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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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.

To Belong

To Belong

The spaces that belong to you are not always the spaces where you belong.

The green carpeted floor underneath the ash pews in the church I was born in. That space belongs to me. Full of “aunts” and “uncles” and friends like Patty and Garrett (the first boy who ever proposed to me – we were maybe five), a community  I’d never known life without. People who knew my father before his illness and death, who knew my parents before their marriage.

That space is mine in the way only the place you were born can be. It accepted you for no reason beyond your existence.

The university campus I grew up on, a kid running more or less wild after the 3:00 school bell, playing games of tag with my brother and his friend that ranged through the several city blocks of interconnected campus buildings. Exploring roofs and nooks and crannies forgotten by all but the cleaning crew. There are few places on earth I will ever know so well, from the inside out.

Full of people who watched me grow up, who surrounded our family from its initial blending when my mother’s remarriage brought me a new step-father and two brothers, through my stepfather’s cancer and death, and then Mom’s second remarriage. People who saw and didn’t see.

This space is mine in the way places you grew up are, especially when that growing up was such a profound suffering.

But even then, there were signs I didn’t belong. Growing up I found my home in the stacks of the campus library and, as early as junior high, with the theater majors – the most classic of misfits. (The fact that I was socialized by fundamentalist Baptist theater majors may explain a lot.)

It wasn’t until my early thirties, when I moved back to the small Bible college campus where my parents had met and I’d spent my earliest years that it came clear.

My office was my mother’s old dorm room, and my apartment was in the same building where my aunt and uncle had started married life. I was working with family and people who’d know my parents, and in hallways and classrooms where as a kindergartner I’d made friends of faculty and students and watched weekly missionary slideshows from all over the world.

These were spaces that belonged to me, but I didn’t fit. Over the four years I lived and worked there it became increasingly plain that I didn’t belong. No one told me, or did anything to make me feel that way – just the opposite, in fact. I was embraced and loved. But there was no place there for the questions I was asking. I was trying to grow, but the light wasn’t right there, and the soil.

I didn’t fit.

In retrospect, I never really had.

Where do you go when the spaces that belong to you, that you know, are not where you belong?

I went exploring. Not randomly, but in directions that seemed hopeful, through spaces that, while they weren’t where I belonged either, took me to more possibilities. I learned to follow Jesus beyond what I could see and to trust him with all I could not understand.

I left the land of my birth (there is no story without leaving home) to go to a land he would show me. Had I known twenty years ago where the journey would take me, I would have rejected it. If it led there, it could not be from God. But I learned to trust each step more than where I thought they might lead. I learned to listen beyond my assumptions and assertions. I learned to trust the questions I did not have answers to.

Every family and tribe has its own culture, and every time we leave home, we have a choice. We can carry the whole turtle shell with us, or we can learn to live in other people’s spaces, with other people’s cultures, languages, ways.

Perhaps the challenge of love is to let yourself belong somewhere that doesn’t belong to you. In a place you weren’t born into, that was not the space that shaped your growing up.

I live in those spaces now. I worship in those spaces. I learn in those spaces. I listen in those spaces. I share myself in those spaces.

Some of them, like my Episcopal Church family, are full of traditions and ways I will never fully understand. There are ways I don’t fit (Baptist edges don’t all quite wear down), but I belong. Others of them, like the LGBTQ+ community, are chosen spaces – created out of the needs of those who in certain ways didn’t fit the families and communities and churches that belong to them by right of birth. They have traditions, but they are younger traditions, still growing and expanding (not always gracefully). There are ways I don’t fit (my straight orientation and cisgender are not things I get to choose), but I belong.

These are not my spaces and never should be. I have no right to try to shape them to fit me. But they have shaped me, and I have found that I belong.

The spaces where you belong are not always spaces that belong to you. And maybe that can be a good thing. Maybe even the best thing.

Speaking Out

Speaking Out

Last night I sang my first karaoke song ever. At church. (Another story!)

For me, it was something that, if I was ever going to do it, I just had to do it – sort of like jumping off the end of a diving board into cold water. At some point you have to stop thinking about it and thinking about how scary it is and just hit go.

The song I picked is one I know inside out – it got me through Junior High! Barry Manilow’s “I Made It Through the Rain.”

