Prayer for Us All
which bursts forth in life
so varied and beautiful
throughout the universe
Help us, whose sight is so limited
to see with open hearts
the wonder of creation in all its diversity
Take away the blindness
that sees walls of difference
that erects barriers of misunderstanding
Give each of us the power to glory in who we are
and the grace and wisdom to cherish
each being in its uniqueness
Make us one with your infinite variety
Beautiful and whole,
and ever grateful for the blessing of uniqueness.
Sermon – Gender Bender
It begins before you are born – long before you are born. In fact, it begins about 20 days after conception. The human embryo, which many of you may know, begins female in all of us, in about 51 % of the cases, receives a tiny message (which we don’t yet fully understand) almost like a trainman at the switch, telling it, in effect to take a different track – the track that leads to becoming a male. This message needs to be sent to both the cells that will go on to form the body and the cells that will go on to form the brain.
Since female is the “fallback” position, sometimes called the default position – unless something extra happens to trigger the development of the male, the fetus will be female. If this switch does not occur, the girl train continues down the track, a few months later an ultrasound tells the waiting world what it wants to know, and the parents begin to get a lot of little pink gifts, teddy bears and dolls. If that engineer flips the switch, it’s blue blankets, and later on, cars or sports borders in the bedroom wallpaper. Think of “My Boy Bill” from “Carousel” (as unsavoury as that may be!)
But a lot of other things begin before you’re born as well – like people asking your parents “Do you want a boy or a girl? Like people hoping you are one or the other – a wished-for girl in a family of boys, or a grandson to remind grandparents of the son they lost so long ago. Then once people invade your privacy by peeking at your genitals while you’re still inside the womb – including that ultra sound attendant who you don’t even know – (sometimes the baby turns away you know – maybe it’s out of modesty!) there’s no stopping the tide of expectations, projections, social pressure and stereotypes.
Sugar and spice and everything nice; that’s what little girls are made of… Oh really… little girls like Margaret Thatcher, Lizzie Borden, Karla Homolka? And snakes and snails and puppy dog tails – this is what the Dalai Lama and Gandhi were made of? From before we are born, our society’s ideas about gender are imposed onto our tiny 20 day old bodies. From there on in, it’s almost impossible to sort out nature and nurture, although many have tried.
In a famous psychology experiment conducted several years ago, people were asked to describe the “qualities” and “characteristics” of babies in first blue and then pink diapers. The trick was they were the same babies! But the participants didn’t know it! They described typical qualities associated with males the first time – and females the second. The third time the diapers were yellow and some even peeked under them to see “who” they were before deciding what kind of baby they were! Who would we be if no one told us we were male or female?
So – we are mostly born into or identify with one gender or another – although not always, which I will get to in a minute. Yet it’s also true that however we arrive at our gender identity, sometimes it’s nice to feel the solidarity of sameness. Sociologists have shown that at most mixed gender gatherings, regardless of orientation, women talk to women and men talk to men. You can check it out at the next party you’re at.
When Peter first joined the church, a brave soul asked him if he would be joining the Men’s Group. He politely declined and when he told me about it, added. “I’ve already got a “Men’s group.” It’s called the Opening of Trout Season.” Every year since his son Mike was 8 years old, Peter has taken him and a group of his friends to the Opening of Trout Season. The “boys” are now in their late 40s and call him “Poppa G.” When he comes home after 4 days away, sunburned and stinking of soggy waders and fish eggs, I ask him if he had a great time with Mike and the guys. “Yup” he says, “What d’ya talk about?” I ask. “We didn’t talk, we fished.” That’s all he ever says about the “male-bonding” that goes on over Trout weekend, but he hasn’t missed one in over 30 years.
Sometimes the genders feel a need to honour their separateness. For many years our church had a Women’s Group that for reasons of solidarity, and feelings of safety on the part of some women, decided it was open only to women. The Men’s Group which formed later, felt this policy was exclusionary, and declared that it was open to women – but there were no takers!
Nothing personal, guys – we just would rather be in the Women’s Group. I have felt that same solidarity in groups of women – everywhere from among my best female friends and sisters to women’s washrooms, to marketplaces around the world with women whose language I do not speak and customs I do not know, but it doesn’t seem to matter. We look into each other’s eyes and the recognition is there, the simple connection of being women together. There are things about being men and women that we like, that are worthy of celebration.
In one of life’s delicious ironies, Shania Twain’s big hit song “ Man, I Feel Like a Woman!” which sends up in a light-hearted way the fun of being female, getting dressed up and going out – became the number one female impersonator/drag queen song the moment it was released. “Man, I feel like a woman?” You could see that coming in high heels all the way down the block!
But how does our idea of gender truly get formed? When I was in my 20s and first considering issues of gender, I thoroughly rejected what was called the “gender essentialist” argument – in favour of the “social constructionist” argument. In simpler terms, this means I rejected the belief that characteristics and notions about gender – gender identity for one, are born in (biological) and believed that they were taught or socially constructed. This fit my fierce young woman persona of seeing myself as capable of doing absolutely anything I wanted to do, as well as or even better than a man – a little like Annie Oakley in “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.” I found it insulting that the flipping of a simple biological switch 20 days into conception could overcome all the rest of human brain, heart, talent, inheritance and hard work to make some people naturally one way, and others another.
Then something happened along the way. That something was a lot of people I know had kids, and I watched. I saw the male children of pacifist lesbian friends who were allowed no toy weapons of any kind form balloon animals into swords at the age of 4 when male children get their first real testosterone surge. I saw the daughters of feminist Dads given Lego and firetrucks for Christmas whose first words were “flower” – beg for dolls – especially Barbie – for years. I know it’s impossible to separate nature from nurture, but I began to wonder if maybe there was something to that old gender essentialist argument after all?
Some of you may have heard of the story of a man who was born one of twin sons to parents in the 50s – at the height of the “nurture” debate. Men you may want to plug your ears about now. In a botched circumcision, his penis was severed. (This is the best argument I’ve ever heard against circumcision – OK men you can unplug your ears now.) Doctors refashioned him (as best they could) into a female, prescribed hormone treatments and told his parents to raise him as a girl – that was the accepted theory at the time, that gender was a social construct and he would never know. But he did know and spent all his childhood and teenage years unhappily trying to become the male that he somehow knew he was.
Many years later he realized his true nature, reverted to a male identity and met and married a woman with children who he adopted and loved as his own. As he said at the time, “A man is more than a penis. A man is someone who loves and guides his children, who loves their mother and shows them how to be a good husband and father. I am a man.”
Animal studies have begun to reveal that even among animals, gender is a two-part biological process – a process that tells the body which gender to become and a process that tells the brain which gender it is. Some of their research may begin to cast some light onto the identity of transgendered persons – people whose physical body and innate gender identity don’t initially match. But another thing that animal and plant studies have shown us is the incredible diversity of gender in nature (which we already acknowledge in human nature) Those who point to “nature” for their argument against same sex marriage or to discriminate against GLBT people need to do their homework. It’s a very diverse world out there.
Joan Roughgarden, a world-reknowned biologist and transgendered woman who teaches at Stanford University, writes in her book “Evolution’s Rainbow”
“Many animals, indeed, do not even sort neatly into two sexes at all. If you go snorkeling on a coral reef, about one-third of the fish you see make both eggs and sperm at either the same time or different times during their lives. These are called simultaneous or sequential hermaphrodites respectively and are said to “change sex” when they switch from making eggs to making sperm or vice versa. In fact, the most common body plan among multicellular organisms, including plants, is for a single individual to make both male and female gametes at some time during their life. So, the condition whereby an individual can be unambiguously classified as either male or female should not be considered the norm.”
Same-sex bonding and sexual contact is also incredible common in the animal kingdom, especially along the primates, our closest relatives. Quotes Roughgarden again:
“Author Bruce Bagemihl, in his book “Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity,” has catalogued over 300 vertebrate species in which same-sex genital contact regularly occurs. In some species, homosexuality is not very common – around 1 to 10 per cent of all mating. In others, such as bonobos, homosexual mating occurs as often as heterosexual mating. In some species only males participate, in others only females, in still others both sexes. Sometimes homosexuality is associated with pair bonds that last for years, and in others with short-term consortships.”
Sounds pretty familiar doesn’t it! It also sounds like heterosexual bonding, which sometimes produces ”pair bonds that last for years” (that would be called marriage) and other times “short-term consortships” (otherwise known as dating!)
So nature tells us that gender categories are fuzzier than we think, and that sexuality in all its diverse forms bursts forth in many splendored ways all over the animals and plant world. Then does gender matter at all? The answer is Yes, for in our human community, we are not as evolved as nature. Although transgendered identity is still far more common than many human conditions – for some the idea of gender identity feels literally like a matter of life and death. Rates of suicide among transgendered youth far exceed the ‘norm” if there is such thing as a norm for suicide -and violence toward them is a real issue all over the world! Transgendered people suffer from societal misunderstanding more than from any angst about their true nature, which often appears to them quite early. And it’s not easy making a life-altering change like gender re-assignment. Or as one trans woman said to me “The surgery wasn’t a problem – but what I really wasn’t ready for was the drop in pay!”
Here’s another example of where gender matters a great deal. Some of you may have read about the 62 year old Romanian woman who gave birth to a baby girl. (Whatever you may think about this, men have been doing it for millennia, where it’s often almost seen as a badge of honour. After his first wife died of cancer after 54 years of marriage, the actor Tony Randall found love again and became a father for the first time at the age of 77. Closer to home, Pierre Trudeau fathered his only daughter at the age of 71, after first becoming a father to three boys in his mid fifties.)
This woman was able to conceive with donor eggs and donor sperm, giving birth to a baby created by the genetic material of 2 other people. Some infertile couples find themselves in similar situations where the inability to conceive is on both sides. These couples too, would need to receive a donated embryo created from both male and female donors. Yet when that baby is born – a baby with no genetic link to either parent, the male half of the couple is listed as the father and the female is listed as the mother, which seems fair and right to me.
Now, let’s see what happens when a same gender couple decide to use the same technology to become parents – assuming that the clinic will take them – which up until only a few short years ago, was not the case. It’s fair to assume that many same gender couples feel the desire to make of their love a baby that is in some way a blending of their two selves the way many hetero people do. And one of the ways that some same-gender female couples choose to do this is to use one partner’s eggs, and have the other partner carry the baby, so the baby is biologically linked to both – the one through the genetic inheritance and the other through the blood and nourishment passed to the baby as it grows in the womb. Are you following me? (I told you this sermon was called “Gender Bender!”
When that baby is born, the name of the other partner cannot go on the birth certificate. (N.B. This has now changed, partly in response to advocacy from members of this congregation). That person has to legally adopt a baby that is genetically hers. while the hetero couple who have a baby with no genetic link to either of them are automatically listed as father and mother! That’s a way in which gender matters. It’s also a way for us to think or perhaps re-think the notions of fathering and mothering. And let’s not even ask about the obstacles when two loving men want to become parents together. At least women have biology on their side. Bodily possession is 9/10s of the law. Sorry guys, I guess that’s what we get for the pain in childbirth.
Did you know that Stephen Harper recently likened same-sex marriage to polygamy, and is planning to try to engage various immigrant communities as well as church groups to fight against same sex marriage. THAT’S a way in which gender matters! People, it’s time to get busy; men, women and everyone in between; our basic human rights are under attack and I believe the silent majority who stands in support of equality for all Canadians, are being drowned out by the not-so-silent vigorous minority.
Finally, I long for the day when we see each other truly – where gender of whatever stripe is seen alongside its counterpart in nature as one of the marvelous gifts of our creation – but not the only or even most important thing about who were are, how we love, what we have to offer and why we’re here.
I have a Christian friend whose idea of heaven is that all earthly boundaries are lifted and gone and we are free to love and cherish, encounter and marvel, join and share with all beings, of all kinds – in joy! Here on earth, we may come in different packages, but everyone has a heart, everyone a soul, a everyone a desire to love and be loved. Let us live so that we honour those common needs, while holding out our beautiful variety as the gift it is.
I’ll close with the words of one of our ministers, Jean Rowe, who says
“We have a calling in this world.
We are called to honour diversity,
to respect differences with dignity,
and to challenge those who would forbid it.
We are people of a wide path.
Let us be wide in affection
And go our way in peace.”
So may it be.