“A Hearty Welcome: Removing Hetero-sexism from our Church Culture”

I was invited to offer a workshop at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Oxford in Mississippi as part of their seeking to become designated by our denomination as a Welcoming Congregation.  In talking with the leadership in what had been covered, it became apparent that there was a need to discuss heterosexism.  My process in putting this workshop together included exploring what our Unitarian Universalist Association had in their resources on their website. To my surprise while the website ( http://www.uua.org/re/youth/identity-based/queer/47416.shtml) acknowledged the word heterosexism there was very little on the website in terms of resources on heterosexism. And so began my journey to find what exactly was out there.  So what follows here are some resources I found and some of the things that I used or created in putting together a workshop on heterosexism.

I began the workshop with passing out a Heterosexism Scale.  It was not a perfect scale because some of the questions assumed the person taking the test was heterosexual. But taken as a tease to begin the thinking process and used as a personal self awareness of how pervasive heterosexism is, this test was effective. I did not ask for participants to share their scores as that was for them, but I did ask for participants to share if they were surprised by anything that was on the test.  Discussion was good and it served to set the tone for the journey we were beginning. I purposely had the test be the first piece of the workshop before doing any icebreaker because I wanted people to have a sense of where they may be regarding heterosexism.  Source: Heterosexism Scale created by Celeste Bowman, CASAC of the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services in New York State

I followed this with an icebreaker asking for their name and one thing taught as a child about gender roles. For example I was taught that boys do not cry.  I purposely had the icebreaker follow the test because I wanted people to have a sense of where they may be regarding heterosexism.

Then I introduced two definitions:

Homophobia v Heterosexism

Homophobia:    The American Heritage Dictionary (1992 edition) defines homophobia as “aversion to gay or homosexual people or their lifestyle or culture” and “behavior or an act based on this aversion.” Other definitions identify homophobia as an irrational fear of homosexuality

Heterosexism:  The system of oppression of persons who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender based on homophobia/ transphobia. It includes these three components:

  • The assumption that all people are heterosexual.
  • Prejudice and discrimination against persons who are LGBTIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Asexual)  based on the assumption that heterosexuality is the only “normal” sexual orientation and therefore preferable.
  • Systemic display of homophobia in societal institutions, laws, and policies by excluding the needs, concerns, and life experiences of persons who are LGBTIA.

Examples of Heterosexism:

  • Assuming that everyone you meet is heterosexual.
  • Assuming that everyone has or is interested in having an opposite-sex partner.
  • Assuming that all mothers and fathers are heterosexual.
  • Assuming all sexually active women use birth control.
  • Assuming that all unmarried people are “single,” while in reality they may have a same-sex partner.
  • Assuming all children live in families with a male-female couple in parental roles.
  • Using language that presumes heterosexuality in others, such as husband or wife, instead of gender neutral language such as partner.
  • Using official forms which allow only for designation as married or single.
  • Denying equal employment benefits to people with same-sex partners (i.e. spousal insurance).
  • Omitting any discussion of persons who are LGBTIA as part of educational curricula.

This definition and examples comes from the Safe Zone training manual at Duke University.

I handed out a more detailed sheet on heterosexism that gives examples in several categories: Family, Education, Healthcare, Workplace, Legal System, and Media.  This handout was adapted from two sources:

Adapted from  © Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, Second Edition, Routledge, 2007  AND James Madison University in Virginia

We discussed the legal aspects of heterosexism and pointed out that while the US Supreme Court ruling on Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 struck down sodomy laws it did not remove sodomy laws in many states.  For example Mississippi’s law is still on the books and is unenforceable as it pertains to homosexual behavior but it is still considered criminal behavior.

 The legislation is MS 97-29-59. Unnatural intercourse

Every person who shall be convicted of the detestable and abominable crime against nature committed with mankind or with a beast, shall be punished by imprisonment in the penitentiary for a term of not more than ten years.

Because this law is still on the books the law can and will influence other laws and interpretations.  “Mississippi sexuality education law dictates that if homosexuality is taught, it must be presented as ‘unnatural and dangerous’ and be discussed within the context of Mississippi’s law outlawing sodomy.”

Source: http://www.abstinenceworks.org

It also influences Judges decisions in custody cases. “A Mississippi court used the state’s sodomy law to justify denying custody of a boy to his gay father, despite the fact that the court also found that the father would provide better care because the boy’s stepfather was physically abusive to his mother.” http://www.thetaskforce.org/issues/nondiscrimination/sodomy

This example shows how heterosexism is institutionalized.  My use of the example of Mississippi was because I was talking to a congregation in Mississippi.  However, there are some 13 states where Sodomy was struck down by the Lawrence v Texas US Supreme Court case but the laws were not repealed which means they are still on the books and still influences the writing and enforcing of other laws pertaining to Sexual Minorities. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sodomy_laws_in_the_United_States

For example in Alabama, where I am currently living, former (now re-instated) state Chief Justice Roy Moore denied a lesbian mother custody of her child based on the state’s sodomy law stating, “Common law designates homosexuality as an inherent evil, and if a person openly engages in such a practice, that fact alone would render him or her an unfit parent.” Moore also wrote approvingly of the state’s right to imprison or even execute homosexuals.

I introduced an exercise that was created for college students. The exercise has more to do with gender roles but I used this exercise to not only discuss gender roles but also to discuss the history of pink and blue being designated for specific genders and used this exercise to also introduce microaggressions.

