Fear Mongering

I live a blessed and privileged life.  I interact daily with people from all over the world who respect the journey on which I have embarked and treat me accordingly.  I am rewarded for the authentic way in which I live my life.  I have a wonderful church, deep friendships, and a large audience interested in what I have to say about gender equity and religious tolerance.  My life is so blessed that I forget how difficult it is for so many other transgender people.

Dr. Rachel Levine’s Senate hearing this past week was a lesson in fear mongering.  Rand Paul’s line of questioning was infuriating.  He kept saying, “Let the record show that the candidate refuses to answer my question.”  He was referring to his question that equated genital mutilation, a horrible practice condemned by the United Nations, with gender confirmation surgery.  Rand Paul is a physician.  He knew exactly what he was saying.  He knows the difference between genital mutilation and gender confirmation surgery.  Dr. Levine answered his horribly inappropriate question with grace and mercy, and she answered it accurately.  She said, “Transgender medicine is a complex and nuanced field” composed of “robust research” and standards of care.  She offered to come to his office and talk about it.  But Paul had no interest in a serious conversation about gender dysphoria.  He just wanted to drive fear into the minds of his constituents.  What he did was unconscionable.

I am frequently the target of that kind of hateful behavior, but rarely to my face.  Most often it is in written form, usually comments made online about speeches I have given.  There are thousands of pejorative comments out there, but I don’t have to read any of them.  Dr. Levine did not have that privilege. She had to listen to Rand Paul’s offensive line of questioning and respond with grace.  Dr. Levine was very dignified.  It was obvious that if there was a person in the room of whom we should be afraid, it was Rand Paul.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Capitol, we saw similar behavior from two female members of Congress, as they stirred up hate and fear in opposition to the Equality Act, passed later that day along partisan lines.  One of those members of Congress is from my state, Lauren Boebert, who serves a district on the western slope of Colorado.  I live in Boulder County, one of the most liberal counties in the nation.  Weld County, to our east, is a bastion of conservatism.  Some in Weld County have even suggested that they should secede from Colorado to become a part of Wyoming, which they border to the north.  Colorado is a microcosm of our nation, very divided.

I do not spend much time in Weld County, just as I do not spend much time in the commonwealth Rand Paul represents, Kentucky.  I lived in Kentucky through my high school and college years.  After I transitioned, I was planning to attend one of my high school reunions.  Though I had been voted most likely to succeed in my class, I was informed that if I attended, there might be trouble.  I did not attend the reunion, though I did visit with my cousins and a few other good friends from my hometown who have been staunch supporters of mine.  For the most part, however, I avoid Kentucky.

My privileged life allows me to avoid the haters, or at least direct contact with them.  It’s enough to make me think things are truly getting better.  Then I see Rand Paul, and Representatives Greene and Boebert, and I am reminded just how far we have to go.  We desperately need the Equality Act to pass the Senate and be signed into law. There is absolutely nothing about being transgender that should strike fear into any rational person.  The Bible has nothing to say about it, and no, your argument based on one Genesis passage is not convincing.  It does not take much of a theologian to dismantle it. Not one of us has ever been accused, arrested, or convicted of being in a restroom for nefarious purposes.  On the other hand, you might consider the fact that over one 20 year period, the three largest insurance companies representing Protestant churches in America paid out over 7,000 claims for clergy sexual abuse.

Fear mongering is deplorable.  I knew someone who worked for Dr. Levine when she directed a program in adolescent medicine in Pennsylvania.  This person and her husband spoke of Dr. Levine in very pejorative terms.  When Dr. Levine was nominated for her position, it took me a while to realize she was the same physician about whom my acquaintances had spoken.  The person I saw being interviewed in the Senate was nothing like what I had been told by these evangelical leaders, who described her as being a threat to her young patients.

The aggravating truth is that these are good people for whom I have a lot of respect.  They have done good work throughout their lives, and pre-transition, they loved me well.  I have not heard from them since I transitioned.  We all have our blind spots, but blind spots can be dangerous when they lead to fear mongering.  I hope my acquaintances have educated themselves about transgender people.  I hope they now understand that we are good people who have struggled mightily to live authentically.  We are a threat to no one.

I am grateful for Rachel Levine’s grace and composure under pressure.  I do my best when I am in similar circumstances.  Those of us who are able to do so have little choice but to boldly speak the truth and show the world who we are.  I know of no other way to assure others that they have nothing to fear.

Accumulating Wisdom

When I am reading a book, I make notes in the back – by page number.  Most of what I write are words of the author that I want to remember, but I also write my own thoughts and reactions about what I have read.  Should some soul pick up the book after I’m gone, they’ll have no idea what I’m talking about, because I write my thoughts in code that makes sense only to me.  For instance, I might write “E. Becker” and a page number, which would mean the author’s words made me think of Ernest Becker and his book, The Denial of Death. The notes I write make their way into conversations.

When I am puzzling over a concept, I have to talk about it; to bounce it off someone who understands the basic nature of the notion about which I am puzzling. My favorite people with whom to bounce around intellectual ideas are my son, Jonathan, my friends David and Michael, and a handful of colleagues.  When I am puzzling about life itself, I tend to talk with Cathy or my daughters or close female friends who are verbal processors.

