Friday, June 26, 2015

Marriage Is Meaningless. Yay!

Today's SCOTUS decision confirming marriage equality across the US has brought out the predictable chorus of conservative opposition. The conservative argument that resonates most with me is the claim that marriage equality is the first step toward stripping marriage of all meaning. To some extent, I agree with this claim -- the difference is, I think this is a good thing -- but I also think it's overlooking a more fundamental reality:

Marriage is already meaningless.

Seriously, even before today's ruling, even 25 years ago when same-sex marriage wasn't a major issue in the public eye, what is marriage? As far as I can tell, marriage is a conflation of at least three different things, none of which need to coexist anymore:

  • a legal kinship contract
  • a religious rite
  • a sexual relationship 
There is no logical reason for these three to coincide, and, in a pluralistic society like the 21st-century United States, there's no legal or moral way to ensure they do.

A lot of people get terrible upset about the relationship between the legal and religious sides of marriage, but it seems pretty clear to me. Constitutionally, the legal and religious sides have to remain separate. Look at other religious rites: there is no religious monopoly or mandate with respect to birth or naming or death. These are legal matters in civil society, and you have the option to involve your religion if that's your jam.

Truth be told, this is how marriage already operates. I got married in a courthouse. So did plenty of heterosexual couples. You sign a contract in a little room that is nominally a chapel, but there's nothing inherently religious or spiritual about it (other than the civil religion of US law and politics, but that's a different conversation I won't get into here). Non-religious straight people have been getting married forever. From a legal perspective, religion is an optional add-on to legal matters of birth, marriage, death, etc. In the course of human history, the religious meaning of these rites of passage arguably preexists the legal meaning, but this is 2015 CE, not 8000 BCE.

As to the sexual component of marriage, my general feeling is that it's nobody's business outside of the members of the marriage (assuming consent and legality and all that good stuff). In practice, mandating the sexuality of a marriage has always been deeply misogynistic, whether it's contemporary purity culture's obsession with female virginity, or the centuries of men's control over women's sexual and reproductive rights.

But even just ideologically, the sexual component of marriage is plain incoherent. In the conservative imagination, marriage involves a sexual initiation. This demands an arbitrary declaration of a singular sexual act as uniquely constitutive of sexual and marital union, and/or an asinine blanket ban on all extramarital sexuality, as though sexuality were wholly separable from friendship, romance, and other forms of relationship. Even if you don't buy the initiation thing, the assumption of sexuality within marriage is both creepy and unnecessary. Not all couples want sex; not all couples have sex; and telling an asexual couple that their marriage is incomplete is both rude and factually inaccurate. Mandating (or even normalizing) sexuality of any kind within marriage is as incoherent as insisting that all married couples have to, I don't know, share an umbrella.

What frustrates me the most about the whole same-sex marriage argument, though, is that it's a public debate where both sides rely on an adherence to the legal enshrinement of the gender binary. In New York, even before today's ruling, the "gender" fields on a marriage license application are optional, and we left ours blank. I'm pretty sure that my ungendered marriage is therefore neither "same-sex" nor "opposite-sex" -- an all-too-rare instance in which the legal paperwork accurately reflects reality.

Once you recognize that the religious, sexual, and gendered aspects of marriage are and have always been irrelevant to the legal side, there's only one logical course of action: create a legal framework for kinship contracts among partners and families of all configurations. Phase out "marriage," with its archaic focus on the monogamous pair-bond with an assumed reproductive capability. Make life easier for the genderqueers, the polyamorous, the three-parent families, the siblings who live together, the consenting adults and the children they may or may not take responsibility for.

We're here. We've always been here. We're not going away. It's time the legal system caught up to that reality.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Freddie Gray, Baltimore, and the Christian Logic of Abuse

Smarter, better-qualified people than myself have written smarter, better things about the protests in Baltimore. From a quick survey of Facebook, here's Ta-Nehisi Coates, Julia Blount, Benji Hart, and those are just the three articles I've seen shared most.

Of course, I've also seen the terrible responses, the white people referring to the protestors as “thugs” and “animals” (transparent racist dogwhistles both), sanctimoniously misusing out-of-context MLK quotes, expressing far more concern over CVS than over black human lives – and the inevitable production of Freddie Gray's arrest record, as if that revealed anything other than the logical knots into which white supremacy will tie itself in order to maintain the just-world fallacy.

