Emily Timbol

The Duggars, and Sex Abuse Within Purity Culture

May
22

Ever since I saw the police report and confession from Josh Duggar, eldest of the TV famous Duggar family, detailing the sexual abuse he carried out on young girls, I’ve felt disgust radiating throughout my entire body. Angry, violent disgust, the kind that made me want to throw my computer across the room. I tried writing some coherent thoughts about these allegations, and how the Duggars’ josh_duggarindocrtination of purity culture directly lead to the abuse and cover-up that occred, but I couldn’t. Instead I ended up writing a thousand words about my own experiences with purity culture, and how it almost ruined my life.

But these allegations aren’t about me. So since I can’t bring myself to clearly express my thoughts on exactly why this tragedy should not surprise anyone, I thought I’d let my friends and people I admire do it for me.

If you haven’t read the below posts, you should. They have helped me understand why “purity” is something I no longer believe in, support, or will teach my kids (if I have them.)

Because,

Teaching virginity is anti-Christian. Even if it weren’t, Virginity itself is an allusion.

Aside from virginity, there’s the fact that Purity Culture teaches shame more than anything else. Purity Culture also encourages “forgiveness” for abusers more than punishment. But if abusers are “welcome at the table,” then those they abused are not.

Lest you think this story is uncommon, know that abuse within Purity Culture is not rare. Everytime I see a woman in the church share her story of sexual abuse (and the cover-up that followed) I see comments flood in with similiar stories.

Purity Culture needs to stop. It needs to cease to be taught in churches, and unlearned by those who have believed in it.

If it doesn’t, stories like this will continue to be common.

Christians, we can do better. We NEED to do better.

The Problem With The Bubble

May
13

I got into a lovely discussion/argument today over this seemingly innocuous post from The Toast; Books That Literally All White Men Own: The Definitive List. I argued with a bunch of dudes (Wednesday, amirite?) that this post wasn’t really funny as much as it was telling since the majority of white guys don’t read books by women. That’s a problem, obviously. Especially since the publishing industry still tends to only deign Serious Books About White Man Pain (TM) as “literature.”

The whole thing, while entertaining, also got me thinking about the cultural phenomenon of “The Bubble.” White dudes who are friends with white dudes who read books by other white dudes will go through most of their life thinking nothing of this, until they meet a feminist or non-white dude who introduces them to the wonders of Flannery O’Connor or Toni Morrison. It’s not that the white dudes reading those books–many of them classics, don’t get me wrong–are nefarious in any way, it’s just that they haven’t expanded their horizons out yet to the experiences and writings of authors who might not look, think, or act like them.

This is not something exclusive to white dudes, lest you think I’m being unfair to my light-skinned brethren. Plenty of white feminists spend their time reading nothing but writing by other white feminists (save for bell hooks) and neglect to work intersectionalism into their advocacy. It’s a problem. This problem is not one of skin color though, but proximity. It’s an issue of people being drawn to what’s safe, familiar, and reassuring. That’s why it’s called a bubble. Because bubbles create a barrier between you, and everything that threatens your way of thinking.

Modern bubbles look like this: Facebook friends that are 90-95% your same race, socio-economic level, religion, and political affiliation. News gathered from sites that subtly or explicitly skew to your political preference. Friends that look like you, vote like you, and have about the same level of money as you. Church all of the above.

Sadly, I don’t have much of a bubble (aside from where I get my news.) I used to have one, back when I was a normal middle-class, conservative Christian. Everyone I spent time with or talked to or chatted with online back then (this was pre-Facebook days, I’m old) thought just like me. But then I blew my bubble apart by A) becoming a liberal Christian feminist, and B) attempting to maintain relationships with my conservative Christian friends and family, and everyone else.

Bye-bye bubble.

There are perks to losing your shimmery, translucent shield. Like, getting exposed to ideas that you would never otherwise encounter. Or, having your beliefs challenged and seeing them not falter, but strengthen instead. Sometimes you even get to effect someone, maybe even change their mind, who would not otherwise have encountered your views.

But being outside the bubble is hard. When you have friends that range from as far right and religious as you can get, to as far left and anti as possible, engaging can be exhausting. Sometimes I think of life outside the bubble as a kind of intellectual Mad Max-ian dystopia. Every idea and utterance can be perceived as a threat, every potential post or conversation a potential time-bomb. Sometimes you have to battle it out thunder-dome style, and sometimes you just high-tail it out of there and drive away as fast as you can (see, I can reach white dudes too.)

Bubbles protect you from all the discomfort that diversity brings. If that sounds wrong, it isn’t. Diversity is not bad. Diversity is good. It’s life-giving. It’s literally necessary for the continuation of species. But dealing with difference isn’t easy. It is uncomfortable.

Part of the discomfort I experience comes from the glances I get into the bubble that used to encase me. I might be outside now, but I can still see in, thanks to the window a lot of my conservative Christian friends have given me. And what I see really worries me. Far more troublesome than a bunch of white dudes reading nothing but Kerouac, is a bunch of white Christians talking to no one but each other.

The real danger is that, for most Christians, the idea of this bubble is not just normal, but Biblical. Instead of seeing their carefully crafted worlds as echo-chambers, they see their exclusion of everything “other” as the way God wants them to live. Where this once used to just be sad, in a Blast From The Past kind of way, has now turned frightening. Because now, in order to protect these ever-shrinking bubbles, some Christians have turned on those on the outside.

To keep their bubble from bursting, some Christians are trying to pass legislation to keep “outsiders” away–from their businesses, churches, and schools. Of course, the irony is that this is the exact opposite way of treating “others” that Jesus commanded. You know Jesus, He was the brown-skinned homeless dude who hung out with social outcasts, preached against wealth, and commanded rich people to give everything they had to the poor. That guy. His entire time on Earth was spent challenging the notion of “us” vs. “them” (gentiles vs. Jews) and encouraging those who wanted to follow Him to treat everyone with love. Jesus, who said, explicitly, that He came to fulfill all the laws that came before Him, and spelled out exactly what the greatest commandment was (spoiler alert: it’s love.)

That’s the problem of the bubble though. If you only ever hear Biblical interpretation and theology from people who think exactly like you think, you can miss the depressing irony in advocating for laws that discriminate against people in the name of the dude who commanded that you never discriminate. It’s like demanding laws to be passed against people asking for cloaks, in the name of the guy who said to give people who ask your cloak, and your shirt also. See why I’m so often annoyed at Christians?

Good news does exist though. Bubbles are not made of brick and cement. They are easily burst. It does not take a lot to step outside. To introduce yourself to someone who could not be more different from yourself, and invite them into conversation. It’s not hard to engage respectfully with someone who thinks differently than yourself, politically or religiously. And in the advent of Netflix, educating and exposing yourself to new ideas has never been easier.

This is my hope, today. That more Christians (and for that matter, atheists, Muslims, liberals, feminists, and every other -ist and -ism) would open themselves up to relationships with people across the aisle. Real relationships, where both parties listen and not just talk over each other. Because really, the root of almost all of our problems lies in ignorance, and lack of accurate information.

Which is why, keeping in that spirit, I’m going to go out and buy a book written by a white dude today. Fair is fair.

 

Same-Sex Weddings and the True Meaning of Marriage

Mar
14

I always cry at weddings. As soon as the doors open and everyone stands and the music changes for the grand entrance, my mascara starts running down my face. It’s always involuntary, like an emotional sneeze, and I’m often annoyed at myself. I mean, I’m a Christian in the south. I’ve been to A LOT of weddings. Most are quite similar. You think I’d be used to this by now.

This morning, when the doors of the old Baptist church opened and the music changed and I watched two of my friends walk armchurch-and-arm down the aisle together, the water-works started. When they read their vows to each other in front of our pastor, I cried. When they poured three colors of sand into a vase, one for each of them, and one to represent God, who is the foundation of their marriage, I cried.

It was beautiful and unique, because, unlike the other weddings I’ve been to, this was a ceremony to legally signify a relationship that God had blessed 21 years before. There was the normal new beginning, but there was also an acknowledgment of everything in the past that had brought them to where they stood today.

There was one thing though I didn’t do at the wedding this morning, that I find myself doing at almost every (Christian) wedding I attend. I didn’t cringe. I didn’t sigh under my breath or resist the urge to roll my eyes, or poke Ryan with my elbow as covertly as I could. This is something I’ve done at pretty much every other Christian wedding I’ve attended, because at most of these, the sermon or message has focused on one specific thing. Gender. Not commitment, or sacrifice, or kinship, or any number of things that form the foundation of a healthy relationship. But gender, and how the man standing in front of his friends and family has one role and his wife has another. Sometimes it’s just a brief mention, a nod to Genesis maybe. A reminder of who was created first (man) and who was created second (woman) and the significance in this order. This I can usually endure. What kills me though is when the pastor standing in front of the church launches into a lesson on gender roles, and how women should never be over their husbands and how their submission is mandated by God.

Bad theology aside, it makes me so sad when these are the words the faith leader chooses to leave the bride and groom with. Because there is a wealth of knowledge and wisdom in the Bible, and a focus on archaic, culturally specific gender roles is not going to help anyone.

God did not create marriage to teach men and women a lesson about how different they are and how important it was for them to stay within the rigid lines of their roles. God created marriage to teach two people the true meaning of love. Religious marriage is an institution meant to reflect God’s love. When we commit to another person and allow them to see us in all our weakness and selfishness and cowardice, yet they love us anyway, we see the love of God. Likewise, when we begin to want what’s best for our partner more than what’s best for ourselves, we see a glimpse of the sacrificial love of God. And when we look into the mirror that marriage creates and stare at all of our flaws and imperfections and decide to grow because we want to be a better spouse, we understand the kind of love that God wants for us. Life-long kinship love.

There is a reason why egalitarian marriages are not just happier and longer lasting but better reflect the image of God. Because in egalitarian marriages, spouses face one another on equal footing. They are allowed to have their own strengths and weaknesses depending on who God made them individually, not on their sex. In egalitarian marriages, the bond between spouses includes mutual submission by choice, not expectation. If there’s anything we learned about love from the Bible it’s that it can’t be taken, it has to be given. How much more beautiful is it then when two people equally, freely choose to serve and love each other, using the gifts God created them with, not just the gifts deemed appropriate for their sex.

That’s why, just by their nature, Christian same-sex weddings have better theology – because the ceremony is about the commitment of the people standing in front of God and their loved ones. It’s not about their genders.

I cry at weddings not because of a bride and groom. I cry at weddings because of the commitment two people are making to one another, for sickness in health, for richer or poorer, for better or worse, as long as they both shall live. That commitment is not dependent on gender. It’s certainly not dependent on a white dress or black tux.

So today, I cried out of happiness for the two women whose relationship has helped me see what the true love of God is like. A love that endures, and is patient, and is kind, and perseveres. I’m so glad that their perseverance paid off, and today, this love was recognized not just by God, but by the state they live in. That is certainly something to shed happy tears over.

 

A Finale on Failure

Feb
25

When I was in high school I wrote out a thirty-year plan for my life. It charted the path I would take from graduating college and law school, to becoming a lawyer, then a judge, and eventually, by the age of 48, being appointed as a Supreme Court Justice. Most teenage girls spent time memorizing facts about their favorite boy bands while I (in addition to knowing Taylor Hanson’s birthday) memorized details about the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States.

I didn’t have a lot of friends, basically.

That plan was never something I stuck to (obviously) and one that was definitely more fantasy than anything actionable. I got off course. Found new dreams. Realized I loved writing way more than government. But I never forgot that girl who dreamed of donning a black robe and wielding the most power that the United States can grant an individual (President, schmezedent, the SCOTUS rules all.)

I think that’s part of the reason I have always loved Leslie Knope, the main character on the show Parks & Rec. Leslie always knew what she wapawneented, and worked towards those dreams. She did so hilariously, and with the help of her friends and co-workers who were just as unique and (usually) driven as she.

It was really hard saying goodbye to Leslie and the crew of Parks & Rec last night, after the series finale aired. I’ll admit that throughout the hour long episode I ugly cried, my face all scrunched up, snot coming out of my nose, weird animal like sounds escaping from my mouth. It was not pretty. Even though they’re fictional, those characters were ones I had not just grown attached to, but, truthfully, sometimes learned from.

Surprisingly, it was not Leslie Knope’s send off last night that spoke the most to me. It was [Spoiler Alert] actually Tom Haverford’s (played by Aziz Ansari.) Tom, the perpetual hustler of the show, reached the end by achieving the success he’d been clawing at for seven seasons. He was a business owner, a restaurateur, and a successful entrepreneur. He had overcome multiple failures to finally succeed. Except….he didn’t. We saw in his epilogue that all his restaurants closed, his businesses failed, and he lost everything. We watched him lamenting to his now-wife Lucy about how many times he failed, and how everything he did was a disaster. Of course, in typical Tommy T-pain fashion, he turned this all into a world-wide best selling self-help book on how to succeed by failing. It was a good joke, and it fit his character perfectly – he finally reached success doing the only thing he was good at – being bad at everything. It was light and fun, and fit with the happy endings given to each member of the cast. But it also really stuck with me.

It made me think about how, unlike a lot of other light, comedic shows, almost everyone on Parks & Rec experienced failure at some point in their arc. Leslie especially, as she was recalled from her dream job as City Council-woman when she was barely into her first term. Ben failed at being an 18-year-old mayor, Ron had multiple failed marriages, Andy failed to get accepted to the police force, and April failed at maintaining Gothic cynicism until the day she died. Each character managed to not just overcome this failure though, but use it to propel themselves forward.

As someone who has probably failed more times than I have succeeded in my life, this narrative theme meant a lot to me. Because even though the series finale walked the line between sweet and saccharine in its send-offs of beloved characters, it still didn’t shy away from failure. It still acknowledged that even the most successful people get rejected and don’t get everything they dream of.

That was something I needed to be reminded of, as I, once again, attempt to reach my dream of getting published. Three years ago I wrote my first book, and sent it out to agents, spending a year hoping and wishing and trying as hard as I could to get published. I failed. It sucked. There was a part of me that said I’d never go through that again, and wanted to just give up entirely. But that part was overpowered by the part of my brain, I guess the Knope-Haverford part, that wanted to keep trying, and wasn’t ready to give up my dream. So I took a year off. Then in early 2014 I started writing another book, my first novel. It felt good to try again, and to experience that involuntary buoying of hope. And in a few weeks, after I finish my last round of editing, I’m going to try again. I’ll send out query letters, feel my heart race every time I see that little (1) in my inbox, and experience the crushing sorrow of rejection when I see a “Sorry, this isn’t for me,” response. It is entirely possible I will fail again. And again. And again.

What I loved about the Parks & Rec finale last night was the reminder that even if this happens to me, I won’t be doomed a failure. I’m not a failed writer. I’m a writer who is still growing, and learning, and working towards a dream. Even if I never actually reach that dream (a scary thought I’m not quite ready to face) I still won’t be a failure. I’ll just be a writer who kept trying, and working, and doing the thing she loved.

So thanks Tom, Leslie, Ben, Ron, April, Andy, Chris, Ann, and Donna. You taught me a lot about what it means to fail, and keep going. You will all be missed. Except you Jerry.

A Prayer for Leelah in The New Year

Dec
31

As the clock strikes midnight tonight, balloons will drop, champagne glasses will be raised, and happy couples everywhere will toast to a new year filled with endless possibilities. Not everyone will be celebrating though. The parents of Leelah Alcorn will be mourning the death of their 17 -year-old daughter, who recently committed suicide. Only, they don’t refer to her as their daughter. Even now, after her death, they refuse to recognize the person that their child always was.

Leelah Alcorn was “born a boy.” As in, her biological sex was male at Leelahbirth. She was raised a boy by her parents, two devout Christians living in suburban Ohio. And when, at the age of 14, she learned what the word “transgender” meant – someone whose biological sex doesn’t match their gender – suddenly everything made sense. Why, since the age of 4, she felt (in her words) like a “girl trapped in a boy’s body.”

People, namely Leelah’s parents, consistently refused to recognize her true gender. They did this ostensibly because they were Christians. And this is the reason that Leelah is dead. Because they sent her to “Christian” therapists who refused to acknowledge what accredited therapists all agree on: that the best thing parents can do for their transgender teens is support their transition.

I am not a parent, so I can’t comment on what it must be like to raise a child that you love dearly, and have them tell you that, essentially, you’ve been wrong in how you’ve seen them since birth. That must be incredibly painful and confusing to deal with. But I am someone who has been raised since birth learning the same truths that Leelah’s parents lived by; the truth that living a life that honors Christ is the most important thing of all.

Part of me understands how hard it must have been for two small town Christians who likely had no LGBT friends or family to process Leelah’s coming out. How clearly it must have seemed to them that the solution to all their problems was just prayer, and church, and Jesus. And you know what, I agree with them there. The solution for how they could have saved Leelah’s life was prayer and church and Jesus. Or it would have been, if the church they went to was one that knew how to minister to transgender teens and adults.

If there had been at least one Christian at Leelah’s church who had educated themselves about transgender rights, and reached out to her parents, maybe Leelah would still be alive.

If the “Christian therapists” that Leelah’s parents took her to had followed accepted medical and psychological practices instead of advocating for harmful treatment, maybe Leelah would still be alive.

If the church she went to, or it’s larger church network had listened to transgender Christians who have said over and over that who they are is who God made them to be, maybe Leelah would still be alive.

As much as I love my faith, I am not immune to its weaknesses. I know, from the years I’ve spent studying the roots of religious homophobia, that the church has some major gender issues to work through. There are many Christians who believe that the Bible has clear outlined gender roles for men and women, and it is a sin to challenge these.  Despite the fact that this is not true, and has been disproved by numerous theologians, patriarchy is still the accepted, honored norm for many Christian denominations.

It’s this belief – that men and women are designed by God to be completely different and fulfill separate but “equal” roles – that fuels religious transphobia. That’s why I can both understand the fear and confusion of Leelah’s parents, while mourning over the fact their ignorance lead to her death. It’s this ignorance that needs to change.

There are so many things I wish had gone different in Leelah’s life. If they had she’d still be alive, and she could see the outpouring of love and support from people all over the world. But since her death can’t be undone, the biggest hope – no, prayer – I have is that her final wish be honored. The last words of her note said, “Fix society. Please.”

What breaks my heart is that it wasn’t “society” that failed Leelah. It was the church. It was Christians. She was fully connected to a body of believers who could have helped her and possibly saved her, if they’d just listened. If they’d learned what most of the world now knows to be true – that transgender people are not broken or sick or damaged. They are just people, people who deserve to live authentically.

So this is my prayer for 2015 – that Christians will remember Leelah’s name. That they’ll educate themselves. That they’ll be there as an advocate and ally for any transgender teens in their churches or families.

There is no bringing back Leelah. But we can honor her memory, and refuse to forget her. And we can try to prevent the next Leelah from feeling so misunderstood and alone. That’s our job as the church, and it’s what we must do better at. Lives literally depend on it.