Saturday, September 7, 2013
It seems to me that all this talk about (re-)making ourselves into “the religion of the future” focuses an awful lot on externals, and frets even more over what we think we’re lacking. So, with that in mind, let me begin my response to all of this with a simple observation …
The future begins now.
Whatever we plan and ponder for future times, our actions this very day – this very moment – set the course for that future. And all the technology, media outlets and fancy dressing-up still doesn’t answer the more essential questions of who we are and what we offer.
Before we can become the “religion of the future, I would posit that we become the Church of Now, defined by values and inspired by vision.
Love thy neighbor … now
Welcome the stranger … now
Comfort the afflicted … now
Let justice flow like waters … now
Be the change you want to see in the world … now
Look at the largest and most influential religious movements in history. They didn’t need capital campaigns, high-tech gadgets, marketing strategies or feasibility studies. They didn’t even need hierarchical bureaucracies – all that came later. They had their people, their vision, their values, and their belief that a better world could be created right then and there.
Perhaps, rather than worry about preserving the institutions and material possessions of our faith movement, we should consider what our faith is about, and how to empower and embolden our people to live our faith principles more fully … now
Saturday, August 10, 2013
Dana and Jordan were looking for a spiritual community, and the UU church in their city seemed the right balance (Dana had grown up UU, and Jordan had left a conservative denomination). After attending and making new friends, they decided to formally join. Jordan became part of the choir, and Dana joined the Religious Education committee.
What they didn't share with others in the congregation was their interest in BDSM. Given how they saw it as "irrelevant" to their church life, they saw no reason to tell anyone outside of the local kink community. And they found it not too difficult to keep the two separate.
Then the RE committee began plans for their Coming Of Age group, including teaching Our Whole Lives. Someone wondered, with worry, about what to do if one of the teens asked about "weird stuff" like bondage and sadomasochism. Dana spoke honestly that it might be helpful for the OWL facilitators to know some background information about BDSM, in case such questions were posed in class. "What kind of information?" another committee member asked, and Dana talked about some of the basics, but nothing explicit. After the meeting, the RE director took Dana aside and asked: "How do you know about this BDSM stuff?" Nervously, Dana replied about having "researched" the subject earlier.
Things went downhill soon afterwards. The couple started to get phone calls with "all sorts of bizarre questions and snide remarks" about their sexuality. A number of friends at church stopped talking to them. Dana was no longer receiving notices about the RE committee, and became "shut out" from discussions during meetings. The choir director related that some members of the choir were pushing to have Jordan removed, saying they were "uncomfortable"; to this person’s credit, the director refused to acquiesce to their request.
The worst, however, was when our couple went to the minister for support and guidance. They expected at least a sympathetic hearing. "We'll never forget [the minister’s] only words to us on this: 'There's nothing I can do, even if I wanted to.'"
Around this time, Dana was being considered for a new job in another city. With all that was going on, they did not hesitate to accept that company’s offer and relocate. Once they settled in, they considered whether to join the larger UU congregation there. "It was difficult at first," Jordan admitted, "but when we first went in, we could see the difference was night and day, [the previous church] seemed UU in name, … [the new church] really takes seriously what that means." And, to top it all off, they eventually found out that a couple of the new congregation’s members were also part of the local kink community!
It seemed they could now begin a fresh start, albeit at a more cautious pace. Then, the minister for this new congregation asked to meet with them. The reason? Someone at their old church had sent an email, not only outing them, but outright defaming them. "They accused us of wearing fetish gear on Sunday, trying to push a BDSM workshop on the whole congregation. We’d done none of that, not one, and we said so upfront."
And here was another difference between the two congregations. "[The new minister] made it clear from the get go: 'I don't care about your sex lives, I just want to get your side of the story here.' And [the minister] was so supportive, so open to hearing what we had to say … even suggesting that the staff have some sort of training around being sensitive to alt-sex issues."
In fact, it was that minister who directed this couple to Leather & Grace which led them to me. After an email and a long telephone conversation, I gave them some options for how to proceed, especially given the very real fear that some in the old congregation might continue to harass them.
This tale gives me very mixed emotions. I am delighted that this couple has found a spiritual home, and a pastor who will genuinely hear and respond to their needs. I am also infuriated that they had to go through such horrid treatment in another congregation, and especially by a minister. I've heard others say that we should be loving towards those who would marginalize, defame and harass. All well and good – but too often, this well-intentioned message lacks a prescribed remedy, and becomes yet another way of telling marginalized folks to develop a thick skin and forbear the wounds inflicted on their souls. We can love the sinner, but that doesn’t mean we put up with their sin. It means we expect better, and that we offer them a way to grow and change.
