Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Silence of Our Friends

Two articles have prompted me to write this post. The first, written by CNN’s John Sutter, explored "The County Where No One’s Gay". Sure enough, he found there are gay and lesbian folks in Franklin County, Mississippi – but, as is often said in those parts, "There are some things you just don’t talk about." Your hetero neighbors can talk about feeling lonely, falling in love, getting married – while you sit and endure jokes, slurs, and even beatings.

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.