Let Us Have Gender Freedom . . . and God Sees that It Is Good

The announcement that the Trump Administration is considering fundamental changes in federal regulations to enforce strict binary gender norms for all Americans is distressing, demeaning, ugly, to say the least. However, it occurs to me that this may be a good time to reflect theologically about gender; can those of us who oppose the various attempts to control others’ bodies find guidance from biblical texts and spiritual reflection? 

I have been engaged in various small ways supporting transgender people for many years, including during my time as Pastor of MCC Richmond VA where I worked closely with an active trans community on several projects. 

Additionally, over the past several years, I have begun to identify as gender queer—still am comfortable being a man in my birth body, but clear that my understanding of that gender differs from the norm. This process began many years ago when I started wearing long, dangly earrings that many say are feminine. (see my earlier posts, “Choosing to Be Me Again” and “Why Do Watches Have Gender?”). 

More recently, as the controversies swelled about bathroom and locker room usage, I began to reflect theologically about gender and specifically about the movement by many, particularly in church and government, to enforce rigid gender norms. 

The Apartheid of SexI begin from a truth I learned long ago from Martine Rothblatt in her book, The Apartheid of Sex: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Gender (1995). She writes

“There are five billion people in the world and five billion unique sexual identities. Genitals are as irrelevant to one’s role in society as skin tone.”  (xiii)

Of course, we know that skin tone and gender play powerful roles in how society is organized but her point is apt: neither makes any real difference, except as society creates and enforces, and we often reinforce, structures to keep these two aspects of ourselves in line. 

She also wrote that it is time to end the classification of people by sex, “because in truth our sex is as individualized as our fingerprints and as special as our souls (my emphasis).” (157). I hope to return to this proposal on another occasion. 

As special as our souls…………indeed. There’s where God comes in. 

The Hebrew text in Genesis 1:27 reads, “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Jewish Study Bible). Those who seek to get everybody in one or the other box, male or female, rely on this text and others to say that what God has ordered must be followed. 

Of course, there are a number of objections to be raised about these arguments. First, for me, is the reality that the Bible, in Hebrew and Christian texts, makes many claims about what God orders and commands. Some faithful people believe that every word is dictated by God, but even if you do, and I don’t, we still have to engage in interpretation to understand what the commands mean for us now. My point: We don’t actually have any assurance that the statement in Genesis 1:27 means that there are only two genders. 

Second, could it not mean that God’s creation of each human involves our being some sort of combination of both? A footnote in The Jewish Study Bible, for example, says, “Whereas the next account of human origins (Gen. 2:4b-24) speaks of God’s creation of one male from whom one female subsequently emerges, Gen. Chapter 1 seems to speak of groups of men and women created simultaneously.”

Elohim in HebrewA note in The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation, points out that the Hebrew for God in this passage, Elohim, is actually a plural (literally “gods” or “powers”), but is ordinarily treated as a singular noun. “This verse and two others (Genesis 3:22 and 11:7) are notable exceptions. The ‘us’ has been explained as the majestic or imperial plural; others see it as God including the angelic host; still others, as a reflection of the more ancient polytheistic roots of the story.“ (There are times when the word is used of lesser, foreign gods, but to the best of my understanding and searching these three instances are the only times in the ancient text has God referring to God’s self as “us.”)

Might another way to read that is to see is that these groups, and God, are not as rigidly defined as we have been taught to believe? We now know, thanks to genetic studies, that many of us are not purely one or the other, that our genes are combinations of X and & Y chromosomes in varying proportions. I think of “effeminate men” and “mannish women” in this regard, Among some Native American tribal traditions, Two Spirit persons exhibit behaviors and attributes of both genders and are considered to have special spiritual powers. Is not God all of these, and more? 

However, theologically speaking, there is a larger issue at play here. When we interpret biblical texts—and that is what we always must do, interpret them because we cannot ever be absolutely certain of the intention by those who repeated these texts and eventually wrote them down—what is our standard of interpretation?

Do we interpret in opposition to what we see around us, that is, do we insist that any new realities discovered since the texts were recorded and canonized be disregarded and/or declared the work of evil forces? Or do we seek to bring the reality in front our eyes and the texts into harmony? Do we see in the texts the promise of more wisdom or do we simply repeat the wisdom from before? Do we let creation unfold or do we insist that God created everything eons ago and nothing has changed? 

Indeed, do we let God continue to create or do we give God thanks for what God has done and then, in effect say,” Stop God, we don’t want anything new, don’t give us any new ideas, any new information?” In my view, this is idolatry, creating a false idol, calling it God, and insisting that there is nothing new in God’s universe. 

Queering ChristianityWhen human beings play God by not letting God be God we suffer. In this case, transgender, gender variant, gender queer, folks suffer. What is being considered by the Trump Administration is codifying that which was never meant to be codified, at least not by God, who is the author of change and growth every moment of every day. 

As I have written elsewhere, “We serve a God who is always messing with our all-too-human arrangements, our desire for things to be neat and tidy and easy” (See “Faithful to a Very Queer-Acting God, Who Is Always Up to Something New” in Queering Christianity: Finding a Place at the Table for LGBTQI Christians, Shore-Goss, Bohache, Cheng, and West, eds. Praeger 2013). 

In that same essay, I quote Lisa Isherwood and the late Marcella Althaus-Reid, 

God dwells in flesh and when this happens all our myopic earth-bound ideas are subject to change; the dynamic life-force which is the divine erupts in diversity and the energy of it will not be inhibited by laws and statutes. Far from creating the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, this dynamism is always propelling us forward into new curiosities and challenges. It does not shut us off from the world; it is the world drawing us into more of ourselves as we spiral in the human/divine dance (“Queering Theology,” in The Sexual Theologian: Essays on Sex, God, and Politics, T& T Clark, 2004). 

This proposal by the administration—and supported by many in various religious groups—is anti-God. They claim they are serving God, but it is a hollow God they serve, as indeed are all our efforts to contain God in our self-justifying insistence on things remaining exactly as they were (or at least as we think they were). 

Biblical literalismWe must of course oppose it, and all like-minded efforts to limit and even eliminate human and natural diversity from the globe. It is always a tall order to stand against forces of repression and injustice, against those who refuse to see God really at work in changing us and the world. 

But we can do so knowing that God’s creation has many more than two genders. Indeed, the creation of genders is an on-going act of God because God is still creating humans.  Further,  even as we labor as faithfully and courageously as we can and as we know our own limits, God is not going away, God adapts and prods and beckons us in directions new to us (though not to God).  I say this not so much to offer comfort to those under threat from this proposal and many other efforts to limit humanity, but rather to affirm the reality that all things are, despite opposition, becoming new. 

Thanks be to God for all we have received, are receiving, will receive!

Erotic Community with God’s Body

On February 22, 2018, I presented a ten-minute talk about men and erotic community on Jonathan’s Circle Live. Here is the link to that talk.

Jonathan’s Circle is a group of men, many in the DC Metro area but ranging as far as Australia, who share an interest in spirituality and sexuality, and engage in open conversation–sometimes in person for Circles, on a Google+ page, and through an online blog. Here is the link to blog, and here is the link to Jonathan’s Circle web page.

My talk certainly is not limited to men, so I invite all to check it out. Of course, I would be very interested in your thoughts.

I will be posting some additional writing on this topic here soon.

Make America Kind(er) Again

My husband Jonathan has a friend who had some buttons printed up in response to the MAGA (Make America Great Again) campaign. His version of our national need is Make America Kind Again. He gave Jonathan several and I wear one on my coat every day.

However, from the first I have wished it read, Make America Kinder Again–because, frankly, I am hard-pressed to say that I think America has ever been truly kind. Our history is rife with the bodies of Native Americans, African slaves, and African-American men and women, as well as Japanese-American citizens imprisoned and LatinX people victimized by law and society–as well as gay and lesbian people denied civil rights (and not the only ones by far, at least we could vote!) and transgender people under assault every day. Then, there is the lack of universal health care for millions and a tax and economic system that clearly favors those who already have vastly more than enough to meet their needs. The rich are getting richer and the rest of us are forced to make it possible.

At the same time, of course, our national history is also a story of righting wrongs, of freeing people once considered less than human. That story is far from done–Native American claims to dignity have yet to be addressed in ways that would be concretely just and healing, and the same is true for African Americans. And now, the President feeds prejudice against peoples from other less-than-fully-white lands. But still we have tried, and in some ways succeeded, in ameliorating some of the worst behavior that marks our national story.

So we may not be kind as a nation, but we do seek to be kinder. At least, that is how it seemed to me until recently.

Our focus has shifted from living the American Dream–liberty and justice for all (and not just in the United States)–to grabbing what we can, while we can, everywhere we can, so no one can get more than we have.

In the process, we are becoming not only less kind to the rest of the world, but also to each other.

An article from the Atlantic Monthly, “Trump and Russia Both Seek to Exacerbate the Same Political Divisions,” makes the interesting, if not worrisome, point that creating and ratcheting up divisions with the American electorate serves the political aims of both the President and the Russians. Much of the article is grounded in some studies of social media sites and their reverberation through the body politic–including sites and drivers clearly linked to Russia intelligence agents.

The author, Conor Friedersdorf, takes pains to note that he thinks the motives of each are different–the President is not seeking to destroy our political system, e.g.–but that the electoral fortunes of the President and the GOP and the success of the Russian intent to disrupt our republic are both tied directly to heightened levels of social division.  The more we distrust one another, the better each of these forces will do.

Friederrsdorf argues that it is vital for internet users–on all the social media platforms–to “show more charity to competing political tribes and exhibit less pessimism about U.S. politics.” He admits there certainly is “homegrown ugliness” (how could this not be so in a nation so drenched in the blood of white supremacy, among other things?), but he says all need to be aware that some of the off-putting behavior and attitudes is “fakery” dreamed up by agents of a foreign and unfriendly power.

In short, we can be kinder, even if we find the opinions of others outrageous–or if not kinder, then at least less vituperative and angry than we may initially feel is justified.

