When you’re straight, you’re often told what romantic love is: Parents. Friends. Songs. TV. Movies.
This is a lot more useful than most straight people seem to realize.
It goes like this: Romantic love is a thing. It’s just one thing, and it’s a great thing, and you will almost certainly experience it during your life. If you’re lucky, your love will be returned. If you’re very lucky, it will be returned for as long as you both shall live. Romantic love may just be the greatest thing this side of the divine.
Happily for straight people, all of this is more or less true. Even when it’s not, the mere prospect of romantic love seems to make straight people happy, so I’m in no position to complain.
But when I was growing up, gay people didn’t get told these things. Not exactly. The clipped vernacular of my adult life says it best: For me, love wasn’t a thing.
It wasn’t that I didn’t feel romantic love. I’m quite sure I did. It wasn’t that I felt and denied it. I felt it, but I didn’t believe that what I felt… was it. Love, when it finally arrived, would be heterosexual; none of my attractions were.
I still remember one of my first crushes, and I’ll tell you a story about him.
High school dances are rituals of cruelty. We all know they’re horrid, and we do them anyway. Adults go out dancing only when they feel like it. And when they don’t, adults stay home, and no one thinks less of them.
We expect high school students to dance on schedule, and that’s pretty fucked up.
Anyway, I was a freshman. I didn’t have a date. I went stag — good lord, who comes up with these preposterous, insidious, passive-aggressive terms? — let’s just say it honestly: I was all alone.
And he was there. My crush. A senior. Handsome, uncannily smart, popular. A jock, too, as if the rest weren’t enough. He was even kind. Not just superficially kind, either. He went out of his way to help people. A lot.
As I recall, he’d brought a very pretty girl. He always did. I was sitting in a corner, by myself, in the dark. I wanted to die.
Then he came over.
“How are you doing?” he asked.
“Terrible,” I said. “I hate this.”
“Don’t even start. This? Look at it. This is just one night. And you’re so young. You have so much time ahead of you. None of this even means anything.”
Wisdom. But then he added:
“Look. Twenty years from now, you’re not even going to remember this. You’re not even going to remember me.”
There he was wrong. I am never going to forget him.
But at the time, I didn’t understand that I had a crush on him. If asked, I would have taken the feelings that I had for him — which occupied my every idle moment — and said “Oh, that? No, that’s not love. Of course not. Love is something else.”
Don’t laugh. Assuming you’re straight, how did you know what love was? You might say “I just knew,” but you didn’t. You knew because the entire world told you.
Here’s another thing they may have told you about love: Love completes the self. Sin does not. Nor does the inclination to sin. Those things are distortions of the self:
Suppose John is tempted to steal. Whenever he sees beautiful things that don’t belong to him, he begins to covet them. He muses about how he might filch them and get away with it. But he does not go through with the imaginary thefts. He knows that the law of God forbids it. “I’m a kleptophile,” he says publicly, and is praised for being honest and brave.
What value are we to attribute to John’s inclination to steal? Absolutely none – he’d be far better off without it. It is a distortion of his true nature. Suppose John says, “See, I am being celibate with regard to other people’s things. Am I not virtuous?” We must answer, no, not at all, and warn him against making of his frailty a mysterious object of pride…
So with all inclinations to evil. They do not make up our personalities. They thwart them, or dampen them, or distort them. When we say, “I am a thief,” if we mean anything other than “I have stolen,” we are in error. We are who we are despite and against our evil inclinations.
And that is what we have to say to people – hurting, no doubt, and sometimes lonely, and perhaps staring at a life without a spouse and children – who say, “I am gay.” We don’t deny that the temptation exists. We don’t want to take it lightly. But we must deny that it is a fortunate disorder, either for the person who suffers it, or for the rest of us who do not.
What you experience, if it is heterosexually oriented, is a part of the good, or at least potentially it can be. These feelings make up your true personality.
