Murder Ballad Monday: Hurray for the Riff Raff

In the category of problematic faves, murder ballads shine an ambiguous light on intimate partner violence. The best songs honestly mirror this reality more than they glorify it, but the artist can never control how the listener receives the message. Is Johnny Cash repentant or bragging in “Delia’s Gone”? What is the nature of my enjoyment of the stone-cold amorality of Lyle Lovett’s “Lights of L.A. County”? I can participate in the man’s revenge fantasy, and somehow at the same time feel relief, from a female perspective, that the artist has acknowledged the constant danger under which we live. The song does not force me to choose.

Modern country-western divas have started talking back to the genre by writing murder ballads about battered women’s revenge. The Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” and Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” are the comedy and tragedy masks hanging over this theater. However, flipping the gender of songs like “Banks of the Ohio” is an individual solution to a collective problem. Male-on-female murder ballads take place in the context of men’s violent entitlement to women’s bodies and attention. It’ll take more than a girl with a gun to even things out.

This week at the entertainment website A Beautiful Perspective, Noah Berlatsky, one of my favorite pop-culture columnists, profiled singer-songwriter Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff. Her innovative songs draw on on her Puerto Rican roots and the populist political tradition of folk music. In 2014’s “The Body Electric”, Segarra responds directly to “Delia” and “Banks of the Ohio”, not with a revenge fantasy of her own, but with a new narrative of female solidarity and survival. The gorgeous video shows a woman of color resurrected from the drowning river like Botticelli’s Venus, and a time-reversed sequence of a shower of bullets being gathered up and transformed into a baby in her arms.

March Links Roundup: Fat Tarot, March Shredness, Transmasculine “Titanic”

Lots of good, mostly unrelated, stuff this month! If, like me, you are on the lookout for diverse imagery in Tarot decks, you may have been disheartened by the narrow range of femme body types in typical artwork. The Gaian Tarot is an exception among decks that have mainstream popularity. In too many others, the idealized femme characters are white, young, and thin as any Hallmark-card fairy.

Cathou, a new contributor to the blog Little Red Tarot, writes about this issue in her inaugural column, “Queering Tarot in a fat liberation perspective”. Queerness and fatness, as political identities, challenge power structures that privilege some demographics over others (e.g. cis-hetero, thin, abled) via appearance and beauty standards. “Queerness is so much more than sexuality and gender identity. Queerness renders it impossible not to look at how bodies are constructed and coded.” Tarot has a similar radical potential, in that it is anti-hegemonic. There is no one creed, pope, or scripture of Tarot. It “weaves stories in ways that don’t need to rely on dominant discourses: no literature, no psychology, no philosophy is required.” However, when deck creators are not conscious and critical of our society’s oppressive body-coding, Tarot replicates problematic stereotypes:

An old person is associated with wisdom and a child with innocence. A fat woman is associated with fertility or abundance. A visibly trans body is associated with fluidity or overcoming all binaries. All disabled bodies are referring to obstacles and overcoming them: in a wheelchair because you’re stuck, blind because you’re either in denial or able to follow your third eye, and so on. Black women represent wildness, Native American people an archaic wisdom, Arab women lust or a Scheherazade of some sort, and it goes on.

Cathou exhorts us to prioritize body diversity when designing or shopping for cards. New and forthcoming decks I’m excited about: the Delta Enduring Tarot, the Numinous Tarot, the Urban Tarot.

Who’s wonderful? Adam Rippon is wonderful! The first openly gay U.S. athlete to compete in the Winter Olympics, he won a bronze medal in the 2018 games. Rippon’s ease and brilliance on the ice are matched by his quick wit and charm (and political snark) on the Internet. He famously snubbed Vice President Mike Pence at the ceremonies, to protest the politician’s support for psychologically destructive “gay conversion” therapy. And did I mention that he’s beautiful? He wore bondage suspenders to the Oscars, for goodness sake. Adam, I surrender to you.

The progressive evangelical magazine Sojourners has been cautious about supporting LGBTQ rights, trying to maintain a space for Christians who are left-of-center on economics and the environment but not ready to endorse the sexual revolution. In our polarized nation, it’s doubtful whether there are many such Christians remaining. So, fortunately, Sojo has manned up and given a platform to Austen Hartke, creator of the “Transgender and Christian” YouTube series, to educate their readers about “6 Common Ways Christians Stereotype Transgender People”. His article is responding to an anti-trans essay by Christian writer Nancy Pearcey. The comments are about 80% supportive to 20% transphobic, which is better than I expected. All of Austen’s points are great; I’m quoting this one because we also often hear it from the trans-exclusive “feminist” Left:

Misconception: If we don’t claim gender based on our physical sex characteristics, then we end up perpetuating social stereotypes about what makes a man or a woman.

In her article, Pearcey argues that when we don’t take our self-concept of gender from our physical sex characteristics, we have no other solid foundation on which to base it. She laments, “To discover whether you identify as a man, you must first define manhood,” which may push us to conform to stereotypes: “Do you act stereotypically masculine? Then you must be a man.”

Pearcey gives examples of young people who questioned their gender because of the original way they expressed themselves. For one teenager, the problem was that he was sensitive and gentle, and that he enjoyed spending time with girls rather than boys. Because our society sees this kind of gender expression as feminine, this teenager wondered if he might be transgender. Pearcey reports that after he saw more examples of men who were gentle and enjoyed activities we associate with women, he realized that he did identify as male. She uses this example as proof of a number of transgender kids who could be convinced to accept their assigned sex if we could only get rid of those pesky gender stereotypes.

In making this claim, Pearcey leaves out two things. First, she appears not to know the difference between gender identity and gender expression. While gender identity is something internal and intrinsic, gender expression is the way we visually articulate our sense of masculinity or femininity or androgyny to the world. Our gender expression includes our clothing, hair, voice, and mannerisms, among other things. This distinction helps everyone, regardless of whether you’re transgender or cisgender, to understand that you can be just as much of a man if you have long hair and enjoy The Great British Bake-Off, and you can be just as much a woman if you shave your head and ride a motorcycle. While this distinction can be complex, there are many transgender young people who understand this difference, and who are still very sure about their gender identity. Just because the examples Pearcey used eventually identified with their assigned sex doesn’t mean that all other people will.

For the past sixty years or so, Christians have been a major driving force behind gender stereotypes. One only has to Google “Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” to realize that too often we’ve been the ones telling people that they’re “not man enough” or “not woman enough.” Pearcey suggests that we shouldn’t base our ideas about gender on cultural stereotypes, and I totally agree! Now, if only we could stop using our Christian megaphone to amplify those same stereotypes, we’d be another step forward.

I discover everything important 30 years too late. This month it’s hair metal. The avant-garde literary journal DIAGRAM has chosen “March Shredness” for the theme of its annual music-criticism bracket. Go here to vote for your favorite videos and read semi-ironic nostalgic essays about them by literary rock stars like Amorak Huey and Ander Monson. In some ways, the genre flips the old devil-sign finger at gender stereotypes, with those perm-haired boys in mascara throttling their phallic guitars. Boring toxic masculinity is also very much on view, with the obligatory shots of lubricious models as rewards for the male singers’ rock-godliness. But I will forgive much for the campy sweetness of LA Guns’ “Ballad of Jayne”. So much leather! So much schmaltz!

