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The time has come to say goodbye to all our company…

Peterson & weird green plant

Peterson & weird green plant

No! Wait! Not Goodbye at all. I have just moved my blog address to my new and improved website.

From now on you will find my cheeky and serious blog posts about queer, transgender, bisexual, lesbian, and gay issues, gender, climate change, faith, and whatever weird stuff happens to catch my fancy over at the Peterson Toscano blog. (yo, yo, update that delicious blog roll of yours)

Also, feel free to feast on the buffet of social media I serve up on a daily basis. I got something for everyone!
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Facing the Unimaginable

At first I could not comprehend that my mom was actually dying. None of us did. She was never sick before, always the strong one taking care of all of us. Some realities are too big to grasp. Once we did understand what was happening though, my father, my sisters, and I found inner reserves of strength, courage, creativity, and caring we did not know we possessed. We became her primary caregivers. It was difficult and painful, but also a great honor to do all that we could to help her when she needed us most.

From that time I learned lessons that I remembered six years later when our father was sick and dying. I recognized sooner this time the crisis that we faced, the seriousness of the situation, the reality that this illness might end in death. And sadly it did. I miss both my parents terribly everyday, but I feel grateful that my sisters and I were able to understand the diagnosis, and that we did not pretend. We accepted the reality that a great change was happening in our lives. Pretending everything will be fine or that it will just go away or that surely technology will fix it for us would have kept us aloof, unavailable, unengaged when our parents needed us to be most alert and active.

For the past year since my father’s death, I have been researching climate change and the rapid deterioration of the atmosphere and the oceans resulting in recurring severe weather events, drought, floods, the extinction and the threat of extinction to some animals and plants, and already the disruption of human lives and even loss of lives. These days I am drawing once again from those inner reserves I discovered during the times my parents were so ill. I have been looking at the diagnosis regarding the planet, and the prognosis is currently grim, not yet hopeless, but dire all the same.

Climate Change to me is very much like living with a seriously ill parent. The reality of a sick planet is almost too great to take in. The earth seems too big to fail. It’s easier to assume all will be okay and to escape into Facebook or the latest YouTube craze or Tweet my way to distraction. But right now I’m beginning to understand that my attention is required. While it is a difficult reality to grasp, I accept that the climate has already changed and will continue to change. As we face these facts, we will find the strength and the will to act. We will have the great honor to help when we are needed most.

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My contribution to the 2013 Queer Theology Synchroblog looks at the creation of queer theology, and how one of the best starting points is to see and name who is clearly queer in the text.

If you go to almighty Google and type in a search List of Men in the Bible, you will find loads of sites that give you an exhaustive outline of all the biblical men. Similarly a search for Women in the Bible will cough up hefty results. But try googling List of Eunuchs in the Bible. You will get web results, no doubt, but no simple listing of the names of the many biblical eunuchs and where they appear in the text. For that list you will have to do more digging and likely compile your own.

Consider virtually every sermon you have heard about the Book of Esther or any Purim celebration you attended, even in super queer-friendly churches and synagogues. Off the top of your head name the characters speakers highlight related to this story. Esther/Hadassah. Mordecai. Haman. These are the big three people can name from memory. Then there is some king, a deposed queen, oh, and a eunuch.

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The king, (known as Xerxes, Ahashuerus, or Khshayarshan depending on the Greek, Hebrew, or Persian form of the name) plays a key role in the story as the easily offended ruler waiting for things to happen. Vashti, the queen, who refuses to parade around in front of the king’s male guests, sometimes gets a shoutout for being a strong woman in a man’s world. Then there is the eunuch in charge of the royal harem.

Actually there are a dozen eunuchs in the Book of Esther each with a delicious name that fills the mouth. I like to read their names out loud.

Mehuman
Biztha
Harbona
Bigtha
Abagtha
Zethar
Carcas
Hegai
Shassshagaz
Teresh
Bigthana
Hathach

Eunuchs appear in every chapter of the Book of Esther and take on many different roles. Sure Hegai oversees the women’s quarters and puts Hadassah/Esther through a rigorous beauty and diet regime. Hegai even tells Esther what to bring into the bedroom chamber when it is time for her to perform for the king as part of the Persia’s Next Top Queen competition. But the eunuchs have much more latitude, roles, and responsibilities in the text than most retellings of the story reveal.

20130928-100408.jpg Eunuchs serve as messengers, advisors, guards, assassins, and soldiers. In fact, on the chess board of the Persian court, all non-eunuchs are mostly stuck in place. The king stays in his section of the palace, Esther in hers, and her kinsman, Mordecai, has to sit outside until escorted in. The only people who get to move freely from place to place, in and out of the palace and into every palatial space are the eunuchs.

In the ancient world a eunuch was a non-procreative male, usually castrated, and often castrated before puberty. This means they typically did not experience puberty with the rush of testosterone bringing about the lowering of the voice, the development of body hair, facial hair, muscles, and over time, a prominent brow. They looked and sounded different from the men and women around them. They would have stood out in Persia. In some places of the ancient world others considered them, and perhaps they considered themselves, another sex or a third gender. In the olden times there were men, women, and eunuchs, not a simple binary. In scripture eunuchs pop up throughout the Hebrew Bible and make brief but important appearances in the Christian Bible.

Most people in the ancient world likely did not willingly choose to become a eunuch, even if being one meant service in a royal court with access to powerful people and information. This is likely true for many of the eunuchs in Bible stories. Perhaps because of painful experiences in life, they empathize with “the other” alongside them in the text; they relate to the vulnerable. Jeremiah is rescued by Ebed Melech, an Ethiopian eunuch (Jeremiah 38.) Daniel, like Esther is parented and trained by a royal eunuch, Ashpenaz. Some scholars say there is evidence that Daniel and his friends serve as eunuchs in the Babylonian court. These are a handful of the dozens of eunuchs in the Bible.

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But back to Esther. I recently heard a sermon at an LGBTQ religious gathering where the minister spoke about Esther, who “for such a time as this” is made queen of Persia so that she can save her people against the evil plot of the very evil Haman. It is a good story, and we can make lots of modern applications for how we too can take a stand today and put our lives on the line for justice. It is also a story about a woman with power (even if it is limited power that comes with great risks) within ancient texts where women typically do not have much power. BUT (yes I have a big BUT) once again, in a queer-friendly sermon, the gender variant, sexual minorities in the text were completely overlooked, much like they are in our modern society and our LGBTQ-friendly religious spaces.

Yes, Esther saves the people by appearing before the king pleading her case, but without the eunuchs she would have been far from the court, an unknown orphaned Jewish young woman. Even in the palace she cannot speak directly with her kinsman, Mordecai, who urges her to act. She needs eunuchs to ferry messages back and forth, to set up the lunches for the king, to help her save her people.

In queering a text, one of the first steps may simply be to acknowledge those individuals already in that text who are presented as sexual minorities. It is not terribly radical actually, but it can go a long way to open up a discussion about otherness in the Bible and the essential roles that non-gender normative people play in it and in the world today. If you see yourself as an LGBTQ ally, the next time you talk give a sermon or perform a skit about the Book of Esther, go out of your way to include the eunuchs. Do not overlook the gender-variant, sexual minorities all over the page.

Special thanks to Janet Everhart and her excellent dissertation, The Hidden Eunuchs of the Hebrew Bible–Uncovering an Alternative Gender
and to Jane Brazell for her editorial help, inspiration, and feedback.

Check out the other synchroblog entries:
Queering Our Reading of the Bible by Chris Henrichsen

Queer Creation in art: Who says God didn’t create Adam and Steve? by Kittrdge Cherry

Of The Creation of Identity (Also the Creation of Religion) by Colin & Terri

God, the Garden, & Gays: Homosexuality in Genesis by Brian G. Murphy, for Queer Theology

Created Queerly–Living My Truth by Casey O’Leary

Creating Theology by Fr. Shannon Kearns

Initiation by Blessed Harlot

B’reishit: The Divine Act of Self-Creation by Emily

Queer Creation: Queering the Image of God by Alan Hooker

Queer Creation by Ric Stott

Eunuch-Inclusive Esther–Queer Theology 101 by Peterson Toscano

Valley of Dry Bones by Jane Brazelle

Queer Creation: Queer Angel by Tony Street

The Great Welcoming by Anna Spencer

It has been a week since Alan Chambers publicly apologized and announced the closing of Exodus. So much can happen in one week. As I stood in front of the Supreme Court yesterday in the sweltering DC sun, the news of DOMA and Prop 8 easily overshadowed last week’s news of an apology and closing from Exodus. So much to process.

