Queering the Christian Table Part 10: Seeing Thestrals–or Why I’m not Fighting for my Rights

To start reading from the beginning of the series, click here.

I‘ve been thinking about DOMA & Prop 8. I’ve been thinking about the Voting Rights Act and the sovereignty of First Nations. I’ve been thinking about Paula Deen, the 10 year anniversary of Lawrence vs. Texas, and the 40 year anniversary of the Upstairs Lounge Fire. I’ve been thinking about kids who grow up on Glee instead of the scene in Braveheart where the father nonchalantly throws his gay son out the window to his death. I’ve been thinking about segregated proms in 2013. 

Of course, when I say I’ve been thinking about these things, what I mean is that I have been feeling them. That tends to be the way I know things. It’s when I sit down to write that the knowledge I’ve tucked into various appendages of my body comes howling out onto the page and I begin to be able to think about what I have perceived.

Grief starts as a stab in my sacrum, then slowly spreads up my back, until tears form and I put together the pieces of how I felt uncomfortable at the Trans*Pride march and how that’s connected to my own fears of being rejected by my father, society, and the church for not fulfilling their expectations in my performance of masculine gender norms.

Oh, so that’s why I felt like shit! Thanks, body. I’m sorry I bought the lie of white, male culture that told me not to listen to you.

———–

Life is such a mixed bag.

Less than a year ago, I flew to Chicago for a friend’s wedding. I was pretty miserable. It was only a few months after my own divorce and subsequent coming out to my parents. This particular friend who was getting married is a person I trust to not look away from suffering. I was there out of my commitment to celebrate the goodness in others’ lives even when it brought up so much of my own aching.

During the ceremony I held another friend’s infant, who wanted nothing more than to jump incessantly on my lap the entire time. It was a much welcomed distraction. This little, bouncing person was oblivious to the couple’s joy or my dissociation. At the reception, I found myself drinking booze and avoiding the boisterous acquaintance from my table who kept urging me to go dance. I wondered silently to myself, “and just who am I supposed to go and dance with?”

I had to have been a fairly pitiful-looking guest, and as my friend expressed his gratitude that I had come all the way from Seattle, I couldn’t help but suspect he had seen me in my sorrow (he’s the kind of person who sees thestrals) and I felt exposed.

———–

Many folks in the LGBTIQ community have endured their share of suffering, both personal and collective. We have experiences of being rejected, oppressed, mistreated, feared, and shunned on the grounds of who we are in our own bodies–often by those who are closest to us. Moreover, we all have to combat the shame that has worked its way into our bodies and minds; we have to actively contradict a social system of privilege that tells us we are wrong. It’s not surprising that, by-and-large, we tend to see fierce realities of life when we have the courage and vulnerability to look at them. It’s also not surprising that many of us look away when we get the chance–but even so, our peripheral vision for suffering is pretty well honed.

So, when I read this gorgeous call to accountability by Mia McKenzie over at blackgirldangerous.org and then this piece by my friend Charity on her blog Bees, C’s & D’s (yes, you have to go read them now), then the feelings began to well within my body.

Finally, I was listening to a playlist this week that was created by my friend and liturgist, Hilary Ann Golden. The playlist was created for Lent 2012. The season of Lent is one in which the church practices repentance. In the midst of all I’ve been thinking about and feeling this week, these two songs came on back-to-back: Nina Simone’s I Wish I Knew How it Feels to be Free followed by Leonard Cohen’s Come Healing.

I think this is one of those crucial places where my Christian faith comes together radically with my experience of life in my own body as a cis-gendered male, white, able-bodied, USAmerican, gay person. I believe deeply in the good news that I’ve experienced personally, that death and resurrection are intertwined. This is the immense gift of the Christian gospel message, that God always moves towards human suffering in order to bring freedom.

Even though there are moments where celebration and suffering feel like they will eclipse one another, they are always both present. If we are bold enough to hold room in ourselves for our celebrating and our suffering, then we can move into wholeness that honors all of our stories.

If we can hold room for the suffering of others even as we celebrate, then we can ground ourselves in that place of honoring the personal and collective narratives of suffering and oppression, and continue moving toward justice with hope and determination.

