July Links Roundup: Queer and/or Christian Podcasts

Ron Swanson Says ‘You may have thought you heard me say I wanted a lot of bacon and eggs, but what I said was: Give me all the bacon and eggs you have’

Summer is here! Time to stay indoors, in my dark air-conditioned office, and walk on the treadmill. It’s true. But I’m improving my mind as well as my glutes. In between binge-watching “Parks & Rec” on Netflix (I am such a Ron Swanson), I’ve discovered some podcasts about queerness, literature, and spirituality that are well worth your time.

If you love poetry, throwing shade, and gay sex stories–you know I do–Food 4 Thot is the place to be. (“Thot”, a/k/a “that ho over there”, is urban slang for slut, with some racial and class overtones. Slate explains the nuances here.) Food 4 Thot features Native American poet Tommy Pico, author of IRL and Nature Poem; Fran Tirado, editor of Hello Mr.; fiction writer Dennis Norris II, a MacDowell Colony Fellow; and scientist and essayist Joseph Osmundson. Guest hosts have included acclaimed novelist Alexander Chee and Black feminist poet Angel Nafis. Their snappy, rollicking conversations flow from serious analysis to salacious satire and back again: pastoral poetry and colonialism, giving ourselves permission to dislike the classics, awkward three-ways, the greatness of Eartha Kitt, and the name-guessing game “Steakhouse or Gay Bar?”

Kevin Garcia blogs about LGBTQ-affirming Christian theology and his journey to self-acceptance from a Southern evangelical background. His podcast A Tiny Revolution interviews groundbreaking queer spiritual leaders and allies, often people of color. Most but not all are still within the Christian tradition. Guests have included Austen Hartke, creator of the YouTube series “Transgender and Christian”; Deborah Jian Lee, author of Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism; and Rev. Jonathan Vanderbeck, a Reformed Church minister who had important things to say about monogamy and hypocrisy in “affirming” Christian spaces.

The Fat Feminist Witch “examines witchcraft and paganism from a modern, fat, feminist perspective; with a cauldron full of sass.” I highly recommend her recent interview with Little Red Tarot columnist Andi Grace about setting boundaries and surviving toxic masculinity. I plan to sign up for Andi’s next semester of Hawthorn Heart: Magical Boundaries for Women and Femmes, July 22-Oct. 14. Read an excerpt from the course material at Little Red Tarot:

The most effective boundaries that I’ve been able to enact in my life have all been: measurable, accountable, negotiable and communicable…

…Often, when we are setting a boundary, the need for the boundary arises from an emotional experience. And at the same time, boundaries that are built around our emotional, subjective or qualitative experience of something can be hard to maintain because they can be hard to measure in a concrete way.

This means: the need for the boundary arises from an emotional experience, but the boundary itself will be more effective if it’s nestled in a concrete way of measuring its effectiveness…

Boundaries that are measurable are especially helpful for women and femmes because so much of our exhaustion and feeling of being used or not appreciated has to do with an implicit (or sometimes explicit) expectation that we will provide endless emotional labour. This labour is seen as a requirement and is often measured in how the feelings of the people around us shift based on the impacts of our time, wisdom and attention. And for most women and femmes, when we are giving this labour it goes unnoticed, but when we cease to do so, people feel angry that we aren’t providing, effortlessly and constantly, work that is perceived as a natural and necessary part of our being.

And so being able to measure, for example, how long we are willing to listen to someone process a feeling with us or what we deserve in return for this labour makes tangible and visible the work we do that is often invisibilized.

What podcasts do you recommend, readers?

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High Court to Decide on Religious Freedom to Discriminate

The U.S. Supreme Court has a convenient habit of issuing their most controversial decisions at the end of June, after which they flee the jurisdiction for summer break until October (nice gig!). Today they announced that they’d hear the appeal in Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the case of a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because of his religious belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, as reported by The Huffington Post. The high court has twice previously delayed action on the case. More background can be found in this March 2017 article from The New Yorker:

After the incident at Masterpiece Cakeshop became public, another bakery provided Craig and Mullins with a cake, adorned with a rainbow, at no charge. But the affront gnawed at the couple, and they filed a discrimination charge with Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission that September. The commission brought a case against Phillips and his shop in May, 2013.

The situation differs in some important ways from, say, those in which African-Americans were refused service at Woolworth’s lunch counters in the nineteen-fifties. One factor that is not different, however, is the way that religion has often been cited as a basis for discrimination. “Most Protestant churches in the South believed slavery and, later, [American] apartheid and anti-miscegenation laws were ordained by God,” [Yale Law Professor William] Eskridge told me. “Presbyterians, Methodists, Southern Baptists—respectable religions. Maybe several million people still believe that.”

Yet, from the standpoint of individual liberty, a mammoth corporation, such as Woolworth’s, is different from a mom-and-pop business. The regulatory machinery has been hesitant to tell individuals how to behave on their own premises, no matter how repugnant their behavior may seem. To this day, as Eskridge observes, the federal employment-discrimination laws do not apply to businesses with fewer than fifteen employees, and housing-discrimination laws do not affect owner-occupied buildings with four units or fewer.

Also, a Woolworth’s luncheonette could not plausibly have claimed that serving a plate of hash browns was a form of expression protected by the First Amendment. In the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, and disputes like it, the sole proprietors often argue that their work contains a strong expressive element, subject to First Amendment protections. In Phillips’s briefs, for instance, his lawyers never describe him as a “baker” but always as a “cake artist,” arguing that a wedding cake “forms the centerpiece of a ritual in which the couple celebrates their marriage,” and that it “communicates this special celebratory message. Slicing a pizza or pot roast would not have the same effect.”

Judges have rejected these arguments so far, in part because Phillips’s refusal to serve Craig and Mullins was so categorical, and their conversation so brief. They never reached potentially relevant details such as what, if anything, would be inscribed on the cake.

“For all Phillips knew at the time,” an administrative-law judge ruled, in 2013—in a decision later adopted by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and upheld by the state appeals court—Craig and Mullins “may have wanted a nondescript cake suitable for consumption at any wedding.” The commission has conceded that Phillips could have lawfully declined to write messages that he disagreed with on the cake, and it has previously allowed bakers to refuse to adorn cakes with white-supremacist and anti-Muslim messages.

Phillips’s attorneys argue that the couple was asking him to “design and create” a unique cake, and that, even if they weren’t, any cake would convey the “unconscionable” message “that a wedding has occurred, a marriage has begun, and the couple should be celebrated.”

Commentators predict that Trump’s first appointee, Justice Neil Gorsuch, will tip the Court further in the direction of conservative Christian carve-outs from neutrally applicable laws. This trend picked up momentum with the 2014 case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores. That case held that closely held corporations were “persons” with rights to the free exercise of religion under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)–specifically, the right to refuse to cover contraception in employee health insurance plans.

While the wedding cake example may seem trivial in isolation, it’s a microaggression which, if multiplied, intentionally creates a climate of fear and exclusion for LGBTQ citizens. Consider the hundreds of small transactions and interactions you engage in each week, then imagine the anxiety of wondering whether you’ll be refused service, each and every time. Think about having to calculate whether it’s too risky, for your emotional and perhaps physical safety, to leave your house and go to the store today. Craig and Mullins were able to find a competing vendor, but in a small town where the baker’s homophobia is widely shared, you could easily get into a situation of community-wide shunning.

Meanwhile state legislatures are feeling emboldened to apply anti-gay “religious freedom” precedents to more serious matters than pastry, such as medical care, housing, and social services for at-risk children. Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which covers Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, lifted the injunction on Mississippi’s RFRA, meaning that the law now goes into effect. From the story by Mark Joseph Stern at Slate:

A federal judge had blocked the law before it took effect, ruling it violated the Establishment and Equal Protection Clauses. The 5th Circuit, however, held that the plaintiffs in the case did not have standing to challenge the law in court, rendering the injunction improper.

HB 1523, the Mississippi bill, constitutes an all-out assault on LGBTQ people and a sweeping effort to legalize discrimination. Under the law:

  • Businesses can refuse service to LGBTQ people.
  • Employers can fire (or refuse to hire) workers because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • Adoption agencies, private and taxpayer-funded, can turn away same-sex couples and trans people.
  • Landlords can evict renters for being LGBTQ.
  • Medical professionals can refuse to treat LGBTQ patients.
  • Clerks and judges can refuse to marry same-sex couples.
  • Schools can exclude trans students from bathrooms that align with their gender identity and discriminate against all LGBTQ students.

And Texas Governor Greg Abbot this month signed a law that purports to give “protection of the rights of conscience for child welfare services providers”. Hat tip to progressive blogger Mindy Fischer for the news on Twitter. Her piece cites a report on the legislation from ThinkProgress, which I quote below:

The bill, House Bill 3859, will permit discrimination against LGBTQ couples wishing to adopt children, in addition to allowing LGBTQ children to be placed under the agencies’ care in “religious education.” The bill goes into effect in September.

As ThinkProgress noted when the bill passed the Texas House in May, the bill affects not only child placement services (think adoption agencies), but group homes, counseling services, care for abused children, and other resources for children with complicated family situations. The bill will have a broad reach, affecting organizations that provide a wide variety [of] care options for a large number of children.

When the bill goes into effect, those organizations can legally refuse to provide care for children on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity, or on the basis of the sexuality or gender identity of someone in their family, as long as the provider can cite “religious beliefs.” They will be able to do the same for same-gender couples wishing to adopt children, and ultimately for anyone whose situation can somehow be considered in violation of their religious beliefs. Texas state Rep. Gina Hinojosa (D) pointed out that it could be used to justify, for example, a Christian organization refusing to provide services to a Jewish family…

Prioritizing the religious beliefs of organizations who care for children over the religious beliefs, and human rights, of children, the bill will allow child welfare services to place LGBTQ children under their care into “religious education” that demonizes them or undermines their self-worth…

…But religious minorities will also be impacted by the bill, which allows child welfare organizations to place children who are members of religious minorities (Jewish or Muslim children, for example) into Christian schools.

It’s hard to believe that compulsory religious education could pass constitutional muster, since even minors have Free Exercise rights. But a lot of things have happened since November that are hard to believe.

An Establishment Clause challenge is also plausible. These so-called religious freedom bills use the neutral-seeming language of individual rights and tolerance to bring about a very specific sectarian outcome: allowing Christians with a heteronormative, religiously exclusivist interpretation of the Bible to evade civil rights protections for women, gays, and non-Christians. The state RFRAs not only give special treatment to religious people generally, but primarily benefit those who are duty-bound by their faith to avoid moral contamination from nonbelievers. This purity-based approach is specific to right-wing Christians (and Jews and Muslims, but I doubt there are many of those controlling the Mississippi child welfare department). Though I’d love to see liberal Christians refusing to pay state taxes under RFRA because they have a moral objection to the racist Mississippi police force or the Texas capital punishment system–wouldn’t the government just tie itself in knots to avoid applying the law then!

One could argue that the Mississippi and Texas RFRA privilege religious over non-religious motivations to the point that it creates an unconstitutional establishment. Modern Supreme Court case law has tended toward the view that the Establishment Clause not only forbids favoritism toward particular denominations, but also bans a general government preference for religion over secularism. However, conservative jurists like the late Justices Scalia and Rehnquist routinely pushed back against this broad interpretation. We can only pray that the court does the right thing next term. (Want citations? Sure you do. Check out Caroline Mara Corbin’s 2016 article in the First Amendment Law Review, “Justice Scalia, the Establishment Clause, and Christian Privilege”.)

Monsters and Madwomen (Just Another Day at Reiter’s Block)

We’re crazy for links this month at Reiter’s Block!

At the multi-author blog Feminism and Religion, Laura Shannon, an expert on traditional women’s ritual dances, recovers intriguing background information on two fearsome females of Greek mythology in “Medusa and Athena: Ancient Allies in Healing Women’s Trauma”. The story we know best, from the 1st century CE poet Ovid, pits them against each other. Beautiful Medusa is raped in Athena’s temple; the goddess is offended and turns her into a monster, then helps the male hero Perseus behead her.

Shannon contends that this patriarchal reinterpretation covers up an earlier tradition in which Athena, her mother Metis, and Medusa were three faces of the same goddess of wisdom and healing, “aspects of an ancient triple Goddess corresponding respectively to the new, full, and dark phases of the moon…Their many common elements include snakes, wings, a formidable appearance, fierce eyes and powerful gaze.” Male-dominated traditions emphasized Athena’s warlike qualities, but she was also a figure “of healing, of wisdom, of protection and self-defense, of craft and culture, of the olive tree–which can have great significance for all those healing from trauma.” This tantalizingly brief essay is excerpted from Shannon’s piece in the anthology Revisioning Medusa: from Monster to Divine Wisdom (Gladys Livingstone, Trista Hendren and Pat Daley, eds.), forthcoming from The Girl God, a publisher of feminist spirituality books for children and adults.

Over at the blog of sci-fi publisher Tor Books, author Theodora Goss surveys literature for “Five Monsters That Explore Gender, Sexuality, and Race”, from Victorian lesbian vampire Carmilla to Octavia Butler’s human-alien hybrid Lilith.

What is a monster, anyway? We tend to associate the monstrous with the ugly, evil, or frightening, but there’s a more sophisticated way of thinking about these creatures. In On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, Stephen T. Asma argues that monsters are examples of “categorical mismatch.” We like to organize reality into easily understandable categories: you are either male or female, human or animal, living or dead. When something or someone crosses those boundaries, it makes us uncomfortable: that’s when we label it as monstrous. That kind of labeling can be dangerous, because it can allow us to deny someone’s humanity. But the idea of the monstrous can also be powerful. If you’re a woman, it can be a subversive act to think of yourself as Medusa, with snakes for hair, turning men to stone.

Asma points out that the word “monster” comes from the Latin root “monere,” meaning to warn. In other words, monsters always have some sort of message for us.

Goss’s latest book is The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, a Victorian-era paranormal murder mystery featuring the daughters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and other female victims of mad scientists’ experiments, including my personal obsession, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s lovely and poisonous Beatrice Rappaccini. My 1,000-book wishlist just got a little longer.

With the ascension of the Orange Chucklefuck to our nation’s highest office, we can’t expect much relief from the mental illness “diagnosis” rhetoric that progressives deployed during the 2016 campaign. At Eidolon, an online journal of scholarly writing about Classics for a popular audience, Jessica Wright explains in “Crazy Talk” that calling our ideological opponents mad has a long and coercive history. Wright is a historian at the University of Southern California studying theories of the brain and mental illness in antiquity.

What is the effect of the “crazy” talk that permeates our public forums and our political discourse? We have a very long history of using words such as “crazy” and “mad” in casual polemic. The Greek orator Demosthenes used the word mania sixteen times in his extant speeches, and never to offer a “medical” diagnosis. Some two-and-a-half centuries later, Cicero employed the Latin word insania and its related verb insanire on over seventy occasions.

Authors such as these were the models of polite speech and rhetoric throughout the Roman Empire, and were enormously influential in literary culture and education in modern Europe and its imperial reach. As Caroline Winterer has shown, Greek and Latin models were fundamental to political oratory in antebellum America. Frederick Douglass, as David W. Blight has described, studied rhetoric from a book called The Columbian Orator, which included extracts (translated and imagined) from Greco-Roman oratory…

…Our penchant for casual diagnosis does not stem from political oratory alone. The discourse of crazy was fundamental to early Christian texts, especially heresiological catalogues, polemical pamphlets, and sermons, all of which were arguably more influential even than Cicero during late antiquity and the medieval period. Terms for mental disorders were commonly used to undermine one’s opponent and to situate oneself as an authority on others’ moral health…

Phrenitis was an illness popular in early Christian polemic, especially in the writings of the bishop Augustine of Hippo, who diagnosed phrenitis over forty times in his religious opponents, including pagans, Jews, and Manichaeans. In Augustine’s work, as in the writings of contemporary preachers such as John Chrysostom, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, and Peter Chrysologus — phrenitis served as a metaphor or a model for illness of the soul. That is, in early Christian terms, the failure to be saved. Phrenitis stood in for the delusion, the loss of self-control, and the threat of death that Christian authors associated with alternative religious paradigms. With salvation understood as the only form of health, rejection of salvation could not but be understood as symptomatic of disease…

…Phrenitis provided a model for a spiritual illness that presented among its symptoms the experience of spiritual strength. As such, it was integral to Augustine’s anti-Jewish polemic, since it explained why the Jewish people might believe themselves to enjoy a positive relationship with God.

The no-win logic of spiritual/political madness is an authoritarian trap. The more you protest, the more your strengths will be twisted into symptoms–cool logic as sociopathy, emotional pleas as hysteria, self-preservation as noncompliance. A modern comedy or horror film scene in an asylum would be incomplete without the stock figure of the paranoid patient desperately asserting that he’s not really crazy, his distress contrasted with the calm of the men in white coats. We’re so easily fooled into mistaking privilege for sanity.

