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'Acting' According to God's Will -- Religion, Community, and Queer Teen Suicide



Act I: When Good Religion Goes Bad

Some of my perspective on the tragedy that befell Tyler Clementi and his family comes from my years directing plays and operas.


When we think about the damage caused by Queerphobic religion, mostly we think about children, whose sense of self is so undermined before they grow to have a clearer sense of perspective that they ultimately see dying as better than living as Queer. When we run to save lives, we rescue children first, but the extraordinary interview with Jane Clementi, mother of Queer teen suicide Tyler Clementi, teaches us that we are wrong if we think only children need rescue from Queerphobia.


The influence of religion in life is intentionally all-pervasive. Religion often teaches how parents and children should relate to one another. Queerphobic religion not only turns children of every age against themselves, it turns parents against children, can turn children against their coming-out parents, and put loving parents at war against their own parental instincts.


The story of the Clementi family as told in the New York Times article gives evidence of really bad guidance from their church.


Act II: Prejudice vs. Compassion


At the time Tyler sat down to tell his parents he was gay, she believed that homosexuality was a sin, as her evangelical church taught. She said she was not ready to tell friends, protecting her son — and herself — from what would surely be the harsh judgments of others.

It did not change the fact that I loved my son,” she said. “I did need to think about how that would fit into my thoughts on homosexuality.”

Yet it did not occur to her that Tyler would think she did not accept him.

In my former career as a theatre director I learned that if my concept of how the production should go was frustrating most of the cast, my concept was likely wrong. When religious doctrine contradicts basic human impulses to the degree Mrs. Clementi describes and makes that many people so deeply unhappy, the doctrine is likely wrong. A rule of thumb for directors and religious leaders alike: If concept proves irreconcilable with essential humanity, change the concept.


Here's what I see in just the brief excerpt above: Tyler couldn't communicate openly with his parents. His parents couldn't communicate with their friends. Their community was primed to judge its members harshly. One doctrine, one theory -- religious Queerphobia -- created so much dysfunction and dissonance. Acceptance, instead, of the truth of God's creation of a Queer and diverse world would have generated harmony and healing energy, perhaps enough that the Clementis might not have lost their son. Acceptance and celebration of Queerness not only saves anxious youth, but rescues loving adults from tragedy, also.


Act III: What Religion-Infused Communities Can Do Well, But Often Don't

Religious institutions, traditions, and authorities can be of unmatchable benefit in the life of their communities. They don't have to be without doctrine or concept or norms and just nod “yes” to everything. They can teach. However, they must look beyond the theoretical coherency of doctrine. They have to look at the lives being led. Who are the children of their community? Who are the parents and other adults? If congregants don't fit the concept, institutional leaders (lay and professional on every level) need to ask themselves why they themselves don't accept the lives of the people they are hoping to shelter and love. And when enough people are unhappy in the same way as in the Clementis' community, it is time to sit down with leadership and discuss the tension between the theory and practice of God's will.


In the months after Tyler’s death, some of Ms. Clementi’s friends confided that they, too, had gay children. She blames religion for the shame surrounding it — in the conversation about coming out, Tyler told his mother he did not think he could be Christian and gay.


What's wrong with this picture? Everything. Why should parents have to “confide” that their children are gay? If that many parents are experiencing it, then it's a natural phenomenon, not an aberration. Why should religion be the source of shame? Religion should liberate us from shame. Why should Christianity and gayness – two core elements of Tyler's identity – have been incompatible in his mind?


It may sound strange to describe it in this way (I'll happily take feedback on how to fix this metaphor), but God isn't the director of our lives, God is merely the absent producer. I say merely, because God requires human beings to intuit and interpret the Divine will, to act out and improvise the script of life. God needs us as actors and directors, as a collaborative team, to make something just and beautiful of life. Only within the narratives of scripture is God both the omniscient author of law and the omnipotent director of action. Not in the stories we live out from day to day.


Religiously infused life should be great, uplifting art, it shouldn't be tragedy.


The responsibilities of adults and institutions in protection of Queer youth

There is much more to add, and I will write about this next week, but this article in the New York Times about Tyler Clementi's parents and church is very powerful and essential reading.

Blessings of compassion towards us all,




Bodies of Knowledge – Bodies of Wisdom


In a recent conversation with a Spiritual Counseling client, I made reference to the ancient and yet startling Jewish blessing for the internal functions of the body – all our internal plumbing – a blessing that traditionally is recited after going to the bathroom. The blessing begins with the words


Blessed are You, God, who created the human being in wisdom.


My client (this one happened to be literate in Hebrew) pointed out that the original text could legitimately be translated quite differently.


Blessed are You, God, who created the human being from wisdom.


I think what blew me away was the simplicity and the obvious rightness of his reading.


Not only can we perceive a wisdom in the structure of the body, but we can mine wisdom from the very tissues and fibers of it. The medium – the clay, if you will – from which we are sculpted is wisdom. We connect to that wisdom through what our bodies experience and feel. That experiential wisdom may be something we can translate into words, or it may remain inexpressible. Truth can get lost in translation. The sensation of a caress, a squeeze, an ache, or an orgasm can communicate a wisdom to our souls that no words can contain.


This reminded me of a healing session I experienced once with my friend and teacher Joe Weston. During a spiritual body work session shortly after my father died, Joe found places on my torso that were painful to the touch. I said, “Make the pain go away.” Joe replied, “You don't want the pain to go away, you want it to tell you what it knows.”


Bodies are made of wisdom. It's an obvious truth, yet it is a very Queer truth.

The acknowledgement of an authority competitive to the mind is Queer.

Recognizing the sensations and experience of the body as wisdom – that is so Queer!!!

To hold as a religious truth that the erotic body can teach the mind through its sensations is Queer.


The conforming* approach has been that the crude and ignorant body must only be lectured to and made wise by the mind. Queer God, Queer faith, Queer experience tell us different.


May we bless the Queer God who creates us from wisdom and in wisdom, and teaches us not to judge the ways in which we are wise.


* I have begun to adopt the term “conforming” in place of “straight” when describing the contrasting condition to Queer. From now on I will try to use “straight” only to mean opposite-gender attracted, which by no means precludes Queerness. In this context “conforming” means conforming to the illusion that only straightness is healthy or holy.



WHY God is so happy to be Queer


One of the advantages of thinking Queerly about God, is to know more about God than we, or anyone else. were ever taught. We know there are more stories to tell about God because we know about all of our stories that weren't told for thousands of years. By keeping us off the page, straight-religious authorities have kept lots of God off the page, too.


As Queer folk we know that every statement about God has a possible alternative meaning. Think about it. That's not only for our own good as LGBTQ folks, that's something good for the whole world! Everyone on the planet can use another angle, another way of looking at God, and God, when you think about it, must be thrilled to know that we aren't limiting God to inflexible two-dimensionality. God gets to be creative, playful, inventive, instinctive. Queer. Think of the next breeze that blows as God heaving a Divine sigh of relief at being allowed to stretch out and be infinitely fabulous.


With God on our side

I was fortunate to be part of an historic occasion last month, the screening at the Castro theatre of a new documentary film, Call Me Kuchu, part of the Frameline film festival. The film (http://callmekuchu.com/) depicts through personal stories the on-going life-and-death struggle for LGBTQ rights in Uganda. The Ugandan parliament continues to consider the implementation of laws that will effectively make being Queer, or supporting those who are Queer, a capital offense. The situation in Uganda is terrifying, and the film tragically ends with the homophobic murder of activist David Kato.


The film screened to a packed house and was attended by the directors and two of the main activists featured in the film. Call Me Kuchu received the longest standing ovation in the history of the Frameline LGBTQ film festival.


What made the event historic is the degree to which it created activists of the more than 1000 people who saw it. The audience that may not have arrived aware of the need for solidarity among LGBTQI people everywhere; but the film inspired a need for global commitment and awareness. We as a community, alongside our allies, have responsibilities not only to ourselves but to our family, our tribe, worldwide.


What sets the Ugandan struggle for Queer rights apart from our fights for justice elsewhere is that it is passionately religious from both sides. It is not hetero-Christianity against secular Queer struggles. Both sides fight from a deeply held Christian faith. As much as the Queer figures in the story are fighting for the right to live out their true identities, they are fighting for the right to pray and worship as Queer folk. One of the leaders of the movement is Bishop Christopher Senyonjo a straight Episcopal bishop – experiencing strong censure and exclusion from the Archbishop of his church – who sees this as a struggle for Divine Justice.


Witnessing the film is transformative, and I urge people to seek it out and to become activists on behalf of our people everywhere. (Contribute money to the cause in Uganda through www.ajws.org, among other channels.) See the film, though, for the unfamiliar experience of religious fervor strengthening, not just oppressing, the LGBTQ fight for justice. See it to witness the warrior-like certainty that God has created us to be exactly who we are.