As I rage-hovered off my pew at the back of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration, Substitute Minister called the children up to the front to join him for the Story for All Ages. On the big screen up front appeared…P.T. Barnum?!
“I never get tired of telling people he was Unitarian,” said the Substitute Minister. I’m skeptical whenever any old-timey (or new-timey, for that matter) white dude’s face is up on the big screen at church, but sheesh-o-rama this was the WORST.
Substitute Minister had seen The Greatest Showman the night before and was inspired to talk with the congregation’s children about it. (For a good accounting of what makes The Greatest Showman so problematic, check out this surprisingly woke episode of The Flop House: https://www.flophousepodcast.com/2018/05/episode-257-the-greatest-showman/) Substitute Minister was impressed with how Barnum had uplifted the “freaks” in the movie and convinced them they were good enough, as if that were up to him.
The. Idea. That this man. Who OWNED AND EXPLOITED HUMAN BEINGS, who called people who looked different “freaks” and CHARGED PEOPLE TO COME LOOK AT THEM was somehow a doer of good, was some white angel there to redeem them?! Was too much. This was the story he was telling the children, and everybody there was just LETTING IT HAPPEN.
This was the day that Trump’s trans erasure memo began circulating, the day we all learned of the impeding registry of genitals, the day my friends across the gender spectrum became even more afraid than they already were. On that day, Substitute Minster thought a song from the “freak” Bearded Lady was what was called for. She was just beginning her song on the big screen as I steamed out the door.
It’s hard to talk about that morning in church without becoming incoherent with rage. The weight and sum of my fear and anger and disgust at the white male entitlement that allowed Substitute Minister to think he had the right to 1. Stifle political announcements and 2. Bestow worth upon those he viewed as beneath him thought his proxy the fictionalized Barnum is heavy to carry and hard to parse. It’s garbage. It’s everything wrong. This kind of institutional white cis male supremacy needs to be stifled at every level, in EVERY edifice, in EVERY way if the rest of us are truly ever going to thrive.
I wrote to the non-substitute minister and heard back pretty quickly. Valid, he said, and offered to talk when he got back from travelling. I headed off, not wearing warm enough clothes, to our local Democrats’ campaign headquarters with my BFF. We picked up our door-knocking lists and settled into our Blue Wave work. But I felt hopeless that afternoon, the things that were wrong and broken seemed so vast and embedded that I worried they could never be healed.
That hopeless feeling would pass, but this brush with Institution, like all others for me, would steal a big swath of time and leave lasting scars.