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This morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia) I did a talk titled “Becoming a feminist.”

You can view the YouTube video below.  If you prefer, you can read the piece below the video on this blog. Thanks!

 

 

Recently I was walking in Chinatown. It was an unseasonably warm night so I had my jacket open.  An older conservatively dressed white woman was walking toward me.  I saw her staring at me — trying to figure me out, a lesbian over six feet tall with short hair.

I saw her reading the large words on my t-shirt that read “Unite Against Hate.” She looked at me with disgust.  If the look on her face had words, it would have said, “Who do you think you are, uniting against hate?!”

Her look prompted me to glare back with the thought, “Really?! — you want to take me on?!”

fist_logoThe moment passed and we went our respective ways. Maybe it was because of my background in martial arts that I felt so empowered, so self-confident. I didn’t stop to remember that it was decades ago when I earned my second degree purple belt.

Since the election I have been filled with such moments of good old fashioned lesbian rage. But I am also a practicing non-violent Buddhist, so I have had a few things to figure out. One of them was why fifty-three percent of white women (including college-educated suburban white women) voted against their own interests.

There are some initially easy answers — these women are most likely married to conservative white men and they are identifying with their race and with their husband’s income rather than as women — an oppressed class.

Denial is strong. But reality is stronger.  More than a third of these marriages will end in divorce.  And a fraction of these women will end up in the already overcrowded and underfunded battered women’s shelters. I am not wishing this fate on anyone — I am merely stating a statistical reality.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. So I have compassion for those who voted against their own interests. I just finished reading Gloria Steinem’s latest book My Life On The Road. The book is full of revelations and I do recommend it.

When I read Gloria’s statement that you have to stand up for your own rights, before you can stand up for others — it gave me pause.feminist-fist

Gloria Steinem’s words made me reflect that I am fortunate to be among the women and men, along with those who identify with a different gender, who do get it about feminism.

Gloria is a lifelong beacon for me. It is because of her that all women are a little freer. I grew up with Ms. magazine in the house.  I went to rallies with my ahead-of-her-time feminist mother who I wrote about in my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters.

My working class, heterosexual, feminist mother saw to it that her only daughter would be a feminist.

Despite the fact of my gender-neutral childhood, I lived in the larger society. To counter the message that women are second class citizens, I had to go through a period of consciousness-raising. When I look back, I can recall a few “aha” moments.

 

  • In elementary school, I got into a fist fight with a boy who backed down because he didn’t want to risk punching me in the stomach, because in his words, “I wouldn’t be able to have babies.” Of course, this made me even more furious!
  • When I was in junior high, I had a math teacher who only called on the boys.
  • In my early twenties, I went to an exhibition of women artists at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. During the exhibition, it suddenly occurred to me that all of the art shows that I had seen previously had exhibited artwork that had been done mostly if not exclusively by men.

Aha!

It is my hope for all women to have their own “aha moments.” Maybe, for example, the majority of women might realize that reproductive rights (including abortion) should be a Goddess-given reality — rather than a reason that women should be imprisoned.

Hating others is not the same thing as standing up for yourself.

It is my practicing Buddhist and Unitarian Universalist informed hope that ALL will be able to truly stand up for their own rights and then stand up for others.

NAMASTE

 

 

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This morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia) I did a talk on gender (including transgender and non-binary) and read an excerpt from my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders. I introduce the piece by giving a talk on gender –including transgender and non-binary — from a Unitarian Universalist perspective. The reading is an excerpt titled, “Becoming Thomas.” (This reading was part of a service on “Entering the Sacred.”)

You can view the YouTube video of the introduction and the reading of “Becoming Tnomas” below.  Or below the video, you can read the introduction and “Becoming Thomas.”

 

Several years ago, my partner became friendly with a young couple with two young children — at the time two boys — who lived down the street from us. The oldest child kept saying to my partner, “I am a girl, I am a girl.” At the time, the child was four years and old, and somehow knew.  Fortunately, she was born to open-minded parents and now she is a little girl — and I might add she is more of a little girl than my partner and I ever were!

Around this same time, I was becoming a Unitarian Universalist and taking a class here at Restoration and reading the Bible for the first time (this was not required). Soon the muse was descending on me and I was writing a novel based on biblical themes with gender-fluid characters.  At the same time, I was reviewing a book on transgender issues and remember reading a passage that if trans people saw themselves reflected in the Bible, we would live in a different world.

I titled the novel THEY. They is known as a plural pronoun in the English language– which is inclusive of both genders. They is also increasingly used as a singular pronoun to signify a person who does not identify with male or female. (It also has a history as a singular pronoun.) It is a pronoun of  choice for many who identify as non-binary — that is not male and not female.

Gender is a spectrum — and in my experience it ranges from extremely butch to extremely femme — and there are many options in between. As a lesbian over six feet tall — who on occasion is called sir — I have given gender some thought.  I have always believed that we are more a alike than different. Gender is not necessarily fixed at birth, some people are born intersex (that is with male and female sexual characteristics), many transgendered people feel like they were born in the wrong body, and increasingly many young people are identifying as non-binary.

To me, it all makes sense, including the non-binary choice. Behavior and clothes do not have a gender. When I was young we called this way of thinking androgyny.  As a very independent feminist friend said to  me when her niece became her nephew — “I’ve been gender non-conforming my entire life!”

We should be beyond gender.

But the recently released U.S. Transgender Survey, found that we as a society are definitely not beyond gender — or beyond making it extremely difficult for trans people.

The statistics are disturbing — and not unfamiliar to me. Much has changed since the early 1980s when I was coming out in my early twenties. But some say that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Enter Vice President-Elect Mike Pence. The incoming administration is extremely right wing –and is very anti-human rights on all fronts  (and also holds positions that are destructive to the planet).  So what can we do about it?  One thing we can do is to keep an open mind and heart and stand strong and be allies to each other.

As Unitarian Universalists, we have that opportunity as expressed in the first UU principle, we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We believe in the sacredness of ourselves and the sacredness of each other.

I have presented several excerpts from this same novel at Restoration. In this version, Tamar is reborn from the Hebrew Bible as the twin sister of Yeshua, the Hebrew name for Jesus.  In this excerpt, “Becoming Thomas,” Tamar transitions to Thomas.

There are many non-gendered pronouns that people who identify as non-binary use to define themselves. In “Becoming Thomas,” I use the following pronouns which may be new to you:

h-i-r which is pronounced (“here”)

h-i-r-self pronounced (“here-self”)

z-e which is pronounced(“zee”)

 

Becoming Thomas

Since Tamar had become Thomas, ze carried a small scroll. One of the benefits of hir twin brother Yeshua deciding to make hir male was that ze could write in public. It felt liberating.  Thomas unraveled hir scroll and wrote: “So this is how the one known as Tamar became known as Thomas and joined forces with hir twin to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, and raise the dead.”

First Yeshua gathered his apostles. It wasn’t difficult to transition from Tamar to Thomas, one of the twelve. The other apostles were more concerned about themselves — that they get good placements (Jerusalem was a popular destination) and with sitting closest to hir brother, Yeshua.  Thomas didn’t care.  Ze was quiet — even meek.  But ze was okay with this.  Ze had heard somewhere that “the meek will inherit the earth.”

Ze had been sitting next to Yeshua, but the others had jostled hir to the outer edges of the activity room at the Temple. Thomas rubbed hir arm.

Ze didn’t appreciate being jostled by the other apostles and questioned their motives in wanting to be close to Yeshua.  Ze pushed the thoughts from hir mind.  Now that ze was helping Yeshua, ze tried to follow the example of turning the other cheek.

Thomas decided to leave since ze wasn’t waiting for a placement — ze would be travelling with Yeshua. Ze could sit next to him at any time.  They were both staying with their Mother. Tamar had told the Mother that she could now call hir Thomas and that ze would be helping Yeshua.  The Mother just smiled.

In the Temple, Thomas grew tired of waiting for Yeshua. He would be flanked by apostles when he was leaving anyway. Peter and James and John were always vying to walk next to him. Thomas yawned.

Ze wondered what the sun dial said. It seemed like days had passed. But it was probably only a few hours.  Ze slipped out the back door.

“Thomas?”

Startled, Thomas jumped.

It was Mary Magdalene. Thomas had met her once before.  Ze recognized the angular planes of her dark face.  Her large hands. Her smooth dark skin. The strands of her dark hair fell in narrow plaits past her shoulders.

“I recognize you. You’re Thomas, the twin,” she said.

The transformation from Tamar to Thomas felt natural. Ze had wrapped a piece of cloth tightly around hir small breasts.   Ze wore a tunic and a brown linen robe that ze borrowed from Yeshua.  Hir breasts didn’t show.  The tightness of the fabric pressing into hir breasts reminded hir to lower hir voice. Ze wore a shawl around hir head, of loose woven linen, draped over hir shoulders just like Yeshua’s.  The shawl fell over hir tunic. As Tamar, ze had usually worn a blue robe like the Mother’s. When Yeshua first saw Tamar as Thomas,  he said that he had always known that ze would make a righteous brother.  Thomas took it as a compliment.  Ze didn’t feel like ze was impersonating a man. Ze felt more like hirself.

Yeshua had told hir to smile less, because it would make hir appear more masculine. It was true.  Ze trained hirself not to smile.  The Mother smiled all the time.  Sometimes it was a distant smile.  A tired smile. A mysterious smile. At times an inquisitive smile. Tamar had to remember to drop hir voice when ze was dressed as Thomas — even though the Mother had named hir Thomas when ze was born.  Thomas was Greek for twin.

