Whose Safety?

In response to the rapid spread of recommendations to mask up last week, I ran errands this weekend with my face covered. Because my partner has multiple risk factors for COVID-19, the masks we haven’t donated are reserved in case I get sick, in the hope that if we both wear them we’ll raise the chances of her survival. So I pulled out a bandana to take with me. I felt awkward putting it on in the parking lot of the first store, where clearly no one else was covered, but as I stared at my face in the rear-view mirror of my car, the white skin of my forehead showing above my dark sunglasses and blue bandana, I thought about the added danger this new recommendation would impose on the lives of my friends, colleagues, family members, and students of color.

As I went from store to store (it was the first of the month, so there were more necessary stops than usual), I was intrigued by the fact that who was covered traced out lines of both race and class in the communities around me. The store with the largest number of masked shoppers? Trader Joe’s, followed closely by our local organic chain, Sprouts. The one with the smallest number? Lowe’s, and the feed store that serves local agricultural businesses and livestock owners.

Over the past few days, I’ve continued to worry over the disproportionate impact of these newest policies. I thought about the Sikh man I knew in grad school who swapped his turban for a bandana in the days after the September 11 attacks. I thought of the women who took off their hijabs, and the ones who didn’t. I thought of the violence against Sikhs, Muslims, and other people of color in those days of heightened fear, of the Native woman who was told to go back where she came from. I’m hardly alone, of course – most of my friends, colleagues, family members, and students have been worrying about these things too. There’s been important and insightful coverage on racial, regional, and class disparities from leading news organizations and the critically important independents, and invaluable webinars like those organized by the African American Policy Forum. Now, though, two more developments are making those inequities even starker in Southern California.

First, on Monday, Los Angeles County asked all residents not to go out at all for two weeks. For how many weeks now have we been shaming people who stockpile food and supplies? “Just get enough for one week” has been the message, as YouTube videos go viral showing working-class white women and women of color fighting each other for toilet paper. Although many of the stockpilers are likely to be the ones who are now comfortably tucked into well-appointed apartments and houses behind gates and doormen, with six weeks of food that they could afford to buy all at once, the stereotype of the stockpiler immediately became female and poor. And now, what are people to do who followed the rules? What about those who still – or newly – can barely pay for a few days of food, much less two weeks’ worth? Now the people who dug into their savings to stockpile look like the smart ones – but watch closely to see if anyone admits that.

Second, yesterday San Bernardino County, which borders where I live and work, mandated the use of face coverings in public and made the failure to wear a covering a crime. Worse yet, they recommended that people avoid using surgical and N95 masks, so as (rightly) to leave those for healthcare workers, but instead use a bandana, a neck gaiter pulled up over the nose and mouth…in essence, every face covering that, when combined with dark skin, taps into the American stereotype of “criminal” that’s been woven so tightly into the mainstream culture by film and television industries that have made fortunes since their inception on boxing people of color into demeaning stereotypes. Other governments in the region, including the City of Los Angeles and Riverside County itself, have moved in a similar direction. In Riverside County, there’s one key difference: A pledge from the County Sheriff and from numerous city chiefs of police not to issue citations to people violating the order.

What precisely, I wonder, do the people making these policies expect people of color to do in these situations? People have already been having to choose between safety from the virus and safety from the people around them when they decide whether to go outside with their faces covered. Now those same decisions come with the threat of social opprobrium for wearing a medical mask, the threat of social violence for wearing another form of facial covering, and the threat of a $1,000 fine – in communities that were already suffering from poverty and now are facing massive unemployment – or up to 90 days in jail in communities already disproportionately incarcerated and at a time when states are frantically trying to reduce their overcrowded prison populations. Jailed if you do, jailed if you don’t.

Someone has surely already joked that at least niqabi Muslims are ahead of the game. In the mode of bitter irony, it perhaps feels like a bit of poetic justice to think that women who’ve been harassed, insulted, and assaulted for years in the U.S. based on their choice of covering can be cast at last as trend setters, but it’s tragically certain that niqabis will see no lessening of the violence against them in the coming days. A mainstream culture that can revere veiled nuns and decry veiled Muslims in the same breath will have no problem valorizing white folks with our faces covered and making everyone else’s life hell. All coverings are not equal in this system – nor are all government mandates that criminalize someone’s failure to cover her face.

As the carceral reins in the U.S. tighten over this pandemic, we’ve already lost the repeatedly hard-won right to free assembly. We can’t push back against the criminalization of bare faces by gathering in front of government offices with slogans and signs. Now more than ever, it’s obvious why justice always needs all kinds of activists. We can protest by writing to the county, by writing to our representatives, by sending and posting videos, by writing op-eds, by recording stories for the radio, by writing blogs, by posting and sharing on social media, by…what creative protest will you engage in?

Whose safety are our leaders really protecting, when they should be protecting the most vulnerable? What will you do about it?

On Complicity

Maybe we can’t choose whether or not to be complicit with certain forms of power. Maybe we can only choose which complicities we’re willing to live with.

I’ve been thinking about complicity a lot recently, but in some ways I’ve been thinking about it since I first took a position at a private school. My commitments already lay with public education, but no public schools were offering to hire me, so I figured out how to keep using higher education as a tool for social justice while teaching at a private institution. I figured out how to live with a certain form of complicity for the sake of pursuing the larger goal of social justice through education.

