Saturday, August 1, 2015

Bi Any Means Podcast #15: Decolonizing Christianity with AnaYelsi Sanchez


Today I chat with Christian feminist AnaYelsi Sanchez, who blogs about the intersection of art, faith, and social justice at BrownEyedAmazon.com. Enjoy!


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Transcript provided by Marvin:

Trav:                Welcome to the Bi Any Means podcast, a place where social justice and humanism meet. Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Bi Any Means podcast, the podcast companion to bianymeans.com. I’m Trav Mamone and today I’m going to try something new. All my guests so far have been atheists but today I will be interview AnaYelsi Sanchez who blogs about the intersection of faith, art and social justice at browneyedamazon.com. I don’t always read Christian bloggers but when I do, I prefer ones who are just as passionate about social justice as I am. (Forgive the Dos Equis commercial reference.) Anyways, enjoy the show.

                        My guest for today is AnaYelsi Sanchez who blogs about the intersection of art, faith, and social justice at browneyedamazon.com. AnaYelsi, thanks for joining me today.

 AnaYelsi:       Thanks for having me.

Trav:                First, I want to ask you about your background, tell us a little about that.

 AnaYelsi:       How far back do you want me to go? I was born in Venezuela.

Trav:                Let me start there.

 AnaYelsi:       I am a Venezuelan immigrant. I came to the US when I was a toddler, and grew up East Coast of my life. I grew up in New York, and moved to Orlando, Florida as a teenager, and then spent about 14 years in Florida, and now I’m living here in Washington, DC. I’m very much an East Coast person, but a very proud indigenous Latina.  

Trav:                Great. Where you raised Christian, or did you come to it later in your life?

 AnaYelsi:       I have a very weird religious heritage, or I’ll say unique religious heritage. When I was brought to the US, I was brought by a white upper middleclass family, and half the household was Jewish and half was Catholic. My adopted mother was Catholic, but she was very more into new age mysticism. We have a meditation room in the house, and I learned about crystals and stuff growing up. Then I would celebrate Passover, and search for the Afikomen on Jewish holidays. It was a very weird amalgamation of religions, and then I actually ended up spending most of my childhood as a ward of the state in the foster care system, and growing in and out of group homes. I strayed very far from religion during that time. I actually became agnostic with a lot of animosity towards Christianity. It wasn’t until I was in college that I actually chose Christianity as a faith practice for myself.

Trav:                What was it specifically Christianity that made you want to go in that direction? 

 AnaYelsi:       For me, I was part of a Methodist, very conservative college ministry called the Wesley Foundation of the University of Central Florida, and I was a part of them for a year, my entire freshman year before I even considered Christianity. I was actually actively argued with members of the group. I was only there for the relationships. I had no interest in their religion, and despite all of their efforts to convert, or save me, or whatever language you wanted to use, my choice came from personal transformation during worship time, and just the softening of my heart towards Christianity that really had very little to do with outside efforts forced on me.

Trav:                In most Christian circles, feminism is synonymous with killing babies, and being a lesbian or whatever.

 AnaYelsi:       I’ve heard it all.

Trav:                How and when did you discover feminism?

 AnaYelsi:       I was a feminist long before I was a Christian. If anything, I would say I rediscovered my feminist identity post becoming a Christian in adulthood. When I started college, I was known as that hyper-focused, social justice-oriented feminist who just took no crap from anyone, and told you exactly what she was thinking. I lived my life on top of soapbox that was ten feet tall, and then when I became a Christian, because of the very conservative space I was in, I started questioning whether I could be a feminist at all, and became quieter, more introverted and lost a lot of my identity that I’d had as a teenager. It’s actually into my late twenties, and now I’m 30-years-old, where I’ve reclaimed that identity and have been able to reconcile I with my faith.

Trav:                How would you reconcile the two because I have met plenty of feminist Christians like Dianna Anderson, and Sarah Moon, and I’m not one to say, “No, you have to one or the other,” but when I look at the Bible, and certain . . . especially a lot of things that Paul wrote, I’m thinking, “Hmm, not sure how you can give this one from this.”

 AnaYelsi:       Sure, I think the answer to that is pretty complex but where I would start is saying that feminism is not compatible with white, colonizer, patriarchal, racist Christianity, and a lot of that is what is peddled not just here in the US, but overseas. Those two are not compatible, and scripture or the Bible is often used a tool of violence in perpetuating ideas that feminism and Christianity cannot be reconciled. I would say when you are looking at it through that lens, absolutely not. You cannot be a feminist and be that kind of Christian. That is not the only kind of Christian, and I would even go so far as to say that that’s not the truest Christian, possibly not even Christianity at all if I’m going to be really bold. For me it’s taken a lot … I’ve had the privilege, it is definitely a privilege to have the time, and the resources to study scripture and to not have to take what is said from the pulpit at face value, and to understand that there is a harmonic and a theology that is different than what is the norm here in the US and where I can look at things through that lens.

                        When I really begin to question things for myself, then I can reconcile those two identities then it’s not so difficult for me. If anything, my Christianity, my deeper understanding of the word or scripture has made me bolder in my identity as a woman and as a woman of color.

Trav:                How did Brown-Eyed Amazon get started?

 AnaYelsi:       I’m going to out myself as a really big geek. I love super heroes. I love comics. I love sci-fi. I am just … I can [inaudible 00:08:38] about that endlessly, and one thing that I love above all others is Wonder Woman. She is Amazonian warrior. She is a picture of a hero, an anti-patriarchal hero who challenges gender norms, and pushes the envelope in ways that she is told by society. She was everything I wanted in a hero, and Brown-Eyed Amazon was not an alter ego. It’s not like I see myself as a Brown-Eyed Amazon, but as a concept that was born out of a childhood love for Wonder Woman. If you look at the logo for Brown-Eyed Amazon, it’s an Amazonian warrior, and since I’m an artist, instead of holding a sword and a shield, she’s holding a pallet brush, and a paintbrush, or a pallet and a paintbrush. That’s how it origins.

