Monday, December 29, 2014

Ten Films That UUs Should Watch: A Long Time Ago ...

I was fourteen when my parents dragged me to see a movie which, from viewing its TV commercials, I was convinced would be a schlocky excuse for science fiction. When we got to the mall where the theatre was located, the line for tickets went across the parking lot. We managed to get in, the theatre completely crammed – admittedly my least favorite way to watch a movie.

And then, it started …

It’s hard to watch a film like Star Wars in a crowded theatre and not get caught up in the excitement, which is why I insisted on seeing it on my own in a matinee when there were few people around. Something about the film resonated in me, and still does. Roger Ebert, in his initial review, praised it for its “pure narrative” – but there was more to it.

Star Wars and its two sequels, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, give a remarkable balance of elements that transcend traditional storytelling. The characters are archetypal, the conflict elemental, and the setting both distant yet relatable to a modern audience. The trilogy is not just epic narrative, but mythic, so much so that when Joseph Campbell discussed it with Bill Moyers in their PBS special, anyone who had seen the films instantly connected with what he was saying.

But this trilogy isn’t just about heroics and hyperspace – it’s about redemption, about summoning our better selves to bring about what is good and right. The most obvious example is that of Darth Vader, born Anakin Skywalker, enslaved to the “dark side” yet able to throw off his chains to save his son and the Rebel fleet. Yet there are other examples as well. Han Solo, the seemingly amoral smuggler, comes back into the fray to save Luke, then joins the Rebel cause. His friend Lando Calrissian first betrays him and Leia, but then turns against the Empire to bring Leia back to the Rebel fleet, rescue Han from Jabba’s lair, and then lead the charge in the final battle.

But ultimately, this is Luke’s story, and his path from ordinary farm boy to leader and redeemer is all too familiar to us. Consider his response when Obi-Wan Kenobi asks him to come to Alderaan and learn the ways of the Force:
Listen, I can't get involved! I've got work to do! It's not that I like the Empire, I hate it, but there's nothing I can do about it right now. It's such a long way from here.
How many times have we been called as he was, and responded as he did? And while the slaughter of his family is an extreme plot device to set him on his quest, it underscores how the injustices which seem so remote to us ultimately touch our lives as well.

The Star Wars saga also demonstrates that redemption is not merely individual. Communities and societies have been and continued to be called to set things right. Often this process is begun by a mere handful who fearlessly question why things are as they are, envision a better way, and strive to bring that vision to reality.

So, as the New Year approaches, consider renting all three movies for a marathon session. Set aside time to watch them back to back. But don’t watch as escapist heroic adventure. Watch mindfully, as a prophetic narrative. And … May the Force be with you!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

In Defense of Anonymity

Recently, a UU seminarian posted on "The Lively Tradition" blog about the fears and contradictions experienced by many going through the process of ministerial formation. I've heard these and other concerns from others - during and after their time in seminary - and believe this message deserves a fair hearing. Additionally, my experience in the kink and poly communities, and knowledge of LGBTQ history, makes me keenly aware of the dilemmas faced by people made vulnerable by marginalization. yet compelled to speak their truths.

All the more reason that it bothers me to read those responses so willing to dismiss this seminarian's words, simply because no name is attributed to them, and despite the author explaining clearly why they chose anonymity. It seems as if "owning one's words" has become as (or perhaps even more) important than the message itself.

Do we forget too easily those prophetic messages written under assumed names, or no name at all? Have we forgotten how hierarchies of privilege and power - including those within the institutions of our own faith - place people in the bind of being punished for speaking out, yet discounted when they protect themselves from such actions? Are we oblivious to the contradiction of insisting that our ministers be prophetic, so long as they restrict any critique of UU institutions and leaders to officially sanctioned areas?

Anonymous witness has its place, especially in the face of double binds and other silencing mechanisms. I for one do not see those who speak their truths without a name as failing to own their words, but doing their best to raise awareness while protecting themselves from unfair aggression. They deserve to do both, and they deserve to be heard.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Towards a More Inclusive Model of Sexual Orientation

Several years ago, I raised the question on this blog about whether kink could be considered a sexual orientation. Since that time, the issue has gained traction, due in large measure to the notorious "Fifty Shades Effect". Slate writer Jillian Keenan wrote this blog post in the affirmative, which prompted Huffington Post to do an online video conversation on the subject, and the discussion has been picking up steam ever since.

Of course, no conversation about human sexuality would be complete without a few folks waving their hands frantically and raising objections. And just saying "kink is an orientation" doesn’t by itself make it true. So, in this blog post, I'll address some of the more common objections to the idea of a kink orientation, and then present a new model of sexual/affectional orientation for consideration.

Objection # 1: Sexual orientation is about gender

Basically this constitutes a tautological argument that, since certain authorities have officially defined sexual orientation as "an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes," then anything outside of this definition should not be equated as an orientation by, um, well, definition. Essentially, this is the same as saying that a nontheistic religion is not really a religion because, well, religions must believe in a deity "by definition" – similar to an argument a Texas official used to try to deny recognition for Unitarian Universalist congregations in that state.

Aside from that parallel (and the fact that there are more expansive definitions of sexual orientation) there are two other reasons for overruling this objection. The first is the reality of asexual people, who experience no sexual attraction to anyone. They don't necessarily hate sex – indeed, not all asexuals are celibate – they just don't feel the same way about it as the rest of us. Asexuality is being regarded as a sexual orientation, a sort of "none of the above" category, and the asexual community has asserted that sexual orientation is distinct from affectional or romantic orientation (including an aromantic identity). Which raises the question: How do we reconcile both tying orientation to gender or sex and recognizing an orientation where one may be attracted to neither/none?

The second reason is rooted in a challenge of the gender binary, including the idea that we are strictly divided into "male" and "female" categories of biological sex. Both intersex and genderqueer identities defy such categorization, as well as being distinct from one another (a genderqueer person may be born biologically male or female, yet refuse to accept either gender; an intersex person may not "fit" into medical definitions of male or female biological sex, while presenting and identifying as either or none). Now imagine someone who does not feel attracted to people who present clearly as masculine or feminine, but who does experience attraction to individuals who present as androgynous or genderqueer? Do we create a new gender label for non-male/non-female people, and a new orientational label for people who are attracted to them? What about genderqueer folks who are attracted only to men, or to women, or either one but not other genderqueer people? The fact is that there are people who, recognizing their attraction to multiple genders and not just two, identify as pansexual, polysexual, omnisexual and/or just plain queer. But this raises a question similar to the previous one: How do we reconcile tying orientation to gender or sex when even these categories are not as cut-and-dried as we originally thought?

Objection #2: Sexual orientation is about who you are and/or who you love, not what you do

Okay … In order to address this, I'm going to have to engage in some rather frank mention of sexual/erotic activity. If that offends you, I suggest that you skip over to the last paragraph of this section. That warning now said, let me present a couple of somewhat hypothetical examples.
I am a heterosexual cisgender man. My romantic/sexual partners are thus women who are attracted to men (and hence self-identify as either hetero-, bi-, pan-, poly- or omnisexual). Such attraction includes the desire to spend time with one another, to hold hands, to kiss and cuddle, and specifically to engage in vaginal intercourse. Now, if orientation is in no way about "what we do," then how is my desire to put my penis in my partner’s vagina, or her desire to have my penis inside her vagina, separate from each of us being attracted to members of the other sex/gender?

