Posts Tagged Privilege
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/8/15 and looks at our history of building up and breaking down; asking where does privilege come in?
For those of us who have been on Facebook for more than a few years, it’s begun this nifty little habit of taking us on a stroll down memory lane. One of the new features periodically reminds us of posts or photos from a few years back asking if we want to re-share them. They tend to be moments that had a lot of attention at the time. It’s usually marriages, or witty comments, or … well… cat pictures. (It’s still the internet after all.) One of the more serious memories that have been popping up for me this Autumn, are from 4 years ago and the start of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
I think I only re-shared one of the memories – and I did so mostly because I was shocked that it had already been four years since the “public-private” Zuccotti Park was occupied down by Wall Street. It got me wondering though, where did all the public heretics, camping outside the center for financial architecture, get us to – today? It’s not hard to recall all the media critique of the protestors: 1) They didn’t have a clear leader. 2)They didn’t seem to have a set of clear demands they were protesting. 3) They were mostly trust-fund babies playing homeless.
It’s interesting how despite the lack of clear spokespersons, and a real platform that lifted up problems without clear solutions, most of the Occupy talking points have become central to today’s political discourse: 1) Affordable health care for all 2) bringing our troops home 3) tackling critical student debt 4) transparency in political fundraising 5) environmental action and 6) an end to racist structures like racial profiling and for profit prisons (to name just two.) As a quick aside, not incidentally, our social justice team will be leading our Fellowship this year through a period of reflection and action toward the last issue – prison reform in our country. You’ll hear a lot more in the weeks and months to come. And if you missed our announcement earlier, many of us will be joining in on the UUA common read of, Just Mercy. You can purchase a book in the social hall at the book table.
But regarding the Occupy critiques, I want to focus on the third bit and see how this relates to our own UU history of building up the world we dream about. ‘The Occupy protesters were mostly trust-fund babies playing homeless.’ At the time, I heard this over and over again in the media. My first reaction was to point out how actually that wasn’t even vaguely true. I remember the clothing drives, and the food drives, and even the business suit and hair cut drives geared to helping the homeless be prepared for job interviews – or just feeling basic human decency. I remember meeting a lot of UU youth – or newly young adults – folks who were raised in our congregations – who came out to do public witness for their faith and their values.
All of that, is what I would think – at first. But then I began to wonder – even if we were all merely trust-fund babies – what would that change? Why is it that when a person with privilege bucks the system, they are smeared as naive, or idealistic (idealistic said with that disparaging tone idealistic) or somehow disingenuous? But when trust-fund babies run for positions of leadership in our government or are propelled to positions of power in our corporations, they are seen as entrepreneurial or the embodiment of pulling oneself up from our bootstraps. (And as a side note, in case anyone hears this as a critique of one political party or another, all political parties are heavily filled with former trust-fund babies. So this is an equal opportunity observation.)
I think the answer lies in our relationship to privilege. When privilege pretends it doesn’t exist, we get to celebrate the American Dream without anxiety, and all is right in the world. When privilege becomes self-reflective, we have to call into question our sense of self; our sense of personal success; and we might have to change our behavior. …And that can be quite painful. So culturally, we are more apt to paint someone naive who invites us to call into question how we see the world. They’re just trust fund babies after all, what do they know.
All this month we are reflecting on what it would mean to be a people of Ancestors. Our religious education program is inviting children, youth and adults to do some research into our religious ancestors and you can learn more about that in the Social Hall after service. In this spirit, I’ve been thinking about our religious forebears who have influenced me. As we consider today our religious proclivity toward building up and breaking down, I’m remembering one Unitarian lay leader, and social justice advocate, Dorethea Dix.
Dorethea was a nurse in the 1800’s who would some day come to serve as the Superintendent of Army Nurses for the North during the US Civil War. But she would even more notably change the entire landscape of mental health in the US and in many countries in Europe. She tirelessly campaigned for reform of our mental healthcare options during a time when many mentally ill people were literally kept chained in basements. Where today we may campaign for better coverage for various health matters, Dorethea Dix was active at a time when the mentally ill weren’t always treated as humans. She was essentially a human rights advocate for a group of people in our nation who weren’t always seen as people.
Ms. Dix was directly responsible for helping to build 40 such hospitals in the US, affect change in Europe, and even convinced Pope Pius IX to build such a hospital after meeting with her. She called our nation to our better selves, and left the world a much more human place for her being here. But I mention her today because of her interesting relationship to privilege. In her case, male privilege.
Ms. Dix never married, although she was briefly engaged. Considering gender norms and expectations of the time, she would be far afield, yet she was a deeply respected citizen. In her canvassing for mental health, she would visit state after state and lobby before the state congresses for funding and changes in the laws regarding civil rights. Now at this time, women did not lobby before any congress. It was improper for a woman to speak publicly in such a manner. She would tirelessly meet with state representatives in their legislative office – one by one – and sway votes of state congresses in her favor.
After so many states had followed her advocacy, she made a national name for herself and was finally offered a chance to speak before one state congress. One of her biographies notes that Ms. Dix refused the offer, and insisted on meeting with members of congress one by one. To paraphrase, she felt it wasn’t proper for a lady to speak publicly in such a manner, and despite the respect people held for her, she wasn’t going to win the basic human rights for people who were mentally ill by giving into impropriety for expediency. Dorethea Dix changed the face of health care in our nation while doing so in “a respectable manner” – even if it meant she had to work twice as hard to do it – and she insisted on doing it the much harder way because that was the normal way for women. She was bucking the system in a way that the system allowed. Essentially, she respected male privilege.
Now, to be clear, I’m not critiquing Ms. Dix for it. She knew what she was doing, and had a cause that she felt was her calling, and she thrived in saving the lives of the people under her personal and political care. She consciously understood her relation to male privilege and made choices she felt would lead to success. I applaud her understanding of the system, and we should revere her for her tireless ministry. But we can also learn from her awareness of the nature of privilege. When we challenge another’s sense of privilege, the road may be harder. So sometimes we can consciously choose not to challenge that privilege, in order to make other critical gains.
Can we be so conscious as our spiritual ancestor Dorethea Dix? Do we make the same choices? What was right for her, may not always be right for us though. I worry sometimes that modern Unitarian Universalism is too often reticent to challenge privilege where we may need to challenge privilege out of fear of being called naive, or idealistic or the reality that some doors will be shut when we do so.
I think certain forms of privilege can be easier to talk about these days than others. As a religious people of heretics and iconoclasts, for some time we’ve accepted the kinds of privilege men have as a real and negative thing for society. We can point to the real ways in which women are negatively and directly affected, and we generally understand that this also negatively albeit indirectly affects men too. We can look back on the 1800’s and easily say it’s not right that a national leader and reformer like Dorethea Dix shouldn’t be allowed to publicly speak before congress – and we can reflect on that with little personal sense of risk … now. But at the time, it would have probably felt like a much bigger risk.
Where do we fear to so tread today? Challenges related to gender are not gone from us – clearly. And sometimes those challenges are lifted up in a publicly predatory manner. Just this past election day, the city of Houston voted to end a piece of legislation that was designed to prevent discrimination in public places and housing based on race, sexuality, gender, gender identity and physical disabilities. But opponents of the provision zeroed in on bathrooms. Commercial after commercial would use cartoons to draw a man – vaguely dressed as a women – entering women’s bathrooms. Signs would insinuate the law would protect predatory men when they victimized helpless women. It was also a viscous caricature of Transfolk.
I usually talk about what kinds of actions we can take in response to this bigotry (and frankly, misogyny.) But today, I’d like to pause and reflect on how our own sense of privilege can feed this behavior. Privilege can teach us who are victims and who are victimizers – who matters and who doesn’t. In the Houston political attack adds: LGBT folks are caricatures of people, women are victims, and confusion around what maleness, or femaleness, or let’s just say gender – confusion around gender is terrifying. Privilege teaches us to say what’s normal and what’s not normal, and then we get to paint a picture that makes “not normal” really scary.
It’s also a pretty typical strategy of bullies – public or private. Someone with privilege in a certain area picks a fight with someone without the same power or privilege – the bully starts the attack and then when folks speak up against it, the bully claims victimhood. We see it in our schoolyards, we see it in our neighborhood circles and we see it in politics. A local ordinance designed to protect actual victims from bigotry gets subverted into a threat to those with more privilege and gets overturned. It’s like the old picture of a pie. If you’re used to getting the whole pie – if someone comes along and asks, “can I have a slice”, privilege teaches you to feel threatened. “Why are you taking something away from me?” When do we listen to that voice in our own lives? When do we fear scarcity when we have so much? When are we diminished by another’s addiction to privilege?
As a people of ancestors, what do our heretics and architects teach us? Our ancestral heretics amongst us teach us to challenge injustice where we find it, but our deep ties to a tradition of architects asks us to tread carefully whenever we seek change. Is balance really important when facing privilege? Or is it more important to try to see the places where we hold privilege, even knowing there are places where we hold vulnerability? Each of us, in our own ways, have one foot in both privilege and hardship. Both can be true for each of us. In better knowing ourselves, we can help to build a more just world. It’s probably just as important as all the action we take in the world – because truthfully – our inaction and our reticence speak as loudly as our actions for justice.
Check out my latest Huffington Post Blog! “The Meaning of Good Friday”
It is good to be back in the pulpit again. When last I preached I reflected on the bigger trials of social justice for the year gone past. Those travails don’t stop though, do they. This past month has brought forth many difficult stories. The month we’re in now, in the secular calendar is Black History month. We typically learn about the stories of Black pioneers that we may not have heard of, or folks that we learn and relearn about year after year. This morning I’d like to look at the living legacy of black history alive in our news, and reflect back on the roots of oppression in our nation’s history. In light of our monthly theme, as I talk consider where love is found. Where does fear seem to win the day?
In an interview with conservative columnist Cal Thomas this past Wednesday, Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann said, “I think there was a cachet about having an African-American president because of guilt,” Bachmann said. “People don’t hold guilt for a woman.” She was clarifying why President Obama won the White House twice, and why she didn’t.
We learned this past week that the killer in the Loud Music trial was found guilty of three cases of attempted murder but was not found guilty of murder for the person he actually did kill. The jury was hung, and he may still face another trial for murder. “Dunn, who is white, killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis in November 2012 after having an argument with him over loud music in a convenience store parking lot where Davis sat in an SUV with three young friends. Dunn fired 10 shots, including three at the SUV as it was fleeing. After the shooting, Dunn and his fiancé went to a local hotel, ordered a pizza, opened a bottle of wine, and watched a movie. The next morning he drove two hours away to his home, where he was apprehended. Dunn claimed Jordan Davis, who was African-American, pointed a gun at him and threatened his life. No gun was found by police and no one else heard any threats.” This case was in Florida where a Stand Your Ground law is in place.
According to PBS, “research conducted by John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, found that in states with Stand Your Ground laws, “the killings of black people by whites were more likely to be considered justified than the killings of white people by blacks.” Roman concluded that white people were 354 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than another white person across Stand Your Ground states. [PBS, 7/31/12]
Elsewhere, “the University of Mississippi is offering a $25,000 reward for tips that can help officials identify and arrest two vandals who were spotted draping a noose around the neck of the statue of James Meredith, who braved angry mobs in 1962 to become the school’s first African-American student.”
And my last example this month involves, “A veteran investigator with the Tennessee Department of Health (who) was forced to resign or face termination last month for his conduct during a racially charged case. William Sewell was an emergency medical service investigator, assigned to the Upper Cumberland Region, who had been with the state more than 40 years. Last summer, Sewell began investigating a case involving the Algood Fire Department in Putnam County. In an interview with the man who filed the complaint, Shun Mullins, Sewell began telling a graphic story about a black man who was lynched near Baxter, Tennessee, many years ago. The state claimed Sewell’s conduct in that interview could be perceived as a “form of intimidation” toward Mullins.” The news report further explained that “the three say Sewell finished with a shocking detail, that he still owned a “strap” of the lynched man’s skin, passed down from his grandfather. ‘They made a strap out of his skin, and they used that strap as a knife sharpener,’ Allen remembered.” The original case was based upon Mullins (who) claimed Algood’s deputy fire chief refused to do CPR on his mother because she was black and then falsified medical reports to cover it up.”
Happy Black History month everyone. These stories are why we still desperately need to reflect on our history. The White House, built by slaves, has been home to our first black president for a little over five years now. Poets, Alice Walker, and others, have poignantly noted how we know not where our efforts will eventually lead, nor who will some day reside in the sanctuaries we build this day even in the midst of injustice and pain. We can see a little ahead, and off to the side, but can barely imagine the scope of changes to the landscape that will some day come about. Yet we still have a congressional representative diminishingly say that our president primarily won, twice, because of white guilt.
What can leadership look like? In the American mythology, the answers have always been “anyone.” Of course, “anyone” has always had very specific implications. At one point “anyone” meant land holding straight white men. That was honestly progressive for the time. With it, we successfully moved a bit away from aristocracy and nobility as the places of power. For a decade or two, the American mythology has said it includes people of all races. Although I still feel we have a ways to go in this respect, this presidency (through all its faults and successes) has indicated that our practice has finally met up with our cultural self-conception of what we can be. Racism is not cured, sexism continues to thrive, ageism on both ends of the spectrum is almost a given, and homophobia is often confused with high moral standards. The latest case in point being Arizona, whose legislature has sent to the Governor a bill that would pretend secular businesses are churches, and allow all institutions to refuse services to LGBT folk, in the name of religion.
And yet, we can still find hope that we as a people, can grow past ourselves enough to recognize leadership despite our biases and short-comings. As Martin Luther King Jr once dreamt, we have chosen our president based on the “content of his character, and not by the color of his skin.” Whatever your political affiliations are, this is a remarkable sign of transformation for our country.
Our story this morning talks about the transforming power of leadership. An early Buddhist parable, richly names the spirit of our time. In the midst of the flaming pit of crisis, the Buddha as parrot recognizes his two great gifts; being alive and being able to fly. As the world burns around him he chooses not to panic and succumb to uselessness. He chooses not to use his second gift of flight to preserve his first gift of life. Rather, he employs all that he has to make some difference in easing the suffering of others. His colorful feathers grow black through his efforts to save lives. “What, after all, can a bird do in times like these… but fly? So fly I shall. And I won’t stop if there’s even a chance I can save a single life.”
In contrast, the godly beings are relaxed, bright, covered in white ivory and glittery gold. Well fed, they shimmer and shine and remain clean. All most can do is continue to eat and wax eloquent on the absurdity of the parrot’s efforts. “Trying to put out a raging fire with just a few sprinkles of water from his wings. Who ever heard of such a thing. Why, it’s absurd!”
Where in our lives are we the parrot with greasy black wings who is fed with a mission and destined to make a difference, and where are we the fully entitled god who shimmers and shines and is just well fed? When have you met the well intentioned god on golden wings descend to warn you to stop your efforts because it’s not worth the trouble? When have you been that nay-saying voice? When do you think the mission of our congregation is about serving you as an individual alone? When do you find our congregation’s mission is about serving the world – serving life?
“I don’t need advice. I just need someone to pitch in and help!” cried the parrot. I know I’ve felt that before. Whether it’s combating homelessness, raising children, or struggling through school, it is tough to do it alone, and often times we seem to receive more advice than actual assistance. It would be easy, and a bit triumphant, to preach on how hidden beneath the grime and soot of our efforts are splendid multi-colored feathers that help us soar. But this Buddhist parable seems to indicate that it’s that very blackness, that greasy water that differentiates us from the splendidness of those distant gods. In fact, it’s that blackness that calls one of the gods down from his place of privilege, to do what he ought to have done from the start; use his power to affect change. “All at once, he no longer wanted to be a god or an eagle or anything else. He simply wanted to be like that brave little parrot, and to help.” All gratitude at the story’s end goes to the little parrot, “for this sudden, miraculous rain.” It may have been the god’s tears that put out the fires of this world, but they blossomed from the witness of the action of the parrot – the otherwise dis-empowered, the oppressed, the not-privileged.
That godly nay-saying has woven itself into the fabric of our daily expression. We are burdened down with a difficult economy, the long felt aftermath of enervating wars, mixed successes in LGBT civil rights, and a collapsing environment. Many say they are choosing hope, and yet our collective shoulders seem to indicate spiritual exhaustion. This nagging sap to confidence echoes the sense of impossibility, when so many things seem raw and endless, like a fire that sprung over night and is left by all the world to burn. But I believe there continue to be rivers of hope, and waters of abundance, that eagerly wait for us to dip our wings and dirty our feathers; because there is much work to be done and gratefully many of us here able to do it.
Yes despite the very clear need for action, beyond the call for hope in the face of sorrow and pain, we must reflect on the source of the trauma. Why do we continue to hear horror stories perpetrated upon Black Americans – some of which appear to only be worsening rather than getting better? How can this be while at the same time our nation’s highest office is finally open to someone who isn’t perceived as white by many despite his mother being white? A plantation era engineer named J. D. Smith once noted, “One only needs to go down South and examine hundreds of old Southern mansions, and splendid church edifices, still intact to be convinced of …. the cleverness of the [Black] artisans, who constructed nine tenths of them.” This white engineer was taught his trade by a slave engineer. Yet, the image we often get taught in grade school and high school is that of uneducated blacks during the slave era only doing servile work. Why don’t we share both sides of that painful story?
The German philosopher, Hegel, once noted, “The [slave] consciousness is, for the master, the object which embodies the truth of his certainty of himself. But it is evident that this object does not correspond to its notion; for, just where the master had effectively achieved lordship, he really finds that something has come about quite different from an independent consciousness. It is not an independent, but rather a dependent consciousness that he has achieved… The truth of the [master] consciousness is accordingly the consciousness of the bondsmen.” Hegel’s point is about the extreme qualities of slavery and slaveholding, but I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to point toward any instance of applied institutional racism. The ego of the oppressor becomes intrinsically linked to the oppressed. What puffs up the powerful, chains their psyche to that which is most base to our humanity. We become less for trying to pretend we’re more. We narrow the scope of our humanity. We are defined by how well we convince ourselves that someone else is less. Or as author and former executive editor of Ebony magazine, Lerone Bennett, Jr would put it, “Out of this system (of slavery) came the Black American, and, though some would like to forget it, the White American…”.
We allow fear, fear of others, fear of our own inadequacy to trump love. We say that which we fear is truth so we must stamp it down anyway we can. We convince ourselves that four teens in a car playing loud music, unarmed, are a real and quantifiable threat that requires us to open fire even though they are unarmed, even though they agreed to lower the music. Fear allows the jury to have four of its members think that this kind of violence is justified. And we remember “that white people were 354 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than another white person across Stand Your Ground states.” One kind of body is more dangerous than other. Fear trumping love.
Fear teaches us to share stories of lynchings and body parts kept as trophies when a black man dares to sue a fire department for failing to perform CPR on his mother because of the color of her skin. Every part of this story is grounded in fear. Fear of difference, fear of one body touching a different body even if it’s just to save a life, to do the job you volunteered to do for everyone else. Fear teaches dissidents to sit back down quietly. And fear instructs the oppressor on how to keep a hold of his power.
We often think the opposite of love is hate. I am convinced its opposite is truly fear. Love is grounded in compassion, in seeing the connections between one another and saying they matter. Fear is grounded in the antithesis to each of these. What makes us different becomes a danger to our sense of self. And to the fearful among us, our sense of self matters so much more than our sense of interdependence. Interdependence then becomes just another threat to the ego.
But in the culmination of our days, love trumps fear, always. Fear passes away, and love endures in our memories and our hearts…. This Fellowship has lost several long time and very dear members this past year. When each life was remembered, stories of love, stories of compassion, stories of life were what were lifted up time and time again. The rest was secondary. The progress of civil rights movements have time and time again been determined by radical acts of love in the face of fear; in coming to the aid of a stranger because it was the right and compassionate thing to do. It doesn’t mean that danger, or harm, or struggle are not genuine risks. But the essence and scope of our humanity are not rooted in these, nor defined by them in any true way. If it is how we care for others that defines our memory and legacy after we are gone, it’s certainly what defines our lives while we are here. Life is not about you alone, or me alone. Life is about us. It’s about “we.” And as the story of the parrot who saved a jungle from fire goes, sometimes our acts of love change the people who bear witness to them – it doesn’t mean there won’t be tears – but it makes all the difference.
This podcast explores the intersection of gender and privilege and how that affects the lives of Transgender, Intersex and Gender Queer folk. It was first preached at the First UU congregation in Brooklyn, NY on 11/6/2011.
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.