Friday, November 22, 2013

Language of Reverence: Queer (November 17, 2013)

Story for All Ages

I think most of you probably know a story about a family of ducks, where all of the children were yellow and fluffy, except one which was sort of a subdued earth tone with a long skinny neck. He was not very attractive by duck standards, so they called him … yell it out if you know?

Well, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if those ducks had gone to the kind of church where the children’s teacher might have heard the mean things they were saying to that different looking duck, and said:

“you don’t have to be yellow to be beautiful,
a long skinny neck is just as beautiful as a short thick one.

But more importantly, Dave, the one you call the ugly duckling, is caring, and funny, and helps take care of the lake he lives in. His outsides don’t really tell you much about who he is.”

And even though all of you are yellow and fluffy,
that doesn’t mean you are all the same inside.

Why don’t we each share something that makes us different and special.”

And maybe then the ducks would have understood
how important it is that each person is unique,

The moral of my story was best said by one of my professors, Elis Farajaje-Jones "None of us is just like everybody else. We don’t have to be like everybody else to be guaranteed the right to safe and whole existences. We want to create a world where everyone is able to discover and define and live by who they are, who they are becoming, with the option to change several times throughout the course of their lives. "

Maybe a decade ago I used the word “Queer” in a public meeting to describe myself. One of the members of my congregation came to me afterwards and admonished me “NEVER use the word queer about yourself- you don’t have to put yourself down like that.”

Her comment shocked me into remembering that for many people “Queer” is a sticky word. But for me it is just right. As a bisexual woman married to a man, I have always felt that both the words “gay” and “straight” didn’t fit right; either word felt a little dishonest. I’m also not crazy about the word “bisexual” – not only does it sound kind of clinical, but it doesn’t sound like you can be monogamous when you’ve got the prefix for “2” right in the word there.

When one of my seminary professors, who name was then Elias Farajaje-Jones, delivered the Sophia Fahs Lecture in 2000 (the lecture is named after the famous UU religious educator) I had just made the choice to enter into the Ministry of Religious education, which many people perceive as kind of a marginal sort of ministry that involves mostly cutting out construction paper shapes and lining up magic markers. When Elias delivered his lecture “Queer(y)ing Religious Education: Teaching the R(evolutionary S9ub)V(ersions)! Or Relax!... It’s Just Religious Ed” it was like some walls I had in my mind came crumbling down. I suddenly knew that I was a queer person doing a queer ministry. I knew that the ministry of Religious Education is not tame and marginal to our movement, but radical, revolutionary and at the core of religious formation as Unitarian Universalists.

So what do I mean by “Queer” in this expanded context? First, queer means “non-normative.” We have been raised to believe that some things are “normal” and other things are “not normal.” We get the message every day that being straight is normal, being white is normal, being able-bodied is normal, being middle-class is normal. (Or if you watch a lot of tv it starts to seem like being rich is normal). Living in this valley we start to get the impression that being Christian is normal, being politically conservative is normal. When I use the word “queer” I mean anything that defies those norms.

When the Gay and Lesbian rights movement started here in the US, those brave activists were fighting to add “Gay” to the possible categories that a person could be. So we had “Gay” and “straight” – expanding the number of norms to 2. It’s even in our Hymnal [sing] “we are Gay and Straight together” Then the Bisexual folks came along and said “Actually…” Our thinking has evolved as we realized that not only is straight not “normal” but there is no “normal” way to be gay. Being a person who identifies as bisexual, I don’t want my own third box, I want to queer all those norms. I want to have room to be whoever it is I really am. Dr. Farajaje said that day: “Heterosexual identity exists only by virtue of defining itself as the norm over against queer deviation. But if there really is no norm, then there aren’t really any deviations. We’re all then just a big mix of possibilities of desire just waiting to happen!” [p. 29]

I am reminded of a song by that great singer-songwriter Ani Difranco:
when I was four years old
they tried to test my I.Q.
they showed me a picture
of 3 oranges and a pear
they said,
which one is different?
it does not belong
they taught me different is wrong
We were all taught at a young age to assume that if there is 3 of one thing it is “normal” and whatever is different “does not belong”. What I am trying to suggest that not only can the pear take pride in being “queer” but that oranges are not normative.

My fruit analogy is breaking down quickly, so let’s look at Race for example. Scientists tell us that race is not biological, but an intellectual construct. In American we often talk about race by dividing it into two neat categories “White” and “People of Color” even though we know that, for example, Irish immigrants used to be considered non-white and are now considered white. We know that President Obama is of mixed race, he is often referred to as the first Black president. What if we changed the way we thought about race to acknowledge that there is no such thing as “racial purity” -that we are all racially queer? It was only in the year 2000 that the US Census allowed people to check more than one box under “race”, that people didn’t have to choose one part of themselves and discard the rest.

Moreover, Dr. Farajaje is proposing, with many others in cultural theory, that gender, sexuality, race, class, whether we are temporarily able bodied, “These things are inseparable for us; we cannot and will not pull these apart without doing irreparable violence to our very bodies, souls, and minds.” [p. 26] He calls this “Intersexionality.” All the parts of who we are intersect. In our adult RE class last spring I invited all the participants to write down 5 identity words for themselves. People wrote things like “White, gay, mother, UU, able-bodied, male” Many of us struggled with the exercise- how do you know which 5 to pick? No matter what words you pick you are leaving out part of yourself.

Each of those words describes a whole multiplicity of ways of being. For example, how many of you self-identify as “white”? Now look around at all the different ways there are of being “white” --what Dr. Farajaje might call “multiplicities of whiteness”. Or let’s take another one- If you are willing to out yourself as identifying “temporarily able-bodied” please raise your hand. Look how many different bodies this describes! There are multiplicities of being temporarily able-bodied.

