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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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.

The god of impossible things.

I wrote this as the first of a series of blog posts required for a class I’m in about “sex positive spirituality”. I am very happy with it, if terrified of sharing it with you. 

When I was a senior in High School, I almost got kicked out of a Catholic school dance for being too “provocative”. It wasn’t my school, and I managed to get away with only having been reprimanded, but the experience stayed with me. I think about it sometimes when I dance in public, when I wonder about the distance between how I feel and how I’m seen.

I dance with my hips. I sway, dip, shake. If I am lucky – and I am so often lucky – I get lost. I find myself inside the music, moving with it. In it. In these moments I am whole in a way the world has so tried to force me not to be. In these moments the ruptures between soul and body heal. I sweat out the pain caused by years of hate poured in to me. I am my body, and I am beyond my body. Here and also everywhere.

I guess that it is dirty. That’s what I’ve been told. I was told that my dancing – an expression of youthful sexuality only just beginning to figure itself out – was dirty, and that if I ever wanted for bodily pleasure that was probably bad too. I was taught, though less explicitly than some, not to trust this soft flesh I walk around in. Not to hear what my body said. Not to do what it moved me to do.

I guess that my dancing is dirty, but that’s ok, for mine is the god of dirt. Mine is the god of music and pleasure, of art and of dance. Dirty or not, my soul sings when I dance. Some dance just to get lost, I lose myself in dance to get found. I meet god on the dance floor. In tiny bars, and big clubs, and in my bedroom, and in my kitchen as I do the dishes. Maybe this isn’t how it is “supposed” to be. Maybe god isn’t supposed to show up in color field painting or Hip Hop or abstraction or dance or Funk or sex. But that is my god. The god of impossible things. Of people who weren’t supposed to be what they are. Of blades of grass, growing through the concrete.

Love is the every only god

If I’m going to be talking about my time in seminary, it might be a good idea to talk a bit about how I got to the point of deciding to apply to seminary. Serving as a Worship Associate at my congregation (the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland) has been a huge part of my life for the past two years, and was a major contributing factor to my decision to pursue ministry. This piece was written for the first lay lead service I participated in, in December of 2011. The service’s title was” Love is the every only god” after the e.e. cummings poem of the same name. I suggested this theme at a meeting, expecting everyone else to consider it too silly or not well thought out enough, and was happily overwhelmed when my fellow Worship Associates responded positively. We put together a whole service, complete with colorful scarves to represent my synesthetic experience, and to this day building that very first service with the worship team is one of my favorite and most powerful memories.

e.e. cummings is probably my favorite poet. I love the way words that aren’t commonly put together look and sound together. I’m a sucker for an interesting sounding string of words – regardless of it it appears to mean much of anything. As such, I occasionally browse though his poems. One day as I was doing this I happened upon a poem that began “Love is the every only god”. What it said after that is unimportant, what matters is that that phrase stuck with me, it rattled around in my brain for days, maybe weeks. Actually, it’s still rattling around in there. Every time it shows up in my thoughts I can’t help but say to myself , “that’s so true.”

It’s been a little weird. I’m not used to or particularly comfortable talking about something called god. My family for the most part never talks about god, and my friends certainly don’t. But there I was, with that phrase and those words rattling around in my head. I kept thinking of when I was younger and briefly a member of a Mennonite church. They liked to say “god is love” quite a lot. This was basically just the same words backwards, I thought, but it felt different. Also, I believed these words, and it felt very strange to me to believe any sentence that claims to be about the nature of god. Eventually, in a characteristically over dramatic moment, I told a friend that I’d had these words stuck in my head for a while and that I was a little unsettled by the fact that I believed them. We talked for a bit and then he asked “so, what do you mean by ‘love is the every only god’?” This is the best explanation I have.

We all have walls. Some of these walls are basic and necessary, they say “this over here, is me and that over there, is you.” other walls can be less benign and are based on our ideas about “us” and “them”.  Regardless of why the walls are there, they are in fact there. Behind these walls each of us exists, all of our hopes, dreams, emotions, past experiences and everything. It can get very lonely behind these walls. It’s easy to feel isolated. Sometimes however, we open ourselves up to one another and manage to push the walls aside. In these moments where we connect, where we see our common humanity, I experience the only thing I’ve ever really thought could be called god.

This moment is illustrated very clearly in my mind. I’m synesthetic and for me part of that is that everyone I meet has a color. I, for example, am bright blue while Amy is a kind of warm pink. When we interact, those colors swirl together and modify each other. Whenever I have a positive interaction with someone, colors get brighter. When I have a really intense connection with someone, the colors get more saturated, and on and on.

However I also have interactions, positive and otherwise, where each person’s respective color stays very close to them. Though not everyone experiences interpersonal relationships how I do, I think most people have this sort of interaction at least sometimes.

I’ve found that one of the best ways to facilitate this sort of interaction is to show other people love. In the book “Kitchen Table Wisdom”, Rachel Remen writes “Of course love is never earned. It is a grace we give one another. Anything we need to earn is only approval.” When I talk about loving people, I don’t mean it in the sense of “like a whole lot” or in the sense that is meant when we talk about romantic love. To show someone love in this sense of the word is to look at them and actually see them;  To push aside whatever judgments we reflexively make, to ignore our biases, and to say “hey, I see you there. You have a whole life, a whole history, a body of experiences that I can never really know. There you are, existing, and I see that.” When we love people, we accept their lived experiences as valid and become more able to see in them the basic human-ness that we see in ourselves. Treating people in accordance with loving them in turn allows them to open up to you, to feel safe and accepted, and to see the basic human-ness in you that they see in themselves. Love is how we put down the walls and it is what we find beyond them, when we let ourselves. It can be scary to put down the walls, especially when we aren’t used to receiving love when we make ourselves vulnerable but in putting down those walls we find the ability to help others who are scared to be themselves, and a truly divine experience.

For me, places that are filled with love are places without judgment, where individuals are accepting and welcoming, these places are very brightly colored. I love the moment in a counseling session when my patient realizes or decides that it’s okay to actually open up to me. Suddenly everything is much brighter and the whole tone of the conversation changes.

When I first came here I was overwhelmed and confused by how bright the colors were and how much I felt able to actually just be myself. I remember wondering when people were going to stop being nice, or when I was going to learn what it was about me that was unacceptable here. Gradually I came to realize and believe that that wasn’t going to happen. My ability to believe that really came from the experiences I had, of people interacting with me in a way that showed me that it wasn’t necessary to keep my walls up, and experiences where I let my walls down and was received warmly and with love. I count myself as lucky, maybe even blessed, to have in my life a religious community, group of friends, and workplace where I have these sorts of experiences. Love and acceptance abound in these parts of my life, and that gives me an incredible amount of joy.

Unfortunately, not all places we exist in contain this kind of love. In these places everything becomes very gray for me. People’s individual colors are dulled, and they generally stay very close to the individual. There is not a lot of real connection going on in these places. Public places, or in my case, when I am with my own family, tend to take on this characteristic. When I’m in a space where I’m able to be myself and able to connect with other people who accept me, some of the hurt that is caused by this lack of acceptance is healed. When I show that same kind of love to others I can help heal them, and also heal myself. When the walls are down and we are able to truly connect with one another, we are showing and receiving love. This feeling, of acceptance and unconditional love is the single most holy thing I have ever felt.

 

(I need to remember to tell Erin Jeffreys Hodges about this)