Archives for November 2011

A Sermon for TDOR

(a repost from 2009, this is a sermon preached in 2008, but it still resonates with me)

this is a sermon preached on “transgender day of remembrance”.  as a part of the service there was the yearly ritual where the names of all of those killed in the last year are read. in our setting we had the branches of a tree set up in the center of the room. empty branches. as each person entered the space they were given a ribbon with the name of a person on it. after the sermon, as the names were read, whoever was holding the ribbon would come forward and tie it to the branches.

thanks to rachelle mee-chapman at http://www.magpie-girl.com/ for the ritual idea.

TDOR

by: s

Today marks the first time that this seminary has had a chapel for the international Transgender Day of Remembrance. There is a history of this memorial on the bulletin you received at the door. This is the 10th year that time has been set aside for this event and events like this one will be held all over the world.

Today is a day that is set aside to remember the people that have been murdered in the past year because of their gender identity or gender expression. Most of the time the ceremonies that mark this day are not religious in nature and I’ve got to admit I struggled with writing this sermon. I struggled with how to balance rage, grief, and the need for celebration. Because today isn’t just about remembering those who have been killed, but it’s also to celebrate their lives and the lives of other transgender and gender non-conforming people. But how do we get to the celebration?

I don’t want to preach from a place of rage, but I find that I have to start there. I am angry at the fact that sometimes I feel like a one man transsexual menace on Union’s campus, a voice crying in the wilderness asking people to pay attention to our struggle, asking people to treat us with respect, asking people to use the right pronoun for me only to be met with silence, or excuses, or disrespect.

I feel rage at the fact that we even have to hold this event. I am filled with rage over the way that the news media reports on the deaths of transgender and gender non-conforming people; how they sensationalize our deaths and yet can’t even get our names and pronouns right. I am filled with rage at the silence of the world over the deaths of transgender and gender non-conforming people, angry at parents and friends that can’t accept our lives, angry at religious institutions and churches that kick us out, silence us, and deny our humanity. I am angry that as we read these names we find they are mainly women of color. Angry that we still live in a racist and misogynistic society.  How do we celebrate when there is so much injustice?

And I realize that I can’t stay with the anger, but the anger and the rage quickly fades to a grief that overwhelms me. As I prepared the list of names for today’s service I found myself getting overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of names. Overwhelmed because it seemed like every day that I woke up there was another new name on the list. And I felt sick as I looked over this list and saw the brutal ways in which these people were murdered. And I struggle with that. Because how do we celebrate the lives of these people when all we know of them in a lot of cases is how they died? I don’t want to do the same thing the media does and sensationalize only the deaths of transgender people, but at the same time, I look at this list and I am overwhelmed by the brutality. People shot execution style, people stabbed and left to bleed to death, people shot over and over, people strangled, people drowned. I am overwhelmed with the grief I feel. I am overwhelmed with disregard that we have for these bodies, for the humanity of these people. I feel powerless to stop all of the killing. I feel grief over all of these powerful people who were killed so young. The youngest on this list was only 15. 15 years old and someone was so afraid of gender difference that they killed him.

I feel grief over our churches that will still deny us ordination and membership. I heard a song yesterday by Arcade Fire, and there was a line that said “Working for the church while your life falls apart, You are singing hallelujah with the fear in your heart.” How many transgender people sit in our pews singing hallelujah with that fear in their heart? Fear of damnation, fear of rejection.

How do we celebrate in the midst of such grief?
How do we get to the celebration? Where is the hope?

Some days I don’t feel it. Some days I can’t get out of the rage. Some days I can’t get past the grief. Some days I can’t get to the celebration.

And I gotta be honest, most of the time the bible or the church aren’t the first places I turn for comfort. Because there are a lot of people hiding their hate behind religious words, and the Bible has been used over and over again to demonize me and my community. It’s heartbreaking for me to be told in not so many words (and even here) that I can’t possibly be a Christian because I don’t fit someone’s interpretation of the Bible. It’s hard to be robbed of my own tradition, my own faith by the very people I should be in community with. The church doesn’t have a great track record on welcoming my trans brothers and sisters. Some days it seems like it would be better to just leave the religion out of it, but on those days when I can manage to get past the rage and the grief and when I find the strength to claim the Bible as my own in spite of the people who use it as a weapon against me. On those days, I find comfort and cause for celebration.

In the book of Isaiah, in the 56th chapter there is this interesting passage: it says:

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;
and do not let the eunuch say,
‘I am just a dry tree.’
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.

Some scholars have said that the eunuch is the closest biblical example we have to modern transpeople. Whatever the case, eunuchs were outcasts from society. They were denied a place in the holy assembly. They were looked down upon and despised. And yet here God is saying that they will be given a name that is better than sons and daughters. Friends, this is good news to transgender and gender non-conforming people. We know what it means to have names chosen for us that don’t fit, or to be called names that are hurtful. We also know what it means to choose names for ourselves that represent all of who we are. And we honor one another by using those chosen names even when others refuse to.

But to have an everlasting name; one that will not be cut off; this is hope for those of us who feel like outcasts. This monument is hope to those who have been killed and to those who worry they will be forgotten. This passage brings me great comfort: to know that I am a beloved son of God and that God gives me an everlasting name, even if my family rejects me, even if the church doesn’t want me, there is a place for me in God’s eyes. This isn’t just some cheap hope. I don’t offer it as a placebo, to say that we should stop fighting for our place at the table, our place in society and the church. Instead I offer it as a raft in the ocean for when the fight gets too hard. I offer it in response to the fearful hallelujah. I offer it because it’s the best I have to offer. We are beloved children of the Universe and no one can take that away from us. We are beloved children. We are beloved.

And we celebrate the work that transgender and gender non-conforming people are doing within our own community; how we’re taking care of one another and working for change. How we’re empowering ourselves and fighting for justice. How we serve as our own families, raising funds for families who can’t afford to pay for funerals, helping one another to navigate medical systems that can be antagonistic and judicial systems that can be oppressive. We are doing the work and that is something to be celebrated.

And I pray that one day our churches will become true places of community. I pray that our society will welcome the outcast. That we will take to heart the words of the song sung earlier, that we need one another to survive. I pray that one day we will really believe that and live it out. Until that day, we celebrate knowing that the change will come. That we will cling to the oft-quoted Martin Luther King Jr. quote, “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” That we will believe in that justice for ALL of us. That we realize the community involves ALL of us.

In the center of our circle is a dried up tree. Today we will place names upon this tree, making our own monument, remembering those who have been killed, celebrating their lives, calling them by name. We will bring this tree to life with color and with memory. Today we feel rage. Today we feel grief. Today we celebrate. We allow all of these things to permeate us, allowing these things to motivate us. And we cannot separate the one thing from the other. We celebrate not in spite of rage or grief but because of it. We celebrate the lives of these men and women. We hold them in our community and offer them love.

Today we know that none of us are cut off. Today we remember.

copyright 2008 by s

Wounded Healers

“Hurt people hurt people”. I’d heard this line before and thought it was kind of cheesy, but it was said again this weekend at the Transgender Religious Leaders Summit and this time it has been rattling around in my brain. (I would like to state up front that this post isn’t just about trans* people or queer people in general but all of us who are called to the holy work of ministry or service.)

Many of us are being called to work in the church or ministry or other “helping professions”. Queer people have always been part of these callings, but it’s been only in the past decade or so that they’ve been able to serve in them openly and honestly. And many of us who are queer have suffered deep, deep hurt at the hands of society and the church.

The wounded-ness we have experienced has the potential to be a great spiritual gift. We know what it’s like to suffer and to be outcast. We know how it feels to be put down for who we are. We know what it means to live with honesty and integrity no matter what the cost (and for some of us the cost has been quite high, even death). We know the struggle to integrate our whole selves, the struggle to cling to our faith in spite of the people who would try to deny it to us. These are gifts that we bring to the church.

But we also bring our pain and our struggle. And we must be really careful to continually be making sure that we don’t project our pain onto other people. That we don’t use our pain as an excuse for behaving badly or for oppressing others. Often, those of us who have been hurt can hurt people without meaning to. It’s important to be cognizant of the ways in which we are hurt and hurting. It’s important to own our own grief and shame. And it’s especially important not to project that onto other people.

I’ve just finished reading “The Wounded Healer” by Henri J.M. Nouwen and found so much in it that resonated with me as a queer person who is also a minister.

Nouwen says,

“But how can we avoid this danger? I think by no other way than to enter ourselves first of all into the center of our existence and become familiar with the complexities of our inner lives. As soon as we feel at home in our own house, discover the dark corners as well as the light spots, the closed doors as well as the drafty rooms, our confusion will evaporate, our anxiety will diminish, and we will become capable of creative work. The key word here is articulation. The man [sic] who can articulate the movements of his inner life, who can give names to his varied experiences, need no longer be a victim of himself, but is able slowly and consistently to remove the obstacles that prevent the spirit from entering.”(page 38)

As trans* people we have had to work hard to uncover those inner complexities and have had to learn how to articulate our deepest experiences in a world in which they are often no words for what we are experiencing. Nouwen goes on to say, “Only he who is able to articulate his own experience can offer himself to others as a source of clarification.” (page 38) One of the dangers I think we face though is this: “It would be very easy to misuse the concept of the wounded healer by defending a form of spiritual exhibitionism.” (page 88) Often we have been continually silenced and even denied our humanity. When we get into a room we want to be heard. We want to share our struggles and our pain. But as ministers we need to be careful to not bleed our own pain all over other people. In those moments of ministry it cannot be about working out our own pain. Instead we need to use the reality of our pain to allow us to enter more deeply into the pain of others. Which can be incredibly scary. It’s easier to continue to talk about our own pain, to act out our pain on other people, to blame other people for our woundedness (which isn’t to say that other people aren’t sometimes the cause, but that we can’t really heal until we come to terms with what it is that is hurting us).

I think all of this is why it’s so important for us to be able to gather together as trans* people and as religious leaders. To be in a space together where we can minister to one another. Where we can express and name our own pain so that when we are in ministry settings we can embrace others.

Nouwen says, “What does hospitality as a healing power require? It requires first of all that the host feel at home in his own house, and secondly that he create a free and fearless place for the unexpected visitor.” (page 89) How we trans* folks have struggled to feel at home in the house of our bodies! This is truly one of the great gifts we have to offer to the world: The experience of fighting to feel at home on ones’ own skin. I feel like that struggle in my own life has allowed me to learn deep truths about the physicality of humanity and the physicality of religious experience. Being able to articulate those things is something that was hard won but that is a gift I can offer to people I come into contact with. Being in touch with what it means to feel disconnected from ones’ own body allows me to enter into the experience of all people who are experiencing pain or betrayal over the ways in which their bodies are working (or not working). Certainly I don’t understand all experiences, but I can tap into something deep within myself to show empathy. This wasn’t possible before I admitted to myself the disconnect I was feeling from my own body. Before I was able to admit to myself that I was trans* I was completely cut off from my own physicality. I could barely admit to myself that I even had a body and I most certainly did not feel at home inside of it. My own grappling has taught me a lot and makes me be able to be present for people in a way that I couldn’t before.

One of Nouwen’s final thoughts in the book is: “Therefore ministry is a very confronting service. It does not allow people to live with illusions of immortality and wholeness. It keeps reminding others that they are mortal and broken, but also with the recognition of this condition, liberation starts.” (page 93) It is our job as ministers to be present with people in their brokenness. To allow them to know that brokenness isn’t a sin, but is instead the place where resurrection can begin. It has been incredibly empowering for me as a trans* person (and this is just my own experience of my transition) to claim transition as a crucifixion process, one that wounds and bleeds and leaves me with scars, but one from which my resurrection sprang. It is from my pain that the places of deepest growth and transformation have occurred. Those experiences have allowed me to enter into the brokenness of others and to hold space for them to grieve and to heal.

I want trans* ministers to really make sure that we are doing the hard work of tending to our own wounds. That when we enter into ministry we are not doing it to ignore our own wounds or to run away from them, but in order to allow ourselves to enter more deeply into the experiences of others. But we cannot do that if our wounds are open and bleeding. We cannot be present if we have not stopped the bleeding. If our pain is still so loud that we cannot hear another person then we are not able to be present. This is the difficult task of being a minister. We need to make sure that we are not continuing a cycle of hurt by acting out our pain on other people. Or by silencing other people because we are so desperate to be heard. Hurt people hurt people. We need to be wounded healers instead.

Quotes come from The Wounded Healer by Henri J.M. Nouwen. Copyright 1972 by Henri J.M. Nouwen, published by Doubleday.

Start What You Need

At the Transgender Religious Leader Summit I briefly met a woman who started the Order of St. Hildegard (which apparently doesn’t have a website). It’s a religious order in the way of Benedictine for transgender women. She told the story of starting the order. She had felt a calling to the life of a devoted religious but there was no where for her to pursue that vocation. So she started it herself. I loved hearing her talk about it and seeing her wear her alb throughout the weekend.

It made me think about the things that I feel called to but feel like I can’t be a part of because they don’t exist. I, too, have been exploring a call to the life of a devoted religious. Exploring what it would mean for me to live in community or to be a part of a monastic order. And realizing that I’m not sure there is one that would take me. Or one that I could join in good conscience.

I dream of an order that takes seriously both contemplation and activism. That spends a lot of time in silence and devoted reading and prayer and then goes out and works at changing the world. I see an order that is accepting of queerness. And I see House of the Transfiguration as a part of this idea. A church/monastery that is open to all where the rhythms of prayer and contemplation uphold the community as it seeks to live out justice. I appreciate so much the example of the Carthusian monks (and that ideal of solitude really appeals to me as an introvert) and so I would want that to be incorporated in as well. But instead of silence and solitude being permanent I would hope that it would be the fuel that would allow us to engage in powerful and profound ways. And even our silence and solitude would be an example to the lives of over scheduled and hectic people.

I know there are some communities that are doing this. They call themselves new monastics. Many are not queer inclusive, though. Or they don’t follow the ideals of praying the Divine Office (every group has it’s own rhythms so that’s not a slam, but just saying that I would want that as an ideal). I envision a community that is a little more traditional than many of the new monastics, but is also more radical than many traditional monastics.

This is yet another part of my dream. I am starting to talk more about this stuff because for a long time I kept silent. I didn’t talk about what I was feeling called to do because it seemed silly or unrealistic. I didn’t think people would understand. But as I’ve put little bits out there I’ve seen people’s eyes light up and heard people say “I’ve been longing for that, too.” So I’m putting it out there. I’m not sure anything will come of it, but I want it to be spoken aloud.

To me this could be the beginning of a life of anarchist ideals lived out. A community where no one is in charge but all take responsibility for themselves and the world. Contemplation that fuels action that drives one back to contemplation. This is the life I am trying to cultivate for myself. And this is the life I hope to be able to embark upon in community.

What is it that you’re dreaming of? What is it that you need? What are you feeling called to start?

Trans* Community

I spent this past weekend at the Transgender Religious Leaders Summit. It’s a gathering for trans* identified people of faith to gather and share experiences, knowledge, and build community. This is the fifth year the event has been held, but the first year I have been able to attend. It’s a pretty cool group of people. Mostly folks from the Abrahamic faiths, but also a couple of pagan folks and others. Each year I think they get a more diverse crowd.

While at the summit I didn’t attend very many sessions. I get impatient and I’m usually over socialized and exhausted at conferences. So I gave myself permission to do whatever felt right. This time it meant that I spent a lot of time in the lobby or outside just talking with folks. (I did lead a discussion for trans* identified seminarians but that’ll be for another post.)

Reflecting on the weekend I am struck by a couple of things that I want to sort out over a couple of blog posts. Tonight I want to talk about community.

Being trans* isn’t my entire life. I’m sure it seems that way if you read my blog or twitter stream, but in reality during the day to day it doesn’t always come up. I don’t usually talk about it. I certainly don’t often forget that I’m trans*; I’m reminded of that in lots of ways throughout the day, but for the most part I have the privilege of moving through life without it being a major issue. But even that silence can wear on a person. (Although this statement isn’t entirely true as there are many things I have to contend with daily: bathrooms, a heightened awareness every time I step outside, etc.)

