patriarchy

Biblical Manhood or Emasculated Gay?

Does being gay make me less of a man? That’s the question I asked myself in desperate earnest as a young teen.

For a long time, I’ve wondered how evangelicals who are fervently committed to racial and economic justice can so completely miss gender and sexual justice. If you already understand why people of color and poor folks aren’t scary, are gay, bi, and trans people really that terrifying? But time and again, evangelicals bend over backwards to justify heteropatriarchy, and ignore the marginalization of lgbt people.

When I was a young teenager, I remember questioning whether I was fully a man. I felt ashamed of my attraction to other boys, and afraid that I had “failed” at being the person God wanted me to be. This was heavily coded in gendered language. I was immersed in evangelical subculture for most of my formative years, and we were constantly called to become our most authentic, God-given selves, which for us young boys meant “godly men,” with marriage and head-of-household as the accompanying life-goals. Perpetual singleness wasn’t even on the radar. And anything gay? Run in the other direction. Literally, people used the “flee sexual immorality” passage from 1 Corinthians 6 to make this point that gayness (and gay people by inference) was so dangerous, good Christian boys would never associate with it.

But it was even more pernicious. The NIV (recently more gender neutral I’ve noticed?) says, “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.” And of course, because I couldn’t run from myself (I knew I was gay since the age of 12), I felt like I was in a state of perpetual sin against my own body.

That’s some serious self-hatred right there.

And it should not be an either/or choice. Young people should not have to choose between their sexually gendered selves and their spiritual selves. That kind of separation contributes to fracturing people in psychologically devastating ways. And we can readily see the consequences of those conflicts in our young people today, in the tragically high rates of suicide, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse among young lgbt people.

So what to do? Many people balk at the solution offered by some strains of feminism, which is to abolish gender. Many also wonder how could gay or trans folk get behind such efforts, if we spend so much time and energy articulating the genderedness of our sexuality, or the sexual implications of our gender.

Personally, I’m on board with feminist efforts to abolish gender. I’m uncertain it will ever happen, but in theory, I see huge benefits and very few drawbacks. I already don’t fit many requirements of masculinity (compulsory heterosexuality, for example), and the main reason I insist on my gender is for political reasons (to defend my gayness), and also for personal growth reasons: to recognize my role in patriarchy and the oppression of non-male genders.

It’s true that I emphasize my own masculinity, and sharply define my sexuality as an exclusive attraction to other male-aligned people. This is very important to me, but not necessarily because gender is an inherent trait that I’m afraid to lose. Rather, it’s important to me because my politicized identity as a gay man is under pressure. Because gay men are specifically oppressed for being men attracted to other men, I insist on my maleness and the maleness of those I’m attracted to, because I resist the idea that men being attracted to men is inherently evil, sinful, or unnatural, and I resist the idea that being attracted to men is unthinkable or impossible if you are a man. These two ideas being central beliefs of the evangelical world I grew up in, they still have very real consequences in the lives of countless young lgbt people, and others like me who deal with trauma from those years.

But if gender were abolished, along with its accompanying oppressions, I would have no reason to insist on the maleness of my partners, or even my own. And this would be incredibly freeing. No one would have any basis to judge or condemn my loves or my way of being based on gender. True, it wouldn’t make sense to identify any longer as a gay man, but then I only do so now as a political response to societal pressure against an inherent part of me.

Before the word “inherent” trips people up, let me explain what I mean: I’m attracted to a certain type of people (gay folks actually aren’t attracted to every member of their gender, shocking right?), and we just happen to call those people “male.” But my type differs drastically from other gay guys, and the only use in describing our attractions as alike in a fundamental way is because of the way we aggressively gender society in the first place. So the attractions are inherent, but the labels we use for those attractions, and the people we’re attracted to, are not.

Because everyone is heterosexual until proven otherwise, I am gay. But if gender were abolished, there would be no encouraging young boys to “find the right girl,” or encouraging young girls to “find the right boy,” and boys who wanted to find the right boy, and girls the right girl, would face absolutely no opposition to doing so. And we would eventually develop beautiful new ways of referring to children besides calling them boys and girls.

