Mental Illness, Christian Fundamentalism, Sexual Identity, Snark And What I Wrote about Jane Pratt’s Friend Michelle Shocked

I published my first-ever piece with xoJane Wednesday, March 20 –- it details my own uncomfortable interactions with Michelle in 2011, in the course of trying to conduct an interview. And on Friday morning, Jane Pratt published a new piece that read to me (and some commenters) as an attempt to defend Shocked.

Mar 26, 2013 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

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That’s a snapshot of little baby queer me in Raleigh at Lilith Fair 1998, admiring my new Natalie Merchant Ophelia album t-shirt. I’d just graduated from high school.

 
A semi-quick synopsis in case you haven’t been following Michelle Shocked 2013 here on xoJane: On Sunday, March 17, 1990s folksinger and queer icon-turned-evangelical-Christian Michelle Shocked outraged a San Francisco audience with an anti-gay rant at the start of her second set. It was a bit long and rambly, but in it, she predicted that the overturn of Proposition 8 was a harbinger of Armageddon.
 
Then she half-seriously told the audience they should take to twitter to let everyone know that Michelle Shocked said, “God hates faggots.” (See the audio and the transcript.) A lot of people got angry and walked out, and the show ended early. Word traveled fast over the interwebs, and Michelle’s tour was cancelled club by club within about 24 hours.
 
Michelle issued a quick, backpedaling apology, gave an incoherent interview to Spin Magazine and then melted down and stood up former friend and radio host Nicole Sandler by flaking out on a scheduled interview. 
 
I published my first-ever piece with xoJane Wednesday, March 20 –- it details my own uncomfortable interactions with Michelle in 2011, in the course of trying to conduct an interview. I’d written a piece at Religion Dispatches that reported on a similar anti-gay outburst Shocked had had before an audience.
 
That time, she’d said, “Who drafted me as a gay icon? You are looking at the world’s greatest homophobe. Ask God what He thinks.”
 
But my new xoJane piece detailed my one-on-one confrontations with her. 
 
The next day, comedian Margaret Cho wrote a moving post explaining why she’s proud to be a queer icon. And on Friday morning, Jane Pratt published a new piece that read to me (and some commenters) as an attempt to defend Shocked. It suggested that my piece was too snarky or mean to meet the usual xoJane editorial guidelines, and implied that the piece may not have been published if Jane had had a chance to see it first. (Note: Jane has since clarified that she would have run it with a few edits.)
 
More Twitter outrage ensued, and ultimately Jane wrote a very gracious email inviting me to respond to her piece. This is my response. 
 
On the Mental Illness Part 
 
In 2011, I chose not to publish that more detailed account of what happened with Michelle because I knew it would invite speculation about mental illness. I didn’t do it then because I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of picking on a woman who is perceived to be mentally ill. And ultimately, I felt her public statements were damning enough on the matter of homophobia –- it didn’t seem all that necessary to reveal our private conversations.  
 
But since news of Michelle’s rant broke, there has been widespread speculation about whether or not she is mentally ill. And if so, people have wondered, does this partly explain or excuse her behavior? Michelle’s back story has long included the implication that she was falsely diagnosed with schizophrenia in her early twenties, and the claim that she was forcibly institutionalized by her family. She does not publicly identify as mentally ill.
 
She did speak at the 2003 conference of an organization called Successful Schizophrenia, though she has since requested that her speech be removed from their website. As far as I am concerned, the discussion about her state of mind is still speculation.
 
But I am not an idiot, and of course I knew the interactions I described would be interpreted as manifestations of mental illness. They were perceived that way by everyone I talked to who was associated with that music festival then.
 
At first, my strategy was to insist that I am not a doctor, and I am not qualified to speculate about the state of Michelle’s mental health. I stand by this because I am not comfortable with armchair diagnosing people. But I couldn’t control the commentary and speculation. 
 
And I knew that there would be speculation about mental illness this time, too. (Though, to be fair, that started immediately after her rant, and no one needed my piece to take the conversation there.) Once again, I had to ask questions about the ethics of revealing interactions with a person who might be perceived as mentally ill. This time I came down on the side of writing everything once and for all. 
 
Here’s why I did it: When Michelle said, “God hates fags,” she crossed a line. Then she tried to backtrack and claim she isn’t really homophobic. I started weighing the potential harm of revealing her behavior against the potential harm of taking her apology at face value.
 
I started asking myself questions: Were there any gay teens there that night? Were there any kids there struggling with suicidal ideation and bullying? What about people struggling to reconcile their faith and sexuality? This is what I decided: I am a journalist, and I can take the kind of abusive behavior she doled at me in stride. But I don’t know for sure that everyone who is in her orbit can do that. 
 
So I chose them. I stand by that choice. I choose them, even if it’s at her expense. They deserve to know. They should not be exploited for income by a woman who hates them. There are not a lot of ideologically pure choices available in this world. People are free to take issue with my decision. But I would do it again without apology. 
 
Fourteen-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer made this “It Gets Better” video a few months before committing suicide in September 2011. There is much at stake when a former queer icon says, “God hates faggots.” 
 
Sexual Identity and the Fundamentalism Factor: Where “The Personal Becomes Political”
 
I grew up in an evangelical home -– in a mainline liberal denomination with fiscally liberal parents who had right-wing Pentecostal roots in a church associated with Pat Robertson. Confused? It gets worse.
 
