God is Genderqueer: Towards Liberatory Thexlogies

Dedication: Written in the tradition, honor and loving memory of Dr. Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajajé, beloved teacher, mentor, and friend. 

God is genderqueer[1].

God crosses borders, is beyond borders, is alive in liminal spaces. God is more than this or that. God is yes: feminine, masculine, neither, and both.  

In Dr. Farajaje’s work, “Fictions of Purity” (as well as in much of his other work) he spoke of boundary breaking. Of the fear that is created when people reject the existing categories and stake out a claim in the between spaces. “[T]hose who inhabit interstitial spaces,” he writes, “those who moved between worlds, those who are literally fringe-dwellers, are seen as the ultimate threat…The person who occupies the space on the border, the space in-between worlds cannot be trusted precisely because zhe does not owe loyalty to one or the other of the worlds.”

We are, as Dr. Farajaje noted, obsessed with purity and simplifiable categories. Bisexuality – especially, as is pointed out, the bisexuality of men of color – is viewed as an ontological threat to both the straight and gay establishment. Bisexuality confounds our fictions of purity and brings into view the messier reality of blended experiences. It forces us to confront our ideas about the “good world” and the “bad world” and our fear of contamination from impure others. The betweenness of bisexuality allows us to begin to look at the Divine in a less boxed up way, in a moment beyond easy this/that, in a mode that allows for “yes” in response to seemingly “either/or” questions.

Over the years, one of the ways theologians have come up with to acknowledge some of the innate “yes-ness” of the Divine is to attempt to acknowledge its simultaneous or interchangeable masculinity and femininity. To this effect we use terms such as “the/aology” and “the@logy” as is seen often in Dr. Farajaje’s work. But what about what’s beyond the dichotomies of male/female or masculine/feminine? What of all of God and all of God’s people who are not either or, but both, neither, and something else entirely. What of the genderfluid God? The agender God? The genderfabulous God? The two-spirit Gods? Our language – no matter how many gender neutral pronouns we know how to use – doesn’t seem to reflect that this God could be real.

Looking to genderqueer, non-binary, and agender communities it becomes apparent that the desire for this linguistic move is not at all new and we are blessed with plenty of guidance around how to move towards a more inclusive terminology. First proposed in the 1970s, “Mx.” uses an x to create a gender-neutral honorific. Here, X was initially intended as a variable term[2] – as in an algebraic equation – which could be replaced with S or R as one discerned the (binary) gender of the person in question. In the present day “Mx.” is used both in this way and as an honorific for folks who do not find binary sex and gender categories satisfactory as an explanation for their experience of gender. The use of “Mx.” is common enough that it has been recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary since 2015.

Over the past several years there has also been a move towards the use of “Latinx[3] as a gender-neutral replacement for the binary-embeded “Latin@”, which is itself a move from use of the androcentric “Latino” as a catch-all term. Here we see the closest parallel to the sort of movement we’re interested in making with the term “the@logy.” While “Mx.” came into existence with the X intended as a variable, the discussion amongst members of the Latinx community has been intentional in its interest in including folks outside of the gender binary[4]. In an article from Latina magazine, Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza – a theologian and ethicist – notes that “the ‘x’ is a helpful reminder that I live on the border, and I transgress the gender border at every turn. Latinx helps me remember my commitment to being disruptive in my gender expression.”{5] These ideas of transgression and borders should be held near to our hearts and mind as we consider what language we use to discuss God, and to discuss our discussions of God.

Binary thinking about God in a world where little to nothing is actually binary is damaging to our ability to view the Divine in anything close to its fullness. An adherence to binaristic language suggests that we believe our genderqueer, non-binary, agender, two-spirit and other siblings count less to God than do those of us who fit more closely into the binary categories of male and female. Considering all of this – the importance of transgression, the conversation among Latinx folks, and the “yes-ness” of the Divine – I suggest a move from discussions of “the/alogy” and “the@logy” to discussions of “thexlogy.” In “thexlogy” there is space for God’s genderqueer divinity, for discussions not based on binary thinking, and for heretofore unconsidered boundary crossings. In “thexlogy” there is space for a truly transgressive, meaningfully disruptive conception of the Divine.
If we are called by the tradition of Dr. Farajaje’s work – not to mention the work of other boundary breakers, in and out of the academy – a move from “the@logy” to “thexlogy” is not only theoretically interesting, but necessary. This move is a natural next step in the resisting of binarist, heteronormative, and cisnormative theologies that have so long forced disconnection and held up oppressive structures of power. In the tradition of boundary breaking, transgressive thexlogy, let us always remember: God is genderqueer.

