It sounds like an inflammatory headline, I know. Like it must be condensed and exaggerated. But no: if your children are not 100% cisgendered — if your male child plays dress-up, or if your female child does not adequately play dress-up — Pastor Sean Harris of Berean Baptist Church, Fayetteville, NC, gives you dispensation to give that kid “a good punch.”
Jeremy Hooper of Good As You provides the audio and transcript (which apparently I can’t embed for some reason:)
“So your little son starts to act a little girlish when he is four years old and instead of squashing that like a cockroach and saying, “Man up, son, get that dress off you and get outside and dig a ditch, because that is what boys do,” you get out the camera and you start taking pictures of Johnny acting like a female and then you upload it to YouTube and everybody laughs about it and the next thing you know, this dude, this kid is acting out childhood fantasies that should have been squashed.
Can I make it any clearer? Dads, the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist. Man up. Give him a good punch. Ok? You are not going to act like that. You were made by God to be a male and you are going to be a male. And when your daughter starts acting to [sic] Butch you reign her in. And you say, “Oh, no, sweetheart. You can play sports. Play them to the glory of God. But sometimes you are going to act like a girl and walk like a girl and talk like a girl and smell like a girl and that means you are going to be beautiful. You are going to be attractive. You are going to dress yourself up.”
You say, “Can I take charge like that as a parent?”
Yeah, you can. You are authorized. I just gave you a special dispensation this morning to do that.”
Where to even begin?
The call to violence is, obviously, the most glaring aspect: if a young male child, too young to even know of the stereotypical affectation of the limp wrist, happens to make this gesture, the father should break the child’s wrist. And punch the child, for good measure. I’m going to repeat that: Pastor Harris encourages parents to punch children and break their wrists. That is unacceptable for any infraction.
Boys, to Harris, become men by performing physical labor, and by not wearing dresses. One cannot, apparently, be a man who wears a dress, despite all evidence to the contrary. Boys can also become men by being physically acted upon, presumably because this “toughens them up” and keeps them from being “soft.” (I can only guess that, in the Pastor Sean Harris Super-Slim Guide to Science, pain makes the body produce androgens.)
I’d contrast this with how Harris thinks girls become women, but he says nothing of the sort. He only addresses how girls should act like girls.
I think that this aspect of his screed might get lost in the completely-justified outrage surrounding the “beat your children” part of the sermon, and I’m not sure I’d have anything more to add to that anyway — the hideousness and indefensibility are self-evident. Instead, I’d like to dig into what this little rant of his reveals about his overall assumptions about gender, and more specifically his assumptions about femininity.
While I’m sure he means “act” in the sense of “behave,” what he’s describing is the “act” of a performance. Yes, he implies that girls can’t dig ditches, and can only play sports sometimes. But he mainly implies that, regardless of how a girl might naturally walk, speak, or smell, she must put on a show of femininity. Not all women naturally walk heel-to-toe and swish their hips. Not all women speak with a breathy voice and end every sentence in a high rising terminal. If there were any doubt that Harris is talking about performative femininity, it would be shattered by his statement that a girl should “smell like a girl.” A girl who plays sports, who gets dirty and sweats and has any amount of body odor, would indeed smell. Logic would say that these scents would obviously smell like a girl — specifically, the girl they are coming out of. But no — one only smells like a girl when one does NOT smell like a girl.
Moreover, all these factors combined “mean you are going to be beautiful.” Any girl who clomps around when she walks and uses declarative sentences cannot also be beautiful, no matter how she looks. It’s not even enough to be beautiful, however — “you are going to be attractive.” A point which is even more uncomfortable when one remembers that he’s saying nothing of women, just of girls. The purpose of being beautiful is not to delight in aesthetics as an end in itself, but to appeal to the male gaze.
To delight in aesthetics as an end in itself is stereotypically appealing to the male gays, too. But also to young people, males and females alike, who may or may not even understand gender yet. All the polemics of “sin” aside, what could Harris be seeing as so very Wrong about boys enjoying beautiful things, or engaging in the same performative femininity as girls?
Maybe it’s exactly that: the fact that it IS such a blatant reminder that all these “feminine” behaviors are an act. If Pastor Harris and his ilk only acknowledge women – pardon me, girls – as beautiful or attractive when they’re wearing the right things and speaking the right way and moving the right ways, why, they might momentarily be attracted by a passing transgender female who wears, moves, speaks, and smells like a girl, too! The fear of even fleeting and inadvertent homosexual attraction is so strong that they must maintain the clearest possible distinction between the sexes, starting by instilling fear into even the youngest children — by any means necessary. The sooner one is taught to associate a “lapse” or “failure” of heteronormativity with physical pain, the better society will fare.
Also note his language: he encourages parents to “punch” and “crack” boys, and to “reign in” [sic] girls. Essentially, Harris believes children should be taught about gender norms the way one would (badly) break a horse: for the boys, apply the whips and spurs to goad them in the right direction. Flog them when they misbehave or follow the path their nature impels them to follow. For the girls, make sure the bit is good and tight in her mouth so you can keep her reined in, such that she can’t even try to follow her natural path. Note that, purely coincidentally, she’d be less able to speak. All these violent and restraining actions are nothing more than “taking charge.”
There is, frankly, no way I would ever subject myself to listening to Harris’s past sermons to find anything that reveals his attitude toward women overall. I did find a sermon about female deacons, however, where he states that female deacons can be acceptable in churches whose structure of governance is exclusively led by the church elders, and wherein the deacons are no more than a figurehead. He does also say at the 4 minute mark that “If you see on the church website that they have female deacons, that should serve as a red flag to you. You should not just go ‘Okay, that’s fine;’ you need to be concerned about that.” Clearly, he believes that women should not serve as leaders in the church, and that males and females should serve God in different ways.
Moreover, I’ve not bothered to find anything more specific to his attitudes toward sexual immorality than this sermon on how sex outside of marriage is never safe. Which I’ve not listened to in full.
However, I don’t doubt at all that Pastor Harris believes there are “immoral” women who flaunt their sexuality. Women who prey on the lusts of men by dressing imprudently, wearing too much makeup, wearing short or tight skirts, and so forth. Though, again, I cannot find any specific statement to this effect, I also cannot imagine – knowing what I know of his conservative Christian ideology and beliefs on the acceptable roles of women in the home and in church – that Pastor Harris would find such sexualization acceptable.
So, a woman must act like a woman, and walk like a woman, and dress like a woman, and smell like a woman, and must be beautiful and attractive — but, surely, if one acts too attractive and shows off too much of her God-given womanly attributes, that’s an affront. I suppose this, again, is why girls need to be “reined in,” to make sure they’re neither too “butch” nor too “slutty.” Neither too passive to follow God’s supposed will, nor too willful on their own. A boy becomes a man by, basically, doing masculine things and NOT doing feminine things. It’s probably impossible for a boy to act too manly. But a girl only lives properly as a girl by being neither too masculine nor too feminine — a balance which, you’ll note, should be moderated by the father: Pastor Harris specifically encourages “dads” to exercise these punishments. The role of the mother in family discipline, or in anything else, is unclear. Given the apparent analogy Harris draws between children and horses, perhaps a mother’s role is as little more than brood mare.
“Where to even begin?” was one question. “Where can it be ended?” is another.
I’m not sure what could be said to counteract this sort of rhetoric. What wouldn’t immediately be filtered away by a misdirected fear that is interpreted as self-preservation. I’m sorry to say that I hold no hope that Pastor Harris will ever see anything wrong with his statements. As Senior Pastor, he has been living an entire life predicated upon this certain set of beliefs, indoctrinated indepenedently of logic. For the rest of his days, he will accept others’ homosexuality or being transgender no more than he would accept them committing murder or arson or infanticide. All too likely, he himself was given a few lashes for playing dress-up. All too likely, he has fears of loving or lusting after someone who is secretly a male, accidentally dooming himself to Hell forever. All too likely, whatever children he has or teaches have been given this same anxiety and revulsion, and one can only hope that they come to think independently and with compassion in the course of time. But, here and now, he believes to the very core of his being that he speaks God’s own truths, the only truths that can save the souls of the impressionable. He believes to the core that he is a spiritual guide and protector. He will never comprehend how he is hurting his community. He will never comprehend how he is driving them away from the church, and from any sense of trust in adults. Nor could he ever care, because he believes
Pastor Harris is right on one basic assumption: not that physical or emotional abuse can affect one’s sexuality or gender expression, but that it can affect what one learns to fear.
If I were a young person in Fayetteville, NC, I would fear Pastor Harris and the members of his church.