Hate hides behind propriety: of PDAs, the Black Cat Tavern, and interracial romance

In my Queer History class last week, I lectured on pre-Stonewall gay activism. I focused on Los Angeles, largely because L.A.’s role in the fight for sexual justice tends to be downplayed in the dominant narrative. Folks who know very little about gay and lesbian history often recall just two names “Stonewall” (in New York) and “Harvey Milk” (who was, of course, the assassinated San Francisco supervisor.) L.A., where the first enduring gay rights organization (the Mattachine Society) was founded, and where UCLA’s Evelyn Hooker did the first research to prove that homosexuals were essentially normal, is all-too-frequently ignored. (Lilian Faderman and Stuart Timmons give us the best corrective in their marvelous 2006 work, Gay L.A.)

Last Wednesday, we discussed the Black Cat Tavern arrests. In the first few seconds of 1967, queer patrons at that Silverlake bar kissed their same-sex partners to celebrate the coming of the New Year. They weren’t through one chorus of Auld Lang Syne before LAPD officers, who had been waiting for a “display of vice”, moved in and began to arrest those who had been engaging in public displays of homosexual affection. The arrests, part of a common pattern of police harassment, were in themselves not surprising. What was remarkable was the community response. Over the next three months, demonstrators in Silverlake and across Los Angeles organized to support the defense of those arrested, and public protests were held to demand an end to police crackdowns on the homosexual community. At one point in March 1967, 3000 gay and lesbian protestors (and their allies) blocked Sunset Boulevard at Sanborn Avenue. At that point, the Black Cat protest became the largest such queer rights protest that had ever been held. As important as the Stonewall riots were, they came more than two years later. (One feels tempted to complain of “East Coast media bias”.)

But my point was not just to rehabilitate Los Angeles as the epicenter of early gay activism. Rather, I wanted to make a point about public displays of affection (PDAs). Young people today have a hard time seeing the political component of sexual behavior. What two people do in public, they believe, ought to be regulated by their comfort level and by the “time, place, and manner” in which they touch or kiss each other. Without denying that a public/private distinction is an important one, I asked my students to consider the revolutionary potential for sexual behavior that contradicts established norms. Sometimes, I argued, offending others is desirable and necessary — because the prejudices that undergird the sense of being offended need to be uprooted.

My first wife was of Chinese ancestry. My fourth and final wife is of Afro-Colombian ancestry. Neither looks “white.” (My second and third wives were as WASPy as the day is long.) I remember vividly the first time I went with Alyssa (spouse #1) to San Francisco’s Chinatown. As we walked down the street holding hands, we got hostile stares; one old woman cursed us in Cantonese, which Alyssa partly understood. At one point, I dropped my girlfriend’s hand. Alyssa grabbed it again.

“Why did you do that?” she demanded.

“I don’t want to offend people”, I replied.

“Hugo”, she said firmly as she pressed her body against mine, “they need to be offended. We aren’t doing anything a same-race couple wouldn’t do.”

Her point was that the hostility we were encountering was rooted in ethnic prejudice against interracial couples, not in animus towards public displays of affection. Alyssa, who was hardly flamboyant in her sexuality, believed that it was nonetheless important to confront rather than accommodate bigotry. She who became my first wife believed that acceptance would only come as a result of making interracial romance appear normative. That required a willingness to offend. Continue reading

“Why is everyone hugging here?” More on hugs, teaching, and boundaries

We’ve recently hired a number of wonderful new faculty members in my department, and we’re excited to have them. (All the more so because with the state budget cuts, it may be eons before we make any additional hires.) One new professor, who has had some teaching experience elsewhere, asked me yesterday: “I’ve noticed that quite a few students here want to hug me. Is that normal at PCC? It hasn’t been at the other places where I’ve taught.” I smiled and told her that yes, it was something I’d noticed early on in my own career here: students at community colleges (or at least this one) tend to have much greater expectations of being “nurtured”, which can include hugs, than do students at four-year institutions. It’s more common for students to hug their female professors, and most of those seeking hugs are women. And while it’s far from being a universal practice, my new colleague is not the first professor to point out that students here are, as a group, more affectionate than at many other other academic institutions.

My new colleague, who is untenured, wanted some tips on how to handle the “hugging thing.” I assured her that there were no rules against hugging students, though common sense and a respect for boundaries suggests that it is best to wait for the student to initiate a friendly embrace. I reminded her of what I know she already knows, that — particularly for the untenured — perception matters as well as intent, and that it is helpful to remain aware of how one’s physical actions might be perceived by witnesses. Students are, as we all know, very attentive to the mannerisms, quirks, and personas of their professors. While fear of arousing suspicion shouldn’t cause us to be defensive or distant, we need to balance the responsibility to connect with our students with an awareness of how that connection (particularly when it includes a physical gesture like a hug) might be perceived.