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Dishabituation, Polyamory, and the Recontextualization of Intimate Experience

A paper originally written for Aesthetics of the Oppressed, Spring 2016 at SKSM

 

The more time I spend working with Theater of the Oppressed methods, the more often I wish I could yell “stop!” and interrupt the needlessly oppressive flow of almost all of the visual media I consume. Though there is much to focus on in this regard, I often find myself fixated on the particular way in which the plots of everything from television for tweens to award winning films hinge on a very specific set of assumptions about relationships. In order to create a conflict that needs to be resolved – the only way we seem to understand storytelling – writers lean heavily on jealousy and compulsory monogamy. Relationships in this context are if not straight, heteronormative, and – tellingly – in the end the intensity of the jealousy and subsequent drama is taken (implicitly or explicitly) as a stand in for the depth of the love within the relationship. These relationships rely on coercive interactions and often are intimate, detailed playings out of oppressive, repressive, and anti-liberatory systems and norms hidden under the guise of entertainment and “this is just what relationships are like.” Of course, something else is possible.

Popular media is not the only way that we are able to tell stories. Official practice of TO techniques is not the only space in which we can practice new possibilities. Art is relational, and relationships themselves are art. If one intentionally resists cultural scripts that push towards the heteronormative & compulsorily monogamous, relationships – love, sex, connection – open up as viable sites for re-imagining relating itself. Here, I would like to consider the possibility of polyamorous relationships between queer people as a particularized site of such exploration and reimagining. My point here is not to suggest that queer/queered polyamory is the ideal form of relationship for all people, but to point out the coercive forms of popular media, the particularity of hetero and mononormative narratives, and the multicontextual dishabituatory/demechanizing creative practice that I have found to be a necessary part of building relationships outside of the “norm.” Further, I would like to explore other forms of visual art as a way of deepening interaction with and recontextualizing intimate experience.  

In his work on Theater of the Oppressed, Agusto Boal discusses Aristotle’s coercive system of tragedy by which the form of a narration – and the system in which we are used to consuming a narrative – forces particular identifications and emotional responses on the part of the spectators to the effect of purging “antisocial elements.” Though perhaps not tragedies, the ever-present jealously-based relationship storylines in popular media serve a similar coercive function. We are presented with a happy (heterosexual/heteronormative, monogamous) couple, invited to identify with one of the individuals in the couple, shown a situation that draws their relationship into conflict based on unspoken rules about how relationships work – often one individual’s attraction to someone not their partner. When the situation resolves we are lead to believe either that the couple’s mutual love was enough to “overcome temptation” or that one member did not have sufficient love for the other and thus the relationship must end.

Even when we’re told that we’re being shown something different, ultimately our narratives never escape this understanding. We know the feeling of “temptation”, we identify with feeling betrayed or like we are betraying, and in the end we – intentionally or otherwise – agree that what it means to love someone is that you cannot love or be interested in any sort of intimacy with other people. Narratives like this live inside our brains and become postural to our being. We conduct years, decades, and even lifetimes of relationships based on a script that wasn’t even written for us, that wasn’t actually written for anyone. Our lifetime of exposure to very specific narratives around relationships keep us from ever having the opportunity or the necessary distance to ask what it is that we believe love to mean. We are coerced – both by these narratives and by a variety of other social pressures – into killing our own creative capacity in relationships.

Popular media representations of relationships portray themselves as neutral and are, due to cultural norms around orientation and relationships style, read as neutral. A story about a (white) man who cheats on the (white) woman he is married to is almost always presented as a story about the nature of relationships, as though there is no particular context to the experiences of (white) straight people. We are culturally primed to understand these relationships as standard and to absorb the story as if it were about everyone. This compounds these stories’ ability to act coercively. A story presented to you as about the nature of relationships is harder to ignore than one that admits that it is a particular story about particularly situated people. They are however particular, built on specific cultural understandings, norms, and sign/signified relationships. The replication of these stories on other bodies serves only to underscore the assumed universality. Heteronormative relationships between gay and lesbian individuals that repeat the problems we’re used to seeing played out between straight couples doubles down on coercive force, pushing both for the neutrality of straight experience and assimilationist rhetoric of “sameness” that drains queerness of its creative potential.