As an aside, abolishing gender would also free trans women (and trans men in different ways) from terf rhetoric that excludes them on the basis that patriarchy oppresses people with wombs, and therefore those people are women.

But what about the rest of gender? Aren’t lgbt folks working to expand the definitions of feminine and masculine, and encourage more, not fewer, ways to express gender in society? Isn’t there something about gayness that’s lost if we abolish gender?

Well yes, and in lieu of abolishing gender entirely, it helps to push it open, let in some air, and work with what we have at the moment. I recognize that while gender isn’t crucial enough to me for any examination to be threatening, for others, gender is a deeply important aspect of their identity, and any critique or any attention on gender itself induces a kind of panic, a digging-in of the heels. In these situations, what I hope to do is point out core values and principles we can agree on, and talk through our way of gendering them.

So, for instance, in men’s groups you often hear reference to the roles of leader, lover, warrior, and wiseman. For feminists and others who hold gender to be a social construct, our first instinct might be to attack these roles specifically, and reveal their arbitrarily gendered nature, and their pernicious effects in the social sphere. But before any of this can be accepted by those who see no difference between their gender and the core of their being (the amount of times you hear about “gendered souls” in the evangelical church, I’m telling you), it might help to ask what are these roles ideally supposed to accomplish.

Leaders might exhibit vision, strategy, problem-solving, and relationship-building skills. Why not focus on those things instead, and encourage our young people, of all genders, to develop those skills? Lovers might tend to provide for, take pride in, and give pleasure to those they love. Why not teach all young people to do these things for those they fall in love with? The role of a warrior might mean to protect and fight for, and warriors might exhibit courage, boldness in the face of danger, and even sacrifice. Surely these are admirable goals to tell all our young ones to reach for, not just those who are trying to follow a gendered script? The wiseman is of course a role for wisdom and knowledge, which anyone who values education and discernment into past, present, and future will see as valuable for all children to grow into.

That’s pretty much as far as I’ve gotten on my gay agenda to abolish gender and brainwash the youth. So am I a thoroughly cucked, emasculated gay? Or am I a self-hating gay, clinging to harmful ideas of “biblical manhood”?

Well, hopefully I’m a little of both. Whatever makes both camps most uncomfortable (just don’t tell the Christians I’m also a leftist, that’ll be a deal-breaker).

My goal is to show people that those of us who genuinely care about child development, seeing kids grow into healthy adults, really have a lot of common ground to stand on. My hope is that those in power will be humble enough to take the first steps towards those praying for liberation.

We’ve suffered too long under Christian-supported heteropatriarchy, and it’s high time the church started living up to its divine injunction to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

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Finding Rebekah–Let’s Ask the Women

The story of Isaac and Rebekah in Genesis 24 goes like this: good old father Abraham asked a humble servant to find a wife for his son, and when she came back, it was love at first sight!

We all know the moment at the well, when God answers (some would say miraculously) the servant’s prayer with uncanny timing, and Rebekah is revealed, through giving water to the camels, as the divinely ordained bride for Abraham’s only son Isaac, both of whom are now totally peachy even though dad almost killed him all those years back. And when Rebekah rides into Abraham’s land and sees Isaac, she gets off her camel, puts on a veil, and Isaac takes her into his mom’s tent and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” 

It’s all well and good for Isaac, but I want to know what Rebekah feels. Especially when she’s asked to suddenly give up her old life (and her old loves) to go find a husband in a man she has never met.

That kind of situation is so foreign to us that I think we should hold off on the hand-waving dismissal of “that’s just how they did things back then, spouses didn’t know each other.” While that’s true, we as North American Christians in the 21st century should not be so quick to dismiss that as a given. What must that feel like, as a woman, as a new bride, as someone with hopes and dreams and likes and dislikes, and most of all, family, to put all those things aside for the sake of continuing your life with a well-off stranger?

