Thursday, 23 May 2013

As for Me and My House

On Disclosing Religion, Sexuality, Psychology

A few weeks ago I was speaking with a friend who mentioned that she and her fellow Catholics sometimes spoke of "coming out as Christian," confirming that I'm not the only one who has noticed a similarity between the kinds of stories people tell as Christians (which in Protestant circles, at any rate, are called "testimonies") and the kinds of stories people tell as LGTBQ folk. But I'm forced to wonder, first, why the comparison seems apt and, second, if it really is all that apt after all.

One of the things I didn't like about Judith Butler's Giving an Account of Oneself is that it lacked examples which might make her subject clearer (and with Butler, clarity is often in peril). Giving an Account of Oneself is about the vexations one encounters when narrating one's own account. For instance, I cannot narrate my exposure in part because my narration would expose me in new ways, and were I to narrate that exposure, I would yet again be exposed in a new way. I remain partially opaque to myself and cannot narrate those parts I cannot see. Any account I give is shaped by my audience and by certain norms that my context determines without my consent. I think it's clear that Giving an Account takes coming-out narratives as a typical species, as it were, but Butler never explicitly states what kinds of accounts she is describing.

In trying to find examples of account-giving, I discovered that Butler's discussion seemed to apply equally well to the fumbling accounts I've had to give to non-Christians of my own Christianity (and, for that matter, of the fumbling accounts I've had to give to Christians of my uncertainties, unorthodoxies, or heresies). The vexations are appallingly similar: the sort of self-description you're giving doesn't fit in with your context's expectations of a self-account, and the kinds of questions that your audience has asked you don't set up very good answers, and giving the account changes the very situation you're trying to describe, and anyway you don't perfectly know why you feel what you feel or believe what you believe. In this way, it makes some sense to say that you can "come out as Christian."

There are other reasons that the comparison seems to hold: religion and sexuality* are often invisible and therefore secret until you choose to self-disclose; religion and sexuality can shape your decisions in important ways; in many cases people can be both apprehensive and celebratory when describing their religion or their sexuality.

But I worry that Christians (or straight ones, anyway) maybe ought to avoid using the language of "coming out" to describe their own religious self-expression. It seems to me like a form of appropriation, and a darkly ironic one at that: certain Christian reactions to homosexuality have been and still are one of the reasons that coming out as queer can be so dangerous. To take a phrase from queer culture that is inscribed with Christian oppression of homosexuality and then use it to describe a certain Christian identity could be very disrespectful, even if you are a Christian that supports LGTBQ identities whole-heartedly. And then there's the fact that Christians are not exposed like LGTBQ people are exposed; whatever the squawking you hear, there is no systemic persecution of Christians on par with that of LGTBQ people (or, for that matter, atheists).

Of course, it isn't hard to find accounts which put the two together: if the accounts I've read are any indication, queer Christians are asked to account for themselves as Christian and as queer simultaneously or near-simultaneously.

The reason I'm interested in comparing the testimony and coming-out genres is that another comparison is suddenly relevant to me: I have frequently been called on to give an account of my depression. It is beset with the same vexations that Butler has described. While the average person's acceptance of mental illness is improving, there is still the threat of stigma or potentially damaging incomprehension. (That said, I'm sure that in academia disclosing my psychology would be somewhat more successful than disclosing my religion.) A major difference is that I do not have much cause to celebrate my depression, nor do I have  much desire to make depression a part of my identity (though I think there are good reasons for saying that it is part of my identity nonetheless).

Last time I posted I spoke of genera and species, and I think that sort of taxonomy might be helpful here: "coming out story" is a species of the genus "account." I guess I wish there was a better, more specific, and more popular synonym for "account."

*Also, asexualty and irreligion.


Iota said...

Just dropped by and I thought I'd offer some thoughts, for all it's worth -haven't read Butler]:

- You might want to look into disability theory, specifically dealing with disabilities that are semi-invisible, allowing disabled persons to "pass" as able-bodied (at least in some contexts).

(This may or may not be a good idea, depending on your attitude towards disabilities and, consequently, possible reaction to the connections you could make between disability and depression)

- I'd suspect that "coming out" could be seen as a more general term for disclosing those parts of your (broadly understood) identity that don't sit well with the potential audience and that you could omit, at a cost. Given I live somewhere else, I have no clue to what extent it's still widely associated with LGBT culture in Canada.

The process of risky self-disclosure, however you call it, exists, potentially, on many different planes. Your religion, sexual history (including but not limited to orientation), race, health, political opinions, social standing and so on - all, in certain context, might put you in disclosure-danger.

Christian H said...

Disability theory is something I've been interested in for a while now, and to be honest, have not really spent much time reading. My only touchstone is Alice Dreger's One of Us; Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal, which isn't really disability theory and is more like "anatomy theory," to coin a nonce-word.

I'm quite used to the idea that depression is an invisible disability, but I'm not yet sure whether I think it's an accurate description of what depression has been like for me.

Iota said...

> but I'm not yet sure whether I think it's an accurate description of what depression has been like for me.

The reason I suggested exploring disability theory (maybe even not mainly through academic theory but simply through stuff disabled people write about themselves directly) is not so much to provide a description as to look at some processes, questions and so on.

Being disabled but almost certainly NOT depressed I suspect some of the issues tackled (esp. around the intersection of performance / identity, image, perception by others / anxiety) might be interesting for you.

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