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.

November Links Roundup: Queer Connections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit his Facebook page to learn more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Country Is This?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m still here.

Coming Out Witchy, and Other Links on Spirituality and Trauma

“My gender is witch,” proclaimed poet Charlie Bondhus, concluding a masterful set of published and new works he read at the LGBT Center in NYC last month. (Witch? Which? Switch!) In four words he summed up the elusive quality of our overlapping identities: queer, magician, writer. All involve a commitment to phenomena that may be immeasurable by outsiders and therefore vulnerable to challenge. Am I making this up? And who decided that creativity was a slur, anyway?

Little Red Tarot columnist Andi Grace explores the real obstacles to public witchiness in her latest post, “Coming out of the woo closet: Facing shame, stigma and historical trauma”. They write:

[T]he woo closet is the forces that keep us from being open about the way that magical, energetic, psychic, extra-sensory or spiritual forces nourish and guide us. To my mind, the woo closet is very old and is one of the most powerful spells (or cluster of spells) that keeps us from stepping into our truth and power.

I see the woo closet as being composed of several parts: historical trauma that has roots in the witch burnings, the stigmatization of neuro atypical mental states, and also the legacy and present day impacts of colonization–specifically as it relates to spirituality and conceptions of knowledge and knowing…

…If we accept that our bodies carry trauma from previous generations then we must also accept that unless we find ways to heal that trauma, we will carry it with us in our bodies and spirits. What this means is that, in a very real and tangible way, my body fears for its life in coming out as a witch and this manifests as anxiety, defensive self-judgement and deeply woven feelings of shame. The feeling of fear that I have when being honest that I can see and feel spirits, isn’t one that is just in my head. It’s in my bones and my spirit and it’s literally been burnt and drowned into my memory. And no, it won’t just go away with positive thinking, though that is one small piece of the magic needed to turn the tide of this spell…

…A fundamental mechanism of colonization is devaluing ways of knowing that don’t fit into empirical knowledge systems. This devaluation is used to undermine the sovereignty of indigenous people and ultimately to steal land, resources and labour. It has also been used to justify cultural, spiritual and physical genocide. Much of western science and higher education models are based on the assumption that empirical, measurable “truth” and linear understandings of time are more valid than understandings that do not fit into this box

…The legacy of colonization and witch hunts has lead many people to believe that things like energy, visions, dream work, astrology, herbalism, tarot and magic are bogus and manipulative pseudosciences that should be disregarded with righteous fervor. Sure, we should be discerning (particularly with regards to oppression and appropriation) and yes some people are lying manipulators, but that doesn’t mean we should just dismiss whole systems of knowledge that have long and rich histories with tremendous learning and guidance to offer us.

Andi Grace’s piece includes useful guidelines and resources for folks with European ancestry to recover pre-Enlightenment ways of knowing, without being appropriative and colonialist in a different way toward nonwhite indigenous cultures. Here, for me, is where trauma and my political ideals get their wires crossed.

I agree completely with the critique of appropriation. But I feel this gut-level resistance to claiming a bond with my ancestors (bad-ass Polish witches, no doubt) because abuse and abandonment have largely severed my ties to my biological family. My mother is the product of multi-generational child abuse and mental illness. I blame my ancestors for our destroyed relationship; I don’t want to summon their spirits! My father is a nice guy but was absent from my life until I was 30. We’re becoming friends, but time will tell whether we ever have that sense of relying on one another like a true family. Perhaps this is where the writer magic comes in: I may have to invent a trustworthy ancestor who can be my guide through Eastern European hexery.

baba_yaga_and_the_skulls_of_her_enemies_by_secondlina-d63rkgr

[Baba Yaga and the skulls of her enemies. Source]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Turning to what’s new in the Christian blogosphere, I was struck by this article at the Feminist Newswire, “‘The Least of These’: Black Children, Sexual Abuse, and Theological Malpractice”. Author Ahmad Greene-Hayes, a Ph.D student of religion at Princeton, is the founder of Children of Combahee, a new initiative to end child sexual abuse in black churches. He argues that “respectability politics” combined with homophobic and patriarchal theology in the black church create an environment where secret predators can thrive. Churches’ model of sexual morality/deviance should shift away from upholding rigid gender roles, and toward prioritizing consent and safety–a paradigm that admittedly the Bible does not always support, but here is a case where we must talk back to the Bible.

Black church people have used silence as a means of protection from white racial-sexual terrorists. To mitigate the effects of white supremacist violence, many African Americans do not address intracommunal violence, and in some instances extracommunal violence, because they do not want to portray the race in a negative light or they want to be race loyal, or even race first, everything later. These patterns are deadly and send a loud message that racial justice takes precedence over the justice that every individual deserves in regards to their bodies and psyches—regardless of age, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, religion, or any other marginalized identity.

The inability (or unwillingness) to address sexual violence as an evil that pervades home, church and community is steeped in larger cultural “norms,” though abnormal, of cogitatively dissociating one’s lived experience—in Black flesh—from one’s embodied and experienced sexuality. In other words, the inability to address violence and trauma as it relates to Black sexuality can be traced back to the plantation where rape and torture were codified by law and the theologies of the master class. In some ways, the contemporary Black church—which grew out of enslavement—mirrors the plantation of times past, and survivors are pushing the church to consider its reinscription of master tactics—that is , attempts to abuse, silence, marginalize, shame, victimize, and dehumanize marginal subjects, or as Jesus said, “the least of these.”

