Gender Destiny

A Sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove
Paint Branch UU Church, Adelphi, MD—January 30, 2000
Sterling, VA, Unitarian Universalists—October 28, 2001

Follows performance of a song written by Tom Hunter: Rock Me To Sleep
(Some quotations below refer to song lyrics.)


from Speaking of Friends: The Variety of Man-to-Man Relationships (by James Maas)

Both of my sons left the [San Francisco Bay] area a few years ago–one to escape the urban environment, and the other to start a new career–and moved to places far enough away that we'd be seeing each other only on special occasions like Christmas or weddings or three-day weekends. The week or two before each of them left felt hollow to me, and I thought often and fondly about the recent past and the lunches we sometimes ate together and the ball games we went to.

It wasn't until after they had gone that I realized that they were more to me than sons; they were friends too. I didn't have men friends with whom I did those things except on rare occasions, so I missed my sons, and found myself thinking of them in the past tense–as lost friends.

Their leaving started me thinking about friends and friendships in new ways. I became aware of how few close friendships I have had with men. My closest friend, I realized, is my wife Helen.

I realized how dependent I am on Helen for friendship. So many of the needs I have for friendship have been satisfied because of the things she does for me. I don't need to call a friend to see if he wants to go running or to a movie. I hardly have to do anything at all, because she's there. We go places together or we do nothing together--whatever pleases us.

Something else I became aware of is that most of the men I know, other than those I see at work, are our friends. I know them mostly as the husband half of a couple, rather than as men I call my personal friends. And it's more than coincidence, I'm sure, that whenever there are four, six or eight of us together, I generally find it easier to talk with the women than the men. Of course, I do talk some with the men, but all too often for my tastes, the conversations drift toward the world of sports, politics and other impersonal subjects.

There often seems to be a barrier between us that prevents us from getting into personal topics like our joys and worries as males. But talking to women, it's much different. I can talk comfortably with them about my relationship with my sons, my career, my health, my disappointments, the joy of watching my grandniece and grandchildren grow up–almost anything I want to, except possibly sex. Maybe the ease of communication between us is because we are different sexes, and I don't feel I'm competing with them, or maybe it's because I learned early on to be more guarded with men.

Sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove: Gender Destiny

Here we have a fellow who’s beginning to change his attitude about friends. Following the departure of his two grown sons, he’s had an important realization about the lack of other meaningful male relationships in his life. He expresses a vague uneasiness about how easily he can mingle with women but how disinclined he’s been to cultivate male friends.

Until this moment, his destiny might have been to live out his days firmly attached to his wife with only superficial male acquaintances. But perhaps now, with new awareness and resolve, he might intentionally reach out and build other male friendships. He may very well alter that previous destiny and carve out a new path for himself.

This testimonial illuminates that men can and do go through transformations of awareness, which can and do lead to changes in behavior. Lessons learned early in life, like that it’s important to be "guarded" around other men, can and do give way to new postures that become more fulfilling, like being open to deeper friendships with other men.

For me, for instance, early on I internalized the message that I should be able to do most things by myself, thank you, that self-sufficiency is a noble and attainable goal. So it’s been hard for me to learn that not only do I have needs I can’t always meet by myself, but that I actually have to ask for help sometimes. Imagine that.

These kinds of course corrections, as we move along our life path, are often hard work, even when we really want to adjust some piece of our attitude or approach to living. I may be ready to stop trying to always be self-sufficient–I may be "tired of being strong"– but just how do I stop being strong? It’s a big part of my internal conditioning, "and it always takes so long to change."

But even small adjustments can move us along on our paths. New awareness, even a little one, can breed new behaviors, which, in turn, can spread new possibilities into a future that will thus look different than the past.

Isn’t this social evolution at work? New awareness breeds new behaviors, which, in turn, spread new possibilities into a future that will be different than the past. I believe that we are not passive participants in social evolution; that we can intentionally, consciously influence the course of our lives and the culture in which we are embedded. And there may be no more challenging piece of our social evolution for us to consider carefully at this time than the realm of gender.

I have three main points to make and they all revolve around the curious phrase I invented, "Gender Destiny." Destiny, by the way, does not necessarily mean pre-ordained; it’s just where something is currently headed. Destiny is where a reasonable projection of the present might land in the future. It implies movement, evolution, growth in a noticeable direction.

I believe that our destiny as a species depends upon just how we explore and care for this gender path that we are all walking. Sometimes we walk it alone, sometimes together, but we’re all on it. So take a stroll with me for the next few minutes as I lift up three noticeable arenas of human gender in which we are evolving. I easily admit that I’m still growing and learning about these issues, but I wanted to risk some portrayal of what are emerging for me as significant positive movements to recognize and cultivate.

One arena of gender destiny is about men relating (or not) to themselves and each other. We’ve touched upon this already, through the reading, and I will return to it later, to conclude. But first, another arena is about the word gender itself and the gender continuum, and then a third is about male-female relations. (Each of these fields alone would be enough fodder for separate sermons, so forgive me for dancing far too lightly over them this morning. But I want to link them together, even if briefly.)

Since I’ve defined destiny, I suppose I need to define gender. As I’ve come to understand these things, so far at least, the word sex is used to describe a clear polarity of anatomy–as in the male sex, the female sex. But the word gender is more adaptive, more about appearance, behavior and identification.

My Websters’s concurs: after a long treatment of the grammatical meaning, it speaks of gender as "the fact or condition of being a male or female human being, especially with regard to how this affects or determines a person’s self-image, social status, goals, etc."

As a heterosexual male, I will not pretend to speak for the experiences of other genders, but I will speak for my growing awareness that there are other genders, not just one "opposite" from me, i.e., female. I have been transformed by my relatively new understanding that the gender spectrum is not "either/or" male/female. But it’s not "both/and," either.

What it is, is complex, complicated–a continuum of gender expressions–and it demands an open heart that is not always our forte (as human beings who often expect that the future will indeed look just like our preferred status quo). Traditional and rigid notions about maleness and femaleness are just not adequate anymore, if they ever were. There is a gender gray scale, if you will, that defies pat descriptions.

Slowly but surely we are realizing that to categorize people at all is to limit them unfairly. No one likes to be boxed into a stereotype. Listen to some of the words used to describe different groups in the non-traditional gender realm, beyond the more familiar terms, Gay, Lesbian and Bi-sexual. A brochure put out by the International Foundation for Gender Education says that, "Transgender folk have self-identified as: Drag Queen, Butch, Femme, Drag King, Intersex, Transvestite, Crossdresser, Transgenderist, Androgyne, and Transsexual."

They’re each defined briefly in the brochure, but I think I still have a long way to go to more fully comprehend precisely what those identifiers really mean and the differences between them. As with most things like this, I get greater insight into them as I come to know and appreciate the human beings who inhabit the categories.

Regardless of my or our ignorance of this realm, however, part of our "gender destiny," I believe, is to acknowledge, explore and celebrate the true varieties of gender expression in ways that validate their reality and include their gifts. "You can be anybody you want to be; you can love whomever you will." [Fred Small, from "Everything Possible."]

As hard as it might be for some of us to wrap our minds around the full gender continuum, as uncommon as some of the embodiments might seem to be, the reality of their existence is not and should not be viewed as a problem. I look to an openhearted destiny, inclusive of non-traditional gender expression as a good thing, the sooner the better. My life has already been enriched by relationships with friends of non-traditional gender. The real problem is fierce persecution and abuse heaped on people living–or trying to live–the authentic fullness of the gender continuum.

As a religious movement in loving contrast to such blind cruelty, we are called to honor all paths walked on the gender continuum, for their own value and for how they merge with ours. For instance, among the folk who self-identify in any of the above named groups, folks who are among us today perhaps, some are as hungry for community as any of the rest of us and will likely find–do find themselves inspired by our UU religious philosophy.

So we can welcome them–you–into our intentionally diverse church community, to search for and hopefully find, like any of us, a meaningful religious home. At each of the three congregations I’ve served, including Paint Branch, I’ve been privileged to learn from and support transgendered members. These relationships have transformed my awareness for the better. So may it be for the foreseeable future. 

