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In Recruiting Young Love: How Christians Talk about Homosexuality, Mark D. Jordan examines the church discourse and church debates over same-sex desire for over more than half a century. Jordan points out that although somewhat historical in nature, the rhetoric of the church in terms of male homosexuality is the focus of his book. Other authors, books, pamphlets, letters, and organizational writings are among the sources used by Jordan.
Starting in the 1950's churches began to be concerned with the notion of same-sex desire, especially so among adolescents who are starting to form their sexual identity during those years. Churches began to use both scientific and artistic rhetoric to form their church revival on the topic. Religion was viewed as the antidote to same-sex desire, effeminate masculinity and masturbation. Jordan points out that even though the word homosexual is now used to describe same-sex desire, the common terms used were invert (inborn abnormality of desire for the same sex), urning (female soul trapped in a male body), pygism (desire for anal intercourse), suggesting a pathological state of desire.
When the Kinsey report was first published, breaking much of the silence concerning homosexuality and normalizing homosexual experiences while placing little emphasis on the role of religion, especially in adolescent, responses were fierce. Vidal was another person who ignored much of religion in his novel, The City and the Pillar, while describing homosexuality. Much of the literature on homosexuality spurred Christian churches to reply. Homosexuality was viewed as a social problem, not equivalent to heterosexual desire and marriage. Although a sin, homosexuality should be viewed as a condition, not a crime. Religious teaching such as Modern Youth and Chastity by Kelly, and Facts of Life and Love for Teenagers by Millis Duvall focused on chastity, purity and family life.
During the same time, the homophile movement became a distinct American subculture focusing on political, ethical and ritual needs of the homosexual minority. Some churches started accepting homosexuals, and the Mattachine Society was established. Authors such as Rechy, Rowland and Woods found a place for religious language and same-sex desire. Homosexual adolescent faces many obstacles, such as prostitution, depression and suicide, and as homophile groups were by law not allowed to deal with minors, churches were needed in order to reach the homophile youth and the young street hustlers. During this time, the Lucas Survey described the negative effects that homosexuals faced in religion and church, such as sexual shame and condemnation. During the 60's, organizations such as the CRH (Council on Religion and the Homosexual) worked to decriminalize homosexual acts, and organized public outreach and protests. They wanted to end discrimination based on sexual orientation, and for churches to openly discuss homosexuality.
The 1960's and 1970's saw an expansion of homosexual organizations, such as SIR (Society for Individual Rights), NACHO (North American Conference of Homphile Organizations), and pamphlets and books such as Gay Liberation, Gay Manifesto, Song of the Loon, Loving Women/Loving Men and Wanderground. Troy Perry founded a Christian church that welcomed homosexuals, while Father McNeill stated in the Church and the Homosexual that homosexuality was natural. Along with the focus on homosexual rights, the CDF (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) released their Declaration, arguing against extramarital sex, homosexuality and masturbation. A few years later, the CDF also released a letter based on interpretations of science and scripture, arguing not only against homosexuality, but threatening gay activists and bishops, priests and laymen willing to support homosexual individuals. At the same time, religious opponents of homosexuality turned their attention to children and adolescent yet again.
In 1976, Dade County banned any form of discrimination based on a person's sexual preference (including churches). One already famous and popular woman, Anita Bryant, met the decision with criticism. Bryant focused much attention on the impact of homosexuality on the lives of children. Already a mother of four, Bryant claimed that homosexuality would lead to social disaster and to the breakdown of families, especially if homosexuals were allowed into churches and schools. Bryant also claimed, like authors before her, that homosexuals posed a threat to children as they could not reproduce and therefore needed to recruit in order to survive. The ordinance of 1976 was overturned in 1977. Similar rhetoric used in the campaigning became useful where religion and popular entertainment met sex. For many homosexuals, "Christianity had become the most dangerous rhetorical enemy" (p. 149).
Bryant and others formed centers to "help" homosexuals overcome their same-sex desires. One such advocate was Frank Worthen, who returned from the gay community to embrace the true church community as an "ex-gay". From being pathology, homosexuality changed into a lifestyle, an identity that many believed to embrace an opposition to church, a dedication to hedonism and a rejection of moral decency. Self-help books were written during this time to help the homosexuals come out homosexuality as ex-gays.
As the AIDS epidemic was given much attention in the 1980's, so was the gay community, and the language used to condemn homosexual acts changed. For many authors, such as Falwell and Cameron, AIDS was considered the holy punishment of homosexuals, who were believed to be polluted and contaminated. They also believed that gay men were the bearers of AIDS. The Vatican believed that it was important to respond to the suffering of the AIDS inflicted while suspending judgment on the sin. Other organizations, such as the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and ACT UP believed in outreach to the suffering victims. Even though many homosexuals had abandoned religion due to their treatment and condemnation by the church, AIDS not only moved gay speech into religious form, but it also brought many men back to church.
Jordan states that new sites have started to highlight the representation of LGBT adolescent. At the same time, many churches have changed some of their topics of biblical controversy, but they are not necessarily representing youth. Homosexual youth are taught that God does not approve of homosexual acts even though he approves of you. Youth are also taught that heterosexuality is the norm and that intercourse is for men and women in heterosexual relationships. In terms of ordination and the welcoming of homosexual members, the decision is often met with resistance and members are often singled out in the process. Same-sex marriage is also affecting homosexual youth even though they are too young to enter into marriage. In places were same-sex marriage is not allowed, homosexual youth are told that they are yet again outsiders and different from the norm.
As Jordan states that religion is often missing from studies of homosexual adolescence; ritual places do exist outside the church, such as in gay-straight alliances, in the process of coming out, and in different celebrations such as parades. As Christian discourse appropriates scientific theories they turn these into religious truths, and use familiar features of rhetoric, such as the sodomites. As churches have not yet learned how to speak about sexuality, a poetic projection of a Christian character for same-sex love, different from that of the sodomites, and one that is not condemning, is needed according to Jordan.
Even though Jordan mentions the fact that the book is not an historical account as much as "rhetorical criticism" (p. xix), it can sometimes be difficult to follow along the historical and rhetorical accounts presented together. At the same time, the book is an interesting hybrid example that examines both history and rhetoric. The language of the book is at times fairly complicated, and even though not necessary, knowledge about Christianity is beneficial to the reader. The intended audience can be both those interested in theology, the church's stance and discourse concerning homosexuality, as well as the history of homosexuality in connection to the church in America. The book could be used in the classroom in diverse studies such as the humanities, gender, sexuality, and masculinities.
© 2012 Hennie Weiss
Hennie Weiss is a graduate student in Sociology at California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women’s studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.