FSG: Faith, Sexuality and Gender

On the margins of orthodoxy

Twenty years of struggle and twenty years of faith 10 August 2009

Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of the start of my journey in faith. On that day, a quite remarkable event – experienced as an immediate answer to prayer – gave me the gift of faith: instantly, like a light being switched on. It’s not my intention to tell that story here. Rather, I wish to write about the way in which my faith journey, right from its inception, has been intertwined with a struggle to understand and come to terms with my sexuality and gender identity. I’ve discussed these before in this blog: bisexual and androgynous (psychologically both male and female).

It would be wrong for the reader to suppose that, before becoming a Christian, I was not in conflict over my sexuality and wavering gender identity, and that becoming a Christian suddenly made all of that turn awkward and guilt-laden. Nor is it the case, simply, that my faith has healed internal divisions and guilt complexes I had about sexuality and gender prior to my faith awakening.

It is, however, true that it was the light of faith that first enabled me to shine a light of understanding, acceptance and love on myself as I really am, and as different from the person I had tried to be during the first, non-believing, part of my life. During those 26 years – well, at least since puberty – I had unquestioningly assumed I was straight; though not without the occasional momentary stirring of desire for those of my own sex (male), whether real persons glimpsed in the street or images in the media. As I explored and deepened my faith, and undertook what was literally referred to as a ‘Journey in Faith’ (a six-month course of instruction in the faith at my local Catholic Church), it soon became apparent to me that there were issues of sexuality and gender in myself that I needed to confront if my faith commitment as a would-be Catholic was going to be completely honest and whole-hearted: Catholic faith should not become a superstructure justifying me in continuing to deny my sexuality and gender identity, indeed reinforcing that repression.

For me, the dynamic that always seems to have been most creative is acceptance of particular truths about myself (e.g. bisexuality) coupled with a resolution in faith not to express my sexuality in a way that conflicts with the Church’s teaching. Indeed, even before my dramatic conversion experience, as I was earnestly seeking some way in which I could embrace and experience faith, I came to the conclusion that Christian faith might require me to be celibate – although I am not sure whether or how I linked up this thought to my sexuality, as I did not think of myself as bisexual or gay at that point, at least not consciously. Then, during the two months before I was due to be received into the Church at Easter, I experienced a remarkable period of growing in my life of prayer, devotion and understanding of the sacraments, in which I felt God was very close to me, accompanying me step by step, and providing numerous visible signs that he was guiding my thoughts, actions and enquiry. But this phase was initiated by my finally coming to the realisation that I was bisexual and, at the same time, resolving to be celibate.

Again, I am not quite sure why I made the equation: Christian faith + bisexuality = celibacy; as, if you are bisexual, the route of Christian marriage is still open to you. But as those two months progressed, I felt God was calling me not just to the Catholic Church but to priesthood, which of course requires celibacy whether the priest in question is straight or gay. It’s not the case – again, at least not consciously – that I had the idea of priesthood at the time that I made the resolution of celibacy. Indeed, the very idea of becoming a Catholic priest was completely alien to me at the start of February 1990: it had never occurred to me throughout my entire life, and certainly not even in the six months since my conversion experience. But by the time I was finally received into the Church, this had become almost a firm decision, which illustrates how far I travelled during those two amazing months.

Those of a secular, psychoanalytical disposition would doubtless argue that, in making my choice for celibacy and then embracing an institution that views such a resolution as a holy sacrifice for the service of Christ, I was indeed doing what I had determined not to do: taking flight from the uncomfortable truth of bisexuality into a superstructure that reinforced my denial of it. But such a description would simply not be true to the way I experienced things. There was much more of a unity about my inner transformation: a real, powerful encounter with the love of God that inspired me to want to dedicate my whole life and self to him, and which finally empowered me to accept my sexuality and mixed(-up) gender identity: faith commitment and acceptance, not rejection, of bisexuality and gender confusion inextricably linked with one another.