And yes, I said that dreaded "S-word" that Unitarian Universalists are loathe to use: sin. But there’s no other word I can find that is appropriate. Discriminatory actions and attitudes are sin, regardless of whom they are directed against. If someone we love commits such a sin, the most authentically loving response is to bear prophetic witness and provide means for penance and redemption. Likewise, those who are sinned against require an authentic response of support, affirmation and healing. Yes, it is demanding, but that is the cost of the covenant, and anything less is cheap grace.
UPDATE: Since this came to our attention, the Steering Committee of Leather & Grace has called for a day of silent witness, to bring greater awareness to the issues facing kink-oriented Unitarian Universalists, and to underscore the continued silence of UU leaders. Sunday, September 29th has been chosen for this action of witness. We call on our members and supporters -- including and especially vanilla UU allies -- to pledge to join us in Silent Sunday.
Sunday, March 24, 2013
But before that piece came an article in the Washington Post, titled "Many Unitarians Would Prefer that Their Polyamory Activists Keep Quiet". As soon as the link was printed in the discussion list for UUs for Polyamorous Awareness, the spin-doctoring began, with people saying the article read like it was ten years old, and must have been dragged out of mothballs to fill space on a slow news day. And I admit that I joined in the crowd, blaming the journalist for not doing any follow-up research.
Well, I’m beginning to think I was too quick to blame Lisa Miller. Perhaps she did do some follow-up after all. It might not have been much, but …
Take a look on the UUA website. About the only up-to-date information is that UUPA is now on record as a "Related Organization." The only official statement from the UUA, dated from 2004, declares that "the UUA has never supported the legal recognition of polyamorous relationships, nor has this issue ever been considered by any official decision-making body of the Association," and that "related organizations are not endorsed by the UUA board of trustees." And while the UUPA offers a curriculum on polyamorous families, there’s no indication that the UUA itself is educating its ministers or congregations on the subject.
In short, if you were looking for signs of progress in how Unitarian Universalists address polyamory, you’d really have to hunt for it. Queer identity and marriage equality, sure. But polyamory? Well … there are some things you just don’t talk about, even in a faith that embraces "a free and responsible search for meaning and truth."
It’s even worse for Unitarian Universalist kinksters. While UU polyfolk have minimal recognition, kinksters have no official existence. Some congregations are accepting, and some individuals will express their support – privately. But don’t expect them to suggest that we do more education around the topic, even with mainstream media outlets like The New York Times and the Oprah Winfrey Network. Don’t expect them to talk about the uncomfortable truth of people being discriminated against in various ways, even in supposedly liberal places like UU congregations. After all … there are some things you just don’t talk about.
That’s all too convenient when you’re in a position of authority and relative privilege. All too convenient to minimize, to dismiss, to avoid, to not talk about it. Whether it’s racism, homophobia, transphobia, polyphobia or kinkphobia, it’s all too convenient to talk about other people’s ignorance, and overlook our own "ignore-ance" – our tendency to marginalize and rationalize why you "just don’t talk" about such things.
The problem, for those of us who have to put up with all of that, is that we can’t do that. This isn’t just another abstract issue that challenges us – it’s our lives. And when others in our lives decide it’s just not convenient to talk about or think about, while the damage continues to be done, … well, I hope you the reader get the picture.
What I find most ironic is how those of us who have been allies, and who have spoken up against all the damaging "-isms" and "-phobias" out there, find no reciprocation. Many polyfolk and kinksters are white, and have spoken up about racism, including within our own communities. We’ve spoken up for GLBTQ rights, including marriage equality, and anti-gay bullying. It’s not that we’re asking for payback – we’re just surprised that the people we’ve been supporting all these years, and whom we expect to know better, seem so quick to apply double standards.
When I preached about BDSM and kink this past summer, the first question asked was: “What can we vanilla folks do to support you?” Three simple things:
First: Acknowledge that we exist.
Second: Learn all you can about us.
Third: Don’t just tell us that you understand or support us. As much of a boost as that can be, the ones who need to hear that most are those who continue to ignore, dismiss and marginalize us. Don’t just speak to us, and about us – speak for us.
Martin Luther King is credited with saying: "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." From my own experience, I constantly wonder if those who refuse to speak up are doing so because they’re reluctant to listen. And that’s the real shame, because there are some things we just shouldn’t ignore.
Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Recently, I’ve found myself caught between a rock and a hard place. The “rock” is my commitment to Unitarian Universalism, or at least the vision of what it can and should be. I’ve worked hard for my home congregation, and beyond it, to spread the good news. I can give examples of our progressive faith at its best.
Then we have the “hard place” – the list of times I’ve heard of and personally seen where those entrusted with authority have failed to live up to those ideals. I’ve seen the annual meetings of my district turn less and less into opportunities to learn from one another, and more into cheerleading sessions as the delegates are asked to rubber stamp reports while we are given fewer avenues to ask questions or propose changes.
I’ve had to hear sickening stories of other kinky UUs being maliciously outed and falsely accused, hauled in front of “safe congregation” committees and being forced to choose between fighting an exhausting battle or leaving their spiritual home.
I’ve seen the UUA staff reorganize in ways I cannot understand, while still failing to address some rather obvious needs, or failing to implement other changes that were recommended after months of hard work assessing the needs of our movement.
Just recently, I’ve heard from another UU blogger who was part of a mass walkout from his last congregation.
When I’ve shared the highlights of these stories with other UUs, more and more I’m hearing the same refrain: “Yeah, me too. I’ve noticed … ”
The list goes on and on – but that’s not the most disturbing part.
What bothers me most is how UUA staff and leadership seem to respond. Often it is a strict hands-off policy. “We are an association of congregations,” folks are reminded, “and there’s only so much we can do.” Or, more recently: “Policy governance precludes me from acting on this matter,” sometimes followed with a suggestion of where to go, and many times with no such suggestion.
Have our leaders forgotten that we’re not just congregations, or districts, or policies, or any of the organizational structures that we and those before us have built? We are people, first and foremost – people with gifts, with questions, with worries and with pain. None of our congregations, and none of what we have built, would exist without people. And the reason why organizations exist is not merely to perpetuate themselves, but to serve the needs of the people who built them.
So, where can individuals go when the system fails them? I’ve looked high and low, I’ve asked around, and frankly there doesn’t seem to be any place like that. How many of the roughly 420,000 people who identify as Unitarian Universalist, yet who are not members of any congregation, have in fact walked out because we failed them?
Many institutions have adopted an answer to this problem: They appoint one or more people as ombuds, to serve as advocates on behalf of individuals who would otherwise become lost in a bureaucratic maze. Their job, very simply, is to assure best practices and make sure a government or other body fulfills its vision and mission of serving its constituents, and never putting any one piece of the organizational puzzle above that.
The UUA needs an ombuds. We need someone who can cut through the red tape, listen and respond effectively to individuals, and hold us all to account. We need someone who takes seriously that every soul who comes through our door is important to us. We need someone who reminds us that organizations are not meant to be ends in themselves. We need someone who, even when we can’t solve a particular problem, can at least give us reason to say with all honesty: “We did our very best.”
This is what the UUA really needs. I just hope its leaders are listening.
Sunday, June 24, 2012
You may have noticed in the past few months that various news outlets have been reporting on how a British woman’s first novel, published out of small press in Australia, had reached the New York Times bestseller list. Indeed, within two months of its being picked up and republished by Vintage Books, its sales exceeded ten million copies.
How did 50 Shades of Grey – a tale about a young woman submitting to the will and painful discipline of a wealthy Adonis – attract such a following? For whatever reason, the phenomena of sadomasochism, dominance and submission, and other forms of sexual kink were now seemingly becoming mainstream.
Actually, it should not have surprised anyone. A year before that, Rihanna’s song "S&M" peaked at number two on the Billboard hit charts. In 2002, Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader starred in the kinky love story Secretary. Around the same time that movie was released, viewers of the hit show CSI were introduced to the dominatrix Lady Heather, who would appear in six episodes through the series, and develop a complicated relationship with its main character Gil Grissom.
But these are fictional performances, barely scratching the surface of reality. Given our mainstream media’s penchant for sensationalizing the unusual, those of us who are part of the BDSM community find ourselves living a paradox, where more people know about us and our sexuality, but myths and misconceptions still abound.
