February Links Roundup: Beyond Visibility

Welcome to Bizarro America. I hope you’re reading this blog in your downtime between calling your elected officials to oppose the Muslim travel ban, the Affordable Care Act repeal, all the cabinet nominees, etc., etc. Check out the website 5Calls to find phone numbers and scripts for the latest issues. Western Massachusetts friends, sign up for 413StayingConnected. My mom Roberta went to the Women’s March in DC last month, and we took the Young Master to the one in Northampton. Keep up the resistance.

With my usual impeccable sense of timing, I’ve chosen to come out as a nonbinary Episco-pagan during the most repressive regime in my lifetime. Oh well. I can only hope that I’m obscure enough to remain at the bottom of the watchlist. Good thing poetry books don’t sell. In all seriousness, I hate having to second-guess myself before I experiment with male clothing, but I’ve never been able to hide who I am, even when I wanted to.

This segues into our first link, “Gender Selfie-Determination”, a compelling lecture and slideshow by Alok Vaid-Menon at the Annenberg Space for Photography. I found this one via Lee Wind’s blog review site for LGBTQ teen books and media. Vaid-Menon is an Indian-American nonbinary transfeminine writer and performance artist. In this 85-minute presentation, they challenge the concept of “visibility” as liberating in and of itself. Photos of trans* and gender-nonconforming people, even in well-meant “awareness” campaigns, can just as easily contribute to fetishizing them as to representing their subjectivity. Vaid-Menon asks, what happens when the shoot is over, and they have to run the gauntlet of transphobic attacks in public places just to get home from the studio? A person who presents as neither male nor female is never not visible. When you see harassment, instead of reassuring them “You’re beautiful” (something that would clearly be sexist if said to a cis-female victim), ask “How can I help?” and then do it. During this sharply funny and eye-opening presentation, Vaid-Menon also deconstructs comments left on their Instagram selfies, and reads powerful original poems.

One thing I got out of this lecture is that I don’t have to convince anyone with my gender presentation. I’m not being nonbinary for them. Bowtie and big boobs? “No one will believe me,” the voice in my head whispers. Vaid-Menon talks about fighting off the assumption that they’re trying and failing to pass for one gender or the other. Beyond offering “visibility” to others, cisgender and cis-passing people need to rethink the power relations involved in taking, posing for, and viewing photos. In a January 12 Facebook post, Vaid-Menon wrote:

there is this thing that happens where i can perform for over an hour about being trans & then after the show people come up to me & call me “he.” there is this thing that happens where people invite me to perform & call me “he/his” in the request. there is this thing that happens where my gender is only understood as my performance art & that the minute i walk off stage & i’m just considered a man again.

they want our appearance, but they do not want our knowledge.

& it hurts so bad because it shows that trans people are only regarded for what we look like & not our intelligence. people want to stage the aesthetics of diversity (look so many pretty genders!!) but they don’t want to regard the knowledge systems we are sharing…

i want a world where we don’t make assumptions about people’s genders based on what they look like. i want a world where we trust what people say about themselves. i want a world where it’s no longer acceptable to say “man or woman.” i want a world without the gender binary all together. i want a world where you call me they, not just because i am nonbinary, but because you recognize that i (& you) contain multitudes.

This next link is another variation on the theme that appearances are…not deceptive, exactly, but more complex than you’d think. Apparently an elderly woman had been praying to her St. Anthony statue for years before she discovered that it was actually a figurine of Elrond, the elf king from The Lord of the Rings. Amid the Internet mockery, Patheos Pagan blogger Hearth Witch Down Under asked the provocative question, “Why Not Pray to a Toy?”

When you buy a statue or figurine of a deity or other figure such as a saint, you generally don’t buy it thinking it is a literal embodiment of that deity – it’s merely a representation.  For some traditions a statue, figurine or piece of artwork is purely symbolic, it helps you focus your thoughts, prayers or praise – you aren’t aiming these at the image or icon, you are aiming through the image or icon to the true recipient.  The icon is like a conduit, not an actual being.In other traditions the belief is that when you do pray to a deity, the deity may come to you and embody the statue you have dedicated to Them.  It’s a temporary abode for the deity while They visit you.  But the statue is still not actually Them, it is just a place for Them and again, a representation of Them…

…Since we generally don’t see these icons as being the deities we pray to, then I have to wonder why it matters who the icon is based on originally.  So the person (or more likely machine) that created the Elrond figurine had the intention of creating Elrond.  But the woman praying to it was not praying to Elrond – that figurine, in her hands, in her mind, in her heart was not Elrond.  It was Saint Anthony.  It was so much him that when she prayed using that figurine it would have focused her mind to connect with Anthony – she surely wasn’t going to connect with the spirit of Elrond.It doesn’t matter what the icon or image looks like – what matters is how it connects and focuses you.  Many people pray without icons and images, without figurines and statues, without symbols to focus their intent.  If you can pray to a deity without using any symbolism at all, and you can connect to that deity – then I think it’s pretty obvious that what matters in prayer is your aim.  If your aim, your intention, is what connects you with deity in prayer and ritual, then how other people perceive your statue is hardly going to matter.

From my initial explorations of modern paganism, it seems there’s a healthy acceptance of diverse views about whether our magical tools, rituals, and deity representations are inherently powerful, or gain meaning primarily from our intentions. Compare this to Christians’ historically bloody disagreement over whether the Eucharist is the “real presence” or the “symbolic remembrance” of Jesus. I tend to approach magic spell books the way I do cookbooks, that is, haphazardly. Using the right color candle is less important than finding one that will stay lit! Maybe I’m lazy, or not completely bought in to this pagan thing, but I think I’m really just too postmodern to take any religious forms literally. They’re all human-made, culture-bound, imperfect vehicles for contacting the Beyond.

But then again, Barbie is one of my spiritual guides, so Elrond is not much of a stretch…

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Cultural appropriation from Christianity may be a silly thing to worry about, since it is the dominant religion in America and not the heritage of an oppressed minority. Yet I still have qualms about my post-Christian workaround for enjoying church. The way I tell it to myself, in my youth I recognized the sacred energy in Christian rituals, art, music, and buildings, but felt it would be dishonest to participate when I didn’t believe the words I was singing or saying. Then I was able to convince myself of enough doctrine to take part with a clean conscience…and then I wasn’t. Now I believe that we’re allowed to greet the sacred wherever we find it, and that it isn’t the exclusive property of one religious system.

But how respectful is this, really? Am I misappropriating the church experience by redefining it in terms that its adherents wouldn’t recognize? I’m avoiding the ultimate liberal power-play where I claim that the parts I like about Christianity are the truest or highest essence thereof. Is that good enough?

At his long-running feminist blog Amptoons, Richard Jeffrey Newman recently linked to a New Yorker piece by Rozina Ali about the erasure of the Islamic roots of Rumi’s poetry. The most popular translations, by Coleman Barks, have recast Rumi as a generic mystic, easy to quote in any number of New Age or secular contexts. Newman notes:

Ali begins her article by talking about the famous people—Coldplay’s Chris Martin, Madonna, Tilda Swinton—who claim their lives have been transformed by Rumi’s work. Multiply their number by the many tens, if not hundreds of thousands for whom Rumi has come to represent an, if not the essence of spiritual enlightenment—a mystic whose teachings welcome all people, of whichever persuasion, onto the path towards God, or whatever it is they call the ultimate Truth they are trying to reach—and you end up with an inordinately large number of people who do not understand that the openness they so value in Rumi was made possible for him by, would not have existed for him without, Islam. More to the point, and adding insult to injury, given the demonization of Islam that is so pervasive in our society right now, people could be forgiven for thinking that the teachings of this English-language Rumi are diametrically opposed to the teachings of Islam, rather than being a significant thread within them.

