Narratival Power, Memory, and the Pipeline

It’s odd to think back to high school history class, learning about the founding of the United States—the bloody westward expansion—and thinking, surely at *this* moment the European colonists would have stopped to think and care about the native people they were destroying. No? What about at *this* moment? No? Then when? And this is, of course, assuming that you were taught something at all past the mythologized meal that has become (piously) Thanksgiving (who is giving thanks?), or more cute, “turkey day.” While I don’t remember everything from AP US History, I can’t claim complete ignorance—I remember the gist of things.

Fall semester of last year, in a class called Colonial and National: American Literature to 1830, a trope that surfaced in a few of the readings was that of the voluntarily receding or antisocial native.

A stanza of Philip Freneau:

From these fair plains, these rural seats,
So long concealed, so lately known,
The unsocial Indian far retreats,
To make some other clime his own,
When other streams, less pleasing flow,
And darker forests round him grow.

(From “On the Emigration to America and Peopling the Western Country,” 1784)

The speaker finds himself wandering across the American countryside, admiring its beauty, and seems to be thinking, huh, funny that someone would want to leave here. So he chalks it up to the streams, the flow, the forests, while at the same time calling the disappeared subject “unsocial,” and in doing so, (purposefully? subconsciously?) acknowledging that there is perhaps something else at play. What are the “other streams,” the “less pleasing flow,” the “darker forests” that surrounded the “unsocial Indian”? A better question might be, who are they? The poem is from 1784. Is Freneau’s memory so short?

Spring semester of last year, I worked with a local book bank that connects elementary and middle-school aged kids who are behind their grade’s reading requirements with tutors and an ample supply of free books. The several times a student called in sick or didn’t show, I perused the stacks and shelves, eventually finding myself in the history section for young readers. The book bank is run largely by the generosity of a hefty crew of volunteers, but this does mean that the intake screening for what books end up on the take-me-home shelves is somewhat varied. In addition to a book that painted a Black family as being just so happy to be picking cotton, there were several books that rehearsed the story of the courageous settlers fighting the savage natives for land that was clearly given to the settlers by God. While most of the books containing accounts between white colonizers and brown indigenous people were focused on North America, there was also a book about Captain Cook’s encounter with the “unfriendly” Maori people (“Firing over their heads did not make the natives less quarrelsome or more obliging. Cook learned this lesson one day when he ordered his men to discharge their muskets. The Maoris reacted so violently that the Englishmen had to shoot to kill in order to protect themselves.” Yes, how the Englishmen stood their ground.)

I flipped through their pages and took a mental note of their dates of publication (and sometimes a picture of a cover or excerpt) before throwing them into the recycling bin. Needless to stay, the staff was as disturbed by the books as I was. Although my sample size of books was relatively small for any sort of comprehensive analysis, there did seem to be a shift in children’s history books in the last couple decades of the twentieth century toward a hybrid subject position—toward trying to figure out how to reconcile some sort of patriotic account of the founding of this country (still sometimes verging on a nationalistic hagiography) with the fact that this country was founded through the genocide of native people. It makes for some awkward writing.

From The New England Indians by C. Keith Wilbur, first published in 1978:

The New England Indians have long been buried under a mass of indifference, prejudices, hearsay, Victorian ideas about ‘the noble red man,’ and guilt complexes over the racially downtrodden.

Later down the page:

When King Philip’s War in 1675 – 1676 effectively dissolved these New Englanders and their more primitive cultures, their nine thousand years of living gradually faded from memory.

They deserve a better fate.

Passing over the word “primitive” for the sake of time: yes, but what of this nine thousand years of living? Has it “gradually faded from memory”? Whose memory? I’m guessing not the memory of the survivors… so the memories of the white descendants of the settlers? Is our memory so short?

Memory is political because storytelling is political. When people speak of erasure, they are speaking of the ways in which the narratives we generate intentionally and unintentionally write peoples out of existence. And it is exactly this: the “unsocial Indian” drifts further and further beyond the Western horizon. Blip! Gone. Narratival genocide follows genocide.

The characters in the story of the Dakota Access Pipeline should by this point be familiar: a tribe of Native Americans and the United States government, specifically the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Army Corps of Engineers. The Standing Rock Sioux are trying to protect their home and native land with its sacred places and drinking water from the unrelenting drive of the US government to exploit land for profit.

What when the stealing of native land happens in the age of social media? What when there is no time to rewrite the history as one of voluntary recession? What when we see pictures on Facebook or Twitter of indigenous people protesting the theft of their land moments after the pictures are taken? Can we still claim to forget? Is our memory so short? Did our European forbears value the lives of the native peoples they destroyed? No? What about at *this* moment? They deserve a better fate.

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image source: justseeds on instagram

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Anonymity and Dissent

3/10: I have added some more thoughts below the essay as an addendum.


