Archive for March, 2011

Advice for our time

The conception of Sin which is bound up with Christian ethics is one that does an extraordinary amount of harm, since it affords people an outlet for their sadism which they believe to be legitimate, and even noble. Take, for example, the question of the prevention of [a certain sexually-transmitted disease]. It is known that, by precautions taken in advance, the danger of contracting this disease can be made negligible. Christians, however, object to the dissemination of knowledge of this fact, since they hold it good that sinners should be punished. They hold this so good that they are even willing that punishment should extend to the wives and children of sinners. There are in the world at the present moment many thousands of children suffering from [this disease] who would never have been born but for the desire of Christians to see sinners punished. I cannot understand how doctrines leading us to this fiendish cruelty can be considered to have any good effects upon morals.

What STD is this? Easily preventable but devastating to the health; spread to those who trust their lovers who swear they’re clean and eschew protection; passed on to countless children? The author must be talking about HIV.

Nope, it’s syphilis, and the above quote is from Bertrand Russell in 1930. (“Christianity and Sex,” Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?)

The Catholic Church, in particular, is notorious for opposing condom use even amidst the African HIV/AIDS crisis (and the African population crisis). Better that you sin by having unprotected sex outside of marriage, and subsequently die of AIDS, than that you sin even more terribly by having sex with a condom — “closing yourself to the possibility of life,” as sickly ironic as the Catholic viewpoint is — and eventually die of something less politicized.

Can we call it progress that Pope Benedict XVI apparently thinks that, for prostitutes and those already HIV-positive, condom use is not as absolutely horrible (but still pretty horrible)?

Where can we look for a solution to our problems? Why aren’t sin and hellfire enough to dissuade people from having sex in the first place?

Those who have a scientific outlook on human behavior, moreover, find it impossible to label any action as “sin”; they realize that what we do has its origin in our heredity, our education, and our environment, and that it is by control of these causes, rather than by denunciation, that conduct injurious to society is to be prevented.

Russell said that in 1936 (Our Sexual Ethics). The fact that we still have to make these points time and time again only leads me to one conclusion:

Most enlightened people live in an unreal world, associating with their friends and imagining that only a few freaks are unenlightened nowadays.

Russell, 1930 (Introduction to The New Generation). In reading Russell’s essays, I was naïvely surprised that his criticism of the moralistic treatment of sex, and his criticisms of popular morality and religion, are just as relevant 80 years on. Evidently more of the enlightened few need to speak up.

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What more can I say?

Disclaimer: This post deals with a number of words whose use can be a very sensitive issue in the communities the words refer to. There’s no way to honestly examine, understand, and address this sensitivity, without using the words themselves. I’m not a member of all of these communities, and even for the ones I feel I represent, not everyone else who does will agree on how these words can be used. I hope you’ll find that for the sake of discussion, I’ve used them respectfully and to a useful end.


Let’s talk about talking. More specifically, let’s talk about using certain words.

Today the UNO Women’s Resource Center hosted Teresa Prince, a photographer who’s done a series of photos titled BITCH. She’s taken photos of all sorts of women each holding up a sign — “adventurous bitch,” “confident bitch” — and even men: “I love bitches” standing next to “We love you too!”

Are these women (and men) demeaning themselves, bringing themselves down to the level of bitchdom? They wouldn’t say so; they’ve embraced bitch and used it to describe themselves as they want to be described. An often-demeaning word is converted to an empowering one.

Are these women likely to respond positively when any random person calls them bitches? No; lots of people still use the word to hurt and marginalize, and two strangers or acquaintances just won’t know each other’s opinions about this. These women might be quite okay with their friends using the word bitch in a positive, even endearing way. And there are women who don’t want anyone to call them bitches, nor will they call themselves bitches; that’s okay, too.

There are some words, especially words with a negative history, that it’s best to assume you shouldn’t use to refer to the groups they’re associated with. Examples:

  1. Calling women bitches.
  2. Calling black people niggas.
  3. Calling Irish people micks.
  4. Calling homosexuals faggots, gays, dykes, and queers.
  5. Calling transgender people trannies.

You’ll quickly notice that hey, people do use these terms to refer to themselves and their friends. Look at the term “gay rights!” What’s the deal? Welcome to the concepts of word reclamation and privileged language. Cultures have found countless epithets to sling against marginalized communities — and using these words reinforces the marginalization. They’re emotionally loaded, yet they don’t at all describe their subjects.

These communities, over years and years, have often found a comfort and even a delicious irony in embracing these epithets. By using these words to describe themselves, even when the words are used to abuse them, the words no longer hurt, or hurt as much. Furthermore, these disempowering words become tools of empowerment, affirming instead of demeaning communities’ identities. This is how word reclamation works.

This isn’t to say that every old epithet can now be tossed about without worry. The homosexual community — the majority of it — feels that the epithet gay has become a good self-identifier, and that others can refer to them as the gay community and their cause as gay rights. I stress that this is the majority opinion, because one person or a whole bunch of people don’t represent everyone. Many gay people don’t like using the word queer because it’s also been used as an insult, and only lately have young gays in particular started to reclaim it for themselves. And the type of usage is important, too — compare the phrases “a bunch of gays,” and “the queer community.” Even reclaimed words are still, to differing extents, privileged language that should be used with thought for how the community or the particular member being addressed will feel about their use.

Further examples: most black people would only be okay with calling each other niggas (and many don’t even like that); Irish comedians can crack jokes about micks more freely than I should; and there are transfolk who will call themselves proud trannies but will be uncomfortable if their friends say things like “you’re my favorite tranny.”

Some people totally don’t care about using epithets that involve them; some think they should not be used at all by anyone; and most people are their own particular shades of gray. You may not be able to or want to ask members of marginalized communities, “When do you feel it’s okay to use this word?” The best way to show your respect for everyone is to simply avoid using that word to describe people. Do this even for other members of those communities, whose own feelings you don’t yet know, and just do this for everyone you meet, so they don’t get the impression it’s okay to throw the word around.

Lastly, if people tell you how they prefer to be referenced, take them at their word! Who knows you better than yourself? Who knows them better than they know themselves? And for goodness’ sake, if people tell you that calling them a certain word offends them, respect how those particular people feel even if it’s not the majority opinion. Neither you nor they got to choose the connotations the word has for them, but you can all choose how to handle it in a way that conveys your mutual respect.

Remember, actions speak louder than words, but speech is an action, too!

Things you should see #2: quotables

HU Queer Press’ State of the Gay – a new ‘zine by queer students, faculty, and alumni of Arkansas’ private Harding University. This is a conservative Christian university where things like extramarital sex, and yes, being gay, are conditions for expulsion. The many authors, who as far as I can tell are universally Christian believers, write anonymously — about their experiences at Harding, about whether they “struggle,” about what the Bible says about “people like them,” about how they are hurt by the lack of safe spaces at Harding and in the broader world.

I told some people I knew would still love me afterward. The funny thing is, even though I knew they would still love me, it took two hours of meaningless talk to be able to say it out loud. Most of the people I first told just kind of smiled and said “I figured.” And of course they still loved me.

Can we agree that at least one sin of sexual immorality at Sodom was gang rape? I mean, forget for a moment about the gay sex. Gang rape is sexually immoral, yes? If we can agree, I’d like to point out that the motivations of rape are more commonly associated with anger or power and control than sexual satisfaction. Tell me if this sounds reasonable – would a haughty people (Ezekiel 16:50) think that they had so much power that they would want to prove they have control over any visitor that stopped by?

… Forget about the fact that these angels took the form of men. If they had been women, do you think the situation would have turned out any differently? Consider the eerily-similar story of Gibeah (Judges 19) before you answer.

The fact is, if my mere existence somehow affects your faith or your marriage, you must have a pretty weak faith and a ridiculous marriage. If my future loving, committed relationship somehow weakens you, you are already quite weak. No law will change the fact that I’m gay and no law will save your faith or your marriage. Neither will condemnation or even therapy. I just am the way I am.

Did I mention it’s ‘zine-format, even online? It’s very punk rock. (found via Friendly Atheist)


How to How To Make Love to a Trans Person, by Gabe Moses – because I dunno about you, but I need a little poetry. A brief excerpt:

If she offers you breastbone
Aching to carve soft fruit from its branches
Though there may be more tissue in the lining of her bra
Than the flesh that rises to meet it
Let her ripen in your hands.
Imagine if she’d lost those swells to cancer,
Diabetes,
A car accident instead of an accident of genetics
Would you think of her as less a woman then?
Then think of her as no less one now.

(found via genderqueer.tumblr)