This article originally appeared in the Interweave Continental newsletter. To learn more, visit: http://www.interweaveuu.org.
Sun Principe is the Vice President of Interweave Continental.
When I came out to my friends as transgender some years ago, one question that friends often asked me was “When did you know?” I wondered, “What had they missed?” It seemed pretty clear to me that I was always male and had been born into the wrong body. For friends and allies who had come to accept and even celebrate masculinity in the female body, some were confused as to how I could have been so active in the lesbian and gay civil rights movement for years and then “change” my identity to transgender. The simple answer was “I am still me. This is about my spirit. My body is the house of my spirit.” Some who were not involved or invested in queer community questioned me as if I had suddenly lost my mind.
A gay male friend told me, “You lesbians are always inventing something new!” Some long-time lesbian friends were not comfortable with the thought of me modifying my body so that the outer appearance was congruent with my inner feelings. For all the talk about freedom of expression and choice, apparently it was not applicable when it came to me and my choices.
Since my coming out as a queer teen had been tumultuous for me, I was not looking forward to more of this. It was time to deal with a dirty word: transphobia. Some might call it, Queer phobia, and it is alive and well in our cities and towns.
Intellectually, we all must be the stewards of our own development, mentally, physically and spiritually, but in the face of injustices such as lack of protection in the workplace, we have a communal obligation to work together for communal change and development. Right now, my friends, it is looking like a long road ahead. I began to think about what I personally could contribute to the larger society’s understanding of the journey that many are on.
The Unitarian Universalist’s in New England, had been so amazing to work with during the worst of the AIDS epidemic that I thought, “Surely we can take this on.” We could become more aware of the intersections between freedom of choice as it pertains to a woman’s basic right to choose and freedom of choice as it applies to the lives of LGBT people, without forgetting that final “T”.
Life choices or body modifications for a Trans-person may come under fire, even from allies in the struggle for equality. Push-back from within the queer community came as a shock to me. There is a perception that some individuals expressed to me that transgender individuals are “selling out” by “becoming straight”. Sexual identity is often confused with gender identity, which can prevent trans-people from receiving the understanding and full inclusion they deserve within our congregations.
So what can we do?
We can all participate in educating ourselves and each other on trans-issues and the differences between gender, sex and orientation. Talking to one another and listening deeply are always great places to begin when it comes to providing a hospitable environment. Having a trans-person speak in each congregation can go a long way towards valuing each person’s story and voice. Hearing sermons on trans-issues and people makes a statement about the importance of this to all of our spiritual lives. Having a trans person invited to speak at the pulpit beyond their identity as issue moves from merely educating and valuing a personal story to honoring the individual in their wholeness as an accepted part of that religious community.
We know from experience that there is power and healing in telling our own stories. Our congregations and in addition, our Interweave groups nationwide provide a safe haven for those who are seeking community. At this time in history, we need one another more than ever. We have many who are wondering where they can go to find compassionate community, even in seemingly liberal locations where the perception is that the population is well informed and open minded.
The trans journey is not easy, speaking from personal experience. There are challenges that no one could have convinced me of before I chose to start telling others how I identify. I have a conservative Christian family that mostly does not understand my choices. During the mid 90’s AIDS pandemic in Provincetown, MA, amidst a wave of death in our community, my church community became something of a chosen family. It was there that I began to see my potential as a gender variant person living in my own skin. It was there that I was called to community ministry and working with those who are historically or currently marginalized and in some cases, forgotten.
I recall my early work in AIDS ministry and a team of gay men who were my volunteers referring to me as one of the boys. This was a safe and welcoming environment for me, as no one cared about my gender identity: we were too busy dealing with life and death. AIDS ministry taught me to value every precious moment and not get caught up in the small stuff. Life is a gift.
We may assume that our trans congregants are doing OK because everything looks fine on the surface, but the world outside the walls of our congregations may not be very welcoming to us. Being a young trans person today almost guarantees that 75% of the peer population, may not be supportive. So when we ask you to listen or read or to help us educate, please hear this: your very action today may change a life. Right now, there is a Trans person in your community who is hungry for welcome. I am so inspired by how many of you are working on the front lines for equality; what a gift that is. Yet, I want you to know, especially if you are not normally someone who sees yourself as that interested or engaged in social justice, that inviting someone to coffee hour can be an act of profound welcome and justice. Making a place at the table for someone who may not have a community is grace in action.
We need one another on this journey. We need Interweave groups that provide a safe place to connect. We need our ministers to keep those who are marginalized in the justice conversations. We need to be courageous and speak the truth with love. We need to open our hearts as well as our wallets and make it possible for young trans people to attend our conferences and General Assembly. We need to reach out to the gender variant teenager with authenticity and care.
We need you to join us in the ministry of hope, as we turn our collective conscience to the work of honoring the inherent worth and dignity of all people.
With love & light,