#BlessingNotBurden: It takes less than a minute to show trans youth you care.

20376153_10101716547347198_4481381192885927197_nToo many trans/genderqueer/non-binary kids woke up today in a world where their president called them a “burden” and “distraction”. These kids are already at a higher risk for suicide, not because there is anything wrong with them, but because they have to live in a broken and hateful world. It takes real courage to live through that day after day, and hope can feel hard to find.

If you are trans/genderqueer/non-binary, etc. I ask you to consider joining me in something. Take a picture of yourself and tag it #blessingnotburden and upload it to social media. Spread a little hope today.

***Allies, if you’d like to participate, please consider writing “You are a blessing, not a burden” on a piece of paper. Take a picture of yourself holding the sign and post it with the same hashtag, please.***

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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.

On Restrooms, Gender, and Fear

My wife and I have a joke. We tell it when we are out in public, at an airport or a restaurant or concert, and I need to use the bathroom. When I stand up to find a restroom I say to her, “Okay, honey, if I’m not out in five minutes, come look for me.”

We always laugh but, actually, it’s not that funny. The “joke” plays on the fact that I’m a gender non-conforming and genderqueer person, and bathrooms are not safe spaces for me. This has always been true, but in the current political climate, when states are passing laws regulating the use of bathrooms by trans and gender non-confirming people, we’ve been telling this joke more.

Sometimes gallows humor is all you have.

Here’s what happens when I go into a public restroom. I am female-bodied, but dress in a way that fits my own understanding of my gender identity which, while not male, definitely trends masculine. Dressed down I wear jeans and oxford shirts with baseball caps. Dressed up I prefer khakis and dress shirts. Bow ties are my favorite accessories. And my hair is cut short enough that the woman who cuts my hair charges me for a “men’s cut” because she doesn’t think I should have to pay more than a man for the same haircut.

Like I said, though, I’m not male. Unlike my trans brothers who have transitioned female-to-male, I have been clear that that was not the right path for me. I’m genderqueer and for me that means I feel happy to live in my body as it is. How I dress and carry that body, though, is often at stark contrast with what the world expects. It’s been that way since I was a 3 year old telling my mom that overalls were better than dresses

So, when I go to use the women’s bathroom, the bathroom of the sex to which I was assigned at birth, things get interesting. Unlike trans men and trans women who wish to use a bathroom that is different from the one they were assigned to at birth, but which fits their true gender, I just want to use the women’s room. But like my trans brothers and sisters, this is not always a safe experience for me.

Here’s what happens. I walk up to the bathroom, with it’s picture of a woman in a dress, and I push open the door. Sometimes it starts there. A woman is coming out and she looks at me, looks up at the door, and looks confused. I push on anyway. Sometimes she will helpfully say, “I’m sorry, sir, this is the women’s room.” I have learned to say, “yes…I know” and keep walking without waiting for a response.

I use the bathroom as quickly as possible. I don’t know what the supporters of bathroom bills think trans and gender non-conforming people are doing in there, but I can assure you it’s not exciting. In fact, I can testify that most of the time we get out as soon as humanly possible. Then I wash my hands, carefully avoiding the mirror-reflected gazes of the woman next to me. I say nothing, unless something is said to me. And then I leave.

I am lucky in that the worst that has ever happened to me in a women’s room is that I’ve been embarrassed. Friends of mine have not been so lucky. One was pulled out by force by a man who believed she was going to harm his wife. He had thought she was a man. Other friends have come out to find a someone standing with a police officer who then demands to see their ID. And I’ve certainly thought about how to best defend myself if someone gets violent. Everyone I know who is gender non-conforming has had those thoughts.

That’s why I try to avoid public bathrooms as much as possible. Believe me, if there is any way to get around it, I will. I suspect this is true of most trans, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming folks. For all the fears around us wanting to use the bathroom, the reality is that we’re far more afraid to use it than you know. I’ve learned not to drink water before I have to fly in order to avoid airport restrooms. I change my clothes before I get to my gym. I’ve walked back to my house rather than use a restaurant bathroom.

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The gender neutral restroom at the United Church of Christ’s last General Synod.

Sometimes, though, I get lucky. I’ll find a place with gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms. That’s like hitting the bathroom lottery. When I came to the church I now serve, I was thrilled to find three gender-neutral bathrooms on the first floor and another upstairs. But this is rare.

The reality is that I spend far more time thinking of bathrooms than I ever thought possible. And for someone who grew up hearing that it was good manners to not talk about anything related to bathrooms, writing about this is particularly odd territory. But now is a kairos time in bathrooms. This is the time when we have to tell our stories, stories that maybe even our closest friends don’t know.

And so, friends, I’m telling you this story. I’m telling you that no trans or gender non-conforming person wants to use the bathroom for any other reason than you do. I’m telling you that this has never been about sexual predators (who don’t need bathrooms to hurt people, and who won’t be discouraged by an anti-trans bathroom law), but about harming trans people. I’m telling you that I’d like to spend a whole lot less time thinking about bathrooms than I do.

And I’m also telling you this. I’m telling you that going into a restroom makes me afraid. I’m a former rugby player, I’ve studied judo, and I routinely dead-lift more than most grown men weigh. But multiple times a week I am too scared to take care of a basic human need in a public place.

The other night I read about a woman who has decided to bring her gun into restrooms from now on in order to “protect” herself from “perverts” who come in. To be clear, that meant anyone that she thought didn’t belong in a women’s room. Shoot first. Ask questions later.

I joked with my wife, “So, that’s how I’m going to die. I’m going to go into a Target bathroom with that woman and she’s going to think I’m a dude and shoot me.”

This time my wife didn’t laugh.


For more from the writer check out Heath’s book “Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity” now from Pilgrim Press: http://www.uccresources.com/products/glorify-reclaiming-the-heart-of-progressive-christianity-heath

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How Not to Be an Ally: 5 Reminders for Christian Clergy Working for Equality

  1. You don’t understand.

This is not meant in a hostile way. It’s just a reminder. If you are not LGBTQ, you have not lived the reality of being LGBTQ. You may empathize, but that’s different than being LGBTQ. Here’s a parallel. I’m not African-American. I may work tirelessly against racism, and do my best to understand the African-American experience, but I will never fully understand what it is to grow up as anything other than white in this country.

You may be the best ally in the world, with all the LGBTQ friends you could hope for, but until you are the 13 year old kid who gets beat up for being gay, or the 22 year old who has to leave their church, or the 40 year old who is denied a marriage license, or the 50 year old who can’t afford top surgery, or the 65 year old who can’t collect a partner’s Social Security, you will never understand exactly what it is to be LGBTQ.

2. You will sometimes pay a price for doing the right thing. We pay a price everyday.

Yes, it’s true. Your support of us will sometimes cost you. You might not get the big steeple church. You might not be able to serve as a church official. You might even end up in jail from time to time. The blessing is that these will be occasional situations for you. They are daily realities for us. When something like this happens, it will feel tragic. But for perspective, put it in the context of the greater, even more tragic, reality of the inequalities in our country.

There’s a story about this. John Lewis once was working with a group of white clergy who were going to be arrested for civil disobedience in the Civil Rights movement. His job was to bail them out immediately upon arrest. The ministers would then be heroically received. Except he didn’t bail them out. He decided to wait a while. He wanted them to truly understand their privilege and the fact that their jail cell was temporary. The jail cell of racism never opened. Remember that what you are doing is right. Maybe even brave. But it’s not heroic. Virtue is its own reward.

3. Let us define ourselves.

Please don’t put your labels on our reality. Two women who are together are not necessarily a “lesbian couple”. A man who has sex with another man may not identify as gay. Someone who is gender non-conforming might identify as trans. Or they might not. We might proudly claim words you don’t feel comfortable using: queer, butch, femme, etc. Those words come from our struggle and our reality. When you say, “oh, don’t call yourself that” we hear it as “I am not comfortable with you”. When you call our marriage a “union” we hear “separate but equal”. Words matter, and letting those who are not as privileged as you choose their own words matters more.

Here’s another example: When you lead worship, do you ever divide the voices up into the “men” and the “women”? Recently I attended a church with an active outreach to the LGBT community, and a few trans members, some of whom were still not out about the fact they were considering transitioning. When we were asked to sing along gender binary lines, some of them were put on the spot in a highly uncomfortable way. Try not to box us in using your understanding of sex and gender. Talk to us. We’ll tell you what works.

4. Whenever possible, listen…don’t talk.

Which leads me to my next point: listen. We have spent much of our life not being able to speak our truth. Now that we can, please let us do it. That’s not to say that we don’t want to dialogue with you or listen to your journey about how you became an ally. It’s just saying that we are often the best ones to speak to our realities.

Recently I was sitting at a table with clergy members, all of whom were allies. One ally was talking about what LGBTQ’s wanted around gay marriage (mainly just civil benefits). Not only did I not agree with him, but most LGBTQ people would not. Another ally graciously interrupted and pointed out that since there was a LGBTQ person at the table, perhaps that person could speak to what marriage meant to us better than an ally. It was a great moment of grace that doesn’t happen nearly enough.

5. Remember we are not a monolithic group

There are so many different identities in the LGBTQ alphabet. There’s a beauty in that diversity that doesn’t come out when one person is chosen to represent us all. A gay man does not understand what it means to be a lesbian. A lesbian does not understand what it is to be trans (unless they are trans themselves). A trans person doesn’t understand what it is to be bi (again, unless they are themselves). Each group has specific concerns and realities. Resist the urge to lump us together as one.

Likewise, remember that we don’t always have the same ideas on how the LGBT community should achieve our goals. Many clergy allies proudly show me their HRC t-shirts and equal stickers, for instance. I really appreciate the fact they are trying to visibly show their support, but I wonder if they realize that many LGBT people, particularly trans folks, would rather gnaw off their right arms than give to HRC? Other LGBTQ folks love them. But ask us who, and what, we would support, and why. It will tell you more about our community.

Finally, remember we love you. Every civil rights movement needs allies, and we are grateful for you. I only mention these things because there are times when well-meaning allies can become roadblocks on the path to the full equality of LGBTQ people. They’re principles I try to put in practice when I advocate for groups that I am not a member of, and they’ve served me well. I hope they might serve you as well. Until all children of God are equal, peace be with you.

When Pride is Not a Sin: The Season of Ending Gay Shame

In 10th grade my history teacher insisted we memorize the Seven Deadly Sins for an exam. Unlike most of the other things I tried to remember at age 14, years later I can still list them all: pride, greed, lust, gluttony, anger, envy, sloth.

In high school I thought those sins must have come from some sort of Biblical list. Years later I found out that the development of a listing of the Seven Deadly Sins was actually a gradual, fairly random, process across centuries of Christian thought. Like all traditions handed down through the centuries, they have taken on a life of their own and, for many, become an accepted, unquestioned part of Christian tradition. We caution those who are “too prideful”, labeling their actions un-Christian.

It was the Seven Deadly Sins that made the budding theologian in me question my first gay pride parade at age 18. I wasn’t questioning the morality of LGBTQ people and their relationships. I was questioning the claiming of “pride”, a sin that, if Christian tradition is to be believed, is the root of all destruction.

Of the Seven Deadly Sins pride has sometimes been called the worst. It is often seen as the root of the six other deadly sins. Even the 20th Century mainline theologian Paul Tillich, sometimes criticized as “too liberal” by conservative Christians, wrote that pride was the occasion for all sin. As I queued up for my first march in a pride parade I wondered, “Shouldn’t we find another name for this? Solidarity, maybe? Celebration? Something not on a “sin” list?”

Years later in seminary I though more about the “sin” of pride. I was reading Tillich and responses to his work. I was also taking Greek, a requisite for ordination. The wonderful thing about learning Greek was that it allowed seminarians to go back to the original sources of Christian thought, the Scriptures, and read them as they were first written. It made us go deeper and learn the contexts of the traditions we held onto hundreds of years later.

I learned that what the Seven Deadly Sins calls “pride” is actually more correctly “hubris”. In Greek the word for hubris has less to do with feeling good about one’s self, and more to do with shaming another through abuse and violence. Hubris is arrogance brought about by the shaming and victimization of another. It is, rightfully, named as sinful.

Applied today to the status of LGBTQ people in this country, hubris is not demonstrated in the pride parades held across the country each June. It’s not in the waving of a rainbow flag or marching with a banner. It’s nowhere to be found in the crowds gathered to proclaim their pride in who they are and in those whom they love.

Instead it’s here:

It’s in the pastor who preached in North Carolina that gays and lesbians should be rounded up, placed inside an electrified fence, and held until death.

It’s in the parents who taught their child to sing a hateful song about LGBTQ people at a Maryland church that included the words, “ain’t no homos going to make it to heaven” and then broadcast it, complete with the cheers of their fellow parishioners.

And it’s in the clergy who condemn committed LGBTQ relationships as they hide the sins of other clergy against children. Or who preach a Gospel of hate that encourages the bullies who force LGBTQ kids to the point they feel life has no hope.

These are sins. And they are deadly.

Paul Tillich’s insistence that pride was the root of all sin was later challenged by a growing field of women who were theologians. They pointed out to Tillich that for those who have been traditionally oppressed, pride is not an occasion for sin. Instead, the absence of pride, the failure to see one’s self as a good creation of God, was the real occasion for sin. The shame that kept one from doing the things God was calling them to do became sinful.

I want to be careful there to not label those who are mired in the shame created by an often homophobic world as sinners. They are not. Rather, the culture that creates that shame in young people growing up LGBTQ is, and that must be changed. A culture whose hubris comes from making LGBTQ people second-class citizens, who makes criminal in some states the very mention of the word “gay” in the classroom, who allows so-called reparative therapy practitioners to keep their licenses, is a sinful one because it is a soul-destroying one. It must be challenged. It must be changed.

And this is how LGBTQ people and their allies change it: they claim their pride. They claim it in parades. They claim it in front of wedding officiants. They claim it in the face of bullies. And they claim it on everyday that God has given to them.

43 years ago this month, at a bar called Stonewall, a group of LGBTQ people who were being attacked claimed it. After years of systemic degradation, violence, and victimization at the hands of hubris, they refused to live in shame anymore. That’s why each June we who are LGBTQ gather in their honor, and in memory of them and of everyone else who has ever stood up and refused to be ashamed anymore.

It is a good act. It is a holy act. And it is an act of faith. An act of claiming the life and the future that God has created for us. And when one is trying to live into the calling God has given them to live, and to resist those who would deny that calling, it can never be called a sin.