Reiter’s Block: DECADE in Review! 2009-2019

July 2009…

…November 2019.

Greetings, loyal readers! It’s been a decade to remember. As my 30s segued into my 40s, I changed my gender, pronouns, religion, and pants size; fired my abusive mother; adopted Lord Bunbury, the cutest boy to ever eat a quarter-pound of lox in one bite; and published five books of sad poetry and smutty fiction.

Julian says, “You just get better with age, darling.”

Biggest Decision of 2019: Starting HRT.

Since October I’ve been taking low-dose testosterone in gel form. (I know, I know, real men shouldn’t be afraid of needles…) Not much visible change yet, but I feel very handsome and full of creative ideas.

Speaking only for myself here–you don’t have to do anything medical to be a “real trans”!–bringing my subjective sense of masculinity into objective physical reality via HRT has felt like an act of magical manifestation. I grew up in a home dominated by gaslighting. Maintaining my inner truth against constant assaults was exhausting. Being trans sometimes feels that way too. If my womanhood falls in the forest but everyone still calls me “Ma’am,” does it make a sound? My little bottle of Love Potion Number 9 gel is something I can point to, a fact in the world, a self-affirming decision to be myself outwardly and not only in my fantasy life. It tells my younger psychological parts that we’re finally safe to come out of the closet (and give away those uncomfortable high heels).

Happiness Comes in a Pill: For the first time in my life as a congenitally anxious person, I’m also taking Effexor, a mild anti-anxiety drug. The main benefit is that I sleep more deeply and have vivid dreams that seem meaningful at the time. For instance, a couple of weeks ago I dreamed I was re-creating the Bloomsbury Group out of Lego. Thanks a lot, Carolyn Heilbrun.

Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington, and Virginia Woolf.

I Wrote Some Stuff: I participated in the Center for New Americans’ 30 Poems in November fundraiser again this year, writing more strange poetry for a new chapbook. It’s not too late to contribute to this great organization that provides literacy instruction, job training, and naturalization assistance for immigrants in Western Massachusetts. Visit my sponsorship page here.

In addition, my poem “psalm 55:21” won the local category of the 2019 Broadside Award and Glass Prize from Slate Roof Press. The award was $250 and publication as a limited-edition broadside. You can read the winners on their website.

Young Master Update: His Nibs earned an orange belt in Tae Kwon Do this year, switched his allegiance from Pokémon to Minecraft, and learned to read chapter books on his own. (Shout-out to the “Captain Underpants” book series for making one of its main characters gay in the last installment.)

Fractions, Mommy!

We undertook a perilous trip by plane (me) and car (Daddy and Shane) in an April snowstorm to visit Shane’s birth mother in Wisconsin, where she was hospitalized for liver failure. Sadly, Stephanie passed away this August at age 45. She lives on in his happy-go-lucky personality, mechanical skills, and love for the arts and animals.

Stef and the Bun in October 2012.

Highlights Reel: With some trepidation, I have combed the Reiter’s Block archives for posts from the past decade that I still agree with. Sometimes I’m embarrassed by how passionately (and dickishly) I defended beliefs that let me down in the end. But as Julian would say, you can only wear the clothes you have. Some people grow up by learning from failed love affairs. My method was to throw myself fully into the best available worldview at the moment, searching for an ethical foundation and a compassionate space where I could discover myself. What if I’d known about FTM transition in 1983, or demisexuality in 1997, or trauma theory in 2006? Well…I didn’t. Here’s what I did instead.

2009: I was really preoccupied with how to be a Bible-believing yet gay-affirming Christian, because I still had faith that good theological arguments would make a difference. Sigh. If this is your jam, check out the posts “Writing the Truths of GLBT Lives” and “Liberal Autonomy or Christian Liberty”. Also, my most ambitiously insane chapbook, Swallow, was published by Amsterdam Press. Now out of print; email me for a copy.

Swallow

2010: More gay Christian angst. I noticed the questionable respectability politics of some gay-affirming theology in “The Biblical Problem of the Prostitute”. Seriously starting to wonder why writing as fictional “Julian” felt autobiographical: “Straight Women, Gay Romance”. Marched in Northampton Trans Pride as an ally. Didn’t blog much that year because secretly coping with failed-adoption trauma and abusive mom meltdown. Another chapbook published: read the title poem in the post “‘Barbie at 50’ Wins Cervena Barva Poetry Prize”. Also received Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowship in poetry. Misery has never stopped me from being productive.

2011: I went no-contact with my mother, and shortly thereafter, mom-of-choice Roberta left her as well. I was still under the social workers’ microscope in the adoption process so I barely posted anything about my personal life on the blog. In September, Stef contacted us through our adoption website, and the rest is history. The series “Letter to an Evangelical Friend, Part 1: Why I Don’t Read Anti-Gay Theology” and “Part 2: Obeying Jesus Without Knowing Him?” is the culmination of 5 years wrestling with the gay Christian issue, and in retrospect, already shows the de-conversion that I would take several more years to admit to myself and others. I also gave myself this advice on my 39th birthday: “Every five years, you will completely change your mind about something important, so don’t be a butthole to people who disagree with you now.”

2012: Welcome, Bun!! I blogged about why “Adoptive Families Are Queer Families”. In other news, the title story of my eventual debut collection An Incomplete List of My Wishes won an award from Bayou Magazine. I read Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery. I turned 40 and wrote a three-part roundup of the books that influenced my youth.

2013: Is it gender dysphoria or is it sexism? Less filling, tastes great! I battled cultural expectations of femininity and motherhood in “The Gorgon’s Head: Mothers and ‘Selfishness'”. (Thanks to Bun for sleeping through the night at 6 months old, so I had the energy to string sentences together.) I self-identified publicly as a child abuse survivor for the first time in “National Child Abuse Prevention Month: Why It’s Personal”. In “Imitation of Christ, or Substitute Savior?” I questioned whether it’s possible to write a “Christian” novel without romanticizing codependence. In “Framing Suffering: Survivors, Victims, and Martyrs”, I began asking the church to consider liberation theology from an abuse-survivor standpoint–a project I’d ultimately drop after recognizing its basic incompatibility with mainstream Christianity.

2014: I dyed my hair red. Many boxes of books were given away, with “Thoughts from the Great Book Purge of 2014” surveying how my beliefs had changed. I wrote a series on Survivors in Church: “Between Covenant and Choice”, “Our Spiritual Gifts”, and “Insights From Disability Theology”. But it became evident that I had to leave church altogether: see “The Priesthood of All Survivors”. After 6 turbulent years, I finally finished an acceptable draft of the Endless Novel a/k/a Two Natures. To celebrate, I got a tattoo.

2015: I began studying Tarot, as described in “The Spiritual Gift Shop: Or, Living in Syncretism”. My second full-length poetry collection, Bullies in Love, was published by Little Red Tree. In “The Hierophant or the Ink Blot Test”, I explored where accountability can be found in a self-directed spiritual practice. I met Elisabeth Moss, who played my favorite character on “Mad Men”! The Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marriage equality. I won $1,000 from Wag’s Revue for a poem about buying a plastic dick. (No wonder that was their last issue.)

2016: Two Natures was published by Saddle Road Press! I blogged about why I write explicit sex in my fiction (“Sex God”), and the pros and cons of the radical feminist critique of Christianity (“Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: Cross Purposes”). I tentatively came out as genderqueer in “Nonbinary Femme Thoughts”. My story “Taking Down the Pear Tree”, a semi-autobiographical tale of painful setbacks on the road to adoptive parenthood, won the New Letters Prize for Fiction. However, the year ended badly for the planet with the election of Tan Dumplord.

2017: Our storage unit raised their prices, so we let the lease expire and brought back a truckload of memorabilia to Reiter’s Block HQ. Some of my archeological finds are described in “Killing You in My Mind: My Early Notebooks”. I self-diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. The Aspie community’s acceptance of finding emotional qualities in “inanimate” objects (“Autistic Pride Day: Everything is Alive”) paved the way for me to study Magick. I took charge of the Young Master’s religious education with a family trip to NecronomiCon Providence (“The Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast and the Death of White Jesus”). I killed off my menstrual cycle with the Mirena IUD, ending three decades of disabling chronic pain from endometriosis (and, as it turned out, gender dysphoria). Our high school had a collective reckoning with the #MeToo Movement on our alumni Facebook page.

