Thinking Straight?

Where Social Conservatives Go Wrong on Sexuality

A little queer theory can be a dangerous thing. At least that’s what one might conclude after observing social conservatives eagerly citing—and in the process, badly distorting—such theory to defend traditional ideas about sexuality. A recent and striking example is Michael Hannon’s essay “Against Heterosexuality” in First Things this past March. There Hannon argues that religious conservatives should embrace queer theorists’ view that sexual orientation is a social construction, rather than a natural and inevitable feature of persons. Furthermore, they should stop categorizing anyone as gay, because doing so organizes that person’s sexual identity around a particular temptation to sin, leading him to believe that he needs that sin in order to be fulfilled. Finally, and most important, they should stop categorizing anyone as heterosexual, because doing so lets people off the hook as “normal,” thus blinding them to their own sin. The general idea is that shedding these labels will enable people better to focus on the proper Christian grounding for sex and marriage.

Hannon, who is a candidate for religious life with the Norbertine order, is hardly the first Catholic to invoke queer theory in support of conservative causes. Back in the late 1990s, when the essentialist/constructionist debate was still fresh, my old sparring partner Maggie Gallagher made a similar point at a Georgetown University conference on “Homosexuality and American Public Life.” What’s interesting about Hannon’s version is how far he goes in revealing what’s troubling social conservatives today: what they fear, what they really want, and why they’re unlikely to get it.

To understand his argument, one must reach back about two decades to an esoteric academic debate between essentialists, who argued that sexual orientation is a natural, intrinsic, and trans-historical feature of persons, and social constructionists, who countered that sexual orientation is a cultural invention, and a relatively recent one at that. The debate was confusing, especially because the disputants often seemed to be talking past each other. Moreover, as the historian John Boswell noted, virtually no one actually claimed to be an “essentialist;” that label was simply used by constructionists to critique others’ views. In any case, few scholars today would deny the constructionists’ central claim: The way modern Westerners organize sexual identity, the way we categorize ourselves and others—gay, straight, and bisexual—is not universal. Those categories did not gain social salience until the late nineteenth century.

This claim is easily misunderstood. To say that these categories lacked social salience prior to the nineteenth century is not to say that there weren’t people who engaged in, and predominantly favored, romantic relationships with persons of the same sex. Of course there were. Nor is it to say that they and others didn’t recognize that some people had such preferences. Of course they did. (Aristophanes’ myth in Plato’s Symposium is often cited as evidence.) Nor is it to deny that their preference for the same sex might be strongly genetically influenced. One of the reasons the essentialist/constructionist debate proved so confusing is that it was often conflated with the nature/nurture debate that was raging simultaneously: Are people born gay (or straight, or bisexual), or are they made so through family or social influences? Those debates actually address distinct questions—essentialist/constructionist is about identity categories, whereas nature/nurture is about the etiology of sexual desire—but it’s easy to oversimplify them in such a way that makes them look more connected than they are.

An analogy may help (this one from the philosopher and legal theorist Edward Stein): Some people strongly prefer to sleep on their backs, others on their stomachs. Perhaps these preferences are genetically based, perhaps not. Perhaps they’re changeable; perhaps not. But the point is that no one divides the world into “backers” and “fronters” or grants such categories any social significance. According to the social constructionists, the common categories of sexual orientation (gay, straight, bisexual) used to be that way, too.

THUS FAR I'VE been describing social constructionism as a view about identity, not etiology. There’s another, more controversial version, however. It’s the one that’s easily caricatured as “Society makes people gay,” which of course made it a perfect foil in the 1990s for equally simplistic “gay genes” talk. But there’s a more plausible rendering, and it goes something like this: Human sexual desires don’t appear fully formed. Our early intimations of them are often amorphous and inarticulate. And social environment, especially during puberty, can shape and change them—not only providing pathways for expression but also refining them in the process. That is a view about etiology, or at least, about one significant element of a full etiological picture.

Whether this view is correct is an empirical question, and one that’s difficult to test. (One way would be to drop genetically identical humans into various cultures and historical periods, and see how their specific desires turn out. Obviously, this is not feasible.) But its account of desire-shaping is at least plausible. It certainly coheres with my own experience: When I was eight or nine, I used to get a funny, animated feeling watching the boy next door mow the lawn. Did I sexually desire him? Not really, no. I certainly didn’t desire to have sex with him, or even to kiss him: I just felt a kind of amorphous excitement in his presence. It wasn’t until much later that I could retroactively characterize that excitement as a “gay feeling” and the person experiencing it (me) as a “gay person.” Now when I’m in the presence of a handsome guy, my desires are much more specific. What the “etiological” social constructionists are saying is that the experiences I had in the interim helped to form those desires. They did not merely give me the terminology for them—although that fact is important, too. They shaped their contours.

Which begins to explain what’s worrying right-wing folks like Hannon, to the point where some of them are desperately grasping at left-wing academic theory. Today more than ever, young people see gay life and gay sex and gay relationships as possible options. Gay-rights advocates (myself included) have worked hard to ensure this, from the It Gets Better Project to the marriage-equality movement to college football star Michael Sam’s coming out. What we advocates want is for these young people to have plausible pathways for a healthy, fulfilling adult gay life. We want them to know that they’re not alone. The problem is that what we want is precisely what social conservatives fear. To put the point simply: They’re worried that we’re making their kids gay.

Making them gay, how? Not in the obviously silly sense that we’re causing otherwise straight kids to switch teams. (After all, the usual response to a gay person is not, “No fair! How come he gets to be gay?”) But rather in the sense that the boy who gets that funny feeling around the boy next door will find pathways that shape that feeling into something more specific. He’ll begin to see gay life and gay sex and gay relationships as live options. He’ll grow up to be an Active Homosexual.

Under the old regime, things might have been different. (Keep in mind that the sans-category regime Hannon longs for is over a hundred years gone, although vestiges of it linger, especially in certain cultures.) Under the old regime, that boy might have grown up to marry a woman, for example, and had a not-passionate but still adequate marriage. Sure, he’d continue to get that funny feeling around guys, but it might not be a recognizably gay feeling, let alone a fully formed desire for gay sex.

Or he might have grown up to be a priest. That was my plan, actually. I entered a religious order at nineteen. It was there during formation retreats that I met other openly gay people for the first time: fellow candidates, brothers, and priests. By then I knew enough about the world that those funny feelings had morphed into recognizably gay feelings, and yet I still emphatically and sincerely believed I was not gay. Of course, I knew that I lacked “straight feelings,” and I knew at least implicitly that a person with gay feelings but no straight feelings is gay. (This, from someone who would later teach elementary logic.) Somehow, by not letting certain ideas in my head touch each other, I could refuse to draw the obvious conclusion from them.

At least, I could refuse to do so until I met these other people who were doing so. My openly gay friends in the order let me know that gay life and gay sex and gay relationships were possible, and so I left to explore those options. Hannon would be horrified, and perhaps the local bishop would have been too, but my spiritual director practically sang “Climb Ev'ry Mountain” as I walked out the friary door.

The new regime, which allows for such alternatives, strikes many of us as a very good thing. It’s not because we believe that desire-satisfaction is always good. Sexual desires in particular can powerfully incline people to favor short-term pleasure over long-term welfare, as Christian moral teaching has long and properly noticed. It’s rather because we recognize that a small but significant portion of our fellow human beings are predominantly attracted to persons of the same sex, and that previous generations’ tendency to ignore or hide or stifle this fact did far more harm than good. It’s because we believe that romantic love is a good thing, and (more controversially) that the sexual expression of that love can bear good fruit even in relationships where procreation is neither intended nor possible. It’s because the categories of sexual orientation were, are, and will continue to be useful.

For some of us, it’s not that difficult to imagine life without such categories. For my generation (mid-40s) and older, that was the experience of our childhood—by which I mean that it was the only world of which we were aware. Our parents and teachers and pastors made sure that we were sheltered from “those people,” our television shows kept them hidden, our books were censored. To the extent that we learned about such topics at all, it was as something distant and pathological: surely nothing that applied to us kids. The result? Confusion, isolation, loneliness, fear; the sense that “I must be the only one.” We may not have understood our funny feelings, but we knew enough to keep quiet about them. It was an ugly, painful time.

To be clear: Hannon is not asking for a return to the 1950s, when the categories of sexual orientation were available but hidden. He’s asking for something much more difficult for us moderns to imagine: a world without sexual orientation as we understand it. Yet it’s hard to see how to avoid the closet as a necessary first step toward this goal. Worse, one worries that aiming for this goal would at most achieve a disastrous middle ground: a world where orientation categories were still salient but where the taboo against voicing them would leave those with same-sex desires lonely and miserable.

WHICH BRINGS ME BACK to Hannon’s essay, which is by turns incisive, naïve, and scary. It’s incisive, because Hannon recognizes how having gayness available as a social category makes it more likely that people will develop—and want to satisfy—full-fledged gay sexual desires. This is not your father’s homophobia (“They’re trying to recruit your children!”) but a subtle argument about etiology and identity.

