Trans Day of Remembrance: Holy Gifts
This weekend, I sat among a body of faith leaders who affirmed an individual's call to ministry with a unanimous vote. This individual happens to identify as a black, trans man. As a tingle moved from the base of my spine up to the hair on top of my head, I remembered when I sat in the hot seat as a council voted to ordain me. The process had been arduous--three years of schooling to earn a Masters of Divinity, a polity class, a lengthy ordination paper, a ministerial profile, four references, working with an in-care committee, being hired to a ministry position, and--finally--a verbal examination by the Church & Ministry committee. I was nervous, wondering if I'd be ask to articulate my theology of hell or concept of heaven (unorthodox), my understanding of the cross (feminist) or salvation (it's not exclusive), my open affirmation of the holy calling of those who identify as LGBTQ+ (yes!). Following as it did on the heels of the controversial vote to ordain the first out lesbian candidate in western North Carolina, there was only one abstention related to my open and affirming stance. In other words, although our theologies matched, the fact that I am married to a man privileged me significantly. No one cited my sexual identity, gender expression, or marital status to deem me "unfit" for ordination.
Marrying two couples (one gay, the other lesbian) on the steps leading to the Register of Deeds the very day that marriage was ruled legal in North Carolina was one of the most profound spiritual experiences and honored privileges of my ministry. It's difficult to put into words how God's Spirit moved among us on that day--deep calling to deep. Today, most mainline denominations have been pulled into a reckoning with their historical discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals--from the pulpit, to marriage, to full participation and leadership in the life of the church. Some remain in the throes of these issues, which threaten to tear denominations in two. While progress and the seismic shift in public attitudes continues to unfold, I am grateful to say that I serve a denomination that affirms the call to ministry of openly transgender candidates. I am grateful to say that some of the first trans folks I came to know personally are colleagues in the ministry.
A handful of years into my ministry at Land of the Sky UCC, the new church start I co-founded with the Rev. Sara Wilcox in Asheville, trans folks began to cross the threshold into the church. By the time I departed a few years later, a small trans community had grown up within the congregation. Serving as pastor to trans members and friends opened up conversations about the gender creativity of the kids and youth in our midst, taught us new truths about the fluid nature of gender identity and expression, and gifted us with new language for God. On this Trans Day of Remembrance, I want to offer gratitude for those holy gifts.
When my oldest son was born, I already identified as a feminist scholar who affirmed that female and male are more alike than different--biologically, socially, and emotionally. I was determined to ply him with gender-neutral toys and gender-bending s/heroic stories. I would not assume which colors he would like, or presume his sexual identity, but would wait for these things to organically unfold. I often refer to my oldest as one of my great teachers, because he possesses the gift of undoing nearly every assumption with which I armed myself for parenting. And so it was, with no prompting, that he gravitated toward all things categorized as "boy"--trucks, superheros, weapons, rough play, dirt, and blue. The dolls given to him were trampled underfoot as he hurtled head-first toward action figures.
My second son, however, embraces gender creativity. From the youngest age, he showed an affinity for princesses and tutus, for pink and nail polish and ballerinas. He loves rough-and-tumble play with his brother. He digs trucks, superheroes, and weapons too. But the span of his interests and sensibilities is far wider, as he toys with whether to grow his hair out, spends far more time arranging his outfits, and knows how to respond to anyone who says his sparkly rainbow, pink-edged, Ninja Turtle backpack is "for girls." Through him, I have learned that gender creativity spans a holy spectrum--from kids who may identify as a different gender at a very young age to those who express (in whatever vocabulary they can patch together) a non-binary identity, to kids like my child, who sometimes choose to push at the edges of society's co-opting of what it means to be male or female. It's painful to watch a beautifully gender-creative toddler walk through the flames of the preschooler's need to categorize according to gender. It is a normal developmental stage for this age (the need to categorize), but how it is acted out reflects how far we really have yet to go in terms of breaking down assumptions around gender.
Affirming the gender creativity of the kids in our congregation created safe spaces for gender-creative adults. While our minds reel with trying to understand what we necessarily want to function as new categories, it's easy to miss the more radical truth: understanding trans experiences opens our entire lives to spectrum-thinking. Not every trans person wants to "pass." Some embrace ambiguity as breaking down our need to say "this" or "that," male or female, gay or straight, feminine or masculine. In fact, there have always been Intersex individuals born with ambiguous genitalia or genitals that include both female and male parts. Spectrum thinking requires that we ask, rather than assume. Not all trans men want to be called "he." Not all trans individuals take hormones or seek surgery. For some, their true gender identity (that is, how they feel on the inside) is at odds with their gender expression (how they dress, move, and present themselves in the world). Sometimes that is a matter of safety. For many, there is no fixed identity, but a playful movement up and down a spectrum in different season of their lives. And so we must take the time to ask trans colleagues, acquaintances, friends, and family members: How would you like to be addressed? What pronoun should I use? How can I support your identity and expression?
Perhaps one of the reasons too many of us resist asking these questions is that we do not want to change our language, behavior, or habits. When I was first asked to use the pronoun "they," it chafed against my internal grammar police. But a curious thing happened--I began to use "they" for God, who I have always believed transcends gender and fully embodies all gender identities. My trans colleagues and friends have given me a new holy language.
Back to Paul--the trans man seeking ordination who we unanimously voted to affirm this past weekend. He spoke a hard truth--it was difficult to see himself reflected in the Bible because he never heard gender non-conforming stories in church growing up. And yet they are there--the Ethiopian eunuch who is baptized immediately and without hesitation at the prompting of God's Spirit; Deborah, a judge who embodied a role often gendered male; Esther's tutor, and more. Planted deep within each of these stories is the gospel's shocking impulse to overturn the categories and institutions that oppress and imprison, an impulse at the heart of Paul's own conversion and the reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles reflected in the birth of the church.
Today we remember Jesus' assertion that authentic spirituality is loving our neighbors as ourselves. In case we lived in gentrified neighborhoods, Jesus said it yet another way: the least of these. With black trans women as the most targeted group in our society for hate, derision, and violence, we who care about our spiritual lives must ask what we do to love them. How do we listen to the stories, experiences, wisdom, and excruciating abuse they have endured? How does their witness change us? On this Trans Day of Remembrance as we light candles for those lost to the horrific violence of predation or swallowed up in a suicidal moment of despair, let us say: we must do better. Let us honor the lives lived with exquisite, unbreakable joy, trusting that at the end of the journey they find their way home to the God whose love knows no bounds.