Several months ago, public theologian Robyn Henderson-Espinoza commented in a Facebook post about resisting the complicities of academic institutions while still having to grapple with capitalist complicities. After all, one way to support public intellectual work without a full-time position in corporate academia is through crowd-funding, which relies on other corporate entities – including the credit card companies that make it possible for people to donate through such sites.

I’ve chosen the very complicity that Henderson-Espinoza resists: complicity with an increasingly corporate, neoliberal system of higher education. Like many corporate employees, I work for an institution that is relentlessly squeezing more and more production out of fewer and fewer people. Class sizes are going up; faculty and departments are judged more on literal quantity (How many majors? How many articles? How many books?) than on quality; staff are burdened with carrying out more and more tasks for more and more departments and programs; what they can no longer manage to cover falls to faculty to get done. It’s easy to be drawn into this system of value-added assessments and strive mightily to exceed expectations, as though not just our opportunities to do the work we care about or to pay the bills but our very worth depends on how such a system assigns value to us.

When I look back over my life, will I care exactly how many articles I published or precisely which point in the University of California’s seductive “step” ranking system I reached before retirement? I hope not. I hope that I’ll care that I made a difference, that what I did in my life changed something for the better, somewhere, for someone. I work toward these goals in many ways, but one of the most important of these is teaching. I still believe that education can change the world; I still believe that teaching can be a critically important form of activism. My gospel was written by scholar-activists like Paolo Freire and bell hooks.

To be a teacher who can reach under-served students with the kind of education I have to offer, I pretty much have to be at some kind of school. To offer not only education but the kind of degree that will open more doors for my students in a racist, classist, ableist, heteropatriarchal, settler colonial society that masquerades as a meritocracy, I have to be at an accredited school. And so I choose complicity. To make the kind of difference I want to make, I choose to work at a corporate, neoliberal, state-controlled institution. To me, that tradeoff is worthwhile. To others, it isn’t. I think both choices are valid, important, and worthwhile.

Do we really have to accept complicity? Are we stuck with the lesser of evils? I think so. I do believe that we need a vision, a goal, a utopian ideal in order to keep questioning. I think it’s critical that we be aware of our complicities, that we always choose them carefully and perhaps reluctantly and work to mitigate their effects. But I think that insisting on a total refusal of all complicity is impractical; it borders on a kind of activist purism that risks drawing all of our attention to scrutinizing ourselves and each other rather than forging ahead with imperfect movements that can nevertheless make important changes in people’s everyday lives.

In one of her most accessible and teachable articles, Judith Butler remarks that “there are nuanced and individual ways of doing one’s gender, but that one does it, and that one does it in accord with certain sanctions and proscriptions, is clearly not a fully individual matter.”[1] Gender presentation, in other words, is complicit with existing gendered and sexed (and heterosexed) structures of power. But that complicity isn’t total; if it were, then trans and genderqueer and non-binary folks wouldn’t exist, or would exist only within tight constraints. Butler may see power as all-encompassing, but she sees possibilities for resistance from within such systems even as she refuses the possibility of resistance from without simply because there is, for her, no outside to power. Complicity is a necessary evil in such a world, but it doesn’t foreclose the possibility of disrupting the system from within. The trick, then, is not to find a pure space free of all complicity, but to choose one’s complicities carefully, with both an awareness of the harms inherent in them and an eye to where and how they can best be subverted.

What are your complicities? What do they allow you to accomplish? What subversions are possible from within them? Is this constellation of subversions and complicities the right one for your priorities, your values, your vulnerabilities? Perhaps these are the questions we should all be asking of ourselves.


Image from Philosophers for Change: https://philosophersforchange.org/2016/02/09/capitalism-and-the-efficacy-of-education-reform/

[1] Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” in Carole R. McCann and Seung-Kyung Kim, eds., Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2013), 468 (italics in original).

Social Media as Vigilante Justice

Content notice: Sexual assault and domestic violence; no explicit detail

Like many survivors of sexual assault, I watched Harvey Weinstein’s downfall with both horror at the widespread abuses and satisfaction at the fact that just one serial predator whose victims have been actively silenced had finally had his comeuppance. Like many of us, I know of too many others whose victims remain silenced, and I worry that those who have assaulted me – none of whom it was possible to bring to justice – have since gone on to assault others. Perhaps especially under a president who bragged publicly about assaulting women and won an election for his pains, the response to Weinstein and then to other men who’ve been accused of similar attacks is noteworthy.

But the firestorm over sexual assault has also been worrying me. Even though I write a blog, I’m like most people who choose the academic life: I prefer to mull things over for a while, testing my immediate reactions against the observations of colleagues and trying to translate them into clearer explanations of my concerns. So I’ve been sitting with these worries for the past several weeks until they could crystallize. What’s become clear to me is that I’m worried we’re seeing a social media version of vigilante justice.

I can’t look at the recent uproar over sexual assault without my own experiences in mind. I’m a survivor of multiple sexual assaults, none of whose perpetrators were ever even accused, none of which could likely have been prosecuted in court, and all of which rest on my word alone against that of the perpetrator. As a domestic violence survivor whose friends and colleagues believed the abuser’s accusations of neglect and abandonment and never even bothered to ask me for my side of the story, I am also the survivor of a kind of vigilante justice in which the wrong person was accepted as the victim while the real perpetrator walked away with everything. A lot of what’s been happening around sexual assault issues recently feels encouraging and empowering; a lot of what’s been happening feels like vigilante justice. A lot feels like both at the same time, and I’m not sure what to do with that.

