Tag Archives: diversity

Representation and Invisibility

Photo of Neil deGrasse Tyson with quote: "The act of arguing and not agreeing seems to be fundamental to the law profession, and Congress is more than half that profession. What profession all these senators in Congress are? Law, law, law, business, law, law... Where are the scientists? Where are the engineers? Where is the rest of life represented here?"

(ht: @SaganSense on Tumblr)

Tyson asked this question on Real Talk with Bill Maher back in 2011; but he was not the first to ask and I suspect no answers will be forthcoming.

Discussing diversity and the relationships between social location, experience, and decision-making perspective seems to be one of the quickest ways to make lots of people uncomfortable. Just last week I read a report on a theological seminar held at a local Adventist university. The writer informed us that there were “about 170 attendees” and that “several [Adventist] General Conference leaders, including representatives from the vice presidential circle, the Biblical Research Institute and the Adventist Review, were present.” I wasn’t sure what meaning to assign this information, so I went back and reviewed the content of the article, the photographs of the room, and the attendee information provided. And then I asked:

Can anyone who was present share how many of the central discussants and conversants were female, non-White, non-American, or under the age of 35? Since the event was hosted by WAU, was it also patronized by WAU students? If so, how engaged were they with the presentations and responses? Did you sense that they felt any ownership of or responsibility for the story Brueggemann and other named speakers wove? (x)

So far my only feedback has been a thumbs down. Perhaps I’m not supposed to ask these questions about a public event held at a university. Perhaps it’s not supposed to matter if speakers and active participants in a theological conversation are all male, and all, apparently, over 40 years old. Perhaps we are still that naive.

Tyson’s question about the composition and disciplinary skew of Congress also applies outside politics. The collective that frames, writes, and presents theology and philosophy shapes the stories religious communities tell about their scriptures, beliefs, purpose, history, and relationship with the world beyond the gate. Its composition isn’t neutral.

Millennials and other young adults are disproportionately exiting or losing confidence in environments that don’t seem to understand that social location and experience shape and limit perspective, that visibility matters, and that invisibility marginalizes. Neither the political realm nor the religious communities can afford to dodge this, not during the election cycle, not in decision-making committees, not in public ministry, and not on college campuses.

Who speaks for the people who aren’t invited to speak? How will the invited audiences hear them? And how will their absence skew the stories told?

In Case You Missed It: Check out and contribute to Tara L. Conley’s Millennial Manifesta. While focused on economic and labor injustices, Conley is also concerned that Millennials have no peers among current members of Congress and no bloc means of insisting on accountability based on their actual interests or needs.

Today, she shared a quote from Carole Pateman’s classic book on participatory democracy (1970). Whereas some ’70s theorists claimed that citizen apathy kept a system stable, and 1980s theorists thought participatory models quaint and “outmoded,” Pateman argued for engaged citizenship. She has evolved beyond the raw populism that was au courant in the 1970s, but continues to advocate for a space beyond deliberation for ordinary citizens in the routine political spaces that affect us all.

The [empirical] findings show that ordinary citizens, given some information and time for discussion in groups of diverse opinions, are quite capable of understanding complex, and sometimes technical, issues and reaching pertinent conclusions about significant public matters. Moreover, they have to justify their reasoning in their reports. These empirical findings provide a valuable counterweight to the poor opinion of ordinary citizens found in much political science, and to the frequently heard view that many, perhaps even most, matters of public policy are best left to, or must be left to, experts.


Beyond the Vote: Political Meta-narratives & Asking the People What They Think

In this talk, Eric X. Li offers a provocative discussion of political meta-narratives—the stories we tell ourselves about our political systems—based on his study of the People’s Republic of China. At 15:08, Li makes some bold predictions about China’s future in comparison to the US and peer nations within the next decade. I hope someone checks back with him in 2023.

