It is often said by anti-gay pastors and other public
figures that LGBTQ equality threatens to “tear the fabric of our society.”
Though I have yet to hear any of these people explain exactly what that means,
I have a guess. My theory – and the theory of many others – is that this fabric
that we so threaten to tear, is the fabric of inequality between men and women.
It is without question that our society is founded upon it. With all the
strides we’ve made in gender equality, we still live in a patriarchal society
where cis men’s bodies, thoughts, roles, power and value are considered
different (better) than cis women’s. This does not always play out in an
obvious fashion. Sexism is normalized in our culture and while it’s easy to
speak about it in overt ways, it is also easily overlooked unless we are
looking out for it. So how do LGBTQ persons challenge this insidious foundation
of sexism?

First, the nature of gay male relationships inherently challenges
a sexist power structure by revealing that maleness cannot be defined by sexual
power over women. Gay men are regularly bullied, attacked, and verbally
assaulted – and for what reason? We might say scripture, we might say ignorance
or context or people’s backgrounds. While these are often part of the
justification, the reality is that gay men are most often harassed because of
their association with traditional interpretations of what women should be or
do. In gay male sex, often one or both men are penetrated. According to our
current “fabric of society” this is supposed to be the role of the woman.
Penetration is correlated with passivity which is correlated with the place of
women. It upsets some people that a man would dare associate himself with this
“role” of a woman. This idea is strictly built upon harmful understandings of
women’s value in society as passive sex objects who cannot contribute to
society in the same way men can.

Further, gay men experience a great deal of harassment if
they dress “feminine” or sound “feminine” or show interest in things associated
with “femininity” like formal dance or dressing in drag. There is a strict
traditional approach to what is understood as feminine or masculine and who
should exhibit these characteristics and how. For gay men to proudly associate
themselves with what has been deemed “feminine” is unacceptable to the “fabric
of our society.” Our current power dynamics believe that anytime a cis man shows
interest in something deemed feminine, they are associating themselves with the
“lesser-then” sex and forfeiting the power and identity of traditional “man.” The
conscious or unconscious belief that women are “less than” men is evident in
policies, culture, positions of power and even endless normalized phrases like
“don’t be such a girl about it,” or “he’s a momma’s boy” or “you throw like a
girl.” According to the fabric of our society, men should be offended by being
called a woman.

Gay men are disturbing the notion of this normalized offense
and some people, particularly straight men in relationships with women, just
don’t want to see this power dynamic challenged. It comes at a cost. This might
not be a conscious thought, but with enough examination of the issue, it
becomes clear that this is actually the foundation of homophobia towards gay
men.

Second, lesbian relationships also challenge this dynamic.
Two cis women together do not threaten this tearing of our “social fabric” in
the same way as gay men because it’s two people assumed less powerful. Those
invested in sexist power dynamics don’t feel so threatened by lesbians because
the idea of two women together hardly costs men’s power anything. What happens
instead of threat is either a mocking of these women as if we are remotely
concerned with trying to be like a traditional “man” or we are hyper-sexualized
and objectified. Because women are still viewed as sex-objects in our society,
it only makes sense that two sex objects together would be even hotter than
one! So instead of bullying and attacks (though these happen too) lesbians are
more likely to experience sexual harassment, sexual threats, or rape. At the
end of the day, lesbians are perceived as easy to keep in their “place” as
women – we are dismissed or objectified. We are often expected to find it a compliment
when a man who we’re (clearly) not attracted to thinks we are “hot” together or
we are sexually harassed as if we are some a sort of living porn film for men. Sadly,
some lesbians are even sexually assaulted or raped so a man can remind a
lesbian of “the proper place of a woman.”

Finally, many queers as well as some transgender persons are
challenging the very notion of the woman/man dualism that supports sexism.
Genderqueers, intersex individuals, and non-binary transgender people challenge
us to question what we have so quickly squeezed into the boxes of “man” or
“woman” and “feminine” or “masculine.” Some genderqueer identities challenge
every attempt to create strict boundaries around the ways our culture tries to
police gender expression. Where the “fabric of our society” is determined to
keep gender and sex in boxes which can be put into clear hierarchies, non-binary
transgender people bring into awareness the social construction of gender and
the right to self-identify. When a male to female trans woman identifies as a
butch lesbian or a female to male trans man identifies as a bisexual
genderqueer, we become aware there are a million wonderful ways to identify.
Our power structures are built upon false notions of an essential dualism. It
should come as no surprise that non binary transgender people experience an
overwhelming majority of workplace discrimination, harassment, and violence.
Their identities make it nearly impossible to maintain traditional power
structures and challenge everyone to re-think our approaches to gender and
sexuality. Thus they experience the most discrimination. Where us queers who
fit into at a binary do “tear the fabric of our society,” non-binary transgender,
intersex, pangender and other genderqueer folks slash the fabric to pieces. This
is uncomfortable and upsetting to anyone who finds their value in the power
they hold over others or in the eyes of others based on their gender.

While these sexist and essentialist ideas of power relationships
will not be found in major headlines, or in general conversation about LGBTQ
equality, they are ever present. Look in our scriptures – they are there. Look
at the relationships of those who are working so hard to prohibit LGBTQ
equality – they are there. Look inside – they are in all of us.

As Christians who hold a vision of equality for all, may we
stand proud as we work together to tear the sexist fabric of our society to
pieces. May gender stereotypes, gender normativity, dualisms, hyper-masculinity,
and women’s internalization of the belief they are indeed “less-than” be
shredded. Only then can we begin to weave a new fabric – a fabric which holds
no problematic power relationships because in Christ, we are all equal.

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M Barclay

M Barlcay serves as Reconciling Ministries Network’s Director of Communications. A life-long Methodist seeking ordination as a deacon, M originally hails from Florida where they worked for the Wesley Foundation and received a BA in Communications. While later attending seminary at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, they worked as a hospital chaplain and volunteered with local advocacy organizations. Since, they have served as Justice Associate and Youth Director at University UMC in Austin, Texas and as Faith Network Coordinator at Texas Freedom Network. M has experience organizing around issues of gender, sexuality, housing, and reproductive rights and is passionate about ministries and theology in the intersections of faith and society. M is a non-binary trans person and uses they/them pronouns.
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