Bodies on the Line

This is the time to reach out in support, to create new networks, to open spaces and create something new.

Robin: 

revrobin2-023Bodies are always at risk in the world. But it feels to me that many bodies, and in some ways most bodies, are under attack in the United States these days.

Here are a few items in the news that create that reality for me:

  • Trans Bodies. In one of his first acts as the new Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions has alerted the federal appeals court in Texas that the government will no longer appeal the ruling af the district court judge who blocked, nationwide, Obama Administration rules protecting trans students in public schools. Read more here   This raises concern about how the new administration might position the government (or if it will try to do so) in a case, involving an appeal from the Gloucester County, Virginia, School Board already scheduled for hearing at the Supreme Court (the board appealing an appeals court ruling granting the right to Gavin Grimm to use the boy’s restroom at the county high school). Every trans public school student and their parents are facing great risk, not long after the Obama Administration raised hopes for real change.
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    PJ Media

    Immigrant Bodies. In the past few days, there has been reports of a marked increase in the number of ICE raids and arrests of immigrants who are without the necessary papers and those with criminal records. The targets have centered on eleven states, including California, New York, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Illinois. Some of this continues Obama Administration practice of expelling immigrants with criminal records, but it also seems more people than under Obama have been deported for not having papers. The actions seem clearly focused Mexican nationals and other Latin Americans living in the United States. Articles in various foreign-language local media outlets have reported on widespread fear. Read more here and here.   Who knows where this will all end, but it is safe to say that millions of bodies, not just those who are deported but also those left behind, are likely affected.

  • Refugee Bodies. Closely connected are others from foreign lands, especially those fleeing horrible violence in their own land who, according to the President and others in the government, allegedly want to wreak it here. Clearly, we do not know how far the current government will be able to go, but in the meantime it is pretty scary–tens, nay hundreds, of thousands, at least, are at risk. .
  • Bodies Needing Healthcare. The continuing uncertainty about whether there will be any realistic replacement of the Affordable Care Act (after its almost certain repeal) leaves many facing not having health care that is affordable and accessible. The legislation to repeal seems stalled at the moment, as apparently those rabidly opposed to the program are realizing that though they belittled it many people depend on it for adequate health care. What does not seem to be going away however, is the determination of the Republican Congress and the President to end the Obama version even if they cannot agree on what the new one should look like. The anxiety for many with clear and ongoing needs for care is real—millions of bodies are at risk.
  • protect-womnes-healthWomen’s Bodies. Connected to the future of health care is the effort to defund Planned Parenthood. The bodies of at least two million low-income women are at stake if Speaker Paul Ryan and Vice President Mike Pence succeed in doing what the Trump campaign promised last fall: take all federal Medicaid funding from Planned Parenthood and give it to local community health clinics. Even if that does not happen, the health of many other women will be impacted due to the high proportion of women’s services, other than abortion, provided by Planned Parenthood clinics all over the nation. Read more here.
  • LGBT Bodies. And even one bad action averted is not fully reassuring. After public pressure, and according to some sources, the intervention of the President’s daughter and son-in-law, the rumored Executive Order to rescind protection of lesbian and gay persons in federal employment decisions was withdrawn. Read more here. The White House even publicly announced the change, touting the President as supportive of LGBT rights. Read more here.  Still, the Administration has not yet issued an expected order about religious freedom that would undermine LGBT rights, and Vice President Mike Pence has a long record of championing anti-LGBT causes. These factors leave many nervous about how far protections for LGBT will be undermined and rolled back. It seems clear there will be no forward movement—queer bodies again in jeopardy.
  • protect-my-vote-chip-somodevilla-getty-images
    Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

    Black Bodies, Poor Bodies, Elderly Bodies. The confirmation of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General causes a rising concern among African Americans, and other racial minorities, about federal protections. It seems clear that the Justice Department will slow down, or even end, efforts to help, and certainly stop suits against, local police departments to end racial profiling and other racist practices. In addition, voting rights seem likely to be under threat, and that involves not only African Americans but also poor people and elderly people of all races.

It may be then, that white straight men (WSM), at least those not poor, have little to fear, especially in their bodies. Those who want to grab pussy can still do so—just don’t talk about it in the locker room (someone might take you seriously), and their voting is not at issue.

I am old enough to remember days like that, the days when America was really great, at least for middle- and upper-class WSM. I don’t want to go back there. I doubt you do either.

Malachi and I usually write more obviously about bodies as connected to sex. However, he and I know that patriarchal constructions of society are never far removed from sex. And bodies are always at risk—even, potentially, some of those male bodies that look secure (e.g., men with LGBT children or siblings, friends and neighbors or business associates or co-workers who are Black or LatinX or Muslim, etc.).

bayard-rustin-angelic-troublemakersThe theological truth is that every body belongs to God, is part of the family of God, and deserves not only respect but also tender care and opportunities to thrive and glow, each in their own way. I am at a loss to explain how people who say they are conservative can so easily not engage in conserving each and every one of these glorious creations, and even more, actively engage in opposing efforts to care for every single body.

I shall resist as best I know how all anti-body rhetoric and activity. That begins with writing the truth as I see it, and asking you and others to join me in more truth-telling, marching, writing letters to Congress, and agitating wherever and whenever we can, being the “angelic troublemakers” (St.) Bayard Rustin called up decades ago.

 

Malachi: 

14947937_10100747005631839_8991378826366585167_nMy childhood minister (prior to Rev. Robin), Rev. Gill Storey, told me once that “patriotism is the birthplace of racism.” That phrase has stuck with me throughout the years and has greatly influenced and informed my perspectives and beliefs on patriotism (particularly post 9/11) through adulthood. Right now, though, I think that it’s a particularly poignant message, as we have seen an uptick in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids behind the banner of “Make America Great Again.”

Indeed, how can we not see the link between patriotism and racism right now? But beyond racism, we see an assault on all bodies that do not conform to the accepted “all-American” look. We see, as Robin has linked, article after article in which different groups are being actively targeted because of their (actual and perceived) race, gender identity, sexual orientation, gender, religion, ethnicity, and/or country of origin.

Today, I don’t come with facts and figures, theory and substantiation. Today, I come with stories. Memories. Moments in my life that resonated so strongly that, when I see the echoes of them today, they make me shake with rage and fear.

I remember being trans in high school. I remember going by the name “Tony” on days where I wanted to be a boy. I remember, in acts of solidarity (as we understood them at the time), guys from band sitting with me on the bus and explaining which pocket you put your wallet in and which wrist should carry your watch. I remember, for the most part support. Except for that one day, when I needed to pee, and went into the bathroom, and freaked out a younger girl coming out of the stall. When I told this story to my friends, they looked at me and said, “Well… duh. You should have used the men’s room.” I didn’t know how to explain my fear of what would happen if I did, and instead tried to avoid using the bathroom at school, ever.

I remember changing band uniforms on the bus- they had a boys bus and a girls bus, and I was never sure which I should be in, which half my friends telling me one thing, and the other half saying something different.

I was on a trans panel a few years ago, and I listened to a friend talk about

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http://www.travelheals.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/drinkmorewater8x10.jpg

being in a chronic state of dehydration because he didn’t want to navigate the public bathrooms on a college campus. I was floored, realizing that I, too, don’t drink nearly enough water and live in a chronic state of dehydration as a subconscious method of avoiding bathrooms. This is not a particularly good thing for me, as an adult, but it’s significantly worse for children and teenagers, whose bodies are growing and changing. It’s one small side effect of these bathroom bills and anti-trans laws that is rarely talked about, but we (as trans people) are doing violence to our own bodies to mitigate the fear of violence being perpetrated onto us.

Compared to what kids are facing now (and what many other kids faced when I was in school), my experience coming out as trans in high school was positively charmed. But I also remember the tension, the fear, the anxiety, the nervousness I felt in an environment that was, for the most part, fairly safe. And then I think about what these laws could do, the impacts they could (and do) have on kids who are struggling to figure out everything from who they want to take to prom to where they want to go to college to how to explain to their parents about why they missed curfew, and it makes me sick with rage and fear and concern. I want to be there, to be able to support these kids, to take something off the stress they are feeling from every other part of their lives. I see high school teachers struggling to connect and wanting to support their students, but not knowing how to.

I have friends that are undocumented, who are struggling to figure out next steps for themselves, their partners, their families. I have friends directly impacted by the ICE raids, struggling to figure out where to go to get away from the threats and realizing that there is nowhere to go. I have other friends talking about trapdoors to basements and who has enough space to house a family for a little while.

