TEDxMileHigh Imagine

 

I am one of the speakers for TEDxMileHigh’s Imagine event on November 16.  I love Helena and Briar and Jeremy and all the good people at TEDxMileHigh.  They run a wonderful and inspiring show. TEDxMileHigh is one of the largest TEDx events in the world, and from my perspective, one of the best!  It is such a pleasure working with them.  It was my TEDx talk two years ago that launched my speaking career on  issues related to gender equity.

Occasionally people contact me and ask for help putting together a pitch to do a TED or TEDx talk.  I’m not a curator for TED events and have no idea what causes someone to be chosen to do a talk, so I’m not much help.  But I do know how much work you have to do once you have been chosen.

I have kept track of how many edits I have done for my upcoming talk.  Each dated edit has about four or five smaller edits embedded within, and at this point I am at dated edit number 22, including two edits I named “Try Again” and “Try Again2.”  That’s because Briar, my coach and the head of coaching for TED, and Helena, one of the leaders of TEDxMileHigh and also a coach for TED, kindly told me exactly 19 days ago that I needed to “start with a blank page.”  In other words, in spite of all of my brilliant writing and wonderful edits, my talk was not measuring up to their expectations.

Briar and Helena are the kindest and most upbeat humans you will ever encounter.  They bring sunshine with them all day every day.  (And Helena has the most beautiful engagement ring known to man.  Just sayin’ ) So, when Briar and Helena tell you to start over, they do it in the nicest of ways.  But they are also very clear.  You start over.  Doing a TED talk is not for the thin-skinned.

So, I started over.  And I ended up with a talk that has been painful to write, because it has asked me to examine my post-transition life for signs of lingering privilege.  But the problem is that I do not want to examine my post-transition life for signs of lingering privilege.  It makes me uncomfortable.  I lost a lot when I transitioned, and lingering privilege is a right of mine, dammit.  Except of course that privilege is no one’s right.

I am memorizing the talk now.  That’ll take the better part of two weeks, which gives me hundreds and hundreds of opportunities to be reminded of my desperation to hang on to my remaining white male privilege.  Sigh.

It’s not that hard speaking when you do not choose to be vulnerable.  You just talk and people laugh and life is good.  But being publicly vulnerable is another issue.  You always risk crossing the line D. H. Lawrence talked about when he said, “A writer sheds his sickness in his writing.”  Not a good thing.

Being willing to be human and vulnerable can be healing, both for you and your audience.  But it also can be exhausting.  To be vulnerable in front of a crowd of 5,000 and millions more online can be very exhausting.  Our Red Table Talk episode has been viewed over three million times.  That’s a lifetime worth of vulnerability.  I’ve watched the show exactly three times and that’s enough for me.

I speak because I can, and because it is important.  Not every transgender person has had the opportunities that have been afforded to me.  Those opportunities have given me a resilience that allows me to speak candidly about my life.  It still does not make it easy, but if not me, who?  We all have a responsibility to advance the narrative from within our own experience.

I have learned a lot as a female, and I believe it can be helpful for men and women to learn from my story, both to validate their own experience, and to help them explore areas for potential growth.

If you live in the greater Denver area, I encourage you to come to TEDxMileHigh Imagine at the Bellco Theater on Saturday, November 16.  This year’s speakers are an amazing group of inspiring men and women.  I am enjoying getting to know most of them, and I feel honored to be speaking alongside such capable and dedicated people.

It Had Never Been Expecting Me

I have received a lot of correspondence since our family was interviewed on Red Table Talk.  It’s taken me back to pondering the ins and outs of my transition.

I was grateful no one on RTT asked me the obligatory transgender question, “Did you feel like a girl stuck in a boy’s body?”  That is a common narrative regarding transgender women.  While I am sure it is descriptive of some people, I do not know of a trans woman who uses that language to define her childhood.

I usually say that I knew from the time I was three or four that I was transgender.  It is a simplification.  I was about that age when I realized I could not choose my gender.  Until then I assumed gender was a choice that needed to be made sometime before school started.  When I realized gender was not a choice, I was not so much devastated as embarrassed.  Why had no one told me?  Once I understood the truth, living as a boy was not a terrible thing.

I liked boy “things” more than I liked girl “things.”  Earth movers and backhoes and machinery of all types interested me, as did team sports.  I loved playing with girls, but I was not into dolls and such.  Occasionally I would pray for my gender to change, but it was not a nightly occurrence.

What I did know is that I was never really comfortable in my male body.  Something just did not seem right.  And when puberty arrived, nothing felt right.  That is the first time I truly hated the male experience. During my high school years I came to understand that I wanted to date girls, but I also wanted to experience life as a girl.  I was sure it was a secret I would take to my grave.

I loved being a father, but I did not like being a man.  Fatherhood agreed with me.  Maleness did not, though it served me well, as a pastor, CEO, public speaker, and all the other professions I crammed into my active portfolio.  I had an alpha personality and was driven to excellence and achievement.  In that regard, the privilege and entitlement of being a white male worked in my favor.  But I never felt at home in the world of men.  It felt like I was in a never-ending play with no final curtain.  I could play the part well, but I would never have given myself rave reviews.  I would have said, “He seems a little wooden in the role, as if he thought the role had never been expecting him.”

As I have said on many occasions, I felt called to transition.  I might (or might not) have been able to remain in the male role for the rest of my days.  There are differing opinions about that.  For the sake of my family, I would love to have been able to do so.  But the call to become Paula reached into the farthest corners of my being.  I paid a great price to get here, but you reject a call at your own peril.

Given that reality, you might be surprised to learn that while I definitely prefer life as a female  over life as a male, I still cannot say I am completely at home in my female body.  But then are any of us ever really at home within the confines of a human body?  As embodied souls, it seems like we were made for more than this.

I live in the borderlands.  With its rocky shores, brambles and bindweed, it is not easily inhabitable.  Every foray into the realm of males or the realm of females is a journey to another land.  I am comfortable living and breathing within the realm of females.  There is never a day I do not want to visit that land.  But it does feel like I am visiting – an extended visit maybe, with voting privileges, but always as an ex-pat from another land.  My home is in the liminal space of the borderlands.

I am not saying women do not welcome me in their land.  They have been wonderful, far more accepting than I ever imagined.  But though I understand the language of women better than the language of men, neither feels like my native tongue.  It’s like I speak Latin in a world in which every tongue is derived from it, but no one speaks it anymore.  The language I speak sounds familiar to both women and men, but opaquely.  The whole world sees me through a glass darkly.

I do not miss my past life, though I am proud to be the person who lived it.  I am comfortable where I am now.  It is home, and it does look like it had been expecting me.  And that is good enough.

Red Table Talk

My children and I recorded an episode of Jada Pinkett Smith’s Red Table Talk in September.  Jonathan and Jael joined me on the show.  Jael was interviewed here in Colorado.  The episode was released on Facebook on October 7.  I thought everyone who worked on the episode did a marvelous job.  Jada, Willow, and Adrienne were wonderful.  They could not have been more supportive.  Though we taped for almost two hours, the show was edited in such a way that virtually every salient part of our conversation was captured in the 27 minutes that ended up in the final edit.  Everything was fairly presented, without bias.  I am truly grateful.  Red Table Talk is a transformative show, tackling difficult subjects with grace.

I’ve heard from a lot of people since the show aired.  The usual group of fundamentalist haters has been active, but most of the comments have been supportive and thoughtful.

I have also heard from a lot of transgender folks who recently transitioned or are hoping to transition.  Many of them would like to visit with me by phone or in person.  I have had to tell them that I am not in a position to do so.  I remember when I was agonizing over whether or not to transition,  I wrote a few well-known transgender women and heard nothing in response.  Because of my experience, I try to answer every single person who reaches out to me. If perchance you have contacted me and I have not returned your correspondence, I apologize.

For those who have a family member who has transitioned, I recommend my son Jonathan’s book, She’s My Dad, published by Westminster John Knox Press.  It is an honest, engaging, redemptive story.  Included in the book are responses I wrote to five of the chapters.

For those wanting to read a good memoir on transitioning, I recommend Jennifer Finney Boylan’s She’s Not There, Joy Ladin’s Through the Door of Life, Deirdre McCloskey’s Crossing, or Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness.  All are excellent resources.

If you would like to know more about my own thought process as I went through my transition, I would encourage you to go back to the beginning of this blog and look at my entries from 2014.  That is when I wrote the most about the journey from Paul to Paula.  Throughout the last five years I have written about it occasionally, though there has been no rhyme or reason to the timing.  This blog tends to be less strategic and more stream of consciousness.

I know it may be hard for some to understand, but at this point in my life, my transition no longer occupies a lot of space in my daily existence.  I knew when I transitioned that as a well-known pastor, I had responsibilities.  I could not just disappear into the crowd.  I would need to be public about my experience.  But nowadays, only about one in ten speaking engagements is about being a member of the LGBTQ community.  The rest are about gender inequity, a subject about which I am very passionate.

I never speak for the other members of my family.  Their story is theirs to tell or not tell.  It is up to them.  Jonathan has been pretty public about it all, but until Red Table Talk, my daughters stayed pretty quiet.

For those who would like to speak with me, I am truly sorry I am not in a position to do so.  My work with Left Hand Church, my pastoral counseling practice, and my active speaking schedule keep me extremely busy, and I simply do not have the bandwidth for individual conversations.  I do have plans to write a memoir in the near future.  My agent is currently sharing my book proposal with editors.  I will keep you informed of the progress.

In the meantime, thank you so much for your words of encouragement.  My children and I were hoping the Red Table Talk episode would help families going through the experience we faced.  We always knew that as a family we would make it through the dark night to the light of dawn.  It is good to share that hope with others.

Integration

Most of my public speaking is on the subject of gender inequity.  Working toward gender equity is a passion and a subject with which I am comfortable.  Last week I was in San Diego speaking to a group of financial advisors.  About 80 percent were male.  The men were politely receptive, but the women were far more enthusiastic.  It is what I have come to expect.  It is difficult for men to grasp the extent of their privilege.  Most would like to see gender equity, they just don’t want to give up their own power in order to make it happen.  I understand.  I once had a lot of power, and still retain a lot of power.  Giving up power is never easy.

While I knew giving up power would be necessary when I transitioned, I had no idea how profoundly my life would change.  I had a lot of ideas about what life would  be like as a female, but ideas don’t fare so well in the face of reality.

I thought transitioning would solve all of my gender identity issues.  While it did make my life more peaceful, meaningful and rewarding, I still feel as though I live in a liminal space, somewhere between male and female.  The borderlands are my home.  I will never have the experience of a cisgender female, and in many ways, I never had the experience of a cisgender male.  We know from fMRI studies that the brains of transgender people, studied before hormonal treatment, function somewhere between male and female.  I could have told them that long before MRIs existed.  I never felt comfortable as a male.

Over the past few weeks I’ve had several opportunities to reflect on my life as a man.  I’ve been providing pictures of myself as Paul to the producers of Red Table Talk.  Looking at the pictures reminds me that integrating the two halves of my life continues to be a challenge.  I’m not sure I’m any better at integrating Paul and Paula now than I was three or four years ago.

There was some progress at the beginning, when Paul was still fresh in my memory.  Now, as my male life recedes from view, I am forgetting how it felt to be a guy.  I still know all the things Paul knew, but there aren’t many people who would tell you I am the same person.  I am not.  I am fundamentally different.  I keep finding myself speaking of Paul in the third person, as if Paul was a distant relative, not the person who shares my heart.

My friend Christy always affirms me when I use a sermon illustration about Paul.  She says, “I like that guy.”  Not many others talk about Paul that way.  Usually when people make a reference to me as a male, it is to question the alpha-based actions they see at work.  They say, “Whoa, is that Paula speaking or Paul?”  I usually say, “Paula’s allowed to be an alpha human, you know.”

There are fine books on the transgender experience, but I can’t say any of them have helped me with the integration puzzle.  It still feels like two different lives.  I think it would have helped if we had memorialized Paul in some way.  But back when that would have been helpful to my family, I wasn’t ready.  I was way too excited about being in my new gender.  (Truth be told, sometimes I think it might not be a bad idea to lock transgender people in a closet for the first year or so.  Our giddiness in those early days does not match the pain made manifest around us.)

This morning our interview on Red Table Talk had its debut.  I was very pleased with the show.  It’s rare that you shoot a television show and you’re happy with the way it was edited.  I thought the show was fair-minded and positive.  I am grateful to Jada and Jack and Katy and Dena and Chelsea for making this such a wonderful experience.

There was a fair amount of conversation about the difficulty all of us have had integrating the two halves of our common family experience.  It gets easier with the passing of time, but it will never be easy.  I suppose that is how things are for those who blaze a trail.  Not many evangelical pastors transition genders.

I’ve repeated the same three sentences in both of my TED talks: “Would I do it all again?  Of course, I would.  The call toward authenticity is sacred and holy and for the greater good.”  I’m doing another TEDxMileHigh talk this fall (November 16), but I don’t think the line is going to fit in the new talk.  I wish I could find a place for it, because living authentically is sacred and holy and for the greater good.  But as many have discovered before me, few things that are sacred and holy and for the greater good are ever easy.

By the Light of the Night

When I transitioned from male to female, I lost four jobs, my pension, and the vast majority of my friends.  On my bad days I wondered if my demise was inevitable.  I was lost. But it is okay, because that is also when I realized lost is a place too, and there are times when you have no choice but to spend time there.

It was a time of great fear and questioning, what John of the Cross called, “The dark night of the soul.”  As I have quoted many times, I believe it is what Dante was talking about at the beginning of the Divine Comedy when he said, “In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood, where the true way was wholly lost.”

Did you ever wake up in the middle of the night in a blackened room and try to stumble your way to the bathroom, only to stub your toe on the corner of the bed?  You know, if you had waited a minute or so after you opened your eyes, they would have adjusted to the darkness.  You can still see in the dark.

I live in a low light community in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.  After 35 years in New York, when I never knew the phases of the moon, in Colorado I always know if the moon is full or nearly so.  Since I follow it all month, I also know if it is waxing or waning.  It is waning now, but still formidable.  It was full when I came home from Los Angeles last Thursday.  A harvest moon illuminates like twilight.  But even when there is no moon, if you are willing to sit in the dark for a while, the stars and ambient light in the atmosphere are enough to light your way.

I am not saying it is fun to find your way by the light of the night.  But sometimes it is necessary.  Fortunately, you eventually make your way to dawn.  Daylight is good.  Life is easier in the daytime.  Happiness tends to come during daylight hours.

Happiness comes pretty much when you expect it.  Grandchildren laugh, you’re happy.  The first day of vacation, you’re happy.  You get a promotion, you’re happy.  Happiness is tied to external circumstances.  As a privileged white man, happiness came often.  Privilege brings more than a fair measure of external happiness.  Privilege does not necessarily bring joy.

Joy comes when you find your way in the dark.  Joy comes when you wait long enough in the place called lost until your eyes have adjusted, and you have enough light to see.  Joy comes in that moment when you finally see a way forward, or at least the first step, and you take it.

There is a particular kind of joy that comes when the step you see in the dark is one that empowers others to embark on their own journey into the dark night, or into the light of dawn, depending on the day.  The joy is in the knowing that their journey is sacred and holy and for the greater good, just like yours.

Odysseus wasn’t done journeying when he returned to Ithaca and was reunited with Penelope. He was a lover of experience and accepted another final journey, not back out to sea, but inland.  He was to travel until he got to a place in which people did not know an oar when they saw one.  There he was to plant the oar that he carried with him, as an offering of propitiation to the god Poseidon.  Only then did he get to return home and live into “sleek old age.”

Like Odysseus, we are all on a journey, maybe our first, maybe our last, but all into the unknown, undertaken when it’d be much easier to stay on the couch with our feet propped on a hassock, binge watching somebody else’s journey.  But this living is serious business, and we are pilgrims, always drawn forward through both the promising dawn and the dark of night. And for all the uncertainty of each journey, we can know these two things.  We will not be without love, and if we keep our hearts turned steadfastly to the right, there will be joy.

