Pride Month at Reiter’s Block

June is Gay-Lesbian-Bi-Transgender Pride Month. Why do I care? Perhaps some of you have been wondering why a straight, married woman has such a queer blog. There are several reasons why this issue has become my particular passion.

On a personal level, I was parented by two women, and experienced firsthand how homophobia among our relatives and neighbors cut us off from an essential support network. When you can’t even admit that you are a family, you can’t ask your teachers or friends for help with family problems, which then are compounded by shame and isolation. Growing up with two very different women also taught me that there were diverse ways of being female. You could wear eyeshadow and long flowing blouses, read Victorian children’s stories, pretend to be a flamenco dancer, and swear like a longshoreman. You could wear motorcycle jackets, pump your biceps, and cook gourmet French meals. So naturally, at the age of six, I decided I wanted to be a pirate king. I still do.

There’s a scene in the Quentin Crisp bio-pic “The Naked Civil Servant” where an army recruiting officer is haranguing the young cross-dresser with the verse from Genesis, “Male and female created He them.” John Hurt, as Quentin, responds with an unflappable smile, “Male and female created He me.

That’s how I feel, as an artist and a person who happens to have two X chromosomes. Until I discovered the notion of gender as performance, I thought I was an inadequate woman because none of the standard feminine archetypes fit me comfortably. Or rather, they all fit somewhat, and I didn’t want to choose between them. (This explains why my wardrobe is half man-tailored striped shirts and half hot-pink spandex.) Little princess, country wife, brainy girl, sexpot, corporate bitch. They’re all fun part-time, impossibly confining otherwise. Gender is like genre. When we live in subjection to a formula, it makes our art untrue.

Actually, before I got married and started using my body for something other than getting from place to place, most of the time I wanted the world to engage with me as pure mind, pure personality, a unique individual rather than a sexual stereotype. In other words, I wanted to be…a man. (Yeah, I blame the patriarchy. But it makes me hot, too.)

The point is, each of us is far more complex than a binary opposition or a set of costumes. It’s a lucky accident that I, being attracted to men, wound up in a female body. For the most part, our society now recognizes that such accidents should not determine whether I can go to school, give testimony in court, own property, or hold a job. Surely the opportunity to love another person, and seek social support to keep that love faithful and healthy, is more important than any of these.

So GLBT issues are my issues, as a subset of the feminist project of setting both men and women (and everyone in-between) free to relate to one another as fully human individuals, not as projections of a dominant group’s fears and fantasies.

My most important reason, however, is theological. Christian opposition to gay relationships is founded on a way of reading the Bible that I find legalistic and self-deceptive, with consequences that go far beyond this issue.

Let me say that I know devout Christians who are on the other side of this debate, who bear no hostility toward GLBT people and are genuinely pained that they have to preach the hard word of self-sacrifice and celibacy to this community. Liberal rhetoric about “compassion” and “fairness” misses the point because conservatives rightly elevate the Bible above secular political values. The latter group of Christians are also trying to be compassionate and fair, at least sometimes, but they’re convinced that their reading of texts like Romans 1:26-27 is the only one that properly maintains the Bible’s authority.

In practice, however, this means shielding the Bible from outside information (historical, scientific, literary, or psychological) that might force us to reinterpret the apparently “plain” meaning of the text. Information such as: Are today’s gay and lesbian partnerships different from the same-sex practices St. Paul was criticizing–as different, in some cases, as today’s heterosexual marriage is from prostitution and child abuse? From a Christian standpoint, is the relevant fact about Hellenistic sexual practices the gender of the participants, or their unequal power relations and connection to idol worship? If St. Paul condemned these acts because the science of his day considered them “unnatural”, should we change our valuation based on the growing evidence that homosexuality is an inborn and unchangeable trait, not a mere lifestyle choice?

Conservatives fear that these other sources of knowledge will displace the Bible, such that we begin judging and rejecting Christian beliefs based on their conformity to some secular ideology, rather than a Christ-centered worldview. As the spread of Enlightenment skepticism into liberal churches shows, this fear has some foundation.

However, the so-called literal interpretation is no less based on empirical data not found in the Bible–everything we know, or think we know, about the situations to which the Bible is being applied. There is no interpretive formula that can magically elevate the Bible to a pristine ahistorical position above the risks and responsibilities of applying it to an ever-changing and mysterious world. To believe otherwise is an insidious form of being our own savior, thinking we can get it right once and for all, and never have to listen to the Holy Spirit again.

By refusing to take in any wisdom from our own cultural moment, however imperfect (like all cultural moments) it may be, we only end up idolizing the cultural moment of 2,000 years ago, including all its scientific mistakes and arbitrary prejudices. Human history didn’t end there. Perhaps God had a good reason for that?

I recently took a psychological evaluation true-false test on which one of the questions was, “I know who is responsible for all my problems.” (The fact that I giggled at this one will probably count against my sanity assessment.) Something in our status-conscious primate brain is powerfully attracted to this statement. As theologian James Alison has written, the Christian message of universal sinfulness and unmerited grace constantly chafes against our instinct to shore up our selfhood by choosing a scapegoat. Jesus became the ultimate scapegoat in order to relativize all these systems of dominance. Compared to the gap between his perfect innocence and our culpability, any distinctions of merit among us are trivial. By forgiving us, he gives us a significance more real than anything we could establish by comparing ourselves to others. And that, my friends, is what upholds the authority of the Bible. Jesus–nothing more and nothing less.

Videos from Spring Open House at Writers in Progress

Last week I read from my novel-in-progress with several very talented women who were fellow alumnae of Dori Ostermiller’s Writers in Progress workshops in Florence, MA. My husband taped the performances on his new “Flip” camera, which are linked below for your viewing pleasure. Each segment is about 10-15 minutes, except for the intro, which is shorter.

Introduction by Writers in Progress workshop leader Dori Ostermiller:

Dusty Miller recounts a budding attraction between two young feminists, one of whom has a terrible secret:

Jendi Reiter reads her prizewinning story “Julian’s Yearbook”, a tale of erotic awakening at a homophobic high school:

Jendi Reiter reads her prizewinning story “Julian’s Yearbook”, a tale of erotic awakening at a homophobic high school:

Kate Kahn reads a poignant short story about a young woman in a 1950s trailer park who hopes for a better life:

Kyra Anderson relates the comic mishaps of a family trip to Mexico with her young son, who has Asperger’s Syndrome:

Kyra Anderson relates the comic mishaps of a family trip to Mexico with her young son, who has Asperger’s Syndrome:

Stephanie Faucher reads from her forthcoming young adult fantasy novel about a girl who discovers a magic book:

Don’t Take Your Breasts to Church

Clothing signifies who we think we are and where we belong in the social order, so it’s no wonder that religious communities have long been preoccupied with dress codes. While I do believe there is such a thing as dressing appropriately for an occasion, I struggle with how that issue becomes entangled with policing women’s sexuality.

To put it bluntly, women’s clothes are sexually coded in a way that men’s are not. Outside of beaches and nightclubs, men rarely wear anything provocative or revealing when they want to dress up. Men can wear a straightforward, professional suit to any special occasion, without worrying that they are sending the signal that they no longer think of themselves as young and desirable.

By contrast, women’s formal wear is all about sexual display. High heels, short skirts, makeup, low cleavage, rich fabrics, and form-fitting clothing are meant to show that a woman is toned, young, sexually confident and worth looking at.

Standards are also more lenient for men. Basically, all they have to do is shave, put on a clean shirt with no logos on it and match their socks correctly, and their wives and mothers breathe a sigh of relief as they settle into the pews.

Women’s clothing involves many more subtle, confusing gradations of formality, trendiness and sensuality. This variety certainly makes it more fun as a potential vehicle for self-expression, but it also opens us up to be judged more harshly according to ever-shifting standards. 

Mixed messages about our clothing reflect the culture’s difficulty integrating the spiritual, physical and emotional aspects of womanhood. We learn, through the fashion choices available to us and their representation in the media, that being a strong, vital, self-confident woman includes proudly expressing our sexual nature. But suddenly, when we arrive in church, people have a whole lot of opinions about whether our lipstick is too red or our neckline is too low.