Politically, my à la carte Christianity doesn’t have such dire implications, but I suppose what it all comes down to is boundaries. Is anyone harmed when I re-pagan-ize Christmas in my own mind? I’m a strong believer in not taking something that isn’t offered, and it seems that the Christian experience is offered on certain terms–submitting to the spiritual authority of Jesus, for one thing. When I extract a spiritual encounter from its relational context in the Body of Christ (the church now and in history), am I committing an offense against Jesus, other Christians, or no one at all? The jury is still out.

Two Poems from Alan King’s “Point Blank”

My first poetry book recommendation of the year is Alan King’s Point Blank, published in 2016 by Silver Birch Press. A three-time Pushcart nominee, King is a Caribbean-American poet, the son of immigrants from Trinidad and Tobago. His family roots give his poetry a robust and celebratory quality, whether he’s writing about the spices of home cooking, the seductive musical soundtrack of his parents’ marriage, or the father-son dynamic of power struggles and wordless affection. King appreciates women’s sensuality in a way that reminds me of the late great musician Prince, an unashamed desire that has enough reverence in it to avoid objectification. Yet certainly the life of a black man in America is far from idyllic, as King shows in his powerful narrative poems about racist microaggressions and police shakedowns. His relationships with his family and students sustain his life force in an environment that is ready to dehumanize all of them.

Point Blank is a pleasurable read that is also an important document of black American life today. He kindly shares two poems from the collection below. Visit his blog for poetry videos and essays on social issues.

Bound

On the bus in rush hour, he enters
with the brim of his baseball cap
over his left ear, where a snubbed out
Black & Mild sits like an aromatic
marker with its black tip exposed.

You checked the weather today.
Cloudy skies with a chance of rain.
Your boss called you into his office,
talked about the economy and running
a struggling paper, how he’s got to let you go.

Think of it as a paid vacation,
he said. You look up at the guy
with the Yankees cap and phone to his ear.
I’m on my way, babe.

His smile says his destination
is a garden hidden in a labyrinth,
where the sun slides its iridescent tongue
over a tamarind-colored woman,
oiling her skin while she sleeps
among orchids and birds of paradise.

You imagine that garden
on the other side of your front door,
where you’ll open like morning glories
when your wife
descends on you like dew.

****
Freeze

A man sits handcuffed on the curb
while his trunk and back seat are searched.

You watch from across the street,
heading to your car. His woman
was making a Malaysian chicken dish, sent him
to pick up coconut milk and curry.

It’s night. The sound of car tires
on wet street makes you think of paper
torn slow in long strips.

The officers, thorough in their search,
remind you of thieves you once saw.

You couldn’t say what you felt,
watching them take their time,
as if instead of searching for money and CDs
they were detailing the interior.

The man is every WANTED poster
you saw on TV, in the papers,
in post offices.

He is that night years ago.
When you followed your mom to return a rental,
and lost her in traffic, when the red and blue
flashes made you
a cornered cat.

You tense up when that moment
on the street gets just as close. Your keys
in one hand, sorbet and cookies in the other.

At the sight of what flashed in his mirror,
he knew he was tagged in a game older
than Jim Crow. Tonight, the sirens
and police lights say, Get off the street
unless you want trouble, too.

But the wind shoves you down the block,
muscling you back to your car
and to everything you love. You think
of the handcuffed brother
and his woman growing restless,
trying not to worry.

January Links Roundup: The Usual Obsessions

Happy 2017, readers! This year on the Block, you can look forward to more poetry book reviews, queer musings, sales pitches for The Novel, and theological opinions that I will probably retract in 5-10 years. Also, I will try to develop some interests beyond nonbinary handwringing, Netflix series, and bitterness toward my family of origin. But in the meantime, enjoy these links to my usual obsessions.

An und für sich is a multi-authored blog curated by Adam Kotsko, covering topics in philosophy, international literature, radical Christian theology, and popular culture. Indulge your Mad Men nostalgia with their thoughtful interpretations of selected episodes. This one post about the Season 4 episode “The Summer Man” summed up how the show taught me to get over my envy of other women. I’ve always felt like a Peggy in a world of Joans. Based on the women I saw on TV and the behavior of my peers, I felt it was expected of me to know how to use sex appeal for popularity and power, and this is a social skill I just don’t have. I would beat myself up about this, then resent the Joans of the world for colluding with men in devaluing me. By depicting Peggy, the nerdy career girl, and Joan, the vampy secretary-administrator, with equal nuance and compassion, “Mad Men” showed me that the grass wasn’t greener on the other side.

The dilemma faced by ambitious women at SCDP face isn’t about which strategy is the winning one, because there isn’t any winning strategy. Any woman with a little ambition, who isn’t content to be a performing pet or a meaningless secretary, is going to be a target. Her only choice in the matter is whether she’ll be hated for being a bitch, or despised for being a whore.

Speaking of “Mad Men”, what about Betty? Kotsko’s posts led me to this brilliant, tragic analysis of the ice princess of the suburbs, from Sady Doyle’s (sadly discontinued) feminist blog Tiger Beatdown. Betty Draper was painful and fascinating to watch because she reminded me of my bio mother. The storyline in Season 7’s “Field Trip” where Betty ruins her son Bobby’s school trip with her grandstanding and petulance could have been taken from a hundred incidents in my childhood. Doyle writes:

We all said we wanted Betty to get in touch with her anger, but we expected that anger to look admirable and positive and feminist. We didn’t consider that it might just be anger. That she might just not bother to think about how she was serving the world or women or the audience when she finally got to the point of rage.

And it’s not Don’s fault. Maybe it was, but that’s over now; what happens to Betty is pretty much exclusively Betty’s fault from here on out. She grew up thinking that there were two roles to play, abuser and abused. Now that she wants power, now that she’s sick of being abused, she’s chosen to become an abuser. She honestly does see that as her only other option. She’s angry at something that happened to her so long ago she can’t even exactly name it, but she’s playing that thing out with her children, and especially with her daughter, every single damn day. She’s become her own worst problem; every single time, every single time, she screams at Sally or hits her or threatens to cut her fingers off, she makes it that much less likely that she will ever be able to face how fucked up she is and get over it. It’s not easy to come to terms with what was done to you. But it’s much, much harder to come to terms with what you do.

That’s why Betty makes me cry so much this season, why her scenes make me sick to my stomach and why I feel for her more than ever: We talk a lot, in feminist communities, about abuse. And we talk a lot about how oppression can warp your understanding of self, about how some people raised in an oppressive system will internalize that system. We talk about how people who are victims of abuse often perpetrate it. I just don’t think we were prepared to see that play itself out on Mad Men. We wanted Betty to read The Feminine Mystique and get her mind blown and rise above; or, we wanted her to stay a victim, so we could relate to her better, or at least keep feeling sorry for her. But sometimes, people just get damaged until they start damaging. Sometimes, people are lost. We hate Betty now because she’s not going to stay a victim, but the truth is, she’s also not going to be saved.

The Reddit board Raised By Narcissists is a validating, informative, and well-moderated community for us real-life Bobby Drapers. (Trigger warning for discussions of abuse and self-harm.) I feel a weird sort of relief every time I come across a thread about another behavior that I thought was unique to my family, like “Does anyone else’s narcissists purposely mispronounce words even after being corrected many times?” or  “What did your Nparent do to try to ruin your wedding?” (I tell Shane when he’s playing too close to the breakfront with my wedding china, “Be careful. Many Bothans died to bring us these dishes.”) As you might expect, I really liked this post, “Bad definitions of ‘forgiveness’ in the ACoN community”. I agree with the post writer that we should not cheapen or muddy the word “forgiveness” by conflating it with moving on from an unrepentant abuser. As one commenter added, “the common notion of forgiveness is meant to be used with normal people, where there is genuine remorse and it benefits both sides. Forgiving an abuser only benefits the abuser, and that’s exactly why they hold it up like the holy grail.”

Another hat tip to Kotsko for my discovery of the blog Gay Christian Geek. The author, a British transgender man, appears to have stopped blogging in March 2016, but the archives promise hours of good reading. See, for instance, this 2014 post, “Boyhood/Girlhood”, exploring difficulties in how to conceptualize one’s pre-transition childhood. GCG finds that the “always already this gender” narrative is too simplistic for him.

