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10 March 2010, 2:00 pm 10 Comments

The Non Prophet: Sexthics, or Why I Can’t Go Tell it on the Mountain Top

This post was submitted by Chris

Mom, I know you’re reading this.

Don’t worry everyone – you can keep reading. This isn’t some syrupy son-to-mother ode about how much I love my mother and how wonderful she has been over the years, from helping me come to terms with my queer identity when I was a self-loathing Evangelical Christian to working multiple jobs to support my siblings and I. I’ve done that many times over and I needn’t embarrass her with yet another public account of my cloyingly clichéd “my mom is my hero” bit.

Instead, I’d like to embarrass her by talking about my sex life.

I’m kidding, Mom! But seriously The New Gay: as I peruse some of the delightfully raunchy content on this Website, I feel a little guilty for letting my mom know about my new writing gig.

Brokeback Mountain

Like the boys of Brokeback Mountain, Chris has his share of secrets.

But my feelings are more than just concern for my mom’s sensibilities, which is probably unfair overprotectedness anyway since she’s seen a lot. As I browse the colorful content of TNG, I experience a sensation akin to penis envy. This site is full of poetic ruminations on the private lives of queer folks (I’m calling you out, Andrew F), and I’m jealous of more than just their eloquence. I’ve got things to say about my so-called “private life,” too! (Though I should distinguish that such reports would differ in both style and content from the advertised exploits of the aforementioned ex-asexual. We can’t all be so deft and debaucherous.)

I’ve always had a mean confessional streak, which is probably part of what drew me to Evangelical Christianity at eleven years old. The idea that there was a strength that was often anything but quiet in getting in front of an audience and laying one’s sins out in the open for all to see appealed to both my desire to have all eyes on me and my very real feelings of woundedness. It made sense to me that openly declaring one’s imperfections was a way to achieve perfection.

The act of “testimony” is a staple of Charismatic faiths. Of course, there are plenty of things that are considered inappropriate to disclose by the community’s standards (see: Ted Haggard), and when such things do see the light of day, the perpetrator is often cast out unless they seek forgiveness, and even then this is sometimes not enough (see: Ted Haggard).

At times I fear a comparable excommunication in respect to my work as an interfaith dialogue facilitator. I feel constricted by more than just my mother’s eyes when it comes to my public writing. I’d love to be as confessional as some TNG contributors when it comes to the dirty details of my life, but I worry about being haunted by the specter of immodesty in my professional career. I’m afraid to alienate. The fact of the matter is that I work with religious communities on a regular basis that could condemn the fruits of my lifestyle.

Does this make me the Larry Craig of TNG, acting in the shadows and unable to express myself fully for fear of constituent discontent? An ex-boyfriend of mine who is familiar with my work as of late recently accused me of “pandering” too often. I resisted his critique, but I have to admit he’s planted a seed of doubt in me.

My concerns about selective sharing and audience awareness grow out of more than just my desire to air all of my dirty laundry. I find myself in a bit of an ethical dilemma at times – a part of me resists the kind of life where my participation in communities of particularity is contingent upon acting apologetic for things I am not sorry for.

My solution to this quandry? Understanding discretion as an ethical act of empathy.

kids

Chris hopes this heartwarming photo of him working with kids in a church will compensate for the other 99 percent of his tagged Facebook pictures.

It is important to me not cut myself off from specific communities because of a selfish desire to “tell it all.” I don’t think such disclosure is always necessary or even helpful. In fact, I’m tempted to term that yearning exhibitionism (more on this in a minute). And so I trade my instinct to divulge my indiscretions for sense of discretion.

These questions of how much of and in what ways I share myself come up in various arenas of my life. In one of my Spiritual Direction courses I’ve found myself discussing sexual ethics with a Catholic Priest from India the morning after a late night out when suddenly I pause mid-sentence and ask myself: “Is what I’m sharing appropriate? How is he reacting to this?” On another occasion, I am leading an interfaith dialogue workshop when I begin to wonder, “Is this a safe space for me to make my queer identity known? Who do I risk alienating if I do?” Self-awareness and empathy can be fucking annoying bedmates sometimes but if I want relationships of respect and compassion they’re helpful allies.

And yet for all my talk of ethical discretion I have to acknowledge my longing to indulge my lean toward revelation. There is still a sizable yearning in me to be a prophetic voice in the world (messiah complex, anyone?). A part of me wants to run to the nearest church and shout: “Does my lifestyle make you uncomfortable? Well get the fuck over it!” Like Jesus totally knocking over a bunch shit in Herod’s temple or, if I’m a bit more honest, the Big Bad Wolf come to blow your house down, I’ve a stormy inclination to rabble and rouse.

But I also know from experience and observation that aggressive pre-emptive strike is not always the most productive move. Asking others to accommodate me without being willing to be sensitive to their sensibilities doesn’t engender dialogue – it’s elitist.

