Through the LIA program, our teaching, and program activities, We established structure and rules that clients had to adhere to that promoted traditional gender roles and society’s assumptions.
We held them accountable regarding how men and women express themselves through their appearance. We also brought exposure to hobbies and activities that were traditionally male or female. Our structure and teaching stifled individuality and authenticity.
I felt Defensive!
When I began to look at this aspect of our program and the ministry focus I felt defensive and attempted to push back from this critique. I taught sessions on the variety of people, personalities, and expression. I got defensive because I thought certainly I believed that people had to have the freedom to express themselves. I knew there were conservative people, artistic people, uniquely gifted people and that there was a continuum of style that people utilized to express themselves. I didn’t believe I was stifling individuality!
I had one topic I called “Masculinity and Femininity” where I explored the intrinsic differences between men and women as well as the broader aspect of how culture puts us into boxes that we cannot live in. So, I felt confident that I covered this issue in a balanced way.
What I taught and the program structure were at odds with each other.
But, as I looked at the bigger picture of our ministry I had not considered the rules and structure of the program that held people to gender stereotypes. Women were led to purses and dresses in their specialized counseling agendas, men were taught masculine experiences like sports and held to short hair cuts and no facial hair as part of their programs.
Our motives were to encourage them to try out things that might be challenging, or even scary to try. In some cases these counseling practices were very effective, but in others they were harmful. I believe we were unable to see the harm when it occurred because underneath there was a cultural stereotype that we hoped would be achieved. It was an underlying goal to neutralize and to move towards a subjection to conservative living in the eyes of the Christian culture.
I have learned that for many gay men and women, forcing a traditional gender expectation can produce tremendous anxiety and bring about even greater shame. Honestly, I understand the anxiety that can come about through forcing these types of things. But, I had spent a lot of energy pushing this anxiety away and hid it underneath my own life. I always thought I was an advocate for the men and women who had come to the program but honestly, I wasn’t confident in my own experiences and really wasn’t what I thought I was.
“You” Should Carry a Purse! - But “You” Shouldn’t!
I remember Cheryl who didn’t carry a purse and wore a very short hair cut was taken for a makeover and shopped for her first purse. There was a lot of attention given and wonderful ladies were very loving through the process with her. They took her shopping, to the nail salon, and affirmed her for the new look. Cheryl loved the attention and was thankful for the relationships but in the end she was confused, and not welcoming of these new things.
I remember commenting on her purse and her look trying to help her see how much more fitting it was to the Christian culture. In the end, she said over and over she was uncomfortable carrying a purse and her hair quickly returned to the shorter style.
I feel sad today that I was so pursuant of her changes and not allowing her to discover her own tastes and believe in her own ability to find what she liked and didn’t like. I was more interested in her fitting in, than I was finding her own individual expression.
So, as I continue to revue these things I fully recognize that I had my own divided thinking. I taught one thing but in the structure of the program another message came through loud and clear, conform to society! ” Neutralize your look, appearance, so that others will be more accepting of you.”
We all know that we get some of our most creative geniuses from those in the gay community! Why would we want to stifle them, or corral them into a neutralized box! Art, music, food, decor, we are all blessed by the unique gifts that come from the more creative types. Something else that we often forget, those who are gay are also often those who are more sensitive to relationships, caring, and mercy. Stifling their wonderfully and amazingly gifted personalities removes the heart and soul from our communities.
The damage that can occur from attempting to stereotype people into “comfortable” boxes is very costly to them and brings a huge loss in our own life experience.
I know it wasn’t all bad.
Oh, sure, there were men who discovered they loved sports, and women who discovered they loved getting their nails done. People were brought to face some of their fears and moved forward. Some people found different careers that were satisfying for them to discover. Moving towards college, or changes in life choices brought some to far improved lives. I know it wasn’t all bad.
But, what I am feeling responsible for is the lack of freedom for people to discover these things for themselves and to listen more intently to those who didn’t find a desire to do so.
Football? No Thank You
A personal life fear of mine has always been team sports. When I was 19 years old I remember vividly talking with a close friend and “confiding” in him that I didn’t like football. I had grown ti understand that being male, and liking football were synonymous. I felt tremendous anxiety thinking of verbalizing that I didn’t like football. Admitting this meant I was uncovering for someone else to see, that I was less masculine, or less male, due to my dislike of this sport.
I had a huge problem every year when the “Superbowl” would come around. It was a time of the year when a tremendous amount of shame would come over my life and I tried to do the best I could to just numb myself out and stay hidden from others so they wouldn’t know I didn’t understand the sport, I didn’t know who was playing, and certainly didn’t watch the game. For me it was like saying I didn’t celebrate Christmas!
If someone had pushed me into watching the game I would have felt even more shameful. It seemed that liking football and watching the Superbowl were expected norms of life and I wasn’t normal.
One Superbowl Sunday I was home and my wife was taking a nap. I saw a bunch of men on the balcony across the way with loud cheering and obviously celebrating the “holiday” of our culture. I felt safely removed from the event and flipped the channels to come across the game. It was the end of the game and the score was very close. I found myself drawn to the competition. In the end I kind of enjoyed the rush of “who is going to win.” I was not pressured by anyone to watch the game. No one was there to make me feel stupid or ill equipped as a man.
After that event I felt safer to come to the next year and decided to host a Superbowl party. I found that if I hosted it, I could focus on what I wanted to. We had games, great food, and people could watch, or not watch, the game. It was just a reason to get together. I still don’t like football. I never know who’s playing, and don’t understand the structure of the sport. I also don’t feel so embarrassed to speak this out loud. Liking football I discovered is NOT synonymous with being male.
I Wasn’t Honest With Myself
In all honesty, I think some of the reason for these structures and challenges come from my own personal fears. I have never fit into a traditional male form, and probably never will. I’ve always vacillated from conservative to expressive trying to find my own personal place in life. I have feared not fitting in if I were to be “different” so I conformed. This never really helped me to fit in any better because the issues were more internal than external. I still felt different.
I had a hard time accepting the uniqueness of my own life because I felt “less than” others, and certainly not like other men. I believed if I could find a more conforming life that I would feel better about myself and not so separated from the stereotype of what our culture deems “normal.”
My personal struggle was brought into the program that I had established. My own pursuit of overcoming my unique nature and personal compromise in order to gain the affirmation and acceptance of the world around me, affected the ministry I led. I feel personally responsible, and grieved that I could see this.
As I continue to find my natural place in life, I realize I didn’t consider the need for others to find their place. Hair styles, colors, career choices and special interests all play a role in people finding themselves and discovering their God given unique nature.
We used to call some of the outward choices “false images” and attempted to remove them. I now see that Cheryl’s purse was a false image for her and thankfully, she had enough courage to reject the purse because she knew it just didn’t fit her. A short hair cut for some men was also a false image for them. False images are those things that are not fitting with the true person inside. Rather than trying to help people find their unique nature, we actually tried to cover it up with what the culture deemed “normal.”
Discover Who You Are
Today I would encourage people to discover what is real for them. What fits them, is comfortable and natural to their personalities. When I look at modern programs like “American Idol” I find that I really enjoy the creative appearances of some of the contestants. It is those who are unique, and authentic that I find myself drawn to more than those who are trying to just fit in to win. God made us each unique. This can be uncomfortable for some, but what are the alternatives? The loss of the soul of life.
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. Ps. 139:13-16
I desire the freedom to continue to discover who I am and how God created me to be. I also desire to give others this freedom!