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.

Is Feminism the Right Movement for Nonbinary People?

This is not a post about “do trans women belong in women’s spaces”. Feminism is for women. How you became a woman is nobody’s business.

This is not a post about “do nonbinary people belong in feminism”. That framing begs the question that we are, or should be, asking to be allowed in.

Rather, I’m pondering two complex questions: Should enbies always push for gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language in feminist activities? When feminists who identify as women decide to continue centering women in their group’s language and mission, what alternative services exist for enbies to address issues that have traditionally been the purview of feminist organizing: sexual assault, reproductive rights, discrimination, and the like?

The answers, I believe, are interconnected. Before women can declare that a space is not for us or a movement is not about us, have they considered whether we have anywhere else to go for this kind of support? Are those options equally local, accessible, and effective for the enby in question? What are these women doing to supply feminist resources and theoretical insights to enby-focused organizations?

Before we enbies go #AllLivesMatter on anything gender-specific, have we empathized with women’s silencing by patriarchal society, and appreciated the historical struggle to carve out spaces where women’s voices and experiences had prime importance?

The topic is on my mind because I’ve signed up for a “Women’s Sacred Rage” workshop. It was a fantastic experience last year, the organizers are reliably trans-friendly cis women, and I expect the participants will be supportive of gender diversity. But I’m more definite about my queerness than I was then. Do I need to come out to everybody or will that be derailing? I was socialized as a woman, I’m perceived to be a woman, I participate in a sexist culture, but one source of my rage is that I was forcibly brought up as a girl/woman when I don’t think I was one.

Two articles I read recently frame this dilemma. Rain and Thunder is a local magazine of radical feminist thought and activism. When I call their feminism transgender-exclusive, I mean that as a description, not a slur. Their branch of the movement is concerned about erasure of the specific history and needs of women, particularly lesbians, by the rising popularity of umbrella terms like “queer”. The articles are not available online, so I’m going to quote some passages below from Debbie Cameron’s essay “The Amazing Disappearing ‘Women'”, in Issue #67 (Spring 2017). She is upset that reproductive health organizations have started using gender-neutral language to acknowledge that some people who get pregnant and menstruate don’t identify as women, and that a similar change is taking place in political discourse about hate crimes:

…the term ‘gender-based violence’…is widely used by government bodies and NGOs to refer to what feminists would call ‘violence against women’ and/or ‘male violence’. In this case what prompted the adoption of the inclusive term wasn’t a concern about anti-male bias. Rather, humanitarian organizations in the 1990s felt the need for a more abstract umbrella term to encompass the full range of issues they were working on. The choice of ‘gender-based violence’ did not, initially, change their understanding of the issue. Most early definitions of ‘gender-based violence’ explicitly say that it means ‘violence against women’…

…But to me, at least, it’s unclear why calling violence ‘gender-based’ should do more to highlight power and inequality than calling it ‘violence against women’. The most obvious characteristic of the inclusive term is its vagueness: it says only that some acts or types of violence are ‘based’ on ‘gender’, while leaving the nature of the connection unspecified. (Is it to do with the motive? The perpetrator’s gender? The victim’s gender? Both?) Far from highlighting ‘power inequalities between men and women’, the non-specificity of ‘gender-based violence’ leaves room for an interpretation of it as something any gendered being might do to any other gendered being…

…From a feminist perspective the problem with inclusive terms is not statistical, it’s conceptual. Feminists conceptualize male violence against women as a form of social control which helps to maintain men’s collective position of dominance. It’s not just a question of some individual men using violence to dominate some individual women. All women–including those who will never experience an actual assault–have to live with the fear of being assaulted by men, and with the restrictions that fear imposes on their freedom of movement, action and speech. Violence perpetrated by women against men, however heinous and individually deserving of punishment it may be, does not have the same political function. All men’s lives are not circumscribed by their fear of being attacked by women. This understanding is what motivates the feminist preference for gender-specific terms. Replacing those terms with non-specific, ‘inclusive’ alternatives is not just a superficial change in wording, it’s a rejection of the logic of the feminist analysis…

