Emily Timbol

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.

 

Some Resources for Whites Wanting to Self-Desegregate

Nov
26

Of all the articles, statistics, and information that’s been floating around on Facebook and Twitter recently, this study, on the self-segregation of white Americans, has stuck with me the most. According to the research, the social networks of whites is 91% other white people. A full 75% of white people have no minority presence in their social networks at all.

When I first read this study, it wasn’t exactly clear to me if “social network” meant real life, or Facebook and Twitter, which for my generation is a heavy part of our social lives. The statistic shocked me because I’d estimate that about 1/3 of the actively tweeting people who I follow are non-white. And a smaller portion of my Facebook friends (but still a substantial one) are non-white as well.

I started thinking then about how different my social media experience would be, if the only people I got my news and current event info from were white. While a lot of my white liberal friends share the same views as my black liberal friends, they don’t share the same experiences. And it’s the experiences that I’ve read about – not the opinions – that have affected me the most over the years. It’s listening to people who have lived through things I’ll never understand (like racism) that has affected my politics, my opinions, and the causes I support.

So in the spirit of practicing something I need to get better at  – using my voice to lift up the voices of POC – I’m going to share some resources from non-white writers and activists who have important things to say. If you’re white and don’t regularly follow any people of color (POC) then I highly recommend you check out some of the resources below. I say “people” and not “person’s” because I think it’s important for white people not to just find one POC who says everything they already believe, like say, Dr. Ben Carson, and then feel justified in tuning out every other non-white person’s voice. This is not OK. There is not one “spokesperson” for every race, and if the people of color you listen to don’t challenge you in any way, then you need to start listening to others. Here’s a good place to start:

Al Letson (NPR host):

As a young man, I’ve been pulled over for no reason more times then I can count, (literally one cop let me go cause I was bumping NPR- seriously, no kidding.) I stopped once on 1-95 to help an older white woman change her tire, the cop got out of his cruiser, and watched me in the Florida Sun sweat to fix this woman’s tire, the whole time he watched me, with his hand on his gun. The woman came to thank me, he stopped her, made sure she was okay, let her go first and made me wait, then let me drive away.

A friend and I ran a poetry reading and late one night, he called me, telling me a cop pulled him over for no reason and slammed him on the cruiser hood. I have 100 more stories from other friends, if I asked I’m sure I could source well over a thousand, that’s just one example.

Christena Cleveland (Christian writer) :

The gospel calls us not only into individual faith in Christ, but also into the multi-racial family of God (Matthew 12:50) in which everyone has value and a voice, and those who were biologically born into higher status races (e.g., whites) intentionally listen to and stand in solidarity with those who were biologically born into lower status races (e.g., blacks) (Luke 13:30; Philippians 2:5-8)…This is not a calling to be taken lightly. As a unified family of God, we are empowered to address the racial issues that are afflicting our world….

Let me repeat: the unified family of God is the answer to the problem of race in America. For years, black Christians have invited white Christians to participate in the unified family of God by leaning into justice issues that affect black people.

Ta-Nehisi Coates (writer):

The truth was that there was no financing for people like Clyde Ross. From the 1930s through the 1960s, black people across the country were largely cut out of the legitimate home-mortgage market through means both legal and extralegal. Chicago whites employed every measure, from “restrictive covenants” to bombings, to keep their neighborhoods segregated.

Their efforts were buttressed by the federal government. In 1934, Congress created the Federal Housing Administration. The FHA insured private mortgages, causing a drop in interest rates and a decline in the size of the down payment required to buy a house. But an insured mortgage was not a possibility for Clyde Ross. The FHA had adopted a system of maps that rated neighborhoods according to their perceived stability. On the maps, green areas, rated “A,” indicated “in demand” neighborhoods that, as one appraiser put it, lacked “a single foreigner or Negro.” These neighborhoods were considered excellent prospects for insurance. Neighborhoods where black people lived were rated “D” and were usually considered ineligible for FHA backing. They were colored in red. Neither the percentage of black people living there nor their social class mattered. Black people were viewed as a contagion.

Derrick Clifton (writer):

https://twitter.com/DerrickClifton/status/537273629432877056

Imani Gandy (Writer/Legal Analyst):

The simple fact is that Black Americans are in crisis right now. In Ferguson, activists will be looking to the Department of Justice for answers if the St. Louis prosecutor announces—as many expect he will—that Darren Wilson won’t face any charges for the killing of Mike Brown. At the ballot box, Black voters will be relying on the DOJ to restore the voting power of people disenfranchised by voter ID laws and Republican gerrymandering. And when it comes to the War on Drugs, which continues to send disproportionately high numbers of Black and brown folks to jail, it is clear that we need an attorney general who understands the current civil rights crisis. Loretta Lynch is that person.

