FSG: Faith, Sexuality and Gender

On the margins of orthodoxy

Male and female he created them 21 May 2008

Mexico was scandalised this week by the country’s first wedding between a male (female-to-male – FtM) and female (MtF) transsexual. Not surprisingly, the ceremony incurred the wrath of the Catholic Church in the country. However, as the bride’s sister was quoted as saying, “At the end of the day, it’s a marriage between a woman and a man, so what’s the problem with blessing this union in the eyes of God?”

This is indeed an intriguing question: if an FtM transsexual counts as a woman in the eyes of the Church, and an MtF transsexual is considered a man, then a marriage between both of them – so long as neither of them have been married before – is in fact a female-male union, even if it is the spouse who plays the male role who is the ‘woman’ and the bride is a ‘man’. However, the problem is not in the bare facts but in the spirit with which the couple are committing their lives to each other, which precisely does require that the husband should be a ‘man’ and that he should make the type of commitment that husbands make to wives in Christian marriage (to give himself utterly to the wife out of love, to the extent of being prepared to sacrifice his own life if necessary to save his wife’s life, as Christ died for humankind); and that the bride is a woman making a bride’s pledge to her husband: to love and obey him as she would Christ.

Of course, saying that a marriage involving an FtM and MtF transsexual couple does not comply with these defining parameters of authentic marriage does mean that one is asserting that the couple in question are really a woman and a man, and not – as they see themselves and appear physically to others – a man and a woman; i.e. that ‘woman’ and ‘man’ are terms that relate only to the ‘birth gender’ (the physical, anatomical sex the individuals were born with) and no other understandings of gender. Part of the reason for the insistence on this criterion is of course one of the integral purposes of Christian marriage, in the traditional understanding: that of having children and bringing them up as Christians. The ‘woman’ or ‘bride’ must, in this scheme of things, have been born with the bodily organs required for her to become a mother within marriage; and similarly for the husband / potential father.

I say ‘must have been born with the bodily organs etc.’ rather than simply ‘must have the bodily organs’ because an authentic marriage – one in which the spouses firmly believe that God has called them to commit themselves to one another – logically must have been intended by God for those individuals from all eternity, which therefore requires that one of them be born female and one male. This ‘authentic’ marriage would be contrasted, for instance, to ones in the future where it is theoretically possible that there might be genetic and / or stem cell-based treatments that would enable women to transition entirely into men, complete with functioning genitals; and for men to become women in every physical respect, including with functioning ovaries and wombs. In such a case, would the MtF ‘bride’ not in fact be ‘really’ a woman in every sense – physical and psychological, sex and gender – while the FtM ‘husband’ was ‘really’ a man?

On the other hand, would such an apparently total gender reassignment in reality be any less artificial and superficial than the treatments presently available? The fact that the transitioned woman and man would not just appear as such but would actually be fully female and male anatomically would not of itself invalidate the view that they were ‘really’ a man and a woman respectively, based on the bodies they had been born with – which was as God created them and therefore intended them to be.

But you’d now be paradoxically in the situation where a woman and a man were, in every normal sense of the terms, female and male (physically and psychologically) – and even, who knows, capable of conceiving children ‘naturally’ – but who would be denied marriage on the basis that they were really (‘spiritually’) male and female, and therefore not capable of fulfilling the roles of husband and father, and wife and mother, respectively. On this view, the fact of being female or male would depend not on what you as a person feel you are, nor on how society views you, nor on your present bodies, but on how God made you and what you therefore are in his (or her) eyes.

So one authentic Christian way of living out one’s vocation, as a transsexual, is to accept that, in some mysterious way, one is really – in God’s eyes – a woman even though one feels that one is really a man; and vice-versa for psychological women locked in men’s bodies. As a Christian, it might be better not to undertake a gender reassignment, if one were able in faith to accept the body one was born with as something that God wished one to take on – in the manner of a cross that had to be borne (in the other sense) as part of our sharing in Christ’s suffering for the sins of the world. But by the logic I have attempted to map out, whereby the appearance of gender (even, in theory, the actual possession of a fully female or male body) has nothing to do with the ‘real’ gender (psychologically or spiritually), a transsexual should in no way be condemned for seeking to transform her or his body to align it with her or his psychological gender. Nor – on the other hand – should transsexuals expect or demand that all Christians accept that their ‘new’ genders are their ‘real’ genders from the spiritual perspective, to the extent of authorising and carrying out Christian marriages of the sort discussed at the beginning of this post.