This can feel like a commentary on more than our fashion sense. In a cultural context where our strength, our value and our sexuality are enmeshed, unequal scrutiny of male and female fashions makes me worry that I’m capitulating to patriarchal theology when I put on a long skirt to visit my friend’s evangelical church. I just want to hear the gospel. Leave my ankles out of it.

Some of us, thanks to God and Herrell’s Ice Cream, are built such that anything tighter than a muu-muu will look provocative. I spent too much of my adolescence wearing granny dresses because I was afraid to attract sexual attention from rude, immature boys. Around my peers, who were sexually precocious and dressed accordingly, I felt like a little girl among grown-ups. No matter how smart you are, no one takes you seriously in Laura Ashley. You’re quaint, like a parrot who can sing the Marseillaise.

Now I’m a mature woman and I want to dress like one. This includes choosing clothes that flatter my figure and express my physical confidence. High-necked shirts make me look like a sack of potatoes. Beyond that, it takes a lot of effort to find age-appropriate, non-frilly clothing that would satisfy the conservative Christian dress code. A woman in her thirties who wears mother-of-the-bride dresses is sending a strong signal that she understands herself to be too old or too shy to be thought of as a sexual being. My booty is not ready for the rocking chair.

Meanwhile, in my liberal church–of course!–anything goes. Do I wish the teenage acolytes wouldn’t wear sneakers under their robes? Sadly, I do. Church clothes should be different from casual clothes for the same reason that the priest wears vestments: to demarcate a sacred time and place, set apart from the world’s business. Am I upset that the tanned, toned young girls sport belly-baring shirts? Only because I’m jealous that I didn’t look like that at their age, and now it would be ridiculous.

Women, let’s be honest about our anxieties about other women’s clothing. This is an area of competition for us. Sexuality is often a proxy for status, authenticity, and confidence. Some of us might like church to be a “safe space” where we get a break from fearing that someone else looks stronger, younger, or more successful. But such judgments can make the space feel unsafe for other women who find interpretations placed on their clothing against their will.

I don’t have a simple rule to solve this problem. Some would say that a certain dress code is part of the package, and if you don’t like it, don’t go to that church. Personally, I don’t see what sola scriptura has to do with polyester print dresses. We give in too easily to the cultural captivity of the gospel. Can we find a way to preserve the reverence of “putting on our Sunday best” while being critically aware of unequal pressures on men and women?

Sponsor Soulforce’s American Family Outing

Soulforce, the nonviolent activist group that advocates for gay and lesbian equality in religious communities, is sending out 21 GLBT families to tell their stories to religious leaders at six leading mega-churches:

Rev. Joel Osteen and the Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas
Bishop T.D. Jakes and The Potter’s House in Dallas, Texas
Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr. and Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland
Bishop Eddie Long and New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia
Rev. Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois
Dr. Rick Warren and Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California

Each family has pledged to raise $2,000 to visit these churches between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Most still have only a few hundred dollars, so your contribution will make a difference. Soulforce families include a mother and her FTM transgender son, a straight couple who have joined the movement to support their GLBT friends, and several gay and lesbian couples with adopted children. Their profiles contain inspiring stories of how they reconcile faith and sexuality. Steve Parelli and Jose Ortiz, for example, were evangelical ministers who met during unsuccessful “ex-gay” therapy. They write:

We believe that evangelical gay Christians have a real message to the church at large: whatever Paul is talking about in Romans 1, it isn’t us. John Wesley of the 18th century taught that the Christian’s authority is based on the (1) scriptures, (2) tradition, (3) reason and (4) experience, and that whenever accepted reason and general experience show one’s interpretation of a passage of scripture to be very unlikely, that one’s interpretation is to be called into question rather than the collective experience of the human race. Unfortunately, evangelicalism of the 20th century has put such a premium on scripture it has perhaps failed to see the significance of reason and experience.

We purpose to lovingly and patiently ask the church to recover Wesley’s principles of reason and experience, and in doing so, to give us audience enough to hear our sacred journey and process by which we dared to question centuries-old accepted norms through reasoning and experience.

While you have your checkbooks out, consider these facts from a recent Human Rights Campaign mailing:

Florida is considering a ballot measure to enact a constitutional amendment to ban marriage equality, civil unions and domestic partnerships for same-sex couples.

Arkansas is considering a ballot measure to ban adoption and foster parenting for unmarried, cohabiting couples, both gay and straight.

Tennessee’s legislature is debating a bill similar to the Arkansas initiative, as well as a bill that would prohibit discussion of homosexuality in public schools until ninth grade.

Find out more about current and pending laws in your state here.

Open Questions About Open Communion

A couple of years ago, my church switched from “all baptized Christians” to “all those worshipping with us” being invited to receive the sacraments, a practice that I hear is not uncommon among liberal churches. This change upset some traditionalists while making others, including my multi-religious family, feel more welcome. I’m content with the current policy, though I wouldn’t be offended if they invited non-Christians to receive a blessing at the altar rail instead.

My personal opinion about communion is similar to how I feel about premarital sex: It’s important to reserve certain intimate acts for a fully committed relationship so that those vows represent a real life change and not a mere formality. However, it’s hard to point this out to someone without shaming them in a way that is worse than the original offense. A public distinction between people (like not inviting your daughter’s live-in boyfriend to Christmas dinner) is less defensible than a private word spoken in love.

Bryan at Creedal Christian has posted a thoughtful defense of closed communion that’s got me wondering about different theories of the sacraments and what they imply for salvation. Bryan writes:

My concerns about violating Church teaching, breaking ordination vows, and making discipleship optional derive from my principal concern that this new theology moves us away from an objective understanding of Baptism to a subjective understanding. On the objective theology of Baptism, here’s what the Prayer Book succinctly says:

“Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble” (BCP, p. 298).

It’s difficult to imagine a clearer affirmation that Baptism objectively makes persons full members of the Church than this. And the implications of the “indissoluble bond” created by God in Baptism are far-reaching. No matter what I do or fail to do – no matter how far away from the fold I may drift – the “yes” that God says to me in Baptism never changes to a “no.” I can always return home, where the father will come running out to meet, embrace, kiss, and welcome me back.

That’s powerful stuff. But since its core meaning derives from Baptism and not from the Eucharist, the baptismal theology of membership and of the “indissoluble bond” are put in peril by the new theology of “inclusiveness” that shifts the locus away from Baptism to the Eucharistic table.

Among other implications, the theology of communion for the unbaptized means that Baptism as the sacramental foundation of the Church gets replaced by the individual’s desire to receive Communion as the ‘sacramental’ foundation of the Church. This signifies a virtually wholesale adoption of a ‘consumerist’ ecclesiology that turns the 1979 Prayer Book on its head. Instead of being primarily about what God does, the new theology is about what the individual human being does. It’s about what I choose and what I desire. Shifting the locus away from the “indissoluble bond” of Baptism to the individual subject’s desires, we can no longer speak (as we do when introducing the Apostles’ Creed in the burial office) of “the assurance of eternal life given at Baptism” (BCP, p. 496). The only assurance we have is what I happen to want right now.

Without pretending to understand how it “works”, I lean toward a strong theory of the sacraments as conveying God’s real presence, as opposed to a mere symbol. In our materialistic age, to say that something only happens in the mind is the first step toward letting it become unreal and irrelevant. I need a startling reminder that God can be as present to our bodies as He is to our minds. The plausibility of the Incarnation is continually refreshed when we are shown that God works this way all the time, infusing the finite with the infinite, bridging the gap between matter and spirit.

However, when we consider baptism as a similarly objective operation, making us “sealed as Christ’s own forever” no matter what we do, are we endorsing a magic-ritual theory of salvation? Is it impossible to “lose” your salvation because the water sprinkled on your forehead had objective power apart from the vagaries of your current desires? I’m more convinced by C.S. Lewis’ argument that heaven and hell are states of being (closeness or estrangement from God) arising from the daily choices that shape our character. I suspect most Episcopalians would agree, to the extent that they believe in hell at all.

Somewhat inconsistently, evangelical Protestants who believe baptism is the dividing line between heaven-bound and hell-bound also have a low-church view of the sacraments as mere symbols of fellowship. Now I am really confused.

I’m being a little unfair to Bryan, since his post wasn’t focused on soteriology, but I’d like to know what baptism “does”, in an Episcopal theology of the sacraments, beyond making the individual believer feel subjectively committed to Christ. As a practical matter, any church that’s going to re-close its communion table will have to explain this to the congregation.

“Julian’s Yearbook” Wins Chapter One Promotions Short Story Competition

Marianne Moore may have wanted imaginary gardens with real toads in them, but what’s even better is imaginary friends who earn you real money. “Julian’s Yearbook”, a chapter from one of my two novels-in-progress, has won first prize of 2,500 pounds in the Chapter One Promotions International Short Story Competition. In this episode, Julian grapples with first love and homophobia at his Southern high school, while taking steps to launch his career as a fashion photographer. Here’s the beginning:

Desire smells like acid in the dark. Its face is a hundred faces, rising out of the stop bath, materializing on grey paper like ghosts. Your ghosts and mine; you knew them too. The football heroes joshing in a group shot, a chorus line of manly awkwardness. There’s the clown, the golden boy, the dull and violent sidekick. You’ve got to remember that snub-nosed blonde with too much school spirit, whose mascara you almost forgot to clean off the backseat of your daddy’s car. Memory kisses her lips back to pink, repaints these black-and-white yearbook photos in the streaked denim and poison green we wore when Reagan had his finger on the big red button.

Everything’s digital now. Hollywood no longer needs a thousand sweating extras to watch a gladiator die. It’s amazing that clients still fly me to Milan or Los Angeles to photograph an actual shoe on someone’s foot. I’m a Southern boy so perhaps I romanticize inefficiency. But I miss the days when you put something more than your eyesight at risk for a picture. I wonder how many of us went mad as hatters from the darkness, the fumes, acid seeping under our rubber gloves, the tension of this hurried intimacy with a masterpiece we had only one chance to perfect or spoil.

The story will be published in Chapter One Promotions’ 2008 anthology, which you can order here.

Northampton Pride 2008

Yesterday Northampton held its 27th annual Gay Pride March, attended by 7,500 people. My husband and I and one of my moms marched with the good folks from MassEquality, the group that successfully lobbied to preserve equal marriage rights in Massachusetts, and their Connecticut counterpart, Love Makes a Family.

MassEquality is currently advocating for the Equality Agenda, a variety of state legislative and funding initiatives including transgender civil rights, “safe schools” programs, and HIV/AIDS prevention.

Behind that sign, I’m wearing my rainbow “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” tank top, available here from Cafe Press. The leopard-print sequined lid is from Mrs. Dewson’s Hats in San Francisco. (I received objective proof of my fabulosity when a young gay man asked to buy it from me. I let him try it on.)

That’s MassEquality organizer Ryan Brown on the left, with other supporters whose names I didn’t catch, as we march down Main Street past the courthouse.

An appreciative crowd on Main Street.


Some of our more colorful characters.

What to Do When Your Glasses Break

My beloved, unstylishly large eyeglasses went kaput this week, after 10 years of faithful service. Since without them I am as blind as Mr. Magoo, I put on my driving glasses and headed to the eye doctor for a long-overdue checkup and a new prescription. I’m not sure what she said after “As you get closer to age 40…” (the very thought induced brain freeze) but the upshot was, I bought a lovely pair of Armani frames, then spent the afternoon on the couch in a darkened room waiting for my eyes to un-dilate.

Cut off from my usual sources of entertainment, I searched the Internet for someone to “tell me the story of Jesus”. If you’re ever in a similar predicament, start with the Coffee Cup Apologetics podcasts at the Internet Monk’s blog. His conversational musings take a little while to get to the theological heart of the matter, but there’s always a memorable original insight to take away. Recent topics include the New Atheists (Dawkins et al.) and what it means to be post-evangelical.

Then I headed over to God’s iPod for a sermon by Rob Bell of Mars Hill Church. Just as in his book Velvet Elvis, his preaching includes a great deal of economic, social and religious background information to show how Jesus’ parables would have resonated with his audience, yet his style is down-to-earth and approachable, not academic.

Still on my to-do list: check out the Charles Spurgeon sermons dramatized by Charles Koelsch on the Spurgeon Audio Page.