Friday, 16 May 2014

Oasis 'Open Church', LGBT voices & privilege

Last night I attended and spoke at an Asylum Magazine sponsored event called ‘Trans* people in the time of Psychiatry.’ It was a striking opportunity for a number of trans* voices to be heard ahead of a special Asylum Magazine edition focusing on critiques of the psychiatric profession’s treatment and understanding of trans* identity. It was a lively, conscientized meeting which led to a heated and potent discussion. It revealed the range of views present among trans* people about the concepts of ‘treatment’ and even the place of psychiatry in trans* people lives. One of the striking points raised by both trans* and cis people was about how ‘psychiatry’ talks about trans* people. It has now slowly begun to ‘talk to’ trans* people, but this is still framed in a discourse which privileges the normative, clinical and non-trans* voice. (For anyone who is interested in the shattering experience many trans* people have had in the midst of both psychiatrists and the wider medical profession check out #TransDocFail on twitter.)

Given last night’s experience – in which trans* voices were prioritized, foregrounded and cis people were invited to be part of our conversation, but were not privileged – perhaps I wasn’t in the best place to read a tweet from my friend Vicky Beeching which read (I want to flag up here that I’m not trying to ‘shoot the messenger’ for a tweet!):

Myself, @SteveChalke @alantlwilson & @Andrew_Marin will be speaking at this conference on LGBT theology, April 2015: 

Checking out the list of headline speakers I was a bit concerned that there were seemingly no out LGBT on the list. Consequently I tweeted:

@vickybeeching @SteveChalke @alantlwilson @Andrew_Marin at the risk of sounding typically LGBT - where are the out LGBT folk on this list?

This led to an interesting exchange of tweets (see my timeline @revrachelmann) which included Vicky pointing out that there are some gay speakers on this initial list.
So is my reaction a wee bit ‘touchy’? Possibly. I am always conscious that I am quite capable of being a grumpy get, especially first thing in the morning. I am also conscious of how the language of ‘touchy’ and ‘chippy’ can be an internalized expression of homophobia and transphobia – that is, the result of an internalized belief that us LGBT people should just be thankful that straight (-presenting) people are being nice to us.

However, while acknowledging that it is still a year till this conference, I remain anxious about the set-up of the conference. Why? Because as far as I can see it is predicated on the deployment of ‘straight privilege’ and the conservative credibility that depends upon ‘straight’ (presenting) people talking about us. What do I mean?

For all I know, all of the headline speakers are gay. (It perhaps seems unlikely!) However, in terms of the set-up of this conference, there is silence about who they are as sexual beings. In a society that still privileges ‘straightness’ it seems not unreasonable to read those people as either: a) actually straight (which they all might be) or b) presenting as ‘straight’ and making use of the privilege which comes from being perceived as straight.

My point is this: even if those speakers have a proven track record of speaking up for LGBT people (and I know many have, at real personal cost) there is the constant risk  in any conference of a variant of the ‘trans psych scenario’ outlined at the start of the blog – people who are not LGBT (or don’t want to be seen as LGBT/’too’(!) LGBT) speaking on behalf of and about LGBT people. In an extraordinarily homo- and trans-phobic institution like the church I will always be anxious about headline narratives that begin by deploying straight-privilege to create credibility.

One of the headline speakers Andrew Marin tweeted me off the back of my tweet to say:
@RevRachelMann @dave42w @vickybeeching @alantlwilson 1 can’t hv LGBT conf w/o LGBTs. Give @SteveChalke more credit. Still 1yr away/1st promo

He’s right that it is a year away and it’s the first promo. And I'm sure Vicky is right that there are gay speakers. But you know what? Like all people who are hungry for change, I still want more. If you read the profiles of the people currently signed up to speak, even the queer people’s status as LGBT people is not foregrounded. ‘But it doesn’t matter,’ I hear some of you shout in frustration. (Or, ‘We don’t want that fact to get in the way’ or even ‘That’s a private matter’.) And those reactions are the heart of the issue. Because it does matter - the visible presence of people who are out and proud and will not apologise for who they are, not even for the sake of being credible, is crucial. It has always been at the heart of cultural change.

And what about Andrew’s point? Yes, it is a year out and I know conferences need to sell – it’s good to have some big, well-respected hitters to promote your event. But the way that conference looked to me this morning is less about LGBT scholars, activists and voices being foregrounded and more like nice, liberal people talking about them. And, so, maybe my problem is a matter of perception rather than reality. As I said, perhaps all of the headliners are LGBT and will use this conference to come out. (It would almost be worth the straight speakers doing it just for the ‘lols’! Go on, Alan!) But I wish the way the conference ‘looks’ feels more like a place where LGBT voices were foregrounded. Imagine how that set up might look if a one of the headliners from the start was a noted queer scholar like Elizabeth Stuart or Nicola Slee. Imagine if priority was given to young LGBT voices who have been serially marginalized by the church. (Again, I acknowledged that I don’t know what’s been happening behind the scenes. Perhaps these are things to be sorted at a later date.)

Andrew says, ‘Give Steve Chalke more credit.’ I hear this. (Though I do feel a wee bit ‘told-off’; I’m sure that wasn’t Andrew’s intention! This morning I’m overly sensitized to straight-privileged voices knocking against my out-trans one!) I also hear the force of Vicky’s tweets. (See my timeline.) I am a loose cannon who often needs to be corrected, especially on that blunt instrument ‘Twitter’. I always want to work with allies, straight or gay (hell, even those in the closet who use straight privilege to do stuff. (I think!!)), but given my experience of being part of groups of people who get talked about rather than talked to, I will keep asking the questions.


  1. I read an article a couple of years ago about Hollywood Stars expressing their support for equal marriage and in doing so drowning out LGBT voices, I've since tried to listen more and speak less. Not that I have anything particularly noteworthy to say, or platform to say it.

  2. Certainly Rachel, I would always rather hear you speaking than hear someone speaking about you. I guess the Oasis conference is aimed mainly at evangelicals (?) and possibly trying to win some to a more inclusive position (??). If so they will need a straight but affirming headline speaker to get people to come, I guess. I think that's why I have been asked to speak at a GS Fringe mtg in York for evangelicals there, sort of to say, 'come on the same journey as me ... You may lose a few friends, you'll gain many more, and most importantly you'll be helping LGBT folk be fully accepted at long last on the Church!
    Having said all that I am looking forwRd to hearing you speak on Norwich

  3. I hear you David. And I know how important it is to have evangelicals on board & speaking and putting yourselves on the line. (Think you're a star!) But it looks like there's no LGBT Christians on the platform (there probably are for all I know!) & that does trouble me x

  4. I think the issue of straight privilege and speaking up for LGBTI folk in the church is very complex.
    1. On the one hand this is a clear cut issue like the Bible and slavery. Everybody needs to speak up and speak out if they don't believe the Bible should be used to discriminate. And I think it's a real shame if presenting straight people don't yell for what is right from the roof tops.
    2. On the other hand, if a group of people (say Native Americans just as an example) are noticing the conversation seems to be about them and not including them, than that's something that needs to be acted on.

    I think the solution would be not to change the proportion of straight-presenting and LGBT speakers by reducing the number of straight speakers. But rather to increase the number of LGBT speakers so there are more speakers in total. We need more and more voices.

    Everyone is privileged or not privileged in one way or another. And I think sometimes privileged folk who speak up for non-privileged folk do so because they themselves have had experience of being non-privileged in other ways. So I would always urge caution before suggesting people should stay quiet, and would instead urge for loads more noise from a greater variety of folk.