Trav:                How did the blog get started?

 AnaYelsi:       I have always loved writing. I don’t know if I would say I was always a writer but I’ve always writing. I was on the school paper. When I was in high school, I was editor of my high school paper, The Barnacle (go Commodores!) and I thought I was going to do journalism when I was in college. I started writing for myself and then started sharing pieces with others and it grew naturally from there. I realized that there was an audience out there of people who were craving a lot of the same things I was craving, which was looking at faith through a decolonized lens, looking at feminism in a way that decentered whiteness. A lot of the things that I was desperate for and so it was formed naturally.

Trav:                Tell us a little bit about the series on your blog, Secret Lives of Feministas.

 AnaYelsi:       That is everything that I just described at its ultimate. My birthday about three years ago, I was sitting down at my computer, and you know how you just or maybe this is just me, you go on a Twitter rant, and you just tweet what you think, and there’s no end in sight. I just started tweeting about my frustration with white feminism, with mainstream feminism, and I just let out a stream of tweets talking about all of the things that I wish mattered to white feminism that don’t. All the ways in which women of color, and specifically Latinas, get silenced or even actively harmed under the agenda of white feminism, and I used the harsh tag Secret Lives of Feminista while I was doing this. People started responding, and then I suddenly connected with women I had never known before. We planned a Twitter party where we could bring others in a week later, and that grew into a Facebook group, which now two years later is still running. It’s one of the greatest support groups I have. It’s phenomenal, and it’s full of incredible women, Latina women, and some allies.

                        Then it grew into that series that’s on my website where it’s just sharing the stories of Latinas who have felt like they haven’t been heard, or they have not seen reflection of themselves in mainstream feminism, and wanted to offer a picture of what it was for them to reconcile their racial identity, their culture, and their feminist identity. That’s where it came from.

Trav:                You recently spoke at Wild Goose Festival on a panel about colonialism and colonization in Christianity. One of the reasons why I’m a secular humanism and no longer a Christian is because of its history of colonization, although Christianity certainly doesn’t hold a monopoly on colonialism. I want to ask you, first of all, how the conference went and second if there’s a way to decolonize Christianity?

 AnaYelsi:       Sure. First, the event was called Wild Goose, and it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and I had a lot of apprehension before I went. It’s a music and arts festival four-day camping even in the woods, in the mountains of North Carolina with a focus of social justice in a Christian theme. That’s a lot, and honestly when I first was looking through … reading their descriptions of the event on their website I had that apprehension that I get a lot with things that look and feel like white, progressive Christianity that put themselves forward as safe spaces but in reality can be very harmful to people of color, particularly to women of color.

Trav:                Mh-hmmm.

 AnaYelsi:       Yeah, you know a little about what I’m referring to.

Trav:                Oh, yes!

 AnaYelsi:       I couldn’t help it. That was my first reaction. I got an invite from Micky ScottBey Jones and Teresa Pasquale to join them on a panel on decolonization. Micky is black Christian woman. Teresa Pasquale is a Colombian woman, and I trusted the two of them, and I accepted. I’m so glad I did. Yes, it was overwhelmingly white space, and yes, I saw instances of racial insensitivity, of appropriation. There were times when I felt uncomfortable, and out of place, most of the people of color who were present because they were speakers like I was. Those were the few things I was like, “But could I feel this on it with flaws,” but in reality, it was a really incredible event. The panels that were there were so heavily focused on race and gender and sexual minorities, and I really appreciated seeing a predominantly white space essentially taking over ad taught. I thought that was a wonderful thing to be a part of and I can see the numbers of people growing in attendance as word about that gets out.
                        All of that being said, the panel itself was talking about the impact that colonization, displacement, genocide has had on women of color in Christianity. You are right, there’s no denying that one of the greatest perpetuators and of death have been Christians, and it’s been marginalized people. It’s been against people of color, African people, indigenous people, Native Americans, Latinos. We are the victims of Christianity and there’s no denying tha,t but there’s cultural Christianity and then there’s Christianity itself. I think that we have forgone the later in favor of the former because it benefits those in power. Our panel was touching about how we move through Christian spaces, and challenge that, and engage people on this idea that we don’t have to accept that as true Christianity.

Trav:                What are some ways we can … or Christians can decolonize Christianity?

 AnaYelsi:       Sure. One of the first things that comes to mind in terms of a small first step, but definitely not a place to stop, is language. So much of how we speak and express our faith is wrapped up in white supremacy and patriarchy. I would say just beginning to be cognizant of that fact and actively working to change it on a personal level and on a corporate level. In our churches, in our programs, in our conversations with one another. Language would be a big part. That’s gender language for God. That’s racial … white imagery for Jesus. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but Jesus is a beautiful white man in those churches.

Trav:                Yeah, for a guy who was born from Palestine he’s sure is really white.

 AnaYelsi:       Yes. He’s a surprisingly beautiful white man. That’s a little weird. I would say imagery and language is a basic first step. My next thing is . . . don’t get me wrong, I love the concept of racial reconciliation. I think that it is an endpoint that we have to reach. I think that it is an endpoint that people are seeking after before they do the necessary work of racial justice, and they think that it can be done in lieu of racial justice and it cannot. Maybe it can be done in tandem, but it can’t be done first. It can’t be achieved first and anyone who seeks that in place of racial justice is seeking something that is still act of violence against people of color. One way of decolonizing the church, and of letting go of these white supremacist ideals is not accepting some diluted poor example of racial reconciliation. I think [inaudible 00:19:05] some very real conversation in the church about what racial justice is, how it’s sort after. There needs to be a time of lament allowed both for people of color, and for white people. There needs to be lament for culpability in racism. There needs to be lament for loss, for death, and some of that is very real things happening right now. Charleston is a powerful example of that, a painful example of that.