———–

That feeling of exposure I had from being seen is like a sensitive tooth. It’s not always noticeable, but when something sweet or cold hits that nerve ending, it’s hell.

And now the metaphor breaks down. I know nothing about fixing sensitive teeth.

But I do know that when I am seen in my suffering–not seen for my suffering, but seen as a person in the midst of the experience of suffering–then I feel solidarity. The solidity of a community. Not a community that personally knows all of my experience, but a community that understands that they have a different experience than me, and yet, they see me and listen to me, and care enough for me to remain with me and work together for goodness.

———–

And this is why I am not fighting “for my rights.”

I believe that the rhetoric of “rights” is all too often a reward mechanism for compliant behavior within a system that is predicated on preserving privilege. Such a system is itself oppressive and I am committed to fighting to not merely end oppression, but to actively and continually grow in my understanding of the complexity of oppression and work to address it within myself and the world.

As a white, gay, middle-class, educated man, the temptation offered me by the privilege system in USAmerica is to try to pass as heterosexual. Failing that, the next best thing is to be “straight acting,” “masculine,” or “disarmingly funny gay.” If I absolutely insist on being in a relationship with another man, then there’s pressure to reflect the social and cultural norms of heterosexual relationships, which all too often are built around reinforcing white, male privilege.

The reality is, It doesn’t matter how much I contort my gayness to make the white, male-privileging culture more comfortable, I’m never going to get full access to that privilege, because the whole system is set up on a binary that privileges one group and excludes all others.

And the really heinous thing is that the ones sitting at the top of the ladder dispensing the privilege-candy are employing the folks on the next rung down to work themselves into a frenzy gorging on the toxic candy just to crap it all on the heads of the next group of folks who are fighting upwards for their “rights.” And let me tell you, the toxic candy doesn’t get any better the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th rung down.

I can spend my time clawing up the (in)human(e) privilege ladder trying to get to the top, or I can work together with the other people on the ground, to throw a fucking righteous celebration that honors our diverse goodness AND our deep pain from the harm of being stepped (and crapped) on.

———–

Thus, while I celebrate the “rights” that are granted, insomuch as they can be an effective way to combat the privilege of one group over others, I will not be pandered to, bought off, or accept rewards for reinforcing a system predicated on oppression.

We see this happening with marriage rights (in most ad campaigns about marriage equality, only straight couples have been featured, or very “presentable” gay or lesbian couples–usually lesbian because that’s less threatening to and more fetishized by straight, white males). We see it with churches who accept the privilege of tax exempt status in exchange for silence about oppressive government systems. We see it in the notion that we owe our loyalty to our military industrial complex (that preys on the underprivileged and subjects its members to great harm) that is responsible for atrocities on a global scale in exchange for supposed freedom (but primarily for corporate profits at the cost of USAmerican taxpayers’s money and less privileged human lives).

This dynamic closely resembles a fraternity system that hazes new members before granting them the privilege of membership and then employs these people to repeat the offence (of course this should come as no surprise since fraternities are the historic domain of white, wealthy, educated men and have functioned as social networks for maintaining insularity of power and privilege within both business and government).

This is not a condemnation of gays and lesbians celebrating the news about DOMA and Prop 8, it’s not a condemnation of churches for operating without funneling money to the state, and it’s not a condemnation of people who have served in the military or joined a frat.

It is a call to all of us to untangle ourselves from these systems of privilege which only exist through oppression of one another. And as we untangle ourselves and one another, there will be much to see, much to celebrate, and much that we must learn to grieve.

———–

I won’t accept cheap celebration. Resurrection only hangs out with actual death.

I have lived a life that has left me seeing thestrals and I’m committed to letting that insight lead me into solidarity with others who experience suffering through oppression–particularly when their oppression is linked to my privilege within our social system.

I’m committed to doing my work so as to avoid crapping on the people around me who, it turns out, tend to see me most clearly and love me for who I am.

This is why I went to the Trans*Pride march; why I keep working to understand, own, and dismantle my own racism and collusion with my white privilege; why I’m trying to understand and advocate around oppressive notions of what makes a “healthy” or “able” body or mind; why I’ll march with the Episcopal Church at Pride and talk to everyone I can about the commodification of the LGBTIQ community and of the Christian community by the infrastructures of privilege within our society.

