Dog Bites Man: An open letter to Reverend Mark Sandlin

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Dog Bites Man

An open letter to Reverend Mark Sandlin

Dear Reverend Sandlin,

You’ve reminded me lately of an old journalistic adage that says “Dog Bites Man” is not a story. “Man Bites Dog”….. now THAT’S a story.

In the wake of the ongoing story of a county clerk jailed for contempt of court for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples, you have started a hashtag that’s gaining popularity. For those who don’t know, Reverend Sandlin is a Progressive Christian blogger, a fan of writing his own headlines in the third person, and aficionado of creating inspirational Facebook memes with his own quotes on them. A cisgender and heterosexual minister, he has also taken it upon himself to “change the dialogue” over Kim Davis. In doing so, he’s decided to ask people to tell their own stories about how they, like Kim Davis, once hated gay, bi, and transgender folk. He has asked them to offer her empathy and forgiveness. His hashtag is #IWasKimDavis.

Sorry, Rev. This is an open letter after all, and I’m sure most of the people who will read this won’t know the context of what I’ll discuss here.

Before I get into my points of disagreement, I’d like to say that I agree with much of your sentiment. It is indeed incumbent upon Christians to offer forgiveness and grace to those who persecute us. In Matthew 5:44, we are told,

“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you….”

“Those who persecute you”. Let me tell you a little bit about how that intersects with my life.

I live in California’s Contra Costa County. I’m sure you reacall 2008, when our state Supreme Court ruled that marriage licenses must be issued to same sex couples. In San Francisco County and Alameda County, clerk offices stayed open, eager to issue licenses the moment that they were permitted by the courts to do so. Naturally, the protestors of Westboro Baptist Church were there, spitting and stomping on American and Rainbow flags, toting signs with crude images of men engaging in anal sex and inscriptions insisting that God hates those couples now entering into holy union and damns them to hell.

Contra Costa is slightly further afield in the Bay Area. Our county clerk’s offices closed at the regular time and opened at the regular time the next day, ready to accommodate all. Never missing an opportunity, Westboro were there with their flags and their signs, lungs rested to scream anew at those in my county who were lined up outside to get their marriage licenses. I was in that line, along with the woman who was then my partner of 11 years and was shortly to become my wife. Together, walked past a gauntlet searing hatred that stopped just short of assault. As long lines tend to be, it was very slow. We were given plenty of time to absorb their disgust at us for our wish to enter into holy wedded union. They shouted until they spat what a beasts and demons we were. They looked at loving couples like my wife and I. and screamed at us that we were subhuman and Satanic. Try to imagine, Reverend Sandlin, what it was to be greeted line in this manner on this longed for and hoped for day after eleven loving years together. My wife trembled, terrified. I had to stifle my own fear to comfort her in the face of such degradation that nobody could deserve. She heard in the voices of Westboro the echoes of words said too frequently to her in the past. I will not go too deeply into her story here. Suffice to say, she is deeply aggrieved by what happened when she transitioned gender.

We didn’t get married that day, but we got our license. We waited until June, when I was on break from my teaching position so we could enjoy what small honeymoon we could afford. On the last day of work before vacation, my coworkers threw a shower for me. All the staff came. I broke down, bawling like a small child, trying to articulate how much this blessing meant to me. They smiled. We broke bread. We drank. We went on break, and I got married.

That Fall, many of the people who were ostensibly there to congratulate me on my coming nuptials voted alongside the majority of my fellow citizens in California that I should not be permitted the same holy rite that they pretended to celebrate. Free food and drink’s hard to turn down, I suppose.

Being a transgender woman who loves another transgender woman, I have lost jobs, security, and friendships because of who I am. Once, I came across a former coworker from the job where I came out many years after we both left. She told me why she left. As a supervisor, she was a part of administration meetings where I had become a running dirty joke. They made filthy insinuations and cruel mockery on private, and smiled sweetly at me in the hallways. This lasted from that I came out and announced my intention to transition gender until long after I left on my final day. For all I know, I’m a joke still shared by people there, a reminder of the “Good Ol’ Days”. I shouldn’t have been shocked, I suppose. This job had demoted me after I came out, and made my work deeply uncomfortable until I felt compelled to leave. Still, I was sickened at this.

Honestly, though, that was par for the course. From the moment I came out and publicly transitioned, I've been subjected to demeaning treatment. I’ve been stalked, cornered, and groped by someone who thought that because I'm transsexual I owed him sex. It turns out, Reverend Sandlin, that many people conclude that a transsexual should suffer verbal harassment and return sex in gratitude. From the moment my front door closes behind me until I return home at the end of my day, I am subjected to sneering, vile sexual speculation, and outbursts of cruel laughter. Jobs have been a litany of constant harassment and even violence that went unchecked by my supervisors who pretended not to hear, not to see. For these reasons among others, my mental health is shattered; I am now considered disabled, and am currently unable to work in the field I once did, and am gratefully being retrained. Even though I have classes and my lovely Church community, I’m barely able to leave my home for the panic attacks and agoraphobia that come with the homophobia and transphobia that I face. I find myself unable to connect with others. I try, but people are just hard to trust for all the betrayal I've been subjected to.

Does this qualify as “persecuted”? I feel persecuted. It’s certainly difficult for me to offer grace, to forgive. Some days, it’s nigh impossible. But, I try so hard to. I work on healing my spirit, transforming myself into someone who can forgive and love the people who have done these things. This is my trial, my cross. Not only must I pray for them, but I have to pray for the strength to pray for them.

Rev. Sandlin, they have not harmed you.

Sure, in the most abstract sense they have harmed us all, including themselves. But that’s abstract. In the concrete and at the gut level, you’ve been looking in on these issues from the outside. I don’t say this to discount that as clergy, you’ve made decisions about your church and ministry regarding marriage equality. But at the end of the day, you’re a cisgender straight man who has taken it upon himself to draw up rules of engagement in the discussion about prejudice against people like me from people like you.

Man bites dog is not a story. Heterosexual forgives homophobe is not a story. Homosexual forgives homophobe.... THAT’S a story. Transwoman forgives Transphobe.... THAT'S a story.

Do you remember the moment the family of his victims forgave Dylann Roof, the young man who murdered nine people at Emmanuel African Episcopal in the hope of starting a race war against African Americans? Wasn’t that an amazing moment?

It was amazing because THEY were the ones to forgive. They faced the man who murdered their family, who hoped to inspire genocide against them and everyone like them, and they forgave him.

It would have been in poor taste for a white family who had never been to that church to stand on a soap box, clear their throats, and loudly forgive him, wouldn’t it? We all would have shaken our heads if that white family took it upon themselves to suggest the proper way to react to that tragedy.

In your blog post, you admit to having once been Kim Davis. Convinced that the reader would be shocked that even one such as you would have been a bigot, you then start a new paragraph, a mere two words long:

“Yes, really.”

I never doubted it, Reverend Sandlin. I don’t say this because I think you’re still in the grips of that hate, nor because I think you’re a bad person. Consider that I live in the same culture as you, and am of the same generation as you. I know you were Kim Davis, because almost nobody…. LGBTQ folk included…. made it through school without acquiring those attitudes. I certainly had them drilled into me. The voice of that hateful person I was lives in my head to this day, spouting invective against against me in my ear using language that I would never say aloud. I’ve internalized the Kim Davis I once was, and am the sole recipient of her condemnation. Every day and every hour, I hear that voice. Part of that whole psychiatric disability thing, you know?

When people like you, and those straight and cisgender people who have also rushed to admit that hey, yeah.... they totally hated people like me, I feel anxious, seeing walls closing in. I don't need reminding just how ubiquitous and gosh-darn understandable folks find it to hate me and my loved ones. I know. I'm not allowed to forget. It's painful to be reminded at every turn that recognizing my humanity was something you had to learn to do. Nor am I shielded from the self-congratulation that goes hand in hand with publicly rejecting that hate. I certainly do not think that you accomplished it is worth special celebration. From my perspective, ceasing to hate people for the way God made them is the bare minimum expectation of a decent human being, and I’m reminded of Matthew 6:1:

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them….”

You may well dismiss me, but I’m not alone in this opinion, Reverend Sandlin. When I talk about how hurtful I find #IWasKimDavis, people always thank me for putting voice to what they’ve kept inside. They hurt too. And there are many of us. Oh, not every LGBTQ person feels this way. But do you find it appropriate to weigh those who are injured against those those who find it easy to move on?

It’s very telling that when we see homo/bi/transphobia people are eager to admit that they once shared this hate. You don’t see it when a racist is in the news. There was no “#IWasDonaldTrump” when he said racist things about Mexicans. Why is that?

The question is rhetorical, because the answer is apparent. It is rightly considered odious to be a racist. Although many people go through journeys of overcoming racist attitudes, it’s almost unheard of to hear people admit it. Even the KKK are insisting they're not racists! At yet, in this same cultural context admitting to having been a homo/bi/transphobe? Folks are eager to do that, revealing that on some level, we still consider that a reasonable position. To the culture at large, homo/bi/transphobia makes enough sense that they can cop to it. Not that these people still adhere to it NOW, mind you. NOW they know better. But, you know how it is….

Yeah. I know. Intimately.

Ms. Davis represents a culture war that has harmed and broken people, broken families. As a Christian, I believe that she deserves forgiveness and grace from those of us who she’s harmed. We need to work toward reconciliation with all children of God.

But the challenge is before US, not before YOU.

You have taken this historical moment as yours. You are defining it around yourself, and celebrating the strength of character you display in not only moving past your bigotry but also forgiving people who haven’t overcome theirs. Yet, you are not the aggrieved party.

You might have listened to stories of the casualties in this culture war. You could have used your literal and figurative pulpits to lift up the voices of those who’ve endured and been wounded. Instead, you’ve chosen to center this issue on yourself and other cisgender heterosexual individuals.

Someday, the suicide rates among LGBTQ folk will even out to about that of the general population. Someday, the mental illnesses and substance abuse that is rampant in our communities as a consequence of bigotry and marginalization will subside. Someday those murders of transfolk remember worldwide every November 20th will fade. Heck, someday we may even be equal in the eyes of the law and in social standing. Understand this, please: today is not that day. Today is not your day. Forgiveness is the challenge placed before we LGBTQ folks in faith communities. It goes without saying that any majority group will easily forgive their fellow majority group members for upholding a system that they profit from. Even when it represses a minority group and they disagree with said system, the forgiveness comes as no surprise. “Dog bites man” is not a story.

You’re not wrong about forgiveness and grace. What you fail to realize is that this historic moment asks it of us, not you. Don’t co-opt it. Don’t use it to bring glory to yourself. Sit with us. Listen. Be a balm to those who are injured. As we heal, we will slowly come to forgive this woman who is a figurehead of many cultural forces arrayed against us.

That will be the story.

Sincerely,

Christine Smith


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