how to query church teaching

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how to query church teaching

The next two posts will be part of a series called “Queering Catholicism” which are based on a paper I wrote while in Divinity School.  I look forward to sharing these reflections and to the conversations they spark here on the blog and elsewhere.   Viva la revolucion!

The intersection of sexuality and church teaching as a Latin@ trans-person of faith in a poly-amorous relationship with the Catholic Church is not an easy or succinct issue to address and grapple with. The Church’s treatment of sexuality is multi-layered and complex. From the marginalization of women’s voices based on biblical exegesis, to procreation as the fruit that quasi-redeems sexual desire according to both Augustine and Aquinas, to imposed chastity on those who identify as homosexual, to Augustine’s perceived self-hate of the body and its sinfulness, to Paul VI’s pro-life and pro-marriage exertions in Humanae Vitae, to the rediscovery of the body as holy in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, to progressive approaches by scholars such as Margaret Farley—sex, sexuality, sexual ethics, and gender are controversial, confusing, convoluted, and often taboo subjects that the Church has dealt with in a very black and white manner with no room for color or variation.

For the purposes of this series of entries and my sanity, I will narrow the scope of sexuality-related teachings focusing on the Church’s treatment of homosexuality. As Margaret Farley notes in her book Just Love, “it is by no means accurate to say that Christians have always judged homosexuality negatively…the historical studies of scholars like [John] Boswell have uncovered a much less univocal teaching and understanding through the centuries” (p. 277).   There are 2000 years of theological, doctrinal, and ethical discourses to sort through; these entries will primarily look at the summation and compilation of this heritage as presented in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (book of official Church teachings).

 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved. The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition. Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection. (2357-2359)

 

Nowhere in this passage does it command Catholics to ridicule, reject, discriminate, harass, physically attack, and persecute TQBLG individuals or their supporters. Though the Church does not accept this violent malice or treatment, there is still on the official level a “very negative evaluation of homosexual relationships” (Moore, 2003, p. 12). Catholic communities tell their queer members that the intimate sexual relationships they have or seek are “aberrant, contrary to the will of God as expressed in Scriptures and tradition, to be struggled against, a source of danger rather than a potential element of that genuine human happiness which heterosexual Christians may find in marriage” (Moore, 2003, p. 12). Some argue that these sentiments highlight the Church’s prejudice and bias for they single out TQBLG individuals for stigmatization and censure, but tolerate other sins (Yip, 1997, p. 119). Who decides what is sinful and what is not?

The official Church teaching takes two different directions, expressing compassion while also stating objective disorder. The Church recognizes the humanity of the individual person but does not let them be fully human (Stahel, 1993, p. 8). It basically takes the philosophy of “hate the sin, love the sinner” but rephrases it to state “accept the condition and not the conditioned.” It has been my experience that my fellow Catholics are willing to accept homosexuality as an abstract concept but will not tolerate expressions of it, such as wearing a rainbow, much less know what to do with bisexuality, poly-amory, or transgender. Comparisons have been made between queer individuals and individuals with disabilities/differently-abled, in that the Church recognizes that both are involuntary. However, “the acts of a [mentally handicap] person are morally blameless insofar as they are produced by their handicap …. But with gay people, the condition is like a handicap, but its expression is an intrinsic moral evil (Stahel, 1993, p. 9). To an extent the Church is contradicting itself by advocating compassion but promoting discrimination and repression of a “condition” that it admits not fully understanding.

Despite contradictions and resulting tribulations of Church teaching and practice, many TQBLG activists and their allies are seeking ways to reconcile church teaching with inclusive approach to sexuality and sexual ethics. Theologians (both religious and lay) are wrestling with creating spaces for the theological, biblical, liturgical, social, and ethical renegotiations of sexual identity/expression and religious identity. Through this reconciliation, many TQBLG individuals believe that their sexuality and its expression is part of the natural design God created.

Though I believe that there is a bridge between by Catholic and sexual identities, there is a soul-wrenching disconnect when it comes to the Communion Table. Despite the inclusivity of several Catholic communities created through theological counter-narratives, I do not feel that my personhood in its wholeness and holiness is welcome at the Communion table.   I am mindful that is not possible to truly live by every teaching put forth in the Catechism. Because I am knowingly and willingly not living or expressing what the Church teaches (disobeying her), I feel like I am no longer in communion with the Church and therefore should not partake in Communion (out of respect and a love-hate relationship with her).   Who am I is othered and fractured by the Church’s rhetoric on sexuality and gender; in order to receive I feel a pressure to deny my desires which are an integral part of who I am as a wholly and just sexual being.

There are many who would disagree with me on my personal practice, I believe it reflects the complicated and messy work of intersecting religion and sexuality. I am mindful that in progressive Catholic circles, I am invited to the open table but part of me is not ready even for that—perhaps it comes from the little conservative nun who lives inside who is not truly ready for alternative yet equal expressions of liturgized and ritualized breaking of bread.  As one of many activist-scholars engaged in this issue of faithful yet critical deconstruction and reinterpretation of Church doctrine, it has taken hitting many bumps on the road to arrive at a place where I am not guilty (as Augustine and many Church Fathers would advocate I should feel for giving into desire) of embracing being a Catholic, sexual being. The journey of building the bridge between sexuality and faith is a continuous one—I am a being in process who can proudly proclaim and rant that I may not be the norm but the ability to love beyond the norm is not a mistake or disorder but another piece in the divine scheme of things.

