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

pulse anniversary
Photo Credit

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
discoverpittsfield.com

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.

Fetishes, Fluidity, and Frankness

Malachi: I am heterosexual. Actually, I guess it’s heteroflexible. Now it’s bisexual, then full-blown lesbian. Well, pansexual maybe fits better. Except, no. I think, queer. Yes, queer.

I’m a girl. Or, no. I’m 13494904_10100653721109769_3022759221022255872_nandrogynous. Zie and hir pronouns, please. Only, I think I am a boy. Testosterone and male pronouns now. Except I hate passing, but love my facial hair. Plus, I’d like to have kids someday. So, maybe no more testosterone, but I’ll keep the beard. Masculine pronouns are fine, but gender-neutral also work: they/them please. Dangit, I think my gender is just queer, too.

For many people, identity is a spectrum rather than a fixed point. As a mathematician, I think in terms of continuous and discrete: my identities are fluid and continuous, but at discrete moments in time, I can pinpoint how I identify.

I feel very strongly that I am the compilation of every person I have ever been, even if I no longer identify in some of those ways. I am not, for example, heterosexual- but at one point in my life, I strongly held that identity and it was crucial to how I understood how I fit into the world. Although I do not (and have not) identified as straight for quite some time, I recognize and appreciate the place that identity had in my life: as the child of lesbian parents, I wanted desperately to be normal and fit it. My heterosexuality was my rebellion, my assertion of my independence, my declaration that I was different from my parents.

gender-identity
https://glennstanton.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/gender-identity.png
Of course, that didn’t particularly stick, and I fell head-over-heels for a woman my freshman year of high school. From there, my identity seemed to ping-pong back and forth for a while, and I finally settled on bisexual. But then I learned about gender theory and came to a better understanding of my own gender. I realized quickly that “bisexual” didn’t make a whole lot of sense because my gender wasn’t a fixed entity, so “attraction to same and attraction to different” held no meaning for me. Everyone was different from me, so I must be straight, except that didn’t work, because I was attracted to people with the same genital configuration.

Around this time, I discovered the term “pansexual.” It felt better than bisexual, but still a little clunky and awkward in my mouth. From there, I grew to have a better understanding and self-definition of queer, and finally settled on “queer” as both a sexual and a gender identity.

This is not every person’s experience, but I think that we spend a lot of time trying to understand where we fit in the boxes we are offered. As a trans person, I have had several experiences in which a person and I had a sexual connection, and then they immediately began to struggle: in order to validate their own identity (particularly a binary identity), they had to invalidate mine (e.g. men who claimed heterosexuality or women who were lesbians needed to see me as female in order to not have an identity crisis).

genderunicorn1-0
https://cdn0.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/5J3WtJXRhKDSmkMni_T3tH_eFjQ=/cdn0.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/3495424/genderunicorn1.0.jpg
I have found that identity and attraction can get complicated, particularly when trans people are involved. There are so many levels and facets to what makes us attracted to a particular person- are we attracted to a masculine or feminine presentation? Are we attracted to a particular genital configuration? Are we attracted to the particular way someone carries themselves?

The reality is, identity is complicated and tough to navigate sometimes. And when our identities are based on our relationship to other people, it becomes a lot harder to avoid invalidating one person’s identity in order to affirm the other person’s.

Understanding where our attraction comes from and why we are attracted to what/whom we are attracted to is important. It also helps differentiate between an attraction preference and a fetish.

I really love people’s backs. It’s almost always one of the things that I love on a person’s body. But I have to like the person attached to the back. It becomes a fetish when the person is no longer a factor in the attraction.

As a trans person, I have experienced first hand (many, many times) what it feels like to be fetishized. I have felt the distinction of someone who wanted to sleep with me because of the anomaly of my presentation rather than for who I am.

This is not, of course, to say that there is anything wrong with having a particular fetish. We have to make sure, however, that when our fetishes are based on a person (rather than an object, such as shoes or rope or lingerie) that we do not dehumanize or objectify the person.

Our identities shift and change, as do our sexual preferences. The identities I have carried are the result of exposure to new ideas, conversations about those ideas, and self-analysis around what those ideas mean to me. And it’s taught me that there are straight men who will sleep with trans guys, and still feel totally comfortable in their heterosexuality because they are attracted to a certain genital configuration, but can be totally respectful of someone’s identity. And there are gay men who will sleep with trans men and feel totally comfortable in their homosexuality, because they are attracted to the physical presence of someone, and don’t care what the genital configuration looks like. And there are people who want to sleep with trans people for the novelty of the juxtaposition between physical appearance and genital configuration. The first two, I have found to be

http://www.slate.com/content/dam/slate/blogs/outward/2014/08/11/FETISH1.jpg.CROP.original-original.jpg
http://www.slate.com/content/dam/slate/blogs/outward/2014/08/11/FETISH1.jpg.CROP.original-original.jpg
wonderful and not particularly limiting to a person’s sexual identity or expression. The third, however, becomes a much more problematic perspective because it treats a trans person like an interchangeable object- any trans person will due.

Understanding where attraction comes from and what we are attracted to about a person goes a long way to understanding when our attractions fall outside of our expectations, and help keep us from fetishizing another person. Self-awareness is what makes the predominantly heterosexual man sleep with a trans man and feel completely comfortable about his identity and the identity of his male lover, rather than invalidating his lover’s identity to reassure his own masculinity.

Of course, this can all be applied to women, and trans people as well. It’s an important aspect of our sexual selves that we need to be aware of because sometimes, our own sense of sexual attraction takes us by surprise. These labels are great, but in a comment on last week’s post, Frank states, “I wonder what would happen if we gave ourselves blanket permission simply to express who and what we were at any given moment, regardless of what some category called for.”

I wonder too, what would happen, if we could simply find joys in the places where joy calls to us, and not get so hung up on how a certain label defines our actions.

Robin:  There is a certain joy in contemplating how far, over the course of about 30 years since I came out as a gay man, LGBTQIA people have come revrobin2-023in terms of public acceptance. I say this, even though of course there are many obstacles, especially for those groups whose initials follow L and G (but not including A, and recognizing that Gs generally fare better than Ls, due in large measure to misogyny and patriarchy).

I came out to myself and to my then wife 34 years ago (at age 35), after completing my first year of seminary, and then began coming out to others in the seminary community and the wider world. In that same period, I also came out to the priest of the Episcopal Church in Michigan where I had grown up and served as a lay leader. He responded by telling me that he and the Vestry (the church board) no longer supported my seminary education and did not wish for me to darken the doors of the church again (ten years later, they made an exception, when at my sister’s request I preached at our mother’s funeral who had stopped going to the church when they rejected her son–and again eight years after that when I was permitted to speak at the memorial service for my former wife).

I have been actively involved in various religious endeavors to promote LGBTQI equality over all the years since 1982, and in some ways my life feels like a personal version of the larger liberation struggle. Again, the struggle is far from over, but now I find myself engaged, through this blog with Malachi and our monthly teaching through MCC, in a different way,

http://monkshomeimprovements.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/DSC_0007.jpg
http://monkshomeimprovements.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/DSC_0007.jpg
one that assumes equality and seeks to widen the conversation so that the entire Christian church (and I pray other religious bodies) becomes more open to and celebratory of all forms of life-affirming, God-given sexuality.

That means that we, Malachi and I, tackle subjects that most people, and certainly the church, tend to ignore and even devalue.

For example, my coming out process allowed me for the first time to experience, and admit, how my desire was impacted by particular characteristics of men. Until I was honest with myself about my powerful attraction to the bodies of men I was unable to acknowledge, let alone celebrate, how certain types of men–their bodies and their minds and personalities–fueled my desire.

When I first came out, certain body characteristics assumed a great importance. I was in my mid-30s and one might have thought I would be more balanced in responses. However, in some ways I was like a teenager finally freed to let my hormones assume full control. Not able to experience honest powerful sexual desire in my teens, I was now like a kid in a candy shop. Frankly, given my sex life in the early days of my newfound sense of self, it is a wonder I am not HIV+. I give God thanks for my health every day.

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_D1vj2CF4avg/SwQKSWuVHbI/AAAAAAAABEo/LKNqLiZjH44/s1600/hairy+leg-+Dongko.jpg
http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_D1vj2CF4avg/SwQKSWuVHbI/AAAAAAAABEo/LKNqLiZjH44/s1600/hairy+leg-+Dongko.jpg
I knew right away I liked men with long hair. At the same time, I liked hairless chests and minimal or even hairless (shaved) crotches while I craved hairy legs. One other thing: I discovered that men taller than my 6’2″ frame really drew my attention. I had a desire, even need, to lean into them and be hugged. Who knows where this comes from. It just was, and I still admire that today.

However, it did not take me too long to rebel against a gay male culture I observed, and participated in at times, that made such criteria the only guides for relating to other men.  I learned that finding a man who met at least some of those criteria might make for a fun, even hot, one-night stand of sexual action . . . but then what? Did we have anything to talk about once the deed was done? Did I even want to contemplate breakfast with him?

I also learned that a man I desired might discover, when we were naked, that I did not meet his standards. I had a few such painful times, especially when they discovered the size of my cock.