And then there’s this part of the story, right before the iconic “love at first sight” verses. I can’t recall ever hearing this part of the passage read aloud in any church setting:

model-2346258_192054 Then he and the men who were with him ate and drank, and they spent the night there. When they rose in the morning, he said, “Send me back to my master.” 55 Her brother and her mother said, “Let the girl remain with us a while, at least ten days; after that she may go.” 56 But he said to them, “Do not delay me, since the Lord has made my journey successful; let me go that I may go to my master.” 57 They said, “We will call the girl, and ask her.” 58 And they called Rebekah, and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” She said, “I will.” 59 So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men. 60 And they blessed Rebekah and said to her,

“May you, our sister, become
    thousands of myriads;
may your offspring gain possession
    of the gates of their foes.”

 

61 Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way.”

To be fair, I don’t think we send our relatives off with blessings like “may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes” anymore either. There’s a lot that’s inaccessible about this whole thing to contemporary readers.

But what bothered me is that the servant didn’t even let Rebekah say goodbye to her family. Her mom and brother asked for at least ten days, and instead the servant asks to leave immediately. I doesn’t escape my notice that Rebekah is given the ability to choose whether to go with him or stay, but all things considered, she had few real options. And the servant’s reason for not delaying is that he wanted to return to his master as quickly as possible. He didn’t seem too concerned with what this decision meant to Rebekah.

Family defined a woman’s identity. Rebekah introduced herself as “the daughter of Bethuel son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor,” because the servant didn’t ask “who are you?” he said “Tell me whose daughter you are.” The gravity of leaving your family (permanently, no postal service) and joining a new one, in which you will know and be known intimately, can hardly be overstated. Have any of us had to leave behind our living loved ones permanently? 

I’m not saying it’s wrong, but it’s romanticized. Rebekah’s incredible sacrifice and strength of resolve is at least as dramatic an act of faith as Abraham leaving his own family behind when God first called him to go to an unknown land, and I think that should be the focus of what we teach our youth, rather than perpetuating fruitless romantic ideals. 

Let’s return to the last verse, the bow that ties it all together: and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” 

So we know that Isaac loved Rebekah, and that might have been from first sight. But we aren’t told how Rebekah feels towards Isaac. Cue sexist trope of women having no active sex drive or romantic affections, just passively receiving attention from men. Insert proper marriage ceremonial things here, I’m sure, but it sounds like Isaac got to baby-making pretty quick. It’s nice that the guy felt better after mourning his mom, but is that a healthy model for sexuality today? That’s not even healthy self-care, we already know that using a new relationship to replace or rebound from the trauma of a painful one is inherently damaging. If our significant others got with us right after their mom’s passing, and specifically said we comforted them for that reason, would we have no problems? 

Sure, I can see the theological niceties of saying “look how God provides,” and I do think it was on purpose, that God orchestrated a beautiful and loving and redemptive marriage between Isaac and Rebecca. I just want us to hail Rebecca as the heroine of the story. And to stop pretending her story is an easy or painless one.

The servant also deserves a closer look. Swipe back a few chapters, and we see the motivation for finding a wife who would have to uproot and travel back to Isaac: you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live, but will go to my country and to my kindred and get a wife for my son Isaac.”

In order for the promise to continue, intermarriage with local women was not an option. Abraham made the servant swear an oath, placing his hand under Abraham’s thigh (apparently that was a thing back in the day), and was adamant that Isaac remain with Abraham while the wife was to come to him. Any mention of mutual feelings or compatibility? Nah, marriage for love hadn’t been invented yet. Marriage for family purity though, that was super in style. Tribalism in peak season. 

So is there nothing to be said of the servant at the end of the story? What did he get out of this situation? What was the conversation like when he went back to Abraham, not just Isaac, with the story of his success? Was he lauded, celebrated, given due praise? Or did Abraham, his worries assuaged, brush aside his excitement and send him off on some other errand, just like us readers are encouraged to forget him as soon as he relays his message to Isaac?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but just asking them, giving space for other voices to be heard, can energize our witness and our engagement with Scripture. And if we really believe that the word of God is living and active, we should expect a dynamic message that meets us right where we are, in this time and place.

Who’s ready for a Sunday school lesson about the courage and faith of the matriarchs?