This is all the more true in gender studies, the field in which I (and my new colleague) work. We’re not just teaching a subject, we’re leading classes that touch (sorry) on issues of sexuality, boundaries, power. We stir up strong emotions; we invite our students to consider their private lives and how their attitudes towards some fairly intimate subjects are shaped by history and culture. As I’ve written before in my student crushes archive, some students are prone to confusing excitement about the subject with excitement towards the professor who’s teaching the class.

None of this means we shouldn’t hug our students. Though I never foist hugs on the unwilling, and I am attentive to good boundaries, I am resolute in my commitment to practice physical affection as part of my mentoring and teaching. I do it because we live in a world where far too many men in positions of authority are fundamentally unsafe. Far too many adult men, including professors, are sexually predatory. Touch from them is unsafe and violating. Other men live in a not entirely unreasonable fear of having their actions misinterpreted. Anxious not to be labelled as harassers, they maintain scrupulous boundaries with their students and subordinates. That’s obviously preferable to groping lechery, but it sends the message that men are cold, remote, distant, and unavailable. It reinforces the message that touch can’t be safe.

I certainly don’t hug all my students. I don’t just hug women, or just men. I recognize that personality and cultural expectations about affection differ; foisting unwanted affection on someone for whom I am responsible would be profoundly unethical and violating. At the same time, if I didn’t embrace with exuberant non-sexual enthusiasm those students who would like to be hugged, I fall short of another mark. Touch can violate, but touch can heal. Touch can be unsafe, touch can be more affirming than a thousand verbal reassurances. We cannot allow our fears about touching blind us to the good, as well as the harm, that it can do. Just as gender studies, as an academic discipline, has broken down the convention that said that sexuality was not suitable for intellectual analysis, so too some of us may be called to dismantle the convention that says that touch has no place in teaching.

Five years ago, in another post, I wrote:

I have come to believe that the key thing that those of us who work with young people need to do is commit ourselves to being deliberately counter-cultural when it comes to touch. This doesn’t mean ignoring the power of sexuality. It means not allowing our fear of sexuality to hold us back from reaching out to those who need it. We have to find non-exploitative ways to hold each other — and hold each other across lines of sex, age, and status.

I repeated something like that to my colleague in our conversation yesterday. And, with the reminder that discernment and intuition are vital here, I stand by that advice publicly. I don’t expect hugs from everyone: I don’t hug everyone. But with the commitment to be “safe” foremost in my mind, and with deep reverence for tremendous variety in other people’s personal boundaries and comfort levels, I’m as committed as ever to an affectionate hug, a reassuring squeeze of the hand, or other good and right forms of affirming touch.

Sovereignty and stewardship: some thoughts about fatherhood and a child’s body

There was a great post at Womanist Musings a few weeks ago about children and touch. (Forgive me, I can’t remember which reader tipped me off to it.) The post begins:

Sunday was Father’s Day and so we went out to dinner to celebrate. When “Destruction” (the author’s son) was telling the waitress what he wanted to eat, she reached out and pinched his cheek. After she left, he told me that it hurt and that he really did not like that she had touched him. Upon her return after clearly thinking about the incident, he politely told her that she hurt him and he would appreciate it if she did not pinch him again. Destruction has always been protective of his personal space. I remember when he was three and got into a scuffle with a Walmart Greeter when she wanted to hug him.

Once he became old enough to understand what I was saying, I began asking if it was okay to kiss or hug him. I never presumed that I had the right to have access to him because he is my son. Most of the time it is always an enthusiastic yes, however occasionally it would be no I’m not in the mood. I have never gotten upset or felt rejected, I simply tried again later…

As a feminist first-time father of a five and a half month old daughter, I’ve been thinking a great deal about issues of parenting and body integrity. As I wrote not long after Heloise was born, my shift back to a firm pro-choice position was solidified by watching my wife go through pregnancy and childbirth. My sense of the importance of women’s sovereignty over their own flesh was strengthened, not weakened, by sonograms and the like. And in a not dissimilar way, caring for my daughter is solidifying my belief that physical autonomy is an indispensable right for all.

Each day that passes, my daughter gains greater control over her own flesh. She’s learned to roll over. (There was a one-week lag time between being able to roll from back to tummy to being able to roll from tummy to back.) She can raise up her head easily; she can reach out and grab with ever-increasing force and accuracy. She can suck her toes, getting her foot into her mouth in one fluid motion. And she is achingly close to crawling, something we think she’ll be able to do in a matter of days. Heloise’s body responds more to her will each and every day; in a very real sense, we’re watching the miracle of the growing assertion of sovereignty.

