Menstuff® has compiled information and books on Gay, Bi, and Transgender issues. This section is Robert N. Minor's weekly column featured daily on our homepage. Robert is the author of Scared Straight: Why It's So Hard to Accept Gay People and Why It's So Hard to Be Human and Gay & Healthy in a Sick Society and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He may be reached through www.fairnessproject.org or at E-Mail.

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Does “Freedom” Mean Anything Beyond Selfishness?

Today we hear it used to shout down and bully school boards during their public meetings. Nurses, school teachers, flight attendants, and people just walking down the street have heard it used by people while the shouter assaults them.

It seems to be an excuse for all sorts of uncivil, rude, and even violent behavior. It was shouted again and again on January 6th by people assaulting the nation’s Capitol to violently interfere with an otherwise regular process of American democracy that has peacefully taken place every four years.

It’s used as if it’s an explanation for denying equal rights to people of color and LGBTQ people. It’s brandished about as a basis for forcing one’s sectarian religious beliefs and actions on anyone who disagrees with them.

It’s the word “freedom.” And it’s attained a status so undefined, so empty of a definition by those who constantly hide behind their invocation of the term, so lacking in thought about what it could mean, that it seems to be an excuse to do whatever one wants and to hell with those others affected by whatever it is someone wants to do.

Thoughtfulness, empathy. a sense of history, recognition of how the word has been used to justify the enslavement of other human beings and to commit genocide on native peoples, are absent from the minds of those who brandish the word around to get their own way.

Attempts to fit the word into some ideology are afterthoughts discovered later in order to act as if their cries of “freedom” come from a place of careful consideration. The most widely read economist of the last century, John Kenneth Galbraith, put it this way: “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy: that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

For so many it’s as if just shouting the word “freedom” is an excuse that justifies whatever they do to others. And the louder and more often it’s shouted, those who do so think it becomes even a better weapon against something or someone, against anything at hand.

This empty sloganish use isn’t new. After the horrific events of 9/11/01, certain politicians knew they could get their way by ignoring history and claiming that the attacks took place because those people “hate our freedoms.” It’s such a mark of American “patriotism” that even those who suffer from American income disparity seemed comforted by the words of that country western song revived after 9/11: “And I'm proud to be an American where at least I know I'm free.”

Who’s going to come out against “freedom,” after all? It’s a given in the United States (“the land of the free”) even when it’s used by people thoughtlessly to justify anything they want, even though our courts have said every freedom has its limits.

In an August 22nd rally, the former president used it to try to calm his rebelling followers. Both before and after he was booed by them for recommending COVID vaccinations, he fell back on what he believed would work: “I believe totally in your freedoms.”

The right-wing use of the term “freedom” has thus taken a selfish turn. Like the common phrase used by Republican politicians during the current pandemic to refuse mandates, “personal responsibility,” “freedom” is used as if there’s no community of people around those who mindlessly invoke it.

Just as “personal responsibility” does not include, for them, a personal responsibility for the larger community they actually depend upon regularly, so “freedom” is defined as what someone wants to be at liberty to do even if it’s dangerous to other members of their own community. In fact, it’s use today is just another symptom of the loss of the sense of a common good.

Historian Stephanie Coontz documented the actual change in the U.S. from a sense that society was central to the elevation of the nuclear family as the primary institution in The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. She warned that “the collapse of social interdependence and community obligation in America challenges us to rethink our attitudes….”

This decline of a sense that we’re all in this together was welcomed by economic elites because it’s useful to them. If people can be isolated into their own silos, caring only about themselves, their own pocketbooks, and their immediate family, they won’t challenge the rich and powerful who take advantage of them.

Working people’s very definition of “freedom” selfishly will keep them from powerfully rising up together to make the real change that will improve their status in life. Instead they’ll cannibalize their own.

And religious bigotry leads the way in this selfish definition. The American version of freedom of religion was thereby turned into securing government approval through so-called “religious liberty” laws meant to protect things these religionists are afraid of losing – historical religious privilege, the confidence that their position alone through enforcement is the correct one, majority status for their sectarian claims, faith in their version of their religion, a higher status for their self-definition racially and heterosexually, and the rightness and prestige of the leaders and institutions they’ve bet their souls on.

What we’re seeing daily playing out as right-wingers use the cry “freedom” as a bullying weapon without thoughtful content, is how such a term can divert their attention from their own fears, insecurities, traumas from abusive parenting, and emotional/psychological problems. For those who disagree with them, though, it can also divert one’s own attention to thinking that there’s an easy cure.

Since what amounts to their mantra of “freedom” doesn’t arise out of a desire for rationality and isn’t even arrived at through careful logic, for the rest of us it means that we won’t be able to contradict it through careful reasonable argumentation. We won’t just be able to sit down and rationally educate them.

It won’t even matter to most that they are hurting others by their so-called “freedom.”

Wearing a mask, getting a vaccine, accepting the full humanity of people of color and LGBTQ people will likely depend upon what gets their attention because it immediately threatens them. But even if tragedies happen to them as a result of their belligerence, it will awaken them only if they can stop blaming the rest of us and a government they want to believe is threatening their “freedom.”

They won’t think of “freedom” as something beyond their own selfish fantasies if we enable them either. It’s what we model that’s important.

It’s how we stand up forceably, resolutely, and convincingly for what we believe is important – that freedom must be something that arises out of a sense that we are a community that we all live in together, or it will be merely another word for selfishness.

I Won’t Forgot What that Bethlehem Breakfast Club Taught Me About Religion

I had just finished my Master’s in Biblical Studies, and with an emphasis on Near Eastern archeology was on a summer tour working on archeological sites from Turkey to Lebanon to Egypt and from Jordon to Israel. I was so single-mindedly focused on the past then that my photos from that summer in 1969 were all about old stuff, the “digs” and their relics, not the living people around me.

