Celebrating All the Holy Bodies

This is the season of the outcasts . . .

Note: Malachi and Robin are taking a break next week, in service to caring for our own sex, bodies, and spirit. We return January 4. 

Robin: 

Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah! Happy Holidays! Joyous Yule!! Beautiful Solstice!revrobin2-023

“Tis the season of merriment, love, joy, singing, overeating and drinking, and exclamation points. I mean, it’s Christmas!

And yet, not everyone is feeling the warmth or blessing. There is stress, and worse. For many, going home for the holidays is fraught with anxiety, a time to have to deal with alcoholic or abusive or just unpleasant relatives. And of course, many people have no home to go to—whether homeless people seeking shelter under a bridge or on a heat vent, or Queer youth have been kicked out of their homes.

I don’t mean to be a downer, a Scrooge—Jonathan and I are blessed to be spending about a week in Brooklyn with our three daughters and their families—but at Sex, Bodies, Spirit, we are aware that there are bodies who are not so warmly embraced by the Spirit of Christmas or the lights and latkes of Hanukkah.

starbucks-red_holiday_cups_2016_resizedFirst, there is the War on Christmas, now won, by his own declaration, by President-elect Trump. Some people may feel relieved, or even safer, by this “victory,” but even now I tend to steer clear of Starbucks from October through December. I worry, too, when I go to Target and other big name stores.  There’s nothing like the spirit of Christmas to get people arguing about important things, such as the greetings of store clerks and coffee containers. My body carries a certain level of anxiety about all this whenever I go out into the world of commerce (including my refusal to give money to the Salvation Army, despite their good work, because of their institutional homophobia and transphobia).

But of course, my friend Tyrone the Pennyman, who panhandles at the Greenbelt Metro Station, knows a lot more about embodied anxiety. He sits many days on a ledge outside the station, saying, over and over, “pennies, pennies, pennies” to the streams of riders coming and going. Occasionally, someone stops and gives him something—and he has some regulars, like me, who stop to chat, providing encouragement and a buck or two, or perhaps five.

penniesHe has been doing this for some years he tells me, after his career as a merchant failed, and the evidence—ragged clothes, torn umbrella, many missing teeth, a tattered bag or two—seems clear: he is not making a killing no matter how high the market goes. Ho! Ho! Ho! sticks in my throat, my heart.

And yet—despite what seems to be a ravaged body—his smile, his warmth and grace, as we greet each other reflect what I experience as the beauty of Christmas, Hanukkah, Solstice, Yule (and Ramadan, which sometimes comes in December) all rolled into one.  Every body, every single body, no matter how tattered and worn, carries God’s beauty.

As I reflect on Tyrone’s beauty—and tens of thousands,  probably hundreds of thousands, of others struggling to stay alive on our streets—I think of the paintings of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus, and the shepherds and angels, the cattle and sheep, the whole cast. The family was not exactly homeless, but they did not have a hospital bed for the birth, and no one in the neighborhood knew them.  Still, they were all beautiful, including the innkeeper and all those unnamed, unknown folks living nearby.

meetup-logo-fontI went to a holiday party last weekend at the home of someone I had never met. I had a wonderful time, having found the party on Meetup. The group, Birds of a Feather, is a clothing optional/nudist  group that gathers monthly for social time (not sex).  All those bodies, men and women, gay, straight, bi (don’t think there were any trans folks but the host is hopeful someday), were beautiful.

I confess I was sad to put my clothes on when it came time to leave.  I like being naked. I mention this because during our eight-day holiday trip, I will not be naked—other than in bed. Going home, or gathering with loved ones, can sometimes carry a price—this one quite small compared to the joy we will share.

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But as I reflect on that, I think of the young woman who wrote for advice in the Washington Post about how to balance her love for her live-in boyfriend and the condemnation by her parents and her pastor of their “sin.” She comes from a fundamentalist Christian family, and she had not yet told her parents about the change in her life. She was afraid, so she procrastinated. Then, her pastor found out, and, behind her back, told her parents. Now, she is faced with choices: kick the boyfriend out, continue “living in sin” and be tried by the church, or leave the church on her own.

Leaving aside the unprofessional—I think outrageous—conduct by the pastor, I mourn how little Happy Christmas there will be in that family. How many homes are there like that? So many.

