Spirit 2: On Divine Potential

I was raised to believe I was one of the chosen ones. I was of a chosen generation, saved to be born in these latter days to help usher the kingdom of heaven to earth in preparation for the second coming of Christ. This was the ned of human mortal history, we were taught. The dispensation of the fullness of times. The creation of the earth and every ounce of human history that preceded would be culminated in this one, when Christ came again and men would be judged.

And where much was given (i.e. being one of the chosen ones, being born into the true gospel), much was required (i.e. a full life of dedicated service to the church, ten per cent of my money, and strict obedience to all of the rules).

And like all things in the religion, this could be very simple or very complicated. God had billions of spirit children in a spirit realm that we called the pre-existence. He created the planet and had humans born so they could be tested to see if they were worthy to return to him. In the thousands of years of human history, billions of humans were born in different eras. Some humans were born with advantages and others with disadvantages, the way I was taught. I could have been born into poverty or into slavery, during the dark ages when god didn’t allow his word to be taught correctly, or in the wrong religion. But I was born American (in the country god set up to establish his church), male (the gender god allowed to hold his priesthood), and white (seemingly god’s preferred skin color). On top of all of that, I was born Mormon, because my parents were Mormon. So I already had the true religion. See how fortunate I was?

The scriptures were full of stories about choosing the right paths, sacrificing everything for god, and following the rules with exactness even when life got difficult. I was born gay, but I could change that, they said. The rest was there, there were no questions and there was no room to question. I had a hero’s quest ahead of me and it was all laid out. I had every tool I needed to succeed. Baptism, Priesthood, two-year missionary service, temple marriage to a woman, and a life of service to the church. I was one of the chosen ones. I could stand up in my white shirt and tie next to all my brethren and be proud that I had it right while everyone else had it wrong. But they could have it right, also, if they learned to be just like me.

What I never realized at the time, what I couldn’t realize, is how inherently arrogant those messages made me. By teaching me that I was chosen, that meant I was superior. Inherently better. I had something that everyone else needed, and they had to be like me to get it. They had to follow the same rules and ordinances. I had no concept of human history, of slavery, of war, of poverty, of gender discrimination, of sexual assault, of addiction. The message I had to share was just ‘turn to god and be like me so you can have what I have’. Gay men were told to make themselves straight, people with disabilities were told they could be healed, women were told to be happy with their station in life, people of different races were (for a time at least) told they could be made white. We were all god’s children, and he wanted us to look the same, one happy family of white men with women behind them, stretching on for generations.

As a missionary, I taught people these things. I sat with the elderly, with the poor, with ex-cons and addicts, with the abused and the disenfranchised, with African-Americans and Pennsylvania-Ducth and Methodists and the Amish. I was 19, and I told them how to make their lives better by being more like me. And if anyone challenged this inherent arrogance within me, well, I could just shrug and fall back on what I was taught. I wasn’t being sexist or ageist or racist or homophobic or xenophobic. I was just preaching it the way I was taught. I was chosen. And this was how god wanted it to be.

I look back on that era of my life with shame and embarrassment now. I can’t believe what I used to believe. But the truth is, I just didn’t know any better at the time. Once I knew better, everything was different. I had to change myself and the way I look at life. Once I learned about the world, I couldn’t put blinders back on and ignore it. Superiority is no longer my religion. My spirituality is now more closely associated with fairness, equality, and human potential. It is about learning from history, understanding privilege, and fighting for the underdog. It’s about celebrating diversity, embracing all of god’s children, and sharing, or even surrendering, power to those who have been disenfranchised for too long. I listen now. I hear. I inquire. I learn. I don’t spout my dogma and silence the voices of others, I instead seek my place at the table of good and ethical people who want to make the world better. I suppose that makes my spirituality a bit more socialist than capitalist, a bit more Democrat than Republican, a bit more humanitarian than industrial revolutionist, but I like it that way. I like my current ethics, the way I want to preserve this planet and improve the people on it. I’m proud of my journey now and I have no doubts about it.

And, truth be told, that is something I couldn’t say before.

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What to do with Outrage

Outrage

I keep a little list of things I want to blog about tucked into my folder. There are titles for stories, representing key development moments from my past or amusing little anecdotes with my children, there are inspiring topics about human progress, and there are things that inspire me about the world. I’ve stopped blogging about whatever book I’m reading, or whatever little historical nugget I’m learning about, and instead focus on what is in my soul as I sit down to write. This is why I need to make time to blog, I need time with a cup of coffee, a glass of water, and an open computer screen, so my fingers can channel the things that my spirit wants to convey. When I sit down, I then can choose a topic off the list, pick which story I want to tell. Sometimes, though, I don’t end up taking one of these topics, and instead I write from wherever my head is at, from whatever is most relevant in my brain and heart at that moment. (The discipline of writing, for me, is equal parts dedication, healing, and heart. It fulfills me in a way nothing else can).

And that brings us to today.

My older blogs contained a lot of my intellectual thoughts, and a lot about my thoughts on politics. During the Trump/Clinton election, I can see several blogs in a row that convey my outrage and pain at the very idea of Trump being the candidate we were considering, given all he represented to me. Then after he was elected, I climbed within a hole within myself, because talking about it hadn’t seemed to do any good. I processed my pain quietly, instead of publicly, and grew determined instead to focus on change with me, my friends, my kids, my clients, the places that I can have a positive impact.

I keep hoping that we, as Americans, hell as a human species, will come around. We will stop repeating our greatest atrocities and instead learn to love our world and ourselves. I keep picturing the weaving plot lines in Game of Thrones, where all the egotistic murderous rulers battle through politics and warfare for moments of power while the threat to them all looms just over the borders. We are squabbling over Democrat versus Republic, all while war is raging, people are starving, racism and sexism run the world, animal habitats are being wiped out, and the ice keeps melting as the temperature raises.  And even now, it seems my country is the one withdrawing from the ones trying to make positive change in the world, and instead is forming bonds with the tyrants and warmongers, and I don’t know how to process that. I’m having a crisis of faith.