By looking at the world, at one another, in this complex, intersexional, holistic way, I propose that we are doing something radical. We are interrupting that conversation about “which one is different and does not belong” We are interrupting norms, we are breaking walls and boxes. Scholars in the field of cultural studies love to use words like “interrupting” or “interrogating” which to me is describes the moment in the Wizard of Oz when Toto pulls the curtain back and we see the “wise and powerful Oz” as he really is- an ordinary man from Kansas who got lost. These boxes, these walls, these definitions of who we are and what is normal are not divinely given, which becomes clear as we pull back the curtain to see how they work and where they come from. This we can call “Queering” the conversation, because we are creating that space not defined by walls and boxes.

This is a dangerous act. Today we honored transgender people who have been victims of violence. Gender theorists believe this violence arises because our culture finds it so threatening that anyone lives outside the two-box gender system- male and female. We also honored those who took their own lives because it was too painful not to be able to fit easily into the two boxes our society defines… to painful to live in a culture which asks “Which one is different and does not belong.” I call us to interrupt this conversation, to “queer” this conversation by saying “everyone is different, and everyone belongs!”

That is why Queering the conversation is also healing. Back when I was doing the internship every UU minister has to do in a hospital, I worked in the outpatient Cancer center. A kind, wise, circumspect woman I had the privilege of talking with told me: “my doctors don’t treat me, they treat people like me, that is --people with cancer.” It is hard to heal when people don’t see you, they just see a box. When her treatment wasn’t working like it should, when she had unusual side effects, or when she wanted treatment alternatives, she was constantly banging up against the walls of that box “Cancer patient.” I suspect every one of us has some part of our self that does not fit neatly into boxes-- some part of ourselves that does not look like the images we see on TV or in the movies. This leads us to feel “broken” or “incomplete” or “damaged” or “abnormal.” By radically acknowledging all that we are, we become whole just as we are. By radically affirming that each and every one of us belongs, our communities are made whole.

For me, reframing myself from “not-really straight and not-really gay” to someone who was perfectly and completely queer filled me with a sense of pride and belonging. To hear that my non-normative call to the Ministry of Religious Education was still at the heart of ministry, to hear that I was not giving up my radical, questioning revolutionary self to in taking on “religious Educator” as part of my identity was so healing and affirming. This reframing helped me realize that I didn’t have to throw away the box called “religious Educator” to enter a box called “parish minister” when I came to this congregation, because religious education is not just something that happens upstairs with children, if we let it out of its box, it is happening right here, right now.

When I was in the process of applying to seminary, I sent away for the catalogs for the 3 uu seminaries. I looked over the high gloss brochure from Harvard and noticed that there was a page about their “women’s studies” department. I read the brochure from Starr King and I noticed that women and queer people didn’t have their own department, they were right there in the body of the catalog. As Dr. Farajaje, who joined the Starr King faculty when I was in my last year at the school, writes about his approach to teaching “Each class that I teach, whether it be liberating the Bible for UUs , African Religious in Diaspora, or the Divine Feminine in Russian Orthodox religious thought is taught in a way that calls us to continually and simultaneously consider issues of race, class, gender, embodiment, environmental issues, cultural representations, sexualities etc. These are not treated as peripheral considerations.”

We often wonder “what is UU?” Members of every congregation I’ve ever served have come to me and said “Can I really be UU because I am … in the armed forces, republican, Christian, a person of color, transgender, Jewish, pagan, atheist, undecided?” “Do I fit in this UU Box?”

This, I believe, is part of our calling as Unitarian Universalists in the 21st century. Let this church be a place where you don’t have to leave your sexual orientation at the door, you don’t have to leave your financial situation at home, you don’t have to leave your body at home. Theology, spirituality is not something that hovers above the body, but I believe it is deeply embedded, imminent in everything that we are. We are all part of one interdependent web of life. From the very first days of Universalism we were rejecting the two-box system (the elect and the rest of us who were damned) We reject the two box system of heaven and hell. We reject the two box system of God and the Devil. Back in 1805, the great Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou suggested:
Is [God] not perfectly joined to his creation? Do we not live, move and have our being in God? …to take the smallest creature from him, … you have left something less than infinity.” (Treatise on Atonement p. 81-82)
We believe in a God who can hold all our queerness, all our multiplicities.

Our Unitarian Tradition has always been one that looks behind the curtain, to see who is defining the parameters, who is making the boxes into which we are asked to fit. Our Unitarian Tradition challenges us to open our minds beyond the conventional ways of looking at things. Our Universalist Tradition challenges us to open our hearts to hold every being in the oneness of the divine.

This is why I propose to your with great pride, that ours is a queer theology. Or perhaps that in this ambitious tradition we stand in, we are “queering” theology. We are “queering” church. We have talked about many words over this past year that constitute for us a “Language of Reverence.” I humbly suggest that we add “queer” to this list, because it honors something special about the radically inclusive place we strive to occupy among religious communities, and because it honors the wholeness of each and every one of us; all that we are, and all that we bring.


Amy said...

A trivial point, but in defense of my alma mater, I want to say that you must have making a somewhat apples-to-oranges (or is it pears-to-oranges) comparison between Starr King and Harvard University. Harvard Divinity School doesn't have a Women's Studies Department, or any departments for that matter, just a list of courses, same as Starr King.

To the larger point, whether HDS incorporated the idea of "queering" while I was there--not so much.

Ginger Root said...

A good point Amy, but I swear to you I only got the Harvard Divinity catalog. Maybe they were showing off the possibilities of cross-registering in the women's study's department? Or had a class that was co-sponsored there?