Yet Hannon’s essay is also naïve, displaying the most superficial grasp of what social constructionists actually believe. For example, he assumes throughout his essay that because sexual orientation is being socially constructed, that means it can be intentionally (if not easily) unconstructed. Queer theorists, he says, want to “make, unmake, and remake their sexuality as they see fit.”

Actually, no. For one thing, queer theorists are theorists, and many are more concerned with understanding sexuality than with changing it. (Also, it’s worth noting that they would be horrified at Hannon’s narrow and rigid prescriptions for change.) More important, they also have a lot more common sense than Hannon attributes to them. Here’s the prominent queer theorist David Halperin:

Just because my sexuality is an artifact of social processes doesn’t mean I’m not stuck with it. Particular cultures are contingent, but the personal identities and forms of erotic life that take place within the horizons of those cultures are not. To say that sexuality is learned is not to say that it can be unlearned—any more than to say that ‘culture changes’ is to say that it’s malleable.

Halperin’s point is primarily directed toward reparative therapists and other “change is possible” types who think gayness can be cured, and the point is worth underscoring: Social constructionists are not claiming that sexual orientation is a “choice,” in the sense of something that individuals, or their therapists or pastors, can substantially control. But he’s also warning against hubris in the face of powerful cultural forces. Hannon writes that sexual orientation is “nothing more than a fragile social construct.” One might just as well argue that language, government, and religion are nothing more than fragile social constructs, albeit ones with longer histories. Gender too. Even biological sex, if you take the more radical queer theorists seriously. One of the oddest points of Hannon’s essay comes when he claims that “Of course, we do have a model norm for the evaluation of sexual deviancy,” and the reader expects him to reference the Genesis creation account, where God creates humankind male and female. Instead, Hannon tells us that the model is “Christ Jesus himself”—a single, celibate man. Perhaps he’s up for more dismantling than we think.

Please do not misunderstand my position. I’m not arguing that Hannon shouldn’t use queer theory because queer theorists would disagree with his conclusions. Rather, I’m arguing that he badly misunderstands the theory’s details, commitments, and logical entailments. Moreover, although I find etiological social constructionism plausible, I don’t think it’s possible to intentionally reduce the number of gays by social engineering. (Neither does Halperin, apparently.) For one thing, social environment is a complex web whose workings are often beyond our grasp. For another, there’s no putting the toothpaste back in the tube: Unless Hannon manages to burn down the libraries and obliterate the internet and silence vast portions of the population, young kids with inchoate gay feelings will eventually discover that gay identity, along with the sense of community it provides, is available to them.

Finally, and most important, while etiological social constructionism may be plausible for full-fledged, detailed sexual desires, I don’t think it’s plausible for sexuality’s basic building blocks, given the substantial evidence for genetic and epi-genetic contributions to sexual orientation. Thus, attempting to prevent gayness via social change won’t produce fewer gay people; it will just produce more who are closeted, unhappy, and frustrated.

Even more naïve than Hannon’s view that we can eliminate sexual-orientation categories is his claim that we will—indeed, it will happen within our lifetimes. “Mark my words,” he confidently announces, “The queer theorists will have their way in dismantling the thing before long.” That’s in part because they’re “increasingly calling the shots at the elite level.”

That last one gave us a good laugh at Gay Headquarters, let me tell you. Keep in mind that, to the extent that queer theorists have advocated a political agenda (apart from AIDS activism, where their contributions were significant), it has been in opposition to marriage. In particular, they’ve argued that gays should avoid assimilating to such a coercive, conservative institution. We all know how that’s going.

Such howlers aside, there’s nothing funny about the Hannon piece—indeed, it’s scary. For Hannon makes clear exactly what these social conservatives ultimately want. It’s not merely to deny same-sex couples the freedom to marry. It’s not merely to refuse to do our wedding photography or to bake our cakes. It’s not even merely to push gay-identified people back into the closet, although that’s an essential—and sufficiently frightening—first step in Hannon’s dismantling fantasy.

What they want is nothing less than to dismantle the very vocabulary by which we express and realize our inchoate longings for intimacy. They want to push us back to a time when homosexuality was not merely the “love that dare not speak its name,” but the love that could not speak it. They want to restore a regime where the boy with the funny feeling might—if he’s lucky—grow up to have a good-enough heterosexual marriage, but he might just as easily grow up to have a lonely life of furtive, dangerous same-sex encounters.

The old regime died because it was cruel and inhumane. Hannon seems to hope that, by not naming our reality, he can make it go away. He’s badly wrong about that, and thankfully so.

