I Understand, Do You?

Over the past ccouple of weeks I’ve had some interesting conversations with evangelical leaders who wanted to glean information about the transgender experience.  Before the conversations ended, both either subtly or directly let it be known that their “belief about Scripture” stops them from accepting LGBTQ people as they are.  Both were confident I would understand.

I do understand. I believe it is also very important for them to understand.  When they say, “I hope you respect that my reading of scripture demands that I not accept gay relationships or people who transition genders,” they are saying, “My system of beliefs is actually more important than the flesh and blood humans I encounter who exhibit in their lives not one bit of measurable evidence that they are living anything other than whole and good lives.”

Gay relationships are every bit as healthy and strong as straight relationships. Transgender people are every bit as healthy as their cisgender counterparts.  Both have been confirmed by a plethora of peer reviewed studies.

So if you choose to reject LGBTQ people, you are doing so not because of any evidence-based empirical data.  You are doing so because of your interpretation of a particular set of 2,000 year-old instructions that you are choosing to accept over flesh and blood humans.

You have every right to do this.  But it is important to be honest about what you are doing.  You are accepting a specific hermeneutic that has been rejected by half of the world’s Christians, and you are following a specific exegetical understanding of a handful of passages that is disputed by many who hold to your own hermeneutic.

I really don’t think this is about the Bible.  This is about an unfortunate tendency of our species to create enemies that don’t exist.  The Pulitzer-Prize winning sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson and anthropologist and philosopher René Girard have written extensively about this.  Humans create scapegoats who must be driven from the tribe, and enemies who must be defeated for the supposed welfare of the tribe. The scapegoats and enemies do not have to be a genuine threat.  They just have to be named as a threat.

Consider today’s landscape.  Evangelicals are heavily involved in a number of initiatives to stop transgender people from using the appropriate restroom.  Even after North Carolina’s HB2 law was rescinded, they keep introducing similar bills in additional state legislatures, mostly in the south.

It is important to note that not a single transgender person has ever been arrested or convicted for being in a women’s restroom for nefarious purposes.  On the other hand, the facts are clear about a very real threat that does very much exist.

Between 1987 and 2007 the three largest companies that insure Protestant churches paid out 7,095 claims for sexual assault by church leaders, one assault for every 24 churches in America.  Over 99 percent of the offenders were male.

Again, to be perfectly clear, no transgender person has ever been arrested or convicted of assault in a women’s restroom, but thousands of pastors and church leaders have been guilty of assaulting their own parishioners.  These are the facts.

But none of this is about facts.  It never has been.  The evangelical tribe believes it needs an enemy, and at the moment transgender people are the enemy du jour.  Before the LGBTQ population, it was the divorced, Roman Catholics, the Irish, the Italians, the Scots-Irish, those who opposed slavery, those who believed the earth revolves around the sun, and so on and so on, back to the prejudice against first century believers who had not been circumcised.  This is what tribes do.

So one more time, just to be clear.  When you choose to say to a perfectly healthy and whole LGBTQ person, “I’m sorry, but my Christian faith stops me from accepting you as you are,” you are choosing a tribal belief system over a living and breathing human being. You have chosen an idea, and a vague one at that, over a person.

I enjoyed my meetings with you.  You seem like fine people.  I do appreciate your interest in meeting with me, and your desire to understand the transgender experience.  I would also like you to understand how puzzlingly dehumanizing your words are to me, the person you have chosen to judge unfavorably out of loyalty to your belief system.

Common Courtesy Equity

Most insights arrive slowly.  Information accumulates until you think, “Hey, something’s happening here.”  That is how I felt mountain biking last week.  As I headed down Picture Rock Trail, I thought, “Something is not right when I yield to male uphill riders.”

Except for a handful of jerks, always male, pretty much everybody follows the rules on a mountain biking trail.  The people headed uphill have the right of way.  Those coming down pull over to the edge of the trail to let the uphill riders pass.  If I am headed uphill and someone pulls over for me, I always say, “Thank you very much.”  As I go past, I also say, “Just me.”  That way they know I am riding alone and there is no one coming close behind.

As I rode downhill last week I pulled over for a 30-something male who, as he passed by said, “Hi.” He did not say, “Thank you,” nor did he say, “Just me.”  Only, “Hi.”  About a mile later I pulled over for another male rider who said, “Hello.”  Next up was a woman who offered a quick, “Thank you so much.”  Next was a man who said absolutely nothing.  I’ve seen him on the trail before.  He is always a jerk.  At least he is consistent.

It was a busy day and I pulled over for another six male riders, five of whom said either, “Hi” or “Hello.”  The sixth said, “Thank you.”  And that is when the insight became clear.

When I was a male and pulled over, men invariably said, “Thank you.”  Now that I am a female, some show that same common courtesy, but a large number of male riders do not say, “Thank you.”  Instead they offer some version of, “Hi.”  Could it be they expect a woman to pull over for them, so they think nothing more than a quick hello is necessary?

With male privilege so deeply ingrained in our culture, subtle misogyny is not always easy to identify.  And, “Hello” is definitely better than, “Thanks sweetie.”  But if the same guys are saying, “Thank you” to the men on the trail and, “Hi” to the women, that’s misogyny nevertheless.

Last week I had to go into a bank and speak with a banker, something I try to avoid at all costs. I needed to change signers on a corporate bank account and I’d been waiting for 30 minutes when the business banker, who already had my name and knew I was next in line,  ignored me and took someone else who had just walked in the door.  You can guess the person’s gender.

I was livid. By the time I left, the branch manager was well aware that I speak nationally on gender discrimination and there was a good chance their bank would be mentioned in my next speech.  It is also possible that I showed the manager a picture of me speaking in front of 5,200 people at a TED talk.  After several years of gender discrimination, I don’t take it anymore.  I throw around what little weight I do have.

Later the same day I had to go to my own bank to withdraw cash to pay the contractor doing some work at my house.  The teller went out of her way to be helpful, so I asked to speak with her supervisor. I praised the teller and then had another, “Hey, wait a minute,” moment.  The supervisor responded with a perfunctory, “Thanks.  I appreciate that.”

As a male, I often asked to speak with a supervisory to compliment the work of an employee.  The supervisor was always incredibly appreciative.  It was not unusual to get a note from the employee thanking me for my words of affirmation.

Another moment of insight.  My compliments do not carry the weight they once did.  They are not exactly dismissed, but they also are not received with the enthusiasm that accompanied a compliment from Paul.  I guess people just expect women to be more complimentary than men.

These insights are fascinating.  They are also maddening.  I cannot speak for the experience of any other transgender person, but to me there is nothing more aggravating than being summarily dismissed just because I am a woman.  It is another one of those things men just do not know, so it is frustrating on two counts.  First, it’s frustrating to be dismissed because of your gender.  Second, it’s equally frustrating to realize there’s not a man in the world who gets it.

The experts say it will be 100 years before we have gender pay equity in the United States.  I wonder how many years it will be before we have common courtesy equity?

Ceasing To Exist

The deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have brought depression and suicide to the forefront  this past week.  That is a good thing.  American culture is still resistant to the reality of mental illness.  We are particularly unresponsive to the growing epidemic of suicide.  Since 1999 there has been an increase of 25 percent in suicide rates in the United States.

There are resources available for those with suicidal ideation, but not enough people take advantage of them. One of the reasons is that people are afraid, and rightly so, that they will be judged negatively if they acknowledge their struggle with mental illness and thoughts of suicide.

The way in which American culture responds to suicide is part of the problem.  In America, your suicide defines your entire life.  Kate Spade will not be primarily remembered as a designer and Anthony Bourdain will not be remembered as a chef, travel writer and television host.  Both will be remembered as people who ended their lives by suicide.  That is not at all fair, but it is what Americans do.  We judge people negatively for their unbearable pain.

Those who end their lives are in such pain that they are not thinking the tiniest bit about how they will be remembered.  But I think about it, because in an odd way I actually know a little something about how you are remembered after your life “ends” abruptly and unacceptably.

I tend to speak of Paul in the third person.  I know that every part of Paul is contained within me, but so many of the people I loved and with whom I worked over the years do not see it that way.  To them Paul’s life ended in a tragic and terrible way.  Their judgment of my “ending” manifests itself in concrete ways that it took me a while to recognize and understand.

For instance, no one buys the books I authored.  You can’t even find them on a remainder table.  My videos have disappeared from the Internet.  I have bound copies of 12 years of a magazine I helped create and for which I wrote a weekly column.  But I doubt anyone will ever open the pages.

