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?
The truth is we have to make room in our lives to say yes.
When I was a young man, indeed until last year, I never thought of becoming The Naked Theologian. And although I wrote a few poems over the years—often as a way to celebrate an event—I never thought of myself as a poet. And I did not think of myself as gay until I was 35—even though I had long had sexual fantasies about boys (when I was a boy) and men. And after I graduated from a Ph.D. program in theology and could not find a job teaching the subject, I thought I was done with that.
I never thought, I never thought, I did not think of myself, I thought I was done with that.
There’s a theme here: Thinking can keep you stuck.
I don’t mean one should never think, but over the course of my 71 years I have come to understand, albeit slowly and still imperfectly, that some good stuff happens when I stop thinking and start feeling.
Feeling certainly has a mental component, but when I don’t pay attention to how my body is carrying the feeling I miss vital aspects of myself. Indeed, my experience tells me that I often miss prompts, messages from God.
I love Jonathan, my husband of 20+ years, but our marriage might never have come about if I had reasoned away my feelings of anger and jealousy when he, as then my dear friend of six years for whom I had not felt any erotic draw, began chasing after a comely young man on the beach at Fire Island. Who knew Jonathan and I would become lovers and best friends for life? I think God knew we were a good match, but it took me, and him, some time to figure it out.
Or maybe it was less about figuring things out and more about allowing space for God to fill us with gifts.
Yes, for me, it’s about God, or if you prefer, the Universe. I believe, I know, God is always up to something new, something more. Life is so much richer than any of us can ever fully know, but then we, or at least I, work pretty hard to keep the riches within bounds, within the container of what I think my life is and should be, within the boundaries of the world within and around my socially informed consciousness.
I now realize that making room for new things, allowing space for new things to happen, getting out of the way for life to show us something new—or maybe even show us things that have been in and around us for a long time that we have been avoiding or denying—is the key to rich, vibrant spiritual living.
As some readers will know, I claim several identities. I am a Queer, or maybe just I am queer. I am a nudist/naturist. I am a theologian. I am a poet. I am a father and grandfather. I am a husband. And brother and uncle, and a cis gender male. I am even a Christian, and certainly a citizen. I am a gardener. I am a dog lover and owner.
Some of those identities may seem distinct from others, and some newer, some not so new. But they are all connected in the human person that is me.
The identities and their connectivity are still evolving. Indeed, the evolution that is me is ongoing. For instance, I only began naming myself as a nudist/naturist a year or two ago (I can’t be more precise because it was a process that I now realize began when I was a teenager). About the same time, I began to think about writing as The Naked Theologian.
This particular evolution also required that I reclaim an identity I thought (!!!) I had set aside: theologian. And more than that, queer theologian. And even more recently, I have immersed myself in theopoetics–a way of theologizing that prioritizes the body, experience, and emotion–quite different from the classic discipline of systematic theology in which I was trained.
But I doubt any of that would have happened had I not listened to a voice I heard in 2014 at 10,000 feet in Yosemite National Park, a voice that told me, “The writing keeps crying out.” I have no doubt that God spoke through the trees who (not which) uttered those words, calling me home to what I now see as my vocation: writer. (Of course, that moment was preceded by many others that got me there.)
In the mountains, that call was not very specific. But two days after I came down and home to Richmond, I attended a reading and talk by Natasha Tretheway, then U.S. Poet Laureate. This had not been planned—I saw a newspaper item, and felt a pull to go.
I found a friend there, Dorothy Fillmore, who I discovered in that moment writes wonderful poetry. She and Natasha Tretheway challenged and inspired me to take my first poetry class (with Dorothy) and have not been the same since. I keep taking such courses today.
Why do I share this journey? It’s simple really. The journey is not over, of course. And that’s the point.
I am not in charge of this journey and never have been. I have made choices, of course, and often I used my mind to figure things out.
But the real source of the power, and the wisdom is in my body, in the times when my mind let down its guard and I could feel the movement of the One I call God, Spirit, the One who stops me long enough to hear a voice while I sat naked on that mountain, to the voice I heard while sitting in Rosh Hashanah service at the Or Ami Congregation in Richmond telling me to step away from pastoring to engage in political organizing for equality, to the voice I heard while on retreat in the chapel at Richmond Hill to trust God to give me what I need to get through trying times at the church I served, to the voice I heard on 4th Avenue in Brooklyn in2002 to set aside my hurt and anger at the Episcopal church and accept my call as a pastor (in Metropolitan Community Churches), the voice I heard in Milford, Michigan more than twenty years before that told me to leave political life and go to seminary and serve God and God’s people, the voice I heard at the Episcopal Divinity School on Brattle Street in Cambridge telling me to come out as a gay man.
Not one of those voices, and others earlier and later too, was just in my head. In fact, my head had tried, and succeeded, and still tries and succeeds, in stopping them many times.
So I keep being reminded, praise God, to get out of my head and into my body—where God keeps troubling and guiding my soul, keeps speaking truth, keeps putting divine hands on and in my life. So it’s time to stop this writing for this moment. And listen. And feel. And live into the rich future God yet has for me.
As a highly analytical person, one of the things I struggle the most with is “getting out of my head.” Being present in the moment, not overthinking. Existing in my body instead of using my thoughts to disconnect from the sensations I am experiencing. I have a hard time relaxing and trusting my instincts- which is probably why, when I feel a pull of God calling in my life, I struggle so hard with it.
I appreciate and respect that calls to movement and change are never easy. In fact, I have come to believe that struggling with a call is part of the call itself. It’s part of faith- the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. So it makes sense to me that the movement of God in my own life comes in ways that are harder for me to trust. They’re intuitive, instinctive. They require me to “trust my gut” and, for all intents and purposes, “get out of my head.”
As we are transitioning from winter into spring and the weather gets warmer, this is something I have been thinking a good deal about. I’m not someone who deals with cold very well, and spend most of the winter trying to ignore the sensations of my body- which means getting deep into my head and focusing on the thoughts and internal contemplation as a means of distancing myself from my physical reality of being cold. But as it gets warmer, and my skin feels more comfortable again, it’s easier to be more present-aware because I am enjoying the sensations of warm on my skin.
I’ve been thinking about this because it’s almost become second nature for me to distance myself from my body in different ways when the sensations my body is experiencing are uncomfortable. And by doing this, it also means that I fall into this habit during other periods of anxiety or discomfort- which includes sex, or moments where I feel the call of God stirring in my life. My default is to sink into my analytical mind and overthink everything, rather than experience the sensations of my body, however uncomfortable they may be.
