I ran across this paper I wrote for a Religious Liberty class at McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University. I didn’t think it was half bad, so I’m posting it in my blog. It’s a little thick, so I’m adding some cat pictures.
Historical Context of the Controversy
The religion clause of the U.S. Constitution states, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. It is included with freedom of the press, free speech, and the right to assemble and petition the government. It is the part of the first amendment upon which concepts of religious freedom—which I use interchangeably here with religious liberty—are based. According to Davis, religious liberty in the U.S. is based upon the overarching ideal of separation of church and state (p. 81). He cites a religion historian who called religious liberty, “America’s great gift to civilization and the world” (p. 81). Interpretations of the religion clause have evolved since ratification in 1791 primarily through rulings by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) on cases involving two concepts: establishment and free exercise. As Flowers explains, cases vary according to topics, such as taxation, school prayer, human resources, and insurance—but all of these share a tension of whether the government violates establishment when it supports religious organizations or free exercise when it does not.
Understandably, decisions passed down by the Court are influenced by its makeup; it has in fact changed its position over time. Nearly eighty years ago, Justice Hugo Black famously declared, “In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by laws was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and State’” (in Davis, p. 84). Over the last decade, however, the idea of religious liberty itself has undergone an odd reversal. No longer is its chief principal the freedom to exercise one’s religious beliefs and practices protected by the wall of separation from the government. Rather, religious liberty is now evoked by conservative Christians in order for them to freely exercise their right to discriminate against individuals or groups whose ideologies do not align with their religious beliefs. These Christians are, then, seeking establishment via rulings to substantiate discrimination, which they consider free exercise. Tracing the course of the transformation of religious liberty is beyond the scope of this paper. From my own historical memory and research, I trace it to the overt courting of the religious right in the South by Nixonian republicans in 1968, culminating with Ronald Reagan’s alliance with the Moral Majority that led to his victory in the 1980 election—in which he unseated an incumbent President who is unequivocally a devout Christian. This was the beginning of the narrative shift of religious liberty that supports the blatant politicized overreach we see today. For this paper, I did a Google search for “religious liberty.” I focused on articles and blog posts whose topics related directly to the cultural cooptation of the idea of religious liberty as I describe it above. Left of center publication, The Week, writer Joel Mathis sums up the premise of my paper:
The term “religious liberties” sounds anodyne enough: The First Amendment guarantees that Congress shall not prohibit the free exercise of faith. And conservatives frame the recent debates with a libertarian gloss: Government shouldn’t make religious folks violate their faith-informed consciences to provide contraception to employees or make wedding cakes for gay couples. On the surface the message is: “Leave us alone and we’ll leave you alone.” What could be more American?
But that message isn’t honest.
Unless you’re a Christian — and let’s be honest, unless you’re a conservative Christian — conservative advocacy of religious liberties is a big con, a consolidation of rights and privileges not meant to be shared with Muslims, atheists, or other religious minorities.
You don’t have to reach far for examples. (https://theweek.com/articles/784953/conservatives-religious-liberty-con)
And I did not. What follows is a sampling of what I found.
The day I was writing this, May 22, 2020, an op-ed piece popped up on CNN’s website: This Isn’t About Religious Freedom (Graves-Fitzsimmons). It outlines issues surrounding Covid-19 religious liberty litigation, written as a response to President Trump’s push for governors to allow churches to re-open. The president’s invocation of liberty, prompted the author to note, “From a wider perspective, the Covid-19 crisis also reveals a new dimension to how some conservatives have distorted our treasured American value of religious freedom” (https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/14/opinions/religious-freedom-lawsuits-on-social-distancing-graves-fitzsimmons/index.html). He goes on to cite examples of the exploitation of religious liberty to further conservative agendas, he lists groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom that spent 54 million to argue the Masterpiece Cakeshop anti-LGBTQ case at SCOTUS. Graves-Fitzsimmons connects Covid-19 religious freedom lawsuits to current and pending cases involving whether “religious or moral beliefs of an employer should be an acceptable excuse to deny people birth control and whether taxpayer funds may be used for faith-based foster care agencies that discriminate against LGBTQ people” (ibid). He points out what is a recurring theme in my research—discriminatory conservative agendas are out of sync with public opinion surrounding these issues. The twisting of religious freedom, according to the author, is about winning the culture war and thereby bolstering the conservative voting base, Trump’s lifeblood. He concludes with a call to expose the bigotry behind the thin veil of religious freedom that covers it and “reclaim a religious freedom that does no harm” (ibid).
My research led me to The Berkely Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, an organization that examines, “the intersection of religion with global policy challenges of diplomacy, democracy, development and dialogue” (https://charterforcompassion.org/berkley-center-for-religion-peace-and-world-affairs?gclid=CjwKCAjwtqj2BRBYEiwAqfzur7FiTtxXPCn-_a4r4LjVhNdG9NLoy1QudwMV5MKW8mNOBRXOBabq3xoCW6gQAvD_BwE).
I found three essays in response to the Politics of School Prayer post in the Center’s Forum that address what one calls the “false narrative” of religious freedom. This pre-Covid post uses as a prompt President Trump’s announcement on 2020 “Religious Freedom Day” of new guidelines regarding school prayer during non-instructional time and the rights of students whose “freedom to pray has been violated” (https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/posts/politics-of-school-prayer). Additionally, he announced plans to remove “regulatory burdens” on faith-based social service providers that are supported by the Department of Health and Human Services—that is, by taxpayer dollars. The post suggests that while Trumpian Republicans have conducting an offensive front in the culture wars, Democrats have spent (frittered?) their energies trying to “connect with evangelical voters,” a heretofore fruitless effort.
The first response, The Debates Over Religious Freedom in the United States: What Debates?, by James W. Fraser, refutes the president’s claim of burdensome regulations of religious freedom by pointing out the new guidelines were nearly identical with previous guidelines issued by the G.W Bush and Clinton administrations. Fraser argues that the president’s fanfare over existing guidelines has deeper motives—first, to “warp the truth to stay in power,” that is, to fire up his conservative White Christian base, many of whom believe themselves to be discriminated against by progressives. If Trump can maintain the fiction of an “assault on faith” and the greater fiction that he alone can fix it, he will keep the support of his base. An even darker motive, according to Fraser, of touting his guidelines was to serve as a “cover for other policies which represent a dangerous infringement of rights”
(https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/responses/the-debates-over-religious-freedom-in-the-united-states-what-debates). He concludes with this stark statement, “…the obvious conclusion is that retaining voting blocs is more important to the administration than any concern for the rights of American citizens, religious or otherwise. We are better than that” (ibid). One hopes, but are we?
The second response, A False Narrative of Religious Freedom Threatens Americans’ Rights, by Rob Boston, begins by pointing out ways Trump’s school prayer guidelines in fact differ from Bush’s and Clinton’s, most significantly, that student- and teacher-initiated prayer at school functions may be legal. He then quickly turns to the problem of terminology in the evolving narrative of religious freedom, namely, that as it is used today demands religious privilege, which is very distinct from liberty. Boston offers a helpful definition of what religious freedom has historically meant in the U.S.: “the right to worship (or not) as you see fit, as long as you don’t harm others. It means the right to join together with fellow believers to build houses of worship, spread religious messages, and create a sense of community bound together by shared beliefs” (https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/responses/a-false-narrative-of-religious-freedom-threatens-americans-rights). Conversely, today’s conceptualization of religious freedom is a coersive and compulsive denial of the rights of others [and] is alien” to our core values (ibid). He points out that Americans are used to wrangling over issues, but this is a different age—one where polarization makes old ways of debating obsolete. When it comes to the minority voices of conservative White Christians, he concludes, “It is dangerous to accept even a little bit of oppression based on religion. The answer is always to resist it, by all legal means” (ibid).
The final article I examined from the Berkley Center Forum was A Free Exercise Argument Against Trump’s ‘Religious Freedom’ Rules by Peter Henne. His approach is somewhat different from other responses, as he approaches the issue with the onus of rectifying the cooptation of religious liberty on progressives. “The problem is that progressives have accepted the conservative framing of religious freedom”
(https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/responses/a-free-exercise-argument-against-trump-s-religious-freedom-rules). He charges us to retake a narrative whose subsequent policies discriminate against all but a small group of Christians. When progressives begin asserting that our own religious freedoms are infringed upon, the historical conceptualization will re-emerge. Practically, Boston proposes this: “Rather than religious freedom vs. non-discrimination, it would be a debate over the nature of religious freedom. And Trump-wary conservative Christians are more likely to be responsive to progressives explaining their approach to religious freedom than they are to calls to curtail religious freedom” (ibid). When my tax dollars go to an organization that refuses, for example, to allow a gay couple to adopt a child because they are gay—and since my faith tradition, the UCC, welcomes everyone, “Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey,” my religious liberty has been breached.
