FSG: Faith, Sexuality and Gender

On the margins of orthodoxy

Sexuality, Gender and Catholicism 27 December 2008

As a bisexual, transgender Catholic, I feel it incumbent upon me to comment on Pope Benedict’s recent remarks in which he is reported to have affirmed that homosexuality and transgenderism are at least as great a threat to the survival of humanity as climate change.

I have to admit that when I first heard the report about this statement on the radio, I thought it sounded like a very ill-advised thing to say, at the very least: bound to encourage homophobia, and violence towards gays and transgender people. And it’s true, those words will inevitably lead some miguided people to feel they have a sanction to be even more discriminatory and hostile towards GLBT people.

That’s partly because utterances on controversial subjects such as this get reported only in part and out of context. That was certainly the case with these remarks. When you look at the Pope’s words in greater detail, he’s not in fact saying that homosexuality and transgenderism per se are a threat to the survival of humanity. What he appears to be repudiating is the undermining of the distinction between male and female that is expressed in active homosexuality and transgender behaviour, and the intellectual justification that is given to such behaviour through gender theory. He is reported to have said that it is not “out-of-date metaphysics” to “speak of human nature as ‘man’ or woman'”; and that blurring this distinction could lead to the “self-destruction” of the human species.

This is a more complex and less judgemental point than some of the media reports appeared to suggest. I do actually agree that within the life of the Church – which is the model for the life of the whole world as transformed by the Holy Spirit – there are distinct roles for men and women. For instance, I believe that God confers authority in the Church on men, as expressed in sacramental priesthood and the authority of fathers in the family. I should stress, however, that this is an authority based on the service of God and of those over whom one holds authority; and it should not be – though often is – synonymous with authoritarian partriarchy. Similarly, women very often, but not always, have a vocation for more ‘maternal’, nurturing roles – whether motherhood itself, teaching, nursing / doctoring, etc.

However, these gender roles should not be interpreted in a narrow, exclusive way. E.g. because the Church, or much of it, believes that men have a leadership role and that women are suited to more caring, maternal roles, there should not be an automatic expectation that all men (biological gender) will be natural leaders (social gender, personality) or that all women will be natural mothers and care givers. Yes, one can insist on a fundamental distinction between male and female (although how does one deal with the real, empirically verified issue of intersex persons?); and one can legitimately expound a view of the Christian faith that promotes the exercise of certain roles on the part of each sex. But to assert that all men have to be (only) masculine as well as male, and all women should be feminine (only) as well as female, seems to me to ignore the rich and complex diversity of gender identity and roles that is simply an ordinary part of the make-up of human beings and societies.

I think there is a need for greater clarity and precision on the part of the Church in these matters. Pope Benedict is a highly intelligent man, and if he wishes to open up a debate about gender, and not merely about sexuality where the focus normally lies, then the Church’s position needs to be set out in a manner that does not appear to replicate the naive tendency to mistakenly equate gender with biological sex. Apart from anything else, much of the gender theory that the Pope’s statement seems to be castigating does not at all put in doubt the polarities of male and female, and masculine and feminine; on the contrary, these antinomies are integral to understanding and articulating a whole host of transgender and non-heterosexual personality and behaviour types.

And that includes my own: to abandon my self-understanding as bisexual and androgynous (part-female and part-male psychologically, and even neurologically – in terms of how my brain is wired) would be to abandon a hard- and long-fought struggle to come to terms with my inner complexities and contradictions in a way that has enabled me to remain true both to myself and to my faith.

One can be bisexual, transgender and a faithful Catholic. And if the Pope wants me to explain how, I’d be happy to enter into conversation with him.


Can One be Glad to be Bi? 28 March 2008

The bisexual pop musician and now BBC radio presenter Tom Robinson is famous for his campaigning on behalf of gay rights during the 1970s and 1980s, particularly through the anthem ‘Glad to be Gay’, written in 1976. Later, he fell in love with and married a woman, and is now a proud father. Writing of these experiences, and of the vilification to which he was subjected over his straight romance by an unholy alliance of the gay-hating tabloid press and many in the gay-rights movement, Tom states: “I called myself ‘gay’ because ‘bisexual’ seemed a bit of a cop-out”.

