FSG: Faith, Sexuality and Gender

On the margins of orthodoxy

Orientation 4 November 2008

I used to think I must be missing some vital part of a normal psychological make-up that would enable me to connect with people at both a deeper emotional level and at the day-to-day level of trivial social interchange. And maybe I do lack this faculty and facility to this day. At a profound level, I remain something of a loner, often preferring to be alone with myself and with God than to enjoy easy companionship and superficial conversation with my fellow men and women.

That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy company, fellowship and lively conversation, and that I wouldn’t find living on my own quite hard at times, if in fact I did so. However, if I think of my future life, and I imagine my current relationship at an end, the images are of myself alone somewhere – maybe England, where I live; Paris, which I love; or Brazil, which I dream about – living a quiet, contemplative life – or at least, returning to solitude from whatever vicissitudes and busi-ness life were to throw me into. Maybe I was born to be a hermit or a contemplative monk in an era when the path to such a life is strewn with obstacles and does not run straight.

Where did it come from, this yen for solitude? And in that solitude, what do I find? I link it back to the experiences of my childhood, when I retreated into my room in a converted loft at the top of our large house – finding solitary solace from an unhappy household: divorced, depressed mum; jealous and occasionally violent elder brother; sister too young and too different to share my woes and reflections.

From that time on, I found greater meaning and comfort in my own thoughts and fancies and company; whereas the world of relationships and family togetherness that should have moulded me seemed harsh, unrewarding and distant. I grew up not gaining my happiness from shared family triumphs and from feeling cherished in a warm, nurturing environment; but from the private ordering of my universe, and my skill and passion for things I couldn’t so easily share with those around me – such as learning numerous foreign languages, for which I indeed had a God-given talent but which also manifested my alienation from a common language of emotion shared with family.

Later on, my experiences of mystery and of the divine also had this character of being intensely personal, and difficult to share and relate to the level of interpersonal relationships and social responsibilities. During my adolescence, I underwent a period of intense openness to the beauty and mystery of the physical world, both man-made and natural. The sheer being and shape of things seemed strange, wonderful and astonishingly beautiful; although at times the objectification of the external world, from which I seemed to abstract all acquired personal and conventional meanings in the attempt to see them as they are in themselves, was in danger of alienating me from any stable sense of self-identity.

Until I encountered God, these experiences stayed with me as shining examples of the highest form of contemplative joy it was possible to attain. But then Christ had to go and top it with his ineffable love and the joy of his presence. And now my solitude is never really isolation and my contemplation finds its true object beyond the objects of my senses. Now I seek solitude not just as a refuge from a world that often seems reluctant to yield up its meaning and its purpose but to seek the company of the One I love.

But is this still an unhealthy flight from a reality with which I should if anything engage with greater determination and sense of purpose now that I’m armed with faith and the mission to bear witness? Am I not still being sollipsistic and even delusional in the joy that my quiet, unspoken dialogues with the Lord bring me?

Who knows? And what purpose may such strengthening, meaningful concourse yet bring me for the fights to come? All I know is that He has helped me, in every sense, to find my orientation, just as he provides direction for my faltering steps.

And where he leads, there will I follow.

 

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’.

 

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.

 

Vagaries Of the Human Heart 27 March 2008

Filed under: heart,honesty,love,openness,prayer,religion — John @ 2:11 am

I don’t know where that phrase came from. Was I thinking of ‘arteries of the human heart’, or ‘vagaries of human art’? Just being vague, perhaps.

The heart is a very unpredictable thing, partly because we spend so much of our lives out of touch with it; so that when it manifests itself, this can come as something of a surprise. I sometimes wonder whether my heart has grown a little colder as I’ve grown older. Which is not the same thing as being cold-hearted, as I seem over time to have become more susceptible not less to being moved to tears by dramas and traumas of one kind or another, including my own; and I’m highly sentimental about the children of family and friends my partner and I occasionally spend time with – not having children of our own.

But I feel there’s still a part of me that remains closed off to love: unloved and unloving. Not that I don’t know in my mind that there isn’t any part of me, good or bad, that isn’t infinitely loved by God, as he graciously lets me know in prayer. But still I hold on to, and hold in, some of the bad experiences from my past that continue then to have power over me and drive my actions in the present. I busy and bury myself in my work, which has always been something of a security blanket; although the evidence that this has been a path to material security or personal happiness is far from convincing.

But things are shifting. I was struggling this morning to pay attention to my work. My heart just wasn’t in it, as they say. So instead, I turned to prayer. Maybe the fact that my heart wasn’t in it was telling me something, is the answer I thought I got. Things have got to change. And they will change dramatically only when I open my heart fully to God – which will doubtless mean opening up fully, also, to those I haven’t been honest to for so many years.

Then, perhaps, my heart may not seem such a wasteland, or as the French say, a terrain vague.