About the Author

John Corvino is chair of the philosophy department at Wayne State University in Detroit. He is the author of What’s Wrong with Homosexuality? and the co-author (with Maggie Gallagher) of Debating Same-Sex Marriage, both from Oxford University Press. Read more at



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They want to push us back to a time when homosexuality was not merely the “love that dare not speak its name,” but the love that could not speak it.

Yes, they want us to become "Stepford Human Beings". They want us all to silently assume our assigned places inside a Norman-Rockwell-painting world. 

Thanks, Mr. Corvino, for articulating so well what it was like growing up gay. 

Mr. Corvino, it seems to me that your summary of Hannon's essay suffers from an inconsistent and rather imaginative projection of his theoretical analysis onto some kind of authoritarian public policy. In particular, you seem to be primarily concerned with crude attempts on the part of social conservatives to "intentionally reduce the number of gays by social engineering." While this dramatic vision of a future 1984-esque gay victimhood may a colorful and frightening thing to invoke, it has nothing to do with the analysis Hannon is actually making. In fact, specific public policies or short-term social change strategies is a category of thinking that Hannon's piece precisely does not concern itself (nowhere does he claim current sexual notions will be dismantled "in our lifetime"). In that sense your piece here contends not with Hannon's thinking but rather with the straw man you've created.

This sort of sloppy alarmism is something I have come to expect in Huffington Post editorials and such but am disappointed to read in Commonweal. Might I commend the well-worn rule of public discourse wherein we are encouraged to restate our opponents' position in a form they would be able to recongize?

TF, I will take up your challenge.  Although I would say that Corvino is not wrong -- Hannon clearly says that by setting up "homosexuality" as an identity some persons are greatly more tempted to engage in homosexual acts than they otherwise would be.  He also does say that these categories will not outlive him.  He does not forthrightly say what he sees taking their place, perhaps he does not know, and this was a very long essay, but I believe the two paragraphs that best elucidate where Hannon would take his theories are these:

As to the former, orientation essentialism has made ethical philosophy in this realm all but impossible: It has displaced the old marital-procreative principles of chastity without offering any alternative that is not entirely arbitrary. The older teleological view measured morality against man’s rational-animal nature; in the sexual realm, this meant evaluating sex acts by reference to the common good of marriage, which integrated spousal union and the bearing and rearing of children. The newer heteronormative system, on the other hand, cannot account for the wickedness of same-sex sodomy by reference to anything but a conditioned and unprincipled gag reflex, and one which, left unjustified, has weakened considerably over time.

As to the latter result, moral disarray, the orientation takeover has counterproductively shifted our everyday attention from objective purposes to subjective passions. . . . This self-searching becomes even more needlessly distressing for those who discern in themselves a “homosexual orientation,” as they adopt an identity distinguished essentially by a set of sexual desires that cannot morally be fulfilled.

So I would paraphrase thus:  Sex acts that are not integrated with the possibility of procreation are wrong.  This makes not only homosexual sex acts wrong, all the time, but many other sex acts that take place between male and female also wrong.  Ergo, we should never accept the term "heteronormative" because that suggests to male/female combinations that so long as they limit their sex acts to the opposite sex, they cannot be the occasion of sin, which is obviously incorrect from a moral perspective, because many heterosexual sex acts are as devoid of objective moral purpose as homosexual sex acts always are.  My views are consistent with queer theory which, to a differing moral end, rejects the notion of heteronormativity.

I would suggest this is a cartoonish and extreme view.  First, why are "sex acts" the touchstone of morality at all (sort of like why did people enslave themselves to a "gold standard" when gold is just a metal, and the value ascribed to it completely a human construct)?  That reasons can be given still doesn't make it a given standard universal throughout time and space.  Thus it may be the focus on certain "acts" that is arbitrary rather than possible alternatives -- which gets to his statement, that "it has displaced the old marital-procreative principles of chastity without offering any alternative that is not entirely arbitrary."  In my view this is simply incorrect. 

We focus on consent, on accountability for consequences of one's actions, on integrity and honesty, and on personal commitment.  We feel differently when two people (married or just living together) go their separate ways based on whether they have children or not, or whether one supported the other or is dependent on the other.  These are imperfect, they are often problematic when it comes to supporting and preserving marriage, but that they are relational rather than fixed parameters doesn't make them arbitrary. 

And finally, the focus on these relational aspects of moral behavior does not depend on how one defines one's self along the homo to hetero spectrum. 

