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.


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,
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)

The only way to marriage equality

Marriage is open to all couples in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Washington, D.C.; all marriages are recognized by New York, Rhode Island, and Maryland; civil unions are granted by Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Illinois; domestic partnerships are issued by Nevada, California, Washington, Oregon, and Maine; and some partner benefits are afforded to residents of Hawaii, Colorado, and Maryland. (Sources: Extensive Wikipedia articles on same-sex marriage and civil unions.) Facebook now lets its users specify they’re in domestic partnerships and civil unions.

Meanwhile, dozens of states have explicitly banned non-heterosexual marriage (hi Nebraska), various refuse to recognize such marriages granted out-of-state, and the battle rages back and forth in Iowa, California, Indiana, Wyoming, and elsewhere. I don’t expect to see anything happen either way on the federal level for some time (where the Defense of Marriage Act leaves the states to each do their own thing).

Oh hey! Obama’s Justice Department has decided to stop defending Section 3 of DOMA — which defines marriage as between one man and one woman. The US Attorney General writes that, for one, the President has said he finds the section is unconstitutional because its use of sexual orientation as classification doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and for another:

In reviewing a legislative classification under heightened scrutiny, the government must establish that the classification is “substantially related to an important government objective.”

…In other words, under heightened scrutiny, the United States cannot defend Section 3 by advancing hypothetical rationales, independent of the legislative record, as it has done in circuits where precedent mandates application of rational basis review. Instead, the United States can defend Section 3 only by invoking Congress’ actual justifications for the law.

Moreover, the legislative record underlying DOMA’s passage contains discussion and debate that undermines any defense under heightened scrutiny. The record contains numerous expressions reflecting moral disapproval of gays and lesbians and their intimate and family relationships – precisely the kind of stereotype-based thinking and animus the Equal Protection Clause is designed to guard against.

(For more, read the full letter from USAG Eric H. Holder, Jr., to Speaker of the House John Boehner, via the Huffington Post.)

So we have some encouraging signs of progress. Still, a lot of people are asking how long the wait will be until they can form legally recognized partnerships, with the same benefits heterosexual married couples enjoy, that will be valid in each and every state. I’m asking why marriage is a government issue at all.

Communities have recognized (semi-)permanent partnerships for thousands of years, although the assertion that only one-man-one-woman pairings made the cut is patently false. Religion, as part of or alongside the community, has also often been involved in the ceremony of marriage, and has recognized the particular bonds of marriage. But government involvement is definitely not a constant. England (and thus the American colonies) didn’t regulate marriage until 1754. Meanwhile there are legal records from medieval France that suggest the existence of state-recognized, same-sex romantic partnerships. (It’s worth noting that our present concept of homosexuality is a 20th-century innovation of thought, so I refrain from using terms like “ancient gay marriage.”)

And there’s really no reason why the state should be part of the mix. Any “important government objectives” can be achieved without considering marital status or who you’re partnered to. (Will people form partnerships-of-convenience? Guess what, they already docollege students take note too.) Tax and employment benefits can be granted per household, or perhaps granted to you, one person of your choosing, and your and their dependents. Child-rearing responsibilities, division of property, and medical decision-making powers can be set out in advance like any other legal agreement. The best part is it’s flexible; pre-nuptial agreements already let couples record in advance how they want to deal with particular marital issues, but otherwise state-granted marriages are one-size-fits-all.

As for civil unions and domestic partnerships, I view them not as gay marriage prototypes, but as proof that blanket terms like “marriage,” “union,” and even “partnership” can be made utterly irrelevant to the government. Leave it to the people getting hitched, and maybe their particular religious institutions, to call their arrangements what they will, and to determine what rights and responsibilities they give each other.

“Privatizing marriage” would also obviate the common claim that religious institutions will be forced to perform (gay) marriages, and call them marriages. It would even let churches be more restrictive! A church could choose to only officiate marriage ceremonies for heterosexual couples whose partnership agreements are permanently binding. That ought to make various conservatives happy — unless, of course, they’re hell-bent on using legislation to enforce their moral agendas on the world. (What are the odds?) The Catholic Church, if they were honest, would have to breathe a sigh of relief that the government definition of marriage were no longer present to contradict the doctrine that marriage is forever.

There are no good arguments against marriage privatization. Many of them are moral ones that are inappropriate in our secular society — the federal and state governments are not enforcers for your church’s doctrine, and if the government lets gays declare themselves married, it has no impact on the strength of your own heterosexual shack-up. Arguments from the gay community, and its opposition, focus on how using the M-word will let gays “normalize” their relationships in the broader culture. They’re somewhat right, but there’s only ever been a subjective benefit to touting your marital status and how the government recognizes it. It was never their business in the first place.

Will I cheer victories for marriage equality as they spread from state to state? Sure, because the willingness to budge on this issue does indicate that people are realizing how little another’s orientation affects them. But I’ll cheer even harder when people realize what David Boaz already has:

Marriage is an important institution. The modern mistake is to think that important things must be planned, sponsored, reviewed, or licensed by the government.

More resources:

Movie night!

“Why do heterosexuals feel compelled to seduce others into their lifestyle?” (via Friendly Atheist)


“Heterosexual people we talk about relationships. Homosexual people, we talk about sex.” I think I love Dr. Corvino. He’s a skeptic, too! (via Queerty)


“Christ didn’t come to Earth to give us the willies.”

In which I FINALLY recap the rest of Creating Change

I’ve basically spent the week recovering from Creating Change; as awesome as it was, regular sleep deprivation threw me for a loop. And so only now, with all my brochures and notes and schedules strewn across my desk and lap, do I get back to business. On Saturday I attended two sessions where LGBTQ issues and religion intersected strongly.

The first was “Breaking the Cycle of Religion-based Bigotry,” which I’m amused to report was summarized by Americans for Truth about Homosexuality, with minimal editorial bias, as:

  • Using polling, focus groups and emotional arguments to persuade evangelical Christians to ignore Scripture and accept homosexuality-based “rights”;
  • Using the tragedy of homosexual youth suicides to shame Christians into stop calling homosexuality sinful…

(AFTAH also says that the conference organizers “[put] the ‘D’ back in ‘Deviance'” — delightful.)

The session was led by Mitchell Gold, the founder of Faith in America, and FIA’s executive director, Brent Childers — a straight ally who himself realized the effect the public dialogue and the political climate have had on LGBT hearts and minds. FIA works from the premise that beliefs aren’t the issue at hand, but the way they’re presented and often imposed on others (for example, marriage inequality and the lack of LGBTQ employment protections). Even when violence isn’t involved, youth in particular feel unsafe, unwanted, and yet unwilling to speak about their troubles when they grow up hearing platitudes like “love the sinner, hate the sin” — and hearing nothing in the face of bullying and bigotry.

FIA doesn’t respond by debating theology — people often get defensive and shut down if they perceive that an attack on one belief is an attack on their core faith. Rather, FIA chooses to highlight the impact that a climate that advocates or tacitly allows bigotry has on the mental health (and suicide rates) of LGBTQs — especially the young. No one wants people to get hurt; the stats that Gold presented show that when people realize what constitutes bigotry, and the effects it has on fragile adolescent psyches, many will at least change their approach, if not re-examine the issue entirely. To be practical: having a body count highlights that there is a problem, and it’s not theological divergence.

  • Gay kids who experience family rejection are 8 times more likely to attempt suicide and 6 times more likely to report high levels of depression.
  • Suicide rates amongst LGBT youth are four times higher than those of heterosexual youth.

Addressing Religious Arguments to Achieve LGBT Equality (PDF link)

For attending the panel, we all received copies of Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America (Amazon page; official book website). There are stories from entrepreneurs, politicians, students, ministers, who started to come out in their teens or decades later, growing up in the 50s and the 2000s — and in keeping with FIA’s message, we hear from Southern Baptists and Catholics and more. Many of the essayists wrote that after they stopped pleading for God to change them for fear of his abandonment, their faith lives only strengthened as they became honest with themselves and their families.

For Crisis readers who are wondering if LGBTQ status or LGBTQ acceptance can be balanced with religious faith, the message is that there is no necessary connection nor conflict between the two. As an atheist, that’s irrelevant to me, and there is a lot of intersection between religion and queer issues, but I have to agree. I’ve been reading Crisis all week, and the message and approach I took away from this panel — addressing people’s actions, not their beliefs — make it easily the most rewarding one I went to all weekend.

Uganda is one of the striking examples of religious bigotry put into practice. I went to “Uganda: Armageddon of the Culture Wars” because I’ve been following the progress of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill — a.k.a. the “kill the gays” bill. While sodomy is already criminal in Uganda and 36 other African states, Ugandans convicted as “serial offender” or HIV-positive homosexuals would be executed. In the meantime, a Ugandan newspaper has printed the names and faces of 100 suspected homosexuals, under the headline “HANG THEM,” which likely led to the recent murder of David Kato of the group Sexual Minorities Uganda.

The striking thing about the Ugandan/African gay witch hunt is that certain American evangelicals are to blame. Ultraconservative groups like Abiding Truth Ministries (an SPLC-recognized hate group), headed by Scott Lively (author of The Pink Swastika) have been engaging in a new moral colonization of Africa, shipping home their African success stories to bolster their congregations. When Biblical literalists bring verses like Leviticus 20:13 to the largely uneducated masses, the results are grim but not surprising.

David Kato’s friend and SMUG associate Frank Mugisha was there to tell us personally  about the deadly climate in Uganda. With him was the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle, who heads the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Commendably, the foundation, which has a center in Kampala, Uganda, is trying to establish dialogue between LGBTQ citizens and the government and religious leaders — as well as pushing for general interfaith dialogue, HIV prevention, women’s rights, literacy and micro-loans, and more. Just as with FIA, the St. Paul’s Foundation is tackling immediate issues of life and death.

As for the part we can play in America, we can expose and shame the American religious figures who invest their hate abroad, and who silently encourage the fanatics who put fundamentalist beliefs into practice. A good start (and I really don’t mind if he’s an easy target, because that doesn’t mean he’s not dangerous) is the aforementioned Scott Lively, who has the audacity to claim of Uganda that “It is the pink-gloved hand of western powers that are cutting the throat of Africa’s most God-fearing country, and one of the world‘s most promising Christian democracies.”

Next time I’ll wrap up with a Saturday and a Sunday session which addressed succeeding as a blogger (not that I’m trying that hard) and finding a career actively devoted to LGBTQ issues and rights.

Greetings from Creating Change!

I’m spending the weekend in Minneapolis with my friends from UNO Gender and Sexual Orientation, attending the Creating Change conference. We left moderately early this (Friday) morning and arrived in Minneapolis at about 3:30, hitting the hotel an hour later. If you think Omaha roads are bad, try the utter confusion of Minneapolis highways at rush hour. Two commuter lanes, multiple exits branching off at once, dangerous merging maneuvers, and no road shoulders! I was so scared, and I wasn’t even driving.

We arrived in the middle of a session, so I spent some time browsing booths and collecting swag, tailed by Josh, who after driving was in his words “totally shut down.” Walking around, I saw the unmistakable pink pixie-hair of Jac Stringer (Midwest GenderQueer)! I attended his excellent Trans 101 panel at last year’s MBLGTACC (check out this year’s upcoming conference in Ann Arbor), but I don’t really know him so I didn’t rush up with my camera or anything. It was still cool.

Atheist/skeptic readers, and hopefully readers in general, will be pleased to know that Americans United for Separation of Church and State had a booth. I grabbed brochures and promised to put UNO’s Secular Student Alliance in touch with AU. Despite what you may think, many religious people are involved in AU (their director is the Rev. Barry Lynn), practicing what they preach about tolerance by keeping religion out of government and untainted by government involvement.

Just across the aisle was Dignity USA, the Catholic group “celebrating the wholeness and holiness of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Catholics.” One of their brochures addresses common questions such as how to interpret the Bible verses deemed relevant to homosexuality, the church’s position on homosexuality and homosexuals, and so forth; the text can be found online too! I also found literature from Fortunate Families, a support network for Catholic parents of LGBT children.

The last order of business for the night was attending a one-hour caucus of college student organizers, where we split off into groups to brainstorm about specific topics. I and the other Omahans asked a lot of questions about recruiting, retention, and getting people motivated to move beyond just socializing to activism, too. Among the notes I jotted down after the caucus and a delicious Thai stir-fry:

  • Host high-visibility events, and involve other groups with intersecting interests (like the women’s and multicultural centers)
  • Use fliers and ads that target specific groups who are currently underrepresented: specifically inviting lesbians to join, for example
  • Create an environment where members aren’t assumed to be queer, if they are or need to identify as allies for now
  • Set concrete goals (for the month, semester, year) and take small steps so the group is confident the goals can be accomplished
  • Have some activities that require minimal involvement: if people don’t want to organize a protest, they can still wave signs

The morning is just a few hours away, so I’ll close for tonight by quoting a sticker I bought at the Unitarian Universalists’ booth:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

– Martin Luther King, Jr.