My childhood family was fairly traditional in many ways. I was raised to know that women can do anything that men can. During most of my childhood my mom chose to raise children full time. It was always clear, too, that it was her decision, not an obligation.
When my parents brought home a rocket kit for my brother and I expressed interest, they returned to the hobby store for a second kit. My parents encouraged all of us to become whatever we wished, regardless of gender.
An example of this encouragement came when God called my mother to ministry. My father shifted his work schedule to help care for their children.
When I decided to study chemistry in college, my parents both agreed I would be a terrific scientist or doctor. Later, I discerned a call to social justice ministries. My family unreservedly agreed that “changing the world” was a great plan for my life.
Everything in my childhood agreed that gender does not limit potential.
I want to thank all those persons who came before and who continue to push for a powerful feminist movement. Without those women and men, I would not have grown into a confident young woman with an exciting, challenging vocation. My awareness of the benefits of feminism leads me to work for the end of heterosexism.
It’s important to understand what heterosexism is. The 2008 United Methodist General Conference, the denomination’s highest policy-making body, declared heterosexism is deeply connected to sexism. Resolution #2043 states that heterosexism “fosters stereotypes based on arbitrary distinctions of gender categories.”
Heterosexism blurs the distinction between gender and sexuality. It defines a person’s identity by his or her role in reproduction. In ancient days, heterosexism resulted in the complete devaluing of women unable to have children. In today’s world, heterosexism defines a contrast between feminine and masculine identities. It fosters an eternal conflict of dominance and submission.
Any person who defies these narrowly defined gender roles is labeled deviant or perverted. In a heterosexist culture, single persons are treated as not-yet-married, divorcees are considered failures, and those who choose celibacy are viewed as losers, freaks or religious fanatics.
Opposite-gender partner necessary
As a single woman, I have been asked, “When are you getting married? Are you trying hard enough?” And, because I work for lesbian, gay and transgender inclusion in the church, many people assume I am a lesbian.
Heterosexism installs in our culture the assumption that every person needs an opposite-gender partner. Heterosexism does not respect people who choose to live independently, like straight, single women, for example, because we are not participating in the cultural expectation to find a mate who can complete us.
Before the mid-20th century, heterosexism influenced more than just marriage expectations. Women were considered submissive receivers. Society ridiculed the idea that women could be strong or independent. In 1848, for instance, the New York Times responded to the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention by calling any request for equality “unwise and mistaken.”
But progress for women did get a toehold in the 20th century. Feminist movements empowered women to be heard outside of the home. Many women embraced new roles. Women attempted and succeeded at jobs traditionally reserved for men. Women proved they could be strong, intelligent, competitive and independent. Today, women routinely seek public office, become demolitions experts, run Fortune 500 corporations, and even serve as bishops.
New feminism wave
In recent years, a new wave of feminism has reclaimed traditionally feminine roles. This new wave demands respect for the work of full-time mothers, wives, nurses and teachers. This wave respects values like nurturing, care giving, obedience, emotional expression and cooperation. It challenges society to reappraise their value.
More work still needs to be done for feminism, but in 2010 North American young women are overwhelmingly encouraged to follow their dreams regardless of gender stereotypes.
This success for women highlights a contemporary challenge in gender roles. Heterosexism creates a competition of gender with only two choices: male or female, leading or following, strong or weak.
Therefore, as women take on leading roles in society, heterosexism defines men as conquered and weak. Men’s new role is one of defeat. Heterosexism prevents creative restructuring of what it means to be masculine.
I saw these limits of heterosexism recently. An associate with whom I work applied to nursing school to become a midwife. When the school received Brad’s application, an admissions officer called to ask for three extra character references. A man with a genuine interest in women’s health is so rare that the school assumed he must have a deviant motivation.
Brad has a passion for healthy babies and helping women through child birth. If he were a woman, no one would raise any of these questions.
What could masculinity become if we freed ourselves from heterosexism?
The General Conference resolution, I mentioned earlier, describes homophobia as a social attitude that exists to protect heterosexism. The most radical shift in gender identity is to imagine that two men can build a family rather than compete with one another.
Homophobia is about maintaining an unhealthy status quo. Therefore, it must reject the healthy families of gay and lesbian couples. It must discriminate against “people perceived to be non-heterosexual, regardless of the victim’s actual sexual orientation or sexual identity,” according to Resolution 2043.
Society spends so much time reinforcing traditional expectations that it can make no exceptions for a heterosexual person who challenges traditional gender roles.
In today’s world, homophobia often looks innocent on the surface. Examples include:
- Encouraging gender stereotypes such as little boys should play sports and little girls should wear pink.
- Asking a single person if he or she has found a nice partner of the opposite gender to “settle down with.”
- Ignoring the anniversary of two women who have loved one another for 19 years.
- Failing to include sexual orientation or gender identity in civic laws that protect diversity.
- Identifying a person primarily by sexual orientation.
- Not talking about sexual orientation.
- Ignoring the biblical interpretation of Sodom as failure of hospitality.
- Not talking about transgender or the spectrum of gender identities.
- Describing families as “mommies and daddies.”
Homophobia creates a culture that limits individuals and society to a very small set of expectations. But what is the alternative?
Including the excluded
As Christians, we have already answered this question. We have faced divisions of gender, color, nationality, liturgical preferences and circumcision. From the time Jesus stopped to speak with a Samaritan woman at a well, Christianity has been on a path of including the previously excluded.
Paul wrote to the Galatians that as Christians we must learn to love those we once ignored or hated. God invites us to see as God does: Every person is “clothed by Christ” and worthy of infinite love (Galatians 3:23-29).
If even the Jewish, male, law-loving Paul could see God’s plans for women, Greeks and slaves, we too can see God’s love and inclusion of all people.
Like the Galatians, who grew and learned from one another, we stand to benefit greatly when we deconstruct heterosexist expectations. With only the limits of God’s love and justice, men can claim the freedom to recreate and restore masculine identity.
Women and men can be strong together in Christ. Men can be fulfilled, complete people who nurture, are cherished, and play with rather than against one another. Alternatives to limited traditional roles can be found in the loving covenant between two women who build a life together. Two men who love one another until death can exemplify the possibility for a new masculine role of cooperation rather than competition.
This is the gift of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to the church. Homophobia prevents receiving this gift and growing into wholeness through it.
When we reconsider heterosexism, we can reclaim the good values of faithfulness, care for children, love and commitment that are part of traditional marriage. We can turn back to Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings to submit all of us to one another, honor God, speak truth, seek justice, care for the weak, and live in faithful commitment with one another.
With this foundation, we must learn to see relationships as more complex than simply leading and following. We must never ridicule a man who embraces a traditionally feminine career like cosmetology, teaching or nursing. We must honor traditionally feminine characteristics and encourage men who aspire to be nurturing, affectionate, sensitive. Our culture can make space for gentle, care-giving, obedient, and non-competitive men.
We can say yes to God’s invitation to love one another as we have been loved — no exceptions.
Questions to consider
- Think of a time when you have been limited to gender stereotypes. How did you feel? What did you do?
- Have you ever defied gender stereotypes? How did that experience shape your sense of self? Were you ridiculed for your behavior? Were you rewarded for your behavior?
- Can you think of any bible stories in which men or women defy gender stereotypes? How does God respond? How do people respond?
- What can you do to help your community discuss ministry which welcomes without exception?
- I thought that I could not be hurt (barefootpreachr.org)