When I was eleven years old I remember being asked a question that left me with the feeling of being trapped… damned if I did and damned if I didn’t.
The trap involved linguistics… tricky linguistics to an eleven year old. “Are you a homosapien or a homosexual?” was the question. I knew that I was supposed to answer in the affirmative to one and reject the other, but I could never remember which was the right answer. The idea of acknowledging both to be true was not given an instant’s attention. It played on the childhood fascination with all things sexual, it played on the sometimes cruel government of the playground in an all boys’ school, it played on bullying, it played on teasing, it played on belonging, it played on belonging, it played on belonging, and it played on belonging to the right group and not the wrong group.
I remember saying once that I was a homosexual. Damn. I’d gotten it wrong. I meant to say homosapien. The glee on the faces of the lads was unmistakable. And immediately it spread around the playground like a bad smell… and I, in the way that we demand of children and our own selves, acquainted myself with shame and carried on with my day.
This is not a new story.
It is not a story unique to Ireland either.
Neither is it a story unique to people who are attracted to members of the same sex.
It is a sadly all-too-human story.
There’s another bit to this story. I can’t remember a specific instance of this, but I’m sure it happened… I, in my own turn, asked the sapien/sexual story of someone lower on the ranks of violent childhood social-laddering than me. Of course, it’s the kind of thing children do. Are you a homosapien or a homosexual? And I’d have finally memorized the right answer and laughed at anyone who produced the wrong answer.
Now that I think of that question, it is strangely indicative of a mindset underlying homophobia. For some people, the true question is whether you can be fully human and queer. Are you queer or are you human? Are you human or are you an alien? Are you like me, or are you not? Are you normal or are you something-other-than-normal?
This is not a new story. It is the story of anyone who has learnt the lessons of dragging yourself patiently through childhood.
But here, I think, is an important lesson in how to change that story. It comes from another story. A Samaritan. It has entered into public vocabulary, and is used to denote well-doers of religious or secular motivation alike. It is interesting that we do not hear much about the man who was going on the journey…the man who was the recipient of the Samaritan’s kindnesses. Because this journeying man, to me, is the locus of the story. We know the the story I imagine – a well respected man was attacked and it was a marginalized man, not the members of the attacked man’s group, who paid money, touched blood and skin, gave nurture, time and care.
In the measuring tape of morality, I imagine that the more difficult journey in this case was not the journey of the Samaritan who was helping someone identified as a superior. It was the case of the journeying man, whose lot it was to accept the touch, the love, the care of someone deemed more inferior.
I say this because I believe that there is little innovation in a story of a marginalized human being helping a member of elite society. The moral lesson to take from a simplistic reading is this: we must all be the good Samaritan to someone else. However…. I see a different lesson. I see the crowds gathered around the man of Nazareth, and I imagine that initially, they identified with the man who went on the journey. They were the ones who were beaten up, and the shame was theirs as they felt that the members of ‘their own’ – their own group, their own kin, their own religion – rejected them. The question isn’t “who will you help?” – rather, the question is “From whom will you accept help?”.
So, in the moral injunction at the end ‘Go and do likewise’, I do not hear an injunction to go and help those who need it. There’s little new in that. I hear an injunction to accept help from someone I do not want to be associated with.
Now that is for me, a gay man, a double challenge. It means that I must be the one who, in the face of prejudice, is offering help to someone who may not want to be associated with me.
But it also means that I, in my own self-judgments about my own morality, must be willing to accept help from people not on my preference list. I am not talking about accepting help from someone who lives on the streets. That’s easy. Rather, will I accept help from someone who believes I might go to hell for being gay? Will I accept help from someone who runs a reparative therapy group? Will I accept help from someone who believes that all liberals should be shut up? If I am in need, will I be human enough to acknowledge the humanity of someone whose humanity I would rather ignore.
Can I, the sometimes hated homosexual, acknowledge that someone is a homosapien – whether I like their theology or not? Can I acknowledge a shared human hunger? I have lived and read too much to spend much time in a reparative therapy session – I believe that would be beneath my dignity – but can I admit the humanity of people who run these sessions, or write the books. Will I give the gift of time to them? If I was bleeding, whose hands would burn my skin?
This, I believe, is an important question for queer people in the emergent church movement. I am not in the emergent church, but I am around it a lot. There are subgroups within subgroups – queer people who might distance themselves from emergent people who might distance themselves from evangelicals who might be distancing themselves from institutional religion who themselves are distancing themselves from the ‘world’. That’s a lot of boxes in a lot of boxes. And it’s not about whether those boxes are intrinsically wrong – I am quite comfortable with some of the boxes I fit into.
To me, the challenge is how we will speak to, and about each other. Will I reject someone who rejects me with the same fervour that caused my own initial hurt in the first place? Will I use sharp tools of postmodern, theologically informed, poetic, articulate intelligence in order to demolish someone’s dignity? Will I scoff at an individual? Will I destroy their altar in the belief that mine is more queer-friendly? Who will win? Will I acknowledge their humanity?
Will I be able to live out the knowledge that to treat someone as human is not to agree with them. Do I need to stereotype someone in order to disagree with them? Worse, does this homosexual homosapien human feel the need to dehumanize an individual in order to prove a point? If I am to take a line from Martin Luther King, I will pray that I am big enough to hope for a double victory – that my dignity, my humanity, my holiness as a human being will be honoured together with the brothers and sisters of mine who may not wish to accept my help and whose help I may spurn. If this sounds like an extra burden to lay on the shoulders of the already burdened – I think that sounds like gospel – Blessed are the poor in Spirit. Blessed are the gentle. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for uprightness. Blessed the merciful, blessed the pure, Blesed are the peacemakers. Blessed those who are persecuted.
I imagine that if I am to be judged on my words, it will not be on my opinions. Rather, it will be on how I speak with those who disagree with me, those whose hands might burn and whose help I might spurn.
Pádraig lives in Belfast, in the north of Ireland, and directs the work of Peacelines (www.peacelines.net) a charity that runs programmes that empower and equip people to live well with each other in a diverse society. He is finishing a degree in theology and is a regular contributor of poetry to Ikon, a Belfast collective of homosapiens.