I argue that conservative White Christian America seeks to be sanctioned by the State through strategic SCOTUS rulings on the First Amendment. Let me be clear: not all conservatives nor all White Christians seek to twist the First Amendment. My complaint is with those of the population who overtly and intentionally seek to deploy the concept of religious liberty to discriminate. If we correlate them with Trump’s hardcore base, which I am taking the liberty of doing, it ends up being around 40% of Americans (https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/trump-approval-ratings/). I am old enough to remember when Religious Liberty did not have the topsy turvy meaning it has now. Growing up a white child in the South in the 60s and 70s, God and Country had distinct meanings for me; we were a “Christian Nation.” By the 2016 election, I began to have the disappointing realization that the country I live in is not the one I thought I grew up in. As Black and Brown Americans could have told me, my imagined America was never real; it was only a narrative that kept social and political hierarchies in place. I agree with the argument that upholding both the establishment and free exercise components strengthens religious practice in this country. I hold the position that the current rally cry of “Religious Liberty” signals a license to discriminate and thereby to enforce through subterfuge a morality code that bolsters white supremacy nationalism. This is not Christian.
Again, not all conservative White Christians are white nationalists. Just as politicians like Leader McConnell who actively work to pack the judiciary with conservative judges are not all actively forwarding a religious agenda. And yet, these groups are strange bedfellows.
As Bill Clinton reminded us in 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid.” But how might corporate-forward politicians get plain folks to vote against their own economic interests? By appealing to their/our values. In 1980, when the Republicans actively courted religious leaders like Falwell and Robertson to get Christians on board, they promised Christians would have a friend in the White House, a seat at the table—that they would have a voice in governing. So Christians voted Republican. There was no real seat at the table, so the strategy changed to grassroots campaigns and gaining control of the judiciary. Aside from one setback on same-gender marriage from Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, they have been overwhelming successful in influencing politics, which, of course, include the Courts. In his dissent of Obergefell, Justice Alito forecasted—or perhaps signaled—the ruling would have an “inevitable conflict with religious liberty” argument. I am not a political scientist, but my gut tells me that the LGBT victory with Obergefell helped the narrative shift; there would be new, more creative, ways to discriminate. If same-gender marriage was established by an unelected federal judiciary, so too then would cases be decided where refusal of services, for example, be equated with free exercise of religion.
Impact on Local Ministries
A 2019 brief from the Center for American Progress entitled Religious Liberty Should Do No Harm argues that policymakers have a responsibility to enact legislation that will, “ensure the right of religious liberty for all Americans without infringing on the rights and religious freedoms of others”
(London and Saddiqi, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/religion/reports/2019/04/11/468041/religious-liberty-no-harm/). They offer suggestions for building a framework of inclusive, non-discriminatory religious liberty.
One option relevant to local ministries is to consult faith communities in local policymaking. This might be through the formation of interfaith councils, working groups, and task forces that represent a diversity of faith traditions, “in order to ensure that the many voices of the faith community are considered in policymaking” (ibid). This idea gets to the crux of the matter, writ large. Local politics are unduly influenced by conservative White Christians; local municipalities are unable to oppose Republican governors to mandate business closures during a pandemic, let alone establish interfaith policy consulting councils. If we were at a place in this country where rural Alabama had interfaith advisory groups, it might be a good sign that religious liberty was alive and well. But we are not.
My religious affiliation is with the United Church of Christ (UCC), an Open and Affirming (ONA) denomination toward some of the populations against whom religious liberty is being used as a weapon. The most obvious impact religious liberty laws have on my local ministry involves providing sacred spaces of radical welcome who are being discriminated against. My congregation would not only make a cake for a same-gender couple, we would perform the wedding and host the reception! As important, we would show up in solidarity at the state capital.
As Flowers and some of the writers above note, the establishment clause ensures the religious liberty of all who wish to freely exercise religious beliefs, not just of a small subset who would seek to manipulate the First Amendment to suit themselves. For example, this is not a fight for religious liberty of Muslims. It is important that local ministries be vocal in opposition to misuse and misinterpretation of religious liberty. We must, then, employ our own religious liberty to re-establish the concept of freedom inherent in it.
