I begin my sermon by inviting you to close your eyes and notice yourself. Notice the touch of air on your skin, of fabric, clothes, the furniture holding you up and pushing into your muscle. Notice hairs, moles, wrinkles. What feels light or tense, heavy or relaxed? What memories do you have in your wrist, in your breast, in the notch between your chin and neck? From whom did you learn to sit properly? What inconvenient thoughts, feelings, emotions have come to you like unwanted weather… tears you wish would not come out at work, a burst of laughter, a sharp cramp, an inappropriate fart. Think of the shifting balances that keep you upright, the angles and round parts, the loose and tight parts, the heights and depths. You are valleys, mountains and ravines. You are a landscape haunted by memories of touch, by gestures learned and repeated, by histories of sensation. You may open your eyes.
Perhaps you are a garden, primmed and orderly. Well kept. But, at one point in our psychosexual development, each of us was a wilderness. At least according to Freud who said, from age zero to about five, our sexuality is in a stage of polymorphous perversity. Polymorphous, from Greek “Many shaped” and perversity, from Latin per versere, literally to “thoroughly turn” or overturn. Here, importantly, “perversity” does not really come with the ethical connotation that later (American psychologists) would add to it, but perversity mostly means something that overturns a norm. What then, is the norm?
Before we mature, our bodies are full of shifting sexual potential. Where we feel sexual pleasure is not limited to one or two regions of the body but felt throughout. Not only where desire lives but who we desire is undetermined. This changes with the Oedipus complex. For Angie Fee, a psychiatrist who works primarily with trans/nonbinary people, “The Oedipal complex structures the direction of identification and desire, in that identification is what one would like to be, and desire is what one would like to have but one cannot identify as and desire the same object” (Fee 209). We begin with possibility. Children can feel attraction from anywhere in their body, and can desire anyone/thing. The Oedipus complex narrows the options. Sexuality becomes separate from full body into your “private parts,” who you are supposed to desire becomes tied to which private parts you have. A child becomes boy with a penis and must love mother, but discouraged from incest, he replaces the mother with a different female. The child becomes a girl when she learns she will never have her father’s phallus, and she will be the replacement of someone else’s desire for their mother until she becomes a mother. This is what sexologists and feminists have called the heterosexual matrix. It not only decides where our sexuality lives and whom we are supposed to desire, but also who we are supposed to desire to be. In the matrix, to love a man means I am a woman, and to desire a woman, I must be man. Maturation is the process of moving from polymorphous to monomorphous, from many uncontrollable genders and desires to one desire and one gender.
Freud’s novelty was theorizing gender and sexual identity as constructed. Society’s “man” and society’s “woman” are not natural against us unnatural types. Everyone begins polymorphously perverse. If normal does not equal natural, then we could work toward a new norm. After all, today’s normal emerges through a harmful process of elimination. Freud saw pathologies as resulting from repressed desires. Normalcy requires us to cut off sexual and gender possibilities, but too often, what we repress comes out in neuroses, ticks, fears, haunting dreams. Perverse desires must be slain like a dragon or hydra. Maturing is a process of dismembering, but like the hydra, the heads grow back, and the ghost limbs squirm.
Think of an activity you were told not to do because of your sex, a game you could not play, a person you were told you could not love. Did you follow what you were told, or did you rebel against it? If you rebelled, was the rule enforced? How harshly? How many times? We are privy to rules we did not make or consent to. It starts when we deny agency to the disparate parts of ourselves. We next deny agency to kids, because they’re our future, and they can’t stray from our path. And then we deny agency to adults who we’ve decided are too kid-like, too out of their minds to make their own decisions. After all, they could convert the youth! Pervert our future! So we name trans and nonbinary people unnatural, degenerate, dangerous, corruptive, until, when the time’s ready, we, trans people, are denied our rights, access to health care, a public forum, and, eventually, we are removed from the world.
Transgender theorist Jack Halberstam links control of humans with control of land: “the mania for the godlike function of naming began, unsurprisingly, with colonial exploration. As anyone who has visited botanical or zoological gardens knows, the collection, classification, and analysis of the world’s flora and fauna has gone hand in hand with various forms of colonial expansion and enterprise” (Halberstam 4). Similarly, Alok Vaid Menon shared in “Can we Say Bye Bye to the Binary?” with Jonathan Van Ness, that, with the so called Enlightenment, bodies were typed and subtyped by race and sexuality, so sexual and racial minorities (seen as one and the same) were hierarchized underneath the cisgender, heterosexual, land owning white male. The further from that empowered ideal, the fewer rights you have, the less agency you’re granted. You are classified as too much like the natural world, a land needing taming.
When we do not know the land’s histories, we are cut off from it, and it is easier to exploit the earth for profit in our indifference. When cultures see humans in opposition to nature, then any incongruencies between nature with what is convenient for some humans is taken as a challenge. Nature becomes perverse to human needs and must be met with discipline. Thus we build bigger rigs, pipelines, telescopes, test sites for bombs, military bases, cop cities, until we’re ready to launch into space and do the same to the next planet, and the next.
And there are the cultural, symbolic, religious claims: I seize this land for my god, for my country, for democracy. Places conquer places. From the Temple Mound. To the Pantheon in Rome. The shattered Apollo at Monte Cassino. Churches built of stone circle remnants. Los Alamos. The telescope at Mauna Kea. Here in Minnesota, Fort Snelling at Bdote. Symbolic AND material operations of conquest. To be a mature, adult human in our society then, means not only to limit the possibilities of how we love, who we love, and who we are, but also how we relate to the earth. Land is an object to use, something to give or take, not a subject we rely on and are in community with. After all, it’s childish to see the fairies in the woods, no? Doesn’t matter if four hundred, five hundred, a thousand years ago, such seeings would be taken with great seriousness.
As a genderqueer tree-hugger, long fascinated by fairy lore, I am perverse. I have too many erogenous zones or sometimes not enough. I want to sleep with people I am not supposed to. And my gender is an unsteady mess. There have always been people who see the fairies, who do not fit into a given culture’s gender, who fail at becoming the ideal man or woman, and who can’t help but love the earth. I am perverse, rebelling against the normal state of affairs, but most people fail to meet these ideals. Ideal Man, Ideal Woman. Indeed, an ideal is intended to be unreachable: an imaginary whose power bends our reality toward a specific direction. But there are other imaginaries, other realties, that have been, are now and could be.
One work that helps me imagine otherwise is the 1974 British television Play Penda’s Fen, written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke. It tells the story of Stephen Franklin, a middle class, teenaged son of a pastor in an English village. Stephen is 17, prudish, conservative, Christian, moralistic, and nationalistic, though his obsession with classical music and the ancient world puts him at odds with his more athletic/masculine schoolmates. After passing a sign on a closed road that misspells the area PinVin as PinFin, Stephen begins to be haunted by the history of his homeland. He meets demons, angels, ghosts, and has disturbing dreams and waking visions, while also conversing with his parents, neighbors, and other locals. Each encounter reveals new insight about the land Stephen is on: that Pinvin was Pinfin from Pendefin, earlier Penda’s Fen, named after the last Pagan King of England, King Penda. Stephen also learns about himself: his homosexuality, his nonbinary gender, problems with his black and white moralism, dislike of the militarism in his school, and, on his 18th birthday, that he was adopted and not born from English parents. In coming to know the land’s history, Stephen’s own story about himself unravels, as if all the tenants of far right ideology––nationalism, heterosexuality, hypermasculinity, fundamentalism, militarism—crumble when he deepens his connection to the land.
As Stephen has been disciplined his whole life in the British school system, the land itself, Pinvin, has been disciplined. At a public debate, Stephen’s neighbor Arne, whom Stephen at first writes off as unnatural and wicked, exposes that Pinvin is being used as a secret military laboratory. While the audience mostly laughs at Arne’s supposed paranoia, a later scene of a teenager stumbling out of the field covered in burns, proves Arne’s suspicions about Pinvin are true. Arne reflects:
“I was thinking the other day: the lonely places our technocrats choose for their obscene experiments. Los Alamos for instance. (Oh yes the birthplace for the atomic bomb. The ancient Indians had venerated that for centuries as sacred ground). Again and again, everywhere you’ll find these sick laboratories built on or beneath such haunted sites as though thereby to bottle the primal genie of the earth and to pervert him” (Penda’s Fen).
As it turns out, the genie of the land is free, and instead of being perverted, it perverts Stephen. On a walk, Stephan fathers tells his adopted son the story of King Penda fighting the invading Christians. Piecing things together, Stephen asks his father “did Penda die here,” to which his father responds “Who says that he is dead?” This question is the final perversion, the suggestion of Penda’s life overturning the finality of death, a conversion from Stephen the monolith to Stephen the questioning rebel. In an earlier scene, Arne expresses his one hope to Stephen,
When a great concrete mega city chokes the globe from pole to pole, it shall already have embedded in some hidden crack the sacred seed of its own disintegration and collapse. Disobedience. Chaos. Out of those alone can some new experiment in human living be born (Penda’s Fen).
Disobedience is a salvific theme in Penda’s Fen. The hydra snaps her hungry jaws. An ethics of conformity must give way to the scarier, more difficult ethics of rebellion—rebellion against the world of factories and offices, militaristic school systems, an anaesthetizing church, ecological exploitation, the authoritarian state, and a monolithic nuclear family.
Penda’s Fen has a coming of age story arc: a young person is challenged to see himself and his world differently, and through encountering difference and experiencing challenges, grows to be a more integrated, responsible, and kinder person. But it is an unusual coming of age, because Stephen’s self-maturity comes at the expense of societal maturity. The choices Stephen makes about how he will live in the world will be challenging. His life will be hard. He will struggle every moment, every day, against the reality of the world.
At the climax of the play, Stephen is visited by two symbolic figures, a father and a mother of bourgeois England, who have chosen Stephen to be their messiah, their child of goodness and light. But knowing the monolithic world they offer, Stephen pushes away and refutes their claim that he is good and pure, saying:
“I am nothing pure. Nothing pure! My race is mixed. My sex is mixed. I am woman and man. Light with darkness. Mixed! Mixed. I am nothing special, nothing pure. I am mud and flame” (Penda’s Fen).
This is how Stephen will live. Being mixed: the insight he cannot forget. But if he isn’t good than surely he will go to evil? The sinister parents try to burn Stephen alive. Stephen runs, and as his leg catches fire, he cries out: “Penda!” An explosion on the hilltop. Where the Mother and Father once stood, now is King Penda on a simple throne. He tells Stephen, “You have seen your true dark enemies of England. Sick father and mother who would have us children forever.” Stephen must, like we all must, reject those who want us infantilized. We have to think creatively and act with responsibility for ourselves and one another, not because we are told to do something or because it is the easier path to tread.
Penda blesses Stephen, and we see Penda has Christ’s stigmata. In this play Jesus and Pan, the voice that spoke to Joan of Arc, angels and demons, fauns and long buried heroes, meld in the dreams and memories the village. For pagan, as the play reminds us, means simply, “belonging to the village.” Belonging to the land. Christ in the land. In his benediction, Penda asks Stephen to steward the land and its secrets, to cherish its life, its fire: “The flame is in your hands, we trusted you, our sacred demon of ungovernableness, cherish the flame.”
Sacred demon of ungovernableness. Sacred demon. In ancient Greece, a daemon was not evil but a spirit between a god and human. For the philosopher Empedocles, all things are made of every element, multiple parts suspended between states of love and strife. In a human, there is greater conflict between the disparate parts, some parts of ourselves wanting to hide, repress, and conquer others. A god is a being whose parts are fully harmonized. A daemon’s many parts are in greater harmony than a humans but less than a god, so they serve the world by traveling between divine and human realms. Human-like but with greater access to the holy. This harmonious integration of manyness was sacred to Empedocles when he encouraged his same sex lover, Pausanias, in a letter, to integrate the disparate parts of himself and become a daemon. He wanted his beloved to know the divine.
Because some of us are recognized as trans, nonbinary or genderqueer, rebellious or unnatural, or because we embody nonbinary in fashion, relationships and social roles, that does not mean we “nonbinary people” are ontically distinct from anyone else, just as a daemon is not essentially different from a human. We are not more or less naturally nonbinary than anyone else. We are all polymorphous, we all have disparate parts in our gender autobiographies, just as we do in our ethnic and religious stories. Fears and desires. Wounds and opportunities to heal. Our persons are personalities in community, our manyness a sacred communion.
Salvation for queer and trans people will only come with liberation for all people from the heterosexual matrix. And it makes it easier for those of us most marked by difference, when everyone exposes their sacred incongruencies. We better attend to the complexities and histories of the lands we are on when we attend to complexities in our bodies. We mature as a people not when we let the right politician make a decision for us or when we follow the life path that seems easiest, most lucrative, or most familiar. No, we mature as individuals in community with the planet, when we name ourselves mixtures nothing pure, when we cherish the earth’s flame, and when we take up the mantel to be sacred demons of ungovernableness.