…When feminist organizations adopt inclusive terms…they aren’t trying to make the problem of structural sexual inequality disappear. But the result is still a loss of analytic and political clarity. Planned Parenthood’s reference to ‘people being criminalized for their pregnancy outcomes’ is a case in point. Like feminist campaigns against male violence, feminist campaigns for reproductive rights are underpinned by a political analysis which sees the legal and religious policing of reproduction as a tool of patriarchal social control–and the point isn’t to control ‘pregnancy outcomes’, it’s to control the behavior of women. (pgs. 12-13)

So much to unpack here. Let me start by problematizing the rhetorical move of speaking for “feminism” as a monolith, akin to evangelicals’ self-descriptive use of “Christianity” or “orthodoxy” to give false universality to one sectarian perspective. To be fair, Cameron is right that male violence against women is supported by and reinforces structural inequality, while the reverse is not true. Men–or should I say, those who are perceived as men–don’t regularly circumscribe their behavior to reduce the risk of date rape or sexual assault, and in situations where they do have to worry about this (e.g. in prisons), they’re generally afraid of other men. And yes, attacks on reproductive rights aim to subordinate “women”, but that’s because conservative men don’t recognize trans and enby identities. Why should we defer to their misgendering of pregnant people?

But is this all there is to feminism? Are all other instances of gendered violence outside its purview? I would argue that “gender-based violence” includes:

*The widespread violence against transgender women, typically by cisgender men, which has its roots in misogyny and toxic patriarchal gender roles. According to the National LGBTQ Task Force’s StopTransMurders campaign: “In 2013, where there were also 12 reported murders of trans women of color, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence programs reported that 72% of hate crimes against LGBTQ people were against trans women, 90% of whom were transgender women of color.”

*Domestic violence in lesbian relationships, when the straight-acting or femme partner exploits her butch girlfriend’s gender-nonconformity to shame her or threaten to “out” her. (Ask me how I know about this.)

*Both mothers and fathers forcing female genital mutilation and male circumcision on children who are incapable of consent.

*Both mothers and fathers coercing children into the wrong gender identity or expression, including “corrective” surgery on intersex infants.

It’s patriarchy, not the existence of trans and nonbinary folks, that starves feminism for resources, so that radical feminists fear competition from issues other than the traditional one of male violence against women. I believe there should be spaces for the specific needs and solidarity of cis women who’ve been oppressed by men, just as there are (or should be) spaces foregrounding people of color, lesbians, trans and gender-nonconforming people, etc., but there should also be ultra-inclusive spaces where everyone affected by patriarchy and gender-based violence can share insights and support each other’s rights. Planned Parenthood, NGOs, and governments should be as inclusive as possible because they serve large populations and there are few alternatives for people who are turned away from these organizations. At the personal level, like workshops and support groups, I don’t have a hard-and-fast rule to discern when it is time to be inclusive versus specific, though I think the presence or absence of alternative resources is key.

For the contrary position to Rain and Thunder, I appreciated Kim Kaletsky’s piece “The Dangerous Exclusivity of Spaces for ‘Women’ Sexual Assault Survivors”, an October 2016 post on the social justice blog The Establishment.

…when author Kelly Oxford encouraged “women” to “tweet their first assaults” in reaction to Trump’s recently released remarks about his right to grab women…I hesitated to join the millions of people responding and sharing their stories.

