Archives for April 2011

anarchist reverend podcast: Brian Murphy

Today brings a new feature to the blog: my very first podcast! I’m really excited about some of the people who have agreed to be interviewed for the podcast and can’t wait to share it with you.

My guest today is Brian Murphy. Brian talks about his own spiritual journey and his life as an activist.

You can listen in here: brian murphy interview. I am working on getting the podcasts loaded into iTunes, but I am having a bit of technical difficulty at the moment. I’ll update as soon as a feed is available.

To learn more about the things talked about in today’s podcast:
Brian’s Blog
Strategy+Action Mailing List
The Equality Ride
Legalize Trans*
Legalize Trans* is also looking for interns! To get more information and to apply, go here.

Why I call myself a “Christian Anarchist”

(This is another in a series of posts where I will talk about Christian Anarchism)

I first started calling myself a “Christian Anarchist” out of pure naiveté. It was terminology I used to say that I didn’t feel called to a particular denomination; in fact I was feeling that denominations were pretty unbiblical and against the spirit of Jesus’ teachings. So I called myself a Christian Anarchist. It seems kind of silly now. I still hold the same beliefs about denominations, but I had no idea that Christian Anarchy had such a long and storied history.

Honestly, much of my life was lived in naiveté! I grew up in a sheltered home. I had no understanding of racism, privilege, classism, queer issues, feminism, any of these concepts. I think if I would have been born a straight male I might have never grappled with any of these things. My faith would have stayed firmly in the fundamentalist camp. But I wasn’t born a straight male. And so in coming to terms with my queerness, I was also given the opportunity of education. I realized how much I benefit by simply being white, by being born in a middle class family, by being able to go to college and seminary. In getting that education, my faith became radical. I think in a lot of ways that it’s my faith that keeps me queer. It was my queerness that deepened my faith, and it’s my faith that has made me deeply connected with queerness in all its forms.

My first exposure to the thinking of Christian Anarchists came in my introduction to Jacques Ellul by a mentor of mine. I read his pamphlet on Christian Anarchy and was struck but how much it made sense. Since then I have read both secular and Christian Anarchists and while I am by no means an expert, I feel slightly more comfortable calling myself a Christian Anarchist because I have a better sense of what it means.

At the same time I realize that I have significantly different beliefs from both Christian and secular Anarchists. First the secular: I am opposed to violence and wish to remain non-violent in all that I do. (I know that not all secular anarchists believe that violence is okay, but there seem to be quite a few that do.) I don’t always succeed in my quest, but it is my desire.

I know that my basest desires would allow me to be violent and selfish. I sometimes have to work to look out for the needs of other people. I am deeply flawed. I would like to think that given the opportunity I would always choose to do the right thing, but I kind of doubt that in actuality. Because of that I appreciate the teachings of Jesus. I appreciate his call to live a life of service, to be in resistance to the empire, to try to bring about peace and wholeness on earth. I desire to emulate the life of Jesus in all of its risks and danger. I do this because I believe that there is a God; whether you want to call it God, or energy, or a universal consciousness; I believe there is something that is bigger than me. I want to tap into that. Therefore I don’t believe in the slogan of “no gods, no masters”. My desire to be an anarchist comes from my deep desire for the wholeness of all people. For all people to be fed and clothed, to live whole lives, and to be their full humanity. I think anarchism is the only way this will come about. My desires are deeply rooted in my faith.

Now for my differences with Christian Anarchists: I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but I am not convinced that one day God is just going to come back and fix everything. There seems to be a sense in some of the Christian Anarchist literature that God is going to do just that, and so we can sit back and wait for that to happen. I don’t believe that. I also don’t believe that God is actively involved in the world (in the sense of God as a puppet master) outside of the actions of humans.

For me anarchism is about getting dirty. It’s about resisting the empire non-violently, but also about setting up new structures in the shadow of the empire. It’s about rejecting power (even as I desperately want to be powerful). It’s about rejecting security (even as I desperately want to be secure). I will by no means say that I am a successful anarchist. I still struggle and fall. I still partake in the consumer culture too much and compromise my beliefs in order to keep myself safe. I struggle with what God is calling me to do and to be. But I would like to at least say that I am trying. I am trying to be like Jesus (wow that sounds like so much hubris!), I am trying to love other people, I am trying to set up new structures in the shadow of the empire.

I am desperately trying, by the grace of God.

book review: Christian Anarchism by Alexandre Christoyannopoulos

This week’s review is: Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel
by Alexandre Christoyannopoulos.

Overall I really appreciated this book. Christoyannopoulos weaves together all of the different strands on christian anarchy to provide a picture of the thinking of the movement as a whole. No one has ever done that before and his contribution will be a great addition to the christian anarchist scholarship. Since much of the work can be hard to find, this survey (with meticulous footnotes) is very important.

He traces the thought through Leo Tolstory, Vernard Eller, and Jaques Ellul while also including the work of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers (which many books tend to ignore). There is also some recent scholarship from the Jesus radicals among others. The scope of this work is impressive.

My frustration with a lot of the conclusions drawn (both by this survey and by other christian anarchist writers) lies in a poor academic reading of many of the Gospel texts. These texts are read with a cursory exegesis and not in light of the empire. Whether that is because empire scholarship is relatively new or whether it’s because christian anarchists haven’t completely done their homework is unclear. This lack of exegesis leads to conclusions that don’t fit with the gospel texts. In this book, Christoyannopoulos’ conclusion tries to set up the way forward by christian anarchists but sets up a false dichotomy; either one is completely non-resistant (read non-engaged) with the political world, or one buys in to the state. My reading of the gospel texts is more of a both/and. One must resist the empire while also creating a new way of living in the shadow of the empire. You can’t just disengage, set up your own community and that’s it, you must also be prophetic about calling out the empire and working to upset it non-violently and always with Jesus’ teachings in mind.

