Mennonite Narratives on Heterosexual Privilege

Last Thursday, I had a conversation with a professor and a fellow student that gave me a window on the Mennonite narratives on heterosexual privilege. We had discussed Obama’s speech and white privilege in class. After class, I asked about heterosexual privilege. My prof and classmate both responded that a concept of heterosexual privilege “trivialized racism” since the sufferings of African-American are so embedded in our culture (I guess with the implication that the sufferings of LGBTers aren’t). My prof even claimed that the bans against single-sex marriage and other anti-sodomy laws were not persecution, but just limited the “freedom” of LGBTers.

This was a quick conversation in passing, so I didn’t really have my wits about me to respond. These are both caring, intelligent people who care deeply about social justice issues. Yet, for some reason, they don’t consider queers a persecuted group. I realize that I also don’t know yet enough about the history of this issue to be really comfortable about a response. However, after more reflection and conversation, I do have a couple of responses / observations —

  • I don’t think that my colleague’s response is really about “trivializing racism.” It’s about not defining the queer experience as a social justice issue. As soon as LGBT is defined as a social justice issue, then the Mennonite Church is on the wrong side of the issue. As long as we can keep this just about Scripture and not how Scripture has been used to persecute or block access to institutions, then the Mennonites can have it both ways — we can advocate for social justice and keep the gays out.
  • As I was preparing this post, I glanced at Willard Swartley’s chapter of “cultural analysis” (his term, not mine) in Homosexuality: Biblical Interpretation and Moral Discernment . One of the things that bothered me about the chapter is that he imposes this narrative on queer experience that has little to do with the little I know. Swartley basically argues that homosexuality is a result of the 1960’s sexual revolution and a culture of individualism, urban dynamics and materialistic values. He mentions Woodstock as the embodiment of the sexual revolution, but no mention of Stonewall or ACT UP. I think my colleagues and much of the Church buy into the same type of narrative. How do I respond to this?
  • Is white privilege the only privilege we are allowed to talk about? What about sexism or the power imbalances between the Western churches and the churches of the Global South? Or do these conversations also “trivialize racism?”
  • What is the level of oppression a group needs to receive before we take it seriously?
  • As I previously stated, I don’t know enough about the history of queer experience to really respond to the claim that gays haven’t really suffered, but have only had their freedoms limited. Can anyone provide some resources, particularly about the American situation pre-1960?

Comments (10)

  1. skye

    You raise some good questions and I won’t be able to answer them all —

    My first reaction is that the argument that your professor is making is a classic argument that is used to perpetuate the power structures of the status quo. S/he is saying that the oppression of one group is more significant than the oppression experienced by another group. Then you end up arguing about who has had it worse. But what purpose does this serve? Well, when the less privileged are bickering among ourselves, we don’t have as much energy to direct towards challenging the status quo, do we, and guess who benefits?

  2. wess

    great questions – I think this is also true to some degree (the questions you raise etc) within the mennonite church I attend. I think it’s a really difficult issue to parse on all ends, but I agree with your stance and your desire to bring these questions up. One question I have (thought I haven’t read Swartley yet) is what if Swartley is at least partially right? A big portion of my studies is in cultural theory, and it does appear from your summary of his work that he is at least nodding to some key points, not just for the transformation of the Gay community into mainstream society, but all kinds of societal transformation. So I’m sure it’s the case that he’s flat out wrong, even if we disagree with the reason why he is saying what he’s saying. So I’d challenge you to change your question from “How do I respond to this?” to more of “how does society (consumerism, media, etc) socially construct sexuality, and to what extent have these things suppressed one group or another?” And to push it a little further, “in what ways have the church actually followed consumerism on these points more than the Gospel?” I think a study of culture can also be used in a way to shed light on the more complex issues at hand and not simply say it’s okay or it’s not okay, in order to make that kind of value judgement we’d have to be working from the modern assumption that some cultures are more superior than others.

  3. lukelm

    Wess, you raise some good points if one is to look seriously into sexuality in culture/society and how that affects the church. However, I wouldn’t say Swartley is at all right in the sense that Jeremy quoted him – namely that there was no “gay problem” until this terrible thing called the sexual revolution took place in the 1960’s, which was always & only about nothing but individualistic gratification. It’s the same argument that was used in the South during the Civil Rights movement – that we have “happy negroes” and it’s only outside agitators that have raised up this idea that anybody wants any change. Swartley is arguing that gay people didn’t exist as an oppressed group prior to the 1960’s. Why sexuality, especially in its political expression, has radically shifted in the past century with all sorts of milestones occurring around the time of Stonewall in 1969, one can find many example of queer political organization going back into the late 19th century, and evidence of gay life & even queer communities going into pretty much any part of our history (and any society, although expressions of sexuality vary so much that our ideas about “sexual orientation” can’t always be easily translated.)

