The language has changed, but the prejudice remains

By Symon Hill
January 28, 2010

Last Thursday evening, I sat on a tube train, counting in my head the number of same-sex couples I know who enjoy faithful, sexually exclusive relationships. Off the top of my head, I could think of six couples. This strange activity had been triggered by a press conference I had just attended, which involved some remarkable comments about monogamy.

The press conference followed an event run by several socially conservative Christian groups, called What can I possibly say? – Pastoral responses to today’s sexual confusion.

Despite the event’s title, the conference speakers did not seem short of comments. However, I was very grateful for the time they gave me, readily answering my questions even though some of them must have known that I do not share their views.

I attempted, with some difficulty, to understand their approach. They acknowledge that there are people who feel attracted to members of their own sex, but avoid describing them as gay, lesbian or bisexual. Instead, they speak of “same-sex attraction”, using the abbreviation “SSA” with the result of making it sound like a medical condition. They say that people who experience “SSA” should be able to find “help”, “support”, “therapy” or “counselling”. Some of the speakers said that they had engaged in what they call the “gay lifestyle” in the past.

This approach is very new in Britain, although it is more common in the USA. When I became a Christian in the mid-90s, I joined a church with a “traditional” view on homosexuality. In those days it seemed that the most bigoted Christians simply regarded gay people as deliberately sinful, while the more moderate conservatives emphasised that homosexual orientation was OK but homosexual practice was not. “Curing” gay people was not on the agenda.

As the speakers described their approach, I managed to find a few points that I could agree with. Robert Harris said that people should not be defined by their sexuality alone. Vinay Samuel said that he welcomed dialogue.

But on the whole, it was a real struggle to confine myself to asking questions. I had to bite back retorts several times. Several of the panel spoke as if marriage, sexuality and relationships had always been regarded in the same way, until the “gay movement” sought to change things. Although some of the speakers were considerably more nuanced and careful than others, there were a few who treated gay people as a uniform group, making sweeping generalisations about “them”. I was told what “they say”, and “they think”. Some of the speakers seemed not only to assume that I was heterosexual but that I needed to be told what “they” were like.

The most striking example of this attitude came over matters of monogamy. Phelim McIntyre, who defines himself as “ex-gay” and heterosexual, spoke of how words such as “monogamous” and “faithful” might be used differently by different people. He might have made a valid point, if it had not been for the staggering generalisations. He told me that when homosexuals use the word “monogamy”, they mean something different to heterosexuals - all of them, apparently. Words such as “tend to” and “likely to” did not appear.

Phelim concluded these comments with the astounding assertion that, in twenty years, “I have not come across a same-sex relationship in which both partners are faithful”.

He later accused me of misrepresenting him, by quoting this comment without his remarks about different definitions of “faithfulness”. I missed them out largely due to reasons of space in my news article. However, it seems to me that quoting his sweeping generalisations would have made him seem more prejudiced, not less.

It is true that same-sex couples are more likely than mixed-sex couples to have open relationships, or other forms of non-conventional relationship arrangements. But I know several mixed-sex couples who are happy with honest non-monogamy, as well as gay and lesbian people who would not be.

I am sure that many of the people who support this conference’s approach sincerely believe that their attitude is godly, compassionate, and supportive of people with “SSA”. But the generalisations that flowed so readily at the press conference suggest that that this new movement is built around a strong strand of familiar, old-fashioned prejudice.

This week, the latest social attitudes survey revealed that in the UK, fewer people regard same-sex relationships as wrong than at any time since the survey began. More and more people are realising that the gender of the person you fancy has about as much relevance to sexual ethics as the colour of his/her hair.

Fear of change is both common and understandable, so it is no surprise that there are those who feel the need to resist this development. As is often the case with reactionary movements, they have developed an approach that uses the language of freedom and choice to promote something deeply conservative. The pseudo-science of “SSA therapy” is reminiscent of the approach of creationists and climate change deniers, owing as it does much more to fear than to reality.

Phelim McIntyre says that people who take my view on sexuality should be “afraid” of the “ex-gay movement” (as he calls it). To some extent, I think he’s right. A good many inclusive Christians, and those outside Christianity, are largely unaware of this bizarre movement attempting to give a psychological underpinning to right-wing theology. It could gain influence in parts of the churches faster than we expect. We should not be unwise about its potential to attract Christians who are frightened and confused by society’s changing ethical standards.

Nonetheless, this is a movement that stands no chance of success in the long term. The leaders of this movement may well be sincere, they may well aim for compassion, but their support depends on other people’s fears. “SSA therapy” involves shoddy psychology, flimsy theology and inaccurate readings of history. It is sustained by the shifting sands of fear and prejudice. And a house that’s built on sand is sure to fall.

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