Archive for the ‘LGBT’ Category

America, land that I love

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

A few people have asked me recently why I love America and why I want to live there – given that I have (several) other choices. It’s a good question, and recent events such as those unfolding in Ferguson give it more weight.

Fundamentally, I believe that despite the problems, the basis on which the country is formed – a secular constitution with a legally binding commitment to equality and freedom – is a good one. That it doesn’t work in practice, or that there are many clear problems caused by the failure to actually apply that equality to all, simply makes me wish to be a part of changing that.

There are those who say they want to “take back America”, and sadly they tend to twist the meaning to be “take it back to the 1950’s where everyone knew their place and good men where white and women cooked and cleaned” (I’m paraphrasing).

But the real America has never been lost – they would not be taking anything back, they would be stealing it. Stealing it from those who fought so hard for civil rights. Stealing it from the LGBT communities who have fought for the justice the constitution promises them. Stealing it from those, like me, who have come for the economic or employment opportunities, made their homes, raised their families and paid their taxes here.

The real America is sometimes obscured by the fog of political partisanship and the failure of the media to do its job of objectively reporting news. It is obscured by greed, and big money, and by those who would wish to control the bodies of liberated women. It is stained by poverty, a failing educational system and a systemic disdain for science and reason. It has been clouded by the injustices that indeed are often too real and continue to affect the daily lives of black, latino and LGBT youth. It is scarred by racism, religious zealotry and xenophobia. It is obscured right now by tear gas and burning buildings in Ferguson.

And yet, the real America persists, and it drives forward. It is revealed in the solidarity shown to those in Ferguson in cities across the country. It is revealed in the Pride marches that every year grow and gain wider acceptance. It is revealed in the votes against punitive sentencing for minor drug offenses. It is revealed most of all in the lives of ordinary Americans who care for our homeless and our downtrodden, despite the barriers that society presents.

A year ago, I could never have believed that more than 30 states would have marriage equality, with more likely to follow soon. I would not have dreamed that California would start the slow process towards ending the hopeless and utterly destructive “war on drugs”. The American dream is tarnished but it still exists, and I am still dreaming it, despite the efforts of some to turn it into the American nightmare. It’s a country I love deeply, with an ideal of a classless meritocratic society based on secular ideals of equality, liberty and justice for ALL.

The words of the Reverend Martin Luther King are still absolutely relevant today, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”” Dr King died in the pursuit of that dream, but he was not, and is not alone, and there are some dreams worth dying for.

America can’t be taken back, only held back.

Extremism in Religion – How many hoops are there?

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

This post was written in response to this post by my dear friend Rob DuBois, but extremism in religion and the ‘moderate’ response is a topic that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Rob correctly points out that often the religion is a secondary point, or at least not always the main driving force.

However, I think Rob misses the central point in his argument, that actually, NOBODY and NO single group represents an entire religion.

It is just as true to say that moderate muslims do not represent Islam as it is to say that jihadists do not. It’s also true to say that Southern Baptists are as generally unrepresentative of Christianity as are Episcopalians, Lutherans or indeed, The WBC. It’s true to say that Tibetan buddhists are no more buddhist than Japanese Zen buddhists.

The trap one falls into if debating whether a group or individual practice is ‘true’ to the religion is the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy. Once you start to say that someone does not represent the ‘true’ religion, then you simply retreat further into factionalism, and you’ll find that there is no such thing as a ‘true’ believer. If you always find a way to excuse the uncomfortable parts of the religion that you personally (or your group) do not like on the basis that those who do believe those parts are ‘not true believers’, eventually, you must admit that neither you, nor they are the true believer. By claiming that only moderate versions of a religion are correct, one attempts to dismiss the very real problems that exist within religious belief systems, and inadvertently justify extremism in the process.

You (personally or collectively) can’t pretend that the bits of your religion practiced by others who hold up the same book and teacher as guide, are not the ‘real’ religion. If your book says it (no matter whether you want to argue it’s metaphor where it suits you), someone somewhere is going to believe it, and justify the belief on that same sheaf of papers as you justify yours. Therefore, the truth in the argument holds both ways – the extremist will argue that you, as a moderate don’t hold the true belief, and vice-versa. You’re both wrong.

Ultimately, it’s only you who believes the way you do (if you do), and you are no more representative than anyone else. In other words, there are as many religions and forms of a given religion as there are believers. Each person practices slightly differently (and has their own definition of ‘sin’), and everyone has a different interpretation of some part of his religion. This is convenient for religions which allow for ‘personal revelation’ as part of the experience (evangelical Christianity, some forms of buddhism, paganism etc), less so for the more rigid forms (Catholicism, Islam, Orthodox Judaism), but in all cases, the variation exists. This is why there is no monolithic, undivided type of any religion.*

Every major (and minor) religion has sects, factions and denominations. This happens because people disagree (politely or otherwise) about the nature of both God and the practice of his worship. One thinks God prefers slaves to honor their masters, the other thinks that whole slavery bit is not ‘true’ Christianity. Every faction is different – they argue over prophets, over forms of worship, over dress, over sexuality and sexual practice, over the role of women, over property and ownership, over governance, over childbearing and rearing, over marriage rites, over finances, over politics, over whether horses can fly, over which way the place of worship faces, over food consumption rules, over the nature of the afterlife, and over whether God made the whole world in 7 days or rather puked it out of a cosmic snake.

Almost anything you can imagine that people would fight about has been fought about, endlessly and pointlessly in the name of the religion formed on the back of the fight, often with much bloodshed in the process. And it doesn’t matter if you claim that it’s not ‘true to the religion’, if religion is used to justify the action, then the religion is a motivating factor, and absolutely it is part of the problem. Dismissing someone’s belief as wrong does not solve the problem of having that belief in the first place.

Religious belief thereby falls along a spectrum of personal comfort.
If you’re comfortable with being a murdering asshole, or picketing the funerals of suicided veterans with anti-gay slogans, then you’ll find that your religion justifies it just fine.
If you’re more into bake sales, macrame circles and feeding the homeless, then ‘God Bless Ya’ you’re a true believer too. There are African American preachers who preach against homosexuality because “the Bible tells me so” but I’m pretty sure they gloss over the parts where the same Bible also justifies slavery.

Religion has very little to do with God, and the only difference between the ‘major’ religions and sects or cults is the number of people who loosely subscribe (with individual differences in practice) to them, or have been forced to live under their rule. Religions are first and foremost political systems, but they have been personalized by every believer.
Therefore, religions have everything to do with justifying and controlling the lifestyles of a given ‘in group’ – no matter whether who considers those groups moderate or extreme. To the group, they are the true representation of their chosen belief. If it’s the same book, it’s the same religion, but infinitely varied among the population of believers, and it’s all about power over the ‘tribe’.

Consider this situation. What would you call someone who takes a child a few days old, and with a sharp knife (and no anesthetic) cuts away a piece of the child’s genitals? Then, while the child is bleeding the person places the child’s penis in his mouth, sucks it and spits away the blood (occasionally infecting the child with a fatal dose of herpes). In any rational sphere of thought, we would call that person a child abuser – possibly a pedophile and lock him away for life. In orthodox Judaism, they call that a Mohel, and their religion justifies it and the rite continues without any prosecution of its practitioners. You can’t argue that ‘well, that’s not true Judaism’, because the reality is – it is. The more complex a religion is, the more hoops believers will jump through to score ‘God points’. Religions are usually as complex as hell, because complexity obscures reality, therefore your belief is just a matter of how many hoops you believe there are.

As an afterthought, and before the onslaught of accusations of me being an angry, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic atheist start flying, let me make one thing absolutely clear. I don’t care so much what you believe, I care about what you do, and I don’t believe your religion forces you to do anything that you wouldn’t do otherwise as a decent human being, nor do I dismiss all believers as ‘as bad as each other’ because of the actions of a few. The problem is always that you probably don’t agree with me entirely on what being ‘a decent human being’ means, and I doubt I can agree with your definition of God either.

That said, there are those who argue that a world without any religion would be a perfect one, where entirely rational people go about their business without dissent, argument or violence. Poppycock. After all, it’s not where we agree that matters, its where we disagree that counts (and costs).

