Putting Sex back into Christmas

Robin:

Each year at Christmas, we encounter the biblical description of what has become known as the Virgin Birth (not to be confused with“ immaculate conception,” which says the conception of Mary was immaculate).  We have two sources for this, chapter one of both the Gospel according to Matthew and according to Luke. Mark is silent, as is John. This “pure” way of Jesus’ conception maintains a powerful hold for many believers.

Long ago, I became convinced that this is theological make believe, dreamt up by those who felt that the Messiah could not be the Messiah if he were the product of the sexual activity of his parents. If he is going to be the Son of God, surely God must be his father, right?

Of course, this denies the fact that for me, and most Christians, and Jews, too, every human being is born a child of God. Whether this is literal or figurative is important but does not take away the power of the connection between humanity and the divine One. Without God, the Source of all life, we would not be here.

I remember when I served as a seminary field education intern at an Episcopal congregation in Brookline, MA, I was assigned to meet weekly with the women’s Bible study group. When I told them we would read the birth account from Matthew and from Luke for the following week, one of the members, an older woman born in England, said, “You won’t require us to believe in the virgin birth will you?” Others supported her.

I assured them we did not have theological litmus tests in the group. During our subsequent discussion of the texts, most of the women, some of whom were mothers, spoke very plainly about their belief that Jesus was the child of Mary and Joseph in all respects. The mothers spoke movingly about the birthing experience, including knowing that, whether their husbands were allowed to be present or not (this was 1981 and these births had taken place considerably earlier when the presence of fathers in the delivery room was less common), they shared the intense feelings—the pain and the joy—with the partner who shared the responsibility for creating and caring for this new life.

I was very moved. I thought about the stories of the birth in the stable, how Joseph is pictured as being there with Mary and the baby and how he took them to Egypt for safety against the rampage of King Herod. I also thought about the birth of my daughters, perhaps most powerfully the first but with all three, and how I was present in the delivery room and how I heard angels singing and creation cheering as Judy’s labor pains became more and more intense, then gave way to birth. Each time I felt overwhelming joy and awe. I wept, I thanked God again and again for bringing me and Judy together in the first place and then blessing our marriage and love-making and being on the parenting journey with us. We—Judy, God and I—were a threesome creating life.

I say love-making, but of course I mean sex. Over the course of our almost nine-year marriage, Judy and I had sexual intercourse—more than three times—that resulted in the births of three girls. Some people say, “We’re trying to make a baby.” It is a nice way of saying they are having sex, and hope sperm and egg will meet and mate.

For some reason we can’t talk about it. I think a key reason for that is the idea that Jesus had to be born without human sexual activity in order to be holy. In order to be better than every other human he could not be conceived in the usual way. That sets up a system in which human sexuality is devalued. I admit to not being an expert about ancient attitudes toward sex, so it is entirely possible, I imagine likely, that the devaluing of human sexuality was already a common social idea.

Either way, today we can’t even talk about sex in general, really talk about it, honestly and seriously without innuendo and jokes (often offensive). Currently, much conversation is, rightly, focused on the misuse and abuse of sex, and that soul-searching and fundamental change must continue.

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Still, I want us as a society, and certainly those of us who are Christians, to find ways to talk more openly about the beauty and power of sex. One way to do that is to put the sex back in Christmas, or more accurately to jettison the Virgin Birth in favor of the real conception and the real birth which brought Jesus into the world.

According to polls, most Americans believe in the facticity of the Virgin Birth. Many Christian theologians and clergy, probably most, see it as an essential doctrine. “To remove the miraculous from Christmas is to remove this central story of Christianity,” according to Gary Burge, a professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. “It would dismantle the very center of Christian thought and take away the keystone of the arch of Christian theology.”

Burge, and many others share this view: If Jesus was not virgin-born, then he was not the son of God; if he was not the son of God, then he was just another crucified man and not the sacrifice that would redeem the sins of the world. (To read a journalistic account of this debate, click here )

I want to be clear on one point: I do not question the power of God to do this impregnating, but I do question whether God would see the need to undermine the power and beauty of divinely-inspired creation in order to anoint a human as Messiah.

God likes sex, wants us to have more of it—with consent—and enjoy it more, not only during the acts but to be able to talk about it and enjoy it openly in anticipation and memory. Indeed, I think if we could get sex really out in the open it would be less susceptible to abuse.

So, here’s to Mary and Joseph, who got it on and created Jesus of Nazareth. Thanks be to God!

Malachi:

Perhaps this is less of a risqué statement now than it would have been at other points, but as we approach the Christmas season, I have to make a confession: I have never believed in the immaculate conception, nor the concept of the virgin birth.

This is, perhaps, a strange thing because, after all, isn’t the virgin birth a central aspect of the Christmas story and, in fact, the entirety of the Christian faith? I remember having a conversation with someone- I believe it was my mother, while she was in seminary- and we were discussing the concepts of virgin birth and immaculate conception. She told me that what makes the story of Mary unusual isn’t the claim of impregnation while maintaining virginity-

Photo credit: NearlyCandy Photography

historically, queens would make this claim as justification for what made their sons fit to rule over other men; they were not just men, but half-gods, conceived through divine intervention and ordained by deity to rule. No, what made Mary’s claim uncommon wasn’t that she claimed immaculate conception, but that she did so as a commoner. She was not a queen and she was in no position to bear children destined to rule over others.

Understanding that history solidified my belief that Mary was not, in fact, a virgin. I don’t know how she was impregnated, but I assume one of two things happened: either she had premarital intercourse with someone (perhaps Joseph, perhaps someone else), or she was sexually assaulted and became pregnant as a result. Either way, I think there are powerful messages in the concept of the Christmas story that are missed when we cling to a belief in the virgin birth story.

I think we find an incredible story of mercy. A story that shows us the power of God to take a horrific experience (such as assault or rape) and transform it into something healing and powerful. Do I think that the birth of Jesus is a justification for the traumatic experience of rape? Of course not; I’ve never ascribed much to an “ends justify the means” mentality. Rape is, in and of itself, a traumatic, horrific experience, and to live through it (and bear children as a result of it) is atrocious. But the world is full of trauma and horrific experiences that people must figure out how to live through (as we continuously work to eradicate sexually-based violence), and in the story of Mary, I see an immense capacity for healing and transformation after a violating experience.

How can we come to heal from our own traumas and begin to see the experiences that shaped us in new ways? Without minimizing the horror of violence visited upon bodies, how can we realistically move through these experiences to come to a new way of existing in our world? Perhaps we become brazen, like Mary. Perhaps we speak up, and speak our truth. For her, her truth was that she was carrying a child destined to become the King of Kings, the Messiah. She was scorned and ridiculed for her truth, yet she spoke it anyway. What truth can we speak from our own wounds and traumas?

On a less heavy note, my preference is to believe that Mary had premarital

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sex. Perhaps she was working as a sex worker, or perhaps she and Joseph got caught up in a moment of passion. Regardless, she broke social mores and bore the consequences of that. And God didn’t care. God is not bound my social rules, nor is God bound by expectations and social hierarchy. This child would be the vessel through which others would come to know and understand God, a message made that much more powerful in understanding that his roots are less than pristine.

What a message- we do not have to be perfect, or come from perfect circumstances, to be a vessel for God. We do not have to meet social criteria or man-made rules to be anointed and appointed. We are Enough, just as we are, not in spite of where we come from, but because of it. Mary had sex outside of wedlock and bore a child who would be known as the son of God. What further proof do we need in the awesome mercy of God, in the miracle of the Christmas story, in the power of our own sexuality to form and build and create?

I want to put the sex back into Christmas because I think the sex is important. I think that we have a rich, powerful story that explores the awesome power of sex to build and form connection, to create life- not just “life” in the sense of a child, but “life” in the sense of creating new life within each of us, allowing space for ourselves to grow in the power of God through our sexual experiences and expressions. Focusing on the virginity and purity of the story, for me, takes away from the awesome power of God to transform our lives- our very human, imperfect lives. Taking the sex out of Christmas allows us to cling to these ideas of purity and morality, an anti-sex sentiment that runs rampant in Christianity when, in fact, the origin of our faith is most likely rooted in sexual exploits that defied social rules!

Photo Credit here

Sex is good. And quite frankly, what I see in the Christmas story is one of God saying, “I don’t care if you signed the piece of paper before you fuck; I care that you live lives of intentionality and care, that you are willing to see the miracle of your existence and hear me when I speak your name. I care that you will listen to my call, even when others around you do not understand, even when others around you disagree, I want to know that you remain steadfast in your love for me.” And that is what I get out of Christmas: a story of healing. One of transformation. One where a young woman proudly claimed her right to bear children ordained by God. One where God shucks off the limiting rules of humanity and reminds us that God cannot be constrained by our limited perspectives on purity.

This is a message of hope, yes. One of power and transformation. But it is not found through ignoring, minimizing, or disregarding our sexual selves, but found through claiming, owning, experiencing them fully, and hearing when the voice of God speaks our names.

Bullies and Brokeness

. . . people who are assigned female at birth, or AFAB) are often taught to associate their own self-esteem with their attractiveness . . . .


img_1869-02-08Malachi
I recently wrote about two different experiences I had while picking my goddaughter up from school. In one instance, a group of men in a car slowed down and began oogling, jeering, and catcalling, and I responded with an indication that they needed to keep moving. In the other, I was followed for several blocks on my way to her school by someone on a motorcycle who was repeatedly trying to get my phone number. When I had picked her up and was walking back home with her, he reappeared, and I did the best I could to shield her from any additional inappropriate comments.

These stories are not isolated incidents. This is just the reality of Parenting While Trans. Or simply just the reality of Being Trans.

When Robin and I were talking about what we wanted to write about today, these experiences were on the forefront of my mind, and he was talking about his experiences with bullying. I was reminded that I was spared a lot of bullying in my childhood years. I can never stop being grateful for that, given many of the horror stories I have seen, heard, and read about.

But as we continued to talk, my mind started going. “Bullying” is one form of harassment, one that many people (across gender identities and expressions) face. It’s a form of harassment meant to denigrate someone, made to make someone feel “less than,” or “not worthy” of kindness. It’s a brutal and atrocious tragedy that leads to instances like Columbine and increased risk for suicide (especially among LGBTQ people).

I didn’t get bullied through much of high school. But I do remember when I started getting harassed- right around the time I started having sex. And it occurred to me that harassment tends to take two distinct forms, particularly when it comes from men.

Bullying is something I see men doing to other people (they perceive as)

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male. Again, this is not to say that women are not bullied… but when I think of bullying, I think of a young man being called “fag” and “sissy,” being mocked for not exhibiting traditional masculine traits. Often the bullies are bigger, stronger, more masculine  (the incredibly stereotypical, iconic jock image). In short, the “purpose” of the bullying, if you will, is to tear other men down.

Women (or those perceived as women), tend to receive harassment based on their sexuality. It’s supposed to be a “compliment” that she would catch someone’s interest. Where men are expected to fight back against the bullying, women are expected to graciously accept and take it as a compliment.

I was pretty queer in high school. Blatantly, outspokenly, rainbow-wearing, gender-neutral pronoun-using queer. I was also a particularly awkward teenager and not viewed by my peers as a sexual being. My body wasn’t commented on because it wasn’t the type of body that it would occur to many people to make comments about. I wasn’t so unattractive that I was picked on, but I wasn’t attractive in the way that people noticed.

