I live in California, where the issue of whether or not gay and lesbian couples should have the right to marry is making its way through the court system. As a marriage and family therapist and a student of psychoanalytic thinking, I experience that field of inquiry as a useful lens through which to view the world. Psychoanalytic psychology is a tool that helps me make sense of why the gay marriage issue is so fiercely debated and so emotionally laden. I think that psychoanalytic clinicians have generally done a poor job of sharing what we know about human sexuality in general and about gay marriage in particular. To that end, I want to offer some thoughts for consideration.
We cannot begin to understand human sexuality without knowing something about the unconscious mind. People in other Western countries commonly chuckle over how anxious Americans get about sex and sexuality. My guess is that we similarly get anxious when someone suggests we have an unconscious mind. That is to say, we do not want to be reminded that our feelings, thoughts, and actions are profoundly and constantly influenced by all the uncivilized, wild, aggressive, and passionate contents of our unconscious minds. As Americans we like to think we can and should control everything. No matter how much we might want that, none of us can control our own unconscious mind.
Among the potential contents of everyone’s unconscious mind is the desire to have sex with just about anyone or anything, starting with our own parents when we are infants. Perhaps the greatest step ever toward civilizing human beings was the evolutionary development of a universal taboo against letting those incestuous desires be acted upon. Children cannot — must not — have sex with their parents or immediate family members. When they do, our civilization is imperiled. The offices of psychotherapists are filled with patients, sometimes horribly wounded, who ended up as either victims or perpetrators of sexual abuse.
This universal taboo against incest ensures that most of us learn to repress incestuous desires as we make our way through the proverbial Oedipus Complex. But that repression only pushes the desires for forbidden sexual objects out of our awareness; it does not destroy them. They can remain active in our dreams and unconscious fantasies, occasionally poking through the repression barrier in a disturbing if not scary way. That doesn’t make us immoral; it means we are human beings. A frequent task of the psychoanalytic therapy patient is to become curious about the unconscious, not guilty for its contents.
Many people would like to think that sexual object choice is something we are in control over, and that men should choose women to love, and women should choose men. The fact of the matter, however, is that sexual object choice is always made by the unconscious mind. We cannot consciously decide to fall in love with anyone. We are helpless to stop it when the unconscious mind declares that it will happen to us. As the Jungians might see it, we are “gonners” when Cupid shoots his arrow.
Whether we remain bisexual (we all start out that way in infancy) or come to a point of choosing only the opposite sex, or choosing only the same sex, is a fascinating and mysterious topic. My own conviction about that decision is that sexual object choice is largely determined as a result of various and ongoing interactions with the parents in early childhood, and that whatever choice is made is highly adaptive to the individuals involved, and not something that could be resolved with a different outcome. Sexual object choice is neither determined nor controllable by the conscious mind, and like any other aspect of nature, there is considerable variability from individual to individual.
The battle over accepting gay marriage is rooted in misogyny, the hatred of women by men. Most men do not get up in the morning and think to themselves, “How can I go show my hatred of women today?” It is generally not a conscious thought. And yet there persists a pervasive sense among many people that the worst thing a man can do is to be feminine. For example, a traditional morning prayer for Jewish men declares gratitude to God for not having been born a woman. To be called a “sissy” is a cruel taunt.
The problem starts with the universal experiences of children feeling guilty for wanting the opposite sex parent. A boy’s fear is that his parents will be so upset about these forbidden wishes to have mommy all to himself and to get rid of daddy, and for masturbating, that daddy will cut off his son’s penis. Castration would make him look like a girl, and the boy then fears becoming like a girl in other ways. So castration fear is a huge factor in childhood. Interestingly, fear of castration actually never disappears as a male concern. Just listen to the conversation of men in a locker room, if you are skeptical. Men in particular demonstrate continual fear of not measuring up, of being cut off on the highway, of losing it in a conflict, etc. You don’t need to be a marriage and family therapist to make the connection to their unconscious and persistent fears of castration, and therefore of having to be like a woman.
How frightening, then, for straight men to have to hear about, see, and think about men who seek to be loved by men! If it could be true for gay men that they are attracted to gay men and willing to do something about it, then the fear arises that even a man who knows himself to be straight might slip into awareness of his own barely hidden sexual desire for a forbidden object: another man. And then what might happen?? To have to feel such anxiety is quite disturbing, and leads to the urges to attack the Other for causing — simply by existing — unwanted feelings. Such troubled people then feel justified in making life miserable for the people whose existence triggers their own poorly understood internal sexual conflicts. The result is hatred of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered (GLBT).
The problem is that virtually every man — gay or straight — sometimes has unconscious fantasies of having sex with another man. It feels threatening to some straight men to know that gay men exist, because what if the repression fails in their own minds, and they discover that male-to-male sex actually can be exciting and arousing? Then the unconscious worry becomes that the feared castration might actually come to pass!! How important it becomes, then, to demonize gays and gay sex, and thereby to protect straight men from their worst unconscious fears about themselves.
