Over the summer, I spent a lot of time thinking about gender issues. I wrote the post below “Gender in crisis?” on my Facebook and invited a whole range of people to comment. Some did, others sent me their thoughts privately, and it was a privilege to hear so many takes on the whole set of issues. It gave me a whole load more to think about, and I’m not sure I’m much closer to many answers.
At the same time, something which I’ve been thinking a lot about and is in various ways related to gender issues is sexuality. There are SO many questions to ask, I could try to list them but I’d be here all day. Here’s a few fairly universal questions: what do we mean by sexuality, and attraction? What are the differences between romantic attraction, sexual attraction, desire for friendship, admiration? How do we know that when I use one of those terms, I mean the same thing that you understand by it? Have those categories always been separated in the same way as they are now, or have people used different terms for different things at different times? Can we predict who we will feel those different things towards, does it depend on the people we meet, or is it set for each person? Do these aspects of our sexuality change or are they generally consistent? How much do societal expectations of sexuality and the boundaries of our definitions of relationships affect what we experience towards different people? What would the spectrum for sexuality look like if those expectations were different?
I’ve got so much to ask.
There’s a whole other set of questions as a Christian too. I’ve been fortunate really in that having a gay mum and a gay friend who are both Christians has meant I’ve had a great excuse to bring up some of these questions in Christian contexts, to challenge the status quo and the sometimes very ignorant assumptions of some of the Christians I’ve spent time with. I’ve think perhaps I’ve gained myself a bit reputation for being “difficult” on this subject, especially among some of the more conservative evangelicals I’ve met, because I’m never really comfortable with the certainty I’ve found. What I mean is this: in evangelical churches, this thing exists which is “The Homosexuality Issue”. It’s a little bit troubling for many because it’s this Big Issue which people outside the church sometimes use to force Christians to say something very unpopular. Conversations can go something like: “Why does God hate gay people? Is my mate going to hell because he’s gay? Christians are so homophobic.”
So inside the churches, they’ve come up with this defence strategy. The response is meant to be “God doesn’t hate gay people, he loves everyone. Homosexual acts are sinful because God designed sex to be for a man and a woman inside marriage. But we’re not homophobic because we still think God loves you, so please come to church anyway and we’ll do our best not to stare at you.” Maybe that’s not quite the response we’re meant to actually give, but it’s the spirit of what I’ve heard sometimes. I understand why conservative evangelical Christians want to be able to give this certain, clear cut answer, I really do. It’s so much safer to know what we think, to have the set piece, and to avoid the pitfalls of sounding blatantly homophobic or the condemning stares of other Christians if we don’t say something clear enough about it being Wrong when questioned. It’s safe to have an answer to stick to, even if other people disagree.
But… there’s so much more to say, so much more to ask. The idea that there’s just one “Homosexuality Issue” for the church to respond to is ridiculous. For a start, it’s not like there’s just this one group of “gay people” over there that we need to respond to, and the questions can’t be as narrow as who sleeps with whom. If we take the widely held view that human sexuality constitutes a spectrum along which most people lie (others being asexual and not considering themselves on that spectrum at all) and many people move, then there are surely far more questions going on for far more people than just that group of “gay people” who we’ve handily put in a box over in the corner while we discuss them. Surely those universal questions I asked above are questions for everyone?
For those of us asking them from a Christian perspective, they take on another dimension which in my mind only increases the questions we can ask: what does the God who created us have to say about all those universal questions? Are these categories of friendship, romantic attraction, intimacy, sexual attraction and so on, categories defined by society or by God? What parameters, if any, has he set around them, and what if our experiences don’t seem to fit in to those parameters, if they exist? Are those boundaries about who we are, what we do, or what our relationships look like? Can we even separate those categories?
For some people, I think these questions are completely alien. I know that because of the completely confused/blank/bewildered looks I’ve got when I start asking them at church or with certain Christians. To some Christians, these questions seem to be totally irrelevant. They are totally clear on their own gender identity and are attracted exclusively to people of the opposite gender. They experience a very clear division between feelings of friendship towards people of their own gender and attraction to people of the opposite, although they may occasionally get these muddled when it comes to friends of the opposite gender, but this is not too much of a problem. They get happily married, and have a good group of same gender friends around them for accountability and support. Gay people, to them, are just doing it all the other way around. They must experience that same clear cut distinction between sexual attraction and friendship (the only two categories) but their sexual attraction goes the wrong way. That makes them either sinful (if they act on it by having gay sex) or to be pitied (if they don’t act on it, by not having gay sex.) For some people, there’s not a lot else to say.
That might be most people, I don’t know. I might be alone in thinking that there are a zillion other questions like those I’ve raised. I might be the only one who things human relationships are more complex than sex or not-sex. I might be the one person who missed the memo about a universally accepted and understood set of definitions about relationships and intimacy and sexuality. But I’m pretty sure that’s not the case. There’s this whole huge interesting conversation about gender and sexuality and relationships and all sorts going on outside the church. And as the church, we’re shutting our eyes, putting our fingers in our ears, and repeating our set piece on “The Homosexuality Issue” until people go away and stop asking us difficult questions. We’re missing out! Surely we’ve got loads to learn? Surely we have questions to ask too? Perhaps we might even have something to contribute too? I’d suggest we start by listening though, because we’ve got a bit of catching up to do.
On a personal note, you might be wondering where all these questions have left me. Somewhat predictably, I don’t know. I mentioned earlier that having a gay mum and a gay friend has been helpful in being able to explore these questions for reasons that are not too personal. But naturally, they’re questions I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about myself. How do I personally want to understand and label and classify my whole range of experiences with friendship, intimacy, and attraction? The best conclusion I’ve come to at the moment is that I don’t. Not for now. See, I’m not sure I like the idea that everyone is straight until they come out otherwise. If we are complicated creatures, and these questions are real and valid, isn’t it silly to start with any assumption at all? Doesn’t it discourage questioning, and exploration, and ultimately understanding of ourselves? The way I see it, labels are for people who know. Or are at least people who know they want to use that label. So if the majority of people in the world want to define themselves as straight, that’s totally fine. I just hope they are using that word themselves, having thought through their own experiences of their sexuality as a whole. I hope it’s something deliberate. Same for people who define themselves in other ways – that’s totally cool for them. I’m glad they are sure enough to be able to pick a label that expresses them. As for me, I’m not sure of much yet. I don’t think I’m clear enough on what we mean by these various words and categories, what everyone else means by them and what I mean by them. I’m not sure enough yet how they define different types of relationships, and who I want those types of relationships with. I’m not sure of my answers now, so I’m certainly not sure what my answers will look like in 5, 10, 50 years time. Maybe I will have clear cut answers then, maybe I’ll have a label. Maybe not. So I don’t think any of the labels are right for me yet, because labels are for people who know.
So to clarify, I’m not saying I’m bisexual, I’m not saying I’m gay, I’m not saying I’m straight. Or anything in between. I’m not even defining myself as “questioning”. I’m just rejecting the idea that we should be labelled as something until proven otherwise, I’m starting from a clean sheet if you like.
In the mean time, I just want to join in the conversation. I wish the rest of the church would too. I’m sure there are plenty of Christians in fact who already are, so I’m off to find them and I hope at some point I can take a few others with me.