There is a truth in the suggestion that I always was a boy; there is a truth in the admission that I never had a boyhood. These truths are not contradictory so much as complementary. Each alone only tells a fragment of the story.

For me, the value of the “always was” narrative is very limited. I see its use for trans people who were conscious of their gender from an early age; but what does it really mean for me? For a female-assigned child with two cis brothers, who deeply internalized the “(birth) genitals=gender” message of a cissexist society, who could plainly see that I was not a boy in the precise way that my brothers were boys, who did not know that there was any other way to be a boy and who therefore assumed that my desire to be a boy belonged to the same imaginary realm as my desire to go to wizard school? (And later, on discovering feminism, decided my desire to be a boy must be rooted in internalized misogyny?)

I find more use in a negative framing and a paradox: it’s not that I “always was” a boy, but that I never was a girl, and that I was not a girl even as I was a girl…

…My childhood as I lived it at the time was, as far as I knew, a girlhood. My childhood as I view it from my current perspective as a male adult is not-a-girlhood. Both perspectives are true.

Much as I long for boyhood, driven by losstalgia for a past that was never mine, and much as I could psychoanalyze my childhood gender identity, seeking evidence for the sublimation of my own felt maleness into an abundance of carefully nurtured fictional personae – even so, I have had experiences that turn-of-the-twenty-first-century Anglo-American culture categorizes under the heading of “girlhood.” I was given dolls and dresses alongside legos and pants. I was permitted, even encouraged, to embrace masculinity as male-assigned children still tend not, even in liberal households, to be encouraged to embrace femininity. I first embraced feminism as an insider, and I know firsthand fears such as that of walking alone among men as a (perceived) woman at night (though I think I am a better feminist now that I am no longer at war with the feminine in me).

My girlhood, as I understand it now, is not a matter of having “been” a girl, but of having experienced much of what is culturally considered to be part of girlhood. It is not an ontological but an epistemological girlhood. Even as I ache for the boyhood I should have had, I recognize that I have learned a great deal from girlhood and that it has been a major contributor to the man I am becoming.

Last year I began intermittently journaling about instances of gender dysphoria or role-switching fantasies in my youth, in hopes of finding some “always already nonbinary” evidence that would validate my sense of unease with my embodiment. I quickly became dissatisfied with this project because there’s no way to disentangle the strands of societal sexism, familial abuse, and genuine queerness that made me what I am. More to the point, no after-the-fact explanation or identity label can give me back the years I lost being alienated from my full gender expression, nor open up possibilities that were permanently foreclosed by my childhood development.

(For what it’s worth, I think I really was a girl until I hit puberty. I have a very strong feminine side, but she’s permanently six years old. Or a sea monster.)

I might pick that journal up again this year, but without the agenda to collapse these personalities into a single essential one, even one with the expansive label of nonbinary. In “The Dry Salvages”, T.S. Eliot famously wrote:

We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form, beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness.

Eliot was a supreme poet of regret, of stunted desire that he hoped to assuage via religion or sublimate into art. In the realm of imagination, he could at last take the road not taken, and more than that, become the person who could have taken it. Rather than seeking after a meaning in the past that will give me “happiness” now, I should just give my un-expressed selves some space to have their experiences between the pages of my journal. And who knows where else…?

Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2016

They said it couldn’t be done. They said it shouldn’t be done. They said “hold on, I got my Kindle all sticky…”

The no-longer-endless novel was published this year by Saddle Road Press and won Best Gay Contemporary General Fiction in the 2016 Rainbow Awards. If you bought it, thank you! Please write an Amazon review. If you haven’t yet, what are you waiting for? The nights are getting colder…


(Book launch party at Bistro Les Gras, Northampton, with the family of choice: Adam, Roberta, Sovereign, & Ellen. I drank a Cosmo on Julian’s behalf.)

In other news, the Young Master is proud to announce that he is nearly 5 and not a baby anymore. He is an expert at identifying construction trucks and different species of trees. In fashion, he enjoys combining homemade paper earrings and Mardi Gras beads with his large collection of robot, truck, and dinosaur shirts. His favorite songs are Major Lazer’s “Bubble Butt” and Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling”. He now has the attention span for full-length movies, and likes to role-play scenes from Charlotte’s Web, Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. (I wonder when he will realize how Wilbur the Pig is connected to the pound of salami he eats every week. Ah, lost innocence.) Because of these films, his imaginative play lately includes a lot of baby animals who are sad because they lost their mommies. Is he trying to express something about being adopted? I wish Disney/Pixar didn’t rely on this trope so much. I welcome suggestions of good cartoon films without dead or absent mothers.

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After a long and difficult passage, I feel I’m finally settling into a place of peace with my nonbinary spirituality. It’s time to start trusting that Jesus is who I want him to be. Faith means choosing to imagine a divine Friend who lets my attachment and independence ebb and flow, contrary to the template from my childhood and the jealous God that other wounded souls have created in their parents’ image. In my pagan practice, I’ve noticed myself shifting away from “magick” in the sense of trying to make things happen through ritual, and towards using ritual to create a space where I can commune with benevolent spirits. This is not to say that I disbelieve in magick, only that I’m not ready for it. I need a clearer adult perspective to ensure that I’m not returning to childhood strategies of escaping abuse through supernatural fantasy. Or, to put it another way, I need to sit longer with the fear of not getting what I want (hint: book sales) and examine whether I am using this goal to fulfill the wrong needs, before I light candles and bury pins in the ground to feel like I’m achieving something. The Tarot is great for this discernment exercise.

Without further ado, here are the high-and-low-lights of 2016:

Best Poetry Books:

Some amazing books by queer poets of color have been published this year. Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s i’m alive / it hurts / i love it (Boost House Press) writes with honesty and wit about her life as a transgender woman who manages anxiety and depression. She makes the daily choice to feel everything, though pain coexists with joy. Taxidermy is the organizing metaphor for Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut (Four Way Books): a stripped and reconstituted skin as shapeshifting for survival, as forbidden gay intimacy that always carries the hint of violence, and as inescapable and often misread ethnic identities in a dominant white Christian culture. Mohabir descends from Indian indentured laborers who were transported to British Guyana’s sugar plantations, and grew up in Florida. Another standout debut collection, Donika Kelly’s Bestiary (Graywolf Press), depicts healing from incest as a series of metamorphoses into real and mythical creatures. I’ve currently just started Phillip B. Williams’ Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books), a formally innovative, visceral and intense collection of poems through which the American tradition of violence against black male bodies runs like a blood-red thread.

Best Fiction Books:

Through brilliant use of flashbacks and alternating perspectives, Robert Olen Butler’s A Small Hotel (Grove Press) tells the story of Michael and Kelly Hays, a Southern professional couple who are divorcing after two decades of marriage, though it becomes apparent that they are both still painfully in love with each other. As soon as the reader starts to side with one character, a new twist reveals the other character’s vulnerability and the dysfunctional family pattern that he or she is struggling to break. The novel winds toward a suspenseful climax as we wait to discover whether they will tell each other the truth before it’s too late.

It wouldn’t be a Reiter’s Block Year in Review without Cthulhu! Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country (Harper) is a suspenseful and satirical novel-in-stories about an African-American family in 1950s Chicago who tangle with a cabal of upper-class white occultists. Each chapter cleverly inverts the xenophobic tropes of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s classic horror stories, with the implication that the heartless and greedy cosmic forces of the Cthulhu Mythos are more a self-portrait of Jim Crow’s America than an enemy from beyond the stars.