Following up on a legal issue I blogged about last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit just ruled in Zarda v. Altitude Express that sexual orientation is covered by the ban on “sex” discrimination in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This is yuge, to quote the Cheeto-in-Chief. According to BuzzFeed reporter Dominic Holden:

A federal appeals court on Monday ruled that a 1964 civil rights law bans anti-gay workplace discrimination. The decision rebukes the Trump administration — which had argued against a gay worker in the case — and hands progressives a win in their strategy to protect LGBT employees with a drumbeat of lawsuits.

The dispute hinges on whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination on the basis of sex, also bans workplace discrimination due to sexual orientation.

The Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled Monday, “We now hold that sexual orientation discrimination constitutes a form of discrimination ‘because of . . . sex,’ in violation of Title VII.” In doing so, the court overruled a lower court — and a precedent from two previous court cases — and remanded the case to be litigated in light of their reading of Title VII.

The decision holds national implications due to its high tier in the judicial system, and because it’s seen as a litmus test of the Trump administration’s ability — or inability — to curb LGBT rights through court activism. The Justice Department had injected itself into the case even though it wasn’t a party to the lawsuit and doesn’t normally involve itself in private employment disputes.

The case was heard in New York City by all 13 judges in the 2nd Circuit, known as an en banc hearing, which leaves the Supreme Court as the only avenue for a potential appeal.

The ruling comes soon after another major gay-rights ruling in 2017, thereby giving momentum to the argument that anti-gay discrimination is prohibited even without a federal law that explicitly says so.

In reaching its decision Monday, the court pointed out that anti-gay discrimination would not exist “but for” a person’s sex. That is to say, gays, lesbians, and bisexuals would not experience this type of unequal treatment had they been born a different gender, or were attracted to a different sex.

On another subject close to my heart, speculative fiction writer Ada Hoffman has written a standout essay on “Autism and Emotional Labour”, parsing the complexities of respecting and asserting boundaries across the autistic/neurotypical divide:

Emotional labour is the mental and emotional work we do to maintain relationships with other people, whether that relationship is an intimate one, or simply coexisting with strangers in a public place…

…Autism makes many forms of emotional labour difficult!

Many of the complaints that NTs have about autistic people boil down to the fact that autistic people are not doing enough emotional labour for them. Whether it’s little things like not making the right facial expressions to put people at ease, or big and intimate things like not knowing how to express affection the right way in a relationship.

As autistic (or autistic-friendly) feminists, how can we ask for reciprocal emotional labour in a way that doesn’t toss autistic people to the curb?

…I’m going to talk about forms of emotional labour that are more difficult for many autistic people, but also about forms that many of us are good at – and I’m also going to talk about special forms of emotional labour that are only ever asked of disabled people.

Then I’m going to talk about some ways we might fix some of this.

I can’t summarize all her excellent recommendations here, but I’ll highlight a couple of points I haven’t seen in other pieces on the topic. Hoffman notes that autistic people are actually extra skilled at some forms of emotional labor, and should get more credit for this. Examples: educating others on their special topic, being orderly, being great listeners, taking time to research and understand the rules of their environment. Moreover, neurotypical people don’t always appreciate the extra emotional labor that Aspies do to fit into ordinary social situations. But regardless of our neurotype, mutuality is essential for good relationships. We may do different kinds of emotional labor for each other, but we each have to do some. When we find that our needs are incompatible with what the other person can give, it doesn’t mean that either of us is wrong.

Finally, to end this long post on an entertaining note, the humor magazine Cracked makes an oddly convincing case for reading Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Jack in “Titanic” as transmasculine. In “The Much Better Movie Hiding in Titanic”, Ryan Menezes notes Jack’s androgynous clean-shaven look (out of character for a homeless bohemian in the era before electric razors); the fact that he’s never shown shirtless and his chest is blocked from view during sex; and the drag-costuming feel of the scene where Kathy Bates’ character dresses him in a tux for dinner in first class.

Now look at the additional layer this brings to the climax. Women and children board lifeboats first, which means Jack can theoretically board with Rose, but only by coming out to the crew. Could Jack do that if it meant saving their lives? And if so, is there even a way to do it without causing a riot and maybe even getting shot? I repeat: This would be a way better movie.

Jack makes the choice to stay behind. Then Rose abandons her lifeboat and returns to the ship, which would do nothing to help the situation, unless it’s to try to convince Jack to admit the truth and board the next lifeboat with her. It winds up being moot. Everything goes to hell right after that, and the two end up in the water together. Jack tells Rose to grow up and have babies — if she does choose to marry a man and have a family, that’s fine — and to promise to go on living and “never” give up. Because Cal and her mother weren’t her only issues, so she must pledge to deal with them all, for she will surely feel suicidal again.

Maybe, if only in a version of the story that never left James Cameron’s head, what came next was a reveal that brought all of that subtext to the surface. Old Rose could have said, “A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets,” and then gone on to say (or show in flashback) exactly what that secret was. It would have been the boldest twist in blockbuster cinema, and Titanic would have gone down as a whole other kind of milestone. “But,” James Cameron would presumably have thought, “will this movie make $2 billion at the box office?”

Fan-fiction writers, take note!

February Links Roundup: Coals of Fire on their Heads

The Biblical author of Proverbs 25:21-22 (also quoted by St. Paul in Romans 12:20) makes the curious statement, “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you.” This adds some bite, shall we say, to contemporary mainstream Christian teachings on forgiveness. We’re more familiar with St. Paul’s warning against revenge, immediately preceding this quote. But this striking image suggests that the most potent payback is being forced to see one’s self in the light of God’s truth. Instead of returning evil for evil, we can let our own purity of heart be a mirror against which their hatred bounces and reflects back on them. To put it another way, if my abusers really faced the trauma that motivated their misdeeds, that would hurt worse (and more constructively) than anything bad I could say about them on the Internet.

So says former U.S. Olympic gymnast Rachael Denhollander, the first of 150 victims to go public about being sexually abused by team doctor Larry Nassar. Denhollander, a conservative Christian, delivered a powerful and eloquent victim-impact statement at Nassar’s sentencing last month. Read it at CNN.com. Among her memorable quotes: “I pray you experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me—though I extend that to you as well.”

She tells her story in the Christianity Today article, “My Larry Nassar Testimony Went Viral. But There’s More to the Gospel Than Forgiveness.” Sadly, Denhollander also became a pariah in her own church because she didn’t limit her call-out to secular sex offenders. Nor did she mince words about how bad theology can enable abusers.

Given your concerns that Christians can use God’s call to forgive as a weapon against survivors, did you feel at all apprehensive telling Nassar that you forgive him?

