Sunday, June 30, 2019

Loving Your Neighbor

My friend posted a photo of two men holding up a sign that read “Love Your Neighbor. Even if they don’t: Look Like You. Think Like You. Love Like You. Pray Like You. Vote Like You. My thoughts kept coming back to this sign. Finally I had to respond, “Even if you are voting to take away my human rights, I still gotta love you?” My friend responded to my comment that he had it on good authority, based on most of the world’s spiritual traditions, that yes, I do have to love that person.

This got me thinking about power. When someone has power over, and abuses someone else, it's not only bad for the victim, it is ALSO bad for the abuser. Take the example of rape. There are many reasons why someone may enjoy inflicting sexual suffering on someone else, and my first concern would always be for the one who is harmed. How can I keep her safe? How can I help her heal? But I truly believe the perpetrator is also in need of healing. For his soul's sake, (whether or not one believes in an afterlife, or in karmic repercussions) it is not doing this human any good to be allowed to go around preying on others. So the very best way for me to Love this person, is to PREVENT THEM FROM BEING ABLE TO HARM ANYONE! 

This wealthy country was built upon the genocide of the Native people who lived here, and the stolen labor of enslaved people, kidnapped from Africa. Another way to put that is that our nation was founded on an abysmal lack of empathy, and a profound eagerness to declare nonwhite people inferior and subhuman. This willingness to inflict violence on anyone deemed “the other” proved extremely profitable. Plantation owners raped female slaves whenever they felt like it, and then sold their own offspring, routinely tearing babies away from their mothers to add to their coffers. 

This willingness to overlook our shared humanity brought immense riches, not only in the slave holding states of the South, but also to Northern captains of industry who relied on the cotton planted, tended, and harvested by enslaved people. Newport, Rhode Island was a leading port for slave ships, and the early economy of all of New England was enmeshed in the evil business of buying and selling human beings. 

In spite of the beautiful words of our Founding Fathers, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal,” they really only meant white, property-owning men like themselves. But from the time that North America was still a colony of England, Black people fought for their rights to be free from the torture of slavery. There are over 250 documented slave rebellions in North America, and 485 recorded instances of kidnapped African people revolting on board slave ships. Of course the self-organized involvement of enslaved Black people in the Union Army during the Civil War represents a mighty force of people fighting for their right to be free.

Black women have always been at the forefront of demands for freedom and human rights. It was a Black Woman, Harriet Tubman, who in 1863 planned and executed a raid on Combahee Ferry  that freed 750 enslaved people, many of whom went on to join the Union Army. It was a Black Woman, Ida Wells, who in 1892 initiated the nation’s first anti-lynching campaign. It was a Black Woman, Fannie Lou Hamer, who helped and encouraged thousands of Black citizens in Mississippi to become registered voters, and who co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus, an organization created to recruit, train, and support women of all races to run for office. In our own state of Vermont, our only Black female legislator, Representative Kiah Morris, has recently stepped down from her elected office after receiving racist threats.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr famously said “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I love this quote, and I do think he was right, even as the current news of stepped up deportations, children in cages, and emboldened Nazis is terrifying and heart breaking. We must link arms, support one another, and seek out every opportunity to center and uplift those who have been pushed to the margins. In November 2020, Americans will be voting for the world we want to see. Will we vote into office men who want to preserve their power at all costs, or people who believe in everyone’s right to be free?

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

How I learned to Teach About Non-Binary Birds and Bees

In August of 2017, I spent a weekend in Boston being trained to teach sex education to teenagers. This sex positive, consent-based, gender affirming curriculum was first conceived of over 40 years ago by two faith communities, The United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Society. These religious organizations wanted their congregants to have accurate, age-appropriate information about sexuality, to encourage lifelong healthy decisions about sex and intimacy. The program, called Our Whole Lives (OWL), is the opposite of so-called abstinence-only teachings. Instead, we teach all about sex, knowing that people of all ages make the best choices when we have all the information we need.

The Our Whole Lives curriculum is built around three core values: Respect, Relationships, and Responsibility. The ideal is that these values guide our decision making in every aspect of life, but especially in how we express our sexuality. Looking over the OWL material as I prepare for my second year of teaching the curriculum to 7th and 8th graders in Middlebury, Vermont, I am struck by how badly I want our whole country to have access to these essential teachings.

Back in Fall of 2017, just a few short weeks after receiving our training to teach OWL, my fellow facilitator and I nervously awaited our first group of middle schoolers. We knew that most likely these kids wouldn’t be too excited to wake up early on Sunday mornings to come talk about sex with two old people! In fact, if I could travel back to my own 13 year old self, it would probably be my worst nightmare! We had posted materials on the wall, placed chairs in a circle, and put the Question Box in a prominent place. When the kids came in, we would explain how the Question Box worked. At the end of every single class, each teen would receive an index card and a pen. If they had any question at all, they would write it on the card. If they didn’t have a question, they would write “I don’t have a question.” That way, writing on the cards was something the whole group would participate in, no one would know who asked questions, and we facilitators would answer any questions from the Question Box at the next meeting.

Little did we know, as we planned our lessons for the 2017/2018 school year, that this would be the year that would see one after another prominent journalist, movie executive (the Harvey Weinstein story broke during our first week of OWL), politician and so many more, accused of weaponizing their sexuality against women in their spheres of influence. It seemed like each time we would meet, there was another story of a grown man causing terrible harm. I felt determined that these kids would know they had a right not to be treated that way, wherever they might go.

