Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Former Christian Artist Jennifer Knapp Comes Out

Well, the semester has kept me busy and away from blogging, but I can taste summer in the air, so here's to my second blogging wind!

Soooo, as I've mentioned a billion times before, I grew up as a feisty Christian, attending a giant Christian music festival every summer, serving as a Christian camp counselor, running my church youth get the picture.

So when one of the best Christian artists of the early 00's, Jennifer Knapp, left the singing business quite abruptly in 2003, my curiosity was peaked.

For years, Christians have speculated about her departure. Was it family issues? Relationship problems? Was she losing her faith?

But above all, the question that continued to surface was, "Is she a lesbian"?

For those of you who did not grow up singing Kumbayah around the campfire, this seems to be the central concern of the Christian faith. Even worse, perhaps, than atheism is the idea that someone who professed Christianity would come out.

Well, come out she did! Seven years later, in an interview with Christianity Today.

Here's what I love about the article: the interview tries his darndest to get her to deal with her "struggle" in regard to homosexuality. Knapp refuses to acquiesce, instead calling into question the term "struggle" in the first place. She has this amazing ability to graciously allow her faith and her sexuality to co-exist.

She seems happy now -- content -- and authentically herself. And she'll be joining the re-vamped Lilith Fair tour this summer. She's not tortured or suicidal. She's not meek. She's just allowing herself to be who she is.

If only the rest of the Church could do that.

I'll leave you with just a few of my favorite passages that illustrate the honesty of Knapp's beautiful, prophetic spirit:

I'm in no way capable of leading a charge for some kind of activist movement. I'm just a normal human being who's dealing with normal everyday life scenarios. As a Christian, I'm doing that as best as I can. The heartbreaking thing to me is that we're all hopelessly deceived if we don't think that there are people within our churches, within our communities, who want to hold on to the person they love, whatever sex that may be, and hold on to their faith. It's a hard notion. It will be a struggle for those who are in a spot that they have to choose between one or the other. The struggle I've been through—and I don't know if I will ever be fully out of it—is feeling like I have to justify my faith or the decisions that I've made to choose to love who I choose to love.

I've always struggled as a Christian with various forms of external evidence that we are obligated to show that we are Christians. I've found no law that commands me in any way other than to love my neighbor as myself, and that love is the greatest commandment. At a certain point I find myself so handcuffed in my own faith by trying to get it right—to try and look like a Christian, to try to do the things that Christians should do, to be all of these things externally—to fake it until I get myself all handcuffed and tied up in knots as to what I was supposed to be doing there in the first place.

Yeah, Jennifer. Preach it, sister.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Mourning Mary Daly

Sometimes, we are reminded quite suddenly about the importance of life. Often, this realization comes in response to a great loss.

For the last two months, I have been bombarded by the typical demands of life -- running a business, wrapping up one semester, preparing for another, enjoying the hubbub of the holidays. All of these are good and important parts of who I am. But in the meantime, blogging about gender issues continued to take a back seat to these other responsibilities.

Then, this morning, I opened an email from one of my feminist listserves to discover that feminist theologian Mary Daly had passed away yesterday after two years of struggling with ailing health. Daly was one of those writers whom I felt I knew intimately; like if we had a chance meeting at a local coffee shop, we'd chat for hours over cups of chai. I feel like she cultivated this intimacy with many of her readers, and I believe it's largely because of the incredibly honest way that she explored her theological journey.

If you've never read her work, I recommend reading it chronologically. Start with The Church and the Second Sex, a text that seems woefully outdated to most contemporary feminist theologians, but is vital in understanding the groundwork laid by pioneers in religious feminist thought. In it, Daly is so seemingly innocent about her questions about theology and ecclesiastical hierarchy -- Why are all the priests men? Is the Virgin Mary an empowering figure to women or a limiting one? Why are women and men told that they have equal access to salvation, but then, according to the Catholic church, women have to get theirs through submission to men?

Then, as you progress through her later works, prepare to have your socks knocked off.

Move on to one of her most well-known works Beyond God the Father, where she questions the patriarchal nature of God. From there, perhaps indulge in the poetry of a new theology created in Gyn/Ecology or, one of my personal favorites, her witty dictionary of new feminist theological terms in Wickedary.

Daly is playful, subversive, and poetic. When I first encountered her writing, I did not know what to do with her. In fact, if you ascribe to traditional religious beliefs, her later works will probably make you uncomfortable. And rather fidgety. For me, they were kind of like the itch I couldn't scratch. For others, they generate anger and resistance. Here's why.

Daly begins her theological journey by trying to find ways to work within the traditional church, but she quickly determines that religious practices are too mired in the patriarchal nature of God (with a capital "G") for God's true egalitarian nature to be redeemed in any meaningful way for women. And while her spiritual journey and mine digress at this point (she rejects a patriarchal God; I try to rework my understandings of God so that they are non-patriarchal), I appreciate that her anger is honest and her questioning is real. I have encountered very few theologians who have achieved this level of prophetic bravery combined with an innovative intellectual pursuit of theology.

Daly has allowed me to analyze the patriarchal aspects of my belief systems, which in turn allowed me to reject those aspects that are harmful and uncover those aspects that are empowering to women and offer voice to the voiceless. I admire Daly and seek to emulate her unabashed desire for wholeness, community, and real love.

So today I honor Mary Daly's life, not, as is typical after someone's passing, because of fond memories or good deeds (both of which I'm sure exist in excess) but because of her rich intellectual life. Daly has reminded me, once again, at how powerful intellectual inquiry can be, how it can change lives through a never-before-articulated question, a well-worded rebuttal against the status quo, or, in Daly's case, an entirely new vocabulary to mirror an entirely new way of thinking.

The next time I put blogging or research on the backburner of my life, I'll think of Daly. She has taught me in earnest that the mind is a terrible thing to waste.

From Mary Hunt, in her brief memorial to Daly from Feminist Studies in Religion:

She created intellectual space; she set the bar high. Even those who disagreed with her are in her debt for the challenges she offered.

May we all strive for such a rich legacy of ideas.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Why I refuse to explain my love of baseball to the obnoxious fan at this week's World Series game

Perhaps you've grown used to Gender Lens' intelligent analysis of those important political or media-related issues that influence women and men today. Perhaps you look forward to my twice-monthly posts and their well-considered approaches to gender.

Well, this is not one of those posts. This, my friends, is a rant. Plain and simple.

It began this Christmas, when my dad purchased a pack of partial season tickets for our family to share. This meant that several times this year, my brother and his partner and me and my partner were able to cheer on our favorite team -- the Philadelphia Phillies.

I'd like to note that my dad did not simply buy tickets for himself, my brother, and my husband. This is because my dad understands, and has always understood, that baseball is a sport loved by both men and women. Dad coaches high school ball, and ever since I was in the crib, I had a baseball in my hand.

Until I was 13, I played baseball on a team with all boys. I spent a lot of my time trying to prove myself worthy. One of my fondest memories was during a particular game when the entire infield and outfield moved in about ten steps as soon as they saw that I was a girl up to bat. I got my favorite type of pitch -- low and across the plate -- and I wailed it over all of their heads. Vindication was mine.

Unfortunately, these moments were few and far between, and I found myself constantly trying to be more like the boys and prove myself as such instead of just enjoying the game. I switched to softball in high school, but I remain an avid baseball fan.

So as you can imagine, when my dad told my partner and I that we had tickets to Game 3 of this year's World Series, we were beside ourselves with excitement. Not only was this a World Series game; this was MY TEAM in the World Series. I'm not exaggerating when I say that for this lifelong baseball fan, it was a dream come true.

It would have been even more of a dream come true if it were not for two things:
1. We lost.
2. I sat next to this most obnoxious and intolerant fan in the history of baseball.

The guy sitting next to me not only claimed the armrest for the duration of the game, sticking his pointy elbow in my face every other second, but he also managed to offend Native Americans, Japanese people, and Mexicans in a very short amount of time. He'd shout completely offensive things over and over again, including chides to the Phillies pitcher to "Hit the batter right in the face! Just smash his entire face up!"

Finally, one of the women sitting in front of us turned around and said, "Wow, you have quite a bellowing voice!"

I thought this was a rather polite way of telling the fool to shut his intolerant mouth, but he obviously disagreed.

He said, "Listen, lady. I'm not going to apologize for cheering at a baseball game. That's what I came here to do. Some of us have actually been here all season. We didn't just buy a World Series ticket."

The woman turned to him and said, "I've been here all season too."

What disgusted me about this exchange was the fact that the guy assumed that because the individual was female, she certainly couldn't be a REAL Phillies fan.

When I whispered a summary of this exchange to my partner, he said, "I don't think he meant anything gender-related by his comment."

I responded that he (my partner) had never been to a sporting event as a woman. Meanwhile, I've spent the better part of my life trying to justify my interest in sports to men and trying to prove to them that I am a real fan.

Just last week in one of my classes, the students were talking about a great football play from the week before. Interested, I asked them what had happened, and one of the male students responded, "You wouldn't understand. It's a guy thing."

I took him to task for that comment and gave a short lecture on sexist language. I'm not sure it did very much though.

The effect that this kind of attitude has on women, particularly young girls, is that it encourages them to get involved in only certain gender-approved realms of life -- cooking, talking on the phone, shopping. Thankfully, I believe that the current generation of girls is beginning to change this paradigm. With the passage of Title IX, more and more girls are participating in sports than ever before.

Still, our culture needs to change its overall attitude towards girls and sports. We need to take down the "No Girls Allowed" signs when we consider who is and who isn't a real fan.

I don't have an inspirational remark with which to end this rant. All I have to say is this: Tonight, oh blogosphere, as I root on my dear Phillies, I will not be explaining to ANYONE why I love baseball and why I deserve to be counted as a real Phillies fan.

Go Phils.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Halloween makes it too easy for us gender bloggers

If we were ever uncertain about the prevalence of strict gender roles in our country, Halloween is always there to remind us. Last year, I explored the ridiculously limited array of costumes for boys and girls. Visit any costume website, and you'll likely see princesses and ballerinas for girls, ninjas and superheroes for boys.

These stereotypes affect us all because they condition us to embrace certain characteristics and resist others, depending on our gender.

A friend posted this video on Facebook today. It's from the Onion, and is obviously meant to be a spoof on shows like Good Morning America. The topic is how to come up with masculine costumes for decidedly effeminate boys.

It's a funny video, but with any humorous spoof, there's an ounce of truth in its depiction. It has a sense of speaking the unspoken, of revealing a perspective that many parents subconsciously ascribe to, but are afraid to admit to out loud -- the desire to keep boys from becoming effeminate.

It's interesting because in this era of girls' soccer and girls' rising performance in traditionally masculine subjects like math, we don't seem to be as afraid of girls becoming more like boys.

I think that this is because our culture is afraid of the feminine. Unlike masculinity, femininity indicates weakness and emotionality. I have seen countless parents do everything possible to keep their sons from being interested in dolls. Just watch any rerun of Jon and Kate Plus Eight, particularly in the early years, and you'll see tiny and not-so-tiny gestures that remind the boys that they are not interested in anything pink or frilly or motherly.

Again, we're right back to where Simone de Beauvoir was in The Second Sex -- everything masculine is elevated and praised; everything feminine is deemed second rate. This is largely because the feminine is only defined in relation to the "normal" male sex. Femininity is an aberration.

If only we lived in a world where boys and girls were encouraged to choose from the smorgasbord of human characteristics at will. Maybe we would see effeminate vampires and prancing robots. Maybe we'd also see female superheroes or peace-loving ninjas. The possibilities for Halloween and otherwise are endless.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Lashing out against inadequate lashes

Of course, advertisements on beauty are inescapable, and for the most part, I've grown rather numb to the inundating barrage of critiques on my appearance by the media.

But I've watched this Latisse commercial a few times now, and what disturbs me more than anything is that phrase, "for inadequate or not enough lashes." Here it is:

I want to know who determined that someone's eyelashes are "inadequate" or "not enough." What length or thickness qualifies as "adequate"? When is my facial hair "enough" but not excessive?

What further intrigues me about this commercial is that the product is FDA approved for the treatment of hypotrichosis. This is an actual medical term used to describe lack of hair growth.

I think there's a fine line between growing hair where there is none and using beauty products to create fuller lashes. The television commercial for Latisse seems incredibly misleading on this point. Is it a product to create lashes where none have grown, or is this a cosmetic product with similar effects to that of mascara? The ad is disturbingly unclear.

What is clear is that we, as a culture, are obsessed with proper hair growth. It has to grow in the right places at the right rate and with the right thickness. Any variation is aberrant. This is certainly an issue for both genders -- men struggle to conceal and reverse baldness, while women wax those unsightly hairs. Both genders shave.

I can't claim to be exempt from these practices myself. I care about how my hair (all of it) appears. I spend time every day making sure that my facial hair meets my culture's beauty standards.

But I worry when these beauty standards become defined as medical deficiencies that need to be "cured." The plastic surgery industry began this trend, asking women to fix everything from their noses to their lady parts. (Yes, I said "lady parts." Perhaps unbelievably, designer vaginas are the new trend.)

Products and practices like these continue to blur the line between aesthetic appearance and medical treatment. It's unsettling at best. At worst, it's dangerous, painful, and just another method for "fixing" women's inadequate bodies.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Defining gender

I ended my last post by talking about the gray areas of life, particularly when we realize that the clear black and white categories that we've set up do not always work.

Several news stories within the last week have brought to light the very gray area of gender itself.

First, a brief review of definitions:

Sex= The physical make-up of a person that generally gets "male" or "female" stamped on their birth certificate. Sex characteristics include genitalia, one's ability to bear children, and the presence of hormones like testosterone or estrogen.

Gender= A person's sense of themselves as male or female.

As I mentioned in my previous post about tennis star Sarah Gronert, many individuals feel that their gender is different from their sex. (A great explanation of the resulting "transgender" label can be found here.)

Well, last week, another athlete's genitals were subjected to scrutiny, but this time with allegations that the athlete herself was not fully informed about the test's intent. 18-year-old Caster Semenya has spent much of her life fending off comments about her masculine nature. Now, the media has outed her as a hermaphrodite, someone carrying both male and female physical traits. In this case, her sex does not fit into our tidy categories, despite the fact that in her mind, her gender was always pretty clear. For a beautiful explanation of the term "hermaphrodite" and "intersexed," I highly recommend Hida Viloria's first person reflection on this story.

Also in last week's news, a 12-year-old boy in England returned to his school as a girl after summer vacation. The school held an emergency assembly to inform students of the change but were criticized for offering "too little too late" in terms of preparation. As a result of not adequately readying teachers, peer groups, and family members to accept this change more fluidly, bullying and intolerance occurred.

These two examples seem so parallel in that both reflect our insistence on neat, mutually-exclusive categories when it comes to gender. When people don't fit these tidy classifications, we criticize them as being "other" instead of rethinking our categories.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Apparently feminism is evil.

Their motto is "extolling femininity, blasting feminism," and this group of conservative Christians is pretty angry at women, such as Hillary Rodham Clinton, who serve in leadership roles. Their also angry at women who work outside the home, choose to have no children (or maybe only just one), and serve in the military. Check out the trailer for their recent documentary on the subject. It will make your toes curl.

Here's just a clip about women in politics:

Of course, the documentary was directed and produced by two men, although there was one female writer on staff. She wrote with her husband, though, which means she was likely under his creative dominion.

I understand the draw of this perspective. It is comforting to organize the world in categories, easy to say that everything is black and white. If you are male, you have one set of characteristics. If you are female, you have another set entirely. If you stick to the script, you've got it made.

The problem is that a lot of us can't stick to the script and don't want to. I know many women with the gift of leadership, courage, boldness, and self-sufficiency, all attributes that are typically ascribed to men. I also know plenty of men who are emotional, humble, empathetic, and relational, all attributes that are typically ascribed to women.

When we deny ourselves half of the characteristics available to us, we deny ourselves a fuller humanity. So while I understand where this worldview comes from, I have to opt for a more uncomfortable perspective of humanity, one that says that men and women are quite complex beings, created with incredible potential but without a clear prescription of roles or behaviors.

Of course, this means that I don't always have the quick, easy, black and white answer. That's why I keep a write my way into meaning, to explore the paradox of our lives, to embrace the gray.