On Chatting With Fundamentalists, Lusting After Sarah Palin, and Living to Tell the Tale

I took my big ol' queer self to volunteer at the extremely conservative Extraordinary Women/Million Moms Conference in Birmingham, Alabama.
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Publish date:
January 22, 2015
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religion, politics, conservatism, queer, Sex,

My history includes: growing up born-again Christian, two summers of a distinctly harsh fundamentalist boot camp experience (actual motto: "Get Dirty for God, Go Lay a Brick"), a try at Bible College, and failing miserably in an extremely conservative Roman Catholic convent. These days I'm a radical LGBT nurse-comic-writer-LGBT health advocate hybrid, living deep in the heart of queerest Brooklyn.

If you friend request me on Facebook, it doesn't matter what part of my life you hail from, I click "accept." That means my news feed looks something like this:

K---- L-----: I'm so glad Jesus has given me the best two kids in the world! Praise the Lord! Pray for the Lost!

J---- B------: Can't wait to attend the Deep Dick Collective tonight.

Recently, I've had the experience of people from my Church days — including people who really loved and supported me when I was a very difficult teenager — posting tremendously homophobic links and statements on their Facebook walls. They believe God supports them, I believe they're contributing to the suicides of queer youth.

Not much middle ground in that.

A queer Brooklyn friend asked me why I don't just unfriend and block those folks. And the reason is simple. I believe in trying to have the conversation. And although I can't say there has been much positive movement forward yet, this is why I believe the conversation can happen:

A few years ago, I signed up to be a volunteer with the Extraordinary Women Conference, a fundamentalist Christian women’s gathering sponsored by the Million Moms. The Million Moms are a political organization worried about "the filth many segments of our society, especially the entertainment media, are throwing at our children." So of course they object to Ellen DeGeneres making JCPenney's commercials, girl-on-girl kissing in the Urban Outfitter catalog, and Mattel considering a Kardashian Barbie Doll line. I adore their campaign against a Liquid-Plumr ad which complains that Clorox is trying to sell “products with sex”: They are worried because “[the commercial shows] a man in produce is standing beside cucumbers with a price sign behind him reading 69 cents.” I agree someone is obsessed with sex here, but I’m not sure it’s Clorox.

In a recent email, the Million Moms called the television show Naked and Afraid the "ultimate sexual exploitation of families," which makes you wonder if those Million Moms have any idea what "sexual exploitation" actually means.

A decade ago, when I came out to my specific mom, it was not pretty. She was convinced — like the Million Moms — that I was going to hell. Ten years later and after many talks, lots of therapy, and (I'm guessing here) watching many many episodes of Ellen, my mom is on the PFLAG mailing list.

This is why, as a former Christian youth group president, I took my big ol' queer self to volunteer at the extremely conservative Extraordinary Women/Million Moms Conference in Birmingham, Alabama. A Million Moms, at the standard statistical shorthand, would have 100,000 queer kids. I can't imagine things are going well for those kids. So I decided that someone needs to chat with those moms, on their turf. And I decided that someone should be me.

My friends were both alarmed and dubious, but I explained, "If one mom can change, couldn't a million moms as well?" Of course, as my friends were quick to point out, my math was off: It took my one mom 10 years to come to terms, and I had only a weekend to convince the Million Moms.

But I had a plan! I was just going to go, help out by volunteering, and if anyone engaged me in conversation, I’d answer honestly about why I was there.

What could go wrong?

Picking my wardrobe was my first quandary. After a number of mishaps, I finally learned the difficult lesson that the harder I try to look straight, the gayer I appear. So no heels or pantsuits for me. I went for an understated choice, an Old Navy American Flag T-shirt. I felt like the character in The Birdcage, defending his decision to place Playboy magazines in the restrooms for the straight people: “What? It’s what they like.”

The second snafu occurred around my volunteer assignment. A few weeks before the conference, I talked with Heather, Extraordinary Women’s volunteer coordinator and also the perkiest woman alive. After a short chat, she said my "natural friendliness" made me a perfect match to be on the greeting committee, “the very first smiling faces people see when they walk in the door of the conference.”

I don’t blame Heather one bit for her reaction when I arrived to the in-person volunteer meeting at the beginning of the conference; she looked me up and down for a very long moment and then reassigned me to be a "floater." Putting a flag T-shirt on a queer doesn't make them fit into a Million Moms crowd. We both knew that.

Unfortunately, my floater position was to staff the keynote speaker sales table. The keynote speaker at that particular event was Sarah Palin. This meant I could have easily spent 16 hours taking people’s money and handing them one of Palin’s $30 hardcover classics. This seemed to be over some philosophical line that even I could not cross. So I did what any mature, intelligent human would do in such an situation. I ran behind a large artificial plant and hid until the volunteer meeting was over.

Spending 45 minutes stooping down behind an artificial tree at the volunteer meeting for a Christian fundamentalist’s conference gives you a lot of time to think about your choices in life. As my legs cramped and I sweated into my patriotic T-shirt, it occurred to me that perhaps attending this conference was not one of my better decisions.

Anticipating this kind of complication (perhaps minus the tree hiding bit) I had purchased a basic ticket for admission into the conference and so after the meeting I returned to the front entrance as one of the Million Mom masses. It was on entering the Birmingham Convention Center arena that I realized another problem with my math: There were 7,000 of the Million Moms. There was one of me. It took 30 minutes huddled in the bathroom, listening to that Dar Williams “I’m Not Afraid of Women” song on repeat before I mustered the courage to come out.

I can't say the conference was full of surprises. I grew up evangelical Christian and know the culture. I have an underlined Bible, after all, and my real name is Kelli Sue. The attention paid to me by church people gave a stability to my childhood and teen years that was probably lifesaving. So it’s hard to think of the Million Moms as the enemy.

Exactly.

And so I talked with people. Lots of people. And listened. I listened a lot. I didn't conduct a demonstration of one nor did I hand out extra copies of "The Field Guide to Lesbian Sex" although I was tempted. I’m not sure I changed anyone’s mind about anything, but at least people could say they’d met a real live queer once if anyone asked them, for example, at a church potluck.

I grew especially fond of a certain Church Lady X as we sat together at a table in the lobby of the hotel attached to the convention center. We made small talk about our respective lunches and then the subject turned to (surprise surprise) religion. She gave me her testimony (the story of how she found God) and then asked about me. I launched into a ten-minute explanation of why I was there, my history, my plan, and a little bit about the comedy tour I was on.

Her eyes glazed over, and when I stopped talking she responded, “So you’re looking for Jesus then?”

I smiled and said, “I guess we’re all looking for our own Jesus,” and got up to throw our trash away.

The Extraordinary Women/Million Mom's event ended with Sarah Palin’s much-anticipated keynote speech. The welcome those women gave her was awe-inspiring: If you can picture a '90s Ani DiFranco concert times ten, you’d almost be getting close to the level of female excitement.

They chanted "Sarah! Sarah! Sarah" as she walked in and whenever she mentioned hockey moms. Every so often a quiet moment would be interrupted by an audience member yelling from their seat

"We love you Sarah!"

I was not far from the stage and I understood absolutely nothing of what she said, it was so riddled with clichés and sports references and meandering jokes and random and strange accusations about Obama.

But while I would have never yelled "I love you Sarah," I found myself frustrated by another feeling I was having.

Namely, why does that bananas woman have to be so hot?

I rationalized that my desire was political, and therefore I was not objectifying her. "If we had sex, really good sex, really good hot lesbian sex, maybe with just a smidgen of fisting," I thought, "I bet afterward we could have a conversation, and she would change her wackadoo views."

Somehow I don't think that's what the rest of the Million Moms were thinking.

On the way out, I ran into Church Lady X again. We greeted each other with a hug. As we walked out, she tapped the back of my Audre Lorde Project 25th anniversary sweatshirt. The lettering reads “We are strong because we have survived — Audre Lorde.”

“We are strong because of Jesus,” Church Lady X said, almost in a whisper, in my ear.

I stopped for a moment. Those were not quite fighting words, but they were close.

“Don’t mess with our Audre, and I won’t mess with your Jesus,” I said.

Her eyes glazed over again, but she nodded yes with just the tiniest bit of a smile.

And I put my arm around her shoulders and walked her to her car.