Moment for all Ages
Imagine with me for a moment. Imagine that someone asks you what happens if you decide to no longer be whatever gender you are – if you change your mind. For most of us, that must seem like one of the strangest questions in the world. We know what gender we are, we’ve always known what gender we are, and while there are always pluses and minuses, we’re probably pretty okay with it.
But for others of us, this question is one that gets asked on a regular basis. “Are you sure that you’re really the gender you claim to be?” people ask. On a regular basis, some people have to defend who they know they are at the very core of their being. All because they don’t fit into the prescribed gender boxes that society wants them to fit into. There is a great interview with Jazz where the interviewer asks Jazz this question, and Jazz astutely responds “That’s like me asking if you are sure you’re a woman. That is what is like for me too,” she explains.
As Unitarian Universalists, we want to be welcoming to all those who might find a religious home with us. We understand that each of us has worth and dignity, and that that worth includes our gender. We value diversity and see it as a spiritual gift. We understand that all of who you are is sacred. We want to be a safe community where everyone is told that you are lovable and you are loved, and that all of who you are is welcome here.
I know, beyond any doubt, that we would want Jazz and her family to find a religious home with us were they to come here. I know, beyond any doubt, that we would want them to feel the warm embrace of a loving, respectful community that would stand by them and be their allies in a world that too often feels like a war against their very existence. I know, beyond any doubt, that this welcoming is something that is very, very important to our core sense of who we are.
And I know, beyond any doubt, that we often do not do enough to make what we want, and what we say, a reality. I know this because I’ve heard it. And it usually sounds something like “I’m just not sure I’m safe here.”
So how do we bridge this gap between the type of religious congregation that we so desperately want to be, and where we are in reality right now?
Step one is education. And in order to get to the other steps, we need to do a little bit of education right now. For some of you, this might seem old hat, but for many of you this is very confusing stuff. That’s okay – especially since as society grows in our understanding and awareness of gender identity, this stuff is changing. Rapidly.**
Biological sex is the purple circle in the picture to the left. It refers to what genitalia you are born with, and there are not only 2, but at least three possibilities: male, female, or intersex.
Gender identity is a person’s internal sense of being a man, a woman, a girl, a boy, none of these, both, and so on; it’s about one’s inner sense of being, and is represented by the grey brain in the picture. Everyone has a gender identity, even if it is not a common one.
When a person’s gender identity and biological sex are the same, they are said to be cisgender.
When a person’s biological sex and gender identity are not the same, the individual may identify as transgender, queer, or gender-nonconforming.
Gender expression, the green box, refers to how we present ourselves to the rest of the world in terms of clothing, communication patterns and interests. A person’s gender expression may or may not be consistent with socially prescribed gender roles, and may or may not reflect their gender identity.
For most of us, our biological sex, our gender identity, and our gender presentation all line up with one another. But for others of us, they don’t.
Gone is the time where we thought there were only two genders: man and woman, boy and girl.
Today, we reject this gender binary and recognize instead that gender is a spectrum.
We see this change at a variety of societal levels. Forms that people fill out are starting to move from check boxes to blank spaces where a person can identify their gender themselves rather than being confined to the usual two.
Just this past week, the Oxford English Dictionary officially added “Mx” as an honorific (like Mr, Mrs, Ms, or Mz) for those who either don’t identify as being a particular gender, and for those who are transgender. And Facebook now has 56 new possible gender identities that you can select from beyond the gender binary.
Transgender (which, by the way, is never “transgendered”) can broadly mean anyone for whom their biological sex and their gender identity are not in alignment. This can encompass:
- 2 people someone who is transitioning from one gender to another,
- someone who is not transitioning and may feel trapped in the “wrong” body,
- as well as those who consider themselves queer or gender-non-conforming, meaning someone who does not follow other people’s ideas or stereotypes about how they should look or act based on the biological sex they were assigned at birth.
And these words and definitions are still in flux.
Notice, though, that none of these have anything to do with sexual orientation (the heart in the image above) – that is another can of worms entirely, as it relates to who you are attracted to and who you love. Anyone, of any gender, can be of any sexual orientation. Today, we’re not talking about welcoming people of all sexual orientations – that would need a sermon of its own. Today, we’re talking about welcoming people of all genders: men, women, trans, queer, gender nonconforming, androgynous, pan-gender, two-spirit, and more.
Now, this is such a new awareness to many of us that we may still find ourselves trying to categorize someone: is that person a man, or a woman? We human beings are drawn to patterns, to solving puzzles. We want people to fit into the gender binary box, and we have a tendency to impolitely stare and puzzle until we think we figure out which box a person belongs in.
And there are two very serious problems with this:
First, we cannot make that determination for someone else – instead, we affirm each person’s ability to judge for themselves who they are and express themselves in the way that is most authentic to them.
And second, it dehumanizes the person in question. We objectify them. Actress and trans activist Laverne Cox summed this up beautifully in her interview with Katie Couric, after Couric rudely asked Cox about her genitalia. Let’s watch:
By focusing on bodies, we don’t focus on the lived realities of the oppression and discrimination that Trans, queer and gender-nonconforming people experience every day. And there is nowhere that this oppression and discrimination is more obvious than when it comes to where we often feel most vulnerable: the bathroom.
Cisgender people often ask: “Why do trans issues always seem to revolve around the bathroom?” It is such a cisgender privilege to not have to worry what sort of reception we will experience if we are perceived to be using the wrong bathroom – cisgender people don’t have to worry: will someone call management? Will someone beat us up? Will I get killed? But this is the reality for trans, queer and gender nonconforming people.
And this is a huge issue in our country right now. The more stories hit the media about people like Bruce Jenner and now Miley Cyrus, the stronger the backlash against trans people becomes. For instance: the Bathroom Bully bill here in Kentucky, sponsored by a state senator who wanted to allow cisgender students using bathrooms and locker rooms to sue their school for $2,500 if they caught a trans or gender-nonconforming student in the “wrong” restroom. The State Senator says he wrote the bill in response to a Louisville high school’s decision to allow a transgender student to use female facilities, but that incident is really just the prevailing excuse. In reality, the Family Foundation of Kentucky, a conservative think tank, requested the State Senator to submit the bill. And in fact, similar bills applying to both schools and public restrooms were also submitted this year in Texas, Minnesota, Missouri, Florida and Nevada.
In fact, so many states are dealing with this issue, or related ones, that there is now a hashtag on twitter, #WeJustNeedToPee, for trans, queer and gender-nonconforming people to share images of themselves in bathrooms that may match their biological sex but not their gender identity. Which can be dangerous for them. But don’t just take my word for it. Let’s hear from someone here at First U who regularly deals with this issue, our music director Christe.
So Dawn has presented a lot of information this morning. For some of you processing all this is no big deal, others may find you are confused with the ever changing terminology. You are not alone. When I began my community activism at 18, we marched for “gay rights”. Gay rights. Not GLBTQ rights. Neither lesbians nor any of the others were acknowledged. And homosexuality, meaning men, was still a part of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a mental illness. Gender identity was staunchly on a binary. Any new gender identifiers were trying to fit somewhere in the middle of that male/female binary.
Things change over time. And here we are in this social climate where a day doesn’t pass without a story somewhere in the media about gender issues., stories about people like me, who have never fit on the binary and are trying to live an honest open life, proud, healthy… authentic.
You see by today’s definition I am transgender. I however prefer to be considered gender non-conforming, partly as respect for friends who are seeking full Male/female or female/male gender transition. Here at First I have had no one question my gender or my gender presentation.
But out there, beyond these walls – at the grocery, the home improvement store, the theatre… I am seen as a man, even when I am not in a suit and tie. And about 95% of the time I am addressed as “sir” or Mr….. as they quiz me for a name for the waiting list.
I am perfectly okay with this because it tells me where that person is coming from… if they only have sir or ma’am to choose from. They choose based on where they are, what their perception of me is at the moment. Would that we could move beyond the need for identifiers at all.
So 2 years ago I attended General Assembly here in Louisville. On the very first day it was announced from the pulpit that the restrooms were to be considered all genders and you would find them marked as such. You would find male and female gendered restrooms on the floors open to the general public.
I took the announcement in stride… this was new – living in a way that was radically welcoming. I got more and more comfortable with each session of GA, letting my guard down and being my authentic self. It was not until Saturday night when Dianna and I went across the street to the Marriott Hotel to listen to kRi and hettie that I was again confronted with issues I have lived with all my life.
I needed to make a quick stop in the restroom before going up to the ballroom, and Dianna said she’d wait in the lobby. I found the first restroom marked women’s and stepped in…. Upon leaving the restroom while washing my hands a woman opened the door, saw me and stepped back out of the room to look at the sign. She then re-entered the room and in a very pointed voice she proceeded to tell me I was in the wrong restroom and she was going to get management.
I assured her she was mistaken and excused myself from the room. When I met up with Dianna, I shared the experience. We had a brief discussion about how this kind of thing happens all the time for me… it’s just a part of life.
Because Christe is okay with Christe… but the world at large has no way of defining her or him. I don’t fit on the binary and the world at large continues to see gender as male or female. Me being my authentic self, challenges that assumption.
I was not fully aware until that Louisville GA how much stress I carry about my gender. There are little adjustments, snap decisions that I make every day to keep myself and my loved ones safe. These choices are so very ingrained in me … like waiting to use the restroom where there is only one stall or waiting till I get home even if that means having to leave a gathering early.
You see if I get that kind of aggression in a women’s restroom… what awaits me in a men’s room? I have a friend who is in transition from female to male who fears being gay bashed in the men’s room for his outward appearance as an effeminate gay man. I can’t blame him, history and the media has shown us too many cases of gay bashing for it not to be a valid consideration. And aren’t we all going to the restroom for the same reasons? It is a basic human function.
There are a multitude of things this congregation can do to show that we are not willing to live in “gender jail. By “gender jail” I mean where the male/female binary is used to put us all in the “proper” box .
It makes me proud to serve a congregation that is committed to being radically welcoming to people of all genders.
As Unitarian Universalists, we are committed to being radically welcoming to people of all genders, and we understand that part of that welcome means that everyone deserves a safe place to use the restroom.
Right now, at First U, we have one all genders restroom. It is upstairs, and you have to walk through the choir room to get to it. It is not handicap accessible. And it is not always available, because the choir room door is often locked.
Most of us would say “Well, a trans, queer or gender-nonconforming person should feel free to use whatever restroom works for them!” – and this is certainly true. But how will they know this if we are not explicit? How will they know that this is a safe place unless we make it clear, to both trans AND cisgender people, that we welcome all genders here at First U?
They can’t know it if we don’t tell them. The reality is that most religious institutions don’t welcome all genders. If we don’t explicitly say that we do, if we don’t provide the appropriate markers, then people will assume we are like so many others that don’t – and they won’t risk it.
And having a bathroom hidden away upstairs, which may be locked, is definitely neither safe, nor welcoming.
This issue, combined with the upcoming move of our nursery to the second floor, has lead the Ministry Council, with the full support of the Board of Trustees and the staff, to reorient our restrooms on the first floor.
What is now the men’s room will become a single-stall, handicap accessible, family-style lockable restroom with a changing table. Anyone, of any gender, can use this restroom.
What is now the women’s room will remain a three-stall restroom, but the stall walls will be extended to the floor. This will also become an all-genders restroom, meaning that anyone can use it anytime.
The leadership, in their wisdom, understand that the 3-stall all genders restroom will make some people uncomfortable, especially in the beginning as we get used to it. This is one reason to extend the stall walls to the floor. It is also the reason that the second floor restrooms will remain binary gendered restrooms: men’s and women’s.
So to reiterate: soon, anyone, of any gender, can use either of the 1st floor restrooms. For those who prefer a men’s or women’s room, the upstairs restrooms are right outside the elevator doors at the top of the stairs.
These changes are beginning this upcoming week and we hope to have them implemented fully by the annual meeting. You will notice new signage when they are completed – rather than using the traditional male/female images which we know do not represent the gender spectrum, we will be using the universally recognized symbol of a toilet.
Of course, we know that our welcome must go beyond our restroom configuration. And so you might notice other changes, though they will be more subtle. We will be endeavoring to use inclusive language in our communications: instead of saying “this event welcomes men and women,” we will say “all genders welcome”; rather than talking about “men and women” or “boys and girls” we will use the words “people” or “children”.
We also invite you to write your pronoun preference on your name-tags. Perhaps for most of us, this will be the traditional he/him/his and she/her/hers. But American English has a problem in that we don’t have a commonly accepted gender-neutral singular pronoun except “it” which, since the whole point is to stop being dehumanizing and objectifying, is counterproductive. Several alternative gender-neutral pronouns have been tried, however, the singular use of “they” seems to be what is getting picked up most often. So for those of you who are grammar junkies, please know that we will be using “they” intentionally instead of he or she, and that this is now an acceptable usage! And of course, you are free to choose whatever pronoun you would like for yourself, and we will strive to use it correctly.
And finally, as a part of renewing our Welcoming Congregation certification this fall, we will be having adult education curriculum on alternate Sunday mornings that will continue to inform and educate us about the issues trans and gender-nonconforming people face and how we can be both welcoming and good allies.
We don’t do this in anticipation of hundreds of trans, queer, and gender nonconforming people storming through our doors when they hear how welcoming we are (though that would be great). This is primarily for us – it is for the trans, queer, and gender-nonconforming people who are already here, several not publically, and those who might find a religious home with us in the future. We do this in order to live our mission to be witnesses for progressive faith and to nurture our community. This is for us, to help bring our actions in line with our highest ideals, values and beliefs.
Because we understand that each of us has worth and dignity, and that that worth includes our gender. Because we value diversity and see it as a spiritual gift. Because we want to be a safe community where each of you is told that you are lovable and that you are loved, and that all of who you are, including your gender (whatever it may be) is sacred, and is welcome here. May it be so. May we make it so.
**To demonstrate how in-flux our understanding of trans and gender-nonconforming issues are, I have recently been made aware that the distinction between sex and gender is no longer a preferred lens through which to understand trans issues, as it has been used to defend anti-trans bigotry. My apologies to those in the trans and gender-non-conforming communities for any harm that my use of this lens might have caused. I will not use it in the future.