Sorry ‘Bout That

I took an August break from my blog.  It wasn’t planned.  It just kinda happened.  I’m good with it.

Part of the reason is that I have had a lot of wonderful things happening.  The film production company with which I am working has contracted with the screenwriters for the movie about my life, and I’ve spent some time talking with them. Last week, we talked about 2013 and 2014.  That wasn’t easy.  The human mind has a marvelous way of tempering one’s memories of difficult times. Pulling those painful memories from their place in deep storage was difficult.  I am meeting with the writers and the memories again when I am in LA this week.

The main reason I will be in Los Angeles is to appear, along with Jonathan, on the Red Table Talk television show.  We’ll be interviewed by Jada Pinkett Smith and her family.  The show came to Colorado last week to film my daughters and granddaughters.  The conversation will be about how my transition affected our family. I do not expect it to be an easy interview.  We tape on Wednesday.  I have no idea when it airs.

Friday evening I returned from a speaking engagement with the Levi Strauss & Company at their headquarters in San Francisco.  I spoke for over 200 employees about gender inequity.  It was their second annual Viola Women’s Conference.  The people at Levi’s were wonderfully responsive.  I am always amazed that some of the best work on issues of gender and racial equity is happening at the corporate level, not with religious institutions, as one might hope. Unfortunately, a lot of conservative religious institutions bring up the rear on issues of social justice.

Saturday I presented a keynote at an LGBTQ event in Denver.  Sunday I spent the day with other presenters who will be speaking together this fall.  I’ll let you know about that as soon as I am able.

A couple of weeks ago I was in New York City for a board meeting and had a chance to visit with Jonathan.  I said, “I’m not sure how I feel about doing more and more public speaking.  Every time I get on a plane, it is because I am transgender.  When I am at Left Hand, I’m just me, Paula, talking with our people about our common spiritual journey.”  Jonathan understood.  He said, “Every time I get on a plane it is because you are transgender, so I get it. But whether you like it or not, there is another call on your life in addition to your church and your counseling practice.”  I know he is right, but I’m having a hard time making peace with it.

As I listened to my daughters talk about their experience being interviewed for Red Table Talk, I was reminded once again of just how much my transition has affected all of their lives. I exploded the family narrative, and still, years later, there is so much for all of us to work through.

We all understand that it is hard enough for a family to struggle through the transition of a parent without the problem being exacerbated by a religious community that rejects the person who transitioned and treats the rest as if they no longer exist. Cathy and my daughters have rarely heard from anyone from our old denomination, a place in which both girls served as children’s pastors.  The longer I am away from the evangelical bubble, the more I realize just how uncompassionate it is toward those who dare to challenge its points of fear.

In the first couple of years after my transition, I worked a good bit with progressive post-evangelical churches creating a new movement of congregations that share the governance and worship style of evangelicalism, without the fundamentalist doctrine.  The With Collective and Launchpad are two of the organizations with which I have had the pleasure of serving.  With brings progressive churches together and Launchpad starts new churches.  I serve as an advisor to With and serve on the board of Launchpad. The more I am working in the secular arena, the less time I have to devote to these two important ministries. Between my public speaking and preaching at Left Hand Church, I am a busy person.

On August 22 I flew from LaGuardia to Denver and saw an old friend from USAir at the Admiral’s Club at LGA.  She still works for the company and recently relocated to New York.  I reminded her that five years ago that very day, she had been the last human being with whom I had spoken while still presenting as a male. It hardly seems possible that it has been only five years since I began living full time as Paula.  For the first couple of years, I was not sure I would survive.  Now, I thrive.

It is an honor to share this journey with you.  Your words of encouragement mean more than you could possibly know.  I promise, now that fall has arrived, my posts will once again be regular.  There is much I want to share as I count both the costs and the blessings of the examined life, lived authentically.

Oh My Goodness!

A day or two a week I ride my bike about a mile to the end of a paved road.  Then, if I’m in the mood, I ride eight steep switchbacks a thousand feet up to the top of the hill.  Going up it’s hard on the legs and coming down it’s hard on the brakes.

About two years ago I was riding to those switchbacks on an extremely windy day when I watched a little drama play out at one of the houses along my route.  There was what I assumed to be a man with long hair and his wife struggling to get their camper off its four spindly legs and back onto the truck bed. Things were not going well.  The man kept barking orders to his increasingly frustrated wife, who finally threw up her hands and said, “I’m choosing not to die today!”  Then she walked away.

She was my hero. I could not get her off my mind for the remainder of the day.  I loved her chutzpah, and the calm self-assured manner in which she made her declaration.  For two years I have been waiting to tell that woman how much I admire her for what she did on that windy day.  I see her occasionally while I’m riding, but she’s always getting into or out of her car, or talking with someone.  Today she had come to the road to bring her trash containers back inside.  I stopped my bike and said, “If you have a minute, I’d like to tell you a story.”

She looked on rather amused as I talked.  She readily remembered the day and said she was afraid the whole camper was going to fall.  Then she thanked me genuinely, before asking, “Do you mind if I ask your name?”  I told her and mentioned that I live across town in Stone Canyon.  Then we both went on our way.

I rode several miles toward Estes Park on Highway 7 before returning to town.  As I got back into town, she happened to be headed into town in her truck.  She got out and said, “I need to tell you something.  I think what happened today was a God thing.”

“You see, I watched your TED talk last night.  As you were talking with me today, it began to dawn on me that you might be the same person.  I had no idea the TED talk had been given in Denver, and I had no idea where the woman who gave it lived.”  “So when I asked your name, I went inside and confirmed that sure enough, yours was the TED talk I watched.”  She went on, “You have no idea how much I needed to hear those words of affirmation today – no idea!”

“You see, a long time ago my husband transitioned to become a female, and it was her you saw that day in the yard with me.  But she still treated me like men often treat women.  She had a lot of opinions.  That was one of those days. The wind was blowing fiercely and I thought the whole camper was going to tumble, but she wouldn’t listen.  In that way, she was still a man. She always knew better.  I finally got to the point that I couldn’t take it anymore and left.  As I watched you last night, I thought, ‘Wow, she’s getting it.  She’s really getting it.  I wish my spouse could have gotten it.”

I started crying and told her how much I still struggle with my male privilege and entitlement, and how often it still affects the people I love.  She said, “But you are trying, and your words of encouragement were just what I needed.  Like I said, this was a God thing.”  She got back in her truck and headed on into town.  Through tears, I finished my ride.

I had really been struggling that morning with exactly the subject she was talking about.  I woke up on the wrong side of the bed and couldn’t pull it together.  I texted back and forth with one of my close friends, telling her of my struggles.  I mindlessly opened my email and dispatched the emails I could deal with quickly.  One escaped my junk file.  It was a new song released by the Gaither Vocal Band.  I’ve always loved their tight harmonies, but can’t take the theology of their music anymore.  But my friend enjoys tight harmonies as much as I do, and I thought I’d click on the track to see if she’d like it.

The song was entitled, This Is The Place. It is a new anthem written by Bill and Gloria Gaither about the church’s central place in our lives.  I thought of Left Hand Church and what it means to me, and finally released the sobs that had been reluctant to come for two full days.  I sent a link for the song to my friend and then headed out on my ride, my spirit much lighter than it had been early in the morning.

Had I not had that emotional release, prompted by that song, which I was listening to because of the gentle support of my friend, I still would have ridden, but I never would have stopped to speak to the woman.  I would not have had the emotional strength to stop and speak with anyone.

But I did stop to speak with her, and the story has been with me all day.  The picture above is of the view I am looking at right now as I write this post.  I can see the road on which her house stands.  I say a little prayer as I look at it.

We are never alone on this journey.  If we reach out to trusted friends, take a chance on a song, and find the strength to speak to a stranger, the Spirit shows up, reminding us She is always there, even if unseen.  Today, She was seen.  I do not want to share the woman’s name, or the name of the street on which she lives. I want her to remain what we were to each other today – a gift from the God whose love is never far away, if only we have eyes to see.