In her most well-known piece, performance artist Marina Abramović invites viewers one by one to sit across from her in silence and look into her eyes. It lasts however long the viewer wants – alternatingly beautiful and unnerving, all too long and then over too soon.
The Gottmans – perhaps the most well-known therapists and marriage counselors – recommend a similar practice for couples: take the time to be in the presence of your partner and “see” them – whether with eyesight or through other senses. Get to know them all over again. Give them a chance to be seen.
I blame my enneagram type for my tendency to downplay the importance of being known even while that’s what I want, and even while that’s what any of us want: to be known, to be understood. It’s vulnerable (and a little embarrassing) to admit it.
But it’s a vulnerability that I think is sewn into the pockets of our souls – a piece of string around our fingers to remind us of the currents that created us, a Creator who wants to be known, to be understood, to be seen for who She is.
God knows and understands my queerness far more than I can know and understand God’s, and that journey of discovering God is a labyrinth provoking joy, humility, and correction. Part of the work of those who call ourselves Christians is the lifelong process of working out in words what God is like.
This was Jesus’ work, too. A man of many metaphors, even he spent his ministry coming up short on language to hold the wholeness of God. I’m delighted that in all the playground of limitless language, we can make endless attempts at making God known to each other. In the end, each will be a puppet show, some better than others, and behind the dark curtain, we will have glimpsed God in the impish smiles of our playmates.
Queer people know this. We are what some call an alphabet soup: LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTQIAA+, and the laughter starts around there. We swear it gets longer every year, or we say it’s too much of a mouthful. But with every letter comes recognition.
(I’d be remiss if I didn’t pause to honor the life and legacy of Rachel Held Evans, who lived and wrote to make progressive Christians – and especially women, people of color, and queer folks – feel known and understood. She translated God for those of us with empty pockets, with string around our fingers. While there will never be another soul like her, we can follow in her tradition and go on trying to capture God in words, even if from behind the curtain.)
Queer people teach me that it’s okay to want what any of us want: to be known, to be understood. It’s vulnerable, yes, and aren’t we all?
Last week, I had the chance to experience the vulnerability of being known and understood at the Progressive Asian American Christians’ 2019 Conference (“Caring for Our Community”). What began in 2016 as a viral essay from Liz Lin titled “The Loneliness of the Progressive Asian American Christian” and an online community from Rev. Lydia Shiu became a home for over 6,000 Christians of different Asian diasporas, different understandings of progressive faith, and different spiritual backgrounds from around the country – and many outside of the U.S. It is fiercely queer-affirming and has a high proportion of queer members.
The conference was a place where no one was more of a celebrity or less of an insider or more awaited than another. We were all just excited for the long-awaited gathering of the saints. For many of us – like me, living in a town that is 97% white – to be known and understood is a lush and holy experience.
The conference wasn’t a space to be static. It was a sending-out space, a challenging space, sometimes tearful and sometimes uncomfortable. It was also where the quotidian moments of life were recovered and intimate: the experience of eating from another’s open hands, the joy of unbridled laughter, the gentle scolding of those who pick up the dinner bill, the sour feeling in the heart for having forgotten to bring gifts for the children growing up in our midst, the sweet feeling that the children in our midst will have a community like this.
Queer community like this teaches me that, at its best, we can choose to refract instead of conform. Queer community says that it sees the multitudes and the holiness of others, it recognizes God in all, and it seeks ever more language to understand and describe human existence. We may laugh at the alphabet soup, but I challenge us to name what we find funny about representation – about being named, even if by nothing more than a letter.
For some, being cradled by descriptive language can be life-giving. A lot of queer folks find themselves the only of their kind in a heteronormative and majority-cishetero world. To have the language to perfectly describe your existence when you previously had none is liberating.
And for some, an umbrella descriptor like “queer” can be edifying because it signifies solidarity and oneness in community.
Language matters in how we know and understand, how we make ourselves known and understood. Those of us who seek to know and understand God have much to learn from queer folks. Queer community erases boundaries but acknowledges the landmarks and soft curves and beaches and cliffs where each of our identities and theologies take shape.
What I’ve learned from queer community is that we shouldn’t be ashamed to want to be known and understood. After all, we share a common imprint from a Creator who also wants to be known and understood. This empty-pocket feeling is human, and it’s an invitation to make ourselves known and understood and to know and understand others – especially those who are unseen and misunderstood.
Hold each other.
Behold each other.