‘I am what I am’ – A reflection on identity

The following text is a reflection I presented today during Morning Prayer at the church I attend with my partner. The church chooses a monthly theme for its services – this month’s theme was Musicals!

When my partner and I were asked to lead a service on the theme of musicals, at first I thought: ‘How stereotypical! Asking a gay couple to do ‘Songs From The Shows’! I believe I am not that stereotypical – in fact I tease my partner that his taste in music is much ‘gayer’ than mine! But part of my job is to raise awareness of LGBT issues and challenge stereotypes that can lead to prejudice, so that’s why I questioned it. But on reflection I realised we could do something creative with it – I even embraced the stereotype and chose one of the ‘gayest’ songs from a musical – ‘I Am What I Am from La Cage Aux Folles.

La Cage Aux Folles literally means “the cage of mad women”. However folles is also a slang term for effeminate gay men (or ‘queens’ as we might say in the UK). You may be more familiar with the Hollywood film starring Robin Williams, called The Birdcage.

La Cage Aux Folles is based on a French play of the same name. It focuses on a gay couple: Georges, the manager of a Saint-Tropez nightclub featuring drag queens, and Albin, his romantic partner who is the star attraction, also known as Zaza. Georges has a son from a previous relationship, Jean-Michel, who brings home his fiancée’s ultra-conservative parents to meet them.  The potential father-in-law is head of the Tradition, Family and Morality Party, which aims to close down the drag clubs. Jean-Michel lies to his fiancée, describing Georges as a retired diplomat. Jean-Michel pleads with Georges to tell Albin to make himself scarce for the visit – and for Georges to redecorate the apartment in a more subdued fashion. Jean-Michel also asks Georges to invite his mother, who has barely seen him since his birth, to dinner in place of Albin.

When Georges finally tells Albin of Jean-Michel’s plan, he expects Albin to explode with fury, as Jean-Michel is asking him to deny who is he is, or that he ever existed as his parent. But Albin remains silent, then returns to the stage and sing this song in defiance of Jean-Michel, stating that he is proud of who he is and refuses to change for anyone.

I am what I am
I am my own special creation
So come take a look
Give me the hook or the ovation
It’s my world that I want to have a little pride in
My world, and it’s not a place I have to hide in
Life’s not worth a damn ’til you can say
“Hey world, I am what I am!”

I am what I am
I don’t want praise, I don’t want pity
I bang my own drum
Some think it’s noise
I think it’s pretty
And so what
if I love each feather and each spangle?
Why not try to see things
from a different angle?
Your life is a sham ’til you can shout
out loud: “I am what I am!”

I am what I am
And what I am needs no excuses
I deal my own deck
sometimes the ace, sometimes the deuces
There’s one life and there’s no return
and no deposit
One life, so it’s time to open up your closet!
Life’s not worth a damn
’til you can say
“Hey world, I am what I am!”

I don’t want to give too much away, but in the second act they learn that  Jean-Michel’s mother won’t make the meal so, unknown to the others, Albin dresses as  Jean-Michel’s ‘mother’ – and hilarity ensues. I heartily recommend it!

When delivering LGBT Awareness workshops in schools I have played the audio of this song as the young people enter – they are usually surprised to learn who sings it – John Barrowman – action hero of Doctor Who / Torchwood, who happens to be gay and in a civil partnership. It helps to challenge any stereotypes they may have.

I usually draw attention to the words:

It’s my world that I want to have a little pride in,
My world, and it’s not a place I have to hide in.

and I ask:

Why do some LGBT people feel they have to hide?

Hiding for some is for fear of rejection for revealing their identity as something different from what family, community or society expects of them.

Why do LGBT people hold Pride marches and festivals?

Pride here does not mean the deadly sin, the desire to be more important or attractive than others, failure to acknowledge the good work of others, and excessive love of self, beyond a ‘right’ relationship with God. The English word ‘pride’ comes from the Old French for ‘brave or valiant’ – when the native Angl-Saxons heard the Norman invaders applied the term to themselves, they took it to mean superior, arrogant, the kind of selfish ‘pride’ we are warned against.

Pride for the LGBT community is the opposite of shame – a courageous affirmation of oneself in what can sometimes be a hostile environment. It is not about being more important, but about campaigning for equality and celebrating the diversity of human sexuality and gender.

