It must be noted immediately that the title of the article is misleading in that it appears to include transgender persons in the study. However, the study itself dealt only with sexual orientation, and there is no mention of gender variant or transgender persons in the report. Nor did the study indicate any awareness of queerness. My guess is that were a similar study done for those categories there would be an even greater disparity of outcomes as regards employment and health. It seems clear that in the U.S. attitudes towards transgender persons are considerably more negative than those toward LGB persons. I doubt most people, outside the LGBTQ world, even know much about being queer (and of course, many within the community debate use of the term).
Despite legal gains and significant shifts in public attitudes, the reality remains that being, or being identified as, lesbian, gay, and bisexual carries considerable penalty and loss for many (and in some places, there even have been gains for transgender persons but the penalties are far more pervasive, often involving violence).
It is in the everyday interactions among people, among living and breathing human bodies, where deep, negative, often unacknowledged, attitudes and practices remain operative.
The study described in the article, led by Brittany Charlton, an assistant professor at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, confirms the results of earlier studies in showing that “overall, both male and female sexual minorities were about twice as likely to have been unemployed and uninsured over the prior year compared to straight peers. They were also more likely to report poorer health and quality of life.”
Charlton and her team also note that “Most of the study participants were white and their families had middle-to-high household incomes.” She says that this indicates “we may have underestimated levels of employment, being uninsured, and having poor health-quality of life.”
So, as always, race and class play a significant negative role.
I doubt many readers here will be surprised by the results of this study, although maybe some might have thought that later results would be less negative than those from 1996 and 2004. That does not appear to be the case. This would indicate the depth of resistance that remains in the U.S. towards LGBTQ equality. And this study does not include the social attitudinal and legal effects of the Trump administration’s overt negativity towards those in sexual and gender minority communities.
Indeed, reports indicate that anti-LGBTQ homicides in 2017 nearly doubled from the prior year. According to a report by NBC News, “People of color were disproportionately represented in the findings and constituted the majority of victims. In total, 37 of the 52 victims were people of color. Thirty-one of the victims were black and four were Latinx. Twenty-seven of the victims were transgender women, and 22 of those victims were transgender women of color. Cisgender (non-transgender) men accounted for 20 of the homicides, most of which were related to “hookup violence,” the report states.
So what is my point? Again, we know we have a long way to go—that gains are not enough, and that some gains are already undermined, and more may be.
My point in highlighting this survey and other reports is simply this: we have to find more ways to talk openly and positively about sex and bodies and spirituality.
It is especially important for us to link sex and bodies with spiritual life, if for no other reason than that so many retain old artificial divisions based on ancient understandings that the body is the site of unclean and even evil thoughts and acts while the spirit is pure and holy.
But frankly, we need to do this for a larger reason—namely that everyone will be helped when we, all of us, can see the divine in all things, including our bodies and sexuality. And we will not get there without also showing that the wide variety of bodies and sexual practices are good and blessed and holy (assuming there is always consent for any sexual activity).
I can say I am continually frustrated within my own faith movement, Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), because of deep unwillingness to acknowledge and share our various sexual lives and practices. Indeed, this blog began initially by me alone, in response to that frustration, to try to start conversation. Few seemed to notice, especially within MCC.
Then, Malachi joined me and thanks to his openness and courage the range of experiences and topics grew significantly. Still, few joined the readership.
My frustration is particularly acute because we promote each of our blog posts through various MCC social media fora, and have been doing so the entire time. Still, few join.
What is particularly vexing is that MCC was founded on sex, namely to overcome the reality that open and self-affirming lesbian and gay people were regularly denied full membership and leadership in Christian churches generally and were often hounded out and deeply damaged. It was because of sex that the Rev. Elder Troy Perry called the first service on October 6, 1868.
Yes, it will be 50 years this fall since that first service in living room of Troy Perry’s little pink house (isn’t that delicious?) in Los Angeles.
In the Jewish traditions out of which Christianity emerged, 50 years was the time of jubilee. At the end of seven cycles of Sabbath years, according to Leviticus 25:8-13, slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven, and the mercies of God would be particularly evident.
That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee to you. In it you shall not sow, neither reap that which grows of itself, nor gather from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you. You shall eat of its increase out of the field. In this Year of Jubilee each of you shall return to his property.(11-12)
What will Metropolitan Community Churches celebrate this Jubilee year? Will it be how we have survived (right now more or less by the skin of our teeth)?
Or will it be to return to the original vision God had for Troy and us—to truly blow the trumpet of liberation for sexual minorities and all people who see the divine in our intimate, embodied relationships, to become the teachers of the Church universal, the beacons of hope and joy, and justice, in and for all bodies?
I remember my first Gay Pride event; it was Boston 1983. I was in awe—the crowds, the joy, the chants, the idea of marching for freedom where the Sons of Liberty had dared to defy the British Crown, the Faeries and other outrageously costumed folks, so much fun!
And I remember the religious service at the Arlington Street Church (UU); it was so moving to share worship with people of many faiths, sexualities, and genders, and to share our commitment to liberation and justice for all.
I don’t remember any festival after the march, although I am sure folks gathered to eat and talk and buy all the sorts of things that vendors make available at such events.
What I remember is the march. In fact, it is always the march that matters most to me. Pride, for me, is less a social event and more a movement for liberation, a political act, a joyful, powerful form of civil/religious disobedience.
This is why, although I faithfully attended every Pride while serving as Pastor of MCC Richmond, I was never very happy at the event. First, those in charge wouldn’t name it anything but Virginia Pride (does that mean we’re proud of our state?), and we did not march. Anywhere.
Block parties can be fun, but I thought, and still do, that we were in a struggle to change the world—to save not only our own bodies but those of countless others in our nation and around the globe. We surely need to celebrate ourselves, our fabulousness, but we need more. We need to march, speak up, act up, speak truth not only to power but to the entire world.
My belief grows out of my awareness of how political and social change is achieved, and even more from my belief and practice as a Queer liberation theologian. Real change, deep change, transformation that is sustainable, requires great passion, long-term commitment, and ceaseless organizing. I agree with the sentiment often attributed to anarchist Emma Goldman’s, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution,” but I also know, and know she knew, there will be no revolution if all we do is dance.
My belief in and commitment to activism was confirmed when I met Craig Rodwell. Beginning in September 1987, I worked for him as a sales clerk for eight months at the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop on Christopher Street in the Village (Greenwich). Founded in 1967 by Craig, two years before Stonewall, this was the first bookshop in the world to be devoted to gay and lesbian literature.
Craig was not the best boss I ever had, but the books were great, some notable people came in, and I had the opportunity to hear many stories that confirm that he was, or should have been and still should be, an icon in the LGBT movement. The truth is that we might never have heard of Stonewall if Craig had not rushed to a phone and alerted the New York Times to what was happening at 53 Christopher Street on the evening of June 28, 1969.
In November, 1969, Craig and three others at the meeting of the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations (ERCHO) proposed an annual demonstration on the last Saturday in June in New York City to commemorate the 1969 spontaneous demonstrations on Christopher Street. They also proposed that the annual event “encompass the ideas and ideals of the larger struggle in which we are engaged—that of our fundamental human rights . . . .”
Fundamental human rights. That’s the struggle they saw then, and I and many see today. That means LGBTQIA Pride events are political, they are about social change.
Of course, they also are about personal change and affirmation, and it is wonderful when we see people newly out celebrating with joy and love. This year, a friend of mine from church went to her first Pride march and festival in D.C. and was transformed by the experience. So, we still need LGBTQIA Pride.
But others in the community still find themselves on the margins. Some of them blocked this year’s Capital Pride Parade (notice it is a parade, not a march, and actually someone from outside would not know who was being proud of what). The group No Justice, No Pride, objected to sponsorship of the events by several major corporations. One member of that group who is Native American said, “Capital Pride’s list of sponsors reads like a who’s who of Native genocide: FBI, NSA, CIA, Wells Fargo, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Federal Bureau of Prisons.” Others objected to the presence of uniformed policemen marching in the parade. “We deserve to celebrate Pride without being forced alongside the police who kill us,” said another participant (read more here).
Many transgender people continue to feel invisibilized in these events as well. And D.C. Black Pride continues to be held in late May, in part in recognition of the white racism that has for so long been a significant component of community life.
I know many parade participants were angered by the protests, which caused a re-routing of the main parade. Some shouted “Shame” and other angry words. I do not see it that way. To me, these protests are in the very best tradition of the Stonewall rioters and the early activists in the 1950s and 60s, even before Stonewall. And certainly they are in line with ACT Up and other HIV/AIDS activists.
I have not attended LGBTQA Pride celebrations for several years, having grown bored with the lack of political consciousness by those who organize most of the events. I feel some guilt about this. I know it is important to participate in community events.
However, I would have been very interested in the protests, had I known about them in advance. I am going to pay more attention during the year and see if Pride organizers make an effort to get events more in tune with our need for a powerful political movement and our need to claim the work we, as a community, still have to do. If they do, I will be at Capital Pride.
If not, I will be there, too, joining others in speaking truth to the community we love. Craig died in 1993; otherwise, I have a feeling he would be joining me—if he had not already been fomenting rebellion long before most of us understood the need.
I have mixed, complicated feelings about Pride. On one hand, of course, it’s wonderful to be in a space where we are able to openly celebrate who we are- our sexuality and sexual orientation, our gender identities (to some extent) and families and the ways in which we build and show and create love. That being said, however, I somewhat detest pride and what it has become.
The first pride rallies and marches were built on the momentum of the Stonewall riots. They were a time queer people could come together and stand in solidarity against the police brutality constantly perpetrated against the queer community. It was a time where we released ourselves from shackles of fear and embraced all of who we are, regardless of social messages.
Pride was dangerous. Going meant you could lose everything- your home, your family, your kids, and possibly your life. Of course, it is a result of years of pride festivals and parades that have helped push LGBT…well, L/G rights, anyway, through to where that concern, while still present for some, is not as pervasive as it used to be.
And now, instead of protesting the police, we hire them to protect our marches and rallies and block parties. In this, we have forgotten, of course, that police brutality is still a massive problem for people of color, particularly trans women of color, for sex workers, and for non-assimilation queers, especially non-binary folks.
So when I went to Baltimore pride, I wanted to be overwhelmed and astonished at how white it was, how incredibly…normative it felt, but instead, I felt a sense of resignation. Baltimore is a predominantly black city, but here was our pride: overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly…normal looking, minus the plethora of rainbows.
Oh yes. The rainbows. Regular ROY-G-BIV rainbows, no black or brown stripe present. If you haven’t read the controversy around the Philadelphia pride flag (you can read it here), it appears that the rainbow is sacred and should not be altered to include black and brown stripes (we’ll just ignore all the variations of the pride flags we have had over the years, ok? See hereand you can read a piece, “Is the Rainbow Enough?” from Robin several years ago about it here).
Perhaps I’m a bit cynical. But never has it been more clear to me that we need intersectional analysis around pride. We make pride unsafe for the very people who were our founders. It has become a large block party, and that’s fine… we should have block parties and dance and celebrate and wear rainbows… but to me, that’s not pride. That’s just another night at the club.
To me, the whole purpose and intent of pride is that it is a time to come together against those things that threaten our communities: police brutality, homelessness, drug addiction, homophobia and transphobia, loss of healthcare, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, etc. We still have so far to go, and it feels like pride is a celebration of winning one battle when the war wages on around us.
Maybe that seems melodramatic. We have come a long way from the social climate of the 1960’s, but I worry that we have been so single-minded in our approach that we start to view our queerness in a vacuum. And yet… queer POC still face systemic racism every day. Queer homeless youth (and queer youth in general) have a heartbreaking suicide rate. Queer sex workers are still victims of assault and violence from the police with no recourse to deal with it. Trans women are still murdered at an absurdly high rate. And this doesn’t begin to touch the intersections of these things: queer homeless youth who are sex workers. HIV positive POC trying to access medical care. And so on.
So, what exactly are we celebrating? I think that’s well-reflected in the demographics of our pride parades… yes. We can get married. Those are celebrating have, in many regards, “already arrived.” But I found myself wondering where these faces and bodies are when there are protests against police brutality and ending stigma around sex work and…and…
This evolution of pride does not bring me joy. It brings me a lot of sadness and grief and anger because I can see the lines of division and privilege so poignantly. This pride was not built for people who do not (or cannot) assimilate to the mainstream queer dream. This pride was not built for non-white bodies. This pride was not built for trans and non-binary bodies. This pride was not built for sex worker bodies. It was not built for these bodies… but it was built on the backs of these bodies.
My pride? My pride sees color. My pride recognizes that we all face different struggles, some individual and some systemic. My pride recognizes that, until we are willing to see color, willing to see sex workers as human, willing to see trans people as worthy of respect, willing to see one another as whole people, willing to be just a little bit uncomfortable, then we still have work to do. I’ll show up for the work. I’ll show up for the intersections. I’ll show up for the grit and the grime and do the best I can, and it won’t always be right, and I hope someone has the emotional capacity to inform me that I’m doing it wrong, and I hope I have the grace to hear it and honor the work it takes to be a constant educator because of the color of someone’s skin or the shape of someone’s jawbone or the way someone makes money.
My pride is uncomfortable. My pride is loud and unashamed and talking about hard issues that no one else will talk about. My pride may or may not have rainbows, but it has a diversity of ideas. My pride is intersection.
We Want to Hear from You!
Help Make this a Conversation!
What are your feelings about LGBTQIA Pride? When was the first Pride you attended, and how did you feel? How satisfied are you with our progress in combatting homophobia, bi-phobia, transphobia? What more needs to be done? Do Pride celebrations have a role in this work? What would you change about Pride in your community, if anything? 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.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please join us THURSDAY, July 20th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
Everyone knows about them , but no one will talk about them or acknowledge them.
Jonathan and I have become invested in a television drama called “A Place to Call Home,” about a “to the manor born” family in Australia. We like it for superb acting, engaging plot lines, and the general lack of violence (Note: it is available through Acorn TV, “the best British streaming TV,” –we access it through ROKU).
As the first season unfolded, the characters became increasingly complex, and we got hooked, especially as one by one various characters revealed secrets. In some ways the main theme of the program is the hiding and disclosing of family secrets. As you might imagine most of them involve sex in one way or another.
As I told Malachi about the program, we began to realize we had each experienced, and even yet experience, some aspects of keeping, being, and revealing secrets [as you might expect, his experience is less “mainstream” than mine].
As a pastor, I heard secrets. Many, if not most, of them were about abuse of various kinds, especially sexual abuse and violence in the home. Most people would tell about it as they sought to explain feelings they wanted to change—attitudes and fears that had been induced by the ugly behavior.
Of course, in a church community with many LGBT people, and in a relatively conservative area (Richmond, Virginia) some members felt they had to keep their sexual orientation and non-cis gender feelings secret—either due to family issues or potential loss of jobs and housing, or all of the above. However, non-LGBT people also talked about secrets, many of them related to sex.
Two very dear friends of mine have harrowing histories of sexual abuse—one due to boys forcing sex on him in the boys’ bathroom at school, and the other due to a parent being utterly inappropriate in describing to my friend in some detail the parent’s disgust at sexual behavior by the other parent in their marriage. Both friends continue to feel effects from these incidents, many years later.
In fact, my friend who suffered from sexual assault had blocked the memory for decades. It came out in intensive therapy due to sexual issues with my friend’s partner. My friend acknowledged a feeling of sexual “frozenness” (my word) and sought help to be freed. It is a work in progress.
I hid my sexual attraction to men until I was in my mid-30s. But I had realized it much earlier, and on two occasions broke my silence. The first time I told my parents, and they seemed to listen but then returned to watching television. They simply did not know what to do with their 16-year-old son standing in the middle to the living room telling him he was “homosexual” (five or six years before Stonewall). And then, when I was in college, I told my priest and asked him what to do. He spoke to my parents, and then, with their permission and my acquiescence, arranged for me to see a therapist.
Supposedly, after some months I was “okay,” at least “better.”
I did not entirely fool myself, however—for example, Playgirl magazine came into being a year or two before I was married in 1974 and I ordered a subscription, allegedly for my new wife. I was sad when she showed little interest in it, and I—who had eagerly consumed the pictures in each issue—had no excuse to renew it.
And before we were married, she asked me about an observation by a friend of hers in our small town that I was “homosexual.” I assured her I was not—that the therapist I had seen while in college had “cured” me.