It has been a period of so many transitions: seasonal transitions in tandem with life transitions. In particular, I have been at a place where I have wanted to make the work I do in the kink and BDSM community more sustainable and financially viable, but I haven’t quite known how to do that. As I was contemplating different ways to move out of food service industry and into full-time kink work, I was offered an opportunity to become a ropemaking apprentice with a friend who has been making and selling rope for over seven years and is a well-known ropemaker inside the kink community.
It’s not that I think that God is calling me to be a ropemaker, specifically. The call I felt stirring was subtler and much more powerful- follow your passion. It was a call to move beyond the “safety net” of food service industry jobs and take a blind leap, in some respects, into an opportunity that sets me on a path to making my life more sustainable. And I wanted to follow it, absolutely. But I didn’t want to give up my safety net.
I began the apprenticeship, but also maintained my outside job. Between the two, I ended up overworking myself, and got sick. It forced me to stop and reconsider how I was choosing to listen and follow this tug of opportunity that was presented to me. And in that moment I realized: I needed to make room in my life for the things I wanted, or I was distancing myself from this call as much as I distance myself from my body when I am uncomfortable.
There is a terrifying element of trust in all of this. The idea that “I don’t know where this is going or how this is going to work out, but I trust that you have led me here for a reason, God.” I wanted to cling to my own safety nets, maintain my other job (which, while I loved it, was emotionally and physically taxing as well as in the midst of many changes and transitions). The truth is, we have to make room in our lives to say yes. Getting out of our heads means taking risks sometimes. It means we do things- not recklessly, but without analyzing every possible outcome and conclusion. It means we trust that things will go well, instead of looking for every opportunity where things might go wrong. Overanalyzing is often looking for a reason to say no, rather than trusting our instincts to say yes.
Getting out of our heads means we have to be willing to experience our own discomfort. Our own fears and insecurities and uncertainties. It means that we have to let go of control, make space, and experience our lives fully- the good and the bad. It means we takes risks when our gut is telling us that’s the direction we need to move. It means being present, saying yes, and letting go of whatever safety nets we have built- because those nets are no longer a help, but a hindrance to our goals.
It means making room. When God calls us to move in some direction in our lives, sometimes we have to let other things go to make room. I needed to leave my other job; as much as I loved its goals and purpose, it had become and physically and emotionally taxing in a way that was not sustainable, it was a pull on my time that I couldn’t sustain, and I knew I would be leaving regardless. When I got sick, it was a moment for me to get out of my head, experience the sensations of my body, make some hard decisions, and follow my gut- wherever that leads me.
For me, I find that it’s rarely the thing itself that is the call, but the intention of the thing. It’s not about becoming a ropemaker (although I do love it and enjoy it and plan to do it for quite some time). It’s about setting the intention that I wanted kink to be more financially sustainable and was unsure how to do it, and the opportunity presented itself to me. I don’t think this is where I will end up “forever,” but I think it’s a step down a path that is built on following my passions. It’s an opportunity to move to a different place in my life, and that intention is perhaps the most powerful- and terrifying- part of all.
Getting out of my head isn’t easy. If I stop to think too hard, I think of every way this could go wrong and fail. I second-guess myself, my abilities, my contributions. I want to stay in the safe area of customer service- not because I love it, but because I’ve done it so long that I’m good at it. It’s comfortable.
But God rarely allows us to stay too comfortable for long. And when we state our desires into the universe, they are heard. So this season- this season of transience and transition- the themes seem to all interconnect and weave together into their own safety net of sorts: let go of control. Get out of your head. Say yes. Make room. Let go, and let God.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
How have your perspectives, your sense of self, your choices, changed over the years? How do you identify the sources which have helped you to change, have led you in new directions? 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.
Mark Your Calendar! June 13th (or thereabouts), right here, the next installment of Sex, Bodies, Spirit.
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.
We must make more room in our churches and communities to talk about bisexuality, pansexuality, and queerness.
Reading one of the sex- and bodies-focused blogs I receive, my attention was drawn to the subject of bisexuality, a topic Malachi and I have not addressed in a focused way. So here goes.
The particular article, “And New on the Bisexuality Spectrum—‘Mostly Hetero’,” looks at a phenomenon recently under discussion among researchers, namely a nuancing of the traditional sexuality continuum. What caught my eye was the term “mostly hetero.” In response, I murmured “I am mostly homo.”
That “mostly” may surprise some readers, because I clearly identify myself as gay. But it was not always so. I was married for more than eight years (1974-83), and my wife gave birth to three daughters. I was the sperm donor, not through artificial insemination but through penile-vaginal sex. She and I had sex, and more than three times!
I loved Judy very much, but in reality our sex—much desired by her—was not so much for me about lust for her body (which was very sexy by many standards, not to mention her energy and winning personality) as it was to satisfy my own need for sexual release and to honor my commitment to her. I did not fantasize about men during our love-making, but I did the rest of the time. I never stopped looking at men.
When I finally accepted my same-sex desires, working with a therapist and coming out to Judy, and had my first male-male sex (other than one time of masturbation with a friend in our early teens), I suddenly knew why many talked about sex as the pinnacle of pleasure. The fireworks were there in a way they had not been with her.
But I wondered, off and on for a while, am I bisexual or homosexual? Still, over a relatively short time I became clear I am homosexual. On the traditional scale, first enunciated by Alfred Kinsey in the late 1940s, that is a 6. But I do find the occasional woman attractive enough to wonder what it would be like to be sexual with her.
So maybe I am a 5.5 or 5.7 or 5.8, not quite a 6.0. Mostly homo.
Yet, I never had sex with a woman after Judy. Not even close. And I had sex with many men during my times of being a single male. So my heterosexuality is very muted.
I know many gay men and lesbian women who are parents like me—children born during a marriage into which they entered before realizing, or finally accepting, they prefer sex with a person of the same gender. Most of these people report not being very happy in the marriage, but they had sex.
What this points to is the elasticity of sexuality, the wideness of the range of possibilities. I remember a lesbian friend who for decades was in a relationship with the woman of her dreams—when I got to know them there were no longer young, but there was no hiding their obvious love and joy each other; it was infectious to all around them. Then her wife died. A year or two later, she met a man and they fell in love. Many were shocked, and even angry.
Perhaps because I remembered how much I loved Judy, I called her to extend congratulations. She said to me that her new love was, in her mind and heart, just a male version of her wife.
So sometimes it is the person that makes the difference. A former male lover of mine was, like me, married. When he divorced, and we were sharing a seaside cottage with our respective daughters for a week, I seduced him. We were together after that for more than six years—and he has had a second husband for more than two decades. Was he gay before, or did things, he, just change? Or did he let some part of him, previously hidden, emerge?
