The No Purpling workshop
“Boys are blue; girls are pink; no purpling!”
This commonly used adage is heard by untold numbers of youth before church events and gatherings. The implications are clear: No sexual activity, but, you know, we don’t actually want to talk about that. At the Episcopal Youth Event 2014, three DioCal members presented a workshop entitled “No Purpling,” in order to offer youth the tools to examine both the assumptions underlying this cutesy expression, and the world around them more broadly. Along with my co-presenters Grace Aheron and Grace Wilkins, I was fortunate enough to engage with and be engaged by roughly 120 youth over the course of two 75-minute presentations. My presence at these workshops was only possible due to the generosity of Oasis, which invested in our work by sponsoring my ticket to Philadelphia.
To access the idea of normative perspectives, we began with the idea of lenses. You wouldn’t wear sunglasses in a dark room, right? Or your reading glasses to drive? Sometimes the lenses through which we see the world are only helpful in certain contexts, and sometimes they’re cracked and dirty and need to be updated. But we get used to the view lenses give us when we wear them on our faces all day. If we make a shift to the theoretical, lenses represent a set of assumptions, and we need a tool to help us pay attention to these assumptions. We introduced “queering” as this tool, and then invited the youth to engage with us in queering many of the stories and concepts we find around us.
When paying attention to our lenses, it quickly becomes clear that the phrase “no purpling” is built upon the assumptions of heterosexuality in a binary gender system. But because “queering” means to dissolve boundaries as well as to question assumptions, we took it a step further and made an outrageous claim: God is queer(ing), and is revealing this to us in Scripture and in our lived experiences. Dress-wearing Joseph of Egypt, God’s naming of Godself in Exodus, the destabilizing nature of the Trinity, and Jesus’ transgressive redefinition of the Sabbath all point us toward a God who firmly undoes our ideas of limitation and calls us into the fullness of our being.
Even well-meaning, gay-friendly congregations and youth groups can recreate ideas and structures that limit the realm of possible for all youth. A phrase like “no purpling” needs no malicious intent behind it in order to render queer youth invisible, or even to inflict damage on the straight and cis youth present. The God we worship blurs the lines between human and divine; life and death; worthy and unworthy; clean and unclean, and then goes one step further and calls us to speak our uncertain, uncomfortable, liminal stories. This same God calls us to actively grapple with the messages and structures with which we are complicit in the world around us.
As I spoke individually with youth after each presentation, it quickly became clear to me that I was the first self-identifying genderqueer/transgender Christian many of them had ever met. As stories of faith, identity, and struggle poured out, I was convicted, yet again, of youth’s need to see themselves reflected in the world around them. Growing up in small, rural, or unwelcoming communities, even the Internet is simply not enough to bolster flagging self-worth; to nurture faith growing amid thorns and rocks; or to give hope of a tangible queer adulthood in the not-so-distant future. To serve those purposes, to save faith and to save lives, queer stories must become the church’s stories, both in our sacred Scripture and in the lived realities of our leaders.
As of 10 minutes post-presentations, I was already receiving emails asking for more information on using language carefully and the variety of gender-neutral third person pronouns. Other youth continued to approach both Grace Aheron and Grace Wilkins during the remainder of EYE to talk more about the themes brought up in our presentation. While mine is most likely a biased view, I have to say that “No Purpling” was a smashing success, and I’m so grateful to have been afforded the opportunity to be a part of it.