This is my own act of repentance, this way of being is my life’s prayer.

Read part 11 here.

Queering the Christian Table Part 9: Why my humanity isn’t beholden to SCOTUS

To start reading at the beginning of the series, click here.

I’m posting this before I find out tomorrow in 7 hours what the SCOTUS says about DOMA or Prop 8. While most of you will not read these words until after we’ve heard the news, I felt like it was important to say this now.

———–

I’ve been obsessing all month over the SCOTUS opinions on the two historic cases around same-sex marriage.

Yesterday, I nearly missed my bus due to lingering too long over the SCOTUS blog‘s liveblog of the morning announcements. Today, I felt anxious enough that I bummed a cigarette off of someone. I was mentioning how obsessive I’ve become about this to a friend who replied, “Yeah, I’m keeping up with the announcements by watching your facebook updates.”

Yup.

———–

But I need to be clear about a couple of things.

1) Even if, by some miracle, the Supreme Court repealed DOMA and ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in California, laying groundwork for federal recognition of the marriages already recognized in a number of states, there’s not a lot of immediate practical implications for me. Which is a grumpy-cat, long-way of saying “I’m still available.”

2) What I really mean to say with number 1 up there, is that I’m not dependent on the legal system to tell me who I am or who I can or can’t share my love and life with.

That is not, in any way, to say that I don’t want legal equality. I also want national laws protecting jobs and housing for all LGBTIQ persons. I also want families to stop rejecting their queer children. I want churches to practice the radical hospitality of Jesus (even though I don’t believe accepting your own Queer members is radical hospitality, I think that’s just normal love of your neighbors and family).

————

And this is where I find myself on the eve of the SCOTUS announcements: recognizing that these decisions have the power to impact how others are legally allowed to treat me, but they don’t auto-magically impact how people actually will treat me, and more importantly, they don’t impact who I am or how I understand my own identity or relationships.

At best they are tools to help other people come to terms with how to honor what I know about myself already.

In short, same-sex marriage laws (along with LGBTIQ job and housing protections) are not for Queer people–they’re for straight people in a heteronormative society. They’re regulations designed to prevent straight people from amassing privilege (which, incidentally, is why they’re so-damn-hard to get passed). Just like the section of the Voter’s Rights law, just stricken by the SCOTUS, was not for People of Color. It was for the white people who were doing the oppressing–to keep them from creating barriers to voting that could reinforce white privilege and supremacy.

———–

No law can support or affirm the human dignity of any person. It is simply not within the purview of a law to do that. Nation-states do not confer human dignity or rights. At best they are custodians of privilege.

———-

This is why I do not pledge allegiance to the flag of USAmerica. I do not stand or place my hand over my heart for the playing of the national anthem or God bless America. I do not support the military.

I do not live or die by laws of the state. My loyalty is to the kin-dom of God– to the world, to loving my entire human family; striving to love my enemies until I know them as my neighbors and then doing the harder work of loving them once I know them.

Legal protections are good, but loving communities are better.

When it comes to pledging my allegiance, it is to the good news of Jesus that affirms the belovedness of all people; that recognizes as persons–as human–every particular expression of humanity, particularly crossing categories of stigmatized social difference in order to honor the personhood of another.

Placing my hand over my heart is an expression I find myself doing spontaneously when I am deeply moved by the humanity of another person. It is often in the moments of witnessing suffering or sorrow. It is a physical manifestation of compassion–my body’s recognition of another person’s humanity. It is a gesture that comes naturally in the holy moments of bearing wit(h)ness to another person’s life.

Why would I waste this response by binding myself to a system of nationalism that is predicated on asserting higher status for certain people on the basis of arbitrary citizenship?

————

I will have big feelings tomorrow morning. No matter what news gets announced. I will celebrate fiercely when I receive federal marriage approval and job & housing protections (Incidentally, I’ll probably celebrate a lot more when I have someone to celebrate gay marriage with).

But I will not wait for those privileges to be granted to me–not by a judicial system, not by elected officials, not by public opinion polls–not even if it’s “99%.”