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http://15130-presscdn-0-89.pagely.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Stop-Deportations.jpeg

I have known someone whose visa ran out, and she and her partner had to figure out next steps because her partner, who was chronically ill, was as a vet and received all medical care through the VA. Leaving wasn’t an option for her partner, staying wasn’t an option for her, and being apart was an option for neither.

I have known black and brown bodies, black and brown friends who have been targeted by the police and civilians because of the color of their skin. I have known queer women who have committed suicide because of sexual assault. I have known sex workers who have been threatened with “outing” and prosecution unless they provided services to the police.

These are not abstractions for me. These are my friends, my people, the ones that I have potlucks with and watch their dogs while they’re away. These are the people whose postcards cover my kitchen wall and whose heads I have held while they cried. This is not statistics or figures or even something new for me. These are the people that I stand beside at protests, watching their courage as they hold signs and claim their lives and identities.

These laws enshrine an attitude in this culture that many have tried to deny for years. Yet as the days pass and executive order followed by cabinet appointment followed by misinformation continues to come from the White House, more begin to see the atrocities and we are banding together.

relationshipsThis is the time for community. This is the time to reach out in support, to create new networks, to open spaces and create something new. Now is the time that we must persevere, and the intersections of our identities give us different abilities and privileges to work within toward that goal.

If patriotism is the birthplace of racism, what then is the birthplace of freedom? Extending our communities to those of different experiences. Inviting refugees and welcoming immigrants. Holding hands on the street. Stopping and witnessing when the police have stopped and questioned a person of color on the street. Actively working against rape culture.

These executive orders and lawsuits and appointments are dire, and they are an assault on bodies- all bodies. So perhaps, those of us with more privilege can use our bodies- our whiteness, our straightness (or straight-passingness), our American citizenship, our maleness- to protect those who might otherwise be killed in the onslaught. We build community and protect others against this assault on our bodies, our beings, our existence. And through community, we are able to truly find freedom.

We Want to Hear from You!

Help Make this a Conversation!

What are your thoughts and reflections on Ruth 4:7-17? Have you had any experience with non-monogamy and unconventional relationships that have brought you joy to think on? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

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Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please join us tomorrow, THURSDAY, February 16th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components.  If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.

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Workshop description: Non-Monogamy 2 continues from where a previous workshop ended. On December 15, 2016, Malachi and Robin delved into non-monogamy. Malachi described its various forms in contemporary culture and offered observations from personal experience. Robin commented on some of the positive aspects and understandings he has gained through learning more about non-monogamy and reflected on his own feelings (which are more positive than he would have thought). There was a good discussion among those participating on the call, and questions were raised. Malachi and Robin plan to offer more information, and specifically some responses to the questions. If you were unable to be present on December 15, we are hoping a video of the presentation (but not the discussion) will soon be available.

Keep Marching

Malachi and Robin each participated in the recent Women’s March in Washington, D.C. They offer some observations below.

14947937_10100747005631839_8991378826366585167_nMalachi: 

There has been much discussion- before, during, and after- on inclusivity and intersectionality at the Women’s March held in DC (as well as the hundreds of sister marches that occurred around the world). I was fortunate enough to be present at the march in DC with my family and several dear friends and, miraculously, managed to stay with the same group of eight people.

I have many complicated feelings about the march- some positive, some negative, and some that are just observations. Because, clearly, the march was a huge success- although the standards for what makes a march successful are nebulous- and it was empowering to see so many people uniting against a common cause.

I think, perhaps, that’s the most poignant piece of the march, for me. It was not a group of people uniting FOR, but AGAINST: against oppression, against corruption, against invasive laws, against Donald Trump. But the things each person was FOR varied widely: some for pro-sex worker visibility, some were pro-LGBTQ equality, some were pro-Black Lives Matter, etc. I’ve talked some about this in other places, but when you have a collection of people whose unifying factor is what they aren’t, rather than what they are, it risks reinstating a hierarchical system that priorities of those with the loudest voices.

There were many wonderful things about the women’s march: some really powerful signs (the one that has stuck with me, for example, was the woman who carried the sign, “I refuse to be gaslighted” which, to me,

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https://www.spreadshirt.co.uk/image-server/v1/designs/15856169,width=178,height=178/who-run-the-world-girls.png

spoke volumes about history of emotional abuse as well as the ongoing rewriting of facts coming from the political arena.) My goddaughter joining in on the chant, “Who runs the world?” “Girls!” and watching her sense of empowerment growing. Her discussions of “my body, my choice” in the car on the ride home. Watching the people I was with proudly sporting signs and buttons that spoke to the visibility of sex workers.

The march was powerful to be at for many reasons, but it was also a complicated place to be. With the exception of our goddaughter, everyone else in our group can pass as white (although I don’t know how they necessarily identify). We did not experience firsthand some of the direct harassment and erasure that I hear many POC folks talking about.

I did feel a little uncomfortable about the pink pussy hats, however. I understood the point behind them, but there is an underlying message that implies that genitals are pink (not true) and ownership of a vagina defines womanhood (also not true).

I have heard POC women say that the pink pussy hats didn’t bother them; I’ve heard others say it felt exclusionary (some knit brown and black pussy hats instead of pink). I’ve heard some transwomen say they felt excluded, and others say they didn’t have an issue with the genital-focused discussions.

Again, there isn’t an objectively “right” or “wrong” answer to this; this is

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https://img1.etsystatic.com/177/0/5730702/il_340x270.1167085353_gime.jpg

a natural byproduct of the unifying force being “against” rather than “for.” When we march against, that ends up looking distinctly different from person to person and group to group. But I do think there are some important points from the women’s march that should be addressed.

I feel like there has been some criticism of the criticism aimed at the women’s march. Because yes, we should celebrate that it was a success and felt empowering. And it was, and we should, and many are. But I also think there is a vital part of the conversation that involved intentionally recognizing that intersectionality, while present in some aspects, felt glaringly missing in many regards- never mind that telling people how they “should” feel is an erasure of differing experiences altogether.

I think of the history of social justice movements, and recognize that there is some degree to which the freedoms afforded to one group often feel like they come at the cost to another. Many in marginalized communities have felt the sting of being told to “wait their turn.” I remember when HRC dropped gender from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act because they didn’t think they could get it passed if trans people were included, and “something is better than nothing.” Trans people were effectively told that our presence wasn’t worth fighting for, that gay rights was more important than trans rights. I have not supported HRC since then (as they have continued to have policies that I found problematic).

The criticisms I see of the march feel very much like they are coming from a place of understanding- and not wanting to repeat- the mistakes of the past. Because so often, people don’t keep showing up once they’ve gotten the freedoms that personally affect them. I truly believe that the best way to ensure freedoms for everyone is to bind together the fates of different communities and identities. Thus, we arrive at the basis of intersectionality.

None of us are single-dimensional people. We all have privileges and oppressions that contribute to our ability to navigate the world. It’s not

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http://www.themarysue.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/jessica-intersectional-feminism-sign-650×376.jpg

that the experiences of one community are “the same” as the experiences of another community; it’s understanding that, when something impacts one community, all communities are residually impacted. It’s the essence of the quote “oppression anywhere is a threat to freedom everywhere.” We may not have the same struggle, but there is room for your struggle in my resistance. And if there isn’t… am I just interested in representing my own interests? To me, that undermines the purpose of social justice.

I truly believe we have to stop looking at just those issues that will directly affect our own lives and take in the broader scope of human injustice. In doing that, we can then see which solutions are beneficial to all versus which solutions only benefit us directly- and furthermore, recognize when those solutions come at the expense of another community. If white people are not willing to listen when POC say that something is harmful or damaging, then we are fueling and supporting racism. If men are not willing to listen when women say something is harmful or damaging, then we are fueling and supporting sexism. And so forth.

we-can-do-itSo do I think the women’s march was bad? Absolutely not. I felt empowered to be there with the people I was with, and I was glad I went. But I am also a white person in a sea of white faces, and I was surrounded by white privilege that didn’t directly impact me. If I let that slide, then I am part of the problem fueling racism, and I’m not interested in being a part of a group of people willing to actively ignore problematic aspects of their resistance.

There is space in my resistance for your struggle. I am against this government, against this president, and against the people who feel emboldened by his assent to power. But I am also for my communities, for my friends, for ending dehumanization and isolation. Each struggle impacts another, and we can put in the work and intention to make sure that our movements do not come at the cost of other’s freedoms. That is the kind of resistance I want to work toward.