Spending time with these middle school students made me remember back to my own early teen years. Did I have caring adults who taught me that human sexuality and desire express themselves in a rainbow of different ways? Did anyone tell me it was fine to love people of the opposite gender, the same gender, or both/neither genders? Did the grown ups in my life understand that gender is NOT an either/or duality, that many humans identify as outside the gender binary? Did anyone ever tell me explicitly that if I wasn’t feeling safe, that if I wasn’t enjoying myself tremendously, it was my human right to get out of that situation, NO MATTER WHAT the other person wanted? No, I never got that. How about you, Gentle Reader?

This month is the 50th annual Pride Celebration, marking the Stonewall Rebellion, when patrons of a gay bar in NYC fought back against a police crackdown. An Elder Stateswoman named Miss Major, who was there at Stonewall, described it like this: “Looking at the riot squad was like watching Star Wars stormtroopers, but they were in black with riot gear, sticks, guns, mace, helmets, and shields. The brutalization as they moved across and down the street was like a tidal wave hitting a coastline city. It just hit and rolled over you. If you fought, you’d wind up down, and if you were down, they would keep beating on you.” 

It was queer, gender non-conforming, people of color who lead the spontaneous uprising against police brutality for these three consecutive nights, now known as the Stonewall Rebellion. It was queer, gender non-conforming, people of color who, in so many ways, brought us to this moment in history where LGBTQIA+ people don’t have to live closeted lives, have the freedom to marry, and are represented in the media. But we still have such a very, very long way to go. Trans Women of Color have a life expectancy of only 35 years old, and 57% of transgender women of color make below $10,000 a year. Miss Major is angry that all these years after Stonewall, trans people are still fighting to survive.

In many ways, today’s queer and gender non-conforming youth are growing up in a different world than the one their parents knew. If they don’t live in a religious fundamentalist community, they can be out to their parents, teachers, and friends. They can go to the prom with their sweetie, even if they both are wearing tuxes!  They can see queer characters on TV. If they feel isolated, they can be part of a group that offers online support. How much of this positive change in society do we owe to those brave drag queens at Stonewall, who had had enough of being violently targeted for simply being themselves?

The freedom to be who you are, to enjoy basic human rights and comforts, should never be denied. The middle schoolers who will take part in OWL in the coming school year are very lucky, even if they don’t feel like it when their parents are waking them up on Sunday morning. As their teacher, it is my responsibility to make sure they understand how much of their freedom to be who they are, is due to the courage of people who are still struggling to get free.

The Heavy Weight of Racism in America

My friend Andre Henry has a boulder in the back of his car. It’s a large, heavy rock, painted white. It is covered with black writing, words like “police violence, racial profiling, white fragility, and eurocentrism.” It is also covered with hashtags. Lots and lots of hashtags, each one followed by a name. Each name is the name of a Black person killed by police.

Also in the back of Andre’s car is a wagon. He uses the wagon to drag the boulder around his home city of Los Angeles. He has dragged that stone into classrooms, churches, job interviews. It is a heavy, heavy rock. But it doesn’t weigh as much as the fear that he, or one of his best beloveds, could be the next hashtag.

Andre’s boulder project reminds me of another person who decided to lug something heavy around, wherever they went. Emma Sulkowicz is the artist who was sexually assaulted by a fellow student while an undergraduate at Columbia University. When the university decided not to expel the perpetrator, Emma (who identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns) created a piece of endurance performance art titled Carry That Weight.  From September 2, 2014, until May 27, 2015, Emma carried the dorm room mattress on which the assault occurred, everywhere they went on campus. The art piece includes the “Rules of Engagement,” in which Emma painted on the walls of a studio on campus the rules: that the mattress must be carried at all times when on Emma was campus, that they could not ask for help in carrying it, but that if help were offered they could accept it. 

In Emma’s words, "To me, the piece has very much represented [the fact that] a guy did a horrible thing to me and I tried to make something beautiful out of it."

I remember reading about Carry That Weight in the New York Times, while the piece was being performed. I remember being deeply moved by the image of a group of students carrying the mattress together. The mattress weighed fifty pounds- what a relief it must have been when Emma’s fellow students offered assistance!

 While art critics hailed the piece as a triumph of “pure radical vulnerability,” Carry That Weight was not without its detractors. Perhaps most notably, the accused perpetrator sued Columbia for allowing the Mattress Performance, claiming it created a hostile environment for him. I do have some sympathy for young men who are navigating college dating life while having been raised on a steady diet of entitlement and toxic masculinity. Young people need to be taught that their bodies are their own, and that when interacting with others, enthusiastic consent is the gold standard. The Columbia students who helped Emma carry the mattress included young men, young men who wanted their campus to be safe for everyone.

I asked Andre if anyone ever offered to help him pull the heavy boulder, and he said no. 

I am thinking about all the ways we have been taught that racism and white supremacy is just “the way things are.” How we have absorbed the idea that Black people living in neighborhoods with crumbling schools, instead of the safe and leafy suburbs where so many white Americans live, is somehow the natural order of things. Who taught us this? No one said it explicitly, but haven’t these messages surrounded us anyway?

What would it look like for more white Americans to take on the burden of thinking and talking about race? What would it look like to engage in conversations, and look for opportunities to educate ourselves? What would it look like to advocate for racial justice, to pay reparations, to share resources? What would it mean to take a turn dragging that boulder around?