By Wil Forbis
If you pay even a modicum of attention to the world of pop music, you're aware of the controversial comments made by alternative folk singer Michelle Shocked during her March 17 performance. The headlines and op-ed titles that appeared after the fact provide a good summation of the story. "Michelle Shocked Draws Fire for Anti-Gay Remarks." "Michelle Shocked's Tour Vanishes Following Anti-Gay Comments." "Michelle Shocked’s Crazy Switch From Lesbian to Homophobe." In short, the once-presumed-to-be-lesbian made numerous comments that, on their face, sounded undeniably homophobic. As a result, she was swiftly and fiercely condemned by the press and blogosphere and her in-progress tour was brought to a halt.
I have to confess that when I first heard the news a small smirk crossed my face. I've never been a big fan of the alternative music scene*; I spent most of the 90s in indie-music hotbeds such as Olympia, Washington and Seattle and was entirely put off by the self righteousness and self importance of many of the people in the movement. As such, I took a certain Schadenfreude upon hearing that a darling of the scene had done a complete 180 and transformed from a politically correct icon into a venom spewing bigot. And I didn't have much reason to doubt the accounts of the event as they were presented, being that I knew little about Shocked and was largely unfamiliar with her music.
* To be clear, there was plenty of music produced by that scene that I did like.
Nonetheless, I was curious enough about the story that when an article proffering a detailed account of the evening appeared I read through it. And, when an actual audio recording of the night surfaced on soundcloud I gave it a listen. And my opinion on the exact nature of what had transpired began to change.
Before I get into why I feel this way, I should make clear my views on some of the topics related to this controversy. My thoughts on homosexuality? I think it's such a non-issue as to be boring; gays are certainly deserving of all the rights, such as marriage and adoption, that are available to straights. And since religion is intertwined in this tale, I should reiterate that I'm an atheist, though I have plenty of friends who follow various religions including numerous forms of Christianity.
I should also make a more subtle confession: I'm a contrarian; in my more ego-drunk moments I probably consider myself an iconoclast although doing so requires me to suffer under the delusion that anyone actually cares what I think. But my point is that when I see someone being almost universally condemned by society at large, there's a part of me that becomes very interested in and sometimes even sympathetic to that person's side of the story. Perhaps that blinds me to what may be obvious to others, but I think it may also make me more receptive to points of view others avoid. (On a side note: was Hitler really that bad?)
As I followed the Shocked story, I quickly learned that she had, years ago, become a Christian, in particular, a follower of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ. She's been quite open about this and has described herself as a "fundamentalist." It is this fact, more than anything else I believe, that allowed to narrative of "Michelle Shocked is a religious, anti-gay bigot" to so easily take hold.
Is that narrative correct? Let's go to the tape... or in the case, the Hollywood Reporter article that reported on the audio transcript of the evening. According to the piece, the second set of the show began in relative calm. She made a few references to Jesus as well as some tangential ruminations. Then she delivered the first eyebrow raiser of the evening.
"I was in a prayer meeting yesterday," she tells the then still-supportive crowd. "You’ve got to understand how scared folks on that side of the equation are. From their vantage point -- I really shouldn’t say their, because it’s mine, too -- we are near the end of time. And from our vantage point, we’re gonna be ... I think maybe Chinese water torture is gonna be the means, the method. Once Prop. 8 is instated, and once preachers are held at gunpoint and forced to marry the ho-mo-sexuals" -- she says the word "homosexuals" almost in a parody of a Southern accent -- "I’m pretty sure that that will be the signal for Jesus to come on back."
On its face, despite the fact that it's a little hard to follow (what the hell is this comment about Chinese water torture about?) it does seem like Shocked is saying that the end times will be brought about by the overturning of California's Prop 8*. I will say, I was struck, as was the above writer, by Shock's mocking tone on "homosexuals" (seeming to mock the person speaking the term, not gays themselves.) And does she really believe preachers will be held "at gunpoint" to perform gay weddings? That over-the-top description of the law's effects makes me wonder how seriously she is presenting these views.
* Shocked does seem to have the nature of Prop 8 backwards here; she seems to think it mandates gay marriage as opposed to banning it. She confirmed in a recent Piers Morgan interview that she had misunderstood this point.
Next comes the most reported on comment of the evening.
The confused murmurs begin. "You said you wanted reality!" There is some nervous laughter and applause. "If someone could be so gracious to tweet out, 'Michelle Shocked just said from stage, God hates faggots,' would you do it now?"
The big question here is, "is she actually saying she hates gays, or is she daring people to report her statements as such?" It is, again, unclear, but I don't find outlandish the possibility that she was saying, "If you want to take my comments and twist them into something completely devoid of nuance and shading, then feel free to do so." Of course, one can then ask, "What was she trying to say?" Let's let that question hang for a bit.
