I wrote my first entry for this blog ten years, four months, and ten days ago. That first entry was titled “Welcome to Notes from a Barking Shaman” and touched on the odd contradictions that have, and continue, to make up my life. I was in the midst of my cycle of death and rebirth ordeals, our puppy Lilu was just ten weeks old, and earlier that day I had finalized plans to give a presentation on Tourette Syndrome for an elementary school a few hours away.
My life today looks at once radically different and remarkably similar to the one I was living when I sat down to pen that brief introduction to my new blog.
Among the differences, which you may have noticed already, is that as of last night this website and blog are no longer called “BarkingShaman.com” and “Notes From A Barking Shaman” respectively. The change has been a long time coming, and in keeping with the best traditions of this blog, I want to take some time to address why those changes have been made.
Below you’ll find my keynote address from Transcending Boundaries Conference 2014. The recording of the address didn’t work out, so I re-recorded it from my office. The text has been slightly modified to better suit print.
Before I get going with the body of today’s address, I’d like to do a little exercise to help us look at how we think about inclusion in our community. And please, for the love of all that is decent in the world, don’t try to read too much into the order as I go, sometimes a list is just a list. Here are some common generalizations people have about people in the queer and LGBT community:
Bi people are often perceived as not “really” part of our community since there’s a perception that they can could always be with someone of the opposite sex
Cis gay men are seen as having so many societal advantages as to no longer be subjects of oppression and bigotry.
Lesbian and gay women are expected to cleave to hetero-normative gender expressions in their relationships, in the form of having a mandatory butch and fem partner
Trans* people are often portrayed as having one universal narrative of what it means to be transgender transsexual, or genderqueer.
Queer people are associated with being young and college educated.
Asexual people are all too often assumed to be simply inexperienced or afraid of sex
People make all sorts of presumptions about intersex people’s bodies
Polyamorous people are thought to be impulsive, flighty, or incapable of commitment.
People who engage in kink or BDSM practices are seen as unhealthy, prone to abuse, or inherently misogynistic.
When it comes to “questioning” people, there’s the belief that the “question” will always resolve in one of the preceding categories.
And of course, there’s a widespread belief that allies must have family or friends who are queer/LGBT or secretly have queer/LGBT leanings of their own.
OK, now here’s the question I want you to ask yourself: how closely did you pay attention to the points on that list that weren’t directly applicable to your life? Did you really listen to the others, or were you too caught up in waiting to hear what I was going to say about the demographic or issue closest to your own personal experience?
If you’re really being honest with yourself, did you pretty much just look for your piece of the pie?
Or do you really feel like you took in the whole list.
On that note, did you weigh the relative severity of each of the scenarios listed to see who I was putting forth as having things the worst or best?
It’s not fun to think about is it? It’s easy to find ourselves feeling terribly defensive in moments like these. Furthering the conversation around inclusion is incredibly important, especially now, when the future of our community is more uncertain than ever, but you can already see why it’s a conversation we really struggle to have.
Speaking of: I was asked to give this address fourteen months ago, and it has absolutely kicked my ass that whole time.
A big part of that is that I haven’t been able to escape the idea that maybe it’s just not appropriate for me to give this keynote. I love TBC, and I was immensely honored to be asked. But the truth is, having a cisgender white guy talk about inclusion at a queer conference just doesn’t seem like the best idea.
There’s no escaping the fact that by virtue of my being a cis white guy, I am perceived by many people in this room as an embodiment of an oppressive system that robs people of power and agency. And I’ve struggled in crafting it, given that I’m coming from an undeniable place of privilege, to address people who struggle against forces of disempowerment driven by the very privileges I carry through life.
After all, I found myself asking, what was there for me to say?
That as a broad community queer/LGBTQ people kinda suck at inclusion? I’m pretty sure most of you already know that. And over the last year of work on this topic I’ve thought about many ways to say it, so some of what I will have to say is about us, and some of it is about me.
I actually wrote a version of this address with as little of myself in it as possible. Objectively, it wasn’t a bad keynote, but it wasn’t the right one for me to give. I’m not a speechwriter, I’m a storyteller and an educator. Inclusion, as we’ll see is not a moonshot, and I’m not JFK, and both of those things are just going to have to be OK, because that’s what we’ve got to work with.
Speaking of JFK, I’m both a science and a history nerd so I was aware of Kennedy’s speech at Rice University in September of 1962. You may never have heard of the Rice University speech, but I’m sure you’ve heard this part of it:
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard
Think about this: less than three months earlier John Glenn had become the first American to complete an orbit our planet, and here the President was giving the nation little over seven years to set foot on another world. America’s “moonshot” was monumental task that we’d pledged ourselves to.
The following decade saw a series of clear milestones laid out and achieved as we raced to go from from cramming someone into the nosecone of a ballistic missile to traveling to the moon. And on July 24th 1969, Apollo 11 returned to earth carrying the first humans to have set foot on celestial body.
The moment Apollo 11 splashed down in the ocean, everyone who would follow after in the pursuit of a goal were pretty screwed. President Kennedy and the people behind the space program had created impossibly big shoes to fill, and from there on out we’ve been trying to. After all, how many times have we heard “how is it that we can put a man on the moon but not… whatever?”
You’re probably wondering what the point of that little history lesson was.
You see, one side effect of stressing out about this address, was that ideas about inclusion would pop into my head at random times. For me, random times pretty much meant in the shower or falling asleep. I have significant OCD, and became somewhat obsessed with the idea that the perfect thought would occur to me, and I’d forget it. So I got a waterproof case for my phone for the shower-driven ideas, and kept a notepad by my bed. “Inclusion is not a moonshot” was one of the more puzzling thoughts my fatigue addled brain put out there at four AM. But for some reason, I found myself unable to dismiss it come morning. The process of trying to figure it out helped shape my understanding of how we as a community all too often fall short when it comes to inclusion.
Before I was a sex and kink educator, or an LGBT activist for that matter, I was a product designer. The methodological approach to problem solving that got us to the moon makes sense to that part of my brain. Identify a problem, break it down into manageable chunks, complete steps A to Z, and voila, you’ve landed on the moon. It’s a good way to address many problems, and it’s useful for everything from interplanetary travel to grocery shopping.
What it isn’t good at is dealing with soft, squishy, human problems. The moonshot model can’t describe love, or how to create art, and when push comes to shove, it doesn’t do very well when it comes to building community either.
And we really try.
When it comes to being inclusive, we persistently follow a top-down, systematic approach to being better at this whole thing. It does a pretty awesome job of making privileged people feel less guilty about their privilege, but that’s about it.
This is the way of thinking that says “if we put a trans* person on our board then we’re inclusive” or “it’s not our fault that people of color just aren’t interested in our community” or to be personal for a moment “we’ve never had a cis guy give one of our keynotes and figured it was time.” The underlying idea is that leadership decisions can effectively bring about organic change to a whole community or demographic, and on the balance it just doesn’t work.
I’m not trying to say that way of doing things never leads to positive outcomes, it absolutely does, and it sure beats the living hell out of not doing anything at all. But when change comes, it does so because of the strength and determination of a few dedicated individuals who carve out a place for themselves and hold space for more people like them.
I have the utmost respect for those folks, but I also feel sorry for them. Down that road lies burnout and bitterness for too many, and even more tragically, it’s not unheard of for the departure of one or two critical people in a community to render it no longer as comfortable or safe for the those they were holding space for. In time those people drift away, rendering all the hard work that went into giving them a voice or a place in the community for naught.
There were many factors that went into my departure from my milk religion, but the practice and celebration of genital mutilation within it was one of the two biggest; as big perhaps even as the whole “one god” thing (I recognize that many other pagan oriented Jews have done the mental gymnastics needed to “reconcile” those two identities, but I could not have).
I grew up in a household that cherished the spiritual nature of Reform Judaism, and embraced the teaching that Judaism is a dynamic and “living” religion; one which must evolve with the changing nature of our world to foster and nurture the relationship between people and their god, rather than become an obstacle. Both at home and in synagog I was taught that many of the Talmudic and Biblical laws are at their core about devotion, rather than blind obedience. And that Jews must study Torah, not in the pursuit of memorization, but of understanding, and beyond that, that they must ask themselves “what does this mean to me?” not simply “what did this mean to my ancestors?”
That modern Reform Jewry continues to place the mutilation of their male children’s genitals on a pedestal, while discarding other outmoded biblical proscriptions has long puzzled me. In a tradition that believes strongly in equality saying “women may hold equal place with men in Judaism, and require no cutting of their genitals, but only surgical altered men are Jews” seems to me to be terribly hypocritical. Either genital cutting is a fundamental part of Judaism, in which case women are not truly equal to men, or it isn’t required to be a Jew, in which case men are mutilated needlessly. Mixing the two ideas seems inconsistent in the extreme.
It should be noted of course, that in the United States the damage or alteration of a girl’s genitals, no matter how minor (perhaps extending even to bloodletting via a diabetic lancet), is legally forbidden, whether for religious purposes or not. Modern Judaism has no choice but to allow their girls to remain unaltered, so perhaps we will never know if some form of female genital cutting might not have been embraced as part of Jewish sexual equality had the option existed.
Now however, there is a cadre of Jewish scholars, rabbis, and parents, who are beginning to gain momentum in their quest for Jewish parents to embrace brit shalom – a covenant of peace, rather than the traditional brit milah – covenant of circumcision. There are excellent books on the topic, both scholarly and personal, including:
This is not going to be an easy road for these dedicated and outspoken activists to travel down. Judaism is an extremely tribal culture. I know many people who only allow fellow Jews into positions of importance in their lives. Their doctor, accountant, realtor, even their car salesman, all must be Jewish. And it is impossible to convey to someone who did not grow up within that tribal community how fundamental genital mutilation is to the cultural identities of many Jews. Samara Cole, in her excellent essay “Refusing to Circumcise: A Mom’s Difficult Demand” eloquently conveys the frustration she experiences with her husband, who cares not at all for the biblical or spiritual meaning of the practice, yet steadfastly insists that his sons have their foreskins amputated, even after he has come to believe that the procedure has no redeeming value.
Jewish Intactivism is an exciting and challenging development in the growing and changing nature of modern Jewry. There is a part of me that is sad that this is a cultural revolution that I have to watch as a well-informed outsider. I truly believe, as someone raised steeped in Jewish thought and belief, that intactivism is incredibly consistent with Jewish values and spirituality. I believe with all my heart that in discarding the barbaric mutilation of innocent children, modern Jews can reclaim and embrace the deeper purpose of the covenant ritual.
I pray to my gods and theirs that these dedicated activists can transform pain, blood, and terror, into peace.