Archive for ‘knowledge’

July 13, 2013

The 99 – Lies, Bad Theology, and Scare Tactic Evangelism

TL;DR version – “The 99″ is basically a Hell House that happens in Not October. There’s nothing on their website, anywhere, about it being a religious thing. They convince tweens and teens to come and then scare and shame them into Jesus.

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My friend Carly and I were the tamest college students imaginable. In the course of our college careers we never drank, never tried any kind of drug, didn’t party, and liked to do things like run children’s book clubs at the local library, talk about church, and watch old episodes of Little House on the Prairie. After we graduated in 2010 she began her teaching career in Connecticut and I started seminary a couple years later in Boston. We see each other somewhat regularly and get overly excited about things like book fairs and laugh about church politics – she’s a life-long member of a United Church of Christ congregation and I’m in school to be a Unitarian Universalist minister.

When Carly texted me to ask if I wanted to hang out on Friday I said sure, and later as we were talking about what we wanted to do she asked if I could take the commuter rail out to Providence so we could to go “this thing about the common causes of death for young adults.” I figured it was just another weird thing Carly had discovered somewhere on the internet. Usually our rule with what we attend is that it either has to be good or it has to be so absurdly bad that it’s good.

We showed up to the Swansea Mall parking lot, I saw the tent, and I immediately said “Carly, this looks like a ‘Come to Jesus’ thing. While she ran into the mall to find a bathroom I tried running a few searches using my phone but wasn’t seeing anything about it being overtly religious. Searching was complicated by the fact that this production is called “The 99” and entering that phrase, in any way, into search engines brings up a lot of stuff about the occupy movement.

The other thing to know here is that I’m transgender; I was born female but now identify as male. I “pass,” meaning people see me as male, about half the time but I look very, very young. I was raised in an evangelical church and was kicked out or left (depending on who you ask) when I came out as gay years ago. Though I’m clearly fine with religion at this point and have no vendetta against Christianity I’m definitely not a fan of the brow-beating Evangelical Christianity that tries to do things like scare tweens into accepting Jesus.

We stood in line for this event, held in a giant tent, as they slowly let in groups of about twenty people. As soon as we got to the people with handheld metal detectors and started separating us into lines of men and women I got worried. I was directed to the male line, so I went, got wanded and waited for Carly. We approached a table where we had to sign a “release” which was actually a way to get out contact information. I put down my name, a fake email address, left the phone number part blank, checked adult, and got reprimanded by the woman at the table for not filling it out “correctly.”

We waited some more, and were finally allowed inside the tent. We paid our $3 admission price and were showing to a roped off area with a TV that told us the rules after showing a few PSAs about not doing meth or texting while driving. It was one of those faux-edgy productions – lots of messy handwriting, jump cuts, and a supposedly creepy voice reading them out loud. No video, no cameras, no loud conversations, no touching the actors “even if they touch you” and if you are disruptive you will be removed and required to wait for your party at the end.

The entire event is set up in a giant tent with “rooms” that you get in via people in safety vests lifting flaps of tent tarps. The first “room” has an empty chain-link cage in the middle. The lights go completely dark and when they come back on a grim-reaper like person has appeared in the cage. The grim-reaper is your “guide” and shows you through each of the rooms. Carly says she heard the guide referred to as a spiritual guide at some point but I didn’t catch that.

The 99 purports to show the 5 most common causes of death for teens and young adults. According to them these are; gang violence, drunk driving, drug overdose, suicide, and texting while driving. There were not statistics or cited studies anywhere so, sure, let’s go with that for the premise of this whole thing. It was emphasized over and over that these were bad choices, you had a choice, everything is a choice.

Our spiritual guide first showed us into the gang violence room. Two kids, a boy and a girl, are beaten up by four other teens. The acting was hilariously bad with phrases like “oh man that was so cool!” and “we really beat them up!” and lots of high fiving and fist bumping. Then a backlight comes on, highlighting a car behind a mesh screen and one of the “gang member” girls is shot and killed. Her friends unceremoniously pick up her body and walk out with it. As our guide leads us into the next room we walk past her lifeless body dumped on a fake park bench.

Our next room is a car crash. One girl is covered in blood and splayed on the hood of the car, the girl in the driver’s seat is gasping and sobbing and crying and covered in blood. There’s another lifeless body in the back seat. The other car has a man and a woman, also both seriously injured, and an audio track of a baby screaming starts up. I still have no idea if this was supposed to be drunk driving or not wearing seatbelts or just car wrecks in general.

Next up was a crack den. We were given chairs to sit in for this long and memorable scene in which Nothing Happens. A pregnant woman sits on a bed in the corner sobbing for “Steven.” There’s a filthy toilet bowl off at one side and people sit around pretending to do every form of drug you have ever heard of. There’s a bong being passed around, somebody cutting up what looks like a cup of crack cocaine on the table (seriously, it was a giant pile), someone making meth in a corner, a guy in an arm chair with a needle in his arm. This man was apparently injecting into a giant open wound. One of the women on the couch beats her daughter with a stick of some kind, and at one point “Steven” lumbers over and slaps the pregnant woman.

We walked from there into a teenagers bedroom where we were told to look up at a television screen. A jumpy, scratchy suicide note-video comes on that starts “mom, dad? By the time you watch this I’ll already be dead.” While dramatically pulling her hair she talks about how she was never the perfect daughter and was tired of being unhappy and how everyone would be happy now that she was dead. The screen goes black, a light comes on in the corner behind us, and there’s the girl laying there, dead from what appeared to be a chestburster alien but was, we were informed, a self-inflicted gunshot to the chest.

Next room! Two coffins and a large projected video that was a replay of three news stories. An 11 year old girl who hanged herself because of bullying, a college student who died in a car accident because her brother was driving drunk, and a group of people who started an anti-texting while driving campaign because a boy had died when a girl was distracted while texting.
Then things got really weird. We were led into what we dubbed pre-hell. A comparatively older woman, in her forties or so when most of the actors had been teens, was chained to a wall and wailing. She was then taken by a demon away as she struggled. Carly and I both later confirmed we’d had the same thought, that this was sex trafficking or something, but it was just showing people who made bad choices being led to hell.

And then WE, too, entered hell. A man dressed as “the devil” walked back and forth and badly lip-synced to us about how hell was a real place and he was the devil. We’d seen people making bad choices and now all those people were in hell. While this is going on caged people dressed, basically, as zombies are wailing and reaching out toward us asking us to take them out. And then a beam of light comes through and the devil screams “no, they’re mine, don’t take them!” and other such things.

The next scene takes place on mount Golgotha. I remember this mostly for the line “COME ON JESUS, MOVE!” as he’s led out, lugging his cross, covered in hilariously fake wounds. Next room is the crucifixion. There are three crosses – two of them have televisions mounted on the crosses and the third, tallest, has a ridiculously gory Jesus on it, facing away from us. The televisions come to life, showing scenes from a passion movie of Jesus being beaten, and then the middle cross begins to rotate so we see Jesus full on, heaving and bloody and wearing a pair of ripped up LL Bean shorts.

We’re led into a final room with a TV screen where we watch “The Bridge.” This is a dramatic depiction of the quandary that I thought was used to diagnose psychopaths. A man who apparently has the job of flipping a lever to move a train track so a train doesn’t derail realizes his child is playing on the mechanism. If he flips the lever his son will be crushed to death. If he doesn’t the whole train load of people will die. He flips the lever.

This version was further complicated because an attractive, perky young woman is on that train and about to shoot up the heroin she’s heating up on a spoon in the main cabin. As the train goes past the distraught man she catches sight of him and decides not to shoot up. You then see her, holding her young daughter, see the man and they smile at each other for a long time.

The movie ends and a man stands up and talks about how God also chose to let his son die so we could have life. He goes on for a bit and then asks us to bow our heads and close our eyes for a prayer “just out of respect” and raise our hands if we want to accept Jesus. Then he says “I see those hands.” and we’re led into the final room which has maybe around 100 small tables set up with people at each. The person says “gentlemen to the left ladies to the right” and Carly and I ended up separated. As I walked toward the men’s side with no exit visible anywhere one of the security people points and me and says “what is that?” trying to figure out if I’m male or female. I caught sight of the exit and got the hell out of there.

Carly sat down with one of the counselor people and had a conversation in which she was told she wasn’t a real Christian because she’d been baptized as an infant, not as an adult, and that being confirmed in the church was not salvation. While that was going on I made a pissed off Facebook post and left a ranting message on a friends answering machine. Finally Carly came out and we left kind of angry about the really terrible theology and how they had duped people into this.

If you look at their website there is nothing about religion anywhere to be found unless you already know what you’re looking for. Is that the only way they think they’ll be able to save people? By lying to them about what they’re going to and scaring, pressuring and forcing them into hearing a poorly translated message of salvation? It’s some seriously flawed theology they’re working from.

http://www.whatisthe99.com/

June 12, 2013

Human Ecological Religious Leadership

My “call”

In seminary the most common question after “Wait, that’s due TODAY?” is “so tell me about your call”; in other words, “when did you know you were called by God/god/the Holy Spirit/the Divine/some higher force to go into religious leadership?” I knew some folks who have a very definitive “call” story but for me it was a long series of revelations. What it boils down to is that I loved social justice work but I felt like there was something missing and, for me, that something was spirit of community.

Discernment

When I started seriously considering religious leadership as a career path I contacted the alumni office and asked for a list of any COA alums who had gone onto religious leadership. Recognizing that not everyone keeps in touch with their undergrad and still others may be highly active in religious communities without having attained a professional degree in the subject, it was still a disappointingly small list.

There were four names on it.

Now I know that College of the Atlantic is not a large school but even within that reality four is a small number of people. Organized religion is just not a huge part of the day to day life of students at College of the Atlantic; it wasn’t really a big part of my life when I started there in 2007. Over time, though, I found myself being pulled in that direction and grasping hold of the thought that ministry was not an incompatible goal within the context of human ecology. I even wrote my human ecology paper on the 7 principles of Unitarian Universalism as my personal definition of human ecology.

I took those names and happily one of the people, Paul, was a minister from my own denomination, Unitarian Universalism; we were able to talk on the phone and even meet up in person at our national denominational meeting the following June. Later, when I was accepted into the Master of Divinity program at Boston University School of Theology, Paul shared that news with his congregation during their sharing of joys and sorrows.

Religious Education

Boston University School of Theology isn’t like College of the Atlantic in almost any way. There are students, faculty, staff, and buildings but beyond that they are pretty dissimilar. I’m at one of the larger research universities in the country, sitting in lectures with nationally renowned theologians, and a member of the Boston Theological Institute which gives me access to all 10 divinity schools here in Boston and the surrounding areas. Martin Luther King Jr. went to seminary here as the school is so fond of reminding people.

When I walked in here on that first day of orientation I was met with the nervous energy of a bunch of adults acting like middle schoolers at that first dance where nobody wants to step into the middle and just go for it. If you’ll remember COA orientation it involves a scavenger hunt and jumping into the ocean. Seminary orientation involved prayer and a whole lot of Jesus.

Unitarian Universalism is unique in that it’s not a specifically Christian denomination that grew out of the merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists in 1961. We’re historically very liberal; both denominations have been ordaining women since the mid-1800s, openly gay people since the late 1970s, openly transgender people since the 1980s, and we’ve often been at the forefront of various social justice campaigns.

While at College of the Atlantic my identity as an openly transgender social justice activist was never a concern to almost anybody; in seminary I realized I had little in common with my classmates. There were a few gay and lesbian people, and a person here and there who clearly had some understanding of LGBTQ issues. I wasn’t suddenly thrown into school with a bunch of people who were going to try to save me from the sins of my homosexuality but I wasn’t with people who I felt like I could relax around.

Now THAT’S what I call Human Ecology

I have a therapist. I swear the first two things ministers tell you when you tell them you’re planning to go into ministry are 1) “don’t” and 2) “get a therapist.” So I have this therapist who said to try to treat school as an anthropological exploration. She wanted me to act as an outsider learning about this other culture without fully immersing myself in it if that was too painful. That’s not how I learned to learn in my time at College of the Atlantic. As human ecologists we don’t learn only by observing but by immersion and participation in community.

As a human ecologist I am asked to study how I and others interact with our natural and human-manufactured environments. Seminary is a human manufactured environment; we sit in rooms and learn how to read ancient texts, or how to talk to somebody about a crisis in their life, or how to evangelize (yes, that is an actual class and no, I don’t plan to put it into practice as it was taught). I cannot learn from the outside; I have to jump in and try to carve out a space for myself while respecting that others don’t see that space for me as valid.

So I’m here. Things have calmed down a little. People are used to seeing me around even if a number of them don’t really agree with my “lifestyle.” I know that my own denomination is fully supportive even if some of the people I’m in school with don’t understand how that could be. I am serving my denomination on a national level as the Young Adult worship coordinator and on a local level I help lead worship, work with children, and provide pastoral care for people going through difficult times.

The future

I’ve only just finished my first year so I don’t definitively know where I’m going in the future. If I could pick my ideal future career I’d serve as an associate minister with a focus on social justice. I’d be able to continue my social justice work through a ministerial context while still working within a congregational setting. I think the liberal faith voice is essential when “liberal” and “faith” are often pitted against one another in our national dialogues. My background as an activist is integral to my future as a minister and my education as a human ecologist is the lens through which I act in the world. College of the Atlantic has been a non-traditional but hugely beneficial platform from which to approach seminary.

April 11, 2013

Have you policed the trans community today?

policetranscommunity
For those unable to read the image:
Set up is a bingo board with a bluish purple background in a gradient from dark to light.

Title is “Have you policed the trans community enough today?”

Spaces read, from left to right, top to bottom
Real trans people aren’t excited about HRT
Born in the wrong body
“Trans Pride” is dumb
You aren’t trans if you don’t try hard enough
Genderqueer people don’t exist
Being trans isn’t something to be proud of
You aren’t trans if you didn’t hate your childhood
Living deep stealth is the only way to authentically experience
Real trans people aren’t gay/lesbian
Trans people don’t enjoy having sex “like their birth gender”
No real trans person would ever reveal their birth name
Trans people don’t belong at Gay Pride events
You aren’t trans without SRS
Nobody will take you seriously if you don’t change your voice
If you aren’t on HRT you are “just” a gay man/lesbian
You have to pack/tuck when you’re dressed up or EVERYONE WILL KNOW
Trans people are uncomfortable with their bodies at all times
All trans people hate swimming
You aren’t really trans if you like “playing with gender”
Trans men can’t be feminist
Trans women can’t wear jeans
Religious trans people are dumb; God messed up with your body
No real trans man wants to get pregnant
Real trans people want to date hetero cis people
Real trans people want to stop IDing as trans after they “fully transition”

February 23, 2013

My identity is the message I scrawl inside

I can’t write you each a thank you note
because there aren’t enough thank you notes in the world.
And I don’t have your address.
I think I lost it when I moved.
And a lot of you don’t have addresses any longer.
But let my body be that envelope
for that thank you note
and my men’s clothes the pretty picture on front
and let the simple fact that my identity exists
be the message I scrawl inside
thanking you
for all you’ve done for me.

For all the butches out there
but especially those first strong, fierce, bold women
who took their identity public
and political
and said “this is who I am” with their dapper hats and pressed shirts.
From the Beebo Brinkers
to the Leslie Feinbergs
to the unnamed women who kicked those stones out of the way
so those of us who came after them
didn’t have to tread quite as carefully.

Thank you

For all the femmes out there
who said, “oh honey, I love you exactly like you are,”
those fierce ass women who society loves to ignore
or fetishize,
for all of you who told the people I’d date in the future
that it was okay to date the girl
in the button up
and the ill-fitting men’s pants
and the too big boots
and thus led to too many flings and lots of loving embraces.

Thank you

For the drag queens
who said enough is e-god-damn-fucking-nough

Thank you

For the parents who chose love for their children
above societal expectations
and who dutifully plugged away in libraries and on websites
filled with outdated and incorrect information
only to make mistakes
and apologize
and still walk their kid down the aisle
toward her wife
or up the courthouse
after she was fired from a job she loved because other people were
too afraid of her.

Thank you.

For all of you who have been arrested
for being the fabulous queers you are
and for all of you struggling
to be fabulous queers while incarcerated.

Thank you.

For all my friends who didn’t outwardly flinch when I came out
and allowed me to have a life outside of being “the trans guy”
and who sang with me at open mics
and laughed with me while we crowded into our hallway
to watch bad TV
and who let me cry when the world got a little too tough.

Thank you.

For every one of the ministers
mentors
teachers
lovers in my life who has ever said “I believe in you”
whether they believe
in the current incarnation of me
or one of the many identities I’ve traveled through
to get to this spot.

Thank you.

For all my contemporaneous queers
who fight these fights
and accept these struggles
and lift each other up
when we get knocked down.

Thank you.

©Andrew Coate. Please do not share in full without linking back to http://www.thoughtsonblank.wordpress.com

January 12, 2013

We lost a hero this week

Did you know a hero died this week?  I suppose the argument could be made that heroes die every day of every week of every month but a hero died this week.  Jeanne Manford passed away at the age of 92 after living a life of acceptance with grace and compassion.  Manford founded PFLAG; Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.  In 1972 she marched in the New York City Pride Parade carrying a sign in support of her gay son, Morty.  Morty’s life was cut short, as so many of my queer parents and siblings lives’ were, by AIDS.  Jeanne Manford continued to fight for acceptance of LGBTQ people; she evolved with the times, moved with the movements, and was an ally and a presence for her entire life.

We lost a hero this week.  The LGBTQ community lost not only an ally but a parent and a grandparent.  Because of activism like Jeanne’s so many of us were able to go further, faster, and with less fear of not being accepted and knowing we were entering a world with greater understanding.  She didn’t solve the problem of families that don’t accept their children but she helped let those children know that other people did accept them.  She brought allies into the movement; a necessary step in bringing the oppression of LGBTQ people into the greater public knowledge.

A prayer for the heroes

Thank you, God, for giving us the heroes
The down to earth folks who speak quietly
From living rooms
And computers
And through small acts of kindness

Thank you, God, for giving us the heroes
That shout from the rooftops
And the pubs
And the street corners
Whether anybody listens or not

Thank you, God, for the grandparents
Who stand up and say
No
Oppression wasn’t okay in my time
And it’s not okay now, either

Thank you God for the younger siblings
Who never question who you are
Since you’re always the person
Who stole Halloween candy
When you were eight

And thank you, God
For the blessing of those who stand
When we cannot be our own hero
Or when we don’t want to be
Or when one voice isn’t enough

Thank you, God, for the allies
Who stand by our sides
And let us lead
And follow with gusto

Thank you, God, for the heroes
The every-day
And the extraordinary
And the old
And the young
And the visible
And the invisible
God, thank you for the heroes.

November 16, 2012

Corrupting the Future of America

I live with a couple of absolutely amazing kids.  DangerLad is 5 and AdventureLass (their parents’ picked the nicknames) is 3; I’ve known them since they were born and they’re tons of fun and I’ve lived with them for almost two years now.  DangerLad, at least, knows that I’m not a “regular” boy, or he did at one point but sometimes he wants it explained again.  It comes up really infrequently with him and is definitely not a part of our day to day conversations.  AdventureLass, frankly, is a three year old.  She just knows me as Andy and that’s enough for her.

Last night I took the kids out to dinner.  It was just a chain restaurant but they’re young enough that it’s still a big treat.  AdventureLass was sitting on my lap and asked what the button on the collar of my shirt said.  I took it off and pointed to the words as I read them.  “Trans Rights Now.”  DangerLad piped up with, “what’s that mean?”

It’s Transgender Awareness Week which ends in the Transgender Day of Remembrance so I wore my button from the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition to class.  AdventureLass, being three, is interested in anything shiny.  But DangerLad, at the ripe old age of 5, wanted to know what the shiny thing meant.

This is where I feel like people get hung up on explaining stuff to kids.  They’re afraid that they’ll scar the kid, or that the kid isn’t ready to have their questions answered.  This is how I’ve chosen to explain being trans and the fight for equitable rights to the kids; I know that they won’t understand every word but hearing a message of inclusion is important.  Their parents have never specifically asked how I’ve explained my identity to them but their kids seem no worse for the wear and they trust me to answer the other questions the kids ask… so why not these?

When people are born their parents or their doctors either call them a boy or a girl and usually those little baby boys grow up to be big boys and then men and usually those little girls grow up to be big girls and then women like your mommy and daddy.

Sometimes, however, those baby boys don’t want to grow up to be big boys or men; they feel like they aren’t really a boy.  Maybe they feel like a girl, and maybe they don’t feel like a boy or a girl, so they might dress differently or cut their hair differently than people think a boy should.  And sometimes those baby girls don’t want to grow up to be big girls or women so they might dress more like boys and maybe cut their hair.  That’s called being transgender, or trans.

Some people are mean to trans people because they think they look different or sound different but that’s not nice.  In church we learn that EVERY person is important and that we should be kind in everything that we do and that we should treat everybody fairly.  That is what a “right” is – treating everybody fairly and being kind to everybody and not just the people who are just like you.  So “Trans Rights Now” means that transgender people, or trans people, deserve to be treated fairly like everybody else.

This isn’t, of course, verbatim what I said.  I checked in with DangerLad a couple times to make sure he understood, and he asked a few questions that led to short tangents.  It was more of a conversation than a lecture.  But… yeah.  That’s how I explained being transgender to a 5 year old.  He’d heard most of it before, in various ways, but it never hurts to repeat it.  It also never hurts to answer questions.  And as he gets older I’m sure he’ll have more questions that either I, or his parents, will answer.
So yes, folks, this IS the gay agenda.  We corrupt children over cheap faux-Mexican food.  Be afraid.

August 30, 2012

It begins

My minister has a framed picture on the wall of his office at church – it’s the Tichh Nhat Hanh meditation “I have arrived.  I am home.”  Since I’m in his office a fair bit, between meeting with him individually and for Pastoral Care Associate meetings and such I have stared at this picture a lot.  I love it.

 

I started seminary today.  I was a nervous wreck for the past few days and then… I got there.  And in all of its fluorescent lit, mediocre bagels and bad coffee glory I had arrived.  I took a seat and started talking to people.  People, mostly people close to my age, doing the same thing as me.  This thing none of my college friends understand even though they’re being really nice about it.  It felt so right.

We did all the normal orientation things.  It was explained what a venerable and esteemed institution we were at, the multifaceted, and I’m sure very unique, benefits were tossed around, and we mingled.  I met new people and old people and I laughed and I felt, well, blessed.  To be there.  To be able to be there.  I felt like I belonged.

After lunch four of us ended up outside playing Frisbee and already we have inside jokes (they involve me aiming at freshmen).  We went on a hideously long walking tour of Boston immediately after which we had to go to a fancy hotel to meet our professors.  We ate fancy-ish hors d’oeuvres and laughed at how underdressed almost everyone was.

It was good.  I returned home happy, and content, and thrilled, and all kinds of other adjectives.

And it was good, too, because when I posted a happy status about being in seminary over FIFTY of my friends “liked” the status on Facebook.  These friends who have been following me from when I first declared I may, possibly, be interested in seminary to today, when I started.  Friends from college and friends from church and minister after minister after minister saying “Good for you.  I’m glad.”  It was such a fun, good feeling.

Not everything was perfect.  Almost nobody got my pronouns right, and while my name was correct on my nametag it was incorrect on my folder and my advisor letter.  I am pretty sure there’s no gender neutral bathroom that’s easily accessible in the building.  I was too scared to correct people much.  I am incredibly dehydrated because, well, if you don’t think there’s a place to go to the bathroom you don’t drink enough water.

But I have arrived.  I am home.  It’s not perfect and there are going to be speed bumps and awful bits but, right now, in this moment, I’M THERE.  That’s what matters right now.  I am THERE.

March 12, 2012

The Foreign Country of “College”

I went to the nicest college I’ve ever heard about.  It’s not the fanciest, or the most expensive (it’s not the cheapest by a long shot!).  We’re not churning out folks in congress (we do have one, though).  My college isn’t well known, and it doesn’t earn the same amount of immediate “respect” upon mention as, say Harvard or Brown.  But it’s a wonderful place where you learn a lot in and out of class and where the people are genuinely nice.

There aren’t really bullies at College of the Atlantic, not in the traditional sense.  If you lined up all the students, which wouldn’t be that hard since there are only around 300, you probably couldn’t pick out who the most popular ones were, or the ones who led student governance, or the ones who spoke the most in class.  In some ways we’re a school of misfits and outcasts who have a lot of good ideas and found a place where we were told to speak up.  You’re in a class of MAYBE 10 other people; if you don’t make your opinions known it’s noticeable.  So you learn to be heard.  Not necessarily to speak, but to be heard.

I learned to speak up before College of the Atlantic; I was carefully groomed by some well-known LGBTQ organizations on how to speak loudly, proudly, and on topic.  I’ve been through more media trainings that I know what to do with, and I know how to pick three talking points and stick to them.  I know how to not get injured while protesting and I know how to deescalate confrontation if it needs to be deescalated.  I know how to make protest signs that cannot be misconstrued by media on the opposing side.

What College of the Atlantic taught me was to be intentional; that it’s actually okay to “sit one out” when something comes up and you’re just too exhausted for it.  It’s perfectly alright to let a chance at organizing, protesting, or giving a speech pass you by and assume that somebody else will take it up.  College of the Atlantic was homogenous enough that I was able to fit in and, therefore, relax.  I didn’t have to be on eggshells there because I was just another one of the quirks at the school.

There’s this thing about college though; it ends. I graduated in 2010, moved out of town then out of state and suddenly I was back in the real world.  The world where my haircut signifies something other than “owns a pair of clippers” and where I can’t expect to introduce myself as Andrew and not have folks question it.  The world where it wasn’t accepted that folks would engage in debate about an issue while sticking, somewhat, to accepted rules.  The world where you can’t point out privilege to somebody and expect them to know what you mean.  The world where people lock their doors at night.

College of the Atlantic, and I’m assuming lots of places like it, gave you enough comfort to fight for what you truly cared about rather than everything that came across your path.  I took a ton of interesting classes there but that lesson, of fighting for what I felt was truly right rather than what I felt I had to fight for, was far more necessary than many of the classes.  It’s not something you can learn in a weekend retreat or a week long class; it took three years to even start making sense to me, and I’m still sorting stuff out almost two years after graduation.

In short, College of the Atlantic taught me to say, “no” when I needed so that I could say, “yes” to life.

And then I left.

It was almost like having lived in a foreign country during your formative years and then being dropped right back off in your country of origin as soon as you hit your stride.

I’m still struggling a little bit; misspeaking here and there, and having some major flops at times.  I forget that it’s not totally acceptable for me to speak up when I feel something isn’t okay in the same way I have been.  That’s not necessarily a good thing, but there are existing power structures that I get to play in to as I move forward toward ministry.  There are some pretty gross examples of people using their power and privilege over me in ways that I hadn’t experienced before because in the past that stuff would have been called out and stopped immediately.  It’s hard for me to step back and say “there’s a power structure here that’s much bigger than me, and I don’t have the right to change it right now.”

This isn’t better than the system at my school.  This doesn’t make those existing and limiting power structures okay.  And this doesn’t make the people abusing their power and privilege over others right or responsible or okay.  And sometimes I’ll explode a little because somebody is being so monumentally ridiculous in private and the antithesis of who they claim to be in public.

But we will get there.  Heaven knows how we will get there.  But we know within.

Right?  Please tell me that’s right.  Please tell me we will get there.  We’ve gotta.

January 22, 2012

We’re not all “brothers and sisters”

When I talk about gendered language I’m not only referring to calling a crowd of people “guys” or a waiter addressing a table of people as “ladies.”  Those instances hardly make a dent any longer.  What really gets to me is specifically gendered language in places where we are supposed to know better or, at least, supposed to be working on it.  Gendered language that people think is inclusive without really looking into it.

You know, like church?  Our churches.  Our Unitarian Universalist faith communities that we are so, rightfully, proud of.  The churches where so many of us have “gender identity and expression” in our mission statements and have supported transgender rights legislation from city-wide right up to the national level, and where we stress over and over that all are welcome.  We ask you to come as you are and then, if you’re somewhere outside the gender binary, you’re ignored.

Transgender identities can be complicated and confusing and often they get oversimplified in an effort to give a quick explanation to somebody.  Phrases like “born in the wrong body” and “really a boy/girl” are used to sum up all that is the trans experience.  Those phrases do work for a lot of people who identify as trans; there are some people who truly have known since they were very small children that they are definitely the “other” gender than the one they were assigned.  There are also quite a lot of folks out there for whom there is no “other” gender.  They know they aren’t male but they aren’t totally female, either.  I talked about this life in the middle-ground of gender before.

When an assembled body of people is referred to as “ladies and gentleman,” or “men and women” or anything along those lines there is a group of people you’re ignoring.  When you sing “brothers and sisters” or “oh, fathers/mothers let’s go down,” or do a reading that calls on “men” to do one thing while “women” do another you are ignoring all of the “me’s” out there.  You’re ignoring my existence.  I don’t think it’s intentional but I do think it’s something that needs to change.

Today this came up during a service that was supposed to pay homage to the Iowa Sisterhood and the Bread and Roses strike.  That’s great!  There are women out there who have made amazing contributions to our world; women who have banded together and created real, valuable change.  It is necessary that we recognize their perseverance to succeed in a world that did not want to include them.  It is necessary to see their successes as one step in a more gender-inclusive world.  But, when we celebrate these successes, can we please not do it in a way that makes those of us who are neither men nor women invisible?  We need to take the spirit of their message, or the essence of what they were seeking, and expand that beyond the binary we’ve been taught.  These women were fighting against a world that tried, and often succeeded, in making them invisible.  Trans people are doing the same thing, but with smaller numbers and a less united “what we’re fighting for” message in many cases.

In the UU world trans people are accepted on paper and, often, if they fit in enough with one of two genders they are welcomed in practice (for the most part).  There are a lot of trans people I know who would be perfectly fine standing and claiming their identity as female or male, and that’s great, and I’m thrilled those people are supported by their communities.

I am not male.  I am not female.  I use the pronouns he/him/his because they force people to recognize me as not-a-female.  If there was a more readily accepted and useable gender neutral example I’d happily adopt it.  But there’s not, so I don’t.  But just because those are the pronouns I use does not mean I’m your “brother” or a “man” or one of the “guys.”  There is no side for me to pick in these songs, or these readings, or rituals.  There’s no “middle” or “other” so I’m left out entirely.

So what do I think you should you do?  Just recognize our experience.

How?  Oh I’m SO glad you asked!

  1. Look at a reading and see if you feel comfortable adapting it to make it more inclusive.  If you can’t change the words then make an   acknowledgement that it’s not entirely inclusive.  “Though the author refers to “women and men” we take this reading in the spirit of affirming all genders.”
  2. Look for hymns that affirm all people, and adapt if necessary.  One of my favorite replacements for the phrase “brothers and sisters” is “siblings in spirit.”  This, too, is a quick fix.  “In the chorus of ‘We’ll Build a Land’ we will sing “siblings in spirit” rather than “brothers and sisters” to better welcome all into our worship.”
  3. Remember trans folks on Mother’s/Father’s Day.  Many trans people have interesting and complicated relationships with parenting, whether or not they are parents themselves.  Again, you don’t have to do away with services, just an affirmation is fine.  You don’t get something pre-scripted here; I’d prefer you wrote it yourself, from your heart.
  4. It’s okay to mess up; it’s not okay to pretend you didn’t mess up.  Acknowledge and learn from criticism, complaints, hurt feelings, and difficult feedback.
  5. Don’t ask men to sing one part and women to sing another.  I don’t care if it messes with your choir director’s mind.  Find another way to classify voices.  “Higher voices, sing __, lower voices, sing __.”
  6. Lastly, stop referring to the kids as “boys and girls.”  There are miniature versions of me, too.  We get just as annoyed and we’re often less articulate when we’re smaller.  Call them children, call them kids, call them young people.

Email me if you want to hash something out privately.  Andy.Leigh.Coate-at-gmail-dot-com.

We’ll build a land where siblings in spirit united by God may then create peace… see, totally works.

Totally.

Thanks to Rev. Sean Dennison and others for help in sussing this out in my mind.

December 11, 2011

A Whole Lot of Life

Occupy Boston has been evicted. I will, for the foreseeable future, be sleeping in my own bed. It’s not the end of the movement, at least that’s our mantra, but when I stopped by this morning to see it leveled and behind its own type of bars I had to cry. Just for a little, just because transition is hard. And then the police escorted me away.
At church we say, “our worship has ended, our service begins.”

Our physical occupation has ended, the next phase of our movement begins.

But it is so hard.

It’s been an amazing, hard, beautiful, hard, awe-inspiring, hard, flat out gorgeous experience. It’s an experience that I wish so fervently I never had to participate in but… damn. Damn.

I went to the jail where the women were being held this morning. We hugged and sang as people were released. We moved on. We marched to the jail where the men were being held. We hugged more, we sang more, and we waited. I stood by the exit, handing out food to each released protester and letting them know where to get something to drink, people with a charged phone, and a spot to be away from the media.

It wasn’t warm today in Boston, and even though I’m now starting my fifth winter in New England I wasn’t dressed appropriately. I left the house in that marginally frantic “I have somewhere so much more important to be” mode. I also forgot to eat for a good portion of today and I didn’t drink any water from the time I left the house until I got home.

(Self-care is on my to-do list, I promise.)

I was one of the point people for organizing a multireligious solidarity service prior to our first post-raid General Assembly. We wanted to call folks together, let them air some of their pain, let them be heard prior to entering a very procedural meeting. We wanted to continue the faithful, religious, spiritual voice that had been part of the Occupy Boston movement since before Dewey Square was even occupied. We weren’t leaving now.

I can only hope the service provided something of that space. I was so cold, so tired, so dead on my feet by that point that I don’t remember almost anything of what I said. I know we sang a lot. Snippets stand out; taking a minute to breathe while one of our wonderful and involved priests took the service in her way-more-capable hands for a few minutes, encouraging people to keep singing as somebody was screaming behind us, and making eye contact with friends who I didn’t know were coming and feeling reassured.

But it still felt so final.

The movement meant so much to so many people, but to me it meant that I’m in the right place in my life. I’m doing what I need to be doing. I feel good about who I am, where I am, what I am doing and where I am going. I’m proud of the decisions I’m making and I’m thrilled to be with the people I spend my time with.

I’m not always happy with the decisions that Occupy Boston folks made, autonomous action or not, but I’m thrilled with the role that I, and the Protest Chaplains, have played. I’m thrilled with what we’ve done with what we’ve had. I can’t wait to see what we do next.

After, of course, we sleep.

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