When I did come out to her, she told me she had never quite let go of fear that her friend had been right. And my mother told me that she had felt relief as we had several children. Surely, she reasoned, I could not be “that way” if we were having babies! But she also told me, after I came out, that a cleaning woman had found a copy of Playgirl in a file drawer in the room where I occasionally slept when staying over to help her care for my invalid father.
I had a secret, but so did they. Secrets breed secrets.
Why do we keep sexual secrets?
One answer is shame. “There is no part of being human about which Americans feel more shame than sex,” says Marty Klein, a sex therapist writing in Psychology Today.
But why shame? One reason, according to Klein, is “sexual exceptionalism—the idea that sex is different than everything else, and needs special rules to govern it.”
One “rule” is the prohibition on the public display of naked bodies. That prohibition seems to rest on the idea that nakedness equals sex (an equation strongly disputed by naturists).
I have long been enamored of nudity, my own and that of others. I like being naked. But I think I made a mistake when, years ago, I was naked, with other naked male friends, at the beach when my daughters, then in their teens and pre-teens, were present. I have carried shame about that behavior.
My shame became more acute after my half-sister, the daughter of my father from his first marriage, told me that our father went around the house, when she was a teen, without his pants on and thus showing his genitals (she told me this 20 year
s after he died). She hated it, as did her mother. This never happened in the home in which I lived with our father and my mother (not hers).
Thus, I continue to worry that my writing about nudity—and perhaps choosing at some point to call myself “The Naked Theologian”—will once again cause me to engage in shameful behavior, at least toward my daughters. As I ponder and pray about that possibility I keep wondering if I need to give my daughters “veto power” over my decision.
Then, I think about church. Do I give “veto power” to the people at church who don’t like my writing about sex and bodies, and most assuredly would not be comfortable with “The Naked Theologian?”
Church of course, is a major contributor to rules about sex. Many church people, and others, even think that sex is the major focus of the Bible.
There is a lot of sex in various parts of the text, and there are texts that contain prohibitions and judgments. But there are other texts, other stories, which do neither (and even “normalize” things prohibited elsewhere). In fact, as Jennifer Wright Knust writes in Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire, “When read as a whole, the Bible provides neither clear nor consistent advice about sex and bodies. . . .”
One way to reduce the power of sexual secrets, and move forward in overcoming abuse and violence, is to discard the idea that the Bible is a reliable sex manual. Then we might begin allowing God into our all parts of our lives, including sex.
I suspect God would like that, and we’d be happier, and safer, too.
I’ve been the family secret. In fact, in many ways, I’m sure I still am, partially of my own choosing, partially of my family’s choosing. I haven’t stayed in touch with most of my family of origin- my grandmother asks my mother about me, but beyond that, I don’t know that much of my extended family really makes an effort to know much about my life. After all, I was the illegitimate child born out of wedlock and raised by lesbians- they were, for much of my life, the “family secret.” Now, I’m a transgender, queer, non-monogamous, kinky sex educator. At some point in the journey of my life, my extended family stopped reaching out to me. My family is no stranger to secrets.
Family secrets are a complicated thing. Whether they are born from a place of shame or an attempt to “keep the peace” at family gatherings, they’re like the big pink elephant in the room. Everyone knows about them , but no one will talk about them or acknowledge them. I think that’s the thing that makes them “secrets”… it’s not so much that they “aren’t known,” but simply that they “aren’t acknowledged.” It’s not, for example, that anyone had any misconceptions about my parent’s relationship: they were obviously more than friends and roommates, and very clearly were lovers. It wasn’t a secret in the sense that no one knew they were partners. It was a secret in the sense that their partnership was never publicly acknowledged or respected as equal to other people’s partnerships. I certainly felt that tension in how I was accepted (or not accepted) as family with my non-biological mother’s family.
Being the family secret is a form of silencing and erasure. It’s a way for people who are supposed to love us unconditionally to choose not to see a part of who we are. For queer people especially, it entirely removes our capacity to exist in the world as whole people: spiritual, emotional, physical, and sexual. Our sexuality, our genders, our relationship configurations and familial configurations are erased, hidden, and ignored; our capacity to be sexual beings is denied.
This month, we celebrate Pride month. Pride at being able to live authentically, to be who we are- all of who we are- when so many of us have lived for a long time as the family secret. Perhaps it’s not coincidence that the subtle verbal acknowledgement of one queer person to another used to be, “Are you family?” We made our own families, families where we found unconditional love and support when we refused to allow who we are to be a secret, something to ignore and work around, a burden, a discomfort.
This week, we also honor the one-year anniversary of the fatal shooting at Pulse
nightclub where 49 young people lost their lives in a tragic hate crime aimed at permanently silencing queer people of color. The queer community- particularly queer communities of color- are no stranger to secrets, either. I think of those people who may have been outed simply by being at Pulse that night- both those who died, and those who lived and suffered the consequences of trauma. What families who had skirted around, never acknowledged, or tried to ignore the sexuality of a loved one must be feeling. I think of the toll of family secrets, and the crushing weight of regret that sometimes comes when we realize we have forever lost an opportunity to show unconditional love.
We are- our queerness, our lives, the ways we love and fuck and connect and build families- we are working against a lifetime of being taught that who we are should not be acknowledged. That who we are makes people uncomfortable, that it causes waves, that it is better kept a secret. We celebrate Pride as a response to these messages, a deliberate way of opening up our own family secrets- and in many ways, opening up our families. One of my mothers has a beautiful phrase that I have adopted as a mantra in my own life: “the only eggshells in this house are in the fridge.” We don’t tiptoe around truth and reality and important conversations because they are uncomfortable.
In my adult, chosen family, I hope we never have family secrets. As I continue to raise my goddaughter, I hope that she never feels the sense of silencing, the shame, the shifts in language, the awkwardness that I felt as a child growing up. I hope she never feels that she is part of a family secret- and a source of family shame.
As a trans, queer person myself, I consciously make the choice not to engage with much of my extended family. Not because I think they are bad or incapable of changing, but because I am not willing to do the things my parents did (and to some degree, still do) to self-silence, to shift, to alter who they were. I am not willing to pretend to be something- or someone- I am not. So perhaps, for them, I exist in the stories my mother tells about me, however twisted and convoluted she presents my life. I recognize that, in many ways, she is still in the same place of seeking love, acceptance, and affirmation for her life, struggling against being the family secret while also wanting to keep the peace. I know that the ways she represents my life aren’t accurate; it’s her choice to make, and it’s mine to not engage with my families of origin to give a more accurate perspective.
We each come out in our own ways, at our own times. Pride reminds us- and the anniversary of Pulse reminds us- how dear, how precious, how important authenticity is. Our sexuality is not inconvenient. Our sexuality does not need to be a secret or something danced around in awkward pauses over family dinners. Now, more than ever, it is vital that we see our sexuality as a part of the whole image of who we are. Now, more than ever, we cannot afford to be silent or circumnavigated. Now, more than ever, we must break our own silences- in whatever ways they manifest- and refuse to be the family secret.
We Want to Hear from You!
Help Make this a Conversation!
What is your relationship with family (or community) secrets? Have you been asked to hold the secrets of others? Have you felt like you were “the secret” in some capacity? 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.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please join us TOMORROW, THURSDAY, June 15th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
Our focus will be “Creating Consent Culture in Our Churches.” Malachi and Robin will discuss how church leaders and members can foster an atmosphere of trust and exploration through mutual concern and consent while considering difficult topics such as various forms of sex, the spiritual ground of sex, and sexual attitudes and behaviors.
This is the time to reach out in support, to create new networks, to open spaces and create something new.
Bodies are always at risk in the world. But it feels to me that many bodies, and in some ways most bodies, are under attack in the United States these days.
Here are a few items in the news that create that reality for me:
Trans Bodies. In one of his first acts as the new Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions has alerted the federal appeals court in Texas that the government will no longer appeal the ruling af the district court judge who blocked, nationwide, Obama Administration rules protecting trans students in public schools. Read more here This raises concern about how the new administration might position the government (or if it will try to do so) in a case, involving an appeal from the Gloucester County, Virginia, School Board already scheduled for hearing at the Supreme Court (the board appealing an appeals court ruling granting the right to Gavin Grimm to use the boy’s restroom at the county high school). Every trans public school student and their parents are facing great risk, not long after the Obama Administration raised hopes for real change.
