By Robin Gorsline and Malachi Grennell
These past two weeks, we have been exploring our relationships with our bodies- specifically, our experiences with gender. Two weeks ago, Malachi opened the discussion with some of his experiences, then Robin continued the discussion last week. This week, we decided to come together and record our conversation, exploring the vulnerabilities in writing these pieces for each of us, examining some of the assumptions we have (and face) when entering these conversations, and acknowledging shifts in perspective as we have grown and changed.
M: You and I have both said that these were vulnerable things for us to write… I didn’t know if we wanted to address that a little bit. We don’t really say it in either of our pieces, at least not directly, but it is. It can be easy to think, you know, “Oh, this is so easy to write,” or “They must do this so easily,” but I think there’s something to acknowledging that this was hard, for both of us.
R: Yeah, that’s a really good point. I thought about this back when I had Jonathan read my post…and I was very nervous. He said when he finished, “Darling, that’s wonderful. It’s beautifully written, and you’re so brave and honest…I’m so proud of you, it’s just wonderful!” I was overwhelmed by that because that was not what I expected. I expected him to be appreciative, but saying, “Are you sure? Should you say this?” etc. Later, I thought, I was so concerned about this person, who is the most intimate person in my life, but there’s nobody else that I know where I would worry; then I thought, well, that’s not true. There are tons of people who, if they read what I wrote, I would experience some kind of anxiety about that. But if it went viral… there were would be a lot of unknown people, and I could probably care less about that. But there is a lot of vulnerability… that was very real to me. And we do need to talk about that, because that’s what we are encouraging people to do!
M: Well, and I think, in being vulnerable, I’ve learned over the course of my life that the things that make me feel vulnerable and exposed are not the things that make other people feel vulnerable and exposed. I can talk about sex and sexuality all day long…yet I didn’t say it in my post, but I told you, I have a lot of queer shame around sleeping with this one particular person. And so I feel a little vulnerable talking about, you know, as a radical queer blah-blah-blah person, sleeping with this cis-gender, heterosexual man who is kind of an asshole because it makes me feel like I’m faking my politics, faking my beliefs. But it’s interesting because I feel like I’m an open book, until I realize that the things that make me feel vulnerable are just…different. And I wonder if sometimes I come off as seeming very vulnerable or seeming very open, but never actually being forced to push myself…and then when I do, it doesn’t necessarily seem like it.
R: I hear that… I’ve certainly done some talking over the years that I think has put people off, and it usually has been around sexuality or sex. At the same time, for me, talking about it so openly… talking about the size of my penis is, for me, a vulnerable place on one hand, and on the other, it’s an effort at self-healing because it’s something I have carried all my life. I’ve never been entirely comfortable and I’m working really hard to become comfortable with it and finding it easier to do but part of that is because I’m opening up about it and not just pretending it doesn’t exist…and that kind of feeling can come from letting yourself be vulnerable and working through it.
M: I definitely agree with that.
R: Everyone could be helped if we could lead some kind of revolution, if you will, so that more and more people became more vulnerable. So we can talk about… like you’re talking about with this guy where you feel two-faced, and just being really open about it: “So the sex is good,” and that’s important too. Or body issues, whether it’s mine, or a woman with small breasts, or someone embarrassed about a scar, or feeling overweight or being too skinny…or no muscle, or whatever. It seems to be what you and are I finding ourselves doing, and I think it’s our purpose, which is maybe to set examples of openness. And the heavens haven’t fallen yet. They may, but they haven’t yet.
M: That’s something to think about…if this ever got big, people could go back and read these older posts. That’s the thing with the internet…if you put it up there, it’s there forever.
