Monthly Archives: July 2012

What if churches took intersex people seriously?

by Susannah Cornwall

There are several reasons why it’s strange that this post should be hosted on the Queers for Jesus blog. To start with, I’m a heterosexual, cisgender woman married to a heterosexual, cisgender man, so in many respects there’s nothing very queer about me.

What’s more, this is a post about intersex conditions – and plenty of intersex people would find it odd that anyone would consider intersex particularly “queer”. Many intersex people – who have something about their bodies which means they can’t be easily classified as male or female – don’t like the fact that intersex is often considered in the same breath as LGBTQ issues. Intersex, they say, isn’t anything to do with sexual orientation or gender identity as such: it’s just a medical condition, and doesn’t, in itself, make someone more likely to identify as LGBTQ than a non-intersex person.

So what is this blog post doing here? Well, first of all, I like the fact that Jay and Symon, who edit this blog, are working with a definition of “queer” that’s so wide. For them, “queer” doesn’t just mean “LGBT” – although they’re very sympathetic to LGBT struggles. Rather, “queer” here means something more like “subversive” or “resisting” – with a particular emphasis on resisting heteronormativity (the idea that heterosexuality is the only “right” or “normal” way to be).

In that sense, although I’m heterosexual and cisgender, I can still be part of a conversation about disturbing and uncovering some of the damage done by heteronormativity. This is especially important in the context of faith and religion, because there’s a perception among many people that religion is unreservedly opposed to homosexuality and queer issues, and that no person of faith could be accepting of non-heterosexuality. In fact, there are many, many Christians who want to come out and say unreservedly that homophobia and heteronormativity are a distortion of the loving, just and peacemaking message of Jesus.

But what does intersex have to do with queering religion – especially if, as I’ve said, lots of intersex people don’t consider themselves queer or subversive in any way, and actually don’t like being lumped together with LGBTQ issues? Well, that brings us back to our broader definition of queer. Queerness is about questioning assumptions of all kinds, not just those directly connected with sexuality and sexual orientation.

What kinds of assumptions do we need to question if we take intersex seriously? Most obviously, we need to question the assumption that everyone is clearly and unproblematically male or female. Maleness and femaleness often seem so self-evident to us that we don’t stop to question how we really define them. When it was suspected in 2009 that Caster Semenya, the South African athlete, might have a condition which made her different from other female athletes and gave her an unfair advantage over them – or even that she might have been a man masquerading as a woman – a lot of commentators on news blogs said things like, “Pull down her pants and have a look! That’ll soon make it clear whether she’s really female or not!”

Actually, things aren’t always as straightforward as that. For a start, some intersex people have genitals which don’t look male or female, but somewhere in between. Furthermore, genitals aren’t the “last word” in physical sex: even people who have “normal”-looking male or female genitalia can also have other physical characteristics which don’t “match”. For instance, some intersex people have female external genitalia (a clitoris, labia, and vaginal opening), but also have internal testes and XY (male) chromosomes. Other intersex people have a mixture of XX and XY chromosomes, or one testis and one ovary, or other unusual features. At different times in history, different features have been taken as the “ultimate” arbiter of sex: for example, genital appearance; whether someone has testes or ovaries; what chromosomes they have; whether they produce eggs or sperm; and, simply, whether they feel more male or more female!

What other assumptions, then, does intersex disturb? Well, importantly, there’s a lot which is said and done in churches which never questions that idea that everyone’s clearly and unproblematically male or female. Some churches teach that only men should be priests or bishops, but never get as far as defining what they mean by men (someone with XY chromosomes? Someone with testes? Someone who just feels like a man?). Some churches believe that only people of different sexes should be allowed to marry; but, again, intersex makes that harder to define than we might think. Is someone who identifies as a woman and has breasts, a clitoris, vulva and so on “really” a man because she has testes and XY chromosomes? In that case, should she only be allowed to marry an XX woman – in what would, in all but chromosomal terms, be a lesbian partnership?

These might seem like exceptional cases. However, it’s thought that about 1 in every 2,500 people has an intersex condition (about the same number of people with cystic fibrosis) – so they’re not really all that exceptional. What’s more, even if intersex conditions are relatively rare, the very fact that they exist at all means that people of faith might need to stop and think hard about whether their teachings about sex, gender and sexuality continue to make sense in light of what we now know about intersex and, more generally, sex and gender development.

There are two issues in particular in the public eye at the moment which are working with this assumption that we can always know whether someone’s male or female.

The first is the question being debated by the Church of England about whether women should be consecrated as bishops. Some of those who are opposed to this, and who want protection enshrined in law to ensure that their parish doesn’t have to have a priest who’s been ordained by a woman bishop, believe that there’s something about a female body which means it just can’t represent Jesus in the way a male body can. But the existence of intersex means we need to think hard about the assumption that male bodies and female bodies are so very different from each other in the first place. After all, which particular bit of a male priest or bishop’s body does his maleness reside in? Is it his testes? Is it his chromosomes? Is it his penis? Is it his masculine identity? In any of these cases, an argument could be made that a transgender man or an intersex woman could just as well represent Jesus. Maybe intersex should prompt us to reconsider the whole idea that humanity splits easily and obviously in two along sexed lines.

Second, there’s the question on which both the government and the Church of England have recently held consultations: that is, the issue of same-sex marriage. Here, the question is whether extending the bounds of marriage to include same-sex couples fundamentally changes its definition in an unacceptable way. Again, though, we need to ask how “sex” is being defined here. Some people believe the existence of intersex calls into question a binary definition of sex, and that we can’t really talk about “same-sex” and “opposite-sex” relationships at all. Rather, they suggest, human sex is a spectrum, with a variety of physical possibilities in between male and female.

Christians who oppose homosexuality often do so because they believe God intended everyone to be either male or female with a (heterosexual) sexual orientation and a (cisgender) gender identity to “match”. But once we accept that things are more complex than either-or even on a biological level, we need to rethink the “unquestionable” nature of sexual orientation and gender identity too.

Lots of intersex people consider themselves perfectly unremarkable men or women who just happen to have an unusual medical condition. They don’t consider themselves queer, subversive, or in any way extraordinary. But I want to suggest that, even so, there’s a way in which intersex is “queer” in one particular sense. It demonstrates that maleness and femaleness aren’t always obvious, and that our current definitions of maleness and femaleness don’t fit every single body. Intersex therefore calls into question the whole idea that humans are created always and only male or female – and, in turn, it calls into question lots of the theological and social norms based on that assumption.


Susannah Cornwall is a theologian specialising in issues of sex, gender, sexuality and embodiment. She is the author of Sex and Uncertainty in the Body of Christ: Intersex Conditions and Christian Theology (Equinox, 2010) and Controversies in Queer Theology (SCM Press, 2011).


Stephen Green and the sins of Tesco

Symon Hill


Yesterday, I read something by Stephen Green that I agreed with. This may surprise you, given that he is the director of the right-wing fundamentalist group, Christian Voice.

Before you get worried, I should explain that I agreed with only a tiny part of an article by Green that was, on the whole, as morally repugnant as most of his other writings.

Stephen Green has now declared that Tesco are sinful. “Well done, Stephen!” I hear you cry. “At least you’ve recognised that Tesco rip off their suppliers, exploit millions of people in the global south, pay poverty wages and undermine local communities in Britain.”

Sadly, he hasn’t. Despite Jesus’ solidarity with the poor, and the Bible’s repeated condemnations of those who exploit them, Christian Voice don’t seem to regard these things as sinful. Christian Voice have declared that Tesco are sinful because they sponsored the Pride march in London on Saturday (7 July).

Stephen Green believes that corporations should not be sponsoring Pride. So do I. Stephen objects to such sponsorship because he thinks it encourages social acceptance of homosexuality. I object to it because Pride is a demonstration that is supposed to be part of a radical movement, not an advertising opportunity for exploitative multinationals.

It is because of the wider social acceptance of homosexuality that corporations such as Tesco want to jump on the bandwagon to improve their reputation. But oppressive attitudes to sexuality and gender have long been associated with economic systems that benefit from them. We will not be liberated by allying ourselves with the rich and powerful. Nor will we be true to the Gospel by ignoring the sins of economic injustice, which were such a central theme of Jesus’ teachings.

Christian Voice’s report on Pride accuses groups such as Queer Resistance – a queer anti-capitalist group – of being “aggressive and intolerant”. This is from Christian Voice, an  organisation that promotes the criminalisation of same-sex relationships but believes that it should be legal for men to rape their wives. They also oppose the welfare state and the United Nations, and support capital punishment.

Their website’s article on Pride is illustrated with photographs that seem to have been picked out because they look particularly bizarre (for example, some of them show people in fetish clothing). Christian Voice have not chosen to show thousands of people calmly calling for equality and dignity, the individuals who feel they can only be honest about themselves on this one day of the year, or the hundreds of Christians singing hymns as they marched in Pride.

Stephen Green accuses the groups involved in Pride of trying “to present homosexuals as normal people”.

Yes, Stephen. That’s exactly what we were doing.

Thoughts on Pride

Jay Clark

Symon Hill has been at Pride London today, and I’m sad that I haven’t, because marching with the Christians at Pride last year was a revelatory moment for me of being both publicly queer and publicly Christian, that I had never experienced before.

There has been some controversy about the changes to Pride this year, and Christians Together at Pride have put out a press release welcoming its stripping down to a procession that goes back to its roots, 40 years after the first Gay Pride parade in the UK. Rev Sharon Ferguson, Chief Executive of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement said that: 

“Taking the parade back to its roots will hopefully give us an opportunity to highlight the areas where there is still inequality and discrimination. With the wonderful changes we have seen in the past few years to equality legislation in the UK it is easy to become complacent and believe that there is no longer a need for campaigning. However, many LGBT Christians still struggle for acceptance within both their religious and LGBT communities and we hope the presence of Christians Together at Pride will send a very positive message.”

As they suggest, a return to Pride being rooted in social justice means going beyond single issue campaigns, to pay attention to the complicated natures of people’s identities, and how these intersections of identity affect their experience as LGBT people. I came back to this idea when I was reading around on twitter this afternoon, and noticed that some disabled people are boycotting Pride this year, because it hasn’t been up to scratch on access. The vehicle ban has caused problems for some groups, including older LGBT people who would usually have had an access bus on the march, but activists including Ju Gosling, co-chair of Regard, the national organisation for disabled LGBT people, say that the access problems existed before the ban. They have criticised the organisers for failing to give access information until less than two weeks before the event, not consulting with disabled people who have raised concerns in the past, and not effectively tackling major access issues like hiring accessible parking spaces.

Although not being disabled I can’t speak from personal experience on this issues, this seems to suggest an area in which all LGBT people should not be complacent in campaigning. If we see Pride as a protest rally, then we need to be alert to what has not yet been achieved, and that involves protesting for a society that doesn’t disable people, and creating Pride as an event in which all the participants can be publicly themselves, in their complex identities.

Exposing the ‘Keep Marriage Special’ campaign

Symon Hill

The ‘Keep Marriage Special’ campaign have attracted publicity with their claims that the legalisation of same-sex marriage could lead to incest and illegal immigration. Their attitude makes the so-called “Coalition for Marriage” seem almost moderate by comparison.  

The Coalition for Marriage (C4M) is the main umbrella body of groups opposed to same-sex marriage in England and Wales. Of course, they might more accurately be called the Coalition Against Marriage, given their enthusiasm for denying marriage to people who are not the same as them. 

Keep Marriage Special (KMS) say they support the Coalition for Marriage but have set up their own group for the sake of having a specifically Christian campaign, because C4M is broader based. It’s true that C4M has non-Christian members, but it is clearly dominated by conservative evangelicals and conservative Catholics. The Coalition’s main backers include groups such as Christian Concern and the Christian Institute. 

Why then did Keep Marriage Special come about? There may be several reasons and I don’t claim to know the minds of its organisers. But it’s worth noting just who is involved in it.  

Keep Marriage Special say they have MPs and bishops amongst their vice-presidents. This is true. However, the two MPs concerned both represent constituencies in Northern Ireland. There are no plans to legalise same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. So they are not MPs for places that will be affected by the proposed legislation.  

The two bishops amongst the KMS vice-presidents include Michael Nazir-Ali, the Church of England’s former Bishop of Rochester. He is technically still a bishop (once ordained with that title, you generally keep it for life), but is no longer serving as one. The other bishop is David Samuels, leader of the so-called “Church of England (continuing)“, an ultra-conservative group with four congregations who have split from the Church of England. The “Church of England (continuing)” is the only denomination I know who dedicate most of the front page of their website to attacking same-sex relationships. They won’t, however, use the expression “same-sex relationships”, opting instead for the bizarre phrase “sodomitic union” (which sounds like some sort of complex economic arrangement designed by Eurozone finance ministers). 

It would be a mistake, however, simply to see KMS as a more extreme form of the Coalition for Marriage. The Coalition’s backers are not averse to over-the-top rhetoric.Andrew Marsh of Christian Concern, when debating with me on Channel Five News, claimed that same-sex marriage would lead to polygamy and implied (wrongly) that Jesus had criticised same-sex marriage. 

Instead, there is another difference between the two-groups. It does not seem to have been much noticed. It concerns Catholics. 

Despite claiming to include Christians from various traditions, there are no Catholics at the top of Keep Marriage Special. More than this, the list of vice-presidents and trustees includes a number of people known for their strongly anti-Catholic views: David Samuels (who, in addition to attacking “sodomy”, is head of the Protestant Reformation Society), Jeremy Brooks (of the Protestant Truth Society), Eileen Paisley (Ian’s wife). Several are members of the “Church Society“, a group of hardline anti-Catholic Anglicans. Indeed, the president of KMS is the Church’s Society’s president, Crispin Brentford (“Viscount Brentford” to those who accept the validity of such titles).  

I am not suggesting that every supporter of Keep Marriage Special is anti-Catholic. Michael Nazir-Ali, despite his hostility to queers, Muslims and childless couples, is not known for prejudice against Catholics. Nonetheless, it is clear from even a fairly brief glance at the names on the group’s website that this is primarily a group for people who are not only opposed to gay and bisexual people, but who are not too keen to campaign on the issue alongside Catholics, let alone Muslims and Jews. 

Some of KMS’ claims are particularly nasty. They have a publication declaring that illegal immigrants will use sham same-sex marriages to enter the UK. In addition to their anti-immigrant rhetoric, it’s worth noting that several of the groups involved also campaign against the ordination of women. It may be difficult to find a group of people who do not face prejudice from a significant number of the leading members of Keep Marriage Special.

In the light of this, Keep Marriage Special have little claim to be taken seriously on debates over same-sex marriage. Thankfully, they seem to be quite capable of undermining their own campaign with their absurd claims about incest and immigration.