Preachers such as Augustine commonly represented themselves as physicians of the soul —a conceit borrowed from ancient philosophy — but phrenitis enabled them to leverage a new kind of authority. To borrow an example from Plutarch, a preacher might compare sin to gout in order to persuade his congregants of the importance of spiritual care. When a preacher diagnosed sin as phrenitis, however, it meant that he thought his patient was beyond persuasion, and needed rather to be coerced. More than once, Augustine explains punitive actions against religious opponents as a form of treatment or restraint commonly applied to those suffering from mental illness.

Augustine justifies intervention in the religious and political lives of his opponents on the grounds that he is a physician of the soul, and that their religious difference is symptomatic of an organic mental disorder, an illness of the brain. This rhetorical move diminished his opponents’ authority to speak for themselves: phrenitis offered a model for therapeutic intervention in a context where the patient refused treatment. Psychiatric invective became a powerful tool for establishing the authority of one religious perspective and practice over another. Even though Augustine’s diagnosis was “merely” metaphorical, he intended it to have real-world effects.

Wright cites contemporary examples of psychiatric diagnoses being mis-applied against marginalized groups. For example, during the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement, the psychiatric establishment redefined schizophrenia to discredit and criminalize black men:

Jonathan Metzl in his book The Protest Psychosis…shows how schizophrenia transformed, during the Civil Rights era, from an illness characterized by weakness and depression and associated primarily with white patients (especially isolated housewives) to a diagnosis of aggression and paranoia, disproportionately applied to African-American men. Within the frame of Civil Rights protests, Metzl argues, violent actions (including self-defence) could be interpreted as the unpredictable outburst of the schizophrenic, while the identification of structural inequality was interpreted as paranoia, and the denial of one’s own sickness as delusion. Asylums for the “criminally insane” saw a steep rise in the population of African-American men, who were contained through sedatives in doses now considered extraordinarily high. Fifty years later, African-American men continue to be disproportionately diagnosed with the disease, which continues to be associated with violence and aggression. With the merciless irony characteristic of structures of injustice, the system of mass incarceration that has evolved over the intervening decades in fact minimizes the mental health resources available to incarcerated populations, criminalizing mental illnesses, even as it medicalizes “deviant” behaviours.

Thus, when we use “crazy talk” to oppose our resident fascist demagogue, we’re not just being politically incorrect. We’re actually reinforcing the authoritarianism that we fear.

Autistic Pride Day: Everything Is Alive

June 18 is Autistic Pride Day, a celebration pioneered in 2005 by the advocacy group Aspies for Freedom. Visit their site to join chat rooms on neurodiversity and activism. Autistic Pride Day affirms the unique strengths and talents of people on the spectrum. It aims to persuade neurotypical society that autism is a natural human variation that doesn’t need curing.

If you’re seeing an overlap with LGBTQ Pride, which we also celebrate this month, that’s no coincidence. Some of the coercive behavioral therapies still widely used to force Aspie kids to “act normal” are derived from the discredited practices of Christian ex-gay therapy. These connections are detailed by C.S. Wyatt at The Autistic Me in his 2011 post “ABA and NARTH” and CinderMcDonald’s 2014 Daily Kos column “Autism Acceptance Doesn’t Seem So Radical to Me”, among many other sources.

In my last autism-themed post, I cited a blogger who said it was an Aspie trait to empathize with objects–not, as the stereotype goes, to the exclusion of empathizing with people, but rather as a kind of emotional hyper-awareness. Now I’ve found another autistic blogger, Mel Baggs, who writes about our quasi-mystical personality type eloquently on hir Tumblr site With a Smooth Round Stone. (Mel identifies as genderless and uses sie/hir pronouns; hir other disability-themed blog is Ballastexistenz.) Discussing headcanon autistic representation in the Young Wizards book series, Mel says:

Of course the YW-universe tendency for literally everything to be alive on some level is one reason I love it so much.  That’s how I see the literal, everyday universe we live in.  And I see it that way because I’m autistic, because I’m a specific type of autistic person who tends naturally towards what some people call animism but I’m very hesitant to give a label to, especially given the ways “animism” has been used in the past.

Basically, whenever I have learned about “animism”, it’s been in the context of “this is what primitive religions do before they learn to be more advanced” and it makes me very angry.  Also I’ve never seen “animism” used in a way that really gave meaning to the way a culture saw the world around them, and I’ve seen it used to obscure meaning.  Which is why I don’t call myself an animist, even though in English it’s the closest word to some aspects of how I see the world.

Also people who tell me that thinking everything is alive is anthropomorphism, can shove their anthropomorphism up their collective asses.  Everything is alive in its own unique way that has nothing to do with human thoughts and feelings, and everything to do with each thing having its own unique way of being in the world, totally independent of humans.  This goes both for traditionally animate and traditionally inanimate things.  My recognizing the aliveness of things does not mean I think they’re similar to me.  In fact, to recognize that things are alive, you have to be able to step out of the way and stop using yourself as a mirror to measure the rest of the world by.

Yes I’m still pissed at a blogger I otherwise liked, who when I posted a post about how I saw things as alive, posted a long condescending discussion of anthropomorphism and animism and how both are primitive and childlike at best, and how that’s all I was doing, nothing special, nothing meaningful, nothing unique, nothing important.  Just things that we can pin down with tidy words and tuck them away into boxes and forget about them because we already know our viewpoint is the superior one.

I’d love to find good sociological studies of Aspies’ religious beliefs and affiliations and how they differ from the mainstream. My guess is that a lot of us cluster around the rationalist/atheist end of the distribution, with logic like this: “Nobody here actually believes that crackers turn into the body of a guy who died and came to life and was also God, and I don’t see the point of saying that I do, just to get along socially.” And another lot, in which I am included, wind up in paganism or the most mystical denominations of traditional religions, because: “Well, obviously the Real Presence of Christ is in the host, because it’s in everything!” (Hmm, was Gerard Manley Hopkins one of us? “The world is charged with the grandeur of God…”)

We’re probably under-represented in mainstream churches, where conformity to unspoken social norms of dress, body language, gender roles, and personal interests is more important than whatever doctrines we profess, and everyone pretends that the reverse is true–how maddening! There’s also the issue of churches not being accessible and welcoming to people with sensory processing disorder and neurodivergent communication styles, as this Interactive Autism Network article describes:

Melinda Jones Ault Ph.D., a professor at University of Kentucky, looked around her own place of worship and wondered where the people with disabilities were. A longtime special educator, she said, “I knew they were out there.” So she began studying the experiences of parents who have a child with a disability, including autism.

Her research team found that a third of the 416 parents surveyed had changed their place of worship due to a lack of inclusion or welcome, and 46 percent refrained from participating in an activity because their child was not included or welcomed.

John Elder Robison has written a number of books and articles about living with autism. (He’s also the brother of Augusten Burroughs, of Running With Scissors fame.) In this 2014 Psychology Today column, he ponders why modern Aspies are more likely to reject organized religion, and speculates that some of the greats of Western religious history were actually on the spectrum. On the one hand, many beliefs don’t seem logical to literal thinkers, but on the other, in a pre-scientific world, religious practices provided the order and predictability that most of us crave. That was surely a big factor in my early attraction to orthodoxy. Conservative churches promised clear, explicit, predictable behavioral norms around the confusing subject of sex and romance, as well as a socially acceptable container for the magical thinking that my secular intellectual peers disdained as childish or crazy. Robison says:

As an autistic adult, I have never been what you’d call religious, but I’ve always thought of myself as spiritual.  I never thought of my religious beliefs as being shaped by autism, but a conversation five years ago made me rethink that.  Catherine Caldwell-Harris – a psychology professor at Boston University – approached me after a talk I did at MIT.  She was doing a study of autism and its influence on religious belief, and her findings were shaping up to be very interesting.

According to her study, autistic people today are much more likely to reject organized religion in favor of their own independently constructed belief system, just as we are more likely to be agnostics or atheists.  You can read the study here:

http://csjarchive.cogsci.rpi.edu/proceedings/2011/papers/0782/paper0782.pdf

Note that the study relies heavily on autism tests and categorizations developed by Simon Baron-Cohen, which some Aspie activists and bloggers believe are sexist and underrate our capacity for empathy. See, for instance, this 2016 post on autism pseudo-science by Emma at Lemon Peel. The “high-functioning” label used in the study is also problematic, as Dani Alexis explains at Autistic Academic.