Okay, then, consider another arena: the destiny of men and women as allies. Certainly, men and women have been in dynamic tension for, oh, tens of years at least. And some tension will likely always be a part of our life together. But despite the historical scarcity of strong, non-sexual relationships between men and women, I say that where we’re headed–our mutual destiny–is to be ever better allies for and with each other (wherever we find ourselves on the gender continuum).

I owe much of my own growth in this arena to a friend and colleague, Tom-Owen Towle, co-minister (with his wife Carolyn) of the San Diego UU Church. Tom recently published a very helpful book he wrote with his friend, January Riddle, titled: The Bridge Called Respect: Men and Women Joining as Allies.

There’s a magnificent vision outlined in this work, plus lots of practical suggestions from the ongoing program in the San Diego congregation, called "Bridge-Builders." (They have their men’s programs and their women’s programs, and then they also have regular mutual explorations as "Bridge-Builders.")

I particularly like their use of the term allies. This is a word I promote a lot, because it indicates an actively supportive relationship of respect, which is basically my vision for most if not all intentional relationships. The authors of this new book describe three basic qualities shared by "authentic allies":

1. Allies connect personally to share resources toward a clear, mutual mission.
2. Allies each retain their own autonomy.
3. Allies share power.

Sounds straight-forward enough, but what a difference there would be in our world if these qualities were already the case in our important male-female relationships, from home-life to church-life to work-life! I invite you (especially my brothers out there) to gently examine your own male-female interactions for these qualities of alliance. In many of our congregations, marriage enrichment groups are especially good places for partners to become even better allies.

One specific way the authors suggest for anyone to improve the odds of creating an ally relationship with someone of another gender is to ask this question in moments of tension or confusion: "Do you feel heard?" This is the kind of open-door statement that builds strong allies.

"Do you feel heard?" Try it the next time you have a difficult interaction with someone you care about. But remember that by asking the question, you also commit to listening to the answer! It could transform your relationship deeply and improve whatever outcome you share with your ally.

Another suggested instinct to cultivate is to attend to the bruises that are sometimes inflicted, often unknowingly, when we interact closely with others. Being allies means both apologizing for slights and misunderstandings, and accepting such apologies graciously. When both these activities can become second nature, occurring easily and quickly wherever needed, the relationship between allies deepens in respect and effectiveness. Again, it sounds simple, but we often neglect little bruises that sometimes can get infected and become large pains.

Speaking of pain, there are also, unfortunately, a variety of blockages that hinder the emergence of this kind of ally relationship between men and women. The history of male dominance and the effects of an unfair patriarchal system have created severe disadvantages for women in both our institutions and our psyches. Double standards that dismiss and demean women are particularly loathsome yet still pervasive.

I acknowledge my own complicity with this cultural gender oppression, but I pledge to continue to move away from it and toward alliance postures when and wherever I can. Theologian Carter Heyward reminds us that the "power to create justice, to make right relations, to sustain mutuality, and to make amends where we fail is sacred power."

I believe that, and I hope that by focusing such positive sacred power in the direction of equality and equity, I can contribute something toward a destiny of productive alliances.

 Now let’s return to the arena of men relating to themselves and each other, which is what I know best, so I’m going to focus a bit more on it. Here’s a true story.

I know of a man, around my age, who grew up holding a lot of anger and resentment toward an emotionally distant father who never paid him much attention. (This is a familiar story line in deeper conversations among men.) In a session with a counselor, the guy my age recalled, for the first time, a scene very early in his life when he was alone with that father, who was drunk.

The man was raging out loud against the physical abuse that his father had perpetrated on him and he furiously pledged never to touch his boy child, who hears all this but is too young to comprehend the meaning. Instead, he just feels the father’s upset and then, over the years, the emotional and physical distance between them (a different kind of "guardedness").

But now, remembering this scene, the guy my age suddenly understands his father’s extreme posture as a desperate way to interrupt a cycle of family violence. His father was actually trying to protect him–in an unbalanced way, perhaps, but the intention was one of protection more than disinterest.

