Since my transition it has been my privilege to lecture to a number of psychology and sociology classes at the University of Colorado. A few weeks ago a friend invited me to speak to her psychology students on transgender issues. When I arrived there were 400 students in the lecture hall. They were incredibly respectful as I spoke and answered questions for an hour. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop. A few weeks later my friend sent me the student evaluations from the lecture.
I read 16 pages of very supportive comments from thoughtful, articulate undergraduates. Before I finished I was in tears. I thought of the contrast fourteen months earlier when I received hundreds of mean-spirited messages and calls to repent from people in the church. Some showed great concern, but many were just mean. They included those who projected or transferred their own issues onto me, and those terrified of what they do not understand.
I’ve been Paula long enough to no longer have to think about which bathroom door to enter. I am Paula, and I am moving on. A lot of the hurt over the way my transition was received has faded, and I am settling into my new life. But occasionally I still receive a letter or email from people disappointed with me, and their words still hurt. Over the months I have realized these letters do share something in common. They are devoid of curiosity.
On the other hand, one student’s words at CU reflected the thoughts of many, “Before this talk I knew absolutely nothing about transgender issues, but listening to Paula gave me a whole new perspective and I left with great compassion for those struggling with gender identity.” These students were exposed to a real live transgender person, and they were changed by the experience. Unfortunately I can be fairly certain I will not be invited to speak to the students at any Christian college I know. They will not have a chance to interact with a transgender person and hear her story. As a result, the great divide only gets wider and wider.
This is nothing new in the history of man. Apparently we are the only species that needs an enemy to survive, and where none exists we will create one. Having lived on both sides of this great divide and watching it increase in breadth and depth, I am not optimistic. If we cannot hear one another’s stories, we have little hope.
I have great respect for Justin Lee and the Gay Christian Network. They manage to keep the conversation going on both sides of the religious fence. Yet for their generosity they are continuously attacked from both sides of this heated debate. Still, with integrity they stand there, refusing to stop the conversation.
In the marital counseling Cathy and I do, we often realize the biggest problem is when conversations end too early, often before they’ve even begun. When you are able to keep a conversation going through the conflict, you have a good chance of healing a relationship. But most of us do not want to feel our feelings. We do not want to experience discomfort. We want to offload our pain instead of experience it. But as the psychologist and researcher Brene Brown says, “It is the willingness to be uncomfortable and walk our way through our emotions that leads to wholeness.”
Whether the subject is a single marriage, the LGBT community, or larger issues like racial injustice, poverty, and our growing global religious intolerance, we must learn to keep the conversation alive. A willingness to work our way through our own discomfort and pain, accompanied by a generous dose of grace and mercy toward those we do not understand, may be as important as anything else we do. It is not an understatement to say the future of our species and our planet may depend on it.
And so it goes.