I will end with a story. My congregation is literally on a hill; drivers by cannot see us from the street. As one drives up the hill to the building, we have displayed really powerful signs about being the church and proclaiming that we are an ONA church. Once or twice we tried to put the signs at the foot of the hill; that way, people could see what we stand for. Both times, the signs disappeared. We do not hang a rainbow flag outside our building or display the UCC “Rainbow Comma” logo on our marquee. We do not display Black Lives Matter signs. London and Siddiqi end their brief with this cautionary word, “If policymakers do not ensure that religious liberty protects the free exercise of religion for all Americans, it will continue to be weaponized as a tool for discrimination and political gain and weaken nondiscrimination protections” (americanprogress.org). A “city set on a hill” (Mt. 5:14) can be hidden if it wants to be. We can be visible by being the church, or we can watch as inclusive religious liberty slips beyond our grasp. The work happens at the foot of the hill.
Holy God, we must speak the names. St. Mary Baptist. Greater Union Baptist. Mount Pleasant Baptist. Louisiana smolders. In the names and the smoke our sin is manifest. We do not speak of their pain because the pain is their own—it belongs to their hearts. We do not get to cry those tears. Theirs is not our story to tell. Our story is a 21-year-old in an orange jump suit staring back at the camera. “His dad has been a sheriff for a number of years, he’s a good fellow,” said a state congressman. “My understanding is the son has had a troubled past.” Yes. Sons of the South have troubled pasts. “Not guilty,” he pleads. It is we who need to plea, yet ours can be no other than guilty. In 1963, two other sets of eyes looked back at the camera, in Birmingham; our pasts are troubled. “I tremble for my country,” Jefferson said, “when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Louisiana burns, God, and we tremble in our transgression. Do you yet sleep?
God, we trust you~~that we are not condemned to forever suffer the consequences of our sin by perpetuating evil. At the hearing, the 21-year-old arsonist’s father, the deputy, left the courtroom in tears. What did he cry for? His “good boy”? A lost youth? A youth lost? His boy took pictures of himself. Pouring gasoline. With a blazing building. Among the ruins. He claimed this.
God of justice, God of righteousness, we trust you and we offer you all praise~~but we do not know exactly what to ask you. Has nothing been asked before? Have we not prayed for forgiveness? Have we not prayed for good relations? Have we not prayed white prayers that our white children would not detect our locked-away resentment of freedom ringing? Correct us. Guide our hearts to pray those prayers. Awaken your justice, God, and direct us toward reconciliation and love—discernible in the photographed eyes looking back at us. Amen.
First, I need to acknowledge my white privilege and citizenship in a colonizer nation. Additionally, I am a U.S. Christian in a missionary culture, which has contributed to colonization. That said, I am also a gay female Christian from a rural Fundamentalist denomination, so I also can speak from intersecting places of marginalization.
In late February, the United Methodist Church voted to maintain its traditional stance against same-sex marriage and non-celibate gay clergy. This could very well be the issue that splits the UMC; in fact, the fissures started as soon as the vote was counted. The “Traditional Plan” passed with 438 votes in favor and 384 against, 53% to 47%. Yet in 2014, a PEW Research Study reported that 60% of U.S. UMC members believed that same-sex marriage should be accepted. On the eve of the 2018 General Conference, informal guestimates predicted that 66% of U.S. delegates would vote for the One Church Plan, which would allow individual churches and regional conferences to decide whether to ordain and marry LGBTQ members (https://mainstreamumc.com/blog/groups-are-misusing-survey-results/ and https://religionnews.com/2019/02/25/united-methodist-committee-rejects-one-church-plan-which-would-allow-lgbt-clergy/). So what happened?
The UMC has around 12 million members globally, about half its members. Methodists from outside the U.S. are generally more conservative and favor traditional positions on sexuality, reports Christianity Today. At the General Conference, 41% of the 864 delegates were non-U.S, 30% of those from Africa. I don’t even have to break out my calculator to know that without global delegates in the mix, the Traditional Plan would almost certainly have been defeated. (Take a look at the UMC World Map here: https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2019/february/united-methodists-lgbt-vote-umc-general-conference-denomina.html).
There are several issues to eventually unpack, such as how to reconcile the U.S. UMC and whether or not it will lovingly include its LGBT members and clergy within its community. Very briefly, though, I want to consider another ethical dilemma the UMC faces: how to be Christ’s universal church when the majority of half its members oppose changes taking place in U.S. culture. “In this case,” says Mercer University ethicist David Gushee, “culture looks more like the gospel than churches do” (Changing Our Minds, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7oO81hxbmGM). One delegate from Mozambique said the Traditional Plan “is what God Wants in the church in this world” (https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2019/february/united-methodist-lgbt-vote-conference-plan.html). Is it? More important here, is it what U.S. Methodists believe?
Gushee, whose book Changing Our Minds gives his account of changing his mind about the inclusion of LGBT persons in the church, notes that he is, “convinced this is not a sexual ethics issue, but it’s about human dignity” (YouTube). He goes on to pose three questions for which I propose the UMC hold itself—locally and globally—accountable. Who counts as equal? Who counts as having dignity? And at a level fundamental to the gospel—Who counts as included within the reach of the good news that God loves human beings in Jesus Christ? After all, he reminds us, sexuality is but a “tertiary concern” compared to issues of the sacredness of life and human dignity.
After nearly 250 years, the Methodist Church has accomplished one of the greatest missionary feats in history—preaching Jesus the Christ throughout the world and adding over 6 million souls to its count. Problem is, in many of these areas, it is not even safe to be “out” as a LGBT Christian. And, the UMC usually holds a mainline, moderate stance on most issues in U.S. culture. In February, the conservative global element nudged the church in a direction against itself. At least I hope that is the case—for herein lies its denominational ethical dilemma. What is the Methodist Church today?
I’ll turn once more to Gushee, who argues if we aren’t in solidarity, we’re part of the oppression. He notes profoundly, “this solidarity will be costly” (YouTube). It will indeed. If the UMC—as a microcosm of the greater church—does not actively seek to recover the broader narratives laid out by Gushee—the Kingdom of God, justice, the example of Jesus, love of neighbor, the Golden Rule, and compassion for those who suffer—then it admits its own ugly complicity in rejecting human dignity. It will have nearly literally have gained the whole world but forfeited its soul (Mk. 8:36). Now is its chance to do both.
This week’s post is an updating of a one that began as a paper I presented at the 2017 South Eastern Women’s Studies (SEWSA) Conference called Intentional Monogamy: Not Your Grandma’s Sexual Ethics. I’m thinking about monogamy as an act of queer intentionality.
Even before I started my MDiv at Mercer, I had been playing with God-talk (theology) in my curriculum theory writing. For example, I believe that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s notion of ethics and existentialist theologian Paul Tillich’s conceptualization of God and Christ are not just relevant to our world today, they are essential. Three semesters in to seminary, I’m just learning what I do not know about Christian Ethics, so I will start small, with the most common state of being in a relationship in Western practice—monogamy—I’m thinking about it in the context of the current issue of same-sex marriage. We have constructed a God to suit our dominant White Western culture, just as we have constructed normal, normative sexual ethics. The god we crafted has a preference, which we codified into morality, for matrimony. Marriage is one man, one woman, monogamous. You know 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). Schipper 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. Knowing Sarah, this in fact is romantic. One evening 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 and said, “Yeah, 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.”
My students 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 my simple answer to them). 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. We married on the day the US Supreme Court ruled on Obergefell, June 26, 2015.
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.
Schippers, M. (2016). Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Polyqueer Sexualities. New York: NYU Press.
Two words concerning prayer life resonate with me this week: intention and attention. I sometimes fret about my prayer life, especially when I hear my fellow seminarians openly talking about theirs; I even have a professor outside of this class who returns our attention to prayer life. This week’s reading reminds us that naming our longing to be always in relationship with diving (intention) and by paying attention to where we see God in our daily life (attention) remind us of divine presence and grace.
Reflecting this week, I sought connections between my praying self and embodied self. I realized that an important connection is the esteem in which I hold my spiritual and physical being–or the regrettable lack thereof. So I would like now to discuss body issues and return to embodied praying.
I came across two pictures of myself a few months ago. The first was of myself on my wedding day, taken by my new husband. It was a snapshot, and I was looking at him over my shoulder. My first thought was how young and beautiful I was–and at the time I did not realize it. I was never not weight conscious. Realizing the many gaps of pertinent information here, I will say that my husband, who struggled with his sexuality throughout our marriage, had no words to express his inner turmoil; however, he did have words to turn his issues around toward me. One example: I never fixed a plate of food for myself in sixteen years that he did not look at and comment about my weight. As you can imagine, this affected me deeply. I have apologized to the girl in the first photo.
The second photo is of me at about age 37. I am bloated and look unhealthy. No longer married, working on my doctorate, in a new relationship, starting a great adventure in a new state–my body tells a deeper tale. It is one of insecurity, uncertainty, and a different kind of unhappiness. More gaps, I know, but I was struck by this picture in which I looked like a completely different person, one who was dancing–and apparently eating–as fast as she could. I apologized to the beautiful woman in that picture, too.