Something that really strikes me about the white supremacist treatment of Freddie Gray and the Baltimore protestors is the extent to which it manifests the Christian logic of abuse. White America has been subjugating people of color for centuries, and when we demand compliance from the people we oppress, we are operating exactly as white patriarchal Christianity does.

Bloggers like Libby Anne, Sarah Moon, and Samantha Field have been writing for a long time about the abusive Christianity of patriarchy and the profound harm it does to women and queer people. Scholars like Delores S. Williams and Kelly Brown Douglas have spent decades critiquing the intersection of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy in Christianity, and the oppression of black and brown women at the hands of an imperialist religion.

Wives, obey your husbands. Slaves, obey your masters.

As the religion of empire, Christianity has taken the contextually specific advice given by one subject of imperial oppression to others, in a world he expected to pass away imminently, and imposed it from above as the rule of law. This advice is not normative advice for moral living; it is a measure for survival as a beleaguered minority. A black mother in the US in 2015 tells her son to avoid the cops, not because avoidance of cops is all-purpose moral advice, but because it is a survival tactic to avoid being murdered in a white supremacist context. A whole system that puts the onus on black people to avoid being murdered by cops is a profoundly broken system.

The logic of patriarchy blames women for being abused while simultaneously encouraging them to stay in abusive relationships. The logic of white supremacy murders black people and simultaneously blames them for their own murder. Much of that logic traces directly back to the imperial wielding of the cross.

The resurrection is a profound symbol of the transformation of abuse and suffering into new life and hope. The imperial misstep is to demand abuse and suffering. Imperial Christianity sees abuse and suffering transformed into new life and hope, and concludes that more abuse and suffering is needed. The Christianity of empire, of patriarchy, of white supremacy, centers Christ's death and believes that it can be the agent of hope.

This has never been true. The face of God is not the face of white America. The face of God is the face of Freddie Gray, the faces of those who protest. As Kelly Brown Douglas says, “To be where God is, is to be where black people are crying out for freedom from crucifying realities.”

ETA: Nyasha Junior has an important take on Kelly Brown Douglas' piece.

Friday, March 6, 2015

UKIP, Queerness, and Non-Reproductivity

This week, Vice published an amazing piece about the UKIP spring conference. The whole article is worth a read – every time you think it must have exhausted the cornucopia of preposterousness, along comes another sentence like 
A leaflet that was handed out as he spoke helpfully pointed out that foreign aid is actually spent on "giving dance lessons to Africans" 
"At the risk of sounding melodramatic, let's suppose our leader was issued with a European arrest warrant for allegedly stealing a chicken from a Carrefour in France"
Before I read the article, though, I saw this image circulating in isolation.

Image: a page from a flyer. A highlighted text box states that "What the LGBT is achieving, of course, is a recruitment drive. As such people cannot reproduce their own kind, they must recruit fresh 'blood' and this is best done among children in schools, the younger the better. The Government, through Gove and Morgan, has given them carte blanche."
It's easy to laugh at the naked scaremongering – the appeal to the tired old "predatory gays" trope, the implie conflation of queerness and pedophilia, the othering language of "such people" and "the LGBT" (which, ???) – but I think it's worth devoting some attention to the focus on reproduction.

That queers cannot reproduce is, of course, an anti-queer argument of long pedigree (see what I did there?). The Catholic church has thrown most of its anti-LGBT eggs into this philosophical basket, despite the elaborate theological hoop-jumping required to maintain this position while still justifying sex between infertile hetero couples. Its demonstrable falsity notwithstanding, the non-reproductivity argument still holds powerful rhetorical sway.

Look again at the flyer's language: 
As such people cannot reproduce their own kind, they must recruit fresh 'blood' and this is best done among children
See that must, both bolded and italicized. If queerness and pedophilia are conflated, as in the popular queerphobic trope that is certainly being invoked to some extent, the fresh blood to be recruited is a rainbow army of child prey, new meat for the insatiable sexual appetites of those voraciously vampiric queers who drain the bodily fluids from each victim before tossing them aside like so much offal. On this reading, queers need fresh blood because we are going through our finite supply of single-use sex partners at a rate of knots.