I regret that I hadn’t taken a photo of five old men who gathered together every morning at an outdoor table at the coffeeshop on Manger Square in Bethlehem. Yep, that Bethlehem, as in “O Little Town of….”

My week at a small guesthouse off the Square from day one included the daily pleasure of sitting with these elders who warmly accepted me into their morning ritual as “that young graduate student” who could benefit from their on-the-ground advice and mentoring.

They were right, of course. And I’ve never forgotten it, though I’ve no idea what happened to them after they bid me well for the remainder of my summer.

Those five for who knows how long got together the way retired old men do around the world for morning coffee and conversation, renewing their bonds daily through bickering, discussing the news, and enjoying each other’s company.

What they had in common was that they were Palestinians. It didn’t matter that two were Palestinian Muslims, two were Palestinian Jews, one was a Palestinian Christian, and the fifth proudly declared himself a “Palestinian atheist” (“The secular PLO is our future.”).

But they were obviously close friends with a long history together who emphasized that their families had known each other for generations. They were not those they called “the newcomers.”

The five agreed on the lesson they would teach me about where everyday people are in comparison with all the “politicians” who claim to speak for them and get all the attention of the media.

They objected to the portrayal of the Near East as a place where there has always been conflict between religious people. After all, how common is it to hear people (“experts”) fall back on facile explanations of current conflicts there by saying: “What do you expect? They have always been that way toward each other. Those religions have been at war for millennia.

The facts for these men were: “We have always gotten along. We are all Palestinians who live together and share the same customs. It’s those damn politicians who are out for their own power and pocketbooks who have caused all the religious fights.”

Not one of them had a problem living in a religiously pluralistic community. It was so assumed that they hadn’t thought twice about

And any religious tiffs they had were harmless fun. It was always clear that they relished the diversity of their comrades and held their Palestinian identity as their most important bond, the one that “politicians” had threatened over the ages just as they do today.

The five didn’t blame anyone’s religion for the horrific way human beings were treating each other. They fingered those who used their religions and tried to divide people by religions. “Politicians” were the culprits in the strife that would years later engulf them, their land, and their lifestyles.

That experience so stuck with me that I sought another out a dozen years later when I lived in India. My home base was Chennai (then Madras) in the south where I lived in a flat in a village-like area of the city of then four million called Nungambakkam.

There I found the neighborhood teashop and an assortment of old men that met mornings to do what those Bethlehemites did. They too represented variety in religions including a couple of Hindu sects, two Muslims, and two Christians.

Once they realized that I was there to learn as their guest in their city, not flaunt my Ph.D. or be a Western sahib, they opened up to me about their varying takes on India, America, the world, politics, and religion. They were interested in my thoughts, but I was there for theirs.

They were all Tamils, southeast Indian people who had grown up with families who identified first and foremost with their region, its culture, and religions. (Few people realize that Christianity in South India was established by the second century and traditionally traces itself back still further to the missionary work of the “doubting” apostle, Thomas.)

The men’s Tamil identity was fully in view as they spoke of people from other regions in India through common, seldom positive, stereotypes – “You can’t trust him, he’s a region name man.” “Those region names are always fighting.”

And here too, not divided by their religious differences but sharing customs of their particular region no matter what their religious practice, they became quite animated in criticizing attempts by “political parties” to separate them in terms of religious identities. They also wanted me to understand that Muslims, Christians, Jains, Hindus, all got along unless interfered with by “kings and princes,” or now “miscreant party bosses.”

The reality at this grassroots level, the level of the everyday human here, was not “Muslims and Hindus have never gotten along.” There might have been a Hindu raja or a Muslim ruler who attempted to divide them in the past, they wanted me to know, and there were political parties who profited off of doing that today. But that was not their experience of community.

I wonder still how often that this is true world-wide. How often is religion being used by elites for power and wealth to divide people who share so much in common because of their real roots?

Religion is as easy for politicians to use as any part of a culture war that picks on an “other” as defined by the politicians, whether that “other” be the LGBTQ person or another racial identity.

I’ve found that local camaraderie, however, so common throughout my historical studies that my heart went out to everyday humans who’ve gotten caught up in the use of their religion to break these everyday bonds.

It’s a reason why I’m convinced that religion isn’t to blame. I’m also convinced that to blame religion for anything, good or bad, is actually a dangerous copout for clear thinking about the fact that religion, as other cultural factors, gets used, and that people and institutions are responsible for how they use religion or the books, institutions, and traditions that come along with any of them.

It’s why I never argue about religion, just about how people use it when they want something bigger than themselves to justify their prejudices. Eventually it was why I wrote When Religion Is an Addiction with a first chapter entitled: “Religion Never Does Anything.”

Thanks, Bethlehem breakfast gang, wherever you are. See guys - I haven’t forgotten.

The Controlling Power of Guilt

There’s a long history of using guilt and shaming – I mean going as far back as we have a human written record. People and institutions soon became experts at spreading guilt among those they felt needed their control.

It’s been quite an effective tool to get people to do what the powerful want - maybe even as effective as fear. And when the two work together, as they most often do, their power is enormous.

What makes it so easy is that people can be made to feel guilty in very passive-aggressive ways.

Think of those old bumper stickers that bragged: “I BRAKE FOR ANIMALS.” The implication for those following that car was: “What’s wrong with you that you hate animals and don’t have my moral righteousness to display the same bumper sticker?”

Or take that fish symbol brandied about on the back of vehicles testifying: “I’m a real Christian.” Ironically, its origin was as a secret insider code in times of Roman persecution. It disguised that a location was a place where Christians meant.

Whether wielded passively or self-righteously, guilt is seldom purely a moral idea. It’s mixed with the powerplays of people and institutions that wield guilt.

There’s a difference, of course, between being guilty according to someone’s standard and feeling guilty. Just think of your immediate reaction when you look into the rear view mirror and see that police cruiser behind you - no matter how lawfully you’re driving.

