“You Did Not Know That We Were Seeds”: The Spirit-Power of Gender Non-Conforming People
Dr. Stephen V. Sprinkle, Brite Divinity School
[Nota Bene – Fort Worth, Texas – In conjunction with DFW Trans-Cendence, Brite Divinity School opened its doors to a full house to remember historic high numbers of transgender murders during the past year, especially transgender women of color (TWOCs). Here in full are the remarks Dr. Sprinkle made at this year’s TDOR.]
Tonight is unlike other nights. Tonight, transgender and cisgender people alike sift for hope in the ashes and plant seeds in the ground, in anticipation of a harvest of hope that will come tomorrow. For tonight we mark the Transgender Day of Remembrance.
Our Jewish sisters and brothers yearn for and proclaim their liberation from slavery once a year, too, and have done so in good times and bad for thousands of years. Jews around the world call their commemoration of the Exodus “Passover.” On Passover when the Seder meal is set and the family and their guests are all seated at the table, the youngest child capable of reciting it asks the ritual question, “Why is tonight different from all other nights?”, and an elder of the community answers the child by asking another question, “What differences do you notice about tonight rather than all other nights?”
So, like a child, I ask you a similar question that I hope will lead you into the spirit of curiosity and ritual power. “On the
Transgender Day of Remembrance, why does this night differ from all other nights?” As on Passover night, that child-like question is the Gateway of Life from the past and present into a future that is still forming. Like a child, then, I, a cisgender ally of the Gender Non-Conforming Community, ask all of you, the gathered Transgender Nation, what is the answer to my question? How can a somber memorial to fallen Transgender sisters and brothers like this instruct all of humankind in the ways of transcendent life, even in the very face of violent death?
Well, as you can see, I am no longer a child, at least in years, and in experience as gay man. You will allow me, I hope, this one speculation, at least: the answer lies somewhere at the intersection of life and death, and then in life beyond death. It lies, I submit to you, in the motif of overcoming death, of dying and rising that is so familiar to all the great religions, and so personally part of the daily lives of all queer people, especially in the lives of our transgender sisters and brothers—and all those as well who transcend the arbitrary binaries constructed and policed by normative culture and society.
The first answer to my question about the Spirit of the Transgender Day of Remembrance comes from transgender advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith, the founder of TDOR. She established this night in memory of Rita Hester, a transgender woman killed in 1998, to commemorate all gender non-conforming people whose lives were lost to violence during the previous year. Gwendolyn Ann Smith answers my question this way: “The Transgender Day of Remembrance seeks to highlight the losses we face due to anti-transgender bigotry and violence. I am no stranger to the need to fight for our rights, and the right to simply exist is first and foremost. With so many seeking to erase transgender people — sometimes in the most brutal ways possible — it is vitally important that those we lose are remembered, and that we continue to fight for justice.” So says the founder of this memorial day.
Yes, we gather tonight to remember and to mourn historically high numbers of transgender people cut down this year by unreasoning hatred, ignorance and fear. More transgender women and men died this very year, according to the records kept in this country and around the world, than at any other time since the earliest time transgender deaths by violence were officially recorded. You and I understand, of course, that even these stunning numbers of the fallen are a severe undercount, with many, many, TOO MANY more unreported and therefore unnamed tonight. And we can no longer, leave out the commemoration of the many transgender youth and adults who died this year from suicide, driven to take their lives by despair, and discrimination, by the rejection of their families and one-time friends, and by the feeling that nothing could ever get better. Nevertheless, in the spirituality of overcoming despair, the names of the women and men we know stand for all the least, and the last, and the lost. Like Gwendolyn Ann Smith taught us, we name the names we know, one-by-one, and our tears push us to the work of justice.
This year, a new acronym entered our vocabulary to describe the decimation of the Transgender Community: TWOC, “Transgender Women of Color,” in order to acknowledge how the intersection of ignorance, racism, misogyny, and patriarchy issue into an even more sinister form of transphobia, the irrational attempt to erase the lives of African American and Latina Transgender Women, many of them still in their teens and young adulthood. We have particular reason to mourn two of these TWOCs this year. They are Texans, Ms. Ty Underwood, 24, of Tyler, Texas, found shot to death in her automobile after it crashed into a light pole in January, in all probability as she attempted to flee from her assailant; and Ms. Shade Schuler, 22, whose badly decomposed body, dead of gunshot wounds, was dumped, ironically enough, on a side street near the Medical District in Dallas, Texas to roast in the late July heat of the Lone Star summer. By the time Ms. Shade was reported murdered in Dallas, the 11th Transgender Woman of Color, and the 13th murder of a transgender woman overall, more transgender murders were on record by July 2015 than all the recorded transphobic homicides the entire previous year.
The second answer to my child-like question, “Why is tonight different than all other nights?”, is that we meet tonight in the eye of an unprecedented storm in the unending contest between justice and injustice, between heteronomative desperation to hold onto control of human lives, and non-normative struggles to attain some measure of equal treatment under the law. We gather tonight in the midst of unprecedented social change. This year, the bent arc of history toward justice has heartened some of us, frightened others, and unleashed a fury of transphobia and violence against our transgender friends and family.
Like a Texas Two-Step danced in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, the U.S. Supreme Court Marriage Equality decision in June was counterpointed earlier this month by the defeat of the Houston HERO equal rights ordinance in a deeply transphobic vote. An apathetic majority of eligible Houston voters stayed home, and allowed a screeching, well-funded few to demean and scapegoat transgender women, and in the devil’s bargain, to shatter the fragile sense of security so important to the whole transgender community.
Those of us like me, cisgender allies, must face up to the added responsibility we bear to our sisters and brothers who refuse the restrictions of binary society. Yes, same-gender couples, lesbians and gay men, can now marry in all fifty states. The Supreme Court decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, struck down a major obstacle to equal treatment under the law, and we still celebrate that milestone in the human rights struggle. But if that means that cisgender gay men and lesbians can enter legal marriage (as if all of us wished to, anyway!) while ignoring the travesty visited so continually upon the trans community, then we deserve none of the rights that judicial decision gave us. What about the “T” in “LGBT”? Are transgender and intersex people, such vital allies of the lesbian, gay, and bisexual communities, no more than an afterthought or a bargaining chip in the battle for the right to marry?
Gay men and lesbians, who bear the majority responsibility in the coalition of LGBTQIA people, have to understand, that none of us are free and equal until ALL of US are free and equal! Transpeople have fought for liberation since the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. They are our “Marine Corps.” Transpeople stormed the Stonewall Inn along with the queer homeless street kids of Greenwich Village in a struggle that gay men and lesbians were too timid to initiate by ourselves. That is history, and we are accountable to that history of liberation today. No one is safe and secure until all of us are safe and secure, and surely gay men know that above all, since only gay men continue to be murdered at the same rate in this country as transgender women of color. Check the statistics if you doubt it. The most endangered queer people in America today are gay men and transgender women. We cannot, must not forget our allies in the transgender community.
The third answer to my question about the difference of tonight among all other nights is that, even in the face of such unprecedented violence and bigotry against the transgender community, there is much to celebrate and much hope to share. We cannot remember all this pain and woe without also marking the advances that have been so hard won since 2009. I will list six of these positive milestones briefly:
- The 2009 “coming out” of transgender celebrity Chas Bono, the child of pop idols Sonny and Cher.
- The star power of Laverne Cox, transgender woman of color on the hit 2013 television show “Orange is the New Black,” and her 2014 cover photo on Time Magazine titled “The Transgender Tipping Point.”
- President Barack Obama’s executive order on July 21, 2014 making it illegal to fire or harass transgender employees of federal contractors, for the first time explicitly protecting transgender people in the federal government.
- The much publicized transition of Olympic triathlete Bruce Jenner to Caitlyn Jenner in July of this year.
- The White House announcement on August 19, 2015 that it had hired its first transgender staff member, Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, as Outreach and Recruiter Director for Presidential Personnel.
- The launching of the first U.S. House of Representatives Taskforce on Transgender Equality, along with the first-ever Capitol Hill forum on violence against transgender people, this past Tuesday, November 17, 2015. The Taskforce will be chaired by Rep. Mike Honda (D-California), proud grandfather of an eight-year old transgender granddaughter, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), whose son is transgender. Anti-transgender violence, said Chairman Honda, “is a national crisis. …After 21 deaths of transgender individuals because of violence this year alone, Congress must take notice and act.”
There are actually four questions the youngest child asks of Jews and their guests at the Passover seder, questions that flow from the child-like question that started it all. By now you know I have crafted my offering to you tonight along the same lines: four questions and four answers. Questions and Answers building to a climax of liberation and hope, no matter the darkness of the night. So, here is the fourth answer to the question, “How is tonight, the Transgender Day of Remembrance night, different from all other nights?”
Tonight, you see, is not just a night of mourning and lamenting, or of outrage and somber celebration, though it is also these things, as well. This night of the Transgender Day of Remembrance is a ritual night when the Spirit-Power of All Gender Non-Conforming People is summoned and renewed, giving strength for the struggle ahead.
Transgender people possess a Spirit-Power, one they must never surrender—one that they have to share with all humanity. Transgender people know about change, transformation, transition, and new creations by experience of themselves. The Transgender community as a collective has amazing strength, developed in the face of adversity, a tenacity and zest for life that cannot be contained, you see, in only one lifetime. Though external transphobia strikes down so many, and internalized transphobia even more through personal trauma and suicide, the heartbeat of the Transgender people is strong and enduring, as only a people acquainted with oppression can fully understand. It is as old as the aboriginal recognition of Two-Spirit people among the indigenous tribes of North America, as world-loving as the Pagan faiths, as wise as the great religions of the East, and as time-honored as the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—but it is not limited to any of these. It is a spirituality that understands in the marrow of its transgender bones how a person cannot be other than they truly are, that appearance and reality are not necessarily the same, and that living and loving are more powerful and enduring than anything that adversity can send against what is authentically humanity.
At the vigil for Ms. Shade Schuler in September of this year, a white gay man, Ted Van Trabart said, “We’re here today to say that black lives matter and trans lives matter, and we’re all children of God, and there’s equality in that.” Then, according to the report in the Texas Observer, Minister Carmarion Anderson, a black transgender activist, showed the gathering a small piece of wood she had retrieved from the spot where Ms. Shade’s body was found, where she and Dr. Jeff Hood, alumnus of this very school, carried out a service to lay her soul to rest. Minister Anderson said, “Each time I look at [this piece of wood], it empowers me to keep going, even when I want to give up.”
Yes, the Spirit-Power of Transgender people transcends the bondage of gender conformity and all constraints placed upon the human spirit in favor of a new and more promising Exodus for themselves and for all humankind. Slavery is over. Freedom has come. Where we live, according to our Transgender Friends, is in this awkward, difficult, promising time between the already and the not yet. It is just a matter of time until justice comes, and in the mean time, liberty will not wait. The Observer reported that someone else was carrying a sign at the vigil for Ms. Shade that night, one that read, “You Tried to Bury Us/You Didn’t Know We Were Seeds.”
Tonight is different because we announce that what we have sown in sorrow are the seeds of a new humanity, transitioned by love, transcending despair, raised in hope, stronger than death. The lyrics of The Hymn of Promise, (Copyright Hope Publishing Company) penned in 1986 by Natalie Sleeth before the death of her spouse, best answer the child-like questions we bring forth on this night of nights for me, and I offer them to you in closing:
In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree; In cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free! In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be, Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
There’s a song in every silence, seeking word and melody; There’s a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me. From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery, Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity; In our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity, In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory, Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
Doane College Alumni Reunion, First Plymouth Church, Lincoln, Nebraska, Feb. 3, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Gndx39q7QM
Sarasota, Florida – The Associated Press carried this headline at 2 a.m. on September 11: Investigators Search for Man Who Set Fire at Gay Nightclub. According to the Orlando Sentinel, Sarasota County Sheriff’s Department officials say that neighbors of the popular gay nightclub reported it being on fire at approximately 9 a.m. this past Sunday. Officers are searching for a man in a dark, long-sleeved shirt and light colored shorts, carrying a gas can, who walked up the door of Throb Nightclub, and had his image captured by a surveillance video camera. He allegedly started the fire and ran from the scene. Authorities of the Florida State Fire Marshall’s Arson Unit and the sheriff’s office are asking the cooperation of the public in the search for a hate-filled perpetrator.
This troubling story caught the attention of Vicki Nantz, documentary film maker and LGBT advocate, who traces this anti-LGBT violence back to the speech and actions of Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk jailed for contempt of court for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses, and her attorney and co-founder of arch-conservative Liberty Counsel Mat Staver. Nantz, Producer/Director of films investigating violence against women and the LGBT community, warns her Facebook friends on this 9/11, “Be safe out there, everyone. Hate is in the air.”
What 9/11 has to do with an outbreak of anti-LGBT violence in southwest Florida fourteen years since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center Towers, the Pentagon, and the highjacking of United Airlines 93, drew the attention of Diana Butler Bass, the widely acclaimed commentator on the United States religious scene. Bass wrote on her Facebook wall for September 11, “One day, someone will write a book about how, in the early 21st century, we went from fearing and hating terrorists to fearing and hating people of differing political opinions. The sad and haunting legacy of 9/11 is thus.”
The disrubing irony of the heightened atmosphere of anti-LGBT rhetoric and violence on the 2015 anniversary of 9/11 noted by Nantz and Butler Bass is the courageous role openly gay heroes played on September 11, 2001. The Rev. Fr. Mychal Judge, Franciscan Chaplain of FDNY and one of the first firefighters to die in the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers, won his title as “the Saint of 9/11” that day. Avid rugby player Mark Bingham was one of the brave and desperate men who stormed the cockpit of UA Flight 93 over Pennsylvania, sacrificing himself to bring down the jet liner before its hijackers succeeded in crashing it into the White House or the U.S. Capitol Building. Both were openly gay men who threw themselves into the breach for their fellow human beings at a time of crisis and disaster. Both died sacrificially, not as any of the demeaning epithets being aimed at LGBT people by Cruz, Huckabee, Staver and their ilk since the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all fifty states, but as American heroes.
Butler Bass makes a convincing connection between the fear of terrorists stoked by politicians and pundits since the original September 11, and the demonization of persons of differing political views today. Fear not only twists the guts of the public. Its primitive energy offers craven haters with an ideological agenda to advance a ready vehicle to advance it. And she is also right that fear of the other has seeped so deeply into the American psyche that no community is immune from the temptation to spread rumor and innuendo against those who oppose them politically. Some LGBT people, for example, have indulged themselves in making cruel comments about the physical appearance of Kim Davis and her marital history. The vulnerability of LGBT people in America, however, calls for a reconsideration of post-9/11 manipulation of public fear.
Nantz helps us see that the threat of acts of violence against the lives and property of LGBT people is not simply another example of the political system in the Washington beltway gone awry. It has real consequences, from the arson at a gay nightclub to the epidemic murders of transgender women of color throughout the country. The hate in the air in post-9/11 America is a combination of the historical cultural loathing of LGBT people, and the cynical manipulation of a once-supreme white patriarchal group by the likes of presidential candidates and their legal and media henchmen. While they would deny any connection between their incitement of anti-LGBT sentiment and any outbreak of violence, their words and deeds are in the background of every hate crime perpetrated against the sexual and non-normative gender communities of America, and the reach of their cynical ideology is increasingly global. This anniversary of 9/11, our LGBT neighbors, families, co-workers, and friends are less safe in their persons, jobs, and property than they were even a year ago.
How we have declined from honoring the LGBT heroes of September 11 for their courage and sacrifice, to this 9/11 anniversary when anti-LGBT fear is being manipulated by calls for so-called “Religious Liberty” (read, “the re-imposition of oppression against gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual people”), is the book that cries out for someone to write. Hate is in the air this 9/11, and what it portends is something every American should be worried about.
Greensboro, NC – A gay veteran of Iraq who was savagely attacked, beaten, and set on fire by a younger man who checked into a hotel with him finally succumbed to his injuries on Saturday. Stephen Patrick White, 46, a well-regarded member of the gay community in Piedmont North Carolina and a patron of Club Chemistry, a popular gay bar in Greensboro, was fatally assaulted by Garry Joseph Gupton, 26, a city employee of the Water Services Department. The two met, according to witnesses at Chemistry, and left the club together late on November 8, as this blog previously reported. They checked in to the Battleground Inn.
White’s injuries were horrendous. He suffered burns over 52 percent of his body, and had large portions of his arms amputated in an attempt to save his life. Gupton was arrested on the scene and charged with assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill. The City Water Services Department subsequently fired Gupton from his job as a consequence of the investigation. Now, Gupton is charged with first degree murder. Q Notes reports that the Greensboro police are saying that there is no evidence of a hate crime in this case. The Q Notes report includes this statement from a Greensboro PD spokesperson:
“He (Gupton) never verbalized to us that he intended to kill somebody,” said Susan Danielsen, a Greensboro police spokeswoman. . . . There’s absolutely no evidence to indicate that this is a hate crime.”
She added: “We’re not sure what caused Mr. Gupton to act so violently. This is not a crime motivated by hate.”
But Danielson could not refrain from adding that while the Greensboro PD are “sure this is not a hate crime,” they have no other explanation for Gupton’s heinous acts, including his use of fire in his deadly attack on White. “We’re not sure what caused Mr. Gupton to act so violently,” Danielson went on to say to Q Notes. Then, as if she had opened a door she did not want to open, Danielson concluded, “This is not a crime motivated by hate.”
At this point, all the public has to go on is the assurance of the police that a brutal attack against a gay man who was naked in a hotel room that included a weapon often reserved particularly for the “purification” of “sodomites,” fire, was not a hate crime. Police in the Tarheel State are not permitted to investigate bias-motivated crimes of violence against LGBT people anyway, since the state has refused to include them in its hate crimes statutes. Nonetheless, the police seem eager to rule out hate crime in this instance.
Let us say for the time being they are correct. There was no hate against homosexuality expressed in this crime, explicitly. This, the police are suggesting, was a consensual sexual situation gone terribly bad. Still, the public is left to ask who brought the flammable material into the room? Why was fire used in this case–a give-away for extreme passions and, yes, hatred of the victim targeted in attacks involving burning someone, in this instance as in the instances of thousands of other gay men and lesbians, to death?
However this crime went down in the Gate City, an entire LGBT community is left fearful, shocked, and wondering. Chris Srgo, Executive Director of Equality North Carolina, vocalized the anguish of the statewide community in a statement on Saturday:
“Stephen White’s death is a tragic loss for the Greensboro community and North Carolina. Our thoughts and prayers remain with Stephen’s family. Equality NC promises to follow this investigation closely to ensure that it is thorough and justice is served. The loss of a community member is always tragic, but this loss is unacceptable. As fellow citizens of Greensboro, my husband Ryan and I mourn tonight and stand in solidarity with the LGBT community in Greensboro.”
Of course, it is wrong to suggest that an obvious marker for homophobia (perhaps internalized homophobia), the use of the torch to burn a gay man (where the despicable term “faggot” originates–the burning at the stake of gay men as if they were dry wood), inevitably leads to the conclusion that Stephen White was attacked so savagely because of his sexual orientation. Yet, is it not also a mistake of equal magnitude to conclude that because the suspect, Gupton, never verbalized that he intended to kill someone that night, he simply went berserk, and finding flammable liquids at hand, thought to use fire as a way to punish his naked pick up for the night?
The North Carolina state motto is “Esse Quam Videri” (“To Be Rather Than To Seem”). Perhaps it would do investigators and lawmakers in Tarheelia well to move beyond what they seem to want to believe in this instance-to the point that they refuse to investigate or legislate even the possibility of anti-LGBTQ hate crimes-, and to answer the nagging question about the motive for the use of fire to kill another gay man the Old North State.
Topeka, Kansas – Dr. Stephen V. Sprinkle has posted a new article on Huffington Post Religion. You can visit the original article here. Comments and shares from the Huffington Post site are appreciated by all the readers of http://unfinishedlivesblog.com.
Rev. Fred Phelps, Founder and former Pastor of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, is dead at the age of 84. Pundits and regular people are busily dissecting the story and social significance of one of the most venom-filled ministerial lives in American history, as well as the hate-mongering “ministry” the Westboro Church became notorious for doing since 1991. What, however, is the spiritual and theological import of the life Fred Phelps lived and the religious leadership he carried out for better than two decades? What does Fred Phelps teach us about God, and the service of others in God’s name?
Dare we even speak of Rev. Phelps as a “negative saint,” the polar opposite of all Christ-like saints, given the carnage Phelps left in the lives of countless queer folk, slain service members, and cultural celebrities he and his flock picketed and condemned to eternal damnation? “Saint-language” seems blasphemous when we apply it to a man’s life so rabidly committed to eliciting the worst from the human spirit and the Christian faith. Nevertheless, every life lived has something to teach us about ourselves and God, does it not? How can we not speak of Phelps as we must speak of ourselves and all others who stand need of the amazing grace of God? Allow me to explain what I mean.
We remember the epithets Fred Phelps reveled in. He made “God Hates Fags” a standard feature of modern hate speech. We cannot erase from our minds the images of Matthew Shepard, Billy Jack Gaither, and Diane Whipple writhing in the animated hell fire that Phelps installed on his web site, complete with a background soundtrack of groans and screams to drive home the message that nothing he could imagine could be worse than to be gay and lesbian. We will never know the number of fanatics Phelps inspired by his vileness, nor the multitude of LGBTQ people young and old who felt his criticisms crush their self-esteem and cut into their souls like knives. But we have seen his kind before: Pharaoh, and Saul, Ahitophel, and Judas, to name but a few oldies but baddies. Or Roy Cohn, Senator Joe McCarthy, and “Bull” Connor to name some near contemporary bad guys. I am sure you have your own personal list. Nevertheless, Phelps and his bad seed still wind up serving God just like the best of us. That is the theological sense Fred Phelps makes. His “negative sainthood” shows us that the worst wickedness is, in the end, powerless before grace and mercy.
Karl Barth in his Shorter Commentary on Romans (SCR) and throughout the Church Dogmatics (KD and CD) teaches that the Pharaoh of the Exodus who held the Hebrew children in abject slavery with a hard heart ultimately found himself broken upon God, who uses the story of Pharaoh’s human darkness to witness to divine mercy, standing right alongside Moses who testifies to God’s liberating justice. Barth writes, “Therefore Pharaoh too serves ‘the power of God’ (SCR, 73). Barth struggled against anti-semitism and fascism with a theological strength we need to deal with homophobia and transphobia. Like the contrasting pair of Pharaoh and Moses, Barth talks about Judas Iscariot and Jesus. Barth writes that Judas, the “rejected man,” is the best pattern he can find of a person who rejected goodness, going so far as to pronounce judgment on himself, and joining Jesus in death. Yet every “rejected one” remains a witness to God, who in the end shows that the very amazing grace upon which the future depends is also there for the “rejected,” too. Barth declares: “The rejected man exists in the person of Jesus Christ only in such a way that he is assumed into His being as the elect and beloved of God . . . With Jesus Christ the rejected can only have been rejected. He cannot be rejected anymore” (KD II/2, 502; CD, 453). Fred, too!
So, does that mean that Pharaoh, or Judas, or Fred get a pass on what they do, thanks to some sort of weak-kneed universalism, the idea that God saves everyone regardless? Barth denied such a possibility: “The Church will not . . . preach a powerless grace of Jesus Christ or a wickedness of men which is too powerful for it. But without any weakening of the contrast, and without any arbitrary dualism, it will preach the overwhelming power of grace and the weakness of human wickedness in face of it” (KD II/2, 529; CD, 477). Fred Phelps and Joe McCarthy and Judas Iscariot must, in the end, answer to the same justice and grace of God their words and deeds rejected when they refused to treat all of God’s children with justice and love. The deeds of the “negative saints” of God are terrible, and it is only right that they should somehow suffer. No one knows what Fred Phelps had to face from his excommunication or upon his sick bed. But Fred and Joe and Judas depend upon and bear witness to the divine mercy, also—just like Moses and Mary and Martin Luther King Jr.
Even a “Nemesis Saint” like Rev. Fred Phelps is a witness to the divine mercy. “Saint” Pharaoh, too. And “Saint” Judas. For all the saints, pro and con, testify to the grace and justice before which we are all alike in utter need. No one I know shows the impotence of wickedness or the need of divine mercy more than Fred Phelps. And in that way, at the very least, “Saint” Fred shows me something mysteriously awesome about the amazing grace of God.
Washington, D.C. – The 2013 Presidential Inaugural Committee has announced that poet Richard Blanco is President Obama’s choice for his Second Inauguration–a gay of Cuban extraction who was shamed by his own family for being gay. In one historic move, President Obama has chosen the first gay man, the first Latino, and the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history. According to Huffington Post, Blanco will recite a poem at the presidential swearing-in ceremony on the U.S. Capitol steps on January 21.
“I’m beside myself, bestowed with this great honor, brimming over with excitement, awe, and gratitude,” Blanco responded to the announcement. “In many ways, this is the very ‘stuff’ of the American Dream, which underlies so much of my work and my life’s story—America’s story, really. I am thrilled by the thought of coming together during this great occasion to celebrate our country and its people through the power of poetry.”
Blanco is the son of Cuban exiles who fled to Madrid, where he was born. The family moved first to New York City, but then settled eventually in Miami, where Blanco was reared and educated. He now lives in Bethel, Maine with his life partner. Politico tells the story of the price he paid as a gay person in Latino culture–even in his own family. Cross currents of cultural identity–Cuban-American and gay–threatened to sweep him into depression or worse. Politico highlights Blanco’s essay, “Afternoons with Endora,” that appeared in the 2009 anthology, “My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them,” where Blanco describes himself as “a boy who hated being a boy.” As a child, Blanco says he retreated from playing sports to his notebooks, writing and drawing; that he much preferred women’s Tupperware Parties to Clint Eastwood movies.
His grandmother lashed out at Blanco for being gay, calling her own grandson “the shame of the family,” and “little faggot.”
“According to her,” Blanco wrote, “I was a no-good sissy — un mariconcito — the queer shame of the family. And she let me know it all the time: ‘Why don’t we just sign you up for ballet lessons? Everyone thinks you’re a girl on the phone — can’t you talk like a man? I’d rather have a granddaughter who’s a whore than a grandson who is a faggot like you.’”
“Her constant attacks made me an extremely self-conscious and quiet child,” Blanco wrote of his grandmother. “But it also made me a keen observer of the world around me, because my interior world was far too painful. This inadvertently led me to become a writer, a recorder of images and details.” Seeking refuge from his family’s harsh, anti-gay nagging, young Blanco would secretly dress up in his own room as Endora, the magical character from the hit television show Bewitched, and pretend he lived in a world without queer shame. “I wanted to be as powerful as [Endora], and for a little while every afternoon I was,” he wrote. “I could conjure up thunderstorms so I wouldn’t have to go to baseball practice…I could concoct love potions that would make me like girls instead of boys and make my grandmother love me.”
It is a testimony to Blanco’s strength of character and web of supportive friends that he rose above queer shame to become one of the premier poets of this era, a rise that caught the attention of President Barack Obama. The President said, “I’m honored that Richard Blanco will join me and Vice President Biden at our second Inaugural. His contributions to the fields of poetry and the arts have already paved a path forward for future generations of writers. Richard’s writing will be wonderfully fitting for an Inaugural that will celebrate the strength of the American people and our nation’s great diversity.”
Achy Obejas, a commentator for WBEZ.org, reflects on the significance of Blanco’s selection as Inaugural Poet, and upon his reasons for crying for joy when he heard of the pick: “The President of the United States, the most powerful man on earth, has chosen a guy you know — a fag, a cubiche who likes to joke that he was made in the U.S. with Cuban parts, with whom you codeswitch about Miyami and lechón and our mamis — to consecrate this moment in history with his — our — words.
“And you nod and grin through your stupid tears because you know — you really know — that damn arch really does bend, it really does indeed point to a shinier day.”
Blanco has had a distinguished teaching career at Georgetown, American, and Central Connecticut State universities. His award-winning books of poetry include City of a Hundred Fires, which won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh, and Directions to The Beach of the Dead, which won the PEN American Center Beyond Margins Award.
When Richard Blanco mounts the podium on Inauguration Day with the whole world watching, they will see a cubiche, no longer un mariconcito–but a spokesperson for all LGBTQ people whose longings are rising above the challenges of discrimination to the heights of full citizenship. “Felicidades, querido Richard,” indeed!
Dallas, Texas – Queer tolerance is original on these American shores. So, how do we honor our queer ancestors, and call upon them to aid our struggle for liberty here and now? That is what I thought last night, as my partner and I watched Turner Classic Movies re-run of the mini-series, Son of the Morning Star. First Nations people, also known as Native Americans, not only allowed gender variance and same-sex attraction, but they celebrated it–a tradition that offended the puritanical sensibilities of the first European settlers (our Pilgrim forefathers) in New England and Virginia.
As the NorthEast Two-Spirit Society tells us, of the approximately 400 First Nations tribes in North America at the time of the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth, no fewer than 155 of these indigenous Nations had traditions embracing Two-Spirit people as well as people whose gender variance blended male and female roles and characteristics. Two-Spirit people acted as role models of harmony and balance, living examples of the way the Great Spirit blessed all manifestations of gender. Two-Spirits were often honored as visionaries for the people, translators of customs and traditions between men and women, and the guardians of children, making sure children of the Nation were being reared humanely and well. NE2SS says “When a family was not properly raising their children, the Two Spirit person would intervene and assume the responsibly as the primary caretaker. Sometimes, families would ask the Two Spirit person for help rearing their children. This unique role of social worker was specific to Two Spirit people, for they had an excess of material wealth as a result of the gifts they received.” Among the Lakota (Sioux) people, prior to going out to war, a great dance was held with Two-Spirit people in the center of the hoop, to show the honor in which they were held by the people.
The religious mediation performed by Two-Spirits keep the the spiritual health of the people strong. They were communicators between the seen world and the unseen world, bringing the blessings of the Great Spirit to the Nation in a variety of practical ways. Among the Navajo people, Two-Spirits were great artists, philosophers, and healers, the Renaissance people of the Nation.
But Europeans reacted to Two-Spirit and gender variant traditions among the First Nations with hostility and physical violence, condemning them for being “sodomites.” As drawings and paintings of the 16th and 17th Century pogroms against queer life among the Native Nations show, the colonizers exterminated Two-Spirits and banned dances and ceremonies honoring them whenever possible. A notorious example is the 1594 sketch of Balboa’s troops setting their dogs on Panamanian Two-Spirits, tearing them to pieces. David Stannard in American Holocaust records English horrors against the Pequots that followed the Spanish example: “blood-Hounds to draw after them, and Mastives to seize them.”
Many native people eventually succumbed to the colonizers’ pressure, and forgot the old ways of their ancestors. Many converted to the strict sexual and gender binary of Western Christianity. The legacy of this cultural amnesia is especially grim among First Nations people today who continue to discriminate against the gender variant among them on the Reservation. As the intolerance of the Navajo council leadership toward same-sex marriage recently demonstrated, the Two-Spirit traditions of the ancestors is on shaky ground. The hate crime murder of Two-Spirit teenager, F.C. Martinez Jr. in Cortes, Colorado is the direct result of anti-queer hostility aggravated by conservative Christian prejudices.
The good news is that queer life among our First Nations ancestors is regaining respect. Elders of the people, and activists in the native LGBTQ community are reviving the knowledge of these practices. As NE2SS reports, “In some nations that have revived this tradition, or brought it once again into the light, Two Spirit people are again fulfilling some of the roles and regaining the honor and respect of their communities.”
This Thanksgiving, as we move beyond and behind the mythology of the Pilgrims and Indians, it is important for us to remember that queer life was held in honor for thousands of years before the first European set foot on these shore. Queer life in North America is original; hostility and religious intolerance towards gender variance are unwanted, illegal aliens.
Dallas, Texas- In this unprecedented year of tragedy and hope, in the aftermath of the worst nature can do to many of our readers and supporters, the Unfinished Lives Project Team wishes your family and loved ones a Happy and Safe Hallowe’en. So much is at stake in this election season. Too many have lost too much to turn back now. The stance of this blog and this human rights project has been and will remain to be full of hope:
- For a better world than the LGBTQ community has ever known until now
- For the long arc of justice to bend toward all marginalized people, especially those whose lives have been touched with violence
- For the laws and protections afforded to us to be enforced swiftly, fully, and justly
- For all LGBTQ people to follow to admonition of Harvey Milk, burst down our closet doors, and begin to fight for the values we believe in
We have found allies and leaders who have our best interests at heart. We still believe in hope. That is what we are sticking with this holiday season.
- President Barack Obama has signed the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law
- President Obama has fought by our side for the full Repeal and Implementation of the Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
- President Obama has directed our Justice Department to defend DOMA no longer
- President Obama has nominated two outstanding women to the Supreme Court of the United States, Justice Kegan and Justice Sotomayor
- President Obama vigorously supports the DREAM Act, allowing many LGBTQ Latinas/Latinos to live, work, and prosper in the United States–the only nation home they have ever known
- Vice President Joe Biden has blazed the trail for Transgender Rights, declaring this “The Greatest Civil Rights Issue of Our Time”
- Both President Obama and Vice President Biden have declared their public support for Marriage Equality
- The President, therefore, deserves and has earned a second term
While we at Unfinished Lives respect choices to the contrary, to us the choice this election year could not be clearer.
Enjoy the day, then exercise your rights, and vote. Again, friends, Happy Hallowe’en. ~ The Unfinished Lives Project Team