Tag Archives: LGBT

Inspired Possibility: Opening the Gift of the Queer Soul

Part of the 2013 Queer Theology Synchroblog | Thanks, @anarchistrev, for the invite.

Logo for Queer Creation Synchroblog 2013

The earth was without form and void
and darkness was on the face of the deep.
And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. – Genesis 1:2

Imagine with me the void before “Let there be light”—the empty space before the components of creation started to self-assemble. In the formlessness of the earth, there’s nothing to see, and nothing to see by: no light or substance but water, Spirit, and movement. The water ripples while the Spirit hovers overhead, and all else is still. This second verse of Genesis shows us a planet-sized zero, and in the midst of this zero, God is. Before land, life, or any recognizable form has emerged, the Spirit of God moves. All that exists begins in this formless place, and with God present, anything is possible.

Inspired Possibility

Perhaps because so many verses come after Genesis 1:2 and only one comes before it, we often struggle to understand what “anything is possible” actually means. We enter this life and find pre-mapped worlds of experience, interpretation, and meaning already here. If anything in the scriptures is foreign to us, it’s the formless void described in this text. We don’t know what to do with formlessness; it’s a shifting thing to us, and so we struggle to tame it by assigning it a name: queer.

The Hebrew word translated “spirit” in Genesis 1:2, ruach, is a word that can also mean “wind,” or “breath.” When ruach appears in the Bible, it almost always signals God’s presence. God breathes, and divine breath brings life. In John 3, Jesus says, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes.” We can see what wind and Spirit produce, but we can’t trace their source or project their next motion. We don’t know what the blowing wind or moving Spirit might become, but we can experience their presence with us in this moment. An experience of presence: that was the experience and gift of the beginning, when the infinite possibility of God appeared without form and void.

“And so is everyone that is born of the Spirit,” says John (John 3:8). We are formed in God’s image, and unfolded by the Spirit of God. The Spirit that once moved over the waters now moves through us, and like the once-formless earth, we are fluid in the hands of God. As the void held space for God’s designs, so we express all the variation God can imagine. As the Spirit moves through us, we receive in our bodies new possibilities for the world.

Breathing through Uncertainty

But just as the primeval void came with darkness, new potentials come with uncertainty. Formless spaces are both liberating and paralyzing: it’s when we gain the freedom to create absolutely anything that we can be tempted to mimic the commonplace, the average, the usual. Because of our bias toward the already created, it’s easy to fear the darkness that covers the deep and makes the familiar strange.

Yet that darkness also teaches us: the possible doesn’t have to use precedent as its foundation. “Tradition” is not reified in the darkness or in the void of potential. We can choose to cite the already-done, to incorporate it into new life-yielding patterns and rites, but tradition stands with and never over us. Convention stands in the same relationship to the void and the pre-manifest space of potential as any other configuration of reality. The so-called normative, dominant, and customary are not the heart of all things; there is only one Heart, and we are Its very good creation.

The moving Spirit of Genesis 1:2 is the Breath of God that connects the creature to the Creator, and this connection cannot be broken by any made thing (Romans 8). We’re entangled with God, moved by the ever-present limitlessness of Spirit-Wisdom, pulsing with Her potential for innovation and life. Connected to our Creator by our in-breath (inspiration) and out-breath (expression), we’re inherently part of something more deeply coherent than atomized identity, institutional affiliation, or conditional belonging. As God inspires matter, as energy moves through what is, earth’s formless void becomes a teeming planet. We can breathe deeply and in trust, being inspired through the Spirit, and opening to what could just as easily be and not only what is. 1

Generating as well as Restoring

So queer creation may begin with reshaping, recasting, and recreating what’s already here. In To Heal A Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, R. Jonathan Sacks writes that we all have a role in reshaping this world: “We are here to make a difference,” he says, “to mend the fractures of the world, a day at a time, an act at a time, for as long as it takes to make it a place of justice and compassion where the lonely are not alone, the poor not without help, where the cry of the vulnerable is heeded and those who are wronged are heard.” Yes, this is part of our work; it’s a restorative, “repairing the breach” role, and as long as we’re queer in a world that resists and oppresses the different, we’ll have that role to play.

But queerness is more than merely restoring what is: we can also sense and draw out from the void possibilities that rigid and exclusive structures didn’t allow to emerge in the first place. Our generative work requires that we add to the world fresh wisdom and new structures, not merely revisions, hacks, or disruptions. Just as our Creator drew us out of nothing, we too have the capacity to create powerful newness through our lives, in our relationships, religious and spiritual communities, and social organizations.