Best Nonfiction Books:

New York Times op-ed columnist Charles M. Blow’s gorgeously written and introspective memoir, Fire Shut Up in My Bones (Mariner Books), is a case study in overcoming patriarchy and healing from abuse. Brought up in rural Louisiana by a devoted but stern and overworked single mother and their extended family, young Charles yearned for more tenderness and attention than a boy was supposed to need. An older male cousin preyed on his isolation, giving him a new secret to add to his fears of being not-quite-straight in a culture where this was taboo. Channeling his need for connection into school achievement and community leadership, Blow found himself on both the giving and the receiving end of violent hyper-masculinity as a fraternity brother. In the end, he recognized that self-acceptance, not repression, was the best way to become an honorable man. Blow writes like a poet, in witty, image-rich, sensitive lines that flow like a mighty river.

Rev. Elizabeth M. Edman’s Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity (Beacon Press) proposes that Christianity and queerness have a common interest in rupturing false binaries that create injustice and estrangement. Read my review on this blog.

Queering Sexual Violence (Riverdale Avenue Books), edited by Jennifer Patterson, is a must-read for social service providers, activists, policymakers, and anyone who studies child abuse and intimate partner violence. The book fills a gap in the common understanding of abuse as something that men do to women and children, and as a social problem best solved through legislation and policing. This familiar picture excludes survivors for whom the carceral state does not routinely offer justice: people of color, the disabled and neurodiverse, and of course the many LGBTQ people who hesitate to out themselves to the police and the courts, fearing that their victimization will only be compounded. Read my review on this blog.

Favorite Posts on the Block:

Trusting Tootle

Tootle and his classmates at the Lower Trainswitch School for Locomotives are cuddly, expressive precursors of the colder computer-generated animation of Thomas the Tank Engine. Scuffy conveys a world of emotion with just eyes, eyebrows, and the tilt of his smokestack. These books are selling nostalgia for an era when America was an industrial powerhouse and no one had heard of global warming or acid rain. However, both tales hammer home a repressive message about staying in your assigned social role and doing what you’re told.

Nonbinary Femme Thoughts

I like the word “bigender” even though my eyes keep reading it as “big gender”. Or maybe that’s why. I have BIG gender. Too much to pick only one.

Today My Dreams Come True

Who has watched over me during this arduous journey of self-discovery and activism? Where did I get my faith to persevere in the face of spiritual abuse and mental health struggles? I know that I have been protected, by someone I still call “the Holy Spirit” even though most Christian language doesn’t fit me anymore. Someone up there implanted compassion, hope, truth-seeking, and determination in my heart. Someone strengthened me to be true to myself when people I loved couldn’t accept who I’d become. So… thank you, Holy Spirit.

What Country Is This?

This morning in the bluest of blue states, I took courage from the survival of queer, Jewish, and African-American people through hundreds of years of oppression. I remembered growing up in the 1980s with the constant fear that President Reagan would push the red button and destroy the planet in a nuclear war. I was inspired by the memoirs I am reading this winter for the Winning Writers self-published book contest, about Jews who escaped Nazi Germany and African-Americans who migrated north in the Jim Crow era to seek equal opportunity. And I re-committed myself to upholding the humanity of all people through my work as a writer and publisher.

Book Notes: Gay Theology Without Apology

Comstock argues that any theology based on appeals to authority–even the authority of Jesus–still has more of Caesar in it than Christ. As Audre Lorde said, the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house. The Jesus way is more radical. He called his disciples friends, not servants who obey without knowing why (John 15:15).

Rest in peace, Prince. May we all purify ourselves in the waters of Lake Minnetonka.

 

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Book Notes: Queer Virtue

This fall, our church had the honor of hosting the Rev. Elizabeth M. Edman, presenting her new book Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity (Beacon Press, 2016). Edman is an Episcopal priest and political strategist and an out lesbian. She proposes that Christianity and queerness have a common interest in rupturing false binaries that create injustice and estrangement. The first half of the book argues for “the inherent queerness of Christianity”, using parallels from LGBTQ identity and community life to describe a faith centered on scandalous intimacy and countercultural family formation. The second half surveys virtues that LGBTQ people have had to cultivate for their survival–such as authenticity, hospitality, and healthy pride–and holds them up as an ethical role model for Christians.

I want to get my one disagreement with Queer Virtue out of the way first, because if unaddressed, it could overshadow the treasures otherwise to be found in this book. In my last post I discussed the fallacy of trying to prove that one’s preferred image of Jesus is the “real” Jesus. So I was disappointed that in a book devoted to barrier-breaking, nonbinary spirituality, Edman begins by drawing a distinction between “nominal” and “authentic” Christianity (pgs.xii-xiii). Nominal Christians are the broader group: any people or institutions that call themselves Christian. Authentic Christians are that subset who are following “a lived faith in keeping with the ancient tradition that has been handed down in the Western canon of scripture and from the early (especially pre-sixth-century) church.” Within that tradition, Edman says she will focus on the aspect of Christianity “as a spiritual journey that prioritizes the ancient Christian impulse to rupture simplistic binaries, especially those pertaining to the relationship between Self and Other.” (pg.xiii)

Okay, so that is the impulse that led me to become a Christian in the first place, and it was thrilling and validating to finally find another Christian who defined our core commitment this way! But… I have been involved with churches, small groups, and theology conferences for two decades, and this perspective that I share with Edman is very unusual. To be rather simplistic, conservatives adore binaries (holy/sinful, male/female, infallible/depraved, sovereign God/obedient subjects) while liberals fail to tap the nonbinary potential of the Trinity and Incarnation because of their skittishness about supernatural metaphysics.

I think Edman is begging the question that queer Jesus is the dominant strain in that ancient tradition. (If only that had been my experience!) That may be his chief significance for us, but casting shade on other Christians’ priorities will, I fear, only confirm non-affirming Christians’ anxiety that LGBTQ inclusion undermines doctrinal fundamentals beyond the one issue of sexuality. Which wouldn’t be such a bad thing, in my opinion, but let’s have the courage to say we’re putting our wine in new wineskins instead of overstating the historical record.

Now that’s over with, let’s move on to what is awesome about this book. Pronouns: Edman uses gender-neutral Ze/Hir for God, and alternates among male, female, and neutral pronouns for humans. I like this challenging reminder of God’s strangeness, Hir transcendence of human gender categories, even as we retain the well-loved Biblical metaphors of God as loving father, brooding mother hen, Son of Man, and so forth.

Another great development is the invitation to shift from defending homosexuality as an issue, to celebrating LGBTQ lives as spiritual role models. This person-centered, love-oriented approach seems in keeping with a religion founded on relationship with God-become-human. “Queer individuals are called to perceive a truth inside themselves, name it as an identity marker, reckon with it, tell the truth about it even in the face of hostility, find others who perceive a comparable identity marker, and build community for the betterment of all of us… In my faith tradition, we refer to this as a call. It is a vocation.” (pg.9)

Indeed, for me, awareness of my sexual or gender identity feels like it uses the same faculties of perception as my experience of Spirit. It’s a sort of deep resonance in the heart that can’t be explained to everyone, but is the foundation of whatever else I know about myself. Both can require the same kind of trust in my intuition and body-knowledge, and the fierce self-love that resists intellectual gaslighting.

I wonder, though, does a vocational community formed around Christian faith permit as much respect for each other’s inner truths as a community formed around queerness? To walk the path of queer virtue, all I have to do is believe in my own experience and respect others’. To be a Christian, on the other hand, can I avoid passing judgment on my fellow Christians who are “doing it wrong”? Does the doctrinal or ethically prescriptive aspect of religious community always force us somewhat in the direction of conformity, in a way that’s not true of LGBTQ community?

Edman goes some way toward resisting religious conformity with her celebration of “scandal” as a virtue common to queers and followers of Jesus. LGBTQ people and other minorities face constant pressure from respectability politics, i.e. buying acceptance by assimilating to majority mores and judging other members of the minority group who don’t do the same. For instance, gays and lesbians in the church have mainly fought for inclusion within the ideal of monogamous marriage, rather than making a theological case for respecting the other forms of sexual relationship that their communities have developed. By contrast, Edman cites Michael Warner’s The Trouble With Normal for the ethical vision of not pretending to be above the indignity of bodies and their desires. In sex-soaked gay male culture, where there is the most flamboyance, the most carnal abjection, there may also be the greatest humility and openness to one another. Similarly, Jesus shocked even his followers by touching outcasts and submitting to all the vulnerabilities of the flesh, including being eaten–symbolically, or literally, depending on your view of the Eucharist! The word for Communion, koinonia, meant both “common” and “defiled” in the Greek of Jesus’s day. (pgs.80-82)

Perhaps the greatest scandal is the Crucifixion and Resurrection, which reverse our deepest notions about power and mortality. If I believe anything about Jesus, it’s this:

For Paul, this is a cosmic shattering of something that operates as a stranglehold on humanity: the idea that death is the most powerful thing we know. The scandal of the cross means that death and its affiliates–terror, torture, physical and spiritual agony–lose their potency as the ultimate stumbling block, the ultimate bait and trap, the ultimate outrage.

Paul sees clearly that this shattering opens up a horizon of ethical possibility, an ethical vision that in some ways parallels what Michael Warner sees in queer experience: the ability to learn the most from those you think are beneath you. (pgs.85-86)

The scandalous way of queer Christian virtue declares that shame has no power to suppress our true selves or separate us from God. That ethical path is not as simplistic and one-sided as casting off shame entirely, because people do sin and need prompting toward repentance. It’s a call to be careful and politically conscious about what we consider shameful and how we enforce it. (pgs.88-89)

These insights are picked up in Edman’s later chapter on the balance that LGBTQ Pride can bring to a Christian tradition that’s been focused on ego-resizing of the arrogant and privileged, at the expense of those whose self-worth needs shoring up.

In times like these when people are sensitive to the ways that words can do harm, it makes sense to lift up Christian disparagement of pride and ask churches to cut it out. We have no business asking queer people for whom Pride is a life-and-soul-saving concept to stand in a church and disparage the term. It would be useful if Christians could begin dismantling and rebuilding liturgical components such as prayers and hymns and replace the word “pride” with language that more accurately characterizes the problematic behavior… [such as] those who hoard power or who profit by appropriating resources from others….

…Imposing such a definition of sin [as pride] on human beings is one of the biggest hammers in the ideological toolbox of empire that Christianity was born to dismantle. This is ironic, because you’d think that defining pride as aggression and hubris would serve to contain imperialistic tendencies… But in practice, universalizing this definition of pride is one way the privileged Self absorbs and renders invisible all those less-privileged Others. Demonizing Pride is, in fact, one of the most effective ways that Christianity has ended up serving those who conquer and dominate, contributing to the disempowerment of people the world over. (pgs.114-15)

I’ll end with one last favorite passage in which Edman smartly dismisses accusations of moral relativism against queer liberation theology:

Because we have thrown off the moral absolutes that unequivocally condemn queer sexual behavior, the thinking goes, we have no real ethical grounding. Those who make these claims say that there isn’t anything we truly believe; our ethics blow with the prevailing wind.

This simply is not true. Queer people do not categorically reject absolute truth. We do view the concept of “absolute truth” warily, and we tend to take great care in our claims about truth. This caution is not a symptom of moral relativism, but is born of our awareness that callous, ill-informed appeals to “absolute truth” have caused vast suffering. It is true that we don’t usually get very deep into moral reasoning before someone asks, “How does this principle affect real people’s lives? Whose story does this take into account, or ignore?” We don’t do that because our morals are constantly in flux; we do it because we recognize that people’s lives are. Indeed, the impulse to take people’s real lives seriously is itself a moral absolute for many LGBTQ people. This impulse is an essential, characteristic strength of our ethical thinking. (pgs.126-27)

Let the church say Amen! The Jesus I see in the Gospels was always asking who benefits from a religious norm and who has the power to set these norms in the first place. (Jesus, the first deconstructionist!) All theology is standpoint-based. Queer Virtue demonstrates this in language that non-philosophers can understand. I am very grateful for this book.

Book Notes: Gay Theology Without Apology

Gary David Comstock’s Gay Theology Without Apology (Wipf & Stock, 1993) is a radical, important essay collection that uses the experiences of gays and lesbians in the church as a foundation for democratizing and diversifying our methods of interpreting the Bible. As he says in the introduction, “Christian Scripture and tradition are not authorities from which I seek approval; rather, they are resources from which I seek guidance and learn lessons as well [as] institutions that I seek to interpret, shape, and change.” (pg.4) Comstock is a UCC minister and Wesleyan University chaplain. His essays re-imagine key Christian concepts and Bible passages to help us develop “a relationship with Scripture that is modeled on friendship rather than parental authority.” (pg.6) The chapter that spoke most to my present concerns was “Leaving Jesus: A Theology of Friendship and Autonomy”, so I’ll be focusing on that essay, but I recommend reading the whole book.

When support for gay rights brought me to a crisis of faith in my moderate-evangelical orthodoxy, I had two choices. I could join the ranks of Christian scholars explaining why the affirming position was supported, or at least permitted, by a reasonable interpretation of the Bible. Or I could be honest about the fact that I would continue to hold that position, regardless of what I could find in Scripture. Having chosen the latter course, I’m stuck with the liberal’s dilemma: If the Bible is not my highest authority, how is it relevant? What does it add to the values I already live by, or the process by which I make decisions?

I greatly respect Comstock for confronting the sleight-of-hand that we progressives engage in when we try to remain under the Christian umbrella while pointing it in our preferred direction. It was so refreshing to have permission to walk away from this power struggle over “WWJD?” In the “Leaving Jesus” essay, he writes:

I think we need to stop using Jesus as our trump card in waging the struggle for peace and justice. First, because it is opportunistic; we use him as we wish for our own ends. Second, because we really do not mean it; I do not think we are involved in movements for social change because Jesus would have been with us, but because we want, need, and think we ought to be involved. Jesus gets tagged on as a rationale or support for what we know or have decided we should do. And third, because it is not an effective strategy; the organized, mainstream church has more power for establishing the prevailing image of Jesus than do marginalized people within or outside it. The history of Christianity has shown that Jesus is up for grabs; and whoever is most powerful determines the prevailing image of Jesus. (pg.93)

Now, this is not to say that every Christian is treating Jesus as an afterthought to their personal preferences. Probably most of them feel they have had genuine encounters with Jesus through prayer and Scripture, and that those encounters are guiding them to certain positions on social issues. That’s equally true for the priest of my liberal parish who supports gay rights, and for my conservative Christian former mentor who opposes them. It was true for me when I had the revelation at the 2006 Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing that led me to write Two Natures, a project that blew up my relationship with Christian orthodoxy.

We should tremble at the presumption of declaring that our opponent’s God-encounter is delusional, just as we refrain from undermining their sanity by disputing what their heart and body tell them about their sexual orientation, gender identity, or trauma history. “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.” (Romans 14:4, NIV)

And yet, don’t these contradictory theological results reveal the insufficiency (or possibly over-sufficiency) of the concept “Jesus” to restrain wrong actions? Comstock has anticipated this issue as well:

That the Bible is a resource for defining and lending strength to the formation of various faith communities that believe and act in various, and often conflicting, ways is not easy for those whose faith community is predicated on being right and changing others. To acknowledge and allow for a multiplicity of expressions may be to tolerate forms of Christianity that are unacceptably oppressive. But to argue for the primacy of one form, our form, over another is to become engaged in a contest for which there is no winner. Each community can claim a biblically based Jesus who supports it. (pg.95)

Comstock argues that any theology based on appeals to authority–even the authority of Jesus–still has more of Caesar in it than Christ. As Audre Lorde said, the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house. The Jesus way is more radical. He called his disciples friends, not servants who obey without knowing why (John 15:15).

