“TransToday” by Rev. Anya Drew-Johnson
Why are you here, I wonder. Why do any of us come to church? Sunday mornings are a great time to sleep in, yet we get up, get dressed, and sometimes have to hurry to get here on time. Make no mistake about this, I am glad I’m here. For the most part, I have been glad every Sunday morning for the past 18 years or so, that I decided to come to church instead of stay in bed.
At first, after I discovered a Unitarian Universalist congregation (quite by accident), I found myself entertained on Sunday mornings. Then, once in a while, I was challenged in some way, pushed to grow in some new direction, experienced my mind or my heart opening wider.
As happens to humans, from time to time, deeply challenging moments in life came to pass. Going to church brought me comfort of a kind I have not found anywhere else.
I think church should be these things, among others: entertaining, challenging, encouraging, and comforting. But I couldn’t believe I was going somewhere that had something to do with religion. This did not match my notions of myself. Until I realized that religion is, essentially, about putting ourselves back together over and over again.
Every day things happen to take us apart: apart from each other, our best self, the world where we are needed. Things that narrow our thoughts, close our minds, harden our hearts, isolate us from ourselves, each other, the world in which we live, lead us to despair…anything that can divide and separate serves to take us apart. Our task in church as people involved in some way with religion is to put ourselves back together again, and again.
When I first found that UU church I had no idea how much putting together I had in my future. I may have even thought I was in pretty good shape. In fact, I had developed extravagant ways to compensate and hide aspects of myself I couldn’t accept. I had said “no” to myself. The religion of my childhood had something to do with that, but even more I noticed that society, family, friends, and systems of values and morals usually say “NO,” when someone feels different than the norm. I heard these sources say I was wrong, bad, defective, and that I should comply with the norms – act normal, be normal. Turns out, I’m not that kind of normal.
Today, specifically, I am focusing on gender identity and the many ways it is woven together with sexuality. There are vague social norms that usually want all aspects of our sexuality and identity and orientation to line up nicely on one side or the other – all male or all female. Sometimes we need to figure out what to do when they don’t. And this is not easy and there are not many places to help.
I hope that an enterprise such a church, a religious enterprise such as this, can be a place of safety and comfort for gender variant individuals. (I might feel most optimistic if I could find a bathroom I could use without making people uncomfortable)
What is really possible, though, when we can’t see our own future, can’t yet look back on the entire arc of our life and see how we evolved and what parts of us were authentic…which were false.
Along with a friend of hers, Jean Houston, a principal founder of the Human Potential Movement, wrote these lyrics to a song called, “You are More”
You are more than you pretend to be
you are more than what most eyes can see
you are more than all your history
look inside and you will find
there’s glory in your mind
Come be the kind of person you would be…
You are more than what your leaders say
You are more than how you earn your pay
You are more than what you seen today
So drop that losers mask
You’re equal to the task
The question you should ask is who you are…
You are more than what the preachers shout
You are more, come let your spirit out
You are more, your soul shall have no doubt
Arise, become awake
With every breath you take
The god within will ache to be…
You are more than cell and blood and bone
You are more than just your name alone
You are more than all that you may own
Look around you everywhere
There’s something that we share
The magic in the air is you!
You are more than some statistic chart
You are more than the sum of all your parts
You are more inside your heart of hearts
You know that it is true
This being that is you
Has miracles to do
She writes: Believe that you are more, that you contain an inner self, a true self, that can emerge only if you give it attention. You might consider it the fetus of your Higher Self, an evolutionary being ready to be born.
Some things make it harder to discover an inner self, a true self, no matter how much attention is offered. Social norms tell us who we should be and how we should be. Deviating from those norms can be embarrassing, humiliating, shaming, dangerous, deadly…
Søren Kierkegaard names the challenge succinctly, “The most common form of despair is not being who you are.”
So far, I know a few things about who I am. I have a few labels for my gender identity: in social settings I am transgender; in medical settings I am transsexual; and when I’m feeling political I am genderqueer. Internally, and with the right people, I think of myself as gender gifted. Some people use labels such as “male to female” (MtF) or “female to male” (FtM) to describe transgenders. In a general sense these might work, but they are simplistic and obviously still attempt to divide the world into two sexes.
