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RGOD2: The politics of shame, from San Diego to Dominica

“You should be ashamed of yourselves!” a San Diego mother yelled at me and another clergyman. He happened to be the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral as we exited our City Council’s public hearing on marriage equality.

Although this event was three years ago, I can still hear her violent words inside my head. Dean Scott Richardson, a straight ally, had just given testimony to the City Council, whose members then voted in favor of marriage equality.

As Episcopalian clergy, we wore our white clerical collars and had showed inclusive solidarity by offering a different perspective to the City’s leadership on why marriage for LGBT people was a GOOD thing and had RELIGIOUS support. The finger-wagging mother (in full view of her children) appeared to disagree with us.

“It’s funny how those who disagree with us often resort to shaming when they have no real intellectual argument opposing our position,” Scott said as we scuttled off to the safety of the parking lot. He was right. Shaming is the only significant force that is often used masterfully against LGBT people and our allies.

The story of the two American gay men arrested last week in Dominica and taken off an Atlantis cruise ship on charges of “indecent exposure” is a recent example of the often invisible power of shame and the frenzy it causes to all of us.

To have one’s “mug shot” in the international press and one’s personal life exposed in a demeaning way is shameful, and is both spiritually and socially damaging as we recently heard from John Robert Hart and Dennis Jay Mayer of Palm Springs. The men were advised by their attorney to plead guilty and apologize, pay their fine and leave Dominica immediately. They were further disgraced by the judge who called them “rouges and vagabonds.”

It is still not clear what really happened or why it happened but what is clear is the apparatus of shame went into full swing. It is often initiated by a combination of legal, religious or social sanctions against certain behaviors and populations and always involves public humiliation. We saw the same apparatus in full swing at Rutgers University in New Jersey when Dharun Ravi chose to expose his roommate’s private sexual activities to his friends without his consent. This public exposure and shaming ultimately led to the tragic suicide of Tyler Clementi.

Shame has this power over us and is a destructive force. I cannot imagine what John Hart and his partner of 17 years, Dennis Mayer, are going through right now and I hope they are getting some pastoral care and psychological support in Palm Springs. Their traumatic experience will be with them to the end of their lives and the challenge with this kind of experience is always in the question: “How do I repair and transform a negative and largely destructive situation into a positive one? Shame is a kind of social crucifixion, so how do I experience resurrection?

Holy Week is a time to reflect on religious-based homophobia and shaming

Christians all over the world will enter into Holy Week, which is a story of transformative shame, humiliation, sexual assault (Roman victims of crucifixion were always stripped naked and publically demeaned) and torture.

We have largely intellectualized or make piety from the passion story of Jesus that takes up a third of the Gospel accounts of his young life. Jesus is arrested, stripped, humiliated, tortured, goes through a mock trial and is put to death for crimes against God and his nation. Religious people and their institutions crucified Jesus.

I was reminded of the wording of a police booking form in Uganda for homosexuality that describes a crime “against God and the Ugandan Constitution.” Jesus was a threat to the religious, political and moral order of his day. The church does not talk much about this institutional aspect of the shaming of Jesus during Holy Week but it is clearly in the Gospel texts.

Jesus would understand the shaming of LGBT people by devout Christians. His experience of organized religion was similar to ours. His close friends all deserted him because they too were shamed into not having any association with him. Shame isolates. I have been trying to reach out to John and Dennis in Palm Springs and hope they have some friends who realize the need for close support and a way to process this trauma so that something transformative can come out of their experience.

Healing divisions

Just as the disciples were divided and traumatized, the LGBT and ally community has been shamed and traumatized by the Dominica story and remain deeply divided over it.

Shame should not be a weapon we use against one another. It is wrong for us to say this couple just got what they deserve, just as it is wrong to withdraw support for international travel and exchange programs to the 76 countries where homosexuality is illegal.

At a recent fundraiser for our “Spirit of 76 program” where we were seeking $3,500 for a scholarship to bring a delegate to the World AIDS Conference in July in Washington, D.C., a donor looked through our list of 76 countries where it is illegal to be LGBT, and remarked: “Oh my God, I have been on vacation in some of these countries and I had no idea!”

She wrote a check for $3,500 and wants to sponsor someone from Jamaica or the West Bank so they can build a stronger network to support themselves in very difficult circumstances. My friend did not have to go on at Atlantis cruise to learn about gay global oppression. The travel and gay guides often leave out this kind of information. Yet, she suddenly “got it” and then did something about it when she understood the problem. She also realized she could make a difference.

Insult -- a common experience

How do we help each other transform our shame because of our identities or in the case of straight allies, the shame of being associated with us?

I see this at work with Bishop Christopher of Uganda who at age 80 will not respond to the shame that has been laid on him by his church. He still continues to be loving, forgiving and inclusive even to his enemies and those who would shame him.

“Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” is a mantra we can use as we pray for our LGBT brothers and sisters in Dominica and their allies, as well as our couple from Palm Springs. In a book titled “Insult,” Didier Eribon, a disciple of Michel Foucault, describes the common experience of LGBT people and our allies where we all know the reality of insult because of identity.

“Insult is more than a word that describes ... That person is letting me know that he or she has something on me, has power over me. First and foremost the power to hurt me, to mark my consciousness with that hurt, inscribing shame to the deepest levels of my mind. This wounded shamed consciousness becomes a formative part of my personality. Insult is a performative utterance. Its function is to produce certain effects-notably to establish or renew the barrier between “normal” people and stigmatized people and to cause the internalization of that barrier within the individual being insulted.”

As SDGLN Editor in Chief Ken Williams described in his commentary on the Dominica story last week, this story provides us with a “teachable moment.” Some 2,000 gay men had an unscheduled course on LGBT equality that was not planned as part of the party atmosphere of the Atlantis cruises programs! How are they processing this experience? Shock, anger, loss, or maybe rejection and further shame?

A photograph of where we are in 2012

The Dominica story is a photograph of the present disconnect between affluent global north LGBT people and millions of global south LGBT people who fight every day against shame and discrimination.

There are other and worse stories than this one going on in the world today, but they continue to be reported in fringe media or not at all. There is also a lack of global education in the USA LGBT movement combined with an unwillingness by our key organizations to invest the time, staff and money needed to make it happen.

Then a story like this one emerges and everyone is shocked for a moment and then continues to live in our own little gay bubbles. What would happen if we could take all of the money spent on just one just cruise? We would probably be able to fund enough emerging LGBT programs in Dominica and in 75 other countries for two years! We could make a significant impact by partnering with the emerging leadership of these countries and the complex religious and political contexts they are working in to prevent the kind of fallout we are seeing in Dominica.

One leading politician in Dominica has come out in favor of LGBT rights and is the first positive outcome we have seen in an otherwise dark and shame-filled story. Atlantic cruises and other companies making profits from LGBT people should take the lead in investing in emerging leadership in these 76 countries, as a positive reaction to this “teachable moment” and make LGBT global education a part of their cruise experience. There are lots of resources and organizations around to help them do it.

Given the press around the recent arrests, gay clients of Atlantis are more likely to pay attention to the global issues because potentially, this could also happen to each one of us. This is also true of LGBT people and allies who support organizations like Atlantis and the international travel business. A fraction of what we spend in global north LGBT travel and leisure could transform the persecution and the shaming of millions of human beings.

To boycott or to blame are not the answers as the world grows smaller. We need to “lean into the wind” as the Buddhist image invites us and not run further from the challenges. We need to find sponsors for our 76 people coming to represent these countries at a big Faith and World AIDS Conference in Washington. Just bringing these people together to share their stories and practices will be a transformative moment. Their presence and contribution among us will be enormous and what they will take back to their challenging contexts will also be significant … if we really want to make some inroads into this complex problem. So I invite our readers to think about making a donation, sponsoring an individual and transforming our “teachable moment” from shame and isolation to pride and solidarity. Donations to the Spirit of 76 Initiative can be made HERE.

RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.