Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Time to Get Out of the Leather Ghetto

Is it just me, or has the kink community gotten rather conservative?

I certainly don’t mean in the sense of endorsing Republican or Tea Party candidates, or working with Concerned Women for America. But I do mean a seeming lack of effort in looking for change. I mean the way that members of the Gay Liberation Front looked at the older Mattachine Society.

Truth be told, Mattachine had its own internal conflicts between those pushing for more activism, and those who argued for assimilation and public education. But I’m definitely seeing a parallel here. Like Mattachine, even though the bulk of BDSM and Leather groups espouse educating the public as one of their major goals, I’m hard pressed to find that actually being done.

Worse, even the low-key efforts which I’ve had to do among Unitarian Universalists has led to my being attacked – personally as well as politically – and histrionically labeled as an obnoxious extremist.

If you don’t believe me, go look at the website of the New England Leather Alliance, and see if you can find any signs of life in their “external outreach” efforts. Is there a list of actual accomplishments in this area? Yes, there are relevant documents from the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom – but where’s the evidence that they have actually acted on them? And it’s certainly no help that the position of Director of External Outreach has remained vacant for months. You’d think that, if this was indeed a priority, the current leaders of NELA would make an effort to recruit someone.

I’m sure there are some examples of public outreach being done by local groups and activists. The problem is in finding them, especially when the websites of these groups won’t even list them. They’ll talk about events and educational programs for kinksters - which we certainly need – but go into specifics about talking to vanilla folks, and the well comes up dry. Certainly more public events like the Folsom Street Fair provide visibility and a sense of community pride – but if a vanilla tourist is walking about lost among the spanking and bondage demos, what then? Museums have tour guides and information booths, so why can’t Folsom?

It’s as if the BDSM community has ghettoized itself – become so insular and inwardly focused, we forget one of the quintessential principles of political and social change: The smaller the minority, the greater the need to build alliances and coalitions with outside groups. So if we want to change the laws and social attitudes which lead us to remain isolated and misunderstood, then we have to leave the leather ghetto and talk with vanilla folks, whether one on one or in panel discussions or mass media.

It’s been said that the number one rule of the Old Guard was: “Don’t scare the villagers.” Many appear to have interpreted that to mean that we should always keep out of sight. Well, it’s too late for that – the villagers know we exist. And while some will always be scared of us, no matter what we say or how we say it, that’s no reason we should remain so scared that we can’t find a way to engage the rest of the village in dialogue and understanding.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Problem with Christine O'Donnell

As you might expect, I have a problem with Christine O'Donnell.

Before her Republican primary win in Delaware, she had appeared on television and radio preaching an extreme message of "chastity" -- not just abstinence from sex with other people, but abstaining from masturbation as well. She has promoted herself as an example of someone who can remain chaste until married, and generalizes that anyone and everyone can and should follow that example.

She opposes abortion to an extreme degree. When asked if she would allow a critically ill woman to terminate a pregnancy in order to save her life, she said she would allow it if her family consented.

She's claimed that she's "dabbled in witchcraft", that one of her high school dates took her to a "midnight picnic" at a "Satanic altar" complete with evidence of blodd sacrifice. Given my own knowledge of modern paganism, based on both personal contacts and extensive research, this doesn't sound all that believable. Sounds more like some of her high school peers decided to pull a prank on her. Either that, or her perceptions and recollections are way off. Or, she made it up. We'll probably never know at this point.

O'Donnell is also a creationist. She has said in at least one media interview that she considers homosexuality an "identity disorder". She has also repeated the claims expounded in "abstinence-only" propaganda that condoms have holes large enough for HIV to pass through. These are views which run completely counter to the findings of rigorous scientific study. She's yet to produce any solid evidence to prove the scientists wrong, and her comments sound like she's merely regurgitating fundamentalist Christian dogma.

And I won't even get into the allegations of financial mismanagement - personal, professional and political.

Besides, my problem with her is not her beliefs. We're all entitled to believe whatever we want, and to persuade others to agree, no matter how wacky.

My problem with Christine O'Donnell is that if this woman is elected to the Senate, she will be in a position to shape public policy based on these extreme beliefs. And that, quite frankly, is dangerous.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Who Says It's Private?

The right to privacy has long been treasured in American political culture. We don’t want government to interfere in our personal lives, especially regarding sexuality, and we tend to be skeptical of other busybodies as well. It is a cornerstone for many of the advances in sexual justice and freedom, from reproductive rights to GLBT equality.

Privacy has also been invoked in a negative sense as well – to silence and constrain already marginalized groups. Because our culture deems sex “a private matter,” not only do we proscribe sexually explicit media to ridiculous extremes, but we still debate whether couples should be allowed to hold hands or exchange a kiss in public. More often than not, however, privacy is invoked as a reason for upholding double standards upon those less powerful. A woman can put up a picture of her beloved on her desk at work – but if that beloved is another woman, don’t be surprised if someone accuses her of being “militant” or “flaunting” about her sexuality. A spiritual community will encourage folks to come to events with their partners – but no more than one at a time. And no problem saying where you and your partner met – unless you happened to meet at a fetish-themed nightclub.

Granted, some people are just not ready to hear all of that. But there’s a big difference between admitting personal discomfort, and using it to declare an objective moral rule that certain “private” realities are permanently off limits. Many people see this as a form of rationalization, but I wonder if there’s something deeper at work. Western culture, and American culture especially, is one which discourages folks from admitting to weakness. Admitting personal discomfort with something can sound very much like a personal failing, as opposed to creating a moral proscription based on that discomfort.

Nor is it confined to outright conservatives. Many folks who are comfortable with GLBT friends, or who are queer themselves, may bristle at discussions of polyamory or kink. Often they make the distinction between “orientation” and “behavior” – who you’re drawn to, or what gender with which you identify, versus how many partners or what you choose to do with them. Are they forgetting that holding your beloved’s hand on the street, or displaying their picture in your cubicle or office, is also considered behavior – and also likely to be declared “off limits” by someone who takes offense? Should we not ask ourselves whether it is the behavior itself which makes us uncomfortable, or the reality which it represents?

The very meaning of privacy is the power of the individual to discern and decide which aspects of their lives should be free from intrusion, and from whom – to set a boundary, if you will, between what others can and cannot know about you. Respecting privacy is not merely about staying on your side of the boundary, but letting the other person determine who or what belongs on which side. Should the comfort level of others be a part of that decision? Of course - but not the only part, and certainly not when it threatens one's integrity, or otherwise damages souls or relationships. Boundaries ultimately need to be negotiated, in good faith among equals who are willing to learn and grow together.

Monday, September 6, 2010

SHALOM: Towards a Theology of Wholeness

Sermon delivered at Arlington Street Church, Boston MA on September 5, 2010

CHALICE LIGHTING – Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Within us is the soul of the whole; the wise silence, the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal One. When it breaks through our intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through our will, it is virtue, when it flows through our affections, it is love" – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Many sermons have been preached from this pulpit based upon a single story, or a single sentence. This one is based upon a single word – but a word with more complex meaning than you may have realized.

SHALOM has often been translated into English as “Peace.” Thus, when we hear of the word being used in the same way as “Hello” and “Good-bye,” we think in terms of bidding one another peace.

But, what kind of peace? Is it the same as the Latin Pax, meaning an agreement between two or more persons or groups? Is it like the ancient Greek Eirene, meaning rest or quiet?

No, SHALOM stems from a different root, one that conveys wholeness, integrity, and well-being. From that root also comes the verb l’shalem, “to pay,” and thus the implication that peace, wholeness and all that come with it must be bought with a price. Biblical scholar James Strong additionally included as possible definitions: to make amends, to make good, to restore, and prosperity.

With all that in mind, think now of the multitude of meanings one could garner when one person greets another with the word SHALOM:
“May you know wholeness.”
“May all things be good with you.”
“May all that is broken be restored.”
“May all you deserve be received.”

I think it no accident that the ancient Hebrews found so much meaning in such a small word. The very structure of the language allows for multiple understandings based on a common imagery. In this day and culture, what imagery can we invoke to better understand the wholeness of SHALOM?

Let me propose the image of a puzzle. Imagine that you are given a box, and inside are a number of intricately shaped pieces. As you look them over, you realize that some fit together in an obvious way. And as you sort and play about with them, you find other, less obvious ways to put those pieces together.

But, it’s a big puzzle, and it takes time and effort. So other folks come over, see what you’re doing, and suggest putting this piece in here, or sliding that piece over there. Once in a while, someone will suggest that you discard a particular piece, while another may insist that the box you were given is missing a piece. Eventually, with enough effort and insight, the pieces come together and a form takes shape – the puzzle is restored to wholeness.

Our lives – both individually and in community – can be seen as very much a puzzle, a collection of different pieces which are meant to fit together. Many times, we seek the insights of others to help us find what fits where. The difference, of course, is that we’re not given all of the pieces all at once. Many come to us over time, in the form of education and experience. Still, we need to find a way to fit them together, to bring the final form to shape.

Now, for those who come from a conservative religious background, this analogy may be pushing buttons for you. The Old Testamant prophet Jeremiah used a similar image, of a potter turning clay into a vessel. To many conservative theologians, the analogy is clear – God is the potter, and we are the clay, to be shaped according to his will. Likewise, one can see a conservative interpretation of the puzzle analogy, with God as the puzzle master, working through us and those around us to put the broken pieces back together.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I have a more positive and complex understanding of both images. I can see the Divine not as the potter, but as the source of the clay and water used to make the pot. We are the potter, kneading the clay, turning it on the wheel, artfully shaping it with our hands, while others do the same and offer help and advice. Likewise, we receive the pieces of our puzzle, and as each piece comes in due course, find its proper place in the whole, with help from those around us.

As useful as this image may be, like all metaphors it is merely a tool, and even the most useful of tools has its limits. For one thing, our industrialized culture has influenced us to think of things like puzzles as uniform objects, like mass-produced jigsaws, or the Rubik’s Cube. But neither the human soul nor the beloved community are mass-produced artifacts; our perceptions and experiences are rarely, if ever, one size fits all. We may share insights, as we share a common humanity, but the myriad details of individual experience call for us to adapt them to the unique realities of our lives.

This, I believe, is the answer to a frequent critique of the pluralistic approach of Unitarian Universalism. How can a movement which eschews doctrine and creed call itself a common faith, much less offer clear answers to the problems of life? It is because of the complexities of life that we need a faith which looks beyond ready-made formulas which often wind up dividing and separating us, even splitting the psyche from within.

Many spiritual traditions, for example, call upon people to overcome anger, fear, hatred and pain. In the quest to find spiritual well-being and peace, too often we read this as a call to discard or extinguish these parts of ourselves. Yet we do so at our peril. The quest for wholeness calls for us not to disown or shove aside unpleasant aspects of our psyche, but to put them in their proper place, to find a way to own them without letting them own us. We can be angry, for example, and it can even empower us to seek justice or avoid further harm. It is when we let it fester into a consuming rage that we risk becoming that which has injured us.

Likewise, in the life of a community, there is often the temptation to downplay the more unsavory elements of our history. A movement may pursue justice, yet adapt tactics which are themselves oppressive. Another community may extol the power of love, yet turn that love inward to the comfortable familiar, and in the process exclude those on the outside who starve for compassion and understanding.

An example can be seen in the tumult surrounding the Stonewall riot of 1969. After so many years of continued repression and violence at the hands of police, a relative handful of drag queens, street kids and other queers decided all at once that enough was enough, and rose in revolt. What is often forgotten is how the events of those summer nights were followed by bitter debates and division within the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. The Mattachine Society decried the violence and distanced themselves from those involved – and those who became involved in the burgeoning Gay Liberation movement responded that such distancing was no mean feat, as the relatively more affluent and assimilated homophile group had constantly kept many in the community at arm’s length.

They further questioned just how effective Mattachine’s more cautious approach had been, and even whether it had unintentionally aided anti-gay oppression in its striving to craft a more respectable image for itself. That debate went on for decades, and continues to this day, just as many gay men, lesbian women, bisexual and transgender folks and other sexual minorities struggle within and amongst each other to find a balance between being true to ourselves and fitting in with a culture which is not yet fully accepting of our truths.

It is that striving for reconciliation, for restoring integrity and wellness within our souls and our communities, that can seem frustrating to us. We may solve that fiendish Rubik’s Cube, and put it down with a sigh of relief – until someone comes along and messes it up again. But unlike the plastic pieces of a machine-made puzzle, the heart is a living thing, and like all living things it grows and changes with time. So even if, by miracle and effort, each of us finds that wholeness and peace of mind we seek, we are still called to grow in that wholeness. And just as every living thing is interconnected one to another, so our fate is bound with others, and so we are called to help others as best we can to find SHALOM together.

Amen and blessed be


May you know wholeness.
May all things be good with you.
May all that is broken be restored.
May all you deserve be received.
And as this brings you peace,
May you strive to share and create
The peace and goodness so needed
In this world of which we are a part.