Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Wellington's Rainbow

“Imagine a Bahamian society where no one of any sexual orientation is ever again killed or otherwise silenced because of who they love… Imagine piety, conformity and hatespeech at the altar gone from the voices of women and men who are teachers of spirit, replaced now with inclusiveness, tolerance and views that are constantly widening. Imagine us by the many thousands changing into people no longer afraid, but wholly and completely empowered: this will be a time for embracing.” –Lynn Sweeting (http://www.womanishwords.blogspot.com/)

Two days before I left Oakland to come home to Nassau, I found out about the murder of Wellington Adderley.

Solomon Wellington Adderley was an AIDS activist and gentle warrior. Wellington lived with HIV for over twenty years, and on May 26th, 2008, his life was destroyed by an as yet unknown entity: he was found lying on the floor of his home, clothed, in a pool of his own blood, his neck so severely cut that his head was practically severed. Wellington was the third prominent gay man to have died a brutal death since November of last year. The fourth gay man to be murdered died a week later. And as of this writing, no person or persons have been found to be responsible.

This morning, on a local talk show, Erin Greene, spokesperson for the Rainbow Alliance of the Bahamas, the only GLBT advocacy group in the country (of which I am a co-founder) spoke openly about the need for citizens to help create a safer and healthier environment for all its members, including gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender Bahamians. The conversation was again and again interrupted by callers who used the Bible to attempt to shame and silence Greene, and even to justify the killings of these men. One caller stated "If you choose to live that lifestyle then you should accept that there will be consequences... When criminals engage in criminal activity, they are faced with punishment." The caller was invoking two biblical passages: Genesis 4:6-7 that says (and I paraphrase): "“If you do what is right, won't you be accepted? If you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door..." and (though somehow both passages run into one in my mind) the more popular phrase, "The wages of sin is death... (Romans 6:23)"

The conversation about the rights of gays and lesbians in this country is stuck in a Christian fundamentalist scriptural war that cannot see gays and lesbians, bisexuals or transgender people as integral to the wide spectrum of human existence. And the few (read one or two) public spokespersons for the GLBT community who dare to engage in this conversation publically are time and time again drawn into a circular argument which begs the question: how can you ask for human rights if God says you shouldn’t exist at all?

And by presuming firstly that all Bahamians are Christians, and assuming, secondly, to know God as absolutely as they do, Christian fundamentalists not only reduce and limit that God, but reduce and limit the scope of what it means to be human. And I cannot help but see the metaphor: It is God lying in a pool of his own blood, head severed, and no one has been held accountable.

Last night I attended a candlelight vigil in Wellington’s honour. As friends and I walked over to Addington House, here in downtown Nassau, the sun still warm on our shoulders as it dropped lower in the sky, we were stopped in mid-step by a rainbow directly overhead. But this was no ordinary rainbow. This rainbow was inverted, curving the 'wrong way', opposite to every other rainbow I have ever seen. We were startled, even a little afraid. It's a sign, I thought, but of what?

I remembered a story told in the Afghan film "Osama", by a grandmother to a young girl child each night before the day when she would dress as a boy and go out into the village in search of work. The story told of a young boy who wanted to be a girl. He was told that if he stood under a rainbow he would be changed, from one gender to the other. Yearning for this change, the little boy did what he had been advised, and lo and behold, the boy was transformed into a girl. And, recently, while researching the significance of the rainbow serpent in traditional West African-based spiritualities, I discovered that the snake deity Oshumare, is often represented by a homosexual, bisexual or transgender priest. Specifically, in the Afro-Brazilian tradition of Candomblé, Oshumare is said to be the youngest son of Nana (one of the oldest Candomblé deities of creation) and the force that shaped the earth and connects earth and sky. In “Candomblé and the Psychological Types”, Carminha Levy writes that Oshumare

"…participated in the creation of the World wrapping himself around the earth, joining matter and shaping the World. He supports the Universe, controls the stars and the ocean, and sets them into movement. Crawling through the World, he designed its valleys and rivers. He is the great snake which bites its tail, representing the continuation of the movement and of the vital cycle. The snake is his, and that is why in Candomblé it is not killed. His essence is the movement, fertility, the sequel of life. Communication between heaven and earth is granted by OSHUMARE. He takes the water from the seas to the sky, so that rain can be formed - he is the rainbow, the great colored snake. He assures communication between the supernatural world, the ancestors and men, and is therefore associated to the umbilical cord. His color is lettuce green and all the combinations of the rainbow. Bi-sexual with a feminine aspect, he dances with ADE (the queens' crown). He is a man for six months, a woman during the other six.

"…Physically he is slim, with fine features. He is dynamic, intelligent, inquisitive, and ironic. He likes to gossip, and he attracts, seduces and entertains because he is intriguing. He is often snobbish, and likes to show off, being sometimes eccentric and extravagant. When rich, he protects talented youngsters. He is homosexual or bisexual. He is neither rough nor gross, he is refined and civilized, but his vilification can be dangerous. He has a great intuition, and can be a smart soothsayer. (The Deep Transforming Shaman, http://www.tranceform.org/)"

The connections between these fragments of story and tradition point to the rainbow as an old symbol of double gender or double sexuality for which contemporary western language may have no adequate words. I imagine that many adherents to Christianity, especially in its fundamentalist forms, will object to these findings, pointing out that, like other indigenous spiritual traditions, Candomblé is ‘pagan’, and therefore unworthy of their attention or care. But it seems to me that the wisdom embodied and transmitted through traditions like Candomblé has much to teach us about honouring differences and valuing them as essential to understanding the fullness of who we are as a human community.

At the beginning of this week I was privileged to sit beside an elder of my community. He happens to be a Catholic priest whose ideas and insights I have long appreciated and respected. We were at an event which featured speakers who had survived genocides and were there to speak of their experiences and the process of forgiveness. The Monsignor and I talked about what it means to be rejected because of who you are. We talked about fundamentalist Christianity’s black and white version of the Bible and its unbelief in the possibility of human transformation – the despair inherent in that unbelief. I told him I believed imagination was the balm for despair. He suggested the word ‘imagine’ is connected to ‘imago dei’ which means ‘image of God’. I said, Yes, yes, and the Christ is that ability to imagine, inside each one of us, that remains, that is, radically: the ability to imagine so necessary if we are to conceive of a God deeper and wider than the Bible, of a divinity as multiple and complex as we might actually be. And as compassionate as we might yet become.

But what happens to imagination when it is violated, assaulted, crucified or found lying lifeless in a pool of its own blood?

After the tributes had been given, tears shed, and red candles lit, and as the bass drums of a junkanoo rush out beat, beat, beat, I understood what is most radical about Christianity, in spite of its motherless God, its fundamentalisms, its fear of its own most ancient faces: the resurrection is still wild, untamable, unstoppable. This is what I mean: imagination cannot be destroyed. It will come back, say the drums, it will return, say the drums, this is the meaning of revolution, you can kill the story tellers, but the story is in the ground and will grow back; boom boom, say the drums, boom boom boom, says the goat skin, the hand that beats it, the heart that hears it, feels it.

Solomon Wellington Adderley was an AIDS activist and a gentle warrior. He was also an intelligent, kind, sensitive, beautifully masculine and feminine man who loved other men, though nowhere in any of the tributes to him was this important part of who he was mentioned. And yet, there in the sky above us was the rainbow, inverted, uncommon, showing its own startlingly beautiful self to those who dared look up and see.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Poetry Under Investigation

I wrote in one of my first columns for the Nassau Guardian that exercising one's imagination in this country is tantamount to heresy. The imagination is the one place that governments and churches (and any other authority for that matter) cannot control, and therefore it is seen (and portrayed) as wild and dangerous terrain. We have been trained not to question authority, and not to 'story', to tell lies, fictions. We have been trained to stay out of the mangrove swamps of our imaginations, to fear the monsters in the blue holes, to keep to the shallows and steer clear of the dark brown and black patches of water in our own psyches: all the better to uphold the truths already known, the status quo, in which those with most kinds of power are thoroughly invested.

When individuals step out of line, or cross the line between status quo and the unknown, into the dangerous and wild places of the imagination, we tell them first they are abominations; we tell them they are of the devil. We threaten them with spiritual warfare, eternal damnation and the like. When that doesn't work, when those individuals do not cower in fear for their souls, we send in backup: the physical forces of domination, in this case, the Royal Bahamian Police Force.

The story is that two young poets are being investigated by the police because of the alleged sexual content of their poetry. When I learned of this, I was shocked, and outraged. But the shock was short-lived. I have heard other stories: a young woman is dragged naked from her home by police; a young woman is raped by a policeman while in custody. It so happens that both poets are female. In a patriarchy, every act of aggression against a woman by a male in authority is calculated to control, to keep her in a place outside her imagination, in the hopes that she may forget how to get there. She may forget a place called 'imagination' exists at all. And without a way to get to her imagination, there will be no new ideas, and no agency with which to live them.

Poet Audre Lorde, a first generation Caribbean American, wrote that "poetry is not a luxury" precisely because it has the power to give birth to ideas so that they can be lived. Poetry, said Lorde, names those feelings that our bodies know but have no words for. Poetry is necessary because it can turn feeling into language and language into action.

True rebellion does not come in the form of guns, or physical force, it comes in the shape of ideas. Ideas cannot be killed. And ideas are spawned in the mangrove swamps of our imaginations. Poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists, filmmakers, visual artists of all kinds have the power to spawn ideas. We have the power to bring down walls and governments. The builders of both know this.

If Bahamian poets are under investigation by police it is because they are naming something which powers that be would prefer remained unnamed. And that is the sacred task of poets. And, if the police are investigating poets and poetry, it is because they can: we as a society have agreed not to question authority, by and large; not to make consistent and sustained protests against so many other kinds of human rights violations; and not to protect the spawning grounds of our most delicate and valuable resources: physical and psychic wetlands.

The intrusion of police into the poet's work, into the poem, is a serious human rights violation. And it is our sacred task as human beings and poets to resist violation of our bodies, our poems, and our imaginations, by every means possible. We have already been too silent, too accommodating; if we say nothing, do nothing, then like frogs in water slowly boiling, we will not understand our fate until it is too late.

May 8th, 2008, Oakland, CA

Published as a letter to the editor in the Nassau Tribune, Nassau, Bahamas on May 14, 2008

Of Heretics and Mangrove Swamps

her·e·tic: a person who holds controversial opinions; from the Greek ‘hairetikos’, able to choose.

mangrove: an evergreen tree or bush with straight slender stems and intertwined roots that are exposed at low tide. Native to: tropical coasts.

Lately, I have been thinking about mangrove swamps. How they are not much valued in this island country. And how they are necessary to the birth of new life.

Fish spawn in mangrove swamps. Fish in dreams are considered to be new ideas rising up out of the murky waters of the unconscious. New ideas need swamps, wetlands. But wetlands are being filled in, to make more room for ‘development’: condos and gated communities; hotels and all-in-one resorts. Mangrove swamps are inconvenient, wasted space. Cheap land or wholly unmarketable. Development needs hard ground.

I have also been thinking about censorship and the banning of ideas. How Brokeback Mountain was banned all those months ago. How the same group of censors (clergy) wanted to ban The Da Vinci Code. Because they know very well that ideas are powerful. The idea of a man dying on a cross then coming back to life three days later is a powerful idea. The idea that God might be comfortable in human flesh, walking among us, is more powerful still.

The Christ was symbolized by a fish. There was something of revolution in the air, all those thousands of years ago. Something dangerous in the idea of the Christ. A man who refused to die. New ideas are always and still rebels.

Writers are something like wetlands. There isn’t much use for us where development is going on. You can’t market a poem. Or build a house on a haiku. The mark-up on novels is small things compared to the sale of a sea front home on what used to be Hog Island. And of course, governments are all about development. I heard Prime Minister Christie say many moons ago that he intended to put a hotel resort on every family island. Something like Monopoly.

I was never good at Monopoly, bought the cheap properties, never had enough money to buy hotels, but I wrote my first Haiku at 12. And it was powerful. Showed me an idea I hadn’t seen before. Showed me something about myself that saved me.

Now, whenever I hear about a book or a movie being banned, keeping stories from getting told, I know there’s an idea in that story that is powerful. An idea someone doesn’t want us seeing. Brokeback Mountain was, on the surface of things, a tragic love story between two men. But really, it told of the way society threatens us with death if we dare live our truths.

If we had watched Brokeback Mountain, maybe we would have recognized something about ourselves, no matter who we were. Sitting in the dark as the credits rolled, maybe we wouldn’t have felt satisfied any longer with half truths, half lived lives. And we would have become traitors to silence, to our own cherished lies and fears.

Human psyches are something like wetlands. Like mangrove swamps. Where what is unconscious in us teams with unborn and newborn life: ideas waiting to get told. But in a society where all the questions and all the answers have already been provided by the One Book, (we are told), our psyches get neglected, ignored. It is dangerous to entertain ideas that come out of nowhere, (we are told), different ideas, original ideas, because who knows where they came from. If it is not of God, well then. But I think God lives in mangrove swamps. I think God is in the rusty brown water, salty and teaming with unborn and newborn life. Waiting and waiting to get told.

Lately I’ve been dreaming about fish and wet places. Unfortunately, I don’t have to wonder what will happen to the fish when the mangrove swamps have all been filled in with concrete and stone. I know what will happen. The censors or the developers, or the government or the churches will ban more movies, and more books. They will call more of us heretics. They will tell more of the people that the devil is afoot. They will build bigger churches and only the most virtuous can come inside. We will be told that dreams are nonsense and only sorcerers listen to them, and any ideas which contradict the ideas of the One Book are blasphemous. Our dreams will terrify us. The fish will become scarce. The people will be hungry. And the government and the churches will be fat, and very powerful indeed.

First published in the Nassau Guardian, Nassau, Bahamas, October 4th, 2006