widening the circle.

22 Nov

Widening the Circle, a service for Transgender Day of Remembrance

by the Rev. Dawn Cooley, delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on November 20, 2011

When it was announced that Chaz Bono was going to be on Dancing with the Stars, there was quite a reaction.

Chaz is the child of Sonny and Cher. Growing up, Chaz described himself as a male trapped in a female shell. The documentary “Becoming Chaz” chronicles his journey as he undertakes gender reassignment.

Oh yes, there was quite a reaction when the announcement was made. There had never been a transgender person on Dancing with the Stars. There was speculation about who his partner would be; oppressive groups demanded a boycott of the show; a pop-psychologist even went on FOX news warning parents that watching Chaz might make their daughters decide they want penises.

And, thankfully, there was reaction on the other end of the spectrum as well. Support from the transgender community and allies. Worry about the deluge of derogatory comments, the vitriol that Chaz was subjecting himself to. Hope, too, that his story might somehow pave the way toward a more understanding, more inclusive culture.

Though there was some controversy even in the trans community about Chaz’s suitability as a spokesperson, I think his parting comments when he was voted off the show in early October are inspiring: “I came on this show because I wanted to show America a different kind of man. I know that if there was somebody like me on TV when I was growing up my whole life would have been different. So I dedicate everything I did to people like me, especially to kids and teens who are struggling. You can have a wonderful and great life and be successful and happy.”

Chaz wanted to show kids and teenagers struggling with their gender identity that they are not alone. Kids like Haley.

Haley is profiled in Lisa Lings photojournalism essay “Our America” in the episode called “Transgender Lives.” Haley was born a biological boy. Her parents say that from the time she could express herself, she called herself a girl. Not only did she gravitate to dolls and flowers and pink, but her self-portraits were of a girl. In kindergarten, she got into an argument with the boys in the class, claiming she was a girl. She even chose her own name.

Her parents went to therapist after therapist. They kept hearing “Transgender.” Haley was 5. Haley’s father’s religion told them that there was something wrong with their child. He felt shame. It took him some time, and effort to come to a place where he now believes that Haley is who she is, that God made her just like she is.

Many transgender children grow up hating their bodies. They fall victim to higher rates of depression, suicide and drug addiction.

Haley’s parents choose to support her in hopes to save her from a future of heartache and pain. They are learning how to raise a healthy child, as opposed to a child who feels shame and secrecy about who she is. But her parents know it is going to get harder for her. They worry about adolescence, and puberty as Haley becomes more aware of her differences.

Haley is lucky. Her parents are supporting her as she figures out who she is, even as she moves away from the small boxes society would put her into. Most trans children don’t have this type of acceptance. Instead, they have to hide. Suppress who they are. And we know what happens when you have to hide and suppress part of who you are: a piece of you dies.

At the close of the episode, Ling wonders, what happens when a transgender child grows up?

Particularly on this Transgender Day of Remembrance, when we pause to honor and memorialize those who have been brutally murdered because they themselves were transgender, or because someone they loved is…the question of what happens when a transgender child grows up is not a small one. In this past year, we know of 22 people who were murdered as they tried to live authentic, whole lives.  This number does not include deaths that were suspicious but not proven to be hate crimes.  Put these together and you get over 200 people.  And that still does not count the number of trans people who took their own lives – people who could not find a way to express who they were and so felt trapped.  

It was through a suicidal trans teenager that I came to learn about this issue. Many many years ago, he came to me with his concerns as he began to explore his gender identity. We spent hours on the phone, in email. There was no one else he could turn to – his family tried to understand but just couldn’t.

In truth, I didn’t understand either. It was the first time someone had told me that they felt trapped in the wrong body. Sure, I had seen drag queens, but this was something different. As I listened to this young person talk, my heart just broke. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand what it was like for him – what mattered was his pain. And how he felt there was no way out.

If you do not identify as a trans person, imagine with me, if you will, that you wake up every morning, and you see a stranger staring back at you in the mirror. The shell, the outside, does not match who you are on inside. For many, transformation is the only chance they have to love themselves and to try to fit into the world. The Rev. Paul Langston Daly is a Unitarian Universalist minister who identifies as a trans person. He tells us that “Living authentically takes courage, strength, and above all, faith.”

Faith in yourself. Faith that it can get better, that you can live a full, whole authentic life and be accepted for who you are. Faith that you can find love. Faith that there is a community out there that will embrace you, support you, walk with you on this journey.

It was through my experience with a suicidal trans teenager, who thankfully did not kill himself, that I came to learn how hard it can be, and how absolutely necessary it is, to live true to ourselves – to not put ourselves into a box that may be more acceptable by society but that kills a piece of us. Through my experience with this young person, I became inspired to learn. I began to devour everything that came my way about the trans experience: books, articles, documentaries, movies, fiction, non-fiction, memoirs.

If we want to be an ally for the trans members already in our community (those we know of, and those who we don’t, adults, youth or children who might be struggling with this issue right now). If we want to be allies for them, and for the trans people who might desperately be seeking our community, this is how we begin: through educating ourselves.

When we educate ourselves, we have to begin with language – we start by understanding the various expressions and stages of the vast umbrella we label as trans, which can include (but is not limited to) people who identify as genderqueer, third gender, gender fluid, or two spirit; some intersex individuals; transsexuals; crossdressers; and all self-identified trans people.

If you are new to these concepts, then these terms may have just totally overwhelmed you, so let me elaborate.

We are all assigned a biological sex at birth, for example male, female, or intersex. Intersex is a general term used for a variety of genetic, hormonal, or anatomical conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. Some of you may recall the term hermaphrodite from your youth. Today, this is an obsolete term that is considered absolutely inappropriate.

When a child is born intersex, many doctors and parents panic and rush to correct with surgery what they see as a problem. This intervention causes more harm than good, however, and can lead to mental and physical difficulties later in life. Some intersex individuals identify as transgender while others do not.

So we are all assigned a biological sex at birth, but gender is something that we choose for ourselves. We call this “gender identity.” It may or may not match our biological sex. And it may or may not match how we present to the world: our gender expression.

When our biological sex, our gender identity and our gender expression align, we are called “cisgender” – cis, which means on the same side, whereas trans means “across.” For example, I am a cisgender female: my biological sex at birth matches my gender identity, which matches my gender expression.

We live in a society that is called “gender binary” – which means we only have 2 acceptable choices: either male, or female. This is very limiting, and discounts a whole lot of ways to live the human experience. But it makes it easier to put people in boxes: men are masculine, and there is a whole list of characteristics that describe what it means to be male. Women are feminine, and there is a whole list of characteristics that describe what it means to be female. It is when we don’t fit into these little boxes that society doesn’t usually know what to do with us.

There can be a lot of confusion between the term transgender and transsexual. The word transgender was first coined as a way of distinguishing gender variant people with no desire for surgery or hormones from transsexuals, who did desire to legally and medically change their sex. More recently, however, transgender (or trans) has become an umbrella term that is used to include all people who transgress dominant conceptions of gender, or at least all people who identify themselves as doing so.

The trans community may also include crossdressers. Cross-dressing refers to occasionally wearing clothing of the “opposite” gender, and someone who considers this an integral part of their identity may identify as a crossdresser. Today, the term crossdresser is preferable to “transvestite” and neither should be used to describe a transsexual person because a person who is transexual has changed their sex and thus are dressing appropriate to their gender identity and expression.

The labels genderqueer, third gender, gender fluid, or two spirit are sometimes used by people who feel between or outside the gender binary. Individuals may identify as being neither man nor woman, as a little bit of both, as outside the binary, or they may simply feel restricted by gender labels. Two spirit is a term derived from the traditions of some Native North American cultures, and can mean a mixture of masculine and feminine spirits living in the same body. The existence of two spirit people in Native American culture is one of the reasons why the conquering Europeans believed Native culture was inferior and primitive compared to their own. I have to shake my head at this one, as I believe the Native American people got this one (and a whole lot else) right.

You may have noticed that I am not talking about sexual orientation at all. This is because gender identity and sexual orientation are not at all related. Just as a cisgender person might be gay, lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual or consider themselves queer or questioning, so too can a transgender person be gay, lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual or consider themselves queer or questioning.

This can be very confusing for some folks who want to connect sexual orientation with gender identity: if you liked women, they may say to a male to female transgender woman, why didn’t you just stay a guy? Sexual orientation is not correlated with gender identity.

This is a lot of information, and a lot of terminology to understand. As I wrote this sermon, I had to keep editing to make sure I used the terms correctly, so know that it is an ongoing learning process. I invite you to visit the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Identity Ministry website. They have a “Transgender 101” page that explains all this, and more.

If you cannot keep all this in your head, I invite you to hold this: gender expression and identity come in a vast array, rather than simply male and female. The first step in being able to best support the trans members of our community is to learn.

Another step is to respect a person’s identity and self-label, and respect a person’s chosen name and pronoun preference. This is also a way that you can assess if someone else is an ally, whether that person is a journalist, in the news media, or another person in the room. Allies will respect a person’s chosen name and pronoun preference. For instance, if you see Chaz referred to by his birth name, or referred to as “she”, then you can be confidant that the person speaking or writing is not an ally to the trans community. Going against a trans person’s wishes in this manner is a form of power-taking, a form of violence, a form of abuse. It says “I refuse to recognize you on your terms. I will put you into this box and disrespect you.”

So using a person’s chosen name and pronoun preference is important to creating a safe place for trans people. But since you don’t want to make any assumptions, how are you to know? Well, there are a variety of tips I can recommend from my own personal experience. One is to listen, intently, to the trans-person when they talk. It can give clues. Another is to listen, or ask, someone who knows the trans-person and might have insight to offer. Or, when that fails, ask. It can be uncomfortable – for both of you – but if you ask well, it can also be a trust building moment. “I am sorry to have to ask you this, but I want to make sure I treat you with respect. What pronoun would you prefer I use when referring to you?”

Connected to this is to see the person, not the label. I remember when John and I visited a very white-haired church when we were young adults. A few of the members flocked to us at coffee hour after the service and said how glad they were to have people like us there. They meant “young” and I know they meant well. But I walked away from that transaction feeling as though they had put me into a box and seen me only as a desirable demographic, not as a person with specific gifts, talents and needs. If we want a person to feel seen and cared for for who they are, we should not tokenize them in this way, whether they are a young person, a person of color, a trans-person, or anyone else. “People like you” is not an affirmative statement.

Also, and here is one that I am currently working on, we can use terms that encompass all genders rather than only two. For instance, we can say “children” instead of “boys and girls”. We can say “people” instead of “women and men.” I found myself falling into this trap quite a lot recently. As the mother of two biological girls, I would say “Take the girls to the zoo” or “My girls are super sweet.” Or, particularly in email, if I am addressing it to all women, I will often say “Hi ladies!” as a greeting. But these terms are exclusive rather than inclusive, and they assume I know everyone’s gender identity. And what happens when I assume? So I am trying to refer to my kids rather than my daughters more, and I am trying to use a more general greeting in email and other places.

These are just a few steps we can take in our own lives to be more welcoming to trans-people. There are steps we can take as a church community, as well. We can make sure that anytime our literature asks you to identify as male or female that there is an option for transgender and a option for other. We can and soon will be better publicizing that we have a gender-neutral restroom on our second floor for people who prefer such an option. You don’t have to use it, but it is available if you prefer. And we can talk to our kids about this, too. One of my proudest moments as a parent was when one of my kids, in preschool, told her teacher that yes her classmate could grow up to be a girl if he wanted to.

If we at First U want to be a safe community where transgender people can find the love, support, and acceptance that they need and deserve; If we want to be a place where they might be met with love, instead of violence; If we want to be allies instead of oppressors, let us start with drawing circles instead of boxes. Circles, that go wider and wider, until they include and embrace the variety of ways that there are for expressing our true selves. On this Transgender Day of Remembrance, let us ensure that we are not part of the violence. Let us stand on the side of love.

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