Of course, when I say I’ve been thinking about these things, what I mean is that I have been feeling them. That tends to be the way I know things. It’s when I sit down to write that the knowledge I’ve tucked into various appendages of my body comes howling out onto the page and I begin to be able to think about what I have perceived.
Grief starts as a stab in my sacrum, then slowly spreads up my back, until tears form and I put together the pieces of how I felt uncomfortable at the Trans*Pride march and how that’s connected to my own fears of being rejected by my father, society, and the church for not fulfilling their expectations in my performance of masculine gender norms.
Oh, so that’s why I felt like shit! Thanks, body. I’m sorry I bought the lie of white, male culture that told me not to listen to you.
Life is such a mixed bag.
Less than a year ago, I flew to Chicago for a friend’s wedding. I was pretty miserable. It was only a few months after my own divorce and subsequent coming out to my parents. This particular friend who was getting married is a person I trust to not look away from suffering. I was there out of my commitment to celebrate the goodness in others’ lives even when it brought up so much of my own aching.
During the ceremony I held another friend’s infant, who wanted nothing more than to jump incessantly on my lap the entire time. It was a much welcomed distraction. This little, bouncing person was oblivious to the couple’s joy or my dissociation. At the reception, I found myself drinking booze and avoiding the boisterous acquaintance from my table who kept urging me to go dance. I wondered silently to myself, “and just who am I supposed to go and dance with?”
I had to have been a fairly pitiful-looking guest, and as my friend expressed his gratitude that I had come all the way from Seattle, I couldn’t help but suspect he had seen me in my sorrow (he’s the kind of person who sees thestrals) and I felt exposed.
Many folks in the LGBTIQ community have endured their share of suffering, both personal and collective. We have experiences of being rejected, oppressed, mistreated, feared, and shunned on the grounds of who we are in our own bodies–often by those who are closest to us. Moreover, we all have to combat the shame that has worked its way into our bodies and minds; we have to actively contradict a social system of privilege that tells us we are wrong. It’s not surprising that, by-and-large, we tend to see fierce realities of life when we have the courage and vulnerability to look at them. It’s also not surprising that many of us look away when we get the chance–but even so, our peripheral vision for suffering is pretty well honed.
So, when I read this gorgeous call to accountability by Mia McKenzie over at blackgirldangerous.org and then this piece by my friend Charity on her blog Bees, C’s & D’s (yes, you have to go read them now), then the feelings began to well within my body.
Finally, I was listening to a playlist this week that was created by my friend and liturgist, Hilary Ann Golden. The playlist was created for Lent 2012. The season of Lent is one in which the church practices repentance. In the midst of all I’ve been thinking about and feeling this week, these two songs came on back-to-back: Nina Simone’s I Wish I Knew How it Feels to be Free followed by Leonard Cohen’s Come Healing.
I think this is one of those crucial places where my Christian faith comes together radically with my experience of life in my own body as a cis-gendered male, white, able-bodied, USAmerican, gay person. I believe deeply in the good news that I’ve experienced personally, that death and resurrection are intertwined. This is the immense gift of the Christian gospel message, that God always moves towards human suffering in order to bring freedom.
Even though there are moments where celebration and suffering feel like they will eclipse one another, they are always both present. If we are bold enough to hold room in ourselves for our celebrating and our suffering, then we can move into wholeness that honors all of our stories.
If we can hold room for the suffering of others even as we celebrate, then we can ground ourselves in that place of honoring the personal and collective narratives of suffering and oppression, and continue moving toward justice with hope and determination.
That feeling of exposure I had from being seen is like a sensitive tooth. It’s not always noticeable, but when something sweet or cold hits that nerve ending, it’s hell.
And now the metaphor breaks down. I know nothing about fixing sensitive teeth.
But I do know that when I am seen in my suffering–not seen for my suffering, but seen as a person in the midst of the experience of suffering–then I feel solidarity. The solidity of a community. Not a community that personally knows all of my experience, but a community that understands that they have a different experience than me, and yet, they see me and listen to me, and care enough for me to remain with me and work together for goodness.
And this is why I am not fighting “for my rights.”
I believe that the rhetoric of “rights” is all too often a reward mechanism for compliant behavior within a system that is predicated on preserving privilege. Such a system is itself oppressive and I am committed to fighting to not merely end oppression, but to actively and continually grow in my understanding of the complexity of oppression and work to address it within myself and the world.
As a white, gay, middle-class, educated man, the temptation offered me by the privilege system in USAmerica is to try to pass as heterosexual. Failing that, the next best thing is to be “straight acting,” “masculine,” or “disarmingly funny gay.” If I absolutely insist on being in a relationship with another man, then there’s pressure to reflect the social and cultural norms of heterosexual relationships, which all too often are built around reinforcing white, male privilege.
The reality is, It doesn’t matter how much I contort my gayness to make the white, male-privileging culture more comfortable, I’m never going to get full access to that privilege, because the whole system is set up on a binary that privileges one group and excludes all others.
And the really heinous thing is that the ones sitting at the top of the ladder dispensing the privilege-candy are employing the folks on the next rung down to work themselves into a frenzy gorging on the toxic candy just to crap it all on the heads of the next group of folks who are fighting upwards for their “rights.” And let me tell you, the toxic candy doesn’t get any better the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th rung down.
I can spend my time clawing up the (in)human(e) privilege ladder trying to get to the top, or I can work together with the other people on the ground, to throw a fucking righteous celebration that honors our diverse goodness AND our deep pain from the harm of being stepped (and crapped) on.
Thus, while I celebrate the “rights” that are granted, insomuch as they can be an effective way to combat the privilege of one group over others, I will not be pandered to, bought off, or accept rewards for reinforcing a system predicated on oppression.
We see this happening with marriage rights (in most ad campaigns about marriage equality, only straight couples have been featured, or very “presentable” gay or lesbian couples–usually lesbian because that’s less threatening to and more fetishized by straight, white males). We see it with churches who accept the privilege of tax exempt status in exchange for silence about oppressive government systems. We see it in the notion that we owe our loyalty to our military industrial complex (that preys on the underprivileged and subjects its members to great harm) that is responsible for atrocities on a global scale in exchange for supposed freedom (but primarily for corporate profits at the cost of USAmerican taxpayers’s money and less privileged human lives).
This dynamic closely resembles a fraternity system that hazes new members before granting them the privilege of membership and then employs these people to repeat the offence (of course this should come as no surprise since fraternities are the historic domain of white, wealthy, educated men and have functioned as social networks for maintaining insularity of power and privilege within both business and government).
This is not a condemnation of gays and lesbians celebrating the news about DOMA and Prop 8, it’s not a condemnation of churches for operating without funneling money to the state, and it’s not a condemnation of people who have served in the military or joined a frat.
It is a call to all of us to untangle ourselves from these systems of privilege which only exist through oppression of one another. And as we untangle ourselves and one another, there will be much to see, much to celebrate, and much that we must learn to grieve.
I won’t accept cheap celebration. Resurrection only hangs out with actual death.
I have lived a life that has left me seeing thestrals and I’m committed to letting that insight lead me into solidarity with others who experience suffering through oppression–particularly when their oppression is linked to my privilege within our social system.
I’m committed to doing my work so as to avoid crapping on the people around me who, it turns out, tend to see me most clearly and love me for who I am.
This is why I went to the Trans*Pride march; why I keep working to understand, own, and dismantle my own racism and collusion with my white privilege; why I’m trying to understand and advocate around oppressive notions of what makes a “healthy” or “able” body or mind; why I’ll march with the Episcopal Church at Pride and talk to everyone I can about the commodification of the LGBTIQ community and of the Christian community by the infrastructures of privilege within our society.
This is my own act of repentance, this way of being is my life’s prayer.