Reading, Writing, & Religion

English Language Arts & Queer Christian Musings

Straights Only

I’ve had three reminders recently that we live in a very heteronormative world. Straight is the default, and that’s what media usually privileges. We see it in movies and hear it in songs: boys like girls, and girls like boys. Of course, we gays have the occasional movie like Love, Simon (sweet) and Boy Erased (sad), and more and more young adult fiction features queer characters. But despite those examples, straight is the default, and sometimes that’s just exhausting to encounter over and over again.

On one of my drives to work this week, I was listening to a local radio station. The DJs were talking about how Jason Momoa had shaved off his beard for a new movie role. I have only seen him as a host for Saturday Night Live.

Bearded Jason Momoa
Beardless Jason Momoa

The DJs were arguing over which version of Jason they preferred. Did the beard add to his looks? Now the DJs were a man and a woman, and they were both discussing Jason’s beard or lack thereof, but in the end, the woman DJ said, “Tell us on social media what you think, ladies!” I had been enjoying the conversation until then. I was actually thinking it was pretty cool that the (straight) male DJ had engaged in conversation about a man’s looks. But hearing the woman DJ include only women in the online discussion was a reminder to me that as a gay man, I’m different. I’m in the minority. It feels nice to be included, and let me tell you, I’m sure lots of gay men (especially bearded ones like me) have opinions about Jason Momoa’s facial hair.

Another heteronormative reminder happened last night at a concert. I went with a friend to hear My So Called Band plays some 90s covers at Tower Theater. We stood down front like true fans. When my friend visited the bathroom, the band was singing “I Try” by Macy Gray, a song I vividly remember her performing on SNL in the 90s and wondering what I even just heard. Somehow all these years later, I remembered most of the words.

Directly behind me was a trio of twenty-somethings: a bearded guy and two blonde girls. Just like me, they were singing along at the tops of their lungs. I’m not sure what gave them the courage, but one of them tapped me on my shoulder to get me to join them. We started doing hand motions to the lyrics while singing along and were having a great time. The guy and I talked about the song a little bit (which is how I found out his age). Then he leaned into me and said, “What a babe!” nodding his head toward the female singer.

My So Called Band

I made a split-second decision and decided not to out myself to this stranger. I can’t remember if I just nodded or said “Uh-huh.” The moment passed quickly, but part of me was disappointed that I had closeted myself. It really didn’t feel worth it to tell this (handsome) bearded twenty-something that he, not Carly Gwin, was more my type. The prospect of that conversation made me giggle on the inside.

Finally, this morning I heard a new song on the radio on my drive back home from Daylight Donuts. (Chocolate long john FTW!) The song, “Earth” by Lil Dicky, celebrated Earth and featured lots of celebrity cameos. The song was still playing when I got home, so I looked up the music video on YouTube.

Love the Earth, Straights!

This catchy song has some silly lyrics, but as soon as the third verse started with “I’m a man,” my heteronormative alarm sounded. This song is currently #1 trending on YouTube, so I was prepared for more straight stereotypes. Lil Dicky is dressed in a loincloth like Tarzan or Adam for most of the video, but in this verse, he dons some clothes to cover up his erection upon seeing a woman:

“And, yeah, we like to wear clothes, girls still look beautiful
And it covers up our human dick (Woo)”

A song purportedly about saving the planet also somehow felt the need to remind everyone that men are attracted to women.

All these messages from popular culture and everyday conversation reinforce the notion that everyone is straight, which is not true. Heteronormativity means that queer / LGBTQ+ stories and identities are ignored, dismissed, or forgotten.

Now that I’ve talked about these three moments, I wonder if you realize you have recently seen or heard a story, song, TV show, or movie that privileges straight people. And if you’re talking with a stranger, don’t assume they are cisgender or heterosexual. This Teen Vogue article has some great advice on how to check yourself.

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GGGG: Dangerous Thinking

Since I came out in 2017, I have read a number of books that attempt to reconcile the clobber verses of the Bible (New Testament & Old Testament) with the reality of gay Christians. Some of these books are more successful than others.* One made good points, but didn’t have the nicest of prose.** In attempt to have a dialogue with my father, I even read a book that took an opposite stance.*** This book was written by an evangelical who at least acknowledged the existence of gay people but still clung to the clobber verses. Few solutions, if any, were offered, other than to pray the gay away (which doesn’t work) and embrace a lifetime of singleness. Enter a new book: Gay Girl, Good God by Jackie Hill Perry, published in 2018. (A book I sometimes accidentally called Gay God, Good Girl!) This time, the author is a professed former lesbian who became a Christian and ultimately married a man and had children with him.

I read this book wanting to know if Jackie’s story was any different from some of the others I had already heard. Jackie’s childhood was marked by two men who hurt her: her deadbeat father who abandoned her and a teenage relative who abused her. Consequently, she didn’t trust men. The rest of her childhood and adolescence is somewhat unclear. She mentions having feelings for girls at a young age, and she says she never liked girly things. When her mom asks her if she is gay when she is around 18, Jackie admits she is. She finds a girlfriend who introduces her to marijuana but also love. While Jackie seems to know about the Bible and some of the clobber verses, she apparently did not go to church much and was not a Christian. Late one night, she has a spiritual experience, feeling a mixture of God and guilt, and decides she must break up with her girlfriend and pursue a conservative path of Christianity.

Jackie is honest that her feelings for women did not go away. She still finds them attractive, but she remakes her physical appearance to be more feminine. Once a tomboy who dressed in tight sports bras and baggy jeans, she tries wearing a normal bra and clothes to highlight her curves. Jackie now dubs her feelings for women a temptation. She finds a woman on YouTube from Los Angeles and decides she wants to be discipled by her, and amazingly this stranger agrees! Jackie starts writing and performing poetry about her journey.

It’s in LA that she meets her future husband, Preston. He too is a poet, and their relationship starts as a friendship. Since he is nice to her, she decides she was wrong about men. She finds herself being to drawn to his personality, but she is repulsed by his facial hair and his largeness. She misses hugging women who are more her size. Still, she stays with Preston and tries to make their relationship work, even moving to Chicago to be with him. It’s never quite clear how open Jackie was with him about her lesbian past, and Jackie never seems to realize there is a chance she could simply be bisexual.

Whenever I have heard an evangelical say that gays / lesbians can change their ways and marry someone from the opposite sex, I sigh. I am 100% gay. I can recognize female beauty, and I can be friends with women, but I am not programmed to have romantic feelings for them, no matter how hard I try. So any time an evangelical trots out an example of someone like Jackie or Mike Goeke, I categorize those people as bisexual, not someone who was able to stop being gay.

But based on what Jackie writes, it seems she might actually be a genuine lesbian. She married a man, sure, and she has two children with him, yes, but a ring on the finger does not make someone straight. Sexual orientation is based on the interior, not the exterior. So no matter how much makeup Jackie wears or how many frilly dresses she buys, she cannot change her feelings for women. In chapter 13, Jackie says, “Loving women was an easy thing for me. I didn’t have to work to give them me. They could have it all–my unhidden tears, my untold stories, my freest self” (136). This reminds me of when I first came out. I had tried dating women and put off kissing them as long as possible. When it did happen, I didn’t enjoy it. I recoiled. I wondered why every couple on TV and film seemed to enjoy kissing. But then I started dating men. And when I kissed a man for the first time, a light bulb went off. It felt good and natural and wonderful. Oh! Now I understand kissing, I thought. Jackie experiences pain and frustration in trying to form a relationship with Preston. Her inability to live authentically is a recipe for disaster that other queer Christians might attempt to follow.

Part Three of the book shifts away from Jackie’s story as she attempts (and fails) to provide guidance for LGBTQ Christians. She falls into the same line of thinking of most evangelicals. First of all instead of calling people gay or queer, she says they have same-sex attraction (SSA). This tactic steals the identities of countless people who choose to identify as lesbian or gay. Evangelicals weaponize language when they use the term SSA. It removes a sexual identity that many people proudly claim and replaces it with something that is sterile and sounds like a disease or affliction. In their line of (wrong) thinking, you can’t stop being gay, but you can control or deny your same-sex attraction. At least Jackie also uses the phrase “opposite sex attraction,” something I have joked about before but have never seen in a book.

Second, Jackie thinks the gay can be prayed away. It can’t. Conversion therapy has been shown to be not only ineffective but also damaging. A person’s sexual orientation cannot be changed, and her retelling of the story from the Bible about Jesus giving a blind man his sight does not prove that gays can become straight.

Third, Jackie says that since Jesus endured the cross and all that came with it, gay Christians should endure their feelings and not act on them for their entire lives. This line of thinking is incredible to me. Humans were created for relationship. No one should have to live a life of solitude. Everyone should have a chance at romance. Nevertheless, Jackie writes:

Obedience for those who are [gay] deals in the terrifying because it means to deny the body of what often feels as natural as smiling. . . . It’s a real affection experienced by real people. So when commanded not to act out on these affections, even when they pulse through the body loud enough to make a sound, it takes an unearthly commitment to self-denial.

