Perry Brass is the author of several novels and nonfiction books on gay spirituality and sacred eros. As a Christmas gift to his newsletter list, he shared some of his recent poems, one of which he has kindly permitted me to reprint below. The boy in this poem could be the Christ Child or my own high-spirited 3-year-old, both calling me to enter their demanding, miraculous presence.
What do you do? Your insides are constantly
shifted toward him. He consumes you with
his needs, his perfection,
his amazing complexion and beauty.
And curiosity! A sponge. His eyes
are a sponge and you want him to just
hold you in their gaze for a few minutes
before he runs off. Or a year, or a decade.
they won’t. They’ll discover the world,
and you will discover it with him.
If you’re lucky. If you don’t die,
or die of disappointment because you’ve
just invested everything in him—you
put it in his childish grasp that casts off
each instance and reinvents
the warm earth
and the cold night. It seeks terror
in fairy tales; and you seek safety
in each morsel of love he returns.
Becoming Church, an offshoot of the Church of the Saviour in Washington D.C., is an intentional Christian community devoted to racial and economic justice. Their major project at the moment is Reunion, a ministry that re-integrates formerly incarcerated people into civilian life, as well as doing activism for prison reform. I blogged about my inspiring visit to their weekend conference last year.
Their latest newsletter included some timely and challenging reflections by Rev. Becca Stelle, the Director of Becoming Church, which I am excerpting below. Please consider donating to this unique and worthwhile ministry.
I recently saw a sticker on the back of a car: “Give Jesus a Chance.” My first reaction was that the slogan projected too simplistic a faith, but in giving the off-handed language itself a chance, it began to resonate with possibility.
Our world is caught in terror and division, hostility and fear—between neighbors, between nations. Black against white; Muslim against Christian; Republican against Democrat; always, oddly, us against ourselves. As our global degradation pushes us to consider new paradigms—some more palatable than others—we could do worse than to consider what Jesus offers. Do we ever hear compassion or mercy as a legitimate political, economic or development strategy? Can you imagine? To give Jesus a chance would mean giving God’s love-strategy an honest political chance in a world bent on hatred; forgiveness a chance in a world steeped in vindication; reconciliation a chance in a world committed to war; hope a chance in a world consumed by despair. The proposition seems all the more laughable as circumstances appear increasingly extreme.
This is not the only way in which we are called to give Jesus a chance. The phrase has a double entendre. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus identifies with the sick, hungry, homeless and the prisoner. “When did we see you hungry and feed you?” “When you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” In other words, Jesus is saying, “Clothe me, feed me, visit me in prison. Give me a chance!”
Men and women coming home from incarceration face crippling obstacles to successful re-integration into the community. A fortunate few have a roof overhead through Jubilee Housing’s Re-entry program. Others secure employment through Jubilee Jobs. As important as those services are, the sustained need for belonging and purpose remains. All of them—all of us—need a spiritual community where our deepest inner impasse can be transformed by Love to its fullest potential. For us, to give Jesus a chance is to know Charles and to be known by him; to keep him in prayer; to arrange a job interview for Charles; to help him with car repairs to get to that job; to wait out his anxiety; to talk him out of self-defeat; to pay the court fees imposed which he could not possibly manage on his minimum-wage, part-time income; and to watch Charles grow in confidence that he is important to our community; that he can give back; that he is a blessing. Even then, it’s not so much that we are giving Jesus a chance, but somehow Jesus is giving us a chance—to move from our societal plague of separation to become the whole, healing people God created us to be.
What a year! 2015 was a time of transition, living out the implications of changes that began last year and gathering the courage to go public with them.
Writing career milestones this year: My second full-length poetry collection, Bullies in Love, came out in March from Little Red Tree Publishing. Forbes Library in Northampton hosted the launch party with a poetry reading (watch it here) and slideshow by fine art photographer Toni Pepe, who illustrated the collection. Four poems from this book also won the final writing contest from the avant-garde online journal Wag’s Revue.
I finished the last pre-publication edits on the no-longer-endless novel, Two Natures, and began sending it out to contests and publishers. Will there be good news in 2016? Watch this space! Meanwhile, with help from my weekend writing retreat at Art of Change Tarot, I started work on the sequel, Origin Story. Research for this book will include attending Flame Con 2016 and reading M/M romances about bondage. I love my job.
In my religious life, I finally admitted to myself that I love Christianity but we need to see other people. I am charting a private, intuitive spiritual path by studying Tarot and reading books from a variety of traditions. With another member of my Episcopal church, I co-taught a summer workshop on faith and trauma, which seemed to be a positive and healing experience for everyone involved.
The Young Master, age 3 1/2, is in preschool full-time, where he is learning to use the potty and count to “oo-teen” (all the numbers after ten). His hobbies include Lego, trains, and complete resistance to every form of tyranny over the mind of man, especially putting on his pants when Mommy says it’s time for school.
Some of the best books I’ve read this year have been entries in our first-ever Winning Writers North Street Book Prize for self-published novels and memoirs. Results will be out in February. This means I haven’t had much time for leisure reading. Here are a few picks for the best of 2015.
Best Poetry Books:
Why did it take me so long to discover Mark Doty’s Atlantis (Harper Perennial, 1995)? Perhaps I wouldn’t have appreciated its wisdom until now. Written as his lover and many friends were dying of AIDS, this poetry collection is bathed in the radiant, ever-changing, yet eternal flow of the ocean he lived beside. The artifice, the traces of formalism, are worn proudly–this is not contemporary colloquial poetry–so the bereaved speaker’s vulnerability is that much more naked by contrast. It epitomizes a certain style of high-art gay poetry, with its tropes of sublime opera divas, drag, bath-house ecstasy, and a spirituality that cherishes transient, embodied, unique living beings more than any ascetic dogma. The poem “Homo Will Not Inherit” expresses a creed that I can believe:
And I have been possessed of the god myself,
I have been the temporary apparition
salving another, I have been his visitation, I say it
without arrogance, I have been an angel
for minutes at a time, and I have for hours
believed—without judgement, without condemnation—
that in each body, however obscured or recast,
is the divine body—common, habitable—
the way in a field of sunflowers
you can see every bloom’s
the multiple expression
of a single shining idea,
which is the face hammered into joy.
I found Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s Apocalyptic Swing (Persea Books, 2009) through the Smith College Poetry Center newsletter. The jazzy, tough, delicious poems in this collection swing through highs and lows of sexual awakening, boxing, and religious devotion. Resilience sings through these anecdotes of bombed black churches and synagogues, down-and-out factory towns and risky love affairs, with characters who know that “all you gotta do is get up/one more time than the other guy thinks you can.” I’d hoped to reprint a sample poem on the blog this year, but did not hear back from the editors. Treat yourself to some of her recent work at Poets.org.
Best Fiction Books:
Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos has spawned dozens of spin-off anthologies about his monstrous Elder Gods from outer space and their power to contaminate and consume the human species. A lot of these pastiches are good for some gross-out scares and nothing more. New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird (Prime Books, 2011) and New Cthulhu 2 (Prime Books, 2015), both edited by Paula Guran, take the genre to a higher level. For me, the Cthulhu mythos is fascinating because it confronts our secret fears about our place in the cosmos. It mashes up the worst aspects of materialism (humans are weak and our lives are meaningless) and authoritarian religion (an eternity of torment at the hands, or tentacles, of an all-powerful being). Guran’s anthologies are not lacking in old-fashioned frights, but their creativity lies in exploring the spiritual and political implications of the mythos, including Lovecraft’s infamous racism.
Best Nonfiction Books:
A Religion of One’s Own (Avery, 2015) is the new book by Thomas Moore, a Jungian analyst and former Catholic monk, known for his bestseller Care of the Soul. Moore suggests practices and new perspectives to forge a personal spirituality that is enriched but not limited by organized religion. This book reassured me that I could move outside Christianity while retaining some pieces of it that still made me feel connected to God.
The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind (Fence Books, 2015), edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap, is an essential addition to our cultural conversation on racism in America. The anthology grew out of Rankine’s “Open Letter” blog that solicited personal meditations on race and the creative imagination. Contributors include poets Francisco Aragón, Dan Beachy-Quick, Jericho Brown, Dawn Lundy Martin, Danielle Pafunda, Evie Shockley, Ronaldo V. Wilson, and many more, plus contemporary artwork selected by Max King Cap. The writers span a variety of ethnic backgrounds, points of view, and aesthetics, united by honest self-examination and political insightfulness.
The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision (Apocryphile Press, 2014) pairs Douglas Blanchard’s paintings of a modern-day gay Jesus in the Stations of the Cross with Kittredge Cherry’s devotional and art-historical commentary. Read my review on this blog from March 2015.
[T]he whole world is already sacred, already “charged with the grandeur of God” that shines out from every material object, waiting for us to notice it. The Spirit is not something separate from daily life, which we must bring in by choosing the right set of rosary beads or tarot cards. Any of these objects could work as a point of connection to the life force, just as any of them could become an idol if used in the wrong frame of mind.
[T]the impulse to produce something worldly, even commercial, out of your moment of enlightenment doesn’t mean that enlightenment wasn’t genuine. And on the flip side, boundary-less emotionalism and flamboyant devotion to spiritual practice can also be a mask for egotism, passive-aggressive power, and seduction.
