for Jenny Nixon
Last weekend, I attended the National Gathering of the Southeast Conference of the United Church of Christ, a denomination with a history of social justice advocacy that dates back to colonial New England. The UCC has always, to my knowledge, ordained women ministers, and it is a space where I feel welcome to offer and develop my gifts of leadership. One evening at dinner, I gravitated to a woman dining alone and asked if I could join her. I didn’t join her because she was alone; I joined her because I had been in a previous session with her and heard some of her story. I remember she had said: I was in Alabama during the Civil Rights years, and the League of Women Voters kept me sane. I wanted to hear more.
Her name is Jenny Nixon, and she is a resident of the Uplands Retirement Community in Pleasant Hill, Tennessee, which, if you ask me, is one of the best kept secrets in retirement living. Jenny was hard to miss all weekend because of her booming voice, head of solid gray hair, piercing blue eyes, and the shape her body has decided to take as she got older, which required her to use a walker. Yes, I’d appreciate your company, she told me. I eat more slowly than most people these days. I fetched us a couple of pieces of strawberry short cake for us and sat down.
Jenny was born in Oregon in 1933 but had gone to college in California and lived for some time in Washington State. I’m a Westerner, she told me with a glint in her eye. What attracted me to her was that she had been a women’s rights activist in the 1960s and 1970s. It isn’t too often that I get to meet a feminist–a real feminist–from the “women’s lib” era. But that wasn’t the only reason I wanted to hear more of her story; our stories, as it turns out, had something in common: Alabama. Will you tell me more about your time in Alabama? I asked her. I think it’s important, and I know it’s interesting! That’s all it took. I will recreate her narrative here with only minimal interruptions of my interjections and comments.
My first husband was an aerospace engineer, and “Mr. Boeing” sent him to Huntsville, Alabama, where he worked on the rocket that sent us to the moon. It was 1964. Kennedy had been assassinated, but worked progressed on the space program. We lived in South Huntsville. Our kids eventually went to Chaffee Elementary School, White Middle, and Grissom High~~all named after the astronauts killed in the Apollo 1 fire at Cape Canaveral in 1967. Of course, that was my first husband. The only things we had in common were our kids–and bridge. We were an unbeatable bridge team! I am very proud that I always spoke well of him to my children. That was very important to me, that they kept a relationship with him. He was a good father.
In those days, the senior engineers had a choice of moving or not, and most of them chose not to. So there were communities of young families with young children. Before Boeing, before NASA, Huntsville was a cotton town; once we got there, it was a city of 20- and 30-somethings. I had young children, my husband was an engineer, I was college educated. I needed something to do because I couldn’t just stay at home. The League of Women Voters really did keep me sane. My husband didn’t really approve of the amount of time I spent working, but I did it anyway. I was president of the local chapter. In those days I could mimeograph flyers at my house. We met at my house over the years.
I was in Huntsville the year the President signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. We worked hard. One of our projects was a weekly bi-racial lunch, where we went to lunch as a group of Black women and white women–together–to a restaurant. In Alabama in the 1960s that was a radical act. You just didn’t do it. My husband’s job was integrated because it was the federal government, so they hired Black engineers. George Wallace was governor during that time, and it was not easy.
I used to tell my friends in the West that not everybody in Alabama was racist, that there were people there who worked for civil rights. I tried to bring my children up that way; of course, sometimes the teachers reported that they were being disrespectful. They didn’t say “ma’am.” But they turned out fine. Eventually, more of the women went to work outside the home, so there were fewer of us who could do volunteer work with the League. When my husband was transferred to Washington State, that was the end of my Alabama years.
By that time, we were finished with our shortcake. I’m keeping you, I said. Yes, I’d just as soon go home now, she replied mater-of-factly, as she asked me to dial her current husband George on my cell phone. George, this is Jenny. You can come and pick me up now in front of the cafeteria. Five minutes, yes. Goodbye. Spoken like a Westerner.