I also process difficult information out loud.  If I have a medical symptom that frightens me, I have to talk it out with a friend.  That worked pretty well when my close friends were physicians.  It doesn’t work so well nowadays.  I feel sorry for Cathy and my other close female friends.  They bear the brunt of my health obsessions and the need to talk about them – endlessly.

I am reaching that age in which a person starts thinking about their mortality.  I have good genes.  My parents both lived well into their 90s, but that doesn’t stop me from fretting about my own health.  Some of it is unique to my circumstances.  I lived for six decades before I transitioned.  It will not be possible for me to spend half of my life as a woman.  I may not even spend a third of my life as a female.  I want to stay healthy, because I am enjoying life as a woman.  I am so much happier now.  Hence the desire to stretch out this part of my life as long as possible.

Which brings me back to Ernest Becker’s book, The Denial of Death.  Game 6 of the 1986 World Series was not going well.  If the Red Sox won, they would win the World Series.  It was the bottom of the 10th inning with two outs, and my beloved New York Mets were behind 5 to 3.  Confident it was over, I headed upstairs to my bedroom, where I opened Becker’s book to the page where I had stopped reading the day before.  I had just started on a section in which he wrote about Freud’s inability to deal with death when Cathy let out a squeal from downstairs.  The Mets had miraculously tied the game.  We watched together as Mookie Wilson hit the single that dribbled through Bill Buckner’s legs and secured the Mets win, 6-5.  The Mets came from behind the next night to win the seventh game and the Series.  That was almost 35 years ago.  It was the last World Series won by the Mets.

I have never forgotten what book I was reading that night, after I had given up on any hope of the Mets winning game six.  It seemed fitting to read about death. Our culture does all it can to deny the reality of death, because death is our greatest fear. If we dare to love another, we will eventually lose the one we love, either through their death or our own. And of course, we will all eventually lose ourselves before we’ve ever really found ourselves.  In light of that truth, no wonder we try to deny the reality of aging and death.

As I get older, my physical power diminishes.  I can no longer escape the fact that I cannot run or bike or hike as fast as I once did.  These bodies we inhabit wear out. On the other hand, I am discovering that not everything wears out.

Wisdom does not wear out.  At least to this point in my life, I would say that wisdom only increases with age.  Don’t get me wrong.  I know plenty of people who have not grown in wisdom as they have aged.  They stopped growing a long time ago.  Many people shut down their curiosity about life.  They settle into their ways and await the inevitable. But if you keep growing through every stage of life, wisdom accumulates. You see life through the long lens.  You learn to look deep within for your sense of self-worth, instead of seeking it from the outside.  You find you are more interested in being in relationship than being right. You realize we overestimate what we can accomplish in one year, but underestimate what we can accomplish in twenty.  And you learn that when a call comes, you decline that call at your own peril.

I frequently return to the notes I write in the back of a book, both the thoughts of the author and my own reflections. One of the notes I wrote the other day in the back of Parker Palmer’s little book, Let Your Life Speak, were these words: “The movements that transform the world emerge from people who decide to care for their authentic selfhood.”  Below it is another quote: “One dwells with God by being faithful to one’s nature.”  I like reading those whose wisdom exceeds my own.  They are good guides on this journey through time.

Caring for my authentic selfhood, while tolerating my stubborn predispositions, is an ongoing practice in grace and wisdom.  We are always becoming, and if we persevere, our wisdom is always increasing.

All In a Name

When you’ve met one transgender person, you’ve met exactly one transgender person.  None of us can speak for anyone but ourselves.  It is important to mention that, because I have a number of transgender brothers and sisters who talk about being “dead named.” What they are referring to is when someone calls them by their birth name. It is not language I choose to use.

A couple of years ago a lead pastor of a large church was planning to preach about what God thinks about gender dysphoria.  When he wrote to ask if I would speak with him, he wrote the letter to Paul.  I do not open mail written to Paul.  Since his return address was on the letter, I wrote back and said if he wanted to address me by my legal name, I would open his letter.  He did write back using my legal name, but I still chose not to speak with him. He had already reached his conclusions.

It was the first time in about five years someone had addressed me as Paul. I did not feel I had been dead named. I just felt I had been treated disrespectfully. The truth is that I am comfortable talking about my life as Paul.  It is not my “dead name.”  It is the name by which I was known for exactly 90 percent of my life.  It is the name my parents gave me when I was born, the name my wife called me for 40 years, the name by which all of my friends knew me.  Paul was my name.  The person who was Paul is still me.  I am that person.

Paul is no longer the name that best defines me.  That name is Paula.  And oh my, what a difference that one little letter makes.  I am comfortable as Paula.  Paula is who I am.  Paula is me.  But I am also Paul.  Paul lives within me and informs my life on a daily basis.  Sometimes I am not particularly crazy about how Paul informs my life, like when I am feeling entitled and bring my privilege with me.  But most of the time I am comfortable with the wisdom Paul brings into my life.  I am grateful for what he knew and imparted to me.

Integrating Paul into Paula is one of the most difficult parts of my transgender journey.  There is a chapter in my memoir entitled Dying Before Dying.  It defines my dilemma.  To be sure, a part of me has died.  But that part also lives on, not just in my memories, but in my heart and head and soul and yes, even my body. If someone calls me Paul, it would be wrong to say I was “dead named.”  If it’s done respectfully, or forgetfully, I usually ignore it, at least the first time.