To be occupied with arguing over the correct image of Jesus is to be caught up in establishing and recognizing him as a master. Over and over we end up with a “top man” in whom we put our hope and trust, instead of giving ourselves and each other the power to decide and do what should be done, instead of taking responsibility for claiming and doing it ourselves. (pg.98)

…[Jesus] does not seem to have wanted to found an organization that would be preoccupied with fawning over him and perfecting his image. A friend bids us well, not holding on to us with last-minute conditions about loyalty and preserving his name, but trusting and expecting us to love one another–a rare and wonderful example of rescinding patriarchal privilege, and perhaps one that many would do well to follow. But its value and power lie not in proposing yet another example of how wonderful Jesus is, but settles on us the task of being our own example, of finding out from each other how wonderful we can be for each other. (pg.99)

Revisiting this essay, for the purpose of this blog post, has clarified why I feel stuck and heavy-hearted in my current prayer life. I grew up in a home where the opposite values were modeled. Life with my bio mother was all about one-way loyalty; protecting the family’s public image at the expense of the facts; proving that my way was the “right” way before I’d be granted any autonomy; never growing up; and acting grateful for love that was supposed to be unconditional but actually depended on meeting the above conditions perfectly. The only way to break that pattern was to end the relationship completely. So on a gut level, when I think about accepting some aspects of the Biblical Jesus and refusing others, I’m terrified of abandonment and punishment. My childhood instincts tell me that it’s all or nothing: either submit to the commands I don’t believe in, or forfeit my claim to any love, help, or approval from Jesus. This tears me in two.

I’d like to stay friends with a Jesus who embodied God’s overcoming of all divisions between clean/unclean, spirit/flesh, divine/human. I want to continue drawing hope from love’s triumph over death and humiliation in his Resurrection, without accepting the dogma that the universe runs on the blood sacrifice of the innocent. I’d like to believe he would listen and learn from my feedback about situations where “turn the other cheek” and “forgive 70 x 7” can impede healing and justice for the abused. It would be great to feel that he trusts me to figure things out and will forgive me when I mess up. And finally, if it turns out that Jesus is not the image that channels God’s love to me most clearly, I wonder if I can ever feel that he sends me on my way with a blessing, as scarcely any of my mentors and parental figures have been able to do.

What would make the progressive church a place where I could grow into this kind of friendship with Christ? First, more awareness of and stepping back from the struggle for narrative dominance. If we were truly secure in our freedom to relate to Jesus in our own ways, we wouldn’t need to appeal to a selective reading of Scripture as if it were the only right one. Second, sermons that dare to reject or critique the Bible passages presented in the weekly liturgy, instead of leaving them there like undigested lumps. I find it hard to handle the cognitive dissonance of being confronted with controversial texts that we then avoid in the rest of our worship experience. Third, guided conversations as a community about how our psychological baggage affects our theology. The church willing to take on this challenge would truly be a model for a counterculture of love and equality.

December Links Roundup: Into the Dark

kaliimwithher

“Turn your face away from the garish light of day, Turn your thoughts away from cold unfeeling light, And listen to the music of the night,” the Phantom of the Opera sings in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical. These lines captured my heart when I saw the show 25 years ago. Darkness as fertile, safe, restful, profound, and full of tenderness.

As we approach the Winter Solstice, and a political transition that feels apocalyptic for many, the spiritual qualities of darkness invite closer attention. In both popular culture and pagan literature, we need to rethink the colonialist metaphor of “light” magic as good and pure, “dark” or “black” magic as evil and sexually decadent. Lasara Firefox Allen’s Jailbreaking the Goddess, a new book of intersectional feminist spirituality, suggests the terms “empowered” and “occluded” (rather than the Jungian “shadow”) to refer to the helpful and destructive aspects of an archetype.

I’ve been exploring the Pagan channel on the religion blog portal Patheos, which is where I found John Beckett’s blog, Under the Ancient Oaks. Beckett is a Druid and Unitarian Universalist. In a post written shortly after the presidential election, “Be the Dark”, he had a refreshing take on the ubiquitous urgings on social media to “be the light”. Many of us on the Left did not have a ton of happy confetti to throw around last month. We were feeling scared, despondent, angry, and overwhelmed. Even if we had it in us, was spreading positive vibes really helpful or a form of denial? Beckett reflected:

[W]hat if you don’t particularly feel like being the light? What if you’re still hurting, still afraid, still mad as hell? What if you’re just not a love and light kind of person?

Then be the dark.

Be the safety of the dark. We tend to think of the dark as a dangerous place, but for a wide variety of nocturnal creatures, daylight is dangerous and the dark is where they’re safe. You can’t see as well in the dark, but that also means it’s harder for you to be seen. Our mainstream culture mocks “hiding in the dark” but if you’re up against predators who are bigger, stronger, and more numerous than you, hiding in the dark is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Embrace the safety of the dark.

He went on to praise other positive qualities of the dark: restfulness, nurturing, and the ability to create illusions. Finally, he dared to encourage us to be the danger of the dark:

Here we shift from nice safe pretty Nature metaphors to the reality of what must be done in the dark… Being the danger of the dark is knowing in your soul that you’re scarier than anything that might come after you. This isn’t the testosterone-driven braggadocio of young men. Rather, it’s the quiet confidence that comes from the direct, first-hand experience of Gods, spirits, and magic. It’s knowing you have allies in the Otherworld – not servants you can call down at will, but mighty Powers with whom you are aligned and at whose side you will fight… and win, eventually if not immediately.

It’s knowing your own Will can be enhanced with herbs and stones, with blood and piss, and with the bones of other creatures. It’s knowing the power of words and the power of symbols.

It’s knowing spells that go against your morals, that you would never use… unless there was no other way.

It’s knowing that as long as you have breath you have hope, because you have magic and you have Will.

Some of the most interesting scenes in Once Upon a Time happen when Regina, the semi-reformed Evil Queen, must partner with the heroes to fight a threat to their town. She’s a risky but invaluable member of the team because she’s willing to be the bad cop when nothing else works. In the current season, she’s split off her Dark side so that she can be a good person who gets a happy ending, but dis-integration is not working out well for her or anyone around her.

(If you’re all getting tired of OUAT life lessons, don’t worry, I’m now binge-watching Luke Cage.)

Also on the subject of Dark Goddesses, a friend sent me religion scholar Vera de Chalambert’s article “Kali Takes America: I’m With Her”.  (The subtitle was Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan.)

…Donald Trump might already be picking his deplorable cabinet, but it is the Dark Mother, the destroyer of worlds, oracle of holy change, the tenderhearted be-header, that won this country. Kali has brought down our house in a shocking blow; all the illusions of America, stripped in a single night. We are not who we thought we were. Now we must get ready to stand in her fires of transmutation. We need them…

Paradoxically, the price of true hope, it seems, is being unsettled beyond repair. And this is exactly the opportunity our political moment is presenting to us all. Right now, from all corners of our shocked culture, there are cries of hope, demands of needing to become even brighter lights amidst the spreading darkness. I disagree.

I think that this moment gives us an opportunity for reckoning only if instead of running for the light, we let ourselves go fully into the dark. If instead of resolving our discomfort too quickly, we consider the possibility of staying in the uncomfortable, in the irreconcilable, in the unsettled.

Before we rush in to reanimate the discourse of hope prematurely, we must yield to what is present. Receptivity is the great quality of darkness; darkness hosts everything without exception. The Dark Mother has no orphans. We must not send suffering into exile — the fear, the heartbreak, the anger, the helplessness all are appropriate, all are welcome. We can’t dismember ourselves to feel better.

We can’t cut of the stream of life and expect to heal.

Cutting off the inconvenient is a form of spiritual fascism. By resolving to stay only in the light in times of immense crisis, we split life; engage in emotional deportation, rather than hosting the vulnerable. Difficult feelings need to be given space so they can come to rest. They need contact.

In a culture of isolation, be the invitation to everything.

The intuition that the Dark Mother has returned is pervasive if we heed the signs, and our thirst for the dark is deep.

