Wednesday, September 05, 2007

McGreevey Syndrome

New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey, the nation's first openly gay governor, lately retired from office, has risen to the defense of U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, whose on again off again resignation from office, after he had got caught in a compromising position in a men’s stall at an airport, appears to be off again.

McGreevey’s trials and tribulations began for him when, as a child, he recognized he was different from other kids. His Catholic upbringing was of no help at all: “No relief was forthcoming from my then-Catholic faith, which said the practice of homosexuality was a ‘mortal sin’ subject to damnation.”

He carefully weighed his options: “… my only options were suicide, something for which I could never find the courage, or 'closeting' my homosexuality. You decide: I'll change it, I'll fight it, I'll control it, but, simply put, I'll never accept it. You then attempt to place ‘it’ in a metaphorical closet, keep it separate from open daily life and indulge it only in dark, secret places.”

McGreevey’s decision to suppress behavior that was objectionable to his church and his society, caused shame: “The danger of this decision is the implicit shame it carries. I was convinced I was worth less than my straight peers. I was at best inauthentic, and the longer I went without amending that dishonesty, the more ashamed I felt. And the third shame, for me, was my behavior.”

But his shame was overcome by a stronger emotion: “From the time in high school when I made up my mind to behave in public as though I were straight, I nonetheless carried on sexually with men.”

Living with shame causes psychic upheavals: “How do you live with this shame? How do you accommodate your own disappointments, your own revulsion with whom you have become? You do it by splitting in two. You rescue part of yourself, the half that stands for tradition, values and America, the part that looks like the family you came from, and you walk away from the other half the way you would abandon something spoiled, something disgusting.”

Later, he ran for politics and found that being in the closet was not a hindrance: “But being in the closet uniquely assisted me in politics. From my first run for the state legislature until my election as governor, all too often I was not leading but following my best guess at public opinion. Despite being a moderately liberal governor, my stance on marriage was: "between a man and a woman." The position, in my mind, created a tension with the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender community that affirmed my bona fides as a "straight." Only after the crisis that resulted in my resignation, when public opinion no longer mattered, did I realize the importance and legitimacy of same-sex marriage.”

In the midst of a divorce proceeding and while studying theology in New York, McGreevey has offered a prayer for U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, who recently resigned (sort of) from the senate: “I can only pray that Larry Craig and his loving family come to peace with his truth, whatever that may be. To those who judge him harshly, I ask that they fill their hearts with compassion and equanimity. The senator did not have a lover on the payroll, as I did; nor did he engage in sexual relations for money or use his office for unethical professional or personal gain.

“Is it possible that we hold him to a different standard because a same-sex entanglement is involved? If being gay is, as I believe, a natural gift of the creator, what choice does a gay person have in being gay? If we condemn sin in an equal manner, so be it. But what if our condemnation tells to members of the next generation that they are to be shamed, repudiated and vilified inequitably for being gay?”

Actually, these last few questions – following McGreevey’ romp through pop psychology – are pertinent and well worth serious reflection, as are other questions he has not addressed in his op-ed piece, which was written for the Washington Post and reprinted in the Hartford Courant. The questions not addressed by McGreevey concern the utility of shame and whether it is advisable for any church to forbid certain behaviors if the consequent shame involved leads to further ungovernable behavior.

For instance, prohibitions on adultery may lead to shame on the part of an adulterer. Should churches strike prohibitions on adultery, or other behavior they wish to discourage, because the prohibitions cause shame, leading to further adulterous behavior on the part of the adulterer? Indeed, does the effect of shame, genuinely felt, on what churches regard as sinners lead to more sinful behavior? McGreevy argues in his op-ed piece, “Trials Of A Double Life,” that he is gay by design, not choice. Why should he be punished for what the Finger of God has written into his nature?

Was it shame that, like Virgil leading Dante through the circles of Hell, put McGreevey on a path leading to public ridicule and personal destruction? Is it not possible that it was an ungovernable and destructive lust that led McGreevey down this path? Other men, gay like him, have not been led similarly by the nose in the McGreevey way. There are plenty of honorable, non-promiscuous gays among us. There are also plenty of dishonorable, promiscuous heterosexuals among us, proof, if any were needed that Eros is no respecter of gender.

Nature is shot through with human frailty. Shame is the red flag that’s raised when what the Greeks called hubris causes our actions to overflow the bounds conscience has set for us. Some men acknowledge that frailty and adjust their behavior accordingly; others make excuses for themselves and enroll in theology classes at General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in Manhattan.

Wisdom of a different and more useful kind concerning McGreevey Syndrome is dispensed by Christopher Hitchens, a gay, anti-religious, pro-Enlightenment writer over at Slate, an on-line magazine.

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