Wednesday, May 30, 2012

On Saying Yes to Family: My LGBTQ Family Story

June 1 is Blogging for LGBT Families Day, and I thought I would take this moment to write about my queer family. 

Now, my queer family is not just any family. And it's not just anything I would have called family 10 years ago. As a bisexual woman who came out at 20 and promptly got ousted from my family of origin, the term family is not one I had wanted to embrace at all. I spent years running from this idea, laughing at the suckers who spent hours talking to parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, etc., on the phone-- or traveling to reunions yearly. 

I knew what was real. I knew it was all smoke and mirrors, part of the heterosexist trap that  seeks only to recreate itself in constant solipsistic longing, the ultimate masturbatory fantasy-- every man has their woman, every woman in her place, every baby in their correctly colored bonnet. 

I was enraged. Enraged at the family that rejected me. Enraged at the media that sexualized me. Enraged at the religions that demonized me.  Enraged and spitefully jealous of all the friends with different stories to tell. 

In short, I worked hard to kill the love in me. Every reminder of what I didn't have, what had been taken from me by my family's denial of my deepest and most vulnerable part of me-- who and how I love-- became a weapon of my own self-disgust. How dare I care about the world's recognition of my life? How dare I want what others had? How many people never know love, acceptance, comfort? What right did I have to want these things that my family of origin obviously did not want for me? 

I worked harder still, as the years went on and the desire for children became conscious. No one would think you were a good parent, I would tell myself. Look at who was the role model! You're too f*ed up. You're too big for parenting. You have too many other things to accomplish-- you don't need to be a mother, partner, lover. 

But here's the rub (though I have to write that this is starting to feel like an 'it get's better' post). Despite my best efforts to kill this love in me, I found myself making choices to put myself in the way of love. The most significant move for me I think along these lines was moving to a neighborhood in Philadelphia, PA, where freaks abound and love in all its variance thrives (and struggles, and sputters, and grows). Letting myself begin to reach out to others like me-- even those so different as to be like me only in their variance from some imagined norm-- was not so much a risk as a relief. That I was met-- by friends, lovers, compatriots, community orgs, churches, gardens, houses, streets, ferns and hostas growing like weeds on well kept tiny front yards-- was a revolution of healing and growth. 

And so, my family began. It's been a decade since I moved there, and have moved away since. But my wild and wooly family-- now comprising of a partner and a toddler, in-laws(who are sitting reading in the room in which I write this post), sisters and brothers and uncles and aunties (traditional and chosen-- a few in the wedding photo on the right) in CA, MA, NC, NY, OR, VT, distant relatives who feel like close friends when we see each other every year, queers and breeders, zealots and atheists, dreamers and cynics-- is the center of my life. My queer family is where I express the love that was denied me, the love that travels between us, the true and deep, challenging love of authentic connection. My family is strong enough for the love that I have to express and share, and is strong enough to hold a new and expanding sense of what family is and can be.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Letting Go Series, #1: Gender

I begin a series of posts on letting go today. A colleague looked me straight in the eye today and spoke with great conviction: Let it go, Victoria. Let it go. I have decided to take him at his word, and reflect on issues with which I struggle to let go. And being a part of the human community means that it's usually not just me that has something to let go. 

Here goes nothin'.

Letting go of my internalized sexism- giving the pink slip to the gender police

A dear friend and mentor told me about Ken Corbett yesterday, as I sat and struggled with her about my gender and the work I do in the world.   I find, with my beloved and my child, that the heaviness of my gender as a woman falls away. There is no doubt that I am Mama, partner, woman particularly in my family-- and yet it rests well with me most of the time. My body has a function that is life-giving. My heart is open and (mostly) unafraid. 

She said, Gender can be a lightning rod for pain.

I feel pain most often about my gender in my work in the world. As a person who is working on being a farmer and educator-- and as a woman who is working with young people-- I feel pain when I am reminded that my expression of myself as a woman does not fit with the dominant culture, and can be alienating to many young people obsessed with fitting in, anxious about doing things right, and living in a developmental moment of conservatism. As a person who wrestles with the spiritual gifts that have been given to me-- through accident, family, experience, Spirit-- my gender feels like an albatross around my neck. Attempts to embrace the feminine divine feel marginal and heretical to many in my current community, and I feel the risk of being out in this way. As a bisexual in a committed relationship with a man, I feel the invisibility of my gendered desire in a heterosexist landscape. 

