That telephone call back in 2010 surprised me. At the time, I was doing whatever small consulting jobs I could find, simultaneously getting into a funk about how incredibly hard it was to secure permanent employment. Granted -I wasn’t at my assertive, self-confident best at that time; few people who are only two years into a gender transition are. I was therefore entirely unprepared when the caller asked me to come to the State Department for a job interview as a potential senior political appointee in the Obama administration.
I had never sought such a post, nor was I of the opinion at that time that I was an appropriate choice. What did I know of the world of political appointments? Still, unbeknownst to me someone had decided I was worth nominating, and seven interviews and 14 months later I had become very well informed about political appointments. Still, I was still surprised and thrilled when they finalized their job offer.
But there was a catch…
The kind lady fixed her gaze upon me: “Before saying yes to this offer, please be aware that taking up this assignment means saying goodbye to any chance for a life of privacy. While it’s not a high-profile public appointment, you’d be one of only three transgender appointees ever appointed in the federal government –and all under this administration. You will be noticed –and it won’t all be pleasant.”
I did accept that position,a joint posting as senior human rights advisor for Africa and senior LGBTQ advisor globally, at the US Agency for International Development. And while it was an amazing job, and one that I will always be very proud of, it made me into a public figure. People wanted to know stuff –who I am –what I am? What’s it mean to be transgender? Isn’t is just a little edgy, or freaky, or…
Well, suffice it to say that there were many worse adjectives hurled in my direction by people who felt empowered to do so. It all settled down after a while, until two years ago. Now the emails I receive from “the public” are plentiful, and most of them are crude, or much worse.
Then and now, at the end of the day, many people are demanding that I explain myself. What does it mean to be a transgender woman named Chloe? Are you for real? Or are you simply a very confused man who needs a therapist or a fist in the face. Or much worse.
While being an Obama appointee and constrained to talking formally within the confines of government-approved talking points,answering questions from the public was less than straightforward, but I did my best. Still, it wasn’t to be until last May, in 2018 when my memoir came out,that I think I did justice to providing such an answer. Not everyone has the patience to wade through a 245 page answer, but never mind. I’ll make it easy for you.
I am myself. Chloe. A woman.
And I happen to be transgender –the woman standing before you never had a girlhood in any recognizable form.I’m also a mother of two children, but a mother who fathered both of them. I was once married to a woman–a woman who is now my best friend and strongest ally –but we’re no longer married. Oddly enough, now I find myself attracted to men (but to little avail -they all seem to be much too unsettled by my gender status to allow me to get close!).
I’m also part of a tiny demographic who are made noteworthy by having the highest attempted suicide rate of any known demographic, and having more than three times the difficulty of finding a job compared to non-transgender (cisgender) people of similar skills. And now, right here in the liberal democracy of the United States of America, we are being actively targeted by a U.S. president and his administration who have already taken sweeping action to deny us access to health care, to homeless shelters, to appropriate-gender incarceration, to service in the military, and to protection from discrimination in public schools.
Despite all of that,I am myself. And that’s where you come in: you have to deal with it.
Frankly, I’m not too worried about you. Unitarian Universalists share many values and sensibilities with my own faith community, the Religious Society of Friends (better known as the Quakers). Yet even my Quaker community struggled to a greater or lesser extent to deal with it–to understand, accept, and value this Quaker woman who once presented among them as a man named Stephen. No doubt there’re a few who continue to struggle and squirm in their own quiet Quaker ways, but I am assured that I and my children and my former wife all have a spiritual home and very deep support among our Quaker community. It’s no small thing, and those Quakers had to work hard to get to that place of welcome, support, nurture, and care.
They let love take them there. And love may be the only force with the grit to change –or at least soften –one of the most durable and established cornerstones of human existence: that humanity is either male or female, and that these categories are immutable. It’s been accepted truth for the past 40,000 or so years of human existence –who was I to change that?
But I did –with a little help from other trans people, the larger LGBTQ community, and stalwart allies. That change continues, and it still isn’t easy. Now we have a few courageous people –mostly young people –who don’t want to be labeled with either male or female. How inconvenient–God bless them! We’re being asked to scrap the gender binary, or at least soften it considerably –raising havoc with pronouns along the way.
It’s all part of the human dignity story –the fervent and unrelenting pursuit of authenticity and self. And it’s upsetting many, many people; in most parts of this world, asserting gender fluid,non-binary, or transgender status will get you killed or so seriously stigmatized that life will be a very hard scrabble indeed. I know –I’ve worked with trans and genderqueer people in over 40 countries, mostly in the developing world. Their stories remain harrowing, yet those trans and non-binary people and their allies remain resolute, winning gradual change. Sadly, that modest but important change is happening alongside phenomenal suffering, disrespect, and abuse. The notion of a global, universal commitment to human dignity –for all–is simply not there, despite rhetoric to the contrary. All too often the exclusion, hatred, bigotry, and disrespect are championed by leaders of religious groups.
But enough about me and my transgender and non-binary friends here and overseas. Right now I’m talking about you, not us. I’m asserting that you must change, you must deal with inconvenient people like me who often sound strange and look unusual. Be warned -we’ll going to go right on demanding your acceptance, and occasionally asking some of you out on dates. Mostly though, we’re asking –demanding really, because when one’s survival is on the line one does gets a little pushy –that you be our allies. Not just passively, although that’s a start. We need active allies. We need you to stand with us.
It’s no small request; we won’t make it otherwise. We need you to change your long-established, and frequently long-cherished, view of your world. We need you to find room for us as dignified human beings, or as Quakers assert, we need you to acknowledge that there is “that of God” within each of us. All of us. No exceptions.
So I’ve talked about me, and I have talked about you. That takes us to “us”, to society, to what we hold in common, to who we say we are. Are we the complacent citizens of a country with the most openly and aggressively transphobic president in US history? Sad to say, but most of us are. Are we OK with that? Hopefully not, but I’m aware that there are so many worthy causes to get agitated about in this era of Trump. Still,without profound societal change, those people who’ve assigned themselves the duty of resisting change by rejecting inconvenient people like me will continue to stand in our way. After all, here I stand asking that everyone change societal views and categories of gender that have stood the test of time for millennia.
I’m not going to apologize. No one can stand in our way. We didn’t choose to be this way.
We’re doing what we need to do to stay alive. Melodramatic? Well,perhaps–after all we probably could stay “alive” in our incorrectly assigned genders. I could still be Stephen, if I could have avoided the path of suicide that once had such a draw on me. There have been transgender and gender nonbinary people throughout history. Only now we’ve tasted what it means to be alive authentically; to be ourselves. It’s a freedom and a quality of life that we can never walk back from –and one which every cisgender person can take for granted. Count your blessings!
So we need society to change –attitudinally, intellectually, and spiritually –so that we all can remain alive, with our dignity and humanity intact. It’s not really that much to ask for.Except that it is. We who are transgender or gender nonbinary are asking the world to take a giant spiritual leap forward, beyond gender’s hard boundaries. Humanity has never done this at scale before.
But let me put this into a different perspective, although not one that will make all of this any easier. In asking society, starting with those who are gathered right here, right now, to embrace the reality and authenticity of people like me, we are asking for a change that is actually quite small compared with the vastly more demanding change that humanity must make very soon indeed. I’m of course referring to that niggling existential threat of a climate gone haywire, and of millions of plants and animals going extinct. I’m talking about an existential threat for most, and perhaps all, of humanity. I’m talking about impending suffering and destruction that will be at a scale we’ve never encountered before. We urgently need to change the paradigm from humans as consumers, exploiting and then trashing this planet and its resources, to humans as stewards. Our survival ultimately may rest on re-writing our narrative, changing our storyline, accepting limits to growth, reconfiguring our economies, advocating collaboration over competition, nurturing the planet. It’s radically feminist, its radically egalitarian, communitarian and different.
It all makes the challenge of adopting a non-binary and more fluid view of gender seem like a paltry ask.I guess we are here as your training wheels.
This isn’t new. There may be a few here who harken back to 1992 and the late Daniel Quinn’s plaintive yet provocative argument in his then fringe philosophical novel Ishmael. There may even be a few here who can remember back to 1949 when Aldo Leopold’s famous book –A Sand County Almanac–was first published. They’re both worth another read, soon.
But that’s a topic for another homily, by someone far better versed in all things ecological and existential. For me, I’ll just nudge you in the direction of that small first step in societal change. You know –that thing about me asserting that I’m a woman, and saying you have to deal with it.
It’ll be grand to get your hands into some paradigm change to overturn the gender binary, while you work your way up to saving the planet.