Centering the Marginalized: symphony and triptych
It was with astonishment this morning (Tue March 5, 2019) that I gazed upon the title of this article about trans people in the UU World, “After L, G, and B.” The subject of the article, transgender people, (the missing T in this acronym) was unnamed. Before the piece even began, me and mine were made invisible.
I will acknowledge that given the title I was predisposed to be frustrated with what would no doubt be imperfect. We are imperfect people in an imperfect world after all, and I looked forward to discover what was accomplished in the piece. Unfortunately, I found myself muttering in anger and gasping in pain as imperfect turned into problematic and harmful.
I do not doubt the intention of the author and the editor of UU World to do good. But the impact is far from that. I’ll mention again for clarity that I do not doubt the intention of the author and the editor of UU World to do good.
And it is part of my practice of justice making to attend first to impact of people’s words and actions and secondarily to their intention. So I am going to write about the impact and the content of this article. If you are coming to this post as a Unitarian Universalist who appreciated this article and found that it spoke to you meaningfully, I am glad if you learned something new to you. And. I invite you to hold a brave space for yourself where you can simultaneously take in that you are a good person and that you still have much to learn and that this article caused me harm. All three of those things can be true at one time, and it is our responsibility when we are people who bear privilege to manage the discomfort that comes with our shortfalls.
The Margin, The Center
The article starts by centering the author’s experience as a cisgender person in relation to transgender people as friends or as family a couple of degrees of separation away. Their introduction to transgender people came after their personal history as an ally to gay, lesbian, and bisexual people.
Like many people in my Welcoming Congregation, the letters LGBT flow trippingly off my tongue. But in recent years I keep stumbling after B.
The “after” in the title refers to her own life, not the lives of transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming people who have been here all along.
So rather than centering the newness of awareness of the existence and experience of transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people to a majority cisgender religious tradition, I will center my own experience here as a gender non-binary, gender non-conforming, genderqueer person. Unlike the piece in the UU World, this story will begin with the subject in the first person, not second person once removed like the cousin at the picnic who everyone knows is related but not sure how.
I used to refer to myself as a “masculine of center, tomboyfarmgrrl, butch, queer, woman-ish type person.” That was quite a litany of words needed to describe my internal understanding of my gender. I now find that “non-binary” or “genderqueer” is much tidier and accurate. We have developed a level of understanding and nuance in our language that means we don’t have to work so hard to name approximations of identity; we can hold some common language.
It’s ok for cisgender people to be confused, to learn as they go… we all did, we all do. What’s problematic is when cisgender people speak to cisgender people about trans people when we’re right over here.
I’ve been a UU religious professional for nearly 20 years, both within congregations and as a consultant. I teach consent and sexuality education, preemptive radical inclusion, and other workshops supporting justice and equity. One of my more popular workshop experiences is Mind your T’s and Q’s: supporting transgender/non-binary people.
During those 20 years as part of preparation for a conversation about a hire in a congregation, I was told, “Don’t be too butch.” The thinking went like this: if I was going to be a lesbian/queer person working with children in a Sunday school, I should downplay my masculinity.
I didn’t have to put on a feminine dress, they promised, but really, the button up shirts and bolo ties should probably go. (It was the early 2000s, please don’t hold the bolo tie against me.)* It was also recommended that I use the name Cindy and avoid my preferred nickname, CB, because “Cindy was more professional.” Given my social location as a queer masculine of center person, I was encouraged to maximize “professionalism.” I was encouraged to let my more feminine partner choose my clothes and dress me. Since I don’t understand women’s clothing, when I took this advice I adorned my body for someone else. When I was wearing my own clothes, when I dressed so that I felt the most myself, voices around me suggested I made them uncomfortable. And so it followed that I should myself be less comfortable in order to attend to the comfort of people who do not have to live in my body.
Expecting some people to modify themselves for others’ comfort is a poor starting point for engagement with a faith tradition, and it’s further complexified when it is our calling, and/or our source of income.
When we UU’s speak of inclusion but we only mean that people are welcome among us when their identities do not cause us confusion or discomfort, we are not speaking of inclusion. Inclusion without allowing people to be present in their natural state is like simply pouring more milk into rice pudding. It creates a larger mushier dish, which while still palatable and maybe even delicious for some, is not, in fact, a whole meal. It is not equity. It is not justice.
When we speak of inclusion but we mean that white people will write about the lives of black people, that cisgender people will write about the lives of transgender people, that heterosexual people will write about the lives of queer people, that able-bodied people will write about the lives and experiences of people who are disabled by our society, we are doing the opposite of inclusion. It is this which causes me the most harm.
My faith has once again, with every good intention, centered people who are understood as “typical” and decentered marginalized people. The author makes common cause with other cisgender people who are confused.
I am right over here.
Ideas and Language
There is in our society still a great deal of difference in how we think and talk about bodies and gender, and we still struggle with an unnecessary and unhelpful conflation of sex and gender. I find it is most useful to use the framework that we use in Our Whole Lives-the Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ comprehensive sexuality education program. It might have been useful if the UU World had reached out to Melanie Davis at the UUA’s Our Whole Lives office for some support around these basic definitions of what we are talking about when we are talking about this stuff. Our Association staffing is structured to have experts who focus in particular areas. In the absence of this, I will make a few comments to correct the record. If you read the article, please know that many of the words were misused. I hope here the reader may find clarity.
SEX ASSIGNED AT BIRTH
One does not have a gender assigned to them when they are born. They have a sex assigned to them.
A doctor, nurse or midwife takes what is usually a cursory glance at a baby’s genitals and determines it is male or female. And that is what is put on the birth certificate. Male. Female. This is what we call the Sex Assigned At Birth. Everyone has one. It was decided by someone else, based on a cursory examination of a tiny infant body.
Sometimes what they observe will lead the adult looking to be confused, to wonder if they are looking at a small penis or a large clitoris. At that point, intersex is simply the atypical development of physical sex characteristics. There is no “ideal male or female,” as alluded to in the article. There is mostly “the idea of the ideal.” There is maaaaaybe “what is typically observed in most bodies we call male and most bodies we call female.”
Intersex is not someone who was born with both male and female parts, humanity is much more complex than that, rich and complex. Surgery, a word used 7 times in the article, was tossed around rather casually. All too often doctors perform surgeries that involve nonconsensual mutilation of genitals. It is not “surgically remove” or “so-called corrective surgery” as the article fairly casually referenced. This is a horror.
Gender is who we know ourselves to be.
A boy, a girl. A woman, a man.
Or something else — Gender non-binary. Genderqueer. Agender (not experiencing oneself as having a gender and/or not connecting with the concept at all).
That’s it. There’s no more. That is what gender is. Who we know ourselves to be.
“Are you a boy or a girl?” they asked me. I wanted to say, “Ummmmmm. No.”
“As their relationship continued, I got bold enough to ask Jenn some other questions I’d been wondering about: “Is Sydney taking hormones? Is she planning to have surgery?”
A little shock crossed Jenn’s face. “You really can’t ask about that. The only thing you can ask is which pronoun someone prefers.”
It was my turn to register shock. How could I get to know someone if their pronoun was all I could ask about something so central to who they were?”
The story ended there. It was a story about the author. We don’t learn why her daughter was shocked, what that was like for her or her partner, or what was harmful about the inappropriate questions. The reader was left being invited to join the author in their desire to know more about someone’s body and genitals. The expectation was that readers wonder this as well and would want to know.
When someone says “You really can’t ask about that. The only thing you can ask is which pronoun someone prefers” they are not trying to stymie your ability to know a person. They are saying less plainly and more politely than I do here, “People’s genitals are private.”
“How could I get to know someone if their pronoun was all I could ask about something so central to who they were?”
But it’s not all we can ask anyone else. That assumption is coming from a deeply stuck place.
People’s health care, medicine, and genitals are private. Furthermore, everyone understands that about cisgender people.
People do not think they need to know the length and girth of cisgender men’s penises to know who they are. We do not ask Sallie Jo cis woman at coffee hour if she shaves her vulva or if she’s started estrogen now that she’s of a certain age. And if these sentences felt out of place and inappropriate, then you are beginning to understand.
Yet cisgender people repeatedly ask me, when they observe my facial hair and learn my pronouns, “So CB, are you transitioning?”
They could say instead, “So CB, tell me about a project you’ve been working on that makes your heart sing.”
Or even, if they find they’ve accidentally started to ask about my genitals and need to catch themselves midstream say, “Hey, CB. Are you…. I mean, as long as I’ve known you you’ve always had facial hair off and on, and now it’s a much fancier and fabulous beard, and I notice from your nametag that you’re using they/them pronouns. Is there a gender term I should be using for you? I want you to know that I have your back on this journey and I don’t want to refer to you improperly.”
And then, if I tell them “Thanks for checking, I’m genderqueer,” they could say “Thank you for telling me.”
THEN ask about what project makes my heart sing. That’s how someone is going to find out what’s most central to who I am.
I am right over here.
Don’t use them.
Instead of repeating a derogatory slur one can simply say, “derogatory slur” or “homophobic joke.” When someone repeats the derogatory words, they repeat the injury.
Cisgender women do not “identify” as women. They are women. I do not identify as genderqueer; I am genderqueer. Please never use that phrase.
WHO IS THIS ABOUT?
When we want to do justice, and I believe that UU’s do, we have always to ask ourselves “Who is this about, and where is their story?” If the story is about us from the perspective of our privilege, then we must say, “I am writing this about how complicated your reality is for me,” and not claim to be writing for or about someone else. The piece in the UU world might have had some usefulness as a piece about one cisgender person’s transition from unknowledgeable to more knowledgeable. It might have been less harmful. Or even better. A story about transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people by transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people would have been best. Many stories in fact. We are not monolith, we are glorious and strong, resilient and brave. We bear privilege in some ways, are marginalized and oppressed in others. We live in complexity.
I am right over here, waving.
THE FOCUS ON RISK AND INJURY AND MURDER…
The risk to trans people, an important part of this story, isn’t simply that in the age of Trump some cisgender people may be more likely to harm us and kill us, it’s that our own people harm us while thinking they do good. The article up played the national risk of physical injury and death while downplaying the constant marginalization we experience in our congregations, jobs not offered or lost. The stakes are not limited to “Out There.”
“The past two years have ratcheted up the stakes in the fight for rights and acceptance of people with these identities. In 2017 President Trump…”
After some extraordinary positive movement toward justice under Obama, not mentioned, President Trump has in fact repealed what was just and doubled down on legal limitations on trans rights. Violence is up nationally.
There were two paragraphs about violence and hate crimes against trans folk. Alex Kapitan was quoted about it just preceding those, articulating a real concern we have.
However, that focus on the national, on the immediate broad climate of MAGA hat wearing people
…GLOSSES OVER THE CONGREGATIONALLY BASED MARGINALIZATION AND HARM.
There was but one paragraph in the article about the TRUUsT survey of 278 trans UUs which focused on broad strokes of how we feel and what we experience relative to being included in our congregations.
“A survey of 278 trans UUs, published in January by TRUUST, found that 72 percent do not feel their congregation is completely inclusive of them. They point to a lack of pronoun awareness and bathroom accessibility, as well as to disparaging comments, gendered language in worship, and just plain awkward social interactions.”
There was so much more rich material in the TRUUsT survey report, which you can read here. The article could have pulled this quote below, which suggests we’re talking about marginalization — a significantly heftier word than “pronoun awareness” or “awkward social interactions.”
“More than two in five (42%) trans UUs regularly experience trans-related marginalization in UU spaces.
Gender, race, and disability have the most significant impact:
Gender: More than half (53%) of non-binary people experience regular trans-related marginalization, compared with a third (34%) of trans women and only 16% of trans men.
Disability: Disabled trans UUs are almost two times more likely to experience trans-related marginalization (48%) than those who aren’t disabled (34%)
Race: Trans UUs of color are almost two times more likely to experience trans-related marginalization (54%) than those who are white (40%).
Most striking of all is when these factors combined. Six in ten disabled non-binary people of color experience regular trans-related marginalization in UU spaces, compared to only one in ten white trans men with no disabilities.”
Alternately, this could have anchored an important paragraph from the report:
“Almost half of trans UUs do not have enough income to reasonably meet their personal needs.”
Or the article could have explored ideas beyond seemingly harmless unintended cluelessness and general awkwardidity about bathrooms and pronouns, to examine the reality that
“Beyond Categorical Thinking [a broad-based training experience that helps congregations explore their unidentified biases in their search for a settled minister] trainers consistently, today, hear from members of congregations in a search process that they wouldn’t feel comfortable calling a trans minister.”
The better article was right there all along.
I will let Alex Kapitan’s words speak for themselves about how Alex interacted with the author and editor and tried to keep this article from happening, and then focused on harm reduction. Nutshell: There was more than one opportunity for the author and editor to choose to do no harm, to choose another way.
So how is it that this well-meaning article caused so much heartbreak and harm?
This article contains inaccurate definitions, errors of language, even slurs. It had an opportunity to talk about the experiences of transgender people in our midst and chose not to. The statement by Alex Kapitan indicates just how much choice was involved. I spent the day with my religious professional colleagues (virtually.) We have once again found ourselves in a position of having to bear the burden of educating people-even educating people who themselves were paid to do this work. One presumes the author of this piece was paid for her labor. Yet we trans folk and our close accomplices have been spending much energy today on the Internet; with one another, and with social media posts and articles like this one. We are once again expending emotional and spiritual and intellectual labor for our faith into what frequently feels like a void.
When people who bear privilege reference, speak on behalf of, or about the people who are marginalized or oppressed relative to that area of a privilege, a few things are required:
First, to seek the voices of the marginalized and center those voices.
Second, not to decenter them when they say something we don’t want to grapple with.
Third, if we are offered something we don’t want to engage with or that we don’t agree with, it is incumbent on those of us with privilege to continue seeking. There are any number of reasons someone might not like something, but if we have received feedback relative to our areas of privilege, it is our responsibility to continue asking the question and seek some consensus.
Folks with privilege should check in on themselves: Are we right because we like our ideas? Are they wrong because they don’t understand? Well, the only way to find out is to ask more people.
In the practice of preemptive radical inclusion, which is how I frame this work, it is our responsibility as leaders to continually understand that
who “We“ are is made up of multitudes. Our responsibility is to work harder than we would otherwise to ensure that our privilege has not prevented us from perceiving the very thing we are attempting to unveil. Our responsibility is to learn about the ways our privilege hides reality from us and fools us into believing we have accurate insight. Our responsibility is to practice humility and curiosity. Our responsibility is to bear witness to others of us who are marginalized and oppressed, to center them, to hold up their lives and experiences. To shhhhhhhhhhhh much more often than we think.
I genuinely mean “our” because although gender is not a way I bear privilege, I am privileged in many ways. “We who are privileged” often includes me. I am sad at the ways “We who are UU’s learning about Transgender people” didn’t.
They could have written a piece about how UU trans professionals and trans people experience themselves as harmed and marginalized in our congregations, but instead, published an article that itself contributed to that harm and marginalization.
I am right over here, waving, drowning.
3/7: edited to correct some language that referred to physical abilities as metaphors for observing and taking notice of, and an error in my personal timeline.
3/8 edits and updates:
This was written as a personal essay not documentation of an entire series of events. That said, I know that some are coming here to this article without larger context, so I will provide links to some initial public statements in chronological order during those few days. I will not be updating this page beyond this.
The UU World Article After L, G, and B was distributed in the paper magazine via mail over the weekend, then posted on the web 3/5.
3/5 Alex Kapitan’s response, “What It Takes to De-Center Privilege: The Failure of this Week’s UU World Article”
3/6 This personal response here on Medium, “Centering the Marginalized: symphony and triptych,” by CB Beal, M.Div.
3/6 TRUUsT statement posted “Putting the ‘T’ First: Public Statement on This Week’s UU World Article,” (TRUUsT is the organization of trans UU religious professionals)
3/6 The UU World Apology, “Our story hurt people”
3/6 UUA PRESIDENT APOLOGIZES FOR UU WORLD ARTICLE Press Release
Please read TRUUsT’s Call to Action to support trans Unitarian Universalists. It provides concrete actions that can be taken by people who desire to grow and act in ways that increase justice for trans people.
Finally, I provide educational consulting and workshops increasing organizations capacity for inclusion and equity for trans and nonbinary people. Feel free to contact me at cindy.beal AT gmail.com or justiceandpeaceconsulting AT gmail.com if you are interested in exploring some formal learning, or visit my website at justiceandpeaceconsulting.com.