I think true seeking after of racial justice needs to happen before reconciliation and then I think it’s acknowledging that there are issues that we do not talk about in the church because we like to say that they are uncomfortable or they are divisive. But in reality, they are usually issues where the people most heavily affected by them are people of color and these are some of the more obvious issues like immigration, the prison industrial complex, police sanctioned violence but then there are also issues like eco-justice, and environment stewardship that is more in line with Christian scripture. There is scripture that talks about environmental stewardship and we don’t like to acknowledge that. These are all issues that affect people of color more heavily than they do white people, and then there are issues that we are least likely to talk about from the pulpit. These are all steps we can take towards decolonizing Christian and decolonizing the church.

Trav:                Very good. I wanted to talk a little bit about your artwork. How long have you been painting and what message are you trying to express in your artwork?

 AnaYelsi:       I started painting about three years ago now … no, I started painting with confidence, and acknowledging my identity as an artist three years ago. I started painting in college when I was about 20, maybe a little bit younger actually. I started an arts ministry called Journey with my friend William, who if you ever listened to the stories I share, or have read pieces I’ve written pieces I’ve written in the past, I’ve mentioned William sometimes as a friend I went through that very conservative ministry with, who he and I have both been able to come out on the other side, healthier people despite some of the most unhealthy aspects of the community. He was a closeted gay man at the time. I was a closeted ally if you could even be that. It’s probably oxymoron, and now he’s someone who is out, and confident, and proud about who he is. He is in a healthy relationship and in a community that affirms his identity, and I’m about as bold, I hope, as I can get as an ally. If there’s further I can go I hope I do but part of what helped me and William through that time was Journey, was this arts ministry, and as a natural extension of my heart for justice, and my desire to be prophetic voice for justice through the church, I have always painted about these issues I’m talking about.

                        I paint about violence against women. I paint about LGBT equality. I paint about racism and immigration because I want art to be a political statement. I want anything I create to be something that is not just a beautiful picture. Hopefully, it’s still something that visually stimulates people I want it to motivate people to action. I consider my art a call to action, an invitation to be a part of the movement, and to play a small role in something revolutionary, and I hope it even achieves that even half the time.

Trav:                Good, good. Normally on this podcast, I focus on the intersection of secular humanism and social justice but let me ask you this. Where and how do you see your faith and social justice intersect?

 AnaYelsi:       For me, because of the lens through I read scripture through, I see a Biblical mandate for social justice. I think there’s an undeniable Biblical mandate for social justice particularly if you are someone who has spent time studying the Old Testament prophets. You cannot read my Micah or Amos or Ezekiel, and not see an unapologetic demand for social justice. The intersection for me is that one spurs me is that on towards the other. I think I would be a pretty lousy excuse for a Christian if I was not dedicated to social justice.  

Trav:                Good. Good. That’s about it for me. Where can people find you online?

 AnaYelsi:       You can find me on Twitter. It is easiest to search my first name AnaYelsi that is because someone beat to me at Brown-Eyed Amazon and I had to put a bunch of abbreviations in my name but I’m about one of the only AnaYelsi’s you’ll ever run across. That’s where you’ll find me on Twitter. You can find me on Instagram @browneyedamazon. You can find me on Facebook.com/BrownEyedAmazon and then Browneyedamazon.com the website.

Trav:                Great. Thanks again for joining me today AnaYelsi.

 AnaYelsi:       I appreciate you having me. I was excited to get across communities. I really appreciate you inviting me into this space.


Trav:                Thanks for listening to the Bi Any Means podcast. The music you heard throughout the episode was “Endurance” by Dream Youth. You can find more of their music on dreamyouth.bandcamp.com. The Bi Any Means logo was design by Asher Silberman. Follow me on Twitter @tmamone and like the Bi Any Means page at www.facebook.com/travismamonewriter . If you like what you have heard, consider becoming a patron on Patreon. Just go to www.patreon.com/tmamone. As always, you can go to www.bianymeans.com for more musings of a queer humanist.
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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Want To Help Bring A Feminist Revolution To Islam? Support Those Already Doing It



[CN: Rape, Violence]

Once again, Richard Dawkins recently tweeted something about feminism and/or Islam that stirred controversy. Granted, he has a history of saying problematic things, but the controversy this time was whether or not Dawkins’ latest tweet was, in fact, controversial.

On July 23, Dawkins tweeted:



Islam needs a feminist revolution. It will be hard. What can we do to help?

Laura Nelson responded on Friendly Atheist that Dawkins “fails spectacularly on feminism and Islam.” She wrote:

For starters, Dawkins is a wealthy white Western male dictating what just under a billion women — and overwhelmingly, women of color — around the world “need” to do, with little to no context for what their lives are like.

He’s relying primarily on mainstream media accounts of what it’s like to be a woman living in Middle Eastern countries where Islam is prevalent. To be sure, those stories can be jarring. Who can hear Malala tell her tale and not be moved? Who can read of an 11-year-old Iranian girl being gang raped without rage? But what Dawkins, and many critics of Islam’s relationship with women, forget is that this is only part of the picture. There are many more lived female experiences within this far-from-homogeneous culture of faith, and not all of them are ugly or oppressed. Much like most practicing Western Christian women are not sold to future husbands by their fathers for a couple of goats, many Muslim women embrace a very different interpretation of Islam than what we see in the headlines or read verbatim in the Qur’an.

Shortly thereafter, Bo Gardiner wrote on Friendly Atheist why she thought Dawkins said nothing wrong (this time):

How does she [Nelson] happen to know what information Dawkins uses to form his opinions? We shouldn’t be in the business here of trying to read minds. That’s a basic courtesy we want for ourselves and should extend to others. If anything, Lauren’s assumption is contradicted by the fact that Dawkins begged his followers to read feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now — hardly a “mainstream media account” — calling it “the most important book I’ve read for years” and describing Hirsi Ali as a “hero of rationalism & feminism.”

Before I go any further, let me say as a feminist that I’m not particularly concerned about defending Dawkins, whose record on feminism is such a mixed bag. What concerns me is the chilling message this article sends to our potential allies — that they risk their very reputation at our hands by merely asking if they can help. Not just allies in feminism, but in atheism, Humanism, and progressivism in general.

As for me, I both agree and disagree with Dawkins. On one hand, I think all religions—including Islam—need more humanism, feminism, rationalism, and freethinking than dogma, doctrines, and superstition. The more our world makes new discoveries that challenge our preconceived ideas about gender, sexuality, and science, the more religion clings to its ancient doctrines and refuses to let go. Sure, religion has made some progress; it’s hard to find an American Christian nowadays who will argue in favor of slavery, even though there are plenty of biblical passages that condone it. But even with the progress religion has made, we still live in a world where the vast majority of conservative Christians in America are against same-sex marriage, and the vast majority of Muslims in Afghanistan support the death penalty for people who leave Islam. We ain’t done yet!

And yet, when it comes to Western criticism of Islam, things get tricky. I’ve never been a Muslim, I’ve never read the Qu’ran all the way through, and I don’t live in community where Islam is the most practiced religion. My knowledge about Islam is limited at best, so if I publically debate a Muslim, I’ll look like I’m whitesplaining. (Yes, I know Islam is not a race, but since most people equate Islam to Arab culture, Islam has been racialized.) Plus, Dawkins’ tweet sounds a little too much like the colonialist White Savior narrative: “It’s our job as civilized Westerns (a.k.a. white people) to go help those poor savage brown people.” Any history book will tell you how that story ends!

So how can we help bring a feminist/freethinking/humanist revolution to Islam? Support those who are already doing it!

In 2013, The Nation wrote an article about Musawah, an Islamic feminist organization based in Maylasia that “operates on the belief that Islam is not inherently biased toward men: patriarchy within Muslim countries is a result of the way male interpreters have read Islamic texts. With this framework for action, Musawah empowers women to shape the interpretations, norms and laws that affect their lives, [and] then push for legal reform in their respective countries.” Supporting organizations such as this is a good start!

As for those who have left the faith, there are organizations such as Ex-Muslims of North America which provide a safe space for those who have left Islam. The Ex-Muslims of North America, or EXMNA for short, offers a unique perspective that debunks both anti-Muslim bigotry and Islamic apologetics. Their about us page reads:

While we denounce the bigotry of those who promote their racist and xenophobic ideas under the guise of criticizing Muslims, we also denounce the cultural and moral relativism of those who propagate the idea that all people of Muslim backgrounds are the same and want to follow Islam, and that Islam is somehow less capable of being scrutinized than other belief systems. We are the people who have both first-hand and well-researched knowledge about Islam and we bridge the worlds between the polarized discussions of Islam through our lives and our voices.

And that's basically what it all boils down to: giving others a platform. Listen to their stories, share their stories, and let them speak for themselves. As Nelson wrote on her blog shortly after her Friendly Atheist article:

The best way for us to help is not to blaze forward without recognizing the work that has been done. It is to start by seeking information and understanding, follow with acknowledging the victories attained, and continue with asking members of the community how support can be provided to existing efforts. Dawkins’ mistake was skipping the first two steps.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What I Mean When I Say "Monosexual Privilege"--My Latest Queereka Article



[CN: Biphobia, Suicide, Health Issues]

Recently I wrote on my Bi Any Means Facebook page, “If someone of any sort of privilege–white privilege, male privilege, cis privilege, straight privilege, monosexual privilege, Christian privilege, etc.–is offended because I dared to call out their privileges and critique their faulty logic, so fucking what?” Apparently that did, indeed, offend someone. That someone then proceeded to post link after link to Tumblr blog posts explaining why monosexual privilege is “homophobia.” Their logic was the word phrase monosexual privilege makes gays and lesbians on the same hierarchal level as our straight oppressors. Finally by bi friends stepped in to explain things in a way I couldn’t. I’m not sure if that changed the other person’s mind, though.

This is just one example of how shit hits the proverbial fan whenever a non-monosexual person—whether that person is bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, etc.—talks about monosexual privilege. What starts as an honest conversation about social hierarchy within the LGBT+ community turns into accusations that we’re the ones who are the oppressors. Part of it, I think, comes from the idea that non-monosexuals aren’t really queer because we can still be in “straight relationships” (which is a ridiculous concept because a straight relationship involves two straight people), but I think part of it is just a misunderstanding of the term. Maybe I’m giving people too much benefit of the doubt, but hopefully this will clarify a few things.

Read the rest here.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Do Religious Beliefs Deserve Respect?


Last month, Richard Dawkins had some things to say on Twitter about whether or not beliefs—particularly religious beliefs—deserve respect. He wrote:

If your belief has any value, you should be able to defend it with something better than "Your argument against it hurts me." Grow up.
Thinking people, please stop "respecting" beliefs for no better reason than to avoid hurting or "offending" believers. Tell them to grow up.
 If a belief is to command respect it should earn it, with evidence. Don't respect a belief simply because it is deeply held by people.

Indeed, there's a debate among atheists whether or not we should respect religious beliefs. Some say we should, others say we should respect religious people but not their beliefs, and others say religious people are too insipid to deserve a single iota of respect. This argument, as with most arguments, has about fifty shades of nuance.

Audre Lorde once said, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” In an ideal world, we would all be tolerant and respectful of each other’s beliefs. We would all give each other space to find truth and meaning, and no one would infringe upon anyone’s personal path.

But we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world where people push their religious agendas onto others. Here in America, you’ve got politicians who use religion as a way to oppress women and LGBT+ people. Overseas you’ve got a large majority of Muslims in Afghanistan who support the death penalty against those who leave Islam. Quasim Rashid may believe society needs God in order to be good, but the facts speak for themselves: whenever politics and religion meet, it ain’t pretty!

It’s not just when religion is pushed into the public square, either. I don’t have enough hands to count how many people I’ve met who have been traumatized by religion indoctrination. I’ve met queer people who believed they were going to Hell, and women who thought they were broken because they had premarital sex. And although I wouldn’t go as far as Lawrence Krauss and say teaching kids creationism is abuse, I will say telling kids to ignore any fact that contradicts their beliefs is a recipe for disaster. What if those kids grown up to be politicians and they are convinced that climate change is a myth? Oh wait, we don’t have to wait for that to happen; it’s already happening!

So do religious beliefs deserve respect? Here’s what I think:

I respect everyone’s legal right to practice whatever religion they choose, as long as it doesn’t affect me.

I respect everyone’s personal journey to find truth and meaning to their lives.

I respect people who are always willing to listen to whatever other people have to say, even people with whom they don’t agree.

I don’t, however, respect people who think I’m going to Hell because I’m queer (or worse, that I’m going to hurt their children).

I don’t respect any belief that says women have to cover themselves up so boys won’t lust after them (as if boys can’t be held responsible for their own actions).

I don’t respect any belief that says people deserve to die because they don’t like one particular god.

I don’t respect any belief that says a holy book knows more about the world that thousands of years of painstaking scientific research.

I don’t respect any belief that doesn’t give personal autonomy to an individual’s body (especially women’s bodies).


Maybe one day we’ll all recognize, accept, and celebrate our differences, but respect must go both ways, and I don’t think the religious powers that be are interested in celebrating diversity quite yet.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Bi Any Means Podcast #14: A Genderqueer Atheist Love Story with Andy and November


Today I chat with my friends Andy Semler and November Assington, a genderqueer atheist couple. They share their story about how they met, and what the recent Supreme Court ruling for marriage equality means to them, as a gender-nonconforming couple. Enjoy!




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Transcript provided by Marvin:

Trav:               Welcome to the Bi Any Means podcast, a place where social justice and humanism meet.

Hello and welcome to another episode of the Bi Any Means podcast, the podcast companion to BiAnyMeans.com. I’m Trav Mamone and today I’ll be chatting with my friend Andy Semler and November Assington, a genderqueer atheist couple. My last episode, the one with Peter Mosley, went online around the same time the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality throughout all 50 states. I didn’t have a chance to talk about it then, but I will on this episode. Of course, I want to put a unique spin on the story, so instead of highlighting another cisgender, same sex couple who can finally be legally, I decided to get the prospective of two gender non-conforming people. So enjoy the show!

                        My guests for today are Andy Semler and November Assington, a genderqueer atheist couple I’ve met online, and people that I consider friends. Thanks for joining me today, friends.

Andy:              Thanks for having us.

November:      Hi.      

Trav:                Now first, I want ask you both about your backgrounds. Did you both grow up religious, and if you could start by saying your names, so the audience will know whose voice belongs to whom.

Andy:              My name is Andy Semler. I grew up in Warsaw, Indiana, a tiny town in … well, it’s getting bigger, in northern Indiana and I grew up very religious. I went to 10 years of Christian private school, and was on the Bible quizzing team for many years in middle school and high school. I basically read the Bible forwards and backwards 10 times. You could say I was pretty religious.

November:      Hi, I’m November. I kind of grew all over the place, moved around quite a bit, and my family was pretty religious, but I got even more into it than my parents had been up until high school. I kind of had a big falling out with my church, and started studying really intensely on my own studying the Bible, and just reading various Christian authors and things. I ended up moving to Warsaw around the time Andy was leaving as it turned out, and moving to where we live now in St. Louis.

Trav:                What was the journey like from a cisheteronormative religious lifestyle to eventually coming out as trans and atheist?

Andy:              That’s interesting question to have coupled together: the sense of gender, of orientation, of religion. To me it always … I wouldn’t say one necessarily caused the other but they always informed each other. I knew from a very early age that I wasn’t … there’s always the narrative of the child who always knew, and I wasn’t the child who always knew what my gender was definitely, I wasn’t fighting for it, or I wasn’t like secretly longingly wearing men’s clothes when nobody was looking, not that kind of thing. But I do remember at a very early age, I’d say around seven, I remember wondering whether God could make mistakes, whether God mistakenly made me a girl. And then I remember thinking that must be sacrilegious. Of course God wouldn’t make mistakes, somebody would have told me, and honestly around the same time, that was when I wondered, how would a Bible written by humans that claimed to be inspired by God look different than a Bible actually inspired by God. Shouldn’t we be able to scrutinize this?

                        Then again it was like, all these adults have this all worked out. Surely, they would have told me, and I think there was definitely informing each other this notion of I can question this. No, wait. No, I can’t because I’m only seven. Everyone must have asked all these questions, and it was this skepticism that I pushed down until much later that I wish as a child I was allowed to question them both using the same tool sets that skeptics now call the skeptic tool kit. I wish those tools had been handed to me as a child, and they just were completely denied me.

My compromise I made with myself when I was a child, and that worked for some time was that if I just tried to be the best girl I knew how to be, then that would fix it because after all it was the nineties, and girl power. You can be all these things, and be a girl, and that shouldn’t be any obstacle. That worked in so far as it could work for a while. I mean, obviously, I’m all for gender equality and feminism as it pertains to me now, and as it pertains to all women, the liberation of women, but it didn’t fix me because that wasn’t my gender problem as it were. Around puberty was when I noticed that I was definitely attracted to multiple genders, too, and that was a thing I was a little more comfortable, and again, I have to thank the queer rights movement for that that I was not disgusted that that was something I was experiencing, but I had this notion. I didn’t have a gender but I had a sexuality that if I was a good enough Christian, and just diverted all my energy into men and boys that I could pray the bi was as it were, this whole “I could just be satisfied with this,” and I tempted to confide those feelings in a queer-friendly teacher I had in high school. Unfortunately, she shut me down because she said that her lesbian sister told her that there are no bi people, just confused people, which confused me more than anything else she could have said.
I can understand eternal damnation. I can understand somebody telling me that the things I’m feeling and experiencing aren’t happening, that I’m not feeling and experiencing that, and that was something that was repeated a lot among lesbians I knew in Warsaw, Indiana, this idea that bisexuals aren’t really bi. I kind of felt like even at the time I was aware that it was this reactionary thing, if you are hobbled away in a conservative town, you are going to cling to anything that you think might protect you, and that includes “Those bisexuals,” and those bi-stereotypes, you want distance from that so that we can get ours. I don’t really hold it against them but it was damaging to me. It did isolate from what could have been a community that I could have tapped into but then was denied access to.

As far as coming to terms with atheism I actually came out as bi first, and that was mostly … it was a weird feeling going to church at that point because it was I didn’t really believe that God would send me to Hell, but all … being there, and knowing that everyone around me thought I would if they knew. Because had only come out to a few people that I knew closely at that time like my mother, and it was deeply unsettling to me. But even that wasn’t enough to make me really question religion. I mean, at that point, I was so absorbed in it as being the truth that it wasn’t until I visited relatives in Italy for a couple of months and stepped outside of the church culture, outside of . . . I mean, America’s so conservative Christian. Just the institution for me is everything we do, and oddly enough, the people I was with in Italy were atheists. You’d think they are all Catholic; not necessarily. The funny thing about Italy is that they are really into horoscopes. Their morning news report involves like their daily weather report and their daily astrological horoscope report, and I was baffled.
I watched and I thought, “How can these people buy into this? It’s all made up,” and then I came back to the United States, and saw people doing the same thing. I’m like with TV and culture and pop everything basically permeated with this conservative, religious to the full extent of anti-science, end times in your politics, and it was such a culture shock at that point. I’d never gotten a chance to step out it for long enough to really think about what I thought of it. At that point, I got deeper into what is a logically consistent God. What’s a morally consistent God? Because I’d resigned myself to any God that was biblically consistent was all-powerful, and is in charge of this world in which such deep evil resides, such suffering and oppression, clearly was a God that was dictating everything at His whim was evil. I was also convinced that I was going to hell towards the end of my long, twisted spiritual journey. To finally step out of that was … thinking you are going to hell would even do, and that didn’t do it.
Finally stepping outside it was such a relief. I could think my own thoughts. I didn’t feel somebody was literally listening in on every single thing I thought anymore. That freed me up to do two things. It freed me up to go to college because I thought it was failure of faith to take active steps towards my own future instead of letting God direct it. It set me up to go to college, but it also really set me up to just reassess who I was, and that’s when I started looking online more and coming to terms with all these gender feelings I’d had, this always wondering whether I was really something else or trying to … I finally realized that cis people keep trying to find reasons for being the gender they are, and they don’t keep trying to find proof that they are one gender or the other. They don’t keep trying to find a trans narrative they can see themselves in, and eventually I had to say, “Look Andy, you can either spend the rest of your life going online, and taking the silly internet quizzes on which gender your brain really is,” which is real bullshit anyway. Or you could be like, “This isn’t something cis people do. You are just going to have to think back to what’s always made, what’s always made you happy, and that’s being a non-binary genderqueer person. That who you are.”

Finally telling everybody that has made me so comfortable in my own place in the world. The doubt, and the questioning, and the anxiety, and the … a hundred little things and it didn’t necessarily cure all my gender dysphoria. I still have a lot of it, but it made it make sense. It means that I can accurately look for tools that I can use to help me with my dysphoria. It’s given me ways to celebrate who I am that I never had access to before. It’s given me a word that doesn’t get enough play. It’s given me gender euphoria, and in the way that trying to live my life through the filter of “I need God to tell me what to do” was completely blocking me from being able to [inaudible 00:14:10], trying to live life from the perspective of being [inaudible 00:14:40] was blocking me from being [inaudible 00:14:43]. It hasn’t fixed all my problems either. I still work at a job that [inaudible 00:14:52] more.  My next step is to smash capitalism and then we can all be happy.

It’s definitely . . . my life is so much better now that [inaudible 00:15:03]. Are you okay if I tell you the story about when I met you?

November:      Okay.

Andy:              I met November … I’ll say that online community has picked up for me where Christian community completely dropped the ball. When I became an atheist, I almost immediately decided to go to college. I shortly thereafter decided to leave my husband of four years. I found a sense of agency that I never had before. I had a friend … I got laid off. I had a friend offer to help me to move to St. Louis. Once you come out as atheist in Warsaw, Indiana you might as well just go anywhere because no one’s there that really is interested in providing any social support that isn’t implicitly dependent on you at least paying lip service to their supernatural perspectives.

                        So I was at the time part of an online community called Atheist Nexus, and that’s where I met Beck, who helped me move here. Unfortunately, he no longer lives here, and that’s too bad. He did get me a great start, and I thank him tremendously for that. I met November online there as well. That was six years ago I believe, seven … I cannot keep track anymore. We weren’t really close but we always managed to stay in touch because we are cool people, and November tells me that they had a crush on me at the time. Would you say that’s accurate?

November:      I pretty much always did.

Andy:              I was still at the time being a very, I would say, flirtatious, trying to connect with womanhood in a sexual way. I had a lot of fans online at the time. It was definitely there performance oriented because I couldn’t connect with it in a way that was at all sexually satisfying to me. I thought why not at least have fan, gain followers, what have you through a idealized sexual performance that I could connect with others in terms of a celebration. Somebody liked the way I looked, somebody liked the way I acted. For me that was … you see it all the time with trans people. It’s when I joined the military there are a disproportionate number of transgender people in the military, and it’s not helping any of us go cis. It doesn’t work that way. Here was my hyper performance to femininity. It didn’t fix me because there was nothing to fix.
                        I had more followers than I could track of but I’m glad that November always kept in touch with me as we hopped over to Facebook and what have you. A few years ago, I was struggling with a sexual dysphoria, and on Genderqueer Atheists [a Facbook group], I posted one of those late night, “I’ve had enough. I just need to get this off my chest,” rants in this group that I considered to be a safe space that most of us hopefully consider to be a safe space. I posted something about “I’m so confused about what I want, about who I am sexually. Sometimes I just want to” insert very graphic descriptive, sexual scenario here, and then November commented basically, “Yes, I would love for you to do that for me,” and I had around the time figured finally that they’d been living in Warsaw the whole time I’d been not living in Warsaw. I was like, “Hey, I’m going to visit my family there soon. You want to meet up?” You were the sweetest thing because you were like, “Don’t get my hopes up if you are not going to do that because I’m serious.” I’m like, “I totally will.”

                        Then unfortunately at the time I had this straight cis boyfriend who was all scandalized I wanted to do this thing, and “How could you!”, and I’m “I guess we can meet up for lunch without the sex?” We met up, and I remember I asked you what pronouns you wanted me to use because I asked everybody that then, going to be talking about in third person for an extended amount of time. You said, “Oh, I don’t really care. I guess he is fine,” and you seemed so …

November:      I was confused by the question.

Andy:              Yeah, and I was “Okay.”

November:      It wasn’t a good answer.

Andy:              It wasn’t a good answer. I filed that away for future reference but generally speaking people that know what their gender are confused by my question. Yes, we met up. I thought you were a nice person. You seemed really shy, and I was worried because my at the time I think it was like six … he’s eight now. My son was being his hyperactive self all over the place, and spent most of the time being … “Would please stop putting your feet up on the wall on this fine dining establishment?” Picking fries off the floor, trying to sustain conversation with somebody that I was sure was having a horribly awkward because of all the chaos. I felt bad like, “Here’s this nice person that I have disappointed by not having a wild night to remember, and had this boring, chaotic lunch.” You were so quiet the whole time, and then you told me … did you want to say it? I feel like … just remembering when I said goodbye

November:      Yeah because I was stuck in Warsaw, and it’s Warsaw. It’s just a tiny town. It’s super conservative, in the middle of nowhere, and I didn’t want to say good-bye because then I’d be alone in Warsaw again. I tried to carry on the conversation as long as my awkward anxiety ridden self would allow.

Andy:              I was not sure whether I’d ever see you again. I thought that was nice but it is nice to meet people in person. You feel you have more of a connection when you talk online, and I think online relationships can be as real as in person relationships but my brain has this bias where, “Oh, those people real friends unless they come see you in person,” and I always fight against that because it doesn’t even make me happy. It doesn’t make anyone. It doesn’t serve anyone but it still was this thing that now we’ve met in person I felt I was a little closer. We stayed in touch over the next year, and I found myself in a spectacular situation that resulted in my boyfriend not living here anymore, and me suddenly filling a house that was empty, and was like, “Well, I could sure use a roommate,” because of my mental health. I was I don’t really want to live alone in this house, try to work full time, and come home to a … I love my child, but he’s not exactly … his interests are very different than mine. I’ll put it that way.
                        He’s into these kids horror games, like Five Nights of Freddie, and he’s an artist. I’m not an artist, and I abhor horror. I start asking around everybody, and this is last September by the way. I started asking around everybody … no August I should say because it was I got dumped the day that Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, which is a 20-minute drive from my house by the way. I was basically out of commission for days. I emerged from my super to find out the entire city is burning down around me figuratively, although with the burning in Ferguson literally. That was spectacular. I was asking all my friends around, “Hey, do you know any roommates?”
                        I was asking my friends, “Do you know of anyone who’d like to be my roommate, and I was looking at people’s posts trying to see if anyone was looking for a place, and November posted something about “I need to get out of Warsaw.” It was like, “If I’m not out of Warsaw by the end of this year, I’ll be dead. I’ll die here.” Something like that. It sounds dramatic but it was 100 percent honest [inaudible 00:26:17].

November:      I’m pretty sure that wasn’t in the post.

Andy:              I remember because it was really . . . we can’t look this up now because November’s no longer on Facebook . . . but it got my attention. I messaged you and I was, “Hey, so I got this roommate position,” and they were like, “Yeah, sure.” You were going through treatments at the time, right, for your anxiety that weren’t going to be completed until mid-September, I think.

November:      I was about to start them.

Andy:              They wanted to come visit. They came to visit during … they actually showed up just in time for my fifth tranniversary as it were. I had a small party at my house for the fifth anniversary of being openly genderqueer, and that was pretty special. I remember you still couldn’t answer the pronoun question at the time, and you showed up being a kind of shy person with your long toss of hair in your face, hiding away under giant tents of men’s clothes that no longer fit you. You still wear that way, and looking like you wanted to hide inside everything, away from everything but also looking like you are really glad to be here with me.

                        This is going to be corny, romantic, love smooshy stuff. I remember I looked up across to you, across the room at you, and your eyes met mine. It was one of those … those are the things that sound the bullshit made up for movies, our eyes met, and we exchanged a glance, and I remember thinking, “No, this person is going to be my roommate. That’s a serious violation of ethics. You can’t,” and I’m 100 percent on this, you can’t invite someone be your roommate and then throw in the surprise of, “Oh, but it’s contingent upon you satisfying this sexual, or relationship requirement.” And I was like, “Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to be the most perfect ethical chase person ever, and I’m not going to let on under any circumstance that I have all this mountain of feelings collapsing on me for this amazing person.” So the party was over, and they are spending the night here, and as soon as the last person has left, I waslike , “I’m going to go to bed,” and ran up the stairs and hide in my bedroom. I shut the door [inaudible 00:29:42] just happened. The next day, I was like, “I hoping to sell this person on that. I’m worth living with.

                        We went to a … first I had a volunteer shift for the [inaudible 00:29:58] things. We went to that. We went to the Science Center, and it’s a weird time for my son going through all this living situation turnover. He decides to throw the most fit of apparently demanding that he’s not happy with anything that’s happening at all forever, and he’s … I wouldn’t call it a tantrum. I try not to diminish the feelings of children just because they are children, but he definitely was having a huge fit about everything, from he didn’t like the sandwich to everything. I was like, “Oh no! I’m trying to convince this person to be my roommate, and my child is screaming, throwing a fit, and they are going to be roommates together, and this is the biggest deal breaker. Here goes my life.” And I’m just … my entire future is flashing before my eyes. “I’m never going to talk anyone into living with me. I’m going to be alone forever.” You know catastrophizing.

That’s to set everything up for in the evening we are hanging out, listening to Daft Punk because their entire Random Access Memories album is our song, and just sharing stories, and drinking, and laughing, and everything and then November finally say down in front of me on the futon, crossed-legged facing me and said, “This is really, really difficult for me to have to tell you this. I have anxiety so this is hard . . .” And I just started apologizing. I was apologizing for everything that happened that day. I was apologizing for anything I might have possibly done to him ever.

Then they finally stopped interrupting me and said, “No, no, no. I just wanted to ask you if we could cuddle.” I was like. “Oh my gosh!” Yeah, and it kind of a relief for me because I don’t have to pretend to not be attracted to you anymore. This is great. I kind always suspected. Between the not knowing how to answer the pronoun question, the way they used to addressed like I used to which was I’m just going to put these clothes on me because they are the bag that you put over your body so that you are in polite company. I mean, when I’m not told how to dress, which that was an abuse situation with my first husband. When I’m not how to dress I’m like, “Okay, I’ll throw on these shorts and this t-shirt, and maybe hide myself.” I spent my entire high school experience hiding under the same hoodie every day, with the hood up even just so nobody can see my body whatsoever.

That’s how November would dress, and was adamant that they only cut their hair once every other year but they just didn’t care what they wore. That they wore Christian clothes long after they were an atheist because it was clothes. Just the kind of disconnect between one’s presentation and one’s identity that I was familiar with. I’m seeing all these things. I’m like I didn’t want to presume this person is trans just because I am, and I correlate to those things, and because we’ve been in this group called Genderqueer Atheists forever, and they are really active. Because the group does allow cis people to join as long as they are centering the trans narratives and the discourse but I remember we were being . . . what euphemism should I go for? We were being intimate one day, and I called you by your old name, and you basically locked up and it was clearly painful for you to hear yourself being called that. I remember that’s when we decided that you were done trying to live that way.
And so from my perspective, I don’t want to speak for you, but it’s been a really positive experience of watching you have the space here to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t work that you wouldn’t have had living with your family and trying to live in conservative-bound Indiana

Trav:                That’s good. It’s glad you two met each other, and you two are actually engaged now, right?

Andy:              Yes. Yes we are. We do the whole marriage thing. It’s kind of a funny awkward thing for me to talk about marriage when like, on the one hand, you have a LGBT community that seems to put marriage as first and foremost, and its activism and use it as a fundraiser for advocacy orgs, and conservatives use it as a fundraiser for their anti-advocacy for their tax. Everybody’s like, “Look at this marriage, give us money.” It’s kind of hard to just feel I can say we are getting married in a room full of queers without wondering what that sounds like politically. I guess that’s funny that way. I’m not sure this is one of questions, too, but in terms of the recent marriage ruling, my experience with being married in the past was that the process was triggering to me because it was gendered, and having filled the forms, and having to go through all the stuff, and having the state tell you, like, make sure every step of the way that you are conforming to this cishetero role the whole time was not comfortable at all.

In terms of being a trans person, it’s a relief now that I don’t have to be gendered in order to access this thing that every other person has, most other people also have access to … I mean, there’s still various reasons that people can’t that married, including people who would have to choose between marriage and getting disability pay. We are fortunate to not be in that situation.

Trav:                Cool, cool. Since this podcast is about the intersection of secular humanism and social justice, how do you see secular humanism and social justice intersect for you two?

Andy:              I guess I wouldn’t really separate the two. To me it doesn’t really make sense to have something that is defined by humans, secular humanism, that basically says we create and develop our own morality, and then not develop our own morality, if that makes sense. I don’t see morality as the thing that happens within ourselves but as that happens in interaction between ourselves and others. That seems to necessitate social justice.

Trav:                All right. That’s about it for me. Where can people find you two online?

Andy:              Well, November’s on Twitter under Ember Assington, and that’s … you can probably look up the handle and copy it and whatever you do . . . @MayorOfAssington. I am on Twitter as well. I am actually under most places as AndyTehNerd, because I’m so clever, or was at the time when it comes to that, you know.  So, Twitter, BlogSpot, Facebook, everywhere is the same handle but Andy Selmer, too. Just do a quick Google search and see me all over the place. I’m the only one apparently.

Trav:                Well, that’s a good thing. Thanks again for joining me today guys.

Andy:              Thanks for listening to me ramble.

Trav:                One thing I forgot to mention in the intro is that November was really anxious about the interview and didn’t feel comfortable talking. Everyone agreed that Andy would do most of the talking during our discussion. Nevertheless, I want to thank Andy and November again for taking the time to talk to me. I want to thank Marvin for transcribing this episode. I want to thank Asher Silberman for designing the Bi Any Means logo. The music you heard throughout the episode was “Endurance” by Dream Youth. You can find more of their music on dreamyouth.bandcamp.com. If you like what you’ve heard consider becoming a Patreon on Patreon. Just go to www.patreon.com/tmamone and as always, you can go to www.bianymeans.com for more musings of a queer humanist. 

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