16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
Sexual Identity as Sacred
Presenter:Rev. Amy Russell
Sermon Date:Sun, 01/08/2006
Over the holidays, I enjoyed some time playing with my four year old niece, Sarah. Sarah's favorite activity is "playing Pollys". This means getting down on the floor with a box of her tiny plastic dolls, some of whom are called Polly. These tiny dolls each have a myriad of very flexible plastic wardrobes complete with tiny shoes which I can barely see without my reading glasses and wonderful feather boas and stylish hats. My four year old niece with her tiny fingers is extremely dexterous at applying these very sophisticated outfits onto these various dolls and then installing the dolls into a toy sportscar or tiny make-up table. I'm amazed that by this tender age already she has developed a sense of gender appropriateness. She is quick to tell me when I've got some of John Doll's clothes on a "Polly".
Some of you can remember playing with Barbies at a young age. Sarah also has several of these with their overdeveloped busts and tiny waists. I can remember playing with Barbie and Ken dolls and having them go on dates and the thrill of what these imagined dates meant even as I was very prepubescent. I might not have understood what men and women did with each other on a "date" but I still got that churning in my stomach about how thrilling it might be to go on a "date".
Some people when playing with Barbies and Kens got a different feeling from this experience. They may have understood that they weren't very interested in what Barbie and Ken did on their date- they may have been more interested in what the two Barbies were doing together. That may have given them that thrilling kind of feeling. Or the two Kens. But nevertheless, most of us began to have some inkling of what sex meant and how it was an exciting mystery that something to do with our bodies and the secret functions of our bodies that we didn't yet understand.
As we grew older and became adolescents, our bodies began to change, and for some of this was a terrifying experience. It meant that we were changing into something different. There was a sense of the power of what our bodies were hiding and what was waiting for us in the future. We were excited by this prospect, but also terrified. And to compound all these scary feelings, some of us began to realize that we didn't feel the way our best friends did about this new mystery going on in our bodies. Some of us started knowing that we really didn't want to go out with a person of the opposite sex but were actually more interested in people of the same sex. Or we might have become aware of the scary thought that we actually were attracted to people of both sexes.
Some research suggests that our sexuality is not as clearly defined on one end of the spectrum as one might think. On The Kinsey Heterosexual-Homosexual Scale, sexuality is represented by a continuum from 1-7 with one end representing homosexuality and the other end representing heterosexuality. The numbers in the middle represent some gray areas in between with the mid-point signifying bisexuality. The Kinsey research shows that only four percent of the population falls at either end of the scale with the rest of us falling somewhere in the middle. In other words, most of us aren't clearly homosexual or heterosexual, but somewhere in between.
No wonder the development of our sexual identity is so confusing! While we are being given proscribed attitudes about what kind of sexuality is accepted by society, inside there may be all kinds of interesting combinations of chemicals and experiences making us have conflicting feelings about our sexuality. Our development sexually in so unique, so a part of our developing spiritual and emotional self and yet is probably the most heavily proscribed part of our behavior as a newly forming adult.
Outside the westernized countries, how people express themselves sexually does not necessarily place them in a stigmatized group with a group identity. In other cultures, sexual practices do not mean that one is placed in a group and given a label. A Swedish study looking at sexual practices and group identities in South Africa, India, and Moldava found that while prejudice and discrimination for homosexuals was very strong, sexual practices varied across social groups and homosexual behavior didn't necessarily place a person within a stigmatized group. The study recommended, "We should define social spaces that give room for volatile and shifting identities and allow people to exist more freely without being stigmatized and marginalized due to self identified sexual orientation or gender identity." The study also showed that the freedom to express one's sexual identity as one pleased was closely tied to economic freedom and political freedom.
Our sexual identity is not just about our behavior with others. Our sexual selves have so much to do with how we see ourselves. What gender we identify with certainly influences how we see our sexual selves. But so many other factors are involved like whether we feel masculine or feminine, aggressive or receptive, playful or serious, daring or modest. We find ourselves playing with some of these different characteristics as adolescents, trying out different characters and behaviors, trying them on like a new hat, seeing how one fits when we look at ourselves in the mirror. Who can remember kissing your arm as though you were kissing a partner just to imagine how it might feel? Or trying out different faces in the mirror as you talked to see how you looked to others? While these memories might seem silly or painful, trying on different ways of being sexual or sensual certainly doesn't end with adolescence.
Some research shows that as we go through our lives our experiences sometimes lead us to new self expressions and that some of these may lead to new and different sexual behaviors. Some people may discover that while they thought they were simply homosexual, that may not always be true. They may be surprised to find themselves falling in love with a person of the opposite sex. Or if they were heterosexual, they may discover to their amazement that a new relationship with a friend may lead them to consider that perhaps they may have bisexual tendencies.
Amy Bloom in her book, Normal, says that "People who reveal, or announce, that their gender is variegated, rather than monochromatic or plainly colored in the current custom, have always presented difficulties." She talks about our culture which is resisting seeing the diversity in sexuality that exists in plain daylight if we just looked around us. She talks about how we look at Victorian views of sexuality and laugh hysterically. But she reminds us that our grandchildren will take a similar view of our prosaic view of sexuality. Bloom says:
A great many people, sick of news from the margins, worn out by the sand shifting beneath their assumptions, like to imagine Nature as a sweet, simple voice: tulips in spring, Vermont's leaves falling in autumn. There are, of course, occasional mistakes, a leaf that doesn't fall, a clubfoot; our mistake is in thinking that the wide range of humanity represents aberration when in fact it represents just what it is; range. … The platypus is not a mistake. The sex-changing animals, coral reef fish and Chinook salmon among them, are not mistakes. … Presented with Nature's bouquet of possibilities, a wild assortment of gender and erotic preference and a vast array of personalities, we throw it to the ground.
Bloom reminds us that we, like all of nature, come in a great variety of sorts and possibilities. We shape and develop who we are as we grow and part of that growth is our developing sense of who we are sexually. But when society tells us that who we want to be sexually isn't acceptable- in fact, is sinful, how can we possibly love and honor that sacred part of ourselves?
Alan Downs, in Velvet Rage, talks about growing up as a gay male in a straight society and how that makes gay men "disabled". He describes this emotional disability being caused by a societal message that being gay was unacceptable. As a gay man, you were not considered a "real" man. Only real men had power and validation in this male oriented society. Giving up a heterosexual lifestyle meant giving up any claim to power or authority in a man's life. Downs says that some gay men spend their lives trying to validate themselves because of this rejection by society. They try to validate themselves by creating successful careers, owning flashy material possessions, and dressing well. He says that gay men who haven't accepted themselves as gay are "validation junkies". And unable to feel any societal or familial validation, the rage within them begins. He says, "Rage is the experience of intense anger that results from [a gay man] failing to achieve authentic validation." (Downs, Alan, The Velvet Rage, p. 32)
Downs goes on to say that validation is an external event for most people in trying to get other's approval and acceptance. Sometimes we spent our lives trying to be accepted and liked by others, only to find that it's the acceptance and loving of ourselves that will bring us true "contentment". When we stop trying to meet the expectations of others, and focus on who we are in our beautiful uniqueness, then we can begin to experience joy. Downs says that this joy is an internal experience. We can only truly experience joy when we create it from within and recognize the value of what we have created.
This is true of all of us in our journey toward true acceptance of ourselves and our unique characteristics. Whether we are gay or lesbian, transgendered or bisexual, or heterosexual, acceptance of oneself as we are is probably the most difficult part of our earthly existence. We are constantly blasted with images of the acceptable from the media- the slim, fashionably dressed, successful, heterosexual or metrosexual is the accepted norm. None of us or very few people meet the standards of "normal" that we see flashed across our television screens and strewn across the pictures in national magazines. No wonder we have a constant national pastime of dieting and shopping because we are constantly trying to get ourselves to squeeze into that image of the perfect American.
This obsession with appearance makes the difficulty of accepting people who dress differently and don't conform to "norms" of masculine or feminine modes of dress and behavior even more difficult. Certainly we have moved into more acceptance of people who are lesbian and gay. But we have not moved toward acceptance of bisexual or transgendered hardly at all because when we see their behavior or dress, it doesn't fit the norm. Some are uncomfortable with what they don't understand and see as different from themselves.
We are all unique. How I dress, how I wear my hair, how I love- all of these things define me uniquely. And make me who I am. And make you who you are. If I can begin to love myself for my uniqueness, perhaps I can begin to accept you for your uniqueness. And even love you for your wild, eccentric ways. Or your difference in who you love.
As the poem we read shows, the Buddha and the Goddess can love each other. They became one in their loving. The duality of yin and yang became one. Emptiness- no desire for anything- merged with the full ripe desire of sexual bliss and wiped out their differences becoming Oneness.
We all see the Other as different, as unfathomable, as frightening. Many people are frightened by difference, by not understanding something so unimaginably opposite from the way they are. The diversity of nature offers us a glimpse of how the Universe loves difference. We are held and loved by a Universe that sees difference as the key to survival. Natural evolution embraces the differences that have developed in species which have enabled them to survive.
If we can only love our own differences and see them as treasures, perhaps we can begin to treasure the differences in others.