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.

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