When I shared Genesis 1:2 with a group of LGBTI and queer Seventh-day Adventists three years ago, I didn’t yet have the words for what I sensed in the text or in the slow development of my life: our very existence as queer people invites us onto a different pathway for imagination, vision, and creation than those opened to us by a hyper-structured hetero- and cis-sexist society. Not only do we see this reality differently because of who we are and how we experience life, but it’s also our spiritual responsibility to share our vision from the ground on which we stand instead of rejecting our ground and privileging others’. When we fail to express out of who we are, whether because of fear, repression, or disbelief in our own value, our band of creative potential is wholly lost to the manifest world.

To express this capacity in a coherent way, we’ll have to develop and practice a new gaze.

Creating with a Different Gaze

Earlier this year, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison spoke to the Cornell University community about her literary legacy and her play Desdemona. She explained to the audience why the character Iago didn’t survive her editorial cut as she re-envisioned Othello through Desdemona’s eyes, what it means to excise “the white gaze” from one’s work, and how doing so opened up creative space for her. Listen to what she said (38:58-47:12).

[This is what] has been happening more and more and more in my books, actually all of them, and that is to take away what I call ‘the white gaze.’ Whose eye, whose language is controlling this? Well, in Othello, it’s Iago…

[In the traditional African-American novel] the oppressor is the white man, or the white idea, or the captain, or the plantation; that’s who they were confronting. [Ralph] Ellison, [James] Baldwin, Richard Wright—you understood they were responding to, defending themselves, or aggressively attacking that idea of the white oppressor.

And I thought: I can’t do that. What is the world like if [the oppressor’s] not there? The freedom, the open world that appears… it’s stunning. And I notice most African-American women writers did the same thing. Toni Cade Bambara, not always Alice Walker but many times, Maya Angelou, those writers, and the poets…

There was this free space opened up by refusing to respond every minute to the gaze, somebody else’s gaze. So that flavored a great deal what I was writing. But you’ll understand about Iago now, why I had to get rid of him.—Toni Morrison

Refusing to respond every minute to the gaze, someone else’s gaze. Refusing to root our creative acts in the limitations others project onto us or the frameworks of meaning and value they map onto the world. Refusing to allow our Iagos to dominate our attention or conversation. Using our creative energy not to battle or defend, but to build up and out instead from the beautiful we see in ourselves. Having shifted our gaze, we center ourselves and our visions for this world on what we see from our perspective and the connectedness we experience with our Source and the Source of all creation. If, according to community catechisms and statements of belief, we’re not enough as we are, creating anew must become enough for us.

What’s the world like if the oppressor’s not there? What will we see when our gaze is authentic, when we’re grounded and clear? What will we make with our talk-of-God and love-of-others? How will we change? What will we teach?

May we inquire of ourselves, and answer in our creating.

Let there be light… and may it be queer.

1. I owe this formulation to the man I call My Friend’s Dad: an incredibly wise grandfather and sense-maker who sees beyond the manifest and inspires me to do the same.

Round-up: Responses to Exodus Closure

“And away he goes, precious. Gone! Gone! Gone! Smeagol is free!”

Several organizations have responded to last week’s announcement that Florida-based ex-gay/sexual orientation change ministry Exodus International will close.

  • The National Religious Leadership Roundtable includes representatives of Christian affinity and interest groups including the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, the Unity Fellowship Church, the Metropolitan Community Churches, and DignityUSA.
  • Cindi Love is the executive director of Soulforce, a non-profit that sponsors nonviolent student Equality Rides to Christian colleges across the country.
  • Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International is a support and advocacy organization that has served current and former Seventh-day Adventists for nearly 40 years. It formed in California in 1976, the same year that Exodus International incorporated in Orlando.

Individuals have shared some powerful responses in the last week as well:

  • Sean Sala is a US veteran who participated in Lisa Ling’s special God and Gays last Thursday.  
  • Shay Kearns is an Old Catholic Church priest who grew up in churches that promoted Exodus International’s change dogma as the solution for non-heterosexuality and “deviant” gender expression.
  • Rachel Held Evans is a Christian writer whose blog community responded to the Exodus announcement by sharing their experiences with Exodus and other ex-gay organizations.
  • Brent Walsh is a minister in Indiana who educates congregations on gender and trans awareness. He describes the deep impacts of Exodus’ residential program Love In Action on his life.
  • Jane Brazell is a member of an online group of ex-gay survivors and is based in Washington state.

