Monday, May 9, 2011

Jennifer Knapp

A trait I most often admire in others is their courage. Courage in the face of clear danger; courage to stand up for what is right; courage to defend those who are vulnerable; and courage to live the life the individual feels they were meant to live. In certain facets of our society, communities make living true to oneself extremely difficult. There are rules for reasons of functionality, safety, and efficiency that are important to pushing humanity forward. However, many times, people who don't fit into the slim perimeters that establish how an individual should act within that particular community are faced with the difficult task of changing the rules to make them more inclusive.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I was raised in an Evangelical Christian family. My maternal grandparents were missionaries in Japan after WWII, which is where my mom was born. My grandpa Gote (pronounced Yeytah, kind of) worked as a pastor after he and my grandma Carol moved their family to Massachusetts when their mission work was done. Zion Covenant is the church I grew up attending and is a part of the Evangelical Covenant denomination. It is the church that all generations of my dad's family have attended since emigrating from Sweden to the US. My parents met at North Park College, now University, which is also a part of the Covenant denomination. 

Like other members of my family, I attended and worked at the Covenant summer camp on Lake Chautauqua called Mission Meadows. I was baptized by my grandpa during my confirmation, was involved with Sunday school growing up, and eventually chose to attend North Park. And my first real job out of college was in Student Services at NP. My memories and relationships are deeply rooted in the Covenant tradition and community and that will never change.

If you can feel a "But..." coming, you are right. Regardless of my long history within a faith-based community, I have never been comfortable verbalizing my Christian beliefs. Even though I "fit in" in all the right ways, I never felt like I belonged. Now, knowing me through this blog, you have probably picked up on my inability to resist making my opinions known. If you are a friend of mine from college or camp, you likely have dozens of recollections of me verbalizing my extremely conservative Christian beliefs. And therein lies my main issue; I wouldn't say any of those things again in a million years. I'll admit now that those talking points weren't true to me. They were coming from a place of trying to find a way to feel like I got "it". "It" being a pure faith that everyone else in my community seemed to accept with ease. Clearly, I didn't understand "it" then and honestly, I don't now. I'm so outspoken about my feminism because to me it is an absolute. There is no question that I, along with every other female, am worthy of equality. It's a confirmed truth. Faith is belief that can't be proven so I don't feel like I can speak about it with any authority. 

I'm willing to say publicly that I purposefully do not go to church and that I am not an Evangelical. I have decided that any type of spiritual or religious beliefs I may have are entirely personal and after many years of struggling to accept and make that choice, I finally feel like I'm in a really good place with it all. I know that for some people who love and care about me, this is really hard to hear. But that is OK. One motto for this blog, I suppose, is "Trust Women". I trust myself and believe that I am worthy of trust from others, even if you don't understand or accept everything about me. 

If you are outside of the Evangelical Christian community, there are probably many things you don't understand about it and maybe even have certain prejudices towards it. This is understandable because like every other organization, religious or secular, there are a million different subsets and interpretations that often lead to very different actualities but are stereotyped in one lump. Sure there are some bad seeds, which unfortunately seem to be the loudest in the media, but for the most part, the Evangelical community is loving and committed to making the world a better place. Many of my friends are working domestically and internationally within churches and other Covenant organizations for the greater good and I support and believe in the work they are doing. 

Even as a person with experience from the inside, I will admit to having a problem figuring out which Evangelical ideals I can get behind. When I think about this particular offshoot of Protestantism, I imagine it to be a huge knot that is extremely difficult to untangle. What is "right" and what is "wrong" seem to, more often than not, have a lot of disclaimers and exceptions that have a basis that I just can't seem to grasp. I suspect that is because there isn't much consensus, and the Bible itself is open to innumerable interpretations. There are so many different veins of Evangelism in America today. Which isn't bad, but it is what contributes to the problem many have with understanding the foundation of the religion. Where is the foundation? What principles really matter? I mean even I have been told by certain Christians that there is a right and a wrong way to be a Christian. Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs but when there is too much double talk, especially when you are evangelising in order to entice others to follow your path, you only accomplish confusion. 

A little over a year ago, Jennifer Knapp came out as a lesbian in Christianity Today. This was a big deal for many because Knapp is a Christian music superstar. Outside of some Christmas songs, hymns, and Amy Grant, I pretty much despise the genre, yet even I LOVE Jennifer Knapp. My favorite song of hers, Refine Me, is a beautiful confessional prayer that still speaks to me today. One of my favorite college memories was on Spring break my freshmen year with all of my girlfriends in San Diego. One night, while the sun was setting, Jessa and Kersta sang the song and played it on the guitar. I'll never forget it. It was a moment of unity between friends that solidified a bond that I will forever have with them.

You can imagine the ripples that Knapp caused as a leading voice in the Christian world when she unapologetically came out. There was actually a period of 7 years that lapsed between the last time she performed as a Christian singer and her interview in CT.  Rumors had been circling about her sexuality for some time and from the tone of the interview, it seems like the community felt vindicated in being "right" about Jennifer. From the moment I began reading, I was awed by her composure and courage. I was also amazed by what a complete prick her interviewer appeared to be. Maybe that's not fair but that is the way his questions came across. It seemed that he was trying to catch her or make her admit that when she was a Christian performer, she wasn't sincere in her music or her message. Very Pricky. 

Knapp wasn't raised in a Christian household. In fact, her childhood was anti-religious. She chose to become a Christian when she was in college. In my opinion that makes her even more of an inspiration because I have a feeling parents who are very much opposed to religion would probably take issue with their child deciding to become a evangelical believer in Christ. During this time, she found her success in the music scene. As a Christian singer, she never turned her back on the non-believing community. She even performed at the 1999 Lilith Fair. I know it's SHOCKING but many feminists are also Christians. She says that she didn't start to think about her sexuality until 2002 and by that point she had already decided to take a break from performing. It sounds like, as a new Christian, she was exploring her new found faith, and it wasn't until sometime later that she realized that she was gay. 

My move to Denver was the first time in my life when I was away from a specific church community. Since my family life revolved around the church and I attended a Christian college, I had never really been required to stand on my own. I worked at a Starbucks and one of the first things I told my coworkers about myself was that I was a Christian. I felt like I needed to announce it to prove that I wasn't hiding my faith and that would also fulfill the Evangelical side of my upbringing. Ironically, the first week that I was there, the Covenant had a big meeting at a hotel across the street from my store.  Tons of people were coming in for coffee from all over the country that knew me from different church related things. So this pegged me as "The Christian" girl in the minds of all of my new coworkers and because of this they sort of tip toed around me a bit. Like if someone swore, they would apologize to me. Lol. They quickly got to know me for me but getting the "Christian" treatment stuck with me. Even other Christians I met seemed to assume that we felt the same way about everything, which really wasn't true all the time. The whole experience made me think about the way that label made me appear to the people I met. 

I made a lot of friends within the lesbian community of Denver. I'm happy to say that even though I didn't live there for long I've maintained a lot of those relationships. They were all so good to me. During a discussion about my faith, one friend asked me:
"How does someone as loving as you, align yourself with a community so full of hate?"
WHOA. Instantly I thought "GOOD QUESTION!" But I said something dumb about how I'm not one of THOSE Christians. So I'm guilty of transplanting the blame. But the truth is that the Evangelical Covenant denomination believes that homosexuality is a sin. I don't believe that which contributes to why I do not identify with the organization anymore. But at the time it was my choice to belong to that community, so technically I was one of those Christians even if I didn't want to be. Evangelicals aren't full of hate but then again, I fit in remember? I'm not gay. The way many Evangelicals come across when they talk about this stuff is pretty hateful, no matter how much they proclaim to come from a loving place.   Telling another individual that they are living a life of sin and that they need to change or suppress a major part of themselves before they can be taken seriously in their faith is ignorant and wrong. 

Jennifer Knapp went on Larry King Live after she made her public declaration about her sexuality. Pastor Bob Botsford and Ted Haggard were also on her show. Haggard, I'm sure was asked to participate just to help ratings since who the fuck knows what he is going to say anymore. First he was the leading voice against homosexuality, then he was having relations with a gay prostitute, and now he can get the gayness out of anyone and is himself free of those tendencies. OK. Sure. But Botsford was on because of the blog he wrote about Jennifer after she came out. I think for the most part, it is fair to say that he represents a lot of what many Evangelicals believe about homosexuality: you can't be a true Christian and an active homosexual. So he doesn't think Knapp can say she is a Christian and be in a relationship with a woman. (The same woman that she has been with for 8 years I'd like to add) Watch parts two and three from the interview to hear his debate with Jennifer about why she is "wrong". 

and part three:

I don't really know why he chose to publicly speak out against her. Jennifer is right to say that in his church and within his congregation, he can preach whatever he wants. But at the end of the day, going on an internationally broadcast TV show doesn't really seem like the most loving way to personally save someone. I think he was soapboxing a bit. Which would be fine if he'd own that. Knapp comes across unwavering in her dedication to her faith even if she is clearly annoyed with him. I mean it's a feat to look less sympathetic than Haggard, which seems to be all Botsford accomplished. 

In all honestly, the gay debate is really archaic. The question about whether gay people can really be Christians all stems out of fear and I think that Evangelicals just seem to be brown nosing God and the Church when they speak against it. Like they think they get more points within their congregations and God's eyes for being straight or something. It's a classic example of the haves trying to keep down the have-nots. Anti-gay Christians and non-Christians alike are on the wrong side of history and will be held accountable for their ignorance by future generations.

My mom told me last December when questioning me about the current status of my beliefs that if I don't like something in the community I should work to change it. Essentially, that I should speak out for gay people and women inside of the Covenant church. To borrow Evangelical terminology, I don't think that is where I am called. And that is all I want to say about that. My friend Andrew started a really cool website called Coming Out Covenant at the beginning of this year and the response has been amazing. So there are many people who are actively working for change within the Covenant and I'm really proud of them.

To be fair, Evangelical Christianity is not the only religious community to speak against homosexual rights. Certain Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim sects, as well as other Protestant denominations, also have negative beliefs against gay people. However, in America, Christians are the ones who make the laws and hold the power and that can't be denied. There are a handful of elected Jewish US Senators and Congressmen and I believe Keith Ellison is the only elected Muslim serving in the House. Christians have to own their responsibility in the legal oppression of other Americans.

Jon Stewart just had David Barton on the Daily Show last week. He is one of Glenn Beck's cronies working to make the government even more Christian because they believe that Christianity is under attack in our country. Christianity is not under attack. Irrational, illogical, extremist conservatism is rightfully under attack, and I believe politicians and pundits have taken advantage of the Evangelical community and unfairly attached their moronic political beliefs to Jesus Christ and the Christian religion. Separation of church and state not only protects citizens who don't identify with the majority's faith but helps protect leading religious ideals from being manipulated for personal political gain. It would be smart for Evangelicals to move away from conservative political figureheads who rely on fear mongering in order to preserve the sanctity and security of their faith's beliefs.  

Jennifer Knapp has inspired me not only as a college aged Christian but now as a 20 something feminist in the middle of finding herself. Coming out in any context can be difficult in today's culture but when you add celebrity and Christianity to the mix, it's even more overwhelming. Through the process, she has been loving and respectful to the community that made her successful even though some have chosen to fight against her lifestyle. I think that her music stands up and can speak to people regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or even religious affiliation because I think it's always come from an honest, humble place. Someday soon equal rights will be granted to all Americans and Knapp has courageously contributed her voice to the cause.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Iman al-Obeidi

Sunday night, Journalist Lara Logan, did something extraordinary. She went on 60 Minutes and told the world about her rape in Tahrir Square during the celebration after the resignation of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. She looked purposefully at her interviewer and described the horrific details of the assault that almost killed her on Feb. 15, 2011. 
Lara Logan

Her interview was unprecedented not because of the nature of the attack but because many female reporters who experience sexual assault in the line of duty never publicly discuss it for fear it will affect their careers. These fears are substantiated by the initial reactions after learning of what happened to Logan. Many said women shouldn't report from dangerous places and more than one article referenced Lara's looks as justification for the attack. By telling her story, she has not only confronted the horror she personally experienced, but has given voice to her colleagues and illuminated the widespread use of sexual violence as a weapon.
Logan on assignment.

An especially interesting point in Logan's interview comes when she admits to having had no idea sexual violence is so prevalent in Egypt. This is part of what gave her the desire to speak openly about her experience. As a journalist with a will to tell the stories of those she encounters, it is important to her that people know the truth. The incredibly horrific truth is she is not the only woman or person to have lived through such an attack and that many people in conflict afflicted areas are survivors of sexual assault. 

Iman al-Obeidi is a 28 year old from eastern Libya who was detained at a check point in Tripoli. The Libyan soldiers who stopped her took her to a villa where she was held for two days and repeatably gang raped. She was tied up after she struggled and tried to fight off the men. She recognized one as the son of a top official in Gadhafi's regime. There was another woman who was held with her and was also raped. She did not resist so she was not bound. The morning of the third day, after the men became drunk and passed out, al-Obeidi convinced the other woman to untie her. She escaped through a window and was released by some guards who were frightened by the site of her bloody, naked body. Neighbors of the villa paid for her cab which took her to the hotel where there were international journalists. She knew this was her only chance to be heard.

Foreign Journalists protecting Iman from Gov't Handlers
While at the hotel, government aids and employees tried to violently detain her after they heard her loudly recounting the rapes. A top official reported that she was drunk and mentally unstable. This was later retracted and replaced by the admittance that she was in fact raped, but was a known prostitute who was trying to turn a criminal case into a political one. No investigators have visited the villa where she was held and foreign reporters are severely restricted in their abilities to cover any events in the country. They were barely able to protect her in the hotel restaurant from the handlers and waitresses who tried to silence her when she first escaped from captivity. 

She screamed in the hotel:
"They tied me up ... they even defecated and urinated on me," she said, her face streaming with tears. "The Gadhafi militiamen violated my honor."
She allowed photographers to take her picture so her condition could be documented and demanded to be taken to see the leader himself because he promised all victims would receive justice. She wanted him to be accountable for his forces egregious misconduct against her. 

All al-Obeidi seems to be receiving is further detention and humiliation as the government runs a smear campaign to discredit her. 

Before the revolutions began throughout the Arab world, I watched an episode of MTV's Vice Guide to Everything that high lighted just how insane Gadhafi's Libya really is. Scoff at MTV and/or the people at Vice all you want, however, the short series really took a lot of risks, providing a glimpse behind the scenes of some of the most intense dictatorships in the world today. They went to North Korea, secretly filmed an international arms fair, and met with members of the Russian mob. Their features were not typical nightly network news fluff stories.

While in Libya on invitation, the Vice group attended a pro-Gadhafi youth conference. Afterwards, the team set out to explore Tripoli without supervision from their government handlers. They were deemed spies and subjected to house arrest in their hotel to await their fate. After several days, they successfully bribed one of their guards and convinced him they were going out to dinner. They caught the first flight out of the country and ended their episode with advice to the Libyan dictator: if he wants to show how open his country is, it's best not to detain foreign journalists.

If that was the state reporters were subjected to after being invited into the country, imagine what it must be like to get real information after the rebels began their revolution. A few weeks after Iman first went to the hotel to tell her story, NPR reporter Lourdes Garcia-Navarro and a colleague snuck out of their guarded hotel for an interview with her. Not only was it insanely brave of her to seek out the international press initially, but these journalists had to risk their own lives to go to her. This is an example of the need to get the story out that Logan was speaking about during her story. These women believe in being journalists and their duty to give a voice to people who need to be heard. 

Rape, no matter what part of the world we find ourselves, is a multi-layered issue that is met with insurmountable misinformation. It is often confused as a crime of sexual passion instead of physical, forcible dominance, intended to shame and strip the victim of dignity. The world's violent conflicts have created an epidemic of rape used against innocent men, women, and children. Compounded by the belief in many Muslim countries that rape victims are tainted and ruined after surviving the initial attack, they are often shunned and outcast, left to die alone and suffer in silence. This is why many victims never come forward and why there really isn't much that can be done for them if they do. Justice is rare in seriously war torn nations.

We shouldn't think that we are free of judgement against rape victims here in America, however. In fact, over the past few years, light has been shed on the dire state of current anti-rape legislation in this country. Cities across the US have rape kits decaying, untouched in police stations and evidence lockers. Certain former governors of Alaska have even suggested that rape victims pay for their own kits in order to save funds. And with new attacks on Planned Parenthood and abortion rights, things are getting scary for women who may have to prove they were raped before obtaining an abortion. The GOP even tried to redefine what rape actually is by stating that "forcible rape" is the only justification for terminating a fetus. It's actually horrifying. And clearly another example of the gross misunderstanding about the reality behind this crime. 

Many victims are even expected to co-exist with their rapists as if nothing had happened. A cheerleader's appeal against her school for kicking her off the squad after she refused to cheer for her rapist was just rejected by the Supreme Court and there is a pending lawsuit against the military for allegedly turning a blind eye when victims, including some men, came forward. One female soldier, who gained weight from stress after her rape, was put in a weight loss program that was overseen by her rapist. It's all too much.
Spring '11 Cover

There are some bright spots at least that are opening up the discussion and changing the status quo. LA just cleared through its back log of untested rape kits which is a major accomplishment. The current issue of Ms. Magazine has launched a clear and blatant attack against anti-choice propaganda that aims to limit rape victims rights. And, brag moment, my friend Vanessa Weinert works at The Salvation Army Anew Center in Jamestown, NY and just put up her first billboard advertising the center's services for members of their community. 

Vanessa's Billboard!

As Americans, many of us believe that we live in the greatest country in the world, that acts justly and fairly.  If rape victims experience difficulty coming forward inside our legal system, it shouldn't be hard to imagine the great bravery it took for Iman to speak out in her war ravaged nation. She should be lauded for her efforts to bring her attackers to justice and seek help for the other woman she left behind who was too immobilized by fear to escape. Instead she is detained, separated from her family, receiving death threats from Gadhafi loyalists and revolutionaries alike. The odds are stacked against her.

Iman's saving grace right now are the journalists who are working to help her voice be heard internationally. By helping her tell her story, they are making it that much easier for the next victim to come forward and for the next rapist to think twice about the consequences. Just like Lara did. Speaking out will help break down the evil grip rape holds over countless communities around the world. 

Hopefully Iman will be able to return home soon and Logan's attack won't prevent news agencies from sending other female reporters on assignments around the world. If women's voices are deleted from international discussion, the consequences will be far reaching.

A thought I had while researching this post, was that when a man is killed in battle or a male journalist dies on assignment, we usually think "What a brave man, giving his life for what he believed in." I don't think it should be any different for a woman. In fact, after reading reactions to Lara's attack and Iman's rape, we seem to think "Well, it was unsafe for a woman. She shouldn't have been out there alone." Initial reactions tend to blame the woman. Lara was just doing her job that she believed in and Iman was just living her life, both as free thinking individuals who didn't let gender disparities get in the way. Why should we judge them any differently? How is their form of bravery any different than a man's?