Hey folks! Sorry this blog’s been a bit barren this week — I’ve got several very exciting projects in the works that have been keeping me extremely busy (not to mention I moved across the country this weekend). So, to hold you over until I’m able to return to full blogging form, I dug up this entry from my stint as a columnist for The New Gay. It’s one of my favorites and I decided to share it because one comment I got from a reader here asked for more personal stories. Since I laud storytelling frequently on this blog, I want to put my money where my mouth is. Without further ado:

god hates fags“Fags! Repent!”

Oh great – those words. Turning to meet them, I rolled my eyes as those funny, short words echoed and bounced toward me over hot summer-baked pavement. The words were intended to hurt but the insult fell flat. “I’ve heard much worse, and much more creative, fuckers,” I thought with a self-satisfied smile of superiority.

Still, I couldn’t ignore them. My friends and I were in someone’s crosshairs, singled out as needing salvation. What had started as a normal night migrating from bar to bar in search of new friends and hot beats had quickly become something of consequence. With just two words, a divide was drawn between these strangers and my cohort as cloudy and seemingly impassable as the Guinness I had just gulped.

Did this really have to happen now? I was newly 21, looking to have fun, a few drinks in and feeling a bit defensive. I wasn’t sure I was really in the mood to navigate this assault gracefully.

The battle cry had seemed to manifest out of the ether. My friends and I were between bars, enjoying our evening and ready for some spirit-ed dancing. We are not exactly a motley crew – sure, a good number of us are marked by tattoos, lightly adorned with piercings, regularly extinguishing cigarettes, and dressed in clothing that might raise a few Sunday morning eyebrows, but we are an amicable bunch and my feeling is that we do not alienate others in spite of our appearances. Yet as we approached a queer bar one humid August night and prepared to pop, lock and drop it we were confronted by several men with Bibles in hand, accusing us of maintaining an “alternative lifestyle” – a phrase that always makes me smirk, as if there were such a thing as a uniform lifestyle when you cut to the bone of things – and offered our “offensive” appearance as evidence of this.

My friends were clearly caught off guard – after all, we were just there to party – and responded in self-defense, though in all fairness I thought that some of what they had to say was not in the best taste. Slightly embarrassed, I thought to myself: “Well, politeness is not readily facilitated by beer and not easy when one feels ambushed.”

Sensing escalation, I suggested my friends move inside, recognizing that the conversation was quickly becoming aggressively didactic, not thoughtfully dialogical. They were happy to oblige – they had come to dance, not debate. A friend whispered in my ear as he passed by, “are you going to be okay?”

Though I’d had a lot of experience speaking with folks who disagreed with me, I suddenly wasn’t sure. I felt compelled to pursue a conversation with these individuals; perhaps because of a recent attempt that had gone terribly awry, or maybe just as a part of who I am. Either way, I sensed that they desired dialogue, so I went for it.

Our conversation began with a reading from the Bible, not intended to open dialogue with a graceful spirit but as a blatant attempt to proselytize. I thanked them for sharing their holy book with me, and asked if they would like to explain to me why they had chosen to spend their Friday evening on this particular street corner. They informed me that they had recently given their lives over to Jesus Christ and had been commissioned by their minister to recruit other believers. They had heard that this part of Chicago was “heavily populated by homosexuals” – you know, flooded with queers – and decided to come spread their message of reformation and repentance to a community that they believed was in need of it.

After hearing them out, I asked if I might be allowed to share my story with them. To my surprise, they nodded affirmatively. I told them of my years as a Christian and how immensely powerful they were for me – the love that I experienced, the joy I found in communion with other believers, and the inspiration Jesus Christ provided me. But there was a darker side to those years: my struggles with recognizing my sexual orientation and wrestling to reconcile it with the teachings of the tradition, the shame I felt over who I was, and the weight of what felt like living a double life. This was a very difficult time for me, and I shared with them every embarrassing, difficult detail.

When I was finished, I noticed that a quiet had overtaken the group. Finally, one member spoke up. With a gruff tone and eyes fixed down, he thanked me for sharing my story with him, saying that he had never actually known a “homosexual.” He hadn’t thought what it might be like to experience intolerance for being queer, comparing it to the xenophobia and racism he had known as a Mexican-American immigrant.