I don’t believe that might (or white) makes right. I believe in the given-ness of the sanctity of humanity. I believe that human rights are granted by human breath; by the interplay of oxygen that stands between our being people and our being corpses. As a Christian, I see this breath as the animating Spirit of God.

I don’t believe in “the right side of history.” I believe in stories of past, present, and future that are alive within us and our social communities, showing us who we have been and who are being drawn into being together.

These narratives hold together our small, particular human stories, where we are droplets within the stream of human experience–a shared stream that is turbulent with oppression and deep with compassion.

————

At the heart of the gospel of Jesus, we see these truths. We are not bound or beholden to empires–be they governments, private corporations, or social and religious institutions. We are called into the freedom of loving and claiming humanity–our own and that of those who are oppressed (whom we collude in oppressing to maintain our privilege).

To the extent that the technology of institutions, laws, and governance serve the goal of helping us love our neighbors, they are useful. To the extent that they protect privilege and hinder compassion, they are hell on earth. Either way, they deserve no loyalty. Loyalty; fidelity; love–is reserved for people.

———–

The Christian church is under no obligation to wait for the culture or legal obligations to treat Queer people well.

There’s nothing in the gospel stopping churches and religious institutions from going ahead and affirming God’s call on the lives of Queer people, God’s blessing on vows of fidelity between Queer people, and job, housing, insurance, adoption rights, etc. for Queer people.

Most churches and Christian organizations that obfuscate discrimination over sexual orientation by claiming it as an issue of sin, don’t do the same kind of holiness patrol on the relationships of their straight constituents. Yet their blessing of hetero marriages, their protection of straight employees’ jobs, their granting adoptions to straight people, is in no way seen as an endorsement of unhealthy (even sinful) dynamics in those peoples’ relationships and lives.

By the numbers, if only 10% of the straight folks granted these privileges by Christian churches and organizations had damaging, sinful dynamics in their intimate relationships (a gross underestimation by any accounting method), then there are far more in the “straight and sinful” camp then there are in the entire LGBTIQ camp. So what’s it going to hurt to go ahead and show everyone the same level of dignity in how you treat them?

My challenge to Christian churches and organizations is to lead with the compassion and courage of Jesus. Stop waiting for society to drag us along. God’s Spirit is at work in the world and if it takes using social change to move the church, then She’ll do it that way, but we don’t have to wait, we can go ahead and dance with the Spirit now.

Offering equal protections of relationships, jobs, housing, and healthcare isn’t endorsing a position on same-sex relationships. Withholding equal protections of relationships, jobs, housing, and healthcare is. Moreover, withholding equal protections is collusion with systems of privilege that reinforce stratified definitions of humanity. To Christians, I will charge that this is, in fact, collusion with evil, and counter to the kin-dom of God inaugurated by Jesus in the message of loving God and neighbor.

———–

To my Queer friends, I charge us to fully own and celebrate our full humanity and the dignity and goodness of our relationships. Endeavor to love well and do not let anyone fool us into believing that laws, churches, corporations, or states give us any part of our own humanity. At best, these are technologies that can help those with privilege grow in their capacity to recognize the truth of what we already know: we are breathing, we are here, we are whole and alive–we deserve the same respect as anyone else whether we receive it or not.

Whatever the news from the SCOTUS (and by the time you read this, we’ll all know) remember this: our welcome in the world is not dependent on anyone’s approval.

Read part 10 here.

Queering the Christian Table Part 8: Repentance Comes in Fits and Starts–On the Closing of Exodus International

To start reading at the beginning of the series, click here.

The internets are abuzz.Some are bemoaning and some rejoicing the announcement of the close of Exodus International.

Some ex-ex-gays (people who tried the conversion tactics of Exodus and other groups but found they didn’t work) are celebrating. Others remain skeptical. Some conservative Christians are aghast that the organization would close its doors, while others are celebrating because they believe Exodus had already gone too far by renouncing claims that sexual orientation can be changed through some combination of counseling and prayer.

Am I grateful Exodus closed? Certainly. Am I skeptical of the extent of their apology and their immediate relaunch under a new ministry? Abso-fuckin-loutely. Do I think this is a shaky-yet-bold step in a long journey? Without a doubt.

