexuality, is that we have become the fractured faces of Picasso's paintings.

We but "slenderly" know our selves.

In fact we have no selves. We are in search of our lost selves, to recoin Proust.

Nobody says "my heterosexual parents" or the man and woman who created me "heterosexually". Why should they say "She's queer" or "He's gay" Or "They're the people who perform lesbian acts in bed?"

Just as it is antiquated for a male to achieve manhood through the ritual of deflowering a woman, so too is it antiquated to attribute personhood to another on the basis of the twitches and impulses of one square foot of their body from navel to knee and whether or not they transform those twitches into sexual acts.

Carve another knotch in yer holster pardner.

Is that not in fact what the Niebuhr lecturer seeks to squeeze from biblical texts?

Has anyone ever considered how foolish all this sexuality nonsense is?

People are people. They make different choices. Sometimes they make declarations about those choices and discover decades later that those declarations weren't true to their ongoing interior monologues.

This goes for people who do different and contrary things with that one-square-foot of their bodies.

"In the beginning was the Word and the Word was made flesh" is being transformed by Mercantilia into "In the beginning was the flesh and the flesh was made Word (or Label)."

My, what fools these mortals be.”
More on Mark Jordan and his writing:

Previous QTC posts (which refer to Mark Jordan at least in part)

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