Religion

Trans Military Ban: Some Early Thoughts

Content note: transgender rights, transphobia, transantagonism, LGBTQ discrimination

By now most of us in the U.S. have read of the president’s tweets about overturning an Obama-era decision allowing transgender individuals to serve in the military.

I am not trans, but some of my nearest and dearest are NB and/or trans. I have a lot of mixed and strong thoughts on this. I do not know everything. I can’t promise they will be coherent or consistent. I own that, and in writing I attempt to engage the problem and always be doing better than I was doing before.

By framing the ban as an issue of “medical costs,” the administration has adeptly pathologized the issue as one of  a medical defect, rather than identity. Further, if we do choose to frame it as a medical cost, taxpayer dollars cover prescriptions for the military. The military spends five times more on Viagra than on the combined medical costs for trans personnel. Certainly we aren’t going to stigmatize that, are we? Nope, because what goes on in their pants is none of our damn business.

Of course, there is a delay in implementation. Are we planning to dismiss these active duty service members, despite clean records? That’s a slippery slope of second-tier citizenship for the rest of the LGBTQ community. It sets a dangerous precedent. Would they still be eligible for veterans benefits? The GI Bill, introduced after WWII, discriminated against any soldier discharged for homosexual behavior. Are we willing to go back that far in stripping access and benefits?

The framing of “medical costs” is intentional, as we are currently embroiled in the healthcare debates. Transgender individuals are not a burden to the military, and they are not a burden to society, despite what this president tweeted. Be very careful how this is debated.

A few of my mixed feelings: I am non-violent. I consciously joined a Christian denomination with a peace history and a long line of conscientious objectors. This complicates the issue for me. I want to dismantle systems of power that kill and maim. Military service is not the benchmark for equality, equity, and justice in our society. Even with transgender individuals allowed to serve in the U.S. military, the life expectancy of Black trans women is 35. LGBTQ people in Idaho still do not have housing and employment protections. And both LGBTQ youth and veterans still complete suicide at an alarming rate. See the forest and the trees. This is only one step of likely more to come, toward making LGBTQ people second-tier citizens, or worse.

If you want to do more than just be mad, this is a great Medium post to boost, share, and read:

To the cis person angrily sharing news of the Trump transgender military ban

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Wacky Wednesday: Denver Comic Con

Cosplay is Life.

That may be a stretch, but I went to Denver Comic Con this summer, and it is evident that a great many people take cosplay very very seriously. I would count myself among those people, but I didn’t finish my Mass Effect costume, and I lack the funds to be as hardcore as the more serious cosplayers. I spent money on comics and graphic novels for my classroom, instead.

A quick, shameless plug: I went to DCC with my friend Dextra, an indie artist. I have a few of her pieces, as well as a fantastic T-Rex dress with her artwork on it. Her Facebook page has links to her etsy and Redbubble shops.

Anyway.

DCC is a celebration of geekdom in all its glory. I registered for a half-credit educator’s track and sat in several amazing panels on diversity and representation in comics and pop culture. Pop Culture Classroom sponsors several conventions during the year, and Denver is one of them.

Highlights from the panels:

  • College students presenting their projects through an intersectional feminist lens
  • High school (!!!) students presenting their projects analyzing the representation of an identity politic (gender, religious identity, mental illness, LGBTQ, race) throughout the eras of comics
  • The “Indigenerds” discussions of stereotype and representation of Native American characters in popular culture
  • The two Star Wars panels: one on critical reading, and one on stories of resistance

I added several titles from Native Realities to my library. I bought several of Jeremy Whitley’s titles, too (including some My Little Pony single issues, duh). He signed them for me. He happens to be one of the kindest people ever, and made sure to show me the three-panel dialogue exchange with a female Deaf pirate in one of the books I bought!

One last thing, speaking of Deaf characters: two different panels mentioned the graphic autobiography El Deafo by Cece Bell, which several of my students have read (and loved). It’s about a deaf bunny. You should read it. I also found out about Matt Fraction’s run of Hawkeye; issue #19 is in ASL! So: even though the comics world still needs work in regards to representation of disability (a couple panels mentioned that weakness), it’s improving, bit by bit.

Abuse, Forgiveness, and Casting Stones

Content note: sexual abuse, power, privilege, abuse in the news, abuse narratives

This is my third piece triggered by and simultaneously about and not about the most current sexual abuse scandal in the news. This topic grieves me and angers me. Even though I am not from the same faith tradition as the current focus du jour, I have seen this play out across Christian denominations. I have friends who have been abused and friends who have been sexually assaulted, and well meaning church people who have handled the information in ways that perpetuate abusive thinking and center the abuser rather than the victim.

In Abuse and the Use of Power, I wrote

Sexual abuse is not about sex. Sexual assault is not about sex. Talk to victims, survivors, crisis center professionals, the people working in this field. Sexual assault is about power; it is about the abuse of power, trust, and authority. And the kind of social inclusion that could possibly mitigate this kind of damage didn’t, because the victims and the perpetrator were embedded into the same exclusive, tightly knit group.

In Abuse and What Forgiveness Isn’t, I added

Forgiveness is not neat and tidy. But it is also not a transaction, or an automatic response to “I’m sorry.” If it is forced, required, or coerced, it becomes an extension of the original abuse. “Moving on” is an illusion that ignores real issues and maintains the power structures that facilitate abuses of authority.

One of the most disturbing trends I’ve seen in regard to sexual abuse, sexual assault, and the conversations surrounding it, is in the same vein as the forgiveness post. But I was so troubled by it I needed to write a whole separate essay and take a few extra days to process.

“A sin is a sin is a sin.”

I am not going to get into a theological discussion about the nature of sin, or why the Catholic tradition has mortal sins and venal sins, or the irony/hypocrisy of the evangelical church putting so much emphasis on sexual sins and purity as though fornication is the ultimate sin until one of their own men is in the spotlight for just that.

Sexual assault is a CRIME.

This is not just a conversation about sin and the church. This has implications beyond our physical church walls, or the arbitrary boundaries between denominations. Molesting children is against the law. Delicate language recasting it as a mistake, a misstep, an indiscretion, a sin is carefully dodging the consequences of acknowledging the criminal nature of sexual abuse.

My pastor is the executive director of a year-long, faith-based recovery home for women. The vast majority of the women who enter the program have broken the law, often multiple times. I have witnessed these women walk out incredible transformations in their lives. When they give their testimonies at the end of their program, they pull no punches as they share their old lives of addiction and pain. They don’t use soft language or try to dodge consequences. In fact, even as they acknowledge their forgiveness, part of their program is to fulfill all consequences, restitution, etc., that is part of their criminal sentences. But as they name it, they do so because it takes away the shame of secrecy, and establishes a habit of accepting the consequences of their actions.

By dismissing the serious, violating nature of sexual abuse by quipping, “A sin is a sin is a sin,” in a misguided invocation of forgiveness, bloggers and supporters of the perpetrator uphold the code of secrecy that allow perpetrators to escape the consequences of their crimes. And completely ignoring the victims.

“Let he among us without sin be the first to cast a stone.”

I read a really awful blog post, based on a really awful tweet, all based on a gross misuse of that concept. All hash-tagged with support to forgive the perpetrator.

I wrote on Thursday: it is not for any of us, the general public to forgive him. We were not wronged, molested, or abused by him. If we repeatedly avoid hard conversations about abuse, assault, and the systems that facilitate the molestation of children–all under the misguided call for “forgiveness”–these crimes will continue unabated and the bodies and lives of children and women will continue to be attacked.

Now, let me tell you what it can be like to be a female victim of a sexual crime in the church. Elizabeth Smart speaks about her captivity, and the lessons she learned about sex a la the “chewed gum” analogy  significantly impacted her perception of herself as a rape victim/survivor. When I attended church camp in middle school and high I went to a small-group lesson on boundaries in dating. We signed True Love Waits cards. I remember learning that once we passed boundaries there was “no going back,” and that it was my responsibility (as a female) to keep the physical side of the relationship in check. During college, a group of friends were talking when someone opened up that she had been raped freshman year. One well-meaning but misguided friend’s first instinct was to ask if her boyfriend knew she wasn’t a virgin.

This pervasive fixation is aimed at girls remaining pure. And in all those lessons I learned–directly and indirectly–there was no grace.

The full context of the casting stones verse involves a woman about to be stoned for adultery. She is about to become a victim of the male-dominated purity code. She is marginalized, just like every person for whom Jesus went to bat. When people trot this verse out, lacking context, in defense of an abuser, they miss the point entirely. When high-profile men lose positions of power and authority because of sexual abuse or sexual assault allegations, they are not victims. Their victims are victims.

On Thursday, I said I feel no nuance about standing on the side of the marginalized. These girls–now in their teens–don’t have hash tags or social media campaigns. But I’m guessing they have a lot of hurt and misunderstanding. Maybe they feel like chewed up gum. Maybe they only now understand the full extent of what happened to them as young children. Maybe they are horrified by the support offered to their abuser while they feel ignored or revictimized.

The church has done a terrible, terrible job of standing up for abuse victims/survivors/overcomers. It rushes “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” and centers the abusers instead of uplifting and surrounding the hurt and abused. Is it any wonder the rest of the country stares back, agog?

Abuse and What Forgiveness Isn’t

Content note: sexual abuse, power, privilege, abuse in the news, abuse narratives

Most of the blog posts I’ve read that defend a Christian accused of a sexual crime against another person (or persons) get the concept of forgiveness really, really wrong.

In Abuse and the Use of Power, I wrote briefly about the difficulty I experience writing about religion. I currently attend a Christian peace church that turns the mainstream idea of church hierarchy on its head, but I have attended and witnessed churches and church relationships that cause a great deal of hurt to individuals and groups. I am conscious of the contributions the church has made to historical and modern constructions of racism, misogyny and sexism, privilege, power, and the language and action of oppression. I have also seen the church participate in reconciliation and liberation.

It’s safe to say I have a complex relationship with the church. It’s full of wrestling and nuance, which is something that often gets lost as soon as tempers flare and parties start shouting past each other.

Granted, there are some things about which I feel no nuance. Deconstructing power. Sexual abuse. Standing on the side of the marginalized.

And in that vein, I have read some very troubling things over the last week. I am not going to link them, because page hits. Also because I ended up in a very angry rabbit hole last night following the push behind a specific blog post. It was ugly and confounding, and I decided not to go the route of a detailed illustration of the parallels between featuring a blog post on forgiving abusers while simultaneously featuring specific language that has been called out as being sexist and damaging… the more I dug into it the more I realized my emotional health couldn’t handle it. Especially not before bed.

Forgiveness.

Through the lens of power, here are my responses to points of conversation as I have read it to date, and what I assert has been missing from nearly every conversation involving a high-profile sexual assault:

“We should forgive him!” That is not within our power; forgiveness is not ours to give. Unless we are the target or victim or God Himself, it is not our responsibility to forgive.

“He confessed and apologized, so the victims need to forgive him.” There are many variations of “The perpetrator did X, so the victims should do Y,” and they are problematic. First, an apology is not an equation. It does not guarantee forgiveness. In my 12-Step group, when we reach Step 9 and make amends we do so with the full understanding that forgiveness may not be proffered in return. When my students get an apology, they say “Thank you;” I have taught them not to say “It’s okay.” Because usually it is not okay. Second, forgiveness cannot be demanded, required, or coerced as part of a conditional agreement or system. “He confessed and apologized, so the victims need to forgive him” is an expression of the exact same abuse of power and authority that manifested as the sexual assault. The hierarchy of perpetrator over victim remains in place, and the authority remains in hands of the assaulter.

“Move on.” A lot–and I mean a lot— of blogs and articles and opinion pieces have mentioned and paid lip service to the victims. The amount of ink they get compared to the perpetrator is a dismal ratio, and maybe that’s to ensure they’re privacy. Then again, maybe not. In this specific case, we’re told the victims got counseling. We don’t know what kind. We’re told they moved on. Or, we’re told they should move on. Empty cries to “move on” ignore very real issues that happen in churches and families around us. One woman wrote about her similar molestation, and that she was counseled (by a lay member of the church, a non-professional) that forgiveness was required, and that moving on was the only thing that would glorify God. And a five-year-old child cannot complete counseling. For one, counseling is an ongoing process. Furthermore, if a child cannot fully process what happened to her body, she cannot understand the implications of forgiving that sin against her. It’s distinctly possible that if/when she chooses to forgive her assailant, she will need to re-forgive him every time the memory of abuse reemerges as a power in her life. A victim/survivor of sexual abuse is the only person who can decide when she can move on, forgive, let go of some of the hurt. As far as us moving on? If we do not have real conversations about child sexual abuse, the systems that facilitate its commission, and the barriers to intervention, it will keep happening. We need to have conversations about how to best separate victims from their abusers, how to help victims recover and heal, and how to rehabilitate abusers so they do not abuse again.

Forgiveness is not neat and tidy. But it is also not a transaction, or an automatic response to “I’m sorry.” If it is forced, required, or coerced, it becomes an extension of the original abuse. “Moving on” is an illusion that ignores real issues and maintains the power structures that facilitate abuses of authority.

Abuse and the Use of Power

Content note: sexual abuse, power, privilege, abuse in the news, abuse narratives

I’ve stared at this blank blog post for a while.

My heart is heavy and more than a little frustrated. I do not want to jump into the fray regarding the latest high-profile abuse scandal to capture our attention. The coverage of such stories bothers me, the way we center the narrative on the perpetrator and fixate on how and why he did it, on whether his consequences were served in the right time and manner, and on whether the appropriate public response should be outrage or forgiveness. Although my heaviness and frustration have been triggered by this latest event, it is by no means limited to this incident, nor is it centered on the tradition or the adherents from which the abuse sprang. There are well-written pieces on that, and that is not my area. Moreover, I have found this happens across traditions.

To date, I have written about the intersections of gender, race, social class, and language. I have written comparatively little on the topic of or intersection with religion. It’s a difficult topic for me. I grew up in the Lutheran tradition, got my B.A. from a liberal Lutheran college, spent a lot of energy not fitting in to the Evangelical circle during college, and currently wrestle at a Brethren church. I know a lot of people who have been hurt in and by the church, regardless of tradition. I have been hurt by the church and by well-meaning church people.

It’s hard to write about something to which I am still so closely tied. But that’s why I attend a church that decides most things by consensus. Where the pastors defer to the congregation, rather than the other way around. Where the pastors are a husband-and-wife team with equally strong voices. It’s not perfect, but once when a pastor said something in a sermon that caused me to become visibly uncomfortable, I got a text message later (because I prefer texts) so we could hash out the intent, how I heard it, and why I was bothered.

It has become abundantly clear when there is an imbalance of power, there exists the potential for abuse. I learned this from the church. My graduate work has confirmed it. And the current media firestorm illustrates this even further.

Allow me to elaborate:

I am currently preparing a manuscript with two additional authors on the abuse of women and girls with disability. The paper covers twenty years of research studies into the topic, and finds that across all age bands and across all categories of abuse, women and girls with disability experience abuse at higher rates than women and girls without disabilities. The single most common theme that emerged? Victims were more vulnerable to abuse as a consequence of power being used inappropriately. We also wrote:

[The] difficulty in achieving justice in the court system for women with disabilities who have been sexually assaulted stems from the failure to recognize the abuses of trust, power, and authority in the relationships of these women.

Further factors that conveyed risk or protective factors were isolation vs. social inclusion; that source indicated the degree to which a woman was socially embedded mitigated the likelihood she would experience partner violence.

So how does this relate to the current news cycle? Everything.

The pieces I’ve read have fit into two categories: those that have used carefully selected language, and those that have called out the careful words for softening and whitewashing what was an act of sexual abuse and violence against the bodies of young girls. But both categories seem to be so caught up in the politicization of the scandal that they miss some really important information.

Sexual abuse is not about sex. Sexual assault is not about sex. Talk to victims, survivors, crisis center professionals, the people working in this field. Sexual assault is about power; it is about the abuse of power, trust, and authority. And the kind of social inclusion that could possibly mitigate this kind of damage didn’t, because the victims and the perpetrator were embedded into the same exclusive, tightly knit group.

And it is this part of the narrative that bothers me so much, that most conversations are missing: however it was (or wasn’t) handled, after whatever counseling did (or did not) occur, the person in question still went on to achieve positions of power and authority. 

Most of the pieces I’ve read in the Forgiveness camp demonstrate some simplistic and/or disturbing misconceptions of what forgiveness means. I’ll get to that later this week. But the amount of power, authority, and leverage ascribed to his (former) position with the Family Research Council is troubling, snarky and/or frustrated comments about anti-LGBT campaigns aside (those are worth discussion, but not in this blog post).

The way we center our coverage on perpetrators is disturbing. Our concern for victims/survivors’ wellbeing rarely seems to match our morbid curiosity for the details of their violation. We need a new lens: power, and why give it back to the perpetrators.

American Snippet

Content warning: contains racist slurs, swears, and expressions of hate

American Sniper is a movie based on a book that includes proven lies. Under typical circumstances, I would not waste my breath, my keystrokes, or my brain cells on it.

These are not typical circumstances.

In the last six weeks, I have been unfriended by no fewer than a dozen people on Facebook for engaging in “anti-military rhetoric” on my timeline. Whoop-de-doo. I lose friends all the time, usually acquaintances who are shocked when I speak up about something with which they disagree. While it’s no secret to most of my friends that I am non-violent and regularly engage in conversation regarding alternatives to war and violence, I guess people were surprised that I was vocal about my disgust with the hero worship of Chris Kyle and his self-aggrandizing book-turned-movie. And I was surprised that my criticism for a movie garnered sexist, racist vitriol, militaristic one-liners, misunderstandings of the word slander, and suggestions to stand in front of a spray of bullets.

Actually, I wasn’t surprised.

Last things first: I don’t generally use the word pacifist because most people misinterpret it as a passive choice. I am a non-violent activist. It may become my job to stand in the way of violence, between the oppressor and the oppressed. So when someone says, If you don’t stand behind the military, feel free to stand in front of them, chances are there may be a time I may be faced with such an option (I mean, this is one of my favorite books…). Saying this to me doesn’t make me rethink my position, but it makes the person saying it look simplistic and cruel.

I focus a lot of my blog posts on intersectional feminism in K-12 education. That’s the setting in which I work. It’s the focus of my masters program. It’s where I see myself working for the foreseeable future. So how does American Sniper fit in? It fits because of Benvolio.

Benvolio is not Benvolio’s real name. But there is a student whose family moved here from Iraq in 2008, and he is my Benvolio in Romeo & Juliet this year. He is, quite possibly, the brightest student I have ever had the pleasure to teach. He is the main reason I wish we were not using an adapted script: he came to our first rehearsal with his entire part memorized. So we gave him an additional part. He comes to me each week with ideas for his character, for staging, for mood. His instincts are good, which is notable because he can’t see the entire stage. He wears argyle sweater vests. He’s a pretty typical high school kid, he just happens to have a cane and read Braille.

He is also Muslim.

During my undergrad coursework, I heard over and over again that school needs to be a safe, inclusive, accessible environment for every student. Many of my professors iterated the guideline that celebrating holidays in school marginalizes students of diverse religious and cultural backgrounds and students who live in poverty. I have an ongoing dilemma trying to reconcile that with the Deaf school norm of celebrating every mainstream holiday because for some students, it is the only access to the background and explanations they have.

I have seen awful posts on Facebook about American Sniper. I have seen disgusting tweets. In short, the film offers a simplistic view of a war that is all grey, and does not inspire the best responses in much of the target audience. It is this response I will address, just to keep my notes as brief as possible.

This is the kind of thing Benvolio can read online. It’s also the kind of thing his friends and classmates can read online. With the number of students in our schools who are Muslim, or who come from predominantly Muslim countries, or who just happen to be brown and encounter people who don’t know anything about world religions and/or geography, American Sniper inspires a hatred and a brand of fevered nationalism that is dangerous to their emotional well-being, their concept of self, and their safety in school.

I’m posting a few examples; the rest can be found from even a cursory search or from this Storify.

Usually I stay out of Facebook comment conversations, especially those that are political. My acquaintances save me the trouble of unfriending them by deleting me first, but I wish they would view the world through a different lens. A lens that sees the damage this film can inflict, the hatred spewed by its most ardent of fans, and the attitudes expressed by even some of the more reasonable of fans. It’s a problem for students like Benvolio, for his family, for his community. When we paint the world as black-and-white, the white people generally write the narrative. And it isn’t the kind of narrative in which the hero thinks critically about his actions, sees the Other as a whole human person, or considers the nuance of the story into which he’s written. And when we consume the narrative as uncritically as it was written, we legitimize it.