I made a comment in a post a couple of weeks ago that I didn’t want to draw too close a parallel between the marginalization felt by African Americans and queer people. I had a couple of conversations today about this very thing, so I guess today is the day to write about it.
I was talking this morning with an African American friend who is also queer, about the ways marginalized people can get pigeon-holed into specific categories (be they “queer,” “black,” “feminist,” “womanist,” “Latina,” “lesbian,” “transgender,” etc). The problem with conflating the experiences of marginalization felt by different groups is that it tends to minimize the particularities of different forms of oppression. For instance, I’ve been reading James Cones’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree as part of a Lenten book study on my seminary campus, and Cone talks about how the juke joint and the church became places of refuge for many African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. Juke joints gave them a way to sing and laugh on Friday and Saturday night; churches gave them a way to hope. As my ethics professor Dr. Cannon states, “Church was where we were told we were loved.” For people who have been felt the weight of oppressive social structures, there is an understanding that one’s faith and faith community remain a way to live into God’s promises.
Many queer people, however, are forced to make a decision between holding on to their faith community or their sexuality/gender identity. The rejection many have felt at the hands of people of faith (even well-meaning people of faith) runs so deep that the church is the last place they want to go on Sunday morning. That some parents’ religious convictions are so deep that they see forcing their gay children into homelessness as a righteous thing speaks to the church’s power on issues dealing with sexual minorities.
The nuances of each of these situations are multiplied exponentially when you begin to talk about gender, class, or nationality: how does my experience as a college-educated, white lesbian who grew up in an upper-middle-class home with two parents vary from that of a black transgender woman who was raised with her three siblings by a single mother in a two-room apartment?
The problem with lumping all kinds of oppression into the same group is that it minimizes the experiences of oppressed groups. This minimizing can then allow us to skim over how deeply embedded our assumptions are about what is normative, or it can make space for resentment among marginalized people, leading to a sort of comparative analysis of “which group is most oppressed” – both situations merely reinforce the barriers that are already constructed by systems that classify and quantify people based on their social location. This is why it is essential that, in any conversation about heterosexism, we are also talking about racism, classism, transphobia, sexism, and any other forms of marginalization that happens in society.
Theoethicist Gary Dorrien states that, “wherever white people are dominant, white culture is transparent to them. It is hard to see because it is everything that is not specifically African-American culture, Native American culture, and so on” (Social Ethics in the Making, 2011, p 679). Being white means that when I turn on the tv, or go to a movie, it is likely that the majority of people I see will look like me. Being queer, however, means that much of what I have learned about relationships or gender identity has been refracted through a hetero-normative lens that doesn’t really fit my reality. The experiences and identity of the friend I mentioned at the beginning of this post have been refracted through a number of different lenses, and the way she understands the world and her faith is going to be different than the way I understand mine. Part of the beauty of getting to know people of different races, nationalities, sexual orientations, and gender identities is that I have the opportunity to learn about the ways in which our experiences of suffering and joy bind us together as a part of the human family. I can recognize that my race and class privilege are not things for which I need to continually atone, but it is vital that I remain aware of how these privileges affect the ways I understand the world.
I’ll close with a quote from Marvin M. Ellison’s book Erotic Justice: A Liberating Ethic of Sexuality:
“The sacred movement of the Spirit is revealed in our full-bodied yearning for mutual relation and communal well-being. A powerful reclaiming of this sacred Spirit takes place whenever people assert their power to seek communal justice, to name the Sacred for themselves, and to draw their own conclusions about the gospel for their times.
In joining this movement, we may recognize ourselves as heirs to a freedom tradition, no matter how marginal or fragile that tradition appears to be. We are recipients of an awesome, though long ignored, moral legacy from those who preceded us in the faith and refused to reconcile either God or themselves to oppression. When we hunger and thirst for justice, they become our people, and we become theirs. Their God is our God, and our passion for justice only increases.”