Today I’m wearing the t-shirt I designed for our church to wear in the Liverpool Pride march last weekend. Having left my own faith tradition because I felt it was a place I had to hide in, it does my heart good that my partner and I are welcome and included here, even leading worship here, and that friends from the parish were willing to march and protest with us at Pride.

But the reason for choosing this song today is not to talk about sexuality and gender, but identity.

And as my own identity is all I can speak of with any authority, I hope I don’t sound too much like a singer warming up:

But I will share a little of my story to illustrate the theme.

I am (or have been) all of these things:

 

They are all part of who I am and have become, but none of them says everything about me, not even my gender and sexuality. We are all unique and diverse individuals that are not designed to live in boxes, yet that is often how our society defines us and teaches us to define ourselves and each other.

When I was a primary school teacher I heard about an English lesson on personal pronouns (I, you, me ,he, she, they, etc), which went like this:

Teacher: Give me a sentence starting with ‘ I. ‘
Johnnie: I is…
Teacher: No, Johnnie….. Always say, ‘I am.’
Johnnie: All right… ‘I am the ninth letter of the alphabet.’

Which goes to show that sometimes when we talk of our own identity it is open to misunderstanding by others with a different agenda!

I first saw the Robin Williams film The Birdcage while I was at seminary. As part of the pretence to please the conservative parents of his son’s fiancée, Robin Williams’ character instructs his staff to strip out all the flamboyant decoration from their apartment over the nightclub. They replace it with austere furniture such as a refectory table and other items from a monastery. When he sees the result, he says: ‘This is hell, and there’s a crucifix in it!’ This seemed to me at the time like an apt motto for the seminary!

Who do other say I am?

Sometimes people have said I was some things I didn’t recognise:

Latent bully: my delight in humour can sometimes be used to wound others. My sarcasm was challenged in this way when I was 18, and though I didn’t see it at the time, this challenge has stayed with me as a reminder to use the gift of humour to lift people up, not put them down.

Unsafe with children: These were the words of a Catholic priest in whom I confided in confession. He was also a governor of a school where I taught. I felt shame and disgust that he would compare my sexual orientation to paedophilia, but unable to complain about him for fear that his superiors would judge in the same way. This conflation of healthy, consenting adult intimacy with child abuse is one of the worst forms of homophobia, which is still alive, as the debate on same sex marriage recently illustrated.

Dissident: I used to lead the local Quest group for LGBT Catholics, and when a conservative Catholic group complained to the Archbishop that we were meeting at the University Chaplaincy and celebrating mass, we were told we could no longer meet on Catholic premises in the Archdiocese. We were not given the right to reply to our critics. Their website called us ‘dissidents’.

[At this point those present suggested this was a term I should feel proud to identify with, so perhaps I will own that one!]

When faced with judgements which tells you that who you are is not OK, it takes courage to stand up and say ‘I am not who you say I am’.

Who does God say we are?

Genesis tells us we are made ‘in God’s image and likeness’, called to be like God, not to make gods of ourselves, as in the proverbial Pride of Adam and Eve that comes before The Fall.

In Exodus, Moses asks God’s name, and God replies: ‘I am who I am’. A name is one expression of identity. God is not an anonymous force. God is accessible, capable of being known intimately and addressed personally.

The divine name is mysterious – it is both a name revealed and the refusal of be named; above everything that we can understand or say, a hidden God who invites us to intimacy, always there, present to those created in the divine image.

The name “I Am Who I Am” reveals that God is the fullness of being, infinite, without beginning or end. As Paul is recorded as saying in Acts: ‘In God we live and move and have our being.’

The God who formed a covenant relationship with the people of Israel was also the God of unnamed mystery. God’s name is too holy to be known in full or articulated in writing, but the text speaks of a relationship that accompanies and challenges a people and brings about a deeper self-understanding.

For about a year I had spiritual accompaniment with Barbara Glasson, the Methodist minister who used to run Somewhere Else, also known as the Bread Church on Bold Street in Liverpool. She asked me to contribute to a book she wrote on ‘coming out’ – the process of claiming a new identity that is normally associated with sexual orientation and gender identity. She talks about how this process requires ‘an unusual and specific sort of courage’.

Barbara invites us to share an understanding of the ‘coming out’ process and its relevance to others who undergo major transformations in life (such as survivors of sexual abuse, people living with disability and addictions) and to the church which struggles to include them.

In sharing some of my story as part her book, I felt drawn to write more, and to share with others who may identify with my story and know, perhaps, that they are not alone, that integration of faith and sexuality is possible, or that same sex relationships are capable of the same depth of love and commitment as the most devoted marriages.

Sometimes who others say we are does not match our sense of who we are – the challenge is for us to hold on to our sense of who we are, and who we can become. Sometimes this means sharing our story, sometimes it means keeping silent, waiting for the right moment, especially if sharing could be unsafe.

Who do we say Jesus is?

In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’, their reply reflects the confused expectation and hope that the Jews had built up around the Messiah: ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ Then Jesus asks: ‘Who do you say I am?’ Peter, who later denies knowing Jesus for fear of violent rejection, answers, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ But Jesus orders the disciples not to tell anyone.

Perhaps Jesus avoided the title due to the expectations of the people, looking for a political deliverer, or so he could continue to move about freely in public. The theologian James Alison suggests, in his introduction to Christianty called Jesus the Forgiving Victim which some of us have been studying, that Jesus knew the power of what people would say about him, and refused to be contaminated by it.

There are several moments in the Gospels when Jesus withdraws away from the crowds to be alone and pray. James explains:

‘Typically these moments of withdrawal come in the immediate aftermath of a major interaction with a crowd following a miracle. And it is not hard to see why. The risk which any leader runs, especially one who is enjoying a certain success, is becoming infected by the desires of their followers, allowing themselves to believe about themselves what the followers believe, and to be flattered into acting out the projections which have raised them up, and thus to become the puppet of their crowd’s desires. Jesus’ moving off to pray shows that he understood his need to detox from the pattern of desire which threatened to run him – people wanting to make him King, or proclaim him as Messiah in a way that was far from what he was trying to teach them.’
– James Alison, Jesus The Forgiving Victim

James Alison believes our ‘identity’ is entirely dependent on others, from the genetics and nurturing of our parents to our socialisation from peers, teachers, faith leaders, media and politicians. He calls this the ‘social other’, from which we learn to seek affirmation, either positive or negative, and by which we define ourselves. He believes Jesus’ example to us in these moments is a lesson for us in how to respond to the temptation of relying on the fickle approval of the social other.

Jesus urges his disciples – those who were with him, and those of us who follow him today – to receive their identity, or sense of ‘self’, not from the ‘social other’, but from ‘another other’ – that is, ‘your Father who sees in secret’. Jesus is saying that we are addicted to being who we are in the eyes of our adoring public, or our harshest critics, it doesn’t matter which, since crowd love and crowd hate give identity in the same dangerous way. So, he teaches us to go into a place where we can detox from the regard of those who give us identity so that our Creator can have a chance to call our true identity into being – to enable us to become ‘our own special creation’, as Zaza might say.

How does God see us?

I used to believe I could never be ‘good enough’ to ‘deserve’ such abundant life and love. But in recent years I have found great insight in the spirituality of St Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, who believed that our deepest desires reveal the image of God in which we are created – by reflecting regularly on our desires, we can know the will of God for us. One of Ignatius’ famous Spiritual Exercises as preparation for prayer is:

‘A step or two in front of the place where I am to contemplate or meditate, I will stand for the length of an Our Father, raising my mind above and considering how God our Lord is looking at me, and make an act of reverence or humility.’ (Ex 75)

Through this process, I have come to believe that God, who created us as diverse reflections of the divine, loves us as we are – and that is enough, if we want it to be. Unconditional love means a response is not required for us to be loved. But the experience of being loved invites a loving response – the promised fullness of life remains constant when we are ready to respond. As Jack Nicklaus’s cranky obsessive character in the film ‘As Good As It Gets’ says to the waitress who shows him compassion and respect:

‘You make me want to be a better man.’

Although I have not always been able to say this and believe it, I can now say with confidence these words of St Paul – and I hope you can too:

‘By the grace of God, I am what I am, and God’s grace to me was not without effect’.

To download the service sheet to accompany this reflection, click here.

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