Gender isn’t sex. It is constructed by society and enforced by social expectations. The social norm is typically male or female, and those who comply with the social norm are seen as “normal.” The rest of us are “queer.” (or gifted…) Queer is a hot button word for some, and you don’t get to call someone queer unless you are given permission in some way.
I think our sexual identities are known first – there is one physical & biological and one we were labeled with at birth. We’re usually named based on the physical and raised based on the label. Combined we could call these our natal sex. Male or female are the common ones and the physical/biological characteristics and labels usually match, but not always. Almost all of us were confirmed as males and females on the day we were born (or sooner) We weren’t maled or femaled, so please don’t make the rest of us transgendered. If we need a sex or gender labels we should probably use males, females, and transgenders. About 1% of people physically vary from the polar definitions of male & female. The term for that is intersex.
Sometimes our gender identity matches our sexual identity, but not always. A transgender identity is neither male or female, or perhaps it is both. The internal sense of identity can’t be seen or measured at birth.
As we grow up we each present ourselves in ways that could be called masculine or feminine, sometimes butch and femme.
If we separate labels and physical sex identity and gender identity and presentation we cannot see the complexity of a person. To get closer we have to add sexual orientation, too. You don’t have to know these details about everyone you meet. I think it’s important, though, to be aware that these five aspects are part of every person – natal sex, gender identity, sexual identity, presentation, and sexual orientation.
For example, in part because of hormones, I am physically and internally neither and both male and female, identified as woman and man, present as masculine and feminine (and I don’t always know which is stronger), and the question of gay or straight isn’t answerable for me. (how could I tell? )
Oh, and just to add one more aspect – over time these qualities can and do shift.
I am not alone although I have felt alone. There is probably the same percentage of transgenders now as always, somewhere between 2% & 5%.
One of our religious ancestors is Unitarian Julia Ward Howe. She lived in privilege through most of the 19th century and some years into the 20th.
Recently fragments of a novel Julia wrote were discovered, assembled and published. It has been titled, “The Hermaphrodite,” although that term is generally out of favor these days. The main character, Laurence or Laurent, may be intersex or may be transgender. The word hermaphrodite used to be commonly used to describe a person or thing containing opposite qualities, which could easily apply to gender variant people regardless of their anatomy.
Julia Ward Howe sketched out her novel in 1846 or so, at the time her husband was having a strong attraction, maybe an affair, with another man.
She has one character assign Laurent a unified gender, saying, “a heavenly superhuman mystery, one undivided, integral soul, needing not to seek on earth its other moiety, needing only to adore the God above it, and to labour for its brethren around it.”
(I hope I’m not the only one uncertain of the meaning of moiety. It means each of two parts into which a thing is or can be divided.)
Today those of us who identify ourselves somewhere in the realm of transgender have few allies who would describe us as elegantly as this character in a 19th century novel fragment did.
We have trouble describing ourselves, so maybe this shouldn’t be surprising.
Julia’s other characters make some remarkable comments about Laurence: “I cannot pronounce Laurent either man or woman… he is rather both than neither.” “The poetic dream of the ancient sculpture, more beautiful, though less human, than either man or woman.”
A male character says “I recognize nothing distinctly feminine in the intellectual nature of Laurent,… he is sometimes poetical and rhapsodical, but he reasons severely and logically, even as a man–he has, moreover, stern notions of duty which bend and fashion his life, instead of living fashioned by it, as is the case with women.”
A female character says, “I recognize in Laurence much that is strictly feminine,… and in the name of the female sex, I claim her as one of us. Her modesty, her purity, her tenderness of heart belongs only to woman… it is true that she can reason better than most women, yet is she most herself when she feels, when she follows that instinctive, undoubting sense of inner truths which is only given to women and to angels.”
Gender identity is hard to source, no one can see exactly where it comes from, nor can it be measured in any precise manner. Identity is a complex internal structure of belief. We can believe ourselves to be male or female regardless of our biological sex. We can believe ourselves to be gender queer, for example, a way of saying a third thing which can be both/and/or/neither.
After I found a Unitarian Universalist congregation I started having moments when I felt less alone. Through these years of churchgoing and seminary and ministering I have had chances to feel so much more part of the world, so much more worthy of being in the world.
As I said, I am glad to be here. Seriously, SO glad. My lifetime risk of trying to kill myself is 40% (compared to 1.6 out of 100), and of someone else killing me is 10 times greater than the overall population. That is part of being transgender. The probability of assault is much greater for those who are trying to move away from their male aspects (the MtFs) than for those presenting as males (FtMs).
My motive for some personal sharing is well stated in this poem from William Stafford called “A ritual to read to each other.”
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind, a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood storming out to play through the broken dyke.
And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail, but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park, I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy, a remote important region in all who talk: though we could fool each other, we should consider-lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake, or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep; the signals we give – yes or no, or maybe -should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
I hope I am shining a light into the darkness around us, helping us awake to some complexities of the human condition that are usually tucked away in the shadows somewhere. Amongst the shadowy things we find sex, gender, orientation, and the failure of labels…the failure of categories. I hope we are seeing more clearly these parts of being human.
I often speak of the importance of creating places that are safe for people to come out as bisexual, gay, lesbian, or transgender in order to allow and encourage the most open, genuine, and authentic lives possible.
Church, and this church in particular, can be a place of such radical honesty that all will be truly welcome. And we will all be truly useful together. And we will know ourselves and each other in remarkable ways. One of my favorite teachers, Bob Kimball, wrote a sermon in the 1960s titled, “Anyone can be a Tom, Dick, or Harry but only you can be you.” He delivered that sermon at the congregation where the first openly gay UU minister served, although he was not out as gay until he was forced out of the ministry. I suspect Bob considered matters similar to what I have been exploring, but with different language.
There’s good news. There are simple steps. There is hope aplenty for us all.
The process of suppressing a person’s gender identity begins in childhood, so let it be okay in this place for children to play with whichever toys look fun – dolls and trucks and everything between.
Let this be a community where it’s okay for gender identity to be questioned, explored, and fluid.
Let this be a community where people are encouraged to answer the question “Who am I?” without limits.
As of now, 16 states plus DC have laws protecting transgender folk. Forty four per cent of Americans live in the areas such laws exist. Atlanta has municipal protections. But there is no safe city or state. Do work as a congregation to stop violence and other oppression against transgender people. Stand up and say “No! We won’t tolerate this anymore!”
Be a place where transgender lives are recognized and respected. (consider that bathroom comment.)
Just as with any person, use the name as introduced and pronouns as indicated by how a transperson presents themself. If it’s not clear, then politely ask.
Be a place where it’s okay to talk about gender identity as well as sexuality. Find a time to focus on that as much as any other identity issue.
In this place more than any other, celebrate what we all have in common and the amazing ways in which we are different from each other. Please don’t tolerate differences, don’t accept them, embrace them and celebrate them!
Live your principles and create justice. Save some lives while you’re here.
Congregations, such as this one, hire transgender staff sometimes, in two current cases a congregation will call a transminister as their settled minister. My genderqueer self wants to encourage you to avoid confusing an individual with a category. I trust you hired Barb because of his skills and experience. In no case would it feel right to hire someone because of their gender identity, would it?
Go ahead and be proud of hiring talented and able staff. After that, it might be important to know that most working transgender religious professionals in the UUA have been in temporary positions. Perhaps most UU transgenders aren’t working at all. Some of us have our search for work interrupted by the powers that be in Boston. A great deal of fortitude was required by women to claim their place at the pulpit, and a great deal more will be needed to claim a place for yet another gender in our pulpits.
If I were to speak for all transgender people for a moment, I would say that we are trying to claim a place at the table, a place in the pew, in the pulpit, wherever our gifts and talents will best serve. We are desiring to be respected as much as any other human, valued as a person and not seen as a category.
I am SO glad to be here. I am SO MUCH MORE glad that you are here. I have said what I can. I am eager to see what you can do.
And so may it go.