Immigrant Bodies. In the past few days, there has been reports of a marked increase in the number of ICE raids and arrests of immigrants who are without the necessary papers and those with criminal records. The targets have centered on eleven states, including California, New York, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Illinois. Some of this continues Obama Administration practice of expelling immigrants with criminal records, but it also seems more people than under Obama have been deported for not having papers. The actions seem clearly focused Mexican nationals and other Latin Americans living in the United States. Articles in various foreign-language local media outlets have reported on widespread fear. Read more here and here. Who knows where this will all end, but it is safe to say that millions of bodies, not just those who are deported but also those left behind, are likely affected.
Refugee Bodies. Closely connected are others from foreign lands, especially those fleeing horrible violence in their own land who, according to the President and others in the government, allegedly want to wreak it here. Clearly, we do not know how far the current government will be able to go, but in the meantime it is pretty scary–tens, nay hundreds, of thousands, at least, are at risk. .
Bodies Needing Healthcare. The continuing uncertainty about whether there will be any realistic replacement of the Affordable Care Act (after its almost certain repeal) leaves many facing not having health care that is affordable and accessible. The legislation to repeal seems stalled at the moment, as apparently those rabidly opposed to the program are realizing that though they belittled it many people depend on it for adequate health care. What does not seem to be going away however, is the determination of the Republican Congress and the President to end the Obama version even if they cannot agree on what the new one should look like. The anxiety for many with clear and ongoing needs for care is real—millions of bodies are at risk.
Women’s Bodies. Connected to the future of health care is the effort to defund Planned Parenthood. The bodies of at least two million low-income women are at stake if Speaker Paul Ryan and Vice President Mike Pence succeed in doing what the Trump campaign promised last fall: take all federal Medicaid funding from Planned Parenthood and give it to local community health clinics. Even if that does not happen, the health of many other women will be impacted due to the high proportion of women’s services, other than abortion, provided by Planned Parenthood clinics all over the nation. Read more here.
LGBT Bodies. And even one bad action averted is not fully reassuring. After public pressure, and according to some sources, the intervention of the President’s daughter and son-in-law, the rumored Executive Order to rescind protection of lesbian and gay persons in federal employment decisions was withdrawn. Read more here. The White House even publicly announced the change, touting the President as supportive of LGBT rights. Read more here. Still, the Administration has not yet issued an expected order about religious freedom that would undermine LGBT rights, and Vice President Mike Pence has a long record of championing anti-LGBT causes. These factors leave many nervous about how far protections for LGBT will be undermined and rolled back. It seems clear there will be no forward movement—queer bodies again in jeopardy.
Black Bodies, Poor Bodies, Elderly Bodies. The confirmation of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General causes a rising concern among African Americans, and other racial minorities, about federal protections. It seems clear that the Justice Department will slow down, or even end, efforts to help, and certainly stop suits against, local police departments to end racial profiling and other racist practices. In addition, voting rights seem likely to be under threat, and that involves not only African Americans but also poor people and elderly people of all races.
It may be then, that white straight men (WSM), at least those not poor, have little to fear, especially in their bodies. Those who want to grab pussy can still do so—just don’t talk about it in the locker room (someone might take you seriously), and their voting is not at issue.
I am old enough to remember days like that, the days when America was really great, at least for middle- and upper-class WSM. I don’t want to go back there. I doubt you do either.
Malachi and I usually write more obviously about bodies as connected to sex. However, he and I know that patriarchal constructions of society are never far removed from sex. And bodies are always at risk—even, potentially, some of those male bodies that look secure (e.g., men with LGBT children or siblings, friends and neighbors or business associates or co-workers who are Black or LatinX or Muslim, etc.).
The theological truth is that every body belongs to God, is part of the family of God, and deserves not only respect but also tender care and opportunities to thrive and glow, each in their own way. I am at a loss to explain how people who say they are conservative can so easily not engage in conserving each and every one of these glorious creations, and even more, actively engage in opposing efforts to care for every single body.
I shall resist as best I know how all anti-body rhetoric and activity. That begins with writing the truth as I see it, and asking you and others to join me in more truth-telling, marching, writing letters to Congress, and agitating wherever and whenever we can, being the “angelic troublemakers” (St.) Bayard Rustin called up decades ago.
My childhood minister (prior to Rev. Robin), Rev. Gill Storey, told me once that “patriotism is the birthplace of racism.” That phrase has stuck with me throughout the years and has greatly influenced and informed my perspectives and beliefs on patriotism (particularly post 9/11) through adulthood. Right now, though, I think that it’s a particularly poignant message, as we have seen an uptick in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids behind the banner of “Make America Great Again.”
Indeed, how can we not see the link between patriotism and racism right now? But beyond racism, we see an assault on all bodies that do not conform to the accepted “all-American” look. We see, as Robin has linked, article after article in which different groups are being actively targeted because of their (actual and perceived) race, gender identity, sexual orientation, gender, religion, ethnicity, and/or country of origin.
Today, I don’t come with facts and figures, theory and substantiation. Today, I come with stories. Memories. Moments in my life that resonated so strongly that, when I see the echoes of them today, they make me shake with rage and fear.
I remember being trans in high school. I remember going by the name “Tony” on days where I wanted to be a boy. I remember, in acts of solidarity (as we understood them at the time), guys from band sitting with me on the bus and explaining which pocket you put your wallet in and which wrist should carry your watch. I remember, for the most part support. Except for that one day, when I needed to pee, and went into the bathroom, and freaked out a younger girl coming out of the stall. When I told this story to my friends, they looked at me and said, “Well… duh. You should have used the men’s room.” I didn’t know how to explain my fear of what would happen if I did, and instead tried to avoid using the bathroom at school, ever.
I remember changing band uniforms on the bus- they had a boys bus and a girls bus, and I was never sure which I should be in, which half my friends telling me one thing, and the other half saying something different.
I was on a trans panel a few years ago, and I listened to a friend talk about
being in a chronic state of dehydration because he didn’t want to navigate the public bathrooms on a college campus. I was floored, realizing that I, too, don’t drink nearly enough water and live in a chronic state of dehydration as a subconscious method of avoiding bathrooms. This is not a particularly good thing for me, as an adult, but it’s significantly worse for children and teenagers, whose bodies are growing and changing. It’s one small side effect of these bathroom bills and anti-trans laws that is rarely talked about, but we (as trans people) are doing violence to our own bodies to mitigate the fear of violence being perpetrated onto us.
Compared to what kids are facing now (and what many other kids faced when I was in school), my experience coming out as trans in high school was positively charmed. But I also remember the tension, the fear, the anxiety, the nervousness I felt in an environment that was, for the most part, fairly safe. And then I think about what these laws could do, the impacts they could (and do) have on kids who are struggling to figure out everything from who they want to take to prom to where they want to go to college to how to explain to their parents about why they missed curfew, and it makes me sick with rage and fear and concern. I want to be there, to be able to support these kids, to take something off the stress they are feeling from every other part of their lives. I see high school teachers struggling to connect and wanting to support their students, but not knowing how to.
I have friends that are undocumented, who are struggling to figure out next steps for themselves, their partners, their families. I have friends directly impacted by the ICE raids, struggling to figure out where to go to get away from the threats and realizing that there is nowhere to go. I have other friends talking about trapdoors to basements and who has enough space to house a family for a little while.
I have known someone whose visa ran out, and she and her partner had to figure out next steps because her partner, who was chronically ill, was as a vet and received all medical care through the VA. Leaving wasn’t an option for her partner, staying wasn’t an option for her, and being apart was an option for neither.
I have known black and brown bodies, black and brown friends who have been targeted by the police and civilians because of the color of their skin. I have known queer women who have committed suicide because of sexual assault. I have known sex workers who have been threatened with “outing” and prosecution unless they provided services to the police.
These are not abstractions for me. These are my friends, my people, the ones that I have potlucks with and watch their dogs while they’re away. These are the people whose postcards cover my kitchen wall and whose heads I have held while they cried. This is not statistics or figures or even something new for me. These are the people that I stand beside at protests, watching their courage as they hold signs and claim their lives and identities.
These laws enshrine an attitude in this culture that many have tried to deny for years. Yet as the days pass and executive order followed by cabinet appointment followed by misinformation continues to come from the White House, more begin to see the atrocities and we are banding together.
This is the time for community. This is the time to reach out in support, to create new networks, to open spaces and create something new. Now is the time that we must persevere, and the intersections of our identities give us different abilities and privileges to work within toward that goal.
