Monday, January 26, 2015

Does Gender Matter? (January 25, 2015)

Part One: Does Gender Matter

Something big is happening. Something so big is changing, that we didn’t even know it could change. Our notion of gender, of male and female, seemed like these endless mountains, older than time, something you could count on. But, in point of fact, mountains do change and grow[i] and shrink through volcanic eruption, through the movement of deep plates in the earth , or just through the daily wearing of erosion. Gender, too, is changing. 

I was born into the women’s rights movement in 1970. Women wanted the freedom to work outside the home, and they wanted access to fields that had been exclusively for men. I didn’t know anything about the complexities of these issues, being in preschool at the time, but I knew that my mom worked, and my dad worked. I listened to that classic album Free to be You and Me and my mom gave me a copy of that book we ready this morning Girls can be Anything. It made an impression on me. This was a time when gender was changing rapidly, as if by earthquake and volcanic eruption. The women of my mom’s generation moved the edge of cultural expectations for women giving us all greater freedom. This congregation has some great examples of women who have been successful in fields traditionally populated by men.

 My generation, in turn, has tried to widen the boundaries further still for my son’s generation. One of the moms in my yoga class wears her “Ithaca Girl’s Math Circle” t-shirt, and coaches her daughter’s math club, because as far as we have come, fields like math and engineering are still dominated by men, And books about a girl being the president are still in the fiction section, not the biography section. The role of women is still changing, slowly, like a mountain.
[here we paused a moment for women to share how gender has changed for them]

 I’m going to say something controversial here- I think that when the right wing pundits and preachers say that the changing role of women is breaking down the fabric of society – I think they are right. Feminists have always known that if you change the roles that women occupy, once those boundaries are in motion, they will change not only the workplace, but also family life, and even the roles of men. When you realize the mountains are moving, that is a powerful, frightening, exciting thing. Where I differ from the Right Wing Rhetoric, is that I don’t believe the solution is to force women back into their boxes, the question instead is how we as a society provide the freedom for men and women to live with integrity and to serve the spirit of life.

Recently my family and I watched that goofy 1983 movie Mr. Mom. The whole premise of the movie is that when the Dad gets laid off, Mom gets a job to support the family. And while Mom struggles to be heard and respected in her advertising job, Dad stays at home with the kids and the house and a giant identity crisis. As you might expect in a 1983 movie, dad has never done housework before so he is hilariously incompetent. There are no male role-models for him- he is the first stay-at-home-dad in the community. Now, 30 years later, the idea of a stay-at-home-dad is not a hilarious novelty, there are roughly 1.4 million such dads in America.[ii] 

If part of how the male gender is defined is by the work that we do, the statistics from the opening reading are really important- as we see manufacturing jobs that paid a living wage for a family decline, as we see fewer men complete college. The fact that the suicide rate for men has increased is something we should pay attention to. It shows that men are in pain. It is my impression that as hard as it has been for women to come up against the boundaries of gender expectations, it has been even harder for men who are working to stretch those roles. I remember listening to the classic song sung by the Football player Rosie Grier “It’s alright to cry” because in 1972, crying was not always culturally acceptable for men. Since I don’t have firsthand experience with this, I wonder if there are any men here who can think of the ways gender has changed in your lifetime?
[here we paused for a moment for men to share how gender has changed for them].
 What it means to be a man has changed, is still changing. And men who are carving out a new place for themselves on the frontiers of gender need our support. 

Think of the Yin Yang symbol- white on one side, black on the other, female and male in balance. So if one gender changes, the other must change, to retain that balance. Well, the nature of that line is changing too. Some brave pioneers have started to hold a middle space. For decades we forced people to choose, black or white, yin, or yang. But recently a new idea is growing- that you don’t have to choose. You don’t have to line up all your gender indicators with one team or the other. You can be a woman mathematician caring for her children. You can be a football player who cries. You can be a man called Barb serving in the traditionally female profession of UU religious Education. The rainbow, which has long been a symbol of Gay rights, is also a wonderful metaphor for gender- not black and white, not even shades of grey, but a rainbow of how we express our authentic self, and a rainbow of how we serve our family and community. 

Gender is always changing. Right now it is changing rapidly. Gender has a fluidity to it that is giving us a freedom that is both scary and exciting. Folks who felt imprisoned by the limits of gender expression finally have room to move. And folks who felt comfortable with those clear lines of role and expression may feel insecure, threatened. 

It is still not always safe to express the truth of our own gender. Today’s news is full of the tragic stories of bullying and discrimination faced by people on the growing edge of gender boundaries. Incredibly the state of Pennsylvania still has not passed a law protecting us from gender discrimination based. UUPlan will advocate again this year to bring HB300 to a vote to make those rights into law.[iii] Unitarian Universalists have been on the forefront of redefining gender limits since we stood with the women’s suffrage movement in the 1900s. And we have stood with the transgender rights movement as it has emerged in this century. I hope that we have also stood by men who have experienced the change in what it means to be a man, because I think this is going to be increasingly important. Because at the core of our UU history has always been this belief that each person should have the opportunities to develop the Self, the wholeness of who we are. That when we live out of that truth we are this brings a wholeness not only to our own lives, but to the larger society. In this scary, exciting, changing time, let us support and protect one another. Does your gender matter? Only inasmuch as it allows you to express the truth of who you are. That matters very much.

Part 2: Does God’s gender matter?

As the tectonic plates shaping gender have moved, our ideas about the gender of God have changed. Whether we are theist, atheist or agnostic, how we see God, how society sees God can constrain or liberate us. Most of us grew up without questioning the male-ness of God. I certainly did. In the children’s bible I got in 2nd grade, all the gender pronouns for “God” are male. The traditional Christian prayer talks about “our father.” So I was surprised to find that God’s gender is less black and white then I was taught in Sunday School. For example, Shekinah, or “indwelling presence of God”, is a female word that appears in Hebrew Scriptures. There are hints about a female aspect of the divine all throughout those scriptures. The Phrase “Queen of Heaven” appears in the book of Jeremiah which inspired the title of a UU curriculum that came out in the early 1980s called “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven” exploring feminist theology. I took this class at a local UU church not long before I decided to go to seminary, and it blew my mind. I felt angry that in all the years of going to UU church no one had ever questioned the gender of God. It shook the roots of every assumption I had made about God and church and spirituality, because if God wasn’t necessarily a man, then God could be… anything. Biblical scholars and anthropologists have gone back and back and back through the written and archeological record searching for a female face of God. And they have found her. 

And why does it matter? What changes when you call god Mother instead of father? I think the most seismic change is that it took holiness from being exclusively male, to be something shared by both men and women. For centuries the male father in heaven represented all that was holy and good, and the earth mother represented our fallen-ness, our sinfulness even. The male was associated with the spirit, and female with the body. So over these past 30 years since “Cakes” was first taught, the goddess movement has reclaimed the worth and sacredness of women, of the body, of the earth. 

This uncovering of the divine feminine co-arose with the feminist political movement. How we see ourselves feeds how we see God, and vice versa. Some Neo-Pagan traditions are explicitly feminist. They focus explicitly on the female aspect of the divine because western religion has been focused on male images of the divine for so long. As Starhawk says “you can’t change the balance on a teeter-totter by standing in the middle.” But as Folksinger Ani Difranco sings:

half of divinity
Out there trying to make harmony
With only one voice

It was that lyric that inspired me this morning. The Sky Father God is incomplete without the earth Mother Goddess singing in harmony. Those pagans who invoke both goddess and god in their worship are calling for balance, believing with the Juingians that all people have aspects of male and female in themselves, and we want to encourage balance, harmony and wholeness.

But these archetpyes could easily reinforce gender boundaries rather than increasing freedom. It is important to honor and recognize those yin values, patience, receptivity, nurturing others (often attributed to the female). It is also important to honor the yang attributes, of action, light, directness (attributed to the male). The Virgin Mary is a perfect example of the “yin” principle in Christianity. When the angel comes to her to tell her of the birth she says “‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ She is said to portray the values of humbleness and piety. I remember being pregnant with my son, and feeling like there was a lot of waiting, and feeling helpless, and passively nurturing this new life. There is no question that that is one aspect of being female. But what a tiny confining box that would be if that was all a woman could be. Consider the Hindu Goddess Kali, who when monsters threated to destroy us, slew them with her sword and then devoured them. Our imagine of the divine feminine must be large enough to hold all the great mutiplicities of femaleness.

And what about men? If virtues such as humbleness, piety, receptivity, nurturing are the sole province of the female, then a man would feel forced to either abandon those parts of himself, or wonder if he was not “truly a man?” Since Gender is changing, then God must be changing too. What if God the father is not only the punishing judge of the old testament, but God the stay-at-home dad, who waits up with us all our sleepless nights, sometimes wringing his hands helplessly when we ride our bike for the first time. A God who not only holds us when we cry, but cries with us. 

If God can be Male and God can be female, then God must be transgender too. God must occupy an in-between place --A place where qualities are fluid, a place where aspects combine in new ways. There have always been people who occupy this in between place. Chrystos, a writer from the Menominee nation, says “Most of the nations that I know of traditionally had more than two genders. It varies from tribe to tribe. “ [Transgender Warriors p. 27] Usually these two-gender persons held sacred roles in the ritual life of tribes. I just learned about the androgynous Hindu god Ardhanarishvara, which splits the god Shiva and the goddess Parvati right down the middle, symbolizing the inseparable nature of the male and female principles. 

In God’s most expansive, abstract, mystical form, God has no gender. Gender is a human concept that will always be inaccurate when applied to the divine. One of my seminary professor encouraged us to relinquish any male or female pronouns for God. Feminist theologian Mary Daly asks “Why indeed must “god” be a noun? Why not a verb—the most active and dynamic of all? …the Verb in which we participate – live, move and have our being. [Cries of the Spirit p. 240]

Does God’s gender matter? Only inasmuch as it limits or liberates our the Spirit of Life. Only inasmuch as it leads us to compassion or judgment about the truth of who we are. Gender is changing, and I hope it keeps changing until all these qualities are available to each of us, man, woman, or transgender as we are called to use them to grow our Self and to serve the world. 



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