Both queerness and polyamory can be the beginnings of a dishabituitory practice around relationship norms. Though neither necessarily implies or requires creative reworking of the cultural habits of heterosexual monogamy, the step away from heterosexuality and/or monogamy opens up an opportunity for such creativity. In the essay “TO, the Body, and the Phenomenology of Trauma, Oppression and Liberation”, Jiwon Chung writes that Boal uses the term dynamization “to describe the process of dishabituation of reflexive, habitual forms of body holding, as well as the dishabituation of reflexive, habitual patterns of thinking, feeling, sensing and moving.”  This process, as described by Chung and Boal and as experienced in TO sessions everywhere, involves gentle trust-building, creative sensory engagement, and supportive community that work together to help pull an individual out of her isolation and trauma. In a very similar way queer/queered polyamory can work to demechanize the routine ways of being in relationship. Asking questions about how to be in a relationship that doesn’t look like what we’re used to being shown, finding answers for those questions, and putting possibilities into practice require trust-building and great gentleness between individuals, involve creativity and sensory engagement (sexual, sensual, and otherwise), and are aided by a context of supportive community that can help usher an individual out from isolation and trauma experienced in previous relationships.

One mode of dishabituation is simply in the approach to a relationship that isn’t based on externally imposed narratives. Simply being queer or polyamorous allows one this opportunity for a perspective shift because from the outset one must ask how a relationship works if it is between more than two people or people who are not “opposite” genders. Just asking how it works is in and of itself dishabituative since it asks the question rather than simply assuming the normal posture of relationships. Another mode of dishabituation that is particular to polyamorous relationships is the simultaneous experience of multiple relationships. Since each relationship has its own particularities – textures, patterns, energies – it becomes difficult to become too habituated to any particular way of relating. Intimate experiences from gentle, supportive touch to intense sexual experiences have the potential to be in contrast to other types of those things which are similarly satisfying, mutual, and precious.

In the interest of further exploring this dishabituative practice of queer/queered polyamory, I have turned to art to consider my own intimate experiences in a less-usual context. Working from Boal’s theoretical foundation and considering the problems of sign/signified that often obscure our ability to discuss experiences love and sex, I have chosen to make paintings in an abstract expressionist mode. They are based on experiences with four separate people with whom I am involved. Two are partners – people to whom I say “I love you” and with whom I have long standing relationships. The third is someone I have been dating for a few months, while the fourth is someone with whom I have a new and exclusively sexual relationship. I am not interested in identifying which is which. In making these paintings I meditated on the affective experience of sex with each of them and – avoiding any explicit symbolism – attempted to turn my subjective experience into dynamic visuals that could potentially transmit some of the unspeakable reality of these experiences to another. Here we find similarities, differences, and four separate experiences that live next to each other in my life and mind asking: what is valuable? What is satisfying? What is good? What is love?

 

 

But Really, WWJD?

I wrote this essay not long after November 24th, for a class I took last semester.

Memories of my adolescence are littered with the phrase “what would Jesus do?” Despite my family’s relative areligiosity I feel like that phrase was everywhere. On brightly colored bracelets and bookmarks my friends always had, on billboards near my home town, spoken over and over again whenever someone didn’t know what to do or when someone else had done something they disapproved of. I never knew how we were supposed to know what Jesus would do, I’d never read the Bible or really heard it preached. All I ever really heard in that phrase was “whatever you’re doing, stop that. Jesus was perfect and you are not.” Everything I heard about what Jesus would do was in the negative. In my world people talked much more about what Jesus wouldn’t do than about what he would do, and when they talked about what he would do it was still mostly judgement.

I’ve been thinking about that phrase a lot lately. I’ve been thinking about what it would really be like to live your life in emulation of what Jesus would do. Thinking about what it would mean to take seriously Jesus’ life, work, and suffering as a human. As Jordan makes so clear, many Christians don’t ever really take Jesus seriously as a human. He’s difficult to handle if he is fully human, his life makes difficult demands on our comfortable lives if we take it seriously. Christ is so much easier to handle. We can build fountains to glorify a god, but we have to give a thirsty man water. We have to accept that we might be culpable in his thirst. What would Jesus do?