Gay Girl, Good Good, page 170

I tried this approach until I was 34. I knew I had feelings for guys when I was in high school, maybe even junior high, but I never allowed myself to act on them. I thought they were a phase, that they would go away with time. I just needed to meet the right woman, I reasoned. That never happened. As the years passed, and more and more of my friends got married, I found myself feeling lonelier and lonelier. I told myself I would come out during my Jesus year when I was 33, but I couldn’t find the courage. When I turned 34, I felt hopeless, like I had missed my chance to come out. For years, I had spent my free time by hanging out with friends, playing video games, and watching TV. I spent a lot of evenings and weekends sponsoring student council events. I filled up my life to keep myself from being so lonely, but I finally decided I couldn’t do that anymore. I wanted a chance at love, and I knew if I were to find it, it would be with a man and not a woman. I came out. And my life has been so much better ever since I started living authentically. I wish I could go back in time and come out sooner. I wish I could tell teenage me that I didn’t have to deny my feelings, that they would never go away, to just embrace them and my true self.

So for Jackie to tell gay Christians to deny their feelings is very much in line with evangelical beliefs, but I also know how toxic and wrong such thinking is. Gay Girl, Good God is a memoir grounded in dangerous thinking
and muddled by fragmentary prose, rehashing the same tired evangelical arguments that gays and lesbians must change their sexual orientation in order to find love in this world.

——————————————————————————————————————–
*Gushee, David. Changing Our Mind. © 2017.
*Jennings, Jr., Theodore W. The Man Jesus Loved. Nonfiction. © 2009.
*Vines, Matthew. God and the Gay Christian. © 2014.

**McQueen, Scott. Reasonable Doubt: a Case for LGBT Inclusion in the Institutions of Marriage and Church. © 2018.

***Hubbard, Peter. Love Into Light: the Gospel, the Homosexual, and the Church. © 2013.

Response to Marcia, Marcia, Millennials!

I used to subscribe to the Baptist Messenger (BM), the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma’s weekly newsletter, back when I was a member of a Southern Baptist Church. Even after I left the SBC for the UCC, I continued to get this newsletter, so I could read my dad’s weekly column in his church’s wrap that surrounded the BM. Earlier this year, the BM discontinued the wrap service to all Oklahoma churches, and they also scaled back from weekly issues to biweekly ones. I helped my dad figure out some ways to get his weekly column out to the world since the wrap service was discontinued. It no longer made sense to subscribe to the BM, and my dad assured me he would get me removed from the mailing list. I still keep receiving issues, though, and I can’t help but read the editor’s column, “Sword & Trowel.” Like a moth to a flame, I find myself drawn to a conservative, evangelical man’s opinions about the world, almost certain he will write something I find offensive or misguided.

In the March 21 BM issue, Brian Hobbs shares some facts and opinions about Generation Z in his “Marcia, Marcia, millenials!” column. Hobbs mainly just copied and pasted direct quotes from this Facts & Trends article from September 2017, including this one about Generation Z:

They’re more accepting of sexual fluidity. Gen Z supports gay marriage and transgender rights. For them, such things are part of everyday life. It would be rare for a Z to not have a friend from the LGBT community. “

The implication here is that gay marriage and transgender rights are not part of everyday life for evangelicals who oppose these things. I don’t see the SBC moving to an affirming stance on LBGTQ+ people in my lifetime. What I do see happening is people from the SBC learning more about queer people from media, friends, and family. There are lots of queer characters in television and movies. The popularity of Queer Eye, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Schitt’s Creek cannot be denied. Plenty of evangelicals have family members who are queer, out or closeted, whether those evangelicals are open about it or not. I would argue that Boomers and Gen X and Millennials also have a very high chance of having a friend from the LGBT community. It’s just that that friend might be closeted or in a mixed-orientation marriage.

Hobbs did not have enough room to share the rest of the Facts & Trends quote on Gen Z and sexuality, which goes on to say:

Additionally, a 2016 survey of gender and sexuality by J. Walter Thompson Company, a New York-based marketing firm, found only 48 percent of those 13 to 20 years old described themselves as “completely heterosexual,” compared to 65 percent of those 21 to 34.


In his book, White describes the Gen Z attitude as “an increasing sexual fluidity that refuses either the homosexual or heterosexual label. The idea is that both labels are repressive.”

To me, it seems these people are not sexually fluid, but are rather bisexual or pansexual. I have met bisexual men and women. Our culture doesn’t get a lot depictions in media of bisexual people, but I have read from multiple sources that bisexual people are the biggest group in the queer/LGBTQ+ family. I learned earlier this year on Twitter that even Mr. Rogers confessed to finding both women and men attractive! Just because a person says they aren’t completely straight or gay does not make them “fluid.” It makes them bi. Or pan. (Right?)

At the end of his column, Hobbs reflects on the seven facts about Generation Z he shared. He writes:

“[G]rowing up in a culture that embraces the LGBT worldview, as well as full exposure to pornography, will undermine the biblical sexual ethic and wreck lives. As Christians, though, we know that the world’s sexual ethic makes empty promises, and God’s plan is the only authentic and fulfilling way. “

I correctly predicted that Hobbs would attack LGBT people in yet another column. As a gay Christian, I worry about the hurt caused by writing like this. I worry about the LGBT teenagers and adults who are members of evangelical churches like the SBC.

Let’s unpack what Hobbs wrote. First of all, I would like to know what he means by “the LGBT worldview.” Is this one in which LGBT people are free from bigotry and hate? One in which they are free to love and marry who they choose? One in which they are granted civil rights? Moreover, if there is an LGBT worldview, it seems there might be a straight worldview. What is that like? One in which every person on earth is straight? And only straight people are given civil rights?

Hobbs links LGBT people with pornography in his first sentence. LGBT people do not choose to be LGBT. It is their identity. Pornography has to be chosen to watch. There’s way more straight porn in the world than there is queer porn. Also, what does Hobbs mean by “full exposure to pornography”?

Hobbs also uses the phrase “biblical sexual ethic,” which is problematic because there are plenty of scenarios from the Bible (like David and his concubines and Lot sleeping with his two daughters) that are not one man + one woman.

Hobbs posits this untrue formula: LGBT worldview + pornography = wrecked lives. I’ll tell you what kept me in the closet until I was 34. Crockery like this. The SBC made me feel that I had to keep my gay identity a secret. That I was unworthy to be my true self. I’ve now been out for two years, and I’m still figuring out the dating world. I feel free and happy to be who I am, and I’m glad I have a church home at Mayflower Congregational UCC that is affirming. The SBC did not wreck my life, but it did delay my love life.

Hobbs concludes by saying God’s plan is good and the world’s sexual ethic is bad. Who is Hobbs to speak for God? Who is Hobbs to say what God approves? What exactly is God’s plan exactly for sexuality? I have now read numerous books on this topic, and I am comfortable living as both a Christian and a gay man. I claim them both as my identities.

Time to Shout

Yesterday after work I drove to Tulsa to hear Laurie Halse Anderson speak about her new book, Shout, a memoir and manifesto in verse. I actually got a seat on the front row! It was definitely a book nerd moment. Kimberly Johnson, the Tulsa City-County Library CEO, conducted the interview.

Early on in their conversation, Johnson mentioned that Halse Anderson was a recipient of the Anne Zarrow Award. The award, presented by the Tulsa Library Trust, has been around since 1991 and was awarded to Halse Anderson in 2017. The award’s purpose “is to give formal recognition, on behalf of the Tulsa County community, to nationally acclaimed authors who have made a significant contribution to the field of literature for children and young adults.” The Zarrow website even has lesson plans and resources for the three most recently honored authors: Rita Williams-Garcia, Pam Muńoz Ryan, and Laurie Halse Anderson.

Halse Anderson reads a poem from Shout.

Lots of the conversation was about sexual violence, the basis for Shout (and Speak). It’s a delicate topic, but Halse Anderson acknowledged that America uses sex to sell dish soap. It’s time for Americans to learn to talk about sex. Besides, she said, boys as young as eleven and twelve are learning about sexuality through pornography, sometimes scenes that do not depict consent. She suggested we watch the TED Talk from Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement.

“We have a responsibility to be honest with kids.”

Laurie Halse Anderson

She told us about RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. They have lots of statistics, including this sobering one: “Every 92 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. And every 9 minutes, that victim is a child.” Halse Anderson was clear that men can be victims too. There is an even a website for them called 1in6. (1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually assaulted this year!)

Illustration by Jillian Tamaki

When it came time for audience Q & A, I explained I was a former creative writing teacher who always started class with ten minutes of silent reading because good writers are also good readers. I wanted to know some of LHA’s favorite books. She said Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 gave her inspiration for writing Speak. She enjoyed the humor in Watsons and described it as the best YA book of that decade. She also praised Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger and anything by Louise Erdrich. Kimberly Johnson told the audience that Laurie had recently written a By the Book column for The New York Times in which she goes into further detail about some of her favorite books and authors.

