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.

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.

A Dream Denied

A Dream Denied

There is a particular pain in chances never given – a grief for the untried. For some of us, it can be harder than the pain of failure or the grief of loss.

“I never even got to try.”

It’s particularly galling when you deserved the the opportunity, but it was others less deserving who got the chance. Life, it turns out, rarely metes out opportunities based on the wherewithal to do something with them. It just doesn’t work that way.

And so the chance you long for is denied, and you never even get to try, to see if what you’re capable of doing can live up to all you know you can do deep in your heart.

The thing you’re made for passes by without stopping for you.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Perhaps different sorts of dreams may do all of these things. Maybe some more than one.

A chance never given, this is what’s hardest for me. It clings to me. It will not let me go.

My question is different from Langston Hughes’: what do you do with a dream deferred? With the chance never given? The one that clings like a pleading child to my legs, hungry with persistent passion for this thing that every fiber of my being recognizes. And I have no power to give it to her.

What do you do with a dream denied? The one that will not stop speaking, singing to me from behind that door which is closed and barred to me? (Such a beautiful song. Such a painful song.)

What do you do with a dream denied?

Unmake it? Unmask?
Dissect
and from component parts
piece together another creature?
Will it live again?
Breathe? Move?
What about the beating heart?
Can it be another thing?
Itself take another shape?

Or will it die
and part of me with 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.

Doing the Impossible

Doing the Impossible

I am not a runner.

When I was growing up, the southern humidity made me sound like I had asthma when I tried to run, and I had doctors’ notes to get me out of PE running requirements through college.

Seriously. I’m not a runner.

It took my seminary boyfriend (who’d finished the Chicago Marathon himself) surprising me with a visit to a running store and an adamant, “We’re not leaving until you buy running shoes!” to get me to give it another try. And if I was going to spend that much money on a pair of shoes, I was at least going to try.

I was in my mid-thirties. It was January in Chicago. And a few blocks at a time, it worked.

At first, I really couldn’t run more than those few blocks, but he would run backwards in front of me while I walked and caught my breath, and then coax me into a few more blocks. In the freezing air, I felt like I could breath, and slowly but surely I built up to a whole mile, then two.

I still wasn’t a runner.

When he broke up with me (taking my post-graduation plans with him), running helped me survive him. In the gym or on the pavement, I could funnel the energy of hurt and anger and frustration through my feet until I was exhausted. And I began to realize that running regularly – five or six days a week – was giving me an ability to handle stress I’d never had before. I could stay focused on work and studies, and things that felt impossible to handle weren’t overwhelming me.

I wasn’t a runner, but I kept running.

A few years into two or three mile morning runs, a friend, Josh, who was new in town overwhelmed me with his enthusiasm and I agreed to register for a half marathon. That’s 13.1 miles, and the race was the third week of July in Chicago.

It was clearly impossible, ridiculously unthinkable. An absurd decision.

But I’d paid the registration fee (races are expensive!), and Josh kept telling me I could do it. Keep running three miles each morning before work, and start adding one mile at a time each weekend. And if I was going to spend that much money on a race, I was at least going to try.

And one week at a time, I did.

By the time I was up to seven miles, it felt impossible. It was getting warmer out, and I knew I couldn’t make it. But…maybe I could run to that tree up ahead? And then to another one… And then to the cross street… And then… I’d run seven miles. It wasn’t possible, but I had!

And then it was eight. Nine. Ten. Eleven. Every week I was doing what felt impossible, and by the time I ran that half marathon with my friends, I’d started wondering what other impossible things I could do. I joined a dating service and went on first dates with strangers. Found a new church. Met remarkable people doing amazing things to change the world. Eventually changed jobs. Moved into the City. Adopted a grumpy old man of a cat.

And kept running, even though I’m not a runner.

I never enjoy running. I enjoy the being outside part – the sun, the breezes, the Lake, the people and dogs. But I don’t enjoy the running part. It never feels good, sometimes it just feels less bad than other times. But life always feels better when I’m running regularly. Even when it’s hard and I don’t know what to do, I can go for a run and know I can do the impossible.

Running isn’t about running for me, it’s about living.

This past Sunday I ran the Chicago Marathon – all 26.2 miles of it. I did it in memory of my father, because I’m living years he didn’t get. I did it for friends who’ve lost people they love to ALS, the same disease that took his life when he was just 31. I did it because I love this City, and running through its neighborhoods with the sun and the breezes and the Lake and the architecture and the people felt like a celebration of that love. (Chicago was showing off Sunday!)

And I did it for me. Because it was time to do something else impossible – gloriously, ridiculously impossible! And now I’ll see what other impossible things I can do.

I’m not a runner, but I run because it’s taught me not to be afraid of impossible things. And I run because there are more impossible things to do.

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.