Into This Briarpatch
The writer D. H. Lawrence said a writer sheds his sickness in his writing. No one escapes it. Read any author long enough and you will see the nature of his or her ongoing struggles. I’ve recently noticed it on reality television, where couples work together renovating houses or selling real estate. You can see some of the marriages are headed for the exit unless there is serious intervention. It is painful to watch.
I have lived my transition publicly. Over a half million people have watched via my TEDxMileHigh talk. Every day I hear from transgender people and their families from all over the world. Women from five continents have thanked me for validating their experiences of discrimination. I understand that by writing and speaking about my life I am doing something for the greater good. But I am always walking a knife-edge with my transparency. It is easy to drop into egocentricity or self-promotion. I mean, really.
My writing could also be presumptuous. Who am I to think I know anything about the female experience? I said in the TEDx talk, “I often feel like an interloper, a late arrival to the serious work of womanhood.” For that reason I tread lightly when I contrast my life as a male with my life as a female. All I have is my experience as a transgender female. But still I write, because so many of my discoveries have been about how a person holds his or her space in the world.
As a male I rarely thought about how a person holds space. I just was. I expected the world to make room for me and it did. That’s the ease of being a well-educated white male. If I was in a group of men, we were conscious of who the alpha male was, but we had little difficulty holding our space. In religious spaces, women were pretty much patronized or ignored. It is shocking to me that any of them stuck around.
I have noticed that women often feel uncomfortable in male-dominated spaces. They have had decades of teaching that when they are in that space their value is determined by how they look more than what they know. When their expertise is acknowledged, they are judged by how quickly and confidently they speak. In short, they are judged by how male they are.
It is rare that I feel pulled back into male ways of functioning. But when I am in a room full of men, it is tempting. That is how it felt at the retreat I wrote about two weeks ago. But that is not my strongest temptation. The strongest temptation is to stop working with men altogether, to leave the patriarchal ranking system and learn from watching women work. I know that is not a real solution, because there is serious work to be done.
Women must not back off from infiltrating male-dominated spaces with their storehouse of wisdom. I know they are weary of being ignored and dismissed, but the men will not get there on their own. And the men must make room for women. That will be difficult because a lot of men have yet to learn the art of listening. For instance, they have not yet begun to think about new kinds of metrics. In the church world, the metrics have always been weekend attendance and per capita giving. What if we measured the quality of relationships instead? That is the kind of change I am talking about.
There are men who are already there, like Mark Tidd, one of the co-pastors at Highlands Church, or Eric Jepsen, Jen’s husband, or my co-pastor Aaron Bailey. All three hold their own in male dominated spaces, but when women are in the room they seek to empower, not dominate.
I don’t have many answers, just observations. Being a woman in the world feels as natural as can be. But I have been undone by how it has changed the lens through which I view the world. I have barely begun to scratch the surface of what it means to be ranked, tokenized and ignored. I am deeply pained when I watch dear female friends and family be dismissed by groups of men. I want to scream, “Don’t you know who she is?”
I cannot find language for the depths of my discomfort. But I will continue to wrestle, because I have come to believe this is one of the holy reasons I was led into this briarpatch.
And so it goes.