Practice Taking Risks

Okay, I don't consider myself in a position to preach. I really don't. I just know what *I* strongly believe and that's it...and I listen to others. So, this week, I'm in charge of the service and the topic of the month is "risk."

I just saw a colleague post about reminding a man not to refer to his female assistant (?) as a "girl." And I'm sure this was completely unintentional and there's nothing at all wrong with him and he probably, hopefully, appreciated having his attention brought to this. My colleague, understandably, felt a little embarrassed.

Here's my approach to this kind of thing: How are we ever going to stand up for the big things, when something's really at stake, and act in the moment, if we don't *practice?*

Like physical self defense, sometimes social risk-taking, standing up for what is right, has to become automated. Or it just won't happen. Knowing what you believe is only halfway there. It's a huge step, but then there's at least another one, and that's acting on it.

Because I believe this so firmly, and I hate being caught in a situation where I later think about how I wish I could have acted, or helped (and sometimes no matter what you can't), I make it a point to practice with smaller, seemingly less significant opportunties.

It's not about nit-picking. It's not about being overly sensitive, or making a "big deal" about something that wasn't meant to be a big deal. It's not the incident itself that should be weighed, but its usefulness in practicing. That's a different value judgement, and much easier to act from, then trying to judge every situation on a case by case basis.

All of us, but especially women and girls, do this thing where we get stuck trying to weigh the worth of an event. We're sitting there trying to figure out, from scratch, where the bar of "okay, THIS is a big deal" is on the nebulous spectrum we never seem to understand...WHILE something is happening, and long after, when it's too late to do something about it.

Some friends this week have been talking on Facebook about their experiences with abusive relationships. Horrific stories. Fascinating examples of manipulation and human sickness. I had a new appreciation for the fact that without knowing what you believe, or in this case, what to look for and notice, it is very easy to go from mild gas-lighting to suddenly a horrible situation that literally puts your life at risk...and scars you forever.

I know a little about what some "abuse" looks like in small forms, so I speak up at the seemingly little stuff. Comments that I don't agree with. Attempts to put me down, or coerce me to do something. Letting people know when I'm pissed at something, instead of hiding it or swallowing it and trying not to let it show. I'm firm, and yet not combative.

But since I have not actually been in THIS situation, I realize anew it would do me well to learn more what the flags are...because you can't see things when you're IN them. only if you have the markers ahead of time, can you know what to look for on the landscape. Looking at a map, and being IN the map, are two different perspectives, and exist in different dimensions.

Now, I've made mistakes. It is rare, but recently, I made one. I misjudged a man and had to go back and apologize, very, very humbly. I did, and he forgave me. But though I'm sorry I hurt his feelings, and I really did, I am not sorry that I acted on my beliefs. It's good for him to know that he can be misjudged, because sexism and harassment are serious problems and exist. Maybe he can contribute to doing something about it, if he doesn't want to live in a world like that. Mistakes can be corrected. Harm cannot always be corrected.

So...I haven't lived on this earth long enough, nor experienced lack of privilege enough, to really believe I have much worth to talk about when it comes to taking risks. But since I have to anyway, that is one of the points I will be bringing up: the importance of practice.

The little things *do* matter, people. We should never feel silly for caring about them. The worst that can happen is people don't get it and are annoyed with you. And guess what....people are going to think whatever they think, ANYWAY. Is that really so bad, if you know what you believe, and have the peace of knowing that you act on it? Wouldn't it feel better to be thought of as "that" person, when you've actually done something, not just because you timidly spoke and *suggested* something?

I admit I actually enjoy saying, "I disagree," when someone makes a comment that is upholding an oppressive, harmful belief. They don't have to understand...I don't need to convince them. i respect them. But it's good for them to know that someone might disagree.

If I stay silent, they will go through life believing that what they said was acceptable, because no one else seems to find it UNacceptable. And it is not my job to make sure someone who takes a risk by stating an opinion falls back on as soft a cushion of disappointment as possible. They took a risk; they can handle the consequences. I literally will say this sometimes only for the record. For the record, everyone does not agree with or endorse that opinion, but you're welcome to have one as long as you understand that.

Anyway, I wish I could say this more articulately and do a better job of being inspirational here. I just want to affirm for ANYone the value and rightness of caring and speaking about things that seem to have minimum consequences.

The little things are guilding over the big problems. Our rape culture, for example, extends from simple jokes, unconscious victim-blaming and mixed messages about gender roles all the way to the very worst. They may not be the same in degree, but they ARE connected. They are of the same nature, stem from the same problems. To respond to one less in degree is to contribute to lessening the worst that can happen.

Be strong. Know what you believe. And practice. Practice. Practice. You're not going to hurt anyone. Everyone will be all right. If you practice, you're less likely to overdo it when something big happens and you make a mistake, because all that anger and surge of emotion and years of not speaking out comes to the surface and crucifies whoever happens to be standing in the way that day.

But with practice, that energy flows more easily, and the mistakes don't have to be that harmful. The more we practice something, the better we get at it. NEVER berate yourself for standing up for what you believe, large, small, or miniscule. It's just being consistent, that's all.

Remember that poem that went around a few weeks ago, calling out how people look back at the Civil Rights movement, and firmly believe they would have marched with King, they would have seen very clearly what was wrong and what they were called to do, and yet TODAY, when we face identical situations, it is hard to get up and going, hard to see it the same way.

So people sit on the sidelines. And comment. And shake their heads, and tell protestors how they should be protesting, when they've never so much as held a sign themselves. I focused on women's issues here, but this is true for everyone. We all need to trust ourselves and value ourselves enough to be willing to act, and yes, without thinking. Thinking feels like acting, but it's not. Practice can help tell the difference, and hone the degree of appropriate reaction.

30 Days of Love: From Pinterest With Love

I have been recovering for the past twelve months from a freak accident, falling out of a second story loft. It has been difficult to write at all. I am so grateful that I finished seminary before the accident. That does not mean that I have been off of social media completely. My favorite, Twitter, has been hit and miss, at best. I used to read upwards of 20-30 news articles a day, and tweet links to them. I am now on twitter a tiny fraction of the time. There has been an upside to being forced to slow down. This past year, Pinterest taught me that I am a visual person. Through Pinterest, I can curate what amounts to a love letter of pictures, stories, and videos.

There are two pictures that informed my “pinning” from very early on. The first is of a young woman with a sign that reads, “I need inclusive intersectional feminism because I had to scroll through five pages to see the face of another woman of color.” Five pages. Coming from my own social location of a queer, multicultural, feminist, Unitarian Universalist, her point struck me. A feminist board, “Feminism/Inspiring Strong Women,” on Pinterest followed. Those pins focus on why feminism is necessary, show women heroes, role models, and those who never got credit in their lifetime.

The second picture is of a young trans individual whose sign reads, “I need feminism if it will fight for trans people and women of color.” This is another valid criticism of feminism. The trans community is shut out of many women’s events, and even discussions.  The pins on my board, “Queer Inspiration and Affirmation,” are multicultural. As a cis lesbian, I cannot heal the divide between straight women, lesbians and trans women. That work needs to be done face to face. I can, however, make a place that mirrors those of us not from the dominant culture, rather than a window looking in as most boards are.

There is one last picture that I saw recently that inspired one more board. The picture frames a just married lesbian couple jumping in the air.  I had been collecting pictures of just married lesbians on an invisible board. The joy in their faces was so infectious that I created “Brides x2," for all those who had to wait to have their relationships acknowledged by society.

The three boards are love letters to those women who do not fit the dominant cultural expectations of their time, today or yesterday. They are smart, adventurous, brave, strong, and beautiful for being themselves.

Two Lovely Brides

Domestic Violence

Yesterday, a speaker from the local domestic violence shelter spoke to our spiritual care class. It was the second time I've heard her, and she is just wonderful. Some things to think about:

  • 1 in 4 women have been subjected to domestic violence. Yes, men have been victims, too. Domestic Violence happens in same-sex relationships, as well.
  • Domestic Violence is not limited to physical violence. There are others: Emotional, Sexual, Financial, Spiritual. Her stories are heartbreaking. 
  • Her shelter won a grant to do presentations in the local churches. Not one of 65 churches in the city wanted a presentation. Domestic violence is a pastoral issue. If one can not learn about it in church, then where? Happening to see something on television? There is one UU church in that city.

I wrote and preached a sermon about relationships, addressing both domestic abuse and good relationship behavior. I think I should rewrite it. What started it was that male members of a church were discussing the prevalence of domestic violence at a lunch. I sat at the table as they looked around and said one of ten women could be or have been abused. Not only was their statistic incorrect, they were pretty clueless.

I kept my mouth shut, but at the same time looked around and thought, there's one, there's another, there's another, and little do they know, one is sitting right with them. Having heard the speaker prior to this conversation, I realized that she was right. If not church, then where?

Education is highly valued in UU churches. We need to educate ourselves and others in the church to recognize the signs and be willing to provide at least the Domestic Violence Hotline number: 1-800-799-SAFE.

Miley Cyrus

The first I heard of the controversy over 15 year old Miley Cyrus posing topless in Vanity Fair was when a colleague blogged about it.  I thought Grace's piece was well written and kinda took it for granted that most people would agree that the picture was indicative of our culture, which sexualizes our youth in order to sell products.  So I was rather surprised when later, I came across a slew of comments in blogs and online news articles where people thought that the picture was "no big deal."  Mothers of daughters wrote in to say that they found nothing wrong with the photo, that girls expose more with their daily fashions, and that those of us who thought the photo was sexually suggestive were either prudes or had sex on the brain. 

After some consideration, I put up the photo in question so that readers can decide for themselves whether it is sexually suggestive or not.  I would argue that it's misleading to focus on the quantity of skin exposed.  Of course there are fashions that show as much skin.  But the combination of the bare back and the tousled hair and what looks like a satin bed sheet all suggest a post-coital moment with what we must remember is a 15 year old girl.

Sexualizing our youth in order to sell products is nothing new.  That doesn't mean it shouldn't be controversial.  Saying that it's been done before or even that it's done all the time doesn't make it right. 

Moreover, I agree with the blogger at Gothamist, who said that the fully clothed pic of Miley with dad, Billy Ray Cyrus, was even more disturbing. (It's rare that I agree with bloggers on the metro "ist" sites as they seem to take pride in their cultural elitism.)  It leads one to wonder whether Mr. Cyrus has his daughter's or his own interests in mind.  It seems he would prefer to project the image of a cool stud with a hot chick hanging on his arm over being a middle-aged father of a teen-aged daughter.

Personally, what bothers me most is that these photos were taken by Annie Liebowitz, someone whom I think has great talent for making social statements through portrait photography.  It would be easy for me to believe that Liebowitz was making a statement here precisely about the sexualization of our youth.  In that respect it is a brilliant photo. 

The problem, however, is that the statement is made at the expense of a 15 year old girl.  If dad is not looking out for Miley.  And if the photographer is not looking out for Miley.  And we know that Vanity Fair and Disney are looking to see product.  Then who is looking out for, guiding and nurturing this young soul as she ventures toward adulthood?

March for Women’s Lives Remembered

Four years ago, when I was still relatively new to DC and All Souls Church Unitarian, an amazing thing happened. UUs from all over the country converged on Washington DC to participate in the March for Women’s Lives, a demonstration in support of women’s rights. I mean literally – almost every state was represented. Many important events have happened in DC and at All Souls since then, but still nothing like that. After a Sunday worship service with Dr. Rebecca Parker giving the sermon, we spilled out on to the streets and made our way to the National Mall to join other demonstrators. Estimates vary but anywhere between 800,000 and 1.15 million people participated. I can’t count that high. All I know is that I have been in many protests in my life but had never experienced anything like that peaceful, joyous, yet determined sea of humanity. A multitude of women, men, and children all together.

The other thing that I remember quite vividly about that march is that it was the first time I had ever protested as an identifiable part of a faith tradition. I had been a UU. I had gone to protests. I had never protested as a UU, as a person of faith. And it was extremely empowering.

Acceptable Power

Today in our Sunday morning discussion group we continued exploring the Feminine Divine in world religions, this time with Hinduism.  I had volunteered to present something but was also mindful of the time, it being Palm Sunday and our guest preachers being UUA president Bill Sinkford and Linda Jaramillo, executive minister for social justice of the UCC.  So I went light on presentation and let the discussion go where the group took it.

We had been discussing how the Feminine Divine is depicted in the world's religions for weeks now, but today was the first time that we actually talked about why.  Given that theology frames the way in which many people approach the world, it is important to have a theology that affirms life, and affirms all the different aspect of our diversity, including gender.  A theology that lifts up male as superior to female naturally results in the devaluing and oppression of women.  We need a theology, a way of viewing the world, that empowers women, as well as men.

From there, some of participants pointed to what they believed to be positive signs of progress.  Strong women - female superheros, Xena, and Buffy were mentioned.  But I was skeptical.  There are certain roles, certain means of socially acceptable behavior that have long been open to women.  And within these roles, some women have been able to gain a notable amount of power.  But ONLY within these roles.  

One such role is the mother figure.  I remember learning in UU history about pioneer women Unitarian ministers in the West.  They were pioneers in more ways than one, becoming ministers at a time when the pulpit was still dominated by men and setting up congregations in the "frontiers." What became clear as we discussed their considerable power was that these strong women became mother figures to their congregations.  That was the way in which the congregants knew how to relate to a female authority figure, and that's how the women knew how to relate as authority.  

Just a couple of weeks ago I was struck when a black officemate referred to Oprah as a "mammy" figure.  I had never before thought of Oprah, one of the richest and most powerful women in the country, as a mammy.  But it kind of made sense when I looked at her that way.  She gained her power and wealth by playing caregiver to a mostly white audience - the black maternal figure who will make us feel better about ourselves.  

Another such role is the Amazon warrior. Xena and Buffy fit into this category.  The thing that makes the Amazon warrior so appealing (and accepted) is that she is the exception, not the rule.  Ultimately, there is only one Xena or Buffy, a lonely role to play.  (And look what happened to Xena in the end!)

Frankly, I am also uncomfortable with the idea that gender equality means that women must resort to the same level of physical force and violence traditionally prescribed to men.  

Only when women and men can be themselves, without having to conform to prescribed gender norms, will we have true gender equality.


Why We Can't All Just Get Along

Today in the blogosphere, I came face to face with why it is that we can't all just get along. Because our views of the same exact event are so fundamentally different, and because there is so much misinformation out there.

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs has scheduled a markup hearing to consider funding the reauthorization the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Of the money, one-third of it is earmarked for "abstinence only" (until marriage) programs, even tho studies show that "abstinence only" fails to prevent the spread of HIV. Some of those who support continuing this earmark hosted a press conference on Capitol Hill yesterday to say so. Some of those who want the earmarks removed, such as the UUA, so that all of the money can go to comprehensive programs, staged a counter protest of sorts, standing behind the speakers with signs.

Here are blog posts about it from R H Reality Check and the UUA's Washington Office. (You can see my colleague in the back in the red, holding up a sign.)

I can understand that there is a serious difference of opinion here. Some of us think it's morally important to teach people to wait until marriage for sex, and some of us just want to provide the information that will best prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS without judgment as to whether and when people should have sex.

But still, here's how a pro-lifer site presented the exact same event: Concerned Women for America - Help Africa, Save PEPFAR

I'm really appalled that they characterized us as the "abortion lobby." And by the claim that we're trying to take money away from good Christians providing "health care" to poor Africans so that we can fund abortions. First of all, how is their preaching abstinence only considered "health care"? Second, we want COMPREHENSIVE SEX ED, meaning teach the people about condoms instead of preaching at them to wait for marriage. If they allowed the teaching of condom use there wouldn't be as many abortions! Who is it that is truly against abortions?

How can there be any hope of compromise if we can't even characterize each other's positions fairly?

Sexism Alive and Well

So these historic Dem primaries pose a question: which is the biggest barrier to getting elected president, gender or race?

In all honesty I spend a lot more time ruminating on the inequities of race than I do gender. I can list countless times where I have been made to feel "less" or "other" due to my slanted eyes, and very few times due to my vagina. But what I suspected might be the case, and what is becoming increasingly obvious, is that gender is the bigger barrier, possibly because it is more invisible.

First, there is the more obvious stuff like criticizing Clinton's personal features - her hair, her clothes, her voice, her laugh. These are petty criticisms that for the most part would not be directed at men. I was appalled one day upon entering an online forum to find a (female) member had posted an especially unflattering picture of Clinton, with the challenge to write an equally unflattering caption. But unflattering pictures of Clinton abound in the media.

Then, we had to witness Edwards, Obama, and the supposedly neutral moderator, Charles Gibson, gang up on Clinton during the "debate" on Jan. 5th. "Gang up" is a loaded term but I see no nicer way to put. How else does one explain the debate moderator thinking it reasonable to ask Clinton why so many voters found her "unlikeable"? The animus was so obvious that poor Bill Richardson remarked, "I’ve been in hostage negotiations that are a lot more civil than this."

When Clinton got angry over the attacks - a very human reaction - it was characterized by the media as a "meltdown." She doesn't even get to be called "angry" like a man, instead the media chose a word that implies feminine weakness, hysteria.

The challenge is that a lot of people think that just as long as you don't say, "I won't vote for a woman" then it's not sexism. They don't take into account all the other factors that make them less likely to vote for a woman. A lot of people think their animus towards Clinton is purely personal. I've heard people say, "I'm not against a woman president, just not that woman. On the surface, this seems reasonable, doesn't it? After all, we are allowed to dislike people on an individual level, for their personal flaws, without being accused of sexism (or racism for that matter).

But let's take a closer look at the personal flaws that Mrs. Clinton supposedly has.

I've heard that she's aggressive, ambitious, domineering. All of these traits are considered positive in men, but apparently unacceptable in women. No one accuses Barack Obama of being overly ambitious in his run for president, even tho he's only recently been elected to the Senate and Clinton has been elected twice. Why? Because a man who wants power is understandable, it does not conflict with accepted norms, whether he is black or white. But if a woman shows the same ambition it's perceived negatively. That kind of bias is sexism.

Pundits, in seeking to explain why Clinton won New Hampshire when they had written her off, are now saying that it's because she "cried." In doing so, she showed her human side. "Why," they ask, "didn't she do that before?," as if this were due solely to some personal failing on her part. But Clinton walks a fine line here. If she is hard, cold, and ambitious, she is seen as the bitch. If she is warm and approachable, she is seen as weak - NOT "Commander in Chief" material. If her misty eyes did help Clinton in the New Hampshire primary, the irony is that it came at the expense of what she's been trying to be all her life - strong, self-reliant... the traits that many of us look for in a president.

Choose Life

Blog for Choice Day

There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to participate in NARAL's Blog for Choice Day today to commemorate the 35th anniversary of Roe v Wade. What wasn't as clear was what I was actually going to say. Why is it important to vote pro-choice? As I thought of the reasons why I am pro-choice, why it's so absolutely essential, I also searched for a pithy title that would capture the essence. My brain went something like this:

Pro-choice. Choice. Voting. Choosing. To affirm life. Choose to affirm life... Choose Life! That's it!

It took me about a second to realize the irony - that an anti-choice blogger might choose the exact same title. And that most people would see that title as more appropriate there. It's not.

Why am I pro-choice? Because I am pro-life. Real life. A full rich life where people get to make informed decisions that shape their own destinies. Not just the semblance of life. Not just a heartbeat. The debate over abortion is a debate over what it means to be alive. what it means to be a person.

No one is in favor of abortion. No one celebrates that it happens, and if all unwanted pregnancies stopped occurring making abortion obsolete, we would all be immensely relieved. But the fact is that unwanted pregnancies do occur, and pregnancy has a huge impact on the life of the woman - her ability to earn a living, her ability to care for children already born, her social status, her health, her peace of mind. Yes, it is sad to see the end of potential lives, and that is what abortion does. But it is sadder by far to think of half our population unable to make choices that so intimately concern their existing lives.

To be able to choose means to be able to take charge of and to be morally responsible for one's life. The ability to choose is what makes us fully human.

Those who are against a woman's right to choose believe that being pro-life means maximizing the number of bodies on this earth, without regard to the actual quality of life experienced. Those who support a woman's right to choose believe that being pro-life means supporting the people who are already here in every way - in education, health care, and their right to make informed moral decisions for themselves - so that each one of us can grow into our full potential as living human beings.

I am pro-choice because I am pro-life. If you are too then at the ballot box please choose life, vote pro-choice.


Like everyone else, I've been watching the Democratic primaries with special interest.  For the first time in history we have a credible African American candidate and a credible woman candidate, both running for president of the United States.  (I don't mean that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are not credible as people; just that they never really had a chance to be nominated.)  We should take the time to rejoice in this.  Whoever wins it will be historical.  And it won't be due to political grand-standing was was Geraldine Feraro's nomination to VP in 1984.  

While I would be happy with either Obama or Clinton as president, I ultimately favor Obama.  For years now I've been saying that instead of the uninspiring candidates that we are forced to settle for, what I want is another Kennedy.  No, not a Catholic or even a man.  What I want is leader who will call us to our noblest natures, not prey on our basest fears.  Obama is that candidate.  

So I support Obama and have been watching with interest as the polls show him catching up with Clinton.  This week however was the first time where I saw him leading, beating Clinton.  And for the first time, the consequences of an Obama victory hit me.

As I said, we have for the first time in our history a credible woman candidate for president of the United States.  A woman of impressive accomplishments - graduate of Yale law, the first female partner at Rose Law Firm, listed as one of the one hundred most influential lawyers in America in 1988 and 1991, twice elected Senator of New York - and she is going to lose.  (Ok, I'm jumping the gun a little here, but for the first time I realized that she very well could lose.)  The realization filled me with a deep sadness. 

That doesn't mean I've changed my mind.  I still support Obama.  And of course if Hillary did win the nomination, I'd be sad about the first credible African American candidate losing.  And I wouldn't vote for anyone based on just identity.  Nevertheless I am sad that someone has to lose.

So I have to remind myself, that if someone loses that means someone has won.  No matter what happens we are going to make history.  And it will be with a credible candidate.  That is something to be happy about.


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Acknowledgments is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative