Monday, September 29, 2008

"Caring Communiy" + Silence about Gays?!: I Think Not

Some of my earliest sharp memories date from when I was three years old. We lived at the time in Mississippi—Columbus, Mississippi. I remember playing, of course, the unspecific and yet finely etched memories any child has of a sunny day, a scent of magnolia on the air, the thatch of white cumulus clouds so low one had only to reach a bit higher to pull away a wisp from them.

I remember going with my brother Simpson to the drainage grate near our house, at a corner of the street, to shout down inside at the muddy devil that lived in it. It was our duty to remind him periodically that he had no claim on anyone in the neighborhood. We taunted him, threatened him with punishment if he disturbed us, knowing as we did so that he could at any moment pull us down to live with him forever. The thrill of the forbidden overlaid with pious rectitude: a very adult experience . . . .

I remember, too, a day on which I canvassed the neighborhood for a banana. My needs were specific: a banana, and only a banana. I recall going to the house of a neighbor who offered me a slice of bread instead—and the frustration, the pique, the downright rage that any adult could possibly think a piece of Wonder bread would satisfy a child’s hunger for a ripe banana.

I can vividly bring back to mind a scene in the kitchen of a neighbor, Sallie Mock, a nurse, whose children (she said) counted the very peas on their plates to be sure one had no more than the other. She had just bought a set of the new Melmac dishes coming on the market then. To show my mother how indestructible they were, she took one from the kitchen table and flung it across the room. It hit the wall with a clatter, fell to the floor unbroken. And I was enthralled—at the sheer daring of the act, at the thought that one could fling dishes across the room with impunity, at the flash of recognition that an adult could gloriously misbehave. With one insouciant gesture, she had me in her camp for life, an acolyte who would follow her to the ends of the earth.

Why these memories (and there are others: a day of being locked into my bedroom for some bad deed long forgotten, where I had to watch through the slats of the Venetian blinds as the ice cream truck arrived and my brother ran with friends to buy a cone; an incident in which an older child did not see me as I stood in the street and ran me down with a bike)? Why these and not others?

And why now? Why drag them out of the murky bottoms of memory? Now, as I near 60, broken down, promise evaporated, a sorry failed lump of humanity?

I’m not sure, really. Perhaps because they are not merely a part of me: they are me, and “me” seems to vanish more and more, in the eyes of those who claim the right to define others, to allocate salaries and healthcare benefits, to withhold these essentials of human existence from the unworthy.

Remembering in such a world is an act of self-assertion—a necessary act, a defiant one, a claim that one’s human life does count in the final analysis, even if no one wishes to agree. To a great extent, memories—specific memories, our own memories—constitute us, make us unique. Holding onto our memories, asserting our right to remember, is an act of defiant self-assertion against those who claim the right to obliterate us.

Specifically, for those of us who are gay and who refuse to deny ourselves, remembering is a way of combating the silence of the churches. Memory and silence will always constitute opposite poles of the spectrum of human possibility. When we head into silence—the kind of silence in which memory is obliterated—we head to death.

Throughout history, the churches have been capable of atrocious cruelty towards gay persons (and women, people of color, “heretics” and non-believers, Jews, the earth). And yet, in the final analysis, I think no manifestation of homophobic hatred is quite so cruel as the churches’ contemporary silence about gay people—not, you understand, the respectful silence of moral deliberation, the kind that refuses to judge, but silence used as a weapon, to obliterate others.

As social norms mandate increasing acceptance of LGBT persons and our claims to full humanity and full personhood, churches are now growing silent. As society moves towards inclusion, churches are slowly abandoning their former open disdain and their former statements of non-acceptance of gay people.

For silence. A silence that lasts even in the face of increasing claims of churches to want to create “caring communities.” An ominous silence that, when measured against the claim to care, can mean only this: the claim of churches to be interested in creating “caring communities,” while these same churches remain silent about the rightful claims of LGBT persons to justice, means that the churches have simply disappeared gay persons from their midst.

They have wiped us from the list of those who have any claim to justice—who have any claim to life, since those who do not exist for a community that proclaims an ethos of universal care cannot exist at all. Social existence is not just an extension of existence: it is existence. To be human is to exist in a complex network of social connections.

By denying the presence of gay persons in the human community, along with our claims to just treatment, even as they trumpet their concern to form “caring communities,” churches erase gay people from the face of the earth. They accomplish, within the context of a mendacious ethic of “care,” what not even the most right-wing political thinkers have sought to do but have not yet accomplished: the elimination of gay human beings from the human community.

Ultimately, there is no cruelty greater than to proclaim that one “cares”—that the community one represents “cares”—while one simply ignores the presence of an invisibilized group of people in one’s midst. While one ignores the claims of that group to just treatment. While one proceeds as if no such claims exist, as if those making the claims are ghosts without any substance, whose voices cannot reach the ears of the living. While one refuses to admit guilt for one’s own complicity in acts of injustice towards the group one wishes to invisibilize.

The stance I am describing here is not a stance of the churches at their worst today: it is a stance of the churches at their best. It is the typical stance of the liberal church, of the church of self-professed “care,” the church intent on creating “caring communities” in the world.

It is the church intent on proclaiming itself inclusive—as long as the community to be included is female or black or poor or anything but a sexual minority. It is the church determined to place itself on the side of justice—as long as the one asking for justice is not gay. It is the church proud of its ability to create inclusive spaces for dialogue—as long as those asking for a voice in the conversation are not LGBT.

This is the best the churches of Main Street USA have to offer gay people today. And it is a shameful, utterly cruel best. It is a best that simply ignores the humanity of gay persons and our claims to be treated justly because we are human and our humanity is equal to that of other human beings.

It is a church that undercuts its claims to mediate God to the world. It is a church that fails not merely in some incidental aspect of its mission, but in its core proclamation to the world. It is a church that fails, quite simply, to be church.

I have grown so sick of this church—so sick in my heart and soul from attending to its words and watching its representatives for any sign of salvific care for me and my sisters and brothers—that, God help me, I find it almost impossible to hear the name of God anymore without wanting to run away.

God? This monolith of silence that can be counted on to stand with those in its community who abuse gay human beings, this community represents God? Has the right to speak about God? This monolith of silence that protects those who abuse gay human beings and participates in campaigns of vilification of demeaned and expelled gay human beings mounted by those abusers?

I am struggling these days. I am struggling with the very thought of God. In a world in which the rapacious and the arrogant and those whose tongues drip poisonous lies can be counted on to claim the mantle of the Christian God, I find myself profoundly alienated from the very thought of that God. In a world in which church members will not call to accountability those in their midst who continue to lacerate gay persons, I do not want to hear churches talk to me about God.

I prefer my memories. At least, I know they are true. And in them, I find more salvation—by far—than I do in almost any church today.