This likely represents one of the most controversial articles that Orthodoxy in Dialogue will ever publish. The dismissiveness, outrage, or mockery that it will elicit in certain Orthodox circles is entirely—and sadly—predictable.
Conducted on June 25, 2018, this interview introduces our readers to Ms. Bringerud’s doctoral research in gender, cultural heritage, and conversion in the Orthodox Church. She invites her subject to share their experience of being Orthodox and a seminarian while not identifying as male or female.
Orthodoxy in Dialogue does not normally allow the use of pseudonyms. In this case we have made a rare exception based on the importance of Lindsey’s witness in our ongoing discussion of sexuality and gender and the need to ensure their safety and well-being in the Church. We have communicated with them directly and know their identity.
The author provides a glossary of terms here.
Lydia: Please introduce yourself for our readers.
Lindsey: Hi, my name is Lindsey, and my pronouns are they/them/theirs. I am white, middle-class, on the autistic spectrum of disorders, and have major depression, for which I’m in treatment. I am often read as masculine. I grew up in different parts of California. My parents converted to Orthodoxy, and I grew up attending Liturgy and Vespers every week.
Lydia: You identify as “genderqueer.” Can you talk about what that word means to you, and how you came to identify this way?
Lindsey: I don’t really like labels myself, but we still have to speak a language. Gender, to me, is the meaning we give to being embodied, which is intimately linked with sex, the physical composition of our bodies. The meanings of the two may come from culture, society, family of origin…etc. None of the regulated roles contained under “male” or “female,” or anything else, really, fits my identity. I would almost prefer to think of myself as agender. I don’t experience moving from one gender expression to another; I feel outside of the gender spectrum. There is a tendency to collapse sex and gender and use those words interchangeably, but we do ourselves a disservice there—they are ultimately inseparable, but they are very much distinct.
Lydia: Do you think that your identity as genderqueer is related to your experience being on the autism spectrum?
Lindsey: Yes. I have difficulty fitting into other regulated social roles, due to being autistic and the way my brain processes sensory data. This is very deeply tied to other areas of my life. However, I would like to stress that this does not mean I am somehow broken or that there is something innately bad, disordered, or unnatural about being autistic. The same would apply to any other form of neurodiverse experience.
Lydia: How is the term genderqueer related to your gender identity and your romantic or sexual orientation? Why have you chosen these particular words to describe yourself?
Lindsey: After I came out to myself and took ownership of being non-binary, I began to experience both romantic and sexual attraction differently. I identify as pansexual and panromantic, not in the sense of a specific attraction to all genders, but that another’s gender doesn’t significantly impact my attraction to them—I have had intimate romantic relationships with partners of several gender expressions—cis, trans, non-binary individuals. What I find most attractive is a person’s personality.
Lydia: When did you realize you weren’t binary?
Lindsey: I think it’s always been there, looking back on my life. I’ve always wondered, “What does it mean to be a man?” No descriptions of “manliness” felt very natural to me; a lot of it felt horrifying. Some of the times in my life when I have done things that have been most in conflict with my own values were when I was trying to fit into someone’s idea of what “manliness” was. A lot of that came from the Church.
Lydia: From whom, specifically?
Lindsey: I’m thinking of things like youth retreats, where they divide kids up according to gender and talk to them about what it means to be a man or a woman. More recently, I’ve read comments online like, “Orthodoxy is like Christianity but tougher. It’s a manly religion for manly men!” There’s always this undercurrent of aggression and dominance, being stalwart and stoic, but that’s just not who I am. I have no desire to be aggressive or cover up my emotions.
Lydia: Do you think there is an argument to be made for “too many words” regarding gender identity?
Lindsey: In my experience, that concern comes either from confusion or anger about something unfamiliar. I feel more understanding of confusion, and I try to have a dialogue. The proliferation of different terms acknowledges the uniqueness and diversity of everybody’s journey. It can certainly be difficult to express things, but I don’t think that’s a bad confusion. Father Thomas Hopko said, “Better true confusion than false clarity.”
Lydia: Are you out to many people?
Lindsey: No, though my spiritual father knows. I love my parents very deeply, and I know that they love me. But it would not necessarily be out of character for them to do something to try to bring me to “repentance.”
Lydia: Do you think it is ever one Christian’s responsibility to bring another to repentance?
Lindsey: No. Repentance is a gift from God, and it only comes from hearing the proclamation of the Good News. I value living honestly and openly, and I will come out to my family when I am ready. With regards to the Church, I do not believe anything about my life or my identity is unnatural, sinful, or harmful. I can live fully as a faithful follower of Christ and the Orthodox Church. However, with very few exceptions, many priests would see my identity as a reason to bar me from the sacraments. To be cut off from eucharistic celebration with the fellowship of Christ would be like a spiritual death sentence to me.
Lydia: The Orthodox Church teaches a very binary model of sexuality, and it opposes homosexuality. If you were out to others, how do you think your identity would be received in this landscape?
Lindsey: I would be a pariah in the Orthodox Church. If I were unapologetic, I would be excommunicated. Many priests are privately affirming, but even the most affirming pastors would discourage myself and others like me from being out to the community because it would cause a split in the parish. The only way it would be permissible is if I said I was going to spend the rest of my life flagellating myself and living in celibacy. That’s not who I am, and that’s not what I want to do. The assumption that the only truly joyful way to be sexual is in a married, monogamous, heterosexual relationship is wrong.
Lydia: Why do you think priests who would be privately compassionate would fear a parish rift if you were publicly out?
Lindsey: We’re not allowed to have conflict in churches, or if we are, there’s a very narrow range of things we’re allowed to fight over, like the calendar. Orthodoxy as it is in America has lost sight of the catholicity, or universality of the Church. Christ is for all of creation without exception or conditions. Everybody by default is included, and we betray the work of Christ when we say a particular person or group of people is not welcome in the Church.
Lydia: What drew you to want to become a priest?
Lindsey: I completely fell in love with participating in the services directly as an altar boy. I loved the incense and the candles, and I studied how services were put together. That’s where I feel at home, and I feel that very strongly. Also, as time went on, I felt what Nadia Bolz-Weber calls becoming a pastor when other people make you their pastor. People came to me vulnerably asking for spiritual counsel. That confirmed my calling. At seminary, when people asked, “Why are you here?” my only half-joking response was “Because people keep confessing their sins to me.”
Lydia: Growing up Orthodox, what were you taught, both in your church community and your family, about sexual identity?
Lindsey: It was never touched on in my family. In church, masturbation, sexual fantasies, or any forms of sexual or physical intimacy with others outside of marriage were frowned upon. It’s always with the promise that the only way you’ll have awesome sex once you’re married is if you keep your virginity until you’re married. That’s like saying you’ll only be awesome at basketball if you set foot on a court for the first time when you’re 30.
There were only two options for sexual identity: you’re either a good, right, straight person or you are gay. There is no bisexuality, there is no trans. Sex = gender, and there’s only two of them. If you’re attracted to the same as what you are, then you’re broken and need conversion therapy. At best it’s “Look at this poor sinner, he can’t help himself, he’s got a disease.” And this was almost held up as a fate worse than death.
It’s the same attitude toward neurodiversity and vaccination: “I would rather my child die of mumps than for them to end up being autistic.”
Lydia: How has your understanding of your own sexuality impacted your experience of seminary?
Lindsey: Powerfully. Michael Cunningham once said, “Everything is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” The subject of sexuality undergirds a lot of discussions in seminary. Almost every topic in pastoral theology also had a connection, explicitly or implicitly, with somebody’s sexuality or to marriage. Oftentimes the discussions end with “If we say this, we’re opening the door to allowing gay marriage.” In most cases in seminary, marriage equals sex and sex equals marriage.
One of the few ways that sex is explicitly addressed in seminary is with the notion of sex and pornography addictions. For a long time, I had a very distorted view of sexuality. I was sexually acting in ways and doing things that were in conflict with my values at the time. I started going to a 12-step group for sex addiction. It was the first place where I could honestly and vulnerably talk about what sexuality meant for me. One of the good things that came from that was that I started to think critically about what my values were sexually. What is sexual health? What helped me to define my life as a sexual person, congruously with my values, was education. I learned about sex physiologically and psychologically, and it became clear that there is no such thing as a gender binary.
I said, “Okay, under the assumption that people are divided into two genders, what do the Church Fathers say about why that is?” And what I found out is, they don’t. Each person who wrote on the subject said something different, which is incompatible with the others, which blew my mind, because I thought that all the Fathers agree on everything, which is not true in the slightest. The sources which the monastic writers used was the best medical and scientific information that they had. Now we have more information, and we can develop things in a better way, and even if we come to different conclusions than they do, we are being more radically true to the traditions than simply repeating the same things that they did for 1500 years.
Furthermore, homosexuality didn’t exist as a social concept until the 1800s. So, when trying to understand the Scriptures and the canonical tradition around sexualities and morality, we have to come to grips with the fact that they understood the concept of sexuality completely differently than today.
Lydia: What behaviors were incongruous with your values?
Lindsey: At the time, it was primarily that I believed that masturbation was inherently sinful and a disorder. I believed that pornography was evil and wicked, and even that sexual fantasy was inherently sinful, to be frank. I also recognized in myself tendencies toward how I thought about women, which I thought were bad. I had this idea, coming from the Church, about what a relationship looks like, and it was very entitled. I was taught to interact with women through thinly veiled manipulation and date rape. I knew that was wrong.
Lydia: How has it impacted the way you read Orthodox theology and Tradition?
Lindsey: I look at how a specific theologian does theology more than his specific conclusions. When I study the Church Fathers, I’m not reading them to find an answer. I’m reading them because theology is a practice. I want to understand what concepts they were working with and what controversies they were involved with that shaped their intellectual development. How did they grow? How did they change their minds, and why? The writings of St. John Chrysostom evolved from a dualistic, monastic worldview to a more inclusive one after he ministered to women and married people as a bishop. I’m fascinated by that process.
The Fathers were devoted to the Church, to Christ, and to academic work. Gregory of Nyssa is called the “Father of Fathers.” He was also a universalist. We can’t ignore that. That is integral to his entire theological worldview. Everything he writes is based on the assumption that all of creation is destined for union with God. We can’t separate his writings on Christ and the Holy Spirit from his writings on the eternal destiny of the world. There is this incredibly intellectually dishonest move of saying, “We’ve already figured out what all the Fathers say, all the Fathers agree on everything.” If the Fathers come to a different conclusion, then we either ignore it or make it go away, or we try to squeeze it to fit into our preconceived notions, most of which have nothing to do with an authentic Orthodox theology. It’s this weird, American, evangelical, or pseudo-scholastic Western view that has been dressed up in a cassock and incense.
Lydia: Some might say that Western culture is obsessed with sexuality and that non-binary sexualities are a direct outgrowth of this cultural trend. How would you respond to this claim?
Lindsey: “Western culture” is a highly problematic term. We have inherited a heavily distorted view of sexuality from the Victorian era, which kept a lid on sexuality until the sexual revolution of the 60s. Some feel that we should try to metaphorically shove the toothpaste back into the tube, which you can’t do.
I do, however, think social discourse around sexuality is heavily distorted. The answer is not to attempt a return to a make-believe golden age without queer people. Rather, we can try to bring our communities and our culture to a healthier, more constructive understanding of relationships—not one based on toxic masculinity, toxic whiteness, or heteronormativity, but one that allows people to be who they are and actually liberates rather than dominates them.
Lydia: I imagine that some people will read this interview and say, “The secular world has poisoned the way you understand sexuality.”
Lindsey: That’s the genetic fallacy. It’s a purely rhetorical move that ignores the actual argument, labeling it invalid because it is “secular” without addressing details. The idea that you must mistrust everything that isn’t Orthodox Christian raises all kinds of questions about what Orthodox identity is anyway.
Lydia: Do you believe there is room in Orthodox theology for a broader understanding of gender?
Lindsey: Yes. St. Gregory of Nyssa says gender is one of those things that is an aspect of a person, but it is not essential to being human. Orthodox Christianity is uniquely positioned to affirm non-binary identities and sexualities, because unlike the Catholic Church, we do not have a magisterium which has already dogmatically defined this for us. We have a patristic, theological tradition which is capable of integrating what we now know of human sexuality and gender; and unlike Protestantism, we are not bound solely to the interpretation the Scriptures—it is an essential part of the Tradition, but does not in and of itself constitute the Tradition.
Lydia: Would a broader understanding of gender, in your opinion, contradict capital-T Tradition in the Church?
Lindsey: I’d say no. Admittedly, I have a somewhat more limited understanding of what capital-T Tradition is; my view of it is not as expansive or all-encompassing as that of a lot of other people in the Church.
Lydia: You think that fewer things fall under the umbrella of capital-T tradition than someone else would?
Lindsey: According to my view of Tradition, what is dogmatically binding upon the conscience of an Orthodox Christian is fairly limited, and adherence to the Tradition is more about method and practice (i.e., prayer and the sacramental life) than it is about specific conclusions or propositions to which we ascribe truth-value. Natural theology is about using the best information that we have instead of finding more ways to affirm what we have already decided is true. In that sense, the Orthodox tradition is uniquely situated among Christian traditions to fully appreciate the spiritual lives of queer people, to affirm them, and to integrate what we know about psychology and biology.
Lydia: What would you like to see in the Church with regard to the treatment of community members who do not identify with binary sexuality?
Lindsey: I’d like to see the Orthodox Church become affirming and accepting. I don’t think that will happen in my lifetime, certainly not to the extent that I would like. The conditions for having a discussion about these things are that you have to be willing to admit that you’re wrong. If you are going to have, for example, a conference, or a discussion about women’s ordination, you have to come into it with the possibility that women can be ordained, or that we can administer the sacrament of marriage to a couple that is not cis-heterosexual.
Lydia: A conversation has to involve openness on both sides.
Lindsey: Yes, more on the side of the people in power. They are the ones being challenged. In terms of things that are possible, just speaking in a way that is not condescending and open to the perspectives of those challenging the status quo. I would like to see affirmation and discussion of non-monogamy. I would like to see the Church move away from understanding lust (the Greek term is porneia, usually translated as fornication) to be sex with the wrong kind of person or in the wrong circumstances. Is sex outside of or before marriage inherently sinful? Why, or why not? I think we need to dramatically re-evaluate the concept of sin and sins.
This is perhaps the most theologically challenging article that we have published to date. Email us if you would like to participate in a dialogical response which identifies areas of agreement, disagreement, ambivalence, or particular challenge.
Lindsey is a lifelong Orthodox Christian with a deep love of liturgy and theology who holds an MDiv from an Orthodox seminary. They continue to research and write in the areas of patristics, human sexuality and gender, and natural theology.
Lydia Bringerud is a PhD student in folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s. She holds an MA in folklore from Indiana University in Bloomington. Her research focuses primarily on American converts to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, as well as attitudes toward authority, obedience, cultural conflict, and the position of women.