Twelve Bells

Twelve Bells

In April of 1968 I was 16 years old and a disc jockey at a radio station in Northeast Kentucky, quite a heady job for a high school junior. The station had an Associated Press Teletype machine that clicked away 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In the age before “breaking news” referred to the release of the vacation plans of a movie star, news bulletins were rare and a very big deal. The most serious were accompanied by the ringing of 12 bells on the AP machine. I was at the radio station on April 4 in the evening when I heard 12 bells. I ran to the Teletype room and watched as the keys haltingly printed out the news of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We interrupted programming to read the announcement, but to me it was just news, little more.

Two months later, on June 6, I was doing the morning show. I arrived at the station at 5:30 AM to warm up the transmitter when I heard the same 12 bells, this time announcing the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. When we signed on the air at 6:00 I led with the announcement of his death. Again, it was newsworthy, but to me it was just the news, little more.

I had been heavily indoctrinated to believe the Kennedy’s were eastern liberals hell bent on destroying the nation. I had been taught Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a womanizer who just wanted to stir up trouble. In the spring of 1968 I shed no tears. Truth be told, I was excited to be the one to break such important news in our little corner of the Bluegrass State. It was an opportunity to shine, to present the news with authority and panache.

I grew up in Ohio and Kentucky, a privileged white male in a middle class family. There was a subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, message that I was part of a superior race and a member of the only religious fellowship that got it right. I was also a male in an age in which misogyny was a primary thread in the cultural tapestry. The world was mine for the asking. Why should I be concerned about people who probably did not deserve the opportunities they would not be given?

Last week I watched the movie Selma, about the famous 1965 civil rights march. When the movie ended I sat in my seat, stunned. The movie was superb, and David Oyelowo deserved an Oscar nomination for best actor, but the experience of watching the movie went far beyond any appreciation of fine filmmaking. The movie brought great sadness. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, I was there. I heard the 12 bells, read the bulletin over the air, but I had missed it. One of the most poignant, heartbreaking moments in modern history, and I missed it.

After the movie my friends Jen and Eric were comparing it to 12 Years A Slave, a movie they found life altering. Jen turned around in the car and said, “This one probably meant a lot to you, didn’t it?” I was overcome with such emotion I could barely speak. The movie indicted, convicted, and sentenced me. All I could think about were those 12 bells and my cavalier attitude reading the AP bulletin on that terrible evening 47 years ago.

Half a century later I finally get it. I understand Dr. Martin Luther King’s growing awareness that he would not die a natural death. Too many were too frightened by the thought of equality for those not like them, so he had to be silenced.

As a transgender woman I understand prejudice. I understand the frustration of being rejected and treated as an outsider just because of who you are. I understand the desire for revenge, and the restraint it takes to avoid lashing out. I understand the post-traumatic stress that comes from being mistreated by those convinced they are being thoughtful and caring when they let you go, but make sure you are “taken care of” with a good severance. I didn’t want a good severance. I wanted my job.

I understand how maddening it is when people say, “Well, you are the one who decided to be all in your face with your life, so you shouldn’t be surprised when you are treated badly.” I know how devastating it is when those who are sympathetic show no moral outrage. Because it is only when allies show outrage that real change occurs. But above all else, I understand I never knew how much I never knew.

As we drove back toward Longmont, my friends kindly but firmly told me my work is not done, that I too have been called to lessen suffering. They talked of my preaching when I was a male, and how the same spirit I exhibited then was needed now. They talked of how the church has failed as it did in the 60s, focusing too much on heaven and too little on creating a just and better world on earth.

When I got back to Lyons the house was empty. Cathy was in New York caring for grandchildren. I sat down in the living room, in my favorite big brown overstuffed chair, and I sobbed. The first time I sobbed was five years ago when I realized I had been called to live this honest and open life. I sobbed again when I screamed at God for making me this way, and not giving me the strength to make it all the way through life as a male. I sobbed when I realized how difficult my transition would be for Cathy and my children. And now I sobbed the tears of the repentant, the humbled, the tears of someone who finally knows what she never knew.

I still have no idea what it must have been like to live a lifetime on the back of the bus. For six decades I smugly took my seat in the front of the bus. Only of late have I come to know, in a small way, what so many have known for a lifetime – that those in power can be astonishingly cruel. Those same wise souls also know an eye for an eye does nothing but make the whole world blind.

Through much of the night I sat in that overstuffed chair thanking Dr. Martin Luther King, Ralph David Abernathy, Julian Bond, Coretta Scott King, and all the other heroes of the civil rights movement who made it possible for me, Paula Stone Williams, to live in these United States, a free woman.