Another way to see this is accept that sex and sexual orientation are not synonymous with affection and love. We are able to act sexually through our bodies—our genitals, our hands, our tongues—in ways that are not always synchronous with the social structure or construction of sexuality we have adopted (or has been given to us). And, as outlined above, these structures or constructions, these categories, are not always as fixed as we may wish. Human beings, human bodies, are complicated—no matter how much many want to get us each into one of the major boxes.
Hidden is a word many use about bisexuality. Bisexuals often complain about invisibility in the LGBT movement. They have a good argument. We know a lot about the L and the G—and more and more (although not enough) about the T, but precious little about the B.
I have heard many gay men and lesbian women claim that a person claiming the B is “just going through a phase,” or is “getting up the courage to claim their real identity” as L or G. This is so sad. It might be true in some cases, but so what? It still is not easy for everyone to come out, just because it is far easier than it was 10, 20, or 30 years ago. And, of course, it sounds so much like the judgment and jibes aimed at many gay and lesbian people on our own coming out journeys.
These attitudes are so much about making sure the boxes work, and that each person is in the right box. Indeed, the very term “bisexuality” rests on the concept that there are two genders, thus reinforcing the gender binary, and three sexual orientations—hetero, homo, and bi. Both concepts fail to account for the fluidity of sex and gender, indeed the fluidity of our bodies.
That does not mean that people should not claim bisexuality. I know people for whom it is an entirely accurate self-designation. They like to have sex with men and they like to have sex with women—most of them may lean in one direction or the other—while some are equal opportunity folks—however they lean or don’t, they refuse to deny themselves the opportunity to experience both. I think “both” is great. And “all,” too, as in pansexual (but that is another post for me).
So, is the hiddenness, the silence, about bisexuality because it is too complicated? That may be part of the explanation. But I think the far greater reason is that bisexuality, despite seeming to reinforce the boxes, really does call into question the fixedness of sexual identity, sexual orientation, and potentially even gender (more about this another time, too).
Sometimes, I chafe against labels, but I know they are useful for organizing ourselves. We do make choices and want to name them. So, in the name of opening up more about sex and bodies, we need to stop invisiblizing the bisexuals. Stand up for B!!!
It may help to think and write this way—LGBT, and we need to keep on doing this, too—LGBT. And LGBTQIA (bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning, Intersex, and Ally/Advocate), too (WordPress won’t allow me to make the particular letters larger, which is what I hoped to show).
I find it difficult to jump into the topic of bisexuality, although it’s an important subject and one that needs to be talked about more, not less. The “B” in LGBT is often ignored, overlooked, or erased.
Often times, we use someone’s appearance to make an assumption about their identity. If we see, for example, a person presenting as male holding hands with someone who is presenting as female, we assume heterosexuality. If we see two people who appear to be of the same gender, we often assume homosexuality. Bisexuality isn’t something we tend to assume because it would require us to see the same person in a variety of situations in which they were holding hands with different people… and since monogamy (along with heterosexuality) are both the assumed default, that doesn’t tend to happen as often.
Bisexual folks are often faced with a lot of belittling and erasure of their identities: “Oh, you just can’t make up your mind,” or “You’ll sleep with anyone,” or “Well, you’re only bisexual when you’re single; once you have a partner, that kind of determines it, doesn’t it?” or “This is just a phase; you’ll settle on your identity eventually.” This kind of erasure is incredibly toxic and is predicated on the idea that someone else knows your identity better than you do. Tangentially, it feeds into the ideas of slut-shaming, or that having a lot of sex with different people is an inherently bad or negative thing.
And yet, sometimes, I have to confess, I have a hard time with bisexuality- partially
because of the way bisexual identities contribute to my erasure. “Bi-” means two, and bisexual is “sexual attraction to both genders.” And for some people, that’s a completely accurate assessment of their sexual orientation: they are attracted to men and women. For others, though, they take bisexual to mean “attracted to all genders,” without realizing that bisexuality is predicated on enforcing the gender binary (there’s that “bi-“ prefix again). There is no room for gender non-conforming in a binary world, and bisexuality is based on the idea that there are two genders, and someone is attracted to both of them.
It’s a tricky, nuanced line of discussion, because I don’t want to disrespect someone else’s identity or contribute to the erasure of who they are… but I also have to recognize that there is a level of bisexuality that makes me uncomfortable. Not because I care about someone being attracted to more than one gender, but because bisexuality implies by definition that there are only two genders, and I actively work against things that reinforce the gender binary. And so I’m not always sure how to have a discussion and dialogue around bisexuality. I feel conflicted about raising that up when greater visibility for one group of people directly contributes to erasure for another group- particularly a group of which I am a part.
A non-binary adaptation of bisexual is “pansexual;” that is, a sexual orientation that spans across gender binary and non-binary individuals and recognizes an attraction for a variety of types of bodies, identities, and presentations. At times in my life, I have identified as pansexual. In fact, in high school, I had a black side bag in which I wrote “PANSEXUAL” in white out across the front. What can I say, I was a pretty brazen high schooler.
I shifted from pansexual to queer when I realized that the way I fuck, the way I have relationships, the way I interact with sexuality and bodies is heavily informed by my politics and social analysis. My politics, as it turns out, are a direct result of my understanding and identity as a Christian, so in many ways, my faith has informed my identity as a queer person- including my sexual identity. And I think, at the heart of the erasure that many bisexual folks feel, they want to be seen as people who have the capacity to love different types of bodies, configurations, and identities. And I think it’s important that people feel seen in their sexuality, even if the way in manifests right now, or in this relationship, doesn’t paint the whole picture.
When queer femme-identifying people are seen holding hands with their male-presenting partners, they often feel the complexities of their identities are erased (I’ve written about this some in a piece Are You Queer Enough? and Femme Erasure in the Queer Community) or that, by “passing” as straight, they aren’t welcome in queer spaces. And that’s something we have perpetuated, beginning with things like bisexual erasure and not allowing people to live their authentic, sometimes complicated, truths.
We have bisexual (and pansexual, and queer) people in our churches, people whose identities don’t necessarily match up with how we see them presenting. We might assume that the couple that just walked in is a heterosexual couple, but in reality, he might be a queer transmasculine person, and she might be a femme lesbian. We may shun someone if, after ending a same-sex relationship, they begin to form a relationship with someone of the opposite gender. These are problematic behaviors- to ostracize or shun anyone based on their sexual orientation- that are often based in our own assumptions about who someone is based on how we view them, rather than how they view themselves.
