Dear Pope Francis, Your Holiness,
Word is out that you are intending to travel to the United States in September 2015 to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where you will speak at that city’s commemoration of World Family Day. Your arrival here has sparked excitement by United States Catholics and non-Catholics alike who have been encouraged by your efforts to reform and to heal the Church from past policies and actions that have had the effort of turning people away from what has been viewed by many as misinterpretations of scripture and as a massive covering over of sexual abuses.
As a non-Catholic myself, I hope during your talk in Philadelphia you will discuss an inclusive concept of “family” by acknowledging diversity in terms of human sexuality, gender expression, and the multidimensional varieties of human relationships. Unfortunately, your predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, in my estimation, failed in this regard.
For example, in January 2011, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a New Year’s speech to diplomats from approximately 180 countries, declaring that marriage for same-sex couples “threatens human dignity and the future of humanity itself.” And in 2008, during Benedict’s end-of-the-year Vatican address, he asserted that humanity needs to “listen to the language of creation” to realize the intended roles of man and woman. He warned of the “blurring” of the natural distinctions between males and females, and called for humanity to protect itself from self-destruction. The Pope compared behavior beyond traditional heterosexual relations as “a destruction of God’s work.”
Though extreme in his language and tone, Pope Benedict XVI promotes what most of us have been very consciously and carefully taught throughout our lives. Gender roles (sometimes called “sex role”) include the set of socially-defined roles and behaviors assigned to the sex we are assigned at birth. This can and does vary from culture to culture. Our society recognizes basically two distinct gender roles. One is the “masculine,” having the qualities and characteristics attributed to males. The other is the “feminine,” having the qualities and characteristics attributed to females. A third gender role, rarely condoned in our society, at least for those assigned “male” at birth, is “androgyny” combining assumed male (andro) and female (gyne) qualities.
A fairly simple way to remember the differences between “sex” and “gender” is to consider “sex” as a noun and “gender” as a verb (a repeated action). According to social theorist Judith Butler in her 1990 book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity,
“The act that one does, the act that one performs, is, in a sense, an act that has been going on before one arrived on the scene. Hence, gender is an act, which has been rehearsed, much as a script survives the particular actors who make use of it, but which requires individual actors in order to be actualized and reproduced as reality once again.”
This all conjures up images of the Hollywood movie “The Truman Show” starring Jim Carrey in the lead role as Truman Burbank. The film documents a man who for most of his life remains unaware that he lives within a human-made, artificial set of a reality television show, broadcast twenty-four hours a day to billions of people around the world. The show’s executive producer and director, Christof, placed Truman at birth in the fictitious town of Seahaven, and he manipulates every aspect of his life (I will leave it up to you to analyze why the director of this farce has been given the name “Christof”).
To dissuade Truman from exploring past the limits of the constructed set, Christof pretends to kill Truman’s father in a fabricated storm to teach him to fear the water. In addition, actors playing the part of TV news reporters warn of the dangers of travel, and promote the benefits of staying home. However, stemming from some unforeseen glitches in the scenery and unexplained and habitual coincidences in the placement of the actors around him, Truman becomes suspicious until he discovers the truth about the artificiality, manipulation, and control Christof has perpetrated on him for the past thirty years. Truman eventually outwitted Christof and escaped the fabricated set.
Pope Benedict XVI, with his immense power to influence and impact literally billions of people worldwide, served as an extreme and fanatical example of a director in the larger coercive societal battalions bent on destroying all signs of gender transgressions in young and old alike, and in the maintenance of gender scripts. Most of us function as conscious and unconscious co-directors in this drama each time we enforce gender conformity onto others, and each time we relegate our critical consciousness by failing to rewrite or destroy the scripts in ways that operate integrally for us.
Those who bully often fulfill the social “function” of establishing and reinforcing the socially-constructed scripts handed them when they entered the play of life. Imagine you are a young person on the elementary school playground. There you see a young person assigned “female” at birth who wears her hair short and cropped. She wears jeans and a T-shirt, and plays rough and tumble games with the boys. She loves to climb trees, and comes home with torn and dirty clothing. Up to a certain age, this may be taken as “acceptable” within her gender script as currently written. However, as she ages, possibly by the time she reaches her teen years, her peers and adults direct her to “grow out of this stage,” and label her with various terms.
Originally, when she was younger, people may have called her one of the most common labels, “tomboy,” but as she ages, others more often begin calling her “dyke” or “lezzy,” regardless of her actual emerging sexual identity. Basically, because others perceive her as not conforming to her “feminine” gender role, they call her sexuality into question. In so doing, they attempt to ensure that she performs her role as written. In actuality, this direction functions as the basis in the establishment and maintenance of a patriarchal system of domination, control, and oppression.
Now imagine you are standing on that same elementary schoolyard. You witness a young person assigned “male” at birth who likes to jump rope with the girls, and who prefers not to join in sports activities with the boys. Recently he began learning to play the violin, and he wants one day to perform in a symphony orchestra. When other students call him names like “sissy, “fag,” “momma’s boy,” and “queer” because they perceive him as not reciting his gender script properly, he often cries and isolates from other students. Again, because he does not conform to his expected “masculine” gender role, his peers and adults taunt, harass, and abuse him equating the ways he expresses his gender by questioning his assumed sexuality. In so doing, they are attempting to ensure that he conforms to his requisite gender script, which is the basis of sexism and the operative apparatus maintaining a patriarchal system of male domination.
Pope Francis, I ask that you please teach in your ministry that we must relegate certain words (in all their linguistic variations, languages, and dialects) related to human sexuality and gender expression to the trash heaps of history, words that marginalize, stereotype, separate, limit, and justify oppression, words lie “Born Out of Wedlock,” “Illegitimate Child,” “Bastard,” “Artificial Insemination,” “‘Normal’ or ‘Natural’ Sexuality & Gender Identity and Expression,” “Regular Guy,” “‘Alternative’ Sexuality & Gender Identity,” “Red Blooded American,” “Trying to ‘Pass’ as Another Sex,” “Homosexual,” “Homosexual Lifestyle,” “Alternative Lifestyle,” “Gay Agenda,” “Homosexual Choice,” “Chosen Lifestyle,” “Fence Sitters” (bisexuals), “Hermaphrodite” (rather “Intersex”), “Just Confused,” “Just a Stage You’re Going Through,” “You’re Too Young to Know,” “They’re Just Rebelling,” “We Hate the Sin but Love the Sinner,” “Old Maid,” “Maiden Name,” “Confirmed Bachelor,” “None of Those People Are Here,” “Pre-Marital Sex,” “Losing Your Virginity” (rather “Sexual Debut”), “Pre-op” & “Post-op,” “Sexual Reassignment Surgery” (rather “Gender Confirmation”), “Grow Some Balls,” “Man Up,” “Wimp,” “Tomboy,” “Straight Acting,” “Sexual Preference” (rather “Sexual Identity”), “Same-Sex Marriage/“Same-Gender Marriage”/“Gay Marriage” (instead: “Marriage for Same-Sex Couples”), “Act Like a Lady,” “Act Like a Gentleman,” “Speak Man to Man,” “Girly Girl,” “That’s so Gay,” and I could continue ad infinitum (please forgive me for the many I left out).
Each time we rewrite the scripts to give an honest and true performance of life, each time we work toward lifting the ban against transcending and obliterating the gender status quo by continually questioning and challenging standard conceptualizations of gender, only then will we begin as individuals and as a world community to experience what Truman experienced after he lifted himself from the manufactured dome of artificiality. He felt the warmth and brightness of a true sun, and the coolness and wetness of actual rain.
Pope Francis, you too possess immense power to influence and impact literally billions of people worldwide. I hope that you continue to use this power for good in bringing people together and in healing.
Human diversity is a true gift as evidenced by the fact that “families” come in a great variety of packages, with differing shapes and sizes, colors, and wrappings. If, however, we still need to cling to a common definition of “family,” I would remind us of one offered by singers/songwriters, Ron Romanovsky and Paul Phillips, who tell us that “The definition’s plain for anyone to see. Love is all it takes to make a family.”