uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum -- Q. Aurelius Symmachus, 384 C.E.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Anti-Gay Scholar Shows His True (Non-Scholarly) Colors

Casual onlookers were no doubt shocked last week to see a professor at an accredited American seminary claim that homosexuality is "even more severely unnatural" than either incest or bestiality. But if you follow the debates about homosexuality and the Bible at all, you have probably encountered at some point a citation to Prof. Robert Gagnon of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and his book, The Bible and Homosexual Practice.

If you then decided, through genuine curiosity that you might later label unfortunate folly, to look into who this scholar is, you no doubt discovered his website, where he not only criticizes any published account that differs from the view presented in his book, but also responds to virtually every published review of it. Most scholars do not do this; if they have a beef with a given review or article, they submit a rebuttal to the publication in question, which will then publish it if warranted. Sometimes there are even rejoinders to said rebuttals, and so on. But in fact, it appears Gagnon has not been involved in any scholarly publication in a number of years, unless his online CV is in need of serious updating.

Instead, he has been making church circuits and writing e-screeds against anyone who disagrees with his take on the Bible and homosexuality, and now is involved in a splinter group of Exodus International, the (in?)famous ex-gay ministry. When some of its members started admitting that after years (or even decades) of their own therapy, they were still gay, Gagnon and a coterie of hard-right individuals formed the Restored Hope Network to reiterate their beliefs that those who are gay need therapy to stop.

After the group's first meeting, Gagnon apparently took to Facebook and suggested that the event was not protested by enough gays because San Francisco was having a "leather event" that was more attractive to people with a "'gay' identity." For him, that meant that the "moral of the story" was that they should "schedule the meeting during homosexual debauchery events."

But even that was surpassed last week,when blogger Jeremy Hooper posted an e-mail correspondence he received from Gagnon, in which the professor argued that the Bible sees homosexuality as more unnatural than either incest or bestiality, and then defended calling gay and lesbian individuals "perverts."

Gagnon's contempt (not much "hope" here that I can see) comes through in much of what he writes. But what also comes through is his gross misuse of scholarship, especially that on gender and sexuality in the ancient world. A classicist in France, Jean-Fabrice Nardelli, recently published a damning review of Gagnon's work. It is worth a read, even though many might find the technical language hard to get through.

True to form, Gagnon issued a response, to which Nardelli issued a withering rejoinder. Gagnon states on his website that he will add to his response to Nardelli as "time and interest" permit, but has not responded now in ten months. Perhaps he has run out of time, but the amount of effort he appears to expend on e-rebuttals on a regular basis might lead one to believe that he does not wish to respond.

Gagnon has many sins, among them subscribing to a host of pseudo-scientific premises about homosexuality and biology. Many reviews have criticized his book (and again, he has dutifully, although unconventionally, responded to many of them on his website, at one point complaining that the SBL allowed reviewers who have different theological aims as he does, as though that should automatically disqualify them). But what has most perplexed me in reading through his plethora of digitally self-published manifestos was his repeated citation of Thomas Hubbard's Homosexuality in Greece and Rome.

First, some background: you'll notice that the book edited by Hubbard (a classicist) is titled with "homosexuality," while Gagnon's uses the phrase "homosexual practice." This is a key distinction that should be kept in mind, for while Gagnon utilizes scholarly material on classical views of sexuality, he does so selectively, and with an overarching aim often at direct odds with the scholarship he is citing.

Gagnon clearly believes that man and woman were created by God to be complementary, and thus heterosexual coupling is the only kind approved by God. But the classicists Gagnon cites most certainly do not agree with this overall premise. Indeed, his position is probably the one on which both sides of the aisle in the great debate about sexuality in antiquity can roundly condemn.

Like scholars of gender and sexuality more broadly, classicists have tended to sympathize more or less with either "essentialist" or "social constructionist" models, meaning that essentialists see sexual orientation as in-born and thus found across cultures and across time, while constructionists rather see that sexuality can depend largely on the culture and society in which individuals live. Classicist thought (led by Kenneth Dover's Greek Homosexuality) used to be roundly social constructionist, and with good reason: a large number of our texts paint for us a world in which an average man might enjoy sex with both women and young men.

