Disclaimer: I do not intend this to be a definitive or even theoretically accurate post. Just a jumble of thoughts that have been bouncing around the old skull recently.
When I was 14 I cut off all my hair. I did it myself with kitchen scissors and a shaving mirror. Since then I’ve been unable to keep my hair longer than shoulder-length. It grows just past my chin and I chop it all off again. This has continued for the past 8 years and I doubt will stop any time soon. Now, picture this. 5ft8, broad-shouldered, alto-voiced, short hair, Dr Marten boots and baggy clothes… can you guess what I got asked often. ‘Are you a lesbian?’ or ‘Are you a boy?’. Okay, my name might be Harri (as I went by that nickname then) but that doesn’t mean I am gay or male. When I was 14/15/16/17/18 this bothered my majorly. Not so much that it made me grow my hair but it was something that got me very worked up. What does it matter to people if I’m gay or male?
Now that I’ve reached the ripe old age of 22 the comments have not stopped. I was in London recently with a very dear friend of mine – he has long hair in a ponytail – and we were taken for a lesbian couple. Which amused us both no end. This bizarre piece of personal history is not the reason for this post. The reason is something deeper.
The normative setting, we assume, is boy-girl. Right? All else is a deviation. Homosexuality between men was illegal in the UK until 1967. The homosexual age of consent was 21 until 2000, when it became 16. We’re meant to think that the normative is the way to be – that’s why it’s called the normative.
Let’s take a quick look at Judith Butler and her 1988 essay ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution’.
Butler claims that all gender is performance. Gender is a social construct and the gendered body is likewise a product of society and history. Gender is acting – a ‘Performative Itterability’, a repetition of certain acts to define ourselves into a gender. Butler likens her notion of Performative Itterability to that of Drag – the imitation of gender by conforming to almost-stereotypical norms. She states, ‘the acts by which gender is constituted bear similarities to performative acts within theatrical contexts’. Thus, we act the role of masculine and feminine in the same way an actor plays his part upon a stage. The idea that we act our role is the lead notion in Butler’s argument:
‘One is not simply a body, but, in some very key sense, one does one’s body and, indeed, one does one’s body differently from one’s contemporaries and from one’s embodied predecessors and successors as well.’
Society’s ideals of a gender will undoubtedly change over time as morals, socials norms and ideals change. Sometimes it’s okay for a woman to be bold and strong and wear ‘masculine tailoring’, sometimes it’s not.
However, though gender is an imitation it is without reference. Feminine and Masculine have no binary reference – they are created as opposites of each other but are they really so opposite? Butler states:
‘Because there is neither an ‘essence’ that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires; because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts there would be no gender at all’
‘There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; … identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.’ In other words, gender is a performance; what you do at particular times, rather than who you are. Butler suggests that certain cultural configurations of gender have seized a hegemonic hold and these are the ideals that cause people to ask me if I’m gay. They are the ideals that create the discourse of gender that shapes the way we see our own sexuality. The great Michel Foucault writes ‘each discourse excludes a whole teratology’ – the naturalized discourse of gender excludes ‘otherness’ and anything that deviates from the hetero-normative ideal.
So what does this have to do with me? And, moreover, what does it have to do with faith, Christianity and the Church. Well, first off it explains a lot of things to me. It has helped me to stop acting with disgust at the ‘lesbian’ comments. It has explained to me, admittedly in cold and clinical words, something of the psychologies of ‘alternative sexuality’.
And faith? Surely this is where I come out with something that contradicts everything I’ve just written? Nope. If I had to be against homosexuality to continue my ministry in the Church I would refuse. The Gospel is all about love. Love does not judge, nor condemn. Christ preaches love. He doesn’t preach against homosexuality. He preaches against divorce. And violence. And hatred. I think He would much rather a person be in a loving, caring, happy homosexual relationship, than a violent, controlling, damaging heterosexual one. The condemnations against homosexuality that one finds in the Bible are a complicated thing.I don’t wish to go into great detail on this HUGE topic right now, but I will offer some brief points:
1. Translation, people! The whole thing is a translation. Words lose their original intent, their meaning becomes skewed. For example, Sodomy does not mean what we think of it meaning now. It started off meaning something far more general – and not only relating to gay acts.
2. Cultural context. This is a very very old text. It is before modern medicine. If something was expressly forbidden, you can bet there’s a health or cleanliness issue there! Just think of the extreme Jewish cleanliness rituals.
3. There are some explicit events that show God as smiting homosexuals. The most noted is probably Sodom and Gomorrah. But remember what happens? Here’s a reminder:
The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening. Lot was sitting at the city gate. He saw them and got up to welcome them, bowing before them and said, “Please, my friends, come to my house and stay the night. Wash up. You can rise early and be on your way refreshed.”
They said, “No, we’ll sleep in the street.”
But he insisted, wouldn’t take no for an answer; and they relented and went home with him. Lot fixed a hot meal for them and they ate.
Before they went to bed men from all over the city of Sodom, young and old, descended on the house from all sides and boxed them in. They yelled to Lot, “Where are the men who are staying with you for the night? Bring them out so we can have our sport with them!“ Genesis 19:1-5 – The Message Version
The bit in bold is the key bit. The townsfolk want to rape these men. And for the wickedness and immorality, Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed, as we all learned in primary school. The point is not that this is God’s condemnation of homosexuality, but of rape and violence.
4. How can we exclude someone from the Love and Grace of God on the basis of something which is not a conscious choice. I do not subscribe to the theory that we pick our sexuality. It is far deeper than that. We don’t choose, we just are.
Maybe I’m just a bit too Arminian in my theological bent but I truly refuse to believe we can exclude ANYONE. The Church hides behind its long long history of being the social voice when it comes to these issues. Any other organisation would be lambasted into the ground if they acted the way the Church does over many major issues. Discrimination is not acceptable. That’s not a modern concept. That’s Gospel truth, my friends. Why, then, must we ignore this.
Next time someone asks you what the Bible says about homosexuality, perhaps tell them this. Love your neighbour. Love your enemy. Love.
In case anyone’s interested: Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution.” Literary Theory: an Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. Pg 902.