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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Killing You In My Mind: My Early Notebooks

A few years ago, a writer friend and I were briefly obsessed with the reality show Storage Wars, where a colorful cast of junk-shop dealers competed to bid on abandoned storage units. Since they could only glance at the mystery pile of crap before committing to a price, it was anyone’s guess whether they’d find a cache of rare coins, or a locked safe containing a fake severed hand.

To avoid disappointing future rag-pickers on national TV, this month I am purging my off-site storage room, which contains all the papers, books, and knickknacks I’ve hoarded since the 1980s. (At least that’s what I think is in there…I opened up an envelope marked “stock certificates” yesterday to find photos of my dolls’ wedding.)

In the manner of the Great Book Purge of 2014, chronicled on this blog, the storage excavation gives me an opportunity to discover how my beliefs and attitudes have changed, or not, in 30 years. My trajectory is hopefully of interest to someone other than myself, because understanding the psychology of our political or religious opponents is necessary for any bridge-building in these angry times.

Moreover, as an adult with a child of my own, I can look back at my teenage journal entries and see the ways that my elite schools failed me emotionally, even as (or in part because) they held me up as an academic and artistic success story. My junior high and high school for “gifted children” was wonderful at encouraging multiple kinds of academic and artistic intelligence, but also tended to track kids into the one thing they were superior at and keep them there, and make them too responsible for caretaking other students’ jealousy. We received the weird mixed message, “Be the best you can be, but if you’re bullied, it’s your fault for showing off.” (Not unlike my home life with a narcissistic mother, actually, who swung constantly between demanding that I look thin and pretty as a reflection on her class status, and enviously hiding me in ugly clothes like Cinderella.) I reached a point where I simply wouldn’t try anything I wasn’t already good at, even something as small as switching from sanguine chalk to rough black charcoal in figure-drawing class. Harvard provided superlative opportunities for meeting smart and creative people, but the grading and teaching ethos was predominantly about sorting students into winners and losers, rather than teaching everyone at the level they were on. Maybe I can offer future educators some clues for spotting and supporting traumatized overachievers.

Or simply a good laugh at these gems of misanthropy from my early notebooks. Take, for example, the opening of the mid-90s sestina “The Seven Deadly Virtues”:

Patience first, that pale child dressed in rueful
red, in the brute fears of some banal game
struck down, unable to go against the grain
of her virtuous feebleness, to repel
the force of the frustration that forms
the first thing we learn. Those who can prevent

torture never recognize it, nor prevent
us from giving the name Forgiveness to the rueful
realization we’ve missed our chance at revenge…

(That’s not half bad, though the rest of the sestina becomes awfully long-winded as I attempt to hit those end-words.)

Along the same lines, this list from January 1992 may sound detached and philosophical, but I well remember the anguish of wondering why my “good” self diverged so much from the traits that actually helped me stay alive. List #1 is redacted because its length embarrasses me now.

List #1: My Moral Virtues

Loyalty
Compassion
Willingness to be a nonconformist for a good cause
Concern for ethics
Sense of my own and others’ dignity
Maturity/responsibility (no drugs, no casual sex, no self-destructive pleasures except too much snacking)
Artistic integrity

List #2: The Qualities I Like Best About Myself

Intelligence
Deviousness/effective rhetoric
Assertiveness
Ability to resist oppression through manipulation of the oppressor
Self-preservation instinct
Ambition (without betraying or stepping on others)
Sense of personal style

One can almost glimpse Julian peeking out of the closet in that second list, waiting for me to love him more than those deadly virtues. Instead, these notebooks contain the long-lost original drafts of several quirky but over-intellectualized and gloomy short stories, mostly about humiliated fat women or cruel parents. (Autobiographical much??) From the 1993 tale “Pinocchio Died for Your Sins”, I see that I hated Disney’s film then as much as I do now, for the same reason: it punishes children for not avoiding the temptations and deceptions that adults deliberately put in their path.

This thought experiment from March 1993 reminds me of child abuse expert Alice Miller’s radical midrash on Genesis in Thou Shalt Not Be Aware:

Anthropologists like to say that God and religion are just projections of things we don’t want to admit are really human creations (e.g. norms and taboos that are merely man-made are called God-made). But what if the reverse is true? What could the reverse of that be? …perhaps that we and the rest of the created cosmos are merely projections of things God doesn’t want to face about Himself.

It’s like Beatrice in [Nathaniel Hawthorne’s] “Rappaccini’s Daughter”–her poison is made to bear sole responsibility for an evil we all share. Did God cause original sin so He could blame us for it? In other words, evil came from God’s character flaws but He made us so we’d bear the blame. I don’t actually believe all this but it’s an interesting concept.

What strikes me about this juvenilia is how fiercely I was attempting to be loyal to myself, in the face of social pressure or ideologies that promised an end to loneliness and guilt…for a price. Equally striking is the consistency of my difficulties with Christian virtue and belief, side by side with my attraction to the tradition. Really, nothing has changed, though at the time I framed my dissent as rational individualism rather than trauma activism or queer theory. My long goodbye to Christian identity in the past 3-5 years has been shaking my confidence in any fixed sense of myself or my perceptions, but it shouldn’t. I was always trying different routes to the same goal.

Such as, for instance, November 1990’s “The Instantaneous Reiter Method for Determining the Direction of One’s Existence,” my fancy-ass name for a list of pros and cons about my possible call to Christian ministry. (Little did I suspect the two most important reasons: “vestments are too hot” and “you will become a pagan in 2014”.) In case you want to try this at home, Step 1 was “Write down all the thoughts and feelings you have about the proposed course of action,” and Step 2, “Analyze the philosophical implications of each part of Step 1.” The upshot was, I was aesthetically drawn to Christianity and comforted by a community where I didn’t have to compete or excel (“It would also be nice to love God,” I confessed), but I couldn’t honestly say that a desire to serve God or other people was paramount.

What I feel in church–am I being religious, or is it just an escape from my problems (psalms that say God will protect the righteous)?…I always loved church before I had any problems [Ed. Note: What, as a zygote??] or before church helped. But is religion the last refuge of a scoundrel, or is what you discover in hardship equally (or more) valid as what you discover by peaceful thought?…It would seem that even if now you know how nice it would be to be looked after, that doesn’t make it any more moral or plausible to accept or expect it.

Guys, this is kind of sad, huh? I was truthful enough to realize that it was codependent caretaking to become a minister in order to get love and protection, but no one in my family, church, or education had taught me that I was entitled to love and protection just because I’m human. Nothing immoral or implausible about that.

It’s strange, in retrospect, that my sense of victimization by greedy and arbitrary educational gatekeepers coexisted with my bootstrapping libertarian philosophy, which led me to write some cringe-worthy student newspaper articles about infantilized, needy, “victim culture” (think of your standard editorial against trigger warnings today). I think I was feeling that I shouldn’t have to abase myself, or reveal my private wounds, in order to receive basic kindness and a fair assessment from others. Not that this makes my arguments less wrong, but it suggests that those most vocally against “safe spaces” may be secretly the ones most in need of them, and in despair of finding them.

I leave you with this politically clairvoyant satire of a college entrance exam, from November 1990. Just think, if I’d remained my creed-wielding, Federalist Society dues-paying self, I could’ve been Betsy DeVos.

Existence Aptitude Test (EAT)
“the test to end tests”

There is a penalty for wrong answers. The Educational Testing Service thinks the difference between right and wrong is important. There is also a penalty for right answers. The Educational Testing Service does not want to foster antisocial elements whose intellectual superiority threatens the self-esteem of others and weakens the social fabric.

Therefore, only work out the problem when you have tried to guess and failed. Remember that the least imaginative guess is most likely to be right.

Good luck.

Part I: General Knowledge

(1) Time
(a) past and time present
Are both perhaps contained in time future.
(b) and tide wait for no man.
(c) is money.
(d)

(2) Space
(a) is curved.
(b) and time are one.
(c) is limited, so act now!
(d) ____________

(3) Death
(a) shall have no dominion.
(b) be not proud.
(c) and taxes are inevitable.
(d) to the Educational Testing Service!

(4) The world
(a) is too much with us, late and soon.
(b) is charged with the grandeur of God.
(c)
(d)

(5) Beauty
(a) is truth, truth beauty. That is all we know, and all we need to know. Stop. Do not complete the rest of this exam. Hand in your paper to the proctor.
(b) and the Beast lived happily ever after.
(c) is in the eye of the beholder.
(d)

(6) God
(a) is dead.
(b) is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.
(c) bless [insert country’s name here]
(d) knows.

(7) Energy
(a) =mc squared
(b) can neither be created nor destroyed.
(c)
(d) is eternal delight.

(8) Life
(a) is a bitch and then you die.
(b) is a beach and then you dry.
(c) is a bitch and then you marry one.
(d)

Part II: Literature

(1) Lord of the Flies is about
(a) an entomologist.
(b) the devil.
(c) sadistic teenagers.
(d) Harvard.

(2) The title of Gone With the Wind refers to
(a) Scarlett’s dress when Rhett carries her upstairs.
(b) the gracious and infinitely superior Southern way of life.
(c) Atlanta burning.
(d) Margaret Mitchell’s notes for the lost final chapter of the book, in which Scarlett sues Rhett for alimony and Ashley fulfills his latent homosexuality.

(3) In Moby-Dick, the whale represents
(a) the Holy Grail.
(b) the forces of nature that overpower humanity.
(c) a society dominated by the white male power structure which the disabled and disadvantaged seek to infiltrate or destroy.
(d) Harvard.

(4) Coleridge’s lines “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/a stately pleasure dome decree” suggest
(a) a drug experience.
(b) a world of poetic fantasy.
(c) the Taj Mahal.
(d) Donald Trump.

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November Links Roundup: Queer Connections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit his Facebook page to learn more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming Out Witchy, and Other Links on Spirituality and Trauma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

baba_yaga_and_the_skulls_of_her_enemies_by_secondlina-d63rkgr

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sisters in Healing: Poetry from Margaret Gish Miller’s “Blood Moon Weather”

English Literature teacher Margaret Gish Miller may be retired, but she’s not resting on her laurels. At age 70, she has published her first poetry collection, Blood Moon Weather, through Dancing Moon Press. In it she lovingly depicts the bond between sisters healing from paternal incest, and looks back with wisdom and self-acceptance at the formative moments of her growth to womanhood.

The poems are written in a simple narrative mode, without stylistic tricks, yet a close reading reveals how nonlinear and complex the story really is. The gaps between facts are not visible on the page but in the mind. Small sensory details and isolated events are vividly remembered while the significance of their juxtaposition is left for the reader to ponder, like retrieving a traumatic memory in non-chronological fragments. At times the incompleteness left me unsatisfied, wanting to know the context for an anecdote, or to draw closer to characters who fascinate from a distance. But this is the kind of personal material that a writer often has to approach in stages, relieved, as here, with lighter and life-affirming poems about love and desire in her long marriage.

Margaret has kindly allowed me to reprint a sample poem below. Read Ed Bennett’s positive review in the July 2016 issue of Quill & Parchment.

Jellyfish

Like lingerie
suspended in
space inside
an aquarium

their pastels delicate,
soft as roses with thorns.
For they say jellyfish

have no heart and
sting in self-
preservation, a part

of their seductive
water dance.
I must have

had the heart
of a jellyfish
at twelve.

For that man, in his
fisherman’s fascination,
caught me. Kept me
as his own. And I
repeatedly stung
myself for this.

This debris
of my heart so sore
I soar into this space

and time
to gather the girl
that was you.

August Links Roundup: The Negative in Sex-Positive

This past March I attended the 5 College Queer Gender & Sexuality Conference at Hampshire College. One of the best workshops was “Sex-Negativity Never Happened”, led by Skramz Geist, a radical philosophy professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. We talked about how the “sex-positive” norm in queer communities can be exploited to push people’s sexual boundaries or create an uncomfortably sexualized environment. A theme that emerged was that no community rules are immune to subversion by a determined predator, whether they’re the consent and communication scripts of queer and kink spaces, or the rigid sexual boundaries in conservative churches, where I once sought protection from an emotionally numb and risky hookup culture. I read very little theology anymore, because it failed to perform what for me was its prime function: identifying safe people and creating safe spaces.

Very few hits come up when I Google “compulsory sexuality”, which is sad because this concept would have taught my 20-year-old self that feminism was about more than the right to get drunk at frat parties and have abortions. This 2010 review of Andrea Dworkin’s Right-Wing Women, from the feminist blog Fannie’s Room, provided a rare moment of validation for my motives in becoming a Young Republican:

Dworkin argues that, for good reason, Rightwing women fear the Left. The Left of the sixties was “a dream of sexual transcendence…. It was- for the girls- a dream of being less female in a world less male; an eroticization of sibling equality, not male domination” (91). What this meant in practice, however, was that it essentially freed men to fuck women “without bourgeois constraints” (91). What this meant for women was “an intensification of the experience of being sexually female- the precise opposite of what these girls had envisioned for themselves….freedom for women existed in being fucked more often by more men, a sort of lateral mobility in the same inferior sphere” (93). The Left, that is, continued to construct women as sex, while men continued to be constructed as the Doers Of Important Things.

Further, “sexual liberation” created an expectation that the sexually liberated were ready for sex at any time, effectively negating the concept of consent. Those who were not ready for sex were considered “repressed,” not liberated. For women, for whom pregnancy was sometimes an outcome of this sex free-for-all and for whom abortion was illegal, the consequences of sex were higher than for men. Rightwing women feared sexual liberation as it meant unfettered male sexual access to women, and possibly pregnancy, without the expectation of male support via traditional marriage.

