Grace and the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

Crave church on Oxford Street, led by Nat.

Recently, I had the privilege of speaking at Crave church’s annual conference (http://www.cravemcc.com/). The theme, “love letter from God,” allowed me to reflect on the meaning of the theological virtues, faith, hope, and love (1 Cor. 13:13). My focus was on how to redeem these virtues in the context of the church’s sexual abuse crisis and high profile public attacks on LGBTQI people.

Crave is a member of Metropolitan Community Churches, a worldwide fellowship of inclusive congregations that has ministered to gay and transgender people rejected by mainstream Christianity. It is a Pentecostal community, and what stands out when you meet its pastors and leaders is their passionate spirituality. The Friday night service was devoted to worship, and people familiar with Pentecostal liturgy would have felt completely at home, knowing the songs, and encouraged by the devotion of the music team and congregation. But this wasn’t any old worship service. It is deeply moving to hear a transgender song leader singing Hillsong’s Who You Say I Am to a lesbian and gay congregation:

I am chosen

Not forsaken

I am who You say I am

You are for me

Not against me

I am who You say I am

Saturday morning was the usual conference talkfest, which differed only in that the three speakers sharing about the love and grace of God were gay, lesbian, and straight.

The highlight of the weekend for me was the invitation to march with the Crave community in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. The last time I had attended the Mardi Gras was almost three decades before. I was a conservative Christian attending out of curiosity, in part to see the parade, and in part to watch the protest organised by Fred Nile. I do not remember much about that visit, except that I shared the common Christian conviction that the parade was an evil symbol of our society’s decline, and that I was embarrassed enough about Nile’s words and actions that I left early.

It was a very different person who attended this year’s parade. I was dressed in Crave’s black T-shirt emboldened with a gold sparkly heart, wore a sparkling gold rimmed hat, and had a rainbow coloured flag tied to the back of my wheelchair. I worried that we would look silly, Christians overdressed for Mardi Gras. But as I rolled from my motel to Oxford Street I was overwhelmed by the encouragement of everyone passing by. “Happy Mardi Gras” was the refrain, accompanied by smiles and cheers, and people taking photos (even of me, God knows why). And the march was still hours away from starting.

I was given a bracelet that granted entry to the marshalling area. I had never seen its like; a riot of colour, spectacle, noise, and joy. My fears about our T-shirts were unfounded. Certainly, there was plenty of skin, but far less than I see at my local beach on weekends. Mardi Gras is a celebration of diverse human sexuality, set against the backdrop of repression and stigma, so participants do push the boundaries of social norms. But the typical costume was flamboyant and fabulous. Some were political, some comedic, some outrageous, some plain but symbolically important uniforms and T-shirts, but most were spectacular, designed to entertain the crowds and light up the city.

Some pre-show style

Never have I been among people as accepting and joyous. Lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, rainbow families, straight, young, old, thin, overweight, uniformed, half naked, christian, atheist, sex worker, police officer, biker, aboriginal, migrant, coloured, white, disabled and any number of other types of wondrous difference, each person comfortable in their own skin and welcoming of each other. It dawned on me that this was everything the church hoped to be as ministers of grace, love, and joy ‘to all the world.’

The parade kicked off at 7:30 PM, and I marvelled at the show until 10 PM when it was our time to proceed. The crave team was led by Nat, whose flamboyantly camp dance moves were mirrored clumsily but passionately by our small low-budget crew. We might not have looked as spectacular as some of the larger floats (although Nat was worth watching), but we held signs telling of God’s love and acceptance. To my surprise, our clumsy dance up Oxford Street was accompanied by the claps, cheers, and encouragement of the crowd, who held out their hands for high-fives, and told us they loved us. I knew that that love was not for me but was meant for my LGBT Christian friends at Crave, who had known plenty of rejection in their time.

Too soon we were done, and, too old to party, I went off to bed. The next morning at breakfast, reading the report by the Sydney Morning Herald on the Mardi Gras, I was surprised to see we had been mentioned as highlighting the reality that LGBTQI people still face prejudice in certain contexts:

Inclusion for people of faith is also a priority amid the ongoing debate over religious freedom. Under a tree in Hyde Park, the queer-friendly Crave Church rehearsed a dance routine next to a sign that read: “Dear Mardi Gras – I am so sorry about the way my followers have treated you, From God.” (https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/glitter-and-colour-line-the-street-for-mardi-gras-parade-20190302-p511e0.html).

For my Christian friends struggling to make sense of this message, I can only encourage you to set aside your theological convictions for a moment and think about what it would be like to have the Australian Christian Lobby (funded by mainstream churches) mobilise against your right to marry the person you love, or to be told your loving rainbow family is harming your daughter or son. Imagine how you would feel if you were bullied as a child for your sexual orientation or gender difference, and then had churches attack a program aimed to keep LGBTQI youth safe in schools. Put yourself in the shoes of a Christian who comes out and is rejected by the church community they had loved and served. Christians are filled with Spirit of Christ as agents of faith, hope, and love, but this much needed message is too often lost in the certainty of our dogma, and our refusal to listen to the stories of those we have hurt.

After breakfast, I headed off to Home church with Elly (https://achurchcalledhome.org/), a small gathering of straight and queer friends. Unfortunately for those present, I was listed to speak, and delivered my sermon half asleep. We are a (post) Pentecostal community, who aim to follow Jesus in welcoming people regardless of their race, gender, disability, religion, or sexual orientation, with no agenda, and no demand that they give up who they are and become like us. Like Crave, we know that this is no formula for church growth, but are content to let grace have its way, come what may.

Year 12 graduation, parent’s tribute

Delivered 27 September 2018 by Shane at his son’s graduation from William Carey Christian School .

Lachlan is the third of our children to reach graduation, and the last. We arrived at William Carey in 2011 in the middle of a crisis. I was in hospital having recently broken my neck, and our house in Narellan was going to be too small for my wheelchair and the equipment I was to need when I returned home. So, Elly purchased a house in Ingleburn, and our kids moved to William Carey. The school, under the leadership of the wonderful Mr Wake, was extremely generous and supportive, going out of its way to make us welcome, gifting us some exceptional hampers, and pastoring our children during what was as much a crisis for them as it was for us. It is no small thing to face up to your crazy sport loving father trapped in ICU under what seemed then to be the sentence of a terrible paralysed future. Fortunately, life with a disability is usually better than we imagine it to be, and seven years on, our family is doing well. William Carey has been a big part of us getting to where we are now.

I can still remember our first parent teacher interview for Lachlan who started in year six. What stood out to the magnificent Mrs Rivers was not his scholarship or behaviour, which must have been OK, but that a gaggle of girls thought he was cute. Over the years Lachlan has had too much fun to avoid trouble altogether, but the school has mostly managed to direct his energies to sport (and endless days off for MISA interschool competitions for one strange sport after another; I did wonder whether lacrosse was worth another day away from the study of English and maths). 

Time flies and the three boys who arrived at William Carey are now young men. They are determined students who value learning, and while I can’t claim they model all the fruits of the Spirit (patience and self-control being the least of them), they are loving, joyous, kind, good, and faithful. Elly and I are extremely proud of who they are becoming. I say proud, but it might be truer to say that we feel fortunate, or blessed, because we know our own failures and limits as parents. The journey of parenting is a two-decade experiment where the rules of the game keep changing, and what you learn from dealing with one child doesn’t seem to work for the next. I’ve concluded that it doesn’t so much matter the style of parent that you are —  whether strict or easy-going (and we were mostly the latter) — what matters most is that your kids know, by what you say and do, that you love them.

In this way, I think teaching is a little like parenting. There are many different styles, and some of you are strict and others of you softies, but what really matters is that you love the kids in your care, and are passionate about your subject. You’ve done and been that for my three boys, and I’m immensely thankful. On behalf of all the parents of the kids of William Carey, I say to Mr McMullen, and to the leadership, administration, and all the brilliant and dedicated teachers, Thank you! We trusted our children to your care, and you haven’t let us down.

Maybe even more important than the teachers, are the friendships that our children have made; the besties, the mates, the boyfriends and girlfriends, the competitors, the acquaintances, and even the occasional enemy (especially those who later learn to kiss and make up). To every year twelve student that has walked the journey through many long days and years with Lachlan, I say thank you. You are a great mob of kids (women and men), and I’m so glad you loved and accepted my boy. He’s better for your friendship, and I hope you are better for his.

I pray that you live richly, love deeply, serve faithfully, play madly, fight courageously, persevere determinedly; that through all the wins, losses, joys, and sadnneses that will come your way:

that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. So that being rooted and established in love, you may have power to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge; that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3: 16-19

Grace and peace be yours always.

Just say hi?

The brilliant and wonderfully grumpy Sam at gimpled has an insightful complaint against the “just say hi” campaign. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a video doing the rounds of social media that features a bunch of celebrities and a few token people with disabilities responding to the (ridiculous) question, “what do I say to a person with a disability?” As Homer Simpson would say, Doh!

I guess the ad is an attempt to normalise disability, but it has the opposite effect. Prior to having a disability, I could traverse the world invisibly. I could, for example, read on a train with very little fear of interruption. When I first got into a wheelchair I felt terribly self-conscious, as though everyone was staring at me. Before too long, though, I got over myself, only to discover that a lot of people must actually be staring at me. At least that’s what their friendly greetings seemed to indicate.

Sam hates strangers who “just say hi” to her. Check out her reason (here).

I’m not sure, though, whether I completely agree with her. Whether I like it or not, there is a good chance strangers are going to speak to me on a train and elsewhere. If I have my head in a really good book, it can be annoying. But often, I’m just reading the SMH or Facebook (or worse, some boring theologian/philosopher). If I go with the flow and take the opportunity to chat, it can make for a more interesting – and a more human – journey.

I guess the key is to follow the golden rule; do to others as you want them to do to you. The problem with the “just say I” campaign is that it targets disability. Perhaps it might have some relevance if directed more broadly; if it stood as an encouragement for a more friendly world. Then again, my introvert friends might want to punch me in the face for suggesting as much.

Pauline Hanson and the politics of demonising difference

Senator Pauline Hanson has once again used the strategy of demonising the different to further her political agenda. Over the years, she has demonised Asians, Muslims, and refugees. This time her target is disabled children, who she accuses of wasting teachers time in the classroom, and so holding back the education of “our children.”

In the face of the barrage of media criticism, she now claims she has been taken out of context. But the full speech is available on the Parliamentary Hansard record, and her meaning is plain. But so is not to do her an injustice, here is the relevant section of the speech in full:

There is another thing that we need to address, and I will go back to the classrooms again. I hear so many times from parents and teachers whose time is taken up with children—whether they have a disability or whether they are autistic—who are taking up the teacher’s time in the classroom. These kids have a right to an education, by all means, but, if there are a number of them, these children should go into a special classroom and be looked after and given that special attention. Because most of the time the teacher spends so much time on them they forget about the child who is straining at the bit and wants to go ahead in leaps and bounds in their education. That child is held back by those others, because the teachers spend time with them. I am not denying them. If it were one of my children I would love all the time given to them to give them those opportunities. But it is about the loss for our other kids. I think that we have more autistic children, yet we are not providing the special classrooms or the schools for these autistic children. When they are available, they are at a huge expense to parents. I think we need to take that into consideration. We need to look at this. It is no good saying that we have to allow these kids to feel good about themselves and that we do not want to upset them and make them feel hurt. I understand that, but we have to be realistic at times and consider the impact this is having on other children in the classroom.

We cannot afford to hold our kids back. We have the rest of the world and other kids in other countries who are going leaps and bounds ahead of us. Unless we keep up a decent educational standard in this country we will keep going further backwards and backwards, and our kids will not be the ones who are getting the good jobs in this country. They will be bringing in people from overseas and filling positions in this country that belong to our children. Our education is very important, and I feel that it needs to be handled correctly and we need to get rid of these people who want everyone to feel good about themselves. Let us get some common sense back into our classrooms and into what we do. Like I said, One Nation has spoken to many areas. Have we got it right? I hope we have got it right, because it is very important.

http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Hansard/Hansard_Display?bid=chamber%2Fhansards%2F1b7c6ef2-042a-473e-8860-145c2e88002f%2F&sid=0013

There are so many issues here that it’s hard to know where to start. Wedge politics works by playing on people’s fear of the other, and it almost always operates without any basis in fact. There is simply no empirical support for the fear that including people with disabilities harms other children. On the contrary, there is now overwhelming evidence that, if done well, inclusive education benefits all children; that “together we learn better.” It is not only that diversity in the classroom helps to establish values of respect, generosity, and compassion, nor that it helps us to see that disabled people aren’t so different after all (although if this is all it did, it would be enough!) But the evidence has also found that focused and differentiated classroom instruction and management helps all students to do better. Indeed, Hanson imagines that she is harking back to a better day, when teachers were not “sidetracked” by the “burden” of disabled difference. In reality, the good old days weren’t so good. Not only did exclusive education have a detrimental impact on disabled children, it turns out that the old-fashioned educational model of “one size fits all” in the classroom actually fitted very few people.

As usual, Hanson isn’t one to let the evidence get in the way of her political agenda. If she was really concerned for “our children” – which includes those with disabilities – then she would be advocating for an increase in resources to enable inclusive education to work as it should. But her brand of wedge politics is not about the issue at hand, it’s about stoking the fire of fear that always attends to difference. It’s inevitable that we fear the person we know little about. And what’s more depressing than Hanson is that she doesn’t so much inform the values of a significant number of Australians, but reflects them. She is a mirror, a cipher, for so-called everyday Australians. And that makes me sad.

Except, in this case I hope she’s gone too far. I hope that in 2017, Australians don’t think of the disabled as carnival freaks, welfare cheats, classroom burdens, and a social virus that need to be sequestered from mainstream society, so that they don’t infect us with their abnormality. I hope that Australians will recognise that people with disabilities aren’t the fearful other, but are one of us; our mothers fathers brothers sisters and friends. I hope that the mere suggestion of excluding them from the classroom, or any other social space, makes us mad. So mad that no matter what our political persuasion, we tell Hanson that enough  is enough; that when it comes to disability, Australia will not be divided.

Bottoms Up

It’s not everyday that I put a picture of my bum online, so here is a special treat for you. It’s a close-up of a pressure sore that my carers discovered this morning. It doesn’t look like much, but unless I stay out of my chair and keep off it, it’ll grow in size and becomes the stuff of nightmares. Google images of spinal cord injury pressure sore if you feel like throwing up your breakfast.

I don’t know what caused it, but Elly blames my brother Kurt, who commented on the weekend that it’d been ages since I’ve had one. If anyone sees him this week, make sure you punch him for me.

I’m supposed to be teaching an intensive class this week, so I’ve decided to do it from bed. It’s a small Masters class, and the students are going to sit around my room while we talk about moltmann’s theology of hope, and feminism’s turn to embodinent, among other things. i guess that’s appropriate.

I started to get depressed but it was suggested that I save that till days 3 & 4, so that’s my plan.

“Yes I can,” Paralympics and the positivity myth

It has taken me some time to decide whether or not to comment on BBC4 “Superhuman – Yes I can” advertisement for the Paralympics, because I know that any critique I make will be misunderstood. But it’s airing on the Gruen transfer last night has tipped my hand.

So let me say upfront that it’s a brilliant advertisement, the Paralympics are much more interesting than the Olympics, and I do appreciate the value of disability getting the attention that it does in this advertisement. More often than not, disabled people are represented by able-bodied actors in film and television, so it’s great to see the real bodies of disabled people on the screen.

But…

Like almost every other public mention of disability nowadays, the add buys in to the positivity myth. I’ve written on this topic a number of times before (here), but in sum, the positivity myth insists that a positive attitude will enable a person to overcome every barrier they face in life. While it might be a motivating sentiment, it’s just not true.

Indeed, the great insight of disability advocates has been that disability is not primarily a medical or psychological problem – it’s not about individual capacity or attitude. On the contrary, disability is a social problem. People are disabled when the built environment keeps them out of public and private spaces, when transport systems prevent them from being able to travel, when cultural attitudes such as disgust and paternalism result in social alienation and exclusion.

“Okay,” you might ask, “what’s that got to do with BBC4’s ‘yes I can’?”

The problem is that people think the advertisement is about disability, but it’s not. The vast majority of disabled people cannot do the things shown in this advertisement. Of course we celebrate all of the achievements represented on screen, but the statement “gee I’m afraid to go on has turned into yes I can” is downright insulting; and gets to the heart of the problem of the positivity myth. I’ve never met a disabled person who is afraid to go on, but I’ve met some who can’t go on because in one way or another the world in which they live in has said “we want nothing to do with you.” And no positive attitude can solve this.

The advertisement is entitled “the Superhumans,” which is an advance on being called “freaks.” But the truth is, that disabled people aren’t superhuman. On the contrary, disability is about what it is to be human, at one and the same time strong and weak, confident and fearful, successful and failing – occasionally triumphing, but most of the time wanting the same thing as everybody else; to be treated neither as freakish or superhuman, but as a family member, friend, and colleague.

Having said this, I still like the advertisement. I’m glad it was made, and I’m glad it’s being circulated, because disability is normally a marginal topic that is now given prominence, and people with a wide range of disabilities are being celebrated rather than pitied. Further, I don’t think it falls into the trap of inspiration porn, because it’s not saying to nondisabled people “if this cripple can do this, what’s your excuse?” Rather, it’s celebrating the hard work and the achievements of people who warrant our applause – not because they are disabled, but because their accomplishments are impressive.

Perhaps I be happier if the video had a different title and a different set of lyrics. I look forward to seeing what they do in four years time.