For Mother’s Day, I went to church.
My mother still goes to the church I grew up in, where I was baptized. I stopped going in my mid-teens and was an atheist by twenty; even my mom took a break from it for a while, explored some interesting New-Agey Christianity and Eastern thought before finding her way back for the familiarity and community. I can’t blame her – at her age, the camaraderie between the elder women of the church is warm and welcoming, always busy baking cookies or collecting clothing for those in need. Having known these women for fifty years, they share a lifetime of common experiences through the church – sons and daughters, marriages, grandchildren, the passing of parents, the changes in their own lives.
I come along a few times a year, as a gift to my mom (usually with brunch at our favorite cafe promised afterwards.) Everyone is always friendly. They’ve known me since I was born, though when introduced to the new pastor I wanted to reply to his welcoming “Good to see you here!” with “Dude, I was running around this sanctuary before you knew it existed.” It is an average, decently liberal and tolerant white American Protestant church. The denomination recently voted to allow individual churches to decide if gay people could be married, which was nice of them, erasing an ancient ruling of “Absolutely not.” A number of churches left the denomination because of it. My mother’s church has an amazing and much-loved gay organist/choir director, and his partner is often present at church events like any other member of the church family.
I have never noticed any possible lesbians there, though.
It is a city church, so there’s a touch of diversity, but it was founded by middle-upper-class white people and the pews are still mostly filled with middle-upper-class white people. The men wear suits and ties and the women dresses, skirts or dress pants, hair and makeup touched up for Sunday. For the most part the kids are dressed in “Sunday Best” – perhaps not what it was years ago when I had to pull on tights and a dress but many little girls still wear dresses, and boys their better shirts and pants. Now and then a man will come in wearing jeans. I’ve never noticed a woman wear jeans to Sunday service, though.
I wore jeans to the Mother’s Day service, as I don’t have any dress pants at all right now. I wore my best jeans with my men’s brown leather chukkas (polished that morning) and a new lovely cotton/linen white and blue button-down under a black jacket. My hair, in an awkward stage of growing out, has no style to speak of, male or female, and I honestly don’t even know what makeup is. I saw no other women who looked like me in the pews on Sunday.
There was a young teen girl, however, in the pew in front of me, who came in wearing jeans and a plaid shirt and purple Chucks Taylor’s. Her wavy, natural brown hair was held back by a folded kerchief. She sat very close to her mom. I wondered if she similarly felt out of place, and if it meant anything to see me, if she did.
The children’s sermon focused on the love mothers give to nurture us and how we all can show that same kind of love to each other. At the end, the pastor picked up a basket of long-stemmed carnations and said he’d like the children to help him pass out a flower to every woman in the sanctuary, in thanks for all the love and nurturing they have given others, as all women are – or have the potential to be – mothers in some way. I shifted a little nervously, watching these little kids be handed flowers to pass out, guided among the pews towards women in their dresses and skirts and hair and makeup and shoes. I wondered – I honestly wondered – if I would get a flower.
I have gotten a lot of stares from children in my life. I’ve heard the whispers of “Mom, is that a boy or a girl?” since I was thirteen. Depending on a child’s exposure, they can have no idea what a man or woman might look like. My own niece asked me if I was a boy or a girl when she was three.
When the little red-haired girl with big blue eyes headed down our aisle, I watched her nervously. I saw her gently pass flowers to my mother’s friend and her daughter, and then to my mother. She came to me and I actually whispered – I actually whispered – “Do I get one?” as she handed the flower to me.
Then I had in my hand a long-stemmed red carnation, like every other woman in the room on Mother’s Day.
A year ago, hating my body so much I denied my biology, I wouldn’t have wanted one. I had Failed at Woman, after all – I didn’t look right, I didn’t act right, I didn’t love right – and was intent on being something else entirely, free from the discomfort of being a woman in jeans and men’s clothing among all the dresses and makeup. But this year – oh, maybe my uterus was showing. This year, despite everything, I was one of them. I was equal to every other woman in the room. We all had flowers. We all were women.
Later in the service, as I still held my flower, we sang “Be Thou My Vision.” There are very few hymns I will sing in church (Christmas carols excepted) but I do love the tune so stood and at very least hummed along. But in my Mother’s-Day woman-centric mindset, I kept tripping on the words: “Lord” “Father” “Son” “King”. As we reached the last two lines I saw “Ruler” coming up and couldn’t bear it, not to this beautiful tune, so dared sing something different instead:
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Mother of all.
What a difference that makes.
I have read a number of lesbians and women in general who are big on the Goddess. And yesterday, I could appreciate that point of view, if only to take what man has made of religion and return it to something truly loving and nurturing – truly mothering. And perhaps that’s a female stereotype – not all women, after all, are nurturing or loving or mothering (I myself am only mother to three cats and that is enough mothering for me.) But what a refreshing change from the Father King Lord Ruler of All.
And what a point of unity for all women – mothers or no – to have a female entity at the heart of spirituality, that we could identify with on some level, if only through our shared biology. She is like me and I am like her and we are all in this together.
The Tumblr Discourse Battle of the Week has been between the “hetfems” and the lesbians. Having just begun to recover from my own personal schism of the sort it’s been frustrating to watch. For most of my life – up until this past year – I thought being a lesbian made me masculine, made me like a man, and that was why straight women didn’t like me. That was the perception taught to me by the media, by society, by depictions of lesbians as man-like women (I won’t get into the pornified depiction of femmes at this time.) I sat in church feeling “othered” from the straight women in the room because with my jeans and my men’s shirt and shoes and my lack of makeup and femininity they would surely see me as man-like, as male, and I would not get a flower. But that is the farthest thing from the truth.
A lesbian existence is fundamentally women-centered. Fundamentally. Though there are a thousand reasons why any individual lesbian may appear “like a man” – from personal style to public safety – her life is still founded on fact she loves women. Straight women can other us on that false perception that we’re “like men” all they like, but the actual fact of the matter is that we love women and only women, and that means something.
The Discourse brought to the surface an issue far deeper than the superficial “lesbians are like men” perception. A lesbian dares offer the perspective, “You know, you can live a women-centered life, with female friends and female community, and no men at all if men are a trouble to you” and is attacked viciously. “YOU WANT US TO MURDER OUR HUSBANDS??” rises the response, more or less. As everything is always exaggerated beyond logic and belief on Tumblr, the best we can do in these times is wait for the worst to pass. But I couldn’t help but pick up through these posts subtle shades of what I’ve experienced in my own life.
Lesbians are not othered and erased and made invisible entirely because of the perception that we are “like men” and must be held at a distance. We are othered and erased and made invisible because by our very nature we challenge the system set up by the patriarchy, and force other women to see there is another possibility, another way of life. Of course they don’t want to see it when they have been shuttled into relationships making them dependent on men. Of course they don’t want to validate or value the idea that any woman can live a woman-centered life a little less oppressed – or at least without that oppression coming from within their own homes. It is, perhaps, too hard a truth to bear in the face of their own suffering.
This is not to say I don’t believe men and women can have loving relationships and live together, but I do think we need a very different, radical new way of going about it, one that releases women from the oppression of men and gives them the resources and support to stand on their own as equal human beings. And the first thing other women could do, instead of denying women-centered existence and pushing lesbians to the side, is to recognize us as their sisters.
If only in passing a flower.