We must make more room in our churches and communities to talk about bisexuality, pansexuality, and queerness. We must allow space for people to be seen and share their experiences authentically, and not worry about hearing the same toxic, damaging messages they hear elsewhere. Bisexuality and pansexuality are not myths, nor are they the result of someone “not being able to make up their mind.” People’s identities are not defined in comparison to their intimate partners; their identities exist regardless of the relationships they are in. It’s time we allow people to see and be seen for their whole selves, and not just the selves we feel most comfortable interacting with.
We Want to Hear from You!
Help Make this a Conversation!
What are your feelings about bisexuality? Are you, or have you ever been, bisexual? Do you think bisexuality is a valid sexual orientation? Why or why not? Do you have sex with a person of only one gender (as you and others define that) or more than one? Do you have fantasies about crossing the line? Do you watch sex films (aka pornflicks), and if so, do you watch people with only one orientation or do you sometimes see what others are doing? 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 in two weeks, 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.
One of our readers sent me a link to an article—she called it “horrible”—as a way of encouraging me and Malachi to keep writing. “Christians Are Not Called to Have Amazing Sex” by Rachel Pietka (read it here) is, in my view, an attempt to stall or reverse any movement within Christianity to talk openly, and most importantly, positively, about sex in all its varieties, and even more to stand aggressively against openness to premarital sex (and although it is not named, I am sure also against same-sex sex and other “abominations”).
The author’s main point seems to be to stop people from making sex into God. I am aware that there are people for whom sex is an idol—on a par with making tons of money or being at the pinnacle of social or career success or having a “perfect” body—and I even know a few men who think the cock (theirs and all others, too) is God. But by and large, in my experience within Christianity, even in Metropolitan Community Churches, there is a much greater danger that sex is the devil, Satan’s agent to lead us astray, and/or it is so spiritually dangerous that we should not talk openly about it. If we pretend not to know about it, then it will surely not bother us.
But that default position is not at all accurate. I grew up in a time when sex talk of any sort was really taboo. That did not stop people from having sex.
I remember when I was about eight (1954 or so), my mother’s best friend and her husband (she was a high school English teacher and he was the high school principal) invited people to their home for a reception in honor of their son and his new wife (a surprise to all because there had been no wedding invitations). What became immediately obvious was that the young woman was pregnant.
People sat around, sipping tea and maybe taking a bite of cake or cookie, in more or less stunned silence. No one knew what to say. We lived in a small conservative town 40 miles northwest of Detroit—and this sort of thing was not supposed to happen (never in the “better” families).
I have some small memory of the strangeness; I think I might have been the only child present but am not sure. I know my parents, shocked though they may have been (and they may have known of the situation in advance), would not have abandoned their friends.
What my mother recounted many times about the afternoon was her gratitude to her future son-in-law who came with my sister (she was friends with both newlyweds). He did not grow up in our town, and was in some ways a stereotypically “brash” Jew (there were no Jews in our town). He mingled with people and doggedly worked to create small-talk—breaking the silence. He was an actor, and for decades a well-regarded professional stage director, and he knew how to get people engaged. My mother often said, “Bentley saved the day.” But even he could not get people talking about what was really bothering them—and I am sure my mother was also glad of that!
I recount this story, well aware that much has changed in the 60 years since, but also well aware that in other ways little has changed. We still cannot really talk about sex.
And while we may agree when someone, like me or Malachi, speaks of sex as a gift of God or writes about the godliness of sex or divinely inspired eroticism, we never speak of it in church. When was the last time you heard the word “sex” used in a prayer in church or any public gathering? Is your sex life on your personal gratitude list? Or if in your mind it does not merit gratitude, is it on your prayer request list? Do you ask God for more sex, better sex, perhaps both?
My point is simply this: far from needing to police people’s desire to have good sex lives, we need to help all of us openly, joyfully, claim our desire for great sex, to pay attention to what kind of sex we want and even to learn more about how to get it.
And here’s the corollary for me: God wants us to have great sex, too. That’s why our bodies are wired the ways they are, we are created as sexual beings. How did we get here anyway? (I know its not nice or polite to think about our biological parents having sex, but I assure you they did).
So, I am going to pick up where my brother-in-law left off 50+ years ago: I am going to talk about bodies and sex.
I am sitting at my desktop writing this, and I am naked. Of course, being naked is not the same as sex. Being naked is simply being our authentic selves, not covering up our body, the body we have from God. We are created in the image of God, and thus our bodies are part of the divine portrait. After many decades of not feeling good about my body, I finally learning to like it, indeed love it. Nakedness helps.
Sitting here naked—which I like to be as much as possible—allows me to “touch myself” as I feel moved to do so. I run my hands over my chest, tousle and then smooth my unruly hair, rub my sore feet and aching back as best I can. And I touch my penis and testicles (I call them my cock and balls—someday I may write a piece on why I choose to say “cock” rather than “dick”).
And at times, I do more than touch them. I massage them, I stimulate them. I do this as I write—and not just when writing this blog focused on sex, bodies, and spirit; I do this when writing more heady and traditional theology or poetry or other social commentary. Sometimes, I do this while I am feeling stumped about a word choice or when I am trying to discern what the next paragraph or stanza should be. The situation may have nothing to do with sex, but my body, my genitals, crave some stroking. I respond, with pleasure. Sometimes, I just touch them to express self-love.
And of course, I also touch myself erotically when I think about a hot time with my husband (or even just picturing him) or a scene or a body I have seen online or a story I have read at Nifty Erotic Stories Archive, a place for gay men, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender (often but not always non-professional) writers to post their erotic stories (sorry, I don’t know the location for similar non-LGBT erotic writing—I am sure there are many). Nifty asks for donations to pay for the site, but it is accessible free of charge.
And of course, sometimes I get pretty worked up, and even ejaculate. That feels very good.
Okay, I have outed myself as a sexual being. I have done this to make two points: first, we need more openness, more celebration, not less, about sex—especially in churches, communities called together by God who loves sex and wants us to like it, too.
And second, it is up to us to lead the way. I am glad to start.
How about you? Maybe you’d like to out yourself, too. It can feel pretty good! Even godly.
We could start a new spiritual movement—or rejuvenate the old one. God would be pleased.
I have a habit of referring to myself as a “unicorn;” that is, a somewhat mythical being that doesn’t quite seem to be real. This spans across many different facets of my identity, but I bring it up here specifically because I am a second (and in some interpretations, third) generation queer person.
As I have spoken about elsewhere, I was raised in a lesbian family and identify as queer myself. But beyond that, many of the people who mentored and nourished my growth were also mentors to my parents, some of whom were old enough to be their parents. As a result, my family as I understood it consisted of people who have lived, and fought, as queer people over the span of three generations.
