Stay Tuned for Miss Trans Northampton Pageant, Sept. 5

The first-ever Miss Trans Northampton Pageant is scheduled for next Saturday, Sept. 5, at the Northampton Center for the Arts. This is one of only a few such events nationwide. Eight Massachusetts transwomen will compete in the categories of glamour, poise, evening gown and talent. “Transgender” is a broad term that includes transsexuals, transvestites, and those who choose not to identify as either male or female.

The Springfield Republican newspaper ran a story on the event yesterday. Pageant organizer Christa L. Hilfers’ gender odyssey is interesting in itself:

Hilfers, 33, moved to Massachusetts three years ago from South Dakota. Born a biological male, Hilfers was raised by her mother as a girl. She went into foster care at age 9, but was allowed to continue living as a female.

“I didn’t try to live as a boy until I was 18,” she said.

Hilfers had a child with a woman, but the relationship failed, and she has not seen her daughter, now 15, for years. “After that I realized I could never be a boy,” she said.

Part American Indian, Hilfers spent some of her life on a reservation in South Dakota. Although her fellow Indians were accepting of her, she found South Dakota a difficult place to be transgender. She and her husband, a heterosexual male, moved here so they could get married. His family still doesn’t know Hilfers is transgender, she said. She considers herself a straight female.

Hilfers has competed in pageants for most of her life and won the title “Miss Gay Rochester, Minnesota” in 2003. Once she moved to Hampshire County, she identified Northampton as a good place for a transgender pageant.

“It’s really safe,” she said, “and not just for transgender people.”

That’s the kind of statement that makes me proud of our town. In other news, Northampton will host the second annual New England Transgender March and Rally on Oct. 3. See my coverage of last year’s event here.

Christian Community in Fiction

Nathan Hobby, an Anabaptist Christian and fiction writer in Western Australia, posted some worthwhile reflections earlier this summer concerning what it means to write novels for the kingdom of God. In this essay, Nathan unpacks N.T. Wright’s directive to write “a novel which grips people with the structure of Christian thought, and with Christian motivation set deep into the heart and structure of the narrative, so that people would read that and resonate with it and realize that that story can be my story.”

Nathan observes that a lot of popular fiction with the “Christian” label is unfortunately cheesy and simplistic. Brian McLaren’s books, such as A New Kind of Christian, use a fictional narrative to put across some sophisticated ideas in an emotionally accessible way, but are not well-crafted as novels. The same might be said of The Shack, an unlikely bestseller about the Trinity, which I admit I enjoyed despite its clunky plot.

In the modern naturalistic novel, it’s a challenge to dramatize complicated abstractions without turning one’s characters into speech-makers. The rules of the genre also make it difficult to represent the supernatural in anything but a subjective and fuzzy way. The author who throws in a miracle seems to be cheating, unless he leaves open the option of material causes. The take-away lesson of the book may then become more about the virtue of having faith than about the content of that faith. (Did you clap your hands to save Tinkerbell or not?)

Nathan’s essay discusses his own struggles to solve these problems, leading him to the conclusion that too much conscious purpose on the writer’s part can thwart the emergence of well-rounded characters. He’s inspired by N.T. Wright’s message that salvation is not merely personal access to heaven but a project of improving this world here and now. Thus, the novelist can spread the kingdom by depicting what a community based on gospel values would look like:

The three aspects of this that [Wright] discusses are justice, beauty and evangelism. He talks about
justice in terms of the setting right of the world as a sign and symbol of what’s to come. He talks
about beauty in terms of us creating things that reflect simultaneously the beauty of the original
creation, the scars of a fallen world and the hope of the new creation. Evangelism, then, is the
invitation for others to join in the kingdom life, and it needs to reflect the kingdom focus and
hope for renewal of the Earth.

A community-centered literary vision presents its own challenges, Nathan notes, because the novel is a product of Enlightenment individualism. It tracks particular characters rather than groups. “The focus on the individual and the individual’s
consciousness pushes the novel toward individualism and mere spirituality.”

Since my own novel is about a fashion photographer’s faith journey, I was especially interested in Nathan’s suggestion that a novel can reorient our standards of beauty in a more Christian direction:

…[B]eauty has a new shape for a community living in
the kingdom. So, how might beauty in fiction be transformed by the practices of the Christian

There is an obvious and trite answer – for a start, the upside down values of the kingdom
challenge the world’s idea of beauty attached to slim, young models. We might also strain
ourselves and insist that prose is more ‘beautiful’ when it describes a world of God’s presence,
rather than one of his non-existence.

Perhaps in the diversity of the body – the breaking down of racial barriers in the church as a
proclamation of Christ’s victory over the powers – we might also be encouraged to find beauty
outside our cultural comfort zone.

I would like to think that Nathan’s right that prose is more beautiful when it describes a God-infused world. But I’m not so sure. What is beauty, anyhow? Literary tastes vary as much as theological ones, and maybe for similar reasons. Because I’m already a believer, a gorgeous style wedded to a nihilistic vision will seem false to me, perhaps more of a turn-off than if the bleak content were matched by austere prose. On the other hand, that same book might satisfy someone who’s looking for transcendence in art because he doesn’t find it in religion.

