Consider this Perspective – Jenell Paris

Welcome to another installment of LOVEboldly’s interview series. Previously , Derek Webb (Part 1Part 2Part 3), Logan Mehl-LaituriTripp YorkWesley HillJen Thweatt-Bates and Peterson Toscano offered their perspectives on a number of issues related to faith and sexuality. Now we are privileged to share some wisdom from Jenell Paris.

Jenell Paris is professor of anthropology at Messiah College in Grantham, PA.  She is author of four books, including “The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex is Too Important to Define Who We Are” (IVP, 2011).

Jenell Paris

You are an anthropologist. What led you to become interested in exploring sexuality from that lens?

Personal encounters between Self and Other – friends of various sexual orientations, people from other parts of the world, and text-based encounters with Others in anthropology books, Scripture, and fiction – prompted my interest in the cultural dimensions of human sexuality. It never fails to invoke wonder and appreciation, when I experience the simultaneity of deep difference and universal human similarity.

Anthropologists study the human condition in the broadest view possible.  From a cross-cultural perspective, it is obvious that concepts such as “heterosexuality” or “homosexuality”, or even “sexual identity” are culture-bound concepts.  Like genealogists, anthropologists track down the ancestors of these concepts, seeing how they have developed over time.

 How do you think a view of sexuality with an understanding of the effect of culture changes the conversation for Christians?

Taking culture seriously means taking our own humanity, including our inherent limitations, seriously. There is no a-cultural vantage point from which any human being can view the world.  Christians sometimes claim the Bible is such a vantage point, and use it to mask, or trump, their finiteness as readers and interpreters of Scripture.

Taking culture seriously means we’re all in this together; none of us are above, beyond, or exempt from delighting in, and disciplining, our sexuality. Perhaps that seems obvious, but in practice, the concept of heterosexuality often provides a categorical exemption for some (a person may occasionally sin, but is, in their sexual essence, moral), whereas homosexuality is a categorical condemnation.

We make sense of our sexual feelings by using the language, metaphors, and concepts available in our society.  As Christians, both the Bible and the global, historical tradition of Christianity can broaden our cultural range, offering different concepts, words, or metaphors that can help us live in our own context with greater discernment.  Just a brief example – in modern English we speak of “doing it,” “having sex,” “making love” or “getting laid.”  Those verbs – doing, having, making, getting- are some of the most powerful verbs available in a capitalist, industrial context.  In the Old Testament world, the Hebrews spoke of “knowing” another person; sexual intimacy was a special way of knowing. The Hebrew approach can help us see the many ways we reduce the wonder of human sexual connection into an object to get, action to do, or thing to be had.

What do you think is wrong about the current gender-binary in most cultures, rather than seeing gender on a continuum? What do you think is right about it?

Gender binaries are deeply engrained; often, the very first thing said to a newborn is a declaration of gender: “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!”  Gender binaries reinforce and reflect the importance of sexual reproduction, and this is good. Despite vast cultural difference in our species, every human group needs men and women to reproduce in order to survive into the future.

One problem is the tendency of binaries to exclude, erase, or stigmatize those who don’t fit the categories.  There are a small number of people who, for a variety of medical reasons, aren’t exactly male or female.  There are many others who don’t fit with the normative behavioral roles for their gender categories.  Whether gender is conceived as a spectrum or a binary, Christians should be especially attentive to those whose humanity may be disrespected because of their difference. The creation story is helpful here; while it certainly emphasizes the importance of men and women in the work of stewardship and reproduction, Gen 1:27 mentions first that God created humans in God’s image; second, that they were created male and female.

The second major problem is that in the West, strict gender binaries encouraged similar categorization of sexuality. Human sexuality is more idiosyncratic, and for some people malleable and fluid, than current social and religious categories recognize. Contemporary science recognizes this, that human sexuality really is better pictured as a continuum.

You push the envelope in your book with conservative Christians when you say that you don’t want to be defined as heterosexual because “I don’t want to get life, secure my moral standing or gird my marriage with a social identity that privileges some and maligns others on the basis of inner desires and feelings.” You go on to say that “Heterosexuality is a concept riddled with problems. I’d even call it an abomination.” What has been the reaction from the conservative Christian community towards comments like this one?

In my experience, dialogue seems less fruitful with those for whom homosexuality is an “issue” or a “problem”, especially one that threatens institutional resources, leadership roles, or long-established theology. Those threats are real, and should be addressed, but in a straightforward way. It’s a shame when we claim to be talking about loving others, or interpreting the Bible, when we’re mostly just strategizing about protecting ourselves.

I love talking with conservatives for whom the stakes are high, but in a different way.  When the gay person is a son, daughter, friend, parent, or student, the relationship takes center stage, and problems and issues certainly don’t go away, but they are cast in a different light.  A conservative woman said, about her lesbian sister, “I had to stop trying to change her.  I had to stop judging her.  I just had to stop.”  She wanted a loving, real, mutual relationship with her sister, and while she still believes in a very conservative biblical sexual ethic, she learned to put into practice Jesus’ command to “Judge not.”

Sometimes I find conservatives are eager to betray heterosexuality; they feel stuck in a category of privilege that puts barriers between them and their LGBTQ loved ones.  It’s not about playing make-believe; sometimes speaking up as a heterosexual is a way to do justice.  It’s very different, though, to see heterosexuality as a social construct that can be used strategically, like a tool, than to see it as a God-created, taken-for-granted, morally privileged category that is part of a person’s essence.

Is identity rightly ordered around sexuality, faith, neither, or both?

My encouragement is for people to understand their sexuality in light of God’s love for them, rather than understanding their identity in light of their sexuality.  It’s a decentering of sexuality in human identity, not a dismissal of it. Telling sexual minorities to have no sexual identity, rather just be “Christian,” can be simply another form of religious repression that encourages people to deny, ignore, or minimize their drive for intimacy and relationship.

Finding your identity “only in Christ” sounds like a great idea, but really, it’s neither practical nor possible.  I am a Christian, but there are many other dimensions to my identity: national, professional, family, regional, linguistic, just to name a few. We’re human, created to have deep ties to other people and groups. But also, if I listed off every identity category with which I affiliate, there would still be a remainder; the mysteries of individuality that are never fully known even by oneself.  Following Christ opens a person up to a lifelong journey toward love; it doesn’t nail down self-knowledge once and for all.

The sexual identity framework – the idea that one’s sexual feelings are indicative of self – is a modern, western social construct.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not real; it’s a social reality, like our political affiliations, or the nation-state boundaries we live within.  Romans 12:1-2 encourages us to “be not conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”  This helps us recognize what is “good, pleasing and perfect.” We should use sexual identity categories with discernment, not take them for granted.  This means that for some, claiming a sexual identity is an important way of having a recognizable social role, and for people who have lived closeted, this is no small thing.  For others, divestment of sexual identity may be freeing, allowing them to honor the idiosyncracy of their sexuality, and detaching their personal identities from political strife.

More important than any label is the knowledge, known less by mind and more by body and soul, that we are loved by the God who made us.

 What is on the horizon for evangelical institutions that avoid or react negatively/violently to the sexual identity issues in society? 

American Christianity has shifted from an era of relative consensus to one of internal pluralism.  This is evident with respect to homosexuality, when even in conservative institutions, people are questioning traditional biblical interpretation and theology, especially in response to lived experience and relationship with sexual minorities.  But it’s broader than that; premarital sex, pornography, and even abortion aren’t condemned as universally or as self-evidently as in the past.

This is, perhaps, simply a new context for the perennial challenge to find Christian unity.  Can the church be unified, despite differing views of sexual ethics?  Can we be one in Christ, without being one in our ideas about Christ?

While they don’t necessarily need to change their points of view, conservative people and groups who were the spokespersons, leaders and standard-bearers in the era of relative consensus need to reposition themselves in a new landscape of religious pluralism. Ignoring the shift, or trying to push backwards toward consensus, probably isn’t the path forward. They also need to reconsider how their theologies articulate with new social realities such as gay marriage and parenting.  For example, if a gay family comes to Christ, should they divorce?  Is it even possible for them to follow Christ, or to take leadership in a church, or to be involved in the lives of other children and families in the church? It remains to be seen how conservatives will hold together their very high value on family, as family forms change.

I see intelligent, compassionate conservatives trying to maintain traditional theology, but with more proactive kindness than in the past.  This is demonstrated sometimes by using Westboro Baptist Church or other violent extremes as points of contrast, or by building strong interpersonal and evangelistic relationships with sexual minorities. This approach is valuable to an extent, but if successful, it will bump up against questions of true equality and regard; are sexual minorities worthy only of outreach and second-class church status (restricted from certain domains), or can they fully belong?

Consider This Perspective – Peterson Toscano

English: Peterson Toscano (born 1965)

English: Peterson Toscano (born 1965) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Welcome to another installment of LOVEboldly’s interview series. Previously , Derek Webb (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), Logan Mehl-Laituri, Tripp York, Wesley Hill, and Jen Thweatt-Bates offered their perspectives on a number of issues related to faith and sexuality. Now we are privileged to share some wisdom from Peterson Toscano.

Peterson Toscano is a theatrical performance activist using comedy and storytelling to address social justice concerns.  He spent 17 years and over $30,000 on three continents attempting to change and suppress his same-sex orientation and gender differences. Since 2003 he has traveled in North America, Europe, and Africa performing in diverse venues and speaking in the media. He writes and performs plays that explore LGBTQ issues, sexism, racism, violence and gender.

For those who may not know you, you spent many years in ex-gay programs. Could you describe why you decided to enter into a program like this? 

So many reasons all piled on top of each other:

  • Desire to marry and have children
  • Fear of loneliness as I grew older
  • AIDS and other STDs that I assumed I would get if I came out gay
  • Misinformation of what it meant to be gay
  • The desire to fit in with everyone, to feel “normal”
  • Pressure from society through virtually every film, TV show, pop song and commercial proclaiming that the heterosexual life was the idealized norm without showing any alternatives
  • Negative portrayals of LGBT people in the media
  • Fear of physical and verbal attack for being gay
  • Witnessing physical and verbal attacks of those who are gay or perceived to be gay
  • Desire to advance in the church hierarchy to become a missionary or pastor
  • Desire to please family and friends
  • Fear of losing family and friends
  • No positive gay role models
  • Having furtive sexual encounters causing me distress in a society that punishes sexual “deviance” (while an addiction to credit never seemed to bother me in a society that encouraged debt)
  • Unresolved sexual abuse issues that caused me to carry my abuser’s shame with me thus causing me to question my own gay orientation and self-worth
  • Low self-esteem
  • Self-hatred & internalized homophobia
  • Cowardice to stand against the tide and be myself
  • Living to please man and not God, bowing to man’s teachings while not actually seeking God about the matter
  • Oh, and a conflict I felt between my faith and my sexuality

Here is a video where I outline much of this.

Could you share your experiences with ex-gay programs?

I spent 17 years engaged in a variety of ex-gay ministry and reparative therapy. I received the bulk of that “treatment” in New York City, but also received therapy in England and Ecuador. In some ways no two ex-gay programs or counselors are alike. Some use 12-Steps and recovery models that are usually applied to alcoholics and drug addicts. Some will take a more pseudo-psychological approach in the form of Christian counseling or reparative therapy. Some ex-gay programs operate support groups that rely heavily on testimony and teachings from leaders who themselves are “struggling with homosexuality.” Usually there are religious aspects to all of the approaches, most often Protestant Evangelical, but also Mormon, Jewish, Catholic, and Pentecostal.

Pretty much all the groups I attended believed it was unnatural and immoral to be gay and that some sort of cure or change was possible. They all held up heterosexuality (and for men, masculinity) as superior to anything else. In some ways they were straight supremacist organizations designed to devalue, debunk, and destroy anything gay in their clients and the world. They looked for unnatural causes to one’s orientation and gender differences sometimes blaming parents, particularly mothers, or misappropriating the role of sexual abuse in a client’s childhood. In some extreme cases, I met ex-gay leaders who believed gays were possessed of evil spirits and needed to undergo exorcisms.

With their varied methods, most of these groups would disagree, but the basic teachings–it is unnatural and wrong to be gay and there is a way out–were consistent. Also, they mostly were exceptionally kind and gentle people, much nicer than most of the people I met in the church. They expressed a desire to help, that for most I believe was sincere. Sadly they were sincerely wrong, and their good intentions only intensified the harm they caused.

What was the moment you decided to come out as gay and stop trying to change your sexual orientation?

It was more of a coming to my senses moment at first than a “coming out.” After 17 years and many different failed efforts to change or suppress my gay orientation and gender differences, I understood that change was not possible, in fact, pursuing it was destroying me. Instead of cultivating the Fruits of the Spirit, I had grown depressed, self-hating, and compulsive. I accepted the reality that I was gay with the same tragic acknowledgment that someone has when they receive a diagnosis of incurable cancer. My mind was still convinced that being gay was a terrible thing.

But then something marvelous happened. I was living in Memphis, TN and I met many different lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, living vibrant, stable, interesting lives, not at all like the stereotypes the Church and the media fed me for over 30 years. Many of these folks were involved in their churches where they were leaders. Slowly I renewed my mind and transformed into someone who realized and accepted that being gay was a great gift given to me.

How has your religious beliefs changed over the years as you have come to terms with your sexuality?

I was raised Roman Catholic, then at age 17 I became a born-again Fundamentalist Christian. During college I began attending more Evangelical churches, and by the time I was 21 I joined the Pentecostal Movement of the mid-1980s. As I came out in the late 1990’s, I attended Episcopal churches and finally in 2001 began attending Quaker Meetings. I am now a member of Pennsdale Friends Meeting in Central Pennsylvania along with my husband, Glen Retief (www.glenretief.com). We were married under the care of our meeting in July 2012.

I have seen two major theological shifts. The first was a change of spiritual authority from external to internal. For years I looked to outside sources for guidance, assuming that the minister, the Bible, God in heaven knew better, and that I must silence all internal. I was a follower, and my primary responsibility was to submit to the teachings and wills of these outside forces. Today though, while I benefit from the counsel and wisdom of others, I derive my direction from within, often through silent contemplation in Quaker meeting for worship. Some could say I recognize that the Kingdom of God is within me, and that Christ has given me the Spirit to lead and guide me. My authority is found within.

The other change is how I view the Bible. I once believed it was the inerrant, literal word of God to be obeyed without question. I had no idea that the Bible has a history, often fraught and sordid, and that the 66 books and letters and poems we now have that make up our modern Bible came about through all sorts of human means. As I read, study, and discuss the Bible today, I am far more interested in the people in the stories than the precepts that I used to obsess over. I look for clues in the text about the lives and bodies and personalities of the people in the text and seek a different kind of understanding that helps me develop compassion and a sense of justice.

It seems that you have chosen humor as your way of addressing the problems of conversion therapy. Why have you chosen this approach?

Some topics are too hot to handle directly and need some padding. Humor relaxes people while it also exposes what is ridiculous and even cruel about a situation. Humor is also a tool to overcome trauma. When we can laugh at something, we take the sting out of it.

What advice would you give to someone who is struggling to reconcile faith and sexual orientation?

I would ask them to consider the sources of their struggle. Is it genuinely an internal wrestling with their conscious or do many if not all of the pressures come from outside–family, society, church, etc. The distress that one has over their sexuality or gender differences, is it matched with a similar distress over greed in their lives or a disregard for the poor? Why is that? What if they woke up the next day 100% heterosexual and conforming to accepted gender presentation and roles? How would their life be different? How would their relationships be different? What do they earn or gain from this sudden change? In looking at those questions and their answers, they may be able to better understand the source of their distress. I would also advise them to see a properly trained therapist and not a minister or Christian counselor.

Tell us all about your current projects.

These days I actually have little to do with talking about the Ex-Gay Movement. I retired my play, Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House. It is now available on DVD via www.quakerbooks.org

Instead I have developed work that highlights the Biblical scholarship I have been doing since 2006. My newest play is “Jesus Had Two Daddies.” In my presentation “Transfigurations–Transgressing Gender in the Bible” , I explore the stories and lives of people in the Bible who do not fit traditional gender roles or expectations–gender outlaws in the Bible. There are many of these. Bible scholars have remarked that some of what I bring out is new information to them. I have Good News to share about gender transgressors, which often include lesbians and gays as well as transgender and bisexual folk. In addition to my performance scholarship, I’m writing a theological memoir of sorts juxtaposing my own bizarre journey with Bible stories I like to tell. I hope to have the manuscript complete by May.

But it is not the Bible that has captured my attention these days.  My head and my heart have been gripped by the shocking, unfolding news about climate change and the impact our use of fossil fuels have on the planet and future generations. I see this as the single most important issue of our times, one that comes with moral weight and responsibility like none other we face today. It is the World War II of our generation, where we are called upon to face a common enemy, make sacrifices, come together, and creatively develop solutions. And there are solutions out there within our grasp. It is dire but not hopeless.

Perhaps our greatest tool to dramatically reduce our reliance on the substances that contribute to climate change is to add a fee to fossil fuels from the moment these are taken out of the ground. Energy costs will rise dramatically, and economists predict that this will alter consumers’ behavior. Most people will opt for the cheaper, greener solutions. Businesses will see the market potential in these new green options and will develop more and more options. To help off-set the increase in energy prices and fund the expensive change to alternatives  (and to make the idea attractive to Conservative lawmakers who are required to pass the legislation) the fee collected from energy companies by the government can then be redistributed to the public directly in the form of dividend checks. People can use the money however they like, but most will likely take the ultimately cheaper, greener routes and enjoy the extra cash for other things. The idea is called Fee and Dividend and is one promoted by the Citizens Climate Lobby.

It is not a perfect solution, but perhaps the most pragmatic approach available right now. There is a great role for churches and believers to help in this crisis in our pursuit of a simpler, more sustainable life and stewardship of the planet. We will also have the opportunity and responsibility more seriously address poverty as the poor will be adversely affected by climate change and even the switch to green energy.  No doubt these themes will emerge in my work. Already I have decided I will not travel by plane in North America any longer, except in the case of emergencies, so lots of buses and trains in my future, and lots of blogging and tweeting and speaking about theses journeys.

Here are some links that might be of interest to you or your readers:

Article in the Guardian: Ex-Gay Movement Gives Moral Authority to Bullies

Consider This Perspective – Derek Webb Part 3 (Advice to a Gay Person)

The first two parts of our video interview with Derek Webb have been among our most popular posts ever! In the first one Derek briefly talked about the lack of conversation about LGBT folks in the Christian music industry, and in the second he argued that everyone ought to have a gay friend. In this installment Derek offers advice to LGBT folks trying to resolve the potential tension between their faith and sexuality. In the whole series, Derek has demonstrated his humility and passion, but in this video we really get a glimpse of his heart. This one is truly beautiful. Thanks brother!

 

What do you think about Derek’s words in this video? How about his thoughts in the series as a whole? Anything to add? Anything you take exception to? Let us know in the comments section below. LOVEboldly!