A June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department said,
“The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”


This led to an important discussion on how capitalism markets heterosexism and gender differences. It was in the 1940’s when pink was re-classified for girls and blue for boys.  And I pointed out that photos of boys in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s had them wearing white dresses and long locks of hair.  These were considered gender neutral clothing for ease of diaper changes and cleaning.  it wasn’t until a boy was about 6 years old that his hair was cut short and he wore knickers. Keep in mind the changes that were occurring in the world after World War I,  Freud was arguing for heterosexual expressions of sex for pleasure instead of being for procreation only and denouncing homosexual expressions as effeminate and deviant. Factories were once again booming and needed to find ways to sell their wares. Suffragists were fighting for women’s right to vote. Lots of changes were taking place that were causing a divide between what was feminine and what was masculine behavior in ways that were not brought to the surface before.

Exercise: Straight sculptures 20 minutes

Ask for two volunteers to come to the front of the room. One volunteer will play a 10-year old girl, the other a 10-year-old boy. Distribute pink and blue sticky note labels to the rest of the participants. Instruct the rest of the group that they are now responsible for “training” the children to act in their appropriate gender roles, and especially to handle themselves so that they will never be suspected of being lesbian (the girl) or gay (the boy). Students can act the part of older brothers/sisters, parents, coaches, teachers, and so forth. The task is for the male students to write their instructions on post-it paper for the “boy,” and for the female students to do so for the “girl.” When they have prepared their paper, they take turns, one at a time, in affixing their notes to the appropriate character’s arms, sleeves, or shoulders, explaining the instruction in the tone of voice appropriate to the part they’re playing (“parental voice” for parent, for example).

Instructions can include any of the following, and other things participants can think of:

  • • Colors of clothing you wear
  • • Type of clothing you wear
  • • Hair color/arrangement you choose
  • • How to sit in a chair
  • • How to walk
  • • Voice you use to talk
  • • Things you talk about
  • • Jewelry you wear
  • • Appropriate athletic activities
  • • Appropriate subjects to do well in
  • • Kind of car to be seen driving
  • • Appropriate jobs/careers to train for
  • • How you greet other people of your gender
  • • How you show affection to other people of your gender

Have participants complete the exercise. Then, have each of the two volunteers take turns walking into the room, pulling up a chair, sitting down, and saying hello to the class, doing their best to enact and obey all of the instructions that have been attached to them. Encourage them to have fun, exaggerating their roles if they wish.

At the close of their performance, stop the action and have each actor say how it felt to act out this role—funny, odd, uncomfortable, “normal,” &c.

Have everyone applaud the actors. Have participants break into mixed-gender triads or groups of four. Have participants take turns answering the following questions:

  • • What ways do I act or dress, or avoid acting or dressing, in order to keep from being called “gay,” “fag,” “butch,” or any other names that might identify me, even in fun, as lesbian or gay?
  • • What ways am I limited, or what does it cost me, to have to do these actions?

Return everyone’s attention to the full group. Have a few share what they notice in their own experience regarding these questions: what does it cost participants to protect themselves from being identified as gay/lesbian? What is the fear about being so identified? Who are they most likely to be afraid of? Remind participants to speak for themselves, not referring to what other people in their small group said.

This exercise worked well over all. Because most of the participants were older than the exercise was originally designed, the discussion questions did not take well because most of the participants were no longer concerned about being called gay or queer.  But this exercise did bring up the topic of peer pressure their children are feeling in schools to conform to heterosexist rules and how they might encourage their children to be who they are.

Telling the two volunteers how to act in this exercise is an example of being microaggressive. So the other benefit of this exercise was to introduce the notion of microaggressions.

“Micro-aggressions are the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group.” (Microaggressions in Every Day Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation by Derald Wing Sue)

I gave additional examples from the website microaggressions.com

“Oh, you’re dressing like a lady today. You should keep that up. You make a much better girl.”Nurse where I work to me, a 22 year-old who identifies as male. Makes me embarrassed about my body, afraid, sad.

“LGBT people are six times more likely to attempt suicide than normal people.”  A lecture on suicide prevention at UCLA.

“Of course I love you, I just prefer the straight part of you to the gay part.” My ex-girlfriend after telling her I’m bisexual.

“My mom says she is okay with my sexuality but doesn’t want me to tell anyone else in case I change my mind”. Age: 16

“Stop acting like a princess! You’re acting like a princess!! Ooh… little princess… boo hoo.”Parents talking to their crying, four-year-old son.

“Oh my god! Will you be my new gay best friend? We can go shopping for clothes!” A straight, female coworker to me upon learning that I, a male, had a boyfriend.  I said, “No” and walked away, confused. I don’t have any interest in shopping or clothing, much less being a “gay best friend.” It makes me angry that just by coming out, I can instantly be transformed into a romantic comedy stock character even when someone had seen me as a real person prior to knowing that I’m gay.

“Bisexual people don’t exist. Gay people just say that so they can walk down the hall with a girl holding hands.” Kurt on Glee, a seemingly gay friendly show. Made me feel TIRED.

Group Discussion:   We have been discussing the effects of heterosexism on LGBT people, but what are the effects on Heterosexuals?  Martin Luther King said something along the lines of when one group is oppressed we are all oppressed.  How does heterosexism oppress heterosexuals?

I had the group discuss this for a bit and then closed the discussion with some quotes from this resource on the topic, especially highlighting those not mentioned.

Detrimental Effects of Heterosexism & Homophobia on Heterosexual People
Taken from Diversity Works, Pelham, MA

“We often think only of how heterosexism and homophobia are hurting LGBT people. However, this oppression also limits and harms members of the dominant group, heterosexuals. The most effective heterosexual allies have recognized that it is in their own self-interests to interrupt heterosexism and homophobia.