I do love Nathan’s notion that a Christian book could bring our aesthetic and moral judgments more into harmony, so that goodness and reconciliation seem more attractive than conventional beauty standards based on inequality and extravagance. My fabulous protagonist, however, hopes there is a place for both, because Vogue is paying his rent.

Upcoming GLBT Conferences: Send Me Your Reports

Three conferences of interest to GLBT Christians and straight allies are coming up this autumn. My heteronormative family responsibilities are likely to keep me from attending any of them. So I’m counting on you, dear readers, to send me your reports from the field. Write up your impressions and I’ll consider them for publication on this blog, or send me a link to your own blog post about any of these events.

Why Homosexuality? Religion, Globalization, and the Anglican Schism
Yale Divinity School, New Haven, CT
October 17, 2009

This interdisciplinary conference is sponsored by the LGBT Studies Department at Yale. “Rather than restaging the arguments for and against the ordination of openly gay clergy, this day-long conference analyzes the threatened schism in the Anglican Communion in order to examine wide-ranging and interrelated issues of religion, secularism, globalization, nationalism, and modernity. How and why, we ask, has homosexuality come to serve as a flash point for so many local and global conflicts?”

The Ivy-League roster of panelists includes Harvard’s Kwame Anthony Appiah and Mark Jordan. Registration is a dirt-cheap $10, which includes lunch and conference materials. I so, so want to be there…please, someone go and videotape this for me!

Translating Identity Conference
University of Vermont, Burlington, VT
October 24, 2009

“The Translating Identity Conference is a free conference focusing on transgender communities and gender identities. Open to the public, this event hopes to reach out to the University of Vermont, the Burlington community, and the nation as a whole to further educate us all about gender. With multiple sessions and workshops to choose from at any time, some will be directed specifically towards trans-identified people, while others will be for families, friends, and lovers of trans persons. Some will be for those already well versed in this subject area and some will be for those who are fairly unfamiliar with the transgender community and the topic of gender identity. This conference is a safe space for everyone to come, learn, and enjoy themselves!”

Registration is free, but donations are gladly accepted. The 2009 speakers’ list is not yet available online. Last year’s participants included Kate Bornstein and Gunner Scott. In this informal 10-minute video, the young transpeople who are organizing the conference introduce themselves and talk about the upcoming events.

Soulforce Anti-Heterosexism Conference
West Palm Beach, FL
November 20-22, 2009

Co-sponsored by Soulforce, Truth Wins Out, the National Black Justice Coalition, Beyond Ex-Gay, Box Turtle Bulletin, and Equality Florida. The purpose of this conference is “Building Community to End the Harm Caused By Heterosexism & Reparative Therapy”.

“The 2009 Anti-Heterosexism Conference is open to everyone who cares about the welfare of LGBTQ people and wants to help stop the harm caused by heterosexism, reparative therapy, ex-gay ministries and other sexual orientation change efforts. Conference attendees come from all walks of life and many professional backgrounds, including LGBTQ people, clergy, educators, mental health professionals, and allies. By attending this conference you will learn to:

* challenge heterosexist attitudes that exist on personal, interpersonal, institutional and cultural levels.
* speak out publicly against the dangers of reparative therapy, ex-gay ministries, and other “conversion” efforts.
* build community to advocate for LGBTQ people and support them in leading successful, happy, and productive lives.

“The 2009 Anti-Heterosexism Conference also serves as a counter to the misinformation and harm perpetuated by the national antigay group NARTH (National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality) which will be holding its annual conference in West Palm Beach on the same weekend.”

Conference registration is $145, going up to $195 after Oct. 5. Visit Soulforce’s website to make a donation to support this event.

Read the American Psychological Association’s recent report opposing “ex-gay” conversion therapy here.

Gender Binary Versus Gender Spectrum: Implications for Gay Rights

The “T” in GLBT causes anxiety for some gays and lesbians, or so I’ve heard. It’s not only that a minority seeking mainstream acceptance may feel tempted to push some of its more flamboyant members out of the spotlight. Trans-people demonstrate the fluidity of gender, which potentially threatens one common argument for gay civil rights.

Conservative Christians tout the dubious successes of “ex-gay therapy” to alter sexual orientation. Since change is possible, they contend, there really is no such category as homosexuals, and therefore they should not be a protected class under the law. Understandably, gay activists point to scientific research and personal testimonies suggesting that same-sex attraction is biologically based, innate and mostly unalterable.

From what I’ve read about the ex-gay movement, it seems that the evidence is not on their side. Most participants merely learn to avoid acting on their undiminished desire for the same sex, and to conform to current stereotypes of masculine and feminine self-presentation–what Eve Tushnet satirizes as “salvation through pantyhose”. As Tanya Erzen observes in her excellent sociological study Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement, these attempts to instill heterosexuality through gender performance (lipstick for lesbians, football for gay men) concede that gender is socially constructed, contrary to the movement’s explicit ideology that male and female roles are God-ordained and distinct.

Meanwhile, the recent investigation into world-champion runner Caster Semenya shows that even scientists are divided on how to determine whether someone is male or female. For a few people, the answer may legitimately be “neither”:

“About 1 percent of people are born with some kind of sexual ambiguity, sometimes referred to as intersexuality,” according to The Associated Press. “These people may have the physical characteristics of both genders, a chromosomal disorder, or simply have ambiguous features.”

