by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s and Vice-Chair of the Ozanne Foundation
All of us want to ‘fit in’, to be part of a human group where we feel at home.
It’s programmed into our minds and our genes. From early childhood we copy others. We shape our actions, our thinking, our statements, and ourselves around our family and our friends, and in relation to wider society. We take on the views of those around us, and as we get older we choose carefully when and where to be different. We wear particular fashions, or not. We build an identity, which as we get older and more confident may become more varied through our own conscious choice. Football fan, catholic, political party supporter, goth, liberal, lover of classical or rock music, rebel, parent, conservative evangelical, intellectual…. we discover who we are, and we adapt who we are, to try to have a physical, emotional and spiritual space which will nurture us and where we will fit in.
Because not to fit in is uncomfortable – for you, and for the group around you who find it threatening. If the group rejects you, it threatens your physical, mental or emotional survival. So you try hard to conform enough to be accepted, even when it doesn’t feel like the truth of who you are. Whether it’s your family or your peer group or your church. Even when you get bullied and pressurised not to be different, while knowing inside that you probably are.
But how would you feel if someone in the group went as far as saying to you, ‘You don’t fit with our view of the world, and so we’re going to make you change your body and your mind so that you’ll fit in with what we think’?
That’s been the experience of many intersex people, and the historical experience of many gay people. Castration, whether physical or chemical, and unwanted ‘reconstructive’ surgery for the body; conversion or aversion ‘therapy’ for the mind. ‘Fitting in’ has meant ‘forcing into’. And even if it doesn’t go that far, people have felt emotionally pressurised into being what they truly are not, in order to fit in. And they suffer because of it.
At a day conference on 8th December on Faith, Science and Sexuality, delegates heard the experience of what it was like to be gay, trans and intersex; and how mental as well as physical health is impacted by the stress of not being able to fit in, yet not being able to be yourself. One of the many fascinating things I learned was just how much ignorance and hostility focuses on trans people, those who don’t conform to gender stereotypes and so unsettle and disturb others.
One of the psychological factors at play in this is that those who feel insecure in their own sexual identity will feel threatened by others who deviate from it. If you’re afraid you’re gay and that others might notice, then in self-defence you may bully non-conforming people – gay, trans, intersex – to show yourself or your peer group how you’re definitely not ‘queer’ and therefore you really do fit in with them.
And yet one of the very positive messages of the conference was that to be who we truly are, to accept the reality of ourselves and others, sets us free to find wholeness and peace in ourselves and with the wider world. Whether it’s gay people coming out, or trans people discovering their inner identity (whether or not they have surgery), or intersex people asserting who they really are against the expectations of others about what is ‘normal’ – breaking out of the tyranny of a binary male/female, black or white, view of the world enables people to fit in with one another on the basis of realism and generosity, not insecurity and rejection.
And the same is true with regard to religious belief. When I began to speak up publicly in support of gay people in same-sex relationships, I was accused by conservatives of betraying those who wanted to be faithful Christians and also struggled with their sexuality, because entertaining the possibility that same-sex relationships might be positive could undermine their resolve to be faithful to Christ. Which not only assumed that there were no faithfully Christian gay people in committed same-sex partnerships, but also that people trying to fit in with the conservative view of sexuality were not fitting in well with the narrative of being committed to celibacy – there was a discontinuity between what they felt and what they believed, and they felt insecure about it.
I wholeheartedly support those who choose and feel called to celibacy, because it’s such an important witness against the sexualisation of relationships in all human societies. But I don’t support people doing it to fit in with what others require, rather than what they choose and are. That’s because that can damage and even destroy them, as so many non-conforming people are damaged by the imperative to fit in with the views of others on faith, gender, sexuality or anything else.
Professor Robert Song of Durham University concluded the conference with a vision of a Christ-centred ethic where we are seeking as Christians to be one in Christ, with all our differences and non-conformity, and where procreation is through baptism not sexuality. Our identity is in Jesus Christ; not an identity mediated, defined and confined by the church’s power structures and local communities, not living in a particular way because of pressure from others to conform to one world-view or another, but living out the reality of how God has made us to be and become.
We’re not called to fit in with the expectations of others, but to come to fit beautifully and in wholeness with who we are and who God calls us to be in Jesus Christ.