4 min

Lessons in connection

Moving beyond our places in the pyramids of power

James Loney is my hero. That’s the one-sentence version of how I feel about him.

My intense admiration for him started in March 2006 when he and two other members of the Christian Peacemakers Team (CPT) were rescued, having been held hostage for four months in Iraq.

First he revealed that he was gay. His friends and family and the media had kept his sexuality a secret for fear that if his Iraqi captors knew they would be more likely to kill him.

And then, in spite of what he had been through at the hands of a group of Iraqis, he continued to speak out against the Iraq invasion and the suffering of the Iraqi people.

He has protested the use of security certificates, which allow the Canadian government to detain or deport foreign nationals who are considered to be “security threats.” He has refused to testify against his captors, because he does not believe they stand a chance of a fair trial.

Loney came to Vancouver to speak at the Interfaith Summer Institute for Justice, Peace and Social Movements in August, in between Pride and the queer film fest. I wish that just as many queers had come to hear him speak as marched in the parade or ate popcorn and watched movies.

The Summer Institute focused on the ways in which religion and spirituality can be tools for peace, as opposed to being the source of conflict. I think it’s fair to say that most queers are leery of organized religion. Religion has been used to justify hatred and demonization and violence. It has been a source of internalized shame and fear for many of us who grew up in religious families. It’s difficult to think of it as a tool of peace and freedom.

And yet, here is Loney, a gay Catholic activist for peace, for equal distribution of wealth and for human rights.

In 2005 he travelled to Iraq for the third time as part of the CPT’s effort to document and publicize the abuse of detainees. A few days later, he and three other Peacemakers were taken hostage.

Loney spent 118 days in a small, gloomy room, shackled to the other captives except for brief breaks to go to the bathroom or exercise. He didn’t know whether or not he would survive (one of the hostages, the American Tom Fox, was murdered before their release).

How could anyone emerge from this experience not bitter? Not furious? Not full of hatred for the people who had abducted him and who had been ready to kill him?

In Vancouver this summer, Loney spoke about his belief that we are transformed by our encounters with those whom we consider to be “the other.” If we can find connection between ourselves and those who are not like us, we get closer to our “true selves” —as opposed to the masks we usually show the world.

Not only that, but we are able to see other people more clearly. Loney’s belief in the transformational power of connection grew even stronger during his time in captivity. He saw how his captors were also trapped —by the war, by their participation in violence. The more he acknowledged their suffering, the more his own was eased.

I remembered Loney last week when a man told me that when he was coming out in the 1970s he saw a news report about gay people that showed a parade of drag queens. The reporter was telling people what freaks gay people were.

What stays in this man’s mind is not how awful it is that the drag queens were ridiculed by the reporter, but how unfortunate it is that straight people don’t realize that most gays and lesbians are just “normal.”

I keep being surprised by the number of gays and lesbians who feel this way: I must show the world that I am not like the drag queens and the SM folks and the other weirdos. I must prove that I am just like everyone else —ie just like the people in power.

Loney says that this way of thinking traps us in the pyramid; he means the pyramid shape that characterizes most of our social interactions. In a pyramid, a very few people are at the top and most people are on the bottom, but we learn that we should fight to get as close as we can to the top, which involves climbing over others.

There are many different pyramids, and each of us is at different positions in different pyramids. Loney was at the bottom of the pyramid that was controlled by his captors in Iraq. But as a young, white, able-bodied Canadian man, he is at the top of many other pyramids. Likewise, his captors, citizens of a country invaded by the United States, had little power and suffered a great deal.

I wish more queers had come to hear Loney speak, because we can take his response to an extreme situation and apply it to interactions in our own communities. Loney managed to think about his relationship to his captors in a complicated way, and in the process learned more about himself. Surely we can find ways to connect with other queers, no matter how alien they may seem.

I don’t mean that we should realize “we’re all the same underneath.” I mean that we can expand our ideas about who belongs to our communities.

Loney managed to see the ways in which he had power even while he was in shackles. Surely at the same time as we recognize our oppression as queers, we can acknowledge that some of us have power because of being male, or white, or rich.

Instead of striving to be accepted as normal by the mainstream or fighting to be crowned as the most oppressed group within the queer community, we can build honest relationships based on a more complex understanding of ourselves and others.