People Do Change Their Minds, But Only If…

In his book, The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt says people do change their minds, but not unless information comes to them in a non-threatening way. The book includes a host of other intriguing ideas, but that was my biggest takeaway. The second I read the words, I knew they were true.

Haidt uses the analogy of a rider on an elephant. The rider believes she is in charge of the direction in which the elephant is moving, while in fact, the elephant has been in charge all along. In the analogy, the elephant is all of the decisions being made by our unconscious minds. The unconscious mind is the part of ourselves that is truly in charge. Where does the unconscious self come up with its ideas? It establishes its hard and fast truths very early in life, while we are vulnerable children, incapable of surviving on our own. As it turns out, that ends up being a lifelong problem.

As a child I could never express the tiniest bit of anger or frustration with my mother, or I would be immediately rejected by her. Until I finally stood up to my mother when I was 35 (I tell the story in Chapter 18 of my memoir) I was still allowing my inner child to call the shots. That inner child was terrified of abandonment. The truth is that child remains within me. It is still my tendency to believe that if I express any kind of displeasure to those close to me, they will permanently reject me. (That it has happened recently in real time doesn’t help – chapter 14 in the book, if you’re wondering.)

The truth is that most people do not reject you when you become angry with them. They might become defensive, and attack you back, but eventually they come around. Relationships withstand conflict quite nicely. My rational mind knows that, but the elephant of my inner child still thinks she can never express anger, or say no to a request, or she will be disowned and rejected. When I listen to that inner child, it is not my conscious mind making the decisions. It is the elephant of my unconscious self.

That is why it is so important to constantly remind ourselves that we are no longer helpless children. We are now adults, and if we do happen to be rejected, the world will not end. We have the resources to deal with it. It is a constant battle to not allow important decisions to be made by the frightened child within.

The greatest human fear is abandonment. When we fear abandonment, our rational minds are pushed out the nearest exit. Truth no longer matters. Facts no longer matter. The reason they do not matter is because belonging is more important to humans than the truth. Belonging is more important than facts.

I have friends who want to get a Covid vaccine, but they are afraid of upsetting their parents, or their people, their tribe. Remaining in the tribe is more important than protecting their own health. They know that saying vaccines are dangerous is factually false, but in their tribe, it is socially true. The fear of ostracism wins out over protecting one’s own health. That is the power of the need to belong.

Which takes us back to where I began. People will take in new information, but only if it comes to them in a non-threatening way. If their tribal influencers tell them it is all right to get a vaccine, they will get a vaccine. If their tribal leaders tell them transgender people are mild-mannered Americans who deserve the same civil rights as everyone else, they will accept transgender Americans. The question, therefore, is how to reach tribal influencers? We influence the influencers by telling stories.

I get paid a lot of money to speak at colleges and universities, but I am willing to go to Christian universities at my own expense. Why?  Because I know if I can get in close proximity to the students and faculty and tell my story, minds will change. Suddenly a transgender woman is not a threat. She is just a woman. If a few of those who take in that story are connectors or tribal influencers, others will readily follow.

The goal is to reach a tipping point at which enough tribal influencers have taken in the new information that it is quickly accepted by the remaining members of the community. People can accept the facts, because it no longer means being abandoned by the tribe. They can say what they have known to be true for a long time, that transgender people are not a threat to anyone. They no longer fear being ostracized for speaking the truth.

There is a second way in which people take in new information and change their minds. It is when they no longer fear abandonment by their community, because they have a new community ready to embrace them. If you are an evangelical Christian, and you are affirming of the LGBTQ+ population, you will be ostracized by your evangelical church. But if there is another church ready to take you in, a church with a similar style, music and polity, you no longer fear abandonment. You have a new tribe waiting.

That is one of the reasons I say if Left Hand Church didn’t exist, we would have to invent it. There are many who want to leave the excesses of evangelicalism, but they fear abandonment. If they know they have somewhere else to turn, it is easier for them to stand up for what they know to be true.

There is yet one more method of bringing new information in a non-threatening way. Novels, biographies, and memoirs are ideal vehicles for getting a conversation inside someone’s head without the person fearing they will be judged by others. You can read a book in the privacy of your own home, at your own pace. You can enter the story, as you would if the person was sitting next to you in the living room. And your mind can be changed.

My heart has been warmed by the evangelicals who have read As A Woman – What I Learned About Power, Sex, and the Patriarchy After I Transitioned. I hear from them almost every day. Some are from my old denomination. Others never knew Paul but feel the need to reach out after they have read my story. It is the major reason I hope the book sells well. I believe it has the power to change the narrative, narrow the divide, and bring us a little closer together.

It will not be easy to close the great American divide. But it is not impossible. We must begin by telling stories, bringing new information in a non-threatening way, one person at a time.

And so it hopefully goes.

You Do Not Have to be Good

This week – a word about guilt.  Yeah, that should keep everybody reading…

Most of us know the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is believing you’ve done something bad. Shame is believing you are bad. Guilt can be good. Shame is never good. There are also guilt-based and shame-based cultures. In a guilt-based culture, there is no greater moral failure than violating your own conscience. In a shame-based culture, there is no greater moral failure than losing face. America has always been primarily a guilt-based culture, though of late we see shame-based ideas gaining strength in ways I find disturbing. At the moment, however, we remain a culture in which the greatest moral failure is to violate your own conscience.

With that in mind, I want to look at the three different types of guilt. Guilt as responsibility is the kind of guilt with which we are best acquainted. Guilt as responsibility is recognizing that I have done something wrong that brings harm to another. After recognition, it is my responsibility, where possible, to make restitution. After recognition and restitution, I am released from my guilt. Most of us have plenty of experience with guilt as responsibility. We live it on a regular basis, maybe even this week. Not that I am confessing to any specific guilt-producing failings in the last day or two, mind you.

A second type of guilt is pseudo-guilt or false guilt. False guilt is what you feel when you establish a healthy boundary for yourself but feel badly about it. For reasons buried in your childhood, you do not think you have the right to meet your own needs before meeting the needs of another.

I used to have a friend who was constantly asking me to set aside my own needs to meet his needs. Much to the chagrin of Cathy, my wife, I always readily complied. When you do not think you have permission to take care of yourself, you acquiesce to the needs of others. Unfortunately, when you do that, someone close to you will pay a price, and it will usually be the person or people with whom you feel the most secure. Most often, it will be your spouse. You take advantage of the person who loves you most so you can meet the needs of another in whose love you are not secure. And you do it all because if you dare say no, you’ll feel guilty about it.

Most of us were taught to be polite rather than honest, accommodating rather than self-protective, and submissive rather than assertive. To be anything else makes us feel guilty. False guilt is a defense against the deeper anxiety of not feeling permission to be yourself. The solution is to give yourself to permission to establish boundaries that protect you. You cannot love your neighbor if you do not first love yourself.

The third kind of guilt is existential guilt. This is the kind of guilt Nikos Kazantzakis was talking about when he said, “By the time you’re 50, you have the face you deserve.” Existential guilt involves recognition of wrongdoing, but without restitution or release.

I make my living speaking. For as long as the market smiles on me, I am paid handsomely to speak at corporations, conferences, and universities. Speaking is one of my gifts. But we all have shadow sides, and our shadow sides are usually our strengths taken to an extreme. Therefore, reflecting on a conversation I have just completed, I will sometimes think, “Paula, it would have been all right to have an unexpressed thought.” I think out loud, and my unedited thoughts are not always helpful to the people with whom I am speaking. Talking, when it would have been better to keep my mouth shut, is one of my shadow sides.

For as long as our strengths are with us, our shadow sides will be along for the ride. They are a part of the fabric of our being. The best we can do is recognize and name these shadow sides. Making restitution is difficult, and there is no release from the existential guilt of knowing that try as we might, we will never be able to undo all the pain we have brought into this world. The best we can hope for is that the recognition itself will enable us to keep those parts of ourselves under wraps a little more often.

The older I become, the more my shadow sides become known to me. The more my shadow sides become known to me, the more existential guilt I feel. I have discovered there is only one remedy for existential guilt. It is the recognition that grace is enough. To use a variation of a Paul Tillich phrase, grace is accepting that you are accepted even though a part of you is unacceptable. You must come to truly believe that you are enough just as you are, no questions asked, no changes required. No wonder the opening words of Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese are so dear to my heart:

You do not have to be good

You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles

Through the desert repenting

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

Love what it loves

Alone, Together

I spoke for the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina this past weekend. I went with my co-pastor, Kristie Sykes, and we had a wonderful time, though I do think she caught on to my plan to conveniently not have any cash when it was time to eat from the food trucks.

Outside of speaking at Left Hand, the Wild Goose Festival was my first live audience since Covid arrived on our shores. The people were wonderfully responsive, and they bought a lot of books, which makes my publisher happy. This was the second time I’ve given a keynote while the venerable artist Ken Medema sat at the piano and wrote a song themed to my message, which he sang as soon as I finished.  The audience was moved to tears.

The next day Kristie and I presented a workshop about planting Left Hand Church, which seemed to go quite well. We also attended enthralling sessions by Stan Mitchell, Josh Scott, and Brian McLaren, and enjoyed great music, including our own Heatherlyn and Jason.  The entire festival is held outdoors at a campground on the Appalachian Trail, and everyone in attendance had to be vaccinated, which made for a warm and inviting atmosphere.

I needed the Wild Goose Festival this past weekend. It was a balm for my soul. As I think a lot of us are experiencing, I am in a season of necessary inward focus. During this period, I am again reading James Hollis’ book, Swamplands of the Soul – New Life in Dismal Places. My first and second passes of the book were during times in which I was extremely busy and living with others. This reading is different. I live alone, and I have been lonely. It took being alone and being lonely for me to be ready to fully take in the book’s message. Some truths can only be received when you are looking inward.

In the book, Hollis quotes Clark Moustakis, “Loneliness is a condition of human life, an experience of being human which enables the individual to sustain, deepen, and extend their humanity. Efforts to overcome or escape the existential experience of loneliness can result only in self-alienation.”

I do not like what Moustakis suggests. I do not want self-alienation to be the result of avoiding loneliness. But I cannot make it untrue by wishing it to be so. After quoting Moustakis, Hollis continues with these words: “It is precisely our aloneness that permits our uniqueness to unfold.

He goes on to say we “inevitably overrate the value of relationship and underrate the value of solitude…The person who attains solitude is alone in his or her unique experience of the journey, yet such a person is conscious of an inner presence with which to dialogue. Out of such dialogue, the individuation process moves forward. How tragic, then, the repudiation of such an opportunity for growth.”

Um, okay. And where would this “inner presence” be found? Is alcohol involved, or gummies? Apparently, this “inner presence” is found beneath the ego with its constant demands. The “inner presence” is the realm of the soul. Hollis says the antidote for loneliness is to embrace loneliness.

On August 28 we had the first baptismal service in the history of Left Hand Church. Seven people were baptized by our co-pastors.  It was a beautiful evening on Lake MacIntosh, the mountains brilliantly purple in the fading summer light. I was baptized in 1961, in the baptistry of the Noble Avenue Church of Christ in Akron, Ohio. But as we began to plan for our baptismal service, I felt a strong desire to be baptized as Paula.

I surrendered to the hands of my co-pastor, Kristie, as she lowered me into the water. I had baptized her minutes earlier. I felt the water’s cool gentle presence all over my body. As she raised me from the water, still in surrender, I thought, “This is why immersion in water was the practice of the early church. To be lifted by another from the water into the air is surrendering to life as it is, not as you wish it to be, but as it is. For me, it was a surrender that brought forth Dag Hammarskjold’s words, “For all that has been, thanks. For all that shall be, yes.”  It was a surrender to life, which right now includes embracing loneliness.

We are born in water, shocked out of the womb into our aloneness as we take our first breaths.  I came out of the baptismal water ready to enter into my time of inward focus. I knew space was being held for me by those who collectively lowered me into the water and lifted me back up again. These people will keep an eye on me, reach out and touch me, and give me space within their cocoon of love. At its best, this is what the church is. It is learning to be alone, together.

A good marriage is also learning to be alone, together. I felt that throughout my marriage to Cathy, and I feel it from her still. I feel it from my children, my closest friends, and those rare and special friends you don’t see all that often who just somehow get you, as you get them.

I saw a few of those people at Goose. I spent an hour with the spiritual giant who used to lead our denomination’s largest mission agency at the time I led one of its large church planting agencies. His words were so powerful I committed them to memory. I spent a couple of hours with the pastor and theologian whose personal journey has added wisdom to his storehouse of great knowledge, and allowed him to bring words of healing and comfort into my life. The young pastor whose instincts for ministry are impeccable, thanked me for a probing question I asked about his experience with blessed failures. The therapist whose work on sexual education has helped many, greeted me as she always does, with genuine warmth and affection.

Wild Goose, Left Hand Church, my co-pastors, friends, and family – these are the people with whom I want to be alone together. These are my fellow-travelers. Some of them will run to the end of the platform and wistfully wave as my train slips away from the station, the ones who know that even when we are embracing loneliness, we are never fully alone.

This is a necessary and important time. Many of you understand. You have been here too. The call toward authenticity is sacred, and holy, and for the greater good. But sometimes it does call us into the deeper places we’d rather avoid.

And so it goes.

Where’s the Dry Land?

I’ve always appreciated the work of the Jungian analyst, James Hollis. His books hold prominent places on my shelves.  In Swamplands of the Soul, he says we must learn to embrace life as it is, not as we wish it to be, or as we are working to make it be.

His words remind me of one of the last entries in Dag Hammarskjold’s journal, which later became the book, Markings. Shortly before his death in a plane crash in Zambia in 1961, the Secretary General of the United Nations wrote,  Night is drawing nigh. For all that has been, thanks. For all that shall be, yes.

I’ve always been both haunted by and drawn to Hammarskjold’s words. I would like to live with his sober recognition of both the blessings and responsibilities of life. He lived wholeheartedly. And by wholeheartedly, I do not mean he lived with gusto. I mean that he lived with an eye for joy.

Hammarskjold led the UN during the height of the Cold War, when the world was closer to nuclear disaster than it has ever been. His perspective allowed him to accept the heavy weight he carried as he steered the superpowers in the direction of peace. Khrushchev and Kennedy didn’t agree on much, but they agreed on Hammarskjold. They said he was the greatest diplomat of the 20th century. Dag Hammarskjold found a way to view life that allowed him to embrace its complexities from a place of hope and possibility. He really was an extraordinary leader. I am not Dag Hammarskjold.

I have always begun my day reading the Washington Post and New York Times. Until 2016, I always found it enjoyable. Over the past five years, it has rarely been enjoyable. Now, when my day begins with America’s two premiere newspapers, the emotion stirred within is fear, not life’s possibilities.  Dag Hammarskjold’s words rarely come to mind.

The past month has been overwhelming. Here in Colorado, we have been dealing with some of the poorest air quality in the world, all stemming from wildfires in California and Oregon.  The ongoing images of the insurrection of January 6, and the denial of its significance, are never far from my consciousness. And then there’s Afghanistan. What a humanitarian disaster. Beneath all of that, it’s been a difficult month personally. Doing over 40 interviews about a raw memoir is not necessarily good for the soul.

Last week I changed my morning routine. Instead of reading the newspaper first, I have been sitting on my back patio and writing in my journal – one page of gratitude – one page of stream of consciousness. I drink a cup of tea and write until I am done.

The job of a therapist is to bring insight into a client’s life. The insights come from helping the client remove obstacles stopping them from getting beneath their ego to their soul.  The soul is where the insights lie.  Then it is up to the client to act on those insights and endure through his or her actions.

In my own life and therapy, insights have been pouring from the heavens lately, overwhelming the gutters I have so carefully positioned around my ego. I am soaked to the bone. In more normal times, I can receive these insights and decide what action to take. For instance, you might realize that since childhood you have always felt like you were on your own, and therefore always had to scramble to protect yourself when you thought the sky was falling. Now that you have gained that insight, you act, learning to allow others to care for you, and practicing that new action over and over, until it becomes second nature. That’s what I mean when I say therapy brings insight, but you alone can act and endure.

But when you are soaked to the bone with new insights, it is hard to turn those insights into enduring actions. You just sit in the damp cold, shivering. When the world appears to be drowning, it is even harder. You want to do your part to get everyone to dry land, but right now I think, “Yeah, well, I’m a mess, so what good can I be?” It’s a little whiny, don’t you think? (By the way, the only review of my book that I happened to see – an accidental reading – said the book was the tiniest bit whiny.  That’s why I don’t read reviews.)

In the midst of my whiny-ness, I am brought back to the words of the Greek writer, Aeschylus, who said the gods have ordained that the pathway to wisdom is through suffering, which takes me again to the words of the aforementioned James Hollis, who said most of life is lived in the swamplands. Which brings me back to the words of Dag Hammarskjold, Night is drawing nigh. For all that has been, thanks. For all that shall be, yes.

Hammarskjold found dry land in the swamp. I’m tired of being soaked to the bone. I want dry land too. You know, the book reviewer might be right. For an entitled white man who now has a pretty comfortable life as a transgender woman, it all sounds kinda whiny.

And so it goes.

A Crazy Couple of Months

The past two months have been a whirlwind of activity as my book, As A Woman, What I Learned About Power, Sex, and the Patriarchy was published. The activity began with a slightly weird interview with LitHub, followed by a probing one with People Magazine. All told, there were about 35 interviews in 50 days. The most recent was a talk and Q&A at the Longmont Public Library.  It was very enjoyable, with lots of thoughtful questions. There are a few more events scattered from August through November, but the daily media push is pretty much over.

Many of the interviews were stimulating.  KK Ottesen’s conversation and photo session for the Washington Post showed why she is one of the best. Jenn White at 1A was another favorite, as were Kate Archer Kent at Wisconsin Public Radio, Kerri Miller at Minnesota Public Radio, and my favorite, Ryan Warner with Colorado Matters on Colorado Public Radio. Several other conversations were notable, including my time with Lisa Kennedy for Kirkus Reviews, and Mary Elizabeth Williams for Salon.

Writing the memoir was a raw, gut-wrenching experience. It is understandable that after 45 days of interviews, I am having a vulnerability hangover. This was a lot. Throughout my adult life I have suffered from occasional bouts of benign positional vertigo. (And yes, I know about the Epley Maneuver, and yes, it works.) I haven’t had a bout in six years, but a spell of vertigo arrived with the release of the book.  It is understandable. We are psychosomatic creatures, and this has been emotionally and physically dizzying.

Neither has it been an easy time for my family and close friends. They played a significant part in my story, but in the interviews about the book, I was the only one doing the telling. Every line in the book had been approved by family and close friends, but they had to trust I would be fair and accurate and protect their privacy in the interviews.  There were a few tense days, but we all survived.

After the biggest rush of interviews and appearances had been completed, Jonathan and his family arrived for their annual summer visit. That brought all three of our children and their families together. As is the case most summers, I had all five granddaughters for the better part of three weeks, which was delightful. My grandchildren could care less that I was in People Magazine or on Good Morning America. Now, if I had been a TikTok sensation, that would have gotten their attention.  I took about 10 pictures of my granddaughters on the couch the last day they were here. The one above is the only one in which multiple children were not making funny faces.

I am ready for life to get back to normal, or what passes for normal in my busy life. I am ready to return to my speaking engagements, counseling clients, and pastoring with Left Hand Church. The church has been my grounding throughout the writing and publishing process. For that I am grateful. Kristie, Nicole, and John, my co-pastors, have been wonderfully accommodating, tolerating my tardiness on projects and the occasional need to shift meeting schedules.

While the past two months were taxing, they were also important. I want to make a difference in the world. I want to make the path easier for those on a journey similar to mine. I want to lessen suffering in the world, and sow seeds of understanding, love, and tolerance.

I also want to continue playing hide and seek with my granddaughters, and taking them tubing on the river, and going to multiple ice cream shops on the same evening, just to satisfy their varying tastes. It is their affection that brings me alive. It is the respect of my children, the love of my close friends, and the satisfaction of good work that keep me moving forward.

I want to live with gratitude and continue bringing offerings into the world. I want my story to play a small part in enhancing the journey of others. I am humbled by the abundance of opportunities that have come my way. I want to be worthy of having been given such a platform.

It makes me happy that my place of gladness has been able to touch the world’s deep hunger. It has not been easy, but it has been good.

My Op-Ed on CNN

On June 2, CNN published an op-ed in which I wrote about the tragedy of the current spate of laws being enacted against transgender adolescents.  Here is that op-ed:

From the time I was 3 or 4 years old, I knew I was transgender. I didn’t know it in those words, of course. In my naivete, I remember thinking I could choose my gender, that maybe a gender fairy would arrive and say, “OK, what’s it going to be?” Of course, I would choose what I understood myself to be — a girl. But alas, no gender fairy ever arrived.

As the child of an evangelical pastor, I knew telling my family what I knew about myself was out of the question. It was the 1950s and not much was known about gender dysphoria. The word transgender did not even exist. Nevertheless, I was certain I was supposed to have been born a girl. I was equally as certain that if I told anyone my secret, I would be in big trouble.

I did not believe I was a girl trapped in a boy’s body. I just felt I was supposed to have been born a girl. When I realized that was not a possibility, I did not despair. I just went about my life.

Puberty was when my real problems began. My body changed in ways I despised, while my female friends had bodies changing in all the ways I desperately wanted mine to change. I hated my body, but I had nowhere to turn. I lived in a conservative area of the South and was immersed in an evangelical subculture that kept a powerful hold on its adherents.

Following in my brother’s footsteps, I attended a Christian college, married, had children and built a career. I ultimately became the CEO of an international Christian ministry, the editor-at-large of a national Christian magazine and a regular speaker in some of the largest churches in the nation. While I was hiding my true self, at least I was providing for my family.

After our children left home, my gender dysphoria returned with a vengeance. When I began to contemplate ending my life, I knew I had to act.

I began a low dose of anti-androgens and estrogen, hoping it might somehow assuage my longing to transition and allow me to continue living as a male. It did just the opposite. The hormones convinced me I needed to transition. My wife and I decided it was time to tell our children and several months later, I told the Christian ministries with which I worked.

Within seven days I lost every single one of my jobs. I was abandoned by my evangelical community and unable to find work. I earned more money in my last two months as a man than in the next 48 months as a woman.

Had I not found a wonderful new affirming church, I do not know if I would have survived. Three years after transitioning, I was asked to speak for TEDxMileHigh, followed by TEDWomen and other TED events, which led to a full speaking schedule on issues related to gender equity. I now serve as a pastor with Left Hand Church in Longmont, Colorado.

I brought a lot of privilege and skills with me when I transitioned, and the post-transition opportunities that have come my way have left me in far better circumstances than many.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, 54% of transgender people with unsupportive families have attempted suicide and 29% live in poverty. Transgender women of color disproportionately face the interconnected threats of poverty, violence and bigotry.

For transgender children, the statistics are even more disturbing. According to a 2018 study, female to male transgender adolescents attempt suicide at a rate of 50.8%. Male to female trans adolescents have a 29.9% suicide attempt rate.

The Legislative Tracker of Freedom for All Americans indicates there are dozens of bills across multiple states focused on prohibiting transgender athletes from competing in interscholastic sports or focused on denying gender affirming care to transgender adolescents. Arkansas House Bill 1570, enacted over the governor’s veto, made that state the first to outlaw such care for minors, endangering the lives of adolescents in the process.

A recent PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist Poll indicated that two-thirds of Americans of every political ideology and age group oppose laws that would limit transgender rights. If this is the case, what is driving these legislative actions. According to research from Pew, 84% of White evangelical Protestants say that gender is determined by sex at birth.

In my memoir, I grappled with these driving forces, writing that over recent decades, White evangelicals have focused their political energy primarily on two social issues — abortion and LGBTQ+ rights. As someone who has lived with White male privilege, I find it particularly interesting that they have staked so much on two debates that cost their straight male leadership almost nothing.

Focusing on other issues — systemic racism or wealth inequality — might require making changes in their own lives or altering their own sense of power. Instead, they target the rights of transgender children, one of the most at-risk groups in the nation.

To my White evangelical friends and former coworkers, I implore you, leave transgender children alone. Your misguided activism is putting vulnerable adolescents at risk.

I can handle your rejection. These children cannot. They do not bring years of privilege and experience with them. They do not have the resources that I have to withstand your attacks. Research suggests that only 25 percent of you know someone who publicly identifies as transgender. Acquaint yourself with transgender people before you decide that you know what is best. Leave the decisions about medical treatment to the medical professionals. Educate yourself about the causes and complexities of gender dysphoria.

The lives of many hang in the balance. I am lucky that mine is not one of them.

Here is the link to the op-ed on the CNN site:

http://https://www.cnn.com/2021/06/02/opinions/transgender-what-i-learned-from-transition-pride-2021-stone-williams/index.html

 

 

A Very Good Trip

My father passed away in May of 2020, the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic. I had visited him the previous January, just a few months before he passed, and knew it wouldn’t be long. Because of the pandemic we were not able to hold a funeral, nor was I able to travel to Kentucky for his burial. Finding closure was difficult.

Last week, on the spur of the moment, I decided to fly to Kentucky for two days. I did not tell my brother I was coming, nor my cousin, both of whom would have come along had I asked. I did not tell any of my few remaining friends in town that I was there. I needed to make the trip alone.

I always enjoyed a good relationship with my father. Even after I transitioned and my mother demanded that he disown me, Dad and I stayed in touch. When I was finally allowed to visit, Dad was the one who said before I departed, “Paula, I don’t understand this, but I am willing to try.” What more could I have asked?

My father was a good and gentle man who took delight in me, and I knew it. His love sustained me through difficult times with my mother. I hated not being able to be with him when he passed. The trip back was for me, and for Dad.

I usually fly into Cincinnati, Lexington, Huntington, or Charleston when I go back to Grayson, but there is a serious rental car shortage in America, and Louisville was the only place I could find a car. I landed around 5:00 and drove the two and a half hours through Bluegrass country into the hills and hollows of Carter County, the place I’ve always called home. Though I only lived there from the ages of 15 to 22, it was the place of grounding for our family. Mom graduated from high school in Grayson and both of my parents attended the college in town. Not only are my parents buried there, but my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousin are also buried there, nine relatives in all. My grandmother’s home was at the edge of the cemetery. We used to picnic there while Grandma Stone sang songs and dished out blackberry cobbler and generally took delight in her grandchildren

I arrived at 8:30 in the evening, before the sun set. I drove through the campus of the college where I received my bachelor’s degree, then drove down Landsdowne Avenue to the cemetery, parking about 30 yards from where my parents are buried.

When I got to the graves, there was a problem. My parents had their headstone and footstones in place before they died. The footstones were about 18 x 12 x 4 inches and were recessed into the ground. When they dug the graves, they unearthed both footstones and dumped them to the side, where they remained until I arrived. Mom’s footstone says, “Teacher,” and Dad’s says, “Ordained Minister, 1946.”  You could not tell on whose graves the footstones belonged. Mom’s was closer to Dad’s grave and Dad’s was between their plot and the next graves over.

I immediately thought of how upset my mother would have been. Not only were the footstones out of place, but no sod had been placed on the dirt above their graves. Only dry Kentucky clay covered both graves. I got down on my knees and started tugging at the footstones. They wouldn’t budge.  I positioned myself on the upper side of the plot and dug into Mom’s footstone with all of my might. After several minutes of struggle, I wedged my hand beneath the far side of the stone and began pulling it toward me. I slowly got the footstone on its side, then lifted it to stand on end. I walked the stone to its proper place at the foot of her grave and put it in place.

Dad’s footstone was more difficult to move.  I tugged and pulled and cried.  I needed to get it in place. I had to get it to its proper place. It could not wait. It had to be done before nightfall. I finally wedged three fingers beneath it, right where the word “Minister” was carved into the granite and pulled it onto its side. Then with a burst of energy I got it on its end and started walking it to the foot of his grave, crying the whole time. I had walked my father’s legacy back to its proper place and I could leave for the night. Once I got to the motel I went for a nighttime run, savoring the moist Kentucky air, remembering the lazy evenings of my youth.

The next morning, I headed to the local Wal-Mart and bought a small rake, trowel, and grass seed. Then I drove back to the cemetery.  On my knees I began digging several inches into the hard Kentucky clay, leveling out the dirt and preparing the soil for seed. I planted the seed, gently raked the clay and tamped it down, and prayed that the forecast that said rain was on the way was accurate.

I gently sat down on the gravestone of my grandparents, just a few feet above my parents’ graves. A lawn maintenance worker came by on his riding mower. I gave him the implements I had used, and told him I had mowed the cemetery with a hand mower when I was in college. I earned $1.60 an hour. I began mowing each Monday and finished on Friday, only to begin again the following Monday.  I told him my grandfather had mowed the cemetery before me. I showed him his grave. When I mowed the cemetery during the summer of 1972, my grandfather was the only family member buried there. I used to eat my lunch beneath a nearby oak. The oak has now returned to the earth, nourishing a new generation of trees that live their entire lives in just one place.

Stones moved, grass sown, and soil raked, I began wandering around the graveyard. There were over a hundred people I knew buried there – the man who sold me my first new car – the grave of my high school friend’s parents, two of the kindest people I have ever known. I saw the grave of the news director at the radio station where I worked. He knew everything that had ever happened in our little town. At the foot of his grave was the grave of his son, lost to Covid-19.

There is no other cemetery on earth in which I know as many residents, all nestled there on a hillside across the lane from the college campus, next to the land where my grandmother kept the most beautiful garden. Because it seemed the right thing to do, I began quoting aloud Mary Oliver’s poem, Wild Geese.

You do not have to be good

You do not have to crawl on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert repenting

You only have to let the soft warm animal of your body

Love what it loves

Tell me about despair

Yours and I will tell you mine

Meanwhile the world goes on

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of rain

Are moving across the landscapes

Over the prairies and the deep trees

The mountains and the rivers

Meanwhile the wild geese high in the clean blue air

Are heading home again

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely

The world offers itself to your imagination

Calls to you like the wild geese

Harsh and exciting, over and over

Announcing your place in the family of things

I was amongst people who had found their place in the family of things. On account of their religion, most of them thought they did have to be good and walk on their knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. They hoped God would let them in through the back door. These were good people. I doubt they were prepared for the wonderful welcome they received.

After driving around town, I headed back to Louisville. I did not cry until I returned to Denver and stopped at the home of one of my dearest friends. As soon as I felt her touch, the tears flowed freely. There is warmth and safety in the touch of someone who loves you. I cried and she held me and asked, “Was the trip good?” “Yes, very good,” I replied.  “Very good.”

Some Things to Think About

Cathy was speaking with a good friend whose husband passed away. Talking about the similarities between their circumstances, Cathy brought up an interesting point.  She said to her friend, “But people remember and talk about your husband.  They talk about your life together. They act like my husband never existed, and they never talk about our life together.”

I didn’t write much about this in my memoir, because I am always reminded of the words of D. H. Lawrence: “A writer sheds his sickness in his writing.”  I didn’t want to work through my unresolved issues in a book. Chapter 15, Dying Before Dying, talks about it a little, but not the specifics Cathy was talking about.

People don’t want to talk with Cathy about Paul.  Whenever Cathy has been with me at any of the churches in which I’ve preached, she has not been greeted as Paul’s wife, but as “the lovely person who didn’t reject Paula.”  People do not want to talk with me about Paul.  Outside of my children and David, my close friend, very few people who knew me as Paul stay in touch on a regular basis. With some of those folks, the fault lies with me as much as them. Maybe we all find it too painful to go back to Paul’s life.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the people who have a relationship with Paula also do not want to see or hear about Paul.  And yes, I am aware I am referring to myself in the third person. It’s part of the dilemma.  On more than one occasion, when they’ve seen a picture of Paul, or heard me sing a few measures in Paul’s voice, they let me know how disconcerting it is.

All of this is just another reminder that it is not easy being transgender or the family member of someone who is.  It is one of the reasons I believe it would be wonderful if they could figure out the cause of gender dysphoria and treat it prenatally.  Some trans activists do not like that perspective, but it does not mean I am challenging their narrative.  It is just how I personally feel.

Once a few decades have gone by and we have a world in which gender fluidity is more common, it should be easier. Gen Z has a wonderfully open and expansive understanding of gender.  Go into most any elementary school, and you’ll find children who shrug their shoulders when someone transitions genders or presents as non-binary.  There is far greater acceptance of gay people today than twenty years ago.  Maybe the next twenty years will bring about a similar acceptance of trans and non-binary people.

