“Diversity in One Human Journey”

 Alison Webster

I would like tobegin with a poetic contribution from Audre Lorde, the African American womanist warrior poet who died, sadly, back in 1993.

‘Every woman I have ever loved has left her print upon me, where I loved some invaluable piece of myself apart from me – so different that I had to stretch and grow in order to recognise her. And in that growing, we came to separation, that place where work begins. Another meeting.’

I want you to hold that quote in your hearts as you listen to what follows. Not because I am going to reflect on it explicitly, or in any way analyse it, but because it undergirds everything I want to say today.

Like you, I am who I am today because of the diversity of people I have loved and been loved by. And I am who I am today because of the diversity of ways in which I have tried to be open to the love of God.

The particular aspect of diversity that I embody – and I suspect, the reason why I’ve been invited to address this particular aspect of today’s agenda – is the diversity that comes from inhabiting both sides of the perceived gay/straight divide. Not that it is particularly unusual to have this experience, but it is, I think, an experience that is under-reflected upon. Tales of journeying in one direction (usually from apparently straight to gay – ‘coming out’ narratives), abound. Occasionally there are stories of making the journey in the opposite direction. Sometimes we talk about ‘bisexuality’, as though there were only two kinds of sexuality. But my own experience is one of considering myself to be both heterosexual and lesbian at the same time. All the time. I couch it like that because of considerations of how structural power works in our society – of which more later.

I want to begin with two reflections from my personal experience. I consider them to be stories of a transition to the underside of power, and back again. Both were written as conscious and careful attempts to describe the intense and specific feelings associated with very particular events. The first was written in 1996, describing what it was like to be 14 and in love with another woman. As I was 14 in 1980, the writing was an act of remembering and recreating something from 16 years before. I wouldn’t write it like this now, but I use it as I originally wrote it because I consider it to be closer to the actual feelings of the experience at the time. The second was written for my latest book on Identity, ‘You are Mine’, and launches the section in that book on ‘telling untold stories’ – a section that explores how, in order to resist the power of the apparently ‘normal’, we have to learn to articulate the uniqueness of our own experience – and tell it.

Reflection One

I am on the school hockey field. It’s a winter afternoon. One of those unspeakably bleak ones – mist hanging, semi-defrosted mud under foot. This is the ‘cast-off’ team – made up of those who want to muck around and have fun. I like this group. There are some good players, some utterly hopeless. The main reason for being here, though, is that she is here. Any excuse to be near to her, in her sights. ‘Miss Brown will take the dunce hockey class’. OK, well I’ll be a dunce for Miss Brown.

Her. How to describe what I felt for her? It goes something like this. This woman took up most of my head-space for the best part of six years of my life. Six years. From the age of fourteen, when she came, newly qualified, to the school, to the age of twenty when we started to make the successful transition from unbalanced devotion on my part, to equal friendship between the two of us. That blessed time when to call her by her first name became easy and natural. Miss Brown transformed into first-name terms. I – we, I guess, worked hard to achieve that. Anyway, she was my RE teacher. ‘O’ and ‘A’ level. Four periods a week, plus the hockey. It wasn’t enough. Nothing would’ve been enough. Let me describe the symptoms. You might recognise them. I can spot her across the other side of the school because I know her gait. I know her body language. It’s a very definite stride – a bit ‘loping’ and certainly unusual. I love it because it’s my early warning signal. When I spot it I can change my route. Go the long way round to the science block just to see her, just to be seen. Another symptom: I never go past her flat without seeing if her car is there. And I have to look up at the windows to see if there’s any sign of her. When I’m anywhere near her, I’m never relaxed.

It was partly because of her that I studied theology. She brought religious questions to life for me. She made me think about meaning; made me think about value; made me feel joy and pain; enabled me to feel God; made me question everything I thought I knew about who I was and what I wanted out of life. Anyway, she made me, made me, made me. In so many ways. Scary the power she had. I didn’t know I was in love. I certainly didn’t know it had anything to do with my sexuality. That was unimaginable.

Back to that hockey field. The game’s over now. We’re walking back up the hill to the sports hall. This is my weekly chance to walk next to her. Just for a few wonderful minutes. I work hard for this every week and usually succeed. The trick is to make it look casual. I look around at everyone else and think, ‘they think we’re just walking back to the sports hall. They’re not  even thinking about it, about her. Not giving her a second thought. Just walking. Part of me wishes I could be free of whatever this feeling is, and be like them. Normal, unconcerned, just walking, back to the sports hall. Some weeks I pretend to be like them, pretend to be blissfully unconcerned about whether I get to talk to her or not. But the feelings remain.

This time, we’re talking about what we’ll do in RE next week – what we’ll discuss; what the class is like, what we think of ‘the others’. I make a joke. She laughs. I love it that I can do that sometimes. Make her laugh. Affect her. Then she reaches out and touches the back of my neck. A friendly sort of ‘cuff’. A light touch, in jest, that’s all it is, but for me, this is the most delicious, powerful, unforgettable tactile gesture in my life to date. I’m speechless, light-headed. It’s wrenching, pleasure and pain intensely mixed. I don’t know what to do, don’t know what to think. Don’t know what this makes me and don’t know if I care. I have no words for this and I’m not sure I want any. Certain words hover, but I don’t let them take shape because I sense danger in them. I love this woman, and I am afraid.

Reflection Two:

I think I am feeling an absence of an absence, and I’m wondering how I can tell.

I am walking with you in the hills. We are holding hands. This feels deeply unsettling to me, for you are a man, and I am a woman and this is not what I am used to. Nobody looks away when they catch sight of us. No-one averts their gaze. I expect to feel relief but I do not. This newfound sense of security has a paradoxical effect. I feel destabilised, cut adrift from my old identity, even as I am rescued from the sense of dislocation it brought with it. The social kaleidoscope has twisted; the pieces have fallen into myriad new places all around me, and I am located differently now.

I am angry that in another year, with a former lover, on a similar walk, in the same hills, if I dared to hold hands with her, even to let go when others came near, I was looked at differently. Not with hostility so much as a blank emptiness. With a weight behind the void – a sense of knowing who was in charge, and it wasn’t us. A deep awareness that how ever self-confident we were, their tolerance could be withdrawn at any moment – if it was there in the first place.

Now, it seems, I am legitimised – worthy of recognition. It is so subtle that I wonder at the enormity of its effects; so slight that I doubt myself and my perceptions. To the extent that others are ‘normal’ they will doubt them too. Am I simply imagining this? Yet these fractional changes feel like the difference between belonging and not; between being a person and less than a person. Those I am meeting on narrow pathways in these wooded and fertile hills reflect something of me in their eyes as they meet mine. In their sense of recognition I experience estrangement. ‘You are one of us’, they seem to say. I do not want to be.

From the inside, I am the same person on the same walk in the same hills – whoever I am with. Holding hands or not. And it is suddenly clear to me how the variegated and nuanced, complex and beautiful, multiple inflections of my personhood have been forced by the world into a blunt and dichotomous either/or. I will not choose.

There are three things I would like to pull out of these stories: Culture matters; power
matters; unnamed loves matter.

1) Culture Matters

Whatever our personal feelings, and whatever our intellectual opinions, we embody the value system that we have imbibed from our social context. This is powerful, it is visceral. It operates at a gut-level, and must be resisted at that level too. When it comes to personal transformation, our minds and our intellect are severely limited in their potential to make a difference. They are important, obviously, but I don’t believe they are decisive.

As I reread my first story, I am struck by the sense of hesitation; of fear; and of simply not seeing the blindingly obvious; living with a maelstrom of intense feeling, whilst being disqualified, by seemingly invisible and incomprehensible forces, from naming it. Because, culturally speaking, it was not possible for me to be ‘one of them’, a lesbian – or even to utter the ‘L’ word to myself at that stage, I was unable to feel what I was really feeling. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I was aware of my feelings, and their power, I just could not name them for what they were. I could not afford to let them be real.

Being lesbian is about an ‘absence’. Because it is an unsayable word, a stigmatised cultural category – a word of abjection and horror; a taboo, the impact of naming oneself in line with one’s feelings was something that – when it happened – had physical embodied consequences for me until I physically – at gut level – came to terms with it. I suggest that these powers of abjection cannot be as easily erased as practical forms of discrimination. They are carried in our collective psyche and live on. Or they did for me, back in 1980. But I suspect, social attitudes surveys notwithstanding, they still exert their power, for visceral value systems run deeper than individual opinions.

So my question to us all today is this: what other visceral value systems are at work in us as we pick our way through our relational lives? Racism? Orientation towards conventional forms of ‘success’? Attitudes to our bodies, and our physicality? Who do we expect to love, and what happens when love visits us outside of our expectations?

How does the reality of loving challenge these textures of the culture that lives in us – and how does it feel to embody that challenge in the deepest parts of our selves?

2) Power Matters

The things that texture our psyches work themselves out in systems and structures: power structures. However tempting it may be to glibly assert that there is ‘neither black nor white, male nor female, gay or straight’, but that we are ‘all just people’. In the real world this is not credible, for it takes no account of those systems and structures, and it does nothing to subvert them. And as people of God we are called to subvert them.

Think about the power of ‘doing the right thing’; of being the right thing. Notice those systems of social reward and punishment. Remember feeling deserving in the wake of cultural approval; relive the vulnerability of being on the receiving end of cultural opprobrium. We live in a system that punishes and rewards according to its own conventions. Conventions that, as people of God, we cannot and should not own.

When you are on the underside of power – as I feel I was when I was living as a lesbian – your very being is delegitimized; called into question. You have a right to be only insofar as the power structures allow it. And the really clever thing is how hidden this is. Society takes away your full right to be, whilst asserting, in explicit terms, that you still have it. And it hides it so subtly and successfully that those NOT on the underside of power find it almost impossible to see that this has happened, and even harder to see their part in it.

So for me, flipping back to an apparently ‘legitimate’ way of being: that is, married – to a man – I could suddenly feel and notice the rewards and comfort that flowed from that position. I could see more clearly how the punishment had worked, because now the system wanted to reward me.

Resistance is the watchword according to which I lived as a lesbian, and I live it still, for different reasons. Because the things I learned as a lesbian are things I do not want to lose. I am glad for those 14 or 15 years. I was radically reshaped by them – irreversibly so. I do not ever want to unlearn those things, and I do not think I ever will, because they are part of the fabric of my being now. My understanding of systems of power; and the alliances I found with others on their underside are gifts I cannot do without.

3) Unnamed loves matter

Every human encounter is an invitation to go deeper; to embrace the challenge of difference and be changed. One cultural value we live with is the tendency to overemphasise the importance of one, singular, partnered relationship. That applies to the gay world and the straight. It marginalises those with no spouse or partner, obviously, but it does more than that. It encourages us to devalue so many of our other deep connections – usually with the word ‘just’. ‘Oh, don’t worry about him, he’s just a friend’.

We each have, potentially if not actually, a vast hinterland of passionate connections that make up the rest of our relational lives, once the question of whether we are partnered or not is answered. The paucity of our language in this regard interests me. For naming is power, and we have very few names for those we love who are not spouses or blood relatives. Think about your life. Who are those on whom your life depends? Without whom you would be bereft? Those who have made you who you are, and those who still do. They may be those you share passionate interests with; those you have creative partnerships with; you may share a deep spiritual connection. These relationships may or may not be conventionally ‘sexual’, but they involve our sexuality because we are whole people within them. These are those with whom we are bold; take risks; make ourselves vulnerable. These relationships have no name. They are often trumped, in the conventional pecking order of priorities, by the contractual; the legitimate; the defined.  Yet they are always bursting into and through relational spaces and gaps – sometimes chaotically, reminding us of the mystery of love; its giftedness; its unpredictability. If love is of God, how could it be otherwise?

If love is of God, we must embrace this hinterland; work with the grain of it. Not allow the world to tell us that these connections that have no name have no importance. On the contrary, we must work to articulate them better, to develop a language for them.

Conclusion

Each of us is not a category – of sexuality or of anything else. We are human beings, flesh and blood, infinitely beloved of God, trying to learn how to love one another as God would have us love one another. With our hearts, souls, minds and bodies. Our different locations in the power structures give us a diversity of perspectives, and we need one another’s perspectives to learn to be better at it. To learn how better to open our hearts to one another; to create spaces beyond convention where God can speak and live and do God’s creative work. My question and challenge to us today is: how can we do this?

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