Crossing the T

Life at the intersection of Church and Trans with Rev. Allyson Robinson

Archive for Discrimination

Finding freedom from fear

finding_rin_tin_tin

For our weekly Family Popcorn & Movie Night last night we watched a cute little movie called Finding Rin Tin Tin.  It’s a children’s version of the story of the famous German Shepherd who was adopted by an American soldier during World War I and went on to become a beloved screen star in the 20’s and 30’s.  It was a cute little film–the rare live action kiddie tale that can keep the interest of our whole family, from our four-year-old right up through Mom and Daddy.

This telling of the story has a sub-plot that centers on a French orphan boy, Jacques, who becomes separated from his parents when Paris is bombed.  Rendered mute by the trauma, Jacques is placed under the care of the ruthless camp cook, who abuses him and even tries to sell him into slavery before the plot is uncovered by Rin Tin Tin.  In the film’s final scene, Jacques is reunited with his parents as Rin Tin Tin prepares to leave France with the victorious American forces.

As my wife and I were laughing about the unabashed sappiness of that scene, my seven-year-old daughter, who was watching from a pile of pillows on the floor, turned around and started to climb into our laps.  That’s when I noticed that she was crying.  In fact, she was wracked with sobs–so much so that I assumed one of our boys, sitting on the couch behind her, had kicked her in the head and hurt her.  (These things occasionally happen in our house.)

“What’s wrong, honey,” I asked.  She was crying so hard it took her a few seconds to respond.

“Tears of joy, Daddy,” she sobbed–at which point all our cynicism about sappy movie endings dissolved and my wife and I joined in.  Before the credits had finished rolling, the whole family was weeping tears of joy together, cuddled on the couch, relieved that after all he’d suffered, the probably fictional Jacques would have a chance to live happily ever after with his family.

I’ve taken pride in the past that my wife and I are raising children who are so in touch with their feelings and so unashamed to let them show.  But when I shared my daughter’s story with a colleague this morning, she helped me see it in a way I hadn’t before.  “I was just thinking about all that time you spent separated from your wife and kids while you were job hunting,” she said.  “I wonder if she was remembering that.”

It hadn’t even occured to me to make that connection, but as I’ve thought about my friend’s observation, it makes perfect sense.  Longtime readers may remember that our family was separated for almost ten months while I searched for a job after finishing grad school and transitioning.  In order to minimize expenses, my wife and kids lived with her parents in Montana; because they did not approve of my transition and would not allow me to live with them, I stayed in Arizona with my mom.  Though we did all we could to stay connected while we were apart (we spoke on the phone daily and I wrote letters to the children almost as regularly), it was still incredibly hard on us all.  As my daughter’s sobs seem to show, the anxiety it created in my children lingers, almost a year later.  I wonder how long it will last?

I know we’re not the only family that’s had to endure a long separation–families do it every day, and it has nothing to do with being trans.   And yet I can’t help but think that it was avoidable in our case.  If only my in-laws were more accepting, if only their church would speak from a place of compassion for trans people and not one of domination and oppression, if only it weren’t so hard for trans people to find meaningful work through which we can support not only ourselves but our loved ones as well…if only.

It has been said that all politics is personal.  I think it’s truer still that all activism is personal.  My reasons for doing the work I do are very, very personal.  My daughter shouldn’t have to worry that our family will have to endure long-term separation again just because her daddy is transgender.  Nobody’s child should.  Nobody’s wife or husband should have to worry about the social cost of supporting a transitioning spouse.  Nobody’s parents should have to be afraid of violence against a transitioning child.  No trans person should have to be anxious about finding a job or a place to live or walking into a public rest room.

These anxieties have a very real psychological impact on a person and, I would argue, a spiritual impact that is just as real.  They can cripple you, hold you back, hold you down, hinder you from fulfilling your beautiful, awesome, awe-inspiring potential.  For me, turning my anxiety into action has helped mitigate those negative effects.  By making my own small contribution to healing this hurting world, I heal myself.  Not only that, but I help make it possible for my kids to grow up in a world that is a little less scary.

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Power, vulnerability, and getting read

I got read this morning.

The circumstances aren’t really relevant beyond setting the context. I had just come up out of the Metro and was walking the couple of blocks to my office when a man stopped me to ask a question. My answer didn’t satisfy him and he became angry and closed in on me, close enough to pick up some subtle cue that caused him to suspect I was transgender. He yelled an accusation to that end loudly as I was walking away, and I felt my cheeks flush with anger and embarrassment.

I feel blessed that this has happened to me very rarely since I transitioned, but when it has it’s left me reeling with self-doubt. As I walked to the office today, that’s where my thoughts went. I was obviously doing something wrong. Was my make-up or my hair unsuitable this morning? Maybe it was the clothes I was wearing, or my posture or gait. Or perhaps something deeper or more abstruse. Is my jawline too square (“Maybe I need some plastic surgery”), are my hands too big (“I wish I had some pockets to stuff them in”), is my voice shifting to a lower range (“Need to start concentrating on that again”)?

And then I noticed that I was walking more quickly than usual, with my head down and my shoulders slouched, fearful of meeting anyone’s eyes as I passed them on the street, wanting only to get to my office and shut the door. I was in that old, familiar place, I realized — the place of fear — and I was experiencing that old, familiar tension, the one between the deep desire to live openly and with integrity and the frantic impulse to safety and security.

In her book Woman Awake: Women Practicing Buddhism, Christina Feldman has a great chapter on power and the ways women experience and practice it in our culture. She writes,

In a patriarchal culture, power is equated with the capacity to have power over something: it is the capacity to control, to alter, to manipulate, or to influence the world. This capacity to control builds a sense of strength, an illusion of invincibility. Cloaking ourselves in power, we can manipulate and control our world while protecting ourselves from the effects of power.

This is the power that was employed against me this morning, but it is also the power I employed in response. Just as the man who accosted me sought to control and manipulate me to bolster his sense of strength in the world, I sought to control and manipulate myself so that I might feel less weak and vulnerable. Our instruments of power–debasement and humiliation–were the same, and we even chose the same target, my deepest sense of personhood.

These ways of being and relating are conditioned by our culture and deeply ingrained in all of us, but Feldman reminds us that such violent exercises of power do not come without cost:

In developing power or mastery over anything, we set ourselves against that which we wish to control: we set ourselves against people, against events, against nature, or even against our own nature. With the desire for mastery comes a distancing from that which we seek to control. The distance is essential to create and preserve: it serves to prevent us from being overwhelmed by the power of others and to protect ourselves from fear.

The results are predictable and inevitable: isolation, competition, destruction, the hallmarks of our modern society. Feldman urges women to break free from their cultural conditioning, to “appreciate the invaluable contribution that their disposition and yearning for interconnectedness can offer to the dissolution and transformation of destructive systems that are based on the notion of mastery over others.” The first step in this process of integration and liberation, for me at least, is getting comfortable with my own vulnerability.

I need to warm up to the fact that invincibility is a myth and reject the notion that self-respect is a zero sum game. I need to reaffirm my commitment to live according to what I know to be true, not according to what feels safe, and set aside identities and roles rooted in defensiveness. I need to refuse to give my assent (and thereby surrender my true power) to social systems and relational structures that deny our mutual dependency as human beings, a truth Feldman calls “nature’s first law” and the fundamental principle of our survival, both as a race and as individuals.

As these become my practice, I will grow in awareness and acquire a deeper wholeness. “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

(Cross-posted at Trans Group Blog.)

Can I Quote You? Monica Roberts on the state of civil rights

We GLBT people are the canaries in the civil rights coal mine. The health of our civil rights determines the health of civil rights in our democracy in general, and right now we are swaying from the efforts of a decade of poisonous attacks on them.

TransGriot blogger Monica Roberts, in a post dated yesterday

Recent and Readworthy: New Resources edition

COLAGE, Children Of Lesbians And Gays Everywhere, has put together a veritable motherlode of resources for families with a transgender parent.  It includes print publications, internet resources, email support groups, and much more.  COLAGE is a spectacular organization and this is a much-needed list.  Thanks so much!

The ACLU‘s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project has launched Get Busy, Get Equal, an online toolkit to empower grassroots organizing for change.  Their page on transgender resources is particularly good.  They also have a blog, newsfeed, and podcast.  Definitely worth a look. 

Can I Quote You? Chief Justice Ron George on marriage and the state

Under these circumstances, we cannot find that retention of the traditional definition of marriage constitutes a compelling state interest.

California State Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron George, writing for the majority in today’s ruling in favor of marriage equality.

And a comment from me: Thank you, Lord. Let justice roll.

Virginia Ramey Mollenkott: Seven reasons congregations should embrace the trans community

Virginia Ramey Mollenkott graced last month’s Transforming Faith–Divining Gender conference not only with her warm and wise presence, but with a wonderful keynote address. In it she laid out seven reasons that religious groups should embrace their transgender members. Here’s a summary, taken from my notes:

  1. The scriptures are trans-friendly; people who value them should be as well. For example, note the Yahwist creation account, in which God’s original creative impulse is toward a hermaphroditic creation. Jesus speaks well of eunuchs and condemns the use of “Raca,” which scholarship has shown means “effeminate” or “sissy.” Once we shed our cultural proclivities, we can see an ethos in scripture that takes a favorable view of gender variance and diversity.
  2. Transgender members help congregations transcend gender stereotypes. The binary gender construct does not merely differentiate between genders, but unjustly elevates one over the other. Transgender people provide congregations with a unique reminder that stereotypes are not objectively concrete and need not bind us.
  3. Transgender members remind congregations to use diverse and inclusive language when speaking about God. In Mollenkott’s words, “If God is male, then male is god.” Transgender people are particularly sensitive to the injustices caused by gendering God inappropriately. Transgender people do congregations a great service when they insist upon more accurate language for God.
  4. Transgender people have traditionally been recognized in many cultures as bridges between the seen and unseen worlds. Mollenkott made particular note of how Milton genders his angel characters in Paradise Lost. There is tremendous depth to this tradition.
  5. Transgender people have often reflected deeply on the connections between faith, justice, gender, and sex. Our congregations’ hang-ups on these topics have distracted them from far more important matters. Transgender people can educate their congregations on our lives and issues; they are “particularly suited to teach congregations about the multiple connections between sex, gender, and justice.” As outsiders, we bring a perspective our congregations need. Jesus himself defied many gender norms, and yet in spite of his gender transgression, subordinationism holds sway in many congregations. (Mollenkott drew very interesting linkages between the lengths to which some churches and theologians go to justify subordinationism and the reappearance of Arianism.)
  6. As occupiers of the “forgotten middle,” transgender people can help congregations get over their addiction to certainty. Our dualistic, “good vs. evil” worldview threatens to destroy humanity and the world. (I was reminded here of Karen Armstrong’s work on the Axial Age, a period of history marked by terrible violence out of which arose today’s great religious traditions with their focus on selflessness and compassion.) “Sympathy cannot be confined to our own group,” Mollenkott said. Transgender people know what it means to occupy a middle that defies artificial dualism. This makes us particularly well suited to teach others to love the Other across dualistic divides; we’ve learned to let our pain express itself as support for others. (She made note here of the Drag Mothers who mentor young trans people in Chris Beam’s Transparent.)
  7. Transgender people demonstrate powerfully that just as all races share one blood, so do all genders. Mollenkott reminded us of the old “one drop” rule of race, by which anyone who had one drop of African American blood was considered African American and a legitimate target of bigotry. The same rule, she said, holds today for gender norms. One drop of femininity equals feminine or “sissy,” as opposed to the pure or normative male. If we lined up the entire human race from darkest skin to lightest skin, she asked, where would “black” end and “white” begin? Similarly, if we lined up from most masculine to most feminine, where would “masculine” begin and “feminine” end? And, more importantly, what would those distinctions even mean in that context?

Day of Silence

Please understand my reasons for not blogging today.  I am participating in the Day of Silence, a national youth movement protesting the silence faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and their allies.  My deliberate silence echoes that silence, which is caused by harassment, prejudice, and discrimination.  I believe that ending the silence is the first step toward fighting these injustices.  Think about the voices you are not hearing today. 

What are you going to do to end the silence?