I am 58 and have lived in small towns, big cities, our nation’s capital, New York City, and university campuses. I have traveled all over the country and a few dozen foreign countries. I have worked in big companies and tiny NGOs. For the life of me, I have never come across what First Things writer Michael Hannon calls a “heterosexual.”
I have known more than a few “homosexuals,” however. There was Joe, the head cook in the cafeteria at Lindenwood College where I worked when I was in high school. My friends and I used to ride through the industrial dishwasher and drink beers over at Joe’s house. He never let us forget his sexual orientation.
I lived with two homosexuals when I first moved to New York in 1981. They had the best furniture, just like Mom’s, and they were not a couple. Both of them pledged never to bring anyone home and they never did. They sure talked about it a lot.
I shared office space in those days with a “homosexual,” too. He was trying to get a cable TV show off the ground. He certainly identified openly with being homosexual.
So how is it that I have known “homosexuals” who, according to the Centers for Disease Control, make up only a miniscule 1.6 percent of the population but I have never ever met a “heterosexual” who would represent 97+ percent of the country? It’s all about identity, which Michael Hannon has written about several times in First Things.
I have simply never met an opposite-sex attracted person who self-identified as “heterosexual.” There has never been an analogous chant to “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” that we used to hear on the streets of New York during the late 1980s and early ’90s.
Hannon wrote quite a good piece some months ago fetchingly called “Against Heterosexuality.” And he really meant it.
He argued that sexual identity is a serious problem, something many of us have argued for a good long while. Hannon is a brilliant young man. At one point, I have heard, he was working on a law degree and an advanced degree in philosophy at the same time at Columbia, or something like that. But now he’s off to join a religious order, the Norbertines in Southern California.
Given as smart as he is and how well educated, Hannon has done as good a job as anyone in making the case against sexual identity.
He says that sexual orientation was invented in the nineteenth century as a way to replace natural law-based Christian sexual ethics with psychiatry and heteronormativity and that this change got us in the horrid mess all of us are in today.
But where he gets slightly lost is in some of his premises. One of his key premises is that heterosexuals are no different than homosexuals in that—like them—heterosexuals define themselves by their sexual desires.
It certainly sounds plausible. There seems to be a rutting and roiling sea of boys and girls on college campuses and beyond. Except, unless something has dramatically changed on college campuses, the boys and girls are not self-identifying as heterosexuals. Certainly, not like the LGBTs who rally to it. The boys and girls may be cavorting that way but they’re not marching and chanting, “We’re here, we’re straight, we’re looking for that rhyme.”
Hannon wrote a handful of pieces. I will be addressing two of them. “Against Heterosexuality” was published in First Things in March 2014. The second was his answer to his critics, titled “Against Obsessive Sexuality,” also in First Things in early August.
Hannon says, “Young people, for instance, now regularly find themselves agonizing over their sexual identity, navel-gazing in an attempt to discern their place in this allegedly natural Venn diagram of orientations.”
He offers no evidence for this. Anecdotes seem to abound though.
I recently visited my alma mater and was shocked at how ingrained the LGBT movement has become. At the new and massively expensive state-of-the-art student center there are offices for various student activities. As a measure of how far the LGBTs have traveled at this land-grant college, on the ground floor, occupying message-sending prime real-estate are the student newspaper, the student radio station and between them in plush offices is the LGBT welcome center. Summer-time guides for parents and prospective students tell me they are required to parrot some verbiage about how welcoming the University of Missouri is to LGBT students.
So, given how it washes over the unsuspecting freshman, it makes sense there may be sexual hustlers—professors, admin types, counselors and older students—encouraging the boys and girls to navel gaze, hoping against hope that the one time they admired the neighborhood boy’s physique while he mowed the lawn, it was really the nascence of something gay and beautiful. This is a reference to a scene played out in one of Hannon’s pieces. He says there’s nothing wrong with admiring another boy’s physique as long as you know how to channel it.
One of the odd things about Hannon’s response to his critics, published a few weeks ago online, is his apparent disdain for the opposite-sex attracted. He doesn’t call us “breeders”—a favorite slur of the LGBTs—but he comes darned close.
In a long passage extolling the superiority of apostolic celibacy to marriage he uses strange words to describe marriage and those called to it. He says marriage is for the “sexually incontinent.” Incontinent. Like an old man who wears Depends because he cannot control his bowels. Hannon is a smart and careful writer. He chose this word. If it was the only one, maybe consider it a clever phrase and no more, but there were others.
In the beginning of “Against Heterosexuality” Hannon writes, “With secular society rendering classical religious beliefs publically illegitimate, pseudoscience stepped in and replaced religion as the moral foundation for venereal norms.” (Emphasis added.) Now, “venereal” can refer to sexual intercourse, but that is hardly the common usage and understanding. Isn’t it most commonly coupled with the word “disease”? Like incontinent, venereal seems in this instance like a pejorative.
He also refers to the act of marital intercourse as “dis-integration” from the integration intended by God, that it takes our eye off the ball, which is not her or him but Him.