This scenario was all too true for the many women who were mentored and sexually harassed by prominent theologian John Howard Yoder in the 1970s-90s, as history professor Rachel Waltner Goossen details in “Mennonite Bodies, Sexual Ethics”, a recent essay from the Journal of Mennonite Studies, reprinted at the sexual abuse survivor blog Our Stories Untold. Yoder is still widely cited and revered for his theology of pacifism, despite brave dissenters who point out that we should be skeptical of nonresistance preached by a sexual predator. Goossen observes:

For several decades, through the 1970s and 1980s, Yoder approached women with sexual invitations and intimidating behavior at the seminary, at academic and church conferences, and in homes, cars, and gathering places across the U.S., Canada, and a host of international settings. The women’s experiences varied widely. While each was acquainted with Yoder in some way, most of these women were not known to one another nor aware of Yoder’s sexual aggressiveness toward others. (One woman, married and much younger than Yoder, whom he surprised in the mid- 1970s with sexualized physical touching and who reacted with instant rebuke, later remembered the incident as deeply troubling: “It messes with the mind. I wondered, am I special to him? Is he lonely?”10)

Yoder justified his sexual approaches to women as theologically driven. He solicited help from female students and others, describing his entreaties as part of an “experiment” in sexual ethics in which he and a circle of “sisters” tested ideas about sexual intimacy outside marriage. For approximately eight years, over the objections of his supervisor at the seminary, president Marlin Miller, Yoder offered biblical justifications for his behavior based on Jesus’ ministry to women and what Yoder termed “the freedom of the Gospel.”11 Yoder argued that his ministrations to women were potentially therapeutic, and although he lacked formal training in psychological counseling, maintained that he wanted to help women overcome feelings of taboo. He intended to “defang” (or tame) “the beast,” he said, helping Christians to reject notions of sexuality as “a beast or a slippery slope which is … uncontrollable.”12

Yoder’s speculative project, arising as part of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, coincided with widening societal expectations about consensual sex. Although sexualized violence against women in the United States did not intensify markedly during the sexual revolution, one leading historian of the era notes that “In the new sexual order, the standard for consent had to be renegotiated. Why would a woman say no if sex presumably resulted in no harm? And who would believe that a woman had withheld consent, given new expectations of participation in the sexual revolution?”13 At a historical moment when lines were blurring about what constituted permissible sex, Yoder exploited notions that loosening sexual boundaries portended no harm.

The historian being cited in footnote 13 is Estelle Freedman, Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013). Hat tip to @GrumpyTheology for this article. Follow her for truth and cat pictures.

Consent and Altsex Culture is another recent gem of a post from Thing of Things, a funny and thought-provoking blog about philosophy, neurodivergence, gender, and nerdy special interests.

…[I]n our culture sex-positivity has a distressing tendency to collapse into compulsory sexuality.

What happens in a lot of cases is something like this: in conventional patriarchal culture, there are people women are supposed to fuck (their husbands) and people women are not supposed to fuck (everyone else). There is a socially legitimate reason for a woman to say ‘no’ to sex to anyone who isn’t her husband. And while there might not be much concept that women can say ‘no’ to sex with their husbands (remember that marital rape only became illegal in every US state in the nineties), most husbands are not rapists, genuinely love and care about their partners, and have no desire to have sex with their wife when she doesn’t want sex. While this is a terrible system in a lot of respects, it did reduce the harm of compulsory sexuality for many women.

Unfortunately, in this system, the natural way to do sex-positivity is to expand the set of people women are supposed to fuck. It is limiting to only have one person you’re supposed to fuck! Now you are supposed to fuck all your friends, or all the people in this intentional community, or everyone! Isn’t that great? We’re helping!

And, of course, if you’re supposed to have sex with a lot more people, then you’re much more likely to have sex with a rapist, or with someone who grew up in a culture that doesn’t give a shit about consent and who doesn’t have any reason to care about your emotional well-being. You’re a stranger, after all.

The worst excesses of the free love movement in the sixties birthed radical feminism, which instituted the rule that sex that one person involved did not want is rape. Most alternative sexuality communities seem to work under a similar rule today. This is a serious improvement, which I am not going to criticize.

However, I worry that a lot of alternative sexuality culture lends itself well to compulsory sexuality in more subtle ways…

…How can we fix this problem? I think part of the solution is just talking about it and trying to be aware of the pressures in our communities and the way that they make some people feel unwelcome. Another part is to explicitly work on including not just the sluts but the prudes in sex positivity– not just the people who want sex more or in different ways than society approves of, but the people who want sex less or don’t like some of the socially accepted kinds of sex. (Not, of course, that these are mutually exclusive.) And I do wonder if there are any simple changes we could make in communities dominated by kinky, poly, slutty, cuddle-prone etc. people to make them more welcoming to vanilla, asexual, monogamous, low-libido, not-in-favor-of-cuddling-strangers etc. people, without sacrificing our own needs and values.

Ozy’s blog is an unusual place: the comments are intelligent, and trolling is swiftly stopped. The ones below this post are worth a read. And of course feel free to share your own experiences and suggested solutions in my comments box too.

Don’t #DiagnoseTrump: How Progressives Exploit Mental Health Stigma

Cards on the table: I preferred Bernie Sanders’ leftist economics but am content to vote for Hillary Clinton this fall. Neither the persona nor the politics of Donald Trump hold any appeal for me. That decision made, I’ve skipped most of the election coverage that clutters my newsfeed. But I haven’t been able to ignore the slew of headlines labelling The Donald with various mental illnesses and personality disorders, culminating in the Twitter hashtag #DiagnoseTrump. This level of ableism from my supposed progressive allies scares me almost as much as a Republican president’s Supreme Court picks.

Speculative diagnosis of public figures is a common, yet basically unethical, tactic in modern journalism. The trend has gotten so out of hand in this election that the American Psychiatric Association had to issue a warning, as reported in yesterday’s Washington Post. The APA publicly reminded its members of the “Goldwater Rule” it issued in 1964 in response to a similar feeding frenzy around another GOP presidential candidate:

On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.

Simply put, it’s inappropriate to diagnose someone you haven’t treated as a patient, or to share that diagnosis without their permission.

My concern is not so much for Trump’s feelings or privacy, as for the climate of fear and shame this diagnosis-mania creates for ordinary people with mental health conditions. “Nothing about us without us” is the guiding principle of disability activism. To make better policies that protect the mentally ill and support their recovery, we need elected officials who’ve experienced the problems firsthand and are motivated to prioritize them. This can’t happen when we think it’s fair game to mock and disqualify any candidate with a diagnosis.

Moreover, there’s a huge difference between diagnosing someone in order to help them heal, and diagnosing in order to humiliate or silence them, which is what #DiagnoseTrump is all about. The latter is an abuse of power, plain and simple, which many of us have already encountered in our brushes with the psychiatric profession. Sometimes I think social workers should be required to give Miranda warnings. The current political discourse reinforces our fear of seeking professional help.

It gives me great anxiety to see my liberal friends on social media happily sharing bullshit from wellness guru Deepak Chopra about how Trump is “emotionally retarded”, and to have them push back when I explain how this language makes life harder for the non-neurotypical. Is Trump a narcissist? Maybe, but for what it’s worth, I was once diagnosed with narcissism for talking faster than the clinician could take notes, needing hourly bathroom breaks, being a virgin when I got married, and not being able to take a multiple-choice test when the radio was on. If the GOP is looking for a replacement candidate, I’m ready to serve.

For additional disability-informed perspectives on politics and daily life, follow @thisisableism, @riotheatherr, @crippledscholar, @theoriesofminds, @punkinonwheels, and @rsocialskills on Twitter.

Book Notes: Queering Sexual Violence

The new anthology Queering Sexual Violence (Riverdale Avenue Books, 2016), edited by Jennifer Patterson, is a must-read for social service providers, activists, policymakers, and anyone who studies child abuse and intimate partner violence. It includes personal essays, poems, artwork, and hybrid-genre pieces by Sinclair Sexsmith, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Sassafras Lowrey, the late Chloe Dzubilo, and 32 others.

The book fills a gap in the common understanding of abuse as something that men do to women and children, and as a social problem best solved through legislation and policing. This familiar picture excludes survivors for whom the carceral state does not routinely offer justice: people of color, the disabled and neurodiverse, and of course the many LGBTQ people who hesitate to out themselves to the police and the courts, fearing that their victimization will only be compounded. (Think, for instance, of the Orlando Pulse shooting victim whose homophobic father refused to claim his body.) QSV is first of all intersectional, with a diverse list of contributors who explore the ways that both victims and perpetrators may need liberation from the web of oppression that binds them together.

Some of my favorite pieces confronted the question, taboo in mainstream “Born This Way” LGBTQ discourse, of causal links between trauma and sexual orientation/gender identity. Lately I’m haunted by the question of whether I’d be genderqueer if I hadn’t been abused by my mother, particularly her controlling and shaming of my gender presentation and sexual maturation. Who is that mythical woman I might have become in a happy family? Am I allowing my mother to steal my womanhood along with my childhood? Is my lifelong wish for my uterus to wander away forever a self-harming trauma reaction?

