Goodbye Pussy Bow Blouse

tr-and-taft-bow

Teddy Roosevelt (Bo Peep) and William Howard Taft (her sheep)

I started this post with the intention of writing about Teddy Roosevelt and the word/phrase “bully!” I figured that would be a creative way to address some of the double standards in this disgusting election process.

Then the final debate happened.

Clinton, who is far from perfect (but remember Obama opposed same-sex marriage and had ties to the Chicago “machine” when he was elected) delivered one of the most gorgeous pieces of pro-choice rhetoric in a flawless manner that brimmed with the exquisite balance of an international politician’s skill and raw gut feeling. Her words were history…and neither of the men in her immediate sphere heard a word she said. But sure as hell when Clinton mocked Trump’s penchant for avoiding taxes he countered with the meme ready phrase “such a nasty woman” which everyone seems to have heard just fine. The other big thing everyone heard was Trump challenging the democratic process by avoiding an answer as to whether he would respect the decision of the American people if the election went against him.

The problem with us only focusing on these moments (Trump’s resistance to concession and his childish insult) instead of focusing on Clinton’s wisdom and insight is the basic problem we are facing in this election: maleness refuses to give up the spotlight. Calling Clinton a “nasty woman” isn’t about Clinton, it is about Trump. It is about every substitute word one could use in place of woman. Saying he won’t respect the outcome of the election, as well, isn’t about Clinton, it is about a democratic process that has been entirely male and is based on European male honor codes up until this point. Therefore, of course the election can’t be legitimate…she’s a woman. Of course a 40+ year political and legal career can be reduced to petty nastiness and namecalling…she’s a woman. This shit is messed up. What’s more messed up to me are the many women who are still supporting Trump. Messed up…but not surprising. One look at the history of women’s suffrage or the women’s rights movement and it is plain to see that sadly almost as many women who have been for progress have been against it.

Melania Trump, wife of Donald Trump, arrives before the second presidential debate between Republi can presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Melania Trump, wife of Donald Trump, arrives before the second presidential debate between Republi can presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

I am not an anthropologist, I am a minister. My study of history and data always comes back to asking the question, “where do people find peace?” As such, I spend a lot of time thinking about what motivates people in general and I’ve come to the conclusion that above all, it is the promise or premise of safety that drives people most. Whether it is seeking a better job or pulling the trigger of a gun, ultimately someone is making a statement about how they do or don’t feel safe in the moment. I have to believe that the women supporting Trump, much like the anti-suffragists are motivated by feeling the need to defend the way they see and experience safety and order in world. I would say that Clinton may even pose a greater threat to them than an Obama, simply because some of these women may have certain negative assumptions about Clinton that reflect the negativity that is projected about women in general. If you have been taught by male focused society to never trust yourself or as I believe is the case here, never feel safe with yourself, why would you ever vote for someone who mirrors your experience? That is not to say that Trump’s women supporters are ignorant or under the thumb of men or only capable of an emotional decision…they are grown people who can dig their own graves.  Rather, I am naming this cultural challenge to call out the toxic role of patriarchy that pervades all of our concepts of what we think a “President” should look like, sound like or how they should prioritize the value of life and the world.  We’ve learned that President = male identified embodiment and affectation.  One look at the criticisms of Clinton’s voice, demeanor and clothing over the last year proves this point and treating her position on women’s unique healthcare as a footnote in this last debate underlines the dominance of male privilege even more.

In this patriarchal society where the vast majority of women are pressured to present themselves in a way that is entirely about the male gaze and male based criteria of desire, the idea of a woman who is self possessed and who cannot be diminished by an irresponsible male partner and who is impenetrable to personal assaults on her accomplishments or her gender is not just anathema but may actually be mortally terrifying to some. It upsets the order that has been ordained by certain faith (1 Corinthians 14:34) and codified over the years by law (the eras pre-19th amendment and pre-Roe v. Wade, etc.) It flies in the face of how we have learned to navigate gender. It doesn’t let some people feel or aspire to what they know as safe. What does make some people feel safe? Melania Trump made up like a prize show kitten surrounded by expressionless hyper blond women who show no greater joy than promoting the “strong” “successful” man in their life who is someone who “tells it like it is” even if he’s not capable of telling the truth…least of all about himself. Seeing women as props for the male ego…that’s what makes some people feel safe.

I have two hopes for election night. The first is that Hillary Clinton is elected as the 45th President of the United States. The second wish is that she publicly and openly weeps with joy at the accomplishment. Not because she is a woman, but because it is a long over due achievement in erasing the ridiculous gender norms of politics that have been killing us all and for which the nation and our ancestors regardless of gender identity all deserve a good deep cry. Yes, Barack Obama opened the door to non-white men filling the office of President, but Clinton will actually take the door entirely off its hinges.

And you can be sure she won’t be wearing any (f**king) pussy bow blouse as she steps across the threshold.

01-pussy-bow

(c) Vogue Magazine

Conversations About Masculinity – Real ‘church’ is for Men

Napier CathedralI am a regular church goer.  A few years ago when I started to get serious about my commitment to becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister, I figured that a more frequent appearance than Christmas Eve was probably a good idea.

Going to church is not a big stretch for me.  I come from a fairly churchy family and was a regular until I was 13.  Even when I left at that tender age, I knew that I wanted to return some day.    But as an adult things have been different.  Before entering seminary, I often felt that I didn’t have the proper time on Sunday to go to Church, which made it difficult.  Even now, I’m writing this blog on a morning where I’ve had to make a choice between getting my school work done and being part of my church community.  I think many men struggle with this.  Work all week; ‘honey do’ list on Saturday…leaving Sunday as the one day that you can be unscheduled.  Of course Sunday options are limited: watch or play sports, read, shop, do more work (case in point)…or, as a last resort, go to church.  Most men choose the sedentary version of the first on this list (sports), making it ‘their time’ and even though most professional games (whether they be baseball, football or basketball) don’t begin until well after even the late church service has ended, there’s that thinly veiled excuse out there about not wanting to miss the game, which requires watching the pre-game and the pre-game pre show and of course you have to get as much rest as possible leading up to that, so really there is no time for church.

Bullshit.

Now, I am not at all writing this as some kind of holy roller, Bible thumping, hellfire and damnation preacher who wants to blame men for the downfall of religion in America.  No, really, organized religion is doing a good enough job of imploding itself without any help from men.  As I said, I am in seminary, but I’m studying in the Unitarian Universalist faith and for those of you who don’t know about UUs (as we call ourselves), this is as good as saying that I might (stress might) just decide to wear clothes to church and if I do choose out of my free will to be clothed, my garments will most likely include sandals and some form of fair trade hemp.  You see, among the Unitarian Universalist seven principles is the free and independent search for truth and meaning (although contrary to popular belief, most of us go to church clothed.)  We genuinely believe that everyone is welcome at the table…even if they don’t believe in a God, or a supreme being…or tables.  So, my reason for wagging my finger at men who don’t go to church and choose football instead is simply because a lot of men have walked away from the church experience for the reasons I listed before and in doing so, have left themselves out of something that is damaging men everywhere.  This absence of men in the pews supports a bizarre cultural stereotype that church and therefore spiritual connection is somehow only for girls.  And lets be clear here, I’m not talking about supporting the challenging and historically oppressive patriarchy that has come out of some traditions.  My point is that the real spiritual life of men and masculine identified people matters; in fact, it is more important now than it ever has been…hence the title of this piece, and we owe it to ourselves and the world around us not to ignore the spiritual and communal aspect of our humanness.

When I’m referring to “church” here I am definitely referring to small “c” church.  In fact, I also mean to include temple, mosque, prayer garden and any place that people gather or put themselves to engage in a spiritual experience.  But this dearth of men in what are traditionally shared spiritual experiences is most visible in Western Christian churches.  We are currently in an age when, in Western culture, increasing numbers of people have no church affiliation and a significant portion of those people are male identified.1  As a seminarian, I spend a lot of time reading about this and talking to people about why or why not they attend church.  Fairly consistently when I speak with men, they mention that their  mother always wanted them to do it growing up (guilt) or if they are married to a woman…their wife goes (she’s holding the place for both of you), but they aren’t interested and more than anything how they find it boring (no beer, smashing heads or cheerleaders.)

But I would conjecture that it is not so much church that is boring as what Western men have been trained to look for in church that is boring.  After working all week long when you are asked in your job to follow rules, or fulfill needs or meet deadlines, why would you go to a place that is going to tell you about more rules, make you feel guilty for the needs you haven’t met in others and put you on a schedule that makes you get up on the one morning when you can choose to stay asleep?  By these standards, church (still small ‘c’) is the antithesis of what Western men want to do with their free time.  I was just reviewing some more great statistics from the Pew Forum.  On the surface, the numbers tell the story where 59% of men in America identify as “Unaffiliated” where as only 41% of women identify as such.  Jehova’s Witnesses and the historically black church lead the way with the percentages of women who identify with these traditions outnumbering men by some 20%.2  But then in the same chart, we see Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu men outnumbering the women in their self identifying by nearly the same margin.  At first glance one might look to the prominence of men in each of these traditions to be the reason behind these numbers.  The male role in each of these non-Christian traditions is worthy of several dissertations let alone a Sunday morning blog post.  Plus, each of these non-Christian traditions maintains a certain amount of rigor in terms of practice (prayer rituals, rites of passage) and lifestyle (diet, clothing) which on the surface appears to be significantly more time consuming and restrictive than being asked to teach Sunday school once a week or simply put a dollar in the collection plate.  But at the same time, each of these traditions, and their many variants, also offer a more specific connection to cultural and racial identity.  It is certainly worth asking how this element plays into keeping men identifying as Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu.

In the long run, what I’m really talking about is what I call capital ‘C’ Church.  It is bigger than any one tradition or organized group, though it includes and welcomes them all.  You might call it “spirit” another might call it something else all together.  Regardless of the word or language or tradition, this is a connection to one’s inner life; a connection to one’s community; a connection to one’s family and taking the time to embrace and acknowledge these; a connection to what it means in an authentic sense to be male identified and how it is neither a burden nor a privilege, but one of the many states of human being to be celebrated and cherished without hubris.  This ability to connect to the web of humanity, is something that can be beautifully experienced with others through ritual, or it can be experienced in solitude alone on a beach.  What matters is that this crucial part of what makes us, does not go un cultivated and under nourished.  We are even seeing Atheists in growing numbers, who are coming together to acknowledge the need and desire to enrich themselves through acknowledging their humanity.  Many of these “New Atheists” are indeed men, although in a recent series of Salon.com articles the prominence of men in Atheism is called into question as a symbol of patriarchal structures held over from other traditions3…again, another dissertation.

Ultimately, most American men are spiritually out of shape.  What they need to realize is that there are options for how to tone up the spiritual flab and yes, it might mean missing a football game or two.  By occasionally praying to something other than the Heisman Trophy, one might just find a deeper connection to and understanding of themselves, other men, masculine identified people and the women and children in their lives.  If you choose to go to church on Sunday morning, instead of going like a petulant brooding 12 year old, go like an adult who is looking to invest more deeply in the experience here on earth or in the next life or whatever will take you into your particular spiritual place.  Even if you don’t attend an organized formal service, or if you don’t do organized religion of any kind, it is important to find the time in your regular routine to check in with that part of yourself that’s not all about yourself.  Going to your particular ‘church’ and understanding ‘Church’ as it relates to your masculinity is as important as a prostate exam.  You might be uncomfortable at first, but after probing around, you will feel much more at ease knowing that you’ve really got a handle on what’s going on in there.

Footnotes

1. “Nones” on the Rise – PewResearch: Religion & Public Life Project, October 9 2012
2. Religious Landscape Survey – PewResearch: Religion & Life Project
3. 5 reasons there aren’t more women in Atheism – Salon.com, July 29 2013

Conversations About Masculinity

Handshake-Bush-awkward-300x221Lately, I’ve been involved in a lot of conversations about what it means to be male.  Is it about biology or culture?  Is it about attitude or action? And on top of all that, as a minister in formation, I have to ask, what does faith say about this all?  Some of these conversations have been through my work with state policy advocacy around boys and men of color; other conversations have been with friends around the growing number of states that are allowing same sex marriage; still, other conversations have been in relation to the rights and needs of trans men and women and others who will benefit from ENDA and California’s bill AB 1266 (read: everyone.)  The feminist movement made it okay for us to question gender, sexual preference and orientation and frankly, the conversations about men really need to be including a lot more women…but that is another post!  Opening this door on the question of “male” has only led to more questions; basically it has led to the discovery of more doors.  Some lead to closets; some lead to corridors; some lead to basements with skeletons and some lead into the bright sunshine outdoors.

This post will be the first in a series where I will pose some of these questions in the hopes that some of my readers and colleagues will begin to formulate answers or possible directions in which we might go to achieve some kind of balance or maybe just a language that allows a conversation to begin.

Question #1 – What are we afraid of? (“Don’t touch me, dude!”)

I have long puzzled to myself, what are men afraid of…really?  This isn’t just as simple as the assumption that some gay men have where every straight guy is a gay man waiting to come out.  In fact, I would go as far to say that this sentiment is as damaging to the cause of realigning masculinity as straight men assuming that the only thing gay men want from them is sex.  In a paper last year, I presented how sexual expression between males is not inherently erotic.  Using the Biblical story of Jonathan and David in the second book of Samuel as my foundation, I make the case that sensual physicality is potentially part of every male relationship.  The physicality experienced by men can be intimate, but it is not automatically erotic.  In our culture today, however, we have been influenced by both misguided science (creation of the terms hetero/homo sexual was an anomaly of 19th century western science and its obsession with labeling things) and male dominance run rampant.

Unconditional Touch

Men in our culture are not taught to receive touch.  That is, men are not taught in our culture to receive touch without there being an exchange.  We are not taught about what I call ‘unconditional touch.’  Our current culture of male physicality reinforces the idea that “if someone is touching me…I must either do something or I have the obligation/right to do something in return.”  How often do we see men presented in comedy sketches where they get ‘a little too close’ and are defensively uncomfortable and have to reestablish their stereotyped masculine positions?  To us this is comedy, but really it is a tragedy.  In this transactional presentation of touch, the man assumes that every one who touches him, is doing so as part of an exchange: either sexual or positional (for dominance.) Example: a woman touching him = sexual communication (invitation/ expectation); a man touching him = challenge to dominance (sexual advance/ acknowledgement of boundaries/ threat.)  This is admittedly a simplification of some of what goes on, but we see this play out all the time in children and adults and it is repeatedly reinforced in our media.

I have seen this in my work as a massage therapist.  Most frequently, straight western men will want a female therapist.  Even though the massage relationship is professional, the underlying expectation presented in this situation is that touch = sex = opposite sex.  This also points to the reason that most straight western women want a female therapist.  They do not want to be presented with the transactional touch relationship of dealing with a male.  This same perversion of touch exists with same gender loving individuals.  The overwhelming majority of my male clients have been gay men.  Not necessarily because they expect a sexual exchange, but because their only context and their safest context for understanding touch has been in a sexual setting.

If men were allowed to experience touch without transactional obligations there might be more room for growth.  Both giving and receiving touch in this setting (without a transactional element) offers men the opportunity to express more authentic emotions, create deeper bonds and develop more genuine and loving relationships with themselves and their world around them.  When we look at two little boys playing together, they are physical.  They wrestle, they touch they cuddle and we consider this kind of interaction normal and endearing.  But at a certain point, rather than allowing the boy to grow with the sense that he can give and receive loving touch from a peer without obligation, we step in with adult expectations of gender norms and cultural restrictions and tell him that touch is only part of a specific set of rituals and can only be used as part of the exchange for sex.  There are many people who consider circumcision of boys to be a crime.  Despite my personal feelings about physical circumcision, I believe that much worse is the cultural circumcision that cuts boys off from the total experience of touch and physical interaction as a full and unconditional experience to be shared between loving people regardless of gender or gender expression.  This numbness is what disconnects men from themselves and from women and is quite possibly the foundation for our current crisis of objectification and rape.

(Coming Next: Question # 2 – Who do we want to be?)

Last Splash

Okay folks, this one hurts.  I know that people passing is part of the circle of life, and when our favorite stars go, it should really just be a general sadness for them and their families while we enjoy the biography specials and the exposes on E!, but when I read that Esther Williams died today at 91, it kind of hit my like a truck.  You see, when I was an adolescent, trying to figure out just what was going on for me in terms of my not being attracted to girls and having a rather powerful crush on one of my male neighbors, I was also watching old movies on the TV.  Debbie Reynolds and Judy Garland were favorites; but above them all, standing on perfectly arched feet was Esther Williams.

I’m not quite sure what it was…maybe not so much a single quality, but a combination of things that made her seem at once other worldly and totally human.  In my youthful mind, she had the perfect body and face…which is a little ironic, because when I look at her now, she’s built a bit like a boy…clearly, I had formed my likes by this point.  She also seemed to have an irrepressible sense of humor.  When I watch her films now, I get the sense that frequently they had to do multiple takes because she was always cracking up.

It seemed to me that even though she was stunningly beautiful, she never took herself too seriously.  Although, that was different when it came to her swimming.  Watching her glide through the water, you could tell that this was a trained athlete, with flawless timing and technique…at least to a non-athletic swimmer like me.  She was beauty and strength and humility and glamour.  Wow.  Watching a woman like this in action gave me incredible respect for the full dimension of feminine culture.  In a bizarre way, seeing her was the beginning of me understanding that the other little boys and the terrible way they talked about girls as objects wasn’t right; nor was the way that some of the little girls acted like objects.  There was obviously much, much more to being a woman.  What a great foundation for getting to know the powerful young women of my teens not to mention the women of my family.

So to Esther and her family, I send a prayer, immense gratitude and a wish that somewhere some little gay boy is watching your old movies, looking at you and thinking, as I did, “if that is what a woman can be,  then I will always be in awe of what woman can be.”

RIP

A Binder full of Ubuntu

“We need to learn that unleashing the power of women has the potential to transform our world in extraordinary and many as yet unimagined ways” – Archbishop Desmond Tutu

I did not watch last night’s debate.  Nor did I watch last weeks…or the one before that.  Several pundits in criticizing the Romney-bot, summed up this phase of thecampaign very well in stating that this is all about salesmanship.  We are being force fed a choice between two parties that both have fairly icky records, not just in recent history, but throughout the history of their existence.  I will not watch the next debate.  I have chosen my candidate based on a combination of personal feeling, aspirations for our society, political and social record and what I see as a viable and sustainable future for the United States on a global stage.  This blog is not about endorsing “my” candidate (although I’m sure it will be pretty obvious who that is.) Rather, this entry is about the total audacity of placing not just women but anyone in a binder.

If I were asked to come up with 10 friends who were attorneys, at least half of them would be women.  If I were asked to come up with 10 friends who were artists, half of them would be white.  If I were asked to come up with 10 friends who were in the church, half of them would be latino, and so on.  I wouldn’t have to try to fill these demographic quotas, it is simply the color, shape and size of my world; what/who they are is secondary to why they are in my life.  When I hear that a Governor-elect had to “search” for qualified candidates to fill his cabinet so that it didn’t just look like a white male house of mirrors, it says more about how truly whitewashed his world is.  Not to mention the god complex of idly leafing through a binder that says “women” or “blacks” or “Jews” to carefully place these poor underlings in key spots because otherwise they wouldn’t be there.

Yuk.

This morning, I’ve been reading and listening to the words of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.  My word for the day is Ubuntu.  Not the computer operating system (thank you Dad) but the southern African philosophy:

A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed. – Archbishop Desmond Tutu

This is the cornerstone of everything I believe and everything I believe our world actually aspires to be.  In one of his addresses, Archbishop Tutu mentions how Western capitalism has often highlighted the antithesis of this concept, stressing individual wealth, success and position.  It is therefore no wonder that our hearts are empty and that our communities fail…we are working against nature in the most basic sense.  I’m not talking about the dictates of any one scripture or theology, for these will never all agree.  Although they are all the word of God (if we believe as such), we must first understand ourselves as part of a great interdependent existence before we can get to that God, by whatever name we call God.

We have a tremendous opportunity in our world.  We have come to an age of re-enlightenment where science has taken us so far that we are now coming full circle.  We are not satisfied by reducing and reducing life from tissue, to cell, to molecule, to atom, proton, electron, quark…no, not satisfied.  Even the greatest scientific minds of our time get to a point where they say “we don’t know” and more and more of us are okay with that.  Instinctively, we know as human beings that there is a level on which we function that cannot and will not be explained by a formula.  It is the “knowing that he or she belongs to a greater whole” that cannot be quantified.  Some call this spiritual connection, some call it Ubuntu and some even dare to call it love.

Personally, I am thrilled to live in a world where all women…cisgendered, trans, lesbian, queer, etc. do not live in files.  Where I know that every day and every moment of my life is intertwined with theirs and affirmed by theirs and where we aspire to hold each other up and celebrate our greater whole as one humankind.  Let us strive to live today and every day with our own personal and cultural Ubuntu. Whole and connected human capital is the only really valuable commodity we have.