Of Birds and Moods and Liberation, Indigo-style

POFEV logo for web[Last night, Tuesday, September 24, POFEV: People of Faith for Equality in Virginia sponsored “The Many Voices of LGBT Pride,” an interfaith service focused on the spiritual foundations of LGBT liberation, at Congregation Beth Ahabah in Richmond. A small group heard some amazing color-themed meditations by various speakers–including a poem about indigo by NAACP Richmond President Dr. Kim Allen. I continue my own blog posts with some thoughts about indigo, and will continue to share more entries over the next few days to help us get ready for the celebration of Virginia Pride on Saturday, September 28, at Kanawha Plaza, in Richmond–and to continue focusing on our roots and dreams in the days to come.]

Who does not want serenity and harmony? That is what Gilbert Baker says is represented by indigo, a shade of blue I rarely hear mentioned these days.

Indigo BuntingMy earliest memory of indigo was hearing my parents talk about sighting a male Indigo Bunting, a bird, in our yard. The female, as is true in so many bird families, is quite drab, but the male is this glorious color.  When I looked up the bird, I was quite surprised to see how bright the color is. I had always thought of indigo as a very dark, almost midnight blue. But, as I am coming to realize, colors encompass a wide range of appearances.

This is true of LGBT people, of course. Those who do not know us, and especially those who choose not to know us, think we are all the same–in the same way some people act as if all Black people or all Mexicans are the same; seen one (or maybe just talking without any real knowledge), you know them all.  But like indigo, and other colors of the rainbow, we are a beautiful spectrum.

blueberriesIndigo appears between blue and violet in a rainbow. Purple grapes and blueberries are indigo. The deep blue of dark denim jeans is indigo. One of the colors of the rainbow, indigo — a dark purplish blue , sometimes more blue and sometimes more violet— gets it name from the indigo plant used to create the indigo dye.

Here’s more of what I learned in my digging into this color. Indigo is the color of the deep midnight sky. It can have a negative effect when used during a depressed state, because it will deepen the mood. Indigo symbolizes a mystical borderland of wisdom, self-mastery and spiritual realization. While blue is the color of communication with others, indigo turns the blue inward, to increase personal thought, profound insights, and instant understandings. While blue can be fast, indigo color rangeIndigo is almost instantaneous. Inventors use indigo skills for inspirations that seem to ‘come out of the blue’.

Reading about this psychological understanding of indigo, I realize it is the color of coming out, or at least the color that gets us to look inward and value what we find enough to announce to the world–to family, friends, co-workers, fellow congregants, people who matter to us–that we lesbian or gay or bisexual or transgender. And then when we do come out, we gain seemingly instant understandings of ourselves.

As LGBT people so often say, our sexuality is not all we are, but when we claim it we surely know ourselves more and we are freed to become more ourselves in all parts of our lives. Things begin to fit together and we can work toward more personal fulfillment. Of course, when we don’t do this, we experience of the depression of the closet.

For me, indigo is the color of Maine. My first male lover, Marvin, lived in Maine, and I moved to Maine to be with him for about four years. Maine is very beautiful, and big parts of it are still fairly natural.  A special aspect of Maine are the “lowbush” blueberries that grow wild in what Maine folks call “barrens.” The blueberries we buy in stores are nice, but if you want a pungent taste, a real knock-your-socks-off flavor, find some growing wild, and bend down to pick them. I think this is the sort of authenticity, or wild integrity, older LGBT writers, people like poet Judy Grahn, mean when they write about our ancient roots and traditions. They want us to claim the parts of ourselves that are untamed by the world that so often seeks to make us all the same.

Duke EllingtonSpeaking of authenticity and indigo, there is, of course, “the Duke,” (no, not John Wayne), and his famous jazz piece, “Mood Indigo.”

Ellington was not gay, but in this piece he did something very “queer,” He took the traditional front-line of trumpet, trombone and clarinet, and turned them “upside down.” At the time of the first recordings in 1930, the usual “voices” would be clarinet at the top (highest pitch), trumpet in the middle, and the trombone at the bottom (lowest pitch). In “Mood Indigo,” Ellington voices the trombone right at the top of the instrument’s register, and the clarinet at the very lowest. This was unheard of at the time.

Some of the earliest researchers about and theorists of same-gender-love and sexuality spoke of “inverts,” because we turned things inside out, we inverted the usual order.  Today, many accuse LGBT folks of turning things upside down, against their “natural order” (marriage is only between one man and one woman, e.g.).

In this sense, “Mood Indigo” might well be the jazz theme song of the LGBT liberation movement, as lesbian and gay–and bisexual–people continue to challenge the old narratives about how love and sexuality work together, and transgender people upend all the old narratives about the rigidity of gender–advancing the truth first articulated by feminists that biology is not destiny. If you want to listen to, and see, an early rendition of this classic by the Duke and his orchestra, go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GohBkHaHap8

All this and so much more is wrapped up in a color–remembering that in this one color, as in all of them, are many colors. Can we not remember and celebrate the rainbows inside the rainbow(s), and know that it is God who calls us to do so? All this glorious color is, I believe, God showing off, and being pretty delighted to be doing so!

As an Older Man, I Shall Wear Violet

POFEV logo for web[Next Tuesday, September 24, POFEV: People of Faith for Equality in Virginia is sponsoring “The Many Voices of LGBT Pride,” an interfaith service focused on the spiritual foundations of LGBT liberation, at 6:30 pm at Congregation Beth Ahabah, 1111 West Franklin Street, in Richmond. I will be offering some color-themed blog posts over the next few days to help us get ready for this celebration, and the celebration of Virginia Pride on Saturday, September 28, at Kanawha Plaza, in Richmond.]

Rainbow flag 8 colors 1978Violet. The color at the other end of the original rainbow flag from hot pink is violet, and according to Gilbert Baker, it signifies spirit. Poet Judy Grahn opens her exploration of “gay cultural history,” Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds, this way (the first chapter is entitled, “Sashay Down the Lavender Trail”). . .

‘Our color is purple, or lavender,’ my first lover affirmed, intensely whispering to my avid and puzzled young ears the forbidden litany of who we were or might be. ‘No one knows why this is, it just is,’ handsome Vonnie said, her lips against me like the vibrant breasts of birds . . . .

Another Mother TongueI once wrote a poem–it probably sits in a notebook somewhere–whose first line was “The purple pansies are lovely this year.” I think I borrowed the opening from poet May Sarton. I meant it as an affirmation of being a “pansy,” reclaiming what had at one time was, and perhaps today among some still is, a derogatory term for being a gay man.

purple panxyBut it was really about my Aunt Grace, whom I suspect was a lesbian–at least she was a spinster, that description we used to use for women who lived alone and with other women (May Sarton was probably called a spinster more than once). Auntie, as we called her, taught me about purple pansies, lavender scent, and spring violets. Again, my absorption in this knowledge should have clued my family into understanding my same-gender-loving ways (and me, too).

Some say this purple-centeredness comes from a mixture of female red and male blue (of course, this connection was in earlier times reversed, female was blue and male, red or pink),  Some point to ancient times, before male-dominated history, when women carried the spiritual life of the community. I see an echo of this in the story in Acts 16 where Paul encounters Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth (she worshiped at the river with some other women–it has long seemed to me possible, if not likely, that she was a lover of women). She certainly was an independent woman, inviting Paul back to her house and leading the women to accept Christianity.  Of course, purple is often associated with royalty, and there often were gender-bending and “different” people in royal courts–eunuchs and jesters, for example.

Violet color rangeBut why did Baker choose violet, why not purple? It may be, as Wikipedia tells us, that “From the point of view of optics, violet is a real color: it occupies its own place at the end of the visible spectrum, and was one of the seven spectral colors of the spectrum first described by Isaac Newton in 1672.”  The difference between violet and purple is that violet appears in the visible light spectrum, or rainbow, whereas purple is simply a mix of red and blue. Violet has the highest vibration in the visible spectrum. So violet is not a pale imitation of purple.

I am sure Baker knew this, as an artist. So, he picked violet, even though we may think of purple as the stronger shade. That feels so very “gay” to me, another example of the sort of “secret” knowledge that LGBT people have from living outside the normal social realms.  The artist, relying on scientific knowledge as well as historical associations, picked what appears to be the softer color to the rest of the world even though it has more strength in its essence.  The resilience, and even survival, of LGBT folks, like those in other marginalized groups, often depends on such knowledge (at least among some who can carry forward the group identity and traditions).

rainbow flag in front of the Supreme Court June 25 2013
Waving the rainbow flag in front of the US Supreme Court

The replacement of violet by purple as the rainbow flag evolved may be seen as a sign of the “normalizing” of LGBT experience. Some people complain about this–I think of people who wish there was not so much emphasis on marriage equality, some of whom reject the insistence that marriage be limited to couples only. They don’t want “us” to become so blended into “het” culture that our special history and ways are lost. I understand this–and even hold it in tension with my desire and work for political and religious liberation– although I am not in agreement with those who claim LGBT people are a separate people. I am not a separatist.

VioletsAccording to various interpreters, purple stimulates the imagination and inspires high ideals. It is an introspective color, allowing us to get in touch with our deeper thoughts. It carries the energy and strength of red with the spirituality and integrity of blue. This is the union of body and soul creating a balance between our physical and our spiritual energies. I am beginning to see this even more in violet (and lavender, and what is often called “lilac” on paint chips).

When I am an old Woman I shall Wear purpleI mentioned in an earlier post, in this series about the rainbow, the book, When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple.  It is a glorious evocation of claiming all the parts of being a woman that society mutes, ignores, and belittles. I celebrate that. But for me, as I am moving into the second half of my life, about to turn 67, as an older man, I shall (begin to) wear violet.

Going Too Far

Editorial page cartoons are meant to rile us up. That is why I generally like them, even when I disagree with the point of view. But sometimes, the artist goes too far. And then it is up to the newspaper or magazine editorial authorities to refuse space to the cartoon. I experienced one such cartoon recently in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. I wrote the following letter to the editor, which remains unpublished. So I am sharing it here.  But first, the cartoon itself. The artist, Robert Ariail is very talented and I have often enjoyed his very pointed humor. I leave it to you . . . (and of course this appeared before Mr. Wiener made himself look even more ridiculous than before–but that does not change my fundamental point about the use of these offensive images).  

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To the Editor:

I am disturbed by the cartoon on the editorial page for Thursday, July 11, showing two former New York elected officials, Anthony Wiener and Eliot Spitzer, running like rats.

I understand the reference, and can appreciate the cleverness–although as a person of faith and ordained minister, I hope I am more charitable. Both are accomplished public servants and have done much good, despite their shaming (of themselves and their families, and the voters who elected them) behavior. I am glad that I do not live where I would have to decide whether to vote for them or not.

But what really disturbs me is how the cartoonist appears to have drawn upon ugly Jewish stereotypes from the past to draw these two men. Shame! I say “the past,” but when I see repeated today the way the Nazis pictured Jews (as rats with long noses), and when I read about continuing anti-Semitism (and its relative in anti-Islamic and anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian prejudice, and U.S. white supremacy and racism), I realize the past is still with us.

We have much to do to erase prejudice based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender and gender expression and identity, age, and physical and mental abilities.

This cartoonist (and the one who sometimes uses racist references and drawing to refer to President Obama in the T-D) is not helping. I ask you to exercise more editorial care in choosing these cartoons.

Robin Gorsline Signature

Thank You, Your Honor!

I was a witness to history today.

Tracy Thorne-Begland was sworn in today as a Judge in the General District Court of the City of Richmond.

Soon such an event will not be historic. Indeed, the next judge sworn in who shares one particular characteristic with Tracy will not make history in the same way, He (or she)will simply be reported by the media as the second openly gay judge. Image

But on Friday, March 1, in the City Council Chambers several hundred people–judges, legislators, city council members, the Mayor, members of the bar, friends, and family–gathered to celebrate and watch history in the making.

There were a few firsts in the event itself, in addition to Tracy.

  • The Hon. Bevil Dean, Clerk of the Circuit Court, told me that this was the first time ever that an investiture of a judge was held in the City Hall. Usually these affairs are held in a courtroom, but they are all too small. They had to move to accommodate the crowd! 
  • After Judge Thorne-Begland was sworn in and he shook hands with the judge who led him through the oath and shook hands with legislators who helped him gain the appointment–most notably Delegates Manoli Loupassi and Jennifer McClellan and Senator Donald McEachin–he turned and kissed Michael Thorne-Begland, his husband of 20 years. . . right square on the lips. Two men may have kissed in the council chambers before, but this time no officer of the court could rise to object nor could any police officer say a word. It was the sweetest of moments.
  • And then the Hon. Tracy Thorne-Begland addressed the court and the audience. I doubt there have been many such occasions anywhere in the country–and I know there have been none in Virginia–in which the new judge spoke of “the elephant in the room,” namely the fact that there were, and are, people who believe he is not qualified for such an office because he and Michael have been married (in their eyes) for 20 years and are raising two adorable children (who were present, and looking very proud of their dad).

There are so many advances these days for LGBT people, in our country and all around the world. Many people think they happen everywhere but Virginia.

Today, we advanced, too.

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Sen. Donald McEachin
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Del. Manoli Loupassi

Of course, I thank God most of all for this, and Manoli and Jennifer and my dear friend Donald, and the managing partners of the five largest Richmond law firms who spoke up on his behalf, and the Circuit Judges who appointed Tracy to an interim term so some of the naysayers could see that all the negative fuss was wrong-headed and silly, and Tracy’s mom (and Michael’s too, who went to bat for her son-in-law) and a lot of other good people (I like to think that People of Faith for Equality in Virginia helped a little, too).

But the person I most thank is the judge himself.

He is a man of character and intelligence and determination and bravery. He was brave flying fighter planes and he is brave sticking his neck out to serve. He serves his country today just a importantly as he did flying in the skies to keep us safe.

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Del. Jennifer McClellan

And he knows that in order for change to happen, good people have to do things.

That reminds me of one other delicious moment. Michael quoted his children, whom he said talked about the controversy, as it ebbed and flowed over the past eight months. One time, looking at the newspaper talking about their dad, they said,  “Gay lawyer, gay prosecutor, gay judge, blah, blah, blah, how boring!”

In case you did not know it, that is where we are headed. And we have the Hon. Tracy Thorne-Begland to thank for helping us get a step closer.

Thank you, Your Honor. And may God continue to bless you and your honorable court.