Tuesday, July 31, 2012

What the UUA Really Needs

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

Sermon: Leather & Grace

Delivered at Arlington Street Church, Boston MA – June 24th, 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

UUs, Kinksters, Community and Diversity: What We Could Learn from One Another

This started with a question posted on FetLife, the social networking site for the BDSM community: How do your UU beliefs affect your kink, and vice versa? I’ve long said that our two communities could learn from one another, but seeing the topic put in print once more had made me think a little more deeply about two areas often discussed by both groups, but in different ways – community and diversity.

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

The Lady Heather Paradox

The latest buzz in books these days is 50 Shades of Grey, the kinky romance by author E. L. James. Not only has it hit the New York Times best-seller list and garnered a movie deal, but it has provoked all sorts of discussion on television and the web. Why, so many pundits wonder, would so many women be attracted to a story of a young lady being drawn to a sadistic dominant?

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.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Notice to the Mormon Church Leadership

As you may know, word has gotten out that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormons, have been baptizing deceased Jews, including Holocaust survivors. Worse, they’ve been doing so even after promising to stop the practice; in the case of Anne Frank, they did so nine times.

The news is now filled with discussion of the Mormon practice of “vicarious baptism,” especially with Mitt Romney’s campaign for President. And, quite frankly, I don’t think this is going to end so long as the LDS church continues to record people as members against their will.

So, with that in mind, I’ve decided to take a proactive approach. Below is a communication to the Mormon church leadership, transmitted through their website’s feedback form:

To the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

In light of your continued practice of baptizing deceased individuals into your church, and given my strong personal beliefs that religious commitment and affiliation demands fully informed consent, I hereby give notice that I am withholding consent to be baptized by proxy following my demise, and prohibit any and all members of your church from performing said rite on my behalf.

In the event that this notice is ignored by any member of your church, I hereby empower any and all concerned individuals to take action in response, up to and including legal action on behalf of my estate.

Please note receipt of this notice forthwith, including a summary of measures to be taken by your church to assure compliance with my wishes.

Most respectfully and sincerely,

Desmond Ravenstone

Now I’m sure there will be those who ask: “What possible good can this do?” At the very least, it will let them know that this person does not wish to be put on their membership rolls without consent. And if enough people do so, perhaps they will get get the hint and rethink how they do this practice, all good intentions aside.

But it’s not just about peculiar practices or membership rolls. It’s also about respect for other people’s beliefs. Consider how the LDS church leadership has responded to the issue of marriage equality. No one wants to use government to force them to perform same-sex unions, but they feel it’s their right to use their church organization to raise millions towards imposing their prohibition on everyone else. Yes, I respect the right of Mormons or anyone else to believe what they wish, and to engage in the political sphere as fellow citizens. But respect is a two-way street, and it seems rather bizarre that I would have to give another church explicit notice to respect my beliefs even after I’m long dead.

So, if you’d like to join me, go to the official website of the Mormon church. Click on “Submit Feedback” in the lower left corner. Fill out the feedback form (for Feedback Type, choose “Suggestion”; under Regarding, choose “Other” at the bottom of the dropdown menu). Copy and paste the above notice into the message section, with your name at the bottom. Then press “Submit” and there you have it. Who knows? They might even listen!

UPDATE: MARCH 4th, 2012

Jusr received the following response in my email today:

Dear Desmond,

May I share the following statement made by the First Presidency regarding the baptism of deceased persons:

Baptism for the Dead
Jesus Christ taught that “except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). For those who have passed on without the ordinance of baptism, proxy baptism for the deceased is a free will offering. According to Church doctrine, a departed soul in the afterlife is completely free to accept or reject such a baptism — the offering is freely given and must be freely received. The ordinance does not force deceased persons to become members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or “Mormons,” nor does the Church list deceased persons as members of the Church. In short, there is no change in the religion or heritage of the recipient or of the recipient's descendants — the notion of coerced conversion is utterly contrary to Church doctrine.

Of course, proxy baptism for the deceased is nothing new. It was mentioned by Paul in the New Testament (see 1 Corinthians 15:29) and was practiced by groups of early Christians. As part of a restoration of New Testament Christianity, Latter-day Saints continue this practice. All Church members are instructed to perform proxy baptism only for their own deceased relatives as an offering of familial love to one’s ancestors — any other practice is not sanctioned by the Church.

Your request will be submitted to the individual in charge of such requests.

Thank you for your communication. We wish you the best in all your endeavors.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


A kinky Episcopalian acquaintance once commented in an interview that the BDSM community's biggest problem isn't lust, contrary to what right-wing religionists would say. No, the bulk of us seem to have a good handle on that. The biggest problem, in her view, is idolatry. Too many kinksters seem ready to exalt one thing or another as the "one true way," even to the point of ignoring the harm such an attitude might cause. I've addressed that before regarding a BDSM organization here in Boston, whose members seem to extol the group as the center of all things, regardless of its many shortcomings. And I've mentioned idolatry in other posts as well, from Tiger Woods to iPhone apps.

Thing is, my understanding of this concept differs from "traditional" definitions of the term. How exactly does a Unitarian Universalist define idolatry? And, just as important, how do we deal with it?

From the traditionalist perspective, the best nutshell definition of idolatry is worshipping something unworthy of worship. This, of course, becomes utterly subjective, as it depends entirely on one's own particular religious allegiance. And what do you do when you consider yourself a religious humanist, given your devotion to critical thinking, not to mention how (or whether) you're willing to incorporate traditional religious terminology?

Many Christians use an alternate definition: putting the created above the Creator. But what happens when you don't believe in an anthropomorphic creator (which applies not only to nontheistic humanists, but many process theologians and pantheists as well)? Perhaps another way to word this would be to put:
-- the part above the whole
-- the immediate above the Ultimate
-- the hypothetical above the categorical
-- the means above the ends
This last wording, in my mind, not only touches upon the act of idolatry, but the very mindset behind it. When we extalt an object, person, group, idea or procedure above its proper place, we are in effect making it an end in itself rather than a means. Kantians would argue that persons ought to be ends in themselves, but I'm sure they would also agree that this excludes ranking particular persons above others.

Idolatry is not merely making a means into an end, however; it is transposing means and ends. When Jesus condemned the legalism of religious leaders, he wasn't just talking about how they imposed numerous rules upon people -- he was pointing out how they were exalting the "letter of the law" (the means of maintaining right relationship) above the spirit which was its foundation (the desired end of a just and compassionate society).

We can see such examples of idolatry all around us. Holding a grudge places one's anger and sense of self-righteousness above the need for reconciliation. Restricting where all "sex offenders" can live and work, even for the sake of public safety, can harm individuals who pose little risk to society. Embracing a political or social case, to the point of neglecting one's personal life, in the end serves neither the cause nor oneself. Seeing a given organization as virtually infallible, and mindlessly denouncing anyone who would question or critique it, can undermine the very purpose for which the organization was created.

We can even make idols of selected aspects of our religious and spiritual communities. Legalism can place rules of conduct and discipline above compassion and discernment. Ritualism can elevate selected expressions of outward worship above the inner spiritual life. Proselytism can overemphasize qualitative growth and retention of membership above quantitative growth in relationships. Devotion to a specific form of polity can stifle attempts to improve how a movement can resolve issues in ever-changing circumstances.

And while hypocrisy can be one consequence or expression of idolatry, dogmatic adherence to codified beliefs can likewise lead some to ignore the harm such hidebound attitudes can bring to others. A hard-core libertarian's devotion to the "free market" can blind them to the darker aspects of capitalist excess, while staunch leftists are oft unaware of Clarence Darrow's admonition that "even the rich have rights." Perhaps these are the "foolish consistencies" of which Ralph Waldo Emerson cautioned us to avoid.

It is indeed a difficult thing to remain mindful of our core values, especially our need to promote right relationship. To reach that ideal, we create institutions to guide us along the path. Sometimes those institutions work, sometimes they don't, and sometimes they are only partial or temporary solutions. Yet institutions often have a habit of taking on a life of its own, thus making it harder to question whether we continue to need them, and how best to craft new means to better reach our desired ends. This is especially true when people become intensely passionate about something they helped to create -- or something they feel the need to destroy.

Avoiding idolatry is indeed a hard thing, not least of which because our culture and politics are so thoroughly enmeshed in the confusion of means and ends. At the very least, we must always ask ourselves: "What good will this do -- and at what cost?"