She may not be an official Goddess yet, but Ursula the Sea Witch (from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”) is the form that the Dark Mother has been taking for me lately. Like Kali, she has a lot of arms, and she’ll fuck you up. Half octopus, half chanteuse, she is loud, large, lusty, and speaks the truth that you may not want to hear. She’ll tell you the price of following your dreams. Can you pay it?

ursula

I had no gaydar when “The Little Mermaid” was released in 1989, but when I re-listened to Ursula’s song “Poor Unfortunate Souls” a few months ago, it was obvious she was a drag queen! Was I just reading my own preoccupations into her? Nope. In the literary journal Hazlitt, Nicole Pasulka and Brian Ferree’s article “Unearthing the Sea Witch” reveals that she was based on none other than Divine, the countercultural icon of outrageous filthiness from John Waters’ movies. Lyricist Howard Ashman, a gay man, also added a smidgen of Audrey II, the carnivorous plant from his hit musical “Little Shop of Horrors”.

The article concludes, “Ursula is a plum role because as Glenn Milstead [Divine’s birth name], Howard Ashman, John Waters, and generations of queers and drag queens know, being ostracized, fat, and sick can bring its own strength and power… [I]n stories like these there is no convention. There are only relationships. Deep, firmly felt connections between strange, gross, gorgeous, and utterly authentic characters. What’s subversive about Ursula, Audrey II, and Divine is that they cannot be contained.”

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November Links Roundup: Queer Connections

Conservatives, and liberals still in the denial stage of grief, have been calling for “unity” after this week’s presidential election. I think we need to talk about solidarity instead. Not making nice with people who are ideologically committed to hurting us, but taking a hard look at the ways that our different marginalized groups have not cared enough about each other’s concerns. Feminists need to wake up to racism in our ranks. (53% of white women voted for Trump. Embarrassing.) The gay rights movement needs to address class and poverty, along the lines of Harvey Milk’s support for labor unions. While we celebrate access to  institutions like marriage and the military, we risk forgetting about youth homelessness, employment discrimination, and healthcare and basic public safety for transgender people. All groups should pay more attention to disability issues.

On that note, Reiter’s Block reader Alex Diaz-Granados invited me to spread the word about his online resources for LGBT children and teens with cerebral palsy. Alex wrote to me:

Children with disabilities are sometimes more likely to be bullied than their non disabled peers. This includes children that are also part of the LGBT community. Obviously, this is not a good thing.

Having cerebral palsy, I understand how critical it is for parents of a child with CP to have access to reliable information, especially when it comes to delicate topics like these. Equally as important, I represent CerebralPalsyGuidance.com because I believe in their mission of providing quality cerebral palsy information and assistance to families in need.

He pointed me to the article “Cerebral Palsy and LGBT”, which discusses dual discrimination against youth who are both LGBT and disabled, and provides links to anti-bullying information for teachers and parents. One of the inspiring stories in this article features Australian playwright Thomas Banks:

25-year-old Thomas Banks, from Australia, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a toddler, but knew he was gay by the time he was 12. Throughout childhood, he was called names and teased mercilessly. Even today, he hears numerous myths that unaware people think about disabled people.

“Some of the misconceptions about people with disabilities are that some people think [cerebral palsy] is an intellectual disability but it’s not, said Banks. “ Some other people think I’m stupid, but I’m not. And people think people with disabilities are asexual.”

Instead of dwelling on the issue, Banks became a writer and advocate for being gay with a disability. He even created his own theatrical play, Someone like Thomas Banks, which explores how he uses the Internet to date and find love. He also raises community awareness through workshops, where he talks about communication difficulties that many people with cerebral palsy go through.

Visit his Facebook page to learn more.

Regular readers know I am a big fan of British feminist philosopher Sara Ahmed, who writes about the paradoxes and projections of diversity work: essentially, how the person who calls attention to a problem is silenced by being labeled the source of the problem. On the website Brainlina, you can find a Sara Ahmed Reader with 40+ pages of excerpts from her books The Cultural Politics of Emotion and Strange Encounters. In the chapter “Queer Feelings” from the former book, Ahmed asks us to question:

…how the defence of the war against terrorism has evoked “the family” as the origin of love, community and support… What needs closer examination is how heterosexuality becomes a script that binds the familial with the global: the coupling of man and woman becomes a kind of “birthing”, a giving birth not only to new life, but to ways of living that are already recognisable as forms of civilisation. It is this narrative of coupling as a condition for the reproduction of life, culture and value that explains the slide in racist narratives between the fear of strangers and immigrants (xenophobia), the fear of queers (homophobia) and the fear of miscegenation (as well as other illegitimate couplings)… Hence, the failure to orient oneself “towards” the ideal sexual object affects how we live in the world, an affect that is readable as the failure to reproduce, and as a threat to the social ordering of life itself.

Heteronormativity, Ahmed writes, is one way that a national culture creates a sentimental bond of sameness that is exhausting to challenge. Being comfortable within your world’s unconscious assumptions can blur your awareness of where you end and the world begins. This feeling is easy for leaders to co-opt for patriotic or in-group identity purposes. It dulls critical thinking about your culture as a culture, one of many possible social arrangements.

One of Ahmed’s objectives in this chapter is to “reflect on the role of pleasure in queer lifestyles or countercultures, and…how the enjoyment of social and sexual relations that are designated as ‘non-(re)productive’ can function as forms of political disturbance in an affective economy organised around the principle that pleasure is only ethical as an incentive or reward for good conduct.” Read more here.

Ahmed’s analysis feels timely, because there is a temptation for progressives to question whether personal issues like sexual orientation and intimate relationships are a bourgeois distraction from “real” movement work. To the contrary, a culture that forcibly shapes or suppresses our personal lives works hand in hand with a state that seeks to co-opt our loyalties.

In this post from October, “Trump, Sexual Assault, and Incest: When Forgiveness Is Failure”, progressive Christian blogger Rebecca Todd Peters draws a connection between Trump supporters who gave him a free pass for predatory behavior, and Christians who wrongly pressure survivors to forgive instead of seeking justice. Certainly, it made me cringe to see evangelical leaders distorting the language of grace and repentance to defend Trump as a changed man. Peters writes:

While it is true that Christianity is a religion that is rooted in forgiveness, it is also rooted in justice. While Christianity teaches that God’s grace is so profound that anyone can be forgiven for anything – no matter how awful; God’s grace is not a substitute for meaningful justice in human community.

Sexual assault is traumatic for anyone. To have it happen to a pubescent child who is only just beginning to mature threatens to provide life-long damage to this woman-child. But to have it perpetrated by her father and tacitly condoned by her mother is to have the most sacred and profound parental obligations of care, protection, and safety severed and shattered forever.

I am a huge fan of the idea of restorative justice, which promotes alternative sentencing and community-based solutions that seek to help and heal communities in situations where healing and restoration are possible. These models are based on the notion that many crimes are offenses against individuals or communities and that perpetrators are better rehabilitated when they confront their very real harm and damage that their crime has caused in the lives of very real people.

In cases of sexual assault, restorative justice is neither a healthy or viable option. Asking the victims of these crimes to play any role in the rehabilitation of their perpetrators threatens to revictimize survivors. More importantly, it implies that the healing of the perpetrator is not only as important as the healing of the survivor but that survivors “owe” something to their perpetrators in the form of forgiveness.

Christianity does not require or promote the idea that victims have any obligation or moral responsibility to forgive the people who have violated and harmed them. While people may choose to do this as a part of their healing process, that is very different from teaching or implying that Christianity requires us to forgive or to “turn the other cheek” when we are harmed.

As you all know, I agree with this psychologically 100%, but really wonder how it’s supported by the text of the Gospels…? Commenter Iain Lovejoy raised the same objection, and suggested an alternative framing:

Forgiveness for abusers doesn’t mean abandoning the protection given to victims under the criminal law, only ceasing to hold anger against them and wishing only to see genuine repentance and their freedom from the sin inside them that caused them to act as they did, and recognising criminal penalties as an unfortunate necessity rather than a desired revenge…A truly repentant person would welcome paying for his crimes, not seek ways of avoiding doing so.

