Bethel College Convocation, November 16, 2015
On June 26 of this past summer, at my dining room table with my spouse and several of our friends, I opened a bottle of champagne and poured a toast. We had just heard the news of the Supreme Court ruling that affirmed marriage equality for same-sex couples as a protected right enshrined in the Constitution of the United States. By that point, given the series of appeals court rulings against state bans on same-sex marriage, we were expecting the victory, although reasonable caution prevented me from buying the bottle of champagne before I saw the headlines to confirm it. Still, as we toasted a decision that would make a profound difference in the lives of many of our friends and colleagues, I found myself wishing that I felt more celebratory.
I had trouble celebrating because I was nervous. And I was nervous because I didn’t really know what the victory meant. For years, as a straight person doing my best to work in solidarity with queer people to help transform this society into a safer and welcoming place for them, I had absorbed from my queer friends and mentors a great deal of frustration with the movement for marriage equality. It wasn’t because we didn’t believe that queer people had the right to get married—of course we believed that. It was that access to marriage was often portrayed as the apex of justice for queer people, and we knew that it wasn’t. The focus of the mainstream gay rights movement on marriage equality has always been subject to critique from people who have argued, with good reason, that while access to marriage will make life better for some queer people, it does little to address the precariousness that shapes the lives of queer people who live at the intersection of multiple oppressions. We knew that marriage equality would not end the problems of epidemic suicide and homelessness among queer youth, or the staggering rates at which queer children and teenagers are targeted by sexual predators and sex traffickers, or the vulnerability of undocumented queer people. We knew that many people in middle-class America, queer and straight alike, would assume that the struggle was over. We knew, from our work and from our lives, that it wasn’t.
But I was nervous for another reason, too, and that reason had everything to do with my plans for the following week. For the past six and a half years, I have been researching and writing about the struggle of queer people in the Mennonite church to be accepted for who they are. This past April, in front of a supportive room of academic mentors and friends, I defended my doctoral dissertation on the subject. But very soon after I graduated, I started preparing myself for my next research trip, at the beginning of July, which would take me just down the road to Kansas City for the biennial convention of the Mennonite Church USA. Delegates from Mennonite congregations around the country were preparing to vote on denominational resolutions that would shape the lives of queer Mennonites in one way or another. And because I had followed the lead-up to the convention so closely, I knew that the vocally anti-queer presence would be intense. I was dreading it.
A few days after the Supreme Court ruling, I sat in a Skype meeting with activists from Pink Menno, a queer Mennonite network that formed in 2009 and has been a consistent thorn in the sides of Mennonite denominational leaders and convention organizers since its inception. Pink Menno’s strategy is based on visibility and audibility at Mennonite conventions; their pink t-shirts mark them as visibly queer or queer-friendly, and their hymn-singing in convention center hallways also makes them difficult to ignore. Within a group of people as conflict-averse as Mennonites tend to be, Pink Menno is conspicuously resistant and disruptive. But their work is based on hours of careful discussion and planning, and this meeting was no exception.
“I’m worried that it’s going to be violent,” said one of the group leaders. “Because of the Supreme Court ruling. The conservative folks are going to feel like they’ve lost something.”
The notion that Christians are facing active discrimination at the hands of queer people is not new. One of the bitterest consequences that LGBT Americans have faced from their increased visibility over the past forty years is backlash from those who seem convinced that conventional sexuality is so necessary to society that it must be enforced, essentially, by law, and that those who do the enforcing are legally entitled to do so within every sphere of society. Throughout the 1980s and nineties, Americans absorbed the message that heterosexual family life was the foundation of responsible citizenship. This message, which had as much to do with economic privatization as it did with religion, nonetheless gained great traction within churches that were eager to regain the moral authority that was threatened by social movements such as feminism and gay rights.
In 1984, the gender theorist Gayle Rubin made a claim that has stayed with me throughout my years of research on Mennonites. She wrote, “The time has come to think about sex. To some, sexuality may seem to be an unimportant topic, a frivolous diversion from the more critical problems of poverty, war, racism, disease, famine, or nuclear annihilation. But it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about sexuality. Contemporary conflicts over sexual values and erotic conduct have much in common with the religious disputes of earlier centuries. They acquire immense symbolic weight. Disputes over sexual behavior often become the vehicles for displacing social anxieties, and discharging their attendant emotional intensity. Consequently, sexuality should be treated with special respect in times of great social stress.”
We are, without a doubt, in one of those times of social stress. Every threat that Rubin listed is still with us, with the added urgency of global climate change. I mention these planetary crises at the beginning of my talk because they form a vital context for the conflict that I am describing. If nothing else, I hope to persuade you that the struggle for full acceptance of LGBTQ people is much more than a single political issue: it is a battle over what should give us meaning and purpose as a society. The focus of my talk is the Mennonite Church USA, a denomination of just under 100,000 people. A few of you may know that denomination well, but I’m just as interested in speaking to those of you don’t. Because the patterns I describe are common among Christians, albeit with some variations, and even those of you who are not Christian will likely recognize them as part of life in the United States.
But one thing that makes Mennonites somewhat distinctive is their theological emphasis on peace and nonviolence. And it is that focus that makes Mennonites particularly interesting to me, thought certainly not because I believe that Mennonites have it all figured out when it comes to being nonviolent. It’s interesting to me because in the time I spent interviewing, listening to, and just generally hanging out with Mennonite queer folks, I heard people speak again and again about violence that they experienced in Mennonite contexts. They used phrases like spiritual violence, institutional violence, rhetorical violence. Sometimes that violence is overt: at Mennonite conventions, where queer people’s right to be present is perpetually challenged, I have seen Mennonites participate in profane verbal abuse, sexual taunting, physical intimidation, and other visible forms of hatred. But far more common, and less visible, are practices that many Mennonites do not even register as violent. Carol Wise, the director of the Brethren Mennonite Council on LGBT Interests, put it to me this way: “I've come to the conclusion that process is how Mennonites justify and inflict violence. As long as we have a process, we have been fair, good, and kind people.”
For many queer people who have been subject to the effects of these processes, the Mennonite church’s identity as a peace church carries a particular punch in the gut. In a followup interview I did just last week a queer Mennonite friend, she wondered aloud to me if the reason she was still attempting to engage with the denomination was because she was stuck in a cycle of abuse. To paraphrase what she said, “For some reason I just want to expect more of Mennonites, even though they keep letting me down.” Her words in that moment echoed what I have heard repeatedly in the course of my time doing ethnography, archival research, and oral history interviews with queer Mennonites. This research led me to ask how it is that some people experience conscious practices of peacemaking as violent. I wanted to decipher how power and privilege seemed dictate who had access to particular ways of being peaceful.
But this framing, of the Mennonite church as an institutionally violent entity perpetuating harm against queer people, has chafed against church leaders who prefer to depict their institutions and communities as engaging in a necessarily slow process of “discernment” over LGBTQ inclusion as a divisive and polarizing political issue. In structured conversations, denominational conventions, committee meetings, Sunday school circles, and many other less formal settings, queer people have been discussed; they have been a concern; they have been the subjects of dialogue and discernment. They have, on numerous occasions, been asked to share their stories. These processes approach queer Mennonites as symbols of an unsolvable problem. (Those of you who have read WEB DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk may recognize that question from its first chapter.) How does it feel to be an unsolvable problem? For queer Mennonites, what experiences result from being understood in this way?
Over the time that I spent doing this research, I became familiar with the language that church leaders used to minimalize, trivialize, and dismiss the queer movement. These dismissals were so fascinating, so revealing of core anxieties about the viability of their institutions, that I could have written an entire dissertation on any one of them. These rote dismissals became my crash course in the way political language is coded and weaponized, in order to make certain people seem as though they do not matter without having to actually say that they don’t.
So I like to talk about code language. One of the most persistent codes, in Mennonite circles, is the association of queer people with individualism. Now, if you’re a student at Bethel College, I’m guessing you have at least some sense of how much Mennonites love talking about community. For Mennonites, the notion of “community” is often a way of defining themselves against the dominant values and practices of Western society. Many Mennonites talk about the need for service to our communities, and loyalty to our communities, as a way of surrendering ourselves to God. In this way of thinking, to put your community—however you define that—to put your community ahead of yourself in your actions and your priorities, is to act definitively on your belief that there are things on earth and beyond that are more important than your own selfinterest. When the notion of community is idealized in this way, individualism becomes a bad word. And so for Mennonites, one effective way to express disdain for certain groups of people—for certain communities, essentially—is by accusing them of individualism, with the understanding that to be “individualistic” means “you only care about yourself and your own desires.”
I learned to hear this language with wariness. And I want to make it very clear why I hear this language with wariness: it’s not because I only care about myself, or that I hate Mennonites, or that I hate community. What I don’t trust is the way that Mennonites use the idea of community as a political weapon against people who they don’t believe have the right to be individuals. So how does this work, when it comes to queer people? Well, the logic sounds something like this: queer people have put their own needs for sexual fulfillment ahead of the needs of their communities. They could, if they really wanted to, surrender their sexual needs to something more responsible. Queer people within both Mennonite settings and Christian settings more generally have grown up hearing that their sexualities are fundamentally threatening to a shared communal ideal, and that appeasing the fear and anxiety of the other people in the pews— the need of the heterosexual majority to feel comfortable—matters more than anything else. Considering how many queer people commit suicide, or spend years in self-destructive cycles of addiction or self-loathing, it’s clear than many queer folks internalize the message that the comfort of straight-majority communities is more important than queer life.
And let me be clear about the root of this idea that sexually active queer people are overly individualistic and selfish. The root of this idea is a general anxiety about sex that does not lead to babies. I’m not just talking about Mennonites here. American culture is profoundly shaped by collective anxiety about sex that does not lead to babies.
Of course, this isn’t just about queer people. Straight people also have lots of sex that doesn’t led to babies. And for straight people (some of who are closeted queer people) who really don’t want to talk about the sex that they are or are not having, it has become tremendously convenient to talk about the sex lives of openly queer people instead. Queer people notice this. Certainly in Mennonite settings they notice this.
So on behalf of all of my queer Mennonite friends who are tired of being interrogated about their sex lives by straight people who never have to talk about their own, I’m tempted to say, generally, “Raise your hand if you have had a lot of sex that hasn’t led to babies,” just to even the playing field a bit. But that would be extremely unethical in this context, and really super awkward for everyone. So I’ll just raise my own hand. I have had lots of sex that hasn’t led to babies. And some of that sex was before I was married, too, but here’s what’s interesting: no one questioned whether I was worthy of being married in a Mennonite church, even though I was every bit as much in violation of church dogma about sex as were any of my queer friends. In fact, I am now a thirty-nine-year old straight, married woman who has not had any sex that has led to babies. And I can tell that my lack of babies, combined with my impending middle age, makes people anxious. I’m a white, educated, healthy, middle-class woman, married to a respectable, healthy, white, middle-class man. We are the kind of people that other white people believe should be having babies. It makes some people so anxious that I can tell when they’re trying not to ask me why I haven’t had any babies. Perhaps this is why I now spend most of my social time with queer people.
In a church that is full of sexual repression, sexual shame, and generations of unreported sexual violence, it is no wonder that queer people still produce reactions that Gayle Rubin would refer to as “dangerously crazy.” And I’ve noticed something else, which is that on the occasions that queer people are asked to be part of a church conversation, they have to be the right kind of queer people. And in many cases, the “right kind” of queer person has been the queer person who is willing to tell the story of their lives in front of straight people who feel entitled to ask invasive questions. Carol Wise, the BMC director who spoke to me of the “violence of process,” explained to me how the leadership of the Mennonite queer movement consciously changed their strategy about “sharing their stories” in the early 2000s. She said, “It became very clear that it was time for us to say no to things. There was this sense of our stories are freely accessible at any time, for anyone, for any reason. We had colluded in this. We needed to stop doing it. Because it was becoming creepy, and voyeuristic. We were being used for people to project all kinds of their own sexual stuff.”
In my academic circles, there are piles of books, dissertations, courses, and conferences devoted to the complex and multi-layered question of how American culture came to be so deeply shaped by sexual shame. I can’t begin to unpack all of those reasons here, let alone understand all of them myself. There are theological reasons, to be sure, but in the U.S., it is very hard to separate theology from the ideology of capitalism.
In the U.S., our ideas about sex, and its purpose, are very deeply shaped by the demands of capitalism and the close associations that we have between economic production and reproduction. Pay attention to political language. Pay attention to the rhetoric of “hard-working families,” and the racial undertones of that rhetoric. American political discourse, both Democrat and Republican, is heavily reliant on the ideal of the white, middle-class, heterosexual couple having babies. Not too many babies—just the right number to suitably feed to the economy. Babies that will turn into the American ideal of “hard workers.”
Pay attention to the way Americans talk about motherhood. How do white Americans talk about single Black and Latina women who have babies, for instance, as opposed to this white, married, middle class, maternal ideal? With anxiety. With fear. Because of the deep structural racism of American society, Americans of all racial identities are anxious about women of color having babies. Women of color, particularly Black and brown women whose racial identities are criminalized, have to negotiate their reproductive lives with the knowledge that white America does not value the lives of their children. Unlike white children, who are generally perceived as an investment that will lead to economic productivity, children of color are always held in suspicion. White America demands that they earn the space that their bodies take up. If they are poor, or undocumented, or if they end up incarcerated, most Americans will be more than happy to benefit from their underpaid or unpaid labor, even as they are relentlessly portrayed in the media and by conservative politicians as parasites on the economy and on decent society. And yet, if women of color do not have children, they will be denigrated in other ways. The dominant forces in American society will still find ways to devalue their labor, and their lives. If this analysis sounds crude, or makes you feel defensive, it’s because this reality is crude, and violent, and it pits all of us against one another for the resources that we need to have livable lives. Capitalism is not a system that is built around the notion of the inherent worth of human beings. In order for capitalism to work, some lives have to not matter.
I’m speaking about this because one of the surest ways to assess who is seen as valuable and suitably productive in U.S. society is to look at who is given the right to have control over their own sexual autonomy and their own reproductive lives. It’s true that Americans are anxious about sex that doesn’t lead to babies, but they’re less anxious about it if the sexually active people in question aren’t people that they see as inherently suspicious for some other reason. One of the most basic demonstrations of this is the double standard we apply to men and women who are sexually promiscuous. Women who have lots of sex are seen as decreasing their own fundamental worth with every new partner. In our courtroom, defense attorneys routinely use the sexual histories of women rape victims to discredit their claims to victimhood.
This is part of how rape culture works: by making some women seem inherently rapeable. And there is very little justice to be found in American courts for people of color who are victims of rape. Certainly there is a lack of collective outrage. For instance, for these past two weeks, the U.S. media has been mostly ignoring the trial of a serial rapist, Daniel Holtzclaw, a white, former police officer in Oklahoma City who targeted Black women, often forcing them into sex with the threat of arrest. It’s a heinous story; I can barely stand to read the coverage or to think about the lives that this man shattered with his brutality. Certainly it was an easy story for me to ignore, had I wanted to, because the only place I saw it shared was on the Facebook pages of Black women.
In the popular media, the story was almost entirely overlooked in favor of endless punditry denouncing the Black student activists at University of Missouri, Yale, and other schools across the country. These students have been widely mocked, portrayed as needy and oversensitive, for organizing to demand that their campuses be made safer for students of color. If you pay attention to these demands, you’ll see that many of these student activists are motivated by threats to their own sexual safety and autonomy. They are asking for better policies on sexual assault, sexual harassment, and more accountability for universities that ignore or even enable sexual violence. And importantly—on these same lists of demands—they are asking for better protection and support for LGBT students. And I think this is because the activists at these universities—led specifically by Black students inspired by the national movement of Black Lives Matter—understand the ways that all of these different threads of oppression are interwoven. They understand those connections far better than do most college and university administrators. When you are a victim of systemic oppression, you will likely come to have a better understanding of the workings of oppression than your oppressors do.
And that’s because so much of the violence that we do in our capitalist society is done by default. White people who do not spend time learning about the conditions and lives of people of color will reproduce white supremacy, whether or not they intend to do so. Men who don’t intentionally listen to women to continue to oppress women, interrupt us, talk over us, diminish us, harass us, rape us. Cisgender people—people who identify with the sex that they were assigned at birth—cisgender people who don’t learn about genderqueer, transgender and intersex people will continue to reproduce the ignorance and fear that leads transgender people to be one of the most socially vulnerable groups of people in the world, and certainly in the United States, where transgender women of color are raped and murdered with such astonishing regularity that it should leave all decent people stunned. The average life expectancy for a transgender woman of color in the United States is thirty-five years. But decent people turn away. Good Christians turn away. Good Mennonites turn away, and even suggest that the church cannot accommodate people of color and queer people at the same time, even as queer people of color are systemically violated and murdered in invisible corners of this world as punishment for their very existence.
The executive leaders of the Mennonite Church USA have deliberately distanced themselves from the politics of the Black Lives Matter movement, even as they express concern over racial tensions. Why this distancing? I can’t pretend to know all the reasons, but I know at least one of them: the Black Lives Matter movement was started by queer Black women. Black Lives Matter activists bring up some inconvenient truths for a white-dominant heterosexist peace church that would seem to prefer to pretend that queer people of color do not exist. But queer people of color are present in the Mennonite church. It is not safe for them to be out of the closet, and they are present nonetheless. But they are not the people of color who have been given a microphone by the white church establishment and invited to speak on behalf of their communities.
Mennonites often speak about the importance of the church being separate from the world, or as some Mennonites put it, “the culture.” I heard this rationale click into place almost immediately after the Supreme Court ruling this summer: Well, the world around us may accept same-sex marriage, but we are not of the world, and we don’t have to. Yet in very real ways, through language and policy that opens a path for violence, and through social and institutional patterns that rank the worthiness of different marginalized peoples and divide them against one another, Mennonites and as well as other Christians have chosen to dispose of the same people who are already most disposable to the rest of our capitalist society. That’s why, when I hear people talk about “the church” and “the world,” I just hear more code language.
In the face of this aggressive, systemic cheapening of human life, Black Lives Matter activists embrace a politics of disruption. They get in the way of business as usual. They take over streets; they demand resignations; they refuse to be pacified by leaders who speak vaguely without making concrete commitments to change. On a much smaller scale, there is a similar strategy unfolding within Pink Menno, the queer Mennonite group I mentioned at the beginning of this talk. In the months and weeks of planning leading up the the Mennonite Church USA convention in Kansas City this past summer, as Pink Menno leaders weighed the pros and cons of different actions that they might take, two members of the group in particular, one white and one black, spoke repeatedly of their desire for Pink Menno to act in solidarity with the larger civil rights movement unfolding around the country—and with Black Lives Matter in particular. That meant disruption. That meant interrupting business as usual and making people uncomfortable. That meant forcing people to think about their various hypocrisies over the matter of what to do about sex that does not lead to babies.
I was right to be afraid of what would happen in Kansas City. It was clear to me, in the heated confrontations that characterized that week, that people really did believe they had lost something with the legalization of same-sex marriage, and some of them were determined to make the queer people around them suffer for it. As I stood in solidarity with my queer Mennonite friends, wearing pink, I felt the constant presence of hate, and the weight of the suffering around me. I saw almost all of the most cynical predictions of the queer activists I had interviewed come to pass. I saw decent people, people who thought of themselves as allies to the cause of queer justice, respond to those visible displays of hatred by blaming members of the queer community for pushing too hard, acting too incautiously. It was all, for me, depressingly predictable, and also beautiful, because in the midst of all the misery around me I saw people loving each other, bearing witness to one another’s pain, and against all odds, refusing to accept the dehumanizing burden of sexual shame.
I’d like to finish my remarks today on the same subject with which I began: with marriage equality, and its limits. At the risk of stating the blatantly obvious, it is not only socially conservative Mennonites who believe that marriage equality has taken something away from them, and the backlash, I’m sure many of you know, has been intense. In states across the U.S., every new legislative season brings more bills attempting to legalize discrimination against queer people, in the realms of housing, health care, commerce, education, and parenting. These discriminatory bills are proposed, and sometimes passed, in the name of protecting religious people from infringements on their rights to free practice of their faith. It would take another lecture to unpack the ethical and legal problems with using freedom of religion this way. But these bills are not truly about freedom of religion; they are about anxiety, about power, and the symbolic weight of sex. This past spring, shortly before he passed away, the eminent African American civil rights leader Julian Bond responded to this legal trend with clear condemnation. He wrote, “I have seen discrimination. I have stood inside businesses that would not serve me because of my race, and I have been told that the rights of those business owners were more important than mine. I countered that logic then, as I do now. We have no crisis of religious discrimination; we have a crisis of fear.”
As a scholar of American society and culture, coming from an increasingly global field rooted in the study of social inequality, I have little doubt that those fighting against full inclusion of queer people will be remembered collectively as an fear-mongering, antidemocratic, and dangerous global force. It is a force that actively spreads the misery of that comes when we don’t have the right to say no to sex we do not want or to ever say yes to sex that we do want. There is absolutely nothing trivial about that. And so those of us who believe in queer inclusion as a matter of justice, whether or not we are Christians, need to take seriously the struggles that are happening in churches over the lives of queer people. If you are a student in this audience who identifies as LGBTQ and as a Christian, or would identify as LGBTQ if it were safe for you to do so, or if you want to be in solidarity with your queer friends, I hope you will remember this: Well-intentioned people will tell you to be patient. People you trust will tell you to be patient. They will tell you that your church isn’t quite ready to make the welcoming statement, that they have to choose between racial justice and sexual justice, that they can’t support you publicly because they will offend the donors who are afraid to talk about sex that doesn’t lead to babies. When you come up against these walls, know that legions of your lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender elders have already been patient and steadfast for many years so that you might have a more livable life. You do not owe any church your patience. But if you do have that patience, cherish it. And—this is perhaps most important—surround yourself with people who will be able to tell you when that patience is being abused. Thank you.