…[I have]a very particular kind of nonbinary identity, the sort that doesn’t come with body dysphoria. I often pass as a cis woman, whether I want to or not, because I have breasts and don’t wear a chest binder. Sometimes I benefit from that — when I’m able to use women’s restrooms without putting myself in danger, for instance — but mostly it feels like having a sign with false information about me tattooed on my back, one I didn’t ask for and can’t easily remove. At no time does the dissonance between who I know I am and who others tell me I am feel more apparent, however, than when public conversations about gender-based sexual assault arise…

…The more I read others’ stories, the more I wanted to share my own subway story, in solidarity with others. But the stronger my desire to speak up, the more hesitant I became. What would it mean for me to take up space in a conversation explicitly designated for “women”? Would my voice be welcome as a nonbinary voice, or would I have to forfeit that aspect of my identity in order to earn the right to share my experiences?

I chose not to share my story. It’s a decision I’ve made numerous times — when considering submitting essays to magazines dedicated to sexual assault survivors, and when looking into support groups and listening in on social media conversations. I respect that spaces designated for women are for women, and will never deny their importance. Women need that space, and they need to feel safe there. And if my presence as someone who doesn’t wear the “woman” label is going to make anyone feel less comfortable sharing their experiences, then I fully relinquish my right to be there.

But if most spaces for survivors of gender-based sexual violence are for cis women, where does that leave the trans or nonbinary people who may or may not identify with femininity or womanhood, but whose bodies cis men have felt entitled to because they “looked like a woman”? Welcome or not, I often avoid spaces designated for “women” for the sake of my own mental health. Because participating means agreeing you wear the “women” label, entering “women’s” spaces, to me, feels like misgendering myself. And though many “women’s” spaces are unlikely to turn me down even if I do speak up about being nonbinary, I don’t want to subject myself to a space that’s so ambivalently supportive of nonbinary identity that its organizers can’t even commit to using nonbinary-friendly language. I’m already feeling vulnerable whenever I talk about sexual assault and rape culture — I can’t feel liberated from the weight of misogyny if I’m simultaneously dealing with language that invalidates my gender identity.

While I have enormous respect and appreciation for “women-only” spaces, their existence feels counterproductive. Many of them strive to combat or heal the damage from patriarchal norms. But I don’t think it’s possible to deconstruct misogyny or promote bodily autonomy without also deconstructing binary gender and the complicated binary gender divisions and expectations that keep patriarchal culture in place and deny trans and nonbinary folks their own bodily autonomy.

In my workshop later this month, I’ll probably come out, and it’ll probably be fine. People in our ultra-progressive town have responded with a wonderful indifference to my past declarations. The question remains whether I’ll go further, and start some conversations about creating trans- and enby-led forums for survivors of abuse and patriarchy. The burden of organizing those opportunities shouldn’t be entirely on us not-quite-women. I encourage cis-feminist groups to help us build on their work. And by encourage, I mean, “will annoy you until you do what I want.” Sacred Rage power!

Big Win for LGBT Employment Rights at the 7th Circuit

In a big win for LGBT employment rights today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit issued an en banc ruling in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana that discrimination on the basis of “sex” includes sexual orientation under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the primary federal law for employment discrimination claims. (En banc means that all the judges on the court participated, as opposed to the usual panel of three. An appeals court will sometimes rehear cases en banc to settle questions of exceptional public importance when the lower courts are divided.) The decision reversed a previous ruling by a three-judge panel of the same court, which had been sympathetic to the plaintiff’s arguments but did not believe it had authority to overrule past case law.

Activists and progressive politicians have been trying for a long time to pass a federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) specifically for LGBT protections, a goal that looks farther away than ever under the current administration. Today’s decision, especially if the reasoning is picked up by other courts, points out a better route to the same result. Politically and symbolically, Hively puts LGBT rights on a firmer foundation by showing that we are all fighting the same battle. Freedom from gender-expression stereotyping and homophobia is contiguous with the classic feminist struggle against sexual harassment and the glass ceiling, and even with the overturning of bans on interracial marriage. This is a welcome opportunity for intersectionality at a time when some powerful voices are hijacking feminism to scapegoat trans people.