It does not help to complicate my journey by denying the reality of my life as Paul.  When I first transitioned I said to Jonathan, “I’m the same person I have always been.”  He strongly disagreed: “No, you most certainly are not!”  My daughters had seen the bodily and personality changes take place slowly.  Jonathan only saw me every few months, and for him, the differences were jarring.

Jonathan was right. I am a fundamentally different person. Testosterone is a powerful substance that affects every part of your being. When it is gone, you experience life differently. I would describe it as seeing life more holistically.  For me, testosterone made me feel like I was a hammer and the whole world was a nail. It narrowed my focus.  I never experienced testosterone as a positive substance.  From the day of its arrival until the day of its departure, it was a problem.

Estrogen is the opposite.  From the day of its arrival, I experienced it as a blessing, a wonderful substance that makes me feel the way I always should have felt.  Some of the changes in me are because of the loss of testosterone and the addition of estrogen. Some are from the different experience a woman has on earth, as compared to the experience of a man. As a woman, it doesn’t take long for you to begin to see yourself as a second-class citizen.

All of these things make the integration of Paul into Paula difficult. However, of one thing I am certain. Integration will never happen if I think of Paul as my dead name. It is already difficult enough to integrate the two halves of my life without exacerbating the problem by deciding that I was living with a dead name for all those decades.

In the Book of Exodus, God told Moses that his name was Yahweh.  It is a marvelous thing to be given a name, to tell people your name, and to have people call you by your name. Names are who we are. We turn around when our name is called. We step to the front of the line with satisfaction when our name is called while waiting for a table at a busy restaurant. We react with anxiety when it is called in a doctor’s waiting room.

Paula is my name. Paul exists within Paula.  Of that, I am certain.  As for the rest, I’ll just have to ask Yahweh. I imagine integrating God, Jesus and Spirit is no easy task either.

And so it goes.

Honor & Responsibility

It was my honor to speak for the 59th Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service.  The service, virtual this year, is usually held at the National Cathedral the morning after the inauguration.

When I first saw the list of participants, I was humbled.  Who am I to be in the company of leaders who have fought for civil rights throughout their lives, while I, a privileged White man, was clueless about my entitlement?  Fortunately, life should not be judged by our failures. The question is not whether we have failed, but whether we allowed those blessed defeats to shape and form us into better vessels for service.

There are times I still feel like a privileged White evangelical male leader, even though that world has completely rejected me.  But that sense of entitlement is difficult to shake.  It grips its claws into your needy ego.  But I have learned much over the last seven years, including how to let the past be the past.  I remain an alpha personality, and I do not apologize for that.  Interestingly, however, virtually every opportunity that has come to me since transitioning is not something I went looking for.  I did not reach out to TEDxMileHigh or TED.  Both came to me.  The same is true of my speaker’s agency, my book agent, the publishing house releasing my memoir, the movie studio making a film about my life, the Biden campaign for which I was privileged to serve, and every church at which I have preached.  Every single opportunity came to me.

I said in a sermon not long ago that hope usually arrives from the outside.  Whether as a result of hard work, fate or just good fortune, opportunities come our way.  But it’s not that we have no agency in the matter.  We must say yes to those opportunities.  You have to say yes to hope, though it is almost always terrifying to do so.  “What if my TED talk isn’t very good and no one watches it?” ” What if no one reads my book?” ” What if I say something wrong in the Inaugural Prayer Service?”  I am always terrified when I say yes, but in the past I learned how awful it feels when you dare to say no.  I only said no once, but it took me years to get over that decision.  You do not say no to hope.

Of course, though saying yes is the first step in responding to hope, the call of hope always includes a period of time on the road of trials.  Therefore, yes without perseverance, guarantees that a journey will end before it ever really begins.  If you persevere, however, your yes eventually leads to the prize of great price, the Holy Grail, as you experience the joy of doing good work.

I believe that hope, plus yes, plus perseverance, equals destiny.  Saying yes to an opportunity that comes your way, and persevering through the journey that arrives with that yes, is what creates your destiny.  Achieving your destiny includes both external and internal elements.  Being in the right place at the right time is certainly a part of it, but how you respond to that external opportunity means everything.

Saying yes is difficult for most of us, because someplace deep within, shame stalks our better angels and tells us we are not worthy.  I find that a lot of people who are jealous of the good things that have come my way actually have nothing against me personally.  They just have not wrestled their own shame demons to the ground.  They think, “I know I’m not worthy of honor, so what makes her think she’s worthy?”  The truth is that we are all worthy.

When I finished my reading in the 59th Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service, I wept. I wept because of the privilege and honor of participating in the service.  I wept because it was a very moving service, a fitting end to the two days of the inaugural festivities, the collective sigh of relief we all so desperately wanted for the last four years.

To those who invited me to be a part of such an inspirational service, I offer my thanks.  I owe a debt of gratitude to Josh Dickson from the Biden Inaugural team and Michael Vazquez from the HRC and everyone else involved in planning the service in which more than two dozen people from a plethora of faith perspectives came together to produce one amazing hour of conviction that we can work together to heal our nation.

It was just seven years ago this week that I was at the lowest point in my transition from Paul to Paula.  I had lost all of my jobs and almost all of my friends. I didn’t know if I would survive. But I believed the call toward authenticity is sacred, and holy, and for the greater good, and I persevered. And since that time, I have been wonderfully blessed, far beyond anything I could have imagined.

When we are placed on this earth we are given the responsibility to shape our lives to fit the challenges of our times.  The faith, conviction, and determination with which we approach those challenges is what will be remembered.  How much suffering did we ameliorate?  How well did we love?  How many times did we say yes when hope came knocking on our door.  Did we persevere through the challenges?

I have no idea what hope is yet to come, but I do know I will keep saying yes, and I will persevere.  It is the only decent way to live.

Christian Nationalism and Me

I understand White Christian Nationalism and White Christian men.  I grew up immersed in the first group and was a member of the second. I served as a leader in a religious movement of over 6,000 churches with origins on the American frontier. These churches are overwhelmingly White and 100 percent male-led. The same is true for almost all evangelical denominations.  Evangelicals make up about one quarter of the American population – our largest religious group.

My own theological education was from an evangelical perspective, but in my twenties I was introduced to a more liberal expression of evangelicalism, primarily through one seminary in our denomination, a place where I later taught as an instructor.  I was also influenced by The Wittenburg Door, an irreverent satirical journal of the period that appealed to an entire generation of terminally curious young theologians. Although my theology became much broader, I did not leave evangelicalism. I was comfortable. I liked the people and the camaraderie. I did not understand the damage I was doing by remaining.

I did push and cajole, particularly on the subject of women in leadership, something frowned upon in almost all corners of evangelicalism, and certainly within the movement of churches of which I was a part. When I wrote a magazine column on adding women to the eldership of churches and placing them in lead ministry positions, I received letters from leaders within our denomination who reminded me that “God placed men in charge of the church.” Uh, okay, that’s actually not true. But that view has a deep history in the church, and has dominated evangelicalism.

So much of White Christian Nationalism is rooted in White Christian men who were taught that God intended for things to be this way, not just for the church, but for all of society. I don’t know how many times I heard professors and evangelical thought leaders say, “America was founded as a Christian nation.” Except that it wasn’t. When America was founded, a lot of its citizens were Christians, but our Founding Fathers protected our nation by not establishing a government-sanctioned religion.

White Christian Nationalism tries to gloss over this truth and make our Founding Fathers more Christian than they were.  They try to make us believe that it was a conservative form of Protestantism that created the core values of the United States.

I suppose you could say that the core values of this nation can be found in the Magna Carta, written in England in 1215.  You could also say that the Magna Carta finds its core values in Judeo-Christian teaching. But to go from that to saying America was started as a Christian nation is quite a leap. To say it was begun as an evangelical nation is an even wider chasm. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Monroe, George Washington and John Adams were all Christians, but they were also all Deists, believing that none of the supernatural events depicted in scripture were factual.

The influence of evangelicalism on American government is actually quite recent, dating back to the 1980s and the Moral Majority. Since the time of Ronald Reagan, evangelicalism has gained greater and greater influence in the halls of government.  Many of the top lieutenants of George W. Bush and Donald Trump were evangelicals.

I was invited to attend the National Prayer Breakfast in 2002, and was surprised at how many members of Bush’s cabinet identified themselves as evangelical.  Eight members of Donald Trump’s cabinet identified as evangelical, including Betsy DeVos, a member of the Christian Reformed Church, and Mike Pompeo, a member of a very conservative Presbyterian denomination.

This relatively recent evangelical influence on American government is the product of White Christian Nationalists, who believe evangelical teachings should be the rule of our nation.  I say “White Christian Nationalists” because they are almost all White.  There are very flew Black and Brown people among their ranks. They believe LGBTQ support is anti-Christian, though that perspective comes from a narrow evangelical interpretation of scripture.  They believe our laws should ban gay marriage, transgender rights, and other basic civil rights.  Simply put, they want to impose their narrow interpretation of the Bible on the entire American population.

Beneath their desire for an evangelical-based rule of law is their desire for current power structures to remain in place.  Not only are they opposed to LGBTQ rights, they are also opposed to a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body.  That is consistent with a worldview that says men should be in charge of women at home, at church, and by extrapolation, in every other area of society.  It is the major religious teaching on gender roles in 28 states of the United States.  Who drives this teaching?  Men. Of the 100 largest churches in the nation, all 100 are led by men, and 93 of them are White.

White Christian Nationalism is a threat to the core values of American democracy.    That I used to be a part of that power structure, barely lifting a finger from within to challenge its dominance, is a great regret.  Fortunately, none of us should be judged by the worst thing we’ve ever done.

When I was a leader in the evangelical world, I am sorry I did little more than write an editorial or two on women in leadership.  When I see the power evangelicalism has today, and the rabid fervor with which they wield that power, I am frightened. I am afraid of White Christian Nationalism.  You should be afraid too.

Character Counts

Character is destiny.  Anyone can fake integrity for a while, but without character, it is not sustainable.  Basic building blocks must be in place to become a person of character.  Early in life you need to have been given a sense of self-worth and confidence in the safety of your existence.  You also need parents who have enough character to delay their own gratification to meet your needs. It is obvious Donald Trump did not have the building blocks necessary to become a fully functioning adult. He never had a chance. More than likely, his narcissism can be placed at the feet of his harsh and demanding father.

With Josh Hawley, it might be a different story.  In Friday’s New York Times, David Brooks wrote a scathing op-ed in which he said, “Hawley didn’t just own the libs, he gave permission to dark forces he is too childish, privileged, and self-absorbed to understand.”  Ouch.  Hawley’s mentor, the venerable Missouri Republican John Danforth, said mentoring Hawley was “the biggest mistake I have ever made in my life.”  This has not been a good week for Josh Hawley. There is nothing wrong with ambition.  I have always been a person of ambition, though I have noticed the world was far more accepting of my ambition when I was a man than it is now that I am a woman.  But ambition without character will sooner or later lead to a great fall.

Cancel culture defines a person by the worst thing he or she has ever done or said.  None of us should be defined by the worst thing we have ever done or said. We all screw up.  There were times when my own ambition was blind.  I cringe when I think of those occasions. They are never apparent in real time. Only in the rearview mirror do you see that we all have the capacity for self-absorbed, privileged, and childish behavior. I hope this is a tipping point for Hawley. Will he experience the kind of blessed and necessary defeat that forges character, or will he be more like Ted Cruz, who has already demonstrated his true and abiding nature?  Time will tell.

One of the most damaging realities about Hawley, Cruz, and many of the others who have bowed down to Trump, is that they identify as evangelical Christians. During my last 25 years in the evangelical camp, I lectured frequently across the nation on the subject of postmodernism. Evangelicals thought postmodernism was evil and that we needed to return to the modern age, as if the modern age had been with us since the time of Christ. In reality, the modern age was about 500 years old.

I was attacked for saying postmodernism is a good corrective to the modern age. One of the biggest complaints that evangelicals made against postmodernism was that it created a world in which truth was nothing but a social construct. At the extremes of postmodernism, I actually shared their concerns.  But in my lectures I said that truth has always been slippery.  There is no such thing as objective truth, because humans always bring their own bias to any observation.  But I also said that through rigorous inter-subjective discipline, we can get very, very close to something resembling objective truth. My friend Phil Kenneson at Milligan University helped me understand that in an excellent chapter he wrote for the book Christian Apologetics in a Postmodern World entitled, “There’s No Such Thing as Objective Truth, and It’s a Good Thing Too.”

At its extremes, postmodernism has ushered in a confusing world that says all truth is social construct, what a group of people arbitrarily decide is true. I frequently get in trouble with some in the world of sociology because I do not believe gender is purely a social construct.  I believe we have a pre-disposition, before experience, to specific gendered behaviors. That is not a popular viewpoint among those who believe everything is a social construct, including gender.  I believe there is something close to objective truth. Which brings me back to the election.

What Hawley and Cruz did on Wednesday was capitulate to the notion of truth as anything but social construct.  They made their objections based on no actual facts, but only on the reality that people believe the election was stolen.  That’s all it took for them to object.  There was no examination of the veracity of those beliefs, or their source. Their source is clearly a president pedaling lies to bolster his sagging ego, and television networks like Fox and Newsmax pedaling lies for profit and power. Hawley is extremely well educated.  He should know exactly what is going on. I must assume that blind ambition has made him, well, blind.

When it comes to the nature of truth, the very evangelicals who demonized postmodernism have embraced it in the most damaging of ways.  They have embraced a president who has made over 20,000 false or misleading claims.  With Trump’s extreme narcissism, I would expect nothing different from him. It takes a lot of lies to prop up an extremely fragile ego. With media titans Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, and Christopher Ruddy, and their desire for power and profit, I would expect nothing different. With Ted Cruz’s previous behavior, I would not expect anything different. With Josh Hawley, however, I am surprised. I mean, this guy clerked for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  A lot of damage can be done by blind ambition.

My mother’s extreme narcissism made me question the safety of the universe and question my own self-worth. My father’s love and grandmother’s devotion saved me from the worst effects of that unstable environment. Still, I am aware of my flaws. I can be too ambitious. I can be self-referential and self-serving. Thank goodness I have surrounded myself with people who will tell me the truth. I hope Josh Hawley listens to John Danforth. It is not too late for him to yoke his ambition to a higher cause than his own self-aggrandizement. We will see what happens. Character is destiny.

Uh, Well, That Was Interesting, Sorta

Okay, uh, 2020 was hard.  I was isolated, set apart, and miserable, and then Covid-19 happened.  Yeah, the other stuff had already taken place before Covid-19 burst onto the scene.  I lost a friendship and my compass, as I realized I have had more conflict with women as a woman in six years than I had with women as a man in 60 years.  I won’t write any more about that right now.  You’ll have to wait for my memoir to come out in June.  I definitely wrote about it there.

Before Covid hit full force I squeezed in one last speaking engagement.  I spoke for a conference at Rutgers University on March 7. The conference was packed with students who didn’t seem to have a care in the world.  The speakers felt otherwise. We were all antsy, and more than a bit uncomfortable with the meet and greets scheduled after each session.  One of the other speakers was the editor of the Onion.  It seemed ironic, since everything happening felt like an article in the Onion.  Another speaker was an elderly Holocaust survivor.  I felt so badly for him as students crowded around to express their admiration.  It was obvious he would have appreciated more adoration from a distance.

When I flew home from NYC the next day, a flight attendant on my flight out of Charlotte refused to fly until the crew was given cleaning wipes with over 67 percent alcohol content.  There were exactly 15 American Airlines personnel in the jetway mediating the dispute as we all sat on the crowded plane waiting to fly to Denver.  The flight was an omen of the chaos to come.  I have not flown since that CLT-DEN leg on March 8.

Within a week, all of my live speaking engagements for the remainder of the year had cancelled.  Then I was pulled from the preaching team of our church, which left me sitting at home alone trying not to catch a virus that might well kill me.  Which turned out to not be a bad thing, because I also had to write a memoir, which it turns out is about as fun as eight months of daily root canal procedures.  I do not recommend writing a memoir when you are not currently in therapy.  I kept having to schedule one-off sessions with Naomi, my New York therapist for 28 years. Dredging up your past in the middle of a pandemic while you are also in the saddest and most troubling work experience of your life (which in my case is saying a lot) is not something I would necessarily recommend.

Then after a few months I found myself a co-pastor again, working with people I adore.  That was nice, and redemptive, and the church is thriving.  Then all of these corporate conference departments realized if they didn’t use their budgets they were going to lose them, and I started doing one keynote after another after another, all from my living room.  I earned more in two months than I did in my first four years as Paula.  And about 1,200 people a week watched our worship services from John Gaddis’s front porch, including people from New Zealand and Australia and British Columbia and Mexico and Brazil and Ireland and England.  Which was all kind of cool. And then writing the book didn’t suck so much for a while, until it did again.

Writing about gender inequity (two chapters) and the unfortunate realities of evangelicals and their rejection of LGBTQ people (another two chapters) and a chapter about the differences between male and female sexuality and spirituality were all enjoyable.  Then my editor said I had to get real and talk about the things I didn’t want to talk about when it comes to my own journey from Paul to Paula and what happened at church, and suddenly writing sucked again and I wanted to give back my advance and throw out the whole book.

Then my editor reminded me that I had told her I didn’t want to write a good book.  I wanted to write a great book and if I wanted to do that, I had to get down and dirty about the stuff I didn’t want to write about and I knew she was right, and I did write about it.  I wrote for about 10 hours a day for three weeks and finished the manuscript before Christmas.  It still has to go through copy edits – but it’s mostly done, and I don’t hate it.  I’m not sure if its great or not, or if it will sell, or if the folks at Simon and Schuster will hang their heads and say, “Why did we offer that contract?” and I’ll never get a contract to write ever again, which happens way more often than you might think.  But getting nervous about that can wait for the second half of 2021.  That I was able to write at all during the pandemic is an accomplishment in and of itself, right?

Cathy and I got together on New Year’s Eve and ordered in a nice meal and talked about getting married 48 years ago when we were only 12 and 10 and how things have turned out so far.  Then she went home, and I went to bed and it was well before midnight.

All of 2020 felt like this post – disjointed and without a thread running through it, other than random chaos, which is a thread of sorts, I suppose.  And I haven’t said a word yet about the man who will still be president for another two and a half weeks, which in Trump world is time enough to start a war or two, pardon everyone who has ever been to Mar-a-Lago, and search for still more heart-stopping ways to destroy our democracy.

Here’s to 2021.  It’s gotta be better, right?

Occam’s Razor

Last week I was downstairs in my office, speaking for a virtual event in California. When I came back upstairs, I noticed the back door was slightly open and cold winter air was blowing into the great room.  Right before I had gone downstairs, I had filled the basin in the waterfall feature in the backyard.  Therefore, when I saw the open door, I immediately thought, “Someone with nefarious motives has come into our little neighborhood of 72 houses up a canyon in a virtually crime-free town and crept into my backyard, waiting for just the right moment to come through my back door and steal all my valuables.  You know, like my vinyl records of the Advocates, my vocal band from the 70s.” I immediately ran from the house screaming to everyone in the neighborhood that a vinyl burglar was in my house.

Either that, or when I saw the open back door, I thought I must not have shut the door tightly enough and the wind blew it open. So, I went over and shut the door.

Occam’s Razor is a scientific and philosophical rule that says that the simplest of competing theories should always be preferred to the more complex theory.  Occam’s Razor would assume I had not closed the door tightly.  But what if I was incapable of admitting to any mistakes, ever, including leaving a door unlatched?  What if my ego structure was so weak that if I admitted to the tiniest of failures, it would bring my entire house of cards tumbling down?  If that were the case, I would have called the police to root out the burglar. And when they couldn’t find any burglar, I would have assumed he escaped.  And when I couldn’t find any missing valuables, I would have assumed I must have interrupted him before he had a chance to steal anything.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as defined in the DSM V– the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 301.81, is a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts. It includes a sense of entitlement, being interpersonally exploitative, seeing others as little more than an extension of one’s self, showing arrogant behaviors or attitudes, and never admitting to any kind of wrongdoing.

So, about the election. It is technically possible that there was a vast incredibly complicated conspiracy that occurred only in swing states that was so cleverly contrived that its nefarious nature was not visible to the naked eye.  That would explain why every court presented with lawsuits related to said conspiracy would not be able to find any evidence worthy of consideration.  The judges were not clever enough to see into the dark complex web of deceit that had been perpetrated upon the American people.

Either that, or Donald Trump is a narcissist who cannot admit defeat. So, rather than admit he lost the election by 7 million votes, he has to believe the election was rigged.  Which brings us back to Occam’s Razor – the simplest of competing theories should be preferred to the more complex theory.  Yeah, you get the idea.

Now that we have that out of the way, we can move on to the bigger issue.  How can 68 percent of Republicans, part of the 74 million people who voted for Donald Trump, prefer a ridiculously implausible explanation to an obvious one? How can they rally in opposition to Occam’s Razor? Now, that is a puzzle without a simple solution.

I will start with what I believe is the most convincing explanation.  It is not okay to admit you see Black and Brown people as inferior to you.  If you cannot admit that but it is a significant element of your worldview, you’ll do anything to keep the president in office who obviously, if not publicly, agrees with you.  He vicariously holds your worldview. It’s awfully suspicious that the vast majority of those who believe that the election was stolen are White. I believe a part of their willingness to say the election was rigged was because they want to deny the reality of systemic racism.  I mean, any way you put it, 74 million people voted for someone who would not denounce White supremacists. That means something.

A second explanation is that if you are not college educated and resent the intellectual elites on the coasts who you believe have tilted the world against you, you will find a way to initiate a class warfare with those elites. If educated elites say the sky is blue, you’ll say it is bright red just because you’re not about to agree to anything those coastal elites or Hollywood types say.  You’ll even vote against your own interests and elect people who change the tax law to screw you while increasing the wealth of the one percenters.  You’ll do it out of spite, because that is how much you hate the elites who opposed the changes to the tax code. And you’ll say the election was stolen just because it’s satisfying to watch the reaction of your exasperated opponents.

A third explanation is that there is a vast difference between where college graduates and non-college graduates get their news.  Right wing media pedals a steady stream of disinformation.  Many who consume a steady diet of right wing media have never been taught to compare news sources to discern objectivity, because no matter how objective news sources try or do not try to be, they all get it wrong at least occasionally.  Comparing sources to discern which ones usually get it right is critically important. I have personal experience with biased news media.

I was the secondary news subject of a Fox News story about a Pennsylvania university student. Mainstream media looked at the story and realized it was bogus, never giving it traction.  Fox News, on the other hand, wrote exactly twenty-five words related to me, eight of which were completely inaccurate.  No one reached out to me to verify what they wrote.  On the other hand, in 2017 the New York Times wrote a 3,000 word feature-article about Jonathan and me and they fact-checked so carefully that when they made one single tiny error, they corrected it immediately. It matters where you get your news.

I’m not sure what to do about all of this, because each of my three observations will feel like threats to half of our population.  My thoughts will seem condescending and will be dismissed out of hand.  We know that humans do not take in new information unless it comes to them in a non-threatening way.  No one wants to be told that their Trump support is hidden racism, or being on the hard side of class warfare, or because they haven’t been taught how to discern the objectivity of news sources. This column would just make them angry. But they already aren’t reading my blog, because they don’t like LGBTQ+ people. My very identity makes me their enemy.

It’s probably obvious by now that for the past few posts I have been trying to work out what is happening in our nation right now, and what I can do about it.  I have to work through what I might and might not be able to do to close the gap between us.  The future of our democracy is hanging in the balance.  We all need to do what we can.

Nice thoughts for Christmas week, don’t you think?  Well, it is 2020.  What’d you expect?

Dr. Paula Stone Williams

As you know, I do a lot of corporate speaking on gender inequity.  For the most part I write fresh talks for each keynote speech, and unfortunately, I never have to look far for new instances of gender inequity and misogyny.  It is always easy to find examples. Sometimes, all you have to do is look at the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal.

Should we be surprised when a WSJ editorial last week suggested that Dr. Jill Biden should stop using the honorific “doctor” before her name?  This is the same editorial page that routinely aggravates its news division with its choice of op-eds.  This is the same editorial page that published an op-ed from Paul McHugh, the psychiatrist who, much to the chagrin of his colleagues, has actively and ignorantly worked against transgender rights. When I am looking for examples of male privilege, I can count on the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

There are at least four things wrong with Joseph Epstein’s editorial.  First, the author has no advanced degrees, which means he has no personal experience with the amount of work it takes to complete a doctorate.  Which apparently, according to the WSJ editorial committee, qualifies Epstein as just the sort of person who should be writing an op-ed on the subject.  The logic of that decision escapes me.

Second, after a weekend of being skewered by half of America, instead of apologizing for their misguided op-ed, the WSJ editorial page doubled down on Epstein’s article, accusing those who complained about it as having embraced cancel culture.  Seriously?  Let’s examine what it means to have an earned doctorate.

Doctorates are terminal degrees within their respective professional fields.  An individual who is a doctor of medicine, doctor of education, doctor of ministry, doctor of psychology, or doctor of social work is a person who has earned the top degree attainable within their field.  A doctor of philosophy degree is different in that it is focused on original research and is therefore the desired degree for university professors.  All earned doctoral degrees include the option, if not expectation, that in formal settings the recipient of the degree will be referred to as doctor. Acknowledging that truth in opposition to the op-ed is just using facts to right the wrong done by the op-ed.  Calling it cancel culture is a cheap shot.

The third problem with the op-ed is that it was written by a man writing dismissively about a woman, as if we don’t have enough of that already.  I have a doctor of ministry degree, and as an ordained minister, when I was a man I was routinely introduced as Reverend Doctor Williams.  (The “reverend” honorific always precedes any other.)  As a woman, I am rarely introduced that way.  Unless it is on a curriculum vitae, resume, or business card, I do not use honorifics.  But that does not mean I should not be asked whether or not I’d like to be introduced with the proper honorific.  It is but one more example of the subtle and not so subtle ways in which a woman is assumed to be less than a man.

The fourth problem with the editorial is its timing.  Last Friday was the day in which the nation was waiting to see whether or not the Supreme Court was going to agree to hear a ridiculous lawsuit that over 100 Republican Congressional lawmakers had joined that would have subverted our democracy in favor of minority rule.  It was the most egregiously inappropriate action in opposition to our democracy since the Civil War.  Thank goodness our judicial branch held strong where our executive and legislative branches did not. With their unanimous decision to dismiss the case, the Supreme Court saved our democracy.  But we did not know that early on Friday.  So, while the world was waiting to see whether we are a democratic society or not, the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal decided it was the perfect time to question Dr. Jill Biden’s use of an honorific.  Go figure.

If this year’s election has shown us anything, it is how much systemic racism and misogyny are baked into the fabric of our nation.  We are making progress, but it is painfully slow.  But hey, at least democracy was saved – this time.  And kudos to the Wall Street Journal for focusing on what really matters – the use of an earned doctorate as an honorific.  You can’t make this stuff up.

The Horns of a Dilemma

 

This week Jupiter and Saturn will appear as one in the sky, the first time that has happened in 800 years.  When I heard this celestial event is called the Big Conjunction, I thought of the dilemma currently facing large evangelical churches in America.  When it comes to the big conjunction of Donald Trump and Covid-19, these churches are lost in the cosmos.

Megachurches are America’s great religious influencers.  There are more megachurches (churches that average over 2,000 in weekend attendance) in Nashville today than there were in the entire nation just twenty years ago.  The influence of these churches is huge, and their decisions make news.  Flatirons Church, the largest church here in Boulder County, recently held an outdoor service (pictured above) in which mask wearing and social distancing were obviously negotiable.  The event created quite a ruckus in our Covid-compliant region.  It was not the first time the church has made news in a negative way.  They horribly mismanaged their relationship with a transgender member and have not been honest about their position on LGBTQ+ relationships.  It is my opinion that their leadership is not adequately educated about many of the most salient social issues of our age.  Unfortunately, Flatirons is not an outlier among evangelical megachurches.  It is but one example among thousands of similar churches struggling with their role in American culture.

The last four years illustrate the conundrum for America’s megachurches.  One of the clear convictions of almost every megachurch is its focus on salvation, not politics.  Over 95 percent of these churches are evangelical in theology.  As evangelicals, they teach that people must be born again to get into heaven.  Personal salvation is the church’s major focus.  Theirs is a transactional faith.  You give Jesus your devotion and Jesus will stop his father from sending you to hell.  That simplistic faith is inadequate in today’s complicated and polarized world.

As purveyors of salvation, megachurches pride themselves on not being political.  I do not know of a megachurch outside of the deep south willing to take a political stand for or against Donald Trump.  They try to remain neutral.  Most of the guys I know (and yes, megachurch lead pastors are all guys) do not like Trump, but they know at least 76 percent of their members voted for him and a sizeable number adore him.  They are not willing to challenge that adoration.

Take Georgia for instance, where Donald Trump wants to subvert a legal election.  The two Republican Senators have shown no willingness to support their Republican Governor or Secretary of State, while Trump asks the Governor to overturn the election, with no evidence of voter fraud.  It is exactly what I would expect of Donald Trump and Senators Perdue and Loeffler.  But where is Andy Stanley, the lead pastor of the largest church in the state?  We haven’t heard from Stanley since a Time Magazine column written before the election in which he said we should all love one another regardless of the election outcome, and an Atlantic article in which he acknowledged that these are tough times for large church pastors.  Hardly a clarion call on behalf of justice and democracy.

When the person in the White House is a narcissistic purveyor of lies who refuses speak out against White supremacy, staying silent is no longer a moral option.  When a pandemic is politicized, and people are dying because of their refusal to do something as basic as mask wearing and social distancing, it is not the time to refuse to take a stand.  Flatirons Church’s leaders refused to exercise the most basic of human responsibilities – keeping humans safe.  To not enforce mask-wearing and social distancing at a large service, even if it is outdoors, is unconscionable.  These pastors say they don’t want to wade into politics.  Since when is saving the lives of living and breathing humans political?  They certainly have no problem arguing for the lives of unborn children.

When I was Paul, I never was a politically active pastor.  Like most pastors, I stayed out of politics, not just to stop from endangering our 501c3 status, but because I never saw it as a priority.  That changed when I transitioned.  I never saw it as a priority because as a powerful White male, I did not see the injustice that actually exists in the world.  I understood it theoretically, but I had never experienced it.  Now I know.  People suffer.  Lives are lost.  Remaining silent is not an option.  I wish I had understood that before.  Privilege is blinding.

You cannot remain silent when wholesale lies are broadcast by the President and across media platforms that have no regard for the truth.  You cannot remain silent when a narcissist does what narcissists do – devour everything and everyone in their path.  You cannot stay silent with a pandemic is raging out of control, and something as simple as mask wearing and social distancing could save hundreds of thousands of lives.  Maybe our politicians have no moral standards and think only of retaining their power, but I would expect more from our evangelical large church pastors. This is not the time for silence.  It is time to boldly speak the truth.  Yes, you will lose people and money, but at least you won’t lose your own soul.