Monday, December 31st, 2007
You know that urban legend that says if you’re out for a pleasant night drive and you see a car with its lights off, DON’T FLASH YOUR BRIGHTS AT THE CAR, because, the legend goes, it could be a gang initiation wherein thugs drive around in the noir until they encounter a driver courteous enough to signal them, at which time THEY WILL KILL YOU DEAD!
The frequency with which that cautionary tale is circulated and cited as fact speaks volumes about the American psyche: Think twice about drawing attention to yourself among strangers, however friendly your intentions, because you may be singling yourself out for attack!
Well, I flashed my brights at the Episcopal Church via a December 19 Advocate.com commentary praising the gay- and lesbian-inclusive platform its leaders and members have embraced over the last several decades, a movement that reached a boiling point with the 2003 consecration of V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay and actively partnered priest, as bishop of New Hampshire. The church has since been wracked by conflict both internal—several dozen conservative U.S. congregations and one entire diocese have left the national body in protest—and external, with the worldwide body to which the church belongs, the Anglican Communion, threatening in fits and starts to cut the whole darn U.S. province adrift. Much more detail can be read in the essay itself, should you be so inclined.
Mine was meant as a friendly flick of the brights, a little shout-out to the church’s presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, who has held the progressive line despite enormous pressure to back down, and its beleaguered members, the majority of whom favor an inclusive church even if such a platform visits uncertainty and strife on their denomination. In recognizing and praising the national church’s vanguard position, of course, I noted its fallout, including the recent secession of that aforementioned diocese (in my own home state of California, no less), an unprecedented event within the church that underlines the recalcitrant position of Anglican traditionalists, many of whom habitually drive about with darkened headlights and a frank willingness to lash out at those who threaten to illuminate the world beyond their frosted windshield.
Given the Advocate.com audience, I anticipated a largely LGBT readership, thus vastly underestimating the Internet’s powers of dissemination. Remarking on the commentary’s Web traffic the day after it was posted, our digital media director said that the piece was logging the kind of numbers we typically see only on breaking news of, say, homophobic Republican senators caught in flagrante delicto with gents in public toilets. And you can’t just make that shit up; we have to wait—sometimes months between occurrences—for such gifts from the news gods.
Happily, most of my traffic was of a friendly persuasion. Plenty of nice Episcopalians, both gay and straight, clicked through from links on progressive blogs; several even took time to drop me an e-mail noting how gratifying it was to see a story acknowledging a straight Christian voice in matters of LGBT social justice. But links to my commentary inevitably also landed in a couple of inhospitable Web neighborhoods, the kind of places where we dykes and faggots had best drive through quickly if at all, lest the thuggish local holy men shoot out our headlights and smite us under cloak of darkness.
When my commentary came to the attention of members at a certain conservative Anglican blog, I was subject to much disliking. (I’m given to understand, courtesy of the aforementioned conservative Anglicans, that gay and lesbian folks overuse the word hate because, in truth, we relish victimhood. So chastised, I won’t be throwing that word around here, nope, not even when speaking of the only emotion I can think of that could possibly inspire random heterosexuals to spend such significant amounts of their limited time on this earth contemplating and communicating the kind of vitriolic
hate not-liking speech that springs from the mouths of homo haters dislikers—other than that stultifying fear among certain types of their own inclination toward the love that dare not speak its name.)
What surprised me about the response among conservatives was the personal chord struck by their
hatred disliking. Of course I knew when I published the piece that at least a few traditionalists would see it, and of course I knew they would like it not one bit; the commentary lionizes those very stances of the Episcopal Church that make its detractors go absolutely nuclear. But I think I did a fairish job of presenting the facts as well as my opinions without resorting to personal attacks, so I suppose I expected an in-kind response. If any. I mean, really, who the hell am I that those concerned with the serious work of calibrating the nation’s moral compass should waste energy shouting me down?
It took just four comments at the aforementioned blog for its readers to regress from parsing my text to parsing my appearance. From there, nearly half of the 31 comments to the link were concerned with, first, whether I was a boy or a girl, and second—after they deftly worked out that my first name, Teresa, and my self-identification as a lesbian indicated girlness—how much I didn’t look like a girl. Friends, I have met the enemy, and it attends junior high school.
The emphasis on my appearance seemed especially odd since I didn’t say one word about what John-David Schofield, the bishop who led the secession movement in central California, looks like:
But why go to town on a man’s appearance when there’s so much to say about his actions? Namely, that he has betrayed the will of his own denomination by refusing ordination to women, railing against gay and lesbian inclusion in the church, and operating an “ex-gay” ministry through his cathedral—naturally, he is himself a closeted homo (another factoid I didn’t mention in the commentary), having gone on record as an “ex-gay” years ago in an interview his followers now deny exists. But really, isn’t it more of a surprise these days when a virulently antigay leader isn’t a great big closet case?
Regardless of whether parishioners in crystal cathedrals ought to throw stones, they did so with delight—during a week in which I hope they also found time to celebrate the birth of their lord and savior. At one point the discussion addressed the likelihood that my appearance and orientation indicated a history of sexual abuse, an incredibly popular trope among the religious right—Google “childhood sexual abuse” and “lesbian” and your top hits will be “studies” conducted by fundamentalist organizations showing that a lesbian orientation is practically a gift with purchase of molestation. Was the poster asking the others to lay off discussing my appearance in deference to that probability, or was he gamely making sport of sexual abuse survivors? I’m honestly not sure, but I’m certain that the only time it’s appropriate for a stranger to bring up the possibility of my or anyone else’s sexual abuse history is never.
I responded by flicking my brights again, helpfully providing the Anglican blog community with a link to my earlier essay about gender, seeing as how they were so very interested in sussing out mine. Then a funny thing happened: The comments sort of petered out. Oh, sure, there was the peanut gallery member who countered with a link to an article about female aggression and lack of maternal behavior among spotted hyenas, appearing to suggest that, like the hyenas, women like me might be successfully treated with anti-androgen drugs to curb our masculine aggression (omigod, if they only knew how not aggressive I am) and cultivate feminine behaviors. A second poster brought up another popular conservative trope: that they don’t so much
hate dislike homos, they just don’t understand why we always have to run around flaunting our relationships.
I know, right? It’s nearly impossible to go to mainstream movies or read popular books without being subjected to same-sex love story after same-sex love story. We lucky homosexuals grow up in environments where our sexuality is constantly reinforced as the norm.
To add homosexual insult to heterosexual injury, a person can’t go anywhere without seeing us engaged in acts of explicit physical affection!
Despite the aforementioned couple of stragglers, about 15 minutes after I announced my presence at the
hateful dislikeful blog, the theretofore spirited commentary on my androgen-laden hyena-like ways ceased. Were the sanctimonious creeps turned off by the idea that their words didn’t appear to hurt me? Were they legitimately embarrassed to discover that I was privy to their ugliness? Or were they simply not interested in having an actual conversation with participation not strictly limited to those who completely agree with them?
Among many brilliant things le domestique has been heard to say, one of my favorites is, “The Internet slices people too thin.” Whatever personal inclination we want to feed—liberal or conservative, gay or straight, secular or religious, cat or dog, Mac or PC—there are scores of blogs and discussion boards online where we can get precisely the information and resonance we think we need. Such a sense of belonging is truly wonderful. But as the ease and abundance of access draws communities of common interest closer together, it pushes camps who disagree ever further apart, because increasingly, if we don’t want to, we don’t ever have to talk to anyone we don’t already completely agree with. It doesn’t bode well for the promotion of an open society. (For an accounting of 21st-century regressions of liberties and attitudes in the United States, read Naomi Wolf’s essay “Ten Steps to Close Down an Open Society” at the Huffington Post. It’s a chilling reminder of how far we’ve strayed from what most people think of as incontrovertible U.S. ideals.)
My flirtation with the Episcopal Church had consequences both expected and unexpected. While I have made much of the negative reactions by traditionalists, the positive response was tenfold the negative. Never has my writing been so profoundly rewarded as by the gratification and fellowship I’ve felt with Episcopalian readers these last couple of weeks. Confronting that same firewall of depersonalization their conservative counterparts sought so lamely to penetrate, many progressive Christians simply flicked their brights back at me to acknowledge that my gesture was well-received. Those who pulled over to invite me to their churches did so not to pressure or proselytize but to let me know that their doors would always be open.
To clarify, I have not had a religious epiphany. Nor can you expect me anytime soon to gift you with a New Testament—or even an Amy Grant album. This secular humanist doesn’t expect to undergo a faith makeover in the foreseeable future. But I have experienced a shift in my attitude toward Christianity. After a decade of static from the religious right, I had developed a bone-splintering knee-jerk reaction to the ecclesiastically inclined. I didn’t cultivate it, but I didn’t deny it oxygen either—like most people I seek online resources and news stories that reinforce my worldview, and, well, being an atheist sometimes makes me feel like a freak, like I’m missing something that everyone else sees, and feeling like a freak can make a person a little defensive, especially when religious organizations are actively distributing free bumper stickers condemning my right to equality.
Like the conservative Anglicans I encountered, I too had become a bit blinkered to the idea that a monolithic concept—in my case Christianity, in theirs homosexuality—is best viewed in full light of the individuals who give it life. I’ve since been reminded that for every Christian who dims his headlights to get a bead on his enemy, there are many more who understand that true humanitarianism is contingent on communication with people outside one’s immediate faith and social circles. In this age of increasing polarity I’m grateful that such people exist at all, and even more grateful that so many of them flicked their brights back at me to signal that my message was well met—and perhaps also to let me know that those shadowy thugs in the next car, for all the dire warnings we’ve heard of their quick and powerful wrath, are only threatening if we give credence to their legends and thus snuff our own lights.