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).