My Deviant Little Pride Tree
When I was in seminary, there were two buildings for student housing: one for those who had families, were single men, or older single women, and one for the younger single women. There are a bunch of practical reasons for doing this, but one of the underlying reasons was to keep the single women separated from the single men and families. Even though we all had apartments, there was concern over whether or not we would get too close and cross too many lines. Even as adults who had undergone an incredible amount of screening before admission, we weren’t trusted. Nevermind the fact that single men and married individuals were capable of having affairs; it was very important to keep the younger, unmarried women separate. Unless they had kids, in which case, they were housed in the family building.
This is the case with one of my best friends at the time. She was a single mother, so when we hung out, it was most often at her place so that her daughter could do homework and be at home. She is a person of big ideas, and I was happy to go along with them. One Saturday, I took her, her daughter, another seminarian, and her son to the pumpkin farm that I had gone to while growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. We decided that since we had never made pumpkin pie from scratch before, we would get a few pumpkins and give it a whirl, and the next afternoon, we looked up a recipe and got started.
Holy buckets, Batman, I had NO IDEA how long it would take or how much pumpkin you can actually get out of a pie pumpkin! We carved and we roasted and we mashed and we baked… for HOURS. Neither of us could bear to even look at pumpkin anymore when we pulled the last one out of the oven at about 3:00 a.m. We were both exhausted, and at some point, I fell asleep on her couch. A few hours later, she woke me up and I walked back across campus in the same flannel pants and hoodie that I’d been wearing the night before, to get showered and changed before morning prayers. As I was walking back to my apartment, my path crossed with another friend’s, and he made a joke about me wearing my pajamas to prayers. I told him that I’d been baking all night, eventually crashed on a couch, and was on my way to change. He said OK, and we made more small talk as I walked back to my apartment.
I could not have imagined the kind of crap storm that that night set off. Later that Monday, I was told to go to what is essentially the dean’s office. When I got there, I was totally shocked to be told that my behaviors had been reported, and that I needed to watch myself. Apparently, the time I spent at my friend’s apartment doing homework, watching movies, and baking, was sending out the impression that I was a secret lesbian. I explained that there were usually other people there, but since they were people who already lived in the family housing, it wasn’t as obvious that they were there. I tried explaining that she was one of my best friends, and since we had both just moved hundreds of miles to get there, it was understandable that we would depend on each other for support. It didn’t matter, though. No matter what I said, they weren’t sure that I wasn’t a lesbian and I needed to be careful.
I was floored. I was furious. I didn’t see why it was any of their business, and why the assumption would be that two women cannot be very good friends, but instead, have to be romantically involved in order to spend a lot of time together. We lived in a community of about 100 people, surrounded by a tall brick wall, so we didn’t have a lot of choice but to spend time with one another.
I left the office and called my friend to give her a heads-up, in case she was asked about it. I called my other friend and asked if he had thought that I wasn’t truthful, and he said that he would have come to me about it, not reported it.
A few days later, my little sister and I were walking around a Borders on State Street in Chicago when we walked past some of their Christmas kitch. I’d told her about what had happened, and on the top of one of the displays was a rainbow foil Christmas tree that stood about a foot high. I commented that I should get the rainbow tree for my apartment since they thought I was a lesbian anyways. My sister, always one for egging me on, agreed, and I bought one. Because I had an weirdly massive bathroom counter in my apartment, it ended up being stuck there.
It stood there every day, long past the Christmas season, long after they told me to “finish taking down my Christmas decorations,” in a small act of defiance. I never took it down. In fact, when I went on my summer and Christmas internships, I took it with me. When I moved into my first and second parsonages, I unpacked it and placed it on the bathroom counter where it belongs. It’s my reminder every day to not let them push me around. It’s my reminder to be who I am and not let them force me to hide. It’s hard to miss a rainbow foil Christmas tree; it demands to be noticed.
About six months ago, I was at a regional event where another minister used the word “gay” to insult a kid right in front of him. It’s a knee-jerk reaction for me to call someone on using “gay” as an insult, and when I did, the minister informed me that she was going to say whatever she wants and I can’t stop her. That didn’t sit well with me, so I went to our regional leader about it. When I got done telling the leader what had happened, her tone changed a little and she said “it’s OK, Cindy, I think I know why it upsets you.”
Um. It upsets me because I witnessed a minister insulting a kid. It upsets me because I have an awful lot of friends who aren’t straight and I don’t like the implication that it means that they’re somehow lesser.
Her tone, though, and a few other comments she made, led me to wonder if she thinks that I’m a lesbian, but I didn’t call her on it then.
Three months ago, when I got to my new assignment, I was talking to one of the other ministers, and in the course of our conversation, she let me know that a significant number of other ministers in our region think I’m a lesbian. Apparently, having gay friends, supporting marriage equality, and a rare ally-ish post on Facebook meant, to them, that I must be gay, too. Then, she told me to “tone it down” so that people don’t get the wrong impression.
Tone it down? Mmm, nope. I can’t. I can’t because there’s no need to. I’m not going to stop having gay friends. I’m not going to stop encouraging marriage equality. I’m not going to stop being an ally.
I can’t because all of these moments have given me a teensy glance into what I imagine some of my friends have experienced: uncomfortable meetings with people who get way too far into your business, having the intimate parts of your life serve as gossip fodder for people who are supposed to be your friends, feeling like life would be easier if you did certain things or didn’t do certain things while also knowing that being anything other than yourself would be hell, pressure from religious leaders who are praying for your salvation despite the fact that you yourself have already been forgiven and given grace, feeling less-than-welcome in church despite it being the place that is supposed to welcome everyone… It was nowhere near the stories my friends have shared with me; their stories are heartbreaking and many of them have been able to show much more grace to their oppressors than I think I could muster.
Because of them, I can’t tone it down. Because I admire their faith, kindness, and goodness, I can’t tone it down. Because they’re smart, funny, fantastic people who make every day of my life better, I can’t tone it down. In the last few years, I think I’ve become kind of like my little pride tree: unobtrusive, not shying away from who and what I am, and not going anywhere. And sometimes, like my tree, when the light hits just right, I sparkle.
Posted on September 23, 2014, in Church, Friendship, Ministry, On Being a Woman, Woman Preacher and tagged Being the church, Bravery, Christmas, Gay Straight Ally, minister. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.