When I started to portray more elements of “mainstream” attractiveness, I found myself the target of catcalls, people stopping me on the sidewalk to ask for my number, people asking me if I was an escort (I confess, at that point, I had no idea what that was or what they were talking about). In short: when I began to be viewed by others as a sexual object, I began to receive more attention… and some of that attention was most definitely harassment.

The next logical step here is that women (and people who are assigned female at birth, or AFAB) are often taught to associate their own self-esteem with their attractiveness, and their attractiveness with the

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external affirmation they receive. But that attention is not always (or often) desired or requested. It becomes a mixed bag of emotions that boils down, “That person is creepy, but I still got it!” It’s an affirmation that we are still attractive and, because our value is predominantly tied to our attractiveness, it implicitly states something about our value and worth as human beings.

It starts young: “He pulled your hair? He must have a crush on you.” equates physical abuse with signs of affection, and it escalates from there. People who are AFAB have learned to equate harassment and abuse as signs of affection for most of their lives, and it is a deep sociocultural lesson that is incredibly difficult to unlearn.

There is, for me, another element of the story that further complicates matters. The people who harassed me on the street were (both times) men of color (of different ethnic backgrounds).

The night I got home after the motorcycle incident, my partner decided to order some food, and asked me if I wanted anything. I wasn’t hungry, so I said no. About half an hour later, I was sitting on my stoop, doing some work on my computer, and a car pulled up on my block, idling right outside my house and the driver (a young man of color) nodded at me.

I felt my stomach drop and my face got defensive. I glared at him until-oh! I remembered my partner had ordered food!- and stuck my head inside to let him know his food was here.

That moment stays with me, though, because it was a moment where my recent experience was coloring my reality, and I realized that I have some work I need to do to deal with my own racism.

As someone who was AFAB in a country with such deeply-held racism, I recognize that, even now, so much of my socialization has taught me to hate and fear black men. I don’t want to believe that that is true, but I know

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that it is. I grew up in the South, and racism is very much not dead. And there is a part of me that must recognize my socialization taught me that black men will rape white women.

It’s a brutal, difficult, ugly thing to face about myself. Particularly when I want, so badly, to be angry. I have these warring factions between my own oppression and harassment as a trans person, and my own privilege and prejudice as a white person living in a predominantly non-white city.

I have no idea how to reconcile these things, but I cannot pretend that they are not there.

And so we are left with this incredibly mixed, jumbled up discussion of harassment, gender, race, social expectations. If ever there was an argument for intersectionality, I think this would qualify. Because these things are not simple, and I have not unlearned so much of my own social conditioning.

I think it comes down to this: we are all broken. We lash out from brokenness, we buy into stereotypes from brokenness, we allow our fear to control us from brokenness. Healing is a long, slow process. It’s a hard process, but I do not want to view the world from a broken place any longer.

 

 

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Bullies I Have Known, and Know

A bully is as a bully does, from kids
to politicians and other famous people
to the guy on my high school bus
who talked tough, bent others’ fingers
and arms behind our backs,
until we cried out, begging him to stop.
I want to ask a couple of bullies these days
to stop—not being sure they are older
emotionally than the guy was on the bus
fifty-plus years ago (whose name I remember
but will not say)—even though their names
are on the front page every day,
one of whom could become
Bully in Chief, succeeding a long line
of less aggressive Commanders
in Chief from Washington to Obama.

Bus bully was actually a nice guy when he grew up,
apologized in his twenties—imagine that,
a bully apologizing, admitting his error without
being forced or shamed, simply because he knew
he had been wrong, he had done wrong.
I do not remember his explaining
why he had been so mean—perhaps, as so often,
his father or mother, or both, had been
bullies or overly aggressive, or he was reacting
to too much passivity at home, or maybe
he was hiding a secret, though I doubt
he was hiding homoerotic feelings or desires
toward me and others. Or was he just scared
of changes in his life and his budding body, like National
Bullies seem to fear change in our society.

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Queers, immigrants, Blacks, Muslims—all pretty scary
to those accustomed to feeling (not necessarily being,
depending on economics) in charge,
though he who seeks to be Bully in Chief
is used to having his way, telling others where the line,
or wall, is drawn, who will design it, who will pay for it.
And then there are women, and trans people, and gender queers,
those whose bodies are pawns to be moved or touched
or groped or fucked or cut or dumped or shot at will
(or all of the above),
depending on what the aggressor feels he needs
to prove. He may want to show off before an audience
or he may feel insecure and act when no one
is looking, or his need for control may be satisfied
by talk alone, boasting what he can do, or wants to do—
and will do when he feels threatened enough to act.

But let’s not be fooled. Talk costs.
A woman or girl, women and girls, walking,
as well as those who defy gender norms,
on the street, cat-called names that presume a relationship,
pay dearly in the insecurity that stalks and ridicules
claims of a so-called free society.
Or maybe it is the leers in classrooms by professors
or cops on beats, subtle but clear, poking innuendo
by salesmen, or dissing of bodies by the powerful.
Is it any wonder that women have to try harder
to speak up in boardrooms and science labs,
other male domains, risking drawing ire and attention,
violation of their spirits, minds, and bodies?

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Nor is it only women who pay, though they pay the most.
Boys and young men have to be brave to push against
the Master Bullies and bullies-in-training in their school
and neighborhood and town,
to resist the National Bullies and he who would be
Bully in Chief; and we who are men, especially white men, grown in this
angry, fearful, putrid soil, must stand too,
in solemn, fierce resistance, not only for our sisters,
mothers, daughters, female and trans friends and neighbors
here and across the globe, but also to be sure
sons, brothers, nephews, male friends and neighbors
here and across the globe learn to live in soulful,
beautiful human wholeness that does not depend
on domination, violating others to feel safe.

I do not like bullies.
But I no longer cower in fear. I will stand
and I will resist. If you stand with me,
and I with you,
we can stop them.
We and others can, and will, be free.

 

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

What was (or is) your experience will bullying and harassment? 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 THURSDAY, October 20th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online: Session 3, “The Roots of Sex-Negativity in Western Christianity: Part 3” 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: In this session, Robin and Malachi continue to 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. In this session, we will move beyond early church fathers and what might be called the social construction of early Christianity to later medieval and Reformation eras, and perhaps into more modern times. 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 (.5 credit for each session) 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.

Unholy War

. . . if we truly believed human bodies—all human bodies—are sacred . . .

Introduction: In the wake of the Orlando massacre, Robin and Malachi are drawn to the discussion of bodies, and the act of visiting violence upon someone’s body. In the process of our own struggles, remembrances, and emotions, we hope to offer some helpful thoughts to those grieving and struggling with how to move forward from this unwarranted attack on our family, our friends, and our communities.

revrobin2-023Robin: The tragedy in Orlando can easily overwhelm a person of even a little sensitivity. Forty-nine people gunned down—the gunman himself killed, and more injured—like kewpie dolls on a moving track at a carnival game booth. Hit five and you win a prize. Hit ten and you win 2 prizes, hit 49 and you win the jackpot!!!

But these were not dolls, they were people, real flesh and blood people, real human bodies. They were dancing and drinking and flirting and kissing and hugging and peeing and maybe sweating. Maybe some of them even felt pain from dancing, a sore knee or ankle or hip or back, but still they danced and they watched others dance and their tapped their feet, and maybe raised arms in joy and excitement. It has been some time since I went to a gay club, or any dance venue, and danced the night away. But I have done it, especially with my Jonathan, who inspires me with his exuberance and lightness of feet.

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There is something beyond special to feel your body moving with the beat, your heart thumping on the fast numbers and your heart filling on the slow ones.

These were people, mostly L, G, B, or T, or Q ones, but S ones, too, friends who like to dance and know that gay clubs are great places to dance, to celebrate.

These were bodies—young and old and in between, mostly Latino/a, probably some Black and white, male and female and in between and unwilling to choose, tall and short, heavy and thin, single and partnered, probably some looking for sex or at least companionship. Among hundreds present, there were probably almost every sort and condition of humankind.

The act of gunning down 49 bodies and injuring 53 more (and will they all live?) and terrorizing the rest who ran screaming or hid from the nightmare that will not ever leave their bodies, their body memories, their psychic space, their spiritual center—how little can the shooter care about the bodies of others? Or his own?

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If we really believed that the human body is a temple of God, if we truly believed human bodies—all human bodies—are sacred, would we repeatedly destroy them with guns and knives and malnutrition and starvation and bombs  and war and terror and lack of care (of self and others), and ignorance and disease we can actually stop and cure? Would we?

I am sitting at my desktop, naked as is my custom these days, feeling my aches and pains, running my hands over all parts of my aged/still aging white male privileged body, alone except for Cocoa our standard poodle sleeping in the next room, and wondering what I can say that has not already been said or will not be said somewhere else, probably better than I can. My body is carrying anger and anguish, almost inexpressible sadness, and fear for my own LGBT community and for other marginal communities: all Latino/a and Muslim peoples (walls and deportations, and more), Black people (killed and denied voting just because), native peoples, immigrants, children, women, religious minorities, differently-abled people.

I keep coming back to these particular bodies. One news report said, “Workers removed the bodies four at a time on stretchers and loaded them into white vans. The action was repeated over and over” (link). I am reminded of reading accounts of the Nazi Holocaust, dead bodies en masse, workers dealing with them endlessly. Or other massacres closer to home: Wounded Knee (as many as 300 Lakota, plus soldiers) in 1890, and mass lynching of Black sharecroppers in 1919 in Arkansas (estimates range from 100 to 800-see here and here).

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American soldiers stand guard along the perimeter of an open mass grave at Mauthausen pinterest.com

In Orlando, how high would the bodies reach if the dead ones were stacked one on top of the other—how deep would the hole have to be or how high would the ladder or lift have to be as they rose in one towering pile—or how wide or deep would the hole in the ground have to be if they were dumped, like Jews or queers or gypsies in the Holocaust, or victims of poison gas in Syria, in a mass grave?

The shooter did not care about any bodies, probably even his own (perhaps because he did not like his embodied sexual feelings?)—he must have known on some level he would die, too, perhaps that is what he really wanted but he couldn’t go without taking others with him—and I know I do not care for my body as well as I could/should/wish.

I also know I do not at this time want to die. I will go when its time, and hope I will know when that is and go willingly and gratefully for all I have received, but now I have things to do, people to love and be loved by, poems and blogs and books to write, meals to cook, laundry to wash, gardens to tend, husband and dog and daughters and grandchildren and sons-in-law and a future son-in-law and a sister and nieces and their families and church folk and JVP and synagogue friends and neighbors and so many more to hug and care for as best I can. The 49 had dreams and intentions, too. And family and loved ones.

They all have bodies, no, they all are bodies, we all are bodies. Everyone, every human, every animal, is a body. We begin this earthly journey as bodies and we embody the spiritual being God creates us to be. We can’t be, human or animal, without a body.

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Flesh, blood, skin, organs, orifices, cells, veins, tissue, bone, currents of energy. In some sense, that is all we are. And in that is-ness, we are perfect, no matter what shape or category we inhabit. It is in a moment like this that I am glad I am a vegetarian. I don’t kill bodies for food or for hate.

But I am a citizen of this world, and most of us do kill (or employ others to kill for us) for food, and too many (even though a far, far lesser number) kill for hate.

Can I say I could never kill another human? I have tried to say that, but every time I know I am being false, dishonest. If saving Jonathan or Cocoa or my daughters and and/or their families and those others I mentioned above seemed to be possible only by killing the one or ones intending to kill them, I believe I would kill first. I want it not to be so, and I want first no such harm threatened but if it is, then I want the person or persons arrested, peaceably I hope, and tried and kept apart, and I pray, changed. But I know that as much as I value each and every body, I do have a hierarchy of value. I would kill to save the bodies I love, including my own.

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Knowing that, admitting that, all I know to do then is my part to honor every body I can—to help create a world that honors all bodies, wants all bodies to thrive. It is why I started this blog, and included bodies in the title. I want to be explicit—yes, that word that has come to mean seeing body parts on screen some may wish to ignore and others are hungry to see—that it is bodies I care about.  I want to do my part to reverse the anti-body forces, to help transform the body haters into body lovers.

I follow Jesus whose body many believe was divine. I love him for his divinity that was expressed through his humanity, through his Jewish, male, young-ish body. And I love all the other divine bodies, too, even those who hate my body and the bodies of people like me and people unlike me.

I don’t know what else to do—except to love every body (two distinct words, say them clearly to emphasize the body) I can, even ones I may not entirely understand, doing so in ways that honor them and me and our relationship, and most of all, seek to strengthen the bond between us so that we can stand together not only in mourning for those who are killed, massacred as in Orlando, but also in active solidarity, body to body, body by body, body with body.

I extend my hand to yours, my body, too: let us embrace, body to body, as best we can, across cyber space and across the aisle, next door and down the road, everywhere we can. And let us never let go.

Malachi GrennellMalachi:

I’ve run the gambit of emotions these past several days. I’ve gone from sad to angry to numb to grieving to protective and back again. In the wake of the Orlando shooting, I think many in the LGBTQ communities have faced a similar struggle: we are saddened, outraged, numb, angry, hurting. Everyone I have spoken with has been somewhere on that spectrum. Yet while there is shock at the scale of this attack, I have found very few people truly surprised by it.

It seems to be the natural progression to the elevated rhetoric and discussion we have seen in the past several years around LGBTQ people. We have heard people say truly hateful things in the name of religion (many different religions, including- and perhaps, especially- from people claiming Christianity).

Matthew Shepard fence A basket of flowers hangs from the fence where Matthew Shepard was left tied and beaten the guardian com
A basket of flowers hangs from the fence where Matthew Shepard was left tied and beaten theguardian.com

With the upcoming election, we have seen a rise in hateful speech toward the GLBTQ communities, toward immigrants, toward people of color. We have heard it from politicians and, when something is broadcast through a microphone, we hear it spoken by supporters in the streets. When authorities say something, it gives other permission to vocalize similarly hateful ideologies.

I have been angry. I think anger is important, and we need to allow ourselves the space and gentleness to have angry responses. But we can’t stay there. Anger is important, but it can also be corrosive. It can wear us down and wear us away until we are too tired to move forward, to act. There must be a “what next?”, and that movement rarely comes from remaining in a place of anger.

Newtown massacre statuemarvels com
statuemarvels.com

The tragedy in Orlando is the product of violent rhetoric, but it is also the product of nation desensitized to violence. It is the product of dehumanizing a person so that violence visited on those bodies is not violence toward a person, but violence toward a group. The people who were targeted were not targeted because of who they were as people; they were targeted because they frequented a gay club that night.

When we categorize people, they become a tokenized representation of a larger group, rather than an individual person with multiple communities. The people who were targeted were singled out because they were assumed to be gay, but many were people of color. Some were parents. Some were college students. They came from different religious backgrounds and family situations. But none of that mattered to the shooter. What mattered is that they were gay.

It seems trite, but it reminds me of the story of a parent and child going to a seafood restaurant. The child immediately names all the lobsters in the tank so that the parent won’t eat any of them. By giving someone a name, they become real, rather than abstract. It’s harder to kill and eat a lobster named Jonas than it is to kill and eat an arbitrary lobster.

Charleston Shooting
Police tape surrounds the parking lot behind the AME Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC, as FBI forensic experts work the crime scene. Associated Press photo

I have been angry, but we must go somewhere from there. Christianity tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves, but what do we do when our neighbor is racist, sexist, classist, homophobic? What does it mean to love the people who perpetrate violence on the bodies of others because of the group they are assumed to represent?

It is the “as ourselves” that always gets to me. How do I love myself? Do I see myself as a member of a group or as an individual? What does my body represent to me?

We know, of course, that “hurt people hurt people.” For example, internalized homophobia often contributes to violence perpetrated against the LGBTQ community. Perhaps, from there, we can understand that how others treat us says a lot about how they see themselves.

I don’t want to give an answer that sounds trite. I love the sentiment that “love wins” because I think love is a verb. It’s kinetic energy, potential motion with a catalyst. It can be overwhelmingly powerful. But saying, “love wins” isn’t always comforting. I don’t want to love the shooter. I don’t want to love someone who takes advantage of an unconscious woman. I don’t want to love the people who perpetrate violence on bodies because they dislike the group to whom they believe that body belongs, or because they believe a group is inferior to their own.

pulse warning pinknews co uk
The club told patrons on its Facebook page to get out and keep running. pinknews.co.uk

And yet… and yet. Love takes work. It takes effort. It is one of the central tenants of Christian faith, and I’m one who believes that Christianity takes effort and work. God does not call us to do what is easy; God calls us to do what is right.

Do I forgive the shooter for the lives he stole? It’s not up to me to forgive, and I’m not sure that I can go there yet. It’s too fresh, too raw. Do I make excuses, apologize, or in any way try to reframe what happened by making it about mental illness or radical extremism? Absolutely not. This was an extreme act of homophobia that visited violence on the bodies of LGBTQ people. But it happened because he hated the group of people, not the people themselves. The dangerous rhetoric we have heard over the past several weeks, months, and years has dehumanized LGBTQ people as a one-dimensional group. The Gay People. Homosexuals.