However, recently scholars have looked more carefully at many texts (and ancient art) that do, in fact, seem to show an awareness of in-born, same-sex attraction. So the field remains somewhat split, and the arguments that break out can get rather heated. (Hubbard's review of constructionist David Halperin's book, whether one deems it fair or unfair, is nonetheless immensely entertaining reading on this score.)

What they would probably all agree on, however, is that Gagnon's overall view of sexuality is very strange. Social constructionists would find his notion that we were "created" for exclusively male-female sexuality to be at odds with what they see in the historical evidence: that normative sexuality, at least within some time periods of antiquity, included having both female and young male partners. Essentialists, meanwhile, are interested in those ancient texts that suggest in-born "categories" precisely because, they would argue, those categories (loosely defined) appear to be largely trans-historical and trans-cultural -- in other words, if these texts indicate there were people we might categorize as gay or lesbian living 2,000-3,000 years ago, it would seem to indicate consistent orientation across time and across cultures. Put another way, if God has been creating gay people for thousands of years, how can it be considered some aberrant, perverse deviation?

Note how neither set of scholars, nor even your run-of-the-mill classicist who probably finds resonance in both models, finds evidence that squares very well with Gagnon's overall view, which seems to utilize evidence of in-born, "natural" homosexuality in the ancient world while simultaneously claiming it is "unnatural" or "perverse." So God clearly does make gay people (note Gagnon's remarks on "innate desires" in the Facebook post above) but then roundly condemns them for it. Surely someday, when our history of sexuality is written, this will be considered the asinine, flailing death throes of anti-gay rationalization.

But Gagnon needs the evidence of essentialist classicists so he can hope to demonstrate that Paul knew of and conceived of homosexuality in much the way we do, and thus condemned the same sort of homosexuality that we conceive of and increasingly accept in our society. Gagnon therefore makes much of essentialist arguments and evidence, which is why he cites Hubbard's book so often (he does this over and again, and always refers to it as his "magisterial" book -- seriously, Google Gagnon Hubbard Magisterial and you'll find this phrase regurgitated time and again).

But Hubbard's sourcebook (which I agree is quite magisterial) is just that -- a sourcebook. It is an invaluable resource (it's sitting on my desk as I type this), but it is not a monograph, and does not attempt to make an over-arching, conclusive argument about sexuality in antiquity (this is to Hubbard's credit; that is not what he is aiming to do). While Hubbard introduces each set of texts with his own overview, which often betrays his own convictions, he does not stray from citing those sources that do not adhere to an essentialist viewpoint. A key example of this can be found in a section often cited by Gagnon, where Hubbard refers to a set of texts that “reflect the perception that sexual orientation is something fixed and incurable” (p. 446). Of course, Hubbard goes on to note that "two texts from this period show sexual orientation as a matter of relative indifference," citing Artemidorus and Philostratus, who seem to recognize no real sense of categorization between homosexuality and heterosexuality. That's the difference between honest scholarship, what Hubbard practices, and snake-oil chicanery: an honest assessment acknowledges the evidence that complicates or even contradicts a given view. Gagnon never appears to bother with that.

Gagnon's repeated citation of Hubbard also attempts to elide the very real issues of terminology among classical scholars with respect to "homosexuality" in the first place. As Hubbard's very first sentence in his book states: "The term 'homosexuality' is itself problematic when applied to ancient cultures, inasmuch as neither Greek nor Latin possesses any one word covering the same semantic range as the modern concept."  This is echoed in the latest edition (just out in last year) of the Oxford Classical Dictionary, which again, as it has in previous editions, advises: " ... particular caution must be exercised in order not to import modern sexual categories and ideologies into the interpretation of ancient evidence. ... The application of 'homosexuality' (and 'heterosexuality') in a substantive or normative sense to sexual expression in classical antiquity is not advised."

The OCD is taking a more social constructionist standpoint in comparison with Hubbard, yet both acknowledge that overall, the ancients did not think exactly like us about sexuality any more than they thought exactly like us on anything else, so as always, care is needed when making comparisons between them and us.

The problem is that, even if there were some notions in some quarters of a fixed and in-born sexual orientation toward people of the same sex in antiquity, that is not the same as showing that many or even most people conceived of it as such, or that, again, they conceived of it in the same ways we do. We have whispers of thoughts about in-born sexual orientation, but we have many other sources saying things very different. So whatever Paul had in mind when wrote of ἀρσενοκοίται -- a word he seems to have invented, or derived from the Greek translation of Leviticus (it is interesting that he does not use many of the other words, often derogatory terms, available in the classical corpus that dance around the definition he might be trending toward) -- what's patently obvious to most people is that he did not conceive of sexuality in the exact same way we do, with our modern science, medicine, and psychology. How could he? We moderns did not begin to conceive of it in precisely the ways we do now until recently.

Herein lies the conundrum of classical scholarship on sexuality, indeed the conundrum of all scholarship on the ancient world: they are not us. Nor are they the same in one period of antiquity as they are in another. So like virtually all other scholarship, it's complicated, and our texts are not univocal. What I think almost all classicists would probably find abjectly absurd are statements like, "It should go without saying that upholding a male-female requirement for marriage can and should be a product of a loving desire to avoid the degradation of the gendered self that comes from engaging in homosexual practice."

That Gagnon thinks this statement, so incredibly at odds with consensus in a wide array of disciplines, but most especially gender studies, "goes without saying," while lecturing another author on his perceived ignorance, is stock comic buffoonery at its finest, but such is the world Gagnon is living in.


  1. "Surely someday, when our history of sexuality is written, this will be considered the asinine, flailing death throes of anti-gay rationalization."

    Man. I would kill to write a sentence like that. I would get a stomach tattoo of that sentence if I'd written it. That's fantastic.

  2. Hi Don, ran across your blog through a friend's post on FB. I'm a first year grad student, and I just finished a course on sexuality in Archaic and Classical Greece, taught by Helene Foley (whose work is probably already familiar to you since ancient gender/sexuality is an interest of yours!). I'm interested to hear more of your perspective on the split in the field of Classics between the "essentialist" and "social constructionist" models of ancient sexuality. Where is the scholarship that coined these terms?

    1. Forgive me for wondering whether this is a genuine question -- surely you covered this in class, right? Are you quizzing me on the Foucauldian origins of the "social contructionist" stand? I guess I'm unclear what you mean by "the scholarship that coined these terms." I'm sorry -- I'm not really trying to obtuse, but to say at once that you just had a class with Helene Foley and then ask what the scholarship is regarding these two overused terms, you can see where I'm coming from maybe.
      Scholarship now utilizes the terms and takes them for granted, even if many attempt to navigate definitions that don't necessarily fall neatly into one or the other category, and no doubt many have called into question whether they are useful or not. To quote just the book at the heart of this post above, Hubbard notes, "The field of Gay Studies has, virtually since its inception, been divided between 'essentialists,' those who believe in an archetypal pattern of same-gender attraction that is universal, transhistorical, and transcultural, and 'social constructionists,' those who hold that patterns of sexual preference manifest themselves with different significance in different societies ..." (2). This is intended as a scholarly overview, not a definitive argument, but I certainly trust Hubbard to provide that.
      Whether the two sides claim these terms in definition of themselves or their work is probably another matter! But I think most people would put Richlin on one side (essentialist) and Halperin on the other (constructionist). A great BMCR review by Richlin of Halperin is entertaining on this score: So theirs is the work cited often today, alongisde Boswell.
      And of course the compendium "forms of desire" (ed Stein) explores it from all (note: not just "both") angles:
      Yes, gender and sexuality (broadly speaking) are an interest of mine, but they are not my research interest. So I don't claim special knowledge and/or familiarity with this issue, simply enough to know where Gagnon has gone off the rails. And as you know, a certain amount of familiarity with it is necessary to simply do the work we do. I took a similar class as yours just now, but it was years ago. Had it been more recently I probably could wax a bit more theoretical for you, but I've certainly kept up with the outlines of the debate.
      Sorry again if I found this question initially puzzling without merit.

    2. Thanks for the thorough reply! I haven't studied much sexual "theory," per se -- and honestly haven't encountered that specific terminology (or if I have, I've been oblivious to it!), and therefore was curious to learn of its origin. In my class we did, of course, discuss how the ancient Greeks conceived of "homosexuality," and whether they had a conception of inherent "orientation" -- just not in the terms of "essentialist" and "social constructionist." Of course, the term "ancient Greeks" also needs to be nuanced: they were a huge category of people with very disparate social practices and norms. Therefore, our class spent quite a lot of time trying to hash out how Greeks in different time periods and regions conceived of "gender," "orientation," and "homosexuality" based upon extant textual and visual evidence. Fascinating topic!

    3. Thanks Ashley. I'm sorry -- I thought you might be a theorist who found my cursory overview a bit lacking. And well, it is lacking -- it's just a blog post!
      I think the terms don't come up in classes and within our discipline as often because they are really only useful for modern, political purposes in the debates over [modern] sexuality. But maybe that's being too dismissive. It's just too muddied to come to any declarative conclusions.
      Yes, the difference between Greek regions and time periods is important, I agree. I see people say "the Greeks" did pederasty and describe the Socrates/Alcibiades relationship as though it was some sort of standard from the Minoan period until the fall of Constantinople. Unfortunately, the ancient world gets bandied about as "proof" by people on all sides of the debate without an appreciation for how complicated things actually are. I like to tell my students that that is simultaneously the most honest and most noncommittal response you can give to about any general question about the ancient world: it's complicated.
      Thanks for stopping by!

    4. As another aside, it's interesting to me that (as I recall) in gender studies, "essentialism" is often considered the "bad" (re: "conservative") viewpoint, as it posits an essential/biological set of expected gender roles for women; but in gay studies "essentialism" is often the "good" (re: "liberal") viewpoint in that it posits that gay men are "born that way." I'm sure this is a gross overgeneralization of essentialism in both fields, but I do think the political hay made of them in those ways is real.

    5. I'm 100% with you here! Thanks for the (much-needed) distraction from finals. See you around in the blogosphere or better yet, at CAMWS/APA! :)

  3. Also, I was wondering if you were aware of the series of reviews and rebuttals attacking/defending Bernabé's Poetae Epici Graeci? S. Olson, D. Konstan, A. Bernabé, and Jean-Fabrice Nardelli wrote several responses that were published in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review in 2006 (you can trace the series of responses, going backwards, here: Do you think that we should take Nardelli's review of Gagnon's book with a grain of salt, given that Nardelli has a history of engaging his scholarly opponents "in the most hostile terms," in the words of D. Konstan? I have read neither Gagnon's nor Nardelli's work, and therefore and am not trying to stand with either scholarly camp. After reading your thought-provoking post, I googled Nardelli's name, and this Bryn Mawr debate surfaced near the top of the search. I thought this information also might be of interest to you, especially since Olson is a faculty member of your department. Just something to consider: thanks for the post, and I'll look forward to visiting your blog more often. :)

    1. Yes, I was aware of this exchange. I did the same Google search last year when the review was published, and found it as well. In fact, in full disclosure, this was the exchange I was actually thinking about when I wrote that scholars will issue responses and rejoinders, but given my connection with Prof. Olson, I felt it might be better to remain aloof of that back-and-forth myself (that's why I didn't link to it).
      Nardelli is indeed a harsh critic; his characterization in a comment like this one on a blog even after the second published critique (which you can also find via Google) is quite hostile, which makes him a good match for Gagnon, I guess! But his critiques were dead on; and really they probably could have been made by about any other scholar with the time, energy, and courage to wade through Gagnon's work. I wish more scholars of gender and sexuality, with credentials far beyond my pay grade, would speak out against him; he's touted as an "expert" by too many people, as though an unimpeachable authority on the subject matter.

    2. I too would like to see another review of Gagnon, and in general would love to see more scholars "above our pay grade" write critically, thoughtfully, and charitably about "homosexuality" in the Bible -- especially by those trained in both classics and biblical scholarship. In regards to the 2006 BMCR, I hope you don't mind that I mentioned it given its personal connection to you! I was just a little shocked by it, tbh! What scholarly drama!

    3. No worries. It's frustrating that he isn't confronted more often, but people probably consider him not worth their time. He takes after other scholars all the time, with an amazing amount of condescension ("I think you need to read more") but I haven't seen any engagement back.

  4. A friend linked this on his FB wall. I have had my own personal squabbles with Mr. Gagnon and rather than engage me, he has now taken to ignore me. I attended the Restored Hope Network Conference and watched people fawn over him. At each session, he chose to sit one seat from me. I am quite sensitive spiritually and was NOT impressed with what I felt "off" this man. He is contemptuous towards the LGBT community.
    Scholars are now taking him on. His technique is: Fact A + Verse B = Statement Seen as True From the 20th Century THEREFORE, God's Truth IS _________.
    Most of his work is based in complementarity which I DO NOT see in Genesis 2. I see similarity. But what do I know? I love and advocate for LGBT people, know Greek food better that the language and have more Jewish friends and have eaten more knishes in my youth on NYC street than I know words THEREFORE, I am insignificant to Mr. Gagnon.
    The conservative church uses his tome as the go-to book to keep the LGBT community in chains. Now, in cahoots with RHN, he has found a new and more vitriolic place to make his last stand.

    1. Thanks Kathy! I saw your coverage of that horrible conference last fall; I would not have been able to sit through that.

      Yes, I agree with your characterization of his methodology. He doesn't just rely on his own interpretation of the Bible at large (which he seems to treat as a unified volume from Genesis to Revelation) but also upon pseudo-scientific "studies" that support his conclusions. He would be disreputable because of the latter alone, but the former leaves much to be criticized as well.

  5. I just found this blog and thank you for the much needed resources to answer Dr. Gagnon's 'misuse' of Dr. Hubbard''s book. One point though, I hope to hear your thoughts on. You pointed out that

    "Put another way, if God has been creating gay people for thousands of years, how can it be considered some aberrant, perverse deviation?"

    The standard traditionalist answer will be that this is because of the Fall and we all live in a state that needs redemption. I have been asked this question by my pastor. However, my response that homosexuality really is different from inborn tendency for, say, alcoholism, just never seem to satisfy. A circular argument then ensue where the authority of the Bible gets thrown in... I think you know the drill. I hope that you would help offer a more scholarly answer than I could afford. Thanks again.

    1. Thanks Peter!
      I would say it all comes down to the very old divisions between modernists and fundamentalists; the latter have, since the advent of modern science, rejected it and simultaneously developed this (relatively new) doctrine of Biblical infallibility. So of course pointing out that all major medical, scientific, and psychiatric professional organizations consider same-sex attraction a normative and in no way harmful biological condition gives them no pause, since they often reject the authority of those institutions to begin with. They likewise reject all modern Biblical criticism and scholarship in favor of said infallibility doctrine, which few if any mainstream scholars (even many evangelical ones!) endorse. So to me, the main sticking point is how your denomination treats the Bible and modern science; mainline Protestant denominations embrace Biblical/Higher criticism and science, but it sounds like your pastor may not belong to one of these.
      Anyway, those are my thoughts, such as they are. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Enlightening post even all these years later.

    Funny, even with all his incessant haranguing and what seems like endless writing (I picture Gagnon scribbling away like mad in the corner of a room til the wee hours), Gagnon still was unable to stop his denomination (PCUSA) from having full inclusion of gays. I bet that was a big slap in the face.

    *tell me Gagnon isn't behind me? :O*