If patriotism is the birthplace of racism, what then is the birthplace of freedom? Extending our communities to those of different experiences. Inviting refugees and welcoming immigrants. Holding hands on the street. Stopping and witnessing when the police have stopped and questioned a person of color on the street. Actively working against rape culture.
These executive orders and lawsuits and appointments are dire, and they are an assault on bodies- all bodies. So perhaps, those of us with more privilege can use our bodies- our whiteness, our straightness (or straight-passingness), our American citizenship, our maleness- to protect those who might otherwise be killed in the onslaught. We build community and protect others against this assault on our bodies, our beings, our existence. And through community, we are able to truly find freedom.
We Want to Hear from You!
Help Make this a Conversation!
What are your thoughts and reflections on Ruth 4:7-17? Have you had any experience with non-monogamy and unconventional relationships that have brought you joy to think on? 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.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please join us tomorrow, THURSDAY, February 16th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
Workshop description: Non-Monogamy 2 continues from where a previous workshop ended. On December 15, 2016, Malachi and Robin delved into non-monogamy. Malachi described its various forms in contemporary culture and offered observations from personal experience. Robin commented on some of the positive aspects and understandings he has gained through learning more about non-monogamy and reflected on his own feelings (which are more positive than he would have thought). There was a good discussion among those participating on the call, and questions were raised. Malachi and Robin plan to offer more information, and specifically some responses to the questions. If you were unable to be present on December 15, we are hoping a video of the presentation (but not the discussion) will soon be available.
Introduction: As we prepare for the upcoming Third Thursday discussion, we wanted to focus this week on the power and impact of language, and how language impacts not only our ability to communicate, but also frames our cultural, social, and spiritual perspectives. Rev. Robin offers this insightful discussion on the impact of language as we prepare for next week’s discussion.
Robin: In my book, and for many others as well, there is a difference, a significant difference, between being a leader and being a bully. They don’t belong in the same sentence, except to create contrast to enhance understanding. But some, like a certain presidential candidate and some of his leading male supporters, act and speak as if these two terms are interchangeable.
That’s the trouble with language. We want it to be precise, we want the dictionary to rule, but in reality context counts as does the identity and preferences of the speaker/writer.
Take, for example, “homosexual,” a word coined in 1869 and brought into more widespread usage in a book, Psychopathia Sexualis, by Richard von Krafft-Ebing in 1886. For a long time, it was the clinical word used by people who spoke of same-sex attraction and sexual activity. But given negative attitudes among many, it nearly always contained at least some judgment on the attitudes and behaviors engaged in by persons who exemplified the term. Now, with the rise of Gay Liberation, it has become for many, certainly for those it seeks to describe (and proscribe), not a clinical term but one that signals deep disapproval of the attitudes and behaviors.
At the same time, it is National Coming Out Day as I write, and for some, “homosexual” is as far as they can get. It is still not easy claiming your sexual orientation openly—given ongoing homophobia by parts of society and especially religion. Still, LGBT folks know that when we hear someone outside the community speak of “homosexuals” it usually means they see us as perverts, at the very least as undesirables, people who should hide our affections if not our entire selves.
And then there’s “pussy,” a word that until recently, in polite usage, really only meant a cat or perhaps a fussy old lady. Now, thanks to Donald Trump and his endless need to dominate women, the slang usage meaning a woman’s vagina has been mainstreamed (the top definition in the online Urban Dictionary for “pussy” is “The box a dick comes in,” clearly from the perspective of a dominant male). In one sense, this may be good, in terms of my belief (see earlier posts on language) that “street” language should be available for publishing in all venues, especially if it conveys shades of meaning not otherwise available.
The problem is not his use of the term which offends but his celebration, indeed glorification, of sexual assault. “Dirty” language may be a problem for some people, but assault ought to be anathema to all. What he said was not “locker room talk,” but immoral and illegal, jailhouse talk. (check out this video clip from Trevor Noah on The Daily Show, especially at 6:44).
Interestingly, our culture seems to use the term “dirty words” only to refer to sexual, body, terms—certainly “pussy” fits into that category as do other words for body parts. I have never heard the term “dirty” applied to the use of the derogatory term, “nigger” or “Nigrah.” And yet that is what those who used, and use, it mean to convey, a person or class of persons who are so begrimed and dirty in their essence that they are beyond the pale of civilization. How much dirtier can you get? It is a dirty word par excellence.
And more, it is a violation, a violent word when used by white people, because it exalted, or at least excused, assault, lynching, denial of basic humanity, job loss, slavery, tearing apart families, etc. It is a term that justified sexual assault, especially of women of color by white men (all of whom had more social power than the women). Men of color also were
victimized—for example, lynched due to false charges of raping white women.
The word is no longer used in polite or even less polite society, but alas it is still in use among those who believe in and practice white supremacy. And our children still can hear it on playgrounds (and have to be taught it is wrong, degrading, to use it in reference to anyone).
However, there is a word which was used to degrade people, whole categories of people and certainly individuals who were being attacked simply for being themselves, which is now used, at least by some, as a term of liberation. That word is “queer.”
Many “queers” of my age cohort object to positive usage of the word, because they still feel its sting. Others, like me, and many from younger cohorts, are eager to claim the term and use it to understand the world we inhabit and share with other queers and non-queers. This is where the complexity of language is revealed, indeed where we see proof that language, and language usage, is always, at least to some extent, context-specific.
It has long seemed to me that we can tell which groups are struggling
with their place in society by how much they argue over the terms they want to use, and to be used by others, to describe themselves. “Black” was not always a positive term, even among Black people. There is still tension between using
Black or African American (in part, of course, because people who are “Black” are not necessarily either African or American).
What matters most, to me and many others, is that the groups get to choose, to be in charge of the vocabulary the rest of use to talk about them. White people can’t use that ugly N-term because our siblings have made it clear they are hurt by it, they are angry when any of us do. That does not mean they cannot use it among themselves. They are in charge.
The same thing is true about queer. The LGBT community is far from clear about this, but members can surely object when people, inside or outside the community, use it in ways that feel, and are, demeaning. The debate continues, even though many benefit from Queer disciplines: Theory, Theology, Criticism, etc.
So, women could decide to claim the term “pussy” as a positive one, they could decide that instead of allowing male supremacist usage to name the beautiful parts of themselves only as instruments to be used by others, that they will claim their own power to name and be named . “Pussies of the World Unite!” could become a rallying cry for those who seek to overturn male supremacy, and more immediately perhaps in the present moment, to rise above Mr. Trump, to show their disdain of his attitude and behavior by using his words against him to claim their own power.
I cannot say, of course, what they should do. What I can say is that I would be honored to join the Pussy Auxiliary, to show up to support them and to speak up for them, and even to be just a helper in whatever way the movement needs support.
My default position is to stand with those who are oppressed, who are demeaned by language and by actions. The adage is, “Actions speak louder than words. “ But, in reality, words are often all the action needed to do real damage to people.
So whether Mr. Trump physically assaulted the woman he mentioned in the video or not, he assaulted her and all women by his words, and by his dismissal of them as “locker room talk.”
Language is often about choosing sides, and I know whose side I am on.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
What is your experience with reclaiming oppressive language? How does language choice impact and frame conversations for you? 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.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please join us THURSDAY, October 20th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online:
Session 3, “The Roots of Sex-Negativity in Western Christianity: Part 3” from 3-4:00 EST. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
Workshop description: In this session, Robin and Malachi continue to lay out some historical context of sex within Western Christianity, exploring how a faith whose origin rests on incarnation has become known for a deep anti-body and anti-sex bias. In this session, we will move beyond early church fathers and what might be called the social construction of early Christianity to later medieval and Reformation eras, and perhaps into more modern times. There will be time for questions and discussion as well.
As Metropolitan Community Church strives to move forward and maintain relevance with shifting social mores, the MCC Office of Formation and Leadership Development offers Sex, Bodies, Spirit online on the third Thursday of every month at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. This workshop is approved as a continuing education course for clergy (.5 credit for each session) and focuses on equipping and empowering leaders to bring these conversations to their communities. Although the primary focus is on clergy participation, everyone is welcome to attend.