And, like it or not, this is a challenge for Unitarian Universalists, just as homosexuality was in the late 1960’s. Should UUs and other religious progressives merely accept mainstream presumptions, or question those presumptions and seek to learn more? Both our principles and our history call for us to engage in a deeper search for truth, and to overcome the prejudices of the past.
Let’s start by understand the umbrella term BDSM, itself a combination of three acronyms:
- B/D for “bondage and discipline,” the use of physical or psychological restraint in an erotic context;
- D/s for “Dominance and submission,” also known as consensual power exchange; and
- S/M for “sadomasochism,” where pain or other intense stimuli are used to enhance sexual pleasure – pain, but not necessarily injury, and certainly not serious injury.
BDSM covers a wide spectrum of expression, practiced by a diverse community. Some may like what others find painful, others do not. Some identify as “dominant” or “submissive,” others are “switches” alternating between the two, and still others refuse to embrace any fixed role. And that’s just for starters!
This community has its own lingo, cultural symbols and ethical standards. The most common expression for this BDSM ethic is “safe, sane and consensual.” We develop skills and take precautions to minimize the risks of injury, much like rock climbers do; we also make sure everyone involved is in a proper frame of mind; and we take steps to communicate and understand what everyone involved will do together.
Another parallel between BDSM and sports like rock climbing is that people outside of these communities often wonder: “Why do they do it?” Well, the reasons are as diverse as the range of erotic expression – or other activity – that’s out there. The best summation I can give you is that we kinksters explore the delicate balance of risk, trust, intensity and intimacy – a balance within which many of us find a deeply spiritual aspect, what Justin Tanis refers to as “ecstatic communion”.
Still, even with these parallels to such activities, BDSM is nowhere near as tolerated. How many of you out there enjoy sushi, even just occasionally? [several hands go up] Wow, a full house! Now imagine that you travel to an area where eating raw fish is considered unhealthy, even dangerous, and people like you who enjoy this delicacy are looked upon as disturbed or sick. Just mentioning that you’ve tried sushi could cause you to lose friends or hurt your career; doctors can even refuse to treat you because they consider sushi eating a “high-risk activity.” Sushi restaurants would be banned, and few places would sell recipe books, raw ingredients like nori and wasabi, bamboo mats for rolling maki, and so forth. Making sushi for yourself at home might be tolerated, so long as you didn’t tell anyone about it, but having friends over for a sushi party runs the risk of being raided by the police for violating public health laws, in spite of any precautions you take to assure the health and safety of your guests.
Imagine you and your sushi-loving friends living with a sense of isolation and dread. Imagine trying to explain to others that this is safe, that what you choose to eat is your own business, that psychologists can show that you’re no more sick than non-sushi people, but to no avail. Imagine wondering who around you is like you, or at least willing to listen.
Friends, what I’ve just described is what many of us kinksters go through. We’re put in the bind of being told to “keep this private,” while living with the fear of what could happen if our privacy is violated. And so, I’ve decided to take a risk – to open myself up to you, and to field your questions. That is the next step on this journey of understanding and change.
[The sermon was followed by a "talk-back" session with a number of comments and questions, from what vanilla allies could do about discrimination, to questions about identity.]
Saturday, May 26, 2012
We kinksters often talk about “the community” without clearly defining it. Some even debate whether we really have a kink community, and I can see why. Compared to a Unitarian Universalist congregation, a local kink community often seems like nothing more than a bunch of folks gathered around the shared trait of non-vanilla sexuality. UUs really think through what we mean by community – what brings and keeps us together, how we get things done, how leaders are chosen and held accountable. One could say that, because we’ve had to address those issues for centuries, we’ve gotten it all down pat. And while I’d agree that’s a large part of it, we also have to consider that many of our congregations are relatively young, and our entire faith movement has been continually exploring the definition and praxis of community.
UUs also surpass kinksters in another important aspect of community formation. Ours is a thoroughly democratic tradition. I’m not just talking about electing governing boards, or debating and ratifying resolutions. Democracy is integral to our culture and ethos – we’re so used to it that to many of us it’s become second nature. Contrast that to the large number of local BDSM organizations run as so-called “benevolent dictatorships,” and the host of groups torn apart because inadequate governance procedures could not keep petty personal disputes in check.
Now, with all that being said, kinksters do have a considerable advantage over Unitarian Universalists. While we UUs talk frequently about embracing diversity, it seems to me that kinksters have a better approach in this area. Yes, UUs have plenty of workshops and documents and colorful PowerPoint presentations … but I’ve seen too many UUs who seem to think that, once they’ve gone through this or that workshop, they’ve earned their credentials and they’re done. If someone proposed having an educational program, and it turned out the congregation had hosted it two or three years ago, they’d wonder if it was worth a repeat performance. Kinksters would be saying: “Well, not everyone attended last time, and we’ve had a lot of new members who could benefit, and I know I could use a refresher course … let’s do it.” Not to mention deliberately repeating certain topics, like new member orientation or basic safety or CPR certification.
A large part of it is because “kink” or “BDSM” is not a single identity, but an umbrella for a wide diversity of consensual sexual expression. So, just as UUs have gotten into the habit of democratic governance, kinksters have gotten into the habit of educating one another about our different forms of eroticism, including really edgy, button-pushing topics. As education coordinator for the New England Dungeon Society, I was always pleasantly surprised at the turnout our classes had, especially with people who had no personal interest in the topic, but thought it was important to learn about what other kinksters were into. That, to me, seems a vital factor in embracing diversity – that understanding is a prerequisite for acceptance and affirmation. And that understanding is not like earning a graduate degree or professional certificate – do it once, and then you’re set. No, it’s more like first aid and CPR – you have to keep going back to get re-certified, because there are always changes and it’s always good to keep up on those skills; plus the importance of having as many people as possible learning those skills, so as many people as possible can benefit.
Unitarian Universalists have been able to sustain local democratic communities for generations – but we still have a ways to go towards the embrace of diversity.
Kinksters have learned that diversity requires continual education and growth – but many of our local communities are still wrestling with foundational issues of getting groups off the ground and keeping them going.
Come, let us learn from one another.
Saturday, April 21, 2012
Another question I’ve yet to see or hear being asked: Why is this news? Years before, the recurring character of Lady Heather presented BDSM with nuance and humanity to viewers of the hit series CSI. Around the same time, Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader starred in the film Secretary, where Gyllenhaal’s Lee Holloway finds fulfillment and love as the submissive of Spader’s E. Edward Grey. Then there’s Rihanna’s hit song “S&M”, and the questions and controversy surrounding it as young people played it on their iPods and cell phones.
Still, there remains a paradox. While BDSM and fetishism have become more visible in mainstream media, it has yet to lead to a corresponding level of genuine awareness. More vanilla folks know that we exist, but not much more about who we kinksters really are. And we kinksters still remain huddled underground, bemoaning laws and attitudes that can cost us our jobs, homes, families and freedom.
Some would say it’s because so many kinkster revel in being part of an “outlaw” culture – wanting neither approval nor acceptance. But the kink community is large and diverse, and a more sizable group would prefer simply to be left alone. The problem is that neither rebellion nor isolation encourages the kind of change that would allow any given subculture to continue unencumbered. Such a desired state requires a sufficient understanding within the mainstream culture, which in turn requires mindful engagement on both sides. Outright rebellion often provokes reaction, while secrecy tends to breed suspicion.
Of course, many folks in the kink community will make the argument that secrecy is necessary. Given the current state of affairs, coming out to the world is risky – but this feeds a vicious cycle, because so long as kinksters don’t come out, the current state of affairs will persist. So once again we are caught in the paradox of letting fictional characters like Lady Heather speak for us, with the hope that it will lead to change, yet still lamenting the lack of change.
Others would argue that we do indeed have eloquent spokespersons, and that they convey a great deal through the news media. But take a closer look at who usually winds up engaging the media about BDSM – it’s usually prodommes talking about their clients, not soccer moms talking about their lives. Granted, prodommes have considerable expertise, but there’s also the fact that they convey a stereotypical exotic image, and thus maintaining distance between kink and the mainstream. So we may celebrate magazines like Salon interviewing dominatrices about “kink entering the mainstream” as progress, but in the end the very image those dommes portray reinforces the predominant view of BDSM and our community – and back we are in our paradox.
I’m not expecting a slew of middle-class and blue-collar kinksters to suddenly appear on news programs. Breaking a cycle so deeply ingrained takes a great deal of time and effort. The question is where to begin, and the best suggestion I can think of is our own neighborhoods. Just as the GLBT community engaged people one-on-one and in small groups of everyday people, kinksters can find ways to engage vanilla folks about who we really are and what we’re really about. From there we can truly move forward – but only if we’re willing to make the effort.