Forty years ago I was in a sophomore English literature class and was reading a poem that would begin a change in how I see the world. That change wouldn’t come to fruition until this year. It was the epic poem, “In Memoriam” in which Tennyson gives tribute to his fallen friend, Arthur Hallam. I wept with Tennyson for his lost friend and I knew that I and the young men around me were missing something powerful and good. It introduced me to a kind of friendship that I didn’t know existed between men, a kind of friendship that rarely if ever exists today.
A century ago a young adolescent who felt a deep loving connection to other boys, who may even have felt some sexual arousal when considering other boys, would not have contemplated whether or not he was gay because the categories of gay straight and bi simply didn’t exist for anyone except a few academics. These categories are about 150 years old and are social constructs, as anyone in queer studies on any college campus will tell you.
A social construct is any jointly constructed understanding of the world. It is a social mechanism, phenomenon, perception, idea or category created and developed by society held by a subgroup or the whole society that is ‘constructed’ through cultural or social practice. It is not something that is “real” in the usual sense of that word, in that it has no existence outside of our agreement that it describes the world. For instance, real property, the ownership of land by an individual, is a social construct that is foreign to many nomadic tribes. Any good sociologist, historian, anthropologist, or for that matter psychologist who looks at the experience of men in history objectively know that at no time in the past and in no place in the past before about 150 years ago did anyone understand themselves and their relationship to the rest of humanity through categories of homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual and there were no words in any language that described the concepts inherent in these terms.
The good news is that although social constructs are powerful and have powerful impacts on us, they are not fundamental unchangeable things or parts of our human nature and thus can be “deconstructed” by the individual not just the culture. The first premise of post modernism is that social constructs are for the purpose of the oppression of one group by another and thus the duty of the enlightened is to deconstruct all social constructs for themselves and others as an agent of change. Thus the claim that a man cannot impact his “gayness” is strangely at odds with the very Catechism of postmodern liberation that it is derived from. Virtually all of the functionality of postmodern social theory is dependent upon the ability to deconstruct social constructs and liberate myself from them. In fact, some in queer theory admit that gayness is a temporary phenomenon because it is merely one social construct replacing a previous one and thus will be deconstructed in its turn.
Now here is the REALLY good news. Social constructs in this setting are attempts at developing categories for understanding human, and thus our own, behavior. Some post modernists believe all we can ever have is social constructs and there is never anything “real” underlying them. I am not a post modernist. Personally I am a Christian and like many people of faith I believe in Natural Law. In addition, in questions of Ethics and philosophy and truth seeking I am a Platonist. I believe there is truth and moral law actually out there to be discovered and understood. Our attempts to categorize our world through constructs (jointly constructed understandings of the world) are inevitable but these attempts will, to varying degrees, come close to reality or differ from it. Since the categories gay, straight and bi are quite new creations of a few German psychologists of the 19th century and only came into common usage in the West almost 60 years later sometime in the period between the Great Wars, I think it quite reasonable to assume that these constructs are faulty. Even the “gay” community itself struggles with them almost comically adding letters and categories to the rainbow through the years. It is time for a real Gay liberation movement, one in which we all, gay straight and bi, liberate ourselves from the confines of these social constructs, a liberation from the categories of gay, straight and bi themselves. The implications of such liberation are multifaceted for both individuals and the culture.
Social constructs are often created by the culture we grow up in and we mainly accept them without much objection or thought, but I invite you to consider that in fact these constructs do not describe reality well, that you need not be bound by them, and that you can deconstruct these categories and release yourself from their grip. This process is something that can do wonders for several issues faced by those with unwanted same sex attractions (SSA) and help men with opposite sex attraction (osa) to let go of a false sense of privilege.
First, the issue of identity. If a man with ssa can abandon this construct it means he is not gay. Other people may identify this way, they may like fitting into this kind of construct. In fact most men, particularly those who identify as heterosexual like the construct because it has conferred status to them. I would however encourage men in the straight category to also consider that this status has been unwittingly a burden. There were two categories that appear in languages all over the world in modern and ancient times. One was the one who penetrated and one was the one who was penetrated. In some cultures men who penetrate but who have been exposed to the heterosexual gay bi categories still view themselves as heterosexual. But under Natural Law the two categories most used were sex within a marriage and sex outside of marriage. These two categories also existed in some form or another in almost all cultures. One was “good” and one was “bad”. With the loss of this Natural law social construct “straight” men could view almost any sexual activity as “good” as long as it is heterosexual. That has been a trap for many men who have traded the long term intimacy of marriage for a predatory kind of sexuality that is not particularly distinguishable from what gay men engage in. By abandoning these categories there is no need for me to see myself as gay or straight or bi anymore. I am a man. I am a man with complex urges and needs but those complex urges and needs do not place me in some faulty category.
Second, the closely related issue of belonging. I am a man. I belong with other men. My biology is not a social construct. It is an undeniable permanent aspect of my personhood. Those who like the social construct “transgendered” may think they can change their sex, but they can’t. Neither can I. I belong to the tribe of men. I cannot take myself out of that tribe, that club. In common parlance, I got my man card at conception and nobody can take it from me, not even me. That means men share a common bond and a commonality that is vital and essential to our nature. I belong with other men and so do you. For any man who has struggled with a sense of, “do I have what it takes?” or “am I enough?” this is deeply reassuring.
