Overcoming polarised attitudes to sexual orientation


Since the 1950s, the Western World has been experiencing an upheaval regarding the place of society’s values in sexual relations. The response of many conservatives has been to act as if nothing has changed and that the social mores and social fabric of the 1950s remain.

I can see where such an approach is coming from. A hankering after ‘old truths’, which were a constant one could rely on back then. Understanding the immense social change that has come about since that time provides an explanation for the seemingly closed attitude many conservatives have in the West. Genesis 22, I believe provides a creative way of framing the issues faced in politics today, where violence, for both progressives and conservatives, can be ruled out of our agenda.

Genesis 22, true to its crude context, in which child sacrifices were a common occurrence throughout the Middle East, details the story of Abraham’s realisation that God doesn’t expect him to sacrifice his son. This realisation, however one sees it, was ground breaking in its time.

Like Abraham before the Angel’s visit, many conservatives in the West today seem to see their way as the only way. For Abraham, this meant his son’s sacrifice, for these conservatives a return to the harsh ascetic approach of the 1950s is what is called for. This approach would mean a ‘no’ vote regarding Gay Marriage, and has also been characterised as holding a closed attitude to the world as it is today.

For many, this closed attitude is fed by some ‘old truths’. These are stereotypes relating to outsider groups such as refugees, alcoholics and homosexuals amongst others. While generalisations help us get through life, these types of generalisations are ones moderate people don’t stand by any more. This is because the reality of our experience has shown us that stereotypes such as the ‘raving homosexual’ and the ‘violent alcoholic’ don’t always fit.

There are also ‘push’ factors encouraging a closed attitude among conservatives. These include a ‘mob’ mentality when it comes to reactions to their views in public. I have seen conservatives shouted down and the views of the elders of the community disregarded as ‘outdated’. The way some in public and private try to force others into line reminds me of a line from an essay by Jesuit poet, Fr Peter Steele, where he writes of ‘the disadvantage of a certain academic conference; not only did everything have to be said, but everybody had to say it.’

To return to Genesis, neither Abraham before the Angel of the Lord’s appearance, nor some modern conservatives would be willing to sacrifice tradition for the sake of a new approach. Some homosexuals frame the conservative approach as challenging everything in them, even their own existence. Their argument is that the outspokenness of the conservative vocal minority make them feel less welcome, rejecting their very sexuality, and this is a heavy burden to carry.

If we believe in an evolution towards a more altruistic humanity, we can see that our way of dealing with the reality of difference could slowly be improving. In Abraham’s time, the difference of children to adults, and the difference of enemy tribesmen, was reason enough to kill, with the glib justification of it being to ‘appease the gods’. While cold-blooded murder as a result of sexual orientation is, I believe, nowhere near as common as religiously justified murder would have been back then, the argument from homosexuals is that the discrimination they receive removes their joie de vivre and causes depression, which can lead to death.

Perhaps these conservatives need an Angel of the Lord to help them realise what they are doing – that some characterisations of homosexuals and others only make matters worse. In the story of Genesis 22, there is also a lesson for the progressives: Just as the Angel of the Lord did not force his opinion on Abraham, so too the progressives could do well to resist the urge to be less pushy in presenting their case. We hear that the Australian Parliament will soon pass into law a provision for Gay Marriage. This should be enough for Gay Marriage campaigners.

There is also an element of what Pope Francis calls the ‘myth of progress’. When Francis uses this phrase, he is talking of the justification neoliberal groups use for the relentless destruction of the world’s environment. But I am interested in the way neoliberals believe in this kind of progress, yet cannot come to terms with the progressive’s agenda of ‘social progress’. Perhaps it is all a myth, even the social elements, just that we have been less willing to talk about the social elements in the past.  

In the end, perhaps genuine progress is the development of a more ‘altruistic humanity’. Whether the neoliberal ideas of progress, or the progressive ideas help to create more altruistic good or not is something the public will ultimately decide.

Thomas O'Brien is studying towards a Masters in International Relations at the University of Sydney.

Topic tags: Thomas O'Brien, marriage equality, LGBTI, gay, homosexuality



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Thank you; this is an interesting take on stridency; it does remind me (albeit faintly) of how African-Americans pushing for civil rights were called 'uppity' and loud. Polarisation is a fairly predictable if not inevitable outcome at any time of social upheaval and change, be it countering slavery or imperialism or racism or sexism. I think it is inevitable, but the process of genuine listening to others' viewpoints should ameliorate the argy bargy. The thought that progressives' contention worsens a situation is a bit odd: if we are discussing the process of public discourse then surely you need an alternate viewpoint? To mourn (and/or avoid) the conflict may lead us to miss the point of crisis that accompanies change. As a fairly strident Christian feminist Catherine Booth (co-founder of the Salvos) once suggested, 'If we are to better the future we must disturb the present.'
Barry Gittins | 08 July 2015

Thanks for a thought-provoking article.
I was struck by the phrase "the argument from homosexuals is that the discrimination they receive removes their joie de vivre and causes depression, which can lead to death".
When I lived as an "out" gay man I never experienced any discrimination, but did experience the same depression and suicidal feelings as those who felt discriminated against. Why was this?
I wasn't fighting or denying my sexual attraction and many actually rejoiced at my perceived freedom. So where did these feelings of separation and difference come from?
The spiritual journey I then undertook revealed that my issue was not fundamentally external (it's too easy for "gays" to blame "non-gays" for their misery) but rather internal, rooted in the social formation of my sexual attraction (even a BBC webpage admits "Sexuality doesn't develop overnight").
When I began to stop blaming others for how I felt, stopped making "my rights" my main focus and concentrated on my responsibilities to self and equally to others, literally everything changed. Joie de vivre returned like never before, and my sexuality matured (yes, matured!) more towards heterosexuality.
I long for my same-sex attracted friends to find this same inner freedom.

James Parker | 09 July 2015

"A hankering after ‘old truths’, which were a constant one could rely on back then.".... As bipeds, we progress by going 'Left, right, left, right...' Such swings from one side to the other seem to be embedded in our nature. Sometimes the Timing of the Left-Right swings is dependent on the evolving situations, which can vary enormously, from millennia to days. Ancients, in a sparsely populated world with seemingly limitless resources, saw children as security for the future,(Psalm 127), and sex as the way to go, and virginity was seen as something to bewail (Judges 11:38). Abraham's Angel, (insight?) did not save Jephthah's daughter. Today, in a world of diminishing resources and approaching over population, there seems a swing to another extreme, as a way to satiate the human sex urge. Caution needs to be exercised when exercising control in such matters lest unforseen unwanted consequences result.
Robert Liddy | 09 July 2015

Thanks for this very thought provoking article Thomas. Also, thank you James for sharing your insights. It seems to me that one of the reasons we have so much trouble in understanding our sexual selves is that we continue to think in terms of binaries; homosexual/heterosexual. I dream of a future where we can acknowledge and understand the diversity of our sexual selves and celebrate this.
Tim Collier | 09 July 2015

James Parker, I totally agree that sexual develop overnight, but that fact that you seemed to be cured of your homosexual orientation by overcoming your hangups and "blame" (which is not what I understood the author was intending gay people do), seems inauthentic and disingenuous to me. You seem to suggest moral superiority in your apparent conversion which defies the reality of most gay people I know and the consensus of others.
AURELIUS | 09 July 2015


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