featured image found at:  http://heysonnie.wordpress.com/2011/08/10/god-made-me-queer/

the struggle is real

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the struggle is real

In reflecting over my ongoing sojourn with faith and sexuality, I realize that who I am and the area I seek to evolve is one that both disturbs and is disturbed, changes and is changed. As I look back at my life in an effort to re-remember my re-membering as I wrestle with church teaching, CCD classes, retreats, a home that reinforced what the church expounded, my continuous coming out, and personal beliefs about faith, I am mindful that 12 years ago if I knew what I knew today I would have condemned myself. In searching the hogar within, I realize that growing up I knew that there was something different about me. I had a feeling that I did not feel right in my own body and I was not like other boys or girls. I was confused for a long time and decided not to deal with it. Rather than reconcile my faith and my sexuality, I repressed many feelings that did not fit into the black and white paradigm of gender/sexuality that stemmed from growing up Cuban, conservative, and Catholic. Twelve years ago, this reflection that critiques the Church’s teaching would not have been written, much less having attended Yale Divinity School, being the director of a LGBT Center, and much, much, much less showing my hairy legs and painted toe nails in a skirt I bought I Lane Bryant. In order to survive I unwillingly conformed to the standards imposed on me because I was scared of the ramifications if I did not—I hid behind the smile of the good Catholic boy who was going to be a priest. Being Hispanic, Catholic, and queer did not mesh well. I feared burning in hell, being beat up, and most tragically being a disgrace to my family and their memory. The world was to be black and white with no room for color or even variations of gray, period, no questions asked.

As I began to venture into the world of sexuality and gender, questions, doubts, and issues with gender binaries and expectations began to rise. I began to query my history, cultural worlds, family story, church teaching, and society’s dominant narrative. When I came out in my early twenties, I said I was gay because it was all I knew at the time and it seemed to fit; it was also slightly safer.   I was an oddity in a world of dominating and hierarchical notions of sacred whiteness and holy maleness. I did not fit the stereotype of gay maleness perpetuated by society and the media due to something more that was evolving, growing, and desiring to be birthed in me and in the world. As I learned about the T of LGBTQ, I had a second coming out to myself and to GOD. I was birthed, came into voice, and claimed that I am both/and—I am not an antagonistic dualism. AHHHHHHHH!!!!!! OHHHHHHHH S***!!!!!!!!!

As a Catholic, I feel that I am constantly having to prove myself and my Catholicity. It is a constant struggle of becoming, yet a becoming that is never affirmed, accepted, or celebrated as good enough. Becoming and existing as a person who is both/and is especially hard in the Catholic world that is still figuring out what to do with G and L, much less attempting to engage BTPPQQ and everything else. It is a place where many are quick to silently judge, label, and dismiss my personhood causing this little freak in a skirt to go back into the closet out of fear and survival. My experience thus in life have helped me realize that the grappling of living into and out of one’s faith and sexuality is an on-going one. I realize that I am not alone, there are those who have paved the way before me through their brave questioning of church teaching such as Margaret Farley, Hildegard of Bingen, Gloria Anzaldua, and Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz; and there are those who are paving the way with me like my mother, my beloved, and all I meet along the way of this quirky journey of life.   My lucha is to bare witness to the Catholic Church and take on her teachings; finding ways to be catholic. Coming into my own publicly through the birthing of this delphic delfín will be a labor of revolutionary resilience where GOD is my midwife birthing and re-birthing truth-telling in me and through me.   Amen.

 I have been witness to marvels that affect the nature of the mystical body, for we too, gay men that we are, are also members of that same body…and mind by mind, soul by soul, heart by heart, we are building a consensus fidelium that one day will set us free…for such is the promise of our common baptism and the rights we derive from that sacrament. –E. Stoltz

 In all those times of wrestling with tough issues, with Church leaders, with each other, with disease, I have been pinned down and squeezed, touched, massaged, embraced, cuddled, and, yes, pleasured by a challenging and ever-loving GOD. I have been transformed and reconciled. No longer frightened or ashamed, I am learning to confide in GOD’s love and the love of my fellow wrestlers. After the match is over, I look forward to walking humbly with my GOD, even if it is with a limp. – K. J. Calegari

 

honoring all members of the family

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honoring all members of the family

I was asked by our campus publication Compass to write an article/reflection on National Coming Out Day…below is the musing that was published.  Original link:  http://www.ohio.edu/compass/stories/14-15/10/national-coming-out-day.cfm

Oct. 11, 2014, marks the 26th anniversary of National Coming Out Day. The “holigay” started on Oct. 11, 1987, when half a million people participated in the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.

Since its beginning National Coming Out Day is an opportunity for folks of minoritized or marginalized sexual orientations and gender identities to openly share who they are with the world while advocating that we all have the right to live safely and without violence in this world.

For the last few years, National Coming Out Day has coincided with OHIO’s Homecoming. The LGBT Center has played off “homecoming” by reflecting that coming out is a way of coming home to one’s self, one’s family, and one’s community.

On this upcoming Homecoming weekend, we invite all members of the Bobcat Family to come out whether as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender; or as asexual, pansexual, queer, questioning, intersex; or as a straight ally for coming out is not limited to just those of us who identify as LGBTQ or queer.

National Coming Out Day is also a time honor, remember, and affirm all who are in the closet who cannot come out for whatever reason. Our message to them is that they are not alone and have a community who is solidarity with them. In the words of queer athlete Brittney Griner, “don’t worry about what other people are going to say, because they’re always going to say something, but, if you’re just true to yourself, let that shine through. Don’t hide who you really are.”

