Monday, June 30, 2008

Welcoming and affirming

Yesterday, I marched in the gay pride parade with my church. My friend Rachel posted some background to the organization that we were marching with.

It was an interesting experience both for what it taught me about myself and what it taught me about the gay community.

You see, I would generally see myself as worldly when it comes to exposure to gay rights and gay issues. I have honest-to-goodness gay friends, I've always believed that people were born that way so I've never really fallen for the "it's an abomination" line. By the time I started thinking about the issue, I was already thinking about translations of the Bible as a means of preservation for the social order so "the Bible says it's wrong" can be argued against a hundred different ways, in my book. I've never let my students use "gay" as an insult and actually converted some over to believing that's harmful, rather than simply obeying the authority figure. I worked at the Renaissance Faire for five years and witnessed all manner of after-hours flamboyance. Hell, Susan made me watch Priscilla when I was 17 years old and I loved it.

But for some reason, I was overwhelmed when confronted with so much flamboyance when I arrived at the parade site. Beautiful drag queens, fantastic costumes, glitter all over bodies, young and old. But there were also men in just their underwear and a pair of boots or women naked from the waist up except for stickers on their nipples.

I'm a fan of public nudity. I've had some great experiences on the island, learning that nudity is not always equivalent to sex but it sometimes simply an expression of the friendship intimacy you feel or hope to feel with other people. It says, "I'm comfortable that you won't judge me for how funny I look without any of my clothing supports that put my parts in the right places." Because everyone looks ungainly hauling themselves out of a hot tub. Everyone looks goofy naked because of all that unchoreographed motion. Being naked in the bright sunlight or even the dim light of the sauna is really not very sexy at all if it is devoid of sexual context.

But when I encountered public nudity at the gay pride parade, I found myself tucking my attention inside the safe sphere of my feet and my chest. I felt nervous and didn't want to make eye contact with anyone. Plus, it seemed a little gauche to look. I found my group but since I didn't know anyone, I leaned against a building and waited for a familiar face. I was overwhelmed but also moved powerfully and fought back tears at the huge show of support for people that have been so oppressed. It's so different when you are actually there in person. It's amazing that so many people can love so many other people all at one time.

But when talking with Nanette to give her directions, I found myself addressing her as Pastor Nanette, which I've never done before. As if her position of authority would protect me.

Because it wasn't just public nudity. It was public sex. Of course, not all of the parade is like this. A lot of it is just like every other parade that I've been to. And I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I've ended up making out with a strange guy in a bar by the end of some South Side Irish parades, so it's not like I expect parades to be chaste. But this was often explicit. A woman wearing only her skimpy underwear and a strap-on. Lots of spanking, bumping, grinding, and bondage.

I suppose that for centuries, gay people have been told that they are deviant. So, to empower oneself, one flaunts everything that society considers deviant to eliminate the internal shame that has been impressed into one's soul. By going tot he extreme, what should be normal no longer feels extreme anymore.

While I was in Miami, I wore all my new sundresses. One is very low cut and several are strapless. Camilla exclaimed that I looked like the woman that she and Ruth (my boss at the Faire) always knew I could be but never was while I was married to Dennis. They used to marvel at how reserved and pure I seemed to be. (of course, this is part of why I was so successful at selling to little girls.) But my ex-husband wanted me to be sweet and innocent and so I was. As I've grown up since then, dated men who actually expressed an attraction to me and learned that I possess power because of their attraction, I wear outfits that are more and more revealing. I'm fairly certain that I stay within the bounds of appropriateness and good taste but my newfound power gets expressed to the world through the decisions I make about what to wear.

I suppose that some of the people in the parade are expressing their power by displaying sex in addition to sexuality.

As the parade went on, my nervousness faded. This was helped by the vodka lemonade that was offered to me out of a 5-gallon office-style water cooler when the parade was stalled because of an injury. Also, once we got started again, my group reached the main drag and I began observing the responses people had to a group of 50 Christians marching and handing out buttons that said, "God loves all of us." People would call out. "I'm a Lutheran!" or "I like churches!" When we would stop briefly, we were almost always engaged in conversation immediately by someone in the crowd, asking somewhat incredulously about our church.

What caused me to tear up if I thought too long about it as I marched was the sheer number of people that made eye contact with me and said, "Thank you." I must have heard it 40 or 50 times over the course of the parade.

Can you imagine what it is like to come out of the closet? I'm certain that every person who has was approached by at least one Christian who felt it was his or her duty to inform the person that homosexuality was a sin or that the person was broken or that the person was going to hell.

Whatever the context, those words hurt.

And I'm sure that plenty of queer people have heard much worse.

So, when a bunch of self-proclaimed Christians marched amidst the latex and the whips and the feather boas to say that God loves all of us, they said "Thank you."

Wicker Park Grace is what's called a "welcoming and affirming" church, which means that we believe that God gave all of us the mental and spiritual faculties to determine her will for our lives. Many of us do not believe homosexuality is a sin. Those of us who do are working too hard getting the plank out of our own eyes to worry about the speck in someone else's.

I am grateful to the people who came out to the parade, including my friend Amanda from school and my friend Monique (who saved me from a spanking of my own) ;-), because they mirrored back to me my own value in this world. In Genesis, God says to Abraham, "I'll make you a great nation and bless you. I'll make you famous; you'll be a blessing. I'll bless those who bless you; those who curse you I'll curse. All the families of the Earth will be blessed through you." The result of God's blessing is that Abraham must turn around and be a blessing to "all the families of the Earth." He is not allowed to keep it to himself.