    Jeremy, I think the phenomenon you’re picking up on in the church is based on the (faulty) logic that goes something like this:
    1. We believe in social justice.
    2. We don’t believe in gay rights (because we don’t believe gay sexuality is God-given)
    3. Therefore, gay rights are not a matter of social justice.
    It goes something like “since we’re good & sincere people then what we believe certainly can’t be supporting oppression, so you must be making that up.”

    I thought that the whole point of moving away from the “ism” (racism, sexism, heterosexism) to discussions of privilege was that it dispelled notions of parity among the “isms.” One might be tempted to think that racism and heterosexism sound the same, but what is white privilege, and what is heterosexual privilege? Each sounds very different to me, and it takes real thought & reflection to figure out, because now it’s just not about me telling myself that everything’s fine because I believe that it’s okay to be … (black, female, queer, etc.) and instead really thinking about how my race, religion, color, gender have made me blind to the experiences & struggles of other races, genders, sexual orientations.

    Queer people have suffered, indeed. People of variant/ambiguous gender expression have probably suffered more than any other queer sub-group, very often (and very very much right now) ending up case from their homes, homeless, murdered. Gays & lesbians who lived openly in the U.S. in the 20th century – and to this day in many places – lost their families, homes, jobs, social standing, and often their lives to murder or suicide. Resilient communities of gay people existed all over the country, but were places for the marginalized, those who had been forced to leave their first communities. Besides this overt oppression, the central & core oppression of queer people has always been spiritual. People of variant gender or sexuality find themselves alone & under severe psychological/spiritual torment when they are isolated and the only messages they have received about “their kind” are negative. See, this is heterosexual privilege – if you’re straight, try to think about what your sexuality has meant to you. You might not even be able to. That’s privilege. But I can tell you what it means. It means that you carry in yourself the idea and hope that you can meet a mate, that your community will be happy for you, and that you can form a family together which will be a part of society. Does that even seem like a privilege? Doesn’t that just kind of seem natural? If you’re straight and haven’t spend a lot of time thinking about this, then it might be quite hard to imagine this not being the case. Queer people, on the other hand, have been forced to experience their sexuality or gender not as a part of themselves which can easily be integrated into a societal fabric, but rather as a force that can rip them away form everything they’ve ever known and loved, that can destroy their lives and the lives of those they love. The deeply sad part is that this occurs most acutely and most painfully in children – in 12, 13, 14, 15 year old kids who have so many other reasons to be unsure of themselves – for transgendered kids, they can be struggling with all of this at ages 4, 5, or 6. Seriously – it’s a soul-level awareness that the very nature of one’s internal makeup could destroy everything that life is supposed to mean.

    This has changed a lot in the past couple decades in many parts of the country now. Kids can realize they’re gay as teens, easily tell family & friends, and then get on with their lives without it being a big deal. This is really the huge battle, and the only one that truly matters. I consider gay marriage, adoption, etc. important but secondary matters to the fight for the rights of these kids (myself ten years ago) to their own souls.

    The church is not just guilty of blocking queer’s access to institutions – would that it were so. The church has become more & more guilty of being one of the last forces in our society rigidly upholding this spiritual oppression of children – its own children, primarily. I wonder what this will mean for the church. Has this ever been the case before, that the church has been seen as the sole opponent of a movement for equal rights? Homophobia=Christianity and Christianity=homophobia for many people now. I think this will have to affect the church in the long-run – although forms of Christian expression always spring anew, and there seems to be a core message that keeps drawing people back.

  4. SteveK

    One group of people claiming oppression does not “trivialize” any of the other groups. It is true that we can focus on one group or another that are oppressed, especially if we are a part of an oppressed group. And it is good to focus on one group to attempt to at least speak out that groups oppression.

    What makes this discussion difficult among Christian circles is the issue of the victim’s “sin” being a cause of oppression. Sin, according to Scripture, IS the cause of oppression– the oppressor’s sin and rejection of the full humanity of the oppressed. But to say that someone even to a small degree “deserves” the oppression they are receiving because of a sin that harms no one else is simply false. This is the attitude of the Pharisees that Jesus rejected, that some people can be dehumanized by labeling them “sinners”.

    Some of my homeless folks are addicted to various things (less than 50%). They are “sinners”. But that has nothing to do with them deserving to be attacked by police dogs, beat up, or burned up and left for dead. A person I have staying in my house is trans-gender but is not involved in any unrepentant sin. But s/he is abused, mistreated, judged and hated and even feared by those outside our house. But there is no reason for it– it is just blind prejudice.

    The oppressed need to be defended. The oppressors should be, at least, rebuked, no matter what “reasons” they have for their oppression.
    But we who stand for a group of the oppressed shouldn’t be against other groups of oppressed. We should recognize the abuse that is heaped on one of us is heaped on all of us. No matter what “sin” any of us are involved in. As my biker friend eloquently puts it: “Love ’em all and let God sort ’em out”.

    Steve K

  5. Katie

    I wrote this a few days ago but comments were closed at the time because of some technical issues at YAR so I’m finally posting it now, feel free to skim over parts that have been said already.

    Hey Jeremy,

    I appreciated your post about heterosexual privilege. It seems that even if you feel you have a lot to learn you seem to “get it” in that way that so many Mennonites don’t. You raise good questions and seem to have an astute analysis of Mennonite heterosexism.

    Your professor’s response that discussions of “heterosexual privilege ‘trivialized racism’ since the sufferings of African-American are so embedded in our culture” is very common in and out of the Mennonite church. There is often the idea that the gays are trying to co-opt the civil rights movement or trying to compare our persecution with that of people of color. I tend to understand issues of heterosexism, racism, sexism, etc. as related and connected but not the same. The lgbt community in large part has looked to the civil rights movement against racism and the women’s rights movement as a way to learn about dynamics of privilege, power, oppression, and organizing but hasn’t really ever said, “our oppression is just like these other oppressions.” While there are many comparisons that can be made, no oppression is the same but they are all connected and as Skye mentioned, when the oppressed fight over the hierarchy of oppressions, the only winner is the status quo or in this case, your professor. As far as ” the sufferings of African-Americans are so embedded in our culture” … yes that is true, but how would s/he describe the sufferings of queer people? Bans against same-sex marriage and anti-sodomy laws are just the beginning of our “limited freedoms.” There’s the fear of being glared at, yelled at, threatened, assaulted, or worse just because you “look gay” or are “acting gay” in the “wrong place at the wrong time.” Kids get kicked out and/or disowned by their parents because of homophobia. And there’s the plain ol assault on dignity from having to ask for, then be denied and denigrated for, the simple things everyone else takes for granted: marrying the person you love, sharing children, assets, and financial responsibilities with that person, being able to share health insurance, being with that person in a time of emergency. Anyway, if hate crimes aren’t an example of persecution, I don’t know what is.

    You really hit the nail on the head with:

    “It’s about not defining the queer experience as a social justice issue. As soon as LGBT is defined as a social justice issue, then the Mennonite Church is on the wrong side of the issue. As long as we can keep this just about Scripture and not how Scripture has been used to persecute or block access to institutions, then the Mennonites can have it both ways – we can advocate for social justice and keep the gays out.”

    As long as the issue is defined as the “homosexual issue” and not the “homophobia issue” Mennonites can make it about “their sin” and not “our sin” or about social justice. The idea that the status quo/ Mennonite institution feels it gets to define the queer experience at all is really another example of the dynamics of power/privilege.

    That section you pulled of Swartley’s “cultural analysis” seems to just be another example of defining the queer experience by heterosexuals. The focus on Woodstock or the sexual revolution as opposed to Stonewall or ACT UP is just another way of focusing on sin/behavior of gay people rather than the social justice issue of the church’s homophobia. And as far as Woodstock and the sexual revolution, I’m pretty sure those times changed the hetero world just as much or more than any change for gays.

    As far as responding…it’s hard. I find it useful to try to see through the assumptions that many people express unconsciously and expose them. It can be reframing issues by using non-normative language or just mirroring what someone says in a way that they can hear how ridiculous it sounds. If you can turn things around, it can throw someone off balance enough that maybe they can think about it and question their assumptions. People often try to point to some vague idea of the “homosexual lifestyle” (which sounds kinda freaky) but how do we think about the “heterosexual lifestyle?” It seems to me to be full of unsavory behaviors. While it is hard to think on the fly to have these conversations, with practice and time, you will begin to recognize the same old arguments over and over and learn to challenge them. What is important is to get people to examine and challenge those stereotypes, assumptions and narratives and then they will have to decide if they can justify those narratives in light of better information.

    I think Mennonites feel more comfortable talking about white privilege and racism than other isms. Even as we struggle with race, we can still hold it at arms length. We can still distance ourselves from the “other” to whatever extent we feel we need to. We all know racism is bad so we don’t have to argue over that. We have some ability to step back and be somewhat objective since we see racism as mostly in the past even as we know it isn’t really gone. It’s actually when you start bringing up real, current, personal racism when people start to get uncomfortable. One interesting dynamic of homophobia and sexism is that families, churches and communities are so entwined with gay and non gay, female and male, it is harder to hold at arms length. It is easier to get emotional when it is/could be your child, wife, husband, mother, father, sister, brother and so on. It is harder to be cold and objective when it is close and personal.

    as far as pre 60’s stuff, maybe do some interweb searching for lgbt history and similar. I know there are sites dedicated to such., and might be good places to start or just google “lgbt history”. LGBT people were largely hidden before Stonewall but you can see them and hear from them in music, literature, the arts. LGBT people have always been around but we’ve been mostly in the closet before Stonewall.

    hope this helps for now, thanks for listening and asking.

