Overcoming “Oppression” and the Challenge of Being Yourself

Many resources designed to help people who are questioning their sexual orientations and gender identities can be strikingly simplistic. These resources suggest a particular set of normative actions to take if you think you might be LGBT. Gay men and lesbians are encouraged to tell their friends and family about their sexual orientations when ready, and eventually dating people of the same sex. Transgender people are encouraged to have conversations with professionals about beginning hormone replacement therapies, having surgeries, and navigating various legal webs to change their gender identity markers on official documents. In some ways, such resources present the coming out process as the first step in a natural set of life cycle rituals that unfold reasonably uniformly for all LGBT people. Ultimately, these resources articulate an LGB life where everyone feels free to enter into sexually active same-sex relationships, or a T life where almost everyone eventually chooses to transition medically and correct gender on legal documents. Failure to accept these particular narratives can lead to assertions that an LGBT person simply has not yet “accepted” himself or herself. If one claims to have a happy life outside of these norms, one might find oneself accused of caving to fundamentally oppressive social systems.

As we see it, many “coming out” resources attempt to replace a restrictive conservative message with an equally restrictive progressive message. Typical conservative messages are laced with religious overtones to induce fear and suggest that feeling any resonance with LGBT experience is fundamentally suspect and likely immoral. However, we’ve noticed that many progressive messages are full of troubling undertones that the fullness of an LGBT person’s life can be objectively observed by an outsider. Progressive messages act as a gatekeeper of LGBT identities. We’ve encountered countless people who ask themselves, “Can I be LGBT if I have absolutely no desire to attend Gay Pride events?” Yet, many progressive narratives view attending one’s first Gay Pride event as a rite of passage associated with the coming out progress. Both conservative and progressive messages can be used to manipulate LGBT people into conformity to the expectations of others. People questioning their sexual orientations and gender identities can find themselves torn between these two narratives even if neither fits their experiences.

We have to wonder if’s better to encourage LGBT people to be their true selves on their own terms, recognizing that everyone is constantly deepening his or her self-understanding. As members of gender and sexual minorities, it’s only natural to seek someone to validate our experiences. After all, feeling different from everyone else often plays into a person’s initial questioning of his or her sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s fantastically freeing when you can find someone who says, “Wow, what you’re saying really resonates with me.” It’s also wonderfully refreshing when you can find someone who says, “Your experience sounds different from mine, but I’m interested in hearing more of your story and walking with you as you find your way.”

Sometimes, LGBT people can need concrete affirmation that it is okay to understand sexual orientations and gender identities differently. A 2013 survey of transgender people revealed that 23% of respondents identify as gay, 25% identify as bisexual, 23% identify as straight, 4% identify as asexual, 2% identify as other, and 23% identify as queer. While some LGB people feel a strong resonance with the word “queer,” the vast majority of LGB prefer LGB terms because they identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. A transgender person who is negotiating the complexities of his or her own sex and gender and the sexes and genders of people he or she is attracted to might find terms like “gay” and “straight” incredibly limiting.

It’s good to listen to what people have to say about themselves. We have friends on the transgender spectrum who say, “I have a body. I am male. Therefore, I have a male body,” well before ever even thinking about pursuing medically-facilitated transition. This line of thought can be incredibly empowering to another transgender person because it permits a person to affirm his body as male immediately after becoming aware of his male identity. These thoughts grate against many dominant conservative and progressive messages about sexual orientation and gender: conservative messages usually assert that since one’s body has identifiably female parts, then one has a female body, and some progressive messages assert that the next rational step is to consult a doctor, effectively prescribing medical treatment. Transgender people who would rather not pursue medical interventions should not need to worry about losing the claim on their gender identities.

To offer another example, we also know know gay, lesbian, and bisexual people interested in entering monastic life. Many conservative voices argue that LGB people are unsuited to monastic life because they are likely to corrupt the monastery with sexual immorality. However, many progressive voices actively discourage LGB people from pursuing any kind of celibate lifestyle lest they fail to become fully actualized people in the context of sexually active relationships. In rare instances when progressive messages affirm that an LGB person should be able to choose celibacy, the statement almost always followed up with, “…but only if your reason for being celibate has nothing to do with your sexual orientation.” This leaves no room for the possibility that one can fully embrace his or her sexual orientation while still understanding it as a factor in discerning vocation. It also doesn’t make sense if one applies the same standard to expectations for how straight people discern vocation. We’ve never met anyone, conservative or progressive, who would advise a straight person considering celibacy to follow this pathway only if the decision is completely unrelated to sexual orientation.

In our own experiences and those shared with us by friends and readers, we’ve seen that people on both ends of the ideological spectrum can have impossible expectations for LGBT people without even realizing it. If you believe the only way for an LGBT person to follow Christ is to “become straight” and enter a heterosexual marriage, you’re probably not inclined to listen to the stories of people who have been harmed by these standards. Today, more people are challenging this narrative, and we’re glad for that. But few are quick to challenge the opposite set of expectations — the one that excludes LGBT people who don’t fit the mold assumed in progressive literature about the coming out process. The one that insists a person is caving to bad theology and toxic religious norms if he or she is not open to the idea of marriage or has no intention of taking up membership at a queer church. The one that inadvertently (sometimes even directly) forces some to the margins of an already marginalized group. We hope that as LGBT people continue to become more visible, there will be more questioning of what constitutes oppression and who gets to determine the meaning of “be yourself.”

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