 

This post is a response to “Declaration of Dissent”  by a “we” who call themselves Friends of the First Amendment. The group is otherwise anonymous. The Declaration was published today in response to the ongoing dialogue about systematic racial injustice at Seattle Pacific University, particularly the SPU Unity Petition, formulated by the SPU Justice Coalition—a group of students who have disclosed their names and faces on their website. In what follows, I will focus mainly on rhetoric and some broad themes that struck me. I write, hopefully as always, out of love for SPU and for its students (including the Friends of the First Amendment), faculty, and staff, and in solidarity with the SPU Justice Coalition.

I have a number of concerns about the petition, beginning with the anonymity of its author(s). The name “Friends of the First Amendment” suggests that someone’s first-amendment rights would be violated by the measures listed in the Unity Petition. But the authors are exercising their freedom of speech in fear by remaining anonymous. You are allowed to dissent. In fact, I believe that the Unity Petition should be critiqued and discussed—critique leads to the sharpening of ideas and proposals. But there is a choice: put your name to your dissent or perform your own loss of rights. I worry that the choice for the latter was made out of fear of retaliation or fear of being held accountable. As I have mentioned, the SPU Justice Coalition has chosen to show and name themselves. If you have questions, you can find one of them on campus and say “hello.” In showing and naming themselves, they have also made themselves subject to confrontation, forfeiting the comfort of anonymity. So, consider this a formal challenge and encouragement, Friends. If you love the community you are addressing and truly wish to be part of a conversation, be not afraid: sign your name and make yourself visible and accountable. And allow comments on your blog. As it stands, you have left no means for those who would like to to engage with you in what you have called “this essential discussion.”

I don’t think that rights are really the concern of this Dissent (or not the only concern, at any rate). I would hazard that a major concern stems from agitation over the de-centering of whiteness. I noticed that none of the following words are found anywhere in the piece: Native American, White, Black, Brown, Asian, Hispanic, Latina, Latino, African American, Pacific Islander. “People of color” are spoken about a few times, but “diversity” is by far the word of choice. This is undoubtedly in order to mirror the language of the SPU Unity Petition, which also prefers “diversity” and “minority,” perhaps to place an emphasis on unity. But the same vocabulary falls on my ears differently when spoken from the mouth of a disembodied, anonymous, and presumably white “we” who seem to be for diversity as an educational principle but against any means of achieving it. The “we” also suggests that we should be pursuing “intellectual diversity” but does not seem to believe that expanding the number of faculty of color would increase “intellectual diversity” in an essential way—which it would.

In the places in which I grew up, we weren’t supposed to acknowledge that this person is white or that that person is Black. If anything, we could reference someone as being caucasian or African-American if we absolutely had to for some reason, but you would be embarrassed and perhaps nervous about that and would try to avoid it at all costs. The effect of this is to make race a topic of anxiety amongst white people and to make “Black” a word of embarrassment and shame. It also performs the deceptive white stance of color-blindness, from which one can ignore someone else’s experience of race by saying that race isn’t actually a thing that has any real consequences. So, perhaps this isn’t quite fair, but the combination of by-and-large color-blind language with the emphasis on “intellectual diversity” and the authors’ refusal to attach names and faces to their words struck me as an avoidance—the words being spoken are divorced from any particular embodiment, any particular lived experience.

In the vein of ignoring or disbelieving the experiences of people of color, the petition fails to take into account the hurt experienced by people of color due to our community’s failings surrounding race. As a people of faith, SPU should take very seriously the ways in which we have failed to love one another and, indeed, the ways in which we have harmed one another. The only nod I see to this in the text is a brief mention of oppression, but even then, the word is put in scare quotes: “President Martin has stated that the university will employ a Chief Diversity Officer with the purpose of representing students from non-majority identity groups and serving as a resource to alleviate ‘oppression.'” This is a calculated move to delegitimize the experiences of those who are oppressed. It betrays a disbelief in the stories of SPU’s people of color.

The word is used again in the context of anxiety over the implementation of an anonymous reporting system for what the Unity Petition calls “inappropriate behavior and speech.” The Dissent’s concern is that such a system would be used to “oppress unpopular, minority opinions on campus because it shifts the credibility of interpretation of statements to the ear of the beholder, which would be a completely subjective and immeasurable standard of discriminatory speech and behavior.” The phrase “inappropriate behavior and speech” is, I thought, fairly self-explanatory in the context of the petition, but would probably be too vague to be encoded in official policy as is and could thus be helpfully clarified (racist language and behavior, belittling of or downright rejection of minority perspectives, cultural appropriation, intimidation, etc.). But what is interesting to me about the passage from the Dissenters quoted above is how they cleverly reframe the discussion by labeling themselves as the minority and thus the ones in need of protection—the oppressed. The fact is, although they do not speak for the institution or its current leaders, the Dissenters seem to me to be writing from a place of privilege—attempting to discourage any sort of changes that would actually disturb the status quo.

The Dissenters also voice the concern that an anonymous reporting system would create a “safe space”—words not actually found in the SPU Unity Petition. The Dissenters:

However, we do not believe that such a space encourages persons to grow and to build meaningful relationships. We believe that the university is a place where students ought to learn how to face opposition with grace. This interpersonal skill allows individuals to cultivate patience and humility in order to develop more wholehearted relationships across one’s lifetime. Safe spaces undermine the development of this skill.

