I’ve been rooting around on the internet for Christian resources aimed at helping transgender people and their parents. It’s a bit of wasteland. Most of the articles that you can find aren’t even intended to be helpful to someone who is dealing with this – the pastoral needs of trans people seem to get eclipsed by the political drive to defend marriage and sexual complementarity. What does exist tends either to vilify transfolk, or it oversimplifies the issues.
I think that there are several key misconceptions about transfolks that allow that largely negative response to be perpetuated. I’d like to briefly treat six of them here.
As I discussed in my last post, there are fine distinctions to be made between what is ordered and disordered, beyond simply what is sinful. In other words, in a fallen world, some things are not as God originally intended. Here I want to further discuss one important point.
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn has a famous quote that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” In a similar manner, the line dividing ordered and disordered cuts through the sexuality of every human being.
This applies to straight people just as much as it applies to sexual minorities. As I mentioned in the last post, I tend to see sexual attraction that a married person feels toward those other than his or her spouse as disordered. However, even for those who do not share that view, disorder is readily apparent from any traditional Christian perspective.
I remember where I was sitting. I was at the end of a long conference table, with students at my sides and my professor at the very end opposite me. We were taking a class on John Henry Newman, and as my professor read aloud from a thick black book containing Newman’s Apologia, his words hit me like a train:
I am obliged to mention, though I do it with great reluctance, another deep imagination, which at this time, the autumn of 1816, took possession of me – there can be no mistake about the fact… that it was the will of God that I should lead a single life. This anticipation, which has held its ground almost continuously ever since… was more or less connected, in my mind, with the notion that my calling in life would require such a sacrifice as celibacy involved; as, for instance, missionary work among the heathen, to which I had a great drawing for some years.
There it was. At the age of fifteen, a teenager heard a call and responded with his heart, “fiat”, let it be. And with the rush of realization, I saw with a new clarity that celibacy is not primarily about sex (or a lack thereof). It’s about love and freedom and courage. Newman’s choice came first, not from a question of sexuality, but from a unique mission to which he found himself called. Continue reading
A response to Katie Grimes’ response to Eve Tushnet.
You can learn a lot in nightclubs. One evening, I was out dancing with some friends at a local bar, when a man approached one of the women in our group. She turned to him, and they danced. Then he got a bit handsy. Then he got more handsy. Then she told him to back off.
This doesn’t always happen. Sometimes men will approach one of the women, and the two will dance for a bit, having pretty innocent fun at the moment, and then move on when the song is over. There are two kinds of men at nightclubs: men who want to have fun at the club, and men who want to “have fun” after. For the second group of men, every interaction is just one small step in a longer series of actions leading to the bedroom. They’re wholly incapable of enjoying a song or a dance, because they’ll always want something more.
In a sex-crazed culture, intimacy is rarely tied to a single moment. It’s simply a small part in a series of acts leading to sex. This is especially true for sex and porn addicts, who have trained their senses to desire one thing, to make every action a means to get that one thing. Continue reading
Recently, one of my friends on Facebook pointed me to an article on the Gospel Coalition blog about a man who experiences an intensely deep friendship with another guy. It really is beautiful. The author’s name is Chad Ashby, and in the article, he makes what I would consider to be a correct distinction between deep love between men and homosexual attraction. He says,
To love another man as your own soul (1 Sam. 18:1) is not homosexual love; it is the love of Christ. It is a true willingness to lay down your life for your brothers (1 John 3:16). We must build these kinds of relationships with one another: men who truly love other men.
As I read Ashby’s description of his friendship, I found my heart soaring. It is this type of deep relationship that I long for (and experience with a select few of my close friends). This “Spiritual Friendship”, it seems, is one of the many life-saving graces that God has given to me and many like me in order to successfully live a chaste life.
And yet, as I read the article, I also felt strangely alienated. Ashby makes it very clear that the type of love he is referring to is not homoerotic. But what about when this type of love is also accompanied by a homosexual orientation? What happens when I, as a Christian celibate gay man, experience this type of love, but right alongside of it experience erotic attraction as well? Would Ashby be so quick to tell me to pursue close, intimate friendships? Or would he tell me that it now becomes too dangerous? I’m not sure…
It sometimes feels like being the bridge between two angry worlds. And it’s heartbreaking – not because people are angry, but because people have such good reason to be angry.
I’ve recently had opportunities to meet men and women who have been incredibly hurt by members of the Church. Priests, Christian family members, and spiritual mentors and guides have hurt them physically, sexually, and emotionally. I’ve heard stories of physical and emotional abuse, rejection, and hatred at the hands of Christian leaders. I’ve looked into the pained faces of beautiful men and women and received words of anger about the Church and Her members. Continue reading
In the process of doing some research on George Herbert, I stumbled across a passage from Stanley Cavell’s essay on King Lear that I think is relevant to the themes I’ve been pursuing at here at SF. Discussing the character of the Earl of Gloucester, Cavell writes that
if the failure to recognize others is a failure to let others recognize you, a fear of what is revealed to them, an avoidance of their eyes, then it is exactly shame which is the cause of his withholding of recognition [of his bastard son Edmund]…. For shame is the specific discomfort produced by the sense of being looked at, the avoidance of the sight of others is the reflex it produces. Guilt is different; there is the reflex to avoid discovery. As long as no one knows what you have done, you are safe; or your conscience will press you to confess it and accept punishment. Under shame, what must be covered up is not your deed, but yourself. It is a more primitive emotion than guilt, as inescapable as the possession of a body, the first object of shame.
There’s much to ponder here, not least in relation to Lear itself, but I’m especially interested in the generic insight that the result of shame is an inability truly to see others, to offer others recognition. As Cavell puts it later, “recognizing a person depends upon allowing oneself to be recognized.”
This is one of the main reasons that I encourage gay Christians, when they ask me for advice, to come out. It’s not just that the enormous effort it takes to hide your sexuality involves an unhealthy self-focus, a constant policing of speech and actions, which can be profoundly crippling to your spiritual life (if my experience is any indication). It’s also that staying in the closet can cause you to refuse to recognize your gay or lesbian neighbors, all in an effort to stay hidden yourself.
A couple of days ago, Rowan Williams addressed the matter of weddings becoming ever more extravagant events:
Speaking at a debate entitled “Marriage: Love or Law” in London, the former Archbishop of Canterbury said that the “marketisation of marriage” must be curtailed.
He labelled the idea of “the perfect relationship crystallised in the perfect wedding day” as a farce, suggesting that it was nothing more than the product of “immense economic advertising investment in this massively fantastical experience … after which, of course, nothing is ever quite so good again”…
According to Lord Williams, who is now master of Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge, the way in which weddings have become hugely aspirational “experiences” as opposed to a simple public declaration of commitment is having a detrimental effect on the stability and longevity of marriages.
Reading this made me think of some similar remarks made a while ago by Duke Divinity School ethicist Amy Laura Hall:
The way that young Protestant couples plan their weddings bodes very ill for the kind of family they are hoping to become. You watch what a wedding is often about these days—it is about displaying one’s wealth to those one is eager to impress. If you think instead about the scriptural wedding itself, about being the open banquet that one hopes one’s marriage will be, I think weddings would look a lot different than they do. I think they would be on a Sunday morning service where everyone is invited. I think they would look more like a potluck than the kind of catered extravagances toward which even the middle class is climbing. I think the image of the banquet where the blind and the lame are invited, and those who cannot repay us, that image would be one in which to start a marriage.
God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’, the long-awaited first volume of Sarah Coakley’s theologie totale was finally published last month, and my copy has arrived. Coakley’s broad project is to find resources in the ascetic traditions of Christianity to help to deal with contemporary concerns about sex and gender. In her Prelude, she writes about the understanding of desire in contemporary culture and the theological tradition; I include some selections, which I hope will be of interest to our readers:
Last week I spoke at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. My talks were part of an ongoing series of Faith and Sexuality events they’re hosting, and it quickly became apparent that the campus is having a much deeper and more nuanced discussion of these matters than I’ve seen in similar places, which was encouraging. It was a wonderful visit. Here’s one student, Ryan Struyk, with his take on the kinds of conversations we had, and here’s the campus newspaper report on my talks.
Video recordings of the talks are also available at Calvin’s website. The first one was titled “Between Presumption and Despair: Practicing the Virtue of Hope as a Celibate Gay Christian,” and the second was called “Spiritual Friendship: A Gay Christian Perspective.” As always with this sort of thing, I immediately noticed some places where I wished I’d put things differently, and places where I wished I’d significantly expanded on what I was attempting to say. (It’s just really hard to talk about these themes in a way that acknowledges both unanswered questions and a certain confidence in Scripture and the Christian tradition, both personal and communal pain and joy, both ongoing tension and reliable grace. I am coming to believe that the book I’m working on will only be satisfying—to me, at least—if I can find a way to write well, to write hopefully but also unflinchingly, about all the hardships of friendship, including jealousy, betrayal, frustrated longing, etc.)