2018: My debut story collection An Incomplete List of My Wishes was published by Sunshot Press, an imprint of the journal New Millennium Writings. Adam and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. I took an online course from anti-racist group White Awake about decolonizing our New Age spirituality (“Problems of Lineage and Magic”). Christian feminist author Emily Joy’s Lenten journaling workbook Everything Must Burn helped me process my spiritual trauma. I regret that I didn’t write to Dr. James Cone before he passed away, because our church small group was passionately inspired and challenged by his book Black Theology and Black Power. (I was embarrassed to imagine that he’d say, “Well, light dawns over Marblehead, white ladies!” Centering my own feelings like a typical whitey…) For the same class, I did a 40-day Bible journal (“Daily Bible Study Is My Problematic Fave”) and tried not to laugh at evangelical prayers like “invade me with your burning fire”. (Okay, I didn’t really try.) But it helped me get through losing one of my best friends. “Drawn That Way: Finding Queer Community at Flame Con” recounts my trip to an LGBTQ comics convention for research on the Endless Sequel.

2019: I did another purge of books and clothes that didn’t spark genderqueer pagan joy (“Facing Literary Impermanence with Marie Kondo”). As more research for the Endless Sequel, and let’s face it, to buy gay erotica, I attended Queers & Comics at the School of Visual Arts (“Mama Tits, Pregnant Butch, and More”). I considered the symbolic appeal of Satan and Cthulhu for spiritual-abuse survivors in “Two Varieties of Post-Christian Experience”.

In the year ahead, I hope we can elect a Democratic president and reverse course on the imminent destruction of democracy and the planet. Beyond that, my goals are the same as before: Be more trans, do more magic, lift more weights, write more words! Thanks for traveling with me.

Understanding the Lectionary Through Witchcraft

I went to church two weeks ago for All Saints’ Day and revisited the familiar sensation of being baffled by contradictory extremes in the Bible. The Episcopal lectionary readings were Psalm 149 and an excerpt from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Luke 6. Thus, in quick succession, we heard this:

Let the faithful rejoice in triumph; *
let them be joyful on their beds.

Let the praises of God be in their throat *
and a two-edged sword in their hand;

To wreak vengeance on the nations *
and punishment on the peoples;

To bind their kings in chains *
and their nobles with links of iron;

To inflict on them the judgment decreed; *
this is glory for all his faithful people.
Hallelujah!

And then this:

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Honestly, neither of those sound like the healthiest attitudes, you know? I could get into the Psalm by praying for Trump’s impeachment. As a call for accountability for corrupt leaders, rather than for God to aid our amoral conquest of other nations, these words fit the justice-seeking spirit of the Hebrew Bible. I am very wary of the supercessionist narrative among progressive Christians, who explain away anger and violence in the “Old Testament” by treating ancient Judaism as a primitive, inferior precursor of “New Testament” sweetness and light. Read Amy-Jill Levine for fresh alternatives to the subtle anti-Semitism of common Bible interpretations.

The gospel message was even more disconcerting to me. I’ve been in too many relationships where appeasement of “those who abuse you” improves neither their behavior nor their character. How is it loving to enable someone’s bad habits of greed and violence? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a good outcome from this.

Insight came the following day when I took my monthly online class from the Temple of Witchcraft, “Exploring Four Archetypes of Mature Masculinity”. Our source text is Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette’s King, Warrior, Magician, Lover (HarperOne, 1990), one of the Jungian-inspired texts of the 1990s Men’s Movement (remember Robert Bly’s Iron John?). The original book is heteronormative and sometimes oddly whiny about feminism, but instructor JT Mouradian is doing a great job of updating their ideas for a more gender-expansive era. During our session on “The Warrior”, we discussed this anecdote from the book:

There is a story about a samurai attached to the household of a great lord. His lord had been murdered by a man from a rival house, and the samurai was sworn to avenge his lord’s death. After tracking the assassin for some time, after great personal sacrifice and hardship, and after braving many dangers, the samurai found the murderer. He drew his sword to kill the man. But in that instant the assassin spit in his face. The samurai stepped back, sheathed his sword, and turned and walked away. Why?

He walked away because he was angry that he’d been spat on. He would have killed the assassin, in that moment, out of his own personal anger, not out of his commitment to the ideal his lord represented. His execution of the man would have been out of his Ego and his own feelings, not out of the Warrior within. So in order to be true to his warrior calling, he had to walk away and let the murderer live. (pgs. 84-85)

Look again at the gospel passage. In all of Jesus’ examples, the action is reactive: what to do after someone abuses you, hits you, or robs from you. One could say he was instructing us to have the equanimity and self-transcendence of the Warrior, who may need to use force in service to a goal larger than himself (e.g. clearing the money-changers from the temple), but never lets himself be overcome by wounded pride, defensive fear, or the “red mist” of rage that clouds one’s vision. Maintaining self-discipline is more important than settling scores in that moment, even if the aggressor will get off too easy.

Even so, I don’t wholly agree that the ability to tolerate infinite amounts of bullshit is a virtue. But it’s a more nuanced and defensible interpretation of the gospel than the usual idealization of codependent pacifism.

I Take the Necronomicon Literally But Not Seriously

The spooky season of October seems like a good time to post my reflections on NecronomiCon 2019, the H.P. Lovecraft and cosmic horror fan convention we attended this August in Providence. Offered in odd-numbered years, this con delves into scholarly and popular media in the Lovecraftian tradition, while critiquing the xenophobic views of its progenitor. While the Young Master and Daddy explored Rhode Island’s beaches, I attended panels on such edifying subjects as the history of insane asylums and pop-culture depictions of shrunken heads. However, nothing I saw was quite as grotesque and unsettling as the SpongeBob cartoons that Shane made me binge-watch in our hotel room.

The Innsmouth Tabernacle Choir served up some new parodies of deep cuts from the Protestant hymnal, which unfortunately were unfamiliar to most of the Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast cultists. I for one am glad they recognized the ghoulish potential in “I Am the Bread of Life”.

Presiding over the breakfast, Cody Goodfellow, Anthony Teth, and Scott Jones opened with a rap battle about the relative merits of Dagon, Mother Hydra, and Shub-Niggurath, followed by sermons warning against blind faith and oversimplified ideologies. Like queer “camp”, which paradoxically employs the excesses of self-parody as a vehicle for intense and genuine emotions, modern Cthulhu-ism inhabits a liminal space, refusing to resolve itself into either mere satire or alternative religion.

The sermons made me wonder: What really is the difference between NecronomiCon and the Episcopal Church? (Not the outfits, certainly!) Minus the references to “Great Dragons Nug and Yeb,” I expect my fellow mainline parishioners would nod enthusiastically at the paeans to liberal open-mindedness. The Innsmouth Choir is merely more explicit about the same story we tell in the Bible readings and 1982 Episcopal Hymnal: the end times are coming, we’re all going to die, the earth will be destroyed, and we may go on to a strange new afterlife in transformed bodies if we appease the right wrathful deity.

In this apocalyptic political moment in America, the cultists’ honest acknowledgment of evil and impermanence was oddly reassuring. Refreshingly, Cthulhu-ism has a sense of humor about the absurdity of all human social structures–even the most powerful dictator or Pope is puny in cosmic terms–whereas the liberal church wants you to take its performances seriously even as it concedes that it has no divine authority over you.

I also wondered how many attendees were sincere believers in magic and monstrous gods, and how many were like me, dancing on that line between genuine faith and the defensive retreat into “just kidding!” when we fear that someone will try to exploit our new belief system as a tool of social control. One of the speakers on the Edward Gorey panel observed that the eccentric artist had a reputation as a difficult interview subject because he dodged any questions that tried to pin down the meaning of his enigmatic books. His work gains its power and lasting relevance from tension that is never resolved by a revelation. That could be one way I would define the queer aesthetic–allowing subtext to remain subtext, so that it can’t be stolen from you by reductionist interpreters. Indefinability as resistance to hegemony, perhaps?

October Links Roundup: Be More Gay, Fight More Nazis

October, my favorite month–cold, dark, and spooky. Trans bois everywhere rejoice at the beginning of vest-wearing season.