Hannon also uses "heterosexual" and "heteronormative" interchangeably.  When the late 19th century constructed these categories, heterosexuality was supposed to be normative, whereas homosexuality was disordered or even a disease state.  This view was obviously much of what Michel Foucault rejected.  I would say that within conservative Christian settings, this is still the view (e.g., gays need to be cured).  Thus, in Hannon's view, the message comes across to heterosexual Christians as basically, that so long as they live within the confines of their sexuality they are above sexual sin (I think he even says that identifying one's self as heterosexual confers moral blindness).  I think this is a little extreme, but it tends to explain how Newt Gingrich and Mark Sanford, for instance, get a virtually free pass from conservatives, whereas Anthony Weiner and Elliot Spitzer get no such free pass from their liberal constituents.  I would agree with Hannon that such a view is seriously deformed, even though I doubt many people consciously ascribe to it.  I read his message to be, that by obliterating the categories we put the focus back on individual acts irrespective of homo or hetero propensity.  That is, no one gets a free pass.  I agree no one should get a free pass, but I disagree with the focus on specific "acts" as opposed to other aspects of a sexual relationship. (And I am only using politicians to make the point because the examples are so widely known.)

Wonderful essay; thanks for this. I do think the niceties of "social construction" are hard for many people to understand (I occasionally teach Foucault and Butler to my undergrads, and that and the performance of gender often trip them up), but that's no excuse for a published writer in a major venue.

Flavia, I am not sure Hannon is saying what Corvino is saying in that regard.  I don't think he expects homosexuals to stop desiring men.  I think he expects that they will either stop acting on their desire or that, at least, people will regard specific acts as wrong no matter who engages in them.  What he means by obliterating categories is that we all go back to focusing on acts rather than orientation in defining what is right and wrong.  I would paraphrase his view as, being morally confused is worse than being sexually unfulfilled.  To the extent he sees the "categories" as being responsible for moral confusion, his goal is to do away with the categories, and he is using queer theory to dismiss the objections of people like Corvino -- he backstops his case by asserting that even "teh gays" don't believe that the categories are real anyway and thus, he is not denying anyone their existential or authentic self. 

Dear Barbara, anyone reading Hannon's piece would see that he hopes a new heteronormativity will replace the currenty identity spectrum. That much is noncontroversial. However, my point is that Corvino spends most of his time responding to a supposed, imminent forceful invasion into the minds and hearts of gay people by social conservatives, whereas Hannon is convinced the whole edifice will collapse on its own. A thoughtful response to Hannon would address him on the level of his theory, which is to say the essay he wrote, rather than choosing to respond to a supposed authoritarian boogeyman behind Hannon who is supposedly going to rush in and brainwash gay people as soon as he can get away with it.

Also, would you be so kind as to point out where in Hannon's piece he says "these categories will not outlive him"? You and Corvino both saw this in the essay but I just re-read it and all I could find was the suggestion that this will all collapse "sooner than people think"... Did I miss something?


"My own prediction is that we will see this binary thoroughly deconstructed within our lifetimes."

P.S., just the fact that you used the term "heteronormative" tells me you and I read Hannon quite differently.

Oh, wow, don't know how I missed that line. A very bold prediction, I dare say...

And you're right I shouldn't be using heteronormative there, since Hannon explicitly says he is trying to do away with heternormativity.

I think I'm going to bow out...

" should stop categorizing anyone as gay,"

Can we have "gay" back? As in "we had a gay old time" and "I feel pretty and witty and gay?"

Those songs were not so long ago.

Nope, we are keeping it.  On the other hand, you can have back all the words you appropriated to refer to us.  In the single case of "pansy", for example, you are already ahead by two letters.  Oh, by the way, we are also keeping "queer".

The main shortcoming with Hannon's argument is that it is fundamentally silly, because it is entirely divorced from reality.  I appreciate that religious conservatives are always entirely devorced from reality; and that means that these elaborate analyses always fail for being imaginary. 

This is a very interesting response.  Although I think it misreads the Hannon piece.  Hannon is arguing from the Thomistic position that all sexual acts are ordered to procreation and that any willful deviation from this is sinful.  If you do not agree with this basic premise, obviously ANY argument made in its defence is going to seem oppressive and anti-gay.  

If you agree with, or are even unsure about the Catholic teachings on sexual morality, then I think you can get a less alarmist, more sympathetic reading from it; which would be this:  that sexual attraction is such a mysterious, amorphous, and personal thing that ANY attempt to categorize it is going to be arbitrary and ultimately fruitless, because there are as many sexual orientations as there are people.

Anyone who wishes to maintain the validity of these categories, it seems to me, has to answer this question: On what basis do you limit your sexual categories to heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual?  What do you do with people who are attracted to animals or to inanimate objects?  Are the realizations of these sexual expressions illegitimate?  If so why? And if they're not, why can't we foster a cultural climate where these sexual expressions also have their associated communities and norms?  The Catholic response to this is very simple--the sexual expression of these attractions are not legitimate.