On May 28 this year, Exodus International quietly withdrew from the Exodus Global Alliance, a confederation from ex-gay groups (the Florida nonprofit only reported this on June 12). Exodus Global has branches in Asia, the Pacific, Central and South America, and Africa, all regions where anti-LGBT sentiment has particularly violent legal and social consequences for LGBT people and their families. On June 21, the Exodus Global Alliance dissociated itself from Alan Chambers’ apology issued on Exodus International’s behalf, and pledged to continue and promote reparative “ministry” and orientation suppression.

Exodus International may now be defunct, but its legacy continues.

The Exodus of Exodus International

Earlier this month, I wrote about the Seventh-day Adventist church’s early history with the sexual orientation change effort industry (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). Quest Learning Center and Homosexuals Anonymous both formed during the same era as Exodus International, a sprawling evangelical organization that taught LGBT people, their families, and their churches that “change is possible.” SOCE groups like these continue today despite advances in science and psychology, law, theology, and social acceptance, and not all of them have responded to these advances by becoming kinder, gentler, or more accurate about their claims.

Exodus "True Story" graphic from their conference website.Exodus itself, however, held its final conference this week. Yesterday its director Alan Chambers apologized to the LGBT community and their parents. He also announced that Exodus International will close and a new ministry will emerge in its place. The website for the new ministry is not yet live and I see no substantive information about it anywhere yet. Even if Reduce Fear’s work with churches is conciliatory, based on Chambers’ comments in his apology yesterday, I expect the new ministry to maintain his core beliefs that LGBT sexuality is morally deficient and that unconditional LGBT acceptance contradicts Christianity.

I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents. I am sorry that there were times I didn’t stand up to people publicly “on my side” who called you names like sodomite—or worse. I am sorry that I, knowing some of you so well, failed to share publicly that the gay and lesbian people I know were every bit as capable of being amazing parents as the straight people that I know. I am sorry that when I celebrated a person coming to Christ and surrendering their sexuality to Him that I callously celebrated the end of relationships that broke your heart. I am sorry that I have communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine.

…I am sorry that so many have interpreted this religious rejection by Christians as God’s rejection.  I am profoundly sorry that many have walked away from their faith and that some have chosen to end their lives…I cannot apologize for my deeply held biblical beliefs about the boundaries I see in scripture surrounding sex, but I will exercise my beliefs with great care and respect for those who do not share them.  I cannot apologize for my beliefs about marriage. But I do not have any desire to fight you on your beliefs or the rights that you seek. My beliefs about these things will never again interfere with God’s command to love my neighbor as I love myself. —Alan Chambers

Last night I scanned Twitter to get a sense of the reactions to Chambers’ apology and have discussed it briefly with friends. While some from the LGBT-hostile quadrant of the church immediately raised the “gay agenda” specter or smeared Exodus as “sellouts”, the majority of early comments ranged from cautious surprise to outright celebration. I didn’t see much anger or cutting cynicism from LGBT-supportive people—though it may be much too soon to expect people to have passed all the way through the grief/loss process. Questions about and closer readings of Chamber’s statements are now trickling out and SDA Kinship will be sharing some of these responses to Exodus’ closure from their Twitter feed today.

I looked at Exodus’ closure statement myself, and this paragraph jumped out at me:

Chambers continued: “From a Judeo-Christian perspective, gay, straight or otherwise, we’re all prodigal sons and daughters. Exodus International is the prodigal’s older brother, trying to impose its will on God’s promises, and make judgments on who’s worthy of His Kingdom. God is calling us to be the Father – to welcome everyone, to love unhindered.”

Return of the Prodigal Son (Murillo,

Return of the Prodigal Son, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1667-1670) | via the Web Gallery of Art

For most Western evangelicals, Chambers’ claim that “we’re all prodigal sons and daughters” will be uncontroversial. The majority of the evangelical community’s doctrines assume that humans are sin-depraved and experience separation from God if not in conscious relationship with Christ. The parable of the lost boy, a story of grace and embrace in family despite error and failure, is an old cultural favorite. So when Chambers identifies Exodus as that “elder brother,” this rings true for many of those harmed by SOCE organizations, and I can only imagine how difficult it has been for him to acknowledge that role.

But the final turn—from being the older brother to “being the Father”—does not fit. I know that as an evangelical, Chambers does not believe in apotheosis. So “LGBT or not, we’re all God’s children; this is our created and redeemed nature; and our lives will be about being or becoming more like God” cannot be what he means here.

In the bible story, the younger brother returns his father planning to play the servant. His father rejects that effort and claims him as the son he is: this is part of his restoration: that he be the son he is. The older brother resents his brother and their father’s open-armed reception of him, and the story closes with the older brother still outside the party, not yet accepting or extending family grace. I’ve often rewritten this ending in my head, supplying an addendum in which the brother crosses the threshold quietly to thaw over fruit punch. My epilogue reads something like “It took time, but both brothers healed. Realizing what their father had been trying to teach them, the brothers worked on their relationship and the family home became known as a house of love.”

Wouldn’t that the best resolution? That the older brother re-enter the party as a brother, not an overlord? That he restore his relationship, not craft a new superior or inferior one for himself, nor impose a false superior or inferior role on his younger sibling?

So why does Alan Chambers represent Exodus’ role changing from brother and peer to “being God”? If Exodus has already lorded over LGBT people for more than 30 years, why, even now, isn’t it enough to simply be equal? The hardest thing for beneficiaries of artificial hierarchies may be to lay their status down and stop grasping for new and improved ways to pick it back up. For those trodden by hierarchies, the hardest thing may be to shed  temptations to inferiority or counter-supremacy, and to accept that we too are our Father’s children.

Should Chambers choose this path, with others who abandoned him long ago because he wasn’t harsh or separatist enough for them, he and they’ll find me by the fruit punch. I promise to save them a cup.

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!

Living Your Life and Using Your Life

This week, one of the NYT’s advice columnists responded to a question about inviting unsupportive relatives to a wedding. I’ve thought about this question before, and not just in the context of LGBT couples: For me, the point of being present at a wedding is to bear witness to the relationship at the heart of the ceremony, to support the couple’s initiation into a new life stage together, and to stand with them as part of their marital community. It’s not just dressing up and eating free cake. How is it possible to fulfill the role of witness without valuing the relationship you’re witnessing?

I read through the comments from the article, and this one struck me:

Remember, your life is not a teachable moment for the rest of the world. It’s YOUR life. This same philosophy, btw, can hold true for any social minority in any way. I’ve been the person with the hidden handicap in the room, and the “unknown Jew” in the room, and the non-cisgendered supportive sister of a gay man in the room, and believe me, I was not put on this earth to educate people. —Jen in Astoria

I wonder if there’s something in the Adventist (and larger Christian) tradition that makes us _want_ to be teachable moments for other people, to be witnesses, or teachers, or Daniels who show others “the right way.”

There can be moral and good and helpful sides to that teaching impulse. There can also be an awful lot of ego involved. If trained to believe that others’ access to truth and salvation depends on you, it could be quite the challenge to just be, living your life honestly instead of using it to instruct others.

Of course others will draw lessons from their dealings with us whatever we do. But people can tell when we’re just being and when we’re using our own bodies as object lessons and other people’s bodies as our audience. Isn’t the second option a tad dehumanizing, even if voluntary? Are we each obliged to use our lives rather than to live them?

Meanwhile, overseas…

Well done to the Hon. Maurice Williamson, Member of Parliament for Pakuranga, New Zealand. New Zealand passed marriage equality legislation today.

All we are doing with this bill is allowing two people who love each other to have that love recognized by way of marriage. That is all we are doing. We are not declaring nuclear war on a foreign state. We are not bringing a virus in that will wipe out our agriculture sector forever. We are allowing two people who love each other to have that recognized…

But I give a promise to those who are opposed to this bill right now. I give you a watertight, guaranteed promise. The sun will still rise tomorrow. Your teenage daughter will still argue back with you as if she knows everything. Your mortgage will not grow. You will not have skin diseases or rashes or toads in your bed, sir: the world will just carry on. So don’t make this into a big deal.

One of the messages I had was that this bill was the cause of our drought—this bill was the cause of our drought! Well, if any of you follow my Twitter account you’ll see that in the Pakuranga electorate this morning it was pouring with rain. We had the most enormous big gay rainbow across my electorate. It has to be a sign! —Maurice Williamson