For trans children, at just how young an age is it appropriate to begin the transitioning process?
That’s just one of the questions raised by this thought-provoking story from the Boston Globe, on Nicole and her family. (The implied answer would seem to be, to prepare the way early, but delay anything permanent (and that includes delaying “natural” processes, like the onset of puberty) until the decision to transition is definite and irrevocable.
Jonas and Wyatt Maines were born identical twins, but from the start each had a distinct personality.
Jonas was all boy. He loved Spiderman, action figures, pirates, and swords.
Wyatt favored pink tutus and beads. At 4, he insisted on a Barbie birthday cake and had a thing for mermaids. On Halloween, Jonas was Buzz Lightyear. Wyatt wanted to be a princess; his mother compromised on a prince costume.
Once, when Wyatt appeared in a sequin shirt and his mother’s heels, his father said: “You don’t want to wear that.’’
“Yes, I do,’’ Wyatt replied.
“Dad, you might as well face it,’’ Wayne recalls Jonas saying. “You have a son and a daughter.’’
The article also highlights the importance of a supportive family and school community – and Nicole’s own mental strength. There came a point in her journey when the family became involved in political lobbying. She had encountered difficulties at school over usage of the girls’ bathroom, and filed court proceedings against the school district for discrimination. A Republican state legislator then introduced legislation that would have repealed Maine’s protection for transgender people in public restroom.
Last spring Wayne and Nicole roamed the halls of the State House, button-holing legislators and testifying against the bill. “I’d be in more danger if I went into the boys bathroom,’’ Nicole told the lawmakers, who ultimately rejected the bill.
“She knows how to work a room,’’ her father says proudly. “She even convinced a cosponsor to vote the other way.’’
Nicole freely acknowledges the difficulties ahead – but described the political engagement as a “perk”:
“Obviously my life is not going to be as easy as being gender-conforming, but there are perks like being able to get out there and do things that will benefit the [transgender] community,’’ she says. “I think everything’s going to turn out pretty well for me.’’
As an aside to gthe main themes, I was amused by the self-description of Nicole’s father (note the emphasis I added):
“As a conventional dad, hunter, and former Republican, it took me longer to understand that I never had two sons,’’ he told them. “My children taught me who Nicole is and who she needed to be.’’
For years, the major focus of controversy in the Church of England has been over the appointment of women bishops. That debate has now been all but settled (even the opponents agree that change is inevitable). Issues around full LGBT inclusion in church will now move to centre stage.
One sign of this is a bishop who has spoken out publicly in favour of gay marriage:
The new Bishop of Salisbury, The Rt Revd Nick Holtam, has spoken out in support of gay marriage.
Bishop Holtam made the comments in an interview with the Times today ahead of the meeting of the General Synod next week, where civil partnerships in churches and equal marriage are to be discussed.
He said: “We are living in a different society. If there’s a gay couple in The Archers, if there’s that form of public recognition in popular soaps, we are dealing with something which has got common currency. All of us have friends, families, relatives, neighbours who are, or who know someone, in same-sex partnerships.”
He said he was “no longer convinced” marriage should be between a man and a woman.
He continued: “I think same-sex couples that I know who have formed a partnership have in many respects a relationship which is similar to a marriage and which I now think of as marriage.
He is not alone. The Times interview, in which he was speaking about full marriage, followed an earlier report that over 100 Anglican clergy from the diocese of London have signed a petition asking that the synod next week agree to allow local discretion on conducting civil partnership ceremonies on church. The background is that parliament last year changed the civil partnership legislation, which previously prohibited these from being conducted on religious premises, to permit such premises where church authorities give explicit approval. Up to now, the public stance of the Church of England has been that permission will not be granted. Next week’s synod will show that there is significant opposition to that stance.
A letter signed by 120 clergy is calling for the Church of England to reverse its ban on civil partnership ceremonies being held in churches.
The signatories, from the diocese of London, want discretion to uphold loving homosexual relationships.
It is the first sign of significant resistance within the Church to its refusal to permit civil partnership ceremonies in Anglican churches.
The law has allowed them in English and Welsh places of worship since December.
In their letter to the London diocese representatives on the General Synod, the signatories stopped short of calling for same-sex marriage.
However, they said they should be given the same discretion in deciding whether to hold civil partnerships in church as they currently have in deciding whether to remarry divorced people.
One of the signatories said they were dismayed at having to deny “the Church’s fullest ministry” to increasing numbers of gay couples with loving relationships, said BBC religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott.
The public dissent over gay marriage / civil partnerships is part of a much wider ferment in the Church around matters of sexuality, including that of openly gay clergy, and the very fundamental matter of homoerotic relationships themselves.
Recent reports that Jeffrey Johns is considering legal action against the church over its twice passing him over for promotion to a bishopric, solely on grounds of his orientation, has highlighted glaring hypocrisy in the church. Technically, the regulations that the church may ordain priests who are openly gay or lesbian, provided that they are celibate. It is widely recognized that this is a mere fig – leaf: what goes one in one’s bedroom is private. What is really required is not that priests should be celibate, just that they should declare that they are. In other words, lie. (There is also a blatant double standard here. Unmarried heterosexual candidates are not asked to declare that they are celibate, or facing the degree of intrusive question on past behaviour that lesbian and gay candidates are subjected to).
Once ordained, further gay priests have further barriers placed in the way of promotion, as the case of Dr Johns has shown. Although partnered, he has declared that the relationship is celibate, and so complies with the regulations for gay priests. Denying him further promotion puts him in exactly the same position that female priests have been in, up to now. Ordination to the priesthood and promotion to the rank of dean is permitted, but no further. This is blatant discrimination, which diocesan votes on women bishops last year showed is no longer acceptable. The church also has to take account of secular legislation, and growing public pressure for honesty.
Hardly anybody believes that the many unmarried Anglican priests, or even the existing bishops, really are celibate. The Pink News report on Bishop Holtam’s support for gay marriage makes a further important point. Writing about John’s cancelled promotion to Bishop of Southwark, it notes
The 58-year-old, was forced to give up his appointment as Bishop of Reading in 2003 due to his relationship with another priest and was blocked from the post Bishop of Southwark in 2010, a position Bishop Holtam was also considered for. It is now held by The Rt Revd Christopher Chessun.
A memo leaked by Colin Slee, the late Dean of Southwark Cathedral made the claim that there were already several gay bishops who had “been less than candid about their domestic arrangements and who, in a conspiracy of silence, have been appointed to senior positions”.
It added: “This situation cannot endure. Exposure of the reality would be nuclear.”
The extraordinary thing is that this memo was not an appeal for openness and honesty in the appointment of gay bishops, or an attempt to bar them completely, but an attempt to ensure that they simply remain more or less closeted, and removed from the public eye. Pressures for greater honesty and consistency will grow. Already, there are ongoing discussions and investigations by church commissions, passing under the radar for now. Once the issue of women bishops has been resolved, public and synodal debates over LGBT clergy will begin in earnest.
In the background and informing these discussions, and those on marriage and civil partnerships, will be another set of formal investigations. The church has recently appointed Two Groups to Advise on Sexuality . Previously, a 1979 report Homosexual Relationships: A contribution to discussion, was published, but was considered by some to be too liberal. Subsequently, a working group set up in 1986 prepared a fresh report (the “Osborne Report“), which drew on the direct testimony of gay and lesbian Anglicans themselves.
The Osborne report was an advisory document for bishops, and it reminded them that they had an important part to play both in affirming “the catholicity and inclusiveness of the Church”, and “in helping the Church live with unresolved issues”.
Crucially, and ironically — in the light of events that would unfold a decade-and-a-half later — the group reminded the Bishops that “The way to resolve the conflict and tensions between groups is not by the exclusion of one or more minority groups. We have been very conscious of the poor experience of the Church encountered by many homosexual people. . . The Bishops, as the chief pastors of the Church, have a particular responsibility to set a tone of welcome and acceptance in these matters.”
However, when the controversial report was leaked and met with fierce resistance in conservative quarters, the bishops responded with a much more cautious booklet, “Issues in Human Sexuality”, which was intended only as a discussion document, but came to be seen as the Church of England’s definitive statement on homosexuality. Its distinction between laity and clergy was considered of particular significance.
The new groups will update the Osborne report, and should lead to a fresh statement by the bishops. I would not presume to anticipate the commission’s findings, but its fair to expect that a quarter of a century after the Osborne commission, with the outpouring of queer affirmative biblical scholarship and theology that has followed it, and the increasing visibility and acceptance of openly queer clergy and bishop in many denominations and different geographic regions, the findings will be even substantially supportive than those of the Osborne Report.
The new commission will also have to consider one factor which simply did not exist in 1986. The politicians have promised that by 2015 at the latest, and probably by 2013 in Scotland, full gender neutral equality will apply to civil marriage. Church commissioners will have to consider the implications for religious marriages, including the partnership positions of their own priests. (When equality came to New York last June, some Episcopal bishops wrote to their priests requiring that those in same-sex partnerships should marry).
We cannot be sure of timing, but of three things I am certain:
Continuing study and discussion of sexuality in the Church of England will lead to an acknowledgement, at the very least, that there is room for disagreement on the validity of homoerotic relationships.
The church will face up to the dishonesty of the current practice of DADT, and the discrimination faced by its LGBT clergy. The current barriers will go, just as they have done in several other denominations, and other provinces of the Anglican communion.
Civil partnerships in church, and later full weddings, will come (initially perhaps in selected dioceses only), just as they already take place in some Episcopal dioceses.
The ferment in the Anglican Church is part of a much broader process at work in all Christian denominations in all regions of the world, as well as non-Christian faiths (even touching Islam). In the middle of the twentieth century, we were totally invisible in church. The sixty years since have already seen extraordinary change, and much more is to come. Thinking specifically of the Catholic Church, John McNeill has written repeatedly of the work of the Holy Spirit, creating a Kairos moment for LGBT Catholics (and other Christians). There’s a verse for it, in Scripture:
Behold, says the Lord. I am doing a new thing. Can you not see it? (Is 4:19)
This transformation over sixty years of Christian responses to homoeroticism is a subject that I will be discussing in an address to the Quest annual conference in September this year, under the title “Blessed are the Queer in Faith, for they shall inherit the Church“. I shall be returning to the theme here, repeatedly, over the next few months.
One thing I have learned, beyond any room for doubt in my own mind, is that biological sex, gender identity and sexual orientation (in terms of attracted – to – male, or attracted – to – female) do not co-incide. Nor is any of them a simple binary division. Most people are to some degree bisexual in orientation – although most suppress one or other side of their preference, choosing to date exclusively men or women. We all have both a masculine and a feminine side, but encouraged by social pressures, many people choose not to express that part of themselves which is contrary to their biological sex. And contrary to popular belief, even biological sex is not a simple matter of either’/or male or female. A significant proportion of people are biologically one of a range of intersex variations, and may not even be aware of it, without specific medical testing.
It is often assumed, quite incorrectly, that the disputes over marriage equality are between those standing up for religious belief (especially Christian belief), and secularists on the side of human rights. The fallacy of this assumption is neatly illustrated by the graphic below, in a post at the Public Religion Research Institute, drawing on a comprehensive analysis of data from the Pew Research Institute. This clearly shows that the disagreement is not between religion and human rights, but between the different shades of religious affiliation. Two of the three groups with the strongest support for equality are from religious groups – but not Christian religion (Jews, and other non-Christian faith groups).
Even within the Christian faith, there is clear division between denominations. White and Hispanic Catholics, and White Mainline Protestants, all show clear majority support for equality. (The research does not break out Black Catholics):
White Catholics: 56% in favour, 39% opposed
Hispanic Catholics: 53% in favour, 37% opposed
White Mainline Protestants: 52% in favour, 40% opposed
The arguments from “religious freedom” against legal recognition for all marriages must surely also take into account the freedom of those people of faith that support same – sex marriage, both in other faith groups, and within their own denominations. (In
Of the groups broken out for analysis, only Black Protestants, Mormons and Evangelicals are opposed – but, it must be said, very strongly.
In 2011, majorities of most religious groups favored allowing gay and lesbian couple to marry legally, illustrating that the old narrative of battle lines between secular supporters and religious opponents no longer serves as an accurate characterization of the landscape of the same-sex marriage debate. In the general population, 2011 was also the first year on record in which supporting same-sex marriage was not a minority position. In May, several surveys (all asking slightly different versions of the same question) found that a majority of the public supported allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry. PRRI’s May survey found that 51% of Americans were in favor, and 43% were opposed.
This strength of feeling from the opponents, and the rather milder feelings of supporters, must be assessed together with the evidence from several sources that opposition is dropping in degree, as well as in extent, while supporters are growing in both numbers and intensity of feeling.
The striking contrast between the views of younger people, including younger Evangelicals, and their older co-religionists shows clearly that this shift within the churches towards more widespread, and more intense, support for marriage equality will surely continue to grow:
There are large generational differences between Millennials (age 18-29) and older Americans on the issue of same-sex marriage. Sixty-four percent of Millennials favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, a rate that is more than 20 points higher than among those ages 30 and above (42%). This generational gap persists within every religious group, including more conservative religious groups. For example, 66% of Catholic Millennials favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, 15 points higher than Catholics ages 30 and above (51%). Even among white evangelical Protestants—the group most opposed to same-sex marriage—nearly 4-in-10 (39%) white evangelical Protestant Millennials favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally, a rate that is more than 20 points higher than that of white evangelicals ages 30 and older (18%).
You’d never guess it if your only knowledge of the churches and homosexuality came from Focus on the Family, NOM or California Catholic Daily in the US, or from Christian Voice or the rule-book Catholic blogs in the UK, or from breakaway groups in the Anglican communion worldwide, but we are in the midst of a dramatic, wholesale transformation of the Christian churches’ response to homoerotic relationships. This is clearly leading in the direction of full inclusion in church for queer Christians, and for evaluating couple relationships and their recognition in church on a basis of full equality. This is bound to lead in time to profound improvements in the political battles for full equality, and in the mental health of the LGBT Christian community.
These are bold statements. Am I mistaken? Am I deluding myself? It is of course possible that this is a case of wishful thinking, that I am misreading or exaggerating the evidence. It’s possible – but I don’t think so. The evidence is compelling, if not yet widely noted. To substantiate my argument, I want to present the facts, and their implications, in some detail. As there is too much for a single post, I begin today with just a summary, as heads of argument. I will expand on the main sections in later posts, which I have in preparation.
(For now, I have made no attempt to supply detailed substantiation or links – these will follow, as I expand later on each specific theme).
Looking Back, Looking Ahead
I have been thinking about this transformation for some time, but what really convinced me that this is a major, irreversible development was a result of an invitation I received to lead a session of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement’s 35th Anniversary Conference. The theme for conference is “Looking back, looking forward”. I will be giving a Catholic perspective on the last 35 years – and the next.
It’s looking at those next 35 years that is challenging. I don’t want to base my thoughts on guesswork, or on simple extrapolation, “if present trends continue“. The one thing we know about present trends, in almost any context, is that they never do continue. Feedback effects can either offset or exaggerate them. In reflecting on what could lie ahead, I considered only the changes that have already happened, the effects of these – and the very limited changes that we know for certain will happen over the next 35 years or so. I did this initially for the Catholic Church specifically, and then realised that the method applies equally to the broader Christian churches as a whole. I begin by considering this broader church first.
The Past 35/ 40 years
“Out and Proud” Gay Visibility, Queer Families
The years since Stonewall have seen the rapid emergence of openly gay or lesbian, visible public role models far removed from the stereotypes of earlier years. This has included the emergence of well known same sex couples and queer families, in the news, on our screens, and in our neighbourhoods. This has become increasingly visible over the years, and is now being given legal recognition in the movements for approval of marriage and family equality. The important consequence is that young people today have been raised, and are being raised, in environments where homoerotic relationships are seen to be entirely natural, and every bit as stable (or otherwise) than any other. Many youngsters are seeing this at first hand, in their friends and relations with two moms or two dads (just as others have single parents) – and are unfazed by it. Research evidence shows that young people are far more accepting of LGBT equality than their elders – and this applies within the churches, including even the evangelical churches, as well as in the general population.
Reevaluation of Scripture
Until recently, it was widely accepted that the Bible clearly opposed homosexuality, an assumption that underpinned the automatic denunciation of same sex relationships by most Christian denominations. Over the last thirty years, that has changed dramatically, with a substantial proportion – perhaps the majority – of modern Scripture scholars now agreeing that the evidence from Scripture is at best unclear, and that the traditional interpretations may be flawed by mistranslations or misinterpretations. Conversely, there has been fresh attention paid by some scholars to the specifically gay-friendly and affirming passages that have previously been neglected.
This re-evaluation began as the preserve of academics and specialists (like the growing number of openly gay or lesbian theologians), but is now starting to reach a popular audience as well.
Ordination of Queer Clergy
The re-evaluation of Scripture has underpinned the most dramatic manifestation of the transformation – the accelerating moves to accept for ordination as pastors or even as bishops men and women in public, committed and loving same sex relationships.
Traditionally, the churches could not countenance openly gay clergy, but in the days before Stonewall, when people in any case hid their sexuality, all that this meant was that gay priests and pastors where deeply closeted (just like their lay counterparts). That changed after Stonewall, as some men recognized that in honesty, they could not serve and remain closeted. Initially, the response of the churches was to refuse ordination to candidates who were known to be gay, and in some high profile cases, to remove from ministry priests and pastors who had already been ordained.
This has changed remarkably quickly. Today, almost all Mainline Protestant churches in the US, and the leading European Protestant churches, either ordain openly gay and lesbian pastors, or are seriously considering the possibility. The most recent example is that of 33 retired bishops of the United Methodist Church, who have signed a public statement calling for the full acceptance of ordination for openly gay or lesbian pastors in loving, committed relationships. 33 retired bishops urge end to gay clergy ban. Take careful note – these are retired bishops, not young hotheads, but the elder statesmen (and women) of the UMC. In parallel with this, the Presbyterian Church of the USA is at present well on its way to ratification of last year’s General Assembly resolution to formulate rules for ordination that did not discriminate against gay or lesbian candidates. (In Europe, it’s a dead issue: pastors of all sexual orientations are generally accepted).
Inclusion also applies at the highest levels of the clergy. There are now three openly gay and partnered bishops in the Episcopal and Lutheran churches, while others have been nominated, but not ultimately successful.
Gay weddings, in church.
Resolutions to approve ordination of queer clergy have often gone hand in hand with attempts to secure approval for church weddings, or blessing of same sex couples. These have been less successful so far, but I would think this is only temporary. The recognition of partnered gay or lesbian clergy is always qualified by the expectation that theses relationships be committed, faithful and publicly accountable, just as heterosexual pastors are by virtue of their church marriages. The simplest way to make gay partnerships accountable in the same way, is to provide the same structure – a wedding in church.
This is already being done in some churches and localities, but we should certainly expect the practice to spread, especially with more openly gay pastors ordained, and as civil marriage becomes more widely available for queer clergy.
These are the key developments affecting the LGBT community and the church over the past 35 -40 years. Looking ahead, I submit that there are only two things we can say with certainty: the past will have consequences that will affect the future; and there will be generational change. Let’s take these in reverse order.
Whatever else may happen over the next 35 or 40 years, the one thing we know with absolute certainty, is that everyone will get older. Benedict XVI will no longer be the Catholic pope, the Roman Curia will have a new set of faces. In the Protestant denominations, the present leaders will also have moved on, either to retirement, or to whatever awaits them in the afterlife. They too will have been replaced,
Who will these new faces be? Generally speaking, they will be the young men (and women) who are presently in training for ministry, who have been recently ordained, or who may even be still in high school. This the generation which is well known to reject the notion that homosexuality is a moral issue, and who are most enthusiastically supportive of gay clergy, gay marriage, and full LGBT inclusion in church.
Contrast them with the present generation of church leaders, who received their own formation for ministry at a time when it was regarded as axiomatic that homosexual acts were necessarily sinful, when the Biblical texts of terror were quoted without question, and when the notion of same sex marriage in church was simply unthinkable.
Can there really be any serious doubt that a future church led by today’s young adults will view homoerotic relationships very differently to that of the present?
The Speed of Change Thus Far
So, let us accept (provisionally) that profound change is on its way. How long will it tale? The generational analysis above suggests that it might not take too long at all – no more than the 35 years framework I adopted, somewhat arbitrarily. This becomes even more plausible when we consider the speed of change up to now, in respect of the spread of civil gay marriage, and of approval for LBGT pastors.
Personal homophobia and prejudice will linger – but institutional discrimination in all forms, whether by church or state, will disappear quite rapidly, exactly as institutional racism disappeared quite quickly in the civil rights era in the US, or following the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa.
Some Thoughts on the Catholic Church
Broadly speaking, much of the above also applies to the Catholic Church, especially the implications of generational change, and the fresh examinations of scripture, but there are also some unique considerations as well. Some of these will mitigate against the underlying trend to change, some will complement it.
Hierarchical control, and the expectation of obedience would superficially point to the resistance of change – but this expectation is itself becoming rejected.
Humanae Vitae and its fierce rejection of artificial contraception has never been widely accepted by the Church as a whole. The resulting recognition that it is permissible to disagree in good conscience with official doctrine on this single issue, has leant support to others who disagree in conscience on others – like choice/ abortion, and on homosexuality.
The impact of Vatican II. Although it might appear that the Curia has successfully rolled back the conciliar reforms, sometimes there are effects that take time to become apparent. One of these is what Sr Joan Chittister called the “Ticking Time Bomb” of lay involvement. Another is the dramatic decline in priest numbers since VII,
Another ticking time bomb is the remarkable rise of lay theologians. Not that long ago, the formal study of moral theology was something done by priests, for other priests, based on the writings of theologians from many centuries ago, with little input from social sciences, or from people with real life sexual experience. That is no longer the case. Even religious sisters were routinely excluded from theology studies, beyond what they might need to teach school level catechism. The rest of us were simply expected to accept the moral rules as handed down to us from on high.
That has changed dramatically. Theology is now widely studied, to the extent that the majority of theologians today are not priests. Some are religious sisters, others are married men and women – or even openly gay or lesbian. Add to the generational process described earlier, that Catholic priests now in training are in some cases being taught their theology by lay people, and we see that the generational shift for Catholic clergy could conceivably be even greater for Catholic clergy than for others.
Finally, the sexual abuse crisis has clearly shaken the church to its foundations. The ultimate effects can not yet be clearly seen, but already it is obvious that one result is a greatly increased resistance by lay people to automatic assumptions about authority and obedience, and a corresponding willingness in some quarters to engage in open defiance – as in the womenpriests movement. Inside the institutional church, there are at least some promising signs of an increased willingness to take seriously the concept of the listening church.
Change is clearly on the way – quite possibly, rapid change, across all or most major denominations. It will not be long before openly LGBT clergy, including bishops and other leaders, will be commonplace, in most denominations if not yet in all. There will be church weddings for same sex couples, including the weddings of clergy and their spouses.
With the increasing visibility of partnered gay clergy and bishops, it will become difficult. Even impossible for the arguments that our relationships are necessarily sinful to be taken seriously.
I now believe that under the impact of generational change, this transformation will be rapid – probably with in a generation or two. To those who find this unduly optimistic, I would point to the corresponding death of overt racism, which equally moved from something commonly expressed, and even justified in pseudo religious arguments, to a private weakness, which it is now unacceptable to express in public.
(Note: I am fully conscious that the above analysis applies primarily to the countries of Europe and the Americas, especially North America. I have omitted Africa and Asia where special circumstances apply. But do not believe that including them would seriously affect the main conclusions – except in the matter of timing).
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
– Galatians 3:28
In the context of religion, Christians should be familiar with the quotation from Galatians (even if some, such as in the Catholic Church, are unwilling to take the words literally, and apply them to ordination). From the world of science though, it is becoming clear that there is a truth in the words that goes way beyond a theological concept, and is instead, a substantial measure of quite literal truth. It may well be that there really is “neither male nor female”, at least not in the absolute binary sense that modern Western culture assumes. This has major implications for Christian sexual and gender theology.”
Judith Butler’s “Gender Trouble” was a seminal work in the early development of feminism and queer theory, and later of queer theology. Butler’s central achievement was to demonstrate the fluidity of gender, which she described as “performance”. The fluidity of gender however, also extends to biology. Far from a simple binary world composed of biological males and females, with perhaps a smattering of people with indeterminate gender (once described as hermaphrodites), modern science has shown that there are a far greater range of conditions that may be loosely described as “intersex” than previously realized – and that there are a surprising number of these people, some of whom will not even know of their true sex until they meet a need for some kind of medical testing (as with the case of the South African athlete Caster Semenya, who had no idea she was not fully female until she won a medal at the Beijing Olympics, competing as a woman). The same problems beset Sally Gross, who was raised as a male and ordained a Catholic priest, until the discovery that biologically she was in fact primarily female.
What is a Male?
To illustrate some of the complexities around biological sex, I want to share with you some extracts from two books that I have found helpful in extending my own understanding, Brian McNaught’s “Sex Camp”“, and Virginia Mollenkott’s Omnigender.
“Sex Camp” is a fictionalized presentation in novel form, of a real-life program that used to be run in New York state, in which groups of people from diverse backgrounds were brought together in a secluded rural setting each summer, for serious training and discussion of matters around sexuality, gender, and faith.
In one chapter, ”Bill” delivers a presentation to the group on “Gender Identity & Expression”. This is from his introduction to the topic:
“When we talk about “Biological Sex,” and ask the question, we’re asking about it chromosomally, hormonally, gonadally, as well as with reference to the internal and external genitalia, and to brain dimorphism,” he said, writing the words on the whiteboard. Chromosomally, we are talking in terms of xx equalling a girl, and xy equalling a boy. Hormonally, we’re talking about ovaries for girls, and testicles for boys. With regard to internal genitalia, we’re talking about the Mullerian Structures for girls (fallopian tubes and uterus), and the Wolfian structures for boys (prostate, seminal vesicles, and vas deferens). Externally, we’re talking about the clitoris for girls, and the penis for boys. Brain dimorphism refers to the differences in the male and female brains.”
Let’s pause, to digest this. I count six different methods of determining a person’s sex.
The results of applying all of these to a single person will not always coincide. If they do not, how are we to decide, is this person “male” or “female”?
Furthermore, these measures do not yield simple binary opposites.
The problem with all of this is that not all girls are XX or boys XY, we all have the same hormones but in different level, we’re all born with clear gonadal or genital differences, and brain dimorphism isn’t a reliable indicator. So the question remains, “What is a male?”
Some of this is familiar. External genitalia can be ambiguous (as they were at birth for Sally/Selwyn Gross, whose story I presented earlier). In these cases, parents and doctors typically make a decision to impose one or other gender on the child, and raise her/him accordingly. But the assigned gender may differ sharply from the other, less easily visible determinants. But let’s consider for now, just those hormones.
The male hormone testosterone and the female hormone oestrogen are familiar, and popularly taken as markers for masculinity or femininity. (Just consider the verbal expression, “testosterone-fuelled….”) to describe actions taken to be unequivocally masculine). Some men take testosterone hormone supplements to adjust their physical appearance to a more conventionally “masculine” model, or to excel at masculine sports. For transsexuals, hormone therapy is commonly a major part of the transitioning process. But we all know that “men” differ in their degree of testosterone – and have a modicum of oestrogen too, and “women” differ in their oestrogen levels – but have some testosterone, too. Using hormonal measurement alone as a criterion, does int make any sense at all to even think of someone as wholly male, or wholly female?
Chromosome patterns also do not fit the simple “xx” or “xy” binary split we are familiar with. In addition to x and y chromosomes, there are “blanks”, indicated as “o” – and some people have more than the usual two.
“With chromosomes”, Bill continued, “the male sperm determines the outcome. What happens, however, if instead of adding an “x” or a “y” chromosome to the female’s “x”, the male shoots a blank sex-determining chromosome and the child is born “xo?”
The answer is – Turner’s syndrome. There are many other variations from the simple xx/xy of popular understanding.
One out of every 1600 live births are “xo”. You can also get “xxx,” which will be a female, but there are a significant number who may have mental retardation. You can also get an “xxy”, which will often be a tall, infertile male. We call this Klinefelter’s Sybdrome. You can get an “xyy”, and you can get an “xxyy”, which is a pure, bilateral hermaphrodite.”
And you can get an “xyxo”, which will be a short male whose gender and orientation are up for grabs”.
“The point is”, Bill said with a satisfied look, “that nature is not neat. Biological sex is not an easy issue. Further, when we talk about “male” and “female”, we’re talking about “sex”, “sexual identity”, and “sex role”. When we ask the question, “What is a male?” we’re not just asking about chromosomes, hormones, gonads, genitals and differences of the brain. We’re asking about sexual identity and sex role. We’re asking about both the assignment and rearing, as well as gender identity differentiation. ”
“Sex Camp”” is about much more than the ambiguities of biological sex and gender identity – this topic is just one of many in a a book which is packed with helpful, reliable information about sex and sexuality, and is also (as you would expect from the title) great fun to read.
I turn now to another book, in a more conventionally serious manner, by a respected theologian – and focussed exclusively on this topic.
So: just how does a woman become a Catholic priest in a major religious order? Sally Gross did just that: her story, with the explanation of just how it was possible, reveals some gaping holes in Catholic theology on women’s ordination and on sexuality, and problems in how governments deal with gender. It is also a moving personal story, of personal journeys, geographic, spiritual and biological, which are about as far-reaching as it is possible to go in one life-time.
The complex story is told at some length at the Natal Witness, which I have attempted to summarize below, quoting verbatim some extracts to illuminate key points. (Even in summary, it is lengthy – but stick with it. It graphically illustrates some critical deficiencies in Vatican thinking on sexuality and on ministry, which I touch on in conclusion).
The journey from Selwyn to Sally has taken Gross to the outer limits of human identity, both physically and psychologically and incorporated every dimension of her life: political, social and religious. Her experience has implications for all of us, and our institutions, both secular and religious, because our society insists on the existence of only two sexes, male and female.
Intersexed at birth, raised as a boy.
Gross is one of a small but significant, greatly misunderstood, minority of people who are loosely grouped together as “intersex”.
Biologically, hormone tests show she is clearly female, but at birth her external genitals appeared to be ambiguous, but essentially male. S/he was raised as a boy, complete with the ritual circumcision demanded by the Jewish faith of the family. However, s/he always knew that there was something “wrong”.
“Since the time I became conscious of myself as a very young child I had sense of something being awry in the area of gender, about my own bodiliness,” says Sally Gross. “I didn’t know exactly what it was, but there was a sense of things being awry, being different.”
He grew up as a Jewish boy in South Africa, but as a young man, became drawn to the Catholic Church, in part because he believed it to be more actively speaking up and acting against the evils of apartheid than his own Jewish religious leaders. He was baptised a Catholic in 1976. The following year he left the country, when his political activism against apartheid was becoming personally dangerous, going first to Botswana, then to Israel (where his parents then were).
Chaz Bono’s appearance on Dancing with the Stars has led to substantial commentary, for and against. Some of this is leading to discussion of really important, but neglected issues. For example, one common but myopic response in opposition, and to other lesbian or gay visibility on our television screens and in our streets, is that children could be “confused” by seeing these non-conformist images, and so might grow up confused about their own identity.
The obvious problem with this assessment, is that it is only relevant to those children who happen to be born with an innate orientation, biological sex and gender identity which conform squarely with the extreme positions of the relevant sexual, biological or gender continuum. Biological and social sciences have shown conclusively that life is not so simple. If Kinsey is to be believed, most of us are not all exclusively heterosexual or homosexual. We also know that a small but surprisingly significant minority of people are born who are neither wholly male nor wholly female, but one variety or another of intersexed – and for many others, their gender identity (the way their mental state sees themselves) differs from their biological sex.
There are tragic tales of babies born with intermediate external genitals being submitted to surgery to conform with male or female stereotypes, only to discover later that the imposed external condition does not conform to internal biology. In other cases, apparently “normal” genitals differ from internal sexual biology, leading to a disjunction between the gender in which the child has been raised, and the child’s biology. Many gay men and lesbians will know from bitter personal experience the problems they have endured from bullying, verbal abuse or serious physical violence, simply for not conforming to perceptions of “normality”. Even 100% heterosexual men and women are often subjected to the same kinds of bullying, if in their demeanour or interests they present as effeminate men or masculine women – in the mistaken but common belief that these traits equate with a same-sex attraction.
There is a claim made that children’s sexual identities are not formed until late adolescence or early adulthood – and so we should shield them from knowledge of any non-conformist sexualities or gender expression until they are old enough to have made up their own minds. The claim is in fact false – the findings of science are that sexual orientation is fixed remarkably early in childhood (I have seen one research report that identifies it as settled even in the womb). But even if the claim were correct, the conclusion would be dangerous. If we accept that it is wrong to confuse a child by presenting her/him with possibilities for orientation or gender identity that differ from her/his own, how much more dangerous is it to present that child exclusively with such images?
Imagine, for example, how confusing it would be to children if every character in books, on film and TV, in sitcoms, dramas, news and documentary programs, were to be a gay man or lesbian, or if every one of them were to be seen as transgendered or cross-dressers. That would most certainly be confusing to young people whose natural orientation was to the opposite sex, and whose gender identity perfectly matched internal and external genital biology. But that is precisely the effect that we create for naturally same-sex attracted or intersex children, and those whole mental and biological genders are out of sync.
The danger to our children is not in presenting them with a range of sexual or gender models, but in perpetuating the myth that we all fit neatly into a simple binary divide, of exclusively heterosexual and biologically simple males and females. To protect the mental health of children (and shield them from prejudice and physical violence), we should be encouraging more, not less, diversity on our screens, and in public life.
“For many viewers of ABC’s mega-hit series Dancing With the Stars, the announcement that this season’s roster of contestants would include Chaz Bono, the son of Cher and the late Sonny Bono, marked a historic decision and a milestone for transgender people. To some, it made a less than welcome addition to the fall television line-up.
One viewer comment online stood out for me, given my work with gender non-conforming and transgender children and their families: “YOUR choice to bring Chaz Bono into the mix goes too far. I am not about to risk the potential for on screen dialogue about sex changes and gender confusion while my 7 and 9 year old are watching.”
In the modern Western church, we have developed an unfortunate tendency to think of the person of Jesus Christ as definitely male, but also decidedly sexless, neutered. This is patently ridiculous. As one who was fully human, he will most certainly have possessed sexual attributes, physical and emotional. Fortunately, modern theologians are rediscovering this – as earlier Christians understood, and the Eastern churches still do.
Kittredge Cherry is an ordained MCC pastor, and a published writer whose novel “Jesus in Love” considers the erotic attachments that may have existed in Christ’s life. At her blog, Jesus in Love, she posted an interview early last month with Hunter Flournoy, a psychotherapist and shamanic healer who teaches “Erotic Body of Christ” workshops for gay and bisexual men:
Based in North Carolina and New Mexico, Flournoy has been leading workshops and ceremonies in awareness, creativity, healing, passionate living and personal freedom for 19 years. His next Erotic Body of Christ workshop will be March 17-20 at the Kirkridge Retreat Center in Delaware Water Gap, PA. He has just launched a new website, eroticbodyofchrist.org, full of valuable resources for uniting sexuality and spirituality.
Others have also written of the value of incorporating the erotic into spirituality, either as professional theologians and spiritual directors, or from personal experience. In doing so, they are returning to the earlier tradition of the church, in which the great mystics did not shirk from the erotic, but incorporated erotic imagination into their spiritual lives and writing.
Here are some extracts from Kittredge Cherry’s interview with Hunter Flournoy:
Kittredge Cherry: Who is “the erotic Christ”? How does the “erotic Christ” relate to the “historical Jesus” of scholarly research, the gay Jesus or black Jesus of liberation theology, and the traditional Jesus of churches?
We are Christ, the anointed one, and His Body is our own, as individuals, as a community, and as a world. At one point, the New Testament says, Christ had only one body – the body of Jesus – but he poured out his Spirit on the World, anointing us all, making us His body. That body, in the eastern traditions of Christianity, is a passionately erotic one; our erotic experience is the place we encounter God most directly, and the energy of Eros — our sensuous experience of pleasure, desire, ecstasy and union . . . is the fuel for our journey of Theosis, or union with God. Eros transfigured through our act of giving ourselves and receiving each other completely, becomes agape. The erotic body of Christ is not a scholastic conceptualization of Jesus – it is a visceral experience of God through our bodies, individually and collectively, modeled by Jesus, lived by the erotic Christian mystics throughout the ages, and felt directly in our own experience.
KC: When and how did you first get involved with the idea of the erotic Christ?
HF: My first intimation of Christ as a living reality in my body goes back to my earliest communion at about age ten. My whole body thrilled when I knelt at the altar rail and the priest’s hand brushed against my own as he pressed the wafer into my palm and lifted the chalice of warm, sweet wine to my lips. I felt that it was Jesus there before me and in me, in everything, penetrating everything and taking it all into him. As I matured, that experience only deepened; every sensation seemed to be infused with a passionately loving presence, and sometimes I would see an astounding light shining out of other peoples’ eyes, kindling bliss in my whole body.
I tried to suppress this unsettling experience for years, since the Christianity of my youth had no room for it. I didn’t realize what a deeply Christian experience it really was until I discovered a small eastern orthodox monastery in New Mexico. There I learned that Christianity had once been something very different: experiential, sensuous, mystical, and profoundly grounded in the sacredness of our bodies and our world. Though many of the eastern churches have more recently become mired in a frightening cultural conservatism, they kept a breathtakingly erotic, incarnational Christianity alive for two thousand years.
KC: Many LGBT people have been wounded by the false teaching that homosexuality is a sin. What message does the erotic Christ have for them?
HF: Our sexual energy is the most powerful tool we have to shatter the illusion of separation, which is what the original Christians meant by “sin.” The essential question we must ask ourselves is, am I using sex to bring myself alive, to overcome separation and incarnate the divine, or am I using it to medicate or avoid my own experience of being alive? This was the original understanding of chastity: it calls us to the highest possible relationship with our own sexual energy. All sexual experience can break down the boundaries and defenses we use to separate ourselves from each other and from God – we become one body, one being. Sex can also teach us how to give ourselves totally (kenosis) to each other, how to receive each other completely (plerosis), and how to surrender to the transfiguring power of our own erotic experience. As LGBT people, we also have an innate understanding that our erotic experience, our pleasure, desire, ecstasy, and union, can serve a purpose other than reproduction. Our erotic joy is a source of profound creativity, deep empathy, and a wild ecstasy that can take us out of who we are into a far greater sense of being.
The evidence of a gulf in thinking on homosexuality (and sexuality more generally) between the formal position of Vatican orthodoxy and the real beliefs of ordinary Catholics is clear. To make sense of this. we need to consider two key questions: the compelling, established evidence that such a gulf exists, and the more tentative evidence that the oligarchy is starting to catch up.
In this post, I simply present a summary of the main findings on the belief of real Catholics, with some commentary and supporting links. Later, I will report on commentary elsewhere, and expand on the signs of the change that must come from the bishops’ oligarchy – and is just starting to do so.
The extent and growth of the Catholic / Oligarchy disconnect on homosexuality
Several major opinion polls have demonstrated the existence of this disconnect, with last week’s Washington Post/ABC poll on gay marriage just the latest of several. (see for example, here and here). Most of the time, the views of the Catholic subsample get just a line or a paragraph, but now we have a much more detailed analysis from the Public Religion Institute, digging into the detailed data from earlier research, and released as a report called Catholic Attitudes on Gay and Lesbian Issues.
These were the key findings:
Catholics are more supportive of legal recognitions of same-sex relationships than members of any other Christian tradition and Americans overall.
Nearly three quarters of Catholics favour either allowing gay and lesbian people to marry (43%) or to form civil unions (31%). Only 22% say there should be no legal recognition of a gay couple’s relationship.
This really should not surprise. Catholic tradition is strongly supportive of families. There is no reason at all why Pope Benedict’s recent address on this theme cannot be applied to all families, in keeping with the firm commitment of Catholic orthodoxy to inclusion and justice for all marginalized groups. Going back into older Catholic history, there was also an established tradition of liturgical rites for blessing same sex unions, and recognition of the spiritual value of what St Aelred of Rievaulx called “spiritual friendship” between male couples.
Defining same-sex marriage as a civil marriage dramatically increases support among Catholics.
If marriage for gay couples is defined as a civil marriage “like you get at city hall”, Catholic support for allowing gay couples to marry increases by 28%, from 43% to 71%. A similar pattern exists in the general population, but the Catholic shift is more pronounced.
Catholics have a strong commitment to marriage as a sacrament, based on its connection with raising children, and do not see civil marriage as having any validity in the eyes of the Church. On that basis, the only significant difference between same sex and opposite sex civil marriages is the gender of the participants – a clear case of discrimination. There can be no valid religious argument for opposing what the Church itself sees as a purely legal arrangement between two people.
Beyond same-sex marriage, Catholic support for rights for gays and lesbian people is strong and slightly higher than the general public.
Nearly three quarters of Catholics favour laws that would protect gay and lesbian people in the workplace; 63% of Catholics favour allowing gay and lesbian people to serve openly in the military; and 6 in 10 (60%) of Catholics favour allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt.
There are really two distinct issues here – discrimination, and adoption. Even formal Catholic teaching is opposed to what it describes as “unjust” discrimination against LGBT people. The problem is only that the CDF gets itself into an eggdance over attempting to present some discrimination as “just”, and opposing legal protection against discrimination, on the spurious grounds that we can all avoid discrimination by simply hiding our orientation – by remaining in the closet. In this, they are contradicting their own reminder that we should “speak the truth in love”, and that “the truth will set you free”.
Adoption is not a matter of discrimination against gay or lesbian people, but one of the rights of children. The only issue of importance should be, what is best for the child in need of adoptive parents. Frequently, the best available parents for some kids will be gay. To exclude such potential parents on arbitrary grounds limits the possibilities for the full flourishing of that child.
Compared to the general church-going public, Catholics are significantly less likely to hear about the issue of homosexuality from their clergy, but those who do are much more likely to hear negative messages.
Only about 1 in 4 Catholics who attend church services regularly say their clergy speak about the issue of homosexuality, but nearly two-thirds of this group say that the messages are negative.
Contrary to popular belief, the most important characteristics of Catholicism are not matters of sexual puritanism, but a commitment to justice and service on the one hand, and to developing a personal relationship with the Lord, through prayer and sacramental practice, on the other.
Compared to other religious groups, Catholics are significantly more likely to give their church poor marks on how it is handling the issue of homosexuality.
Less than 4 in 10 Catholics give their church top marks (a grade of either A or B) on its handling of the issue of homosexuality.
How can it be otherwise, on this or any other matter of sexuality, when the teaching is developed and disseminated by those who are not supposed to have any practical experience of loving sexual relationships, to those who do?
Seven in ten Catholics say that messages from places of worship contribute to higher rates of suicide among gay and lesbian youth.
In Catholic tradition, suicide is one of the gravest of sins. How grave a sin is it to lead another to suicide, either by promoting ideas of self-contempt, or by indirectly promoting or condoning youthful bullying?
Catholics overwhelmingly reject the idea that sexual orientation can be changed.
Nearly 7 in 10 (69%) of Catholics disagree that homosexual orientation can be changed. Less than 1 in 4 (23%) believe that it can.
The majority Catholic view here is in fact close to generally accepted Catholic orthodoxy, which teaches that we must pay full attention to the findings of science. These findings, as reflected in the determinations of professional bodies in the fields of medicine and psychology, and in numerous field studies in animal behaviour, are that for some individuals and for some animal species, homoerotic sexual attraction and expression is entirely natural. Formal Catholic teaching has not yet grasped this nettle, but sooner or later it surely must.
A majority of Catholics believe that sexual relations between two adults of the same gender is not a sin.
Among the general population, less than half believe it is not a sin.
Of course such relations, in themselves, are not necessarily a sin – any more than sexual relations between any two adults are necessarily sinful. That rather depends on the context. Many theologians, and what appears to be an increasing number of bishops, now recognize that what matters is the quality of the relationship. If this is committed, permanent and faithful, then the sexual relationhip is no more sinful than that within marriage.
Even the orthodox position, which insists unambiguously that even within such a loving same sex relationship sexual expression is a grave sin, nevertheless agrees that this is not so in every case. There is always recognition of the primacy of conscience. Where gay or lesbian couples in sexual relationships do so after a full process of conscience formation on the matter, and have reached a decision in conscience that their relationship is not sinful – then there is no sin.