From what I can understand, the hope behind implementing the reporting system would be to hold people accountable for racist language and behavior. The sort of dialogue necessary to “build meaningful relationships” is not compatible with racism. And, frankly, the statement that “students ought to learn how to face opposition with grace” sounds a lot like a request for racial minorities to stop complaining about the oppression they experience. This is dangerous.

While there are more problematic aspects of the “Declaration of Dissent” (including its melodramatic or pompous title that seems to be intended to echo the Declaration of Independence), I shall leave my discussion there. I would be glad to learn that I am wrong about any assumptions that I make above about its authors. But I also hope that those who feel challenged by the empowerment of minorities—racial, sexual, etc.—might pause their dissent to sit, listen, and practice empathy. This cannot happen anonymously; it is only possible in community.


 

I want to address a presumption I make above. I presume in my essay, fairly or unfairly, that the authors of the Dissent are white or majority white. I do this because they resist the suggestions of the SPU Justice Coalition, which is largely comprised of people of color; because they choose to identify themselves as “Friends of the First Amendment,” which is reminiscent to me of the rhetoric of a certain conservative branch of white evangelicalism that approaches the founding documents of our nation with the same reverence with which it approaches the Bible; and because they hold to a certain mind/body dualism that assumes that one’s knowledge (or indeed knowledge in general) can be separated from one’s lived experience, a dualism that would seem useful to those who want to argue against the intentional hiring of people of color and argue that studying “Western” philosophy, theology, literature, etc. ought to be adequate for all (which has been referred to, I believe, as academic colonialism) in the name of resisting “an extreme homogeneity of perspective toward social justice questions,” as if it is the task of diversity and the job of people of color to orient others toward social justice. It just sounds white.

Would it make a difference if there are people of color amongst the Friends? I offer the following thoughts.

As a cisgender gay man—someone who is both a man and attracted to men—it is possible for me to be sexist. I could believe that women just don’t measure up to men in a variety of ways. I could believe that the male body is superior to the female body and that the female body, because I don’t desire it or understand it, is disgusting. Following from that, I could view lesbians with as much contempt as a straight man could have for me. Some gay men are indeed misogynists and even homophobes.

As a cisgender gay man who has experienced the overwhelming love of SPU’s community, I could listen to another queer person at SPU who has not experienced such warmth and wonder what is wrong with them. Surely they are doing something wrong. As someone who has attempted to work through the system to affect dialogue and change, I could look at someone who is more likely to protest and ask, “Do they not know how to act properly? What is wrong with them?” There are queer alumni, current students, and students who have left the school who have not felt as welcome as I did. I can either see their differences from me as a deficiency on their part and dismiss them, or I can listen and try to understand why other queer people might not feel the same way as I do and stand in solidarity with them.

I may be gay, but I am still white, middle-class, cisgender, male, outgoing, and from a theological tradition similar to SPU’s. While I am a sexual minority, I still benefit from many avenues of privilege.

As it is possible for a gay man such as myself to benefit from and be blinded by the heteropatriarchy, I believe it is possible for people of color to benefit from and be blinded by structures that promulgate whiteness and to stand up for those structures to protect their own place of relative privilege that comes through association with them. This is a complicated position to inhabit, and I will not pretend that I can fully understand it because I am not living it. I imagine it is actually a very difficult and frustrating position to be in, particularly because it produces tension with other people of color.

Would it make a difference if there are people of color amongst the Friends? I don’t think so. It doesn’t change the piece’s rhetorical or ideological stances, and it doesn’t change the fact that in-person, face-to-face dialogue must occur.

Brief Thoughts on National Coming Out Day

[Originally posted on my private Facebook page.]

I’ve never really thought much about National Coming Out Day. But it’s worth at least a brief word. Really, the day represents a significant event in the lives of many people—the loosing of the shackles of shame, fear, and sadness that come with believing that you are, at the core, unfit for society and unfit for love because the vocabulary you were given has no words for you, the books you read and the sermons you heard never mentioned you, and, if they did, they relayed nothing resembling good news.

The closet is overwhelming. Several times a year, still, I see a headline state that a teenager has taken their own life because they have been bullied over their orientation or because the isolation they experienced was thicker than any sense of hope. Headlines also continue to reveal violence committed against gay, lesbian, and transgender people, a violence that can make coming out of the closet nearly as frightening as staying in it.

I’ve been out for around three years, and during that time, I’ve been blessed to live mainly in communities that don’t have qualms about my sexuality, so I need to occasionally remind myself of what life in the closet was like—the depression, the self-hatred, the panic attacks. But even throughout that process, I usually had a sense of God’s presence. Not everyone has that.

So, friends, ask yourself: Are you known for your love? Do you speak graciously of people when they are not around? Are the spaces you inhabit—your home, work place, church, and schools—are they spaces in which sexual minorities feel safe? If you think the answers to these questions are “yes” and yet no LGBTQ people are a part of your life in any meaningful way, ask the questions again. It is possible that you and the communities of which you are a part have helped keep someone locked in the closet—in that space of shame, fear, and sadness—without being aware of it.

This is a warm invitation to all of us to look again at how we live, how we speak to one another, how we talk about God, and how we think about those people we don’t understand. This is an invitation to love with open arms and open hearts, to smash what needs to be smashed, and to build what needs to be built.

Where Do They Go?

Apologies for the lack of writing on here in the last six months. My honors project is partly responsible for this, but it has been done for a while now and is now online and downloadable, so you can see the fruit of my labor! If you are interested in what I still hope to write about in the Church and Gay Literature, this would be something that you might want to read. It interacts with Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, and Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin. Disclaimer: it is long. And there are already some things that I have realized I would do differently. But I hope you enjoy it. Click.

Res Hall Traditions, Gender, and Empathy

The following essay has been stewing for a while. Seattle Pacific has been having a lot of great conversations about gender and identity recently, so this essay is in part a contribution to that discussion. I write with the conviction that good things are worth working on and the knowledge that the topics I explore here are likely relevant to many other institutions. It is also the first (I hope) of several posts reflecting on the wonderful and insane four years I have spent here. It has truly been a blessing.

Added 5/21: As this has been spread around quite a bit, I would like to add that what is discussed below, while certainly concerning and warranting change, is one aspect of events like Decade Skate, which are one aspect of communal life at SPU. It is, frankly, one of the few things that have concerned me during my time here. For people who are new to my blog, it is worth adding that overall, my experience here has been overwhelmingly good, and my blog, I hope, has been a testament to the powerful community SPU is. Thank you for reading.


Dropkicking two baby dolls into the crowd of underclassmen congregated in front of the library was about par for the course. Res hall traditions are always a spectacle of excitement, nonsense, and camaraderie, all of which I definitely felt then, having just crawled out onto the stage with my dads (a name guys on 3rd Hill call each other) in a mass birth train from underneath the legs of other dads, beginning to dance, dressed mainly in makeshift diapers, watching the two dolls soar unceremoniously through the air as the beat of our chosen soundtrack—a dubstep remix of Justin Bieber’s “Baby”—dropped.

When first arriving at college, a student might not know anyone else there; I did not. Even if he or she does, the new location, and all of the changes that come with it, can alter relationships. Some people just feel different in general, making it difficult for them to form friendships. The res hall floor provides, ideally, a new family with its own distinct practices, often called traditions, regardless of how long they have actually been observed. Traditions—floor themes, names, activities, and formal events—distinguish one floor from another, giving a group of hitherto unconnected people a common identity.

But these traditions, especially the activities and events, do change, sometimes frequently. The baby-dropping dance was for Fusion, a fall-quarter tradition instituted by Res Life with the goal of providing a positive, unifying experience for each residence hall. It may have also been an attempt to curb some of the more controversial floor-specific traditions that often involve(d) near or total nudity or possibly harmful behavior, which some defend by saying that they are more effective in forming intimate bonds. At any rate, Fusion is no longer. It was dropped.

Perhaps the most popular of the public traditions are those in which each floor prepares a skit that involves acting and dancing to a hodgepodge of songs, YouTube videos, movie soundtracks, and dialogue. For weeks, sometimes months, a floor will gather to choreograph and rehearse their dances and preen their soundtrack.

In my four years at SPU, I have participated in my hall’s version of this, Decade Skate, in all capacities. Freshman year, my floor did not compete, but we came and supported our sister floor. Sophomore year, we assembled a skit that we were very proud of, and, though we didn’t win, we got laughs, applause, and a sense of mutual accomplishment. Junior year, I was asked to host with a friend. This year, my senior year, hall council kindly asked me to be a judge. Having done all of this, and having attended as many Ashton Cups, I can think of a few things that tend to characterize these traditions.

Every year, at least two or three skits consist of a group of students exploring the SPU campus in some way. Another popular plot involves characters visiting various movies and TV shows.

Every year, the women tend to focus on plot, dance, and sets, while the men tend to focus on plot, dance, sets, and shocking the audience.

Every year, certain floors do certain things. Some are known for tight choreography, others for birthing scenes.

Every year, there are cringe-worthy moments, such as those birthing scenes, occasional insensitive racial caricatures, violence, and—always—over-sexed dancing from the men. Women’s floors exhibit this behavior sometimes, too, but by and large a lot less frequently.

Which leads to another observation: nearly every year, a men’s floor wins first place, even though there are far more women’s floors and even if a women’s floor has a far better skit. Going into judging this year, I had this in mind, but even then, the result was the same.

In addition to the immense creativity possible when so many people work together towards a common goal, our res hall events highlight the strange gender dynamics present at SPU:

It is no secret that college is a time during which many find their future spouse. “Ring by Spring” culture (encompassing Roomies Dates, the constant jokes during Welcome Week along the lines of “Your future husband or wife might be sitting next to you,” and the ridiculous significance given to getting coffee with someone of the opposite sex), even when participated in ironically, often makes the wedding ring, not the bachelor’s degree, seem like the real prize of four years at SPU. Combined with the infamous 68/32 women-to-men ratio, the urgency of “ring by spring” causes many of our students who don’t find their partner, women especially, I think, to feel like something is deeply wrong with them. It also is a source of distress for some LGBTQ people, who, especially at this time of life, may very well be torn about whether or not God (not to mention their university) allows their love in the first place. A final result of ring by spring and the ratio is that the vast majority of eyes on campus fall on the men; not that it makes everything easy for them, but straight guys are in high demand around here.

It is no secret that people—young people in particular, men in particular—try to show off in front of potential mates.

It is no secret that a large number of current SPU students were raised in church traditions that embraced the Purity Movement, which we now know has harmed a generation of Christian women by causing them to view their body as a commodity that can be ruined after one inappropriate use, while the men are more or less rapped across the knuckles and told to man up. Purity culture’s just-cover-it-up approach to the human body and its functions, particularly sex, has also caused a number of us—men and women—to feel ashamed of our naked selves and our desires.

Nor is it a secret that this generation of Christian men is comprised mainly of porn addicts who are much more familiar with the bodies of women than the other way around. Women, too, struggle with this, but not, I believe, in such high proportions.

So, given this stew of sexual confusion and frustration, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that, taken out of their home contexts and dropped en masse onto a stage in front of their peers, young SPU men—without fail—tear their clothing off and grind on each other, almost as if you can demonstrate your masculinity by showing how far you can go with the same sex in front of the opposite sex without enjoying it, while doing it crudely. Should we find it surprising that men’s skits can demonstrate intense violence, sometimes towards women? I wonder, should we find it surprising that the audience roars with laughter and cheers in response? Should we find it surprising that these skits often win?

Perhaps some people reading this—especially underclassmen—think that I’m blowing a little bit of harmless fun way out proportion. But hear me out. I write this because I care about the SPU I am soon leaving. I worry that this pattern, along with the continued changing of individual floor traditions, the (don’t laugh) removal of the circular tables from Gwinn, the closing of Gwinn between lunch and dinner (thus making impossible the Gwinn Challenge), and other seemingly minor changes could harm (or already are harming) the number one thing people say they love about SPU: the community.

The moment that it occurred to me that the sexual and violent content of our performance-based res hall traditions can actually be harmful to SPU’s community was during this year’s Decade Skate. I was underneath a blanket at the time, which I brought in case Royal Brougham was cold. But the main function it served that night was to shield me when a few minimally dressed SPU men came unusually close to the judges’ table and began to hip-thrust violently in our faces. I didn’t think such a thing could be done so angrily, but within the context of the broader skit, which was equally angry, it felt like a thinly veiled “fuck you.” I didn’t realize until afterwards that another judge, a wonderful woman in the year below me, was also trying to get under the blanket. Looking back at this, I find this image to be a particularly revealing one about how such forceful displays of puerile heterosexual masculinity violate women, gay men, and others alike. Like a dog humping your leg.

I understand that parts of this particular skit were meant to protest the decision of Res Life to discontinue a certain tradition of theirs that involves Nerf guns. But, even though I understand the frustration behind such a protest—even though I too would be angry to lose a particularly fun floor tradition—I also know that when the context of an act or symbol changes, the way it is perceived changes as well. When a member of our community is shot to death on our campus, guns on our campus—even obviously fake ones—become symbols of the saddest and scariest moment in our community’s memory and potential triggers for horrifying episodes of PTSD. The shortsightedness or callousness of anyone who fails to see or care about that astonishes me. It is an idolatry of the self and of one’s own favorite practices over the love of neighbor.

The things we do are never neutral; they tell us about who we are, where we are going, and what we desire. And the “we” here is intentional—within the larger circle of SPU, the res halls house multiple levels of community. At every level, leaders and other community members should ask themselves those questions: Who are we? Where are we going? What do we desire?

In her essay “Imagination and Community,” Marilynne Robinson writes, “I am persuaded for the moment that this is in fact the basis of community. I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly.” She continues, “I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.” What are Decade Skate skits and the like if not fictions, the artistic expressions of res hall floors? Could they be an opportunity to exercise imaginative love, sympathy, and identification?

To end this essay, I don’t really have any answers. I just have hopes—high hopes. And I do have more questions for you to think about—particularly those of you who are future leaders at SPU and, potentially, other Christian colleges with analogous traditions.

What communities are you a part of?

What traditions do you value?

What do your traditions say about you and your community?

Whom do your traditions leave out or alienate?

Are there other ways in which your traditions are harmful?

Do your communities and traditions glorify God?

If you don’t like your answers to any of these questions, what can you change? What specifically can you change? Are there rules that can be rewritten? Grading sheets that can be weighted differently?

Entering our sophomore year, the Hill Hall Council I was a part of was extremely mindful of how we might influence the hall’s culture. We did our best to bolster the idea that Hill is a place of love—a true home for those who live there. Who are we? Family. Where are we going? Into the unsure future. What do we desire? To get there together. As my four years here come to an end, it is my prayer that SPU will continue to be a place redolent of God’s love and a people who listen well, think critically, love generously, and, to do this, are ready to let some things drop.

CGL: Introduction Part II

[This is the second introduction (oops) to a series of occasional essays I’m calling The Church and Gay Literature (CGL). For my first introduction to the series, look here.]

Before discussing the first text for CGL (which will be Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh—read it if you haven’t yet!) I’d like to talk a little bit more about the purpose of the series and to define some terms. Whereas the following posts will focus on readings of specific texts, here I explain in part how I understand the word “gay”—the understanding I will bring to future posts. It is possible that it will change over the course of the project, but this is where I currently am. I have surely said some of this before, so please forgive me.

I’ve begun an honors thesis at Seattle Pacific University about homosexuality and Christianity in modern literature largely because I crave narratives—I need narratives to wrap myself in, sit in, try on, appreciate, savor, or react violently against to understand who I am and to inform my imagination about what life could be like. As far as I currently understand, identity, in all of its elusiveness, is about the narratives we inhabit. For example, take what I consider to be the most important and most involving narrative I belong to: when I say that I am a Christian, and when, with my church, I recite the creeds of the Christian faith, I am not only saying what I believe, I am claiming my place in a long tradition of imperfect people seeking to know God and to reflect Christ’s love to the world, being transformed ourselves in the process.

When I say I am gay, I could mean a number of things. Like most of my generation, I use the word as a substitute for “exclusively sexually/physically attracted to persons of the same sex as myself.” One syllable versus twenty-four. There has been much discussion about the definitions of words like “gay” and “homosexual” in the past few decades generally and, specifically, within recent months and years in the Church. One common question: Does “gay” merely refer to same-sex attraction or is it also a cultural identification?

I won’t try to answer this question fully here, but for my purposes it is worth some exploration, beginning with the simple admission that the word is certainly used both ways. Both meanings (attraction and cultural identification) are correct at different times, and I don’t believe that they are entirely separable. If someone with same-sex attractions is raised in a society that is dominated by and whose culture is catered to people with opposite-sex attractions in its movies, television shows, books, advertisements, matching towel sets, and religions, chances are that the same-sex attracted person will feel disconnected from the culture at some level. In response, they might remain closeted in order to maintain a façade that allows them to participate in their society’s culture like everyone else. They could possibly gain an affinity for certain films that convey—through the lives and struggles of even heterosexual characters—the sadness and anger of not being understood by others, the alienation they experience within their families, or the crushing weight of expectations society has for someone of their sex and gender. It makes sense that they would relate to Broadway musicals in which a character desires to transcend the drudgery of day-to-day life and by golly does just that, if only for four minute intervals, by bursting forth in joyous, uninhibited song.1 Or if they decide to find a partner, they might choose to move to a place where they can find a partner, live together with a lesser amount of daily harassment and hatred, and be surrounded by people who understand the difficulties they theretofore have experienced (family life, small towns, and, possibly, religious upbringings). They open businesses, form communities, and, like any community, begin to use the same words and develop a particular aesthetic.

Although its particulars vary from place to place and between generations, gay culture is a real thing. But by no means do all gay (same-sex attracted) people participate. It might just not appeal to them or be accessible to them. Or they might define themselves by actively not participating in gay culture. The “straight-acting gay man” is a type, literary and otherwise.2 But even then, it is a type made possible only by the existence of gay culture. Besides an inexplicable fascination with Meryl Streep and the occasional Beyonce binge, I’m not so great at gay culture myself, although I know some straight people who are. Kiki, anyone?

In the Church, the already difficult task of agreeing on terminology is often further complicated by sin, or rather the question of how much of this whole “same-sex attraction” business we can call sinful. Calling someone a homosexual within certain Christian contexts carries with it an assessment, judgment, or condemnation of that person as a pervert or abomination—sometimes this is implied by the speaker, sometimes it is merely inferred by the listener. In this series it is not my objective to cast moral judgment on fictional characters, whether they be guilty of sexual promiscuity or guilty of chasing God’s beloved out of the Church. I do reserve the right to express dismay, sadness, and anger about attitudes held and actions committed in the texts I read, because, even when it is fictional, literature is always an expression of some sort of truth; it reflects the lives of real people.

It is difficult for me to say how exactly I will use the terms “homosexual” and “gay” in reference to all of the texts I hope to cover. In most situations I will try not to use anachronisms. If I were to write about a text from before 1892, when the word “homosexual” was first brought into the English language via a translation of the writings of Austrian sex researcher Richard von Krafft-Ebing (who appears to have borrowed the term from Károly Mária Kertbeny, who invented the word in 1868), I would not use the word “homosexual” without qualifying it.3 In the same way I wouldn’t call a gay man from the 21st century a catamite, minion, or mollie.4 I will definitely use the words “gay,” “lesbian,” or “homosexual” if the character self-identifies as such or if they are described by the author as such. But if it is unclear in the text, I will do my best to maintain the ambiguity in my discussion—I’m not in the business of claiming as “gay” someone or something that is not described as “gay.”

