Glitter and Ash Folly

The issue of glitter ash has suddenly become a thing! My first thought was…”how cool is that!” 

My almost immediate second thought was “wow…leave it to the Church to screw up a beautiful thing.”

Some important background...My ministry colleagues and I have been distributing ashes and glitter for 8 years in the Castro District. This strange combination arose very organically from within the community itself. It wasn’t an accident. And it had nothing to do with well intentioned Christian straight people showing solidarity with the community.

It started simply as Ashes to Go…which itself was the subject of some controversy, if I recall, when it first started. After a couple of years of doing this, we forged strong relationships with the drag community in the Castro and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The Sisters have sprinkled glitter for blessing for many years (over 35 to be exact) and in the absence of the church’s love and support, the Sisters have become spiritual and, yes, sacramental heroes in the LGBTQ community. 

It wasn’t long before the Sisters started to join us on Ash Wednesday while we do our street ministry of providing ashes, likewise offering their traditional glitter blessings. The combination of ashes and glitter arose from within the LGBTQ community here, and this is the 6th year we have offered them together.

It is always astounding how many people come to us for one of the other…and many ask for both ashes and glitter. While during the imposition of ashes we state “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” the glitter is offered with a variety of positive and affirming blessings by whomever is offering it. Many come for glitter who simply can’t partake in ashes because of their wounded-ness by the Church…but they come and stand along side those who receive ashes and community is forged. Some who once came for only glitter now ask for both. No one is turned aside, but all are bid welcome…whether to contemplate their mortality or their beloved-ness and life giving beauty. Whether to reconnect with their spiritual roots, or to be reminded of blessing.

I think, in this, that God is not displeased!

Along comes the church. God bless her mess. The “glitter ash” phenomenon within the Church only started this Lent it seems. And I have endured, frankly, some really ridiculous conversations about it flowing for three days across my newsfeed. While glitter ash harkens to what we do in the Castro, it feels wrong. Several words come to mind…condescending being chief among them. This isn’t something that has arisen organically in the Church as much as it seems an empty gesture imposed on those within her walls because it seems welcoming and lovely. This is very different from the street ministry of our beloved Companions who offer a choice, and for whom the glittery blessings of the Sisters has a 35 year history of meaning. The Church can’t really lay claim to this without co-opting something empty of history and meaning to the Church communities they offer it to.

Likewise, it appears that there is no “opting out” with the glitter ash the Church has chosen for this rite. Glitter and ash together reduces the symbolism and power of each, without making the resulting combination any the better or richer for it. 

It also assumes that glitter is an appropriate symbolic gesture for all LGBTQ people. I know from our experience that while there are a good many who wish the double blessing of both ash and glitter in our Castro ministry, many prefer one or the other rather than both. Those who want ashes want them for sacramental reasons. Those who want glitter want it because they have been so excluded from sacramental life that they can’t bring themselves to embrace the traditions of the Church, or because they simply don’t have any religious persuasion at all. 

Glitter ash as proposed by the current trend proposes a difference between gender queer folks and others. There are times and moments when this is not such a bad thing…the differences gender queer people bring to the table should indeed be celebrated. There are ways of doing that without the Church co-opting a symbol of “solidarity” that has nothing to do with solidarity. Trust me, there are million ways to show solidarity with LGBTQ people that have nothing to do with glitter on Ash Wednesday. Mixing glitter into ash isn’t going to make LGBTQ people feel welcome. It may make some people feel solidarity with our community. And others it may simply annoy. There are reasons why in the queer community we often call glitter “drag herpes.” Some folks will still find it in their houses this Christmas.

So…my thoughts are - the Church within her walls should knock it off. LOL

If the Church wants to go out into the streets, into the communities where LGBTQ people have sought refuge, then glitter and/or ashes may be suitable. Or not. But certainly not mixed together, and as gestures with some choice. And some meaning. 

In what other context do you find glitter in Church sacrament or Rite? Ever? We have an abundance of symbols of our faith. Glitter is not one of them. So, for this reason I feel confident that it did not arise organically in the Church. Whether it becomes a lasting durable symbol in our tradition remains to be seen. I doubt it. It lacks context.

Why does it feel like co-opting? Well, partly because the stated goal of said glitter in this particular Rite is to represent resurrection. Light and life and affirmation. Glitter doesn't represent that in the queer context. We aren't unicorns. In the queer context, glitter represents defiance. Grit. It represents fabulous self assertion - and this is important - in the context of persecution! In defiance of laws did queens dress in drag, and perform cabarets. They risked arrest for doing so. And death from violence. In defiance of cultural biases, laws, and animosity LGBTQ people risk being themselves.

Glitter holds no magic for trans folk in general, nor for the lesbian community overall...not that I've ever seen evidence for. Glitter arises from drag culture, and is far from a universal symbol for the broader LGBTQ community. And when it does resonate, it doesn't do so as a symbol of queer culture, as much as the defiance of heteronormative culture...in the midst of criminalization and social stigma. In many cases, perpetuated by the Church! This is what I mean by co-opting symbols. It is not for the Church to take glitter, make it a symbol for our broader queer community, and then use it to feel good about their "solidarity" with us.

I have no doubt the Church wants to do things that reinforce their solidarity, love, support, and atonement for their treatment of the LGBTQ community. But I emphasize this last most importantly. The Church needs to atone. Publicly. And it needs to seek gestures that actually mean something to LGBTQ people. The gesture of glitter ash means nothing without an appreciation for why LGBTQ people don't really want the Church to remind them of their mortality. What good news is it for us that we are all dust, if the good news and hope of God's love isn't made more explicit by a Church that has long withheld it from us?