For white people reading this analysis, the takeaway message (in my opinion) should be that we can’t fight child abuse without fighting racism. The black church’s code of silence and internalization of toxic mainstream gender roles are an understandable survival strategy for an embattled minority. We have to do our part to end that battle.

Finally, here’s a comprehensive article from the progressive blog Religion Dispatches about campus Christian organization InterVarsity’s recent decision to oust all LGBTQ and affirming staff members. “Inside InterVarsity’s Purge: Trauma and Termination at the Premier Evangelical Student Org” is written by journalist Deborah Jian Lee, author of the well-reviewed book Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women & Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism (Beacon, 2015).

InterVarsity has rolled out a policy that calls for staff who disagree with its theological position to come forward and quit by November 11. If staff members disagree, the national campus ministry stated in a letter to staff, “we trust that they will alert their supervisors and conclude their work [within two weeks].” (The policy does not apply to students, though students who disagree cannot be leaders, and it includes dictates against divorce, pornography and pre-marital sex.)

Supporters of InterVarsity’s decision see the policy as a commitment to “orthodox” theology, while critics call it a “purge.” The news, first reported by TIME on October 6, has unleashed protests from droves of InterVarsity students, alumni, influential InterVarsity Press authors and Christian leaders, many of whom have released petitions calling for the organization to revoke the policy. Within InterVarsity, a number of LGBTQ and ally staff, including Vasquez, have formed “the Queer Collective,” which for months has been pressing executive leaders for unity amid theological differences. They have elevated stories of LGBTQ-affirming people in the organization and documented the mental health impact of LGBTQ exclusion.

Despite their advocacy, InterVarsity announced its policy in a manner that Queer Collective leaders see as severe and punitive. For example, InterVarsity created a “helpline” for staff who felt unsure about the organization’s theological position, but the “helpline” only offered “limited confidentiality,” according to a July email sent to staff workers by then-interim president Jim Lundgren and president-elect Tom Lin. If a staff worker announced their disagreement with InterVarsity’s position and did not declare this to their supervisor, “[the helpline] resource person [would] inform the supervisor.” This, and reports by other staff workers who say they have been questioned about their beliefs, seems to contradict InterVarsity’s claim that it is relying solely on the self-declaration of LGBTQ-affirming staff.

Despite the ministry’s disclosure of the helpline process, “to call something a ‘helpline’ as a place of support and also make it a place of whistleblowing—that’s not just harmful, but also unethical,” said Teresa Pasquale Mateus, LCSW, author of Sacred Wounds: A Path to Healing from Spiritual Trauma. Mateus sees patterns of spiritual abuse in some of InterVarsity’s treatment of LGBTQ-affirming staff and students and warns of serious emotional “collateral damage” in the aftermath of “the purge.” Already, members of the Queer Collective and other InterVarsity insiders say that every day raises new concerns about emotional trauma, unemployment, resignations, disaffiliations, and the future of InterVarsity.

This fracture reflects the larger rupture over sexuality taking place across the evangelical movement…

Lee goes on to describe InterVarsity’s inconsistent treatment of LGBTQ students and staff, their refusal to repudiate the discredited practice of “ex-gay therapy”, and despite all this, the difficulty of turning one’s back on the diverse and passionate Christian community that IV represents for many people.

Leaving isn’t so simple. To many like Vasquez, evangelicals are their people. As Alexis Garretson, a George Mason University senior who identifies as queer and LGBTQ-affirming explained, InterVarsity is actually the friendliest of the campus fellowship options. If students left InterVarsity for greener pastures, they’d have to leave Christian community altogether. “LGBTQ Christians fiercely believe in the faith we have,” explained Garretson. “Asking us to leave goes against our identity.”

To staff workers who have worked for InterVarsity for years and sometimes decades, leaving the ministry means losing both their livelihood and the entire community they’ve built for themselves over the years, sometimes since their own college days. After all, InterVarsity isn’t just a student club, it’s a family. “People here just loved me from the first moment I got here,” Scripps College junior and LGBTQ-affirming InterVarsity member Rachel Geller told me. InterVarsity goes the extra mile to welcome new students, surrounding freshmen with an immediate posse of friends at the start of college, following up with relentless evangelical zeal.

It’s also a lifestyle. Much like the Greek system, the activities are all-consuming: Bible studies, fellowship, dance parties, retreats, prayer meetings, dorm gatherings, group lunches, study dates and so much more. To feel this sense of love and belonging so fiercely every day is intoxicating, students and staff say. It’s what leads so many students to graduate college, join the 1,300 member staff, and build their lives around the organization’s mission. For Vasquez, “InterVarsity was the air I breathed.”

Perhaps the most consequential reason LGBTQ-affirming staff workers want to remain in the fold emerges from their concern that once they leave, LGBTQ newcomers will be isolated in a community that publicly welcomes them but privately misunderstands their most fundamental needs.

Is it just my love-avoidance that makes this description seem a little cultish? Be that as it may, it seems to me that similar reasons keep people connected to abusive partners: to protect the children, or to avoid what seems like the greater trauma of losing an entire family network. Building up new love relationships takes time and courage. Leaving is a leap into the void, at least in the beginning. Some of us decide we’re ready to make it, but woe be to those who pushed us off that cliff.

Sacred Wounds and Rescuing Jesus are going on my very long Amazon wishlist now.

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