When times are troubled, Buddhist sage Thich Nhat Hanh advises us to look for “what’s not wrong” in the world. So let’s start out with this inspiring historical comic from The Nib, “The Life of Gad Beck: Gay. Jewish. Nazi Fighter.”, by Dorian Alexander and Levi Hastings. We usually picture gays during the Holocaust only as concentration camp victims. Beck came of age in Germany during the Nazis’ rise to power. In 1943 he helped found Chug Chaluzi, an underground support network for Jews living in Berlin in defiance of Goebbels’ deportation order. With his twin sister and his life partner, another member of Chug Chaluzi, he worked for the Resistance until captured and tortured by the Gestapo. The three survived the war and lived a long life of activism on behalf of the Jewish people in Israel and Germany. “I mustered strength from the individual moments of happiness that I was always able to wring out of life…no matter how dire the straits,” Beck wrote.

The structural obstacles to justice in America today seem dire indeed. The more I learn, the more intertwined and entrenched the inequalities appear. Yet I take comfort in the awareness that I’m part of a collective movement, adding my little pebbles to the mountain we can build together. I don’t have to fix this by myself.

At present I’m focusing on voting rights and their connection to the prison-industrial complex. We can have all the progressive candidates we want and it still won’t do any good if large swathes of the Democratic constituency are disenfranchised. This happens through strategies like gerrymandering (drawing odd-shaped legislative districts in order to rig the election for a particular party) and a racially biased criminal justice system. Check out the Emancipation Initiative website to help with our campaign to restore prisoners’ voting rights in Massachusetts.

At Salon, journalist Igor Derysh reports on the late Republican operative Thomas Hofeller, “the master of modern gerrymandering,” whose secret files, opened after his death in August 2018, reveal his strategy to dilute the black vote.

…Hofeller’s files show that he compiled maps with overlays of the black voting-age population by district, suggesting that racial data was a key part of the gerrymander, which is at the center of a years-long legal battle

Hofeller, a key player in the Trump administration’s push to add a citizenship question to the census, compiled data on the citizen voting-age population in North Carolina, Texas, Arizona and other states going back to 2011. In memos, Hofeller argued that drawing maps based on the number of citizens rather than the population would “clearly be a disadvantage to the Democrats” and help “non-Hispanic whites.”

…The files show that Hofeller also traveled around the country to educate Republicans about redistricting and urged them to push for prison gerrymandering, which allows inmates to be counted as residents of the area where the prison is located, often helping Republican lawmakers.

Meanwhile, some cities are rethinking the use of arrest warrants for minor nonviolent offenses. The Washington Post reports that “One in 7 adults in New Orleans have a warrant out for their arrest,” often for misdemeanors such as panhandling or missing a court date. The City Council is considering a resolution to dismiss all warrants and charges associated with poverty and homelessness, which account for over 40% of the total. “A coalition of elected officials, local civil rights organizations such as Stand With Dignity and the public defender’s office is proposing a more permanent solution—wiping out nearly all 56,000 warrants, in addition to any debt accumulated from fines and fees.” These reforms would clear the overcrowded dockets, reduce the city’s costs, and eliminate one burden that falls more heavily on poor and minority residents:

Questions about municipal warrants and their impact on public safety intensified after Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in 2014 in Ferguson. A subsequent Justice Department investigation of the city’s police department found that more than 16,000 people had outstanding municipal warrants in a city of 21,000 people.

Those warrants were “almost exclusively” used as a threat to generate revenue from poor, black communities through fines and fees, which they could not afford to pay, according to the Justice Department report. Five months later, Ferguson Municipal Court Judge Donald McCullin recalled all warrants issued in the city before Dec. 31, 2014, which amounted to nearly 10,000.

A similar ruling was issued in January by the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, who dismissed nearly 800,000 outstanding municipal cases.

Lisa Foster, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center in New York, worked for the Justice Department at the time of the Ferguson report. She said that most people miss court because they simply forget, do not have reliable transportation or child care, or cannot afford to miss work. And many are unable to pay their fines, so they stay away out of fear they will be arrested.

Also last month, California legislators approved a bill to ban private (for-profit) prisons from operating in the state, The Guardian reported. The move would likely shut down four ICE immigrant detention centers as well.

Going in the wrong direction, as usual, the Catholic Church is still using its behind-the-scenes political power to block clergy sexual abuse lawsuits. Maria Kwiatkowski and John Kelly have the full story this week in USA Today: “The Catholic Church and Boy Scouts are lobbying against child abuse statutes. This is their playbook.”

The article details what I would consider numerous violations of the Establishment Clause and tax-exempt status requirements, including sermons and mass mailings to parishioners, smear campaigns and threatening personal messages to pro-victim legislators. At stake are proposed state laws that would extend the statute of limitations for victims to sue. Victim advocates support such laws because memories of child abuse can take decades to surface, and even for those victims who never forgot, they often do not have the safety and resources to pursue a claim till later in life. Meanwhile, the Church pleads that lawsuits would bankrupt it, while spending millions on lobbying. However, it appears that public opinion is finally turning against these once-revered authority figures:

Since 2009, lawmakers in 38 states have introduced such bills, according to a USA TODAY analysis, and the rate of success has picked up. Of the 29 states that have enacted such laws, 11 did so for the first time this year.

Ten states no longer have any civil statute of limitations and 16 states have revived expired statutes, according to CHILD USA, which tracks such legislation daily.

Perhaps we’d be better off with Mindar, an AI recently installed at a 400-year-old Japanese Buddhist temple. According to Vox.com, “Robot priests can bless you, advise you, and even perform your funeral”:

For now, Mindar is not AI-powered. It just recites the same preprogrammed sermon about the Heart Sutra over and over. But the robot’s creators say they plan to give it machine-learning capabilities that’ll enable it to tailor feedback to worshippers’ specific spiritual and ethical problems.

“This robot will never die; it will just keep updating itself and evolving,” said Tensho Goto, the temple’s chief steward. “With AI, we hope it will grow in wisdom to help people overcome even the most difficult troubles. It’s changing Buddhism.”

Robots are changing other religions, too. In 2017, Indians rolled out a robot that performs the Hindu aarti ritual, which involves moving a light round and round in front of a deity. That same year, in honor of the Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary, Germany’s Protestant Church created a robot called BlessU-2. It gave preprogrammed blessings to over 10,000 people.

Then there’s SanTO — short for Sanctified Theomorphic Operator — a 17-inch-tall robot reminiscent of figurines of Catholic saints. If you tell it you’re worried, it’ll respond by saying something like, “From the Gospel according to Matthew, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Anthony Boucher’s classic sci-fi story “The Quest for Saint Aquin” has become a reality. Let me know if you see a robass at the Blessing of the Animals service this weekend.

High-Demand Religion and Male Loneliness

I recently watched the Netflix documentary “The Family”, based on religion journalist Jeff Sharlet’s books about a covert Christian supremacist network that seeds the highest levels of government with right-wing evangelical allies. Hiding in plain sight, these folks are the force behind the National Prayer Breakfast and send congressmen on unofficial junkets to change the hearts (and secure the petrochemicals contracts) of authoritarian leaders from Russia to Libya. The Humanist magazine has a good summary here.

The show opens with a dramatic reconstruction of a younger Sharlet’s stint in an intentional community called Ivanwald, an idyllic suburban mansion near Washington, D.C. where wholesome young men are groomed for future leadership. Like a Christian version of the boarding-school lads in Dead Poets Society, the “brothers” play football, share their innermost feelings, study the texts that are supposed to change their lives, and subject newbies to surprise hazing rituals.

Watching these scenes was a bittersweet reminder of the evening at Harvard Hillel, over 25 years ago, that sealed my desire to try living as an observant Jew. It must have been Succot because we were eating dinner at long picnic tables outdoors under a lantern-lit tent. The Orthodox boys had a camaraderie with one another that was mature, tender, and close-knit, a visible contrast to their jaded, slick, competitive counterparts in the secular world of elite schooling. My three imperatives in my 20s were (1) find a husband, (2) don’t fail physics, and (3) survive one more day of living with my mentally deteriorating mother. (Two outta three ain’t bad, kids.) But the yearning in my heart, as I looked at those young men, wasn’t for a future father of my Jewish babies.

