My paper at the 2017 South Eastern Women’s Studies (SEWSA) Conference is Intentional Monogamy in the Age of Tinder: Queer Theology and Re-thinking Christian Sexual Ethics. That one title contains at least four ideas for an academic paper~~and here in one place I’m going to try to pull them together to look again at a concept that we take so much for granted we do it without thinking. Monogamy.
I’ve begun framing my academic research over the last four years with theology; I even did a stint at the Candler School of Theology at Emory. For example, I believe that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s notion of ethics and existentialist theologian Paul Tillich’s conceptualization of God and “the” Christ are not just relevant our world today, they are essential. They are my starting point; from them I move to Feminist Theology and Queer Theology, which are topics for another day. Just know that theology~as I define it the search for the nature of God~in its various perspectives has allowed me to get here. Where is here? Queering Christian Sexual Ethics. And to do delve into that field, I will start small, with the most common state of being in a relationship in Western practice~monogamy~and look at it through a lens of queer feminist theology.
Queer theology is not, for the uninitiated, the same as LGBTQ Religious Studies, although it can, I suppose, be included within that broad field. It does not, concern itself with What The Bible Says About Homosexuality, about which Rev. Dr. Daniel Helminiak has written so concisely. Queer theology is radically different. For example, the late Professor Marcella Althaus-Reid named God queer and proposed an Indecent Theology in which sexuality, theology, and politics are intertwined. In such discussions, one can consider the trans nature of God. Paul Tillich describes a postmodern god and helps us think of God not as an old white guy with a beard who looks after us as his children, or better, as no image at all~just James Earl Jones’s commanding voice. Neither is God our “mother,” in a gendered turn of the conventional. And, it isn’t that God transcends gender, that is, to go beyond its range or limits. God is transgender, for God flows across genders in ways that defy categories. Godself is fluid and trans, and in this, God is transgressive. This is Althaus-Reid’s notion of a Queer God, where queer is transgressive and political, gender and sexuality-bending~~and also playful. This is not a god that man has worked for 3,000 years to craft in his own image. This is God that can hold being the Ground of Being. I want this God on my side.
And, just as over the last centuries we have constructed a God who suits dominant White Western cultures, we have also constructed normal, normative sexual ethics~~and we have strategically bound them to the search for God, to theology. The god we crafted has a preference, which we codified into morality, for what humans do when we get naked with one another. To queer Christian Sexual Ethics, then, is to associate it with Queer Theology, to transgress what humankind sanctions in the name of God.
To make the discussion less abstract, I look at the singularly sanctioned form of marriage relationship for mainstream Christians: monogamy, the practice of having one partner at one time. In case you’ve forgotten the official sanction of monogamy, here it is again. It’s called the Wedding Vow:
“I, ___, take thee, ___, to be my wedded husband/wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I pledge thee my faith [or] pledge myself to you” (https://www.theknot.com/content/traditional-wedding-vows-from-various-religions).
In Mimi Schippers Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Poly Queer Sexualities (2016), she extends Adrienne Rich’s idea of compulsory heterosexuality to include compulsory monogamy as a “regime of sexual normalcy” (Kindle loc 183) and offers a critique of mononormativity. She points out, There have been very few theoretical interrogations of how monogamy is implicated in and productive of gender, race, and sexual hierarchies or the role of monogamy as an organizing rationale for regimes of normalcy and social structures of inequality (loc 254). She conducts this interrogation of monogamy to explore the possibilities of polyqueer sexualities~relationship forms and practices that include more than two people in them~for shattering inequalities. She positions monogamy, rightly I believe, as an institutionalized social structure that bolsters power relations; this is mononormativity. I suppose because I identify as monogamous I felt as I read that Schippers was throwing out the baby with the bath water. She didn’t leave much space for conceptualizing a postmodern, queer monogamy. Intentional monogamy is queer monogamy–even if the participants are heterosexual, cis-gender participants. It holds similar queer possibilities for disruption. How? Because of its intentional nature. Hence, intentionality is transgressive.
Intentional monogamy confronts monogamy by default, which renders monogamy invisible, unconsidered. Also by default is the assumed and legitimized feature of monogamous couples to reproduce the heterosexual, heteronormative family. There is a whole other discussion here~for another time~on how the re-production of “the family” also reproduces the hierarchies and inequities~personal, political, institutionalized, time-honored. There is a lot hinging on monogamy.
