At this past weekend’s 65th Annual Tony Awards, the prize for “Best Revival of a Play” went to Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart about the early years of the AIDS epidemic. Upon receipt of the award, Kramer said, “To gay people everywhere, whom I love so dearly, The Normal Heart is our history. I could not have written it had not so many needlessly died. Learn from it and carry on the fight. Let them know that we are a very special people, an exceptional people, and that our day will come.”
Those of us who have lost loved ones and family members to AIDS certainly understand the note of sadness and regret. A childhood friend of mine, a boy who at age 5 was girlier than I ever thought of being—and who at even that tender age knew what it was to be rejected by a parent and regarded by his peers as an “other”—moved to San Francisco in the late 1970s, ostensibly to be a dancer; he became an early victim to what was then referred to as “the gay men’s cancer.”
In those earliest years, AIDS research was slow to find funding, and it was not unusual for men infected with HIV to die within two years of infection. Once funded, AIDS research made dramatic inroads against the disease; by the time my dearest brother died in 2005, he had “managed” living with HIV for 22 years. Both my brother and my friend lived proudly as “out” gay men well before doing so became the media standard. Having spent their lives working to be seen simply as themselves, and nothing “otherly,” I suspect they might have taken issue with Kramer’s description of homosexuals as “very special people, an exceptional people . . .”
In fact, as Kramer spoke the words, I could imagine my brother rolling his eyes and saying, “some of us spent our whole lives emphasizing our sameness, and now you’re calling out our ‘otherness.’ Way to stay on message!”
I was struck by the applause that followed the pronouncement and wondered how those exact words would have been received had they been uttered by a Boy Scout at his Eagle ceremony, or by a Christian politician, or by a Jew or a Muslim, addressing a crowd. The applause, I suspect, would be scattered, and accompanied by more than a few horrified gasps. In our politically correct, pretend-egalitarian culture, after all, to identify one’s own tribe or nation as “exceptional,” is to risk being called provincial, or insular, or a nationalist, or even a Nazi.
But it occurs to me that perhaps Kramer is right. Perhaps homosexuals are in fact “special and exceptional others,” whose distinctions are meant to be noted. Perhaps they are a “necessary other” created and called to play a specific role in our shared humanity.
If so, what might that be?
This plunges us into deep waters that are not easily or safely navigated, beginning with the fundamental “nature/nurture” riptide. A few years ago there was talk of science perhaps isolating a “gay gene” and some expressed concern that babies so-identified would suffer the shredding in utero that has become so shamefully common for babies diagnosed with a genetic defect like Down syndrome, or who are of undesirable gender. Given the culture’s mania for perfection (and for having just what we want) such concerns seem valid. Similarly, if particular forms of “nurturing” were deemed to affect sexuality, legislative thought would likely fall along lines of fostering gender-exploration in one’s child, whether a parent wished to or not, and perhaps taking entirely natural phases (I was such a tomboy!) much too seriously.
Assuming homosexuals are—as per Lady Gaga (and perhaps Matthew 19:12)—“born this way,” the question of purpose arises. Those who believe in a God who said, “I know the plans I have for you; plans of fullness, not of harm . . .” and who creates nothing by accident, must ask why God would love into being this “other,” which the church—objectively considering form and function—defines as “disordered?” Such created creatures must be recognized as loved into being, and they cannot be denied their God-given human dignity, with their “otherness” recognized as part of a plan.
The secularists—having only science and their instincts to go on—might actually have a more difficult time understanding the purpose of “unplanned, randomly-created” homosexuality. One imagines they could make peace with the idea that homosexuals are here to teach the rest of us “tolerance” and to open our minds, but that would presume a blueprint, a creator and plan, and so again the question becomes tougher for secularists than for believers. If secularists deduce that there is “no purpose” to homosexuality (and “why would anyone choose to live like that?” resides mere inches away from “how can we bring a baby into the world knowing his life will be full of challenges”) then they will be more easily able to dispose of gays than would the supposed hate-mongerers in the churches.
I have a theory that our gay brothers and sisters are, in fact, planned, loved-into-being “necessary others,” and that they are meant to show us something of God from a perspective that we cannot otherwise broach. I suspect art is a part of it. I do not presume to guess what attractions Michelangelo felt, but I could not view his stunning work throughout the Vatican and in Rome without recalling a quip someone (I believe Camille Paglia) once made, that when gays were closeted and presumably less active sexually, their energies had been subsumed into creating transcendent, living, time-smashing masterpieces. Now that they were “out”, said the wag, their art was mundane, mostly unmemorable, often lazy and insubstantial.
I know I am entering deep and destructive currents by even daring to swim here, but homosexual questions are all around us—gay marriage, certainly is at the forefront (and there again, we may actually have some instruction from Christ, in Matthew 19) but there is also the issue of recognizing the many homosexuals in our church who are excellent, joyful priests, faithful to their vows and their flocks—and they are questions begging for temperate, reasonable and loving dialogue.
Larry Kramer called the gay community “exceptional,” and in doing so he opens the door to question what that means, whether it implies a giftedness that is planned, and meant for all of us. If that is so, our homosexual brothers and sisters deserve a full participation in our human adventure, right down to the “plans of fullness, not of harm; to give you a future and a hope.”
But those plans, in the life of every fully-engaged human, involve not just gifts but also challenges, not just “yes” but also “no,” not just satisfaction, but also sacrifice, not just ourselves but also obedience. That’s the fullness; it comes from embracing the plan, but it is not easy.
And in that case, it’s possible that not everyone will be so keen to applaud the idea of sexual exceptionalism, and its costs.
Nothing is free, save grace, but it is no cheap thing.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.