It’s a delicate balance, one that requires humility and accountability. One that is about freedom for all people and service to all people instead of a life that seeks to overthrow and become the new power in charge.

I still recommend this book simply for it’s scope and attention to detail. I found it to be very readable (even though it is a doctoral dissertation!) and accessible even if you haven’t read a lot of the people featured in the book.

Thomas

thomas

John 20: 19-20: When it was evening on the that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

John 20:24-29 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later the disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

photo of my chest, one year post surgery

painting by carvaggio

Thomas. Poor Thomas. You have one bad day, one bad moment and you are saddled with a nickname that lasts for centuries. Doubting Thomas.
It’s an interesting passage, though. First we have the scene with the disciples minus Thomas. They are locked in a room and Jesus appears among them. It seems that they were worried about the religious leaders finding them (although the passage is kind of harsh with its language of them being afraid of “the Jews” of which they were also a part. One wonders if the writers of this passage had something against the Jewish religious establishment and needed to get a dig in.) We have no idea where Thomas is and it seems odd that he wouldn’t be with the rest of the group. Jesus comes into the room and shows him his hands and his side and then the disciples rejoice. I think it’s important to note that the passage is very clear in the order of things; Jesus does his show and tell and THEN they rejoice.

Jesus leaves and Thomas comes back. Everyone tells him about what they’ve seen but Thomas is unsure. Thomas says that unless he sees the marks and touches Jesus he won’t believe. A week later they’re still in the room and Jesus appears again; this time with Thomas present. Jesus offers his hands and side to Thomas and Thomas, even without putting his hand in Jesus’ side, believes and worships him. Then there comes the gentle rebuke from Jesus asking if Thomas only believes because he has seen and offering a blessing to those who believe without seeing.

Growing up this passage was brought out to affirm the faith of modern Christians. We are the blessed who believe because we have not seen. It’s interesting to me, though, that the rest of the disciples didn’t believe until after they had seen and yet Thomas is the one who gets called out for it. We have to wonder what else was going on that Thomas is the only one to get the rebuke. In addition I had always read Jesus’ rebuke as quite firm and annoyed, but in re-reading the text it seems pretty gentle. Jesus is simply raising the question of what it takes to get people to believe. And he offers a blessing on those who take someone’s word at face value.

When I was first transitioning this is one of the passages that resonated with me the most and continues to be meaningful. When I first told people that I was transitioning, or that I had transitioned the first questions were, without fail, about surgery. Have you had surgery yet? Are you going to have surgery? And they usually were referring to genital surgery. Invasive questions, asked loudly and in public. I began to be resentful of people and their inability to just take me at my word.

What is it that makes me a man? Is it having a penis? Is it carrying myself in a certain way? Is it all about my body? I wonder if people want me to drop my pants so they can see what I look like. If they need to see the scars on my chest. If they need to invade my privacy in order to believe that I am who I say I am. That I am resurrected.

Sometimes these questions make me angry and annoyed. I don’t want to have to tell you these things. I don’t want you thinking about my naked body or asking me about how I am intimate with people. It’s insulting.

And then I remember Jesus’ gentle rebuke and I wonder if I can be gentle as well. Is there a way for me to answer people’s questions, trusting that they are coming from a good and well-intentioned place while also rebuking them gently for their lack of tact? Can I teach them what it means to be trans without violating my own privacy? Can I be as gentle with them as Jesus was with Thomas?

I want to be a resource for people to understand what it means to be transgender. And most of the time I realize that the questions are coming from a really genuine place of wanting to know and wanting to understand. I want to honor the person asking the questions. However, there is a part of me that doesn’t want to have to show you my scars, not because I am ashamed of them, but because they are private. And because my gender isn’t about what surgeries I’ve had or about the scars I carry. At the same time I realize that my scars are one of the things that make me visibly male.
So most of the time I answer peoples’ questions while blessing those who believe without having to see. And I pray for the day when people will take all trans folks at their word.

post-script: A friend pointed out to me that in medieval depictions of Jesus and Thomas Jesus’ side wound looks very much like an FTM chest surgery scar. I find this to be fascinating on many levels. Included with this post is a photo of Jesus and Thomas and also of my chest post-surgery.

Mary

mary

John 20:11-16: But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (Which means teacher).

Another well-known scene from the Gospels, Mary goes to visit the tomb and finds it empty. She begins to weep thinking that someone has stolen the body of her friend. It’s a response that makes sense. First to see your friend and the person you’ve been following brutally murdered; and then when you go to pay your respects, to feel close to the person you’ve loved and lost and to find them gone one couldn’t help but weep.

And in her grief she has an encounter with someone who she thinks is the gardener. You wonder how different Jesus looked as a resurrected person that Mary didn’t even recognize him. Was she blinded by her tears? Or did he look completely different? Either way, she doesn’t realize that she is talking to her friend until he calls her by name. What a moment. I wonder what it was in the way Jesus said Mary’s name that made he realize it was him. Did he have a special way of pronouncing it, or was it the tenderness with which he said it? In that moment, the moment of Jesus speaking her name, Mary knows she is with her friend again.

I remember the first time someone I knew didn’t recognize me. I was maybe a year into my transition, maybe not even that. I ran into one of the professor’s assistants from my seminary on a subway platform. I had her the previous semester and hadn’t seen her since. I went over to say hello and she just stared at me blankly. I waited for a subway car to pass by (drowning out our conversation) and told her who I was. Then she recognized me and we had a nice chat.

It was a surreal experience. I honestly didn’t think I looked all that different, but here was someone who I saw for an entire semester once a week who had no idea who I was. On the one hand it was a great moment. I was finally becoming the person I was meant to be. I was being seen as who I am. But it was also strange to think that people who knew me before wouldn’t know me now.

There’s a bit of a disconnect that comes about once the old you becomes unrecognizable. I see the photos of myself from the past and I don’t know who that person is anymore. It seems like I was wearing a costume that hid my real self. And this new body that I walk around in is my true face. But what does that do for the people who knew me before? People who might not have contact with me in my day to day life now.

I think of my mother and my siblings who only see me a couple of times a year. I go home and I look like a different person. Do they feel they are losing me as my face changes? I think of people I haven’t seen in years who I could probably walk past on the street today and they would have no idea it was me. Even people that I was incredibly close to. You have to work really hard to not lose the person you were in the midst of your transition.

I think early in transition there is a sense that anything is possible. That you can become a new person. And it’s true in that in some ways you can. You can reinvent yourself as you inhabit the new life you are meant to live. But for me, as my transition has gone on, there are a lot of parts about myself that I thought I had lost that I am reclaiming. There is my love of baseball and my fascination with military history. Those things that I pushed aside but now feel like I can pick back up (for a multitude of reasons). In so many ways I feel more authentically myself now that I ever did. I feel more connected to my childhood now. I think in some ways it’s because as a child I didn’t have the same disconnect with my body that I did as a teenager, but in other ways being at home in my body has allowed me to be whoever it is I feel called to be. It means that I don’t have to worry that if I shave my head I’ll be seen as female. I can wear a pink shirt without worrying about being misgendered. That is a freeing place to be.

And in being the most authentic person I can, I think that will translate into my relationships with people who might feel like they are losing the person they loved. It will translate to those people who don’t or won’t recognize the person I am now. Just like Jesus had a certain way of saying Mary’s name, I trust that there is a certain way that I interact with and speak to the people I love that will help them to recognize me even though I have a beard now and even though my body and face are different. There will be a certain way that I say “mom” that lets my mother know that she is not losing her child.

No matter how different I look, how much I change, the essence of who I am as a person remains the same. Transitioning allowed me to let go of all of the baggage I was carrying and become who I was meant to be. By becoming myself I am freed to love more wholeheartedly than I ever could before. And that is the biggest blessing of all.

Ave Maria

ave maria

Throughout the gospel of Matthew we only see glimpses of Jesus’ mother. Unlike in Luke, here she is barely a footnote in the birth of Jesus. Here the text centers around Joseph. There is no mention of Jesus’ childhood in Matthew so the next glimpse we get of Mary the mother is in chapter 12 when Mary and Jesus’ brothers come to see Jesus. His response: “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” It never mentions whether or not he went outside to talk with them. In the Matthew text Mary isn’t at the foot of the cross, doesn’t come to the grave. These are the only two mentions of her in the gospel.

In the Gospel of John, Mary is present at the cross, in fact, Jesus even addresses her: He gives care of his mother to the disciple referred to as “the disciple Jesus loved” and that disciple takes Mary into his house from that point forward. (John 19:26-27)

Why is Mary sometimes important to the text and sometimes banished to barely a mention? What was her role in Jesus’ life and ministry?

I think a lot about Mary. How complicated a person she must have been. Filled with such strength to birth a son out of wedlock in a time when that was judged harshly. Strength to keep relying on God in the midst of not knowing what God was doing. Then to watch her son grow, to watch him leave her home and travel teaching people. To hear word of his deeds make it back to her ears and wonder what would happen to him. She must have heard as the public opinion changed toward him, must have worried that her baby was getting himself into trouble.

I wonder why she showed up with Jesus’ brothers wanting to talk to him. Did she want to bring him home? Did she want to tell him to stop with all of this foolishness and take care of his family? And what pain she must have felt when he claimed those gathered as his family instead of his flesh and blood.
We transgender sons and daughters have complicated relationships with our families. I know that talking about mothers and fathers strikes a chord with a lot of us. Some of us have had families that outright rejected us; kicked us out of the house and cut us out of their lives. Some of us have families that have been super supportive and loving.

My own journey has been more of a middle road and is a continual process. I find myself drawn to the story of Jesus and his mother. His biological father is nowhere to be found and his step-father seems to be a semi-remote figure that disappears either before or when he reaches adulthood. This is much like my own situation.

Growing up my mom and I were incredibly close. I was an only child (until my sister was adopted when I was 20) and I was homeschooled throughout highschool so I spent a lot of time with my mom. I talked with her about everything. Until I started to realize that the path I was on was one of which she would not approve. Then I stopped talking to her as much. Or I would talk to her but not tell her the things that were really important to me and over time the rift grew. From my perspective I thought she was too conservative, unwilling to listen to me, wouldn’t understand. I’m sure from her perspective she worried that I was making the wrong decisions and saw me growing farther and farther from her.

When I came out (first as gay and in a relationship with a woman) she was upset, but was kind. She accepted my partner, invited her to family functions. She even came to our wedding even though she didn’t approve. Throughout it all I tried to keep her in the loop on what was happening, told her when my partner and I got engaged, told her when we were getting married. It was hard to have those conversations with her but I knew they were important.
Then I moved out on my own; moving in with my partner. I realized that I was trans and knew I needed to transition. Much of my time in therapy in the lead up to beginning my medical transition was to talk about how my mother would deal with things. I was terrified. In fact, I think one of the reasons that kept me from realizing I was transgender for so long was a deep-seated fear/knowledge that my mother would disown me. And with that fear came a new fear; that she would keep me from ever seeing my adopted siblings again. So I kept putting off the conversation. I started testosterone and still hadn’t told my mother. My voice started to change and I still hadn’t told her. Finally I just stopped calling her because my voice was too different to pretend that nothing was happening but I just could not get up the courage to tell her what was happening.

After six months on testosterone I sat down and I wrote my mother a letter. I felt like a coward coming out to her in a letter but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it any other way. So I sent the letter and I waited. Terrified.

Her first response was that she needed time but that she loved me. It was a relief that she was still saying she loved me. Then she wanted to meet so we went out for lunch. I was tense and felt like I was going to throw up. The lunch was civil. I shared a bit about what was going on with me and she shared what she was going through and then it was over.

The next several months were up and down. A harsh phone call on my birthday that left me feeling like I was losing my family, then a kind email somewhere else. It seemed to me, though, that my mother would always see me as her little girl and that nothing would ever change that no matter how hurtful that was to me.

Then I decided I was going to get surgery. My mother was upset. Begged me to change my mind. Asked me to talk to her pastor. Her pastor emailed me an angry email telling me how unhappy I must be in order to change my body when in reality I was happy for the first time in my life. It was hard to get those emails and phone calls. I felt like maybe this would be the thing that would cause my mother to disown me.

Around this same time, though, my little sister ended up in the hospital. I dropped everything and came to stay at my mom’s house with my little brother. I stayed there for a week, calling out of work, changing all of my plans, being there for my family and things started to change with my mom. She never mentioned that I didn’t email her pastor back. When I got back from surgery she hugged my partner and thanked her for going with me and taking care of me. She called on Christmas morning (we got back from surgery Christmas eve) and invited us over because she wanted us to be with family on Christmas.

Since then things have only gotten better. She still uses female pronouns for me, but calls me her child instead of her daughter. She apologized to me once for calling me “woman”. I am still in my sibling’s lives and my family has supported me throughout my divorce.

And it makes me think of Mary’s trajectory; going from being shut out outside of the house to being present at the foot of the cross. She just wanted to keep her baby safe. Maybe she was outside of that house to warn Jesus, to make him see that he was getting into trouble. And then to follow him to the cross; to watch her baby boy die not knowing if he would be resurrected. The anguish only a mother can feel at watching her child suffer.
I’m sure there were times when Mary was angry with Jesus for following what he was called to do. She probably thought he was turning his back on his family, turning away from the things she had taught him. She thought he was making stupid decisions and getting himself into trouble. But yet she was at the cross in the hour that he needed her most.

We don’t get Mary’s perspective in this text. We only see her through a lens of Jesus. What a story she must have had to tell. What a story my mother has to tell.

I know there have been times when I have been impatient with my mother. When I have left her outside in the cold. When I have claimed other people as my family over her. But throughout it all she has stood by me, not perfectly, but steadfastly. I try to remember that this is a process for all involved. That she needs time to figure it out just like I need time. And so I try to let her in as much as I can. But most of all I let her know that she is my mother and I love her. I let her know that my family comes first and that I am there for her no matter what and will continue to be there for her no matter how much my body changes. I still carry the name she gave me and I am still her child, even as I hope that one day she will be able to call me her son.

Easter Saturday

easter saturday

There’s not much in the Passion narratives about Easter Saturday. We know that they hurriedly buried the body of Jesus because it was nearing the Sabbath. Then the next we hear of them is when they go to the tomb to anoint the body on Easter morning. What were they doing in the meantime? We don’t know if the twelve and the women were gathered together or if they were separated. We don’t know where they were staying. They had spent the last three years roaming the countryside, they had left their jobs and homes. I’m not sure where they would have gone. We know that after the resurrection they were gathered together in some room somewhere with the doors locked. Maybe they went there right after the crucifixion. There is nothing we know about this day.

In the silence emotions must have been raging. Maybe there were no words to express what the twelve and the women were feeling and so it seemed better left to silence. The person they had given everything up for was gone and it seemed they had nothing to show for it. They were alone. They were probably scared. And nothing really made sense. What is there to say about that?

There was a time in my transition that was like Easter Saturday. I wasn’t sure how things were going to turn out. I had left behind who I was. I was becoming unrecognizable but I wasn’t resurrected yet. My body was broken in a lot of ways. My surgery wounds were still bright red and angry. My body and voice was shifting and unsettled. My acne was out of control. It was awkward and painful. I was only being perceived as male about half of the time. This transformation was both public and private. The world and my friends could see me changing in a really public way, but I was still transitioning privately in a lot of ways. I couldn’t explain what I was going through. There weren’t words to explain how I was changing. I found speech more difficult than I ever had before. Words would get lost in the space between my mind and my mouth. I had to withdraw in order to process what I was going through. In a lot of ways I had to entomb myself in order to prepare for the resurrection. I know I said this before in the section about the crucifixion, but it bears repeating; after death and before resurrection is this weird silence.

In that time of silence my friends and family were left to wonder what was happening. They were left alone in the silence trying to figure out where they fit in my new life. They saw me changing but couldn’t quite tell who I would be. In a lot of ways their process had to be separate from my process. I think some of them probably came together to process what was happening while others tried to deal with it on their own.