But equally, this does not justify the rejection or condemnation of transsexuals, whether transitioned or not, but calls for a new flexibility and openness of thought and compassionate understanding, whereby one accepts that the gender a person feels they are may be quite the opposite of how they were born or what they appear to be; and that the gender they appear to be may be quite the opposite of what as Christians we are entitled to believe they are. Perhaps this new expansion of the horizons of our thinking will help not just Christians but society as a whole to be more open to the plurality and shades of gender experience, including those which are found but so often suppressed in people who feel their gender identity is wholly ‘normal’ and aligned with their anatomical sex.

So in this life, it is legitimate to believe that we are called to accept the gender we were born with as something essential to what we are and are meant to be in God’s eyes and plan. But in the life to come, these gender differences – including those internal to the self – will no longer matter as we will be reunited with the God in whose image both male and female humanity was created; and, who knows, both the male and female sides of ourselves will be reunited and reconciled in him. After all, the biblical text says, ‘male and female he created them’; and not, as we so often interpret it, ‘male or female’.

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Gay Sex and Vocation 9 May 2008

Hitherto, I’ve tended to the view that an active gay sex life is not consistent with, or cannot be considered an integral part of, a – or the – Christian calling. That’s gay sexual activity, as opposed to homosexuality (or bisexuality, or transgendered-ness) itself. By contrast, in a very thought-provoking post, Anita Cadonau-Huseby makes a powerful case for considering that a person’s homosexuality (or sexuality and gender identity of any sort) is indeed a / their holy vocation and divine calling. On one level, I wholeheartedly agree with this view: if one genuinely is gay, or in my case bisexual and transgender, then this is how God intended you to be – what he is calling you to be as part of his calling of you into being through his Word of creation.

Where I worry about this is the way it conflates two meanings of ‘vocation’: 1) what God’s purpose was in creating you (he made you as a gay person, by design and not by accident); 2) what God is calling you to, and calling you to become, as part of your new life in Christ: the life of the Spirit, of faith and of service. I have no problem whatsoever with the former meaning. But can God be said to be calling gay persons to assume their gayness as a gift of the Spirit, as part of their very Christian charism, when he first calls them to become his followers and share in the life of grace? Gayness may well be a gift of God in a similar way as our bodies, minds and very life are his gifts; but are these things, and therefore gayness too, also correctly described as gifts of the Spirit in the same way, for instance, as the gifts of healing, teaching, praise or prayer?

Are these merely semantic distinctions? Is it legitimate for us, in this all-too human way, to separate out what constitutes a gift of Creation (our bodies or our gayness) and what constitutes a gift of Grace? In Christ, and in our sharing in the life of Christ through the Spirit, these aspects of our humanity and his divinity are united. How can we make a distinction between our old selves – including our homosexuality – and our new selves, reborn in Christ, when our witness to Christ can be true only when it engages all that is true and distinctive about ourselves as human beings, which cannot but include our sexuality? As gay, bisexual and / or transgender, if we do not bear witness to our sexuality and gender identity, can we still be true to our vocation and be a reliable witness to Christ?

And yet, it is nonetheless legitimate to ask: are our sexualities and gender identities themselves graces; or are they not rather just part of our nature as mortal, fleshly, flawed and sinful human beings, which God still chooses to inhabit in the love of Christ and the life of the Spirit; and which he uses as the instrument of his grace to others who are seeking him – manifesting the truth that he loves us and dwells within us no matter who or what we are?

If this is so, why then should it matter whether we choose to consider that gay sexual acts are sinful or not if, notwithstanding these, God still loves us unconditionally, and still works in us and through us to spread the life of his Kingdom? But it is important to know what sin is. This is because sin is that which attacks and potentially destroys the life of Christ within us, and diminishes our ability to hear God’s call, to seek his will, and to commit ourselves to following it completely.

By why should gay sex in particular be considered sinful, even in the context, say, of a loving, monogamous union between two Christians of the same sex, who see their sex life as a celebration and expression of their love, and as therefore affirming and manifesting the love of Christ for and in each one of them? Can it be seen as a vocation for two such people to ‘consecrate’ their love for each other in this way, just as conjugal sex is usually seen as validating and manifesting the union in Christ of a husband and wife – Christian marriage being traditionally conceived of as a calling? God may call gay people to be gay; but does this mean he calls them to gay sex? Does an affirmation of one’s gayness always have to involve the affirmation of one’s sex life? Does God’s creation of gay people as gay provide moral justification for gay sex – exclusively, or merely preferentially, within monogamous relationships having the character of a marriage?

