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Freedom to Love

I ended my last post with a hopeful view of what love and marriage can be, should they ever come about in the life of a given individual. However, I spent the majority of it moaning about the complexity and overwhelming-ness of finding and choosing a life/marriage partner.

And now I am feeling a little sheepish.

Never once in the midst of all my agonizing did I stop to consider what it might be like to be denied the freedom to undertake this “task” at all, one that is, perhaps, among the most profound of human pursuits and most significant sources of human joy and meaning.

And yet, that is the reality for possibly ten percent of people alive today.  Should they be fortunate enough to birth and grow the kind of deep, irrational, vulnerable, and committed love we all long for, they are still not guaranteed the opportunity to live out that love publicly or be accepted as part of society.

Considering recent political events surrounding gay rights (i.e. signing of the same-sex marriage bill here in Washington State, and the passing of a similar bill in the Maryland House of Delegates) I’m hoping this won’t always be the case.

But right now, if you happen to have romantic affections for a person of your own gender, things look pretty grim.

And this is tragic.

I mentioned a while ago, in the first installment of my Why I Am Not A Christian series, that probably the earliest major issue I had with Christianity – one that played a large part in my deconversion journey – was the idea of Hell.

Homosexuality was a close second.

Growing up in a very rural, very conservative, relatively homogeneous community, I did not come in contact with many openly gay people. So it was relatively easy for me, for a while, to accept the teaching of my church that homosexuality was a sin; that it was a sinful life-style chosen by sinful (or deceived/deluded) people.

But then I started volunteering with a church youth group and began mentoring a young girl who happened to have two moms, who were some of the kindest, warmest, most welcoming people I had ever met. I was baffled at their kindness and grace toward, and the freedom they granted their two daughters to participate in, an organization that looked down on, even condemned, the love that formed the foundation of their shared life…a life that appeared to be as full of love, understanding, forgiveness, consideration, selfless-ness, wisdom, temperance, and all-around good family values as the most exemplary heterosexual Christian marriages/families I had witnessed.

I couldn’t wrap my head around what could possibly be bad about that love.

According to 1 John, after all, “Love is of God, and everyone who loves is born of God. He who does not love, does not know God, for God is love” (Ch. 4. vs. 7-8).

I was blessed to be born to parents who knew how to love each other and their children. I grew up witnessing real love in action every day. And what I saw happening in that girl’s family between her moms, between her and her siblings, was no different than the deep love I saw pass between my own mom and dad, and as a result among my brother and sisters and I as well.

Then there was my dear friend in college, a Christian, who revealed to me that he’d struggled for years and years with homosexual feelings. I was baffled. He was one of the most faithful, courageous, upstanding, passionate Christian people I had ever been privileged to know. There was no question in my mind that he would ever have chosen to entertain those feelings or ideas by his own volition.

I began to consider the possibility that scientific findings of genetic predisposition toward homosexuality might have merit. But that left me questioning God’s character. How could crippling my friend with this condition that He supposedly condemned, possibly bring Him glory? It had only been, thus far in my friend’s life, a source of self-loathing, isolation, alienation, paralysis, and pain and torment of all kinds. Why would a good god allow that?

(Years later another dear Christian friend, this one female and one of the most intelligent, thoughtful, analytical people I know, came out to me. The conversations we had about her childhood feelings toward men and women, combined with my knowledge of her character and some reflection on how I had experienced my own sexuality as a child, finally quashed any possibility remaining in my mind that homosexuality is a choice.)

Then I moved to Seattle. I met and made friends with many more people like my youth group mentoree’s mothers. Some single, some in relationships. Some “preppy” and highly educated. Some a bit “stoner” and unambitious. Some hipster. Some jock. Some philosophical and thoughtful and analytical. Some younger. Some older. Some more emotional and irrational. Some kind and generous. Some self-centered and cynical…

…basically running the same gamut of human beauty and ugliness and quirkiness I had witnessed among the heterosexual people I was formerly solely familiar with.

And then I got to know Christians – real, dedicated, Bible-believing ones – who not only welcomed openly gay people into their communities, but actually viewed their love as another equally beautiful, right, and good manifestation of the love of God.