From there Shocked's relationship with audience becomes more acrimonious. At one point she quotes biblical verse John 3:16 ("For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, etc. etc.") and makes various statements that provide little clarity to her position.
Days after the event, Shocked released an open letter about the evening. In it, she disavowed any anti-homosexual agenda, generally by saying that the words out of her mouth were not her beliefs.
Michelle Shocked has responded to reports that she went on a homophobic rant at a recent gig, insisting she has been misunderstood. "My support for the LGBT community … has never wavered," she said in an open letter sent out by her publicist, claiming she was simply trying to speak up for "Christians with opinions I in no way share".
"I do not, nor have I ever, said or believed that God hates homosexuals (or anyone else)," Shocked wrote on Wednesday. "I said that some of His followers believe that."
On the subject of claims that repealing Prop 8 will bring about the Apocalypse she says:
"My statement equating repeal of [Proposition] 8 with the coming of the End Times was neither literal nor ironic: it was a description of how some folks – not me – feel about gay marriage," she wrote. "I believe intolerance comes from fear, and these folks are genuinely scared."
So, we - the music listening public - are left musing on two seemingly disparate set of comments. One set- if taken literally - is quite homophobic, the other is the opposite. Can these sets of comments be reconciled?
We have to weigh several options at this point. One possibility is that Shocked has indeed become a gay-hating bigot and meant her fiery words to be interpreted in their most literal sense. However, that begs the question of why she later denied being such a person in her open letter? The more jaded out there will say she was trying to salvage her financial situation but that just strikes me as unlikely. And overall, I think anyone who listens to the tape of the evening will find that her tone of voice does not come across as someone stridently condemning homosexuals. She seems kind of giddily nervous and on edge, but far from hateful.
Option two is that Shocked is some kind of crazy - perhaps schizophrenic or manic. This is possible, indeed this was my belief before I heard the tape. (She has a history of mental illness.) But I have to say, while Shocked does seem frazzled on the recording she strikes me as pretty capable in her ability to form her thoughts. I've been around many schizophrenics and they are a lot more out there than her.
This takes us to option three, which is the defense Shocked has taken, claiming that she both mangled her words and was misinterpreted. I find the her tone and even the text of her comments matches this. It's certainly true that her specific comment, "From their vantage point -- I really shouldn’t say their, because it’s mine, too" seems to take ownership of these views. But I can also buy that she meant something more along the lines of, "these are the views of my people (evangelicals) but not views I share and views that I am, in fact, parodying."
I find this third option most likely. The other choices are possible, and there's still some question in my mind in regards to exactly what she was saying, but I do find the idea that Shocked is a simple-minded, brainwashed-by-religion gay-hating bigot to be very dubious.
I also think there's a more going on underneath the surface here. I think Michelle Shocked - once proud queen of progressive alternative music, now God loving and fearing Christian - finds herself caught between two worlds. And that's a confusing place to be. The human brain seems wired for tribalism, it seems possessed of an innate instinct to join groups and condemn strangers. For most of us, that works out fine. We coagulate with individuals who share our beliefs and who do not challenge our traditions. But occasionally you have a person like Shocked who makes a leap from one disparate group to another. That person finds themselves torn by conflicting loyalties and never completely comfortable in either tribe. It's that discomfort, that inner conflict, that I think Shocked was, in her muddling way, trying to address.
It would be nice if we had more than just a jumbled on stage narrative (and follow up apology) to better understand how Shocked relates her Christianity to her views on homosexuality. It turns out we do: in 2008 Shocked discussed the topic at length with gay friendly alternative paper the Dallas Voice. The entire piece is worth reading but perhaps this section can stand as the best clarification of her views:
Dallas Voice isn’t the first publication to ask Shocked how reconciles her faith with her former status as a lesbian. An extensive interview with Canadian Christianity has already connected the dots. About a year ago, Shocked listened to a damning "Adam and Steve" sermon delivered by a visiting minister.
"These were African-Americans who had sat in the back of white Southern churches and read from a Bible that says, ’Slaves obey your masters.’ Knowing that the Bible could be used as a tool of oppression, I couldn’t understand how these people would quote that Bible with same bigoted ignorance and abuse of God’s love for his children," Shocked says.
Later, she spoke to her pastor about it.
"At the time I wasn’t satisfied with the way he parsed it. He said he preaches the word of God - not his word - the word of God. And the word of God says that homosexuality is a sin," Shocked says.
"So I went away, and I made a decision. I could be turned off - driven away once again by narrow-minded bigots from the one hope that I have in my life for salvation. Or I could take what’s good - what I can use - and leave the rest. And that was a decision I made," she says.
To my ear, these comments speak of someone not filled with hate but rather conflicted, contemplative and complex. Like most people.
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Wil Forbis is a
well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending
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