Sunday, April 29, 2007

Out and About – April 2007

Friends, here are a few snapshots of my life as an “out” gay Catholic man, seeking to be all “about” the Spirit-inspired work of embodying God’s justice and compassion in the Church and the world.

Looking at these images, I feel very blessed to be part of so many inspired (and inspiring) communities that share in such work. Perhaps you’ll recognize yourself in some aspect of this work - and, who knows, maybe even in one or two of these photos!

It is a living God and a living faith
that we are trying to express.

We are called to be holy,
that is, whole human beings.

Dorothy Day

Above: On Maundy Thursday evening (April 5), I joined with other members of Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ for a Seder Meal.

Above: New life adorns the altar of St. Stephen’s Catholic Church during the community’s Easter Vigil Mass – Saturday, April 7, 2007.

To read “The Triumph of Love,” my Easter 2007 reflection, click here.

To view images from around the world of Easter 2007, click here.

Above: I shared Easter Sunday lunch with my good friends (from left) Ken, Paul, Kerry, Cass, and Carol.

Above: Over the Easter weekend, former CPCSM office manager Martin Dohmen (center) visited the Twin Cities from his home in Florida. Pictured with Marty is CPCSM co-founder David McCaffrey (right) and his partner Michael Douglas.

The recently released book, Creating Safe Environments for LGBT Students: A Catholic Schools Perspective, is dedicated to both Martin Dohmen and CPCSM co-founder, Bill Kummer (1949-2006).

The Dedication in the book notes that, “During the early years of CPCSM’s Safe Schools Initiative [the mid 1990s] . . . Bill and Martin tirelessly traveled to each of the eight original participating Catholic high schools to negotiate and organize each school’s Safe Safe training program and assemble and orient volunteers. They also spent long hours designing the project’s first lesson plans and curriculum materials, which would eventually become the primary source for the first draft of the manuscript for [Creating Safe Environments for LGBT Students: A Catholic Schools Perspective].”

The Dedication continues by observing that, “The idea for CPCSM’s Safe Schools Initiative was prompted, in part, by the verbal and physical abuse both Bill and Martin experienced as gay teenagers at the hands of their fellow high school students. Because of their tireless devotion to CPCSM’s Safe Schools Initiative, Bill, Martin, and many others have ensured that thousands of present and future LGBT high school students will not only find safer and more welcoming and affirming school environments, but will have a greater chance of leading more satisfying and rewarding lives as contributing LGBT members of both the Church and society.”

Above: Standing at right with members of the Minnesota War Resisters League (Sister Rita Steinhagen Chapter).

Standing in the back row, third from right, is Frida Berrigan, daughter of the late Phil Berrigan and Liz McAlister. Frida, who serves on the War Resisters League’s National Committee in New York City, was a special guest at our April meeting.

Standing next to me is Marv Davidov, longtime justice and peace activist, founder of the Honeywell Project, a Freedom Rider during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, and a participant in the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride of 2003.

One of the Minnesota War Resisters League’s current projects is the planning and organizing of a General Strike for Peace for September 21, 2007.

Above: Catholic Rainbow Parents Myrna and Ron Ohmann played a crucial role in the recent establishment of a support group for Catholic parents of LGBT persons in St. Cloud, Minnesota. A number of CPCSM folks were invited to attend and support the first gathering of this group on April 12, 2007.

Above: On Wednesday, April 18, the various LGBT member organizations of Community Solutions Fund (soon to be renamed Community Shares Minnesota) gathered at Babette’s Restaurant in Uptown, Minneapolis, to talk with the members of Quorum (the Twin Cities GLBTA Chamber of Commerce) about the work of their respective organizations.

In the photo above I’m standing (at far left) with (from left) Art Stoeberl (Quatrefoil Library), Jodi Williams and Peggy Paul (Community Solutions Fund), Deb LeMay (P-Flag/Twin Cities), and, at front, Laura Smidzik (Rainbow Families) and Alex Nelson (District 202).

Above: OutFront Minnesota’s Lobby Day - Thursday, April 19, 2007.

For more photos and commentary on this event, click here.

Above: The Rainbow Families Conference –Saturday, April 21, 2007.

Standing from left: Jim Calvin of Community of Grace Christian Church), Heidi Schreiber of Quorum, the Twin Cities GLBTA Chamber of Commerce, me, and Monica Travers (Rainbow Families volunteer). I was at the conference representing CPCSM, which shared an informational booth with Dignity/Twin Cities.

Above: Catholic Rainbow Mothers – April 26, 2007.

From left: Mary Beckfeld, Mary Lynn Murphy, Myrna Ohmann, and Beverly Barrett. All four women are members of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM) and founding members of Catholic Rainbow Parents.

Above: On the evening of Friday, April 27, members and friends of CPCSM attended the inaugural Minnesota GLBTA Campus Alliance Spring Dinner at the University of St. Thomas.

Clockwise from front left: Mary Lynn Murphy (CPCSM president and Catholic Rainbow Parents coordinator) Tom Murr, Gretchen Murr (current president of P-Flag/Twin Cities), David McCaffrey (CPCSM co-founder), Michael Douglas, Paul Fleege (CPCSM treasurer) Kathleen Olson, and Cheryl Maloney (executive director of GLBT Pride/Twin Cities 2007).

Above: With Paul Fleege at the Minnesota GLBTA Campus Alliance Spring Dinner - University of St. Thomas, April 27, 2007.

As a student at St. Thomas in 1985, Paul co-founded “St. Thomas Lesbian and Gay Students” – the first LGBT student group at the university. Others at the GLBTA Campus Alliance Spring Dinner associated with CPCSM and who are alumni of the University of St. Thomas, included Tom Murr, David McCaffrey, and Michael Douglas.

Above: Mary Lynn Murphy with Alfonso Wenker, University of St. Thomas student and co-chair of the Minnesota GLBTA Campus Alliance.

Above: Students from St. Olaf’s College and Carlton College gather for the Minnesota GLBTA Campus Alliance Spring Dinner – University of St. Thomas, April 27, 2007.

Above: Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ pastor Rev. James Pennington (right) and community member Roger Youngs (left) stand with José Juan Valencia of Phoenix, Arizona – Sunday, April 29, 2007.

My two spiritual homes, Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ and St. Stephen’s Catholic Church, are co-sponsoring a “special time of action and prayer” with and for immigrants.

This “special time” will begin on May 5 when 100 people from the Twin Cities area, along with participants from Phoenix, Arizona, will take part in a ten-day water only fast, following a 30-day period of prayer involving the visiting of various churches, mosques, and synagogues. At the beginning of the fast there will be a service to light a candle – a symbol of our prayers and hopes for just immigration reform. At the end of the fasting period, this candle will be taken to other communities of faith, lighting other candles at prayer services in the various congregations visited. The last prayer service will be at the Capitol in St Paul.

The goal of this time of fasting and prayer is to seek God’s guidance, wisdom, and compassion so as to faithfully and effectively advocate and work for just and fair immigration reform. During this time many will also seek to educate the wider community on the inadequateness and unfairness of the current immigration system.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

OutFront Minnesota’s 2007 Lobby Day

Last Thursday, April 19, an estimated 3,000 people from across Minnesota gathered to meet with their lawmakers, rally on the lawn of the capitol, and show the collective strength of the Minnesotan gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community.

Yes, it was OutFront Minnesota’s annual Lobby Day!

Friends, as you will see, Lobby Day 2007 was a very colorful and spirited event. And to top it off, the spring weather was just perfect!

Above: The “Would Jesus Discriminate?” campaign is coming to the Twin Cities!

You may recall I discussed this campaign in a previous post. Look out for the campaign’s first billboards sometime in the summer.

Above: Here I be (back row, second from right) with some of the good folks from the Faith Family Fairness Alliance (FFFA).

I was at Lobby Day representing the
Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM), a founding member organization of FFFA.

Above: The young crowd was out in force!

I’ve long maintained that the reason some (older) folks are so hell-bent on passing legislation banning gay marriage as quickly as possible, is that they know full well that for the younger generation the issue of gay marriage is, well, a non-issue! Although I find this to be very hopeful, I also realize that we can’t be complacent.

Above: Darlene White (longtime member of CPCSM and co-founding member of Catholic Rainbow Parents) with her grandson, Keenan.

Above: Members of P-Flag/Twin Cities gather for the 12 noon rally on the steps of the Capitol. Those parents are really something, aren’t they?

Above: This final image is actually from OutFront Minnesota’s 2005 Lobby Day, yet the message it conveys is so powerful and relevant that I feel it’s worth sharing at any and every opportunity. So here it is two years on: still powerful, still relevant.

Images: Michael Bayly.

See also the previous Wild Reed post: Getting the Word Out.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Truth Telling: The Greatest of Sins in a Dysfunction Church

Recently in Gillette, Wyoming, a lesbian Catholic couple, Leah Vader and Lynne Huskinson (pictured above), were notified by their local priest that they were barred from receiving communion.

The reason? Well, obviously because they’re lesbian, right?

Well, actually, no. There’s a little bit more to it than that.

Going public

Vader and Huskinson, who were married in Canada last August, were known in their Catholic parish of St. Matthew’s to be a lesbian couple. The Associated Press reports Vader saying that they’d never made any secret of their relationship and that they’d even posed for a church directory family photo with her children from a previous marriage. Their barring from receiving communion, however, wasn’t the result of being known as a committed couple to their fellow parishioners and, I assume, their priest.

No, what ultimately ensured that they and their relationship were denounced and punished was the publication in the local media of a letter they’d written to a state legislator during a debate in the Legislature over a proposed bill that would deny recognition of same-sex marriage. Understandably, the couple’s letter urged opposition to the bill.

“Soon after,” reports the Associated Press, “the local paper interviewed the couple on Ash Wednesday and ran a story and pictures of them with ash on their foreheads, a mark of their Roman Catholic faith.”

It was after this very public coverage that the couple received word from their parish priest, Fr. Cliff Jacobson, that they had been barred from receiving Communion at St. Matthew’s.

“If all this stuff hadn’t hit the newspaper, it wouldn’t have been any different than before – nobody would have known about it,” said Jacobson. “The sin is one thing. It’s a very different thing to go public with that sin.”

What’s Jacobson saying? That if the couple had just kept their mouths shut in the public arena they’d still be able to receive communion at St. Matthew’s?

Sounds to me as if “going public” about expressing and living one’s life as a gay person is a greater sin than the “homogenital activity” condemned as a sin by the Church. After all, it seems that if we engage in this type of “sinful” activity in the darkness of the closet, than we could well expect the Church to turn a blind eye. But woe betide a gay person or couple who try to live with any degree of honesty and integrity that draws public attention.

The greatest of sins

Hypocrisy, intellectual dishonesty, and dysfunction, in other words, seem to be the hallmark of Catholicism when it comes to matters not only of homosexuality, but to the healthy and life-affirming expression of human sexuality in general.

I think it’s obvious that for many in positions of hierarchal power within the Church, being honest about one’s homosexuality is treated, if not considered, as a type of sin. This shouldn’t be surprising as public dissent is the greatest of sins in Catholicism – or rather, in a warped expression of Catholicism dominated by clericalism and reactionary ideology. And without doubt, public dissent was what Leah and Lynne were punished for.

To be sure, such dissent – and the honesty and integrity that compel it – frightens many in positions of ecclesial power. Why? Because such truth telling exposes the error and dysfunction of that “warped expression” of Catholicism outlined above. And in the case of Leah and Lynne, it exposes the related error and dysfunction of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. For as British writer Mark Dowd noted in The Tablet in May of 2005: “When [the Vatican] asserts, ‘homosexual activity prevents its own fulfillment and happiness by acting contrary to the creative wisdom of God,’ the very existence of contented and fulfilled partnerships in local communities creates problems.”

Yes, and going public with such “contented and fulfilled partnerships” creates even bigger problems – especially for the partnerships involved. Just ask Leah Vader and Lynne Huskinson.

Huskinson has questioned why Catholics having premarital sex and/or using birth control are not barred from receiving Communion. Fr. Jacobson replied that the difference is that such Catholics are “not going around broadcasting, ‘Hey I’m having sex outside of marriage’ or ‘I’m using birth control.’”

Yes, well, obviously they don’t need to. Most heterosexual Catholics recognize the intellectual dishonesty and dysfunction of the Church’s teaching on human sexuality. Yet rather than addressing this dishonesty and dysfunction head-on and demanding and working for structural change within the Church, the vast majority of them choose instead to quietly do their own thing. (For instance, even the US Conference of Catholic Bishops concedes that 96 percent of married Catholics use birth control.) Gay people, on the other hand, in order to secure the rights and benefits of civil marriage (or its legal equivalents) must speak out, must “broadcast” their lives and relationships.

Also, one could argue that the turning up to Mass each week of Catholic families with one, two, or three children is a pretty obviously (and public) indication that birth control is being practiced. Yet are parents of such families ever accosted and challenged? Of course not. Priests like Fr. Jacobson wouldn’t dare. It’s ever so much easier to go after the gays.

Plus, think of the financial strain the Church would be under if the 96 percent of married Catholics using birth control received letters saying they were barred from receiving communion. Better that the Church just turn a blind eye; better that it just let them all continue quietly dissenting – even as it’s aware that the scope of this dissent dwarfs that of dissenting gay Catholics.

The real sin

One of the saddest aspects of this whole story is Leah Vader’s observation that, “You spend half your time defending your gayness to Catholics, and the other half of your time defending your Catholicism to gays.” It doesn’t leave much time to just be, does it?

I think of Jesus’ invitation for all who are burdened to find rest in him. Shouldn’t the Church be a place where folks are given rest from such burdens? Oh, but wait! It’s that warped expression of Catholicism masquerading as the Church that has placed much of this burdensome weight upon Leah and Lynne. Now that seems to be the real sin in this sad and sorry tale.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the couple has not been back to St. Matthew’s since they received the letter barring them from full participation in the life of the community. Vader said they did not want to “make a scene.”

Here’s hoping that their fellow parishioners will “make a scene” for them – and insist that St. Matthew’s be a place of welcome and acceptance for Leah and Lynne; that it be a community where the public acknowledgment of their relationship does not merit any form of denouncement or punishment, and where truth-telling is encouraged and honored.

Image: AP/Jennifer Ottinger.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Catholic Church and Gays: An Excellent Historical Overview
Catholic Teaching on Homosexuality: “Complex and Nuanced”
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
The Many Forms of Courage
Our Catholic “Stonewall Moment”
Authentic Catholicism: The Antidote to Clericalism
The Triumph of Love: An Easter Reflection
Trusting God’s Generous Invitation
Pan’s Labyrinth: Critiquing the Cult of Unquestioning Obedience

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Social Roots of Yet Another American Tragedy

David Walsh of the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) has written an insightful commentary on the April 16 massacre of 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech university in Blacksburg, Virginia, in which he explores the “social roots” of this “America tragedy.”

I find it amazing the number of folks who simply don’t want to acknowledge or examine such roots, as if the killer at Virginia Tech - as deranged as he was - just dropped out of the sky. Case in point: David von Drehle’s commentary in Time magazine, entitled “It’s All About Him,” in which he asserts that “the real problem can be found in the killer’s mirror.”

Well, it’s a nice sound byte, I'll give von Drehle that. But if we really want to understand and prevent events like the Virginia Tech massacre, than we need to be honest and brave enough to examine more than the gunman’s mental state of mind. If nothing else, we owe such a broader and more in-depth examination to the victims and their families.

Thankfully there are journalists and writers like David Walsh who offer such perspectives. Following are excerpts from his April 18 commentary, “Virginia Tech Massacre - Social Roots of Another American Tragedy.”

[The Virginia Tech massacre] was horrifying, but no one who has followed the evolution of American society over the past quarter-century will be entirely shocked. Such psychopathic episodes, including dozens of multiple killings or attempted killings in workplaces and schools, have occurred with disturbing regularity, particularly since the mid-1980s. A timeline assembled by the Associated Press and the School Violence Resource Center lists some 30 school and college shootings alone since 1991.

Official reaction to the Blacksburg deaths, one feels safe in predicting, will be as superficial and irrelevant as it has been in every previous case.

The appearance of George W. Bush at the convocation held on the Virginia Tech campus Tuesday afternoon was especially inappropriate. Here is a man who embodies the worst in America, its wealthy and corrupt ruling elite. As governor of Texas, Bush presided over the executions of 152 human beings; as president, he has the blood of thousands of Americans, tens of thousands of Afghans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis on his hands. His administration has made unrelenting violence the foundation of its global policies, justifying assassination, secret imprisonment and torture.

Speaking of the Blacksburg killings, Bush commented: “Those whose lives were taken did nothing to deserve their fate. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now they’re gone—and they leave behind grieving families, and grieving classmates, and a grieving nation.” If he and his cronies were not entirely immune to the consequences of their own policies, it might strike them that they could be speaking about the masses of the dead in Iraq, who have also done “nothing to deserve their fate.”

The president, in his perfunctory remarks, appeared anxious, above all, to put the events behind him. Bush’s comment that “It’s impossible to make sense of such violence and suffering” comes as no surprise. He recognizes instinctively, or his speech writers do, that considering the “violence and suffering” in a serious manner would raise troubling questions, and even more troubling answers. When the president concluded, “And on this terrible day of mourning, it’s hard to imagine that a time will come when life at Virginia Tech will return to normal,” he said more than he perhaps wanted to. This is an admission that something has gone terribly wrong at Virginia Tech—and in this regard the university is a microcosm of the larger social reality—and will not easily be put right.

In general, those speaking at the gathering—school officials, politicians and clergy—seemed in haste to get past the event. In some cases, this may stem from a sincere desire to console and to lift the community’s collective spirits. However, a major tragedy, with broad social implications, has taken place and it needs to be considered.

The events at Virginia Tech follow almost eight years to the day the mass killing at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in which 15 people died. At the time, the media and politicians performed a ritual breast-beating, with Bill Clinton in the lead. Much was made of the need for new gun controls, increased security in the schools and the need to counsel troubled students. Then, as now, official American public opinion refused to recognize the killings as a social disorder.

What has occurred in the intervening years? Can anyone argue that American society has developed since 1999 in such a manner as to make tragedies similar to Columbine less likely?

Everyday life in America has continued to have a violent, remorseless backdrop. In April 1999 US and NATO forces were launching cruise missile after cruise missile against the former Yugoslavia and inflicting lethal sanctions and periodic bombing raids on Iraq. Somalia and Afghanistan had also already come in for punishment from the Clinton administration.

American militarism, however, has truly flourished in the present decade. The US has been occupying portions of Central Asia or the Middle East for most of the eight years since Columbine. Following a hijacked election and making use of the terrorist attacks on September 11, the Bush-Cheney regime launched a war based on lies. The lesson taught by the ruling elite is clear: in achieving one’s aims, any sort of ruthlessness is legitimate.

At the same time, the social gap in America has widened in the past decade. By 2005 the top one-tenth of 1 percent of the US population earned nearly as much income as the bottom 150 million Americans. Those 300,000 wealthy individuals each received 440 times as much income as the average person in the poorest half of the population, nearly doubling the divide from 1980. The rich lord it over everyone else, piling up fortunes that come directly at the expense of wide layers of working people. Society is divided starkly into “winners” and “losers.” For the latter, the future is bleak.

The decay of social solidarity, the domination of the political process by cash, the erosion of democratic rights, the transformation of the media into more or less a propaganda arm of the government and the Pentagon—all of these processes, under way in 1999, have now attained a far more finished state.

More generally, the past twenty-five years have witnessed a sharp lurch to the right by the American political and media establishment, driven by its relative economic decline, and an accompanying coarsening and degeneration of the social atmosphere. Brutality in language and action is now the preferred policy of the powers that be.

The proliferation of violence, the continuous appeals to fear, the incitement of paranoia—all of this has consequences, it creates a certain type of climate. American society has for so long tried to cover up or ignore its most pressing problems. What are the official responses? Punishment first, then the invocation of the deity. The suppression of contradictions, however, doesn’t make them disappear.

The culture as a whole has suffered. Without giving any ground to the right-wing morality police, the prevalence of video games, popular music and films that celebrate rape and killing can hardly be taken as a sign of social well-being. Every effort has been made to atomize people, to render them callous and inured to the suffering of others. Human life has been devalued and often held in contempt.

Clearly, there have been consequences . . .

Such [consequences] bring home how necessary it is for another way to be found, for more sensitive answers, real answers to problems. This, in turn, raises the need for a different social orientation, which calls into question the present foundations of American society. And such searching critiques should not be reserved only for moments of national calamity.

Not surprisingly, right-wing columnist Jeff Jacoby, in his April 22 commentary in the Boston Globe, took to task numerous individuals and organizations, including David Walsh and the WSWS, whom he claimed were exploiting the Virginia Tech massacre for political purposes.

Earlier today, in a WSWS article entitled US Media Hides Behind the Virginia Tech Massacre, Walsh responded to Jacoby’s claims.

As could be expected, Walsh’s response is a well-reasoned and insightful commentary on the social and political state of affairs in the United States. One of this commentary’s most interesting aspects is its examination of “recent research [which] suggests compellingly complex links between social inequality and mental health problems.”

Following are excerpts from Walsh’s April 23 commentary:

. . . [Jeff] Jacoby objects to a political discussion in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings because he doesn’t like the conclusions that any objective commentator would be likely to draw—that this act of madness had deep social roots. He is acting in defense of the existing social order and concealing its ills.

To feel horror over the crime and grief for the victims of last Monday’s shooting does not relieve one of the responsibility of determining what caused the tragedy. On the contrary, those who seriously want to see that this kind of mad act is not repeated have an obligation to examine unflinchingly why it took place.

If the Virginia Tech episode were an isolated one, one might be more hesitant about offering a sociological analysis. However, it is not. Shootings or near-shootings have occurred at high schools and colleges from one coast of the United States to the other in the past decade and a half.

Jeff Jacoby is seeking in a cowardly fashion to close down the discussion about Virginia Tech. This horrific event has taken place, the latest in a series of similar episodes, and no one in the media wants to talk about it. Jacoby and the overwhelming majority of his confreres in the media, conservative and liberal alike, are intellectual bankrupts, hiding behind the tragedy, unwilling and incapable of taking an honest look at American reality.

Jacoby is not alone in hollering “Shut up!” in the direction of would-be commentators. The Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer, another inveterate reactionary, began his piece Friday like this: “What can be said about the Virginia Tech massacre? Very little. What should be said? Even less. The lives of 32 innocents, chosen randomly and without purpose, are extinguished most brutally by a deeply disturbed gunman. With an event such as this, consisting of nothing but suffering and tragedy, the only important questions are those of theodicy, of divine justice.” This didn’t prevent the columnist from carrying on in his habitually unpleasant and misanthropic style for another 725 words.

The accusation of “anti-Americanism” leveled against the World Socialist Web Site is the default setting of the McCarthyite witch-hunter. The more background material that emerges, the more it becomes clear that Cho Seung-Hui, the gunman in Virginia, was affected by social inequality and the generally grotesque state of social relations in America. . . .

Cho had his own personal torments, some of them perhaps physiologically based, but the manner in which his paranoia and sense of injustice emerged has everything to do with the character of present-day life in America. What does a young person, even the most mentally stable, confront today in the US?

A nation in which one’s accumulation of wealth is the measure of all things; in which, yes, the ruling elite demonstrates every day by word and deed all over the globe that “in achieving one’s aims, any sort of ruthlessness is legitimate”; in which cutthroat competition in schools and the workplace prevails, where anyone who falls behind a step is left to his own devices; in which no helping hand for the weak or defenseless is ever extended; in which official culture and the media attempts relentlessly to dehumanize and brutalize its consumers; in which college campuses are sharply divided between haves and have-nots, with the former lording it over the latter.

Recent research suggests compellingly complex links between social inequality and mental health problems. For example, in a 2002 issue of Psychiatric Services, a journal of the American Psychiatric Association, Dr. Carl I. Cohen, professor of psychiatry at the State University of New York (SUNY) Health Science Center in Brooklyn, concludes, “Regardless of causality, studies have consistently shown that socioeconomic factors affect the course and outcome of mental disorders.”

An article in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2001, based on work carried out at the Division of Psychiatry, University of Bristol, concluded that “Indicators of social inequality at birth are associated with increased risk of adult-onset schizophrenia, suggesting that environmental factors are important determinants of schizophrenic disorders.”

An international study summarized in the American Journal of Epidemiology, “Socioeconomic Inequalities in Depression: A Meta-Analysis,” in 2003, observed “Socioeconomic inequality in depression is heterogeneous and varies according to the way psychiatric disorder is measured, to the definition and measurement of SES [socioeconomic status], and to contextual features such as region and time. Nonetheless, the authors found compelling evidence for socioeconomic inequality in depression. Strategies for tackling inequality in depression are needed, especially in relation to the course of the disorder.”

Contrary to Jacoby, a discussion on the roots of the Virginia Tech mass killings, including the growth of social inequality, is vital. The coverage of this event on the World Socialist Web Site has generated a considerable response from readers, including young people. As part of the effort to create a different social climate in the US, we will pursue this issue.

To read David Walsh’s “The Virginia Tech Massacre – Social Roots of Another American Tragedy” in its entirety, click here.

To read David Walsh’s “US Media Hides Behind the Virginia Tech Massacre” in its entirety, click here.

Image 1: AFP/Kim Jae-Hwan.
Image 2: Reuters/Larry Downing.
Image 3: AFP/Tim Sloan.
Image 4: AP Photo/Virginia State Police.
Image 5: AFP/Getty Images/Mario Tama.

Friday, April 20, 2007

A Humorous Look at Internalized Homophobia

I’ve long concluded that among those who are most hostile and demeaning of gay people are folks who are gay themselves, yet who have chosen to deny and/or repress their homosexuality.

In a commentary from last year, entitled “A Twisted View on ‘Flaunting’ Gay Identity,” Leonard Pitts, Jr. expressed this same conclusion (albeit rather flippantly) by asking: “Can’t we . . . safely assume that any conservative who rants about the homosexual agenda is a lying hypocrite gayer than a Castro Street bar?”

Georgia Mueller struck a more serious tone when, in response to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ official stance on ministry to “persons with a homosexual inclinations,” she observed that, “It is no secret to Catholics or non-Catholics that significant numbers of Catholic priests, bishops and beyond are homosexual persons. Their persistent inability to fundamentally love themselves lies at the heart of their twisted policies regarding gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) persons.”

Internalized homophobia

Interesting that both writers use the word “twisted,” don’t you think? It’s actually quite appropriate, however, as such hostility, hypocrisy, and “twistedness” (i.e., inner discordance) are the result of what is known as “internalized homophobia” or “ego-dystonic homophobia.” This condition (which, incidentally, is more common among gay men than lesbians) is generally
described as “a set of negative attitudes and affects toward homosexuality in other persons and toward homosexual features in oneself.”

Wikipedia similarly defines internalized homophobia as “a prejudice carried by individuals against homosexual manifestations in themselves and others.” It’s a prejudice that “causes severe discomfort with or disapproval of one’s own sexual orientation,” and often results in the “pitting [of] deeply held religious or social beliefs against strong sexual and emotional desires.”

Obviously, the discordance that results from this internal struggle can significantly impede the self-acceptance process that many gay men and women must go through in order to “come out” and live well-adjusted and healthy lives. A number of studies have also indicated that the discordance and repression resulting from internalized homophobia leads to higher incidences of clinical depression, suicide, alcoholism, and other self-destructive tendencies, such as promiscuous and unsafe sexual behavior.

“How very dare you!”

It’s all very serious stuff. Yet British comedienne Catherine Tate has managed to highlight internalized homophobia in a very humorous way.

One of the numerous characters she has created for her popular
TV show (screened in the States on BBC America) is Derek Faye – a man who displays all the attributes of a stereotypical gay man yet who expresses deep offense when people assume that he is gay.

“How very dare you!” is one of Faye’s famous catch phrases, usually followed by another: “I’ve never been so insulted!”

I can remember in my first year of college being accosted by a man who asked if I knew where the campus’ “gay group” met. When I replied that I didn’t know, the man expressed surprise, noting that he assumed I would know. Even though, at the time, I knew within myself that I was gay, I had yet to come out to others. Accordingly, I was incensed at being outed in this, albeit, mild way. “How very dare you!” probably wasn’t far from what I was thinking!

This experience reminds me of the story of a young lesbian that I included in the recently published book I edited, Creating Safe Environments for LGBT Youth: A Catholic Schools Perspective. This woman notes how being told she was a lesbian when still a teenager was like being jerked out of a psychological “closet” before she was ready to recognize and accept this fact about herself.

Is it fair, then, that I laugh along with Catherine Tate’s depiction of the gay and closeted Derek Faye?

But then I remember that I was nineteen when confronted with another’s assumption that I was gay. The lesbian whose story I shared was also a teenager. We were both still very much in process. It takes time, after all, to realize that one doesn’t have to fit the numerous and limiting gay stereotypes that our society so very much likes to highlight.

For instance, for years I thought that all gay men had to be like the fey character of
Mr. Humphries in Are You Being Served? There’s nothing wrong with such gay men, of course. What’s “wrong” is when this one way of being gay is the only way that is presented by the media.

I’ve since come to realize (and it was all part of my coming out journey) that in many ways we’re each called to discover, define, and express our sexuality within the context of the totality of our lives. We shouldn’t tailor our lives to fit a narrow understanding of, for example, the word “gay” as defined by others - be they gay or straight, conservative or liberal.

Cowardliness and hypocrisy

The character of Derek Faye is, of course, no teenager. He is a man in his forties or fifties. My sense is that Catherine Tate modeled this character, in part, on those real-life men who, tragically, never risk developing a holistic and creative perspective - one that empowers them to claim the word “gay” on their terms.

Related to this embracing of an integrated perspective is the reality that failure to deal with and move beyond the unconsciousness and timidness that is part of adolescent sexuality, inevitably leads to a dangerous and destructive cowardliness and hypocrisy in adulthood.

Accordingly, there are times when “outing” is both necessary and appropriate – especially when those who are closeted and mired in internalized homophobia are adults in positions of secular or ecclesial power. Consciously or unconsciously, many of these men (and remember, most of those who operate from a state of internalized homophobia are men) work against the well-being of their more healthy and authentic LGBT brothers and sisters. Such closeted and homophobic gay men do great damage not only to themselves but to others in both society and the Church. If outing the hypocrisy of such men can stop this type of harm, then so be it.

Genuine pathos

Interestingly, Derek Faye, when responding to the accurate observations of others that he is gay, invariably uses demeaning expressions and descriptions so as to distance himself from, and belittle, gay men. This tactic is also used by closeted gay men in positions of power. For instance, just look at the demeaning and uninformed language and presuppositions employed by those in power within the Catholic Church. For many people outside the Church, such language and presuppositions about gay people and gay sexuality are laughable. For Catholics like myself, however, they are experienced as both hurtful and embarrassing. Yet even I have to chuckle at times at the sheer inanity of some of the statements offered by the Vatican. Perhaps it’s a matter of “laugh or cry”?

With regards the character of Derek Faye, the humor, for me, isn’t so much in the “language and presuppositions” that he employs (e.g., “a back door Deidre”) but in his over-the-top displays of mortification, arrogance, and ignorance. Faye’s hypocrisy is so obvious and outlandish that it is hilarious.

Of course, there’s genuine pathos in the realization that this character is based on real gay men who are simply too proud, ignorant and/or fearful to live authentic lives. Yet thanks to Catherine Tate we can see the funny side of such men and their hypocritical reactions to moments of potential truth-telling.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
What the Republican Leadership and the Catholic Hierarchy Have in Common
Introspection: The Remedy for Hypocrisy
When “Guidelines” Lack Guidance
Be Not Afraid: You Can Be Happy and Gay
The Bishops’ “Guidelines”: A Parent’s Response
The Dreaded “Same-Sex Attracted” View of Catholicism
A Rich Laugh Fit for a Dame
Equality Riders Experience the “Great Dissonance at the Intersection of Catholic Beliefs”

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Mary Bednarowski on the Power of Our Stories

Continuing with a series of interviews from the Rainbow Spirit (the journal of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities), I share today the 2004 interview I conducted with Catholic theologian and author, Mary Bednarowski. Enjoy!


The Power of Our Stories
An Interview with Mary Bednarowski

By Michael J. Bayly

Rainbow Spirit
Spring 2004

Mary Bednarowski is a professor of religion at United Theological Seminar (UTS) of the Twin Cities. Her theological interests include American religious history, women in American religion, and theological and religious creativity. Mary is also the author of a number of books, including American Religions: A Cultural Perspective, The Theological Imagination of American Women, and New Religions and the Theological Imagination in America.

CPCSM coordinator Michael Bayly experienced Mary as a professor when he studied for his MA in Theology and the Arts at UTS from 2001-2003. Recently he interviewed Mary about the “spiritual autobiography” course she teaches at UTS, the role of human experience in the life of the Church, the value of listening to one another’s stories, and the nature of authority within the Church. On March 10, a talk by Mary Bednarowski will launch the parish education series being sponsored by the Inclusive Catholic network – of which CPCSM is a member organization.

Michael Bayly: Where did the idea for the UTS course on spiritual autobiography come from? What are its theological underpinnings and objectives?

Mary Bednarowski: The idea for a course on spiritual autobiography emerged when Margot Galt – my good friend since American Studies graduate school days – and I were talking about the possibility of teaching a course together that would be co-sponsored by both UTS and Hamline University. We decided that a course on spiritual autobiography would suit us perfectly, because I could work on the “spiritual,” theological, and religious aspects of the works and she could focus more intensely on literary forms and conventions (Margot teaches creative writing at Hamline). We had to propose the course well ahead of the time we expected to teach it and, by then, it no longer fit into Margot’s schedule. But I had become so interested in teaching a course on spiritual autobiography that I decided to go ahead.

Part of the attraction of teaching the course had to do with my love of story, my nosiness about people’s lives, especially their faith lives, and how they think about them and put them together. Also, since I was a small child I have always loved the abstractions of theology, as odd as that combination sounds. So for me, spiritual autobiography is a perfect form in which to encounter people telling stories about “ideas” – ideas about who or what God is like, about the limits and the possibilities of our humanness, about who we are to each other, about how to love one another better and how to work together to transform the world, about how all of us together (ever the optimist!) might figure out how to respond most lovingly and justly to the relentlessly complex social and individual problems that are all around us.

Autobiographies tell us a great deal about how other people have done these things, how they have achieved sufficient moral certainty (and I don’t mean that in some absolutist way) to act on their best insights in any given historical moment, and what they have to tell the rest of us about that process – and why they want to tell the rest of us. “Why do we think the author wrote this autobiography?” is one of the essential questions to ponder in relation to any text.

I’ve discovered over the years that one of my favorite ways to teach is to present multiple perspectives on big questions. I wanted the texts for the course to be varied. We’ve used texts ranging from Augustine’s Confessions to twentieth-century Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi’s Dreams of Trepass (about her experiences growing up in an enclosed household). What I was looking for, obviously, was variety of historical context, religious tradition, cultural background, nature of spiritual struggle, and of form. Because we had a whole semester together, we found ways as a class to bring all the authors along with us and to find both common themes and distinctive characteristics and questions. And certainly, our own autobiographies were very much present to us.

Yet another of the goals of the course was to foster some kind of critical reflection on our own lives. All of the texts pointed to the complexities of the spiritual life, the struggle to live out one’s life with integrity and compassion, with an openness to new ideas, with a spiritual grounding that gives one a place to stand – not rigidly, but with a resilient kind of confidence.

The course says so much about what I’ve come to experience about theology and the spiritual life – the power of stories told within the framework of a community, stories that give us confidence about the depth and power and wisdom of our various traditions, rather than stories that terrify us about the fragility of our traditions. And stories that tell us over and over again that we do not endanger ourselves, or our traditions, by being open to others.

This has certainly been my experience as a Roman Catholic woman at United Theological Seminary. I have been moved by all my years there to treasure the Catholicism that shaped me; to become more aware of some of its excessive traits (all traditions have them!) in ways that are more rueful than bitter, and to grow in knowledge and love of several other forms of Christianity.

That’s pretty idealistic, I know. But the alternatives feel so bleak to me, and so lacking in the kind of creative energy and confidence that keeps our communities vital. I have loved teaching that course, and, from what I could tell, the students enjoyed it as well.

Michael Bayly: Mary Pellauer once wrote: “If there’s anything worth calling theology, it’s listening to people’s stories, listening to them and cherishing them.” What are your thoughts on this statement? What role does human experience play in the life of the Church?

Mary Bednarowski: Mary Pellauer’s statement is a wonderful one that makes perfect sense to me in light of not only what I’ve experienced in teaching and learning, but in various ecumenical and inter-faith enterprises, and in living my life.

I would add that “anything worth calling theology” also includes the ongoing reflection of communities on what they experience as their best wisdom – both retrospective (looking for the lessons of history in which it becomes clear that the community was wrong, misguided for various reasons, about, for example, Jews, “science,” women, slaves, homosexuals, and the environment) and speculative (what must we be thinking about and working on for the sake of the future? Where are we headed? What are the stories we need to listen to now?)

That question about “human experience” is a tough one. From my perspective, all experience of the Church is “human experience,” whatever model of God or of divine presence undergirds our theologies. So, it seems to me that “human experience” plays the central role in the life of the Church – how we experience and talk about God as individuals and communities, how we experience and talk about “the other,” however defined, what actions we choose to take based on those experiences and on individual and communal reflection.

To say that “human experience is all we have” is not for me a statement about alienation or being lost and alone in an indifferent universe. It’s rather about taking responsibility for our theologies, our ecclesiologies, and our moral frameworks with the confidence that we are guided by a divine wisdom – through Scripture and ritual and community – that is greater than our own. And to say that “human experience is all we have” in that particular way doesn’t make things any easier to sort out, especially in a polarized – though not totally polarized – Church.

My experiences in ecumenical and inter-faith conversations have convinced me that we become the caretakers of each other’s stories, and that in doing so we ourselves are transformed by this gift exchange. I would be foolish, though, not to acknowledge that I’ve heard stories of anger and bitterness, fear and hatred that I do not want to be the caretaker of or tell to someone else. Once in a while, when I hear a story like that, I have the presence of mind to ask the person: “Tell me a little bit about the story of your life to help me know why you feel this way?” Other times I get frightened or angry myself, find myself unable to listen, unwilling to try to make a connection. Then what? What next? Where do we best put our most loving and creative energies?

Michael Bayly: CPCSM is dedicated to listening to and cherishing the stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals and their families – believing that the transforming presence and action of God can potentially be discerned in every aspect of human life. Yet for some Catholics such a ministry is viewed with suspicion and hostility. We’ve been accused of attempting to change Church teaching regarding homosexuality – teaching that some believe is unchangeable. Why are some people so threatened by listening to the stories of others?

Mary Bednarowski: I’ve been very lucky over all these years because I have had so much opportunity, particularly at United Theological Seminary, to hear the stories of LGBT people – stories about all kinds of things: struggles with sexuality, struggles because of oppression of sexual minorities, but also stories of spirituality, relationships, academic worries and triumphs, vocational questions. In other words, “ordinary” human stories – stories that give me some sense of the wholeness and humanness of people of various sexual orientations.

All of these stories, together, have made me realize that the God-given gift of sexuality comes in a variety of forms. Why wouldn’t it? “Variety,” insofar as I can tell is the very stuff of reality. Having said that, it also needs to be acknowledged that people, including me, I must confess, are afraid of listening to stories that will make us change our minds about something we hold to be true and that is of great importance to us. I think that’s true of liberals and conservatives alike, actually, although that generalization isn’t of much help in the work you have undertaken. I am much more drawn to stories that generate hope and compassion and openness than I am to stories that generate anger and fear. Telling the latter kind of story does not foster changes of heart or mind – at least mine. And it’s these stories that are so very terrifyingly easy to come up with.

I wish I were smarter about how to allay the fears of those who have the worries you articulate – the idea that great energy must be exerted to keep the Church from changing. The Church has always changed or it would have disappeared by now. It’s tempting to condescendingly say to those who worry that the Church will change and who assume that it hasn’t changed, “Read a little Church history, for heaven’s sake! Read the Church’s very recent apology to Galileo. Read the Church’s very recent apology to the Jews. Read what Catholic bishops had to say in the nineteenth century about why abolition was not a good idea, if you want a quick lesson in how the Church changes in response to new knowledge about who we are as human beings and what constitutes just relationships. Read Church teachings on women – then and now.”

The Church, at its best and as I’ve experienced it, has never changed its mind about the words of Jesus: “Love one another.” It’s just that the Church does not have a perfect record on what that means. It (we) have had to learn again and again and again that we are at our best when we expand what we mean by “one another” rather than when we circumscribe what it means.

As far as I can see, CPCSM is doing the wisest thing possible in light of people’s fears: educating people through telling stories. It is wonderful, difficult, very, very gutsy work that you’re doing. You can’t make people listen to those stories. You can’t make people change their minds and hearts. But you can offer all those stories as gifts. You are right to trust in their power to move people to new understandings of the teaching power of the Church – how it evolves, how it integrates new understanding and wisdom about how the universe operates and who we are as human beings, individually and communally, and how it works to stay grounded in the gospel values of justice and love.

Michael Bayly: In the rhetoric directed at CPCSM from conservative elements within the Church, the issue of authority is always present. For these elements, authority resides outside the individual and in the Magisterium of the Church. It is not something mediated in and through lived experience. In their view, it is the institutional Church alone that speaks for Christ. How do you understand authority within the Catholic tradition? Is it within or beyond an individual – or both? How do we begin to dialogue with such conservatives? Is it even possible?

Mary Bednarowski: Again, Church history is very helpful here – essential, I would say. To think of “the Magisterium” as highly authoritarian and centered in Rome and in the authority of the Pope is a fairly recent interpretation of a kind of teaching function that, historically, was perceived as somewhat more speculative, by which I mean creatively reflective in responding to the realities of human life and experience in and of the world. It is also an interpretation that has not gone unopposed.

In reality, the Church has always had what I consider realistic and sophisticated means by which to “question authority”: the emphasis on the primacy of conscience, for example, or the system of “probabilism” are ways through which change emerges. I like what theologian Richard McCormick in The Encyclopedia of Catholicism (edited by Richard McBrien) says about how probabilism works: “A rule of thumb often cited is that if five or six truly reputable authors hold an opinion, that is a sign of its intrinsic probability.”

I understand “authority” as residing in both the individual and the community. For quite some time I’ve thought about “authority” as that in which I can place my trust. For me that means that as an individual who is a member of a faith community, I have to exercise my own conscience as an informed adult within the framework of the moral guidance offered by my community. If my conscience is not “clear” – that is, if I don’t know where I stand on a moral issue – I must seek clarity. Sometimes it comes from within the Church. Sometimes it comes from the culture in combination with the Church. Sometimes the culture in some aspect or another is, for the moment, ahead of the Church. As an individual and as a member of a community, I have to figure out how to hold it all together. It is my obligation to come to know “in what I can place my trust.” This whole ongoing process is informed by human experiences – mine and others, individual and communal. However we understand the workings of God in our midst and whatever our doctrine of the Church, there is no institutional Church that exists apart from the human community and its experiences and struggles.

And then there are those last couple of zinger questions: How do we begin to dialogue with conservatives? Is it even possible? I think I’ll go back to my previous response and suggest that you’re well on the right track in the telling of stories. It seems to me that dialogue, at its best, means telling stories. It doesn’t necessarily require formal arrangements. If you are telling your stories about God’s presence and activity in your and our lives, you can’t not be engaged in dialogue. The stories are being told and re-told, and I am convinced that they are changing hearts and minds – more, I suspect, than we can know.

Above: CPCSM executive coordinator, Michael Bayly, converses with United Theological Seminary professor, Mary Bednarowski, at the March 10, 2004 Inclusive Catholics-sponsored event at which Mary discussed the "power of our stories" in developing a Catholic sexual morality. Subsequent speakers in the series examined the role of conscience and tradition.

Above: Mary Bednarowski (center) stands with members of the Inclusive Catholics network. From left: Julie Madden (St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church), Brian Mogren (E-Spiritus), Michael Bayly (CPCSM), Theresa Hinnenkamp (Guardian Angels Catholic Church), and Cathy Heying (St. Stephen Catholic Church).

See also the previous Rainbow Spirit interviews:
The Voice of a Good Heart An Interview with Kathy Itzin
Keeping the Spark Alive: A Conversation with Chuck Lofy
The Other Side of the Closet: An Interview with Déadra Aalgaard
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex: A Conversation with Daniel Helminiak