———–

I grew up hearing the half-whispered stories of a music minister who left his wife to live with another man. I saw the face of John Paulk on pamphlets proclaiming that “Love Won Out.” I listened to Dr. Dobson invite parents to send kids out of the room during episodes of Focus on the Family that discussed homosexuality. My parents warned me about the men who lived in the pink house at the end of the cul-de-sac. And my father–the youth minister–flipped his wrist and lisped when he spoke disdainfully about “fairies.”

I know a thing or two about how homophobia can come to live inside of you. I’m not talking about the subtle heteronormativity that presents the world to you as if straight and cis-gendered were the only options available. No, I’m talking about the direct messaging that there is something inherently wrong (evil, sinful, sick, underdeveloped, impaired) with who you are at the core of your sexuality and personhood. I’m talking about the fear of violence, abandonment, and hell if you are ever found out.

These messages are deeply harmful. And the environments that generate these messages are toxic to the hearts and minds of queer people. So yeah, I’m grateful that Exodus is closing down. And yeah, I’m skeptical too.

Every day, I wrestle with the messages I grew up with–every day.

I’m grateful for this step forward for Alan Chambers and each person at Exodus, but I don’t for a minute think that this is over for any of them. I know better. If I think Alan isn’t going far enough in his apology; if I expect that he’ll continue to inflict harm in his new endeavor, it’s because I have great compassion for him. I can only imagine the messages that have poisoned his own soul through the years and the added guilt and shame associated with how he has used those messages against himself, his loved ones, and countless others around the world.

———–

In 2003, when I was 18 years old, I became a Resident Assistant of a freshman men’s dorm at the Christian college that I attended–I was in way over my head. Over half my 30 residents were older than me and almost all of them were reveling in their new-found college freedom.

I was a terrified, closeted, college sophomore who had grown up home-schooled and all these rowdy, wild, often-mostly-naked young men were more than I could handle. My two greatest fears were that they would burn down the dorm (I once had to stomp out a fire they started on the kitchen floor) and that they would find out that I was gay.

One of their favorite sports was to take balls from the pool table and bowl them toward my door at around 2 am. It didn’t matter if I took the balls in at midnight, they’d scavenge some from another floor. On one such occasion, after lying in bed, crying for ten minutes, hoping that they would get bored and stop, I was forced to go out into the hall when they began relentlessly pounding on my door.

Furious, I leapt out of bed, wiped my face and threw open the door to confront them, only to be met by my most antagonistic resident, buck naked, doing a handstand in my doorway. If you’re picturing me redfaced, in a rage, almost walking smack into face-level, flopping genitals while 10 young men howl with laughter, then you’ve got the right image.

Immediately, I slammed the door and trembled in the darkness of my dorm room. In a panic, I stormed out of my room about a minute later to confront the resident (now half-clothed), and in my own anger and confusion I did one of the things that I most regret in life.  I threatened the young man, saying that if he ever did anything like that again, I’d tell his uncle (one of the college administrators) that he was gay.

What made me say such a thing? Why was this notion wielded like a weapon? Why against this young man?

Like I said, I was terrified. This young man had often teased me, asking if I was gay and why I didn’t like girls. His action that night was designed as a joke that was targeted at what he sensed as my deep insecurity about my sexuality that I tried so desperately to hide (at a school where people were routinely kicked out for being gay).

So I did the unthinkable. I drew the most painful sword in my arsenal and I used it against another person in hopes that I could move myself out of harm’s way. This is the way that oppression works: it gets inside its victims and poisons them until they reinforce the cycle of oppression. It’s rare that those who benefit most from oppression have to do any heavy lifting–instead, they simply dangle token rewards of partial acceptance in front of those who are willing to take up the mantle of oppression in hopes of escaping some of the crushing weight of this system.

———–

I tell this story in order to say, I have compassion for Alan Chambers. I know a taste of the guilt. More, I know the desperation that can make you hate yourself enough to harm others by passing on the poison you’ve ingested. And I know it’s a slow climb out of this place. He (alongside other leaders of the ex-gay movement) is a man whose own sexuality has been used against him and whose ability to live an apparently straight life has been rewarded by half-acceptance from the faith community that he loves. That is a horrifying pedestal to climb down from and I don’t begrudge him (or the others in that position) serious missteps along the way.