R: (laughs) Sure. But I would be, I think, happy if that happened. I know I would be. But I’m also not going to stop talking about it… I mean, there may come a time when I don’t need to talk about my small penis anymore, but it hasn’t happened yet. I don’t need to talk about it all the time, but when it’s appropriate and part of the conversation, I now feel much more able to say it. The first time I mentioned it on this blog…I was very oblique about it: “I don’t have a porn star’s body,” or something like that . . . if you read between the lines, and you were a thoughtful gay man, or even a man, you might think, “Oh, I bet he has a small dick,” or something, but it was very carefully scripted. And that felt risky in that moment, actually…so I’ve come a long way.
M: I do remember you writing that, it was right before you and I started writing together. So, you have come quite a long way and, you know, in not a whole lot of time. These things do shift, sometimes fairly quickly.
R: Well, part of it is having you, for me, having a partner, having a colleague. It makes a huge difference…it helps a great deal to have someone I trust to have these conversations with. In the process, I go through quite a lot of stuff. People need people to talk to, to have a trusted person to talk to. But you need that as a precursor, as a place to test out some stuff…you can say it more to other people once you figure out your feelings.
M: Yeah, absolutely… I’m a big fan of verbal processing in general. I think it’s really helpful to have someone that’s not the person that you’re engaged in whatever with- whether it’s a relationship or sex, I’m a big fan of having a person to talk to. The other thing I find really interesting…for me, as a trans person, I think there are a lot of assumptions about how I’m supposed to feel about my body that are not true for me. I don’t have gender dysphoria, I don’t have any problem with the anatomical configuration of my body. I like my body just fine now with some adjustments from testosterone. But I don’t want bottom surgery that would give me a penis, and I don’t necessarily want top surgery…my discomfort in my own skin has more to do with weight than gender, but I feel like there’s this assumption that, because I’m trans, I have to have certain feelings about my genitals and my anatomy that aren’t actually there. I think we have assumptions about what people are going to have concerns about because of their identity…How many of these conversations do we go into with assumptions about what we think someone else is going through?
R: I think that’s a very good point. Yeah, I don’t know why I have such a feeling about my penis. It’s a long-time feeling…I’ve recorded some incidents that happened to me that made it feel much more important. I’ve carried those with me, even though I understand how nonsensical they are and wrongheaded the men were…I should rephrase that …not that they were so wrongheaded; they had their own needs and feelings and prejudices and whatever, and I didn’t need to take it in the way that I did, but I did. And there are whole things, on Tumblr, for example, that are devoted to men with small penises, and I started looking at them sometimes because I find it helpful to “put myself in context” if you will. I don’t spend a lot of time there, it’s not my “thing”…so that when I may see a guy with a big one, I think “That’s nice,” but then I also think, “Yeah, but… mine’s nice too.” But what you just said about trans people and yourself in relationship to expectations…and how that can be true of men and women and anyone, we do make assumptions about what’s important based on our own things, rather than what’s important to the person themselves. And I know men talk about various things besides penis size…muscle, weight, age… I mean, here I am aging. I have skin that isn’t as great looking- compared to what it was- and that bothers me, but it doesn’t have the same impact. It’s interesting how these things take deep root in us. How we look out in the world is affected by these phobias or fears or sense of inadequacy.
M: It’s interesting to me…I remember being a teenager and looking at older couples and thinking, “I could never be attracted to someone who looked like that”…and now I’m dating people who look like that, and I’m very attracted to them, but much less attracted to that younger, 18-year-old look. As we change, not only does our relationship with ourselves change, but what we find attractive changes. I’m wondering if there is something to be said, for a relationship between how we feel about ourselves and our own bodies and our own comfort with our bodies changing and how we express our outward desire who we are attracted to. I don’t know that there is, and I don’t know that that’s always true, but I wonder if there is some connection there between our inability to be comfortable with ourselves as growing, aging people that wants to cling to that sense of being “young and beautiful,” because this culture very much reveres the beauty of youth.