In my old religious community, nothing Paul did is remembered or celebrated.  Go to the web site of the ministry I helped build for 35 years and you will find nary a mention of me.  When the magazine changed hands last year, there were goodbyes among the contributing editors and columns written about that chapter in the life of the magazine, but not a single public word was written about me.  (I did receive a warm private letter from my fellow-editor.)

There are a few dozen people who have written to thank me for the contribution I made to their lives, but from a public perspective, there is virtually nothing to indicate I ever existed.  This is what we Americans do when we do not like the way in which a life “ended.”

I pray for the children of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.  They are only 13 and 11.  I know the pain my own grown children went through losing their dad in a difficult and abrupt way.  I can only imagine how much more difficult it would have been if I had truly ended my life.

There is a lot of pain in the world, and for some, it is too much to bear.  I do understand. But taking one’s life doesn’t just create a terrible ending to one’s story.  For much of the world it erases the entire story.  And that is a tragedy at so many levels.

If you struggle with depression and find yourself thinking about ending your life, please contact me at paula@rltpathways.com.  If you are local, reach out to us at Left Hand Church, where I serve as one of the pastors.  We have therapists on staff who have available appointments this week.  We can help.  And remember, you can always call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255, where you can speak with someone 24-hours a day, seven days a week.

I feel gratitude for the joy Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain brought into our lives. Kate inspired us with her colorful and whimsical celebration of what it is to be a woman.  And Anthony brought an honest and unique understanding of different cultures through, of all things, food!

Their ending is a sad postscript, but it is not who they were.  They were so much more. How they died is just the physical manifestation of a terrible illness.  But it is an illness that can be treated and cured.  Tragically, they did not receive the help they needed.  May God heal their souls.

Sometimes I Forget

Today I will take you on a little journey into the life of a transgender woman.  It will not be what you might imagine.

My day is rather like the average day of any female who lives in a nice house in a small town in the foothills of the Rockies.  I ride the trails on my mountain bike or pedal the roads on my touring bike.  If it’s Monday, I go for a long run.  If it’s Tuesday, I see counseling clients throughout the day and enjoy staff meeting and a relaxing lunch with my co-pastors at Left Hand Church.

Saturdays are a little different.  I sleep in, mow the lawn, run for 45 minutes, then head to church where we set up for services while the worship team practices their set.  After church a bunch of us go to dinner before I head home to watch Saturday Night Live.  Yep, pretty simple, the ordinary life of a woman in one of the nicer locales on planet earth.  And oh yes, I forgot to mention, absolutely no one, ever, treats me as anything other than the tall white woman I am.  Which is what makes me forgetful.

A wedding invitation came in the mail the other day.  It excluded me.  I have been informed I should not attend a few weddings and other milestone events in the past couple of years.  I was even disinvited from my high school reunion.  Until these social slights occur, I forget there are these peculiar spaces from which I am excluded.

I also forget about the troll-driven venues on which I am vilified.  Then a friend reminds me, “Have you seen the 3,000 YouTube comments about your TED talk?!”  I tell them no, I have not seen them.  I have no masochistic tendencies.

Last month I turned down an invitation to speak at a Christian university where I was asked to share the stage with a second speaker who believes, “being transgender is not a thing.”  The school was shocked when I declined their invitation.  I asked if an African-American speaker would be inclined to share the stage with a person who said being black, “wasn’t a thing.” I don’t think they got it.

Of course the truth is that every single day I interact with these people.  I see them at the grocery store, the corner Starbucks, the local shopping center.  They have no idea they are talking with a transgender woman.  They talk and laugh and joke like I am a normal human.

I sometimes want to reveal that I am transgender, but I never do.  I figure it is already hard enough for them to get up in the morning and have to be who they are.  We’re all just trying to get by.

If you tend to see me favorably, as most of my readers do, you need not lose sleep over my experience.  It is what it is.  I rarely take it personally.  My life is rich and full and filled with committed people, including people of faith, whose generosity knows no bounds.

I feel sorry for those who are afflicted with Hardening of the Categories.  It can be cured, but first you have to want to get well, and a lot of people have no interest in getting well.  They are happy living inside their self-imposed quarantine.

You know, those folks could go ahead and send their invitations.  They need not worry.  I am not inclined to go where I am not wanted.  I get the lay of the land.  I know I am not welcome in only one kind of place in America, evangelical spaces.

Of course, it does seem kinda ironic that every last evangelical website opens with the tagline, “Where Everyone Is Welcome.”

People are strange.