And then I discovered there is very little in the Bible that actually addresses homosexuality. Much less, in fact, than there is addressing issues of dress and clothing and hairstyle and diet and many other details of daily living which we completely disregard or interpret as being directed to certain people in a certain time and place but not applicable to current life.

And I began to think more about some of the objections to homosexuality put forth by those who oppose it, asking whether they made sense, whether they were valid. And I found that they didn’t, that they weren’t.

For many people, I think, regardless of what their religions or philosophies tell them, there is an negative “knee-jerk” reaction to homosexuality, simply because it is foreign to them. Most people (90% is the estimate) are genetically pre-dispositioned toward heterosexuality, so it is true that homosexuality is not “the norm.” Most people cannot imagine being attracted to someone of the same gender. It feels as unnatural to them as an attraction to a sibling or parent. And that rarity of homosexual people in the general population has been hugely compounded by social pressure. In many cultures of the world for the past two thousand years, homosexuality has been condemned, forcing gay people to remain “in the closet.”

And as human social behavior has proven over and over again, ignorance breeds distrust. We automatically fear what is unfamiliar to us. And that is an unfortunate quirk of the human psyche that we really need to get over.

Those who continue to entertain this instinctual aversion often attempt to support the “unnatural-ness” of homosexuality by pointing out the fact that it produces no offspring.

That is, of course, a fact. However, heterosexual partners participate in all sorts of other healthy, normal sexual activities that likewise produce no offspring. Heterosexual couples have sex at all periods of a woman’s menstrual cycle, despite the fact that she may not be in her fertile window. Sterile couples also have sex, even when there is no hope at all of conceiving. Couples who are using natural methods of birth control enjoy each other’s bodies in sexual ways that are physically gratifying and expressive of love and intimacy.

Should sterile couples not be allowed to marry because they can’t produce offspring? Should heterosexual couples only touch each other when they’re ready to make a baby?

Neither should a homosexual couple’s inability to produce offspring be used as reason to prohibit their sexual expression of love and intimacy.

Some people might stop me here and say, “Well, if we allow this ‘unnatural’ form of sexual expression, what is to prevent bestiality, or pedophilia, etc.?”

While it hurts me to legitimize this suggestion with a response, I will nevertheless point out that human sexual behavior must always be (is usually, in psychologically healthy individuals) regulated by our consciousness and volition in such a way that justice is done by all involved.

Our government exists for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedoms and welfare of its citizens. We have laws against pedophilia and bestiality in order to protect those vulnerable and less powerful (children and animals) from physical and psychological harm. An adult man wooing and sexually using a young girl who is physically and emotionally immature and unable to make a free, reasoned, healthy decision about what to do with her body, is a much, much, MUCH different thing than two adult men or women who find each other attractive choosing to act consensually on that mutual attraction.

It may be true that manipulation and abuse occur in homosexual relationships, but they occur as well in heterosexual ones all the time, and nobody would therefore conclude that heterosexual sex is bad because it can be used to control and hurt people. Neither should we allow the instances of unhealthy homosexuality to discredit homosexuality in general.

Others may object to homosexuality because of its ramifications on a societal, rather than individual, level. They say that children need a stable home life, with a loving mother and father providing resources and guidance and protection, to grow and develop optimally.

And I believe they are right…mostly.

Research has shown that children do do better in two-parent homes where these needs are met. What it hasn’t shown is that these two parents must be a male and a female, specifically. Most of the research out there has been done comparing single-parent homes to two-parent homes, and most of the two parent homes existing in our historically anti-gay U.S. society happen, not surprisingly, to be heterosexual.

By my own afore-mentioned experience, a family with two moms can be just as loving, healthy, and secure a place as a family with a mom and a dad. If research has been done comparing mother/father homes with mother/mother or father/father homes, I would be surprised if it showed any significant differences in child outcomes when extraneous variables are controlled for.

Another argument that often comes up but makes very little sense to me, is the idea that homosexual marriage somehow devalues heterosexual marriage.

Marriage has meant many different things to many different people over the course of human civilization.