We engaged in open discourse for the next few hours with candor and respect, discussing discrimination and dancing and difference, beer and bigotry and basketball, religion and rap music and respect, fags and forgiveness and frijoles. Though we all remained fixed in our convictions, we came to understand one another as fuller human beings, not caricatures of our sexualities or religious identities.

Not all conversations go as well as this one – as I alluded to earlier, another summer night just one month prior to this incident, a friend and I found ourselves suddenly surrounded in a subway tunnel. We had been talking at length and not paying close attention to our surroundings, something my mother always warned me about, when we lifted our heads to see that we were encircled by a group of men who accused us of sin and sickness. Though I attempted peace-making and dialogue, the incident ended in violence.

I’ll never forget the night I was attacked on the Chicago Red Line; though I’d like to believe open dialogue can always overcome problematic conversations, I know that this is not true. As much as I’d like to believe otherwise, I have learned that there are times where personal safety is a higher priority than respectful engagement.

Yet I will also always remember my night outside a gay bar, sharing stories as bass-heavy music floated right on by me, carried away on a cool summer night’s breeze, my friends dancing just inside to a song I’d never know – I enraptured by music much sweeter in the form of dialogue despite difference with new friends who were supposed to be enemies.

Hey missionaries of the world – get at me. I’ve been burned a time or two, but I’m still your fag.

This post originally appeared on The New Gay.

Advertisements

Four hours in and I was ready to get up and walk out. I couldn’t help but ask aloud with a laugh: “Why do I do this to myself?”

tatooIt was a balmy June night in Chicago a little over a week ago. I was flat on my back on the second floor of a beautifully renovated West Side house flourished by heavy drapes, portraits of dogs, and surfaces populated by countless unidentifiable trinkets. At the time all of these details were lost on me. I was preoccupied, staring at the ceiling drenched in sweat, dehydrated and delirious. I had been doing pretty well until this point — as someone who hates the actual process of being tattooed, I was surprised by how calm I’d been. But now my tolerance was wearing thin and I was beginning to squirm. Crouching over me, a woman I had met mere hours before was working up a dedicated sweat of her own, pressing ink into me and rubbing vaseline over my increasingly tender skin. As Serena went over lines she had already tattooed near my elbow for a second time, I squeezed my eyes tight and bit my lower lip. Ouch, I thought. This really, really hurts. Why exactly was I doing this anyway?

This, my sixth tattoo, is the largest one yet, stretching nearly the full outer expanse of my gangly right arm. Winding around two already existing tattoos is now a fig tree. The fruits of the tree contain symbols from a select number of world religions; the Sikh khanda, the Muslim crescent moon and star, the Christian cross, the Jewish star of David, and several others. Four and a half hours of pain is a lot to endure and, as the idiom goes, ink is forever. Getting a tattoo is a significant commitment to be sure. And so the question looms: why would an avowed secularist undergo hours of sharp and repeated needling to permanently alter his appearance with an arm full of religious symbols?

I have mixed feelings on “explaining” tattoos, particularly in writing. Part of me enjoys that they can be ambiguous; another likes to maintain them as an invitation for investigation. When someone approaches me to ask what my tattoos mean, it is an entree for dialogue. But though I hesitate to extrapolate, I’d like to take this opportunity to try to answer the aforementioned “why.”

A number of years ago I was deeply impacted by Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar.” In it there is a moment where the protagonist envisions herself perched in the split of a sizable fig tree, frozen by indecision; as someone who has struggled with making important choices, this sentiment resoundingly resonated. Below is said selection from the novel:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

new tattooI think this quote ably encapsulates the challenge of grappling with the age-old recognition that, to some degree, “every choice is a renunciation.” After ceding my exclusivistic Christian identity, I felt for a time that I had to select an alternate religion in its place in order to move forward in my search for “truth.” As I wrote in a column for The New Gay, I thought that “choosing to follow one spiritual path meant that I had to forsake every other.” Feeling trapped by the limitations of choice, I eventually chose none of them.

I stand by that decision today and remain steadfast in my assertion that there is (probably) no God. But my thinking on religion has evolved significantly since then. I may have selected my particular identity — Secular Humanist — but I advocate for respectful secular-religious engagement because I now understand that cutting myself off from the insights provided by the world’s numerous faith traditions is fundamentally limiting. And it is, ultimately, an impossibility for the engaged global citizen: if I am to know others in a way that takes seriously their desires and commitments, I must know the history that precedes them. Likewise, I must acknowledge my own. I am where I am today because I have grappled with the world’s wisdom traditions and the people that embody them — and I continue to.

speaking

Speaking at the Leadership Conference with fresh ink (photo courtesy of CFI / Ed Beck).

Four days after getting this tattoo I spoke at the Center for Inquiry Leadership Conference in Buffalo, New York. An attendee noticed the still dark, now scabbing piece of work and, pointing to the star of David, asked: “Are you Jewish?” I laughed and wondered to myself why it is that we assume that one who seriously entertains the stories and mores of a religious tradition must themselves be an adherent. It was a knowing laugh because I’ve maintained the same belief myself, and because it is inherent to the ideological shift I hope to facilitate. This new tattoo is a visual reminder of my aim for my secular community: that we find a way to respect and engage religion while maintaing our own identity. I have on many occasions acted as a public ambassador between these seemingly disparate communities (religious and secular) on behalf of the other. It is a position I stumbled into, but I’ve embraced it. To me this tattoo is a stake in the ground, a permanent nod to the public and personal gravity of this work. I hope people will continue to ask about the tattoo and that dialogue will, you know, blossom from it. (Get it? Because it’s a fig tree? Okay, moving on.) “Why [did] I do this to myself?” For the same reason I challenge secular communities to rethink the way they approach religion: Intentions matter. Commitments matter.

The decision to get a tattoo is an intimidating commitment, but it becomes easier each time I do it. As I’ve continued to develop in my approach to religion, I have found myself more and more able to make such sizable commitments in other contexts. We all bear the mark of the history the precedes us — I just made this mark literal.

I credit my history of engaging religion with equipping me to navigate the difficult choices of life; and like the religions I have encountered, this ink will always be a part of me. It is a visceral reminder that, when it comes to religion, I am now and forever — if you will — armed to engage.

(And Mom, if you’re reading this — and I’m assuming you are — yes, I got another tattoo. I’m sorry. I love you. From now on, for every new tattoo I get, you’ll get a grandchild. Deal?)

It’s been a long minute since I’ve done one of these, so I’m bringing it back. Below, some recent highlights (and lowlights) relevant to secularism, interfaith and religion:

psych todayWill Atheism replace religion? That’s the claim made by Nigel Barber over at Psychology Today. What do you think? His points are well made, but I don’t agree with all of them. Religion meets some fundamental needs and is continuing to adapt to contemporary context, as it always has. His portrayal of religion as “[requiring] slavish conformity to unscientific beliefs” does not accurately represent the way that religion functions today. That aside, a myriad of psychological studies demonstrate that religion has become an integral component to individual and communal identification for many (as I learned in my second Psychology of Religion course this last semester) and is unlikely to go away anytime soon. Ultimately, the relationship between religion and psychological wish fulfillment is a bit more complex than this article would like to make it seem. As a starting point for a more well-balanced counter-argument, check out this brief introductory piece on ways in which religion is psychologically beneficial.

Everybody’s Talkin’ ’bout Chalkin’ as the “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” (EDMD) debate continues. After my blog post on the campaign a couple weeks ago, I’ve been working closely with the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) on how secular folks who penaren’t interested in engaging in this campaign can best respond in light of the awful vitriol it has inspired on the internet. The Young Turks took on IFYC’s Eboo Patel’s post that went up on the Huffington Post, Sojourners and the Washington Post (in which my blog post on the controversy was given a nod). The critiques they make of Eboo’s blog can essentially be boiled down to: “You’re offended? Get over it.” I find this operating position, which I identified as a common problem in our community in my initial post on EDMD, to be arrogant and demonstrative of a lack of personal responsibility. Additionally, The Young Turks raise the comparison of EDMD to drawing offensive images of African Americans and say that it isn’t an appropriate parallel because Blacks have faced a history of violence and subjugation in this country. But this point collapses in on itself precisely because Muslims are a minority group in America that is a frequent target of oppression. This is an important point to remember as we consider this issue. Our free speech does not occur in a vacuum; in fact, activities such as EDMD are innately and intentionally public. It is our responsibility to acknowledge context and weigh our actions in light of it. I have so much more I could say on this subject, but since I already said my peace, I’ll stop here — for now. For more information on this issue, check out IFYC’s resource (which I helped write and which borrows its title from my blog post).