I was in love with a kind of homosocial bonding that seems to flourish in high-demand communities–some alchemy that makes loud insensitive boys into reflective young men, a pressure that forces affection out of them like weeds pushing through a cement sidewalk. I devoured books like Pat Conroy’s The Lords of Discipline (doesn’t that title just make you tingle?), a semi-autobiographical novel about the military academy The Citadel. Later, in my 30s, married and recently moved to this very female-centric Western Massachusetts town, I went along with a teenage friend to her charismatic evangelical church. It was remarkable to see white working-class men weeping, trembling, and embracing as a matter of course–a space of respite from the bluster and gruffness that such men perform with each other in the outside world.

The appeal of places like Ivanwald can’t be reduced to covert homosexuality, however tempting it is for liberals to take that cheap shot. In his essay collection Undergoing God (Continuum, 2006), gay Catholic theologian James Alison suggests that sexual desire may be a subset of men’s stigmatized need for emotional intimacy, rather than the reverse. (Alison is a follower of social scientist Rene Girard, referenced below; the blog Teaching Nonviolent Atonement explains Girardian theology in layperson’s terms.)

Imagine a Freudian or a neo-Freudian looking at a rugby scrum. We can hear such a person commenting, after a bit: ‘Hmmm, lots of latent homosexuality around here.’ Now imagine a Girardian or neo-Girardian gazing at the goings on at a gay sex club. Such a person might say, after a bit: ‘Hmmm, an awful lot of latent rugby playing going on here.’

Funnily enough when I have talked to gay male audiences on retreats and made this comparison, they’ve always smiled and got it immediately. The Girardian comment rings much truer to our experience than the Freudian. And this is not, I think, because it is ideologically more flattering to us. But because you can’t hang around in such circles for very long without realising how much of the apparently sexual activity which is going on is to do with touching, with bonding, being with the tribe, with affection and with playing games. (pg.160)

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis contrasts eros, romantic love/lust, with philia, friendship. Whereas lovers look at one another, friends stand side by side, looking in the same direction at something they both value. In the classical and medieval worlds, philia was considered a higher-level love because freely chosen and not tied to bodily needs such as reproduction. (Sounds kind of queer, no?)

It stands to reason, then, that philia based on shared spirituality would be especially deep and meaningful. The stronger the pressure to face in the same direction, as in high-demand religions like Orthodox Judaism and evangelical Christianity, the more that bond is reinforced. The men’s passion for one another–again, not necessarily sexual–is given cover by their passion for God. Because these religions are punitively heteronormative and patriarchal, these men can have it both ways, being vulnerable and devoted to one another in “feminine” ways without losing status.

I wonder if this is a particularly masculine flavor of friendship, to be more object-oriented than personally intimate. In the past decade I’ve had several intense female friendships where our conversations revolved around psychological growth and relationship processing. We had common interests, such as literature, but that wasn’t our strongest bond. It was partway to eros, without any sexual desire, but with that love’s characteristic shadow side of jealousy and engulfment. One element of my masculine transition is the attempt to shift towards a male style of philia, which I’m currently pursuing by attending every available queer nerd convention.

The shadow side of worship-oriented male philia is, of course, the Christian supremacy that is all around us in America. Non-Orthodox Jews and Palestinians in Israel might tell a similar story about the deadly consequences of believing that your in-group is chosen by God. In another essay in the same book, Alison contrasts non-idolatrous worship with authoritarian group bonding exercises, epitomized by the Nazis’ Nuremberg Rally. Boldface emphasis mine, and some paragraph breaks added for ease of online reading.

One of the things in Nuremberg-style worship is what I referred to in my initial description as ‘Bruderschaft’. This is the sense in which, as they gradually become worked up in their enthusiasm, so those involved in the crowd begin to discover a special sort of love for those who are there along with the, a deep camaraderie, a sense of being one with, and delighted to be with, these others who, but a few hours previously, were entirely unknown to them, and, in a few hours’ time, will be just as unknown once again.

Part of worship is a sense that love enables you to leave behind the tedious banalities of the particular, the petty irritations, the timidities, the quirks, and instead find yourself together, and in communion, with these people whom an outside viewer would describe as strangers, but you, at the time, would swear that you were united by a special and mystical bond. And that ecstasy, that ek-stasis, can be quite overpowering, and indeed quite addictive.

Now I want to say that, from the perspective of True Worship, this is all completely ersatz. True Worship leads to a slow, patient discovery of being able to like people in their bizarre particularities, and see the beauty in those things, not abstract from them. Just as true friendship requires time and stretching and self-examination, and trust building, and vulnerability and time wasted doing nothing in particular. This is part of the sense that we don’t need to hide from each other if we are all being forgiven together by the forgiving victim [Jesus], and that un-hiding, that discovery, happens very slowly.

Worship requires the suppression of the particular because it requires all those involved to share in a lie which will lead to a new form of unity creating a new sacrifice by casting someone out. All those involved in the unity are automatically, by the mere fact of being involved, abstracting from their particular stories and sharing in a lie, a cause that is beyond them. The love, the friendship, the real brotherhood which comes with and through True Worship, is a certain sort of being able gradually to bask in particular beauties discovered without any cause beyond themselves. (pgs.46-47)

Preach! I read this book a decade ago during my spiritual crisis about writing a gay novel. Re-reading these passages I bookmarked, I now understand how the ecstasy of friendship with my Christian women’s group could have felt so real, and how it was inevitable that my emerging gay transmasculine self would subsequently be cast out. The main virtue of Julian, my novel protagonist, is his anti-ideological bent. This slutty but sensitive fashion photographer is an expert on “bask[ing] in particular beauties…without any cause beyond themselves.” I believed then, and even more now, that the Holy Spirit sent him to me.

August Links Roundup: What Are Christians Smoking?

Folks, I’m tired. The baggage of Christendom is too much for me to carry. Every once in a while, though, a novelty item falls into my lap from the overhead compartment of the Internet, and the momentary smile gives me the strength to go on.

Your levity of the day is ChristianCannabis.com. Launched by the founders of XXXChurch, a ministry to rescue and convert sex workers, Christian Cannabis aims to open Christians’ minds to the healing and enlightening properties of responsible weed use. Hat tip to Slacktivist for the link.

What if believers were to entertain the idea that legality is not the equivalent of licentiousness, but neither must we demonize and condemn every single thing that we don’t quite understand? What if the Christian community were to begin to understand how something like cannabis could be used in beneficial ways that supports their lives? Their health?

What if – rather than trading our feelings for platitudes and “should-bes” – we were to begin to better understand them?

What if cannabis proved to enhance mental clarity, diminish anxiety, and lend itself toward physical healing and integrative wellness?

What if cannabis proved to dissolve the self constantly getting in the way, enabling one to better prioritize others and the qualities and relationships that make for a full and vibrant life?

Your boi is completely in favor of de-stigmatizing and de-criminalizing cannabis, which has proven medicinal uses and is less addictive than many legal prescription substances (and less profitable to drug companies…coincidence?). But I’m still waiting to see if these white hipster evangelicals will put their political clout behind freeing the people of color who’ve been imprisoned by the drug war, or if they’re only interested in selling Christian-branded products to the mega-church demographic.

(Image source: @_youhadonejob1)

Hmm, the links are salty this month, eh? Well, I watched “The Keepers” on Netflix and I am not in a forgiving mood. This documentary series investigates the 1969 murder of a young schoolteacher nun in Baltimore and its likely connection to a cover-up of a massive pedophile ring at a Catholic high school. Though sometimes slow-paced and repetitive, the series inspired me with its depiction of older women creating community, doggedly investigating leads dropped by probably-corrupt police, and healing from recovered memories. Unlike the film “Spotlight”, it doesn’t end with a definitive triumphant reveal, but such frustration is true to the experience of most survivors seeking justice from the Church.

In the New York Times Sunday opinion pages this weekend, Rachel L. Swarns, a black Catholic journalist, shared her unexpected discoveries about “The Nuns Who Bought and Sold Human Beings”.

Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, one of the oldest Roman Catholic girls’ schools in the nation, has long celebrated the vision and generosity of its founders: a determined band of Catholic nuns who championed free education for the poor in the early 1800s.

The sisters, who established an elite academy in Washington, D.C., also ran “a Saturday school, free to any young girl who wished to learn — including slaves, at a time when public schools were almost nonexistent and teaching slaves to read was illegal,” according to an official history posted for several years on the school’s website.

But when a newly hired school archivist and historian started digging in the convent’s records a few years ago, she found no evidence that the nuns had taught enslaved children to read or write. Instead, she found records that documented a darker side of the order’s history.

The Georgetown Visitation sisters owned at least 107 enslaved men, women and children, the records show. And they sold dozens of those people to pay debts and to help finance the expansion of their school and the construction of a new chapel…

Some former slave-owning religious orders are publicly acknowledging their past and making reparations, such as the Louisiana-based Religious of the Sacred Heart school’s new scholarship fund for African-American students. But in general, Catholic schools’ official histories still gloss over the extent to which they were built on slave labor.

Cindy Wang Brandt, founder of the Facebook community Raising Children Unfundamentalist and author of the progressive Christian parenting book Parenting Forward, wrote a heartfelt blog post last month explaining “Why I’m not a bridge builder within evangelicalism”. As she sees it, in a tradition that has not thoroughly examined its investment in white supremacy and patriarchy, any attempts to change the system from within will require too many compromises:

As I watch from beyond evangelicalism the way Beth Moore has been bravely fighting for inclusion of women’s voices and agency within the Southern Baptist denomination, and witnessing the backlash, I can’t help but be reminded of how low the bar is for evangelicals. That to simply exist as a woman with a voice is heresy…

…A hundred years later [since American women won the right to vote], women still cannot have a voice in their own spirituality, submitting an integral part of their being to the government of men within the largest denomination of evangelicalism.

I don’t know what the final outcome will be of Beth Moore’s current battle within her own denomination. I believe she will, and has already, disrupted the status quo, and possibly some progress will occur in which women gain greater agency.

But what I also know is that she will only be able to maintain her voice within the system if she stays in line with other matters of orthodoxy, i.e. remaining committed to sexual purity including condemnation of the “homosexual lifestyle.” This was the pattern for other Christian feminist movements within evangelicalism such as CBE (Christians for Biblical Equality); whose success in moving the needle on egalitarianism has meant they toe the line on reproductive rights and the inclusion of sexual minorities. (As reported by Deborah Jian Lee in her book, Rescuing Jesus, pp. 125)

In other admittedly harsh words, evangelicals only give a limited degree of freedom to one subset of human beings if they can surely throw other human beings under the bus.

This week at Kittredge Cherry’s QSpirit blog, a site that celebrates LGBTQ spirituality in art, I learned about the British gay slang dialect Polari and a New York artist who is using it to queer the lectionary:

[Erich] Erving’s projects include his ongoing “Bona Breviary of the Fabulosa Innocents” and an Evensong worship service in Polari, the secret language of British gay subcultures. Using images of deceased male porn stars as a starting point, the alchemy of his artistry transforms them into etchings of saints with the same name. In his breviary, they are accompanied by prayers and scriptures translated into Polari, a language that is too queer to be acceptable.

Polari often switches male names and pronouns to female. For example, in Polari Jesus tells his followers:

“Be ye therefore absolutely fantabulosa, even as your Auntie which is in heaven is absolutely fantabulosa.”

The same scripture in the King James Bible is, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

The Evensong text is taken from a Polari translation of the entire King James Bible by the Manchester chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, “a protest and street performance charity that uses drag and re-purposed religious imagery to promote tolerance of LGBTQ communities.” (Sisters from the Boston chapter often show up at our local Pride Parade!) Listen to excerpts on the QSpirit website.

“And the sparkle shineth in munge; and the munge comprehended it not.” (John 1:5) Praise Josie Crystal!

Two Varieties of Post-Christian Experience

Two theology bloggers I follow have been exploring what’s next after one has deconstructed the conservative evangelical faith of one’s upbringing–and have arrived at quite different answers.

I began reading Stephen Bradford Long’s posts a few years ago, when he was just beginning to deprogram himself from the anti-gay beliefs that had severely traumatized him. In the beginning, he focused on developing and defending an affirming Christian sexual ethic. Later on, he branched out into explaining how Tarot was compatible with Christianity–a timely subject for me, since at that time I was also trying to maintain my old faith despite relying more and more on non-Christian spiritual practices. Somewhere along the way, he realized that he no longer believed in the Biblical God or the supernatural aspects of traditional religion. In a provocative move, Long came out this year as a follower of the Satanic Temple.

Now, before you start sprinkling your laptop with holy water, the Satanic Temple (not to be confused with the Church of Satan) is a secular humanist organization that adopts the symbol of the Christian Devil to challenge Establishment Clause violations and invoke a Romantic tradition of rebellion against religious repression. They’re the folks who protested a Ten Commandments monument at the Arkansas Capitol by installing a statue of Baphomet, a witty move to highlight the state’s unconstitutional favoritism toward one religion. According to NPR, the Temple “argues that public spaces should be free from religious messaging or be opened up to representations of all faiths, including Satanist icons.”

In his post “Why Satan?” Long explains:

Satanism is originally a literary tradition rooted in the romantic poets, namely Hugo, Shelley, Blake, and Byron. These four poets were not themselves religious Satanists, but they were the first to recast the biblical myth of Satan in a positive, metaphorical light. In the throes of enlightenment, romanticism, and revolution, they saw the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost as the far more sympathetic and heroic figure. As Ruben Van Luijk notes in his book Children of Lucifer, “For radical sympathizers with the Revolution like Godwin and Shelley, Satan was no longer an evil insurgent against righteousness and cosmic order, but the mirror image and mythological embodiment of the revolutionary standing up against arbitrary and despotic power.” (pg. 77)

Similar to how the LGBTQ community has reclaimed the slur “queer”, Long embraces the demonic imagery that was once employed to fill him with self-loathing:

I’m gay, and it’s hard to describe what receiving this cultural story about homosexuality did to my psyche as I was growing up. I was told that homosexuality is the greatest and vilest perversion of the natural world, that I was demon possessed for loving men. I went through exorcisms. One Christian woman slapped my hand out of the air when I made a “disgusting” feminine gesture, which compromised my godly manhood. I was told that gay sex would open a portal to uninhibited and darkness within me. I was an abomination, just like Lucifer…

Owning Lucifer as my figurehead is now a defiant act of empowerment: it is an ownership of my minority status, a proclamation that the myth of my demonization was misguided, and claiming solidarity with the demonized everywhere. Claiming Satan as the heroic good is a deeply validating act when I myself have been deemed a monster because of cultural myth. I embrace my own goodness by recasting my father Lucifer as good, too.

In the Tarot, the Devil (depicted as Baphomet in the classic Rider-Waite deck) does not represent an external force of evil to be loathed and defeated. Rather, it symbolizes our repressed shadow side that we must integrate in order to be free from self-imposed bondage.

Spiritual integration is good for the abs, too. (Lucifer pin by Kate Sheridan)

Finally, Long chose a symbol from Christian iconography because he remains within the stream of the Christian tradition, though not as an orthodox believer. In his post “Giving Up on Calling Myself Christian”, he writes:

While I have utmost respect of people who can affirm the creeds, I now personally experience the truth claims of Christianity as intellectually insulting, and little more than untenable superstition…And yet I find the symbol, story, liturgy, and tradition of Christianity significant enough for me personally to not walk out of the church. Because of this, I think I personally qualify as at least *some* sort of Christian.

…I’m tired of fighting the faithful over my participation in their religion — a religion which is my tradition, heritage, and central guiding story. I’m tired of trying to stake my claim in Christianity, even though I still speak the liturgies, attend the rites, dream the symbols, and revere Christ.

But whatever. Too many of the faithful insist that I’m not in their club, and I’m tired of fighting them. To make the bickering stop, I’m shedding the term Christian, and adopting “Post-Christian” as a more accurate description: I can no longer affirm the central creeds of Christianity, but I am in a place accessible only by way of Christianity. I don’t think I will ever leave the church fully, but I will partake not as a Christian, but a Post-Christian. That seems like a compromise which makes everyone’s life (especially mine) easier.