Sexually incontinent. Venereal norms. Dis-integration. Is Hannon trying to tell us something?
Well, yes. He is trying to tell us that those who get married so they won’t burn (from St. Paul), are something less than he who is called to a life of apostolic celibacy and “spiritual friendship.” And rather than dooming the boy admiring the shirtless lawn-mowing boy next door to a life of either sodomy or white-knuckled virginity, the boy has this path that is far superior to one the sexual incontinent are left to. Make no mistake, Hannon does not see marriage as wicked: “It isn’t,” he assures us. He also wants us to know “There is nothing evil in it.” It’s just that its goodness is less pure than the celibate life. It is merely an “alloy compared with pure gold.”
He mocks the notion that the marital embrace is a foretaste of the beatific vision. He, and St. Thomas, apparently, compare it to sleep, something that does little more than just get in the way.
Hannon seems not to know that the Church has come a long way from marriage being an avoidance for damnation. Maybe the celebrity chastity speakers Hannon disdains do exaggerate the glimpse of Heaven that is the marital embrace, but I suspect there is something very much like that in Pope St. John Paul’s Theology of the Body.
Just like the laity, which after centuries before Vatican II now has a positive definition, the Church views marriage as a positive vocation. St. Paul says as much in the passage about marriage being a safeguard for the “sexual incontinent.” Marriage is universally the most common way that people find the beatific vision and that is what God intended. God did not intend most of us to be ordained religious. That’s not how He set up His Church. And you can be sure He therefore does not consider marriage to be second-class, or that the salvation of married couples is no more than crumbs from the table of the ordained.
Hannon does say married couples can participate in celibate friendship with one another but when their friendship rises Hannon-like, they get there no longer as spouses but as friends.
Hannon recommends this for the same-sex attracted and I have written about this before. The problem as I see it is Hannon is recommending playing with fire, and not just sexual fire, but the danger of losing your heart. Hannon says, for instance, that I can have an intense spiritual relationship with a woman other than my wife. This is simply absurd and quite dangerous.
Anyone with any experience knows there is greater truth in this exchange between Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan.
Harry is talking to Sally about their relationship:
Sally: We are just going to be friends, ok?
Harry: Great! Friends! It’s the best thing.
Harry: You realize of course that we can never be friends.
Sally: Why not?
Harry: What I’m saying is … and this is not a come-on in any way, shape or form, is that men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.
Sally: That’s not true, I have a number of men friends and there’s is no sex involved.
Harry: No you don’t.
Sally: Yes I do.
Harry: No you don’t.
Sally: Yes I do.
Harry: You only think you do.
Sally: You’re saying I’m having sex with these men without my knowledge?
Harry: No, what I’m saying is they all want to have sex with you.
Sally: They do not.
Harry: Do too.
Sally: They do not.
Harry: Do too.
Sally: How do you know?
Harry: Because no man can be friends with a woman he finds attractive, he always wants to have sex with her.
Sally: So you’re saying that a man can be friends with a woman he finds unattractive.
Harry: Nuh, you pretty much wanna nail’ em too.
Sally: What if they don’t want to have sex with you?
Harry: Doesn’t matter, because the sex thing is already out there so the friendship is ultimately doomed and that is the end of the story.
When I made this point a few columns ago, the New Homophiles insisted I was obsessed with sex, both a Calvinist and a Freudian. A proper fear of infidelity is my point but also a proper guarding of the heart is more the point. One thing Hannon will learn in the Norbertines is the regular, perhaps constant, discerning of spirits, determining where each comes from. This is neither Calvinist nor Freudian. It is Catholic. We are all called to guard our hearts.
Hannon is a romantic not unlike those women who expect a knight in shining armor. He is gone, for now, from the public hustings so we won’t hear from him again for a while. Perhaps he will find an intense spiritual friendship at St. Michael’s Abbey in Southern California. But, he may find something else. In the movie Round Midnight, jazz trumpeter Dexter Gordon is going to the airport to find a better life in Paris, where they really love black jazz players. His friend says, “You know who’s going to be there at the airport in Paris when you get off that plane? You.”
I don’t say that Hannon is joining the Norbertines to escape anything including himself, but what I suggest is he may be disappointed. When I was exploring the Trappists, I asked one of the brothers about the “mystical union with God,” something Merton wrote a lot about. He said, “We just want guys who know how to make the coffee and on time.” I was sure then and now that there’s more to that vocation than things so ordinary, but I have also found that it is usually in such ordinariness where we find Jesus. And that is how God set things up.
Let us pray that Michael Hannon will find a Jonathan to his David, a St. Basil to his St Gregory, but more importantly that he will become a saint there. He will almost certainly find that religious life is not unlike ours out here. There will be minor—even petty—annoyances, plenty of them, but also great joy and a true path to Heaven brushing up against the lovely and the unlovely, just like for us poor breeders out here.
Editor’s note: The scene above from the Sistine Chapel is titled “The Creation of Eve” painted by Michelangelo.