It was a Monday and I had plans. I was going to get out of my house and work on a project, be productive. It’s a little astonishing how often my plans of productivity are destroyed by the moral failings of my country. Early in the day I heard that the Grand Jury decision about Michael Brown’s murder would be released that day. I’ll admit that my first thought was that I had too much to do for everything to go to hell on that particular day, but, of course it did anyway. I spent the whole day sure of what would come, knowing there would be no indictment, collecting and sharing essays, and determining where I would meet up with people to head out to protest that evening. I didn’t stop to ask myself what exactly I was doing and if I was sure I wanted to do it until I was waiting for a bus to Oakland and writing the number to the National Lawyers Guild on each of my arms. My only actual response to myself was, “don’t just talk about it, be about it” and so I went. What would Jesus do?

From the 6PM announcement until my 1:30AM arrival back in my apartment things are mostly a blur. I can remember a timeline, and I could point out specific events if asked to, but the overall effect isn’t about those details. I made a choice to “be about it” and then I kept making that choice. I made that choice until my heels literally bled, and then I kept going. There is a clear memory of marching behind the crowd, carrying a banner with a couple of UU clergy members and trying to keep some distance between the crowd and the cops, and realizing how badly my feet hurt. Earlier in the day I had seen a picture of Michael Brown’s father crying to the heavens, and had heard that his mother’s cries could be heard above the protests in Ferguson. I hurt, but they and so many other Black families and individuals hurt worse. I couldn’t end their suffering, no amount of me out in the street yelling my lungs out would actually bring their son back or end their pain, but at least I could be with them. My soul hurt and my body hurt. The pain of the world was in me, and I was going to push through. I was dedicated to suffering with. What would Jesus do?

I didn’t realize until I looked at my shoes the next day that I had bled. I didn’t cry until I was in the shower that Tuesday morning. That Tuesday I kept getting hit with it. With what had happened, with what keeps happening, with what the world demands of me. My whole body ached, my heels hurt every time anything touched them and sometimes when nothing did. For the first time ever Jesus on the cross made sense to me. What would Jesus do? Suffer with the families of those most hurt by our racist “justice” system, flip over the money changers’ tables, shed his blood for his belief in justice and liberation.

God Doesn’t Give A Fuck About Your Respectability Politics

This was initially written as a weekly reflection paper for a course on Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Parables. The book referenced here is “Cotton Patch Parables of Liberation” by Clarence Jordan, ed. Bill Lane Doulos. 

