Family Secrets

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

revrobin2-023Robin:

Jonathan and I have become invested in a television drama called “A Place to Call Home,” about a “to the manor born” family in Australia. We like it for superb acting, engaging plot lines, and the general lack of violence (Note: it is available through Acorn TV, “the best British streaming TV,” –we access it through ROKU).

As the first season unfolded, the characters became increasingly complex, and we got hooked, especially as one by one various characters revealed secrets. In some ways the main theme of the program is the hiding and disclosing of family secrets.  As you might imagine most of them involve sex in one way or another.

As I told Malachi about the program, we began to realize we had each experienced, and even yet experience, some aspects of keeping, being, and revealing secrets [as you might expect, his experience is less “mainstream” than mine].

As a pastor, I heard secrets.  Many, if not most, of them were about abuse of various kinds, especially sexual abuse and violence in the home. Most people would tell about it as they sought to explain feelings they wanted to change—attitudes and fears that had been induced by the ugly behavior.

Of course, in a church community with many LGBT people, and in a relatively conservative area (Richmond, Virginia) some members felt they had to keep their sexual orientation and non-cis gender feelings secret—either due to family issues or potential loss of jobs and housing, or all of the above. However, non-LGBT people also talked about secrets, many of them related to sex.

Two very dear friends of mine have harrowing histories of sexual abuse—one due to boys forcing sex on him in the boys’ bathroom at school, and the other due to a parent being utterly inappropriate in describing to my friend in some detail the parent’s disgust at sexual behavior by the other parent in their marriage.  Both friends continue to feel effects from these incidents, many years later.

In fact, my friend who suffered from sexual assault had blocked the memory for decades. It came out in intensive therapy due to sexual issues with my friend’s partner. My friend acknowledged a feeling of sexual “frozenness” (my word) and sought help to be freed. It is a work in progress.

I hid my sexual attraction to men until I was in my mid-30s. But I had realized it much earlier, and on two occasions broke my silence. The first time I told my parents, and they seemed to listen but then returned to watching television. They simply did not know what to do with their 16-year-old son standing in the middle to the living room telling him he was “homosexual” (five or six years before Stonewall). And then, when I was in college, I told my priest and asked him what to do. He spoke to my parents, and then, with their permission and my acquiescence, arranged for me to see a therapist.

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Supposedly, after some months I was “okay,” at least “better.”

I did not entirely fool myself, however—for example, Playgirl magazine came into being a year or two before I was married in 1974 and I ordered a subscription, allegedly for my new wife. I was sad when she showed little interest in it, and I—who had eagerly consumed the pictures in each issue—had no excuse to renew it.

And before we were married, she asked me about an observation by a friend of hers in our small town that I was “homosexual.” I assured her I was not—that the therapist I had seen while in college had “cured” me.

When I did come out to her, she told me she had never quite let go of fear that her friend had been right. And my mother told me that she had felt relief as we had several children. Surely, she reasoned, I could not be “that way” if we were having babies! But she also told me, after I came out, that a cleaning woman had found a copy of Playgirl in a file drawer in the room where I occasionally slept when staying over to help her care for my invalid father.

I had a secret, but so did they.  Secrets breed secrets.

Why do we keep sexual secrets?

One answer is shame. “There is no part of being human about which Americans feel more shame than sex,” says Marty Klein, a sex therapist writing in Psychology Today.

But why shame? One reason, according to Klein, is “sexual exceptionalism—the idea that sex is different than everything else, and needs special rules to govern it.”

One “rule” is the prohibition on the public display of naked bodies. That prohibition seems to rest on the idea that nakedness equals sex (an equation strongly disputed by naturists).

I have long been enamored of nudity, my own and that of others. I like being naked. But I think I made a mistake when, years ago, I was naked, with other naked male friends, at the beach when my daughters, then in their teens and pre-teens, were present. I have carried shame about that behavior.

My shame became more acute after my half-sister, the daughter of my father from his first marriage, told me that our father went around the house, when she was a teen, without his pants on and thus showing his genitals (she told me this 20 year

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s after he died). She hated it, as did her mother. This never happened in the home in which I lived with our father and my mother (not hers).

Thus, I continue to worry that my writing about nudity—and perhaps choosing at some point to call myself “The Naked Theologian”—will once again cause me to engage in shameful behavior, at least toward my daughters. As I ponder and pray about that possibility I keep wondering if I need to give my daughters “veto power” over my decision.

Then, I think about church. Do I give “veto power” to the people at church who don’t like my writing about sex and bodies, and most assuredly would not be comfortable with “The Naked Theologian?”

Church of course, is a major contributor to rules about sex. Many church people, and others, even think that sex is the major focus of the Bible.

Knust Unprotected TextsThere is a lot of sex in various parts of the text, and there are texts that contain prohibitions and judgments. But there are other texts, other stories, which do neither (and even “normalize” things prohibited elsewhere). In fact, as Jennifer Wright Knust writes in Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire, “When read as a whole, the Bible provides neither clear nor consistent advice about sex and bodies. . . .”

One way to reduce the power of sexual secrets, and move forward in overcoming abuse and violence, is to discard the idea that the Bible is a reliable sex manual.  Then we might begin allowing God into our all parts of our lives, including sex.

I suspect God would like that, and we’d be happier, and safer, too.

14947937_10100747005631839_8991378826366585167_nMalachi:

I’ve been the family secret. In fact, in many ways, I’m sure I still am, partially of my own choosing, partially of my family’s choosing. I haven’t stayed in touch with most of my family of origin- my grandmother asks my mother about me, but beyond that, I don’t know that much of my extended family really makes an effort to know much about my life. After all, I was the illegitimate child born out of wedlock and raised by lesbians- they were, for much of my life, the “family secret.” Now, I’m a transgender, queer, non-monogamous, kinky sex educator. At some point in the journey of my life, my extended family stopped reaching out to me. My family is no stranger to secrets.

Family secrets are a complicated thing. Whether they are born from a place of shame or an attempt to “keep the peace” at family gatherings, they’re like the big pink elephant in the room. Everyone knows about them , but no one will talk about them or acknowledge them.  I think that’s the thing that makes them “secrets”… it’s not so much that they “aren’t known,” but simply that they “aren’t acknowledged.” It’s not, for example, that anyone had any misconceptions about my parent’s relationship: they were obviously more than friends and roommates, and very clearly were lovers. It wasn’t a secret in the sense that no one knew they were partners. It was a secret in the sense that their partnership was never publicly acknowledged or respected as equal to other people’s partnerships. I certainly felt that tension in how I was accepted (or not accepted) as family with my non-biological mother’s family.

Being the family secret is a form of silencing and erasure. It’s a way for people who are supposed to love us unconditionally to choose not to see a part of who we are. For queer people especially, it entirely removes our capacity to exist in the world as whole people: rainbowspiritual, emotional, physical, and sexual. Our sexuality, our genders, our relationship configurations and familial configurations are erased, hidden, and ignored; our capacity to be sexual beings is denied.

This month, we celebrate Pride month. Pride at being able to live authentically, to be who we are- all of who we are- when so many of us have lived for a long time as the family secret. Perhaps it’s not coincidence that the subtle verbal acknowledgement of one queer person to another used to be, “Are you family?” We made our own families, families where we found unconditional love and support when we refused to allow who we are to be a secret, something to ignore and work around, a burden, a discomfort.

This week, we also honor the one-year anniversary of the fatal shooting at Pulse

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nightclub where 49 young people lost their lives in a tragic hate crime aimed at permanently silencing queer people of color. The queer community- particularly queer communities of color- are no stranger to secrets, either. I think of those people who may have been outed simply by being at Pulse that night- both those who died, and those who lived and suffered the consequences of trauma. What families who had skirted around, never acknowledged, or tried to ignore the sexuality of a loved one must be feeling. I think of the toll of family secrets, and the crushing weight of regret that sometimes comes when we realize we have forever lost an opportunity to show unconditional love.

We are- our queerness, our lives, the ways we love and fuck and connect and build families- we are working against a lifetime of being taught that who we are should not be acknowledged. That who we are makes people uncomfortable, that it causes waves, that it is better kept a secret. We celebrate Pride as a response to these messages, a deliberate way of opening up our own family secrets- and in many ways, opening up our families. One of my mothers has a beautiful phrase that I have adopted as a mantra in my own life: “the only eggshells in this house are in the fridge.” We don’t tiptoe around truth and reality and important conversations because they are uncomfortable.

In my adult, chosen family, I hope we never have family secrets. As I continue to raise my goddaughter, I hope that she never feels the sense of silencing, the shame, the shifts in language, the awkwardness that I felt as a child growing up. I hope she never feels that she is part of a family secret- and a source of family shame.

