This is the third in a series of reflections on the Wild Goose Festival. Part one is The Power of A Tshirt. Part two is Apologizing to Over the Rhine.
This is a hard post to write. I've been stewing about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. On the whole I had a wonderful time at the festival.
I got to hang out and camp with Brian Gerald Murphy and Matt Beams; two wonderful, wonderful men.
I met and connected with some amazing people. I experienced the powerful music of Over the Rhine and Jennifer Knapp. I listened to some wonderful speakers like Paul Knitter and Nadia Bolz-Weber. I listened to Glen Retief read from The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood and saw Peterson Toscano perform.
I engaged in lovely and loving conversations around sexuality and gender identity. I laughed a lot.
And yet. I came home feeling a sense of unease about my experience. A sense of disconnect. I almost hesitate to write about it, though, because I know that some will think I am just complaining. They will think I am making too big of a deal out of my criticisms, they will expect me to be thankful for what I got. But I feel I cannot gush about this festival without offering some hearty criticism because there were ways in which the festival was painful for me as a queer person. See, I certainly felt welcome at this festival but I didn't feel affirmed. Nor did I feel represented. I want to be clear that I offer this critique because I believe in what the Wild Goose Festival could be. I believe that we need a progressive, experiential, experimental festival that is committed to justice and the arts. I want this to be a place that I attend each year; to build into this community. That's why I feel I cannot stay silent about my experience there.
I went to the festival mostly to listen to speakers talk about issues of sexuality and gender identity. I wanted to see what was being said about my community. That's where the rub begins: other than a few cis gay males (all white) and a couple of bisexual women and one lesbian all of the people who were speaking about sexuality as an "issue" were straight, cisgender people. And all of the folks speaking from the main stages (meaning not on a panel) were cisgender straight folks. (I am putting Peterson into a different category because while he spoke and performed on a main stage he was there as a performer and not as a speaker).
From the stage the conversation was basic. It was still about whether or not queer people are inherently sinful and whether or not they should be in the church. Obviously people came down on different sides: Some were fierce allies, others were quieter, some didn't take a stand either way. I was troubled by the wishy-washiness of some of the speakers. And troubled by the very, very basic level of this conversation. We have been having the conversation about whether or not homosexuality is a sin for DECADES now. Can't we please, please move on? I understand that this conversation is important for many folks, but at some point I think we need to refuse to engage this conversation on the public level. Instead if people want to know more about "the issues" they should read one of the dozens of books that have been written. I was struck over and over again by the disconnect that was happening between conversations public and private. Even folks who were not 100% on board with inclusion were able to have much more nuanced conversations with me one on one. Conversations in public became about platitudes, trite talking points, or shouting.
I am concerned about the ways in which queer people were isolated from the main stages. There were a few that were asked to speak on panels, etc. but most of the main talks about sexuality featured white, cisgender, straight men. Queer people were not invited as main speakers (to talk about queer issues).
The two main talks about queer issues (not including the panel discussions) were these: Jay Bakker talked about what it means to be an ally and I am totally in support of that. We need fierce straight folks to speak about what it means to be an ally. And Tony and Peggy Campolo did the same talk they've been doing for the past ten years about their disagreements on homosexuality and the Bible. As I watched them speak, all I could think was that this was so rehearsed. There is nothing new in what they are saying. Anyone who has done even a tiny bit of reading/research could have had the same conversation. At best it was innocuous. The problem is that it didn't stay innocuous. As the conversation entered into a question and answer time, the talk got ugly. A questioner said that she belonged to a church that was welcoming and affirming but that they had not made a public welcome statement because they were partnered with an African American church and they were afraid they would lose their relationship with the church if they came out in support of queer people. Tony then said that there was a good chance they would lose their relationship because the African American community is more homophobic than white people. Then he went on to say that Prop 8 in California wouldn't have passed if it weren't for African American people. Several of us shouted "NO" to him on that point because not only is it incredibly racist, it's also verifiably false. (You can read about why it's false and damaging here and here.) And when he was told no he got offended and basically told us he was right about that. It is irresponsible for a public leader to be able to get away with saying ridiculously racist things from the stage. The reality is that it reinforces racism without at all getting called out. This is not okay.
We need queer folks to be able to speak for themselves.
There are queer theologians who would have loved to have spoken at Wild Goose. (I'm not going to lie, I am one of them.) There are queer people who are doing important justice work in our own communities. We are at a point when we need people to stop speaking "for" us or "about" us and start letting us speak for ourselves. And I say letting us because the reality is there are still gatekeepers at places like the Wild Goose Festival. There is still an invite list and a planning committee. There are decisions made on a higher level about who will be included and who will not. They made the decision to keep the conversation at a base level. They made the decision to invite straight cisgender men to speak about queer people. They made the decision to not include queer people as main speakers. That is troublesome.
I appreciated that there were fierce allies there, but I am also frustrated that there are people there who speak for my community that I do not want speaking for me.
Speaking now as a transgender person I must also say that my community was pretty much invisible on the main stages. Almost no publicly transgender people spoke from any stage anywhere. Some people tried to push for transgender inclusion (Phyllis Tickle was the most notable), but it was either brief or somewhat sloppily done. There was a lot of conflating trans* and intersex issues or of tacking on the "T" without having any idea why they were tacking it on. Peterson Toscano was the exception (and I will talk about his presentation more in a future post). He spoke clearly and strongly on trans* issues (as well as broader gender and sexuality issues). I know that this is because he has done his research and he has trans* people who read and comment on everything he does. He is the shining example of what it means to be an ally; to be led by the community you are being an ally for. (People, if you want to be an ally, you should follow his example!)
The reality is we're still having the 101 conversation when we should be well past that. Here is what I want from my allies; here is what I want for the future of this conversation: That from the stage we REFUSE to talk about queer inclusion anymore because honestly? We're in your churches. We've never left them. Queer people are preaching sermons, directing choirs, serving communion, etc. etc. etc. We are in your churches whether you think our lives are sinful or not. So let's stop pretending that queer people are "outside". Let's also stop pandering to the lowest common denominator. Instead let's try to raise this conversation to a new level. Let's talk about the ways in which queer theology is opening up new understandings of God. Let's talk about the ways in which the queer experience of God has things to teach straight folks. Let's talk about how trans* theology opens up conversations about all of our bodies and how we learn to love them as holy in all of their complexity. Let's move the conversation from acceptance to wholeness.
I left the Wild Goose feeling welcome but not celebrated. I am sick of feeling welcome but not affirmed. I am sick of still being considered suspect in a church that I was born in. I am sick of being treated like I don't belong or that I am a newcomer in place in which I speak the language fluently and in which I have been nurtured since birth.
My friends, the conversation won't change until those who are on board change it. It won't change until queer people are given access to spaces to share their stories. It won't change until queer theologians are given time on the main stage. Please, straight, cisgender christians, stop speaking for me! I beg of you, allow me to speak for myself!
If you want to be a good ally, then start calling out other straight, cisgender people. Stop speaking for queer people and instead start calling out people who aren't for equality. I need you to confront other straight cisgender people because those folks need to hear it from someone who is not queer. But when it comes to speaking around queer issues, let us do that for ourselves.
* Next year I want to see the conversation shift from 101 to actually talking about queer theology.
* I want queer theologians to be invited to talk on the main stages.
* I need Tony Campolo to not be invited to speak about my community. There are plenty of spaces for folks who are not affirming to speak. They are welcome at churches and conferences all over the world.
* I want people who refuse to fully affirm the humanity and dignity of queer people to be asked to listen and learn instead of to speak. If Wild Goose really wants to be about justice then it needs to lead the way by inviting people to speak who are actively pursuing justice.
* Let allies do some trainings on how to be an ally.
* Let queer people lead the way on our own lives. You might be surprised how much queer theology has to say to straight, cisgender people.