So he goes to his estranged father and asks, tentatively, if this memory is true. The father resists at first, but then admits that the scene and the pledge did happen. The two men are profoundly reconciled, in time to share a couple good years before the father dies. The guy my age is transformed forever.

New awareness breeds new attitudes and behavior, which, in turn, spread new possibilities into a future that is different than the past–social evolution and personal growth in action. This eternal process can be scary or welcomed; it can be sought out or arrive completely unbidden; it can be good food for thought or remain unexamined; but it cannot be denied.

The paths of our lives take curious turns and our minds expand with new truths that were not conceivable minutes before. This happens all the time. HOWEVER, for the seeds of personal growth to flower they must take root and be nurtured. They require attention and, in most cases, some verbal consideration among friends. (The fellow mentioned above was in a trusted men’s group, with whom he was able to fully explore what the experience with his father meant to him.)

I’d venture to say that–at least among the community I’m most familiar with, heterosexual men–many seeds of potential personal growth drop in for a visit but cannot get a hold in our hard-packed soil. They then float away on the winds of indifference. Small and large transformations present themselves but are received silently, with little shared examination, perhaps because trusted male friends are not near, if they exist at all.

This may be because, as men, our processing tools–the relational muscles, if you will, that are needed for examining such moments of opportunity with each other–are atrophied, weak, flabby, often obscured by dominant testosterone conditioning. The barriers most men place between each other are impressive. And good women companions, bless their hearts, are only so helpful for friendship, as the author of our reading was beginning to find out.

So, maybe we figure we actually can consider new moments of personal growth internally, by ourselves–and perhaps a man’s inner life is strong enough to provide fertile soil for productive processing of transformative experiences. But, let me ask you this: based on your observations of men in this country what percentage of the male population do you think has a strong enough inner life going for them that they wouldn’t benefit from sharing their growing edges with other men? What percentage do you think? [Responses are very low.]

OK, so our conclusion is that not many men, if any, are self-sufficient from other men when it comes to growing and evolving. I see at least a couple implications of this. First, there are some male experiences that just flat out require serious consideration with other men, at least if we intend to grow as we age.

But the culture seems to train us away from each other, except in certain sanctioned settings, such as manly work, or under the influence of alcohol, or on recliners, say, as spectators of sporting events. So a second implication is that there must be a lot of men out there who are not evolving or growing very much, at least not in relation to each other.

And my sense is that they often don’t know what they’re missing, perhaps because they’ve rarely or never tasted the fine elixir of a powerfully mutual male friendship and what it can mean for them. Maybe if you scratch the surface of an adult man you can might hear nostalgic stories about a close friend from younger years, now gone.

But just how we might create such companionship anew is a mystery to us, not helped at all by a popular culture that instead inspires us to fear and stay away from each other. Some of the rampant barriers we allow to keep us from exploring the depth of the male experience together are unnecessary competition, too rugged individualism, and narrow-minded homophobia.

But I think our destiny as men is to get cozier with each other, in many ways. I’ve learned to describe this as "brothering," as in a brothering spirit, or a brothering community, where men are coming together to pursue something together.

For instance, if peace in the world is a significant goal for you, then it has to start with the relationships in your life, especially brothering relationships between men. Can men show how to be brothers together in ways that contribute to a more peaceful world? You bet! (In fact, if we don’t, guess what will happen.)

And one of the best, most conducive places in our culture for this kind of growthful interaction between men is–surprise!–the church community. I’m aware of some astoundingly inspiring men’s fellowship programs in other UU congregations. I’d like to think there is sufficient willingness on the part of men here to create such momentum. It does take some degree of leadership, patience and openness, but it’s worth it!

Think about it, guys, and not just in your own head! Talk to the other brothers near you, maybe during halftime this afternoon. What do you see as the destiny of men in our world, in this church?

Meanwhile, individual transformations and personal growth experiences will continue to be part of our human social evolution, which, taken together, is how our species develops and, presumably, matures. I can imagine that we’re headed somewhere together along a collective path–you and me, all of us, allies in our culture and society–and gender issues are a big part of our identity as we keep moving on, step by step, and find ourselves changing, whether we like it or not.

Our destiny awaits.

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