I remember being ashamed of my body and sexuality, even from a very young age.
by Malachi Grennell and Robin Gorsline
Next week, on August 18, in the first monthly installment of the online workshop, “Sex, Bodies, Spirit,” Rev. Robin and Malachi are going to take a look at the roots of sex-negativity and sexual repression within Western Christianity. In preparation for this workshop, we have read Sex as a Spiritual Exercise as well as contemplated our own experiences with sexual repression. You can learn more about the workshop, and how you can participate, at the end of this blog.
In some ways, I feel as though my understandings and experiences with sexual repression retrospectively change as I have a better understanding of the world around me. For much of my life, for example, I felt that, because I was raised in a lesbian home, I didn’t experience sexual repression. I know now, of course, that although I was raised in a somewhat open and affirming home, that doesn’t necessarily translate to a lack of sexual repression.
I spent a considerable amount of my pubescent teenage years terrified of getting pregnant (and, as a result, terrified of having sex with cis-male people). When I tried to discuss birth control with one of my mothers, I got a 2 hour lecture about the dangers of hormonal birth control in teenage women and an offer to buy me a vibrator to take care of my own sexual urges without risking pregnancy. I declined and never broached the subject again.
I think back on this conversation with mixed emotions. On one hand, I did learn some valuable information about the biology of hormonal birth control and its effectiveness over the long-term. On the other hand, the conversation felt as though it didn’t actually address the issues I was dealing with. I wanted to find a way to be intimate with my then-boyfriend of nearly 3 years; my mom was trying to help me find a way to satisfy my sexual desires. I had already figured out masturbation- that didn’t answer my deeper question about how to be sexual while protecting myself from unwanted pregnancy.
Although I grew up in a lesbian household, I still had incredibly heteronormative ideas about what constituted “sex.” Penetration was the dividing line between foreplay and sex (regardless of what (fingers, dildos, etc.) was doing the penetrating) and the role of masturbation was a stop-gap when intimacy with another person wasn’t possible and urges needed to be managed. The concept of masturbation as a sacred act- or even one that could be done with a partner- was a foreign concept that didn’t enter my sexual consciousness until my early twenties, when I met my spouse.
This is perhaps one key element that has been vital to the concept of sexual repression (and subsequent liberation): defining what sex “is.” The way that sex is currently defined (usually penis-in-vagina, or PIV) leaves a lot to be desired. Beyond the increased risk for the transmission of STI’s, it allows us to lie to ourselves about what we are doing. If we are struggling with sexual repression and therefore have shame, etc. around engaging in “real” sex, then this provides a loophole for us to be intimate with another person without ever admitting what we are actually doing.
In addition to all of this, I grew up with one mother who desperately wanted me to be a heterosexual woman because she didn’t want me to suffer and struggle with my sexuality (as she had). While I’m sure she feels differently now, at the time, her desire for me to be a heterosexual woman was very much interpreted by my teenage self as an internalized homophobia. If she loved and was happy with her life and identities, why wouldn’t she want that for me? Or better yet, why wouldn’t she simply encourage me to be authentic and love myself rather than fixate on a “gold star standard” of relationship practices? In all of this, I understood “heterosexual woman” to be better than “homosexual woman”- and “transmasculine queer man” is definitely not on the list of things she wanted for me. But even growing up in a lesbian home, I felt a certain sense of shame and fear to “come out” to my mother… when I first started dating a girl, but even more so as a trans person.
I hope she sees herself and her life with more joy than she seemed to then. I say this, but recognize that she still mispronouns me (refers to me as “she” and “girl” and “daughter”) despite the fact that I have been out as trans for over 10 years now. I believe she sees some things as better than others, and I think she wanted “better” for me than what I have, which is sad, because I think what I have is pretty dang awesome.
(Since I have lesbian mothers, I recognize that referencing “my mother” can be confusing. One of my mothers, an MCC pastor, is incredibly affirming- I have referenced her in previous posts. The mother to which I am referring now is my biological mother.)
I don’t want to digress too far, but sexual repression was very much a part of my upbringing- even being raised in a queer home. I have come to recognize that there is a different level of scrutiny that queer families had in the late 80’s/early 90’s that, perhaps, prohibited discussions of sex even more drastically than heterosexual families of the same time. I remember being ashamed of my body and sexuality, even from a very young age. It wasn’t always something my parents said, but it was an attitude… an internalization of self-shame that was incredibly transparent to my childhood and teenage self.
I started having sex when I was 16. When I went to college (just after my 18th birthday), years of sexual repression came pouring out of me, and I started sleeping with anyone I could. I wasn’t safe and responsible. I didn’t get tested and didn’t often use barriers (because I was sleeping with people who were assigned female at birth, I was woefully ignorant that STI transmission could still occur). As often happens when something is considered taboo (e.g. alcohol, sex, etc.), when we are able to access it, we don’t often proceed with caution or moderation. Years of sexual repression coupled with a fear of being “bad in bed” led me to sleep with many, many people in a very short period of time.
I’m sure I didn’t always practice the best consent methods (not in the sense of forcing/coercing someone, but in the sense of “no means no” rather than “yes means yes” consent model). I didn’t have the tools to navigate the world as a responsible, sexual adult; instead, years of pent-up sexual longing exploded out of me in the span of a few months. I felt like everyone else had already been having sex for years and knew what they were doing and I was going to get left behind. The perhaps most frightening of all, because I was so out of touch with myself, my body, and my sexuality, when others turned their attentions to me, I didn’t always know how to say no…or believe that I was allowed to say no.
There were a couple of women I knew through church that I felt comfortable talking to, but I still worried they would judge me for my actions because, well…they were church folk. Much to my surprise (and relief), one of them taught me about dental dams, safety, and STI testing. But there wasn’t a place I knew I could go to talk about my fears and concerns. MCC was a safe haven for LGBT folks, and the LGB part, at least, related to who we were sexually attracted to… and yet. If there was ever a place or opportunity to talk about sex, it was not geared toward the young adults (and I learned, after showing up to a workshop on HIV, that my parents got very uncomfortable talking about sex when I was in the room). There was no place to ease the pressure and talk, and I didn’t see the people around me talking about it, which meant that everyone else had it figured out, and I was lost.
Sexual repression has very much been a part of my upbringing, intentionally or not. As I have begun to do more work to parse through some of my own hangups, I realize how much of them come from a place of fear, shame, and secrecy. As we pivot toward a discussion about the roots of sex-negativity in Western Christianity, I encourage each person to consider ways in which they have had to battle/navigate sexual repression (both in and out of the context of faith). Understanding the history of our faith within the context of our own lives can be a powerful step toward healing and bridging these tender places inside each of us.
I don’t know when I first heard words that told me that sex was a bad thing, but I imagine that was when I realized that it was not to be talked about. As children, we often learn not only from what adults say but also what they do not say, and certainly their body language in both instances.
I certainly knew in 4th Grade, as I entered puberty, that my fantasies about Bob S. (and a few other boys, but especially Bob) in my class were something to keep to myself. And in 6th grade, I knew that the delight of another friend, Bob H., at seeing Bob S. naked and describing his “amazing, really big” penis, was somehow embarrassing, if not wrong (as well as feeling jealous that I did not see it, too). Now, much of this is what I imagine most, if not all, adolescents (at least in the United States) go through, struggling to figure out what to do with these burgeoning hormones sweeping through parts of our bodies and overwhelming our brains.
On the one hand, we want to know more, and on the other, we fear raising the subject. For most of us, the silence is deafening, broken only by various comments among contemporaries, many of which simply add to the confusion.
This is where, for me at least, the church comes in.
I grew up in a small Midwestern Episcopal Church, not a hellfire and brimstone kind of place, but a calm, ordered environment where we read three biblical passages every Sunday and the priest expounded on at least one of them. I was blessed to have a priest, beginning in my middle adolescence and many years beyond, who was especially enamored of the Hebrew texts, but he certainly spoke about the Gospel and Paul and other writings.
I have no memory of ever hearing that good man speak openly against sex, but then I never heard him speak for it, either. Mostly, what I heard rarely was, if ever, about bodies at all, except when he taught about the war between flesh and spirit; flesh=bad (or at least dangerous), Spirit=good.
[There were two times he was very clear with me personally: one was to tell me, “I will find help for you,” when I told him I had sexual feelings for other men; the other was when he told me not to come back to church again, when I wrote him from seminary to come out as a gay man. ]
This is most interesting to me now, because of what I have learned about Jewish attitudes toward sex, going back to the earliest days of that faith, including the encouragement to married couples to have sex on the Sabbath in order to “hallow the day,” as Daniel Helminiak writes in “Sex as a Spiritual Exercise,” which you can find here. )
Of course, that specific teaching did not apply to me until much later, but that good priest eventually presided at my wedding, and he did not speak of that with me and my wife-to-be in our pre-marital sessions. My memory is further that I was relieved that he did not speak of sex at all with us, given the fact that he knew of my strong homoerotic desires when I had gone to him while in college seeking help (he referred me to a psychiatrist with whom I worked for the better part of a year, but ultimately, years later, after marriage, children, and divorce, her help was insufficient to erase my desires).
I recount this not to criticize this spiritual guide (who gave me much wisdom) so much as to suggest that the powerful anti-sex proscriptions of Christian practice wreak havoc with many lives. Where does all this come from?
Malachi and I will be talking more about this on August 18 at 3 p.m. EDT during this month’s MCC online workshop, “The Roots of Sex-Negativity in Western Christianity” on Sex, Bodies, Spirit, but I can say now that I share Helminiak’s view that most of this is not due to actual Christian texts, and certainly not Jesus, and not even so much to Paul, but rather to the influence of non-Christian philosophies and movements which the Church took in and laid over the top of those texts and our Lord. In saying that, I am still holding church fathers of old and of now (and I count myself among this latter number) responsible for what happened, and what still happens.
Indeed, what some MCC veterans say about the time, early in our movement, when the church talked more openly about sex, may parallel what happened to the early church. The desire for members, indeed even for survival, and certainly as part of what seems to be a natural human desire to “fit in,” has caused MCC to stop such talk, to even stop making the connection between our founding and sex (for more on this point, see my earlier post in another online venue, “What’s Sex Got to Do with It?”).
Given that Christianity is grounded in the claim that God incarnated God’s self in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and that in doing so validated yet again the centrality of embodied spiritual life (the Hebrew biblical texts are, again and again, a demonstration of God’s activity in, among and through human bodies), it seems odd to say the least that we now hide our bodies so much. And I am not meaning only in the opposition to, and embarrassment of, nudity (although as a nudist myself, I do mean that), but also in how we so rarely speak about our bodies positively in spiritual terms.
As a lifelong participant in Christian worship, I am hard-pressed to think of more than a handful of times, other than in prayers for the sick, when bodies have even occasioned a brief mention. As for sex, or sexuality, I can think of no times, not even really in prayers for justice for LGBTQI people. Never sex.
This silence reminds me of the time, when I was in high school, I told my parents, “I think I might be homosexual,” and they simply looked at each other and returned to watching the television program I had interrupted, not saying a word. And it reminds me of the time my mother caught me masturbating. “Stop that disgusting thing right now!” she said and then left the room, never to speak of it again.
In my view, the church has abdicated our responsibility to teach about, indeed to encourage practice of, the amazing and powerful link between our bodies and our spiritual selves. The sex-negativity of Western Christianity has allowed other forces—often in our day, corporations and advertisers, and media seeking followers—to make bodies and sex commodities to be pedaled, often through intentional titillation right up to the edge of “decency” (whatever that means) and teasingly to bump the boundary a little further at times. The result is that sex is not exactly an “open secret”—it seems we cannot get away from it ever, especially today on social media and the internet—but at the same time it is such a secret, a subject we all know about but know at the same time it is one that we should never really engage.
We will never change this if we do not figure out how we got here, and commit to a long struggle to undo the deep damage done to the world, and especially to billions of wonderfully embodied beloveds of God right here, right now.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
What types of sexual repression have you experienced? Did they come from family, peers, the church, or other places? How have those experienced shaped, helped, or hindered your sexual expression as an adult? 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.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please feel free to join us THURSDAY, August 18th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online: Session 1, “The Roots of Sex-Negativity in Western Christianity” from 3-4:00 EST. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Rev. Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. Although not required, we encourage participants to read Sex as a Spiritual Exercise to mentally prepare for this discussion. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
Workshop description: In this first session, Rev. Robin and Malachi lay out some historical context of sex within Western Christianity, exploring how a faith whose origin rests on incarnation has become known for a deep anti-body and anti-sex bias. There will be time for questions and discussion as well.
As Metropolitan Community Church strives to move forward and maintain relevance with shifting social mores, the MCC Office of Formation and Leadership Development offers Sex, Bodies, Spirit online on the third Thursday of every month at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. This workshop is approved as a continuing education course for clergy (1 credit for each session with full participation) and focuses on equipping and empowering leaders to bring these conversations to their communities. Although the primary focus is on clergy participation, everyone is welcome to attend.
. . . if we truly believed human bodies—all human bodies—are sacred . . .
Introduction: In the wake of the Orlando massacre, Robin and Malachi are drawn to the discussion of bodies, and the act of visiting violence upon someone’s body. In the process of our own struggles, remembrances, and emotions, we hope to offer some helpful thoughts to those grieving and struggling with how to move forward from this unwarranted attack on our family, our friends, and our communities.
Robin: The tragedy in Orlando can easily overwhelm a person of even a little sensitivity. Forty-nine people gunned down—the gunman himself killed, and more injured—like kewpie dolls on a moving track at a carnival game booth. Hit five and you win a prize. Hit ten and you win 2 prizes, hit 49 and you win the jackpot!!!
But these were not dolls, they were people, real flesh and blood people, real human bodies. They were dancing and drinking and flirting and kissing and hugging and peeing and maybe sweating. Maybe some of them even felt pain from dancing, a sore knee or ankle or hip or back, but still they danced and they watched others dance and their tapped their feet, and maybe raised arms in joy and excitement. It has been some time since I went to a gay club, or any dance venue, and danced the night away. But I have done it, especially with my Jonathan, who inspires me with his exuberance and lightness of feet.
There is something beyond special to feel your body moving with the beat, your heart thumping on the fast numbers and your heart filling on the slow ones.
These were people, mostly L, G, B, or T, or Q ones, but S ones, too, friends who like to dance and know that gay clubs are great places to dance, to celebrate.
These were bodies—young and old and in between, mostly Latino/a, probably some Black and white, male and female and in between and unwilling to choose, tall and short, heavy and thin, single and partnered, probably some looking for sex or at least companionship. Among hundreds present, there were probably almost every sort and condition of humankind.
The act of gunning down 49 bodies and injuring 53 more (and will they all live?) and terrorizing the rest who ran screaming or hid from the nightmare that will not ever leave their bodies, their body memories, their psychic space, their spiritual center—how little can the shooter care about the bodies of others? Or his own?
If we really believed that the human body is a temple of God, if we truly believed human bodies—all human bodies—are sacred, would we repeatedly destroy them with guns and knives and malnutrition and starvation and bombs and war and terror and lack of care (of self and others), and ignorance and disease we can actually stop and cure? Would we?
I am sitting at my desktop, naked as is my custom these days, feeling my aches and pains, running my hands over all parts of my aged/still aging white male privileged body, alone except for Cocoa our standard poodle sleeping in the next room, and wondering what I can say that has not already been said or will not be said somewhere else, probably better than I can. My body is carrying anger and anguish, almost inexpressible sadness, and fear for my own LGBT community and for other marginal communities: all Latino/a and Muslim peoples (walls and deportations, and more), Black people (killed and denied voting just because), native peoples, immigrants, children, women, religious minorities, differently-abled people.
I keep coming back to these particular bodies. One news report said, “Workers removed the bodies four at a time on stretchers and loaded them into white vans. The action was repeated over and over” (link). I am reminded of reading accounts of the Nazi Holocaust, dead bodies en masse, workers dealing with them endlessly. Or other massacres closer to home: Wounded Knee (as many as 300 Lakota, plus soldiers) in 1890, and mass lynching of Black sharecroppers in 1919 in Arkansas (estimates range from 100 to 800-see here and here).
In Orlando, how high would the bodies reach if the dead ones were stacked one on top of the other—how deep would the hole have to be or how high would the ladder or lift have to be as they rose in one towering pile—or how wide or deep would the hole in the ground have to be if they were dumped, like Jews or queers or gypsies in the Holocaust, or victims of poison gas in Syria, in a mass grave?
The shooter did not care about any bodies, probably even his own (perhaps because he did not like his embodied sexual feelings?)—he must have known on some level he would die, too, perhaps that is what he really wanted but he couldn’t go without taking others with him—and I know I do not care for my body as well as I could/should/wish.
I also know I do not at this time want to die. I will go when its time, and hope I will know when that is and go willingly and gratefully for all I have received, but now I have things to do, people to love and be loved by, poems and blogs and books to write, meals to cook, laundry to wash, gardens to tend, husband and dog and daughters and grandchildren and sons-in-law and a future son-in-law and a sister and nieces and their families and church folk and JVP and synagogue friends and neighbors and so many more to hug and care for as best I can. The 49 had dreams and intentions, too. And family and loved ones.
They all have bodies, no, they all are bodies, weall arebodies. Everyone, every human, every animal, is a body. We begin this earthly journey as bodies and we embody the spiritual being God creates us to be. We can’t be, human or animal, without a body.
Flesh, blood, skin, organs, orifices, cells, veins, tissue, bone, currents of energy. In some sense, that is all we are. And in that is-ness, we are perfect, no matter what shape or category we inhabit. It is in a moment like this that I am glad I am a vegetarian. I don’t kill bodies for food or for hate.
But I am a citizen of this world, and most of us do kill (or employ others to kill for us) for food, and too many (even though a far, far lesser number) kill for hate.
Can I say I could never kill another human? I have tried to say that, but every time I know I am being false, dishonest. If saving Jonathan or Cocoa or my daughters and and/or their families and those others I mentioned above seemed to be possible only by killing the one or ones intending to kill them, I believe I would kill first. I want it not to be so, and I want first no such harm threatened but if it is, then I want the person or persons arrested, peaceably I hope, and tried and kept apart, and I pray, changed. But I know that as much as I value each and every body, I do have a hierarchy of value. I would kill to save the bodies I love, including my own.
Knowing that, admitting that, all I know to do then is my part to honor every body I can—to help create a world that honors all bodies, wants all bodies to thrive. It is why I started this blog, and included bodies in the title. I want to be explicit—yes, that word that has come to mean seeing body parts on screen some may wish to ignore and others are hungry to see—that it is bodies I care about. I want to do my part to reverse the anti-body forces, to help transform the body haters into body lovers.
I follow Jesus whose body many believe was divine. I love him for his divinity that was expressed through his humanity, through his Jewish, male, young-ish body. And I love all the other divine bodies, too, even those who hate my body and the bodies of people like me and people unlike me.
I don’t know what else to do—except to love every body (two distinct words, say them clearly to emphasize the body) I can, even ones I may not entirely understand, doing so in ways that honor them and me and our relationship, and most of all, seek to strengthen the bond between us so that we can stand together not only in mourning for those who are killed, massacred as in Orlando, but also in active solidarity, body to body, body by body, body with body.
I extend my hand to yours, my body, too: let us embrace, body to body, as best we can, across cyber space and across the aisle, next door and down the road, everywhere we can. And let us never let go.
I’ve run the gambit of emotions these past several days. I’ve gone from sad to angry to numb to grieving to protective and back again. In the wake of the Orlando shooting, I think many in the LGBTQ communities have faced a similar struggle: we are saddened, outraged, numb, angry, hurting. Everyone I have spoken with has been somewhere on that spectrum. Yet while there is shock at the scale of this attack, I have found very few people truly surprised by it.
It seems to be the natural progression to the elevated rhetoric and discussion we have seen in the past several years around LGBTQ people. We have heard people say truly hateful things in the name of religion (many different religions, including- and perhaps, especially- from people claiming Christianity).
With the upcoming election, we have seen a rise in hateful speech toward the GLBTQ communities, toward immigrants, toward people of color. We have heard it from politicians and, when something is broadcast through a microphone, we hear it spoken by supporters in the streets. When authorities say something, it gives other permission to vocalize similarly hateful ideologies.
I have been angry. I think anger is important, and we need to allow ourselves the space and gentleness to have angry responses. But we can’t stay there. Anger is important, but it can also be corrosive. It can wear us down and wear us away until we are too tired to move forward, to act. There must be a “what next?”, and that movement rarely comes from remaining in a place of anger.
The tragedy in Orlando is the product of violent rhetoric, but it is also the product of nation desensitized to violence. It is the product of dehumanizing a person so that violence visited on those bodies is not violence toward a person, but violence toward a group. The people who were targeted were not targeted because of who they were as people; they were targeted because they frequented a gay club that night.
When we categorize people, they become a tokenized representation of a larger group, rather than an individual person with multiple communities. The people who were targeted were singled out because they were assumed to be gay, but many were people of color. Some were parents. Some were college students. They came from different religious backgrounds and family situations. But none of that mattered to the shooter. What mattered is that they were gay.
It seems trite, but it reminds me of the story of a parent and child going to a seafood restaurant. The child immediately names all the lobsters in the tank so that the parent won’t eat any of them. By giving someone a name, they become real, rather than abstract. It’s harder to kill and eat a lobster named Jonas than it is to kill and eat an arbitrary lobster.
I have been angry, but we must go somewhere from there. Christianity tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves, but what do we do when our neighbor is racist, sexist, classist, homophobic? What does it mean to love the people who perpetrate violence on the bodies of others because of the group they are assumed to represent?
It is the “as ourselves” that always gets to me. How do I love myself? Do I see myself as a member of a group or as an individual? What does my body represent to me?
We know, of course, that “hurt people hurt people.” For example, internalized homophobia often contributes to violence perpetrated against the LGBTQ community. Perhaps, from there, we can understand that how others treat us says a lot about how they see themselves.
I don’t want to give an answer that sounds trite. I love the sentiment that “love wins” because I think love is a verb. It’s kinetic energy, potential motion with a catalyst. It can be overwhelmingly powerful. But saying, “love wins” isn’t always comforting. I don’t want to love the shooter. I don’t want to love someone who takes advantage of an unconscious woman. I don’t want to love the people who perpetrate violence on bodies because they dislike the group to whom they believe that body belongs, or because they believe a group is inferior to their own.
And yet… and yet. Love takes work. It takes effort. It is one of the central tenants of Christian faith, and I’m one who believes that Christianity takes effort and work. God does not call us to do what is easy; God calls us to do what is right.
Do I forgive the shooter for the lives he stole? It’s not up to me to forgive, and I’m not sure that I can go there yet. It’s too fresh, too raw. Do I make excuses, apologize, or in any way try to reframe what happened by making it about mental illness or radical extremism? Absolutely not. This was an extreme act of homophobia that visited violence on the bodies of LGBTQ people. But it happened because he hated the group of people, not the people themselves. The dangerous rhetoric we have heard over the past several weeks, months, and years has dehumanized LGBTQ people as a one-dimensional group. The Gay People. Homosexuals.
In a similar manner, we dehumanize people with whom we disagree all the time. Racists. Homophobes. It becomes easier to sustain our hatred when we are not dealing with people, but with ideas. And it’s ok to disagree, dislike, and fight against ideas- in fact, it’s important that we do fight against ideas that are founded on limiting the freedoms of another person. But it is the ideas, not the people, that we need to work against.
I do not hate this shooter, although a part of me desperately wants to. His ideas and actions were atrocious, but those were not created in a vacuum. Those were created right here, in this country, by the rhetoric and language of hateful ideas spoken by those to whom we have given microphones. This man was a product of the United States.
I do not hate this shooter. I am struggling to see him as a whole person, wounded and self-hating, violent and dangerous, but a person. He was not just an idea, or the representative of an idea. There are other homophobic people, other sexist and racist and classist people in the world. But they are more than that.
Perhaps that is a part of that commandment. We struggle to see ourselves as whole people, integrated and authentic. We struggle to love the person that we see when we look in the mirror. We must struggle to see others as whole people as well, re-humanize people who have been dehumanized as representatives of a group. We cannot work to end such atrocities without first understanding where they come from, and we cannot understand where they come from without first allowing ourselves to understand the people behind them. We may hate the ideas and actions of a person, but they are, at the end of the day, a person struggling to see themselves as whole, integrated, and authentic. They are people struggling with how to love themselves.
In memory of those who have died, the list of victims can be found here.
If you would like to make a contribution to help support the victims of the Orlando shooting, please click here.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
What do you think? How are you handling the aftermath of the Orlando shooting? How might we, as people of faith, seek to embody love, even in the face of such violent adversity? Please share your thoughts, your heart (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.