I’ve written previously about this tendency of the gay, and particularly the gay-rights, community to dismiss bisexuals as not having the courage of their convictions to simply admit that they’re gay and commit themselves to a more honest gay lifestyle. This may be less the case nowadays than before: ‘LGBT’ (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) is now the order of the day, and campaigns for the rights of the sexually marginalised now seek to be inclusive of the ‘cross-overs’ – the bi’s and the gender-queer.

But is there not still something of an issue about bisexuality, and about the transgendered (but I aim to come on to that subject in subsequent posts)? Bisexuality is not generally celebrated or affirmed as vocally and positively as gayness; and there are very few bisexual role models (despite the substantial Wikipedia list of bisexual musicians linked to above) for young people struggling to come to terms with mixed sexual feelings – arguably more difficult and confusing than less ambiguous gay desire. Indeed, when I went to university, I remember reading in what was somewhat coyly described as the ‘little blue book’ we were all supplied with (a mini-guide to sex, relationships and contraception) that indeed bisexuals often took much longer to come to terms with their sexuality and frequently found it less easy to establish happy sexual relationships as a result.

The years that followed provided ample illustration of the truth of this statement with respect to my own life, even though (or rather, precisely because) I was not able to be fully aware and accepting of my ambiguous sexual orientation until the age of 26! Until then, I’d thought I was straight. Existentially and experientially – in terms of the way I behaved, and responded sexually to women and men – I was straight to all intents and purposes; and I attributed the occasional and increasingly frequent momentary twinges of desire for other men to the Freudian concept of fundamental bisexuality: our latent potential to experience attraction for either sex, which in most cases is never realised (in both senses) because we find a way to adapt to social expectations of heterosexuality.

After I came to realise that my homosexual side represented not just an occasional erratic eruption of this latent universal bisexuality through the protective shell of the largely resilient straight personality I had constructed for myself, but corresponded to more deep-seated emotional needs and character traits, I then spent many more years attempting to work it all out – perpetually vacillating between thinking I was fully gay (and that my recurring heterosexual impulses reflected the continuing strength of the wish to suppress my homosexuality that had led me to believe I was straight in the first place), bisexual, or even in fact straight (when that continuing wish to not embrace my homosexual side really did make it difficult for me to open up to gay desire).

It’s only in fact in the last two or three years that I’ve finally come to fully accept my bisexuality; and this process has coincided with my being to resolve (largely) my inner conflicts regarding my mixed gender identity (both male and female); and between this bisexuality and transgenderism, and my Christian faith. It had in fact been my coming to faith at the age of 26 that had enabled me to accept my mixed sexuality in the first place: the love of God enabling me to love myself, perhaps for the first time, as I truly am. Given that this sexual self-revelation was one of the consequences of my encounter with divine revelation, one might think that I could have spared myself the agony of the years that followed: the sheer power and wonder of God’s love that I experienced at this time should have given me the trust that there was nothing I could do that could make God reject me, and that I would only lose his love if I deliberately and systematically turned my back on him. And yet, life and relationships do not always readily follow the blueprint that one might think was set out for them, and it’s taken me much, much longer to reach a point of relatively serene self-acceptance than it could have done, perhaps, if I were a more trusting person.

Perhaps it’s just middle age! Too late, now, to hurl myself into a life of bisexual promiscuity which, for all my avowed religiosity, never failed to fill my fantasies in the years since my conversion? Perhaps, for faith and for sin, it’s never too late! But it’s beginning to get late for me; and I’ve work to do, including God’s work. When I wanted to, I wasn’t sorted enough to do it; now I’m sorted, I’m setting my sights on his purposes. Perhaps my years of agonising were a sign of God’s mysterious Providence all along.


Bisexuality: The Desire Of the Other 27 March 2008

Of course, another reason why bisexuality makes people feel uncomfortable (following on from my previous blog entry) is that it calls into question their own sexual orientation – more than homosexuality presents a challenge to heterosexuals, and vice-versa. This is because it confronts people with the idea that sexuality does not consist of polar opposites but is more of a continuum, and moreover one which people can move along at different stages in their life, or from one relationship to the next. This means that their own straight or gay orientation might not be as stable or unambiguous as they would like to think.

