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Archive for June, 2016

originally in The Huffington Post

When I woke up and heard the news that 50 people in a nightclub were murdered by a gunman in Orlando, Florida my heart sunk. Then I heard that the club was gay and that the murderer was of Arab-American descent and publicly declared his allegiance to ISIS and my heart kind of caved in.

What can be said about such senseless violence? This is the kind of hatred that usually engenders further hatred.

One of the first things I heard on the news was the father being quoted about his son’s intense homophobia and the fact that the killing spree “had nothing to do with religion.”

Being the kind of person I am — I immediately thought it had everything to do with religion.

“People in churches and mosques need to think about what they are teaching,” I said to my partner over breakfast. “It’s not that different,” I said, “Christians, Jews, and Moslems have the same common ancestor Abraham who is in the Hebrew Bible.”

I read the Bible last year or so as research for a novel — and learned a few things about religion. I learned that modern culture is rife with biblical references. I also learned, to my surprise, that the Bible is not that anti-gay. I did find it to be extremely misogynist and violent, but I thought the anti gay parts were really taken out of context and greatly amplified. If you listen to Sarah Palin, for example, (who probably never read the actual Bible) you’d think the entire thing was an anti-gay tract.

My partner and I have been together for 31 years and you would think that there are no surprises, but I could tell she was impressed with my recently-acquired religious knowledge.

She is a deep thinker. “Of course it has to do with religion,” she replied. “Where do people learn about hate?”

Then I saw the photograph of the murderer (who was killed by authorities). To my mind, he looked gay. When I learned that he was married and had fathered a child or children, it still didn’t change my mind. There is a good chance that a man with that kind of rage inside him who specifically targeted a gay club and professed his repulsion at gay men holding hands and kissing on the street, was acting out in suppression of his deepest desires.

In full disclosure, I think far more people are gay who say they are gay. I have known more than a few gay men who specialize in straight married men. It works for these guys who don’t want to end up in a relationship. In fairness, I have known more gay men who are healthy enough to avoid men who identify as heterosexual. And through the years, I have rarely met lesbians who are interested in women who are married to men.

I’m not saying that all closeted gay people — or those who are bisexual and secretive — are gay bashers. But it is true that plenty of homophobic hate crimes, including murder, have been committed by men who can’t handle their own same-sex tendencies as was documented in American Honor Killings (2013, Akashic Books).

Granted there are also other issues at play here including gun control and the availability of automatic weapons colliding with mental health issues.

In the interest of not responding to hatred with hatred, I immediately thought of the fact that we are a human family. We have more in common than not and often there is considerable overlap between identities. I spent the day reading Guapa, a novel by Saleem Haddad (Other Press; New York; 2016).

In the novel, a man just under thirty living in an un-named middle eastern country, falls in love with another man and is walked in by his conservative grandmother with whom he lives.

The narrator is not from a religious family but he is grappling with homophobia in a deeply religious culture that includes check points, revolution, and a deep connection to family.

When the narrator reflects back on his adolescence, he gives voice to the same sentiments, unfortunately, that most young people feel regardless of their country of origin:

“I was different from everyone else.
I was doomed to be alone.
I was going to spend eternity rotting in hell.”

The narrator attends college in America — where he also grapples with homophobia and what he describes as his “Arabness” and all that that entails.

When he comes back to the Middle East and moves back in with his grandmother who raised him, he finally falls in love only to face more struggles. The narrator writes of his lover:

“He was right when he told me once that he had one foot in and one foot out. It was a balancing act, and he navigated it so effortlessly. But I was his one foot out, wasn’t I? In fact, he made sure I never met his mother. He introduced me to his father once, a few years ago at the wedding of his distant cousins. I remember being surprised at how tall his father was, but like Taymour he was very handsome.”

Judging from my reaction to the Orlando massacre, if I ever had any doubt, the LGBTQ community is home to me. I agree with President Obama when he said that gay clubs are meant to be safe spaces. I remember the days when gay clubs were not out in the open and when people of the same sex did not dare to hold hands in public.

It doesn’t matter that I haven’t been in a gay club in a good ten or fifteen years. It doesn’t matter if those murdered were all young people who I most likely would have never met. I grieve for them and their families.

The massacre is an American tragedy. It is a nightmare for the LGBTQ community. And it is a problem for people of faith. I was raised secular, but in recent years became a Unitarian Universalist — a faith that really does embrace all people, including those of us who are LGBTQ.

Being part of a religion occasionally puts me in contact with people from other religions who are not so welcoming. I usually don’t mind when I am the LGBTQ spokesperson — and I do understand that being myself and being out can change hearts and minds.