That means I’ve also had to learn the hard lesson of making my writing more accessible. This fall I had the opportunity to write an editorial for the Washington Post’s “On Faith.” Before submitting it I had a co-worker at the Interfaith Youth Core look it over. Her response was gently critical, and can be essentially boiled down to: “dumb it down, Chris.”

But I also don’t think that means I’m pandering or being “comfortably dumb.” These days I’m trying to avoid injecting haughty intellectualist references into my work because, again, my hope is that it will reach a wider audience.

If I’ve developed a bit of an anti-intellectualist streak, it’s not merely an organic product of my roots – when I met a fellow Minnesota native at a recent party and identified my hometown, she responded with “Oh yeah, the place where every other thirteen year old girl is pregnant!” – it’s the fault of the institutions themselves. I decided against enrolling at some top Religious Studies programs and opted to do my Master of Arts in Religion at a “humble” seminary precisely because I believe that academia is, by very definition, exclusive. And many churches (in theory) invite all to full participation and authority.

Does that mean I deny academic rigor? Of course not. I enjoy a good challenge (you hear that, Andrew F?). But I think larger conversations that only incorporate particular worldviews or, when they account for others only report on them secondhand, lack a flavor that I desire.

The Secret

Hey Oprah, could you promote my writing on secrets, too?

I recognize that I’m contradicting myself here. I can hear it now: “He wants to include every perspective but, by denying part of himself, isn’t he not including his own?”

Again, I turn to an ethic of empathic discretion. I want to foster a culture of religious pluralism, and that is a process that doesn’t occur overnight. If I alienate some folks before allowing them to hear my stories and share their own, there is the possibility that neither of us will give the other the time to develop a relationship. I don’t want to be written off before I have the opportunity to be known, and if that means I’m repressing myself, so be it. My desire to “tell it all” is not as strong as my hope to cultivate a space that is safe for everyone to share her or his story. I’m here and I may be queer, but I don’t necessarily expect everyone to get used to it – not right away, at least. First comes community, then prophecy.

Just as there is a certain arrogance symptomatic of insular ivory tower academia, the idea that others should have to accommodate all of me and all of my experiences in each and every context strikes me as self-important. I think in some ways social media is fostering an environment in which we expect that every intimate detail of our life is newsworthy. As great as the democratization of media has been, I’m starting to wonder if everyone really needs to know what I did last night (and in case you were wondering, Mom, I was at home.) The cultural notion that a little bit of mystery goes a long way may be eroding out from under us, replaced instead with a deep-seated hunger for exposure, but I’m trying to resist.

This personal move away from TMZ-style self-disclosure toward an ethic of empathic discretion couldn’t be timelier: my thesis on narrative and new media is due this week. Please don’t ask how much I have left to write for it; I’ll keep that information to myself, thank you.

It’s also borne fruit in my personal life. After years of swearing up and down that I never would, I recently decided it was time to cave and be Facebook friends with my mom. For one, the privacy settings will keep her from seeing most pictures in which I’m tagged (thanks for taking a disproportionate number of party pictures, college friends). But I’m also coming to a point in my life where I feel that I don’t wish to hide as much of my lifestyle from the people with whom I share my deepest bonds.

The beautiful irony of the situation is that she rejected my friendship request. My mom has clued me in to the fact that she follows my blog, reads this column, listens to my radio roundtables, reads my work in Jettison Quarterly, and keeps tabs on my public work for Interfaith Youth Core, yet she will not have me as a Facebook friend.

My guess – she doesn’t want to know what my Facebook, a collective forum for public content, contains. She trusts me to share what I think is relevant, appropriate, and life-giving in the context of our relationship.

So Mom, I think I’m glad we’re not Facebook friends. I’m happy to fill you in on my life as I deem fit. And in case you’re wondering, I haven’t made out with another boy since you caught me hickey-necked on New Year’s Day in high school – I swear to god.

Chris’ column, The Non Prophet, runs Wednesdays at 2 PM. For more on Chris, visit his website.


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10 Comments »

  • LathamOwen said:

    Can I suggest that an investigation into the notion of visibility is missing from this? I understand its a beginning and you are working through these things, which is brave and exciting, but also it is important to remember that invisibility is not an option for many people, that being defaulted to heterosexuality by others who “read” you could also be considered a privelege, an elitism even.
    FYI I’m a big fan of the work you’ve committed yourself to. It’s so important.

  • michael said:

    A few thoughts.

    First, it strikes me as odd that you feel the pressure (or at least appear so) to be more explicit about your erotic adventures in your writing for this site. But since you write a column on spirituality and inter-faith stuff, that’s not really all that appropriate, right? Parts of this post sound a bit like an unsolicited denial. (What’s the expression? There’s no stronger affirmation than an unsolicited denial?)

    Second, this reminds me a bit of my thoughts about being out at the workplace. You spend a lot of time with people with whom you might not have anything in common with, why not use that opportunity to shape some minds? In your case, you are going out of your way to make relationships with “the other” (at least from a religious perspective) in your work and studies, and I really hope that you do eventually take advantage of the educational opportunity that such access can provide. Of course, you have to gain access first, and shoving your queerness in their faces up front will slam that door shut for many. So on that part, I agree with you.