Neurodiversity implies a challenge to Christianity’s claim to universality. If we believe in the traditional all-powerful designer God, we must either see the autistic mindset as a deviation to be fixed, and go down the same abusive road as compulsory heterosexuality; or accept that God designed some people to be unreceptive to the appeal of “a personal relationship with Jesus”! Either way, you can see why churches have trouble being autism-accessible. Conservative churches pitch salvation, liberal ones pitch community, but the shared premise is that everyone is hard-wired to need their product, whether we know it or not. Whereas in fact, some folks may have the kind of brain that doesn’t pick up the signals of a personal divine presence in the world, or doesn’t need to anthropomorphize their sense of the sublime. And other folks may already be so tuned in to the immanent divine that the institutional intermediary is confining and distracting.

One-Year Anniversary of the Orlando Pulse Massacre

Today, June 12, is the one-year anniversary of the hate crime at the Orlando Pulse nightclub in Florida, when a gunman slaughtered 49 people during the LGBTQ club’s Latin Night. It was the deadliest attack on queer people in U.S. history as well as the highest body count by a single shooter.

At QSpirit, Kittredge Cherry’s site for LGBTQ art and spirituality, she profiles Tony O’Connell’s commemorative artwork “Triptych for the 49”. The gay Liverpool artist’s mixed-media piece is a shrine shaped like a traditional church altarpiece, with photos of the Orlando martyrs surrounded by haloes. Saints Sebastian and Joan of Arc flank them as protector spirits. Visit his Facebook page for pictures of the work in progress and updates on a forthcoming public exhibition.

Over at the Huffington Post, Queer Voices columnist James Michael Nichols surveys the continuing political impact of the massacre on queer and Latinx communities in his piece “For Those We Lost and Those Who Survived”. Among the issues raised by the tragedy and its aftermath are the demand for effective gun control, the need for safe spaces for queer people of color, and the lack of culturally competent mental health services for trauma victims belonging to multiple marginalized groups.

Kevin Garcia is a great educator/advocate about all things gay and Christian via his blog, podcast (A Tiny Revolution), and new YouTube channel. He shares what the incident meant for him in his video “Remembering Pulse and My First Pride Month”. Dance clubs have historically been sanctuaries for queer people, he says, far more than many churches. When he came out of the closet, he felt so much stronger and freer than when he was living a lie, until the shooting took away his sense of safety as a gay man in the world. This is what hate crimes are meant to do–to make marginalized people erase themselves. While many affirming churches did the right thing and gave people an opportunity to mourn, Kevin was angry that other megachurches and conservative religious leaders either ignored the event or co-opted it to make it about something other than an attack on queer people of color.

If you’re a Massachusetts voter, here are two things you can do for the Pulse victims to #HonorThemWithAction. First, call your legislators to ask them to support the Conversion Therapy Ban Bill (SB 62/HB 1190). According to the MassEquality newsletter:

This bill would prohibit state-licensed mental health providers from using dangerous and discredited conversion therapy techniques to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a minor. These techniques are designed to instill shame and self-hatred in LGBTQ children, and are associated with depression, anxiety, homelessness and suicidal thoughts and actions.Suicide already takes a terrible toll on our community—LGBTQ youth attempt suicide at 4 times the rate of their non-LGBTQ peers. Passing this bill will reduce the incidence of suicide among our vulnerable young people and prevent them from being subjected to this harmful treatment.

Second, get updates from Freedom Massachusetts about the 2018 ballot question that could repeal our protections for transgender and gender-nonconforming people in places of public accommodation. I’m going to sign up for voter phone-banking.

Nationwide, see the 49 Days of Action page for more suggestions about how you can fight for queer rights.

Wonder Woman as Holy Spirit

The new Wonder Woman movie starring Israeli actress Gal Gadot made a powerful impression on me. It was inspiring to view it with a posse of female friends and family, including my mom-of-choice and some of her lesbian activist crew. Readers of this blog know I struggle with mixed feelings about my gender(s). But I turned to my best girlfriend and said, “This movie makes me proud to be partially female!”

As portrayed in this film, Wonder Woman has a goddess energy that is pure and empathetic, never engulfing or saccharine. She and the other Amazons are gorgeous, but not gratuitously sexualized by the camera–probably thanks to having a female director, Patty Jenkins. The emphasis is on their bodies’ athleticism and dedication to their divine mission of protecting Paradise Island from the God of War.

Pop culture and fashion bloggers Tom and Lorenzo wrote in their glowing review: “a new template for the female hero emerges; one that doesn’t rely on the male gaze or a fetishized ‘badassedness’ that obscures an inner life…Diana ‘grows up’ in this story without being shamed or pummeled into submission. She changes her perspective but is not fundamentally changed by her experiences. She is not, in other words, ‘taught a lesson.'”

The freedom from objectification extends to the minor characters, up to a point. American pilot Steve Trevor’s plus-sized assistant, Etta Candy (alas, the fat-shaming name is canon), is a feisty and stylish suffragette. All the characters treat her with respect. The film doesn’t fall into the trap of using Etta as a comic foil for Diana’s more conventional attractiveness. The poisoner Dr. Maru is apparently also canon as a mask-wearing and mannishly dressed woman. I was upset that her current iteration is disfigured, because the trope of the deformed villain is an ableist cliché, and her insecurity about rejection by men made her seem pathetic in a sexist way. It felt like a holdover from the James Bond era where butchness, foreignness, and sadism are coded together. Perhaps she needs to read the Amazons’ 12-volume manual on pleasure, which concludes that men are necessary for reproduction but nothing else!

What most affected me was the film’s sophisticated theology, which is psychologically integrated where most superhero movies are dualistic. Fantasy/action stories generally locate evil in an individual, an ultimate Big Boss who has to be killed (or neutralized, to leave room for a sequel). Wonder Woman starts out believing this as well, but learns that evil is both systemic and inherent. As Solzhenitsyn wrote, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” The gods are dead. It’s all up to humanity to choose love over war.

This realization nearly breaks Wonder Woman’s heart. The people she’s trying to save are not innocent victims of an external force. We’re partly to blame for our own destruction. Not to give away too many spoilers, but there is a temptation scene where the villain makes a persuasive case to let humanity wipe itself out. A good character, who later sacrifices themself in a Christ-like way, teaches Wonder Woman that you don’t save people because they deserve it all the time, but because it’s what you believe in. So she stays in the world, like the Holy Spirit after Jesus departs, to keep turning our hearts to the good.

In keeping with this merciful ethic, Diana refuses to yield to war’s logic that the end justifies the means. By their choice of focus, action movies and thrillers set up an implicit value judgment that not all lives matter: we follow every twist and turn of the main characters’ fight for survival, while multitudes of anonymous background characters are blown up and mowed down. Wonder Woman never loses sight of her long-term goal of ending World War I by destroying Ares, but she won’t rush past the wounded people who need her help right this minute. In a world where even the gods have limited powers, the triage problem is another explanation of why suffering and violence are still with us.

“Wonder Woman” boldly contemplates the death of God as a possible theodicy. All that remains is immanent divinity, not omnipotent, requiring our cooperation.

June Links Roundup: Reclaiming Ugliness

I identify most with the Feminine when She is monstrous.

Forget those flirtatious princesses with little-girl bodies. Give me fat octopus drag queen Ursula the Sea Witch, rape survivor Medusa, skull-stomping goddess Kali with her ecstatic thirsty tongue and dozen limbs. I like romantic walks along the beach at sunset while Cthulhu rises from the ocean. (Preferably in the winter.) When people criticize Barbie for having an unrealistic female form, I laugh; you better believe it, she’s a seven-foot-tall babe who could put your eye out with her perfectly pointed foot.

Now, I do have many parts, with different ages and genders, so there is one who loves rosebuds and sparkly necklaces and kittens. But she is six years old, and this is not the kind of world where she can walk around outside alone.

I have a new mantra for living in a society that indoctrinates us with shame and judgment. Adapt as needed to your circumstances. Each day I look in the mirror and say, with as much glee as I can muster:

I’m fat, I’m queer, and I’m crazy!

Embracing queerness–that is, dropping the effort to be “female”–has opened up all sorts of interesting investigations about habitual patterns of movement in my body, as well as the interpretive filters I unconsciously put over the image in the mirror. It’s almost cliché by now to point out that fat-phobia connects with the sexist backlash against women taking up space. Yet so many otherwise liberal women keep fat-shaming themselves and others, because our gender markers have inequality built in. When we see a big person with expansive, relaxed body movements, we struggle to recognize her as feminine, and therefore attractive. But now that I have been trying to walk more “like a man”–longer, confident steps, with feet and knees turning out slightly to the sides–I’ve found that the foot balance problems identified by my Feldenkrais bodywork teacher have eased up. And I haven’t even worn high heels since the early 2000s!

