Tyler Clementi and Me. And You.

Of course I never knew Tyler Clementi, the young Rutgers student who took his own life last month in a tragedy so unfathomably horrific that it doesn’t permit adequate attempts at description.  The story that has emerged so far is that Tyler was enjoying a romantic moment with another guy, while his roommate secretly streamed the encounter live on the internet.  Shortly after Tyler found out, he jumped off a bridge.

Of course I never knew him, but his story demands a deeper listening than has yet been promoted or presented by our culture’s spokespeople.  This is not just a story about one man and two acquaintances whose idiotic prank appears to have caused such fear of exposure that Tyler felt he had to kill himself.  It’s a story about all of us.  And we all need to listen to it.

On the basis of what we know thus far, I think we can guess this: Tyler Clementi died as a direct result of a culture of sexual shame in which institutionalized religion is the major investor.  I am angry, and I am going to say something harsh and direct, but I am willing to take responsibility for it.  Please feel free to respond if you wish.

If you have ever affirmed homophobia by not intervening to challenge the snide remarks that all of us have heard, you may be part of the reason that Tyler Clementi is dead.  And most of the time, I myself have not intervened.

If you have ever used ‘us’ and ‘them’ language to divide sets of people into ‘normative’ heterosexual cultures, and ‘others’, you may be part of the reason Tyler Clementi is dead.  I spoke of ‘us’ and ‘them’ for most of my life until a friend challenged me; I still find myself slipping into old rhetorical habits, for our culture is so deeply wedded to the myth that our identities depend on dividing and conquering.

If you have ever disrespected, dehumanized, or belittled a person because of their sexuality, you may be part of the reason Tyler Clementi is dead.

I think I am part of the reason that Tyler Clementi is dead.

We often say in ‘progressive’ religious circles that we want to ensure that we have a ‘conversation’ about sexuality, that we want to create a situation where everyone feels ‘included’; and for sure, this is a noble endeavor.  But too often the premise is that those of us who are straight are merely opening a space for those of us who are gay (or LBTQQI – but more of that later) to be told that ‘they’ are just as good as ‘we’ are.  This is not enough.  It does not allow for people who identify as LGBTQQI people to be seen as good in their (and our) own right; it does not permit a true exchange of gifts between different people; it suggests that LGBTQQI people are welcome despite their (and our) differences, not that they (and we) are just as much alive with gift, made in the image of God, and legitimate as the rest of us (and them).  At its best, this kind of conversation may lead to a better one; at worst, it is just another way of dressing up homophobia as reconciliation.

It emerges also in the context of a culture with a split persona: a religious one that almost always problematizes sex, and a secular one that almost always celebrates hedonism.  Churches often talk about sex and sexuality as challenges to be overcome; while the wider culture doesn’t seem to know what to do with sex except put it on TMZ.

Well, I am tired of the excuses we make for our prejudice, and the disguises we put on our repression.

I am tired of saying ‘we need to have a conversation’, and then not having it.

I am tired of sexuality being reduced in religious practice to shibboleths about homosexuality and adultery.

I am tired of pretending that our bodies are not part of the selves we talk about when we seek to become more human through opening to God.

I am tired of the misplaced shame I feel sometimes when I think about my own sexuality, my desires, my mistakes, my brokenness, the memories I have of humiliation in adolescence and beyond.

I am tired of not feeling free to discuss sexuality in church as anything other than a problem.  I want to celebrate it for what it has become for me: an astonishing gift from God, the space in which love between human beings, made a little lower than the angels has the potential to find its most elegant and connected expression.  The space where we may come closest to mirroring the divine relationship with the human.  The space that can produce such profound happiness, and is so powerful that it leave you feeling as if you’ve been ripped  apart.

The story of Tyler Clementi is not just about a young man and his roommates’ stupid prank.  It is a story about cruelty, and dehumanization, and fear, and the lack of an understanding of how human relationships can promote the common good instead of individualistic gratification.

It is a story about the role that bad religion – most of it Christian – has played in creating a culture of shame around sex and sexual identity in America, and the distortions of human happiness that pass for healthy religious practice.

It is a story about our complicity in this bad religion, and in these distortions.

It’s a story about the end of privacy in the internet age: which could be a good thing, because we may now finally be compelled to tell the truth about ourselves: that we are broken and beautiful at the same time, and that none of us is fully who we claim to be.  We are stumbling pilgrims trying to figure out what it means to be human.  And if I tell you the truth about me, then maybe you might feel safer to tell me the truth about you.

And so, what will we do with the story of Tyler Clementi?

I’d suggest a handful of signposts.

Focus your judgment in the right direction.
We should recognize that desire is confusing at the best of times; perhaps especially during the transition from adolescence into adulthood.  The same goes for learning how to behave with maturity in relation to others.  So while what Tyler’s roommates are alleged to have done was stupid and cruel, we should not direct our anger only at the two who apparently put the video of Tyler on line.  They are a symptom of a dehumanizing and childish culture.  They are not its cause.  And if we only concentrate on them, we will repeat the typical mistake of scapegoating, and never face the issues within ourselves that contributed to them thinking nothing of their actions.

It Gets Better
If you find personal resonance with the fear of sexual humiliation, check out Dan Savage’s It Gets Better campaign here.

Come Out, Whoever You Are
The semantic gymnastics that have been one of the gifts of the sexual rights movement are so changeable that I’m never quite sure how many letters I need to type to be sure I’m not excluding anyone.

L(esbian)G(ay)B(isexual)T(rans)Q(ueer)Q(uestioning)I(ntersex) is a pretty good start; but another category has been privileged to join: A(lly): which, although its status is ambiguous in the cohort to which it wishes to orient itself, to my mind means anyone who cares enough to commit themselves to be educated about the structures of injustice faced by people whom the dominant culture defines as sexual minorities.  Ally can be a patronizing concept, of course; but I think that the more people who don’t identity themselves (or ourselves) as LGBTQQI consider the A label, the sooner we will experience conversation about sexuality as something that is good for us all, rather than merely stigmatizing socially constructed minorities.

Beyond that, I’d like to suggest a new category.  After A comes E, because E(veryone) is affected by our sex-negative culture.  We may all have been stigmatized because of our sexuality; especially those of us raised in the church.  We are not sure how to make sexuality ‘fit’ with spirituality.  And so we live in a constant state of struggle or denial.  Those of us who are straight could learn from those of us who are gay.  Those of us who are straight might indeed yearn to be invited into a world where sexuality has been such a source of struggle that its stewards have had to learn to transform it from an invitation to suffering into a source of strength.  E(veryone) belongs here.

Like I said, I am angry today, and so I apologize if I have gone too far.  Or, actually, perhaps I’m not sorry at all.  Maybe I’m going to get angrier.  Maybe I need to.  I certainly need not to forget Tyler Clementi, a young man who died because our culture made him ashamed.

I’m sorry, Tyler.  I wish I’d known you.  I’m sorry that I have been part of the reason you were humiliated.  I am sorry that I have been so divided within myself that even though I know what it’s like to experience sexual humiliation, I held onto my own homophobia because it felt safer and more known.  I owe something to you.  I owe it to you to be honest about myself, to stop dehumanizing others, and to do everything I can to make sure that your place in history is simple and clear: that you would be the last.


49 responses to “Tyler Clementi and Me. And You.

  1. Thanks for posting this… powerful, convicting, necessary.

    I have expressed similar thoughts from a different perspective here: http://www.faithautopsy.com/blog/2010/10/1/dear-tyler-i-am-sorry.html

    Thanks again.


  2. Breathtaking, challenging and beautiful. Thank you, truly.

  3. We frequently forget that as we talk about ‘us and them’ in demeaning ways we are in turn ‘them’ as determined by someone else who considers themselves a member of ‘us’. And so it goes on, round is circles. I too have been gulity of snickering behind the backs of our gay brothers and sisters until I worked with many with whom I became fast friends and with so many to whom I’d entrust my life. Good sincere people who are trying to do the right thing just like the rest of ‘us’! There really is no ‘us and them, only ‘we’.

  4. hey gareth

    to my mind, probably the strongest, convicted, passionate piece of writing you’ve ever shared, or certainly that i’ve seen. i certainly don’t think you should apologise for the anger. it’s justified and channeled well, by which i mean, it’s more than an expression of anger itself but looking behind it to express what’s going on beneath it…to actually say something of value about compassion and the danger of shame.

    i think the loss of privacy is perhaps one of the more dangerous aspects of our time, but i absolutely take your point about the need for living with truth of our beauty and brokenness. i think there’s a balance to be struck, or perhaps a better understanding of healthy privacy. and i suspect others to come will learn the mistakes of our generation on both those counts.

    anyways, really well said friend. i look forward to seeing how you channel that energy in the days to come.


