TO BE GAY IS TO BE A PERSON: WHY REAL ORTHODOXY LIBERATES – A ROMANIAN CASE STUDY by Richard Răzvan Vytniorgu

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Richard Vytniorgu

I remember when I told my mother I preferred men; I had to repeat it several times. In her mind I would obviously get married one day and give her some beloved grandchildren. And then she asked me what actually happened – how did two males have sex together? I mean, how could they? I could hear the cogs turning over cyberspace.

But I’d been warned. My friend Cosmin told me they wouldn’t understand, especially in a rural area like Bukovina. It wasn’t so much that Romanians are vehemently homophobic and intolerant of same-sex relationships, as in Serbia and parts of Russia, for example. But rather that many Romanians, especially outside of Bucharest, simply aren’t familiar with the open expression of alternative sexualities.

Of course, there’s a correlative reason why many Romanians are suspicious of homosexuality, and that’s the way many perceive the Church — against the ‘sin of Sodom’. Throughout history, Eastern Orthodox churches have colluded with the governments of the nation states in which they are rooted, and at times this relationship between Church and State borders on the incestuous. It’s highly convenient for the State if the Church encourages attitudes which fit with its own political agenda.

During the Ceaușescu era, the policy of nation building in Romania took on the new proportions in which the infamous Decree 770 was anchored: contraception and abortion were banned in order to increase population growth. The age-old tendency to superimpose sexual mores on procreation was thus cemented, and in rural areas of Romania, where life was in many ways better under the socialist regime than it is currently, there seems to be a tacit and sometimes overt consensus that women birth babies and men demonstrate their manhood by making them.

New generations of Romanian men, exposed to Western culture and who in some instances have gone abroad to work for short periods of time, have taken to displaying their virile heterosexual desires before all their friends, as well as on social media. Building muscle also seems to be important; a slender man is a weak man.

The message is clear: men have sex with women, and men sire children.

But since so many Romanians (and other Eastern Europeans) draw on their Orthodoxy to justify their uniform vision of human sexuality, I believe they need to examine the nature of their Orthodoxy more closely.

In the early twentieth century the Russian Orthodox thinker Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948) explored the ways in which believers expressed nationalist forms of Orthodoxy rather than a ‘truer’, more Christian kind of Orthodoxy. Berdyaev was worried that ordinary Russians were too uncritical of the established Church and failed to see how the Church was mistaking the Christian gospel for State agenda: the former was dispatched in service of the latter.

Over the course of his philosophical career, Berdyaev devised what he called a personalist form of philosophy, which was nevertheless rooted in his Orthodoxy. Although he criticized some of what he saw as flaws within the Russian church, he nevertheless grounded himself in the broader Orthodox tradition, while simultaneously drawing on European existentialism.

The way Christianity is often used to oppose and oppress gay people is complex, but some common themes are evident. The main theme (at least with regard to how it’s internalized among ordinary Orthodox) is that same-sex desire is unnatural. The natural order of things is for a man to desire a woman (who desires him back), and for them to procreate and produce children, thus spawning ‘the family’ – the holy grail in Eastern European societies.

Usually, such people will turn to their Church and to Christianity in general to support such views, often citing Adam and Eve. But much the way Berdyaev believed in the early 20th century, I think this is a profound mistake and a fundamentally anti-Christian position – one which in fact misunderstands the spirit of the Gospel.

In his Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology (2013), Andrew Louth explains the centrality of transfiguration and the Kingdom of God for Orthodox Christians. Whereas Western Christianity typically emphasizes the sinfulness of man, man’s separation from God, and the salvation of the soul for eternity in heaven, Eastern Orthodoxy is very different. Orthodoxy recognizes the value of this earth and the whole of creation; indeed, it seeks its transfiguration – its transformation via the agency of the Holy Spirit. Orthodox Christians typically focus on the coming of the Kingdom of God – a cosmos renewed through the values articulated in the Sermon on the Mount (peace, meekness, thirsting after righteousness etc.).

While Berdyaev was not a typical Orthodox in the sense that he valued non-Christian thought in addition to his Orthodoxy, he nevertheless held to the centrality of transfiguration. And there are two aspects of his thought which are important here.

The first is to emphasize the difference between an individual and a person, or the ‘natural’ individual and the ‘spiritual’ person. We are all naturally born individuals. To be an individual isn’t difficult; while we can maintain a form of distinctiveness to everyone else, being an individual still means being ‘within the loins of the genus and society’. To be a person, on the other hand, is a creative and spiritual task which can be difficult.

To become a person, or a personality, is the great task for humankind, according to Berdyaev; indeed, it is the essence of the Gospel. The Gospel signals the end of slavery to everything natural – to everything we are born into through no fault of our own – and the beginning of something different. The Gospel seeks the baptism of individuals, wherein their ‘natural’ self ‘dies’, and gives ‘rise’ to their ‘spiritual’ self, which is an ongoing creative and transfigurative work rooted in the life of the Trinity.

In concrete terms then, I can say that I was born an individual: I was given a name and treated as a distinct entity. I was encouraged to develop my talents and gifts. But my society and my family still had the upper hand; I was still somehow enslaved to the ‘natural’. I was expected to grow up and find a girl and have children, and thus continue to live ‘within the loins of’ the natural. And so it is for many other boys out there and the reverse for girls.

Though this pattern of life is enshrined in nationalist forms of Orthodoxy, which seek the development of citizens who obey and propagate the life of the nation, it is fundamentally anti-Christian. It is anti-Christian because it violates the most cardinal principle of Christianity, which is the growth of the individual into a fully realized person.

When Jesus confronted his disciples with the need to leave all and follow him, he was asking that his followers transition from the natural to the spiritual dimension. In other words: drop your worship and subservience to the dictates of others, and realize yourself as a person.

To be gay, then, is perhaps one of the most vivid demonstrations of baptism at work – the symbolic dying to the natural self (the male which has sex with women to procreate). Being Orthodox and gay allows for a profound synergy between faith and sexuality. Gay people know themselves to be different from others; we don’t do what’s expected of us. In that sense we’re dangerous. Governments persecute us. Churches demonize us.

But the Gospel challenges us to become persons – to wake up from our inertia and work for the transfiguration of the world and the coming of the Kingdom of God, which will be finally realized at the Resurrection.

Psalm 139 is the psalm of pregnancy, of being created in the womb. The psalmist prays that God would reveal the special contours of his personality – how he is made. Then in the Gospels Jesus tells us to be fruitful in how we use our talents; he wants us to be creative and become the personality he created us to be. This means resisting the pressures of many things which seem so ‘natural’ to us – such as what our neighbors, family, Church, and State want for us. It’s hard, and maybe I won’t be a good Romanian citizen in some people’s eyes. But that’s OK; I’d rather be a person anyway.

This article appeared on April 20, 2017 on Balkanist. Republished in collaboration with the author.

Richard Vytniorgu recently completed his PhD in English Literature at De Montfort University in Leicester UK, where he received a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. A monograph based on his dissertation is scheduled for release later this year by Sussex Academic under the title The Butterfly Hatch. Literary Experience in the Quest for Wisdom: Uncanoncially Seating H.D. He is British-Romanian and an Orthodox Christian.

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