Theory: Turning the Closet Door into a Table; Safety and Discomfort for All

I was recently asked what it is like to be heard.

What is it like to be heard?

As an INFJ (Myers-Briggs type), gay man who grew up in the conservative Christian Deep South, I know a thing or two about positioning.

Without thought, I intuitively read people well, with a sort of gut-level spidey sense. I can feel if it’s safe to speak. Social lying to make other people more comfortable around me was a key survival strategy to get through my childhood without being packed off to some kind of gay-to-straight conversion camp. It has served me well; It has been debilitating.

I find myself [I realize I’ve taken to using this phrase a lot] wondering how to use that built-in gauge nowadays. So frequently I’ve carved out some modicum of safety for myself by ensuring that others feel some level of comfort in my presence. Perhaps this technique is a vestigial organ of survival common to many Queer folks–for some ensuring the ability to pass, for others disarming hostility by becoming an object of absurdity; of humor, likability, or fetish.

But what would it look like if I opened myself up to my own desire to be seen and heard as a human being–not to be fully accepted or loved by all, but a visible and vocal person in community?

This sounds like a beautiful promise of life. It is also costly.

It’s not only uncomfortable when other people are uncomfortable with me. There are times when it is unsafe. Lynchings are in living memory in this country. Try walking through an airport in a hijab or driving while brown in Arizona. It’s estimated that 1 transgendered person is killed each month as the result of violence motivated on the basis of their gender identity. These are realities. When I was 13, Matthew Shephard was beaten and left tied to a fence to die.

This is living memory. It lives in me.

It is also true that the stress of being a social minority within a dominant culture has a cumulative toll on the human body. My cortisol levels, my blood pressure, my heartrate fluctuate throughout the day in response to stimuli of homophobic aggression that I have no control over.

Within the last week:

  • I boarded a bus and while walking toward the back, which was crowded with men, I heard the word “faggot” spoken louder than the rest of conversation. Stopping, I turned and found a seat near the front where I sat, trembling and taking deep breaths, reminding myself that I am safe.
  • Sitting at my desk in a cubicle I overheard the employee in the next cube talking to a caller on the phone about my workplace’s “stance on homosexuality.” After about 30 seconds, my lungs began to burn and I had to remind myself to breathe–I’d been holding my breath unsure of what would be said, wishing for what was articulated to actually feel true.
  • I logged onto facebook and saw references to national and local stories about discrimination and violence against Queer people in which Christians were condemning homosexuality (as if sexuality were a component that could be sliced away from a person and discarded). I chose not to read farther, but I was already feeling tears of anger and sadness begin to well.

These are the most readily recalled moments of this week in which I had no choice of being ambushed by these micro-aggressions which had immediate and cumulative impact on my body. There were quite a number of more blatant conversations and encounters in which I exercised varying strategies for maintaining composure, regulating my body’s anxiety, and generally remaining silent in order to maintain some level of stability within myself.

In these larger moments, there was also a dance between maintaining my safety and maintaining the comfort of those around me. I will not deny that it is not only about my safety. There were moments where I could have spoken more directly, creating discomfort for others and myself, without sacrificing my safety. But having been put in the position of having to hide in order to survive throughout my life, it is often nearly impossible to suss out when the cost I pay to speak is about my losing comfort or losing safety. In a society in which it is not always safe for me to speak, I’ve come to recognize that being open about my experience and perspective as a gay man, especially in Christian settings, involves a lot of risk and exposure.

And my body doesn’t make a fine distinction between discomfort and feeling unsafe when I’m taking that kind of risk. I hold my breath the same way while waiting to hear what a Christian is going to say about my sexual orientation as I do when I’m waiting to see if the young men at the bus stop yelling “fucking fag” are going to start throwing fists as well as words.

It is my guess that, in a different way, conservative Christians are probably just as inept at distinguishing between when they are feeling uncomfortable vs. unsafe in conversations around homosexuality. Their bodies, in connection with their own stories, are probably sending them the biochemical signals of fear as well. However, I’m willing to wager that I have a different, more acute reaction, based on what I face in society every day. Nonetheless, we are more alike than we are unalike.

As I consider how communities approach dialogue around difference, particularly communities that profess some place within the kin-dom of God, I believe that there must be commitments made that contradict the patterns of oppression at work within the world. I am talking about confession; repentance; the verbal commitment to align with God in setting a different kind of table “in the presence of our enemies.”