Jamelle Bouie (Writer):

Take Wilson’s account of Brown’s actions and language. He describes a vicious, combative Brown, quick with a quip and eager to fight with police. Based on what we know from his family and friends, this sounds out of character….

More troubling is Wilson’s physical description of Brown, which sits flush with a century of stereotypes and a bundle of recent research on implicit bias and racial perceptions of pain. In so many words, Wilson describes the “black brute,” a stock figure of white supremacist rhetoric in the lynching era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The southern press was rife with articles attacking the “Negro Beast” and the “Big Black Brute,” notes Philip Dray in At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America. To the white public, the “black brute” was a menacing, powerful creature who could withstand the worst punishment. Likewise, in northern papers, it was easy to find stories of “giant negroes” who “spread terror” and rampaged through urban centers. That image never went away; it lingers in crack-era stories of superpowered addicts and teenaged superpredators, as well as rhetoric around other victims of police brutality.

These are just a handful of the people I regularly follow, if you have any other suggestions, please feel free to leave them in the comments.

 

The Dysfunctional Family That is The Church

Oct
13

Last Thursday my husband Ryan and I attended a panel discussion entitled, “Faith Perspectives That Embrace LGBT Youth and Families.” It was put on by the university we both graduated from, and was centered on understanding the implications of faith communities on LGBT youth and family, society, and the church itself.

The small theater the event was being held in was about 1/2 full, mostly with students and a few white haired older folks. We sat next to Susan, the pastor of the church we’ve been visiting for the past few weeks. On the stage sat four speakers; Jane Clementi, the mother of Tyler Clementi and co-founder of the Tyler Clementi Foundation, Dr. Carolyn Stone, Ed. D, professor and counselor educator who serves as chair of the American School Counselor Association’s Ethics Committee, Rev. MacArthur Flournoy, a preacher who serves as the director of Faith Partnerships and Mobilization for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), and Dr. David Gushee, a clergy member and Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology at Mercer University.

Each person on the panel spoke about their own story and how their background led them to where they were today; most as believers who fully embrace the Bible as the Word of God, but who reject the current church’s teachings on homosexuality.

At one point during the panel, when Rev. MacArthur was speaking – in the booming, engaging voice one would expect of a preacher – I leaned over to Ryan. With a big smile on my face, I whispered, “this feels like church.”

It was a weird thing to say, as, by the end of the night, there was at least one thing every speaker and audience member agreed on; it was the church we were fighting against. Even though most of the “we” were also church members themselves. We were all believers. People who not only worshiped the same God and read the same Bible, but wanted the very same thing as the people we were working against.

The dichotomy was almost overwhelming. Here we were, Christians, talking about other Christians and how we needed to save LGBT youth from them (and their incorrect and dangerous teachings.) It was like being at an intervention familyfor a family member who is abusing their children; the immediate need is to save and protect the kids, but you don’t necessarily want to do that in a way that harms the parent. Everyone involved – abuser and victim- are family.

As someone who was  ridiculously blessed with loving parents, it’s taken me a long time to process what it’s like to live in this dysfunctional relationship with my Christian family – I’m honestly still processing it.

I have to deal with this painful dichotomy every time I randomly peruse the Facebook pages of friends from the church I grew up in. There I see jokes made at LGBT people’s expense, attacks on poor people, defenses of violence, and of course, praises to God. This is just par for the course on social media – you’d think I’d be used to it by now. But I’m not. Every time I see a Christian use the Bible to make a remark filled with ignorance or hate, there’s a part of me that wants to just throw my hands up and say, “I quit. I want no more part of this family.”

There’s a certain kind of pain and frustration that can only come from knowing that the people who hurt you the most, are supposed to be the ones that protect and love you.

After the panel discussion ended, we walked back to our car. I was stewing in a mixture of incongruous emotions; anger, hope, frustration, disappointment, and as usual, hunger.  It wasn’t until we reached the parking garage that I realized something.

No matter how dysfunctional the church family gets, we have a father and mother (God) who loves us. All of us. God is not the one carrying out the abuse or causing the dysfunction. God is the one who is bringing truth to light, and opening enough people’s hearts and minds, that events like the one we attended could even take place.

I can’t throw my hands up in the air and say, “I quit”, because I have a father who has always been there for me. My siblings might often be terrible (what siblings aren’t?) but my mother God is in control.

