In the aftermath of Tuesday’s election, I summon my courage. Already in the past five days there are multiple accounts of Muslim women being harassed at the University of New Mexico, in the university library and on the street. This is the direct result of a campaign in which hate speech was normalized and the racist, sexist posturing of internalized white male supremacy was brought from the shadows back into broad daylight.
I recall the shock I felt when Ronald Reagan was elected President. It was my first time voting in a national presidential election, and my side lost. It was another era in which the rhetoric of hatred won. At that time the hatred was focused like a laser on gays and lesbians. I had just come out. A new frightening disease was named GRID, Gay-related Immune Deficiency. Reagan and his right-wing Christian colleagues called it God’s Punishment. They said it was only right and just that gay men should suffer and die by the thousands. The next twelve years (two rounds of Reagan followed by the first Bush administration) resulted in the gay and lesbian community and their allies getting organized, being courageous, coming out and insisting on their rights as human beings. That effort changed lives, public sentiment, public policy and ultimately the laws of the nation finally stopped allowing the legal discrimination of GLBTQ people.
What movement will this election birth?
Maybe we can learn from one example of loving courage during those years. In 1990, I had just been hired as an Assistant Professor in a small progressive liberal arts college in the Midwest when the Vice President of that college decided there were too many gay and lesbian students. He believed that the admissions office was using some kind of secret code to recruit these unwanted students. He went on a mission to compile the names of all the gay and lesbian staff and faculty working at the college. He wanted to purge the school of this undesirable element. My name, of course, ended up on that list.
It brought to mind the pressure on colleges and universities during the McCarthy era to turn over the names of all faculty who were or had ever been members of the Communist Party. This very same liberal arts college had refused to turn over such a list to the government in the 1950s. But here it was another decade and a different witch hunt was being conducted by a senior administrator.
Word about it leaked out and the Director of Admissions, a straight African American man with a wife and five children, learned of it and declared he was gay. He made a public statement that if the Vice President was looking to get rid of all the gay employees, well, he was one of them. Other straight employees soon followed. Thank you, Jimmy Williams! I will never forget what you did, and that you did not even hesitate. You could have lost your job. The College President then made personal phone calls to the gay men and lesbians on the list. Sitting in my office, I received one of his phone calls. I accepted his apology. He said he had friends who were gay. This whole thing was a misunderstanding.
I share this example because we must be prepared to act with the same courageous sense of unity and oneness. We have to be precise and sophisticated about standing together. Let us be unafraid to be specific in our attention and our actions. Here are some of my suggestions about how we might begin to do this.
Since Trump suggested criminalizing women who have had abortions and trying them as murderers, I suggest that all men and women, regardless of their individual experiences or beliefs, wear tee shirts that state in big, bold letters: I HAVE HAD AN ABORTION. Let’s see if they will arrest all of us. Let us not allow women who have made this difficult decision to suffer in secrecy and shame and be tracked down and prosecuted. Our love for each other is bigger and bolder than that.
Let us keep our eyes open to potential harassers as one Native American woman did on the streets of Albuquerque yesterday. She got out of her car to intervene when a young white man began actively harassing a Muslim woman wearing a hijab. When that man was about to punch our Native American intercessor in the face, another white man stepped up and stopped him. This man held the attacker back so both women could safely leave. Yes, that is exactly what we need to do.
Let us be unafraid to stand with Muslim people. Let us actively reach out and speak up and say aloud that Muslims have a place in the U.S. alongside the rest of us. And men and women, if you want to take it another step further, wear a hijab in public and when confronted with ugly hatred, speak your truth. In the words of Civil Rights activist Bernice Reagan, when they draw the circle to keep you out, draw a larger circle to bring them in.
Another target of this most recent wave of hate are Mexicans. We live side by side as Mexico is part of North American. Remember geography class? Mexicans are Americans. Are we going to pretend Mexicans are not our neighbors, family members and friends? Are we going to forget Mexican food, music, art, literature, cultural customs, holidays and humor are part of our own experiences? Are we going to be silent? Use your creativity, people. How are you going to demonstrate your support of Mexicans living in the U.S., legally and illegally? Isn’t it time right now to create a new Underground Railroad of secret houses for illegal Mexican immigrants to be hidden in safety before the violent round-up of illegals begins to take place in our towns and cities? Isn’t it time for all of us to speak Spanish and push harder than ever for a bilingual nation?
And what about Trump’s insistence on stop and search? Policing is already race-based. We cannot be silent about it another minute. How do we organize ourselves more effectively to impact the way African American men and their communities are policed? White people must stop thinking of police attacks on African Americans as unrelated incidents when the pattern is clearly documented. There is a reason why police officers are not held accountable for crimes of murdering African American men and women, and it is rooted in our history. We need Truth and Reconciliation to heal the divide that continues to harm us. Can we begin to be brave enough, heart-centered enough, to hear each other’s pain so that we can begin the long road to recovery? Are we willing to reconcile the ruptures that divide us? Who will lead this? Who will participate? Can we make this happen without government support? Of course we can. We are the people.
Finally, and no it’s not final, but I cannot fail to address the horrifying ridicule of differently-abled people that Trump displayed, and which was re-played over and over just in case we missed it the first time. So how do we speak back to bullying behavior?
Maybe we need to begin expressing gratitude for our differences, whether they are physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. Can we see our differences as learning opportunities instead of wounding opportunities?
If you see someone being bullied for being homeless, poor, blind, deaf, old or in a wheelchair, or for being female, gay, trans, Mexican or Muslim, what are you going to do? Start practicing that now. Role play with your friends while you are safe and comfortable. Get ready to be uncomfortable. Get ready for the moment when you are the innocent bystander so you don’t just stand by. Prepare yourself to respond immediately with intelligence, courage and love. We cannot afford to spend the next four to eight years frozen and numb. And if you are the target of hatred, practice making noise. Be loud! The rest of us will be alert, listening and ready to respond.
In the midst of what is surely becoming the next culture war, how can we remain strong and effective at communicating humility, compassion, kindness? How do we not become our own enemies by ridiculing those who believe and act differently than we do? How do we extend compassion across the boundaries that divide us?
This new movement will create new coalitions. We have a lot to learn from each other. Whether you are wearing a safety pin to show you are a safe person or not, you need to practice compassion and be prepared to bring it. We are not alone in this effort toward greater humanity. The impromptu community that has formed in support of the water protectors at Standing Rock is an example to us. The organizational efforts of Black Lives Matter is an example to us. The Civil Rights Movement is an example. Gandhi’s non-violent movement for Indian independence is an example. The anti-apartheid movement is an example. There are more. Look to those individuals and groups who brought more light, more love, more truth, more beauty or more joy into the world. Let’s emulate that.
Friends, it is time to act with tremendous loving courage. It is time to believe we can be better, individually and collectively. Let us support each other not to give up or check out but to care for ourselves and each other as we take steps toward unity. There is so much at stake.
Our granddaughter announced his decision to become an F to M Trans Boy. Okay, I am ready, I thought. Well, not completely ready, I discovered.
I should be ready. I came out in 1977 as a bisexual. I was precocious, adventurous and fully engaged in the pre-AIDS era of sexual exploration and experimentation. I had boyfriends and girlfriends. I knew I didn’t want to get married and behave like the heterosexual women of my mother’s generation. I didn’t believe in monogamy. Messages my mother gave me about female identity included the statement that, “women are second class citizens.” I was ambitious. I wanted to be first-class.
Influenced by second wave feminism, especially the radical and cultural aspects of that great tidal wave crashing upon the shore of U.S. society, my identity kept shifting on the wet sand. I cut off my hair and dressed like a boy. Back then we called it being androgynous. We loved Ziggy Stardust. I learned that snails, slime mold and other beings in Creator’s magnificent universe did not reproduce through a binary gender system. In Judy Grahn’s anthology, True to Life Adventure Stories, I read a short story, Boys at the Rodeo, about a group of lesbians attending a rodeo in Wyoming who were mistaken as boys. Once the cowboys accepted them as young, rambunctious males, those dykes had a blast. Unlike the then-popular phrase, “Blondes have more fun,” it seemed to me that boys had more fun.
At twenty I hitch-hiked alone across Scotland. I left behind a beautiful long-haired man in Wisconsin and a feisty athletic woman in Michigan. Lugging my backpack, I stuck out my thumb and pretended to be a boy. My ruse was not entirely successful despite my cropped hair, flannel shirt, baggy pants and worn-out sneakers. Once I climbed into the back seat, the driver would generally say, “Thought you were a boy,” which meant that already my voice or gestures had given me away. So much for that. I let my hair grow out and slowly grew to embrace my emerging identity as a power-femme.
Gender is performance. As a young adult, freed up by 1970s lesbian culture, I was able to perform my inner boy. I enjoyed it but not enough to abandon my inner girl. At that time society presented me with a narrow choice: man or woman; male or female. Pretty limiting but I found ways to straddle the categories.
Today I wear summer dresses, paint my toenails and flip up my long hair. But I also hike in sturdy boots and camp in the wilderness beneath the naked stars. I am unafraid. I am fiercely independent. I settled down and married a woman. Between us we share the stereotypical male roles in the old-fashioned husband-wife dynamic. I handle most of the financial and legal matters. She handles most of the power tools for household maintenance, yardwork, carpentry, that stuff. I mean I can spackle drywall or drive a nail into a two by four, but she does it better. I guess I am a gender-bending person in my own way.
The next generation is doing what they should to race through the door kicked open by gay rights activists and second wave feminists. They inherited the social and political spaces created by those who dared to question strict gender roles and the suppression of both female and homosexual lives. It’s not that the violence and hatred against us has ended, but the legal system and public opinion have shifted. I myself have benefited by this extraordinary movement toward human liberation.
So why am I having difficulty with my grandchild’s transition? I recall the bright face of the baby whose diapers I once changed, the toddler whose bedtime stories I once read, the small, rambunctious one for whom I drove around in the humid Ohio night singing to the moon so she would fall asleep. Did I make up stories in my mind about the woman this child would become? Did I get attached to my stories of make-believe?
Or do I feel a sense of loss because we have worked so hard to lift up female identity as valued, relevant, vital and necessary to change the oppressive domination of our world. You see, I love being a woman. I am interested in and deeply committed to women’s lives, voices, empowerment and spirituality. I understand the menstrual cycle, the pregnancy cycle, the mothering process, the struggle of being female under male domination, the silencing effect on girls and women inside patriarchal systems, and the profound desire to share authority in the world differently than the dominator-power-over style used by our government, police, academic institutions and families. Though I am part of the LGBTQ community, I strongly identify as a woman and care deeply about the lives of girls and women. Yet my grandchild was born female and is choosing to live her/his life as a trans male.
Since I came of age during that era of name-changing, identity-switching liberation, I should be ready for anything. I should be fine about a girl I adore becoming the boy I will adore. For her/him, this decision has been years in the making. I remember going into the boys clothing department to help her choose clothes she wanted to wear. I recall the summer the luscious long hair was first cut short. Emerging today is a confident, articulate, intelligent, stylish, young performance artist who can sing, dance, direct, conceive and execute original theatrical material. I am proud. Her decision to transition into living this life as a trans boy has made him very happy. I can see that. It fits. It seems right. Still in brief moments I catch myself mourning for the girl who is no longer there, and who is not going to become a woman.
Native communities use the term, Two Spirit. I like it. It suggests a spiritual aspect to the act of transgressing gender divisions. Two Spirit advances the possibility of living within a state of consciousness that embraces gender-duality-becoming-unity. It is both/and: both male and female; both straight and gay; both old and new. Perhaps it is even more than that. Two Spirit goes beyond gender-based identity boxes. It signifies someone filled with the power of Two Spirits. Am I Two Spirit? Is my grandchild?
Once we get beyond the public bathroom debate, I look forward to what other new social and political spaces will open up for all of us. If our society can make room for all of the myriad gendered expressions in the emerging trans-youth of today, how much freedom could we all experience?
Trans-identity is now part of our family. This means, I, too, must transition. Though my tongue still stumbles over the pronoun change, I will get it. One day he will slip effortlessly from my mouth when I refer to my beloved grandchild. I know I can do it.
I believe the Ultimate could be a vast energetic being, nameless, formless, skinless, disembodied raw creative force power zipping through the universe in the never-ending processes of making and unmaking, being, becoming and dissolving back into non-being. The Great Mystery, who I refer to in the Anishinaabe as Gitchi Manitou, is beyond comprehension, yet we are all part of the Mystery, and this Mysterious-Creative-Spark is part of everyone and everything. The Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching, states, “The one you can name is not the Eternal One.” It makes sense to me that the Ultimate-Being lies beyond what can be known or named.
Still we are small beings in this vast universe. We are embodied and gendered and racialized and categorized in particular ways by our societies. These little boxes that our immensity is supposed to fit inside are limiting by their very natures. Yet we are raised to identify with the labels assigned to us. They become real in this sense, and these defining categories influence us and shape our relationships.
Not the least of these relationships is our relationship with the divine (however we define the Divine). What do we believe in that is more abiding, more pervasive, greater in every sense than the laws and policies governing human social and political life? What is this Great Law? How do we relate to the Abiding Truth? Who do we worship? How do we establish this relationship?
These are great questions, and Southwestern College where I now teach and learn urges students to explore and find the answers for themselves.
That said, it still matters to me that this Creative-Force-Power when represented at all is represented in all possible genders. Not just masculine or male. I have spent decades seeking and finding divine representatives that are female, gender fluid and beautiful. I want at least half of the images of divinity that surround me at work or home to be breasted, vulvic, wombish women. Of course, I am looking for myself among the images of the Divine.
Why does it matter? Gender oppression persists today. Religions built on the exclusion and suppression of the divine feminine persist. Religious organizations that exclude women from leadership persist. The invisibility of the sacred expressed in a female form is a reality. Yet half of the population is female.
So when I arrived as the new Vice President of Academic Affairs & Dean at Southwestern College in the summer of 2014, I noticed a void of images representing the Almighty Omnipotent Omnipresent One in a feminine form. The student center has a room dedicated to spirituality. It is called the Spiritual Practice Room. I entered the draped, comfortable quiet respectfully. There I found images and statues of the Buddha, Jesus Christ, various male gurus like Swami Vivikinanda and Paramahansa Yogananda, a large woven God’s Eye, photos of male spiritual teachers: Gurdjieff, Krishnamurti, the Dalai Lama. A statue of the Hindu elephant god, Ganesh. On the narrow shelf was an I Ching and a Bible. But where were the female spiritual leaders? Where were the feminine divinities?
There She was! Goddess of Santa Fe, reigning Holy Mother: Guadalupe in all of her shining glory. She stood tall, a large image on the top shelf with a candle dedicated to her. Guadalupe appeared to the Indian peasant, Don Diego, in her glowing divine form on the site of the demolished temple to the Mother Goddess of the Aztecs, Tonantzin. She is a bridge between the Old Ways of the Americas and the culture of the Spanish colonizer. She made a way for brown-skinned people to see a Brown Madonna on the altar at the front of the cathedral. She resides over our city from her perch on Guadalupe Street. Every December 11 there is an evening candlelight procession in her honor and the following day, December 12, is dedicated to her. It made me happy to see her, and I left the Spiritual Practice Room satisfied though not entirely content.
In the fall of 2015, a few students brought their concern about the lack of images of female divinity on campus to my attention. (Thanks, Connor!) Like any good educator, I know students come first. All I needed was this prompt, and I leapt into action.
I invited them to bring any images or books to add to the room. Then I took the initiative upon myself and began populating the room with new female faces and feminine forms to represent this aspect of the Vast-Unnamable-Energetic-Quest-of-the-Living-Cosmos-to-Know-Itself.
Earlier today I added a small statue representing the sacred oracle of Malta, the female prophet, seer and Goddess incarnate. I placed a few mermaid images here and there to present Mami Wati and Yemonj/Yemaya. I added a carved wooden fertility figure with cowrie shells I brought back from Senegal. From the covers of the We’Moon calendar, I added paintings of strong powerful female beings. I placed an image of a Corn Mother on the front altar to honor our location here on ancestral Pueblo land. I added a lovely brown Madonna. I donated a stack of my old Woman Power magazines, and a copy of The Womyn’s Book of Runes that I wrote twenty years ago after studying the Celtic runes.
It’s not enough. The room still is not fifty/fifty when it comes to gender representation. It needs some Afrocentric Goddesses, Oshun would be nice. I would love to see Oya here. She is associated with the Haitian Maman Brigette who is syncretized with the Irish St. Brigit. These powerful birth-death-solar-storm-wind-bright-burning-female-divinities are close to my firey heart. Obatallah would be terrific, too, as s/he is a gender fluid god from the Orisha tradition of West Africa imported to the Americas in the bellies of slave ships and celebrated now in Cuba, Haiti, Brazil and the U.S.
We are still missing so many: Artemis, Aphrodite, Dobeiba, Hathor, Isis, Grandmother Moon, Blue Flame Woman, Kali, Ixchel and so many more. What about Jigonhsasee? Today I noticed Guru Mai is there and so is St. Therese. Change is happening in our campus Spiritual Practice Room. Sometimes it just takes a first step.
We heard the news about the June 12 massacre on Sunday evening. A man declaring himself an Islamic fundamentalist entered a gay bar in Orlando, Florida and began shooting. He killed 50 people and harmed 54 more. It is the most destructive mass shooting in U.S. history.
My partner looked up from the computer screen as we started reading the New York Times article.
“Close the blinds,” she said.
Immediately I felt the old familiar fear. I checked the doors to make sure they were locked. I lowered the shades. We brought our dogs into the room with us and continued reading the news story.
We have been together for 34 years, but that does not make us safe. We are out and open about our love, but that does not keep us safe. We are alive now, today, but we cannot, we can never, count on being free of hate-filled destructive rage directed at us because we love each other. I am simply one woman loving another woman. Lesbian, dyke, queer, gay, bi, trans, whatever you want to call it, this difference means we can be the target of hatred. We cannot forget this fact.
We finish reading the article and stare at each other. My incredulous heart cannot grasp the violence. The loop in my brain sounds childlike and naïve. It goes something like this:
They hate us. Why do they hate us? They don’t even know us.
They want to kill us. Why do they want to kill us? We didn’t do anything to them. We don’t wish them any harm.
We just want to be left alone to love and live our lives. They can have their lives. Why can’t we have ours?
My stomach is upset. I am having a hard time digesting dinner. I am having a hard time.
The article reports that twice this man was investigated. They determined he was not threat. Then he lawfully bought two weapons within one week and drove to a popular gay bar and began killing people. Did no one know he hated gay people? Did no one think that hatred is itself a threat?
In the aftermath of this tragedy, I only hear from gay and lesbian friends. My straight friends and family members do not consider how this act of terror directed at my community terrifies me.
Do they forget that I am gay? Do they forget that I belong to a sexual minority against whom violence is done every day? Do they forget that my community has paid a price in its effort to emerge from the silent margin, once hidden by shame and secrecy, to become a visible, vibrant presence in society?
I am scared, but I don’t want to be. I want to love not to fear. I want to love even those who are afraid of me, those who hate me. I want to love those who don’t see me, those whose ignorance erases me, those who know but fail to remember who I am. I want to love those who believe I have the same privileges as straight women, those who have no idea what I have experienced as an outsider to the heterosexual norm. I want to love all of them even more. And I want to love myself and my beloved partner with just a little more compassion and tenderness tonight and always.
We are challenged, we mere mortals, by the incredible power we have inside. Within each one of us lives the power to love, to think, to experience joy, to bear witness, to share, to tell stories, to touch, to heal, to change the world.
How do we handle this power?
Sometimes not very well. We hurt each other. We tell lies to protect ourselves from feeling shame. We sneak around or steal things or envy our friends whatever we imagine they have that we don’t. We are afraid. We make up things about other people. We make enemies. We go to war against them. Yes, we human beings can be tricky. We create all kinds of trouble.
How can we better understand and develop the gift of our own divinity?
Traditional stories from the world’s many spiritual traditions are one source of rich information about the complexity of our human/divine nature. For example, the Woodlands oral tradition contains many excellent instructions on how to handle both our humanity and our divinity. Many of these stories also illustrate what the pitfalls are to being such wondrous magical creatures who can also lose control of our own emotions and wreak havoc on everything and everyone around us.
I am a lineage carrier in the northern Woodlands story tradition. I carry certain stories that can never be written down. I tell them during specific ceremonies or times of year as I was taught. Doing this for over thirty years now, I have gained some insight into the wisdom medicine embedded in these stories.
One significant character is the trickster hero Nanabozhoo. He was born of an Anishinaabe woman. She was an upstanding member of her community. I imagine her as a loving mother devoted to her only son. Nanabozhoo’s father is a spirit-being, the West Wind. Sound familiar? Many important spiritual teachers share a similar creation/conception story, born from the body of a human woman impregnated by a spiritual entity, a non-embodied father. This is the marriage of form and formlessness. Consider the birth of Jesus.
However, there is a difference between Jesus and Nanabozhoo. Jesus becomes a spiritual teacher, whereas Nanabozhoo is more of a regular joe. When he shows up, he can help or hinder any situation.
Nanabozhoo may offer his sacred gifts to rescue the people from starvation or flood. Or he might exploit his divine abilities hoping to gain status among his fellow beings. His trickster sidekicks include Ajidomoo, the Squirrel, or Waaboos, the snowshoe hare. He expects his sidekicks to endorse his wild plans, and he poses for their applause when he assumes he has done something great. More often his self-serving action causes turmoil and destruction. When he uses his immense power to promote himself, trouble follows. When he acts out of jealousy, exhaustion, pettiness or arrogance, which he does, then even he suffers the consequences.
What does this tell us about who we really are, and what we can truly do? One message from this wisdom tradition is to beware of self-appointed saviors. They can cause more damage than good. Instead develop your own connection to Source (God, Goddess, Creator, Great Mystery, The All, The One, Infinite Presence, Eternal Flow). Learn to be in direct relationship with the sacred within and around you. Learn to trust yourself.
Through his exploits, Nanabozhoo teaches us right relationship to self and other, to Spirit and community. We are like him: half human and half divine, half soil and half wind, made of both breath and bone. Like him, we try to impress others. We do not always know how to quietly wield our tremendous capacity to love.
Perhaps if we begin to use everything that happens to us to become even more loving, we may advance our human divinity. Such is our challenge.
In our community we celebrate the Ancestor Feast. This ancient rite has many variations across cultures. I would like to share one example.
On the first anniversary of the death of a dear friend or family member, a great feast is made of their favorite foods and a give-away is planned in which the things that once belonged to this person are assembled on a blanket to be given away that evening. The table is set and one chair is draped with a scarf or other item that once belonged to the beloved one, a photograph of the deceased sits at this place. It is understood that for this meal, the living and the dead come together to celebrate the continuity of love.
Once the food is ready, prayers are said and songs sung. It is a joyful occasion. Plates are heaped high, but the first plate is for the most honored guest, the one who has gone before. This plate is then carried outside and placed beneath a tree, or the food is burned in a sacred fire to travel directly to Spirit.
In every Ancestor Feast the food is so much more delicious, friendship so precious. Stories are told. Jokes shared. ‘Remember when’ is the refrain. By sharing memories, we know we have lived. We affirm our existence. We enact our essential ways of belonging to each other.
After everyone has eaten their fill, each guest, from eldest to youngest, selects one thing to take home from the items on the give-away blanket. The dishes are washed. The evening ends with good-bye hugs.
The love that binds us together does not end when life ends. The love just goes on and on. The Ancestor Feast reminds us of the importance of loving no matter what form our beloved takes – whether embodied or in Spirit – we remain connected. We can visit in dream. We can feel and we can remember. I know I do.
Please join me for a writing workshop on Thursday, August 27, 9 am to 12:00 pm at Southwestern College, 3960 San Felipe Road, Santa Fe as part of the Diversity, Healing & Consciousness, 34th Annual Transformation & Healing Conference.
Our basic quest for unity asks us to consider: Who am I? Who is Other? Writing is a powerful expressive arts therapeutic tool for self-discovery and self-acceptance. In this workshop we will touch on issues of identity, family and community. We will explore the separation we may have experienced through racial, ethnic, religious, economic class, sexuality, gender, or other socially defined categories of difference. We will seek to recognize, reconcile and release that which keeps us feeling separate. Using both imagination and memory, we will use the power of metaphor to express a transformational experience.
3 CECs available for counselors, art therapists and social workers. Limited space available. Please register now. $40 for workshop. Call toll free: 877-471-5756 or 505-471-5756 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
I will be reading with two other Red Mountain Press poets, former Kansas Poet Laureate Denise Low and Molly Kirschner. Teatro Paraguas, Sunday, July 12, 5 p.m. 3205 Calle Marie, Santa Fe NM 87507. FREE. Come, join us!