Liminal Spaces

This sermon was first preached at the First UU congregation in Brooklyn, NY on 11/6/2011. It explores the intersection of gender and privilege and how that affects the lives of Transgender, Intersex and Gender Queer folk.

On Friday, I had the true joy of officiating a double wedding of two couples who had been together for 29 and 39 years. In the Minister’s Study, just to my right through that side door, where some of you may later go for our newcomers’ gathering – these two couples witnessed one another’s wedding. They shared the same readings; they had their own vows; and they were pronounced in joyful succession. I’ve had the honor before of officiating over another gay male couple and a lesbian couple’s wedding, but Friday was the first time that I could add the words, “By the power vested in me by the State of New York.” I think these were the first and second legally recognized same-gender weddings in our congregation. I’m grateful to be in a religious community that finds reason to celebrate this!

Following the ceremony we brought out the marriage licenses. We pulled out the black pen required by NYC law and set to signing them. I love the new forms. Instead of reading “bride” on one line and “groom” on another – they now read, “Bride/Groom/Spouse” and “Bride/Groom/Spouse.” Every option is covered, and they don’t bother with flipping the order of Bride and Groom. Our couples can now imagine themselves Bride and Bride, or Groom and Groom, or Spouse and Spouse. It seems like a small privilege,  but considering our history around marriage, dowries, gender and bodies – I think it’s a really huge step forward.

My subconscious has been playing with this last point about gender all week. I’ve been reading Kate Bornstein’s “Gender Outlaws” and rereading Emilie Townes “Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil.” The other night I dreamt that I was leading a school trip – presumably a UU religious education school trip – to the 1950s. The adult-to-grade-school kid ratio was higher than usual, but considering the distance we were traveling it was probably wise. I’m still a little shocked that everyone signed the permission slips, but who am I to judge…

At first our biggest problem was not too unlike our usual challenges around field trips. The kids wanted to take photos of everything with their cell phones. In hindsight we should have confiscated them ahead of time, not merely so that they would hold better attention, but so that the locals didn’t realize we were outsiders from the future. I think all my science fiction television watching was intuitively warning me not to mess too much with the timeline by revealing anachronisms. But electronics aside, we were doomed to stand out, because we didn’t think to require a strict dress code.

It was kind of a huge oversight on our part. Try to get into the mindset of the 1950s. Less than half of us in this room were alive in 1950, well maybe half, and only a handful of us were adults then at that time. You’d be in your 70s now if you were an adult then. For those of you who were, I would love to hear your take on my imagination about it later. Our boys were in loose jeans and baggy t-shirts, and our girls were in tight jeans and even tighter t-shirts. Some girls had baseball caps, and some boys – like myself – had satchels.

We simply stuck out. Our attire was gendered for our modern sensibilities. The guys wanted to keep their clothes as loose as possible because tight clothes on a guy is often code for being gay. And our girls were eager to make sure they were well noticed. The boys and girls, the men and women of 1950, were dressed in TV’s black and white of the time. The men were in slacks – or jeans if they were doing manual labor. The women were in long skirts. At 50 feet away you could easily tell which sex you were looking at by the cut of the fabric. We were alien. We were confusing. We were radical.

I imagine that for most of us it seems like a cute or funny or small detail. The clothes we choose to wear in my dream reflect our style, not our identity, not our gender or sex. It’s become acceptable for women to dress like men; although it’s not yet acceptable for men to dress like women. Not counting the dress-like robe that I’m in now; could you imagine what your face would look like should I show up to work in a dress skirt and blouse? What would your guttural reaction be? As progressive as you might be about equal rights, civil rights, gay rights – would you have a negative impulse toward me should I do that? If our Senior Minister Holly should show up in jeans on a weekday would you have the same negative reaction? Likely not. What’s the difference? Why does it matter?

A women in jeans, her sleeves, rolled up is the marker of self-confidence and success. A man in a skirt is a marker of humor, vulnerability and sometimes disgust. I believe that somewhere along the way, the emancipation of women became acceptable, in at least part, because we could all understand why a woman would want to have all the rights of a man, or freedom of a man, or the composure of a man, or the style of a man. But we’ve yet to comprehend why a man might ever want the rights, freedom, composure or style of a woman. And for some, this is so threatening, that it warrants violence against the offending cross-dresser. Why does it get so far?

Some of it starts with simple awkwardness. Julia Serano, an Oakland based Trans-activist writes that, “…if there’s one thing that all of us should be able to agree on, it’s that gender is a confusing and complicated mess. It’s like a junior high school mixer, where our bodies and our internal desires awkwardly dance with one another, and with all the external expectations that other people place on us.”

But some of it is a lifetime of education. As the academic, CT Whitley writes, “It is widely understood that ‘male’ and ‘female’ are constructed well before birth, which means that by the time a person enters the workforce he or she has had twenty to thirty years of standard gender construction and reinforcement woven into every fiber of the individual’s life. This becomes a huge disadvantage for women. Women who are strong, determined, and free-willed are labeled ‘lesbians’ or ‘bitches,’ rejected for promotion because (of) their deviation…”

 

In my dream of 1950, the local people were the proverbial fish swimming in a bowl of water completely unaware of the water they were living in. We often talk about this phenomenon regarding racism or white privilege, but it also applies to gender privilege. Gender identity, roles, and expectations were so pervasive and so fixed that folks couldn’t readily imagine something different until an outsider comes along and points out the water to them. In our case, the kids dressing all sorts of ways. Something’s different now and it’s making everyone feel uncomfortable. Friends – we’re still swimming in that same water. It’s a lot more free for most of us, but still as dangerous for some of us. …We’ve yet to comprehend why a man might ever want the rights, freedom, composure, style, and life of a woman.

Struggles around gender roles and gender identity are more than issues around clothing, but clothing is often the easiest marker for people’s reactions against those who push the boundaries. For many people it’s a life matter that’s rooted as deep in their bodies and DNA. One out of a thousand babies are born with ambiguous genitalia. One out of a thousand! Surgical decisions may be made for those babies with or without their parents’ consent. They are certainly made without the infants’ consent.

And then there are those of us who are born with a hormonal mix that doesn’t neatly match our sex presentation. In these cases, the choice of pink or blue might be wrong. For others the question of only pink or blue is entirely missing the point – they might need purple or some other color entirely. When we spell out the Queer alphabet LGBT and get to the letter I (for intersex) and snicker or smirk – we’re snickering at the people who are born with this challenge. We are snickering at the people, who when at their infant weakest, had major changes done to their bodies.

When all our kids grow up and go to school, they’re further taught that life is either/or. The both/and option isn’t discussed. We line up in twos and so often boys hold the hands of boys and girls hold the hands of girls. One friend of mine, Tobias, recently shared his frustration around this on my Facebook wall by saying that all teachers everywhere should stop using ‘boys and girls’ as a way to address the whole of their students.” I’m becoming more and more aware that with Feminism’s successes in reminding people to always mention “Men and Women” when we’re speaking about more than just men, that we’re also coding our world to leave enough space for only those two options – men and women. What are we saying to those of us who can’t carve out room for themselves in that sentence?

Some of us right now might be feeling like this is taking the situation too far. That most of us have clear sexes, so we can have clear genders. That clothing is one thing, and bodies are another. That people undergoing these sorts of physical changes are dealing more with psychological problems than hormonal. I will say to that that I have heard all of it before referring to gay and lesbian men and women. I have been told that my hormones are not the real issue – that my love for another man is a psychological problem. So I’m inclined to respond – go a little deeper.

Every generation has seen the gender divide and gender line blur and break a little more. It is my hope and prayer that we’ve pushed against it hard enough that not only have glass ceilings started to crack, but that our children are starting to grow up knowing that their gender or sex need not determine the scope of their dreams; that their sex and gender need not determine the scope of their lives and loves and hopes. That maybe, we’ve finally reached a point where our own actions and responses and inclinations have ceased to place limits on one another. But that’s simply not true. Not yet. You’re not going to see me show up in a skirt and blouse. Not only because it’s not my style – but because it would signal that somehow I’m less, somehow I’m a freak, that someone I’ve lost power. My ego couldn’t handle it; our identity would feel shaken, and most of us still believe women’s clothing diminishes men in a way that men’s clothing doesn’t harm women but lifts them up. It’s a shallow marker but a clear one for the malady that continues to plague us.

My odd time-traveling dream had another dimension to it. At a certain point we were witness to one of the night club raids that started to happen en masse following President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Executive order in 1953. His order mandated that all lesbians and gays could not hold federal jobs. It apparently had a side effect that encouraged local police forces to be more bold in their harassment of LGBT establishments. For some it meant jail time. For the drag kings and queens and the butch women it meant physical abuse or rape. The legacy that would be planted in this time was one of power over the body. Stark physical repercussions for the worst transgressions of the gender norm. Imagine living in a reality where your hormones and body don’t match the status quo knowing that the outcome will mean violence.

Here’s where First UU can be life-saving. Every time we see someone that’s pushing this boundary or that – we can stop ourselves when we have that thought. You know the thought – “why do they have to be so severe or flamboyant or different?” The one where we secretly imagine that they’re trying too hard, or hiding something or just a broken person. We can change our attitude to see it as a marker that we might be the only, or one of the rare few people, willing to reach out and to love. We can see it as a moment to carve out a little more space in a world that’s not as caring as often as it could be for difference. We can enter this liminal space between what we know and where they are. We can seek to learn how to dance and move and breathe in it; knowing that others before us entered other terrifying vistas that allowed all of us the freedom to move and to breathe and be ourselves as we now know it. Having a woman as a board president, or a minister, would have seemed as far out, as crazy, as radical then as someone now who’s looking to live outside the gender binary. And people would have been as negative to that then, as we often are to gender benders today. I believe it’s a direct correlation emotionally.

It’s for us now to push the space a bit farther. With so many young LGBT teens killing themselves over it, it’s for us to be more open, so that people may remain alive. With so many of our homeless youth in NYC – over 40% identifying as LGBT – it’s for us to let down our tight sense of how people must look so that our kids may have a home again. Then we can enter a dialogue. Then we can rebuild lives. Then we can create a real, more full, sense of community.

What can we do? We can continue to support groups that seek to nurture and heal and support and empower the lives of Transgender and Gender Queer people. We can continue to support with clothing, and money, the work of the Ali Forney Center or the Harvey Milk School. We can continue to plan and schedule shelter repainting days for the Ali Forney Center. Their director, Bill Torres, will be visiting our youth group on Sunday the 20th to educate and plan with them steps they can take to help support other youth who otherwise would be homeless. We can recognize that our community not only has an LGBT community that exceeds 12% of congregation but that some of our members, our visitors and our friends are Trans-identified or Gender Queer identified – and here’s the important part – we might not know it. Just because someone is pushing against the gender binary doesn’t mean we can always tell. This isn’t a time to look around the room to figure it out. This is the time to look within and ask ourselves how are we being supportive? How are we enforcing millennia-old stereotypes that harm rather than lift up? If we think no one here identifies as Trans or Gender Queer or Intersex – and the fact is that many do identify as such – what are we doing internally that keeps us from seeing them?

Personally, I believe that sometimes we paint ourselves into a corner that we can’t get out of. We sometimes talk about how people who are in the room are not actually in the room. We sometimes talk about the Q or the T or the I community and say they’re not with us – when they are in fact with us. When in fact we likely have more folks that identify as Q or T or I than the diversity in our neighborhoods otherwise shows – and yet we sometimes speak as if they’re not here. We need to be more mindful of this. It’s no less than a life-changing and a life-saving matter.

I mentioned before that to do this we need to learn to enter those liminal spaces between what we’re comfortable with and what is new. Anthropologically, liminality is, “…the term is used to ‘refer to in-between situations and conditions that are characterized by the dislocation of established structures, the reversal of hierarchies, and uncertainty regarding the continuity of tradition and future outcomes’”

With Transgender Day of Remembrance coming up on November 20th – the day we carve aside to remember all those people who have died because of our societal discomfort and fear – we need to take this that seriously. To educate ourselves, to self-reflect, and to seek to make a difference. Our goal being that dislocation of establish structures of oppression. Our goal being the reversal of hierarchies and most certainly patriarchies.

It’s that world of dislocation of oppression, of reversal of hierarchies, that our closing hymn speaks to. In the great African American folk tradition,  our song “I’m On My Way” sings of a freedom land. It sings of a land where bodily abuse, or rape, of limitation based on form, is done away with. It’s a world that we have yet to fully know or yet birth into. It’s a world we must all be mid-wives for. When we sing this song I’m going to ask you to keep this in mind. Whether you’re singing it because it speaks directly to your personal experience or not – sing it knowing that you hold the key to helping another find it. Sing it knowing that you are another set of hands along the way that can make a reality a world that is safe for all our children, for all our people – not just our boys and girls. So sing it with joy and with hope because that is exactly what we need so much more of.

Will you all please rise in body, and certainly in spirit, and sing with me our closing hymn #116, I’m On My Way. Adapting from the traditional way this song is sung, the folks on my left will sing the Call, and the folks on my right will sing the Response. In another words, the folks on my left will need to read the words in the hymnal and the folks on my right should feel free to put their song books back down and simply respond in kind. And we’ll have our choir singing up in the loft to match. 

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  1. Discussion Group for Liminal Spaces « RevWho

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