The theme of this year’s Homecoming of “Bobcat Family Reunion” is festive but also one mixed with several conflicting emotions. For many of us within the LGBT community, family reunions can be awkward and hurtful due to the lack of support of the “gay cousin” or not acknowledging the queer relationship of “aunt so-and-so” or intentionally using the wrong name and pronoun for the sibling who came out as gender-nonconforming. Because of these dynamics, many of us here at OHIO have found ways to redefine family by creating our own “chosen” families in which we are able to safely and openly belong.

Our hope is that during our upcoming Bobcat Family Reunion, we are able to remember the words of civil rights activist and ally Dolores Huerta, “in the Latino community, we do not turn our back on our family … we have a responsibility to nurture the youth in our families, not to push them out because they happen to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.”

And so we call on ALL within our Bobcat Family—students, faculty, staff, alumni, community members, ALL Bobcats—to “come out come out wherever you are, to come out come out whoever you are.” ALL are welcome to join us on Thursday, Oct. 9 at 7 p.m. in Walter 135, to spark off the coming out celebrations with a performance by Harvey Katz (Athens Boys Choir).

ALL are welcome to come out with us on Friday, Oct. 10 at 11 a.m. in the Front Room for a National Coming Out Day Rally. All are welcome to join us, whether you are coming out for the first time or for the 1804th time or just want to be present.

As we celebrate Homecoming and National Coming Out Day with our Bobcat Family, may we embody with “bobcat rainbow warrior fierceness” the words of Harvey Milk, “you must come out … break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions … for your sake, for [all people’s] sake, for the sake of the youngsters who are scared … all young people, regardless of sexual orientation or [gender] identity, deserve a safe and supportive environment in which to achieve their full potential … burst down those closet doors once and for all …”

there’s something about mary

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there’s something about mary

I was drawn to ENZA’s cover of Beyonce’s rendition of the Ave Maria. Just a girl and her voice, nothing more—much like the person whose life inspired the song. Who was this Mary of Galilee?   She has been at the center of controversy and many theological headaches as people try to figure out her place within doctrine.   Beyonce’s Ave Maria moves away from the intellectual conundrums and simply tells the story of a girl–a girl who was confused, lost, challenged, and yet filled with determination and faith to face whatever life brought her way.

According to tradition, Mary was from a poor farming community and was not formally educated. It is this woman, marginalized because of gender, class, and neighborhood, who was chosen to be a messenger of hope. Though art and scholarship tend to depict her as a delicate, submissive girl, her story is one of a woman who fights…who is strong…who takes charge…who does what is needed to fulfill a calling…who trusts without knowing all of the answers.

Like many of us, she did not know what challenges awaited her. She did not know she would be risking her life, she would ride a donkey while 9 months pregnant, that she would be exiled and become an undocumented immigrant, she did not know that her son would be rejected, humiliated and executed. Despite the not knowing, she took a chance…took a risk…got messy…and said bring it on embracing her life with gusto, boldness, determination, and chutzpah.

Whether you engage her story as just a mythological narrative or as actual events at the core of religious traditions, Mary’s story is one that many of us who are facing life’s uncertainties about jobs, vocational calling, relationships, and how to live with purpose can relate to. This poor, marginalized, Jewish mother is an inspiration for me in learning how to embrace life, on how not to give up, and on how to trust the journey bumps and all.   What does her story teach you?

what is the church so scared about?

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what is the church so scared about?

Growing up Catholic, I was raised with the notion that the Roman Church was the holder of ultimate truth and that there was a certain infallible nature to the Church. All other traditions were wrong, confused, or flawed in some way. Perhaps it was a grave misunderstanding of Church teaching and doctrine, but I believed that the only to way to obtain truth was through the Church.   Ecumenism and religious pluralism threatens this idea of the Church holding the truth. To think that truth can be held by other traditions (even a piece of it) is unfathomable to many conservative Catholics. This mentality can lead to a superiority complex among Catholics who feel that the Church is better than other traditions.

Catholic teaching is very black and white—what you see is what you get for the most part. Regardless of where one falls on the spectrum of obedience and agreement to Church doctrine, there is a clear set of teachings to grapple with. Teachings on sexuality and responsibility may seem outdated but at least one knows the official stance to support or rebel against. Religious pluralism threatens the control that the Church has over her members. By acknowledging pluralism, one acknowledges that there are truths and alternative means to obtain them outside of the Church. There is no control over how people think, what they do, or how they express themselves. It goes from being black and white to colorful which poses a threat to accountability to a set doctrine. I do not mean to describe the Church to be a power-hungry, tyrannical dictatorship needing to control every nanosecond of every life; however, obedience and loyalty to teaching is often emphasized and lack of conformity shunned upon. Individuals who seek to broaden their experience of the Divine by adopting practices from other traditions (even Christian ones) are often criticized by fellow Catholics who feel that if one sits when one is supposed to kneel or uses a mantra or acknowledges that Jesus was Jewish or discerns the possibility of entering another tradition because the Church is no longer home—one is deviant, ostracized, and shunned.

The Church needs to learn how to balance Catholic and catholic. There is a balance between being a universal church that is located in various parts of the world with being open to widening the circle of acceptance of individuals and beliefs that can broaden our understanding of God. Through the black and white (which brings order) God has been placed within the limitations of a box. I believe this unjustly binds the Almighty Creator of the Universe who is so much more than our imperfect minds can grasp. I find it problematic when people define God as this and not that or develop rubrics for what constitutes authentic religious expression—whatever does not conform to our labels/categories is some how less than and questioned.