I am exhausted from remaining silent. I am so weary of this temporary outrage culture I’m living in, where whatever is most currently in the news becomes the thing that the entire world rages over, but only until the next headline, when the outrage moves on to something else and the last thing is forgotten, filed away on an unmanageable list.

But the stakes feel so high! The transgender military ban, the Muslim ban, black men being kicked out of Starbucks, the Parkland shooting, the Las Vegas country concert massacre, the Pulse shooting, the gay wedding cake debate, police brutality against black civilians, overstocked for-profit prisons, the latest celebrity accused of sexual assault, the United States pulling out of the Paris Accords, the arrests of Trump’s allies, collusion and obstruction, private Email servers used in public positions, government employees spending fortunes on furniture, the G-7 summit, the North Korea leader meetings, Obamacare, the porn star pay-offs, the floods, the wars, the corruption.

And now, we rage over these children being removed from parents at the border, and the debate turns to border security, family trauma, war crime victims, asylum, criminal prosecution, human decency. And it hurts me, deeply.

But then I realize I will only be outraged about this for as long as these headlines are there, and then it will be on to something else. Lately, I’m almost constantly outraged. Ignoring it doesn’t help, avoiding it doesn’t either, but neither does publicly screaming about it.

Even now, I could scroll through my Facebook feed. Most of my social media contacts are liberally minded, so I will see the same god-damn scream of outrage, cry for validation, over and over again. It’s a constant barrage.

“I am so angry/furious/outraged/horrified/baffled by the forced separation of kids from their families/the Pulse nightclub shooting/the callous murder of Trayvon Martin/the Bill Cosby rape scandal/the Michael Cohen porn star payoff! We need better gun control laws/more women in government/environmental policies/voter security systems! And if you disagree with me/voted for Trump/blame women for their own rapes/don’t support equality, then unfriend me and get out of my life right now! I’m serious! I mean it! I’m moving to Canada!”

Here’s the thing, though. I feel all of this outrage. It physically hurts me. I hate it. And yet, participation in it doesn’t help. Screaming into the air doesn’t make me feel any more validated. Arguing with people I love with endless paragraphs in the form of a comment on social media posts doesn’t help. It doesn’t take my pain away. And I fully realize, when I remove myself from the box and look at the system from the outside, that I’m being manipulated by media machines, by campaigns and ads. I become aware of human trauma, crying children, and insane atrocities, and…

my life doesn’t change. At all.

I still get up every morning, brew my coffee, see my clients, exercise, take care of my children, try to improve the world around me. And that is the privilege talking, because other people don’t get that same luxury. And that fuels my outrage even more.

So I’m a solution finder. I don’t like to just complain about problems. I want to find clear paths forward, and that is what I help my clients do as well. And my solution, for me? I need to do something with this outrage. I want to stay informed, not by drowning in manipulative media, but by being aware of the world around me, and then I want to do what I can to make a difference.

I can support businesses that share my standards, and especially those that are run by or employ women, immigrants, people of color, and LGBT people, and who give more opportunities to women. I can go out of my way to better the world around me with handshakes, hugs, love, and support. I can drive less and recycle more. I can avoid eating meat, and purchase food and goods that come from ethical businesses. I can vote for officials who support an ethical and fair world. I can instill ethics and values in my children that teach them to be themselves, to love everyone, and to live healthy lives. I can donate money to worthy causes and charity. I can write.

And just typing that last paragraph shifted my energy from one of pain and anxiety (what I feel when I focus on the problems) to a space of calm, healing, and hope (what I feel when I focus on the solutions). I choose to use my outrage to create a better world around me. Losing sleep, pulling out my hair, giving myself ulcers, and screaming into the social media void about the terribleness of the world will not help. Teaching my sons about equality and justice, seeing my clients through their pain, and being good to the Earth will.

So come on, outrage. Come join me, and let’s go make a difference in this world.

White kid, black avatar

Stardew

“These villagers are giving Kevin a hard time. I bet it is because he is black.”

A, my 6-year old, toggled the control to the Playstation 4 as he bounced up on to his feet, unable to hold still. He had his newly created character, Kevin, walk through the sparsely populated Pelican Town, chatting with strangers. I had explained to him that talking to everyone was important because relationships in the game were built slowly over time, by speaking with people and occasionally giving them presents. He could even learn what kinds of presents each person liked, like jewels, fresh fruit, or fish, and then give those specific gifts to strengthen the friendship bonds. A was getting the hang of it. But the villagers didn’t know Kevin at first and were saying coy and dismissive things to him.

A was playing Stardew Valley, a kid-friendly game that involved farming, building wealth, planting seeds, purchasing animals, building friendships, foraging, and even mining. He had been watching his older brother, J, play it for a few months and had wanted to try out his own character.

A had been thinking about his character Kevin for a few days before he brought it up. He waited for a quiet evening then asked if we could design a new game for him, and the boyfriend and I enthusiastically agreed. We opened up the design screen, typed in the name Kevin at his request, then moved to select the character specifications.

“I want him to have brown hair, a blue shirt, brown pants, and black shoes. And I think he should have brown skin.”

I had turned to him, surprised and pleased, and asked him why.

“Well, the town has a bunch of white people in it. I’ve watched J play and there are only a few brown or black people. They need more.”

I nodded, pulling in A for a squeeze as I changed Kevin’s skin color. And then A had gone about learning how to play the game. Kevin settled into a small house on a wide piece of land. He learned how to chop down trees, hoe the ground, purchase seeds and plant them, and water.

“Man, Kevin worked really hard on his first day!” A had said before sending an exhausted Kevin to bed for the night. And when the sun rose the next morning, A focused on taking Kevin around Pelican Town to meet new friends.

When A made the comment about Kevin’s race being the reason that the villagers weren’t being friendly, I turned to him surprised.

“You think it is because he’s black? Why do you say that?”

A didn’t look over as he took Kevin down to the beach to forage for shells and clams. “Well, you and Mom taught me about slavery. White people used to own black people and were super mean to them. And now white people are mean to black people sometimes. So maybe that’s why they aren’t being nice to Kevin.”