I think democracy contributed to the rise of the West and the creation of the modern world. It is the universal claim that many Western elites are making about their political system, the hubris, that is at the heart of the West’s current ills. If they would spend just a little less time on trying to force their way onto others, and a little bit more on political reform at home, they might give their democracy a better chance. China’s political model will never supplant electoral democracy, because unlike the latter, it doesn’t pretend to be universal. It cannot be exported. But that is the point precisely. The significance of China’s example is not that it provides an alternative, but the demonstration that alternatives exist. — Eric X. Li

Li argues that the Chinese one-party system has allowed for greater adaptability and reform than we electoral democracy citizens have acknowledged, and he may be right. A vision of one model operating worldwide betrays a fear of political diversity, a lack of imagination regarding all the ways there are to govern different societies effectively. Why must only one governance model be adopted across the planet or presented as the end toward which we must or will inevitably evolve if we’re mature enough (and by whose standards might we be judged “mature”?

VoteButton_Dallas Observer

Your vote counts… Or does it? | via The Dallas Observer

I think Li is correct on this point: there are different ways to participate in governance, there are different ways for governments to be responsive, and voluntary elections are not the only way to prompt popular engagement or official reception. In the US, only 50-58% of voting-age residents have done so at a general election since 2000, and voter turnout has never been higher than 63%. (The voting age population includes imprisoned citizens and non-citizen residents.) If only 3 out of 5 people will participate in a general election, and 1-2 out of 5 on average in elections for more local levels of government, we can’t honestly call their choices the voice of the people.

The use of survey instruments, focus groups, and similar direct research tools in public sector administration has increased in Europe over the last 15 years along with shifts towards e-government; the UK government’s use of public consultations as it developed controversial bills is a recent example. These methodologies could help to reform electoral democracy here in the US too.

Filling In the Gaps: Sexuality and the Seventh-day Adventist Church III

In Part 1 of this series, I reflected on the Seventh-day Adventist denomination’s influence on the sexual orientation change effort (SOCE) movement since the 1970s and its lobbying against civil initiatives for LGBT people to the present day. Then, in Part 2, I suggested that the limits of our church “mother” can inspire us to grow, that this growth is part of our ethical and moral maturity process, and that extending the conversation about sexuality and gender beyond what the denomination has offered to date is an important way for us to care for ourselves while caring for the community that shaped us.

I would like to make it clear… that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction. The moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.” —J.K. Rowling at Harvard, 2008

Part of my process growing into adulthood has been acknowledging my responsibility. I don’t assume responsibility for the premises and limits that others taught me, but I do assume it for how I frame gifts as I become conscious of them, and how I write them into the life and experiences I share with others. As Rowling told Harvard’s Class of 2008, there’s an expiry date on blaming one’s parents, so if there ever was a time when I might have considered blaming my family, church, or cultures for what they passed down to me, that time has long gone. I accept responsibility for my life.

Photo of South London landscape, 30 St. Mary Axe in centerI grew up as the last child of Jamaican parents in the United Kingdom during the 1980s and 1990s. While most of the events described in Part 1 were unfolding in the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, I was 3,600 miles away in a part of the Adventist community that included Caribbean immigrants, West African immigrants, a smattering of Filipinos, and a small minority of White English and native European people in congregations outside of London.

My 500-member congregation had a very strong lay leadership tradition, and during the early 1990s my mother was one of four women called to the role of elder. From these and other lay leaders before and after my baptism, I learned a great deal about how to teach, share, and support an active congregation. I learned how, under the church’s wings and the wings of my Caribbean immigrant network, to live distinctly from the wider society: we were trained to be Daniels who lived impeccably in both friendly and hostile circumstances, dared to vary from our peers if the cause was honorable, and never brought embarrassment to our faith or Afro-Caribbean culture.

Despite that training, I don’t recall learning how to examine myself as an individual, to situate myself in my several communities and negotiate their competing claims on me. I don’t recall seeing my full reflection in the faces of the elders who surrounded me: I saw partial reflections in this speaker, that artist, this teacher, but never felt wholly mirrored. I knew that I was a member of my immediate family and community family; I didn’t fear being abandoned by them. I saw that I was loved by each of these circles (if not understood) and that my community’s achievement expectations for me were high (they still are!). I thrived academically and otherwise, but did so while not fully recognizing myself in the lives or experiences of any one I knew.

Photo of the hills, Manchester, JamaicaI was about 17 years old and studying at an Adventist college in Jamaica before I met someone who knew he was gay. We became close friends, siblings-but-not-by-blood, and yet our closeness didn’t include his identity or relationships until five years later. We spent our time discussing culture, politics, regional differences, spirituality; we talked in generalities about attractive people and the life lessons we were learning. But in our first five years as friends it never occurred to me to inquire about his orientation or relational life. He didn’t inquire much about mine—and there was little to tell. As much of my own sexuality was still in shadow, I did not see his; I just didn’t ask.

I know now that at least two boys from my English high school were gay; while we were schoolmates, their bullies had tormented them for not being athletic or “manly” enough. But at the time I never made the leap from their gender expression to their sexuality, and I don’t know when they made that connection for themselves. I have no comparable stories about English or Caribbean women to share.

Like many Adventist youth, I’d received the Ellen White compilation Messages to Young People as a baptismal gift and read it; I’d also been given John F. Knight’s books for teenagers, What a Young Woman Should Know About Sex and What a Young Man Should Know About Sex. These church-approved sources were supplemented by classes at school and my parents’ direct contributions at home. My mother and father, a registered nurse and social worker respectively, may not have been comfortable with all of my questions, but they usually responded by being frank and clear, dismissing baseless myths and scare stories, and suggesting that we research what we didn’t know. I’ve kept this model as an adult: it still helps me to fill in the gaps I’ve discovered along the way.

I cannot explain why, despite the parents, books, and cultural and congregational influences that I had, I still came into my 20s with no hook to hang my growing awareness of myself on. Yet that is how I found myself in 2008—hook-less—and so I began to build from scratch. I spent the next 4 years studying classic materials and contemporary research on Christian history and theology, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity, working with credentialed counselors, and rebuilding my inner relationship circle. It was an amazing period—equal parts insight and horror, with much of the latter channeling through some of my religious relatives and my denomination. I do not blame them for the role they played during those years. I also had many angels, guardians, and friends, and was not alone.

On this side of the process, though, I sometimes imagine the SDA community being so committed to realism about sex, gender, and relationships that our scholars led the wider Church’s conversation. It saddens me when I see us trailing the rest of the Church with groundless 20-year-old talking points, or expelling leaders for being current or compassionate. It’s possible I’d be writing a different story today if my imaginary denomination were real.

At the same time, I’ve met hundreds of LGBT Adventists in the last several years, all shaped by the sources I’ve mentioned or others similar to them. Some of these people were caught up in Quest Learning Center and survived to share their stories. Others passed through other orientation change ministries and are grateful today to have made it out alive. Perhaps it’s been to our collective benefit that our church hasn’t led the pack: as things stand, the teaching we’ve received has tended toward suppression, occlusion, fear, and the dysfunctions that naturally flow from them. More of that is not what we’ve needed. By filling in the gaps beyond the church, we’ve instead worked to build personal and collective awareness that this life is an opportunity to develop loyalty, joy, care, pleasure, faithfulness, patience, understanding, and love.

Close-up photo of broad green leaves in sunlight.Rowling’s metaphor for adult living is “taking the wheel,” but I’ve experienced it as something less mechanical and fraught than highway driving can be. For me, shaping an adult life is more like tending a garden, noting how seeds and plants grow, which kinds of nurture and resources they need, how good they are as neighbors to other plants, what outcomes they produce, and how each plant is its own kind of beautiful. It’s about development and learning in place, harvesting and stopping to smell the flowers; sometimes, too, it’s about sneezing from the pollen and uprooting plants that don’t fit. I’m still in the midst of the tending process as I write this article, and I expect to keep tending and enjoying this garden for the rest of my life.

Caring for Our Mother: Sexuality and the Seventh-day Adventist Church II

In Part 1 of this series, I described the Seventh-day Adventist church’s approach to sexuality as a “spell” that dissociates members from themselves, confines them to different-sex relationships or self-suppression, and encourages them to lobby against civil laws for LGBT people in North America and internationally as well. [1] With a handful of doctrinal premises, a few has controlled the many.

But this isn’t the only part of the story that I want to tell. One of John J. McNeill’s contributions to my thinking is the idea that it is psychologically critical for a child to come to terms with his or her parents’ limits—and this acceptance must apply to our religions of origin as well as to our biological families of origin. According to McNeill, our Church Mother also merits our recognition and acceptance; she too reaches the outer bounds of her capacity as we grow; she too fails us and not always out of conscious malice. Her efforts have caused us objective harm, but as we mature, we have opportunities to care for her regardless of what she has said and done. The last few generations of LGBT children have lived out this model vividly: an increasing population of declining parents looks to these far-from-the-tree children for their elder care, and most of us are providing it.

I wrote that the Adventist church administration withdrew from healthful and helpful service to its gay members after its first official meeting with SDA Kinship a few years before I was born. This may have been the worst possible choice for the church and yet it was probably the best outcome for LGBT Adventists. By abandoning the LGBT community during decades that involved deep, significant changes in psychology, medicine, church history, theology, public health, and public law, the church forced LGBT people and the heterosexual Adventists around them to go beyond the church’s borders for fact-based insight, the latest research, thoughtful biblical interpretation, principled exegesis and application, and practical policy and pastoral guidance for homes, schools, and congregations.

I view the church’s treatment of non-hetero sexuality as a more extreme edition of its approach to human sexuality overall. But as McNeill has written, the failures of our church mother can spur us to grow up. Without coming to the outer limits of her capacity, we might never have learned to seek, to engage reality directly and without using her as mediatrix for our unfolding understanding of ourselves or our callings. In growing up, we develop moral sensibilities and ethical agency. And we can choose how to apply what we’ve come to know in our relationships with other people and those institutions that shaped us.

Green things grow.

Green things grow.

It is now 2013. SDA Kinship will host its 34th international meeting this year. I am 30. And the Seventh-day Adventist church is still a full two years away from reporting on “alternative sexuality practices”—a remit that, at best, represents a gross misapprehension of the science of orientation and gender and frames human variation in terms of misbehavior. The committee conducting that study was announced at the 2010 General Conference session and is due to produce its report in the next two years. Without any information on this committee’s membership beyond its chairman, and with its only preliminary contribution a doubling down on the church’s 1996 statements, I can’t vouch for the value of its outcomes or its relevance to my generation or the younger people who follow us and wish to remain a part of the church. [2]

Would my denomination ever dare to call Blackness an “alternative ethnicity”? I’d hope not. Yet some of its most vocal speakers and authors over the years have framed European and White American worship styles and music customs as the norm from which other cultures vary at their spiritual peril: ethnocentrism is an old art. Even if current membership trends continue and South American, African, and Asian divisions move to the center of the institutional wheel, their centering after years of marginalization will still fall far short of “unity in diversity” or any other model of organic collective flourishing. Imbalanced relationships among constituents undermine the grounded, healthy development of any group deemed an aberration rather than a variation. The church’s heterosexism has long produced these outcomes.

Cartoon of animals—monkeys, elephants, and others—being tested on their ability to climb a tree.

It doesn’t matter to me which of us get to live at the center of the wheel if some of us are relegated to the outer ring. I don’t believe the Incarnational Kingdom of God is about inner and outer rings, and, unlike the orientation change ministries I described in Part I, I don’t hold a theology of sexuality based on separation from our Creator and Source, regard a hetero orientation as the inverse of others, or represent LGBT people as “heterosexual people with a homosexual struggle.” That is not what they are.

Yet I believe it’s important for the General Conference’s committee to complete its work and report on sexual and gender minorities 35 years after ministers first recommended the study.

Even if

  • the church has preemptively described orientations other than heterosexuality as “a manifestation of the disturbance and brokenness in human inclinations and relations caused by the entrance of sin into the world;”
  • a number of church members and LGBT people have already plugged out of this conversation because it does not reflect the realities of gender, intersexuality, or orientation;
  • the committee intends to represent heterosexuals as normative and all others as deviant;
  • by 2015 we’ll still have no rounded theology of relationship, creativity, commitment, or celibacy, and still lack a model for organizational and spiritual vocations that evaluate members based on gifts rather than gender or marital status; and
  • no LGBT Adventist has been invited to join the General Conference’s committee in studying the Bible, Adventist tradition, or current knowledge about the LGBT community

—it is still important that the church administration continue its process.

The next generation of Adventists deserves the best its denomination can offer, not as the end of conversation but as the start of it. The church’s contributions in the next few years will influence the climate in which youth grow and adults endeavor to shepherd them: even as our societies change, the church’s statements, retractions, explanations, and pronouncements will continue to matter.

Unwillingness to discuss openly is devastating: silence and shadows never saved a soul. So the 2015 study is important for the health of my church and its members. I have wondered whether it’s even more important that pastors, teachers, counselors, parents, and friends continue their personal learning and dialogue, though they’ve explored their questions so far with very limited support and in some cases active resistance. As Protestants, we have no Magisterium, and we also share with the various Catholic and Orthodox traditions a reverence for discernment and conscience. Neither discernment nor conscience is based on stubbornly abdicating continuous learning.

So, whatever the church’s judgments in 2 years, everyone in the wider Adventist community has opportunities to co-learn today. Some church members and former members are returning to this common learning table thanks to their relationships with LGBT people and to the documentary Seventh-Gay Adventists (SGA), which has screened in small groups since February 2012.

Poster for Seventh-Gay Adventists (2012)The movie does not pretend to see or tell all; it is situated in particulars and as such it has limitations (I’ve  discussed my thoughts with the director personally so am not writing out of turn). SGA‘s focus on couples, gay and lesbian individuals, and the lives of people resident in North America means that the Adventist community has yet to hear from unmarried, bisexual, intersex, or transgender people, and we’ve not heard the range of experiences that LGBTI Adventists have outside the United States or Canada, sometimes supported by their ministers and sometimes publicly demonized by them.

Despite these limits, SGA doesn’t seek to end the conversation: it is an extremely charitable contribution to a relationship that needs more charity, and it has resonated with people from all sides of the table. I know the filmmakers hope that others will tell their own stories just as Jill and Sherri, Marcos and Obed, and David and Colin told theirs. The isolation of the status quo isn’t good enough for any of us, and our church, our “Mother,” will benefit from learning with us.

“Homosexual people eagerly wanting to live the Christian faith, could they do it in their specificity, not in isolation or [outside the law], but also in the shared wealth of the ecclesial community? Would it not be desirable that these brothers and sisters in Christ are respected and accepted as people with an infinite value in God’s eyes?

… No one can be forced into belief and response.” —Ethics Committee of the Franco-Belgian Union of Seventh-day Adventists, March 2013

In the third and final part of this series, I will share how this context has shaped my life and relationship with the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

[1] Sample lobbying in North America: VermontCanada, California [AB 1976 & Proposition 8], Maryland, and Washington state; sample international SDA lobbying: the Netherlands, KenyaUganda, and England. Additional links were shared in Part 1 of this series.

[2] Shortly after this article was first published on June 5, I received a copy of the committee’s appointed membership. The 50-member group is dominated by General Conference and world division church administrators, and includes only 1 woman.

The Magic of Shame: Sexuality and the Seventh-day Adventist Church I

The few can’t control the many by force. —José Barrera

José Barrera defines magic as the ability to change reality by influencing others’ beliefs and consequent behavior. His argument is that magicians are not mere illusionists like those featured in The Prestige; they are people and groups who invoke their authority over others and use it to direct others’ decisions and actions. By impressing audiences to bind themselves to an external authority, a magician’s successfully cast “spell” means that the bound person internalizes the magician’s injunction and carries it out whether the magician is present to reinforce it or not.

Digital illustration: temple in background, black woman in foreground

Credit: “Egypt” by ProcerKhepri

While many Christian denominations oppose “magic” on the basis that sorcery is forbidden by the Bible, there may be no more vivid example of belief-and-behavior influencing, reality-changing magic than evangelical-fundamentalist teachings about sexuality.

Last fall, I found an archival issue of Spectrum Magazine, the journal of the Association of Adventist Forums. That issue, from 1982, included reports on the first annual meeting of Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International and an opinion piece from Colin Cook, a Seventh-day Adventist ex-pastor who at that time was still touring Adventist churches and publications to share his overcoming-homosexuality message and to promote himself as “living proof” that one could be delivered from one’s “homosexuality problem.”

I believe the ideas of a harsh or distant father and a dominant or binding mother are correct… The primary cause [of homosexuality], in my opinion, is the spiritual shame that all mankind experiences as a result of the Fall. —Colin Cook on the origins of homosexuality, Ministry, 1981

Cook was one of two men who launched the gay conversion step ministry Homosexuals Anonymous in 1980. Like the church-promoted ministries that have succeeded it, HA operated on the assumption that homosexuality was an unnatural, immoral corruption of heterosexuality, an “escape from reality” rooted in postlapsarian alienation and sexual shame, and a sinful condition whose impact could be lessened or eliminated via prayer and therapy. On these principles, Cook also ran an SDA-funded orientation change center for gay men in Reading, Pennsylvania, called Quest Learning Center.

Among LGBT Adventists, Cook is infamous not only for securing General Conference funding and support for Homosexuals Anonymous and Quest, but also for orchestrating at least two series of client abuse at his Reading and Colorado centers (1986, 1995). Cook had been removed from ministry in 1974 after having sexual contact with one of his male congregation members. However, while receiving church funds and fielding inquiries from young men through the late 1970s and 1980s, Cook promoted “homosexual healing” as his experience and an achievable outcome for others in publications like the Adventist youth paper Insight (1976, 1978, and 1980), the church’s pastoral journal Ministry (1981), and the evangelical magazine Christianity Today (1989), and in other sponsored forums across the country.

Since 1993, Cook has continued to encourage others to “come out of homosexuality” and “develop heterosexuality” through a new Colorado-based company and online radio broadcaster, Faithquest. His site’s legal disclaimer notes that he is not “licensed as a psychotherapist or psychologist, nor registered as a counselor in the state of Colorado or any other state in the United States or any other country.”

The Seventh-day Adventist church withdrew funding from Cook’s projects around 1986, but has never withdrawn its support for Cook’s “overcoming” dogma. That dogma has recently resurfaced in Adventism, and overcoming-homosexuality tours have resumed in congregations and conferences around the United States, in Uganda and Kenya, Australia, and other receptive sites worldwide.

In a park, two levels of wire fencing restrict general access to rows of seatsReading Spectrum‘s 1982 report, however, was like being sucked through a wormhole into an alternate universe where the Seventh-day Adventist church hierarchy and LGBT church members conversed openly, not merely to build mutual understanding, but to actively address pastoral, spiritual ministry to non-heterosexual church members. On this side of the wormhole, however, no such free exchange exists. The church pastors and other workers who had attended SDA Kinship’s first meeting had reported back to the denomination on what they’d observed and made nine key recommendations for future action.

Thus, before I was even born, a group of pastors, scholars, and one “ex-gay” counselor advised my denomination to “set up a special subcommittee to study thoroughly the whole question of homosexuality and the church” and to recognize SDA Kinship as a ministry to, for, and with Adventists with non-heterosexual orientations. This group also advised the church to take other actions, including developing a comprehensive “balanced and responsible” sexuality curriculum for Adventist church schools. Such a curriculum would help to ensure that K-through-college students would have a fact-based, engaged space in which to grow, learn about themselves, and discern both what God required of them and how they should shape their adult lives in line with that discernment.

None of these things happened. In fact, church workers were later discouraged from interacting with SDA Kinship and, in the 1990s, the denomination sued Kinship in California courts for using the name that still identifies the majority of Kinship’s members and allows new members to find it. Whereas the church workers who had participated in the Kinship meeting advised the church to draw near to its non-heterosexual members, the church instead withdrew.

Over the next two decades, Adventist unions and church officials actively lobbied voting members and civil governments to block or undermine legal rights and protections for LGBT people, including in Hawaii, Massachusetts and New England, California, Florida, Scotland, England and Wales, Uganda, Maryland with the support of NOM, and Australia with the support of the Australian Christian Lobby. Public health research is now showing a correlation between legal restrictions on LGBT rights and increased anxiety, mood disorders, alcohol-related disorders, and stress-triggered conditions like hypertension and depression for the LGBT people in that climate. The church’s lobbying pattern continues nevertheless.

How could one calculate how many people have been influenced to define and approach LGBT people as immoral representations of sin and satanic deviance thanks to the teaching and practice of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination? I don’t know, but I’ve come to realize that church-driven shame about sexuality cannot be maintained without the active or unconscious effort of ordinary people.

Blue cloudless sky in background; tall stony cliff-face in the foreground“The church” follows no one through life; it’s in no one’s wedding party, dinner table, prayer house, or bedroom. But we are in all of those places, and to keep the dogma alive on the church’s behalf we must first dissociate from ourselves. The process of being the church’s proxy in our most intimate spaces splits us as we learn about and experience our own sexuality. Any resultant shame only dissipates as we re-integrate and no longer cede room to soul division: if we don’t cooperate with the “less than” spell, we cannot be shamed into compliance with flawed definitions and inappropriate limits. The church’s spells invoke powerful magic over millions of current and former members, and those able to breach those spells pay in years to do so.

In Part 2 of this 3-part series, I will discuss the implications of this history, notable exceptions to it, and where I see the church today.

Speaking as Myself

My friend Teagan hosted a really powerful conversation this weekend about what it means to be an ally to a community and how to speak with its members rather than for or in place of them. [1]

I come into the ally/narrative conversation shaped not just by my direct experiences but also by the body of narratives that catalyzed the British and American anti-slavery movements.

Who May Speak for a Slave?

Narratives shaped the 18th-19thC conversation about slavery as a legal institution and cultural practice. Some of those narratives were written by former slaves and free people like Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass. These storytellers recorded their experiences, published them, and toured their respective countries to speak about them. Other narratives were written by slaveholders/plantation owners to describe plantation life from their point of view and to justify the slave economy in the face of nascent criticism. Still other narratives were written by abolitionists like William Wilberforce and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745-1797)

Not surprisingly, while Britain and the United States wrestled with slavery, the narratives with the most popular credit belonged to White abolitionists, slaveholders, and a certain kind of former slave: a Black gentleman or gentlewoman with refined social manners, self-taught or classically educated as far as he or she could be, and publicly pious. These were the narratives given platform space and amplified.

I’ve seen a similar dynamic in every social movement since abolition: not all stories are equal; social norm-compliance buys airtime and social credit; allies can be contradictory and not all endorsements are consistent. Given this inconsistency, I’ve learned not to conflate “anti-slavery” and “pro-Black” or “anti-discrimination” and “pro-equality.” Objecting to legal discrimination or social cruelty is not the same as fully supporting a population, especially once that population expects to be judged on its own terms and not by the measure of other groups. So those who work against social and legal discrimination may still hold onto overt and subtle prejudices about the people we work with: being a community’s ally in one sense does not necessarily mean being its ally in all senses.

Conflicting Support

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s _Uncle Tom’s Cabin_ (1851-2) exemplifies this. Its author, a White woman, was an abolitionist and teacher. Building on the stories of former slaves, Beecher Stowe depicted “kind” and “cruel” slaveholders, and also featured Black slaves as major, sympathetic characters. [2] By the 1860s, her story was galvanizing abolitionists and helping to turn public sentiment against the worst of the slave economy.

At the same time, the book relied on an abridged and patronizing view of Black people, and its benevolently racist stereotypes still surface in US media and public sphere conversation 150+ years later: the noble-faithful Uncle Tom, the loyal, religious, and ever insightful maid and wetnurse, the wild child. Beecher Stowe didn’t invent these tropes; she merely built her story around them. I do not question that she was an anti-slavery ally, considered slavery immoral, and had good intentions for her art.

A story can have a positive impact in the short and long term while also collapsing audiences’ view of reality and their view of the subjects represented in that story. In the same way, it is possible for a story to open up an audience’s view of trans* or gender variant or LGB people while also using conceptual shortcuts and assumptions that don’t serve the wider community well. [3] This doesn’t mean that only some stories should be told. I think it means that more stories should be told overall, more thoughtfully, more assertively in some cases, and more humbly in others. Stories are powerful and some of them can cast a long, long shadow. That scares me sometimes, but it also helps me to be conscious about my impact on people and communities I care about and not focus only on my hopes and intentions on their or our behalf.

The Stories I Tell

As part of its community outreach program and at the invitation of local college professors, PFLAG-Lubbock has organized panels of members to talk with counselors and teachers-in-training about identity, diversity, family dynamics, being an ally, and ways to increase understanding of gender and sexual minorities. I joined my first panel about three years ago. It was the first time in a long, long time that anyone had asked me to tell my story, to share from my experience what the world looked like from where I stood, to speak as myself. Whenever I spoke, it felt good that I was never offering classes a “single story” about my communities because those panels were always set up to support a broad range of perspectives and experiences. There were times when panelists disagreed and yet we didn’t gloss over those differences: there are already too many spaces where disagreement is misconstrued as disloyalty. “Diversity” spaces don’t need to mimic that.

I still tell my own story more informally from time to time, and I also speak about my perception of others and their stories, but whenever I do either of these things, I do so knowing that a story changes in the telling no matter who it’s about. In the years I told stories in Texas and in print, I noticed how much my narratives changed as I did. I drew from a consistent file of characters and events, but my interpretations evolved, and I also began recounting some experiences less while talking about what I’d learned from them more. If stories that I know are sound can vary this much, how much more might there be a fidelity gap between the stories others tell about themselves and the way I’d render their narratives? Because of our psychological and experiential distance, I can’t tell The Story of You as well as you can, and you can’t tell The Story of Me as well as I can.

Photo of KM (half of face out of frame)

One of my life lessons is this: When I see and experience this world, I do so as me. I never do so as another soul, never as they’d see or experience this life, and never as they’d wish I’d see it. So whenever I speak outside my experiences, I necessarily project in some way; I’m perceiving, translating, re-framing, and then re-publishing. I’m in constant conversation with others, too, and we’re all shaping our stories together, Yet the only original story I can tell is my own.

I find it keeps me honest to recognize that this is what it means for me to tell stories about my life and about others’ lives; this is what it means to build knowledge and understanding with others. It also seems to help my peers and audiences to acknowledge that this is what we’re doing, because in coming to grips with this, we’re challenged not to seek a fixed and universal truth from the stories we tell to each other. For the Christian fundamentalists I know, that’s a tough sell, but then some of them also struggle with the premise that our particular experiences are not inferior to an idealized and universalized experience: universalized experiences, after all, are only a slice of the world used to colonize the rest.

When I do speak up on my own behalf or with others, my stories about myself and my perceptions aren’t less important than others’ stories and perceptions. Stories I’d tell about myself are not less important than those others will tell about me. But they are different. They can’t be substituted without loss. And the wider world often treats my stories as less important. It also treats the differences I naturally add to the mainstream as annoyances or something “more difficult” that we’ll all “get to later.” That approach has real relational consequences and we live those consequences every day. I think the whole is diminished because of this approach. So I speak up about that when possible.

I don’t believe any of this means we all need to stop telling stories or building knowledge together. I believe it means we need to tell more stories, not fewer. And all of us, the storytellers used to being sources of The Story, need to recognize that our special standing is a dysfunction that we can and should dismantle in all the ways we can.

[1] Today is the birthday of an ally who stood with me as I learned to speak as myself and for myself. I still hope to offer others the kind of wholeness she offered me. CKR: b. April 1954 – d. April 2010. C., thank you so much.
[2] The “kind” and “cruel” slaveholder distinction only makes sense on one side of the table—not my side!

The ‘soft’ individualism of community leads to humility. Begin to appreciate each others’ gifts, and you begin to appreciate your own limitations. Witness others share their brokenness, and you will become able to accept your own inadequacy and imperfection. Be fully aware of human variety, and you will recognize the interdependence of humanity. — M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum