Monday, November 12, 2018

Faith, Anger, and Heart: Part Four (MAYBE DON’T CALL PEOPLE FREAKS?!)

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: 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.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Faith, Anger, and Heart: Part Three (Singing and Seething)

Not long after I started trying Restoration monthly, they welcomed a new minister. I’d been a fan of McKinley Sims (Okay, full disclosure: He’s super-dreamy. I had a crush. Sometimes the body leads the soul places, what can I say?) since about six years ago when he did some of his seminary work through the Unitarian Society of Germantown. He was always someone I felt like I could learn from, maybe because (as I later learned) he’s from Lubbock, Texas just like my ex-wife/BFF is. Something about that accent just makes explaining go down easy, I guess.

Still, I wondered why a congregation that had a stated goal of inclusivity and a Black Lives Matter banner out front would choose, in 2018, a white, cisgender straight man, albeit a presumably progressive one.

Encouragingly, McKinley’s first sermon as Restoration’s new minister gave me lots of hope. He said “siblings” instead of “brothers and sisters,” which suggested that he might be trained in the ways of the gender spectrum. He made it clear that he is committed to immigrants’ rights and his first month’s theme was “sanctuary.” He talked about how building sanctuary takes work, takes facing problems rather than sweeping them under the rug. He even acknowledged those harmed by church-enabled sexual abuse, which I have NEVER EVER heard a preaching minister of any denomination so. NEVER. I’ve been alive for 44 years. That’s a big deal.

One Sunday a few weeks ago, McKinley went out of town. The Substitute Minister, the layperson leading the service, was a slight, middle-aged white guy. He seemed nice enough, so I felt safe to settle in.

Ever in organizing/canvassing/yelling-at-Nazis mode, the Joy I wanted to share that week was a mini book review. Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister had saved my life and fired up my soul in the trigger-laden weeks following the Kavanaugh hearings, and I admit I was feeling quite evangelistic about it. I’d brought the book for McKinley because I thought he’d like it, and even though he wasn’t there, I carried it up through the Joys and Sorrows line anyway.

“Joys and Sorrows,” announced the Substitute Minister, “Are for matters of the heart, not for political announcements.”

I was SHOCKED! I had never heard them mention politics during that admonition before—one of the reasons I felt safe at Restoration was because it felt like a break from the politics-shaming of my family and of the world at large. Everyone there seemed political, I hadn’t yet had to feel like I was badly-behaved or a freak.

I SEETHED when it was my turn to share. The Substitute Minister shrugged and rolled his eyes as I said:

“I deeply resent being told that politics are not a matter of the heart so…NO…to that.”

(If I had it to do over, I would 100% say “FUCK that.” Live it, learn it.)

I gave my teensy book review, and the women of the congregation smiled and nodded.

As I sat back down in my pew, nearly shaking with anger, a tall and warmly hippie-ish white man, one of the congregation’s regular musicians, that “Thank you for saying that.”

The next person in the Joys and Sorrows line, an African American man who looked to be in his early twenties, made (YAY!) an announcement about the vigil for immigrants’ rights that his committee was hosting the following Tuesday.

Stoplight Guy wasn’t there that week. I missed him.

I tried to listen to the rest of the Joys and Sorrows of the congregation, but I was seething so badly I felt like I was hovering off my pew. I did the bad-habit thing of planning what I was going to write on the minister’s facebook page after the service. I wanted to start typing then and there, but that seemed beyond the pale. I tried joining in the singing, but everything felt dissonant and out of whack.

SURELY once McKinley knew about this, he would fix it, right? SURELY he would understand what the problem was?

1.      He SORT OF understood.
2.      The service was about to get even more egregiously fucked up.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Faith, Anger, and Heart: Part Two (Stoplight Guy Forever)

The week that the Unitarian Society of Germantown put “Welcome Pope Francis” on their sign, the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration’s sign said something that made way more sense to me: “Beloved Community.” I also noticed that their minister was a woman, so it seemed like it would be a safe place to be while the rest of the city (and my now-former church friends) fell in love with the pope. They put stones in water for their Joys and Sorrows just like USG did, but the congregation shared aloud if they chose to. One member shared his post-Catholic pain during that time, and that was the ONLY mention of the pope. The sermon, given by a layperson who was a woman of color, was explicitly in favor of LGBT rights (The Q hadn’t been widely added yet.) and ended with something like “Someday maybe I’ll be ready to sit down with Kim Davis and try to understand her. But not. Today.”