Reaching middle age–I am 55–has forced me to communicate with my body. I am aware of new aches and pains; it takes me a few seconds of walking before the muscles catch up (I call it having a “hitch in my getalong'”); and I am having to become acquainted with the grayed and wrinkling woman in the mirror. Thing is, I know this body has fewer days left than it has experienced, and that’s ok. When I do see that lady in the mirror, I assure her that she is beautiful and that I appreciate her–that face, that body. I promise her to live in such a way that I will mindfully value her now, in this moment, so that I never look back with regret at failing to do so.
This is what praying with my body feels like–gratefulness to God for my body as a presence in God’s divine creation–no fear of scales or mirrors or photos. Just thankfulness for this familiar likeness.
Coda: I read somewhere that 65% of women report that they have cancelled a doctor appointment because they do not want to step on the scale at check in. I myself have done this. Yes, read that again because it is in fact incredulous. Last week I had my check up. In I walked with the nurse who held my chart and directed me to the scale. “We have to do this,” she said, “but don’t worry, it’ll be over in a minute.” I boldly stepped up on the scale, keeping my shoes and jacket on this time. “It’s ok,” I replied, “I’m good.”
This week a group of us from Pilgrimage United Church of Christ (PUCC) went to the 20th Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony in Atlanta. Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) is an observance every year on November 20 that honors the memory of those whose lives were lost in acts of anti-transgender violence. We went to pay respect and to support two of our members, Monica and Darlene. Darlene organized the ceremony and is a strong presence in Atlanta’s transgender community. Her wife Monica is a Navy Vet who served on a submarine. Monica is extremely proud to be a veteran. She wore her USN cap when she was recognized at Atlanta Braves games–and when she was an Atlanta Pride Parade Grand Marshall this year. Monica designed the Transgender flag, below. The original is in the Smithsonian in D.C.
The first thing you should know is trans people are murdered, and when they are, they are victims of trans-related hate crimes.
These are persons who often leave homes so that they can live their true identities, their true selves, often at great cost to themselves. And when they die, as I learned at the Atlanta observance, that identity is stripped away from them. How? Families, obituaries, police reports, newspapers refer to them by their “dead names,” their name before transition. What difference does that make? Well, after having fought so hard for true self, dead naming erases that self in a final, crushing blow. Still not clear? Ok, when cis-people (those of us whose gender identity matches the one we were assigned at birth–e.g., I am a woman, who was assigned female at birth) drop dead in a parking lot, our drivers license matches our reality–both our name and our gender would be the same. The paper reports that “Ugena, female, 55, Marietta” was found, etc., etc. If I have been living my true self as Eugene for the last decade or so, guess what? The paper would probably still report Ugena’s death. My funeral service–if my family were not too ashamed to have one–would be a farewell to Ugena. Would anyone remember Eugene? Would anyone notice or mourn me? That is what TDOR is for–to remember and remind us why it is important to remember.
The Transgender Day of Remembrance seeks to highlight the losses we face due to anti-transgender bigotry and violence. I am no stranger to the need to fight for our rights, and the right to simply exist is first and foremost. With so many seeking to erase transgender people — sometimes in the most brutal ways possible — it is vitally important that those we lose are remembered, and that we continue to fight for justice.”
– Transgender Day of Remembrance founder Gwendolyn Ann Smith
The TDOR service is, as are most funerals really, for the living. For members of the transgender community, it provides critical space for both joy and lament, laughter and tears–that for all the struggle and turmoil and oppression, they live. Not just live, but prevail. As an outsider–an ally but still an outsider–I observed these persons comfort and lift one another up. Those of us there as friends, family, and allies needed to see the strength and vibrance of a community that asks only a life of liberty, justice, and dignity. We needed to laugh and break bread together–which we did Atlanta style with Fox Brothers Barbecue. When you think about it, there are a few times in life that an opportunity for justice, hospitality, and compassion–an “integrity moment”–taps you on the shoulder. This is one of them.
Every Transgender Day of Remembrance observance concludes with a Reading of Names to honor each victim (that’s the word used at the GLAAD TDOR link). This was done, followed by a tolling of the bell, for each of the twenty-five U.S. dead and for the unnamed trans people who died violently while incarcerated. Here are their names, and if you scroll to the end of this post, there is a screenshot of the TDOR program with their photos.
- Brooklyn BreYanna Stevenson
- Rhiannon Layendecker
- Christa Leigh Steel-Knudslien
- Viccky Gutierrez
- Celine Walker
- Tonya Harvey
- Zakaria Fry
- Phylicia Mitchell
- Amia Tyrae Berryman
- Sasha Wall
- Carla Patricia Flores-Pavon
- Nicole Hall
- Nino Fortson
- Gigi Pierce
- Antash’a English
- Diamond Stephens
- Keisha Wells
- Cathalina Christina James
- Sasha Garden
- Vontashia Bell
- Dejanay Stanton
- Shantee Tucker
- Londonn Moore
- Nikki Enriquez
- Ciara Minaj Carter Frazier
- Those Unnamed
Another of the photos below shows the number of deaths by state. Georgia has one: Nino Fortson was killed in Atlanta on May 13. Here is a description of Nino from the HRC web site:
Fortson, 36, also went by names Nino Starr and Nino Blahnik, and was a gender-expansive individual…An active participant in Atlanta’s ballroom scene, Fortson was a member of the House of Blahnik, a national organization serving LGBTQ performers of color. Fortson was known for walking in the “Butch Realness” category.
A “gender expansive individual”–I wonder why it is that more of us don’t understand this as a gift, or a superpower? The last photo shows the number of known violent deaths of transgender persons, worldwide. There are 309. The U.S. ranks third. I would really like to live in a world where we don’t need to have another TDOR, but sadly, we seem to be moving in the other direction. Step back and think about why there is such a violent need to legislate gender. I can’t think of a reason. Yet, see articles like this one and look up #WontBeErased:
I’m finding whenever it gets really discouraging to contemplate how humanity treats one another, it is helpful to turn to Mister Rogers and Dr. Seuss. Ever since Tuesday evening, I’ve been thinking of an elephant named Horton, who heard a small noise.
“Mr. Mayor! Mr. Mayor!” Horton called. “Mr. Mayor! You’ve got to prove now that you really are there! So call a big meeting. Get everyone out. Make every Who holler! Make every Who shout! Make every Who scream! If you don’t, every Who is going to end up in a beezle-nut stew!”
And, down on the dust speck, the scared little mayor quickly called a big meeting in Who-ville Town Square. And his people cried loudly. They cried out in fear:
“We are here! We are here! We are here! We are here!”
“Because a person’s a person, no matter how small.” We will remember.
Here is the feature article in Project Q:
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|
On X-Men and Orlando
I’ve been making my family watch a lot of X-men movies this week, as a kind of research project for the new X-Men: Apocalypse. One of the themes throughout all the movies is good versus evil (another theme, especially in X-Men: The Last Stand, is marginalization of people because of their mutation–a clear parallel to homophobia and reparative therapy often forced upon LGB people–but that is another story…). For example, there are good mutants and evil mutants, good humans and evil humans. Sometimes, the evil forces come out on top. But sometimes, Professor X, Charles Xavier, gets through to them. “Don’t do this,” he persuades telepathically. “It isn’t who you are.” Occasionally, he gets through, even to Magneto.
Evil is among us. Whatever prompts us to reject our ethical thinking toward one another by supporting unregulated weapons purchases, or failing to commit meaningful resources to domestic violence and mental illness, or reinforcing homophobia through reframing it as “Religious Freedom”–that is evil. If those issues had been addressed through ethical, social responsible action, then the shooting on Sunday morning most likely would not have happened. They are the root cause–not one person’s or a group’s faith-beliefs toward the Holy Being. We must hold each other accountable, must remind and encourage each other–through real, responsible action, that this is not who we are. Like Professor X, I believe our world depends upon it.
When I was in fifth grade at Littleville Elementary School, something magical happened. One day, our teacher announced that the band teacher from the nearby high school would be coming to Littleville to talk to kids and their parents about joining the band. It was 1973, and resources for extra-curricular activities–heck, resources for curricular activities–were limited. I remember in previous years, our musical exposure at school had been the on the rare occasions when our teachers had brought out a box with mostly percussion instruments and let us play with them, mostly trying to keep time while a record was playing. This was different. This was band. I could hardly wait for the meeting. When the evening came, the band director, Mr. Wright, brought a variety of instruments so that we could try them out and, with his advise make our selection. I realize looking back that, of course, he wanted a well rounded group of instruments, which is probably why I became a flute player. From that point on, I was in love.
