Remembering the Closeted: Living Beyond the Face of Life-Threatening Fear
One of the things about remembering the queer people who shape our lives is the fact that, far too often, those who are queer in our midst live much of their lives unseen and unknown.
I saw this first hand when working on an innovative church start in rural North Carolina, Church of the Painted Sky. This church was focused on celebrating the beauty in all God’s creation – present in all of nature and in all the diverse ways people are shaped: people of all races, genders, gender expressions, and sexual orientations. As such, we welcomed queer people there in this deeply rural area.
What I saw in the lives of these queer friends and neighbors struggling to be faithful to their own faith, while also to discover and become faithful to who they are in their deepest selves, was often heart-breaking. They found the gracious space The Church of the Painted Sky gave them as life-giving, providing them room in which to breathe and be, in the midst of a community that was oppressively rejecting. Yet even the most vocal and faithful members of that church lived in real fear. What if their involvement in this church, their outreach to the hurting around them, allowed others to know they might be queer or to wrongly think they were queer (as we had both straight folks such as myself and also queer people active in the life of this small church)? Some knew, living in NC in a day when, as today, there were no legal protections for those who were queer from being kicked out of their apartments, being fired, or being denied medical care in NC law, people simply thinking they were queer could mean unemployment, homelessness, lack of access to healthcare.
In fact, there were members of that fledgling, struggling, loving community who had faced just such threat put in action. I remember being heart-broken to meet a number of gay and transgender youth both homeless and on the brink of homelessness in rural Robeson and Hoke county (and later, while working in Cumberland County, NC, in two other churches, also there). A number of our church members made the choice to attempt to help some of these young people find places to stay, at times within our own homes and at times in the community. I, too, took some of these young queer folks pushed out into homelessness into my home for awhile too.
But even for those not yet facing imminent homelessness, the fear was real and deep.
People did not just fear homelessness, unemployment, and lack of access to healthcare. They also faced a fear of death. This continues to be a living reality for queer people and other minorities in the south-land. We saw this recently in the horrific shooting of queer people, mainly of color, at Pulse night club in Orlando. Many who live in the comfortable bubbles of tolerance which exist in metropolitan areas like my own Triangle where I now live in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill are of North Carolina, cannot imagine a world in which anyone would be killed for who they are.
But the power of abject poverty to produce fear, a fear that seeks scapegoats for whom to blame our suffering, scapegoats we feel must be sacrificed on the altar of expediency and of exclusion, is stronger than we comfortable city liberals often realize. Last year I was heartbroken, but not shocked, to hear news that within walking distance of where the Church of the Painted Sky once met, just over the county line from its old place of worship, a young black boy was hung, lynching style, from a swing set. While serving in Church of the Painted Sky and other queer-oriented churches in NC, I heard again and again the stories of trans women of color raped and killed outside historic gay bars even in our more metropolitan cities here in North Carolina.
Yet even before these facts came to light, I saw day in and day out while pastoring in rural North Carolina the constant emotional abuse faced by queer people and people of color. I saw too those cast out of their families. I remember being heart-broken to hear a woman in an abusive relationship with a man of her same ethnicity, Lumbee (a Native American tribe in Eastern North Carolina), who remained in it despite the abuse simply because her family told her they would disown her if she dated the man who loved, supported, and treated her well “outside the race”. She felt pressure to stay in this abusive relationship because of the way in which the knife’s edge of poverty led her family and community to embrace the fear of the other. Her emotional and physical bruises which she carried every day were the cost of this. And also I saw this in the lives of those like the homeless youth I mentioned already who were cast out of their families, with no place to go, due to their sexual and gender identity.
We see this drive to push people back into closets, to make scapegoats of those who are different, raising its head again here in North Carolina, in the passing of House Bill 2. In a deeply mean-spirited way the passing of this bill puts pressure on those whose gender expression does not fit the patriarchal mold of “good southern men” and “good southern women” our culture has placed upon us – not just transgender people, but also cisgender folks like myself who (unlike me) do not easily conform to gender norms. This law also creates barriers for those fighting in this state to extend southern hospitality to people in the school, the workplace, and the community by creating barriers to legally confronting employment and housing discrimination, and discrimination in the schoolyard.
This same giving into the fear faced by those who feel they live on a knife’s edge, the fear that seeks not the healing of community but a scapegoat to blame and castigate can be seen in the movement throughout the south to pass similar laws which target queer people, transgender citizens, and also immigrants. Put them in closets, we say. Push them in so far. In my next few posts I want to share about some once-closeted southern queer souls whose example helped free my straight soul.
In the meantime, I want to share a poem of Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s and a poem I wrote as a song of the south which express the call to create a world where people can truly live, free of fear, no longer pushed into closets.
by Deitrich Bonhoeffer
“Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as through it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing
My throat, yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely question of mine,
Whoever I am, Thou Knowest, O God, I am thine.”
by Micah Royal
“The south will rise again”
whispered in winds thick with smells
of honey suckle and jasmine
joining barns, creeks, church bells,
casting a kind of spell
shaping the landscape in
my childhood mind when hells
like slavery, Jim Crow,
and poverty weren’t known.
I heard “the south will rise”
as a promise of grits,
cornbread, tea, pecan pies,
at tables all can sit
affirming our shared ties,
a re-union as fit
as a sight for sore eyes.
Then, at twelve, I was hit
by news of a black man shot
in the name of the rising south.
That south which filled my sights
was falling, not rising, then:
falling into hate and fright
based on folk’s shade of skin,
if who they love was deemed “right”,
forgetting that the true sin
is not those whom we fight
but in not letting them in.
With waving flags, guns ablaze,
we plunged b’neath where we can raise.
My heart sank til I heard
a Georgia preacher’s dream:
by hate of color or creed,
from whom a new south is born.
Now I know that south’s rising,
rising beyond fear and scorn
of those different, with wings
of a new morning for all
without more dividing walls.
Yes, the south will rise,
will rise again
rise with justice
rise with equality
rise with shadows of hate forgotten.