Beyond the Pink and Blue: A Meditation on Gender

The following was presented as a meditation to the community of Phillips Exeter Academy on February 21, 2018.

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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.

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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.

800px-Transgender_Pride_flag.svgI 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.

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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.

A Church Beyond the Binary

Note: this post was originally published in 2015 on New Sacred. I’m reposting what I said then here as a resource for those who are discussing the gender binary at General Synod. 

“There is no longer male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28

I preach most Sundays, so the days when I have a chance to sit in the pews and worship are few and far between. They are also most welcome. I need to sometimes step off the chancel, join my voice with the congregation, and hear another preach the Word.

But several times in the recent past, while I’ve been deep in worship, I’ve suddenly come across something in the liturgy that has made my prayers jerk to a halt. It seems innocuous enough, but every time I see it, it completely stops me in my track. It comes up in calls to worship and joint liturgies, and it looks something like this:

Men:
Women:

In other words, men are asked to read one line, and then women the next. And like I said, this may not seem like it should be a problem. After all, I’m all for looking at liturgy in a new way. Dividing a room between different voices can help to hear the story in a more powerful way. But, dividing it by binary gender may have some unintended consequences, particularly for trans* and gender non-conforming individuals.

I attended a worship service at a longtime ONA church recently. This is a congregation that goes out of its way to publicly welcomes trans* individuals. And I sat next to another friend who, like me, is also gender non-conforming. Worship was great until we hit that one litany:

Men:
Women:

And then we weren’t sure what to do.

Popular opinion holds that there are two genders: male and female, men and women. But the reality of gender is that many people live between the two.

The progressive church has started to make good and necessary strides towards affirming trans* folks, but too often still falls into a gender binary while doing so.

We might accept that some people transition female-to-male, or male-to-female, but we are still wrestling with the fact that for others, living between binary genders is our final destination, not some sort of indecision.

Worship is particularly difficult for us in those moments when the liturgy is split between male and female. I generally keep silent. And I’ve known others, who were in the midst of a transition, and who were not out to others in the congregation, who felt torn between reciting the lines for the gender they are known by, and the gender they know themselves to be.

To do one is to deny a self-truth. To do another is to out yourself at a time not of your own choosing.

And worship isn’t the only challenging time for gender non-conforming Christians. Even my own very progressive denomination struggles with non-binary gender. For instance, several years ago a denomination form asked for one box to be checked for gender: male, female, FTM, or MTF. (Note: I’ve continued to see this since then.) The first problem was that a trans man is a man, and a trans woman a woman. They shouldn’t be required to say anything more. But the second was that for some of us, there wasn’t a box.

In another example, in my denomination, national leadership positions are often times rotated by gender. A man holds an office for one term, and a woman the next. This pattern is repeated. This is even written into the bylaws of some parts in my church. I know the reason this came to be. Women were often not included in church leadership, and this was a way to remedy it. But the unintended outcome has been that those with non-binary genders are either left out, or forced to declare one gender or another in order to be included.

So how do we break our dependence on gender binaries in the church? With just a little awareness, respect, and creativity.

If you want to try out that two-part liturgy or song in worship, come up with a non-gendered way to split the voices. Try high voices and low voices. Or right side and left side. Or balcony and floor.

If you want to achieve gender diversity in leadership roles, lose the forced binary and ask instead that leadership reflect gender diversity in different ways. Look past two terms, to multiple ways of understanding, and make sure that leadership can be inclusive of men, women, and those who might identify in other ways.

And finally, look at the ways your church life might inadvertently leave others out, or signal to visitors that there are no places for them.

Are members divided into the men’s fellowship and women’s fellowship? Sure, sometimes those spaces are welcome for some, but do these divisions leave others out? Do you have gender neutral restrooms available? Are we all “brothers” and “sisters”, or are we all simply “beloved”?

When you talk about equal marriage do you use same-sex and same-gender interchangeably without realizing they are not always the same thing, and that neither is more accurate than the other?

And when concerns about these things are raised, are they laughed off or dismissed as “politically correct” or “not important”? Or are they seen as part of the fundamental welcome that each church, and each church body, should be extending to all of God’s children? Because the reality is that if we really want to be an “open and affirming” movement, this is the next big frontier. How your church responds will matter for years to come.

Tomboys, Trans Folks, and the Times

Earlier this week an interesting op-ed appeared in the New York Times entitled “My Daughter is not Transgender. She’s a Tomboy.” In it, Lisa Selin Davis, a mother and young adult novelist, details her child’s interactions with adults who are confused about her gender.

Davis describes her daughter as a classic tomboy with “shaggy short hair” who prefers the company of boys and the comfort of t-shirts. Well-meaning adults often assume that her daughter is trans, and that she wishes to be referred to as a boy. Davis counters that she is indeed a girl, and that feminine pronouns are indeed correct.

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Smiling happily after making it clear that dresses would not be happening.

As a grown-up tomboy I found Davis’ article familiar. Like Davis’ daughter I declined to wear dresses, preferred boys to girls as playmates, and dreamed of playing football. Similarly, I was often mistaken for a boy.

I have long said that had I grown up now, and not in the 80’s and 90’s, I might have been encouraged to transition female-to-male. I wholeheartedly applaud that fact that trans kids are given support to transition. I know families whose kids have transitioned and it has been nothing short of lifesaving for them. We have to keep supporting those kids.

But, despite our progress, we still fail to adequately support gender non-binary kids like I once was. I worry about what would happen to a kid like me had I grown up today. Had I felt encouraged to transition, or like transition was the only viable option for me, I may have taken that path. But that would not have been the right path for me.

I say that because the tomboy that I was as a child has grown up into a highly gender non-conforming adult. I am still mistaken as male on a nearly daily basis.

But even today, as an adult who has all the social, financial, and legal support and resources necessary to transition, transition is still not the right choice. The reason why is very simple: I’m not a man.

The truth of the matter is that for some people the old gender binary of girl/boy and woman/man just doesn’t apply. While much of my life is spent rejecting the expectations of gender imposed on me by my biological sex, at the end of the day I’m more comfortable as I am than I ever would be as a man.

I’m at peace with my body, and equally at peace with my button-down shirts and bow ties.

But as at peace as I am with my gender, others are not. Recently I was interviewed by Vice about the way gender non-conforming/genderqueer folks can be at risk in public restrooms. There are very real dangers for us out there from strangers.

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More than 30 years later than the first picture, on my wedding day.

At other times, though, even the well-intentioned can let their own discomfort seep out. A few friends, both trans and cis, have asked me when I’m going to transition myself, implying that my gender is somehow incomplete. A new medical assistant at my very gender-competent physician’s office misgendered me on my paperwork as a trans man during a recent visit, assuming that I must be contemplating transition. And when I wrote in the Christian Century about the TSA’s habit of pulling me aside for full-body pat downs, I received meant-to-be helpful messages about how I could do more to help the TSA not to make this mistake.

As an adult I’ve come to understand that it’s not my own comfort with my gender that’s the problem; it’s the discomfort of others that’s the real danger.

The reality of our culture is that we are highly gendered. Even in liberal and progressive spaces, we too often divide things along binary lines. And for the majority of people, even some trans folks who transition along those lines, that works. But that’s not true for everyone, and we still have not learned to communicate that to our kids.

Some of us will never be at home on the gender binary. And that’s okay. We don’t need to be pressured to fit into the gender box that matches the sex on our birth certificates. And we don’t need to transition because we’ve already become who we are meant to be.

To too many people, that is frustrating and confusing. And so, they take their own ingrained gender binary, and they try to apply it to the people who don’t make sense. They look at a tomboy, and they think “they’re a boy”. Or, they look at a boy who likes princess dresses and dolls and think “they should be a girl”.

And, maybe some of those kids are indeed trans. If so, we should do everything possible to support them. But, maybe they’re not. Maybe they’re kids who will grow up into someone like me. Or, maybe some of the boys who play with trucks will figure out later that they are indeed trans women, and some of the girls who dress up like Elsa will grow up to rock bow ties.

They wouldn’t be the first. There are trans women who were Navy SEALS and trans men who were prom queens. That’s because traditionally gendered interests and aptitudes do not always determine gender.

And this is where my problem with Davis’ piece comes in. As she writes about the desire of other adults to characterize her daughter’s gender, I can’t help but think she does the same thing. In asserting “she’s a tomboy”, is this faithful to her child’s voice and experience? Did her child consent to having this story told nationally?

Finally, is the author’s lack of understanding of non-binary identity in some ways tied to a gendering of her child that is equally as inaccurate as that of strangers? Maybe they are indeed a tomboy. Or maybe they will grow up to be gender non-binary adult. Or maybe they will indeed transition.

In the end, only the person in question can determine what identity is right for them.

For all of the rest of us, here’s our work: confront our own discomfort with gender. Work out why it bothers us when we can’t determine another person’s gender at first blush. Learn to live with ambiguity. Figure out what things we do that cement the gender binary more firmly in place.

And most importantly, learn how to keep our mouths shut when our confusion or discomfort with the gender expression of others comes to the surface. Because it’s our problem, not theirs.

Note: since the publication of the Times article this Storify has appeared which makes clear that the child in question’s gender may be different from what the mother describes. I’m adding the link here because it adds another problematic layer to this whole story. God bless that kid. May they grow up to be exactly who they are meant to be, and not who others think they should be.