Friday, 8 June 2012

Listening, language and leadership

(Sorry for yet another tragically long post, I'll bold the important parts for quick reading)

If fundamentalist Christians and members of the gay rights lobby share one thing in common, it's their claim on the word 'marginalised'. Christians claim to be marginalised in today's society, for example when they are not allowed to wear crosses at their workplace. Gay people claim to be marginalised when they are exempt from marriage, or when they are discriminated against.

I have claimed, in the past, to have felt 'marginalised' within the church as a non-straight Christian. Yet the church has often claimed it doesn't marginalise people- churches are surely inclusive, and surely Jesus didn't shy away from being around sinners and the despised (bla bla bla). Yes, this is true in my experience. I have been out in public and been called a 'dyke' by a random stranger yet I have never walked into a church and been called names by the people in the pews. I have never, I can categorically say, experienced any sort of direct, overt, face to face discrimination over my less than clear sexual orientation within the walls of a church.

But... yup there's a but coming.

But something I have learnt, is that marginalisation does not have a face that can be seen in the same way discrimination or hate crimes do. No, to experience life at the margins of society, or an institution or a family or any sort of group, is to experience something subtle, something insidious. But not something malicious. That's the difference between discrimination and marginalisation- the latter just happens, without us even realising we are contributing to it.

So I am going to share with you what my experience of being marginalised has been over the years because if we can identify the subtle ways it occurs, then we can work harder to stop it happening.

There are 3 areas within which the church, both as individual institutions and as the collective, perpetuate marginalisation; listening, language and leadership.

1. Listening
One of the first steps the church I used to belong to took when I 'came out' was to summon me to a meeting with the pastoral leadership team. I was reduced to tears as I sat and was told that my relationship was 'a confused friendship that had gone too far' and that me and my partner had to 'never see each other again'.

If they had listened to me, they would have known that I KNEW I wasn't simply confused- trust me, the fallout wasn't worth it simply for a bit of confusion. They would have known that asking me to depart from my lesbian lover was only going to cause me to spiral into a deep and profound depression. And when I get depressed, it gets messy.

They did not listen to the parts that mattered- my feelings, my emotions, my concerns for my mental health. All they heard was 'homosexual activity' and that was as far as they were willing to listen before dishing out their poor advice.

What happened next, was I was sent to a meeting with a member of the church who was gay. I told them that it wasn't going to help if she was celibate. I wasn't looking for an argument over whether it was right or not, I was looking for support. I met with this girl. I said "have you ever been in love?" she said "no". I felt the point of my issue was being side stepped. I was trying to tell them that I was in love, that I was struggling to reconcile that with my faith, that I was TERRIFIED of the future and of what all of this meant for me (I was only 19, for pity's sake). I needed to talk to someone who had been through that terror, someone who could understand the hurt and sadness I was feeling and who could help me find my way through that. If they had listened, they would have known a meeting like that would only make me more confused, and more stubborn.

What happened next? I was sent to a Christian counsellor, part funded by my church. On the face of it, this was supportive and inclusive. Underneath the insidious marginalisation was occurring. Week upon week I met with this woman who didn't listen to a word I said. She would spend the hour praying for my lost soul, that I would stop being gay. Once, I brought her a bit of writing I had done talking about things I felt in words I could not verbalise. She said she would read it. The next week she hadn't read it. For the next 3 sessions I asked her if she had read it yet and she promised she would read it by the next session. She never did read what I wrote. She never listened enough to hear what I felt. It was all about her own agenda.

I cannot express to you enough, how important it is to LISTEN. I was a naive 19 year old, I was confused and I was hurting. When I feel like no-one is listening to my feelings, I automatically do things that make them listen. In the past this has been self-destructive. That time, I ended up rebelling. The year following all of these things, I went crazy, I did whatever I wanted, I did many of the things I always promised myself I would never do. I have to take responsibility for my actions, but I also wonder if there could have been a straighter path back to happiness if people in my church had focused on the issues at hand, if they had listened rather than judged, if rather than sidelining me they had embraced me and held onto me. All these ways they reacted, because they weren't really listening, pushed me away further and further until I was completely lost and on the outside.

(By the way, they subtly sidelined me until I told them I was leaving at which point they waved me goodbye on my merry way and I found a new church where the vicar LISTENED and supported me in the way I needed rather than the way he saw as correct).

2. Language
Last weekend I was at a Christian event. I went with my 'partner' and we were overtly gay. We publicly cuddled and pecked lips and walked around arm in arm. No-one said a word to us. No-one shouted nasty things, gave us dirty looks (that we saw anyway!) or acted in any threatening way. For almost the entire weekend, I felt included, and I felt we were legitimately there as a couple alongside the straight couples.

Except, there was subtle marginalisation. Three particular moments made my radar alarm. Firstly, in the 'marketplace' there was a stand for the organisation 'Care for the Family'. There was no overt banner ousting homosexuals, but they had a book stand. Lots of books, magazines, images and projections of the traditional family, images of a 2.4 nuclear family, with a mother and father. Another book I flicked through from another stand had a chapter devoted to explaining why being gay is wrong. A scour of the makeshift bookshop in a little marquee produced more books all geared towards a traditional family.  Me and my partner have been having a bit of light hearted banter recently about our 'family', 'deciding' on our kids names, picturing our wedding, chatting about our child rearing approaches. If we end up together, we intend to be a very Christian family, we intend to raise church going children, to do missions work, to serve in our church. But I did not see one single book, not even one little indication anywhere, of any sort of support for us. Of any image or line in a book that includes us as a legitimate family. Don't get me wrong, these books do exist ( but their presence is strangely absent from large scale Christian events.

Secondly, I bought a Christian magazine from a stand, mainly out of interest of what constitutes content for a Christian woman demographic. A few pages in, an advert for the Coalition for Marriage petition. That bloody thing gets EVERYWHERE!

Thirdly, one of the hosts was talking about God and stuff (funny that) and he talked a bit about family and marriage, I can't remember the exact wording but they were passing comments, mainly used as examples, and were side points to what he was actually talking about. The issue I had, maybe a bit pedantic, but he referred only to 'husbands' and 'wives' and spoke as though the only relationship he had ever heard of was a marriage between a man and a woman. I'm not saying I expect him to be all PC and to add on 'and people in same- sex relationships' or to talk about it as tho it's all part and parcel. But, what got me was the complete nonchalance, the absolute lack of realisation that what he was saying was only applicable to a minority (assuming his language also marginalised single people, widows, or any other set up in which the people in it can't relate to his words). In general, we need to be careful not to exclude people in our choice of words.

So, my point being, we were never overtly pushed to the sidelines, but there was an underlying assumption that cropped up time and time again over the weekend, that we were at a Christian event and ergo, we were straight and conventional in our relationships. The entire language used in the event and the one-sided representation of family life made it seem as though they were pretending people like us didn't exist, and certainly weren't there among them. Next time you are listening to a sermon, listening to the congregation chat, listening to the Christian radio, watching Christian TV, reading a magazine, at a Christian event, doing anything where Christians hold the dominant voice, I dare you, to listen to the language they are using, and you'll see this assumption hidden within Christian discourse. And when you do, think of how it sounds to your friends who don't fit the box.

3. Leadership
All of this falls under the remit of leadership. Their influence has run beside every experience I've had of marginalisation. We are held back from moving forward on the issue of same-sex marriage largely because of the voice of the leadership of the collective church. I'm not asking for a U-turn on the issue, but I am asking that leaders set an example of listening to the marginalised, of considering us rather than pretending we don't exist, of crushing these assumptions that we all fit in a perfect little conventional Christian box.
I read in the papers about what some Bishop has said most recently about same-sex marriage, I watch them all from afar debating the importance of protecting the definition of marriage, I see their signatures on petitions against same-sex marriage. Leaders in the church are outspoken on the issue. But are they listening as much as they are talking?
This subtle sidelining of gay Christians won't end until leaders stop perpetuating it.

Somewhere along the way it's become unacceptable to actively discriminate against gay people, or to treat them badly, but it's still OK to push them out and to allow them to live on the margins of church life, stopping them from being fully included through exclusive language and an inability to listen and support them.

So, don't assume that just because you aren't standing at the church gate with a sign saying 'God Hates Fags' that you aren't pushing gay people away from your church, whether you are a fellow member or a leader. On one hand, being exclusive doesn't mean physically turning gay people away at they church door, on the other hand, being inclusive doesn't mean standing with a clipboard rallying support for gay marriage and herding all the homosexuals through your church door. I'd argue that all it takes to stop pushing homosexual Christians out of the church is to listen a little more to their needs, and to respond in a language they can understand.

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