I believe that there must be a recognition of the reality of unsafety perpetuated unequally against particular groups of people by our society. To stand against oppression is not an endorsement of any position other than the position of not perpetuating systems that inflict real physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual harm. What is needed is a communal confession of words and actions that move closer to ensuring safety for those most likely to have a lived experience of the link between discomfort and lack of safety on the basis of social categories of their difference. I don’t imagine safety can be granted or guaranteed, but this does not excuse responsible communities from moving toward such a thing (it’s called eschatology).

The words that keep coming to me are “safety and discomfort for all.” Others might describe this as authentic community or intimacy and individuation. It is one thing to say that there is space and to say you value the difference that others bring to you. It is something else entirely to put in place healthy boundaries within the community to ensure that those with privilege at the table do not retain the social power to silence different voices when they get tired or too uncomfortable with listening. Real valuation demands payment of a real cost.

Truly, I exist whether or not space is granted to me. I find myself present at the Christian table, largely by paying a high cost to be here. I am asking that I be joined in paying some of that cost by those who don’t have to pay it to sit at this table. I don’t want to be here because you happen to like me as a person, despite my being gay. In that scenario my place at the table is provided by the whim of your good graces. What if I show up to the table in drag, with a transgender friend and a Muslim brother in tow? Will I still have a seat here?

I am willing to pay the cost of entering the discomfort of speaking. I am willing to pay the cost of discomfort while listening to you express your belief in something very different about my sexual orientation. Will you pay the cost of discomfort to speak and listen to me? Will you go further to pay the cost of creating boundaries to establish movement toward safety so that I am not left paying the cost around the question of my safety entirely on my own?

I find myself [again, those words] located within a local parish and denomination that affirms and welcomes my full participation in the church as a gay man. This is a tremendous blessing and sanctuary within our world. I hope such a seed of goodness will grow like yeast tucked inside the dough of Christianity around the world, leading us more fully into participating in God’s dance with the world–God’s uncomfortable, glorious, dance in which eschatological safety looks like wholeness, and coming alive into the full humanity God delights in.

Art: Swallowing the Hook

There have been times I have believed art to be about originality–about discovering, revealing, or crafting something new. I don’t believe that sentiment is untrue; I don’t believe that sentiment much applies.

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In a recent conversation about apocalyptic literature and desire (that sounds about like the conversations I typically have), I found myself asking: “what is it that’s being uncovered? What revelation is being made about the trajectory of our desire?”

I feel deeply convinced that there is something about hope and the trajectory of desire–the way we must receive that which enlivens us, and how it propels us–that is like a hook.

And there is something about our bodies’ hunger; our wide mouthed gaping in awe, desperation, and delight that allows us to take the bait, receive the morsel-wrapped hook of hope that, swallowed, will wrap its way into our guts and tow us along through the murkiest waters.

That’s my understanding of desire, of eschatology–the pulling back of the veil to reveal our ache and waken us to that furthest possibility of being gloriously alive.

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In this sense, art is not concerned with newness. Art is the idea that slips, quick and sharp into us, and whose barbs bloody us to pieces as we try to work it out of us.

This gives me pause–grants me space to bless recursive phrases in my writing; accept the slow-growth cycle of allowing the same idea to keep wheedling its way through the body of my work.

History is more than up to the task of forgetting my stuttering redundancy.

If I write another poem about desire, grief, resurrection, or bodies–I do not apologize. The hook has been set and I can do nothing but be towed towards the eschaton; the trajectory of desire that moves along an axis from despair towards hope, is like Lewis’ gesture from shadow to solidity. It is a fractal journey of becoming more coherently whole through surrender to the invitation into full life.

If art is a creative working out of that surrender (an indefensible claim, to be sure), then its newness will maintain a certain coherence with the path that has been traveled and directions yet to come. Thus artistic novelty, in my opinion, is best expressed as an unfolding of the artist’s expanding humanity.

And mostly, I’d like to claim that this cannot be conjured. Instead, it can only be received; surrendered to; accepted and responded to with the courage to unwrap the painful gift of hope, that our desires might be exposed–revealed in such a way that brings us more to life.

Thus the primary task of the artist is not to create, but to surrender to the hook that is set inside them. To swallow it deeper and let it pull us towards what we crave but cannot yet conceive.

Saints: On Being Alive

There’s something prototypical of the saints. That we call them saints and yet recognize that we are all saints, speaks to this reality.

As I look at saints like Hildegard von Bingen and others I would consider patrons/matrons of mine: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Martin, San Isadore, Julian of Norwich–I am in awe of their capacity to surrender to living life fully. Through ecstatic visions, music, art, poetry, plowing, praying, protesting, and preaching, these people offer authentic lives as an offering to God and the world. Through the offerings of their lives we can imagine what being fully alive really looks like.

It seems a costly and uncertain thing. And perhaps this is why there are so few saints in the grand scheme of things. It seems to take a certain reckless abandonment to life, to God, to serving others, in order to live like the saints.

Some days I feel a spark of that audacity in me; some stretch toward that kind of being alive. I’ve certainly taken risks that are beyond anything I could have imagined and I’ve become more present to myself than I casually would have wanted. But I have felt drawn, by the Spirit of God, by the communion of all the saints, by my own desire, to lean toward life. I cannot explain it. I cannot stop trying to explain it.

Here, I try to explain it again:

Poetry: Sincerity

I’m pretty sure sincerity is underrated.

As a poet, my goal is not to recreate or represent exactitude, or invoke soaring feelings. I understand my role as that most basic human communication–raising my arm toward the line of the horizon, extending a finger, and releasing a gasp.
I am here to wonder well, and in my wondering, scoot over, shrug my shoulder, and offer space for those nearby to sidle up alongside my body and sight–along my trembling flesh–a glimpse of the world they would not have known without me.

I believe this.
In order to do this, I must be willing to see; to point; to gasp; to tremble. It is a sacred task. And everything throbs against it–within, my heart flops at the risk, unwilling to be caught; reeled in on someone’s line; afraid, equally, of being captured and eaten or being released as too small and undesired.
And outside the throbbing takes form in the ironic–for me, it’s the dark humor of Faulkner and Flannery rather than the hipster thrill of irony lite, tattooed across the skin as if the body did not matter.
I prefer to laugh in hell; to be ravished with excoriating desire–I laugh when I fall down. I cannot risk asking to be comforted.
And this is my greatest nemesis to being a poet. Where I am afraid to quake in front of holiness; ashamed to open myself to the wonder that drives the ex-stasis of laughter in hell, this is where I rob myself of being someone’s sightline.
As a person, there are times it hurts too much to cry. As a poet, the gift of brief clarity; of awe, allows me to be more person–more whole–calling me past irony, to breathe and to wonder–whether in tears or in laughter.

Technology: Language

I am terrified of Google Glass.

Having only peripherally grasped the premise of this technology, I am terrified.

I’m pretty sure that it’s going to damage users’ retinas, cause cancer, make people bump into things while they’re walking and run over other people when they’re driving.

But that part scares me least. It’s the way it will shape our seeing, stimulate our bodies’ chemical responses to more stimuli–more, it’s how it will impact our way of thinking–soon we’ll be reduced to grunts of greeting and conversations will be replaced with google glass proximity exchanges of photographs of our latest lunches and synchronizing with friends’ pinterests–no need for words, we’ll just visual compare our passive reception of the virtual world and call it a day.

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Okay, that’s absurd. But I am terrified of Google Glass–maybe just Google in general.

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For reals–the integration of technology and the human body is always with us. From prosthetic limbs to hair braiding; clothes to synthetically grown heart valves; vitamin pills to Siri–we are mammals inextricable from our technologies.

Which makes me press, what technology is most integral, most influential, most essential to what it means to be human? My intuitive guess is that it’s language, or even more rudimentary, expressive communication–those gestures which communicate, socially, some instinctive notion of friend or foe, love or fear, amorous lunge or attack.

But the realm of gesture could be argued as a biological function less than a cognitive one, lying in the limbic and reptilian mind–or the guts–rather than the lobes.

So I begin to wonder, in the spiritual traditions of silence, stillness, and quieting the mind, in what ways has the technology of language, like all technologies, shifted the way that we interpret our bodies’ feelings. There has been much energy spent in the 20th century (and many preceding eras) exploring the function and way that language shapes us, the meaning making function of language, but I wonder, spiritually, what it looks like to listen, below the technology, to our bodies.

Might we actually know and communicate more viscerally–not to eliminate language, but to refute its supremacy and displacement of our bodies’ ways of being human together. Isn’t this why we interact with each other by crying, laughing, sharing food, grooming, nursing, hugging, biting, patting, snuggling, kicking, fucking, chasing, sitting on, elbowing, kissing, nodding, waving, scowling, nudging, and climbing.

Notably much on this list gets associated with children (or making children).

What wisdom of our bodies do we silence through over-reliance on the technology of language? Surely it is invaluable to be able to clarify, communicate nuance, and transmit complex cultural meaning.

Surely it is crippling to believe that the mode of language is the only, or supreme way of communicating what is most important to communicate between human beings.

It seems that, yes, all those gestures and motions get taken up into the cultural meaning making matrix which is woven with words–but is there something primal and human to the  connection of bodies to one another that speaks (!) to the communal nature of personhood in which particular individuals partake even across culture and time? Is it romantic or naive that I think so?

I think so.