Family Secrets

Everyone knows about them , but no one will talk about them or acknowledge them.

revrobin2-023Robin:

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.

playgirl magazine
Photo Credit

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

Robin naked at desk 1_edited-1

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.

Knust Unprotected TextsThere 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.

14947937_10100747005631839_8991378826366585167_nMalachi:

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: rainbowspiritual, 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

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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 bisexual symbolbecause 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.

 

third Thursday
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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.

Previous month’s sessions can be watched here.

Bisexual (In)Visibility

We must make more room in our churches and communities to talk about bisexuality, pansexuality, and queerness.

 

revrobin2-023Robin:

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.

don't assume gay or straightWhen 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.

lesbian couple black with kids
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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?

sex is not love so no confusion hereAnother 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.

sex my gender doesn't fit in your boxes
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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).

labels can limit usSometimes, 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).

14947937_10100747005631839_8991378826366585167_nMalachi:

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

bisexual symbol
Bisexual Symbol

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.

pansexual pride
Pansexual Pride

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.

Previous month’s sessions can be watched here.

Constructing Gender, Constructing Sex

The messages we receive– across gender, cultural context, sexual orientation, and so forth– are complicated and tricky . . . .

Malachi:

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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

 Robin:

revrobin2-023I 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.

toy cooking setI 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.

shhh_webI 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).

its_all_about_me_black_tshirtHowever, 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!).

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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.

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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.