LGBT people and the Arts

 

One common stereotype for LGBT people is that they are artistic. So many famous dancers, actors, singers, painters, and writers were/are LGBT. As with other stereotypes, most of the time they are simplistic generalizations, but there is often some truth in them. Why might LGBT people be attracted to artistic hobbies and professions?

            The choral director during my freshman year at Goshen College spoke with us about why music is a gift for oppressed groups of people. He specifically addressed the pain of LGBT people, telling us music was one place where LGBT people could be themselves. He wanted the men’s choir to sing a song with Walt Whitman’s text about same-sex romantic feelings. Although we were unable to sing that particular song, we sang Schubert’s “Sehnsucht,” which speaks about same-sex desire, and sang other deeply poignant pieces of sadness and pain. That year of choir had a profound impact on me, as I was not “out” to many people at that time. I was a voice minor, which required a sophomore recital. As I prepared that year and at the beginning of my sophomore year, I put all of the feeling that I felt I needed to hide into my pieces, especially the ones about love and loss.

            The majority of LGBT people grow up in heterosexual communities and are assumed to be heterosexual or cisgender. The construction and affirmation of an LGBT identity is often done in isolation as many LGBT people feel that they must hide or repress their expression of love out of fear of exclusion. Art offers a means to express identity and experience in ways that can speak to an LGBT experience without being dismissed by dominate heterosexual or cisgender expectation. LGBT themes that are not as apparent to the majority of cisgender or heterosexual people, can be understood by LGBT people who have felt or feel the same way.

            Even for people that are “out,” often have a need for artistic expression. Most art represents cisgender heterosexual relationships, so LGBT people need art that speaks to their experience.  LGBT art can be a place to draw awareness to LGBT issues to the rest of society. Instances like Chaz Bono’s appearance on Dancing with the Stars have brought the topic of transgender lives into everyone’s home, presenting a chance for conversation and education about lives that are often misunderstood and/or invisible.

            Art can be a powerful tool to promote solidarity for oppressed groups. For example, the civil rights movement used music to unify and protest against racial discrimination. Four-part harmony hymns are a significant part of the Church of the Brethren and Mennonite denomination’s worship and identity. At BMC’s recent gathering the LGBT participants, many of us with histories of rejection from these faith traditions, sang our hymns in part to reclaim a piece of our identity.

            At the last two Mennonite conventions the Pink Menno movement organized and participated in hymn sings to heighten awareness of LGBT people within the church. They created a space for allies to join in solidarity with their LGBT brothers and sisters. The Pink Menno hymn sing at the Pittsburgh Mennonite convention was a powerful experience for me. I was amazed to spot an individual who was an estranged church mentor for me in the group singing. This person was not as supportive of my calling to go into the ministry after they found out that I was gay. I went and stood beside them, but they didn’t notice my presence until the singing was over. So surprised and happy to see me, they turned and embraced me in a warm hug. I experienced this as an expression of apology and love without saying a word. I’m thankful to God for using that hymn sing to begin a process of reconciliation.

            Art can be a place for LGBT to break their silence and reach out to others. They have a chance to reach out to other LGBT people with common experiences. For those that feel isolated, they can find hope in knowing others understand what they are going through. Knowledge of that shared identity creates solidarity. Art can also create the opportunity for allies in the church to reach out, showing LGBT people they care and are willing to help make the church a more welcoming place.

Building solidarity through telling our stories

Last month I attended my first BMC Gathering.  After corresponding by phone and e-mail, it was great to meet and speak face-to-face with members of the BMC LGBT community. Sharing and preserving our stories were important aspects of the event. Several people attending had their stories recorded for historical records and there were several evenings when people told stories from their “coming out” journeys.

 Last fall, I studied the theological significance of stories in my Bible, Religion, and Philosophy senior seminar class. Every class we were asked to share stories directly related to the theological theme assigned for that week. The class coincided with me beginning to be more “out” on campus, and I chose to be honest in the assignment and share my “coming out” stories. I found it to be liberating and healing, after so many years of holding those stories within me, to finally be able to tell them to others. It was the first time I had written and spoken about several of my stories in a semi-organized narrative. To family and friends, I had shared most of my stories, but they were told in bits and pieces. That class was a safe space for me and my peers to be vulnerable about those sacred stories that were so close to our hearts.

 I’ve learned that sharing stories holds the possibility of building solidarity. I told parts of my coming out journey to attendees of the Gathering during the weekend. When we share our stories we create a window for others to catch a glimpse of our experience. During the Gathering, I found similarities between my story and others. I laughed at the shared awkwardness of “coming out,” and at times was reminded of how serious “coming out” can be. When we share our stories to other LGBT we allow ourselves a chance to see that we are not alone.  When we tell our trusted allies, we give a chance for them to show us their support and love.

For me, an important step in my “coming out” journey was acknowledging and learning that God was present to support me. It was a comfort during those early years to know I was not the only one who knew I was struggling to figure out my sexuality. It is a comfort to know I can still turn to God. Whether you find support through faith or friends it is important to know you are not alone.

-Reuben Sancken

Journey to the BMC Community

I remember being aware of the existence of Brethren Mennonite Council (BMC) early on in my process of coming out.  I probably discovered it on the internet through my own exploration on a search engine, or it was found and brought to my attention by an immediate family member. In either case, I did not expect to join or be employed by the BMC community in the future.

            I’ve grown up in the Mennonite faith tradition. My relationship with the Mennonite church has been a confusing and disorienting experience: At times I’ve been embraced and at other times I felt like I was being pushed away.  Generally, I felt welcomed by those I came out to in the church. While I’ve had those supportive people, I still have internalized a feeling of being excluded after years of knowing church statements and documents that tell me I’m not welcome if I wish to be in a same-sex committed relationship. I felt a calling to church ministry in my mid-teenage years, which I was vocal about to my home church community.  My sexuality for the majority has been kept silent, and I only came out to my immediate family during high school. I went to Goshen College, and it was there that I encountered BMC again. As a student leader, I attended “safe zone” training, which used BMC materials. For the large part of my experience in the Mennonite church I’ve remained in the closet, gradually telling friends and mentors in college and considered myself “out” my last semester.

            When I was making post-graduation plans, I decided to do a year or two of voluntary service in a church affiliated program.  I was not interested in Mennonite Voluntary Service, because I knew if I chose that program I would remain more closeted. Family recommended that I leave the church to find another denomination that is more welcoming, and they recommended that I apply for Lutheran Volunteer Corps. I was immediately excited when I found on the application that the organization embraces openly LGBT volunteers. When I searched for volunteer placements I found the Kaleidoscope Coordinator position at BMC was open for the upcoming year. I chose to apply for the position for several reasons, but one of the biggest reasons was that I felt like I hadn’t really given the church a chance. Not wanting to give up being Mennonite, a key part of my identity, I chose to serve at BMC. It is the only place I feel like I can authentically serve the Mennonite church at this point. I have spent the large part of my struggle with the Mennonite church on my own, or with the help of straight allies. One of the greatest blessings so far at my job has been the welcome from the LGBT Brethren and Mennonite Community. I thank you for your support!

            I am very excited about my upcoming year of serving BMC! I hope to promote BMC for those that do not know of its existence and bring attention to the resources we offer by working on updating the website and creating promotional internet videos. Over the last few years, I’ve been exposed to the multilayered ways that people are oppressed. The intensity of alienation becomes magnified when levels of privilege that differ from the perceived norm intersect. BMC ministers and welcomes all LGBT Mennonites and Brethren and their supporters, but I realize some may feel excluded. As a white man, I know I carry the biases and shortsightedness that contribute to the exclusion of people of color. I want BMC to be a place where people of color know that they are genuinely being welcomed. I would love to find a way to talk with anyone who identifies as nonwhite about your experience. How can BMC be helpful? What does BMC need to do to be a more just and inclusive community?  I’m looking forward to building a better community!

 -Reuben Sancken

It’s so simple

Recently I was talking to a family member about the process of encouraging his congregation to become publicly affirming. In frustration he said, “It’s so simple. Why can’t we make a statement that we welcome all people and don’t discriminate on the basis of whatever characteristic? Who could possibly disagree with that?!” Indeed.

I’d like to propose that the difficulty our congregations and denominations have in coming to this “simple” conclusion reveals an underlying problem with how we understand ourselves as a peace church. I watch as the teaching “violence is wrong” is distorted to “conflict is bad,” and the value that “community is good” distorted to “the majority is never wrong.” Conflict is neither inherently bad nor good, and is an inevitable part of genuine relationships. One need not look hard at history to find examples of times the majority has been wrong, especially in relation to minorities.

Violence and conflict:
It is our responsibility to name and challenge violence when we see it. When we stand up to people and institutions that are causing harm, we can expect to find ourselves in the midst of conflict. Often those who bring attention to historical and current discrimination and who call for restoring right relationship are labelled militant, unreasonable, extremist, troublemakers, divisive, and even bullies. This is a clear attempt to blame the victim and deflect attention away from the real problem – the bad behaviour. Avoiding conflict when we see violence means making a choice to allow violence to continue. It is time to (re)learn from the gospels and our scholars a different way to view conflict and understand power.

Community and majority:
Valuing community includes valuing all of the individuals in the community. Healthy communities, similar to healthy families, care for, nurture and protect all of their members. While being in community can require compromise or stepping aside at specific moments, this only works given equal power and mutual respect. Healthy communities do not sacrifice individuals for the convenience of the majority. In fact, healthy communities go out of their way to protect their more vulnerable members. The nature of “majority rules” decision-making is that those with fewer numbers or less power will always lose. This is why nations who believe in protecting minority rights don’t put those rights up for a general vote.

Recognizing violence:
Violence is a strong word, and I choose to use it. The ideology and rhetoric that justifies physical violence against lgbt people is an extreme form of the same ideology that justifies discrimination and exclusion in our church. Without minimizing physical violence (which we should get more riled up about), we must learn to see the violence when “love the sinner, hate the sin” goes unchallenged, when parents of lgbt people are taken out of leadership positions, when a transgender youth knows that to live an emotionally healthy life he will lose his faith community, and when a lesbian couple is grateful they are allowed to attend a congregation though they can’t take communion. Let’s get shocked, saddened and angered into action.

Walk the talk AND talk the walk:
As individuals, and as communities we can work to overcome any discomfort we have learned and internalized. We can actively educate ourselves out of the heterosexism, sexism, racism, ableism, and all the other systemic oppressions that we have been taught. We can strive to treat all people, especially those who have been treated as less-than, with love and respect. We can say, out loud, that we affirm all people, including lgbt people.

When we do these things our communities become healthier places for all of us. All members can bring all of themselves into relationship with each other and the whole. All members find the courage to bring questions, concerns, and affirmations, with the confidence that they will be treated with care and honour as whole people. Who could possibly disagree with that?

Kirsten