One of the afternoons of the summit I sat around with a couple of other trans* guys. We laughed a lot. We talked about the unique challenges we face as trans* men, as ministers, the complications in our dating lives and in our church work. And it was so nice. I didn’t have to explain myself. I didn’t have to clarify or educate. I could make jokes and know that these men would get it. We could laugh at our experiences. I left feeling so comforted.

It can get really lonely sometimes. There are things that I have to think about and worry about that other people don’t understand. There are parts of my ministry that are more complicated. My ordination process is going to be longer and more involved than it is for other folks. There are fears that I have that I can’t really share with other people, or if I share them they won’t be understood. That sense of isolation can be exhausting.

The reality is that unless you are trans* there are certain things about being trans* that you just can’t understand. It was so nice to have a space in which the voices and experiences of trans* people were given priority. A space for us to share our stories. But this wasn’t just about being heard, it was and is about building a movement that works toward the liberation of all people.

I am so thankful for the gift of this weekend. Thankful for the people that shared their lives and hearts with me. Thankful for their willingness to be open about their own fears and struggles. Thankful for laughter and silliness.

Queer People Should Keep Silent

Why do you have to talk about being trans* all of the time? We get it. It’s part of your identity. We’re fine with it. We just wish you didn’t feel like you always had to include it. There’s so much more to your identity than just that, so why do you make it such a big deal?

These are questions that I and my colleagues (both trans* and cisgender queer folks) get asked all of the time. Especially in the context of our ministries/activism. And on the one hand I get the questions. Especially from liberal communities and congregations who really are completely fine with queerness. And yes, my queer identity is only one part of my identity.

But.

My first critique to this response is that we don’t ask other people to be silent about their identities when we find their identities acceptable. We don’t ask mothers to not talk about their children, or people to not talk about their work. We don’t tell them that their love of baseball doesn’t belong as a sermon analogy. We don’t ask people not to talk about their spouses or the ethnic identity of their family (so long as that ethnic identity is something that won’t “challenge” our own ethnic identity). But these identities are socially acceptable in most cases. These identities don’t carry with them the threat of violence. A mother who kisses her children in public doesn’t have to worry about being told she’s an abomination (although a mother breastfeeding her child in public might have to worry about this). Husbands and wives can hold hands and walk down the street without paying attention to their surroundings. A single, cisgender person can go on a date without worrying that the encounter will turn violent if their lover finds a body they weren’t expecting.

In a lot of ways, at this point in my life, my queerness is invisible. I am single and so my sexual orientation isn’t apparent to folks. I have the privilege of passing and so my trans* identity isn’t apparent to folks. Unless I can name my reality, I am erased. I am assumed to be a cisgender, straight man. But that is not my reality.

My queerness shapes and frames the rest of my reality. It influences my theology in profound ways. In many ways it is through my queerness that I encounter God. My queerness has deepened my spirituality in powerful ways. It has also drawn me into the heart of God for the poor, the oppressed, the orphan and the widow. My experiences as a queer person are my gift to give to the church. The insights I have gained, the new ways that I read Scripture, that is my gift. And when a church calls a queer person, you are calling us in all of our identities and realities. You are calling us in the wholeness of our queer selves.

Every time you ask us to be silent you are attempting to erase us. Every time you ask us to focus on other parts of our lives you are telling us that our queerness is shameful and shouldn’t be talked about. Every time you tell us to “talk about something else for a change” you are overlooking the fact that for many of us our queerness shapes how we walk through the world. (and by the way, when all you hear of a 25 minute sermon is the one line where we name our queer identity, it brings up that maybe you are not as okay with queerness as you think you are!)

When you tell us not to name our queerness from the pulpit you are not only telling us that our queerness has nothing to do with our ministry, but also that the queer people in our pews don’t deserve to have their reality named. You are telling the queer youth that they don’t need role models. You are telling the same gender families that they don’t need to see their family life reflected in the life of worship.