So many questions. Who can be confident of knowing all the answers? (There’s another one!) My own view: that an active gay sex life cannot be an intrinsic part of the Christian vocation of a gay person. This is in contrast to heterosexual sex – but, in the Catholic view, only one particular type of heterosexual sex; not heterosexual sex of any and every kind – which is an intrinsic part of the vocation to sacramental marriage. Nor is gayness in itself a gift of the Spirit in Christ. Homosexuality (and bisexuality, and transgendered-ness) is part of our old life, our fallen nature; but so is heterosexuality and, therefore, all sexuality and gendered life. These things are signs of our continuing dependency and attachment to this mortal life and to our carnal bodies; to individuation, and to identification with and attraction for only part of the human totality; to division and incompletion in our lives and in ourselves. And, in its very incompleteness, transitoriness, and diversity of form and expression (loving and unloving; promising lifelong fidelity and failing to live up to it), sex is a manifestation of the fact that man and woman have not yet, in this life, attained the perfect unity and reconciliation that is in Christ.

But by the same token, while all sexual desire – gay or straight – holds within it the potential to fail to consummate the perfect (marital) union of man and woman, male and female, in Christ in whom / which, and in whose image, all human life is created; yet, at the same time – when lived as an expression of true, Christian love – desire and sex are always offered as a prayer for perfect union and, thereby, an act of praise of the human heart whose longing for Christ is inseparable from its bodily desire for another.

Not a perfect love: sinful, therefore – the love of sinners. But, in that, so very human; and so very much in the image of Christ: the lover of sinners.

 

Sexual Guilt and Faith 6 May 2008

As a Catholic, I used to feel guilty about my gay side. I say ‘gay side’ not ‘homosexuality’ because I’m bisexual. So was it my homo-sexuality or my sexuality as such that I had a guilt complex about? Did I feel as guilty about my straight side: mixed up about being mixed up? Was it moral guilt or psychological guilt? And if there is a definite distinction that can be drawn between these two forms of guilt, is it ever in practice possible for the person who experiences that guilt to tell them apart? Or for any person for that matter?

However, this way of presenting the dilemmas I wrestled with over so many years does not do justice to my ‘story’. This was not quite as my intro might suggest: just another screwed-up Catholic pre-conditioned to think that sex was, effectively, in principle sinful and dirty unless ‘redeemed’ in marriage. But this is not how it was for me: I did not grow up as a Catholic, and it was my coming to faith that actually allowed me to get in touch emotionally with my gay side and begin to accept it.

Prior to the series of powerful experiences that led me into first believing, and then being baptised, confirmed and receiving my first communion, all at the tender age of 27 (!), I had always thought I was straight. It was the love of God that I was given in abundance at that time that unlocked the door that had kept my gay side profoundly repressed until that point: precisely because I  had felt profoundly unloved and had unconsciously identified my gayness as one of the main reasons.

And this, for me, has consequently been an unerring truth that has steered me through my struggles: that God loves me, not so much despite my (gay) sexuality but just as I am; regardless of my sexuality would perhaps be more accurate. The sexuality of a person is, in the eyes of God, of so little account set against the unfathomable immensity and mystery of his love that it’s almost belittling that love, and reducing it back down to our own petty horizons, to presume that our sexuality could in any way affect it.

That’s not to say that sexuality per se and our personal little windows on it – ‘our’ sexuality / homosexuality / bisexuality / heterosexuality – is not important, including in our relationship with God. But it’s important primarily in how it affects our ability to be open and respond to God’s love; to hear his call and follow it. If homosexuality is a sin, one of the most important ways in which it is so – and one of the ways, if I might use such language, the devil toys with us in relation to it – is precisely through our very agonising over it, which wraps us up in our own mental obsessions and emotional confusions, and crowds out that still, pure voice of God’s unerring love.

So in this, as in so many other areas of life, we’ve got it all upside down. The important thing – indeed, the only important thing – is always to come back to and go out from that centre of God’s love in our hearts; because that, and only that, will empower us to love others, and indeed love ourselves, as he loves them and us. And if we live in that love, then ‘our’ sexuality is truly of no matter.