By Valerie K. Lazarus,
B.A., race and gender studies, M.S., mass-media & education
BlogTalk personality, in propria persona U.S. family court custody litigant and researcher,
social networking engineer, former-mother, true sister and advocate
It is getting easier to walk away from the people I love.
I quit another church last week. When a power hierarchy impedes honest communication, it's time to go. It wasn't just the knucklehead who wouldn't keep his hands to himself, it's the paid choir director who expected me to carry the choir for free every Sunday. It's also the White pastor's Black husband who gave me the stink eye, silently labeling me a Bigot, trashing me to his biracial children who made it a point after that to look past me like I didn't exist. All because I wouldn't hug him one day after the choir sang.
How can you refuse a hug in a world where “the rules” only apply to women? I'm speaking as someone who once wouldn't hug my favorite film school professor who knew I was in a vulnerable situation, being ganged up on by other teachers. He was my only advocate, but after I rebuffed him, he became my worst enemy, denouncing me weeks later at a public screening.
You might wonder why I even give church a chance. Church has long been sanctuary to outlaws and outcasts. I'm both, and not just because I won't hug random men in random situations.
I was recently amputated from my family. It wasn't a one-and-done thing: imagine getting your toe torn off in a horrible accident and gangrene setting in. Twice. My daughter's father divorced me more than ten years ago and I was getting along without him just fine. Then he needed free childcare, and knowing family court would NEVER make him pay child support, he brought her to live with me for kindergarten, then kidnapped her out of school when she was in sixth grade.
There is no such thing as a single mother, unfortunately. Everyone needs to leave the house sometime. A trusted friend of the family moved in to help out several years after I'd been struggling alone and my health was declining, and once my baby was taken away, he grew gangrenous and had to be removed with two restraining orders and an eviction. To be honest, he was one of those men who's on his best behavior until he's in your house. Then you make do with someone who's irritable and verbally abusive most times because he's all you have when you need some alone time, help around the house and maybe an extra income. We've all been there.
And I had it better than many women I know of with multiple children, often having multiple opportunistic fathers using family court to gang up on the mothers of their children, who fight like Hell to protect one child, only to have the others taken away. You'd think these men would show more gratitude for all the free childcare they're getting. But I've heard Hell is full of people who don't know how to say Thank You, which is another reason I go to church.
Getting back to the man who recently left my life a year ago in early November, he was the final amputation. After that, I was truly alone. Some men don't want you to have ANY friends, and they gradually isolate you from every social situation, so I was starting at Ground Zero. I had absolutely no one, and I had to start over from scratch.
I found a new church to sing at because, being a woman alone, I've learned that if I find a place to do something I'm good at, nobody will ask why I'm there. Singing is one of those careers I've worked on for decades that I enjoy, and it's in that gray area of volunteer work that the people running the place are happy to get for free. So I sing and I hide and I put on a happy face, and everybody loves me because nobody knows anything about me.
So here are the rules for someone newly-liberated from domestic abuse: You show up regularly. You sit and listen to other people's conversations without being obvious. Now and then, you toss in a funny remark. If people make eye contact and laugh, you bring that little treat home for later. A week or two goes by, and people get used to seeing you. Maybe they confuse you with someone else and you play along to be part of things. They start involving you in superficial ways which feels like progress. Maybe they ask you a question about your life, so you tease a benign gem out of the wreckage like a wedding photo that somehow survived the fire that killed everyone in the house but you. You learn not to talk about your abducted child. If you slip, and she comes up by accident, you pretend she's old enough that people will think she grew up and left home on her own. Being with new people is a heady feeling and gives you that sugar rush. You hear how lucky they are to have you at their church because you sing so beautifully. You want to bottle up the compliments and joyous laughter and take it all home to drink when you're alone. Like most lies that come in bottles, they get you through tough times, but when the tingle wears off you're going to want to reach for something else.
That's when you get THE HUG. Most people really haven't stopped to consider how fraught this is for women. Think about it: men aren't expected to hug strangers.
When you're established as a woman in your little clique, you take for granted relationships you've forged over years of living up to other people's expectations. A hug is not an emotional thing, it's a greeting. Social shorthand for, “oh, it's YOU again. Well, hello. Goodbye.” When you're new, it's like dogs are coming up to sniff your butt.
THE HUG works one of two ways for a woman who is freshly liberated from an abusive relationship. Maybe you really DON'T want the hug and you want it to stop. You probably didn't feel yucky about it right away, but men are like vampires reading you to find out whether you're lonely and desperate. A married man who's feeling dissatisfied or pissed off at his wife will be thinking about that hug later. Or it could be some jerk who decides after a few weeks pass and he's gotten to know you better to grab you a second time during the passing-of-the-peace because he liked how it felt. Or he'll hold you too long. Or he'll wait and back into you as you're leaving the church kitchen, making some joke like, “We've got to stop meeting like THIS,” or “You're flirting with me!” And you're not, but like a good Christian woman you'll laugh it off and hurry away. Every church has at least one village idiot.
The other way it works is, you really DO want the hug, but you know it has to stop. It probably felt so right, you didn't even realize it the first time or the second time or even the fourth or fifth time it happened, but the man is unavailable. He could be married or gay or both. You weren't expecting these feelings to creep up on you, but they did, and now you can't tell anyone because YOU will be the church Harlot. Only naughty women like sex.
The fact is, we all need the human touch, but as a newcomer you find yourself making an odd tradeoff. To be part of civilized society and to live up to these ridiculous rules made only for women, you forego physical contact. You find a way to set up that ground rule that people mustn't touch you, which up until last October meant branding yourself as having a strange mental illness, because women aren't allowed to say No to a hug.
You may be a woman who refuses to set foot in a church. That doesn't mean The Rules don't apply to YOU.
You may be in a church that suffers from low attendance and bankruptcy. If you're clergy, maybe you should look at “the rules” of your church and admit there's a huge double standard. Garden-variety Protestant churches all over the United States would gain a lot from acknowledging and making responsible human sexual behavior a part of their curriculum and start by correcting the patriarchal adultery factory that has maligned, isolated and destroyed women and single mothers for centuries.
I mentioned I have numerous skills that people get comfortable, steady salaries doing for a living. As a single woman nobody would dream of paying me for something I volunteer at, like singing. At the church I just quit, I was left out of the Christmas program by my resentful choir director. Meanwhile, a male choir director at a different church where I sang at a later service paid a young woman nobody knew to sing descant instead of paying me to do it, even though I had been singing there for special events for months. It was obvious he did this so he wouldn't wake up in an empty bed on Christmas morning. Because I never got paid for singing, I didn't have money for gas to go to some event where the pastor's Black husband was performing, let alone a drink and the mandatory cover charge. Being social in church means spending money people don't realize you don't have because you're always forced to volunteer. A choir director at a Black church around the corner from my house asked me what I do for a living, and when I told him I'm on disability, his eyebrow went up. I told him if I didn't get disability, I'd starve because people expect me to work for free. My disability was being born without a penis.
So the village idiot who hugs me without my permission is really just a foil. It's like a diagnosis of halitosis when your real problem is that all your teeth are rotting out, and that's the condition of the Church today. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The chicken, dummy: the egg can't raise itself.
Here is the writing on the wall: Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin. Until the Church starts treating women and mothers like sacred vessels of God instead of filthy harlots, the human race is doomed.