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.