Similarly, I identify as kinky, and more specifically as a dominant or service top. As a hetero kinky dominant male, I am most attracted to kinky women who identify as submissives, bottoms or switches, and who are attracted to men. Our mutual desires may include a whole range of activities including bondage, spanking, fantasy role-play, et cetera. But that raises the question of why we’d want to engage in such play, especially when it meets such strong social disapproval. If "what we do" is not based in "who we are" and who we're attracted to, then why do we fantasize about them?

Folks may be exposed to certain things, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are going to like them; some people hate the taste of cilantro, while others clearly enjoy it. Likewise, people who are exposed to something later in life may enjoy it even when they have been raised to find it distasteful; a generation ago, sushi was considered not just exotic but potentially hazardous and "just plain gross," and even after being more widely embraced there are still Americans who dislike it. So if our gustatory tastes transcend our cultural upbringing, and thus are likely rooted in our individual makeup, then why not our erotic tastes as well? In short, "what we do" depends very much on the totality of who we are.

Objection #3: While some kinksters think their sexual desires are an orientation, others do not.

This may be true, but by the same token, some people do not regard their gender-based attraction as an orientation. The question is what paradigm best explains the range of experiences that people report. For gender-based attraction (gay/lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual) a continuum paradigm not only explains the range of desires, but the relative fluidity with which people perceive and interpret their inner experiences. So a person who is primarily heterosexual with incidental same-gender attractions may engage in same-gender eroticism "experimentally" or "for fun" while still identifying as "straight" or "heterosexual". Also, many non-heterosexual people have often said that, while they were not consciously aware of their same-gender attractions, they were aware at an early age of feeling “different” from other people, making the connection only later on.

Likewise, an individual may experience incidental desires towards certain activities labeled as "kinky" and enjoy engaging with them on occasion or even on a fairly regular basis, yet not consider their desire for kink at the same level as someone with a more deep-seated desire for such interactions. Also, some people may have learned to suppress certain desires or fantasies, or may not have been able to connect a need for intense sensory input and/or role-based relational models with specific fantasies until later in life. Combine this with the significant number of kinksters reporting explicit fantasies or other awareness of their desire at an early age, and we have to consider one of four models:
  1. That kink is not an orientation, despite the strong resemblance of experience with non-heterosexual people;
  2. That kink is “an orientation for some but not for others,” again in spite of the resemblance with gender-based attraction;
  3. That kink is an orientation like gender-based attraction, suggesting that people have multiple sexual/affectional orientations;
  4. That sexual/affectional orientation is a multifaceted phenomenon, of which both gender-based attraction and kink desires are recognizable elements.
In my mind, this last model is the most parsimonious explanation that fits with the growing body of evidence. And with that said …

A holistic model of sexual/affectional orientation

Alfred Kinsey originally proposed sexual orientation as a two-ended continuum, with exclusive heterosexuality at one end, exclusive homosexuality at the other, and a range of intermediary positions in between. Later researchers, such as Fritz Klein, proposed a more multidimensional paradigm of orientation and identity. The emerging awareness of asexuality as an orientation added even more complexity to the concept of orientation well before members of the BDSM/kink/fetish and polyamory communities began to propose the orientation model as an explanation behind their respective experiences.

How to bring it all together? Let me propose a metaphorical parallel. Imagine that your understanding of music is based on vocal performance. You recognize a range of vocal types – soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone and bass – with finer gradations within each general category, and even some individuals able to express themselves outside of a single range, or to shift in range over time. But music is not limited to vocal range, just as sexual desire is not limited to gender-based attraction. Even vocalists more often than not perform with instrumental accompaniment, adding another dimension to our experience of music. Thus a holistic model of orientation would embrace the full range of sexual desire and experience, not just gender-based attraction, just as an orchestral score includes layers of vocal and instrumental melodies and harmonies.

With that in mind, we may see gender-based sexual attraction as one dimension of this holistic model, often in line with a gender-based affectional/romantic attraction. Another dimension (or "stave" if we follow the musical metaphor) would be the level of sexual attraction, from asexual through demisexual and onwards; similarly, there would be a dimension for levels of affectional/romantic attraction. BDSM, kink and fetish sexuality would most likely be expressed in multiple staves – intensity and/or type of sensation, attraction to power-based roles, foci of attraction, and so forth. Even monogamy and polyamory may be rooted in a continuum of some type.

Some may object to such a paradigm as overly deterministic, yet I would argue that it provides a balance with individual volition. Each of us has a multitude of desires, just as an orchestral score reveals a carefully harmonized arrangement. How we act upon those desires, and identify with them, is our choice. We may deny some dimension of ourselves at a cost, or we may find a way to express it in accompaniment with others. Thus how our orientation is “scored” provides the foundation for how those desires may be expressed, which relies on (if you'll pardon the pun) how we conduct ourselves in the world.

Ten Films That UUs Should Watch: Chocolat

I’m known for being an unrepentant chocoholic. That reason alone is enough for me to see a movie where this confection is a central point of the story. But Chocolat is not just about that, or about the gift of indulgence.

The theme of this film is about daring to challenge old habits and rituals, especially when they have become ends in themselves. Even the heroine Vianne, who had entered the town and stirred things up with her preternatural confections and free-spirited ways, is challenged to abandon the family ritual of wandering wherever the wind seems to call her – and to make a new home for herself and her daughter.

It is often said that “traditions are answers to questions long forgotten.” The story and the characters in Chocolat remind us anew what those questions are, and call on us to find different ways to answer them. This film also gives a vision of community that goes beyond the strictures of tradition, created out of love and pleasure and imagination ... a vision articulated so well in the homily given at the end by the village's young priest:

I think it would make a great Saturday at any UU congregation to make chocolate treats in the kitchen, then enjoy them while watching this film. Bon appetite, mes amis!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Ten Films That UUs Should Watch: The Great Dictator

During the rise of Nazi Germany, two famous filmmakers watched Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will at a special showing in New York. One, the innovative Frenchman René Clair, was horrified, believing that unless the film was censored, Western democracy would be lost. His British-born colleague, however, could not help laughing, and even found it inspiring. Thus, Charlie Chaplin went ahead to produce The Great Dictator.

Chaplin was not known as a political satirist. His comedy was very physical, cultivated in British burlesque and refined by his experimentations with film. Yet he was also adept enough to weave the two together, such as in this famous scene in the film:

He succeeded in skewering Hitler and the Nazis, while simultaneously entertaining his audience, framing a very serious discussion with comedic mastery. And it is Chaplin’s ability to stretch his capacities that is the reason why I’ve included The Great Dictator on this list. One of the great human foibles is to neglect or ignore our adaptability, to cling to past patterns rather than exploring innovation. Chaplin was an innovator from the beginning, filming his own physical routines and watching them so that he could refine his performances. Likewise, Unitarian Universalists have been innovative in the past, and continue to do so now. And let's not forget the value of laughter, including parody and satire, to get our message across.

Another reason why UUs would like this film is its ending. Chaplin plays two characters – a nameless Jewish Barber, and the dictator “Adenoid Hynkel”. When the Barber is mistaken for Hynkel and given the microphone to speak to a large gathering, he gives an unexpected speech, the contents of which would resonate with our principles and vision:

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Ten Films That UUs Should Watch: Only the Lonely

Not every great film is an instant success. When Only the Lonely was first released in 1991, it received mixed reviews and was only moderately successful at the box office. But it’s considered a hidden gem by many movie buffs, myself included, which is why I’ve included it in this list.

The story starts off slow, which is probably why it wasn’t more successful. But a patient viewer will eventually find not only brilliant performances from the main actors – John Candy, Ally Sheedy, and the legendary Maureen O’Hara (who came out of retirement to do the picture) – plus the chemistry between them, but an intriguing tale of a quirky romance. Danny Muldoon is a middle-aged Chicago police officer who still lives with his domineering mother Rose. When he meets Theresa Luna, an extremely shy woman who works in her father’s funeral home, they begin to date and fall in love. Rose, however, continues her overbearing and bigoted ways, causing friction among them all. Danny finally stands up to his mother, and decides to marry Theresa. While she initially accepts, and Rose softens and welcomes her warmly, Danny’s constant worrying about his mother gives Theresa second thoughts. And then there’s the Greek fellow who’s sweet on Rose. Well, I won’t spoil the ending for you, so …

Rose is clearly the antagonist, from her bullying and narrow-mindedness. But the real conflict rests in Danny’s desire to “be a good son” to his mother. He does this by trying to avoid confrontation with her, even if it means being embarrassed or making excuses. It is Theresa, and his desire to be with her, which leads him to finally let loose and tell her how he feels, that her arrogance and guilt-tripping have made others miserable, and that he will no longer let her stand in the way of happiness. Even after this confrontation, however, he still feels dread about his mother as a result of the years of manipulative emotional abuse she had heaped upon him. Only when he’s able to imagine a better future for her, as well as himself, is he able to move on.

Danny’s perception of what it means to “be a good son” resembles what I see among some Unitarian Universalists in terms of avoiding conflict and glossing over problems. Unfortunately, avoidance is not resolution. So, just as Danny blows up at his mother over her treatment of Theresa and other people, long-simmering issues among UUs likewise come to a head. What a pity that we only have people to help us resolve these issues once a year – the Right Relationship Teams during General Assembly.

Granted, it’s not that easy to summon the strength to make such changes in ourselves and our communities, compared to a character in a movie. Then again, we have an advantage over that character. We don’t have to wait for a screenwriter or director to tell us when and how to begin the process of change.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Ten Films That UUs Should Watch: Watership Down

This is a tough movie for most people to watch. When we think of an animated film featuring rabbits, our minds gravitate to "cute-and-fluffy". But Watership Down has many episodes of violence, bloodshed and death.

Still, it is an epic adventure in its own right – not just the main story of a group of rabbits finding a new home, but the rich detail of lapine culture, language and folklore drawn from Richard Adam’s book. The rabbits worship the creator-god Frith, represented by the sun, and revere their mythical progenitor El-ahrairah. Fiver, the younger brother of the chief protagonist Hazel, is a seer with powerful instincts. Rabbit warrens are structured societies, complete with a police force called an owsla.

The journey to their new home is not an easy one. First, Hazel and Fiver must convince other rabbits that their home warren is in danger. Then the small band they assemble must find their way to a new home, guided by Fiver's visions and Hazel's cunning. They are welcomed into another warren, only to find that the farmer in the area routinely catches them. Finally, they reach the hill of Fiver's visions – only now they have no females, so they must figure out where to recruit some. Another rabbit joins them, and tells them of a totalitarian warren called Efrafra, run by the ruthless General Woundwort. A plan is devised to infiltrate the Efrafrans and recruit some of its members to join them, leading to a confrontation.

It's long been debated whether this movie is suitable for children to watch. I personally think that it's better for older kids, not just because of the violence, but the complexity of the story. And yes, I think it's an important film for Unitarian Universalists to watch.

This is a story about risk, and specifically about the need of communities to take risks in order to survive and thrive. Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig and other rabbits decide indeed to take the risk – based on their knowledge of how reliable Fiver's visions and instincts have been – to find a new home, and even to fight for its safety. Their opposite is found in the rabbit Cowslip, preferring the easy life of feeding on a farmer's plenty while turning a blind eye to his warren's members being killed by the farmer’s snares.

The early Unitarians and Universalists were risk-takers. It took risk to assert the radical stances in theology and social ethics that they did, to form new religious communities, and eventually to merge under one association. Affirming GLBT equality was also risky, but in the long run changed not only our own faith communities but our nation for the better. And yet … How many congregations, ministers and others cling to old ways of doing things because they seem safe? How many times do we observe abuses in leadership, yet refuse to speak up for fear of being labeled a troublemaker?

Like Hazel's warren, we’re a small scrappy band, our members drawn from many places. But our vision of beloved community may offer hope and guidance – if we are willing to accept that achieving such a vision requires taking a risky journey. Even standing still, while seemingly comfortable, entails a number of inevitable risks. Thus the question is not simply whether we’re willing to risk, but what is truly worthy of taking risks.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Ten Films That UUs Should Watch: Casablanca

While most of the films I listed earlier are at least critically acclaimed, not many are considered iconic classics. Truth be told, even this film was only a moderate success when it was first released. Yet it has risen in popularity to be regarded as one of the best films ever produced (if not the best by some, including yours truly).

One could say it's because Casablanca "has it all" – romance, intrigue, suspense, adventure, an all-star cast and much more. But I would argue that it is also a spiritual story of redemption, centered around Rick Blaine.

Putting the flashbacks ahead of the main story, Rick was active against the forces of fascism, running guns in Ethiopia and fighting in Spain with the Republican forces. He was living in Paris at the beginning of World War II when he met and fell in love with Ilsa Lund. As the Germans made their advance, the couple and Rick's friend Sam make plans to flee south, but Ilsa has a note delivered to Rick, saying that she will not be coming with them.

Now in Casablanca under Vichy control, Rick owns and runs the "Café Americain" nightclub and casino. He is withdrawn and seemingly cynical, frequently telling friends like corrupt police official Louis Renault: "I stick my neck out for nobody." Yet even beneath that façade, his earlier sense of commitment peeks through – denying a German banker credit in the casino, allowing a desperate couple to win enough money for passage to a neutral country, mocking attempts by visiting Nazis to intimidate him.

Things get more complicated when Ilsa arrives with her husband Victor Laszlo. Ilsa's presence alone is enough to unsettle Rick emotionally, but Laszlo’s notoriety as a fervent opponent of the Nazis shakes things up even more …

That scene, in my opinion, is the most pivotal of the film. Rick, having crafted an image of neutrality for himself and his café, must suddenly make a choice. Eventually he helps Ilsa and Victor escape, and flees with Louis to join the Free French in Brazzaville. One might see this as a sign of nobility in Rick, but I think this is also about inevitability, in that Rick realizes that the desire for freedom is too great to be squashed by the Nazis or anyone else.

But to do so, he has to give up not only Ilsa, but the safety and security of his life in Casablanca. And it is that willingness to sacrifice for something greater that we could learn from. Most of the time, we hope to make a difference in little ways, just as Rick did early in the story. But Laszlo's arrival reminds him – and us – that ultimately what is good and right demands that we let go of our transient comforts. That doesn't necessarily mean quitting our jobs or living in tents, but it does mean a willingness to stick our necks out for someone now and again. And that in turn means realizing we're not as powerless as we think, that our capacity to change doesn't depend upon how we earn our paychecks or how big those checks might be. Change occurs all around us, often sweeping us up into events bigger than what goes on in our day-to-day lives. But each of us also has the capacity to bring about change, and not just wait for some pivotal moment.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Ten Films That UUs Should Watch: Babette's Feast

When Gabriel Axel chose to adapt Isak Dinesen’s story Babettes Gaestebud to the screen, he moved the hamlet where it was located from Norway to western Jutland. The Norwegian coastal towns he saw were too colorful and idyllic, and he thought the bleak fishing village he selected better conveyed the sense of physical and spiritual isolation essential to the story.

The town is the home of a small pietistic sect, its founding pastor assisted by two lovely daughters named Martine and Philippa. While the sisters have many suitors, their father turns them away. Two men in particular would be taken with them, one a French opera singer drawn to Philippa, the other a Swedish cavalry officer visiting his aunt nearby. Each fails to win over the woman they have fallen for, and yet they would remain forever touched by them.

Flash forward thirty-five years, and a French woman arrives at the village with a note, introducing her as Babette Hersant, a friend of the baritone who has had to flee the bloodshed of the Paris Commune. She offers her services as a housekeeper, and for the next fourteen years assists the sisters in caring for the aged members of their dwindling flock. Her only remaining connection to home is an annual lottery ticket.

One day, she receives word that she has hit the jackpot of ten thousand francs. Grateful to the sisters, she offers to cook a full-course French dinner for the congregation, on the founding pastor's hundredth birthday. They had thought originally of a simple meal, but happily accept her offer. Babette commissions a relative to obtain the ingredients – along with fine china, silverware and lines appropriate for such a feast – and their arrival by boat shocks the austere congregants. Not wishing to offend, they covenant to behave as though they were eating the plainest of foods, rather than succumb to the temptations of such exotic and sensual fare.

Joining the congregants for the memorial dinner is the lady of the manor nearby, and her nephew – the cavalry officer from years past, now a decorated general. While still sympathetic to the pietism of his hosts, he is still a man of the world who appreciates the feast set before him, gushing with compliments and reminiscences of each dish and glass of wine, unaware of the pledge made by the others. Yet even the stoic villagers are unable to resist the charms of Babette's culinary gifts, and the bitter division that had built up over the years melt away, as the pleasures of the table cultivate the joys of conviviality. They end the evening joining hands under the stars and singing a hymn, all smiles. The general, having never lost affection for Martine, spends a final moment with her.

And Babette? The former chef de cuisine of the famous Café Anglais of Paris has spent her entire lottery winnings on the feast, without regret or concern. As her friend the opera star had told her: "Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of an artist: Give me the chance to do my very best."

Babette's Feast is not just a story about one woman’s effect on the small village where she finds refuge. It is about the spiritual gifts of pleasure, creativity and abundance. Too often religious movements have told us to distrust our senses and deny our desires. But how else do we appreciate the world about us, and feel bonds of affection for one another? As George Santayana said: "Love would never take so high a flight unless it sprung from something profound and elementary."

I'm sure many Unitarian Universalists will be reading this and thinking: "Well, duh!" Yet I've also seen people who are as imprisoned by worry as any puritanical fundamentalist. Just as the villagers in this film worried about the temptations of sensuality, and religious conservatives frequently worry about eternal damnation, many religious liberals worry about achieving our vision of a better world.

Stepping back and allowing ourselves enjoyment is not merely a means of "taking a break" from our efforts at social justice and self-improvement. They are also a reminder of why we do such things – a glimpse, if you will, of the vision we hope to fulfill – and that our means are inextricably tied to the ends we desire. We need not sacrifice savoring our world in order to save it, and indeed we're better able to do so.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Ten Films That UU Should Watch: Amélie

I’ve always considered the French approach to filmmaking to be radically different from what typically comes out of Hollywood – and, perhaps, more suited to the mindset of Unitarian Universalists. Images predominates in American films, so much so that the most common critique tends to be: “Looks great, but not much substance.” French films, on the other hand, are incredibly dense with dialogue and narrative and character; the image merely accentuates the story, and the best French movies seem to me an elegantly crafted sequence of tableaux vivants composed and arranged to highlight the story one is hearing.

That’s definitely true with Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, created by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and known more commonly by just the first name of its titular main character. Originally, Jeunet had intended for Emily Watson (of Harry Potter fame) to play Amélie, but circumstances led him to cast Audrey Tatou – and a good thing, too. Tatou is totally believable as the quirky, introverted waitress who embraces a mission of making others happy in imaginative ways.

In a sense, this is a “manic pixie dream girl” movie with greater substance. For one thing, we get to see what motivates Amélie Poulin to go out and make the world better, one stranger or couple at a time. She is thus no longer a zany plot device, but an actual person with background and depth. Nor do we see her focusing on just one stiff sap – she returns some treasured toys to their original owner, reunites an estranged couple, comforts an abandoned widow, gives a blind man a magical tour of Paris, et cetera. And we delight in every episode, as though we are accessories in her happy conspiracy.

But there’s another reason why Amélie goes beyond the standard manic-pixie-dream-girl trope, and it is the reason why I especially recommend it to UUs. As Amélie goes about making people happy, it is her neighbor Raymond Dufayel who reminds her of the need to cultivate her own bliss, which she does (and no, I’m not going to spoil it by telling you how). Often I’ve seen UUs and other progressives striving so very hard to make the world better somehow, while neglecting their own souls. If this film tells us anything, it is the importance of self-care and self-affirmation, and from that the reminder that our efforts are not merely for one cause or another, but for people like ourselves, and ultimately ourselves as well.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Ten Films That UUs Should Watch: Harold and Maude

An experiment was once done in which a screenwriter submitted a script titled “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” to over two hundred agencies, of which only three considered it “commercially viable”. In fact, the script was a slightly altered version of Casablanca - and not one agent who bothered to read it recognized it as such.

So imagine the response of agents and film producers now if they had read the screenplay for the cult classic Harold and Maude.

Harold Chasen is seventeen years old, living with his wealthy mother in luxurious yet suffocating conformity. Two of his favorite pastimes are staging fake suicides and attending the funerals of total strangers. At one of these funerals, he meets a free-spirited elderly woman named Maude, and they become friends. Maude’s cheerful yet eccentric behavior not only appeals to Harold, but teaches him to embrace life more fully, and in time their friendship becomes a love affair – much to the shock of the more conventional folks around him.

Harold and Maude seems to defy convention by being both dark and light in its comedy, while also mixing in poignant moments in its dialogue and visual symbolism to provide some serious commentary on how our society appears to repress individuality. The character of Maude has been compared to the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, yet I would refute this – Maude may bubble over with youthful exuberance, but she also possesses genuine wisdom and insight, such as in this excerpt:

Not to mention the fact that Harold actually grows as a result of Maude’s encouragement, finally moving beyond his morbid antics into a full embrace of life, still quirky yet very much in tune with his true self, and indeed healing. The ending leaves it open where he’s going, but we feel assured that he’s finally on a path that will lead him forward.

Many have commented that Harold and Maude is deeply existential, with Harold representing alienated nihilism, and Maude the response of living with purpose and free choice. Yet I would contend that it is about how our society ignores, marginalizes and attempts to control those who don’t “fit in” – including and especially youth (Harold) and elders (Maude) – and attempts to address how we might respond. I believe this motif is best expressed in this pivotal scene:

As the above scene shows, there are spiritual consequences to how we deal with difference in our society – and in our UU congregations. How best do we respond to that? This film, I believe, gives us insights into doing so. We need not march in picket lines or steal cars, nor retreat into obsession over the dark side of human nature, but instead embrace with joy our capacity to change and grow each day, and encourage those around us to do the same.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Ten Films That UUs Should Watch: Pleasantville

The best films not only give us great stories conveyed through imagery and dialogue, but they evoke thought and feeling, even making us question ourselves and our surroundings. That is why I love Pleasantville – a delightfully subversive comedy-drama with Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, William H. Macey and Joan Allen.

The film begins in the present day, where twins David and Jennifer (he withdrawn into television, she a shallow social butterfly) are fighting over control of the TV remote, which they break as a result. Enter an elderly and enigmatic repairman, who gives them a strange-looking replacement remote. The twins resume their fight over the new device, only to wind up transported into the black-and-white world of the 1950’s sitcom “Pleasantville” – David is now Bud Parker, and Jennifer assumes the role of Bud’s sister Mary Sue.

While David warns Jennifer not to interfere with the way things are ordered in their new setting, Jennifer pays no heed, introducing sex to the denizens of Pleasantville – first Mary Sue’s boyfriend, then the TV mom Betty Parker. Slowly, the town begins to change as bursts of color appear in various areas, then on the people. Books that once had blank pages now show words and pictures as the twins begin to recall stories and images from their real-world lives. And as all of this happens, the characters go off-script and begin to explore their emotions and desires.

The town’s leading citizens – all male, and led by their mayor “Big Bob” – are deeply concerned over how things have disrupted; it’s bad enough that colors are appearing and rain is falling, but now their wives aren’t making them dinner! So they begin to institute restrictions against anything that goes against the previously “pleasant” order of things, censoring books and music, even (yes, it’s on-the-nose) segregating and attacking the newly “colored” people. When David/Bud and the owner of the local burger joint are put on trial for painting a provocative mural, David begins to show that the changes they are experiencing are not some outward influence, but rooted in their own true selves:

Roger Ebert considered this one of the best films he’d ever seen – not just for the stunning cinematography and acting, but as “a social commentary of surprising power.”
The film observes that sometimes pleasant people are pleasant simply because they have never, ever been challenged. That it's scary and dangerous to learn new ways. … Pleasantville is the kind of parable that encourages us to re-evaluate the good old days and take a fresh look at the new world we so easily dismiss as decadent. Yes, we have more problems. But also more solutions, more opportunities and more freedom.
Unitarian Universalists are not immune to this desire to keep things as they are, or to hide their discomfort through a grayscale mask of outwardly pleasant behavior. Yet the values of our faith call us to question and challenge one another, to strive to understand the new and embrace what is good about it, not try to keep things as they are simply because “it’s always been that way.” One of the most paradoxical examples is the ambivalent attitude towards polyamory, with a number of ministers whispering behind the scenes that any discussion of it would somehow jeopardize efforts towards marriage equality. As someone who helped start this effort in Massachusetts in the 1990’s, I remember hearing such arguments back then. Holding off on discussing the subject was expedient at that time, but two decades later, it makes no sense now. The movement for marriage equality has gained its own momentum so that even those who oppose it have all but conceded defeat, and media coverage on polyamory has not only increased but prompted people to ask why we should worry if such arrangements seem to work best for some.

Ultimately, the real question for UUs is what kind of world we wish to live in, and to leave to our children and their children. How do our principles fit with the desperate efforts of Big Bob and his followers to keep things the same? Or perhaps, as the young people of Pleasantville discovered, our faith might – and should – offer something more wondrously liberating …

Starting a New Series: Ten Films That UUs Should Watch

Many of my friends know that I'm a movie buff. Along with appreciating the craft of filmmaking, I also see motion pictures as a rich source of iconic and mythic narrative. And if Unitarian Universalism is to be a "religion for our time" then it makes sense that we turn to film as a source of inspiration, just as we do the diversity of literature.

To that end, I've decided to start a new series of blog posts, each highlighting critically-acclaimed films which I believe are worthy of consideration by UUs -- not just for artistic merit (although that's a major factor for determining them) but the spiritual and/or moral message each one conveys.

The first nine films, in no particular order of importance, will be:
  • Pleasantville
  • Harold and Maude
  • Amélie
  • Babette’s Feast
  • Casablanca
  • Watership Down
  • Only the Lonely
  • The Great Dictator
  • Chocolat
The tenth is actually a trilogy which I strongly recommend be seen as a single epic ... and I won't say which until I do the post, although you're welcome to guess.

I may also have other posts on films later, especially if folks want to make recommendations. But, for now, keep your eyes peeled for this "top ten"!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Thoughts on “50 Shades”

Anyone who’s kept track of my Facebook postings and comments, or talked to me either online or in person, would know that I’m not really a fan of 50 Shades of Grey. The writing is amateurish, the characters are as flat as the pages they’re printed on, and the representation of BDSM is atrocious. It’s because of that last part that I couldn’t get past the scene where Christian shows Ana his dungeon, then presents her with a detailed contract, all before learning (much to his apparent annoyance) that she’s still a virgin. Christian represents the kind of clueless jerk who gets thrown out of BDSM groups.

And yet … there’s no denying that this novel evokes something in people. Set aside for a moment that it’s sold over a hundred million copies worldwide. Groups like Black Rose and The Eulenspiegel Society have seen a marked increase in new members and workshop attendees. Sex educators who previously found their “Kink 101” class offerings had little interest suddenly found that renaming it under the “50 Shades” brand suddenly filled the room. Experts are talking about bondage, role-play and other kinks more openly – and more positively – than ever before.

And that’s just the book. Wait until the movie comes out in February.

Oh, that’s right – we don’t have to wait. There’s already talk about the trailer. Plus there are groups like Morality in Media, and its recent offshoot Pornography Harms, rushing to denounce the film even before they’ve seen it. Not surprising, as their principal ideologue Gail Dines is relentless in her defamatory attacks on BDSM. Come to think of it, Dines is so quick to condemn so many forms of sexual expression and desire, one has to wonder if there’s any she does approve of. But, I digress …

If history is any guide, including and especially the history of human sexual psychology, the motion picture version of this tale will be far greater than that of the written version. The book’s popularity became viral over the Internet. And as clips and still images from the movie are downloaded and shared, they are likely to awaken desires and fantasies in who knows how many more – including many in our UU congregations.

Kinksters are already responding to this. We recognize “50 Shades” as an imperfect vessel, much as the pulp fiction novels and exploitation films were for many gay men and lesbians pre-Stonewall. Neither ignoring its impact, nor lauding it as is, will serve us well – but other options exist. The question for this post, however, is what options make the most sense for Unitarian Universalists, with regard to both public witness and pastoral care.

Both kinksters and UUs affirm and value diversity, including how people find love and pleasure. Those of us drawn to those forms identified as “kinky” have cultivated means to fulfill such desires with full consent and minimal risk of harm. Yet as the actions and words of people like Professor Dines remind us, there are people who are quick to condemn without understanding. Given our principles and core values, and the lessons of history, which course makes sense for us? I would hope our principle of truth-seeking would lead us to engage in dialogue and cooperate with those seeking to educate and promote greater awareness, amongst ourselves and with the wider world.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Dubious Boast

I’ve heard many a UU minister, educator and lay leader say it. I’ve heard my own minister say it. I had an ex-girlfriend who said it. And not only does it sound like they’re somehow bragging, not only has it become tiresome to hear, but I’ve seriously wondered about what value there is to it:

"I don’t watch television."

There are, of course, some mitigated variants to this boast: "I only watch PBS" comes to mind, as does "I only watch the news" and "I only watch public affairs television." I confess that I understand the motivation behind such a boast, as much of the medium has been reduced to drivel. But the anthropologist in me sees how dubious it is for members of a faith seeking to both enlarge their circle and change the world for the better to shun a primary source of knowledge and insight. And so, this post is devoted to why UUs, especially UU leaders, ought to stop bragging about their avoidance of TV, and how and why they should revise their viewing habits.

First, let’s start with a perception problem that Unitarian Universalists have been suffering for decades: We come across as elitist snobs. It’s one things to have two or three times the active vocabulary of the average American, to recite famous quotes or passages from memory, or to learn and use another language (which, tragically, too few Americans bother to do these days). But a good command of language also means an ability to get your point across clearly. Expanding one’s vocabulary doesn’t mean discarding simpler words and more commonly used phrases – it means adding to them and building upon them. Likewise, the medium of television provides us with a cultural vocabulary that is broadly used and understood. And if we want to both draw people in from that wider culture, and help them find ways to change and influence it, then we need to draw on the same symbols, tropes and memes that permeate and influence their lives.

That leads me to my second point: Avoiding things doesn’t necessarily change them. The genres of science fiction and Westerns, for example, did not improve because people stayed away. They improved because more people became engaged in insisting upon and even recommending changes for the better. From my vantage point, Unitarian Universalists are very good at coming up with grand visions of a better world, and then ranting about how reality falls short – but we ourselves often fall short of finding and implementing practical steps between the two, including and especially in our own congregations and movement. I believe that the manner in which so many UUs have disengaged themselves from popular culture is a big reason for this. Whether it’s to personally purify themselves, or as a form of protest, I don’t see it working. If you want to change the world, you have to get involved in it, if nothing else but to learn how things work so you’re able to tweak them in the right direction.

Lastly, and the biggest reason I find this boast so dubious: Our core values demand that we engage instead of avoid. Our twin traditions were founded on the fearless pursuit of the truth. It’s led us to evolve into a broad and progressive movement devoted to love and justice. How does avoiding a major element for the culture we seek to change honor that essential element of our heritage? I think of my own conundrum addressing the issues surrounding pornography – as a civil libertarian, I oppose censorship of any material simply because it has sexually explicit content, yet my aesthetic and political sensibilities find it hard to defend the vast majority of images and practices connected to the porn industry. But I must also ask myself how I might offer any insightful critique, or otherwise help to make positive changes, unless I do the responsible truthseeking needed to understand and engage.

So please don’t tell me whether you watch television, or what you limit yourself to watching. That tells me very little. Speak to me instead of how you watch television, and what you do with what you see.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Checking One's Privilege: A Response to Tal Fortgang

The written rant of a conservative Princeton undergrad is being bandied about the Internet, and so I thought I would respond ...

Like Tal Fortgang, I am white, cisgender male, heterosexual, and raised in a home many in America would call "middle-class". Like him, I also had family members who fled persecution in Europe; my great-grandfather fled Czarist Russia, and was only able to do so by posing as a German student who had lost his identity papers. Like him, I was constantly told that working hard and playing "by the rules" would bring anyone where they wanted to be.

Unlike him, I realize that message ain't necessarily so. Even if an employer doesn't use any slurs, they're more likely to hire me than a woman, or anyone with more melanin in their skin, or an accent in their voice. I'm more likely to get better service in a restaurant or a store, to have a credit application approved, or accepted as a tenant by most landlords.

A raw example of privilege happened to me several years ago here in Boston. Several of us stopped at a subway station when we heard a woman crying for help, and saw her on the ground and a man over her beating her. One man ran down to try to chase the assailant away, while I notified a transit worker of what was happening. Within two minutes, transit police had rushed in. They arrested the assailant, and the African-American gentleman who had rushed up to stop him, but they merely took me aside to get my statement. Even after I told the cops: "Hey, that guy was trying to help," they still had him put his hands against the wall so they could frisk him.

To be fair, Fortgang is correct in his caution about making assumptions regarding people's background. Where he gets it wrong is assuming that others are not making those very same assumptions, even subconsciously, and setting others back as a result. My father demonstrated some awareness of this, when he told me why he decided not to attend Princeton - a classmate of his, whom he admitted had done measurably better academically, had been denied admittance, and the only difference between them was that his classmate had an obviously Jewish name.

Unearned privilege exists, regardless of whether folks like Fortgang want to believe it. Yes, you may have worked hard to get where you are, but we must also be mindful that many individuals have worked just as hard and yet still been denied the chance to get there as well, simply because of their race or gender or some other "other-ness" about them. Denying that fact won't make it go away, nor will trying to put a spin on it diminish the damage it causes. By the same token, guilt and blanket assumptions will do no good, either. We need to confront the fact, and find constructive ways to dismantle this reality, even if it means that those of us with such privilege make use of it to educate others and make what changes are necessary.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

When a Word Becomes Useless

For me, language is a spiritual thing. There is something grand about how we bestow meaning to certain sounds and symbols, to the point that they seem to take on a life of their own. And when a word is misused or abused to the point of losing its meaning, that seems to me practically sacrilegious.

To that end, I've decided to abandon the use of a particular verb and its derivative forms. What makes it unusual is how common they are to English speakers. Yet I fear they've become too common, dare I say "dead common." The verb in question is can, or perhaps more specifically, its negating counterpart cannot and the contraction can't.

Some of you may have grown up experiencing an exchange such as this:
"Mom, can I go out and play?"
"Well, you may go out and play … "
Both my parents did something like that to convey that "can" and "could" referred to ability, while "may" and "might" referred to permission. Anyone is able to have a cookie, but we're not always allowed to.

Unfortunately, not only has this distinction been lost on many, it has grown worse. "Can" and "cannot" have also been conflated with "want to" and "don’t want to". I've heard people who were perfectly capable of sending an email, or saying a few words to the right person, and with no impediment in terms of supervisory permission, still insist that they "can't" do so. The only reasons I'm able to see for their "can't" are that they are not willing to do so, due to being either unmotivated, uncomfortable, or some combination thereof.

It is at once confusing, exasperating and infuriating, especially for someone like me who takes language – and clarity in language use – as seriously as I do. Imagine the sentence: "We can't issue such a clarifying memo." Now imagine it's possible meanings to include:
  • We're not able to do that.
  • We need explicit permission before we can do that.
  • We have been explicitly prohibited from doing that.
  • We're not in the mood to do that.
  • We have bad feelings about doing that.
That leaves those on the receiving end of that "can't” statement to deduce which meaning it is, based on contextual facts:
  • The person or group saying "can't" has computers and printers and email access, and people who know how to use them, and even a proposed draft for the memo, so they are certainly able to print and distribute it.
  • The person has sufficient authority in the organization, and the organization has made no explicit rule prohibiting such a statement, so it has nothing to do with permission.
  • Therefore, we can only conclude that the person is unwilling to do so, despite indicating a willingness to do so beforehand, which … well, you get the idea.
There seems also a power dynamic to the continual misuse of "can't" with regard to their respective work within an organization. Those at the bottom seem split between saying they're unable and forbidden, in keeping with the lack of authority given to them. Those in the middle appear to utilize it more to voice their own fears and frustrations, having been given limited authority and even less clarity regarding the scope of their roles. And for those at the top, "You/they can't" often means the subject of the sentence are prohibited, while "I can't" is more about the person in charge being unwilling.

What to do about such conundrums? Well, transforming organizations and social interactions is not within my purview, but one thing within my power is to at least attempt to abandon my own usage of "can" and "cannot/can't" (and their simple past-tense forms "could/couldn’t") in favor of more precise references to ability, permission and willingness. At least my own speech and correspondence will be less vague.

As for others, the best recourse that comes to mind is, whenever they use these words, to insist on clarification: "Are you saying you're unable, unwilling, or forbidden? If unable, how so? If forbidden, by whom? And if unwilling, to what degree and for what reason?"

As an officer of my congregation, and as the spokesperson for a constituent group within Unitarian Universalism, I am often in the position of having to advocate and negotiate on behalf of others. That, in my mind, requires clarity in my expression. I hope those with whom I attempt to communicate in these contexts realize, see and do likewise.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

What Do We Want, Anyway?

My last post has garnered a number of comments, including from some current and former UUA employees. The latest I have not allowed to show, because while it begins with a reasonable question, it then deviates into rather obnoxious and ignorant territory. I don't like deleting comments before they're posted, but when you start posing outlandish scenarios about what kinky and polyamorous Unitarian Universalists, that's a hard limit for me.

So, for clarity's sake, and in case any UUA staff and leaders are listening, I've decided to sum up an "agenda" of sorts. I'm not declaring this the official manifesto of kinky and poly UUs or our organizations. These are simply responses to what I've continued to observe over the years. Besides, even if the folks at the top of our movement don't pay attention, it would be good for more UUs in general to know this ...

Acknowledge we exist. As my previous post illustrated, this is the biggest and most essential problem within the UUA. Our leaders seem unable or unwilling to even call us what we call ourselves, often resorting to convoluted euphemisms to talk about us. When kink and poly are mentioned in educational materials like OWL, there's no recognition that there's any overlap between our faith community and the kink and poly communities. Harvard University and other schools have recognized kink groups, and discussed BDSM and polyamory in classrooms and panel discussions. Media from ABC News Nightline to the New York Times has given more and in some cases better information than our educational material. It's time the UUA and its congregations caught up.

Recognize the real problem. Too often I've heard well-meaning UUs tell me: "I really don't care what you do in your bedroom." Well, brace yourself for a bit of harsh medicine. That's the sexual minority equivalent of saying "I don't see people in terms of color." First off, this isn't about the nitty-gritty of "what we do in private" so much as it is about who we are and how we're treated in public. It's about what goes on in our workplaces, our doctor's office, and our legal system. It is about our privacy being violated, our rights and dignity ignored, our safety compromised, and our attempts to educate met with nervous laughter at best and outright scorn at worst -- even in UU circles.

Give us safe space. In saying this, I feel the need to distinguish between "safe spaces" and what I'd call "ghetto space." A safe space is defined by the marginalized group, for their benefit and on their terms. A "ghetto space," on the other hand, is defined by those with power and privilege, and more for maintaining that privilege. Safe space is about empowering a group of people for when they go out into the world, ghetto space, as well-intentioned as it may be, ultimately serves to "keep them in their place." We can make our congregations safer spaces for kinksters, polyfolk, and many other groups who already worship and witness among us. We can give them space to be their true selves, to breathe easier, to speak more freely, to share their gifts, to cry and scream when they've been hurt, and to lift them up as all of us would wish to be.

Deal with your own discomfort. Some years ago, a friend of mine interviewed me as part of her seminary's cross-cultural awareness work. One of the first things she did was admit her uneasiness about the issue. More and more, I've realized what a gift that was. Her doing so helped to focus and continue the conversation for both of us. On the other hand, I've lost count of how many times I can tell when someone is uncomfortable, although they refuse to own up to it. At least my friend, by owning up to it, started the process of dealing with it. Denying your discomfort, however politely, just leaves it to sit and fester. Worse, it shifts it over to the focus of your discomfort, adding yet another burden. Whether it's race, gender-based attraction, gender identity, or any other difference, hiding discomfort about it is like trying to cover up cat poop -- you not only fail, you're likely to compound the problem.

Be allies, not bystanders. Another thing I've lost count on is the number of people who tell me they "support" me or the work of Leather & Grace -- but only in private. As a football-player friend of mine from college would say: "Cheerleading doesn't get the ball down the field." So if you've learned something from our communities, pass it on and give us credit. If you hear misinformation or outright attacks, speak up. If a kink or poly person comes to your congregation, and is made to feel unwelcome, address it. And if you're afraid people will wonder if you're "one of those" ... well, first see the paragraph above about discomfort, and also remember that there's nothing wrong with setting the record straight about who you are. Whether you're offering to punt, pass, catch or just run defense, there's room on the team for you -- but we've got more than enough cheerleaders.

There you have it. Any questions? Fire away.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The "K" and "P" Words

Warning: This post could make other UUs uncomfortable. Strong medicine has a tendency to do that …

This post is about invisible people. I don't mean some science-fiction scenario where human beings become transparent. I don't mean people who deliberately hide. I'm talking about how a community of people renders some particular group or category within it as unseen and unseeable, thus continuing to marginalize them – or, in this case, us

Before writing this post, I had to do some digging, combing through email archives, articles and web pages. To be exact, the larger community I'm talking about doesn’t render us completely invisible. We pop up here and there in a couple little corners. But that's about it. And in the places where it really matters, we remain virtually nonexistent.

The community I'm speaking of is Unitarian Universalism. And the groups that they continue to marginalize are called kinksters or kinky, and polyamorous or poly. There are kinky and poly UUs across the continent, even a group for UU kinksters and an older group for poly UUs.

But if you looked at the "official" web media and literature of the Unitarian Universalist Association, you'd hardly know. The UUPA is listed as a Related Organization, but Leather & Grace can't even get its foot in the door because there doesn't seem to be a consistent understanding of what it takes to become a Related Organization. We've asked the UUA multicultural office how the UU polys got that status without even applying for it, and we've never gotten any clear answer. And when we've explained in detail the difficulties around one of the requirements spelled out to us, and asked that this be clarified once and for all … nothing in response.

Perhaps you can tell that I'm rather miffed by all this. But it's nothing compared to the core issue around this post. I find it hard to recall a single instance of anyone in UUA leadership, and even more painfully the UUA’s multicultural staff, say or write the "K" or "P" words. I've heard lots of euphemisms and dancing around these terms, but somehow none of these people who keep telling me I can trust them can even bring themselves to call us what we call ourselves.

I never thought I'd be comparing the leaders of my faith with fundamentalist Christians in regard to sexuality, but they're doing a very similar dance to different tunes. The fundies still can't say gay or lesbian without putting them in scare quotes; the most evolved they've become is referring to "same-sex attraction." Similarly, UUA leaders will talk in terms of us as "alternative," and in one email we were referred to as "new understandings" of sexual orientation that "may emerge in the future."

I won't go into graphic detail about the reactions that produced. Suffice it to say, we are people, not "understandings," and we live and work and pray and hurt right here and now. And, to be perfectly blunt, we deserve better than to be reduced to a bloodless hypothetical.

The rest of the world is now talking about polyamory and kink. Planned Parenthood has even helped produce an educational video on BDSM. But the UUA can't even call us what we call ourselves. We've been talking and talking, waiting and hoping. But if the best we can get is being told behind closed doors that, sorry, our once forward-looking faith can't catch up with Harvard University and The New York Times, but that we should still trust our faith leaders to be with us when they think we "may emerge in the future" … well, that’s just not good enough.

Moral progress doesn't happen by waiting for others to do what's right. It happens by doing what's right. Calling a group of people what they call themselves, and not some seemingly comfortable euphemism, is the least moral thing our faith leaders can do. And it's high time they did.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Just One Question About the New UUA Logo ...

Okay, I've been staying away from blogging due to a major writing project. I do have some other posts on the back burner as a result. But then something caught my attention that, well, is just demanding a response.

About ten years ago, William Sinkford commissioned an update of our flaming chalice logo. Not that huge a change, really. There's still a chalice, a flame, two overlapping circles. Some rays are added, but if you compare it with the older version, you can still see a continuum.

Well, apparently some person or persons decided that the UUA had to hire yet another design firm to come up with yet another logo. This one, from what I can tell, attempts to incorporate "UU" into the flaming chalice.

As Lieutenant Colombo would say ... Sorry to bother you folks, but there's just one question that's really bothering me about this:


Seriously, folks. Feedback from your own studies indicates that we're not being consistent in our message, that we're not that articulate in explaining Unitarian Universalism to younger people in particular and people in general. And this is your response??

I've heard an array of complaints about how sluggish and unresponsive the UUA's bureaucracy is, from congregational leaders whose requests for assistance are met with requests to file even more paperwork, to individuals facing discrimination and even harassment who feel like they have absolutely nowhere to turn. I've heard of, and personally experienced, serious communications problems, including failures to respond to queries or requests, and refusal to answer questions. And this is your response??


Call me what you will -- curmudgeon, gadfly, malcontent -- but I've always believed that, when you have serious discrepancies between your vision for the world and how you do business, you're better off investing what time and energy and money and other resources you have to actually fixing those problems. Especially when a concrete proposal has been put forward.

But, that's just me ...

Saturday, January 4, 2014

UU Social Activism: A Proposal For Your Consideration …

The Internet has revolutionized our world, including how many people work to change it. The process by which social-justice groups make decisions has become radically decentralized. The tools available to activists have gone from printed paper to electronic documents, from finding physical meeting space to setting up an online forum. The scope of e-communication has allowed us to truly "think globally and act locally." And the speed at which discussion and action takes place has accelerated to the speed at which one can type and click a mouse.

Now compare that to what we Unitarian Universalists have set up. A five-person Commission on Social Witness screens who-knows-how-many proposals down to ten or less. These are then brought to the congregations, and they have a couple of months to pick five from that list. Assuming that twenty-five percent or more of UUA congregations submit their choices, these are tallied and the results presented to that year’s General Assembly to pick one for congregations to study and act upon over the course of three years – assuming, of course, that every congregation has someone with the knowledge and passion to take the lead on that. Then reports, a draft statement of conscience, a poll of congregations on the draft statement, a revision based on comments, a two-thirds vote at the next General Assembly, and finally after four or more years, the UUA makes an official statement on the issue.

Meanwhile … How many other issues have gone by the wayside because they didn’t "make the cut" to become an official Congregational Study/Action Issue past the CSW, the first congregational poll, or the General Assembly? How many CSAIs died with a whimper because there weren’t "enough" congregations with people willing and able to take part in the process for that issue? And how many issues were given a boost because the President of the UUA used their “point of privilege” to call on people to take a stand?

Seriously, I have to wonder … Imagine if this process had been in place in the early 1970’s, given how many congregations resisted even talking about homosexuality, and given that the UUA’s President at the time responded to the proposal for an Office of Gay Concerns by asking: "What’s next, bestiality?" Would we have taken such a leadership role on GLBT issues, especially marriage equality, if this process had been in place back then?

I admit that, whatever the arguments in favor of this process, I’ve yet to hear them. But aside from the fact that it promotes competition over cooperation, perpetuates a scarcity mentality, and ultimately relies more on top-down rather than bottom-up decision-making and influence, this process is years if not decades behind how the vast majority of social-justice activists do things today. And if we are to be "the religion for our time," if we are to catch up with and even take the lead with this new approach, then we need a new "open source" method of witnessing to important issues that is more effective, inclusive and responsive.

Borrowing from both biblical and technical terminology, let me propose a "UU Cloud of Witnesses," or UU-CloWt for short. The hub for this could be a wiki site, providing a platform for people to present and organize on various issues. Each issue would have a portal under which people could find various pages, from an introductory summary of facts, to links for more information and resources, a forum for people to exchange ideas and opinions, a calendar for events (both real-time and online), and a proposed resolution with a form for individuals and congregations to record their endorsement. Such a UU-CloWt wiki site would provide a way for individuals and groups to connect and cooperate from the grassroots up – and, more importantly, to link up with activists outside UU circles and affect change both quickly and effectively.

And what of the current system? Well, what of it? If people still want to pursue that process, they are welcome to do so. But there’s also the chance that both congregations and individual activists decide otherwise, perhaps even declining to participate in the CSAI polling system, and gauging interest by activity on this open-source platform. And if that shift were to happen, I guess the UUA’s leadership and bureaucracy will have to do some serious thinking.