The church is struggling to become comfortable with learning from other traditions.   The Church is recognizing where she needs growth (at times admitting and owning errors and mistakes) and how religious pluralism can enrich liturgy, theology, and doctrine. It is a journey of discovering how to be catholic Catholics—why is that so scary?

que viva cachita

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que viva cachita

In honor of the feast of Our Lady of Charity, patroness of Cuba, I am reposting a reflection on the revolutionary image and story.   For a basic understanding and background of the story of Our Lady of Charity, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Lady_of_Charity

¡Que viva Cachita!

Reading and reflecting on the story of the apparition of Our Lady of Charity, affectionately Cachita, has created an opportunity for me to profundizar my religious and cutltural roots as a Cuban-American (something that I have rarely done).  As with all stories that involve the divine, the story of Cachita carries with it a multiplicity of theological meanings.  Juan Moreno, one of the “tres Juanes,” shares a simple and very human narration of what took place almost 400 years ago demonstrating how the divine reached out to his community.  His personal testimony reflects how GOD continues to find ways to connect with us in order to create new spiritual and cultural identities within changing spiritual and cultural realities—a testimony and messenger whose radicalness not only lies in the message of his witness but also is in the testimony of his person as he was a black slave, a true embodiment that GOD speaks in the most prophetic and unexpected ways.

Much of my Marian Theology or Mariology has focused on the image of Mary as a disciple who journeys with us on el camino de fe para locos y apasionados (the path of faith for the crazy and passionate).  Juan’s story is in this same spirit presenting Cachita as a mother who walks with the people, especially the poor and oppressed.  Her image is found in the sea by a black man and two Indians; symbolically representing a beacon of hope and revived dignity in the chaotic waters of marginalization.  Though there is much discussion on her appearing both wet and dry as Juan shares at different parts of the narrative, this phenomenon shows that Mary is a mujer atrevida (a bold woman) that reverses social and cultural order by demonstrating that she is a woman who is with the people and is not afraid to get dirty (or in this case wet).

Juan shares that upon returning to shore with the statue an altar was built to place her on in the middle of the town. I believe that this is an attempt to keep the divine close to home.  Juan states that upon seeing the image, both he and his companions felt joy.  GOD does not speak through the image; simply being in her presence brings peace, comfort, and a sense of feeling acompanado.  The community built a place to both honor Mary and hold onto the joy her presence brought.   Despite the fact that Juan, Rodrigo, Juan, and los del pueblo were oppressed, they were able to carve out a refuge where people could relate to the divine on their own terms.  There is no command to build a chapel, shrine, or church—this is done instinctively as a way to create sacred space to keep the heavenly close by.   This is a mutual desire in that La Virgen wants to stay close to the people by demonstrating through lights where to build her iglesia; she wants to stay close to her children reminding them that GOD has not and will not abandon them.

Often times Marian images are used to uphold women’s faith.  Juan’s story of Cachita, however, also upholds the faith of men (the divine feminine kindles and rekindles the spark of faith in people of all genders).  Though men’s voices have dominated theological reflection and doctrine, it is often the case that lay men, especially my experience of hombres latinos, are reluctant to demonstrate their faith because eso es de mujer (that’s what women do).  The story of Cachita as told through Juan reverses this notion in that it is the every day joe smoe that mobilizes el culto for Cachita.  Juan describes how the men take the initiative to build the initial shrine, keep watch over Cachita, have conversations with Cachita, and lead the procession that leads to a miraculous quenching of a severe drought.   The devotion described through Juan’s vivienda is a reminder that faith goes not only beyond social class and race but also gender.   Though the men set out to retrieve salt for cooking and preserving food (a radical act of breaking gender norms), their lives become “salt for the earth.” Their experience not only preserves and spices up their faith and dignity but also that of the community and generations hasta la fecha (until today)

As our siblings in la lucha in the United Church of Christ share, “don’t put a period where GOD placed a comma—GOD is still speaking.”  The story and image of Nuestra Senora de la Caridad  continues to speak to Cubans and non-Cubans alike with new insights into how to encounter the divine within one’s own unique context and how that context can be transformed.   Que viva Cachita!!!

OurLadyofCharity

god is gender nonconforming

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god is gender nonconforming

Reposted from:  Believe Out Loud; written by Alison Amyx

I grew up learning about a God who was a “He.” Sporting a white beard and positively owning that throne in the sky, this was a God who threw lightning bolts when you strayed from the path of righteousness.

When I got to college, I took a necessary break from believing in God.

Even before I knew I was queer, I knew I could not believe in a God who would so easily, so gleefully condemn God’s own beloved children to damnation. I simply could not reconcile the authoritarian image of God that I was taught as a child with the unconditional love shared in the same breath.

When I began studying religion, I stopped using pronouns in reference to God. Given my growing sense of agnosticism, removing “He” as a descriptor of God was obvious. I wasn’t sure about anything related to the divine mystery I once knew as “Father,” so how could I possibly know anything of God’s gender identity?

By the time I reached seminary, I’d been introduced to the practice of replacing “He” with “She,” embracing the oft-overlooked feminine qualities of the divine, and counteracting the long-standing Christian misrepresentation of God as a masculine deity.

Imagining God as “She” provided a balm to the deeps wounds of misogyny and helped me see myself as made in the image of God.

I celebrate the feminine nature of God. I celebrate God as Mother, the giver of life and the divine, nurturing embrace. I celebrate God as the source of being and fierce protector of God’s creation.

However, I know from experience that these “feminine” traits are not exclusive to female-identified people. For example, whether we identify as female or male, we all have the capacity to be nurturing. Understanding this as only a “feminine” trait is unfair to both women and men. The same is true for traditionally “masculine” attributes and experiences.

When I finally reclaimed my faith in God, I claimed a faith in a being that, by definition, exceeds our expectations and rises beyond our imaginations. That’s why I do not believe that God conforms to our expectations of what gender should be, or how it is supposed to be performed in the world.

If God doesn’t transcend the limits of our human understanding, then who or what can?

This does not mean we shouldn’t understand God as Mother, or even Father. As a good Baptist, I affirm our ability to commune with God on our own terms. But neither “He” nor “She” encapsulates what I understand as the expansive identity of a God that, by definition, cannot conform to our expectations.

As a result, I’ve stuck with my agnostic instinct, calling God, simply, “God.” For years, I’ve avoided pronouns when speaking of God, rearranging sentences to deemphasize those pesky little words and simply trailing off if I stray toward the gendered language that was so deeply engrained in me as a child.

In hymns and liturgy, I sometimes change pronouns, and I sometimes do not. I’m often too busy finding the harmony to make such changes in a song, but in the right moment, I’ll sing with a breath instead of a word when a hymn drops a “He, “Him,” or “His” in reference to God.

In the process, I’ve learned that pronouns are not necessary to forming a sentence, much less an identity.

When I began meeting folks who identify as gender queer, I stumbled over new pronouns as most of us do when we try new things. Ze, hir, hirs; She, her, hers; He, him, his; They, them, theirs—and many more.

For me, learning to use new pronouns has required both a practice of intentionality and a community of accountability. While incorporating new pronouns has been a challenge, I found it surprisingly easy to make the switch when my first partner asked me to stop using pronouns altogether during the early stages of his gender transition.

For a period of a few months, I called my partner neither “he” nor “she,” neither “they” nor “ze.” Suddenly, my years of practice, the years of rearranging sentences and avoiding gendered language for God, came to fruition.

As a Christian, I believe using a person’s preferred pronouns is a necessary practice of welcome and hospitality. Calling someone by their preferred name is a practice of respecting identity—seeing a person the way they want to be seen, knowing a person as they desire to be known, and welcoming a person in community on their own terms.

Respecting preferred pronouns is a way we can embrace each individual as they were created, each in the image of God.

And when I don’t know someone’s preferred pronouns, I’ve now had enough practice to simply avoid gendered language until I find the appropriate moment to ask: “What are your preferred pronouns?”

We can’t ask this question of God. So why not live into the divine mystery of a deity who challenges our assumptions, defies all genders, and invites us to step beyond our expectations into a world of beautiful diversity?

featured image from Believe Out Loud

be a rainbow in somebody’s cloud

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be a rainbow in somebody’s cloud

As Maya Angelou passed this May, many of my friends and family took to social media to honor her life. One my favorite quotes by Dr. Angelou seemed to be a favorite amongst others:

Be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.

She stated once in an interview: 

There’s an African American song that’s 19th century—it’s so great. It says, “When it look like the sun wasn’t’ gon’ shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds. Imagine.” And I’d had so many rainbows in my clouds. I’ve had a lot of clouds, but I have had so many rainbows….And one of the things I do when I step up on the stage…I bring everyone who has ever been kind to me. I say “Come with me, I’m going on the stage. Come with me, I need you now.” Long dead, you see. So I never feel like I’ve had no help; I’ve had rainbows in my clouds.

When I heard her words I started thinking of rough chapters in my life when I didn’t know when the sun would shine again. At 16 I found myself there when I started questioning my sexuality. Up until that point I saw myself as a good Christian, and being a good Christian definitely didn’t include being a lesbian.

At least that is what I was told by my pastor and my family.

Needless to say when I began to come into myself and contemplated coming out, I struggled. I struggled to find meaning in a world that now seemed incredibly frightening and confusing. I struggled with my church for turning me away when I told the leadership my truth. I also struggled with God for not freeing me from these feelings and for what I thought was abandonment. I was overcome with fear and anger, and I had no place to put it or the tools to work through it.

One day when I was mulling through articles online in search of some source of guidance, I came across a news article about a minister named Beth Stroud from Germantown, Pennsylvania who was defrocked by the UMC. Intrigued, I read her story and was inspired by her bravery.

In a flurry of excitement, I pulled out my best stationary and wrote Beth Stroud a letter. In it I told her I was a 16 year old high school student from California who knew she was a lesbian, but who was afraid that God didn’t love her anymore because of it.

I sent the letter not knowing if she would respond.

Luckily for me, she did:

I wish I could say that I had overcome all self-doubt, but I haven’t. I still wake up sometimes in the middle of the night and think “What if I’m wrong about God accepting me just the way I am?” But in those times, it’s the supportive community around me that gives me strength. I see all the amazing same-sex couples in my church who are raising beautiful, healthy children. I experience the unconditional love of my family, my partner, and my congregation. And all that helps to keep me feeling strong. Just keep spending time with God and seeking out communities where you experience being accepted just as you are.

Those communities will be channels of God’s love for you.

Blessings,
Beth Stroud

Stroud’s love was a rainbow that burst through my clouds.

Her love and kindness saved me from my darkness.

As I moved forward in my life, I have carried this card with me. There are times when we all experience loneliness and doubt, and we need someone to remind us that love still exists and that God is always right there with us.

I use this card as a reminder of why I do this work. I note Beth’s kind hand to me as the origin of my commitment. I only hope that I can be as much of a rainbow in someone’s cloud as she was in mine.

Originally published on RMNBlogWritten by Ashley Boyd of Believe Out Loud 

post url:  http://www.believeoutloud.com/latest/be-rainbow-somebodys-cloud

i am redefining realness

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i am redefining realness

from “I am redefining realness” … a project by author and activist Janet Mock

Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, I was exposed from a very early age to the reality of loss and trauma, to the understanding that I was different, and to the beautiful insight that transformation is always inevitable.

