When people kill themselves because of the way someone makes them feel, they are being terrorized.
“An essential element of liberty is the freedom to define oneself.”
Though I do not quote myself often in my writing, as I have been reflecting on the concepts of “terrorism” and of “violence,” I believe my quote aptly serves as a foundation for my argument that we must expand and provide a more nuanced understanding of these terms.
Terrorism has been described generally as the use of violence, or the threat of violence, to accomplish a political, religious, or ideological purpose. The World Health Organization defines violence rather broadly as:
“…the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.”
“Power” in this sense can situate itself on physical power, but it can also include the power of dominant authority figures and social institutions to impose physical as well as emotional and even coercive power onto individuals and groups of lower social rank – the “psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.”
Antonio Gramsci was a leader in the Italian Community Party in the early 20th century, as well as political theorist, politician, and linguist whom the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini imprisoned for his outspoken advocacy of human and civil liberties. Gramsci advanced the concept of “cultural hegemony,” which describes the ways in which the dominant group successfully disseminates its social realities and social visions in a manner accepted as “common sense,” as “normal,” and as “universal.” This hegemony maintains the marginality of other groups with different or opposing views.
French philosopher, Michel Foucault, discussed how hegemony advances through what he termed “discourses,” which include the ideas, written expressions, theoretical foundations, and language of the dominant culture. These the dominant group implants within networks of social and political control, described by Foucault as “regimes of truth,” which function to legitimize what can be said, who has the authority to speak and be heard, and what is authorized as true or as the truth.
To “Other” and To “Minoritize”
Add to all this what poet, novelist, and anthropologist Nathaniel Mackey discusses as the process of “othering,” which is something people do. Therefore, “to other” must seen as a verb, an action. An “other” is someone or a group of someones acted upon. Likewise, “to minoritize” is also something people do through the methods of defining, stereotyping, and scapegoating them.
The dominant group, therefore, exerts power and control by attempting to define the “other” in order of depriving people of their agency and subjectivity to prevent them from achieving their fullest development in terms of their identities and making empowering decisions in their lives.
But what happens to these “others” in their process of identity development? According to Erik Erikson, preeminent developmental psychologist, individuals possess an innate drive for identity, an inborn lifetime quest to know who they are, which powers their personality development. Anita Woolfolk defines identity as “…the organization of the individual’s drives, abilities, beliefs, and history into a consistent image of self. It involves deliberate choices and decisions, particularly about work, values, ideology, and commitments to people and ideas.”
I argue that the concepts of “terrorism” and “violence” constitute more than the cruel and repressive actions of individuals or groups upon others. It involves an overarching system of differentials of social power and privilege by dominant groups over subordinated groups based on ascribed social identities and reinforced by unequal social group status. And, according to political scientist, Iris Marion Young, this is not merely the case in societies ruled by coercive or tyrannical leaders, but it occurs within the day-to-day practices of contemporary democratic societies such as the United States.
“Terror” and “Violence” on LGBT Bodies and Minds
I assert that all “othered” and “minoritized” individuals and communities experience hegemonic/discursive forms of “terror” and “violence” from dominant groups. For the purposes of this commentary, I focus on organized religious terror on LGBT people. Since I center my discussion on primarily a United States context, I concentration largely on conservative Christian denominations.
I single out conservative Christian denominations specifically in a United States on the basis of their Christian privilege. Stemming from Peggy McIntosh’s pioneering investigations of white and male privilege, we can, by analogy, understand Christian privilege as constituting a seemingly invisible, unearned, and largely unacknowledged array of benefits accorded to Christians, with which they often unconsciously walk through life as if effortlessly carrying a knapsack tossed over their shoulders. This system of benefits confers dominance on Christians while subordinating members of other faith communities as well as non-believers.
Terrorism & Violence as Official Policy
While a number of Christian denominations have and are currently defending the rights, sexuality, identities, and expressions of LGBT people, and are openly welcoming them into their congregations, and some into the ranks of their clergy, a number of the more conservative denominations have released official statements, doctrines, and policies in opposition, specifically to their sexualities. I include some selective examples used to define the “other” in terms of their sexualities:
Catholic Catechism, 1997: #2357: “…tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.’ They are contrary to the natural law….”
Southern Baptist Convention, 2010 “Resolution on Homosexuality and the United States Military”: “RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention…affirm the Bible’s declaration that homosexual behavior is intrinsically disordered and sinful….”
Evangelical Covenant Church, “Resolution on Sexuality” adopted 1996: “…Evangelical Covenant Church resolution to care for persons involved in sexual sins such as adultery, homosexual behavior, and promiscuity compassionately recognizing the potential of these sins to take the form of addiction.”
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Handbook of Instructions: “Homosexual behavior violates the commandments of God, is contrary to the purposes of human sexuality, and deprives people of the blessings that can be found in family life and in the saving ordinances of the gospel.”
Related to trans* identities, the Catholic Vatican hierarchy recently fenced off Alex Salinas, a 21-year-old transman from Cadiz, Spain, by informing him that it had denied his request to become the godparent of his nephew because being transgender is incongruent with Catholic teaching. According to the Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, its doctrine-enforcing agency:
Transgender status “reveals in a public way an attitude opposite to the moral imperative of solving the problem of sexual identity according to the truth of one’s own sexuality. Therefore it is evident that this person does not possess the requirement of leading a life according to the faith and in the position of godfather and is therefore unable to be admitted to the position of godfather or godmother.”
Nearly every two days, a person is killed somewhere in the world for expressing gender nonconformity. The vast majority of murders are of trans* women of color.
Am I Practicing “Religious Bigotry”?
In discussion forums where I have argued that some conservative religious doctrines on same-sex sexuality and trans* identities constitute forms of terrorism and violence, sometime people have accused me of attempting to intimidate and silence Christians who hold to the statements I listed above. They accused me of making them abandon any beliefs on the topic that disagree with my own.
My answer is that anyone can believe anything they wish, including that homosexuality and transgender identities and expressions allegedly go against “God’s plan” and that anyone who engages in same-sex sexuality and/or anyone who defines as trans* are “sinners,” “sodomites,” “perverts,” or any of the numerous other epithets they lodge, and that we will go to Hell unless we “repent.” Sure, believe what they will. They can also believe that Jews and blacks, for example, are inferior forms of life.
Beliefs are one’s rights to hold. However, the expression of those beliefs onto an individual or group of individuals is a form of terrorism, especially when intended to deny LGBT people (or Jews or blacks, among many other groups) their human and civil rights, their subjectivity, and their identities. In so doing, they are exerting power and control by attempting to define the “other.”
With religious rights come responsibilities, and with actions come reactions. When religious leaders preach their damaging interpretations of their sacred texts on issues of same-sex relationships or identities and gender non-conformity within and outside their respective houses of worship, they must be held accountable and responsible for aiding and abetting those who target and harass, bully, physically assault, and murder people perceived as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans*. In addition, they must be held accountable as accomplices in the suicides of those who are the targets of these abusive actions, and who grow up in a religious denomination and larger society that teaches them to deny, to hide, and to hate themselves.
Therefore, we have a right, no, an obligation to counter this destructive and, yes, oppressive discourse with all the voices, the energy, the unity, the intelligence, and all the love of which we are capable
So, in response to the accusation that I am practicing “religious bigotry” by challenging conservative doctrine on same-sex sexuality and gender non-conformity, I assert that this is not merely a “disagreement.” No, this is not a “disagreement” at all! It has to do with issues of power and control; it goes to who has the power to define “the other” and who has the power and control to define “the self”: the individual and members of a social identity group, or rather, the Church (with a capital “C”).