In 1993 I participated in the LGBT March on Washington. This was an event in which hundreds of thousands of American gay people gathered in Washington, D.C. to demonstrate for equal protection under the law.
I was 32 years old. I had been an out lesbian for 14 years. It wasn’t like today. Many of my friends were not out, especially not in every aspect of their lives, and all of us had been abused in some way due to who we were. Many of my friends suffered through angry and vicious times with their families. I was about the only person I knew who wasn’t kicked out or somehow made to feel defective or worthless by my parents. Instead, in my case, the church stepped in to do that.
All of us who gathered for the march knew pain. We were all wounded. And because of that we were all a little guarded, a little skittish, a little closed off. It took a lot of effort just to be.
Now we talk about equal rights. Back then I remember talking about equal protection, I think because we felt danger, like someone was stalking us all the time.
The first night in Washington, D.C. my partner and our two friends returned to our hotel after dinner and walked through the city. There had been lots of gay people on the plane, in the airport, checking in to the hotel, on the Metro. There seemed to be ONLY gay people at the restaurant, and we all talked across tables to each other. There were gay people walking on the street, and we all smiled and spoke to each other. Everyone’s eyes were wide open. Wide open. With wonder. Everyone was smiling.
When I walked into our hotel room that night I remember just standing in the middle of the room looking around, because somehow everything had become so clear that it felt like I could actually see the molecules in the air. I was aware that something was gone, something had being stilled.
And then I realized what it was. I had not been afraid all night. I had not been afraid that someone would ridicule my masculine appearance. I had not been afraid to walk down the street and hold my partner’s hand, or that someone would make a rude comment if they saw me looking too deeply into her eyes. I had not been afraid that anyone would call me a f-ing queer. It hadn’t been necessary to look behind me as I was walking on the street that night, because there was no one around who would want to hurt me because I was a lesbian.
And only in fear’s absence did I become aware that it had owned me for my entire adult life.
This was a remarkable moment for me, this moment in which I became aware of the incredibly binding burden of fear I carried always.
This burden of fear is not unique to gay people. Women know this fear. From the time we are born we are taught, often in subtle ways, but also very clearly that it is our responsibility to be very careful with men. Because men can be very dangerous. Men can and do beat us, men can and do rape us. Men can and do kill us. Men can force us into situations not of our choosing, men can talk us into giving away every bit of our own power. Sometimes men are even able to convince us that God wills us to submit to their dominance and abuse, and that resisting this “Divine Order” is sinful and will mean the loss of our eternal souls.
The fear that burdens gay people and women also burdens all people who are marginalized. Fear is prevalent in all people who do not share in the privilege of being the societal norm, the cultural seat of affluence and power, and the linguistic standard.
Fear makes marginalized people act in ways that are not always pretty and often incomprehensible. Fear clouds our spirits, spoils our achievements. Fear can make us quick to anger, defensive, and reactive. Fear can make us feel tired and cranky. Fear can make us look sideways at other people’s actions, expecting aggression, hostility, or denigration. Fear can make us internalize shame and doubt.
Fear yields up bitterness and resentments that can last for millennia. But worst of all, unacknowledged fear makes it impossible to surrender fully to Love, All That Is, She Who Is, to Christ/Sophia.
It’s a complicated thing, to understand a feeling you have no way to experience. For those who have been born into and brought up in positions of privilege, the fear the rest of us struggle with is strangely inconceivable. For marginalized people the fear we carry with us is so pervasive in our lives it takes a special set of circumstances to get a glimpse of it. I had never known the burden of fear I carried until I experienced it in its absence that night in Washington, D.C.
So as I observe our recent history I see great efforts expended in hopes of convincing those of privilege to somehow become empathetic with those not of privilege, and participate in dismantling the structures that support continued injustice and inequality. And while I do not feel these are wasted efforts, I do think the outcome has been less than satisfactory. Privilege is going to be with us for a long time, and those who enjoy it are likely going to continue to be blind to it.
A much better endeavor, in my opinion, would be for those of us marginalized and subordinated to address the oppression of our own fear. In doing so we might gain the insight necessary to mediate its influence and control over our lives, and open the door to a new way of being.
In short, we can’t change our oppressors, but we can change ourselves.
In my case I have found that the first step to overcoming the limitations imposed by my ingrained fearfulness is to turn my attention from the clanging cymbal of my ego and instead patiently cultivate the stillness that allows me to hear and act upon the sound of Her voice in my life and in the world. To surrender to God instead of to my ego first requires my willingness to pry fear’s fingers off of my heart, so that it can beat freely to the pulse of Her love.
It’s a strange paradox, surrender to the Source in order to no longer be subject to one’s oppressors.
As I become Love’s most humble servant, committed to erring on Her side, I become able to limit my participation in the perpetuation of the fear cycle. The societal privilege some enjoy has less and less bearing on my life.
This doesn’t preclude criticism and speaking out about injustice and oppression. Truth can be spoken lovingly, just as it can be spoken violently. But I think truth must be spoken modestly. We must always retain an awareness of own human fallibility and the limitations of understanding, and know what emerges as truth comes only from the cultivation of a fearless heart open to a world constantly redefined by the experience of Her love.
I believe that the act of becoming familiar with our fear will loosen the hold it has over us, allowing us to become better able to create ourselves fully, and more clearly embody our own particular manifestation of Divinity. There is nothing more earth-shattering, more historically pivotal than a person able to become a clear lens through which the love, peace and grace of Godde shines through. If even just a few of us can do that, we might create a new paradigm, one in which privilege as currently experienced ceases to matter.
What is most desirable? That we use our resources to compete for unfettered access to the hierarchical systems created by centuries of global patriarchy, or that we initiate the exploration into creating a system of equality in peaceful coexistence and unconditional love?
© 2013 by Marg Herder
Marg Herder writes for Christian Feminism Today and serves as Office Manager and Web Developer for the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus. In her creative work as a sound artist, musician, and photographer she often explores the beauty of being here, and asks how we who share this experience of incarnation might love and live more fully.
This post is part of Christian Feminism Week at Theoblogy.