You are telling us that you find us shameful. And that we would be more acceptable to you if we just pretended we were just like you. If our identities aren’t shameful, then we should be able to talk about them. And if you are bothered by talk of queerness, then the work sits with you, not with the queer person.

But we have different experiences and struggles. We still face discrimination. We still face fear. And our identities are intersectional and include the ways in which we experience our race, class, gender, and numerous other realities. We cannot separate things out and just remove our queerness. These unique challenges shape the ways in which we see the world. And they shape the ways in which we move through it. They have strengthened us and challenged us. They provide a perspective that your experience cannot provide. They are a gift.

As ministers and activists we need to bring our whole selves to the work. If we are to preach healing we must be on a journey of healing. If we are to model authentic spirituality then we must be able to be authentic. We all are called to be whole people. My wholeness includes my queerness. And I won’t be silent about the blessing that has been to my life.

TRLS begins

I’m in Berkeley California for the 5th annual Transgender Religious Leaders’ Summit. Over the next couple of days I’ll try to share some of my reflections and reactions to the Summit.

First off a couple of disclaimers:

* I am not very good at conferences. I am an extreme introvert.
* I don’t like large groups very much (what I really want to do is have a couple of really in-depth, one on one conversations).
* When other people are socially awkward (and there are always some at conferences) my anxiety shoots up. The people don’t even have to be socially awkward with *me*, if there is social awkwardness happening I am going to feel anxious about it.
* I HATE small talk. Once I am into a conversation with someone I am generally okay. If you ask me questions I can answer them and converse. If we are going to spend more than three minutes exchanging idle chit chat I am going to get bored.

So all of that to say that if you’ve met me at a conference I’m sorry. I probably wasn’t my best self. I was probably stressed out or annoyed or awkward. If you meet me at this conference and find me stand offish, know that I’m not trying to be a jerk I am probably just seriously overwhelmed.

(On another random note, being in ministry has completely ruined worship services for me. I cannot sit through them without critiquing them. Even if they are lovely (like the service tonight) I feel all judgy. I’m working on it.)

Okay, now that all of that is out of the way, evening one of the summit!

The summit began with opening remarks, thanks to all of the people who made it possible, etc. Then a wonderful dinner catered by a local company. After dinner we went to the chapel to have a Transgender Day of Remembrance service. The service included singing, the Kadish, a Psalm, the saying of the names of those who have been killed in the last year, a meditation on hope, and a closing blessing.

I struggle with Transgender Day of Remembrance services. On the one hand I think they are really important. It is important for us to remember those who have been killed because of anti-trans violence. It is important to remember them, to speak their names aloud, to honor their lives. It is vital that we say their chosen names, use the right pronouns, and remember.

But I also think that we have begun to define our community by violence. Tonight as a part of the service we were all given cards with the name of someone who had been killed. We were to take them up to the front of the chapel, saying their name aloud, and pinning the card to blue and white fabric (meant to symbolize a cloud) hanging from the ceiling. Beautiful and powerful gestures. Yet on these cards along with the name of the person and the city was the way they were killed. And almost all of the means of death are horrific. It’s important for folks to note the extreme violence with with trans* people are treated, but in our own community, in our own context, we get so caught up in the violence. We define ourselves by the violence we face.

I need times to come together and mourn with my community. I need acknowledgement that being trans* can sometimes be really hard. I need to be around other people that get it.

And yet. I don’t want us to be a community that is defined by what others do to us. I don’t want us to be a community defined by what other people think of us.

We have more to give the world than just our deaths.

A young woman gave a beautiful reflection on hope tonight. She said the gift that trans* people have to offer to the world is their integrity. That in the midst of a very diverse community the one thing we all have in common is our honesty about who we are. It’s a beautiful thing to remember and I was thankful for her words. That is the kind of thing we need to be focusing on: the gifts we have to give to the world.

I say all of this not to say we shouldn’t have TDOR events, but that those shouldn’t be the *only* times we come together as a community. TDOR should be the only service we have. The only times I have been in a trans* centric worship experience have been TDOR. Trans* people are sometimes included in other religious services like “coming out day” chapels or what not, but not in a central role and that’s really frustrating. We need there to be other places that celebrate our community.