All of this is assuming a disctinction between Homosexual and Gay, which Corvino doesn't really make, but which people like Eve Tushnet I think have done a very good job of making a case for.  The two terms are not, it seems to me, interchangeable; and I would be surprised if Hannon thought they were.  By saying we shouldn't have sexual orientations, I don't think Hannon is saying we shouldn't have Gay communities or subcultures.  It's just that these communities--like any communities-- should be defined not by the sexual orientation of their constituents, but by what kind of contributions they can make to the flourishing of civilization and the human person.  

Excellent article. I couldn't help but think of the previews for The Giver when imagining a society that has managed to excise any memory of non-heterosexual identities.

Dang. I really need it for "Deck the Halls."

Think I'll put my foot down. I'm taking "Gay" back. (Note: I never used the'other words.')

<SIGH>... I fully expect Commonweal to next give legitimacy to the views of Planned Parenthood by inviting leading representatives from their Org to write articles for the magazine.  Or possibly they are waiting till their "conservative" co-religionists have been sufficiently intimidated and jailed (or disenfranchised from their businesses) before daring such a move. Good grief. Thank God I gave up my subscription a few years back. There is, and has been many a time and place for the arguments of Corvino.  Perhaps when "The Advocate" gives space for - say - the cogent arguments of a Robert P. George, then perhaps I'd be less cynical of Corvino being given space in a so-called "Catholic" journal for the advocating of the goodness of sodomy.  Oh well yes... free speech and inquiry... yada, yada... and I'm just a fundamentalist anti -intellectual, etc., etc.. and you're not dealing with his argument.... and so on... <SIGH>

Regarding Hannon's essay, I have to agree with Chris Vogel: "fundamentally silly". Hannon's painful and convoluted over-intellectualism of sexuality is ridiculous, inert and barely intelligible. And the parts that what are intelligible are downright depressing. Exactly how the sexual categories of "heterosexual/homosexual" will "collapse" is not given any believable or compelling explanation. I think that point has more to do with wishful thinking, unrealistic and more than a little disturbing. 

Essentially, Hannon is calling for a return to an impossible vision: "our own tradition of familial-teleological chastity". Hardly spiritually inspiring, though it does sound like a promising setup for a Monty Python routine. It reminds me of something one my professors in the seminary used to say, when he grew tired of trying to explicate the Church's teaching on sexuality: "The Catholic Church is nothing but a vast organization committed to keeping people from [copulating]." Except that he used the "f" word in place of "copulating"... That's what the Hannon piece drives home. We've heared all this before. I'm not at all surprised that Hannon is committing himself to celibacy. 

Rather than intellectualizing, it's much more compelling when people talk about their real lives - and it would be helpful to hear Hannon put into words his own sexual history and experiences, without pious interpretation and with at least some measure of self-awareness attached.

For myself, as a gay man, "homosexual" or "gay" has never been a noun, a "category" or an "identity". It is only a convenient description of attraction, and the attraction is not insignificant. It is only a part of my life, but an essential and important one. It is what I am "stuck with", my available thoroughfare in this life to the experience of human intimacy and love, which (if one is a believer) in its finest moments, is joyful and life-giving (yes, even for "homosexual" people) and allows us a glimpse of the love of God, "as through a glass, darkly". Revealiingly, there is absolutely nothing joyful or life-giving in Hannon's essay. Words like "despair" and "sin" and "self-pity", and "sad distortion of love" dominate. 

I was only 10 years old when I started to comprehend that my sexual desires and attractions had a description: "homosexual". When I happened across a definition of "homosexual", I imposed no judgment on it; indeed, I was relieved that there were others like me. I told my parents right away. They were puzzled but told me I was too young to know. Hannon claims that in our time, teenagers "agonize" over resolution of their "sexual identity". That was not true for me until I began to internalize the hateful messages of "sin" and "perversion" that were drilled into me by the Church and society in the ensuing years. Our children deserve better than "intrinsically disordered". These joyless, hateful messages dominate Hannon's vision of human sexuality. 

It IS a so-called Catholic journal. Anytime I venture in here, I just consider it a typical Left-Progressive blog with "Catholic" arbitrarily strapped on.

It would be nice if people would address the content of the essay rather than expressing outrage that a Catholic publication would publish it.

The people the author lables "social conservatives" are better labeled "Catholics" or "Christians" since the Church has taught that homosexual acts are immoral from the very beginning. 