Part of the reason for the vigilante justice is that sexual assault survivors of all genders have historically been silenced through shame, coercion, even paternalistic protectionism. Another part of the reason is that charges of sexual assault are notoriously difficult to prosecute. Those situations must change, not only because victims deserve justice but because the accused, no matter how nefarious their alleged crimes, deserve due process – the real kind, not the kind where those in power get away with murder and the victims are the ones who have to live with shame and scorn for the rest of their lives. Vigilante justice over social media may be the only option right now, but it isn’t a good one. We have to do better, as activists and as a society.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about the patterns here. On the one hand, this current list from Time (content note: there are some explicit tweets in this article) shows a lot of powerful white men who’ve been publicly accused in the past month or so of sexual assault, or whose past history of disciplinary action for sexual assault has been publicly revealed. On the other hand, the actual consequences for those accused have varied widely. Take Roy Moore, who’s taking his turn in the accusatory spotlight right now. Granted, he can’t exactly be fired as an election candidate, but he could be subjected to such intense behind-the-scenes pressure that he would step down. Clearly that hasn’t been a priority for the Republican leadership. Weinstein, on the other hand, went down in flames. Of course, this difference in response could be due to many factors, but I find it suspicious that the case that started the whole media firestorm involved a Jewish man.

Then there’s Kevin Spacey. Accused by a white man of assaulting him at the age of 14, Spacey replied with horror and with a statement that he had no memory of the incident. Strikingly, he did not deny it. If he’s telling the truth that he doesn’t remember assaulting Anthony Rapp, then Spacey chose to accept the word of his apparent victim without demanding evidence – exactly what many of us who fight against rape culture have been advocating. Spacey was then summarily stripped of most of his current contracts. Can we afford to refuse to think critically about the fact that two of the most high-profile cases in this apparent triumph of sexual assault survivors involved a Jewish man and a gay man who were accused of assaulting white women and white male children, respectively, and were then punished without trial, mostly by other white men? Brave white men saving vulnerable (but valuable) white women and children from the perverted assaults of the Other. Even if both are guilty, how far are we really from Leo Frank?

Real due process is the solution to this problem. But due process is notoriously difficult to achieve in cases of sexual assault and domestic violence, especially when the people adjudicating the case have their own histories and live in a society dominated by rape culture and by very narrow ideas about who “counts,” who’s legible, as a victim and as a perpetrator. How does one balance a commitment to justice for victims – and to believing victims even in the absence of witnesses or evidence that would hold up in court – with a commitment to justice for all people and an awareness of the U.S. history of anti-Semitic, racist, anti-immigrant, and homophobic vigilante justice excused by the drive to “protect the innocent”? I’m struggling to find an acceptable answer to this question. I hope this post inspires you to struggle along with me.


Post(card)s from LGBTQ Eastern Europe: Poznań, Poland

Over the past week and a half, I’ve had the honor and privilege of traveling to several Eastern European countries to meet with people who are involved in religiously-themed queer protest art. They have generously made time to meet with me, shared meals and insights, introduced me to their friends and collaborators, showed me around their cities, and generally helped me to understand the cultural, political, and religious contexts of their work. Although this trip is part of a larger project, a follow-up to Queer Nuns and an initial foray into sorting out the focus of my next book project, here I offer a bit of an academic travelogue in order to share some of what I’m learning and to bring more attention to the exciting work these folks are doing. There are four post(card)s, one for each city in which I conducted research: Bucharest, Romania; Odessa, Ukraine; Prague, Czech Republic; and Poznań, Poland.

Poznań is a thriving smaller city of around 500,000 people whose architecture tells a complicated story of changing leadership and warfare. In the nineteenth century it was actively colonized by Prussia, along with surrounding areas in western Poland. The Prussian government intentionally moved not only government agents but everyday Prussians – possibly including some of my own ancestors – to the area in order to make it more “German.” Architecture from that time reflects both German aesthetics and a certain German nostalgia: ornately decorated apartment buildings on one block give way on another to nineteenth-century versions of half-timbered construction. Polish resistance to the colonization seems to have been slow and steady, and when Poznań’s new International Trade Fair attracted several million visitors in 1929, shortly after Poland had been reunified, a massive building boom reflected not only broader developments in art deco design but also uniquely Polish design elements, some of which I’m told are unique to Poznań.

I was charmed, the first morning of my stay here, by what appeared to be sixteenth- or seventeenth-century buildings clustered shoulder to shoulder around a church in the old town square (pictured above). Later that day, I learned that the entire square is a mid-twentieth century reconstruction: Poznań, not only strategically located but considered by the Third Reich to be stolen territory, was a major target during the Second World War, and its entire town square was destroyed. Restoring it seems, in the telling of my new friends Piotr and Paweł, to have been the act of a people seeking a renewed sense of hope – and interestingly in this regard, Poznań was also the scene of one of the earliest salvos in the Polish resistance to communism. A monument in the city attests to this history.

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Poland is noticeably religious, and due to its restrictive policy on immigration and the legacy of the Holocaust it’s also fairly religiously monolithic. Still, having begun my journey in Bucharest, I found religion far less obviously present here than I might otherwise have expected. It might be more relevant to say that Poland is quite conservative and, as also stood out to me in Romania, that conservatism is bolstered by a dominant religion that is for all intents and purposes a state church.

Religions enjoy certain protections and privileges in Poland, but they must be officially registered with the state to benefit from these. And while all religions have an equal right to registration in theory, in fact my conversations indicate that officials find ways to avoid registering religions of which they disapprove. Paweł, who was my host and guide during my time here, explained that one group whose members are challenging the national government to live up to its constitutional commitments regarding religion are the Pastafarians, also known as the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Pastafarians have been responsible for important developments in Europe regarding minority religious rights; in 2011, for instance, a Pastafarian in Austria won the right to wear a colander on his head for his driver’s license photo, thus easing the way for other religions whose adherents cover their heads in some way. Pastafarians in Poland work with a lawyer who defends their religious rights and is helping them to work toward registration. Currently, however, they seem to be stuck in a cycle wherein an official refuses their application, they sue, the court rules that they must be allowed to register, and then a new official takes office and the process restarts. The Ecumenical Catholic Communion, an LGBT-inclusive church that also ordains women, is facing similar challenges: every application they submit for registration turns out to have some sort of technical “error” and is denied on this technicality. Leaders of NARTH, on the other hand – a religiously conservative promoter of homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic pseudoscience – receive a warm welcome and an attentive ear as “American professors,” and I’m told that protestors who named disgraced homophobic psychologist Paul Cameron a “pseudoscientist” were charged with slander and fined.

Much has been made in the press and the academy of Poland’s blasphemy law, Article 196, so I was interested to hear the activists with whom I spoke downplay its force. Although one called it a “dead law,” it’s clearly still in use – but in ways that may allow the government to walk a line between harassing religious dissenters and avoiding charges in the European Court of Human Rights. Complaints of religious offense, which must be brought by private citizens under this law, are frequently dismissed by the courts, and when not dismissed they typically result in a fine and not in jail time. Nevertheless, those who are in any way vulnerable and especially those without easy access to legal advice and representation can quickly be deterred or silenced by the experience or the threat of being accused and having to appear in court even when the charges are subsequently dropped. This is exactly what happened in 2016 to a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, now a former Sister, who lives here but who was apparently unwilling or unable to meet with me: he stopped answering phone calls from Paweł shortly before my arrival in Poznań. Paweł, experienced in both LGBT activism and activism for religious rights, and with access to experienced legal assistance through the Pastafarians, is more phlegmatic about these concerns, and is close to becoming a fully professed Sister; he hopes to start the first house of the Sisters in Poland. In Poznań he believes he has the right city for such a house; it is, he and others claim, the most liberal city in Poland, with a mayor who’s marched in the pride parade each year since his election three years ago and a parade which saw no counter-protestors last year, only a week of homophobic and transphobic prayer vigils prior to pride week. Many cities in the U.S. should be so lucky.

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Speaking with activists in Poznań gave me food for thought in several ways. It made me consider the fact that I’ve never heard a discussion in the U.S. of any European population as the victim of settler colonialism rather than the perpetrator, and made me wonder whether there’s anything to be learned from such a discussion. It challenged the image I had – indeed, the image I think many Westerners have – of Poland, since I spent most of my time with a Poznań-born Pastafarian and novice Sister of Perpetual Indulgence who rides a bike decorated in rainbows all year round, in the midst of the whirlwind of an incredibly packed pride week that relies on the support of around a hundred volunteers, and ended my day in a crowded theater watching a docudrama about Tom of Finland.

I’d been particularly interested in meeting with Sisters in Poland because of Article 196 and the rumors that had reached the U.S. of a Sister “being arrested for blasphemy.” My time with activists in Poznań offered me a more complex view of this law, and indeed of human rights concerns in Poland more broadly. In a country where same-sex eroticism was never criminalized, sexual discipline has been left up to vigilantism while government officials look the other way. In a country that has a blasphemy law that seems questionable, at the very least, in an E.U. member state, identification of perpetrators relies primarily on citizen accusers. Religious discrimination thus travels from the general populace into the courts via this system; while the courts may throw out many cases and may keep the punishments minimal (minimal to people with economic stability, that is) in cases that do result in a conviction, the structure of the law ensures a high likelihood that it will serve in practice to target dissenters and minorities. This observation is in no way meant to suggest that there are better ways of having blasphemy laws, by the way, but only to notice the interesting way in which the Polish state manages to create the appearance of keeping its hands clean while enabling the tyranny of the majority to access the penal system. Whether such a system can be subverted in the absence of an ability to change or undo it remains, I think, an open question – but a question that’s certainly timely for both Pastafarians and Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

As I head off to Vienna for the Queering Paradigms VIII conference, built this year around the theme of “Fucking Solidarity” and the specific context of Western attempts at solidarity with LGBTQ Russians (see http://qp8.univie.ac.at/), I bring with me more questions than answers – and this is just how I like things to be. A new academic year looms in the immediate future, which always feels to me like floating in a tiny canoe toward a massive waterfall. I’ll check in again from the pool at the bottom, once I manage to resurface. In the meantime, from the Frankfurt airport – Tschüss!


