My congregation worshiped this last Sunday with three other congregations. During this pandemic time my congregation has done our worship through YouTube, while many others have been worshipping through Zoom. So this Sunday, in what was a great change for my congregation, we joined the others through a Zoom worship time. Several of my parishioners noticed that many of the members and pastors of the other churches had their pronouns listed after their names, “Joe Smith, (he/him)” “Jane Doe (they/them)” for example. So at our regular Zoom coffee hour the question came up. “Why were they doing this?” “What does it mean?” “How can an individual be ‘they/them’ which I’ve always understood to be plural?”
Oh, boy. Good, light, fun coffee hour conversation for the day.
So I did my best to explain. After all, one of my own children now chooses “they/them” pronouns to self-identify. If the church cannot get behind them and support them in their self-understanding and self-identification, the church will lose a really good, committed, wise human being. And probably their siblings as well. It was past time to have the conversation.
So we talked. I shared about what it meant to be transgender, non-conforming, non-binary, fluid, etc.: that some people simply don’t fit into the categories of male and female as we understand them. Some of this is genetic: folk with XXY or XYY genders aren’t going to be “female” or “male” as we understand them. But as I’m learning from my child, this goes far beyond that. For my child, there is a problem with being identified primarily by gender before any other identification occurs. They are not first seen as “person”, they are first seen as “female” and they no longer want that. They want to be freed from gender ideas and gender categories to just simply be who they want to be, who they are, as a unique individual, a person, a human.
I will be honest and name that this one has been a challenge for me. At first, I worried that we were taking a step backwards. The first wave of feminists fought hard for women to get the vote. The second wave fought hard to allow women to work and to be in roles that previously had been restricted to men alone. My generation wanted women to be accepted as being whoever and whatever we wanted to be, still as women. And I was afraid that when my child said they no longer wanted to be identified as female because it felt restrictive, that we were reverting and going back to a time when “female” was so specific and so regulated that women could no longer be whatever and whoever they wanted except to declare themselves NOT female. My child and I went around and around on this. Was all our work in trying to say we could be women and still be and do anything we wanted – was all of that for nothing?
I also struggled because this, my eldest child, is so very feminine in so many ways. They usually wear long, flowy dresses. Their hair is very long and they like to put it in new and artistic styles. They wear necklaces always, and love pretty things. They are so much more classically female than I ever was, and yet they no longer want to be identified primarily as female. I struggled to understand this.
But I have done the work. I have had the conversations. My child is articulate, and smart. They are wise and clear. And I have finally heard them and come to understand that this is the next step. This is the next frontier in allowing people to be who they are, in seeing them in their individuality and uniqueness.
Still, it was because of my own struggle that I understood the struggles my congregants were having with this. I found myself remembering that as a young person, when Lesbian/Gay rights first came into focus, that some of my own grandparents said, “This is too much. I cannot make this change. I am being pushed too far this time.” For me and my peers, acceptance of same-gender relationships had not been an issue. It was a no-brainer to see that who a person loved didn’t matter, as long as the relationship was mutual and consensual. Why should a person be limited on who they love by gender? I frankly didn’t begin to understand why people were having issue with this. In what way does it negatively impact anyone for someone to love someone else? What does it harm me except that I am blessed by seeing another happy, in-love couple? Of course we need to push for acceptance of their rights to love whomever they are called and invited to love!
But I also had enough wisdom to wonder what the next frontier, then, would be. Where will I be challenged? Where would be the edges that would confront me? At what point will I say, “I am too old to change on this one.” And “I can’t take this next step.”
I’ve written before that I believe life is about challenge, is about growing, is about becoming the most whole we can be, and that includes being able to see others as the unique individuals they are. It means learning to support and love one another across our differences, across the “walls” that we have put up. We put things in categories to make sense of the world. But the work of being an adult, a person on-the-way, a person called to love all of our neighbors as ourselves, is the work of then breaking down the very categories we have created so that we can see each other as the unique children of God that each of us is.
And so, while I heard some of my parishioners use those same phrases, “I am too old to change on this”, that is a phrase I never, ever want for myself. I know challenges will continue to come. That is the nature of being a human being in the 21st century. But those challenges are what life is about: they give us the chance to grow, to deepen, to become more fully and wholly the people we are called to be.
I also heard other comments that reflected back to things I’d heard from my grandparents so long ago, “This will divide us even further.” “This will break us apart as a country.” Well, we are already broken apart as a country. We are. And it will only divide us further as we choose to let it do so. To deny people rights because we are afraid it will upset some people is not a good justification to me. It never has been. It never will be. In this case, to not listen, to not move on this, to refuse to allow people to choose their own identities is to deny people the right to self-identify, to figure out who they are and to claim it for themselves.
My child, along with all of those who do not choose to self-identify in terms of gender (or anything else for that matter) as we would first have them do, is still a beautiful, deeply loved child of God. And we are called to love them as we love ourselves. That’s the bottom line. Always. That’s our call from God at every step of the way. To love them as I love myself means to allow them their own journey, to support them in their own walk, and to take on myself the burden of seeing them for who they are claiming they are, not as I would want to see them for my own comfort. This is not about me. This is about them and their ability to walk their own path towards wholeness. The only question I have to ask myself is will I support this person in their journey or will I choose judgment and rejection instead? And once again, this is a no-brainer. I love my child more than my own life. And I will do whatever is necessary to support them in being whole, being full, being themself. I know that I will benefit from that choice as well, as I learn to let go of judgment, pre-conceptions, and the needs to categorize, box and label others. As I let go of judgment of others, I also release more self-judgment and that can only be a good thing.
I know this isn’t an easy step for folk. And people will find ways to justify their resistance. Some will claim it is against God’s will (which is not at all biblical, by the way. That’s for another conversation, however). Some will claim it is against nature. People usually do try to find justifications for their own inability to be open, to change. But again, I cannot choose that for myself. I have to choose love. It is what God calls us to do. And in this case, that starts very much at home.