This Is Getting Serious

Over the past five years I have spoken to over 100 corporations, government agencies, universities, and conferences on issues related to gender equity. My first TED Talk, about the differences between experiencing life as a man and as a woman, has been the subject of most of my talks.

While I continue to speak on the ongoing fight for gender equity, I am offering a new talk on what is happening in America with the anti-transgender laws, rhetoric, and repression that are permeating our nation. Here is the description of the new talk that my speaker’s agency will be offering throughout the United States and Canada.

When an Arkansas State Senator recently asked a transgender pharmacist in a public hearing whether she had a penis, America entered a new and dangerous period of anti-transgender rhetoric and repression. Over 300 anti-transgender bills are currently pending in over 35 states. Nineteen anti-transgender bills have already been signed into law in the last 14 months. What is going on? 

As a pastoral counselor and national speaker on gender equity, with over nine million TED Talk views and a best-selling memoir about her transgender experience, Paula Stone Williams is prepared to help your company, conference, university, or agency understand why transgender issues have become such a tipping point in American culture.

With humor, insight, and a surprisingly candid perspective, Paula will increase your understanding, answer your questions, and help you navigate the dangerous cultural waters of sex and gender politics.

I am very concerned about the rights of transgender and non-binary individuals. I am about as privileged as a transgender person can get, but even I have received an uptick in emails, texts, and other forms of anti-trans rhetoric aimed at me. It affects my decisions about the places I travel. I have been avoiding Florida and any state that has recently passed anti-transgender leglislation. I avoid my home states of Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia, unless I know I am going to be in a supportive environment. I can only imagine how parents with transgender children must feel.

There was a day, not so long ago, when I felt safe anywhere in America. Now, I feel about some parts of the United States like I feel about fundamentalist Muslim nations in the Middle East. They are not safe environments for a transgender person.

I am more than willing to use my platform to speak out against anti-transgender rhetoric and legislation. I have already testified against anti-trans laws and have worked with the Biden administration to bring accurate information about gender issues to the American public.

When I transitioned, I saw a clear pathway forward for transgender people. I thought it would take as little as a decade to bring about equity for trans and non-binary people in most parts of America, and not more than a couple of decades in more conservative regions.

Then came 2016. Since then, things have gotten alarmingly worse. This week’s fiasco in the Arkansas Senate is only the latest example of the danger at hand. There has been an explosion of bigotry directed at one of the most at-risk populations in our nation. Trans people have a suicide attempt rate of 41 percent, six times higher than any other people group. Transgender adolescents have a suicide completion rate 13 times higher than their peers.

These are trying times, and we all have a responsibility to stand up for the basic rights of transgender and non-binary people. Now, more than ever, we need allies willing to speak up on our behalf. We need apprentices, willing to take direction from the trans community, to help us battle the ignorance and prejudice permeating our nation.

Last week my co-pastor Kristie and her fiancee Mara joined the Parasol Patrol, using opened rainbow umbrellas to protect children going to the Broomfield, Colorado Library for a story hour with drag queens. Protestors were shouting offensive slogans at the children and their parents. My friends said they needed more people holding more umbrellas to protect the children. The protestors were calling those arriving for the story time pedophiles. It is important to note that the protestors hurling these insults were wearing face coverings to shield their identity. In my opinion, that is a sign of their deep shame about their behavior.

This is not the time to remain quiet. We must work together to protect the freedom to be who God made us to be. To do anything less is to fail our children and the principles upon which this nation was founded.

Nope, It’s Not Going to Die

Everything I read of late tells me the church is dying. Americans no longer go to church, they say. Twenty-five years ago, 70 percent of us identified with a local religious body. Today, that number is down to 47 percent, a rather precipitous drop. Post-pandemic attendance continues to diminish. Are the church’s days numbered?

I was reading an article last week that said people are no longer attending religious services, but they are reaching out for the help of a spiritual director or pastoral counselor. Since my doctorate is in pastoral counseling, this should be good news for my profession. And the truth is that my clients, most of whom do not go to church, do have a keen interest in spirituality. However, what I can provide as a pastoral counselor is not what a person can gain from regular involvement in a religious community.

The church is the only institution whose main purpose is to do life together, search for meaning together, celebrate life’s milestones of together, and band together to care for others. Other institutions might cover one of those bases, but the church is the only one that covers all four.

We ask a lot of the church, and it never quite lives up to the task. The church is messy. The church I serve as a pastor, Left Hand Church (more about that in my next post) is every bit as much of a mess as any other church. When you bring people together in a voluntary community, it is going to be messy. You hope everyone will muster the strength to live authentically, but often it’s only an aspirational goal, not a reality. It’ll always be that way when you live in community with other messy, self-absorbed, avoidant humans. And yet, here we are, after 2000 years, and somehow against all odds the church still stands. Empires come and go, but the church stands.

Yes, the church has to reinvent itself for every generation, because the world is in a constant state of change. But through the changes, some things remain. They are to love God, love neighbor, and love yourself. And you can’t do the first two very well until you’ve learned to do the third.

The church is where we celebrate the milestones of life, be it births, weddings, funerals, the solstices, or some obscure religious celebration known only to one’s peculiar tradition. (Ever hear of the Cane Ridge Revival?) As a pastor, it is an honor to perform weddings, funerals, baby dedications, baptismal services, and be present for every other milestone of our communal lives.

I particularly love preaching for Christmas Eve and Easter. Nicole likes Pentecost and the first weekend of October, when in the tradition of St. Francis, we bless everyone’s animals.  Kristie always preaches during Pride month, and for Palm Sunday. I love that the church is the place that celebrates all of life’s comings and goings.

The church is also a place in which the total is greater than the sum of the parts. Individuals come together and miracles happen. The first wave of the Civil Rights Movement would never have taken place without the church. The abolition of slavery would never have happened without the concerted efforts of the church. Today’s church, at its best, focuses on the needs of refugees, immigrants, children, the LGBTQ+ population, individuals with disabilities, women, the economically disadvantaged, and a plethora of other people groups that have been marginalized.

Governments exist to meet the needs of the citizenry. Corporations exist to benefit their shareholders. Schools exist to educate students. The church exists to do life and search for meaning together. The church exists to celebrate the moments of our lives, and to join in common cause to produce the miraculous.

If the church didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. There is no other institution that does everything the church does. Church attendance might be down, but the church will be just fine. If we haven’t been able to kill it in 2000 years, we’re certainly not going to be able to kill it now.

And so it goes.

To Read or Not to Read

I received my annual sales numbers for my memoir. My contract says I am not allowed to tell you how many copies have sold. It is a respectable number, but not what I had hoped. I worked hard on the book. I wrestled with it, and threw out three times as much material as appears in the final edit. I’ve had trials come about because of the book. It is a memoir. You tell things as you remember them. Whenever other people are involved, you confirm the facts with them, or when that is not possible, with others who were present. Nevertheless, people get upset.

Then there are the reviews. Most of them were positive. A few were glowing. A few were not. I tried to avoid reading reviews, for the same reason I avoid comments on my TED Talks. Nothing good comes from reading reviews and comments.

I’ve been surprised by some of the people who have read the book. They are people I never would have thought would read it. I’ve also been surprised by people who have chosen not read it, which includes a lot of good friends. I don’t ask them why they haven’t read it. Sometimes I discover they haven’t read it when I’m talking about something that is in the book – like – throughout the entire book – and they know nothing about what I am saying. I never say anything to anyone when I know they haven’t read it, even people to whom I’ve given a copy of the book.

I am a little surprised by those who have unabashedly said, “Oh, I don’t read books.” That last one always throws me. Who would have the temerity to say, “I don’t read books?” Apparently, a lot of people.

When his book came out Kanye West famously said he doesn’t read books. It kinda shows. Sam Banks-Friedman said he didn’t read books and that anything that needed to be said could be said in a six-paragraph blog. (This is paragraph five, if you’re counting.) It might have been good if SBF had read a few books, like maybe on how not to break the law.

I went to the folio show for magazine editors back when there were magazines and I worked for one, and the editor of Rolling Stone delivered a keynote speech. If I remember correctly, he said, “If it can’t be said in 800 words, it doesn’t need to be said.” At least he granted a few more paragraphs than SBF. (The word count of this blog is now at 375, by the way.)

One of my mentors, Roy Lawson, read a book a week. He probably still does. I always wanted to be like Roy, but I’ve never managed a book a week. I am usually reading at least two books at the same time. One is a novel. I read novels on airplanes, and before I go to sleep at night. The novels are eclectic, from Cormac McCarthy to Wendell Berry to Kelly Rimer. Between novels I read historical books. It took me several years to finish Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, seriously, several years. It didn’t exactly flow for me. I really like the writing of Hampton Sides. His historical books read like good fiction. The only problem is that he’s not very prolific. I’ve been waiting for something new from Sides for a couple of years.

I read novels and historical books on my iPhone. My other reading is of books with spines and covers and words on cream-colored pages. Those are the books on which I take notes, copious amounts of notes, starting on the back inside cover and working my way inward. If it’s a really good book, I run out of blank pages in the back and switch to the semi-blank pages at the front. I put the page number on the left side, and then a quote. If you turn to the page, the quote is underlined or in brackets. If it’s really good, it’s starred in both the back of the book and on the page itself. Some books have hardly an unmarked page. Swamplands of the Soul, by James Hollis, is covered with notes and underlined passages from front to back. It is one of my favorite books of all time, even better than The Middle Passage, another great book by the brilliant Jungian analyst.

At the encouragement of a friend, I just finished re-reading Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection. She is one author I’d rather listen to than read. I’m not sure why that is true, but this time I made five pages worth of notes. By the way, she mentions Swamplands of the Soul without mentioning Hollis, which I find interesting. Psychologists don’t usually mention Jungian analysts.

I’m concerned that more and more people have no problem saying to me, “Oh, I don’t read books.” Do they really understand what they are saying? Do they get how self-limiting their lives are? Do they not understand that the cumulative words of our species carry weight and provide invaluable insight about how to live. Well, at least some do. People are still reading Homer’s Odyssey, all the works of William Shakespeare, and even the Apostle John’s stunningly mystical Book of Revelation.

You can’t learn everything you need from social media, friends, family, nature, or your lived experience. Books are the legacy of our collective experience. They place our lives within a context we can understand, one that provides wisdom.

Right now I’m reading The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles. I just finished Kelly Rimmer’s The Things We Cannot Say. I’m re-reading James Hollis’s The Middle Passage and getting ready to start Ed Yong’s An Immense World.

Books are reliable companions, keeping you connected to the spirit of the species. I’m not ready to write another book. I don’t even like to go back and reread any part of my memoir, the most recent book I’ve written. My agent keeps asking me the next book that’s up my sleeve. I honestly have no idea. I’m at one of those inflexion points in which I know I’m on the verge of something, but I have no idea what it is. It seems wise not to write another book until I’m on the other side of that inflexion point.

And so it goes.