In today’s case, Kimberly Hively was a part-time adjunct professor at defendant’s college who alleged she was repeatedly passed over for a full-time position because she is an out lesbian. The college said this was not a legitimate basis to sue under Title VII. However, the court concluded that you can’t have sexual orientation discrimination without unequal treatment based on gender–if Hively were a man in a romantic relationship with a woman, all other factors being equal, she would have been promoted (assuming her factual claims are correct). Moreover, by analogy to Loving v. Virginia, “a person who is discriminated against because of the protected characteristic of one with whom she associates is actually being disadvantaged because of her own traits.” (Slip opinion, pg.15) No separate right to “interracial marriage” or “same-sex relationships” need be found in the statute. If it’s racial discrimination to penalize a white person because his partner is black, it’s sex discrimination to penalize a woman because her partner is not a man.

This result eliminates the paradox that the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell gave gays and lesbians the constitutional right to marry, but they could still be fired by an anti-gay employer for exercising that same right. (For a poignant fictional illustration, watch the 2014 film “Love is Strange”.)

Some highlights from the majority opinion:

Hively alleges that if she had been a man married to a woman (or living with a woman, or dating a woman) and eve rything else had stayed the same, Ivy Tech would not have refused to promote her and would not have fired her. (We take the facts in the light most favorable to her, because we are here on a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal; naturally nothing we say will prevent Ivy Tech from contesting these points in later pro ceedings.) This describes paradigmatic sex discrimination. To use the phrase from Ulane, Ivy Tech is disadvantaging her because she is a woman. Nothing in the complaint hints that IvyTech has an anti-marriage policy that extends to heterosexual relationships, or for that matter even an anti-partnership policy that is gender-neutral.

Viewed through the lens of the gender non-conformity line of cases, Hively represents the ultimate case of failure to conform to the female stereotype (at least as understood in a place such as modern America, which views heterosexuality as the norm and other forms of sexuality as exceptional): she is not heterosexual. Our panel described the line between a gender nonconformity claim and one based on sexual orientation as gossamer-thin; we conclude that it does not exist at all. Hively’s claim is no different from the claims brought by women who were rejected for jobs in traditionally male workplaces, such as fire departments, construction, and policing. The employers in those cases we re policing the boundaries of what jobs or behaviors they found acceptable for a woman (or in some cases, for a man). (pgs.12-13)

****
Today’s decision must be understood against the backdrop of the Supreme Court’s decisions, not only in the field of employment discrimination, but also in the area of broader discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation… [cites cases decriminalizing same-sex intercourse, overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, and declaring marriage equality to be a fundamental liberty under the 14th Amendment]

This is not to say that authority to the contrary does not exist. As we acknowledged at the outset of this opinion, it does. But this court sits en banc to consider what the correct
rule of law is now in light of the Supreme Court’s authoritative interpretations, not what someone thought it meant one, ten, or twenty years ago.

The logic of the Supreme Court’s decisions, as well as the common-sense reality that it is actually impossible to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation without discriminating on the basis of sex, persuade us that the time has come to overrule our previous cases that have endeavored to find and observe that line. (pgs.19-21)

Meanwhile, a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit, the federal appeals court that includes New York, ruled last week that a gay advertising executive could pursue a Title VII sex discrimination claim against a supervisor who allegedly bullied him with gender stereotyping, such as slurs about effeminacy and AIDS. From the Rewire article by Imani Gandy:

Matthew Christiansen, an openly gay HIV-positive man, filed a lawsuit in 2015 against his employer, DDB Worldwide Communications Group, where he works as a creative director. Christiansen alleges that his direct supervisor engaged in a pattern of humiliating harassment targeting his sexual orientation and “effeminacy” in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, among a host of other factors…

…In the Second Circuit—as across the country—Title VII simply does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The law does, however, prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender stereotyping, as stated in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins. This ultimately saved Christiansen’s lawsuit.

Judge Failla acknowledged that discrimination on the basis of nonconformity to sexual stereotypes was permissible in the Second Circuit. But she also pointed out that the court in Simonton and Dawson said that this “should not be used to bootstrap protection for sexual orientation into Title VII.”

That’s what Judge Failla thought Christiansen was doing: Although Christiansen alleged that he was targeted because of “animus towards a gender stereotype,” and his complaint included several instances of gender stereotyping behavior, the district court still found that he was essentially trying to bootstrap a sexual orientation claim to his claims about gender stereotyping. In other words, she felt Christiansen’s case was really about sexual orientation discrimination, and not gender stereotyping discrimination.

A three-judge panel of the Second Circuit disagreed.

Noting, somewhat regretfully, that it was without power to reconsider Simonton and Dawson—because the court is “bound by decisions of prior panels until such time as they are overruled either by an en banc panel of our Court or by the Supreme Court”—the panel, citing Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, found that the district court had erred in dismissing Christiansen’s claims of discrimination on the basis of gender stereotyping.

In Price Waterhouse, plaintiff Ann Hopkins said she had been denied a promotion at work because she was “too macho.” Her employer told her that she should wear makeup, style her hair, and act more feminine. Six members of the Supreme Court agreed that such comments were indicative of gender discrimination. They held that Title VII barred discrimination because of biological sex, but also barred gender stereotyping—discrimination based on someone failing to act and appear according to expectations defined by gender.

The Second Circuit found similar gender discrimination in Christiansen’s allegations…

So it sounds like the panel opened the door (and pointed to it vigorously) for a Second Circuit en banc reconsideration similar to Hively. This being one of the more liberal jurisdictions, I’m hopeful about the outcome. Gandy’s article cites arguments from amicus briefs that succeeded in the Seventh Circuit a week later. (An amicus brief may be submitted by a person or organization who is not a party to the lawsuit but has a stake in the outcome.)

According to an amicus brief filed by a coalition of civil rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Women’s Law Center, and the National Partnership for Women and Families, “Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is sex discrimination under the plain meaning of the term, because sexual orientation turns on one’s sex in relation to the sex of one’s partner.”

“Consideration of an employee’s sexual orientation therefore necessarily involves consideration of the employee’s sex,” the brief continued.

As amici point out in their brief, since 2011, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—which is in charge of enforcing Title VII—has recognized that discrimination against LGBTQ people necessarily involves discrimination on the basis of sex, because such discrimination turns on societal expectations that women should be attracted only to men and that men should be attracted only to women. That year in Veretto v. Donahoe, the EEOC said that Title VII prohibits workplace discrimination “motivated by the sexual stereotype that marrying a woman is an essential part of being a man.”

And certainly, the sea of change regarding LGBTQ rights—from the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that laws banning same-sex marriage are unconstitutional—has shifted the perception regarding protections. Indeed, in 2015, the EEOC issued a decision that was binding on federal agencies (although not on federal courts) stating that claims for sexual orientation discrimination are permissible under Title VII.

The wild card, as always, is the Trump administration, which could abruptly reverse course on EEOC policy, just as they did last month in withdrawing Education Department guidelines protecting transgender students under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act. Time to find out how strong our constitutional separation of powers really is.

March Links Roundup: Race and Repentance

Christians this month are observing the season of Lent, a period of self-examination and repentance, and this Episco-pagan is among them. If the Christian part should ever drop out of my identity, Lent would be the last to go. It’s always felt, for me, like opening up more breathing room in our shared spiritual space; a rare time to acknowledge sadness and confusion in a publicly supportive environment, and the luxury of introspection in liberal churches that are usually so focused on outward social action. (Plus, forty days is really the outer limit of how long I can maintain good habits, like eating fewer carbs and not biting my nails.)