We dreamers have our ways

Of facing rainy days

And somehow we survive

We keep the feelings warm

Protect them from the storm

Until our time arrives

Then one day the sun appears

And we come shining through those lonely years

I made it through the rain

I kept my world protected

I made it thought the rain

I kept my point of view

I made it through the rain

And found myself respected

By the others who

Got rained on too

And made it through

As I sang those lyrics, I realized how true it’s become of my life.

Last Tuesday evening was significant for me. I was right where I’ve been every first Tuesday for going on three years now – attending OUTspoken at Sidetrack, Chicago’s monthly LGBTQ storytelling night in Boystown. Chicago has a vibrant storytelling scene (think The Moth – true stories told live), but in the midst of all the amazing storytelling events every month, OUTspoken stands out. Members of the LGBTQ community share their stories. Sometime those stories are from fifty years ago and sometimes they’re from yesterday. Sometimes they’re funny and sometimes they’re painful and sometimes they’re both and sometimes they’re really hard to listen to and sometimes they’re full of joy.

They are always beautiful.

They’re stories of lives that have been ignored and attacked and demonized and condemned and have found a way to live anyway, from voices that have been shamed and dismissed and silenced and yet still speak out. OUTspoken is a powerful, sacred space where those lives are celebrated and those voices honored.

I have always felt honored and humbled to hear those stories. They are gifts of courage and they have shown me how to be more deeply human and often given me wisdom to navigate my own life.

But last Tuesday, I was on the other side of the mic.

The invitation to tell my own story in that space was one of the greatest honors I’ve ever been given. It was only the second time OUTspoken has had a night of “ally” storytellers, and it would have been an amazing evening had I only been sitting in the audience. My fellow storytellers told remarkable, beautiful stories. But to share some of my own journey….

It wasn’t easy. I spent months thinking about it and working on the words I wanted to offer in this space that doesn’t belong to me and yet nonetheless is so special to me. Storytelling is about so much more than telling a story; it’s about sharing our lives and ourselves. When I tell a story, I’m offering my own sliver of the human experience, and those who receive it offer kinship. The recognition that, yes! in all our individual peculiarities we really do belong to each other.

Storytelling is creating (or finding) a kind of chosen family – something the LGBTQ community has had to do by cruel necessity, but which is deeply valuable far beyond that necessity. Kinship destroys the illusion of us and them while honoring the difference of me and you. We don’t have to be alike to belong to each other, to recognize each other. To recognize and respect the others who got rained on too and made it through.

I told my story, and I received so much more than I could give. A beautiful introduction that said, “You belong here!” The attentiveness of folks who wanted to know what brought me there. The warm laughter of connection. More hugs than I could count. And the generosity of thank-yous I don’t deserve from the very people who taught me how to be brave enough to speak out.

What If I’m Wrong? (About LGBTQ+ Inclusion)

What If I’m Wrong? (About LGBTQ+ Inclusion)

“But what if you’re wrong?”

It’s the question that characterized the religious context I lived most of my life in more than maybe any other. It has its corollary in, “Are you sure you’re right?” and both questions brought into focus what was most important to that community, and by extension to God: we dare not risk being wrong. If in doubt, err on the side of caution. Countless preachers urged us not to trust them, but to “search the Scriptures” for ourselves. It wasn’t a responsibility to be passed on to anyone else.

We wanted to be faithful – to love God and obey him and stay as far from sin as possible. The constant questioning of ourselves, of our motives and our thinking, was meant to keep us safe.

More often it kept me frozen – “But what if you’re wrong?”

That question was never more present or profound to me as it was in the days and months when I began to intentionally explore the “issue” of LGBTQ+ Christians.

It was actually the very question that drove me to ask more – “But what if I’m wrong?” I’d been raised by folk for whom that subject was settled absolutely. The Bible was “clear,” and sex was created for marriage between a man and a woman. Period. And they didn’t just believe that, they argued for it loudly and publicly, vehemently attacking the “gay agenda” and “gay lifestyle.”

And while the methods often felt misguided to me, I shared the underlying conviction and straightforward sexual ethic.

But…what if we were wrong? What if, as much as we were seeking to be faithful, there was something we were missing?

I’d been in churches that welcomed those who “struggled with same-sex attraction” in non-coercive ways that were full of grace and patience and hope (and I’d received much healing in various areas of my own life in those communities), but what if there was more? What if we were still missing something?