However, some texts that I will choose (like Brideshead Revisited, actually) are not obviously or intrinsically gay. That may be because they reference a specific variety of gay culture that a modern reader might not pick up on (i.e., Oxbridge aestheticism). Or, like the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, some texts might not speak about gay sex or anything that obviously pertains to gay culture while still speaking uniquely to the experience of gay people. If I do write about literature of this variety, I will explain my reasons for including it in CGL.

Returning to the notion that literature reflects reality… While I started my thesis for fairly personal reasons, I share (some of) my findings here because there needs to be more of an understanding between the Church and sexual minorities. LGBTQ people leave the Church in droves because of how they are treated. Equally as important to me, I want to show in some way the value and beauty of Christian faith to those who have given up on it or who have never considered it. These Dated Clouds is partly intended to be an exercise in reconciliation. Following this intention, the CGL series is my attempt to approach the often acidic conversation between Christianity and homosexuality from a new angle and with a different tone.

Finally, I will be putting the vast majority of my time into my honors project these next few months, so time spent on my blog will be rare. Forgive my infrequent postings. When I do get to it, here are some of the texts I would like to write about, in not much of an order:

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Maurice
by E. M. Forster
Brideshead Revisited
by Evelyn Waugh
Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin
Giovanni’s Room
by James Baldwin
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
by Jeanette Winterson
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson (memoir)
A Visitation of Spirits by Randall Kenan
We Are Water by Wally Lamb
Darling by Richard Rodriguez (memoir/essays)
Selected poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Selected poems by Oscar Wilde
The Road to Emmaus by Spencer Reece (poems)

As always, I will invite your comments and thoughts.

Footnotes

1. See David M. Halperin’s discussion of D. A. Miller’s work on gay men and Broadway musicals: David M. Halperin. How to Be Gay. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012: 93-94. This whole section is heavily dependent on How to Be Gay, which is Halperin’s case for gay culture—not an instruction manual.
2. Halperin. How to Be Gay. 46-7.
3. Norman W. Jones. Gay and Lesbian Historical Fiction: Sexual Mystery and Post-Secular Narrative. Gordonsville, VA: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007: 4; David M. Halperin. “How to Do The History of Male Homosexuality.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 6.1 (2000): 87-124. Web. 109.
4. These are different varieties of the invert, which is one of Halperin’s categories of prehomosexual male sex and gender deviance. Each type arises from a specific historical period and location, respectively, medieval/early modern England, Renaissance France, and eighteenth-century London. David M. Halperin. “How to Do the History of Male Homosexuality.” 105-6.

The Church and Gay Literature

Last week I turned in the thesis for my second term with BestSemester’s Oxford program. The title of the thesis had to be a question, and mine was, “In Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, from what are Sebastian and Jeanette trying to escape?” The question I chose still seems a bit juvenile to me, but it allowed me to dig into some questions of the novels I’ve been wanting to explore, including “What happens to Jeanette’s faith?” and “To what extent is homosexuality at play in Brideshead?”

Some of the research I did for that thesis will get channeled into my next big paper, the SPU honors project. My tutor in Oxford emphasized the differences of gay history in England and the States, so in my Christianity and Gay Lit tutorial, I focused exclusively on English novelists, playwrights, and poets. In my honors thesis I hope to bring in some American writers like James Baldwin. The difficulty in such a project is that these writers are of different countries, sexes, social classes, denominations, and skin colors. Despite these differences, the books I am looking at share a gay character whose faith and relationship with their church community is colored by their sexuality. While I am not yet sure what the specific focus of my next thesis will be, I hope to look at liturgy in the various texts.

Part of the reason I began researching this topic is because, as mentioned in a previous post, gay Christians do not have much of a cultural history that specifically speaks to their experiences. I do not mean to say that we cannot relate to narratives that don’t explicitly speak to our unique circumstances (that would just be plain false) or that we cannot locate our own story in the narrative of God’s redemptive plan for the world as found in Christian Scripture (that would also just be plain false). I simply mean to acknowledge that humans look to stories to understand their own circumstances and to imagine ways that life could be lived differently, and that there appears to be a dearth of such stories that deal with the unique struggles of gay Christians. Texts I’ve been reading for the project express from different angles the formative and transformative power of stories. James K. A. Smith uses the concept of a “cultural liturgy” to describe how the narratives we interact with—not just in books, but in the rituals of everyday life—”shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love.”1

When one who is raised in the rituals of most strands of Christianity experiences attraction to someone of the same sex, they experience something which either has never been mentioned in their church (due to ignorance of, fear of, or embarrassment about the phenomenon) or it has been actively decried from the pulpit—and so, they find themselves standing outside of their tradition, and often thereafter, outside of the Church. To them, the faith community becomes a location of alienation (as is the case in Oranges). Many such people have sought refuge in the City amongst groups of others who have walked similar paths, together forming a new community with a cultural liturgy of its own (what has charmingly been referred to by some Christians as “the gay lifestyle”). The new community is not bound by creed or communion but by a shared orientation, similar stories of rejection, similar hopes and aspirations, and, in some instances, a lot of previously (almost) unimaginable sex.2

This account, which I have pieced together from books, articles, and the stories of friends, is, of course, one of many possible outcomes. For people in some denominations, the following was true in the past, but for many it still holds today that if the gay individual chooses to stay in their church, regardless of whether or not they adhere to a traditional view of sexuality, they find that silence is what guarantees a sense of inclusion or normalcy that would be jeopardized if certain things came to light. The Oxford Movement provided a home in the nineteenth century for men for whom the “need for conscientious avoidance of physical expression of one’s sexuality was a very real problem.”3 Half a century later, Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain depicts one boy’s fit of religious experience in the presence of his black Pentecostal congregation, an experience he demands be remembered if ever one day his secret is discovered: “‘please remember—I was saved. I was there.'”4

The task of figuring out one’s sexuality is bound to the task of figuring out what one believes about God. If a believer is asked to leave her church—the only context in which she has lived and thus the only context in which she has understood God—her faith will change. Perhaps it won’t immediately shatter, but questions will be raised. This is not only a theme in gay literature. Roger Lundin writes, “more often than not in the literature of the past 150 years, the conflict between belief and unbelief has played itself out more readily within the private struggles of individuals than in public battles between the forces of progress and reaction.”5 While branches of the Church certainly are in a public battle over homosexuality, gay literature that interacts with Christianity tends to have a narrower focus: the individual and their beliefs.

As Norman W. Jones has helpfully pointed out, Christian literature and gay literature share three “common foundational commitments”:

identification as incorporating intractable mystery through a dynamic rather than static interplay of difference as well as similarity; personal ethical transformation emblematized in coming-out stories and conversion stories; and the formation of communities defined by nonbiological kinship bonds that are more created than found but are nonetheless foundational.6

In a series of posts I hope to begin writing soon, I would like to introduce to you literature (mainly novels) that deal with both sides of Jones’ coin. I desire to do this for two reasons, both of which I will explain with quotes from Jeanette Winterson. The first reason: “We mostly understand ourselves through an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others.”7 While I begin this essay by lamenting the lack of a cultural history that directly involves gay Christians, there is indeed something of a history there, meager though it may be. The characters I will write about reach varying conclusions about God and the Church, as do real-life gay people. While some readers of this blog might not have access to the wisdom of older people who have wrestled with faith and sexuality, they (presumably) have access to a library or AbeBooks.com. The literature is not a roadmap, but we can learn from the characters we encounter—the questions they ask, the difficulties they face, the mistakes they make, the conclusions they reach. If these things are uncomfortable, if we disagree with certain conclusions, the texts become a path towards a deeper interaction with our own beliefs when we ask ourselves “Why?” in response. The texts can become part of the stories we tell ourselves; they can jumpstart our imagination; they can piss us off; they can help us move forward.

The second reason: “Literature is not a lecture delivered to a special interest group, it is a force that unites its audience. The sub-groups are broken down.”8 If the first reason I provide for starting this series goes along the lines of discovering what it means to live within the walls of being a gay Christian, the second is the necessary work of tearing those walls down in the name of empathy and love. Not all who read my blog are gay and not all are Christian, so it is my hope that interacting with the nuances of books like Brideshead Revisited and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit will help Christians understand why some gay people leave the Church and help atheists understand why other gay people stay in the Church. It seems to me that many middle-of-the-road Evangelical and Mainline churches are trying to figure out how to love gay people. This blog is, in a way, my attempt to facilitate the Church’s efforts to learn how to better love and care for their gay brothers, sisters, and parishioners. As Winterson writes, “More, not less, is the capacity of the heart. More not less is the capacity of art.”9

Thank you for reading.


Footnotes

1. James K. A. Smith. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009. Cultural Liturgies. 25.
2. The City is portrayed as a center of temptation in contexts Christian and non-Christian alike. See James Baldwin. Go Tell It on the Mountain. New York: Vintage International, 2013. First published in 1952; see also Hanif Kureishi. The Buddha of Suburbia. London: Faber and Faber, 1990. This is due in part to the anonymity that is only possible amongst millions of other people. Gregory Woods writes, “Indeed, anonymity may be the main attraction. It allows for the conditions of self-reinvention, whereby one escapes the prohibitions and inhibitions of family life.” Gregory Woods. “Gay and Lesbian Urbanity.” The Cambridge Companion to the City in Literature. Ed. Kevin R. McNamara. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 233-44. 234.
3. Diarmaid MacCulloch. Silence: A Christian History. London: Allen Lane, 2013. 189.
4. Baldwin. Go Tell It on the Mountain. 225.
5. Roger Lundin. Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014. 168.
6. Norman W. Jones. Gay and Lesbian Historical Fiction: Sexual Mystery and Post-Secular Narrative. Gordonsville, VA: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007. x. ProQuest. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.
7. Jeanette Winterson. “Testimony against Gertrude Stein.” Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery. London: Vintage Books, 1996. 59.
8. Winterson. “The Semiotics of Sex.” Art Objects. 106.
9.  Ibid. 108.