Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister–
So, let me begin with myself. All of my life I have identified with the male gender. Growing up I knew myself as a “boy,” placing myself in the same group as people who identified themselves or were identified to me as male, and distinguished myself from “girls,” people I identified, or others identified or who identified themselves as female.
I can’t specifically recall when I began to awaken to myself as a sexual being, but I’m guessing it was around the age of 11 or 12, and, with the exception with some consensual touching with a male friend at around that time, I have always been drawn to people who I identified as women as sexual partners. In my life today I live in a monogamous couple with the only person with whom I am intimate, my wife.
Now, let me acknowledge that this is not the sort of information that we ordinarily exchange with each other, and I am not offering my own tale with the expectation that you will all suddenly start sharing your own stories with each other. We are all entitled to our privacy. We have the right to decide for ourselves how much of the details of our lives to share and with whom to share them.
Instead, I offer my own story to draw attention to several interesting aspects of stories like mine in our culture and the consequences they have for our religious lives. In the vernacular we use today I am identified as “straight” or heterosexual: a man who is attracted sexually exclusively to “the other sex”: women.
But more importantly, and here’s where the trouble starts, my sexual orientation is widely conceived as “normal”: the standard, the way things are supposed to be. As such, it loads me up with all sorts of privilege. In any public setting, people feel comfortable asking me about my wife and making provisions to include her in social gatherings. I am entitled to thousands of benefits under federal, state and local law.
But, beyond all that is a privilege that people with a sexual orientation like mine have a hard time wrapping our heads around. If you are regarded as “normal,” then no matter where you go, you are “just folks”: Nothing out of the ordinary. On meeting you, people give you the benefit of the doubt and are ready to think well of you.
If your sexual orientation is different, it can be otherwise. If it’s true that my sexual orientation is “the norm,” then any other arrangement is, by definition, “deviant.” It deviates, strays from, the norm. Now, technically speaking, all of that is simply the language of science, but part of what this demonstrates is the way in which the language of science can be employed to obscure, misinform and oppress.
So, where do we get this idea of what normal is? It’s true that we humans are issued two basic varieties of plumbing when it comes to the machinery of reproduction. But even there the story isn’t as simple as it looks. There are many variations in our physical make-up as well as in our genetic heritage that shape sexual identity and expression.
And, of course, it’s often remarked that our most important sexual organ is to be found not between our legs but perched on top of our necks. How shall we calibrate anything like “normal” when it comes to the extraordinary variety of human desire?
The writer Hanne Blank sought to track down the history of this notion of a “normal” sexual expression and discovered something interesting, which is contained in the title to her recent book: “Straight – The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality.”
Yes, she writes, men and women have always had sex, but the notion that people have particular sexual orientations and that one might be identified as normal has only existed for something like a century and a half.
She traces the term “heterosexuality” back to Germany in 1869 during efforts to modernize Germany’s ancient legal codes. One legislator had his eye on eliminating a provision that stipulated harsh punishment for men having sex with men, arguing that it was wrong to punish actions that harmed no one. “Homosexuals” and “heterosexuals,” he said, were simply two types of human beings.
Nothing came of his efforts – Hitler later used that provision in German law to imprison and murder homosexuals in concentration camps during World War II – but that new word – heterosexual – later made its way to medical texts. There, though, it took a different turn and was used to describe what was then called “healthy sexuality.”
The word first appeared in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary in 1934, where it was described as “manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; normal sexuality.”
Meanwhile, the growing influence of Sigmund Freud carried this conversation in a new direction. Freud held that heterosexuality was the norm among adults, but that to reach that state our innate sexual impulses must be channeled properly as we grow up. He argued that any other orientation – from disinterest in sex to same-sex attraction – was the result of trauma or some arrested development. It was by definition dysfunctional and in need of treatment to be cured.
Mental health professionals have since repudiated this theory of Freud’s, though it took the American Psychiatric Association until 1973 to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder. In the meantime, the notion that there is something wrong with anyone who doesn’t identify exclusively as heterosexual suffused our culture and remains embedded in many people’s understanding.
Alfred Kinsey’s work in the 1950s opened a door beyond that. From interviews with thousands of men and women about their sex lives he learned that the variety of people’s sexual desires and experiences were far greater than most suspected. He proposed that people’s sexual responses ran on a continuum of seven stages from exclusively heterosexual to exclusively homosexual. But what was especially important is that he offered the data without judgment.
His studies opened a conversation about not only sexual orientation, but also practices. Where do you draw the line? What counts as heterosexual, homosexual, and what else? As scientific as these distinctions are made to sound, the actual science is pretty hazy.
As Hanne Blank puts it, “science has yet to prove that heterosexuality – or indeed any sexuality – exists in any way that is relevant to material science.” Researchers have gone hunting for the “gay gene,” sought traces of the “heterosexual brain” and tried to tease out the ingredients of the hormonal cocktail that determines sexual orientation. None of it has paid out yet.
It may be, she says, that for these categories that seem so important to us – homosexual, heterosexual – there simply aren’t any physical, biological distinctions significant enough to separate people into what’s called “natural kinds.” Perhaps this is just one of many aspects of human variability.
Also, as the conversation around sexual orientation has continued we’ve come to realize how limiting these old notions are. People today identify not only as gay or straight, but also as bisexual, attracted to both genders, and gender queer, rejecting traditional images of either masculinity or femininity.
And the whole notion gender itself is proving problematic. Different combinations of our X and Y chromosomes may place us on one side or another of what is traditionally recognized as male and female, and that designation may or may not gibe with the sexual identity we claim. Some people born with what is considered a conventional physical identity grow into a different sexual identity and so come to know themselves as transgender. One researcher has suggested that instead of two genders we might recognize as many as five.
We’ve also come to realize that what we call sexual orientation encompasses a broader range of feelings and identities than were previously considered. Researchers who have updated Kinsey’s scale have expanded the reach of questions they pursue.
Participants are asked not only about who they have had sex with but also about who their sexual fantasies are about, who they are attracted to, who they are emotionally drawn to, who they prefer to exchange non-sexual physical affection with, who they prefer to socialize with, what sexual identity they socialize with, how they identify themselves and how they identify the political personality they express to the world.
Each of these areas touches on different ways we relate to others, how we are drawn to them and how we interact with them in ways we don’t often think of as sexual yet that shape our experience of our sexual being.
As a straight man who came of age some 50 years ago I have to admit that much of this is still a little hard for me to understand. But as a religious person who is committed to affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person I recognize that my understanding it is not the point. Ultimately, my concern is not how or why people are drawn to each other, but that their interaction is not exploitive, harmful, or abusive. If, in the words of Marge Piercy, they are living a life they can endure; if they are making love that is loving, then it is something I can honor and bless.
When we define a narrow standard and declare all outside it to be deviant, we shut people off from the reality of their lives. And, as Adrienne Rich warned, whatever is unnamed, undepicted, censored, misnamed, made difficult-to-come-by, buried in memory under inadequate or lying language becomes not merely unspoken, but unspeakable. And so, is it any wonder how often people declared to be other, outsider, deviant choose to hide themselves or even end their lives rather than suffer disapprobation and shame?
We as a religious community have a duty to call those people back from the edge, to be, as Holly Near urged, a gentle, loving people, to widen the tent of acceptance and affirmation, to declare a new normal that embraces the broad diversity of human identity and expression.
Walt Whitman, poet of America and flamboyantly gay man, captured a truth of our lives in his poem. In the 1890s, highpoint of the Victorian Era, that laced up period where human intimacies were not discussed in polite society, he declared, “I sing the body electric.”
And isn’t it so? From early in infancy we are aware of an electricity that moves in our bodies, that sings to us – different songs in different seasons, to be sure – but singing all the same. We’re not always sure what we hear, and sometimes the tune changes – louder, softer, suddenly shifting to a different key.
In the end, as Whitman puts it, that passion that arises within us “balks account.” There is no telling whence it comes, or even, really, fully describing it, but in and of itself it is perfect. That is to say, it is what it is; it is ours.
It is not something that needs to be explained. It is merely something that is to be known. And that knowing in all its full dimensions is not easy, not for any of us. We test and experiment, bounce in and out of relationship, and if we’re lucky come to an understanding, an understanding grounded in loving relationship.
In such relationships, we learn, it is possible to find fulfillment, to find peace in the expression of our truth, embracing the curious, breathing, laughing flesh of our physical being, and being content to affirm that, while all things please the soul, these please the soul well.