The idea of a continuum of sexuality is not new. All the same, my experience has been that straight or gay people will often accept the idea in principle but then always feel the need to specify that they’ve never felt an attraction to anyone of the same or opposite sex respectively! I’m not sure I believe them, but then again, I would say that, wouldn’t I? It all depends what you mean by ‘attraction’, I suppose. Attraction can take place at many different levels, including those of consciousness and the unconscious. Equally, while not all attraction is sexual – in the sense of seeking some form of physical sexual release – it always involves some element of desire.

The disconnect between desire and the physical sexual urge or need (bound up with reproduction) has been well explored by psychoanalysts of the school of Lacan and critical theorists of various hues. And this disconnect can involve a separation and re-combination of the psychological and physical ‘objects’ of desire. For example, a man such as myself can be attracted to other men who combine psychological (personality) and even physical characteristics that I think of as feminine with physical features that I recognise ‘objectively’ as male and masculine. You could call this homosexual desire; but you could also say that the desire as such – the psychological component, at least – is dependent on the object being ‘like a woman’, and that therefore it is also heterosexual. And if homosexuality can be (a little) heterosexual, cannot apparently ordinary heterosexuality not also have a tinge of homosexuality about it? For instance, the need that some men have for women to be exaggeratedly, indeed artificially, feminine (concealing, perhaps, a hidden dread or excitement at the idea that women may be more like men than heterosexual convention accepts)? Or the definite attraction of some men for women with pronounced ‘masculine’ traits of character or physique?

Other-sex and same-sex attraction possibly always expresses the paradox that the other is fantasised as the embodiment of ‘my other’: the other part of myself that is beyond my conscious self-image as a man or woman, as gay or straight – my other half; the one I desire because I do not yet fully possess him or her. Do we perhaps always in this way love in the other an Other self?

We never recapture this unity of the self and the other in this life; our desire is never satisfied; attraction can always surprise us and draw us out. But in Christ I know an Other who both knows me, loves me and is me more deeply, fully and truly than I know and love and am myself. And in him, my desire finds its end.

(Originally posted on http://btcp.wordpress.com on 18 July 2007.)


Gay and Sorted

Neither of which could really be said of me: I’m not really gay nor am I really ’sorted’ (safely categorised and content with what I’ve got) in relation to my sexual and emotional life. Can a gay Christian ever be truly sorted in this sense: content to identify as gay and leading a life in which they are content about the way they express their sexuality, whether through sexual acts and relationships, or not?

There are many Christians, gay or otherwise, who will answer this question in the affirmative. Equally, there are many who will deny there can ever be a happy ‘accommodation’ of, and with, gayness in the heart of a Christian. Indeed, as is well known, there are many Christians who continue to regard homosexuality as a sickness and a devilish evil that can and should be cured or exorcised.

But what would they make of me: a bisexual Christian? (Let’s leave the transgender thing aside for a minute; that’ll get really confusing!) Bisexuals are not very popular people, in either the straight or gay, Christian or secular-liberal communities. We fly in the face – not literally – of the dualistic categories according to which people like to judge whether someone is on the right or the wrong side of the argument, of the law, of rationality, of morality, of sexuality or of truth.

Straight people, especially potential partners, don’t trust us because they think that our predilection to play on both sides makes us more likely to stray. Gays and secular liberals think that we’re really gays who aren’t honest enough to finally admit it and commit ourselves to a gay lifestyle; and liberals think we should do that, too, almost as an ideological badge of distinction. And certain Christians tend to judge us as self-indulgent and think that we’re really straight people who should sort out our priorities and take up our responsibilities to ourselves and society.

Not easy to be sorted and bisexual. Even more so, perhaps, than to be Christian, gay and sorted. There’s no single prescription or fail-safe way to live out a life in that polarity-defying duality of gay and Christian, let alone the dual duality of bisexual and Christian. Each man or woman who finds themself in this situation must find their own way, the way set out for them, to follow in the footsteps of Christ. I like to think that my own steps are increasingly in sync with Our Lord’s, even if I’m far from sorted.

And they’re not leading me to deny who I am or what I am. Bisexual, gay, yes even transgender – he’ll sort me out in the end.

(Originally posted on http://btcp.wordpress.com on 14 July 2007.)