The rise of gay people as a recognizable group is one of the most defining features of contemporary times. Historically-speaking, gays and lesbians emerged onto the social battlefield overnight. Go back 150 years, and they didn’t even exist as a recognizable category. Now? The LGBTQQIP2SAA umbrella includes not only gays and lesbians but also those who are bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, pansexual, of two spirits, asexual, and allies.
In the blink of an eye, these hitherto unknown people groups appeared on the pages of history like splotches of invisible ink. They were always there. So why didn’t we see them before? Why are they visible now?
Standing in the Limelight
Kids with ADHD don’t stand out in PE. Everyone’s running around like a chicken with its head cut off anyway. So there’s not much of a difference.
But take those same kids and put them in their homeroom, and the one with ADHD stands out in a heartbeat. He’s the one doing kangaroo hops to and from the pencil sharpener with the teacher barking at him to sit still and be quiet the whole time. He stands out because the teacher forces the other kids to sit quietly — and they comply because they can, but the kid with ADHD just can’t.
Two hundred years ago, gay people didn’t stand out too much either. The practice of “sodomy” was certainly forbidden, but “being gay” didn’t exist as a recognizable concept. There wasn’t even a name for it yet.
But over the course of the past century and a half, such profound shifts have taken place in the relational atmosphere of Western culture that LGBT+ people just can’t blend in anymore. Hiding is no longer an option.
A Look at Same-Sex Affection
It might sound counterintuitive to say that gay people could “blend in” more easily a couple centuries ago, as we’ve been trained to assume that societies of the past were hyper-homophobic. On a sexual level, this might be true. But in every other way, it’s completely false.
For example, Westerners often balk at the displays of same-sex affection between friends in Asian countries, not realizing that up until recently such behavior was perfectly normal in the West. During my stay in South Korea, it was not uncommon to see grown businessmen holding each other’s hands, strolling home after work. Female friends wrapping arms around each other like an American couple sitting absentmindedly in church. Teenage boys talking about how they “slept together” last night, meaning that they decided to share the same bed and nothing more.
Even my own good friend in South Korea held my hand or put her arm around my waist whenever we got together. To the average Korean local, we looked completely normal. But to the average American, we’d look romantic. As an adult, I’ve never been able to hold a girl’s hand in America without everyone assuming that I’m gay, whether I wanted to out myself or not.
But it wasn’t too long ago that Americans displayed same-sex affection as freely as any east-Asian does today, regardless of sexual orientation. Take a look at some of these photos compiled by The Art of Manliness (there’s like a hundred more so check out the link if you’re interested):
Touching While Gay—Or Straight
All of these men engaged in physically affectionate behavior with each other at a time in history when sexual activity with the same-sex was an “abomination.” Yet despite the overwhelming stigma associated with homosexual sex, the type of intimacy pictured was actually common!
Somewhere along the line something robbed us of our ability to show affection in the West. Platonic intimacy, once considered a normal and even healthy part of same-sex friendship, now carries a stigma that shackles our interactions. I can’t even remember the last time I saw a pair of American friends, male or female, who felt comfortable enough to hold each other’s hands.
And lest you think I’m exaggerating, I can tell you from personal experience that I’ve had Christians confront me for something as mundane as resting my hand in the lap of another woman. As if this alone were enough to catch me red-handed.
Now consider what this means for the gay and lesbian. Effectively, in the span of a century, we’ve managed to redefine homosexual behavior. No longer is having sex forbidden. Just affectionately touching the same-sex is off the table.
So in this kind of environment, of course gay people would become more visible. We’re doing kangaroo hops in homeroom while the rest of the class sits forcibly quiet. It might be easy for heterosexuals to rein in their affection and keep their “personal boundaries.” But it’s hardly healthy. And for a gay person, it’s painful.
The Sexualization of Physical Affection
At this point, it’s tempting to adopt a narrative that goes something like this: It’s the gays’ fault that Western culture has become so uncomfortable with same-sex affection. If they hadn’t gotten so loud-mouthed about their rights, nobody would’ve associated same-sex physical affection with homosexuality in the first place.
But nothing could be farther from the truth.
Far from being the fault of gays and lesbians, our inability to display affection is a mark of the sexual conquest of American culture. A war begun in the name of progress and modernization that ultimately ravaged all the old ways of making meaningful connections. So barren is the landscape that even fathers have become uncomfortable showing affection to their own daughters.
When you reach a point where even parents begin to question the role of physical affection with their own children, then something bigger than the “gay agenda” is up.
Everybody’s Loss, LGBT+ or Not
Over the past generation, we’ve seen a hollowing out of community until all but sex and marriage have completely disappeared from most relational priorities. Even marriage is hardly recognizable as an institution.
According to one study, over 70 percent of Americans are lonely, and according to another, at least 50 percent of Americans don’t know the name of their next-door neighbor. People feverishly maintain battalions of social media followers yet remain completely disconnected from the people around them.
Unless, of course, they’ve got someone to have sex with.
Consider what this means for the LGBTQ+ community. We’ve created a society where the only reason to have a meaningful and physically affectionate relationship with another person is if you’re romantically involved. This means that just visibly caring for someone is enough to out you, even if you aren’t having sex. If that’s the measuring stick, then of course gay visibility would skyrocket.
And it’s even worse if you’re a Christian in the current evangelical climate, where the only reason to have a meaningful and physically affectionate relationship with another person is if you’re romantically involved with the opposite sex. Think about it. We’ve literally created a world without love for gay and lesbian believers. And we wonder why the gay community has become so outspoken?
Lest you think that gay people bear the brunt of it, consider the implications for just about anyone. We’ve gained sexual liberation at the cost of becoming more relationally repressed than ever before in the history of the world. Just what kind of freedom do we actually have when the fear of sex looms over everything? We’ve not been liberated at all. We’ve been conquered.
Restoring Same-Sex Affection
Now here’s one thing that I’m not saying. I’m not saying that gay people weren’t terribly mistreated in the past. We were, and we are.
Instead, I’m saying that we haven’t actually made the strides toward freedom and acceptance that we think we’ve made. Homophobia has actually become more pervasive and all-encompassing today because the definition of what constitutes homosexual behavior has expanded beyond the rational. In the past, stigmatizing homosexual sex literally meant that you couldn’t have sex. Today, it means a whole host of things.
I’m saying that gays and lesbians are more visible today because we’ve sexualized relational behavior. We’ve redefined sexual interaction.
And it’s destroying our relationships.
For myself, as a celibate lesbian in the evangelical church, I miss holding the hand of my friend in Korea. I miss the normalcy afforded to me by a culture that embraces same-sex affection. I miss blending in. Resting my hand in the lap of another girl without the constant fear of gossip that may result.
I miss platonic affection.
Thoughts for Discussion…
In my next post, I want to talk about the responsibility of the church to step into this cultural moment. It’s time to change. Or maybe we just need to unchange a few things. In the meantime, what are your thoughts about physical affection? Are you someone whose love language is physical touch? Has anyone ever made you feel uncomfortable because you showed physical affection to somebody else?
As a random side note, it seems like girls at least can get away with quick innocent touches without people shouting “gay” every time. But guys don’t seem to have that same luxury. Do you think the rules are different for men than they are for women? Why or why not?