I hesitated. “A, it’s just a game.”

He looked at me with an expression that said ‘duh.’ “I know. But it’s like real life. And black people have to work harder sometimes. That’s why we need to be nice to everyone.”

My thoughts were spinning. I had made a strong effort, in the lives of both of my children, to teach them about the components of social justice. We had gentle, kid-friendly discussions about feminism, homophobia, racism, and disabilities, always with the very strong message that we are never to be bullies and that we embrace and stand up for everyone around us. While I had mentioned racism to A before, we hadn’t had any lengthy discussions about it, and I wondered if it had been something on his mind.

A turned to me. “Did you know that there were slaves a long-long time ago, too? The Egyptians had slaves before Moses freed them.”

My eyes opened wide, and I looked at him confused. “Where did you learn about that?”

Another ‘duh’ look. “Daddy, I go to school. Me and my brother both.”

I remembered that J, his older brother, age 9, had been learning about Hebrew stories in his class lately, and they had probably been talking about it at home. The boys went to a charter school with an alternative education curriculum, with sections on mythology and historical stories. I nodded, accepting the answer.

“Slavery is horrible. It’s one of the worst things in human history,” I said.

“Yeah, I know. I’m glad people are free now.” A said with startling insight.

Later that night, after the kids were asleep, I thought about the implications of this discussion, cleaning up the kids’ toys. I thought of my older sister, who was raising three adopted kids, two of them the same age, one who is white and one who is black, and the differences in how the world will treat them growing up. I thought about two friends of mine, a gay couple, who are raising a black son and daughter, and I thought of a dear friend of mine, a black woman who had been raised by white parents. I wondered how all of these people in my life would feel about my white son choosing a black avatar, a 6-year old boy wondering if there was racism built into his video game. I didn’t come to any conclusions. I just felt the feelings, a mix of pride, fear, anxiety, and discomfort all at once. A had approached the topic from a 6-year old understanding, a place of empathy, not impatience or superiority, and that felt okay for now. He’d seen the need for more diversity in his video game and had made that happen, and that part thrilled me.

My sons, with their gay dad and straight mom, with their black cousin and lesbian aunt, with their Mormon grandparents and ex-Mormon parents, were being raised to see the world from a wider view than the one I’d be raised with.

As I laid down that night, I found sleep evasive. Strangely, I was just a bit worried about Kevin.

Fragile Mormon Ego

In a college class I taught a few years ago, right in the heart of Salt Lake City, what many locals might call the “Mormon Bubble”, during which we discussed the way Utah is viewed by the rest of the world. (In fact, I think I even blogged about this. It can be hard to remember). We talked about all of the times that Utah has hit the international media circuits over the past few years.

The actively LDS students in the room had hoped that stories about Utah would be related to charity work, to missionary work, and to Christian examples. But universally every story that we found was, well, negative. Maybe even a little bit embarrassing.

We found stories on CNN, Fox News, and other sites that were related to how Mormons make policies against gay people and fight gay marriage, about how gay teens are committing suicide, and about young women coming forward at BYU and in churches who were told to keep their sexual assaults quiet by church leaders (or worse, they were blamed for their own assaults). There were stories about tithing dollars being used to build a mall, about how BYU was being considered for a list of institutions that were known to hate gay people, and how Utah was leading the nation in gender discrimination in the workplace statistics. We made lists of these headlines, and they were hard to face up to.

One student in the classroom, a lovely LDS girl who worked hard to love everyone, raised her hand and wondered aloud why people saw the church she and her family loved so much with so much hatred and vitriol, why they laughed at things that were sacred to her. We had a discussion about reputation, and about how things can look different from the inside than from the outside. She was receptive to feedback, and ultimately it was a strong and openminded lesson for all involved. (She is my favorite kind of Mormon. She loves her church, and she is open to the ideas of others around her).

Well, yesterday, Utah hit the national headlines again, this time for a bizarre poster that was printed up on BYU campus. A small organization that is part of the school’s math department, called Women in Math, created an event in which four of the school’s beloved math professors would speak to those in attendance. The young woman who created the poster placed four photos of the teachers across the top, then the name of the organization underneath them. So it resulted in… four white guys over a heading that read ‘Women in Math’. And then, in the most Mormon way possible, the poster finished with “There will be treats. All levels of math welcome.”

28058776_10215033666012976_6880746897050503549_n

I copied this to my own Facebook wall with a roll of my eyes, and the tagline “Mormons gotta Morm. Oh BYU, what have you done now?”

Swiftly, like all things on Facebook, some of the comments became politicized. Some decried that all Mormons are misogynistic. (I argued that while the organization and belief system is misogynistic, that doesn’t mean the individual members are). Others, actively Mormon, felt their religion was being attacked and began writing out lists of facts in defense of their beliefs. This lead to some back and forths, some private messages, and, well, a few Facebook unfriendings before it was all finished.

These days, it takes a lot to get me fired up. I use a life motto, a Jewel song lyric that I refer back to often: “No longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from.” As such, I am careful with who I allow into my life, who I choose to engage with. I keep a far distance from all things Mormon in my day-to-day life, but it still hits me regularly because of my family, my community, my friends, and my clients. It’s hard to stay far from. And when you’ve lost a few friends to suicide, it is very difficult not to get very passionate about.

In a few of those private chats, one friend abjectly refused to admit that the Mormon religion is homophobic, racist, and misogynistic, and they felt that my stating such was a direct attack on their beliefs and family. “How would you feel if I said terrible things like this about gays?” they said, to which I responded, “Many gays are absolutely misogynistic, racist, and even homophobic, but not inherently. And there is a huge difference between a sexual orientation, which is not chosen, and a religious belief system, which is chosen.” Despite this, they refused to bend.

Now here is the thing, I remember how fragile my ego as a Mormon used to be. The slightest criticism of the prophets, the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, or the Church led me to defensively dig in my heels and refuse that there could be any flaws. But even when I dug in, I knew I had doubts about polygamy, about the way the church treats women, blacks, and gays, and about its weird mystical/esoteric history. (God lives on another planet, remember. It’s all very Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.)

But even the most rational person can admit that the Mormon church (as well as the wider society around it) is abjectly homophobic, racist, and misogynistic. It denied blacks the Priesthood and taught that they were cursed with blackness by God! It currently calls gay marriage apostate and doesn’t allow children of gay couples to be baptized! Women bow their heads in temple ceremonies and promise to subject themselves to their husbands… with their faces veiled!

If you are Mormon, I understand you. I empathize with you. And I probably like you. But if your ego is so fragile that you can’t admit basic facts, well, I have very little room for you in my life ultimately.

But back to that Women in Math poster, come on, that is hilarious. And if you can’t laugh with me, well there is probably not much room for you either.

Heaven

heaven.jpg

“Hey, monkeys, I heard your great-grandpa died. How are you feeling about that?”

My sons, now J (age 9) and and A (age 6), thought about it briefly.

A set down the toy crocodile he’d been playing with. “I’m sad. But he was really old, like 85, so I guess it’s okay.”

J didn’t look up from the pad of paper where he was drawing. “I’m just glad he is with great-grandma in Heaven now.”

Later that evening, I gave thought to Heaven itself. Growing up, I’d thought of it as some sort of city in the clouds with golden gates and marble spires, where everyone was white with white hair and flowing robes. For most people, Heaven was a simple construct, a nice cloudy place for the dead to keep existing and to relax forever.

But I’d been raised Mormon, a religion that taught that all of mankind existed as spirits before coming to Earth, and that in Heaven, after the judgment, those who were worthy would get to live forever in their resurrected bodies. But there also some kind of in between life, which Mormons called Spirit World, where the good and evil spirits were divided into paradise and prison before the final judgment. Then, after the judgment, there were various kingdoms where humans would get to live depending on their worthiness, and men could only aim for the very highest through obedience to complicated rules. Married heterosexual couples who were worthy would stay married and would be bonded to their children and their parents, and on and on forward and backward, creating a family chain from beginning to end. The unworthy were severed from these bonds, yet they still had their own version of the afterlife, just a little less nice, a shack instead of a mansion, or a mansion instead of a planet. In the end, the most worthy would get to live on Earth again, which would be made paradise and its own version of Heaven.

All of that, with afterlife and varying levels of worth and reward, suddenly made Heaven very complicated. And that was before introducing the concept of Hell.

My children, in their short lives, have already seen more death than I had in my childhood. By 9, I didn’t really know anyone who died, not personally, until I was a teenager, but they have lost five of their great grandparents (the other three having died before their births). Death, to them, is something that happens to the old, as a natural part of existence. They don’t seem overly impacted, sad, or distressed, they just know that someone who was a parent to their grandparents is now gone on. To them, Heaven is still simple, a place to rest and be happy.

I’m not sure what Heaven is to me now. As a therapist, I often have spiritual discussions with my clients, helping them discover their own truths and sort out the complexities of their religious upbringings in their own lives. When asked to give a label to my own belief structure, I often tell people that I’m a “spiritual atheist” and that, while I don’t believe in God or religion, that I do believe in the human spirit and its capacity for progress and change, for peace and purpose. And while I don’t believe in cloud cities and white flowing robes anymore than I do in winged beings with harps, I also don’t believe in a great void of blackness where souls just slip away into oblivion.

It’s hard for me to sort out thoughts on Heaven without being influenced by my upbringing, where eternal rest was equated directly to obedience within a narrow set of rules. “Do as you are told, and you get to have the best afterlife” no longer sits well with me. And there are billions and billions of human souls who have come before me. In a world where millions have been killed in concentration camps or by atomic bombs and were told that they deserved it because of their heritage, where millions spent their lifetimes in the bonds of slavery and were told that they deserved it because of their skin color, or where millions were ravaged by AIDS and told that they deserved it for their lifestyle choices… what is the afterlife for them? Is it a place that white Christians have determined is primarily set up for white Christians? I can’t reconcile those untold millions into the Heaven I was raised to believe in, and so I reject that concept completely.

If my children were asking me about Heaven, I wouldn’t list any sort of merit-based system. I wouldn’t discuss a premortal existence, or God, or fire and brimstone, or higher or lower degrees. I would instead describe the very images they are likely to draw. A place where we are happy and love the people we love. And there can be clouds and trees and peace, human development in healthy relationships, free of war and pain. That’s the place I want them picturing their great-grandparents.

An uncomplicated space of love and health where every voice is heard and every person is loved.

In fact, maybe I won’t ask them to draw it, and maybe I won’t draw it for them. Maybe we can draw it together.

the Mormon out of the Man

moroni

“At what point will I stop talking about Mormons? When will it no longer be a part of me?”

I leaned back in my chair, a deep sigh escaping my nose as a I did so, and I couldn’t help but smile. “I don’t think that will ever be the case.”

“But I’m not Mormon anymore! I left! I’m not in it any longer!”

“Well, neither am I. In fact, I can’t seem to stop writing about it.” Internally, I reviewed the ways Mormonism was showing up in my life, even after my years away from the religion. In fact, I’d just finished my own memoirs, and I gave it a three word title, all three words easily capturing my story: Gay Mormon Dad.

“It just makes me crazy. I don’t go to church. I don’t associate with my family. I don’t even live in Utah anymore. I just, I swear it comes up in conversation at least a few times per week.”

I laughed out loud this time. “For me, too. I mean, I do live in Utah, but it is constant. I choose biographies randomly, for example. Recently I read one about James Buchanan, the president before Abraham Lincoln. He was a terrible president, and, ironically, was probably gay. Anyway, before he led the country into Civil War, he actually sent an army out to Utah to confront Brigham Young and his followers. There was a whole chapter about how Young ordered the Saints to destroy their own lands so the army couldn’t get them, and how they later came to peace and rebuilt. I spent two days thinking about how that was the environment I grew up in. The prophet tells you to burn down your own house to defy the government, and you do it, and then he convinces you that it was what God wanted. That’s how I grew up.”

My friend rubbed his fingers over his temples, fighting off a headache. “That is the world we grew up in, isn’t it? It feels like brainwashing.”

I leaned back in my chair. “I once had someone, who is still actively Mormon, tell me that I was obsessed with Mormonism, that I couldn’t stop talking about it. He said that if I wanted to get out of the church, then I should just get out and let people who practice the religion do so in peace. He asked me whyI keep writing about it.”

“Well, what did you say?”

“I told him it’s still a part of my existence. It was the driving force of the first three decades of my life, and of my childhood. My family still actively practices. My kids’ mom grew up in it, and their heritage on both sides for generations was part of it. And it surrounds me here. The streets in my  neighborhood are named after Mormon places. The government is predominantly Mormon, and the culture all around me. The very history of the place I live is all Mormon-influenced. If I talk about grade school, my grandparents, my college years, my mission, the births of my children, being gay, being a dad, dating, or where I live, they are all tied to and influenced by Mormons.”

“Well, fuck.” My friend said, and we both laughed more loudly this time.

I jabbed his shoulder. “I guess it is easier to take the man out of the Mormon than it is to take the Mormon out of the man.”

Our conversation shifted for a bit to current events across the country. Hurricanes were ravaging Southern coastlines, again. The children of immigrants were being told by those in power that they weren’t welcome here, again. Transgender people were being banned from the military, again. Racists were marching in the streets while public officials refused to denounce them, again. Public shootings were being reported daily in the news, again. Connections to Russia were being investigated and it felt like the Cold War, again. Women’s right to health care was being debated, again. It felt like all of the most dark parts of America’s history were showing up in politics and the media in the worst ways, and in the most public ways possible. It was exhausting.

“If we left the country, moved somewhere that felt safer and more accepting, like Canada or France or wherever, I bet we would still talk about being American, almost constantly. And we would talk about being gay. And we would talk about growing up Mormon. And being parents. We would always give voice to the things that inspire us, that shape and mold us into the people that we have become. And I guess that is brainwashing in its way, but I guess it is also just human culture, the way we tend to view things through our own eyes and experiences.” I rapped my fingers on the table gently as I talked, positing a different reality that somehow felt the same.

My friend laughed again. “I guess it is easier to take the man out of the gay Mormon American dad than it is to talk the American gay Mormon American dad out of the man… or something like that.”

“Hey, not so much the American part, but that sounds like an awesome book title!”

“Man, you do love to talk about yourself.” He jabbed.

“So do you!” I jabbed back.

And so do we all.

a message to white people who are tired of talking about hard things

burningbra

This election matters to me. For many reasons.

Candidate one: a woman. A woman who is respected in many countries all over the world as a powerful and effective and respectful leader. A woman who has been called the most qualified candidate in American history. A woman who is a strategist, with a multi-ethnic team at her side, who runs on causes of social justice. And a woman who is being torn to shreds by her home country’s media (on one side) over scandals and lies and secret plots, all things that have been willfully overlooked in nearly every other presidential candidate across time.

And Candidate two: a man. A narcissistic, egomaniacal billionaire who avoids paying taxes, who marries super models and then cheats on them, and who refuses to pay people for the work they do for him. An overweight 70 year old man who has insulted basically anyone who is not rich and white and what he considers pretty: the handicapped, the overweight, women, veterans, the elderly, the mentally ill, the refugee, LGBT people, Muslims, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and nearly every other ethnic group. A man described as the least qualified candidate in American history.

I mean, look at their very campaign slogans. Her: Stronger Together. An invitation for everyone to work together, share, invest, and build, celebrating everyone. His: Make America Great Again. An invitation to forget the progress of recent years and go back to a time when white men could go back to being comfortable as white men, and where everyone else knew their places.

From even some of my closest loved ones, I keep hearing these bizarre arguments and frustrations about the election. Things like “I just want it to be over. I’m tired of them hearing about these things. I’m tired of people being mean to each other.” And “I get that Donald Trump is gross but I don’t trust Hillary. She is so dishonest.” And “I’m not voting. It doesn’t matter what the outcome of this election is. It doesn’t have any impact on my life.” And “I wish we could go back 50 years when things were easier and happier.”

These comments aggravate me to no end for many reasons, and they tie directly in to why the election matters so much to me in the first place. Every one of my personal values is on the national stage. Rape culture and gender equality. Systemic racism and its impact on minority groups. LGBT rights and teen suicides. Christian privilege and the hate speak about other religions or belief structures. Gun violence without sanction.

People in privilege have a habit of being faced with unpleasant topics, and then getting tired of hearing about them. “Okay, okay, I get it, women get raped. Let’s teach women how not to get raped. Now can we please stop talking about it?” “All right, I understand, prisons are disproportionately full of black people. But black people commit more crimes, so they should stop doing that. Let’s move on.” “I got it, another gay kid killed himself. But suicide isn’t just about sexuality, he must have been mentally ill. Did you see the Voice last night?”

And that is the very essence of privilege! You get to stop talking about it! Because it isn’t staring you in the face every day! If YOU were getting raped, if YOUR paycheck was less than your coworkers, if YOUR loved ones were being attacked by police, if YOUR son was pushed toward suicide, if YOUR family were being called rapists because of their last name… if it was you, and everyone around you just shrugged and told you to stop bringing it up, would you stand for that?

The very fact that it is 2016 and we are still having arguments about whether or not racism exists, that people are still learning what rape culture is, that children are putting guns to their heads because churches and families say they don’t fit in, and that a country that was founded on freedom of religion is debating entire religions from crossing the borders… I just can’t wrap my brain around it. It infuriates me.

Also, fifty years ago, things were not that great! That was the middle of the Civil Rights movement, with the country still coming out of the segregation era! Gay people were being sent in for shock treatments, and women were expected to housewives!

And if you are longing for the politicians of previous eras, well, stop white-washing your history. First of all, ALL of them have been white men. And NONE of them are beyond corruption. John Kennedy colluded with the mafia. Ronald Reagan ignored the AIDS crisis. Bill Clinton lied to the public about his affairs. And George Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Life was only better back then because you didn’t have to talk about hard things, not until you were forced to, and then you started to pay attention. Years later. (Have you ever heard of Selma? Stonewall? The Suffragettes?)

Our government has long been dominated by white men who shrug off things that don’t bother them directly. I remember legislation in Idaho years back, when a group petitioned that the locally named Squaw Canyon should be renamed because ‘squaw’ is an incredibly offensive words to Native Americans. The local white government officials shrugged off the legislation, saying it would be inconvenient and that it didn’t bother enough people. These are the attitudes that exist in every corner of American government, in every state and county and city. The simply cannot be the basis for our government decisions any longer.

It is long past time we had a representative government, filled equally with men and women, black and white and Latino and Native and Asian, Christian and Muslim and atheist, gay and straight and transgender. Our government should reflect every shade of human diversity.

And for those of you who are sick of seeing difficult things talked about, and shrug it off with an annoyed muttering about ‘political correctness’, well, you may have the luxury of not being impacted by the topics you seek to avoid. But you don’t get to avoid them just because they make you uncomfortable.

Because for the rest of us, it’s part of our daily lives. And our primary problem? It isn’t so much the sexism and racism and homophobia and Islamophobia, etc, that you get tired of hearing about. Our primary problem is your unwillingness to do anything about it because it makes you uncomfortable.

And for every topic you have grown tired of, there are a dozen more that haven’t yet hit the media at those levels: limited treatment options for the mentally ill, the violent murders of transgender women of color, Native American land rights, human trafficking, the real truth about poverty and homelessness, and on and on.

So woman up, open your ears, listen, and do the right thing. Then maybe we’ll quiet down a bit. Maybe.

Two White Guys Talking About Privilege

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Hey, professor, you wanted to see me?

Yeah, Mark, close the door, let’s talk for a bit. Have a seat.

What’s up?

During class today, when we were talking about privilege, you got quiet.

That’s because I didn’t have anything to say.

I think that is unlikely. You are usually very talkative and insightful during class. And you were more than just quiet, you were uncomfortable and closed off.

Nah, I’m good.

Mark, look, you aren’t being graded on this. You showed up to class and got your work done. Grade already recorded. This is just a discussion and a check-in. What happened today?

Look, I–I just learned early on in this program that when it comes to topics like this, no one wants to know what I have to say.

And why do you feel that way?

I’m a white guy. I’m the minority here and no matter what I say is going to be wrong. And when I have tried to share things in this program, I’ve been attacked.

Okay, let’s look at the big picture here. You are working on getting a Masters degree in Social Work. You are in a cohort of primarily women, in fact about 80 per cent of the students are women, and it is safe to say that all of them are feminists.

That’s fine. I’m a feminist too.

So am I. Now why do you feel like you are attacked when you share your opinion on the topic of privilege?

I don’t feel attacked, I am attacked.

Why do you feel attacked?

Okay, okay. Look, a couple of weeks back, I tried sharing my opinion on gay marriage in a class where the topic came up. I don’t have a problem with gay people, I really don’t. I have gay friends, I believe in gay rights. I know you’re gay. And I’m not Mormon like most of the people here, but I am Christian, and it’s not so easy, you know? I see gay people at my internship and I was talking to my pastor about that once and he told me that any time I choose to provide service to gay people, then I am choosing them over God. And so I shared that in class, that I felt divided, and a bunch of the students interrupted me and got angry and told me that if I wanted to be a social worker, I would have to quit my church, and no one would listen. They attacked me for being a Christian white guy. So now I just don’t share my opinion any more.

Okay, to start, you have heard me talk about the ‘yes, and’ principle in class before. Two realities can co-exist at the same time. The sun can warm me, and it can burn me. Food can nourish me and make me gain weight. My mom can have two gay kids that she loves and supports and still not know where she stands on gay marriage. And you can be a Christian white social worker whose religious beliefs and professional beliefs don’t always line up. There is room for contradictions in all of us.

Yeah, I get that.

So I’m going to be tough on you before I am supportive. Is that okay?

Yes, I trust you and your intentions.

There is an absolute irony about you feeling attacked.

An irony? How so?

Be fair, be strengths-focused. Why do you think your comments upset the people around you?

Because they are women with strong opinions, and anything but the answer they want is the wrong answer.

I don’t think that is the case at all. Try again, why do you think they are upset.

I honestly don’t know. Help me out here.

You understand the concept of privilege, right?

Sure, those in the majority have inherent privileges in their day to day living that those in minorities don’t have to deal with.

Give me a few examples.

As a man, I can be hired and expect a fair wage, where women often get harassed and paid way less than men for doing the same job. As a white guy, I see my majority represented everywhere in American leadership, I have better access to scholarships, jobs, pay, legal representation, college opportunities, etc.

Excellent. We had a conversation about privilege on the first day of class. The more majority statuses you fall into, the greater your privilege opportunities. White, Christian, male, young, fit or thin, able-bodied, gender-defined, straight, healthy, middle class or above.

Yeah, I remember. We talk about it in all of our classes a little bit.

Since your legs work, you don’t have to worry about whether or not a wheelchair ramp is available to your second floor classes. Since you were born male, and you define as male, you get to use the men’s room without having to worry about what people think because you are transgender. Since you are young and not elderly, you can drive a car without everyone around you assuming you are slow or lacking purpose, everyone being impatient around you.

Right, I get all that.

You get it in the head, not sure you get it totally in the heart. They don’t always line up.

Okay, what does that have to do with all this.

You are in a graduate program in a field that advocates for social justice. This is one of the few programs that actually has a lot of material on privilege and its implications, one of the few programs that has a majority of women. This program actually gets you to think about and confront difficult ideas on these topics.

So what makes my experience here ironic?

Mark, when it comes to big conversations like this in the public, who do you think has the most to say? Who do you think gets the final say?

