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Posts Tagged ‘Warren Wilson College’

On a snowy day (one of many since I arrived in Asheville over two weeks ago) as I was about to slip into the campus swimming pool to do my laps, one of the lifeguards say, “Hey, you’re the radical in residence!” Actually my official and quite pretentious title is Activist in Residence.  My most radical achievement that cold and blizzard day was stripping down to my bathing suit and getting into the pool at all.

The Homo No Mo Halfway House

My second week at Warren Wilson College was PACKED (you can read about week one here. ) It included a Religion class discussion about integrity and honesty, particularly in relation to honesty about oneself and one’s identity. I mentioned that as a matter of integrity I still identify as a Christian. It would be dishonest to deny that reality as my faith and practice have been so deeply influenced by the teachings and life of Jesus (as we have it recorded) and my time in various Christian communities. Integrity is an important feature of Quakerism where we have a Testimony of Integrity that has greatly shaped our history and actions.

Advice/Query 37 of Britain Yearly Meetings Faith and Practice (see the whole list here) raises questions and provides guidance for Quakers:

Are you honest and truthful in all you say and do? Do you maintain strict integrity in business transactions and in your dealings with individuals and organisations? Do you use money and information entrusted to you with discretion and responsibility? Taking oaths implies a double standard of truth; in choosing to affirm instead, be aware of the claim to integrity that you are making.

I also took part in a creative non-fiction class where we discussed my piece Lazarus and his Grave Clothes. In addition to provided quotes from John Henson’s delicious version of the New Testament, I weave in the story of Lazarus’s liberation from his grave with my own coming out narrative. I also get to make zombie references! In the class we discussed how we can use existing stories as metaphors for our own experience. Cathy Reid, the professor of the class, explained a super exercise to do this. She said write out a brief narrative of your life. Then write up the details of another story from literature (or I guess history too) that serves as a metaphor for your narrative. Then physically cut up the two narratives and paste them together. Weave the two stories together to construct a personal essay.

I then led the class in a theater game that proved successful last year in a workshop I co-led with Allyson Robinson. I instructed the class to close their eyes and let their minds travel to a character either in their own lives or in literature. Once they settled on one, I then guided then through a process of imagining being that person physically. I had them morph their own bodies to conform to the body of that other person, to explore the character’s physical being. Then I had them stand, walk, talk and eventually interact with others as that character. When it was done we discussed what we discovered about the characters we inhabited and about ourselves.

Last week I also got to share some of the memoir I am writing, including much of a chapter I had never read publicly before called In the Lion’s Den with Only a Tuba. I felt particularly nervous and vulnerable as my voice in memoir is very different from any other voice I use when I tell my story on-line or in my play. I seek to strip away several layers of self. Although humorous in part, I do not seek to make people laugh. The humor comes off more as shocking and revealing creating a deadly serious tone. The 20 or so people assembled seemed to enjoy what I shared, that or they were just being polite.

During the week I also did some BRAND NEW presentations that I hope to share again elsewhere. One was a workshop which I then also did as a lecture later in the week at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC. The topic? Sex & Spirit–a lively look at the intersection of faith and sexuality. In addition to sharing how I developed a personal sexual ethic, I also talked about the Bible, (FUN FACT: Did you know that there is no verse in the Bible that condemns sex before marriage? Also some of the most important Bible characters got rewarded for having multiple sex partners) the proven need to physical intimacy and a probing expose of the sin of Sodom.Grrr.

Another presentation that was well-attended and received covered how to use technology and new media with our work for Social Justice. In Wired for Activism I provided ideas and case studies for how to effectively use Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs, on-line comments and podcasts for ways to get new allies, inform and engage existing allies, and  organize actions. We also looked at ways we can counter arguments while inserting new language in the public discourse. To make the presentation even that much sweeter, Cale, one of the young activists responsible for organizing a creative and highly effective action in the summer of 2005 in Memphis, was present to talk about the work they around the Love in Action Refuge program and the teens forced to attend this “straight camp” against their will. You can check out this amazing video to see how they used technology to effect real change. (FYI, the young man, Zach, who first alerted his friends of the Refuge program I hear is doing very well in his life today)

I met with a group of male-identified people to discuss porn. Sadly some guys didn’t want to come after they heard the topic. I fear they expected a judgmental, shaming atmosphere. Shame because I wanted to have an open non-judgmental chat about our own personal histories with porn. (When was the first time you viewed porn?) and the purpose(s) it has served or seemed to have served in our lives. (Why do you or have you looked at porn?) For the few men who gathered, we had a thoughtful and fun discussion that got beyond opinion into personal reflection. Always a good place to start.

During the week I also offered a few public presentations that included lots of performance. I offered my lively lecture about ex-gay treatment and reparative therapy. In it I also talked about the nature of abuse, how if we are abused as children it can brand us, mark us with our abusers own shame and shameful behavior resulting in a complicated relationship we maintain with our own bodies and sexuality. In addition, I talked about trauma, and how those of us who have experienced it (be it at the Homo No Mo Halfway House, in our own harms or wherever) that we need to tell our stories with self-care in mind knowing that if we are not careful, we can re-traumatize ourselves. I also traveled off-campus to the UNC Asheville campus to do a variety show of sorts. They laughed, they cried, and it evening got very tender and personal. In this presentation I had some ideas of what I wanted to present, but through audience questions, I allowed myself to be flexible and present scenes that I had not intended to perform.

For the Religious Life and the Peace and Justice crews I led a workshop called, Slow Dancing with the Enemy–Effective Strategies for Engaging Your Opponent. One point I stressed is that when we engage with an “opponent” someone who stands on the other side of a particular issue who we hope to engage in thoughtful discussion leading to deeper understanding of the issues, we need to remember a key point. They will most likely not remember much of what we tell them, but they will also remember how they felt in our presence and how we treated them. If we allow our part of the exchange to be vulnerable, respectful, thoughtful–human–that may do more to influence people than any brilliant talking point we present (not that we should be shoddy in our presentation and facts.)

Peterson Toscano

As I mentioned above, I did go to Greensboro to present at Guilford College, but because of the snow nearly did not make it! On Friday I organized an escape from Witch Mountain, well the Wilson campus, where once the snow started to settled the roads got downright treacherous. I spent the night with friends closer to the bus station, only to find that there were NO buses going out on  Saturday morning. Disregarding the advice from my mother to my child self, I got into a stranger’s car and hitched a ride to Greensboro. It almost seemed as I stepped into a joke after we got to talking about our diverse faith backgrounds–A Conservative Roman Catholic, a Canadian-Egyptian Coptic Christian and a Queer Quaker get into a van together…  I sensed that the two folks in the front of the car viewed LGBTQ issues differently than I did. I actually even felt a pang of panic that once they heard my story and of my identity as a gay man doing a play about transgender Bible characters (which resulting in lively conversation) that they would dump me off at the side of the road. But hospitality trumped attitudes and beliefs that may have arisen from the greater culture wars swirling around us like the snow in the air. I believe we all learned something during that 3 hour+ journey and grew deeper in our understandings of “the other.”

I am certain I have left something out of the many activities of the week, but it is lunch time and Cow Pie Cafe will be serving up some amazing vegan wonder that I must not miss!

Perhaps the best parts of the past week included those one-on-one discussions with folks from Belfast to Birmingham (Alabama that is).  Although I am introverted in many ways (I lose energy and get off-balanced around a lot of people and need to be alone to find myself and my center again) I value and grow enriched by the personal exchanges I am privileged to have with the many people I meet on the road. Each day I learn something new, get challenged in my thinking and my living and see so much beauty and courage in the people around me. All that and vegan treats! I am one happy princess 😀

To get a listing of some of my talk, check out my talks and lively lectures page.
TONIGHT at 8 pm in Canon on the Wilson campus, I will perform Doin’ Time with Peterson Toscano, a variety show with a bunch of excerpts and never before seen material. I may even do a Russian Folk-Pop Interpretive dance!

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The RISE Crew at Warren Wilson College, which looks at creative ways of decreasing sexual violence, currently is working on producing a zine that addresses domestic violence. I immediately thought of the church and religion which can practice its own brand of domestic violence. Below is a piece I wrote for the zine.

A Gospel song by The Gaithers begins, “I’m so glad to be part of the family of God…” then goes on to extol the many spiritual benefits family members enjoy. The song does not address the dysfunctional working so often in this religious family on earth—the Church. (This is the only song I have ever heard that successfully rhymes the words God and Sod and is not even trying to be ironic. See the lyrics and hear the melody here. )

While some find welcome, refuge & support in their local churches & faith communities, others face hostility, rejection & violence.  The institution of the Church, like marriage, regularly creates & maintains an oppressive system of power & privilege where some (often a very few) have the most say & control.   Abuse & domestic violence happen in these systems aided & encouraged by the imbalance of power.

I’ve seen women (and men)  in churches silenced, chastised & shunned because they suffer clinical depression. “Sister, you just need the faith of a mustard seed, not some pill.” Youth ministers tell queer teens that they need to repent of their “same-sex attractions” in order to enter God’s Kingdom & gain access to weekly youth group events.  Even when the sexually wayward youth “repents,” leaders treat the teen as suspect & deny access to youth leadership roles.

Religious abuse happens behind a loving smile—we only want what’s best for you—& carries the full weight of Biblical authority.

As a guy who likes guys who also happens to be Christian, I often get e-mails from fellow Christians admonishing me to conform to theirs’ (& what they believe to be God’s) beliefs & wishes for my body, relationships & sexuality.  I inform them that they are practicing abuse.  I write them,

You take a position of power over me using God as your elevated platform as you insist that your religion & sexuality are superior to mine. You disregard & disrespect my personal faith journey & my understanding of my own orientation, then you impose your sexuality & religion on me. This is abuse & I refuse to be part of an abusive relationship.

They often accuse me of being angry while insisting that they are not hateful. As a former Conservative Evangelical myself, I know they feel they act in love.  That’s what makes religious abuse so complicated & difficult to identify at the time.  As a result, some members of the church go Sunday after Sunday, year after year submitting to the abuse, denying themselves a voice or agency.  They may even practice the same sort of abuse on others.

Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew Shepard, a college student who was beaten for being gay and died a few days later as a result of his injuries, has stated that,

Church hurt is the worst kind of hurt.

She goes on to explain that it hurts so much because the Church represents God, the highest authority and a heavenly parent—a cosmic betrayal.  The religiously abused—the battered Bride of Christ—can flee the scene of the crime, but the effect of the abuse may linger and harass for years. Others stay stuck in the system, singing along all the while blaming themselves for their misery,  always forgiving those who sin against them, soldiering on in the faith.  In the midst of all the abuse & pain one can despair of ever being part of a healthy, respectful, thoughtful faith community. One can shut the door inwardly to the possibility of spiritual life, divine encounters, mystical wonder be it in a sanctuary, a forest or the bedroom. (Some are better off outside of a system of faith that has not only failed them but reeked havoc on their health & wellbeing.) Like many who survive all manners of abuse, no longer victims, the religiously abused can experience the pain that comes from being branded by an abuser even years afterwards & feeling the sharp sting of violation whenever they encounter religious symbols, language & people.

In my case I needed 10 years of therapy to help sort through the tangled mess of church-based abuse with all its resulting shame. In the words of CP Cavafy, the queer Greek poet, in his poem Growing in Spirit written over 100 years ago, I have needed to “violate both law and custom, and go beyond the established norm”

He who hopes to grow in spirit
will have to transcend obedience and respect.
He will hold to some laws
but he will mostly violate
both law and custom, and go beyond
the established, inadequate norm.
Sensual pleasures will have much to teach him.
He will not be afraid of the destructive act:
half the house will have to come down.
This way he will grow virtuously into wisdom.

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