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.


  1. Thanks for taking the time to write this, Desmond. More people need to hear this message.

  2. Dear readers: I received a rather lengthy and densely-composed reply which, while I was tempted to publish, was afraid that doing so would simply invite a prolonged debate. So, I've chosen instead to reply to one key point in this person's comment ...

    You ask: "What do you want out of this?" Very simply, that kinky and poly people who agree with UU principles can walk into any congregation, and be treated as full equals. Yes, I also want to see an end to discrimination against kinksters and polyfolk generally, but for now let's focus on improving our lot within UU circles.

    Now, here's where the theme of this post comes in: None of this can be achieved so long as the UUA continues ignoring us. You can't address fears and questions about polyamory, BDSM, or anything, for that matter, by acting as if poly and kinky people don't exist. If anything, continued silence only helps fuel the fire. And given that there is now increased discussion about kink and polyamory in mainstream media, the UUA's silence only reinforces the perception that our faith movement's leaders are "out of touch" with the rest of the world.

    As I said before: Acknowledge we exist. Learn all can about us. And don't just speak to us and about us, but for us.

  3. Why would anybody want to know about your kinky recreation? If you come to my congregation I hope you'll find that we are focussed on something greater than ourselves.

    1. 1) Why would you assume that it's all about kinky people coming out? Did you ever stop to think that a large part of the problem involves people being outed maliciously? Or being silenced when they try to correct misinformation about kink or polyamory (and that includes allies of kinky and poly people)?

      This is part of the double standard we face. Heteronormative folks can talk about dating, romance novels, "girls night out" and "guy stuff." But if those of us outside that privileged sphere mention similar non-sexual social, intellectual and/or spiritual aspects of our identity, suddenly we're accused of "flaunting" or "oversharing" or some other term. Why is it that our mere existence discomforts or even threatens you?

      2) This very same remark has often been made to LGBTQ people, to people of color who are tired of being told to leave their culture at the door, and so forth. It is easier said than done to tell people that, if we are seeking spiritual connection with "something greater than ourselves," we are not allowed to bring our entire selves into that sacred place.

      I suggest you re-examine your statement from the position of someone with a marginalized identity.

  4. In the 15 year history of my VERY SMALL congregation, we have had an accepted triad; a transvestite who identified as heterosexual male but who dressed openly at all times in clothing traditionally ascribed to women; and open and closeted gay men and lesbians. I myself am a gay man. There has never been a question of acceptance among us. I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around the "ignore-ance" you write about. Can you elaborate? For example, what should I learn about "kinksters" that would be relevant to a faith community?

    1. First, we all need to be mindful that UU attitudes fall along a continuum. While some congregations like yours and mine are willing to expand their welcome, others are still hesitant about declaring themselves welcoming to GLBTQ folks. The only reason why the latter examples are shrinking is that the UUA is willing to speak up on the issue, and make it clear that gender-based attraction and gender identity are not barriers to being full and equal members.

      With that being said, I've heard from gay men and lesbians who, while welcome in their congregations, felt that the leadership there preferred to "keep quiet" about GLBTQ issues; while they were accepted as individuals, they told me of various ways that heterosexism remained rampant. As one person put to me, they felt the reason they were the only openly gay person there was because they were accepted in spite of it -- so long as the congregation didn't have to acknowledge it or talk about it.

      The reason for phrasing the word as "ignore-ance" is to highlight that it's about more than a lack of education, but a more pervasive lack of awareness. If you're only surrounded by "people like us," then it's easy to overlook -- to ignore -- "them." Which is quite a burden when you happen to be one of "them."

      As to your last question, that would take a lot of space -- but you could start here, then here, here, here and here.

    2. Anonymous, good for you that your "very small" congregation is open, but that's not always the case. You identify as a gay man- are you in a committed relationship? Do you call the man you love "husband" if you have such a person in your life? I know plenty of straight people who don't like when L/G people use "husband" or "wife" in such a manner. As a UU kinkster, my problem would be wanting to call my Dominant "Dominant" when I speak of Him to UUs who aren't close enough friends that I've told them His first name. Just in saying "my Dominant" to UU adults, I have been made to feel unwelcome in UU fellowships. When I say "my Dominant," I'm not talking about sex anymore than a gay man saying "my husband," but too many UUs act as if I have just talked about my bedroom behavior.

  5. My family is made up of a triad- myself, my husband and our submissive. We love and care for one another, we attend regular classes on building relationships and communication, and we all offer our unique talents and personalities to the relationship. We are stronger for our union with one another. The orientation between us is more than sexual, and it effects everything from how we run our household to what car we choose to purchase,how we view and interact with the world, who our friends are etc.

    Why should I be forced to introduce my submissive as "a friend" or as a "roommate". Why should I pretend that that the consentual Dominant/submissive dynamic that is implicit in us, and is such an integral part of our relationship doesn't exist. Especially in a spiritual community that preaches inclusion and understanding.

    We were card carrying,money and time pledging UU's. This is not the case any longer. I need to be able to be my authentic self within a spirital community. My husband and I owe it to our submissive to make sure she feels validated and included, and not like the outsider of our family. We were happy within the congregation, but could no longer continue to be a part of an organization that ultimatly didn't want us.

    1. My heart goes out to your entire family. I wish more UU congregations and ministers followed the example of mine. That is why Leather & Grace exists -- to educate and advocate on behalf of so many kink-oriented Unitarian Universalists everywhere.

  6. When I started coming out as queer, I found alot of people reacting by saying I was telling them 'too much' and that they didn't need to know my 'bedroom secrets' even tho I wasn't telling anyone anything of what I did in bed or with who. I was just saying I wasn't heterosexual, and somehow to them I was flaunting.

    So I can see why some people, even liberal UUs, over-react to those who are polyamourous or kinky. They hear those words, they let their minds get overwhelmed with 'OMG what are they doing,' and perhaps project that onto the other person, even blaming them like many of us queers have been accused of 'flaunting.'

    Stand strong, kinky and poly UUs. Speak truth to power. And for the rest of you, if you can learn to accept gay/les/bi/trans/queer people saying who we are, you can learn to do the same for these, too.