Love, Desire & Community

Chalice Lighting (words by New Unity member, Lindsay River)

By the light of this flame let us celebrate with joy
The diversity of sexuality,
The blessing of physical attraction,
The delight in intimacy.
Whoever we love,
However we name or label ourselves.
And honour the loving lives of single people
As well as those with partners.
Let us rejoice in the community we can find
With people like ourselves.
With those who are different
And with allies and friends.
Making together a community of love.

Reading. From Audre Lorde's 'Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference' in her book Sister Outsider

As a Black lesbian feminist comfortable with the many different ingredients of my identity, and a woman committed to racial and sexual freedom from oppression, I find I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of myself and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self.

But this is a destructive and fragmenting way to live. My fullest concentration of energy is available to me only when I integrate all the parts of who I am, openly, allowing power from particular sources of my living to flow back and forth freely through all my different selves, without the restrictions of externally imposed definition. Only then can I bring myself and my energies as a whole to the service of those struggles which I embrace as part of my living.

Reading. From Wikipedia on Ursula Le Guin's Sci-Fi novel Left Hand of Darkness, which was published in 1969

The inhabitants of [the planet] Gethen are ambisexual humans; for twenty-four days (somer) of each twenty-six-day lunar cycle, they are sexually latent androgynes. They only adopt sexual attributes once a month, during a period of sexual receptiveness and high fertility, called kemmer. During kemmer they become sexually male or female, with no predisposition towards either, although which sex they adopt can depend on context and relationships. Throughout the novel Gethenians are described as "he", whatever their role in kemmer. This absence of fixed gender characteristics led Le Guin to portray Gethen as a society without war, and also without sexuality as a continuous factor in social relationships. On Gethen, every individual takes part in the "burden and privilege" of raising children, and rape and seduction are almost absent.

From the introduction to the 1917 edition to the book by China Miéville

For the bulk of each month the Gethenians are effectively asexual androgynes: only for a short period of 'kemmer' do they experience sexual desire and adopt sexual characteristics, becoming temporarily 'male' or 'female', without control, predisposition or preference, to engage in enthusiastic uncoercive sex, perhaps to biologically mother and/or father children.

[Left Hand of Darkness] is never not about gender... All its aspects in Le Guin's words 'are involved with its sex/gender aspects quite inextricably'. 

Because in these pages kings become pregnant.

...The book remains radical and affecting – and that is if we read the Gethenians now half a century on from their birth, in an era shaped by decades of feminist struggle, gay politics, trans voices, militant gender trouble, of growing insistence on the fluidity and performance of sexuality.  If it is not immediately clear to some new young readers how radical it was on its arrival, before it was a classic, that's because they read it now in its own aftermath, and that of the books and battles it inspired.

Message by New Unity member, Lindsay River


I'm giving this message in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History Month, and within our three month theme here at New Unity of 'Labels'.  Two weeks ago Andy Pakula talked about sexual orientation and the categories people have been divided into.  I am going to talk more about these labels and about desire, love and community.  I say 'desire' because sexual orientation is not only to do with the diversity of who we love, but it is also to do with who we are attracted to.

I am going to start with myself.  I had always had crushes on girls when I was growing up, but back then (a long time ago!)  this was an accepted schoolgirl behaviour.  I also went out with boys.  Then in the autumn of 1965 I suddenly realised  in the middle of a French class that I was physically attracted to a girl. It was a difficult time, the sixties were not as liberated as we think:  homosexual men were being given aversion therapy, lesbians were invisible.  Bisexuality was little understood. This began a torturous six year journey to claim my identity and find my communities.  On the way I was told by a pastor that this was from the Devil, I faced societal rejection, I tried dismally to be heterosexual, I was abused by my fiance and I acquired a long term mental health condition. But I was blessed, I hung on, and I was able to get through to 1972 and the Gay Liberation Front in London. 

Of course it may not only be about sexual orientation as in my story, but also about gender.    Some people are trans: trans women who were assigned male at birth but know themselves as women, trans men who were assigned female but know themselves as men.   It is only recently that most people have become aware of folks who define themselves as non-binary or genderfluid, or genderqueer, who don't fit into one gender or don't recognise gender as relevant to them at all. As some (but not all) intersex people may also feel. 

Right now there are proposals for a change in the law to make it easier for trans people to be accepted legally in their chosen gender.  There is currently a great flurry of opinion on the subject in the media.   It is a very hard time for trans people because there is a considerable backlash.  Some people are worried about the effect this may have on the rights of women and girls.   There is a panic reaction or an openly hostile reaction and trans people are suffering in consequence.   I could, but won't, spend this whole message on the subject, but please do talk to me about it if you have concerns or want to know more. I can assure you that the countries like Ireland that have made legal transition easier, just as is proposed here, have seen no adverse effects on women's rights, and all women, including transwomen, work together for women's rights.  And right now in the UK, trans people need allies.

Self definition is the key for gender and for sexual orientation alike. Being labelled by others can be oppressive, finding and proclaiming your own name for your specific difference (I say name here not label) can be a powerful and affirming experience.  Even wearing a t-shirt saying Weird-o (as is illustrated on our programme today) could be that!  It also means that people who are able to announce themselves as Lesbian or Gay or Bisexual or indeed as Asexual, or as a different gender than expected, can find support from their peers.   I proclaimed myself lesbian in 1972 and my community changed and affirmed me as well as allowing me to meet partners.  When we choose our own labels we are more able to find that support, and it is sweet. 

I have had many self chosen labels – starting with female homosexual (which we said in the sixties), then gay in Gay Liberation Front, moving through lesbian and also the unapologetic word 'dyke', a word that previously had been an insult but which we reclaimed. I have identified as bisexual, too.  When faced with tick boxes I usually want to tick them all but heterosexual.  Latterly I make up different names for myself as I feel so inspired, but they usually contain the word 'queer': another word that used to be an insult but which many of us have reclaimed.   A word here of warning - the best advice for people who are not LGBT themselves is to use the words that are not offensive. Some of us still hate queer!

As I aged I realised I needed more than this – I also needed firm allies who were not LGBT themselves, a whole community of them.   And for that New Unity has been pure gold.

It is rare to find a culture that actively supports LGBT and gender non conforming people.  Some indigenous cultures have honoured them, in North America for instance as two spirit people.  And long ago, in the second millennium BCE the temples of the Goddess Inanna were filled with such people.  There is even a text extant where a so-called 'manly maiden' runs to Inanna's temple for sanctuary after being rejected by society.  The priestess of Inanna performs a ceremony giving this one the status of a man, just as in a ceremony for the feminine, male bodied fugitives she gives them the status of women and gives work and a role to both, serving in her cult. 

I taught about this at two camps for LGBT spiritually inclined people last year.  People were moved by it: so many of us have felt religions have ignored us, or even persecuted us.  We made a procession in our specially chosen clothes through the fields in the evening light.  In the woods we approached I had secretly arranged beforehand for a large open wooden shelter to be turned into a temple. I led the procession towards it.  In the temple were two gender non-conforming acolytes and a woman who had taken on the role and costume of the goddess Inanna.  The light was fading but we could see by the light of two torches that were planted either side of the throne which had been constructed for Inanna.  Each person was led up to her and they whispered the name of their identity which they wanted blessed – their own name for their gender or their sexuality, or both, a title carefully chosen by them, hard won, and made sacred by the struggles, the loneliness, the determination, the triumph behind each name.  And they were blessed.  

It was one of the best evenings of my life.  And the young 18 year old from 1965 who lives inside me was blessed as I watched them.

May we all have such a blessing and such a welcome from the society around us, whoever we are, and from radically inclusive groups like New Unity.  Blessed be.  May it be so.

Closing Words (words by New Unity member, Lindsay River)

Love is not made of chocolate
Or padded red satin.
It lives in the glance of understanding,
The touch of kindness
As well as in the electric leap
Between bodies.
Love is made by people,
One to one and in community.
Let us learn how to be good allies,
Deepen our friendships
And make love live.