22 February, 2011

religion, queerness, disability, background, and consent

I was at my college's queer/faith group today and felt kind of bad because I said something like, "I'm not from a religious background and I came to God through being queer so it's really weird for me when people see gay + Christian and imagine that I have some sort of conflict or that this has caused trauma for me." (Or even imagine that I realized those things in the opposite order from when I actually did.)

This seems really privileged as if I think that the reason people see gay + Christian and associate that with a really terrible set of experiences is just some anti-religion bias. I mean, the people who've said this to me are atheists so I do feel a little bit like they're stereotyping Christianity and religion in general and failing to understand that at its core there's nothing that would inherently be my enemy as a queer person. And I kind of like expressing how much that isn't my experience because my type of experience is so rarely expressed.

At the same time, it's a very rare experience. I grew up with liberal atheist parents and I go to a college that is primarily liberal atheist--that is a tremendous privilege for a gay person. So for me to be like, "Yeah, God and I are buddies, why wouldn't we be?" is kind of a dick move. It's actually kind of like the way I feel about queer people who have overcome certain things, that I can't overcome as easily due to being disabled, and act like all queer people can overcome those things.

I know a lot of people's experience is one of religion being forced on them. But mine is one of being expected not to be religious and even feeling uncomfortable as a religious person in the spaces I tend to be in, and once having someone compare the fact that I believe in God to unusual stuff I do that's related to my disability. Which is really not cool.

This also applies to disability. My disability has been (cognitively and emotionally) a huge barrier to my ability to participate in things like church--largely because church is unfamiliar. So I'm very jealous of my liberal atheist and otherwise non-Christian* friends who had a sort of upbringing where they were brought to church, confirmed, etc., and the fact that they went away from that wasn't such a big deal to their families but it was just kind of how they did things as they were growing up. Because that structure would have been really important and my life would be totally different if I'd had it. I'm really lucky that my dad is as supportive as he is or I would never have (finally) been baptized and would have even less experience going to church than I do.

*(not that atheist=non-Christian but I'm thinking of people who are agnostic or "spiritual but not religious"--not people who have converted to another religion or heavily identify as anything.)

When I was a kid I had a babysitter who was Catholic and would pray with me when she put me to bed, against my parents' wishes. I'm extremely grateful for this because it gave me familiarity with prayer and the knowledge that it was an option. I still pray the way she taught me, every night. But I know what most atheists, and even many Christians, would think of her decision. And I don't know how to reconcile that with my gratitude.

I'm looking for a job next year and I'm interested in a particular facility for kids and teenagers with disabilities, which is Christian. It would be really wonderful for me to work in an environment that's Christian and I do relate being staff to being Christian (I don't mean this the way it probably sounds, but it's a huge other thing to talk about--it has nothing to do with me being better than the people I serve). But I feel creeped out also because, while they write on their website that the people they serve have a choice about being Christian or going to church, religious education, etc., they use the word "encourage."

In my experience, some people with disabilities have been taught to be compliant to the extent that if you "encourage" them to do something, or even ask them if they want to do something, they perceive it as an order.

I mean, I also have known people--and actually, this doesn't just mean more severely disabled people who I've been staff for, this also includes me, and maybe this includes me more than anything in terms of religion--who have a very hard time saying they want to do something, asking to do something, even saying "yes." My camper Stephen from this summer would say no to everything, including things he had previously shown he liked; after bringing up the subject again and again, you might be able to find out whether he really didn't want to. Sometimes this didn't work and you had to put him in a position where he had to make an effort to opt out, instead of to opt in--this was generally how you found out for sure what he really wanted.

I'm not saying this in terms of the facility, because that word encourage really does bother me and I'm not applying there until I can figure out what it means. But when it comes to religion, I am a great deal like Stephen. Which is very confusing for me and which, I'm afraid, often results in me saying things that ignore the very nonconsensual and/or negative history that a lot of people from my communities have with religion.


  1. I don't really see a difference between a religious parent who forces their religion on their child against their child's will and an athiest parent who forces their child to be athiest when the child wants to be religious. Religious parents often force their children to attend church/temple/mosque ect... which is depriving them of choice and it is wrong. Athiest parents who do not allow their child any kind of exposure deprive their child of choice and this is just as wrong.

    I could see how her praying over you could have been really problematic, for example if she were doing it to bully you like if she were Catholic and you were Jewish or Muslim and she were trying to bully you into conversion to her faith, but that's different. I suppose the same could extend to atheism but it doesn't sound like that's what it was like, so, there.

    I'm not saying that telling your kid they have to go to church or not go to church ect... is super bad it's just not really okay, either.

  2. For me it's just hard though because it's like...what if I was asleep or watching TV in the morning in elementary school, and my mom was like "Amanda it's time to go to church" and I (or any kid) was like "no I don't want to go."

    Is that a real no or a Stephen no?

    I guess I want to raise my kids in an environment like my friends were raised in, with praying and church part of the structure of how we do things, but not with this idea that if they end up not wanting to do it when they're away from home, or they want to stay home from church when they're old enough to stay home alone, that's some kind of problem.

    It was frustrating with the babysitter because I know my parents thought, when I was 10-12 and started expressing interest in religion, that she must have bullied me somehow. I remember overhearing them saying that maybe she had scared me into thinking that I was going to hell. She never mentioned hell to me at all. I had no idea of how some Christians think of hell until I was probably 16 years old.

  3. I understand what you're talking about with the difficulty saying you want to do something --- I have that, too, only mine doesn't include saying yes to things that are offered to me. (I just have huge trouble *asking* for things).

    But I still think I'd err on the side of taking "no" seriously, just because I think being forced to do something is usually a greater sin against a person's autonomy, and sense of themselves (which in children and teens is still being formed) as people with their own needs, interests and desires which might be different from other people's, than missing opportunities to do things, if that makes sense to you.

    (Although maybe what you suggest in the post, making it so that a given activity is opt-out rather than opt-in, would be a good way to handle that. You'd have to be mindful of the general vibe of the place where you were doing this, though --- to make sure it was the kind of place where people who aren't in the majority faith feel safe opting out.

    I also think there's a balance to be struck in terms of how to handle the opt-out decision, because if someone is ambivalent, having just one opportunity to make a choice, and having that choice be final, might lead them to jump into making a choice that's wrong for them, while at the same time if someone is firm in their not-wanting but also shy, or has communication troubles, or is sensitive to demands/peer pressure, needing to say "no" repeatedly in order to opt out might be too draining, and thus they might also end up going along with something they don't want.)

  4. I think there's a certain age (maybe usually from 9 or 10 to 13 or so) where it's kind of difficult because on the one hand a kid that age isn't really old enough they can stay home by themselves if they want, but on the other it sort of becomes harder for them to go to church if they don't believe in God at that point. At least where I went to church, that's when they start doing at least a little actual bible study or whatever in Sunday school instead of just crafts and stuff, so if a kid doesn't believe in God maybe they feel like that's a problem. I mean, maybe it's usually not a big deal, but I was very very shy, so I would just sort of go along with whatever we were supposed to do, but I felt guilty because it seemed dishonest to do that.

    Like, I got baptized when I was about 10, but I didn't actually believe in God, so I kind of agonized over telling my mom I didn't want to be baptized because I felt like it was dishonest in a way to just go and get baptized anyway, as well as kind of disrespectful maybe. Even though I know in retrospect that it wouldn't have actually been a big deal, I never told her and I got baptized anyway. (I don't actually know why she decided I should get baptized then though, because she had said before that my brother and I could just get baptized as adults if we wanted.)

    But I mean, I don't resent the fact that my mom brought me to church or anything. I'm just saying sometimes people think not wanting to do something would be a big deal even when it wouldn't be, and I don't really know the solution to that.