Steve Connor, science editor for The Independent, speculates that Semenya may have “androgen insensitivity syndrome,” a condition that affects 1 in 20,000 women. They “look, feel and behave like women,” and have female genitalia, but they have XY chromosomes, making them genetically male. Often, says Connor, these women do not know they are male until they attempt to have children.

A chromosomal test alone does not produce a definitive result, however. “Women who tested positive for ‘male’ genes might still have most of the physical characteristics of women,” says The Times of South Africa. Therefore, physical examinations, hormone tests and other tests are needed to verify the results.

Even after the comprehensive testing is complete, it will not be entirely clear whether Semenya is a woman. Alice Dreger, a professor of medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University, told The New York Times, “There isn’t really one simple way to sort out males and females. … At the end of the day, they are going to have to make a social decision on what counts as male and female, and they will wrap it up as if it is simply a scientific decision.”

As GLBT activists, we may find ourselves speaking as essentialists with respect to sexual orientation, but social-constructionists with respect to gender. This isn’t really coherent. If gender can change, as exemplified by trans-people, why can’t sexual attraction? To put it another way, if my own “femaleness” is to some extent a performance overlaid on my essential self, why is the “maleness” of my partner non-negotiable? Perhaps a better argument for the rights of sexual minorities would be to say that it’s abusive to introduce shame, judgment, and stereotypes into the most intimate place in a person’s psyche, the source of their ability to love and be loved.

Trans-people might even say that they’re not so much changing their gender as bringing their external appearance into harmony with an inborn sense of themselves as male or female. Like sexual orientation, this self-concept may feel so fundamental that it cannot be comfortably suppressed. 

Northampton’s most fabulous transwoman, Lorelei Erisis, has a new column in The Rainbow Times, Western Massachusetts’ GLBT newspaper. This month, she addresses a reader’s question about the relationship between gender identity and sexual orientation. (Lorelei’s column begins on pg.6 of the PDF of the August issue.) “Confused Dyke” asks:

…What is happening in our LGBT community
with the confusion over who is trans and how
trans has really become the new “queer.” With
that I mean, how can a trans man or trans
woman turn around and say that they are gay?
To put it frankly, I thought that a trans person
suffered from gender dysphoria and that once
they transitioned they would be engaging themselves
in relationships with members of the
opposite sex. But, what I see is that trans
women are with women, and trans men are
with men. Wouldn’t it have been easier (since
you’re going to end up loving the opposite sex
that you were originally born in) to simply have
stayed biologically male or female and then be
with someone of the opposite sex? Why make it
so complicated and difficult to understand for
all of us and especially the mainstream closeminded
society that surrounds us….

An excerpt from Lorelei’s response:

A transperson changes their gender presentation,
whether full-on surgically or through less
dramatic means, so as to more accurately
match the gender that they feel they are or
should have been.

This has very little to do with who they are
attracted to.

We are attracted to the people we are attracted
to based not on how well, or not, our genitalia
fit together, but for a whole host of other
reasons that I think most Gay, Lesbian and Bi-
Sexual people are fairly familiar with. There
are whole fields of research dedicated to this.
In short it’s usually some combination of inherited
disposition, environmental development,
hormone wackiness or sometimes because you
just happen to find punkguys with big blue
mohawks super hot! Okay, maybe that’s just
me, but I think you get the point.

Allow me to present my own example. I was
born male bodied. I knew from very early on
though that I was not male. Somehow, appearances
to the contrary, I knew I was a woman. As
I grew up, whenever I looked in the mirror, I
saw a stranger with my eyes looking back. I
was disconnected from this admittedly handsome
man looking back at me. Since I have
begun to transition and my body has been
changing, that has changed. More and more
often when I pass a mirror, even naked, I catch
a glimpse of a beautiful woman and when I stop
and look, I see myself standing there! It is me!
My own reflection as I knew I should have
been! As I knew that I was. It is an incredibly
liberating feeling.

For many years however, for a variety of reasons,
I did try to live as a man. I had always
considered myself to be bi-sexual, but in general
practice I was mostly attracted to women. I
fooled around and experimented, but guys just
never did it for me. I think I liked the male-female
dynamic more than anything else.

When I began HRT (Hormone Replacement
Therapy), and began to live full-time as a
woman, some funny things happened. First,
since I have been in a long-term relationship
with a super-sexy woman, my sweet love
Widow Centauri, I discovered that I was now a
lesbian by default. I regularly Out myself, without
even realizing it. I’ll mention my girlfriend
in conversation, without thinking anything of it
because I had previously been perceived as a
mostly heterosexual man. I will watch people’s
faces go from “My God, you’re a gigantic transsexual!!”
to “And you’re a lesbian too?!?!!?”

The other thing that happened, that caught me
off guard, is that I am now also very attracted to
men! Not simply theoretically, but in a suddenly
distracted, “Oh wow, check HIM out” sortof-

Physiologically, with the HRT, I’m going
through puberty a second time, with all the
attendant 14-year-old girl hormonal madness.
Simply put, I’m suddenly Boy Crazy!
Thankfully, I have an open relationship and an
encouraging girlfriend, so I’m free to explore
these bright shiny new feelings!

I’m a girl now and I want to see what it’s like
to be with a boy. Does that make me straight?
I’m fairly certain that cute boy in the Red Sox
cap I saw going into Hooters would disagree.
But is there any good reason?

Plus, my head still whips around when a cute
girl passes me by in the street! So what does
that make me?

Further, why shouldn’t a pre-op transman and
a cisgendered (not trans) gay man have hot gay
sex?!!? Last I checked, there was no end to the,
umm, sexual inventiveness gay people are
capable of in the pursuit of a good, gay time!!

We have as wide a range of sexualities as the
rest of the population. Being trans simply
means that we have re-aligned our gender in a
way that more closely matches our self-image.
That self-image may be a man who is gay or a
woman who is not. Or, like me, that self-image
might alter subtly as we attain our true selves
and learn more about who we are.

It’s just an example of the complexity of the
interactions between our gender and our sexuality.
They are separate things, but it’s not a
closed system. There is overlap and influence.
Unexpected things can happen when you go
playing with gender! That is also why we are so
inextricably intertwined with the LGBT
(QQIK, etc….) community and why we belong
in the movement.

As long as the rest of society looks at anyone
who doesn’t match their idea of the hetero-normative
gender-binary (did I mention my girlfriend
is a sociologist?) and indiscriminately
labels us “fags” or worse, we will be fighting
the same fight on the same LGBT team, whatever
our self-image might be.

Read the whole article here.

William Childress: “How the Earth Was Made”

William Childress is a Pulitzer-nominated author and photojournalist who is regarded as one of the foremost poets of the Korean War. His books include Burning the Years and Lobo. “Chilly” is a Winning Writers subscriber and an endlessly entertaining correspondent. He emailed me one of his latest poems, which I liked so much that I got permission to reprint it here. Though I don’t share the narrator’s atheistic conclusion, I can relate to the feeling that God’s creation is so much grander and more mysterious than some of our stunted human concepts of the divine. Sometimes, religious ideas (like any ideas) can be a distraction from appreciating what’s right in front of us.

How the Earth Was Made

I was a youngster when I walked a trail
Through autumn woods a nonexistent god
took credit for. I never thought it odd
that to a child, the world was magical,

and yellow was the color of enchantment.
It wasn’t simply that a golden hue
should bejewel and complement the blue
eternal arc that made a firmament,

but that the sky itself should overlay
my own poor silly guise. There had to be
so many ways to create such a world,
ways understood by all but those who spoiled

the fairness and the flowers by saying God
made it all in just seven days.
How odd
we are, attributing power to nothing but air.
If you can’t see it, then it isn’t there.

Usury: The Invisible Sin

American Christians have a lot of buying power. Imagine, if you will, what would happen if we went off the financial “grid” and refused to bank with companies that had abusive lending policies for their mortgage borrowers and credit-card customers. As I read the Bible, financial oppression is a front-and-center issue. And yet, in this supposedly Christian nation, consumer advocates have been trying in vain for years to pass regulations against overdraft fees that are several thousand times greater than the debt that triggered them. Both political parties bear some blame for deregulating the industry, but I believe it’s time for socially conservative Christians to rethink their automatic support for the GOP, given the party’s complete inattention to economic justice issues.

Apparently, when you have a debit card from most major banks, it doesn’t actually deny you funds when you run out of money in your account. Instead, the bank “lends” you money without your knowledge or consent, and then charges “interest” at an effective rate of up to 4,000%. I was unaware of this multibillion-dollar scam (which is still perfectly legal) until my best friend got hit with $500 in penalties for a $15 overdraft on his debit card. In his own words:  

On the 14th of August I received my first letter from the bank, telling me I was 15 dollars overdrawn on 5 small check card purchases on August 10th. For each of these I was charged a $25 fee for a penalty of $125. Of course, at that point I stopped making ATM purchases, but between August 10th and the 14th, I continued about my business and my ATM card contniued to work ALLOWING me to make purchases even though I was apparently already overdrawn at that point. So, I had an additional I think 8 purchases from the 10th to the 14th, when I received my first letter from the bank. Yesterday I received another letter from the bank itemizing four of these new purchases, of which they charged me $37 for the first, and $39 for the next three (not $25 anymore.) OK fine.

Today I went to the bank. I got the most recent update first. I have so far been charged $240 in penalties (in 4 days) , with two more “purchases” which haven’t gone through, which will add another $78 in penalities when they “clear.” I then spoke with a customer rep. I explained the situation to her. I explained that the reason that I signed up for debit card rather than credit was because I did not want the possibility of getting myself into trouble borrowing money. I did NOT WANT to be offered credit— this was the sole reason I signed up for the debit card. She said that it was my responsibility to keep track of my own balance and purchases, not the bank’s. I admitted that while that was true, the bank had a responsibility to make clear what I was agreeing to when I signed up with them. I said that it was explained to me that a debit card worked like a credit card as long as you had money in your account. It was never made clear to me that I would given credit without my agreeing to it and then charged credit at 1,800% INTEREST! I said that was insane, and exactly opposite to what I was trying to do to help my financial situation. If I had known that was what I was signing up for, I never would have signed up for that. I would have gotten a freakin’ credit card at 30% interest instead!!!! WHICH IS WHAT I DIDN’T WANT!