Perhaps you are a Christian who believes, based on your particular interpretation of the Bible, that God ordained it as a sacrament to signify an eternal commitment and bond between one man and one woman, as a reflection of his love for us and as a means of populating the earth and bringing glory to him. Is your belief or commitment, or the beauty you find in it, diminished by the vastly different views and marital practices of an aboriginal tribesman in Africa or your Buddhist neighbors next door? I don’t see how it could be.

The love and marriage and type of commitment shared by two women who happen to live down the street, should have about the same amount of affect on the value and sanctity of your own marriage as the love and marriage and type of commitment shared by two twenty-somethings in India whose parents betrothed them as children: absolutely none whatsoever.

The beauty of America, the thing that has made it unique among nations, is the great degree of freedom we have here to live exactly as we see fit. It is true we must reach consensus on certain issues if we are to live peaceably, but beyond those essentials we must all – for the sake of our own interests – adopt the motto of “live and let live.”

For what if the tables were turned? What if you were in the minority?

You may feel your point of view on life, your chosen life-style, is the best and most right. And many may agree with you. But those who don’t hold their own beliefs with equal conviction and earnesty. Why should another’s way be required of you if your way is not hurting him nor impeding his ability to live out his convictions? Why should yours be imposed on him?

If you value your own freedom to believe that homosexuality is not a good way to live, you must value the freedom of your neighbor to believe the opposite.

If you value your right to pursue life, liberty and happiness in whatever way you see fit (within the bounds of civil behavior, of course), you must value the right of your neighbor to do the same.

And of all the avenues by which humans pursue happiness, the road to love – real, true, committed, intimate, love – is undoubtedly the most travelled, the most promising, the most fundamental.

The fact that so many people are denied this pursuit, essentially because it makes some others uncomfortable…it breaks my heart.

May the 21st century bring to the human race greater wisdom, greater understanding, greater acceptance and grace for those who are different…

…and the freedom, for ALL people, to love.

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Disney vs. OkCupid: The Paralysis and Power of Online Dating

I used to think there was a man out there in the world somewhere that God had picked out before the beginning of time to be my husband. I used to pray for him, even. I believed, in general, that God had a perfect plan for every aspect of who I was to be and what I was to do, and that if I was seeking His will for my life this pre-ordained and perfect plan, including the perfect man/marriage, would come to be…and I would live happily ever after.

As my Christianity became more reasoned and “flexible”, and even after it was gone completely, I still held onto a vague, lingering idea of “soul-mates” or “destiny”…

…which isn’t too surprising, considering that the largest percentage of our society does also…

…which, in turn, isn’t too surprising, considering most of us were raised with some flavor of theism and, perhaps even more significantly, on a steady diet of Disney movies and romantic comedies.

It just recently occurred to me as I was watching The Little Mermaid with the two-year-old I care for (and having all sorts of qualms about the messages it might be sending to her impressionable young mind), that one of its biggest and most blatant questionable messages, one I had never before stopped to consider, is this very idea of soul-mates.

In every Disney movie I have ever seen, there is only one man. There is only one prince. Only one possible outcome.

Ariel’s social world, for example, consisted entirely of her family and three friends who, though all male, were excluded outright from her list of potential lovers per the unforgiving reality of the species barrier (Sebastian = crab, Scuttle = seagull, Flounder = well…flounder).

So from the second she first laid eyes on Prince Eric (who was, seemingly, genetically related enough), Ariel knew. Though she might have been distracted by the other human males she observed on the ship had the playing field been equal, it was not. Prince Eric was clearly the most handsome, clearly the sweetest, clearly the most thoughtful, funniest, best-dressed. Clearly, The Prince.

There were never any questions of political leanings, life-style preferences, religious beliefs, geographical constraints, or medical conditions addressed. And there was no doubt about sustaining long-term chemistry or commitment. There were no other options, so it was a given that, once princess and prince had overcome the obstacles and been united in love, they would live, of course, happily ever after.

And it is the same in almost every romantic comedy and book and love story I can think of that are icons of our American (and perhaps Western hemisphere, first-world) experience. No real decisions ever have to be made. The relative merits of one potential life partner over another never, or rarely, come up.

This glaring inconsistency with reality was magnified by my recent excursion into the world of on-line dating.

In the past four weeks I have looked at probably a hundred profiles and interacted with numerous potential mates – all intelligent, attractive, fun, thoughtful, talented men – and while it has been an adventure getting to know so many new people and a great boost to my ego feeling wanted and admired, it is also rather overwhelming

I have only been out on actual dates with four different people, and already I feel I have too much to evaluate and decide between, and too much more still to learn about these individuals in order to make a good decision.

In real life, there are thousands of “princes” out there (or none, if you are a glass-half-empty kind of a person). None of them are perfect. None of them are going to be perfect for you, nor you for them. They, like you, are human and unique. You will not see eye-to-eye on everything with any one of them. There is no crown atop one man’s head blinking like a homing beacon to signal that he is “The One.”

It is really rather unfortunate. It makes this whole process of finding a long-term partner MUCH more complicated than you grow up expecting it to be.

All that to say, I don’t believe in soul-mates any longer, at least not in a pre-destined sense. I believe we choose a person – probably rather arbitrarily – and then MAKE them our soul-mate over time as we continue to choose them again and again, continue to change them and be changed by them, continue to learn who they are and understand more and more how they see the world.

But choosing is much easier said than done.

Living in the world today, we are faced with SO much more choice when it comes to almost everything – food and material goods of all kinds, education, occupation, geographical location, even physical appearance, and now dating – than our grandparents and great-grandparents ever could have imagined. We are forced daily to make hundreds of decisions, large and small, that they never had to consider once.

And psychologists, sociologists, economists and observant people in general are beginning to realize that all of this choice is not a good thing. It is paralyzing and breeds discontent.

And I’m beginning to understand this as it pertains to romantic relationships. When the whole world is your “sea” the perfect “fish” could still be out there. And that makes us – makes me – hesitant to commit.

But here’s the thing: I could spend the next five years, probably, meeting potential partners from Seattle alone, and really do very little to increase my chances of marital happiness…

…because another quite poignant observation people have been making is that we don’t actually know what we want. We don’t know what is really going to make us happy.

So basically love, like life, is a crapshoot, and you just have to do your best to eliminate possibilities that you are pretty sure will make you UNhappy, point your feet towards ones that you suspect might bring you some sort of intrinsic joy, and then MAKE THE MOST OF IT!

In other words, find someone you respect and admire, whose company and conversation you enjoy, whom you find physically attractive, whose values and life goals are compatible with your own; do your best to understand and acknowledge their weaknesses and be honest with them about yours; prepare yourself for the inevitable loss of “sparkle” with the passage of time and increased familiarity, and take steps to keep adding that sparkle back in; and then, finally, take their hand and say,

“We are both two crazy human beings who just happened to run into each other in this big, broiling mess of 7 billion, who don’t really know what we want or how those wants will change in the future, who don’t really know, completely, how to be happy. But we’ve decided we like each other enough to commit to navigating this giant experiment of life together, and we’re going to do our best to navigate it in a way that will allow us to keep liking each other and keep choosing each other, flaws and all, over all the other imperfect people out there who may or may not temporarily make us happy.”

Perhaps some will see this logical, realistic approach to relationships as cold and unromantic. Some might even make a rather cynical (but very good) joke of it.

But I view love and marriage now with as deep and wide a sense of beauty and magic as I ever did – not in spite of its randomness, but because of it.

You could have met any one of 7 billion people, but you met him. Your life circumstances and experiences could have caused you to take one path, but you took the one that led you here. Those same experiences could have predispositioned you to value and choose another, but you chose her.

That kind of love – one that basks with wonder in the miraculous occurrence of near-zero-probability events – and looks with gratefulness on the joys those events brought to life, in spite of the inevitable accompanying pain and grief…

…that kind of love is so much more alive, so much more real, so much MORE than any happily-ever-after Disney story I have ever heard.

And unlike a Disney love which requires a princess to sit around waiting for the stars to align or The Prince to get his castle and trusty stead in order, this kind of love can be actively sought, grown, and chosen by any two people willing to seek it.

For me, that is freeing. And empowering.