Many have asked me for my opinion about Alan Chamber’s apology and the possible next moves he and his new organization will make. Many are rightly concerned and suspicious. What do we do with someone who has been our enemy when he suddenly says he no longer is? He’s not yet an ally, and he’s not an opponent. Or is he? As the Culture War around LGBTQ rights shifts, we need to figure out how to respond to our former oppressors, some of whom say they have changed their oppressive ways.

In this week’s Queer and Queerer podcast Zack Ford asks me to respond to all of the recent movement at Exodus. What might it mean? What should the new organization do and what should they not do? What are the risks? What roles have ex-gay survivors taken to bring about change? What roles still exist for us? What about celibacy and the “Side B” gay Christian debate. We talk about all this and much more in our 40 minute podcast. If you care about these issues and want to get beyond the headlines, have a listen.

Also, read about my own response to John Smid, the former ex-gay leader, when he offered me a personal apology, This is What an Apology Looks Like

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Some people feel a strong opposition about rights for LGBT people. They stand in the way of full inclusion and equality. Why? What do they fear?

Most of the conflicts that occur in our homes and in society happen when one person or a group of people believe that something they need is threatened. It could be something serious like food supplies or water, or simple, let the need for some time alone. They may feel the need for respect from others. Perhaps they are gripped with a fear–real or perceived–that their security or the security of their loved ones may be compromised. When we feel our needs are threatened, we can react often violently.

When I was an Evangelical, Conservative, Republican Christian, I feared “the gay agenda.” My reaction was personal. I knew I was gay, and I hated that part of me; I wanted to destroy it. Any pro-gay message or proposed legislation for LGBT rights threatened my resolve to annihilate that gay part of me. I found it easier to despise a part of myself when there was a social consensus of queer revulsion.

I felt spiritually threatened too. I lived with the belief that if the United States caved into the demands of the homosexuals, this would trigger a spiritual catastrophe. Our permissiveness would so offend God, that God would turn his back on us as a nation. God would remove his special protective covering over us resulting in natural disasters, financial ruin, and diseases unleashed by God as punishment for our wicked ways.

Perhaps, I reasoned God would send these disasters in hopes of correcting us. If God pummeled us enough, we might just repent of our sins. I wanted to believe that, but really I feared horrors would come upon us sent from God because we finally crossed the line, a point of no return. God would swoop down, the angel of death, in a blast of wrath and righteousness.

Perhaps reading this some may scoff at such thoughts. It would be easy to mock people who ascribe to such a terror-driven theology. Some may assume that since these beliefs are so irrational, no one in their right mind could ever truly profess them. But fear messes with our heads. It literally alters our brain chemistry so that we do not think clearly when under its influence. Fear breeds more fear which incubates irrationality.

Looking at it today I realize that I didn’t really fear the gay agenda or the liberation of LGBTQ people. Instead I feared a God that was easily offended, a merciless heavenly father. I feared a being that had become weakened because of his own righteousness–so pure that no impurity could ever come near him. Like a person with no immune system, the God I believed in required a sanitized space, a sin-free environment–the God in the holy plastic bubble. This God, suffering from a sin-intolerance disorder, then lashed out at anything or anyone that threatened his security.

During the days of my Evangelical Christian zeal, the biggest danger in life was not a wayward society, particularly one that acknowledged and welcomed LGBT people. The greatest danger was an unhinged, wild God, the ultimate abuser. Yet I retained a steadfast allegiance much like how an abused person may go out of the way to defend an abuser.

In the book of Genesis earthlings are fashioned after God’s own image. If God is a creator, I imagine I feel most divine when I create something, be it a performance piece or a particularly healthy and tasty meal. Since we are all little creators, some folks have created God in their own image–a being who reacts with violence to security threats, a panicked deity that is so overwhelmed with terror that it can hear or learn or consider the stories and lives of others. Seems we need to liberate God from our limited imagination.

(Photo from cliff dwellers’ ruins in Walnut Canyon)
National Monument near Flagstaff, AZ)

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Years ago when I attended Nyack College, a small liberal arts Christian school run by the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, I decided to go to Ecuador for a summer to serve as a short-term missionary. Since I had a license as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), I agreed I would work in the emergency room at a hospital in Quito. In addition, I learned I would also join hospital staff for the week-long “medical caravans” into remote jungle and mountain communities where we would set-up temporary medical clinics.

In preparation for the mission trip I decided to train my body and mind for the deprivations of the missionary life. The months before my trip to South America I denied myself sweets and ate a very simple diet. I limited the number and length of showers I took. Perhaps most radical of all, I forsook my bed and opted to sleep on the floor. My college roommate looked on amused, but I explained I grew up with many comforts that I assumed would be denied me as a missionary.

I arrived in Quito and met my host family, Americans who were career missionaries originally from the Midwest. They took me to their home, what seemed to me a massive two-story structure with gorgeous gardens. The grounds and the house were maintained by local Ecuadorians, a gardener and a housekeeper. Compared to my working-class, tiny home in the New York State Catskills, in Quito I lived in opulence.

That summer there were about 20 of us summer missionaries, site-seeing, hanging out at the fancy malls, going out to eat at posh restaurants which because of the exchange rate cost us little. We served the Lord too, but not too much.

I was the only one who actually got to leave Quito to do mission work in rural places. It took up to 12 hours on single-lane dirt roads to go deep into the bush. Once there we set up camp at the local school. Without glass or screens in the windows, just bars, we slept on the floor exposed to all of the flying and crawling insects. One night I felt a welcomed occasional breeze pass over my face during a particularly stuffy, sultry night. I opened my eyes to see the source of the wind, a huge bat swooping around our heads eating up all the mosquitos that gathered to attack us.

Mostly being a missionary that summer was a cushy job. I did get sick to my stomach once and lost five pounds in 15 minutes, but overall it was more of a vacation in an exotic location than any sort of intense missionary work filled with multiple deprivations.

I always wanted to be a missionary, to travel the world with Good News. I tried to suppress my gay desires so that I would at last be eligible for service in Conservative Christian missions. The more I suppressed these desires the stronger they became. I eventually came out gay and figured my life as a missionary was over forever.

Yet last week on an overnight train from Albuquerque, where I had just spoken about gender non-conforming characters in the Bible and the Koran at a Sufi worship Center, I remembered Ecuador and my self-imposed missionary training. Back on the train I felt excited about my upcoming presentations in California at Pomona College, the Claremont Friends Meeting, and the La Verne Church of the Brethren. Unable to sleep in the confining reclining chairs in Coach Class that Amtrak offered, I trudged over to the observation car with my blowup pillows and my travel blanket stuffed under my arm and foam earplugs jammed into my ears. There I found a quiet corner, and settled down on the floor for a long, mostly comfortable night of sleeping.

I awoke refreshed with a feeling of joy that surpassed my pre-coffee stupor. I realized that the dream I had so long ago abandoned had been happening in my life for some time without me even noticing. These days I travel the world sharing Good News. On this particular wild and wonderful cross-country train journey I stopped along the way to share my work at seminaries and an LGBTQ Center in Chicago and then in Albuquerque with a Muslim group.

On my return trip I stopped in Flagstaff, AZ, where I met with my dear friend Abby Jensen, who recently was honored through the prestigious Trans 100 List. I enjoyed her company without the pressure of a show that evening. Through a friend of Abby’s I learned of a local transgender support group. Some of the members felt strain and pain from family and friends who stirred up questions and opposition based on their faith and their reading of the Bible. Abby’s friend invited me to attend the meeting. I sat and listened and took part in the discussion topics. Then at the end, they asked if I would share some transgender Bible stories, and I did. People seemed to take them in as ammunition as well as bread for their own souls–words of comfort and encouragement from the Bible, a source that has meant so much in their lives. After another overnight train ride I am now in Kansas connecting with all sorts of Christians–straight and gay–who are grappling with a variety of issues.

After all these years I feel that I am in a missionary position of sorts (pun intended with a nod to my gay mormon performance art pal, Steven Fales and his newest show.) I do a different type of mission work I guess. Perhaps the message has shifted. I speak of a different type of liberation, even using the same texts that once oppressed me. I recognize I don’t have The Answer or all the answers. I have my story and a new take on old stories. I have faced homophobia in the world and in myself. I have seen transphobia among gay and lesbian peers. I have seen the pain of rejection and the joy and wholeness that comes from self-acceptance. Good News

Photos from the road: Display at La Brea Tar Pits Museum and views from the train in New Mexico.

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In my lifetime I must have crossed the USA at least 20 times, and always by air, that was of course until last week when I boarded the train in Harrisburg, PA and headed west to Southern California.

What is particularly elegant about this form of travel is that one can stop along the way. On my first day I had a four hour layover in Pittsburgh where I had dinner with a local queer environmental activist named Ellie. Then off to Chicago for two and half days. Next it was off to Albuquerque for exactly 24 hours. Finally I arrived at Los Angeles’ Union Station.

In the Windy City (which was really mostly rainy) I presented once again at Chicago Theological Seminary for an event sponsored by McCormick Seminary. I also explored John chapter 11 through theater and movement for McCormick’s weekly chapel service. I then performed Transfigurations at the LGBTQ Center on Halsted.

While in Chicago I met up with people I knew from previous trips and also got to meet new folks, including the team that works for the Marin Foundation. I met Andrew Marin almost two years ago at the Wild Goose Festival, where I grilled him about his work and his role as a straight Evangelical man taking on LGBT issues. It came at a time when I felt much frustration over straight male Evangelical leaders still stuck on the fence about justice for LGBTQ people. To me it seemed there was a whole tribe of Christian leaders who privately supported queer folk but publicly maintained an uncommitted stance as they travelled around the world, darlings of the Emergent Church set and traditional Evangelical space. They seem to directly benefit from their unwillingness to take a stand.

At the time Andrew Marin defended himself and his work adding, “You need to come to Chicago and meet the people there and see for yourself what we are doing.” So at last I did, and I am impressed. Andrew Marin has gathered around him a smart, diverse, and passionate group of people working with him to bring about dialogue with Evangelicals around LGBTQ issue. From what I can see they do good work and have ambition plans to do more. As I sat and listened to each of them talk, got to know Andrew’s wife, Brenda, saw how they worked together, how they listened to each other, and how they revealed their knowledge around the issues, I felt grateful that this work is being done. There is so much work to do in engaging the church in an effective dialogue around LGBTQ issues. We need more people stepping up and doing it.

From Chicago I took the train overnight to Albuquerque. Since each of my jaunts from place to place are over 12 hours, the train becomes a rolling community with people talking to each other, sharing their stories, exchanging travel tips, and sitting for meals together. I got to meet Susan and Owen, senior citizens from Michigan who attend a United Church of Christ congregation. I also bumped into Davey, someone I met when he was a student at Warren Wilson College. He especially remembered my Transfigurations play. In the Observation car with sweeping views of New Mexican landscape Davey taught me how to play Scrabble. What an awful game! (Sorry Scrabble fans; it’s just NOT how I work with words.) I met Bill, an American living and teaching in Korean,and I met Manuel, an Italian young man who just spent a year working on a farm in Australia.

The number one topic of conversation on the train was the weather, well really the many changes we are seeing on the planet with the climate. From Chicago we travelled west through floods until we rolled through Western Illinois and began to see the effects of the recent and growing drought eating up the Southwest and now large parts of the Midwest. While the country was gripped with the events in Boston, we crossed the country witnessing the unfolding tragedies on the land and in the lives around us all over the country and beyond.

In Albuquerque I performed at a Sufi worship center and spent time with Gwen and Jacob who showed me around town and stuffed me full of New Mexican Cuisine. I happened to be in town for the annual Founders’ Day Celebration, which took place in Old Town with lavish multicultural performances and more food.

Then on the overnight train to LA I met a man from Flagstaff, an Evangelical Christian with a open mind about LGBTQ issues. He was fascinated by my gender non-conforming Bible characters and my ex-gay past, since he has a friend who has struggled with coming out for years. Possibly I will meet up with him next week when I meet up with a dear friend, Abigail, who will drive up and spend the dayj.

While sitting up late one night with Brenda and Andrew Marin, I reflected that we live in the richest country in the world with so much access to social media and technology but so often we are totally impoverish with actual relationships. So many people are lonely and alone. I may have travelled cross-country alone, but I didn’t have the chance to be lonely. Even in the Starbucks as I waiting for my friend Worthie (aka Momma) to pick me up, I met Ken, a delightful man who is a potter and was so full of life at 7 in the morning when I was barely awake.

I’ll be in Claremont, CA area all this week. Next week I get back on the train and will see folks in Flagstaff, Wichita and Manhattan, KS, Kansas City, MO, and finally Akron and Cleveland, OH. Enjoy the pics from the trip.

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