I am grateful to my mother for all the things she taught me. I am grateful to my fifth grade homeroom teacher, my seventh grade English teacher and my high school media production teacher. But some of the most important lessons, the most interesting and discussion-worthy lessons I ever received came from another source. For teaching me the things no one else wanted to talk about or even knew how to talk about, for discussing them with compassion and honesty and frankness, for keeping a sense of humor while providing me with profound insights, for all of that and more I am grateful to
… Phil Donohue.
Long before talk shows became a series of loud, embarrassing family fights and blatant attempts to shame and humiliate guests and studio audience participants, Phil was exploring the nooks and crannies in our society no one else seemed to be giving any attention. Did he ever exploit people? Did he sometimes work the ratings? I’m sure he did. Maybe you never liked Phil, yourself. But to me, as a kid just trying to figure out her own identity, Phil Donohue always seemed sincere and genuine. He cared about people, and he introduced me to a whole lot of people I learned to care about, too.
It was Phil who talked to gay men, and lesbian women, and people who were having operations to change from one physical gender to another. He didn’t talk about them. He didn’t talk down to them. He talked with them about their realities – and he listened. And in doing that, he taught me to listen. It is in listening to the real stories of real people that I have learned so much and have felt so much and have grown so much.
Mostly I’ve learned that I live as a privileged human being in our society. I am privileged because I am straight and I am cis-gendered, meaning that I identify with the gender that my physical body presents. My heterosexual and cis-gender privilege started before I was even born.
In the United States, privilege is granted to people who have membership in one or more of these social identity groups:
• White people;
• Able-bodied people;
• Middle class people;
• Middle-aged people;
• English-speaking people
When we know a baby is on the way, what’s the big question?
Is it a boy or a girl? Do you know? Are you going to find out? Or are you going to wait and be surprised?
Because that little, tiny piece of information unlocks the entire future.
Privilege is usually invisible to the people who have it. People in dominant groups often believe that they have earned the privileges that they enjoy or that everyone could have access to these privileges if only they worked to earn them. In fact, privileges are unearned and they are granted to people in the dominant groups whether they want those privileges or not.
Boy or Girl goes way beyond what color I am going to paint the nursery. It also tells me what clothes I am going to dress my child in, what toys I am going to buy for them, and how I am going to refer to them. It gives me a good idea of what kinds of activities they will be involved in, what kind of career they might follow, what life transitions they will face.
Perhaps most importantly, it tells me how I will relate to my child. What kind of relationship I can expect over the years and what role will I play in their life in the years to come. The sex of my child ultimately becomes something very personal about me – because my role is different if I am the mother or father of a boy than if I am the mother or father of a girl.
And usually – even though we are all unique and we all bring unique twists to our relationships – those assumptions play out pretty much the way we expect them to. That is heterosexual and cis-gender privilege.
I’m guessing that I wasn’t the only one raised in this room with the teaching, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” What an incredibly destructive teaching. To condone hating on one hand and to label people as sinful on the other.
When I was doing campus ministry at our Muskegon Community College, I met with a professor of philosophy. The college had recently been in the news for refusing to allow a drag show to take place on its campus. The professor welcomed me and told me he hoped my presence would have a positive impact. He shared with me that in the past year, a young student of his had come out as gay to his Christian parents. They responded to his disclosure by telling him he “should kill himself.” He did.
The LGBT community has far too often been the victim of violence – both physical violence and spiritual violence. Too often anti-gay rhetoric masquerades as a message of God’s love and the power to overcome obstacles, giving rise to self-hatred and encouraging intolerance. When people arm themselves with the weapon of misinformation that perpetuates intolerance and preserves heterosexual privilege, the fruits of their labor are suffering, self-hatred and wasted gifts.
You know, as a heterosexual, I had the privilege of never having my own sexuality questioned. I also never had anyone reduce me to a sexual act or ask me how I “do” it and I never had to “come out” and announce my sexuality to anyone. I also never had to live with internalized homophobia that would make me question whether every person’s reaction to me had something to do with my sexuality.
One of the saddest stories I lived through was when a gay couple stopped coming to Extended Grace. When I reached out after a few weeks, I learned that one of the men had been refused a hug by a young college women. He felt she was rejecting him because he was openly gay. What he didn’t know was that she had been raped on her college campus while walking home at night earlier that week. She wasn’t letting anyone hug her. A heterosexist, homophobic society conditions human beings to expect rejection even where that rejection doesn’t exist. And when that happens – everyone is hurt.
I know I have become more and more aware of my heterosexual privilege and I invite you who share my privilege to do so, too. Think about what the world would be like if we would all live as our most authentic self. Then work for a world in which everyone is free to be fully who they are.