In a similar manner, we dehumanize people with whom we disagree all the time. Racists. Homophobes. It becomes easier to sustain our hatred when we are not dealing with people, but with ideas. And it’s ok to disagree, dislike, and fight against ideas- in fact, it’s important that we do fight against ideas that are founded on limiting the freedoms of another person. But it is the ideas, not the people, that we need to work against.

body-hate-free-zone teem teenlinkseattle blogspot com
teenlinkseattle.blogspot.com

I do not hate this shooter, although a part of me desperately wants to. His ideas and actions were atrocious, but those were not created in a vacuum. Those were created right here, in this country, by the rhetoric and language of hateful ideas spoken by those to whom we have given microphones. This man was a product of the United States.

I do not hate this shooter. I am struggling to see him as a whole person, wounded and self-hating, violent and dangerous, but a person. He was not just an idea, or the representative of an idea. There are other homophobic people, other sexist and racist and classist people in the world. But they are more than that.

Perhaps that is a part of that commandment. We struggle to see ourselves as whole people, integrated and authentic. We struggle to love the person that we see when we look in the mirror. We must struggle to see others as whole people as well, re-humanize people who have been dehumanized as representatives of a group. We cannot work to end such atrocities without first understanding where they come from, and we cannot understand where they come from without first allowing ourselves to understand the people behind them. We may hate the ideas and actions of a person, but they are, at the end of the day, a person struggling to see themselves as whole, integrated, and authentic. They are people struggling with how to love themselves.

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In memory of those who have died, the list of victims can be found here.

If you would like to make a contribution to help support the victims of the Orlando shooting, please click here.

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

What do you think? How are you handling the aftermath of the Orlando shooting? How might we, as people of faith, seek to embody love, even in the face of such violent adversity? Please share your thoughts, your heart (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

Puzzling Through the Pieces: A Conversation

We really do have preconceived assumptions, and gender is probably the most obvious (yet so often hidden) and powerful one . . .

By Robin Gorsline and Malachi Grennell

Introduction:

These past two weeks, we have been exploring our relationships with our bodies- specifically, our experiences with gender. Two weeks ago, Malachi opened the discussion with some of his experiences, then Robin continued the discussion last week. This week, we decided to come together and record our conversation, exploring the vulnerabilities in writing these pieces for each of us, examining some of the assumptions we have (and face) when entering these conversations, and acknowledging shifts in perspective as we have grown and changed.

Malachi GrennellM: You and I have both said that these were vulnerable things for us to write… I didn’t know if we wanted to address that a little bit. We don’t really say it in either of our pieces, at least not directly, but it is. It can be easy to think, you know, “Oh, this is so easy to write,” or “They must do this so easily,” but I think there’s something to acknowledging that this was hard, for both of us.

revrobin2-023R: Yeah, that’s a really good point. I thought about this back when I had Jonathan read my post…and I was very nervous. He said when he finished, “Darling, that’s wonderful. It’s beautifully written, and you’re so brave and honest…I’m so proud of you, it’s just wonderful!” I was overwhelmed by that because that was not what I expected. I expected him to be appreciative, but saying, “Are you sure? Should you say this?” etc. Later, I thought, I was so concerned about this person, who is the most intimate person in my life, but there’s nobody else that I know where I would worry; then I thought, well, that’s not true. There are tons of people who, if they read what I wrote, I would experience some kind of anxiety about that. But if it went viral… there were would be a lot of unknown people, and I could probably care less about that. But there is a lot of vulnerability… that was very real to me. And we do need to talk about that, because that’s what we are encouraging people to do!

M: Well, and I think, in being vulnerable, I’ve learned over the course of my life that the things that make me feel vulnerable and exposed are not the things that make other people feel vulnerable and exposed. I can talk about sex and sexuality all day long…yet I didn’t say it in my post, but I told you, I have a lot of queer shame around sleeping with this one particular person. And so I feel a little vulnerable talking about, you know, as a radical queer blah-blah-blah person, sleeping with this cis-gender, heterosexual man who is kind of an asshole because it makes me feel  like I’m faking my politics, faking my beliefs. But it’s interesting because I feel like I’m an open book, until I realize that the things that make me feel vulnerable are just…different. And I wonder if sometimes I come off as seeming very vulnerable or seeming very open, but never actually being forced to push myself…and then when I do, it doesn’t necessarily seem like it.

R: I hear that… I’ve certainly done some talking over the years that I think has put people off, and it usually has been around sexuality or sex. At the same time, for me, talking about it so openly… talking about the size of my penis is, for me, a vulnerable place on one hand, and on the other, it’s an effort at self-healing because it’s something I have carried all my life. I’ve never been entirely comfortable and I’m working really hard to become comfortable with it and finding it easier to do but part of that is because I’m opening up about it and not just pretending it doesn’t exist…and that kind of feeling can come from letting yourself be vulnerable and working through it.

M: I definitely agree with that.

R: Everyone could be helped if we could lead some kind of revolution, if you will, so that more and more people became more vulnerable. So we can talk about… like you’re talking about with this guy where you feel two-faced, and just being really open about it: “So the sex is good,” and that’s important too. Or body issues, whether it’s mine, or a woman with small breasts, or someone embarrassed about a scar, or feeling overweight or being too skinny…or no muscle, or whatever. It seems to be what you and are I finding ourselves doing, and I think it’s our purpose, which is maybe to set examples of openness. And the heavens haven’t fallen yet. They may, but they haven’t yet.

M: That’s something to think about…if this ever got big, people could go back and read these older posts. That’s the thing with the internet…if you put it up there, it’s there forever.

R: (laughs) Sure. But I would be, I think, happy if that happened. I know I would be. But I’m also not going to stop talking about it… I mean, there may come a time when I don’t need to talk about my small penis anymore, but it hasn’t happened yet. I don’t need to talk about it all the time, but when it’s appropriate and part of the conversation, I now feel much more able to say it. The first time I mentioned it on this blog…I was very oblique about it: “I don’t have a porn star’s body,” or something like that . . . if you read between the lines, and you were a thoughtful gay man, or even a man, you might think, “Oh, I bet he has a small dick,” or something, but it was very carefully scripted. And that felt risky in that moment, actually…so I’ve come a long way.