This directly impacted so many parts of my life- not the least of which was my concept of sex and personal sexual growth. In my life, neither my mothers (nor any other trusted adult in my life) told me that I should “wait until marriage to have sex.” For one thing, my parents (and most other adults in my life) were queer, and thus denied the rights of marriage. It would have been hypocritical at best to espouse a “no sex until marriage” code when it wasn’t one they were able to follow themselves.
Certainly, they had commitment and were, in the eyes of God, married, even if the state didn’t see it that way. Nonetheless, though, they didn’t tell me that I should wait until marriage- they told me that “if I couldn’t talk openly about it with my partners, then I probably shouldn’t be doing it with them.”
During sex education in high school, I certainly understood and heard the message that the best way to prevent sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies was to abstain from sex, but I was also exposed to information about birth control and barrier protection methods (I discovered later that I was immensely lucky for the sex education I received).
But beyond sex education in school, I found my growing sexuality supported and
encouraged by many of the adults around me, all of whom I met through church. For example, one woman was teaching me to drive stick shift, and over the course of the day, the topic of sex came up. She asked me if I felt comfortable masturbating, and encouraged me to do more of it, noting that some of the best sex of her life had been with herself.
Another adult encouraged me to “wine and dine” myself: that is, take myself on a date and allow self-pleasure to be the result of desire, rather than necessity.
But perhaps my favorite story is when I was coming home on a break from college at 18 and spending time at my godmother’s house. In college, I began to aggressively explore my sexual identity, and had been having copious amounts of sex with a variety of people. Feeling a little full of myself, I was recounting my sexual exploits to my godmother, who promptly asked me, “Are you being safe?” I looked at her with a puzzled expression and stated, “Well… everyone I’m sleeping with was assigned female at birth, so…”
She looked at me again, and said, “Ok. So, are you being safe?” I had no idea what she was talking about. She then went into her bedroom, came out with a box of nitrile gloves and a dental dam, pulled out a tub of ice cream from the freezer, and proceeded to teach me about safer sex methods, using the ice cream as a prop while she explained (and demonstrated, on the ice cream) how to use a dental dam.
I say all this to say, I had a very unusual experience in my own introduction to sex, and most of it came through the church, and from generations of queer people who had done the hard work to overcome much of their own sexual repression and were eager to counteract the puritanical social messages they knew I would receive.
Yet even I have hangups about sex. Despite their best efforts, I felt a sense of internalized shame about some of my own sexual desires, and still had to deal with the impacts of social messaging that taught me that desiring sex, as a woman, was shameful. But for me, so few of those messages came through the church- in fact, the church is where I found the most affirming messages about sex.
And that, to me, is the key, the crux of MCC. We have generations of stories and people that have struggled and fought to overcome their own sexual repressions. Why are we not leading the charge to be a Christian movement that not only accepts, but loudly rejoices in our existence as sexual beings? (I say this, of course, recognizing and respecting those who are asexual and do not necessarily identify as sexual.) In this regard, I don’t want to be a “unicorn”- I wish everyone had stories like mine, of going to a place of worship and finding not only acceptance, but open celebration and support of who they are as sexual beings.
I recognize that these conversations happened one-on-one, and not inside of worship. Yet we should know that our churches and our sanctuaries are places where we can find people with whom to have these conversations. We should know that our whole selves- including our sexual selves- will be celebrated and embraced when we walk through the doors of an MCC.
We receive so many messages about sex every day: messages using sex to sell us a product, messages telling us that certain types of sexual expression are wrong, messages that enforce the “right” kind of sexual behavior, messages that shame us for our sexual desires, messages that blame victims for sexual violence, and so forth. Shouldn’t our sanctuaries be a place of true refuge from the sexual oppression- and repression- that we face every day?
Silence is so often complicity. When so many others are speaking vocally in oppressive and repressive ways, why do we stay silent, or speak in whispers? What levels of shame and sexual repression do we still need to overcome in our own lives so that we may speak our truths? I challenge each of us to consider, deeply, the messages we have received over the course of our lives- the positive and the negative. Which have we done the work to reject, and which do we still carry with us? Which help our growth in community, with God, with one another, and which hinder it? Which feed the shame and silence, and which support the foundations to speak our truths?
We seek to live our lives out loud, but we must remember that our sexuality is a part of our lives, of our spirits, of our means of connecting with one another and with God. To silence that aspect of ourselves is to silence a portion of the holy that lives within each and every one of us.
We Want to Hear from You!
Help Make this a Conversation!
What are your feelings about talking about sex? Do you want to, but feel you can’t most places? What were the messages you received as your grew up about sex, and about talking openly about it? What role does shame play in your relationship with sex? If you 40 and older, what changes about sexual attitudes do you see in our culture today? Are you comfortable with them? Why or why not? If you are under 30, is society (and/or church) open enough or do you want more? Why or why not? Do you think we can mention sex in church with appreciation and candor? Do you pray about sex? 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 next week, 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.
The messages we receive– across gender, cultural context, sexual orientation, and so forth– are complicated and tricky . . . .
As Robin and I prepare for next week’s discussion on gendered expectations and social stigmas with respect to sexual development (see invitation at the end of this post), we are taking time this week to think about how we have each been impacted by social expectations- particularly as our senses of selves (gender, sexual, embodied) have developed in very different social and political climates.
As frequent readers here know, I was assigned female at birth and was raised as a woman in a lesbian household. Although I no longer identify as female, this upbringing shaped my understanding of sexuality in ways that still impact me today- both positively and negatively. So many of my experiences are flashes of memory pieced together, like scenes from a play acted out against this particular backdrop.
On the positive side, I was absolutely raised with the concept of “queer sex”- this idea that sex doesn’t have to be a linear path that begins with kissing, transitions into foreplay, and culminates with penetrative sex and simultaneous orgasm (or someone’s orgasm, anyway). This “script” of sexuality is one that I learned much later, and not through personal experience, but through conversations about how most people approach sex.
The downside of my upbringing was a deep fear of men, both from the circumstances of my life (living in a home of all women) and from explicit
messages from one of my mothers. I remember being a child, somewhere between the ages of 5 and 9, and my mother telling me (as I was going outside to play) that if any of the female neighbors asked me to come over and help them with something, that was fine, but if any of the male neighbors did, to come inside and tell her immediately. This was the first time in my life I was aware that there were differences in the actions of men and women, and while it’s something that I didn’t fully understand at the time, it registered for me that women were ok to be alone with, but men were not.
The bridge between my positive understandings of sex as an inherently queer act and some of the negative lessons I inherited is emblematic in a semi-sexual relationship throughout high school, where my boyfriend and I struggled to explore our own sexual desires in the midst of our hang-ups. Perhaps because I was well-conditioned to fear male sexuality, I was terrified of engaging with ejaculate fluids. As a result, he spent much of our sexual explorations unsatisfied- but even in that, he never pressured me or made me feel bad that I was not comfortable bringing him to orgasm. I understand, looking back, that this was a deviation from the typical responses of a teenage male to that situation, and I feel remarkably blessed that he was so patient and understanding and queer, in his own ways.