William Snow: I think you are being rather too generous to Hannon when you say that he is arguing "that sexual attraction is such a mysterious, amorphous, and personal thing that ANY attempt to categorize it is going to be arbitrary and ultimately fruitless, because there are as many sexual orientations as there are people."  I think that is what queer theory posits, but I would say that Hannon is mostly indifferent to individuation of sexual predilection, more like, whatever it is you like to eat, there is only one permissible flavor, vanilla, and if you really don't like vanilla, then the only other moral choice is to stop eating.  He acknowledges how hard that is, but it's almost like we are supposed to not worry about the impact on gays and lesbians because his preferred moral order will be hard for everyone, including married couples whose sexual union is still considered licit.  It's not a very joyful view of sexuality.

John Donohue and fellow travelers:  by all means, continue to call yourselves gay.  You might find the experience of dealing with people such as yourselves quite interesting.


Have a go, gurrlz.

Would you ask this if Sean Hannity wrote an article in these pages? How about Bill O'Reilly or Anne Coulter?  Howabout Rachel Maddow?  I would volunteer responses from the audience as to how that would go over. The point is that all of these and Corvino are unrepresentative of anything that could remotely be called a scholarly Catholic position. Not that the points they could bring up are worthy of response.  

In addition to that... Commonweal and its sympathetic readers are increasingly on the wrong side of this issue.  And the issue is very serious, hence, eventually they will be in schism from the Catholic Church (if they are not already). What is being promoted here is plain amoral heresy, by any stretch of the Catholic imagination.

Corvino is conversant in both Catholic thought and queer theory, which makes him an excellent choice for an analysis of a novel argument using queer theory presented in a Catholic publication. Permitting only those who agree with you would likely mean that no one who was familiar enough with the ideas Hannon was adopting would be allowed to provide us with a critique of his essay.

Who is "we"?




The formerly, willfully blind majority?


Do you guys (and most often it IS guys) feel so discomfited by the inconvenience of acknowledging that others are actually different from you that you have to voice it about the meaning of a seldom used, 3-letter, pretty archaic adjective?

That was in response to John Donohue, above.

What's stopping you from using the word "gay"? Words can have more than a single meaning. 

People seem to forget that gay people did not, by themselves, create the homosexual identity as an identity.

If you watch "health class" films of the 50s or FBI reports from, well, forever, you'll find references to "the homosexual".  The national -- indeed worldwide -- discussion of Kinsey's findings about actual sexual behavior from the 40s didn't automatically give birth the gay movement.  It led to the anti-gay repression of the 50s.  THEY are the ones who started calling us "THE homosexuals". 

What gay people did wasn't to create "The Homosexual" but to advance the idea that there wasn't anything wrong with "The Homosexual" and that it isn't right to persecute him/her. 

As always, the laws of nature (reality of our human community) will drown out natural law (dogma based on primitive physiology).  These last gasps of social consevatives are no more dangerous than vibrations from my son's subwoofers.          

""a healthy, fulfilling adult gay life"


good luck with that, all the empirical evidence argues otherwise.

""a healthy, fulfilling adult gay life"

good luck with that, all the empirical evidence argues otherwise."

What empirical evidence? Or are you going to quote all the ridiculous and propaganist junk science that claims the average gay life expectancy is 44? Or that most gay men are riddled with HIV/AIDS? Or that we have 5,000 sex partners per year? Bring it on. 


It is not surprising that the revanchist ultramonane trolls that seem to dominate the comments of this so-called "liberal" catholic website are outraged that a gay man challenges a theology that dehumanizes an entire class of people as disordered, defective and oriented towards an intrinsic moral evil.  The Steinfelds have always been conservative on gay rights and feminism - they just avoid the extreme rhetoric of their co-religionists.  The irony is that most gay people view Corvino as much too moderate and conciliatory to religous conservatives - he has made a career out of playing the role of the moderate gay person who writes books with the likes of Maggie Gallagher and Stanton Jones.  His rebuttal to Hannon, though effective, never contests the absurdity and epistemological incoherence of Hannon's combination of an anti-foundationalist critical theory, radically skeptical of any universal truth claims, with a sexual morality grounded in pre-modern metaphysical "natural law"  If I didn't know better, I would think it was the theological equivalent of the Sokal Hoax from the 90s.  I'm sure Hannon thinks he is awfully clever in his amateur attempt to use Queer Theory against gay people but it only shows how religious homophobes have no sense of reality.  Most gay people have never even heard of Queer Theory and those that have view it as no better than the theological attacks on science from the right.  The small clique of ersatz radical academics who subscribe to this pelaver are just as hostile to mainstream gay politics and identity as the right wing god botherers on the right.  They share a disdain for gay marriage and the assimilation of gay people into the mainstream of society - just from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.  Corvino should have mocked Hannon for his pseudo-intellectualism and twisted internalized homophobia rather than dignifting him with this tepid response.

