The homosexual condition:    II. Structural attitudes

Gianfrancesco Zuanazzi
Professor of Psychology and Psychopathology
John Paul Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family,
Pontifical Lateran University, Rome

Ways of living with homosexuality

1. At the end of the preceding article we stressed that the gay "coming out" is not a uniform process for all subjects. Homosexual orientation is frequently clouded with anxiety, compromise and guilt that is related to neurosis; sometimes it is kept hidden for a long while, even for a whole lifetime; other times it is lived openly; in certain cases it absorbs a large part of life, while in others it remains something marginal; lastly, it can be consciously or unconsciously "sublimated" in various forms of activity.

Many homosexuals eventually "come out", but they do not "reveal" themselves much. They have a double life: they are homosexuals for the gay community or in homosexual meeting places, but when they return to their surroundings they want to appear "normal". However this type of underground homosexuality, so to speak, is becoming less common because of contemporary society's different attitude towards homosexuals. In its place are appearing new homosexual life-styles or, more simply, a few styles that have probably always existed but have now become more obvious. Thus many homosexuals parade their satisfaction, use unmistakable symbols, dress eccentrically and act in a markedly affected way.

A few, not without some difficulty, succeed in reconciling their orientation with a heterosexual married life. This behaviour is easier for women: they marry to have children, to get a better social position, to try a new experience, while preferring the intimacy of another female.

In years past the militancy of homosexual protest movements, which appeared throughout the world, was frequent. These groups encourage the paranoiac expressions of homosexuality (gay pride), which are all the more conspicuous the less tolerant the social milieu. In some extremist fringes of feminism, between the end of the '70s and the beginning of the '80s, homosexuality was both the symbol and the expression of female protest, the achievement of autonomy, freedom and emancipation. Now there is frequent talk of "third generation" gays, after the silent generation and that of the escape from the ghetto: a profoundly different generation from the preceding ones and which has experienced neither social exclusion nor the militancy of organized movements. These new gays, unburdened by the feeling of guilt, present themselves as the generation of pleasure and freedom, But despite the affected talk and facile ideologies, the feeling of being an outsider always remains for the homosexual, even when this feeling is denied or flaunted.

Finally, every homosexual more or less consciously shares a now centuries-old mythology, which, unlike the mythology of heterosexual love, is stamped with the seal of sterility. For example, I mention the myth of the super-male, proud and unconventional, glorified by Jean Genet; the myth of the angel, described in the youthful works of Andre Gide ("to love with the soul a soul that loves you the same way") and in the autobiographical writings of Julien Green ("a terrifying idea of purity forms within me"); the myth of eternal youth and eternal beauty, whose unsurpassed example is Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. We could go on, mentioning the myths of Narcissus and the androgyne, and we would always find something unreal and artificial at their base. Being unable to accept what is obvious to all, homosexuals create another universe, another truth (Eck).


Attempts to find love

2. The homosexual condition is difficult, sometimes tragic, and not only because of the obstacles it can still encounter in society and the injustices of which it can be the victim, but also because of its narcissistic quality. This quality is expressed in the continual attempts at "self-recovery" and in searching for the "better self" or the "missing self" in another person. The homosexual approach is really one of identification and possession. According to Miller, it is easier for two homosexuals to regard each other as narcissistic extensions of themselves than to be involved in a mutual exchange. Socarides says without hesitation that in a homosexual relationship each partner plays his role, ignoring the complementarity of a sexual union, as if the act were consummated in "splendid isolation" from the other individual, simply as a stratagem for portraying a one-sided emotional conflict. Every homosexual encounter is primarily concerned with disarming the partner by means of seduction, prayer, power, prestige, effeminacy or masculinity, in order to derive satisfaction then from the loser.

Homosexual, like heterosexual, relationships exhibit forms of uplifting tenderness or mere genital expression, but whatever the approach, it always seems that the subjects use each other to fulfil themselves and, at the same time, to defend themselves from one another in a reciprocal way. Even if at the present time, dominated by the fear of AIDS, a couple's relations are not exceptional, as a rule they are unstable, unfaithful, strewn with jealousy and bitterness, marked by possessive love and demands that will never be satisfied. Very often homosexual relationships do not bind the two parties, but reveal that typical self-isolation which is an expression of complete autoerotism. The absence of complementarity, which stems from the radical difference between masculine and feminine identification, prevents the genuine dynamic of a couple. "There is always something false", Marcel Eck notes, "and deeply painful in these loves which cannot experience reciprocity". The problem of being, the title of a work by Jean Cocteau, who wrote from direct experience, is precisely the problem of being together.

Hans Giese rightly stresses that the "foreground" of the homosexual syndrome comes from "clinging to the self". The move towards the other is not completed, while the move towards one's own sex is shorter, less costly, simpler; but, since one fears the risk of failure, to take this step involves a new risk, that of egotism. Bergler also maintains that the dominant note is always emotional detachment from the other and the focusing of interest on mere sexual gratification. Kardiner notes that the majority of these experiences are due to casual encounters and are "one-night stands", i.e., the essential element is the value the experience has for the imagination and not the lasting human relationship. This easily leads to the desire for arousal for its own sake, to repetition and finally to anonymity, the discovery of the other not being worth the effort. Then the body is truly reduced to something corporeal: Pier Paolo Pasolini's posthumous work Petrolio exemplifies this eventuality as amply as it does monotonously. In short, for the homosexual there is the proximate danger of failing into such anonymous, repetitive and ever more demanding sexual behaviour that it becomes a kind of addiction. But this promiscuity or "tricking", which is so frequent in the gay world, is sometimes praised by those involved as the best of relationships.

In the female world, too, love for "one's own kind" does not solve the problem of loneliness which lies at the heart of all human existence. Narcissism remains the main, fundamental component, so that the relationship corresponds to a mirror image, to a "relationship with oneself". Simone de Beauvoir notes that the homosexual woman cherishes her lover as an extension of herself; she sees a reflection of herself; she discovers herself in mirror-like activity and achieves her own re-creation through the other. But the "miracle of the mirror" easily compromises the proper relationship between intimacy and distance that governs life as a couple. The two parties try to do everything together, to share every activity and social contact, to associate with the same friends. Agreements about space and property are often non-existent: each of the two lesbians uses the other's drawers, clothes and objects; sometimes there is not even a distinction between personal and common money. The couple thus suffers from "turf wars" and the relationship becomes stormy and agonizing (even if it is longer lasting than a male homosexual couple). Communication itself is complicated by the fact that each person claims to know the needs of the other and behaves in such a way as to satisfy those imagined needs. Under the guise of unconditional devotion, which mimics the mother-daughter relationship, there lurks an unrestrained individualism: the lover wants exclusive and unconditional possession of the beloved and this demand eventually becomes unbearable, while, on the other hand, a definitive separation is not acceptable. It is basically the same phenomenon that results from the romantic conception of love, in which the lovers isolate themselves from the world and long to overcome their individual existence in a utopian unity.

Actually, the male or female homosexual is confined to a narcissism a deux, even if a life a deux can give one the illusion of being in the presence of a couple. In the opinion of van de Spijker, an author certainly not hostile to homosexuality, only in exceptional cases does even a homophile friendship reach "that depth permitted by a heterophile relationship", although it is actively sought, and "responsibility for that can be ascribed not only to certain social aspects but also to the subjective disposition of the homotropic person". In a summary remark, which perhaps betrays too one-sided at approach, Oswald Schwarz concludes his research by saying: "The I does not know any Thou". With Boss, however, we must admit that the homosexual has a yearning for love, which unfortunately is destined to be shattered in a fragmentary, reifying erotic relationship. The longing for a partner and for fertility is a sign of this desire. We regard as less significant the exuberant expressions of tenderness on the part of many homosexuals, expressions whose exaggeration raises the suspicion of overcompensation for destructive impulses.

The emphasis on a strong narcissistic component does not rule out other characteristics, even of high moral value, and is not meant to offer a univocal description of a reality which in fact is quite varied.


Is change possible?

3. At the beginning of our discussion, I stated that true homosexuality is a "condition of existence", a "way-of-being-in-the-world" that is a person's lot. In this sense we can say that homosexuality is "natural" for the person who experiences it. St Thomas also says this with his usual lucid brevity: "something which is contrary to the specific nature becomes accidentally natural to this individual" (Sum. Theol. I-II, q. 31, a. 7), which does not mean that it is a "normal" condition.

Homosexuality is really a love that deviates from the norm . This means not only the so-called statistical norm (recent surveys taken in the USA and France put the number of the exclusively homosexual at about 1.1 to 1.4 per cent of the adult male population), but also the value norm of sexual instinct, which expresses the dialogical dimension of the person in the difference and reciprocity of the sexes (and the man-woman dialectic, with its related symbol system, is not a mere product of human history but is based on anthropological presuppositions). The observation that the exclusion of the reproductive end and the pursuit of pleasure as an end in itself are widely shared by many heterosexual forms of behaviour does not invalidate the assertion just made, but indicates, if anything, that these forms of behaviour should also be included among the "anomalies".

To avoid any misunderstanding and in accord with what was just written, we state that a deviation from the sexual norm can coexist with perfect mental functioning. In particular, homosexuality should not be regarded as an illness per se, since it is not a "process" that overtakes the subject at a given moment in his history, subverting his equilibrium, but an abnormal variant of sexual orientation (a neurosis however can complicate homosexuality, whenever the latter is experienced in a conflictual way or has compulsive features). The term perversion should also be rejected for its pejorative connotation; perversity exists at most when an aversion to social norms appears and transgression is the arousing element of the behaviour.

At this point a question naturally arises: is it possible to change one's orientation from homosexual to heterosexual? And prior to that: is such an effort appropriate?

Obviously, wherever there is suffering due to serious neurotic elements or to lack of acceptance of one's state, "therapeutic" treatment is required and in fact is often requested. As a rule, however, most homosexual subjects do not want to change their condition and turn to the psychologist or psychiatrist only when the homosexuality is ego-dystonic, that is, incompatible with their self-esteem or self-concept. Even then they usually do not ask for a change of sexual feelings but only for an end to the discomfort. On the other hand, gay militancy will hear no talk of "therapy", maintaining that homosexuality is "normal". So in these cases the specialist is asked to "put the subject in tune with himself", a useful task to be sure, but not free from disadvantages whenever it is done in a simplistic way. There is actually the risk, not always given sufficient consideration, of reinforcing the abnormal tendency and of removing all qualms, thus leading to new stormy situations. A particular problem is posed by the "victims" of homosexual unions which are short-lived due to the partner's instability, resulting in suspicion, fear, rivalry and jealousy in an emotional crescendo that can reach the point of crime; or disappointment, discomfort and depression to the point of suicide.

Opinion is rather divided regarding the change of sexual orientation. Pessimism reigns in general. Certainly, hormonal preparations are useless; actually they aggravate the situation; positive but short-term results have been obtained with aversion techniques; the various psychotherapies are in themselves chancy. Recently G. van den Aardweg, who interprets homosexuality as a neurosis and attributes its origin to an inferiority complex of the Adlerian type, has provided many encouraging data. From my clinical experience, the sure development of a heterosexual impulse is rather rare in true homosexuality, but occurs more frequently in the weak and neurotic forms. The specialist's intervention is certainly desirable for adolescents who show signs of anxiety and do not know how properly to evaluate their condition, but the subject has to be willing to meet and be open to talking about it. It will then be possible to identity the type of homosexuality (or even rule it out), to determine the presence of neurotic elements and to decide, if need be, the beginning of psychotherapy.


Concluding remarks

4. If the change of sexual orientation is unsuccessful, both the lapse into promiscuity, as a cure for loneliness, and repression with the resulting ambiguities of behaviour must be avoided. It will always be possible to find in continence a way to maturity, by putting a conscious veto on deep-seated impulses. (Incidentally, I would mention that the veto involves taking a stand, a real examination of the inner emotional urges, while repression implies the refusal to take any of them into consideration, because they are painful or unpleasant; it does not even discuss them, but shuns them and pushes them back into the unconscious).

Certainly, the way proposed here presents considerable difficulties and is open to the danger of repeated failures, but I think it is the only way that allows one to pursue human growth. The task proves less laborious if good use is made of sublimation (without creating illusions of unpossessed abilities or encouraging non-existent vocations). A frank explanation is essential, an open discussion that can downplay the subject's personal situation, reducing sexuality to relative terms vis-a-vis the various aspects of life. Naturally, no one underestimates the homosexual's loneliness: this is the main problem for the majority of homophiles; but it depends on the subject's affective dispositions and can be resolved, once the narcissism is overcome.

Other authors, without ruling out continence, maintain that a different approach is more realistic and suggest promoting, including at the level of pastoral education, the "personalization" of homosexuality, that is, encouraging a stable homosexual union. In my opinion this second way, if in certain cases it can be taken into consideration by the psychologist as a stopgap, makes the educator an "accomplice", since he encourages an adolescent type of sexuality; moreover, it almost always proves illusory.

As a condition of life, a structural attitude, homosexuality is a state endured, not chosen. The subject however can choose the way in which he wants to live out his condition: he can sublimate his sexuality or declare it openly; he can bravely endure it or make it a weapon of protest; he can stop at the beginning of the street or become intoxicated with "transgression". At the behavioural level there is "room for freedom ", where every homosexual can develop his own life-style. This appeal to freedom and responsibility must be kept in mind in pastoral and educational work. By upholding the inevitability of a homosexual fate, one jeopardizes precisely that value of the human person which one claims to be saving.

A final observation. Without doubt, in our age even heterosexual love, when understood as passion that is confused with eroticism, not only ends up rejecting any norm but becomes normative in its turn, constituting the only justification for the creation and permanence of a bond. In addition, given the emotional investment involved, much more is expected of the partner, who - as Lehmann says - "faces the alternative of confirming or refusing the worldly, egocentric project of the other". It is precisely the triumph of romantic love, portrayed in its day by Schlegel's Lucinde and Stendhal's essay De l'amour. Now, apart from the object of erotic attraction, the forms taken by heterosexual relations often coincide with those of the homosexual relationship. Precisely this fact can at least partially explain the interest today in homosexual lifestyles and the different approach to homosexuality. I mean, following Pollack, that in an era of general liberalization of sexual mores, homosexuality is regarded as a model by a particular culture that spreads a narcissistic conception of love, offers fleeting emotional relationships, encourages, a contraceptive mentality and ultimately, evaluates sexuality according to the number of orgasms given and received.

It is hardly necessary to add that homosexuality does not diminish the value of the person. Therefore homosexual subjects have the right to everyone's respect and should be accepted without reproach, pity or humiliation ("God loves them as they are", wrote Marc Oraison). However this does not mean justifying or approving a form of behaviour that conflicts with the axiological norm. In my opinion, the unconditional justification of homosexuality which does not acknowledge its abnormal condition or would even suggest that this condition is more refined and superior to heterosexuality can be harmful to the human growth of the homosexual subject himself. Moreover, there is the risk of encouraging a greater number of abnormal sexual experiences among adolescents. In. this regard it would be useful to reread, in the light of the contemporary situation, several truly prophetic pages written 40 years ago by the sociologist Schelsky.

Between ostracizing the homosexual person and suppressing the limits between diverse expressions of sexuality, we must seek a balanced way of understanding, without prejudice or condemnation, but also without confusion or complicity.

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Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
30 April 1997, p.9


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