Right now, I owe the bank about $340, $100 for the purchases I made during the four days my account did not have money though they let me keep charging, plus $240 in penalties. In another day or two I might owe them close to $500. At present, when I go to an ATM and check my balance, it says zero dollars and I cannot make purchases. This is what I expected would have happened from August 10th to August 14th. However, during those four days the bank allowed me to keep charging and then charging me 1,800% interest on those purchases for four days!

My friend has been disputing the charges with the completely unhelpful branch managers at Citizens Bank in Buffalo, and in the meantime, has run up nearly $500 in debt because they are still charging him $37 per day. To keep him perpetually behind the eight-ball, when he now deposits a check in his account, the debit card machine tells him that the money is free to make purchases, but the bank applies the money to his overcharge penalties and then charges him a new penalty for the purchases he was misled into making.

He’s not alone in this Kafkaesque scenario. This July 29 article from MSN Money describes a nationwide problem (boldface emphasis mine):

A new survey of overdraft fees charged by the nation’s largest banks reveals that bankers are hiking fees, adding new fees, and shortening time limits to trigger fees when banks pay overdrafts and extend credit to families struggling to make ends meet.

The Consumer Federation of America blames the Federal Reserve for failing to protect consumers from escalating and multiplying overdraft fees.

Testifying before Congress recently in support of President Obama’s proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency, the CFA said regulatory inaction in just this one area is costing hard-pressed consumers more than $17.5 billion during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression….

The Consumer Federation of America’s survey can be read in PDF form here. As you can see, effective rates on a 7-day overdraft of $100 range from 1,820% to 3,848% at the top 16 banks. More tales of consumer woe can be found here. The New York Times also ran a staff editorial yesterday urging Congress to act:

Not many people would knowingly pay more than $35 for a cup of coffee. But far too many people are getting saddled — with no warning — with outsized bills for minor purchases, under a euphemistically labeled “overdraft protection program” that most major banks have adopted over the last 10 years.

Before that, most banks would simply have rejected debit transactions, without a fee, when the card holder’s account was empty. Now, they approve the purchase and tack on a hefty penalty for each transaction.

Moebs Services, a research company that has conducted studies for the government as well as some banks, reported recently that banks will earn more than $38 billion this year from overdraft and bounced-check fees. Moebs also estimates that 90 percent of that amount will be paid by the poorest 10 percent of the customer base….

Call your representatives and demand an end to debit-card usury!

Straight Ally of the Day: Ted Olson

The libertarian wing of the GOP, which briefly wooed me into that party as the defenders of free speech during the politically correct 1990s, has seemed to be all but dead in the era of Bush-style statism for the rich. But conservative powerhouse Theodore Olson, one of the Right’s most respected constitutional lawyers, remembers that his movement once stood for something more than bailouts for dimwitted financiers.

An unlikely but very welcome ally, Olson is the lead counsel in the federal lawsuit to overturn Prop 8 on equal protection grounds, now pending in District Court in San Francisco. This New York Times profile describes his road to defending GLBT civil rights, and the flack he’s taking from his Republican compadres:

…Mr. Olson had become active in the Republican Party as a college and law student in California in the 1960s, long before the rise of the religious right and its focus on social issues. He gravitated toward a particularly Western brand of conservatism that valued small government and maximum individual liberty, becoming one of a few law students at the University of California, Berkeley to support Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential bid.

At the time, the South was riven by racial strife, and during a college debate trip to Texas, Mr. Olson got his first close-up view of blatant discrimination. Lady Booth Olson, a lawyer whom Mr. Olson married in 2006, said he still tears up when telling how a black teammate was turned away from a restaurant in Amarillo. Mr. Olson “tore into the owner,” insisting the team would not eat unless everyone was served, recalled the team’s coach, Paul Winters. “If he sees something that is wrong in his mind, he goes after it,” Mr. Winters said.

Years later, during the Reagan administration, when Mr. Olson was asked if the Justice Department could dismiss a prosecutor for being gay, he wrote that it was “improper to deny employment or to terminate anyone on the basis of sexual conduct.” In 1984, Mr. Olson returned to private practice and was succeeded by Mr. Cooper, his adversary in the marriage case. The switch eliminated “what was seen as a certain libertarian squishiness at the Office of Legal Counsel under Ted,” Mr. Calabresi said.

During the Bush administration, Mr. Olson was consulted on a plan to amend the Constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. “What were we thinking putting something like that in the Constitution?” he recalls telling the White House.

Around that time, state legislatures were debating alternatives to same-sex marriage like civil unions, but Mr. Olson said he saw them as political half-measures that continued to treat gay men and lesbians as separate and unequal. Over dinner at a Capitol Hill restaurant, he argued that marriage was an essential component of happiness that gay couples had every right to enjoy, recalled David Frum, a conservative author and former Bush speechwriter.

“I was really impressed and struck by how important the issue was to him,” Mr. Frum said. “The majority view at the table was on the other side, but his view was, ‘You have to make peace with this because it is sure to happen, and you will see it in your lifetime.’ ”

Mr. Olson signed on to the California case after a meeting at Mr. Reiner’s home last December, telling the group gathered there that he would not “just be some hired gun,” Ms. Schake recalled. In fact, he had already rebuffed a query about defending Proposition 8.

Still, to allay suspicions on the left, he suggested bringing on his adversary in Bush v. Gore, David Boies, whom he had since befriended. Both lawyers agreed to waive part of their fees.

“I thought, why wouldn’t I take this case?” Mr. Olson said. “Because someone at the Federalist Society thinks I’d be making bad law? I wouldn’t be making bad law.”

In Mr. Olson’s analysis, the situation in California presents a favorable set of facts for an equal protection argument. Proposition 8 created three classes: straight couples who could marry, gay men and lesbians who had married in the brief period before the ban, and gay couples who wanted to marry but now could not.

As he began honing the arguments, he sounded out a few confidants, including his wife, Lady.

One of those whose advice he sought was Robert McConnell, a friend from the Reagan Justice Department. Mr. McConnell, a practicing Catholic, said he told Mr. Olson that as a religious matter, he believed that marriage ought to be reserved for two people who can procreate. He said Mr. Olson replied that while he respected his convictions, he considered it a civil-rights issue.

Mr. Olson, who is not a regular churchgoer, began to elaborate on his view that religious beliefs were insufficient legal justification for government to refuse to recognize same-sex marriage, but soon paused. “You don’t agree with me, do you?” Mr. McConnell recalled him saying.

Ms. Olson, a Democrat, said she was thrilled that “on this case we’ll be on the same wavelength.” She said Mr. Olson’s mother, Yvonne, expressed some initial concern that a court decision overturning Proposition 8 would disenfranchise voters, but came around after Mr. Olson explained that voters cannot impose mandates that violate constitutionally protected rights.

In the lawsuit, filed in May, he asserted that Proposition 8 had done just that.

Since then, he and Mr. Cooper have been filing dueling briefs.

The Supreme Court has long recognized marriage between men and women as a right, most notably in a 1967 case overturning bans on interracial marriage. Since sexual orientation, unlike race, is not mentioned in the Constitution, the question is whether that right extends to gay men and lesbians.

The answer, in Mr. Cooper’s view, can be found in a 1970 case, in which the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling that marriage could be limited to men and women. But Mr. Olson points to two more recent Supreme Court cases.

The first is a 1996 decision in which six of the nine justices, citing equal protection grounds, struck down an amendment to the Colorado Constitution that stripped gay residents of existing civil rights protections. This, Mr. Olson argues, is similar to Proposition 8’s negating the California Supreme Court decision that recognized the rights of gay couples to marry.

The second is the court’s 6-3 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, striking down laws criminalizing sodomy in 2003. Not only did the majority find that Texas had no rational basis to intrude into private sexual behavior protected by the Constitution’s due process clause, it also declared that gay men and lesbians should be free to enter into relationships in their homes and “still retain their dignity.”

Mr. Cooper asserts that Mr. Olson is stretching the scope of the Lawrence decision, pointing out that it dealt with the criminalization of private sexual behavior, not a state’s duty to recognize a marriage. But Mr. Olson notes that no less a conservative than Justice Antonin Scalia argued in a blistering dissent that the majority in Lawrence had indeed opened the door to same-sex marriage.

Given that the Lawrence case established gay sex as a protected right, Mr. Olson argues, the state must demonstrate that it has a rational basis for discriminating against a class of citizens simply for engaging in that behavior.

He dismisses Mr. Cooper’s contention that the California ban is justified by that state’s interest in encouraging relationships that promote procreation and the raising of children by biological parents. If sexual orientation is not a choice — and Mr. Olson argues that it is not — then the ban is not going to encourage his clients to enter into heterosexual, child-producing marriages, he insists. Moreover, he says, California has waived the right to make that argument by recognizing domestic partnerships that bestow most benefits of marriage.

And that is if the state wanted to: Mr. Olson structured the lawsuit so the named defendants are two proponents of same-sex marriage, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Jerry Brown. Both have filed helpful briefs questioning the constitutionality of Proposition 8.

Read the whole article here.

In other Prop 8 news, Bay Area indie newspaper East Bay Express last week broke the story that Oakland Bishop Salvatore Cordileone had been a chief mastermind of the referendum, organizing right-wing religious groups and large donors to raise millions behind the scenes. (One wonders whether this lobbying activity ought to endanger his church’s tax-exempt status.) Cordileone is chiefly known for his dedicated ministry to poor Mexican immigrants.

People are complex, and if our bad deeds cancelled our good ones, who could escape judgment? But still, if the bishop has the clout to raise six-figure contributions from the Knights of Columbus and wealthy businessmen, isn’t it a crime to spend it on taking away same-sex couples’ rights instead of feeding the poor? And if it’s easier to get these Christians to pony up for the former cause than the latter, what does that say about their comprehension of the gospel? 