I was adopted by my grandparents at the age of 5 under the name Nathaniel Paul Holbert Jr., and I remember the feelings I had in the courtroom on the day I legally changed my name to Nathaniel Paul Davis. It was exciting, and it felt right, but I also felt a deep sense of loss. I knew that in order for me to be adopted, I had to have been given up – abandoned.

My father had left my mother, and now my mother had left me. But from then on, I would be known as a Davis, and would no longer be attached to the legacy of my birth mother or father.

Even at that age, I began to understand the power that exists in a name.

Names speak to identity, to origin. Until I left behind the last name Holbert and the suffix Jr., there was still a part of me that was connected to my birth father, although I had never met him. Shortly after the adoption and name change were finalized though, I found out that my birth father had passed away from a seizure due to a gunshot wound to the head on Omaha’s north side. So, in an instant, that entire piece of my identity was fully and permanently cut off from me.

But I was not made less by the loss.

Instead, I was reborn into something new. Through what would be the first of many transitions, I was a Davis now. One of my first memories as a young Davis child was at school, when I was in kindergarten. I was in the morning class, and had left my bookbag in a cubby in my classroom that day. I went back that afternoon to pick it up, escorted by my grandmother, who was white, and my grandfather, who was black. All the white kids at Hartman Elementary went to school in the morning and all the black children went in the afternoon, so when I arrived to pick up my backpack I was met by a room of brown faces staring at me like I was out of place or unusual or wrong in some way. I saw them all staring at my grandparents, wondering, “What could Nathaniel be doing with a white woman and a black man together?” and “Why were they stepping foot into the afternoon session?”

I knew I was one of the only people of color who attended classes in the morning and I knew that my parents wanted me in that session for a reason, but I never really knew why until that moment. Somehow, this was the first moment that I realized I was not like the black kids OR the white kids. And although I didn’t have the word for what I was then, that day was the major establishing place in my understanding of race and my unique position as a biracial or TRANSracial person. It was one of the first moments I felt truly, profoundly different, and knew that I wasn’t “normal,” which now is a term I put in quotations.

Because who can say what normal is?

But really, I thought I was weird! I was shorter than everybody, I was left-handed, I had nappy curly hair, I was adopted, and my family was poor.

We lived in North Omaha, in a run down neighborhood off of 56th street, where public housing was the norm. I remember sharing in a sort of communal understanding that we were in a different world, a full level below the wealth and prosperity of those who lived in West Omaha, which at that time was anything west of 108th. One way or another though, my grandparents navigated the economic hardship of raising a household of seven and somehow kept the family afloat. It was the same for every family on the block I lived on, for the most part. One or both of the parents worked multiple jobs to put food on the table, and this meant many homes with kids taking care of themselves while parents worked the night shift. I remember being resentful that I didn’t have parents around when we came home from school to make dinner and care for us. My three sisters, my brother, and I did our best to take care of ourselves and occupy our time with games, bonding, and wreaking terror on the neighborhood to deal with the fact that our parents really weren’t present in our lives.

When I was in third grade, my sister started hanging around with twins who lived around the block from our house. Weekly, the girls would pick my sister up for a church that was blocks from where we lived.  Victory Church was and still is located on the corner of 56th and Sorenson Parkway. Faithfully, the Shropshire family would pick my sister up for services and, eventually, I was fortunate enough to score an invitation to come along.

Victory Church was my first exposure to the very different experiences of what I considered to be a life of privilege. The pastor of the church at the time was white, and his beautiful wife would dance in the front of the service in the most beautiful flowing dresses, always addressing the congregation with the utmost sensitivity and reverence. She often cried when speaking.

I remember immediately identifying with her spirit and energy as she greeted members of the congregation. Her presence and leadership at functions in the church were always felt in her hugs and seen in the passion in her eyes. Not only was I enamored by the Pastor’s wife, but by the splendor of the facility. It had a full gym, a beautiful sanctuary, and a separate space for vending machines! Then, there were the activities I could partake in when my parents weren’t around. I was involved in Royal Rangers (their take on the Boy Scouts), sang in the choir, ministered in the drama group, volunteered weekly to clean up the church, participated in a bus outreach program that happened every Saturday, taught Sunday school, and even went on a mission trip to Mexico City.

Those were the first years I received training in the non-profit world, informally. It was a gift that came to me naturally. I came to this place where I started building relationships with individuals who actually made me feel valued. I didn’t feel that important at home or at school, because of the abusive situations that happened in both places. Growing up, I was continually locked in my room for long periods of time and always compared to my brother, the football player, who was also diagnosed with ADD. I never wanted to play any sport; I wanted to be the cheerleader and the person dressing all of the dolls. People at school would continually ask me if I was gay long before I knew what to say or what that even meant.

I had my first actual sexual experience around the eighth grade, with a boy from the neighborhood. We peed into the same bush together and both felt this urge to touch each other. However, I wouldn’t come to understand and identify with the term gay until my freshman year of high school, when I started at Northwest and met all of the people in the theatre and music departments.

I immediately joined the choir and auditioned for all of the musicals. While I had found my new homo glory, I was still having family difficulties at home. I lived with my grandfather, who took custody of me after a messy divorce with my grandmother. Then, the years of sexual abuse that occurred in our home came into the open. Later on, forgiving someone for sexually abusing me was to be one of the most liberating points in my life – having the realization that I was not a victim, but a survivor.

But around this time, I started getting bolder with my gender play. I would leave my house in the morning in tennis shoes and change into high heels on the way. (I mopped the shoes from my grandfather’s girlfriend.) I also became the first male-identified person in the history of the JROTC, in the state of Nebraska, to wear a dress to the military ball. At that time, no one would really say anything about how I was dressing, except my grandfather. I wore Hot Topic clothing that consisted of  pleather pants, glitter in my hair, and tight shirts from Gadzooks – anything that made me stand out from the crowd.

Shortly after that, I became involved in a new youth group at Eagle’s Nest Worship Center, which invited me go to a Pentecostal youth conference in Aurora, Ill. I will never forget this moment in my entire life. I was called up by the youth pastor from the very back of the church in front of everyone; he then screamed into my ears a fierce exorcism:

“I bind the foul spirit of homosexuality out of you! You are a man, not a woman. You are a man!”

I  woke up later on a kitchen floor with four women praying over me.

That would be the beginning of a process that went on to repeat itself for the next four years. I became more and more involved at Eagle’s Nest Worship Center, and tried tirelessly to throw myself into my faith as a “man of god” and trust that God would take this burden of my sexuality and gender expression away from me. All the while, everyone else around me seemed to think they knew what I was and and how they could fix me. I would go to these camps and retreats three times a year, and I would be instructed to repent and beg forgiveness. By the end, I would really feel like I’d been saved and changed, but then I would come home and realize, no, I still really want to kiss cute guys and wear high heels!

But I really fought it. I kept on fighting it because I wanted so badly to fit in and find my place in the church and to be a leader and build that community. I was mentored by several very masculine figures in the church during that time, following their instructions and constant corrections, as they told me to get my hair cut, to wear different shoes, to switch to my watch from one wrist to another.

Then, I started getting involved in the youth group. The youth pastor came to my school and told me this was a good place for me to step up, so I became the worship leader in the choir. Meanwhile, I was also going to the underage gay club, and dancing the night away on the weekends! So, while I was still navigating that space at Church, there was also a part of me that finally began to really feel like I didn’t care who knew anymore.

Eventually, there was some controversy, because some people from my high school started coming to the church and ratted me out for “not being a man of god” at school, where I was basically out. I was questioned, and this time I just didn’t have it in me to repent anymore. I was sick and tired of fighting, so I confirmed their suspicions. I was asked to turn in my tambourine and step down as worship leader.

—-
Shortly after that, I ended up going to live full-time with the family that eventually adopted me from my grandfather. They were foster parents who happened to know me from church and took an active interest in my development and safety as a young person. They insisted I switch to a school closer to their part of town, West Omaha – a predominantly white area. I was now living with a white family and going to school with mostly white kids, and it was a totally new life, a new start.

I had somehow thought that being adopted and living with another family was going to be some kind of grand solution. It ended up having its own problems and challenges, but it was a fresh start and it was the place where I cultivated a lot of my identity. I got back into music and theatre at my new school, and hanging out with the people there became a space where I finally felt the different aspects of myself start to unify. I had these opportunities to put on makeup, or wear high heeled boots to concerts or cast parties, and I was supported and encouraged by my friends. The safety and trust I had in them gave birth to the resilience and confidence that continues to serve me.

Finding a way to foster community in my theatre and gay worlds, while still making it to church in the morning, would teach me an early lesson about intersectionality and navigating spaces.

During high school, I went to a training retreat about social justice called Anytown, and learned about all the -isms of oppression. This was HUGE for me, because it was really one of the very first times in my life that I had the AHA moment, realizing that all of this systematic oppression was the problem – not me!

I learned about ableism, faithism, heterosexism. So many -isms! I realized how pervasive oppression really is, and made a choice to do my best not to be a part of it anymore. I had finally found a community in which to discuss the things I was curious about, and actually coexist in the world. The experiences I had there sustained me through high school and still means so much to me today.

One of the people who mentored me there was a girl named Nakiru, who told me how special I was, how much worth I had, and how great my potential was in the work of social justice. I finally felt that my voice had worth and power; that my story had value. I realized the systematic oppression of my Pentecostal faith was what had been the unraveling of my identity. I realized that systems should not control my life, but that finding my own happiness should dictate my path.

I later went back to Inclusivity as a camp counselor and participated in running other programs and leading workshops, using my voice and my story to help others. From there, I learned very quickly that I wanted to dedicate my life to this cause.

By my senior year of high school, the pastor at my church gave me a last chance ultimatum to repent. This time, I said, “Don’t worry, I’m not coming back!” I was determined to start a new independent life. I was going to be successful on my own, find my own voice, leave everything I ever knew, and begin my own story.

—-

I went on to college at Iowa Western, where I was cast in a play to act in drag, as the fairy nymph in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” This was significant, as it was a chance for me to explore my gender in a more legitimate sense, rather than just halfway dressing up at a cast party. Looking back, it’s funny that these strangers saw it in me long before I did. They were basically saying to me, “Don’t you know what you are?” I was still identifying as a gay man at the time. I didn’t have a label for liking “girl” stuff; no one had ever sat me down and explained what transgender meant.

One year in Iowa was enough, though, and I decided to move on to greener pastures and return to Nebraska. I transferred to UNL and Lincoln welcomed me with open arms. There was an LGBT group on campus, with people identifying as “queer,” which I had never even heard was a thing people did! I got in a fight the first week I heard someone say queer –  I thought,”That’s a terrible word!” But there were some very smart and progressive queers on the campus.

At the gay bar downtown, I remember seeing a drag queen perform “I’m Every Woman.” It was one of the first times I was exposed to drag, and I remember thinking, “Ha, I can do THAT.” That night, the emcee announced a competition for first-time drag queens, called Beauty and Beast. My friends basically forced me to sign up, so I did.

Let me tell you, I certainly came bucking out the gate! I felt on fire – the glamor, the hair, the lights, the stage, the beauty. I fell in love with drag, and thus Precious Jewel was born.

Through performing in drag in Lincoln, I again had the experience of building community, of bringing people from my college to the gay club, when they would probably never have stepped foot in there otherwise. I was again finding intersectionality and community at every turn! I also took my first LGBT literature class, which introduced me to even more aspects of queer history and theory that I had been totally unaware of.

I never learned anything about Stonewall or any part of the history of the LGBT community until I took this LGBT class at 20 years old. It certainly sparked a trigger in me; I felt so strongly that I needed to be a part of creating space for queer people to live and thrive and come together.

After studying abroad in Paris and London, seeing all the art, Cabaret performers in the nude on a main stage, an Elphaba (from the musical Wicked) performed by a black woman, I had all this liberal amazing energy. I knew this other crazy world existed and I had to go somewhere bigger. I knew that I wanted to see more outside of Nebraska.

So, I left my full ride at UNL to go to Columbia College in Chicago, which is basically $100,000 a semester. During my first week there, my advisor asked me what I wanted to do, and I said “I want to perform at Chicago pride.” The very next year, I was on a float and performing on the main stage.

I continued to study queer history and theory, liberal education, and performance theory, all the while being a full-time entertainer working in the night clubs, trying to establish myself as a solo entertainer on the Boystown Strip. I was barely surviving. I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t grounded, and I wasn’t balanced. I was naive, but I was passionate, and I knew that one way or another, by God, I was going to make something of myself.

Even this radical liberal college didn’t know what to do with me, and sent me to do my senior internship at a queer theatre company, telling the youth director: “We have this kid we don’t really know what to do with.” I met her, she met me, and she said, “What’s the big confusion?” She FINALLY laid it out for me, “Girl, you’re a queer!”

It was a relief, but, at the same time, I still had these grand designs of being the queen, being famous, being the biggest and most glamorous showgirl to ever grace the stage. Eventually, this reached a pinnacle of frenzy, after I graduated and had the full freedom of summer to dive into the nightlife and all the sex, drugs and rock and roll.

I became lost in the illusion and fantasy of that world and I literally started coming unhinged.

I ended up realizing that I needed to come home; to come back to the prairie, grounded, connect back to nature, and to my origin. In a sense, I came back to be washed clean in the Platte River. Yes, it’s a muddy river, but that kind of reflects the mixed feelings I had about Nebraska. This will always be my home, the place where I can come back to be renewed, but, at the same time, this is also a place with many painful memories.

I did a series of photo shoots with my dear friend Kandice, exploring connections between my identity and the land, reborn and baptized as something other than a gay man in drag; as a queer creature of fluid gender. After the first shoot, I was in neither my disheveled confused boy persona nor my glossy big-hair campy drag costume. I was just me, a feminine but strong figure, a harlequin in a sense, embodying so many worlds and identities. I finally saw what I looked like when I was truly focused, energetically at peace, and connected to myself internally and externally. After my time back here, I knew I would be able to return to Chicago with a brand new clarity of purpose.

I had released Precious Jewel the Drag Queen, and had begun to discover Precious Davis, the trans evangelist, queer activist, and performance artist. But I wasn’t sure how and when to introduce my full-time transition into womanhood.

In my time as a showgirl working on the strip in Boystown, I had seen so many trans and gender variant youth on the street. Many of them were homeless youth of color. They would watch me run into my gigs and watch me perform from the window facing the street. Many nights after my performances, I would go out and love on these young people, and take pictures with them. I remembered the abandoned feeling I felt at a young age and did not wish that on anyone else.

Soon thereafter, a racist transphobic onslaught began occurring in Boystown. It was a crusade by all the gay white men to “rid the streets of crime,” which was blamed on the young people who partook in community-based services from the LGBT Resource Center located in the neighborhood. I wanted to bring my social justice background to bear on the debate, so I attended the local town hall meeting, but was shocked and disgusted by the unparalleled racism, greed, and classism spewing from the mouths of these white business owners. It was at that very moment that I knew it was time to use my power for building community and safe spaces to do more than bring patrons to a dollar drink night.

I wanted to help these young people. I wanted to help this community. I found a job working at the Center on Halsted, an LGBT youth resource center. My first week on the job, I was still hesitant to fully present my trans femme identity as Precious, wearing mostly boy clothes and my natural hair. One day, I said to a coworker, “I wish I could be here as Precious.” Then he said, “Girl you can!”

I realized this was my chance to finally be those women I had looked up to all my life: my teachers and preacher’s wives, striding the halls with a steady click of authority and glamor, in heels and skirts and all the trappings of my femme identity. Finally, I was fully embodied in my identity as a trans woman of color!

In my work at the center today, I facilitate groups with trans and gay youth of color, holding discussions on identity, healthy relationships, safe sex, and many other relevant topics. I coordinate community outreach to LGBT youth, organize HIV prevention efforts, and plan fabulous events for all the young people to enjoy and mingle with one another. I have gone on to speak at conferences and universities around the country, and have been so lucky to connect with and become eternal sisters with some of the other amazing trans women doing important work for our cause: Joanna Cifredo, Geena Rocero, Janet Mock, Zachary Drucker, Laverne Cox, Jen Richards, Cherno Biko, and Angelica Ross.

Now, this has all led me here today, to tell my story again, as a vibrant reminder that no matter what hardships you face, you can be resilient and you can achieve anything.

I am a woman of victory and I am manifesting greatness in my life.

I am Precious Davis and I am #RedefiningRealness.