Cults All Around You

posted by Madame Bubby

I was doing my usual scrolling on Twitter the other day, and I came across a news item on a cult I had never heard of before, which masked as a theater company!

According to the link above and other sources, the leader of this cult is a former actress, Sharon Gans, who starred in the 1970s film Slaughterhouse Five. In 1978, she and someone named Alex Horn ran out of San Francisco a theater company called Theater of All Possibilities, but it folded because of scandals and later resurfaced in New York City in 1980s as an outfit called Odyssey Study Group.
 

Gans cult articles
Gans cult articles (Source: A Cult Survivor's Handbook)

The Odyssey Study Group still puts on theatrical performances, but its members primarily focus on following the teachings of philosophers George Ivanovich Gurdjieff and his protege P.D. Ouspensky, who believe that the path to self-development involves labor and intentional suffering. The philosophy one could characterize as a form of gnostic dualism, as it claims most persons are living in a “sleep state” until awakened by learning esoteric principles taught by an elite persons, in this case, Gans, who is practically worshipped as someone one who gained a higher level of consciousness.
 

P.D. Ouspensky
P.D. Ouspensky

The link details the all too familiar verbal, physical, and financial abuse of members characteristic of cults, but after doing some research on Rick Ross' excellent cult education website, I also discovered that the cult does not allow African-Americans or LGBTQ persons. Apparently they aren't “pure” enough, though I did not find out the exact reasoning. Thus, if a member of the group attempted to recruit me in a coffee shop (the typical first step), I would be instantly rejected.

Why am I bring this point up? Cults are certainly in the news these days, especially if celebrities are involved. I am thinking specifically of the NXIVM pyramid scheme/sex slave cult, even more notorious because of the involvement of Allison Mack. Yet, what is really fascinating and also frightening is how these cults mask as other types of groups and ideologies, transmuting them into times and spaces of abuse.
 

NXIVM cult
NXIVM cult (Source: meaww.com)

I've come very close to cults, because cults prey on those they see as vulnerable to their “I/We alone can save you” mission. When I was in high school, a girl approached me and asked if I wanted to go to a movie. I thought she was asking me on a date, and to be frank, I was shocked, social outcast I was. When I asked where the movie was playing, she said it was being shown at some youth group. I asked my parents if I could go, and they said yes. I possess very little memory of the incident, other than persons sitting in folding chairs holding Bibles and giving the group money. On the way home (I got a ride home from the group members), I began to feel violently ill. Perhaps I sensed something was off. When my parents found out I had given the group money, they called the girl's parents. No more "youth group movies" for me.

I also briefly in college joined a Catholic charismatic group after a recommendation by a nun (she is no longer a nun, by the way; she left and got married). Catholic charismatics speak in tongues, claiming that it is a gift of the Holy Spirit. I remember lots of psychological manipulation in an "inner healing" session, and I noticed that persons in the group, called The Children of Light, tended to hang out only with others in the group. I got the sense this group somehow thought they were special, or "the elect" in a kind of antinomian way, as opposed to those mundane Catholics who were not so gifted. And what is even more frightening: one of the president's Supreme Court judgeship picks, Amy Coney Barrett, was associated with a community called People of Praise, which started out as one of those charismatic groups.
 

Speaking in tongues
Speaking in tongues (Source: Northwest Catholic)

And, I found out as well, what looked like yet another yoga place in the Clark and Diversey neighborhood, Body & Brain Yoga (now closed), which taught a Korean physical exercise philosophy called Dahn Yoga. The Dahn Yoga organization, among other abuses, charged exorbitant fees for retreats and even was involved in a wrongful death suit.
 

Dahn Yoga CNN report
Dahn Yoga (Source: CNN.com)

And then there was a meeting I went to with a friend from college and someone she knew, which in hindsight I found out was some pyramid scheme. I remember being hectored to take a course which would change my life. The friend of a friend gave them a lot of money that night. By that time, I had wised up. I knew I was vulnerable because of my sexuality and socioeconomic status, but I also was educated enough academically and experientially to both know and intuit the specific time and space of a cult.

The problem is many persons do not wise up, especially in situations of personal anxiety, or, particularly in the current cultural situation, public anxiety. And many persons are what I would call seekers, looking for an ultimate answer, a total experience, where struggle will end, but never really finding whatever they are looking for. Cults and cult leaders prey upon their fears and insecurities, usually offering a dangerous us vs. them mentality that justifies the abuses.

My experiences, and the experiences of others (as seekers and the sought), have shown me that possibilities for spiritual growth and experience exist, but no one person or one idea is all possibilities, and making something possible does not make you better than others and thus give you license to do harm.

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LGBTQ Rights are Human Rights

 

posted by Madame Bubby

As the Supreme Court hears seminal cases that may determine the right of LGBTQ persons to work and live without discrmination, I found this quote in a recent article on the first time LGBTQ persons spoke at the Democratic National convention. McGovern was a Democratic candidate, and in the Catholic Democratic households I grew up in, he was our candidate. But of course I was growing up without any knowledge of persons who did not love heteronormatively.
 

Madeline Davis
Image Source: qweencity.com

Madeline Davis, a pioneering lesbian activist who was a cofounder of the Mattachine Society and one of the first university professors to offer classes about lesbians, made this speech:

"My name is Madeline Davis. I am an elected delegate from the 37th Congressional District, Buffalo, New York. I am a woman. I am a lesbian. We are the minority of minorities. We belong to every race and creed, both sexes, every economic and social level, every nationality and religion. We live in large cities and in small towns, but we are the untouchables in American society. We have suffered the gamut of oppression, from being totally ignored or ridiculed, to having our heads smashed and our blood spilled in the street. Now we are coming out of our closets and onto the convention floor to tell you, the delegates, and to tell all gay people throughout America that we are here to put an end to our fears – our fears that people will know us for who we are – that they will shun and revile us, fire us from our jobs, reject us from our families, evict us from our homes, beat us and jail us. And for what? Because we have chosen to love each other."

What is particularly telling about this speech, from those heady early days of gay liberation, is that the content is still frighteningly relevant. Everything she has claimed LGBTQ persons suffer, essentially, a social death, is still occurring, even with laws that have been created, at the bare minimum, to allow, yes just allow, LGBTQ persons to subsist in our country. Subsist, but not enjoy, the freedoms most Americans have long taken for granted.

The fact that the cases the Supreme Court is hearing now still starkly reveal that placing one's human rights in the hands of other humans shows that freedom and human dignity do indeed hang on a thread. The rainbow flag and the United States flag are literally fragile and it just takes one match to burn them.
 

Rainbow flag flying with an American flag
Image Source: NBC News

LGBTQ persons can get married; they can tweet from their phones. But these freedoms are dead ends unless everyone embraces with a full heart, and not just understands from a distance, that no one is safe until everyone is safe to live as whole persons who can love without fear.

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No More Porn on Tumblr! Why?

I wonder if the announcement that Tumblr was banning pornographic content was perhaps inevitable, but not for the official and unofficial reasons currently being disseminated by the media.

The surface reasons seems to be tied into the confluence between technology and profits. The IOS App Store would no longer allow the Tumblr App because of an isolated child pornography incident. Since most Smartphone users rely on Apps, not allowing it would seriously lessen Tumblr’s overall use and scope. But why target Tumblr? Was it simply the, according to some sources, the 20 percent porn content?

It may seem that Tumblr was directly put between the proverbial rock and hard place, even though the microblog is a free service. An article in The Verge succinctly paraphrases the new policy:

“Banned content includes photos, videos, and GIFs of human genitalia, female-presenting nipples, and any media involving sex acts, including illustrations. The exceptions include nude classical statues and political protests that feature nudity. The new guidelines exclude text, so erotica remains permitted. Illustrations and art that feature nudity are still okay — so long as sex acts aren’t depicted — and so are breastfeeding and after-birth photos.” The wording of Tumblr’s announcement seems to both evoke and invoke arguments about obscenity that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s.

LGBTQ sexual pioneer Chuck Renslow started out as a physique photographer, and he definitely was pushing social boundaries during the 1950s with his homoerotic (as close to nude was possible, and one could often see that the posing straps were painted on) photos. He, like many other in this line of work, were “coding” their visuals, because it was one of the few ways gay men could experience their erotic desires and fantasies safely and privately. Many outfits mailed nude photos and films in plain envelopes, but these were often confiscated by the Post Office and the perpetrators, both the senders and receivers, punished.

Some of these incidents ended up in the court system. Renslow’s case ended in victory, as the judge made the ruling that if one deemed these photos obscene, so would certain masterpieces of art, especially from the Graeco-Roman period.

The Manual vs. Day case, which went to the United States Supreme Court, held that magazines consisting of semi-nude or nude males are not obscene and the Post Office cannot interfere with their dissemination through the mail. The case is notable for its ruling that photographs of nude men are not obscene, an implication which opened the U.S. mail to nude male pornography, especially those whose audience was gay men.

