Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Ideas on Identity, part 1

Last night at the congregation I serve -- the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist -- there was a discussion as part of our Adult Faith Development program titled, "What's the 'T' in 'LGBT' and what does it have to do with our bathrooms?"

Several months ago we posted signs on our bathrooms that identified some as gender-specific and some as gender-neutral and which raise for anyone who uses any of our bathrooms issues of gender identity and gender expression and challenge us to consider what a truly welcoming environment might look like.  (For more on the specific issue of gender-neutral bathrooms I encourage you to follow this link to all the additional links you'll find there.)  South African Archbishop Desmund Tutu once wrote that "the church should be an audio visual aid" showing what the world should be like.

I envision a world in which each person was encouraged to live their lives authentically.  I envision a world in which no one of us would be considered "normal" and another "abnormal" but, instead, the "norm" would be those whose self-expression and sense of identity were one in the same.

Let's stop there for a moment.  The dominant culture teaches many things.  One is that we live in a binary world -- good/bad, hot/cold, quiet/loud, hard/soft, female/male.  And we are taught to make sense of the world by assigning everything we encounter into one or another category.  Always one or the other.  Either or.

Unfortunately, as with so many other things -- not everything but a great many things -- the dominant culture has this wrong.  The reality is that there are gradations; things usually fall on a spectrum.  Life is infinitely more complex than either/or thinking might allow.  Consider, for a moment, what physicists have learned about light.  Once the quest was to discover if light was a particle or a wave, two mutually exclusive states.  Now we know that light is, actually, both.  Either/or becomes both/and.

Some people, though, would say that all this relativistic thinking has to stop somewhere, right?  After all, biology dictates that men are men and women are women, right?  Well ...

It turns out that this certainty can only be maintained if you look at only one facet of a person's identity.  A person's sex is the body they were born into.  Biologically, a person is male or female.  (Of course, throughout a variety of species, including humans, there have always been hermaphrodites who have biological traits of both male and female.)  But that's really not enough, so we need to add the concept of gender expression.  This is how a person shows themselves to the world.  Typically this is either masculine or feminine, although there have always been people who found either of those labels too limiting.  It's important to recognize that a person's gender expression is not necessarily the same as their sex.  For any of a number of reasons a person who is biologically one sex may express themselves in the world in ways more consistent with the other.

Another essential component is gender identity.  A person who is born into a male body can know themselves to be female, and vice versa.  This person's gender identity is not in alignment with their sex.  This person may have a gender expression that is the same as their biology, or the same as their identity, or, sometimes, either or both.  (None of this has anything to do with a person's sexual orientation, which adds another color to this beautiful mosaic.)

If you want to explore all of this in more detail, I encourage you to visit a valuable website, "Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity 101 ."  For the purposes of this post, though, I think that the most important idea I want to try and get across is that all of this is absolutely normal.  This is, in fact, the way the world is and the way it always has been.  (Despite what the dominant culture has taught us.)  And if the church is supposed to be an "audio visual aid" showing what the world should be like, it seems to me that one facet of that is acknowledging honestly the way that it actually is.

In the next post I plan to write about the next step -- actively engaging this complex and diverse richness as a positive rather than something to fear and struggle with.  'Till then ...

Pax tecum,