Dear Church – A Valentine Lesson in Love

by Sara Gillingham, lay member of Guildford Diocese who raises awareness of issues faced by people born with intersex traits.

Sara Gillingham

Despite the notable absence of Valentine’s Cards falling through my letter box, my thoughts nevertheless turn to Love. In particular I wish to reflect on what it all means to someone like me who was born intersex.

But rather than explore what C.S. Lewis termed Eros, the sense of “being in love” or “loving” someone, I want to go in another direction. I wish to examine other types of love he identified in his book ‘The Four Loves’, namely Storge (empathy bond) and Philia (friendship bond).

To explain intersex further, I was born with variations in sex characteristics. This means that I do not fit in to the typical understanding of what it is to be male or female. I am talking about biological characteristics, in my case genitals, and not about gender identity. Another term you may hear in more clinical settings is differences in sex development. Intersex is an umbrella term that covers a number of traits, be it in genitals, chromosomes or gonads, and can be found in c1.7% of the population. Some of these variations are obvious at birth, whilst others may be discovered during puberty or early adulthood, and in some cases not at all.

I did not have an easy start in life. Storge, understood as the ‘natural love’ and affection between parent and child is not a given. Being born intersex puts strains on family relationships due to the continuing secrecy and stigmatisation. Whilst I was aged one I underwent irreversible surgery at Sheffield Children’s Hospital that was largely cosmetic. Later on I was referred to Great Ormond Street where I was examined in front of medical students, and underwent further cosmetic surgery at 11 years old in a tiny hospital in London’s West End, Shaftesbury Hospital.

No one told me what was happening. I was told I was born premature with complications, and my parents were told to bring me up as a “typical” little girl. It was then thought all would be well. However, the theory was not bedded in reality. I was bullied, as children knew I was “different”. I had little resilience and was traumatised, as the secrecy that surrounded me led me to believe I was something to be ashamed of. I grew up a “tom boy” that caused my parents additional heart ache.

In a Church context there is no pastoral guidance to nurture Storge for intersex children, in fact there are elements of the Church’s teaching that positively undermine it. Church has largely unwittingly ‘othered’ people from birth just because they do not fit normative assumptions about what is to be made in God’s image. This image is built up around assumptions about how we are embodied, fixed mental & physical traits, any deviance from which may be considered impure or in need of healing. I remind you at this point that Jesus did not heal the Ethiopian Eunuch by making his genitals grow back, but by bringing him back into relationship with others, as an equal.

So what of Philia, does the Church of England foster this? Yes and no. I could not be more blessed than by the friendships I have formed in my local parish. On the other hand “the Church” sees people like me as “problematic”. If they did not, why else would we be included in the ‘Living in Love & Faith’ process (LLF)? I am still judged by some to be ‘disordered’, someone created as a result of the Fall, someone in need of being corrected or in need of those surgeries that research shows has such detrimental outcomes for both my and countless others’ mental & physical health.

In 2015 I was invited to the Regional Shared Conversations on Human Sexuality. My first reaction was “What has being intersex got to do with sexuality?”. The reason for my invitation was that intersex was, and still is, seen as important when examining people’s understanding of the building blocks of gender, complementarity and human sexuality. In contrast, I myself start with disability theology to understand my experience of intersex embodiment.

I have now been invited by LLF Project to answer some questions by email. They ask what questions I have that would “help me understand my own relationships, sexuality, gender and family”. I am also asked “what resources I would like to help me think and learn more deeply about my own human identity as someone born intersex?”. I then understand that if I am lucky, excerpts of my email will then be selected and shared amongst members of the various working groups.

My response to the Bishops and members involved in these working groups is this :

–   What questions do you have about intersex, and what resources would help you think and learn about my experience and those of other people who are born with variations of sex characteristics ? I would be happy to sit down with you as an equal, as I deeply want the process to be a positive experience – for all concerned.

–   Where I do not know the answer, I will say so. Where I can, I will signpost you to someone who can answer your questions based on lived experience and research evidence. Be aware that an increasing number of theological reflections are being written by people who have never sat down with anyone intersex, from which others hope to write “learning materials”. Surely, we must work together and journey alongside one another – after all, we have received assurances that there will be “no discussions about us without us”.

–   Let us ensure this conversation is not about something else other than the needs of people born with variations in sex characteristics, namely “human sexuality”. Intersex people must not be instrumentalised, but be valued for being ourselves.

–  My fear is that this will be another lost opportunity to learn from one another. A fear that the process will leave me feeling ‘othered’, through the lack of awareness or unloving theology ?

My hope is that LLF will help others born like me to find that light, Agape, the unconditional love of God.

It is a shame some of us have to periodically move away from Church to experience this.


EDITOR’S NOTE If you would like to understand more about intersex traits and intersex people, you may want to watch this short video





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