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.