This post is one in a continuing series for the month of March that aims to examine the American Church’s response to homosexuals in their midst, whether they be believers, agnostics, or atheists. This month’s series was spawned by the Harding University Queer Press publishing a zine on March 2 featuring the voices and stories of past and present LGBTQ students at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas, my alma mater. The zine can be downloaded in its digital entirety at http://www.huqueerpress.com.
This blog has exploded. Well, exploded for me, anyway. I usually average anywhere from twenty to thirty hits with each post. Not eight hundred. But since I have apparently captivated more than a few eyes, this post needs to be written, and it’s one I deem far more important than my previous two (and I feel just as strongly about the one that will follow this post).
In my last article I noted how I had no concerns about the zine itself, but that I did have concerns with what Harding’s reaction would be. I would like to first and foremost state such a conviction remains true before I go into the rest of this post because I think some brash readers will believe I’m recanting earlier statements by writing what I am here today. But I’m not.
It’s simply that now, with the passing of a few days, my new concern is with the effect of the zine. I’m starting to wonder if the zine missed its mark, or rather, if supporters (whether gay or straight) of the zine have missed the point. I wonder this because of what’s ensued on Harding’s campus. Granted, I am not at Harding right now, and I’m well aware of that, but I do have close friends still there constantly keeping me updated.
Here’s what they’re beginning to notice: “It is so frustrating to see that people are completely missing the point of how the zine is about people sharing stories and experiences, and yet it’s only fueling sides of opposition. That’s not the intention of the zine.” I agree and believe the same. A lot of people seem to have this belief that this zine “does something,” that it’s on par with thoughtful discussion and conversation. This is not true, though, because the reader is not standing face to face with anyone, and the writers are completely anonymous (understandably so, but anonymous nonetheless). Add to that the shock value instilled in the zine.
You may feel like I’m now bashing the zine. Far from it. I still maintain heavily that this publication is a worthwhile read in the sense that it creates the opportunity to hear peoples’ stories. People need to read it. But not all of the ensuing embittered outpouring directed at Harding makes sense.
Because all the zine did was create a situation for Harding to respond like they normally do. If you create something you know will go against Harding’s values and you write it in a way you know will irk them, you can’t suddenly be outraged when they shut down your website. You will create a situation where they have reason to block you if your zine contains its noticeable share of profanity as well as a written account of male-on-male fellatio. Of course Harding is going to block the website. If I wrote a zine calling for more acceptance and allowance of heterosexual expression on Harding’s campus and included a heterosexual vignette of oral sex, I would fully expect my website to be blocked. Yes, I’m all for freedom of speech, but imagine the power in creating a publication where Harding wouldn’t have had any seemingly appropriate grounds for blocking the website.
Because remember, after all, HUQP did choose to align itself right up against the very tissue and blood of Harding when it applied her nomenclature to half of its group’s title. They can claim, “Censorship!” and “Discrimination!” as if they’re being subjected to treatment no other group would have received, but the fact of the matter is Harding’s decision to block their website is just her modus operandi, and HUQP is far from the first recipient of her internet server’s cold shoulder. People on Facebook have also started referencing Harding’s Communist dictatorship-esque control of media; please, people have been making that claim long before now. Such a response from Harding is natural given the shock value on some of the pages of the zine. I’m not saying it’s the right response; I’m saying stop acting so incensed as if you’re surprised. And if the intention behind the shock value was simply to spotlight Harding’s stringent censoring, that’s nothing original, either. Students have been calling attention to that for a while now, too.
Now, if HUQP had instead written a zine that did its best to not be blocked and still had their website’s access removed, then I can understand an emotion of ire arising. But HUQP did not appear intent on taking such an approach (some of the stories do, but not all of them), and many straight sympathizers to their cause are now worried HUQP has shot itself in the foot. Granted, if I were part of the group writing the zine, I don’t know if I would have been able to remain more decorous in my approach given what some of these students have been through. Sometimes when I get worked up, the profanity flies; sometimes when I’m getting really passionate about writing something, I tend to want to be as shocking as possible, too. I inevitably regret it, though, when I see its result. The written word is packed with power and has the potential to be redemptive in its connective abilities, or visceral in its proclivity for further separation.
But writing the zine is still worth a try because the hope is that it will foster respectful dialogue, but given the reaction on the Searcy campus and on the internet, I’m not sure that’s going to be happening. When HUQP includes pockets of profanity, scenes of intercourse, and phalluses sitting on a swing (I didn’t notice that on my grainy PDF until a friend mentioned it a week later) you only embolden each side to continue their fed-up stances. The shock value only encourages the straight crowd to continue to turn their head and look the other way, and their reaction will only fuel the ire lurking within the gay and lesbian students at Harding. Where’s the restoration in that? Any chance for revolutionary dialogue filled with grace appears to be quickly going out the window. Is HUQP proud of that? Because that conversation is what is needed above all—more than zines, more than rules, more than phallic doodles.
So to both of you groups, here’s something that builds a fire in me. People equate “agreement” with “acceptance,” which is such an asinine thing to do. I realize not all members of the LGBTQ community are the way I’m about to describe, but some do go as far to state that if you don’t agree with their perspective, you’re against them. This is simply not true, but some people believe it anyway.
For example, a friend of mine wrote a review of the zine, and in the comments one rather unkind fellow eventually labeled my friend as homophobic since he doesn’t agree with the homosexual lifestyle. Is this what the HUQP wanted to elicit from people who “like” them on Facebook? Because it’s looking like that’s what they’re going to get. This upset me because I happen to know my friend personally, and he’s an incredibly accepting, understanding, and compassionate person (and by the way, he’s not homophobic). This guy who was commenting has no idea what he’s talking about. He has a fire lit beneath him, and I admire that passion, but he’s misguided when he begins putting labels on people with whom he isn’t even friends. (This is one reason I hate the internet; we feel we have license to objectify people because we receive some disillusionment about what it means to really know somebody, and then believe we’re well-informed enough to say whatever we want about him/her because we convince ourselves we know something about his/her character.)
But it’s pretty prevalent—this idea that before the other side is going to accept me they’d better agree with me. Why? Because that’s ideal? Because that’s utopia? What’s the aim here? It’s not like agreement is a prerequisite to truly fostering a deep relationship with someone. I’ll give two examples. First, my parents and I. I know they don’t see eye-to-eye with me on some issues, and we’ve butted heads before, but I have no doubt in my mind they accept me without condition or pretense and are proud of me. Oh, and by the way, it’s been a twenty-four-year process to be where we are today, and our love for each other is richer because of that time. Second, my grandparents. Grandpa is pretty liberal, and Grandma is pretty conservative, and when I really think about it, I can not recall a single time I’ve heard them agree on anything. And they’ve been married around sixty years (I think). I know they accept one another; they accept one another because that’s what you do as you walk through life and share it with one another.
This zine is not about walking through life together; it’s a pamphlet, so all it can really do is give you a little insight and then hopefully embolden you to reach out and begin the healing process (which takes time) so as to then walk through life together with the gay community. Agreement may not happen, but acceptance can, and it will take a long time. But it’s a worthwhile endeavor.
Effort is the key here. People have to be intentional about actually accepting one another. We grow up in American society, which possesses reverberations of the lone gunslinger individualistic mentality coursing through its very life force. We are all products of a culture that tells us we do not need anybody, and with the course of time many of us have adopted a rather indifferent attitude towards peoples’ suffering and assume we can’t really do anything anyway. But we’re only lying to ourselves because deep down we know we can, but we flee that because we also know deep down it requires something of us. And we hate that thought because we’d rather be comfortable. This is why we invented sweatpants. And so we go along with the lone gunslinger mentality, thinking it’s the way to live.
Only thing is, such an ethos does not bring life, but ruin. Ask any married couple, whether newlywed or celebrating twenty years—their spouse is very different from them. They may share commonalities, but at the core you have two completely different human beings trying to abide together in a peaceful coexistence of sharing life. This does not happen automatically, but requires effort with endurance. If that effort is not put forth, it crumbles. Or take dysfunctional families. They aren’t dysfunctional because they’re quirky (though entertainment would tell us otherwise, at times); they’re dysfunctional because they’ve stopped trying to accept one another in lieu of differences. Until groups of people or groups of individuals begin to at least try and accept one another, deterioration will only ensue. (Another post later this month will examine this concept—that stagnation is a nonexistent; things either progress or regress, but they never stay put.)
It’s not true for just marriages and families; it’s true for all forms of relationships, whether that be platonic, business, sports buddies, best friends, next-door neighbors, you name it. But true change begins on that molecular, organic level. It doesn’t come from words on the paper of a zine; it arises out of two living, breathing souls wrapped in skin and blood sitting across from one another and taking steps towards actually investing in each other, without asking the typical American outset question of, “What can this person do for me?” Because when we ask that, we’re focused on the self, which means ultimately we’re not interested in the person sitting across from us, which definitely means we’re not making an effort to accept them as they are.
And none of that requires agreement as some sort of prerequisite. And thank God that’s how it is. If agreement were some sort of needed qualification, all of us would be horrifically lonely. I’ve yet to meet someone exactly like me, and I’m so glad this is true because I’d be bored to death with him. I’m not going to be cheesy, go all Miss America here, and say, “Celebrate our differences!” while flashing a bleached white smile, but I will say it’s necessary (and, yes, even very easy) to just say, “It’s fine that we’re different. Perfectly okay, actually.”
People don’t have to agree with your choice of bed partner to accept you. You don’t have to believe that it’s a must for them to agree with you before you can accept them. A lot of this comes down to selfishness; we want the other person to jump over to our side of the fence. That will never foster depth of relational intimacy.
This effort that doesn’t require agreement is what the Church and the gay community need to see happen. You can accept people just fine without saying, “Yes, we agree on everything.” The Son of God himself exemplifies this in the past and present. We see it with Jesus aligning himself with twelve imperfect, immature kids to be his disciples; we grasp it in how Christ extends his plans to us today; and we get a glimpse of it when the Holy Spirit uses us to emulate the hands and feet of Christ in the here and now. I’m not perfectly aligned with the mission of Jesus, but he beckons me onward regardless. I’m temporal, and he’s eternal, so we are not in agreement all the time, and yet he walks alongside me. This is what we call grace.
And this grace is what’s needed on both sides of the Church/homosexual debacle at Harding—pre-zine and post-zine. Yes, that’s right: both sides need it. I’m not going to outline where Harding needs to exhibit grace; I’ve already written a little about that and so have tons of other bloggers. So I will instead remind the gay and lesbian students and especially their supporters of this, and some of them may be irate at how I would even insinuate they need to exhibit some grace, but it’s true. No matter how much you’ve been wronged or feel you have the right to be angry, you are never removed from the mandate to show gracious love to everyone. This includes the people you perceive to be your enemies. Being prejudiced can often be the fault of the oppressor, but giving yourself over to being completely jaded through and through is always the decision of the victim; you alone decide whether or not you keep giving people another chance. All of us are to imitate Christ by forgiving, like he did, our oppressor while still strewn out on the wooden cross upon which they nailed us. We give grace in the middle of torture. Was this zine about laying such groundwork for grace? I would hope that was its aim; that’s what I hoped while reading it, but watching supporters of the zine jump on a bandwagon of conflagrating anger towards Harding in the following days have a lot of people questioning that.
Has HUQP given the Harding heterosexual majority something unique at which to look? Or is it only natural for people to shake their heads and walk away from it when they see pages lined with the word “fuck” and a guy describing that time his friend was going down on him? Did the zine help break the heterosexual’s perceived gay stereotypes, or did it only give people reason to say, “See? They’re all like this.” I ask and do not answer because I’m not at Harding right now, but from what I hear it’s not looking good.
Some of the chatter leads many to believe HUQP will publish another zine in the future, but what could they write about? Another Bible class with which they’re fed up? Another vignette of hurtful oppression? The first zine covered that, and hopefully its publication is going to begin building bridges to conversation (newsflash: a zine isn’t conversation and the blogosphere isn’t conversation). But it’s looking like inflammatory responses on both sides will make it difficult for future zines, should they be written, to ameliorate things.
It’s important to remember the HUQP zine is not revolutionary. Things like this were being written years and years ago in other places. Sure, it’s revolutionary for Harding, but in order to have the most positive impact you can, you have to structure it so as to reach your respective audience and not completely lose them. That’s rule number one when writing: consider your audience. But the way in which this has been handled so far makes me and others start to wonder if only detriment has been brought upon HUQP’s worthy cause, rather than salvation. What was the aim? To embarrass Harding? Please, that can be done just as easily by spray painting a penis on University President David Burks’ office window. There has to be something of greater substance here.
Or was the aim to generate respectful dialogue, like I had hoped? If so, has that dialogue been happening? And I don’t mean conversations between gays and lesbians. Those have their place, but that isn’t the goal of the zine as I understand it. The goal is to bring sides of opposition together so as to begin the long, slow process of reconciliation. Ergo, since that is such an arduous process, the map of restoration will be lengthy enough to where this zine will only show up as an infinitesimal blip on the map. All it can be is a joining force; it can’t be joining force, dialogue, reconciliation, and fostered friendship all in one. That’s asking too much of it. There is a need for people to realize how the real work has to start now from them since the zine is only a joining force, and that will take time . . . but is the publication even accomplishing that? I hesitate to be optimistic.
I like Harding University Queer Press. I do. I like their passion, I admire their bravery, and I laud the fact they’re saying, “Enough is enough.” But are they saying, “Enough is enough; let’s roll out the first building block towards reconciliation, which is understanding,” or are they saying, “Enough is enough; let the floodgates open,” because the way the blogosphere is lighting up seems to swing towards the latter. And if, by way of the blogosphere, the side of support for the gays and lesbians only continues to add fuming, insensitive souls, then straight students at Harding have no reason to want to begin to reach out. Grace is attractive, not fury.
Two posts ago I labeled the zine as a “starting point.” It’s important to remember that starting points are shallow. If I ask a girl out because she’s attractive, is that shallow? Well, of course it is. That’s why we call it a starting point; it only possesses enough to begin things, but implies more has to happen, that more has to come before we can say we’re really moving anywhere of import. And so it is with this zine. It’s good and sufficient in the sense that it can start something, but it’s not an end in and of itself. The hopeful end is better relations between the straight and gay communities at Harding, and that doesn’t happen with pamphlets of paper; it happens with the lengthy (and sometimes difficult) process that is talking, listening, loving, being patient, and being open (very few of these besides talking seem to be happening in the blogosphere). But a starting point is important in that it dictates the rhythm henceforth, and the zine has become more aggressive as the days go on, what with blogosphere ire building up behind it and the drop-off to every dorm room Wednesday night. It seems to be slowly moving further away from being a publication about sharing the stories of marginalized homosexuals at Harding so as to begin creating reconciliation, but if the zine rebounds and refocuses its strength on building relationships, then it will be worthwhile; however, if it only continues to place Harding on a pyre, then my respect will ultimately fizzle and wane.
Which kills me because when I read the zine again, I still think it’s worthwhile. There’s a lot of good contained within its pages. But it all needs to be handled with the highest amount of grace. Why? Because the zine is really not that important. It’s a big, brave step, but what follows is what really matters. The zine is nothing more than impetus. An impetus for what? That, my friends, is exactly what demands our attention and, ultimately, our participation. And right now, I believe only time will tell as to whether or not such good can take place. Here’s praying.