  • Limited cultural exposure perpetuates myth and mystery about LGBT persons.
  • Lack of information causes heterosexuals to live with a false, distorted reality.
  • Codes of behavior determined by homophobia impose rigid patterns of interaction and relationship among heterosexuals.
  • Close friendships between men and between women are limited by fears and not valued as highly as cross gender relationships.
  • Deep love, support, and nurturing is assumed to be available only from the other sex.
  • Contact between women and men is always sexualized. Other forms of friendship and intimacy are not recognized as options.
  • Heterosexuals consciously and unconsciously modify and restrict their own self-expression to avoid being targeted as gay or lesbian.
  • Behaviors that do not conform to traditional gender roles are suspect.
  • The full range of individuality is squelched.
  • Contact with lesbian, gay, and bisexual people is avoided, depriving us of their friendship, the appreciation of LGBT people, and the dispelling of our socialized ignorance.
  • We are kept ignorant about friends and family members who may not be out as an LGBT person. Distance and fear are maintained in these relationships.
  • Fully appreciating and loving our own bodies is limited by our socialized fears of homosexuality.”

We also discussed in detail What is Heterosexual privilege?

Privilege is the overall unearned advantages and rights that systematically empower certain groups over others. Heterosexual privileges are the benefits gained automatically by being heterosexual that are denied to homosexuals. It can also be the benefits an LGBT person gains by claiming heterosexual identity and denying homosexual / transgender identity.

We closed the workshop with the beginnings of what we can do next specifically as a congregation.  I posed this as a group discussion:

Group Discussion:  How can I contribute to a Homophobia/Heterosexism free environment? What would we need to do as a congregation to create a heterosexism free environment?

The workshop participants discussed this by also including what they are currently doing that helps create a heterosexism free environment. Such as the two bathrooms in their building are not gender designated but open to all.

I used the following to highlight areas that might not have been mentioned:

· Be non-judgmental. Sexual orientation and gender identity is not something to be judgmental of or ashamed about. Be supportive and open to listen to friends no matter what their sexual orientation or gender identity.

· Remember that it is not possible to assume someone’s sexual orientation based on what you perceive it to be. Assuming that everyone is heterosexual “unless you know otherwise” or assuming someone who is “acting gay” is homosexual puts people into specific roles that create certain stereotypes about people. It can be hurtful to assume one’s sexual orientation.

· Engage in inclusive practices. Create work, study and living environments in which gender and sexual diversity are included, modeled and valued.

· Be mindful of the language you use with others. One of the main ways heterosexism thrives is through language. Saying things such as “that shirt is gay” or “that guy throws like a girl” could be offensive to others. Use words that are gender inclusive like partner instead of wife, boyfriend, etc.

Speak up against teasing, harassing, slurs, comments that you witness against those who do not fit in with gender roles or heterosexual characteristics. Silence condones and encourages such behaviors.

· Educate yourself. If there are things you don’t know or understand about LGBQ issues, do some research, ask questions or contact a group that deals with these issues.

 Source: GenEq is a department within Campus Life & Leadership, http://cll.berkeley.edu Last updated 02/06/2008

The workshop went well. People seemed energized by the discussions and empowered to  begin to ensure a heterosexist free environment. If you would like me to present this workshop to your congregation please feel free to contact me. It will be an evolving piece of work.  It was clear that this was only the beginning of a deeper and broader conversation to be had within this congregation.   Blessings,

We Must Change

Last Sunday, I gave what was perhaps the most emotional sermon ever as I reflected, as did many throughout America, on the events that occurred in Sandy Hook.  My personal connections to the community made it all the harder for me to function in the hours and days after the event.

I have read many perspectives over the last few days and have come to the conclusion that the recent events in Clackamas, OR and Sandy Hook, CT have more to do with our love for violence than it does with guns.   Guns are only a small piece of the puzzle.

There are folks who believe that banning assault rifles is the solution.  I agree that assault rifles have no purpose except for killing mass numbers of people.  However,  banning weapons will not prevent murders from weapons any more than banning abortions would prevent terminating pregnancies or banning cocaine and crack would prevent drug addiction. The only outcome of outlawing weapons, abortions, crack/cocaine is force these underground giving organized crime syndicates another market to exploit.  Plus the number of deaths annually by assault rifles is small compared to the number of deaths by all firearms, whether those deaths are homicides, suicides, or accidental.  So a ban on assault rifles only covers a small dent in the overall issue of gun violence, just as gun violence is a small piece of the over all issue of violence.  It might seem a victory for gun control advocates but it does not address the problem.  It is comparable to swatting at a fly when a tiger is on the prowl.

That tiger is violence in American culture.  We have a love affair with violence.  John Lennon is quoted as saying “We live in a world where we have to hide to make love, while violence is practiced in broad daylight.”

We begin early in our lives to enculturate our children to violence.  When I was young it was watching Tom and Jerry Cartoons and The Three Stooges. We would laugh at their antics but the underlying theme was violence.  Today the children are given video games of World of Warcraft and Call of Duty and the Halo series.  The animations are increasingly lifelike. One of the purposes of games in any culture is to teach various skills that will enable the player to survive in that culture.  Games like Candy Land or Shoots and Ladders teach young children how to cooperate with one another, Chess teaches strategic thinking, and World of Warcraft, Halo?  They teach how to become immune to the horrors of war and death.   They teach how to be callous in the face of violence–both in the receiving of it and in the perpetrating of it.

