Passive Bodies, Active Bodies

. . . the majority of our communication is non-verbal . . . .

Malachi:

I was spending time with a friend this past weekend, and I realized that they tend to speak in passive voice during conversation. Passive voice is a means of communicating that centers the object of the sentence, rather than the subject (for example, “I walked the dog” is active, whereas “The dog was walked by me” is passive). It’s an unusual style because it tends to feel ambiguous and somewhat awkward.

This got me thinking about communication in general, particularly because the majority of our communication is non-verbal. We have language to differentiate active and passive language when it comes to the words we use; however, I am beginning to think that extending that to our non-verbal communication could have a powerful effect on how present we are able to be in our bodies.

I feel like, for example, that I tend to speak actively but move in my body very passively. I allow things to happen to me, rather than acting upon the world around me. I have written elsewhere about my complicated relationship with acknowledging and expressing desire, but my partner used to say that I needed permission before I felt comfortable wanting something. That is, I needed to know that the desire was reciprocated before I was willing to acknowledge my own desires independently. I have a tendency to wait for things around me to settle before deciding where I want to position myself in my relationships and environments.

I don’t feel like this is the healthiest way to live, because it is reactionary

and responsive, rather than proactive. It also feels a bit dishonest, because

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it creates an image of wanting the same things as someone else, when it’s really more of an acceptance of what is being offered. If I existed less passively in my body- that is, if I were more willing to claim my own desires upfront- then I might find that myself and someone else want completely divergent things, and it could spare both of us a lot of heartache to realize that earlier on in a relationship.

Don’t get me wrong; I think there are times when existing passively is important and necessary. Moments, for example, where we recognize that the privileges afforded to us by our gender (or gender presentation), race (or presentation of race), ability, sexual orientation, authority, etc. put us in greater positions of power than those around us, we may actively choose to exist passively in our bodies in order to center or elevate those voices that are less commonly heard. But I think the key here is “actively choosing.” Passive movement isn’t inherently a bad thing, but I think doing so with intention is vital. Not only does it allow us to consider the complexities and intersections of oppression (and how we fit into them), but it also helps keep us grounded and centered in our bodies, even in those moments that we are existing more passively.

As someone who was assigned and socialized female through my childhood and teenage years, I think that women in particular are conditioned toward passive movement. Women are taught to endure microaggressions (such as unwarranted catcalling or comments that someone should smile) as compliments thrust upon them by strangers. Women are taught to be somewhat sexually submissive, allowing men to “make the first move.” When discussing sexual assault, women’s behavior (how much she had to drink, what she was wearing, what part of town she was in, etc.) is often centered, rather than the assaulter’s behavior. I don’t know if there can be a clearer case of the expectations of passive movement- where the object (the behavior of the woman who was assaulted) is the focus, rather than the subject (the behavior of the assaulter) or the action itself (the assault).

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In this way, I feel like passive movement and existence in our bodies contributes to rape culture. I say this, not at all meaning that “people passively allow themselves to get raped,” but that, when you have one group of people who are expected to allow things to happen and one group who is expected to do things, we end up in a toxic cycle. Rape culture (which, by definition, centers the actions of the receiving party, rather than the actions of the perpetrating party) very much enforces the passive existence of women and feminine-of-center individuals.

And while I am making generalizations here, I absolutely appreciate that there are men and masculine-of-center individuals who also tend toward passive movement for any number of reasons. I don’t mean to erase or discount those experiences, but I can only speak from my own personal experience and, having transgressed across gender lines a few times, I feel very strongly that the emphasis on men is active body language, whereas the emphasis on women is passive.

So how do we negotiate our relationship with our body language? How do we begin to center ourselves- when it’s appropriate- with our movements, our bodies, our actions? Like so many things, it is a sense of self-awareness, an active engagement in how our bodies move and interact with the world.

Do we allow the world to wash over us, to act upon us? Do we find ourselves reacting rather than acting more often than not? And if so, why is that? Where does that come from within each of us? It’s a form of being disconnected from ourselves, from our bodies, from our actions, from our desires. When and how might we shift from passive to active language with our bodies?