I did to an extent, because forgiveness can really be misapplied. Taken within the context of my statement, with the call for justice and with what I have done to couple forgiveness and justice, it should not be misunderstood. But I have found it very interesting, to be honest, that every single Christian publication or speaker that has mentioned my statement has only ever focused on the aspect of forgiveness. Very few, if any of them, have recognized what else came with that statement, which was a swift and intentional pursuit of God’s justice. Both of those are biblical concepts. Both of those represent Christ. We do not do well when we focus on only one of them…

…The damage of sexual assault is extreme and it is lifelong. As much as someone forgives their abuser, as much hope as is found in the gospel, we don’t get complete restoration this side of heaven. It does not happen—that’s why the hope of heaven is so glorious. But the suffering here on earth is very real, and it does not go away simply because you forgive and release bitterness. These women are going to live, myself included, with lifelong consequences of the sexual assault, and the vast majority of this never needed to happen.

What does it mean to you that you forgive Larry Nassar?

It means that I trust in God’s justice and I release bitterness and anger and a desire for personal vengeance. It does not mean that I minimize or mitigate or excuse what he has done. It does not mean that I pursue justice on earth any less zealously. It simply means that I release personal vengeance against him, and I trust God’s justice, whether he chooses to mete that out purely, eternally, or both in heaven and on earth.

A beautiful example of repentance and risky honesty is this January post on Mormon writer Josh Weed’s blog, “Turning a Unicorn Into a Bat: The Post in Which We Announce the End of Our Marriage”. I was not previously aware of this author, and discovered this post via the Twitter feed of Matthew Vines (God and the Gay Christian). Apparently, for several years, Weed and his wife Lolly have been writing about living in a mixed-orientation marriage: she is straight, and he has always known he was gay but tried to follow church teachings. However, they had the discernment and courage to realize that this was not working. As part of this confession, Weed apologizes to the LGBTQ community for upholding a theology that leads many queer Christians to the brink of suicide (himself included), and for being a public example that was used to bully other people into “ex-gay” lifestyles:

We’re sorry to any gay Mormon who even had a moment’s pause as they tried to make the breathtakingly difficult decision that I am now making—to love myself fully for exactly what God made me—because of our post. We’re sorry for any degree that our existence, and the publicity of our supposedly successful marriage made you feel “less than” as you made your own terribly difficult choices. And we’re sorry if our story made it easier for people in your life to reject you and your difficult path as being wrong. If this is you, we want you to know: you were right. You did the correct, brave thing. You are ahead of me in the sense that you have progressed through things I have yet to progress through. You listened to your gut and to God and did a brave, brave thing. Now I’m following your example.

We’re sorry to any gay Mormon who received criticism, backlash, or hatred as a result of our story. It wasn’t long after our post that we began to get messages from the LGBTQIA community, letting us know that their loved ones were using our blog post to pressure them to get married to a person of the opposite gender—sometimes even disowning them, saying things like, “if these two can do it, so can you.” Our hearts broke as we learned of the ways our story was used a battering ram by fearful, uninformed parents and loved ones, desperate to get their children to act in the ways they thought were best. One person wrote—and I’ll never get the horror of this out of my head for the rest of my life—saying that he went to see his family for Thanksgiving during his second year of college, where he was an out gay man who openly had a boyfriend. When he got home, his father pulled up our story on the computer and then physically assaulted him, beating him as he had often done during his childhood, saying “if this guy could avoid being a faggot, so could you!”

We’re sorry to anybody who felt a measure of false peace because of our story. There are many people who have good hearts, who were grappling with the issue of homosexuality before we came out, and who were having difficulty reconciling the church they loved with the things they knew about their gay loved ones. Our coming out post gave a false hope: “See? I just knew there had to be a way for gay people to stay true to their faith by denying themselves and live a happy, healthy life!” We’re sorry to perhaps send you back to the state of confusion you were in before you saw our story—but at the same time, that state of confusion is necessary. Something is wrong. It really doesn’t add up. As I have said in thousands of prayers over the last half-decade as I have come to know more and more LGBTQIA individuals and the ways they have been hurt, as well as have realized the impossibility of a God that would set up a “plan” that is totally impossible for a huge segment of His children to participate in, all within a church whose policies and positions assert that that is exactly what God has done: something is wrong. Something is very, very wrong with how things are currently set up. I don’t know yet what is right. But, Father, something is so incredibly wrong.

We’re sorry to any LGBTQIA person who was given false hope by our story, or who used our story as part of the basis for their life-decisions. We honor your decisions, whatever they are, and we’re sorry for any way in which our current trajectory might be unsettling or alarming.

I, Josh, am sorry to the many LGBTQIA people over the years that I subconsciously saw myself as different than. I am no different than you, and any degree to which I held on to the idea that I could be gay without being gay was, I see now, a manifestation of lingering internalized homophobia born of decades of being told this part of me was evil. It was an effort to belong to the “in-group” (heterosexual members of the Mormon Church) that I was actually not a part of.

I also love their solution to the problem of sexual incompatibility. To keep family continuity for their four daughters, they’re buying a multi-family homestead where Josh and Lolly will be able to live near each other with their future partners. Now that’s queer in the best way!

In the same post, Josh mentions listening to Imagine Dragons’ song “Thunder” to give him strength for this decision–one of my son’s very favorite songs, too. Now I have another reason to feel good about being a fan. Billboard magazine has the story in “Mormonism & LGBT Youth: Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds on His Documentary”:

In Believer, a Sundance-bound documentary that he executive-produced, Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds confronts the way Mormonism treats LGBTQ youth.

What inspired this doc?

We were going to make a documentary about Fremont Street in Las Vegas, [where] I grew up. But [director] Don Argott wouldn’t let me do it without diving into my life. He was living in my home, documenting me and my family, and that opened up old wounds. My dad’s brother is gay and Mormon — he was shamed in his community. Teaching that being gay is a sin is so damaging; it sparked me to take action.

Over at Little Red Tarot, the latest entry in Siobhan’s “Difficult Cards” series explores the light and shadow sides of the Hierophant, the Major Arcana card that represents religious tradition and institutions. The Hierophant can represent the “10,000 Things”, Taoism’s phrase for the multiplicity of entities and concepts that arose from the generative Nothingness of the Tao. As such, we might associate the card with the tribal divisions and stifling structures of organized religion. But the card can also point us to look beyond those things to the unnameable sacredness they try to translate into human terms. It can warn us that de-institutionalizing faith is no safeguard against universal flaws in human nature–the guru’s will to power, the spiritual person’s pride.

All religion seeks to bridge the gap between the mundane and that which is ‘holy’, spiritual, or transcendent. To talk only about structure, items, dogma, or beliefs is to miss half of this card. To talk about or master (as the Hierophant does) matters of spirit, we attempt, even when it’s futile to do so, to articulate that which precedes the physical world. The ether, the void, Tao, “No-thingness”.

“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao…”

All and nothing. The Hierophant affixes the two.