So, in this space, I want to look finally at the intentional part of Intentional Monogamy. For this, I need a story. In Beyond Monogamy, Schippers makes a very interesting point that I will admit I had not thought about, but of course should have: that cheating narratives are important to maintaining mononormativity and leaving monogamy invisible as the hegemonic norm (loc 742). Cheating is the threat that keeps couples within monogamous bounds. Cheating holds monogamy together. It is to relationships what sin is to Christianity. Like sin, cheating is a transgression of the vow to be in right relation. But again, what if we flip this thought so that intentionality is the transgressive turn?
About a year and a half into our relationship, Sarah and I began discussing the terms for our future together. Those of you who know Sarah know that this in fact is romantic. One evening we were talking about the nature and dynamics of our relationship when she entered the room, stopped in the middle of it, and said, “I’m monogamous.” I half-looked up from emails or the tv, or whatever I was doing during our casual discussion and said, “Yes, so am I.” And that, as they say, is when it started getting real. She got my complete attention by telling me that to her, I wasn’t at a place to make that assertion. It’s true: I had been living under a few assumptions, stretching all the way back to adolescence and dating. Yet I thought our own commitment had been understood when we had made a commitment. Exclusivity, to me, had implied monogamy, and that was her point. Implied monogamy was not sufficient grounds for a long term relationship. I argued, cajoled, reasoned~~used all my skills to persuade her~~and myself~~that I was a confirmed monogamist. And then she said something so shocking and profound that I knew it to be true: You say you are monogamous when what you really want is someone who won’t cheat on you.
Sarah’s declaration of monogamy, her intentionality, was a disruption of heteronormative compulsory institutional default relationship form. for me, it troubled the cheating narrative, which played right into reinforcing hetero- and mononormativity. From Beyond Monogamy: Monogamy needs cheating in a fundamental way. In addition to serving as the demonized opposite of monogamy, the mark of the cheater is used to push individuals to conform to monogamous behavior and monogamous appearances (loc 748). Wow. You have to confront your monogamous privilege just like you do your white privilege. You have to know that there are other ways of being in relationships–ways that involve more than two partners, she said, and then you can come back to monogamy. Of course, my first question for her was, Good lord, do I have to try them? Not necessarily, she said, just as long as you know enough to make an informed decision.
In my undergraduate classes, students will often ask whether anyone can be queer; that is, can you be a straight cis-person and be queer. Sometimes I give them a simple answer. Queer has a political requirement to it; it is purposefully disruptive of normative structures (yes, that’s part of the simple answer). It is intentional. So, I tell them, to be queer, you have to believe yourself to be. And that is part of how monogamy can be a queer act~~in its intentionality. Monogamy is not a condition to be bound to, a “till death” sentence of imbalanced power. It is a state of free, into which we might freely enter. After about a month of my coming to learn that, Sarah was satisfied.
What’s next? I aim to situate this discussion~~with more theorizing for my day job~~into a deep look into Christian Sexual Ethics, a field that looks how we can humanely and kindly treat each other in our sexuality. Untheorized, monogamy brings its heteronormative baggage into sexual ethics, thereby invalidating its very underpinnings. There’s a famous line from Our Town: People are meant to go through life two by two. ‘Taint natural to be lonesome. Along my journey toward monogamy, I have learned that ‘taint necessarily natural to go two by two, but if we want to, it’s queerer than we might think.
Sarah and I have recently taken to binge watching The West Wing. She’d never seen the entire series; I had, but after this presidential election, I wanted to watch it again. That doesn’t really capture it. I felt compelled to watch it again. Even during the presidential debates, I started getting the feeling that in some way reality was slipping away from me and my country. Here was the heir apparent, the presumptive winner of the whole shebang, Hillary Clinton. She looked like a president; she talked like a president; she had all the experience and credentials one (well, a democrat one) would expect and hope for in a president. She appeared in debates with Nondescript White Guy and Bernie Sanders, a socialist senator from Vermont. A socialist senator from Vermont??? But, Bernie kept her–and us–honest. I never for one minute thought he was electable, but we need politicians like Bernie Sanders to influence the Democrat platform toward equity and access.
On the Republican side there were more candidates than a stage could hold. The thing is, I’m a firm democrat, but there were a few Republicans that I could have resigned myself into voting for if, say, it was uncovered that Hillary had broken the law or was indicted before the election. As I’m writing this, I find it incredible that I just talked about a voting option pending my candidate being indicted for a felony. The signs, you see, were always already there. Anyway, one by one TV celebrity and real estate tycoon Donald Trump picked off credible Republican candidates. He bullied, he lied, he badgered, he mocked, he was dismissive, until at last, there was only him. He was the Celebrity Apprentice host!!!
Election night at our house looked a lot like the SNL skit the following week. Here’s the link: https://youtu.be/SHG0ezLiVGc. We had barely gotten our election night snacks out before the tide started to turn. The story that night, for me, was less that our highly qualified candidate lost, or even that the unfit, unqualified, unprepared, and undesirous candidate won. The story was the shock and despair of the commentators and pundits. When James Carville and Rachel Maddow tell us we’re in trouble, we’re in trouble. Like the (white) people in the skit, our night devolved as it went on.
Then came the 75 days of blissful collective denial. Never have I heard so little talk–so little acknowledgement–of the transition of presidential power. We were a country living a Diana Ross song: just walk away in the cold morning light but let us have the warmth of this long, last night.
And then the inauguration happened. So we turned to our president for solace and wisdom–our president of choice, that is. As we watch our nightly West Wing episodes, astonishingly, the “current” events of the show are again and again eerily similar to current events in our new un-reality. I understand that WW characters are blessed with good scripts–smart, educated, professional, savvy, clever, introspective, commanding–and the genius of Aaron Sorkin. It’s when I turn it to MSNBC that the badly scripted please-don’t-let-this-be-real-reality show begins. It’s not that a television series presents a more desired reality, it presents a more realistic reality.
Yesterday, I found a Buzzfeed post from one year ago this week, 28 Jed Bartlet Moments We All Need To Be Reminded of Right Now (www.buzzfeed.com/robinedds/let-bartlet-be-bartle). Now that I think about it, it’s not that I need to be reminded of Jed Bartlett moments, it’s that I just so badly want to be. And, I’m not the only one. I’ve mentioned my realistic reality hypothesis to several friends, and they often reply that they too are re-watching the series seeking their own Jed Bartlet moments. These moments model statesmanship and diplomacy, negotiation and compromise. They show a flawed president, his seat-of-the-pants staff, a nettlesome press, and an entrenched, polarized congress–making government work. Making democracy work. I think here’s the part that makes the realities so stark for me: when called upon to make certain very hard decisions, Bartlet grapples with his integrity, his ethical compass. He makes the decision but he does so loathsomely. Our current president shows no sign of grappling–in fact, no sign of an ethical compass. There is no sign, even, of an acknowledgement that any decision was difficult. We do not know how this president comes to a decision, and how one comes to a decision is sometimes as significant as the decision itself.
Where Bartlet feels such a profound sense of accountability to Americans that it visibly weighs on him, there is no evidence of such a sense on our current president. So I will end this post with the obvious: if he doesn’t have one, we’ll provide it for him. We must not normalize this unrealistic character who has crafted the most elaborate reality show in U.S. history, and we must hold him accountable–by insisting that the press call him on every word, every move. In one marvelous scene (of many), Jed’s Chief of Staff reminds senior staff of a core maxim by writing on a yellow pad, Let Bartlet Be Bartlet. Leo knew that Bartlet’s character was an intangible asset to be factored into the hard work of governing. So I say Let Trump Be Trump, for his character, too, will manifest so that its effect upon government can no longer be ignored.
Below is a YouTube link to the Feckless Thug scene of Two Cathedrals. Enjoy.
You make your plans, and God laughs. That’s what happened to me over the weekend. Let me go back, though, and start with discovering the Atlanta Freedom Bands, which I wrote about here in November 2014. I recollected how finding the band made me realize how much I had missed making music, marching in parades, performing in concerts. How after more than 30 years, finding the AFB was like discovering a new, yet long lost treasure. Last year, I marched my first season of parades in various Atlanta community festivals. It was wondrous. And at Christmas, I performed in my first concert playing French Horn in 35 years. Last Saturday morning, I marched mellophone with the AFB in the Atlanta St. Patrick’s Day parade. Afterwards, members of the band had lunch and drinks and fellowship at a local restaurant, which is the custom with this group.
Saturday night, kept waking up with what felt like a neck cramp. When I woke up early Sunday my speech was slurred, which I chalk up to needing a little more sleep, so I went back to bed. When I woke up again, I couldn’t blink my left eye. I ended up Sunday at the emergency room in Marietta. After they have ruled out a stroke, which was probably the best news I have ever received in my life, they told me I had a textbook case of Bell’s palsy. After a lot of googling I found out that it’s caused by virus, kind of like shingles. Likely because I had the flu, and that virus was in my system, it ended up attacking my facial nerve, causing it to be droopy and paralyzed. Like shingles, it was likely triggered by stress. In addition to facial paralysis–a word, like biopsy, fills me with terror–I have heightened ear sensitivity in my left ear, so loud noises, including my own sneezing, amplify like I’m standing in front of a Bose speaker. By all accounts, I will (should?) regain use of my facial muscles. Most well-wishers report success stories. It is totally unrelated to a stroke, and contracting it one time does not mean I will get it again. Those are the things I know. The worst part is that I can’t blink, so my eye gets dry and irritated. And that can lead to all kinds of trouble. I have to keep eye drops in it and wear a patch. Having only one eye affects depth perception and means I can’t drive. I can’t whistle or smile or buzz my lips. And buzzing one’s lips is essential to playing a horn.
Even though I realize I am very blessed in that this could’ve been so much worse, I’m still having to learn to deal with it. There are lots of adjustments I’m having to make pretty quickly. I’m learning how to have meals with straws and napkins. I’m learning how to turn my head in order to see better with an eyepatch. I’m learning to enunciate words using one side of my mouth. I’m learning how to encounter other people whose first response is to look away from me. I tried to go to the office yesterday, and by the end of the day I was exhausted from having to compensate physically in order to get from point A to point B, or participate in meetings. Talking and looking took a lot of energy that I had taken for granted. Part of the dealing with is going through my own stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Sunday and Monday I was in denial. I jokingly made a list with Sarah of one eyed characters for costume parties. We go back and forth with one-eyed jokes. In case you didn’t know, there are many one-eyed one liners. Believing the doctors that taking the meds would speed up recovery by months, I thought, Well if I can’t play horn, I’ll just break out the old flute and play that! I tried for half an hour to form the embrasure to blow air across the mouthpiece. I waited to blink at any minute. I planned to go to choir. Tuesday night begin my descent into anger. I kept a dinner engagement with some visitors to campus, old friends from my curriculum world. When I entered the restaurant, Marlows Tavern, which I had been to so many times over the past few years, the hostess looked at me and then looked away. Same thing happened when the waitress came to take my drink order. I realize now that I do the same thing automatically–probably most of us do. The next day, I mentioned choir to Sarah, who slowly turned and looked at me and said, Honey, you’re not going to choir. When I looked back at her in one-eyed disbelief, she started singing a little bit of the Hallelujah Chorus, which we’ve been working on for a month. I thought my left ear would blow out. No, I wasn’t going to choir. When she dropped me at the office, just walking from one building to the next took all my energy to keep my eye covered so it would not dry out. I had two meetings where it was very important that I be able to speak, and that was extra energy. My colleagues, wonderful people, tried very hard to look at me in a normal way–and for that I will forever be appreciative. Nevertheless, I feel different, I talk different, I look different. And that was psychological and emotional energy spent that I wasn’t used to spending.
I’ll let you know when I’ve moved from anger to bargaining. Till then, in order to work through some of that anger, in order that something generative and therapeutic might come from it, I decided to pick up the blog again. It’s always been my favorite, preferred mode of writing. Academic work is important, but it isn’t accessible, and it limits my flow of thinking since I have to measure my tone and phrasing as well as the thoughts themselves. Here, I can have a conversation, if only with myself. Plus, Sarah approves of it since it will help keep me out of trouble–like trying to do home-improvement projects with one eye that doesn’t need to get dust in it. Most important, this is all helping me put my life in perspective and put the parts of my life in priority. It isn’t an overnight revelation, but I realize that stress is counterproductive and can be harmful. I reaffirm that life is always already about the people in it. That being present and being mindful is living. I am intentionally choosing hope and happiness. Hope and happiness are not default properties, and being intentional about them makes a difference. As I think about it, coming to this place is a kind of bargaining. I will trade impatience for writing, frustration for processing, sight for insight.
|Band friends at Sr. Patron’s|
|A mello-photo bomb|