Religion is still evolving. I am sometimes astounded that traditional religions are changing at all — such as the time I drove by a church in my neighborhood and did a double take at a “Happy Pride” sign outside. But other times, I am appalled that many religions are not changing fast enough and the young people raised in them feel compelled to leave.

As we can see from the Orlando massacre, religion is not, in fact, changing fast enough for young people and their families who are found in all religions and denominations.

Where does hatred come from?

 

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Note:  The following is the introduction that I gave to my short play “Forty Days and Forty Nights” that I gave this morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia where I presented the skit with actors Janice Roland Radway and Allen Radway and Barrington Walker as the narrator.  To see the piece on YouTube — after the introduction — click here.

Several years ago I took the UU class offered here at Restoration and was inspired to read the Bible for the first time. At the same time I was reviewing several books on transgender issues and was deeply influenced by a neighbor’s child who had transitioned at the age of five.  I was also reading a book I had borrowed from Reverend Ellis about the Gnostic Gospels, something I had been long interested in — mainly through the music of my friend Julia Haines, a harpist and composer who has performed at this church.

In one of the books that I read on transgender issues, the author wondered what it would be like for a transgendered person to have the experience of learning about a transgender person as a character in the Bible.

I wondered too. What would happen if a person who is usually condemned by religion, is celebrated instead?  As Unitarian Universalists, we have that opportunity as expressed in the first UU principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

As a result of this confluence of ideas — perhaps spurred by my becoming a new Unitarian Universalist — I wrote a novel with a working title of She And He. The ideas in the novel may be ahead of their time — but I’ve always believed that there’s no time like the present.  Three excerpts were published and one was nominated for  a Pushcart Prize.  I also presented a different excerpt (titled “The Descent of Ishtar”) at Restoration last year with our own Janice Rowland Radway starring in the role of Tamar — a character from the Hebrew Bible.

In this version, Tamar is reborn as the twin sister of Yeshua, the Hebrew name for Jesus, played by Allen Radway. When I heard that this month’s theme was “Christology” — I thought it was a perfect fit — even — or especially — because it is an alternative view.  I wanted to bring it to you because I imagined it might encourage you to take your own journey.

 

You can also read an excerpt, written as standalone short fiction, in the online literary journal BlazeVOX15

Other excerpt is in the current issue of Sinister Wisdom — the fortieth anniversary issue

In aaduna literary magazine.

Another excerpt (also starring Janice Roland Radway as Tamar) “The Descent of Ishtar” can be seen on YouTube.

 

 

janet-and-sappho

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The saying that “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” is just as true today as it was in 1948 when Winston Churchill repeated it from the writings of the philosopher George Santanya. It is particularly true for anyone who has ever been marginalized in anyway — and that is probably most of us. But this is just one reason that I read historical fiction.

It makes sense that I would be interested in history since I was raised by older parents a generation removed from me.

 

This is something that I explore in my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books, 2012). Perhaps it was having that long sense of personal history that led me to have a healthy curiosity of the experiences of those different than me. It definitely is a reason that I am deeply drawn to historical fiction — especially when I find books that are not only captivating but haunting.

 

Recently I read two books that made me think about history and my place in it. I recall wondering decades earlier, when I was young, what I would have done if I had come out earlier, say pre-Stonewall. When I read Juliana, a novel by Vanda (Booktrope Editions; 2015) the question came back to me. The story is set in the years 1941 to 1944 in New York City which did, in fact, at that time have an underground gay culture. The main character Al (short for Alice) is a young woman who with a group of friends with actor ambitions moves from a small town to New York City.

 

Alice doesn’t think of herself as gay but is in love (and in lust) with a glamorous and slightly older singer Juliana. The author who goes by the name of Vanda (one word, like Cher) is a playwright and her fast-paced writing had me turning the pages as I learned about gay culture with accurate historical references. Alice ends up at a few gay parties, even though she doesn’t identify as “one of them” in a time when gay people were deemed as perverts and pariahs. She also weaves in the cultural mores of the time when it was assumed that “nice” girls didn’t have sex before heterosexual marriage.

Ultimately Juliana is an historic novel with a sense of history itself. One character, talking to Alice about the film, Morroco, says:

“I keep forgetting how young you are. It [the movie] came out in the thirties before the Hays Code and they started censoring everything. I was only a kid myself, fifteen or sixteen. Marlene Dietrich wore a man’s tuxedo and she kissed women right on the mouth.”

