[box_holder background_color=”] This article was written by Eliel Cruz and is part one in a series that will be exploring the topic of sexuality in the church. The views expressed therein are his own and do not necessarily reflect theHaystack.tv. Nevertheless, two of our goals at thehaystack.tv are: To give a voice to relevant views and people who are a part of the SDA Church, and to foster loving and respectful dialogue about these issues. Please take this blog series on sexuality as an opportunity to learn from the perspective of a young man who walks this road. -Keith Bowman II, Co-Founder of TheHaystack.tv. [/box_holder]
Exploring sexuality and gender is a lot like going into the gray. The gray typically represents the unknown, the parts we haven’t explored either because we haven’t wanted to or needed to. We are often afraid to leave our comfort zones and explore beyond the familiar. Some of us don’t have the privilege of staying in those comfort zones. For some of us, the only way we find our true selves is by taking the steps forward, like Peter walking on water facing his fear. He stepped out of the security of the boat and became afraid he might sink.
For me, stepping out the comfort zone was a necessity. From a very young age, I knew I wasn’t like the other boys. Although I was attracted to girls, I was attracted to guys too. The day I found out there was a name for this—bisexual, which means someone can fall in love with someone of more than one gender—it was as if the heaven’s opened up, and the angels sang. Because when you spend your life trying to figure out what is different about you, it’s a moment of huge relief to actually realize you aren’t the only one—in fact there is an entire group of people like you. I say I never struggled with my sexuality because it’s true. What I have struggled with is identifying it and my church’s response to my sexuality.
The response came before I even “came out.” I was born and raised in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I’ve only ever gone to Seventh-day Adventist schools, participated in Pathfinders, spent every Sabbath at church. I was a picture perfect Adventist. I automatically knew that just the realization of my sexuality made me estranged from the life I knew and loved. I knew right away that I was in that gray. But really, I’ve always been in the gray. I just wasn’t always truthful with myself.
As my friend and YouTuber R.J. Aguilar says, “Binaries are easier to understand. When you’re young, binaries work because they’re stepping stones for you to understand how the world works. You get taught about Night and Day, Tall and Short, Big and Small. But as you get older, your understanding of how the world works deepens—at least it should. That’s when you realize there is much more than just night and day. There’s midday, dusk, sunset, and sun rising. If you still stick only to the night and day binary, you would never show up to anything on time. That’s why you learn to tell time.”
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In the church, we continue to only want to acknowledge binary opposites, and it’s keeping us from “telling time.” Everything is either straight or gay, male or female, black or white. But that’s not an accurate picture of the fluid, complexity of the current version of God’s creation. We’re much more than that and we have to start stepping into the gray to gain a deeper understanding of all that God is.
We have to stop making sexuality and gender binary. The fields of psychology, biology, and sociology tell us that we are not at all binary but all part of a spectrum. We hear more and more in the church about this spectrum as our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Adventist friends begin to share our stories. For a very long time, LGBT people, like myself, kept quiet. We hid our truth deep in closets, fearful that we would lose absolutely everything and everyone we loved if we were honest. And as we speak up to say that we are here too, it’s requiring everyone to rethink their assumptions about gender and sexuality, and what the diverse family of God might actually be like.
But what does this all exactly mean? Gender? Sex? Sexuality? What’s the differences and why does it even matter? I’m going to be writing a series about that in this space, but one of the first areas that we need to address is some basic language and definitions. That way we are on the same page. I don’t at all think we all have to share the same theological paradigms at the end of this series, but we all owe it to our LGBT children, friends, and neighbors on the pew and in our communities to understand the basic terminology. So here’s a short primer:
Sexuality is the capacity to have romantic and/or sexual attractions to a gender(s). That means someone is capable of being in a romantic or sexual relationship with someone of a particular gender. When someone identifies as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, that means they’re acknowledging the potential to be in a relationship of someone of the same-gender (in the case for gays and lesbians) or of either gender (in the case for bisexuals*). Someone’s sexuality—also called sexual identity because they identify with that sexuality—isn’t attached to their sexual acts. That means that someone is gay whether or not they’re currently sexually intimate or even if they’re a virgin! Just like people are straight/heterosexual whether or not they’re in a relationship or having sex. Sexuality is an innate part of you that doesn’t dictate your sexual acts. That’s why it’s such a problem when Christians are widely known to be “against homosexuality.” That makes it seem like Christians are carte blanche against anyone who isn’t heterosexual. Of course some Christians are, and they really get a lot of attention, but usually, what they mean is that they are against same-sex sexual intimacy. That’s different, and we should use the correct language or we risk doing even more damage.
We often use gender and sex interchangeably, but they’re actually very different. Our sex is determined by our genitalia—it’s biological. That’s why doctors announce, “It’s a boy!” when they see a penis, and “It’s a girl!” when they see a vagina. Yet, sex isn’t binary. There are also individuals who are born intersex or with chromosomal make-ups that make them fall somewhere along the spectrum.
Intersex is an umbrella term, meaning that it’s a term encompassing more than just one strict definition, to describe people who are born with over 30 variations of sex anatomy. Some people are born, internally and externally, in neither purely ‘male’ or ‘female’ bodies. About 1 in every 2000 people have this condition that places them somewhere in the gray area. In the past, doctors almost always performed surgeries on infants to make them appear female in their genitalia (as that was easier). They thought parents could just raise a baby to be whatever gender the genitalia looked like. We’ve learned that is not true at all (based on very tragic examples), because our gender is much more complex than what is between our legs.
Gender & Transgender
Gender is a social construct that is based on social and culture differences rather than biological. These things fluctuate and change according to the time period, culture, and surroundings (for example pink used to be a color reserved for boys because it’s closely related to red, a “male” color, and blue used to be used for girls because it was “dainty”). Gender is also where we get “masculine” or “feminine” qualities, which can vary widely by time, place, and culture.
When people don’t identify with the biological sex they were assigned at birth, they’re transgender. Transgender people are born a certain sex that doesn’t align with their gender identity. They have pronouns they prefer to go by like he/him versus she/her and live their lives as trans women or trans men. There are transgender people in in media such as the talented Lavern Cox and NYT’s best-selling author Janet Mock. The term for those of us who do identify with the gender we were assigned at birth is cisgender.
Not all people who push back on gender binaries are transgender. This is where we get gender expression. What was once acceptable for a man 100, even 50 years ago, is different now. Men wore heels and makeup in Europe a few hundred years ago to show their nobility. Women wearing pants today is an example of how gender expression has shifted. While I may identify with my body as a man and prefer he/him pronouns, I can also dress in a ways that may not fit the typical stereotype of what men “should” wear. Violence against gender-non-conforming individuals and trans individuals is astonishingly high, even in the United States, which should help us all realize just how important it is that we educate ourselves so our assumptions, stereotypes, and language don’t feed into these cycles of violence and intolerance for gender differences.
God’ Beautiful Creation—Beyond Binaries
I know it can all seem quite complicated at first, and Christians are often seen as the number one group opposed to even acknowledging LGBT people.
Recently a prominent Baptist pastor said Genesis 1 shows clear binaries—that God made “heaven and earth, and sea and dry land, and so on and so on, and you end up with male and female.”
My friend and author Sarah Moon responded beautifully, she asks, “Can you stand with your feet in the muddy sand on the beach, waves crashing around your feet, tide slowly rising or falling, and honestly draw a clear line between sea and dry land?”
If we believe in God’s creation, we believe that every human is a child of God, made in the image of the triune God. When we look deeply into God’s creation – ourselves, in the world and people around us – it’s clear that the binaries don’t hold up. When we perpetuate binaries as the only valid options, we limit the awe-inspiring masterpieces that God has created in and around us by making us all unique.
For the next few weeks I’ll be writing for Haystack.TV on sexuality and gender. I’ll be covering topics the web editors pitch to me, but I’m willing to tackle some of the questions readers might have as well. I know I just laid a lot on all of you, but I hope you read, and re-read, this post. Ask questions. Do your own research. Push back on your preconceived binary notions. This conversation is important. It helps us bridge the divides that have been created between the church and the LGBT community (and, of course, we have lots of LGBT people who grew up as good Adventists). For me, stepping out of the boat and into the storm proved life-giving. It was Jesus who was on the other side of the waves, and we’ve been walking closer ever since I started being honest.
Will you step off the boat and into the gray with me?
* I can never write about bisexuality without making this note because it’s a commonly held and very hurtful misconception. Being bisexual does not mean that a person must be with a man AND a woman in order to be happily fulfilled, it just means we can fall in love with someone of either gender. For more information on bisexuals, read this post I wrote on 7 Tips For The Christian Church To Be Inclusive of Bisexuals.
Eliel Cruz is a contributor on religion, sexuality and media & culture at The Advocate, Mic, and Religion News Service. He’s the co-founder and former president of Intercollegiate Adventist Gay-Straight Alliance Coalition, an organization that advocates for safe spaces for LGBT students at Seventh-day Adventist colleges. He studies international business and French studies at Andrews University in Michigan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.[/box_holder]