I would love it if my current friends were interested in the life of Paul, or the books I wrote and edited when I was Paul, or the television show I hosted.  I would be thrilled if my old friends would embrace Paula. I got a note from a woman this week who had read my book.  She knew me when I was Paul, and said she found a lot of Paul in the memoir. I loved her words.

It is challenging to live a life marked by discontinuity. I usually am not able to speak with people considering transitioning, but on the rare occasions I do speak with them, I urge caution, “Are you ready to lose your grounding?  Are you prepared to lose your friends, church, social groups, and work?  Are you ready to start all over again, knowing your obituary will mention nothing about your previous life, but will prominently note that you are transgender, as if it is the most significant thing about you?”

Don’t get me wrong.  I do believe the call toward authenticity is sacred, holy, and for the greater good. I am glad I transitioned, and I am happy to be a public presence for the transgender community. But it’s not all sweetness and light. There are dark moments. I just want to be honest about them.

Life is good and redemptive and full of joy, but it’s not always easy.  But then you already knew that, didn’t you?

News From Hollywood – Yep!

Transgender Pastor Paula Stone Williams’ Memoir ‘As A Woman’ In Works As Limited Series By Cannonball Productions

Paula Stone Williams

EXCLUSIVE: Sean Hanish and Paul Jaconi-Biery’s Cannonball Productions has secured the rights to transgender pastor Dr. Paula Stone Williams’ just released book As a Woman: What I Learned about Power, Sex, and the Patriarchy after I Transitioned, for development as a limited series based on Williams’ life.

As a Woman
is described as a moving and unforgettable memoir of a transgender pastor’s journey from despair to joy as she transitioned from male to female and learned about gender inequity, at home and in the workplace. Published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, As a Woman was released on June 1, appropriately during Pride month.

Williams will be involved in the development of the series, with Cannonball’s Hanish and Jaconi-Biery, along with Trevor Brisbin, all serving as Executive Producers on the project.

 

The Sound of a Voice

I read my book last month.  Well, I’ve been reading it since October, one edit after another. There were times I became sick of it, times I thought it was terrible, times I thought it was good.  The last week of April, I recorded it for the audiobook.

Steven, the engineer from Simon & Schuster, conveniently lives in Nederland, not far from my home. He’s quite the accomplished engineer, having worked on Pet Sounds and Graceland as well other legendary rock and roll albums. He’s recorded books for Ronald Regan, Steve Martin and Charlton Heston, among others – over 3,000 books altogether. I liked him right away, which made me comfortable. We set up a recording studio in the office at my house. Steven covered the desk with a blanket, wrapped a folding divider behind me, and positioned microphones just so.

He had to come  back the day after the setup to troubleshoot a few odd electronic interruptions, all eventually traced to Alexa, the girl who eavesdrops on everything said in the house. We cut her lifeline and turned off the furnace and on a cold Monday morning in April, and I started reading my book aloud.

I’d have to take a break every few hours and turn the heat back on for 30 minutes or so. Did I mention we got 8 inches of snow that week?  All in all, it never got too uncomfortable in the house. I think I’d rather turn off the HVAC and lose heat in April than air conditioning in July.  Besides, the warm sweater soothed my soul, which needed soothing.

I wept. I cried as I read the poem Nicole wrote for me as I began working on the book. I wept through the entire introduction, which ends with the telling of our wedding night.  I cried so much we had to record those two again, after I finished  everything else. Steven was comfortable with me shedding tears.

The first fifteen chapters of the book are the sequential story of my life thus far.  The last several of those chapters are when I cried the most. A few times I began sobbing as soon as I finished the last line of a chapter. Stephen, listening to every line, would suggest we take a break.

I have never listened to audiobooks. I work on writing sermons in my head or memorizing them while I’m running. I listen to NPR in the car. I’ve never found the time (or desire) to listen to an audiobook.  But after recording my memoir, I think everyone should listen to a book, particularly a memoir read by the author. So much comes out in the human voice that cannot be seen on the page. The voice shows more than it tells, which is a good thing.

I liked the story, and the telling of it. I thought the editors had done a good job helping the writer (who would be me) figure out what was needed and what was extraneous.  The book had a nice flow.  I thought if I was just the voice artist recording the book and not its author, I would still enjoy reading the book and might recommend it to my friends.

While I was reading my book, I realized the story is universal. In the dedication I write, “For all who believe the call toward authenticity is sacred, and holy, and for the greater good.” The particulars are mine, but the call onto what Joseph Campbell calls the Hero’s Journey is universal.  It is the landscape of all restless souls who want to make a difference in this short pause between two great mysteries. I believe my story might ease you into your story. Listening to it might accomplish that even more effectively than reading it.

This living is serious business, and we are all pilgrims, called by our better angels onto a sacred journey. As I read my book aloud, I prayed it might call you more deeply into your journey. We all need every bit of help we can get to live fully into our true selves.

And so it goes.