In public discussion of social movements for justice and civil rights it is common – distressingly so – to hear comment on the presentation and behavior of whomever is active in the movement. Sometimes it is journalistic shock over protesters in Hong Kong cleaning up after their rallies, sometimes it is praise of peaceful tactics, but far more often it is criticism. Loudly and publicly we are told that to be taken seriously, to have our movements treated as legitimate by the powers that be, we must behave according to certain standards. We have to play the game. Flamboyance at gay pride events is condemned, visible anger and deviation from conventional beauty norms among women are slammed, young Black men are told that they wouldn’t suffer such violence if only they would pull up their pants and turn down their music. The message is: be respectable, fit in to the norms of a white heteropatriarchal society and maybe – maybe – you will stop deserving the violence you face in our society. Become well adjusted to a sick society and perhaps it will kill you less quickly.
I do not get the sense that respectability politics have ever actually lead to respect. It is common in these conversations for people to point to images of Dr. King and other Civil Rights protesters marching in suits and dresses. “See,” they want to say, “they wore suits so they were respectable and people listened to them.” Besides being wildly ahistorical – anyone who has taken more than a cursory glance at history should be aware that that particular fight for civil rights was not won by means of well tailored clothing – that message suggests something with which I am deeply uncomfortable: that justice consists of convincing those in power to let you in to power. I have very little use for this and, beyond that, it is increasingly my sense that God doesn’t have any use for it either.
Near the beginning of the chapter on Disturbing the Peace we are asked “Is there any recklessness that we can muster, or have we become too civilized for membership in God’s family? Have we made ourselves at home with the “peace” of this world?” (71) While I see much of this chapter as an argument against the sort of don’t-rock-the-boat incrementalism that is so common among the comfortable, it also strikes me as being in direct conflict with the respectability politics that insist that we behave politely and in line with society’s existent values in order to be deserving of even crumbs of human decency. “If Jesus has indeed come to cast fire upon the earth, it will not be kindled by modest and polite women and men.” (78) As I read, the refrain in my head was this: God doesn’t give a fuck about your respectability politics.
Since parables are about stories, and my approach to explanation also tends to be about telling stories (and since I rarely think about swearing in class or in a paper without thinking about this), it seems appropriate to end these thoughts with a story. In the fall of 2012 I was traveling around the country visiting some of the seminaries I had applied to. While visiting Iliff School of Theology in Denver I had the opportunity to sit in on a class on social ethics with Dr. Miguel De La Torre. I cannot remember the particular topic of that day’s discussion, but one moment in particular has stood out in my mind since then. The discussion had gotten passionate and a student said something to the effect of “that doesn’t make any damn sense” and then immediately began apologizing for her language. Not knowing the culture of the school, and with propriety high on my list of concerns about entering the ministry, I found myself very anxious to hear the response. “I would rather ministers who swear like sailors and tell the truth,” Dr. De La Torre said to a room full of rather surprised looking faces, “than pious ministers who never say anything real.” I would much rather flamboyant queers, angry and “unfeminine” women, and young Black men with loud hip hop and sagging jeans telling the truth than the entire world’s supply of polite and perfectly dressed people unwilling to really challenge the social order. I think God would too.

On “In-Between-Ness”

I think I was fifteen when I first really realized that I was queer. I guess before then there were flickers of it, but mine isn’t a story of being a small child who “knew” or had any kind of “obvious giveaways” (whatever those even are). I was fifteen and my life-long best friend was telling me about one of her friends from school. She said, “she’s bisexual” and I said. “wait, what? That’s an option?”

I usually stop that story there, mentioning something about how the label has changed since then but, yeah, totally, once I realized you didn’t have to be exclusively heterosexual or homosexual I was golden. I don’t think any story that wraps up that neatly is ever entirely true.

One of the complications of having an “in between” sexuality is being told over and over that you must choose. Worse, having your whole sexuality defined by the apparent gender of your current partner. Or by how many times you’ve had sex with men at all. I think you get good at defending your in-between-ness, at forcing there to be grey where the world only wants to see black and white. It’s not exactly a skill that’s fun to learn; it’s painful to fear rejection for being queer at all and then also face erasure and rejection in the queer communities you thought were there for you. Increasingly though, I think it’s a skill that is useful far beyond its necessity.

It seems that learning to make space in a supposedly clear dichotomy has made it easier for me to sit with other types of “in-between”. Most clearly, it has opened up for me the option of a spirituality and theological location that itself feels very in between. These experiences share much in common. I’ve been repeatedly asked to choose: “Do you believe in God or not?” And I’m constantly being read as whatever I’ve most recently been closest to. It’s strange to find myself both too theistic for atheists and not theistic enough for theists. I think it’s a particularly queer approach to the Divine, and one that has given me greater freedom and comfort than trying to squeeze myself into boxes that were quite simply the wrong shape. I get to say yes. I get to say both/and. I also get to say “no”, and “yes, but…”.

Very few things are clearly yes or no, this or that, and I think that in our constant struggle to be easily definable we lose some of the beautiful mess of reality and the Divine. In ways that I never expected, realizing that in between was an option has opened up the world to me and shown me beauty and love well beyond measure. I wonder what else we’ve been missing? What other as yet unseen freedoms and insights live in the in between?

Holy Silence

There is something very special about being able to be quiet with someone else. Settling in and being able to be just present to life with them. Not feeling like you have to fill all your time with chatter, not feeling like something is wrong if for a while you don’t talk.

I get it. In a society so heavy with admonishments to always be doing something – or, at very least, consuming something – it’s easy to become uncomfortable without constant stimulation. For most of us, being quiet with ourselves is a nigh on unaccomplishable feat, let alone attempting quiet with other people. If we’re not constantly interacting physically or verbally, how will we avoid being boring? How will we keep the other person from thinking we’re bored of them? Even many spaces where silence is valued are focused almost solely on being silent with yourself. While that sort of silence is also really valuable, comfortable silence between two people is a particularly beautiful thing.