On Ash Wednesday, the multi-author blog Feminism and Religion offered this positive re-thinking of repentance as creative tension: accepting imperfection as our natural state, while always striving to grow beyond it. It reminds me of the dialectical-behavioral therapy affirmation (I’m paraphrasing Marsha Linehan here), “I accept you just as you are and I believe you can change.” One could say this attitude is less prideful than the traditional fall-from-grace narrative that implies we were supposed to be perfect. Religion professor Natalie Weaver writes in “A Lenten Reflection”:

Today is Ash Wednesday, where people the world over are reminded that they are born of dust and destined to return to dust.  In the meanwhile, we will fast and repent of all the wrongs wrought by our doings and omissions.  And, while my own disposition sort of naturally enters into that almost masochistic self-reflection, another part of me feels the strong urge to resist that burden.  This is not to say that I eschew moral agency or culpability.  Rather, it is to resist an anthropology of sin and fall.  I sooner would see an anthropology of effort and crawling towards walking.  I sooner would embrace the idea that creaturely life is not perfected, especially while it is still in process, and that sin and error are actually manifestations of the imperfect but noble effort of the child trying to stand; the adult trying to be responsible; the elderly trying to give advice, and all as much as possible for as long as possible.

The great evils of this world are driven by desire for godlike domination and access.  They demonstrate the craven lust to own land and bodies and resources and control.  They are the unchecked will of the self striving to create the world, writ small or large, after one’s own image.  But, isn’t there something of this grandiose self (construed as both individual and corporate, tribal, and national identities) also present in the narcissistic gaze inward, where I try to determine my imperfections and imagine myself without them as in some pre-fallen or post-fallen way, heavenly state?  Does the obsession with sin not betray some deeper sort of god-complex?

I would like to suggest that we are better served by a less audacious theology.  It is wise to be a creature, recognizing the scope and limit of one’s influence and place.  We harm ourselves when we batter our souls with all that we should have done and all that we did not do.  And, even such an exercise diligently undertaken will not change in a lasting corrective sense the inevitability that we’ll arrive at this same bend next year.   The truth is, while we all search, we don’t know in an absolute sense for what we search; we hope for that which is beyond our imaginations.

Among the topics of my soul-searching this year is racism and my complicity in it as a white person. I have mixed feelings about “privilege” language because being treated decently is a universal right, though one that is unfortunately far from universally enjoyed. “Privilege” has connotations of something that was handed to you when you should have earned it, or a coddling of immature sensitivities. But for now, it’s the best commonly-understood shorthand to convey that inequality is structural, not just about personal animus.

In the words of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, white privilege is partly about the “unknown unknowns–the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” We have no reason to question popular narratives of American history that could be dangerously wrong. We might fall for hate-mongering political strategies against a marginalized group without recognizing that they’re right out of the KKK’s playbook.

For example, in this 2014 post from The Weekly Sift, “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party”, freelance journalist and amateur historian Doug Muder convincingly argues that Reconstruction was the second phase of the Civil War–and the North lost.

The Civil War was easy to misunderstand at the time, because there had never been anything like it. It was a total mobilization of society, the kind Europe wouldn’t see until World War I. The Civil War was fought not just with cannons and bayonets, but with railroads and factories and an income tax.

If the Napoleonic Wars were your model, then it was obvious that the Confederacy lost in 1865: Its capital fell, its commander surrendered, its president was jailed, and its territories were occupied by the opposing army. If that’s not defeat, what is?

But now we have a better model than Napoleon: Iraq.

After the U.S. forces won on the battlefield in 1865 and shattered the organized Confederate military, the veterans of that shattered army formed a terrorist insurgency that carried on a campaign of fire and assassination throughout the South until President Hayes agreed to withdraw the occupying U. S. troops in 1877. Before and after 1877, the insurgents used lynchings and occasionalpitchedbattles to terrorize those portions of the electorate still loyal to the United States. In this way they took charge of the machinery of state government, and then rewrote the state constitutions to reverse the postwar changes and restore the supremacy of the class that led the Confederate states into war in the first place. [2]

By the time it was all over, the planter aristocrats were back in control, and the three constitutional amendments that supposedly had codified the U.S.A’s victory over the C.S.A.– the 13th, 14th, and 15th — had been effectively nullified in every Confederate state. The Civil Rights Acts had been gutted by the Supreme Court, and were all but forgotten by the time similar proposals resurfaced in the 1960s. Blacks were once again forced into hard labor for subsistence wages, denied the right to vote, and denied the equal protection of the laws. Tens of thousands of them were still physically shackled and subject to being whipped, a story historian Douglas Blackmon told in his Pulitzer-winning Slavery By Another Name.

So Lincoln and Grant may have had their mission-accomplished moment, but ultimately the Confederates won. The real Civil War — the one that stretched from 1861 to 1877 — was the first war the United States lost.

The missed opportunity. Today, historians like Eric Foner and Douglas Egerton portray Reconstruction as a missed opportunity to avoid Jim Crow and start trying to heal the wounds of slavery a century sooner. Following W.E.B. DuBois’ iconoclastic-for-1935 Black Reconstruction, they see the freedmen as actors in their own history, rather than mere pawns or victims of whites. As a majority in Mississippi and South Carolina, and a substantial voting bloc across the South, blacks briefly used the democratic system to try to better their lot. If the federal government had protected the political process from white terrorism, black (and American) history could have taken an entirely different path.

In particular, 1865 was a moment when reparations and land reform were actually feasible. Late in the war, some of Lincoln’s generals — notably Sherman — had mitigated their slave-refugee problem by letting emancipated slaves farm small plots on the plantations that had been abandoned by their Confederate owners. Sick or injured animals unable to advance with the Army were left behind for the slaves to nurse back to health and use. (Hence “forty acres and a mule”.) Sherman’s example might have become a land-reform model for the entire Confederacy, dispossessing the slave-owning aristocrats in favor of the people whose unpaid labor had created their wealth.

Instead, President Johnson (himself a former slave-owner from Tennessee) was quick to pardon the aristocrats and restore their lands. [3] That created a dynamic that has been with us ever since: Early in Reconstruction, white and black working people sometimes made common cause against their common enemies in the aristocracy. But once it became clear that the upper classes were going to keep their ill-gotten holdings, freedmen and working-class whites were left to wrestle over the remaining slivers of the pie. Before long, whites who owned little land and had never owned slaves had become the shock troops of the planters’ bid to restore white supremacy.

This history is even more relevant in the Trump era than when Muder wrote it three years ago, because false narratives of the reasons for racial and economic inequality drive much of the Trump-supporters’ policy initiatives and self-image. The second half of the article warns:

But the enduring Confederate influence on American politics goes far beyond a few rhetorical tropes. The essence of the Confederate worldview is that the democratic process cannot legitimately change the established social order, and so all forms of legal and illegal resistance are justified when it tries…

…The Confederate sees a divinely ordained way things are supposed to be, and defends it at all costs. No process, no matter how orderly or democratic, can justify fundamental change.

When in the majority, Confederates protect the established order through democracy. If they are not in the majority, but have power, they protect it through the authority of law. If the law is against them, but they have social standing, they create shams of law, which are kept in place through the power of social disapproval. If disapproval is not enough, they keep the wrong people from claiming their legal rights by the threat of ostracism and economic retribution. If that is not intimidating enough, there are physical threats, then beatings and fires, and, if that fails, murder.

That was the victory plan of Reconstruction. Black equality under the law was guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. But in the Confederate mind, no democratic process could legitimate such a change in the social order. It simply could not be allowed to stand, and it did not stand.

In the 20th century, the Confederate pattern of resistance was repeated against the Civil Rights movement. And though we like to claim that Martin Luther King won, in many ways he did not. School desegregation, for example, was never viewed as legitimate, and was resisted at every level. And it has been overcome. By most measures, schools are as segregated as ever, and the opportunities in white schools still far exceed the opportunities in non-white schools.