Of course we first think of religious institutions dominating the field of guilt. But feeling guilty, whether or not a person is really guilty of some real offense, isn’t just a well-worn tool of religions.

It’s a control mechanism that’s useful to focus the person who feels guilty on themselves rather than confronting larger issues that might call the standards themselves into question.

Think of legal systems - the guilty who have enough class or racial privilege to control, populate, buy, and otherwise affect the legal system are judged by a different standard than those who don’t.

Justice is hardly ever a blind application of “you do the crime, you do the time.” Some are declared not guilty when they are or guilty when they aren’t.

When you know the right people, have enough money, or are a potential plea-bargainer who’s got beans to spill about the powers that be, there are completely different ways to relate to guilt. And if you’re into such power, you won’t even feel guilt at all.

The pervious occupant of the White House, so many in his political party today, and the good ol’ rich boys surrounding them don’t consider lies as guilt-raising but as shrewd means of doing business and getting ahead. If there’s any key to their entire life, it’s that it’s about little more than knowing, and being bailed out by, the right people.

Still, these people will use it against others because guilt is a useful tool of the elite. It keeps those they control occupied with themselves and working not to feel guilty by self-controlling.

As a tried and true way to maintain control, promoting guilt and feeling guilty work on a number of levels.

By doing so, people who promote the guilt feelings assert and maintain their positions of power over those whom they encourage to feel guilty. Guilt feelings bind people to the one they believe has the authority to free them from guilt.

Using someone’s guilt to get them to do what you want, such as protecting you from criticism of your own deeds, has become an art. It’s one of the reasons our leaders love the idea of guilt.

They use the words “personal responsibility” to invoke it. And they know that that phrase itself triggers those they want under their control.

But they never include in “responsibility” the responsibility a member of society has to the whole of the community and the least of its members.

Preachers know how successfully getting people to feel guilty brings in more souls along with those souls’ pocketbooks. And the guilt feelings keep followers dependent upon preachers for the salvation from the guilt.

Religious guilt-promoters might talk about a god saving the guilty, but those preachers are the real dealers of that message. So guilty people become as dependent on those preachers and their messages as on any drug.

Remember: people caught up in dealing with their personal guilt feelings are distracted. Preoccupation with personal guilt keeps them so focused on it that they have little energy or time to threaten the powers that be. They’re too obsessed with their guilt.

So, guilt feelings keep the powerful in place. The system loves it. The rich and powerful thrive on the guilt of others. And the beat goes on.

Yet, guilt feelings don’t just come from outside us through religious and political leaders. We come to learn to use guilt to control our personal environments

Our comfort with feeling guilty hardly needs leaders to trigger it. We’ve often so internalize our guiltiness that most of us actually embrace feeling guilty in order not to face the fact that life and the actions of others are really out of our control.

Trying to control everything, after all, is a protective mechanism we learned as children. Back then we couldn’t control the adults around us. And those adults could at times be responsible for quite negative responses to us. So we wisely saw that we’d better learn how never to let things get out of control.

Today, if we can just feel that we’re in control of the environment around us, we believe it’s less likely to hurt us. And much of the time we can pull this off.

But illness and accidents happen. And instead of embracing the fact that we’re not in control of the universe, instead of learning to welcome surprise and growing in the process they provide for our lives, we’d rather dwell on “what we could have done.”

Our guilt over what we coulda, woulda, shoulda done to prevent a death, an accident, an illness, or a negative response from others is easier to embrace than admitting that we’re not able to control most of these events or many people. Our guilt somehow comforts us.

An illusion of control is a recognized mark of addictive thinking. The desire to control an addict is a mark of those who enable the addiction to thrive.

A fear that the world is full of chance and serendipity drives people to religions and systems that comfort people that there really is some Controller, no matter how accidental things look.

So guilt, a seemingly noble expression of justice, is a useful control mechanism for those protecting their power. And even for the less powerful, dwelling on one’s own guilt helps us feel that we’re in control of what we probably are not.


Forgive and Forget? Not So Fast!

“I know this one thing to be true: You do not need to forgive a person who has hurt you in order to free yourself from the pain of negative emotions. You can even reach a place of love and compassion for the wrongdoer without forgiving a particular action or inaction. You are not a less loving or whole person if there are certain things you do not forgive, and certain people whom you choose not to see. Perhaps you are even a stronger or more courageous person if you have leftover anger, whether from one violation or countless little micro-violations, even as you move on.

More importantly, it is no one else’s job – not that or your therapist, mother, teacher, spiritual guide, best friend, or relationship expert - to tell you to forgive – or not to.”

Those are some of the eye-opening insights author and therapist Harriet Lerner included in her 2017 book: Why Won’t You Apologize? – Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts as she analyzes what makes a real and healthy apology. And her analysis contradicts so many of the pop psychology answers thrown out as wisdom for people today.

The widespread claim that people must focus on forgiving others who’ve hurt them, in fact, can add guilt as well as additional hurt on top of the pain of the original offenses – What’s wrong with me that I can’t forgive? Why am I not ready to forgive? Why don’t I think that they deserve forgiveness? Why do I have to work so hard to forgive them?

And that claim is heavily promoted by the people and institutions that are some of the greatest offenders. No institution needs to repent and ask for forgiveness more than the Church which for centuries (no matter how much good it might also have done) destroyed the lives of others, especially LGBTQ people.

Quoting that line in what’s come to be called “The Lord’s Prayer” – literally “Forgive what we owe (opheilémna) as we also have forgiven what is owed us” – or the verses about forgiveness in Matthew 18, seldom comes with an in-depth look at the psychology and overall problematic tit-for-tat theological thinking that turns these verses into commands to forgive sins willy-nilly if someone wants to earn forgiveness from God.

