This week’s show on the future of marriage is one of those conversations that we believe adds to our collective imagination and understanding of how to work through the difficult issue of same-sex marriage. Jonathan Rauch and David Blankenhorn came to the “gay marriage debate” from two, predictable opposing sides — but with an equal desire to strengthen marriage. They’re pursuing another way to talk about this difficult issue, and others, with civility and honesty.
Please listen in and share with your friends. We’d love to hear your feedback and wonder if the way these two men engage each other might possibly be a model for the rest of us to talk about other difficult issues with sincerity and openness.
Walter Brueggemann on the Futility of the Theological Argument over Gays and Lesbians
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
Protestant theologian Walter Brueggemann once compared LGBTQ people to canaries in a coal mine, likening these proverbial birds to society’s most vulnerable members. Determining how the canaries are treated, says Brueggemann in an interview with The Witness, “is always the test case about whether we are following Jesus.”
Earlier this spring, Krista sat down with Brueggemann in our studios. In the audio clip excerpted here, he explains why he thinks gay and lesbian sexuality “has such adrenaline” in and beyond church communities. For Brueggemann, there’s no point in having a theological discussion about homosexuality. He thinks homophobia is a proxy for people’s ill-defined fears about an old world order that’s rapidly disappearing:
“It is an amorphous anxiety that we’re in a free fall as a society. And I think we kind of are in free fall as a society, but I don’t think it has anything to do with gays and lesbians particularly.”
Last week in New York, that collective “amorphous anxiety” got trumped by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s dogged push for social change with the passage of the Marriage Equality Act by the state legislature.
According to The New York Times, Governor Cuomo gathered all of the state’s Republican senators at his home to plead his case for the bill’s passage. “Their love is worth the same as your love,” he reportedly told the senators. “Their partnership is worth the same as your partnership. And they are equal in your eyes to you. That is the driving issue.”
Transgender Male Athlete Plays for NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Team: From Kay-Kay to Kye
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
George Washington University point guard Kye Allums recently made headlines as the first known transgender student to play NCAA Division I college basketball. At a press conference held last month, Allums announced: “I am a transgender male, which means feelings-wise, how it feels on the inside, I feel as if I should have been born male with male parts. But my biological sex is female, which makes me a transgender male.”
Allums’ teammates and coach now use the pronoun “he” when referring to Kye (who was born Kay-Kay). Allums, who is a junior, will continue to play on the women’s team. To comply with NCAA guidelines and retain his athletic scholarship, Allums is postponing hormone treatments until after his college basketball career is over.
A profile of Allums in Outsports describes his attempts to try on identities that ultimately didn’t fit the truth of who he experienced himself to be. In high school this meant affiliating as a lesbian, but over time this didn’t feel right. During his freshman year in college his mother sent him an angry text that read: “Who do you think you are, young lady?” All of a sudden, Allums’ awakening as a transgender male began to crystallize.
Allums’ story gets at topics and voices we’ve long been interested in: the spirituality of body image and the lived experience of being transgender. It also raises a flurry of questions about equity, fairness, and where transgender athletes fit into the larger landscape of competitive sports.
When Allums came out as transgender, his coach Mike Bozeman asked him if he thought God had made a mistake. As Allums remembers it, Bozeman followed up with words of support saying, “I’ve had your back through everything. Our relationship has grown from nothing to this, and now you think I’d just turn my back on you because you told me this? No. I love you and I’ll always be here for you.”
In the end, Allums concluded that God hadn’t made a mistake. “I was meant to be like this for a reason. Clearly my life is going to be different from anyone who was born a biological male, because of what I’ve been through. And I was meant to go through all of this.”
Sex, Death, and Secrets: A Reporter’s Notebook
by Sasha Aslanian, guest contributor
On January 1, 1990, Jeff Johnson, a gay man and pastor of First United Lutheran Church, and Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart, lesbian pastors of St. Francis Lutheran Church are ordained in San Francisco. Both churches were suspended in 1990 and expelled by the ELCA in 1996. (photo courtesy of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries)
My old English prof used to say “The Victorians were obsessed with death. We’re obsessed with sex.” I made an unexpected discovery on a recent assignment: sex and death have something in common: secrets.