By either of these standards, I think we can still be mad at Trump! More tricky is how we respond to our neighbors who voted for him. When is it skillful to be honest about our anger and pain, when is a kinder approach called for, and when should we simply take care of ourselves by not engaging with bullies? This is my current discernment challenge. I’m starting with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s online guide “Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry”. (Hat tip to Captain Awkward for the link.)

What Country Is This?

This morning, in the bluest of blue states, I woke up to the news that a racist, sexist demagogue would be the next president of the United States. My world quaked and settled off-kilter. It reminded me of the day after 9/11, when realities I’d taken for granted literally crumbled, and I no longer felt I could predict what it meant to live in America. This time, though, the threat comes from within. I am frightened to realize that a large percentage of my fellow citizens are either prejudiced against minorities and women, or indifferent to our survival.

This morning, in the bluest of blue states, this Episco-pagan has never felt more Jewish. Growing up on New York’s Lower East Side in a non-religious but culturally Jewish family, I can’t remember a time I didn’t know about the Holocaust and the pogroms. We watched “The Sound of Music” and “Fiddler on the Roof” as history, not just entertainment. My mother got me a passport when I was born “in case we have to emigrate to Israel” and always reminded me that our host country could become hostile overnight. Now, going to Israel is not a win, either in terms of safety or social justice (I don’t have the right to displace the Palestinians!), but the mindset endures. I’ve read too many books about assimilated, well-off European Jews who refused to believe that their neighbors would turn on them. This racial memory needles me when I read Christian thinkpieces (usually by straight white men) about how we need to rise above our political differences and come to the communion table with our enemies.

This morning, in the bluest of blue states, when I opened the door to my 4-year-old son’s room, he greeted me with his thousand-watt smile. “I’m a butterfly!” he exclaimed, jumping on the bed and waving his arms to demonstrate the yoga pose he learned at his Montessori school. I want to live in an America where my son will always be safe to be a butterfly. His best friends are the children of single moms, lesbian couples, and a Muslim-American family. His birthfather is a Central American immigrant. He’s never had to worry about the people he loves, or even notice that they’re different from the “norm” that many voters yesterday were determined to enforce. I struggled with whether to leave him in this state of innocence, or to inoculate him with a little of the rational paranoia that is my birthright. Jewish again, I went with the latter.

“Mommy and Daddy and Grandma are sad today because we don’t like who is going to be in charge of our country.”

“Why?” asked the Young Master, echoing the morning-after cry of Democrats everywhere.

“Some people are very angry because they don’t have enough money for food or going to the doctor. And it’s okay to feel that way. But sometimes when people are angry, they blame the wrong person, just like when you’re upset and you throw a toy even though the toy didn’t do anything wrong. But don’t worry, we will always keep you safe.”

The Young Master, absorbing perhaps 10% of this, drummed his feet against the bathtub and growled to show me what “angry” looks like. We had breakfast and walked to school. I looked at the graveyard across the street, where I had planned to be buried after living the rest of my life in this house, and tried to practice non-attachment.

This morning in the bluest of blue states, I took courage from the survival of queer, Jewish, and African-American people through hundreds of years of oppression. I remembered growing up in the 1980s with the constant fear that President Reagan would push the red button and destroy the planet in a nuclear war. I was inspired by the memoirs I am reading this winter for the Winning Writers self-published book contest, about Jews who escaped Nazi Germany and African-Americans who migrated north in the Jim Crow era to seek equal opportunity. And I re-committed myself to upholding the humanity of all people through my work as a writer and publisher.

I’m still here.

Poets in Memoriam: Ritvo, Kelly, Perillo

Today, November 1, is All Saints’ Day in the Episcopal Calendar, when we honor and commune with our dead. In our tradition, saints are not only the officially canonized heroes of the church, but all members of the community, just as we are “a priesthood of all believers”. This fall, the American poetry community lost several notable figures I’d like to mention on the blog.

Max Ritvo studied under Louise Glück at Yale, taught poetry at Columbia University, and was an editor of Parnassus. His collection Four Reincarnations appeared posthumously from Milkweed Editions. In August, he died at 25 from a rare pediatric cancer, which was the subject of many of his dazzling, edgy poems. Read more about him in his New York Times obituary. I discovered his work in the Iowa Review just days before I learned of his passing. In “Leisure-Loving Man Suffers Untimely Death”, he wrote:

Sure, I wish my imagination well,
wherever it is. But now

I have sleep to fill. Every night
I dream I have a bucket

and move clear water from a hole
to a clear ocean. A robot’s voice barks

This is sleep. This is sleep.
I’d drink the water, but I’m worried the next

night I’d regret it.
I might need every last drop. Nobody will tell me.

Boston Review in 2015 featured a seven-poem sampler of his work, selected by Lucie Brock-Broido. Here is the beginning of “Afternoon”:

When I was about to die
my body lit up
like when I leave my house
without my wallet.
What am I missing? I ask
patting my chest
pocket.
and I am missing everything living
that won’t come with me
into this sunny afternoon
—my body lights up for life
like all the wishes being granted in a fountain
at the same instant—
all the coins burning the fountain dry—
and I give my breath
to a small bird-shaped pipe.
My favorite is “Poem to My Litter”, published in The New Yorker this past June. In tones that are tender, sardonic, and melancholy, this poem addresses the laboratory mice that have been engineered to carry his tumors in hopes of finding a cure.

I want my mice to be just like me. I don’t have any children.
I named them all Max. First they were Max 1, Max 2,

but now they’re all just Max. No playing favorites.
They don’t know they’re named, of course.

They’re like children you’ve traumatized
and tortured so they won’t let you visit.

I hope, Maxes, some good in you is of me.
Even my suffering is good, in part.

Brigit Pegeen Kelly received the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and numerous other honors. She passed away last month at the age of 65. When the news broke, my poet friends on Facebook shared many of her sensual, profound poems. I was especially moved by “The Leaving”, from her debut collection, To the Place of Trumpets. It begins, “My father said I could not do it,/but all night I picked the peaches.” Instead of a literal narrative about girl power or individuation, though, the harvest becomes a mythic task that stands in for every occasion when faithfulness to mundane work brought us into transcendence:

I put the peaches in the pond’s cold water,
all night up the ladder and down, all night my hands
twisting fruit as if I were entering a thousand doors,
all night my back a straight road to the sky.
And then out of its own goodness, out
of the far fields of the stars, the morning came,
and inside me was the stillness a bell possesses
just after it has been rung, before the metal
begins to long again for the clapper’s stroke.

In a similar vein, she wrote in “Blessed is the Field”:

In the late heat the snakeroot and goldenrod run high,
White and gold, the steaming flowers, green and gold,
The acid-bitten leaves….It is good to say first

An invocation. Though the words do not always
Seem to work. Still, one must try. Bow your head.
Cross your arms. Say: Blessed is the day. And the one

Who destroys the day. Blessed is this ring of fire
In which we live….How bitter the burning leaves.
How bitter and sweet.

Lucia Perillo was a MacArthur Foundation fellow and a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her 2010 collection Inseminating the Elephant. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 30, she passed away in October at the age of 58. From the New York Times obituary:

In an interview for The American Poetry Review in 2014, she presented her situation straightforwardly. Asked about battling her disease, she said: “I don’t battle M.S. I relent to its humiliations.” How did she manage not to fall into despair? “I’ve already fallen. This is the voice from the swamp.

The above-cited interview includes the poem “A Revelation”, which begins with the narrator watching prostitutes in Nevada buying their groceries. She concludes:

…If you follow
any one of the apparitions far enough–the
fallen ones, the idolaters, the thieves
and liars–you will find that beauty, a
cataclysmic beauty
rising off the face of a burning landscape
just before the appearance of the beast, the
beauty
that is the flower of our dying into another life.
Like a Mobius strip: you go round once
and you come out on the other side.
There is no alpha, no omega,
no beginning and no end.
Only the ceaseless swell
and fall of sunlight on those rusted hills.
Watch the way brilliance turns
on darkness. How can any of us be damned.

May these poets be blessed in the next world as they have blessed us here. Lux perpetua luceat eis.