I don’ t know that there are universal answers to these questions. Every

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person moves through the world differently, and has to decide for themselves how they want to act and interact. For myself, though, I want to make a more intentional effort to be active in my body language- and more than just active, but proactive. To hear and honor the messages my body is telling me instead of the messages I have received from society that the needs of other should always surpass my own. I see the value and importance of taking up space and centering myself as the subject of my own life, rather than a passive object upon which life happens to.

Better yet, though, I am learning to see the value and importance in the wants, needs, and desires of my body. I am not willing to allow so much of my communication in the world to be so passive, and in order to get what we want, we must be willing to acknowledge what we want- and don’t want. As we grow into ourselves and new ways of understanding how we move through the world, may we do so with intention and deliberate action, rather than putting ourselves last in the focus of our own lives.

Robin:

Recently, during a conversation about sex and sexuality, I was asked if I revrobin2-023identify as a “top” or a “bottom.”

I found myself stammering a bit, not because I objected to the question
(although it feels old-fashioned) but because I felt unsure how to answer. In my early days as an out gay man, the term for some of us who enjoy being fucked and fucking another was “versatile.”  I don’t know if that terminology appears on today’s online sex sites or not. But after a little hemming and hawing that is the way I answered my friend.  After all, my husband and I have some routines we often (although not always) follow, and they involve us in various positions.

But when Malachi suggested we focus on active and passive bodies this week, I thought of that conversation—knowing that this is larger than just positions and practices during sex.

Speaking personally, I began to ask myself some questions. How do I stand, how do I walk, how do I, as the saying goes, carry my body (what an odd linguistic construction)? How do I sit in a chair, how do I place my body in a group of people?

posture chart-final-CopyWhen I was a full-time solo pastor, I recognized the importance of body language—both my own and learning to read others. I was the leader and wanted to convey authority and competence yet I also wanted to convey openness and enough vulnerability for people to want to trust me and talk to me. I don’t know how successful I was; I suspect I confused some people!

At the open communion in an MCC worship service, it is customary to offer the communicant prayer with the bread and cup. Clergy and lay servers alike have to learn to pay attention to body signals. Some people want you to practically hug them (as the hug you) during prayer while others slgnal keeping up to an arm’s length distance. There are subtle variations between those two poles. Respecting these signals is critical to the person being able to receive the blessing of the holy meal.

Gender often plays a significant role. Women are usually raised to listen, men to talk. But that is not about just speech patterns. In fact, speech is not the most important and powerful way we communicate. Our posture, the way we take up space, the tilt of our head, the direction of our eyes, all these and many other factors convey far more than the words from our mouths.

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axisrmt.com

The man who conveys his desire to listen—body seeming relaxed, looking directly at the speaker, perhaps head tilted just a little, nodding in comprehension or even agreement (perhaps a slight smile or murmur), conveys a different message from the man whose body seems tense, who is looking at his watch or beyond the speaker, not nodding but indicating an impatience and a desire to speak. There are women who exhibit these behaviors, too. Gender is important, but it is not necessarily determinative of every person or interaction. Many of us have learned, often due to work requirements or other needs, to overcome at least some of our early conditioning.

That conditioning may be the result of gendered socialization, but it also may be the result of other factors, including things that happened to us. I remember as a child, and even as a teenager, being uncomfortable in gatherings of my father’s family. They all were loud, talking over each other, and they also took up space—I mean by that they sat, stood, and walked in ways that made sure others knew they were not only in the room but also intended to take charge, even to be the center of the action. There was a lot of dominance behavior going on, even among the women.  I suspect the women learned it in self-defense.

Overacted VII generally shut down in those gatherings, unless someone specifically invited me to speak. Then I often stammered, despite intelligence and an ability to speak. I still engage in variations of that today. In a class or other group, I tend to be quiet. A professor in seminary told me that she loved to read what I wrote for her, but was disappointed by how little I shared aloud in class.

There is an exception to this general pattern. I am a comfortable public speaker.  Give me a role that requires me to not only speak but also stand up and assume center stage, and I will do it. That was true long before pastoring, but it served me well in that role, too.

So, active or passive?

I am tall, but do not stand and walk tall. Like many tall people, though far from all, I slouch. Recent, ongoing back pain is causing me to pay more attention to posture, so I think I am learning a bit about living in my tall body. Plus, as I wrote recently, I am seeking to claim what I think is my natural lankiness (see “Who Is Your Type?” ). That pain is also causing me to pay more attention to how I sit as I write. I also am using an adjustable height desk, so I write for 30-45 minutes while seated, and then shift and do the same while standing.

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sciencewritingblog.wordpress.com

I really like writing, and even reading, while standing at the desk. I usually spend my days at home naked, and there is something very empowering for me to stand, naked, and write. I feel like I am claiming my body in a new, active, way.

I also attend some meetings regularly, sometimes sitting in a circle of chairs and other times at a table. I have been noticing lately that when sitting in a circle I tend to fold myself up, and when at a table I lean in with my head resting on my hand (my arm cocked at the elbow). As at my desk, I am paying more attention to my posture, and shifting to sit up tall.

Active or passive? It seems I lean toward passive, with a new commitment to become more active. This comports well with how I am coming to understand my life pattern for the past 50+ adult years. I am seeing now that I have lived a reactive life, doing what arrived in front of me whether it was actually mine to do or not.

Today, as I claim my vocation as a writer, learning to work on my own without an institutional structure to govern and guide me, I am becoming more active.

Neither passive or active is wrong or bad, of course. I am just hoping for more balance between the two. Surely, we are engineered for both—that reflects the largeness, the depth and width and breadth of God and God’s desire for us to be ourselves—and I am grateful to be broadening my horizon.

We Want to Hear from You!

Help Make this a Conversation!

How do identify your body and the ways you interact with others? Passive or active? Some of both? What difference does the context make? Do you see patterns in your body behavior and attitude that reflect, and do not reflect, social conditioning, gender roles, etc.? 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 three weeks, THURSDAY, May 18th 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.

Queering Language

The dictionary is not the authority on but the recorder of social change . . . .

Malachi:

14947937_10100747005631839_8991378826366585167_nEarlier this year, Merriam-Webster (M-W) dictionary has added the terms “genderqueer,” “genderfluid,” and “transphobia,” as well as the gender-neutral title “Mx.” (replacing Mr. or Ms.) to the lexicon of approved words. As Robin and I finish our preparations for our discussion of polyamory and non-monogamy this Thursday (see the end of the post for more details), this has me thinking about the evolution of language, particularly with respect to a generational gap.

After announcing the new additions to the dictionary (not all of which are sexuality and gender based), M-W  tweeted, “People keep (1) saying they don’t know what ‘genderqueer’ means then (2) asking why we added it to the dictionary.” M-W makes a valid point: their role is a reactive one, one in which they examine terms that have been in mainstream language for some time and have reached a critical mass of use such that they should be defined. They do not endorse a particular perspective, stance, or political thought with respect to the concepts language seeks to define; they simply level the playing ground so that everyone is utilizing with the same definitions of terms.

For example: if M-W added the term “alt-right” to the dictionary, it is neither an endorsement of the alt-right (a term I despise, most notably because I view it as a rebranding of Nazi-thought fascism and white supremacy) nor is it a political alignment with them. However, if enough people begin to use that term, it will need to be coherently defined.

I often joke that “every conversation is a miscommunication” in the sense that we all define language- particularly self-descriptive language- in our own ways. By using certain shorthands, we assume that other people’s definitions, expectations, and connotations with certain words are the same as our own. But the reality is, of course, that we use language to communicate and, as such, it is important that we are all working from a similar baseline definition.

It also brings to mind the evolution of language. The term “queer,” for

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art-and-anarchism

example, began as a term to describe something “strange, unusual, not the norm,” and has slowly evolved to be a derogatory term for LGBT people, and has further evolved as a reclaimed term of power for self-identification (I, for example, identify as queer) (read more here). And now, of course, we see that evolution go one step further to “genderqueer,” a term that moves beyond the default synonym to sexual orientation, instead defining a broader sense of the term “queer.” In fact, in many ways, this usage of “queer” harkens back to the original definition, in the sense that it is, basically, “a gender that is unusual and not defined within our binary scope.”

M-W’s addition of gender-neutral language does not make the language “more real.” I first came across the term “genderqueer” in 2003-4 at a conference for LGBTQ youth. Non-binary language has been around for quite a while. In fact, I wonder if LGBTQ individuals around my age were exposed to these terms and, now that we have reached the point in our lives where we are part of the public discourse (not just online, but in academic publications, as editors, and as teachers), we are a part of moving our subculture language into the mainstream. It’s certainly possible, although I will not be so bold as to claim that the youth are responsible for normalizing non-binary language.

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But our understanding and definitions have changed. I see this not only with concepts like “queer,” but also with non-monogamy. Non-monogamy is becoming more normalized and viewed as a possible, substantial alternate method of relationship. This is a result, of course, of many things: greater access to information via the internet; more open, accepting ideas of sex (hallelujah!); an economic situation in which couples can barely scrape by on two incomes; and the idea that non-monogamy is a viable, long-term relationship structure, not simply group sex in the wild club years (before we settle down) or something to try after 20 years of marriage when the sex life might have gotten a little stale.

This isn’t to say that there haven’t been plenty of non-monogamous couples before the millennial generation’s fascination with it. But that is to say that concepts like “swingers” (which tend to be older crowds); “open relationships” (where there were rules such as “you can have sex but don’t fall in love”); and “polygamists” (which meant you were part of a patriarchal religious cult) are the somewhat notorious archetypes of non-monogamy, and we are seeing those archetypes shifting. Slowly, but they are shifting.

Which brings me to a final point: the definitions in the dictionary are not

always the same as the vernacular definitions. Terms like “literally” are often used as their own antonym (e.g. “I could literally eat a bear right now.” is meant to be interpreted as a figurative statement). Queer, while still meaning “strange, weird, unusual,” was used as a derogatory term long before that was ever included in the dictionary, and “non-monogamy” still makes people think swingers or polygamists, even though the definition is simply “to be in a sexual relationship with more than one person” (although I don’t believe the term has made it into M-W yet. Perhaps next year!).

In addition, we have a certain obsession with what we consider to be

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“proper” English- though very rarely in our conversations do we speak with “proper” English. Academic discourse is an important, vital part of our linguistic dialects- but it is only one part. Cultural and regional language- the twang of Southern Appalachia, the abbreviations of text speak, the language of urban street culture in Baltimore- these are just as important (if not more, since they are what we interact with the most). Language can be used to separate “us” and “them”… and used as an oppressive tool. “He doesn’t sound black,” often means that a person of color is speaking in formal, academic English, and the insinuation is that “sounding black” means “sounding uneducated.” The same is often true of those with a strong Southern accent, particularly in mountain region accents.

Formal, academic English is one of many dialects of English spoken in this country, but it is not the most important one. It is a tool, and it is one that is often used in an oppressive manner, to determine who is educated in a certain manner (and thus, considered to be “intelligent”). It is important that we learn to navigate academic language; however, it is also important that we do not utilize academic discourse as a means of silencing others who speak with their own, unique, beautiful languages.

Language is tricky, and I don’t envy M-W the job of defining complex sociological and cultural terms in clear, coherent, concise ways. But the role of the dictionary is to give us all a starting place, a beginning to understanding the language we use to describe the evolving world we live in. Their role is not to legitimize our lives by recognizing new language, but simply to help us refine and sharpen a useful tool for conversation, discourse, and growth.

Robin:

revrobin2-023One of the best things about sharing this mission with Malachi is how he brings both a younger and a more sexually diverse vantage point to my awareness. For example, recently he mentioned that Merriam-Webster had added “genderqueer” to their dictionary. And then I discovered they also added “cisgender.”

This is really good news!!  Both terms are relatively recent additions to the vocabulary, arising in the LGBT community as part of the ongoing need to find, or create, terms that describe the lived experience of people whose lives had been kept largely under wraps.  Merriam-Webster, and other language authorities, are once again helping to open closet doors too long kept nailed shut.

Genderqueer is a way of “relating to, or being a person whose gender identity cannot be categorized as solely male or female.” Cisgender refers to a person whose gender identity corresponds to their sex at birth.

I am cisgendered (“Congratulations, you have a baby boy,” the doctor said to my mother in the delivery room).

merriam-websterAnd in some ways, I think of myself as genderqueer. Every time someone looks twice at me because of my dangly earrings, which most people would consider feminine, I am reminded that although I have male genitalia and body hair I also am feeling “girly stuff,” too.

Nor is this drag—although I have nothing against doing drag, and have enjoyed some good times in drag on special occasions in earlier years. This is me.

In 1994, I wrote a poem, and it still reflects truth about, in, me.

My Two Ears

I said to the women who asked,
I wear two earrings because I have two ears.
Unable to choose between them,
not knowing which ear properly deserves adornment this year,
the simpler thing to do is an earring in each ear;
but then I know the simple is not always simple for those
whose simple is different from one’s own.
The woman wondered not only why I had an earring in each ear
but why like my ears the earrings were a matching set.
Earrings like that she said are for women.
I told her I bought them at a shop called Czarina.
She decided I was not a woman
but a man wearing earrings in the feminine mode.
What kind of man does she think I am,
is she confused because I break the rules
which determine for her who is a man and who is a woman
or does she merely think me a strange man who disobeys,
or a stupid man who does not know—
oh enough—
I wear two earrings because I have two ears,
two lovely ears between which I will not choose.
I’d like someone to nibble on one and then the other
and then the other again,
not showing partiality to one ear more than the other,
just a desire for my ears,
or most deliciously perhaps two someones taking turns
nibbling one on one ear, one on the other
while I moan and giggle in gratitude.
They could even remove the rings if they’d like;
I will replace them later for another woman (or man or child).
Everyone needs a man wearing rings in each ear
if only to ask,
why are you wearing two earrings in two ears?

This poem reflects my genderqueerness (a term I did not have in 1994) as well as my involvement in the Radical Faeries in the 80s and 90s, which is where I really got in touch with, and learned to live in, my own sense of being queer. Although I am not currently active with the Faeries, my faerie/queer spirit burns strong and true yet today.

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In case you don’t know about the Faeries, I often describe them/us as a loosely-knit gaggle of free spirits who are often irreverent, playful, even as spiritually inclined, mostly gay men but some bi-men and occasionally women, too). Lots of Faeries wear drag or simply skirts or caftans and the like, and go naked often, too. For more information, click here or here or here). Wikipedia says Faeries are “a loosely affiliated worldwide network and counter-cultural movement seeking to redefine queer consciousness through spirituality.”

Queer. Queer consciousness. What do those terms mean? Malachi and I wrote about our understanding of Queer on October 26, 2016 in “Queer Is a Verb” (click here), and I don’t want to restate all that was said there. If you did not read it then, I encourage you to do so now.However, it is important to me to say here that I experience, and practice, queerness as a disruption of norms that, while they may be useful in ordering society also serve to stifle new ways of understanding and relating to reality. That is why I am pleased that genderqueer is being mainstreamed. It’s an apt way for me to explain myself, sometimes to myself as well as to others.

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At the same time, it is queer, and certainly Faerie-like, to say that it is not Merriam-Webster that makes the term acceptable; it is the actual lives, experiences, emotions, and passions of genderqueers that do that. The dictionary is not the authority on but the recorder of social change, offering a reflection of what already is before it is recorded.

Genderqueer gives us a way to see queerness in personal terms. I often think of other forms of queerness, such as local Catholic house church gatherings that are led by women—claiming their faith against the patriarchal Rome-centered curia. To me, this is an example of queerness because these groups don’t get caught up in arguing with the power structure so much as undermining it by living their own faithful Catholic reality.

To me, that can be called spiritqueer, something that brought Metropolitan Community Churches into being. When Troy Perry asked when he should start a church for queer people, he heard “Now.” That is, was, in my view, God’s undermining the rules most of God’s people, and certainly their leaders, thought were from God.

That’s queer. Praise God!

And God is waiting on us to claim our heritage, and queer things, queer church, queer our country, some more. I hope you will think about how you can contribute . . . I have some earrings I could share.

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

What do you think influences your sense of your own body, your relationship with your body? And what influences how you see and evaluate the bodies of others? What bodies are most sexy for you? Is your own body sexy for you? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

discoverpittsfield.com
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Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please join us THURSDAY, December 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.

Workshop description:

Sacred, Not Secret, Part 2: Beyond the Norm

We invite you to join us on Thursday, Dec 15th for the second part of the series, “Sacred, Not Secret” where Malachi Grennell and Rev. Dr. Robin H. Gorsline continue to discuss alternative expressions of sexuality and intimacy from a Christian perspective. On December 15, they will begin to explore non-normative relationship structures, focusing on non-monogamous relationships. This one-hour workshop will examine different aspects of non-monogamy, as well as discuss ways that we can be more open and inclusive to non-monogamous families in our churches and communities–because do not doubt that you know and interact with such families, in church and elsewhere.

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.