Having spent a lot of time interacting with both people of faith and unbelievers of all stripes, I have come to realize that conflict and tribalism is simply a part of the human experience. There are ‘moderate’ atheists and there are extremists – although hopefully nobody is having their heads hacked off over it. There are ‘in groups’ and ‘out-groups’ (Atheism+ anyone?). There are liberals, leftists, centrists, libertarians, conservatives, librarians, scientists, artists, pissants, assholes, trolls, idiots, and a whole spectrum variety of wonderful, thoughtful and friendly people.
JUST AS THERE ARE IN ANY SPHERE OF LIFE, INCLUDING BELIEVERS. (And, just because of that it doesn’t mean that atheists are wrong, nor that believers are right.)

From the moment we are born, we start to pull against the constraints that are around us. We say “no” followed by tantrums very early in life – and these are not arguments about whether God wants you to wear green on a Tuesday, but whether you can have candy sprinkles on your breakfast or not. Mom says no, your heart says yes. Then when you grow up and mom can’t stop you, you bloody well have candy sprinkles on your breakfast.

C’est la vie. You can either like it, or you can go form your own damn group with whatever beliefs you like, but you can’t claim a monopoly on the truth, because someone, somewhere will point out that you’re not the true believer.

(* Except perhaps the religion I just formed right now with myself, but I already disagree with parts of it so I’m going to form a breakaway group tomorrow…that founder guy is just an idiot.)

A ray of light in a dark sky: Why I still have faith in humanity

Friday, April 19th, 2013

There are few words that can describe how I feel about the tragic events in Boston last week. As a runner but more importantly as a human, I just found the emotion overwhelming. I hope that the police will quickly end the situation that continues to unfold even as I write. So much has been said that I don’t want to add to the noise too much. I’m glad of what #RunChat has been doing via their page and a group of us will be wearing race shirts and going for a group run on Monday to show solidarity. We must not let fear conquer love.

On that note, this was also a week where I saw many of the most moving and inspiring displays of spontaneous humanity – from first responders and bystanders rushing in to help to so many opening up their homes to stranded runners. But, one other thing happened this week that moved me tremendously – New Zealand passed their Marriage Equality law, and what happened next is truly beautiful.

Watch this amazing video – on hearing the vote response the gallery spontaneously bursts into the most beautiful rendition of a traditional Mauri Maori love song.

It is these things that we should cling to in times like these. It is all too easy to despair and to believe that things are getting worse and that we’re all doomed, but it’s just not true. There is still great beauty in the world and people are still capable of incredibly acts of self-sacrifice, of love and of understanding.

I hope that our reaction to the tragedies will not be based on fear, but on the determination to make this world better for all of its inhabitants.

It’s over, it ain’t going any further: marriage in the future is for all.

Monday, January 16th, 2012

If you are still thinking that somehow you can reverse the tide and that ‘marriage’ will go back to being to something that you’re happy to define as between a man and a woman, you’re wrong. You’re out of time. The argument is over. What’s happening now is just the cleaning up. Marriage is for all, and the only future is to watch that freedom to marry spread throughout the free world.
Of course, you might want to cling to your theology – your unchangeable holy books that state that homosexuality is a sin – but you’re wrong there too. Eventually, your religion will catch up, or it will be sidelined.

You see, it’s already happened. Things change, laws and countries move on, and mainstream religion follows.
Decriminalization is now much more widespread than ever,, as is the recognition of civil unions and married rights equivalency laws, so it’s just a matter of time before permission to marry is given.
So much has changed, is changing, and will continue to change. This issue is not going away, and it’s certainly not going to be shouted down by the forces of conservatism or the religious.

Slavery still exists today (actually, some sources say there are more slaves now than at any time in history) but that doesn’t mean that the argument over whether it’s right or wrong isn’t over, and every country now outlaws it. It took hundreds of years for slavery to become completely outlawed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abolition_of_slavery_timeline). While it was still legal, it was justified by the major religions as being acceptable.

