Childhood friends teased me for “playing with dolls” rather than “playing army.” High school football players called me a “woman” when I auditioned for concert choir. A friend from my church youth group once told me that the “least I could do is sit like a man.” He said this when I crossed my legs by folding my right knee over my left knee rather than resting my ankle there.
All of that happened before I came out – either to myself or to others – as a gay man. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not separate and distinct; they are deeply intertwined. Indeed, at the root of “homophobia” is a thinly veiled misogyny, or more pointedly, a profound gender panic over the erosion of male privilege.
Every gay man should already know this, if not from direct personal experience, then surely from witnessing the treatment of women in our patriarchal society. Sadly yet also understandably, some gay men are among the most sexist. I say “understandably” not to excuse misogynistic postures but to appreciate the depth of patriarchal formation that shapes everyone, even (especially?) gay men, who have been told relentlessly to “act like a man,” or “butch it up” in public, or who puzzle over “straight acting” in personal ads.
The consequences of all this have become more apparent and dire with the increasing visibility of those who identify as transgender. The recent arc traced from former Olympic decathlete Caitlin Jenner’s gender transition to the defeat of a Houston anti-discrimination ordinance has now generated an open letter from some (anonymous) “gay/bisexual men and women” urging us all to “drop the T” from that ubiquitous LGBT acronym. This, they argue, is crucial as “trans ideology” erodes the “rights of women, gay men and children.”
To appreciate just how misguided and even dangerous this letter is, we need to review some ancient history here, both civic and religious, which is far from over and past. That history continues to haunt this present moment in ways we cannot afford to overlook.
Historically, and speaking frankly, sex has most frequently been understood as an act of penetration – a body party of one person is inserted in the body part of another. Gender is mostly irrelevant in these ancient views. Whether it concerns a vagina, an anus, or a mouth, penetration marks what counts as “sex.”
Not just coincidentally, “penetration” also describes conquest, battlefront victory, and more generally how one dominates a weaker party. That’s the point. To “be a man” and to “be a warrior” have been synonymous for most of human history. It’s not just lust that leads conquering armies to rape everything in sight in the ancient world; indeed, it’s not about lust at all but power and dominance – or I suppose we should say the lust for the power to dominate.
For the ancient societies that produced biblical texts, both “good sex” and “good worship” exhibited these dynamics of dominance and submission. As biblical scholar Stephen D. Moore succinctly puts it, sex in the ancient Mediterranean world was basically “eroticized inequality.”
Keep those ancient historical markers in mind and consider these more recent ones:
- Christian men in the 19th century worried about the “feminization” of Christianity and tried to create a more manly and “muscular” depiction of Jesus.
- The term “homosexuality” itself was coined by 19th century medical researchers to describe “inverted” men, men who acted as if their genitalia and emotional lives turned inward — just like women.
- Prior to World War II in the U.S., only the “submissive” partner in male same-sex sexual acts was considered “homosexual,” because he was “acting like the woman.”
- Emasculating African American men (treating them like women) has been a constant tool of white supremacy, from plantation slavery to anti-miscegenation laws and contemporary police brutality.
- Joking about the supposedly tiny genitals of Asian men belongs to a larger project of feminizing them for racist purposes.
- The Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq involved U.S. soldiers (both male and female) humiliating Iraqi prisoners with sex acts, basically making them submissive, “like women.”
- After Gene Robinson’s election as bishop of New Hampshire, conservative religious objections exhibited a significant shift in rhetorical strategy and moved away from the story of Sodom’s destruction, and toward the supposed “gender complementarity” of human beings in the biblical creation accounts.
- For decades, street violence and bullying has focused not on loving relationships but gender nonconformity, on “femmie fags” and “bull dykes” and even more on the transgender among us.
- More than a few contemporary Christian men have now returned to the anxieties of their 19th century forebears and are deeply concerned once again about the “feminization” of Christianity and turning Jesus into a “sissy.”
Drop the “T”?
Far from it! It’s actually high time we put the “T” first in our social analysis, political activism, and theological reflection. Perhaps then all us (especially white men) would understand better what biblical theological Walter Wink called “the domination system.” That system – just as pervasive in our civic and religious institutions today as it was in the first century society of the Gospel writers – creates hierarchies of value and sustains them with violence, the very system Jesus sought to dismantle.
Drop the “T”?
No way. Not when so much of our distress — from racism and colonialism to militarism and ecological disaster — is fueled by the deeply entrenched denigration of all things feminine. Not when so many gay men think that “marriage equality” protects them from the patriarchal-industrial complex that no amount of “straight acting” will blunt. Not when white, affluent gay men have never paused to consider what their civil rights have to do with working class women of color.
Drop the “T”?
That’s a great idea if you want people to focus on trivialities (like who uses public bathrooms) rather than the urgent task of dismantling the systems that place men over women, white over black, straight over gay, and humans over all other animals and their ecosystems.
Drop the “T”?
Absolutely not. To the contrary, the peculiar faith of Christians would urge us to put the “T” first for a world of peace and justice in which everyone can thrive and flourish.