13 june 2016 | to the evangelists of homophobia, after pulse: an open letter

i hope you have watched the news over the last twenty-four hours. because i find that i can’t stop. and i hope you have made the same connections that i have, and recognize that this – fifty human beings murdered – is what your homophobia looks like. this is the world you have created. this is the manifestation of your rhetoric. this – a club in orlando throbbing with gunfire and buried in blood – is the kingdom your gospel promises to bring about.

but perhaps you have yet to make that connection. so i will draw it for you. my eyes hurt when i woke up this morning. this constant, dull, pain. the kind of pain i get when i’ve spent endless hours crying. but i have yet to cry over pulse, so i wonder if perhaps my eyes have simply learned how to match the pain i feel everywhere else, even without the monotony of my tears. at any rate, the pain is dull, but the reminder it perpetuates is as sharp as pain gets. the reminder is that i am not safe, we are not safe. that my body is expendable, our bodies expendable. that by nature, i am vulnerable, we are vulnerable. and it shatters me with a devastating weakness. in both body and spirit. a resignation. a fear.

so i was walking to work today, in pain, with my head down. staring at the ground. watching my feet move. and i wonder, now, how close my legs are to giving up on me. if this pain i carry will eventually be too much to bear. but, anyways – i was looking down at my feet when someone said good morning. so i looked up. and suddenly felt overwhelmed by fear. a fear i didn’t recognize. an irrational fear, even. i choked out a response, but my heart started beating with a frequency that surprised me. because, in that moment, it felt like i was looking into the very face of hatred: i am black and queer and a womyn. and i was looking into the eyes of a person who presented as cisgender and white and male. he said good morning. and, i wondered, just for a beat, if he greeted me just to scare me. i recognize, fully, how unfair that is to him. and for that – for assuming in that moment that he was racist and homophobic and sexist – i am sorry. but more than that, i am angry. and exhausted. because i did not create this world for myself. this anxiety. this vigilance. this kingdom.

you did.

and so i want you to count to fifty. and to know that you are complicit in every single one of these murders. that you have perpetuated – are perpetuating – a culture of fear and a culture of hate. and this world that you are fashioning has allowed for a man to see two men kissing; and to decide to travel to a gay club, and to proclaim, one-by-one, with each pull of the trigger, that gay people deserved to die. that was his gospel. your gospel. their deaths were his good news. and i wonder if they are yours, as well. that though you may believe yourself incapable of physically murdering queer folks, you sure do put a great deal of energy into the attempted murder of our emotional and psychological and relational beings. and really, if you successfully strip us of those things, can you actually look upon your hands and say that they are clean?

so i want you to sit with that number. fifty. and to know that you created this man. you armed him with this hateful ideology. you gave him permission to murder someone’s brother. and son. and uncle. and partner. and best friend. with your rhetoric of “abominations” and love that is “unnatural,” you gave him permission to murder someone. someones. and your words and teachings and gospel are his pat on the back, his affirmation, the applause he needed to stand, unwavering, in his decision to pillage gay lives.

and so i wonder about your children. like the ones i have encountered in my work. who speak with vitriol about queer folks. who have, quite literally, wished death upon folks like me. i wonder if they come home and tell you about the hate they have spewed. and i wonder if you pat them on the back, or affirm their poison and pour them another glass, or applaud the work they are doing to bring about the kingdom of your god. and then i wonder if you realize that you are creating pulse. that your kingdom, your gospel, is one in which a human being can walk into a building and never walk out again because of who they loved.

i wonder if you see that connection: that the poison you send coursing through your child’s veins stays there, hardening their heart until the vitriol has no direction to travel but outward: into the world; and into a nightclub where queer people have found their own church and a gospel of love. i wonder if you recognize that when you arm a child with hatred, when you infuse it into their very being, there is no telling what that hatred will become: it is the old adage that language creates thought, and thought creates actions. and that perhaps your child will not find fulfillment in simply wishing death upon an entire group of people. perhaps they will feel compelled to bring it about themselves. has that ever occurred to you?

you are complicit when the most you can extend to another human being is tolerance. you are complicit when you refuse to respect the identity of another person – merely because it makes you uncomfortable. you are complicit when you suggest to us that we are unnatural or sick or going through a phase. you are complicit when you believe it’s appropriate to suddenly start praying for the “sinner” you have spent your life condemning. you are complicit when you choose to ignore our existence. and you are complicit when you sit silently and believe, even for a moment, that you have no responsibility to take up this work.

it is in these moments, these acts of complicity, that you write your gospel. that you proclaim the word that many will choose to live by.

so i am here to tell you that this complicity, this poison, is murder. and while i am having a nearly impossible time finding hope, and haven’t found myself kneeling down in prayer in years, you can find me on my knees, now: imploring you to rewrite the gospel you are preaching and the kingdom you are working to bring about.

9 may 2016 | in crossfires and intersections

dear son,

i don’t think of you often these days. meaning, you’re not the certainty you once were. i am not sure if i will ever be a mother. and i think that is okay. but today, you were the person i kept wanting to write to. i can’t really say why. but i’m hoping that maybe, in the course of writing, it will begin to make sense. i work with young people. i am a teacher’s assistant in a social justice art class – a space in which, so far, we have discussed tragedies like mike brown and trayvon martin. because as a school with a nearly 100 percent black student population, it’s an issue that both frightens and relates to my students in an incredibly intimate way.

but today, the instructor walked into the classroom. and the conversation, among my students, descended into something about how being gay is wrong. and gross. and condemned in the bible. i am almost certain that you will listen to similar rhetoric as you grow up. in the same way that i am still listening to black boys being referred to as “thugs” in our “post-racial” america. these phobic views of the world are embedded in our culture in a way that has proven both tragic and exhausting. but i guess i’ve grown used to the former in a theoretical way: i know homophobia is real. i’ve experienced it in both first and secondhand ways. and i’ve come to almost expect it in the black community: the fear of homosexuality seems to be burrowed quite deeply into the bedrock of our culture.

but still, i grew hot throughout the class period: watching as the instructor scrapped her initial lesson plan to turn attention to lgbtq social justice issues. there was an urgency about her decision, and the way she moved after taking the pulse of the room. i sat in a corner. and felt a sense of relief when some students argued against the two champions of homophobia in the classroom: those spewing a chorus of “adam and steve” and what the bible says.

i was hot. but i had heard it all before.

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until i hadn’t.

until one of these champions, sitting across a table from me, said something about how the world would be better if gay people were dead. and i feel my hand getting weak as i write this. a similar sensation to the paralysis that fell over me in that moment. or maybe it was an out of body experience: watching this student, sitting next to the person occupying my body, saying that he thinks the world would be better if gay people were dead. not knowing that he was wishing death upon me. he couldn’t be more than 13. but he is impassioned. and the she that is me is over a decade older than him. and frozen.

i was frozen. and i guess i am beginning to worry that my intersectionality is too much like being caught in a crossfire. that being black and queer and a womyn whose gender expression has become progressively more androgynous – who feels at home in these spaces – i’m worried that those intersections meet in a place where a disaster is waiting to happen. and that i will be too paralyzed, in the midst of it, to escape.

so i was staring at a wall this afternoon. after crying a bit. and then trying to sleep off the weight of that moment, of having my existence callously prayed away. how devastating that our churches have become the place where intolerance is most violently convicted. but as i stared at the wall, i realized that i was not mad at that boy.

but at everything that made that moment possible – that made it possible for him to wish death upon an entire group of people; death, because they are not living the life that he imagines to be right. i am devastated by the ability of the oppressed to oppress. by the way fear twists into hatred, as it creeps past our lips. by the fact that the bedrock of our culture is showing itself to be the destruction of difference.

i am disgusted.

and i suppose i write to you because i hope it will be different. that somehow my experience and this particular moment won’t even make sense to you – because our world will be so far removed from such rhetoric. and from moments like these. i write to you, i suppose, as a way of dreaming for myself.

but perhaps i know better. and my hope is not for some magical transformation of the world. but rather, for some magical transformation of myself: that i can be more than a person anticipating tragedy at her intersection; but one who celebrates the way all the parts of her intertwine. and maybe by celebrating, i will be emboldened to wildly defend those who reside in the same spaces as me. and maybe it is in this way that the world will be transformed.

9 february 2016 | a letter to my white ignatian family

dear you,

writing about race scares me. i’m intimidated by the misconception that my words represent the experience of an entire race of people. i know they don’t. but i also know that some people will assume that they do. you are white. so perhaps this does not resonate with you. i believe that one must write anyways, though. and my objective is simple: i once heard that “justice is the minimum of love.” so i suppose i am challenging you, as a person of the ignatian family, to not speak of love until you can first work for justice.

i’m a 23-year-old woman who identifies as black, working as a jesuit volunteer in st. louis. but i’ve never thought much about race. until now. until jvc. until i found myself in white spaces that i didn’t expect to be white.

but perhaps before speaking about these white spaces, it’s vital to tell you about the ones that have shaped me: i grew up in the suburbs an hour east of los angeles. i did not have a teacher who identified as a person of color until high school. i was a parishioner at an upper-middle class catholic church with upper-middle class white people. almost all of my best friends were white. i have grown accustomed to white spaces. to being black in white spaces. i’m not much of a dancer, but i’ve learned to move within these spaces with such fluidity that, sometimes, i think even i forgot i was black. i am a young black woman who never learned what it meant to be black. rather, i learned what it meant to not be white – and now realize that every space, conceptually, was built around my relationship to whiteness.

perhaps it changed with trayvon, when i was studying abroad in oxford and could not bring myself to leave my dorm because of the weight of that acquittal. the weight of a hoodie. the weight of my blackness. or maybe it was mike brown. the non-indictment. sitting on my parents’ couch, processing the message: it was okay for a police officer to murder a child. as long as he was black. and i felt that weight, that paralysis, all over again. i felt my black body.

a month later, i applied to jvc. and in its talk of social justice, i expected to find people who looked like me. to enter spaces that were different, uncomfortable, and would challenge me to think about race. my race. and then they weren’t. i was in the same white spaces. with white jvc staff and white jesuit volunteers and white coworkers at my placement. i realized that my challenge would not be navigating spaces of color while beginning to understand my blackness, but instead, to dance amidst these white spaces in a different way. my challenge was to wake up, even before i fully understood my space in the world as a black woman.

i’ve found that in these spaces, i have been looked upon as a voice for the black community – even as i continue to struggle to be worthy of such. i am black. but i am not yet the black woman i want to be. still, i’ve been asked: what do you need from us? what can we do?

i’ve answered the questions because, so often, it feels like my job – even though i’ve been reminded this year that it is not. ta-nehisi writes, “we are captured [and] we ultimately cannot save ourselves.” the ultimate hope of our movement rests with those who perpetuate the legacy of our captors – intentionally or otherwise. it rests on the stirring of white people. though i recognize that changing you is not my responsibility, i also recognize the resonance of the black voice. martin’s. ta-nehisi’s. and perhaps even my own. it is not my job to speak. but, perhaps if i speak to you and you listen – there will one day be a generation of black children who don’t have to.

i’ve met white people in st. louis who are far more adept at discussing racial justice than i am. those same people are in your midst. i challenge you to find them. ask them where they started. move. walk. march. read a book. watch a documentary. have a difficult conversation. ask where you stand in the destruction of people who look like me. choose to risk your body — in the way the man you follow sacrificed his own. our black bodies are at risk for simply existing. we have no choice. but you do. and in your choice, there is power.

one day you’ll find yourself in the fire of discomfort with a person of color. you’ll have made a mistake. said something stupid. insensitive. ignorant. and you’ll want to run from the fire. perhaps to extinguish it with “i’m sorry,” or “that’s not what i meant.” but i’m going to ask you to sit there. inhale the discomfort. allow her to tell you why what you did or said was painful, devastating, traumatic. do not try to extinguish her voice.

because that is the only way you will learn: by letting the fire swallow your ignorance and fear and complacence. and, in that, you’ll discover that this work burns. perpetually.

but you’ve asked the questions. and i hope you’ll choose to burn until you find your answers.

in the questions and the fire,

kristen