But still, our daughter is radically dependent. We change her and bathe her and dress her. We strap her into her car seat and carry her about. She has very little say in how or when she’s touched, but that doesn’t mean she has no voice. We notice when she reaches out for us (something she started doing within the past month); we can tell when she wants to be held and when she’s perfectly happy playing by herself. We try, as best we can, to respond to her needs; when she wants cuddling, she gets cuddling. And when she tries to wriggle out of an embrace, something she does on occasion, we are quick to allow her — within the bounds of reason and safety — more freedom and mobility. She may be less than six months old, but she’s learning that her needs matter. Her body is hers, even if that body — for now — requires our active and constant care. Continue reading

Men, women, friendship, and fidelity: revisiting the issue

In the aftermath of the Mark Sanford debacle, Laura at the conservative Pursuing Holiness blog asks the old question: Can Men and Women be Friends? Her answer is the expected one: no.

Can men and women be friends? Certainly. My husband is my best friend – the ultimate “friend with benefits.” But it is unwise in the extreme to invest your emotions and build an intimacy with someone with whom you can’t complete that intimacy. Even if you are never physically unfaithful, is there any way to have an intimate friend of the opposite sex without depriving your spouse of the emotional investment to which they’re entitled?

I wrote a post four years ago on this subject. I re-read that piece of mine this morning, and as is so often the case with my “older” musings, I found myself agreeing and disagreeing with myself in equal measure. As I mark eleven years clean and sober this week, I note that my own spiritual journey since 1998 has been a rapid and occasionally turbulent one — and as a result, my thinking on a variety of issues continues to evolve and shift as I grow and learn. The posts I put up in my first two years of steady blogging (2004-05) tended to be much more conservative in tone than the ones I’ve put up more recently. Four or five years ago, I was only just coming out of what I call my “boundary-learning” stage; after so many years of what might best be described as exuberant transgressiveness, I was until recently perhaps over-sensitive to the potential for a sexual charge in virtually any relationship. I’m glad I practiced that level of caution; it was a needed corrective to an earlier way. I note that by last year, when I put up this post about controlling boyfriends, my views had already begun to shift.

But in light of Laura’s post, and my own words from 2005, I’d like to revisit — briefly — the issue of male-female non-romantic friendship.

First of all, like Laura, in my 2005 post my approach was blindly heteronormative. If men and women can’t be friends because of the possibility of sexual attraction, then it follows that lesbians and straight women can’t be friends, nor gay men and straight guys. And bisexuals? Clearly a group for whom radical introversion and isolation is the only possible course. One mistake we make around these issues, over and over again, is that we can predict with certainty what sort of people we are going to be attracted to. The anecdotes are legion of women and men falling in love with people of their same sex after living — in many instances, quite happily — in heterosexual relationships for years and years. As a man who has been generally drawn to women throughout his life, I’ve been surprised once or twice by an unexpected twinge of attraction to a male friend. It is culturally imposed homophobia rather than biological hardwiring that prevents more men from admitting the same thing. Continue reading

Kissing rules

Amber at Prettier than Napoleon gets the cap tap for linking to three posts about kissing, including this one from the New York Times: Who Changes the Kissing Rules? Daniel Hamermesh writes:

A female friend who I hadn’t seen in several months and I greeted each other yesterday with the usual hug and one-cheek kiss. If I had done this in 1970 I would have been looked on as really weird, or I might even have been slapped.

The social norm on kissing has changed in the U.S.; and the norm elsewhere is different: In much of Europe the two-cheek greeting between friends of the opposite sex is standard.

On my first return trip to the Netherlands, I assumed that two-cheek kissing was the norm there. That nearly cost me a broken nose, as the norm there is now the three-cheek greeting kiss. My Dutch friend tells me that the norm changed in the 1980’s or so.

Why do norms change? Does some highly visible individual start the new custom? Do we adopt it from elsewhere (which can’t explain the Dutch three-cheek kiss), so that we Americans might soon be doing an Arab or Latin male-to-male hug/kiss?

I’m a physically affectionate person, raised at least partly in a physically affectionate family. Though my mother’s family was, in keeping with WASP tradition, less demonstrative, my father (raised by central European ethnic Jews) was always a hugger — and a kisser. I grew up taking the kisses from both my parents for granted, and was rather surprised when I realized, perhaps around first grade, that while other mothers kissed both their children and fathers kissed their daughters, mine was the only Papa who seemed to be publicly kissing his sons. Indeed, my only memories of squirming away from any adult touch in my entire childhood came as a result of my embarrassment at my father’s kisses. Dad always kissed me on the cheek or (less often) on the head, and I was very eager to discourage this behavior in public, for fear of being teased by other boys.

In time, of course, I came to appreciate my father’s demonstrativeness. Some of my cousins on my mother’s side grew up shaking hands with their fathers and no more; I know of two brothers who first hugged their fathers, awkwardly, on their wedding days. I’m more than willing to overthrow WASP convention for the sake of manifesting my adoration on my children of both sexes; from the time they are small, my kids are going to be kissed.

I’ve run, over the years, into many subcultures of male kissing. With the gay male buddies I made in college, I began to hug and kiss them much as I did my female friends; these were not sexual kisses but simply signs of affection used primarily at “hello” and “goodbye”. Even among some of my gay friends, there was a clear self-consciousness about the function of these platonic smooches — there was an awareness, sometimes remarked upon, that we were doing something counter-cultural. And for ostensibly straight men to hug and kiss gay men was, at least in my circle of friends in the Bay Area in the mid-to-late 1980s, a sign of one’s comfort level with one’s own sexuality and masculinity. To be uncomfortable with hugging and kissing gay men was as clear a marker of insecurity as trembling hands and knocking knees.

My wife and I study at the Kabbalah Centre. In the Kabbalah community, I’ve met loads of Israelis — and found myself delighted with that particular culture’s kissing protocol. Men and women kiss each other on two cheeks (but not three), and men often kiss each other on one cheek as well. Israeli men, particularly former soldiers, are not renowned for either androgyny or subtlety; it’s a delight to watch these lads of all ages demonstrate so much physical affection towards one another. I’ve hugged and kissed a lot of men since I came to the Centre, and it’s a comfortable and safe culture in which to be immersed.

In youth ministry, I often follow the “if it moves, hug it” philosophy. I say “often” rather than “always” because I recognize that while most young people are (whether they know it or not) hungry for safe and affectionate touch from adults whom they have grown to trust, I know that others (for any number of reasons ranging from abuse to autism to simply not being that sort of kid) experience most embraces as violating. I trust my instincts, and don’t foist affection on those whom I don’t know well.

But those boys and girls who do want hugs can always have them from me, and sometimes – this depends on the kid and the situation — a kiss as well. With teens I work with, the only place I generally kiss is on the forehead. It can function, in the right setting (particularly after a talk) as a kind of benediction. When I was in college, a priest who mentored me kissed me a few times on my forehead — I experienced it as nonsexual, utterly non-violating, and appropriately intimate. It was what I needed. I don’t kiss most young people with whom I work, mind you, but sometimes (again, trusting those ENFP instincts) I do.

The rules about kissing are many and varied, and as the Times piece points out, always in flux between and within cultures. I’m a happy kisser, though even I have qualms about kissing anyone other than romantic partners on the lips. I know families in which parents and children and siblings kiss on the lips; I have friends who kiss each other without the slightest sexual intent on the lips. Somehow, for me, the lips are a charged erogenous zone in the way no other part of the body above the neck can be. I’ll kiss foreheads and cheeks (and, much less often, usually by accident, noses). But I will do all that I can to avoid kissing anyone other than my wife on the mouth, though I won’t push a friend away in wrath if he or she drops a peck below my nose and above my chin. It’s an artificial and arbitrary boundary, to be sure, like all such boundaries, but it’s mine. But even in this, I am inconsistent, as I happily permit dogs and chinchillas to kiss me on the mouth, and I return the favor without, obviously, any carnal intent.

Feel free to share kissing thoughts.

Yet another post on men, suspicion, youth ministry, and cheerfully proving one’s innocence

A reader, responding to the thread below this reprint, writes:

…talking about false allegations keeping men out of these fields (working with kids) and referencing things like To Catch a Predator and the McMartin / Buckey case to make out like the fear of abuse is totally overblown really hurts, you know? I try not to let things bother me. I’ve had to stop reading certain blogs because of the prominence of thinking that downplays the reality of child sex abuse… For someone to portray what concern that exists now as hysteria makes me feel invisible. For almost every woman I’ve known well enough to have a personal conversation with and almost every female family member, this is a big part of their reality, part of their life story.