The long history of the atrocities that have been, and are still being, sanctioned and committed against LGBTQ people by the Church means it’s a Church, which claims its identity as descendants of those who self-righteously tortured, murdered and more, that should be begging LGBTQ people (and others) to forgive it and working night and day to make amends.

But what about calls to forgive on the part of those who’ve suffered? Before Harriet Lerner’s book appeared, I wrote a 2016 column questioning popular beliefs about forgiveness in the light of the fact that people had voted for a previous administration that proved, as expected, to pander to the Christian right-wing by doing its best to undo the progress of LGBTQ people and to pack U.S courts with appointments that would stifle such progress for generations.

Here is another version of those thoughts about forgiveness (written not as a religious thinker but a historian of religion):

(1) Forgiving people who have not asked for your forgiveness is an assertion of a superior moral position over them. It's passive-aggressive.

(2) Forgiving people for what they’ve done that hurts and continues to hurt others is to assert I am god. It’s one thing to forgive people for what was done to you personally but it’s hubris of a high sort to take the place of those others and forgive their abusers for them.

(3) Forgiveness is not a requirement for personal closure no matter how people say it is. It takes real counseling or the equivalent. It takes feeling one's feelings, working fully through them (like the stages of grief), though not thinking, acting or deciding on the basis of those feelings.

In agreement with Harriet Lerner and other therapists, rushing to forgive without doing previous personal work is actually emotionally harmful and an act of denial. It’s why internationally known author and expert on child abuse, Alice Miller, labelled the seventh commandment, “Honor thy father and mother…” the most dangerous of all – it kept adult children from facing their parents’ failures head on.

(4) Telling people they should forgive someone who hurt them is preaching at them and minimizing their pain. At the very least, it's insensitive.

At the most, it's abusive and another assertion that one thinks oneself morally superior to those who haven't forgiven.

(5) People are ready to be forgiven when they say they were wrong (not just that they're sorry if you were hurt) and are ready to make amends.

In old fashioned terms, it’s to repent (the Greek word for "repent" in the New Testament is metánoia, that is literally "turn around"). Their actions show that they are heading on the opposite path than they were and that their actions are intent on correcting past sins.

Are they willing to own up to their part in what has been done? It's a basic principle of 12-step recovery programs that informs a number of those steps.

(6) Not forgiving until asked by the offender to forgive them does not mean one is to be inhuman, bitter, or not treat the offender as a full human being. Quite the opposite.

It instead accepts that the reason why someone is not so asking for forgiveness is that they're not doing the work that will help them get beyond their own issues. The coming out of LGBTQ people is a gift to them – the gift of giving them the opportunity to face their own fears, homophobia and transphobia.

They get to choose how to respond to that gift. They’ve been given a chance to grow emotionally. And the LGBTQ person is not responsible for their response.

So, forgiving them before they ask for it is encouraging them to stay stuck in their own mire. It’s enabling, sickness-promoting, and even cruel.

The inability or unwillingness to forgive is not another flaw in LGBTQ people or anyone who doesn’t forgive and forget. It’s not what is holding anyone back.

It’s a recognition that the healthy path forward is to face the truths of history and personal experience, seek the counselling and good advice that ensures self-esteem and places the blame where it belongs, and, when ready and not prematurely, to forgive those who repent.

Why Are Transgender People at the Center of Republican Culture Wars?

There are a number of reasons why Republican “culture wars” today are targeting transgender people (along with people of color in general). The right-wing, egged on by its radical right Christian adherents, is showing us how it’s fixated on transgender people as it struggles to hold onto the power it thought was assured with the election of the former president to protect itself from the progress of larger cultural forces.

Hundreds of anti-transgender bills are appearing in state houses around the country because national right-wing think tanks are feeding them to Republican state legislators who’ve hitched their wagons to a regressive, radical, White, heterosexual male-supremacy agenda tied to the former president. And these bills aren’t going away because their assumption is that a radical right-wing Supreme Court Democrats won’t have the will or power to change will uphold anti-transgender laws.

Their anti-transgender culture war agenda is, first of all, pretty much all that Republican party operatives have left because the majority of Americans no longer support right-wing policies. Major party leaders who’d rather focus on economic issues that further accumulate their wealth and that of their wealthy buddies recognize this and so, more often than not, refuse to counter the bigotry involved in the White supremacist, transphobic actions of the Party’s radical membership and leaders whose votes they court.

This makes for a real schizophrenia for big business. Business both supports these politicians because they’re the ones who vote to lower corporate and wealth taxes and remove consumer protections (“de-regulating”). But at the same time business must appeal to the larger culture for profit-making reasons by waving rainbow and equality flags.

So corporate America has learned to talk a good line - to make gestures supporting equality while funding the legislators who threaten equality because those politicians are more likely to line corporate pocketbooks. Like Republican politicians, big business knows that keeping the GOP in power must not be threatened too much by moral issues.

The anti-transgender agenda is, secondly, fueled by threats to leadership, political and religious. There are leaders, especially in the area of religion, who’ve bet their lives, careers, power, and leadership - and their own pocketbooks - on the creed that there is nothing more than two fixed genders, only two, and that that’s exactly how their god wants it.

They portray it as a liberal (“atheist,” “secularist”) plot to destroy the sectarian views they’ve espoused. A long history of patriarchy in religious institutions has put power in the hands of males who have promoted the privileges of cultural masculinity.

Even the possibilities of female clergy feel threatening to that privilege. Instead they’re used to being the ones who define who a woman is and controlling women and their ability to reproduce, as well as stifling women’s attempts at leadership and equal regard. Equal pay for equal work to these leaders is considered a radical idea, a “slippery slope.”

And concocting theories in response to women’s gains in order to act as if putting women back in their place is really an honor for women is one way they do that. Hence the recent reaction to Southern Baptist woman leader, Beth Moore’a apologizing for promoting “complementarianism,” the claim that while women and men are equal in value before their god, He has assigned them specific, unchanging, gender roles with women as support personal for their men.

