Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Tag: Don’t ask don’t tell

A vexing situation – Sexuality 3

It’s now 1986. I’ve been an assistant professor of theology for three years. A new academic dean has just arrived, as have recent newspaper articles about one of our recent graduates. She had been one of our more conservative students, and was now an ordained pastor.

According to newspaper accounts, our graduate, happily married with two sons, left her conservative denomination to become pastor of a church for gay men and lesbian women. She had become disenchanted by her denomination’s anti-gay/lesbian rhetoric as well as concrete actions taken against homosexual women and men. I applauded her courage, as did some of my colleagues.

Our new dean circulated to the faculty a copy of the newspaper account along with a brief memo letting us know we would be talking about this. In the account, our former student identified herself as a graduate of our seminary.

Thus began a long conversation in the faculty that ended after nearly 10 years of anguished discussion about what we as a seminary should do. Not about this one graduate, but about gay men and lesbian women who might be already enrolled or applying for admission to our seminary. And about what faculty could or could not teach in the classroom.

The seminary hadn’t made attitudes or beliefs about homosexuality (or heterosexuality) an official requirement for admission in the past, so why did we need to clarify our ‘standing’ at this time? And why, given the recent history of the seminary’s heterosexual president, as well as hints of stories that might be told about one or two male professors of the past, were we suddenly consumed by angst about homosexuality? Wasn’t heterosexuality of equal weight and importance?

During my first three years at the seminary I became known, along with several colleagues, as a ‘safe’ person to talk with about matters of sexuality. Especially homosexuality. That meant I knew how to listen, how to be supportive without being directive, and how to help seminarians think about options. It didn’t take many conversations to realize I had no clue about the inner and family lives of gay and lesbian seminarians.

Some, now full adults, had never come out of the closet with their families, much less their friends. The thought of appearing before a board or session of a church to be interviewed for ordination was terrifying. Some ordination exams were public. Open to members from other congregations. Questions could be asked by anyone in the room, including questions about candidates’ personal lives.

I attended scores of these public exams. Nothing was more brutal than knowing ‘visitors’ from other churches could sway the outcome of an exam. The sessions sometimes functioned as semi-political social and theological warfare. If that sounds harsh, so be it. The possible consequences for the woman or man standing up front were harsh. Especially if the moderator wasn’t skilled and politically savvy.

Finally, in 1996, the seminary published internally a new policy on human sexuality and moral conduct. It included implications for present and future members of the seminary community and for faculty members in their responsibility as teachers.

I like clarity. I like knowing what’s expected of me. Yet this new policy sent a double message.

To be continued.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 4 April 2018

A vexing situation – Sexuality 2

Almost all my life I’ve been aware of sexuality, especially my own. Since my birth in 1943, I’ve been a member or participant of multiple religious communities that have talked about sexuality only when necessary. Usually when cultural pressures seemed to endanger ‘our’ young people.

I don’t remember sermons or safe conversations about everyday situations such as how to have a safe conversation with someone whose heart is aching or carrying a heavy secret. Nor have I had much training in how to watch or change my behavior so that I’m as clear and safe as possible when it comes to my sexuality.

For me, this unspoken agreement not to talk openly about sexuality made things worse. Especially after I arrived at the seminary in 1983, one of a small number of female faculty members. I felt alone and confused, left to figure things out by myself.

So here I am, a new assistant professor at a theologically conservative seminary with socially responsible roots and programs, along with a still-fresh wound from the former president. My new colleagues and students have their luggage from the past, and I have mine.

Perhaps the approach of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ was the seminary’s way of allowing us to feel safe. Which, of course, many of us did not.

The first three years of my appointment I was exhausted, confused, anxious and fearful. Not because of what I knew, but because of how much I didn’t know. Not chiefly about how to teach or how to deal with classroom situations (though that was no cakewalk), but about being an academic advisor to each of my assigned advisees.

They appeared at my door, several times a year. Women and men with multiple issues about scheduling, grade point averages, work load, childcare, job requirements, immigration requirements, culture shock and yes, secrets. Heavy, untold stories about past history, realities about current history, sometimes things they’d locked away in a closet as though that would take care of it.

I think back to those three years as my Apprenticeship in Real Life. Classroom dynamics were nothing compared to the atmosphere in my office when an advisee or other student decided to tell me a secret about his or her sexuality. My job was to respond appropriately and with integrity.

Did I stumble around? Absolutely. Was I confident? NO! Did I have all the answers to life’s burning questions? No. Did I make mistakes? Yes, I did. And I learned a lot.

The most painful thing I learned was that my own sexual issues from childhood were still haunting me. Things I thought I’d left behind were suddenly right there in front of me or inside me. They demanded a hearing, even though I was there to listen and offer guidance to others.

I didn’t know it then, but I was beginning a personal curriculum that eventually humanized me. My closely guarded secrets about childhood and teenage years as well as secrets about my adult years weren’t the end of the world. They were keys to joining the human race, especially in the one area of my life I couldn’t understand no matter how much I tried to normalize it.

And I wasn’t there yet. In fact, things became more difficult after my first three years of teaching.

To be continued.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 27 March 2018

A vexing situation – Sexuality

When I arrived at the seminary in 1983, it didn’t take long to figure this out. The seminary had an unspoken policy when it came to sexual behavior. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

This left me in a quandary. I’ve just walked into a seminary with a still-fresh wound inflicted by the former president. It wasn’t about homosexuality. It was about another sexual preference, though no one in her or his right mind would have called it that back then.

He had an arrangement with a second ‘wife’ with whom he enjoyed getaways for at least a couple of years. It seems no one knew what was going on until one of the seminary’s capable staff members noticed a strange charge to his credit card.

The well-kept secret was out, and his time at the seminary came to an abrupt end. No one was happy about it. He was a highly respected man, well spoken, still in the prime of his life, and one of ‘ours.’ Which means he was a member of the church denomination that had birthed the seminary.

When I was interviewed to become a professor at the seminary, the still-fresh wound was never mentioned.

‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ already had a life of its own at the seminary. It seemed  to work. The seminary seemed to have good standing with constituents in the area. And if the word got out (which, of course, it did), the seminary had done the right thing. And attention quickly moved on to the bright future ahead now that this sad and unfortunate anomaly had been dealt with.

How did the seminary community process this crisis? I don’t know. I don’t recall much conversation about what had happened or how it might have changed the seminary’s thinking about sexual ethics and the abuse of power.

Doing the right thing when it comes to matters of sexuality is dicey at best. I don’t find the usual assumptions and exhortations from pulpits or other platforms helpful, though I believe we must talk about sexuality openly and honestly.

And there’s the rub. Because sexuality is complex, attempts to be open and honest can quickly devolve. Though we say we want an open conversation, we prefer a controlled environment. Many of us also arrive with our own unexamined baggage or our belief that we’ve got our own sexuality under control.

Trust, already in short supply, can quickly become nonexistent. Sometimes followed by resort to tired stereotypes and untested assumptions about people. It takes great skill and commitment to keep an open conversation open.

It seems we’re allergic to conversations that make us uncomfortable. Not simply as speakers, but as listeners. We prefer boundaries, no matter which side we’re on. Sometimes we argue about boundaries instead of talking about ourselves and our own painfully isolating secrets.

From my perspective, the seminary wasn’t skilled as a community when it came to creating safe space for open and honest dialogue about sexuality. ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ was the unofficial, accepted way of dealing with things. This covered the seminary’s past history as well as the past and current histories of students, faculty and staff. Unopened, unexamined pieces of luggage full of confusion and heartache.

To be continued.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 22 March 2018

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