I was excited when I heard that The Gilda Stories by Jewell Gomez had been reissued by City Lights Books (2016). The Gilda Stories is a pioneering black lesbian vampire story that spans a woman’s history from escaping slavery into the future, in the year 2050, when it the story ends on a positive note with a huge sense of relief (from this reader). In full-disclosure, I am not a reader of the vampire genre — except for this novel. Undoubtedly if I were I would have read the book differently. However, I have read many historical novels. And as a historical novel, tracing one character through this long historical span is brilliant. After all, we are all born from the people and places and circumstances that went before us.

 

In the afterword, the publisher in writing that The Gilda Stories in being the first of its kind (far before the proliferation of the vampire genre that came after its first publication) was written with no small amount of bravery in a time “when the rise of the religious right was impacting publication norms” and “equating lesbian and gay art with pornography.”

I read it when it was first published in 1991 by Firebrand Books. Gomez and her work was an important part of lesbian-feminist culture at that time. Of course that world was small and this new edition will be bringing her work to a wider audience.

On reading The Gilda Stories again, I was struck that it works both as a historical work of fiction and as well as a vampire story. Both of these things, perhaps, can be summed up in this single passage:

“Life was indeed interminable. The inattention of her contemporaries to some mortal questions, like race, didn’t suit her. She didn’t believe a past could, or should, be so easily discarded. Her connection to the daylight world came from her blackness. The memories of her master’s lash as well as her mother’s face, legends of the Middle Passage, lynchings she had not been able to prevent, images of black women bent over scouring brushes — all fueled her ambition. She had been attacked more than once by men determined that she die, but of course she had not. She felt their hatred as personally as any mortal. The energy of those times sustained her, somehow.”

Rage lives on — and so does history with us inside of it.

 

originally published in The Huffington Post

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Note: This morning I gave this reflection as part of a service on transitions at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia.  To view the YouTube video, click here.

 

In my early twenties when I studied women’s self defense and then karate, one of my favorite t-shirts was a sky blue muscle shirt that had the Chinese character for crisis. This character shares characteristics with the symbol for opportunity.  This was the early eighties.

crisis character

I have no idea what happened to this particular t-shirt, but the saying stayed in my mind.

Undoubtedly it was something that fueled me as I studied martial arts and became a self-defense instructor to women — and also to people of all genders with intellectual disabilities.

My students showed great progress. They held their heads up high and looked people in the eye. They defined the space around them.   They connected with the life force inside of them — called “Kiai,” a Japanese word used in Karate which describes the shout delivered for the purpose of focusing all of one’s energy into a single movement.  In studying self-defense, they were becoming more self confident.

Many were transforming from former victims into survivors and thrivers. They were healing.

I took pride in being their teacher. We were on the journey together.

I have long known that change is good. Not only is it good, it is necessary and unavoidable.

“Change is the only constant in life,” as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus is quoted as saying.

My delightfully progressive late aunt (my mother’s sister) was known to say to her more conventional relatives (mainly her husband and her son): “The universe is always changing and so am I.”

Change is necessary — but it also can be scary.

Personally I have found that in that scary-space — in the free fall over the abyss — it is possible to do the necessary good work that reinvention requires.

One thing that I have learned over the years, is that things rarely go back to the way they were as much as we might want that.

I tend to stay in the present — which is good in many ways — but the downside is that I can forget some of the spiritual lessons that I’ve learned in decades past.

Remembering that change is good and necessary is definitely one of those things.

We tend to expect things to last forever. Perhaps this is part of the survival instinct that is wired into us.

In my last major transition, I went from spending my days in a cubicle to doing my best writing — and perhaps to being my best self. I had been in a high-stress job for five and a half years and my major saving grace was that I was using my days off to pursue my own writing.  This also may have contributed to burn out.

Now I knew that this was an opportunity for me and my writing but still I suffered from severe anxiety when I was laid off.

But because of this experience, I know what it feels like to walk through life like a robot. I understand job stress and burnout.

I recently had dinner with an old friend who is also a retired therapist who tactfully said to me, “You just weren’t taking care of yourself when you were in that job.”

That’s an understatement and I shudder to think of what may have happened to me if I hadn’t changed everything.

Fast forward to five years later, and I am still reinventing myself, but I am much stronger — in large part thanks to yoga — with our music director Jane Hulting — and a spiritual practice that includes attending worship here at Restoration.  In yoga, Jane often quotes from the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron, in particular from her book When Things Fall Apart in which she writes:

“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. From the awakened point of view, that’s life.”

Her words bear repeating:

“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. From the awakened point of view, that’s life.”

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