I Did Not Know What I Did Not Know
I have always been a bit of a Renaissance person. At one point I was taking home paychecks as a television host, adoption caseworker, non-profit CEO, Evangelical megachurch preaching pastor, operator of homes for individuals with mental retardation, seminary instructor, and magazine editor and columnist. I loved the challenge of mastering a plethora of responsibilities. Well, that, and I happened to be running away from myself. But that’s not the subject of today’s post. And besides, I’ve been writing about that for a while now. We’re probably all getting a little tired.
When I look back there are a number of threads running through those varied jobs, yet one stands out. I did not understand its importance until my life took a major turn. These jobs were all handed to me – a tall, successful, well-educated, white American male who was clueless just how entitled he was. Oh, I worked hard, but given my privilege, that hard work sent me to the top of the class.
Because I’ve flown well over two million miles with American Airlines, I know a bit about airplanes. Over the years, on a rough flight I might comfort a seatmate by saying, “There’s nothing to worry about. This is a DeHavilland Dash-8 100 series turboprop, one of the safest airliners in the sky.” People believed me because I acted as one with authority. I can’t tell you how many times a seatmate, or even a flight attendant, would ask, “Are you a pilot with the airline?” I looked like a pilot. I looked like the host of a national television show. I looked like the preaching pastor of a megachurch.
But that was then.
Last month I was on a very turbulent flight from LAX to Honolulu. The woman seated next to me said, “I can’t remember a flight this bad.” From my frequent flyer bag of tricks, I replied, “Well this is an A321, and it’s actually a little underpowered. When it has a full load of fuel and every seat is taken, it can’t fly above the weather.” The woman did not ask if I was a pilot for the airline, she just glanced as if to say, “You should keep your thoughts to yourself.” She asked a flight attendant why the flight was so rough. He answered, “We can’t fly over the weather.” She thanked him and settled less nervously into her seat.
I thought, “How on earth could this woman be so dismissive of me? I gave a more thorough answer than the flight attendant, but she acted like I was an idiot. What’s up with that?”
Of course I knew good and well what was up with that. The same thing has been up with that everywhere I go, from the airport to the car repair shop, to the hardware store. My bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, doctoral degree, and three page curriculum vitae stand for nothing. I am summarily dismissed for one single reason. I am a woman.
I do have a little sympathy for successful, straight, white American males. No matter how hard they try, they will never understand how much the world is tilted in their favor. Short of changing genders, race, or sexual identity, it is impossible for them to know. Cisgender females cannot truly comprehend how difficult it is for them to be heard. What they have experienced is all they know. It is all their mothers knew, and their mothers before them. They were enculturated to accept flippant dismissal.
For every woman with whom I have ever worked, I am so, so sorry. I thought I was one of the good guys. I did not know what I did not know. If you thought I was aloof, or arrogant, or dismissive, it is because I was. I was ushered into that entitled existence by an education system and church that elevated me above you. I am deeply sorry. I ask your forgiveness.
And now, a word about the church that entitled me so.
I have preached in three of the 12 largest churches in America. Today I would not be allowed in the pulpit of a single one. Not only would I be barred because I am transgender, I would be barred because I am a woman. The irony is the things I know now make me twice the person I was before. But women’s voices remain silenced while churches stumble in the dark with a leadership blinded by its own entitlement. It has made me into something I never expected I’d be – a feminist.
Just yesterday I was speaking with three Christian women I deeply respect. I would consider each a strong feminist. I said, “Now that I live and breathe among you, I realize I am still far from an essence you gracefully carry. Maybe it is because you are mothers, and ponder things in your heart that accumulate toward wisdom. Or maybe it is because you process not in part, but the whole. Or maybe it is because you stand there with your defiant nevertheless, born of love but refined by fire.”
As we parted ways I looked at these powerful women and thought, “The day will come when the walls of Jericho fall and the church becomes whole and love wins. Maybe I won’t get to preach in those churches again, but these women will.” And so, I pray, it goes.
9 thoughts on “I Did Not Know What I Did Not Know”
I’ve wondered when you would end up writing this post. I’m both sorry it needs to be written and grateful for your courage and ability to write it so well. None of us know what we don’t know.
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Well written, Paula. Revelations like these are indicative of a true spiritual awakening. I have recently come to an awareness of my past roles in the patriarchal church and sexist society as well. At the time, it was painful to see just how unintentionally blind and cruel (read dismissive and condescending) I had been in my behavior. My respect for women has soared since then and I find in myself in a similar mode of empathy and respect towards them all (exept when I’m locked down in self-seeking mode). I believe this deep-seated sense of superiority and entitlement factored heavily into several failed relationships I had with women. I am grateful for the Grace by which I am being transformed today into a man who knows his place in this world and who is able to support others with love in theirs, regardless of gender, race, status or situation.
I LOVE this! Brilliant.
Paula, the perspective you are able to share as someone who has experienced a lifetime of white, straight, male privilege AND being valued less as a woman AND the prejudice against trans persons is invaluable. I realize it makes everything you say very personal indeed, but there are many of us who benefit greatly from your willingness to share. xo
wow this is very powerful and only a trans woman could say it, thank you so much for your strong powerful voice as a woman. e Eleanor A. Hubbard
Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it. Mary Oliver
You are, and always have been, a healer.
I love how these culminating words reveal the true light of your humble spirit, sparkling wisdom, and fresh perspective to your readers. Your congregation. Your family. Your friends, associates, and the human race itself.
You speak truth to power with silken gloves that sweetly, firmly touches our core.
Your womanhood is a divine gift to us all, my friend.
Thank you for writing this. What a painful awakening this must have been for you. I’ve often wished I were blind to it.
The best of Paula so far…you are a wonderful human being. Period. And your writing is beautiful. Guess I had something after the period…you inspire me and I’m guessing everyone else who ever reads a word you write…don’t ever stop!
Recently during service, three new elders were introduced. They stood on stage in a line with the other elders, and as I looked at each of these people, I felt a sharp stab of pain in my heart. I felt such a deep hurt as I realized that not a single woman was an elder. I wasn’t able, then, to concentrate on the sermon as I wondered— If Mother Teresa were alive and attending our church, would she be qualified to be an elder, or would she be found wanting because of her gender. I’ve struggled often in the past with this, and the struggle continues as I wonder how one half of God’s people can treat the other in such a dismissive way….believing that we should all continue to grow and mature in Christ, but not to the point that we are “overstepping” the roles determined for us. Regardless of where and what God is calling for us. “We do not know what we do not know.” Thank you for this post, Paula.