The New Normal
The New Normal
For some, breaking social norms seems like self-sabotage. These storytellers are confronting the status quo and flipping the script on what’s considered “normal.”
Guests: Bill McDonough, Cristina Bicchieri, Scott Hansen, Pax Ressler, Kyra Baker, Nadya Tolokonnikova
Photo: Johanna Austin
Read the transcript
Jamie J: From WHYY and First Person Arts in Philadelphia, this is Commonspace, where live stories connect us to each other— and the world. I’m your host, Jamie J. And I’ll take you a little deeper into the stories with conversations that might just challenge your perceptions.
This week on the show we’re hearing from storytellers who question the status quo…and by doing so, are pushing the boundaries of what’s accepted in everyday society.
We’re exploring the political...
Nadya: No doubt Pussy Riot were really lucky that we weren't forsaken and forgotten when we were silenced by prison walls.
Pax: Celebrating our queerness and our Mennonite-ness at the same time and to ask themselves, "aren't these my siblings?"
And the individual...
Bill: She was sobbing and in tears and explained to my wife that she didn't wanna be -- continue to pretend to be a boy. She didn’t wanna be at that school. And she didn’t wanna be anywhere
Jamie J: For all the talking about “Be yourself, express your individuality”, rules against that seem to be everywhere. As a kid I heard “You can’t do that,” or “That’s not right!” more times than I want to remember. And it seemed that there was nothing my friends and I did, or thought, that fit the norm. But learning the rules also taught us how we could break them…and that going against the rules is often a deliberate act of defiance. Or maybe, in the case of the storytellers in this show, a simple realization that some rules might not apply when it comes to the way we see ourselves.
So we asked Cristina Bicchieri, a University of Pennsylvania professor and social norms expert, to enlighten us a bit. Here she is with Commonspace Associate Producer, Ali L’Esperance ….
Ali L’Esperance: Can you start by just telling me what a social norm is and where it comes from?
Cristina Bicchieri: A social norm is simply a rule of behavior, shared by many people. Sometimes by entire population, sometimes by small groups, and there are three elements that define a social norm. The first, I call them empirical expectation. People that abide by these rules expect other people in their network, to follow that particular rule. The second type of expectation is what I call normative expectation and very simply means that you expect these people to believe that you ought to behave in that particular way. That you should obey that norm and very often these expectations, is accompanied by punishment. So you think that people expect you to behave in a particular way will also be ready to punish you if you do not. A third element that is what I call a conditional preference. You know, you and I may have all these wonderful expectations about people obeying the norm, about people expecting you to obey the norm, but, you know, you still disobey the norm. And so the most important thing is you have to prefer to follow the rule. To obey the norm.
Ali L’Esperance: So what if the first two conditions exist, but someone doesn't have a preference to follow those?
Cristina Bicchieri: This can happen. We always have people that don't follow rules. So let's suppose we are in a country where corruption is endemic, is everywhere. And there are basically corruption norms. I have studied that in Nigeria, it's very interesting, because people think that it is OK, everybody pays to get whatever service that should be really cheap or public. And people pay for that and expect everybody to pay for that…it's not that people think you should do that, it's normal, it's ok! But suppose somebody thinks it's immoral, it's bad, doesn't have a preference for it, then that person will not follow the shared rule. This happens many times. So you must have a preference for following that particular rule. And it is the case that even if there is punishment, sometimes people will say "no I won't follow that rule.
Jamie J: So, U Penn’s Cristina Bicchieri says that in order for a social norm to exist, we need to want to follow the expectations held by the people in our network.
With this in mind, we’ll jump right into our first story from Bill McDonough, a father whose understanding of a rigid norm – the traditional view of fatherhood - was challenged by his transgender daughter Amelia….
Bill McDonough: Our daughter Amelia was assigned male at birth, and the birth name Liam. She's always identified as a girl. And it's probably just taken me a while to fully understand what that means. So even at a young age, I can remember at the age of three, she always had a preference for princess gowns, tiaras, high heels.
It didn't seem to matter whether she was hanging out with friends or visiting someone else or just playing with her sisters. That was what she thoroughly enjoyed. She was at the local Catholic elementary school for pre-school. My wife recounted a story that she recalls of a presentation at that preschool, and at the end of the presentation, the kids got up, and the boys got to one side and the girls to the other and she stood up and looked left and right, as if not sure which way to go.
When we had her in preschool we tried to engage her in other boy activities thinking we just needed to increase her exposure and that might help so that she might have more boy friends. But basketball and soccer and cub scouts never really seemed to clique for her-- it always seemed as if it was a square peg in a round hole.