I wasn’t able to do much moderating while I was in New York, and perhaps I ought to have weighed in a bit. Whenever I’ve posted about working with youth, and particularly about working with underage teens (see this category archive), men’s rights activists tend to show up in the comment threads. They often show up to give me a “friendly” warning that I risk being hit with a false accusation, or to lament what they see as a broader cultural climate that is deeply distrustful of men who work with young folks. As I said in this post and many others, the collective bad behavior of a great many men (not just a few “bad apples”) has led to a justifiable degree of suspicion on the part not only of the survivors of abuse but on the part of parents, communities, and the broader culture. My two-fold point has always been the same:

a. I welcome the opportunity to “prove myself safe” through a repeated willingness to submit to scrutiny, a scrupulous willingness not to be entirely alone with a minor, and a cheerful and undefensive willingness to answer questions about my actions and my pedagogy from any stakeholder in the community.

b. At the same time, I’m going to be fearless about being warm, loving, and where appropriate (and sometimes, it is very appropriate) physically affectionate with young people of both sexes. Good youth ministry with any group of teens is impossible without an environment in which non-sexual, affirming, touch is available. Continue reading

Reprint: Boys, Girls, Hugs

I’m on hiatus — at least from substantive blogging — until August 28.  Until then, I’m reprinting favorite posts from 2004 and 2005.

I consider myself blessed to have grown up in a physically affectionate family. Not only was I regularly hugged and kissed by my mother, but I still hug and kiss my father whenever I see him. (I am grateful that my father, born in Austria, grew up in a relatively demonstrative culture.) As a schoolboy, however, I learned quickly that any sign of physical affection between men (other than during a sporting event, and even then, of a very limited and specific nature) was associated with homosexuality and effeminacy. I didn’t hug a man to whom I wasn’t related until I went to college.

Now, of course, I work as a volunteer youth minister at the local Episcopal church. During the past five years, I’ve worked with a couple of hundred high school-age youth. It’s given me a lot of time to think about gender and physical affection. If there’s one thing I’m committed to, it’s modeling appropriate but loving physical contact with my kids of both sexes. That isn’t always easy to do. Not surprisingly, I have had to confront my own acculturation when it comes to physical affection with young men.

First off, we live in a society that is absolutely obsessed with issues of sexual abuse. This obsession is particularly apparent in our churches and our youth ministries; the past three years have brought devastating news of molestation and abuse in every denomination (though our Catholic brethren seem to have taken the brunt of the hit). In this climate, all men who choose to work with youth are open to suspicion. Some of what is being done in response is good and necessary: stricter background checks, for example. But much of what has happened has not been useful, and some of it has even been counter-productive. I have a friend who works in youth ministry at a Presbyterian church nearby, and he says he has been told that the church’s policy is to never have any youth minister touch a kid in any way at any time. No hugs, no pats on the back, nothing. He’s looking for a new church.

Working with adolescents has taught me just how starved most of them are for safe physical affection, especially the boys. And over time, with input from those on staff at the church, I have developed my own guidelines for my own behavior. What it boils down to is this: I am an inveterate hugger. I hug everyone. Kids, adults, men, women, boys, girls, chinchillas, the ficus tree in the corner. That sounds more compulsive than it is. I have to be constantly, keenly aware of body language. I don’t foist hugs on anyone. Nor do I treat hugs as inconsequential, like Hugo’s version of a casual handshake. What I’m trying to do doesn’t always work perfectly, but it does seem to work most of the time. I’m trying to create a culture in our youth group where non-sexual physical intimacy feels safe and reassuring and validating. That takes a lot of time. Some kids came for six months before I could hug them. Some hugged me the moment they met me. Even in a nurturing and safe environment, there will be different levels of comfort with physical affection.

Many of the girls, of course, have little experience of non-sexual affection from men. If I hear one more story from a teen girl about how her father stopped hugging her when she began to develop, I’m going to scream. (I’m not a father, of course, but I’m just mystified by that phenomenon, which, anecdotally, seems to be epidemic). Many of them, though very young, have already been objectified and harassed by men my age or older. They are in desperate need of truly safe adult men — men who are neither responsive to their sexuality nor terrified of it. For the record, as a matter of common sense, I am never alone with teenage girls at the church. Ever. I also regularly "check in" with my fellow volunteers and with the church staff, asking them to be willing to challenge me should I ever even appear to behave inappropriately. But none of that stops me, when the barriers have been broken down, from hugging.

I don’t hug boys the same way I hug girls. For the most part, with the boys, "horseplay" is the safest environment for physical affection. We do a lot of that at All Saints Church. Mind you, I don’t get down on the ground and wrestle with the kids! But the playful pretend punches, the slaps on the back — all of these can be imbued with very real caring and affection. When I was a high schooler, I wasn’t ready to be held by older men — but I sure as hell wanted their attention, and I did want their caring and affection. A quick squeeze of the shoulder was about all I could take, but damn, did I want that squeeze of the shoulder from men I looked up to! I try and remember that. (I should note that some high school boys do like to hug just as much as the girls do, especially once they realize that ours is a safe environment).

In our current climate of hysteria, we in the church need to struggle to find a balance. We must of course protect our young people from exploitation and abuse. We must do everything we can to create a safe place within our church communities for our teens. But a place where every gesture of physical affection is seen as dangerous is an inherently unsafe environment! Our young women need to be reminded, over and over again, that they are loved and cared for non-sexually; in that effort, a hug is worth ten thousand words. Our young men need to be reminded, over and over again, that here, at least one night a week during youth group, they don’t have to be "tough guys." They need men in their lives who will love them without judging them or assessing their fragile masculinities.

I have to admit, it’s a bit scary to post about this. I know that many, many women out there — and some men — have devastating stories of betrayal at the hands of male authority figures. I know that many of them know just how awful it can be when what was supposed to be a "safe" hug or touch becomes something far different. I try to never lose sight of that reality. But it is also because I am so aware of the prevalence of sexual abuse that I insist on touching the youth with whom I work. I do so not to show my disregard for common sense, but as an act of defiance against a culture that declares all affection to be suspicious. I do it because the kids need it. I do it because we all need it. And I do it because Jesus did it.

Originally posted June 15, 2004

Reprint: Daughters and Fathers, Girls and Men

I’m on hiatus — at least from substantive blogging — until August 28.  Until then, I’m reprinting favorite posts from 2004 and 2005.

I’m not in the habit of quoting from advice columns.  Still, I do read them regularly, and Carolyn Hax of "Tell Me About It" is perhaps my favorite these days.  I was struck by this one that appeared in today’s Times, but which I can only find online here:

Dear Carolyn: I’m a 15-year-old girl and have a twin brother. I really love my Dad, but he has little interest in doing things with me. He spends lots of time with my brother every weekend, taking him to ballgames and playing golf and tennis with him, and they go on camping trips in the summer, but he never invites me. I recently got up the courage to tell him that I would sometimes like to be included, but he said that a father and son need bonding time, and that I should be spending more "mother/daughter" time with my mother.

I’m really more interested in doing the kinds of things my Dad and brother do together, and my mother is not interested in them. And we do spend plenty of "mother/daughter" time anyway. He is a good father, and I don’t think he understands how much this hurts. My brother has all kinds of souvenirs in our room from the things they have done together, which are a constant reminder to me. How can I make my Dad understand that spending time together is just as important to me as it is to my brother? — Left Out

Hax doesn’t say it, so I will:  this man needs to get in touch with the wonderful Dads and Daughters.  Pronto.

In my dual roles as gender-studies professor and youth leader, I’m a great advocate of adult men (fathers and others) spending time with boys.   Here is where I am in complete agreement with the Men’s Rights Advocates; indeed, a belief in the importance of good fathers and strong adult male mentors in boys’ lives is one of the few points that can unite the entire men’s movement.  "Left Out" has a father who seems to have embraced that part of his job, her dad even uses the phrase "bonding time" to describe what he and his son are doing together.   The assumption, which "Left Out" rejects, is that this kind of bonding is most important between parents and their children of the same sex.

To some extent, this attitude carries over into youth group work.  I’ve often worried that I’m being unfair in the amount of time and availability I have for the guys at All Saints compared to their female peers.  For example, I’m willing to give my cell phone number out to any boy who asks for it.  (And I’ve had to stress, many a time, that they are NOT to call after 9:00PM, a point some have a hard time grasping!) I’ve got a couple of guys with whom I meet (alone) semi-regularly for lunch or coffee.  Except in emergencies, I don’t give that number out to girls, nor do I meet with them alone.  Some of this is in keeping with church policy, some of this a result of boundaries that I have in place because they just seem to "make sense."

As I’ve written before, we live in a culture that, with some justification, distrusts adult men who want to spend time with adolescent girls.  (I suppose in the wake of recent scandals, we are beginning to distrust men who want to spend time with any child, regardless of sex.)  As a youth leader, it’s easy for me to justify spending more time with the boys because, I sometimes assume, they are more in need of a male role model than their female counterparts.  I know I’m sometimes guilty of the very kind of gender essentialism that "Left Out" rejects when she writes:  I’m really more interested in doing the kinds of things my Dad and brother do together..

Spending time with youth can’t be a zero-sum game — we can’t assume that just because boys desperately need male role models that young girls don’t.   Somehow, we in youth work have to find a way to balance the need for public accountability and safety with the very important goal of having safe, strong, loving men play active roles in the lives of girls.

Obviously, youth leaders and fathers have different roles in the lives of young people.   No matter how devoted we in youth work are, we are no substitute for good and loving parents.  But just like fathers and mothers, we have an obligation to nurture and care for all of our kids, not just those who share our sex.  In a world where adult men are regularly viewed as predatory or odd for wanting to work with young folks of any gender, the justification for keeping the "men with the boys" and the "women with the girls" may be difficult to sustain.  I’m not saying that we ought to treat boys and girls identically.  Male youth leaders should, obviously,  still sleep in the boys’ cabin, not with the girls. (Though in a church that has more than one gay male youth leader, that policy has made at least one parent I know rather uncomfortable!)  But we cannot allow our fears to outweigh our responsibility to care for all of our children, and we must be careful to avoid a gender essentialism that minimizes the importance of fathers and other adult men in the lives of young women.

Originally published April 21, 2005

Some thoughts on dancing

I am fully recovered from my brief but intense bout with food poisoning, which is happy news (at least for me).  I remain committed to my Lenten discipline of abstinence from diet Cokes and Monster drinks, though the cravings for both have not shown any signs of diminishing yet.  Lots of opportunity for prayer, however, are created in those moments when I feel absolutely desperate!  And I’ve begun my taper for the Los Angeles Marathon on the 19th.

Last night at youth group, we had "dance night."  For over an hour, some thirty high schoolers and five adults worked on mastering some of the basics of two dances: the waltz and salsa.  "Mimi", my long-time co-volunteer, taught the kids the basics of a box-step waltz; my wife, making a guest appearance at youth group, drew on her own adolescent experience as a competitive Latin ballroom dancer to teach at least the first few steps of salsa.

There was a great deal of laughter as teens and adults stumbled and swayed and made earnest efforts to roll uncooperative hips.  A few of the kids already knew a bit about formal dancing, but most didn’t.  Some picked it up quickly, others struggled.  But this wasn’t a class in which grades were to passed out for skill and grace; this was an opportunity to have fun and, perhaps draw some important lessons as well.  Most of the kids have at least some passing awareness of the surprise television hit "Dancing with the Stars" (though it ranks far below "American Idol" in their minds), so we were able to capitalize on the surprising resurgence of interest in ballroom dancing.

Both waltzing and salsa are classically seen as having sex-specific roles — in different ways, a man is supposed to lead the dance while a woman follows.  Hearing the waltz described this way made me uncomfortable, but only for a second.  We didn’t have an even number of boys and girls in the room, so when it came time for the teens to pair up and take their first tentative dance steps together, we not only had plenty of cross-sex couples, we also had girls dancing with girls — and we had boys dancing with boys.  Though the dance required one person to lead and the other to follow, I was struck by how few of our teens felt that their own sex ought to determine which of those two positions they ought to take.  Generally, the more confident dancer led, regardless of gender.  I had worried for a second that we would be reinforcing some antiquated notions about sex roles; my fears were groundless.  Teenagers are oddly conservative about some things, and remarkably open-minded about others.   Last night, their delight in these old and fine dances was blessedly unconnected to any traditional ideas about men and women.

I made a heroic effort to dance with my patient wife, whose skills so vastly outstrip my own that she resembled a tall and graceful Amazon trying to control an over-eager upright bear who had had too much to drink.  The teens, noting the disparity between my wife and me, ordered me to take dancing lessons.  I think it will have to happen.

What I like best about ballroom dancing — and specifically, what I like about teaching it to kids, even in a very quick evening — is that at its core, partner dancing is about finding a safe and exciting way to touch.   So many teenagers, and so many adults, are still so ambivalent and confused about appropriate physical boundaries! When are hugs appropriate?  When can we hold hands and caress each other?  I’m not talking just about the desire to touch someone in an explicitly sexual way; I’m talking about the nearly universal need we all have to be physically close.  (Obviously, some of us extroverts have a stronger need than others!) In a rhythmic, sensual, but ultimately safe way, salsa brings bodies close together and then pulls them apart; it creates intimacy but it also creates limits.  And in my experience, that’s what we need to teach young folks — how to get the physical intimacy and validation that they crave, and how to set healthy boundaries so that they neither trample over another person’s limits nor allow their own limits to be violated.

I’m not suggesting that kids all start salsa dancing, fox-trotting, and merenguing.  (Though it might be more aesthetically pleasing than what we generally see at high school dances.  Few things are as illuminating and as depressing as chaperoning a bunch of fifteen year-olds eager to "get their freak on" to the beat of Nelly or 50 Cent.) I am suggesting that ballroom dancing teaches lessons that go beyond footwork.   At their core, the teens I know crave touch, they crave contact, they crave intimacy.  But they are also often confused and frightened, unsure of how to ask for what they really want, afraid of losing control or of being violated. The lesson of ballroom dance, whether it has its origins in the tropics or in Viennese salons,is that with practice and with respect we can learn to touch each other safely.  We learn to move not only in response to our own needs, but in response to the needs of our partner.  Dancing, in other words, is the perfect activity to lead us into our next segment of Wednesday night youth group: dating and romantic relationships.  And that’s where we’re headed.

“After the final no there comes a yes”: rethinking salvation, and a response to Camassia

Camassia has an interesting post up today, responding to this earlier post of mine about agape and my All Saints youth group.  In my piece, which attracted considerable (if kind) criticism from the likes of Kendall Harmon, I argued for a "here-and-now" understanding of salvation.  I wrote:

In a nutshell, this is what All Saints might understand salvation to be: the knowledge that God lives in us and we are making His love complete in the world through our actions and above all, through our unconditional agape love for one another.

Kendall called this view "too horizontal", and Camassia suggests — with some accuracy — that this is a theology for folks who see themselves as comfortable and powerful.   It is a theology for people who see the problems in their lives as things that can be solved in the here and now.  And to an extent, she’s right.  The problems my teens cope with are things like depression, drug use, peer pressure, unrequited crushes, unintended pregnancies, parents divorcing, and so forth.  Those are sources of real pain, mind you — but they are all problems that can be solved in this world, in the near future if not in the immediate now.

But billions of folks around the world are coping with far more serious, intractable problems: grinding poverty, brutal war, and horrific injustices on a scale that relatively affluent Pasadenans can only vaguely and fearfully imagine.   In youth group, we can hug away the pain of a break-up; but hugs and affirmations — even when done in the name of Jesus — don’t seem to have the same efficacy in toppling unjust governments, ending genocide, or providing clean water.  For those who are truly suffering, is it not possible that the hope of "another country" where there will be "no more tears, for the former things have passed away", is much more vital and more necessary? 

Camassia writes:

Hugo may regard his kids as “saved” by the warm embrace of his agape love, but what if the authorities decided to come around and start hauling the teens off for torture, rape, and murder, and All Saints was unable to stop it? Would that unsave them? I think that the futurism of the New Testament, the sense that things were yet to come to fruition, wasn’t just from the fact they erroneously thought Jesus would come back very soon (as Hugo told me) but that they were facing persecution. Would it really have been sufficient for them to know that their deaths would eventually enable Hugo to create his loving youth group? I don’t know, but somehow I think they died for more than that.

(Let me be clear that I don’t think it’s my embrace that saves them; I may be a bit on the narcissistic side, but I’m not suffering from a messiah complex!  What I meant was that in this world, in this time, the best thing we can do to live out our salvation and bring about the Kingdom is to love radically and bravely.  But that love, ultimately, doesn’t stem from ourselves alone but from God.)

In any case, it’s a good point about persecution.  I’ve been thinking about it a lot this morning.   A loving community — even one that loves in the name of Christ — is not automatically protected from torture, rape, and murder.  And if — God forbid — those evils were to come to "my kids", they would need a far stronger understanding of salvation than the one I’ve been providing.  In the face of unspeakable suffering and evil, Christians need to rely on explicit promises about the next world. And it’s because our kids aren’t facing that kind of suffering that I can afford to offer a definition of salvation that is very much concerned with sharing agape love.

I’ve been a youth leader at All Saints for some six or seven years now, but I realize I’ve very rarely talked about heaven — and yet, the promise of eternal life is very much a part of my own faith life.  I’ve had several "conversion experiences", the last and most dramatic of which took place in 1998 after nearly dying from a series of spectacularly bad choices.  Locked in an institution, I felt abandoned and alone and in a state of utter existential despair.  I read the Bible (the one book I had access to in the place I was), and prayed unceasingly for help.  And in the midst of my anguish, a line came to me.  It wasn’t a line from Scripture, but (perhaps fittingly for me) a famous line I’d memorized in high school, from the poet Wallace Stevens:

After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.

And what I understood, at that moment, was that in this "vale of tears", there will always be a "final no" — what is death but the "final no" to our longing for eternal life?  And what of all the other "no’s" we hear in this life, when others leave us or abandon us or betray us or disappoint us — or when we betray or abandon those whom we love? In my moment of conversion, the poet’s line meant that after all of that, in the end, would be God’s thundering and everlasting "Yes!"  It would be a "forever yes", one that promised eternal life.  And in that institution, shoeless and beltless and nearly hopeless, my "future world" depended on believing in that yes.

My conversion hinged on a belief in eternal life.  Yes, as a result of my conversion, I have wanted badly to share the love of Christ that I — on my best days — feel welling up inside of me.  But while hugs are good and hugs are nice, I know that in my own darkest moment, my life wasn’t transformed by a human hug.  It was transformed by a sudden and overpowering belief in the eternal "yes" that transcended all the "no"s of this life.  And I realize I’ve got to be a bit more explicit with my kids — in a way that is palatable to my fellow liberal Episcopalians — about that "yes" experience and the eternal joy it promises.