by Robin Gorsline
I read Malachi’s post last week (click here for “Puzzle Pieces of God”) with great interest and joy–I so admire his honesty and wisdom. And it caused me to begin looking at my own gendered experience, realizing that even as a cis-gender, monogamy-choosing, much-older, self-identified gay male, I have particular bodily experiences and am on a continuing relational journey with my own body. Here, I am sharing some of that journey. By sharing our experiences, we hope to encourage everyone to spend time recounting, celebrating and/or changing, and sharing their own gender journeys.
I will start with my earrings, or more accurately my ears, as the most gender-nonconforming part of my body. Many years ago, I began wearing long dangly earrings–usually, though not always, ones that would be worn by those who are identified as women. I don’t know how this got started exactly, but at least one reason is that I began wearing a hoop or stud earring in my left ear–at the time, in New York, in accord with a custom of many self-identified men to signal we were gay. I remember a child, , asking me why I only decorated one ear. Did I not like the other one? I did not explain my sexuality to this child, making some dismissive comment about “what people do.” But it got me thinking.
Soon thereafter I went to a street crafts fair and found a pair of earrings I really liked–they spoke to me, a poor graduate student, enough that I splurged and brought them (see picture). When I put one on it felt odd, because the dangle made me feel a bit off-center as I walked and it bobbled. Okay. I had my right ear pierced, and after going through the healing time, I put one in each ear. Yes!!! It felt good.
By this time, I had a pretty high-level job at a prestigious Manhattan non-profit, and did not feel comfortable or safe wearing them to work. But I wore them on weekends and to church (that’s a statement about MCC–in this case, church was the one public place I felt comfortable being me, something that does not happen to many people), and sometimes even put them on in the evening. And I began collecting earrings. My daughters gave me earrings for Father’s Day, and my birthday, too (the rest of my family barely mentioned it, a sign of their discomfort).
When I began seeking a church to serve, I wore earrings in my sermon videos so they would know how I presented myself. And when the Metropolitan Community Church called me to interview in Richmond, I packed my earrings and wore them during the entire visit. And they chose me to be their pastor!!! I felt so affirmed.
Some years later, I discovered that although most of the church was “okay” with my wearing them, they also felt my earrings were costing us new members. So I took them off in 2010 (and many, though not all, members thanked me), and did not wear them (except occasionally around the house to keep the holes open). I do not think their absence helped us recruit new members, but I did not put them back on in public until last fall. Now I wear them all the time.
And I am so happy. I present now as me. Can’t imagine going back. But my gender experience/journey is not so easily pigeon-holed, and not just because of earrings (I have never wanted a cock-ring, although for many years I had a nipple ring, only removing it due to a medical procedure).
Along the way, I have been asked if I am transgender. I always answer “no,” because I have not felt a desire to change my gender. Some transgender people have wondered if I am afraid to fully embrace my trans-self. It has never felt that way to me. I have felt sometimes that they were trying to get me to change boxes–it almost seemed like a variation on the gender binary, even if they did not mean it that way. I have said, whenever asked, that I am simply being my version of a male-identified person (see more below).
But I also have understood that it is not that simple, and that it might seem to some that I am “playing” transgender–doing something a little transgressive but not out there enough to pose any real danger to myself (from my trans friends and many things I have read, I am well aware of the risks they often face, not to mention homicide rates among transgender women of color, and suicide rates, too).
Over the years, I have said many times, channeling Martine Rothblatt in The Apartheid of Sex: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Gender (you can buy it here), that there are as many genders as there are people; in other words, each one of us is a unique set of characteristics and behaviors and preferences, some of which are genetic and many of which are simply choices for pleasure, convention, and even aesthetics. The gender binary is really, in my view, a social convenience, and a way to keep one group (namely the male-identified) on top, and as we see in these “bathroom bills” and other regulations, to prevent the people who want or need to live outside the binary from being able to do so without penalty.
With Rothblatt and quite a few others, I even think that sexual orientation is overly, narrowly, constructed as three (or four, including asexuality) self-contained categories. But that topic is for another time.
Back to my body. One particularly important part about my relationship with my body and my gender is my relationship to nudity. I really enjoy being naked, seeing it, in part at least, as a celebration of the body God gives me. I have long enjoyed clothing optional beaches. My husband, Jonathan, and I met at a Radical Faerie gathering–if we were not naked at the moment of meeting, then it was not long after that we were, along with many other male-identified persons. Such is the nature of these gatherings. And over the six years we were friends before becoming a couple, I spent some delightful nude time with him and his then-partner and other friends.
I think I am somewhat of an exhibitionist, but I also think I like to be nude because I want to feel my penis, I want to be aware of it. When flaccid, it is very small, and I am often unaware of it. My testicles and scrotum are also small (and have become smaller due to testosterone supplements).
I have often thought, but not ever asked until now, if those with larger penises are more aware of theirs as they sit, walk, etc. Do they feel it rub against the fabric? (I would be glad for some responses to this question; feel free to share below or by email with me). I know some men (presumably with larger penises and/or scrota) seem to need to rearrange things “down there,” something that rarely happens to me.
When I am naked I can touch my penis easily, reassuring myself it is there, and if I go “commando” (without underwear) I can often feel the fabric of my pants rub against it. It is a real delight, not overtly sexual but certainly pleasurable (and that is true of social nudity, too).
This also may be a way to reassure myself of my maleness. In this way, it is a gender issue: needing the affirmation of a penis to feel truly male-identified. When I become erect (something that is not so easy these days, with age and erectile dysfunction, but it is not impossible, thank God) or even somewhat rising, I feel very good, not only from those wonderful sensations, but also I think as an affirmation of my male-ness.
During my single years in New York, I sometimes put on a skirt (or at least wrapped a cloth around my waist) and went, without underwear, on the subway to a favorite gay bar in midtown. I really enjoyed the feeling of air against my genitals. But I also did that at home at times, and even at Faerie gatherings and the nude beach–because I like wearing a skirt. This is part of my gender expression.
What if I don’t really fit completely into any box? Better in some, not so well in others, but I have a piece of all. I like my penis, I like other penises, but I also wear often what many would call female earrings, and even clothes.
Rothblatt says, “Genitals are as irrelevant to one’s role in society as skin tone.” She is not denying the power of either in our society—white privilege and racism are alive and well, as is sexism—but she is suggesting that neither is determinative of our innate ability to be fully functioning, valuable, and necessary participants in the life of the world.
I see my gender/body journey as a continuing exploration of all the parts of me, parts that, in my worldview, come from God. I now claim wearing earrings, for example, as a call to model divine diversity. We know that God does not want us to maintain the racialized body hierarchies we have created, even as we seem to have trouble overcoming them. In the same way, God continues to prod me, and many others, to do our part to overcome the humanly-created genderized and sexualized binaries and hierarchies.
I believe our bodies come from God, each one a unique gift to celebrate. It is way past time for us to unwrap and break down the boxes-which are often more like prisons really–and share, expose, live, our whole embodied truths.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
What do you think? What is your gender experience, your embodied gender journey? Please share below, or write Malachi and/or me at the emails listed.