For example, this week, a friend of mine, who volunteers regularly at a homeless shelter in northwest D.C., told me that one of the social work interns, a young man from New York, told him about Catholic priests in his hometown who counsel families of LGBT youth to kick their children out of the house. I knew several young people selling their bodies on the streets of Richmond, victims of this by their families in other parts of Virginia.

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This is undoubtedly the main reason LGBT youth, and older folks too, constitute a higher than expected proportion of street people. I just wonder if the priests, and parents, have really read either the Hebrew or Christian scriptures. Or thought about how they act in a way contrary to Joseph and his response to Mary (first by declining to have her stoned, and then, listening to divine inspiration, marrying her and helping to raise their son)?

According to the gospel writer Luke, Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem in order to be registered, or counted, in the first census, ordered by Emperor Augustus.  We in the United States may think of the census today as a rather benign thing, unless, of course, we are undocumented persons. In some ways, in the days of Jesus, most people were undocumented, at least by the lights of the Roman occupiers. Every body needed to be counted, to make it clear that Rome had control. Bodies were under threat all the time.

israeli-checkpoint-2The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem may not seem that far, but for a woman in late pregnancy, riding on a donkey, it cannot have been easy. Nor is it today, pregnant or not. Journeying from Nazareth in the nation of Israel to Bethlehem in the West Bank is not without hurdles, always the potential for trouble, especially if your papers are not right, or even if something over which you have no control goes wrong. Bodies are still under threat today.

So, as I ponder this holy and spiritual time for so many, and feel some joy myself, I am simultaneously aware that the only justice that really works is that which is abundantly and equally for all holy bodies created in the image of God. With my Jewish siblings, I celebrate that the oil lasted for eight days, and pray somehow the light never goes out—that all bodies will be seen and touched and healed and cared for, and loved as Jesus was loved, in all their glory.

Malachi: 

14947937_10100747005631839_8991378826366585167_nTis the season… of Yule and Chanukah, of Christmas and gift-giving, of a time when we are encouraged to think of those around us (with our wallets, certainly, but also in a marked elevation of kindness and goodwill toward others). It is a time intended to be celebratory and full of laughter, but more often than not, leaves us feeling somewhat stressed and (although we rarely say this out loud), wishing for the season to hurry up and come to a close.

And so, as we draw ever-closer to our celebrated holiday(s) of choice, the time seems to move far too fast (we need to pick up those last-minute presents and clean the house and wrap the gifts and…and…and…), for many, this time can also bring a level of dread and stress that is not necessarily associated with the pressures of living in a capitalistic economy.

I remember Christmas with my family growing up. As a child, I was immune to many of the microaggressions my lesbian parents experienced, including one aunt’s tirade against the sinful nature of my mothers’ relationship and who bought presents for whom, depending on whether they were considered “real” family or not. My parents worked extra-hard to make the holidays perfect; they made up for the awkwardness by being super-hosts. The tree was trimmed and underneath was bursting with more presents than any family needed; the family recipes were made to perfection; the house was spotless; and I was cleaned up and in some appropriately-adorable seasonal attire, walking around ensuring everyone’s drinks were full and passing out presents from under the tree. Hello, lesbian Hallmark dream.mommy-mama-and-me

As a parent now, I understand the pressures of trying to do these things with a child, struggling to remain authentic while wanting her to experience the magic of the holidays. Our tree has been up and trimmed since early December, and I have watched (and contributed) to the growing piles of presents under the tree, torn between joy at recreating the beautiful moments of my own queer childhood and struggling with the myths that are perpetrated in this recreation.

We are not a wealthy family, but we are able to make ends meet, for the most part. Buying presents is certainly not the easiest thing to budget in, but we have tried. This year, we (myself, my partner, and our 8 year old goddaughter) will be spending Christmas with my lovely sister and her wife, their two children, and two of my mothers.  And as overjoyed as I am to have this time with them, I also feel the anxiety building. They live an entirely different type of life than we do, and I wonder about the awkwardness to which I am no longer immune: bringing a child (who is not my biological child, but still my child in every other sense of the word) to my family Christmas, a child that will blurt out things that will most likely make me stutter and blush, that doesn’t really have a grasp of table manners or indoor volume or general neatness, who my parents are (understandably) struggling to understand their relationship to her…

Whoever said we recreate our childhoods must have been laughingly looking into the future of my own experiences.

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And yet, I am blessed beyond belief. I am blessed with assurances of a roof over my head and (awkward or not), my chosen family welcomed with open arms. I think of those who cannot or will not interact with their families of origin because they have been kicked out or refuse to be inauthentic. I think of those who disguise their lovers as “friends” or “roommates” (as my parents did for many years) in order to maintain a family connection. I think of the child whose family cannot afford presents this year, or the child who doesn’t get to see their family much because they are working multiple jobs to keep the lights on and the heat going. I think of those who are on the streets as the weather turns cold, whether by their own choice or because they were kicked out.

This blog is a blog on sexuality and bodies. And while it may not seem relevant to the despairing hope and unexpected blessings of the holiday season, our bodies, our queerness, our sex and sexuality are an integral part of who we are, and we can’t just leave that part behind when we are with family. It’s having a couple split up, one in the spare bedroom and one on the couch, because “we won’t tolerate sinful behavior in this house.” It’s packages addressed to the wrong name containing clothes that are for the wrong gender because “you’ll always be my daughter.” It’s the stutter and questioning face a family member makes when they go to introduce your partner: “This is…uhh, well… this is Joe’s, ummm… this is Joe’s friend.”

Because after the holidays are over, and the thank you cards are written, and we return to the quiet normalcy of our homes (having now stuffed more stuff into dusty corners)… we look across the room at our partners. We look in the mirror at ourselves. We watch our children, and we sit in our homes and we feel the sense of sadness and loss. If our own families cannot give us unconditional love, how do we come to understand God’s

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love for us?

Many have come to understand the story of the birth of Jesus as a miracle of God: a savior born of a virgin. I, personally, do not see the story that way. For me, I see a powerful lesson in this season: that those who have strayed from the expectations of society are unconditionally loved. That a woman who conceived a child out of wedlock bore a Savior in her womb. That regardless of the conditions under which she came to conceive, she was chosen to bring light forth into the world.

This is the season of the outcasts. This is the season where people from different religions, class systems, sexual practices, ages, abilities, and possessions come together to celebrate life. So for those of you struggling with no room at the family inn, this season is for you. For those of you who live outside the expectations of sexual expression, this season is for you. For those of you who are working jobs that most people disdain (be it shepherds or fast food workers or sewage cleaners), this season is for you. For those of you who come together to celebrate community and togetherness, regardless of your religious and spiritual backgrounds, this season is for you. Celebrating the birth and story of Jesus is radically embracing the crossing of social norms- something Jesus himself came to embody in his ministry.

So to all of us, and to all of you struggling this holiday season, this season is for you. Not because of gifts or awkward in-laws or uncomfortable conversations with the Republican cousin, but because, from birth to death, Jesus crossed nearly every social norm he could, and God continues to claim him as God’s own. I am reminded of the Avalon song, “Orphans of God.”   I close with the chorus of this incredible song, reminding us that there are no orphans of God.

“There are no strangers,
There are no outcasts,
There are no orphans of God
So many fallen, but hallelujah,
There are no orphans of God.”

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
discoverpittsfield.com

Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please join us THURSDAY, January 19th 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 3: Beyond the Norm

We invite you to join us on Thursday, January 19th for the third 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 January 19, they will continue to explore non-normative relationship structures and practices, focusing this time on kink and BDSM. This one-hour workshop will examine different aspects of these sexual activities, as well as discuss ways that we can be more open and inclusive to practitioners–because do not doubt that you know and interact with them, in church and elsewhere.

Recordings of the workshop presentations by Malachi and Robin are being made available periodically.

  • October 2016, “The Roots of Sex Negativity in Western Christianity, Part 3, is available here
  • September 2016, “The Roots of Sex Negativity in Western Christianity, Part 2, is available here
  • August 2016, “The Roots of Sex Negativity in Western Christianity, Part 1” is available here.

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.

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.

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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).

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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

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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,

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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.

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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

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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.

Sexual Repression: Systemic and Personal

I remember being ashamed of my body and sexuality, even from a very young age.

by Malachi Grennell and Robin Gorsline

Introduction:

Next week, on August 18, in the first monthly installment of the online workshop, “Sex, Bodies, Spirit,” Rev. Robin and Malachi are going to take a look at the roots of sex-negativity and sexual repression within Western Christianity. In preparation for this workshop, we have read Sex as a Spiritual Exercise as well as contemplated our own experiences with sexual repression. You can learn more about the workshop, and how you can participate, at the end of this blog.

