Unwrapping the Onion: Part 4: When It Doesn’t Add Up

This post is part of a series of nine posts. Please click here to start with the series Introduction.

I had always been under the impression that LGBTQ people were a new phenomenon. That the population of gay and transgender people had really taken off during the modern age those “godless” sixties. And that before it had become “cool” to be gay, virtually no one was. But that wasn’t making sense anymore. Even today, being queer continues to unleash considerable bias and discrimination. Kids are still routinely getting kicked out of their homes for admitting they are gay or trans. I couldn’t see any benefit to coming out as LGBTQ unless that really was who that person was.

In my research I had begun to uncover stories of gay people throughout history, and not only that, transgender people were around too. Throughout history is a whole list of people who upon their deaths were discovered to have anatomy which did not conform with the gender they had publicly lived as. Some of these persons were quite famous such as Chevalier d’Eon, a French diplomat during the 18th century; but most of them were ordinary people who knew that the gender assigned at birth did not match them. Growing up I had read some stories about women who disguised themselves as men to serve in the military such as during the Civil War, but what I hadn’t picked up on then but discovered later is how many of them continued to live as men after the war ended. Without the help of any of the medical advances of today, these people transitioned to living authentic lives in the gender that they felt fit them. My research was starting to point towards gender variant people as being a part of the diversity of the human family whose source was from antiquity. The myth of transgender persons being new or a radical experiment of the psychological community didn’t add up.

Because the Catholic church took a different position on LGBTQ issues than did the conservative Protestants among whom I had been raised, I talked about transsexuals with a man studying to be a catholic priest. I had hoped that he might be able to give me some knowledge, some wisdom, some word from god, but his recent and ongoing education seemed really out of date. He tried to be kind and considerate, but seemed convinced that transsexuals were either homosexuals trying to attract men who wanted to change their bodies to achieve that goal,  or they were an autogynephiliac, meaning that they were “sexually aroused by the idea of having female body parts to play with.”

Neither of these sexually charged explanations made any sense to me. First off, from what I had read, many transsexuals (including my spouse) were very attracted to women, and they had no interest in changing their body to attract male attention. Any physical changes they made seemed to be made for themselves, not anyone else. And how did this theory on transsexuality apply to female-born persons who transitioned to living as men? Were they changing their bodies to be more attractive to men? The second explanation he offered wasn’t any better: my spouse did not have an obsession with having female parts to masturbate with. A transgender person who seeks to make physical changes, is willing to accept a variety of outcomes, including unforeseeable changes to sexual function. I could hardly see how someone with a sexual obsession would be willing to take those risks and make those sacrifices. And again, how did these explanations apply to transgendered people throughout history who had lived for years in the gender opposite that assigned to them at birth? This was centuries before the modern therapy options had become available, and they would not have been able to change much about their bodies. Many of them lived completely celibate lives, so that their secret would never be found out. This did not sound like a sexual obsession to me. Even today there are trans people who are happy living in their chosen gender without doing any modification to their bodies. The theories the priestly candidate gave me seemed full of holes. I started to feel more and more frustrated. People weren’t fitting into my nice little religious boxes anymore.

Furthermore, in my reading I had started to realize that LGBTQ people were denied many of the legal rights I took for granted. Growing up as a conservative Christian I was always under the impression that our rights were being snatched away one by one by the liberal and secular government. Now I was starting to realize how many U.S laws were based on religion. A straight person was free to marry who they fell in love with, but if a gay person fell in love and wanted to make a commitment to that person and have the legal rights that such a union provided they were not allowed to. Parents who came out as gay or lesbian persons often lost custody of their children to the straight parent in a divorce, and in many states LGBT people could be fired or even denied housing based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, real or perceived. I could not come up with a reason these laws existed other than religious understandings of the legal contract of marriage and sexuality, and the religious bias that made employers and landlords want the right to discriminate.

At this point I still believed that God was not OK with people “acting on unnatural desires,” but if people really were just born with these issues, and did not get them through any desire or action on their part, then why were religious people trying so hard to make life difficult for them regardless of the religion these people were a part of? And how was it alright for a government to be enforcing laws based on any religion? I thought about how scary it would be if an employer decided my spouse was too feminine and fired him and we had no legal recourse. How was this an OK law? I was horrified that people could have their children taken away from them simply because they didn’t fit into a nice little religious box and play up what society had decided was the “norm.” How did that have anything to do with their ability to love and care for their child?

When I tried to talk about this new understanding with people I knew, they were shocked. Some of them became visibly angry and accused me of abandoning my religious beliefs. In one conversation with one person, I tried to explain why I felt it was wrong for landlords to be able to deny people housing based on their sexual orientation, the reply I received was this:

“Melissa, think about it. If you could only afford to live in one apartment complex in town, and there were gay people living there, would you really want your children exposed to that?”

My heart sank into my gut. To this person LGBTQ people were perverts, a menace to society and a danger to children. If this person knew my spouse’s secret, or even my own same-sex attraction, would they feel safe having us around their children? Would this person feel we were unfit to have children ourselves? To most of the religious people I spoke with, giving all people equal rights meant that they were giving up religious rights somehow.

They simply could not put themselves in a gay person’s shoes, even for a moment, and I was ashamed to realize that
I had never tried to think about it myself until I recognized
the issue in my life.

  • Anonymous

    This series has me so completely riveted. I am in awe of your courage and strength to have come as far as you have with so much stacked against you. Please keep writing, my best wishes to you and your spouse.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17871256362646081536 Amber

    Yes! These are the conclusions I came up with, why would the government pass legislation that is so connected to harmful religious dogma?

    Beautifully written.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08135229596877003069 Michelle

    Unfortunately, in your conversation with the man studying to become a priest, you simply got more of what is to be expected in society instead of authentic Catholic response/information. Catholics, in general, are just as ignorant of LGBTQ things as everyone else.

    Something that I struggle with is the fact that in America (especially) many Catholics do not know what their faith teaches on many important things. Catechesis has been poor in all areas. As you mentioned in your post you linked to the other day…The Church does teach that deviant sexual behavior of heterosexuals is sinful, too. But, as you note, it's easier for heterosexuals to hide their sexual sin because they are heterosexual. No one knows if a married couple are using contraception except that married couple and unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation out there that makes people belive that "anything goes" as long as you have a valid marriage and that's not the teaching of the Church.

    I really struggle with how I feel on the laws, etc. Even recently, as a Catholic, I have felt attacked on some core beliefs I hold.

    Due to the way our government is set up, the electorate is supposed to be able to make the decision about who is in office and if they are displeased with the performance of elected officials, the electorate has the opportunity to replace those elected officials on regular intervals.

    It's difficult. I guess if one cares about these things, it will never be easy…I would imagine it should not be easy.

    okay…not trying to ramble…failing miserably

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09339024910274301559 jen

    I agree with Anonymous. This must be so hard to talk about, but it's a perspective that a lot of people could learn from, if they are only willing to…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13738377880145008895 Kim Hosey

    Ditto above. This is illuminating, beautiful, honest, and amazingly courageous. I think telling some of those close to you, knowing what their reactions would likely be, must have been even more difficult than sharing it here. You have my admiration and rapt attention.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09586721197750246060 Lara

    It's so interesting to me that in-spite of everything, you and your husband seem like a totally perfect match. It makes me happy that you have each other. Sending love to your beautiful family!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10329947206142706470 Peter and Nancy

    I have often wondered how Christians expect exclusively "Christian" laws in a country that is supposed to accept people of all faiths. For example, I am a Christian, but I'm opposed to having official prayer in school because I respect other families' rights to have a different religion than mine, and I would not want people of another faith to force my kids to pray in ways that contradict our family's beliefs. Same goes for legal rights regarding housing and jobs — there is no legal or moral justification for discrimination against LBGTQ people.

    Even for people who have religious objections to particular behaviors, I always hope that the law of love would win in how we treat people. The example set by Christ is that each person is a unique individual created in the image of God, and deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. I am praying that your families have received you with that spirit of love, and are able to go on loving and treating you respectfully despite any disagreement they may have with what you're sharing here. Hoping for that . . . but afraid to hear what really happened.

  • Anonymous

    So generously and selflessly written. I am standing with you.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10853868724554947854 Sheila

    A lot of our more religious friends believe in discriminatory laws too. (We're Catholic.) But it seems to me that if I want the right not to be discriminated against for my own religious, sexual, and personal choices, everyone else deserves the same right too. What if it was allowed to discriminate against me for my number of children, my religion, or my opinions? Is it unfair to expect people to put up with living in the same building with a Catholic? Then I don't think it's unfair to expect people to put up with living in the same building with a gay couple. You can explain as much about it to your kids as you feel comfortable with, or none of it at all. When I was growing up, two men lived next door to us. We were friendly with them, and my mom told me they were "housemates." In retrospect they were probably gay. I didn't know anything about homosexuality, though, so it didn't really matter. They were just some nice guys who lived next door that we sometimes talked to. How does that hurt anyone? Why should I have had the right to live there, and not them?

  • Caravelle

    I was ashamed to realize that
    I had never tried to think about it myself until I recognized
    the issue in my life.

    You know, I guess that can be something to be ashamed of, but really everyone is naturally more understanding of issues they have a personal involvement with. For an extreme example, look at how the radical difference in gay-acceptance between Republican politicians who have gay children, and those that don't.

    What you should NOT be ashamed of is how you generalized from your own experience, realized that other people have similar issues and leveraged that knowledge to be a more tolerant person overall (…or so I presume from reading your blog for some time :p). Afer all, again look at those politicians who revisit their stance on gay rights when it turns out they have gay children, but don't think to revisit their stances on other minorities, or the poor, or women, or…

    Making mistakes is normal. Recognizing and correcting those mistakes is good. Moving forward trying to not reproduce those mistakes is the hardest part, and that's laudable.

    For what it's worth I don't comment on each post of this series because I don't have something to say for all of them and I figure just writing "great series, thanks for writing it" nine times in a row is a bit redundant, but that's what I think each time I read one.

  • Anonymous

    I'm blown away by how lucky you two, a closeted trans woman and a closeted bi/pan woman, were to end up together in such a conservative, heteronormative environment. Thank you for sharing your story.

  • Nerdiah the Atheist

    I was just thinking the same thing. Maybe there's a God after all :-)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18261932798380141520 Latebloomer

    I really appreciate your willingness to share your story in such a vulnerable manner….it's going to help a lot of people who find themselves in similar situations, and it's going to help a lot of people (including me) to understand more about the issues LGBTQ people face. Thank you for your courage.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, she rightly called them "housemates," instead of making your tender, innocent mind have to think about the actual reality of homosexuality. Kudos to your Mom. You didn't need to think about that, your life was fine, you figured it out later, and you still think fondly about the situation. What harm was done? None. But try to tell a gay activist that. ALL CHILDREN MUST THINK ABOUT 2 MEN KISSING EACH OTHER AS EARLY AS POSSIBLE!

    People need to realize that some of us who want to protect our kids from homosexuality at a young age are doing so not to teach hate and bigotry, but to maintain their rightful innocence.

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

    How unfortunate that what immediately comes to your mind when you think of gay people is two men kissing. That's not what comes to my mind at all. I have lots of gay friends, and I have to confess, I have not ever thought about them kissing. I have lots of straight friends too, and I don't think about them kissing either. Why would that be the first thing to spring to my mind? That's silly! We've had straight couples and gay couples over, and I don't think my preschool daughter recognizes any difference there at all. Why should she? We tell her that sometimes people people fall in love with someone of the opposite gender, and sometimes they fall in love with someone of the same gender. Why should that bother her or "rob her of innocence?"

    With all due respect, I think your comment says more about you than it does about gay people.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03014085888014257950 Benjamin Allen

    Yes, it does say more about him than it does about gay people. It affirms the consequent by assuming that there is something wrong with two men kissing that will despoil a child's innocence in the first place. Do mom and dad kiss? Do mom and dad do other things? Sure. Does the kid know of these things? Maybe in some form depending on age. So why is it so horrible that they have a knowledge of two men loving eachother? Oh, that is right. because our friend up there IS teaching hatred and bigotry. "Protecting them from homosexuality" please. He means teaching them to fear and hate homosexuality. He even slanders gay activists. Has he (I am using he as neuter, because english does not have a gender-free pronoun that is appropriate to use with human beings) ever actually sat down and had a conversation with a "gay activist"?

    We dont want children to be exposed to any overtly sexual activity until they are old enough. However, they do understand concepts like love and affection. The simple explanation that "sometimes two men or two women fall in love just like mommy and daddy did with eachother" is more than sufficient in the eyes of the vast majority of the gay community.

    Whenever someone's mind reels back at the thought of two men kissing, I immediately think that "The lady doth protest too much". I am openly gay, and the first thing I think about when I see another gay couple has nothing to do with kissing or any other form of physical intimacy. That this person's first thought is that indicates a hell of a lot more about what goes on in his or her mind than it does about anything else.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03014085888014257950 Benjamin Allen

    Yes. Yes it does. I will be rather blunt. The people who react to homosexuality that way–thinking it robs children of innocence, and indeed, immediately thinking about two men kissing, when other gay people think of no such thing when they meet gay couples–are reacting that way for one reason.

    Studies have repeatedly shown that the people who do this–the people most angrily pre-occupied with the sexual practices of gay people–are secretly aroused by said gay sexual practices and are trying to suppress or cover-up their own hidden desires. In much the same way that the worst inquisitors in renaissance spain were often crypto-jews themselves. How do we know? Well, it can be measured in the lab by attaching a variety of devices to the skin, genitals, or even inside the brain in order to measure changes in "engorgement", perspiration,heart rate, brain activity. Oh yes. The neuroscientists have these people pinned down pretty well.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09779444962182438901 Enigma

    That's exactly what i always say!! it's the first time i've ever really believed in miracles. lol :)How fantastic

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    In English there's zie when you don't know if it's a he or she or neither or both and hir for her/his/… iirc

    I think it does indeed harm them not knowing LGBTQ people exists because they can be LGBTQ or have some friends or schoolmates that are LGBTQ. You don't need to give all the gritty details of anal sex to a 4 years old, you just need to slowly teach them that there are boys who like girls, boys who like boys, girls who like girls, …

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03014085888014257950 Benjamin Allen

    Huh. Ignore the double post. When I logged in, I thought it had eaten my initial response

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Anonymous, my mom never "protected me from homosexuality" and I can assure that you that my innocence was quite intact. My mom had the opportunity to explain homosexuality to me when she had a lesbian colleague over to dinner with her partner. I was curious about what the relationship between the two of them was, and so my mom explained that they loved each other "like Daddy and I do" and that some people love people of the same sex the way other people love people of the opposite sex.

    I don't think I ever thought about them kissing and I certainly never thought about them doing anything more sexual. Why would I have? I didn't think about heterosexual couples doing those things at that age–I barely knew what they were. Little kids grasp the idea of romantic love, but they don't understand sexuality yet. My innocence was no more sullied by my understanding that these two women were a romantic couple than it was by the countless times I understood the male-female pairs in my life to be romantic couples.

    When you say you want to protect children from homosexuality, you are already implying that homosexuality is something that children need to be protected from, that their is something inherently depraved about it that would hurt a child's innocence. And that is bigoted, whether you realize it or not.

    Also, let me remind you that some children never have the opportunity to be "protected" from gay people because their parents ARE gay people. And those children do just as well as other children. Are you prepared to say that children of gay couples are inherently deprived of the innocence of childhood?

    And if so, are you still willing to claim that this view has nothing to do with a belief that gay people are less-than? Which would be…bigotry.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    I remember reading your posts about LGBT rights way back when and being very impressed with how how strong you were in your commitment to equality in public life for people who lived in a way that you were clearly still working out your own private feelings about. Learning more about the very intimate context in which you were having that struggle just makes me admire you more.

    You have a passion for fairness and an unusual ability to put human beings over dogma. A true humanist. :-P Nothing terribly insightful to say here, but I just wanted to stop in and continue to register my support and admiration and express hope for you and your family's wellbeing. Eagerly looking forward to the next installment. You are awesome.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    whoops, that last comment should have been posted on the general thread, not as a reply to another comment. Sorry. :-P

  • Elizabeth

    Thank you for posting this series. Although my hubbie and I don't struggle with this particular issue, we do deal with another issue that our friends would be very surprised to know about, so I understand how hard this must be to put out there. This is honest, engaging and frankly riveting. I'm definitely standing by you.

  • Anonymous

    I don't know about the rest of you, but when I found out about intercourse, and how people "do it," that's all I could think of when I saw 2 parents with kids. To say that kids don't put two and two together when being exposed to gay couples is really reaching to make your argument. Absolutely, positively, children wonder what 2 gay people do to express their love. Especially in this day and age, when everything for kids is becoming more and more overtly sexualized. We need to stop kidding ourselves about this. -K.B.

  • solarsister

    Introducing your child to a gay or lesbian couple is no different from introducing them to a straight one. When we hung out with my mom's family, I saw my uncle and his boyfriend in the same way I saw my other uncles and aunts – just another grown-up couple who were sometimes boring and sometimes could be convinced to play with us kids. You're the only one sexualizing things here.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Um, once again, former child-who-found-out-gay-people-existed and I really wasn't "putting two and two together" about what gay people did in bed when I was 5 years old. My mom had explained human reproduction and intercourse to me also and I knew it was what mommies and daddies did. But although my mom had perfunctorily added that "sometimes grown-ups also do it because it feels good," I didn't really understand the role that sexuality played in an adult relationships. I didn't understand sexual pleasure or orgasm or non-intercourse sexual activity or anything. So I really didn't wonder what gay people did sexually because, at that age, I didn't understand the importance of sex to adults and I didn't really care. I obviously figured out that heterosexual intercourse was not possible, but I didn't come up with any alternatives and I wasn't that interested. I figured they lived together and hugged and kissed and called each other "sweetie" like my parents did, because those were the important things that distinguished an adult romantic relationship to me at that age. That was what "expressing love" was to me then. I didn't learn about how same-sex couples pleasure each other until I started to learn more about how heterosexual couples pleasure each other–around early adolescence, which is the appropriate age to learn those things, in my opinion.

    Also, I don't remember a time where all I could think of when I saw parents was them "doing it." Perhaps because I was so young when my mom explained it to me, and she did so in a very matter-of-fact way, with correct terms, not phrases like "doing it." It didn't seem a very shocking revelation to me–I was too young to understand that sex was a taboo. I knew the parts involved were "private" obviously, and so maybe I thought it was a little funny, but certainly not so scandalous that it haunted me every time I saw a couple with kids! I didn't even understand that sex was considered weird or "dirty" until other kids at school started hearing and talking about it and all I could do was wonder why everyone was giggling so much and spelling it "s-e-x" instead of just saying it. If you explain intercourse to kids when they're young, they're not going to think much of it.

    It always seems like the people that are squeamish about gay sex are a little squeamish about straight sex too. Surprise.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14389343067155681668 Shannon Rose Bell

    new reader, amazing series. i love this: "My research was starting to point towards gender variant people as being a part of the diversity of the human family whose source was from antiquity." very well put :-)