Ryan Anderson talking about these matters:


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The "nineteenth century" is the period of time from 1801 to 1900.  I don't think the word "gay" began being used in place of the word "homosexual" until the late twentieth century.  So when you say, "The way modern Westerners organize sexual identity, the way we categorize ourselves and others -- gay, straight and bisexual -- is not univesal.  Those categories did not gain social salience until the late nineteenth century" you are mistaken.  Or is that part of the homosexual plan -- change history and redefine marriage?


The arguments in defense of Corvino or Hannon appear to revolve around the acceptance or rejection of Natural Law as understood and taught by the Church and by many other religious traditions. Those who defend acts of sodomy, which both the medical and common dictionary definitions concur to mean “anal or oral copulation with a member of the same or opposite sex; also : copulation with an animal,” propose that modern understanding of human psychology and behavior renders, at least, the  condemnation of “anal and oral copulation” part of this definition (although some would argue for the inclusion of “copulation with an animal”), as contrary to a true modern understanding of human nature. Although the traditional Natural Law’s condemnation of these acts is not limited to the activities of homosexuals (or, “gays,” if you wish), the defense of the moral legitimacy of these acts rests primarily on the nature and naturalness of homosexuality, coupled with the entirely modern (questionable) notion that “sexual fulfillment” or “sexual expression” is also natural and should not be denied to anyone (that is, as long as the sex is between/[perhaps among] consenting adults).


The argument of those defending sodomitic acts between consenting homosexual adults appears simple: Homosexuality is a natural human state. Sexual fulfillment is a natural human right. Sexual fulfillment for homosexuals can only be obtained through anal or oral copulation (perhaps “mutual masturbation” might be included here, which traditionally has been considered contrary to Natural Law as well.) Therefore anal and oral copulation cannot be considered “unnatural,” and therefore, even if there was a Natural Law, cannot violate that law. (This argument is the basis, or at least one of the prime bases, for the campaign, for the recognition of “gay marriage;” which is likely to succeed, as today a majority of the American public explicitly, or implicitly, accept the argument, which is also reflected in many judicial opinions.”)  


Hannon, as Corvino and some of the commentators have pointed out, defends Natural Law as has been commonly understood for centuries. For the Church to accept sodomitic acts as natural and not morally objectionable, the Church would have to remove the Natural Law from its teachings on morality, or amend it drastically. It is not likely to do either. Natural Law, as taught by the Church, is also the basis for universal “human rights.” To scuttle it would call into question that basis, and therefore the notion of “human rights,” at least as traditionally understood. Whether it can be amended to accommodate “modern understanding” is very questionable as well. Not only would the Church have to accept the naturalness of homosexuality as a human sexual orientation (which it appears to have done, or at least does not condemn sexual identity or orientation per se, seeing all humans as sons and daughters of the Creator), but it would also have to accept something along the lines of the “right to sexual fulfillment for all consenting adults,” no matter how, with perhaps some limits, that fulfillment is achieved. It is not likely to accept the latter. Then, of course, there is the matter of the condemnation of sodomy in at least parts of the Bible.


Hannon appears to undermine the first premise of the argument in favor of homosexual sodomy by seeking to bring in so-called “queer theorists” who seem to argue against any fixed sexual orientation. I believe Hammon is right that homosexuality and heterosexuality will be meaningless terms in the not too distant future, and he is right to emphasize the condemnation of acts without reference to the sexual identity or orientation of the actor. However, his arguments are not likely to have any practical effect on the legal status of either sodomy, which is now legal virtually everywhere in this country, as long as such acts are done in private, nor on the almost certain nationwide legalization of gay marriage. I for one believe that even if the sexual orientation and sexual identity were to become meaningless categories tomorrow, the practical political effect would be nil.





The comments by the conservative catholic traditionalists are quite revealing - they seem more obsessed with "sodomy" than any gay person I know.  Like Hannon, they rely exclusively on anachronistic metaphysics grounded in pre-modern natural law and seem epistemically blind to any logical or empitical critique.  Sanctimonious denunciations of anal and oral sex in the form of breathless paragraphs of Roman Catholic dogma may titilate certain repressed commenters but they aren't effective in the modern world where your cult no longer exercises spiritual or secular power in a democratic republic.  We moderns would find it almost quaint if it weren't for the damage you do to vulnerable children.

To think any sane person would look to Roman Church for moral guidance or public policy after the evil it has wrought in the past and continues to perpetrate now is absurd.

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