Tag Archives: sexual identity

Emergent identities: The queer future of the church, too


At the recent CAPS conference in Atlanta, Mark Yarhouse and friends again brought me up-to-date on the quickly developing gender/sexual identity landscape. Their workshop centered on three things: a 2019 book by Rob Cover, the re-examination of their own data, and their practical experience with young people and parents navigating the new queer world on the internet. It was enlightening to explore emergent identities with them.

Emergent identities

Cover’s book, Emergent Identities: New Sexualities, Genders and Relationships in a Digital Era shows how traditional, binary understandings of sexuality and gender are being challenged and overridden by a taxonomy of non-binary, fluid classifications and descriptors.

He explores how and why traditional masculine/feminine and hetero/homo dichotomies are quickly being replaced with identity labels such as heteroflexible, bigender, non-binary, asexual, sapiosexual, demisexual, ciswoman and transcurious. New ways of perceiving relationships, attraction and desire are contesting authorized, institutional knowledge on gender and sexuality. The digital world in which young people have grown up has played a central role in developing new approaches to identity, individuality, creativity, media, healthcare and social belonging.

Two charts from the presentation show how descriptions of gender and sexual identity have changed since the 1990’s. The “residual” are vestiges of the past terms still in use. The “dominant” are terms widely accepted and presently in use. The “emergent” terms are those rapidly replacing the dominant understandings. If you have a teenager in your life, they might be able to teach you a few things about the emergent terms personally, since they are likely being asked (or pressured) to adopt a way to describe who they are using one of many new “micro-minoritized” identity labels. My seatmate suggested “micro-marginalized” might be better. I came away preferring invited to the “queer smorgasbord.”

The Church is notorious for being at least 20 years behind the dominant culture’s debates about the society being constructed. There are some good reasons for this; the best being that the church sees itself as a dominant culture for its members with an historical and eternal worldview. The worst reason being that the church only listens to itself and is defensive of its power to use words to dominate its population.

The church has been having a fight about “homosexual lifestyles” since the 1990’s and churches are still breaking up over it. Christians in Congress are trying to turn the tide back to some imagined past. The pandemic unleashed a wave of division over racial inequity in the Church (which made sense to me), but those concerns were often supplanted by sexual identity issues. My own former church basically dissolved itself over arguments from which the culture was quickly moving away.

I don’t know if I prefer the chaos and hyper-individuality of the new era dawning. I doubt that 14-year olds can adopt an “authentic” identity in order to find themselves. And I am afraid tender hearts and minds may perform gender and sexual identity and end up with even more doubt and a tragic sense of being alone with an overwhelming, over-scrutinized landscape. I texted my son while I was in the session and said, “Right now I am listening about asexual demiboys.” He replied, “People failing to overcome their anxiety and trusting a pornography-filled society.” He might be right.

Regardless, I think I prefer the “queer” worldview that is emerging. It may never become dominant, but it provides a helpful corrective to the “born that way”/this-or-that views of the past. It is a great gift from the LGBTQ community. Even without a queer theory to describe a common sense approach, my acquaintances and clients would show how gender and sexual identity are much more fluid than us older people were taught. We may have felt that in our own souls and accepted it in others, but we would not have talked about it because we’d be in an argument. Nevertheless, I know more than one man with a wife and children who decided he was gay and left it all behind. I know of a twentysomething transwoman who decided, after a few years, she preferred presenting as male after all. I know a man who left his wife to marry a lesbian who left her partner. If they dare, many straight friends can recount their various gay or lesbian experiences. Life has always been a bit “queer.”

Philosophers with a “queer theory” are talking about more than gender and sexual identity, even if that is where they personally begin. The Q in LGBTQ is becoming an umbrella idea under which the dominant and emerging “letters” find shelter. Even more, “queer” is a lens through which academics and others can approach their disciplines with greater imagination, seeing “outside the box” as so many entrepreneurs like to do. Queer is the anti-binary worldview.

Innately queer grace

As I look back on my work in the church, a lot of what I was thinking could be called “queer.” In terms of sexual identity, I resisted forcing people to choose according to  a church policy. I did not win that fight, even though I asked Janelle Paris to introduce us to her book The End of Sexual Identity in 2012. When we finally offered a “policy,” it had a queerness, a both/andness, which did not satisfy everyone, but it allowed for people to find their own ways and stay in grace. I’m not sure we knew what we were talking about, but it was in line with the zeitgeist. That alignment ultimately did not last either, like I mentioned, but I still think it was more about the future than what people fought about.

The church could use a big dose of queering. The biggest reason might be so it can have any hope of listening and speaking to the next generation. Some healthy queering would help theology emerge from its captivity to Eurocentric, Enlightenment/binary, cis-male domination. It would also let the Bible be as honest as it is about humanity, including sexual expression. When it comes to sexual relationships, the Bible is rather queer: there are polygamists, eunuchs for Christ and almost no nuclear families. While there is an assumption a man and woman should covenant and make a family, it seems like there is a lot of room for people who don’t do that (like Jesus!) and lots of room for love that goes beyond whatever the present boundaries might suggest. I wouldn’t put the Bible under the “queer” umbrella, but I do think queer fits easily under the umbrella of grace.


More Thoughts on Identity

Living or dead, we belong to the Lord (Romans 14:8). Our identity is in relation to God, not ourselves. This is the wisdom Paul proclaimed to his society (1 Cor. 1:30). These days, the society in which I live is having a similar debate about what is true. Much of the debate centers around the idea of sexual identity.

The well-known sociologist, Urie Bronfenbrenner, made a prophetic presentation in Philadelphia in 1973. In it he mused about the policy-makers’ reliance on “evidence” as opposed to wisdom. He complained that in child development studies the science of the child was usually based on the circumstances of the lab, not the natural ecology of the child. The application of the science then created a policy-driven ecology that was bereft of wisdom and even damaging to the child. When people asked him how to speak into such an environment, he had nothing to say because wisdom was not allowed. Policies about sexuality based on “identities” that are supposedly derived from “evidence” encourage a similar lack of wisdom.

These days, many people have learned a philosophy that is bent on finding the identity of things, as if we can reduce things, and even people, down to their essence and understand them. Christians and unbelievers alike all seem to follow this basic thinking; everyone is either “this” or “that.” As a result, most people are very interested in finding out, “What am I?” and being true to that. The modern enthusiasm for science encourages the process, and the post-modern emphasis on radical individual self-determination really encourages it. There is reason behind the development of this thinking, of course, but its application has become an oppressive law, locking people into the specious conclusion called “sexual identity.”  The scientists took our sexual expression into the lab and decided we could be homosexual or heterosexual, and everyone has had to find their place in that binary argument ever since.

I do not think there needs to be a heterosexual or homosexual identity, as if a person could be defined by their sexual desires or practices. It is a too-small way to see a person. God repeatedly tells us that we fallen-away-creations find our true identity, or self, or purpose, or destiny, in relationship to God, not in relation to ourselves or to another person or to our sexual impulses. A person’s primary identity is God-and-person, not merely a self-reflective definition.  DNA structure and brain wave activity are ways to define who we are; but we have a primary source of identity that is outside ourselves. I do not want to reduce a loved one to a “homosexual” or “heterosexual.” As Gore Vidal was fond of saying, “Actually, there is no such thing as a homosexual person, any more than there is such a thing as a heterosexual person. The words are adjectives describing sexual acts, not people.”

I am trying to move with how Jesus teaches us to develop a true self: “Those who want to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for me will save them. What good is it for you to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit your very self?” (Luke 9:24-5). The struggle with our bent sexuality, defined as hetero, homo, or however is too deep, too precious, too mysterious to reduce down to an application of a scientific formula, or a rationalistic definition. It is not enough. It must be handled in Christ.

I’ve decided not to bend the knee to the “Baal” of identity labeling in general, but surely with regard to sexual identity. While I may not be able to avoid the scrutiny and condemnation of the “civilization police,” who think equality under the law of the United States is freedom and think that such law must be spread universally, I still long for dialogue in grace that allows people to be on their own journey, facing the issues of intimacy with self-respect and the respect of others. I think Janelle Paris, in her book The End of Sexual Identity, has gone a long way to reframe the discussion so it is not just another divisive political argument, as if political dialogue is the only tool we have for gaining wisdom.  She says, “When disagreements about same-sex sexuality are just differences, not divisions, and when we share mutual affection and bestow honor on those with whom we disagree, we’re already living beyond the end of sexual identity.”

Reframing the question does not immediately make for good relationships with people who have already adopted the identity, of course. Since the seventies some people have achieved some freedom from societal oppression, much of which was based in the church’s teaching. At the same time, the rancor over the new definition caused an upheaval that hurt people and divided families and institutions. There are a lot of feelings being felt that cause a lot of conflict. Just writing this might cause some more conflict.

The other day at our training time, I shared some of my convictions to set the stage for the day’s discussion. I think we need to keep talking, even though it is frightening to do so for many of us. Here are three of the convictions I listed; I mean for them to add to the discussion, not end it:

1)  I want to maintain the complicated position of not having a policy about sexual identity. I don’t think God makes policies about people, or divides people up with labels — especially invented sexual labels. I would rather wait and see how someone’s life works out than be committed to a scientific/political label that became popular in the 20th century.

2) Besides, the labels are not always helpful or accurate. For instance, the UC Davis LGBT Resource Center now calls itself the LGBTQIA Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning/queer, intersex, and asexual center. The spectrum of how people express themselves sexually is varied and changeable. Our expanded interest in the spectrum is expanding how we see it. The labels are too small and end up being straitjackets.

3) The politics of sexual identity can be oppressive to many LGBT people. It often turns them into an anecdote that so-called heterosexual people tell to justify their righteousness. People are not their sexual ideas or behavior codified in law by the people who dominate society. The politics make so-called minorities pawns of the law, which only permits behavior, not wisdom, these days. We have a deeper law from God to sort out.

I hope we are open and affirming in a way that pleases the Lord, who is extravagantly welcoming. I think Jesus would like us to resist labels that exalt ourselves and diminish our identity in relation to Him (Matthew 23:8-12). Living or dead, we belong to the Lord (Romans 14:8). Our identity is in relation to God, not ourselves. This is a wisdom I want to proclaim, too.

Companion posts:

Identity and What the Idea is doing to Sexuality

The Language of Sexuality