In any case, I did not eventually go on to put myself forward for the priesthood. Instead, shortly after my reception into the Church, I began an intense and loving relationship with a woman that has continued to this day. However, this relationship has also been unconventional: not sexual, in the biblical sense (or, practically, in any sense for much of the time), so that in effect I have remained ‘celibate’ for over 20 years, if not always chaste. I have also remained ‘faithful’ to my ‘partner’ for all of this time; meaning that I have not actively expressed the gay and transgender aspects of my personality, at least not with other people. Meanwhile, this freely embraced celibacy and sexual renunciation has given me the ‘freedom’ to continue my inner explorations both of faith and sexuality / gender, although my relationship has also at times created a painful and repressive context for both these journeys. My partner would prefer me to be straight and uncomplicated, in both areas. So, out of love for my partner, I have had to perpetuate an outward persona of being straight and unambiguously masculine, maintained in front of friends, family, church (but not in the confessional) and work colleagues. Similarly, through the joint effect of mistakes I made and traumatic experiences in my partner’s own earlier life, the combination of my ardent convert’s Catholicism and mixed-up psychosexuality became simply unbearable to her, and I’ve had to step back somewhat from my faith commitment, though not renounce it as a) I could not, and b) my partner is also a Christian.

So I’ve effectively become a ‘non-practising’ Catholic, in both senses of the word ‘practising’. But neither has my renunciation of active bisexuality and transgenderism been the consequence of a naïve embracing of a sexually repressive, homophobic Catholicism; nor has my abandonment (for now) of a priestly vocation and passionate life of Catholic devotion been the direct result of my own inner conflicts over sexuality and gender. Rather, I’ve continued to grow in both areas – faith and self-understanding – while actively pursuing neither of these sides of my life and personality as fully as I might have wished.

What lessons, if any, would I draw from my experience that might be of help to others? If anything, I would want to emphasise the distinction between self-love (coming to love oneself through the encounter with God’s love) and the secular obsession with self-expression and self-fulfilment. The fact that God loves us as we are (straight, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, or whatever) does not mean that we have to express those particular aspects of our personality in a narrow, active, physical way, as if anything other than doing so means that we have not fully embraced and accepted those characteristics. In fact, the opposite is true: if you feel you have to express your homosexuality, for instance in active gay relationships, in order to feel liberated from sexual repression and unhealthy self-denial, then you are actually still being driven by unacknowledged sexual guilt and by a compulsive surrender to your sex drive. That is not a path that of itself is conducive either of more authentic and deeper self-love and self-understanding, nor of growth in one’s ability to give and receive love, including to and from God. Sexual ‘liberation’ can be just as much of a dominating, life-limiting experience as sexual repression.

By contrast, the love of Christ, if it truly penetrates your heart, frees you to live by a greater principle than the secular imperative of self-realisation. This is love of self not for the sake of your self but for the sake of love: God’s love that extends equally and beyond measure to all persons and all creation, and in which you are called to go beyond yourself – no longer focused on selfish concerns but on God’s loving will to be realised through self-surrender to him and to love. In other words, self-love in the love of God frees you to live for that love without regard to self. If it is God’s love that has enabled you to accept yourself – as bisexual and androgynous, in my case – then there is no longer any need to act out those facets of your personality, and so be bound by them, to prove to yourself and others that they are acceptable and lovable, because you know that God loves you as you are and you are freed to love him in return.

So much for the theory; but in practice, things are always more difficult and less perfect, as my thwarted faith aspirations and at times frustrated emotional life demonstrate. The pull of sexuality, of ‘the flesh’, remains strong. But if, after succumbing to physical desires that are not of the love of God, you turn to Christ confident in his loving mercy, he will show you that he loves you none the less for your weaknesses – if not in fact more. And this is why I find Christian movements that try to ‘convert’ gay people ‘back’ into a straight orientation and lifestyle highly disturbing if not actually blasphemous. It is the very encounter with the love of God that helped me to see and love myself as bisexual and transgender. To turn away from that and deny it, supposedly in the name of Christ, would actually be to reject God’s gift of love, and the ability he has given me to love myself. But loving myself does not mean indulging myself and leading a life ‘orientated’ towards the fulfilment of every aspect of myself, including gay and transgender behaviour. True love, and the proof of authentic Christian living regardless of self (and this in fact means regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity), means renouncing oneself and dedicating oneself to God’s love and service for its and his own sake. Being overly wrapped up in trying to create a life and persona for oneself as ‘straight’ or as gay in fact implies more attachment to self: taking one’s attention away from God and on to self. Whereas I know that God loves me both as I am (flawed and bound to the flesh) and for what I am to become in him.

So my life is not without struggle and inner conflict. I’ve had twenty years of it. But I’ve also had twenty years of faith, by the grace of God. And long may I continue to struggle and to grow in that faith.