Decolonizing With My Polish Jewish Ancestors

In my post “Problems of Lineage and Magic” earlier this month, I began to explore the concept of ancestor work through the “decolonization” framework that’s developing in the politically progessive witchy community. I’ve begun taking this four-week online course from White Awake called “Before We Were White: Ceremony and Recovery for Anti-Racist Action”. Organizers Eleanor Hancock and Darcy Ottey describe it as a class for “white-identified people seeking greater emotional resilience in their work against racism and for a sustainable future. Together we will explore how ceremonial practice and a strong ancestral identity help us challenge white supremacy as whole people.”

So, despite my loud-and-proud estrangement from my biological family, I’m cautiously investigating the shadow side of my rootlessness. Maybe there’s a level of unburdening from ancestral trauma that can’t happen until I go towards the ancestors and find out what they need me to resolve. Maybe, also, I should look at the role of my mother’s ethnic and class anxiety–dare I say, internalized anti-Semitism–in my past distaste for the parochialism of Judaism and my flight towards the seemingly universal cosmopolitan individualism of Christianity. In theory the post-tribal freedom and egalitarianism of the Jesus movement and the Enlightenment still appeal to me; in practice Western Christianity and Western rationality have frequently given cover to a new tribalism of cisgender white men.

All right, then, if we’re celebrating particularity, which lineage or geographical place is the framework for my ancestral recovery? Ethnically, on both sides, I’m an Eastern European Jew. My mother’s family emigrated to America in the early 20th century (good move, guys!!) from Poland, though I believe they came from Lithuania before that.

This is where it gets tricky. Polish indigenous magic and folk traditions come from the land where my ancestors lived, but do they come from my people? Are the Poles and Slavs ethnically distinct from the diaspora Jews? Are the Jews a race? (Certain people in Poland infamously thought we were…) I’m not sure whether the Slavic pagan deities are allies of Polish Jews, or of the goyim who threw us out.

Judaism, meanwhile, defined itself from the beginning as opposing all forms of folk magic or worship of local spirits. Tearing down pagan altars was a full-time job for the Hebrew prophets. I feel a stronger connection to Jewish material culture and traditions–folk tales, family rituals, recipes, Yiddish songs, immigrant narratives–than to anything Polish. This the actual heritage of my biological relatives. To the extent that I have any experience of inter-generational oral tradition, this is it. However, the religion is inherently contrary to the witchy project into which I would pour these memories.

Jews also have, shall we say, a troubled history with ethnicity- or land-based identity! The decolonization mindset tells white folks, who have a bad wannabe-Indian habit, to “stay in our lane” and reconstruct the indigenous folkways of our own ethnicity instead. I respect that as a negative command: don’t make up a stereotypical, commodified version of tribal practices and pollute the cultural stream for actual Native people trying to preserve their heritage. But I’m not sure about the positive command to foreground your own ethnic background as a determinant of your spirituality. As Myke Johnson asks in her paper “Wanting to Be Indian: When Spiritual Searching Turns Into Cultural Theft”, one of the resources for our White Awake class:

I believe that finding and sharing our own ancestral resources might be one step, but then what? If White people turn to our own ancestral traditions, how are we being different from racist segregationists? How do we recognize our interrelatedness with all peoples, as well as the brokenness between us?

Look at where a religion of sacred land and ethnicity has brought the Jews today. Atrocities are being committed by the hawkish Israelis who find Biblical mandate for taking back “their” homeland from the Palestinians. (I support a two-state solution.) The decolonization framework of Christian imperialists versus grassroots pagans breaks down when it comes to Jewish political history. We lost our roots in the homeland because we were colonized by pagan Romans and crusading Christians, but to reclaim those roots, we have become oppressive colonizers. Enlightenment individualism suddenly doesn’t look half bad.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I’d like to see the literature address this question. Meanwhile, I’m off to Google “Jewish folk magic”. Tonight is a Super Blue Blood Full Moon, a good time to ask my ancestors for guidance.

Grandma Nettie and toddler Jendi playing the piano, c.1974. She passed away when I was 6, taking her kugel recipe to the grave. I think her default advice would be “Use more schmaltz!”

Queer Witchcraft as Resistance: Take the Survey

Via the Little Red Tarot e-newsletter, I learned of this interesting academic research project on the intersections of queerness, spirituality, art, and politics:

Australian academic seeking practicing artists who identify as queer/non-binary/LGBTQIA+ and identify as witches for inclusion in thesis: Contemporary Queer Artists and the Resurgence of Witchcraft as Resistance. Participants must be over 18 and willing to fill out a 16 question survey covering both their art and witchcraft practice. All personal information will be kept private. To take part, email Brooke at fecba001@mymail.unisa.edu.au

Brooke Haba, the researcher, gave me permission to post some excerpts from my survey responses. If your identity fits the description, do get in touch and fill out the questionnaire. I found it to be a useful self-examination of my evolving spirituality.

 

How do you feel [your art practice and your witchcraft practice] intersect?

Both require faith that what Western culture calls “imaginary” is important and real. For me, fiction-writing and spirituality both involve the cultivation of an inner listening that receives messages from noncorporeal beings. Asking my novel characters for fashion advice isn’t any more or less absurd than invoking Baba Yaga to heal my reproductive health problems. (Both of which really worked, FYI.)

I use Tarot spreads or card draws to center myself at the beginning of a writing session, and to suggest plot developments or unexpected images for a scene. I’ve done gratitude and prosperity rituals for my book launch.

In what ways would your art differ if you were not a witch?

I might still be afraid that writing gay erotica imperils my mortal soul.

Does your queer identity relate to your witchcraft practice?

Only in the sense that both depend on believing my own intuition, regardless of what anyone else thinks. Being self-referenced, as the psychologists say. Trusting that my will and my perceptions are the foundation of my reality.

Is witchcraft a form of resistance in the current political climate?

I think it can be, but like any religion or ideology, it isn’t necessarily on the right side (whatever we imagine that to be). Humans are clever monkeys. Any system can get corrupted by our instinct to seek status and domination.

Grassroots witchcraft in America may have the advantage of being decentralized, politically marginal, and lacking large financial investments. Christianity began with radical resistance to empire, but over the centuries, became enmeshed with the political and economic status quo. The tradition accreted as many oppressive concepts as liberating ones. Modern witchcraft currently doesn’t have that baggage to overcome. So it may naturally attract anti-fascist, pro-equality folks. But we should never be complacent that alternative spirituality is any guarantee of authenticity or righteousness. Our biggest temptation could be consumerism—performative witchcraft on Instagram, having all the right swag instead of thinking about what communities our money supports.

Is queer identity a form of resistance in the current political climate?

That’s easier for me to answer YES. Sometimes I tell myself that my gender-questioning obsession is self-indulgent and stupid, like, “Really? You first decide to come out in the Trump administration?” But that’s me, nothing motivates me like the chance to piss someone off!

But seriously, I’m privileged to be as safe as a queer person can be: I pass for female, I’m self-employed, I’m white, and I live in a town where my son can go to Drag Queen Story Hour at the synagogue. If I can’t come out, who can?

Honestly, the only folks around here who are likely to give me grief about trans stuff are some older lesbian-feminist separatists who feel their struggles are erased by the blurring of the gender binary. I really feel this infighting is deadly, not only to us gender-nonconforming folks, but to everyone in the progressive resistance. Divide and conquer, you know. So yes, even against the old-guard Left, calling yourself “queer” is a useful form of resistance because it is an intersectional term—it reminds us to value solidarity in all our diversity, not settle for a world where single-issue groups fight for the crumbs left behind by the One Percent.

What does witchcraft offer that other spiritual perspectives lack? Do you see witchcraft as a spiritual path?

For me, it is certainly a spiritual path. I can’t imagine what else it could be. Without gratitude for the great mysteries of existence, without accountability to the nonhuman web of life, isn’t it just technology—imposing our will on events by manipulating so-called inert matter?

What it offers me is a redirection from dogma to practice and present-time awareness, not unlike the Buddhist and Jewish traditions that are also part of our family background.

I also see witchcraft as a way to integrate my adult self, who thrives on independence, analytical thinking, and political consciousness, and my child self, who is embodied and creative and has always known herself to be surrounded with invisible allies. The modern liberal church is this weird mix of an infantilizing authority structure and a skeptical intellectual culture that dismisses miracles and magic as childish.

Who/what inspires your art practice?

Anyone who is taking a risk to be creative and authentic, in any genre—putting their ego on the line and pushing through fears of abandonment and failure.

 

Two Poems by African Political Poet Ndaba Sibanda

Born in Zimbabwe, Ndaba Sibanda is the author of several poetry collections, including Of the Saliva and the Tongue and Cutting-edge Cache, both published last year. Visit his Amazon page for a full list of publications, check out his website, and follow him on Twitter @loveoclockn. As a subscriber to our Winning Writers newsletter, he keeps me posted with his latest awards and writings, including these new poems, which he has kindly allowed me to publish here. Sibanda’s work often tackles topics of political corruption and injustice.

Is There Dignity In That Immensity?

she said: if that’s greatness
then it`s also big dumbness

at the centre of a storm
was a disheartening slur

does a fooling fortress
feel a people’s distress?

an outcry from Haiti?
an immigrant’s dignity?

at the centre of a storm
was a demeaning affront

aimed at amplifying inferiorities
and shutting out minorities

at the centre of a storm
was a disparaging injury

aimed at scarring ethnicities
and massaging supremacies

was there an outpouring of rage
from African nations and all?

in contemptuous terms
supremacy became diplomacy

who knew that immigration
was degradation in a great nation?

who knew that protection
wasn’t other people`s right?

who knew that being an immigrant
was no assimilation but a crime?

what was Africa’s contribution?
was that not ungrateful dumbness?

what could be a poor immigrant’s input?
maybe the question was: who wasn’t one?

****
As If They Didn’t Know

was our unkind king frog
nocturnal in nature?
they asked when
he had been ferried away

he spent most of the day
snoozing in his citadel
hidden amongst gold
and lies and loot

was our unkind king frog
gregarious in nature?
they asked when
he was unable to croak

he travelled with countless frogs
to many foreign ponds and lakes
he liked lounging in the exotic
meadows and wetlands too

did our unkind king frog
have a sensual soprano voice?
they asked
as if they didn’t know

he was active in the evenings
and at night: inflating his throat
pouch about the urgent need
to protect our lakes and ponds

did our unkind king frog
protect our lakes and ponds?
they asked
as if they didn’t know

January Links Roundup: Truth Is the Cure

Welcome to 2018, friends! This year, I have resolved to be more trans, put a higher priority on my own writing, and go deeper into my eclectic spiritual journey. I’m asking myself why I don’t spend more time on the things that I think matter most to me. Am I deceiving myself about what I really want, or am I uncertain of my right or ability to follow my dreams?

I find that there’s always further to go in healing. More unconscious self-defeating messages to unearth and expose as false. More outworn shapes of life and relationships, now-rusting cage bars to notice and shove aside. More old fears that it’s selfish for me to attempt a more sustainable balance between self-care and availability to others.

A close friend of mine rightly says that “all abuse is a 10 out of 10 to the person who suffers it.” It’s not loving to minimize your experience with comparisons to someone else’s story. However, in the world of social services and self-help literature, non-physical violation is often shortchanged. There are precious few support groups for childhood trauma survivors as it is, and all the ones I’ve found locally are limited to women who were sexually abused.

Andrew Vachss is a successful thriller writer and child protection attorney. His books often deal with themes of child abuse and neglect. Vachss’ Twitter feed is a steady source of affirming messages for survivors of family estrangement and trauma. Originally published in Parade Magazine in 1994 and reprinted on his website, his article “You Carry the Cure in Your Own Heart” validates the struggles of emotional abuse survivors and offers good advice for healing. The guilt feelings he describes are the reason I sometimes get hooked into over-extending myself. Some excerpts:

…[O]f all the many forms of child abuse, emotional abuse may be the cruelest and longest–lasting of all.

Emotional abuse is the systematic diminishment of another. It may be intentional or subconscious (or both), but it is always a course of conduct, not a single event. It is designed to reduce a child’s self–concept to the point where the victim considers himself unworthy—unworthy of respect, unworthy of friendship, unworthy of the natural birthright of all children: love and protection…

*

…When it comes to damage, there is no real difference between physical, sexual and emotional abuse. All that distinguishes one from the other is the abuser’s choice of weapons. I remember a woman, a grandmother whose abusers had long since died, telling me that time had not conquered her pain. “It wasn’t just the incest,” she said quietly. “It was that he didn’t love me. If he loved me, he couldn’t have done that to me.”

But emotional abuse is unique because it is designed to make the victim feel guilty…

*

…Another rarely understood form of emotional abuse makes victims responsible for their own abuse by demanding that they “understand” the perpetrator. Telling a 12–year–old girl that she was an —enabler— of her own incest is emotional abuse at its most repulsive.

A particularly pernicious myth is that “healing requires forgiveness” of the abuser. For the victim of emotional abuse, the most viable form of help is self–help—and a victim handicapped by the need to “forgive” the abuser is a handicapped helper indeed. The most damaging mistake an emotional–abuse victim can make is to invest in the “rehabilitation” of the abuser. Too often this becomes still another wish that didn’t come true—and emotionally abused children will conclude that they deserve no better result.

The costs of emotional abuse cannot be measured by visible scars, but each victim loses some percentage of capacity. And that capacity remains lost so long as the victim is stuck in the cycle of “understanding” and “forgiveness.” The abuser has no “right” to forgiveness—such blessings can only be earned. And although the damage was done with words, true forgiveness can only be earned with deeds.

For those with an idealized notion of “family,” the task of refusing to accept the blame for their own victimization is even more difficult. For such searchers, the key to freedom is always truth—the real truth, not the distorted, self–serving version served by the abuser.

At Womb of Light, Bethany Webster’s resource site about healing wounds from our relationships with our mothers, she analyzes the #MeToo movement in the piece “What’s Going On With Men? The Mother Wound as the Missing Link in Understanding Misogyny”. Patriarchy socializes boys to suppress their emotional vulnerability in order to be considered real men. Sexual desire and anger are the only acceptable feelings. Longing for reconnection with the “feminine” part of themselves, some men reach out to women in distorted and domineering ways, reenacting their ambivalence about the mother-love and powerlessness they felt as babies.

It is as if the inner male child is unconsciously caught between his painful longing for the “lost source” represented by his mother and his cultural conditioning to hate her as a woman. Put another way, men are caught between a natural desire for their full humanity (the ability to be emotional, vulnerable and empathic) and their desire to remain privileged and in dominator mode. The thing is that one can’t have both. To hold on to dominator mode (patriarchy) is to increasingly lose access to your humanity. And to be fully human, one has to forsake the dominator mode, and all the insidious ways it can show up in oneself. No amount of privilege (wealth, power, fame, prestige) will ever compensate for the devastation, to whatever degree, that patriarchy has wrought on the little boy within him. No amount of power over others will ever make up for that lost part of himself. It can only be found through doing the inner work to reclaim it. 

A man can find this “lost source,” not in the form of physical women, but in the form of exploring what it means to reclaim what the mother or the feminine represents within him, such as the feeling function, the world of emotions, the experience of deep connection within himself and a sense of authentic belonging with others. However, in order to access these vital capacities that have been in shadow, men first have to engage with the child within who is angry that there has been little payoff for forsaking these vital aspects of himself. 
 
It’s easier to project rage onto a “mother substitute” or the “father substitute” out there in the world. Male privilege permits men a blindness to their mother and father wounds while the world burns. However, it takes courage to retract those projections and process the anger about the inner patriarch, the archetype of the cruel, unfeeling father, that granted him access to the world of men at the massive cost of disconnection from his true self, the innocent boy who came into this world capable of expressing empathy, emotionality, and vulnerability. The anger belongs with the patriarchal father (personal and/or collective), the “severer of the bond,” who betrayed the boy, who socialized him to give up a vital part of himself to be accepted in this world as a man. The anger also belongs with the mother who was unable to protect him from this patriarchal wound or who may have inflicted it herself. (See my article here about how patriarchy passes through the mother.) When men can direct their anger there, to where it truly belongs, things will really begin to shift.

Radical feminist playwright Carolyn Gage’s blog post “The Crimes Against Thérèse Blanchard” weighs in on a recent controversy about “Thérèse Dreaming”, a Balthus painting on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Balthus was a notable 20th-century painter whose paintings of children and tweens tended toward the disturbing and erotic. Ginia Bellafante at the New York Times provides context in her Dec. 8 article “We Need to Talk About Balthus“:

Several days ago two sisters, Anna Zuccaro, 26, and Mia Merrill, 30, began an online petition asking the Metropolitan Museum of Art to remove, or at least reimagine the way that it presented, a painting, “Thérèse Dreaming,” of a young girl in languorous, erotic recline.

The artist, Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, or Balthus, had used the model, Thérèse Blanchard, the daughter of a neighboring Parisian restaurant worker, over the course of three years, making 10 paintings of her beginning in 1936, when she was 11. The image in question features her at 12 or 13, with her legs bent and slightly apart, her eyes closed, her thoughts seemingly lost to fantasy. Her skirt is hiked up to reveal a red lining and a pair of white cotton underwear. Writing about a Balthus exhibit at the Met, four years ago, the art critic Peter Schjeldahl remarked, “Looking at the paintings, I kept thinking of a line by Oscar Wilde: ‘A bad man is the sort of man who admires innocence.’”

On the face of it the petition, which quickly gained more than 10,000 signatures, seems like a parody of millennial agitation over the need for cultural protections. “When I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past weekend,” Ms. Merrill begins her call for support, “I was shocked to see a painting that depicts a young girl in a sexually suggestive pose.” That is an unlikely reaction for a former art history student at New York University who is involved in feminist causes. But the initial provocation gives way to an utterly reasonable demand, not for censorship or destruction or an idle trigger warning to shield the fragile from being discomfited, but rather for some provision of context, in the form of expanded text for instance, around a work of art that is rooted in the kind of sexualized power abuses we are now so aggressively trying to dismantle.

Those who take issue with the need for these sorts of descriptions argue that we would then be left annotating much of the history of Western art, a position that ignores the crucial distinction between art that imagines or documents exploitation and art that is actively engaged in producing it. Balthus, who died 16 years ago in his 90s, had a longstanding obsession with girls in the early years of their adolescence, whom he often featured nude, in repose, or asleep…

…The Met has said it would not take the painting down (and it shouldn’t) but neither will it agree, a spokesman for the museum said, to offer the viewer more detail about the artist’s orientation and approach, beyond what appears (which includes the model’s name and age). This response comes at a moment when the country is receiving a long and torturous education about the many miseries inflicted on women by celebrated creative men. Commenting in The Washington Post, the critic Philip Kennicott wrote that even an inscription as short and anodyne as one that alerted the viewer to the fact that some might find the painting offensive because Balthus had a long-held artistic infatuation with young girls would be “a concession too far.”

This contradicts the ethos of an age in which we have increasingly sought to understand the moral framework in which nearly everything we consume has been made. Coffee must be produced and labeled in accordance to the principles of free trade, wood flooring must come from sustainable lumber, chickens must be raised and killed humanely. Tech start-ups need origin stories steeped in virtue.

And yet when the product is art and the source material is an actual body, signaling of that kind is apparently dismissible.

I’m with Bellafante on this. Part of curation is providing context for work produced under ethically dubious conditions. When accompanied by a placard that challenges the viewer to think critically, the displayed work can deconstruct the very source from which its aesthetic potency springs–a better teaching moment than hiding the painting in the archives, especially for a famous work whose reproductions are widely available in textbooks and the Internet. Personally, when I was not much older than Therese and her ilk, I was fascinated with the menacing, prematurely aged children in Balthus’ paintings. He was portraying a shadow side of my social world that few others would acknowledge–the cruelty of children, and perhaps the hidden trauma from adults that created these stiff-limbed changelings.

Gage would go further, and take down the painting, which she analogizes to an artifact wrongly seized from a colonized people. As is typical of radical feminists, she may be attributing too singular and fixed a meaning to a complex work of art. However, hers is an original and thought-provoking argument that at least supports the proposition to make the paintings a teaching moment about consent:

 I propose that childhood be recognized as a sovereign state, and that children be treated as the indigenous populations of a world colonized by adults.

Most folks don’t want to think of children that way, because most of us don’t want to consider how many children are living as captives, how the socialization of the child is really about her colonization. It’s easy for us not to think about children this way, because they do not have a voice, a movement, a lobby, a dime—and they never will.  Children do not have a language specific to their experience with which to frame a paradigm of their sovereignty. And that lack of language is one of the most priceless aspects of their culture. It is a culture of astounding plasticity, adaptability. It is a culture of magic, of naiveté, of gullibility, of heartbreaking innocence and spontaneity… and nearly endless opportunities for exploitation.

“Cultural restitution” is a term that refers to returning stolen works of art and artifacts and bones of indigenous cultures. When the Nazis raided the museums of Europe to enhance their own prestige, they were operating according to the laws of their own corrupt regime. These seizures are not recognized as legitimate by a world restored to sanity, and, after a slow start, the stolen works of art are being identified and returned. It is immaterial that they may have been sold to third and fourth parties unaware of their original status as Nazi contraband. The rights of the victims have been affirmed.

“Cultural restitution” also refers to art and artifacts taken from indigenous cultures to be housed in museums or historical collections. Skeletons and burial artifacts are being returned to the tribes from whom they were taken by archeologists. There is an acknowledgement that a sovereign people have a right to their history and their culture, and that it is a violation of the sovereignty for another people, even a conquering one, to appropriate the artifacts of that history or culture…

…Thérèse Blanchard is not alive today. She…cannot stake a claim to the documentation of her abuse. But in continuing to display works like this (and much of Balthus’ canon), we perpetuate the prurience of the perpetrators.

Children have a right to their lives, to their experience, to their privacy. And when a colonizing, predatory adult invades this world, exploiting and monetizing their vulnerability and raiding their innocence in the name of “art,” children should have the right of an indigenous people to claim the artifact that bears witness to their invasion and colonization. And if the child victims are no longer here to stake that claim, then we should make sure that these crime-scene artifacts, no matter how “tasteful” or “masterful” the execution, will never be revered as works of art.

December Links Roundup: Femme Faces of Spirituality

December is the season of Advent in the Christian liturgical calendar, a four-week season of spiritual preparation for Christmas, as well as anticipation of the Second Coming and Last Judgment. (You won’t hear any songs about that in the mall–at least not in the liberal Northeast.) In Protestant churches, the lead-up to Christmas is also the only time of year when an important holy woman, the Virgin Mary, is depicted in our religious scenes or named in our songs. Even then, as I discovered while researching my small-group curriculum on sacred music, there are no hymns with Mary as the main character in the “Christmas” section of the Episcopal Church’s 1982 Hymnal.

At her blog Love Joy Feminism, evangelical-turned-atheist Libby Anne marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses by considering “What Women Lost in the Protestant Reformation”. Libby Anne passed through Catholicism on her journey out of Christianity. Although Catholic doctrine on women and gender is still problematic by modern liberal standards, the historic Church offered more religious role models and life paths for women than did its Protestant competitors:

During the middle ages, numerous female mystics and theologians made an impactin religious faith and practice. Julian of Norwich, an anchoress, is an excellent example, but she is not alone. Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess, wrote theology. Bridget of Sweden wrote an extremely successful book on her revelations and founded a religious order. Mechthild of Magdeburg, Gertrud the Great, and many others wrote books and outlined visions. Catherine of Genoa changed the Catholic conception of purgatory.

With the coming of the Protestant Reformation, religious vocations that had offered women the opportunity to study, contemplate, and write disappeared, replaced by the expectation that all women marry and spend their time in childbearing. The Protestant Reformation circumscribed women’s options, leaving them with just one—submission to an individual man who would be their lord and master.

No longer could a woman become an abbess, gaining some authority over others in her sphere. No longer could a woman eschew marriage and choose instead devotion to religion and learning. Certainly, convents were not perfect. In some cases wealthy women were sent away to take religious orders if her parents did not have enough for a dowry, whether that was their choice or not. The availability of options did not mean that choices were not circumscribed. They were. But with the elimination of options, their choices became only more circumscribed…

…The Protestant Reformation changed the very nature of women’s space. It changed the terrain on which women negotiated their role in society. No longer could a woman go to the pope and petition to create her own religious order. No longer could a woman opt to spend her life in contemplation and study rather than domestic labor. No longer could a woman live in a space dominated by other women, rather than in a domestic household in obedience to a father or husband. To be sure, the options women had were never perfect—but they were options…

…There is something else women lost to the Protestant Reformation, too—the Virgin Mary. Under the Reformation, religion became much more masculine. Gone was Mary, the Mother of God, and gone were the female saints, whom women had related to, asked favors of, and drawn strength from for centuries. Compare the stained glass windows and images in a Catholic church with those in an old-style Protestant church and you’ll see what I mean. We talk about representation. Mary wasn’t perfect, but she provided that.

For me, the Virgin Mary, like the Cross, is a potent double-edged symbol. It’s all a matter of emphasis. One can critique the sex-shaming involved in equating virginity with moral purity, and the restriction of women to the domestic sphere. However, this is not a flaw in Mary, as much as a side effect of patriarchal tokenism, which puts too much pressure on a limited number of female role models to be all things to all people. Looking at Mary in a positive light, she can represent women’s creative power, independent from men and heterosexual reproduction. Like Jesus, this teenage unwed mother voluntarity took on social stigma to follow her own perception of God’s call.

I relate fondly to Mary as a fellow human being, a nurturing figure in my spiritual pantheon. A mother goddess, on the other hand, triggers me severely, with its implication of a perpetual power imbalance and infantilization of her devotees. At the social justice blog The Establishment, this 2016 article by Amelia Quint explores “How Wiccan ‘Mother Goddess’ Worship Disempowers Women”. Quint, a former Catholic, shares that her decision to remain childless made her feel excluded from the traditional Wiccan archetype of Maiden-Mother-Crone.

The prominence of the Mother Goddess archetype in Wicca is not to be understated; in fact, she seems at times to be an intentional foil to the Father God of Christianity…Though many maintained that this motherhood could be symbolic, of creative works or businesses or your own life, I still couldn’t understand why the spiritual equivalent of the prime of my life had to be expressed by an experience I’d opted out of…

…The growing popularity of spiritual accoutrements and consciousness on social media invites the question: Is emphasizing motherhood really reclaiming the agency we’ve fought so hard for? Feminists have fought for the right to flourish outside the home, yet feminist spirituality in many ways returns them to that sphere. The mystique of alternative spirituality is alluring, but as more women embrace Goddess-centered forms of worship, it’s tough to reconcile the fact that many of these practices emphasize the divinity of masculine and feminine archetypes, keeping traditional gender roles intact.

Quint cites some modern practitioners who are working on making the tradition more inclusive, such as Lasara Firefox Allen’s Jailbreaking the Goddess, which imagines a fivefold Goddess archetype based on talents and life stages other than procreation. Quint also consults philosopher and spiritual counselor Briana Saussy, who posits that the common thread of maternal divine figures in world religions is that they help themselves and others heal from great loss:

Isis had to knit her beloved Osiris back together. Demeter had to search the Underworld for her daughter, Persephone, who had been kidnapped and raped. Mary watched Jesus suffer a violent death.

For Saussy, it isn’t the motherhood that takes center stage; it’s the survival of trauma. Unlike generativity or nurturing, losing something we hold dear is an experience that transcends every social construct. A less literal interpretation might have the “mother” be that which puts us back together again. Saussy agrees: “What these various goddesses really tell us is how to move through those losses and see them for what they are.”

Faith-centered trauma healing is the mission of Rebecca Davis’ website Here’s the Joy, a Christian blog that supports survivors of abuse in churches and critiques abuse-enabling theology. For instance, she advises believers to “suffer intelligently”, that is, to beware of martyrdom theology that romanticizes submission to mistreatment:

There is still suffering in the loss of a relationship and recovery from a betrayal, suffering that will remind us to turn our eyes to Jesus Christ for our hope and healing. But this is not the willful suffering of putting oneself under cruelty on purpose, thinking that it will somehow refine you.

There is only one Refiner. It is Jesus Christ. There is only one way to be refined. It is by faith in Him.

Sometimes suffering is completely unavoidable. Sometimes suffering is a path we must go through in order to attain a vital goal. But instead of assuming that all suffering is desirable, we can ask the Holy Spirit to help us discern. Is this suffering completely unavoidable? Is this suffering to be endured for a vital goal?

Or is this a suffering that we can and should escape?

Davis writes that she began to focus her blog on these issues after seeing her church’s failure to help a friend in a domestic abuse situation. I see the femme face of divinity, nurturing and fiercely protective, at work in projects like these.

 

 

Putting Survivors First: No Man Is Indispensable

It’s challenging for us progressives when one of our politicians or cultural leaders is credibly accused of sexual misconduct. In recent days, the #MeToo speak-out against workplace sexual harassment and assault has swept up Democratic Senator Al Franken, venerable PBS talk show host Charlie Rose, and actor Jeffrey Tambor, currently starring in the Amazon Studios hit show “Transparent” as a trans woman undergoing a late-in-life gender transition. We’re tempted to give these men a pass because resistance to the Trump regime seems paramount.

One of my radical Left friends is afraid we’re playing into the hands of pro-Trump Russian operatives who would love to see a purge of liberal media figures and LGBTQ-supportive programming. Many others are anxious about ending the political career of a potential 2020 presidential candidate. Minnesota’s governor would appoint another Democrat to the Senate seat, but he or she probably wouldn’t have Franken’s nationwide popularity and name recognition.

But you know what? Nobody is indispensable. For every male mogul we “can’t afford” to remove, there are probably dozens of equally qualified women in his field who never made it to a key leadership position because of pervasive sexism and harassment. Why can’t we give some of them a chance to fill that guy’s shoes?

Not to dismiss my fellow progressives’ fear and disappointment, but I’m tired of women and survivors being told to take one for the team. You do what you want, but I’m going to make my own liberation a priority.

Progressives’ damage control calculation is uncomfortably reminiscent of incest family dynamics. We can’t send Daddy to jail, he’s the breadwinner. Father So-and-So has done so much good in this parish. Do you want the church to close? There are always persuasive reasons to silence survivors–and that’s no accident. Abusive men are able to maneuver themselves into positions where many people admire and depend on them, by systematically using sexual boundary violations to squeeze out female competitors on their path to the top. Instead of asking whether it’s fair to ruin a man’s career over one inappropriate remark or grope, understand that we’ll never know how many women’s careers were aborted by the behavior of men like him.

(A note on gender terms in this post: On an individual level, not all perpetrators are men, and not all victims are or are perceived to be women. However, on a structural level, the culture of workplace harassment is primarily maintained by powerful men and predominantly affects women and femmes, so this post is more binary than my usual writing. Your friendly neighborhood enby says, please don’t derail.)

My #MeToo Moment

Survivors of sexual assault and harassment have shared their stories with the #MeToo hashtag millions of times since October, when an exposé of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s serial harassment of female employees and performers was quickly followed by similar disclosures about actor Kevin Spacey, comedian Louis C.K., and numerous others. #MeToo was coined 10 years ago by activist Tarana Burke, the program director of Girls for Gender Equity, a Brooklyn-based organization that empowers young women of color.

Closer to home, in late October my high school alma mater sent out a mass email to current and former students, parents, and faculty, saying that the school was investigating alleged inappropriate sexual contact between “former employees” and students in the 1990s and earlier. (I attended from 1982-89.) This probe was reportedly sparked by an alumna’s #MeToo post. What followed was an amazing, heartfelt outpouring of personal stories on our alumni Facebook page–so many of us finally breaking through the walls erected by our school’s competitive culture and by the general pressure on urban teenagers to seem sophisticated and invulnerable.

Our school was an amazing place to be a talented maverick, and gave me a better education than Harvard. But if you want to understand its shadow side, read Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I remember being assigned to read it in 9th grade and not understanding it at all. As David Foster Wallace said, the fish asks, “What is water?”

I reread it out of curiosity last year after I heard that it had queer subtext. Now the title character’s narcissism is blindingly obvious (though I still find Sandy’s religious vocation unconvincing). But as a teen, I must have thought it was normal for teachers to play favorites, track their students into single-issue identities as “the singer” or “the poet” or “the math genius”, and tacitly encourage us to outdo one another in specialness instead of finding solidarity with our peers.

At times I benefited from this system, with life-changing mentors in poetry and theology. At other times I felt crushed by the inability to break into the inner circle of the performing arts departments. Either way I grew up with an unhealthy sense that my fate, and my talents or lack thereof, were mostly unchangeable.

I was bullied a lot, but never sexually harassed or assaulted at school, unless you count the time that the other smartest kid in 7th-grade Latin class looked up all the swear words in our dictionary so he could call me a whore (meretrix). However, the sexually charged atmostphere felt unsafe to me, and I resisted growing up too fast, even though this made me terribly lonely (and led to some awful fashion choices–Laura Ashley fabric should be only for sofas). My mother supported this choice for the self-serving reason that she wanted me to stay childlike and enmeshed. So I’ve spent all these decades feeling ashamed and angry that my peers had a real adolescence while I hadn’t dared.

Our #MeToo Facebook thread dramatically revealed that I wasn’t so different after all. Many of those “cool kids” felt equally out of their depth, and pressured to be too sexual too soon. Poor boundaries between adults and students played a big role here. Many alums on the thread agreed that our teachers and administrators often forgot we were psychologically still kids, despite our intellectual precociousness.

The then-headmaster and school founder, a notorious womanizer, set the tone. He made a pass at my mother during the admissions process: “Your daughter is so smart, you and I should make genius babies together.” Luckily she thought he was gross, and the world was spared the supervillain offspring of two narcissists. Another story: For a profile in the local paper, he told them he was a “libertarian”, but they misquoted it as “libertine”, which he shrugged off by saying they were both correct. Yet this is the same person who first told me I was “A Poet!”, introduced me to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, and reassured me that someday I would be “bien dans ma peau” (fit well in my skin). As Rene Denfeld wrote in The Child Finder, her gorgeous recent thriller about intergenerational trauma, the good in a person doesn’t hide the bad like a costume–the good and bad are inseparable, somehow both true.

It’s been a very emotional experience for me, with these belated waves of compassion and affection for my former classmates (well, maybe not the Latin guy), the grief that we didn’t know how to let our guard down sooner, and the refreshing validation that I wasn’t just a prude–I was right that there was something predatory and boundary-blurring about the environment where our sexual self-discovery was supposed to unfold.

I’ve already made one new/old friend from this group conversation, and hope we will keep up our momentum to share what we’ve learned with the current generation of students. Telling survivor stories changes lives.