#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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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

or Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Glorify-Reclaiming-Heart-Progressive-Christianity/dp/0829820299/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1453486699&sr=1-1&keywords=glorify+emily+heath

Emory’s Controversial, Not-So Gay Friendly, Award

UnknownEmory University has a history of opening its doors to voices of faith strongly in favor of LGBT equality. Visiting professors like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and President Jimmy Carter have talked on campus about why they believe all should be treated as equal by the church. The university has also housed an LGBT Life office for over twenty years, and was the first in the South to offer same-sex partnership benefits. As Emory has evolved from a small Georgia college into a world-class university, they have been quick to point out their commitment to diversity and inclusion.

But now Emory is facing a bit of a problem with that image. Because this fall they have made the controversial decision to grant a Distinguished Alumni Award to the Rev. Dr. Eddie Fox. Dr. Fox is better known in United Methodist circles as the man most responsible for making sure that Methodist doctrine continues to state that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching”. Despite a strong push to acknowledge differences of opinion on the matter several years ago, Fox led a fight to retain the language that precludes the full inclusion of LGBT people in his church.

Which means that Emory is having a bit of a identity crisis. On the one hand, they are the incredibly diverse academic institution that was just ranked number twenty in the country by US News and World Report. And on the other hand, they are the school that is saying a man who has consistently tried to stand against LGBT inclusion is one of their most distinguished alumni.

To be fair, the award is being presented by the Candler School of Theology, Emory’s graduate school of theology which is affiliated (like the university) with the United Methodist Church. But because Candler is a part of Emory, this means that Emory is also putting its seal of approval on the award. For Emory’s many LGBT alums and their allies, who come from the many schools which comprise Emory (including Candler), this is deeply troubling. (Full disclosure: I am one of these alums, having received my undergraduate degree from Emory University.)

When the Dean of Candler, Dr. Jan Love, was asked to reconsider Dr. Fox receiving this honor, she decided that the award should be awarded as planned. But she also wrote, “Candler not only adheres to all Emory University policies on inclusion but we also fully welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons into our community as we do any other students, staff and faculty.” Which, naturally, must feel a little confusing to not only the LGBT students at Candler right now, but also to those of us who are a part of the wider Emory community. Because I’m not so sure how you fully welcome LGBT people while you simultaneously call a person who has gone to great lengths to deny them full inclusion one of your most “distinguished” graduates.

And so now Emory must decide. Are they comfortable with one of their schools honoring someone who has made life a whole lot harder for LGBT Methodists? Or are they the university that lives out the values of inclusion in which they take so much pride? And if they choose the former, are they aware of the message that will send not just to LGBT people at Candler, but also to the gay alum who gets a fundraising letter, the straight ally considering a professorship at Emory, or the out teenager weighing their undergraduate acceptance letter?

My hope is that Candler will reconsider. Not because Dr. Fox is a horrible man. He’s not. Not because he is not a good Christian. I’m sure he is. But because his actions have disenfranchised members of the community which bestows this honor. And because you can’t have it both ways: you can’t be a community which simultaneously respects diversity and bestows its highest honors on those who do not.

But if Candler does not reconsider, I hope the entire Emory community calls upon it to do what is right. Many incredible people have passed through the halls of Candler and gone on to give all of God’s children respect, dignity, and a place at the table. Candler, and Emory, should understand that those are the people who have truly already honored Emory’s values. Now it is time to honor them.

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.

Opening Devotional for the Vermont State House, April 6, 2012

Friday, August 6th, was LGBTQA Advocacy Day at the Vermont State House. It was also the 20th anniversary of the passage of Vermont’s first civil rights protections for gays and lesbians. As part of the celebration, I was honored to be asked to give the opening devotional to the House:

Good morning.

This week is Holy Week in my tradition, the Christian faith, which means for clergy it’s the busiest time of the year. We never seem to run out of things to do this week, and it can feel like one’s work is never done.

I imagine it feels like that to those of you who work here in the State House too. Particularly when you’re in session. And I’d imagine that you rarely have a day when someone doesn’t want a minute of your time.

And today gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Vermonters and their allies have come to ask for that time. They’ve come to tell their stories to you.

Now I believe stories are sacred. And I believe God is there in everyone’s story. So when I listen to someone’s story I take it as an opportunity to listen to see what God has done in them, and in the world.

I’ve learned a lot about God and faith by listening to the life stories of LGBT people. I’ve learned what it is to trust the love of God over the fear of the unknown. I’ve learned about telling the truth about who you are, even when it’s unpopular, because the truth will set you free. And I’ve learned about the capacity to be resilient in the face of rejection, condemnation, and bullying.

I believe those stories are testimonies of faith. Far better testimonies than anything I could say up here this morning. And so I invite you to open your ears, and your hearts, and listen for the voice of the divine in the testimonies you hear today.

There’s a motto we who are Vermonters know. It’s our state motto, “Freedom and unity.” To me it means that we are free to be who we are, and that we respect the freedom of others to be who they are as well. And it also means that no matter who we are, whatever our differences of belief and opinion, we are called to be united in community.

Unity doesn’t happen accidentally. It happens when we open our hearts to one another, respect one another, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Your neighbors are here today. And they have stories to share. As we prepare to open our hearts up to the holy in one another, will you pray with me please?

Good and gracious God, we give you thanks for being a part of all of our stories. We give you thanks for the ways we meet you both in our own stories, and those of our neighbors. Bless us today as we seek to live as a people who embrace both freedom and unity. Bless us as we learn to love our neighbors as ourselves. And bless all Vermonters, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. God, bless the work of this body, and God bless Vermont. Amen.