Still, for all of Restoration’s wokeness-before-that-was-a-mainstream-thing, it was hard to get past the architecture. Just like all of those cathedrals I’d studied in Art History, it was shaped like a cross. All of the characters on the stain glass were white people. Unitarianism, for an anti-racist post-Catholic, is like trying to break the cycle of abuse and then realizing you’re still abusing and being abused, but gently. It’s like one of those dreams where you know a place is your home, but you also know it isn’t.

But still, this spring when the voice in my Kirtan-blissed mind told me to sing in church, Restoration seemed like a good bet.

There’s a flaw in my personality wherein I’m still sort of looking for a perfectly welcoming, perfectly approving community/family. It probably comes from not having been particularly welcomed as a child, from inherited ancestor-grief in my XX chromosomes, or both. It’s a flaw that has caused me unending sorrow as an adult, to the point where if some group seems perfectly kind and safe, I should probably run for my life before I get too attached/expectant/hurt.

When I went back to try Restoration again, my child-brain started to spin its fantasy of perfect welcome. Here’s why my mistake was both understandable and irresistible:

When it was my turn in the Joys and Sorrows, I told the congregation I was feeling scared because the following weekend I would be headed to D.C. to counterprotest the (DELICIOUSLY FAILED! Unite the Right rally. I said I wanted to honor Heather Heyer’s name. And then, the most intoxicating thing happened: the congregation applauded.
As activists, we are trained not to expect rewards or thanks (derisively called “cookies”) for simply doing the right thing. This is in spite of the fact that doing the right thing takes hundreds of hours of unpaid labor and is often physically and emotionally dangerous. Women are especially policed for this (we especially police EACH OTHER for this) and I think the phrase “performative ally” was one of the phrases most successfully weaponized by Russian trolls in 2016. Though I wouldn’t criticize another activist for being praised, I live in (misogynist) fear of being deemed too proud of myself, of being too happy to be in the struggle.

So when the Restoration congregation applauded my efforts, I felt a deep sense of relief and belonging, of sanctuary. As I sat down, I felt briefly free from the family alienation, the Bernie Bro concern-trolling, the microaggressions, the weaponized phrases. I just felt appreciated for a second—a very wholesome drug.

EVEN BETTER: A few Joys and Sorrows behind me in line, there was Stoplight Guy. Stoplight Guy is everything that is right with democracy, with spirituality, with the world. He was a tall African American man with caring-dad energy. He explained that he lived across the street and was there to update the congregation about the very dangerous intersection the church shares with him. He told us about his efforts to get the city to understand the need for a light. There were SO many accidents, he said. It really needed to stop.

If this church had a place for Stoplight Guy, it had a place for me. We sand “When Your Heart Is in a Holy Place,” one of my favorite hymns. I felt refreshed and energized, ready to let my guard down.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Anger, Faith, and Heart: Part One

It seems very tricky to be writing about how pissed I am at my local Unitarians at a time when every faith community that isn’t white, mainstream, and Christian (Arguably, Unitarianism IS a white, mainstream, Christian religion, but they certainly don’t like to see themselves that way!) must be feeling protective of their congregations and their faith homes. But at the same time, I see ways in which the fear can contract us into something evil, a witchhuntlike distrust of strangers that provides an excuse to prey upon (or at least silence) the marginalized. In religion, nearly everyone who isn’t a pro-colonialist Christian straight white male looks marginalized to me.

Additionally tricky, I’m writing from the position of an outsider. I was raised Catholic and I’m ALWAYS angry about it, I’ve been an on-again off-again (now probably permanently off-again) Unitarian for about ten years, and I’m too frustrated now with forced/performed feminine niceness to even attend yoga classes very often. Religion and organized spirituality are clearly not a fit for me, and I know I should probably just let them go like a would a bad match on OK Cupid. Similar to my need to be self-employed, I guess my spiritual life needs to be self-determined. Whatever is divine within me needs to be expressed freely, in its own way, without millennia of patriarchy, rape, and colonialism to weigh it down.  I may wonder forever if that’s even possible. I probably will keep trying.

I am still deeply, fundamentally angry at the Unitarian Society of Germantown for the abandonment and betrayal what was their welcome and celebration during Pope Francis’s visit to Philadelphia in 2015.  It still feels like a FUCK YOU to raped children, to LGBTQ folks, and especially especially ESPECIALLY to those of us who identify as women. I think sometimes of returning just once to have my name taken out of the USG membership book, where it remains like a bad spell.

The loss of the Unitarian Society of Germantown and the brunches, music nights, and other friend fun that went with it (I still ache when I remember that my closest church friend called me a narcissist. My blood still boils when I remember the lady who condescendingly told me she hopes I find peace. WHAT KIND OF MONSTER FINDS PEACE WITH CHILD RAPE!?)  still makes me so sad and angry. I probably should have steered clear of future attempts to join a faith community, but I missed the singing. I drive by the Unitarian Church of the Restoration on the way home from work most nights, and they seemed like they might be less patriarchal than USG.

Then, one night in the spring, in a yoga studio running a Kirtan sing with a friend of mine, a voice came to me: “Go back to church. Go back to singing.”

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Screaming at the Supreme Court: A Love Story (Part Six)

It all happened so fast. It seemed like the people at the front, with the big “NOVEMBER IS COMING” and “WE BELIEVE SURVIVORS” banners in Women’s March font had been ready for centuries—I guess in many ways they have. Maybe it’s my Chilling Adventures of Sabrina binge, but I’ve been thinking a lot about inherited pain and struggle, of power passed down between generations of women (ALL kinds of women: trans, non-binary, femme, cis, etc.) all witchy, all trained. We had their power with us that day, and it made everything easier for a while.

On a more earthly note, the training and organizing that has proliferated since the founding of Black Lives Matter, since Tarana Burke first tweeted #metoo, since the 2017 global Women’s Marches, and since Emma Gonz├ílez called bullshit on gun violence has us SO READY to fight, SO READY to stand up against evil. We will only get better, more grounded, more interwoven, more soundly knit. We have built and are building something beautiful, every day.

The people (mostly women, mostly women of color, trans, non-binary, butch and femme and cis and so on) crossed the police barricades and made it up the Capitol steps so fast. They unfurled their banners and chanted “Join us! Join us!” so we did. I grabbed Amy’s hand and led her through a break in the barricade, streamed onto the Capitol steps with so, so many others. There we were. On the steps. Facing the crowd. I faced the “E.R.A. NOW” side of my sign toward the crowd and felt very classic and Seventies.

The noise was dazzling, shattering, reverberating off the marble of all of those white supremacist heteropatriarchal buildings:

“We believe survivors!”
“We believe survivors!”
“We believe survivors.”

I looked out into the assembled crowd and misted over from the magnitude of the moment. After a few more minutes, Amy said “Okay, now it’s time to decide: Do you want to get arrested?”

I saw what she meant: dozens of black-clad police started lining up at the corner of the steps.

I had no question of what I wanted to do. My first student on Monday would be a little boy, a first grader who asks me WAY more questions than I should answer about why we don’t sing “I Believe I Can Fly” anymore and about every single other thing. At that moment, he was the highest priority in my heart, pulling me back down safely into the crowd.

There, we had the chance to witness our steps-occupying compatriots’ bravery. As we chanted to the police “Who do you serve? Who do you protect?” Layers of protesters left the steps, while many others stayed to get arrested.

The first two people to get arrested were a beautiful, middle-aged, full-figured goddess of an African American woman and the white clergyman she knelt beside, clasping hands at the front of the steps. Cheers erupted for them. As much as I wanted to side-eye the white dude, the symbolism was hard to resist.

Most of the arrested people wore brave, beatific expressions, some with a hint of “Are we really doing this?” in their eyes. There were people of all genders, many with a sort of wholesome, Unitarian-schoolteacher look about them, shiny-eyed and hopeful. A gorgeous femme trans women of color returned to the crowd, exasperated that they wouldn’t arrest her.

“Maybe it’s because I’m a candidate, I don’t know” she said.

Of COURSE she’s running for something. Magical fucking times!

One of the last people to get arrested was a blonde woman of about twenty. She had perfect red lipstick on and subtly punk rock eyeliner, and she was clearly having a panic attack. I saw the fear flicker into her eyes, so out of place and yet exactly right in this moment of plucky determination.

As the policeman put the zip-tie handcuffs onto the young woman, cuffing her at the front of her body, I could see her start to hyperventilate, could see her start to fight back perfectly reasonable tears. I could see her wishing she could just FREAK. THE FUCK. OUT. I started to freak out for her, sobbed from my safe place and wished I could run to help her. Her fellow arrested young women gathered around her to help, breathing with her and helping her to breathe. This young woman’s bravery, her vulnerability, her trapped fear, will stay with me forever, will help me fight.

So much of survivorship is about feeling trapped, immobile, voiceless. If you’ve never lived in a body that faces those conditions, it’s hard to understand the risk that that young woman, ALL those women, all those PEOPLE took. They faced the fears that I’m not always strong enough to face, and they did it for me. For you. For our fellow survivors. For America.

I promise that this sacrifice will never go unhonored or unnoticed. I promise to honor that panicking young woman and her brave compatriots every chance I get. I promise to always face my fears, to raise my voice, to stand as bravely as I can for women of every category. I hope you can make that promise too.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Screaming at the Supreme Court: A Love Story (Part Five)

            After the conversation with the pro-Franken family, I needed to get away. On the way to finding a spot on the Capitol lawn, we ran into an art project. We were asked to write our thoughts on a popsicle stick (There was some kind of pun involved there, I forget.) to be glued onto a “believe” poster. I wrote “Fuck Al Franken too.” on mine and the young woman whose poster it was frowned at my contribution before placing it on a pile of also-not-fucking-cheerful-enough rape thoughts.

            Even protest art seemed to have betrayed me. It truly felt like there was nowhere to turn, like I would never be a part of anything ever again. This is a normal thing to feel during a panic attack but this was a NATIONAL panic attack, a GLOBAL one, fueled and pushed (I can only see this in retrospect) by all of my enslaved and exploited ancestors and precursors, by ALL of the women (especially the women of color) and girls and femmes and trans people and non-binary folks, all of the non-white non-men who had fought for freedom against colonialism before me. When I’m screaming, I’m screaming for all of us.

            I can see now there were generations, millennia, of pain and fear coming out of me in racked, animal sobs. I honestly didn’t are who saw. I hoped they saw. I hoped that the people around me could hear me but I ‘knew” in the way that a panicky rape survivor knows that no one could hear me, no one could ever hear me again. No matter how disruptive, how livid, how determined, no one in the world would ever be able to hear me.

            Amy’s policy, whenever scared at a protest, is to find a friendly tree, so we did. We sat on the grass and I tried to breathe. I was still starving so she gave me her sandwich. I wondered what she would have to eat and I nagged her about it for the rest of the day.

            I sat in the grass and scream-cried. I asked her if that women from China had really said “me too” to me and Amy said yes, she had. I shriek/bellowed “WHY?” Like a poorly written movie character. WHY does she have to go through this too? WHY do they hate us so much?

            I felt so dissociated and lost that it seemed like we were done with the protest. (Spoiler alert: We were not.) I wondered if we should start making our way to the Hope Diamond, my favorite post-protest reward. Instead, I kept crying, brokenhearted, feral, bereft.

            At a certain point, though, I realized that my crying might be disrupting the MAGA hat couple, who were engaging in performatively “reasonable” conversations with protester after protester. (I try not to hate those who take the Sarah Silverman, let’s-empathize-with-racists tact, but I kind of do hate them. Talk to somebody better!) When the spite started to re-emerge in my heart, I began to feel something like okay.

            Amy and I decided to go back to the protest for fifteen minutes and then call it mischief managed, but then we saw that the whole demonstration was on the move. It was magnificent to see: Mostly women (cis and trans), mostly people of color, mostly clad in black, fists held high. They were marching together for the Capitol steps.

            As Amy and I joined the march, I had an inkling that this was going to be one of the most powerful things I would ever see. I was not wrong.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Screaming at the Supreme Court: A Love Story (Part Four)

            A really cool thing happened and then a really dreadful thing happened. Lots of protesters were sitting and having a rest along the planters that lined the sidewalk across the street from the Supreme Court. Amy and I went over there to relax for a minute and make sure our phones were charged. I opened the foil-wrapped PB& J from my purse and ate it with panic-hunger. We still joined the chants going on across the street. I wondered aloud why we weren’t BLOCKING the street. If this were Philly, we would definitely be blocking the street.

            Sometimes, tourists would come by and talk to us about what was going on. A group of Chinese women stopped to ask me what my “E.R.A. Now” sign meant. One woman in the group, tall and thin and brightly dressed, didn’t have much English at all, but she had two words:

“Me too.”

            Her face was shiny and happy, maybe just excited to have found the right words. A lightning bolt of connection, sadness, and heart from all across the world went through me. We smiled at each other. We had something beautiful and horrible and profound: Me too.

            Not too long after that life-altering exchange, a white, middle-aged, American man with a goatee, walking his bike and wearing yellow bicycle clothes, stopped to greet some friends who were sitting near me. In my freaked-out, hypervigilant state, I overheard what he was saying, and it FUCKING CONCERNED ME.

In an offhanded, chitchatty way, he said this:

“It’s just a shame because you know the ones voting yes today are the same ones who went nuts when Franken…”

“NO. NOT HERE.” I went from peaceful PB&J mode to spitting-nails mad in half a second. “YOU ARE NOT going to talk about that FRANKEN BULLSHIT HERE. NOT. TODAY.”

Like so many “liberal” men, he was super-ready with:

“You shut the fuck up, bitch. I’m just talking to my friends.” He shook his finger at me and said something physically threatening, I wish I could remember what.

“GO. AHEAD.” I said, holding my sign aloft and bracing for impact.

It seems so foolhardy now, but I WAS physically ready to fight him. I wanted him to come at me so I could rip him to FUCKING SHREDS and with him, all of the troll-farm- indoctrinated Bernie Bro rape-apologists I’d been tormented by for the past three years.

It felt like the crowd around him was treating me as a threat, but it’s likely that some of them were trying to protect me. NOT the white woman that the Bicycle Man had stopped to greet though--she stood between us, shielding the man from my attack. A black man with a very gentle manner tried to get between us on the other side. He was trying to help, I think, but I felt boxed-in and snarling. People were filming with their phones—I’m sure I’m on some feeds looking and sounding like a caged beast.

“You need to get some help.” The white lady acting as the patriarchy’s human shield kept telling me.

“You’re crazy,” the bicycle man kept saying.

1.      I am getting help! This protest IS me getting help.
2.      Nothing calms a girl down like some good old-fashioned gaslighting.

The worst part was that I ‘knew” in this moment that I was the threat here, not sleep-rape-joke making Franken (Who, in my fury, I kept calling Frankl. Sorry Viktor Frankl! Love youuuuu!”) not this man gaslighting me and telling me to shut up, not even Kavanaugh. To this little crowd, I was the scariest thing at the Capitol that day. Maybe I’m a little bit okay with that, except:

            “You’re making my daughter cry!” said the woman angrily.
            Her daughter, a curly-haired twelve-something, was indeed sobbing, in the same way my then-littlest nephew sobbed when I ruined the Thanksgiving before last screaming at the adults about Nazis and racism and the homophobic Catholic church and rape culture and Water Protectors and god knows what else. I recognized and empathized with both kids’ fear, but I tried to understand that neither I nor my anger was the problem.

            “YOU’RE making her cry! WHY DON’T YOU STAND UP FOR WOMEN?”

            “You need help,” the woman kept intoning, and I really can’t argue with her there.

            “What if it was HER in that fucking picture? What if it was YOU?” I screamed as I started to walk away.

            Although some people said words of encouragement (“Stay strong, you can do this.”) as I was led (by Amy, thank goodness) away from the scene in shock, I felt like the worst monster ever, like I’d ruined the movement, like I’d set back the Democrats by a million years. I was shattered, and ashamed of myself, but I can also see who did this.

            AL FRANKEN FUCKING DID THIS. He fucked women over in person and then he fucked us over as a party. Liberal men did this, by dismissing the concerns of all non-white non-men as “identity politics” and insisting that “real people” only cared about money.

            While I admit my anger was scary and I’m sad that that little girl cried, I hope she’ll remember my fury on her behalf. I hope, someday, it’ll spark some fury in her. That doesn’t make me not-ashamed, but it does make me a little hopeful.