The majority. Men. White men.

Absolutely. And who feels silenced?

Women. Gay people. Everyone that falls into those non-majority categories.

Absolutely. But it is about more than feeling silenced. It’s different on almost every level. Let me give you an example. You are married, right?

Yeah.

Okay, when you go out in public, do you hold your wife’s hand?

Yeah, sure. All the time.

And do you feel watched, criticized, discriminated against?

No, why would I?

I’m a 36 year old man. I am dating a guy. A few Sundays ago, we are out walking, and we are holding hands, nothing else. Just walking, talking, and holding hands. And I hadn’t done that in a while. But everyone we walk by, I feel a nervousness creep up in my chest. I’m watching them to see if they notice us holding hands, every person we pass. And I’m expecting them to say things like ‘gross’ or ‘fags’ or ‘disgusting.’ I’m expecting someone to just look up and say ‘we don’t care what you do in your home, but do you have to do that out here?’ And I’m walking around and I’m nervous, even though I’m trying to relax.

Look, I–

Wait, I’m not done. So this guy and I, we see this couple sitting on the concrete stairs in front of us. An older white guy with a beard, and an older black woman, and both of them are in dirty clothes and look like they have probably been using drugs recently. As as we get closer, they both sit up and I’m waiting for one of them to say something rude to us. The lady, she says loudly, ‘Hey!’ and I take a step back, nervous, not sure if she is going to ask for money or say something rude to us. And I say ‘yeah?’ and she says ‘I just wanted to say, I think you two are cute.’ And I say ‘thank you’ and the guy I’m holding hands with and I both smile and laugh about this.

Okay, but–

Just a minute, I’m almost done. So I’m walking away, and I’m thinking about how terrible it is that in 2015, I have to be nervous about something as simple as holding hands with a guy that I like, and how straight people never have to think about it. And that’s privilege. And then I realize that because I’m in the middle class and I have an apartment and a bank account, I see this couple and I automatically assume they want to ask for money, and they probably think that every person who walks by them thinks they are going to ask for money. People avoid eye contact, treat them rudely, get scared when they say ‘hey’ because they assume these things about them. And they have to live with that. And this woman, she’s not only poor, she’s a woman, and she’s black, and she has all these other things in her mind. I’m worried about what people will say because I’m gay. She’s worried about sexual assault and judgments and where she is going to sleep tonight. And that is privilege. And it sucks that we live in a world based around it.

I… okay. Yeah. That sucks.

So here is the irony. You are feeling marginalized in one class by a few people who didn’t like what you had to say. You felt attacked by some students in your cohort in a program that is all about social justice.

What makes that ironic?

Well, simply put: that feeling you felt in class? Feeling silenced, disrespected, like no one around you wanted to hear what you had to say?

Yeah?

That’s how I felt all the time as a gay kid growing up. Every day. That is how many of the women in your class feel in this patriarchal world of men. That is how everyone who doesn’t fall in the majority feels all the time.

Whoa.

Yeah. And you felt it once. And so now you aren’t talking any more.

I–yeah–that–wow. Okay. So that’s what it feels like to not be privileged.

Exactly.

Okay.

Now let me give you credit. You have a good brain. An intuitive mind. You care about people. You advocate for others. You are a good student and a good social worker. And this is a ‘yes, and’ thing again. You are privileged. You are going to have to learn how to listen to others. How to feel marginalized and be okay with it. How to share your experiences and conflicts with others, and listen when they don’t agree with you, and ask questions, and learn how others feel, not just with your head but with your heart. You don’t get to shut down. You get to be uncomfortable and learn. Because…

Because that is how others feel all the time.

Exactly. So next time the conversation starts, I want you to join in, because we need your voice. It’s a good one.

Thank you, professor. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

Thank you for being willing to think about it. See you next week, Mark.

Yeah, see you next week.

Man in a monkey cage

The sign read:

The African Pigmy, “Ota Benga.”

Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches.
Weight, 103 pounds. Brought from the
Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Cen-
tral Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Ex-
hibited each afternoon during September

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On September 8, 1906, the Bronx Zoo in New York City added a new exhibit, a small coffee-skinned African man named Ota Benga. Placed with the monkeys, the man had an open cage to sleep in. Delighted visitors came by the thousands, the tens of thousands, bringing their friends and children to see the African man. Many of the spectators believed him to be some sub-species of man, somewhere on the evolutionary scale between monkeys and human children. And the spectators didn’t just want to see the man, they wanted him to perform. They wanted to see him hunt, play with the orangutan, dance and climb trees. If he hid, they threw rocks against his cage to draw him out. If he sat, they yelled racial slurs and insults to spark him into action, something their children could clap over and tell their friends about later. “Dance, monkey, dance,” they seemed to yell as an adult man sat behind bars, listening to their unfamiliar foreign words, yet their intent all too easy to understand.

Word spread quickly, throughout the country and then internationally: the Americans had an African man on exhibit with monkeys. New York had been a free state long before the Civil War, seeing African American citizens as deserving of equality and equal rights. And now, decades after the Emancipation Proclamation, a man was in a cage.

It took them time to figure out what had happened, and language barriers, direct lies, poor record-keeping, and time have kept many of the details hidden.

The man who came to be known as Ota Benga grew up in the Congo, then under Belgian rule. Under harsh sanctions from the Belgian people, the Congolese tribes were exploited and forced into labor. Samuel Verner, who had served as a Christian missionary in the Congo previously, and who had also spent time in a mental institution, was sent to the Congo to acquire willing men to be brought to America to be put on display at the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. Benga was among them.

A bizarre series of events led to Benga being placed in the Museum of Natural History before he was placed on exhibit at the zoo, exploited and stared at.

Verner told story after story, each contradicting the others, in an effort to make himself sound heroic. He told how he had rescued Benga from slave traders, how Benga trusted only him, how Benga had asked to come to America and be placed on display. Yet in truth, Verner was a swindler and a liar. Not only had he fathered children with women while he was in Africa, he had racked up debts and exploited money. And Benga was not the first Congolese boy he had brought to the United States.

I learned about Benga only recently, when I chose a book about him at random off of a shelf. I read ravenously, devouring the words and images of this story that I had never heard before, these forgotten horrific moments of American history.

How could this have possibly happened, I wondered, in a country that is founded on Christian principles, equality of all men, and dignity of each person. And then I recalled the very founding of our country, a mix of declaring liberty from foreign powers while asserting our foreign power over the Native Americans with violence and blood; a mixture of welcoming foreigners, while building the country on the backs of foreign slaves.

The violent opposition of it all makes my head spin. We who consider ourselves the great democracy, founded on the principles of free speech and choice and religion, the greatest country in the world with equality and opportunity for all, priding ourselves on the American dream, yet we have entire presidential campaigns running on premises of refuting gay marriage, opposing women’s health care options, restricting immigration by building walls, and banning religious groups.

Ota Benga was a small man, but he was not a child nor did he have limited intellect. He had filed his teeth to fine points not because he was a cannibal or a savage, but because that was a custom among his tribe, a rite of passage for men. He communed with the monkeys in the exhibit not because he considered himself one of them, but because they were his only solace and support as the white Americans jeered.

After Benga was released from the zoo, he was taken in by an educated group of black Americans who gave him companionship and work and taught him the language. Benga lived among these citizens, whose ancestors had been forced from their homes to be slaves, belonging and yet not belonging; they had history in America, he was a refugee. It is believed Benga had lost a wife and children in the Congo, a result of cruel white men, before coming to America. He lived in relative isolation here for years, using an American-ized version of his name, Otto Bingo.

Until, in 1916, Benga found a gun and shot himself through the heart, a poetically tragic end to his story.

As I finish this story, and reflect, I’m left to wonder how we, as an evolving society of Americans… how much have we really changed?

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the Frenchman and the American

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So what is it the Americans think of the French?

That’s a rather broad question.

Yes, but I mean traditionally. Culturally. There must be some existing stereotypes. 

Okay, sure. There is a tendency among American comedies to make fun of the French for being, well, cowards. They called them frogs was back when. I think it dates back to World War II.

Oh, that is nothing. That is actually a world-wide stereotype. I lived in Ireland for work for a few years, and was teased about that all the time. I think it is rather funny, actually. 

And there is a perception about the French that they love their wine and love their women. In the 1950s, the country seemed enamored of France. There were a bunch of musicals about Paris, all the Maurice Chevalier type, an older man constantly drinking wine and champagne and lusting after women.

Well, there is truth to that as well. We do love a fine wine or a strong drink. And we French men, we definitely love our women. It’s rather funny, many Americans expect me to be an expert on wine, but I am not. But because I have a French accent, they expect that I do. I throw a few fancy words around and everyone thinks I have a very educated opinion. ‘Ooh, this wine, it’s from 2013? That was a very good year for red wines in oak barrels. This is delicious.’ I have no idea what I’m talking about, but suddenly everyone is ooo-ing and aah-ing over the wine. 

The same with cheeses and breads?

Of course.

Growing up, I based my knowledge of France off of that chef character from the Little Mermaid, chopping up all the fish and crabs. Sacre bleu, what is zis, how on Earth could I miss such a sweet little succulent crab?

Oh my, you must stop singing. 

Clearly I need more wine.

The funny part of the Little Mermaid is it sends such a terrible example for children, and for women. It seems to suggest that 16 year old girls should defy their fathers and give up everything for some boy. Give up your legs, give up your voice, give up your life for the boy. Beauty and the Beast is the one that is actually based in France.

Oh my god! The candlestick! Flirting over the feather duster the whole show! That’s you!

I’m hardly the candlestick. 

So I went up to Park City today. It’s the Sundance film festival right now, so the city is packed with people in jackets and hats, bustling down the street in a rush everywhere with full cups of coffee in hand. I pass these two men, both of them clearly French, and very snobbish. They are sauntering down the sidewalk, smoking cigarettes, blocking traffic, as they talk in their French accents about how awful the last movie was. It’s like the were critiquing a cuisine.

Well, they sound very French, except for the sauntering part. They must not have been Parisians. Everyone there is in a hurry.

Okay, so the same question back to you. What do the French think of Americans?

Well, to be honest, not just the French, but most of the world, at least the places I have been, they think of Americans as idiots. Very boastful idiots. Always going on and on about how America is the best country in the world. But when asked why, Americans say because of Freedom. It is so annoying. Much of the world has freedom, yet America has the highest prison populations, the most gun violence. Not that France is perfect, we definitely have a lot of racism there, but America takes racism to another level. I don’t see what everyone is bragging over. 

Well, fair enough. There is some truth to that as well.

I think the stereotype exists, but more in very religious communities in the south. In Texas and Alabama perhaps. French stereotypes exist as well, but only in various parts of the country. 

People from any country only need to see one Donald Trump rally or Sarah Palin speech to realize we have a lot of gun-toting idiots in this country.

And the gun violence. My god, so many mass shootings. It seems like every few months or weeksDon’t get me wrong, there are many things I love about America. I did choose to live here for the next few years. 

You definitely picked an interesting city to live in. Salt Lake City is fascinating.

It really is! I researched a lot before I moved here. But I am regularly surprised by it. 

Well, Utah is a state that formed outside of the United States government. Brigham Young led hundreds of thousands of people out here and basically became the emperor of the land, settling the whole place in the name of their God. So when the government came along, Young was elected the first governor. It is literally the Mormon holy-land.

Yes, but the city does not feel so Mormon.

Well, down the road is literally the headquarters of the Mormon church. Yet we have a lesbian mayor, a fairly Democratic government, and a huge LGBT population.

It is a fascinating place. There is much going on in the city, from live music to bars on every corner. I think I will like it here. 

Come on, you’re doing fine. You’re already meeting girls on Tinder.

Yes, yes, I have met one girl. That must make me quite the ladies’ man, as you say. 

Ha, shut up and drink your wine, Frenchie.

After you, American.