Monday, July 25, 2011

Coming Out to Students: Risk and Liberation

- by Deborah Schwartz

This chapter explores the liberatory power of coming out, but also its risks. It may be of most interest to therapists and educators, as we grapple with decisions about self-disclosure in general, and regarding social group memberships that are associated with privilege and oppression in particular. Although the chapter focuses on disclosure of sexual orientation, the concepts it explores are equally applicable across a variety of memberships, particularly those that may not be immediately visible to others such as hidden disabilities, religion, class, etc. Also, while the coming out dilemma can feel especially tricky in hierarchical power relationships (therapist with client, teacher with students, etc.) this piece may also appeal to anyone who is faced with the choice to disclose or not.

The chapter was authored by a dear high school friend of mine. Interestingly, we did not disclose our sexual orientations to one another until years after high school - me because I was not out to myself yet, and Deborah because she was at the beginning of her identity development as a lesbian and was not out to her peers. Our reconnection in adulthood, including our connection as queer identified Jewish women, has been a blessing. This chapter will appear in the book "Our Stories Ourselves: the Embodyment of Women's Literacy" which will be available for purchase at It is preprinted here with permission.


When I taught adult basic education at the Archdale Family Literacy Project in Roslindale, Massachusetts, I kept a journal. More precisely, we—the ten women students and myself— all kept journals. Our medium was stacks and stacks of green steno-pads. In them, we tried to tell the truth about our lives, though the students started noticing gaps in my story. They challenged me not to hide myself from them. Following are several edited entries from my own journal, which tell the story of coming out to my students. Most are from my experience with this class, but I also included two entries from two other classes I taught concurrently.

March 3

They are writing frantically in their journals. S writes about driving the rats out of her apartment. C writes about playing her music as loudly as she likes. L writes about her grandmother— about living with her in the mountains and drinking her coffee so black that it stings her eyes before she swallows.

When J reads, she interrupts herself to tell us that she’s getting evicted because her oldest son Tom came home with some guy named Eddie who lit a joint in the hall then walked into her apartment with the lit joint and now the housing authority has the right to evict them.

C responds, “Even in this lousy project, you still have some rights.” She is on her feet: “Do you know how often they’ve threatened to evict me? Just for playing my music after church on Sunday afternoon?”

C is smart and community-minded. She has set up this protocol of letting the neighbors know when she’s going to be playing loud music. Half the time, they say it’s fine and half of those times she invites them over because “it’s no fun to dance alone,” and the other half of the time, she shares chicken with them and then they change their minds, and half of the time they end up watching TV together. “All those halves don’t add up,” B notices.

“They add up,” responds C. “Believe me, they add up.” Everyone laughs. The classroom is a world of words and stories and noise and quiet while we’re writing.

We have authority over our lives for this brief time. The crocus doesn’t just come up in the spring, but has the purple-colored chutzpah to bloom through the hard, cold earth. These women are like that. They give me bravery, but what do I give them? Room, that’s all.

April 23

“Read what you wrote, Deborah. You always make us read what we wrote,” J notices that I skip passages when it’s my turn to read. I remind her that its ok to skip passages, or to not even read at all.

“But Deborah, you never tell us anything about your life, or at least anything good,” which I know is a code word for anything interesting.

“Well nothing all that interesting happens in my life,” I counter.

“Are you kidding?” replies C. “You come in here some mornings and you look like a train hit you. You and your double latte! Then some days you come in looking like a shining star. You have a life too, just cause you’re a teacher doesn’t mean you can hide behind that. Jesus, you know what color each of our bedroom walls is painted. We don’t know anything about you. Nothing that counts anyway. You take a risk, Missy, and read!” That’s what C says.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A New Idea for the Gaza Flotilla

- by Yvette Nahmia-Messinas

I met poet, peace worker, Reiki master and Israeli resident Yvette Nahmia-Messinas at a conference a couple of years ago, and was inspired by her creative approaches to peace building in the Middle East. She authored the collection of poems entitled “They All Sound Like Love Songs, Women Healing Israeli-Palestinian Relations" and has contributed to this blog several times before. Last week activists from around the world set out on a flotilla in an attempt to break the blockade of the Gaza strip and deliver humanitarian supplies. Two boats were turned back. Last year similar confrontations between activist flotillas and the military in the Gaza sea resulted in violence and fatalities. In this article, Yvette describes her idea of what an affective flotilla would look like. This piece was originally published on, and is reposted with permission.

In the best scenario, the flotillas could serve as a place to let go of the old paradigm of the strong wins; of winners and losers. In that scenario, the flotillas could launch a new way of doing things, for internationals, Palestinians and Israelis. Ideally, I would like to see the flotillas as seminar spaces in the middle of the sea, where Israelis-Palestinians and internationals could negotiate their fate until they formed a consensus. In that scenario the flotillas would not reach Gaza unless all involved Israelis, Palestinians and internationals reached an agreement.

I am inspired to suggest this model after a day I spent in Beit Jala’s Everest hotel as a participant in a process-oriented psychology seminar co-led by Gary Reiss and Vassiliki Katrivanou. At the seminar of 20 participants, Gary and Vassiliki taught me that when you bring up your discomfort and honestly express and share your feelings, and allow for others to do the same, you can eventually reach understanding and agreement. The process takes time, but is indeed worth the effort.

In this ideal scenario, I would have many facilitators work in parallel with all three groups, the passengers on the boats, the Israelis in charge of controlling the entrance of the flotillas, and the Palestinians in Gaza.

I would keep the flotillas at sea, and have Israelis and Palestinians meet together in the flotillas, along with the internationals, in a safe space where they could each express their pain, anguish, fears, and whatever comes up for them. At some point when everyone’s concern would be addressed the group would agree on the next step. And step by step they would reach a solution agreed by all.

In the course of this process, people involved would realize the humanity of all, would come to understand each other’s fears and pains, would cry and tremble and sweat and blush, and eventually understand each other’s positions in a tangible manner. In the end all would agree on some basic values, or on a policy that all could live with, and come up with creative ideas as to which boats can enter Gaza, or what the precondition is for them to enter and so on.

The point I am making is that the issue is currently dealt with by politicians, army officers, activists, and citizens who despite their good intentions are not managing to find a solution based on consensus. To my mind, we need to call in experts in group process work, in group dynamics, in conflict resolution, in healing: those who already have experience in solving conflicts in organizations and communities. These people exist; they are out there doing amazing work from which we could all benefit.

I call on politicians, activists, and army officers to recognize their limitations and call forth help from the experts in the field. I am sure dozens of them are craving to put their knowledge into practice and contribute their understanding and experience to help reach consensus by reaching out to all involved parties. Each voice, they tell us, counts, and this is something that most of us have forgotten.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


- By Teri Mayo

In November of 2011 my partner Teri Mayo and I founded an organization called Beyond the Bridge, whose vision is to bring awareness to and reduce the risk of suicide among LGBTQ youth. In January 2011 we joined with the Pride Foundation to create an area of interest fund, to support local organizations who do critical work with LGBTQ youth, focusing in particular on reducing bullying in schools, increasing family acceptance, and building more affirmative faith communities. On June 25, 2011 we held our first house party, and it was a day filled with connection, somber remembrance of lives lost, and inspired visioning of the future. Teri gave this beautiful speech which I wanted to share here, because it speaks to so many of the issues that are of concern to TJP readers, including allyship, resisting oppression, and activism. She focuses on the theme of choice, and the many ways that plays out in people’s lives: for example, the choice to bully (or not), the choice to ally with someone who is being bullied (or be a passive bystander), and the choice to take action via community engagement, activism, and advocacy (or not). I hope you enjoy it.

There is a beautiful song out now by the popular group Mumford and Sons called "Timshel." I've liked the song since I first heard it but it struck me that the meaning of that word was a perfect synthesis of all that we are doing here with Beyond The Bridge- both today at this gathering and in the larger sense with our cause.

Timshel is a Hebrew word, loosely translated as "Thou Mayest." There are many ways to interpret and discuss this word but here is the very abbreviated version. It is from Genesis in the Old Testament and refers to God's granting man knowledge and choice (as opposed to living a pre-ordained life). We were given the choice in that moment but with that gift of knowledge comes responsibility: the individual responsibility to do the right thing. Many describe that moment as the invention of conscience.
It seemed appropriate here because choice - the right choice - is what we are hoping to affect with Beyond The Bridge, in small and large ways. Including the choice for us as individuals in this moment at this party.

With Beyond The Bridge we hope that with by funding various, specific programs we will be able to give more knowledge to those who need it. And in doing so, that we can affect choices made by individuals, teachers, schools, congregations, and communities at large. With the addition of support and a newfound sense of community, perhaps people will make a different choice. Timshel. Perhaps they make the choice not to bully. Perhaps they make the choice to stand up for a classmate who is getting harassed despite the risks to themselves. Maybe a teacher intervenes instead of letting covert homophobia stand or comments go unchecked. A pastor decides to take a stand in favor of love and against institutionalized marginalization. Maybe, with the right education and with a new understanding of options previously unknown to them, an LGBTQ youth makes the decision to live. These are choices. And like the line in the song says, these are what make men (and women) great.

It may be a cliché to say this but it’s true: if what we do protects or affects one queer kid, then we have succeeded. My sense is that we will largely never know the impact that our effort has. But we must still make the choice to try and affect change. Too many lives are lost or harmed if we do nothing.

Which brings me to this moment. Our choice. Many of you have already given to this cause and we cannot thank you enough. But here is a moment to do more. If you understand, relate, are drawn to what we have talked about here, then make the choice that resonates with your conscience and contribute again. Whatever you are able to give makes a difference. If you have not donated, this is your opportunity to help us along on this long and difficult path.

This journey, sadly, will likely not end in our lifetime, but we can make the choice to do everything we can to help. Today is just a step on the journey but it is our moment. If I could say one thing to all of the kids out there struggling with acceptance, who are being bullied and who are scared, I will reference the song one more time and say: "You are not alone in this."

To find out more about Beyond the Bridge please visit our website,

Monday, July 4, 2011

Whose Independence?

- by Stacey Prince

OK, I like the 4th of July as much as the next person - especially when Seattle breaks its multi-year streak of crummy weather and is actually sunny and warm for the holiday. Cook-outs, fireworks, a day off from work... what's not to like? But my relationship to the meaning and history of the day is much more ambivalent. It's difficult to wholeheartedly celebrate freedom and independence when so many in this country are neither. Here are just a few examples:

Immigration. It is believed that there are about 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. They deal with daily barriers to independence and security including language and cultural barriers, anti-immigrant hostility, being denied employment and housing, as well as pervasive fear of being discovered, detained and/or deported. Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas recently disclosed his undocumented status in a powerful story in the New York Times and is trying to bring increased attention and national debate to address our country's broken immigration system.

Transgender Rights. There are daily advances in the rights of lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals. It may feel like one step forward, one step back much of the time, and we still have a long, long way to go, but overall the trajectory is toward improved protections, freedom and equality. The civil rights struggle for transgender individuals however flags behind by about 2 to 3 decades. Transgender individuals are still some of the least protected and most discriminated against people in this country. They are regularly let go from jobs, evicted from housing, and denied medical treatment, as well as facing transphobia and violence, with little legal recourse. This article summarizes the ongoing struggle for transgender rights.

Racism in our country is still the most divisive of all the isms, with pervasive, systemic discrimination experienced by people of color in virtually every facet of life including employment, education, access to health and mental health care, financial security, and the criminal justice system. Further, there are not only stark between-groups but also within-groups differences in racially biased discrimination. For example, this recent study compared sentences and length served for over 12,000 light skinned versus dark skinned black women imprisoned in North Carolina between 1995 and 2009. The authors controlled for factors such as prior record, date of conviction, prison misconduct, and thinness, as well as whether the woman was convicted of homicide or robbery since these crimes usually carry longer sentences. Results indicated that women deemed to have light skin were sentenced to approximately 12% less time behind bars than their darker skinned counterparts, and that having light skin reduced actual time served by approximately 11%. The authors concluded that it is not sufficient to understand racial discrimination just in terms of relative advantages of whites versus to non-whites. Based on this study, characteristics associated with whiteness among Blacks also appear to have a significant impact on important life outcomes. These and other findings indicate that this subtle form of racism known as colorism (discrimination experienced within groups of color based on lightness or darkness of skin) is also a serious problem in our country.

Native Americans. European colonization of North America forever changed the lives, well-being, and cultures of the many indigenous peoples who lived here for thousands of years, long before the settlers who would later declare independence from Britain every arrived. The Native people whose land was taken and culture silenced by colonial settlers continue to experience disproportionately high rates of social, economic, and health inequities. The country's 2.1 million Native Americans have the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, and illness of any ethnic group. Interestingly, many Native American individuals and tribes have a complex and conflictual relationship with this holiday. Some tribes have decided to stop observing the holiday altogether, in recognition of the fact that so many tribal people were killed and villages destroyed as they were "in the way" of the new country that was being celebrated on this day. On many reservations it was one of the few holidays chosen by the government (but not meaningful to the tribe) when tribal people were allowed to perform traditional dances and drumming. This made it appear that Native Americans were celebrating Independence Day, when in fact they were not. Over time, however, some tribes have reclaimed the day and it has become one of cultural celebration (rather than a celebration of "independence" and patriotism) for many. This article explores the complex relationship to the holiday for some tribal reservation residents.

Economic Injustice. Where is the security and prosperity that were supposed to underlie our freedom and were spelled out in the Declaration of Independence, the document whose writing we commemorate on July 4th? It seems it has never been more true than now that as the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Thirty-nine million people live in poverty in the United States, and as this article indicates, financial growth and job growth are no longer tied. What this means is that while corporate profits continue to accrue, more and more Americans are jobless, and employment lags behind growth during both economic boons and downturns. As the article so succinctly points out, given that those who benefit from corporate growth represent a tiny proportion of the population, "it's not economic growth most Americans are looking for -- it's jobs."

So, here we are celebrating Independence Day. Several recent newspaper articles including this one indicate that patriotism is at a new high this year, with some speculating that this might be related to the capture and death of Osama Bin Laden. Yet with almost 13% of our country's residents overall and 25% of the Native American population living in poverty, 11 million undocumented immigrants, nearly half of our population non-white and experiencing personal and systemic racism, mass incarceration of Black youth and adults, 8 million identifying openly as gay or lesbian, and 700,000 as transgender, whose life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are we celebrating anyway?