- by Mary Ann Kaiser -
Last month, the youth from my church and a few others in TX visited the Houston Area Women’s Center where we all expanded our understanding of teen dating violence. My kids learned really important things like the fact that boys are abused too and that it’s never the victim’s fault. The HWAC did an amazing job of meeting the kids where they were developmentally for the tough but relevant conversations of dating and family violence. They used art and play and media. It was wonderfully done and I was so grateful the kids were taking these ideas in. For most of the day, HWAC took the adults to a separate space where we learned some new things ourselves. Amongst a plethora of good information, one lesson has weighed heavily on my heart since. They told us that the one thing that youth continually express they need from adults but are not getting is for adults to just believe them - to believe them when they talk about their feelings and experiences. Such a simple request.
It’s easy, once you let it settle in, to recognize the ways adults dismiss the feelings and experiences of youth all the time. With all of our adult “wisdom” we think we know their own lives better than they do. It’s not that adults generally think they’re lying as much as we think they’re just confused, or exaggerating, or something about hormones raging… These sorts of adult glosses over youth’s genuine experience happen all too often. Is it too much to ask for others to believe that your experience is real? And that the person experiencing it might know more about it than all the folks who aren’t living it?
“I believe you.” Whether said with words or body posture or facial expressions, these three words are key to bridging conversations between folks of different demographics. Youth are not the only ones whose experience is dismissed by adults who know the “real” truth. It happens to every marginalized group. This has been illuminated in conversations around the Zimmerman trial and experiences of black women and men in America in general. White people have not had the experience of being black in America and yet in all of our white “wisdom” we drown out the voices of those who have. We say they’re exaggerating, their stories don’t make sense to us, or that they’re playing the “race card.” The truth is, however, that we’re just prioritizing our own experiences over those of others perhaps because we are scared of their truth or just too caught up in our own lives to deal with such truths.
I’m queer and I’m a woman. I know what it feels like to experience marginalization in my daily life. Being sexually harassed on the street or on the bus or even amongst friends is a common occurrence for most young women. Sometimes what’s even more hurtful than the harassment itself is being able to tell when a male friend doesn’t really believe you when you’re sharing a painful experience with him. Sometimes, what’s more scary than feeling threatened when holding my partner’s hand in public is sensing that my friends who are self-identified allies believe I’m exaggerating. It wasn’t their experience, so it must not have happened.
Being part of a marginalized community means having to feel, respond to, survive, adapt to and otherwise revolve one’s life around the words and actions of the dominating demographic. Experiencing racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, classism, etc is not something that happens every now and then. For most within these groups, it’s a daily occurrence whether we are always aware of it or not. It’s not something we “might” think about today in the same way that a white person “might” linger on a question of what it would feel like to be a black man in America today. Yet, when the conversation comes up, the person with privilege all too often still won’t believe the person in front of them. Not entirely.
What happens to teens who feel like their parents or other adults don’t believe them? What happens when they bring their pain and vulnerability to an adult who talks over the youth’s experience and the youth realizes the adult just doesn’t get it even though they think they do? They learn not to bring their problems to that adult anymore. They’re not heard there. And the gap between them grows even wider.
Why would a person sharing experiences of being queer, a person of color, or a woman feel any different when their experiences are dismissed? When we feel dismissed by an ally or an institution enough times, there’s not much reason to turn to them for support.
The UMC is so far from saying “I believe you” to its queer members and leaders. And each time it talks about us, over us, or at us about the experience of being queer, without honoring our experiences, the gap grows wider. Meanwhile, many of us in and outside of the UMC who are fighting for change are still far from saying to the women, to the people of color, to the transgender people, to the poor within our own movement, “I believe you,” when our experiences are different.
We have such a long journey ahead of us on this path to equality, but the first step is simply “I believe you.”
. . .Mary Ann Kaiser is a recent graduate of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. She has a passion for working in the intersections of church and society. Her love for religious approaches to questions of ethics, particularly in the realms of race, gender, and sexuality, led her to internships at WATER (Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual) in Silver Spring, MD and Texas Freedom Network in Austin, TX. She has also worked for the Wesley Foundation and as a hospital chaplain. She currently serves as Youth Director and Justice Associate at University UMC in Austin and is pursuing ordination as a Deacon in The UMC. In her free time, she blogs for Reconciling Ministries Network. Follow Mary Ann on twitter: @ladygadfly.