A third reason, and most important, is that our society’s and resulting personal confusion and fears, and a clinging to misinformation about gender have made anyone who openly challenges any of that lightning rods for our culture’s gender dysfunctionality.

Portraying transgender and gender-role non-conforming people as sick and immoral is a way to protect that societal and personal gender dysfunction. As long as they are seen as ill and miserable, transgender people are no threat to it.

If transgender people are out among us, accepted, affirmed, and looking happy and proud to express themselves as who they are, just knowing that they are upsets notions of how so many define themselves using well-worn, safe, essentialist gender binaries. To assure oneself that one is a man or a woman by societal definitions, that there are not only two different, settled but “opposite” sexes,” has been such a default setting in their minds that being reminded that there are all sorts of questions around this feels like an earthquake destroying the solidarity of their footing.

And yet, if they were self-reflective enough, most people would see that they’re somewhat insecure in all this. They just aren’t as secure in the idea that they’re expressing their manhood or womanhood as clearly and publicly as they should be and unthinkably wondering how secure their gender identification is, and whether others wonder too.

Think how people who feel they’ve moved beyond gender rigidity talk about getting in touch with their “feminine side” or “masculine side” as if they’re clearly one gender who must search for traits supposedly assigned only in the other

Transgender people aren’t the ones who’ve asked for any of this, and they’re not asking for it. Their goal isn’t to make some sort of statement about or be poster children challenging society’s sicknesses about gender.

Their desire is much simpler - to be in touch with, affirm, and just live their lives as who they understand themselves to be. In the midst of our culture’s broader sickness around gender, they just want to live as full human beings who define themselves.

And maybe that tells us of a fourth reason transgender people are targets of suppression and fear. In a society where most feel that gender performance and presentation are limited by a straightjacket woven of the fear that if we deviate from the gender roles, we’ll be denigrated and worse, the way LGBTQI people have been, there’s a hidden, inadmissible resentment of anyone who openly breaks out of it all to live in integrity by their own definition of who they are.

All the current attempts to suppress transgender people, then, tell us more about those whose own lives are stuck, and transphobia is really a fear that someone can’t live freely who they would want to be without embracing all that gender dysfunction. Transgender people are just fine; it’s society that’s sick and acting it out on them led by Republicans and the radical Christian right-wing.

“Culture Wars” Are Tweaked and Front and Center Again Because It’s All One Party Has to Offer

This past month we’ve seen that while the Democrats debate policies, how they reflect their inclusive values, and how best to enact them, the Republican Party is discussing Dr. Seuss, Pepe LePue, the Potato Heads, discrimination against transgender people, preventing people who disagree with them from voting, and ensuring government control over women’s reproductive choices. They’re still trying, as well, to figure out ways they can demonize and marginalize all LGBTQ people after all those Court decisions that have rejected such discrimination.

The previous president was a useable egotist for the Republican “culture war,” and demonizing President Biden has become a centerpiece because he refuses to play their game of “Calvinball” with Republicans constantly and hypocritically changing the rules and moving the goalposts to appeal to their supporters. By his executive actions and appointments, Biden has defied their definition of “culture” and its values.

The previous president helped Republicans lay bare their real “culture” agenda for all to see. Blatantly he showed us that White supremacy was at the heart of it all along with the accompanying patriarchy that fits so well with that supremacy.

For generations now, Republicans have chosen to consistently define “Culture” in very straight, White terms. When they’ve spoken of “traditional family values,” it was a very straight White family we were to bring to mind.

They topped this off by talking as if one of our major national problems was a breakdown in “the family” among, of course, families of color, and with unsubstantiated claims that families with two daddies or two mommies were absolute disasters. Those families just weren’t White or straight enough according to their nostalgic idea of what they claimed families always were and should be.

This became a crucial feature of their politics following the successes of the Civil Rights movement when Republicans responded with what they called their “Southern strategy.” Their appeal to White Evangelicals was steeped in the promotion of this exclusive kind of “culture.

Limiting the right to vote of anyone who threatened their “culture” in this war is nothing new either, but the previous president’s “big lie” countering his re-election trouncing inspired renewed efforts to squash any opposition. It was just another front in the same “culture wars.”

They had seen decades ago that their days were limited as more Americans voted. Paul Weyrich, cofounder of the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the Moral Majority, made that clear to a gathering of White right-wing religionists in 1980: “So many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome: good government. They want everybody to vote. I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people; they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

They also schemed to do their best to hide their straight, White cultural supremacism by focusing on issues that would negatively impact LGBTQ people and people of color but not sound openly racist and homophobic. They could act as if they were talking about “fiscal conservatism” rather than bigotry.

Back in 1981 influential Republican campaign consultant Lee Atwater explained the “Southern Strategy” his Party was using to win the vote of racists without changing anything but not sounding racist themselves

“You start out in 1954 by saying, “N****, n****, n****.” By 1968 you can’t say “n****” — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now [in 1981], you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites.… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N****, n****.”

And those who started claiming that they were fiscal conservatives but cultural liberals (even among those in some of the targeted groups) never saw, or refused to admit, the connections. But the Republican strategists knew and exploited them.

The “culture wars” always included the subordination of women, and that continues. The fight against the Equal Rights Amendment and attempts to exert government control of women’s reproductive choices, even when Republicans behind these fronts in the war practiced abortions for themselves, were about controlling those women in particular who didn’t jive with the Republican definition of “culture.”

Until the Supreme Court decisions affirming sexual orientation equality (2003) and marriage equality (2015), it was publicly acceptable to openly discriminate against lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people. Thus, it was one of the most visible tactics in Republican culture wars and successful in rallying religionists in churches that agreed.

But social and cultural forces required change not in their underlying view of who true Americans were but in using more acceptable ways to rally the same old bases that had bought the culture war trope before. They could combine their views about gender issues, women’s issues, and LGBTQ issues by promoting transphobia.

As with the Equal Rights Amendment fight and the fight to prevent LGB equality, their focus was again bathroom usage. Transgender people would be the lightning rods to maintain rigid gender roles and gender definitions, and by raising all sorts of fears they could claim that Republicans were protecting children from the undocumented threats posed by those who didn’t fit their ideas of culture.

But in order to do this in a way that would not just sound like the old-fashioned bigotry behind it, they came up with new strategies for promotion of discrimination – the claim of “religious liberty” that still gave them the cover to remain bigots. With the promotion of “religious liberty” laws and conservative judicial decisions for “religious liberty,” they could appeal to the trope that it was religious people who were victims in all this, that it’s really their freedoms that are threatened.

So “religious liberty” became a new salvo in the same old “culture wars” with rejuvenated claims that election fraud by “those people” is rampant. And, of course with dog whistle phraseology like “urban” and even “Democrat” (not Democratic) as labels of who the problems are, they’re revealing that the underlying goal of protecting straight White patriarchal supremacy is still all they’ve got.

In an America today where a vast majority of eligible voters support the policies promoted by one of the political parties and with its current President, a political party that rejects those policies has little to offer except to play the hand that has underlain its work for a couple of generations – that all this is reduceable to a “culture war” that must protect straight, White male patriarchy because the alternative will destroy their kind of “culture.”

Lessons I Hope We’ve Learned Over the Decades, 2021 Edition

Let’s review what we’ve learned as we face 2021.

The moveable middle is shrinking. This is both good and bad news. It means that more people are sympathetic with causes for equality, while it also means that others are stuck in the extremist right-wing and more immovable.

We thus must recognize that there are some we cannot reach and that it’s not our fault or personal responsibility when we don’t.

For most of these the best we can do is marginalize them societally by laws and practices that support the world as we want it to be and live our lives as models of what should be. For many nice people that’s a hard lesson to accept.

It also means that we need to encourage and strengthen those who are already with us. As the old preacher said, “We’ve got to preach to the choir because so many of them aren’t singing.”

There is little need to listen more closely to right-wingers (especially members of the previous president’s cult).

It is more often a waste of time that keeps us from doing what’s effective. We know what they believe and they have nothing new to say.

If anyone finds something new, let us all know, but the odds are on the bet that we’ve heard it all before and that it’s been answered before. That means hardly any new mean, self-centered, hypocritical things they do should surprise us.

For them there’s no bottom just as there was nothing too low for their hero, the previous president. Expect the worst and hope to be surprised because upping the outrageousness each time gets more of the attention they desperately need from media, both mainstream and social. Doing so is a practice perfected by Westboro Baptist Church.

When right-wingers claim liberals don't listen or don't understand them, they're saying that until you agree with them they won’t count it as listening or understanding them. Baloney.

Most of us understand them and couldn't disagree more. We, in fact, disagree vehemently because we understand them.

So, don't expect more listening to them to change their view about you not understanding them.

Remember that their using this tactic is a means of control used by abusers to manipulate the abused, one that’s often internalized by the abused to blame themselves. Essentially, it’s your fault, “If you just understood him better, we’d get along.”

Don’t buy into any of it.

When they say liberals talk down to them, right-wingers mean that liberals keep using facts and careful, peaceful language. Pro-equality people, liberals, will be accused of talking down to right-wingers until liberals agree completely with them.

And, by the way, no one talks down more to those they disagree with or uses labels to put down those who disagree than right-wingers. Examples abound.

The current right-wing mindset is not based on reason, rationality, or logic. It's about supporting their prejudices and power by any means possible.

The more that liberal people argue as if reason and presenting facts will work, the more they’ll be accused of talking down to them. Right-wingers are not caught up in their ideology because they’re stupid or just don't understand something you have to tell them - they are caught up in something like the comfort of a cult that has teachings that support their prejudices and fears.

Cults are not rational enterprises. They attract people who have other deep emotional and psychological issues. They function as addictions, and their members’ responses sound like those of the non-recovering addict who blames everyone else and needs to protect their stash.

That means arguments that challenge their beliefs and anything that challenges their suppliers threatens their very beings and what they’ve based their lives upon. It’s difficult to argue someone out of a cult.

Right-wingers will lie, reject anyone who points out that they’re lying, and defend their heroes no matter what they do - unless, maybe, its same-sex relations with children.

We have seen this with the previous guy’s presidential cult. Even he knew that his followers would continue with him even if he shot someone on New York’s Fifth Avenue.

Right-wingers love to play the victim role - no matter how much they’re in power, they will always talk like a persecuted minority. There’s a long history of playing the martyr and raising any casualties of their beliefs to the status of martyr.

They count on that act raising more liberal guilt. And liberals are really good about thinking it’s their own fault (something they did or didn't do or didn't do enough of). Many of the analyses liberals promote sound like excuses that abused spouses give for why their abusers don't change.

And, again, doing that blames the abused.

Right-wing religion supports all of this if it makes right-wing religionists winners. Look at their view of the end times which includes their salivating about the violent, vengeful destruction of their enemies.

The key to right-wing religion is experiencing and seeking the high of righteousness, and that means winning at all costs. Those wins are how they renew that high. That’s why they’re so ruthlessly sought after.

Political activity and supporting anyone who promises that high of righteousness are not add-ons in their lives. They become essential ways of finding meaning, self-love, attention, and worth when society around them looks as if it wants to take all that away.

The leaders of the Republican Party who dominate it are not dumb or lacking in some understanding of democracy. They have shown again and again that they know how to use the minds of their cult members and how to con liberals to get their oligarchic ways.

One of the skills of an addict who is not in recovery is the ability to con others. By the questions asked and the claims made, they can sound sincere and convincing, and they know how to turn those around them into enablers by getting others to play the games they invent.

Linguist George Lakoff for the last twenty years is still the best analyst of what needs to be done and why it’s not based on so much that liberal people have used because they don’t understand how the mind works.

Though he gathered attention for his writing in the previous decade, few seemed to follow through, and the old guard, the entrenched, looked on with skepticism because he was challenging the established and lucrative approaches of what economist Paul Krugman calls some “very serious people.”

It's past time to read more of George Lakoff. His approach still works well for me, and seems even more valuable in 2021 after over three decades of an activism for equality that’s taught me these lessons.


It’s Just Hard to Admit that We Don’t Have Answers - Even When We Don’t

There’s something human beings possess that’s proven awfully important for progress in science and technology, and even for advancing human cultures. It’s the need to understand, to discover answers to the questions we ask, and to continue to ferret them out in the belief that if we can just understand, then our species will be able to conquer everything that confronts us.

If it weren’t for that impulse - maybe an innate need - to understand, who knows where we’d be? It’s taken generations of people who’ve sought answers, after all, to get where we are today.

Often that’s fueled by a basic desire to survive - to preserve our species by finding a new vaccine or cure for a deadly disease, for example. At times it’s led us to new and improved ideas that fuel more inclusive ways to understand societal concepts such as equality. At other times it’s made our war machines more deadly.

But the results of those attempts to understand have also taken longer to gain wide acceptance because new understandings have come up that threaten the comfort of those who feel that they’ve already understood, that it’s settled. Refusing to accept that what we’ve understood and built our lives and institutions on is no longer the final truth, has historically been another human response. And it’s meant that much of science, morality, and philosophy has been hindered, stifled, and even condemned.

Famously, Galileo’s challenge to the institutionally accepted science of the 16th century with his heliocentric and Copernican astronomy was condemned by the established Church as "foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical” in 1615. In 1992, that condemnation was recognized by the Papacy as an error. For some reason Church leaders felt that it was safe enough over 300 years later to admit that established Truth needed adjustment.

To believe that one knows the Truth in some absolute and unchanging form that’s unquestionable can be comforting. It enables one to feel safe and secure just because they know.

It also sees new attempts to understand as threats to that comfort and security, and reacts in “Truth”-protecting and self-protecting responses.

The two institutions worldwide throughout history that have most feared new knowledge as threatening are the governmental and the religious. With a few exceptions, neither has been able to admit that they don’t have all the answers or that new understandings should be welcomed with open arms.

That’s because it’s been both internally comforting and self-protecting in any era for governments and dominant religions to believe, propagate, and enforce by any means possible, that their version of government or religion is the final, absolute way it should always be. Neither has been good at living as if they’re in merely one passing historical moment that will be subject to the change that’s common throughout the larger timeline of history.

Neither institution has been comfortable with the possibility of living in ambiguity, for that is a difficult status for individual human beings to live in as well. We don’t want to say that we don’t know, that our ideas are subject to change, or, even worse, that we might never know the answers – especially to some of the bigger questions of existence.

To bolster established understanding, it’s common to retreat further into the comfort that we can actually protectively control reality around us with either/or thinking. To embrace nuance would mean that more and deeper thinking is required and that those easy answers we rely upon aren’t as helpful as we’d hoped.

It’s no surprise, then, that addictive thinking is fixed and controlling through either/or dualisms. Or that feminist scholars have pointed out that that kind of dualism is a mark of patriarchal thinking.

“Real men” in our culture are supposed to know, supposed to have all the answers, and are taught to be uncomfortable with ambiguity. And the corresponding definition of a leader is a male who convinces us that he has all the answers and will act swiftly, without taking time to weigh alternatives.

Transgender people embody the possibility that either/or categories such as male and female are more social constructs than fixed identities tied to genitals or tired gender roles. And they can, in our society today, end up as casualties of a desperation to play it safe and not upset ourselves by doubling down on unambiguous, absolutist dualistic thinking about gender that sounds like other facile dualisms that have been used to control the world such as: “East is East and West is West and never the ‘twain shall meet.”

I’m thankful for thinkers who are willing to throw aside certainty to step into the ambiguities of life. They’ve opened new possibilities for all of us.

I’m also thankful for those who’ve reminded us that at times we must live in terms of ambiguity – that there are things we don’t know, that there are possibilities yet to be explored.

There are times when we must choose to bet our lives on what we know so far – taking the word of the best and preponderance of science to choose to be vaccinated, for example. There is a place for experts who have given their lives to study their fields.

And yet there are also times to find a comfortable place among the ambiguities of life.

You’d think that a religious studies professor who has studied, written about, and taught the world’s religions for their entire career would be easily able to answer the question: what is the afterlife like, for example. And I wish I could.

But I can’t, and so must live comfortably in ambiguity. When students asked me such questions, I reminded them that I’m a historian by training and that there’s much more to reality than what I know or have experienced.

But I know that whatever it’s like, it’s not my motivation for celebrating and promoting love, compassion, justice, and equality in this world. I don’t do good because I’m afraid of punishment if I don’t.

For me, I can’t bet my life on what I don’t know, and I’m fine living in that ambiguity. There are others who work for answers to such theological and philosophical questions, and I leave that to them and read what they come up with.

But there are personal and societal dangers in thinking we have the absolute truth about such things. Non-addictive religion is a journey, not a set tour with an itinerary.

And I’m convinced that one of the great challenges we have as human beings is the ability to admit that we don’t know – searching for and discovering answers when we can, while living in ambiguity while we do.

Could Creativity and Imagination Be Too Scary, Subversive, and Even Too Queer?

Renowned theoretical physicist Albert Einstein in a 1929 magazine interview put it this way: “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

If such a brilliant thinker, whose name has become synonymous with being a genius, recognized the priority of imagination, what’s happened to us to stifle and devalue our imaginings?

Why is it that we live in a world whose leaders most often try unsuccessfully to solve the same old problems with the same old unimaginative solutions that hadn’t worked before? Why is it that the dominant ideas in politics are the same old ones that assume the rich can only exist by being dependent upon and ensuring that a class of people stay poor?

For how many millennia have religious leaders been preaching at the world to stop the same old sinning - and yet, here we are, rife with the same old sins, especially those so-called “Seven Deadly” ones?

How long have we tried the same old militaristic solutions to problems and find so many still thinking that war is the way to peace while we create even more enemies? World War I was called “the war to end all wars,” wasn’t it?

In other words, why no Einsteinian revolution in our foundational moral, social, and political thinking?

It sure would have been fitting if he did, but it wasn’t really Einstein who defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” That astute quip actually originated in one of the 12-step communities.

So, what’s happened to our ability to imagine and find really creative solutions? Where are those new ideas that we should expect to still be drawn freely from creative imaginations?

Will even this very discussion of imagination’s value be tsk-tsked as too unrealistic? Has our dominant culture so lost the ability to creatively imagine alternatives that those who tell us that imagination is worthless for “really important” thinking are right in saying we’re hopelessly stuck in some culturally defined straightjacket with little wiggle room?

Have we sidelined imagination to those fields that we consider unessential, even eccentric, frills such as the arts or creative writing? They’re certainly some of the first areas our leaders choose to get the ax when educational budgets are cut, aren’t they?

Have we reached the end of the line for any new ideas that aren’t just improvements in technology? Is “blue-sky thinking” just a temporary luxury that must always be limited by the pull of a gravity defined as someone’s ideas of practicality and realism?

We certainly did much better at fantasizing about how anything could be different when we were very young. What if the what-ifs of children before they’ve been sufficiently conditioned by grownups and institutions around them weren’t just dismissed as “childish” but actually reminded us somehow about a natural human imaginative and creative potential?

Teaching children to grow up, to understand the world “as it really is,” as adults think it should be, and as we conditioned people want them to see that they must understand it to be in order to get along, usually comes at a price of stifling their imaginations, dreams, fantasies, and real creativity. At some point we’ve internalized the “limits” of “reality” as defined by our cultures.

Of course, there actually are limits to reality. But the problem is that these teachings about the boundaries of thinking come with stifling warnings that function mainly to keep the current system intact.

Fantasy and imagination must give way to what is considered efficient, what supports the status quo that we take for granted, and what keeps consumerism energized. Soon kids are told that they won’t get a job, get ahead, or get wealthy with those “wild” ideas. They’ll find themselves on the outside of society.

So, they slowly learn what is acceptable about creativity and what it’s okay to imagine, through “Art Appreciation” or “Music Appreciation” courses. Good art, they’ll learn, is what only the rich can afford and in their charitable generosity might give to a museum for the rest to view - with the benevolent donor’s name on a plaque beside it.

“Good” music won’t be that of their band that gets together in a garage to jam but music that sells online or is played on the airways. You’ll know music is good because it makes one financially prosperous.

They’ll come, then, to value their own art and music as successful to the extent that it makes money. The words “good” and “valuable” will be capitalist commodities.

But imagination and creativity have no inherent standards, after all. They’re not constrained by what’s considered rational or normal. They might be feared because they’re hard for the establishment to control.

They might cause too many to accept that their own artistic creations and own musical compositions are more valuable than that “good” costly stuff they would now not need to buy and download to keep the marketplace going and to confirm that the wealthiest rightfully belong at the top setting the standards. People might discover that they can enjoy the music in their own head or can without apology hang the art that they themselves create on their walls.

And when it comes to solutions to societal and world problems, imagination and creativity - when not marginalized to people stereotyped as eccentric, quirky, even queer, “artists” - might challenge the solutions of the so-called important people, threaten the security of the powers that be, question the nobility of those who are monetarily at the top, propose new religious options that dispute the value of tired orthodoxies, or upset an economy stuck in its addiction to consuming and profit-making.

Valuing imagination might mean that there’s a whole set of inefficient, “unrealistic” questions to be asked in order to develop new and better solutions to what we’ve been relentlessly taught is the inevitable way things are. What is “realistic” could transcend the limits of our economy.

When my son was in preschool, he asked: “Dad, what if there were a fourth primary color?”

Now, that’s a truly creative question. And I’m glad that at that moment I was dumbstruck without falling back on norms of efficiency and money-making to tell him it was silly, unrealistic, inefficient, impractical, or wouldn’t get him anywhere in life.

Later as a teenager he enjoyed guitar lessons and became good enough that his teacher recommended bands he could audition for. Trying to encourage him, I said a dad thing: You know that guitarists in bands get awfully popular with people they might want to date.

But with the pleasure of imagination, experimentation, and creativity he experienced for himself, he didn’t want more – his music back in his room brought him joy. And the home I lived in, as a by-product, was happily filled with it.

This is why to me it always seems important personally and for our society’s future to ask every so often: Are we free enough from our system’s unimaginative demands to indulge in imagining other possibilities?

One stereotype is that queer people are - that coming out to themselves means they have already faced and contradicted so much that culture’s tried to convince them was really, really important such as worn out and destructive societal patterns about sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity and performance, and that they are somehow more “artistic” and creative.

There’s certainly truth in that for anyone who’s flaunted so many of the straight norms of society, because once you have, why not feel more comfortable outside that straightjacket exploring the realm of imagination and creation in many even forbidden ways?

Is imagination and creativity, then, even a little too frightfully “queer” for many?

Or is it way past time for all of us to let go and ask: when was the last time I was free enough to indulge my imagination?

© 2021 Robert N. Minor

Other Issues, Books, Resources

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Robert N. Minor, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus at the University of Kansas, is author of When Religion Is an Addiction; Scared Straight: Why It’s So Hard to Accept Gay People and Why It’s So Hard to Be Human; and Gay & Healthy in a Sick Society. Contact him at www.FairnessProject.org


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