This formulation gave me a way to categorize my complex religious identity. I’m a Christian the same way I’m a New Yorker. Manhattan, like Christendom, is a place that fundamentally shaped who I am, but I couldn’t live there anymore. There are things I miss about it that I can’t find anywhere else. When a certain song plays, or a characteristic smell reaches me (incense, burnt soft pretzels, the subway grating after rain), I feel satisfied and whole–for a maximum of 48 hours in the city, or 45 minutes in church, before something predictably makes me overwhelmed and stressed.

Though I chose the Devil as my Tarot Wheel of the Year card for 2019, I don’t feel the same bond with that figure as Long does. It has too many associations with the ritual abuse that some of my friends suffered. Moreover, I want to put my traumatic relationship with the Bible behind me, instead of remaining bound to it in an antagonistic way. For me, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu served the same purpose, an anti-God that doesn’t require literal belief in order to be effective at clearing away the gaslighting of an abusive Father’s “love”.

Cthulhu-chu, I choose you!

Meanwhile, Richard Beck at Experimental Theology is writing a series on “post-progressive Christianity”. Beck is a psychology professor at Abilene Christian University and a member of the Churches of Christ who also appreciates high-church devotional practices like the rosary. I recommend his book Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Morality (Wipf & Stock, 2011), an exploration of the ethical problems with the purity paradigm in religion, with the reservation that his criticism of “boundaries” is not sufficiently informed by feminism or trauma theory.

Beck’s latest blog series points out some missing ingredients in the liberal Christian churches where many post-evangelicals wind up. Essentially, he argues that these environments don’t offer much that adds to the secular progressive worldview of their members. Liberal theology and preaching mainly emphasizes how our pre-existing political or intellectual commitments are compatible with (parts of) the Bible. We’re less likely to hear a faith-based challenge to the values and methods we brought in from outside the church. The absence of such a challenge can stunt our spiritual growth and make our religion irrelevant. Beck observes:

[M]any progressive Christians are biblically fragile. Almost every page of the Bible triggers a faith crisis, every Bible study getting stuck on what is “problematic.” The Word of God isn’t enjoyed as a location of delight and joy. The Bible isn’t a daily source of life, comfort, and sustenance…

Put bluntly, progressives don’t read the Bible much because they already know what the Bible is supposed to say. God is always being judged, criticized, and indicted by a progressive moral vision. Progressive Christians believe in morality rather than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And when that happens the Bible is thoroughly tamed and captured by the progressive moral and political imagination. The Word of God is stuffed into a progressive moral box and is not free to startle, surprise, challenge, criticize, indict, unsettle, disturb and interrupt us…

From a prophetic aspect, while I still have questions and concerns about the Bible, as a post-progressive I spend less time questioning the Bible and more time letting the Bible question me.

Now, I absolutely agree with this. It was true of the Reform Jewish congregations I attended back in the 1990s before my baptism, and all the liberal-mainline churches I’ve been in. Back when I was an orthodox Christian, I often cited Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, where he says that the Resurrection is not something to be explained according to our existing ideas of how the world works. Rather, a Christian is someone who takes the Resurrection as starting point, and reorients their understanding of the world accordingly.

The difference between Beck and me is that the Bible is not the authority I want to be under–or to be more precise, not the sparring partner I consider most worthy and fruitful. I want to be taught and challenged, as much as Beck does. But the worldview of Scripture at worst is opposed to, and at best doesn’t prioritize, my core values of consent, sexual and neurological diversity, children’s rights, and the authority of personal experience. I don’t feel it’s ethically or psychologically healthy for me to put those up for debate any longer.

I commend Beck for stating the problem in such clear terms that may be disturbing to his progressive readers. And I wonder how his assessment of left-wing Christianity would change if he looked beyond majority-white denominations and theologians. James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power and Renita J. Weems’ Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets, both of which we studied in my church small group, engage boldly with Christian theology and Scripture from black liberation and womanist perspectives, treating the tradition with respect and expertise while being unafraid to depart from it where justice dictates.

Two Poems from Garret Keizer’s “The World Pushes Back”

Garret Keizer is a widely published essayist, former Episcopal priest and English teacher, and the author of eight books. His nonfiction works Help: The Original Human Dilemma (HarperOne, 2004) and The Enigma of Anger: Essays on a Sometimes Deadly Sin (Jossey-Bass, 2004) were both transformative and comforting for me during a fraught period in my life. His nuanced meditations on what we owe each other gave me permission to feel all my feelings about a family situation that in the end, I could not resolve, only walk away from. Now, at age 65, he has released his debut poetry collection, The World Pushes Back (Texas Review Press, 2019), winner of the 2018 X.J. Kennedy Award.

Critics often compliment a book by calling it “ambitious”, but such an ego-driven word would be untrue to the spirit of this collection–audacious as it is to be a progressive Christian moralist in a culture where hard-hearted reactionaries claim a monopoly on faith. As he says in the closing poem, “The Last Man Who Knew Everything”:

In the best world every man
would know everything
that was worth knowing
and would know that others knew
as well as he, and would also know
that things worth knowing are few.

Keizer gently but pointedly warns his fellow American bourgeoisie not to mistake the contentment of privilege for true happiness, the latter requiring the soul-searching and pain of being born again into a humbler interconnectedness to others. This vision is embodied in “Cousin Rick”, a real-life example of Henri Nouwen’s ideal of “downward mobility”. Not spoiling the tale with any heavy-handed “Go and do likewise,” Keizer recounts the bare facts of his cousin’s life and death as a missionary in New Guinea, with affection and quiet bewilderment at the saints hidden among us.

Since reading this book, I’ve been conducting an argument in my mind with the poem “For Those Who Talk of Growth”. The speaker, at the start of spring, is clearing his lawn of the sand that the snowplow threw there in the winter, and a perhaps-too-facile metaphor comes to him:

The sand is what served me
for a time, some friend, some
creed that gave me traction
once, but now only burdens
the life I must rake free of it.

However, he immediately corrects himself. Snow will inevitably come again “and I shall go/nowhere without the sand.”

Certainly there are many who worship modernity for its own sake and think themselves clever for upgrading their creeds like new iPhones. I’ve confronted this bias in liberal Christians’ dismissal of the supernatural. But this poem rubbed me the wrong way, because it echoes a common threat leveled against us former Christians: “just you wait, when things get tough, you’ll come crawling back.” For some of us, the sand became quicksand. We didn’t leave because we thought life was easy, we left (or were kicked out) because the old answers were inadequate to meet the revelatory crisis that split our lives into before and after. It actually takes a lot of maturity to look back and admit that the sand did serve us for a time, and be grateful rather than bitter as we say goodbye.

The rabbis say that a person should carry two notes in their pockets: one, “The world was created for me,” and the other, “I am dust and ashes.” A similar balance is at play in the poem “Divine Comedy” (below), which expresses the exquisite difficulty of creating art with a mindset of gratitude rather than scarcity. Transcending praise and blame is a daily spiritual discipline where I often fall short.

The poems below are reproduced with permission from Texas Review Press (Huntsville, TX), copyright Garret Keizer.

THE STARS ARE NEAR

The stars are near,
and it struck me how near
tonight, how superstitious I have been
to take their exponential distances on faith,
like a man dubious about driving a nail
because he’s heard of empty space
between the molecules
in the hammer’s head.
They are near, the stars.
They will always be
near. I have neighbors
whose porch lights are more distant.
A man who believes himself estranged
from his father, because they quarreled
when he was young,
sees the day when he is no longer
young, and no longer estranged,
and no more distant from the nearest star
than from his final breath.
He vows, as I do,
that he will not have his distances
dictated to him any more.

****

DIVINE COMEDY

1.

Hell is eternal publication.
The damned never write a word
except their names at book signings,
never read anything but reviews
of books they can’t remember writing.

They are stuck on the radio for ages,
talking about their goddamn books—
so long they forget they’re on the air.
They call themselves on the call-in line
and ask, “So how did you get published?”

2.

Heaven is eternal publication.
The redeemed never write a word
not quickened by their inscribing:
“For Jane Doe, who graced this event,
and is the truth I sought by writing.”

They are guests on the radio for ages,
talking to God, who just loved the book—
so long they forget they’re on the air.
Again they drift to ground and find
their first acceptance, too good to be true.