As a trans, queer person myself, I consciously make the choice not to engage with much of my extended family. Not because I think they are bad or incapable of changing, but bisexual symbolbecause I am not willing to do the things my parents did (and to some degree, still do) to self-silence, to shift, to alter who they were. I am not willing to pretend to be something- or someone- I am not. So perhaps, for them, I exist in the stories my mother tells about me, however twisted and convoluted she presents my life. I recognize that, in many ways, she is still in the same place of seeking love, acceptance, and affirmation for her life, struggling against being the family secret while also wanting to keep the peace. I know that the ways she represents my life aren’t accurate; it’s her choice to make, and it’s mine to not engage with my families of origin to give a more accurate perspective.

We each come out in our own ways, at our own times. Pride reminds us- and the anniversary of Pulse reminds us- how dear, how precious, how important authenticity is. Our sexuality is not inconvenient. Our sexuality does not need to be a secret or something danced around in awkward pauses over family dinners. Now, more than ever, it is vital that we see our sexuality as a part of the whole image of who we are. Now, more than ever, we cannot afford to be silent or circumnavigated. Now, more than ever, we must break our own silences- in whatever ways they manifest- and refuse to be the family secret.

We Want to Hear from You!

Help Make this a Conversation!

What is your relationship with family (or community) secrets? Have you been asked to hold the secrets of others? Have you felt like you were “the secret” in some capacity? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

 

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Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please join us TOMORROW, THURSDAY, June 15th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components.  If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.

Our focus will be “Creating Consent Culture in Our Churches.” Malachi and Robin will discuss how church leaders and members can foster an atmosphere of trust and exploration through mutual concern and consent while considering difficult topics such as various forms of sex, the spiritual ground of sex, and sexual attitudes and behaviors.

Previous month’s sessions can be watched here.

When ‘Stuff’ Gets in the Way

The truth is, I’ve been having trouble being sexual at all lately. . . .

revrobin2-023Robin: Writing, or talking, about sex often pushes limits, sometimes self-imposed, sometimes imposed by others, and sometimes by what we think others will say, think, or do in response.

Those limits can be connected to a primary personal relationship—e.g., what a partner or partners in primary personal relationship like or do not like sexually as that relates to your shared sexual lives, or what they are comfortable with your sharing about them. Or they can be about an institutional relationship—e.g., what your sharing might cost you in terms of employment. Or, they can be limits based on family connections—e.g., how your children or siblings or others will react to what you reveal.

Today, I am testing limits I feel by being an ordained clergy person, a professional in ministry who treasures a relationship with a church, both a local congregation and a larger denomination (or as I prefer to say about Metropolitan Community Churches, a movement).

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To some extent, I have already done this by writing pretty openly about nudity, masturbation, and other topics not often talked about at church. But I am going to go further today, depending on the choice you as a reader make.

Many people at the church where I serve as volunteer clergy on staff—as Writer-Theologian in Residence, no less (a wonderful title, I admit! and great joy as ministry)—are aware of my interest in the connection between sexuality and spirituality. A dozen or so attended a recent workshop I led on the topic. Some probably even read this blog. So far, they have not kicked me out.

But I can tell you that the fear that someone in the congregation or denomination, leader or not, will become angry and begin a campaign to evict me is very much part of my life. I know in my heart that I would never write to hurt someone or to create trouble for the church I truly love since I walked in the door of MCC New York in 2001, the church that saved my spiritual life (and thus really my life) and that ordained me in 2002.

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And I know that some of this fear has little to do with MCC, and more to do with a lifetime spent struggling within the Christian church at large. Notice, I do not call this a struggle with Christianity—because although I have tussled and continue to tussle with what I believe as that relates to what “the church” says, I have never seen this as a struggle. That is simply the work every believer needs to do. As we grow and change we must negotiate with our faith, with our Lord and the Holy Spirit, with God. But they are partners with whom I feel safe sharing everything.

The church does not feel like such a partner, especially when it comes to sex. Some of that I recounted last week (see Sexual  Repression, with link). Here I want to talk more about how my emerging sexuality and sexual practices create in me anxiety and even fear (if you have been following this blog, you know that at 69 I am on a wonderful journey of embodied sexual self-discovery).

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Recently, I wrote my first-ever erotic poem. It recounted love-making that Jonathan and I shared, as well as my sexual energy and feelings before and after. It is pretty explicit, as they say, using a slang term for a body part, and describing what we each did, and how we reacted ecstatically. I also, perhaps even more shockingly, related this directly to Jesus (and my certainty that he did these things, too) and how God is pleased when we engage in sexual pleasure. Indeed, I think God is more than pleased, God is relieved that we are using the gifts God gives us for connecting and feeling joy in our bodies and spirits. I believe God receives it as worship, as our giving thanks.

I shared the poem with Jonathan who said he really liked it.  He also liked the piece on nudism I wrote for the blog at Jonathan’s Circle (a movement of men led by a dear priest friend of mine focused on exploring the links between men’s spirituality and sexuality). He even agreed with me that I should use a frontally nude picture of myself with it. As it turns out, that violates the website rules and so they used a more chaste photo. At any rate, Jonathan may not be the best judge of how the church will react—he encouraged me to publish the poem, too.

Then I shared the poem with two friends—a gay man and a lesbian woman, both very spiritual, one engaged in church and one who feels turned away—whose taste and judgment I deeply respect. They both raved about it. They too want me to share it more widely.

Queering Christianity amazon com
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So what holds me back from sharing it here? I feel certain that church folk will raise a holy stink and the clergy will have to let me go, and if they don’t, the church board will vote to do it for them. I love these colleagues—among the very finest pastors with whom I have ever worked, not to mention just being fabulous human beings—and don’t want to cause them any more trouble than they already have. And if it does not happen at the local level, I feel certain the denominational leadership will do something—like removing me from co-leading a working group focusing on racial reconciliation (which would break my heart).

As I have recounted elsewhere (in my essay in Queering Christianity: Finding a Place at the Table for LGBTQI Christians, “Faithful to a Very Queer-Acting God Who Is Always Up to Something New”), when I spoke in a sermon at MCC Richmond about a time I masturbated to an artist’s rendering of Jesus, some people reacted angrily. Some of them did so because they felt I had breached propriety. Others said they felt unsafe, and for some of them it involved being victims of sexual abuse. That is serious. I had no desire to hurt anyone, certainly not people I cared about who had been hurt in that ugly way. I felt very unclean for that.

Others came to me relieved, to share their own secrets and shame, because, as they said, I had made myself vulnerable and now they trusted me enough to do the same. After listening to them, I felt not only relief but also gratitude that I had followed what seemed to me like a strong urging from God to share so openly (knowing that as any preacher should know, just because you think you are hearing God correctly, does not mean you are).

Those two responses continue to haunt me. Which will guide me?

This is my decision.

There is a difference between sitting in a pew listening to a sermon, and sitting somewhere in your space (private or public) reading a blog. The reader has a choice the listener does not.

So, with great trepidation, as well as considerable excitement, I am going to share links to each of the blog posts.  Caveat emptor (let the buyer beware); it’s your choice from here on out.

First, “A Naked Wholeness” is available on the blog for Jonathan’s Circle.

Thou shall have sex and be holyThe poem, “Holy Hardness,” is available on a wonderful blog, GayShiva: Pursuing the Spirituality of the Male Body, curated by a friend of mine from Jonathan’s Circle.

Whatever your choice, I hope you will let me know, and especially if you would let me know what you think of whatever you read, either or both the piece on nudism and the erotic poem. Or, if you choose to read neither, I would like to know why you made that choice.

I continue to hope this blog can be a dialogue, but It can only be that if readers make comments. Otherwise, it is a dialogue between me and Malachi, but a monologue with the rest.

And know that whatever your choice, it is okay by me. And if it serves your spiritual well-being, then for sure it is a good choice, too.

Malachi GrennellMalachi: Last week, Robin and I discussed our personal histories with sexual repression in preparation for our Third Thursday workshop this week on the history of sex negativity within Western Christianity. With this blog’s focus on sex and sexuality, it can be easy to focus on the ways that we are working on strengthening our own sexual expressions and freedoms. What can be harder, however, are discussing the ways in which sexuality may be difficult for either/both of us to express at various times.

I am both polyamorous and kinky, both identities that often have some inherent sexual component for me. So between the discussion of kink events or discussions of dates or sexual liberation, it is difficult to address the reality that, for some time now, sex has been something that has been increasingly difficult for me.

Depo-Testosterone
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When I was younger, before I started testosterone, I had a fairly high sex drive. I noticed that my sex drive tended to be higher than that of many of my partners, and I felt somewhat embarrassed by it at times. Overall, however, my high sex drive didn’t bother me… I became particularly good at masturbation and self-satisfaction.

When I started taking testosterone (often referred to as “T”), my sex drive spiked. Masturbation became a daily requirement, an integrated part of my getting-ready regimen. I would get up, use the bathroom, shower, jack off, brush my teeth, get dressed, and go about my day. I found that, on days where I didn’t have time/energy to masturbate, I was much more irritable, cranky, and short-tempered. So whether or not I was “in the mood,” it was important for me to masturbate each day.

When I met my now-spouse, I had been on T for several years and had an incredibly high sex drive. Coupled with New Relationship Energy (NRE), we had quite an extended period of time where we would have sex every day, multiple times a day. It was wonderful and amazing (and certainly not sustainable in the sense that neither of us got a lot done during that time).

After we had been together for several years, I decided to go off of T for a

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variety of reasons. Coming off of T, I noticed a shift in my sex drive. I started going a couple days without masturbating and noticed that I was not unreasonably irritable. Truthfully, it felt like a bit of a relief from feeling a constant sexual pull.

But my sex drive continued to decrease. At that time, I was dating someone else, and NRE was helping maintain my sexual interest, but after a while, my lack of sex drive began impacting our relationship as well. It was an incredibly difficult time for my partner (with whom I was not having sex) and myself (because I knew that this relationship dynamic was hurting him).

At that point, we used a kink event to help us reconnect sexually. The first time I attended what has now become a staple event in my life, I felt my

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sex drive re-ignite and was so excited to be having sex with my partner again. It solved the problem of that extended “dry spell,” but it didn’t solve the deeper problem.

The truth is, I’ve been having trouble being sexual at all lately. There are times when I have a strong desire for sexual intimacy, but it’s not consistent, and it goes as quickly as it comes. And for me, it turns into an anxiety spiral: I get anxious that my partner and I haven’t been having sex and I know that’s something they’re wanting more of, and I want to do that, but it feels pressurized, and I don’t want sex to feel like an obligation on either of our ends.

Being honest about these things is scary. I’m so in love with my partner. I’m so attracted to them, and think that they are a beautiful, incredible human being. It’s not a lack of attraction, but a feeling in my body- or perhaps, a lack thereof. It’s as though a part of body has turned off, and I’m not entirely sure what to do about it or how to navigate it.

I wish I knew how to explain what this feels like inside my body, but it’s not a feeling; it’s an absence of. I am, in many ways, unaware of my body as a sexual entity until a situation arises in which I realize that it has been awhile, and I begin to feel a deep sense of shame and anxiety that make intimacy all but impossible. It is immensely frustrating and I’m not sure how to reawaken that part of me that so desperately desires sexual intimacy… and not just intimacy with anyone, but intimacy with my partner, the person I love and have made a life with.

In this context, it feels difficult, sometimes, to be a person that spends so

much time talking about sex. Whether in this blog or in kink, so much of my life is spent talking about sex in one form or another and I think it’s important to be transparent. Sex isn’t always easy for me right now. In fact, more often than not, it’s incredibly difficult- and that difficulty has compounding effects. It’s hard for me that it’s hard for my partner. It’s hard for my partner that I can talk about sex so much, but have so much difficulty

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having it. It’s hard to be in a body that, for so long, has had an incredibly high sex drive that has greatly diminished.

Sex is not always easy. It isn’t always simple- sometimes our hangups from the past impact our ability to have healthy sexual dynamics as adults. Sometimes our fears get in the way and it feels like an insurmountable wall. And in this case, I’m not sure what the answer is. I haven’t figured it out yet. This is not a retrospective contemplation on an already-solved problem, but midway through the mess of trying to figure it out. I’ve begun seeing a therapist to try to work through some of my own issues. I’m trying to find ways to be intimate that feel safe and good and authentic with my partner. I’m pushing myself as much as I can, but this is a hard period to go through.

Although I imagine every long-term partnership struggles with dry spells and “keeping the intimacy alive,” there is no one way to navigate these particular issues because each person is different. The best we can do is be honest- with ourselves, with our partners, with our trusted confidants. As a person who is polyamorous and kinky, this becomes particularly important as I navigate sexualized spaces and multiple relationships. It’s not always easy. It’s certainly not always pretty. Relationships (and sex) can be hard, and it’s ok to admit when things are hard. They can’t get better until we do.

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

Have you ever had difficulties maintaining intimacy in your relationships? Has your work or career made it difficult for you to be open about your sexuality? What are some other barriers to your ability to be authentic and open in your sexuality? 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.