Off the Binary: Encountering Transgender Realities

Off the Binary: Encountering Transgender Realities

When I first met *Schuylar, they were between pronouns. Not quite “she” and not quite “he,” Schuylar was a young person trying to figure a lot out. I wanted to be kind and understanding – I wanted to really understand – but I’d never known someone live and in person for whom gender was such a struggle. I was confused. Their experience baffled me. It didn’t fit the way I understood the Bible, myself, or anyone else. I didn’t know what “right” or “healthy” or “good” meant in this context, and I didn’t have a clue what their experience meant for the community we shared, though I realized it was no small thing.

A friend of mine, a respected Christian leader, recently noted that he sees “transgender issues” as the next big cultural hot button. He’s a thoughtful and compassionate man, so though he tends to have a more traditional perspective on sexuality, I know he is genuine in his desire to listen well, understand more, and respond with love.

I know a lot of folks much like him – much like me where I was several years ago. People who at their best are baffled and confused about the idea of someone being transgender, and who at their worst feel only fear or anger.

The fear and anger hurt everybody. I’m grateful for those who helped me find a way past it.

Several trans friends have shared their lives and journeys with me, and taught me much about myself as both an individual and as a woman. But when I met Schuylar, I hadn’t begun that journey.

One thing Schuylar talked about a lot was their discomfort with gender norms. The toys and clothes they wanted, the things they wanted to do – they understood those were somehow wrong. And yet the things they were given and were supposed to like? Those were the things that felt all wrong. As Schuylar talked about it, this seemed like a big part of what made their gender confusing for them.

And I could relate to a point. Growing up, gender norms had never neatly fit me. Much as I wanted my hair to be long, I got very stubborn when one grandma wanted me to have a girlier hair style. I didn’t like dolls very much; I preferred stuffed animals of all genders. I gravitated towards playing with boys more than girls, and once school started, the girls baffled me. I crashed the boys’ game of kickball at recess when they would let me, and when they wouldn’t, largely played by myself. As I got older, the way I thought and related was a closer fit to male stereotypes, and females as a whole continued to confuse me.

But as early as I can remember, those things never made me question my gender. I was a girl, and if someone thought girls didn’t do something that I did, that was clearly nonsense, since I was a girl and I did! I liked being a girl (and as I grew, a woman). I didn’t always like how people treated me because I was a girl (or woman), but that wasn’t a problem with me and my femaleness. That was a problem with them.

It never occurred to me to question my gender, and that made Schuylar’s experience confusing for me. Was Schuylar’s struggle just a different, more extreme reaction to social gender norms that didn’t fit? Or was something more going on?

As I’ve gotten to know more trans friends, I’ve learned their stories can be significantly different. So many different things impact how they’ve understood themselves throughout their lives, and some of their stories helped me grasp just how different their experience of their bodies is from mine.

One friend says that as early as she can remember, “I didn’t think there was anything wrong with being a boy, I just knew I wasn’t one.” A friend from seminary who has since transitioned told me how exhausting, depressing, and even traumatizing it had been for her all those decades to get up every morning and “zip on my man-suit.”

That struck me. The masculine characteristics of her body had always been foreign to her. As familiar with them as she was – she’d never known life without them after all – they nonetheless always remained other. And beyond the personal difficulty of dealing with a body that did not match who she is, that body also brought with it a host of social norms and expectations that also didn’t fit who she is.

The idea of “zipping into a suit” every morning, it’s a vivid picture. It’s a suit that covers everything, hiding a person completely. Trapping and suffocating them. Knowing her now that she is free to be the beautiful woman she is, the effects of that suit on the friend I knew in seminary is obvious.

It’s a given for most of us that – love them or hate them – how we feel about our bodies isn’t what determines our gender. For us, the idea of looking for a newborn’s genitals and proclaiming, “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!” only reflects the most obvious facts in the world. It’s not complicated – it’s always worked for us. Our bodies are ours, and whether we feel good about what we see in the mirror or not, we recognize them at a deep level.

But in reality, it’s far more complicated than it may seem. And it is those for whom it doesn’t work who pierce the assumptions life has allowed the rest of us to live so easily with.

The assumptions life allowed me to live so easily with before I met people who couldn’t live with them.

*not their real name

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To Be a Woman

To Be a Woman

In 6th grade, I was an outcast.

It was nothing new; it’d been that way for several years by then. By 4th grade, the girls in my class at the Christian day school we attended had decided I was unworthy, and it stuck. As an adult I came to understand that I was their scapegoat – they projected all their own fears of rejection on me and cast me outside the camp. But at the time, I just knew that they despised me.

I didn’t wear the right clothes, or look the right way. I didn’t care about the things they cared about. I thought the things they cared about were silly and did little to hide it. (That didn’t exactly help.)

But I longed for friends. I was living as an introvert, quite contrary to my nature, and I longed to be seen – for my companionship to be enjoyed simply because I was myself.

One day at school, while a group of us were working on a special project, a couple of the girls included me in their play. They were braiding each other’s hair and trying different styles, and they began to brush my long hair and pull it into a complicated kind of ponytail, a new style for me to try.

I loved it. I felt alive. Part of the reason girls play with each other’s hair is because it can feel so good and be so relaxing. The pull of a brush, the tug of braiding, the focus of attention. It’s an intimacy, allowing another to shape your appearance, however impermanently.

I thought that, for whatever reason, the wall had cracked and a friendship had begun with these girls. I wasn’t so thoroughly on the outside anymore.

Then, as we were rejoining the rest of the class, one of them said something about the other girls maybe liking me now, with my new hair style, and it all came clear. I had merely been their project, an object of their pity. They wanted to change me so I would be more acceptable.

I fought back tears as I pulled that carefully worked ponytail apart.

I had nothing against the hair style, but I wanted to be wanted for who I was. Not because I’d changed something to fit in.

I became possibly the first of the hipsters in that moment in the early 80s. If it was popular, “in,” I despised it. And when the girls adopted something trendy – neon sweatshirts or black lipstick – I despised them for it.

There was little I understood about those girls, or most females really – particularly in groups. And while there were and are women in my life I love and respect and even like, I avoid groups and activities for women like the plague. There is nothing more likely to make me feel like the only alien on the planet.

But when I went to the Women’s March a year ago this weekend, I didn’t feel that way.

I didn’t go as part of any organized group, though there were many represented, and it didn’t matter. I hadn’t even particularly planned on going. I was meeting an old friend for breakfast that morning and had thought I could maybe go downtown to the march when we were done. He ended up deciding to go too, and by the time we got to the area, the Chicago march had been officially canceled due to the crowds. But it didn’t change anything.

The streets were filled with women of all ages and colors and sizes. A sprinkling of men were there too, most carrying daughters or pushing strollers. The signs made it clear that there were many concerns represented – all of the things women care about. Though the most common sign, “Keep your hands off my pussy!”, referenced the bragging claim of the recently elected president and asserted a woman’s self-possession. Her possession of a fully human self, with all the rights of dignity and self-determination that entails.

And for once, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of women, I didn’t feel like an alien. I felt no pressure – explicit or implicit – to fit anyone else’s idea of what it means to be acceptable as a girl, as a woman.

All I had to do was show up, as a woman, for other women.

And I marched, for hours up and down the streets of Chicago.

I marched for the women I know who were and are afraid every day. The women who are afraid because of the color of their children’s skin. The women who are afraid to go to a public bathroom, afraid they will be harassed or attacked because they don’t fit someone’s idea of what a woman looks like.

I marched for the women who are my neighbors, who are afraid their families will be torn apart by deportations. I marched for my nieces and great-nieces, for the daughters of friends, so that they would never believe that any man has the right to their body. I marched for the dignity and equality of my sisters. I marched for every little girl who doesn’t fit.

I marched for a lot of women I love who hated the very idea of that march.

I marched because we don’t have to fit anybody else’s idea of what it means to be a woman.

This weekend, women around the country marched again. Women around the country are running for office. Women around the country (and the world) are speaking up against harassment and abuse and their own silence in the face of the assumptions of men.

They aren’t marching because they can’t deal with these things – women have for millennia been figuring out how to deal with these things. How to survive. They, we, are marching because no woman should have to deal with these things.

And no woman should ever have to fit anyone else’s idea of what it looks like to be a woman.

The Luxury of Time

The Luxury of Time

“People need time to adjust.”

Time to change. Time to learn. Time to get used to new ideas, new things.

I’ve heard it over and over again, especially in the church, and especially from people who are concerned with community – with the connections we have across difference and disagreement.

I’ve heard it when we talk about trans folks having the freedom to use the bathroom that best fits their identity (instead of being harassed or attacked if they try to use the one that matches their birth certificate). I’ve heard it when we talk about gay marriage. I’ve heard it when we talk about white privilege and the systemic discrimination people of color face in churches and society.

And it’s true. Change does take time. None of us leapfrog to new things. We get there one step at a time.

The problem is that when we appeal for time for people to adjust to something new, we’re privileging those for whom the status quo is not a problem. People who didn’t (don’t) see the need for change on their own are already privileged, even if they rarely recognize that reality. Those of us with power and privilege can rarely see what they we have. It feels normal to us, and we naturally assume that what is normal to us is also normal for others. It’s just “how the world works.”

But the world may work radically different for someone else, and it is radically different for people who are different from me.

I began to realize that in my late twenties when I lived in North Carolina. It was a time of dramatic change as North Carolina had the fastest growing Hispanic population in the country. Immigrants from Mexico were flowing into the state, and some smaller communities were reeling as their Spanish-speaking population increased from near zero to 20% or more in only a few years. That’s radical change.

In the area where I lived, the impacts were focused in a few neighborhoods, one of them already the most struggling neighborhood in town. It had quickly shifted to being roughly a third Hispanic, a third black, and a third white (mostly aging folks in homes they’d owned for decades). Friends of mine from church bought a home in there and enrolled their daughter in the local school. Several of us met in their home weekly and started to get involved in the community and the schools there.

It didn’t take long at all for my illusions about equality of opportunity and access to get blown out of the water. Black and Hispanic neighbors both, for somewhat different reasons, faced discrimination and barriers beyond what I’d imagined. I knew poverty – our family had struggled to make ends meet when I was growing up. But this was beyond poverty. These folks’ lives were so very different than mine.

The change they are waiting for is us.

The world works pretty well for us already, and we don’t want that to change. So we’re content for it not too until they can convince us there’s a problem, and that it’s not a problem of their own making, to the standards of our assumptions about how things are.

Because we can afford to take the time.

Even if they can’t.

Learning takes time. Changing takes time. Journeys happen one step at a time. I took the time; I walked – and sometimes ran – each step; and I’m still learning.

But when we make our learning and our comfort the criteria for change desperately needed by those who are vulnerable? That is the epitome of perpetuating and protecting our privilege.

A friend of mine who is a pastor recently related the words of a parent whose teenager had come out to them: “I suppose I should have cared enough when it was other people’s children.”

When we take our time, it always costs someone who can’t afford it.

The Worst Resolution

The Worst Resolution

“Never change. Never, never change.”

I heard it all the time growing up from my pastor, a respected leader who preached the same message – if a different sermon – three times a week, and wore a navy blue, double-breasted suit every single day for decades.

He was resolved, and it was the worst resolution.

It seemed to suit his personality not to change, as it suited his theology and philosophy. For Dr. R., truth was an objective absolute, a straightforward proposition. Once you found it, that was that. It was settled. So find it, base your life on it, and “never change.”

If you grant the premise, it makes all the sense in the world. It would be the safest way to live well if reality worked that way.

But it never made much sense to me.

There’s no learning, no growth, no life without change. Change defines healthy life in every context. And when change stops…well, that’s death.

The turn of the year, 2017 to 2018, has me remembering his words. I had lunch on New Year’s Eve with old friends who knew him as well, and the question came up, “What happened? What went wrong in the mega church and extensive ministry he built and led?” It’s all gone now.

“Never change.”

Change isn’t always good. “Change for change’s sake” is not a good idea (except when it is). But to reject change for its own sake is a path to certain stagnation and death.

Changing one’s mind is rarely easy. It can be incredibly difficult to let go of beliefs and assumptions that have defined the world for you. The things that have given us the bearings we need to make good decisions with confidence, to live and feel secure about our lives. Those beliefs are often entwined with so much of our lives and pulling them is messy work that can leave us feeling unmoored and unsure of what our new reality will be grounded in.

But learning requires changing our minds, and learning also requires an openness to change. It nearly always involves being able to let go of something I believed, something I imagined to be true, in order to embrace newly discovered truth.

And that’s a moving target. Because if there is something, anything, that could in any way be accurately described as absolute and unchanging truth, it is so unknowably vast that our meanderings through it will feel ever changing. We can’t grasp the whole, and so we’re always unlearning and learning. Always learning to see anew. Always changing in response to what we’ve seen.

The “immutability” (unchangeableness) of God never made a lot of sense to me either. It’s an idea of perfection from Greek philosophy that was imported into and imposed upon the Jewish thinking of the biblical writers. The Bible shows us a God fully engaged, arguing with his people and changing his mind. A Jesus who learned and grew. That God engages people in real ways, relates as a person who thinks and feels and whose thoughts and feelings change. The God who “does not change” in the Bible has a consistent character that does not change but is progressively revealed and understood more clearly.

We’re still at that – understanding the character of God more clearly. It has the power to transform our lives and our hearts if we are open to it – the change that each new year, each new day holds out. Ever learning and growing and expanding our hearts.

Ever changing.