Malachi:

Malachi GrennellIn some ways, I feel as though my understandings and experiences with sexual repression retrospectively change as I have a better understanding of the world around me. For much of my life, for example, I felt that, because I was raised in a lesbian home, I didn’t experience sexual repression. I know now, of course, that although I was raised in a somewhat open and affirming home, that doesn’t necessarily translate to a lack of sexual repression.

I spent a considerable amount of my pubescent teenage years terrified of  getting pregnant (and, as a result, terrified of having sex with cis-male people). When I tried to discuss birth control with one of my mothers, I got a 2 hour lecture about the dangers of hormonal birth control in teenage women and an offer to buy me a vibrator to take care of my own sexual urges without risking pregnancy. I declined and never broached the subject again.

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I think back on this conversation with mixed emotions. On one hand, I did learn some valuable information about the biology of hormonal birth control and its effectiveness over the long-term. On the other hand, the conversation felt as though it didn’t actually address the issues I was dealing with. I wanted to find a way to be intimate with my then-boyfriend of nearly 3 years; my mom was trying to help me find a way to satisfy my sexual desires. I had already figured out masturbation- that didn’t answer my deeper question about how to be sexual while protecting myself from unwanted pregnancy.

Although I grew up in a lesbian household, I still had incredibly heteronormative ideas about what constituted “sex.” Penetration was the dividing line between foreplay and sex (regardless of what (fingers, dildos, etc.) was doing the penetrating) and the role of masturbation was a stop-gap when intimacy with another person wasn’t possible and urges needed to be managed. The concept of masturbation as a sacred act- or even one that could be done with a partner- was a foreign concept that didn’t enter my sexual consciousness until my early twenties, when I met my spouse.

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This is perhaps one key element that has been vital to the concept of sexual repression (and subsequent liberation): defining what sex “is.” The way that sex is currently defined (usually penis-in-vagina, or PIV) leaves a lot to be desired. Beyond the increased risk for the transmission of STI’s, it allows us to lie to ourselves about what we are doing. If we are struggling with sexual repression and therefore have shame, etc. around engaging in “real” sex, then this provides a loophole for us to be intimate with another person without ever admitting what we are actually doing.

In addition to all of this, I grew up with one mother who desperately wanted me to be a heterosexual woman because she didn’t want me to suffer and struggle with my sexuality (as she had). While I’m sure she feels differently now, at the time, her desire for me to be a heterosexual woman was very much interpreted by my teenage self as an internalized homophobia. If she loved and was happy with her life and identities, why wouldn’t she want that for me? Or better yet, why wouldn’t she simply encourage me to be authentic and love myself rather than fixate on a “gold star standard” of relationship practices? In all of this, I understood “heterosexual woman” to be better than “homosexual woman”- and “transmasculine queer man” is definitely not on the list of things she wanted for me. But even growing up in a lesbian home, I felt a certain sense of shame and fear to “come out” to my mother… when I first started dating a girl, but even more so as a trans person.

I hope she sees herself and her life with more joy than she seemed to then. I say this, but recognize that she still mispronouns me (refers to me as “she” and “girl” and “daughter”) despite the fact that I have been out as trans for over 10 years now. I believe she sees some things as better than others, and I think she wanted “better” for me than what I have, which is sad, because I think what I have is pretty dang awesome.

(Since I have lesbian mothers, I recognize that referencing “my mother” can be confusing. One of my mothers, an MCC pastor, is incredibly affirming- I have referenced her in previous posts. The mother to which I am referring now is my biological mother.)

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I don’t want to digress too far, but sexual repression was very much a part of my upbringing- even being raised in a queer home. I have come to recognize that there is a different level of scrutiny that queer families had in the late 80’s/early 90’s that, perhaps, prohibited discussions of sex even more drastically than heterosexual families of the same time. I remember being ashamed of my body and sexuality, even from a very young age. It wasn’t always something my parents said, but it was an attitude… an internalization of self-shame that was incredibly transparent to my childhood and teenage self.

I started having sex when I was 16. When I went to college (just after my 18th birthday), years of sexual repression came pouring out of me, and I started sleeping with anyone I could. I wasn’t safe and responsible. I didn’t get tested and didn’t often use barriers (because I was sleeping with people who were assigned female at birth, I was woefully ignorant that STI transmission could still occur). As often happens when something is considered taboo (e.g. alcohol, sex, etc.), when we are able to access it, we don’t often proceed with caution or moderation. Years of sexual repression coupled with a fear of being “bad in bed” led me to sleep with many, many people in a very short period of time.

I’m sure I didn’t always practice the best consent methods (not in the sense of forcing/coercing someone, but in the sense of “no means no” rather than “yes means yes” consent model). I didn’t have the tools to navigate the world as a responsible, sexual adult; instead, years of pent-up sexual longing exploded out of me in the span of a few months. I felt like everyone else had already been having sex for years and knew what they were doing and I was going to get left behind. The perhaps most frightening of all, because I was so out of touch with myself, my body, and my sexuality, when others turned their attentions to me, I didn’t always know how to say no…or believe that I was allowed to say no.

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There were a couple of women I knew through church that I felt comfortable talking to, but I still worried they would judge me for my actions because, well…they were church folk. Much to my surprise (and relief), one of them taught me about dental dams, safety, and STI testing. But there wasn’t a place I knew I could go to talk about my fears and concerns. MCC was a safe haven for LGBT folks, and the LGB part, at least, related to who we were sexually attracted to… and yet. If there was ever a place or opportunity to talk about sex, it was not geared toward the young adults (and I learned, after showing up to a workshop on HIV, that my parents got very uncomfortable talking about sex when I was in the room). There was no place to ease the pressure and talk, and I didn’t see the people around me talking about it, which meant that everyone else had it figured out, and I was lost.

Sexual repression has very much been a part of my upbringing, intentionally or not. As I have begun to do more work to parse through some of my own hangups, I realize how much of them come from a place of fear, shame, and secrecy. As we pivot toward a discussion about the roots of sex-negativity in Western Christianity, I encourage each person to consider ways in which they have had to battle/navigate sexual repression (both in and out of the context of faith). Understanding the history of our faith within the context of our own lives can be a powerful step toward healing and bridging these tender places inside each of us.

Robin:

I don’t know when I first heard words that told me that sex was a bad thing, but I imagine that was when I realized that it was not to be talked about.  As children, we often learn not only from what adults say but also what they do not say, and certainly their body language in both instances.

revrobin2-023I certainly knew in 4th Grade, as I entered puberty, that my fantasies about Bob S. (and a few other boys, but especially Bob) in my class were something to keep to myself.  And in 6th grade, I knew that the delight of another friend, Bob H., at seeing Bob S. naked and describing his “amazing, really big” penis, was somehow embarrassing, if not wrong (as well as feeling jealous that I did not see it, too). Now, much of this is what I imagine most, if not all, adolescents (at least in the United States) go through, struggling to figure out what to do with these burgeoning hormones sweeping through parts of our bodies and overwhelming our brains.

On the one hand, we want to know more, and on the other, we fear raising the subject. For most of us, the silence is deafening, broken only by various comments among contemporaries, many of which simply add to the confusion.

This is where, for me at least, the church comes in.

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I grew up in a small Midwestern Episcopal Church, not a hellfire and brimstone kind of place, but a calm, ordered environment where we read three biblical passages every Sunday and the priest expounded on at least one of them. I was blessed to have a priest, beginning in my middle adolescence and many years beyond, who was especially enamored of the Hebrew texts, but he certainly spoke about the Gospel and Paul and other writings.

I have no memory of ever hearing that good man speak openly against sex, but then I never heard him speak for it, either. Mostly, what I heard rarely was, if ever, about bodies at all, except when he taught about the war between flesh and spirit; flesh=bad (or at least dangerous), Spirit=good.

[There were two times he was very clear with me personally: one was to tell me, “I will find help for you,” when I told him I had sexual feelings for other men; the other was when he told me not to come back to church again, when I wrote him from seminary to come out as a gay man. ]

This is most interesting to me now, because of what I have learned about Jewish attitudes toward sex, going back to the earliest days of that faith, including the encouragement to married couples to have sex on the Sabbath in order to “hallow the day,” as Daniel Helminiak writes in “Sex as a Spiritual Exercise,” which you can find here. )

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Of course, that specific teaching did not apply to me until much later, but that good priest eventually presided at my wedding, and he did not speak of that with me and my wife-to-be in our pre-marital sessions. My memory is further that I was relieved that he did not speak of sex at all with us, given the fact that he knew of my strong homoerotic desires when I had gone to him while in college seeking help (he referred me to a psychiatrist with whom I worked for the better part of a year, but ultimately, years later, after marriage, children, and divorce, her help was insufficient to erase my desires).

I recount this not to criticize this spiritual guide (who gave me much wisdom) so much as to suggest that the powerful anti-sex proscriptions of Christian practice wreak havoc with many lives. Where does all this come from?

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Malachi and I will be talking more about this on August 18 at 3 p.m. EDT during this month’s MCC online workshop, “The Roots of Sex-Negativity in Western Christianity” on Sex, Bodies, Spirit, but I can say now that I share Helminiak’s view that most of this is not due to actual Christian texts, and certainly not Jesus, and not even so much to Paul, but rather to the influence of non-Christian philosophies and movements which the Church took in and laid over the top of those texts and our Lord.  In saying that, I am still holding church fathers of old and of now (and I count myself among this latter number) responsible for what happened, and what still happens.

Indeed, what some MCC veterans say about the time, early in our movement, when the church talked more openly about sex, may parallel what happened to the early church. The desire for members, indeed even for survival, and certainly as part of what seems to be a natural human desire to “fit in,” has caused MCC to stop such talk, to even stop making the connection between our founding and sex (for more on this point, see my earlier post in another online venue, “What’s Sex Got to Do with It?”).

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Given that Christianity is grounded in the claim that God incarnated God’s self in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and that in doing so validated yet again the centrality of embodied spiritual life (the Hebrew biblical texts are, again and again, a demonstration of God’s activity in, among and through human bodies), it seems odd to say the least that we now hide our bodies so much. And I am not meaning only in the opposition to, and embarrassment of, nudity (although as a nudist myself, I do mean that), but also in how we so rarely speak about our bodies positively in spiritual terms.

As a lifelong participant in Christian worship, I am hard-pressed to think of more than a handful of times, other than in prayers for the sick, when bodies have even occasioned a brief mention. As for sex, or sexuality, I can think of no times, not even really in prayers for justice for LGBTQI people. Never sex.

This silence reminds me of the time, when I was in high school, I told my parents, “I think I might be homosexual,” and they simply looked at each other and returned to watching the television program I had interrupted, not saying a word. And it reminds me of the time my mother caught me masturbating. “Stop that disgusting thing right now!” she said and then left the room, never to speak of it again.

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In my view, the church has abdicated our responsibility to teach about, indeed to encourage practice of, the amazing and powerful link between our bodies and our spiritual selves. The sex-negativity of Western Christianity has allowed other forces—often in our day, corporations and advertisers, and media seeking followers—to make bodies and sex commodities to be pedaled, often through intentional titillation right up to the edge of “decency” (whatever that means) and teasingly to bump the boundary a little further at times. The result is that sex is not exactly an “open secret”—it seems we cannot get away from it ever, especially today on social media and the internet—but at the same time it is such a secret, a subject we all know about but know at the same time it is one that we should never really engage.

We will never change this if we do not figure out how we got here, and commit to a long struggle to undo the deep damage done to the world, and especially to billions of wonderfully embodied beloveds of God right here, right now.

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

What types of sexual repression have you experienced? Did they come from family, peers, the church, or other places? How have those experienced shaped, helped, or hindered your sexual expression as an adult? Please share your thoughts, your heart on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please feel free to join us THURSDAY, August 18th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online: Session 1, “The Roots of Sex-Negativity in Western Christianity” from 3-4:00 EST. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Rev. Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. Although not required, we encourage participants to read Sex as a Spiritual Exercise to mentally prepare for this discussion. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.

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 Workshop description: In this first session, Rev. Robin and Malachi lay out some historical context of sex within Western Christianity, exploring how a faith whose origin rests on incarnation has become known for a deep anti-body and anti-sex bias. There will be time for questions and discussion as well.
As Metropolitan Community Church strives to move forward and maintain relevance with shifting social mores, the MCC Office of Formation and Leadership Development offers Sex, Bodies, Spirit online on the third Thursday of every month at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. This workshop is approved as a continuing education course for clergy (1 credit for each session with full participation) and focuses on equipping and empowering leaders to bring these conversations to their communities. Although the primary focus is on clergy participation, everyone is welcome to attend.

