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my cultural inheritance: white, gay, and christian

January 27th, 2004 by Jason · No Comments

A series of men responded to the want-ad my mother placed in Outfront, Denver’s gay and lesbian newspaper, looking for an intelligent, good looking man who was willing to be a sperm donor. However, my father was not found through the ad, but was referred to my mom through a mutual acquaintance. Michael Taylor, my father, fit the bill, and was willing to donate his sperm without claiming rights to the child it would produce. Nine months later, on July 15, 1980, I was born to Marge Rust, a lesbian psychologist who had challenged the sexist attitudes of her time by getting a PhD from the University of Michigan. In having me, her first child, she continued to challenge the social norms by becoming one of the first lesbian mothers seeking to raise a family on her own. The culture clashes surrounding my birth were only the first of many with which I would wrestle. The primary cultures by which I am significantly shaped are the white American, liberal gay, and evangelical Christian cultures.

Though many of my cultural values are present only in my immediate family, there are some which stretch through the generations. Our family history and the culture around which we oriented ourselves was not talked about explicitly, however. What makes the Rust family unique; what traditions, values, and practices are present throughout the generations have never been easy for me to define. In fact, it took a good deal of introspection and conversations with other family members to begin to get a grasp on our family narrative. Perhaps two of the strongest trans-generational cultural values of our family are the American concepts of self-motivation and success measured through achievements. My great-grandfather was a man with a sharp intellect who made a successful living as a back doctor and inventor of chiropractic tools. Hard work also characterizes my grandmother who prides herself in having organized the Chattanooga, Tennessee science fair for over fifty years. My great Uncle Tom was a successful vice-president of a large oil company and my other uncle has a doctorate in computer science. Growing up I remember being proud and in awe of the fact that my mother had gotten a doctorate in psychology. Thus, I never doubted that I would go to college and that higher education was both attainable and desirable. The primary factors that made one successful were hard work and self-motivation. I believed that other factors such as race, gender, social status, or nationality could be overcome if one tried hard enough. However, I was not aware that all of these factors were stacked in my favor, making the task of attaining a good education and career much easier.

The other value passed on from my larger family, success through measurable achievements, was a large motivator in nearly all I did. Though I had no aspirations of becoming a doctor myself, I nonetheless found great joy and continued motivation in getting a good report card. I kept nearly all of my soccer trophies growing up, no matter how small or insignificant, because they were a tangible measure of success. However, I did not thoroughly embrace these values of hard work and achievement oriented success from the beginning. It was not until my 6th grade year, when we moved to Europe to work for the military, that these values really took root. The military culture provided a space where these values were rewarded because the competing distractions of drugs, mischief, and counter-cultural values that had been prevalent in Denver were nearly nonexistent in the military.

During our time with the military another major culture-shift occurred. I became a disciple of Jesus. While my mother wanted to pass on the strong Christian faith of her mother and grandmother to me, she was wrestling with it herself, and thus there was little talk about God growing up. It was shortly after moving to Naples, Italy in 7th grade that I became a Christian during an evangelical winter camp. Not long after I remember having a heated argument with one of my newfound Christian friends about homosexuality. He was adamant that it was a grievous sin, and I was just as adamant that it was a normal lifestyle not to be judged. I had grown up all my life around gay people. It was a given that being gay was normal and morally right. I now found myself desperately trying to straddle the two cultures, all the while trying to hide this struggle. I couldn’t let my Christian friends know that my mother and father were gay; this was the don’t ask, don’t tell era. I was afraid to ask my mom what to think about the issue, because I found myself becoming convinced by the Christians. She, of course, did eventually find out that I was beginning to waver on my commitment to the goodness of the gay culture in which I had been raised. Arguments erupted and continued off and on throughout high school and college. I flip-flopped back and forth on the issue over the years, becoming convinced it was wrong during the school-year overseas and then changing my mind when we went back to Denver for the summers where my mom would arrange for me to talk with a gay pastor about the issue.