M: I do remember you writing that, it was right before you and I started writing together. So, you have come quite a long way and, you know, in not a whole lot of time. These things do shift, sometimes fairly quickly.

R: Well, part of it is having you, for me, having a partner, having a colleague. It makes a huge difference…it helps a great deal to have someone I trust to have these conversations with. In the process, I go through quite a lot of stuff. People need people to talk to, to have a trusted person to talk to. But you need that as a precursor, as a place to test out some stuff…you can say it more to other people once you figure out your feelings.

Malachi GrennellM: Yeah, absolutely… I’m a big fan of verbal processing in general. I think it’s really helpful to have someone that’s not the person that you’re engaged in whatever with- whether it’s a relationship or sex, I’m a big fan of having a person to talk to. The other thing I find really interesting…for me, as a trans person, I think there are a lot of assumptions about how I’m supposed to feel about my body that are not true for me. I don’t have gender dysphoria, I don’t have any problem with the anatomical configuration of my body. I like my body just fine now with some adjustments from testosterone. But I don’t want bottom surgery that would give me a penis, and I don’t necessarily want top surgery…my discomfort in my own skin has more to do with weight than gender, but I feel like there’s this assumption that, because I’m trans, I have to have certain feelings about my genitals and my anatomy that aren’t actually there. I think we have assumptions about what people are going to have concerns about because of their identity…How many of these conversations do we go into with assumptions about what we think someone else is going through?

revrobin2-023R: I think that’s a very good point. Yeah, I don’t know why I have such a feeling about my penis. It’s a long-time feeling…I’ve recorded some incidents that happened to me that made it feel much more important. I’ve carried those with me, even though I understand how nonsensical they are and wrongheaded the men were…I should rephrase that …not that they were so wrongheaded; they had their own needs and feelings and prejudices and whatever, and I didn’t need to take it in the way that I did, but I did. And there are whole things, on Tumblr, for example, that are devoted to men with small penises, and I started looking at them sometimes because I find it helpful to “put myself in context” if you will. I don’t spend a lot of time there, it’s not my “thing”…so that when I may see a guy with a big one, I think “That’s nice,” but then I also think, “Yeah, but… mine’s nice too.” But what you just said about trans people and yourself in relationship to expectations…and how that can be true of men and women and anyone, we do make assumptions about what’s important based on our own things, rather than what’s important to the person themselves. And I know men talk about various things besides penis size…muscle, weight, age… I mean, here I am aging. I have skin that isn’t as great looking- compared to what it was- and that bothers me, but it doesn’t have the same impact. It’s interesting how these things take deep root in us. How we look out in the world is affected by these phobias or fears or sense of inadequacy.

M: It’s interesting to me…I remember being a teenager and looking at older couples and thinking, “I could never be attracted to someone who looked like that”…and now I’m dating people who look like that, and I’m very attracted to them, but much less attracted to that younger, 18-year-old look. As we change, not only does our relationship with ourselves change, but what we find attractive changes. I’m wondering if there is something to be said, for a relationship between how we feel about ourselves and our own bodies and our own comfort with our bodies changing and how we express our outward desire who we are attracted to. I don’t know that there is, and I don’t know that that’s always true, but I wonder if there is some connection there between our inability to be comfortable with ourselves as growing, aging people that wants to cling to that sense of being “young and beautiful,” because this culture very much reveres the beauty of youth.

R: I think it is interesting…I think about, for myself, Jonathan is 13 years younger than I am. When we became a couple, he was very boyish…what’s interesting to me, I came across a picture from him at that time and I was surprised at how different he looked even though he’s the same basic person. And I thought, “Gosh, I really liked him then, but I REALLY like him now.” This earlier picture was adorable and sexy and cute and he was a wonderful human being and smart and all the things he is now… but there is something about the “now” person that is infinitely more attractive to me. So I can say that about him, but I struggle to say it about me, even though I’ve had the experience of saying, every decade, that “these are the best years of my life,” and it’s been true every time. But I often ignored my body- that wasn’t part of the calculation. Part of the reason for doing these things with you and the MCC online conference about sex and spirituality last fall is I want to change my relationship with my body. I think I’m more at peace with it, even though I still have issues. I’m not ignoring it anymore.  I have the luxury of being a white, gay male… a white male who could pretend my body wasn’t a big deal. I was a brainy person, and a spiritual person… but I didn’t put my body with my spirit. I didn’t let my body be a part of my spirituality, especially after I left the radical Faeries and got back into church full-time. That’s something to say…that’s true. I put my body on the shelf when I came back to be a pastor.

M: That’s a thing, that’s something I struggle with as a person of faith and I am a Christian and I love the church, but I also love so many of the pagan spaces I have been in that allow for a synthesis of bodies and spirituality. We miss something in that, as Christians, and that resonated with me as well.

R: Well, something I might want to mention as a part of our conversation…at General Conference, I would like to set aside some time to talk about these things. One of the things that occurs to me is how out there do I want to be? Because it occurs to me, I would like a little nude time with folks…I don’t know even know if I want to do it, but part of me does.

M: This has to do with vulnerability…..when you say to colleagues, let’s go get naked, not in sexual ways just be naked. You said at beginning, “people may stop speaking to me.” A concern or fear…How do we talk with people about things that make us feel scary, vulnerable?

R: It is so important to have people to talk with, which is a big part of the reason I am thinking about these things at General Conference. Trying to create more community….

Looking at your piece, fairly near the end, where you are talking about being in the mathematics program, and how the gender thing plays out there for you, partly because of being raised in one environment with women as female yourself, and living another way now, or both ways, your way of course, and noticing how few women there were. People expected you to be a boy in how you speak and act, and it is more complicated for you given your body and experience. This is about how we make assumptions, we see people and expect them to feel and be and behave a certain way. We really do have preconceived assumptions, and gender is probably the most obvious (yet so often hidden) and powerful one, race too, but with gender the division is 50/50 between two genderized groups, and it begins at the moment of birth…..Congratulations, you have a baby boy, or you have a baby girl.

M: Its funny, I’ve been looking at baby shower things. Can you believe, they have whole games to guess the sex of the baby. I had never heard this before; the centerpiece of the shower is guessing or revealing the sex of the baby. I have not been part of this baby shower world. I did not realize how focused people are on the sex of the baby. Most of my friends are queer, and not having babies. There are things like cake where it is either pink or blue and when you cut the cake it comes out pink or blue to show the sex. What!? That’s insane. I had no idea!

revrobin2-023 R: Yes it is very acute, and very real. We just make a whole series of assumptions about who a person is based on our perception of their gender. Which is back to the trans things, why the trans movement is so upsetting. Here are people who are changing sides, at least that is how it is perceived so often; even though they are not two opposite things, and even though you and others do not necessarily change their bodies, at least in terms of genitals. Your body is such a contravention of the mode because you haven’t removed your vagina and put a penis in its place, or reduced or removed your breasts, and yet you are making a claim–you are not going around saying I AM A MAN but you are making a claim for masculinity, or maleness, and your body doesn’t correspond in some ways. You’re not alone in this, but trans people really make it clear  how variable bodies are. For so many non-trans people, it seems always to be all about the genitals. When I was so intensely engaged in the marriage debate in Virginia, so much opposition to marriage equality was focused on genitals. So many claim that you have to have a man put his penis inside the vagina of the women to be marriage, saying it is about children, but its not really, it’s about genitals. Of course, marriage is not just about genitals; if that’s all it is, it won’t last long

M: Same thing with the “are you a boy or girl? It’s a fixation on the genitals, and people get really uncomfortable when you point that out.

R: When people like you who are more ambiguous in their gender presentation, or even unlike you, perhaps no facial hair, I would wonder how they saw themselves, and people whose names that are not clear about gender (like mine!), I sometimes felt this great need to get people into a box. Eventually, it dawned on me, why do I need to know? They were human beings and that is what counts. Why do I want to know? Maybe a few circumstances I might need to know, but most of the time is none of my business.  They can share if they wish, but if not I don’t need to know. I don’t think I am alone. We need to help people see this, to see the power of the assumptions and the need to get people in the right box.

Malachi Grennell M: It makes me think … [my partner] Kase and I have this kind of joke, about two kinds
of being androgynous…people where you don’t have enough gender characteristics and others where you have too much. With people like me, with breasts and facial hair, it’s “what do you see first?”, or like Kase, with no obvious signals, no facial hair, etc., and people confront him, “What are you?” How we interact with different bodies is very revealing.

 R: The assumptions though are very dangerous because they really are about control, not about encouraging or enlarging life, but keeping it under control, especially keeping women under control first I think.

 M: Oh yes. One of the first things we do as children is to learn to compartmentalize things, get things into boxes. This leads us to these assumptions. We believe the world is the way we saw it as children, and that’s just not true.

 R: With the whole earring thing for me, people look, and depending on the group or setting, some people seem to look more and look oddly. I also remember a little boy in an office waiting room, and he said to me, “Why are you wearing girls earrings?” He was very matter of fact,   probably age 5 or 6. His mother shushed him, and I said, “Oh its okay. What makes you think the earrings are boy or girl.” He just kind of looked at me, and his mother said, “That is a good point, the earrings are not people, they don’t have to be boys or girls.”

 M: Kids are so much better about gender things. I love it.  “Why does that girl have hair on her face,” talking about me. I love the things that kids see as gender, I have long hair so I must be a girl even though I have facial hair. Of course, the parents get uncomfortable, and I am like whatever….

 R: Our granddaughters, our marriage is just as normal for them as anything. When I visit by myself, or call alone, they ask right away where is Grampa? Its just normal (and they don’t ask about my earrings either). So they are open. How do we help adults get there?

M: Some of it will be generational.  I was part of the first wave of kids being raised openly by gay parents. Now kids have gay grandparents, my sister’s kids have a bunch of grandmothers. At some point it becomes normal even more than for my generation. So it is not necessarily queerness that will be their struggle; they will have their own body or sexual thing. It might be non-monogamy as the thing to get over, its becoming bigger and bigger, more talked about all the time. We’ve deconstructed  interracial marriage, not that racism is gone, still horrible racism, but gay marriage too. We’ve seen the same basic arguments about normalcy and boxes applied to 6,7,8 different things and hopefully we can get over it.

 R: Clearly, one of our missions with this blog, and other things we hope to do, is to help undo assumptions, contributing to deconstructing assumptions, reducing the power of assumptions

M: Yeah, God, I think, doesn’t deal with assumptions, but with where and who people actually are.

R: Amen!

Conclusion:

We could go on and on, so much more to say, to share. What we do know, what is our fervent belief, is that people need to be more open, to talk more. It so often comes down to trust, not only trusting another person, as important as that is in being open, but also in trusting God, trusting God to have made us beautiful in ourselves. The way we are made, in all our variety—as the Psalmist (139:14) says, “I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made, wonderful are your works”—is worthy of celebration. It is time to stop hiding ourselves, stop walling off parts of ourselves that don’t fit someone’s idea of what is normal, stop pretending other people who are different are less than us, or abnormal. Oh, the beauty of creation lies in its infinite variety.

It really is a spiritual thing to be open, to share ourselves, to share our differences, our particularities, because in doing so we praise the Creator, and in doing so, we claim more life, not less.

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

What do you think? What is your gender experience, your embodied gender journey? Please share below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed.