Reflections in the Aftermath of the UU World Article
from the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism Organizing Collective Board
The Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism Organizing Collective (BLUU OC) Board has been disappointed, dismayed and frankly angered by the recently published UU World article that has harmed so many of our Trans & GNC UU Family. The article in question is in direct opposition of our 5th Principle of Black Lives which states, “those most directly affected are experts at their own lives”. In the spirit of ensuring we do not speak over those most harmed by this article and a myriad of other offenses that our Trans siblings continue to endure in our shared faith, below we share a letter written by BLUU OC Board Member & Community Minister for Worship & Spiritual Care, Rev. Mykal Slack which was sent to UUA and UU World leadership today.
To all those concerned:
It is a tool of white supremacy that my Black Trans Queer self has learned to refrain from saying the hard things and to keep the boat from rocking too much when other folks (read: white, cis, het, monied, etc.) can apparently say and do whatever they want with no concern for the consequences and no interest in accountability. So please know that it is a big deal that I am doing the emotional labor that it has taken to write this letter. I am traumatized, beyond fatigued, and still in dismay over the decision to publish Kimberly French’s most recent contribution to the UU World (I decided that I would not call the piece by name anymore because of the harm that even the title manages to inflict), so I’m going to say some things I don’t ordinarily say and pray that you’re able, not only to receive them, but also to do something with them.
First, let me say unequivocally what so many others have already said (thank you!) — that article is an utter travesty. Not only is it completely disrespectful of trans bodies and lives, but its focus on the comfortability of cis folks relative to trans peoples’ lived experiences is deeply harmful and uncaring. Far too many of us trans and nonbinary folks (all of us, perhaps?) have spent far too much energy and time catering to the needs of cis people to need or want yet ANOTHER cis person talking about us like we’re not here to exist on our own terms and tell our own stories. Also, the unexamined use of language that has done so much damage in queer and trans communities alike was entirely unacceptable in 2009; it shouldn’t have even been considered in 2019. And finally, it was factually inaccurate throughout. How did this happen?
The title alone rendered me invisible before I even started to read the first paragraph. I knew it was going to be wrong before I even got started. It is yet another example of how little cis folks know and are willing to learn about the persistent silencing of trans lives, needs, hopes, and dreams, and just how unimportant trans and nonbinary folks actually are in the grand scheme of what mainstream UUs (and far too many other faith-rooted folks) proclaim as welcoming.
I am also disinclined to ponder the goodness of the intentions of the editor or the author. We UUs spend far too much time tripping over ourselves to be nice and make sure white, cis, straight and temporarily able-bodied people feel as good as they can possibly feel. It matters most, in a world that was not built for people like me to survive, that we actually take more time inviting people into a space of accountability for their impact on others when they do (or do not, as it were) live into our Principles. Valuing the worth and dignity of every person means listening when people on the margins take the time and energy it takes to tell you what is needed — listening and following through as directed. A responsible search for truth and meaning must also be responsive. It’s the responsiveness — doing something with what you’ve learned that may not benefit you, but that will hold with care the people you say you care most about — that makes that search sacred. Both Walton and French received a clear message from a brilliant trans person whose gifts in writing, community-building, and radical welcome work are well-respected — do not write this piece this way and, in fact, here are some ways to offer a piece that will uplift our lives and works as trans folks — and they CHOSE to ignore the gift they were given. These acts are not the articulation of the bold and robust Unitarian Universalism that makes my heart sing. These acts were immature, unprofessional, spiritually violent, and entirely avoidable.
And because of that, I, as a trans spiritual leader in this faith, need far more than public apologies. Don’t get me wrong; they were well written, and the energy used to craft them are evident. But, in addition to the three mistakes Walton points out and the content of President Frederick-Gray’s apology and update, there are numerous other issues that were not addressed that are at the heart of this particular matter. They are as follows:
- A lack of ongoing assessment around and interrogation of the kind of positionality and entitlement it takes to ignore people on the margins when they implore you not to do a thing. I know that you heard Zr. Alex Kapitan when ze said not to publish that piece; I know you heard per because you offer up in the UU World apology a suggestion of what you should have done, a suggestion that came from Kapitan that, not surprisingly, was not even attributed to per in the apology. What made anyone at the UU World (where there are NO trans people on staff, to my knowledge) believe that they knew better than the trans person who made clear the harm that would be done? That’s a real question that I need somebody to dig deep and provide an answer to.
- A lack of investment in a Unitarian Universalism that is truly relational. Not only did a cis person do harm to trans folks everywhere (and not just UUs), but it was also clear, relative to the fact of the piece’s publication, that certain relationships are valued over others. Recognizing the numbers of trans folks who are active in religious leadership and engaged on various levels of congregational life in our UU churches, how is it that only one trans person was contacted about this article and only contacted originally to find out if there are trans artists willing to illustrate for the piece? Had UU World not wanted a trans artist to illustrate this, it would have gone to print without ANY input from a trans person. And in the midst of the harm caused, the choice to circle up to craft public apologies on the front end and write personal emails or pick up a phone on the back end hurts almost more. How can you be who you say you are and make these kinds of choices? Again, these are real questions that I need somebody to provide answers to.
- A lack of focus here on the whole truth. Being honest means not telling lies. Being truthful means actively making known the whole truth of the matter. I believe the UU World staff did as honest an assessment of the issues and resolutions as they could, given what they have. A list of commitments, on their face, seem hopeful. But the underlying truth of them is that there are still not solid enough relationships between the publication’s staff and trans people in our movement for them not to have developed those commitments in isolation of the very community they’ve harmed. And because those relationships had not been built on the front end, how could any of us feel safe enough to engage now? I don’t want to know about your action plan until I know how you are going to repair the harm done.
Also, suggesting that the UUA will do everything to return to right relationship and rebuild trust presumes that the UUA was ever in right relationship with trans and nonbinary people and that there was ever trust to begin with. You haven’t been and there hasn’t been, over far too many years to count and up until right now. I would take way more seriously a statement that tells the truth about how many trans religious professionals of every age and stage have been chewed up and spit out by the MFC and the UUA national office, not to mention individual congregations, regions, chapters, and other UU groups, and don’t have sustainable incomes or households because of it. Tell all the people that far too many of us get mistreated in unconscionable ways in our congregations, whether we spend most of our time in pews or pulpits, and that Welcoming Congregations commitments are up on the walls in congregations all over the association that none of us would dare send other trans people to. What are the actual plans to change all of this — not just general statements and commitments, but actual strategies and goals? To what extent are you prepared to build solid enough relationships with trans and nonbinary communities in Unitarian Universalism to 1) repair and heal ALL the harm done and 2) ensure that we are in all the places and spaces we can be to make sure this work is happening to benefit us as trans and nonbinary folks, first and foremost? Again, these are real questions that somebody needs to answer.
I write recognizing the intensity of emotion this mess has welled up inside me and so many others, how trauma-inducing it is, and just how much more I don’t trust you. I want to be able to. I know that, as angry and disgusted as I am, I would not be writing this if I believed all was lost. I am, after all, a person of faith. Akaya Winwood, former president of the Rockwood Leadership Institute, recently shared what I am considering a prayer and, in it, she writes:
Sometimes we’ll get angry and disheartened. That’s fine. But let us not build any permanent structures in the land of despair. That’s not where we live. It’s important to remember and remind each other about this.
It’s certainly not where I endeavor to live, and I am more grateful today than I have ever been of my Black Lives of UU and TRUUsT spiritual families for reminding me of this daily. But here’s the thing — those of us who are marginalized (and especially multiply marginalized) in our UU faith know full well that some structures have been built in a despairing and disparaging land, regardless of who is contributing to holding those structures up. If that’s where you are and if you’re in this with me and with us, I, at least, need to know and believe that you aren’t willing to remain there. If you have been actively building these structures or buttressing already built ones, it is time to tear them down — actively and effectively — in a way that benefits those most impacted by them.
You have much work to do. Are you going to? Let all the people know…please.
Rev. Mykal O’Neal Slack
Durham, North Carolina
Community Minister for Worship & Spiritual Care — Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU)
Co-Founder & Co-Leader — Transforming Hearts Collective
Member — Transgender Religious professional Unitarian Universalists Together (TRUUsT)