This tension between the liberal gay culture of my mother and childhood and the conservative Christian culture of my adolescence profoundly influenced my faith. I am a perpetual doubter. Because I know, respect, and love people from both of these cultures who have opposite convictions on many aspects of Christianity I find myself unable to believe an idea without wrestling over and over with it. This has become an equal, if not greater, motivator for pursuing a seminary education than my desire to accomplish something worthwhile.

Another cultural value which I inherited from my immediate family, but which my Christian faith continues to challenge, is individualism. Growing up, I knew that my mom had broken family and societal norms, for example with the issue of homosexuality, because this and other issues were not to be brought up with others who had different convictions. I came to believe that the individual and his or her preferences and values were more important than those of the family or society. My mom had rejected much of her conservative, southern upbringing and similarly, when I became a Christian, I found myself rejecting several of my mother’s liberal values. It was not until my college years that I was challenged in my belief that my values and preferences should be the primary basis for choosing actions and beliefs. I began to realize that the Christian faith demands loyalty not just to God, but also to a group of people, the church. The people of my church have a claim on my life, and I cannot leave my local church just because it no longer suits my preferences.

Not all my cultural values were challenged by my Christian faith, rather some were strengthened by it. Egalitarianism, especially between males and females, is one prime example. Though I would visit my dad occasionally, my mom was the leader, organizer, and motivator of all aspects of our family life. Thus, when I encountered the idea in my conservative Christian friends that women were below men in some sense I argued against it vigorously, albeit blindly. However, in college I discovered that the Christian faith has a strong tradition of egalitarianism. Nonetheless, my leanings towards egalitarianism put me in awkward situations more than a few times. For example, my first girlfriend in high school was a traditionalist who believed that men should treat women differently than men by opening doors, letting ladies go first, etc. My mom had always taught our family that these were outdated forms of sexism, but now I found myself having to learn the appropriate forms of male-female interaction if I wanted to keep dating my girlfriend.

The egalitarianism I learned at home also extended to my view of other races. Not only did we travel extensively while overseas, but my sister, Amanda, was adopted from Guatemala. However, I now realize we perhaps did not have enough dialog about the fact that Amanda was from a different race and culture. I believed that seeing all peoples and cultures as equal meant seeing them as all the same. I have discovered only recently that to treat peoples equally is to value and discuss the different perspectives and narratives they bring to a relationship.

Another cultural value which I was taught young and which was underscored by my Christian faith was simplicity of lifestyle. Though we were by no means poor my family emphasized the value of frugality and resisting materialism. This was one value where the larger American white culture, which emphasizes consumerism and upward mobility as the means to happiness, did not mesh with my family’s values. For example, when we went out to eat getting a drink was an option only on very special occasions. While Jesus’ teachings on money reinforced the idea that materialism should be resisted, I had to unlearn one aspect of my view of money. As an individualist I believed my money was just that: mine. It was to be used carefully for those things I considered necessary. This made generosity and tithing difficult. I still continually remind myself that my money is not mine, but God’s, and that this absurd practice, by American cultural standards, of giving a large portion of it away is a required discipline for the Christian.

The values of frugality, self-motivation, and individualism are not culture- neutral. However, for much of my life I have believed that what my values were not inherited from a larger culture. Specifically, I did not think I was particularly influenced by any sort of white American culture. I think this is largely because it is the dominant culture in America, and thus it has been far easier to see myself as normal and ignore the specifically white American underpinnings of many of my values and assumptions about the world, others, and myself. And even though I have lived in countries in which I was a minority, the impact of that experience was largely lost because my social life revolved around the military base. And while I was raised in a milieu of competing cultures which did not allow me to absorb any one culture completely I have been surprised to see how influential the gay, white, and Christian cultures have been upon my life. Recognizing the ways in which I am a cultural being is certainly a first step in understanding myself. And hopefully this will also be the first step in befriending, ministering to, and serving those from a different culture than myself.

Tags: life