Funny thing, though, I never ask myself (nor am I asked by anyone else) whether I’m legitimately heterosexual, or whether my disinterest in sex with women is a trigger that I should overcome. Both trauma and queerness are stigmatized, deemed to be in need of explanation, and so I’m always tempted to split or disclaim these parts of myself. As Pam Mack writes in her piece on “Mother-Daughter Sexual Abuse”:

While I believe that my personal development was harmed by the abuse [by her mother and grandmother], I can still claim as mine the preferences I have evolved, whatever combination of innate, abuse-conditioned and the product of growth and healing they may be. And I can let them change over time, if I want. Knowing this hopefully provides another way of moving towards a culture in which a wide range of choices are seen as valid, even ones that may have been shaped by abuse… It is freeing not to feel I have a responsibility to make myself as normal as possible. Aren’t we all shaped by pain? (pg.57)

Jennifer Patterson’s essay “These Bones” also showed me I wasn’t alone in this struggle:

The conscious and unconscious ways people pervert sexual and gender identity through the lens of abuse has been something I have experienced consistently since I began identifying as queer and a survivor. Those who wish to render me deviant search for sources of my “illness,” a root for my queerness. They quickly find it when they learn I am a survivor. Not only is my queerness “understood,” then, it is sometimes challenged for validity. As in: maybe I am not really queer, maybe I am just damaged. I reject all of the judgments placed on my body and my relationships. The need to validate my sexual identity did not exist when I was in “straight” relationships with cisgender men…

…To believe that people “become” queer by way of violent exposure also informs a false idea of safety within our queer communities. When people imagine that I “became” queer because of the violence I experienced, not only do they believe that violence made me queer, it’s as if they believe that queer people don’t experience or perpetuate violence. This is not even close to being true. (pg.105)

(I think she means “perpetrate” rather than “perpetuate”; the book could have benefited from more careful copyediting and proofreading.)

Amita Yalgi Swadhin’s essay “Queering Child Sexual Abuse” considers flipping the causation around:

…[Q]ueer people who are willing to be out about our sexual orientation are already seen as non-normative. In a way, we have less to lose by also coming out as survivors of child sexual abuse than straight people do, since survivorship is in and of itself a queer (non-normative) identity.

And therein lie our opportunities.

We now know that, regardless of sexual orientation, people who exhibited gender non-conforming (or genderqueer) behavior in childhood were at a much higher risk of sexual abuse to begin with… The risk of experiencing sexual abuse for gender-non-conforming boys is especially alarming, at rates two to six times higher than gender conforming boys… If more queer survivors tell our stories publicly, we may be able to bring this data to life and pressure prevention and intervention efforts to account for the higher risk of sexual abuse that genderqueer youth (many of whom are not straight) face. (pg.219)

Meanwhile, Jen LaBarbera’s essay “Welcome Effects: When Sexual Violence Turns Girls Queer” embraces her attraction to women as one of the good things that came out of her abuse by her brother. She challenges both LGBTQ and survivor communities to drop the respectability politics that de-legitimize her experience.

The anthology includes many other good pieces on the healing aspects of kink/BDSM, alternatives to the prison-industrial complex, the intersection of personal and societal trauma from racism and poverty, and how we can keep ourselves safe without handing over our perpetrators to an oppressive system. Follow @QSVAnthology on Twitter for related articles, giveaways, and news of upcoming readings.

Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: Cross Purposes

When visiting a friend in Toronto last month, I had the pleasure of discovering Glad Day Bookshop, the world’s oldest LGBTQ bookstore. One of my purchases was this 1989 essay collection, Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique, edited by Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn. There are too few books devoted to reworking Christian theology from a trauma perspective, so I’m always happy to find another. This one shares some of what I perceive to be the limitations of Second Wave feminist theology: binary thinking about gender, and a tendency to imitate the universalizing attitude of their opponents, assigning a single oppressive or liberatory meaning to an image (e.g. God the Father) that is actually experienced in a more complex way by diverse believers. That said, it’s an invigorating and necessary book that doesn’t hesitate to break taboos in order to be firmly on the side of survivors.

Not every essay resonated with me enough to blog about, but I’ll be posting about it now and then, to pull out the insights that meant the most to me. Today I’m looking at the first entry in the book, Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker’s “For God So Loved the World?” Parker later expanded this critique of Atonement doctrines into Proverbs of Ashes, the hybrid memoir/theology book she co-wrote with another contributor to this volume, Rita Nakashima Brock. I’ve never gotten around to blog-review Proverbs because the theology is so interwoven with the narrative that it’s hard to summarize, so the executive-summary version here is a real help.

Brown and Parker state the central problem: women have a hard time realizing they are oppressed because they’ve been convinced (by religion, among other forces) that their suffering is justified. “The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive. If the best person who ever lived gave his life for others, then, to be of value we should likewise sacrifice ourselves. Any sense that we have a right to care for our own needs is in conflict with being a faithful follower of Jesus.” (pg.2)

As long as Christianity glorifies suffering, Brown and Parker say, women who stay in the church and try to reform it from within are like battered wives who believe they can change their abuser. Whether or not you agree with this strong statement of the case, they correctly, in my view, identify some dangers of the various Atonement doctrines that Christians have accepted.

In classical orthodox theology, the suffering and death of Jesus were required to save us from sin. The three main formulations of how this works are Christus Victor, Penal Satisfaction, and Moral Influence. “[T]hough the way in which suffering gives birth to redemption is diversely understood, every theory of the atonement commends suffering to the disciple” and therefore can keep Christians trapped in abusive situations. (pg.4)

The Christus Victor theory sees the Crucifixion as a supernatural confrontation between God and the forces of evil. In the Resurrection, God reveals that the power of love and goodness is stronger than that of sin and death. This is my own devotional approach to Jesus and the Cross. As I understand it, Jesus’ martyrdom was unique to his role as a divine being, not something we are supposed to emulate. Brown and Parker don’t give this theory the complex treatment it deserves, even in a short essay. They do make the valid point that in preaching and writing about Christus Victor, the reality of human suffering is often minimized as an illusion or a necessary prelude to a person’s spiritual rebirth.

I think they overstate the case when they say that “victimization never leads to triumph” (pg.7) and we should always refuse or fight instead. This isn’t actually an option for every abuse victim. In our haste to build a movement, let’s not set up a hierarchy of “good survivor” behaviors. Also, sometimes refusing suffering in the short-term means enabling it in the long-term, e.g. by not setting boundaries in a relationship before it reaches a tipping point of dysfunction. I don’t believe that submitting to suffering is a virtue in itself, but a mystical sense of oneness with Christus Victor helps me endure the suffering that is a by-product of my choice to resist abusive people and systems.

Penal substitution is the Atonement theory you’ll hear in evangelical churches and probably most Catholic ones. Liberal churches don’t talk about it much, but they generally don’t spell out an alternative, so the congregation absorbs it anyway through the hymns and lectionary readings. The average person thinks “Christ died for your sins” is the Gospel, because that’s the number-one point that televangelists and street preachers want to make you believe. Brown and Parker are ready to drive a stake through the heart of penal substitution, and I applaud that.

In brief, substitutionary atonement means: Sin is an offense against God’s goodness, but we are too flawed to be able to repay that debt, so Jesus, who was perfectly good, was the only one who could satisfy it by taking the punishment we deserved. What’s wrong with this picture?

First, it depicts God as a tyrant who is more concerned with offenses to his honor than with reducing the amount of suffering in the world. (We can see from the U.S. prison system that an emphasis on punishment over rehabilitation has made our society more unjust and violent.) The theory reflects medieval, monarchical norms that are not our political ideal today.

Second, purification through blood sacrifice is a concept taken from ritual practices in the ancient Jewish Temple. Is this framework as relevant to us as it was to Jesus’ audience? Brown and Parker additionally argue that it is a patriarchal displacement of the reverence we should have for the truly life-giving blood, which is women’s menstrual blood and birth flow. As an infertile woman in chronic pain from endometriosis, I feel like a second-rate female when I read this argument (talk about spiritualizing away suffering!), but if you have a better relationship with your uterus than I do, it’s worth thinking about. The authors are correct that patriarchal religions have sanctified certain kinds of bloodletting while projecting uncleanness onto the kind associated with women. On the other hand, the ability to participate in the blood/fertility archetype through symbolic means, when you can’t do it literally, can be a liberating way to “queer” fertility and divinely embodied creativity.

Third, Brown and Parker expose the abuse-enabling assumptions behind penal substitution. For me, that’s where this essay really shines. I remember making a journal entry about 6 years ago, when I’d just begun thinking of myself as a survivor: I suddenly realized that the relationship between God, Jesus, and humanity in Martin Luther’s simul justus et peccator doctrine was exactly like being the child of a narcissistic parent. The real me is sinful humanity, unacceptable and in line for punishment if I try to be authentic. Jesus is the false self I project in order to get “love” and be considered good: the perfect, obedient, enmeshed child, of one being with the Father. But this goodness is only imputed to me through a fiction we both collude in. It never feels like real acceptance.

