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Equality Forum Day 2 (Part 1): “All Are Welcome” (or, “Gandalf is Cooking me Dinner”)

April 29th, 2009 No comments

How did the son of Kentucky tenant farmers, raised in a fundamentalist household without running water, become internationally (in)famous as the first openly gay clergyperson of a major Christian religion? The Rev. Gene Robinson, Episcopal bishop of the New Hampshire diocese, has no clear answer. Instead, he offered the packed house of about 200  at Tuesday’s Religious Colloquy his reimagining of the parting of the Red Sea.

Forget the Cecil B. DeMille version of the Ten Commandments, where Moses (aka Charlton Heston) parts the Red Sea, creating a wide boulevard for the fleeing Jews to march effortlessly across. It’s not that easy. Instead, imagine that Moses tentatively stuck his left foot in, and found just enough dry land to proceed. Then, he placed his right foot in. (No, he didn’t then do “the hokey pokey,” at least as far as Biblical scholars can tell.) He proceeded this way, one step at a time, until the arduous journey was complete. This repurposed parable stands both for Robinson’s own journey and for the slow but relentless push of the GLBT community toward equality, dignity, and justice. (Don’t expect to see the “other side” of  that struggle, he opined.)

In this engaging, often amusing, and always insightful way, Rev. Robinson (with the aid of local lesbian Rabbi Linda Holtzman, who played the tricky role of interviewer exceptionally well) held the dais with ease for almost an hour and a half. Holtzman, informed by Wikipedia — an admission that drew laughter from the audience and an uneasy silence from your humble blogger, who’d also boned up on Robinson via the same “peanut gallery” — asked a series of open-ended questions about his childhood, his faith, his relationships, and his well-known struggles with the Anglican Church. Along the way, we learned the limits of a Wikipedia education; plenty had been left out.

Robinson’s gift, as I see it, is the ability to connect spirituality with the coming-out struggles faced by every sexual minority, and to do so in a way that’s both deeply insightful and extremely accessible. For example, even as a kid he wasn’t able to relate to a stripe of religious fundamentalism that declared certain questions off limits; and as a youth realizing at about age 12 or 13 that he was different (and that he’d better not say anything about it), questions he had in ample supply.

These questions led him, on the religious side, to find a mentor who introduced him to the theologian Paul Tillich, for whom questions and answers exist in an endless dialectical relationship. On a parallel course, his relentless uncertainty about  his sexual identity (or, perhaps more to the point, what to do about it) led him to try a sort of conversion therapy (he “wants his money back”), then to a sort of panic shortly before his wedding, and then into, and finally out of, marriage to a woman with whom he had two children.

Throughout these stories, Robinson’s thoughtfulness emerges. I was especially taken by his description of how he and his wife unravelled their marital vows in a church once he came to accept his sexual identity: They released each other  from their vows, mutually returned their rings, wept, and then took communion together. This seemed to me a very healthy and honest willingness to confront what they were doing, and what they had, irrevocably, already done.

Not surprisingly, much of the discussion centered around Rev. Robinson’s ordination as bishop, and the still-evolving schism in the Anglican communion that it ultimately spawned. Here, the relentless questioner gives way to a man convinced that he’s done the right thing, and who will not “take the bait” of answering this  question: “How does it feel to be the one who has caused the break-up of the Church?” Well, the Anglican Church  hasn’t “broken up,” and in any case, Robinson sees himself as at the eye of the storm: calm amid deadly winds. Every step was “by the book,” he says. It’s other people’s actions and  beliefs in response that have caused the problem that some have sought to ascribe to him.

“But why not wait until everyone was ready, and everything was in place?” the former Archbishop of  Canterbury once asked him.

“When has anything significant ever happened in a way that was neat and tidy?” was essentially Rev. Robinson’s response, pointing to the controversy, some thirty years earlier, over the ordination of women. He also noted that many of the same people who were the most vocal in opposing that change have also led the campaign against him. It’s really about the slow crumbling of patriarchy (what isn’t?), and “they don’t like it.”

Gene Robinson was born for this role. He’s comfortable and consistently amusing before a large crowd. He also has the kind of deep confidence needed to tack through the storms that his ordination has generated. Yet pain, humiliation, and disappointment have been inescapable. It’s by now fairly well known that he wasn’t invited to the Archbishop’s Lambeth Conference last year. But it’s worse than that. In a separate interview, I asked the lawyer’s question: By what authority did the Archbishop exclude you? It turns out that the conference, held decenially since 1867, is the Archbishop’s “party,” and, to paraphrase Lesley Gore, he can “exclude whom he wants to.” It also turns out, according to Robinson, that he was the first duly ordained bishop ever to be excluded from the conference since  its inception.

Admittedly,  the Archbishop has a terribly difficult line to walk these days. (For evidence of how difficult, read this article in the March issue of The Atlantic.) And with specific reference to the Lambeth conference, this difficulty had reached a boiling point: Many prelates boycotted the conference because of  the church’s evolving view of sexuality. Whatever the Archbishop Rowan Williams’s difficulties, though, the reality was a personal affront to Bishop Robinson. Not only was he excluded, but pictures of him were placed at every entrance, so that security could identify and bar him if he showed up. The conference concluded with unintentionally cruel irony: The final blessing was “All Are Welcome.”

Of course, Rev. Robinson wasn’t about to venture where he wasn’t welcome. As a pretty cool consolation prize, he was invited to dinner with Sir Ian McKellen, the great Shakespearean actor now best known as Gandalf and Magneto. “Gandalf is cooking me dinner,” thought Robinson, incredulous. But his brave journey has taken him to fabulous places all over the world, none more so than the Presidential platform; on Inauguration Day, sitting some 20 feet from the about-to-be President, Robinson had a thought that neatly captures both  his own struggle and that of the oppressed more generally: “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

I might end this long post there (look for a separate post on the National Racial panel later today), except that I can never resist Shakespeare. Robinson learned from McKellen that the only surviving work in Shakespeare’s own hand comes from Sir Thomas More, a train-wreck of a play that was written by committee. But scholars now generally agree that some three pages were indeed the immortal’s work. In his scene, Londoners were rioting over the presence of foreigners in their midst, demanding their expulsion. Sir Thomas More then addresses the mob, offering a dramatic metaphor that stands as a rebuke to all efforts to create and then demonize the “other”:

“For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.”
Categories: Gay Rights, religion, women's rights Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Third Chimpanzee, The Winter’s Tale, and the Imperatives of Biology

February 17th, 2009 No comments

How important is the biology of parenting?

Here’s an example from Shakespeare: Audiences and critical scholars have long struggled to understand the insane rage that suddenly overcomes King Leontes in “The Winter’s Tale.” At first, the king is good-naturedly encouraging his queen, Hermione, to beg their mutual friend, Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, to stay another week.

She does so, but not with the result she expects: Within a few lines, Leontes becomes blindly jealous, crying: “Too hot, too hot!” I’ll spare you the spiral of tragedy that ensues (and is only partly redeemed at the end) to focus on a big reason for Leontes’s rage: He suddenly thinks that Polixenes, who has been around for a span of nine “wat’ry stars” –nine moons, or roughly nine months — is the father of the child Hermione is soon to bear.

Well, it was certainly possible (although not true in “The Winter’s Tale”) that Leontes had been cuckolded. Until the recent development of DNA testing, husbands never knew for sure that they were the fathers of their wives’ children. Yet, as Jared Diamond discusses in “The Third Chimpanzee,” from an anthropological perspective fathers were only interested in devoting themselves to the support and raising of their own biological children — they wanted to pass on their own genes, and not those of another man. (As an example of how strongly this impulse is felt, he discusses one tribe in which the women have sex with many men serially, so that determining paternal parentage was impossible. In those cases, men raised the children of their sisters — at least then 1/4 of their genetic make-up would then be passed along.)

Thus, patriarchy was both strongly enforced and inherently unstable: Men held the legal power and the physical strength, but only women knew with confidence the identity of their children. Yet that biological identity was of vital importance.

The question is whether biology should continue to be so central today. Undoubtedly, there are good effects to making biological fathers responsible to their children, however difficult that responsibility may be to enforce: Men will take responsibility for potentially procreative sex more seriously if they know that they are “on the hook.” And to the extent that the primal urge to pass on one’s genetic attributes still imbues men with an urge to provide for their offspring, there can be benefits to the child and the mother.

But note that I’m talking here about biology and “urges.” Maybe it’s time to develop a more sophisticated approach that recognizes these brute facts but isn’t enslaved to them. In this regard, consider the broadly different ways the law treats natural, as opposed to foster or adoptive, parents.

When my spouse and I wanted to adopt children, we became well-acquainted with the rigor of the process for ensuring that any kids we might adopt would be safe, secure, and well-cared for. There are home visits, probing questions about your life and your reasons for wanting to adopt, embarrassingly intense examination of your relationship, exploration of your parenting style (useless in the abstract, as any parent knows), and a quiz on the 50 state capitals. Then there are required training sessions and certification; additional sessions are required if you’re also interested (as we were) in qualifying as foster parents. Oh, and you also undergo background checks for state and federal crimes of all kinds — not just those including child abuse. After all this, you wait — and wait — for a match.

OK, let’s compare the process for reviewing the suitability of biological parents. Are you ready? I’m about to start now….. All done.

As everyone reading this surely knows, there isn’t any such process. It’s true that the law and society have evolved so as to get better about removing kids from abusive or neglectful homes, but the barriers to doing so are high, and (legal standard aside) the parents really don’t have to do much to get the kids back — often, their return leads to tragic results.

But such removals from the home are rare. In most cases, kids are left to fend for themselves in some dismal situations.

I’m not suggesting that biological parents undergo the same kind of comprehensive process that is in place for foster or adoptive placements — it’s probably practically impossible, anyway. But I think that the model for screening non-birth parents has lessons for the treatment of all families: Why not offer (require?) state-funded parenting classes? Does the state have a right, even a responsibility, to identify risk factors for children and then to intervene in some way before those risks materialize in injury of some kind? Efforts to address some of these questions might lead to clumsy governmental snooping — a real risk. But doing nothing has its own perils, as we know.

In short, once we start questioning the continued preeminence of biology, the questions start tumbling forth.  I’ll be revisiting this topic soon.

Categories: adoption, biology, Social Justice Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,