I have had three male lovers, including my husband of 19 years, who lasted more than a couple of nights. None of them is tall–all three significantly shorter than me. They each had, and still do as far as I am aware (not easily ascertained now with two of them), beautifully hairy legs. One had a pretty hairless chest, but not the other two. No long hair in the bunch, although Jonathan says he had that years before we met; nor did any of them even consider shaving or even shaping their pubic hair. Of course, as above, I am unable (and unwilling) to check on this with numbers one and two; I will say one man–not one of the three–in my earliest times talked about not only trimming his pubic hair but also blow drying and shaping it ever day.  I regret that I  never was able to watch that process.

What I have come to understand over these 34 years is that each of these men whom I desired (and with Jonathan still desire in an incredibly powerful, even overwhelming, way), while physically attractive each in their own way, drew me to them for more than their physical attributes. In this sense, my particular body turn-ons, festishes might be the more

https://classconnection.s3.amazonaws.com/41/flashcards/1008041/jpg/images1331007859911.jpg
https://classconnection.s3.amazonaws.com/41/flashcards/1008041/jpg/images1331007859911.jpg
accurate term, were and are only part of the package.

Each of these men has a brilliant mind, and a very sophisticated sense of humor as well as a willingness to engage difficult questions of morality and values openly and honestly. Don’t get me wrong: I love sex, want to have sex, but sex for me is more than kissing, licking, sucking, fucking, and ejaculation followed by a feeling of peace and joy.

In some ways, sex is how I live; every human encounter, even those with women where my physical desire is not so obvious, has an erotic component. That, for me, is God’s gift to each of us to create connection. I have different kinds of sex with different people, and with a very few–and for 19 years only one–I have engaged in acts of the utmost physical intimacy.

That does not mean that I my head is not turned, or my interest piqued, at times by a tall man at a party or even on the street, or a man whose chest (or more) I see in the gym shower or locker room–a guy, or woman, can be head over heels-in-love (and sex) with one (or more) and still admire others. Frankly, I am glad to know that at 70 years of age I still notice. As I quoted two weeks ago, in “Queer Is a Verb,” Shug said to Celie (in Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple”), “that’s some of the best stuff God did.”

And that is why I hope and pray that some day we can have open conversations, real sharing, about our personal feelings and desires within communities of faith–because indeed these particularities are part of the gift of God to each of us. Like all gifts of God they deserve to be shared, not shunned or made into nasty secrets that cause us shame.

To do other than celebrate God’s gifts, all of them, is to deny God and the reality that all that draws us to others is God within us.

 

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

What do you think influences your sexuality and sexual expression? Have you ever noticed a deviation from your expectations of your sexuality? Do you find that there are certain traits that turn you on? Please share your thoughts, your heart on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

discoverpittsfield.com
discoverpittsfield.com

Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please join us THURSDAY, November 17th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components.  If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.

Workshop description:

Sacred, Not Secret, Part I: Beyond the Binary

What turns you on? Is your attraction based on anatomy, gender identity, or something else entirely?

Sacred, Not Secret is a three-part series beginningThursday, November 17 at 3 PM EST/19:00 UTC in which Malachi Grennell and Rev. Dr. Robin Gorsline, authors of the blog Sex, Bodies, Spirit, discuss alternative expressions of sexuality and intimacy from a Christian perspective. This month, they go “beyond the binary” of gay and straight to explore the fluidity of sexual desire, and explore ways that we can be an open, affirming space for people- not in spite of our sexual relationships, but because of them!

As Metropolitan Community Church strives to move forward and maintain relevance with shifting social mores, the MCC Office of Formation and Leadership Development offers Sex, Bodies, Spirit online on the third Thursday of every month at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. This workshop is approved as a continuing education course for MCC clergy (.5 credit for each session) and focuses on equipping and empowering leaders to bring these conversations to their communities. Although a primary focus is on clergy education, everyone is welcome to attend and participate.

Sex and Church: Connected or Disconnected?

Let’s help the church learn to celebrate erotic love and the bodies which make it possible.. . . .

revrobin2-023Robin: It’s not easy to talk about sex, at least to do so in thoughtful, positive ways that don’t involve judging others or making jokes to mask our discomfort.

That dis-ease was my experience at the 26th General Conference of Metropolitan Community Churches just concluded in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. By my count, out of 31 workshops of 90 minutes each, there were two on sex, one on transgender issues, and one on HIV/AIDS issues. Out of 29 “pop topics,” 25 minutes in length, there were two on trans concerns and one on body tattoos. There also was one plenary session (out of four) about two hours in length, on transgender concerns.  This means 13% of the workshops were on sex- and gender-relatedemerge topics (and only six percent directly on sex), and 10% of “pop topics” focused on gender and body issues (none on sex), and 25% of plenary sessions were on gender and body concerns.

I experienced one exception: during the opening plenary, when keynote speaker Ani Zonnefeld from Muslims for Progressive Values challenged MCC to live out a vision of promoting values of love, justice and peace. In a panel discussion following her powerful message, my new friend from Italy, Mario Bonfanti, spoke clearly on two occasions about the BDSM relationship at the center of his life. I wanted to jump for joy—just to hear someone talk about sex, and especially a non-mainstream sex practice, not as a problem but as a gift!! BRAVO!!!!

Of course, I am not dismissing the value of the other workshops and pop topics and plenaries on a wide variety of topics.  But I am saying we don’t talk much about sex, at least out in the open in organized, planned ways.

I am told sex was a main topic at early MCC conferences—because, in part at least, sex is why MCC came into existence. From what elders tell me, people were truly glad to be together with other people of faith to talk about sex, about ethics and practices and safety AND fun, too. I doubt anyone can honestly contend that sex is no longer an issue needing attention. The reduction in emphasis may well be due to the fact that over the years we have become more accepted by mainstream churches. It’s not easy to be different when you want the approval of others.

Prior Lake Robin
Yes, it’s me at Prior Lake, just north of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

I also experienced a lack of interest in a related topic raised by me. About a week prior to the conference, I posted on various Facebook MCC-related pages an invitation to join me on Wednesday afternoon (the time designated by the organizers for “time off,” no formal conference programs were planned) at a clothing optional lake not far outside Victoria. Four people expressed interest, three saying they hoped to attend. I posted two more times, to give updates on the plans and to be encouraging.

One more person expressed interest; however, ultimately I went alone. I had a wonderful time, so I am not complaining about the lack of company, but I am struck by the numbers of people who spoke to me after Wednesday, asking me if I enjoyed the adventure. I cannot read their minds but I do note that only a couple of people posted a “like” on Facebook, while the bulk of people spoke to me privately. I think it is reasonable to interpret this as indicative, at least for some, of a reluctance to be publicly identified with nudity or potential nudity.

youtube.com
youtube.com

I can honestly say that I worry a bit that I will be identified as a outlier, as a “crackpot” even, for being so public about my liking for nudity, insisting on the central place of sex and bodies in spiritual living,not to mention writing this blog with Malachi each week, discussing a wide variety of sex practices and even revealing considerable personal information. But I refuse to go back into the “sex is only private” closet. And I believe church communities need to pay lots more attention to sex and sexuality, and bodies, too. I want my church to be sex- and body-positive because I want us to fully human, engaging God everywhere God meets us—and that surely includes in our bodies and our sex and sexuality.

That is the point of this blog—bringing together openly and in positive ways sex, bodies and spirit—and it is the mission of monthly online hour-long sessions devoted to the topic as well.

These monthly conversations were begun last November by Rev. Dr. Kharma Amos and Rev. Dr. Tom Bohache as a way of continuing the dialogue begun in October through a three-day online webinar “Who Are We Really? Re-Engaging Sex and Spirit” sponsored by the MCC Office of Formation and Leadership Development.

The webinar was a wonderful collection of paper and panel presentations, online conversations, and sidebar text dialogue while others spoke. There was much honest sharing about personal lives, ideas, and anxieties.

study
https://redeeminggod.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/sermon-prep-570×320.jpg

The monthly conversations have been good, but not well attended. There is a new plan to make them more attractive, especially to clergy. Beginning in August, each hour of participation will be counted for CEU credit for clergy license renewal! This means there will still be conversation, but each hour will feature a major presentation on a topic of interest. The topics will be announced in advance so participants can plan their attendance.

And even more exciting to Malachi and me, we have been asked to provide the course offerings each month. This means that we intend to orient at least some of our weekly postings on this blog toward the topic of the month, as a way to help participants be well oriented to the class.

It’s not too late for the MCC movement—begun because men who sleep with men and women who sleep with women (exclusively or as part of bisexual living), and drag queens and transgender people and other sex- or gender-non-conforming and Q/queer people wanted safe spaces in which to worship the God of their understanding—to claim our call, our mission, to not only provide a safe haven for all these fabulous children of God but also to celebrate that wondrous diversity and teach the rest of the larger church about the beauty and joy and divinity of sex in all its manifestations, even including heterosexual monogamy (too many Christians and others can’t even bring themselves to like that!).

It’s a tall order, but somebody has to do it. I’m ready, and I hope you will join me, Malachi, and others as we help the church learn to celebrate erotic love and the bodies which make it possible.

 

Malachi GrennellMalachi: I’ve been a part of Metropolitan Community Church since I was a child (about 8 years old). MCC, in many ways, is my church home… although, like many childhood homes, we find that home much changed from when we left it. Thus is my experience at MCC. I left the church I had grown up in in Richmond, and stopped attending any place of worship for a while. When I moved to North Carolina to live with my mom (who is also MCC clergy), I returned to MCC via the church plant that she had facilitated.

I loved being back in MCC again. It has always been a place that I felt at home and comfortable, and I love hearing my mother preach. But as an adult, the experience of being back in church was a different one. I wasn’t sure if the difference was my age, the location, or being the child of the pastor, but I found that there was something missing from the experience of a predominantly queer church.

Growing up in MCC, I heard my fair share of lewd comments and ill-concealed euphemisms (children truly are smarter than we give them

Carlos McKnight of Washington, waves a flag in support of gay marriage outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, Friday June 26, 2015. A major opinion on gay marriage is among the remaining to be released before the term ends at the end of June. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Carlos McKnight of Washington, waves a flag in support of gay marriage outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, Friday June 26, 2015. A major opinion on gay marriage is among the remaining to be released before the term ends at the end of June. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

credit for). These comments were often jokes across the table at a diner down the street where people would congregate after church for lunch, or over the dinner table when my parents would have friends from church over for dinner. There was certainly no shame or hiding sexuality at that point- 20 years ago, we were still fighting for our right to exist (even more so than we do now), and we spent so much time hiding who we were at work and around our families that the thought of maintaining any kind of façade around our friends was too exhausting to fathom.

The sexuality of queer people was threatening to non-queer people. Thus, many people-particularly gay men- spent so much time trying to project a demeanor that was devoid of sexuality (lesbians were just simply not allowed to have a sexuality… after all, “how do two women have sex, anyway?”)

MCC was a sanctuary. It was a place where we could stop pretending- stop pretending to be non-sexual (read: non-threatening) and celebrate and embrace the vast beauty of who we are. It was a sanctuary beyond just the religious meaning, and broader than the bar scene (after all, MCC was a place for those who were recovering addicts to congregate without the fear of relapse).

And once upon a time, we didn’t fear it. We were outcasts in so many waysawareness-ribbon_HIV that we “let our hair down” a bit when we went to church. We were whole people, authentic and real. We did workshops on safer sex practices. We talked about the risks of STI infection in a real way (rather than a theoretical or hypothetical way). People shared stories that included aspects of sexuality. Some were told in a comical way, some in a heartbreaking way, some in matter-of-fact way, but there was space for it.

Granted, my experience with sexuality in MCC is partially skewed because so much of it occurred in the presence of my parents. I recall one story in which the minister at the time, Rev. Gill Storey, asked my mother if she had talked to me about condoms yet. My mother burst into tears at the thought of her child and the word “condoms” in the same sentence. So, certainly, I appreciate that my perspective is often filtered through the lens of navigating space with my parents (who, progressive as they may be, still struggled to speak openly about sex and sexuality with me for much of my life).

But perhaps that makes the contrast that much stronger: even in a space where I was sheltered from certain conversations and explicit references to sex, I was still aware of it. It was still a part of my understanding and experience of navigating my own journey and growing experience as I hit puberty. It was a church member who encouraged me to masturbate and be comfortable with my own body before trying to be sexual with another person. It was a church member who taught me about the importance of gloves and dental dams as forms of protection when engaging in sex with

https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/9e/6f/30/9e6f3053d2a8a950e1aa1f03d1375573.jpg
https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/9e/6f/30/9e6f3053d2a8a950e1aa1f03d1375573.jpg

bodies that were assigned female at birth. It was a church member who taught me how to put on a condom.

I do not see that MCC in the denominations any longer. While I see many beautiful things about MCC, I do not see the radical inclusion of our whole selves- bodies, minds, and spirits- in our services any more. I remember an outcry in the church when Rev. Robin- when speaking the chant lifted up by the queens at Stonewall- said the phrase “pubic hair” behind the pulpit. I didn’t know what was so bad about pubic hair, but clearly, it wasn’t something that we were supposed to talk about.

We no longer have to hide our identities in the same ways we used to. We are accepted in more churches, allowed to be out in more workplaces, allowed to marry and claim our partnerships on our taxes, get health insurance and survivor benefits. It’s an incredible step forward for the LGBTQ communities, and I am glad that these advancements have happened. But I wonder if we stopped viewing our churches as sanctuaries for the whole of ourselves because the canister of our lives is less pressurized elsewhere. We’re only hiding a little now, instead of everything that we are, and we have worked so hard to get here that we don’t want to risk jeopardizing it by being too “out there.”

And yet, I wonder if we do ourselves a disservice by removing the sex from our sanctuaries. It feels less “out there,” sure. But we also lose people who might otherwise be interested in coming to MCC… we lose young people who are looking for authentic conversations about sex and sexuality. People like me. People who struggle to find relevance in MCC because we don’t fit in those spaces.

I have, over time, stopped going to MCC for many reasons, but the largest

https://i.kinja-img.com/gawker-media/image/upload/s--f-EYExxp--/c_scale,fl_progressive,q_80,w_800/198u15dpp0uizjpg.jpg
https://i.kinja-img.com/gawker-media/image/upload/s–f-EYExxp–/c_scale,fl_progressive,q_80,w_800/198u15dpp0uizjpg.jpg

among them is that I don’t find that there is room for me to be my whole self- my polyamorous, kinky self- in most MCC spaces. I can be trans (mostly… the ambiguity of my gender presentation can still be a tricky thing sometimes) and I can be queer (or, at least, my partner can appear to have a similar gender presentation to me), but the rest of me doesn’t fit. I leave my sexuality at the door when I walk into a church now, and that never used to be what MCC was about. Because that space should be a sanctuary, not a closet.

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

What do you think? How do you feel about discussions of sex in church? What are some ways we can help open the dialogue? Please share your thoughts, your heart on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

We Need Your Input!

As we move forward in preparing the monthly online discussion, we want to ensure that this discussion is as accessible as possible. Please take a moment to provide us with some feedback on the best day and time for you to participate.

When Does Freedom Become Oppressive?

. . . in our own personal sexual revolutions, we must also be aware of how we are taking up space in the world around us . . . .

by Malachi Grennell and Robin Gorsline

Last week, there was a wonderful and thoughtful comment discussion-primarily between Robin and a reader named Matt- clarifying some of the statements in the original post (see “Is Sex Work?”). As the discussion started to wrap up, Matt stated that “‘sexual freedom’ and ‘consent’ are only truly meaningful if one is free – legally, socially, and economically – to choose to withhold them.” We think this is a wonderful, eloquent way to phrase a sentiment that couldn’t be truer: our “yes” is only as powerful as our “no” is empowered. That got us talking with each other about our own ideas and experience around giving and withholding consent as it relates to sexual freedom. As we talked, we decided to share some of  that with our readers.

Malachi: 

Malachi GrennellMatt’s observation and my conversation with Robin got me thinking about consent and models of consent- there is a very large difference between “choose to say no” (the model that we in the United States are raised and inundated with, which assumes consent until someone states a boundary) and “choose to say yes” (in which a person asks at each escalating step of intimacy, “May I (fill in the blank)?” which gives the other person the opportunity to say yes or no. (For an excellent resource to help understand and discuss consent check here).

I still remember my first date with my partner, Kase. After a wonderful night of dinner and conversation (after which, I must confess, I knew I was smitten), it was nearing one in the morning, and there was a significant amount of tension between us. He asked if he could kiss me (I said yes). Then he asked if he could touch my arm, my back, take off my shirt, kiss my neck, and so forth. It was one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had because I felt like I was with someone who wanted me to be present, and wanted to touch me in ways that felt good for me (not just ways that felt good for him). After five and a half years, we don’t necessarily do that every time we are intimate or close, but sometimes- particularly if one of us is having a difficult time, struggling with old trauma, or just feeling particularly sensitive- we go back to consciously seeking verbal consent more frequently. It is a powerful way of showing one another that we love, support, and respect each other- and we still have the choice to say no, no matter how long we’ve been together.

I have to say, from my own personal experience, summoning the ability to say, “No,” in situations where you are working against the assumption of your consent is a lot harder than being offered the opportunity to say yes. When the “yes” is assumed, what power does our “no” have?

Don't touch my fucking hair sussexstudent comIt is said that “my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.” This likewise applies to the conversations around sexuality- my sexual freedom ends where someone else’s body begins. But we know this- we understand that touching people without permission is a violation of consent-or do we? Stories of total strangers touching a pregnant woman’s belly (learn more here), people getting touched, grabbed, or groped in public by total strangers (more here), and African American people who experience those who claim whiteness touching their hair without asking (more here) – make me think that maybe we didn’t learn that elementary lesson that we shouldn’t touch what doesn’t belong to us. I can’t help noticing that many (not all, but many) of these issues disproportionately affect women because so often, women’s bodies are considered public domain and, more often than not, are told that “it’s a compliment”. But ideally, we shouldn’t touch another person’s body without their permission- that is an appropriate limit to sexual freedom.

I think that we understand that there must be some limitations on sexual freedom. So how do we choose which limitations are appropriate and which are not- not only with our sexual freedom, but with our discussions of sexuality in general? At what point are we ensuring that the dialogue is open, and at what point are we forcing others to engage in a conversation in which they do not wish to participate?

facebook-children ecommercetimes.com
ecommercetimes.com

When Robin and I initially began to co-author this blog, I found myself in an interesting situation. My family is on social media, and friends with both Robin and myself. Now, I didn’t want to stifle or self-censor my conversations about myself, my sexuality, my relationship with my body, etc. I wanted to write as authentically and passionately as I could about these various topics and be able to “share” my writing on social media platforms…and yet. And yet I was aware that my parents wouldn’t want to read that. They wouldn’t feel comfortable reading about my role in BDSM or my thoughts on masturbation- not because they are particularly prudish, but because they’re my parents and I’m their child, even if I am their adult child.

So rather than wait for them to click on a link that both Robin and I were posting and put them in an uncomfortable situation, I called my parents up and told them about this project. I let them know that I would be co-authoring this blog, and that these were some of the topics we might be covering. I let them know that I had no problems with them reading and participating in the conversation, but if they chose to do so, I didn’t want to hear about their discomfort in reading about my sexuality. I did the best I could to inform them so that they could make the best decision for themselves and their comfort levels- and to my knowledge, none of them read this blog, and I am absolutely ok with that. I get the freedom to discuss what I want to discuss, while they get the freedom to not be exposed.

consent sussexstudent com
sussexstudent.com

The platform matters and it’s all about ensuring people can give informed consent. We have to allow people to “opt in” rather than force people to need to “opt out.” We do not, for example, force anyone to read this blog, nor are we trying to trick people into reading it by disguising the subject matter. But in our churches- how do we allow people to opt in to the conversations during services (see Robin’s discussion)? How do we create space to have these dialogues and discussions without forcing every person to interact- whether or not they want to? How to we make sure that people are informed enough to make the best decision for themselves?

These are not easy questions, and there are no easy answers. Right now, we tend to shy away from and avoid these conversations because we don’t want to force people to talk about sex, and as a result, non-consensually limit sexual freedom for those who do want to have open, frank conversations. Conversely, if we start talking about it all the time, everywhere, we also limit the freedom of those who don’t want to engage in those conversations. The compromise is to create space where people can engage if/when they want to- they can opt in to the conversation, rather than opt out. But creating opt-in consent models in just one area of our lives can feel awkward and disjointed. In general, in our interactions with one another, cultivating an understanding of when we are giving others an opportunity to say yes versus waiting for others to say no can go a long way in creating space for conversations, whether they are hard or playful, platonic or sexy.

Sexual freedom can be a powerful force, something that transforms how we interact with ourselves and with our sexual partner(s). But in our own personal sexual revolutions, we must also be aware of how we are taking up space in the world around us. How we interact with consent in our daily lives- with strangers, friends, coworkers, and lovers- can be a vital aspect to promoting sexual freedom for everyone, as well as embodying new forms of sexual freedom within ourselves. As Matt said, sexual freedom and consent are only meaningful if one is free…to choose to withhold them. We have to ensure that as we continue to explore our own understandings of sexuality and gender that we do not infringe upon the capacity for others to do the same, in ways that feel good and authentic to them.

Robin: 

revrobin2-023As readers of this blog know, I, like I think most people, have sexual conflicts within my own self, my own mind and body. Lifelong body issues, including shame, and now the effects of aging and other health conditions, as well as a new found sexual energy at a relatively advanced age, give rise to contestations entirely within my own psyche and body.

Moreover, these conflicts are often played out within social contexts, not only my marriage of course, but also in my pastoral and theological vocation. To put it simply: church is a central arena of sexual conflict for me.

What am I free to say and do in church—in worship, in classes and small group discussions, with and among various individuals and informal gatherings? What am I free to write in ecclesiastical contexts?

yellow line boundary with 2 sets of shoes soberrecovery com
soberrecovery.com

When does what I say or do in such church settings impinge on the freedom of someone else to not receive my words or see or participate in my behavior, even if only indirectly? Where does the freedom to be me end? The classic answer is that it ends where the freedom of my neighbor begins.

But how do I know where that is? If I ask someone if they would be bothered, or offended, if I were to use a certain word or to discuss a certain topic, does not the asking potentially involve me in violating their freedom? Or should I just self-censor if I think there is any reason to think they would be offended?

Readers of this blog will not be surprised if I say that I think many of us do far too much self-censoring of that sort about sex, knowing that someone most likely will be offended if, in public places especially, we say much of anything about that topic. So we just don’t talk about it in any substantive, or certainly personal, way.

Noam Chomsky on social freedom pinterest com
pinterest.com

I believe that has contributed greatly to sex and body negativity in our culture, and perhaps especially in religious life (for me, that means churches). That negativity leads to repression of LGBT people, refusal to respect transgender people, body judgmentalism, etc. And it surely is connected to misogyny, the hatred and disrespecting of women and, I believe, racism (people who call themselves white feeling and acting superior to those with darker-skinned bodies).

It may help if I discuss an actual incident in which the exercise of my freedom, my power as a pastor, caused some others to feel disrespected and others to feel freed.

Some years ago, I preached a series of four sermons about sex and spirit. I gave the congregation considerable notice when these would occur because I wanted to be sure people were not surprised, and if they wanted to stay away they could do so. I also admit that I hoped some people would come who did not usually participate in worship at the church.

But, the reality of how this worked is not so simple as giving notice. No one in the congregation knew exactly what I was going to say, so the possibility existed that one or more persons might be offended. As it turns out, my brief description of masturbating to a representation of Jesus, in the final sermon, did offend some. Two people walked out. Others spoke to me later expressing displeasure, even anger, Some expressed a lack of trust in me going forward. On the other hand, some others thanked me for being honest.

Pastor preaching howafrica com
howafrica.com

I should say one thing about my freedom, too. I really resisted using this incident in a sermon. In fact, I really resisted doing the entire series. I felt pressure—from members of the congregation, and from God in various ways—to tackle the subject from the moment the congregation adopted a mission statement that included an affirmation of “the holy integration of spirituality and sexuality.” People wanted me to discuss that so they would understand what it means.

Frankly, I knew doing so was likely to cause trouble. I had learned the lesson about not talking about sex in church very well. So, I waited more than three years to do so. But people would ask and I would feel the hot breath of God when they did. Finally, I gave in and scheduled the series, for August, a time of often lower than usual attendance, And I was, I think, pretty cautious during the first three sermons (some people who objected to “the masturbation sermon,” as it became known, told me they were shocked that I did that after the more benign tone of the prior ones).

At any rate, this experience raises important issues.

At what point does my freedom to tell the story of that self-pleasuring (a sign, even in some ways a divine sign, for me, of recovery from a serious illness) impinge on the freedom of others not to know? TMI, too much information, some said.

As the pastor, I had the power of the pulpit. Some said I abused it. Several said it raised old issues of abuse for them. Others said it freed them to trust me enough to tell me about histories of abuse (and other sexual “secrets) that they usually kept hidden.

To use the test articulated so well by our reader Matt, those who were angered, or hurt, were not free not to hear unless they chose not to come to the series at all. If they came to church and sat in the sanctuary, they would hear the words before they could stop me, or choose to leave. On the other hand, if I felt I could not speak, then my freedom was denied.

hearinggod barbwire com
barbwire.com

I have struggled with this before and after, down to the present moment. Did I hear God correctly? Did I have to include that incident in the sermon? I should note here that I took it out of the written text several times and only added it back on Sunday morning and put a box around it and created a segue before it so I could decide in the moment whether to speak it or not. I kept an internal dialogue going that morning, asking God to relieve me from saying it. God did not do so. I took a deep breath and spoke the words.

However, I want to be clear. I don’t hold God responsible. That is not my view of God. I have been given agency by God, I am an adult, responsible for my choices. I knew it would create some upheaval. I chose to do it anyway.

It reminds me of my decision to begin this blog. I can tell a good number of my friends on Facebook (I always post my writings when they appear in public on my Facebook page) don’t want any part of this particular blog. I also know there are people at the church where I am active who think all I care about, all I talk about, is sex. I am pretty sure my daughters and other family would be glad if I stopped.

But a blog is different. People can, and do, choose not to read it. Speaking, as a preacher in a sermon or just talking as an individual in a group at church or anywhere is different. When we speak, people hear us, whether they want to or not.

freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear brainyquote com
brainyquote.com

On the other hand, if we never speak an unpleasant truth, nothing will ever change. As a leader and teacher, with passions about human liberation and justice, that is unacceptable to me.

So, it becomes, at least for me, doing my best to find or create opportunities to speak, to write, thoughtfully, with care, to tell the truth I need to share—opportunities that allow as much as possible for people to be given notice and to be able to make their own choices. And on occasion, I know I will decide I need to say or write something that will anger at least some people. I need to pray for guidance, I need to ask forgiveness, I need to listen to their anger and hurt, and to pray for their healing.

The truth is that the lines are not always clear, and when they are, it also is possible they need to crossed. Not every line deserves to be enforced every time, even as all of us deserve, and have, the right to resist such transgression.

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

What do you think? What are your thoughts on sexual freedom and its limits? Please share below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed.