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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7 thoughts on “Overcoming “Oppression” and the Challenge of Being Yourself

  1. What if the real harm comes from encouraging a dissociation between physical and mental gender, in a child whose mental gender is not yet decided?

    Of course, from that standpoint, we should encourage children to “come out” even to unsupportive, conservative parents. One cannot solve a problem without knowing first that there is a problem. Like with my own autism, the earlier the parents are aware, the better.

    • Hi Theodore, our point in this post is to suggest that many situations are outside of the conventional guidance of conservative and progressive narratives. There is reasonably clear evidence that the vast majority of people are aware of their gender between the ages of 2 and 6, but there are certainly outliers as well.

      • There is equal ” evidence” on the other side that gender preferences are not set in stone until between the ages of 25 to 28.

        I am not sure whose evidence to believe, but with the prevalence of gender confusion in our society, I would certainly consider it child abuse to force sexuality on a 6 year old.

        And that is assuming you can even accept surveys of still developing brains as evidence of anything. Sociology is far closer to reliogion than science; confirmation bias abounds in gender studies.

        • There is debate about how gender in the brain develops. Different theories privilege various theories of the brain. Between 25 and 28, the neofrontal cortex finishes its development and people enter into a different stage of development.

          Additionally, sexual orientation and gender identity are complex constructs. Sociology can document some of the variation in human experience, but it’s generally not a discipline seeking to establish clear chains of causality. I suspect that many questions about biological development are best answered by biology and neuroscience.

  2. This is just a tricky topic because I feel at odds with both groups; some for similar reasons. Progressive lgbt run my university’s lgbt center and im not going to lie I have learned about the importance of intersectionality and systemic oppression from them and usually there quite friendly. However most identify as non religious/atheist/and generally view religion, especially christianity as bad. They also isolate people who are coming to terms with their lgbt identity by overuse of politics; my friend felt weird about going to the lgbt group because alot of people ignored her and the ones who didnt wanted to know her opinion on various policies and how she felt about this law or politician….and my own experience wasn’t much better. I felt like I had to know about any and every new law/controversy, related to lgbt issues, the environment, etc (and then protest for various causes) and if you were more conservative on an issue…or had different ideas, didnt even felt comfortable enough to engage in real dialogue. (I also dislike how open and polyamorous relationships are being pushed in this circle-so if someone doesn’t want to even try and be in one of those relationships—–> odd one out)
    And I won’t even touch on the conservative issues….
    But it is fair to say both sides have major issues with the diversity that exists in the lgbt community. Neither side truly wants to have conversations with the other because their right and if you don’t fit into one of these sides there is just isolation.

    I do feel sad for lgbt persons who want to become nuns or priests, but can’t because the particular organization or church won’t because of their sexual orientation its a non issue for their hetero counterparts….
    The linking of pedophilia to homosexuality certainly has not helped.

    • Hi MJ, thanks for your comment here! One thing about many approaches to intersectionality is that they tend to privilege minority experiences. Since Christianity is the culturally expected religious expression, many groups will argue that Christianity does little more than advance hegemonic narratives. Groups can say similar things about white experiences as well. As useful as intersectionality can be, it’s decidedly missing something when it asserts that any historic majority experience cannot be a valuable experience.

      • I’ve been thinking about your response for a bit and I really do want to concede with a “you win!” statement. That’s a very good point-and reasonable one- to make. because the entirety (and diversity) of the church cannot just be fit into one giant box of evil.
        I honestly haven’t thought of the negatives for intersectionality…
        so thankyou.

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