I was surrounded by a host of religious extremists who were my parents’ closest friends, including Quiverfullers and Pentecostal fundamentalists. Their children were my closest childhood friends. On one hand, my preacher father prayed in tongues at home and asked me to repent of my sins and accept Jesus Christ as my “personal Lord and Savior” at the age of five. On another, my friends spoke in hushed tones of the End Times and the coming persecution of Christians. Meanwhile, our church services were bland, normal and reflected none of this. It was religiously confusing. 
 
On top of this, my home life was fairly chaotic. My parents, who are now divorced, did not have a healthy marriage, and that infected everything. For me, this resulted in a lot of religious questions, centered on the assumption that maybe our family would be better off if we fully committed to one religious path. And that meant religious experimentation.
 
In early high school, I was experimenting with the more extreme version of Christianity my friends pedaled, because their home lives seemed so much more peaceful than mine. I was also in serious denial about my queer identity –- it was sinful, I was sure, so it had to be deeply repressed, and was, for a lot of years.
 
In high school, I found two ways to express my queer identity without admitting it to myself: First, I hung out with the LGBT kids at school. Second, I found lesbian music.
 
Not necessarily music by lesbians, but musicians with large lesbian followings. I was closeted around my friends, and listening to this music was the only way I felt completely free to express my identity. With the Indigo Girls, Natalie Merchant, Michelle Malone, K’s Choice, Ani Difranco, Danielle Howle and, yes, Michelle Shocked, I felt safe.
 
Of these, Michelle Shocked was especially important to me, as I felt an immediate kinship with her blues sensibility. There was something so raw and true about it. She was assertive in claiming her identity in ways I could not be.
 
That’s why I was so devastated when I heard her spout the kind of rhetoric that made me hide for so long. She was not a peer or a friend, but someone I’d looked up to. I can’t really overstate her importance in my life at my most vulnerable. I think this is a dynamic that Jane Pratt, as a peer of Michelle’s, failed to grasp in her piece.
 
I’m familiar with most of the fundamentalist rhetoric Michelle leveled at me that day, so I’m skeptical of the notion that every last bit of it is evidence of mental illness. And to some degree, I sympathize with Michelle’s propensity for going back and forth about these things. I did that once, too.
 
In light of the 1990 interview in OutLines, in which she seems to come out as queer herself, she appears to be fighting her own inner battles now.

Here’s the 1992 music video for “Come a Long Way,” the first song I ever loved by Michelle Shocked. Note how she happily smiles at the gay men like they’re old pals.
 
By the way, some context on Michelle’s church: She is currently a member of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ. It’s a part of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) denomination, the largest African-American Pentecostal group in America. As a whole, the denomination condemns homosexuality, but the level of anti-gay sentiment varies from church to church.
 
A couple of ex-COGIC members, as well as an expert in African-American religious life, told me the West Angeles Church doesn’t spew the kind of invective we heard from Michelle last week, at least not from the pulpit. The congregation has actually come under criticism from some in the denomination for being too gay-friendly.
 
But, one former member said, members who are struggling with their own sexual identities are sometimes the most hateful and vitriolic. And as many noted, there was a lot of ex-queer subtext in my encounter with Michelle. 
 
On the Matter of Snark 
 
As a number of readers expressed in comments, it’s a bit, um, surprising to hear that xoJane has a no-snark policy to say the least. (Jane pointed out that she thinks the "um" in this sentence makes it snarky. I concede that this one is snarky.)
 
But I don’t need to belabor that point or provide a litany of articles I find snarky. I think the more important point is: The perception of snark wasn’t universal, with many commenters arguing that they didn’t see it.
 
One astutely noted that my post was “stark” -– that is, straightforward with the bad stuff, but not snarky. So I will revise my admission that there was snark in the piece and say this: I understand that some interpreted what I had to say as snark, but it was more accurately very stark. It was depressing, but it included a bit of dark humor too. I was not pointing at Michelle and laughing at her suffering; I was partly remembering the sense of humor I needed to get through it.
 
I’m not one to sugarcoat bleak things, and I think Michelle Shocked is, for whatever reason, in a very bad place. I also think she’s behaving in a reprehensible and abusive way in turning her ire on a marginalized and potentially vulnerable population.
 
I felt it was important to provide a bit of context because this wasn’t the first time she’s gone on a homophobic rant. Whether she is mentally ill, closeted, stuck “in the depths of the godsick blues” or just deeply unhappy, I concur that she is unwell. It does not excuse or condone her behavior. I continue to insist that bigotry cannot be conflated with mental illness, but I’m certain it can coexist. 
 
Finally, this admission may seem silly, but -- I don’t know what snark is.
 
I mean it, so take my assertion that my piece was non-snarky with a grain of salt. When people read me as snarky, it’s usually when I’m being sincere but punchy. So, I put the question out to a number of other writers –- and very quickly realized that everyone thinks they know what it means, but no one really does.
 
Most understand that snark involves an element of sarcasm. But is it meaner than regular sarcasm or gentler? Is the target in on the joke or not? Is it funnier than regular sarcasm? What are its connotations? I found no two people with the same definitions. I’m curious: What is snark to you? 
 
 ***
 
Bottom line: I’m glad I said what I did. I’m glad it’s out there now, and available to people who want to put Michelle’s recent outburst in context. Someday, I hope she puts all of this behind her and makes peace with herself. I also hope she gains new appreciation for the LGBT people who kept her career going all these years.
 
Once she’s there, I’d love to have a new conversation with her, turn over a new leaf. But not until then.
 
I’ll leave you with another lesbian icon who mercifully hasn’t found Jesus or abandoned her audience. Another Michelle. Michelle Malone, a fellow preacher’s kid from the South whose music has given me joy for a lot of years. 
 
And another by an artist I discovered more recently, the great blueswoman Ruthie Foster: