Tag Archives: homophobia

Dress to impress, not to oppress (redux)

Last week, a friend of mine made the following comment on Facebook:

“Your friendly reminder.”

Under that comment was an article from Everyday Feminism titled, “Is Your Halloween Costume Racist?” The article begins like this:

Halloween is a holiday about glorifying all things spooky and scary, a day to dress up in a costume for the sake of having fun.

Unfortunately, sometimes the “fun” comes at the expense of others, and the scariest thing is how rampant racism is on Halloween.

Before you give me an eye roll and say, “Relax, it’s just a joke,” listen up. Because I used to be you.

I read the article. I thought the argument was made clearly, simply, and expertly. And yet, that article generated one hundred and forty-nine comments, many of which had an angry, defensive, and snarky tone. My friend’s reposting of this article generated twenty-five comments, many of which were similarly angry, defensive, and snarky. It stunned me, actually, that so many people were unwilling to consider the possibility that certain costumes just might be offensive.

So. Halloween is coming up in a couple of weeks. I encourage you to read the article from Everyday Feminism. I also encourage you to read my blog post from October 2012, which I’ve reposted below. And I’d like to ask this of you: If you read the article and my blog post, and if you find yourself feeling reactive, please don’t post a comment immediately. Instead, go inward, and take some time to ask yourself why you’re feeling so reactive. Ask yourself what buttons are being pushed, and what nerve is being touched. Think about it. Write about it. Talk about it with others. Sit quietly and uncomfortably with it. But don’t immediately react, and don’t immediately shut down. That will yield a much more productive conversation, one I wish had happened on my friend’s Facebook page.

* * * * * * * * * *  

Think about the costumes you dressed in as a child, or saw other children dressed in. How many children were dressed as Indians, complete with fringe and feathers? Or as a Mexican, with a large-brimmed sombrero and a brightly colored blanket? Or maybe as a kimono-clad Japanese woman, her face whitened and chopsticks in her hair?

The student images above say it all:  This is not who I am, and this is not okay.

A student group at Ohio University called Students Teaching about Racism in Society (STARS) recently launched an educational campaign called “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” – a campaign that has taken off like wildfire. College campuses across the country have begun to distribute these posters on their campuses. As of last week, these images have been shared on social media sites like Facebook and Tumblr more than 50,000 times. Given that Halloween has a longstanding association with poor decision-making (think Mischief Night and college drunk-fests), it seems like a prime opportunity to convey the message to think before you do something offensive and stupid.

Extending the concept to LGBTQ oppression, the Cantu Queer Center at UC Santa Cruz has taken this campaign one step further by creating their own set of posters. Headlining with the statement, “Our Gender Identity Is Not a Costume,” the campaign calls attention to the fact that many people (especially young heterosexual males) consider Halloween the one time of year where it’s okay to cross-dress – to take gender identity and make it into a costume.  You can see an example of their poster below:

“Our Gender Identity Is Not a Costume” poster by the UCSC Cantu Queer Center, inspired by the Ohio University STARS “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” poster campaign.

Frankly, when I think back to my high school experience, I can think of a LOT of boys who dressed in drag because they thought it was a big joke. In fact, I can think of quite a few people who did exactly that in college – and they, too, thought that this was hilariously funny. And it’s pretty offensive, when you think about it.

The irony, of course, is that Halloween is notorious for being a BIG gay holiday. Up until 2006, San Francisco hosted an annual “gay Halloween” street party (the party ended when nine people were wounded in a shooting, prompting the city to call off the event). Mardi Gras-like Halloween events have sprouted up in gay enclaves like Christopher Street, West Hollywood, and Key West. There are lots of reasons why Halloween has become such a big deal in the LGBTQ community. It’s a holiday with pagan roots, appealing to those who have been shunned by mainstream churches. It’s a way to be flamboyant and theatrical while still being closeted – if you’re wearing a mask, people won’t always know who you are, and this was particularly important in the days before gay liberation. But on a very basic, obvious level, doing drag and playing with gender, which is usually totally unacceptable in our essentialist two-gender system, is fair game on Halloween. In fact, in the LGBTQ community, there’s something seriously wrong if NOBODY is doing drag on Halloween.

So why is it okay for people in the LGBTQ community to do drag on Halloween, but it’s not okay for a bunch of straight male high school students? An analogy that comes to mind is the use of the word “queer.” Why is it okay for me – a member of the LGBTQ community – to use the word “queer,” but it’s not acceptable for non-ally heterosexual people to use that word?

I have two words for you:  Cultural appropriation.

When people engage in cultural appropriation, they’re borrowing aspects from a cultural group (usually a group that has been subjected to marginalization and oppression) without a true respect or appreciation for what they’re doing. Wearing dreadlocks because it’s “cool” is a form of cultural appropriation. Naming baseball teams and summer camps after Native American tribes is an example of cultural appropriation. It involves commodifying the “trendy” elements of a culture without recognizing the decidedly “un-trendy” historical oppression that group has been subjected to.

Many historically oppressed groups have coped with cultural appropriation by taking the bull by the horns, so to speak. When groups engage in cultural re-appropriation, they reclaim terms and aspects of culture that have traditionally been in a disparaging way against that group. When LGB people call themselves “queer,” or lesbians call themselves “dykes,” or trans- and gender-variant people call themselves “trannies,” they’re engaging in cultural re-appropriation. Interestingly, this concept has spread to a vast number of groups – the word “fat” is used by large women and men in the size acceptance movement; the word “crip” is used in the disability activist community; the concept of “geek culture” is emerging among people who belong to said culture; various racist terms have been reclaimed by different racial and ethnic groups. Cultural re-appropriation is an act of empowerment – it’s saying, “We own this word – you can never again use it against us.”

To be sure, this is a controversial idea. Some people in the gay community – particularly older people who remember the sting of these epithets – find the words “queer” or “dyke” to be highly offensive. At the other end of the spectrum, some people view any violation of gender boundaries – whether it’s by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence or a group of heterosexual college males – to be a positive thing. In fact, some would say that the “Our Gender Identity Is Not a Costume” campaign takes things a little too far, punishing them for pushing the envelope on gender boundaries.

I think it’s important to reflect on these questions: If you’re going to wear a costume, are you willing to learn about the person inside the costume? Are you willing to consider the baggage of oppression that is held within that costume? Are you willing to fully experience how others respond to you while you’re “in costume” – and to consider how it might feel to those people whose “costumes” can never be taken off?

Happy Halloween to you all.



Filed under biphobia, Castro neighborhood, coming out, disability, gender nonconformity, homophobia, LGBTQ, racism, San Francisco, stereotypes, transgender, transphobia

Does football have a gay glass ceiling?

Last May, when Michael Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams, lots of people asked me, “Are you going to write a blog post about Michael Sam?”

Later, over the summer, I ran into a colleague at work. We chatted, and he asked, “When are you going to write about Michael Sam?”

Last week, when I returned to work for the fall semester, another colleague said, “I love your blog. I read it every week. But when are you going to write about Michael Sam?”

Why haven’t I written about Michael Sam? Because I don’t care much about football. It’s as simple as that. Baseball is much more my thing, and lately I’ve been focused on Derek Jeter’s upcoming retirement. Because I’m woefully ignorant about football, I didn’t feel especially qualified to comment on Sam.

I will say this, though. Years ago, I was talking with a friend about the lack of out LGBTQ people in professional sports, and I said, “When someone does finally come out, it’ll need to be someone like Peyton Manning or Mariano Rivera. They’ll need to be so invaluable to the team that being gay won’t matter.”

Now that Michael Sam has been cut by the Rams, I still stand by that comment. And I’ll explain why, drawing from research focusing on the broad spectrum of minority groups.

Michael Sam’s situation is a perfect example of a phenomenon called access discrimination, which takes place during the hiring or promotions process. Federal legislation prohibits many forms of access discrimination – per the Civil Rights Act, an employer can’t say that an applicant didn’t get the job because of race, or sex, or religion, or a number of other factors. (Sexual orientation and transgender status, by the way, aren’t currently included in that list. Stay tuned to see if that changes anytime soon with the passage of an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act.) Because overt employment discrimination is illegal (not to say it never happens), access discrimination often occurs in more subtle forms. And when discrimination occurs in subtle ways, it’s hard to know whether it REALLY was discrimination, or if it’s a figment of your imagination.

Michael Sam could have been the victim of access discrimination based on sexual orientation. Or he just might not have cut it in the highly competitive world of professional sports. Researchers who study marginalized groups are aware of the challenge of identifying access discrimination when it occurs subtly. As a result, a wide range of studies have zeroed in on some “clues” that can tell you whether or not access discrimination may have taken place.

Clue #1: Your employer holds stereotypical beliefs. This is probably one of the more robust research findings. For example, several studies indicate that employers are significantly less likely to hire someone who has a very African American-sounding name (like Lakisha or Jamal) compared to a White-sounding name. Older workers are likely to face access discrimination if the person who is hiring holds ageist beliefs. And gay and lesbian applicants, according to research conducted by organizational psychologist Belle Rose Ragins, are more likely to face discrimination if the workplace culture is predominantly heterosexual. If the gatekeeper to a new job opportunity has strong beliefs about who should and shouldn’t be hired, you better believe it’s going to be challenging for the shouldn’t-be-hireds to gain entry.

Clue #2: You are applying for a prestigious position. A perfect example of this is the U.S. Presidency. Only one person of color has been able to break through into that position. As of yet, no woman has been successful in securing that job. Yet women and people of color have served in lower levels of government for quite some time. This “glass ceiling,” if you will, probably occurs for a number of reasons. For one thing, researchers have noted that members of marginalized groups are likely to be “tokens” on the job – single representatives of their minority group. As a result, they may be less likely to be mentored by senior employees and groomed for more prestigious positions. If you’re not an “old boy,” so they say, it’s nearly impossible to break into the “old boys’ club.” And that club, like it or not, can make an enormous difference in whether or not a person breaks into a high-level position.

Clue #3: You are applying for a job that is considered “inappropriate” for your minority group. A study published in Sex Roles a number of years ago indicated that males and females who were applying for “sex-incongruent” jobs faced a steeper hill to climb in getting the job – and being favorably evaluated later on if they were actually hired. This is a factor that is also highly likely to intersect with Clue #1 – if an employer has stereotyped beliefs, and the applicant in question challenges the gender/race/sexual orientation/age/etc. norms of the position, it’s highly likely that access discrimination will result.

Clue #4: Your qualifications are ambiguous. Both classic and current studies indicate that ambiguous qualifications are an easy scapegoat when access discrimination is happening. For example, in a research article aptly titled “Hard Won and Easily Lost,” researchers note that, for minorities in the workplace, making small mistakes on the job can be an employment deal-breaker. Drawing from Alice Eagly’s many studies of gender discrimination in the workplace, the article states:  “Although minorities with unambiguously strong qualifications are often evaluated fairly, when qualifications are ambiguous, stereotypes strongly influence judgments . . . . Thus, a Black job candidate with a stellar record will receive high evaluations, but a Black candidate with a mixed record will face discrimination when compared with a White candidate.” If you’re a minority, and you’re not The Perfect Candidate, then you’re much less likely to get hired for the job.

Let’s bring all this back to Michael Sam. Without commenting specifically on the decision-makers within the St. Louis Rams organization, I think it’s fair to say that many people in professional sports hold “stereotypical beliefs” about gay men – and that those stereotypical beliefs might be strengthened by the fact that Michael Sam is a gay Black man. (There’s Clue #1.) I think it’s also fair to say that getting a spot on the team is a “prestigious position” (Clue #2.) Some would say that it’s “inappropriate” for a gay man to play football in a world of heterosexual teammates. (That’s Clue #3). And Michael Sam was the 249th out of 256 draft picks, making him a good player but maybe not a Great Player (Clue #4).

So was Michael Sam a victim of discrimination, or was the cut fair? Even with all those clues, I really couldn’t tell you, because there’s no way to know for sure. I hope that another team picks him up. I hope that lots of other gay professional athletes come out of the closet, so the spotlight won’t be so brightly focused on one person. And I really hope that a miracle happens and that the Yankees clinch a spot in the playoffs, so that Derek Jeter will get one more shot at a World Series ring.


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Filed under coming out, covert homophobia, gender nonconformity, homophobia, intersectionality, psychological research, racism, sexism, stereotypes

Why gaydar is my Spidey-sense

It was the first day of swim lessons. My daughter was ready to go, adjusting her swim goggles and trying to guess who was going to be her swim teacher. As we waited, a woman approached us, little boy in tow, both of whom looked uncertain and more than a little nervous.

“Is this the Seahorse Swim School lesson?” she asked us.

“Yes,” I answered.

“I don’t know how he’ll do,” she said anxiously, pointing to her son. “He’s terrified of the water. His uncle tried to teach him to swim by throwing him in.”

“I think they’ll be able to help him,” I said. “We’ve had our daughter do lessons here for a while. They’re really good.” We chatted for a few more minutes before the lesson started. After the kids went off into the pool, the woman walked to the other end of the pool to watch. Amy took that opportunity to lean over and whisper, “She’s one of us.”

“Yup,” I said.

Now, how did we know that she was “one of us”? She didn’t sport any of the obvious indicators – no rainbow jewelry, no buzz cut, no keys on a carabiner attached to her belt loop, no T-shirt that says Nobody Knows I’m A Lesbian. But somehow, we intuitively knew that we were playing for the same team. She must have had the same feeling about us – there were LOTS of other families there, but somehow she zeroed in on us. (Lest you think our relationship status would have been obvious, you’d be surprised how often people think Amy and I are sisters. Or they think I’m Amy’s mother – although I’m younger than she is, I’m significantly taller than her. Once someone assumed I was the grandma, Amy was the mom, and our daughter was Amy’s biological kid. No kidding.) Anyway, we were right – the next week, the other mom showed up at swim lessons with the little boy – and if we’d had just a mere inkling about Mom #1, Mom #2 set off loud, jarring alarm bells.

I’ve written about gaydar before – that “Spidey-sense,” as Urban Dictionary refers to it, that somehow allows people to figure out who’s gay and who isn’t. For decades, it was considered to be an urban legend – researchers who studied gaydar in the 1980s declared it to be a complete myth. However, since the late 1990s, there’s actually been a growing body of research focusing on the phenomenon. For example, Gerulf Rieger, a researcher at the University of Essex, has mostly focused on childhood masculinity and femininity to see if that’s a predictor of later sexual orientation in males. (He says it is, but I have my doubts. Maybe I’ll expand on this in a future post.) Nicholas Rule, who is at the University of Toronto, has done some fascinating studies that involve isolating facial features, showing them for a split second, and determining how accurately participants can determine the sexual orientation of the person in the image. (The answer, by the way, is “amazingly accurate.”) When it comes to “gaydar” involving women, Minna Lyons at Liverpool Hope University, and Mollie Ruben, a doctoral candidate at Northeastern University, both have conducted separate studies indicating that queer women are very good at pinging other queer women – and they do a much better job of it than straight women do. (At the risk of arguing by anecdote, it was a straight woman who assumed I was our daughter’s grandma, and that Amy was the mom.)

Clearly, gaydar is a thing – at least, according to a handful of studies that demonstrate statistical significance. But while these studies tell us that gaydar exists, they don’t really tell us why it exists. Obviously, if you’re looking for a same-sex partner (sexual or not), gaydar is helpful – and my guess is that, for most people, this sufficiently answers the why-does-it-exist question. But for me, that’s not enough. I actually think that gaydar potentially serves MANY purposes, one of which I’ll try to describe.

Let’s go back to the swim lesson. When this incident happened, I wasn’t on the prowl at a bar – I was with Amy, at a swanky beach and tennis club, waiting for our daughter’s lesson to begin. This woman walks in with her son, and because of her son’s swimming phobia, she’s a heartbeat away from an anxiety attack. She sizes up this unfamiliar environment, realizes she’s in Rich-and-Straightsville, USA, starts freaking out even more, and when fight-or-flight kicks in, she scans the area, looking for her people.  Her gaydar kicked in because she needed support. Our gaydar kicked in because we wanted to provide it (and perhaps we wanted a breath of queer familiarity in Rich-and-Straightsville, USA).

Gaydar might help you identify a potential partner – there’s no doubt about that.

Gaydar might help you find friends.

Gaydar might help you find community.

And if you’re a member of an oppressed group, and you’re in a situation that makes you feel anxious, scared, or threatened, gaydar might help you rally the troops, so to speak. Interestingly, I find myself doing that without really thinking about it – if I’m in an unfamiliar situation, my gaydar signal starts unconsciously sweeping the area. Whether I’m aware of it or not, I’m looking for my people.

Yesterday, when my daughter and I were leaving her swim lesson, I ran into the woman and her son. “Hey!” she said. “It’s so good to see you! We’re doing private swim lessons now, and that’s working out so much better!”

“That’s great!” I said. “I’m so glad he’s getting more comfortable in the water. Good to see you too!”

BFFs we are, now. All because of gaydar.


Filed under coming out, gay-dar, homophobia, psychological research, relationships

Do you hear what I hear?

It was a bright, sunny, beautiful spring day. Hundreds of people were milling about. There was a band playing on the outdoor stage. It was a typical Thursday “college hour” at Sacramento City College – the name we’ve given to the noon hour, which is, for most students, a free hour between classes. On those days, when the weather’s nice, I like to take a walk up to the local coffeehouse, grab a cup of coffee, and walk back to campus through the quad, savoring the energy and the music. I have to say, it’s one of the nice perks of working on a college campus.

A few months ago, on one of those walks, I ran into an acquaintance, A.J., whom I hadn’t seen in quite some time. He had never been my student, but we’d crossed paths numerous times through my interactions with the LGBTQ community on campus. He’s a fun, smart, and energetic guy, and I was thrilled to see him.

“It’s so great to see you!” I smiled. “How are you?”

He gave me a big hug, stepped back, and said, “I’m doing great!” A typical greeting, except for the fact that he also signed his response to me in American Sign Language.

“Are you taking American Sign Language?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “And I’m losing my hearing. I’m going deaf.”

Going deaf. 

That led to a long conversation that I got so engrossed in that I was almost late to class. More recently, I got to have a more extensive conversation with A.J. about being queer, hard-of-hearing, and the intersections between the two – which will become part of the narrative of my upcoming book, Fringe: On the Edges of the Mainstream Gay Community.

I want to make abundantly clear that I’m no expert on Deaf culture, or on the range of Deaf experiences. I know American Sign Language (with an East Coast dialect) reasonably well, although I’m very much out of practice. However, ever since my coming-out days in the early 1990s, I’ve noted again and again and again how strikingly similar the Deaf community is to the queer community.

Think about it. Deaf people, like LGBTQ people, have been treated like second-class citizens throughout history. Deaf people may not get support or understanding from their hearing family members, just as LGBTQ people may experience rejection from their straight biological kin. Both LGBTQ people and Deaf people have been subjected to efforts to protect children from them (Deaf people through forced sterilization, gay people through “Save Our Children”-type campaigns). Deaf people have been forced to “act hearing” by learning to speak and lip-read, while gay people historically have tried to “act straight” by dating someone of the opposite sex and getting married. Deaf children have been operated on without their consent in order to make them “normal” – and so have intersex babies. And both have formed communities of pride, with activism, resistance, and social justice at the heart of those communities.

But there are other ways in which Deaf communities overlap and intersect with queer communities – and not always in a pretty, nice-and-neat way. For one thing, both communities have disproportionately high rates of HIV infection. Deaf people are more likely to be HIV-positive compared to their hearing counterparts, just like some queer communities have been considered to be high-risk (most notably, gay men and transwomen). And when you look at the interaction, the statistical risks are compounded: According to one study, the gay Deaf community, compared to the hearing community, has a 40% higher rate of substance use – a significant risk factor for HIV infection. HIV infection tends to be more common in marginalized communities, and clearly the Deaf community hasn’t been immune to that.

A second observation is this: Being a member of a marginalized group doesn’t mean that you can’t oppress other marginalized people – and that’s true for the queer community as well as for the Deaf community. For example, while there are certainly safe and welcoming spaces for Deaf people within the LGBTQ community, there are online dating websites for people who fetishize deafness (or blindness, or being in a wheelchair, among others). On the other side of the coin, a 2006 dissertation study indicated that, out of 174 Deaf and hard-of-hearing people, most had at least moderately positive attitudes towards lesbians and gay men – but there were people who held onto homophobic attitudes, and they tended to be very religious. “You get people on one extreme or the other,” confirmed A.J. in his conversation with me. “Either Deaf people are very left and progressive, or they’re very right-wing conservative and religious. There’s no middle ground.”

And those extreme polarities (and intersecting identities) can make for very messy politics. Case in point: The educational epicenter of Deaf culture, Gallaudet University, found itself embroiled in controversy when Angela McCaskill, chief diversity officer for the university, signed a petition against same-sex marriage. Then, when the university placed McCaskill (who is African-American) on administrative leave, the Black student community called out the university on its unresolved racism. Oh, a tangled web of diversity and oppression we weave.

Here’s a third observation. People who are members of marginalized groups often get judged for how they choose to express themselves and deal with oppression. If a gay man decides not to come out at work, he might be judged for acting straight, for pretending to be something he’s not, for “passing” in order to gain heterosexual privilege. If a transperson decides not to have surgery, that individual might be judged within the LGBTQ community for not being “trans enough.” If a deaf person decides to get a cochlear implant (which is a HUGE political issue in the Deaf community), that person might be shunned for assimilating and “playing for the other team,” so to speak.

The similarities between the two communities are striking. But you know what is most surprising to me? Almost NO psychological research exists that focuses on people who are LGBTQ and Deaf. Literally, there is a small handful of studies out there – and some of those studies date back to the early 1980s. Which is a shame. Because what I’m learning more and more as I work on my book-in-progress is this: If you truly want to understand and eliminate oppression, look for where our oppressions intersect. Therein lies a golden opportunity.

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Filed under coming out, culture, disability, HIV/AIDS, homophobia, human rights, intersectionality, intersex, LGBTQ, psychological research, racism, religion, reparative therapy, same-sex marriage, transgender

A spiritual home for the holidays

Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays
‘Cause no matter how far away you roam
When you pine for the sunshine of a friendly gaze
For the holidays you can’t beat home, sweet home!

The holidays are all about family. Right? Norman Rockwell’s iconic paintings and illustrations of holiday celebrations certainly portray the image of the happy American family – multiple generations seated around the table, complete with Grandma serving a 20-pound turkey. Some families look just like that – and if they do, the holidays are likely to be merry and bright. At least, if you get along with your family.

Sadly, many people don’t get along with their families, which can make the holidays an extremely painful and difficult time. Of course, there’s no shortage of dysfunctional families, for a wide variety of reasons. And family conflict, alienation, and rejection are still potent realities for many sexual and gender minorities, despite the fact that, according to national polling data, positive attitudes towards LGBTQ people are steadily increasing. Add to that the fact that Christmas is one of the most widely celebrated Christian holidays – anchored in a religious tradition that has been used to oppress and persecute LGBTQ people – and you’re essentially pouring salt into an open wound.

Say you’re gay. Or bisexual. Or transgender. Or any of a variety of sexual and gender minorities. And let’s say you were raised within the fundamentalist Christian tradition – that homosexuals are sinful, bad, inferior, diseased, perverse, or some other horrible thing. There’s plenty of people out there who fit this profile – and if we use Bernadette Barton’s 2010 study of “Bible-belt Gays” as an example, people who grow up with these teachings live through, to use her words, “spirit-crushing experiences of isolation, abuse, and self-loathing.” Spirit-crushing. So if your family has rejected you, and your spirit has been crushed by Christianity, how do you find a way to honor the spirit of Christmas without feeling totally depressed and alone?

I wish I had a good answer to this question, but I don’t. You can find other people to celebrate with – people who support you and accept you unconditionally. You can partake in the secular, commercialized aspect of Christmas (which is what most people do anyway). But once the holidays are over, the family rejection and doctrinaire Christian teachings are still there. Because of that, the post-holiday season can feel like the crash after the high – the hit of stark reality after several days of giddy escapism.

I just finished reading a book titled Jesus and the Disinherited, written by theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman. It’s relatively short, at just 102 pages, and it’s not a heady, cerebral read. But it’s one of those books that I read slowly, stopping every once in a while to digest what I’d just read – and realizing, as I was reading it, just how groundbreaking a perspective this was when it was written. This is a book that laid the foundation for a non-violent civil rights movement. It heavily influenced Martin Luther King Jr., who became an avid follower of Thurman’s teachings. And it has turned my own perspective on Christianity on its axis.

In Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman acknowledges an ugly truth – that Christianity has been used to oppress people, including women, African-Americans, and Jews, to name a few. However, Thurman interprets the Gospel as a message of resistance and empowerment for the oppressed, especially given the fact that Jesus, a poor Jew, lived during a time of intense racial and cultural tension – and likely understood first-hand the experience of oppression and marginalization. He understood people whose “backs were against the wall” – a phrase Thurman uses liberally throughout his text to refer to the disinherited. Jesus, according to Thurman, was also a man whose “back was against the wall” – but instead of resorting to fear, deception, and hate (all of which are enemies of the soul), Jesus made a radical call for love:

[Jesus] projected a dream, the logic of which would give to all the needful security. There would be room for all, and no man would be a threat to his brother (p. 24).

Jesus projected a dream. Howard Thurman taught that dream. Martin Luther King Jr. preached that dream:

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

Although Thurman’s book focused specifically on the African-American experience of oppression, Vincent Harding, who wrote the foreword to this edition, notes that Thurman’s message is clearly relevant to many other groups whose backs were pushed against the wall – LGBTQ people being one of the most timely examples. For me, reading Jesus and the Disinherited has given me an opportunity to consider Christianity from an entirely new perspective – and it’s given new meaning and depth to the Christmas holiday for me.

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, and I will light the fourth Advent candle this morning. On Christmas morning, I will light the center candle, signifying the birth of Christ. These rituals were never very important to me from a religious standpoint. But today, I see the lighting of the candles as a symbol of Jesus’ message – the message, from a social justice standpoint, of love, acceptance, and unity. I offer that hope to all those whose backs are against the wall, and who don’t feel like there’s a home for them for the holidays.


Filed under homophobia, human rights, psychological research, religion, transgender, Uncategorized