Friday, January 24, 2014

Apparently After 2am I Become an Augustinian


Once upon a time beauty was everywhere
But somehow when we fell it altered
Concentrated in particular moments
Made more beautiful by contrast
And the reign almost ubiquitous of ugliness
Was the triumph of the good
Everywhere truth fell to pieces
And we fed on her entrails in the dark
Yet somehow in the hungered frenzy
We tasted something Real
And knew it was a person
And longed to know His name
We cried in the darkness
And no one could explain
Except the darkness
The silence
The soft still voice beyond the waterfall
The one who could have been a raging fire
But chose to be a quiet whisper.
And that is how we knew Him
How we trusted
Because He hardly announced Himself at all
Just moved in to our heart
And became one
With no explanation, or apology
No accounting for this wonderful pain
Only truth and terrible beauty
That we long for
That we long for
Beyond desiring
Beyond the furthest strength of our hope
Where grace alone suffices.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

It's My Birthday Precious!

I've been away from the blog for a while. I have all the good excuses: Christmas chaos, six sick children, etc. But I've become increasingly embarrassed that the first visible post here is about Duck Dynasty. In order to correct for this egregious aesthetic fault, I provide the following reflection by Henri Nouwen. This comes courtesy of my friend Wesley Hill (if you haven't read his book, you must) on the occasion of my birthday:

Birthdays need to be celebrated. I think it is more important to celebrate a birthday than a successful exam, a promotion, or a victory. Because to celebrate a birthday means to say to someone: "Thank you for being you." Celebrating a birthday is exalting life and being glad for it. On a birthday we do not say: "Thanks for what you did, or said, or accomplished." No, we say: "Thank you for being born and being among us."

On birthdays we celebrate the present. We do not complain about what happened or speculate about what will happen, but we lift someone up and let everyone say: "We love you!"

I know a friend who, on his birthday, is picked up by his friends, carried to the bathroom, and thrown clothes and all into a tub full of water. Everyone eagerly awaits his birthday, even he himself. I have no idea where this tradition came from, but to be lifted up and "re-baptized" seems like a very good way to have your life celebrated. We are made aware that although we have to keep our feet on the ground, we are created to reach the heavens, and that, although we easily get dirty, we can always be washed clean again and our life given a new start.

Celebrating a birthday reminds us of the goodness of life, and in this spirit we really need to celebrate people's birthdays every day, by showing gratitude, kindness, forgiveness, gentleness, and affection. These are ways of saying: "It's good that your are alive: it's good that your are walking with me on this earth. Let's be glad and rejoice. This is the day that God has made for us to be and to be together."

Friday, December 20, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing or The Duck Dynasty Debacle


I can't believe the amount of attention that this is getting. Actually, I can. So I'm going to give it more, but not much more. Here's the deal: the guy gave an interview where he said a lot of offensive things, not just about gay people. A&E has a really slick marketing department. They said "We are going to have egg on our face if we do nothing. So let's turn this into a major publicity stunt! We'll fire the guy, but instead of giving the boring obvious reason (he's a racist) we'll make it into a gay-rights, first-ammendment foofaraw! We will mobilize the entire Culture Wars machine to create publicity for our crappy little reality TV show. Huzzah!"
That is the whole story. Pay it no more mind.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Sexual Authenticity - More Reflections


I just published my new book, Sexual Authenticity: More Reflections. It tells the story of the development of my thought over the six years since I published the first Sexual Authenticity. It includes the best of my blog, extensive commentary, material that was published in obscure places or never published at all, and some battle stories for around the yuletide fire. Because nothing says "Merry Christmas" like 100 000 words about queer Catholicism!

It's now available on CreateSpace, it should be available on Amazon in about a week. If all goes well, by that time I'll also have another book out. My husband and I are now going to go and argue about whether it should be the book of fantasy short stories that is nearly complete, or the book of philosophical dialogues that I want to finish first.

UPDATE: Amazon.com now has it.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Book Review: The Sinners Guide to Natural Family Planning



So I read Simcha Fisher's book, The Sinner's Guide to Natural Family Planning. If you're a couple who has just decided that you might give NFP a try, go ahead and read this book. If you are a good and faithful Catholic woman whose marriage is falling apart because your husband is a sex-crazed troglodyte who only wants to use your body as an object for his filthy lusts, you should really, really buy this book and read it right now (forget the rest of this review. Read Simcha. Here's the link.) On the other hand, if you're a couple who has just experienced their Nth NFP failure, you've already called every Priest and theologian that you know, and you're so frustrated that you're starting to think about jumping ship and becoming an Anglican, this book might not be for you.