I went to high school in a football town, and a football town doesn’t scrimp on its band. We were the Marching 100. I remember the day I was issued my uniform. I remember band camp and big, chartered band buses, chocolate sales and Homecoming parades. I can still remember how to play The Horse–if you have ever marched, you know The Horse. I remember our signature parade song–a marching mix of China Grove and Smoke on the Water. I still remember–and feel–lining up on the sideline for the halftime show, and I can feel again what it felt like then standing on the field, horn up, knees slightly bent, leaning back to hold the last note until the crowd stood and cheered. And they did. Every time.
I quit the band just before my senior year for a very, very bad reason. It’s a story for another time, because this one is about joy. But I must say–for the rest of it to make sense–that over the next thirty years I had recurring dreams about being back. Sometimes, they would let me join them again for just one performance. Sometimes, in my dream, it was entirely acceptable for an alum to join up years later. Whatever the scenario, I slept happy. Then woke. It was not unlike dreaming of someone who has passed then waking to sadness when you realize it was only a dream.
First of all, let’s just get it out there: there IS a gay agenda. Sort of. But it’s probably not what you’re thinking. When anti-gay people speak of a “Gay Agenda,” they make up some items to maintain the politics of fear that have proven successful. Gays getting married. Gays having children. Gays in schools. Gays in the military. Gays in the workplace. Gays in church. Gays in the government. Gays parading. Gays everywhere. Wait. No, that’s not scary enough, not to mention that it’s already the case. Gays converting your children. Gays converting YOU. Gays in YOUR church. Gays being treated like they are normal, even when everybody-knows-what-they-do-in-bed. Gays running sex dens and converting you and your children as you are mesmerized by sequins and disco music.
None of that is my gay agenda, neither the real nor the absurd, nor the in-between spaces where sexuality, gender, and everyday life interact fluidly and contingently. FOX News is making stuff up.
Our gay agenda looks a lot different from that, which has become more apparent since we found Spike just over a month ago. Now, Sarah is an activist. She is very connected to LGBTQ (she knows all the letters of representation) groups in Cobb County and Atlanta, regularly meeting with organizations and attending functions. She performs with the Atlanta Freedom Bands, and wrote the Safe Zone training manual for her university. She’s an advocate for campus equality for LGBTQ students, and she is a presence for students on campus. She forwards me a half dozen news and policy updates from online media every week. And me? I teach LGBTQ-themed classes in KSU’s Gender & Women’s Studies Program and queer-up just about everything I write about. My activism is a little more sedentary. Regardless, if anybody should know about a gay agenda, it’s us.
This topic reminds me of a line by John Proctor in The Crucible. “If there is a faction, then I must find it and join it.” If there is a sexy, provocative Gay Agenda, I’d sign up for it. But I’m pretty happy with ours. We talk about it; rather, we note it, at the oddest times. For example, for the first month, we had to “poop” the cat. Baby cats rely upon the mama cat to help get its bodily functions going (I’ll leave it at that). We had to assume that role and responsibility since Spike was abandoned. So, while I was holding the kitten over the sink and proceeding, Sarah leans over and says, “THIS is some gay agenda!” Sometimes when we’re up to our elbows in cooking dinner or doing dishes, we’ll make the same observation. Or when we’re loading three animals into a small car to transport to South Atlanta for the weekend–and then repeat at 5:00 AM on Monday morning. This is SOME gay agenda. Or when we FINALLY get a night out to go to Pride because Spike is FINALLY getting litter box trained and we end up volunteering to help close up the booth for KSU’s fledgling (and terrific!) LGBTQ Resource Center. While we were there, Sarah mentored a young trans student and set up his schedule for spring semester. THIS is SOME gay agenda. Or, finally, when we made it to the concert area, spread our blanket under the stars to listen to music and one of us says, “Gee, do you think it’s time to go and check on Spike?” And the other says, “Yeah, I was just thinking that.” And we go home to play with zoo before bed. To sleep because we are so exhausted from living the gay agenda. Our gay agenda.
The point is, for me–I think for us–the gay agenda is living a life. Finding happiness, following our bliss. This is NOT to say in assimilationist fashion, “See, we’re just like everybody else….” We aren’t. But as for marriage, adoption, employment equality–those are not “gay rights” or items on an agenda. Those are human expectations, needs, and/or choices. I think, maybe, that the gay agenda involves being-human-with-one-another. And if that is the case, it is one I am happy to promote.