    Third, I think LathamOwen has raised an interesting point, that we the queer minority have the luxury of being presumed straight. Is there anything you an do to raise questions of queerness in people you interact with without being totally in their face?

    Finally, I’m looking forward to a post from you called “hot for preacher” about a celibate romance with one of your classmates.

  • chris (author) said:

    Michael: You caught me red-handed! This was totally unsolicited, provoked merely by the jealousy I experience in reading such columns and feeling unable to speak as freely myself for fear my name might get googled by god-knows-who. I can be such a self-made martyr when left unchecked, so thanks for calling me out. Besides, didn’t I say in this post that I’m something of an exhibitionist at heart? Ha.

    RE: Your comments on being out – I’m out among all my peers at IFYC and in most other venues, and very out on my blog (which, of course, specifically deals with a lot of the same things this column does). In my first column for TNG, I highlighted an incident in which an IFYC co-worker revealed I was the first queer person she had been able to get to know. I guess in this post I was speaking more specifically of leading an interfaith dialogue training, where I am a total stranger to a diverse crowd of people and speaking on a sometimes tense subject, or of being in a leadership position in interfaith activist circles. I agree with your comments on taking advantage of the “openings” I have, and I do when I get them.

    And Latham’s comments are spot on, and are another thing I spend a good amount of time thinking about. His critique is a good one, and is something I’ll continue to play with.

    RE: “Hot for Preacher” – If I ever write a memoir… (returning to my exhibitionist roots.)

  • g said:

    Does this make me the Larry Craig of TNG

    well, in the photo you do have a very wide stance… that said, nice jeans…

    i like the way yr understanding yr sexuality (however its defined) and yr faith (however that’s defined) as interrelated… i’m not sure (and if i don’t watch out andrew f is gonna call be a foucault fanboy) if you’ve read foucault’s three volume history of sexuality – he links the need to disclose of psychiatry with confessional practices in the first volume, but in the last two he looks at the concept of ethics – how do we develop an ethics that is aware of itself, critical of itself at the same time and maybe that’s what yr heading towards… not a black or white understanding of what you must appear to be, but a contemplation of what kinds of relationships are created, what kinds of talk produced when you declare this or don’t declare that…

    that said, a radical commitment to self honesty is, i think, the best start… strip back the layers, pull down the underwear…. wait, sorry… too much declarations…

  • Alice said:

    This article made me delighted that someone shares some of my views.
    Unfortunately my very out friends find it offensive.

  • Jon said:

    I just saw a wonderful quote said by Abraham Lincoln, and I thought it perfectly reinforced your ethic of empathic discretion. I couldn’t agree more.

    “If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great high road to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one.

    On the contrary, assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart; and tho’ your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and tho’ you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall no more be able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.”

  • chris (author) said:

    That’s so great. I’m actually going to use that… thanks!

  • SSA Summit Day One: Service, Collaboration, and Lessons from Queers « NonProphet Status said:

    [...] Shelley Mountjoy, Founder and President of the Secular Student Alliance at George Mason University, gave a helpful presentation on how to present yourself publicly if you’re in a position of leadership. She asked attendees to consider the image presented by one’s presence in social networking forums. Asked Mountjoy: “Are you living your values? Before you an think about the image you’re conveying, think about the person that you are, about your actions and how they can be interpreted.” This is something I’ve done a lot of thinking about. As someone who has taken on a public voice through this blog, speaking engagements, the workshops I lead, and so on, I’ve considered the kind of image I’m presenting on Facebook and other websites. My Twitter account is linked to this blog – when I tweet about going to a bar called “Whiskeys,” how is that being interpreted? I guess there’s only so much I can do. Those who truly know me know my lifestyle; others can only imagine. Still, I want to take stock of my priorities, discern what of me is most important to advertise, and employ discretion. [...]

  • Mimi said:

    Dear Chris, Thank you so much for sharing these reflections. I have been having a somewhat similar debate recently about my own personal/ activist/ professional lives and the amount of crossover/ disclosure I want them to contain. Even as I write this, I’m thinking, “If I make this post anonymous, I could be more blatant…” But the truth is that when I write, blog, converse online, I’m not here to tell-all about my personal history and identity. I’m here to share what I think, feel and experience.

    But sometimes I feel that knowledge and actions backed by an explicitly told “personal story” are the most valued, most legit forms of knowledge and actions. How can I keep my personal life personal, and still be a legitimate and valid voice in my activist and professional capacities?

    I’m going to think more about your idea of the ethic of empathetic discretion. I like where you’re coming from, and I’m really inspired by your writing. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic.

  • Krystle said:

    Hey! This is my first comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and say I
    truly enjoy reading your articles. Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that deal with
    the same subjects? Appreciate it!

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