Hidden Perspectives

Bringing the Bible Out of the Closet

“Define Me” – A post by Student Blogger Maddy Oakes

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Singer songwriter Ryan Amador recently teamed up with Jo Lampert and produced the single ‘Define Me’, which the pair performed at the True Colors LGBT Youth Conference on March 22, 2013. The music video really got me thinking…

We are constantly defining things, putting labels on people. But sometimes these restrictive labels make things problematic for us; although non gendered terms have been introduced they remain to be far from widely recognised and the English language does not have a collectively recognised gender neutral singular pronoun. Thus our language can sometimes fail us if we are unable to label someone as either male or female.

This led me to think about the social construction of gender and sexuality. But more specifically sexuality.

In 1986 homosexuality was removed from the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). However, scientists and studies have continued to search for a ‘cause’, illustrating a refusal to accept that sexuality/sexual desire are social constructs.

I myself am a constructionist and very much believe that the meaning of a sexual act is dependent solely on the cultural and historical context in which it occurs. Thus human sexuality is expressed in many diverse forms across various cultures and time periods. So a sex act in one geographical location or time period which we might classify as homosexual might in a different geographical location or time period be classified as heterosexual.

Consider for instance the work of anthropologist Gilbert Herdt (author of Sambia Sexual Culture, 1999) who studied the Melanesian tribe of New Guinea. In his study Herdt observed that part of the tribe’s belief about masculinity is that it can be transmitted by insemination of semen to a young boy (either anally or orally) by an older male. (This ancient custom/rite of passage springs from the religious belief which holds semen to be an essential carrier of masculine energy; so young boys have to accumulate large quantities of sperm in order to be become men). In Western society the Melanseian tribe’s ritualised sex acts involved in a boys initiation to manhood could be perceived as a homosexual act. But in my (constructionist) opinion this is wrong because the tribe themselves would not ascribe the act as homosexual (in fact to impose a Western meaning would be ethnocentric).

I suppose Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality (1981) really demonstrates the social construction of sexuality: Foucault showed how what we today define as heterosexuality has varied over time and from culture to culture. But more importantly (in my opinion) Foucault states that if sexual customs/acts in ancient societies resemble what we today consider as heterosexual or homosexual we cannot blindly attribute these terms to the ancient practices. Foucault looks to the ancient Greeks, for example, he states that they did not have terms/concepts that correspond to the contemporary Western binary of heterosexual and homosexual, therefore we cannot blindly parallel the modern terminology to the ancient context.

Now applying this to the Bible, in my opinion there is no clear cut binary between heterosexuality and homosexuality in the Hebrew Bible. (It’s interesting that gender in the Hebrew Bible is established by penetration, for instance the Hebrew term n∂qēbā which translates as female literally means ‘orifice bearer’). And if you agree with my constructionist view the cultural and historical context is crucial. References to same-sex activity in the Hebrew Bible originate from the ancient Israelite struggle to maintain its patriarchal society (in my opinion). So, I put it to you, can Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 be used to condemn homosexuality as constructed in Western culture today?

Finally, linking back to the video I really hope Hidden Perspectives is the start of our very own party!

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Author: Hidden Perspectives

A research project within the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) at The University of Sheffield.

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