  6. somasoul

    I think there are a couple different things at work here. There is the issue of how society responds to differing groups. Then there is the issue of how the church responds to those groups and how they respond to society.

    I don’t believe the society (meaning the people in it, not the governments of it) owe anyone else anything. I don’t believe that Person A owes Person B money/respect/bunnies or anything else. But some people in society that are of certain groups believe they are owed this. The conversation is, on one hand, an issue of “I want to be respected….” which is fine but when you add in “…….and I demand you to respect me” then I take issue.

    What is respect? How do you define that?

    I think our founding fathers thought simply: Don’t hurt anyone. Society as a whole can react to however they feel best but they can’t physically hurt anyone. Sticks and stones are off limits but words are entirely up for grabs.

    How does the church respond to this?

    The church should always take the high road. That means name calling is off limits. The church needs to respond in love, which isn’t always easy, to both the oppressor and the oppressed.

    As a self declared “nuetral party” in the gay wars (I coined the term, give me a nickle every time you say it) I try to see both sides in an ongoing battle.

    In the red corner: The church. Views on sin since the beginning of time. A beaurucracy that moves slowly but hits hard. Mennonites that struggle with social justice versus tradition.

    In the blue corner: A new (or more open) cultural shift in sexuality. Christians that want to be a part the church. Deny 2,000 years of fundamental church teaching.

    Yeah, I’m gonna stay outta that ring. Nothin’ but black eyes and hurt feelins.

  7. joe

    Note: I also wrote this a few days ago and put it onto my own blog because I couldn’t get the comments to work here. It might now be irrelevant (if it wasn’t already).

    Hi Jeremy.

    If you were to ask the professor the qualitative difference between ‘being gay’ and ‘being black’ he might say that ‘being black’ is something that happens to you at birth, whereas ‘being gay’ is a lifestyle choice you take on at some point in your life. I don’t know, maybe I am putting words into his mouth.

    For many people, anal sex (for example) is just fundamentally wrong because the anus is not for that function and the vagina is. So if your professor believes that the essence of being gay is the desire to do something which he characterises as ‘anatural’ then he puts that on a different level to being black. Of course, there are many others who believe that their sexuality is part of their being and not something they take on by ‘doing’ anything in particular.

    The problem is, as correctly pointed out above, that this identification of behavioural sin has led to numerous injustices against gay people by the church – which would not be acceptable if they were against other groups.

    And I guess what I want to say is this: it is OK to believe that other people’s behaviour is sinful and/or unacceptable. I can think of a huge pile of things which I find unacceptable in other religious traditions, for example.

    What is not OK is to deny me the rights and privileges you enjoy because – and only because – you find my actions abhorrent. Society functions largely because people ignore the things they find abhorrent in others, how are you deciding that this particular aspect of my life is more abhorrent than anything else? If you are going to deny gays an equivalent legal instrument to recognise long term fidelity, are you also going to deny the reality of Hindu marriage because you find some of their rituals disgusting?

    We need to reframe the discussion so that it no longer revolves around the level of offence some people feel about other people’s behaviour.

    Once we have done that, we need to carefully listen to the needs and hurts of gay people and attempt to meet their demands where they are legitimate and constructive, which I believe they mostly are.

  8. SteveK

    Excellently put, Joe

    Steve K

  9. JeremyY (Post author)

    I just wanted to say that I really appreciate the responses to my post (joe, you’re comments are far from irrelevant). I tend to talk a lot, so I’m trying to keep quiet and listen. You all have given me a lot to think about.

    Somasoul, I just want to say that I welcome your voice as well, but I can’t help questioning your stance — I don’t think there is a Switzerland. Being neutral or “nuetral” is in itself taking sides.

    For those who have not yet posted, please keep posting, I am still listening.

  10. Skylark

    Jeremy, Katie, Steve, Skye, Joe, Luke…

    Thank you for this post and these comments. I don’t really have anything enlightening to say, but I wanted to express my support for the thoughts you’ve shared here.

    I know that I don’t even begin to “get it” with what it means to have my heterosexual privilege. I’m currently pondering giving up privileges because of being in a serious relationship with an undocumented immigrant to the US… and any correlations I could try to draw there would probably be cheap, insulting and definitely not helpful to the discussion. Oppressions are just wrong no matter what form they take. We don’t have to analyze which oppression is most like another.

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