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.

September Links Roundup: A Wounded Deer Leaps Highest

At her blog the prowling Bee, Susan Kornfeld has been analyzing each of Emily Dickinson’s 1,700+ poems since 2011. This 2012 post looks at a poem where the moment of greatest anguish paradoxically clothes itself in the appearance of vitality. In Emily’s words:

A wounded Deer –leaps highest –
I’ve heard the Hunter tell –
‘Tis but the ecstasy of death
And then the Brake is still!

The smitten Rock that gushes!
The trampled Steel that springs!
A Cheek is always redder
Just where the Hectic stings!

Mirth is the Mail of Anguish –
In which it cautious Arm,
Lest Anybody spy the blood
And “you’re hurt” exclaim!

I confess I’ve only studied a small fraction of Dickinson’s output, the oft-quoted verses most likely to appear in school anthologies. She is something of a cottage industry round here (Amherst is the next town over from us) so I have also toured her house and seen two movies about her, most recently Terence Davies’ “A Quiet Passion”, which came out this summer.

This film, starring Cynthia Nixon, left me wanting to delve more deeply into the poems, but also feeling troubled and strangely soiled. As it was no doubt intended to do, “A Quiet Passion” inspired righteous anger about how the religious and gender-based constraints of 19th-century society would chafe the soul of an eccentric female genius. At the same time, the film’s portrait of Emily was a compendium of humiliating spinster tropes: lonely, emotionally needy, prickly and barely tolerable even to her loved ones, stunted at an earlier developmental stage while her female peers moved on to the adult roles of wife and mother. I squirmed on her behalf, imagining how this woman who’d made a fetish of privacy would react to the knowledge that her social gaffes and chronic pain were displayed on widescreen for us to gawk at. Is there no merciful oblivion for such things, 150 years after her death?

Fairfield University English Professor Emily Orlando wrote in the July 13, 2017 Daily Hampshire Gazette (our Northampton newspaper):

Perhaps most troubling is Davies’ focus on Dickinson’s decline and decease. Here’s the thing: Emily Dickinson — unlike, say, Sylvia Plath or Edgar Allan Poe — is not known for her death. She is known for her vibrant body of work. And yet, the director chooses to put his viewer — and the exceedingly excellent Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson — through an excruciating, poorly directed death scene. The same is true for the seizures that precede her passing: too long, too agonizing…These overwrought and disturbing scenes, while perhaps intended to illustrate the inadequacies of medical treatment in 19th-century New England, effectively privilege the dying and dead female body — the passive trope of the female corpse that is replicated across Victorian visual culture (think: The Lady of Shalott, Beatrice, Ophelia)…

…One wonders why the film ends with Dickinson’s death, with no mention of, say, the goldmine of nearly 1,800 poems Dickinson left for future generations to discover.

On the multi-authored social justice blog The Establishment, Isabel C. Legarda, M.D. has just published an incisive essay, “Emily Dickinson’s Legacy Is Incomplete Without Discussing Trauma”.

There has already been some scholarship exploring the idea of Emily as a trauma survivor. A research study published in Military Medicine noted evidence that she, along with other notable historical figures, “developed symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of repeated potentially traumatizing events.” A paper from the journal PsyArt finds in her poetry “a psychologically acute description of trauma as a distinctive emotional and cognitive state.”

In 1862, Emily herself wrote to mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “I had a terror since September, I could tell to none; and so I sing, as the boy does by the burying ground, because I am afraid.”…

…Who was the “the spoiler of our Home” whose footfall Emily dreaded, who committed a “Larceny of time and mind,” and of whom she writes, “He put the Belt around my life?”

Of all the poems that support the possibility that she might have suffered sexual assault, and possibly at home, “Rearrange a ‘Wife’s’ affection” is perhaps the most telling and disturbing, filled with notions of violence and self-harm in the first stanza; devastating shame in the second; “Trust entrenched in narrow pain,” “Anguish — bare of anodyne” in the third; and two recurring tropes in her poetry, the “crown” of wifely duty and an image from Calvary, in the fourth…

She opens the last verse with, “Big my Secret but it’s bandaged — ”; it is both a wound and something to hide. In “A great Hope fell” she confesses of this wound that “The Ruin was within” and that there was “A not admitting of the wound / Until it grew so wide / That all my Life had entered it.”

Many poems — “She rose to His Requirement,” “Title divine is Mine,” “I live with Him — I see His face,” and “It would never be Common” — suggest ongoing trauma, specifically the trauma of being expected to be someone’s sexual partner against her will; they express despair at having to fulfill the obligations of a bride without the legitimacy and joy of real marriage. “But where my moment of Brocade?” she asks…

This piece validated my unease with both the Dickinson of “A Quiet Passion” and the general public image of Emily as a stereotypical recluse or “damaged” woman. She was a triggering figure for me because she evokes pity or distaste instead of outrage. We don’t identify with that Emily, we’re not on her side, we don’t want to be her. (Even I, the fame whore, would think twice about the cosmic bargain: “People will buy your books two centuries from now and put your face on a tote bag, but everyone will also think you’re an unsexy weirdo.”)

Legarda finds persuasive hints of sexual assault, probably incest, in Dickinson’s poems, and links to articles by other doctors and critics who see evidence of childhood abuse or PTSD. Although I have mixed feelings about psychoanalyzing authors based on their art, in this case the endeavor seems like it could restore some dignity to a poet who continues to suffer from the assumptions of a sexist culture.

 

August Links Roundup: Authentic Voices, Safe Spaces

I often think about my earlier resistance to the social justice ideas that I now embrace, and how much of that was due to the toxicity of discourse in academic-activist spaces. A revealing test of this theory occurred this past spring when I attended a university-sponsored gender and sexuality conference. I’ve been to this one several times over the years; sometimes it’s amazing and other times underwhelming. This year, I was openly identifying as queer for the first time, and longing for some new friends and welcoming groups, which I didn’t really find because there was too much posturing about being woker-than-thou.

For example: One of the keynote speakers, a trans man of color (Latinx, I think) was exhorting us not to ask random POCs or nonwhite friends to educate us about racism. I hear this a lot, and it makes sense, because it’s exhausting and can feel invalidating to be confronted about one’s identity in a debate format. On the other hand, given that we’re all steeped in misinformation and unconscious stereotypes in a racist society, I’m concerned there’s a risk of an echo chamber when white allies are mainly talking to each other. Books and websites by POC will only take us so far, since there is no monolithic “black point of view” etc. When, if ever, is it okay to ask for a reality check from a friend or educator from a minority community: “Hey, is this a legit source?” or “These authors from your minority group disagree with each other, what do you think?”

When I posed that question to the speaker, he decided to make it an example of him refusing to do emotional labor for white people, and punted the question to the audience, which was mostly college kids. I don’t really need a 19-year-old to tell me to read bell hooks. Was it such a faux pas to assume that someone who’d volunteered to give a speech about anti-racism work would actually answer questions about anti-racism work in that context? It’s not like I collared him at the bus stop.

(To answer my own question, if it’s the non-reciprocal emotional labor that’s the problem, perhaps we shouldn’t ask for insight from POC without offering something of value for their work, similar to paying a sensitivity reader to look at our manuscript.)

I could be gracious about the awkwardness because I’m twice these people’s age and didn’t need to fit into this community beyond a single-day conference, but it reminded me how the interpersonal norms in social justice culture can feel like treacherous shifting sands. I’m not complaining about the challenge of unlearning racist or transphobic beliefs, but the unnecessary humiliation of pouncing on subtle imperfections in manners, word choices, or misreadings of unfamiliar social cues. It’s an exception to the autism-friendly vibe that genderqueer spaces have been great at pioneering.

I don’t want to be a white snowflake who acts like her trauma history exempts her from hearing POC’s anger. On the other hand, I think activist spaces, especially in academia where people sublimate their feelings into intellectual swordplay, need a lot more introspection about reenacting oppressive relationship dynamics. Your feelings are legitimate and maybe you’re not ready to do this work today without projecting them all over the wrong people. That applies to me as well as to the person doing the call-out.

This is a good reason for offering segregated self-care spaces, such as the workshops at this same conference that were designated for queer and trans POC only. It’s also important for members of a majority group to learn how to hold supportive space for minority group members’ anger and sadness, just listening silently and non-defensively. What bothers me is when an event is framed as an all-comers venue for dialogue and education, but the rules change on the fly, and at any moment a participant might silence and shame someone else for “taking up space” as a white, male, straight, etc. person.

At their blog Witch Cabinet, Tarot columnist and healer Andi Grace has a sensitive discussion of how to balance our trauma history with our need to be accountable for racism and other prejudices. In their February post “Call-Out Culture and Being Too Much”, Andi writes:

when i was experiencing intense call outs for cultural appropriation as a yoga teacher, i remember sitting in the acupuncturist’s chair, stifling my deep gulping tears and wanting more than anything else to not exist. to simply cease to take up space – especially space that others could judge as harmful. i was drowning in my shame and my guilt – in so much pain i could barely take care of myself, let alone actually meaningfully respond to the call outs.

this is the part where my truth becomes slippery, tangled, elusive and uncomfortable to talk about. this is where i feel nervous and tender and raw. so please, if you’re willing, hear me out. know that i am coming from a place of love.

maybe if you are also a white woman (former, current or hopeful) you’ll be able to take something away from this terrifyingly vulnerable admission. here goes:

when i have been called out often it feels, in my body, indistinguible from being silenced within the context of rape culture.

now, if you are feeling defensive, i invite you to please take a breathe.. and hear me out for a minute, because this idea is much more complex and humanizing than it seems on the surface.

from what i have observed, call-outs operate with intentional force to silence someone who is saying or doing something oppressive. that is their purpose and function: to check the behavior of people who are holding or reinforcing power in violent ways. and often, call outs are given in public and intentionally humiliating ways in order to hurt people and cut them down. i have received call outs that were so vicious, so cruel, so dehumanizing that they teared my life apart. these kinds of call outs are harsh, violent and often closely mimic the logic of and prison industrial complex:

you did something wrong.
something is wrong with you.
you don’t belong.
you have no one you can trust or rely on.
you are unforgivable.

these kinds of call outs are way more common than i think we want to admit to ourselves. i’ve given call outs like this. it gave me rush of power when i did it. i was passing on the trauma someone else had given to me, that’s how the cycle of abuse works.

and.
but.
however.

that does not mean that i think call-outs shouldn’t happen, or that they are not fundamental to the forwarding of social justice agendas. sometimes people need to be called out. i have needed to be called out – and in. especially on my racism. i needed this to help me check and reel in the entitlement that naturally flows from my whiteness. and i’m not arguing that those call outs need to be call ins or be gentle. not at all.

sometimes calling out is part of survival. sometimes people just don’t have the capacity to be patient and kind and gentle, especially when they are struggling under the enormous weight of oppressive power structures. and, in my experience, the people who do manage the kind of composure for a gentle call in, are working much harder to calm their vibes than most outsiders could ever comprehend.

even though my minds understand the necessity of call outs, my uncomfortable realization remains the same: my body can not tell the difference between being shut-down in the context of a patriarchal rape culture, and how it feels to be aggressively called out (whether the call out is totally legitimate or unnecessarily violent)…

…i know i’m not the only person who has felt some version of this, because i’ve witnessed it over and over again. i see it in the people i do harm reduction work with and i see it with folks i offer mutual support, aid and solidarity to. i see it in women and femmes all the time. understanding this, knowing i am on some level constantly trapped in the box of feeling like i’m “too much” and i take up too much space, i have been pondering: how can i learn to hold my loud, fierce-femme self with the gentleness and love i so need to heal?

Gay Christian activist Kevin Garcia spends a lot of time building bridges to non-affirming and on-the-fence religious people, and is thoughtful about the boundaries we need to put around that work when we feel called to do it. He touches on this issue in his funny and incisive talk at this summer’s Wild Goose Festival, “Owning Your Story”. In a blog post last month, “Brave Spaces and Bigger Tables”, he observes, “We have a bad habit of shitting on our allies” in progressive activist culture.

This past weekend, at the Wild Goose Festival (which, I know, is a SUPER white space), I got to sit through two workshops with Mickey Scottbay Jones of the Faith Matters Network. She talked about this idea of “brave space.”

In Brave Space, we abandon the notion that any space is safe for everyone. Because what is safe for me as a queer guy might not be safe for my trans friends, or for my black friends or for the women in my life. In Brave Space, we acknowledge our imperfections and work hard to be sensitive while also acknowledging that we’re going to mess it up. All of us.

But rather than just totally breaking community with those who don’t have all the right language down, all the right tools in their social justice tool belt, we choose to be gracious. We choose to love bigger. We choose to give space to learning, failing, and reconciliation. We choose to give ourselves to healing. (And yes, that is asking something of those of us who embody marginalized identities.)…

…Don’t get me wrong —I’m annoyed anytime another straight (white, male) pastor gets a book deal or gets invite anywhere to talk about being more inclusive when people could be passing the mic to marginalized folks. And we should be calling out our allies when they aren’t making a concerted effort to do so. We should absolutely call them out when the fuck up, just like I hope people will call me out when I fuck up.

But I know so many people, people who strive to be allies to our community who are too afraid to do more work, to be more visible, to fight more fiercely for justice because they know they’ll likely get their heads bit off and/or get dragged on Twitter if they mess up, or they know that no matter what they do, they’ll still get accosted by us. They’ve seen how we roll, and sometimes it’s beyond brutal.

I know were the salt of the earth, but damn y’all, we can really heavy handed with our saltiness. Maybe we should focus on being light a little bit more. Perhaps we could create spaces that are lined with grace and love, opportunities to grow instead of social excommunication?

For an in-depth look at the concept that Kevin references, see Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens’ academic article “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice”. The piece was prompted by their work as diversity educators in the Department of Residential Education at New York University, training the resident assistants who facilitate student life in the dorms. They contend that “safety” may not be the best word for the ground rules of nonviolent and respectful communication, because every discussion of controversial issues and privilege differentials still involves emotional risk. Assurances of safety are misleading, both for marginalized-group members who already know they’re not safe in this society, and for privileged-group members who feel betrayed by the discomfort that arises from the lesson. The authors go on to discuss common “safety” rules for discussions and how they would tweak them to avoid false unity and silencing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One-Year Anniversary of the Orlando Pulse Massacre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June Links Roundup: Reclaiming Ugliness

I identify most with the Feminine when She is monstrous.

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

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

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

I’m fat, I’m queer, and I’m crazy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Feminism the Right Movement for Nonbinary People?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy Family of Choice! (source)

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