I am not going to join the chorus that is trying to blame video games on the recent shooting in Sandy Hook.  The factors that led this young man to commit these heinous actions are far too complex to simply point to one factor as the scape goat.  That said, our culture’s willingness to lift up these games as desirable products for children and adults is a symptom of this nation’s pathology.  It is an indication that our culture is mentally ill when violence is glorified  as entertainment.  It makes our culture no different than the Roman Empire when people  were thrown to the lions and gladiators for sport.  We look at that ancient empire and think how barbaric yet our actions are no less barbaric.

We further enculturate our children to violence when we teach our children that it is acceptable to be violent towards women. The recent misogynist statements by our elected officials that rape is only legitimate if no pregnancy occurs  or that god (small g deliberately used) ordained the rape for purposes of pregnancy is part of this normative approach to violence in our culture.  How many times are our young teens told that when a partner says ‘no’ to sex, that they do not really mean ‘no’?   Or that if a woman does not resist sexual advances that she therefore wanted the sex?  Unwanted sexual advances are violent and our culture lifts this up as acceptable behavior unless the behaviors become brutal and leaves outward visible marks.  Then we might prosecute but what always comes up is that the woman dressed in a manner to invite such advances.  Resulting in all bets are off and the violent act is once again seen as acceptable.  Violence against others in any form is never acceptable behavior is the message we need to be sending.

We honor and lift up spiritual violence as a normative in our culture as well. Our churches preach that homosexuals deserve death because that is what one of the  six verses in the Bible state.  The fact that the same Bible says the same for working on the sabbath is over looked (Exodus 35:2). We do spiritual violence to our gay, transgender, and intersex children when we spout such violence from the pulpit.  Yet we abhor the actions of Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, not because they are saying anything differently than most  conservative congregations in America but because they are are putting into action the words that  our ministers have stated from the pulpit.    So spiritual violence is fine but acting on that spiritual violence by making it also physical violence, not fine.  We are a very sick and demented culture.  Those preachers who preach spiritual violence against sexual minorities are the same as Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church–a matter of degrees in action does not make it acceptable nor moral.

Our theology is even steeped in violence.  The whole idea of a savior needing to be brutally tortured and  killed for our sins reveals a god that is equally violent and non-loving. That is not the good news, that is the violent news.  The good news message of Jesus is not found in his brutal death but rather in his life, the love and compassion he showed, the belief or rather trust he held that each of us have the potential to reveal the realm of love.  His death,  as Gracie Allen might say, is the comma not the period.

Spiritual violence against another person is not appropriate behavior.  Words cut just as deep into the heart as a knife does and can shape that young person into being violent, not only against others but destructive against their own being as well.  It is well documented that the most virulent homophobic person is one that struggles with their own sexual orientation.  The result is they project violently all the self hatred and self-rejection they have out into the world.  We need to learn how to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Spewing hatred and violence towards others means we  neither love our neighbors nor ourselves.

The events in Clackamas, OR and Sandy Hook, CT are horrifying. I hope that we will not only look to substantive legislation like stricter controls on gun registration, not only those sold new but those sold used, just as we do with car registrations.  Stricter regulations on requiring gun safety courses for all gun users and locking guns away securely when not in use.  But if that is all that we do, then we are doing ourselves a disservice.    We also need to change our desire to fantasize being violent, acted out through our video games. We need to correct our theology so it reveals a loving God who wept over his son’s death (the sun went dark and the earth quaked)  and not gloried in his son’s violent death. We need to examine how insurance companies handle mental health issues–having a limited maximum number of sessions or day stays in a hospital is not helpful for people who are psychically hurting. We need to learn how to solve our problems with rationality and not with violent words and fighting.   We need to learn how to treat each other with respect, how to respect and honor each other.

In short, we need to create a new culture here in the United States.  A culture of love and equanimity.  A culture of humility.  A culture where non-violence is lifted up and valued.  This is more than just a few feel good legislative bills proposed and passed but in such a water down version so the legislation  is impotent.   We need to change our heart.  We must change or we will self-destruct in our psychosis as a nation.

Throwing the First Stone

“Throwing the First Stone”

10 October 2010 ©  Rev. Fred L Hammond

Unitarian Universalist Congregation Tuscaloosa

There once was a young boy who dreaded going to school.  Oh he was bright enough.  And he liked the subjects well enough.  But he did not like getting on the school bus because even though there were plenty of seats, he had to fight to get one.  The bus driver would yell at him for not sitting down immediately, oblivious to the fact that the other students on the bus would refuse to let him sit.  And then when he arrived at school, he always had his books knocked out from under his arms. This was before back packs were allowed in school.  He was told he carried them like a girl.  When he tried to carry them in the more manly fashion at his hip, they would be knocked from his arms.  The books would scatter to the floor and then others would gleefully kick the books down the hall.   He would be late for class trying to retrieve them. The teachers would then send him to the principal for being late.  No amount of explaining what happened would make a difference.  It was his fault that he was late for class yet again.

Sometimes he would just be shoved in the hall way.  Once could be considered an accident, perhaps, but five or six shoves in a row by the other boys passing by was a deliberate act.  It was thought funny by the girls.   Sometimes the shoving and knocking the books to the floor were combined.  One would shove, another knock, and a few more would kick the books down the hall.

And there would be the threats of violence after school let out.  He somehow managed to slip through the crowd to avoid those encounters, even when he planned to hang out in town instead of catching the bus home.

He tried to man up.  He tried to be tough.  He tried to let the name calling and the physical affronts to his person roll off his back.  But he could not.  He knew crying would confirm in everyone’s mind that he was indeed what they called him; a faggot, a sissy, a homo, those were the names used then.  He didn’t want to live anymore, not like this.

One day after enduring what seemed like a continuous onslaught of bullying; he entered his next class and sat sideways at his desk.  He was numb.  His whole body just vibrated numbness.  His teacher asked him to turn around in his seat.  There was no response.  His teacher asked him again, and then, the tears began to fall.  The young boy just began sobbing full body sobs.

The teacher took him outside of the classroom and talked with him.  Found out what had been happening. The guidance counselor came and also listened to his story.  The guidance counselor gave a stern lecture to his classmates about their behaviors.  Told them in no uncertain terms that their treating of this young boy was wrong and they must stop this behavior or suffer the consequences of what could happen to this young boy which would be on their conscience forever.  They would be held responsible.

Life got better for this young boy after that.  Oh he still got the verbal taunts but it was nothing compared to the daily emotional and physical torment that he received that year.

The media has highlighted several suicides of young people this past month as a result of bullying.  Whether it was verbal taunts, physical assaults, or cyber-bullying, the results were the same, the ending of a young person’s life.  These young people were either gay or thought to be gay by their peers.  Their life was driven into the ground and their possibility and the hope for shining their light brightly in the world was snuffed out.

It is difficult to know how many teens commit suicide because of homophobia.  The once touted 3 in 10 deaths is now considered to be grossly overestimated and it is now thought that the deaths of sexual minorities is no greater than in any other demographic.  But this does not diminish the seriousness or the grief these families are suffering because of the loss of their children.

And the young people that we heard about in the news do not comprise every teen that committed suicide this past month or even this past week, only those we heard about.  According to a U.S. Suicide Statistics of 2001, a young adult between the ages 15-24 ends their life every 2 hours and 12 minutes.  So that means we only heard of a very few of the young people who died this past month at their own hands out of the roughly eleven young people who died every day.  The numbers add up quickly and these are only statistics on the completed suicides, not the incompleted attempts of suicide.   It is the third leading cause of death in this age group after accidents and homicides.  It is the 5th leading cause of death in children age 5-14.
Gay, Lesbian Straight Educators Network (GLSEN) has been conducting an annual survey[1] of high school students since 1999 on bullying as it relates to sexual orientation.   Here are a few findings from 2009’s survey: 84.6% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 40.1% reported being physically harassed and 18.8% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation.

Being out in school had positive and negative repercussions for LGBT students – outness was related to higher levels of victimization, but also higher levels of psychological well-being.

On October 1 2009, a new law went into effect in Alabama mandating all schools to have an anti-bullying policy.  It is basically a good law but there are few flaws. It is only aimed at student to student bullying and did not include harassment from authority figures such as teachers or coaches.   It defines bullying as an ongoing pattern by an individual and it requires the victim of the bullying or their parent to fill out a written form to report the bullying.  A onetime bullying event or an oral report is not sufficient to bring actions against the bully-er.  Yet, as we know in the recent suicide of Tyler Clementi, a onetime event on the internet is all it might take.   The law did not specify any specific class for protection.  Focus on the Family attempted to make the case that Alabama’s anti-bully legislation would open the door for gay activists to seek special protections.

Our school district in Tuscaloosa already had a fairly comprehensive bullying policy in place which did include sexual orientation as part of its policy.  The law now reinforces their policy.  A recent news story states that Tuscaloosa is considering broadening their policy to jurisdictions beyond school property such as “when a student interferes with another student’s educational opportunities or substantially disrupts the operations of a school or school-sponsored activity.[2] This would include cyberbullying through an electronic device such as the internet and sexting, the sending of explicit photographs and texts through a cell phone.

Tuscaloosa would become the first school system in Alabama to have a broad jurisdiction policy on bullying.  It is certainly a step in the right direction.  GLSEN affirms this action as being a positive step.  Their report confirms that  “Students attending schools with an anti-bullying policy that included protections based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity/expression heard fewer homophobic remarks, experienced lower levels of victimization related to their sexual orientation, were more likely to report that staff intervened when hearing homophobic remarks and were more likely to report incidents of harassment and assault to school staff than students at schools with a general policy or no policy.[3]

There are other positive actions that could be done to reduce bullying behavior as it relates to sexual orientation and gender expression.  GLSEN stated that schools with Gay-Straight alliances increased the positive experiences sexual minority students had and reduced the reports of negative experiences.  Having safe zones and supportive teachers “contributed to a range of positive indicators including fewer reports of missing school, fewer reports of feeling unsafe, greater academic achievement, higher educational aspirations and a greater sense of school belonging.[4]

There are currently no gay straight alliances in our public high schools.  University of Alabama has two student groups, Spectrum and OUTlaw, as well as a faculty/ staff group on campus. So where are students in high school to go where they will be accepted for who they are and not fear being bullied?  –Where they will be encouraged to explore the light that is the essence of their being and nurtured to allow that light to shine bright?

I will let those questions sit for a moment.  I want to shift our attention to why this is a concern for us today. What is it about bullying, and why is bullying sexual minority youth so important for us to examine and to end it?  The reason is not just because a few individuals commit suicide, albeit a very sound reason indeed.  There is something else at work in bullying sexual minority youth and suicides are just one of the consequences of this behavior.

Iris Marion Young in her essay Five Faces of Oppression looks at oppression not in the traditional format of a few people in power oppressing the masses as in tyrannical forms of government but as a form of systems that are in place to maintain dominant culture.  She describes oppression as being structural.  There are embedded in the dominant culture “unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutional rules and the collective consequences of following those rules.[5]

So while the intent is good to pass anti-bullying legislation or passing laws protecting rights of sexual minorities for housing, employment, etc., the assumptions of what is normal behavior remains operative in the culture.  Those who affirm the dominant culture resent what they see as the deteriorating of their traditional values and norms with the passage of such laws.

While all of the five faces of oppression, Young describes also apply to homophobia and bullying on some level, there are two that I want to highlight specifically.  She describes what she calls Cultural Imperialism which is the universalization of a dominant group’s experience and culture.  This becomes considered as the norm and therefore the norm for all of humanity. So in America, up until very recently, one did not see positive images of gays on television.  If gays were viewed on television or in the movies it was in negative, often stereotypical images.  It was the gay man dying of AIDS.  It was the flamboyant gay who everyone could laugh at. It was the manipulative and weak-spirited Mr. Smith on Lost in Space who preyed upon unsuspecting young Will Robinson and therefore had to be under constant surveillance. These images sent very strong messages of what gays deserved, of what manhood was, and the dangers to our children.  They each deserved what they got.

Young writes, “The dominant group reinforces its position by bringing the other groups under the measure of the dominant norms.[6] These groups become reconstructed as deviant and inferior and as the other. The stereotype becomes the known example of these other groups.  Those who do not fit that stereotype are rendered invisible.  Young writes, “Just as everyone knows that the earth goes around the sun, so everyone knows that gays are promiscuous…[7]

We see these assumptions in operation when Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church declares that “God hates Fags” or when the Family Research Council declares “… that homosexuality is unhealthy, immoral and destructive to individuals, families and societies.[8] Those who are members of the groups targeted even if they refuse these stereotype values and desire “recognition as human, capable of activity, full of hope and possibility;[9] they must react to the dominant culture’s perception of them as different, inferior, and immoral. The further they are from the stereotype the more invisible they become because the dominant culture only sees the stereotype and not the person before them. It is assumed that they meet the stereotype even when they do not. The dominant culture does not recognize that they have a perspective on the culture that is based on their status within the culture.  Simone Weil said, “Someone who does not see a pane of glass does not know that he does not see it. Someone who, being placed differently, does see it, does not know the other does not see it.[10]

The dominant culture does not see the pane of glass through which their world view is shaped and altered.  It then is up to those who are placed differently and do see the pain of glass to point it out and demand that it be recognized as such—a perspective and not a universal truth.

Cultural Imperialism feeds into another face of oppression which is systemic violence.  Groups which are oppressed live with the reality that they “must fear random, unprovoked acts on their persons or property, which have no motive but to damage, humiliate, or destroy the person.[11]

Taken on its face, no one, not even Focus on the Family, which advocated not passing the Alabama anti-bullying bill, believes bullying behavior is good.  Their stance against the law was purely on the basis that it might condone or encourage sexual minorities to come further out of the closet.  Bullying then becomes one method to send a clear message to sexual minorities that they are not to be seen as a valued contributing member of the society. Those caught in bullying might only receive light punishment and to that extent the acts are acceptable behaviors. Bullying is therefore on some level viewed as an acceptable behavior in society because it serves the function of maintaining the dominant culture’s control.

The work that must be done to bring bullying to an end is on the cultural level.  It will take diligent and persistent messaging into the main culture stream to change what is considered boys simply being boys.  This is more than passing laws and school policies against bullying. In order to change the culture, positive interactions on the relational level with the perceived other must become the norm.  Our work for justice lies in the vigilant vanguard position of overt acceptance of different perspectives, different cultural norms across all avenues of being human.  This includes sexual orientation, gender expression, racial and ethnic, and class differences—all must be in our sights for radical acceptance in order to change the cultural norm of oppression.

To bring this back to the question asked earlier.  Where are students in highschool to go where they will be nurtured and encouraged to explore the light that is the essence of their being?   Our youth group which meets every Sunday is one place where gay teens are welcomed. Because there does not exist a gay straight alliance in schools, our youth group becomes one of the places where gay, and lesbian, transgender, bi, questioning, and intersexed teens are free to gather to ask the questions they need to ask and relax in who they are.

Many of the teens who attend the youth group are not from families from this congregation.  And so this youth group becomes our congregation’s calling card into the community.  We need to do all we can to support them in their journey.  We must listen to their experiences, honor their integrity, and show unconditional love for their dignity as people here with us.

A few weeks ago, our teens offered a worship service that was poignant and moving.  They could only have done that particular service if they knew that we loved them.  We do love them.  We must continue to love them and celebrate their lives here.  We can support them by standing up to bullying that we see in our schools and elsewhere.  We might not be able to change the nation but we can and we must do all that we can to change the culture where we live.

You might have surmised the identity of the young boy at the beginning of this sermon as my personal experience of seventh grade.  You would be right. I was very close to failing that grade level until a teacher and guidance counselor intervened.  That was all it took, two people who believed in me and acted on my behalf to turn that year around.   I still struggled with my gay identity.  I still faced random acts of taunting against me but things began to change that day.  And I found other people who also accepted me and valued me as I am and life got better.  I want to make sure that every gay teen who walks through our doors knows what I have come to know.  There are people who love them, and cherish them, and life will get better.

Not everyone in the world is looking to throw the first stone. Here is a place where stones are put aside for building bridges of hope and love.  Blessed Be.

Benediction:  In the Hebrew scriptures Leviticus states “you shall the love the alien as yourself, for you were once the alien in the land of Egypt.[12] The land of Egypt is anywhere we felt isolated and different from the dominant culture.  It is the place where we are the other, the outsider of the group, the one longing for acceptance.  We all know what that feels like; we have been there, therefore love the other as if he or she is not the other but rather us here in this setting.  Love the other as you would love yourself.  Go in peace.

[2] Jamon Smith Staff Writer “New plan to prevent bullying examined” Tuscaloosa News September 17 2010.

[5] Iris Marion Young, “Five Faces of Oppression” as accessed at http://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/young.pdf

[6] Iris Marion Young, “Five Faces of Oppression” as accessed at http://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/young.pdf

[7] IBID

[9] Iris Marion Young, “Five Faces of Oppression” as accessed at http://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/young.pdf

[10] IBID

[11] IBID

[12] Leviticus 19:34

MPB and Fresh Air Closure

I did not realize my blog with fewer than 50 readers a day would suddenly go viral on this story with over 3900 hits in one day–and the day is not over.  Nor did I realize that Rachel Maddow would pick up on this story.  I speculated on what possibly could have been “recurring inappropriate content”  as MPB Director Kevin Farrell wrote in an email to a listener as the explanation for dropping the popular show.  I looked at one weeks worth of programs, reviews, political commentary because if this was indeed a recurring event than it would have to be,  well–recurring.

I raised the question of positive images of gays and lesbians as the recurring theme in that weeks show as a possible suspect.  Here in the south, homosexuality is still very much an inappropriate topic.  Especially when it comes to gay rights.  I asked the question was this the recurring theme that was deemed inappropriate?

I asked this question because homophobia comes in all shapes and sizes.  Some of it can be internalized and hidden from view and therefore denied. It is insidious in our society, tucked here and there allowing institutionalized policies to rationalize homophobia  as being something else entirely.  I have never heard anything on Fresh Air that I thought as inappropriate content, let alone recurring.  But maybe because as a gay man, I long for positive gay messages on our airways that when ever I hear them, I leap for joy.

One of the comments that I received stated “It was dropped because someone called the IHL building and was placed on hold. the hold music is MPN/NPR and (they claim) Gross was talking about sex in an interview. So, someone who doesn’t even listen to NPR got it pulled off the air.” I held off on publishing this comment because I wanted to verify its information in some manner.  The verification came earlier today via email, the source was an insider at MPB.  And it was  confirmed by another edition of the Rachel Maddow Show.

But this is not a topic that Terry Gross has on a recurring basis. So that leads me to continue to wonder what else is considered “recurring inappropriate content?”

I received a comment from Unity Mississippi stating  my post has damaged both the image of Mississippi and MPB where many are allies to the cause of gay rights.

I do not regret in the least of my speaking out and raising the question.  In a state where homophobia and sex-phobia run hand in hand enabling high rates of sexual transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS, the question needed to be raised.   Homophobia is a powerful oppressor which debilitates peoples lives.  To allow one caller, obviously not comfortable with their own sexuality–straight, gay or bi– who  does not even listen to NPR is a sure indication of how much power is given to those who are fearful of the other.

Homophobia comes in all shapes and sizes and if those who claim to be allies of the GLBT community cave in to the demands  of one caller, then I suspect that internalized homophobia  or in this case sex-phobia is also at work.  I can not and will not allow my life to be shaped by homophobia in any form, from any source, from my gay friends who claim I have damaged the image of Mississippi ( by reinforcing stereotypes)  and gay friendly MPB to those who stridently and publicly work  against my procuring civil rights. Nor will I bend towards the tugs of homophobia that society has still lodged within my own heart.

My fervent hope is that after the Board at MPB meets today that they will  reconsider their positions and return to the airways of Mississippi one of the best shows on NPR, Fresh Air with Host Terry Gross.  That they will not allow themselves to be held hostage by one caller or many callers from offering the best in programming that is available.  Shows like Fresh Air offer a life line in Mississippi for so many people who want to be exposed to the vast market place of ideas.  It does so respecting the inherent worth and dignity of the person being interviewed. The program shows respect of others regardless of their life stories and that is so needed today.


Mississippi Public Broadcast drops “inappropriate” Fresh Airi

Mississippi Public Broadcasting (MPB) dropped the very popular Fresh Air hosted by Terri Gross.  The drop came at Christmas time in 2009.  It then returned for a brief period and now is again off the MPB’s airways.   An email dated July 12 2010 from Kevin Farrell, director of MPB radio, states “MPB no longer airs this program [Fresh Air]  due to recurring inappropriate content.”

Just what was this inappropriate content?  Mr. Farrell did not elaborate.   A look at the programs that aired recently on Fresh Air  reveals these interviews:  July 13th, “A Psychiatrist’s Prescription for his Profession; ”  July 12th, “Missing ‘Priceless’ Artwork? Call Robert Wittman; ”  July 9th, “Colin Firth: A Leading Man in ‘A Single Man’; ” and July 8th, “Generating Changes In The Electrical Power Grid.”  Anything inappropriate in these stories?

Recent reviews included these: July 13th, “Robert Randolph: A Gospel Guitarist’s Secular ‘Road’;” July 12th, “A Star Named Marilyn (But Not The One You Think; ” and July 9th, “Cholodenko’s ‘Kids’ Flick: More Than Just All Right.”  Anything that stands out as recurring and inappropriate here?

Recent political topics included “CPAC, The Tea Party And The Remaking Of The Right,” “Connecting The Dots Between PhRMA And Congress,” and “‘Clinton Vs. Starr’: A ‘Definitive’ Account.” Anything inappropriate that the average American could not handle in these topics?

Now what could possibly be inappropriate about the content of these shows?  Couldn’t possibly be the interview with Colin Firth regarding his role in “A Single Man.”  He plays the part of a gay man grieving the loss of his partner.  The story line of grieving the death of a loved one is as old as the story of David and Jonathan in First Samuel of the Hebrew Scriptures.   And it certainly could not be the movie review of Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are Alright.”  That story line of parents dealing with their rebellious teens goes all the way back to Adam and Eve.  Oh wait, the parents are both lesbians.   Nah, it couldn’t be that.

Unless what is inappropriate is that these story lines reveal homosexuals as being just as affected by universal themes as everyone else. Now that we can’t have because that would mean gays, lesbians, bi’s, and transgender folks live just as mundane a life as everyone else.  It would mean that they are not the evil incarnate bent on destroying the American dream, baseball and apple pie, too. They are just trying to reach the American dream like everyone else.  Now that is inappropriate!!!

One of the beauties of public radio is that it will air shows that commercial radio is too scared to air.  It will offer a point of view that challenges us to think about life in new and unique ways.  Thinking is something that Americans seem afraid to do these days.  Based on the rise of the Tea Party with its hate and fear based jargon and the slanderous distortions coming from Fox News, people in America have forgotten how to think for themselves and seem willing to surrender their minds to the emotion of fear.

MPB seems to be following suit in reducing its programming to the amusement and entertainment shows like “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” and “Only a Game. ”  Not that there is anything wrong with these fine shows but public radio is meant to be something more than just idle amusement.  It is supposed to be an alternative to network radio and television not more of the same.  And in Mississippi where a girl cannot even take her girlfriend to a school prom because it might be distracting, there is a definite need for a forum where an alternative to homophobia can be heard.

No, this certainly cannot be the inappropriate content that Mr. Farrell is referring to because free speech is a constitutional right of the first amendment.  He clearly knows that to censor any programming on public radio simply because it does not match someone’s political or religious views is against the first amendment.  Right Mr. Farrell?


Amazon Glitch, Twitter, Hacker and Truth

We are in a new age.   Yesterday, I received reports that Amazon the online bookseller mogul had deranked thousands of books across a variety of categories that had one common theme; positive gay images.  Amazon stated it was a glitch in their software programming.  People across the nation begin to use Twitter to decry this event. Gay authors brought forward official communiques from Amazon stating their works were deranked because of an alleged “new” Amazon policy to derank adult books.  This did not make sense when many of these books were written for children, were health related or simply had nothing to do with adult content.  Something was a foot.  After my checking with Amazon’s releases on the subject, checking various claims that gay authors were making on various blogs, finding some of the titles re-ranked again, I called it a hate crime. 

Amazon still claims it to be a computer program glitch.  Yesterday afternoon, a well known Hacker by the pseudonym of Weev, is claiming credit for the debacle.   He claims to have done it as revenge against the  gay community in San Francisco for allegedly targeting his Craigs List ads looking for women who want to shoot up with him.  One of his tactics he claims was to target Amazon’s feedback program of stating a particular book as inappropriate–meaning adult content.   Amazon is still claiming that the de-ranking of 50K+ titles of gay related themes was a glitch, yet this feedback program that customers could target items as inappropriate is no longer available.  

Yesterday, I received cautionary advice from a colleague, Christine Robinson about jumping quickly on the news that sails on the tsunamis known as Twitter.  It is good advice.  I did what I thought was due diligence in checking the claims before I wrote my post.   My sensitivity to homophobia as a gay male is acutely heightened and so it is a button if pushed, I respond.  

I still find it hard to believe this was a programming glitch.  Unless that is what hacker’s do; find programming glitches to exploit with their computer terrorism.  In which case, Amazon can deny the hacker’s success, save themselves from the apparent embarrassment of being hacked, and place into the software the safeguards needed to avoid the glitch from being exploited again.

These are the new days in which we live.  Computers are now the threads that bind our lives together.  Hackers are the new proponents of hate crimes.   Twitter is both the new rumor mill and a power to contend with for corporations–for good or ill.  And the Truth, well, it is still out there waiting for the light of day. Blessings,

Published in: on April 14, 2009 at 9:40 am  Comments (2)  
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Day of Silence

Today, thousands of students across the country participated in the Day of Silence. I do not know how many or if any students in Mississippi participated.  This has been an annual event sponsored by GLSEN (Gay Lesbian Straight Educators Network) to bring attention to the plight of sexual minorities being harrassed, bullied, and yes, even killed for being gay in schools. 

This year’s Day of Silence is in memory of Larry King, a 14 year old boy who was killed by another student because Larry sent a valentines card to him.  The idea that receiving a valentine card from some one the same gender is so horrific that the only proper recourse is to shoot him goes against all rational human logic.  Yet, in our society, thousands believe that of all the verses in Leviticus that can be set aside as not being applicable to 21st century living, the one verse that must be upheld is the one that refers to men lying with men as with a woman being an abomination and should be killed.  The teenager who shot and killed Larry King thought this was the appropriate way to respond to receiving a card offering admiration and affection.   

There are two victims of this death; Larry and Brandon, the boy who killed him.  GLSEN is seeking to end homophobia so that no one, not another Larry, not another Brandon, will have to be victims of fear.   If there is a GLSEN chapter near you, invite them to speak in your congregations about homophobia and the work they are doing to end it in schools.  Find out how you can support their work.  I have linked their website to this post.  Blessings,       

Published in: on April 25, 2008 at 10:33 pm  Comments Off on Day of Silence  
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