Third, masculinity. I am masculine. I can’t help myself. My masculinity may be different from yours. It may be creative or artistic or musical or graceful or intuitive or intellectual or awkward or shy or boisterous or athletic but all I can be is masculine, because I am a man. Other ideas of masculinity are just social constructs.
Fourth, friendships. I may have a deep longing for close intimate friendship. I may enjoy affection with my male friends and feel a deep emotional closeness like David and Jonathan. I may like to lean against a friend’s shoulder or against his chest as we talk or let him do the same in the same way John leaned against the breast of Jesus. I may like to have lots of friends and my only desire is to have fun and laugh with them and all I want is a firm handshake. If either is my impulse it is a masculine impulse because it is my impulse. You see each of those are perfectly acceptable masculine behavior according to social constructs in different parts of the world, so ignore which one may be the social construct in your part of the world and do what your heart leads you to do. Fear of masculine intimacy as historians will tell you is also a new social construct and not coincidentally coincides with the development of the gay straight bi categories. The fear of masculine connection however is a sad and destructive social construct in the West and any man who can, should consider setting overcoming it as a goal for personal growth.
This is the last bit I will leave you with. Fear of physical affection and emotional intimacy combined with the social construct of gay, straight and bi in this culture is, I believe, the reason many many men see themselves as gay and see heterosexual marriage as beyond them and see friendships that would truly meet their deep needs as impossible or even un – Godly. It is tragic and it is an evil in our day.
One of the reasons so few men accept the invitation to step away from the gay life is the perception that the alternative is a life of deep isolation and constant sacrifice. But if you can shed that social construct and begin again to ask the meaning of the very desires that carried you a gay or bi identity, you may find that your life is not cursed and that instead what is opening up to you is a life of true liberation and blessing through healthy, deep, nonsexual connection with men.
What follows is not mine. It is however a tremendous essay about friendship that first appeared as a social media post by a Capuchin Friar from Australia in 2009 so the perspective is Christian. He mentions St Aelred who wrote extensively on the beauty of deeply connected friendship and has been labeled by many as gay. The notion is idiotic because it makes about as much sense as labeling him a Republican. It is a concept that would have had no meaning to him. The Friar who wrote this essay remains anonymous but he asks some deep important questions. This essay is a lament in its own way but also an invitation for men with ssa to leave your old social constructs and begin to experience a freedom in how you live your life. I encourage osa men to take the same invitation toward a deeper walk into masculine integrity and masculine connection both of which require an abandonment of similar constructs
“Once upon a time, there was friendship. Once upon a time, society accepted that the love of friends could be the single most important thing in a person’s life, and they did more than just accept, they celebrated the fact. Throughout history, discourses and sermons have been written in praise of friendship. When Alfred Tennyson’s friend Arthur Hugh Hallam died tragically young in 1833, he spent the next seventeen years writing the great poem “In Memoriam” as a memorial to his friend; and Hallam is a first name used among the Tennyson family to this day. Looking further back, we can see Damon and Pythias, Pylades and Orestes, David and Jonathan…
Perhaps the change was the fault of Freud and Oscar Wilde; and then again, perhaps not. But today no love is accepted as valid that is not in some way sexual, and even if we set out to reject the sex-obsessed outlook of today’s society, we think in those terms despite ourselves. When St Aelred writes of “this most loving youth”, we all say to ourselves “oh yes” in a knowing way, sure that we have guessed the smutty truth.
What a waste! What a wicked denial and perversion of love! God has made friendship – did not Christ have his own beloved disciple? – and how dare we corrupt it and deny it! Of course, we must not despise sex: sex is holy, divinely ordained as a way of love and procreation – but it is not the only love. Friendship is not “mere” friendship, not a second-best; still less is it a repressed substitute for erotic love. It is a love in its own right, powerful, holy, overwhelming. A world with Eros but without friendship is a world full of isolated, self-obsessed couples, of love unshared – a sad thing indeed. And we are heading that way.
The denial of friendship is an evil thing and evil in its effects. When my pulse beats faster at the sight of my friend, when his presence feels like a bolt of electricity – is this really sex in disguise? Am I to run away – which would be a tragedy – in order to preserve my chastity, or am I to try to overcome my revulsion and make a pass – which would be worse? Modern society seems to give us nothing but this harsh choice between a cold heart and a hot body. Who knows how many of the impressionable young are led into ultimately unendurable vices precisely because they cannot face what seems the only available alternative? And when, as is inevitable, they have destroyed friendship by turning it into something it is not, what choice do we give them but to repeat the error, each time more desperately? As if one could see the stars by diving ever deeper into the mud!
Let us accept friendship. Let us accept it as a true and passionate gift of God. Let us accept it in others without reading anything else into it – “repressed” or not. Let us rejoice if it is given to us, be glad if it is given to others. Jonathan loved David not because of what he could get out of him, but because he was David: let us celebrate this motiveless love of the Other, an echo of the pure love of Heaven. We ought to love everyone like that: but one should at least start somewhere.
And if, like Aelred, we have made the mistake of seeking a physical consummation of a love that does not require it, then let us, like St Aelred, not recoil from that love but go forward, transcend that error, until the love becomes a redeemed and radiant thing that others will see and rejoice, giving thanks to God.”