The Good People Are Always Near

My health insurance was cancelled. Cathy received a certified letter with the ominous message, “It has been brought to our attention that you and Paula Williams are divorced. Paula William’s health insurance will end on January 31, and you are required to send us a divorce decree. You will be required to repay anything paid on her behalf between the date of the divorce decree and the date of the cancellation.”

Cathy called the next morning and told the administrator of health services that we are, in fact, very much married, and the administrator said, “I know you’re not because it’s all over the Internet.” Cathy was aghast, “Since when did the Internet become the arbiter of what is and what is not true?”

The administrator wouldn’t listen to Cathy. She said Cathy had to send a letter stating that we are still married, which we accompanied with proof that we are still married. How do you prove you are still married when you just celebrated your 50th wedding anniversary 16 days earlier?  We sent a copy of our marriage certificate, a copy of my name change, and a copy of the cover sheet of last year’s taxes, with the amounts redacted. (I wouldn’t trust someone who says “it’s all over the Internet” with the amounts of our income.)

Hate mail comes in waves. I can avoid most of it. I spot it before I even open it. Several messages have gotten through of late. They always reference my selfishness, the eternity I will spend in hell, and the immutability of gender. Yep, almost all of them are from evangelicals. Add to that the fact that someone took it upon themselves to inform the Bay Shore, Long Island school district that our marital status should be researched, and you realize there are a lot of people out there who want to make my life difficult.

It’d be laughable, but it’s not. I almost lost my health insurance. We’re still missing over $1600 in reimbursements from the school system that were required to have been sent by December 31. And the condescension Cathy experienced from the health services administrator left her in tears. I can usually blow off that kind of ugly stuff, but this was harder than usual, both because of the blatant and combative nature of it, and because it was aimed at Cathy as well as me.

So, all of that happened. But so did other things. Three friends reached out to me just to let me know they are thinking of me. Most put hearts of various colors next to their messages. I had wonderful text exchanges with my co-pastors, and with the chair of our church board. One of my long-time friends who works for American Airlines made sure Cathy and I got out of town before a snowstorm so we could get to a long-awaited vacation in Hawaii. Cathy and I had an amazing weekend with our daughters and their daughters at a wonderful resort in Colorado the weekend before leaving for Hawaii. And the Hawaii trip was everything we hoped it would be.

I am blessed. Beyond the health insurance fiasco and the hate mail, I have a rich and rewarding life. At the foundation of that life are a lot of good people:

Goodness

The good people are always near

If you have eyes to see them

Though often they are cloaked in

Garments of some old failure

 

Their goodness like beams of light

Passing through a cracked door

Falls slant on hidden places

Where all the deep wounds lie

 

Pain knows pain and will not let

Its long and sordid tale abide

Treating wounds with gentle touch

The sisterhood of suffering

 

Goodness travels well

Turning up in peculiar places like

Your own heart when you thought

You had nothing left to give

Fifty Years

Fifty years ago, Cathy and I were married. December 31, 1972 was a rainy day on Long Island’s south shore. At the urging of her father, we had the ceremony at 11:30 pm, and were pronounced husband and wife shortly before midnight. Both of our fathers performed the ceremony. We were children, really. I was 21 and Cathy was 19. I was a senior in college and she was a sophomore.

We spent one more year in Kentucky before moving to upstate New York, and four years later Jonathan was born. Jael came two and a half years after that. Jana arrived in December of 1980. By the time the girls were born, we had moved to Long Island and were living about 10 miles from where we married.

Cathy and I were committed to each other, and to the institution of marriage. We assumed we would remain together for the rest of our lives. We were loyal, thoughtful, and kind with each other, even though we had the same kinds of issues common to all marriages. It is difficult living 24/7 with another human. Nevertheless, neither one of us ever strayed, and we never contemplated splitting up. We were committed for life.

The painful details that led to our separation are detailed in my book, As a Woman, What I Learned About Power, Sex, and the Patriarchy After I Transitioned. Writing that part of the story was supremely difficult.

We were at Mike Solomon’s office. Mike was our wise and seasoned marriage therapist and he had decided to retire. We just happened to be his last clients on his last day. I asked, “How many couples are willing to work this hard?” Mike, not given to hyperbole, answered, “One percent.” I asked, “How many couples get this far in working out their stuff?” Again, he said, “One percent.” Then he spoke the sentence we both found devastating. Mike said, “Which is what makes this so tragic. You are a lesbian and Cathy is not.”

The two-hour drive home was in silence. Our separation was slow and painful, moving through all the stages of loss. Today, Cathy lives about twenty-five minutes away. We share an office in the home we built together. She is here three days a week seeing clients. We often have dinner together. She stays at the house when the kids and grandkids are in town. We vacation together.  But little else is as we would wish it to be.

I have gone on record a number of times saying I hope they are able to determine what causes a person to be transgender and change it in the womb. I wanted to be married to Cathy for life. But I also know I had little choice but to transition. Everyone with whom I was close, including Cathy, knew it was no longer sustainable for me to remain living as Paul. Therapists and close friends have all used the same word to describe our circumstances – tragic.

For Cathy and me, that language is descriptive, but not very helpful. Neither one of us wanted this, and it is profoundly difficult to know how to move forward. There are no examples before us, no counselors with the wisdom of experience to guide us, and no clear path ahead. These are uncharted waters. We navigate as best we can. Our respect for each other remains, as does our love. We both miss the intimacy we had in our marriage, but it is what it is.

On our anniversary we had a wonderful dinner together at our favorite restaurant. We spent the evening watching movies and talking, as we did through most of the holidays. We do not know where we go from here. We will write the script as we live it. While our life is not as dark as a Bergman film, I’m pretty sure no one but Jane Campion or Martin McDonagh would want to make it into a movie.

Life is difficult. It is that way for everybody. I do not believe our lives are any more or less difficult than most, and we are grateful for the abundant blessings we enjoy. Our children and their partners bring us great pleasure. Our granddaughters are our delight. We both have deep friendships and good work.

This fiftieth anniversary was bittersweet. We have lived authentically and conscientiously, but there is pain and sorrow. Nevertheless, life goes on and we do our best to love each other well. Love is, after all, what makes the world go round.

And so it goes.

The Alchemy of Joy

I remember the first time I heard Handel’s Messiah. Seeing everyone stand when the choir began singing the Hallelujah Chorus was wonderful, but it was the closing – Worthy Is the Lamb and  Amen Chorus that brought goosebumps. That is when I wanted to stand. When our Select Choir sang it during my junior year of college, I did not want the concert to end. I wanted to keep singing that song over and over.

Isn’t it a wonderful thing to get goosebumps? I attended a couple of concerts a week ago, and had goosebumps in abundance. I was experiencing surprise in the form of wonder.

Surprise is one of the six core emotions of humans. All six come to us when external stimuli create a physiological response in our bodies. The six core emotions are happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust. All six create different types of physical responses – goosebumps, a dry mouth, a rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, hair standing up on the back of your neck.

Feelings are different from emotions. Feelings are our own personal reactions to the emotions that come to us. Our feelings are our personal response to emotions, and they are based on our personal experience. Brené Brown has identified 150 different feelings that are derived from our emotions.

One of the core emotions is happiness. I remember Christmas when I was in the fifth grade. I was hoping beyond hope for a new bicycle. I came downstairs and there it was, a JC Higgins 26″ Tank Survivor with saddlebags and streamers from the handlebars and I was happy, very happy.

Happiness comes when you expect it. You get a raise and you’re happy. You go on vacation and you’re happy. You get a new bike, and you’re happy. Happiness comes when you expect it. Joy, on the other hand, has a mind of its own.

Just a month before I got that bicycle, my maternal grandfather died. He was an Eastern Kentucky farmer and though he was gruff and spoke a total of 10 words a year, whether he needed them or not, I adored him. And I was devastated. At his funeral I was filled with sadness and fear. It was the first time I ever encountered the death of someone I knew and loved.

At the funeral I leaned hard against my father, and he gave me a half pack of peppermint Lifesavers. We went back to the house and my mother and aunts got talking about their dad and telling funny stories and they laughed hard, before dissolving in tears again. And then they told more stories and laughed again, and I was filled with wonder that these women I knew to be so stoic and guarded were laughing and crying in turn, and I was grateful to see them like that – expressing their true emotions with abandon.

I don’t know that I would have known what to call the feeling I had then, but I know now what it was. The feeling was joy. That is when I discovered that fear, followed by wonder, followed by gratitude, creates joy. Fear, wonder, and gratitude are the alchemy of joy.

It was that way for the shepherds who were there at the birth of Jesus. When the angel came to them, they were utterly terrified. But then when they saw what happened at the manger, they were filled with wonder. In gratitude they told everyone what the angels had asked them to speak – that the Lord had come. And Luke tells us, they were filled with joy.

The same thing happened two years later with the Magi. They were not kings, but wise leaders from Persia, probably Zoroastrians, another monotheistic religion that believed in a moral duality of right and wrong.

They followed a star and when it led them to the toddler Jesus, they were filled with wonder. They brought frankincense, gold, and myrrh, to show gratitude. But they also felt fear. When they were on their way to where Jesus was, they stopped in Jerusalem. Herod asked where they were going, and before they realized it had been a bad idea, they told him. He said, “Make sure to come back through and let me know where you find him?” I believe it sent shivers down their spines. When they were ready to leave where Jesus was, they had a nightmare telling them to return another way, and they did. Again, it was fear, replaced by wonder, coupled with gratitude, that brought joy.

Fear, replaced by wonder, coupled with gratitude, that is what I experienced on the day of my grandfather’s funeral. That is what I have experienced so many times since. It is the alchemy that produces joy.

May this Christmas season bring you great joy.

This I Believe

Ever since I finished Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, I have been reading additional sources that support his belief that there are three moral standards in the world. In my opinion his thesis is accurate.

The first and oldest moral standard is that there is no greater moral good than to protect the integrity of the tribe. Since we never grew rapidly as a species until we moved from the level of blood kin to the level of tribe, keeping the integrity of the tribe was critical to the development of civilizations. People surrendered their personal freedom to the leaders of their tribe.

What brought us together as a tribal species was not the need for safety, but our search for meaning. Which brings us to the second moral standard of our species, that there is no greater moral good than to obey the teachings of the gods. This is the moral standard of all fundamentalism, particularly the fundamentalist expressions of the desert religions, which began as religions of scarcity, and remain so in their fundamentalist forms. With this moral standard, people handed over agency to the religious leaders who spoke on behalf of the gods.

There is a much younger third moral standard. It is the standard of most of Western Civilization. It is the standard that says there is no greater moral good than to protect the freedom of the individual. This standard permeates most of Europe, the United States, particularly its northern tier, and all of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It was the moral standard of America’s founding fathers, and its principles are woven into the US Constitution.

René Girard, the late anthropologist and philosopher, wrote a book called Violence and the Sacred, in which he talked about tribes and religions, and how those in power figured out how to remain in power. They created scapegoats within the tribe that only they could identify, who had to be expelled for the sake of the tribe’s or religion’s security. “It’s not a good time to change leaders. Only I have the unique ability to root out our enemies and banish them from the nation.” This mimetic theory, as Girard called it, is at the foundation of all power metanarratives.

A metanarrative is a big giant story that explains the meaning of life. In power metanarratives, the victors write history, determine the nature of truth, identify and elminate scapegoats, and force their narrative on the entire culture. At its worst, it is Germany’s Third Reich. An example of a religious power metanarrative would be today’s American evangelicalism, in which leaders claim the moral authority to condemn LGBTQ+ people as scapegoats who need to be expelled from the community.

Scapegoats are always the powerless. In today’s evangelical America, they are transgender children, only .58 percent of the population, but with a suicide completion rate 13 times higher than their peers. They are America’s most vulnerable population, yet they have become the center of America’s culture wars. The scriptures say absolutely nothing about being transgender. But this is not about what the scriptures say. It is about the arbitrary decisions of those in power about who is and who is not a threat to the community, and therefore a scapegoat.

And yes, it is not lost on me that I am a scapegoat in the evangelical metanarrative. Someone who was respected as a national leader was immediately ostracized upon announcing they were transgender. It happened because the leaders of that religion decided all transgender people were not fit to be leaders. It cost me a huge pension, all of my jobs, and almost all of my friends.

In his study of power metanarratives, Girard made a fascinating discovery. There was one major metanarrative, and only one, that was not a power metanarrative. In fact, its hero was a scapegoat. His words were about caring for widows, orphans, and the poor. His followers were social outcasts. 

Girard was very taken by that scapegoat and his followers, if not the religion that eventually grew out of his life. The religion became just another power metanarrative. The scapegoat himself, and the message he brought, were truly revolutionary. The scapegoat taught that you should love your enemies, and those who wanted to be great had to become servants of all.

I still believe in the life and teachings of that scapegoat. I can think of no better way to live than loving God, loving neighbor, and loving self. I believe it is the teachings of that scapegoat that gave birth to the moral standard of the entire Western world, that there is no greater moral good than to protect the freedom of the individual.

Because we are open to everyone on the spiritual journey, some people assume Left Hand Church is a Unitarian/Universalist fellowship or a Unity Church. We are not. We are a Christian church. We follow the scapegoat and his teachings. We eschew the power metanarratives and embrace the one who said the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

Yes, after everything I experienced at the hands of the evangelical church, I am still a follower of Jesus. Because Jesus is not the evangelical church. Jesus is the one who fought for the freedom and dignity of every single individual. Jesus told us that above all else, love wins.

It is that Jesus I worship during this, the darkest of days. It is that Jesus, born in a stable in an out of the way village in an obscure nation over 2,000 years ago, who turned power metanarratives upside down and gave our species it’s only hope – that the way forward is through love.

That is the Jesus who I celebrate in this holiest of seasons.

A Message to Bring

I am putting together a couple new keynote presentations for my work as a speaker. That world continues to be good to me. During 2022 I’ve spoken at Spirit Aero Systems, Wittkieffer, Medtronics, Pipeworks, Proctor and Gamble, Colas Canada, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, CBS/Viacom, Owens-Corning, NN Netherlands, TEDWomen, and several other companies, conferences, and universities.

I usually speak for 30 minutes and do Q&A for another 30 minutes. Since Covid, most of the conferences have been virtual, but in-person events are coming back. Almost all my talks are about gender equity. A few are about LGBTQ+ issues. One of the new talks I am considering is entitled, “Lost is a Place Too.”

In that new talk I want to say that our problem in life is usually not the thing we fear. It is that which gave birth to the thing we fear. Beowulf’s problem was not the sea monster, Grendel. His problem was the even more hideous sea monster, the mother of Grendel.

What is the mother of your presenting fear, the one you see clearly before you? If your presenting fear is failure, the mother of that fear may be the deep-seated conviction that if you are not successful, you are not worthy of love. That is a fear of many, born of parents who chose to love conditionally.

What is your core wound, the one that follows you through your days? That is the fear you must face by dropping down into the deep, dark lagoon for three days and three nights and maybe longer, until you finally slay the mother of all monsters.

I want to talk about the courage it takes to answer that call, the one you have been avoiding. No call is easy to answer. The first call is always a call to “out there.” It is a call to the high seas. The problem is “other” to you. The first call is frightening, foreboding even, but it is “out there” and therefore manageable.

The later call, the one you have been avoiding, is the call inland. It is the call of Odysseus to take an oar inland until he found no one who knew what an oar was. Then he was to plant it in the ground as an offering to the sea god, Poseidon. Only then could he return to his beloved Penelope and live into “sleek old age.” His trip inland was exhausting.

The journey inland is always exhausting. When the call is inland, the journey is contained within the unexamined borderlands of your soul. It is a journey you must take alone. No one can travel with you.

It is the journey that comes after Dante’s awakening at the beginning of the Divine Comedy: “In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood where the true way was wholly lost.” It is the call that takes you through the existential pain of Shakespeare’s MacBeth -” Life is but a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The call inland will always be to a place in which you do not think you have the tools to succeed. That is because you do not, in fact, have the tools to succeed. You will only find them in the middle of the battle. Beowulf didn’t defeat the mother of Grendel with the helmet and sword King Hrothgar gave him. He had to let go of those tools. He slayed her with a sword he found during the battle, attached to a chain on the wall of her lair. He never would have found that sword if he had not let go of the useless tools.

People progress in therapy when they answer the call inland. They grow when they take responsibility for their own choices and stop blaming others and stop expecting rescue from them. They grow when they allow themselves to be filled with doubt. Doubting everything is the beginning of wisdom. Tennyson said there is more faith in honest doubt than half the creeds. Doubt is the necessary fuel for change.

What does life look like after the journey inland? It looks like serving from your overflow. It is about healing others from your own wounded places. It is knowing when to step in and rescue, and when to step back and trust the flow. It is trusting your intuition because your intuition is in touch with your soul. The soul resides beneath the ego and its demands for power and safety. The soul is the realm of the inland journey.

My problem is that I am not exactly sure how that will play in the corporate world. Will the CEOs in Singapore get it? What about the executives in the Netherlands? I know the leaders who steer from their souls will respond well, the ones who dream into the distance instead of managing from quarter to quarter. George Washington would get it. So would Abraham Lincoln. There is a reason we celebrate their birthdays and not the birthdays of, say, James Buchanan or Herbert Hoover. Yvon Chouinard gets it. I’m not sure Jack Welch did. Edwin Colodny got it. I’m not sure Doug Parker does. I know, now I’m down in the weeds of specific company executives past and present.

And I’m not sure I get it. I process information quickly and hold onto it well. I know a lot of stuff. Yet I am far too sensitive to all the voices around me, shouting their bad advice. I am prone to listening to the voices from without, not the one from within. If I’m going to get ahold of that, it better happen soon. I don’t have another seven decades to figure this out. Still, I know I have something to offer. I’m like that pitcher that bounces from team to team, good enough to have a long career in the big leagues, but not good enough to land in the hall of fame.

Which brings me back to why these corporations want to hear from me in the first place. I do have one area of unique expertise. I know what it is like to live both as a man and as a woman, and I can tell you with great certainty that it is a lot harder as a woman. Women from all seven continents have thanked me for that little piece of information.

When people want to hear from me beyond that narrow sliver of knowledge, I am always surprised. I’m just not that good. I have gained some wisdom, but not the wisdom of sages. I’m more like the prophet that says, “This is the only way. No wait, a minute. That also might be a way over there, you know, way over that way.” It takes the luster off your prophesying.

Nevertheless, I think I’m going to go with the new offering, Lost Is A Place Too. It may sit there untouched by any willing takers, but then again, there may be a few out there who think, “Wait, that’s just the voice we need.”

And so it goes.

And the Skaters Skate On

Yet another Sunday morning I was awakened by phone texts telling me of a mass shooting involving the queer community. When it happened with the Pulse shooting in Orlando, I arose at 5:00 and wrote a new sermon I preached at 9:00 and 10:30. This time I was in San Francisco, preaching at City Church.

I had not finished my sermon until close to midnight the evening before, so early Sunday morning I set about making changes to the message. I didn’t write anything down. The sermon was already memorized. I made the changes in my head. I had a big suite in my hotel that allowed me to walk in a circle, past two windows that looked out on Union Square and its lit Christmas tree and skating rink.

As I put words to my thoughts about the Club Q shooting, I noticed that everyone was skating counterclockwise. I was mesmerized watching the skaters turning back time. Now, as I added to my sermon, I wished I could turn the clock back eight hours and warn everyone to flee before the mayhem began.

Occasionally people come to Left Hand Church that draw suspicion. I hate that, but in today’s world, we have to protect our church members. Just a few weeks ago someone arrived well before the Sunday evening service with a lot of questions that aroused concern. Kristie, my co-pastor, engaged the person in conversation and they left before the service began. We monitored the doors for the remainder of the evening, and every Sunday since. Unfortunately, that is our reality.

Attacks of the queer community have been on the increase since 2016. Thankfully, in my case the attacks have only been emails, letters, texts, and a few phone calls. But I am always aware of my surroundings.

The veteran who tackled the Club Q shooter and undoubtedly saved lives was a straight man, at the club with his wife and children to see the childhood friend of his daughter perform in a drag show. That’s the kind of place many queer clubs are nowadays. Everybody wants to see a drag show, and the time around the Transgender Day of Remembrance is when many reach out warmly to our community. I do not want to lose sight of that. The majority of Americans support us. A vocal minority do not.

The preachers and politicians vilify us, and then wait for the young men with an unfinished prefrontal cortex to do their bidding for them, buying long rifles, and on marching orders from their leaders, gun us down in mass. Then their leaders abandon them and say, “What? Who, me?” And they have the rest of their lives to think about their blind loyalty to the rhetorical instigators of very real violence. All of this while the preachers and politicians can’t find the connection between inflammatory rhetoric and tragically misguided action. Some of the instigators were running for their own lives down the halls of the Capitol building after the violence they incited on January 6. Still, they didn’t get it.

Outside of the messages I receive, I do not face much prejudice. Last weekend I coached TEDxMileHigh speakers, emceed part of the show, and not a single person made reference to the fact that I am a transgender woman. I have served on the Town Board for the Town of Lyons since April, and not once has anyone made reference to my gender identity. In the world I inhabit, being transgender is old news. No one cares. Will we pass the town budget? That’s the important stuff.

Until another shooting takes place. Then I am forced to confront the reality all around me. I read about another precious transgender man or woman who loved people without exception and whose death left a gaping a hole in the fabric of their chosen family. Many of us have been rejected or marginalized by our families of origin. Our chosen families are precious to us, and we cling to them with a tenacity that shows how hard-won that family is.

Chosen families go together to Club Q, or Left Hand Church, or the taco restaurant, or the big table at the pizza place where we can laugh and cry and live inside the bonds of a shared life of precious meaning. And yet again, that sense of place and belonging was shattered, this time just minutes before the beginning of Transgender Day of Remembrance.

At City Church, after my sermon, Emily McGinley, the lead pastor, read the name of every trans person murdered in America in the past year. She did not yet have the names of those who died the previous night. The list was already long. The names were read with reverence, each pronounced tenderly.

I had preached on the death of Lazarus, and how Jesus mourned with Mary, showing solidarity in her suffering. I suggested that it was the shared mourning that caused Mary to cast her lot with Jesus. He understood. He understands. Hatred has its day, but love wins. It is the hope onto which I tenaciously hold. It is the Christmas tree on Union Square in San Francisco, and all the queer couples who gathered around it on Sunday evening, after the shooting, as if they knew to come to the manger for hope.

What do we do now? We keep telling our stories and staying in close proximity to those who are frightened by us, to show them our humanity, and for us to see theirs. Meanwhile, mothers and fathers grieve and mourn. Chosen families lose their grounding. And those described as “the sweetest person you’ll ever meet” will meet someone no more. And life goes on. The skaters skate counter-clockwise, unable to turn back time, and the losses mount. life after precious life.

Dear God, save us.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

When Jonathan was little, he would sit for hours in the corner of his bedroom with his record player, listening to books and stories. One of his favorite stories was about the emperor who had no clothes. The story reached a crescendo in which a young child cries out, “Look at the king, the king, the king!” Then the narrator sings, “The king is in the all together, the all together, the all together, he’s all together as naked as the day that he was born.” (You can relive the magic via the Danny Kaye version on YouTube.)

I think of that story and song often. I think of the child who proclaims the truth about the king. The tragic reality is that people who declare that the king has no clothes are in for a rough time. People say they want to know the truth, but most people do not want to know the truth. We live by our illusions. Tell a fundamentalist there is no God and they will disappear from your life. Tell an atheist there might be a God and they will disappear from your life. We hang out with our own. It’s easier that way. Our assumptions don’t have to be challenged. We can make life simpler and don’t have to struggle under the weight of possibilities. Hence, our dislike for the child who cries out, “Look at the king, the king, the king!

The song does not tell us what happened to the boy. I can tell you what happened to the boy. He and his family were driven from the kingdom. It is happening all across America to transgender children and their families. They live in states becoming increasingly hostile to trans kids, passing laws threating their parents with legal action if they choose to love their children. The worst laws are in the second most populated state in the nation, Texas. I cannot tell you how many people I have met in Colorado who moved here from Texas. They were driven from their home because of their love for their children.

I experience trans hatred on a regular basis. I don’t write or talk about it much because I don’t want to give power to the haters.  Besides, I have enough privilege behind me to withstand the onslaught. I was told I should not attend my 45th high school reunion because there would be trouble. I still flew to the region. I just visited with friends, family, and individual classmates instead. Being barred from the reunion was no huge deal. But it’s not that easy for a child whose very existence screams out that the king has no clothes, or for the parents of that child. The second the child speaks his or her truth, life as they know it is over.

There is, of course, an empowering freedom in telling the truth. The king is naked, and the child knows it. The child’s parents know it, and it is liberating to speak the truth. But it can also be life threatening. Transgender adolescents have a suicide completion rate 13 times higher than their peers. I’m not sure when Republicans will give up their damaging campaign against trans kids. Two of the most egregiously anti-trans governors, in Texas and Florida, were re-elected by wide majorities, not exactly a hopeful sign that the siege is waning.

Just a few years ago I thought the narrative on transgender people was shifting toward the positive. But based on the hate mail I receive and the 286 anti-trans laws introduced in 2021 and 2022, that is clearly not the case. Over the past two years, a total of 39 anti-transgender laws have been signed into law in 19 different states.

A senior adviser to Greg Abbott’s campaign for governor said laws restricting care for transgender youth were a “75 – 80 percent winner.” Alabama governor Kay Ivey said, “We’re going to go by how God made us: If the Good Lord made you a boy, you’re a boy. If he made you a girl, you’re a girl. It’s simple.”

Uh, it is? First, last I checked we are not a Christian nation, so a “Good Lord” who is male is a decidedly Christian fundamentalist assumption. Second, a God who “makes” people one gender or another is a decidedly Calvinistic God, a demiurge worthy of Plato. Third, there are 150 different intersex conditions, so “simple” is hardly an appropriate word. I don’t even know why I’m countering Ivy’s fundamentalist argument. It is simplistic and uninformed. The problem is that a sizeable minority of Americans agree with her.

Most of the time I just ignore the anti-transgender rhetoric. It is just background noise in my personal life. In four of my five jobs, the fact I am trans is purely incidental. It has nothing to do with why I was hired, elected, or contracted to do that particular work. Even in my public speaking, fewer than ten percent of my speaking engagements are primarily because I am transgender.

I am fortunate. I do not have to live this nightmare as trans children are forced to live it. I don’t have to spend time in Texas. I can even avoid flying through Dallas. I don’t go to Florida much anymore. But with their hard turn to the right, those are not places I’d be inclined to visit anyway.

I don’t pay much of a price for saying the king is naked. But oh my, how I pray for those children whose lives are threatened. By simply existing, they are screaming out, “Look at the king, the king, the king.” The problem is that the king has the power to destroy them. Here’s to the states like Colorado that say, “Come, and abide with us. Here, you can cry out whatever truth you see.” I used to think it was that way in the whole nation. I now realize that was always the narrative of the privileged. Now I know better, and it is frightening.

This is Getting Really Scary

When I was in college, we frequently had chapel speakers from the conservative side of my denomination. They yelled loudly about the fires of hell, quoted from pamphlets published by the John Birch Society, and attended the Kiamichi Men’s Clinic where they bragged about not shaving or showering for a week. On the whole I found them rather innocuous, a fringe group of primarily rural southern preachers whose education was considerably less than their hubris.

After moving to New York, I was less affected by evangelical culture because I was no longer immersed in it. I worked for an evangelical ministry, but virtually none of my friends were evangelicals. They were Jewish, or Catholics, or no religion at all. The group with the greatest effect on the development of my spirituality was my Catholic reading group, which turned out to be a wonderful 25-year experience of spiritual formation.

Since I remained employed in the evangelical world, the gap between my work life and personal life grew exponentially. A tectonic shift in that gap occurred in the months leading up to January 1, 2000. Many of my evangelical friends were obsessed with Y2K, the notion that computers were programmed to self-destruct at the stroke of midnight on January 1.

In New York, there was awareness of a problem that needed to be addressed, but there was no panic. And sure enough, concerns over Y2K were unfounded. All went well on January 1, 2000. How did my evangelical friends become so obsessed with Y2K? I asked around, and was surprised by what I discovered.

Sometime during the 90s, my friends had started watching the opinion television shows on Fox News. That was the media outlet stirring up viewers over the coming apocalypse that never was. I thought my friends would pick up on the empty rhetoric of Fox News after the Y2K fiasco. They did not.

Fox pivoted to the next big threat, and when that didn’t pan out, the next big threat, and the next big threat, and my friends kept tuning in. That is when I began to realize my days in evangelicalism were numbered. My theology had been shifting for decades. I was already identified with the left of our denomination. But now I began to wonder if I would be able to stay at all. The more these friends were influenced by conservative media, the more they endorsed Christian nationalism. I was alarmed. When would I actually leave the evangelical fold? My transition made that decision for me. But it would have happened anyway. The handwriting was on the wall.

And where is evangelicalism today? Consider the recent American Values Survey completed by the Public Research Institute. Their survey of white evangelicals discovered these alarming statistics:

71% of evangelicals believe the US has gone downhill since the 1950s.

50% believe God intended America to be the new Promised Land.

61% say society has become too soft and feminine.

61% believe discrimination against white Americans is as bad as discrimination against racial minorities.

63% view Trump favorably.

54% believe the Big Lie.

84% believe gender is immutably determined at birth.

61% believe transgender people already have too many civil rights.

25% actually know someone who is out as a transgender person.

Far too many evangelical Americans have been influenced by right wing media. Their views disagree with objective facts, as they have abandoned the rigorous search for truth.

This all makes me terribly sad. Evangelicalism is my heritage. My roots go back to the beginning of what is known as the Stone/Campbell Movement. I had literally thousands of friends and acquaintances in that world. And now, increasing numbers of those same friends have been captivated by right-wing media. In doing so, they have become a threat to our democracy. I hate that. These are good people who, by getting their information from a handful of fact-free sources, have been recruited as soldiers in an ideological war that could destroy our nation.

When I was in Bible college, I never saw the far right preachers as a threat to my denomination, let alone my nation. But that was before Rupert Murdoch and Fox News. That was before Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson and company garnered huge audiences by ignoring the facts.

I am frightened. I should be.

Hollywood and TED – I Am Blessed

For the past year I’ve been working with an organization called PopShift that is influencing Hollywood writers, showrunners, producers, directors, and others on the front lines of culture. Until this week, all of the events have been virtual.

This past Tuesday 60 television writers gathered with the PopShift staff and a handful of storytellers at a beautiful garden in the Hollywood hills. Each storyteller spoke to 15 writers at a time around campfires scattered throughout the grounds.

There were six storytellers, including a whistle blower at a pharmaceutical company, a psychiatrist who is a proponent of psylocibin, an undocumented immigrant, a cult survivor who helps others find their grounding, a young man who has experienced the injustice of our justice system, and yours truly. I was greatly inspired by my fellow storytellers, and thankful for the couple of hours we spent together before the writers arrived.

The evening was magical. I don’t know that I’ve ever had such an attentive audience, though I suppose I should not have been surprised. I was telling my story to a group of television story writers. Of course, they were going to pay attention to a storyteller.

I was moved by the other storytellers and their willingness to be so transparent. These were all people who had been through the dark night of the soul, and their wisdom was readily apparent. I am always amazed to be included in such circles. I am also pretty sure I don’t belong there, as if I received an invitation that was supposed to be for the other Paula Stone Williams. You know, the one who actually figured out life. I left the Hollywood hills humbled and inspired.

After a quick flight home to Colorado, I had another wonderful experience with TEDWomen. TEDWomen is meeting this week, with remarkable women speakers from all over the world. Immediately after the main sessions they have TED Discovery Sessions, in which a workshop leader tells a story and engages the participants in conversation. It was my privilege to lead a Discovery Session, the first time I’ve had that honor since the TED Summit in Edinburgh.

My session was entitled, Lost is a Place Too. I talked about my experience in the land of the lost after I transitioned, and about my time there over the past fifteen months. I talked about how this last season in the place called lost was in great measure of my own doing, and the sobering lessons of that reality.

I spoke about our gifts and our pinnacle gifts. After the first discussion period, I talked about what James Hollis identifies as our existential guilt, what I call our abiding shadows. I noted how those shadows are almost always the flip side of our strengths. I shared how often I must say to myself, “It’s all right to have an unexpressed thought.”

I joined a discussion group during all three discussion periods. I wish we could have had hours, not minutes, to hear these women’s stories. They were thoughtful, transparent, and to a person, emotionally moving. They all shared similar stories. Each has had great success and great pain, and the pain has always been more instructive than the success. I wish that was not the case, but it is. They also shared a remarkable resilience I rarely see in men.

I hesitate to say this, because I know I will get in trouble for it, but my experience is that women are stronger than men. Women did not start life as close to the finish line as men, and they are accustomed to things not going their way. They have not received the same kind of encouragement men receive, and when they find it within themselves to go on the Hero’s Journey, they gain that most rare of paradoxical gifts, great confidence coupled with great humility.

I did not have a cisgender female experience, and as I said in my first TED Talk, I will not live long enough to lose my male entitlement. I am not as resilient as the women in my session. I need a constant stream of encouragement. When I am not forgiven, or trusted, or respected, I turn inward and want to disappear. The women with whom I interacted have the same tendency, but they have found the strength to rise above it. Against all odds, they still believe in themselves. It is inspiring.

I brought the thin skin of a privileged male with me into my transition. Now that I have nine years of experience as a woman, I am learning that while a woman’s skin might be literally thinner than a man’s, in every other way it is thicker, and more protective.

When I finished the TEDWomen Discovery Session, I sat and stared for about a half hour. I had to take in the profoundly moving stories the women told. I might have been leading the session, but it was their stories that were the locus of the hour.

It is a privilege to be included in these august conversations. It was good to hear the television writers talk about their triumphs and failures, their joys and frustrations. They have a humility I do not imagine I would see in most of the actors who speak the lines they write, but it is certainly there in the writers themselves. They know the Hero’s Journey and are living on the other side of the dark night of the soul.

The same was true of the women in today’s session. I have been blessed with many opportunities to influence others. What I never fail to take in are the lessons all of these wonderful people bring to me. They are a gift.

And so it goes.

Two Great Fantasies

Just a fair warning, this is not a lighthearted post. It is about loneliness.

In the fall of 2018, Cathy moved 25 minutes away. I stayed in our comfortable and spacious mountain home. We share an office at the house where we see counseling clients and each other a couple of days a week. Cathy stays with me when the family is in town. Otherwise, we are alone.

Cathy and my best friend thought that if I did not transition, I would not survive. My therapist thought I would survive but noted just how much more depressed I was becoming with each passing year. The options weren’t great.

Then came the evening in 2010 when I was watching the final season of LOST and Jack, the protagonist, was called by Jacob, the God figure, to die. That was it. I knew I had been called to figuratively die. I sobbed on the couch until 3:00 in the morning, fell asleep for a couple of hours, then woke up and wept until dawn. It was two years before I transitioned, but it was put in motion that February evening.

We still don’t know what causes gender dysphoria. There are some pretty good hypotheses, but they are just that. I don’t really need to know what caused me to be transgender. For me, the proof is in the living. It is far more natural living as a woman than it was living as a man. Life is so much harder for women, and yet it feels right. The body I have is my body. It is me.

Yet, I am lonely. I did not expect to be alone at this stage of my life. I sleep with only my arm by my side. I have filled my life with meaningful activities and friends. I am a pastor at Left Hand Church. I serve on the Board of Trustees of the Town of Lyons. I speak all over the world on issues of gender equity. I work with speakers for TEDxMileHigh and as a Speaker’s Ambassador for TED. I love helping clients as a pastoral counselor. I consult with and preach for post-evangelical churches around the nation. My life is full and varied, more like the life of someone half my age.

I have friends with whom I take long rambling walks and steep, rocky hikes. I feel particularly close to my co-pastors and several members of our little church.

You say, “You have a good and fruitful life, Paula. You travel the world and serve in a plethora of wonderful positions. How can you be so lonely?” Because I am alone, that is why. Inevitably at some point in life, we are all alone. I was talking with a good friend last week about late in life romance. She has a friend who married in her 70s and had ten wonderful years with her spouse before he died. Now, her acute loneliness is great.

When you fall in love as an older person, that falling is no less powerful than when you were a teenager, which is remarkable. Your body is wearing down, your spirit is weary, yet new love taps into the life-giving energy of wonder. Losing love does not get easier as you get older. It still feels like an affront to the very forces of life. You are shocked to discover with Thomas Wolfe that, “The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”

But after decades of a good marriage, you do not expect to suddenly be alone. You don’t think about these things, because you just assume your partner will always be there, and when you do pass on, it will somehow be within hours of each other. My father lived five and a half months after my mother passed. He was ready to go on the day of her funeral. The last thing he said to her was, “I’ll see you later.” That is how it’s supposed to be. Mom and Dad were married for 73 years, six months, and two days.

I wish I was not transgender. It has taken much from me. I would prefer that we figure out what causes someone to be transgender and fix it. At least we are moving in the direction of recognizing it sooner and stopping the late-in-life onset of pain and separation that is the lot of so many who are trans. If I could have transitioned in my late teen years or early twenties, I could have spared Cathy so much pain. Of course, then we would not have had our wonderful children and grandchildren.

We live life as it is handed to us, for better or worse. I am glad I was a husband and father. I wish I could have remained so. I am fulfilled and comfortable as a woman. but I hate being alone.

James Hollis said there are two great fantasies humans must relinquish in the second half of life. First, we must let go of the notion that we are immortal exceptions to the human condition. Second, we must give up the notion that out there somewhere is a magical other who will rescue us from existential isolation. Thomas Wolfe is right. Loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.