I have been blessed by being allowed to bless others. They thanked me for that blessing but I wish that I could have thanked them without seeming trite for allowing me express the power that I have because I am trying to learn to love everyone, just like God commands both Abraham and me.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Spirituality of Imperfection

I just spent 2 and a half hours over very good dinner with Ernie Kurtz, the author of one of the most important books in my life.

It was a wonderful experience: the platonic ideal of dinner conversations. Dr. Kurtz is about 70 years old with a smooth pale gnome face with spectacular eyebrows. He apologized that the heat kept him from wearing a tie but his seersucker jacket showed signs of yellowish foxing at the collar. I was utterly charmed. He's more soft-spoken than I expected him to be but not in a frail way. We talked about ideas and the world, asking questions and listening to answers that required life stories to be complete.

I have a feeling that conversations like this can only really be had amongst students and combinations of the young and the old. Students obviously have a maelstrom of abstract thoughts that need to be spoken out loud to gain shape. The young and the old are at such different stages of life that gossip about the personal details and immediate experiences of birth and death don't get exchanged easily if both participants are of equal footing. If one is ministering to the other (in the literal definition of attending to the wants and needs of others) this doesn't happen as often.

But Dr. Kurtz and I met in an egalitarian space. He had sent me an email after I wrote about his book and asked to meet me when he was in town. I was delighted to be noticed probably as much as he was tickled to be quoted.

So we talked about sin and shame and how those words have fallen away from their true meanings. We talked about emerging Christianity and if it can be sustained in the same way that AA has: decentralization. We talked about getting churches more like AA meetings. We talked about stigma and how it is sometimes necessary to keep a group cohesive. He said "sin is . . ." and I can't remember the rest of the sentence but it was subversive and unexpected and I'm sure I'll wake up in the middle of the night and wonder how I could of forgotten. Or else the concept will become part of my regular worldview and I'll be hard-pressed to remember a time when I wasn't aware of that particular truth. We talked about Judaism and its broadness that can encompass so many different expressions of spirituality. We talked about how the early feminist movement couldn't let women become themselves fully because our society equate strength with power. Therefore, they could not admit any vulnerability for fear of losing the power they were trying to gain. Now that they've had some power for awhile, the rules have changed a little and they can start to admit vulnerability. Because shared vulnerability is what it is all about. The ultimate truth is the acknowledgment that there is something not-right about all of us. We talked about how we can eliminate consumerism without destroying capitalism. He told me that the wisdom of his years brought him to the conclusion that materialism is the ultimate evil; the thing that keeps us from God. He asked me how metaphor influenced my faith.

I read in People magazine once a quote from a celebrity who was asked to describe the best part of an evening and she said. "Who can say which drop was the most enjoyable of a good, hot shower?" I feel that way about my evening. I am so lucky to have gotten to spend this time with someone of such wisdom, acuity and curiosity and to watch his face as he turned over things that I said or asked and generated a newborn thought in response.

When I am sad that I do not have a group of friends to form a daily family to support me and to rely upon me, I remember that what I do have are opportunities again and again to have one-on-one dinners with intelligent, empathetic people and that those social events need space so it's OK that they are not regular occurrences.

I am blessed.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Vacations are supposed to be more fun than this.

Of course, I mean, this moment. Right now.

My vacation hasn't felt like this the whole time.

But right now, it sucks.

I have this rash that comes to haunt me every once in awhile. One doctor has told me it is impetigo. Another said it wasn't. Both agreed on a cream that tends to keep it from spreading too far but that shouldn't be worn out into the sun. The rash doesn't seem to be contagious but it does itch.

And it only lives on my face.

So, I have an itchy, puffy, bumpy red face since this time the cream didn't really seem to be very effective. I've had this face for the 4 days of this summer that have been particularly cool, sunny and beautiful. Also, I'm very tired. It's been a full week since my last final and I'm still sleeping 11 hours a night and taking anywhere from 2 to 5 hour naps. So, aside from brief forays out into the world, I have been sitting in my apartment, trying to ignore the blue sky that peeks in through the venetian blinds while I lie in bed because I don't actually want to do anything except try to stop my whole face from burning and itching just by willing it so.

I have things to say to you all. I promise I'll be back. But not today. Today, I'm going to get enjoyment out of this vacation, regardless of my face.

I'm going to read a book. It's going to have fairies and elves and dragons in it. I will forget all about my gross face while I live in Jane Yolen's world for a little while.

Do you know why I know this is possible?

Last Wednesday, I was reading my first novel since I started school last August. It had a 15-year-old female protagonist, fairies and dwarves and it was set in a Renaissance Faire that had obviously been informed by the Faire I worked at for 5 years. It was a joyful experience. Like jumping into a lake on a hot day. The transition from uncomfortable to soothed was immediate and absolute. I got on the El to go home from a meeting, sat down, noticed the guy sitting next to me looked at my legs, the opened my book. I didn't notice the world again until I was a stop and a half away from mine and as I savored the state of ecstasy I had recently been in, I looked around. Francis Spufford calls this state "reading catatonically." Proof of the depth of my immersion came when I realized that the man who had looked at my legs was my favorite kind of nerd: portly, pasty and making Dungeons and Dragons characters on the entire trip! How did I miss that? So, for the 2 minutes I had, I engaged him in conversation. Since he was wearing a wedding ring and has shown himself to be a person of similar tastes to mine, let's give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was catching a glimpse of the title of my book when I first sat down. In the course of our conversation, he was incredulous that I would be interested and then as he began to trust me, I wrangled an invitation to play with his group sometime. Woohoo!

So I get to read my books AND I get to play D&D.

I'll be back to write some more. But right now, I'm jumping off the edge back into the water.