“#MeToo, A Hashtag Inspires a Movement”
A Sermon By Lisa Perry-Wood
Delivered on Sunday, January 28, 2018
At the First Parish in Bedford, MA
At the First Parish in Bedford, MA
Reflection from Rev. John Gibbons:
I first want to affirm Lisa for having the guts to speak about the Me Too Movement. Do you remember last month when I preached about some of the depressing aspects of the holidays? Among other uncelebratory things, I quoted someone saying, “Holidays were invented in 1203 by Sir Ethelbert Holiday, a sadistic Englishman.” It was Lisa’s first Sunday in church and I remember saying, “Lisa, by the time I’m done with this sermon, I may no longer be the minister here.” Well, now I say, “Lisa, by the time you’re done with your sermon today sermon, you may no longer be a minister here either!”
Or, more likely, your ministry may be stronger and more vital.
One must be brave today to preach about sexual harassment, sexual inequality, and male privilege. It is easy to stick one’s foot in one’s mouth. We are in the midst of what could be a radical reordering of our sexual awareness and sexual behavior; and yet in the evolving swirl it is extremely difficult and even perilous to confidently name the contours of change.
But if our religion is worth its salt at all, if we are to seek the truth in love, we can do no other but try.
Men must listen, accept, believe and try to understand women’s experience. Frankly, sometimes, men must shut up. No mansplaining! But men must also reflect on their own experience and ask difficult questions about our complicity and participation in unspoken norms of patriarchy and subtle and not-so-subtle exploitation and coercion.
In recent months, I have been thinking about my own coming of age and more recent experiences where I have been klutzy or complicit or less-than-woke.
And therefore, men must not only shut up sometimes, but we must speak up sometimes for it is not women’s responsibility but men’s responsibility to change our behavior.
Both women and men (and those who do not conform to the gender binary)…all of us must learn the critical skill of when to step back and when to step up.
I am, by the way, thankful that comprehensive sexuality education (OWL – Our Whole Lives) is such an important part of the religious education we offer to young people in this church. And maybe now is the time for us to offer some re-education to adults and all of us as well.
Next Sunday at noon I will convene a conversation for the men of First Parish to consider the meaning of the MeToo Movement in our lives. No guilt, no forced confessions. Just seeking the truth in love.
That will be just a little palate cleanser before the Super Festival of Male Violence later in the day.
Don’t just preach to us, Lisa. Minister to us. Step up! And I’ll step back.
A Thought To Ponder At the Beginning:
“I raise up my voice—not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard…we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.”
– Malala Yousafzai
By Lisa Perry-Wood
By Lisa Perry-Wood
In 2006, social activist Tarana Burke created the phrase “me too” on social media after she felt unable to respond when she met a 13-year-old girl, who confided that she had been sexually assaulted. Burke later said she wished she had said: “Me too.” Then, last Fall, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Milano later acknowledged Burke’s use of the phrase, saying: “I was just made aware of the origin story [which is] is equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring.” And that about sums this movement for me: “equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring.” Let’s also add: confusing, unsettling, scary, infuriating, and frustrating. And that’s just a start.
I agreed to preach this sermon in my early days here at First Parish, at the urging of some women in the congregation. Last year, around this time, I spoke about the women’s march and sang from the pulpit the chorus of the song we’ll sing later –not a usual thing for me to do, but a response to my own need to speak up and speak out. Now, in this moment, what else needs to be said? How do we talk about issues that are considered taboo in our culture? Rape and abuse, sexual assault and molestation? There, I’ve started. Said words we don’t usually hear from the pulpit. Like pretty much every woman in this sanctuary, especially those of my generation and the previous one, but, sadly, even Gen-Xers, Millenials and those born after 2000, now being called Gen-Z, I was taught to be quiet, that the full expression of my ideas and emotions was just “too much.” I was taught to be demure around boys, keep my ankles crossed, wait for them to ask me out, ask them about things they were interested in – often things I couldn’t care less about, like sports, or guns, or, these days video war-games…and also sports.
Girls of my generation were kept from playing too hard and competitively – we didn’t dare outshine the boys. Many of us were even told to let them win, because their fragile egos couldn’t take losing. Some of that changed with Title IX, though the prizes for women’s sports are still less than equal. Title IX could only do so much. My family’s sole expectation for me was to get married and have children, then I was done. And, truly, that expectation lingers; too many young women feel bad about themselves if they haven’t accomplished these so-called milestones by a certain age.
But what does this have to do with #Me Too? Well, just about everything. Because of those expectations, I remember sitting on the lap of one of my father’s friends as he held me longer than I liked, stroking my back and calling me “sweetie.” I remember a scary date experience as a young teenager, when I was pushed to go further than I wanted, and didn’t know how to say “stop” to a boy who was bigger and stronger, not to mention drunk. I remember being told that boys “couldn’t help themselves,” that “once they got started it would be painful to stop,” that it was “up to us to manage their needs,” and that if things went too far, it was “our fault” or if they didn’t, we were “teases,” who “got what we asked for.” And that’s just a start. Is it any wonder we didn’t even talk about these things? That any woman hasn’t talked about sexual abuse? Until #MeToo went viral, some of us thought we were the only ones. That we were wrong, that we should be ashamed for things that happened to us. That if it got out of control, it was our fault.
As young girls and women, like all other human beings, we were looking for closeness, for cuddling, human contact, appreciation, understanding, connection. But none of us, not one, was asking to be sexually assaulted or raped – certainly not those 165 gymnasts who were abused by Larry Nassar. And, just to be clear, having raised a teenage girl recently, I can tell you, these things are still happening.
When the #MeToo hashtag blew up on social media, like so many of my friends, I posted it on my timeline. Within a day, my proud, strong-willed, smart and accomplished millennial lesbian daughter, posted #MeToo, and my heart broke. Then I listened to the story she insists she told me years ago and I said at the time to “just move past it.” And I believe her, because this is how the conditioning works, how this poison gets perpetuated. Women stay in their places, keep quiet, and many men, not just the Weinsteins and Nassars of this world, like it that way. It works for them, and it supposedly keeps us safe. So nothing really changes. Not much anyway. And that is not just heartbreaking, it is infuriating. It’s enough to make several generations of women march and speak up together saying not just “#MeToo, but also “No More.” Or, as a new movement, showcased at the SAG awards earlier this month, stated: “Time’s Up!” We are claiming our voices, claiming our power, finding strength and courage in numbers, using our outrage to fuel our actions.
At the same time, when I mentioned to some of my female minister peers that I was preaching a “#MeToo” sermon, to a woman, they said: “Wow. That’s great. I’d like to have a copy of that.” Not “Yes, I’m going to preach on that too.” Or even “I’ve been thinking about that, but I’m not sure where to start.” And why is that? Why would women who are smart and brave and talented and in positions of power and authority be cautious, even afraid, to talk about this? Because of our training as girls and women, and because of the training of men and boys in our culture. We are brainwashed from an early age – it’s called sexism, for men, and internalized sexism for women. Internalized, meaning that we learn to believe those messages that keep us small and in our places; we believe the lies that we’re told about our limitations and we’ve been believing them for generations.
So, I’ve been struggling with speaking about this forbidden topic, my friends. This #MeToo thing has had me by the tail feathers and spun me around. Every article I read, every voice I heard, watching the Handmaid’s Tale, listening to the latest revelations on the news, sent me in yet another direction. The voices of women, of gay man and trans women, and men’s boyhood memories, listing all of the many ways we all were hurt, all of the many lives that have been affected, all of this tragedy and loss. It has made me alternately angry and confused, just so, so sad, actually I was terrified.
So what do I have to be scared of? I’m a minister, I have a role here, it is my right, even my job, to speak my mind. I have the support of a caring congregation, of a deeply thoughtful and sensitive senior minister, and yet when it came to having a conversation with John and asking him if he would be willing to say something in support of the #MeToo message, something as I said to him, a little bit of a mea culpa as a man, I was terrified. And John is far from terrifying, I think we could all agree on that. But we women, or let’s just say those of us who don’t identify as having been born male, we have been trained from the earliest age not to do anything to upset or make men angry because it is dangerous. Their anger might hurt us. They could use that anger against women and others who are not part of the male gender power structure to keep us down, to make us wrong, to kill our ambitions, even, in some cases, to take our lives. We have been trained not to piss men off because they will kill our job opportunities, they will kill our school performance, they will kill us on a date in alleys, or at public events, or even, as we’ve seen, especially in the last few years, even in schools. So, don’t piss them off, just placate them, be nice to them, sweet talk them, figure out what they want and give it to them. This has been the unspoken rule for our protection, for our survival.
And is that the fault of men? Well, yes and no. It’s like asking if racism is the fault of white people. Our generation didn’t invent it and we didn’t invent sexism, but by our actions we all perpetuate it. By not naming it and talking about it, committing to face it and have conversations and take action, we perpetuate it. That is undeniable. And why? Because we feel confused and upset and terribly bad about it. We, all of us, but especially you, my beloved brothers, feel uncomfortable and defensive and even ashamed. And that does not help us move forward. Any more, as we have been learning, than our defensiveness and shame helps us undo generations of racism.
I know so many, many good men. Starting with the ones right here in this sanctuary. My closest friend in seminary is a gay man. I have two wonderful sons and two beloved grandsons, no less than eight full, half and step-brothers – I have a lot of really, really good men in my life. Not to mention a tremendous friend, mentor and cheerleader in John.
At the same time, even these really, really good men, from time to time, exhibit in their actions or their words the results of that early training. In the same way that all of us white people exhibit embedded patterns of racism. It is not our fault. It doesn’t make us bad. But we do need it to stop. And, let me just say, that women have been complicit. Your mothers, your grandmothers, your sisters, your wives, your girlfriends, your friends who are women, we have all been complicit, we have all perpetuated these patterns. Why? Because as much as all men carry sexist patterns or training, all women carry those patterns and training internally. In other words, we learned to believe all of those things that were said about us. We were trained not to believe that a woman is smart or strong or capable or powerful enough to be an executive or a leader or president of the free world. Oh yes, some of us managed to get free of that – many of us because of class privilege (we can talk about that another time.) But most of us swallowed all that, we digested it, and we made it part of how we operate in the world.
Now, I want to say clearly that there is hope, there is a lot of hope in this movement, hope in our voices and in our solidarity. There’s work for us all to do and it starts right here. It starts with talking and listening, which women have been doing with each other for decades, centuries probably. Don’t worry, we won’t stop! But it also means men talking and listening to each other, in groups like the one John is offering. That’s a very good start. Talking and listening, asking questions and thinking deeply together – without defensiveness, with courage and honesty and humility. Remembering your innate goodness and opening yourselves up, as much as you are able, to feel the pain and the shame that’s there. Because, make no mistake, sexism has ruined the lives of men too. All the ways it has separated us, kept us hurt and angry and confused; it has held us all back. And we need each other in this, all of us.
I want to share a story that Buddhist meditation teacher Tara Brach tells that I find profoundly moving: This is from activist Fran Peavy, she says:
“One day I was walking through the Stanford University campus with a friend. I saw a crowd of people with cameras and video equipment on a little hillside. They were clustered around a pair of chimpanzees. The male chimpanzee was running loose; the female chimpanzee was on a chain of about 25 feet long. It turns out the male was from Marine World, the female was being studied, and the spectators were trying to get them to mate. Now the male was eager. He grunted and grabbed the female’s chain and tugged. She whimpered and backed away. He pulled again. She pulled back. Watching the faces of these chimps, I, a woman,” Fran writes, “began to feel sympathy for the female. Suddenly the female chimp yanked her chain out of the male’s grasp. To my amazement she walked through the crowd, straight over to me and took my hand. Then she led me across the circle to the only other two women in the crowd, and she joined hands with one of them. The three of us stood together in a circle. I remember the feeling of that rough palm against mine. The little chimp had recognized us and reached across all the years of evolution to form her own support group.”
We all need our own groups and we also need to pay much more attention to girls and young women; listen to their voices, make sure that every voice is heard. In every meeting, every gathering, every committee, everywhere, just pay attention. Ask: Is every girl getting enough airtime, is every young woman’s voice being heard? We have been learning to lift up the voices of people of color in our anti-racism work. We’re still not that great at it, but we’re learning and beginning to understand. We’re asking all kinds of questions and seeking out answers. Most of all we are listening; listening to the painful stories of people of color and finding ways to bear our grief without guilt shutting us down. We can do the same with sexism, truly we can. And then maybe, just maybe, we will speak with one voice for real equity in this country. Equity in executive offices, in board rooms, in schools, at work and at play, and equity in the bedroom or wherever sexual encounters occur.
We’re about to sing a song written by a singer who calls herself MILCK, a talented, proud Asian American woman artist who courageously used her music to speak out about her experience of sexual abuse. The song became a kind of anthem for the 2017 women’s march and then reemerged last fall in support of the #MeToo movement. And today we’re proudly and powerfully singing this song, including the voices of all those who want to sing out. Because, at the end of the day, what really matters is that we are all in this together.
Now I’m going to ask those who prepared to sing this song this morning to come forward and lead us in singing “I Can’t Keep Quiet.” And, as you feel moved, please feel free to join us in song and solidarity, knowing that we are stronger when all of our voices are heard.