Brown and Parker write:

The imitator of Christ, which every faithful person is exhorted to be, can find herself choosing to endure suffering because she has become convinced that through her pain another whom she loves can escape pain… But this glorification of suffering as salvific…encourages women who are being abused to be more concerned about their victimizer than about themselves. Children who are abused are forced most keenly to face the conflict between the claims of a parent who professes love and the inner self which protests violation. When a theology identifies love with suffering, what resources will its culture offer to such a child? And when parents have an image of a God righteously demanding the total obedience of “his” son–even obedience to death–what will prevent the parent from engaging in divinely sanctioned child abuse? (pgs.8-9)

The third traditional Atonement theory they critique is Moral Influence, first proposed by medieval theologian Peter Abelard as a rebuttal of Anselm’s penal satisfaction model. This is the one I hear most often in liberal sermons. Abelard contended that the obstacle to reconciliation is not God’s wrath but our unwillingness to believe in God’s mercy. Jesus’ willingness to die for us should be conclusive proof that God loves us and deserves our grateful obedience.

On the surface, Moral Influence seems humanistic and empowering, with its promise that our peaceful forbearance in the face of mistreatment can inspire wrongdoers to repent and reform. But this theology can resemble the false beliefs that make us try to salvage harmful relationships: If I never lose my temper… if I love him more unselfishly… if she sees how much she’s hurting me… they’ll stop the abuse. Moral Influence is perpetrator-centric, and it is least likely to work on the worst offenders because they are incapable of empathy or honest self-assessment. Politically, it also implies that marginalized people’s suffering is ours to consume:

Theoretically, the victimization of Jesus should suffice for our moral edification, but, in fact, in human history, races, classes, and women have been victimized while at the same time their victimization has been heralded as a persuasive reason for inherently sinful men to become more righteous. (pg.12)

…In this pattern of relationship, communion is maintained through the threat of death. The actual deaths or violations of women are part of the system just as necessarily as the death of Jesus is part of the system that asks for us to be “morally persuaded” to be faithful to God…

…To glorify victims of terrorization by attributing to them a vulnerability that warrants protection by the stronger is to cloak the violation. Those who seek to protect are guilty. Justice occurs when terrorization stops, not when the condition of the terrorized is lauded as a preventive influence. (pg.13)

Brown and Parker conclude by surveying some contemporary attempts to rescue Atonement theology from its oppressive past. They give qualified support to the Suffering God theory developed by Ronald Goetz, Edgar Brightman, and the process theologians. “God is unfinished. Suffering occurs because of the conflict between what is and what could be within God. Hence, God participates in the suffering of all of the creation, groaning together with the creation in the travail of perfection coming to birth.” (pgs.15-16)

The problem is that solidarity is not necessarily liberation. We’re still left with the question of why Jesus’ death, or anyone else’s, should be effective, especially when the suffering in question is not an “act of God” (disease, natural disasters) but deliberately caused by human beings. Perhaps a partial answer is that God’s willingness to be wounded by empathy is a role model for us to come out of denial and into true relationship (pg.17). Nonetheless, Brown and Parker would prefer an emphasis on choosing the goodness of life, with suffering as a by-product:

Redemption happens when people refuse to relinquish respect and concern for others, when people refuse to relinquish fullness of feeling, when people refuse to give up seeing, experiencing, and being connected and affected by all of life. God must be seen as the one who most fully refuses to relinquish life… The ongoing resurrection within us of a passion for life and the exuberant energy of this passion testifies to God’s spirit alive in our souls. (pg.19)

I think this part of the essay would have been more successful if they’d acknowledged the paradox of suffering: that we need theology both to help us reject and resist unjust suffering, and to help us find meaning and dignity when suffering is unavoidable. Now, how do we discern which situation is which? Abstract, universal theories can’t substitute for our personal intuition and the guidance of our trusted friends and teachers. No theology is abuse-proof.

Since I’m not attached to calling myself Christian anymore, I can say somewhat more objectively that the authors’ redefinition of “Christianity” as a kind of humanism that rejects all of the faith’s core distinctives–Christ’s divine nature, redemption through the Cross, original sin, the need for salvation, and the historical Resurrection–is almost as crazy-making as it was when I aggressively believed in all those doctrines. Just be a vegan, don’t argue with everyone that your mushroom is a steak.

Maybe this doublespeak is an unfortunate side effect of the authors’ determination to stand and fight rather than suffer. I feel it’s kinder and wiser to take the hit, to grieve for my loss of a home in the church, than to turn the church inside-out so it becomes what I need. I can critique the worst of the abuse-enabling doctrines while accepting the fact that the basic orientation of Christianity, even at its most liberal, is more self-denying than I want to be, and therefore not something I can “reform” my way back into. Do it if it works for you. I’ll visit sometimes.