R: I think it is interesting…I think about, for myself, Jonathan is 13 years younger than I am. When we became a couple, he was very boyish…what’s interesting to me, I came across a picture from him at that time and I was surprised at how different he looked even though he’s the same basic person. And I thought, “Gosh, I really liked him then, but I REALLY like him now.” This earlier picture was adorable and sexy and cute and he was a wonderful human being and smart and all the things he is now… but there is something about the “now” person that is infinitely more attractive to me. So I can say that about him, but I struggle to say it about me, even though I’ve had the experience of saying, every decade, that “these are the best years of my life,” and it’s been true every time. But I often ignored my body- that wasn’t part of the calculation. Part of the reason for doing these things with you and the MCC online conference about sex and spirituality last fall is I want to change my relationship with my body. I think I’m more at peace with it, even though I still have issues. I’m not ignoring it anymore. I have the luxury of being a white, gay male… a white male who could pretend my body wasn’t a big deal. I was a brainy person, and a spiritual person… but I didn’t put my body with my spirit. I didn’t let my body be a part of my spirituality, especially after I left the radical Faeries and got back into church full-time. That’s something to say…that’s true. I put my body on the shelf when I came back to be a pastor.
M: That’s a thing, that’s something I struggle with as a person of faith and I am a Christian and I love the church, but I also love so many of the pagan spaces I have been in that allow for a synthesis of bodies and spirituality. We miss something in that, as Christians, and that resonated with me as well.
R: Well, something I might want to mention as a part of our conversation…at General Conference, I would like to set aside some time to talk about these things. One of the things that occurs to me is how out there do I want to be? Because it occurs to me, I would like a little nude time with folks…I don’t know even know if I want to do it, but part of me does.
M: This has to do with vulnerability…..when you say to colleagues, let’s go get naked, not in sexual ways just be naked. You said at beginning, “people may stop speaking to me.” A concern or fear…How do we talk with people about things that make us feel scary, vulnerable?
R: It is so important to have people to talk with, which is a big part of the reason I am thinking about these things at General Conference. Trying to create more community….
Looking at your piece, fairly near the end, where you are talking about being in the mathematics program, and how the gender thing plays out there for you, partly because of being raised in one environment with women as female yourself, and living another way now, or both ways, your way of course, and noticing how few women there were. People expected you to be a boy in how you speak and act, and it is more complicated for you given your body and experience. This is about how we make assumptions, we see people and expect them to feel and be and behave a certain way. We really do have preconceived assumptions, and gender is probably the most obvious (yet so often hidden) and powerful one, race too, but with gender the division is 50/50 between two genderized groups, and it begins at the moment of birth…..Congratulations, you have a baby boy, or you have a baby girl.
M: Its funny, I’ve been looking at baby shower things. Can you believe, they have whole games to guess the sex of the baby. I had never heard this before; the centerpiece of the shower is guessing or revealing the sex of the baby. I have not been part of this baby shower world. I did not realize how focused people are on the sex of the baby. Most of my friends are queer, and not having babies. There are things like cake where it is either pink or blue and when you cut the cake it comes out pink or blue to show the sex. What!? That’s insane. I had no idea!
R: Yes it is very acute, and very real. We just make a whole series of assumptions about who a person is based on our perception of their gender. Which is back to the trans things, why the trans movement is so upsetting. Here are people who are changing sides, at least that is how it is perceived so often; even though they are not two opposite things, and even though you and others do not necessarily change their bodies, at least in terms of genitals. Your body is such a contravention of the mode because you haven’t removed your vagina and put a penis in its place, or reduced or removed your breasts, and yet you are making a claim–you are not going around saying I AM A MAN but you are making a claim for masculinity, or maleness, and your body doesn’t correspond in some ways. You’re not alone in this, but trans people really make it clear how variable bodies are. For so many non-trans people, it seems always to be all about the genitals. When I was so intensely engaged in the marriage debate in Virginia, so much opposition to marriage equality was focused on genitals. So many claim that you have to have a man put his penis inside the vagina of the women to be marriage, saying it is about children, but its not really, it’s about genitals. Of course, marriage is not just about genitals; if that’s all it is, it won’t last long
M: Same thing with the “are you a boy or girl? It’s a fixation on the genitals, and people get really uncomfortable when you point that out.