Today, ObamaCare cannot be accepted. No matter that it was passed by Congress, signed by the President, found constitutional by the Supreme Court, and ratified by the people when they re-elected President Obama. It cannot be allowed to stand, and so the tactics for destroying it get ever more extreme…

Meanwhile, at The TransAdvocate, this 2016 post by Cristan Williams looks at the history behind “Bathroom Bills and the Dialectic of Oppression”. In an interview with Princeton lecturer Dr. Gillian Frank, Williams details “the ways anti-equality groups have historically cast oppressed groups as voyeurs and/or perverts, warning the public that should an oppressed group have equality, bad things may happen in public bathrooms.” Klan spokesmen in the 1960s raised the specter of white women catching “Negro diseases” from integrated restrooms; opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1980s similarly warned that gender equality would let gay men spread AIDS in public bathrooms and locker rooms. “The political argument that supporting the discrimination of a minority group equates to saving children from harm traces its rhetorical roots back to Jim Crow laws.” Williams quotes Frank as saying:

Analyzing the racial origins of [Save Our Children’s (SOC)] activism and the gay rights response to it in the 1970s reveals a migration of conservative ideas and activists from race-based conflicts to gender- and sexual-based conflicts. SOC’s discourse of child protection embodied a protean logic of family privacy against queer sexuality. That strategy was, in part, learned from southern US resistance to desegregation, dating back to the Civil War, which used the language of privacy and family protection to address issues of race.

(“Save Our Children” was Anita Bryant’s anti-gay activist group in the 1970s.) Frank continues:

The use of mass media to aid in the construction of oppressed groups as sexual threats can be traced back to a specific political narrative initially used against Black Americans. The KKK was perhaps the first to enjoy the use of mass multimedia to inspire the dominate population to view members of an oppressed group as a potential sexual threat. In 1915 the KKK was featured in the movie blockbuster, Birth of a Nation. The movie, originally titled The Clansman, features a White man portrayed as a Black man who tries to rape a White woman. The movie earned more than 10 million dollars (more than 235 million in 2016 dollars) and helped popularize the Black rapist trope within the public consciousness…

…The Republican Party centered their political dialectic upon this trope in the 1988 presidential race between George Bush and Michael Dukakis… Bush portrayed Dukakis’ support of racial equality as an endorsement of the rape of White women by Black men through attack ads featuring Willy Horton. Horton, a Black man who raped and killed a White woman, was constructed to be a central figure in the Dukakis political team. Bush’s aid, Lee Atwater said, “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate.”

Imagery used to support anti-transgender politics likewise draws upon the construction of transgender women as sexual threats. Political advertisements against Houston’s equality ordinance consistently featured the message that should trans women be protected from harassment and discrimination, little girls would be raped. The Houston Chronicle reported, “Opponents of the ordinance… have flooded radio and TV with ads saying the law gives men dressed in women’s clothing, including sexual predators, the ability to enter a woman’s restroom. On Tuesday, the group released a TV spot that closes with a man bursting into a stall occupied by a young girl.”

This political dialectic functions to erode the oppressed group’s humanity to the point wherein their mere existence in society is enough to warrant calls for violence…

Visit Cristan’s blog and Twitter feed for more articles about transgender rights and the surprising history of trans-inclusive radical feminism.

Two Natures Blog Book Tour and E-book Sale

The Novel will be making the rounds of two dozen book review and M/M fan blogs this spring, thanks to Embrace the Rainbow, a blog book tour site specializing in LGBTQ authors. Hat tip to A.M. Leibowitz for the recommendation. To coincide with the tour, the Amazon Kindle and iBooks editions of Two Natures will be on sale for $0.99 from February 20-March 17.

TOUR DATES

My guest posts will cover topics such as fashion inspirations for Two Natures and how to avoid distractions from writing. Hope you’ll join us!

 

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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.

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.