That dis-ease was my experience at the 26th General Conference of Metropolitan Community Churches just concluded in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. By my count, out of 31 workshops of 90 minutes each, there were two on sex, one on transgender issues, and one on HIV/AIDS issues. Out of 29 “pop topics,” 25 minutes in length, there were two on trans concerns and one on body tattoos. There also was one plenary session (out of four) about two hours in length, on transgender concerns. This means 13% of the workshops were on sex- and gender-related topics (and only six percent directly on sex), and 10% of “pop topics” focused on gender and body issues (none on sex), and 25% of plenary sessions were on gender and body concerns.
I experienced one exception: during the opening plenary, when keynote speaker Ani Zonnefeld from Muslims for Progressive Values challenged MCC to live out a vision of promoting values of love, justice and peace. In a panel discussion following her powerful message, my new friend from Italy, Mario Bonfanti, spoke clearly on two occasions about the BDSM relationship at the center of his life. I wanted to jump for joy—just to hear someone talk about sex, and especially a non-mainstream sex practice, not as a problem but as a gift!! BRAVO!!!!
Of course, I am not dismissing the value of the other workshops and pop topics and plenaries on a wide variety of topics. But I am saying we don’t talk much about sex, at least out in the open in organized, planned ways.
I am told sex was a main topic at early MCC conferences—because, in part at least, sex is why MCC came into existence. From what elders tell me, people were truly glad to be together with other people of faith to talk about sex, about ethics and practices and safety AND fun, too. I doubt anyone can honestly contend that sex is no longer an issue needing attention. The reduction in emphasis may well be due to the fact that over the years we have become more accepted by mainstream churches. It’s not easy to be different when you want the approval of others.
I also experienced a lack of interest in a related topic raised by me. About a week prior to the conference, I posted on various Facebook MCC-related pages an invitation to join me on Wednesday afternoon (the time designated by the organizers for “time off,” no formal conference programs were planned) at a clothing optional lake not far outside Victoria. Four people expressed interest, three saying they hoped to attend. I posted two more times, to give updates on the plans and to be encouraging.
One more person expressed interest; however, ultimately I went alone. I had a wonderful time, so I am not complaining about the lack of company, but I am struck by the numbers of people who spoke to me after Wednesday, asking me if I enjoyed the adventure. I cannot read their minds but I do note that only a couple of people posted a “like” on Facebook, while the bulk of people spoke to me privately. I think it is reasonable to interpret this as indicative, at least for some, of a reluctance to be publicly identified with nudity or potential nudity.
I can honestly say that I worry a bit that I will be identified as a outlier, as a “crackpot” even, for being so public about my liking for nudity, insisting on the central place of sex and bodies in spiritual living,not to mention writing this blog with Malachi each week, discussing a wide variety of sex practices and even revealing considerable personal information. But I refuse to go back into the “sex is only private” closet. And I believe church communities need to pay lots more attention to sex and sexuality, and bodies, too. I want my church to be sex- and body-positive because I want us to fully human, engaging God everywhere God meets us—and that surely includes in our bodies and our sex and sexuality.
That is the point of this blog—bringing together openly and in positive ways sex, bodies and spirit—and it is the mission of monthly online hour-long sessions devoted to the topic as well.
These monthly conversations were begun last November by Rev. Dr. Kharma Amos and Rev. Dr. Tom Bohache as a way of continuing the dialogue begun in October through a three-day online webinar “Who Are We Really? Re-Engaging Sex and Spirit” sponsored by the MCC Office of Formation and Leadership Development.
The webinar was a wonderful collection of paper and panel presentations, online conversations, and sidebar text dialogue while others spoke. There was much honest sharing about personal lives, ideas, and anxieties.
The monthly conversations have been good, but not well attended. There is a new plan to make them more attractive, especially to clergy. Beginning in August, each hour of participation will be counted for CEU credit for clergy license renewal! This means there will still be conversation, but each hour will feature a major presentation on a topic of interest. The topics will be announced in advance so participants can plan their attendance.
And even more exciting to Malachi and me, we have been asked to provide the course offerings each month. This means that we intend to orient at least some of our weekly postings on this blog toward the topic of the month, as a way to help participants be well oriented to the class.
It’s not too late for the MCC movement—begun because men who sleep with men and women who sleep with women (exclusively or as part of bisexual living), and drag queens and transgender people and other sex- or gender-non-conforming and Q/queer people wanted safe spaces in which to worship the God of their understanding—to claim our call, our mission, to not only provide a safe haven for all these fabulous children of God but also to celebrate that wondrous diversity and teach the rest of the larger church about the beauty and joy and divinity of sex in all its manifestations, even including heterosexual monogamy (too many Christians and others can’t even bring themselves to like that!).
It’s a tall order, but somebody has to do it. I’m ready, and I hope you will join me, Malachi, and others as we help the church learn to celebrate erotic love and the bodies which make it possible.
Malachi: I’ve been a part of Metropolitan Community Church since I was a child (about 8 years old). MCC, in many ways, is my church home… although, like many childhood homes, we find that home much changed from when we left it. Thus is my experience at MCC. I left the church I had grown up in in Richmond, and stopped attending any place of worship for a while. When I moved to North Carolina to live with my mom (who is also MCC clergy), I returned to MCC via the church plant that she had facilitated.
I loved being back in MCC again. It has always been a place that I felt at home and comfortable, and I love hearing my mother preach. But as an adult, the experience of being back in church was a different one. I wasn’t sure if the difference was my age, the location, or being the child of the pastor, but I found that there was something missing from the experience of a predominantly queer church.
Growing up in MCC, I heard my fair share of lewd comments and ill-concealed euphemisms (children truly are smarter than we give them
credit for). These comments were often jokes across the table at a diner down the street where people would congregate after church for lunch, or over the dinner table when my parents would have friends from church over for dinner. There was certainly no shame or hiding sexuality at that point- 20 years ago, we were still fighting for our right to exist (even more so than we do now), and we spent so much time hiding who we were at work and around our families that the thought of maintaining any kind of façade around our friends was too exhausting to fathom.
The sexuality of queer people was threatening to non-queer people. Thus, many people-particularly gay men- spent so much time trying to project a demeanor that was devoid of sexuality (lesbians were just simply not allowed to have a sexuality… after all, “how do two women have sex, anyway?”)
MCC was a sanctuary. It was a place where we could stop pretending- stop pretending to be non-sexual (read: non-threatening) and celebrate and embrace the vast beauty of who we are. It was a sanctuary beyond just the religious meaning, and broader than the bar scene (after all, MCC was a place for those who were recovering addicts to congregate without the fear of relapse).
And once upon a time, we didn’t fear it. We were outcasts in so many ways that we “let our hair down” a bit when we went to church. We were whole people, authentic and real. We did workshops on safer sex practices. We talked about the risks of STI infection in a real way (rather than a theoretical or hypothetical way). People shared stories that included aspects of sexuality. Some were told in a comical way, some in a heartbreaking way, some in matter-of-fact way, but there was space for it.
Granted, my experience with sexuality in MCC is partially skewed because so much of it occurred in the presence of my parents. I recall one story in which the minister at the time, Rev. Gill Storey, asked my mother if she had talked to me about condoms yet. My mother burst into tears at the thought of her child and the word “condoms” in the same sentence. So, certainly, I appreciate that my perspective is often filtered through the lens of navigating space with my parents (who, progressive as they may be, still struggled to speak openly about sex and sexuality with me for much of my life).
But perhaps that makes the contrast that much stronger: even in a space where I was sheltered from certain conversations and explicit references to sex, I was still aware of it. It was still a part of my understanding and experience of navigating my own journey and growing experience as I hit puberty. It was a church member who encouraged me to masturbate and be comfortable with my own body before trying to be sexual with another person. It was a church member who taught me about the importance of gloves and dental dams as forms of protection when engaging in sex with
bodies that were assigned female at birth. It was a church member who taught me how to put on a condom.
I do not see that MCC in the denominations any longer. While I see many beautiful things about MCC, I do not see the radical inclusion of our whole selves- bodies, minds, and spirits- in our services any more. I remember an outcry in the church when Rev. Robin- when speaking the chant lifted up by the queens at Stonewall- said the phrase “pubic hair” behind the pulpit. I didn’t know what was so bad about pubic hair, but clearly, it wasn’t something that we were supposed to talk about.
We no longer have to hide our identities in the same ways we used to. We are accepted in more churches, allowed to be out in more workplaces, allowed to marry and claim our partnerships on our taxes, get health insurance and survivor benefits. It’s an incredible step forward for the LGBTQ communities, and I am glad that these advancements have happened. But I wonder if we stopped viewing our churches as sanctuaries for the whole of ourselves because the canister of our lives is less pressurized elsewhere. We’re only hiding a little now, instead of everything that we are, and we have worked so hard to get here that we don’t want to risk jeopardizing it by being too “out there.”
And yet, I wonder if we do ourselves a disservice by removing the sex from our sanctuaries. It feels less “out there,” sure. But we also lose people who might otherwise be interested in coming to MCC… we lose young people who are looking for authentic conversations about sex and sexuality. People like me. People who struggle to find relevance in MCC because we don’t fit in those spaces.
I have, over time, stopped going to MCC for many reasons, but the largest
among them is that I don’t find that there is room for me to be my whole self- my polyamorous, kinky self- in most MCC spaces. I can be trans (mostly… the ambiguity of my gender presentation can still be a tricky thing sometimes) and I can be queer (or, at least, my partner can appear to have a similar gender presentation to me), but the rest of me doesn’t fit. I leave my sexuality at the door when I walk into a church now, and that never used to be what MCC was about. Because that space should be a sanctuary, not a closet.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
What do you think? How do you feel about discussions of sex in church? What are some ways we can help open the dialogue? Please share your thoughts, your heart on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
We Need Your Input!
As we move forward in preparing the monthly online discussion, we want to ensure that this discussion is as accessible as possible. Please take a moment to provide us with some feedback on the best day and time for you to participate.