Robin: 

I went to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. on January 21. I wanted my body to be counted among those who choose to resist the rising intolerance of difference and the drumbeat of injustice being encouraged and led by the new President and his minions.

revrobin2-023From the moment at 7 am when I drove into the Metro parking lot at Greenbelt station and realized it was already more than half full and that cars were arriving steadily, I began to feel the power that comes from joining my body, my soul, with others who have an ever-widening understanding of who we, as a people, a nation, are called to be (my sign below on the left, from the back page of the Washington Post of Friday).

I had wanted to beat the rush, and here I was right in the middle of it. And I was glad. The train was full when we started (Greenbelt is the end of the Green Line) and it got fuller at each of the twelve stops until Gallery Place/Chinatown where I was getting off to meet a group—especially at College Park/University of Maryland. There is something wonderfully energizing about the arrival of 20 or 30 collegians into an already crowded space—noisy, laughing, so clearly enjoying each other—that I needed right then.

As I walked about 15 minutes towards the Hyatt Regency on New Jersey Avenue where I was meeting my group from Temple Shalom, I began seeing other marches, carrying signs, many smiling and saying “Good Morning” in response to my greeting.  Two women at different moments asked to take my picture (they liked the combination of purple clergy shirt and collar and dangly purple earrings with my white beard).

we-the-peopleThe signs kept coming—more versions of the one that first caught my eye on the train, “Pussy Grabs Back”—so many creative expressions of resistance, often coupled with humor and word play. Even the edgy, angry signs seemed to carry a certain joi de vivre, such that my body and my soul began to feel much lighter than the day before.  There is life here, I thought, especially in contrast to the bleakness of the President’s divisive speech the day before (much of the media called his tone “dark” but dark is beautiful; it was bleak, no grace, no joy, no hope except if we let him do what he wants).

That is when I began to realize one of the main things that divides me, and many others, from him.

All of us that day, or at least me and most of us, carry some real and deep fear about what the next four years will be. We march because we choose to stand up and push back against those determined to undo many of the gains for justice and inclusion that have been made. And we want to make more.

The President also is afraid, very afraid. In fact, I think fear drives everything he says and does, even though he works hard to disguise his fear. The fact that he puts his name in very large letters on everything he erects (yes, erects) is, I believe, a response to his fear that he will be forgotten, disregarded, abandoned. His response to this base level fear of erasure is to make himself as big as possible. But it is all about him, even when he claims it is about other folks who feel left out or behind (many of whom have valid complaints).

trump-towerThe difference at the march is that we were there for things we care about, our own needs of course, but also because we know our needs are linked to the needs of others. So, we want to gather together to create a new world, a more just and generous world.

He wants people to gather together to honor him—hence his claim the media lied about the size of the crowd at the inauguration.

Was the march a perfect vehicle for women and allies and advocates to express our determination to resist being sucked into his fear-based vortex? Certainly not.  It was not well-organized. The inexperience of march organizers showed (and in their defense, they did not have much time to build the necessary structure).

The pink pussy hats were pretty and the sea of pink could be captivating, but of course not all “pussies” are pink, and not all women have them either. I did not see and hear enough about transwomen, for example, although I was grateful to Angela Davis for mentioning them, and especially transwomen of color, several times. And she mentioned the need for solidarity with Palestinians, too. As so often, she told deep, often difficult, truths very clearly. I also was glad to be surrounded by, and participate in, chants of Black Lives Matter.

cant-build-a-wall-hands-too-smallI was uncomfortable with many of the references to the President’s allegedly small dick. On the one hand, the size of his organ is of little or no consequence and of no interest to me. On the other hand, I do not appreciate men being criticized or ostracized because of penis-size prejudice.  And I continue to wonder if at least some of his need for big buildings and large crowds is due to some body issues, including perhaps having a smaller-than- he-wants penis. I certainly know something about taking on shame about having a small one myself.

There were other troubling moments. What to do about abortion opponents? I am clearly pro-choice because I believe women have the basic human right to control their own bodies. That makes it hard for me to engage in dialogue with people who claim abortion is murder.  That language really does not allow for much room for conversation (for more than hour, I was stuck in a spot at the march where the most visible sign in the distance was one that made the murder claim—very surreal). Yet, I am inclined to try to listen to women who say this, because they have some standing in the debate as those who, unlike me and all male-bodied persons, can actually bring a fetus to maturation and delivery. The decision to deny co-sponsorship to an anti-abortion group needs more discussion before the next march.

abortion-sign-clashAnd that is one more piece of good news. Already people are talking about an annual Women’s March. We can keep doing this to help us stay energized and focused on creating the change we want and need, and opposing the change the President and other fearful people claim is necessary (the return to “good ole days” when women and many others knew their place, behind and under the control of white straight men with money and power).

Of course, much can be improved with the march—better organization, more intentional and complete inclusion, even more local marches, etc.

What’s really at stake here are bodies, the well-being of bodies, especially those more regularly marginalized and abused. I realize I carry a lot of privilege, my white male body is part of the group many of whose leaders continue to insist on the right to dominate all others. The fact that I am gay and older does not deny me the privilege that comes with my gender and my color, though in some moments those identities can reduce that privilege.

civil-disobedienceSo, what the Women’s March reminded me of is pretty basic: I need to put my body on the line more than I have been doing in the past few years. It’s time to put my body on the line with others whose bodies are already there.

Thus, I intend to show up for Black Lives Matter, abortion rights, trans siblings, immigrants, all of us affected by climate change and especially to push back against the denial of science, hungry children and families, homeless people, sex workers, Palestinians whose homes are destroyed and whose land is occupied too often by others, and certainly victims of abuse of many kinds, among others.

I hope you’ll join me. That’s how marching works. And wins.

 

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

Did you participate in a local march or action? Did you feel included or did you feel “othered” by those around you? What are your thoughts on protest in the coming weeks, months, and years? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

discoverpittsfield.com
discoverpittsfield.com

Join Us Third Thursdays!

Please join us THURSDAY, February 16th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components.  If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.

Workshop description:

Coming soon!

Recordings of the workshop presentations by Malachi and Robin are being made available periodically.

There’s Beauty in Every Body

Can we not see each body as yet another exposure of God’s endless and delightful diversity . . .

Malachi:

Malachi GrennellThis week, I have been challenged (in several different ways) to examine very public expressions of gender expectations (and, when those expectations are not met, the ridicule used to dehumanize another person). One such instance is the experience of Olympian Caster Semenya. The other, surprisingly, are the naked statues that appeared of Donald Trump.

First, Caster Semenya. For those who are unfamiliar with her, she is the

Photo credit: The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/aug/21/caster-semenya-wins-gold-but-faces-scrutiny#img-1
Photo credit: The Guardian
https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/aug/21/caster-semenya-wins-gold-but-faces-scrutiny#img-1

South African Olympic gold medalist for the women’s 800 meter. She has also faced fierce scrutiny for being “too masculine.” In 2009, she was subjected to “sex tests” to affirm that she was “truly a woman.” In 2011, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) passed a ruling restricting the amount of testosterone permissible in female athletes. Women with hyperandrogenism- the production of higher than average levels of testosterone- were either barred from competing or subjected to a series of medical interventions including hormone suppressants, hormone replacements, and genital surgery (more information here and here). In July of 2015, the court of arbitration for sport suspended the IAAF decision and gave them two years to prove how much advantage women with hyperandrogenism have over those who produce “average” levels of testosterone. No longer forced to be on hormone suppressants, Semenya ran the women’s 800 meter in 1 min, 55.28 sec- a personal best, a national best, and the fifth fastest  time in Olympic history.

Photo Credit: The Verge http://www.theverge.com/2016/8/18/12538672/nude-donald-trump-statues-union-square-los-angeles-indecline
Photo Credit: The Verge
http://www.theverge.com/2016/8/18/12538672/nude-donald-trump-statues-union-square-los-angeles-indecline

Also this week, the anarchist collective, INDECLINE placed five naked statues of Donald Trump in major cities across the United States. The statues, titled “The Emperor Has No Balls” depict an unflattering (but quite realistic) image of a nude Trump: large stomach, cellulose-filled buttocks, lines and wrinkles, and a tiny penis with no testicles. An aptly-named piece, I suppose. The comments to the piece range from comedic to cruel. The New York City Parks Department, for example, commented that the “NYC Parks stands firmly against any unpermitted erection in city parks, no matter how small.” (Sam Biederman, a parks spokeman). But outside of cheeky comments like that (which are problematic in their own right), there were also the comments that referred to the depiction of Trump as “grotesque,” “disgusting,” “nauseating.”

Here we have two cases of people who have been singled out in specific ways that relate to transgressions of gender standards and expectations. Now, certainly, it’s not as simple as that. If there was any doubt, I detest Donald Trump and his hateful rhetoric, his misogynistic comments, his racist ideology, his fear-mongering tactics, and his abhorrent ways of addressing those with whom he disagrees.  Donald Trump is a fairly disturbing political figure on many levels- but I do not hate his body. I do not hate the lines and wrinkles that come from aging. I do not hate the cellulose bumps and varicose veins that can come from not being model-thin. And I certainly do not hate the sight of a small penis- one that looks somewhat like mine- small, yet present, and lacking in testicles. No, I certainly do not hate that- but I do have strong feelings about the size of someone’s penis (or the presence/lack thereof of testicles) in some way referencing his masculinity.

And in the case of Caster Semenya, it’s certainly more complicated than

http://www.nbcolympics.com/sites/default/files/field_gallery_photos/29March2016/Simone-Biles_NUP_171788_3775.jpg
Simone Biles http://www.nbcolympics.com/sites/default/files/field_gallery_photos/29March2016/Simone-Biles_NUP_171788_3775.jpg

hormones. Simone Biles, the first woman of color to win an all-around title at the world championships, came under fire in 2013 from the 11th place finalist from Italy, who stated that “next time we should also paint our skin black, so then we could win too.” When trying to spin her comments, spokesperson David Ciaralli commented that “the Code of Points is opening chances for colored people (known to be more powerful) and penalizing the typical Eastern European elegance…” So the conversation about muscular women is not limited to Semenya; it’s pretty careful to include all athletic women of color in stating that “colored people” are “known to be more powerful.” So we see here that this is not simply a case of discomfort with women who have hyperandrogenism; simply an issue based on the assumption that black women are more muscular and therefore have an unfair advantage.

These two cases bring to light how strongly our culture is dominated by the expectations of gender and, furthermore, just how narrow those expectations are. Deviation from that (or, in the case of Trump, a depiction of deviation) is a source of mockery. Semenya isn’t “woman” enough to compete in women’s athletics. The insinuation is that Trump is not a “real man” through an artistic depiction- and his lack of manliness comes directly from his lack of testicles and the size of his penis.

To put it in another context: we do not say that large men should not play

http://www.clipartkid.com/images/74/football-player-clip-art-WsFyAN-clipart.gif
http://www.clipartkid.com/images/74/football-player-clip-art-WsFyAN-clipart.gif

football because it gives them an unfair advantage. We do not say that smaller-framed women should not be jockeys. Instead, we recognize that certain bodies are well-suited to certain activities (on a competitive level)- and furthermore, those “well-suited bodies” fall within our expectations of gender. Men who play football are large and muscular (as we expect men to be); female jockeys are small and petite (as we expect women to be). We only hear an uproar when someone transgresses gender expectations (e.g. women are too masculine; men are emasculated)- and use that transgression both as a source of mockery as well as an argument for why they are “unfit” for a particular activity.

Another piece of my week included a community discussion in the local kink community on consent, a conversation catalyzed by a prominent member of the community allegedly breeching someone’s consent. A comment was made in that discussion that I keep turning over in my mind. In discussing how we shift the culture of our community and make further strides in being consent-minded, one person mentioned that, in America, we tend to view friendships in terms of support and loyalty. And that’s fine, the person said, but we don’t simultaneously view our friendships in terms of criticism. Their point was that, as friends, our goal should not be to simply blindly support one another’s actions, but to hold one another accountable. The mark of a true friend is one who will tell you when you are right- but will also tell you when you are wrong. And that piece of it, the person said, is the part that we so often forget.

We must learn to tell one another when they are wrong. We must be willing to call one another out, in love and friendship, when their actions

http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-MSt3OAwlDKk/UpBCbz1dfYI/AAAAAAAAAJU/g5CQpoO5Vx0/s1600/tdor.png
http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-MSt3OAwlDKk/UpBCbz1dfYI/AAAAAAAAAJU/g5CQpoO5Vx0/s1600/tdor.png

are reinforcing concepts that are not congruent with justice, fairness, and equality. We must be willing to tell our friends, “Hey. This is an incredible athlete whose hormone production is, quite frankly, none of our business.” We must be willing to say, even in our distaste of Trump, “Hey. Body shaming someone is never ok. Let’s debate the issues and not sink to his level of demonizing someone for their appearance.”

We absolutely must learn to address these small issues- these microaggressions- that we see in the world around us. And those conversations are hard. We have a tendency to hear criticism as a character attack- perhaps because we are used to criticisms like those leveled at Semenya and Trump. But criticism is how we grow, how we come to understand and, through understanding, question the norms of the culture around us. I truly believe that friendship- and through friendship, community- and through community, culture- is stronger when we are not willing to allow this kind of “gender policing.” When we are not willing to allow “small” racist comments. When we are not willing to let others define masculinity and femininity for us.

Robin:

revrobin2-023I have little use for Donald Trump—he of blowing only his own horn, hurting others, telling lie after lie—but I object to one of the attacks on him.

You may have seen the image—I really don’t want to replicate it here, and Malachi has posted it above, once is enough—and I hope that when you did you were as unhappy as me. To put it simply—I am not a fan of shaming anyone for their body, even The Donald.

As a man of approximately his age, I am perhaps more sensitive than many readers here, not to mention his being pictured with a small penis that doesn’t look much different from mine. As readers of this blog may remember, I have been shamed about my own and, of course, Mr. Trump claims his is big.

Donald Trump pointing at Marco Rubio soshable com
soshable.com

He has every right to correct statements made about him, of course, but I do wish he had said, “Well, Senator Rubio, I don’t care about yours because I have no idea what the size of anyone’s penis, or lack thereof, has to do with being President. “  That would have shut down the demeaning debate and been a generous, and significant, contribution to undermining our society’s ways of body shaming—not to mention a corrective to his reputation for sexism and his history of insulting women (especially on their appearance).

As transgender people challenge the rigid gender binary, and as lesbian and gay people continue to challenge the formerly widely held views of what is real love and marriage and sexual  attraction, we are often confronted with opportunities to speak up for equality. To do that is vital.

But, equally vital is to speak up in situations that can be more subtle and more challenging, situations that often involve deeper attitudes towards bodies, indeed bodies which we may have been taught to view with some negativity.

older men at beach fabgreyfox com
fabgreyfox.com

Some gay men can be dismissive, often mean, about older men. I recently saw on a queer news site complaints that a proposed nude gym would be overrun by “men who are old and whose bodies hang everywhere except where we want them to hang” (that is very close, if not precisely, an exact quote).  And on the other end, other gay men make fun of young ones (“twinks”) and others make fun of older men who like twinks (men in their late teens and early 20’s who look very boyish) and vice versa.

Lesbians can have their own biases, depending on preferred body types and presentations, against “femmes” or “butches,” among other variables.

And cis gender women, of any sexual orientation, in the public eye are held to a nearly impossible standard.  They must appear very feminine while simultaneously conveying a toughness that is well . . . really tough . . . but not so tough that their femininity is in question. The situation of Hillary Clinton comes to mind.

Hillary Clinton angry puzzled nypost com
NYPost.com

The Olympics and other athletic competitions also raise issues about women’s bodies, and perhaps even men’s bodies, too. Some women, Caster Semenya of South Africa comes to mind, are viewed as too “masculine” to be women.

Commentators are sure a woman who runs as fast as she does cannot possibly be a woman. She must be a man, and they claim proof for that conclusion because she has the hormonal condition known as hyperandrogenism (a high level of testosterone which appears to create significant androgyny) which occurs in some women.  Pictures of this amazing athlete, running in the 800-meter race, seem pretty gender neutral by traditional standards. But then so do her excellent competitors. And pictures of her and her wife at their wedding ceremony don’t look different to me than pictures of some of the lesbian couples I have married.

Caster Semenya and Violet Raseboya wedding citizen co za
Caster Semenya (right) and Violet Raseboya on their wedding day citizen.co.za

Many men, like me, have hypogonadism (literally meaning small gonads, like those shown on the Donald Trump statue, especially if you receive testosterone replacement therapy). Are we now women? And what of male gymnasts and dancers—does their grace imply a certain femininity that means they are in the wrong bodies (despite being well-built and strong)? Do we have to check their genitalia or run hormone tests to be sure they are men?

White racism is about bodies, too, about judging which body shades and hair and eyes are good and which are in some way deficient or bad or ugly or dirty. Judgments among people of color about other people of color can operate like this, although given their relative, and shared, lack of social power it is not racism.

All this focus on bodies which, according to some at least, deviate from standards whose source we do not really know, so often boils down to body shaming. We must push back against it.

There is no body . . .  let me repeat that . . .no body (not just nobody but no . . . body) deserves to be shamed. Every body . . . again . . . every body is beautiful. [Note: the edit function in Word alerts me to the fact that I have a space between “every” and “body,” and should join the two words to make one word, everybody. I refuse in this case because I want to be sure the reader knows I mean every single. glorious, god-created and blessed body in the world.] No exceptions.

And that means that we, and I include myself in this, must learn to stop our mental judgments when an “obese” man or woman comes into view, or when we encounter a person with a skin condition that appears unpleasant or ugly to well-trained eyes (meaning conditioned to think that wrinkles or pockmarks in the skin or folds or blotches are signs of ugliness).

Aydian Dowling trans advocate lets-sexplian tumblr com
lets-sexplain.tumblr.com

Here also is one of the ways transphobia plays out. We simply do not know what to do with people who claim to be men but we wonder if they have penises or women who we think may have them—not to mention petite men and tall, big-boned women with deep voices. Before they can make the changes they wish (what used to be called “in transition”), and even after, trans people may indeed be, and feel like, victims. But we need to move, and let (and help) them move, from that location to a full-throated, heartfelt celebration of the selves they know they are.

We make victims out of people whether they are victims or not. Some people may have been victimized by maltreatment or exposure to diseases or injuries in war or on the job, but not one of them is ugly. Each remains beautiful. The same is true of people whose bodies simply do not meet the standards set by fashion and media or our ideas of what constitutes a particular gender.

Can we not see each body as yet another exposure of God’s endless and delightful diversity, whether in the body from their birth or a body they have chosen to change or one that has been changed by circumstances beyond their control?

I hope you agree with me that this is a significant piece of our work to change the world.

The way to help bring a world with such values into being is to speak up every time any one—not just Donald Trump speaking about Carly Fiorina or Megyn Kelly—says or writes anything that denigrates the body of another person, or suggests that based on their criteria and what they see, a particular person is in the wrong gender category and/or belongs in a category deserving of shunning or shaming or segregation, based on their body type, age, color, or other criteria irrelevant to their humanity.

This, of course, also means being comfortable in, and indeed celebrating, our own bodies. I am getting there, and I hope you are, too.

We can change the world, body by beautiful body.

 

 

 

 

 

People’s Lives Are At Stake

revrobin2-023Robin: This past Saturday, I facilitated a workshop with 14 people at Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, D.C. I had a great time, and they did, too, I think, focusing on the topic, “Sexuality and Spirituality: An Introduction.”

We learned, we shared, we laughed, some of us even cried—all in an atmosphere of openness where people talked about sex and spirit in a variety of ways. We agreed to convene again for more.

As the instigator of all this, and the designated teacher of the day (although most everyone in the room taught the rest of us something as the day unfolded), I came away floating with joy.

Then I came home and read newspapers from the previous few days, and realized how much of an anomaly this time had been.  And during Sunday morning worship, Rev. Cathy Alexander mentioned the workshop in glowing terms, and encouraged others to join the next one because, as she said, “It’s okay to talk about sex in church.” Her comment was met with silence (and this congregation is rarely silent).

The political climate in our country right now is not very open to talking candidly about sex, and certainly not to connect sex and spirit in positive ways. If you read the Republican platform adopted last week in Cleveland you realize that for that group, sex—other than heterosexual monogamous sex, presumably in the missionary positon—is wrong. Even evil.

And this attitude—including demanding a roll-back of legal same-sex

http://queerty-prodweb.s3.amazonaws.com/content/docs//2016/07/cleveland-craigslist-m4m.jpg
http://queerty-prodweb.s3.amazonaws.com/content/docs//2016/07/cleveland-craigslist-m4m.jpg

marriages—comes across clearly even as male escorts/sex workers in Cleveland report a marked upsurge in demand, and female ones a decline (see here for news report). The males reporting this trend among delegates indicated that most of the men were married, and appeared to be first-timers.

At the convention, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump drew cheers for speaking about a “dark time” in the United States, a time of economic, military, and social decline. At the same time, he appears unwilling to speak about sexual trends in this negative way—in some ways seeming to tell us what a great lover he is, not only with three wives but other women as well—even as many of his allies among more conservative Christian clergy and others are speaking about the horrors of addiction to pornography and masturbation. We don’t know how many of them were active with the men of Cleveland, but if history is any guide, at least some of these campaigners are leading double lives.

Neither that nor Trump’s reticence provide me any comfort, because I feel sure that if he needs to come down hard (pun initially unintended but as I thought about it more, it seemed apt) against sexual “sins” to keep his supporters happy, he will do so. And they will cheer.

We are in a difficult time. I fear that an agenda of openness to things like sex and sexuality, that society has for long tried to keep locked up, will result in harsh outcomes for many advocates for change, and, more importantly and alarmingly, a tightening of the social grip for control on everyone.

https://i.ytimg.com/vi/k1paQiWFhfo/maxresdefault.jpg
https://i.ytimg.com/vi/k1paQiWFhfo/maxresdefault.jpg

I want to believe that much of the pushback by Republicans and others is in response to gains made—not only the sea shift in marriage law, but also growing public acceptance of the change, not to mention the rapid rise of positive discussion of transgender people (not that real change in law and practice has kept up with this seeming shift), and a willingness in some circles to begin conversations about polyamory and other sexual practices far from what has been the mainstream. And I believe that is a big part of the cause.  Social gains by any group nearly always result in push back by others.

But this trend is linked to many other factors as well. Perceptions, and reality, of economic decline for industrial workers, and the belief (mostly incorrect) that their situation is driven by a flood of immigrants is a key piece: Thus, the cheers for building a wall and “sending them home.” We have many people who do not see gains by others in society as something to cheer about. Instead, they see conspiracies to deny them dignity and the living conditions they used to enjoy.

This includes those who are sure that African Americans are to blame,BLM_Letterhead getting “special privilege” through affirmative action policies and practices, while others of them simultaneously are breaking the law and getting shot or imprisoned as they deserve. These are the people for whom the Black Lives Matter movement feels like a threat, because they want to assert that their lives matter, indeed they say, “All Lives Matter,” as if those in BLM movement, and their supporters (like me), do not believe that, too.

And then there is the rise of a woman to be President—coming on top of two terms by a Black man. Many of these people, including it seems Donald Trump, do not believe he was ever or now is legitimately the President (illegitimacy, they might say, being rampant among African Americans), and now we have “that woman,” who needs to be locked up or hung. Whatever you may think of Hillary Clinton as a candidate or President, I trust you can admit that the language of the chants aimed at her at the Republican National Convention crossed the line of civil political discourse in our nation.

Mangus Hirschfeld
Mangus Hirschfeld

This is the environment in which many of us are attempting to broaden and deepen the discourse around sexuality. I begin to have glimmers about how Magnus Hirschfeld and others felt in the latter years of Weimar Germany as the Nazis and others rose to power (don’t know about Hirschfeld? Click here).

Before anyone thinks I am calling Trump a Nazi, or even a fascist, let me be clear. This is a lot bigger than one man, no matter what the size of his wannabe presidential penis. At the same time, I am interested in any evidence of insecurity by either Hitler or Mussolini about their respective male organs–it is clear to me that all share some basic insecurity.

Nor am I claiming that our modest project of seeking to change the church from sex-negative to sex-positive ranks, so far, anywhere close to all that Hirschfeld did.

But I am saying that the effort to open up our social system to the beauty and joy and sacredness of sexuality faces a daunting challenge, not only because for so long the church has kept it locked up in judgments of sin and ugliness but also in the face of rightwing efforts, often led and validated by religious leaders, to clamp down on any social change in the areas of sex, race, ethnicity, and gender/gender identity and expression.

That makes our work all the more necessary, no matter what they say. People’s lives are at stake.

Malachi GrennellMalachi: The political climate is terrifying.

On the heels of the Republican National Convention (RNC), many are confused as to how we got to where we are. I think many of us could not fathom the possibility that Donald Trump would become the presidential nominee for the Republican Party. Certainly not; someone will step in and knock it off, and we would all breathe a little easier, laughing at the absurdity of “President Trump.” And yet here we are.

Recently, NPR published an interesting article about the concept of “echo chambers” on our social media pages. The idea is that the internet has a learning algorithm that keeps track of what we engage with, what we click on, what we’re interested in, and then shows us media and advertisements based on our interests. The unfortunate byproduct of this algorithm is that our perspective and worldview is constantly reinforced to the point that many people believe that their perspective is the general population’s perspective.

What does any of this have to do with sexuality or bodies or spirituality?

Image of protesters at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland
Image of protesters at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland

Just this: we saw an explosion of advertisements during the RNC in Cleveland seeking male escorts for men. We saw an explosion of Craigslist ads during the RNC seeking discrete, one-night male hookups for men attending the RNC. (see here and here)

I wonder what the echo chambers for members and delegates of the RNC look like. I don’t have to wonder too hard; I can imagine fairly easily based on the (frankly, alarming) language used on primetime television at the convention. And from there, it is not a difficult leap to understand where this overwhelming desire for male sex came from.

The unfortunate truth is, we are surrounded by opinions that agree with us. We select friends that hold similar perspectives, and the internet selects media that is most likely to appeal to our values. How, then, do we facilitate a conversation about sex and sexuality in this climate? How do we facilitate open dialogue about sex and bodies and gender and things that are difficult and push us in such a polarized climate?

I am afraid of the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency. I am afraid for my family and my safety. But I am also afraid that the many, many steps we’ve taken to move forward as faith communities and people will be pushed back until we are further away from our goals than when we started. Although I certainly moan and groan about how far we yet have to

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http://wp.production.patheos.com/blogs/faithwithwisdom/files/2011/06/love-makes-a-family-t-shirts_design.png

come as a culture and society, the reality is

  • Sodomy is no longer illegal
  • Interracial marriage is no longer illegal
  • Same-sex marriage is no longer illegal
  • Women (although still facing extreme prejudices and difficulties) are more empowered than ever
  • Families are much more fluid and able to be defined in a myriad of ways
  • There is significantly more visibility for trans people to speak about unique issues facing us every day

The world we live in is far from perfect. But we are slowly coming to enjoy more and more freedoms and we grow stronger in our love and support of one another.

Under a Donald Trump presidency, I worry that our bodies will become criminalized. Not even necessarily for gender, but for not meeting the white standards of beauty that surround us. Women fired for being “too fat.” Women belittled for refusing sexual advances. I can’t imagine the fate of trans people under a Donald Trump presidency, but I guarantee it isn’t pretty (just look at his running mate!).

This is not a man who holds sex as sacred, but one who has been accused of rape on multiple occasions. How do we begin to have a conversation about the holiness, the sacredness, the equality of sex when we are discussing a man who treats sex as a weapon?

This isn’t just about Trump, but about the movement that has come out of

http://www.slate.com/content/dam/slate/blogs/behold/2014/05/3.jpg.CROP.cq5dam_web_1280_1280_jpeg.jpg
http://www.slate.com/content/dam/slate/blogs/behold/2014/05/3.jpg.CROP.cq5dam_web_1280_1280_jpeg.jpg

the woodwork. A movement that seeks to homogenize the United States to look, think, and act in the ways they do. This is not a movement welcoming diverse thoughts and experiences and ideas, but one that has a prescription for how to do things “the right way.” And in the midst of that, we see people unable to live their sexual selves authentically, seeking instead to quietly solicit gay men in an effort to get their sexual needs met without compromising their public values.

Please don’t get me wrong: I see absolutely nothing wrong with utilizing the services of sex workers and the sex industry. I do, however, recognize the hypocrisy in presenting the most anti-LGBT platform in the history it the party while behaving differently behind closed doors. I see hypocrisy when states passing the most oppressive anti-LGBT laws are also among the highest consumers of gay porn (see here and here). But more than hypocrisy, I see a movement that does not allow freedom of thought or diversity of expression.

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http://www.catholicismusa.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/SEXUAL-REV2.jpg

Those of us who believe in the power of sexual revolution must continue to speak. We must continue to share our truths and become radically committed to living our full, true, authentic selves. Because if there is not space for members of the Republican caucus to deviate from the platform, there will not be space for the rest of us- the non-monogamous people, the non-binary trans people, the kinky people, the progressive people, the people actively working to fight oppression in our communities.

We must speak, for our voices are the strongest tools we have. We must speak out loud, pray out loud, fuck out loud, live out loud our beliefs, get outside of our own echo chambers, and create help create the space for vastness of the image of God to be seen- not because we all project the same image, but because we express the immense diversity of God.

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

What do you think? How are you feeling about the political/social climate in the U.S. right now? What are some ways you respond to it to keep you from despair, and to help resist it? Please share your thoughts, your heart on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

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As we move forward in preparing the monthly online discussion, we want to ensure that this discussion is as accessible as possible. Please take a moment to provide us with some feedback on the best day and time for you to participate.

Is Sex Work?

Sexual freedom is an important component to being our authentic selves

by Robin Gorsline and Malachi Grennell

Introduction: Last week, Robin and Malachi each responded to the open-ended question, “What is sexual freedom?” This week, we are expanding on these ideas by exploring sex work in the context of sexual freedom. Discussing our thoughts, feelings, and relationships with this complex and emotionally charged idea, we find a lot of common ground in our conclusions, even though we are coming from somewhat different perspectives.

revrobin2-023Robin:

Writing about my own emerging sexual freedom last week led me to think about the forces outside ourselves that deny that freedom. Social pressures that create sex-negativities are often created and sustained by religious beliefs and practices. Christianity, strangely for a faith built on God’s human embodiment, has much to answer for in terms of body- and sex-negativity.

But it is not just the church that uses negative judgment to control, and even imprison, sexuality and sexual expression. The legal system codifies sex negativity through legal restrictions, especially by limiting sexual freedom through laws criminalizing some kinds of sex among consenting adults.

Of course, not all legal restrictions on sexual activity are based on sex-negativity. For example, the protection of minors from sexual abuse by adults (and by adults against other adults) is absolutely necessary, as are laws against sex slavery. Those who have no, or limited, ways to protect themselves need legal protection.

pump
http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/ephemera/29385/supporting-male-sex-workers

However, based on things some gay men have told me over the years, I also know that the prohibition against sex with a minor is not necessary in all cases. Over the years, I have heard numbers of men say that when they were under age they benefited greatly from sex with an older man (or older men). This was especially evident in earlier decades when same-sex activity was so hidden, and carried far more opprobrium than is true today.  The attentions of an older man, even an authority figure, helped them claim their own sexual power and needs, and these men are grateful. As we know others had different experiences.

decriminalize-sex-work
http://theorbital.co.uk/decriminalisation-sex-workers/

But what about the buying and selling of sex, usually called prostitution? Last September, in response to the raid on the Rent Boy headquarters in Manhattan  I wrote on another blog a piece supporting the decriminalization of sex work (see Sex Is Good. Why Is It Illegal?).  I wrote this from the relatively safe perspective of an older gay man who has never paid for sex, and known only a couple of sex workers.  As I look back on that post now, I realize I felt an unconscious twinge of envy and regret: I never had enough sense of my own freedom and worthiness as a sexual being to even consider using my body that way. Now I think I wish everyone could feel free enough to consider it if they wish.

The issue seemed clear to me then, but as Emily Bazelon wrote in the New York Times Magazine on May 8, this is an emotional issue, a real hot button these days especially among women—a serious, hard-edged debate between many feminists who want to free sex workers from the work by ending prostitution and, on the other side, female (and some male) sex workers who want to have their work respected and treated as legitimate employment.

Part of the emotion is class- and race-based, as it certainly reflects the deep and powerful effects of misogyny and patriarchy. The argument for decriminalization—this is not the same as making prostitution legal and regulating it—seems to be made largely by white women who make a good living selling sex by choice (white privilege and class origins are very much in play here). Others may feel differently, especially those (mostly women and girls) who are coerced through human trafficking and other criminal forces into selling their bodies for survival (theirs and often their children). These are so often women of color, in our own nation and from oppressed and war-torn places around the globe.

It is this latter group of (mostly) women worldwide that causes many feminists, including leaders such as Gloria Steinem, to participate in the Abolitionist Movement, vigorously calling for harsh penalties on men who buy sex in order, they claim, to bring prostitution to an end. The movement draws its name from the heroic anti-slavery movement of the 19th century. And given the proportion of women of color victimized globally, it may be an apt connection.

Yet is it the same? Surely, anyone who sells the sexual use of the body of someone else without

rentboy-splashpage
http://static.lgbtqnation.com/assets/2016/02/rentboy-splashpage.jpg

free participation by that body is a slaver. But what if the person has a choice about whether to allow their sexual services to be offered for sale? Is that still slavery? And if the person offers her or his own body, and the customer pays the agreed-upon price, is that slavery? If there is no force, is it slavery?

And further, will we ever be able to end sex for sale? Should we? If a woman or man needs to make money and realizes they have, in their own bodies, a commodity that others would want to touch  and be touched by, hold and be held by, lick or suck or penetrate or be licked or sucked and penetrated by, should we deny them the right to engage in such a transaction? No law on the books is broken if people do that without the exchange of money (unless one party is below the age of consent). We say they have the right to their own bodies and the use thereof (except for some religious groups who would say it is wrong outside legal marriage).

sexworker2
http://www.sexworkeurope.org/users/turnoffthebluelight

So, it would appear that it is the money that makes it wrong.  But I knew a woman who helped herself pay for college through sex work. I have lost track of her, but she said it was actually often pleasurable and that she probably would continue after college (at least until she had enough years in her vocational field to be making better money). And I know a man who supplements income from office work by giving erotic massages that can include sexual acts—in order to help support his aging mother and extended family.

They appear to enjoy the work. I read others who feel the same way. A good place to see all sides of sex work is a blog called Tits and Sass.

Sex is a very powerful instrument of power, both to raise up our own power and potentially that of others, and at the same time a way to hold down others.  Prostitution seems to have deep roots in the patriarchal control of women in general and women’s bodies in particular. Every woman was (is) assumed to belong to some man and that man gets to determine what she does with her body and with whom. Pimps act this way, of course, but patriarchy begins with fathers and husbands who make claims on women beginning at birth and continuing throughout life. This patriarchal attitude also affects how some men regard and treat young boys  who live on the street after being kicked out of their homes for being gay.

“Speak up for all who cannot speak for themselves for the rights of all who are destitute.” Provberbs 3:18, from http://www.cre8tivegroup.com/clients/threedom

So, I hope we all agree that has to change, radically. Some change has been happening of course, thanks to the work of feminism and some allies among men, too. But so much more needs to be done. Decriminalization helps us get the focus off sex—letting consensual sex with or without money exist without penalty—and can, I think, help us focus on the real issue, namely the control of women and their bodies by men (and even other women in some cases).  Instead of penalizing people who choose to make their living through sex, we can prosecute the slave traders and pimps and criminal syndicates that violate women. Of course, this will also require that we work to eradicate social and economic conditions that often drive women into working in these ugly and demeaning conditions.

For millennia, women who stray from this system of control, especially as it has been exercised through sex, have been shamed, called fallen women, sluts, prostitutes, etc. Shame is a very powerful emotion so often connected with sex.

The effort by some women to say “No” to that shame is, for me, an example of sexual freedom. We need more women making such claims, not only about sexual activity but also dress codes and religious roles, not to mention fighting glass ceilings, etc. We, especially men with various kinds of privilege, need to help women all over feel empowered to make their own choices, just as we need all of us fighting the exploitation of all people, women, men, children, through distortions of sex that become abusive, enslaving, violent and violative.

One thing Malachi and I are committed to do is to help people talk about sex, in order to value it as a central element of our humanity, a means of holy conversation through our bodies (and not limited to our genitals).  I see sex workers as allies in this work. And I pray that together we—more than the two of us, and more than all the sex workers, indeed a growing number of caring people—can end sexual tyranny and usher in a new era of sexual joy, freedom and peace.

Malachi GrennellMalachi:

Sex work is one of those topics that I could talk about for a very long time and still barely scratch the surface of my feelings. It’s something of a complicated relationship that starts, like many parts of my sexual journey, with Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg.

I’ve written in other places about my relationship with this particular book, but Feinberg’s novel was the starting point of so much of my sexuality that it keeps coming up in these discussions. The portrayal of sex workers in that novel shaped a perspective that is different from the mainstream narrative (sex workers are all drug addicts, desperate for money, desperate in general, not given the freedom to make their own decisions, cheap and/or untrustworthy people, women that need to be saved, etc.). In fact, any generalizations I had about sex workers were completely different: I believed that they were strong, powerful people, balancing authentic relationships against the illusion of intimacy, fierce, independent, no-nonsense people who were able to work with or without their clothes on which, like the main character of the novel, awed me at the time.

Of course, I have since learned to stop making generalizations about any group- or, at least, be aware of what generalizations I am making. But my bias has always slanted in favor of sex workers, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that many of my friends and lovers have been involved in sex work, and it’s something that I have contemplated for many years. The truth is, although I wouldn’t consider myself a sex worker, the second cisgendered man I had sex with was someone that I was paid to have sex with, and it is recorded on film- I was paid to shoot porn. At that point in IMG_0631my life, I was considering whether I felt like I could work as female (although I had been on testosterone for several years and “passed” as male most of the time) and whether or not I could work on camera. That particular situation was unhealthy for me and I chose not to pursue it beyond that one time, but every so often, I consider whether I would be interested in working either as a professional dominant or an escort- not on camera, and not as strictly male or female, but as “myself” (at least, with respect to my gender). As a transgender person, that can be a little more complicated, and between being such a niche market and navigating legality, I haven’t pursued either of those avenues at this time…which isn’t to say that I won’t someday.

The legality issues of sex work are incredibly complicated and frustrating. Legalization ends up being almost as bad as criminalization because it creates particular parameters (read: boxes) around the concepts of “appropriate sexuality,” creating further definitions of what constitutes “real sex” and what doesn’t, and further dividing “normal sex” from alternate sexual expressions (e.g. fetishes). Personally, I support decriminalization, which would cease to make sex work illegal; however, I do not think that legalization (creating new legislation for government regulation and control of the industry) would be as beneficial.

Sex-Work-Is-Not-Trafficking
http://wwav-no.org/news-reports-continue-to-incorrectly-link-increased-sex-trafficking-to-large-new-orleans-events

In this, please let me be clear: assault is still assault, rape is still rape (and not “theft of goods” as stated by Judge Teresa Carr Deni in 2007 or Columnist Mary Mitchell in 2015). Similarly, sex trafficking (buying and selling people- particularly young women and girls- as sexual objects) is an abhorrent practice, and I am absolutely against trafficking, and think that assault and/or rape should be reported and prosecuted- but, of course, the statistics on rape cases that get reported, prosecuted, and lead to an eventual conviction are terrifying and show that, quite clearly, rape and sexual assault is already not well-handled. But let’s focus our energy and resources toward ending abuse, rather than criminalizing what consenting adults do between the sheets (whether or not there is money involved).

The truth is, there are people who are sex workers who are drug addicts. There are people who are desperate for money and are offered an opportunity to do something that is outside of their comfort zone but, out of desperation, do it anyway. There are people who are working under pimps and don’t want to be in the life anymore but don’t see a way out. Those are real, true, honest narratives that can’t be ignored. But there is also a narrative of claiming sexuality through sex work- a narrative of choosing to engage in sex work out of desire, rather than desperation. That is an authentic narrative too, but it’s one that makes us uncomfortable. We want to see sex workers as either morally bankrupt or hapless victims looking to be rescued. Why does it make us so uncomfortable that some people might choose to engage in sex work without being forced, coerced, or just inherently “bad” people?

Among many reasons, I believe that it holds up a mirror, in some respects, for many of us. It’s a brazen claiming of sexuality. It is a defiant refusal to

sex work is real work
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/290341507196812575/

buy into these ideas that we should be ashamed of our sexuality, that it should be a secret, that we shouldn’t want what we want. I don’t believe that everyone should be a sex worker- but I do think that those who are more comfortable with their sexuality, who actively work to feel confident and authentic in their sexual identities often don’t have the same visceral response to sex workers as those who have not done some of that work. It reminds me a lot of faith- those who are fairly secure in their faith tend to not need the same types of external affirmations that those who are not as secure (and have nowhere to go with the questions). When we know who we are- truly know our authentic selves, and work to reflect that image externally- I think we become a lot less concerned about what everyone else is doing and are able to simply move on with our lives.

Sex workers are not necessarily more “sexually free” than anyone else. I would argue that there is a certain freedom in wanting to engage in sex work and having the capacity to be engaged in ways that feel safe and healthy because our choices are limited by our opportunities. Last week, I stated that I think that “freedom is an understanding of the choices available, and the ability to have informed consent in what choices (and, for some, what limitations) we put on our sexual relationships.” I think this is absolutely applicable when discussing sex work: when someone is not able to give informed consent, or when someone doesn’t understand the choices available to them and is therefore forced or coerced into sex work, that is not freedom. But if someone is able to make the decision to go into sex work fully informed and consenting, then they should be free to do so, free from judgement or conviction of others.

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http://g01.a.alicdn.com/kf/HTB1GsE.KpXXXXXhXXXXq6xXFXXXT/2032173686.jpg

Conviction and legality is something concrete that we can do something about. Judgement is harder. In a world that fears, disdains, and undermines women’s sexuality, sex work is a reflection of the misogyny and patriarchal beliefs of this culture. “Hung like a porn star” is a testament to a man’s penis size and, as we’ve discussed elsewhere, penis size = importance. But most women do not talk about “tits like a porn star”… in fact, when someone’s breast size is compared to a porn star’s, it’s usually an insinuation that the woman has had implants (in this case, bigger = fake). This is one of many example of how we, as a society, continue to perpetuate these double standards, holding up men’s bodies and sexuality as a measure of importance while women are “asking” to be sexualized if they looked a certain way.

Sexual freedom can be a powerful force, and it’s important to remember that we are bound by much more than institutional laws- we are bound by social customs, expectations, and mass media that continue to feed ideas that are, at their core, oppressive and toxic concepts.  Sexual freedom is an important component to being our authentic selves… and as we become more comfortable with ourselves, we may find that we have less need to judge the lives of others.

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

What do you think? What are your thoughts on (or relationship with) sex work? Please share below (or at the individual sites for Malachi’s and Robin’s personal stories), or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed.

Puzzle Pieces of God: Examining Gendered Socialization

By Malachi Grennell

Last week, Rev. Robin and I wrote a bit about the “bathroom bill” controversy and our personal relationships with public bathrooms. This week, Robin is taking some well-deserved time with family, so I wanted to continue in the discussion of our relationships with our bodies by broadening out a bit and talking about social messaging.

As a trans person, my relationship with my body is something I have cultivated- and that hasn’t always been an easy journey. Social expectations tell me that I have to look, act, and speak in a certain way to be perceived as male while ingrained lessons and female socialization fight against those behaviors (since they often feel contradictory), and sometimes, I feel stuck: stuck in a binary system, stuck with a mismatched conglomeration of pieces that don’t fit together. When I think about my relationship with my body, it feels a little like I’m trying to put together a puzzle, but there’s no guiding image and

puzzle
http://www.giovanioltrelasm.it/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/puzzle.jpg

someone mixed up all the pieces from a bunch of different puzzles, so I’m not always sure which pieces I need and which are extraneous (or, perhaps, belong to someone else’s image).

The reality is, though, that every single one of us has to work to cultivate some kind of relationship with our bodies, and our social experiences are a part of that relationship. We have a plethora of messages about what women “should” do (e.g. shave body hair, have a trim waistline, grow hair long, wear makeup, etc.) as well as what men “should” do (e.g. have a certain penis size, build muscle, always be rational and logical without showing too much emotion, make the first move, be attracted to women). Some of these expectations are impossible due to genetic factors, while others are personal preferences. Regardless, though, creating the “perfect man” and “perfect woman” archetype is dangerous and damaging on many levels, not the least of which perpetrates systematic oppression through racism (the ideal body is a white one, based on white standards); sexism (women’s strengths are considered the inferior of a binary dichotomy: emotion is less valuable than reason, and women are assumed emotional while men are assumed rational); classism (those who can afford surgeries, expensive makeup, laser hair removal, etc. vs those who are “stuck” with the body they have); the list goes on.

I think it’s good to cultivate a relationship with your body that is healthy and positive, and if doing things like going to the gym or shaving your legs helps with that, then awesome! The difference is whether we do things because we think we are supposed to or whether we do things because we legitimately like doing them. Furthermore, are we perpetuating systematic violence and oppression with our expression of our bodies or simply striving to be the best “us” we can be, one that is created in the image of God?

tumblr_mpkp6i9Bl11r6u05ro1_1280
http://arthlete.tumblr.com/image/54834994929

The difference is in our intention and how we allow social conditioning to impact our decisions. When we think about our ideal body, is it a reasonable expectation of goals for the bodies we have? Or is it an unrealistic desire to look like the models in the magazines? The role of social conditioning on gendered expectations is powerful and pervasive and it can be difficult to untangle. The expectations of gendered socialization extend beyond our physical relationships with our bodies, but also focus on emotional and psychological components as well. And for most of us, our expectations are not limited to simply how we believe we should and shouldn’t behave, but extend to include how others should behave and further, assign motive to those behaviors.

Recently, I had an interesting experience. A few weeks ago, a lover came to visit and stay with us for a few days. It’s a somewhat complicated relationship, but he is someone that is a bit notorious for his sexual escapades in some circles, and would probably be referred to as “player” by many people. Overall, we had a good time, but at one point, I noticed that he didn’t seem particularly interested in having sex. I started to feel irritable and resentful and couldn’t figure out what was going on, and suddenly realized- I was feeling rejected. But further than that, I started to feel undesirable in general- and realized that I was assigning motive, intention, and judgement to the situation that didn’t need to be there.

rejection
http://www.reclaming.net/

I interpreted his lack of desire to be sexual as a rejection of me in general: because this one person wasn’t interested in having sex in this one moment, it meant that I was (in general) undesirable-a feeling that was exacerbated by the fact that he is such a player. If he doesn’t want me, then clearly I am not desirable. It was an interesting situation because it reminded me that, as someone who was raised as female, I was very much inundated with messages that my worth as a person directly corresponded to other people (specifically, men’s) evaluation of my sexual desirability.

The truth of the matter was, my friend was actually tired and starting to get a little sick, and felt comfortable enough to not feel a pressure to perform. But my reaction and response reminded me how much my socialization and upbringing still impacts me- even as someone who has worked through a lot of their baggage around gender and gendered assumptions. I thought I had overcome many of these ideas, but was an important reminder to me that this is constant work that needs to be revisited from time to time because those messages are still out there. Even if I don’t identify as female, I am tuned to hear those messages because they were targeted at me for so long.

Similarly, when I was working toward my undergraduate degree in traditional mathematics, I began to notice less and less women in my traditional mathematics courses- but plenty of women in the courses where math students overlapped with the teaching program. In short, many of the women in the mathematics program were training to be teachers- which is wonderful, except that, by my final semester, there was only one woman who remained in the upper-level math courses (she

how_it_works
https://xkcd.com/385/

and I quickly bonded and are still good friends). One of the things we talked about is the difference between men and women answering questions in class: men tend to have less fear of being wrong, whereas women tend to want to be absolutely sure and worry about “saying something stupid.” She and I often had similar fears about speaking up in class. Yet, for me, most people read and identified me as male and expected me to act according to masculine socialization, yet my brain was still operating from a place of female upbringing and socialization about “being wrong” in a math class. This discrepancy between how people expected me to act and how I was conditioned to act created some awkward social moments and made it difficult to connect to the some of the men in the math department… which was tricky because most of the students in the math department were men. It’s a form of social isolation that is subtle and difficult to identify, but it can impact our capacity to form relationships and make social bonds when we act outside of the social expectations of our perceived gender.

The goal, of course, should be to understand the social nuances of how gender presents itself and decide what fits and what doesn’t. The reality, of course, is much more complicated than that. The messages we get about how men and women “should” behave (never mind gender non-conforming folks, like myself) have lasting, and often damaging, impacts on how we relate to ourselves, our bodies, and other people…and these message can be so subtle, we don’t often notice them consciously.

We are all created in the image of God. To deem ourselves not worthy, less-than, or inferior is to claim that God is all of these things as well. We must combat the messages of how we believe men and women “should” behave. These archetypes not only create impossible standards that can be damaging for those who can’t attain them, but they are also rooted in systematic oppression- those who don’t fit a white, heterosexual, cisgendered narrative (and behave and present accordingly) become “othered” and pressured to compensate.

We are all pieces of a larger puzzle, reflecting the image of God. We’re not necessarily working off a guiding image, and sometimes it can be easier to want to be a different piece: a different shape, a different color, fitting into a different pattern. But without each of us living our authentic selves, being our authentic selves, the image is incomplete. No one piece is more important than another piece. In order to be able to see the image of God, we must first be able to truly see the beauty in the image of ourselves. Should we strive to be the best version of ourselves that we can be? Of course. But the best “us” that we can be is to reach for and honor the image of God within ourselves, rather than constantly trying to compensate for failing to be the image of God presented in someone else.