Much has been written, thank goodness, about the need for compassion for sexual minorities. At least we have made a start in the direction of calling for justice and freedom and respect for everyone’s sexual identity and expression. At the same time, I think there has been a dearth of focus on and compassion for the straight people whose fears of their own sexuality underlie the persecution of the GLBT world. The fastest way to put a halt to discrimination, harassment, cruelty, and subjegation of sexual minorities would be to provide psychoanalysis for the straight people who are trapped in a world where they can’t figure out what belongs to whom in fantasies, what is real and what is fantasy, and ultimately what is right and what is wrong about living together in society. The key to creating a safer, saner, and kinder world in terms of sexuality issues is to insist that heterosexuals take responsibility for discovering and understanding how they are projecting their own unconscious issues. We need a massive educational effort for straight America, coupled with much greater access to psychoanalytic treatment in therapy.
The immediate concern that is not being addressed at all effectively is: What can be done to reduce the terror that lies behind the homophobia in straight America, and which is causing enormous suffering among GLBTs? For starters, it would help if we could all grow up and acknowledge that there is such a thing as an unconscious mind, and that we do not need to fear that its contents will spring into action just because we come to know they exist. There is a difference between quite naturally having wild and crazy fantasies, and actually acting them out. Perhaps we could do a better job of reassuring straight men that in all likelihood, they will be able to keep their penises, so they can stop worrying so much about what gay men do with theirs.
Perhaps the greatest source of conflict and violence in the world is the fear of people who are different from ourselves. It is easy to see why one solution to minimize conflict is to insist on conformity. So the school board declares that all students must wear uniforms. The traffic laws decree that we must all stop at red lights. We all must start at the end of the line at the supermarket when we are ready to check out our purchases. These expectations of conformity generally help keep our society functioning smoothly.
Problems arise, of course, when one person’s longing for conformity for the sake of minimizing conflict interferes with another person’s need for departure from conformity, for the sake of truth and personal integrity. This is one way of thinking about the controversy over gay marriage. Because of the unconscious but powerful fear of castration, and because of the fear of losing one’s repression of wild unconscious fantasies, many people are terribly anxious around the topic of gay sexuality and therefore gay relationships. Their solution is to want to stamp out differences, and to declare that we must all be the same, in a futile if understandable effort to not have to deal with their own unconscious fantasies. But all the declaring in the world does not change reality.
Unfortunately many religious organizations try to finesse the need for dealing with such difficult collisions of priorities by announcing that someone’s rigid and traditional way of understanding holy scriptures trumps actually thinking about them. “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it” becomes acceptable. Imposing conformity in the service of fear and ignorance triumphs over the need to have space to think about complexity and projections and denial. We are all less secure, less honest, and more aggressive when we let that happen.
Legitimizing gay marriage is about putting the brakes on the fear and ignorance that has created homophobia. It is about calling on rational folks to face up to their own struggles with their own unconscious minds, and to stop looking for scapegoats in the LGBT world. Gay marriage is about affirming that no one group in our culture can be singled out as being less deserving of respect just because their existence triggers unconscious guilt and fear in the majority.
The Bible recommends that unruly children be stoned to death for their misbehavior, but I have yet to see that recommended in a parenting self-help book. Yet many people have no problem citing Bible passages nearby in the Old Testament as evidence that the God in whose creation each life emerges somehow hates the part of his creation that is homosexual.
Historically there have been similar political struggles between conformists and nonconformists: those adhering to the tradition of holding slaves vs. those wanting all people to be free; those conforming to the notion that women are not capable of participating in government vs. those who argued for women’s suffrage and property rights; those conforming to laws prohibiting marriage between races vs. those who saw no reason to uphold the ban on interracial marriage. The battle over gay marriage today is largely waged between those who have insecurities and ignorance about their own sexuality vs. those who have explored the subject and see plenty of room for diversity.
I rarely come across a gay or lesbian person who has not spent a respectable amount of time in therapy, learning about projections and denial and the unconscious. It sometimes appears as if the empowered sexual majority feels less compunction than the sexually marginalized to actually learn about human sexuality, and especially about the unconscious mind. My fantasy would be to insist that those who speak out on the subject of gay marriage first agree to a year in personal psychotherapy or psychoanalysis to begin to understand their own defenses, such as projection and denial.
The bottom line for me is that much of heterosexual America needs our compassion and support as a first step toward their rehabilitation. For too long they have been allowed to function in ignorance and fear of human sexuality, with the result being terrible treatment of their fellow humans who happen to be GLBT. The sexual majority deserves a happier psychological reality than that. If and when as a nation we take it up as a priority to improve our sexuality education and access to psychotherapy, we may see objections to gay marriage fall away into irrelevance. It’s about time.
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