In August of 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) voted to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to serve as pastors. As a reporter for MPR News, my assignment was to follow up a year later on the impact of the vote. I stumbled into a news story: the church was in the process of reconciling with partnered gays and lesbians who had previously been unwelcome. In July of this year, the ELCA added seven people back to its roster in San Francisco. Then, this September, they did the same with three women in Minnesota.
Two of the Minnesota women, Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart, were the first lesbian couple to be ordained without the blessing of the ELCA in San Francisco in 1990. They invited me to their home for an interview.
For the next 70 minutes, their story spilled out, spanning a sweeping slice of a social revolution moving rapidly through in our times. They told of coming out, falling in love, losing jobs then gaining them, and feeling God work through them during the AIDS crisis and hospice chaplaincy. Their story transcends Lutheranism. It’s personal, yet tethered to movements on both coasts, inside churches, seminaries, universities, courthouses, and workplaces.
“When you’re a change agent,” said Frost, “you act where you are. Some people do in the secular arena: political activists, social activists. Our arena was the church. I’m third-generation Lutheran clergy.”
For me, the unexpected part of their story was how they connected their work in hospice with the battle for inclusion in the Church. Zillhart and Frost began their ministry in San Francisco just as AIDS was ravaging the city. As they plunged in to help the men, their partners, and their families prepare for death, the two women saw opportunities for forgiveness, reconciliation, respect, acceptance, and love.
The “tape” at the top of this post is my favorite, but I had to leave it out of the final radio version. My news piece needed to cover the ordination, expulsion, and eventual embrace — already a tall order — and I wasn’t sure my editor would let me wander into end-of-life stuff at all. Thankfully she did, and it gave the story more depth. I think it also showed what Frost and Zillhart have been striving to show all along: there’s more that unites people than divides them. We all have secrets. Death is a universal unburdening of secrets.
Sexual orientation can be just one of them.
“There isn’t a family that doesn’t have a secret that they yearn to share and talk about the hurts and hopes we all have,” said Zillhart. “Our difference is more obvious, more politically charged, people do a lot of fund-raising around how scary we seem — that feels electrifying — but the differences we have are all among us. The commonalities are so much deeper.”
Frost adds with a note of amused exasperation, “I would love to get past being an issue in the church as a lesbian. I’ve been a professional Lutheran lesbian all my life. It’s time to be meeting one another in deeper ways than that affords.”
Frost and Zillhart show just where that depth can take us.
Unedited Interview with Frost and Zillhart (mp3, 71:00)
This interview is what I call “a spigot interview” — the story spilled forth with very little coaxing. Their narrative connects their individual lives to a larger canvas of social and religious history.
Sasha Aslanian is a reporter for MPR News and creator of MPR News’ Youth Radio Series. From 2000 to 2008, she produced documentaries for American RadioWorks, the national documentary unit of American Public Media. Aslanian has won awards named for famous news men: Edward R. Murrow, Lowell Thomas, Heywood Broun and Eric Sevareid. She is a graduate of Grinnell College.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Transgender Identity in Iran: A Film
Trent Gilliss, online editor
The topic of gender and sexuality is on our long list of shows we want to produce in the coming year — in particular, a show on transgender people. The videos above and below are excerpts from Be Like Others, a documentary about a number of young men who are transsexuals living in Iran and pursuing surgical changes.
In these two clips, Iranian-American director Tanaz Eshaghian shows the complex, multi-layered conversations and struggles for transgender people living in an Islamic state — from conversations about proper attire and wearing of the hijab to familial struggles about cultural norms.
What’s surprising to me in these clips is the nature of the conversation. Even though there are discussions about operations and genetic tests confirming a biological male identity, the root of these conversations is love and caring and community. Despite her objections about his transformation, the mother in the second clip spends as much energy lecturing her son on wearing less makeup and donning the hijab properly when going out; in the first clip, a member of the transgender community reprimands a peer for going out in public with hair hanging out the back of her hijab and talks of bringing respect to their community.
Although these individuals are pursuing lifestyles that are outside the cultural norm, it doesn’t mean that they abandon their upbringings and the values instilled in them. They continue to live within the larger culture, defying some strictures while observing others. Obviously, they face predicaments I can’t imagine, but, it’s also heartening to see that their families remain in dialogue with them in tense circumstances. I find that heartening and am anxious to view the documentary.
Update (6.21): The film will be broadcast on HBO2 on June 24th.