[On June 26] the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Obergefell v. Hodges that under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, gay and lesbian couples have a fundamental right to marriage equality! States may no longer ban same-sex marriages or refuse to recognize such marriages performed in other states.
In religion, a third way between “There is ONE truth” and “There is NO truth” can possibly be found through the model of medicine. Different religions focus on different spiritual maladies and propose cures to match. To oversimplify quite a bit, Christianity is answering “How do I overcome my sinful separation from God and ensure an eternity in God’s loving presence?”, while Buddhism is answering “How do I achieve inner peace and escape the ups and downs of this impermanent world?” What gives us the right to say that one of those questions shouldn’t matter to anybody? Outcomes-wise, what’s the benefit of pushing a solution on someone who isn’t experiencing that problem?
Peggy Olson is going to take on 2016 like a boss. (Image source here.)
I’ve been fortunate to have practiced Christianity in communities where sexism did not impact me–an unusual experience, I realize. Women priests, religion professors, and Bible study leaders were well-represented even when I was on the conservative side of the spectrum. Growing up in an all-female home, I felt completed and refreshed by the masculine Father-Son-Holy Spirit language that many of my feminist fellow worshippers found oppressive. I didn’t understand their need to see a God who “looked like them”, because a large part of Christianity’s appeal for me was that I didn’t have to be God: not perfect, not the savior of my troubled loved ones.
Now, researching alternatives to my traditional faith, I find myself unsatisfied and unrepresented by so-called women’s spirituality for other reasons. Though traditions like Tarot and Wicca affirm both gender archetypes in a more balanced way than patriarchal Christianity, those archetypes still feel too binary, and in the case of women, too limited by the imagery associated with biological fertility. Not only is fertility not a part of my life story, but it triggers bad memories of the eternal deference and gratitude that my mother demanded because she “gave me life”. I appreciate queer Tarot teachers, like Beth Maiden at the Little Red Tarot blog and the transgender writer Rachel Pollack, because they remix gender archetypes in non-literal ways.
Think of some metaphors and images associated with the Christian God besides “Father”: creator, warrior, rock, lamb, living water, shepherd, healer, teacher, sun, judge, giver of the Word. None of these images are necessarily gendered, nor do they reference the male procreative or sexual functions. They don’t require the worshipper to take the role of a child in relation to a divine parent. For women’s spirituality, though, we get Maiden-Mother-Crone (identity based on virginity and procreation), the Virgin Mary, fertile Mother Earth, sacred menstrual cycles, and so forth. If that works for you, great, but we need to be more creative in our imagery so that non-patriarchal spirituality can be inclusive of all female-identified and nonbinary people. Just a few examples, based on the women I know and the jobs women have held in history: weaver, cook, gardener, singer, warrior, oracle, fighter, teacher, midwife, prophet, counselor… Add your own!
We can acknowledge our great debt to the Second Wave feminist theologians who broke taboos by calling God “Mother”, and still say that for some of us, they didn’t go far enough. Why not also question the holdover from Roman imperial patriarchy that puts one deified parent in charge of the human family, be it Father or Mother? Perhaps that would be a stretch beyond Christianity, since monotheism (the Trinity notwithstanding) is a core doctrine. Personally, I imagine God as a loving and conscious but indescribable omnipresence, who communicates Godself to us through a pantheon of divine archetypes with diverse gendered and non-gendered traits. (So am I a Hindu now??)
When I was doing my undergraduate degree, I was admonished by the tutor who was marking my thesis for ‘essentialising the feminine’. I was writing about how inspiring I found fairytales to be, especially those about young girls who go through a transformative journey, and how drawn I was to goddess type figures, and things that had what I saw to have feminine qualities. This was the beginning of my spiritual journey, and I was offended by this comment at the time. What did essentialising even mean? It was annoying, and really, I should have asked about it. I thought the tutor was vindictively applying feminist theory that I didn’t actually understand at the time, to my visual art exegesis and consequently my privileged, straight white ass was disrupted. What I didn’t understand at the time was that while it was okay to be inspired by these narratives and imagery, the way they are used in discourse can narrow our contextualization of them in such a way that paints a small box. I thought I was embracing an alternative point of view, a minority view, and I thought this was part of being feminist. But being a feminist is actually about discarding narrow ideas about what being female should or shouldn’t be. The criteria for something to be regarded as female is for it to define itself as female. And that is about it. Everything else is junk that society has layered on, and while it can’t be discarded, it can be transformed, and this is the work of a feminist…
…I can continue to worship a goddess, to examine narratives and ideas of femininity, but what I should have seen back when I was at university was that I needed to phrase them in a way that didn’t trap them into a system whose long term impacts have been harmful. To call something feminine, and to associate it with a certain idea of beauty, of softness, of passivity, with certain shapes, curves and colours – and to therefore identify masculinity as chiseled, active and so on, is damaging. And similarly, to frame group work under a paradigm of God and Goddess, with a Lord and Lady in charge, and rules that confine initiation by boundaries of gender, with a Wheel of the Year centred around heterosexual reproduction – these things exclude and marginalize anyone who identifies differently on multiple levels. This needs to be examined critically, reflexively and with love and the process is not simple and requires open hearts and minds. There are many expressions of the divine – like viewing something through a kaleidoscope, with one twist of the device, One can become Two, Twenty Three, a Thousand. These are but lenses through which to view the fractals of the universe.
The binary thinking of Second Wave feminism always made me feel inadequate as a woman. Did I have to choose between rights and relationships, as Carol Gilligan famously divided up “male” and “female” ethics? If I chose individuation over maintaining relational ties, was I a traitor to my sex, as well as to my family? My intellect, my ability to analyze patterns of human behavior and make conscious choices, was my ticket out of a family of women driven by unconscious emotional re-enactments, and my alternative to the self-destructive rebellion of my peers. Did that mean I was siding with “masculine values”? I learned to resent both feminism and my own biological gender as prisons that kept me from being fully human.
Laurie Penny’s recent Buzzfeed article, “How to Be a Genderqueer Feminist”, describes how she tries to make space for herself in a feminism that doesn’t always recognize nonbinary identities:
I consider “woman” to be a made-up category, an intangible, constantly changing idea with as many different definitions as there are cultures on Earth. You could say the same thing about “justice” or “money” or “democracy” — these are made-up ideas, stories we tell ourselves about the shape of our lives, and yet they are ideas with enormous real-world consequences. Saying that gender is fluid doesn’t mean that we have to ignore sexism. In fact, it’s the opposite.
Of course gender norms play into the trans experience. How can they not? But being trans or genderqueer, even for cis-passing people like me, is not about playing into those norms. It’s about about throwing them out. Some “radical” feminists argue that trans and genderqueer people actually shore up the gender binary by seeking to cross or straddle it rather than setting it on fire. To which I’d say: It is also possible to jump over a burning building.
In fact, watch me.
Only when we recognize that “manhood” and “womanhood” are made-up categories, invented to control human beings and violently imposed, can we truly understand the nature of sexism, of misogyny, of the way we are all worked over by gender in the end.
Coming out is an individual journey, but it is a collective weapon. Questioning gender — whether that means straddling the gender binary, crossing it, or breaking down its assumptions wherever you happen to stand — is an essential part of the feminism that has sustained me through two decades of personal and political struggle. In the end, feminists and the LGBT community have this in common: We’re all gender traitors. We have broken the rules of good behavior assigned to us at birth, and we have all suffered for it.
But here’s one big way I differ from a lot of my genderqueer friends: I still identify, politically, as a woman. My identity is more complex than simply female or male, but as long as women’s reproductive freedom is under assault, sex is also a political category, and politically, I’m still on the girls’ team.
I don’t think that everyone who was dumped into the “female” category at birth has a duty to identify as a woman, politically or otherwise. Because identity policing, if you’ll indulge me in a moment of high theoretical language, is fucked up and bullshit. This is just how it happens to work for me.
In a perfect world, perhaps I’d be telling a different story. I’m never going to be able to say for sure whether in that perfect world, that world without sexism and gender oppression, that world without violence or abuse, where kittens dance on rainbows and nobody has ever heard of Donald Trump, I would feel the need to call myself genderqueer. My hunch is that I would; and all I’ve got for you is that hunch, along with a stack of feminist theory books and a pretty nice collection of flat caps.
I am a woman, politically, because that’s how people see me and that’s how the state treats me. And sometimes I’m also a boy. Gender is something I perform, when I put on my binder or paint my nails. When I walk down the street. When I talk to my boss. When I kiss my partner in their makeup and high heels.
I don’t want to see a world without gender. I want to see a world where gender is not oppressive or enforced, where there are as many ways to express and perform and relate to your own identity as there are people on Earth. I want a world where gender is not painful, but joyful.
What about me? In my perfect life, where there were no abusive lesbian moms, absent dads, or internalized sexism, would I be completely at ease with a female identity? I’ll never know, and I think I should stop worrying about it. Being genderqueer doesn’t need to be explained, any more than being gay. As M/M author Heidi Cullinan says, “Normal is just a setting on the dryer.”