For Christians, the Apostle Paul refers some of his comments to slaves e.g. 1Ephesians 6:5,  Timothy 6:1-2 and Jesus clearly acknowledges slavery (and doesn’t reject it as wrong).
Also for Christians, and for Jews, the ‘Old’ Testament / Torah is full of references to slaves e.g. Leviticus 25:44-46, or this nice one covering the rules for a man selling his daughter as a slave: Exodus 21:7-11
For Muslims, Islamic scripture (both the Koran and the hadiths) is actually very good to slaves, treating them equally as regards to religious freedom, but still recognizing that slavery is acceptable, while encouraging the praiseworthy act of manumission.
However, Islamic states were some of the last to finally outlaw slavery, with Saudi Arabia (1962), Yemen (1962), UAE (1963), Oman (1970) and Mauritania (1981) being the last five countries in the world to allow slavery.

The point of all this is that, eventually, the religious arguments follow the law of the lands. It is unlikely you will find a modern, mainstream Christian leader in America or Europe who would advocate the return of slavery.
You’ll still find pockets of extremism, but then, you still find people who protest abortion clinics…and that too shall pass.

So it will be with the issue of allowing homosexuals to marry. It may take many years, but the argument is already lost, and eventually, your future co-religionists will simply ignore these parts of your holy books, as they do so many other parts today.

There are more and more countries allowing the free right to marry to all citizens, and while there are some bumps in the road (e.g. California flip-flopping on the issue), the tide cannot be turned back. Eventually, all countries will allow it, and then, so will all the major religions. (Of course, some religions already do!).

Conservatives and liberals will move on to arguing about new things (when was the last time you had an argument about slavery?), and everyone else will be able to get on with marrying who they like. The truly anachronistic ideas about homosexual marriage are just like the ideas people used to hold about slavery.

There’s a lot of work still to do, but the main war is over…and to finish the paraphrase of Leonard Cohen in my title …”It’s over, it ain’t going any further, I’ve seen the future, baby, it is marriage.”

Today 16th of January is, in the USA, Martin Luther King day. This incredible speech is a reminder of how that great man inspired change that brought freedom and civil rights to African Americans, who although they had been freed from slavery, still lived under segregation and institutional racism. I share his dream of the day when we are all truly free from injustice, discrimination and the hatred of bigots.

Sometimes change is just not fast enough

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

Today brings the terribly sad news that, once again, a teenager has taken his own life because of bullying about his sexuality.

http://www.shewired.com/soapbox/2011/10/17/gay-teen-jamie-hubley-commits-suicide

So much has changed in the last 50 years or so; we’ve moved (here in America at least) from a country where slavery was legal and black people were considered sub-human, to a better world where slavery is a receding memory and we can have an African American (in the truest sense of that descriptor) president. That is not to deny that, sadly, racism is still found in some measure.

However, we still have so far to go as a society (globally) in our acceptance of diversity. We need teachers and schools to adopt a positive attitude towards LGBT individuals, and to help them support such young people as Jamie (whose lives are hard enough just with going through their teens). We need to be tougher on bullies, and we need to teach more positively around homosexuality.

But, school reflects society as a whole. Children have all the biases of their parents, in concentrated and unfiltered quantity. Therefore, a big part of the change that is needed is going to have to be the decline of traditional religious attitudes towards homosexuality. Teachers can only do so much, but much more needs to be done in churches, synagogues and mosques around the country (and world), to help to build a more tolerant and accepting environment. Parents need to teach their children that slurs like ‘faggot’ are simply unacceptable, no matter their private beliefs about the subject. Surely if you truly believe in ‘god’s love’ you should teach your children to love others without judgement – lest you be judged yourself?

Of course, I’d rather that nobody felt the need to cling to any religious dogma at all; particularly where it impinges on the freedoms and safety of others; but recognizing that many people of belief are essentially good, and sincerely believe while wishing no ill to others, I have to accept that change will be slow, and that perhaps it can only come from within the belief systems themselves. Most ‘true believers’ will not accept the pleas of an atheist, but perhaps if their pastors/rabbis/imams and other leaders begin to teach a more welcoming religion, one tolerant of the natural diversity in our society, then perhaps there will be hope that we won’t have to see another Jamie.

My sincerest condolences to Jamies friends and family, he was a truly brave young man.