Towards the end of the panel, Dr. Gushee opened a Bible that was sitting on his lap and said, “The thing about holding this up and saying, ‘the Bible says’ is that in certain places, people actually believe you.” For years, I’ve been secretly wincing every time someone utters that phrase, “The Bible says” because what follows has almost always been void of the Gospel. Last night though, I was reminded of the power that comes when the person holding that Bible is using it not as a weapon, but as a welcome.

It’s OK for me to separate myself from the dysfunctional parts of my church family that have caused me and my LGBT friends pain. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for dysfunctional relationships is draw boundaries. The great news though is that the church family has many members. Much to my joy and relief, I’ve found that there are many in the church family who want to embrace LGBT youth and families. Fully. Which means that even though my faith family is dysfunctional, there are people within it who I can turn to for strength, support, and guidance.

When it comes down to it, no family is perfect. I’m just grateful that the family I am a part of has members who are willing to point out the dysfunction within.

 

The “Cool Christian Girl” in Proverbs 31

Oct
07

A hallmark of an excellent book or movie is if weeks later I’m still thinking about it. Gone Girl, author Gillian Flynn’s much-discussed third novel, was written in 2012 – yet I’m STILL captivated by it. Especially more so now that I’ve seen David Fincher’s stunning film adaptation (that Flynn wrote the screenplay for.)

gone-girl-01_612x380It wasn’t just the compelling characters she created that enthralled me. Like many women (and men) I was fascinated by her breakdown of gender tropes, among them the “cool girl” stereotype. Here’s an excerpt of her explanation of “the cool girl” from the novel (it has some coarse/graphic language):

 “Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)”

There is so much that has already been said about the gender politics Flynn lays out above (and throughout her novel.) But as I was perusing Facebook the other day I saw an acquaintance of mine praising his, “Godly wife” and I wondered if there wasn’t another version of “the cool girl:”

The “Good Christian Girl.”

Not to be confused with “the cool girl” of course, who is secular, and too worldly, and not feminine or submissive enough. While thinking about this I went back and re-read Proverbs 31, which is basically the Biblical equivalent to Amy Dunne’s monologue above:

10 A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. 11 Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value.12 She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life. 13 She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands.14 She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar. 15 She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family and portions for her servant girls. 16 She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard. 17 She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks. 18 She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night. 19 In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers. 20 She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy. 21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet. 22 She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple. 23 Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land. 24 She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes. 25 She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come. 26 She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue. 27 She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness. 28 Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her:29 “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.” 30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. 31 Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

What is the good Christian girl? She is beautiful, but not proud. She doesn’t “let herself go,” but maintains attractiveness for her husband, since his straying could be seen as partly her fault. At the same time she is modest, adhering to whatever standard of decency is current. She is smart, but not smarter than her husband. Above all she is submissive, feminine, and knows her place – in the home, with her children. She takes on the role of “wife” as naturally as one puts on a comfy sweater, and never, ever dares challenge her husband’s authority. (She’s also a lovely baker.)

I’ve been in Bible studies and women’s groups and retreats where groups of women pored over Proverbs 31, trying to find ways they were failing to be this type of woman. While studying scripture like this is not wrong, singling out certain verses and ignoring their context to the whole of scripture certainly is. And what is so often left out in the discussion of “the good Christian girl” is the other women in the Bible who didn’t adhere to Proverbs 31. Women like Rahab and Deborah and Lydia and Mary Magdalene.

Anyone who read or saw Gone Girl understands by now the danger in pretending to be or marry the cool girl. But not many Christians understand the damage that comes with projecting the image of the good Christian girl on every woman they meet.

Because, just like every “cool” girl doesn’t naturally love hot dogs and football and burping and rough sex, nor is every “good” Christian girl naturally suited to the roles that Christian men have determined she should fit. Not every Christian woman wants to be a wife (or at least not a wife to a man.) Not every Christian woman wants to be a mother, or, if she does, she might still struggle with the role. And certainly not every Christian woman was created to be submissive, silent, and deferential in the presence of men. Hello, my name is Emily, and I am none of these things, yet I am a Christian, and a woman.

The great thing that Amy exposed in Gone Girl was that these stereotypes are only that – they’re not real people. Sure, some women love football and chili dogs and comics and all those things listed above, but they also have other interests and characteristics that exist and might not be pleasing to their partner. Women are complex. As are men. We as people might understand that, be we sometimes take it for granted, wanting the easier stereotype idealized partner instead.

What’s great about real women, as opposed to flat stereotypes, is their complexity. A real woman can both love being a mother and having a job. A real woman can adore being a wife and cooking and keeping house – for her husband or her wife. And a real Christian woman can be cool girl and Christian girl rolled into one, with whatever else thrown in, because she doesn’t exist just to please a man. A Christian woman exists to please no man – she exists to please God, who, as we can see from a complete look at scripture, cares much more about internal character than outward beauty or subservient submission.

As someone who has never fit into the mold of good Christian woman (I even suck at baking) I know how awful it is to feel like you’re failing to be something that everyone wants you to be. Especially when you think that part of that “everyone” includes God. However, the Bible shows that God doesn’t work with molds – he works with individuals. Which means that I can be free to be whatever type of woman I want to be, while still maintaining my identity as a Christian, a wife, and a woman.

“Cool girls” and “Good Christian Girls” might not actually exist, but I’m glad that women willing to speak up against these tropes do. Just maybe they can find better ways to rebel against them than Amy Dunne did.

The Root of The NFL’s Violence Problem is Misogyny

Sep
18

Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, two pro-NFL players who have recently been either suspended or cut from their respective teams, have much in common. They’re both running backs in the midst of successful careers. Both have wives and child(ren). And both men are, apparently, Christians.

Adrian Peterson, in his first “official” statement after being indicted by a grand jury for injury to a child, posted a photo of Bible verses to his Twitter account. Ray Rice, who was cut from the Baltimore Ravens once video surfaced of him punching his wife so hard she lost consciousness, reportedly became a “born again” Christian after the incident, and claims to be a “changed man.”NFL

At face value, their crimes seem very different. Peterson, acting in what he saw was an appropriately loving way, beat his son bloody with a “switch.” Or as he called it, “whooped” him – in the legs, buttocks, and scrotum. Many people, including celebrities and former athletes like Charles Barkley, have defended Peterson’s actions, claiming that spanking is not abuse, and since they themselves survived being “switched”, so can their kids.

Not as many people have sought to defend Ray Rice’s actions, which, unlike Peterson’s, were caught on video. Rice can be seen punching his wife Janay in an elevator, then standing over her unconscious body, seemingly unphased. While Peterson was just suspended for his actions, Rice was (eventually) cut by the Ravens.

What’s interesting is the seeming distinction that some have made between these two actions. One is seen as debatable (spanking) and the other is not (domestic abuse.)

In discussions on the use of spanking, especially among Christian parents – who overwhelmingly support the practice – many have quoted the Bible as why they physically discipline their kids. “Whoever spares the rod spoils the child”, from Proverbs 13:24, is often cited. As is Proverbs 23:13, “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die.”

Yet, if we are to use the Bible as a defense for corrective violence, we can’t just use it as it applies to children. Since Biblically, children AND women were both seen as under the “headship” of their father/husband. Instructions regarding “obedience” are given in the Bible not just to children, but also to wives and servants (under the household codes, of which all three fell.) Why would it then be OK, Biblically, to use physical discipline on your servants and children, but not your wife, since all fall under the same household codes?

Well according to some Christians, there is no distinction. Have you heard of “Christian Domestic Discipline?” It’s the practice of husband’s, “lovingly” paddling or disciplining their wives with spanking (not that kind) if they disobey. Well.  At least their consistency is refreshing.

To many other Christians though, this would be absurd. Or at the very least, going too far. Even the proponents of Christian Domestic Discipline would agree that what Ray Rice did to his wife was abusive. And many of those who believe in spanking have agreed that Adrian Peterson crossed a line.

But how did we even get to a place where there was an acceptable line to begin with?

Patriarchy would be a good place to start. This of course being the belief that men, “real men”, the kind with strength and power and “headship”, should be in charge. Should be the leaders. And that women and children should defer to them. You know what else Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice have in common? They’re both a part of the NFL, a place that perpetuates a subtle patriarchal view of worth and value. The wives of NFL players (most of them) stay home and do whatever they can to support their men. The husbands are the stars, the bread-winners, and the ones who everyone else’s lives revolve around. The NFL might not be a “biblical” organization, but they sure are a patriarchal one.

The problem is that patriarchy does not work. It does not lead to happy, healthy families, but instead breeds a culture of abuse – either physical, emotional, spiritual, or even sexual. When women and children are seen as not equal to men, they’re treated like they’re not equal. Which means their abuse is reacted to not with horror, but with justification or laughably insufficient punishments. It’s no wonder then why an organization with no female coaches, players, announcers, owners, or referees, would fail to treat women with the respect they deserve.

The solution to the problem of violence in the NFL isn’t just to hire more women (although that would be a good start.) If we want to get to the root of the problem of violence against women and children in the NFL, or in our society in general, we have to start at the source. The source is misogyny. And until we as a society, a church, and a culture, can see and treat women as equal to men, we’re not going to change a thing.