In those first few years of school, it wasn't uncommon that the teachers would say to us that, you know, "she's sometimes drifting away or looks like she's daydreaming possibly." So by the time she was in third grade we had heard that enough that my wife and I, Mary-Kate, felt that we needed to make sure there was nothing preventing her learning. We subjected our daughter to probably six or seven weeks of cognitive and behavioral assessments and the only thing they identified was we had an 8 year old with an incredible amount of anxiety.
I don't know what she had that anxiety but to try and rule things out, my wife and I had her go through additional psychological and neurological assessments and those all turned up negative, which I guess is a good thing.
We eventually wound up at the CHOP gender clinic a little over two years ago and that's where my wife and I first probably started to understand more about our daughter. It was at that first visit that the CHOP gender psychologist explained The Minion Test to us. If you can imagine all these cute, adorable little creatures but instead of yellow, there's a row of them and on one end is this dark blue Minion that represents characteristics normally found with boys. And those colors shift from that dark blue Minion all the way over to this bright pink Minion that represents characteristics normally similar with girls. And she looked at us and she posed the question to our daughter…
Audience: "Where do you see yourself?"
Bill McDonough: And our daughter said "right next to that brightest, pinkest minion." We were being taught gender identity by our 9 year old. The next several months was lots of reading, understanding what it meant to be transgender. Follow up visits to the CHOP gender clinic, and even some of the parent's support groups, which were difficult. It's typically at those support groups where you identified yourself, your child, their name, and preferred pronouns. And I can recall for both my wife and I we thought that that preferred pronoun was really an overly sensitized discussion. At one of those first meetings, one of the other parents admonished my wife for using the wrong pronouns. So kind of right from the beginning both my wife and I were pretty defensive when it came to the discussion of pronouns. But we continued to bring our daughter to the gender clinic for the next few months, the rest of the school year. And it did help. We were getting better at supporting her and allowing her to express her identity and who she really was.
The summer rolled around and before we knew it was the end of the summer, and we were getting ready to visit my wife's sister, her husband and her two boys. While packing for that trip my daughter asked my wife, "Can I bring a pool cover-up? Or a dress?" I didn't think to ask her why she needed to wear a dress. Instead I went straight to "Wow. What are her cousins gonna think about this?"
Before I realized that we were there for a few hours and down the back door came my daughter dressed in the pool cover-up. Her 12-year-old cousin looked up and immediately said, "Is that a dress?" She responded, "Yes," "Whose is it?" "My mom's." "Oh. OK." And she then proceeded with her sisters and her cousins to spend the rest of the afternoon playing in the backyard the way kids do. Clearly the thoughts and concerns of an adult were not those of a 12 year old.
When school started back up we had another good visit with the CHOP gender clinic and it was at this point where I really thought I was kind of getting a handle on everything. We were talking about potentially a new school that would be more supportive for our transgender daughter. And we were looking to maybe try and do this in January. When we left the gender clinic and we were driving home on the Schuylkill I remember looking back to see my daughter in the back of a car and there was just a huge smile on her face.
I asked her then, and had asked the question several times, "What was it about those visits to the gender clinic that were so enjoyable for you?" Her response was simply "There's no explaining." And I thought about it and she was right. They simply accepted her for who she was.
The next day back at the regular grade school was not so accepting. It was picture day and clearly after such a great day the day before, I didn't give much thought to the fact that we were gonna ask her to pretending to be a boy for school pictures. That afternoon my wife got a phone call from the school and they put our daughter on the phone. She was sobbing and in tears and explained to my wife that she didn't wanna be -- continue to pretend to be a boy. She didn't wanna be at that school and she didn't wanna be anywhere. We then realized that we had to find a new school for her immediately.
We spent the next couple days visiting some schools that we had looked into before but hadn't quite gotten ready to make that move. We sat down with the principal and the teachers and explained our situation: our transgender daughter, she presented as a girl, typical girlfriends, but at the time we were still using her given name and male pronouns. We thought that was ok because it was something we discussed with her and my wife before we went to the new school. So the school was very respectful of our wishes and they said they would adhere to our wishes and then in another week or so school started. I couldn't begin to imagine at my age, of almost 50, how that would be, entering a new environment for work or otherwise where you didn't know anybody. She didn't seem to be concerned in the least. She was excited as you could possibly imagine, hopping on the bus before 7 o'clock to go see a whole bunch of people that she had never met before.
And when she came home that day all we heard about was great new friends, wonderful teachers, and how great school was. We were amazed at that transition and that first night all I could think of in retrospect was "How come I hadn't helped effect this change sooner and alleviate some of her anxiety?"
A couple days went by and actually I got an email from the principal that said "Can you please call me?" So I called her, and when she picked up she began to explain that after the first few days one of our daughters new classmates was confused and had approached one of the teachers. "She clearly is a girl. She dresses like a girl, she hangs out with the girls, she plays with the girls. Why are the teachers using he and him pronouns?" As I listened to the principal explain this to me I realized how foolish that sounded. And that night my wife and I talked about it with our daughter and realized we asked her her preference and she told us. Female pronouns. But she explained the only reason she had gone along with us in using male pronouns when we moved her to the new school was because she knew how difficult it was for her mom and I.
Pretty savvy of a 10 year old to figure that out.
Over the next couple weeks the winter holidays approached and my wife and daughter had actually identified a name that she felt was more representative of who she was. And they were excited because the name still had the same-- many of the same letters, and they had chosen Amelia. So over the winter break, her sisters and my wife and I used "Amelia" as much as we could around the house and even to some extent in public. And you could see the difference on Amelia's face and it just seemed to remove a lot of her stress and concerns. Even at the urging of one of her teachers at the new school, they suggested making that change after school break. And they did. And as you can imagine, 10 and 11 year olds are not only resilient; they're pretty accepting.
At the end of the school year, the principals and the teachers asked how we wanted Amelia's name to be represented in the directories and the emails and other things. I had to step back and think for a minute, because when we registered her for school back in the fall it was with her birth name. So now we had this chance to do something different.
We didn't have to do it, it wasn't as if she was getting a driver's license or a passport but we decided and looked into petitioning to have her name legally change in accordance with state law.
[Sigh] This past Monday, Amelia's name change was granted [crying] So now I have a bit more appreciation of the importance of names and how much of a difference that does make. So…thank you.
Jamie: Bill McDonough lives in West Chester with his wife Mary-Kate and their four daughters. You know, hearing Bill tell the story of his daughter’s transition, and how quickly and easily Amelia’s classmates embraced her gender identity was really powerful.
So I started wondering, why were Amelia’s classmates less judgmental about her transition than some of the adults she encountered?
Let’s return to social norm expert Cristina Bicchieri - again with Commonspace Associate Producer, Ali L’Esperance:
Cristina Bicchieri: Young people are much more in tune with cultural changes. And there's been a huge cultural change you know, they see on television, there are programs that talk about people changing sex, there are singers that are very ambiguous sexually. So I don't think it's just a matter of young and old. It's a matter of being in touch with changes in culture. Think of gay marriage. Gay marriage, you know is something that has become very quickly acceptable across America but there are lots of older people that really reject it. They think it's completely wrong
Ali L’Esperance: So do you think that children are more quick to accept something that's out of the ordinary of a social norm? Or do you think that that is better developed later in adulthood?
Cristina Bicchieri: Well that’s the interesting, I did some experiments with children and norms of fairness, and as adults we think of two different processes, fair, dividing something 50-50 between me and you is fair, but also tossing a coin and letting the coin decide that maybe one of us gets more and the other gets less, it's fair because tossing a coin is a fair process. And children agree with that and they say so. So if we ask them, ”Is tossing a coin fair?” “Absolutely! Of course.” “Is sharing 50-50 fair?” “Of course.” Then when the toss of the coin gives the child less than 50% of the total, the child can't accept it. They get really mad. So it's very interesting what you see in children is intellectually, the capability of realizing that fairness may mean the result is not equality. But emotionally they are completely unprepared to accept that. So I think what happens when you grow, is to learn to emotionally accept things you accept already intellectually. And in children there is this lag, if you will, this emotional lag that we hopefully don't have as adults [laughs]
Jamie J: [laughs] I sure hope so, too. That’s a nice segue to our next storyteller - Scott Hansen – who knows a thing or two about fairness…from a valuable lesson he learned at his middle school spelling bee...
Scott Hansen: As a kid I was extremely proud of my spelling ability. Any time, any place, you name the word, I've seen it, I can spell it.
So it came as a huge shock to me when I lost the second grade spelling bee to Lauren Wang after she spelled the word “accountable” correctly. Of course, I immediately fell in love with her.
But more importantly, I swore that I would never let anyone get the better of me in spelling again.
And that's why five years later I found myself in the final round of my middle school spelling bee. It was just me and one other kid. He had just gotten a word wrong but that's not enough for me to win. I have to then get a word right in the crazy world of spelling bees.
The word they give me is “eulogy” and a smile blooms on my face because I know how to spell that word. I know it as well as I know the eulogy I'm about to give this kid when I grind him into the dust. So I say "OK! E-u-l-o-g-y. Eulogy" Crowd goes wild, there's like five people but they did clap for me
The fanfares goes off in my head, they congratulate me, I'm offered the choice of a dictionary or a thesaurus. And a spelling champion does not need a dictionary but I could see in this kids eyes he really wanted that dictionary so just to spite him I chose the dictionary. Stuck him with the thesaurus. Regretted it every since.
But it wasn't time to celebrate. It was not time for the parade because I found out that a few short weeks later I was due at the countywide middle school spelling bee! I walked in there and I was intimidated. In front of me were 20 of the county's best spellers and these kids, every one, seemed a little nerdier than me. Thicker glasses, pockets better protected. But I reassured myself, I said, it's OK. I probably know more Star Wars trivia than them. First kid got called up and he had a pretty easy word, he sat back down. I was the second one up. I went up there, sweating bullets, my hands shaking, barely able to breathe wearing a non clip on tie for the first time in my life. And the word they gave me was rehearsal. Again, a smile just bloomed on my face. I knew this word. I knew this word well because I had just been to rehearsal yesterday for Shakespeare club. Where I played a tree! And I stood and waved my arms majestically as a branch would, in the breeze. As majestically as I was about to spell this word. I said, "OK! R-e-h-e-a-r... uh... s -a-l" And the judges said "Incorrect"
Well! I thought back, no, I'm pretty sure I spelled it right. So I said "No! I was right! I can't say the room went silent. Spelling bees are pretty quiet as a rule. But a hush fell over the crowd and the judges looked at one another and they said "No, you had two r's at the second part where there was an r" and I said "No I didn't! I just stuttered! That was just, like, a cough! I didn't say two r's I know how to spell rehearsal! This is an easy word, everyone on the stage can spell rehearsal, come on!"
They didn't see it that way. Nevertheless, I persisted! And so they sent someone up who guided me off of the stage. I realized my goose was cooked so I gave up and they sat me down in the auditorium and they told me I couldn't leave until the round was over. And I was looking at all the other competitors, still on the stage. They all had the same expressions on their faces, a grimace, as they hoped that if their time came, they would have a little more grace.
So I sat there and I stewed and I thought about how I had let my school down and I had let my mom down. I let myself down! Such an easy word. And as the humiliation washed over me I felt hot tears of shame and anger coming forward. And I tried to choke them down but I was going to lose it. And I felt someone's hand on my shoulder. And I turned around and there was this older guy in a suit and tie and he smiled at me and he said "I think you were right. I think you were right to challenge them. I think you spelled that word right and they shouldn't have called you out." I didn't know what to say but I nodded and I turned back and I got through the rest of that round.
It took me a long time to get over that pain. And in some ways, I'm still healing. [Laughter] I never spelled again. But when I'm at my lowest and it feels like the world is against me, I think back to that day and I think back to the kind words of a stranger who reached out and saved a shattered child. And so to that man wherever he is now I want to say now what I could not say then. "T-h-a-n-k y-o-u. Thank you."
Jamie J: Scott Hansen is a professor, poet, lawyer, IT guy, author, and cellist. And he lives in Chester County with his wife and daughter.
Next up? What it’s like to leave a religious community with deep-seated rules and values…
You’re listening to Commonspace, a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY, and it’s been supported by the Pew Center For Arts And Heritage. Listen to Commonspace every Sunday night at 8 pm, and subscribe to us any time, at Apple Podcasts and Stitcher. I’m your host Jamie J. On today’s show: confronting, and challenging, the norm.
It seems that when it comes to religion, everything becomes a bit more complicated. In many cases, rules and norms are at the core of religious groups and belief systems, in order to keep up traditions.
Well, our next storyteller, Kyra Baker, was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness— a religion with stringent rules and a strict moral code. But when Kyra was 17, she decided to leave that community – risking the loss of everyone she loved.
Kyra Baker: There are three ways to leave the Witnesses. You can be dis-fellowshipped by a panel of elders for anything, f rom questioning Watchtower doctrine, to smoking a cigarette, to engaging in sexual immorality, the list goes on. You can disassociate yourself from the organization in which one formally resigns.
Or you can fade. You become more and more inactive in the congregation in stages. A change in location is helpful in this process. By the end of my junior year of high school I had given up any hope of acquiring faith. I was sixteen. I knew that I had to get out, and I had to plan my exit carefully. I decided to tell my father. I asked him if we could have lunch one day. We went to the California Grill.
“I don’t wanna be a Witness anymore.”