My homosexual feelings? They “thwart, dampen, and distort” my personality. I ought not even to speak of them, because I might take pride in them. I ought not to liken them to friendship, because friendship is only dirtied in the process. Somewhere in God’s plan, there’s a heterosexual Jason, and he is a better person than I am today.
That’s what Catholic-school Jason eventually came around to thinking. The feelings I had weren’t love at all. They were distortions, and I needed to find my true self.
I’ve rejected that way of thinking. I’m certain that it’s wrong. It comes back anyway.
Unlike a lot of people, I can’t just sweep aside the traditionalist arguments. Not the best of them, anyway. I don’t even believe in God anymore, and I find myself digging them up just the same. When I’m in a certain mood, I make up new ones. My husband hates it when I do that.
We meet behind a veil of ignorance. No one knows what their station will be in the society we shall design, but we all know the basic facts of human life. How reproduction works. How prejudice works. How lives either articulate with one another, or fail ever to do so.
We have come to establish places for everyone in the world of romance, without knowing which place we will occupy.
Would we ever think to establish homosexuality? Of course not. Difference is always a target for prejudice, and that’s a fact we can’t erase. We would not wish that prejudice on anyone. Let the least-lucky person in love at least be heterosexual.
Worse: If only a few are gay, then most gay love will be unrequited. But if most people are gay, the species will not continue, and even then, unrequited love remains.
The veil of ignorance says no to homosexuality. It should not exist. Were we able to end it, we should do so.
I’m talking with my four-year-old daughter about marriage.
“Why did you marry papa?” she asks.
“Because of everybody in the world, I loved him the most,” I answer.
Immediately I see the flaw: Why does it just so happen that so many people “love the very most” a member of the opposite sex? If marriage really is about choosing the person you love, and not about biology, reproduction, or any higher plan for humanity, then we should expect about half of all marriages to be homosexual.
Pervasive heterosexual marriage can’t be just an astounding, inexplicable coincidence. So it must not be fundamentally about love. Marriage must be about the male-female dyad, and anyone who denies it is denying reality.
The happily married Catholic looks me in the eye and smiles. “I know this sounds patronizing,” she begins, “but there are things about traditional marriage that you can’t understand without being in one. You may think you know true love, but what you have isn’t it.”
I didn’t know love when I was growing up, and apparently I still don’t. Indeed, I will never know it. Not until I know heterosexual love.
How can a gay guy argue with that?
“Just close your eyes and thrust,” says the boor on Twitter. “You’ll figure it out.”
There’s another reason I keep coming back to these arguments.
It’s because, in struggling with them, I think possibly they taught me something: To argue with someone properly entails respect. We must take our interlocutors seriously. We must see them as human beings fully equal in worth and dignity to ourselves. We must honor their intelligence, or else we must be silent. There are no honest half measures.
Honoring them so means that we must earnestly consider whether their position might be justified, and whether our own might not be.
Doing so raises the possibility that my entire life might be a sham, and I might be a broken human being who has never known love. But that’s how arguing should work here. That’s how it needs to work, or else I am an intellectual scoundrel.
I should stress that I consider myself happily married. Even if engaging honestly means questioning whether there is something still greater, something forever closed off from me.
I do find it hard to believe. Almost my every impulse is to say that I’ve won the love lottery, in every way that it could possibly be won. My happiness in love is utterly unwarranted. My high school crush was right: If I could, I would say exactly the same things that he said to freshman Jason. I would add: An incredible future awaits. I know, I’ve lived it.
With my husband, even doing nothing is amazing. I escape to him. With him, even the really awful things get better. A lot of people think of me as cold, but it is only because they know nothing of our secret life, and because I do not care to share it with them.
Other couples are clearly a lot less happy. Other straight couples, even. No, it’s not a contest, but I feel guilty about it anyway. I try to avoid talking about it.
But do they have something greater, something that raises them infinitely above, even despite their unhappiness?
Or… do we?