America is not a Christian Nation…Nor Should It Be

Several months ago, I got into a disagreement with a friend over the religious rights of businesses to refuse service to gay people. As I’m sure it’s no surprise, I do not think that businesses have the right to discriminate against anyone–for a host of reasons. My friend believes that the business owner’s religious morality should trump civil law in the case of Sweet Cakes By Melissa’s denial of service to a lesbian bride-to-be. My friend believes that forcing the business to serve the woman would open the door to religious discrimination.

For the record, I am not a Christian. I do, however, believe in the freedom of religion outlined in the First Amendment of our country’s Bill of Rights. While everyone knows about the protection given to those who practice religion, the lesser known part is the protection from the religious practices of others as well as the restriction of the government from favoring one religious belief over another.

The problem with my friend’s stance is that it comes from a view that Christianity is the default religion of anyone involved in this conversation. Aside from the obvious problem of Christianity not being the only religion around, it also fails to specify which version of Christianity is being adhered to as far as this conversation is concerned–and many like it to come, I’m sure.

My experience with religion began within the context of an Evangelical Fundamentalist Christian Church. On those Sunday mornings that our blue church bus would pick my brother and me up, we were conveyed to a local community center where we would receive our religious instruction in the center’s auditorium. It was there that I was taught that Rock Music was “music of the Devil,” our pastor telling us to destroy any and all albums and tapes lest we become corrupted by it. I was taught that the Bible was the literal and inviolable word of God and that the minister himself was the spokesman for the Lord.

This was in 1985 (a year after the original Footloose came out) and I was ten years old. It was also the year that I lost my faith. I remember the exact moment: the minister was telling us about the Devil’s Music and that anyone who listened to it was corrupt and sinful and likely to lead us straight into the arms of Lucifer. The disturbing part of that assertion was he was talking about my parents.

My father was a fan of Iron Butterfly, Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa, Cheech & Chong, The Who and many other 60’s and 70’s era psychedelic rock groups. My mother, on the other hand, listened to Madonna, Prince, Teena Marie, Rick James, and a number of other artists who often sung explicitly about sexuality that fell firmly outside of our church’s moral mandates.

As a child, being told that your parents, the people who are supposed to love you the most in the world, were in fact leading you down a path to eternal damnation was frightening. More than that, however, it was contradictory and even my little kid’s mind called bullshit. The very week beforehand, the minister had discussed the Ten Commandments, in particular the one concerning the honoring of our parents. He told us that our parents were infallible, that they always had our best interests at heart and so our obedience to them was the best way to honor them. I remember thinking about the parents of my friends in my old neighborhood and wondering how you could honor someone who was capable of beating you with a belt in front of your friends on the front lawn. My parents weren’t perfect, but they didn’t do anything like that, so I gave the pastor the benefit of the doubt–until he started talking about how my parents were leading me to Hell via their music collection.

As you can imagine, that sort of spiritual disillusionment was devastating not just because I had lost God, but I had lost Him because He turned out to be a contradictory jerk. It took me nearly fifteen years to realize that it wasn’t God who let me down–it was the minister and all of his followers.

My belief and understanding in the Divine is much different than when I was a child, but that’s a good thing. My spirituality is more mature and ever evolving. And, while I am a Taoist now, my belief in a creative, loving force has recovered and strengthened–and has no place for hatred and fear-mongering.

My point in bringing all of this up is that not everyone’s experience with religion and spirituality is as tumultuous; indeed, many people are surrounded by loving, accepting people who just want to be good people and feel a connection to something greater than themselves. And a great many of these people are Christian. But they are also Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and so many more people than I can reasonably list. And then there are the Atheists and Agnostics who are no less important for their search for meaning outside a religious context.

My friend, who believes that it is just fine to deny a cake to a woman who was marrying the woman she loved, in my view, is wrong. She is not wrong for her religious beliefs; that is her right and I would defend that right even if she believes that I will go to Hell for my beliefs. Rather, she is wrong that her beliefs should be the law of the land when the land in question is the United States of America. Her beliefs assume that her religion is the correct one and the fact is, no religion can rightfully make that claim.

America is not a Christian nation, it is a nation that has Christians in it and, just like with race, we would be a much poorer culture without our signature diversity. And that is why we should not even try to be a Christian nation, because it would endanger the religious freedom (or even freedom from religion) of so many of our citizens. And that would just be un-American.

The Correct Side of History

On this day, June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that banning same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.

I was awoken by my best friend via text message telling me of the history making news and I began to cry the best tears of joy.

This weekend is Gay Pride weekend in my home state of Minnesota and I will be out and proud at the festivities celebrating.

What a wonderful serendipity that this ruling should fall two days before the 46th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots that is the origin of our Pride parades. Indeed, only three days ago, the Stonewall Wall Inn was named a historic landmark.

While this is by no means the end of the road for our fight for equality, it is a huge step forward–not just for us queer folk, but equality itself. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

For the first time in a very long time, I can say without hesitation that I am proud to be a Queer American. Below is a YouTube made compilation of coming out and wedding videos to commemorate this historic day.

Aloha, Ohana!

National Coming Out Day

“So, what are you?” is an invasive question I was once asked by a homophobic customer (this wasn’t my only run in with him since we lived in the same small, conservative suburb) I was serving about ten years ago. At first, I didn’t understand what he was asking, thinking he was referring to my job function (I was a video store manager at the time), so I asked him to clarify to which he replied, “You don’t date guys, do you?” I told him no, even though that wasn’t true (I date people, not gender labels). I just wanted him to go away because the last thing I wanted to do was attempt to educate someone that used the word “what” instead of “who” when he was talking directly to me. With that simple word, he turned me into an object, a thing, not a person.

And that is why National Coming Out day is so important, to show people that LGBTQI folks are just like everyone else–People! According to the Centers for Disease Control, LGBQ teens are twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their straight peers. Coming out can be a very scary experience (especially if you fear rejection by your loved ones), but staying in the closet is much scarier–just in a different way. The main difference between coming out and staying in the closet is how you feel about yourself: do you love or hate yourself? Coming out is an act of self-love that has nothing to do with narcissism and everything to do with realizing that you are a valuable human being who deserves to love and be loved just like all the other human beings on earth. Staying in the closet, however, teaches you and others that it is ok to hate you, to not think of you as a human being but as something that doesn’t deserve to be loved or accepted. That’s wrong, no matter what the hypocritical homophobes in power say.

Coming Out is an act of great courage, even today because, even though we’ve made great strides toward equality, there are still those who want to turn back the clock and push people back into the closet. That’s just in America; there are 81+ countries around the world that criminalize homosexuality and homosexual acts. The act of Coming Out isn’t just about not hiding, but it’s to show solidarity; to show others that they are not alone in this struggle, that they do in fact have a right to be who they are without fear.

And that is why, like so many out and proud folks, I’m lending my voice to the chorus of people coming out all over again. So here goes:

I am Queer.

I don’t identify as a woman (or a man for that matter), but I won’t be offended if you say “her” or “she.” I’ve been called “sir” numerous times, and once I was called “young man” by an Army recruiter. I’ve been called a “dyke,” a “lesbo,” and I was even mistaken for being a Trans-Man once. I have dated men and women and a pre-operation transgendered woman since I came out over twenty years ago. Although I find many different types of people attractive (I’m a major fan of inner beauty), the number of people I’ve fallen in love with can be counted on one hand. I am not ashamed of who I am, nor will I allow people to tell that I should be, and I damn sure know that there is nothing wrong with loving people.

And what I should have said to that jerk way back then is, “I’m a Human Being.”

Garage Sales, People Watching and Prejudice

I love people watching.

From a creative writing perspective, it’s fun to come up with stories about the lives of strangers. I usually start with the obvious observations about people’s hair, eyes, ethnicity or clothing. Then I move on to observing the way in which they hold things or drink their coffee (I used to do a lot of my people watching at cafes). I would try to guess their professions, imagine the type of music they listened to or even the type of cars they drove. Often these little visual cues were all I needed to build elaborate stories about the lives of total strangers, with little care as to whether I was accurate or not.

Recently, I agreed to help a friend with her annual garage sale. In between making change and making small talk with the various customers, I started analyzing the people who came to the sale. It was different than many of my previous customer service jobs, mostly because there was haggling over prices. 

At one point during the day, one of the customers (a guy who could not seem to stay away because he came to buy stuff on four separate occasions), began to monologue about how garage sale goers were a notoriously cheap bunch, but he went further by pointing at Africans and Asians as being the worst of the lot. Being part Asian myself, I was offended by this–even though my white friend and I had actually been talking about this very thing the day before. Why did it offend me when an old white man, as opposed to when my white female friend, had said the same thing? I think the main difference was that I didn’t know the man personally, while I had known my friend for over twenty years. After all, it is often the intention behind what is being said that carries most of the meaning; I didn’t know the intentions of his words and I couldn’t necessarily trust that it wasn’t borne from ignorance or prejudice.

And, as I listened to this old white man, I smiled politely and said nothing. Perhaps I should have spoken up, but I wonder what that would have accomplished? Sure, I could’ve justified an angry verbal confrontation by saying I was educating him, but in all reality, would he have listened? Or would I be just another (insert “angry” minority stereotype here) who didn’t know how to take a joke? Worse still, because I am one of those people who can “pass” as white, was I in fact being a coward for not correcting his casual racism? And by the way, how fucked up is it that I’m the one questioning myself about this when he probably hasn’t thought about it since he said it? Sadly, I have no answers for these questions.

Sorry.

I have no insightful or ingenious ways of combating the ongoing, yet completely idiotic way in which race and racism is perceived and discussed. I’m not a hero, or a crusader or an activist. I’m a creative writer. And no, that is NOT a cop out, it is reality. And race is not the only area in which the world is screwed up. Classism, sexism, homophobia, religious and political shenanigans abound, and every last one of these things–and oh so much more–is important and needs to be addressed. But, as everyone who has ever witnessed me losing my temper has told me, “You have to pick your battles.” And my personal war is in changing and expanding the way in which I see the world. Because, in reality, my perceptions are really the only ones that I can reliably and honestly change.

Through the years of people watching, I learned to dissect the ways in which we make judgments about people and how those stereotypes are so easy to engage in even when we should know better. In many ways this simple, almost voyeuristic act helped me understand my own preconceived notions based solely on looks. After all, what can you actually tell about a person from the shade of their skin? Would that perception change if we were unsure of someone’s racial heritage? What about gender or, for that matter, gender-presentation? What about the fashion someone chooses to adorn themselves with? Should a woman wearing combat boots be taken any more or less seriously than a man wearing heels? What about an Asian woman with a Mohawk or a black man in a kimono? Is a soul-food place any less legitimate because white people work there? What about Hispanic people in a Chinese restaurant? And none of this even begins to address the issues of body-shaming, mental illness, or marriage equality all of which carry their own ingrained prejudices and out-dated attitudes of “right and wrong.”

As a writer, bearing all of this in mind, I do my best not to perpetuate stereotypes but also not cram my political views down peoples’ throats. It’s hard and, sometimes, downright impossible not to inject my own (and possibly flawed) version of morality and ethics. I am only Human after all, and an opinionated one at that. However, that’s also part of the challenge of writing, showing people an aspect of the world they’ve never seen or even imagined before. Science Fiction, Fantasy and even Romance hold up a mirror to show how the world is, but goes further by inviting you to imagine how the world could be. The world can be a crappy place sometimes, but remember that things used to be worse (there was once a time when cell phones, penicillin, and Freedom of Speech didn’t exist). It is in this vein that I believe that I can actually do the most good–by showing people a world full of possibilities, unlimited by the preconceived notions that we are sometimes unconsciously enslaved to.

In this shrinking world of ours, it is all the more important to really think about the things we think we know about each other. It’s not just about religion, race or sexuality, although these are still worthy topics of discussion, it’s really about relating to the other people on this planet as…well, People. No matter what you may think of someone’s choice of attire, hairstyle or politics, we are all still Human Beings underneath and it is this commonality that we must keep in mind whenever we are tempted to pass judgment on each other.

Now, while we do have to stop getting caught up on our differences, we must still learn to honor those differences too. Homogeny is boring and is really only suitable for milk. When I people watch, I like to think of the unconventional, the contradictory that still makes sense. The sophisticated-looking business woman who has a secret fascination with mixed-martial arts; the greasy mechanic who enjoys opera, or even the rap artist who holds a degree in microbiology; all of these seemingly incongruous ideas are entirely possible once you stop seeing the world through the narrow blinders of our local community. Go to another country, another state, city or hell just another neighborhood. As the Prophet Mohammed said in the Quran, “Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you have travelled.” Go out and experience the wondrousness of our shared yet varied Humanity, because sometimes it’s interesting to watch the way in which another stops to smell the roses.