June Links Roundup: If This Is Success, Give Me Failure

Happy Pride Month! I have briefly paused my efforts to buy every possible gay nerd tank top, to bring you this list of lovely links.

Sometimes I look back on my Harvard undergraduate career as a conservative journalist and wonder what would have happened if I’d remained on the Federalist Society fast track to networking success. Since I’ve never sexually harassed anyone, I probably wouldn’t qualify for the Supreme Court. However, I might be a stealth political kingmaker like Kelly Monroe Kullberg, author of the Christian intellectual apologetics anthology Finding God at Harvard–and, apparently, the woman behind a slew of pro-Trump “Astroturf” groups that spread hateful anti-Muslim fake news on social media. Alex Kasprak at the scam-busting site Snopes.com conducted this in-depth investigation, published last month: “Disguising Hate: How Radical Evangelicals Spread Anti-Islamic Vitriol on Facebook”:

A coordinated network of evangelical Christian Facebook pages publishing overtly Islamophobic, conspiratorial content paints extreme, divisive right-wing rhetoric as having broad American support but is actually tied to one individual, a Snopes investigation reveals.

These pages claim that Islam is “not a religion,” that Muslims are violent and duplicitous, and that Islamic refugee resettlement is “cultural destruction and subjugation.” Just hours after the April 2019 Notre Dame spire collapse in a catastrophic fire, this network went into overdrive sowing doubt about the possible role Muslims had in its collapse. Multiple pages within this network have stated that their purpose is “message boosting & targeting.” Ten of the pages within the network explicitly support U.S. President Donald Trump in their titles and belong to an umbrella organization that “[speaks] up for a Trump-Pence agenda.” A post shared on several of those pages implores readers to “like our page and let’s roll 2020!

These pages, however, are steeped in fantastical notions of “globalist” conspiracies linking Islam, Socialism, and multi-billionaire philanthropist and Democratic Party supporter George Soros to the decline of Western civilization. Some of these pages also claim that survivors of the Parkland High School massacre in the U.S., for instance, are on a Soros-funded “Leftist-Islamist payroll.”

…Though the actual authorship of the posts within these pages is opaque, their titles imply diverse representation from a broad swath of American demographic groups, including “Jews & Christians for America” and “Blacks for Trump.” In reality, however, the pages in this network are all connected to evangelical activist Kelly Monroe Kullberg…[who] is neither black nor Jewish…

…This network, and others that employ similar tactics, can affect online discourse in several ways. First, the network serves to influence public opinion by presenting the views of a small group of activists as representative of a much broader swath of the American populace. Second, such a strategy in this case amplifies and offers a veil of legitimacy to hatred and conspiracy theories. Third, in spite of these strategies awash in misinformation, the pages within the network have attracted the financial backing of well-heeled political donors who exploit these pages and groups to disguise the origin of political Facebook ads.

Fun (or not-so-fun) fact, Kelly was one of my main sources for a 1992 Harvard Salient cover story called “The Witches Are Hunting”, describing anti-Christian bias at Harvard Divinity School. (The other source was Rich Tafel, later president of the gay conservative PAC known as Log Cabin Republicans.) With my usual penchant for flamboyant self-destruction, I declared my major in the Religion Department a couple months after ripping them a new asshole in the aforementioned conservative biweekly. And now I am a practicing witch…the gods laugh.

Republicans have perfected the one-two punch of exploiting American workers: first, hollow out their manufacturing base with predatory corporate takeovers, then channel their dispossessed rage into electing far-right demagogues. That’s the takeaway from this 2012 Rolling Stone profile, “Greed and Debt: The True Story of Mitt Romney and Bain Capital”, which remains timely as an exposé of how private equity firms are strip-mining our economy.

A private equity firm like Bain typically seeks out floundering businesses with good cash flows. It then puts down a relatively small amount of its own money and runs to a big bank like Goldman Sachs or Citigroup for the rest of the financing. (Most leveraged buyouts are financed with 60 to 90 percent borrowed cash.) The takeover firm then uses that borrowed money to buy a controlling stake in the target company, either with or without its consent…

…Romney and Bain avoided the hostile approach, preferring to secure the cooperation of their takeover targets by buying off a company’s management with lucrative bonuses. Once management is on board, the rest is just math. So if the target company is worth $500 million, Bain might put down $20 million of its own cash, then borrow $350 million from an investment bank to take over a controlling stake.

But here’s the catch. When Bain borrows all of that money from the bank, it’s the target company that ends up on the hook for all of the debt.

Now your troubled firm – let’s say you make tricycles in Alabama – has been taken over by a bunch of slick Wall Street dudes who kicked in as little as five percent as a down payment. So in addition to whatever problems you had before, Tricycle Inc. now owes Goldman or Citigroup $350 million. With all that new debt service to pay, the company’s bottom line is suddenly untenable: You almost have to start firing people immediately just to get your costs down to a manageable level.

“That interest,” says Lynn Turner, former chief accountant of the Securities and Exchange Commission, “just sucks the profit out of the company.”

Fortunately, the geniuses at Bain who now run the place are there to help tell you whom to fire. And for the service it performs cutting your company’s costs to help you pay off the massive debt that it, Bain, saddled your company with in the first place, Bain naturally charges a management fee, typically millions of dollars a year. So Tricycle Inc. now has two gigantic new burdens it never had before Bain Capital stepped into the picture: tens of millions in annual debt service, and millions more in “management fees.” Since the initial acquisition of Tricycle Inc. was probably greased by promising the company’s upper management lucrative bonuses, all that pain inevitably comes out of just one place: the benefits and payroll of the hourly workforce.

Once all that debt is added, one of two things can happen. The company can fire workers and slash benefits to pay off all its new obligations to Goldman Sachs and Bain, leaving it ripe to be resold by Bain at a huge profit. Or it can go bankrupt – this happens after about seven percent of all private equity buyouts – leaving behind one or more shuttered factory towns. Either way, Bain wins. By power-sucking cash value from even the most rapidly dying firms, private equity raiders like Bain almost always get their cash out before a target goes belly up.

Let’s wrap up with two stories about people who are trying to fix this trash fire of a planet–literally. This week’s Springwise trend-spotter newsletter profiles Europe’s first garbage-collection race, held on May 30 in Marseille. Participants included Olympic swimming champion Coralie Balmy and other world-class athletes. The Mediterranean Sea is among the world’s most polluted bodies of water.

Merging elements of a race and a treasure hunt, 20 teams, made up of two swimmers and two kayakers, aimed to collect 8 km of waste from the sea.

Le Grand Défi, or The Grand Challenge, was co-organised by the French environmental protection brand SauvagePalana Environmentand the Amos Sport Business School. It was inspired by Emmanuel Laurin and his film The Great Saphire, which featured Laurin’s 120-km swim between Toulon and Marseille, where he collected more than 100 kg of waste.

Found via the ex-evangelical blog Love Joy Feminism, this story by Karina Bland in the Arizona Republic newspaper profiles her state’s chapter of Bikers Against Child Abuse International, a volunteer organization that helps kids recover from trauma. The bikers, who are vetted and trained for these sensitive situations, become big buddies for children who need to feel protected and strong again:

[A] biker’s power and intimidating image can even the playing field for a little kid who has been hurt. If the man who hurt this little girl calls or drives by, or even if she is just scared, another nightmare, the bikers will ride over and stand guard all night.

If she is afraid to go to school, they will take her and watch until she’s safely inside.

And if she has to testify against her abuser in court, they will go, too, walking with her to the witness stand and taking over the first row of seats. Pipes will tell her, “Look at us, not him.” And when she’s done, they will circle her again and walk her out.

 

May Links Roundup: Happiness Comes in a Pill

Spring flowers have bloomed in the Happy Valley, and we just celebrated Pride here in the lesbian capital of America. I do love our bohemian small-town paradise, mostly, but one aspect of granola-mom culture that I could do without is the suspicion toward Western medicine, particularly mental-health drugs like antidepressants and ADHD treatments. I was raised to feel this way too, but since recognizing myself as transgender, I’ve noticed a loosening of my attachment to the given body as more natural or safe than the altered one. I struggle to respond politely to cis people’s oft-repeated caution that “we don’t know the long-term effects of hormone replacement therapy.” Well, we do know that denial of transition-related care has severe negative effects on people’s mental health, right now. (I’m not on HRT myself but I know a fair number of folks who have benefited from it.) Simply put, I’m no longer assuming that inaction is safer than experimentation.

At Dame Magazine, Erin Biba takes a sympathetic look at the misguided anti-vaccination movement in her April feature, “Why are so many women rejecting medical science?” (Hat tip to the feminist blog Shakesville for the link.)

There are, obviously, many reasons for the growth of miracle cures and predatory medical treatments and their popularity among women. But one of the main causes is a failure of evidence-based medicine to properly study, understand, and treat women—or even to show them basic empathy. The lack of proper health care and even a basic understanding of women’s bodies has left women desperate for any possible treatment. Because why trust medical science when it ignores you and fails to treat your health seriously?

Among her examples are studies showing that doctors spend fewer minutes listening to female patients; women’s pain is minimized (especially black women), leading to under-prescription of painkillers as compared to men; and clinical tests that until recently only included males.

It wasn’t until 1993 that Congress finally passed a law requiring all NIH-funded trials to include women. It may seem shocking that drug trials with government funding only started including women in the 90s, but what’s even worse is that it wasn’t until 2016 that NIH-funded research was required to use male AND female mice in their studies and to use male AND female tissue cells in their research.

What that means is, until recently, the way that drugs work in female bodies has been largely unknown—and that drugs to treat female-specific disorders have not been developed.

While we’re on the subject of better living through chemistry: Mike Morrell is a progressive Christian writer and speaker whose blog fearlessly explores the fringes of mystical experience and ecumenical collaboration. In this post, he reprints an excerpt from Jack Call’s book Psychedelic Christianity: On the Ultimate Goal of Living. Call speculates on what the “unforgivable sin” might be, reaching a conclusion that reminds me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic story on this topic, “Ethan Brand”:

We are all sinners and we are all forgiven for our sins. By the way, let me just say that I hate the bumper sticker that says, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” I hate it because it implies that Christians are superior to non-Christians in that they are forgiven and non-Christians aren’t, and this is not a bit less self-righteous than simply saying, “Christians are perfect. Non-Christians aren’t.” Non-Christians are forgiven too.

Jesus said that there is only one sin that is unforgivable: blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. And what is that? Well, it certainly isn’t just not being a Christian. If it were, we would all be damned; because, even if a person is baptized in infancy and a Christian from that point on, she or he wouldn’t have been a Christian before that; so, if not being a Christian was an unforgivable sin, all of us have committed it, and it would be the one sin that baptism can’t wash away.

Given, then, that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit does not equal failure to be a Christian, what is it? The context in which Jesus proclaimed this to be the one and only unforgivable sin was one in which some scribes and Pharisees had accused him of driving out demons with the help of Beelzebul, the ruler of demons (Matt: 12:24-32, Mark 3:22-30)…

So, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is being so morally blind and confused as to be unable to see plain and evident goodness as goodness and instead to think that there must be something evil about it. It is unforgivable only because the intended recipient of the forgiveness would be unable to accept it, would think there is something evil about forgiving and being forgiven. If you are worried that you have committed this unforgivable sin, then you haven’t, because your worry shows that you care about and can recognize goodness.

What this tells us about what we should do to reach the ultimate goal is that we should be open and ready to see goodness in the place where we find ourselves. If we can’t do that, it won’t help to be in the kingdom of heaven. No matter how bad you think you are, God forgives you and blesses you, but he can’t accept and appreciate the forgiveness and blessings for you. Only you can do that for yourself.

I was watching the overhead TV at the Green Bay, WI airport (the cutest little airport ever), out of touch with the news cycle as always when I travel, when I saw video of the catastrophic Notre-Dame cathedral fire. I had to watch the repeating loop for several minutes and still didn’t quite believe it. At the time, it sounded as if the whole structure was doomed, though it appears that much has been salvaged and money is being raised for rebuilding. Predictably, there was some disagreement on social media regarding (1) whether the Catholic Church as a whole should be burned to the ground, metaphorically speaking, and (2) the unfairness of wealthy people and countries rushing to save a building when they’ve done nothing of the sort for the suffering poor. At the socialist journal Current Affairs, editor Nathan J. Robinson explains why this is a false dichotomy in “Neoliberalism and Notre-Dame”:

It seems that the fire was an accident. But it was apparently also an accident “waiting to happen.” The Wall Street Journal reports today that the cathedral had suffered “decades of neglect” and had been deteriorating and rotting. A senior adviser to the Friends of Notre-Dame commented: “For sure if the cathedral had been maintained regularly, with a higher level of funding, we would have avoided this… The more you wait, the more risks you have.” What happened, then? Notre-Dame is beloved, so much so that a billion dollars instantly poured in to fund its repairs. With the public valuing Notre-Dame so highly, why was it deteriorating and lacking in funds?

The French state owns the cathedral, and the government was unwilling to spend money on it. According to the Journal report, state officials were pushing the church to start charging admission, which the archdiocese was unwilling to do. A 2017 report said that “to the government, the cathedral is just one of many old buildings in need of care,” and “Notre Dame is not necessarily the most pressing case” with one official quoted as saying “France has thousands of monuments…It will not fall down.” Famous last words.

You can see why the government didn’t want to massively increase its spending on maintaining historic buildings, though. It would have caused an uproar, at a time when the French people are already furious about economic inequality. Emmanuel Macron’s government has cut taxes on the rich and “the traditionally generous social welfare system is increasingly neglecting key slices of the populace, especially young people.”

It’s impossible to separate Notre-Dame’s neglect from austerity and inequality…

…This is neoliberalism: We are always being told that we cannot afford certain things, that even though more and more billionaires keep popping up, the government is strapped for cash and cannot possibly raise enough revenue to fund the basics.

Of course, it’s correct that historic preservation money will only be provided if public opinion demands it, and that public opinion probably isn’t too passionate about it. But why is public opinion lukewarm on historic preservation funds? Because the public has a lot more to worry about. If you’re cutting social welfare spending, then of course the public aren’t going to want you to increase funding for maintaining cathedrals. If, on the other hand, you have a functional and fair welfare state, people won’t feel that there is a trade-off between funding the cathedrals and funding benefits.

Speaking of false choices, literature and critical theory professor Grace Lavery’s e-newsletter The Stage Mirror (the best $5/month you will spend on the Internet, trust me) hosted an insightful conversation with queer/trans writers Daniel Ortberg, Molly Priddy, and Charlie Zieke about the perceived competition between butch lesbianism and transmasculinity. There’s a narrative going around in some cis lesbian circles that nowadays, young tomboys are pressured to transition to male, instead of embracing their nonconforming womanhood. The feminist counterculture narrative against “Big Pharma” informs trans-exclusive radical feminism here too. Grace frames the issue thus:

So, our topic is the narrative that sometimes gets called “butch flight,” but it’s an old and slightly tiresome phrase and we might all decide we want to use something better. The narrative, which is as old as ftm transition, is something like: we are losing our butches to testosterone and maleness. Every part of this is fascinating to me, as a fear, or as a piece of reasoning. The “we,” the “losing,” the “our,” and the notion that transition is less queer, and more definitive, than lesbian identity or butch identity. I’m interested in why people feel this way, and what political desires and interests the feeling enables or licenses.

At one point in the conversation, Ortberg, a trans man, remarks: “it’s hard when there’s a whole sense of community that’s invested in your own gender/body/lesbianness as a sort of public resource!” In my experience, this sense of entitlement to an assigned-female person’s loyalty and political labor, at the expense of that individual’s self-development, is both narcissistic and sexist. Our real enemy is toxic gender roles, not maleness.

Closing out with some femme love: the New York Times profiled doll fashion designer Carol Spencer, “The Chic Octogenarian Behind Barbie’s Best Looks”, who’s written a new memoir, Dressing Barbie, about her career at Mattel from 1963-99. Countering criticism that Barbie fosters unrealistic body image woes, Spencer “defends Barbie as a healthy alternative to video games; an engine of imagination for girls and boys, who can project onto a Barbie doll whoever they may wish to become.” My son and I agree!