  5. Pingback: Learning from Tyler Clementi | Fields of Grace

  6. Pingback: Tensegrities » Blog Archive » I weep, and I agree

  7. Amen. That’s all I can say.

  8. We need to get to a place where the interaction we have with any orientation has NOTHING to do with sexual orientation. Only talent, performance, personality and the ability to guide or change the direction a person who works for us, or who we work for. Or a person we befriend. Not because of his/her choice but, simply as any other person. A non-gay person needs to communicate with someone who is, and we can’t get through. Friendship, kindness, employment reviews, training, customer relations. you name it. Please see those of us who see you as a whole person, and are only dealing with normal everyday issues as reacting to you as we would to anyone. We need to get to a point where we see each other as people. Not enemies. It goes both ways. I miss Tyler Clementi. He had so much talent, in music, possibly math, language. Because that is what it takes in a musician. Every time a musician leaves us, we lose a song. I wanted to hear his.

  9. In rare form.


    Convicted. Encouraged. Hopeful.

  10. Janelle Thiessen


    Thank you so much for this. It’s so powerful. I am so grateful for your honesty. I am going to share this with my friends. Thank you for the beauty and eloquence that you bring to such a difficult theme. Thank you for your anger at this attrocity and for giving it a voice.

  11. Thanks, Gareth
    You are beautiful, as we each are.

  12. Beautiful. Convicting. Applicable in more areas in life than in just this instance.

    Thank you Garreth. I reposted on my blog with credit to you.

  13. Yes this. More of this.

  14. Gareth, what do we do with the works and likes of Andrew Marin and Tony Campolo?


  15. One of the first things queer people learn (if they live long enough to learn it, which Tyler Clementi obviously didn’t) is not to trust heterosexuals. We learn it through being humiliated by those in whom we are told to put our trust; namely, our families, friends, and authority figures of all types. We come to realize early on that the people we are told to love will at some point most likely betray us. If we are lucky, they’ll only humiliate or belittle us. If we are less lucky, they will physically injure or kill us, or take away our right to a livelihood, a home, or access to our children.
    Tyler Clementi was one of those who didn’t live long enough to not trust his roommate. He didn’t live long enough to laugh at jokes made about people like himself. He never learned to ‘see around’ the tiny insults embedded in movies, tv shows, plays, and music about people with his face, and to even enjoy those things despite the nastiness within. He never got a chance to happily attend the weddings of people who would be disgusted at the idea of him marrying a man, to gently hold the newborn children of those who would see him as a potential pedophile simply because of his orientation, to wash and soothe the sick and aching forms of male relatives who might otherwise view him as a sexual predator.
    This is what being queer means. It’s about never being trusted in the locker room. Having people second guess your ability to be in the room with small children. Worrying that a relative might shortcircuit your right to keep your own children with you. Being friendly to people who could decide to take away your job. Going to a house of worship with people who might decide to beat you to death. Caring for elderly relatives who believe that you deserve to die horribly for breaking an invisible being’s laws.
    When ‘you’ look at us, ‘you’ see child rapists, pathetic victims of sexual confusion, deviants, titillating yet disgusting freaks, people who live in a ghetto, the Other. But ‘you’ never ask us what ‘we’ see. ‘We’ see pathetic yet lethal monsters with smiling faces who are always on the verge of betrayal, and who regularly cross that line, until they feel like saying ‘sorry’. ‘We’ see beings whose words can never be trusted, even when they say the right thing. ‘We’ see potential murderers, assailants, backstabbers. ‘You’ can say the right things 10 times, and then change ‘your’ mind again, only to destroy ‘us’ on the 11th. ‘You’ like ‘us’ as long as ‘we’ remain mildly colorful and harmless, and never mention what ‘we’ do in bed, except as a way of entertaining ‘you’ or reassuring ‘you’ of ‘your’ normalcy, but ‘we’ know that the moment ‘we’ refuse to entertain, or reveal a side ‘you’ deem to be unsavory, unbeautiful unacceptable or boring, ‘you’ will feed ‘us’ to the dogs. ‘We’ live and die at ‘your’ sufferance. And ‘we’ hate ‘you’ for it, even as ‘we’ plead for ‘your’ acceptance, which ‘we’ do only because it’s exhausting to constantly worry about being beaten to death. ‘We’ despise and love ‘you’, and yet ‘you’ usually only truly see us when ‘you’ want to kill ‘us’ or hurt ‘us’, or ‘you’ want to be amused. And even then, ‘you’ still don’t see our true faces- ‘you’ see whatever twisted vision ‘your’ minds have dreamt up, positive or negative.
    ‘You’ unthinkingly and often unwittingly take away everything that matters to ‘us’, even our right to mourn- but because ‘you’ occasionally have a moment of clarity and thoughtfulness, that’s supposed to be enough. It isn’t. ‘We’ all didn’t kill Tyler Clementi. ‘You’ did. With every joke and cutting word, and every limp wrist gesture, and every remark about how ‘gay’ something is when it’s lame. With every worry about who was in the locker room with you, with every glass you didn’t touch because you were afraid of AIDS, with every earnest discussion over whether gays should be allowed in the military or in front of the classroom. Somehow there’s never any earnest discussion over whether we should be allowed to wipe your asses when you are dying, or write music or computer code for you, or design clothes for you, or grow flowers for you, or make the world beautiful for you.

    Accept us- on our own terms. You don’t have to like everything about us- quite frankly, we don’t give a shit about what you like, except if it involves your giving us more pain. Accept that there are whole worlds and whole ways of being that you don’t and maybe can’t understand, and that they chug right along without your understanding, thank you very much. Accept that we may never trust you, because you’ve done way too much damage to ever earn our trust. We may never like you, either, and we don’t have to, and you need to learn to live with that. You can march until the cows come home, prosecute those who hurt us, and you will still never have a right to expect gratitude. You don’t deserve gratitude for not torturing and murdering us, or even for keeping yourselves and others from making cutting remarks. You don’t get a cookie simply because today you decided to act like a decent human being, just like we don’t get cookies for not rising up and murdering you in your beds for being so heartless to us. You need to accept that a thousand lifetimes might have to go by, with your being completely decent in every one of them, before you’ll be worthy of our trust. If you can’t accept that, then you are still minimizing the cumulative effect of your crimes on our psyches; hatred is, after all, the horrifying ‘gift’ that keeps on giving.

    There can never be an ‘everyone’, because you’ve made too much history between us, and you haven’t stopped others from doing the same. Much as you might want an ‘everyone’, that would involve us developing total amnesia- and much good that would do us if you changed your minds about loving us again, if you ever do come to love us. We stand vigilant, feral, and untrusting because it keeps us alive. You must, for your own sakes and the redemption of your souls, keep making friendly overtures, but you must accept that your punishment is that we will probably not take you up on them, no matter how often you make them or how heartfelt they are. This is always the case between the oppressed and the oppressor. Individuals may make peace with you, and organizations may do so as a form of polite fiction, but as a group, we know better. History tells us time and time again that there can be no trust as long as one side holds most of the power and the other holds less. That is the way of the world.

  16. I stand with you in being angry.

    I am working through my own response to this issue, bringing my own experience to the table. Some insight that came to me today was the fact that most of my bullies where outside the ‘christian community’.

    What makes me angry today is the unwillingness of the ‘church community’ to just talk. To have the courage to educate themselves to run after wisdom rather than hide in their own closet, hoping that this ‘issue’ doesn’t grace their door step. Yet when it does, they come running, asking for and seeking out help in how to respond.

    Every person should know how to respond with love, respect and dignity.
    For but by the grace of God go I…
    None of us are righteous…no not one…we have all fallen short of the glory of God.

    Having lived gay identified and now straight identified…I find that we have a long way to go in terms of both sides (the us verses them syndrome) putting aside their bias’ and our prejudices to be able to live, work and relate to one another.

    Yet, I am also angry at the LGBTQQI (this keeps changing) community for lumping a bias against all those who may have a differing view regarding gender identity into the same category…’hate’. We’ve forgotten grace, we’ve forgotten to lay aside our hurt and realize not everyone has to believe the same thing…yet we are all called to treat others the way we want to be treated.

    Thanks for your post!

  17. BTW, an ally is someone worthy of trust. Asking a queer person to trust a supposedly well-meaning straight person is like expecting that a Jew would fully give his or her trust to any member of the Nazi Party. I doubt a single Jew ever fully trusted someone like Schindler while the war was on; Schindler could have changed his mind at any moment and sent all of ‘his’ people to their deaths.

    Straight people who want to do the right thing can’t join queer people as allies because they aren’t queer. They can work with other straight people to make the world better. They can join groups like PFLaG. Dan Savage is a gay man trying to help other gay people. It’s nice of you to mention him, but pleasant thoughts on the part of straight people do nothing to help actual gay people. Committing to a life of involved and intense social action with absolutely no expectation of gratitude or even acknowledgement is what makes a difference. You cannot expect gay people to find your company in their organizations desirable or trustworthy, because even if you aren’t personally guilty, you are tainted with the guilt that all straight people carry by association. If you truly feel guilty and wish to atone, then you need to understand what atonement truly means, and it doesn’t mean that you get to decide that you are an ‘ally’.

  18. lifewalkblog

    Good words, and good wisdom. We ALL need to be accepting of each others choices. Mine are somewhat, well, unique. For those who care, here’s a little bit about my journey OUT of religious evangelical fundamentalism.

  19. Hi Gareth … Thanks for that! Sometimes when someone who has something to say gets REALLY angry, that’s a good thing all around — and it’s certainly true in the case of this piece of writing! Wonderfully clear!
    I just wrote on Tyler and the story of his suicide in my new blog, fritz-onthefritz.blogspot.com, more from a preacher’s angle.

  20. Brian Ammons

    Michelle, I get your anger and your mistrust. The stories of hurt behind it must be intense.

    While we can’t let the particularities of LGBTQQI experiences be diminished, and it frustrates the snot out of me to hear folks say they know what it’s like to be queer because they took a stand on my behalf and lost a speaking invitation, I still know it matters that they take stands. But I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. To suggest otherwise would be a misread of the essay.

    Gareth’s isn’t talking about the pains of being a privileged ally at all…his use of “E”, of “E”veryone, is an acknowledgment that the violence and sexual shame that the LGBTQQI among us navigate daily is poisonous to the whole of humanity. Rather than suggesting that the uniqueness of my experience makes relationships impossible with “them”, I hope that the result of having lived through the violence I’ve seen opens me to recognize that none of us gets out of this undamaged.

    So Gareth, I’ll welcome your E into my alphabet soup, because I trust you and know your words are not empty…not just “pleasant thoughts”. I trust your commitment to the hard work of reconciliation. I am angry for the ways in which systems of sexual shame have distorted all of my brothers’ and sisters’ capacity to experience the sacred in our own bodies and the bodies of our lovers.

    And, I am sorry, too. I am sorry for the ways I have participated in perpetuating violence in accepting the lines drawn in the rhetoric of “us and them” — in not holding those who seek to meet violence with violence accountable. In letting my own fear and woundedness fence me in and keep me from connecting with good people stumbling towards grace just as awkwardly as I am.

  21. To make it clear, I don’t think that being oppressed makes one righteous in any way. I’ve met plenty of homophobic black folk, and racist gay folk. there are Jews who have Muslims while insisting on ‘never again’, and there are Muslims who hate Jews while railing against the disrespect shown by some people towards the Koran.
    To identify myself, I’m a bisexual woman in love with a man – in the LGBT community, that makes me among the lowest of the low. I’m also at time what is euphemistically called ‘gender dysphoric’. But I do accept that while it might not be fair for lesbians who don’t know me to assume that I’m a straight woman with het privilege or a bi woman walking on the wild side, their dislike isn’t coming from the either. It’s coming from their experience with people who have betrayed them, and people like me get the blowback. So, instead of crying over not getting warm fuzzies from them, I’ve used my ‘undercover’ appearance to further the visibility of queerness among straight people, and even among gay people. I make it clear what I am, I don’t announce myself as an ally (nor do I expect to be accepted as one by everybody), and I make it clear that I will not take the het privilege that I could easily co-opt. Like white people of the 30s who chose to live in black neighborhoods with their black friends and lovers, I expect that some will see me as an insider, some will see me as an outsider, and some will see me as plain crazy for not disguising myself as a straight woman. The only time I ‘play straight’ is when I’m in situations where I could get raped or hurt, and even then, I don’t disparage other queers in order to protect myself. But I don’t expect to get validation for revealing myself as queer, either.
    Do I accept the choices of others? Most of the time, if it’s logical to me. I see pederasty as wrong. I don’t accept that among straight people, or among queer people. I don’t think that beating your partner without consent is ok- I know the difference between abuse and SM. All choices are not equally ok- to some extent serial rape is a choice, as is drinking to excess before driving. Other choices might not sit well with me, but they are none of my business, especially since I’m imperfect myself.

    I don’t claim to understand straightness. I’ve never been straight. My boyfriend is, and I find that to be a very odd thing. When I think about it too hard, it makes me kind of queasy, the way some people are made queasy by finding out other odd things about their partners. It’s like finding out the person you love likes eating sea slugs, or thinks it’s funny to pull a string through his nose and out his mouth. But I don’t have to like everything about him, or understand why he is the way he is, or wonder if it makes him fit to be in the same room with my female friends, or wonder if he thinks about sex all the time. I love him, we’re good together, and that’s enough for me. The other questions are a waste of my energy. That he thinks social justice is important, and works for it in small ways, is what matters to me. That my gay male friends trust him with me and think that he’s an ok, non-racist, non-homophobic guy, is because he has shown himself to be so- but he doesn’t brag about having gay friends to show how cool he is. Nor does he think that thinking people are mean to gay people is enough- speaking up is what matters.
    We can make inroads in a small way, on a personal level. We can become better people. But we cannot expect or even hope that those who are marked as ‘other’ to us will love us or accept us simply because we show good will. That’s a form of arrogance, and it ignores that we are part of the chain of history. Actively doing good without hope of reward, recognition or even the hope of fellowship, simply because we believe that doing good is what we are supposed to do whether G-d is watching or not, and understanding that even if we do good, we still might suffer because of it (and in fact, we probably will) is in my mind, the path towards righteousness. It’s why St. Francis hugged the leper, and why Martin Luther King wrote the Letter From Birmingham Jail while his wife struggled to make ends meet.

    Pity and self-flagellation are worthless. Sympathy is a waste. A desire to join with those in need and be accepted as one of them is egoism. What matters is to give love without hope of reward, because love is the only thing that truly matters, and the only thing that incrementally creates change. Gently nudging others who hate towards love- not tolerance, not pity, not guilt- because you know that love is positive and good, is far more helpful in the long run than worrying about whether those over whom you have power will love you back. Quite frankly, that’s none of your business.
    The dead can’t love anyone. They’re, well, kinda dead. But there are living teenagers and young people who need help. There are living jackasses who need to be lovingly told to keep their hatred to themselves, or to explore why they feel such fear towards people they don’t even know. There are living people who are straight, and upset about this horrible death, who need guidance in how to band together to do something about hatred within themselves and other straight people. Straight people have more than enough to keep themselves busy with the inbred hatred of straights for gays, without ever worrying about whether gay people love them or not. this is similar to how white people used to worry about the ‘race problem’ and what black people thought- the ‘race problem’ was actually about why white people were compelled to do such crazy shit and then wonder why they weren’t loved or respected by their victims. If we all worried about the evil stuff inside ourselves, we’d have no need for answers about whether we could be allied with other people. It would all just fall into place.

    Sorry if this is too preachy or rambling, but this has all been bothering me for a while. To me it’s all about the beam in my own eye rather than the mote in someone else’s, and doing something about removing the beam as opposed to thinking that noticing it is something to be applauded.

  22. Brian, please let me clarify. While I don’t think Gareth is being arrogant or assuming a mantle he doesn’t deserve, I still say, in general, that most well-meaning straight people don’t understand that being well-meaning is not enough to dispel the feelings of distrust directed towards them. The same thing happened during the civil rights movement, when a lot of whites were put off by the fact that everyone didn’t want to sing ‘kumbaya’ just because some of them were ready to do so.
    Thomas Jefferson said that slavery was a horrifying condition that damaged both the slave and the slaveowner. However, he conveniently ignored that slaveowners don’t get whipped by slaves, can’t be sold by slaves, can’t be bred by slaves. Regardless of the damage done to them by the overarching system, their suffering is negligible compared to the suffering they impart to others. It also ignores the simple fact that the slaves aren’t the ones who set up the system. Slaveowners did, and the children of slaveowners maintained it, until they were tired of doing so. And when they became tired, they dismantled it only as much as was necessary for their comfort and convenience. They didn’t consult slaves on what was convenient for them, or on if punishment should be meted out to the last slave owners, or on what types of systems should be put into place to integrate former slaves into society.
    The same thing is happening now to the alphabet soup of queerdom. There can’t be an Everyone, because straight people don’t get fagbashed for being straight. They don’t lose jobs over it, or homes over it, or children over it. They can sympathize and even empathize, but that doesn’t make them queer. They do not live in our skins. Just as even the most sympathetic white anti-racist isn’t willing to paint himself black and live permanently as a black person, so the same is true of well-meaning straight people. And that’s why there is no ‘everyone’.
    regardles of whatever my personal pain might be, that’s neither here nor there when it comes to the reality of a straight man attempting to school gay people on how evil homophobia is, which is what Gareth inadvertently did by saying ‘we’ are all responsible. My 75 year old mother doesn’t need to be shown lynching pictures to to understand American black history, and it would be arrogant of me to think that showing them to her will make the world a better place. If I want to show pictures like that I should do it were it will do the most good, not to people who could school me themselves.

  23. @Michele you said “I still say, in general, that most well-meaning straight people don’t understand that being well-meaning is not enough to dispel the feelings of distrust [I have] directed towards them.” [brackets mine]
    I am grateful you leave room in your words, by not using the word all. I’ve been reading/pondering your words and am trying to deeply listen–you have certainly challenged this queer. But perhaps you don’t know any, I do, that DO get bashed, lose jobs, and suffer the consequences of being an A (or E/e). They can’t know what it means to be in MY skin, but neither can you or even the person most close to me, my beloved. However I am so grateful for those who make attempts to speak, honestly and with humility, to the experience of injustice towards their “other.” I can’t see how history would be changed in any other way.
    I’d be interested (since you draw the racism analogy) what you think of the work of Tim Wise.

    • We’ll deal with the last first. I have great respect for Mr Wise. I think he’s doing the right thing. And I also think that Mr Wise would understand that if he walked through a poor black neighborhood, 99-100% of people wouldn’t know who he was, and would assume he was there for drugs or prostitution, or because he was a social worker or a cop. All of those would be wrong assumptions, but it sounds like he knows that’s the flip side of white privilege. i’m sue he also knows that his work wouldn’t protect him from getting his wallet stolen in certain neighborhoods, and that it’s not personal, even if it might partly be because he’s a white man. And I have no doubt that he knows that if he ever comes to become a racist for whatever reason, there will be plenty of white people who will accept him and say ‘I told you so.’

      Again, Tim Wise doesn’t get a cookie for believing racism is wrong, or speaking out against it, any more than my pink boyfriend gets a cookie for holding my hand in public. He gets a cookie for devoting himself to social justice and truly meaning it, but he didn’t deserve that cookie right away- and his cookie can be taken away at any time if he changes.
      I would never speak for an ‘all’, since I don’t believe in one. Michael Steele is black, and he’s an idiot. He’s not my brother, despite our similarities in skin color. If there was a race war I’d shoot him first, if Rush Limbaugh didn’t do it for me. (I’m joking, of course. I don’t believe there will ever be a race war, and I wouldn’t waste my time shooting Michael Steele. I’d be busy hiding my white friends and hoping they wouldn’t turn me over to the other side.)

      I do know that some straight people get bashed. Usually it’s because they are perceived as fellow travelers (see Earnest Goffmann’s book ‘Stigma’ for examples of how guilt by association works), or because someone mistakes them for a queer person. But straight people don’t get bashed by straight people simply for being straight. White people get bashed for being race traitors, not simply for being white. We don’t speak of ‘white on white crime’.
      And again- let’s be frank. if I am Jane Straightperson, and my friends dump me because I hang out with Susie Dykewoman, I can get my friends back by having an epiphany and joining an anti-gay group and publicly humiliating Susie. I can say Susie tried to seduce me, and that’s why I was confused and supported her, and now I know better. I can say I found Jesus and now I know the truth. We both know that happens. We both know it can happen at any time. We both know tons of queers overlook the remarks by people in their family that show if there were an all-out pogrom on queers, those family members would be very likely to attack first.

      A relative of mine, who taught me respect and love for the Jewish people, turned into a rabid anti-Semite when she found out my then husband to be was ‘one of them’. Another relative goes to church every Sunday and loves me to death, but believes that as a woman, I should not be living alone. He also believes I’m going to Hell because I’m queer. A woman who was my best friend and who helped me through trying times, introduced me to her guests as her ‘first black friend’, like I was a pet. I’ve met wonderful black people who’ve shown contempt for me when I didn’t evince the proper disdain for Jews or West Indians. I’ve met wonderful Baptists and Methodists who were sweet as pie, and happy that I was no longer a Catholic because Catholics aren’t real Christians. I’ve known great white people who’ve wanted to pet my hair because it’s in it’s natural state, and did so without permission. and so on. I’ve lost count of the women I would have liked to sleep with, who told be bisexuals were disease carriers. And I also knew, in each of these cases, that all I had to do is go along with whatever program was being sold, and my friendships could remain intact.
      I’ve learned to live with shedding a lot of potential friends and lovers. Not because I’m a saint. I’m not. I don’t deserve a cookie, either. There have been times when I have strategically allowed myself to be mistaken for an X because the Xs were looking to start a fight with Ys, and I like having my bones intact. But in every case, I made sure that I eventually revealed to the X that I am in fact a Y, or affiliate with Ys- and I didn’t usually wait until I was completely safe, because that’s cowardly.
      I’m not grateful for attempts towards anything. Attempts cost very little, and can be done in the dark, or the twilight. I’m not even grateful for full on actions. I’m glad to be working side by side with those who take action- but why show gratitude to someone who chooses to behave like an actual human being? Isn’t that what we are supposed to do? Isn’t that why we are appalled by non-human behavior? Otherwise we should be astonished at humanity and and apathetic by inhumanity, if we think there’s something magical about doing the right thing.
      But strategic alliances can shift for many reasons. The times can change. The needs can change. Sometimes we have to go undercover and pretend to be something we’re not (which is how some Germans were able to save Jews during WWII, and how some lesbians avoided being thrown out of the military during that same period- read Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers for an explanation). I do not have a right to expect my allies today will be my allies tomorrow. And even if they are true to me, their willingness to potentially sacrifice their well being doesn’t take away my need for vigilance. Having white friends, including a white boyfriend, won’t protect me from racism. Having straight friends who are supportive of me, including a straight boyfriend, won’t save me from getting beaten up or humiliated. Despite the poem, we ARE all islands. We live and die alone. We may have company, but ultimately we belong to ourselves, and the paths we travel are only revealed to ourselves. Just because we’re in a car on a highway with a lot of other cars pointing in the same direction, doesn’t mean that we are all going to the same place, or that we intend to take the same route all the way, or that we might not have obstacles and be left behind by others.
      We can even both be queer, but my queer is not your queer, and vice versa. Experientially, we are different people sharing a label. I may have more in common with straight people than with you, or I might not. I might read as more culturally ‘white’ than some white people, or even less culturally ‘black’ than some white people. I am less ‘female’ than some men, and more ‘female’ than some women. The danger of labels is that they make us forget that the map is not the territory.

      My mother has never heard of Tim Wise, but she helped integrate the phone company and she was at the March on Washington. I’d not heard of Mr Wise until you mentioned him- but I was a semi-out high school teacher who counseled gay and lesbian students before Hetrick-Martin was a concept, and could have lost my job- but I was lucky. But at the end of the day, history isn’t changed by Tim Wise. It’s not changed by people who necessarily join groups. It’s changed by acts of kindness and resistance that build into a zeitgeist and lead to the coming into being of people like Tim Wise or Dorothy Day, or Dan Savage, or Fannie Lou Hamer. Dan Savage exists because a bunch of drunken angry queens told the police to piss off in Greenwich Village one night, and refused to get into the paddy wagons without a fight, not because Dan Savage is a genius. Schools like Harvey Milk exist because semi-closeted school teachers stood guard and tried to protect some of their students from dying or committing suicide, so that those kids lived long enough to start schools and shelters for queer teens. Tim Wise exists because a whole lot of people, black and white, were pulled through bus windows and beaten, some of them to death. You and I can argue over whether to feel grateful to well-meaning straight people because there were diesel dykes and hard femmes and scared librarian types and funny aunts and spinsters who told hostile straight people to piss off in a variety of ways, and while some of them stood their ground, some of them died.
      So, the world needs both of us, Rachel. We ned angry rockthrowing dykes, and polite furious queer women who write screeds, and we need sweet peacemakers and ladies who see the good in everyone. We need both so that straight people who hate can realize that one way or the other they will have to deal with us, and people like me are a lot nastier to deal with than people like you., because our hunger for divine retribution against the wicked and our refusal to trust the words of the guiltridden and the well-meaning makes us into a wall over which people like you can speak with kindness and reason, and sometimes even truth. But I would advise you and people like Gareth and others to stop trying to dismantle what you perceive as an unpleasant looking wall of peevishness and occasional flares of anger. That wall is what makes peacemaking possible. Those diesel dykes wouldn’t be to my taste either, but I’m glad they were there.

  24. As for meeting violence with violence- I’m glad that black soldiers fought against white southerners in the Civil War. I’m glad there were Indians willing to fight for their lands, even when they were fighting black Federal soldiers. I’m thrilled there were women in Britain and the US who blew up post boxes in order to get attention about the vote, and I’m glad that Malcolm X talked big and talked about defending his home with weaponry. He was the Stagolee to King’s Gandhi, and someone needed to see that King was the far less scary solution.
    I’m no longer a Christian because I’m proud that Harriet Tubman carried a gun, and that Nat Turner scared the bejesus out of people. I believe in armed resistance. I wish more gays and lesbians would shoot people who attacked them . I’m sorry that the Mossad didn’t take out every old Nazi who crawled on the earth, and I wish that there was a way of putting old white racists in the US on trial for crimes against humanity, even if it meant breaking into their homes at night and dragging them out of their beds. Peace is a good thing- but St. Michael carries a sword and he knows how to use it, as he showed in the battle with Lucifer. One can do so without anger or malice. But sometimes violence must be done, and the threat of retaliation sometimes keeps the peace. If homophobic straights thought there was even a chance that a squad of gay people might swoop down and whoop their behinds for beating up gay kids, I doubt so many of them would make a habit of doing so. Racists now know that black and brown people won’t run and hide if someone comes with a rope and a torch; there will always be someone who will fight back.
    Violent people could care less about The Human Rights Campaign. Evangelical homophobes are flooding our military in order to fight the war against gays and lesbians, and to keep them down. Nimrodish children aren’t afraid of real consequences if they beat up the local dyke, or humiliate the sweet sensitive boy in class until he jumps off a bridge. Why? Because queer people want to be nice and make friends (good, but naive while there is still a power imbalance), and let bygones be bygones (foolish). Peop[le befriend those they see as their equals, and they remain friends because that equality continues. Queer people cannot be friends with those who have power over us, not as one group to another group. On an individual basis, yes. After some proof that the other side isn’t just having a momentary feeling of shame that will pass, yes. After our potential friend has given us good reason to believe he will fight the good fight without expecting to get our approbation, yes. but before then? Not unless you are Casper the Friendly Ghost, who has no friends despite his pathetic whining and begging. Casper is delusional- he doesn’t acknowledge that the people he wants as friends can’t see beyond his difference and into his heart. He also deludes himself because he is so desperate that he ignores the hatred and fear of others- and that scares them even more.
    People like Gareth may mean well. So did many of the radicals in the 60s who became conservatives by the 80s. They had no true commitment to real change; they were only in love with youth, ego, and political theatre. The true radicals proved themselves by starting schools, becoming social justice lawyers, adopting children, becoming members of the Catholic Worker movement and living among the poor as poor people themselves. They put their hearts on the line, over and over. Pointing to Dan Savage (no Dan, it doesn’t ‘get better’ for tons of queer people, particularly those who are poor and/or of color and/or female, or of some combination thereof) isn’t showing a commitment to social change that begins within oneself and then moves outward in waves as one takes the time and effort to interact with those whose experiences are not one’s own, and then uses those interactions to examine one’s own soul.

  25. garethihiggins

    I’m grateful for the conversation that’s taking place here; and I want to leave room for it to be open. I’m particularly grateful for how some comments provoke me to think differently. However, a recent comment appears to come close to advocating an implied threat of violence against a group of people; which, if I am reading the comment correctly, the commenter might include me in. I’m very happy for a serious and diverse conversation to take place here; but I’m not willing to host threats against myself or others on my own blog. I will delete any future similar implications in comments.

  26. Is there not room for a coalitional politic? To stabilize “straight” as a cohesive other is deeply problematic. I’m think of Cathy Cohen’s work here, where she makes a great case that such thinking not only is counter-productive, but does violence to other people effected by institutionalized heteronormativity. She particularly takes up the case of poor women of color, demonized as “welfare queens” for “failures” to participate in heteronormative family structures.

    When queer politics adopt the same strategies as the identity politics we hoped to disrupt, what’s the point? Your not going to find me leading a march for marriage rights when the case is being built on things like access to healthcare and citizenship. Your not going to find me leading a march for access to military service when our foreign policy is still bent on imperialist assumptions.

    What I can’t connect with is claiming a position in which one cannot join with other peacemakers and justice workers based on blanket assumptions and essentialist identity claims. Doesn’t seem very queer.

    So, I pray for peace, with each other and in ourselves.

    • There’s room for coalitional politics when both sides have power. And those politics exist- which is why I give money to the Human Rights Campaign. But too often, we’re willing to roll over and play dead.

  27. I think you should read it again, Gareth. I’m not advocating going out and killing straight people. Or, even, gay people. What I am saying is this- there will always be those who will commit violence against those who are perceived as weaker than themselves (I consider what happened at Rutgers to be an act of violence). Reaching out to make peace is good, but it’s only as good as the intentions of the other side. And if the other other side is filled with people who threaten violence, I believe that those being attacked have a right to protect themselves from being attacked, and to even make it clear that they won’t stand for even the thought of an attack.
    One of the most famous pictures of the 60s is of Malcolm X standing by a window with a rifle. Ekt’s deconstruct that. He was holding it because racists had threatened to burn down his house. Anonymous cals came through regularly, from peole threatening to kill his family. A few years earlier, Medgar Evers had been shot by a racist showing his displeasure, and other people of color and right-thinking whites had ben murdered in horrible ways my racists. Yet Malcolm was seen as a firebrand for saying that he would defend his home, his wife and his children ‘by any means necessary’. He was called violent. TV interviewers referred to him as the most dangerous man in America. He was excoriated for not talking about making peace with well-meaning whites. He was called a devil. Meanwhile, racists who killed both whites and blacks because of their hatred were call ‘controversial’. Even now, when some old white racist dies, he or she is often referred to as ‘colorful’ or ‘controversial’ or ‘incendiary’, as opposed to ‘evil’ murderous’ or ‘a menace to society’. None of these people ever had to defend their homes or their persons, and they called for the deaths of others without any veiling whatsoever.
    So, no- it wouldn’t bother me if there was an equivalent of a queer Mossad. And it wouldn’t bother me if some straight people felt nervous- even though most of them would have no reason to feel nervous at all. Most of them would only feel nervous because of their own guilt- and the possible existence of a gay group that brought homophobes to justice could only make straight people nervous if they themselves were homophobes. The idea that a queer person might not take a beating or jump off a bridge after being publicly humiliated, but might instead confront the attacker and give him or her a taste of what it’s like to be hurt should only be frightening if one says hateful things. That’s why so many white people before the Civil War were terrified of slave uprisings that rarely happened, and why so many white people to this day bring up the terrifying specter of the black male rapist who only preys on white innocents- because these are representations of guilty feelings made solid.
    I have no reason or even desire to shoot anybody, except to defend myself. And then, I wouldn’t desire it- I would do it out of self-protection. Just like I don’t go out looking for random straight people to beat up or pick on, and if there are people who do that, I think they should be put in jail. But to understand that being queer means living, however slightly, with fear, and that no amount of well-meaning behavior from ‘good’ straight people will alleviate that fear, because almost every month something pops up on the news that shows that a certain number of straight people are evil, and an even larger number are fine with that- well, that’s how life is. It’s like men who are ‘hurt’ to find out that almost all women see all men as potential rapists, and that this colors day to day interactions to the point that many of us carry mace and other weapons of defense. If you aren’t a potential rapist there’s no reason to be hurt. And if you are being honest, you can see how some women would feel a need to be on their guard, when there are stories of men from 8 to 80 raping women and sometimes even imprisoning them for years, but few if any stories of women behaving the same way. Wournos and Bobbitt were both so scary to so many men (and often used by some women as bogeys) because they were so rare and unlikely- and because a lot of men felt guilty and probably knew they had earned retribution for bad behavior, both personally and collectively.
    I don’t know what kind of snarkiness towards queers you engaged in before you just got religion over Mr Clementi, Gareth- but 4 young gay men died last month from suicides brought on by taunting. It was the nice, clean white one who played the violin who got the publicity, but those other boys were people, too. None of them will be brought back to life by Dan Savage or anybody else. And Mr Clementi won’t be brought back to life by his ‘very religious’ parents, whose distaste for gays no doubt led him to feeling suicide was a better option than calling the Dean. your anger can help save other boys and girls from depression and suicide, though. I actually do think your heart is in the right place- right now. But a column venting your rage, confusion, and insistence that ‘we’ all share in the blame won’t do it. Drag queens on Christopher Street didn’t kill Tyler, and the kids at Rutgers who were out and queer and happy didn’t do it either, and my lesbian hairdresser wasn’t responsible. In truth, you didn’t either- although your past words may have influenced other events that will affect the lives of queer youths and adults.
    Sitting down and talking with a bunch of gay people about their lives is a start. Not interrupting is even better. Finding a gay youth shelter that needs help would be great. Reading to gay men dying of AIDS, or lesbians who’ve been abandoned by their families while they have breast cancer, would be fabulous. going to gay events and NOT mentioning that you are straight, and not getting angry by what you hear, might teach you a lot. Attending a gay church group meeting like dignity or Integrity and doing the same? It might do wonders for your faith to be with people who keep their faith in churches that reject and persecute them.

    A few months ago my rather pink boyfriend informed me that after close to 7 years of having my picture on his desk and seeing people react to it, and really tuning in to what racists said about people with my face, made him wish he was no longer ‘white’, if being white meant being associated with those assholes. So I told him he was now officially ‘black’, if he wants to be- or together, we can just be ‘people’. He’s now a pink-colored black person, because he now longer takes mean comments for granted. He lets some of them slide because his boss is a racist and he has Klan in his town- but the fact that he keeps a picture of himself with his arm around his black girlfriend in her doctoral robes is his daily form of resistance, but he doesn’t get a cookie for that. His being friends with one of the only black people in town isn’t a form of resistance- he doesn’t get a cookie for being a real human being. He doesn’t understand why the picture on his desk is a big deal to me, though, and that’s why he gets the biggest cookie in the whole world.

    I’m hoping you earn your cookie one day, from some queer person. Just don’t expect it today. You only get a cookie when you don’t understand why you deserve one, and when there’s no self-righteousness involved, and when you don’t attempt to teach Grandma and Grandpa how to suck eggs for their own good. we’ve been through this before, even if it’s new for you. I heard the same poop from straight people when Brandon Teena died, and Matthew Shepard. And a year later most of them hadn’t done a damn thing to show their good will towards our right to live in peace other than talk big about how ‘we’ were all responsible. and lots of them got angry when queer people mentioned that maybe straight people needed to understand fear too from queers fighting back, and told us we were mean and non-conciliatory.

    Again- many of us don’t care if you don’t like how we think. You can drop us any time you like and find a new pet project. We don’t want to be your friends. We just want to stay alive, like you. Your allegiance is only proven through action. Words are a waste of our time and lead to more dead queer kids. We get a lot more than our feelings hurt, and some straight people don’t just vaguely kinda-sorta-maybe-almost threaten us over the internet. No- they kill us, or beat us up, or send anonymous notes to our bosses. they sow distrust. They patronize us. They tell us there must be something else that makes us cranky- the weather, sunspots, hormones, having our periods. Nope- not spending the 20th century being called fags and dykes and being made the butts of jokes or being told we need to play nice. Every straight person in America could have one day a year where they might have to worry about losing something for standing up for gay rights, and I wouldn’t shed a tear, because queer people go through that permanently and few people give a damn, including progressives.

  28. http://www.freeradical.co.nz/content/42/42sciabarra.php
    This was written re: Matthew Shepard.
    What Judy Shepard doesn’t say is who is supposed to teach empathy to ‘young people’. In this case, it’s really young straight people; they need to be taught empathy by their parents. Gay people can’t do it. Not in large enough numbers to make a difference. Only straight people can do that. Just like only white parents can teach white children not to beat up black kids, and only black parents can teach black kids not to beat up white kids.
    What makes Judy Shepard a hero is not that her son is dead. That just makes her the mom of a murdered queer kid. Her heroism springs from her response to her son’s death, and seeing past his death to how these these types of incidents are in the same league as the Texas dragging death of James Byrd. She hasn’t stopped fighting, and she’s highly visible, which makes her susceptible to death threats. She also hasn’t left Wyoming, not the friendliest state for gay activists.
    Matthew died in 1998. Only now is his mother being viewed as heroic. She had to earn the trust she’s been given. I hope she never gets ‘born again’ the way the defendant in Roe v Wade did, but there’s always that chance.

  29. what would be intersting, rather than discussing what Tim Wade or Judy Shepard does, or how nice Dan Savage is, or whther Michele is potentially violent for no reason, would be to go to the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter is this. If you could have the power to be more than a disembodied voce on a computer this month, what could you do- this month, not in June when it’s trendy- to actively ameliorate the lives of queer people who have indirectly been the targets of things you and people you know might have said? Or, lets not think in terms of ‘queer people’. Let’s think, like St. Francis, in terms of the person in front of us. The leper on the road, so to speak. If you, as Christians, wish to show G-d’s love towards an individual who is queer and in need of that love, how do you intend to do it this month?

    Let’s move away from the hypothetical. Let’s not think of forming coalitions. Let’s not worry about the doings of organizations, or donating to faceless charities.
    I used to make gingerbread houses for children in a burn ward, because they needed G-d’s love. No one had asked me to do it, and it wasn’t part of a group feel-good effort. It started because of one girl who was in the ward- I’d read about her in the local paper.
    During 9/11 I took soup and food to my local firehouse in NYC, not because I was a member of any group, but because G-d told me it was the right things to do. To this day I still believe it wasn’t enough.
    This year, I’m thinking of making cookies for the senior citizens nearby during the holiday season, because even though I don’t get along with my own parents. I can show G-d’s love to someone else. Since I’m upset about the Clementi murder, I may also crochet scarves for the kids at Harvey Milk, and personally deliver them. Why? Because queer kids deserve G-d’s love, and that love should have an identifiable face and a tangible form. I’m at a place in my life where I am poor, but that doesn’t free me from my duty to share G-d’s love. Heck, I may even send Glenn Beck a scarf too, or try to deliver one to Bill O’Reilly. I dislike them with a passion, but they need love too, and they need to know that even though they’re wicked, they can be redeemed.
    but notice how Christ didn’t charge his followers to help the Romans. He showed G-d’s love to Mary, and Lazarus, and others first. He showed love to the Roman soldier who had sympathy, but he didn’t send Pontius Pilate a mash note. He asked G-d to forgive people who oppressed Jews, but he didn’t go out of his way to seek them out or make friends with them- they had to make the effort to find him. He recognized fellow travelers like the Good Samaritan, but he didn’t cal for such people to travel the same road as his.
    So, since I’m going to have to make some scarves (I have one started already), I have my project. What’s yours? Forget concepts of us, and we, and everyone, and being one with the earth, and all that kumbaya shit. Forget organizations and what the other guy is doing, and whether you like or approve of others. What are YOU going to do this month to show your sincerity and soul power to yourself? In Roman Catholicism, I was taught that faith was nothing without action. It’s why Catholics don’t have the concept of grace, because there is no apriori getting saved regardless of how one behaves. Even popes can go to Hell. I left my religion not because I don’t believe in a higher power, but because I believe direct and right action are the only proofs of our existence as true human beings. Otherwise we’re upright apes without a clue. A church that can preach hatred towards people who are biologically predisposed by the G-dhead to love each other in a particular way is not driven by right action and is therefore in my mind bankrupt. but not following a church doctrine that is morally corrupt does not free me from obeying the edict to show G-d’s love, and to reject teachings that would lead to my coming to spiritual, moral, and physical harm. Trusting straight people as a group without insisting on seeing proof that they as a group are working hard to become righteous would be dangerous for my health. Therefore, I can’t and won’t do that. I cannot have coalitions with ‘straight people’ or see them as ‘allies’ when as a group they have shown themselves to be the opposite. I can however work with individuals, and learn to trust them, and strategize with them on how we’ll get these scarves done. With luck, perhaps Mr and Mrs Clementi will learn the lesson their son’s death ought to teach them, and they’ll do the equivalent of making scarves.

    That’s how ‘coalitions’ come about. One scarf, one hat, one mother grieving with another, one person telling a story and the other listening, one decision to meet and bring as long a friend, one phone call, one gingerbread house, one bowl of soup. Amnesty International started with a letter being written by a person so moved by the idea of a prisoner of conscience that he felt he had to do something about it. The AIDS quilt started because someone felt so much grief over losing friends that he had to craft something. The Red Cross exists because one woman wondered why men had to die alone on battlefields without someone to hold their hands as they died. The ASPCA was started because someone was horrified by seeing a man beat his cart horse on the street. I’m going to try to make these scarves because I would have given anything when I was young to know that my queerness was not an issue for everyone.

    For those of you in the NY/NJ/CT area, here’s a project you can work on- the kids at Hetrick-Martin need clothes. I looked at this after I decided to make scarves, and I’m glad to see that they’ll take them.
    Now, isn’t that a lot more positive and life-affirming than being mad, talking about how we’re all guilty, and then not making any concrete suggestions on how we can forget about and just do the right thing, whatever that might be? Or worrying about what other people might do or think? Or how many people might join with us? Or if we are loved?

    Fuck that. And make a fucking scarf. You’ll feel better.

  30. Bravo. Something for each individual to feel, search, and act upon. Bravo.

  31. Pingback: Tensegrities » Blog Archive » Yes, here in Minnesota

  32. Pingback: RE-POST: Tyler Clementi and Me. And You. (via god is not elsewhere / some conversation about movies, art, politics and spirituality with gareth higgins) « All That I Can't Leave Unsaid

  33. Gareth, I really appreciate your thoughts here. They helped me craft my sermon in which I came out as an ally. I hope it wasn’t patronizing. It certainly wasn’t meant to be.
    Thank you for speaking out.
    I’ve re-posted your thoughts on my blog too.
    Peace be with you

  34. This is a great article! May I repost it on MyOutSpirit.com’s Gay Spirituality Blog?

    You may be interested in the work of Empowering Spirits Foundation, a national LGBT rights organization that works to open hearts and minds through community service. http://www.EmpoweringSpirits.org

    I suggested this kind of “Voluntary Redemptive Service” in my book, SHIRT OF FLAME, which you can download for free here http://myoutspirit.com/index.php?pag=article&id=45&p=how-to-win-gay-rights.html, or just google “How to Win Gay Rights” in quotes.

  35. A powerful video of a councilman in Texas telling his own story:

    Simply listening to people’s stories while withholding judgment is a good place to begin our repentance.

  36. Hi Gareth.

    As I have already mentioned elsewhere, I was very moved by your article. It wasn’t just a rant, but began to outline suggested changes in values and lifestyle, which – however tame and open to critique they may be (I’m thinking about the posts above) – must be admired. Given what I’m about to write, that’s slightly ironic.

    I am blessed and privileged to live in an essentially liberal country – the UK. It is not as legally liberal as the US: Westboro Baptist would probably be in prison for hate crimes here. There are problems of course: English liberalism is at best laissez-faire. That perhaps explains the Labour Party’s reluctance to tell us that the current budget cuts are morally wrong as well economically wrong. However, I myself am not a true liberal. I don’t believe in it. I go along with a critique I heard recently, that liberalism is not a value system in itself, but rather it creates a value-free space in which we are entitled to our own values. It does not answer the question, ‘How then shall we live?’ For me to try to ‘be’ a liberal is to try to live by no particular values, which I find both absurd and un-Christian.

    I live in the inner city. There are a few others like me – well educated, and with enough wealth to move out if we wanted to (many Christians of one shade or another, interestingly enough) – but essentially I am a sojourner in my own neighbourhood. Others who might feel like me are the newly-arrived asylum seekers who are placed in affordable housing. And because they are outsiders they can see things that others get used to. They are genuinely shocked by what they see. As most of them are from Persia (Iran and Iraq), of course they are shocked by the sexual promiscuity, but one fellow parent at our primary school put it to me this way: ‘everyone is gorging on their own desires because they have nothing else to live for.’ It’s hard to know what to say – the essence of liberalism is that people are free to do whatever they want.

    Why do I raise my neighbourhood? Well, I suppose it’s because I am surrounded by people who are the victims of freedom. They do what they feel like until the money runs out or they get arrested. The social workers that pick up the pieces raise their eyes heavenward at dinner parties but they are not permitted to pass on any kind of value judgement as they take another child with foetal alcohol syndrome away from her alcoholic mother. The people I meet every day at the school gates – the people the papers over here are calling ‘the undeserving poor’ – do not have the education, information, skills or inclination to work out a value system for themselves. So while we middle class people discuss what we are going to do with our freedom, others just do… anything.

    It is my reading of the Christian scriptures and tradition that Christians have often held a radically different understanding of what ‘free’ means. Rather than freedom TO do whatever I want, Christian freedom is freedom FROM that very desire and FOR a purpose beyond ourselves. The New Testament uses the singular noun ‘sin’ to refer to an attitude of self-centred pride and disobedience to the will and wisdom of God. Paul in particular uses the word translated ‘flesh’ to indicate that there is in some sense an animal part of us that cannot be allowed to rule the whole. If that is the source of all the shame and self-hatred you write about, I’m not sure what to do with it. I believe that it is not inaccurate.

    In addition, I see in the scriptures an overwhelming collectivism which is almost totally alien to us today. Perhaps it’s one of those things we need to jettison, but I find it hard to let go. It’s not just the idea that my life affects others, but that I should allow others’ lives to affect me as deeply as possible. That includes notions of accountability and personal sacrifice for the sake of the collective. Slavoj Zizek has suggested that faith communities are the last bastion of resistance to individualistic consumerism, but there are others who would suggest that resistance is futile: individualism is the air that we breathe, and Christianity needs to be re-incarnated within it. That’s what your article feels like to me. It seems that your faith drives you to fight for my right to do whatever the hell I like, but after that you have nothing else to say to me about human relationships. Not because you don’t believe that there is anything more to say, but because individual autonomy has become the ‘fundamental’ of your faith. ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.’ That’s what it seems like.

    I’m not sure I’m reading you right. Are you saying that it is of the essenece of a liberal society that people should be free… etc. etc… without harming others? If that is the case, I agree, although ‘harm’ is a slippery word. Or are you saying that when it comes to human relationships the Christian faith has no moral content other than the creation of the liberal moral vacuum? If that is the case, I disagree.

    Of course, maybe we have just changed the things we are judgemental about. I always joke that if I confessed to my church that I had met someone in McDonalds and had anonymous sex with them in the toilet, the folk from revive would retort, ‘YOU WERE IN MCDONALDS?!’

    I am not picking a fight, only an honest discussion.

    • garethihiggins

      Simon, thanks for your extensive comment. I’ll respond to your direct questions here:

      I agree: the good life is one in which something approaching communitarianism is realised. We are our brother’s keeper; we are accountable for our actions; only in community can we discern the will of God.

      I’m certainly not saying that ‘when it comes to human relationships the Christian faith has no moral content other than the creation of the liberal moral vacuum’. Not at all. I’m with John Caputo, who once defined postmodernism in my hearing (I’m paraphrasing) as ‘Your truth may not be the same as my truth; but that doesn’t mean that either, neither, or both of us has not got some truth. And if we believe that the possibilities of truth have not and cannot be exhausted, then no one will die for a belief; and if we aren’t prepared to die for a belief, then we’ll be even less likely to kill for one.’ He went on to paraphrase Derrida’s oft-ignored caveat that ‘the only thing that cannot be deconstructed is justice.’

      And so my view is simple: first, do no harm is a pretty good fundamental ethic. Seek justice for those oppressed is another. And, just for the sake of being comprehensive, anonymous sex in the McDonalds toilet may be problematic on both the count of the behavior AND the location 🙂

      But more important than that: my article was about the need for those of us complicit in homophobia to acknowledge the role we may have played in Tyler Clementi’s death; and that one way to begin to transcend homophobia would be to add another ‘category’ to LGBTQQI; that of E, standing for everyone, in that, to my mind at least, our culture is singularly bad at treating sexuality as anything other than a source of prurience or repression. Happy to keep the conversation going – looking forward to your further thoughts; and thank you for seeking an honest discussion rather than a fight. Peace be with us all.

  37. Hi Gareth,

    Thanks for your response.

    I think what we’re struggling for is some ‘good’ way to hold moral values which we believe to be, if not universally applicable, then generally applicable. If you believe anonymous sex to be in some way less than ideal, or even dehumanising, then what if Tyler Clementi was doing just that with someone he had met on the internet a few hours before?

    The issue then becomes one of how a community or society treats those who are not average or normal, and here we are surely back to ‘love the sinner’ territory, which is problematic at best. From this post and reading some of the comments, I visited Andrew Marin’s site. There I read a number of comments from gay and lesbian people saying that this attitude is unacceptable to them; that even if I campaign for full political and cultural equality for LGBT I am still filled with hate if I believe that gay sex is morally wrong.

    We may not have a problem with committed covenental relationships, but if we have a problem with the kind of sex that is basically using another person as a mastubatory aid, then we are actually ‘hating’ an even larger percentage of the population than just the LGBT community.

    It’s complicated. Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine a world in which it was possible to change someone’s sexuality through surgery, perhaps through some kind of gene therapy. A friend comes to you and says, ‘I am a man, it’s ridiculous that I am attracted to other men. I’m going to get the operation and make myself straight. What do you think?’ What do you say? If you try to convince your friend that he should be happy the way he is, that he is as God intended him to be, should you not say that to a pre-op TS person?’ If you support your friend, your actions imply that homosexuality is a condition that can be cured. I realise that gender identity and sexuality are not the same thing, but it shows how difficult it is to have any moral view in public and simultaneously include every person, if including them means accepting them completely at every level.

    I remember telling a girlfriend at university, ‘you have to love the bad bits and the broken bits too.’ I don’t agree with myself, although at the time I felt that I needed that total acceptance. Now I’m ready to be challenged, to be told I’m an idiot. I WANT to have my sin pointed out to me. So maybe it’s something about growing up, something about knowing love first (I married the girlfriend).

    How do you work through this issue of showing love to someone who interprets love as the blessing and acceptance of everything they are and do? How does, ‘…neither do I condemn you, now go and sin no more’ fit in, when the ‘sinner’ sees the statement as oxymoronic?

  38. garethihiggins

    I have to see that I’m struggling to see the connection between your comment and my article – I’m glad to keep the conversation going, but I think we may be talking about two different things. I don’t think love means affirmation of every behavior – to take just two examples of love in my own life: my wife loves me, but challenges me to, for instance, become a more humble and easygoing person; nothing about her love makes me think that my need for humility and taking myself less seriously are not important; and I have friends who accept me completely but push me to become a better person.

    So in short, I don’t think that love means agreement. But I don’t think that disagreement necessarily presupposes a need to persuade someone else to be more like me. In the case we’re discussing my emphasis is on what we can do to neutralise illegitimate sexual shame in our culture by an affirmation that all of us walk in places where there is no map, because our religious and cultural institutions have so often failed to draw good ones. LGBTQQI people know exactly what certain kinds of religious voices have been trying to persuade them to do; what has been less clear is how all of us need to participate in a process of self-acceptance before or at least in parallel with how we engage with others. If this self-acceptance doesn’t include some kind of acknowledgement that our bodies and our spiritualities are undivorceable from each other, that I need to walk humbly, and with love, and with a recognition that I don’t understand the terrain that anyone else walks on, then it’s incomplete. And so ultimately, I don’t think my article is about Tyler Clementi. It’s about us.

    BTW – I don’t know who Tyler Clementi was with on the night in question; I don’t know how they met; and I don’t know what they were doing. Media reports have been ambiguous – so can I suggest that, unless you know otherwise, hypothesising about what he was doing and how he met the person is probably unhelpful. Let’s keep talking.

  39. OK, maybe I shouldn’t have brought Tyler Clementi into the centre of this, but isn’t suggesting that he was having a ‘romantic moment’ hypothesizing also?

    I’m sorry that you don’t see the link between my posts and yours. Here it is as succinctly as I can be: friends and relatives from the LGBTQQI community tell me that only my total acceptance of their moral and lifestyle choices will communicate acceptance of them as people. Anything less continues their oppression. But I cannot lie and say that I consider every sexual choice morally neutral or equal. So what should I do?

  40. garethihiggins

    I think that’s a fair point – my hypothesis is not necessarily any more valid 🙂

    Thanks for the succinctness. I don’t think that every sexual choice is morally neutral or equal either. But I don’t think the binary in your question is all that you’re left with: I don’t think it’s a matter of homophobia on the one hand and ‘considering every sexual choice morally neutral or equal’ on the other. I’d like to understand more of what you mean by ‘moral and lifestyle choices’ – do you mean a specific sexual act, a cultural ‘mode’, or an entire way of being?

  41. Hi Gareth,

    I wrote another long post but realised it all boiled down to this: it’s not really about actions. While a pre-op TS is happy to accept that they are in some way ‘imperfect’, a gay person wants to assert that their sexuality is – at least potentially – perfect, as God/nature intended.

    If someone sees homosexuality as a sign of universal human brokenness, THAT is the sticking point. It’s considered to be equivalent to racism. I think that’s probably what I believe, so even if I was to campaign for total political equality, even if I was to say that a covenental relationship could reflect the image of God, I’m stuck.

    I don’t think I’m homophobic, we need a different word for my ‘prejudice’!

  42. I have been watching this amazing thread since the beginning – and just wanted to pipe in a few small thoughts.
    @Simon: TS = transsexual? This identity is just one sliver of the overall group within the umbrella of gender identity, which is not the same as sexual identity. Do you perhaps mean transgender?
    Transfolks are not necessarily homosexual.
    I am sorry you do not have queer friends in your life that are willing to let you walk along side of them, loving them as God does, while you being able to maintain your own identity. I think that is what I have appreciated so much about this conversation and others like it (currently happening over at my little blog): I think we can all love one another AND not try and convert eachother, being so arrogant to think that we are right and “they” are wrong. Where is the lovingkindness in that? Where is the ministry and act of reconciliation?
    I would echo what Gareth says “I don’t think that love means agreement.”
    And congrats to you in recognizing your prejudice. Being aware and awake to your own judgement is to me a great place to start.

  43. Thanks for your gracious words Rachel

    Prejudice means making a judgement ahead of something, so if one example of my prejudice is not knowing the correct term for people who use surgery to change their gender, my apologies. We all have prejudices, we all use labels. I just don’t think homophobia is an accurate description of my particular collection of prejudices. I’m much more scared of the straight guys I see rolling out of bars and clubs every weekend. Is there a word for that?

    Let me tell you a story:

    I was once phoned up by an old friend. She had a friend who was looking for a church that would be welcoming and inclusive towards her and her partner, who was also a woman. However, she was from a charismatic background and all the welcoming and inclusive churches in the area where she lived were both liberal and liturgical. She was looking for something that corresponded more closely to the spirituality she had known as a young person. There was a rumour going round town that my church was both lively and inclusive – was this true?

    After some thought, I answered that I would be honoured for my church to be considered that way, but that the church was also very diverse. I explained that in cases of great diversity, my lead as the pastor was to suggest that someone struggling with another’s beliefs or behaviour should begin by hearing the other person’s testimony. So it was perfectly possible that if my friend’s friend became part of our community, someone would ask her how God has led them to live with another woman.

    It was clear that this answer was not satisfactory. As often happens when someone asks you about ‘a friend’, it is really them they talking to you about. Within a few months this lady left her husband and moved in with a woman. She never came to my church, nor is she involved in any other church.

    I find myself sometimes in similar conversations with Jewish people about Israel/Palestine: their level of (justifiable?) defensiveness is so great that even the mildest question about Israeli policy can quickly lead to accusations of anti-semitism. So the first question to ask is maybe how do we get to a place where everyone feels less afraid of each other, which is where Gareth’s article kicks in.

  44. Simon: one clarification. There are many many many transgender people who will never have the money, resources or access to have surgery. That does not mean they do not live as pre-op, and they are still trans-people.

    So are you saying if I were to come to your church, and someone had an issue with–perhaps not my homosexuality–but the fact that I was divorced, or what if I was unable to breastfeed (clearly natural and what God intends, right?) are you saying that I would have to stand up and give my testimony about my beliefs about my inability to breastfeed and how I could go against God by divorcing my abusive spouse? Or are you saying that you would welcome the person with said issue, but would not help navigate the conversation? Or are you saying that they would have to answer for their beliefs if someone asked them, say one on one?

    I am sorry I am confused by your story.

    It sounds like you might be saying something like “hey I am cool with you showing up, giving of your time/talent/treasures to the community, but if you are called on to stand (not before God in judgement, but) in front of our elders or leadership council or church president–you are on your own.” Is that right?

    I hear that you do not believe in the morality of those who do not have their sexual or gender identity within the boundaries of heterosexuality. But do you need to agree with the morality of a person who has become homeless, through no fault or choice of their own, in order to love them?

  45. Whoah!

    No, no-one takes the stand. My church is mainly people in their twenties and thirties, and many of us have fallen out of/with other churches, so people are prety sensitive about that kind of thing. Some asked too many questions or had lifestyles that were questioned. Others were ‘too wacky’ (charismatic) for their congregation, but because they were also part of the alternative culture they ended up with us rather than a regular wacky church.

    So what normally happens is someone comes to me as the pastor and tells me ‘so-and-so is cohabiting with so-and-so, aren’t you going to do anything about it?’ So I say, ‘have you talked to them about it?’ There’s a little silence in which the person is normally thinking, ‘No, that’s your job,’ then hopefully they connect this situation with all the things they’ve heard about us being a community that seeks to learn from each other. I’m called the pastor, but in reality I’m more like the coach than the star player – if you joined our community it might take you months to realise there’s a Rev in the room.

    Having said that, I am still ruminating on your impled suggestion that such conversation might sometimes be better accompanied, since not everyone is equally gifted in speaking and listening. I will take that one away with me…

    So no, I wouldn’t put anyone on the spot, but if a divorced Christian came to me and said they wanted me to remarry them, I would almost definitely do it, but I would want to hear their story as part of the process.

    I realise we don’t know each other, but parts of your response feel like what I was talking about earlier: it feels as if you were looking for the worst interpretation of my words. But fortunately you are willing to continue the conversation!

    Thanks for the clarification on the trans community – I don’t know anyone from that world well enough to have a really good conversation with them about it.