The Binary Bind
June is Pride month, and the Episcopal Church in Yarmouth has invited us to be part of a display they had there showing all the churches on the Cape which fly rainbow flags. Those flags are not just colorful decorations. They mean something. They should mean safe harbor – within these walls you’re OK. As Fred Smalls’ song says, “you can be anybody you want to be, you can love whomever you will.”
I don’t know what the process is in other denominations, but our rainbow flag means that after a lengthy process, after a series of workshops and speakers and votes, we were certified as a Welcoming Congregation. That took place back in 2003, five years before I came here.
When the UUA and other liberal organizations began thinking about justice issues and the concerns of those of alternate sexuality, the set of concerns was first described with the initials L, G and B, for lesbian, gay and bisexual. Around the turn of the century, a T was added to address transgender folks. As thinking on this subject advanced, it was apparent that those four initials did not describe adequately the range of lifestyle options that real people were pursuing, so a fifth category was added, Q, for queer.
And I know that that word is, in the straight world, a slur, almost a curse word, but those who have adopted queer as a theory have attempted to redeem it, at least to reinstate it as a word which can be spoken in polite company.
In my eleven years here, no issues have come up that I am aware of over lesbian and gay acceptance. That’s not to say they haven’t arisen, I just never heard about them. One of the problems is that we no longer have a Welcoming Congregations committee.
As to the third initial, no openly bisexual people have been participating in the Meeting House to my knowledge.
But today I want to talk about the fourth and fifth initials, T and Q, transgender and queer. We don’t have any out transgender members at this point; as to Q, many of you may have read some in Queer theory, and I have preached on this after a Queer theory week on Star Island a few summers ago, but I don’t know anyone who has taken queer theory to heart to the extent of considering themselves gender fluid.
I have been struggling to understand this whole area, and I may get any of this wrong, but as I understand it, there is a lot of overlap between transgender and queer. And both question or even reject the assumption in the larger society that people come in two genders and that one is stuck for life in the gender into which one was born. Because both categories, T and Q question or reject the binary division of the human race, I am going to call them non-binary for convenience here, though there are significant differences between and among them that I’ll discuss later.
It may help if I put the word binary into a philosophical context. When I was in college, I majored in anthropology, and one of the big movements in that field was called structuralism. Structuralists believed it was a fundamental characteristic of human thought, maybe related to the structure of our brains, to divide everything into categories of opposites, like good/bad, hot/cold, savage/civilized, raw/cooked. Claude Levi-Strauss, a principal structuralist, titled one of his books the Raw and the Cooked.
The next wave of intellectual movement, the post-modernists, criticized this structuralist idea and said that each of these oppositions that we put so much faith in were not real, but were means to maintain power. So each opposition had a dominant side and an oppressed side, a normative option and one which was marginalized. White was good, black was bad, Western was good, non-western was bad, male was good, female was bad, heterosexual was good, homosexual was bad. Part of the post-modern agenda was to deconstruct these binary opposites and show that they were really both two sides of the same coin, but we pretend they are different because to do so enables us to keep power. Postmodernism developed branches called critical race theory, third-wave feminism, and queer theory.
Now to some this attack on binaries risks making everything meaningless. In logic there is a maxim that something cannot be at the same time both “A” and “non-A.” To say that the earth is round is to say it’s not flat, and it can’t be true that it is both round and flat at the same time.
And yet, when we say that we have categories into which we put people like male and female, black and white, homosexual and hetero, we’re making power statements about how society expects them to live their lives. We are society, and if people don’t want to accept the choices that society gives, we can either fight them on it or welcome the choices they make.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The first thing you’ll want to know is why does any of this matter? We have gotten to this point without discussing these issues and the first question that any of you might naturally ask is, why discuss them now?
One answer to that is that it is being discussed everywhere else in the universe, like the halls of power, the halls of politics, the front page of the New York Times, and if we didn’t discuss it it would be like putting our heads in the sand. It’s tempting to think, we are geographically isolated, so what’s the difference if we are a little culturally isolated from the cultural currents of America? Well, that would be very shortsighted. We are not a time machine. We live in the second decade of the twenty-first century whether we like it or not.
And we are not that geographically isolated. We are less than a hundred miles from Beacon Hill, which Oliver Wendell Holmes and many since his day considered the “hub of the universe.” And a good chunk of Boston will actually physically visit Cape Cod in any given summer. Some of those visitors may be transgender, non-binary, genderfluid, gender queer. You might be standing next to such a person at the grocery store, one such a person might walk into your congregation on a Sunday morning.
And if you have a congregation which does not have a creed but endorses a set of principles, and if the first such principle is to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, you might want to know how this principle applies to such a person, a person who challenges the gender classifications which you have taken for granted up to this point in your life. You want to know how to be hospitable, how to be fair, how to be welcoming, how to do justice to people among us who have chosen these different paths.
That is the most important reason for discussing this: it is fundamental to our faith to be inclusive, loving and just. But there are two other reasons for preaching on it now.
The first is that there was a big issue with an article in the UU World magazine a few months ago. That article was by a cis-gender reporter who has written many things for our denominational magazine. When I say cisgender, that means a person who is not transgender.
I read the article and found it to be on the surface informative about how cis people can encounter trans people and some of the pitfalls of such interactions. But the trans community within Unitarian Universalism weighed in and said the article was deeply painful. Alex Kapitan, a prolific trans blogger, who had tried before publication to convince the editor and writer not to publish the piece, said bluntly after the piece was published:
In a political environment in which trans people are being actively targeted for violence by the state, in a context in which trans UUs are increasingly voicing the fact that Unitarian Universalism’s approach to LGBTQ welcome has failed trans people, an article written by a cis person, that centers cis people and cis perspectives, about trans people, is not incremental progress—it’s harm.”
In response to these criticisms Chris Walton, the editor of the UU World felt compelled to post an apology for the article on the UU World Website, and UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray also made a public apology for the article.
So that is the second reason why I think we need to think about transgender issues: in the context where the reactionary right, and particularly the present national administration, is clearly willing to exploit fears of trans people on issues such as bathrooms, government recognition of additional gender categories, adoption, and immigration, it is of paramount importance that UUs witness for justice in ways that are concretely helpful and not harmful.
A third reason for speaking now is that I am now on a limited engagement here at the Meeting House and want to address this issue which I have not faced squarely before. I’d be happy if this sermon begins a conversation among you all.
But I also do not want to do more harm than good to the cause of trans acceptance as the UU World did. We don’t have trans people in the congregation, so I have sought advice elsewhere. I know a trans musician about my age and sent her a copy of the sermon blurb for comment. She responded with a useful distinction between trans and other nonbinary folks. The trans folks might want to soften the binary division but not to blow it up. They come to feel at some point in their life that a mistake has been made and they have been placed on the wrong side of the binary fence, but they want to fix it by jumping to the other side. Other people as they develop into adults look at the binary divide and say, “I don’t see myself on either side of this fence,” and so try to blow up the fence or at least ignore it.
It was great to get some reassurance and insight from this friend I have known for years, but fortune really smiled on me after I had decided to preach on this topic: I got a real live trans houseguest for two days. He is a college sophomore whose family Jacqueline knows well. He needed a place to stay between the end of the semester and the start of his summer internship.
We had a couple of very good talks. When I introduced the subject, he was willing to help educate me, but first he challenged me as to why I wanted to know more about this issue and to preach on it. Was I just trying to put stars in my liberal crown?
I said I saw it as a justice issue; not only were trans people inherently oppressed from the curiosity of cis people like me who think we are trying to help, but they are also a convenient demon for the outrage generators of the right like Fox News and talk radio, to say nothing of runaway legislatures. We cis people need to know how to be good allies.
He responded that he knew how the issue of transgender played out on a political stage, but as a person living that life he had chosen, it wasn’t primarily about politics. It was primarily personal.
He described visiting a liberal church, not UU, near his university. He found himself, a newcomer to the congregation, in a small subcommittee of the social justice committee with two older cis women. They started discussion of what issues they might tackle, and the two women started talking about transgender issues. At which time my guest, for a variety of reasons, disclosed that he was himself transgender. The other two were surprised and at first sounded pleased, but then they started asking him a bunch of personal questions about his transition. He walked away from the experience feeling like he had been the victim of violence.
I may be wrong, but I read my guest’s telling me that story as an attempt to set some parameters for his conversation with me. Remember Alex Kapitan’s criticism of the UU world article; it was supposed to be about transgender folks but it centered cisgender concerns. We all do this, consciously or unconsciously. And I realized I was doing it to my guest; what I wanted to talk about most was not what his life was like but to tell him what my reaction to him and other trans people was and get some sort of forgiveness.
But I stifled that impulse. It was good that he was my house guest, for I realized that my first duty towards him was hospitality. As I would see that he had clean linens on his bed and vacuum the room he was to sleep in, I would also try to gauge his comfort level at the questions I was asking. If I want to decenter a cisgender set of assumptions, I want to see him simply as a person as any other person I might put up at my house.
He presented himself to me as a very thoughtful, articulate, engaged young man. We talked about all kinds of subjects other than transgender issues. He is interested in religion, in why his generation don’t go to church, in what it is like to be a minister.
In fact, in the second of our talks, he asked me questions about my “transition” from being a UU lay person to being a UU minister. I have talked about this with many people over the years, it’s a natural enough area for someone to be curious about, and insofar as I am trying to be an evangelist for my approach to religion, it’s even an area I should be talking about.
I reflected on the contrast between that subject and the subject of my guest’s gender transition. As a cisgender person I have a curiosity as to when he might have felt misgendered, what he did about it, his parents’ reactions etc. But I felt that those subjects were deep in the psyche and would be unlikely to come out in conversation with a straight hetero male 50 years older than the subject.
More importantly, they were none of my business. I am old-fashioned enough to believe that matters of my personal relation to sex are nobody’s business but my own. I’m not curious as to what you look like with your clothes off, and I don’t think many of you are curious about what I look like. I don’t need to know who you sleep with now or your sexual history going back to puberty, and I’m not going to discuss my own unless there is some good reason to do so. These are normative rules about the boundaries of privacy which apply to the general society, and I intend for them to apply in any of my interactions with trans people, including my recent guest. I don’t need to know or to ask about surgery, hormone treatment, vocal coaching, etc.
My guest stressed that trans people are not a monolithic block. There are a great variety of ways of being transgendered. What I take from that is that if I know how one individual trans person feels about an issue, that will not assure that the next trans person I meet will feel the same way.
Take pronouns. I had thought the most welcoming thing this congregation could do would be to put on our nametags a blank for “preferred pronouns.” Some people like “he/him/his” some people like “she/her/hers” some people like “they/them/theirs,” some people like “ze.” It is only polite to call people what they want to be called. Yet my guest said this would not affect him; he simply uses masculine pronouns. And his concern was that if the only people who chose any pronouns at all on their name tags were trans people, they would stick out like a sore thumb and be less comfortable than if we had no pronoun blanks. I realized the issue was not so clear-cut as I had assumed.
Another aspect of welcoming is bathrooms, but all of the bathrooms in this building are unisex, so I don’t see anything we could do to make them more welcoming.
I am disappointed that my transgender guest did not have specific suggestions for making the Meeting House more welcoming and friendly, but I want to go back to a thread of thought arising from the UU World article and its critique. The most important think I think our guest told me was the same point that Alex Kapitan made against the article: to welcome trans people, cis people have got to decenter their cis concerns. The most important thing about the presence among us of transgender people is not how cisgender people react to them. The important thing is there are a bunch of people in the society who are liberating themselves from a very ancient bind. The trans people are insisting that the side of the binary divide on which they were born doesn’t have to be the side they stay on the rest of their lives. And the queer folks are telling us that they can make their own gender.
Ultimately, folks, this is about freedom. This is about freedom to be who you truly are at the deepest level. We should celebrate. We should break out the champagne. The captives are set free. The year of jubilo is come.
For the binary bind which trans and queer people break binds us all. I think of my life. When I was a young boy, I played with dolls for many years. When I was eight, I had a choice of dance classes and every other boy took tap but I took ballet. As I look back on these facts now I see them as little things in my life which strain at but do not break the gender mold. The point is we’re all affected by these stereotypes and the trans people and the queer people are leading us out of slavery and into a new realm of freedom. We should all rejoice.
Reading for The Binary Bind: New York Times May 29, 2019 Which Box Do You Check? Some States Are Offering a Nonbinary Option
BOSTON — Ever since El Martinez started asking to be called by the gender-neutral pronouns “they/them” in the ninth grade, they have fielded skepticism in a variety of forms and from a multitude of sources about what it means to identify as nonbinary.
There are faculty advisers on El’s theater crew who balk at using “they” for one person; classmates at El’s public school on the outskirts of Boston who insist El can’t be “multiple people”; and commenters on El’s social media feeds who dismiss nonbinary gender identities like androgyne (a combination of masculine and feminine), agender (the absence of gender) and gender-fluid (moving between genders) as lacking a basis in biology. ...
So last summer, ... the Massachusetts State Legislature became one of the first in the nation to consider a bill to add an “X” option for nonbinary genders to the “M” and “F” on the state driver’s license, El, 17, was less surprised than some at the maneuver that effectively killed it.
Beyond the catchall “X,” Representative James J. Lyons Jr. (he/him), a Republican, had proposed that the bill should be amended to offer drivers 29 other gender options, including “pangender,” “two-spirit” and “genderqueer.” Rather than open the requisite debate on each term, leaders of the Democratic-controlled House shelved the measure.
“He articulated an anxiety that many people, even folks from the left, have: that there’s this slippery slope of identity, and ‘Where will it stop?’” said Ev Evnen (they/them), director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, which is championing a new version of the bill.
As the first sizable group of Americans to openly identify as neither only male nor only female has emerged in recent years, their requests for recognition have been met with reservations that often cross partisan lines. For their part, some nonbinary people suggest that concerns about authenticity and grammar sidestep thornier questions about the culture’s longstanding limits on how gender is supposed to be felt and expressed....
The wave of proposed gender-neutral legislation has prompted debate over whether extending legal recognition to a category of people still unknown to many Americans could undermine support for other groups vulnerable to discrimination. It has also highlighted how disorienting it can be to lose the gendered cues, like pronouns, names, appearance and mannerisms, that shape so much of social interaction.
Over the last few months, ... elected officials have listened to tutorials on the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity (the former is who you go to bed with, the latter is who you go to bed as); to pleas for compassion from parents who have learned to refer to their children as “my kid” rather than “son” or “daughter”; and to why being called by binary pronouns feels, as Kayden Reff (they/them), 15, of Bethesda, Md., put it in testimony read by their mother, “as though ice is being poured down my back.”
Some of the antipathy toward nonbinary identities may reflect a generational divide. Over a third of Americans now in their teens and early 20s know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns, according to a recent survey by Pew Research — more than people in their later 20s and 30s, double the number of those in their 40s, and triple the number of those in their 50s and 60s. Sixty percent of the teenagers surveyed told Pew that forms asking about a person’s gender should include options other than “man” and “woman.”