There is a closeness in comfortable silence between people, a feeling of being linked together in a way that is both before and beyond words. This silence is holy. It is the experience of existing with another person and feeling connected to them on a level that is inaccessible with only words. Among the more obvious examples of this are the moments just before sleep and just upon waking up, laying in bed with a lover and dreamily sensing one another, seeing one another as whole, beautiful beings. However, I think it is foolish to suggest that people must share a bed or, really, even a sexual relationship in order to have this type of intimacy.

As a culture we’re very used to thinking of intimacy as the sole province of romantic – or at very least, sexual – relationships. By extension, even when we reorient ourselves to view intimacy of that nature as holy, we do not always extend that view to the multitude of ways in which people are non-romantically/sexually intimate with one another. This I believe is a serious mistake. Of course it is necessary and important for us to move toward affirming a wide variety of sexual and romantic relationships, and of course we should make note of the holiness of physical, sexual intimacy, but can we really say that this is enough? What of those who are never partnered and those who have no desire to be? How does this framing fit with those who have more than one partner? Further, what damage might we do if we proclaim the importance and holiness of romantic and sexual relationships without being sure to note the divinity of friendship and genuine human care.

When we are able to be silent together I think we are more readily able to feel the Divine in one another. I know that that is true for me. I have felt the Divine – the feeling I know that I can call God – in the sleepy lulls of late night conversations and in moments of tear-stained silence in cars, living rooms, and counseling offices alike. I’ve felt it as I tip-toed around my sleeping friends, and while laying on a hill in the sun listening to music together. These moments are intimate, and they are holy. I would do a disservice to them, myself, and the Divine if I were to say otherwise.

 

What’s Sex Positivity Anyway?

The continued adventures of work done for my “Sources of Sex Positive Spirituality” class. 

My first sense of “sex positivity” was, in retrospect, pretty problematic. Coming out of a culture both obsessed with and terrified of sex, my concept of liberation was focused on having a lot of sex or at least talking about it constantly. I had been taught pretty explicitly in high school that my desires were bad, and that talking about them was worse than just having them. A visit to the online journal I kept in high school would show you comments left by people ostensibly my friends saying that not only did they think my being sexually active was going to send me to hell, but that my lack of crippling shame about it made them concerned that people would think they were “like that”. It’s probably not a surprise that I spent much of my college career cultivating a persona of talking loudly and explicitly about sex. I won’t say that it didn’t feel powerful. I won’t say that there wasn’t something very freeing about not only talking about sex but often being applauded for doing so. I won’t say that there wasn’t something especially fun about talking about having sex while occupying a body that isn’t culturally read as sexual. I also won’t say that it wasn’t pretty fucked up.

At no point during that did I take seriously that my behavior made people legitimately uncomfortable. I didn’t even take in to account that it made me uncomfortable sometimes. Whenever I felt uncomfortable about my behavior I got mad at myself for not being “grown up” or “free” enough. I was sure that if my younger experience of repression had been so painful, then the way past the pain was to be as much the opposite as possible. This didn’t work. It still hurt. Beyond that, I not only made a few people in my social circles uncomfortable, I totally ignored the reality of multiple existences. I didn’t know that asexuality existed, I hadn’t considered how many women of color (black women in particular) are considered hypersexual regardless of their actual lives, I didn’t think about the stigma faced by sex workers, there was so much I didn’t know. I thought I was being sex positive. I was treating sex like it was good instead of bad, and a lot of the messaging I got from mainstream feminism was that that was all it would take. It wasn’t. It isn’t.

So, what’s sex positivity anyway? And is it a good thing? Obviously I don’t think we should proceed as I began, but when the reality is that mainstream sex positivity ignores much of the intersectionality that is so inherent in people’s lives I have to question the extent to which it is a useful label or frame for me. There is a way forward, a way where we respect our desire and treat sex like the positive experience it can be without ignoring nuance, where we’re free for real instead of shoved in to some other conception of acceptable sexuality. I’m just not sure that we’re doing that.