Framing the Problem

Sandalstraps (Chris) is a former minister, a stay-at-home Dad, a freelance writer, an armchair philosopher and amateur theologian turned graduate student in religion (who wears sandals in all kinds of weather). You can read his irregular musings at Sandalstrap’s Sanctuary.

In ethics as in public discourse, the way that a problem is framed goes a long way toward determining how that problem will be defined, and eventually “solved.” I thought of that simple truth reading two earth-shattering sentences by Marquette ethics professor Daniel C. Maguire.

As a lay theologian, a blogger, and a student of religion and ethics, I’ve written a great deal on sexual ethics, especially as relates to homosexuality (most notably here and here. But in my writing, and in my teaching, I haven’t paid sufficient attention to how I’ve framed the “problem.” That’s a sin that, after reading these two sentences, I vow to never commit again:

Homosexuality is not a problem: heterosexism is a problem, and not just for sexual minorities. To think of homosexuality as “problem” – which even persons of liberal bent can do – is a distraction and a surrender to the unjust and poisonous prejudice of heterosexism

With those two sentences, which open his introduction to the book Heterosexism in Contemporary World Religion: Problem and Prospect, Maguire not only helps supply those of us who wish to be allies of the marginalized and oppressed with a proper frame for a serious moral problem, he also, to put it bluntly, calls me and other well-intentioned but clumsy liberals out for not paying sufficient attention to our privilege.

Homosexuality is not a “problem.” Heterosexism is a problem. Homophobia is a problem. This is no less true than any other situation of oppressive fear and hatred. Nazi Germany, despite the best efforts of theologians and politicians alike to frame it as such, did not have “Jewish problem.” Jews weren’t the problem, anti-Semitism was. Antebellum and Jim Crow America, as well as apartheid South Africa, did not have a “race” problem. Race (the audacity of black- and brown-skinned people to continue to exist and to continue to affirm their own innate value) was not the problem, racism was. Similarly, for the bulk of world-history, despite the persistent oppression of women characteristic of hegemonic patriarchy, gender is not a problem; sexism  is.

Yet in public discourse, in both religious and political settings, the problem of heterosexism is framed as a problem of homosexuality, as though the problem began with the existence of people who are naturally attracted to members of the same gender, instead of with the violent hatred directed at them by heterosexists and homophobes. We who would be allies, then, must follow Daniel C. Maguire’s lead here, and help change the frame. The problem is not that GLBT community exists. The problem is that members of that community are subject to fear, hatred, and oppression, to social, systemic, and physical violence.

Heterosexism, not homosexuality, is the problem.

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