“Oh? How did you come to this?”
“I don’t believe in it. And I don’t know how to get out. I think maybe I should go to college?”
“Are you prepared for what’s going to happen to you when you leave?”
“Yes. I know. I know what will happen. I’m going to apply to go to college. I’m not going to tell anyone else about this.”
“I’ll take you to whatever colleges you want to visit. I love you no matter what.”
Three years later, and two years since the last time I'd been inside a Kingdom Hall, I was uninvited to my brother’s wedding. When I left, I received a ridiculous stack of letters and emails when I left. Saying that I was evil, and selfish, and spiritually sick.
I didn’t respond to any of them; what in the world would I say? And I certainly didn’t talk about them with any of my new college friends. What would I say?
My brother told me that a lot of Witnesses called him and told him that they wouldn’t attend his wedding if I was there. That my presence was so offensive they couldn’t imagine sharing the same space with me. I told him that was stupid, and that I couldn't possibly have that much power over people.
I convinced him to let me go to the ceremony. And I stuck around for the reception. I didn’t go anywhere near the tent with all the guests and the food. If an old friend looked in my direction, they would quickly look away. It was like I didn’t exist, and had never existed.
There is a vast chunk of time that is fractured and lost in my memory. When I was 17 I moved out of my mom's house to go to Temple University. Being faced with options, choices, encouragement to form opinions was overwhelming and not in any way liberating. What I thought would be newfound freedom was a more intense experience of isolation and confusion.
I missed the system of rigidity and rules, it organized my life. It let me know how and when I was feeling and how and when I was doing good. And I knew without a doubt that there was no middle ground and now it seemed there was nothing but middle ground and nuance, and ambiguity and I felt...I felt…
I left college in the middle of my third semester. And sometime after that I returned to my old home in New Jersey still full of biblical structure. I got loads of therapy. And discovered great reserves of strength. And small ways of moving forward. When I was 20 I disassociated myself from the Jehovah's Witnesses. I had no intentions of doing this. I wanted to fade. To be forgotten. To just move on and never set foot in a Kingdom Hall ever again. But there was some pressure to make it official and I caved under it.
Two elders came to my mom's house. I told them I was no longer one of Jehovah's Witnesses. They told me that all privileges would be revoked -- and really they already had been, the shunning had started three years earlier.
They said an announcement would be made at that Sunday's meeting. It seemed so quick and impersonal. What was even the point?
I celebrated my first birthday when I was 25. A surprise party. My friend Steph invited me over for a girls’ night. I had a cold, and told her I wasn’t really feeling up to it. She convinced me to come for just a little while. She opened the door, and let me in.
“There’s pizza, there’s beer, I made cupcakes…” I walked in and something like 30 people screamed and threw things at me. I didn’t know what was happening. I remember there being a moment of silence before I started weeping. I went into the bathroom and calmed down after maybe 10 or 15 minutes. I‘d never felt so overwhelmed with love and attention. It was beautiful, and uncomfortable.
When they sang happy birthday, I felt like I was committing a sin, and at the same time gloriously valued and loved. To celebrate one’s existence; that one’s existence is worthy of recognition and celebration…to be given the opportunity to make wishes.
When I was 30 I took a road trip out to Michigan with my brother. We were going to our grandmother’s funeral. We didn’t see each other particularly often, and I was glad to be spending so much time with him. In the car he asked me why I got baptized as a Jehovah's Witness, and I was suddenly 14 again. “I don’t know, I just…”
“Were you unstable? Did you know what you were doing?”
“Yes, I just. I was a kid.”
“I’m not going to be in your life anymore. I’m sorry if I’ve led you on in any way over the years. Unless it’s a family emergency…“
“But I thought family could still talk to each other, if it’s immediate family we can still talk to each other…”
“It’s up to the individual to make that decision, I have to follow my conscience.”
“But I left 13 years ago.”
“You weren’t doing well for a long time. I’m really glad you’re doing so much better now.”
“Okay. I understand.”
Suddenly, the trip was no longer just about my grandmother’s passing, but about the long, slow division of my family. I went to the funeral with my mom and my brother. It was in a Russian Orthodox Church, the same religion that my mom had left in order to convert to become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They sat in the very last pew, as though the farther they set foot into this house of false worship, the stronger the pull away from Jehovah would be. I stood at the end of their row, looking back and forth between them and my extended family; aunts, uncles, cousins, who had taken up the first few rows of the church. I didn’t belong in either place. I sat one row in front of my mom and my brother, in a pew to myself. When the processional to pay our last respects to my grandmother was about to start, I looked back at my mom, checking in as to what I should do. Are you walking? She shook her head no.
What do I do? I was frozen. It was almost over, people were already filing out of the church.
And then I stood up, the last one in line, and I stumbled forward.
Jamie J: Kyra Baker is active in the Philadelphia theater community and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in recreation therapy at Temple University.
Jamie J: You can hear more of Kyra Baker’s story, as well as an interview with her on the Commonspace podcast, available at Apple Podcasts and Stitcher.
Kyra made a truly difficult decision in leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Our next storyteller is Pax Ressler, who uses they/them pronouns. For Pax, leaving the Mennonite church was not the plan they had in mind after revealing their queer identity.
Pax Ressler: I was raised Mennonite. I'm also queer and gender-queer and Mennonites historically are not very sex positive and steer away from any kind of conversation that would have to do with sexuality or gender nonconformity. So I always had this feeling that my queerness and my Mennonite identity were at odds with each other. But I loved singing in church.
When I was little my mom taught me to sing soprano, alto, and tenor in church and when my voice changed my dad taught me to sing bass. I chose to be baptized in my home congregation. I studied music from Mennonite professors; I learned how to lead the hymns myself. I wrote my own Mennonite hymns.
To this day my Mennonite denomination is still split on whether queer people can be part of the church. Official church policy states that queer people can't be leaders or members or get married in the church. In big and small ways I've been told that I'm not welcome and not worthy to teach at Mennonite schools or to lead music in certain church spaces. I've been told that I'm too much of an activist. That my presence would be too divisive. That by excluding me, they're actually keeping me safe from violence or harm I might experience. Being rejected by Mennonites, my people, has been a hugely painful experience in my life.
For about six years I was actively advocating for queer and transgender people in the Mennonite church. My Mennonite college had a hiring policy that excluded queer people and I galvanized my classmates and alumni to fight it. I led a weekly LGBTQIA gathering at the college. I organized direct actions for LGBTQIA people at Mennonite conventions.
Yes, Mennonites gather at conventions by the thousands. Every two years we overrun a convention center in a US city around the Fourth of July weekend. Independence Day. And we were fighting for our own brand of freedom.
For three of these conventions I was part of a leadership team of a group called Pink Menno, which was actively advocating for queer and trans people in the church. Pink Menno, because the members of this movement would wear pink around the convention center. In a denomination that tells queer and transgender people that they aren't welcome and aren't worthy, a sea of bodies wearing pink in defiance of that message is powerful. It's subversive. So I would wear pink. I would wear my Mennonite identity and my queerness at the same time and in the same place. I wouldn't allow those identities to be separate. I would lead groups of our supporters in the hallways and lobbies of the convention center singing hymns, Mennonite hymns. We would sing our songs of love to protest the hate and violence that we experienced at the hands of the church. Delegates would walk by on their way to meetings deciding the future of the church. Our message was simple: we're here, we're queer, we're Mennonite!
We hoped that the delegates would hear us singing these songs that they knew. Celebrating our queerness and our Mennonite-ness at the same time and to ask themselves, "aren't these my siblings?" At Mennonite conventions a huge body of delegates, hundreds of people from all over the country gather to make decisions for the church. They call them resolutions. And resolutions can be about anything from climate change to healthcare to, in the case of the 2015 convention, whether to continue excluding queer people from the church. Whether to continue punishing churches that allow for queer membership, leadership, and marriage.
There aren't many queer or transgender people as a part of this delegate body. After all, queer and transgender people aren't typically allowed to be members or leaders of churches. There is a decades long history of queer people advocating for themselves in Mennonite church spaces. There have been blog posts, essays, books ad nauseam about LGBTQIA people and the church. I won't go into all of that here. I'll focus instead on the 2015 Kansas City convention and the vote on queer people in the church.
While queer and transgender people largely weren't part of the voting process, we were in the room when the results were announced. A church leader admonished the people gathered from having any emotional reaction or making any sound when the announcement was made. We were actually told to remain silent. She then tearfully told us that the delegation had once again voted to affirm the official position of the church excluding queer people.
"Hissss," we hissed. And we were the only people in the room to make a sound. The church leader immediately launched into an emotional prayer asking for God's guidance and healing. But there would be no healing in this room. The church had rejected us and we were angry. We immediately left feeling defeated. We had been working for years, some for decades, and the church had decided to push us out again. In those moments something began to break inside of me. I had been holding my Mennonite-ness and my queerness closely not allowing them to be separate. But it was proving too difficult and too painful to continue. Whether I knew it or not my Mennonite faith was crumbling.
It's a pain that I have difficult describing.
So I decided that I needed to show the delegates my pain…the pain of queer and transgender people in the church. American novelist, Zora Neale Hurston says, "If you are silent about your pain they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it." But we were Mennonites and we're a quiet people. We needed a different way to be loud…to be visible.
My friends and I stationed ourselves outside of the delegate session in the hallway. We would stand there still and strong like trees. There was only one way out of the meeting and it was through us. We would stand there, a defiant pink forest openly acknowledging the conflict and asking them to look at us in the face. Our hearts burned in our chests and we knew we needed to face them. We needed to show them our pain.
The delegate session let out, and hundreds of people started pouring into the hallway headed towards us. And they cried out in sadness and surprise. After all, not everyone had voted against us, but many had. Some passed by us as if we were invisible. Not looking at us. Some wanted to shake our hands or give us hugs. Some offered chilling, dismissive words: “Just be patient.” Some simply said "I'm sorry."
Family members stood by family members. A pastor held his queer brother, wailing openly. Many people joined our grove of trees, standing with us in solidarity. And then we didn't know what to do. In the midst of great pain how do you stop standing still? How do you start moving again?
We did the only thing we knew how to do. We broke into song. Like a blessing of rain in a drought. It was an African American hymn that my friend Christian helped to lead. It was a song we all knew.
There is more love somewhere
There is more love somewhere
I’m gonna keep on till I find it
There is more love somewhere
This may be a story about losing faith. There was a time I was banging down the doors of the Mennonite church pleading to be let in. Those doors still feel closed to me. But I've decided to walk away.
The Mennonite church and it's traditions are still a huge part of my life. It's hard after all to get rid of 25 years of your life and I don't want to. But maybe walking away is the holiest, most sacred thing I can do.
Jamie J: Pax Ressler is a gender-queer performer, musician, and composer in Philadelphia, whose compositions for choruses and instrumental ensembles have been performed from coast to coast as well as internationally.
Jamie J: You’re listening to Commonspace, from WHYY and First Person Arts...and it’s been supported by the Pew Center For Arts And Heritage. Listen to Commonspace every Sunday night at 8 pm, and subscribe to us any time, at Apple Podcasts and Stitcher. I’m your host Jamie J.
Today, we’re exploring social norms, and hearing from storytellers who challenge the written and unwritten rules of society.
You know, sometimes - opposing authority becomes dangerous - in places where the consequences can include imprisonment, torture, or even death.
(Music by the group Pussy Riot)
Our next storyteller, Nadya Tolokonnikova is a member of Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist punk band. Pussy Riot isn’t just a band with an attitude -- they’re also a collective of activists who use art as their primary tool for disruption.
Pussy Riot formed in 2011, but Nadya’s been politically active in Russia for much longer than that….
Nadya Tolokonnikova: When I was 14 I showed up at the local newspapers office with a piece I had written on pollution and climate change. They told me that I was really nice little girl and maybe not a bad writer but wouldn't I rather write about the zoo? The piece on catastrophic pollution in my hometown wasn't published. Oh well. Many things have happened in my life since then. Including my arrest and two years I spent in jail. But in fact nothing had seriously changed. I keep asking uncomfortable questions here and there and everywhere.
These questions, have always led me to action. It seems to me that I have been doing actions all my life. We began reclaiming public space and engaging in political protest long time ago in 2007. I was 17 years old and I just moved to Moscow and I pretty quickly ended up in political action because I wanted to be a philosopher and it became clear to me super soon that there is no philosophy and there is no art without politics because everything exists in political context and if you're trying to pretend there is no political context then you're just an idiot.
We wanted to rattle the system to make the government shit their pants. And so here are examples of the few earliest actions.
So Russian White House stands on the banks of the Moscow River. In 2008, Putin, who was then their Russian Prime Minister, controlled the White House, the seat of the Russian government. We set ourselves a goal. On revolution day we found a gigantic projector and we basically set a goal to project a giant Jolly Roger skull and bones on this surface of the Russian White House. Sixty by forty meters.
And then a team of us would storm the White House by climbing over the six-meter high fence surrounding it. The idea behind this action was super obvious. We wanted to show that actually they're not that safe and guarded as they want to portray themselves. And I went to Russian school of contemporary art and I have baby…my daughter is 9 years old now but it was a kind of long time ago so she was like six months or something. So I was having her in a sling with me and I came to this contemporary art school and I was like, "Um, who wants to storm White House today with us?" [laughter] I'm such a nut case and especially at that time you know I'm growing up and when I was 18 years old it was not obvious to me why they are not getting up their seats and not going with me. Right now! Because it's exciting thing. And…but one guy he came with us and he's still with us. He's our activist, we call him Stormer.
Jamie J: Pussy Riot has gained so much international publicity because they appeal to young people and motivate them to protest. Between their guerilla tactics, their punk music, and even the name “Pussy Riot”…it’s all contentious.
Nadya Tolokonnikova: So when we were preparing to make this action we taught ourselves to evade the police by rolling on the car in three seconds. We could jump on the run into dumpsters and cover ourselves with garbage. You don't want to be caught when you do an action like this because it's a little bit different with America. You really might end up in jail for 20 years for terrorism or something when you do things like that in Russia. So you know, the danger is real unfortunately. But it was fun. [laughter]
Next action I want to tell about is closing a fascist restaurant.
So the guy who opened this restaurant he's famous Russian fascist and he's a TV anchor at the same time. Ultra conservative journalist. And you know as soon as this restaurant opened we immediately asked ourselves "How can we close it? So it's called Oprichnik and oprichnina is really a famous thing in Russian history. I didn't know it was like, it's like called restaurant, like, Holocaust in Germany. In the 16th century Ivan The Terrible has used the oprichina to advance his policies in Russia. He, for example, hung, hacked and poured boiling water on his enemies. And this reign of terror was called the oprichina.
We practiced welding doors in the back alleys of Victory Park, Moscow. Day by day a handful of people learn how to weld in the freezing December weather amongst carriages and snow drifts. Our activist collective had split in two parts. The first one was the industrial workers. We were in charge of working physically, finding a huge pile of metal and dealing with the welding to the door of our restaurant.
The second half of our group was the distraction group. Their role was to enter the restaurant, play drunken crowd and attract the attention of security workers. Their action was about to happen at the end of December, close to the New Year’s Eve so the distraction mob was dressed as bunnies, kitties and Santa Clauses. They rehearsed a song that our crew would start to sing when welding started. And they had to sing super loud otherwise security would hear a sound of welding and prevent the action. And finally, one more activist, a prominent organizer of LGBTQ parades in Moscow had to stand on the street corner close to the restaurant and hand passers-by stickers on LGBTQ issues. His mission was to distract potential secret (or not so secret) police officers. We did it successfully. We closed the shameful restaurant.
Pussy Riot was founded in October, 2011. Um, but it was preceded by five years of research into genre of action-ism. Five years of schooling in how to escape from cops, make art without money, hop over a fence and mix Molotov cocktails. The future has never has never promised us to be bright, or progressive, or whatever. Things may get worse. They have been getting worse in my country since 2012, the year when Pussy Riot was put behind bars and Putin became president for the third time.
Jamie J: In 2012, Nadya and the other members of Pussy Riot were arrested for “hooliganism”, after taking over a Moscow cathedral, and performing in order to criticize Vladimir Putin.
Nadya Tolokonnikova: No doubt Pussy Riot were really lucky that we weren't forsaken and forgotten when we were silenced by prison walls. Every single interrogator who talked to us after our arrest recommended us to a) give up b) shut up c) admit that you love Vladimir Putin.
“Nobody cares about your fate. You will die here in prison and they won't even know about it. Don't be stupid just say that you love Putin.”
However, we insisted that we don't love him and we were supported in our stubbornness by many. When we got out of jail in 2014 we decided we need to create alternative institutions and we did a couple. It was completely different country in 2014. And we just found ourselves in dramatic environment, when we were like, Oh, we are punks, we are anti system people, but we are at the place where we have to build our own institutions.
We need something else. We need new, we need to move to new progressive Russian that is strong and cool and powerful country. But if you want to make our influence in the world we rather do it with art. Not with tanks.
(Music By Pussy Riot)
Jamie j: That was Russian activist, Nadya Tolokonnikova. She’s a member of the feminist punk band, Pussy Riot.
You’ve been listening to Commonspace, from WHYY and First Person Arts…where live stories and conversation connect you to each other, and the world. It’s been supported by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. Listen to Commonspace every Sunday night at 8 pm, and subscribe anytime at Apple Podcasts and Stitcher, to hear extended stories and in depth interviews.
Our Commonspace team includes Executive Producer Elisabeth Perez Luna; producer Mike Villers, Associate producer Ali L’Esperance. And from First Person Arts Jen Cleary, Tanesha Ford and our archivist Dr. Neil Bardhan. Ali L’Esperance wrote this episode. Our engineer was Al Banks, and our theme music is by Subglo. I’m Jamie J, producer, host, and co-writer of Commonspace. Thanks so much for listening.