Tumblr of course is certainly not contained physically in brown, unmarked envelopes, but what is interesting is that Tumblr seems to be agreeing with that 1950s judge. Agreeing to some extent, yes, but also opening up once more some of the time-worn arguments about the complex relationship between sexuality, artistic expression, violence, and how this relationship builds and shapes an audience.

Going back to my initial statement, it seems inevitable that something of this nature would happen, because it’s obvious our means of communication have changed drastically since the days of postage stamps and nudie photographs and envelopes, and later, moving images of sexual acts in theaters that charged admission only to adults: physical mediums that exist in a controlled spatial situation.

What Tumblr and those who support restricting what they deem porn (for them, porn equals genitals which equals sexual acts) fail to recognize is not of course the nanosecond dissemination of mostly amateur depictions of sex which could result in more potentially dangerous situations: no, they fail to recognize the aesthetics (which tie into social contexts, of course) of a wide variety of LGBTQ pornography from the 1970s and 1980s, especially.

For example, Al Parker responded to the AIDS crisis by combining sexual acts and documentary in his film High Tech. Jack Deveau offers what one could claim is a documentary of gay life during the "hippie" era in Left-Handed. So many others of that period usually offer narrative structures: the sex acts aren’t just sex acts per se, but components in forms that explore the larger social issues of the time. And even some of the J. Brian films, which were not made to specifically address any social or moral issues, could be seen as living documents of gay sexual history.
 

Three cast members in High Tech
Three men using vacuum pumps in High Tech

Stars of Left-Handed
Stars Ray Frank & Robert Rikas in Left-Handed

The question remains as to how one could apply any standard of evaluation to any medium which communicates the erotic universally, but it seems a rather generalized case could be made that the older the porn, the more chances it could be determined to be aesthetically or historically significant. But the burden of proof would fall on the user, and in today’s lightning-paced communication environment, time is an enemy, rather than, as before, space.

Yet at this juncture, it seems like the only possible solution here is diversification. Perhaps Tumblr’s free-for-all ethos caused this implosion. Given the fluid nature of social media, those who used Tumblr, especially LGBTQ persons who still exist in various states of marginalization, will have to regroup, and unfortunately, some might claim, not return to closets or ghettos, but establish in their own tech-savvy ways other spaces for erotic expression.

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The Real Benefit of Same-Sex Marriage: Human Dignity

The Real Benefit of Same-Sex Marriage: Human Dignity

 

This scenario is unfortunately all-too familiar: a gay man dies, and his partner ends up having to fight the “blood family” for property, a dwelling place, even a burial space. Unless a gay couple takes extraordinary, expensive legal measures, which in some cases means even adopting each other (see this link for a famous case), they are not legally protected, which protections and benefits would happen automatically if they were a heterosexual couple.
 

I know one person the above scenario happened to. He had to leave his dwelling of twenty-five years. His partner's homophobic family banned him from the funeral, and stole the burial plot. Why? He was not legally protected.

 

In another case, another friend of mine was much more fortunate. They lived in Florida, a state notorious for its homophobia (hello, Anita Bryant). Luckily, the partner's sister and brotherin-law were on good terms with him and followed his instructions about the sale of the house and other matters of the estate. Regardless of the financial situation, they respected the relationship. Their respect showed they saw my friend as a person, not an enemy “other” or an impersonal commodity.

The Edie Windsor case publicized and created much-needed discourse at the highest level the fundamental injustice of our defining only by gender civil marriage (yes, civil, not religious/sacramental). Edie would have had to pay an astronomical amount of inheritance tax on her wife's estate (yes, wife) because, as above, they were not a heterosexual couple. In response to this case, the Supreme Court struck down DOMA.

In other words, the civil society essentially treats those who do not fit heteronormative social structures as second-class citizens in a country which purports (and has failed and still fails to do) to operate under a claim that all people are created equal.

What I've said so far is not new, but I think it is really about not just the issue of same-sex couples being able to enjoy the economic, social, and psychological benefits of civil marriage, but about human dignity.

Human dignity transcends the physical ties of blood and the laws people make to be able to live together (which often results in people using each other as commodities, rather than persons). We experience human dignity by showing empathy and compassion for a person outside yourself, which means being able to find a piece, however difficult that may be, of that person in you, a process of growing, really becoming. To use the language of the famous Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, we need to enter into an I-Thou relationship, rather than an I-It one.
 

It's unfortunate that many of the benefits that those who enter into marriage are commodities (and in the past, remember, the wife [and the children] were essentially property of the husband), but I am hoping that we will get to the point that marriage equality is not just about a legal transaction. It's the recognition of the dignity of each human person as a complex, imperfect, non-binary becoming.
 

 
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