I was on testosterone for over six months before I finally told my mother that I was transgender. In this way she lived her own Easter Saturday. We exchanged emails over that time, but there were no phone calls for about 2 or 3 months (and we had spoken fairly frequently before that). She must have known something was up by my silence. As she lived her own Easter Saturday, I lived mine. I was in a tomb that I wasn’t sure I was ready to emerge from. I didn’t know how to tell my mother about what I was going through. I didn’t think she could handle seeing or hearing from me as who I really was. I didn’t think she would be able to handle my transition. And then once she knew, but before she saw me (I came out in a letter), that waiting was its own kind of Easter Saturday. Would she recognize her own child? Would the child she gave birth to look like a stranger? Would the intimacy be lost? We dealt with our questions in isolation from one another.

The process of transition is a messy one. Both public and private. Both internal and external. When you set out it’s really hard to tell where you’ll end up. I had no idea what I would look like when all was said and done. Would I immediately start balding? Would facial hair grow in fast or slow? What would my chest surgery results be? How would my scars heal? Would I still be able to sing once my voice settled? How long would it take until I looked fully male? So many questions and no real answers. I was told that it all takes time. You just have to wait. And so I withdrew into my own head, my own heart to prepare myself and wait.

It’s this time that is perhaps the scariest part. At least when I was in the beginning there was always something to do; I had doctor’s visits to attend, blood work to get done. There was surgery planning and preparation. Then there was surgery and healing. And my friends and partner rallied around me to make sure that those things got done and I was supported. But then when it was all over there was just the waiting to see how it would all turn out. It was then that we had to face our real feelings about what was happening. I had to really decide who I was becoming. My friends and partner had to figure out how I fit into their lives now. And it’s terrifying. What if the resurrection doesn’t happen? Or what if it happens but it’s different than you were expecting?

And so we were all in silence. We were all waiting. For that is what happens on Easter Saturday. The world waits. The silence is complete. The story pauses. There is nothing and there is everything. There is darkness and then there is light.

The Crucifixion

crucifixion part one

Matthew 27: 45-46: From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Most of us know the story of the crucifixion. Growing up in the evangelical church it was used as a weapon to make those listening to the story feel so horrified by what Jesus suffered, because of them, that they would immediately dedicate their lives to Christ and commit to being better. I remember being told in horrific detail the manner of the torture and crucifixion of Jesus. It was as if the gorier the speaker could make it, the more we would be convicted.

As I left the church I grew up in, I discarded the story of the crucifixion. I didn’t want to deal with it any more. A theology that centered around torturing an innocent person because of the wrongdoings of other people was a theology that made me sick. A God who demanded such torture to appease His wrath (and this God was always male) was a God I wanted nothing to do with. I no longer believe that God demanded the sacrifice of Jesus in order to save the world from sin. I believe instead in a more political act; one in which Jesus is so committed to his calling to speak truth to power that he willingly dies on a cross. His willingness to die doesn’t overlook the horror of the act, though, or the wickedness of political power systems that would kill an innocent person because he threatened their sense of themselves.

I realize that writing about the crucifixion as a trans* narrative invites all sorts of grey areas, so let me get a few things out of the way first: I am not saying that transition is as horrifying as being crucified or being tortured. Yes, there is pain involved, but in my experience it was nothing like what Jesus must have experienced (besides, I was given vicodin). Suffering of any kind should never be glorified. I want to be clear on this; there is a tendency to elevate people who have suffered simply because they have suffered. I believe this is the wrong approach. Instead we should elevate and celebrate people because they survived and work to eradicate suffering. When I speak of suffering in this way I am speaking about abuse, torture, disease, poverty. Over the years there have been theologies written that say one should embrace their suffering because Jesus suffered. It has been used to tell women to stay in abusive homes, to tell people that they shouldn’t work to eradicate the systems that cause poverty, that somehow they should be happy in their suffering knowing they’ll get a better deal in the afterlife. That to me is complete and utter bullshit and the complete antithesis of the Gospel. Pardon my strong language but I need to be very clear on this point before we continue. Sometimes in life we suffer but our suffering should never be glorified. However sometimes our suffering leads us to a better place, helps us discover strength we didn’t know we had. Those outcomes are positive, but it still doesn’t mean we should glorify suffering. Now with all of that said, let’s begin.

Medical transition is an interesting time. It’s definitely a journey and there are stops along the way. And in a way, it is definitely a crucifixion experience. When I say that I mean that it is a slow death. The person you were slowly dies and disappears.

My transition began by first coming to terms with the fact that I was transgender and realizing that I needed to transition. I told my partner and some of my friends. Then I began the process of seeking out counseling.
There is a lot of debate around the medical/psychiatric profession and transitioning. It’s a long and complicated debate that doesn’t entirely pertain to this subject so I will skip most of it here. But for most people, in order to transition, one must go through a series of steps including a certain amount of counseling (which sometimes involves a diagnosis of gender identity disorder (another heated topic of debate) before one can access medical transition. I was fortunate to live in a city that allowed people to transition on an informed consent model; you were briefed on what the risks were, what the effects were, etc. and then you signed a statement allowing treatment. For me, though, counseling was important on a personal level and so I took that route.

I entered counseling with a wonderful counselor. Most of my counseling involved talking about issues other than my gender identity. It was, in a lot of ways, preparing me for transition and giving me the emotional tools to do things such as come out to my family, deal with communication issues with my partner, prepare for the stress of transitioning while in seminary, etc. After several months of counseling my therapist wrote a letter stating that I knew myself to be male, knew the risks of transitioning and that I understood that transition was permanent. I took this letter to a doctor and got initial blood tests. Then I was prescribed testosterone and got my first injection. Over the next couple of weeks I was trained to inject myself and my transition began.

My process is to inject myself every week with testosterone shots in my upper thigh. I will have to do this for the rest of my life. The next step of my transition was trying to figure out how I could have my chest reconstruction (or top) surgery. Most insurance companies don’t pay for any part of transition (although some do cover prescriptions and some surgeries) and at the time I was not insured anyway so I was paying for everything from doctor’s visits to prescriptions out of pocket. Chest surgery would cost at least $5500 plus travel expenses, hotel costs, time out of work (at least 4 weeks), and other various costs. I was fortunate that I was in school at the time and was able to get extra student loans to cover my surgery. A year after I started testosterone I was able to get chest surgery.

Up until my surgery I wore something called a binder. It’s a super tight shirt looking thing (mine looked like a white t-shirt) that had extra paneling. It held my breasts tight against my body so they looked more like pecs. Then I usually wore two shirts over top to camouflage my chest even more. Even in the summer. The binder was uncomfortable and hot. It pressed into my sides and left marks. I had permanent bruising around my waist where it rolled up and dug into my sides. The testosterone gave me hot flashes in the beginning and that coupled with the extra shirts made life really unbearable for a while. Not to mention the sheer mental discomfort of having breasts. Ever since puberty I hated them, but once I began transition they were unbearable. I was fortunate to be able to get surgery so soon. It’s something I am grateful for every day. But the time spent waiting for surgery weighed on my mind.
Meanwhile I was doing my weekly shots and slowly beginning to change. My voice started to deepen, my fat started to redistribute, facial hair and body hair began to ever so slowly fill in and become visible. My muscles began to develop more quickly and even a little bit of working out went a long way. My periods stopped (which was a huge relief). I dealt with hot flashes and a cracking voice as I was pretty much going through menopause and puberty simultaneously.

The changes were sometimes unbearably slow. I would look in the mirror and see nothing happening. Then sometimes I would catch glimpses of the person I was becoming and be filled with such joy. But the process was painful. My acne was out of control and very painful. I was still having people use the wrong pronouns for me, I still didn’t know what bathroom would be safe to use. I still had a chest that I hated and didn’t feel right in my clothing.
Surgery had me out of work for about six weeks. The recovery was at times painful. In the beginning I had drains in and couldn’t shower. That was probably the most miserable week of my life. The drains were incredibly painful, I couldn’t move very much and I just felt gross. After the drains were out things got progressively better, but healing still took time. I couldn’t reach up very high, I couldn’t lift or carry anything heavy. Driving was painful. I wore a padded vest pretty much 24 hours a day for a month. It was uncomfortable and constricting. The wounds took time to heal and the scarring even longer to fade.

This transitional time was a death in a lot of ways. I was dying to who I had been; I was becoming someone new, someone unrecognizable. I was in between in a lot of ways; not who I would someday be but no longer who I was. And those are just the physical aspects of transition, there were also mental things that happened that I wasn’t prepared for and couldn’t explain as they were happening. It’s to that aspect of transition that I turn next.

crucifixion part two

Transition is, by it’s nature, both intensely public and intensely private. In the Passion narrative there are parts that Jesus has to face alone. There were moments where his friends could not accompany him, moments when he was the only one experiencing the pain and suffering. Even though, in the end, all of the people involved would be transformed, they were all transformed in their own way.

Before I began to transition friends who were further along in their transitions or post transition tried to warn me about what a head trip it could be. They warned me about things I would experience that I couldn’t really prepare for. In many ways I wrote them off. In some ways I didn’t realize the truth of their advice until much later in my transition. The truth is that transition isn’t just physical, it is also mental. My friends could see my physical changes, they could hear my voice crack and see my scraggly facial hair, but they couldn’t understand what was going on in my mind and I had a really hard time letting them in.

I soon found that words didn’t come to me as easily as they once had. I found myself often with that feeling where a word is on the tip of your tongue but you can’t quite remember it. I realized that I was becoming more visual; I would see images that before would have done nothing for me and now left me aroused. I realized that I was more willing to speak up in class, but that even in my willingness I had a harder time making my point. As an intense introvert I needed even more time along to process the things I was feeling and experiencing.

I was consistently watching men and trying to understand how they acted around one another. I realized that there is a fine balance in making eye contact with another man; you look away too fast and you might be seen as an easy mark for violence, you look too long and you might invite violence. How do you appear not afraid but also not too forward?

I couldn’t always anticipate my moods and I was exhausted a lot. I withdrew from the world because I couldn’t bear to have someone get my pronouns wrong. I didn’t want to be introduced to new people or deal with party situations because they were uncomfortable. I began to really question whether or not I wanted to be out as a trans person or whether I wanted to simply be male.

As I became more comfortable in my own skin there was an element of peace in my life that hadn’t been there before.

But nothing happened overnight. It was all a process. Mostly a painful process. Painful as I tried to get people to understand and they couldn’t. Painful as I dealt with anxiety over giving myself a shot every week. The pain of the actual shot and muscle soreness. Fear that I would no longer be able to sing, or that because I couldn’t think of the right words I would lose my ability to write.

And through all of this there was the dissolution of my marriage, brought on by my transition. It was incredibly painful to have the person who had been my biggest supporter decide she could no longer be with me because I was becoming the person I was meant to be. Without going in to all of the details, it was an incredibly hurtful time. She was watching the person she loved die and couldn’t handle that.

Even though I knew that what was coming was going to be worth it, the process, in many ways, simply sucked. And as I was going through all of this physical and mental upheaval I still had to attend classes, do my homework, go to work (where I was a bartender at a steakhouse; try explaining your gender transition over the noise of political news and sports and see how well it goes!) and try to keep my marriage together. Needless to say something went better than others. I had patient professors for the most part and friends that helped me to get through. My schoolwork definitely suffered and so did my class attendance. I was lost in my own head a lot of the time. I poured out my thoughts in my journals when I could and watched television when I couldn’t. I tried to do things that brought me joy and reminded me of why I was doing this. I will say, though, that from the second I took my first shot of testosterone I never once questioned whether or not this was the right decision. I knew that I was doing the right thing. Even as things happened that I wished were different, even as outcomes came about that I wished I could change, I still knew that I needed to transition and that this was right.
There were dark moments where I wondered if I would make it through. There were dark moments where I worried that I would never be accepted by my family and would lose them. I worried about flunking out of seminary. I worried that my wife was going to leave me. I worried that I would never get to be in ministry and had to deal with the loss of a job that I feel to be my calling but which I am unable to do because I transitioned. There were moments where, while I knew this was the right decision, I still felt abandoned and forsaken. Moments where I couldn’t see anything but my own pain, moments when I wondered why this had to be my path. Moments when God was silent.

In the passion narrative it says that there was darkness over the whole land. Sometimes it felt like that. Like there was only darkness and pain and I was completely alone. That’s the hardest part of transitioning; being alone in the journey. The fact that even though it’s public, there is so much changing that no one can see and you feel like you’re in the dark.

You crucify your body because you have no other choice. Because you know that it’s the only way you are going to survive. Because even if there is no resurrection, there is no life in the way you’ve been living.

The Garden

the garden

Matthew 26: 36-46: Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if this is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again he went away for the second time and prayer, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Again he came and found them sleeping for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

Jesus knows he’s headed for trouble. He feels that the end is near. He knows that Judas is about to betray him; he knows Peter is going to bail. He knows that pain is coming, that he’s going to suffer. This is his dark night of the soul. He heads to a quiet place. We can assume that since Judas knew right where to find him that maybe it’s a spot he’s gone before. He pulls aside his best friends and asks them to just keep watch with him. All of his disciples are with him, but he pulls aside those he is closest to; the ones he had his initial coming out to, the ones who had (up to this point) stood by him through everything. He asks them to stay awake while he struggles.
He goes off by himself and has some words with God. He’s agitated and upset. He’s grieving over what is to come. He begs God to let the cup pass from him. He begs God to make things different, to let there be another way. But even in the begging he is resigned to the fact that he might not get what he wants. After a time of intense prayer he goes back to find his friends sleeping. He chides them and tells them that they need to stay awake; that they should be praying for strength because they might not be able to withstand what’s coming next. Then he goes off and prays some more.
The second time he comes back to find his friends sleeping he lets them sleep. I can imagine him being annoyed that they couldn’t remain awake, but there is also a gentleness there; allowing them to sleep, not getting angry. He goes off to pray for a third time and says the same things. Then he wakes up his friends and gets ready to face what’s next.

I think that many of us can identify with this passage. The “dark night of the soul”. The moments where we wonder why we’re going through a trying time, we wonder what God is thinking. We beg God to make it better, to make it hurt less, to teach us the lesson in any other way.

Before I began my transition there were definitely times when I wanted things to be different. I wanted to be able to live as a woman, I wanted to be happy in my own skin. I begged God to let me be okay with myself. I was worried about what I would face, worried about losing my family, worried about losing my partner. I was worried that I would still be unhappy, or that transitioning wouldn’t be enough. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a job, that I would lose friends, that I would be considered a freak. I didn’t know how I would afford all of the costs related to transitioning and I worried about the pain of surgery. Basically I was asking God to let this cup pass from me.
There is another interesting part of this passage; Jesus’ interactions with his friends. It’s easy for us to understand why he would be upset with them for falling asleep. Didn’t they know what was coming? Why couldn’t they support him in this? Weren’t they paying attention when he told them what to expect? There were definitely times throughout my transition, especially in the beginning, where I felt like I wasn’t getting the support I needed from my friends or my partner. Looking back I realize that it wasn’t their fault, they were supporting me the best way they could, but sometimes it was too much. My transition was all encompassing. It took up all of my thoughts and consumed me. I was obsessed with counting every new hair, devastated when I wasn’t perceived as male. I needed them to be a support that no person could really be. I’m sure there were times that I railed on them, “can’t you just listen to me for one more minute?” What I love about this scene with Jesus is that he yells at them the first time, but then he lets them sleep. He seems to understand (in a way that I couldn’t) that they needed time to recharge, to not have to deal with my transition. They needed to talk about something else. They needed me to have fun with them that wasn’t about me or about transitioning. That’s a lesson that I understand in hindsight but that was really difficult to understand at the time.

I think it’s important for us trans* folks to realize that sometimes our support systems need time to sleep. To rest up. They need to have their own outlets and support groups. They need to have fun. They need to have conversations with us that don’t revolve around our transition. While I realize that essentially a lot of transition is a very introspective and personal time, the world doesn’t stop for our partners and friends. They still have their own problems, concerns and fears. We need to give them time to rest.

In the end what came of my conversations with God was an understanding that transitioning was something I had to do. I knew that there was no other choice when I got to the point where I realized that even if I lost my family and my partner; even if I couldn’t find a job or my life was difficult, I knew that I needed to transition and I was willing to take whatever came with it. I knew that for God’s will to be done in my life, for me to be all that God had intended me to be I needed to transition. I needed to walk the path to Jerusalem. Sure there was a part of me that wished I could just skip the path to Jerusalem, go right to the resurrection. There were times on my journey that I desperately wanted to skip ahead, get to the good stuff, forget all of this pain. But in the end, the walk to Jerusalem is what made the resurrection worthwhile (but we’ll get to that part later).

Jesus needed the time in the garden to steel himself for what was ahead. His friends needed that time in the garden to rest up so they could be a better support system for Jesus. We all do the things that we need to do to get through. Wrestling with God in this way doesn’t make us less faithful or somehow unwilling, it just means we’re being honest about how hard it is to follow the will of God sometimes. I think God invites these conversations.

Peter’s Betrayal

peter’s betrayal

Matthew 26:30-35: When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. Then Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters because of me this night: for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.” But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.’ Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And so said all of the disciples.

Peter, Jesus’ most staunch supporter. The impulsive one. The first to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. He’s the one who seems to “get it” in a way that the others don’t. Jesus leans on Peter in a way he doesn’t lean on the others. He is the one that is always pulled aside for extra teaching. When Jesus talks to a smaller group of the twelve Peter is always included. It was always Jesus and Peter. And yet, in this most trying of times for Jesus, Peter becomes the denier. What is it in Peter that won’t allow him to stand by Jesus at the time Jesus needs him most? Is it Peter’s fear? Does he worry what other people will think about him or what will happen to him? Is he concerned about his own identity, about whether he’ll be cast out of the assembly that he has grown to be comfortable in. You wonder why? He’s already given up his profession and his family to follow Jesus, why not take this final step in declaring himself a follower of Jesus?

I was married to a woman when I first admitted to myself that I was trans. In fact, she was the first person to say to me, do you think you might be trans? She got it in a way that I didn’t even get it. She was my biggest supporter in the beginning. She promised to be there as I told my mother, as I came out in my seminary, as I began the process of medical transition. She traveled with me for my chest surgery (even though, as I found out later, she was having some doubts by this point) and cared for me in the aftermath. But after all of my transitioning, she decided that she was no longer attracted to me and that she couldn’t remain my wife. We parted ways.

She struggled with my change in identity. It was hard for her to be with someone who was male. While she supported my self-discovery she was unable to be partnered with someone like me. She felt invisible as I became invisible. Her queer identity was erased in a lot of ways by my transition. As I became more comfortable with being male and identifying less as trans, she felt more and more betrayed. And so despite our marriage vows and promises to one another, we needed to end the marriage.

I say all of this not to demonize her, but instead to illustrate how even the people we expect will be the most on board with our transition are sometimes the ones who will end up denying us. Not in the sense that they deny our identity (although sometimes that happens as well), but in the sense that they can’t partner with us as our new selves. There will be people in our lives who will “get it” but who won’t be able to stay in relationship with us. They will need to go their own way.

Now we know part of the end of the story with Peter; He and Jesus reconcile and Peter does become one of the leaders of the church. Peter does get to retain his ties to the Jewish community even as he attempts to reform it and preach Jesus’ life and message. The thing is, we don’t get to see how Jesus and Peter’s relationship plays out post-resurrection. We get glimpses in the reconciliation, but even in those moments there is hurt on both sides. Jesus tests Peter by asking him three times, “Do you love me?” That must have stung. It must have been hard for Peter to be reminded of how he had failed. You have to wonder what Jesus was thinking in that moment. Was he trying to get back at Peter? He must have known that asking that question and repeating it three times would have been painful for Peter. And I get it; there are moments when I wish I could ask people in my life that couldn’t stick around questions. Questions that might be painful for both of us, but questions that could maybe lead to reconciliation. So while there is a reconciliation moment I wonder if Peter and Jesus would have continued to hang out every day or if they would have needed some space.

In this situation both Jesus and Peter are justified in a lot of ways. Jesus absolutely has the right to be hurt by Peter’s betrayal, anyone would be hurt. And Peter had his reasons for denying Jesus. He was confused, he was hurt, he was scared, he felt like he was losing himself. While Peter could have handled it in a more constructive manner, the truth is that sometimes we do things that we need to do in ways that we might regret later. I can’t help but think that Peter regretted the way he went about distancing himself from Jesus.

For my partner and I neither one of us was in the wrong. I needed to transition. She wasn’t attracted to men and needed to be with a woman. Neither of those things is wrong, it was just unfortunate that we couldn’t be what the other one needed. While we can still be in relationship, the relationship needs to look a lot different than it once did. We aren’t in the same community anymore, we’re not part of each other’s inner circle in the same way. She still supports my transition, but not in the role of partner or wife. It’s not been easy for either of us, but in the end it has been what we both needed.

In all of our transitions there will be people who will not be able to handle our transition. People who will cut us out of their lives. There will be people we will need to cut ties with for our own mental health and safety. Those will not be easy conversations to have. Sometimes there will be a reconciliation that can happen, it might be months or even years later. And sometimes we will be able to remain in relationship with people but with different definitions; partners become friends, friends become acquaintances, and other relationships shift. It will be painful for all involved, and sometimes we will need to ask, “do you love me?” and hope the answer will be, “Of course, you know I do.”