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.


The Meaning of Suffering 27 November 2008

Sounds a bit portentous, that title: it’s a bit like saying ‘the meaning of life’. Indeed, if you were able to understand the ‘meaning of suffering’, then you probably would be a long way down the road to discovering the meaning of life.

It’s a natural reaction to natural or man-made disasters – like yesterday’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India – to wonder and even despair at a supposedly loving God who could permit such things to happen; indeed, who could allow them to be perpetrated in his name. Why didn’t he and his angels step in to thwart the plans of the bombers and hi-jackers? Why didn’t he prevent there from being so many innocent people in the murderers’ firing line?

Might as well ask Christ to step down from his cross. As an all-powerful and all-loving God, you’d think he would be capable of doing so; but he chooses not to. Why?

Well, the beginning of an answer is indeed to be found in the Cross of Christ. God doesn’t just hang around while his human children suffer; he hangs there with them – on the cross – and suffers in their place. This is not an abstract concept: our suffering is Christ’s suffering. When we suffer, we are not sharing in Christ’s suffering and cross in a ‘merely’ symbolic and sacrificial sense (in that we might choose to offer up our suffering as a sharing in Christ’s suffering for the remission of humanity’s sins); but Christ truly suffers in us: our life, our suffering, our death are one. God therefore allows suffering to happen in that he suffers it – in both senses.

Why? Because he loves those who cause the suffering. Ultimately, that means all of us, as – through our sins – we bring suffering into the world both directly (by hurting others) and indirectly: through the tear in the sacred, living fabric of the created order of which our sins partake, like the tear in the veil of the temple at the time of Christ’s death. But, in a special way, Christ’s love appears concentrated upon those who least ‘deserve’ it from our all-too human perspective that mixes justice with revenge. Christ in the people mown down and blown up in Mumbai passionately loved those who were doing it, and offered the suffering and death of the victims for the forgiveness of the murderers’ sins even as they were committing them.

Why? Because only such an unfathomable, endless love has the chance to stir the hearts of the gravest sinners when at the appointed hour they might realise that God did not love the sin but loves the sinner, and allowed the sin to happen because he wanted to give the sinner that very chance to sense the love of God and turn in repentance towards it. Otherwise, the sinner – the beloved of God – might well be lost for ever, and not just in this life.

But what of the victims? Who could ever doubt that those beloved-of-God, and sharers in his passion, are not alive in him for ever more: their sins remitted? It is we who mourn them who must suffer; and we do so – if we do so in Christ – for those who caused us that pain. And in Christ, that suffering will be made good – for all.


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.


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.