Viagra Ice Cream versus Gay Wine

Consumer-trends newsletter Springwise illuminates the far corners of the retail imagination, with weekly updates on new business schemes from the socially conscious to the absurdly decadent. In the latter category, this week, we have Sex Pistol Ice Cream, a British dessert shop’s latest plan to pitch this girlie comfort food to the male “members” of the species. The limited-edition flavor is “touted to have the same charge as a dose of Viagra”:

Mixed into the frozen treat are ginkgo biloba, arginine and guarana—all guaranteed to increase blood flow and energy level. Before serving, The Sex Pistol is doused in La Fee Absinthe. And since presentation is key, the absinthe is administered from a drip bag into a pink water gun and fired at a heated sugar cube, which drops into the ice cream. The Sex Pistol is deemed so potent that sales are limited to one per customer, although at GBP 11.99 customers might prefer to split one with a special friend.

If you’d rather heat up than cool down, never fear. From the same newsletter, we get UO! Wines, a Spanish wine brand targeted at gay men:

UO! Ánima Blanca, for example, is a Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo blend featuring earth tones and “wisps of flowers and fruit – the perfect accompaniment to a gathering of friends on a hot day, whether the heat comes from within or without.” Antinoo, meanwhile, is a Monastrell that’s “young and mature, fruity, elegant, smooth….Mediterranean…. When you try it, shut your eyes and imagine that you are licking rivulets of syrup from his body,” the company advises. Rounding out the line is Oscura Lágrima, a Shiraz and Merlot blend that’s “dark, dense and turbulent.”

Whew. With ad copy like this, who needs Viagra sundaes?

Saturday Not-So-Random Song: Joan Baez, “Virgin Mary”

Today, Aug. 15, is the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Catholic tradition holds that the mother of Jesus ascended bodily into heaven at the end of her life, without dying (like Elijah in the Old Testament). While this isn’t an official Episcopalian doctrine, we still celebrate today as the Virgin Mary’s feast day in the saints’ calendar. Here, James Kiefer at The Daily Office explains the significance of the Virgin Birth:

Besides Jesus himself, only two humans are mentioned by name in the Creeds. One is Pontius Pilate, Roman procurator of Judea from 26 to 36 AD. That Jesus was crucified by order of Pontius Pilate pins down the date of his death within a few years, and certifies that we are not talking, like the worshippers of Tammuz or Adonis, about a personification or symbol of the annual death and resurrection of the crops. His death is an event in history, something that really happened. The other name is that of Mary. The Creeds say that Christ was “born of the virgin Mary.” That is to say, they assert on the one hand that he was truly and fully human, born of a woman and not descended from the skies like an angel. On the other hand, by telling us that his mother was a virgin they exclude the theory that he was simply an ordinary man who was so virtuous that he eventually, at his baptism, became filled with the Spirit of God. His virgin birth attests to the fact that he was always more than merely human, always one whose presence among us was in itself a miracle, from the first moment of his earthly existence. In Mary, Virgin and Mother, God gives us a sign that Jesus is both truly God and truly Man.

Marian doctrines and legends can be a sticking point for modern Christians. Personally, I enjoy believing that I live in the kind of universe where a virgin birth could happen, but Mary’s significance for me goes beyond this story. She’s been a personally comforting presence for me when I needed to experience the maternal side of the divine.

Mary is Woman in a complex and uncategorizable way. Nowadays many think of virginity as a stifling ideal (and certainly Mary has been deployed by the church to stigmatize female sexuality), but in Biblical times, when women were men’s property, the power to say “no” to sex was a proto-feminist act. The early female martyrs’ refusal to marry was their way of declaring allegiance to something higher than the social order; their lives, they asserted, had a value beyond the price that their fathers and husbands had set on them. Yet Mary is also a mother, reminding us that the gift of life occurs in the flesh as well as the spirit. By containing contradictory functions within herself, she represents womanhood as not reducible to any one of them.

Enjoy this recording of Joan Baez singing the traditional folk song “Virgin Mary had one son”, from a 1977 concert:

Virgin Mary had a one son,
Oh, glory halleluja,
Oh, pretty little baby,
Glory be to the new born King.

Well, Mary how you call that pretty little baby,
Oh, pretty little baby,
Oh, pretty little baby,
Glory be to the new born King.

Well, some call Him Jesus, think I’ll call Him Savior
Oh, I think I’ll call Him Savior
Oh, I think I’ll call Him Savior,
Glory be to the new born King.

Riding from the East there came three wise man,
Oh, came three wise man,
Oh, came three wise man,
Glory to be the new born King.

Said, Follow that star, you’ll surely find the baby,
Oh, surely find the baby,
Oh, surely find the baby,
Glory be to the new born King.

Well, the Virgin Mary had a one son, etc.

(Lyrics courtesy of

Lean (Not?) on Your Own Understanding

John at Johnny’s Blog emailed me a thoughtful response to my recent post on balancing the authority of Scripture, tradition, and reason. I’ve quoted it below since comments are turned off:

What a fascinating article – it really made me think. I however keep on coming back to two particular verses which I find difficult to interpret in any other way than the straight forward meaning of the words.

The first is in Proverbs – Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. (3:5)

The second is in 2 Tim 3:16 – All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

In the first case, it seems to definitely place human reason on a lower wrung, so to speak. In regard to the second – and other verses that refer to the Scriptures as “The Word of God,” – it would seem to me that it places Scripture (in terms of our understanding God’s will) as the ultimate and final authority. Even given these verses, the believer is faced with a conundrum, in fact a few conundrums – firstly – what constitutes Scripture, and secondly, even if we can all agree on what constitutes Scripture – how are these scriptures to be interpreted.