The times we tried to have penis-in-vagina intercourse (which was only once or twice), he experienced some performance anxiety and was not able to get hard enough to penetrate me, something that felt simultaneously disappointing and relieving: I was sexually attracted to him, but I was terrified of getting pregnant, and a part of me was convinced that if we had sex even once, I would end up pregnant (like “those girls,” because a lot of my thoughts were framed in an uncomfortably classist and anti-sex way, I now realize).
I remember (and am still friends with) the woman to whom I lost my virginity, around the same time I was having these explorations. I was 16 years old, and she was a good friend, and we ended up having sex during a sleepover at her house. I remember feeling a little caught up in “doing it right,” and feeling unsure about how to communicate my own desires. I felt like it was important that I make her feel good about what she was doing, whether it was pleasurable or not, which is a hang-up I still work through with new sexual partners.
My instinct is to please people, to make them feel good about what they’re doing… even if what they’re doing isn’t pleasurable to me. That piece is very much part of female social conditioning: to be diplomatic, to minimize personal needs in favor of the needs of others, to encourage people and help them feel that they are doing something well. This translates, to me, as not speaking up for my own wants and needs during sex.
These experiences occurred within the backdrop of reading (and rereading, many times) Stone Butch Blues, and understanding the empowerment of female sexuality within the butch/femme dynamic- another vital contribution to my understanding of queer sex and sexuality. So many of these things— growing up in a lesbian household, fear of men and masculine sexuality (although I was clearly attracted to men), losing my virginity to a woman, feeling (to some degree) a resonance with the butch/femme dynamics in Stone Butch Blues, fear of getting pregnant (and subliminal judgement towards those women who did), discomfort with claiming my own sexual desires-these things have all been a part of my social messages around sex and sexuality.
In many ways, I was spared much of the heteronormativity models of sexual dynamics, but I still received a lot of toxic messages about both men and women. There was a part of me that believed that all men would rape, if given the chance, and it was up to me to never put myself in a
position where that could happen. I believed, in many ways, that women could do anything that men could do (which is and was absolutely true), but I still inherited a lot of sexual shame from my closeted mothers. I was never inundated with “no sex until marriage” messages. At that time, same-sex marriage wasn’t legal, and my parents weren’t willing to instill that in their children, but sex wasn’t something we talked about much.
Having such mixed concepts about sex made gender transition really interesting, because I was suddenly being perceived as male and expected to navigate the world with the social conditioning and cues of men, but I had no idea what those were, except toxic messages about sexual aggression. The conditioning I had was female, but it wasn’t a typical woman’s experience, I don’t think, and my exposure to men was limited. I felt completely lost in how to navigate sexual situations as a transmasculine person.
I remember going on a date with a heterosexual woman and realizing, at some point, I needed to have the “I’m trans” conversation with her. I had no idea how to have that conversation, and I was immensely relieved when she said, “I know.” It was one of the first times I ever felt a pressure to conform to a gendered expectation, and I had no idea what the expectations were, or how to meet them. We attempted to have sex once, but I was so nervous that we ended up simply cuddling and sleeping next to one another. I was coming from a place of not wanting to be sexually aggressive, and she was coming from a place of expecting me to make the first move.
I’m not sure if I have it figured out much better, except that I feel less constrained by the expectations of social norms because my gender doesn’t fit neatly into any particular category, and I have spent so much time immersed in consent-based cultures that I have rewritten many of my own negotiations about sex. I still recognize some level of fear when faced with masculine sexuality, but I can talk about that with partners in a way I never used to be able to, and tackle some of where that comes from.
The messages we receive– across gender, cultural context, sexual orientation, and so forth– are complicated and tricky and come from a variety of places. Sometimes it’s difficult to parse out why we feel a certain way toward something, but I think, more than anything, I have come to realize how deeply embedded gendered sexual conditioning is, and how it contributes both to toxic masculinity and the puritanical ideal of femininity.
These ideas further distance us from our partners and lovers, but they also distance us from our own desires. Learning, relearning, and unlearning some of these messages has been one of the most important steps I have taken to be more embodied in myself: my spiritual self, my sexual self, and my body. Maybe when we talk about queering sex, it’s not just in the acts and narratives, but also in the ways that we combat these social messages to interact queerly with our gender, our bodies, and our lovers. And I, for one, am in favor of more ways of queering sex.
I was born in 1946, an early Boomer, in a small, socially and politically conservative town 40 miles northwest of Detroit, and grew up on a tree farm three miles from town. Church was a center of our family life.
I should have known, and probably others suspected, that my gender identity was complicated—I asked for toy kitchen utensils and pots and pans, not for trucks, not even much interest in Tinker Toys (my generation’s version of Legos). I asked for dolls, too, but as I remember those were refused.
Over time, I learned to contain my cross-gender impulses, and I am sure my parents felt relief.
Puberty made containment more complicated, of course. Boys were the focus of all my fantasies, and really the only classmates I ever looked at with desire. I can still see some of them in my mind’s eye, in the gym class showers and just hanging out in school.
I did not know any open homosexuals, although I should have guessed that one somewhat effeminate friend, Bob H.—like me, born to older parents who were religious—liked boys, too. On a multi-day sixth-grade school trip to a nature preserve, where we stayed in big rooms of single-sex bunks, he came back from the showers with a visible erection and the words, “You should see Bob S.’s ‘thing’—it’s huge!” I went to the showers but missed that show even as I remembered the erection I did see (first one I ever saw, other than my own).
I suspect others must have sensed my proclivities, but nothing was ever said to my face. And I was the high school BMOC (big man on campus)—president of my class and the Student Council, editor of the school paper, president of the band, valedictorian, etc—which seemed to inoculate me from people pushing me to date. If girls sought me out, I missed it entirely.
I do remember one time being part of a group of girls before class while one of them talked about how a boy tried to penetrate her, but she had to stop him because he was “too big.” I was so unfamiliar with the concept of male-female sex, or at least so uninterested, I asked what she meant! They all laughed and she, somewhat red-faced, told me. It took me a long time to get over wanting to see his “big one.” Actually, perhaps I never have.
I tell all this as a prelude to reflecting on how gender, and other, expectations for me as a PWP—person with a penis—have affected my sexual life and practices.
I well remember my first sex with a woman—the young sister-in-law of a college friend at whose wedding I served as best man. It is clear that she set her cap for me and I succumbed. But it is also clear to me that the couple of times we had intercourse were, for me, about getting off. I had little interest in her or her needs.
That experience led me to engage with several female college friends, to the same result. I got off. Hope they did. In that sense, I lived up to a traditional model of masculinist behavior—the woman exists to meet man’s need. I am not proud of the fact that my wife of nearly nine years (and three children) did not fare much better in bed (even though I deeply loved her).
However, I also know that when I finally owned up to my queerness, I still approached sex with men in a similar fashion. It really was all about me. And I did not even then focus on it a lot—not the way I think many men, whatever their orientation, do.
Frankly, I was almost as intimidated by penis-bodies as by ones with vaginas (except that I did not gag when I sucked and licked cock and assholes like I did when I tried to lick cunt). But over time I learned to be more open, more free, even going to J.O. (jack-off) clubs in New York where my small cock was not in great demand. But then I never really tested that by going after men. I mostly watched—and of course, got off, and went home.
With my husband of almost 20 years, unlike my first male partner of 6.5 years, I have learned to cherish his body, to seek his pleasure as well as mine, to create a shared eroticism blossoming in us together.
And as I have shared here before, as my body has aged and my ability to produce an erection is seriously challenged, I have become more invested in sex. Strange as it may seem, I think in one way I have become more masculinist in that for the first time in my life I think about sex a lot. It is one of the reasons I began this blog. I want more sex, and one of the ways I get it is by writing about it (I can get pretty turned on writing some of these posts!).
I now celebrate sex like I never did before. Yet I sense some need to offer an excuse or an apology for that—as an older man, and/or as an ordained clergyperson. Given those identities, is it appropriate for me to be so interested in sex?
There is a widespread social belief that interest in sex, and engagement in it, declines with age, so that by the time people are in the 70s and 80s there is no sex happening. There is plenty of evidence to the contrary (see The Secret Lives of Sexuality in the Elderly), but I am aware I, at 70, feel pressure to keep quiet about sex.
Certainly, as a clergyperson, I feel constrained—even though I no longer am employed by a church, and am officially retired, I still wear the clerical collar, preach, teach, write, provide spiritual counsel—against being open sexually. The social pressure in church about sex, especially in maintaining a prohibition on talking openly about it without negative judgment, is powerful. This pressure also impacts negatively on reclaiming my joy in naturism (living naked as much as possible).
The irony for me in this is that I feel more and more certain that it is God who is calling me to be more open sexually, more open about and with my body—not to abandon monogamy and not to shock others, but to study, write, and teach about the gifts shared in sex, bodies, and spirit. This is the first time I have had to cope with feelings of guilt (other than fear of not doing it well enough), maybe even shame, about my ministry.
It can feel a bit like Jesus healing on the Sabbath—breaking the religious/social/cultural rules to do as God wants and getting in trouble for it. Still, I guess that is pretty good company! Like Jesus, I am grateful for God’s call (and aware I have it a lot easier!).
We Want to Hear from You!
Help Make this a Conversation!
What is your history with gender and other ways you experienced being shaped as a sexual being? Are there ways in which your sexual life, sexual practices, do not fit neatly into the usual gender and sexual orientation categories? If so, what are they and what has influenced you? Would you like to change any of that? Why? 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 in about two weeks, THURSDAY, April 20 for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC.To access the call, please click here.
Our focus will be on these issues: How do we as people of faith learn to navigate the social stigmas and assumptions of sexuality, particularly in light of divergent gender expectations? How can we come to dismantle toxic masculinity and puritanical femininity to embrace and be empowered as healthy, sexual beings? How do we construct the ethics of our sexual practices in a world that shames us for acknowledging sexual desire? Join us Thursday, April 20 for a discussion aimed at opening dialogue and dismantling many of these assumptions and social stigmas that impact our abilities to live fulfilling, sexual lives.
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.
Explore non-monogamy in action with Malachi as he talks about both the importance of connection and radical intimacy as well as the need for self-care
Every so often, I am afforded the incredible opportunity to appreciate how magnificent and blessed my life is- the capacity to see the image of God in others, as well as catch glimpses within myself. This past week provided such an opportunity, and I want to take this time to share a bit about it- as well as some of the impact it has had on me in the aftermath.
I have referenced FetLife at other points in this blog, but for those who are unfamiliar with the site, it is basically Facebook for kinky individuals. It provides an opportunity to connect with other people, learn about local events, and share, read, and witness other people’s experiences through photos, videos, and writing.
I do a fair amount of writing on FetLife- some erotic writing, some writing about my journey, thoughts, and experiences. This past week, I stumbled upon a prolific writer who posted some things about power dynamics that resonated with me, and I messaged him to let him know that his writing had had an impact and to ask his permission to link his writing in a piece I was doing exploring some of my own thoughts. This began a back-and-forth public dialogue between the two of us, each writing inspiring a new piece by the other, and so forth, over the course of four or five days. We wrote about vulnerability and the process of writing, about transparency and fear, about how we relate to ourselves and the world around us. For two people who had never met before, it was quite an intimate exchange held over a public forum.
Prior to this happening, I had made plans to attend a BDSM party in Philadelphia on Saturday, and I noticed that the gentleman on the other end of the computer was local to the area. At some point, we realized we would be at the same event, and decided that an in-person meetup and handshake was in order. So our back-and-forth discussion built up into a climactic finale that lasted through Saturday, the last post going up just hours before we were planning to connect in person.
That experience colored most of my week in some way or another. I had a pretty full weekend planned, and the backdrop of writing so openly, vulnerably, and expansively impacted the interactions and connections I was having in real life, away from a computer screen. On Thursday, I spent time with someone with whom there has been mutual attraction slowly building. I went to her house and we hung out, got food, talked, smoked too much (at least, on my end), curled up and watched TV, and learned to be around one another outside of the pressurized space of conventions (which is where we usually end up connecting). It was a wonderful, connective time that didn’t include sex- and that was absolutely perfect.
Friday evening, a friend (and mutually acknowledged crush) was in town to work an event happening in Baltimore, and stayed over at my house- again, someone who I only see at conventions, normally. My partner was out of town visiting some sweethearts, so we had the house to ourselves and got to spend time together talking- again, outside of the pressurized space of a convention. We didn’t feel any pressure to have sex (although we interacted in sexual ways, certainly). I was excited to have them in my home and have the opportunity to let them see me in a new way- people in my home feels like a certain level of intimacy and vulnerability, and people sleeping in my bed feels even more so.
Saturday morning, after my friend had left, I collected my things and drove up to visit a dear friend with whom there has been some growing sexual tension. On the way, I was able to talk to my partner, who told me that he was comfortable if anything sexual happened between myself and this person. We talked about it for a little while, and I felt comfortable in the boundaries we established. When I arrived, I was greeted by my friend and his partner, as well as a person I had never met in person before, but had talked to for several weeks leading up to this weekend. We immediately connected and the four of us had a wonderful time cooking dinner together and sharing space.
I then got some one-on-one time with this new acquaintance, and felt immediately at ease, comfortable talking openly with her about a plethora of things, from mental illness to sexual dynamics to poly boundaries to our shared overindulgence of caffeine. She and I made our way to the party together after checking into a hotel that she, myself, and our mutual friend had planned on sharing together (my friend’s partner was not planning to attend).
This felt culminating and climactic in many ways. I got to meet the person with whom I had been sharing so much writing intimacy and, while we didn’t get a chance to talk long, it was a wonderful introduction and, and I hope, the beginning of a continued friendship. I got to watch some wonderful interactions and bask in the sense of feeling connected and loved and cared for by people I know very well as well as people I am just beginning to know.
I gave my friend a blowjob in the car. It was the beginning of us exploring a sexual dynamic, and it felt fulfilling and satisfying and wonderful- particularly because I have shared so much non-sexual space with this person in the past, I feel like he and I have built up a level of intimacy that I don’t usually have with people prior to having a sexual relationship with them. We went into the hotel room, and then the three of us cuddled into bed together with no strange, hard, or weird feelings between us.
In the morning, I got up and drove a little further north- my partner was going to leave New York City that afternoon, and conveniently, a person that I have begun sleeping with lives within walking distance of a commuter line. So I planned to spend the day with them while my partner finished his trip, and then we would meet up and drive home together.
This particular person is someone I have been on a date with previously, and we are still in the stage of being a little awkward and clumsy around each other- but it’s also endearing and tender and sweet. And so when we spent Sunday afternoon in their bed, learning and exploring one another in new ways, when I saw them drop their guards and become tender and vulnerable and open, those moments felt like a blessing, and made me feel giddy and excited and so full of joy. I found that I have just as much pleasure in sleeping with them as I do watching them cooking. Both feel intimate in different ways, and both help me feel connected to this person in different ways, and I like the ability to share both kinds of space with them.
I think of all the work my partner and I do to make things like this possible. I think of the fights and the long hours talking and processing. I think of the contracts we have written with one another for finite periods of time that are records of who we are in those moments and a safety net to fall back on when we disagree about the terms of our relationship. I think about the frustrations, but also the joys, of living poly. Of unexpected, spontaneous connections and hours talking about someone we’ve recently met that makes us feel smitten.
If I had written this Sunday night or even Monday morning, this whole post would be bursting with exuberant glee, with no negative feelings in sight. But I’m not. I’m writing this on Tuesday evening, and the reality is, I’ve actually had a harder day and a half than I thought I would.
There is something called “con drop,” which is an experience that people have after going to a convention and feeling so full, so present, so seen- and then returning to their day-to-day lives and noticing the ways in which that kind of intentionality and integration is not present. It affects people in different ways, but when I’ve felt con drop in the past, it usually makes me feel a little cranky, but mostly, I feel needy and insecure and frustrated.
So Monday, when I returned to work and found myself getting irritated over the smallest things, when I found myself checking my phone too often and feeling sadder than usual to have no texts, when I began to question and doubt these connections that I had felt over the past week, I was somewhat baffled until I realized that I was “dropping” from a weekend so full of connection and feeling seen and making intimate connections and being present with people, and I didn’t know how to make the transition from that back to my life, particularly my life at work. My newfound friend put it quite well when we were talking about this earlier (as she mentioned she was dealing with some of the same emotions). She said, “masking emotion feels so wrong post radical connection.”
And that’s the crux of it, I think. I’m feeling some intimacy whiplash but mostly, I’m
feeling like I need to mask my emotions (particularly working in customer service, and that feels disingenuous, particularly when juxtaposed against a weekend full of radical integration of self. And please don’t get me wrong: I think that that kind of radical vulnerability and intimacy is incredibly important, and I want to strive for more of that in my life, not less. But it’s also important to make space for self-care in all of this. It’s important that we hold these lessons- that we are valuable, that we are loved, that we are seen, that we are beautiful, that we are important, that we matter, that we are worthy of love and affection, in whatever forms that takes. But it’s also difficult when, for whatever reason, something in our life butts up against that in a way that we are not able to shift or change. And dealing with that self-doubt and confliction is an important part of growth in learning how to be whole, integrated people.
I have so much gratitude in my life right now- gratitude, first and foremost, for a partner that is able and willing and excited to navigate these spaces with me. For each of these people, who allowed me to be present with them in different ways throughout the week and met me wholeheartedly in those spaces. And for the hard feelings the past day or so, that remind me that we can appreciate great joy, expansive happiness, unexpected miracles, but we are able to appreciate them partially because they don’t exist all the time, and disconnecting from that is difficult, but it reminds us why it is so poignant in the first place.
I encourage radical vulnerability and intimacy, in whatever ways feel authentic to you: perhaps through creation of art, music, or writing, perhaps through conversations over coffee with an old friend, perhaps through sex (with someone else, or perhaps with multiple people), perhaps through worship. I think it is a powerful way to grow and allow ourselves to see and be seen. I also believe it’s important to take time after that to recognize that radical vulnerability can be difficult and scary, and that’s ok. When we open ourselves up in new ways, sometimes we have to take a little time to reassure ourselves that we are still safe, loved, and cared for.
That piece is an important part of my weekend I’m glad I haven’t missed, because it’s giving me a chance to learn to trust myself.Because part of radical openness, intimacy, and vulnerability isn’t just learning to be open with others. Part of it is learning love, trust, and care for yourself, too. We cannot allow others to see what we are not willing to see ourselves. And that, I think, is the greatest blessing of all- when we can see ourselves, made in the glory and image of God, then that is what we are able to show others. And in its many different names, faces, and manifestations, the image of God in each of us is a glorious sight to behold. May we all learn to see the God in ourselves and in others. May we all learn to share the God in ourselves and be open to receiving the image of God in others.
We Want to Hear from You!
Help Make this a Conversation!
What would radical intimacy and vulnerability look like in your life? How can you find ways that allow you to connect both with the image of God in others as well as the image of God in yourself? 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 on THURSDAY, March 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: “Creating Space,” particularly in worship is our focus: creating space for different ideas, beliefs, communities, and perspectives. Creating space can be a difficult process that requires us each to examine our own internal biases, prejudices, and desires about what we want from our churches and communities. And yet, it is important that we start somewhere- and, for us, that “somewhere” is based in a firm belief in sexual and bodily liberation. So mark your calendar to be with us for this important conversation on March 16!