I also feel pain and confusion about gender as my son interacts with the world. As we continue to not cut his hair, I feel concern for him being judged as not a boy, or perhaps we being judged as deviant parents. We dress our boo in clothes we mostly get donated, so much is gender ascribed. When we pull out the pink onesie or he wears his pink and purple rainboots, I cringe as I imagine more conservative people looking askance at his blessed frolic in the puddles. Gender is a trap in the world. It is a cage. There is a cost to any transgression, and rampant fear of that transgression. 

As I looked for more on Corbett online, I came across this news piece from a year ago (how did I miss it?) about a JCrew ad where a 5 year old boy is painting his nails pink. The controversy itself is affirmation of these feelings

The well reasoned speakers are trying to stem a tide that is larger than this boy and his painted toes. I often get information from progressive religious sites and feeds about this overwhelming tide of gender policing from religious and secular groups. I am reminded of my seminary work looking at Kate Bornstein's Gender Outlaw as I write this. As a transsexual activist and intellectual, Kate's writing about our role and responsibility to tear down the gender policed state was inspiring to me as I explored liberation theologies and what I could be. Though there are voices to listen to, places to live (yes I mean you, West Philly), the tide of the gender policed state is overwhelming, and just a click away.  

So I ask myself, in the spirit of letting go, what would letting go of this struggle look like? Would it look like courage? Pride? Calm? Would it look like moving outside of the fear of confrontation with those who might judge me as not fitting?

As I look at the current debate over public and extended breastfeeding, I feel a fierce clarity that this nurturing of children should be encouraged, not codified or policed, and this struggle is apparent, between permission to be and expectations of performance. Does being a good mother require specific behaviors? Does being a good woman require specific roles? These questions are maddening! -- and the questions that play in my mind as I butt up against those who cry out-- yes! yes indeed they do! 

Maybe the challenge, for me, is to let go of this idea of good. I will perform my gender in my wiley ways. I will be a woman until and unless that changes. Why do I hold up my being and performance against others? Why do I listen to the gender police in my mind as often, if not more, than the voices of diverse and amazing folx across the gender spectrum in my actual life? Why do I worry if I am the only adult woman in my community who does not shave? 

Last night at dinner, my beloved N relayed a story about how he was an object lesson for the Pre-Kindergarten class on exploding gender norms. As a man with long hair, one of our young neighbors stood up in class and said-- I know a man who has long hair! N! Others around the table shared that N's ponytail had been discussed with their little ones, as well. I was pleased, and a little shocked to realize that N is the only man in this community with long hair. And he smiled and was glad. I love that man. 

And so I give the pink slip to the gender police, or at least notice. Each step I take to stand without shame, with my family, friends and neighbors willing to let this policing go, is a step to showing the internal police the door. I don't know if these struggles will lessen, but I do know that I am committed to making a free gender play space for my son and the young people I meet, modeling who I can be and inviting the bigness of who they can be, outside of  fear of reprisal. I only hope that as I and others let this struggle go, the death throes of this policing will be heard, and then silence will follow-- and who knows what will fill up the space, when we say good-bye to the police within and without. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Beyond the Walled Garden

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to be on a panel with Raj Patel and others, as part of my work at Westtown School as Earth Literacy Teacher and farm educator. It was an incredible honor to share the stage with this man who speaks so eloquently about the connections between the food we eat and the state of injustice in the world. We were talking about agriculture and sustainability, each speaking from our own locations about why we do what we do, why it matters, how it speaks to the needs of our world.

I remember, I was incredibly pregnant at the time-- or at least I felt that way, though it got harder (I was 6 months pregnant at the time). I was really embarrassed to be waddling around on a stage, in bright orange, trying to share my passion for farming and justice while not sounding like a madwoman. I often feel that way, that my passion, my most precious gift to bring to the world-- that we all have to bring-- is sometimes seen as mad, out of control, not all right for polite society. 

But I did it-- spoke to the work I do making often grumpy young people dig in the dirt, turning earth, making space for our tender growth we hope to cultivate and bring to harvest. And there is no doubt that it's work. And there is no doubt that it is a metaphor as well as an action, a set of tasks and tightly held visions that painstakingly bring us closer to a more right relationship with the earth, and with each other. I host workdays at the farm, have 4 times a week work job participants, all of whom are required to help things grow. I visit science, health, history classes, working to make the connections between our food systems and our survival. This is often a hard sell. 

My question always is, though, do we get a choice? When we come right down to it, do we get a choice about our responsibility to help things grow? Maybe we all don't have to farm (though the more the merrier, and with the lack of farmers in our country, it might be the most employable profession right now), but as metaphor, I think there isn't much else we can do, these days. 

As a larger metaphor, even, food itself is a prism of health, justice, and wholeness. The folks at the Coalition of Imokalee Workers, the group seeking economic justice for vastly exploited farmworkers in Florida, speak to the true price we pay for our cheap hamburger. Every window is a well of possibility. Today, I work with plants on the farm. This weekend, I go to protest Chipotle Mexican Grill for their refusal to sign on to support farmworker justice.  This afternoon, I care for my son. On the dorm, it is my neighbor who I am called to care for. On the street, the stranger. Wherever we look, there are things that need our nurture, our cultivation, and support.

At the end of our panel, I remember walking up to Raj Patel and trying to speak with clarity about how his visit would fuel my work for years, was confirmation of my work, and affirmation of this stream I hope to stand in as I teach and grow food at Westtown. He smiled at me, mentioned his spouse who had just had a child, and told me he hoped that we at Westtown could do the work of moving beyond 'the walled garden.' I nodded. I thanked him again and made my way off the stage. 

These walls in our gardens are there for a reason-- to keep out the deer, the rabbit, the groundhog. Without them, none of the hard work of our cultivation will come to fruit! These walls and boundaries make it possible for us to live with a level of care for ourselves, as well. But they are not the end. If we look closely, and open the windows into the well of meaning, then the walls themselves are meaningless. Without my work on the farm, I would not have the strength to stand with my neighbor in protest. Without our experience of what it means to grow food, we cannot understand what is at stake in our communities and continent when we speak of the need for farmworker justice. What I know is that I move beyond the walled garden by traveling deeper in, and finally through to the other side. The deep work of nurture and connection calls to all of us, demands much of us, and is required of us for our mutual survival. Come into the garden-- it will carry you through.

Monday, May 7, 2012


This past week found me doing a bit of support for the Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) on their Green Walk for Jobs and Justice. Starting on April 30 in Philadelphia, these intrepid activists speaking of the perils of extractive energy practices-- like Mountain Top Removal(MTR) and hydro-fracking-- are walking to Pittsburgh, PA, by May 16, stopping along the way to meet with allies, speak their truths, and engage in direct action in confrontation with PNC Bank. Why PNC Bank? Because, though PNC describes that "no company has done more to spur the charge, or energize the green cause than PNC," this bank funds these extractive practices. MTR destroys eco-systems, cultures, houses, farms, local economies, water sources-- you name it, it's destroyed. 

So, they are walking. Walking as prophets, walking as spiritual seekers speaking truth to power. On Tuesday, May 1, a group of 16 came for dinner, and 12 overnight, staying in mini-dorms and guest rooms around campus at Westtown School. Students from the Religion and Social Change, and Liberation Theology courses came to hear EQAT speak about their trek, and why its so important that all seek an active life. 

I was running around looking for keys, water, passwords, bagged lunches, a quiet spot for worship, in the 16 hours they were at Westtown. I was so gratified to be sitting in a meeting space at the school, listening to the energy and care as these folks talked about the power of supported resistance, the power of a group of people making informed choices about their willingness to risk arrest, willingness to walk for miles on back roads, willingness to love and support those who can do these things, even if they cannot. There is an expansiveness in this group, an openness to the exact moment of the meeting of will and joy. They walk with joy, they resist with joy and love. They disagree wildly and with much cheering. It's pretty awesome. 

And on Saturday, myself and a WT student spent the morning with the walkers and supporters. We participated in the daily ceremonial tacking on of the Theses of True Greening, a la Martin Luther, on the front of the local PNC Bank in Lancaster. The student I went with was enlisted in taking caution tape and tying the doors of the bank. It was removed by a manager, and retied later. We posed in front of the bank with an orange dot to share with the international day of action on May 5,'s Connecting the Dots, highlighting the interconnectedness of climate change around the world. We listened to speakers and shared the good news of the walk. And then we piled into one of the support vans and promptly got lost looking for the walkers, trying to catch up with them, noticing they had missed a turn, ferrying them to their route, and finally walking for a couple of hours before the worldly world called us back. 

And so, I got to walk. Immediately, I wanted to stay all day, all week even. The pull of this liminal transformation was palpable to me. I was taken by the three walkers who have been traveling since the beginning together-- all three solitary, in their own way. All three at ease in their otherness. All three determined, careful, clear. I immediately remembered my experiences with the Zen Community of Oregon, where I spent a month in retreat and practice with the monks committed to traveling through their bodily experience to reach beyond it, waking up to the clarity of their moments-- to truly experience what is, without fear. 

And after a few minutes of this memory, something else started to happen. I started to remember other walks, other times when I was uncommonly in my body. I remembered hiking in the Shenandoah with my beloved, before the babies and the farms, composing my marching song:
I am marching marching marching in the bright light of the truth
I am marching marching marching int he bright light of the truth
I have Jesus on my right side, and Buddha on my left
Allah in my shirt pocket
and in my backpack is Goddess.
We sang this, loudly, hoping the bears would be swayed by at least one of the religious references, hoping the heat wouldn't conquer us. 

I remembered before that, in NYC, 1995, taking over the city streets with our bodies as part of the Dyke March that Pride Week. Many bore their breasts in protest to new laws prohibiting breasts being visible. My small and mighty friend, Jen Marguiles, took her boots and tromped on the orange mesh fence, holding her hand up in a firm STOP to the cops trying to stare her down. We all fell as one to the ground to become immoveable, and thousands of us took the streets that day. 

This walk, though brief, opened up the possibility that maybe, even if I judge myself as not being worthy, not doing enough, not having an authentic voice or one worth listening to, maybe instead of that crap, I can see that I have been walking for a long long time. Maybe this walk on Saturday, this epic trek of EQAT, is part of this long walk we are all on. As a strategic expression of a sustained campaign, it is brilliant and full of life and Spirit. And as the walk that is part of all our walks, marches, sit-ins, resistance in the ordinary and extraordinary to tyranny and soul death, this walk is a call to all of us to take up our good comfy shoes, strap them on, and get moving in the direction of justice-love.

I have been told that sacred music is always being chanted or sung around the world at every moment of the day. Monks, nuns, priests,and others take up the holy in their voices across the world. This has comforted and awed me. Perhaps it is time to believe that also there is a walk for justice, a work of strategic resistance, happening at all times around the world. Perhaps it is time to walk the talk, and walk the walk.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Leveling Down

My son has reached the terrible twos, at 22 months, breaking down when I appear after he has spent 5 hours in daycare, flailing around and making mince meat of my too precious glasses, hooking his fingers into my mouth, pulling my hair, slapping my face. He is out of control, as he should be, awash with the sensations of rage, frustration, hurt, fear, overwhelm that is what we humans have to deal with every moment of every day. 

Nothing has happened to him, as far as I can tell (and I am truly paying attention, more than I have ever paid in my life). It is just the now of this moment. It is  just that he is building the basics of his self control, and just now, he has very little. 

I bring him home to his safe room, follow him around while he rolls around, screaming. I try to use words, stop. I try to touch him, stop. And then he reaches for me, asks to nurse. And I lay down with him on the couch, and nurse him to sleep, where he sleeps still, as I write this. I am feeling grateful and sad that I am still nursing-- it helps him so much, and I fear it will keep him from finding his own solutions to his self control needs. But I'm not that worried. He is only 22 months, after all.

Just before I picked my son up from daycare, I was sitting in on a meeting about the importance of truly showing up for students. That the work of teaching is the work of reflecting the depth in us, and inviting the depth in others out into the air, to be seen and shared.  I asked the question in our meeting today-- how do we support teachers in the work of going there with students, leveling down into the intense and real stuff that is truly up for them, and truly up for us? What tools can we offer for this difficult and vitally necessary work? And how do we then accept the gift of the depths of others, as we seek greater wholeness and justice in our learning and living community?

As the meeting progressed, I remembered a recent Process workshop experience where the group entered into open conflict about strategies for leftist organizing. In this workshop, I, as a participant, brought up the experience of rejection I had felt in the group some years back. The facilitator paused, took a breath, and said, This is what we call leveling down. The group work on the strategic and urgent questions of limitations in progressive/leftist organizing for broad based social change was informed by this admission, though it was not explicitly resolved in the group. Some of the leveled down truth of our work was about who gets to decide, who gets to name the beauties of our revolutionary vision, who is welcomed, who is needed. A member of the group stood and challenged the traditional leaders, asking to be invited in. Another small group gathered around the desire to stop resisting all together, to begin something different and not in thrall to the powers that be. Another group looked on, bemused at all the strife, remembering the long arms of earth holding us all together. We leveled down, through the lens of social transformation, to the real work of showing up for each other, for the world, in our various and necessary diversity. 

My son, who naps in the next room, is all down level. He is all want. He is all feeling and sensation and awe. And I, traveling between these different places, see now more than ever that we are all seeking, needing to get back to a level where we all lived, at the beginning. This is not to say we should all be squalling children rolling on the floor. This is to say that we should all be seeking the deep and tender place where those feelings live in us, always. It is a vulnerable place, and it is where we can build from. 

My son is the most powerful creature on earth, because he is channeling the all of his being so mightily. I am only lucky that he does not know it yet. There need not be any shame in my son's wailing, our brokenness, or in sharing with each other our depth and struggle. This power is in all of us, and I only hope I can aid my son, my students, my movements, and myself in straddling the fire of our beings and harnessing that fire for our common liberation.