I had a discussion the other day with a friend with regard to the concept and word trinity. He quite rightly stated that the word ‘trinity’ does not appear in any scripture and is – to that extent Tradition rather that the Word of God. He preferred to use the word Godhead. I stated that the word Godhead was not in scripture – He quickly responded with three verses where the word “Godhead” does appear in certain English versions. I pointed out to him that the word is a translation of a word that is various translated as divinity or “God-ness” – and as such the word Godhead was in itself an effort to describe something that does not really translate well into a single English word. Suffice to say that the concept of a Godhead, exists in scripture, as does, the concept of Trinity – in fact – it not unreasonable to say that in fact “Godhead” and Trinity are really two sides of the same coin.

As I wrote in my blog post “XII Angry Men” – it becomes a question as to what qualifies an individual to be the authoritative interpreter of Scripture – we can look at a very many issues in the history of Church – the whole predestination verses freewill, baptism issues, issues about the meaning of communion (This is my body, this is my blood), to say nothing about the whole creation versus evolution debate, and debate regarding very ethical issues that challenge people today.

The conclusion I came to is that each individual must a) be willing to hear/read ALL sides of the discussion (I think many Christians fall down on this aspect), and then b) reach a conclusion that he or she can be satisfied is correct or justified and act accordingly. c) realise that people with strong opinions that differ with the stance taken by the individual may give fierce, even vociferous opposition, and may even call into question the person’s relationship with God, and d) must realise that it is possible that something may occur in the future which will unequivocally show that the wrong decision was arrived at, and at that point be willing to say, I was wrong, please forgive me. (This is not a defeatist point of view – simply being realistic. )

What I do believe as a thorough going evangelical protestant, is that no one gets into heaven, or is denied salvation on the strength of his or her right theology, as it is the Work of Christ on the Cross, that accomplished our salvation, and we play no part in that. We, are like the audience who stand back in wonder as God did it all. If I have wrong theology – as no doubt, I have somewhere along the line, The Lord will graciously point it out and still I will be his child.

I recommend the “XII Angry Men” post for a more detailed look at how to read Scripture with humility and awareness of multiple perspectives. I’m going to push back a little, though, against John’s use of the Proverbs and Timothy verses, because I’m not totally convinced that they’re really meant to address the question at hand.

“All Scripture is God-breathed.” First of all, what is Scripture? Can it be self-authenticating? In other words, the author of 2 Timothy is making a claim for the authority of Scripture, but it’s circular reasoning for us to prefer this claim over others solely because it’s in Scripture: “The Bible is true because the Bible says so.” Furthermore, by “Scripture” the epistle-writer would have meant the Hebrew Bible. We can’t assume that he knew that he himself was writing Scripture!

“God-breathed” is also capable of a broader meaning than “inerrant”, as John would appear to agree. A friend of mine has suggested that divine inspiration means “every word in the Bible is how God intended it to be”. Thus, for instance, the six-day creation story can be divinely inspired without needing to be literally, scientifically true; God put that in there to teach us about something other than science.

Could the second half of that quote from 2 Timothy give us some better guidance about the uses and meanings of Scripture? That is to say, look at the real-world consequences of your preferred interpretation and see whether it has proven itself useful, or counterproductive, for “training in righteousness” and equipping the hearer for “every good work”.

I’m not sure why we’re so eager to decide spiritual matters based on a priori logic. When it does touch on questions of hermeneutics, the Bible seems to me to have a stronger pragmatic streak than many of its conservative fans.

“Lean not on your own understanding.” As I’ve argued ad infinitum in this space, all knowledge of God (or of anything else) is filtered through some individual’s consciousness. It’s psychologically incoherent to trust God without relying on our own understanding–either our direct experience of God, or our perception that others are trustworthy sources of spiritual knowledge. So I don’t think this verse is referring to that epistemological problem at all. Besides which, the verse says “trust in the Lord“, not “in Scripture” nor “in the religious authorities”.

The author of Proverbs, I believe, is simply reminding us that God’s intentions toward us are steadfast, and His knowledge of our situation surpasses our own. In times of crisis, we may not see the way forward because “our own understanding” is limited, and so our hope rests in the one who promises that “all things work together for good to those who love God” (Rom 8:28).

I have experienced the fulfillment of that promise in my own life, and I am working hard to keep that memory alive despite bitterness about how Christians have used Scripture to abuse vulnerable people and drive them to despair. Leaning only on my own understanding–my experience of hard-heartedness among those who are thoroughly schooled in Scripture–I might venture down the well-trodden path of rejecting Bible, creed, and church. God has been good enough to save me from self-hatred and emotional breakdown at several key points in my life, so that I might have the fidelity to say “No–I will not let Pharisees capture the name of ‘Christian’ and define you in ways that are less loving than what I have experienced.” It’s not theology that leads me forward; I know this in my heart and I struggle to find arguments that will give me permission to know what I know.

Am I trusting God, or leaning on my own understanding? In the healthy life of faith, I believe, these two are one and the same.