Halse Anderson explained that students need to read books about characters who are like them. “We can make our table bigger,” she said, explaining that expanding diversity in YA literature in regards to race, religion, LGBTQ characters, and more is becoming a reality. To help reach that goal, she explained there is an organization called Project LIT, founded by Nashville teacher Jared Amato. Project LIT is a “national, grassroots LITeracy movement, a network of dedicated teachers and students who are committed to increasing access to culturally relevant books and promoting a love of reading in their schools and communities.” [source]

As an added bonus, I learned that Halse Anderson’s father was a United Methodist Church minister. She’s a PK (preacher’s kid) just like me! I had no idea, and I’ve been reading her books for years.

Two preachers’ kids

Girls, Boys, & Reading

man and woman reading books

Photo by Zun Zun on Pexels.com

This morning I read an article in the August 27, 2018, issue of The New Yorker called “Ladies’ Choice” about the history and staying power of Little Women. Joan Acocella explains the rationale for Little Women‘s creation on page 76:

If there were tales written specifically for boys–adventure tales–why shouldn’t there also be stories about girls’ concerns, written for them? Girls liked reading more than boys did. (This is still true.)

I almost spewed my coffee. This parenthetical aside got me frustrated enough that I wrote my first letter to the editor. I emailed it earlier this morning. I wrote:

Joan Acocella in her analysis of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women asserted that girls formerly and currently like reading more than boys. Most enthusiastic teachers of reading would claim a student, girl or boy, who does not like reading just has not found the right book yet. Moreover, categorizing any book as being exclusively for boys or girls reinforces dangerous stereotypes and dissuades some students from the picking up the very book they may need at the moment.

I could have gone into more detail, but I didn’t want to be long-winded. I guess that’s why I have a blog! I can write as much as I want.

Two reading myths need to be dispelled.

  1. Girls like to read. Boys don’t.
  2. There are girl books and boy books.

In my thirteen years of teaching English, I encountered many students of both genders who liked to read. From my early years of teaching, I can still think of three boys–Leighton, Tyler, and Aaron–who were voracious readers. Leighton read Lonesome Dove (864 pages!) as an eighth grader. Tyler read the Inheritance cycle like it was nothing. Aaron could buzz through any book he found or I recommended.

I also knew a healthy amount who did not–from both genders–despite my best efforts to convert them into readers.

Perhaps it is true that more girls than boys choose reading as a hobby. It’s quiet and requires focus and maturity, traits that girls tend to have more of than boys at a younger age. Reading also tends to be feminized in popular culture, although there is a tumblr called Hot Dudes Reading. And if we’re talking test scores, girls regularly outperform the boys almost every time. In every country tested for the PISA in 2015, girls scored higher than boys on the reading section:

Screenshot (173)

Source: OECD (2018), Reading performance (PISA) (indicator). doi: 10.1787/79913c69-en (Accessed on 25 August 2018)

I was a little boy who loved books. My parents read to me as a child before I started school and continued to do so once I began my educational career at Harmony Public School in Atoka County. My second grade teacher, Miss Rice, read Charlotte’s Web aloud to us, and I was so moved by the ending, I cried. I knew then the power that books held. I soon began devouring series like Little House on the Prairie, Ramona Quimby, The Boxcar Children, and Encyclopedia Brown. So maybe I get a little defensive about boys not liking to read because I did.

The idea that certain books are for boys and certain books are for girls is very dangerous. It reinforces stereotypes and makes students feel unsafe in exploring themselves and worlds, real or imagined. A good book is a good book. Who are we to decide a book is only good for one gender? That’s why I would encourage teachers and librarians to not categorize books as “chick lit” or “lad lit/boy books” in their school or classroom libraries. This sends a message to students that something is wrong with them if they want to read a book from the opposing gender. If Nora wants to read a book about two boys who get lost on a camping adventure, let her. If Jackson wants to read a book about a girl who has a secret crush on one her classmates, let him.

Pernille Ripp has already written an excellent blog post, taking down the idea of boy books and girl books. In her conclusion, she writes:

So I am wondering if we for once and for all, can we all agree that there is no such thing as a girl or a boy book?  That kids need to be exposed to characters that inspire them, no matter their gender.  That kids need to be exposed to characters that will expand their worldviews and invite them into new worlds that they knew little of before, no matter their gender.

Reading is for everyone: girls and boys, women and men, and those caught in the middle–little women and little men–the teenagers in middle schools and high schools across our country.

A Pharisee Takes the Cake Away

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As the son of a Southern Baptist preacher, I get my father’s church’s newsletter, which is wrapped around The Baptist Messenger, the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma’s weekly newspaper. My father writes a weekly column for his church called “Rejoice!,” something he has been doing for over thirty years. Dad usually writes a story about his dog and then applies a biblical principle to Freckles. I enjoy Dad’s columns.

As a queer Christian (gay, to be specific), I usually read with dread and sometimes anger the weekly column “Conventional Thinking” in The Baptist Messenger by the editor, Brian Hobbs. Like me, Brian is a man in his thirties, and I used to attend the same church he did. I never talked to him, but I recognized him from his picture in the newspaper. I sat alone in the balcony, and Brian sat with his wife and children. Brian usually writes about a current cultural event like the recent medical marijuana bill or the #MeToo movement in the Southern Baptist Convention.

This week, Brian returned to one of his favorite topics: homosexuals. Southern Baptists are entrenched in their view that homosexuality is a sin. They use a handful of verses from the Bible to condemn a group of people and then move along with their spiritual lives.

But I want to slow down for a second. When I was raised as an evangelical / Southern Baptist, I was taught that the Bible was 100% true, so I could trust anything that is said. Things got complicated as I grew older and realized I was gay. I still viewed myself as a Christian, but I felt I couldn’t exist as a gay man at the same time because the Bible said homosexuality was a sin. However, in 2018, we know and accept some things that the writers of the Bible do not. The sun, not the Earth, is the center of our solar system. The Bible concludes without ever condemning slavery, but we all take it for granted now that slavery is wrong. And people’s sexual orientation cannot be changed. That’s why groups like Exodus International no longer exist. That’s why many states have started to ban ex-gay therapy. Not only does it not work, it can be very harmful. Some Christians have even attempted or committed suicide because of their queer / LGBT orientation.

Which leads me to this question for Brian Hobbs: What should queer people do? Live in celibacy for their entire lives? Praying away the gay doesn’t work. Trying to date someone of the opposite sex doesn’t work. (Although I know of some people who have tried this and ended up in mixed-orientation marriages. Some stay. Some leave.) It seems to me that queer people should be able to pursue a relationship with someone. Otherwise, you are sentencing a person to a lifetime of solitude simply for existing with a sexual orientation that emerged and cannot be changed. It’s easy for a straight man like Brian to celebrate gays not getting to buy a wedding cake, but I would really like to know how he expects actual gay people to navigate the world. Has Mr. Hobbs ever met a gay person? A gay couple? A gay Christian? A gay Christian couple? Would he approve of a celibate gay relationship, those who follow Side B of the gay Christian debate?

In Brian’s article, he praises the Supreme Court for siding with the “devout Christian” cake artist who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. I wonder if the cake artist interviews all of his customers to find out if they have sinned before he bakes them a cake. If someone is remarrying after a divorce, will he still make them a cake? [Matthew 5:32] I have a hunch he only targets same-sex couples. Everyone else is free from his judgment as long as they are an opposite-sex couple. (Does he ask all his customers if they are bisexual? An opposite-sex couple may actually include one or both members having a bisexual orientation, but because they have the appearance of looking straight, that’s probably enough for the cake artist.) This Supreme Court decision makes it seem like discrimination against queer people is okay. “You should tolerate my intolerance,” the baker argues, and America’s Supreme Court said, “Okay.” How disappointing.

It would be one thing if a gay couple sued a church for refusing to marry them. I get that. A church is a religious institution, and they should get to abide by their beliefs. Religious liberty should apply then. But cake? Wedding cake is not religious. A bakery is not religious. Church services are not held in bakeries. Last I checked, Jesus never spoke about the mystical properties of wedding cake. Nothing magical or religious happens when a couple shares or eats their wedding cake. It is flour and sugar and eggs. Wedding cake is not a sacrament. It should not be covered by religious liberty, which in some cases seems more like bigotry.

Brian Hobbs claims that the Masterpiece Cake Shop decision was “right, for [cake artist] Phillips and for all Americans” [emphasis added]. Clearly, this isn’t true. A segment of society exists that is queer that now has the right to marry. Queer people / LGBT people / Homosexuals exist. Treating us like second-class citizens will not make us disappear. Condemning this group of people sounds like something a Pharisee would do, not Jesus. In my heart of hearts, I believe Jesus would make a cake for a same-sex couple. He would attend a same-sex wedding. The Pharisees were caught up in the minutiae of laws. Jesus applied the spirit of the law, and He did so with love.

Brian Hobbs titled his column “Liberty takes the cake.” By doing so, he makes a joke, a pun out of the fact that the religious liberty argument was held up in the Supreme Court and is therefore something to be celebrated, but also quite literally, the cake artist got to take a wedding cake away from a gay couple who just wanted the standard dessert used by thousands of Americans to celebrate a momentous day. That Hobbs would mock this gay couple reveals his view that queer people are less-than, that they are not deserving of kindness, that God is on the side of the cake artist and not the queer couple. Brian Hobbs is a Southern Baptist, and he is also a Pharisee.