“I wasn’t allowed in the Temple, so I took off my head scarf,” Mary Magdalene explained apologetically.

Thomas kept hir voice at a low register:

“What do you mean, you weren’t allowed in?”

Mary Magdalene responded:

“When I came to the Temple to attend the meeting that Yeshua called, Peter met me outside and told me that the meeting — because it was being held in the Temple — was closed to females.”

Thomas replied:

“That is not true. I used to go … I mean the Mother comes to the Temple all the time. Yeshua invited you, so you are welcome.”

“If only all the men were like you,” replied Mary Magdalene. “I had a feeling that Peter was up to no good when he sent me away.  He had evil in his eyes.”

Thomas replied:

“Yes. Peter is jealous of you and Yeshua.”

Mary Magdalene looked dejected.

“It does not matter,” Thomas said. “You and I are Yeshua’s favorites. We’re the only ones he trusts.  He told me himself that there is no way to know that the apostles won’t abandon him in a crisis.”

“That’s true,” said Mary Magdalene.

Thomas replied:

“Besides, we’ll be travelling with Yeshua when he performs his miracles. There’s nothing that Peter can say that will change that.”

Mary Magdalene nodded and said,   “Peter treats me like an adversary. But I am trying not to respond with anger. For one thing it would tarnish the feeling that I hold for Yeshua.  I do feel that he can truly save us.”

Thomas had an idea:

“I’ll walk with you to your destination. Yeshua would want that.”

Thomas felt bad about deceiving Mary Magdalene. Ze wanted to tell her that ze was born as  Yeshua’s female twin.  But then ze remembered the pact with Yeshua in the desert — when he had declared that they were beyond gender.

The next day Thomas and Mary Magdalene travelled with Yeshua and the Mother to a marriage in the town of Cana in the tribal region of Galilee.  It was a hot day and a half a day’s journey. The Mother had borrowed some camels so that they could make the trip.  When they arrived at the dusty grounds outside the tabernacle, Yeshua  poured himself  a cup of water from one of the stone water jugs sitting in the shade.

“It’s a shame that the wedding party has no wine,” said a man standing nearby.

Yeshua drained his cup, wiped the arm of his robe across his lips, and spoke:

“But the water is cool and refreshing. And it is infinitely better for a body than wine — especially on a hot day like this.”

Thomas was helping Mary Magdalene with her bags and turned around and looked at the man to whom Yeshua was speaking. The man was dressed in a white linen robe woven through with strands of gold.

He narrowed his eyes, looked at Yeshua, and spoke: “I don’t recognize you.  You must be a traveler. Allow me to introduce myself.  I am John, the son of the governor of Cana.”

Yeshua responded:

“Then, your father is a Roman?”

“No,” replied the man. “He’s a Jew — a well-respected Pharisee.”

“I see. I’ll tell you what. I can change this water into wine,” replied Yeshua.

The man cocked his right eyebrow, looked amused, and asked:

“And you are?”

“Yeshua, the son of God.”

Thomas had a sinking feeling in hir stomach. Yeshua was acting  sincere, but ze knew that he had something to prove. It occurred to hir that Yeshua might be going around saying that he was the son of God because he wasn’t sure that Joseph was his real father. Thomas had a moment  of feeling sadness for hir twin.  The bad feeling that ze had felt when she heard Yeshua saying that he was the son of God, didn’t go away.  It got worse.

“The son of God?” asked the man.

“Yes. I will prove it to you by changing this water into wine.”

THE END

 

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

Another excerpt is in the recent issue of Sinister Wisdom — the fortieth anniversary issue

A diffenent excerpt is also in the aaduna literary magazine  (this excerpt was nominated for a Pushcart Prize)

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

To learn more about THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders, click here.

 

 

 

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For the past several years, I’ve been attending a Unitarian Universalist Church that has a tradition of Poetry Sunday.  Each week, poetry is included in the service. I was delighted to find out that a long time favorite of mine, Mary Oliver is a UU and that her poetry is often used. Of course, many other poets — from Rumi to contemporary poets — are often used also. One Sunday a year is dedicated to poetry’s role in UU and all spirituality.

For me especially — since I started my writing life as a poet — poetry represents a sense of the sacred (and the profane has a place in that!)

This year’s theme was empowerment — and I was honored to read from my collection “a woman alone” chronicling my trip to Greece. I read the following two poems:

a woman alone
hears the cooing of pigeons
and the flap of wings
folding air;
she hears Cathedral bells
answering one another;
and morning light
sputtering traffic
into existence; a
woman alone is a city
awakening.

a woman alone lives
in the house
of the double ax;
she enters her own labyrinth
and comes out amazed;
she is the minotaur
the earth womb
turned to a monster;
she is her own silver thread
leading herself to the center
of the maze that is her,
a woman alone.

 

Anne Arfaa, another featured poet this year, also read on the theme of empowerment. Listening to her, I was taken on a trip down memory lane. Anne and I were in a feminist writing group for many years — and from that we became fellow travelers on the road of life.

 

 

Last year, I was one of organizers of Poetry Sunday and here I am talking about the poetry of the late poet Audre Lorde who prophetically wrote “Poetry is not a luxury.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Note: The following is a talk I gave at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration Sunday morning July 17 2016.  You can see most of the talk on YouTube be clicking here.

 

When I was a pre-teen, my mother gave me a book called Courageous Women, which was a young adult reader about women’s suffrage.

The book reminded me that not all people have always had the right to vote. The fifteenth amendment, passed in 1870 gave black men the right to vote.   A half century later, in 1920, the nineteenth amendment was ratified, giving all women the right to vote.

The passage of both amendments involved long, hard and violent struggles.

Frederick Douglas, a social reformer, orator, writer, statesman and former slave was a leading abolitionist.

Susan B. Anthony was a social reformer and feminist and one of the women who played a pivotal role in the women’s suffrage movement.

There were many black women who also played pivotal roles in women’s suffrage. Anna Julia Cooper was honored by the U.S. Postal Service with a commemorative postage stamp in 2009.anna

She was known for her statement: “Only the BLACK WOMAN can say when and where I enter in the quiet undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence or special patronage; then and there the whole black race enters with me.”

Only propertied white men had the vote until 1856 the year that it was determined that all white men could vote regardless of whether they owned property or not.

When as an adult, later in life, I became a Unitarian Universalist, I discovered a religion that embodies civic duty in all of its principles, perhaps especially in the second principle “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;” and also in the sixth principle “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.”

As Rev. Emily Gage, reflects on the Unitarian Universalist Assembly website, “Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations points us toward something beyond inherent worth and dignity. It points us to the larger community. It gets at collective responsibility. It reminds us that treating people as human beings is not simply something we do one-on-one, but something that has systemic implications and can inform our entire cultural way of being.

“Compassion is something that we can easily act on individually. We can demonstrate openness, give people respect, and treat people with kindness on our own. But we need one another to achieve equity and justice.”

The larger community and collective responsibility. That’s what I learned about in my childhood book Courageous Women.

My mother was born in 1919 — a year before women won the right to vote. Perhaps having older parents gave me a different sense of history as well as an enhanced understanding that history is important.

In 1972, when I was thirteen, Shirley Chisholm ran for national office.  I paid attention.  Here was history in the making.  She was paving the way for African American people and women of all races to be presidential candidates.

Shirley Chisholm 1I grew up to have a close friend who not only voted for Shirley Chisholm but was a delegate. And it is not surprising that Chisholm made an appearance in my writing — Art, a novel of revolution, love and marriage. It is fiction but definitely autobiographical when I wrote of my character:

“Five years ago Grace was watching the nightly news when Walter Cronkite announced that Shirley Chisholm, an African American congresswoman from New York, was running for the Democratic nomination for president against the incumbent Richard Milhous Nixon. Grace was just thirteen in 1972, but she remembered thinking things would be different.  She didn’t think she’d ever run for president.  But if Shirley Chisholm could, maybe girls could do anything.”

I voted as soon as I was able too. When I moved to Germantown in my early twenties, I was proud to stand in line with my neighbors — most of them African American men and women.  We were doing what was demanded of us.  Voting is not just a right. It is a responsibility.

Around that time, I came out as a lesbian. One of my favorite T-shirts was a black shirt with a pink triangle on it with black letters on the triangle that read:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

This widely-known poem was written by Pastor Martin Niemellör about the cowardice of German intellectuals in Nazi Germany.

My T-shirt was lost in some long ago Laundromat but its sentiment stayed with me.

I could have done without the rocks being hurled through our bedroom window or the numerous instances of workplace harassment, but being a lesbian has given me some firsthand knowledge of oppression. For one thing, it may in fact be natural to respond to hatred with hatred — but it is not healthy, necessary, or productive.  I have not evolved to the point where as it says in The New Testament in Matthew, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

But I do think there might be something to that.

I also learned that we have more in common than we may think and it is very important for us to stick together. Civic duty and collective responsibility is certainly a big part of that.

Ecclesiastes in The Hebrew Bible and in the Christian Old Testament states in part:

“1  To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
2  a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3  a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4  a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5  a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing   ….”

Now it is up to us. It is our time.

We have one vote, one voice. Think about your one vote and the difference it can make.

It’s time to be counted.

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