Saturday, January 2, 2016

The past six months, the next six months.

Among almost everyone I know, or keep up with by reading what they write, the general consensus appears to be that 2015 was a Very Bad Year that will not be missed. That assessment certainly holds true for me and my family. Since the last time I wrote a blog post, here's what's happened around us and to us:

-- In July, Amy's Quakers were kicked out of their broader fellowship.

-- In August, the oldest member of our extended family died.

-- In September, Amy and Dave were literally compelled to fly to Colorado to face an abusive relative in court, because she was finally legally allowed to challenge the civil protection order against her that had helped our family stay safe. The challenge was successful; it was a horrific experience for all of us.

-- In October, the youngest member of our extended family died, at only five days old.

-- In be honest, November is kind of a blur. I'm on the Board of Directors at my church. Several situations arose that required immediate attention. Also, I ended up becoming Treasurer.

And then came December.

If you read this blog, you're already aware of the importance of church and community to me. I mean, it's right there in the title, isn't it? It's the reason the blog exists and the focus of the great majority of posts. It should be no surprise that, through everything, I relied heavily on the comforting, solid and predictable presence of Amy's church and mine in our lives. A lot of our friends are part of one or the other. I had places I could go where I could just sit there and have all my senses report back to me: God, reassurance, company. As someone whose two largest weak spots are fear and loneliness, I can't exaggerate how much that sense of belonging enabled me to keep moving forward.

All the way back in January 2015, Amy and I had approached the pastors of our churches about the possibility of holding a formal celebration of our marriage and family on October 14, 2016. (October 14, 2011 is the date that Amy legally changed her last name to include both mine and Dave's. In the absence of any legal way to get married, we've settled over time on that day to be our anniversary.)  We had wanted to give both the chance to say no privately, and to allow time for whatever public conversations might be needed or wanted to keep such a celebration from becoming scandalous or divisive. We received an enthusiastically positive response from both. In October, we posted a "save the date" message on Facebook for our friends and family.

In December, Amy's pastor informed her that he did not feel empowered by his congregation to participate in our celebration in any active way. He might come as a guest, but he had to avoid any appearance of offering any kind of official endorsement. His "yes" had become a "no." Amy's Quakers' lack of inclusive language about families like ours had gone in practice from "no comment" to "no way." We immediately put out a cancellation announcement on Facebook.

Amy can tell her own story about these events, and she has, including plenty of detail about Quaker theological distinctives and organizational culture. Speaking only for myself, it was the worst part of the entire Very Bad Year. I felt afraid, and isolated, and angry, and cornered.

I am not what one would call a strategic thinker when it comes to seeking a world that is more welcoming for my family and families like mine. Mostly, I find spaces where people already hold interests and values that are very similar to mine, go about my life openly, and let them realize that my atypical family structure isn't incompatible with those interests and values. In practice, I suppose it amounts to an appeal to empathy.

When it comes to empathy, Hari Ziyad writes fiercely about its limits. I agree with everything they say (except, unsurprisingly, their dubiousness about the importance and impact of marriage equality). They accurately describe not only my observations about how other people behave badly, but about how I behave badly myself, too. Ziyad's most cutting point is about the obligatory spectacles of pain that marginalized people have to produce again, and again, and again in order to earn and maintain acknowledgment of their existence, let alone decent treatment, from people who sit in cozier socioeconomic positions.

Where they are incomplete in their critique, I believe, is not recognizing the ways that the appeal to empathy creates a social contract in the minds and hearts of the comfortable. "We understand you and your pain," the contract says, "so you will understand and sympathize with our struggles." In return for basic human decency on their part, they expect others will nod gravely and pat them on the back when they are unable or unwilling to move past that very low bar.

I should be clear that, as this dynamic applies to my own personal situation, I am not picking on Amy's Quakers here. I went through my Facebook friendslist, and there are about 25 clergy ordained in mainline Protestant denominations on there. I believe all of them would welcome my family's attendance at a church that they served. I also strongly doubt that any of them would put their "congregational capital" on the line for my family if we asked for the same open recognition and blessing that traditional married couples are routinely given, and I am unsure how they would react if other congregants complained about our presence.

I should also be clear that we face low risk of physical assault from society, unlike, say, Black people or trans folk or Muslims in America today. Talk about your low bars, though. "At least nobody goes out of their way to kill us!" Yay!

To sum up the past six months, then: We felt acceptably safe. Then we didn't.

Now we don't.

The next six months, I will not be relying on empathy. I am going to be noisy and demanding in the spaces I can be. (Not Amy's Quakers. That space is hers, to engage with how and if she chooses.) If my family doesn't get to feel safe anymore, other people who are safe don't get to feel comfortable anymore, either. As I said, I am not what one would call a strategic thinker.