September 5 2013
Hey...so many things to think about on this side of pregnancy...with two sons who live on the other side of the country, following dreams and becoming who they are meant to be. There is no wonder that you are always writing about body/flesh-y things, as you are an interpreter of Incarnation (THE Incarnation, big I, of Christian belief; all incarnation, word/God-made-flesh in everyone/living thing. So...because I am (we are) so often thinking/doing the examination of the intersections of oppressions, I am wanting to ask you (a young womyn who could be my daughter) about the unfinished business of the feminist movement of the generations before me and of my generation: which is to say, the way that sexism hurts the men we love. I should back up to say that I so wanted a daughter, and when I had sons, I asked Gloria Steinem (really, I did this in a huge auditorium) "how do I raise my sons to be feminists the way I had planned to raise my daughter?" her response was something like "pretend they are your daughters." But then I had two sons, and you have Aurora & Isaiah...how do we help our sons be the kind of men who understand the fullness of their own humanity (yes, this could be about the body, too, or about queerness...but I am talking about things like the willingness to cry in public, or to listen better, or to re-define what "strong" means...if you know what I mean...
Emily Joye McGaughy-Reynolds
This prompt elicited two immediate responses from me: grief and sluggishness. For many many years, from a place of unmistakable woundedness, I had no investment in men understanding their humanity because in all honesty I didn't think they had any. So when I read your prompt I felt grief for that period of my life and for the ways in which I can still lose hope in men (which happens more often than I would like to admit). Then I felt sluggish: can I even write about this? Can I write about the way "sexism hurts the men we love?" I feel like such an amateur at loving men, like truly loving them. And when it comes to my feminism (and the unfinished business of the movement), I feel much safer working in the realm of loving/empowering/serving womyn. However, I know, because I've listened deeply, again and again, to your generation of feminists and to my own conscience, that we cannot leave men out of feminist practice/theory/realities/movements. It only serves to solidify patriarchy. And having said that, there's still a little voice within, an old begrudging voice, that claims: 'just don't make them the center of everything because they already are, everywhere.' Just the other day I was talking to J.R. about how hard it is for me to witness other white anti-racist activists get all buddy buddy in communities of color but refuse to do the work among their own kind. It seems to me a disavowal of where 'some' of the 'real' disruption of oppressive dynamics and infusion of loving subversion needs to take place. I guess what I'm saying is that I hope to see and act, clearly and decisively, where oppression actually is. And since I know so much oppression exists inside of men and gets enacted through men, I cannot possibly hold up the feminist banner without being willing to hold/fight/love them.
And, having said all that, the big queer in me, capital Q, wants to deconstruct the very premise of the conversation by pushing back on the notion of static gender. But that's not what you've asked me to do here. I'm going to employ some 'strategic essentialism' (to use Spivak's theory) in the full knowledge that doing so runs risks, probably does harm, and limits me but it's risk, potential harm and limits I'm willing to face. Why? Because I've done lots of work around gender deconstruction, but very little in the way of parenting a feminist son (if he indeed becomes a son, which he might and might not). I think I need this exploration for the sake of parenting prep and spiritual maturity.
About a year ago I was invited by a lesbian couple from Koinonia to attend their middle child's baseball game out in the country between Battle Creek and Union City. Kolin, their son, was one of my favorite youth of the church: spunky, curious, outspoken, active. I wanted to show up for him and, as you know, I love baseball. So this was a no-brainer. When I came up to the ballpark, I noticed right away that these were all rural, working class families, totally white and with the exception of Kelly & Bene (the mommas), totally gender-conforming and hetero. As the game started, I settled in but I was on-guard, particularly as I listened to one of the assistant coaches (a dad) berate his own kid and use rather demeaning language with Kolin's entire team. I asked Kelly & Bene about him and they both confirmed that he was quite a piece of work. Once he was on my radar, I became hyper-vigilant about watching him. Every time one of the kids made a mistake on the field he would scoff, verbally lash out, or enact some kind of disapproval with his body language. At one point, two players from the outfield--ten year old boys--took too long getting to their positions before the inning started because they were busy chatting each other up and this man yelled out "what are you two girlfriends or something? get to your positions!" What finally made me have to get up and leave is when this man's own son got hit by a pitch in the arm, hard, came walking off the field in tears, clutching himself in pain, and his dad told him to stop being a little "bitch" and to "be a man" after taking a brief look at the kid's injury and surmising it wasn't cause for tears. The entire scenario felt like a case study in "Why and How Men Get Fucked Up Before They Hit Puberty." I left feeling sick to my stomach. I also left wondering if I should have said something--for Kolin's sake, for that son's sake, for Kelly & Bene's sake, but I didn't have enough love in me to say something for that man's sake, so I didn't. I also left with this deep suspicion that the man himself, the dad who couldn't handle an iota of vulnerability or intimacy or injuriability or emotionality in/between men, was gay. And I've gotta say: this was my experience with men at the VA again and again. The most hyper-masculine men I've known have often been drawn to homosocial space (the military, the church, sports) without having to confront the 2 basic drives motivating their need for homosociality: 1) their relentless agenda to prove their masculinity because underneath it all there's a fear of the feminine within & 2) they truly desire time spent with other males but can't just admit that desire without opting into some kind of institutional logic that condones it to the larger public under the guises of service/sacrifice/competition/heroism (read: patriarchy).
The two basic drives I've named above make sense given how male supremacist, heterosexist, homophobic and sexist our world is. It's also true, however, that everyone, absolutely everyone, needs institutional, cultural, public, social space to work out their identity and to form relational bonds. So when it comes to feminist parenting of a son, my hope is to both provide space and to help my son locate/navigate spaces of his own where identity formation and socialization can happen with integrity. But there's a problem: many of those spaces simply don't exist for men. This is partially their own fault. Many of them, even the best of them, have been conditioned not to create those spaces because the stuff of social life has been considered womyn's domain. They buy into that lie at their peril. But they also spend way too much time fleeing those spaces because their privilege would be threatened by authentic intimacy with others. I've had more than one man bicker and complain that there are "so many options for fellowship/intimacy for womyn at church but nothing for men." But those same men do nothing to organize spaces for themselves. And I think underlying that is a fear of the intimacy that at once promises to comfort and challenge them. True relational engagement requires authenticity, intimacy, vulnerability, a certain level of emotional porousness & precarity (to use Butler's language)--all the stuff we strip men of from the get go. Their levels of physical guardedness, emotional shut-downness, and spiritual defensiveness--and there are exceptions to this generalization--can often smack me in the face when we are in a room together for less than 5 minutes. If they aren't willing to hear about that, I don't want to be in space with them. And I'm not alone in that. Many of the womyn I know, trans/queer/gay men and emotionally integrated cis/straight men too, often comment that being in the company of men is hard because there's no there there. That's what privilege does. It strips us of our capacity to be real because we are busy holding up some facade that in some how/some way appears to 'benefit' us. This is true in predominantly white circles too, I'm afraid. Anyways, all this to say, finding genuine community, spaces for identity formation and socialization is what life, real fucking life, is all about. But that is nearly impossible for those of us who swim in the kinds of privilege and supremacy that cut us off from authentic, honest intimacy with ourselves and each other. Patriarchy is a number one offender in this regard.
You add to this dynamic the way black men, in specific, are criminalized and sexually fetishized in this culture and it's a recipe for disaster. I fear, dreadfully fear, the intersections of oppression my son will face. But I do not fear more than I believe in and take hope from the power of a Liberator God at work in the world. I'm not just thinking about feminist parenting these days. I need to be a freedom/peace activist and anti-racist parent up in my household too. It's all connected right? So up to this point I've been looking at external/ish dynamics. But now I want to perhaps implicate myself a bit more. What is at the heart of feminism? What would it look like to enact feminism as a mom to Aurora and Isaiah (knowing they will learn both from direct experience with me and from watching me parent the other)? What would it look like to enact feminism as a spouse to J.R. who is spouse to me and father to them (one by choice, one by blood)? What would it look like to enact feminism in my daily walk with God? I think it's true that you teach/ingrain values more by living them than by talking about them. So. Here's my plan.
The central messages of feminism are, for me, about equality and love of womyn. That is: all genders are equal and loving womyn is important/good/holy/necessary. Maybe I will get into a little gender deconstruction after all.
There's this passage in Isaiah (the prophetic book) that comes to mind. It's about a time when "they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." (2:3-4) I often think of the human body as the terrain where the gender wars take up swords on each other. That is, I think all of us are pretty gender multiplicitious yet live in a gender binaried system that prioritizes the myth of bodies being one gender (innately "complimentary" to the "other" gender). Judith Butler has said this so much better than I ever could. So I won't go any further. But I will return to Isaiah. I long for the feminist/prophetic time in history when bodies will no longer be at war within themselves or at war with each other, when we can put our swords down and not cut any gendered reality out, and in fact love love love the many gendered nations within and around us. So: i want to love my sons gendered embodiment in its multiplicity. I want to love my daughter's gendered embodiment in its multiplicity. Same goes for J.R. And for myself. And the congregants I serve. And I want to love them all equally, no matter how impossible that may seem/feel/be. What does that love look like tangibly? Looking, listening, affirming, touching, sharing. Being open to change. Being open to what's foreign. Being open to what's true even when, especially when, it challenges me. Being open to (more/new) love. Being open to being loved (in return). Being open to feedback about the shit I'm not being open to/about. Being a plowshare instead of a sword, which is actually quite difficult for me because i still sometimes believe in and have engrained fear of the constructed masculine and hatred of the constructed feminine and reluctance to w/holy-lovingly-embrace what's Queer/non-conforming/crossing/transgressing in me and you and them and us. Being honest about how hard it is to be a plowshare in these systems even when you honestly and desperately want to put down your sword if for no other reason than you're tired of bleeding yourself. Yeah, I think we stop going to war when we do the hard work of loving equally. Feminist parenting of son rule #1: love all genders equally.
Loving womyn, specifically. I answered this question for Chris Kindy, kind of, and so I want to go down a different rabbit hole. I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means that I've married a man. And what that will say to my children about where my priorities lie in terms of love. And I've been thinking about the fact that J.R. married a white womyn and what that will say to his children about where his priorities lie in terms of love. Can I still embody a same-gender loving ethic within a heterosexual marriage? Can J.R. love blackness in the midst of a mixed-race marriage? There's a part of me that wants to scream out "YES, of course we can!" But/and. We must contend with the fact that our choices do signify a kind of prioritization. But/and my hope is that the priority is love over identity. Yikes, that's scary to write. My hope is that our love for each other stands next to the other powers of love we hold, and that they stand next to each other in ways that strengthen and cross-pollenate as opposed to erase each other. I think part of that is how well J.R. embodies feminism and how well I respect and highly regard blackness. If you've chosen to love someone who loves what you are, that says something about how you love yourself. I hope Isaiah and Aurora can see the love of womyn and the love of blackness, albeit lived out very differently, through both of their parents. Wouldn't that affirm their own realities? I gotta hope so. There's more at work in them than color and gender and, again, there is more than one gender and more than one color at work in this family, so obviously it's bigger than just these slices of life, but these slices of life are highly contested and so they require a whole lot of attentive, focused, specific love. Right? Feminist parenting of son rule #2: love womyn (and all other marginalized spaces/bodies/life) specifically.
One last thing. Last night in a womyn's group at church, where we are studying Geneen Roth's book "Women Food and God," a bunch of women talked about the significance a certain passage had on them. It was about how feelings just need tender room to be acknowledged and expressed. Like, what if our mothers and fathers and coaches and teachers had said "come here, sit down. what's wrong? what hurts? tell me all about it. i want to know more" when we were in pain? It took me back to the day on the baseball field. It took me back to that dad who was berating his son for being in pain and shaming his son for expressing that pain. I bet his dad did that to him and his dad's dad before, and so on and on and on. I want to offer something else. I want to coach my son's baseball team and receive every painful tear lovingly along side cheering every home run jubilantly. And when the father's witnessing a new kind of coaching of their sons begin to weep for the parts of themselves left abandoned, berated, and shamed on the little league fields of their childhoods--I want to receive every painful tear of theirs too, in the embrace of authentic, honest love between equals. Something tells me if my son sees that, he'll be okay. And if he doesn't play baseball--well--that's another blog entry for another day.