Simultaneously with this subtext, though, runs a second set of implied reasons for the queer recruitment drive, and that is simply "to reproduce their own kind." If this reproduction is intended to be analogous with human reproduction in its idealized form, in which parents are assumed not to prey sexually on their own children, then presumably queers are not recruiting these young schoolchildren to be our own sex partners. Recruitment, in the minds of the anti-queer flyering brigade, is the queer version of reproduction.

Queerness is definitionally non-reproductive to the creators of this flyer. Why, then, do queers wish to reproduce their own kind? They must do it, and the reason that they must do it is that they cannot do it. Self-evidently, non-reproductivity is a defect, and reproduction is the goal. For those who subscribe to the non-reproductivity argument against queerness, there is no "why" to reproduction. It's simply what living beings do.

I can't help wondering what would happen to this discourse if it came face-to-face with Lee Edelman. Edelman (No Future, 3, 4) exhorts queers to refuse the very terms of the argument that we must reproduce our own kind:
queerness names the side of those not 'fighting for the children,' the side outside the consensus by which all politics confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism.  [...]
Rather than rejecting, with liberal discourse, this ascription of negativity to the queer, we might, as I argue, do better to consider accepting and even embracing it.
If we're talking pure biological fact, queerness is not definitionally non-reproductive, and straightness is not definitionally productive; but that's not the argument I want to have. Frankly, I don't want to have any argument that accepts the parameters UKIP sets.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

I am bedeviled by fits of rationality

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
"Have a great day!"
--conversation between me and the Canon to the Ordinary when I got Ashes to Go at the train station this morning
 When I think rationally about existence, I am unable to function.

The universe massively preexists humanity and will vastly outlive us. We are specks of spacedust, and as a species our little life is nary a blip in the spacetime continuum. That's pure scientific fact, y'all.

"In four billion years the sun will swallow the earth, so what's the point of writing this assignment?" is not a good excuse, but when you think about it it's a strictly rational one. What's the point of getting out of bed? What's the point of staying alive?

In our anthropocentric little construction of reality, my fits of rationality are known as "depression" and are assumed to be treatable. When I lie staring at the ceiling, sleepless for wondering desperately why there's something rather than nothing, I'm making the most rational and fundamental of inquiries, and yet I am not functioning as a human should.

I take my meds. I drink my coffee and catch my train and go to work and class. Most of the time, I am not so rational that I can't participate in the trivialities of human life. The great irony, of course, is that my studies -- the work to which I am attempting to devote my life -- entail engaging the very existential questions that, if I delve into them too deeply, immobilize me utterly.

We are dust, and to dust we shall return. Have a great day.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

chewed up by the machine

Laverne Cox is going to be in a CBS pilot. Glee has gathered a goddamn 200-person all-trans choir. The BBC is making a transgender sitcom.

I'm mourning, and I'm goddamn furious.

Look, I love TV, probably more than anyone I know. I watch a ton of it, I write about it, I constantly agitate for more minority representation. I'm in no way saying that having more trans people on TV is in itself a bad thing (though God knows bumping a trans women of color in favor of a white trans guy reflects real life so perfectly that, on a decent show, I'd think it was a brilliant piece of meta-commentary).

But it's a bitter, bitter pill to be expected to rejoice, to cheer how far we've come, to grovel in thanks at the feet of TV execs who want to cash in on the current high visibility of trans people – to see all of this fanfare happening among the so-called LGB(T) community, while women are being murdered.

Trans women, mostly trans women of color, are being fucking murdered. Two hundred trans folks making jazz hands about how far we've come doesn't address their murders. If anything, it obscures that reality by focussing attention on an all-singing, all-dancing celebration of assimilation into the capitalist mainstream.
So far, a trans woman or gender non-conforming person of color has been murdered in the United States every week of 2015. This week, the horrifying trend continued when 21-year-old Black trans woman Penny Proud of New Orleans was shot multiple times early in the morning of February 10. She joins fellow trans women of color Yazmin Vash Payne, Ty Underwood, Lamia Beard and Taja DeJesus and gender non-conforming person of color Lamar Edwards, all of whom were under the age of 35.
Assimilation always leaves a remainder, and the remainder must be dealt with. Trans people aren't being welcomed aboard the shiny happy American Dream, even if it looks that way to those of us at the top of society's transgender league tables. We're being consumed by the machinery of imperialist, white-supremacist, heteropatriarchial neoliberal capitalism. If we're deemed the good ones, we slide willingly down its gullet, clapping along with a show choir as we fuel its ongoing machinations. Otherwise, we're chewed up and our mangled bodies are spat out to bleed to death in an alley.

(And I say "we" and "our" in that last sentence not to appropriate the struggle – since people like me, the white socioeconomically-privileged trans guys, are not the ones dying – but as a deliberate gesture of solidarity with my sisters.)

Nowhere is the operation of the machine of death clearer to me than in last week's appointment of a State Department envoy for LGBT rights around the globe, enshrining a supposed concern for LGBT people in US foreign policy.
“While there is currently strong momentum in the United States toward equality, there are many places in the world where the LGBT community is at risk, sometimes even for their lives,” added Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin in a press release. “This is an important way for the United States to facilitate diplomatic conversations with countries where we see ongoing violence, harassment and discrimination of LGBT people.”
Look at that phrasing, that eye-gougingly disingenuous phrasing designed to set up the US in opposition to "places in the world where the LGBT community is at risk," as if this is not one of the "countries where we see ongoing violence, harassment and discrimination of LGBT people." As if our very right to exist in public spaces isn't currently being legislated against right here. As if trans panic defense isn't still legal in 49 states of the union.

As if this is about human rights, as if this is about caring about LGBT people, and not just another excuse for neoimperialism. As if any of this means something, and isn't just about placating public outcry in the emptiest, most breathtakingly cynical way possible.

Women are being murdered. I'll join the party when that stops.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

White Christianity, Black Anger

I request a lot of random stuff from NetGalley, because I have a book-hoarding problem. Most recently, I read a book called Unoffendable by a conservative evangelical type called Brant Hansen. The title intrigued me, because when I requested the book I didn't know where Hansen was coming from, and I was kind of hoping for a radical argument for a new social justice coalition that transcends the worst excesses of petty holier-than-thou progressive infighting. Obviously that is not what I got, but I still tried to read with an open mind, because there are certain overlaps between the things that offend a conservative evangelical Christian like Hansen and the things that offend a radleftist SJW Christian like me, even if it's almost always for very different reasons.

This is a hard week in America, a sad and scary week for my Black friends. White supremacy is flaunting its ugly face even more brazenly than usual, and Black grief and anger is rippling throughout the country. Inevitably, white people who believe they speak from a lofty position of reason and objectivity are telling Black Americans what to do with their anger: suppress it, let it go, rise above it. Most perniciously, these white people are co-opting the words of a Black martyr and saint in service of their craven complicity with the white supremacist status quo.

To my fellow white people I say: How dare we? How dare we commit this twisted sin of white supremacist apologetics? When we steal Martin Luther King Jr.'s words to demand that Black emotion and Black action be directed toward the maintenance of this racist society, we murder him – and Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin, and Tamir Rice, and Jesus Christ – all over again.

Brant Hansen does it too. He not only quotes MLK in support of his anger-quashing agenda, but he also makes an example of his Black friend's story of convincing an actively racist white guy that Black people are human. This is the kind of narrative white people love: focus on the overtly racist individual, and elide the existence of the profound systemic racism on which this country is founded and through which it continues to operate.

The thing is, Hansen's book actually has a pretty good message for a specific audience. It's shot through with theological assumptions I do not share – Christian exclusivism, penal substitutionary atonement as the entirety of soteriology, a patriarchal He-God, an emphasis on heterosexual nuclear families and fetal personhood, that baffling evangelical tendency to assert that conservative Christian values are somehow countercultural – which make it clear that the book is written within and for a white conservative evangelical context. Hansen would have done much better to be upfront and explicit about this. With such a disclaimer, this could be a helpful text for conservative white cishet Christians: one of their own telling them they need to quit getting so angry and offended about stuff is definitely something they need to hear.

Without the disclaimer, though, and with the MLK-quoting white-supremacist sanctimony, it comes off as yet another instance of white evangelicals trying to universalize their contextually-circumscribed circumstances: yet another instance of white people telling Black people what to do and how to feel. Black men are constantly subjected to the dehumanizing narrative of the angry Black monster-man whom a white cop or a neighborhood vigilante can murder with impunity because any “reasonable” person would see him as a threat. They have absolutely zero need for condescending whites to tell them what to do with their anger.

Hansen calls for Christians to stop perpetuating the idea that humans can have righteous or justified anger. He says that anger is never a force for good. But the thing about marginalized people is – and I have felt this as a trans person, as a queer person, as a person with depression, and I can only imagine how it feels as a Black person – sometimes our anger is the only thing keeping us alive. Sometimes (too often), my white-hot rage at a society that doesn't want me to exist, that doesn't see my life as having worth, is all that empowers me to say, I won't let them win.

I don't have answers, I don't have solutions, I don't have a call to action. All I have is this little flame, a grief and anger too deep for words, and the assurance that God, too, lost a child to state-sanctioned violence, and she knows how it feels.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit

"Blessed are you who are poor ... woe to you who are rich."
"Blessed are you who are hungry now ... woe to you who are full now."
"Blessed are you who weep now ... woe to you who are laughing now."
"Blessed are you when people hate you ... woe to you when all speak well of you."
(Luke 6:20-26)

The Gospel of Luke is easy to love. In social justice-oriented contexts, Luke's is the go-to gospel because it so clearly portrays a Jesus who is deeply concerned about the social and material circumstances of the poor and the marginalized. It's the natural source for a Christian theological call for justice (assuming we're ignoring all the Hebrew Bible prophets, which as Christians we probably are. Thanks, supersessionism!). In Luke's rendition, the Beatitudes are a pretty uncompromising set of eschatological reversals, "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable," as we bleeding-hearts like to say.

Matthew, on the other hand, is a little more difficult. I've never heard anyone say that Matthew was their favorite gospel. Matthew is fussy and literalist to the point of being nonsensical, as when he tries to fulfil a Hebrew Bible prophecy by having Jesus enter Jerusalem riding two donkeys simultaneously because he's never heard of hendiadys. And look at what Matthew does with the first Beatitude:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
(Matthew 5:3)

For starters, note that Luke's Jesus is addressing the poor directly (as well as the rich, whom Matthew doesn't mention), whereas Matthew talks about them as though they are absent or even abstract. The most glaring difference, though, is that Luke's "poor" have become for Matthew "poor in spirit." It seems like a pretty clear-cut instance of Matthew softening the call for justice in order to avoid upsetting the wealthy and to accommodate the status quo.

I think there is potential for a more generous and more interesting reading of Matthew 5:3, though, and it arises from the question: what the hell does "poor in spirit" mean anyway?

Historical-critically, or with respect to the author's intentions, your guess is as good as mine. The reading I'm proposing has nothing to do with source criticism, the historical context in which Matthew's Gospel was written, or the nuances of the Greek terminology. It's just a reading I think is interesting, challenging, and kind of cool.

Luke's Jesus says: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." It's a promise of straightforward reversal: those who currently lack resources and comfort will receive abundance

Matthew's Jesus: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." If this is also a reversal, Matthew is clearly not using "kingdom of heaven" in quite the same way Luke is using "kingdom of God." Neither the reward nor the affliction are material in nature.

What does "poor in spirit" mean? I suggest that we can read it quite simply, as the reverse of "the kingdom of heaven": the poor in spirit are those who lack a certain sensibility, which for want of a better term I call "religious." Not those who do not believe in God, who have no use for that hypothesis -- it's perfectly possible to be religious without believing in God -- but those who have no sense for, well, whatever you want to call it: the transcendent, the liturgical, the impossible, wonder, the perhaps. Something precarious, something humbling, something greater than oneself. The people with the shallowest, most mean-spirited view of what humanity can be (I'm sure we can all think of examples, including some who call themselves religious and believe in God) are blessed. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

This is no way replaces Luke's vision of material abundance for the materially poor, but it's a thought-provoking supplement. For someone like me, steeped in leftist academia and liberation theology, "blessed are the poor" is normative, but "blessed are the small-minded" is a real challenge.