ON SEXUALITY & GENDER: LETTER TO AN INQUIRER by Giacomo Sanfilippo

boyfriendsWhen I announced Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s partial hiatus I let it be known that I would continue to respond to anything sent to our editorial email address. People write to us not only with their ideas for an article, but very often to me personally for spiritual support in their struggles with questions of sexuality and gender. These questions might pertain to themselves, their child, or someone else for whom they care deeply.

The day before yesterday we heard from a woman who’s familiar with the work of Father James Martin, SJ. (See the titles under his name in our Archives by Author.) Over the course of two or three emails she reached a comfort level with me where she asked why I study theology, why my studies focus on sexuality and gender, what makes a person straight or gay, what were the reactions to my article in The Wheel

I share my rushed and unpolished answer in the hope that some of our readers might find it helpful.

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Because The Wheel is a print journal, I’m more aware of reactions to my article’s predecessor here. [I neglected to mention to my correspondent that Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) has very publicly praised my article in The Wheel.] While there is a lot of support in the Orthodox Church for what I do, the negative responses are so bad that the hatred heaped on Father Martin by certain Catholics pales in comparison. I respond to it briefly here; and there is also this and this, which explain why my life is devoted to theology and to the study of sexuality and gender. I have struggled with questions of sexuality and gender since my earliest childhood memories, and studied theology formally and informally since 1975 when I was 20. 

There, now you know as much about me as anyone does.

I’m glad you framed your question in terms of “what makes people heterosexual or homosexual.” Too often people ask only what makes a person homosexual. My answer is that we have hardly begun to understand these things. It seems to me that there must be some unequal combination or interplay of genetic and social factors, at work so early in a person’s conscious memory that he is led to assume that he was “born gay” or “born straight.” I always say that a person isn’t born wanting to have sex; but also that sexual orientation has to do with much more, and much deeper, than the mere desire for sex with this or that gender, this or that person; or that “having sex”—even at its most impersonal and promiscuous—can never be reduced to a thing-in-itself, but that it always expresses the God-given and God-like impetus to experience and express maximum interiority with the person of the other on the deepest possible spiritual, emotional, and bodily level.

A person is born desiring the sense of well-being that comes from bodily pleasure regardless of the source—the nursing mother, the caressing father or sibling or grandparent or babysitter or total stranger, the baby powder, the fresh diaper, the blanket, the stuffed animal, the bath, the warm breeze on his body, the tasty food. With time—and at a much earlier age than some of us care to admit—these innocent sensual pleasures become eroticized to a greater or lesser degree, and the human object from whom a child’s or young person’s or adult’s erotic satisfaction is sought (take care to understand that I don’t mean orgasm alone, or even primarily) will fall more and more consciously (consciously to the pleasure-seeker, I mean) with his own, the opposite, or both genders.

I will conclude with the thought that our creation by God doesn’t end with our conception or birth, but comprises a never-ending process of divine-human collaboration, at a particular time, in a particular place, influenced more deeply than we can possibly understand by the particular intersection of social factors—race, gender, class, socioeconomic status, language, religion, quality of parenting, education, profession, etc. etc.—all of which work together to delimit what seems like the illimitable range of options available to a person over the course of his life.

This is probably much, much longer than you wanted me to write.

Giacomo 

See also Giacomo Sanfilippo’s On Chastity: Two Letters to a Struggling Monk and the extensive Sexuality and Gender section in our Archives by Author.

Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, founding editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue, and contributor at the Kyiv Post. He was a priest from 1988 to 2002.

Orthodoxy in Dialogue is on partial hiatus until late spring/early summer 2019.