In Lent: More Sex, Not Less

Lent with crossChristians are in the season of Lent, the 40-day period of preparation for the glory of Easter and the resurrection of Jesus. It is a time for prayer and introspection, a time to take stock of one’s spiritual health, and for many, a time to fast or otherwise give up something one ordinarily desires.

Roman Catholics are asked to observe some fasting days, giving up meat, for example, on certain days, or avoid food for a day or several days. Other traditions have less clear requirements.

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What about sex? Some traditions say that if you are fasting from food, or from certain food(s), you should also abstain from sex.

I observe Lent, and I am giving up reading certain kinds of political commentary, specifically what I call “horse-race reporting.” I am a political junkie and can get totally immersed in reading endless print and online reports and commentaries on the strategies of candidates and which ones are working and not working. I chose this abstinence because I realized it is addictive for me and gets in the way of my reading more substantive news (including reporting on proposals and issue positions by candidates) and spiritual writing.

My choice for this year’s fasting fits my criteria for a Lenten fast: give up something that gets in the way of my relationship with God.

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Sex does not get in the way of my relationship with God. In fact, it is an important way for me to communicate with God. God gave me a body that I cherish (mostly) and sexual desire as part of the total mind-body-spirit system that is me. God also gave me my husband whom I cherish in all ways and the desire to share my body with his and to enjoy his when he shares himself with me. God also gave me the desire at times to pleasure my own body.

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In all that sexual activity, that embodied intimacy, I am experiencing the God within as well as feeling the presence of God in my life (through my husband and my own embodied feelings with him and by myself). There is good reason for so many of us to cry out, “Oh God, Oh God!” during orgasm and ejaculation.

I am in a committed monogamous marriage, so my sexual life revolves solely around my partner and me, and me on my own. Other people make other choices, or are simply at other periods in their lives.  Those who are not in such a relationship can experience God through solo sex, of course, but also with others (discussions of types of relationships will addressed in this space at a later date).

I believe sex is good. More than that, I believe it is part of a healthy lifestyle. Pleasure is good for us. Connecting with our bodies is good for us. Connecting with God through our God-given bodies is good for us.

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Some religious authorities agree with me, at least to a point. In the Talmud there are discussions from ancient rabbis about how couples should have sexual relations daily (except if one of the partners, presumably the man, is away at sea or traveling for business). No once a week or twice a month routine for the rabbis!

St. Paul (1 Corinthians, chapter 7) stresses the duties of couples to be sexually active, only excepting for brief periods mutually agreed upon for the purpose of prayer.

Of course, both these authorities are addressing married couples only–although as we know, not everyone in the Bible limited themselves to one spouse (see David, Solomon, etc.). What many conservative Christians call “traditional marriage” is not truly based on biblical texts.

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This reminds me of Lent when I was an adolescent. I felt such great pleasure when I discovered the exquisite joy that comes from genital self-play and sexual fantasy. But I also was sure it was wrong. Anything that feels that good has to be bad, right? My mother caught me one day and spoke shaming words.

I remember trying to give it up for Lent. I failed. I was ashamed. I carried that with me a long time, although I feel free from it now.

What I wish is that someone, my parents or my priest or other trusted authority figure, had told me that masturbation was normal and good, and that I could connect with God through it (there are advocates for masturbation as meditation, and that is a topic for later discussion here, too).

That is not the message of the Virginia House of Delegates. Although they are not addressing Lent or masturbation, they are setting sexual and gender boundaries based on the religious views of part of the population.They have passed a bill that would prohibit government authorities from penalizing people and businesses who discriminate against same-sex couples, transgender individuals, and those who have sex outside marriage, based on the discriminating person’s sincerely held religious beliefs.

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The bill, HB 773, now goes to the Senate. Based on my knowledge of that body, I would say it will not pass. But that is far from a sure thing. I cherish my former Commonwealth, but right now I am very glad to be living in Maryland!

We need to resist such social engineering–which seeks to take something Godly and turn it into something wrong and ugly.

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I am often an advocate of resistance in the Ghandian and King tradition. In this case, I do not propose public “sex-ins” by the subject groups, but I do propose that during Lent, in order to celebrate the divine gift of sexuality in all its forms, that we all, coupled and not, have lots of sex. As the member of a Jewish congregation (by virtue of my marriage to Jonathan), I will do what I can to follow the Talmudic teaching.

Let’s thank God for our bodies and our sex. So, in Lent, more sex, not less.