Post(card)s from LGBTQ Eastern Europe: Prague, Czech Republic

Over the past week and a half, I’ve had the honor and privilege of traveling to several Eastern European countries to meet with people who are involved in religiously-themed queer protest art. They have generously made time to meet with me, shared meals and insights, introduced me to their friends and collaborators, showed me around their cities, and generally helped me to understand the cultural, political, and religious contexts of their work. Although this trip is part of a larger project, a follow-up to Queer Nuns and an initial foray into sorting out the focus of my next book project, here I offer a bit of an academic travelogue in order to share some of what I’m learning and to bring more attention to the exciting work these folks are doing. There are four post(card)s, one for each city in which I conducted research: Bucharest, Romania; Odessa, Ukraine; Prague, Czech Republic; and Poznań, Poland.

The differences between Prague and the previous two cities I’d visited were clearly evident even on the drive from the airport. First of all, here it had been a viable option for me to take public transit from the airport; I’d chosen not to do so because it would have required several transfers or a fairly lengthy walk with a suitcase over cobbled sidewalks, and I was coming in a bit late and meeting someone. Second, while the region around most airports is generally either industrial or economically depressed, in Prague the drive took us quite quickly into areas with well-maintained buildings and recently-mown parks. In the daylight, I was awed by both the historic beauty of the city and the extent of the renovations in the areas where I traveled. Graceful eighteenth-century apartment buildings that reminded me of Paris were impeccably stuccoed and painted in the colorful pastels I’ve seen in paintings from the era. Trams and trains rolled by regularly, and the cars in the street were mostly mid-range to high-end models in good repair. As I walked to the old town to look around (I can’t resist touring old religious buildings, and Prague has some beautiful ones), I noticed the signs of a significant amount of international investment, ranging from office buildings of international companies to signs advertising those companies’ goods and services as easily accessible in Prague. And on an individual level, millions of people each year are “investing” in the city; its tourist industry appears to be booming. In the old town the throngs of tourists make it hard to even move in some of the narrower streets. Souvenir shops and restaurants line the bottom floors of the dignified old buildings, and as a sign that Prague has truly made it as a tourist destination there are a wax museum and any number of human statues in the main square by the old town hall.

So, at least in the areas in which I traveled, Prague has recovered much more quickly and completely from the devastations of the world wars and the Eastern European communist era than has Bucharest or Odessa. But such recovery comes at a price. When I arrived at my privately-rented apartment (no hotel in Prague because I was in serious need of a washing machine), I was greeted by a tenant’s guide that introduced the neighborhood this way: “It is an old workers’ class district which is experiencing its careful resurrection to become a popular new area.” In other words, it’s gentrifying. Or being gentrified – the buildings with crumbling stucco, faded paint, and scaffolds all around for the workers who are bringing them more into line with their neighbors bear the names of investment companies. These are hardly local people getting back on their feet and improving the neighborhood. As one spray-painted commentary put it, pointedly in English, “Your luxury is our misery.” Indeed, even though the apartment I rented was a small studio, it had hardwood floors and IKEA furnishings and was accessed through a carefully manicured interior garden courtyard on the second story. I, an academic from the U.S., rented the apartment through AirBnB from people who are, or at least appeared online to be, English-speaking millennial Czechs, in a neighborhood where luxury apartments jostle with tourist hotels, trendy restaurants, bars, and hair salons, and Tesco Express is the closest grocery store recommended by the hosts even though there are two smaller corner markets nearby.

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Gentrification was the first descriptor Tereza offered when I showed her on the map where I was staying. She and Michael are currently the most active members of the Czech Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. HIV/AIDS activists and queer activists as well as friends, they’re drawn to the Sisters because of the order’s history of involvement in both of these causes. Aside from the bars, they told me, which serve mostly very young men and seem to have no larger function than as sites for finding alcohol and hook-ups, there isn’t much of a lesbian, gay, or bisexual community in Prague. In their view, the organizations that do exist take on very specific political causes, leaving them little reason for existence once the cause is finally won or defeated and burning out the group members in the process. Trans folks, they say, seem to have done a better job of organizing in the city, to the extent that there may be a dozen or more committed activists who gather regularly to work on a range of concerns that affect trans people. It seemed clear to me that Tereza and Michael would like to see the Sisters serve a parallel purpose, addressing a variety of issues of concern to various or all constituents of LGBTQ communities in Prague and perhaps more broadly in the Czech Republic as well. Given the order’s roots in this kind of integrated – today we might say intersectional – activism, there is certainly the potential for such a development.

Prague is an interesting location for the Sisters. More than once serving as the seat of the Holy Roman Empire, the city has very deep Catholic roots that seem to have been all but shorn off during the communist period. Whereas Romania, for instance, responded to the fall of Ceausescu by becoming, on the whole, intensely religious, Prague did not. It went through other forms of reaction to the subsequent political and economic instability, including the rise of neo-Nazis who visited severe violence on anyone the Third Reich had considered to be its enemies. Michael was one of their victims; at one point in the 1990s a group of skinheads threatened him with a gun held to his head, and in another incident during the same time period he was brutally kicked. Religion, though, has not – or not yet – returned in force. So far, then, what little opposition there has been to the Sisters has come not through their association with nuns but through their association with drag queens and, by connection, with gay men.

This perception of the order as being composed entirely of gay men has had different consequences for the two active members of the Czech Sisters. Michael, with his history of brutal treatment by skinheads, worries about safety if he manifests out on the streets in public, even though the neo-Nazi threat seems to have become much less significant over the last decade. Tereza, on the other hand, like many women, initially had no idea that she could even become a member of the order, nor did she know what to do at first with the high-femme drag that most Sisters wear. She’s safer out on the streets than Michael is, again like many female-bodied people who are Sisters, because once observers hear the pitch of her voice and conclude that she’s a woman, their interpretation of what they see before them changes. No longer are they seeing a gay drag queen, maybe impersonating a nun; now they’re seeing a woman wearing a funny costume. While there are Sisters in highly secular cultures, such as the several active houses in France, it seems that Prague may be equally or even more actively atheist: according to a Pew study released earlier this year, only 29 percent of Czechs believe in God. In Romania, by contract, that number is 95 percent; in Ukraine and Poland, it’s 86 percent (see, for instance, http://www.pewforum.org/2017/05/10/religious-belief-and-national-belonging-in-central-and-eastern-europe/). What difference does it make to manifest in a country with a deeply Catholic background, a history of intra-Christian violence (this is, after all, the home of the executed Church reformer and Protestant forerunner Jan Hus), and contemporary indifference or active hostility to religion? France and the Czech Republic might make for an interesting comparison case here – and not just in terms of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.


Post(card)s from LGBTQ Eastern Europe: Odessa, Ukraine

Over the past week and a half, I’ve had the honor and privilege of traveling to several Eastern European countries to meet with people who are involved in religiously-themed queer protest art. They have generously made time to meet with me, shared meals and insights, introduced me to their friends and collaborators, showed me around their cities, and generally helped me to understand the cultural, political, and religious contexts of their work. Although this trip is part of a larger project, a follow-up to Queer Nuns and an initial foray into sorting out the focus of my next book project, here I offer a bit of an academic travelogue in order to share some of what I’m learning and to bring more attention to the exciting work these folks are doing. There are four post(cards), one for each city in which I conducted research: Bucharest, Romania; Odessa, Ukraine; Prague, Czech Republic; and Poznań, Poland.

Although the Odessa region, with its large natural harbor on the Black Sea, has seen human use for millennia, it only became an established city in the nineteenth century. Much of the architecture therefore dates from that period, with some newer development in business and tourist centers. Up near the opera house, at the top of a hill overlooking much of the harbor, the buildings are painstakingly maintained, painted in the brilliant colors that would have originally graced their walls and surrounded by well-kept grounds and fountains. Trendy restaurants, karaoke bars, and beauty salons line the streets. Save for last year, when local violence between pro-Russian and pro-E.U. groups kept tourists away, the Russian annexation of Crimea has significantly benefited Odessa’s tourist industry. Down at the beachfront, tiny hotels compete with high-rise affairs and restaurants print their menus in Roman script as well as Cyrillic. Yoga classes take place atop old gun turrets, next door to hole-in-the-wall cafés, all taking advantage of the sweeping Black Sea views up on the bluffs.

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The tourist industry, and the city as a whole, are clearly rebuilding, and the rebuilding is clearly still a work in progress. Attractive beach hotels stand side-by-side with shuttered, dilapidated buildings that were formerly restaurants or bars. Just blocks past the well-restored areas stand equally historic buildings gone black from decades of soot, crumbling on the outside or abandoned altogether. Wealthy-looking exurban developments are visible from an incoming plane, and the airport lobby is plastered with ads from shipping companies seeking employees in this major, and now E.U., port city, yet the airport’s shiny new terminal is still under construction and the runway feels mildly terrifying when the plane is traveling at high speed.

Vlad, my contact here, tells me that the revolution of three years ago has brought positive changes for LGBT people in Ukraine – or what remains of it – despite ongoing concerns about Russian aggression. E.U. membership required that certain human rights protections be set in place, including for LGBT people, and there has been E.U. financial support for LiGA, the organization for which Vlad works. The oldest LGBT organization in Ukraine, LiGA has its main offices in Kiev and satellites in three other cities, including in Odessa. There are other LGBT organizations in the country, including an organization of LGBT Christians whose representatives were traveling to Bucharest for the Eastern European LGBT Orthodox Christian gathering at the same time as I was traveling to Odessa. Things still aren’t easy – there are no laws against anti-LGBT hate crimes, and although anyone who violently attacks an LGBT person can of course still be prosecuted for a violent crime, all too often the police threaten victims with public exposure if they pursue the charges, and a specific city or regional chief of police can still make all the difference in terms of police friendliness and response. The most recent Odessa pride parade was stopped by police and the participants sent home, ostensibly because of the strength of the counter-protests. Yet some people are open with their natal families and their friends, and the LGBT community has allies among both everyday people and national politicians. The number of gay bars in Odessa is down from three to one right now, but there’s no indication that it won’t go back up. And in contrast with the impression given by the often two-dimensional press coverage of Ukrainian politics in the U.S., pro-Russian people in Ukraine are not necessarily politically reactionary. This is, after all, a Russian-speaking, mostly ethnically Russian region of Ukraine, and identifying with Russia no more implies supporting Putin than identifying with the U.S. implies supporting Trump.

Religion did not feel as omnipresent to me in Odessa as it did in Bucharest. Some of that may be due to chance, since on the drive to my hotel from the Bucharest airport the driver crossed himself every time the car passed a church; the same didn’t happen in Odessa. But we also passed far fewer churches on the drive. Like Bucharest and Prague, Odessa has synagogues still standing from before the Holocaust, some with re-initiated congregations and some repurposed to other uses. It also houses a stunning mosque and Islamic cultural center that were completed in 2001.

Ukraine had, for a brief period of time, a mission (a house in its beginning stages) of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. When I’ve mentioned this to people – Sisters or not – outside of Ukraine, I’ve often been met with mild incredulity and the assumption that the mission was unable to become a house because the political context was just too conservative and unstable for such openly and visibly queer activism. But Vlad told me of catching a taxi in habit, along with other Sisters, and one Sister even appeared as a back-up singer on Ukraine’s version of the music competition show, The X-Factor. No, it was an all too Sisterly reason that took the wind out of the sails of the Odessa mission: interpersonal disagreement about the true purpose of the order and the tendency of smaller houses toward unforeseen autocracy. It remains to be seen whether the remaining members – now former members – of the Odessa mission will manage to find the energy and the will to regroup as so many others have had to do in the aftermath of a house’s implosion. Should they do so, it seems they will continue to find a welcome in their community.


Post(card)s from LGBTQ Eastern Europe: Bucharest, Romania

Over the past week and a half, I’ve had the honor and privilege of traveling to several Eastern European countries to meet with people who are involved in religiously-themed queer protest art. They have generously made time to meet with me, shared meals and insights, introduced me to their friends and collaborators, showed me around their cities, and generally helped me to understand the cultural, political, and religious contexts of their work. Although this trip is part of a larger project, a follow-up to Queer Nuns and an initial foray into sorting out the focus of my next book project, here I offer a bit of an academic travelogue in order to share some of what I’m learning and to bring more attention to the exciting work these folks are doing. There are four post(card)s, one for each city in which I conducted research: Bucharest, Romania; Odessa, Ukraine; Prague, Czech Republic; and Poznań, Poland.

The city of Bucharest, a bit like the Romanian language itself, wears its history on its sleeve. The Georgian architecture that appears around nearly every corner – or at least every corner not graced by a slightly worn yet still beautiful park – hints of a city on the rise in the late nineteenth century. Older buildings are harder to come by, since the city suffered a devastating fire in 1847, but another building boom in the interwar period added graceful art deco lines to the cityscape. These compete today with blocky concrete apartment buildings that date to Romania’s communist era; the occasional shiny, new building of steel and glass; and bright billboards advertising any number of consumer products and services, many of them in English. Some of the stately old buildings and spacious villas have been painstakingly renovated; others molder around their inhabitants, with stone crumbling from balconies and porticos around a nest of twenty-first century wiring that tangles its way up the outside. Still others stand abandoned, with overgrown trees straining their fence lines, broken windows letting the weather through in all seasons, and everything from trash to old metal office chairs tossed helter-skelter in their once-dignified gardens. Graffiti covers the first floor of much of the downtown, more sloganeering than art (anti-E.U. and, as one inscription proclaimed, “anti-antifa” themes seemed especially popular), and in some places the buildings are still pockmarked with bullet holes from the 1989 revolution. Struggling with poverty and brain drain – I spoke with several academics and artists who were looking to leave the country, even against their will, due to lack of opportunity – and faced with the challenging and inefficient process of restoring to their former owners properties that were seized by the state at the beginning of Romania’s communist period, Bucharest is an architectural palimpsest, a mosaic of architecture and often rapidly-changing city planning that evidences the city’s changing fortunes and directions over the last century and a half.

Anyone who knows Bucharest well will have noticed that I haven’t yet mentioned one of the most striking aspects of the city: the omnipresence of Orthodox churches. Some of these have survived fires, earthquakes, and wars; many have been lovingly restored and rebuilt, sometimes on multiple occasions. As in so many revered religious spaces, these churches are stunningly beautiful inside, with altar screens and censers of brightly polished silver and gold contrasting with the more muted but still colorful – often smoke-dimmed – frescoes adorning walls and ceilings. As struck as I was by the beauty of the spaces, I was also fascinated by the choice and portrayal of the various saints in these churches, and was particularly intrigued (and, I must admit, a bit tickled) by the clear theological statement – intended or not – made by the representation of John the Baptist. Gazing down at the viewer in this image from the ceiling of the outer portico of the Church of the Patriarchy, the saint offers clear support to the doctrine of bodily resurrection but simultaneously raises a provocative question about that doctrine. As he regards the viewer from eyes set within a very-much-attached head, he also carries his own head in a basket. The demands of iconography aside – demands faced in both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy – it’s quite striking to see John the Baptist with not one, but two, heads.

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I traveled to Bucharest to meet the team that produces the Orthodox Calendar – and not the one that tells Orthodox Christians when Easter lands each year. This one is a wall calendar, and although it includes priests as you might expect, it includes rather less clothing than usual. If you haven’t seen it and you’d like to, check out their website at http://orthodox-calendar.com. The Huffington Post also covers the calendar each year, and usually includes a racy/NSFW slide show and, in relevant years, a link to that year’s “trailer” video. My host and the director of the project also introduced me to others who are interested in the ties between LGBT civil rights and the Orthodox Church in Romania, including an Orthodox theologian (not ordained by the church, as you might imagine) who’s also a driving force behind the local human rights/LGBT rights organization, ACCEPT; a graduate student working on LGBT studies in religion; and an art director who’s working to raise the profile of the religiously provocative queer art of Sorin Oncu, a young artist who died an untimely death last year.

Romania is currently in the throes of its own “family values” campaign that’s using the country’s public referendum process to try to change the language about marriage in the Romanian constitution from a description of “spouses” to “one man and one woman.” Sound familiar to U.S. readers? It should. Apparently, the strategy was exported directly from the U.S. to Romania by certain groups of conservative evangelicals who are more than happy to make common cause with Orthodox Christians if it means a chance to publicly attack LGBT people and reinforce our second-class citizen status (for those who have citizenship at all – LGBT refugees face major challenges here, like most refugees do but exacerbated by sexual and/or gender identity). The vote on the referendum will be taken later this fall, and although the constitutional outcome doesn’t look hopeful, there is an effort to establish civil partnerships as a trade-off for the eradication of gender-neutral language about marriage.

The Romanian Orthodox Church has participated actively in the campaign for the referendum through advertising, admonishments to parishioners, and the initial signature drive that placed the issue on the ballot in the first place. The activists, intellectuals, and artists (not that these are mutually exclusive categories) whom I met range from not even having an Orthodox background, to being atheist but raised Orthodox, to identifying today as Orthodox. They are lesbian, gay, and straight; Bucharest has a trans community and I understand some people identify as bisexual, but I met no members of either group to my knowledge. Regardless of their relationship to God and to the world of the spirit, though, what they shared was a concern that the Romanian Orthodox Church has overstepped its authority in its too-obvious partnership with the state. On the grounds of the People’s House, or Palace of Parliament, built by Ceausescu for his own exaltation but now housing the Romanian Parliament, is currently being built what I’m told will be the largest Orthodox cathedral in the world. It is indeed massive, and will most likely be awe-inspiring, but as my new friends in Romania pointed out, it sits on the grounds of Parliament in an ostensibly secular state. Given the current social conservatism of the Orthodox churches in general, and the increasing encroachment of hard-right conservatism and theocracy in some other areas of Eastern Europe, developments such as the new national cathedral and the marriage referendum have people worried that these are harbingers of an extremist political shift that will affect a wide variety of marginalized people, most of whom are already being affected but may become more so: women, LGBT people, Romas, and what remains of the Jewish population here after the utter devastation wreaked by the Holocaust, among others.

In the face of these sobering concerns, what are people doing? The Orthodox Calendar team has found that their products don’t sell well in Romania – they’re expensive by Eastern European standards, for one thing, and even when they’re given away for free people are reluctant to own them because of concerns about being outed to families, housekeepers, roommates, friends. The Calendar definitely doesn’t help with “straightening up the house”! But their products are a huge hit in the U.S. and Taiwan, and while purchases remain largely outside of Romania and even outside of Orthodox countries, Romanians are among their top followers on social media. So the word is getting out. One model who freelances for the calendar, a straight, cisgender, Orthodox man, not only likes the ways in which the Calendar’s work raises awareness of LGBT issues but also feels that it sends a message that priests are just like the rest of us – everyday people who face challenges, experience desires, and may not always act in socially-approved ways. At the same time, he says, it brings LGBT people up to the same level. “Just like the rest of us” may be a politically useful concept at this point in Romanian history, despite critiques of this claim that have been thoroughly and rightly explored elsewhere. Funds from the calendar originally went to support the band Pussy Riot, but legal changes in Russia made that increasingly difficult. Eventually, the funds were redirected to help in supporting an NGO that works with children who have chronic diseases such as HIV.

While the Orthodox Calendar pokes at the patriarchate, dancing just out of its legal reach through the input of a lawyer involved in the project, and artists like Sorin Oncu challenge the church through installations and other works, LGBT and ally Orthodox theologians are also beginning to organize. One whom I met is trying to open lines of dialogue with the church, quietly where no one has to make grandiose statements for the sake of career or public image, to at least try to stop the active persecution for now. Across Eastern Orthodoxy, a book of LGBT Orthodox religious reflection has just been published with the support of the Argus Foundation: Misha Cherniak, Olga Gerassimenko, and Michael Brinkschröder, eds., “For I am Wonderfully Made”: Texts on Eastern Orthodoxy and LGBT Inclusion. And as I left Bucharest, the theologian whom I met was preparing, along with many others, for a meeting of LGBT Orthodox Christians here. There is also interest in starting a house of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in Bucharest, especially to counter an utter lack of sex education in the schools and severe misunderstandings of HIV and AIDS that leave LGBT people in general unsure what’s safe or unsafe and in fairly regular fear, especially as youth or other newly sexually active people, that they have seroconverted and don’t yet know it.

Artists create, theologians publish and dialogue, future Sisters plan to educate. But with the exception of the men who run the Orthodox Calendar, who have access to significant financial resources, a lot of these folks also feel a bit isolated, forgotten in the discussion of religious and LGBT rights both in and beyond Europe and facing an economy that can make even purchasing books prohibitive due to the poor exchange rate, to say nothing of the cost of international travel for networking purposes. Check them out online – even likes and shares can make a difference, and consider exploring other ways of supporting this important work.