First Year Reflections; Trible Lectures and the Student Research Symposium
Surely one of the best opportunities this semester in the School of Divinity has been the Phyllis Trible Lecture Series and the accompanying 2012 Student Research Symposium on Gender and Sexuality, which have occurred over the past two days. Given that the Trible lectures were delivered by renowned feminist scholars from around the world, and that the Symposium allowed students to examine or speak from the voices of the marginalized, I wondered what exactly I ought to take from them both. On first appearances, I am just a southern white male of the middle class variety with a college education; my demographic has long been at the head of the hierarchies feminists and others work to revolutionize. As such, the lecture I attended and the papers I heard presented were both for my ears and not for my ears. On the one hand, I need to hear many lectures from feminists and the marginalized, as do all men. On the other hand, as a male at a feminist lecture it can feel like I am a guest invited only by obligation. Such is life. But the value of experiencing the lecture series and symposium was readily apparent to me as I took notes and listened. It was just before my midterm in the History of Theological Ethics that I decided upon what I had taken from everything.
To be honest to my background, I will say that I have been lucky. I grew up at the J. Graham Brown School in Louisville, Ky. Attending the school from 3rd grade through graduation of high school, I was afforded experiences that likely put me ahead of many of my southern white college educated male counterparts. The school intentionally enrolled students from every zip-code in the city and my friends did not look like me. In the 3rd grade I thought everyone had black friends and Vietnamese friends (later Somalian friends and others). The administration members and teaching staff of my school were also reflective of this diversity. Then, in the 8th grade, one of our classmates came out of the closet as gay. At the time, we were not reading stories on the Huffington Post about the suffering of gay teens across the country on a daily basis. We just knew that our friend was gay and eventually that became a fact of life and not something to be pointed out as odd. This meant that at the Brown School the star basketball player from the west end of Louisville was friends with the lesbian with dreadlocks and nose ring from Bardstown Road. All this is to say that it sometimes feels like walking backwards for me to recognize how much farther women, the LBGTQ community, immigrants and other minorities have to go before equality is achieved. But, a presentation from a sociology student in the student research symposium led me to contemplate the source of and solution to division and prejudice.
The student was explaining a research project in which he claimed to have discovered that self identified religious affiliation was directly related to intolerance of LGBTQ issues. Essentially, Protestants won out as the most intolerant religious demographic. As I listened to his presentation, I resisted the notion that religious affiliation itself had such singular explanatory power for an individual’s intolerance. To be sure, it is not hard to identify religious groups who do seem to be more likely to be intolerant (the SBC and whoever Rick Santorum hangs out with, for example). Socioeconomic status, familial background and many other variables have to play into the equation of what produces an intolerant person. As I listened and began to think of all the possible explanations for intolerance, my mind shifted to how the process of curing intolerance can occur. All of a sudden, I was struck with the thought that we do not always give enough attention to the factor of geographical location, or proximity.
I realized that my own background explained that I had always been in close proximity to those whom many consider to be the other. I never recognized minority students as the other because they simply were the people with whom I grew up. Many, however, are not as fortunate as I have been. It is easy to be intolerant of the LGBTQ community when one is not close in proximity to members of that community. This is also the case with issues of race; racism persists often in areas where there is little diversity and segregation still remains. What distance does is dehumanize. It is easy to speak of someone as an object to be categorized, someone who is gay or an immigrant or something else, when one is not faced with that individual’s humanity. It is only when communities come together that all must recognize the personhood of each another. The Protestants who are intolerant of the LGBTQ community will only remain so as long as they intend to physically (and theologically) distance themselves from those who are different.
Of course, a closing of physical distance from the other will not end prejudice by itself. It is also clear that one individual who is different among the overwhelming majority cannot do everything on her own. The gay teens across the country are suffering because of the prejudices of their peers and their own distance from people who are also like them. Individuals need a system of support. Building a community that is inclusive and diverse is the first step towards ending intolerance. But, education certainly must follow. Ignorance, unfortunately, is not bliss. Instead, ignorance is an excuse for refusing to see the dignity that all people are due regardless of their gender, age, sexual orientation, race, socioeconomic status or nationality. In the end of distance and with education there is hope; the prophetic voices of the Trible lectures and research symposium made at least this much clear.