Thursday, April 21, 2011

the New York Times, an open letter, and my two cents

I think just about every ACU alum in my 500+ Facebook friends has picked this up and posted it, or hit the "like" button on someone else's link: "Even on religious campuses, students fight for gay identity" by Erik Eckholm in the NYT.

If you've read the piece, you know that it references Harding University and Abilene Christian University, as well as Baylor University, Belmont University, and North Central University (a Pentecostal university in central MN).

You may also know that in response to the occasion created by the NYT article, my husband wrote an open letter to the administrations of both Harding and ACU, speaking as an alum of both universities and as Rector of Grace Church in Newark. (Brent has followed up with a brief clarification, here.)

I have no wish to write an open letter (not sure that it would matter much to anyone what an unemployed theologian and mom of two who works unpaid from her home office has to say?), but both the article itself, Brent's letter, and the dialogue and personal responses from our ACU mentors and colleagues have prompted a lot of thoughts--exactly the kind of thing this blog serves as my dumping ground for. And so, since Baby Z seems content so far to ignore Google calendar's kind reminder that today is "DUE DATE" (lest we forget?!), I will do some cognitive dumping. (Yes, I expect that this scatty metaphor is entirely appropriate for the level of organization and polish this post will exhibit.)

No one knows better than two alums of both schools, Harding and ACU, how different these two institutions within our Church of Christ tradition truly are. (Y'all, we lived it.) The response that HUQP received, censorship and public condemnation from the chapel pulpit, was as unsurprising as it was disappointing. The point of The State of the Gay, according to HUQP, was to start dialogue about the presence and experiences of gay students at Harding--and while HUQP succeeded in starting a dialogue much bigger than they had originally anticipated, they did so despite Harding University's efforts to end the conversation before it even got started. This is starkly different from ACU's recent track record of actively, respectfully and officially engaging this issue on campus (read, for instance, this 2006 account from Robin Reed of SoulForce, entitled "Grateful for Abilene.")

Further, even at Harding, as the authors of The State of the Gay attest, there are individuals within both the student body and the faculty who are welcoming not just of dialogue but of actual gay people, even in all their gayness. I certainly know this to be true at ACU. But the NYT article, focused as it is on institutional policy and working with a broad and generic category of "religious campuses" that stretches to include everything from the largest and best-known Baptist university in the country to a small Bible college in MN, does not drill down to this level of (highly relevant) detail. Official spokespersons' statements of official policy are the end of that story; and this, as the HUQP's voices remind us, is just the beginning of the real story, and the reason for having a conversation.

For all that, I have to say that spokesperson reiterations of official institutional policy are significant. For one thing, they're what make it into print in the New York Times, and they're the articulation of the stance of the institution in the public square. Things may be much more complicated--they always are--on the ground of these "religious campuses" (and praise God for that!). But the official policy is not complicated. It is simple and straightforward, and it tells gay students that they are welcome...but their gayness is not:
“We want to engage these complex issues, and to give help and guidance to students who are struggling with same-sex attraction,” said Jean-Noel Thompson, [ACU]’s vice president for student life. “But we are not going to embrace any advocacy for gay identity.”
Many people, of course, find themselves stuck between an understanding of the Christian imperative to love and welcome all people, as Jesus did, and their understanding that the Bible clearly condemns same-sex relationships as sin. The uneasy, and unstable, result, is a compromise in the form of the mantra "hate the sin, love the sinner," a phrase which neatly sums up the reasoning behind the statement of official policy above, which walks the same fine line. You are welcome here, but your gayness is not.

This makes sense to a lot of people. And as far as I can tell, all those people are straight.

This is the problem: "hate the sin, love the sinner," and its official policy counterpart of insisting on reparative therapy and the characterization of all gayness as "struggle with same-sex attraction" only works as long as you refuse to listen to what actual gay people around you will tell you about being gay.

Are there people with ex-gay narratives? Yes. Are these people flourishing, at peace, spiritually blessed and transformed as ex-gay? I'll take their word for it. By the same token, if these narratives matter as testimonies and witness to the possibility of transformation, I must by my own reasoning take the word of the many, many more gay Christians I know for whom the demand to be ex-gay was soul-crushing and literally life-threatening, and for whom coming out was a salvific act. We can't pick and choose among the narratives our gay Christian brothers and sisters give us; they are as complicated a set of life stories and faith journeys as any other. We don't get to privilege the ones that tell us what we already believe to be true, while shutting out the ones that contradict our presuppositions. We have to face the necessity of reconstructing, over and over again, what we think the Bible teaches us and what God demands of us in our attempts to lead holy lives. Because that is what the Christian life is.

Is this sort of dialogue and attentive listening and faithful Christian living in community happening at ACU? Yes. But is it reflected in the official policy as articulated to the New York Times? No. 

And this is, as I see it, the point of the open letter. We know the kind of community and ethic that exists at ACU, and we know that the full realities of ACU's actions and attitudes towards its gay students is not reflected in a one-size-fits-all official policy of reparative therapy for the "struggle with same-sex attraction." And that is both encouraging and problematic, in that it indicates a disconnect between on-the-ground practice and policy. The point of the letter, as I see it, is to publicly urge the university to fix this disconnect. The point of the letter is that this is not a vain hope.

This may indeed get lost in the media's bottomless ability for amplifying conflict and ignoring the possibilities of reconciliation which are the heart of the Christian gospel. But we know better. The work of reconciliation is already evident, if not complete, and in this work everyone must discern and play their part. This is difficult, and sometimes we get it wrong--and yet, even so, my faith is unshaken that this, indeed, is not a vain hope.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Calling a Time-Out: on Gender, Evolution, and Neon, or "Pink Polished Primate Piggies"

A 5,000 year old burial site with male remains buried in a typical female manner suggests, to researcher Kamila Remisova Vesinova, that this burial site contained a man who was gay/transsexual. This was no Jimmy Castor Bunch troglodyte virilely grunting to himself in the mirror "gottafindawoman, gottafindawoman, gottafindawoman, gottafindawoman." What could possibly explain ancient evidence of such gender deviant behavior?

Well obviously, Mr/s. Troglodyte's misguided mama stumbled upon a small time capsule sent back in time by the diabolical mad scientist that the pink-polished J. Crew ad boy is clearly destined to become, thanks to the warped notions of his own mother, in a desperate effort to undermine the social fabric and family values of America and thereby validate his deviant gender-bending neon-pink polish preferences, before America even comes into existence.


Like Melissa Wardy of, my first reaction to Toemageddon was to roll my eyes at Faux-News and continue thinking about relevant things (like finishing my book before these Braxton-Hicks thingies turn into The Real Thing.) But--as Melissa points out--the story in this non-story, the Thing That Should Be Talked About, is:
...the gender constraint and gender policing going on in this hullabaloo. From the moment go nearly two years ago, Pigtail Pals has put a direct challenge to the marketing and products that I know to be objectifiying, limiting, stereotyping and sexualizing our girls. What we must know as parents and people who care about children – we must afford this same right to our sons.
So this troglodyte-turned-cyborg mama is calling a TIME-OUT. Fox Friends, you need to go sit in a quiet place, get calm, and think about the stupid things you've said that were wrong, and mean, and when you've figured out what it is you did that was wrong, you need to apologize. Nicely, like you really mean it. First, to Jenna and her adorable kid with the awesome toenails, and then to the rest of America for making us take the time out of our busy adult lives to address this ridiculous gender-bending behavior, and by that I mean, yours.