Attacks Against LGBTQ Spaces

For years, I was a regular at one of the largest, and most visible gay nightclubs in Chicago’s “Boys Town”. I had a whole group of friends that I made there, and several nights each week, I would be there for hours. I was also a frequent visitor to many of the other local dance clubs, as well as a regular attendee of festivals, street fairs, and the Pride Parade.

In spite of the festive atmosphere, dance music, and colorful décor, large gay clubs – and LGBTQ bars in general – represent not just a constant party, but a “safe” place to embrace identity. It was a place where same sex attraction and affection is embraced, and unfortunately for most people, safe places for such expression are rare in everyday life. In a place like Chicago, there are a number of organizations that provide alternatives for people who aren’t interested in drinking or loud music, but even so, bars and nightclubs remain the most visible presences of the LGBTQ community in many places.

This creation of safe space can be very imperfect, and not all LGBTQ identities are equally accepted and celebrated in particular places. We all still live in this culture, and being LGBTQ doesn’t immediately erase racism, sexism, transphobia, ethnic and religious biases. Many gay clubs can be a hostile place for men who are older, overweight, “femme”, or who otherwise don’t fit into narrow stereotypes of “hot gay guys”. I wish the “coming out” process just erased those ugly attitudes, but I’ve been around too long and seen too much to believe that. But, for all these problems, they represent a striving for that safe space, imperfect as they may be in practice.

 

I did not know any of the victims of the attack in Orlando. I have never even been to Florida. But the setting of this attack is very familiar to me. In part, this familiarity is why this tragedy struck me so hard. The shooter chose this place specifically because it was an LGBTQ identified place. He wanted to destroy these people, this place, these lives, these expressions. Their very existence offended him and he struck out with the most effective tools of destruction that he had on hand.

And he was effective, horrifyingly so. Armed with multiple firearms, he killed 50 people and injured 53 more. He was more effective than his long line of predecessors, from the arsonist at the Second Story Bar in New Orleans in 1973, to the serial bomber Eric Robert Rudolph in 1996, to the heavily armed young man from Indiana who was apprehended on his way to Pride celebrations in LA on the very same day as the Orlando tragedy.

These attackers are drawn to those who openly express their sexuality, their love, their community. They set out to destroy those people and those expressions. It’s a pattern that repeats, even now as we think that our country has gone through a revolution in thinking about same sex relationships and gay/lesbian identity (when it comes to Trans identities, I think we’re still in the early stages of revolution there).

 

I rarely go to large nightclubs anymore, and I haven’t been to the Pride Parade for the past couple years. My tolerance for crowds has shrunk dramatically over recent years. That is no longer my world, but for years, it was. It was something I needed – something that provided community, acceptance of my identity, a chance to connect.

This attack, and this whole pattern of attacks, is deeply personal. I have stood in the spot of those victims, tuned out to the potential danger, feeling safe. This attacker has succeeded, not only in cutting short those beautiful lives, but terrorizing the rest of us, and sowing the seeds of distrust in places that we perceive as safe. I don’t want to “give in” and allow the terrorism to take hold. I will try not to allow that.

For me, those types of places no longer fill the need I once felt, so I don’t feel the need to run out just to conquer the fear. The outpouring of support for the LGBTQ community over this has been enormous, and for that I am grateful. Gay clubs will get plenty of support in the near future.

What I feel like we need, even more than that, is to bring safe spaces to express love, sexuality, and gender plurality into more places in the world. LGBTQ identities and expressions need to be celebrated and defended, again and again.

Faith in Humanity?

An internet meme set off a chain of thoughts that came to an essential question for me. It really is at the bottom of so much of my philosophy, particularly when it comes to politics.

“Do you have faith in humanity?”

 

Now, I have to be honest. Vague questions like this make me itchy. Faith in humanity to do what? Faith in what sense? Individuals, groups, or literally every human?

So let me tease this out a little.

 

My immediate reaction is that in a group of humans, I do have faith that a couple of things will happen:

  1. Some of them will do brilliant, creative, beautiful things.
  1. Many, perhaps most, of them will only look out for their own interests or the interests of their small group of insiders, family members, club, tribe – instead of the greater good and/or future sustainability.
  1. A few will take advantage of more than their share of limited/finite resources. They will know or willfully ignore the fact that their actions hurt others.
  1. Some will come up with genius solutions to problems.

 

Some people will look at this list and say that I’m talking about “human nature”. Once again, I get itchy. If you notice, nothing on that list is an “all” or “nobody” statement. There are very few statements about human behavior that fall into those categories, as far as I can tell. There are any number of behaviors that people assured me were “human nature” that never seemed particularly natural for me (e.g. being attracted to the opposite sex, eating meat), so I tend to distrust any talk like that.

So, how does this lead me to politics? For one, it means that although I value freedom, I am not an anarchist. I have written about this before, specifically with regard to the environment. We absolutely need environmental regulations and someone to enforce them, because even if we somehow create a culture where most people are responsible and motivated to protect the air, water, and wild places, someone will screw it up for the rest of us. Someone will quarry the Grand Canyon. Someone will build a smokestack to belch smoke. Someone will dump toxic waste into pristine waterways.

So we need some kind of governance to restrain those who would ruin vital resources for the rest of us. We need governance to restrain those who would abuse people, animals, and natural places. We need governance to restrain those who would take away the freedom of others.

 

But beyond that, taking into account the list above, what should a political system look like?

In our current economic system, bolstered by our political system, there is a variation of a Capitalist free market economy in play. In classical free market, the market determines the price and value of a limited commodity based on supply and demand. The tendencies in #2 above are encouraged, and the “invisible hand” of the market will lead to an equilibrium. The pitfalls of #3 are pretty much ignored.

There’s no value assigned to wild natural places – they are simply assigned a value as raw materials. Even animals are considered nothing but possessions and commodities. Creations of beauty – music, poetry, art, dance, theatre – are only considered valuable if someone is paying for them or if they are used to sell something else.

In our corporate Capitalist society, time –as the saying goes – is money. Many of us give our labor – our time, our energy, our physical work – to our employers. It is only through government regulation (thanks to the pressure of the labor movement) that prevents employers from demanding virtually all of an employee’s time and labor. Even so, many people still give long hours and all their energy to their employer or employers, just to survive financially. There’s no time or energy for creating the beautiful and the brilliant, and little to no breathing room for the genius to emerge.

So what should the political system look like based on all this? I will write about that in the near future.

Food Diversity and Monoculture

I think a lot about food. Not just because I like to eat and I like to cook. I think a lot about the ethical implications of the food choices that I make and I have written about that in the past, particularly on the subject of raising animals for food. But there are other aspects of our current food culture that I think are causing real problems for us, which will only get worse over time.

Much of the world’s food supply is made up of a shrinking list of food varieties. Wheat, rice, corn, sugar, soybean, potatoes, etc. Even these foods, which have multiple genetic varieties, are increasingly grown only in a few varieties, often those engineered and marketed by large agricultural suppliers. These are grown as monocultures – large fields, even plantations that all plant the same crop over square mile after square mile. It provides efficiency for the mechanical nature of current farming. It’s easier to spray from airplanes and harvest by machine.

But it’s absolutely destructive to local flora and fauna. The complete lack of biodiversity means that farmer’s fields are essentially deserts, inhospitable to anything other than one specific crop. Also, since all the plants are making the same demands on the soil, it depletes nutrients in the soil, which then requires inputs – meaning fertilizer, often petroleum based products.

Monoculture also encourages pests. Effective predators of that particular crop have a bonanza – which then leads to increased uses of pesticides. And this combination of chemical pesticides and fertilizers can cause major issues with groundwater and waterway contamination.

Here is Michael Pollan talking about Monoculture

To walk through a grocery store, it may look like we have a lot of variety to choose from, but a lot of that variety is an illusion. Walk down the cereal aisle. Hundreds of brightly colored boxes shout for attention. Some are fun for kids (high in sugar and artificial flavors) others are supposed to be healthy (some whole grains are preserved and vitamins are sprayed on). In reality 99% of the ingredients are from a short list of crops, processed in various ways – wheat, corn, sugar, a bit of rice and oats – the rest is mostly small amounts of additives to manipulate the flavor, color and texture.

Bread, pasta, packaged side dishes – the same is true for all of these. And for meat eaters, many of the animals are fed with these same crops, particularly corn and soy, so ultimately those same crops are being consumed, just one step removed.

 

There are enormous benefits to food diversity. One is definitely a healthy diet. The common staple foods may be effective at delivering calories/basic energy, but we also require a wide variety of micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and other health-giving substances found in particular plants. Only by eating a variety of different types of foods can we ensure that we are getting the full array of these micronutrients. Many food experts use the natural colors of food as a shorthand for different nutritional profiles. Leafy greens, red tomatoes and peppers, orange root vegetables, blue and purple berries – all these have unique and valuable contributions to your diet. Meanwhile, over-dependence on processed flour, sugar and oils can lead to higher incidence of diabetes, obesity and digestive issues.

Increased diversity also helps food security, since monoculture crops are susceptible to collapse. Here are a few outside sources with more information about the problems associated with monoculture.

“Crop diversity decline ‘threatens food security'” from BBC News

“6 Problems with Monoculture Farming” from Permaculture Magazine

 

An antidote to monoculture is the permaculture movement. It is a complex combination of agriculture strategies that encourages biodiversity, appropriate plants for the microclimate, complementary planting schemes to avoid the need for pesticides and fertilizers, as well as other methods. It can incorporate the concepts of Forest Gardening, Hügelkultur, heirloom plants species, as well as more common ideas such as composting, mulching, and organic farming techniques. All permaculture projects are guided by the natural patterns of the area in question, and try to use the natural features and plantings together to maximize output and minimize environmental damage. It requires more thoughtfulness than monoculture, but if it works properly, it requires far less in terms of outside and unsustainable resources and will produce abundant and varied crops.

 

We may not all be ready to start our own permaculture garden, but we can all take steps to encourage biodiversity. Having our own garden is a great step, but supporting farmers markets and CSA deliveries (community supported agriculture) are also great steps if these are available to you. Eating locally grown foods in season is a wonderful step to get away from corporate run monoculture. You will notice that the variety of foods that you see at a farmers market or CSA is far more diverse than what you see in a grocery store. Find heirloom tomatoes, vegetables like rutabagas and mustard greens that your grandmother may have known, but that are rarely seen today.  And if you do have a garden, take a look at some of the seed catalogs that specialize in heirloom, organic and unusual varieties – you will see vegetables you will never see in the grocery store. Pick out a few and put them in your garden. You will be in for an adventure and learning experience in taste and variety.

 

Anger, Frustration

I envy those who seem to be able to use their anger to fuel a furnace to create change. I’m not set up that way. I can’t let anger take hold. I know it will destroy me if I do.

For me it just settles in as a crimp in the neck and knot in the shoulders. It settles in as an acid taste coming up my esophagus into my mouth. It eats away at me and cripples me. I can’t let it stay.

Please understand, this is not because there is no reason to be angry. There is plenty of reason. Each moment is filled with a thousand injustices and indignities big and small aimed at those I admire and respect. Insults and punches are thrown at people for the way they look or the way they speak. Beautiful people live in fear of the bullies and the trolls. And sometimes people’s blood is spilled for no good reason at all.

I know this. I don’t forget.

But if I want to live, I can’t let the anger live here with me, crippling me, eating at me, turning me into a twisted and burned wreck.

So I will cry. And I will shout. And I will punch a pillow. And then I will breathe deeply. And I will collect myself. I will put the anger somewhere outside of me. I won’t forget it and its lesson, but it can’t stay here.

 

I have been having a rough time lately. I feel disconnected from friends. Relationships from the global to the interpersonal seem especially contentious and uncooperative lately. People are ready to accuse and take offense, slow to listen and discuss.

I have had waves of mourning for my father, whose dementia has been progressing lately. He’s safe, thanks especially to my sister, but the man we knew growing up is gone.

The concrete evidence of environmental destruction seems very evident lately. News story after news story shows how much human activity has thrown off the balance of the natural world. Melting permafrost, flooding lowlands and islands, polluted rivers, methane and nuclear leaks – the bad news keeps coming.

Our country’s political climate has been unusually contentious. Even among those who I think of as politically “like me”, the escalating viciousness of the Sanders vs. Clinton rhetoric has been troubling. And that’s not even to mention the xenophobia, sexism, and crassness that has been coming from the presumptive Republican nominee.

And all this is against a background of violence, poverty, and injustice. The justice system is heavy-handed and full of prejudice. The social safety nets are being dismantled.

All this has me a bit exhausted.

 

I wish that I could wrap this up with a solution or at least a message of hope. That’s the way I often try to end these blog posts. Not today. Today, the best I can hope for is to see these situations clearly and take some deep breaths. Some of these troubles will pass. Some will continue to get worse. Some of these I can try to change another day, when I have the energy.

Devotional Rituals to the Brotherhood Gods

The altar for the Lover, prepared for devotion

The altar for the Lover, prepared for devotion

The Brotherhood of the Phoenix is devoted to the Eight-Fold God. Our public rituals throughout the year are each devoted to one specific face of the God as we move through the cycle of the year.

In addition to the public rituals, we have tools to develop our personal relationship with the Gods. Each of us approach this a little differently, some use meditation, some write journals or poetry. There is an anthology of some of this devotional poetry that is available through the Brotherhood.

I’m going to give you a window into something that I do for my personal practice. Since my framework is devotional polytheism, I look at the faces of the God as separate gods, knowing that, as with all gods and goddesses, their own personality and identity is actually far more complex than what I see when I look at them. I interact with them as distinct persons and clear personalities, but I don’t have a dogmatic belief about their nature. The Brotherhood does not have any dogma about this matter either.

We are transitioning from the season of the Explorer to the season of the Lover, so I am going to show you my devotional ritual for the Lover.

First, I start by printing out the appropriate Eight-Fold God Prayer Candle Template provided by the Brotherhood here. These pages are intended for devotional candles (which is another method some Brothers use). For my purposes, I am going to use the God image, the prayer, and the list of correspondences off this page. As you will see, I am taking this in a different direction than just a simple candle.

I use the list of correspondences to collect items for an offering to the God. In this case, I have chosen the following for a connection to the Lover:

Plum
Avocado
Vanilla Bean
Roses
Tulips
Silver Candle
Peach Mango flavored coconut water

To the extent that’s feasible, I try to use things I have or are easily accessible to me. As you can see, many of these things can come from a typical grocery store. If they can come from your garden or are the result of your own labor, that’s even better.

I choose altar decorations that are compatible with the suggested colors and correspondences. In this case I chose flowers and rose quartz from the correspondences, as well as the grey cloth. I will also offer some of the flowers to the God during the ritual.

I always include some items that I can also consume, so that I can participate in the offering. I always include one liquid to be poured out. Sometimes I include an incense. This time I did not, since the chosen items already had some strong fragrances, which I did not want to overwhelm.

The idea is that the chosen items are the things that the Lover loves and appreciates. It is his taste and his embodiment. I am offering him what he likes, as any good host does, in the hope that he will feel welcome and spend time with me. I partake of these tastes and smells to bring myself closer to him.

I set these all up on the altar. It is a temporary altar, which is a focal point for the ritual. I print out and cut out the God image and place it on the altar. I also have an offering bowl to receive the items that I will be giving to the God.

I light the candle. I read the prayer provided aloud. I also usually provide a prayer of my own. I breathe. I smell the flowers.

I place the items into the offering bowl one by one, offering them to the God and also appreciating them myself – by smell, by looking, or in the case of the plum and avocado this time, I keep a few pieces for myself to eat. At each step, I raise the offering bowl, being mindful of the offering and the hospitality.

Then I pour out the drink, first to the God and then to myself.

The altar to the Lover, with the offering given

The altar to the Lover, with the offering given

At this point, I may offer another prayer, and then I sit for a while in the presence of the God. I usually keep a notebook handy, in case I receive a message or impression. Sometimes, I am inspired to write down quite a lot at this time. Sometimes, it is just a matter of being present and aware.

When I am done, I thank the God for being with me. In the Brotherhood, we do not “dismiss” the Gods. We say “I honor you always in the circle of my life” to divine presences as a closure to rituals, and then blow out the candle. It’s a closure to this interaction, but we will always welcome the ongoing presence of the God.

I typically take down the temporary altar that same day. I take the contents of the offering bowl and return it to the elements, usually putting it into the earth in my garden. I use this ritual during the season for each God, and at other times as needed, when I have felt the need to connect.

Sacral Kingship – Is That the World We Want to Make?

Some of you who follow the Pagan blogosphere have probably noticed some very heated exchanges lately. There has been a simmering tension between certain figures in the Devotional Polytheist movement (for example John Beckett and Galina Krasskova) and the writers and publisher of Gods & Radicals (specifically Rhyd Wildermuth). This post, regarding the “New Right” presence within Pagan and Polytheist circles, documents some of the racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic strains present in corners of our community, which sometimes have a violent streak, brought those tensions to the surface. I am not going to re-hash the whole controversy, but I thought I would pick up one specific idea mentioned and think about it. I may move on to others at another time.

One of the philosophical positions that is shared by certain members of the Pagan and Polytheist community and certain members of the New Right is the idea of Sacral (or Sacred) Kingship. This is often known as the “divine right of Kings”.

Louis XIV, endorsed from above

Louis XIV, endorsed from above

We learned about this in school as a Medieval European idea, tied to Feudalism and the monolithic Christian Church. It has, in reality, a far more complex and varied history. Modern examples include the Vatican and Tibet before the expulsion of the Dalai Lama, where temporal and religious power sit together in one leader. It also refers to the Queen of England’s role in the Church of England (as well as similar Church/Monarch relationships in countries like Norway and Denmark).

Sacral Kingship is often tied to Pagan and Polytheist mythology and lore. The ancient High King of Ireland is said to have been married to a Goddess. Certain Roman Emperors were deified after their death. Pharaohs had a close relationship to the Gods and Goddesses of ancient Egypt. The idea is also tied to the mythology of a King’s blood sacrifice to heal the land or continue the agricultural cycle. Frazer’s The Golden Bough links the “Dying God” stories from various cultures to the sacrifice of Kings, and Robert Graves and Margaret Murray were popular authors who furthered these connections between Pagan Gods and the blood sacrifices of Kings.

Seti I sitting on the lap of Isis By Olaf Tausch - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14797351

Seti I sitting on the lap of Isis By Olaf Tausch – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14797351

Yvonne Aburrow has a wonderfully witty criticism of this thinking within Paganism. Societies run by Kings and Queens are romanticized by those of us living in modern Democracies. Yvonne points out that for those living in a society where Monarchy’s strict class hierarchy and unearned social privileges still exist, Sacral Kingship is more difficult to idealize.

For any student of history, hereditary monarchy and aristocracy has clear problems. There’s no guarantee that the eldest child (often son) of the strong leader has any of the parent’s virtues. Children reared in a bubble of privilege and protection may have little understanding or empathy for those they are expected to lead. And that doesn’t even mention the way some royal houses have had restricted marriage partners so severely and for so many generations that the genetic penalties of inbreeding have come into play.

But Kings have sometime been chosen by war, which is in itself an argument against Kingship – the good of the people can’t be served when succession conflicts create violence and destruction. And Kings have sometimes been chosen by election in one form or another rather than by heredity. As Yvonne points out, this is often just called Presidency in our current world, rather than Kingship.

 

Galina Krasskova is one Polytheist who says she is an advocate for Sacral Kingship. I haven’t seen her elaborate on her views on the subject, and what parts of Sacral Kingship she envisions as useful to the Polytheist revival that she wants to manifest. I am guessing the actual murder of Kings is not part of her plans, so what exactly does this mean for a modern world?

I don't think George R.R. Martin believes in Sacral Kingship

I don’t think George R.R. Martin believes in Sacral Kingship

I believe in Leaders. I believe we can choose people to fill roles in a community – and that some people are more qualified than others to fulfill particular roles, either by natural talents, inclination, experience, or education. But do Leaders need to be Kings (or Queens) with all the baggage those terms carry?

Most days, I believe in Democracy as preferable to most other systems, although I know it can have its abuses and corruptions. I know it can allow majorities to tyrannize minorities. I know it can be horribly manipulated by media and misinformation. I know it can force Leaders to make popular decisions for short-term gain at the expense of a longer term goal. Compared to the crap shoot of putting decisions into the hands of a monarch chosen by heredity or force, I’ll take Democratic process, even with its flaws.

 

I believe in the power of stories to shape our worldview and our world. I love ancient stories and the view that they give us into other cultures and other times. Ancient myths sometimes involve Kings. Fairy tales often involve various members of a royal family (although perhaps Princes and Princesses more often than actual ruling monarchs).

I believe in the project of creating stories to shape our world and our lives, and I think we need to create more stories about who we are and who we want to be. What does it mean when we tell and repeat stories based around Kings and Princesses, these people of privilege? Are we supposed to put ourselves in their place? Are we supposed to critique our leaders based on these stories and thereby discern their wisdom? Are we creating a world where we are empowered when they center on those “above our station”?

 

And a final thought and question: how can we tell if our gods are choosing our leaders? Pagans and Polytheists are not only a tiny minority, but have an incredible diversity of devotions, practices and traditions. Even if we receive a sign that Odin or Isis chooses a King or Queen for us, who would even believe us or even agree?

We do have leaders who proclaim themselves or are proclaimed by others as chosen by God to lead the people of the United States, such as Ted Cruz and George W. Bush. I think it’s safe to say these aren’t the gods that most Pagans or Polytheists would be looking for as endorsing candidates.

 

I will admit I may have a blind spot when it comes to the stories of a Sacred King who dies to redeem his people. It has an echo of the central mythology of Christianity – a son of God who dies to redeem the sins of his followers. I grew up with that story and it never resonated. I understood it intellectually and never felt the emotional power that seemed to satisfy so many others around me. I never felt the need for that kind of redemption.

As an amateur gardener, I don’t see why a King needs to be sacrificed to ensure the next harvest. Death is necessary to create the next crop, absolutely. But the dried leaves and kitchen scraps that go into my compost heap are not Kings, they are the most common, but most valuable of resources. The worms that convert them into rich soil are not legendary King-killers. The process that keeps the world moving and growing is so much more modest and yet no less miraculous.

The Art of Making Brothers (and a poem)

As readers will already know, I am part of the Brotherhood of the Phoenix, a neopagan order for men who love men. I am on the Council for the Chicago Temple and, specifically, I am the Warder. One of the responsibilities of that role is to guide Seekers through an application process to become Brothers in the Outer Order.

Last night, we went through a Rite of Passage, officially inducting three men into the Outer Order, so we made new Brothers. This was my first group to guide through the process since I took this position. The ritual itself is wonderful – inspired by initiations in other esoteric groups, but infused with the unique elements of the Brotherhood. I can’t tell you much about the ritual itself, but it often has a profound effect on those who have experienced it.

In addition to signaling the growth of the Brotherhood and the health of the organization, the process has been a growing experience for me. I have stepped into a role of gatekeeper, and learned more about the value of keeping silent, one of the Four Powers of the Sphinx.

The candidates have already come through the Novitiate training when they apply, so they have some understanding of the Brotherhood. But the Rite of Passage is more than just a “graduation”. It provides an experience of its own.

On a separate note (since I shouldn’t say much more about the Rite of Passage), I am going to share a poem I wrote, which was inspired by some of the principles and cosmology of the Brotherhood.

 

What do you seek?

The wonder is the start – Youth’s gift to the world.
Roads lead outward from home – we must Explore.
An open heart discovers many Loves, but
Needs Healing for those times when hearts will break.
Stay strong, watch and protect, be Warrior-wise.
Find the Androgyne’s balance in yourself.
Other worlds will speak to your Shaman soul.
Reaching wisdom, we will take the Elder’s chair.
Make your way from the mundane and to our gates
And through the Labyrinth’s turning path
To a sacred fire that leaves a true core.
In the eyes of the Phoenix, see your heart
Open to the possible, to your Will –
Now burning, now born anew, now Transformed.

Queerness and Othering: Identity vs. Description

My friend Theo at the Queerwitch blog wrote a piece about the use of “Queer” as a identity and a descriptor. I appreciate the perspective on this question, one that I think about frequently. I was writing some of my thoughts as a comment, and then, well, it turned into a rather long blog post of my own.

I don’t entirely trust in the objective power of description, especially when it comes to questions of social identity. I’m not saying these descriptive categories aren’t useful – they certainly can be when we are trying to understand our community. But they can also be a problem.

Racial categories can be slippery. In this country for example, with our fraught racial history, we often think of race in terms of Black and White, with Asians sometimes acknowledged as a population. Who falls into which category has changed over time. Those with a quarter or even an eighth part of Black ancestry were considered Black, even though clearly a majority of their genetic makeup may have been from European roots. And that doesn’t even address the shifting preferences for the terms “Negro”, “Colored”, “Black” and “African American”. Irish, Italian, and Jewish people were not really considered White by Americans in the 19th and early 20th century, until each of those identities were later folded into the White American identity. I sometimes wonder if actual Caucasians, as in a people from the Caucasus, who often have olive skin and dark hair, would be considered White in 19th century America. Latin and Hispanic people pose an even more complex set of issues. Many Latin American and Caribbean countries are as racially diverse as the United States, and yet often people of entirely European descent or entirely African descent are called Latino/a as a racial identity, rather than an ethnic/cultural/linguistic identity.

Clearly, the rules change around racial categories.

Religious identity is even slipperier. Is religious identity based on belief, as most Protestant Christians would assert? Is it based on birth and the religion of your parents, or even a specific parent (i.e. Judaism is inherited through the mother)? Can you shop for Churches in the American way, and pick your religion like you would pick a car or refrigerator? Do you need to follow certain rituals to claim your religious identity? Once you choose, can you change your mind (an offense punishable by death in many branches of Islam, for example)? How about all the different traditions that claim that they are the true followers of a religion/prophet/tradition, while others are false – while competing groups may make the exact same exclusive claim to the same identity?

The ability to use descriptive categories that may contradict the chosen identity of those who are being identified is a position of power, of privilege. Governments, institutions, poll takers, businesses, media outlets – they are the ones that choose the categories, the boxes to check on the multiple choice forms. Sometimes, there is an attempt to accurately and inoffensively use “descriptions”, even as they realize that self-identity may be more complicated. This process can be useful, certainly, but it still has the problem of putting people into categories that the categorized may not agree with.

So that brings us back around to the label “queer”. The reclaiming of the insult started in the 1980’s and became a part of common discourse in academia in the 1990’s. Advocates of the word claim (rightly) that it provides a catch-all term for gay, lesbian, bi, trans, intersex, and a list of other non-traditional/non-straight gender and sexual identities. It is inclusive of many “others”.

On the other hand, for many gay men and lesbians of my generation (I’m in my mid-forties) and older often object to being called queer. It is still the insult that we learned about when we were younger. Theo refers to an article from the HuffPost presenting one such perspective. The use of the term may not be “triggering” as Theo surmises – that terminology is definitely from a younger generation – but it still may offend. If some preacher on the street condemns the “Sodomites” or “perverts”, I may find being described this way as offensive, even if it’s not associated with a personal incident of abuse. It is the terminology of an entire hate-filled worldview and I refuse to allow them to choose my descriptions.

Now for me, I sometimes identify myself as queer, and I really appreciate being thought of as part of a queer community. I like a community that embraces trans, genderqueer and poly identities. I like a community open to discussions about kink and asexuality. I feel privileged to be considered part of a diverse and fascinating group. I have embraced the “otherness” that is part of me, and not just because of my sexuality.

This is not the perspective of many of the gay men and lesbians who are voicing this objection to being called queer. The thinking for many of my peers is that being attracted to a person of the same sex was just an uncontrollable characteristic, like having blue eyes or being left handed. It should not count to make someone other – it should not make them queer. They want their sexual identity “normalized” – to be considered just one of the many characteristics that are in the range of the “regular”.

If you ever have the occasion to look at gay men’s dating ads, they often include phrases like “just a regular guy”, or even more telling “straight-acting”. There are also gay men who go out of their way to say they’re “not stereotypical”, which usually means they embody the stereotype of a “normal” man of their age, race and class, rather than what they think of as a stereotype of a gay man. It almost never means that they actually defy stereotypes.

It has always struck me that “normal” and “regular” are unappealing descriptions to embrace. Perhaps it’s good to be normal in some ways – like having your blood pressure in the “normal” range, but I can’t embrace it as a social aspiration. But this is my perspective, and perhaps my own bias of preferring the company of people who are more unusual. But I should be more generous. I suspect nearly everyone has something unusual about them, but they shouldn’t be encouraged to hide it in order to appear “normal”.

See The World, Ruin The World – An Unpopular Observation

I grew up valuing and even idolizing the idea of world travel. When I was young, I envied the few friends whose families took them to different countries. I was awestruck by high school friends who became exchange students. I chose a college with a focus on Internationalism and wanted desperately to study abroad. It never happened, for various reasons. In my 20’s, I finally did travel outside the United States, to Montreal, Paris, and London. I also saw some of the cosmopolitan cities of the US – New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, Boston.

The cachet of foreign travel had me sold, although I rarely had the money or time to pursue it. Meanwhile, my childhood family vacations amounted to piling five kids into the back of a station wagon and driving across the Midwest (which was exciting to me, if more modest than my dreams). I didn’t fly anywhere until a high school trip to Washington, DC. I have only flown a handful of times since the increased travel restrictions following the 9/11 attacks. The process of getting through any airport is very unpleasant now, with long lines, invasive searches, and extra hassles. To me, that has taken much of the joy that I once had over flying.

But I still want to see so many places. I have years worth of unused frequent flyer “miles” to use and I decided a while back that in a few years (the year I turn 50) I want to go back to Europe. I want to check off a few more places on my long list of places that I want to see. In part this desire is still tied up in my own striving to be what I see as a worldly person, well-traveled, sophisticated. In part, it is because I have actually gotten significant enjoyment from my travels in the past, even in spite of the hassles of the logistics of travel.

But there’s a problem with this. I increasingly have begun to wonder if, as an environmentalist, I can support our current culture of cheap and easy airline travel. I know this is not going to be a popular thing among so many of my friends, but flying is incredibly destructive to the environment, and I need to radically rethink its virtues and desirability.

Take a look at these recent articles that I have come across. They will be better at presenting the data about it than I could be:

Every Time You Fly, You Trash the Planet from Fivethirtyeight.com.

A Climate Scientist Who Decided Not To Fly from Grist.org.

Travel broadens the mind and challenges one’s assumptions, as common wisdom goes. On some level, we believe that seeing the great sights and sitting down for a coffee with a person from another world paving the road to world peace and understanding. And of course – it certainly can do these things, when minds and hearts are open. I hardly think that most people who fly repeatedly for business, to very tourist-driven resorts, to events filled with people who are quite similar to themselves – these are probably not travel experiences that expand and challenge who we are.

But flying has become so commonplace, so expected. People even speak of airline travel as a “right”, which is a strange concept – do we really have a right to trash the planet?

Various organizations, including government agencies, talk about flyer’s “bill of rights”. I know, the rights are to be treated fairly as a consumer, and I’m behind that, but should participating in such a destructive practice be thought of as a “right”?

But, in truth, we may not need to travel around the world to experience others. For me, I live in Chicago and people from around the world are here. I have people speaking Spanish or Polish on virtually every train ride. We have ethnic enclaves all around the city. And of course there is great diversity in our domestic population – people of different races and economic classes, different religions and subcultures. We can drastically cut down on flying and still be open to people who live radically different lives than we do. Of course, I do understand that if flying becomes less commonplace, there may be less diversity in cities in the longer term.

I am still struggling with this. I know I have already on some level made a choice to back away from flying. As I said, I haven’t done it in years, and the last time was for work. After that trip, I made it clear to my supervisors I didn’t care to do that kind of trip if it can be avoided. But I have not yet totally rejected the possibility of airline travel in the future. There is still so much in the world that I would love to see. But I will not take it for granted, or treat it as something to be taken on casually.

To the Divine Youth

In the Brotherhood of the Phoenix, we celebrate the faces of the Eight-Fold God according to the season. We are in the season of the Divine Youth, and he will be welcomed at our Spirit Song celebration on February 20th.

I wrote this prayer and meditation on what the Divine Youth can mean in my life.

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Divine Youth,

Show me the Wonder of a new born child.

Let me see the common things of the world in a fresh way.

Bring me to a state of mind that is clean and innocent.

 

Let me discover how the snow feels when I pick it up. Or how mud feels when I squish it between my fingers. Let me feel how a dog feels when I pet the fur and how the dog’s tongue feels licking my face. Let me spin around again and again until I am dizzy.

Let me taste without memory or prior ideas of what I like and don’t like. Let me taste applesauce or olives or clean pure water like I’ve never tasted them before.

Let me smell a flower, baking bread, an old book, a fart – just smell and not let the thousand memories overwhelm the simple experience of smelling.

Let me see something right in front of me, so common that I forget to see it.  Really look at it. What color is it, what size and shape? Is it shiny or dull? Turn it upside down and open it up to really see it. If it’s worn or broken, don’t even think about what it was originally – see it for what it is in this moment.

Let me listen to the sounds around me with fresh ears. The hum or thumping of machines. The chirping of birds. The low roar of traffic. Is there music playing or is someone talking – don’t make out the words. Listen to the rhythm and pitch. How does it make me feel? Do I want to dance? Do I want to cry? Is someone making a point or are they trying to soothe? Let it wash over me.

 

Divine Youth,

Let me experience and puzzle over feelings and tastes and smells and sights and sounds.

Let me set aside what I think I know and see the world with a new vision.

Let me feel Wonder.