I admit that this is not an easy prescription for me at times. I can become very angry, outraged, at some of what I can only see as ugly and stupid opinions and claims of fact. I want to strike back with a righteous fury.

But I recognize that such reactions give only momentary satisfaction–“so there!” I am saying, in a juvenile vent–and ultimately work against the very causes in which I am so invested.

Ursula K. Le Guin

In her loving tribute to the recently deceased Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood quotes Le Guin writing about anger.

“Anger is a useful, perhaps indispensable tool in motivating resistance to injustice. But I think it is a weapon — a tool useful only in combat and self-defense. . . . Anger points powerfully to the denial of rights, but the exercise of rights can’t live and thrive on anger. It lives and thrives on the dogged pursuit of justice. . . . Valued as an end in itself, it loses its goal. It fuels not positive activism but regression, obsession, vengeance, self-righteousness.”

As a queer theologian, seeking not to be automatically and constantly bound by any of the ordinary strictures and straitjackets of religion and society, I certainly understand the necessity for anger. As Le Guin writes, anger drives resistance to injustice. As Fenton Johnson wrote in this month’s Harper’s (THE FUTURE OF QUEER: how gay marriage damaged gay culture), the work of LGBT liberation movement especially in its earlier manifestations, and most assuredly the massive queer community response to HIV/AIDS, were each driven by anger.

Johnson is, in my view, too harsh in his criticism of the movement for marriage equality. I think he has a rather one-dimensional view of gay, or queer, culture. At the same time, he is right to insist that being queer requires significant vulnerability, that indeed, love requires the same thing. And he is right to say, that “what defines queer, finally, is not what one does in bed but one’s stance toward the ancien régime, the status quo, the way things have always been done, the dominant mode, capitalism.”

James Baldwin

With such a perspective, I seek here to suggest that resistance to injustice, to social straitjackets and oppression, requires not only righteous indignation but also love of the very deepest kind. Fenton quotes my hero, James Baldwin,

“Love has never been a popular movement. . . . The world is held together—really it is held together—by the love and passion of a few people.”

I agree with Fenton that the number of people who evidence love and passion is greater than Baldwin implies. But I know that we always need more of those people. And I know, I do know, that their number will only grow to the extent we are actually willing and able to be vulnerable enough to love even those who hate, or seem to hate, us. That love may well be driven by anger–as my teacher, Beverly Wildung Harrison, wrote long ago, the power of anger drives love–but it is the love that creates change that lasts.

Kindness is the method, the action, of such love, not so much romantic or erotic love (although eros is never absent in our lives) as love for the survival and thriving of every creature, human and not, on earth, indeed love for the survival, renewal, and thriving of the planet.

Let us be kinder.

 

 

 

 

 

Stripping Down

In many venues, I identify as a Queer Theologian (and poet), but I have made a deliberate choice here to leaven that with the idea of nakedness–because I believe (I want to say I know if it does not sound too dogmatic), that when we are most vulnerable we are most true to our inheritance as offspring of God.

Queer Virtue book coverIn her graceful and very wise book, Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know about Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity, Elizabeth M. Edman shares a definition of priesthood that was given to her by a friend:

A priest is someone who stands in a place of remarkable vulnerability, and by doing so, invites other people to enter the sacred. 

This expansive understanding of priesthood fits well, as Edman says, within the Protestant concept of the priesthood of all believers. In that way, it undercuts the clerical hierarchy that is so often an impediment to spiritual growth and health among “lay” people. Indeed, it may help end what is often seen as a binary of lay/clerical difference–a chasm which leads too many non-clerics to think they have nothing useful to contribute to spiritual life and too many clerics to think, or at least act as if, they have everything that is needed.

Robin clergy collar less smile Sept 2015 smaller3_edited-4There is institutional authority vested in the office of priest or pastor, or rabbi or imam–depending on the tradition and the community, it can be a lot. However, it is the authority of personal and interpersonal vulnerability that is far more powerful in ways that transcend the usual humanly created boundaries. And that authority is available to all the faithful. We are called to be, as Edman says, a priestly people.

I am a nudist at heart, but I did not change this blog name simply to take my clothes off (or feature others who do so) online–although that may happen from time to time. At the same time, I recognize being physically naked as part of a continuum of spiritual and emotional nakedness and vulnerability.

I still wear a clerical collar when I go to church, but I am not sure entirely why. I have no formal or pastoral role in worship, and even if I did it is not my clothes that make it possible. It may be a sign of comfort for some, but increasingly I chafe and wish to dress as more myself.

Robin with longer hair and beard (cropped)_edited-1I started this most recent journey in my life by taking off all my clothes and discovering much joy in nakedness by myself and with others. Now I see that I may want to consider each item of my costume–not as a form of striptease but as a way of really exposing, at some deep levels, all of me.

Taking off the collar may be a greater signification of my priesthood–a priest forever, as my friend and mentor, Carter Heyward, has written–than wearing it. Then I am more likely to stand in that place of remarkable vulnerability and thus invite people to enter the sacred.

That is my desire, and I believe it is God’s desire for me, and you, and all creation.