Monday, June 10, 2019

Being an Awkward Ally

My new sweatshirt (UMC Baptismal vows).
Click here to order one for yourself. 

This being Pride Month, I thought it might be helpful for some of my readers to know that at least twice this past year I have unwittingly used painfully outdated terms in the midst of conversations with friends who are part of the LGBTQI+ community. Neither time was I called out, but I spotted the micro-cringe and realized I’d clearly just messed up. You see, I’m in catch-up mode at the moment--having a bit of a Rip Van Winkle experience. 

In high school and undergrad I did my best to attend all the awareness-building and sensitivity training events that I could on all sorts of subjects. I still remember my freshman year hearing the word “hermaphrodite” for the first time; it was used as a self-label by a young adult who openly spoke of their experience growing up in a body that didn’t cleanly fit in the traditional male/female boxes. That testimony greatly helped me rethink what I thought I knew about gender and sexual orientation. A couple years later, I joined a congregation that hosted a support group for Trans persons. One evening the congregation was invited to a special listening event, where members of that support group shared with us personal accounts of their struggles. Over 15 years later, I shared what I’d learned from those talks with an Algerian who was leading a rapidly growing congregation composed almost entirely of recently baptized Algerians. This was the first time he had heard about such issues, and we pondered together the pastoral implications. What advice would he give if someone in his congregations revealed to him that they weren’t actually the sex or gender that they presented to the community? What would he advise them on the topic of dating and marriage? I am convinced that by having the courage to engage my colleague in that conversation, I planted seeds that will make a huge difference one day for LGBTQI+ persons in his community.  

But here’s the thing: I engaged in that conversation having spent the past decade living in three African countries where talk about such issues remains rather taboo. Sure, I learned/studied a ton on the topics of colonialism and racism and facilitating healthy interfaith conversations, but during that time I failed to keep up with the changing conversations around sex and gender. I only found out a few months ago that the term hermaphrodite has become offensive (We should say intersex instead). And, I kid you not, I’ve had so few conversations about transgender issues that recently I actually accidentally said ‘transexual’ at a church meeting (I partly blame that on the fact that the song Sweet Transvestite was stuck in my head that day, but still, that’s not acceptable— for that matter, neither is using the word transvestite unless you are reclaiming it for yourself).

So, does that make me a crappy ally? In some ways, yes, it does.

One of the things my deep dive into anti-racism books has taught me is that we all were raised in the toxic sludge of racism (and sexism and host of other isms). While it is easy to believe that racism is bad, purging our minds of every single unexamined racist assumption is a journey that takes a lifetime. If we beat ourselves up or lash out every time someone calls us out for saying or doing something that perpetuates a racist system, we won’t get very far down the road.  It is much healthier to admit to ourselves that we are racist anti-racists, and then get on with the work of becoming less racist. I assert the same logic can be applied to all forms of allyship.     

I’m not sure if I’ve yet earned the privilege of calling myself a LGBTQI+ ally. I’m not even sure if ally is a label one is allowed to give oneself or if it must be bestowed. But I do know that I’m making an effort to do better, and from the depths of my heart I say Happy Pride Month.