———–

In 2006, a group of young people traveled the country in a bus tour of Christian colleges on the first Soul Force Equality Ride (documented in the film Equality U). By that time, I was the chairperson of the Student Leadership Council at my school (our school’s closest thing to a student body president). When we heard that a busload of gay activists were on their way to our campus, I remember being given a copy of Stanley Grenz’s book Welcoming but not Affirming, as well as a number of brochures from Exodus International. By the day that they rolled onto campus, fear was palpable in the air.

I remember working at the desk in our Student Union building that day and someone turning in a student’s lost phone. As was standard procedure, I looked through the phone list on the phone and called the number listed under “Mom and Dad.” Typically, such calls were met with grateful responses from parents willing to help track down the owner of the phone. Not this day. The exasperated father grilled me about who I was, why I had his child’s phone, and “isn’t there a group of gays on campus today?” Shaken, I tried to explain to the man that I was a student worker and that his child’s phone had been found, and all I wanted was for him to call his child’s dorm phone. I hung up from that conversation overwhelmed with the extent to which fear and hate could mess with someone’s mind.

The next morning, I heard the news that the Equality Riders’ bus had been vandalized during the night as they stayed at a local hotel. The pink, spray-painted words proclaimed, “fags mobile.” I recall standing in our student leadership office and something inside me clicking into place–it was the result of several years of theological study that had led me to believe that, just maybe, God wasn’t planning to send people to hell just for being gay.

Mustering the tiniest bit of courage, I talked to a few other student leaders, and then, I went outside (the group wasn’t allowed into our campus buildings) and walked up to Jake Reitan and several of the other leaders of the Equality Ride. In what had to be a hurried stammer, I nervously apologized for what had happened, told them that the students did not support the vandalism, and I asked if we could help them remove the graffiti from their bus.

I was terrified. It was a baby step. A group of us went and cleaned the bus alongside the riders. We prayed together. I left.

It would be a few years later, after marrying a woman, that I’d finally be able to say that not only did I not believe God was sending people to hell for being gay, but that I no longer believed I was going to hell for being gay. It would be longer still before my wife and I decided to divorce so that we could both honor and enjoy the lives we have been given. I am still working on dealing with the layers of homophobic messages that live deep within me. It’s a part of my spiritual journey to confront both the oppression I experience every day and the old messages that have accumulated within my thinking. It is a long, slow process of settling down into grace.

———–

Again, I am grateful for this announcement from Alan and Exodus. It is a step in what I believe is a journey. I pray that they may experience grace along each step of the way and, like all of us, learn and grow in compassion and kindness as we stop harming others through dealing with the harm that has worked its way inside of each of us.

I feel quite certain that the group of folks who have made up Exodus International will continue to harm others. This is the result of their being human. The reality is that many of these people identify themselves as “ex-gay” or “struggling with same-sex attraction” and while they do not own a social identity of being gay, they have lived experiences of sexual attraction that our society and their churches have heavily stigmatized and oppressed.

I have no doubt that, as a result of this oppression, these people, just like people who identify as LGBTIQ, have internalized oppression that is deeply rooted within them.

I know what that feels like. For this reason, I have much compassion. Repentance comes in fits and starts. Sometimes we’re able to apologize to others for the harm we’ve done to them before we can articulate the nature of that harm–largely because it is a painful process of grief and healing to face the reality that the harm that has been done to them has also been done to us and that, at times, by believing the hate we’ve been handed, we’ve colluded with our own oppression. 

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At least four of us who cleaned the bus that day have since been able to come out. A number of us have theological degrees and work to open up spaces in the church and educational systems for Queer Christians. This hasn’t happened overnight. But it gives me reason to believe that what has happened with Exodus is a step in the right direction.

For now, I will hold hope for Alan Chambers and all involved with Exodus, that the internalized homophobic oppression that has harmed so many will continue to be eradicated from their hearts and that they will grow in their capacity to accept the overwhelming goodness and truth that they are deeply loved and celebrated by God.

Read part 9 here.