So when I was introduced to a community of people who were working to build bridges between the LGBTQ+ community and conservative evangelical churches, I got involved. I asked lots of questions of pastors who’d had a change of heart and mind, and I listened to scores of stories from LGBTQ+ people. Some of those stories were told publicly, and some of them were entrusted to me privately. They all changed me.

I realized something was very much missing – we were not loving real people, with their real lives that don’t neatly fit our “biblical” prescriptions. It wasn’t an “issue” for me anymore, it was people. I heard too many stories of rejection by families, condemnation by church communities, and suicide attempted. (The stories of successful suicides are all second hand.)

I was introduced to a very different reality than I’d seen before: the ugly, deeply rotten fruit of traditional church teachings on sexuality. And when the fruit is persistently bad, something is terribly wrong with the tree. Something needs to be reconsidered or even thrown out altogether.

But…what if I was wrong? I’d studied the biblical texts – original languages and contexts. I knew that there were good arguments that those texts decrying same-sex sexual activities shouldn’t be read in the traditional ways. But those arguments weren’t water-tight. They raised questions, but didn’t seem conclusive.

My mind and heart had shifted, but these different possibilities in the text felt shaky to stand on. I could never be sure I was right about them.

I found a mentor in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was deeply committed to non-violence and yet entered into a plot to assassinate Hitler. He was captured and executed a few weeks before Nazi regime collapsed.

In his vast writings on Christian ethics, Bonhoeffer observes that there are times when what is required to keep your conscience clear and what is required to love your neighbor contradict. In that contradiction, it is better to bear guilt yourself in order to love your neighbor.

As I looked at the lives of my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters who had found acceptance and affirmation of all of who they are in affirming churches (and more importantly, in their own hearts before God), I saw the fruit of their lives blossoming – love, joy, peace, patience, compassion, goodness, faithfulness, self-control. 

Looking at the life of Jesus, I realized that maybe we’d been missing the point. Jesus was far more concerned with loving people than with getting it “right” – or even with them getting it right. The Samaritan woman at the well who was concerned about the right way to worship God. Hungry disciples on a Sabbath walk through a wheat field. A woman condemned by the religious leaders for adultery. Outsiders casting out demons in his name.

Even if I was wrong, if I was missing something, I was no longer willing to risk their lives on the altar of being right, whatever the cost to me.

I’ve never regretted that decision. And as time has passed, I have only become more convinced that God’s heart for his LGBTQ+ children is love and complete affirmation and inclusion in the community of his followers. He has called them “clean” and we are in defiance of his Spirit when we insist otherwise.

I don’t believe I’m wrong. But if I am? LGBTQ+ folk are being invited into the embrace of the love of God, and his Spirit is quite capable of guiding them into any change he desires, regardless of their sexuality and/or orientation. If I am wrong? LGBTQ+ youth in our churches will know they can live, loved as they are by God and his people.

If I am wrong? Their lives are worth it.

Let Your Yea Be Yea

Let Your Yea Be Yea

A couple of weeks ago, over the course of two days, pretty much everyone in the church felt betrayed by Eugene Peterson, a man whose life and work as a pastor has deeply impacted and formed so many of us. He is a prolific writer, and everything I’ve ever read from him – whether it was about discipleship, or theology, or ministry, or even his translation of the Bible, The Message – came out of a pastor’s heart. As I worked on my own Master of Divinity degree and considered my own work in pastoring (something that, while I’ve never held the title, I’ve found is nonetheless part of my life), Eugene Peterson has been a significant model for me.

On Wednesday, Peterson affirmed that if he were pastoring today he would perform a same-sex marriage if asked to by Christians of good faith, and millions of Christians who are convinced the Bible condemns same-sex relationships felt betrayed. On Thursday, he reversed that affirmation, and LGBTQI+ believers who have fought for their faith felt betrayed.

Between Wednesday and Thursday, LifeWay Christian stores threatened to stop carrying all of his books, including The Message. LifeWay is the largest Christian bookstore chain in the country and is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. “LifeWay only carries resources in our stores by authors who hold to the biblical view of marriage,” they said, by which they mean “our interpretation of the biblical view of marriage.” LifeWay has a lot of weight, and they are willing to throw it around.

And on Thursday, Peterson retracted his earlier statement, saying, “To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.”

I can only imagine what it is to be Eugene Peterson, and I don’t know why he did what he did. He’s 84 and has spent his lifetime trying to live faithfully as a pastor and a pastor of pastors. I continue to love him, and respect him in many ways.

But he doesn’t get a pass from me on this. I don’t expect him to be perfect, and I don’t expect him to have everything figured out. But I do expect him to take responsibility for his words. All of them.

Particularly their pastoral implications on the real lives of real people who are rejected and ostracized by the church every day.

When I was in grade school, I was the opposite of popular. I was bullied – overtly rejected and ostracized day in and day out. The other girls weren’t interested in playing with me, didn’t even want to be seen with me. But my parents were friends with some of their parents, and most of us went to church together. When our families were visiting, or we were alone for some reason, some of them would play with me. We would have a good time together. Sometimes they even seemed to actually like me – for a little while. Then we would be back at school and it was like those times never happened.

There was one girl in particular – she was one of the most popular. We both had to walk to where we would wait for our parents every day after school. We weren’t allowed to walk alone, and she agreed to let me walk with her, but told me I had to walk half a block behind or in front of her so she wouldn’t be seen with me. Once we arrived, we’d play and have fun together while we waited, but not if any other friends were around.

After college, I found myself at the same church with her, and we became friends. I asked her about it once. She didn’t even remember any of the things that were so painful to me. “All I remember,” she said, “is how afraid I was they would reject me.”

It gave me a certain sympathy for her – she’d been a child acting out of her own insecurities. She was too afraid of what others would think to be a friend to me, and she let those who would reject her control how she treated me, the one who was rejected every day.

Eugene Peterson is no child. Lives are at stake, and those lives aren’t those of straight conservatives with traditional views on gender and sexuality. LGBTQI+ kids in non-affirming communities have exponentially higher suicide rates than those in affirming communities. And every voice makes a difference.

We all have journeys. Change is a process, and it’s sometimes appropriate to honestly say, “I don’t know – I haven’t figured that out yet.” It’s one thing to be in process. It’s another to say yes or no.

Either Wednesday was true, or Thursday was. Either way, Eugene Peterson owes an apology to the LGBTQI+ community.

Proud.

Proud.

The first weekend in June my friend Lauren was in town and we connected for dinner. It was the second time this spring we’ve had the chance to connect, and I’ve been so grateful for these opportunities. We were friends and fellow students in seminary over ten years ago, and we hadn’t seen each other since.

A lot has happened in those ten years. My own faith has come alive in new ways as I have sought to follow Jesus outside the lines and delve deeper into the Love that is the Life of all things.

And Lauren…when we were in school together, Lauren was a “he.” She transitioned a few years ago and I am so glad I have the opportunity to know the beautiful woman she is today.

While we were good friends in seminary, I had no idea Lauren was trans. What I did know was that my friend didn’t fit the masculine ideals our conservative evangelical school had for ministers. (Of course, I hardly fit those ideals either, but since they hadn’t quite figured out the same kind of ideals for women in ministry, I never encountered the same kind of pressure to conform.)

The school nearly refused to grant Lauren’s degree, though in the end, Lauren managed.

As she put it to me, she “zipped up her man-suit every morning,” but it was killing her.

There’s no way I can know what that must feel like. I can barely imagine.

What I do know is that there is life and peace in her now that wasn’t there before. She is at home in her own skin in a way she never was in seminary, and it is beautiful to see.

In that sense, Lauren’s story is much like that of other trans folk I know. They fight to live with honesty in the world with courage that takes my breath away. They have been willing to lose the whole world to gain their own soul. I am beyond grateful for all I have learned from them.

That is true to some degree of every LGBTQ+ person I know, and I am proud of them. Proud to know them, and proud to stand beside them.

June is Pride month, and in a couple of weeks I will be at Chicago’s Pride parade, standing for Love between the parade and the “Christian” protesters who proclaim something else entirely. Cheering on the friends and strangers marching, encouraging them to “Make Love Louder” than the hate.

Because there’s more than one kind of pride. There’s the pride of vanity and privilege and self-aggrandizement. And then there’s the pride that stands tall in the face of all that would demean and dehumanize. The pride that refuses to bow to shame and fear. The pride that won’t hide inside that zipped up suit that isn’t who they are. The pride of those who know Who loves them.

That pride is hard-won, and I am so proud of those who have won it.

Happy Pride, y’all!