A column like Hobbs’s affirms my decision to leave the Southern Baptist church for the United Church of Christ, a progressive and affirming denomination welcoming of all people, including queer ones. If you live in the Oklahoma City area, you should check out Mayflower Congregational UCC, where no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.

Inclusive Dialogue Partners

No high school creative writing textbook exists as far as I know. That means for the past eight years, I’ve had to create my own curriculum, scavenge it online, borrow it from colleagues on Twitter, etc. One lesson I have to teach my students is how to write dialogue. Some tend to avoid it in their fiction pieces completely if they don’t know how to punctuate it. Even after having read lots of books, some students don’t seem to know the rules, so I teach those to my students. I also give them four different versions of a scene from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and they have to decide which one was published. It really freaks them out to learn that McCarthy doesn’t use quotation marks for dialogue or apostrophes for contractions with the word not. Ha!

I’m not sure where I got the dialogue activity I’m about to discuss. It might have been from a workshop from an Oklahoma Writing Project conference. Maybe I invented it myself. But after students have learned the rules of punctuating / formatting dialogue, they need a chance to practice it. I provide a list of pairs, and students work together to write a scene with some dialogue.

  1. cop and speeding teen
  2. parent and teen with broken curfew
  3. boyfriend and girlfriend break up
  4. shy boy asking girl to dance
  5. a friend confronts a gossiping friend
  6. exes assigned as lab partners
  7. coach chews out a football player
  8. jock asks a girl to dance who hates him
  9. annoying boss and teen worker
  10. teacher and texting teen who gets caught

See any trends in that list of choices? Look again, especially at 3, 4, and 8. They all deal with straight couples.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been learning more about how to be mindful of any LGBT students I might have in class. I’ve mainly educated myself by reading articles from Teaching Tolerance, including this one: “Why Heteronormativy is Harmful.”

Heteronormative is defined as “of, relating to, or based on the attitude that heterosexuality is the only normal and natural expression of sexuality.” This definition comes from a great article from Teen Vogue about the dangers of heteronormativity, which I also suggest reading.

So when I got out my old, tried and true dialogue pairs writing activity and looked at it, I kind of gasped. I was perpetuating heteronormativy. If I was really going to take the advice of these articles, not only would I make the couples neutral, I would take it a step further and include an LGBT couple of some kind. Teaching in Oklahoma, I decided not to push the limits, but I did need to revise the three couples.

Heteronormative Chart

The writing activity still engaged my students with my newly revised couples, and I felt better not perpetuating heteronormativity. Throughout this school year, I’ll be more careful about the language I use when speaking and in the handouts and activities I provide. I want any students who are LGBT to feel like my classroom is an inclusive and safe environment for them.

Listen Up!

The first day of my summer break, I attended an English teacher conference in Texas with Gena, one of my besties. We drove down the night before, so we would be ready for a full day at the North Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts (NTCTELA) conference, keynoted by two of my teacher heroes Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher. The topic of the day was speaking and listening, two important ELA skills that are often overlooked because they are difficult to assess. (And don’t we need to teach one more novel or write one more essay?! Why make time to speak and listen?) But if we want our students to grow in their thinking, in their reading and writing, we have to create a space in our classrooms where students can also speak and listen.

For years now I have assessed my students’ reading by simply talking with them about the books they choose to read. I call these book talks, and I’ve blogged about them before. If we are really going to get to know our students and their interests, we must talk to them, and we must also listen. Penny and Kelly reminded us of this in their opening keynote.

In her session “Teaching Poetry to Transform Thinking About Writing,” Penny showed us a spoken word poem by Ethan Smith called “Letter to the Girl I Used to Be.” Give it a watch:

I was moved by this poem by a trans young man. I’ve taught spoken word poetry to my Creative Writing 2 students, and I’ve written an article about spoken word poetry for the Oklahoma Humanities magazine. (Look for “The Poet Has Spoken.”) I know spoken word poetry, but I hadn’t seen this poem before, and I was a fan. I began to think how I could use in CW2 in the fall.

We made it to the lunch break, and I saw I had a Twitter notification. I had been tweeting about the conference, and I had been getting some likes and retweets throughout the morning. When I opened the app, though, I noticed I had a direct message. I opened it, and saw it was from a former student, now finished with freshman year of college.

Hey Stevo! This might seem super out of the blue, but I just want to thank you. Your presence in my high school career was so helpful to me, and I can’t thank you enough. You were always so positive and fun while still teaching me so much.

If you haven’t been able to tell yet, I’m a trans guy and I’m finally coming out and transitioning (starting June 21!! woah!!) and the whole shebang.

You’d always been such a positive influence overall, and I just couldn’t stop thinking about how, my sophomore year, we had a book talk in which I complained about straight people always getting what they want. You replied, “yeah! that’s so dumb. stupid straight people,” and for the first time, an adult was affirming to my identity, and it was so important to me after hearing years of youth pastors and parents saying otherwise. (Also, having a cool democrat as a teacher was always so refreshing).

So I’m going to school to be a teacher because I want to be there for the weird kids like me who need someone on their side. Anyway, all this to say, I can’t thank you enough for being such a great teacher and inspiring me to be one too.

I wept like a baby. I was filled with so many emotions: pride, humility, love, gratitude. It was like what I had heard that morning about listening to students and validating them, plus the video about the trans boy, had now combined full circle into my life’s reality. It was incredible. Neither the student nor I could remember what book we were discussing. And actually, I don’t even remember making that offhand comment to my student. It just goes to show that our students are always listening to us teachers, and that what we say matters.

I wrote back to my student, and shared how I proud I was of him and how I honored I was that he was would trust me with his story. On the off chance that he had not yet watched the spoken word poem “Letter to the Girl I Used to Be,” I sent it to him. He hadn’t seen it, so he watched it and told me sobbed and loved it.

I have more to write about the NTCTELA conference and what I learned, but I’ll save that for another post.

Teachers, how do you honor and embrace speaking and listening in your classrooms? What purposeful strategies do you use? How do you know your students are better speakers and listeners at the end of the semester? the school year?

 

Go Poems

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When I taught Pre-AP and on-level English 2, I devoted the start of each Thursday’s class to a poem. Nothing intimidating. Just some quick reading and discussion. Maybe a tiny bit of analysis. Once a nine weeks, I might invite students to imitate the poem through writing. Too many students (and teachers!) are intimidated by poetry, and I love discovering what poetry can do through only a couple of lines. I relied a lot on American Life in Poetry and The Writer’s Almanac for beautiful, accessible poems for my students.

My teacher buddy Brett Vogelsinger from Pennsylvania is a rock star. He starts every English class with a poem. He’s also currently in the midst of a special event blog, called Go Poems. Brett explains:

To celebrate National Poetry Month in April 2017, this event blog will present a poem and a “springboard” into a discussion, activity, or lesson plan each day.  These poems can be used at the beginning of class to essentially say “go!” to close reading, creativity, and critical thinking. Hence the title of this blog: Go Poems. 

Brett asked me to write a post for Go Poems. I ended up writing two. Today, Brett features my first post about a reversible poem by Brian Bilston called “Refugees.” Check it out!

Writing Retreat Excitement

3 students & teacher

OWP Spring 2016 Conference with winning writers: Andrew (short story), Taylor (memoir), Katie (poetry), & me (poetry)

I am the teacher I am today in large part because I took a chance and applied for the 2009 Oklahoma Writing Project summer institute. I was accepted and joined other teachers in becoming better teachers, better writers, and better teachers of writing. We met for a month on the campus of the University of Oklahoma, participating in workshops and ultimately creating and leading our own.

My continued involvement with OWP has seen me presenting workshops for teachers around our state. I’ve been to three of the four corners. If any of you teachers in the Idabel area need some PD from me, hit me up! Ha ha. In years past, I have also been the co-director of the summer institute, and now I’m the editor of the anthology for the summer institute. I take my high school creative writing students each semester to the OWP conferences.

For  over a year now, I’ve been in a writing group with some other OWP teacher consultants. Deb, Lisa, and Diahn are very dear to me. We meet monthly in each other’s homes to share a meal and our writing for feedback. These meetings are balm to my soul. I look forward to hearing another one of Deb’s adventures from her childhood in Colorado, Lisa’s next novel installment, and Diahn’s heartfelt pieces. I usually bring my poetry, but I’ve also shared some memoir and fiction pieces. I teased my group with the beginning of a novel project I’m calling Panhandlers. They keep asking me to write more, which is good accountability.

Tonight and tomorrow OWP is having a writing retreat at Roman Nose State Park in Watonga. My writing group is going, so we plan to meet during part of the retreat. I’m bringing two new poems and a bit more of my novel. It will be fun to be surrounded by my tribe of like-minded teachers. I’m going to soak it up. Writers write. It’s as easy as that. It will be nice to take a break from being Teacher and Student Council Sponsor, so I can be Writer, if even for a handful of hours.

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