There are some parts of the book that are really good. Simcha does a great job of portraying the genuine frustrations of being a fruitful, pro-life Catholic and her willingness to tear down NFP shibboleths like “the honeymoon effect” is highly refreshing. Her ability to build a rapport with female readers is quite strong; there were a number of moments where I found myself laughing uncontrolably in recognition. Just that sense of “Thank God I'm not the only one” can be really therapeutic.

She also has a lot of good sound advice for people who are getting over some of the initial hurdles with NFP, like the thing where the woman practices NFP by being completely chaste and pure and a Bride of Jesus through the practice of Holy Frigidity, and the man practices NFP by sleeping on the couch and fantasizing about murdering his wife. Simcha handles the content with a sense of humour and she's pretty up-front about the fact that NFP involves a lot of failure, irritation and general suffering. Also, big bonus, she gives a really good treatment of a lot of the judginess that goes on in NFP circles, and her illustrations of why we don't need to be more Catholic than Paul VI are spot on.

That's the good news. The bad news is that she raises a lot of very, very good questions, and then often does not provide very good answers to them. Some examples of situations this book will not help you with are:

If your reasons for avoiding pregnancy are not merely just and reasonable, but grave and life-threatening, and you can't get NFP to work.
If you have already obtained all of the "marriage building" communication upgrades that NFP could possibly provide and have effectively communicated yourself into a total impasse.
If you have intellectual or ideological reservations, or if your spouse has same.
If you don't come from deep within the Catholic ghetto and questions like "Is it really okay to laugh about sex?" make you feel like you're in the Twilight Zone.
If your problems with NFP are biological or methodological and not psych-spiritual and relational.

And now for the elephant in the room. Simcha describes herself as having "been married for fifteen years, we have nine children, and we’ve used NFP off and on. In those years, we’ve tried, with varying degrees of effort and success, to space pregnancies." Simple mathematics tell us that Simcha has been pregnant for a little less than half of her married life. If we assume that she experiences even minimal lactational amenorrhea, or we assume that it takes her and her husband an average amount of time to get pregnant, she has had no appreciable success in avoiding pregnancy with NFP. It may be that she has genuinely discerned in each case that it was time to get pregnant again, but someone who has a very strong reason why they really can't get pregnant would prefer to have advice from someone who has actually used NFP to achieve that end.

Finally, for the first time ever I get to complain that a Catholic sex-book is gynocentric. The discourse is for women, by a woman, and primarily about women. Men appear in it as people who have to be communicated with and treated with respect and love, but their perspective gets a pretty superficial treatment. There are numerous pieces of advice that are specifically targetted to men, but when I read them I thought “No. That's not how men think. That's how a woman would be thinking if she were behaving that way. Men are different.” Even when Simcha did her research and asked men to tell her their perspective, she was still really only quoting the parts of man-think that make sense to women. I realize that I am also a woman, but when my husband read it that was also overwhelmingly his primary complaint so I suspect I'm onto something.
In short, it's a good primer. It's an excellent antidote to callous NFP legalism. But it leaves a lot of questions that really need to be answered if we're going to find a way to make NFP work for anyone other than a trifling percentage of ultra-motivated, highly-organized super-Catholics.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Trans-formations

 (cross-posted from spiritualfriendship.org)

I wrote recently on being gender-queer, and I promised that I write about transsexuality.

Before I do that, I want to give some idea of where I’m coming from on this issue. I recently wrote a paper on transgender and transsexual issues, and how trans identities relate to the traditional Catholic teaching on essential sexual complementarity. The paper was 5000 words long. I could have written four times that. As the foundation for writing I talked to trans people, read their writings, and listened to the stories that they had to tell about themselves rather than just approaching their experience through the filter of the “experts.” I’ve seen my own experience presented by experts often enough to know that there is often something missing in an allegedly “objective” account, and that the something missing is usually the heart of the human person.

So the first thing that I would say is that understanding trans people’s experience of gender and sexuality is going to require a long conversation, and that conversation is going to demand an awful lot of listening before we start making judgements. This is something that I feel is lacking in a lot of the Christian/Catholic response to trans people: it’s often assumed that “trans” is kind of gay, only more so and worse. Trans people are seen as a wrecking ball levelled at whatever remains of the foundations of marriage and sexuality in the West, and their experiences (perhaps even more than the experiences of LGB people) are thus reduced to a political problem.

To give an example, a little over a year ago I was invited to do a brief interview on a right-wing talk show up here in Canada. I have a policy of saying “Yes” to almost anything that I’m asked to do, so I found myself watching clips of the show, trying to figure out what I had gotten myself into. On one of the clips that I watched, the host pointed to a picture of a trans woman (MtoF) and asked “Would you want this person teaching your kids?” The really horrible thing was that he was basically taking advantage of the fact that the person in question really wasn’t very convincing as a woman. If the host had used a picture of a really good looking transsexual, the audience reaction would have been completely different. He was appealing to his audience’s sense of revulsion towards effeminate men combined with their revulsion towards ugly women and was using that to undermine the right of trans people to work.

I really don’t think that the host had thought through what this kind of response to trans people means for the people in question. To him, as to too many Christian commentators, the person was entirely eclipsed by his or her sexual identity. The underlying assumption was that this person could just choose to behave and dress like a man, and that if they couldn’t it was because they were suffering from some form of psychological illness that would render them unfit for work with kids.

The problem is, there’s really no theological grounds for assuming this to be the case. Yes, the Bible seems to teach that our sexuality, male and female, is an essential part of our humanity “in the image and likeness of God,” but that’s doesn’t mean that maleness and femaleness are sacrosanct biological realities preserved from any kind of complicated conditions. We’ve known going back as far as the Old Testament that sometimes people are “born eunuchs.” The existence of intersex people – people born without a clear sexual identity, male or female, at birth – is a pretty unambiguous indication that a person’s biological sexuality is not always simple and straightforward.

How does this relate to trans people? Increasingly, medical evidence shows that our biological sexual identity extends to much more than just our genitalia and the “secondary sex characteristics” that we were taught about in grade 8. The Church has always known this, and has always taught it over and against gender theorists and feminists, like Simone de Beauvoir who wanted to collapse all non-reproductive sexual difference into socially constructed gender. In terms of the innate differences between men and women, the most important discoveries have been those which show that psychological, social and cognitive differences between the sexes are not merely the products of culture: that they are somatically encoded within the sexually differentiated structures of the brain itself.

This means that we have to expand our understanding of the ways in which a person’s innate sexuality might be ambiguous. If biological sex involves brain development as much as it involves genital development, then there is no reason to reject the possibility that a person could develop a female-typical brain in a male-typical body, or visa versa. Indeed, the medical evidence increasingly shows that this is exactly what happens in the case of many people who are transsexual. It’s not so much that the person has a mistaken perception about their body, as that they are aware of a deep discordance between the sexuality of their body and the sexuality of their brain.

It is precisely because maleness and femaleness are so important for our identity as human beings that most trans people feel compelled to somehow find a way of achieving a single, unified sexual identity as either a man or a woman. The internal conflict and confusion that arise from a lack of clear sexual identity can be profound, and the mental health sequelae are often severe – including, in many cases, strong and persistent temptations to suicide. Subjecting people in this position to social sanctions and justifying discrimination against them out of desire to uphold Christian ideals surrounding sex and gender is about as compassionate as putting a dunce-cap on the head of a kid with autism in order to set an example for the other students.

The question of how to best integrate the realities of trans experience with the traditional teaching of an incarnational faith is complicated, and it’s going to take a lot of honest work from people of good will. I do think, however, that there is one thing which is absolutely clear: that integration cannot even begin to take place unless space is made within the discourse for trans people themselves. Trans folks are not a problem for experts and theologians to solve. They are, first and foremost, the face of Christ, marginalized, bullied, misunderstood, spit upon and rejected, and absolutely beloved of God.

Sex and Gender

(cross-posted from spiritualfriendship.org)

I wanted to write a post on transgender/transsexual issues for the Day of Remembrance yesterday — but it wasn’t coming out right. I’m trying again today.

A couple of weeks ago, Ron received an e-mail from someone who was asking about trans people, and who wanted to know whether this is something that we’ll be covering at Spiritual Friendship. We tend to concentrate a lot on the LGB in LGBTQ, but the T, and to a lesser degree the Q, kind of get left out. The reason for this is simple: most of the writers here ID as L, G, or B. We don’t have any trans writers on board yet, and while I consider myself gender-queer that’s not really the same thing.

The difference lies in the way that I experience the relationship between my gender and my sexuality, vs. the way that a trans person would. For me, my sexuality (female) is a straightforward, authentic part of my identity. As much as I may sometimes feel conflicted or confused about this I always come back to certain essential features of my feminine identity. I am very maternal. This doesn’t always manifest in a predictable way (Precious Moments figurines make me shudder) but it is true that my primary modes of relating to my children, my writing projects, and my correspondents resonate archetypally with mothering. For example, I’m the one who intercedes with my husband on behalf of the kids; I don’t “invent” worlds or “make up” characters, rather I allow them to form within my psyche and I give them space to develop within my body. My entire way of relating to my own creativity is deeply bound in up in images of maternal fecundity and in the processes of impregnation and birth. Hence, I don’t find the statement “I am essentially female” difficult to affirm.

My gender identity, on the other hand, is a lot more conflicted. To try to give an idea of what this means, it’s necessary to first define the difference. Sex includes all of the aspects of maleness and femaleness that are bound up in somatic structures — everything from the genitals, to the secondary sex characteristics, to the sex-differentiated structures within the brain. Gender is all of the socially constructed stuff: girls wear make-up, boys play with trucks, pink is a feminine colour, real men don’t eat quiche, that sort of thing. Gender is not entirely independent from sex. Little boys gravitate towards truck and gun toys, and little girls gravitate towards dolls and tutus from a very young age — but it’s also obvious that these particular traits are specific to our culture (guns and trucks only came into being in the very recent past.) Something like the statement “boys like sports” stands at the intersection between sex and gender: in almost all societies, the majority of males do enjoy aggressive, competitive outdoor play governed by predictable rules. Moreover, there are hormonal and cognitive-structural reasons why these activities tend to appeal to men.
Gender, however, requires socialization. Girls know to wear pink because they pick up social cues that tell them that pink is feminine — and they pick them up unconsciously starting in infancy. I was a girl who had an ideological aversion to Barbie by the age of six. I tended to have both male and female friends — not because I was part of a mixed-gender cohort but rather because I had a group of girls that I hung out with as a girl, and a group of boys that I hung out with as a tomboy.

As I grew older my difficulties in relating to girls as a girl became complicated by certain points of dissimilarity: it was really uncomfortable, for example, to try to fake an interest in cute boys, to find boyfriends and cultivate crushes on guys so that I could join in the boy-obsessed conversation of adolescent girls. More fundamentally, though, I found that as my female friends matured they became increasingly aware of a whole field of social cues, interactions, and ways of relating that are foreign to me. For example, I just figured out this year that a lot of female conversation is directed towards affirming and confirming previously held social beliefs — building up community by going over familiar ground and reifying an already existing consensus. I always thought that those conversations were about nothing, and I could never make sense of the fact that most of the women I knew seemed to have real friendships that consisted entirely of emotional venting and small-talk. I figured that there must be “real” conversations (i.e. more abstract, philosophical ones) that happened at other times. Only slowly, as my male friends have started marrying, have I been able to start to understand that these conversations aren’t small-talk — that emotional relationships are established, social information is exchanged, even moral ideals are discussed. It’s just that I’m almost completely oblivious to the actual content of female discourse.

Many male readers will probably have had the same experience of feminine conversation that I’ve had: it’s boring, it’s repetitive, it’s about nothing, it’s gossipy, and it’s really easy to commit a faux pas by accident. Even though I’ve achieved a theoretical and ideological respect for feminine forms of social interaction, my experience is still, at best, that of a social anthropologist trying to keep an open mind while observing a foreign tribe. For me it’s much more natural to hang out with guys (because they make sense) and my preference for male company has been a fairly consistent since late adolescence.

The difficulty is that if you’re a woman and you hang out with men, the normal reaction of men is to react as though there’s a woman in the room. Man-talk dries up fast when there’s estrogen around, and if another woman walks in you are seconds away from talking about diapers and who’s getting married to whom. On the other hand, if you show up to the conversation dressed in unisex jeans and an Iron Maiden t-shirt, grab a beer, and start talking like guy it doesn’t take that long for the men to go back to behaving like normal men, rather than like men who are trying to be sensitive and respectful because they’re in female company.

The decision to adopt a relatively masculine gender presentation is not, at least for me, about subverting gender-roles or undermining sexual complementarity, or seeking a genderless society. It’s about social survival. Becoming Christian altered my relationship to essential, archetypal forms of femininity, but it didn’t make me able to successfully behave in female-typical ways. My attempts to force myself into standard feminine gender-behaviours have been consistently disastrous. They make me feel fake, and they’re never quite convincing to other people, especially other women. Even if I’m trying my best to be feminine, I don’t dress right, I don’t relate right, I don’t send the right signals, I don’t play the right games. I’m somehow off. Women sense that, and so while I can sometimes pass okay in superficial social settings it very rarely goes any deeper. My friendships with men, on the other hand, tend to be deep and intimate and much more comfortable than most of my relationships with women.

The way that we present ourselves to the world tells the world how it is supposed to respond to us. For someone like me, trying to conform to gender role is an occasion of severe anxiety, loneliness, self-doubt and depression. The way that I present myself invites other women to sneer, or to be coldly polite, or to be condescendingly nice, regardless of what I do. If they look at me askance because I’m wearing my husband’s clothes (and no bra!) at least I know what social taboo I broke, and I know that breaking it was my decision.

Returning to my original point, there is some overlap between my experience and that of the transgender community. Transsexualism is something else entirely, because a transsexual experiences their trans identity as being their essential or somatic identity. But I’m way over any kind of reasonable word-count at the moment and that’s a massive topic that deserves a post of its own.