The rest: First off, I can’t recommend enough a piece up over at the New Republic called “Another Kind of Atheism”  by Damon Linker. Read it and let me know what you think. After that, I’m happy to report that Bill Maher got schooled on his miss usaantagonistic Atheism — I’ll try to hide my grin. Secular Student Alliance intern Nate Mauger got interviewed by Bridge Builders about the guest piece he wrote for us on interfaith cooperation. I “interviewed” homosexuality and the Bible documentary Fish Out of Water director Ky Dickens for The New Gay (part 1 went up last week, part two goes up next). On less exciting fronts, tensions are high in France as they prepare to ban the Burka. In spite of what a good story it would make, the majority of mainstream media ignored the fact that the man who stopped the Times Square bomber is himself a Muslim. The political Right is up in arms over Muslim Miss USA Rima Fikah. And, finally, the angry robocallers struck again last Wednesday with three calls in one night. I’m still no closer to finding out who they are and feeling more and more like I have a stalker — especially since they called me back right after I tweeted about them saying they read my tweet. So I blocked the number. What now, robocallers?

Today’s guest post, a response to NonProphet Status’ final report on the 2010 American Atheist Convention, comes from Andrew Fogle, a D.C.-based cultural, social, and sexual interloper presently studying philosophy and religion at American University. He is a regular columnist for the alternative queer blog The New Gay, and can be reached at andrewf@thenewgay.net

andrewThe by-now infamous conclusion of Edwin Kagin’s 2010 AAC address on blasphemy elicited more than a few interesting responses from more than a few interesting people. Chris Stedman, seated in the audience, fought a pitched internal moral battle before deciding to do the virtuously pluralist thing and hear out a perspective he didn’t agree with, however distastefully it was presented (whether or not this makes for “cowardice” seems to depend on what value a person places on sincere efforts of mutual understanding over and above the recorded sound of his or her own voice.) Sayira Khokar was nearly brought to tears by the footage posted on skepticsresource.com, recounting in her guest piece the disquieting resonance between her memories of post-9/11 Islamophobia and the behavior of the guffawing, self-satisifed (and – did anyone else notice this? – almost exclusively white) crowd gathered for the occasion of North America’s premier atheist conference.

On seeing the YouTube video of Burkagate, I had another reaction:

“Mary, Please,” I said to myself, borrowing a phrase from the famed word-hoard of my people. “I’ve seen 300 pound Latino men in Diana Ross costumes pull off more convincing altos than these girls.”

Much (and maybe too much) virtual ink has been spilled over the “Back in Their Burkas Again” fiasco, a performance which in its comedic subtlety and technical execution seemed closer to an unorthodox PTA holiday program than an SNL skit. To the thoughtful charges already explored on this blog I would add – probably unexpectedly – one more: the American Atheist Convention is guilty of sponsoring bad theological drag. Terrible theological drag. The kind of poorly-conceived, overblown ecclesiastical cross-dressing that would be booed off the stage at any respected queer cabaret on the East Coast (more welcome would be the queen who called herself “Pope RuPaul II.”)

A religious or secular commitment – like a job, a gender, an ethnicity, or a sexual orientation – isn’t a part of us in the same inert and self-contained way that, say, hardness and grayness are part of a rock, or bad cover design and overpricedness are part of a Christopher Hitchens book. We aren’t the kind of beings who simply “are”: free consciousness means that we have to “play at” the roles we assume, however natural or objective they might seem. This “play” is rarely light-hearted, to be sure – the soldier at war is doing something importantly different from the little boy having fun with Cowboys and Indians, and the work of trying to build and hold on to a sense of self that is always doomed to fail is the most frustrating, burdensome, humiliating, and for all of that, important things that human beings get up to.

Recognizing this fact, and being able to laugh at ourselves because of it, is an important part of staving off insanity for modern people. Gay people have always been good at recognizing this, because we’ve always been especially modern and especially close to insanity. Drag as a cultural institution is the highest expression of this sensibility: a gritty, sassy, localized art form that suspends and subverts the categories and hierarchies that less interesting, more powerful people use to keep us (and others) down. For hours on weekend nights, on gin-and-sweat-streaked stages in every city in this country, the systems of class, race, gender, and sexuality that keep American injustice humming are dissolved in nebulae of glitter and laser lights. Fur, vinyl, and essentialism are slipped off seductively and cast aside until audiences are confronted with the naked and jarring truth that everything we ever call ourselves isn’t given freely by God or natural selection; it is actively affirmed or denied by us in the kinds of shows we put on for ourselves and other people, every minute of every day.

Good drag doesn’t mock particular identities (e.g. “woman,” “neo-disco pop star,” “Sarah Palin.”) Good drag makes tragicomic light of the very structure of identification itself, poking fun at the ceaseless and exhausting cycle of adopting names and roles from the world around us with which we can never, try as we may, fully coincide. “Back in Their Burkas Again” failed to attempt anything like this, treating the category “theocratically oppressed Arab women” like a geographer might treat the category “mountains”: as one more inert fact to be catalogued and manipulated (in this case for the sake of entertainment.) So long as such women are viewed to have stable, self-contained identities opposed to the stable, self-contained identities of enlightened Western atheists, attempts at dialogue will always collapse into self-perpetuating shouting matches. The AAC organizers could have put together something more sophisticated, something that acknowledged the inevitably ambiguous and performative aspects of fundamentalism, something that recognized the institution of the hijab as a massively complicated and irreducibly self-contradictory human phenomenon which always contains at its core of radical freedom the germ of its own self-transcendence, or something that, at the very least, involved strobe lights and Whitney Houston songs. They didn’t, opting instead for a cowardly and un-self-critical caricature of a lived tradition they didn’t bother to try to understand.

In the words of Liza Minnelli – the only woman other than the Virgin Mary to whom I’ve offered petitionary prayer – “Life is a Cabaret, old chum / It’s only a Cabaret.” In the 21st century, when the kinds of traditions and certainties that used to bind people to stable, directed senses of self are shattered daily like so many martini glasses under leather high-heels, the insight has never been more relevant. We, all of us – gay and straight, religious and secular – are better off embracing the terrifying responsibility of the radically free, self-directed performativity that makes us who we are and nothing more, rejecting the bad-faith securities of an all-powerful god on the one hand and an all-encompassing materialist determinism on the other. It is in this affirmative movement, and not in the resentment of blasphemy, that the prospects for a more decent world seem most bright.

Church FiresWondering what’s going on in the world of religion and secularism? Wonder no more — it’s time for your weekly religion and secular roundup! This week:

Church Burning and Atheist Learning: Reports this week on the ongoing investigation into a series of church fires in Texas prominently featured the fact that raids on one suspect’s home uncovered “books on demons and atheism.” What does it say that news reports are so strongly linking a suspect’s books on atheism to his alleged participation in church arson? Whether there is an actual correlation between the material he read and the crimes he is accused of committing, it is an unfortunate narrative on secular folks that we need work to change. Additionally, if these men are in fact guilty of the crimes of which they are accused, I’d be inclined to raise questions about what role narratives of fundamentalist anti-theism may have played in informing these actions and if anti-theistic motivations were involved. I strongly believe that one is innocent until proven guilty, but I also cannot help but fear that, if these men were in fact driven by totalitarian anti-theism to burn down religious houses of worship, their actions could have easily been prevented if only they had been exposed to a different, more pluralistic understanding of how atheists and religious folks can engage in the world.

Tiger Woods and the Need for Religious Literacy: The USA Today ran an intelligent reflection on Tiger Woods’ public apology, highlighting Woods’ appeal to his Buddhist commitments as a means for considering the controversy. The piece thoughtfully situates Woods’ apology within the larger context of American religious diversity. As Brit Hume’s controversial comments suggesting that Woods seek forgiveness in Christ exemplified, American society generally expects fallen public figures to offer Christian apologies and seek Christian redemption. Woods’ Buddhist narrative suggests that our country is in need of greater religious literacy. To quote the article: “Part of living in a multireligious society… is learning multiple religious languages. In a country where most citizens cannot name the first book of the Bible, we obviously need more Christian literacy. But to make sense of the furiously religious world in which we live, we need Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist literacy too.” This should be a keen reminder to secular folks of the importance of knowing about the religious beliefs of others. If we don’t know about the beliefs of others, how can we expect to try to understand them?

The Secularists Are Coming! The Secularists Are Coming!: This last week, representatives of the Obama administration hosted members of the secular community for the first time in American Presidential history. The Secular Coalition for America, a lobbying group representing secular interests, was briefed by the members of Obama administration in a White House meeting. As you might expect, this was met with shock and horror from some on the political right — Sean Hannity, for example, featured an inflammatory and outright false segment on his show about the meeting. But reports from the secular community indicate that it was a positive experience; check out Hemant Mehta’s The Friendly Atheist blog for an inside scoop. If nothing else, the meeting is an important symbolic step toward the recognition of a salient, cohesive, and growing secular community.

More Reflections on Religion and Millenials: Earlier this week I posted on the new Pew report on Millenials and its implications for Millenial secularists living in a religiously pluralistic world. I wasn’t the only one ruminating on this data — Politics Daily ran a piece called “Young Adults Doing Religion on Their Own? Blame Politics” that suggests that less Millenials are affiliated with traditional religious institutions while still retaining religious beliefs because many tend to be more politically liberal and see traditional religiosity as being aligned with political conservatism — which explains some of why religious affiliation is down among Millenials even though belief in god and that one’s own belief system is “the one true path to eternal life” are on the rise. Separately, the New York Times ran a piece by Charles M. Blow that posits that Millenials are more “spiritually thirsty than older generations.” He bases this claim in the Pew report’s finding that Millennials articulate a desire for “closeness to God” as a long term goal significantly more than previous generations have. Blow asserts that though less Millenials are religiously affiliated than members of generations that have come before, we value religious and spiritual commitments — perhaps even more so than other generations. Both pieces are well worth reading and I suggest you check them out.

Are There Secular Reasons?: The New York Times has a heady, thought-provoking opinion piece by Stanley Fish. In it, he challenges the notion that there is a distinction between “secular” motivations and “religious” motivations in public policy. He postulates: “Insofar as modern liberal discourse rests on a distinction between reasons that emerge in the course of disinterested observation — secular reasons — and reasons that flow from a prior metaphysical commitment, it hasn’t got a leg to stand on.” He makes an interesting point, and he makes it well. What do you think, fellow secularists?

Religion’s Role in U.S. Foreign Policy: The Chicago Council on Global Affairs task force, featuring Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel, just released a new report called “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad.” You can view the full report here; the Washington Post has a good summary of it here.

Finally, if you missed them, I did my first “The Non Prophet” column for The New Gay, titled “All My Friends,” and gave a statement to Just Out Portland on the French anti-smoking ad controversy. Stay tuned to The New Gay every Wednesday at 1 PM (CST) for a new column, and thanks for reading!

The New GayHey readers – check out my new post on The New Gay, an original piece entitled “All My Friends” on secular and queer identity and interfaith cooperation. (Thank you to “all my friends” at The New Gay, and a warm welcome to any readers who were directed here from the article!) Be sure to check out The New Gay for a variety of engaging pieces on a wide spectrum of queer-related topics.

[Update: Thanks to everyone who commented on the post — it was great to read your thoughtful and thought-provoking responses. I’ll be doing a weekly column for The New Gay beginning this Wednesday at 1 PM (CST) called “The Non Prophet,” so stay tuned!]

%d bloggers like this: