Recently, I have been attending and participating in a range of gender identity summits and conferences. Always, the prospect of being in gender-expansive community fills me with hopeful anticipation. I look forward to celebrating the two-fold gift of abundant gender diversity all around us, and the opportunity for suspension of binary spaces, language, and pressures to conform.
Yet, almost always, I’m greeted with a hard reality: that even in the midst of abundant gender diversity and cultural diversity, truly gender-expansive spaces, language, and suspension of binary assumptions are all too lacking.
I am reminded how deeply entrenched in the sex-gender binary we all are and how difficult it seems to be to free ourselves from it.
At one summit, I listened with equal measures of surprise, curiosity, and discomfort as panelists and others spoke about gender only in masculine and feminine terms and suggested, repeatedly, that non-binary folks and gender-fluid folks are somehow just stuck in transition—that, eventually, their true masculine or feminine selves would be free to emerge. This binary thinking happens because we trans folks meet, in ourselves, the same culturally conditioned assumptions, frameworks, and beliefs we are working to transform. We are as prone as anyone to filter through our own experience.
Regardless of our own self-understanding, as advocates-activists, we are called to recognize and affirm the self-understanding of others. Otherwise, we perpetrate the very same oppression we seek to dismantle.
This remains our challenge: to identify and work through our own unconscious biases and unexamined beliefs, assumptions and issues, as an essential feature of inviting others to do the same. As people of faith, I wonder if we can learn something from our image of a God whose encounters with us are steeped in calling forth, empowering, speaking and acting through persons who stand apart, authentically and uprightly?
The God of our faith doesn’t seem concerned with culturally prescribed norms or convention.
Jacob, who became Israel, was a smooth-skinned, quiet man who preferred “living in tents” and cooking with the women. Joseph proudly wore the ketonet passim given him by Jacob, his father—not a “coat of many colors,” but a full-length tunic, like a dress, that was embroidered and decorated—the same kind of garment worn by Tamar: literally, a princess dress! God chose Ebed Melech, a eunuch, to save the prophet Jeremiah from the pit. Daniel was parented and trained by eunuchs. Esther was helped by a whole team of eunuchs. And Jesus, cast aside gender roles to be in service: to feed folks, tend, and heal the sick. Mary, mother of Jesus, comes from a line of transgressive women, one of whom, Rahab, was a prostitute.
Time and again, God shows preference for folks who don’t fit, at all, the norms revered by empire in all its forms.
My point is this: if we can love, embrace and seek the ways of a God who not only sees, but favors the different, the marginalized, the social-norm-upending folks throughout time and circumstance, who rejects social and cultural convention and seeks out the outcast, then we, too, are called to seek to do the same. In our hearts, most of us desire to do this. The difficulty lies in the reality that, in practice, earnestly learning to see, embrace and celebrate difference is hard work: internal, uncovering-ourselves-work. Paradoxically, it’s our own work to do, but we don’t do it well alone.
We are mutually dependent on one another for support, encouragement and modeling.
For me, this means I need opportunities to see pitfalls in my own path, potential biases buried in my own imperfect, inner journey. In my efforts, I need the mirror of my peers reflecting the personally unrealized stuff that might make me a stumbling block to the just and caring world I seek. Mostly, though, it means I need to invite God to invigorate me with God’s own diversity-loving optics, removing the scales of personal experience that can cloud my vision.
For me, being a person who tries to do justice and love mercy, means surrendering my will to an active desire to learn to see what God sees, failing, sometimes miserably and desiring to begin, again, with deeper desire.
Liam invites you to share your stories, wisdom, and experience with him directly: Please email him at liam