Last month, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed into law the harshest abortion bill in U.S. history. According to the Washington Post, only three women had a voice in the Alabama state senate, where all 25 votes cast in favor of the bill were from white, Republican men. This in a state where although 51% of the population is made up of women, only 15% of the legislature is–one of the worst ratios in the country (https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/05/15/typical-male-answer-only-women-had-voice-alabama-senate-men-passed-abortion-ban/?utm_term=.8fd84fe87878).
This morning, an opinion piece from the New York Times popped up in my news feed called Where Are the Socially Conservative Women in This Fight?
The American family needs defending and right now men are leading the charge. Written by Helen Andrews of the conservative Washington Examiner, a central them was a critique of the “Two Income Trap,” a term coined by Senator Elizabeth Warren in her book by the same name. Andrews opines:
Marriage simply no longer offers the financial security it once did. The consumer goods that singles buy have gotten cheaper, but the things that middle-aged parents spend the most money on — houses, education, health care — have gotten more expensive, while wages have stagnated. It has become difficult for a family with one breadwinner to afford a middle-class standard of living. “Mom’s paycheck has been pumped directly into the basic costs of keeping the children in the middle class,” Ms. Warren’s book “The Two-Income Trap” explained. The mass entry of women into the work force is one reason for this financial insecurity.
Look at that last sentence again. It’s important, as Andrews turns her argument for the emergence of conservative women toward women’s desire for marriageable men. She references the now-viral quote by Fox’s Tucker Carlson: “Study after study has shown that when men make less than women, women generally don’t want to marry them. Maybe they should want to marry them, but they don’t.” Andrews expounds:
As it happens, there is an abundance of data on Mr. Carlson’s side. Wendy Wang is the director of research at the Institute for Family Studies, and before that she worked at the Pew Research Center, where she co-wrote a report about unmarried Americans. “The number of employed men per 100 women dropped from 139 in 1960 to 91 in 2012” among never-married Americans 25 to 34, her report found. “In other words, if all never-married young women in 2012 wanted to find a young employed man who had also never been married, 9 percent of them would fail, simply because there are not enough men in the target group.”
Poor white men. No one wants to marry them. And why not? Because women have taken their jobs!
Here’s another jewel from Andrews, citing an MIT study: When women’s wages went down relative to men’s, marriage and fertility actually went up. I do not have to paint the phallic imagery here, do I?
So, rather than build an economy built on sustainable infrastructures, living wages, affordable health care and child care, paid leave for parents of all genders, tax payer funded college tuition, and jobs in a 21st century world–Alabama leads the rest of the country in this ignoble approach to economics, which, make no doubt about it, it is. Abortion legislation is not about morality or religion or the salvation of Alabama souls. It is political, for it will keep the good Christian people voting Republican–against their own financial and reproductive interests. And this, friends, will keep the Republican coffers full.
The Alabama bill, along with Andrews’s call for conservative women to take up the call to put women back at home rearing children while their men go off to work, is dangerous. Under the guise of fighting for our “right” to stay home and raise children–and do the majority of domestic labor without pay as part of the contractual obligation to which their marriageable men are entitled–women will be demanding to have our rights revoked. Rights that people like Jenny Nixon worked–from her home, while her children were at school–to make available to us. And, women like Governor Kay Ivey, who have the facade of power, do the bidding of male legislators. If you want to see what the world will look like when this retro-vision is enacted, look no further than the Alabama legislature. Or the list of Fortune 500 CEOs, or the U.S. Senate.
There’s another place you can look. Watch The Handmaids Tale, Seasons 1 & 2. It was not Commander Waterford who was the architect of Gilead. Rather, it was his wife, Serena Joy, who was the power and talent of the movement. In one chilling scene, which I’ve included below, Serena uses her charismatic speaking talent to turn a group of college student protesters to her conservative vision. Keep watching, though, to see how it turns out for her after she cedes her power. See how she lives in Gilead. The cost of equity and equality is high–we continue to pay it. But there is also a cost to maintain our liberty, and part of that cost is vigilance. Margaret Atwood noted in her book the wages of inattentiveness. Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.
Have you written your story down, recorded it somewhere, I asked Jenny. No, she said. I thought about it but haven’t. I still remember it, though. I pray that we will all remember, before we boil in a bathtub of our own making.
It should come as no surprise that they’re coming for Pete Buttigieg. He’s smart, frank, funny, personable, courageous~~everything in a politician that would constitute a threat to the one of the least popular incumbent presidents history. Strategically that’s why he’s already under attack. How he’s under attack represents low hanging fruit politically. Pete Buttigieg is a gay man. It’s low hanging fruit because this fact inflames–really inflames–the roughly 25% of Evangelical Christians in America who make up the president’s strongest base.
On April 25, 2019, Franklin Graham Tweeted (naturally) a response to Buttigieg’s candidacy, “God doesn’t have a political party. But God does have commandments, laws & standards. Mayor Buttigieg says he’s a gay Christian. As a Christian I believe the Bible which defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized….”
Earlier in April, an NBC report suggested that Graham’s view is out of sync with that of most Americans. Polling data indicate that almost 70% of Americans would be either “enthusiastic” or “comfortable” voting for a gay or lesbian candidate (USA Today). The remaining 30% is Trump’s hard core base and includes the 25% Evangelicals who enthusiastically support him regardless of evidence of impropriety. The Fox News/fake news true believers. My people.
I come from generations of Fundamentalist Christians, growing up in the Church of Christ~~a denomination that historically refrained from political engagement beyond the civic duty to vote. But even voting was private~~between you and God. We believed that “rendering unto Caesar” meant that our faith was personal and would come full circle on Judgement Day. All of that began to change with the campaign of 1980, when Ronald Reagan challenged the Son of a so-called New South, Jimmy Carter. Precisely because our denomination had not been political, the shift was very noticeable.
On April 26, David Gushee, Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics at the McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University, and Director of its Center for Theology and Public Life, spoke with CNN’s Don Lemon in response to Graham’s Twitter attack. Gushee’s book Changing Our Mind traces his personal and theological journey toward inclusion of LGBTQ Christians (it’s in my Kindle as we speak!). (Franklin’s remarks, incidentally, make Changing Our Mind doubly applicable in light of the United Methodist Church’s February 2019 decision to exclude LGBTQ members from ordination and marriage.) A disclaimer: I am a student at McAfee working toward an MDiv and certificate in Christian Ethics, and I will take Christian Sexual Ethics with Dr. Gushee in the spring. His ethics are grounded in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and outlined in the seminal book on the subject: Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (2016), co-written with the late Dr. Glen Stassen. Although he wouldn’t do it because of his ethical convictions, I would put David Gushee’s understanding of Jesus’s teachings up against Franklin Graham any day. But again, I have a dog in the hunt.
I had an “ah-ha!” moment as the CNN interview concluded:
LEMON: ...I think it’s interesting that you say that the Christian right has been in the grip of the Republican Party for 40 years now and it’s getting worse….
Forty years. Reagan, the Moral Majority, Trickle Down Economics, strengthening the military-industrial complex, unregulated capitalism, corporate tax cuts~~the most significant political and economic ideological shift in U.S. history~~and I was there. I saw. From the pews of a little country church in North Alabama. My people~~those 25% die hard Trump supporters~~were the strategic targets of the Republican machine in 1980, and we remain in its grip today. I am not suggesting we are absolved of our complicity; we have not yet repented of our collective sin of racism, for example. I’m saying the Republican Machine (not persons who vote Republican, whom we love as Jesus loves) is like a crooked preacher: it knows the Bible well and uses it to sway the sheep. It uses cultural context or insists on literalism, whichever best advances its agenda–which is, again, to inflame good people to vote. Over nearly half a century, it has accomplished an astonishing goal, really: creating god in a Republican image and we, my people, worship at its feet. That’s called idolatry, y’all. Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics suggests a different way, a Jesus way, to do politics together as a people, but to see it we will have to melt the Golden Calf of the Republican god.
My people believe~~really believe~~that electing a gay man as president will doom the U.S. as God turn’s His (no gender free God here!) back on us. In fact, we see plenty of examples of how He is already exacting His punishment on us as a call to repentance~~a call to return to being a Christian Nation, God’s U.S. chosen people. I know a good man~~a Godly man~~who believes God is sending a meteor toward Earth as retribution. “We better turn back to God,” he says, “or He will destroy this sinful nation!” When Franklin Graham reminds Evangelicals that God’s “laws, commandments, and standards” supersede political parties, he gives them no option save worshiping the carefully crafted Calf. And yes, he precisely politicized Buttigieg’s sexuality. I know what my people will say to an interpretation of scripture toward a new Christian Ethic where Pete is evaluated as a candidate by his qualifications rather than as a person based on his sexuality. They will say, “Even the demons believe, and tremble” (James 2:19). They will be suspicious; they will believe they are being tricked by fast talkers and twisting scriptures. They will gather more closely around the Calf.
In a speech in early April, Pete said his relationship with Chasten had made him “more compassionate, more understanding, more self-aware and more decent.” He then directly addressed Mr. Pence, “as one man of faith talking to another,” the New York Times aptly puts it: “And yes, Mr. Vice President, it has moved me closer to God.”
That’s my favorite part because I identify with it. My relationship isn’t just a good fit in which I found a life companion~~it has brought me, in-relation, closer to God. It is in my relationship that I can feel the kind of love that God pours down on us, the kind God expects us to pour on each other. Not only that, it inspires me to act with love and compassion to others~~that’s pretty big! Jesus Ethics can be planted and take root in places where we talk to one another about compassion and decency and relationships that bring us closer to God. We can change our minds and decide to love.
It is Holy Saturday, God, the day good Christians celebrate Jesus’s body lying in the tomb while his soul descended into hell, the Harrowing of Hell, they call it. Holy Saturday is coming home from a funeral. Everybody is exhausted, and the loss is starting to get real. You have to eat~~people have brought food~~but you are not hungry, might never be hungry again. After Big Mama’s funeral, I sat at the familiar kitchen table with her old friends, who told stories. Those of us at the table laughed until we cried, but the sisters—my mother and Lois and Mary and Judy and Barbara—were in the dark bedroom where their mother had taken her last breath; they did not laugh. They could hardly hold themselves up, so they held each other. It was raw and ugly, and if any of them had dared, they might have cursed you, God. They were groaning in their utter desolation. Holy Saturday started like that, with women holding vigil in their sorrow.
There is another word I first (and pretty much only) heard in the Bible: iniquity. Iniquity is to wickedness what groaning is to grieving. You are good, God, and trust in your goodness outweighs my worry; but my fundamentalist conscience tells me our United States will give an accounting for our iniquity. We sin together, all of us: we are inhospitable to neighbors at our borders, we march in hatred to maintain an apartheid state, and we lay offerings at the feed of corporate gods. We do not merely turn our heads as our poor fight to live—and often lose the fight—but we defiantly jut out our chins at them because they got what they had coming. It helps that they are different colors than we are. We incarcerate young men of color to prove our point. We busy ourselves with what goes on in one room of the house—the bedroom—with little concern with what goes on in the rest of your world. Longsuffering God, batter our hearts, as the poet cried (John Donne). Lay us bare again so that in our nakedness the only place our eyes can turn is to you. On this Holy Saturday, harrow our souls toward reconciliation with you as we keep vigil for the terrifying Resurrection we (don’t) know is coming. Amen.
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.
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.
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.