The following was presented as a meditation to the community of Phillips Exeter Academy on February 21, 2018.
Non sibi, or “not for self”, the motto of Phillips Exeter Academy, as featured in a window in Phillips Church.
The next time you are flying somewhere, pay careful attention when you are going through security. After you’ve taken off your shoes and jacket, emptied your pockets, and put your laptop in a bin, you’ll likely be standing in front of one of those huge x-ray machines. These are the ones that you step into, raise your arms above your head, and get scanned. If all goes well it takes a second, and then the TSA agent waves you through to your gate.
Before you step into that scanner, though, something happens that you can’t see. On the other side of the machine, there is a screen, and on that screen there are two buttons, and as you approach the machine, the TSA agent makes a choice about which one to pick.
One of those buttons is blue. The other is pink. You might be able to guess what they stand for. If the TSA agent thinks you are a man, they will hit blue. If they think you’re a woman? Pink. Apparently this tells the scanner what your body should look like under your clothes, which in some way apparently helps them to determine whether or not you are a terrorist.
I’m all for safety, but I have to tell you that every time I fly those two buttons, blue and pink, are the absolute bane of my existence.
When it comes to gender, we live in a very binary world, and that world is too-often rigidly dictated by the sex we are assigned at birth. There are boys and girls, men and women. That binary is reinforced daily in big and obvious ways, such as when we choose which restroom we will use. But it’s reinforced in a million other little ways throughout our lives, from the clothes we are given to wear when we are young to the sports teams we play on to the skills we are taught. Before babies are out of the womb we even have “gender reveal” parties where we celebrate with pinks and blues, reinforcing the gender of an as-yet unborn child years before we really know who they are.
Beyond that, gender is reinforced in public all the time. It’s the waitress who calls you “sir” or “ma’am”. It’s the person you are introduced to who, without even thinking about it, automatically makes a decision about whether to refer to you as “he” or “she”. And it’s the TSA agent who, as you approach the scanner on the way to your flight, pushes either that pink button, or that blue one.
And that’s why that particular moment never goes well for me. I am a gender non-binary person. Sometimes I use other words for it like gender non-conforming, genderqueer, or transmasculine. To explain my gender in a nutshell, I was born female, and in terms of my sex, I remain so. But my gender, a far more nebulous concept, tends to be much more masculine. My pronouns, at least in a perfect world, are not “she” or “he”, but “they”. And before my fellow English majors tell me that you can’t use a plural pronoun for a singular person, let me say that the first thing our major taught us is that the language is always evolving, and I think using someone’s correct pronoun is far more important than defending English grammar against changes.
But back to the scanner. I travel a fair amount, and each time I approach the airport scanner I know what’s happening. The TSA agent is looking at me, trying to figure out whether to press “blue” or “pink”. Rev. Heidi and I laugh about it, and guess about whether this time I’ll be “blue buttoned” or “pink buttoned” because we try to make the best of it, but the truth is that this is an awkward moment.
Most of the time they hit the blue button, and when I get in that scanner, my body doesn’t look the way it’s supposed to look. Next time you go through a security scanner look back at your scan. It’s probably clear. Mine is lit up like a Christmas tree, which supposedly indicates that I’m hiding who knows what on my body. That’s why 90% of the time I’m then pulled aside for a full body pat down before I’m allowed to go to my gate. Sometimes I’ve even been sent back into the scanner. The benefit of going the second time is that this time I’m at least able to say “you hit the wrong button”.
This doesn’t upset me the way it once did in my life. In fact, if you told 14 year old me that I would routinely be mistaken for a man, I would have been horrified. But fourteen year old me grew up in a very different world, one that didn’t have words or space for people whose genders were different. Back then, the world didn’t even have much space for those of us who were gay.
The album cover for Listen Without Prejudice, which included the song Freedom 90. I literally had this on a cassette tape.
Before I got up here you heard a bit of a song called “Freedom 90” by George Michael. I was in 9th grade when this album came out, and I got the cassette tape (yes, a tape) for Christmas. Back then, I didn’t know anyone who was gay. Actually, I did, but I just didn’t know it. The two men who lived across the street from us, for instance, the ones my mother honestly believed were brothers, didn’t tell any of their neighbors that they loved one another. Not even George Michael, the singer of that song, had come out yet.
I had started high school hoping that in four years I would receive an appointment to a service academy. I wanted to go to Annapolis or the Air Force Academy. I was even in a military cadet program to help me to reach my goal. The only trouble was that the summer before I had developed a hardcore crush on my unit commander at our summer encampment. I had had crushes on girls before, but this time it was clear that there was something about me that was different. While my friends were falling for the boys on the football team, I had absolutely no interest.
At some level I knew that I was gay, but in 1990, in a Southern town filled with conservative Christians who would tell you that homosexuality was a sin, that wasn’t something I could admit to myself. That’s not to say others didn’t take notice. I have never been feminine, and in the language of the early-90’s, a girl in jeans and baseball caps, with short hair, was assumed to be gay. In ninth grade I started to be keenly aware that others were saying just that about me. I was terrified they were right. And so I spent the next four years in the closet, pushing down my feelings.
It wasn’t until I got to college that I came out. It was 1994, when being gay and out was pretty unusual. I was 18, and many people told my I was too young to know I was gay. Thankfully, no one says that anymore. But that’s how far the world has come in just 24 years.
When I came out you were either a gay man or a lesbian. Occasionally there was someone who was bisexual, but back then there wasn’t even much room for that. And so, I was a lesbian, a woman who loved other women. Except the problem with that was that that description never felt quite right for me, though I couldn’t explain why.
At the time, masculine lesbians were called “butch”. And back then, we were the subject of much debate in our own community. “Why do you want to look like a guy?”, we would be asked. Or, “If I wanted to date a man, I would date a man”. It remained that way for a long time. Even in the gay community there was a certain way that you were to perform gender, and those who fell outside of those norms were suspect.
I graduated college, and I went off to seminary. I was ordained as a minister in a time when the ordination of LGB people (we didn’t talk much about T at that time) was heavily debated. I worked for a few years as a trauma chaplain, and they I went off to get a PhD in psychology and theology. I remained much as I had been my whole life: a more masculine-appearing woman who would bristle when someone called me “sir” or referred to me as “he”. I felt like there was something wrong with me that I just couldn’t seem to conform to the expectations of what a woman should look like. But deep down, I just wasn’t so sure I felt like a woman.
In my psychology textbooks I remember reading about something called “gender identity disorder”. I read the criteria, and I wondered if I had it. As a child I had never felt like the other girls, and as an adult I had what the DSM, the manual of psychological diagnoses, called “Persistent discomfort with his or her sex or sense of inappropriateness in the gender role of that sex.” Note that even in that definition, the binary reigns supreme.
So something was really wrong with me. I was, I believed, broken. Depression, a demon I’d wrestled with for most of my life to that point, grew stronger and stronger. I began to drink more and more, desperate to self-medicate. I felt out of place in the world, and I wondered how to live in it. Slowly, I think I was trying to kill myself. Later, I wondered more about whether I should do just that.
The break for me came when I stopped drinking. I got sober, and I learned an old adage of people in recovery: we are as sick as our secrets. That means, so long as we are hiding something from ourselves, we will never get well.
I knew that meant I had to deal with my gender, and to stop pushing it down and treating it as something terrible. And so, I did what graduate students do: I read. I read about what it means to be transgender, though at the time I didn’t know anyone who was openly trans. I read about gender, and how more and more people were understanding that biological sex and gender were two very different things. And I read about how gender could be more than a binary, and how there were a multitude of ways to live out your gender in the world, not all of which correlated with the sex that you were assigned at birth.
Most importantly, I read about how this made me not mentally ill, but just simply human.
I quit my PhD program, a pursuit I had never particularly enjoyed, and I went back into active ministry. I was a chaplain because I didn’t think that any congregation would want an openly gay, possibly transgender minister. I began to explore whether maybe I was supposed to transition from female-to-male, which seemed like the most obvious path at the time for someone like me.
Around that time, I thought seriously about leaving the ministry. I made an appointment to talk to a dean of admissions at a law school. I remember the drive to Boston. On the way there, I listened to that old song from 9th grade, “Freedom”, over and over. When George Michael sang the words, “But today the way I play the game is not the same, no way. Now I’m gonna get me some happy.” I sang along. By giving myself the freedom to quit the ministry and do the gender exploration I needed to do, for the first time in my life, I was gonna get me some happy.
I figured I would go to law school, start a new profession, and live into my identity as a man. But, something didn’t quite feel right.
For one thing, I really loved being a minister. But more importantly, I wasn’t so sure I was a man. I wasn’t so sure I was a woman, either, but it didn’t make sense to me to move from one uncomfortable gender identity to another. Let me stop here to say that for many people that does make sense, and that is the right choice, and I one hundred percent support them. But for me? It wasn’t who I was.
And so, I set about trying to be exactly who I was, and to live a life where I could be proud of being just that. Maybe what I was was somewhere in the middle, somewhere in a gender that exists but is rarely recognized, at least not in most modern cultures. And maybe my gender odyssey required me to carve out that space for myself, and not follow a more clear-cut path.
In 2010 I took a risk and became a parish pastor in Vermont. I went to the interview dressed as I always dressed, in men’s khakis and a button-down, with the short hair that I’d always felt best in. They hired me, and I discovered that I was actually was a pretty good pastor.
With my beloved.
Later that year I walked into my first class in my new doctoral program. Sitting behind me in class was a beautiful young woman starting her first day of seminary. She was smart and kind and saw me exactly for who I was, including for my sometimes hard-to-explain gender. More than that, as the months went on, she loved me exactly as I was. And two years later, dressed in a dark suit and Brooks Brothers bowtie, I stood at the end of a long church aisle and waited for Rev. Heidi to walk down it, so that we could make our marriage vows to one another.
Almost four years ago now the people of the Congregational Church in Exeter called me to be their pastor. You here at Phillips Exeter think you are part of an old institution, founded in 1781. Well, the Congregational Church, founded in 1638, makes you look like spring chickens. In fact, this very school was founded by members of that church long ago. If you want to talk history and tradition, that church has a claim to those things.
But, I’m happy to say, that church also has an openness to what God is doing next. And so, when this big, gay, genderqueer preacher was presented to them as a candidate for ministry, much to my surprise, they said yes.
Every day I leave the home I share with Rev. Heidi, and I walk over to my office in the church where, I believe, I have the best job in the world. I also serve as the police chaplain for our town. Recently I published my second book, and I frequently get asked to speak at conferences and workshops. Most importantly, I have friends and family who love me, and I have a life full of meaning. I have a truly incredible life. I don’t tell you that to brag or boast. I tell you that because it’s the last thing that 14 year old me ever expected.
If I could go back to that kid, so scared and so unable to see the path ahead, I’d tell that everything was going to work out in the end if they could just hold on. And then, I’d tell them to go and get them some happy. The truth, though, is that I think at some level, deep down, they always knew that that’s exactly what they were supposed to do, and I think a big reason I am here today, is because that 14 year old kid refused to let me ever settle for anything less than freedom.