Still, my friends are right. Much work remains to be done. In 32 states I do not have the legal right to keep a job after transitioning. In 32 states I can be denied housing. In all 50 states I do not have the right to keep my job if I work for a religious employer. And of course, there are those whose suffering is far, far greater than mine. What I face is nothing compared to what Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, and Solomon Northup had to endure.

Last week I caught a tiny glimpse of how I might have felt had I known what was at stake on that evening in April of 1968 when 12 bells rang. I would have dropped to my knees over the tragic death of the man who gave me the right to write this blog, the man who lived the teachings of Jesus on the big stuff – justice for the poor and the oppressed. I would have understood that some day, because of Dr. Martin Luther King’s nonviolent convictions, his soaring rhetoric and his dogged determination, I would be able to proudly sign my legal name, Paula Stone Williams.

And. So. It. Goes.


He Made A Difference

He Made A Difference

In 1987 I met Bud Paxson when he came to New York for a visit.  Thus began a long relationship with one of the most interesting individuals with whom I have ever worked. Bud was a major supporter of the Orchard Group, but it was through PAX-TV and the Christian Network, Inc. that I came to know him best.

After starting the Home Shopping Network, Bud moved on to begin PAX as a family friendly television network. During the overnight hours PAX aired Worship, a product of the Christian Network, Inc. Worship’s programming was unique, comprised of beautiful scenes of nature coupled with soothing music and short inspirational stories. It was simple, but very popular. As one of the on-air hosts, I was privileged to hear from people who stopped me in airports, on busy city streets, or at sporting events. These viewers told me about late nights up with sick children, struggles with severe depression, and difficult days caring for disabled family members. All of these struggling souls told me how much our programming meant to them in their dark night.

I loved telling Bud the stories I heard. He was moved by thousands of letters he read from loyal viewers. Bud may have invented Home Shopping and created a vast network with PAX, but Worship was probably his greatest work, touching more lives than most of us will ever know.

Bud was a complex man. There were times, when I was chairman of the board of CNI, that Bud would call screaming and yelling words I won’t print here. Just a few hours later he would call back, gentle and thoughtful. That was Bud.

I loved my 19 years in television work, and none of it would have happened, on air or off, without Bud. I learned much from him, and valued his friendship. We parted company around 2006 or 2007, but I have always thought of him fondly. This evening, on NBC Nightly News, I heard Brian Williams tell of Bud’s passing earlier today. Of all the things I could say about Bud, this one thing I know for sure, he loved Jesus – a lot. We’ll miss him. My thoughts and prayers are with Marla and the family.

Purple Threads, Blue Streaks and Fierce Lovers

Purple Threads, Blue Streaks and Fierce Lovers

A good friend told me I was the purple thread running through her life….”the bearer of spirit, mystery, transformation, wisdom.”  I was honored.  We are called to take what humble offerings we have and place them a short heart’s reach from like-minded sojourners.  It is rare we find one another.

This friend for whom I am a purple thread has suffered much, yet she fights with spirit.  Since I have known her she has blossomed into radiance and holy confidence.  I would not want to mess with her.  She can be fierce.  Her children know it.  Her husband knows it.  Her purple thread knows it.

In his book My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman says, “The single most damaging and distorting thing religion has done to faith involves overlooking, undervaluing, and even outright suppressing this interior, ulterior kind of consciousness…In neglecting the voices of women, who are more attuned to the immanent nature of divinity, who feel that eruption in their very bodies, theology has silenced a powerful – perhaps the most powerful – side of God.”

My spouse personifies this holy eruption. As pure as snow, she can sting your face like sleet in a storm.  She does not shy away.  She is through with silence. When she speaks it is not a purple thread, it is a blue streak.  The blue streak is necessary.  She is petite and pretty and in a male-dominated society, easy to ignore.  But no more.  Men are afraid.  They should be.  She pierces the madness with a holy eruption that clears the room and cleans the air.

I am new to the female gender. I cannot speak for other transgender women, but I feel somewhere in between genders, understanding some things from both sides, while feeling cut off from both when it comes to other ways of seeing life. Since most of the people with whom I am in contact nowadays never knew Paul and have no idea I was a male, I am able to live easily in the world as a woman. The insights that have arrived courtesy of this new perspective have been life altering.

I have been disturbed by the ways I have been treated, particularly when compared with the ways in which Paul was treated. I will write a lot about that in the future, but suffice it to say I have learned what it is like to be ignored, dismissed, and relegated to the back burner by men who assume I have little to offer. It causes me to have that much more respect for strong women who stand there and stand there and stand – refusing to behave like men to survive, but learning to gather themselves up and stand whole and confident and strong.

These purple threads and blue streaks and fierce lovers are the grace given to us by the God of all, who commissions angels to usher these saints into our world, disrupting the status quo and upending the order in the canyons of power.  These purple threads and blue streaks and fierce lovers, they are to be held in our hearts and trusted with our souls.

