The Courage Project: A Christmas Wish and New Year’s Resolution

“The bravest thing you an do when you are not brave is to profess courage and act accordingly” – Corra Harris

courageproject

A few weeks ago, while I wasn’t sleeping in the middle of the night, I came up with a Christmas list. With big changes looming in my not so distant future, the things I found myself most deeply wanting were intangibles and I summed them up in three words: peace, proximity, and possibility.

I was wishing for peace in heart and mind and family and in our conflict-ridden denomination. I was wishing for proximity to people I love and communities of support wherever I go next. And I was wishing for possibility in both my personal and professional life. In a broader sense, I was thinking about how much I want real peace, greater proximity, and new possibility with all these people I love and these communities that I’ma part of and which are a part of me—not just between me and them, but between each other.

I was thinking about this idea Sunday before last as I sat in worship at the church that had raised me. I watched the faces of people who I’d known for years and the communal life of this congregation whom I had left behind when I came out out of fear that they would reject me. I thought about the amazing family of LGBTQ people and allies I’ve come to known since coming out. I thought of my seminary community and new church community. I thought of how I love them all and how impossible it seems that they could not all love or care for one another when I love them each so much.

As I was thinking about how my love binds these communities together (even if they don’t know or like it), it occurred to me how much more true that is of God’s love and something suddenly became so apparent to me that I was embarrassed not to have realized it before. These things—peace, proximity, and possibility—were not things God needed me to pray for.  The Spirit was already at work in these efforts in whatever capacity the Spirit desired to be at work for them.

What I was looking for, really, was a sense of participation in this holy work. For that, I needed something I was afraid to ask for because I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t already have it: courage. I talk a lot about courage. It is the virtue that has always appealed to me more than any other. I’ve often thought I had a lot of courage because I do crazy things like move 1000 miles away from home by myself or travel all over the world or ask strangers for jobs or speak truth to a room full of potentially hostile strangers. But the truth is—these things don’t really scare me the way they might scare others. I think this might have given me (and others) the impression that I am brave. I even said as much on Facebook a few weeks ago.

But here’s my confession: I am not really brave. I am not brave at all. What I am, I have realized, is strong. I have dealt with my fair share of adversity and I have survived over and over—enough to know that I am very strong. But the sort of strength I know myself to have is all about holding on. Courage, I think, is about how much you’re willing to let go. How much you’re willing to risk for what you want or believe in. The truth is I am not very good at facing my fears. I go to shameful lengths to avoid it. I let it keep me silent, and invisible, and diminished at times when it is really important not to be.

When it comes to the fact that I will probably never skydive—I’m not too troubled by my cowardice. But much more often than that, my lack of courage means that I hide myself from those I love. I stay quiet when everything inside of me knows I should speak. I permit injustices that I might not have the power to prevent, but that I could at least name and call attention to if I were not silenced by my own fear. Too often, my anxieties and fears own me. I want to stop giving them that power.

I am not interested, really, in head-long, daredevil dives. I am, however, interested in real, deep love of myself and others and of really seeking justice. I am desperate for the kind of courage that allows you to let someone in, to be vulnerable, to name what you believe even when it’s hard, to say the thing that’s on your heart, to let go of needing others’ approval, to screw up sometimes in the name of trying to be better, to forgive, to give up control so you can become a part of the Greater Work and let the wonders of life unfold around you.

And I have not yet found myself brave enough for any of these things. So this Christmas, I have one wish. I want it more than that purse at Target, or a cushy job post-graduation, or even the acceptance of my family: I wish for courage. I wish for the courage to love and be loved, to see and be seen, to grow, and to act in the name of what is right. I wish for the courage to trust and have faith and participate in the work that I know that God is doing in this world for good. I wish for Christ-like courage.

So I have decided on a project for this coming year in hopes that it will help me discover the capacity for courage within me. I am going in search of my braver self. I am going to try to live—for the next year (2014)—by the mantra “do one thing everyday that scares you.” Not just silly things, either, but things that I hope will lead to love and justice. I’m going to see what happens. I’m hoping that I discover that I’m brave after all or at least that I can learn how to be. I hope that it leads to more good than bad, but that I’m willing to risk it either way. I hope that I find the courage to be really seen, and that I find out there are people who love what they see and that I’m okay with the ones who don’t because I’ll love what I see. I hope I become more loving and more just. I hope that I become more faithful.

But more than anything, when it comes to love and justice, I just want to be brave.

I don’t know how or even if I can do this. Even trying when I could so easily fail terrifies me… which makes me think that—when it comes to finding courage—this is the perfect place to start.

Want to support me? Help me think of ways I can practice courage daily. And share moments when you’ve been brave, or things you want to be brave enough for. Share in the comments below. I think it’ll encourage me on the hard days.

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Inches: A Poem About Courage

I left as the only desperate act
of hoped-for courage I could muster,
my face damp with lingering humidity
and root-shaking fear of the unknown.

Texas opened up before me
wide with brown grass and possibility,
as I had imagined often
while I steeled myself to go.

But the trees surprised me.
Short, scrubby, grasping for firmer purchase in hostile soil,
the green of their leaves a sickly pale
but singing skyward nonetheless.

They were live oaks,
but nothing like the verdant, moss-hung
coastal giants I had known,
and held, and left.

I loved them, though,
from the first glimpse.
Their branches reached inside me,
taking hold of who I so hoped to become.

They made me dream of different beauty,
of life fought for,
inch by inch by inch,
naysayers be damned.

They are still the shape I will my soul to take:
Unexpectedly strong, yes,
as I have found myself to be
But brave too, braver than I dare to hope.

In such a world, they tell me,
it takes strength to survive
but courage to grow,
inch by inch by inch.

The Gift of Social Media: My LGBTQ Family of Choice

In popular culture, the debate over whether social media is more virtue or vice rages on. This issue is so topical, in fact, that at my own seminary this semester they added two questions to our course evaluations about how much of a distraction social media was during class. I have many, diverse thoughts on this whole conversation, but ultimately, I am grateful for social media for one compelling reason: it has given me the community I needed when I could find it nowhere else. In particular, it has given me a community—a family—without which I could not have gotten through the past few years.

I have written and spoken extensively about my experiences at an annual retreat for future LGBTQ pastors put on by Presbyterian Welcome. This retreat is an incredible, life-giving experience filled with people I love, and I look forward to it all year long. Every time I return home from that weekend I feel renewed, enlivened, and full of love and hope and strength. But weeks and months pass and the reality of daily life—so often not affirming of my queer experience—weighs me down and wears me thin. 361 days of the year geography prevents those of us in this community from sharing space. On those many days, we find each other and the comfort of our family of choice in a private Facebook group.

It is a simple thing. A single page, closed to the public, where any member can post and comment on other posts. But it also so much more than that for me. It is a steady pulse that echoes my own heartbeat, a constant blip on the radar screen that reminds me there are others out there like me. From across the miles we share life together. We share our anxieties as we confront each stage of the ordination process in the PCUSA. We celebrate together in moments of hope and victory. We cry together and comfort one another when the brokenness of our world casts us down. We pray for each other and we pray with each other.

Time and again I have sought strength and solidarity in this group. As I struggled for the courage to come out to my family, I posted my fears and they offered me empathy and compassion. As I anxiously approached committee meetings and examinations on the floor of presbytery, they offered me calming wisdom and good-humored encouragement. When I posted to announce my successful approval, they responded with heartfelt congratulations. When I faced a second coming out as bisexual, rather than gay, I messaged friends within this group and found validation and solidarity. And many nights, as I have sat in darkness, filled with fear and loneliness and hopelessness, I have scrolled through posts in this simple Facebook group and read about lives of people I love and found comfort in the knowledge that I am not alone.

Now I look ahead to seminary graduation and whatever comes after. In addition to all the normal anxieties such a transition brings, I face uncertainty—for the first time since coming out—about whether I will have an LGBTQ community or any support wherever I go next. I confess that this question, more than any other, terrifies me. And I spend more time than I would like to admit in a state of deep, overwhelming panic. But so often in the worst moments of this fear, I see a post in this group or receive an unexpected friendly text from a member of this chosen family of mine—and I feel a spark of comfort and hope. I take a deep breath and remember that wherever I go and whatever I face, I am being held in love by so many hands and hearts.

Social media is often critiqued with the claim that it draws us away from real-world interaction and relationships, and that being able to choose virtual communities of the like-minded keeps us from being in tangible relationship with those who are different. I believe this is a real risk that must be avoided with intentionality. But my own virtual experience with my Presbyterian Welcome family has given me the strength to go out into the world and build relationships with all types of people even when I am afraid. It gives me hope for what could be.

Social media is many things—both good and bad. But among them, for me at least, social media is a gift. It has helped me find and hold onto this LGBTQ Presbyterian family and for that, I am beyond grateful.

5 Invisible Realities of Being Bisexual

A few months ago, I mentioned in passing to a couple of gay friends my frustrations around monosexual privilege and bisexual invisibility (especially in supposedly pro-LGBT environments). One of those friends, with genuine curiosity and humility, admitted that she didn’t even realize that that was a thing and that she’d never heard me talk about it before. Five minutes later I was emphatically jotting down a list of things I experience as a result of being bisexual in a monosexually-privileged world.

I’ve been meaning to blog about it ever since. But this morning I discovered this absurd essay by Dan Savage in which he fully convinces me that he is bi-phobic while trying to explain how he is not. He argues that, rather than blaming gay and straight people for oppressing us, we should berate each other into coming out in order to increase our visibility. He’s a moron. But more to the point, he is deeply blinded by his monosexual privilege.

The truth is that—like it or not—our privilege often blinds us to the realities of those who are not privileged. The only way to move forward is to learn what we cannot instinctively see. In my year and a half of being out as bisexual, I have noticed that there are certain assumptions and realities I brace myself for every time that I name my sexual identity. So for those looking to become better bi-allies, here are 5 invisible realities of being bisexual that you may have never considered:

1)   Being Over-sexualized – This is probably the most well known stereotype about those who are bisexual. This projection suggests that people who are bisexual are compulsively driven to seek out sex with whomever they can. Most media portrayals of bisexuals depict us as predatory sex fiends. Though it seems so extreme as I write it, I have often found that people project some form of this idea onto me. I have been told that I am playing fast and loose with fidelity and that I am trying to have my cake and eat it too. One problem with this assumption is that it suggests that there is some universally right amount of sex, and that anyone who has too much of it is deviant which, in turn, implies that sex is ultimately a bad thing. But this stereotype is also problematic because it erases the reality of bisexuals who seek monogamous, long-term relationships or those who don’t feel sexually liberated at all.

2)   Hostility from Both Sides – Bisexual folks often wind up alienated not only from the heterosexual world but also from queer communities. While many heterosexual people condemn us along with those who are gay and lesbian, still others take particular offense to our seeming “sneakiness.” Within the queer community, I have encountered many who think we undermine the struggle for equality and acceptance by being able to “play straight.” We are often assumed not to encounter the full effects of sexuality discrimination. Both gay and straight people have expressed to me that I have a responsibility to choose a side. As a result, there is really no environment where I don’t feel at risk in acknowledging my bisexuality—even (and sometimes especially) in communities with other people who are queer.

3)   Being Assumed Into Gay Inclusion – I have a love/hate relationship with the LGBTQ abbreviation. I appreciate that it acknowledges and connects a diversity of sexual realities and identifies us as one community with a common cause. However, far too often this phrase is used to name inclusion that really only applies to those who are gay or lesbian. Those who are bisexual (and trans* as well) are assumed to benefit from gay and lesbian equality while our existence continues to be overshadowed, ignored, or erased. When someone attempts to be inclusive by referencing a same-sex relationship (in a sermon illustration for instance), we who are not gay are meant to assume that such an illustration also names our reality. In fact, it is likely that every monosexual person who hears such an illustration will assume that the couple is gay and is unlikely to even think of bisexuality at all. We remain unnamed.

4)   No Visual Representation – This is the reality of being bisexual that most frustrates me and of which I’ve found that non-bisexual people are most unaware. I agree with the claim that one’s choice of clothing or hairstyle shouldn’t lead to assumptions about one’s sexuality—but we all know that it does. When I first came out as a lesbian (prior to coming out as bisexual) I found myself trying to dress the part. For better or worse, I appreciated finally being unafraid of “looking like a lesbian.” These days, every morning I make a decision about how I want to present myself to the world. I know that based on my hair, make up, and clothing, people will either assume that I am gay or straight. But no matter what I do or wear, I can never present as bisexual. I cannot implicitly or silently indicate it to the world. Even if I made out with a woman in the middle of a crowded street or wore a rainbow flag toga, no one would realize that I am bisexual. When I am with a woman, I am assumed to be gay. When I am with a man I am seen as straight. I am never seen for what I am unless I announce it. Which leads me to perhaps the most invisible and most distinctly bisexual reality that I know:

5)   Every Second We’re Not Coming Out, We’re In – Recently, I was on a date with a man. We had already had conversations about my sexuality, but I found myself thinking about how I would handle things if we hadn’t. At what point in a date with someone do you come out? I would have faced the same question on a date with a woman. As far as I know, this is a circumstance that neither straight people nor gay people have to encounter. In fact, for gay people dates and relationships may be the one definitive space where they don’t have to come out to be fully known. For those of us who are bisexual, there is literally no such space.  Even in a room filled with only queer people, our identities are invisible—overshadowed by assumptions that we’re gay—unless we name it and keep naming it. There is no “not shoving it in your face,” there is no “not pushing our agenda,” there is no “just be you.” When privileged, white, gay men like Dan Savage claim that bisexual people have an obligation to come out in order to increase bisexual visibility, they don’t realize what they’re asking. They’re asking that we come out not just once, but over and over and over and over. Every moment. All the time. The exhausting reality of being bisexual in a monosexual world is that at every moment of our lives we are either vocally declaring our identity or allowing our identity to be erased.

I would love to see more bisexual visibility in the world, but it’s going to take more than just us coming out. A bi-inclusive world requires those who are monosexual to understand and embrace one essential truth: even if you accept everything you see as true, it does not mean that you are seeing the whole truth. We are more complicated than that. Thank God.

More Than “The Least of These”

*This piece was originally written for issue #280 of KAIROS – the student publication of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. 

I don’t remember how old I was the first time my dad told me that he’d spent Thanksgiving eating at a shelter—not as a volunteer but as a guest. I do remember how I felt. My throat and face went cold and my head got fuzzy and confused. It didn’t make any sense. Shelters and poverty and homelessness weren’t things that happened in my family—they happened to somebody else, somebody “other.” Since that holiday years ago, my father has struggled with poverty, hunger, and homelessness off and on. When he lost his apartment, our relationship became one of coffee dates and movie matinees and the occasional extravagance at Red Lobster. Most of his daily life became a fairly distant mystery to me. I told myself that I wasn’t asking questions out of respect, but I think that, really, I was afraid to see homelessness and poverty as a real part of my life. I was afraid to see that someone I loved was one of “those people.”

This summer I spent three months working with a worshipping community in urban Philly that is largely made up of those who are dealing with hunger, poverty, joblessness, and lack of housing. As part of my training, I served lunch at a men’s shelter near our church. I stood behind a counter for two hours and served bread to over 400 men. Nearly every second of those two hours, I thought of my father. I wondered what his experiences had been like—the ones I never asked about. And I wondered about these men and whether they had daughters who chose not to acknowledge their uncomfortable realities. Every time I offered a piece of bread, I thought of communion and the words haunted me: “this is my body… broken.”

During my time in Philadelphia, I came to know a number of the guests who came week after week for meals, social services, bible study, or worship. I learned about their stories. Some of them had been doctors and lawyers and scholars. Some were parents. They were diverse and complicated individuals. One friend, a man named Andre, had experienced homelessness twice in his life. The second time, he became seriously ill, and could only receive treatment if he gave up the housing he had worked so hard to acquire and re-enter the shelter system. I learned that no two people had the same background or the same story. The one thing they all had in common is that our society had reduced them to an adjective: the homeless. It had smothered the complexity of their humanity with a description of the traumatic circumstance they found themselves in.

I became frustrated with our callous language. At that ministry in Philly, we rejected such dehumanizing simplifications. We challenged religious language like “the least of these” (what makes them less?) and “I’m so blessed” (why does God favor you over them?). Lately, as the nights get colder and we enter a season so defined by classism, I have been thinking of my friends in Philly a lot. And as recent events around campus have made us more aware of those in our midst who are living in such circumstances, I have found myself growing angry and sad again.

I used to think that the word “homeless” was a misnomer. After all, home is about more than a roof over your head—it’s also about feeling loved, and claimed, and known. But it seems to me that when we reduce a person to an adjective about the trauma they’ve experienced—when we dismiss them as a social ill—we are, in fact, taking away their sense of home—of belonging. As the church, I believe that we’re called to be better than that.

They are not “the homeless.” They are not “transients” or “vagrants” or “criminals” or “hobos.” They are our family. And they deserve to be seen and respected in their full humanity—every single one of them.

It’s true that using “politically correct” language won’t solve poverty or homelessness or hunger. But I absolutely believe that we will never really solve any of these evils if we don’t start by recognizing human dignity. And even if it didn’t help at all, it is still what we are called to do.

It may seem unnecessary or too sensitive or too difficult. It may seem like it’s not worth the effort. What a privilege we have to feel that way. But if there is one thing I have learned from my father and my friends in Philly—it’s that if you have nothing else, the words that belong to you are worth quite a lot.