Saturday, June 21, 2014

It's a family affair...

In 2013, our family walked in the Capital District Pride Parade with members from our church. A friend invited us to do something that weekend and I told her we had a family event to attend. When I told her what our plans were, her response was, "how is that a family event?"

This year, we are helping to host a table for our church at Schenectady Pride and I find myself thinking of my friend's question, "why is this a family event?" Because my friend who asked the question isn't homophobic. She's supportive of gay rights. And I know there are many people out there who are supportive of Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer (LGBTQ) issues who would still shy away from bringing their children to this event. Why? As I was explaining what transgender and bisexual means to my 8-year old this morning, I realized why LGBTQ issues make others, who may fully support the cause, uncomfortable when it comes to children. SEX. Yes, SEX. It is very hard to explain what the LGBTQ terms mean without entering into that taboo subject of sex.

I have friends who go to great lengths to hide the fact that they have periods, use non-scientific words for body parts, and are hoping the school will do a good enough job of explaining sex to their children so they don't have to have the "talk." They are uncomfortable with saying words like "penis" or "vagina," so any discussion that touches upon that most taboo subject becomes uncomfortable.

But in our family, we are very open and honest about sex. We use correct body part language. We discuss menstruation. We also discuss things like gender discrimination and gender stereotyping. So I can easily say to my kids, "sometimes someone is born with a penis, but they feel like they're a really a girl." And I know there are those out there shaking their heads thinking I shouldn't be having that kind of conversation with an 8-year old. Except research says that by 9-years, most kids are aware of their orientation. So, even if they aren't having the conversation with their parents, kids are thinking about it and questioning.

Which brings me back to why I feel it is important for my kids to be at an event like Schenectady Pride. Statistically, 1 in 10 people are homosexual. One of my three sons could be gay. And if they're not, out of their elementary class of 42, there is a likelihood that two of those classmates will be gay or lesbian. I want my children to view being gay as acceptable for both themselves and their friends. It's one thing to say in our family we support LGBTQ rights; it's another to actively participate in that support. It's important for my children to learn to support those who are marginalized in our society. I want them to know they will be supported and I want them to learn to be supportive. And those are important family values.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Jazz and Gender Stereotypes

A friend and I were recently discussing last spring's dance recital. She told me when my child's jazz class came out, someone sitting near her commented, "What kind of mother let's her SON take jazz?" My friend responded, "I know that kid. He plays hockey all winter, does jazz, and plays lacrosse." 

My son on stage with his friend.
That kid is my kid and those things are all true. I appreciate my friend standing up for my son, but I have to ask why is that necessary? If my son didn't play "manly" sports would taking jazz be wrong? What if he played with dolls or dressed up in princess costumes (something he did when he was younger)? We live in a society that sets up male and female roles from an early age. I was appalled when shopping at Toys R US years ago to see that something as gender-neutral as the Fisher Price Phone was made in primary colors for boys and pink for girls. And so, I'm writing an open letter to that person.

To the close-minded person at the jazz recital:

What kind of mother lets her son take jazz you ask? I'll tell you.  My son is beautiful and graceful when he dances. He is an athlete in the purest sense. When he moves, whether dancing or running, it is a sight to behold. He loves dancing. He dances around the house and I am struck by his sense of movement and rhythm. As soon as he hears music, his body moves. I let my son take jazz because I'm the kind of mother who looks at her children and sees their strengths and supports them.

When I first suggested dance class, my son responded, "Boys don't dance." How sad that he almost missed an opportunity to do something he enjoys because of people like you who put boys and girls into neat little categories. I pulled up videos of Baryshnikov and Nureyev to show him that boys do, indeed,dance. And the ones that are really good can make a living at it and win world-wide fame and respect. This is not to say that I think my son will be the next Baryshnikov, nor would I push him in that direction. But I wanted him to know that if he liked it, dance was an option for him. I let my son take jazz because I'm the kind of mother who doesn't have pre-conceived notions of what my child will be and am open to letting him explore his interests.

My son is a middle-child. He has an older brother who excels in the classroom, whereas he struggles. He has a younger brother who demands time and attention. My middle son feels adrift--he thinks he's dumb and doesn't get enough attention. While he plays soccer with his older brother, he doesn't see this for the accomplishment it is, playing up a level. He just sees that he and his brother are evenly matched on the soccer field. He was feeling very down about himself. I felt having an area where he could excel, and not be in competition with his brothers, would help his self-esteem. I let my son take jazz because I'm the kind of mother who finds opportunities for her children to flourish and feel good about themselves.

Look how happy he is!
I'm also the kind of mother who is angered by your thoughtless comment. That one single comment, if made in the presence of my child, would undo the things I was trying to accomplish. It seems to me your sole concern is to criticize my parenting because of some misguided notion that dancing in a costume on stage will make my child grow up to be gay. If my child is gay, he's already gay. No amount of exposure to traditionally "girly" things will cause him to be gay if he isn't. Just like no amount of exposure to "manly" pursuits will cause a gay man to turn straight. It's predetermined at birth. I let my son take jazz because I'm the kind of mother who will accept my child no matter his sexual preferences as long as he is happy, loving, kind, thoughtful, and respectful.

Apparently, you didn't have a mother like me. 


The mother of the boy in jazz class

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Roller coasters, racial slurs, and the loss of innocence

The Comet
Yesterday we went to The Great Escape and had a wonderful day. At the end of the day, Baker and Glen went to ride the Comet one last time while I took Jamie and Emery to buy some fudge. We waited for them to meet us so we could head to the car. And we waited, and waited, and waited. When they finally showed up, they had a story to tell.

The roller coaster broke down on the lift hill. The attendants asked everyone to sit calmly while maintenance came to fix it. Some people started yelling and cursing. One guy got out and jumped off. More yelling. Then a verbal fight broke out between the people in front of Baker and Glen and the people behind them. One group was a black father, son, and uncle. The other a white woman. Curses filled the air: f-bombs, the C word, crack whore, and the n-word. Glen tried to remind these adults there were children present, but to no avail. Instead of fixing the coaster, maintenance had to escort all the people off the coaster and close the ride. As these people were getting off the ride, the argument escalated to the point where Glen thought it would become physical. They didn't stay around to find out. The police were called for the guy who jumped. In hearing the telling, it was an exciting adventure for Baker.

Glen relayed the language usage to me. I told Baker if he had any questions about the words that were used to ask me later and we'd talk about it. On the way to Saratoga, Emery fell asleep in the car and Jamie was close. Baker asks timidly, "can we talk about the words?" I told him when we were home. In quiet times throughout the evening, as we ate and watched fireworks, he asked a few more times. I knew at that point what he witnessed was bothering him.

When we got home, I told him to tell me what words he had questions about. A few weren't really curse words--darn, heck. He asked about jackass. Those were the ones he remembered. I knew he had heard the n-word and I felt I should explain that one. When I asked him about it, he didn't even realize it was a bad word. Glen and I explained it was one of the worst. We started to explain why it is so derogatory. Having read Harry Potter, he immediately jumped to the analogy of the word mudblood in the wizarding world. I told him some words, like damn and hell are okay to say in private--like when someone cuts you off on the highway or you stub your toe. But that word is never to be used and if he ever hears a friend use it he should tell them it isn't nice. I think he understood.

I also think this was an eye-opening experience for him. I don't think the language bothered him as much as witnessing adults acting like middle-school bullies. He focused on the language, but at heart, I think he was trying to process how adults could behave that way. We also talked about that...that some people never grow up and learn better ways to deal with things. I think Glen and I handled it as best we could. But it is another step away from the innocence of childhood. And it is another reminder of how little control we, as parents, have over situations. We cannot control what our kids will be exposed to. All we can do is be there for them and help them process it.

Here is a link to someone's YouTube video of the incident. You can see Glen and Baker in the opening.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Why It Is Hard Being a UU

Anyone who knows me knows I'm very involved in our church, the Unitarian Universalist Society of Schenectady. Recently, a friend, who is looking for a new place of worship, asked about our church. It is always a sticky situation for Unitarian Universalists, or UUs, to define what we believe. We are much more inclined to outline what we don't believe. 

I grew up exposed to the Catholic Church and Southern Baptists through my grandparents. Except for major holidays, my parents had no affiliation or desire to attend church, so any religious upbringing I had was provided by my grandparents. Both churches were very dogmatic. Both have rules and rituals. If you are Catholic, you know what you can and can't do, and if you make a mistake, as humans do, you go to confession and your sins are absolved. If you're a Baptist, again, the rules are clear. Jesus is your savior and you don't drink or dance. At least, these were my perceptions as a child and from hearing my parents' stories. While those are childish simplifications, there is some truth to those perceptions. Both churches, like many world religions, follow a document: the Bible, Quran, Torah or the Upanishad to name a few. Each religion has clearly defined "rules" and rites: confession, Rosary, Bar Mitzvah, Confirmation, and more. Each service is conducted in the same manner each week. The theme may be different, but the format doesn't vary. There is a comfort in that. And, most world religions are pretty sure where we end up in the end. 

As a religion, Unitarian Universalists have no set dogma. Our services look different from week to week, though there are a few things that are standard, such as sharing our joys and sorrows or speaking our Bond of Union in community. We take wisdom from all the aforementioned texts, as well as Buddhist, secular, Native American, and more. We even garner wisdom from our fellow members. As a group, we have no single idea about an afterlife, and, therefore, we concern ourselves with the here and now. That doesn't mean there is consensus on how we should live our lives. So what connects us and guides us? We have seven principles that we follow. They are:
  1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

These principles guide us on our journey through this life. They ask that we constantly look at our actions and assess if we are living these principles. They ask us to examine our thoughts and beliefs continually. One might come to our church a confirmed atheist and, while attending, find he does believe in a higher purpose or being. Conversely, one might come to believe there is no god, but only the here and now. Either way, there is a constant evolution of thought and belief. There is no fixed idea of how to behave or how to put these principles in action. But, there is a belief that trying to follow these, as we see them, brings us peace on this earth and helps us leave it a better place. We believe following these principles helps us evolve and come to know some higher truths. There are no easy answers and it is a path that requires much work and effort.

Each week we say our bond of union. Each UU church has their own bond of union: a congregational covenant. This is not a static document. In fact, a few years ago, we added a line to ours after much congregational debate and input. It reads:

Love is the spirit of this church,
the quest for truth is its sacrament,
and service is its prayer. 

To dwell together to in peace,
to seek knowledge in freedom,
to serve humanity in fellowship
to care for the earth in stewardship
that all may grow in harmony with the good.

Thus do we covenant with one another.

And here is the crux of the difference between being a Unitarian and any other denomination. Our bond of union is written in the active voice: to dwell, to seek, to serve, and to care. We are called to actively live our principles on a daily basis. We are involved in covenant circles, groups that explore our personal beliefs. We participate in campaigns for marriage equality, clean-up efforts for disaster victims, Crop Walks, service trips to New Orleans or Guatemala, and other forms of social action. We have a Green Sanctuary that promotes efforts to improve the environment. This is not to say that other religious groups don't do some of these things. They often do. But, it is more passive. They aren't reminded of it on a weekly basis. The height of a Catholic service is the Eucharist: Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. The congregation is passive and it is the job of Jesus to save them and the world. Jesus sacrificed himself for Christians. While they may be called to serve by following Jesus's example, they are not called to question their beliefs or text. Metaphorically, other religions are sitting on the ship of life, following a map to a known destination. Unitarians are fighting the current, turning where they think they should, not sure where they'll end up, calling on those seven principles and the wisdom of the ages to help them steer a course.