Tragedy in Cincinnati

Tragedy in Cincinnati

When she stepped in front of a truck on Interstate-71, just a stone’s throw from her home in a Cincinnati suburb, Leelah Joshua Alcorn brought the world’s attention to one of the ugliest realities of American religion – how the Evangelical church treats transgender people. Her parents have been vilified in the press and social media. Doug and Carla Alcorn did what they had been instructed to do. They attempted to show love in the way their church taught by refusing to accept what they believed to be sinful behavior. As a result, they will agonizingly scrutinize their actions for the remainder of their lives.

The Alcorns are likely to respond in one of two ways. Either they will dig in their heals and blame secular society for bringing about their child’s death, or they will slowly and painfully come to realize their misguided spiritual understanding has brought about the most tragic of consequences. I hope it is the later. The Alcorns can eventually forgive themselves for being human and tragically wrong. There is no hope for the other option – unbridled arrogance. Most evil in the world is perpetrated by those stridently convinced they are absolutely right.

I do have sympathy for the Alcorns. At some place deep within they must know they horribly mishandled their troubled child. I can only imagine their anguish. But I wonder about their ministers, the Christian counselor who saw their child, and the church leaders who guided them. Are any of those people spending sleepless nights questioning their actions? They should be.

I imagine Leelah’s counselor’s education on transgender issues was virtually nonexistent. Through a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees and a doctorate in pastor care, I never heard one single word about Gender Dysphoria or any other DSM diagnosis related to gender. I know of only one Evangelical counseling program in the nation that has done significant work on Gender Dysphoria, and they have come to significantly different conclusions than those evidently provided to the Alcorn family.

A pastor or counselor unacquainted with Gender Dysphoria has one single moral imperative when someone presents as transgender – to show compassion and immediately make a referral to a professional acquainted with this complex reality. If Leelah’s counselor was as unprepared as I suspect, he or she should be sued for malpractice. Too often the law protects Christian counselors and pastors based on religious exemptions to applicable laws. Such misguided protection should end.

I am well acquainted with the religious fellowship that included the Alcorn’s church. Their senior pastor received his master’s degree from the same seminary from which I received one of my degrees. The church is a part of a movement of churches woefully ignorant about Gender Dysphoria. And as often happens with religion, what we do not understand we categorically reject. The tragedy in southern Ohio is testament to the efficacy of such a response.

I have been rejected by a branch of the same movement of churches of which the Alcorns were a part. I was a national leader who preached in scores of megachurches. When I came out as transgender I knew what to expect. Sadly, there were no surprises. Still, the rejection was devastating. As I have written before, there is a reason 41 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide. But I was an adult. I had resources. Leelah did not, and that made all the difference.

For the love of God, open your eyes to our children with Gender Dysphoria. Since I came out as transgender I have heard from the Christian parents of numerous transgender children. Thank God they came to me. I hope I hear from many more. These children need help their church is not prepared to give.

It is devastating when you realize you are transgender. Nobody asks for this – nobody! And the last thing you need is to hear what I heard from one of my own board members, “This seems rather self-indulgent.” When your alternative has been reduced to suicide, is a person self-indulgent when they decide to remain alive? Hardly. I can excuse the ignorance of our board member. I expected it and had the resources to handle it. But what Leelah heard from her parents, counselors, and church leaders was far more than she could bear. She was already carrying a burden you cannot begin to understand, unless you too are transgender. The counsel she received took that burden to a place no human can bear. Shame on those who drove her there.

Doug and Carla Alcorn were only doing what they had been instructed to do. God have mercy on those who taught them. God have mercy on those who counseled the Alcorn family to take actions whose ends were far, far too predictable.

42 Years

42 Years

I have not written much on this blog about Cathy, my spouse of 42 years. She has her own story to tell and she will tell it to whom she chooses. Knowing how intensely private she is, do not be surprised if you are not among the chosen.

Last night, almost exactly 42 years after our marriage ceremony began on a chilly rainy Long Island night, I wrote my feelings about Cathy on my Facebook page. I keep that page relatively quiet, so most of you will not have a chance to read it. I have decided to reproduce it here:

I may be the one who transitioned, but Cathryn Faust Williams, my closest companion on earth, is the one who has been transformed, drawing on a fierce inner wisdom, defying convention, becoming deeply spiritual (though delightfully not very religious), living a defiant nevertheless, bringing everything into question, but never losing hope in all that is good and redemptive and beautiful. 

Though our relationship has changed profoundly, my respect, admiration and love are more deeply rooted than ever. Thank you for joining me to create the most marvelous family on earth, for supporting me on this difficult journey, and for not giving up your own integrity and personhood in the process. 42 years ago tonight we began our journey on this road less traveled by, and having you as my companion has made all the difference.

And so it goes.