R: When people like you who are more ambiguous in their gender presentation, or even unlike you, perhaps no facial hair, I would wonder how they saw themselves, and people whose names that are not clear about gender (like mine!), I sometimes felt this great need to get people into a box. Eventually, it dawned on me, why do I need to know? They were human beings and that is what counts. Why do I want to know? Maybe a few circumstances I might need to know, but most of the time is none of my business. They can share if they wish, but if not I don’t need to know. I don’t think I am alone. We need to help people see this, to see the power of the assumptions and the need to get people in the right box.
M: It makes me think … [my partner] Kase and I have this kind of joke, about two kinds
of being androgynous…people where you don’t have enough gender characteristics and others where you have too much. With people like me, with breasts and facial hair, it’s “what do you see first?”, or like Kase, with no obvious signals, no facial hair, etc., and people confront him, “What are you?” How we interact with different bodies is very revealing.
R: The assumptions though are very dangerous because they really are about control, not about encouraging or enlarging life, but keeping it under control, especially keeping women under control first I think.
M: Oh yes. One of the first things we do as children is to learn to compartmentalize things, get things into boxes. This leads us to these assumptions. We believe the world is the way we saw it as children, and that’s just not true.
R: With the whole earring thing for me, people look, and depending on the group or setting, some people seem to look more and look oddly. I also remember a little boy in an office waiting room, and he said to me, “Why are you wearing girls earrings?” He was very matter of fact, probably age 5 or 6. His mother shushed him, and I said, “Oh its okay. What makes you think the earrings are boy or girl.” He just kind of looked at me, and his mother said, “That is a good point, the earrings are not people, they don’t have to be boys or girls.”
M: Kids are so much better about gender things. I love it. “Why does that girl have hair on her face,” talking about me. I love the things that kids see as gender, I have long hair so I must be a girl even though I have facial hair. Of course, the parents get uncomfortable, and I am like whatever….
R: Our granddaughters, our marriage is just as normal for them as anything. When I visit by myself, or call alone, they ask right away where is Grampa? Its just normal (and they don’t ask about my earrings either). So they are open. How do we help adults get there?
M: Some of it will be generational. I was part of the first wave of kids being raised openly by gay parents. Now kids have gay grandparents, my sister’s kids have a bunch of grandmothers. At some point it becomes normal even more than for my generation. So it is not necessarily queerness that will be their struggle; they will have their own body or sexual thing. It might be non-monogamy as the thing to get over, its becoming bigger and bigger, more talked about all the time. We’ve deconstructed interracial marriage, not that racism is gone, still horrible racism, but gay marriage too. We’ve seen the same basic arguments about normalcy and boxes applied to 6,7,8 different things and hopefully we can get over it.
R: Clearly, one of our missions with this blog, and other things we hope to do, is to help undo assumptions, contributing to deconstructing assumptions, reducing the power of assumptions
M: Yeah, God, I think, doesn’t deal with assumptions, but with where and who people actually are.
We could go on and on, so much more to say, to share. What we do know, what is our fervent belief, is that people need to be more open, to talk more. It so often comes down to trust, not only trusting another person, as important as that is in being open, but also in trusting God, trusting God to have made us beautiful in ourselves. The way we are made, in all our variety—as the Psalmist (139:14) says, “I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made, wonderful are your works”—is worthy of celebration. It is time to stop hiding ourselves, stop walling off parts of ourselves that don’t fit someone’s idea of what is normal, stop pretending other people who are different are less than us, or abnormal. Oh, the beauty of creation lies in its infinite variety.
It really is a spiritual thing to be open, to share ourselves, to share our differences, our particularities, because in doing so we praise the Creator, and in doing so, we claim more life, not less.
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 Robin at the emails listed.