Sunday, July 4, 2010

It Takes Both Sides to Build a Bridge

Let me begin this post with an apology. If I sound angry, frustrated, or just plain fed up, it has nothing to do with you personally. I’ve been trying to comfort the afflicted for quite some time; now I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s time to afflict the comfortable. If you feel you don’t deserve the harshness of this message, please remember that there are those who do, or who fail to grasp how harsh silence can be. So, with that in mind, here goes …

As I went through the process of formally joining my congregation, I made it clear to the senior minister that I am openly kinky, and that part of my reason for joining was to help build a bridge between the two communities. And I asked her if she and the congregation were ready for that – to see more kinky folks come into the church, even reach out to the BDSM community, so that people on both sides might share their spiritual gifts with one another, and work together for justice and understanding.

She said that she believed that was possible, and that she could see me in that role of bridge builder. It was encouraging and empowering.

And now, I’m beginning to wonder.

Yes, I’ve come a long way. I’ve never hidden being kinky or polyamorous to anyone in the congregation, and they’ve been great about it. I’ve had others come out to me, even thank me for being as out as I am. Others have shown their appreciation for helping them understand sexuality issues better, whether at a Sacred Eros meeting or in private.

Yet there are others who simply do not want to talk about it. I’ve heard of at least one person who left the congregation over it, even though I had offered to answer any questions or concerns they had. And there are plenty of kinky and poly folks who have come to worship services or other events, found it a warm and inviting place, perhaps even a spiritual home, yet remain wary of going any further than “just visiting.”

I’ve heard from other UU kinksters in other congregations, and the news isn’t always pleasant. Many feel they must remain in the closet, because it’s clear that others are not comfortable with their presence. One woman told how she was hauled before a committee, questioned at length, then told to sign a one-sided covenant which would have barred her from so much as mentioning BDSM with anyone else, while the committee could selectively out her to others. Another told me that, after coming out to the new minister in private (as he had done when he joined years before) he was told it “would be for the best” if he simply left.

Granted, there will always be some who refuse to listen or understand. Even when the bridge is clearly before them, they will not walk across it, or welcome any who come from the other side. The real problem, however, is that there’s no bridge to speak of. Those of us who are kinky UUs often feel as though we have to swim back and forth between the shores, while the folks on either side expect us to build the bridge all by ourselves.

So, let me make it plain. Swimming from shore to shore is exhausting. And it takes more than one or a few hardy souls to build that bridge, and certainly not from one side alone. It takes both sides to build a bridge.

Unitarian Universalists cannot simply wait for BDSM folks to swim over. We’re already in your congregations, worshiping and serving alongside you. Many are silent, because they’ve already heard ignorant and fearful things said about them from others in the pews, or even from the pulpit. And the very reason I chose to come out to the members of my congregation is that I know from those silent kinfolk how soul-scarring that is.

That has to end. And, frankly, I can’t do it all by myself, nor can other kinky UUs be expected to do what I do all by themselves. We need ministers, educators, staff and lay leaders to join in. We need you to learn who we really are and what we’re really about. We need you to speak the truth in love whenever someone maligns us out of ignorance and fear. We need to welcome us as our whole selves, to see that the experience of our sexuality carries spiritual gifts worth sharing, and to encourage other UUs to do the same.

The same goes for those in the kink community. I have heard you talk for so long about changing laws and attitudes. Well, to do so will require allies, and you can’t just wait for them to come to you. You need to reach out to UU congregations, leaders and social justice organization. You need to help them understand what we kinksters have to go through. And yes, at the risk of sounding evangelical, you need to go to church, to understand who we are and what gifts we have to offer you.

Our two communities already have much in common, and much to offer one another – but that alone is not enough. The fact that so many UUs are so wary of us kinksters, and so many kinksters are so wary about church, tells me that we need more. We need to devote the time, resources and hard work to building that bridge, rather than assume that it’s already there. We need to realize that those of us with kinfolk on either side of the shore cannot afford to keep swimming from shore to shore. We need the experience of others who have built bridges, or who have enjoyed what has come over them, to lend a hand.


  1. The Kink and Poly aspects seem really different to me as far as approach goes. Kink is easier, though I don't exactly know what we can do to reach out to kinky folks other than not actively driving them away. As far as I've ever heard listening to people talk, kinky sex is, like deer hunting, something that most UUs don't think is for them and regard as a strange thing to do, but isn't ultimately a deal-breaker as far as friendships go. As I'm a fannish, nerdy type, I have some kinky folks in my social circle and wouldn't hesitate to invite them to church. I haven't except in one case mostly because they seem to be doing fine on their own religious paths and I suck at evangelizing when the evangelees seem happy and don't seem to need it.

    AFAIK, poly is a more difficult issue for essentially three reasons: UUism's history with polyamory and lingering weirdness from it, perceptions about poly folks and concerns that UUism will be asked to carry polyamory's banner politically.

    UUism has had some history with polyamory and at least the conventional wisdom is that it didn't work out well for the churches where it became popular and was ultimately very destabilizing. (I would love to read a history of polyamory in UUism written by someone without a dog in the fight either way.) Whether or not this perception is accurate, it is the perception y'all are up against and the widespread belief that polyamory messed up a lot of churches is part of the issue. I'm assuming you saw the big poly discussion on the blogosphere a few years ago, this was the issue that was discussed the most.

    Secondly, middle-aged liberal guys who are caught cheating sometimes suddenly announce they are polyamorous. (A friend of a friend's husband is one of these,) They really give polyamory a bad name though my poly friends really look down on that behavior and don't consider someone who is dishonest in their relationships to be one of them. So y'all get tarred with that when it isn't your fault. Also, I've never had a poly person express interest in me who didn't take either obvious embarrassment or a simple "No, thanks" for an answer, but I think part of the concern is that people think they are going to get hit on all the time. (Would that we were all so attractive.) Those might be the most straightforward concerns to deal with in that my impression is that they are far from unique to UUism and my guess is y'all are used to dealing with those worries.

    Thirdly, the concept "After gay marriage, the next logical step is polyamorous marriage" is either incredibly logical or incredibly offensive depending upon whom you ask. My impression is that some UUs think that poly folks want to in some way force the UUA to pursue their political goals and are only really joining the church for that purpose. I'm confident that this is not the case because no rational person would think the UUA's support is worth their time and energy since as far as I know the UUA has never been particularly helpful in the achievement of any political goal. Also, there is the worry that if a church that has taken a public stand for gay marriage were to take a public stand for polyamory, that would hurt the cause of gay marriage since it would provide evidence for the oft-heard slippery slope argument conservatives tend to make about gay marriage.

    Anyway, I think those three are the primary issues poly folks face and I don't really know what to do about any one of them. A person like you who joins the church, works hard and makes his values clear to everyone without ever hiding who he is does a lot of good. I don't bring up my poly friends randomly, but have never been reluctant to discuss them either. Aside from that, I'm not sure what to do to start working on the bridge from the UU side.

    Do we know if there is a decent adult RE curriculum on polyamory?


  2. CC, let me start by commenting on the issue of polyamory within UU circles. UUs for Poly Awareness has been around for about a decade now, and they've made considerable headway. After stripping away "Independent Affiliates" the UUA Board has created a new category called "Related Organizations," and UUPA is one of them. Also, the recent OWL for Young Adults module now has a rather thorough discussion of poly, and they've even had poly folks in on training sessions.

    As for BDSM/kink, the biggest misconception is equating it with abuse. That's where we need more education about what actually goes on in BDSM relationships, so that folks can understand and appreciate the difference -- including and especially the level of communication required.

    If anything, the educational work that UUPA folks have done should help lay some groundwork for education on kink. Both involve intense levels of communication and consent. This also makes it easier to distinguish (a) cheating from poly, and (b) abuse from BDSM. Poly and BDSM both require prior discussion and consent, to make sure everyone involved is safe and happy (or at least reduce the chances of unsafe and unhappy outcomes. Cheating and abuse, on the other hand, don't incorporate these aspects, and no amount of claiming to be poly or kinky after the fact can make it so.

    The point is that you can't just have one or a couple of kinky UUs trying to do all of this work. In fact, you need a significant number of vanilla UUs willing and able to join in, just as hetero allies positively influenced the course of GLBT rights. And at this stage, what we really need are more vanilla folks like you willing to listen and learn, and then later to share what you've learned with others.

    There was an episode from the last season of The West Wing where Matt Santos was sitting in a limo with the Governor of California, discussing an immigration bill on the Governor's desk. The Governor asked Santos why he had not spoken out publicly against it. Santos replied: "The American people have heard enough about immigration from people who look like me. They need to hear this from someone who looks like you."

  3. The abuse thing had never occurred to me.

    Wow, you think once something has been part of pop culture as much as the very basics of BDSM have been, people would know better. I realize the Law and Order Special Victims Unit where the murder victim is into BDSM isn't ideal media coverage, but that at least made it very clear that the victim enjoyed it when she was alive and while the murder was disguised as BDSM gone wrong, it was really just about money.

    Will have to think about this.

  4. Desmond -- in terms of UU curriculum resources, BDSM is discussed in both the young adult and adult Our Whole Lives curricula.

    The Adult OWL curriculum was published in 2000 and it doesn't mention polyamory by name. But it does talk about non-monogamy in long term relationships.

    The Young Adult OWL curriculum was published in 2008 and it really does a better job of covering both poly and BDSM.

    If I were teaching Adult OWL in a congregation today, I would supplement the Adult OWL program with the young adult materials.

    One additional UU curriculum resource on polyamory is freely available from Interweave:

    "Bisexuality Curriculum"

    One of the goals of the Interweave bisexuality curriculum is the following:

    "Place bisexuality in a context and examine its relationships to other sexual orientations, questions of gender identity, and polyamory and polyfidelity."

    The problem I've seen as an OWL curriculum trainer is less congregational demand for adult sexuality education.

    Most of the OWL trainings I co-lead are for adults who will be teaching adolescents (grades 7-9/10-12) -- about 3-4 grades 7-9/10-12 trainings per year. I do about 1-2 grades K-1/4-6 trainings per year.

    Between 2000 and today (a decade), I've only done 4 adult OWL trainings of any type (3 adult and 1 young adult/adult combo training). That works out to 0.4 adult OWL trainings per year.

    It appears that congregations don't see the need to allocate resources to adult sexuality education. If money and volunteer resources are limited, I can certainly understand why there would be less demand for Adult and Young Adult OWL.

    But the unintentional side-effect of this congregational resource allocation decision is that many UU adults don't have the opportunity to safely explore any concerns they may have surrounding BDSM, poly, and other kink issues.

  5. @Steve: Agree with you completely, too few UU congregations do the OWL for Adult programs.

    My impression is that many adult UUs hold to the same myth as the general population -- that adults should already know all they need to about sex. And that's not always the case, otherwise sex therapy and self-help books wouldn't be such a booming business.

    Contrast that with the BDSM community. I ran the educational program for a group here in Boston for two years. We not only provided a variety of monthly workshops on different topics, but steered people to a number of resources. Multiply that by the hundreds of local BDSM groups doing the same thing, plus dozens of annual and semi-annual conferences with workshops, plus an ongoing tradition of one-on-one mentorship, plus websites and online discussion threads, and you get an idea of just how much education goes on among kinksters.

    How I'd love to have a contingent of UU ministers and RE directors meet with a group of BDSM educators. It would be quite a revelation!

  6. I just sent a long rant about UU/Poly and Kink. I'm an RE director, I'm poly and I'm kinky. I'm not willing to put my career on the line for this one as I'm new to my relatively conservative church, and a single mom. However, I am "out" to my coworkers, and find that the issue is not about "being" kinky as much as when we try to get the church as a body to speak out on the issue. UU churches only speak out as a body on issues that congregations select as a cause pretty much by consensus. You need to live among UUs for a while to debunk the myths and remove anxiety before you can expect that kind of consensus.

  7. @Anon: Appreciate the position you're in. If I may respond to a couple of points:

    Having a UU congregation or the UUA take a stand on poly rights or kink rights is long term. We're talking about UUs who engage in kink not having to worry about being told to leave when that part of their lives is disclosed.

    The person I mentioned being brought before the Safe Congregations committee -- she wasn't doing bondage in the parish hall, or trying to push any resolutions about BDSM. She and her husband had met someone who was curious about kink and asked them questions, then had a falling out with them and went to the committee with some wild (and false)accusations. When the couple met with the committee, they tried to explain: "Yes, we're involved in BDSM, but what this person alleges did not happen." I won't go into lengthy details about what happened next, only to say that there was clear prejudice against the couple, and some underhanded shenanigans done to force them out.

    This is about getting the two sides to talk to one another. Yes, you need a consensus before expecting a congregation to take a stand, and you need to debunk myths before you can reach such a consensus. But before any of that, we need to talk to one another.

    As to kinksters "living among UUs for a while" ... We've already been doing that. The problem is that too many kinky UUs feel they have to do so in complete silence. And we're not talking about staffers like yourself, but everyday folks in the pews, still fearing that, if the rest of the church knew about this, they'd be shown the door.

    Fortunately, since I originally posted this, there has been some progress. More UU ministers and RE people have approached me for info on BDSM, and I've been asked to help with a training program for clergy. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, the progress has only been on the UU side; I've yet to see BDSM folks even consider engaging progressive religious leaders in conversation.

    I think a good starting point is for more kinky and poly UUs to come out to their ministers. Doesn't have to be a big show, it can even be done with a carefully worded letter or email. But we can't stay unseen and unheard forever.