Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Joyful Mysteries of Reproductive Justice

On Saturday, I worked as an abortion clinic escort for the first time. Escorts offer moral support and a friendly face for the women whose path to the clinic door is lined by protestors whose intimidation tactics are a shameless smorgasbord of shouting about murder, thrusting leaflets into passing hands, and brandishing disgusting and mendacious placards.

On my way to the clinic, I prayed the rosary, a practice at which I am still very new. Saturday's apportioned subject matter for contemplation is the Joyful Mysteries.

The first Joyful Mystery is the Annunciation, when the angel tells Mary of her impending parthenogenetic motherhood. Mary's “yes” (“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”) is often embraced by liberal Christianity as a moment of empowerment and consent; but this “yes” troubles me, circumscribed as it is by power and coercion from all sides. I think of women and girls in the US and around the world whose reproductive options are narrowly circumscribed by social forces, women and girls whose bodily autonomy is consistently violated by poverty and patriarchy and legal structures and social institutions. I think of the “nos,” “nos” unspoken or sublimated or overridden. I think about how every “yes” is a compromised yes, a coerced yes, and I think of the very real improvements we could make to the material and discursive circumstances of these yeses, and the space we could make for these hidden nos, if only we tried.

Don't worry, I know a clinic staffed by very nice people who can help
I first read about the work of clinic escorts at least 18 months ago, and I have finally succumbed to the call that has been quiet yet persistent at the back of my mind ever since then. The call said: These protestors – the ones who are violent, the ones who make death threats, and the ones whose presence is a barrier to justice for those most in need of it – these are your co-religionists. Aren't you going to do anything?

The second Joyful Mystery is the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth. I think of the intergenerational solidarity of these two improbably pregnant women, one old, one young, in the face of pregnancies so unplanned that it took divine intervention to make them happen. I think of all the ways in which solidarity between oppressed people manifests. I think especially of women who seek ways to live and to live with dignity in a world that is hostile to their bodies; of black women whose bodies are targeted by white supremacy; of trans women whose bodies are rendered disposable by transmisogyny.

A fellow escort was deeply troubled by a flyer she had seen in her local Methodist church. It advertised a fundraising walk for a crisis pregnancy center – those creepy fake clinics that spread misinformation about reproductive options. My escort friend was concerned to see the anti-abortion agenda pushed so brazenly within the walls of a mainline church.

She isn't wrong to be concerned. Mainline churches have failed hard when it comes to reproductive justice. By silence, by noncommittal waffling, by avoiding the issue for fear of controversy, mainline denominations have allowed the voices of injustice to set the terms of the national conversation. Our reticence has helped cause a political climate in which serious presidential candidates earn applause and acclaim for stating their opposition to abortion under all circumstances.

(Increasingly, when I watch this old Simpsons clip, I expect to hear cheers instead of boos in response to the proposition, “No abortions for anyone!”)

Still a very compelling platform imo
The third Joyful Mystery is the Nativity, childbirth in poverty and peril, one precarious life bringing forth another. I think of the 69% of abortion-seekers in the US who are “economically disadvantaged.” I think of how structural racism and ableism lead to the high rates of poverty among people of color and people with disabilities. I think of all the parents and guardians whose economic disadvantages force them to make heartbreaking decisions about exactly which goods they should deprive their children of today. I think of the shockwaves of devastation caused by an unplanned pregnancy when abortion is not easily or affordably available.

Progressives, and perhaps especially progressive people of faith, need to stop being on the defensive on this issue. We need to stop apologizing for abortion and start treating it as a good and necessary aspect of reproductive justice.

I don't concede the “pro-life” appellation, I don't accept the oversimplified “choice” framework, I'm not interested in the third term in the safe-legal-rare buzzphrase. I care about reproductive justice, the intersectional movement founded by women of color and centering their perspectives. Reproductive justice is about race and economics and ability and sexuality, birth control and abortion and parental leave and childcare, comprehensive healthcare and living wages and affordable housing, education and access and culture. Facilitating coparenting among polyamorous partners, overhauling the foster care system, marriage equality for people with disabilities – all are aspects of reproductive justice.

The fourth Joyful Mystery is the Presentation of the newborn Jesus at the Temple, when the old prophets Anna and Simeon express their joy at seeing him. I think of every friend's baby I have cuddled, every tiny human I have smiled at in passing, every infant I have smothered in kisses. I think of the material and psychological wellbeing I wish on my godchildren. I think of the incalculable value of a supportive community, including those who are older and those who are childless, in the care and upbringing of a child. I think of how forced childbirth and lack of reproductive options reduce this community.

Abortion isn't something we should tiptoe around, apologize for, or treat as a necessary evil. In the political climate of the US, caring about reproductive justice means arguing for abortion as a moral good. “Life,” in the phrase “pro-life,” means only “fetuses carried to term, all other factors be damned.” It's a reduction of the richness of life to pure numbers, where the only number that matters is the birthrate. Quite aside from the fact that indefinite population expansion will eventually outstrip the planet's resources and result in death on an enormous scale, this is a cruelly narrow definition of life, one that prioritizes the dogma of fetal preservation over every actual living human's needs.

The fifth Joyful Mystery is the Finding of prepubescent Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem, after he goes AWOL from his parents. This is the only story of Jesus' childhood that made it into the canonical gospels. I think of it as an instance of the child Jesus asserting his personhood, refusing to be treated as an appendage to or property of his parents. He breaks from the established hierarchy of his society in order to seek his God. I think of all who are oppressed by the established order of society. I think of their quests for truth and meaning and justice and life. I pray that I might be one to help facilitate that.

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.