“Crazy” means that I have PTSD, sensory processing disorder and some other Aspie traits, and an imaginative world that is more vivid and important to me than a lot of meatspace relationships. Feminists have reclaimed madness, like fatness, as feminine excess disapproved by society: a “hysterical” intensity of feelings. Mine is not so chaotic. For me, it’s about not fitting in, seeing what others don’t see, openly taking time for emotional self-care, and not hiding the fact that my priorities are unusual. My shame around craziness is the fear that I will be so absorbed in my inner experiences that I’ll lose social self-consciousness and do something conspicuously embarrassing. This takes us back to femininity and its concomitant demand for 24-7 awareness that you are being looked at, so you’d better be easy on the eyes.

Role Monsters, Jess Zimmerman’s new series at the online lit mag Catapult, says to hell with that. “Being a monster is harder than being a hero,” she writes pointedly in the first installment, about harpies as a symbol of men’s fear of female ambition. But it’s the second essay, “What If We Cultivated Our Ugliness? or: The Monstrous Beauty of Medusa”, that made me cry and cheer.

Before I shaved my head…I had never thumbed my nose quite so drastically at beauty. Fat women often rely on other markers of femininity to edge us into the visible spectrum: flowing hair, smooth skin, expansive cleavage. I’d been weird-looking and tough in my early twenties, but at some point I’d drifted into trying to please people with my presentation, to fit in, to hover around staring at the mark even though I’d never hit it. Hacking into my hair felt as transgressive as carelessly sporting a bad complexion, which I also had at the time. I was wrecking my tenuous connection to beauty, crumpling it up and throwing it away.

I looked great with my haircut, but “great” in the sense of “a vast and incalculable thing.” I definitely didn’t look pretty; I looked further than ever from “pretty,” more than ever like a weird hulking creature instead of a girl. But the haircut also made everything else that was wrong about me—my fat, my heavy bones, my combat boots—fall into place and finally make sense. I wasn’t missing the mark after all; the mark was irrelevant for me. I could make a new mark.

When she was younger, Zimmerman says, she went by the Internet username Medusa, a creature so ugly you literally couldn’t look at her. Now she appreciates the power in the symbol that once represented her low self-esteem.

I didn’t know there was a difference between “not beautiful” and “ugly.” I thought that my failure to meet basic standards of femininity and prettiness meant I was repulsive.
But ugliness is something greater and stronger and stranger than mere non-beauty. It’s not an absence, but a new force, unpredictable and unrestrained. Beauty has rules and symmetry; ugliness does not. Helen of Troy’s face might have launched a thousand ships, but one look from Medusa could have sent them all to the bottom, weighted down with a crew of stones.

According to the Greek myth, Medusa was actually once so beautiful that the sea-god Poseidon desired her. He raped her in Athena’s temple, and the goddess punished the mortal victim–not the god, naturally!– for this sacrilege by turning her into a monster. Zimmerman muses:

Medusa lost her beauty—or rather, it was taken from her. Beauty is always something you can lose. Women’s beauty is seen as something separate from us, something we owe but never own: We are its stewards, not its beneficiaries. We tend it like a garden where we do not live.

Oh, but ugliness—ugliness is always yours. Almost everyone has some innate kernel of grotesquerie; even fashion models (I’ve heard) tend to look a bit strange and froggish in person, having been gifted with naturally level faces that pool light luminously instead of breaking it into shards. And everyone has the ability to mine their ugliness, to emphasize and magnify it, to distort even those parts of themselves that fall within acceptable bounds.

Where beauty is narrow and constrained, ugliness is an entire galaxy, a myriad of sparkling paths that lurch crazily away from the ideal. There are so few ways to look perfect, but there are thousands of ways to look monstrous, surprising, upsetting, outlandish, or odd. Thousands of stories to tell in dozens of languages: the languages of strong features or weak chins, the languages of garish makeup and weird haircuts and startling clothes, fat and bony and hairy languages, the languages of any kind of beauty that’s not white. Nose languages, eyebrow languages, piercing and tattoo languages, languages of blemish and birthmark and scar. When you give up trying to declare yourself acceptable, there are so many new things to say.

For another variation on the feminist theme of “Don’t play a rigged game”, consider this creative midrash on one of the Hebrew Bible’s disturbing tales of parental abuse and violence against women. Fred Clark is a progressive Christian ex-evangelical who blogs as Slacktivist. In this 2012 post, “Regarding Jephthah’s Daughter”, he considers different ways commentators have tried to make this story more palatable. In Judges 11, the Hebrew commander Jepthah vows that if God grants him victory over the Ammonites, he will sacrifice as a burnt-offering whoever first comes out of his house to meet him. Like the father in “Beauty and the Beast”, Jephthah was probably expecting that it would be an animal, not his own daughter. So he had to kill her.

Or did he? Clark contrasts the way the evangelical church taught the story, which assumed that the vow was binding, and the commentaries in the Jewish Encyclopedia, where the rabbis were pretty clear that Yahweh is not a Beast. According to Jewish tradition, Jephthah’s pride, his embarrassment at having made a rash and invalid vow, or (at best) his ignorance kept him from doing the right thing and asking the temple priest to annul his promise. It should have been obvious that God would not respect, let alone enforce, a vow to commit murder. Clark writes:

I don’t recall ever hearing a Sunday sermon on the story of Jephthah, but I probably heard a half-dozen Sunday school or Bible class lessons, and all of them pointed to this as the moral of this immoral story: Don’t make rash vows, because you will be bound by them just like Jephthah was.

And that’s monstrous — almost as horrifying as the original story. Those well-meaning Sunday school teachers all assumed, as Jephthah did, that he was absolutely bound by his vow, no matter what. And thus they all repeated Jephthah’s error — assuming that such vows and rules might somehow matter more than the life of Jephthah’s daughter.

That seems to me to be precisely the opposite of what this brutal little story actually illustrates. It shows us the lethal ignorance and sinful pride of remaining “inflexible.” The story of Jephthah is the story of everyone who decides that vows and codes and rules must be absolute. That way of thinking always ends in death.

While we’re on the subject of critiquing conservative Christianity, ex-evangelical writer Chris Stroop’s blog Not Your Mission Field features incisive articles and interviews about spiritual abuse, right-wing politics, and how they overlap. In a post from May 3, he warns us progressives about the no-true-Scotsman fallacy: “About Those Trump Voters for God? Stop Calling Them ‘Fake Christians'”. Both liberals and anti-Trump religious conservatives have been arguing that the president’s evangelical supporters are Christian in name only. While it’s understandable that believers don’t want to give Tan Dumplord power to define their faith, Stroop says that the battle to define “true” Christianity according to our political or theological preferences is unwinnable:

A modest proposition: while defining Trumpist Christians as “fake Christians” might feel good to the people who understand Trump support as a violation of their Christian values, this categorization is inaccurate from any empirical perspective. In other words, what represents “true” or “pure” Christianity (or Islam or Judaism, etc.) can only be debated within the discourse of the religion in question, that discourse being inevitably multivalent, tension-ridden, and subject to reinterpretation and internal contestation. Arguing over interpretation is part and parcel of text-based monotheisms. Put more simply, theologians and believers get to debate what the “pure” form of a given religion is; no one else does. However, there are no universally accepted grounds they can appeal to on which their contradictory metaphysical claims can be adjudicated, which means that, empirically, there is no such thing as a singular, timeless “pure” form of any religion.

Untenable, too, is the very American, but not especially Biblical, drive to separate pure religious motivations from self-serving political ones.

…[G]iven that these conservative Christians understand their drive to take dominion as a theological imperative, why should we understand their religious worldview and goals as only “ideology,” at the expense of “real” religion?… [For many commentators] the evident answer is that “ideology” is religion they don’t like, and “religion” is religion they do. This is intellectually sloppy…

The temptation to believe these things is powerful. Many of us want religion to be inherently good, and it can make for feel-good politics to reject fundamentalism as “fake” religion. But it is not. Religion is not anymore inherently good than it is inherently bad.

As a survivor of oppressive Christianity, I feel erased by claims that the Christianity I grew up with was not “real.” Let me tell you, I experienced myself as intensely religious well into my 20s, and I do not appreciate it when the Balmers and Goldbergs of the world tell me I was not “really religious” after all. Also as a result of my religious PTSD, I am naturally inclined to the position that organized religion, on the upshot, does more harm than good. I admit this may be my confirmation bias, and this claim would be very difficult if not impossible to demonstrate for the whole course of human history (although it is worth noting that the Abrahamic faiths have served as powerful vehicles for the propagation of patriarchy). The more salient point to my argument here is that harmful practices carried out in a religious context, as religious imperatives, do not stop being “really religious” just because they are harmful. This belief is nothing but wishful thinking and/or political expediency, even if many intelligent people cling to it, having failed to check their own confirmation bias on this point.

Moreover, whether we agree with it or not, Trump-ism is rooted in a worldview that many devout and religiously well-educated Christians have found support for in the Bible. It’s not the only worldview you can get out of Scripture, but it’s firmly rooted there.

The latest Pew data have revealed that it is precisely the most frequently churchgoing white Evangelicals who are currently most supportive of #SoCalledPresident, so you can give up what was literally a #FakeNews narrative concocted by a mainstream media that simply refuses to face the extent of white Evangelical illiberalism. The Evangelicals who voted for Trump are the kind who in many cases send their children to Christian schools or homeschool them, who memorize Bible verses, and who practice daily “quiet time,” that is, a period they spend praying and reading a devotional gloss on scripture or the Bible itself. We must face facts: this group is a Christian community.

When these Christians read the Bible, what do they get out of it? For starters, they appeal to the narrative of the fall and the doctrine of original sin to support an extremely dark view of human nature, the kind of paranoid view that imagines any number of “inherently lustful” men might put on dresses and claim to be transgender in order to spy on women in bathrooms, even though there is zero evidence that this ever occurs (while the medical community’s consensus on the validity of transgenderism is unequivocal). This extremely dark view of human nature leads to a sense that fallible human beings must be subjected to strict discipline or moral and social chaos will result, which in turn serves as “justification” for these Christians’ willingness to use coercive law in order to enforce on all moral norms that are not shared by all and that have no secular justification…This reading of the Bible leads to a sense that only Christians can be expected to behave morally at all, and comes with a concomitant rejection of pluralism (on which see this Twitter thread)…

…These conservative Christians, with their dark view of human nature, also find in scripture typologies through which to understand the world in terms of Providence and apocalyptic prophecy. This leads to what I call a “politics of Providentialism,” which entails reading the will of God into history and current events. Often it involves “recognizing” divine “blessings” and “punishments,” which believers of this sort insist can be applied not only to individuals, but also collectively to nations. One of the walls in my Christian elementary school was emblazoned with the phrase, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD,” the first part of Psalm 33:12.

While the psalmist was referring to the covenant between God and ancient Israel, many contemporary American Christians believe the same type of relationship to exist between God and the United States of America. Thus they argue that if the U.S. “sins” by, say, removing officially sanctioned prayer from public schools, legalizing abortion, and/or legalizing same-sex marriage or passing transgender non-discrimination protections, God may punish the nation with some sort of catastrophe, or at least allow catastrophe to befall the nation by removing the “hedge of protection” with which God supposedly surrounds us when our nation is “obedient” to him (this version of God is always a him).

“But,” you will object, “How can such people claim to follow Christ and at the same time seek to deprive fellow Americans of healthcare and social support?”Many such conservative Christians would argue this is not what they are doing. Believing, as they do, in the inherent and indeed extreme corruption of human nature, and having a deep suspicion that such corruption will be expressed in a high degree in the secular state, which we can make into an idol if we’re not careful, they will argue that individual Christians and churches, and not the government, should provide for the needy. (Yes, this is utopian.)  Some go further, either taking the road of the prosperity Gospel, in which health and material success are signs of God’s favor, or arguing, through an extreme interpretation of the Calvinist concepts of “total depravity” and “limited atonement,” that Christians are only to take care of other Christians. I don’t find any of this to be in the spirit of the Gospel as I read it, but nevertheless it is “real” Christianity.

As I’ve shared in recent months on this blog (e.g. here and here), continuing to call myself “Christian” would drag me back into the rigged game of trying to please or convince others about my identity. Perhaps orthodoxy goes so well with patriarchy because they both fear the internally self-referenced person, as explained in this Psychology Today article by relationship counselors Linda and Charlie Bloom:

They listen and take influence, but they know who they are, what they want, and are guided in their choices by that clarity. While they are respectful of conventional wisdom, and open to personal input provided by their partner, friends and colleagues, ultimately they tend to make their life choices on the basis of their own experience and judgments, rather than defer to the opinions of others. This trust in the validity of one’s instincts or intuitive knowledge is distinct from the notion of “shooting from the hip” or just “going with your gut feeling.” It is the closeness of the partnership that has promoted such self-trust, and that self-trust enhances the partnership.

Self-trust is less not simply “doing what I want to do” but rather is a matter of accumulating the wisdom that is cultivated through the practices of self-awareness, self reflection, and the intention to learn from the results of our life choices. It also doesn’t mean rejecting all outside opinions. Self-trust combines the openness and receptivity of a child’s mind with the understanding of an adult whose wisdom has been deepened through a lifetime of learning and the integration of life’s lessons.

A life that is self-referential is one that is flexible, fluid, and creative. Our sense of security comes from a sense of trust in our capacity to deepen it rather than rely exclusively upon the input of other people and institutions. Self-referentiality allows us to choose from a broader range of options in making our life choices without having to adhere to a particular tradition authority, or belief system. In so doing we are able to meet our needs and address our unique concerns with resourcefulness and creativity.

A system that wants to cut people off from their inner power, and replace it with social control, will start by making them ashamed of their needs for nourishment, pleasure, and authenticity, after which it becomes easier to convince them that God also doesn’t value them unconditionally. I’m much happier being fat, queer, and crazy. And I might be able to turn you to stone.

May Links Roundup: Faith in Atypical Minds

If there’s a unifying theme to this month’s links, it might be “Put yourself in a different frame of mind.”

How does Christianity sound to a person on the autism spectrum? Reading Aspie Twitter has made me realize that I have some spectrum-y traits, particularly in the area of sensory processing disorders, as well as a tendency to take people’s explicit statements and ideas at face value and downplay social-emotional cues that contradict what they’re saying. My literal-mindedness was only enhanced by being subjected to manipulation and gaslighting in my childhood. Nowadays, perhaps I could figure out your unspoken subtext, but I often choose not to, in order to deter passive-aggressiveness and hypocrisy, and avoid spinning out into the old hypervigilant anxiety of waiting for the “gotcha!” from my personality-switching parent. I try to force people to rise to the level of my candor, with varying degrees of success.

When it comes to religion, my Aspie-ness probably makes me less comfortable than the average churchgoer with contradictions between official doctrine and lived experience. Whereas a neurotypical person might bracket theological objections in order to enjoy the interpersonal and aesthetic aspects of church, and understand that this is actually the point of church, I become twitchy at any hints that we either don’t believe or don’t care what we’re saying in the liturgy. I wonder if people on the spectrum are less likely to be affiliated with organized religion, and if this is why.

The progressive Christian blogger “perfectnumber628”, an American woman working in China, also observes that self-advocacy for non-neurotypical needs can be wrongly suppressed by the Christian culture of self-effacement. In her March post “Honest Lent: ‘Seek First God’s Kingdom’ Doesn’t Work If You Have Autism”, she notes, for example, that when certain sensory stimuli are more overpowering for you than the average person, you can’t just take care of everyone else first and wait around for well-meaning people to reciprocate, because they won’t even know that you need help unless you explain it.

I used to act uncertain when I tried to communicate about the loud-sounds problem. I didn’t have the language I needed back then- I didn’t know it was about needs and pain; I thought it was me being weak and unreasonable and selfishly asking for special treatment. I used to ask instead of tell. My tone of voice showed that I believed it was an unreasonable request, and so people didn’t take it seriously- or they made suggestions based on their total ignorance of the problem, and I treated those suggestions as more important than my “silly” sensory issues (which, I thought, are my own fault because I could choose to go to therapy and become “normal”). I used to end those conversations with “I don’t know if I’ll be okay with that or not, but … okay.”

But now I’ve learned to say it this way: “Loud sounds are extremely painful for me, so if there are balloons at the party, I will not be able to go.” Like it’s just a fact of the universe, just a simple cause-and-effect, and I’m not going to entertain any suggestions about how I should “get over it” and “it’s not that bad.” I’m very much “leaning on my own understanding” here- nobody told me “it’s perfectly reasonable for you to avoid things that make loud sounds, because they cause pain to you in a way that’s completely different from what most people are experiencing.” I figured that out on my own, and it’s not like I can ask other people to confirm it- they don’t know what I’m feeling, and I don’t know what they’re feeling. I’ve decided I don’t need anyone’s permission to advocate for myself. If I say this is what I need, then I have the right to tell people and expect to be taken seriously.

I used to “seek first God’s kingdom,” but God did not take care of my other needs. The only way to make sure those unique needs are met is if I stand up for myself, if I communicate to other people that this is a real thing that needs to be taken seriously. Any hesitation, any “humility”, any “putting others first” on my part, when coupled with the fact that other people can’t relate to what I’m feeling, gets interpreted as an indication that what I’m asking for isn’t a real need that other people should care about.

Written from an autistic perspective, but useful for everyone, Real Social Skills is an insightful blog about social rules, boundaries, power dynamics, and resisting abuse and ableism. This article from February, “On trauma aftermaths that don’t advance the plot”, is a must-read for fiction and drama writers who are creating characters with PTSD, as well as people seeking to support us in real life. Life with trauma is less about dramatic revelatory moments, and more about mundane but essential accommodations for chronic fatigue and distraction. What if “I’m triggered” was as straightforward as “I’m allergic to peanuts”? Just let us be honest about our self-care without probing for the story behind it.

It can be exhausting when people see you as a story and expect you to advance the plot whenever they notice some effect of trauma. Pressure to perform narratives about healing doesn’t often help people to make their lives better. Effect support involves respecting someone as a complex human, including the boring parts.

The aftermath of trauma is a day-to-day reality. It affects a lot of things, large and small. It can be things like being too tired to focus well in class because nightmares kept waking you up every night this week. TV wants that to be a dramatic moment where the character faces their past and gets better. In real life, it’s often a day where you just do your best to try and learn algebra anyway. Because survivors do things besides be traumatized and think about trauma. Sometimes it’s not a story. Sometimes it’s just getting through another day as well as possible.

A lot of triggers are things like being unable to concentrate on anything interesting because some kinds of background noises make you feel too unsafe to pay attention to anything else. For the zillionth time.  Even though you know rationally that they’re not dangerous. Even though you know where they come from, and have processed it over and over. Even if you’ve made a lot of progress in dealing with them, even if they’re no longer bothersome all the time. For most people, recovery involves a lot more than insight. The backstory might be interesting, but being tired and unable to concentrate is boring.

Triggers can also mean having to leave an event and walk home by yourself while other people are having fun, because it turns out that it hurts too much to be around pies and cakes. Or having trouble finding anything interesting to read that isn’t intolerably triggering. Or having trouble interacting with new people because you’re too scared or there are too many minefields. Or being so hypervigilant that it’s hard to focus on anything. No matter how interesting the backstory is, feeling disconnected and missing out on things you wanted to enjoy is usually boring.

When others want to see your trauma as a story, their expectations sometimes expand to fill all available space. Sometimes they seem to want everything to be therapy, or want everything to be about trauma and recovery.

When others want every reference to trauma to be the opening to a transformative experience, it can be really hard to talk about accommodations.

Another problematic use of trauma as character backstory is the trope that unresolved anger from abuse turns people evil. Meant to humanize a villain character, this trope can easily have the reverse effect of making survivors seem antisocial and dangerous. Abigail Nussbaum’s sci-fi review blog Asking the Wrong Questions delves into this problem in her 2011 analysis of the X-Men movies. Our sympathies are supposed to lie with Professor Charles Xavier, the assimilationist mentor of the super-powered mutant X-Men, while Erik a/k/a Magneto, a Holocaust survivor, doesn’t believe in the possibility of peaceful coexistence between humanity and his kind, and is therefore positioned as the villain. But what if Xavier’s virtue is simply privilege?

…what troubles me about the film is that it feels like yet another expression of an attitude that I’ve been noticing more and more often in Western, and particularly American, popular culture as it struggles with the topic of genocide and national trauma–a crucial failure of empathy, imagination, and, finally, perspective, that leads to a blanket condemnation of anger.  I saw this in Battlestar Galactica when human characters who refused to make peace with the Cylons–the people who had destroyed their civilization–were made into villains.  I noticed it a few weeks ago when I watched an old Star Trek: Voyager episode, “Jetrel,” in which Neelix is urged, and eventually agrees, to forgive the person who designed the weapon that depopulated Neelix’s home colony and killed his entire family.   And I see it in the increasing prevalence of vengeful victim characters, who are condemned not for the choices they make in pursuit of revenge, but simply for feeling anger.  There is in stories like this a small-mindedness that prioritizes the almighty psychiatric holy grail of “healing”–letting go of one’s anger for the sake of inner peace–over justified, even necessary moral outrage.  First Class condemns Erik not for targeting innocents and embracing the same prejudiced mentality as his Nazi tormentors, but for wanting to kill Shaw.  It places two choices before him: either he takes the life of the person who killed his family and tortured him, in which case he’s a villain, or he relinquishes not only his quest for revenge but the anger driving it (the alternative of putting Shaw on trial for crimes against humanity is never suggested).  As if to add insult to injury, the latter option is presented by Charles–a rich, privileged gentile who has not only never experienced a day of hardship in his life but who, as Mystique points out, has no problem passing for human–with a glibness that belies the film’s claim that he has seen Erik’s memories and fully comprehends his pain.

The key scene of X-Men: First Class has been repeated in all its trailers: Charles tells Erik that killing will not bring him peace; Erik replies that peace was never his goal.  This is the moment that’s meant to define them as hero and villain–Charles, the man of peace; Erik, who embraces killing.  To my mind it’s actually the moment that sums up the film’s moral bankruptcy.  Charles is the hero because he thinks peace of mind is more important than punishing a mass murderer.  Erik is the villain because he can’t stop being angry at the person who murdered his mother in front of him.  Scratch just a little bit beneath that surface and you’ll find the ugly truth that underpins most of Hollywood’s attempts to grapple with the Holocaust and atrocities like it.  Erik is a villain not because of what he does with his anger, but because bad things happened to him.  Charles is the hero because he’s lucky enough not to have been victimized.  The fact is, Hollywood–pop culture in general, actually–doesn’t like victims.  It’s willing to feel sorry for them, but it won’t quite accept them as heroes.  We want our heroes to be strong, inviolate.  Victims–those who haven’t passed through fire unscathed, or somehow worked their way back to the exact same person they were before their ordeal–are suspect, damaged goods, defiled.  We’d rather believe that there’s something wrong with them for how they react to their experiences than to accept that we too might react the same way.  So we consign them to villainy, and embrace as heroes those who are simply fortunate.  There was space in X-Men: First Class to buck against this trend, but instead it reinforces it.  It bills itself as the story of how Charles and Erik became a hero and a villain, but the answer that it ultimately reveals is: because that’s how they were written.

Explanations are tricky things. I’ve always been odd: I have heightened perceptions, skills, and understanding in some areas, coupled with difficulties with some ordinary-life functioning. I think my origin story for these superpowers and handicaps has moved in a more and more socially acceptable direction, from “I’m smarter than everyone” to “I have the true religion” to “I’m a trauma survivor” to “I’m kind of Aspie”. But any of these narratives are only useful to the extent that they help me love myself and build positive relationships with others. Used defensively, to explain to an unkind interlocutor why I can’t drive on highways/hate the beach/can read 100 words a minute/know way too much medieval English history/made up my own religion, self-labeling can expose one’s core self to an even more painful attack than the original criticism of the behavior. So be careful about using your identity group as a human shield. I guess my most important “real social skill” is holding to the principle that we should embrace each other’s diversity, whether or not we understand it.

The Gospel According to Alice Miller: The Truth Will Set You Free

Alice Miller (1923-2010) was a groundbreaking psychoanalyst and author of many books on childhood trauma as the root of personal and societal problems. Some of her work crosses over into theology, as she critiques how certain religious texts reflect and perpetuate toxic family dynamics through the generations. Concepts of original sin, forbidden knowledge, and child sacrifice take on new interpretations when we decide to stand on the side of the child, against parental violence. This hermeneutic has led me to part ways with Biblical Christianity as I once understood it. It was a surprise and consolation to find that Miller rescues the person of Jesus from this deconstruction, giving me a way to keep relating to him without going back into denial.

Miller’s The Truth Will Set You Free (Basic Books, 2001) is a popularization of her theories for a general audience, focusing on the case against corporal punishment of children, rather than the taboo topic of sexual abuse in the family. Even the title is a quote from Jesus (John 8:32), though this may be the choice of the English translator. (The original German title was Evas Erwachen, which I think means “Eve Awaken” and refers to Eve eating the forbidden fruit.) This passage from the last chapter describes a Jesus I can believe in:

The figure of Jesus confounds all those principles of poisonous pedagogy still upheld by the christian churches, notably the use of punishment to make children obedient and the emotional blindness such treatment inevitably brings. Long before his birth Jesus received the greatest reverence, love, and protection from his parents, and it was in this initial and all-important experience that his rich emotional life, his thinking, and his ethics were rooted. His earthly parents saw themselves as his servants, and it would never have occurred to them to lay a finger on him. Did that make him selfish, arrogant, covetous, high-handed, or conceited? Quite the contrary.

Jesus grew into a strong, aware, empathic, and wise person able to experience and sustain strong emotions without being engulfed by them. He could see through insincerity and mendacity and he had the courage to expose them for what they were. Yet to my knowledge no representative of the church has ever admitted the patent connection between the character of Jesus and the way he was brought up. Would it not make eminent sense to encourage believers to follow the example of Mary and Joseph and regard their children as the children of God (which in a sense they are) rather than treating them as their own personal property? The image of God entertained by children who have received love is a mirror of their very first experiences. Their God will understand, encourage, explain, pass on knowledge, and be tolerant of mistakes. He will never punish them for their curiosity, suffocate their creativity, seduce them, give them incomprehensible commands, or strike fear into their hearts. Jesus, who in Joseph had just such a father, preached precisely those virtues. (pgs.190-91)

Working Title/Artist: The Holy Family with Saints Anne and Catherine of AlexandriaDepartment: European PaintingsCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 09Working Date: 1648
Digital Photo File Name: DT16.tif
Online Publications Edited By Steven Paneccasio for TOAH 1/2/2014

Holy Family of Choice! (source)

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April Links Roundup: Christian Hookups

When I was navigating single life as a college and graduate student in the 1990s, a lot of the ideas that would have made sense of my desires and boundaries were not yet part of mainstream discussion. Today I’d probably identify as a demisexual, i.e. a person who only feels sexual attraction to someone when there’s an emotional bond. Back then, I only had a choice between Christian conservative modesty rules or a “sex-positive” feminism that shaded into peer pressure to prove my maturity through sexual availability. The latter was epitomized by the campus therapist I sought out for help coping with my mother’s mental breakdown; she offered her unsolicited opinion that I had a fear of intimacy because I mentioned that I planned to save sex for marriage.

It’s popular to write thinkpieces scoffing at the proliferation of labels for gender and sexuality, but in my experience, having a theoretical framework for your intimate inclinations does two important things. First, it reassures you that being out of step with your immediate social environment is a normal human variation, not a personal failure to grow up, loosen up, or man up. Widening the lens beyond the people who happen to be in your hometown or classroom reveals that there is no single right way to be in your body. You might even find like-minded friends or partners who use that label as shorthand for your shared values.

Second, identity labels give you a way to be clear about your limits without judging other people. Especially for those of us who are read as female, a simple “No, I don’t feel like having sex with you” is often taken by the other person as either a hurtful personal rejection or as an opening to negotiate, not a real boundary. Religious chastity rules served the same purpose, but required me to assert that everyone else was doing sex wrong. Celibate, opinionated, unconsciously queer…I would have made a great pope.

For me, demisexuality means that I can enjoy sexual fantasies about fictional characters or the hotties in the Jockey underwear catalog, but can’t picture myself getting physically close to a real-life guy unless I trust him and feel seen and cared for by him. The prospect of an unloving hookup gave me a dis-integrated feeling, a stifling sense of being consumed and erased. My body can’t relax if the emotions aren’t genuine; contrary to popular ideas of romance, illusion is a real buzzkill for me.

I appreciated this March 2017 article by Katie Klabusich at The Establishment, an intersectional social justice blog: “The Unspoken Problem With College Hookup Culture”. In her review of Lisa Wade’s social science study American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, Klabusich finds a way to critique the callousness and emptiness that have become the norm in this subculture, without slut-shaming. The problem is not the number of sexual partners but the lack of a compassionate and responsible ethic about how to treat one another, whether in short- or long-term relationships.

Wade zeroed in on why dudes freak out and why women are so hard on themselves when they feel a thing — basically, students think that emotionless sex is the desired norm…

But can sex — even casual sex — actually be devoid of meaning? And more importantly, should it be?…

…I have realized over time that I wasn’t defective for wanting even casual sexual encounters to have meaning — even if that meaning was “just” fun, release, and temporary connection.

“Clingy, desperate, and needy are extremely effective insults, invoking all the things that students don’t want to be: weak, insecure, unable to control one’s emotions, and powerless to separate sex from feelings. For men, it’s the antithesis of masculinity. For women, it’s a failure to be liberated, modern, strong, and independent…Students aim, then, for aloofness.”

And this aloofness, Wade says, can engender a vicious cycle. “The idea is not just to not care, it’s to care less. Lack of interest is a moving target and the direction is down,” writes Wade. “So, after a hookup, students monitor each other’s level of friendliness and try to come in below the other person. Each time one person takes a step back emotionally, the other takes two. They can end up backed into their respective corners, avoiding eye contact, and pretending the other doesn’t exist.” Wade cites an NYU alum who calls it “the blase Olympics.”

The problem is that this blase attitude can make it difficult to ultimately establish emotional intimacy. “The skills needed for managing hookup culture…are in direct contradiction to the skills needed to propose, build, and sustain committed relationships,” writes Wade.

Gay Christian activist Kevin Garcia explores the same theme in his interview “Let’s Talk About SEX(ual Ethics) w/ Rev. Jonathan Vanderbeck”, an episode of Garcia’s podcast series A Tiny Revolution. From the introduction:

Sexual ethics (one’s personal practice around about the proper expression of sexual intimacy) is a topic of conversation that happens rarely in church because it’s assumed everyone is waiting till marriage. But, if we’re being honest, this is hardly the case. And have we stopped to ask why we believe this way? Or have we even explored what scripture says about this?

In the hour-long episode, they suggest that “covenant” and “one-flesh” language about sexuality in the Bible could be a foundation for kinder and more respectful hookups. All the people you have sex with become a part of you and vice versa, whether you end up in a long-term relationship or never see each other again. Christian sexual ethics should guide people to bring a loving consciousness to all encounters, rather than shaming people for having diverse sexual lifestyles. The current ideal of monogamy leads to hypocrisy and unkindness as gay Christians and former Christians act out their inner conflict on their partners. Listen to the interview and follow Kevin and Jonathan on Twitter.

Given how long it’s taken mainline churches to approve same-sex marriage rites, I don’t expect a liturgy for sacred one-night stands anytime soon. But why shouldn’t there be? Religious ritual and romantic courtship have traditionally provided transition markers between ordinary life and the liminal, powerful, transformative space where intimacy happens. My marriage-first ethic developed from the dearth of such intentional practices to honor short-term affairs. However, older people who’ve done more spiritual and psychological inner work could create such practices for themselves, as Damien Bohler describes in his 2015 post “Sacred Casual Sex” at the spirituality and mindfulness website Elephant Journal.

I am looking for something very specific in a partner that goes beyond attraction and requires a compatibility of life-path. And yet when I meet beautiful individuals who awaken this fascination within me my body, my heart, my mind, my soul wants to know them even if it is for a short while.

In our conventional models of relating the way to do this is through one night stands, casual sex or perhaps ‘friends with benefits.’ After having experimented in all of them I feel none of these ways of being with another are truly satisfying to me. Inevitably some kind of deception occurs, sometimes we are even both privy to that deception. Perhaps neither of us want something longer lasting yet we are sucked in by the ideas that perhaps, because we have sex or share intimately, that we are obligated in some way to pretend that there is more between us than there actually is. Another thing we might do is hold back a part of ourselves from truly becoming intimate and vulnerable with this other because we are not “in love forever after.”

I want more than that. I want the freedom to show up fully with whoever I am with, and also the freedom from unstated obligations and assumptions. I want to love, adore and cherish even if it is only for a short while.

In the article, he describes how he and one of his lovers crafted a plan to explore intimacy in a caring, bounded, and non-exclusive way. I wonder if any Christian media outlet would publish a similar piece. Are the norms of exclusivity and permanence too embedded in our monotheistic covenant religion? How far will queer Christians be able to develop the tradition in a new direction? Never underestimate the power of sex to spur Reformation–see Martin Luther’s rejection of clerical celibacy.