Reflection on Gender Identity (5-19-2019)

Gender as a concept is dazzling in its possibilities. Our dominant culture and our language might lead us to act as if there are only two genders. When we listen to the real experiences of all of our friends and neighbors and siblings (and for some of us when we listen to the songs of our own hearts), we find that there are so many more perspectives. Gender is a dance of billions of hands and feet and wheels each moving with their own rhythm and yet unified, together in the Spirit of Life. Gender is a symphony of expression and experience, a multi-layered witness to beauty and to the wholeness of humanity.

Using the metaphor of a symphony is not to say that any two people of different genders might not play a joyful duet of friendship or partnership. Four or five people might create an ensemble, a family, out of a limited number of instruments, or even all the same instrument. Yet to insist that we all must accept at birth either the clarinet or the xylophone, and to stick with that one thing for all of the ways we want to express ourselves for the rest of our lives, would reduce the humanity of the trombone players and percussionists and fiddlers of the world, and would rob us all of the music created when people are encouraged to live abundantly as their whole, authentic selves.

If you are a clarinet or a xylophone, that is lovely. There is nothing wrong with that. You can choose to be a clarinet that plays jazz or classical or klezmer music. You can be a xylophone that plays orchestral or folk or new age music. Your experience is true, just as the experience of a clarinet who was assigned xylophone at birth is true, just as the experience of a harpsichord who was assigned clarinet at birth is true, just as the experience of a sometimes-guitar-sometimes-harmonica-sometimes-piccolo is true, and just as every single form and voice and truth is needed in order to make all of the music humanity was meant to create.

I’m going to pause here and acknowledge that there are a lot of different perspectives, identities, experiences, and levels of comfort in this room with regard to gender. There are among us Transgender, agender, genderfluid, and gender creative people. I’m so grateful to Noah for sharing the pulpit this morning. There are among us people whose gender matches the one they were assigned at birth (that’s called being cisgender) and haven’t had much experience with other possibilities. There are among us people who are gender non-conforming. There are among us people of many genders who have been working on Transgender justice and inclusion for a long time.

I am going to try to provide some information to get more of us on the same page. This information will be of greatest use to those who, like me, are cisgender; yet we know that that’s not everybody in the room. I hope the Transgender and other gender fabulous people here know that I see you and I value you. We celebrate your strength, resilience, and beauty. This congregation will have more opportunities in the coming months for people to speak for themselves and out of their own experience. In worship, you’ll hear from a guest speaker from within the Transgender community next month. There are a lot more perspectives yet to explore.

Let’s do our best to join together on a journey of welcome and inclusion, each of us starting from wherever we are. Those of us who are cisgender: our Trans friends need us to learn, and to act in support and solidarity. The music of life sounds best when we play together, correcting the historic exclusions that kept some of our musicians from the truth of their song. We all benefit when every voice is lifted in the fullness of its own power, when all of our ways of being can grow into the wholeness of who we are.

The symphony of human experience is broader than many of us realized. There are those among us who have changed the melodies and improvised music with courage and creativity. When every person can be fully and authentically themselves, the concert hall of human experience brings us into deeper connection with the Spirit of Life.

If gender diversity is new to you, there is one point I would like you to remember: Each person is the undisputed expert on their own gender. Nothing else supersedes a person’s knowledge and declaration of themselves: not the form of their body, not hormones, not chromosomes, not what they wear, not official identification, not the presence or absence of hair, not health, not acceptance, not access to protection under the law. Each person is the expert on their own gender.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are here to practice justice, equity, and compassion. We are here to cooperate with the forces that create and uphold life, to break down obstacles to the universal possibility of living whole, abundant, authentic lives. Unfortunately, the experience of Transgender people in UU congregations has not been generally positive.

There is an organization with the acronym TRUUsT, Transgender Religious professional Unitarian Universalists Together. TRUUsT gathers people who are agender, nonbinary, gender fluid, gender nonconforming, and so on under the trans umbrella, recognizing that each person has a unique experience. TRUUsT conducted a survey of Trans people in congregations, and released a report in January based on the survey.

A link to the full report was posted on Facebook when it came out, and one of us on the worship team will post it again by tomorrow, but if I can briefly just lift up one point from the findings: even with a majority of UU congregations having earned a Welcoming Congregation designation at some point, 72% of Trans UU’s do not feel that their congregation is completely inclusive of them as trans people. That tells us that UU congregations have work to do, even if we think we already did that work. There is always more to learn.

The Unitarian Universalist Association unveiled a plan in 2015 to invite congregations who had earned the Welcoming Congregations designation to go through a process of renewal. Work toward renewal includes but is not limited to education about Transgender justice and inclusion. In this congregation, the Rainbow Alliance has been studying the UUA’s re-certification program, The Five Practices of Welcome Renewal, and has some ideas about how this congregation can move toward this goal.

In the short term, we can work to communicate our welcome, and we can work to open our own minds and hearts. For instance, respecting the pronouns someone uses is a basic way to show humanity. There is no test or threshold that a person has to pass before it’s necessary to use the correct pronouns. Each person is the expert on their own gender. A person might use singular they/them pronouns, or another set of gender-neutral pronouns such as ze/zir, or they may not use pronouns at all and wish to be referred to by name.

We might consider adding stickers to our name tags that will help normalize communication about pronouns. We might have people habitually share their pronouns, if they are comfortable doing so, in classes and committee meetings. Sharing pronouns could be more common, but shouldn’t be mandatory, because sometimes people aren’t ready to share their gender journey in a casual setting.

As a supportive pastoral community, we can and should acknowledge the events that will feel especially joyful or sorrowful to Transgender and gender diverse communities. Some of our friends are at greater risk for violence due to their gender identity or gender presentation. The murder rate for Transgender women of color has only gotten worse. Some of our friends live under legislation that puts their jobs, their homes, and their lives at risk due to gender. Holding those things in prayer, recognizing the struggle, is part of making an inclusive community. We can also lift up good news. We can celebrate progress. The U.S. House of Representatives just passed the Equality Act, which would provide nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people. There remain obstacles to this bill becoming a law, but this represents increased support in a federal legislative body. On the state level, the Maryland House and Senate passed a bill that would allow people to mark their gender as X on their driver’s license. People in our communities spoke up to request this, an avenue for recognizing and including nonbinary people in civic life. To the best of my knowledge, the Governor has not yet signed it. Perhaps your encouragement would make a difference.

As a community bending the arc toward justice, we can remember that gender diversity justice is tied together with all movements for justice. The voice of oppression is the voice that says only some are really human and the rest of us are dangerous others. The force of destruction says that we are only acceptable to the extent that we imitate and align with the powerful. Our theology resists and dismantles those forces. We remember that the Black Lives Matter movement declares that Black Transgender Lives matter. We remember that equal access to health care also affects access to culturally competent health care for people of all genders. We remember that oppression against Transgender people and misogyny are rooted together. We will practice feminism that acknowledges the way intersectional identities compound oppressions on the basis of race, gender, disability, and all of the facets of who we are.  

There are many voices among us, and many talents that go beyond voice. There are many genders among us. Let us commit to increasing our hospitality here and transforming the world so that every person can grow with authenticity. Let us open our doors ever wider to welcome all who would join together in covenant. All of who you are is sacred. All of who you are is welcome here.  

So be it. Blessed be. Amen.