As Florida politicians try to ban teachers from including LGBTQ+ issues in the curriculum, admonishing them, “Don’t Say Gay” at school, I’m shouting “GAY!” from the rooftops. Because I’m celebrating the release of my eighth book and first memoir, Queering the American Dream. It’s my queer family’s story of leaving it all and the revolutionary women who taught us how.
Our story began the day the Supreme Court ruled our marriage legal and ended the moment my younger brother’s addiction spiraled into a deadly overdose. In-between were eighteen months of full-time travel with a toddler in tow. Criss-crossing the American landscape, my wife and I came face to face with jaw dropping natural beauty on the one hand, which contrasted with the politics, policies, and people who continued to discriminate against marginalized families like ours on the other. At each stop along the way, a different revolutionary woman from history or mythology guided our footsteps, reminding us that it’s not simply our family who dared to queer the American dream, but a subversive sisterhood of saints who have upended the status quo for centuries. From Vermont to Hawai’i, and everywhere in between, the beauty of the American landscape bore witness to a queer clergywoman whose faith tradition was not enough to sustain her. But the revolutionary women were.
The myth of Lilith leaving the Garden of Eden when Adam demanded her subservience gave me the courage to leave a pastoral job that was assaulting my soul. It was the passionate nomad, Freya Stark, who gave me the integrity to honor her wisdom: “It’s the beckoning that counts, not the clicking latch behind you.” As I searched for glimpses of hope when confederate flags otherwise hampered the breathtaking beauty of autumnal southern Virginia, I was reminded of Pauli Murray. Murray was the first black woman ordained an Episcopal priest, but first served as a civil rights attorney, coining the term Jane Crow to acknowledge the sexism that accompanied racism in Jim Crow laws. Queer and quite likely transgender or gender non-conforming (she didn’t have access to such language during her time), Murray claimed, “Hope is a song in a weary throat; give me a song of hope and a world where I can sing it.”
When mansplanations and homophobia abounded in West Texas, I thought of the creativity of Gloria Anzaldúa, a queer Chicana cultural theorist, who bridged binaries of difference and imagined a new world—Mundo Zurdo—where the American dream is expansive enough for all. On Hawai’i Island, Pele’s rage accompanied me as I questioned my ordination. Pele is the Hawaiian “goddess” of volcanoes, lightening, and fire who creates more and more land through the fiery rage in Kilauea volcano. As my queer family meandered along our second cross-country road trip—this time from West to East along a northern route—the Buddhist goddess of compassion and mercy, Guanyin, enlivened an ethic of compassionate care in me as I grappled with what it meant to love an addict when the addict is my little brother.
Sojourner Truth’s spirit of intersectionality was with me when our camper nestled in a holler while working with a Spirituality for Non-Theists Group at a local church in the North Carolina mountains. And as we returned to make Hawai’i home, Frida Kahlo girded me with the resilience I would need to wrestle with the grief of my brother’s death.
Because, you see, even as an ordained clergywoman, the Christian tradition was not enough for me as I embarked on this journey. Rather, it was the lives, legends, and legacies of the revolutionary women we celebrate during Women’s History Month that invoked the radical imagination I needed to truly queer the American dream. What might I mean by that, you may be wondering? When I speak of “queering the dream,” I’m drawing on the brilliant bell hooks when she said, “Queer not as being about who you’re having sex with (that can be a dimension of it); but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.” Have you ever felt at odds with everything around you? Like me, perhaps you have some queering to do. I cannot help but think that the American dream that has been touted by so many, and the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality and can-do attitude that typifies such a dream, is a farce that excludes far too many. The American dream is at odds with the selves, not only of queer folk, but of an array of people struggling to live their dreams amid structures systematically designed to disenfranchise us. The revolutionary women who traveled alongside my queer family taught me a better way, a subversive way, a queer way. If we heed their wisdom, we, too, can invent, create, and find places to speak, thrive, and live. Their stories—and the story of my queer wandering family—just may embolden us all to queer the American dream. Join me, subversive sister saints, in Queering the American Dream
Bio: Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber is the author, artist, and Executive Director of the Tehom Center, a non-profit teaching about revolutionary women through art, writing, retreats, and academic courses. An award-winning author, four of her eight books were listed on the Top LGBTQ Religion Books. Her work has been featured on NPR, Maya Angelou’s memorial celebration, The Independent, Ms. Magazine, and the television show Tiny House Nation. For more, visit www.tehomcenter.org
5 thoughts on “Queering the American Dream by Angela Yarber”
This is a great essay, Angela!. THIS: “…even as an ordained clergywoman, the Christian tradition was not enough for me as I embarked on this journey.” Traditions often become shackles. What’s ended up as “tradition” was no doubt radical and revolutionary at one point in time. What worked in one generation quickly outgrows its usefulness.
“Rather, it was the lives, legends, and legacies of the revolutionary women we celebrate during Women’s History Month that invoked the radical imagination I needed to truly queer the American dream.” Yes, yes. I believe integrating the thinking of revolutionary women into our own experience is crucial. And theoretically speaking, I suppose it’s possible to contextualize ourselves in many traditions to obtain meaning in our lives. Yet, institutions by their very nature are conservative and resist change and growth.
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Magnificent writing!!! And so moving…I know about living through suicide…
“I cannot help but think that the American dream that has been touted by so many, and the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality and can-do attitude that typifies such a dream, is a farce that excludes far too many. The American dream is at odds with the selves, not only of queer folk, but of an array of people struggling to live their dreams amid structures systematically designed to disenfranchise us.”
I love what you say about the american dream being at odds with the selves – and the pull yourself up by the bootstraps mentality belongs to cowboys – not real human beings.
Exclusion is a reality.
I have lived my life as an outsider no matter where I go because what’s important and primal for me is not even noticed by most. I am in love with nature… I am a naturalist, and something of a mystic I guess,
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A beautiful essay! Your insights into our society are so poignant and insightful. I can’t wait to read your book! The fact that you and your family made this journey is so important – we have all become so isolated during this pandemic, not meeting one another and being able to see each other as fascinating, loving human beings from many places and ways of being. I hope we all take many more road trips like this in the coming months and years.
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I like the idea that it’s the beckoning–which you answered–that counts, not the clicking latch behind you. So many people have been shut out of so many things for so many years The standard-brand religions seem to be better at locking metaphorical gates than doing anything else these days. Good for you for taking that journey so courageously. Brava! Keep traveling. Keep meeting understanding sympathetic people. Bright blessings to your family. And good luck with book sales.
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