Smell of burnt book is not unlike human hair

Imani mcphaden
6 min readMar 6, 2019


*I am a Black and Transgender Unitarian Universalist, which involves a lot of patience while having my struggle explained to me. I was moved to share this sermon I wrote recently because of an article published in the UUWorld magazine which is physically mailed to all dues paying UU’s. Rather than write an outline of my frustrations and disappointments, I thought I would put my thoughts out into the world and have some faith that Unitarian Universalists are mature enough to hear both that we can improve and that there is a fight for survival happening while people dress their ambivalence as a neutral position in “The Transgender Debate”.*

I would like this church to become a sanctuary. A place where humans are as safe as the right to disagree with civility.

Maybe you’ve seen a famous photograph of Nazis burning books in the streets from 1933? It’s a popular visual aid to use when discussing authoritarianism and its need to control knowledge and erase history. That photo shows the research library of the Institute of Sexology in Berlin being burned. The institute was founded by Magnus Hirschfeld, the man who coined the term “transsexualism”. The Institute of Sexology was opened in 1919.

The Institute pioneered modern day surgical and endocrinological treatments for transgender people. They also provided comprehensive sex education, access to contraception, and even STI treatment for the poor. The Institute of Sexology was opened almost 100 years ago. Today people say that their own recent awareness of trans people proves that we are a new trend. People we now call Trans or Intersex are in the Bible and the Mahabharata, in creation stories from Africa to Australia, In Chinese Imperial records going back millennia. Our visibility waxes and wanes across history, but we have always been a part of the human story.

The library of the Institute was burned as a symbolic demonstration of power. The power to turn back the clock and the will to deny the most basic complexity of humanity. Reducing humans to their lowest common denominator by reducing the amount of available data worked very well. Those 100 year-cold ashes still shape real people’s quality of life to this day. Authoritarianism only functions when people fight harder for control over each other than they will for their own destiny. When the line between Men and Women is blurred, individual judgements over who is woman enough starts requiring personal effort. Transgender people don’t weaken that line, we destroy it. Once it takes effort to assign any given person a lesser value, individual conscience and perspective have opportunity to take hold. From there it’s a slippery slope to measured consideration outpacing gut reactions. Mob mentality does not thrive under those conditions. Transgender people ARE an existential threat to rigid hierarchies of circumstance. We reveal the illusion that inherently proportional human worth stems from random differences. Transgender people are being hunted for it.

I would like this church to become a sanctuary. A place where each life is as valued as much as books.

Our country’s foundation in slavery has left us a legacy of stripping criminals of their humanity for sport and entertainment, and has made us a people who conflate cruelty with justice. We are so skilled with our euphemisms that we still accept slave labor and genocide as the “hard choices” which hold up our economy and self-image. It is our culture to groom generations of our children to be infantry in endless wars, and then mock the toxic masculinity of the individuals who have the least ability to improve their circumstances. It is our culture to cage the children of our agricultural workforce while we complain about the rising cost of produce. It is our culture to fight for prison abolition but still make jokes about prison rape for those we judge worthy. It is our culture to march for peace and hope that flying robots will drop bombs carefully, while our retirement savings remain invested in war profiteering. Americans have always fought for equal human rights by narrowing the field of people who deserve equal humanity.

In the last year American trans people have been denied passports because the federal government no longer recognizes state IDs that reflect current scientific knowledge. The Department of Health and Human Services will now avoid using the word “vulnerable” or saying the name of our people. We were to be counted in the next census, but we’ve been cancelled. Our government refuses to agree to the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights if it differentiates between sex and gender. The Department of Justice specifically exempted us from Title IX protections against sexual discrimination. The stage has been set to remove us from society as a blood sacrifice to the traditional value of hierarchy based on genitals, wealth, and appearance. We are being erased while the country is distracted by tweets and mismanagement. Our worth as full members of society is being drowned in the bathtub.

I would like this church to become a sanctuary. I’m not speaking illustratively or metaphorically. I want this building to be a safe retreat for trans people. Should the day come that the President tweets an offer of pardons to all who participate in a purge, we will be openly hunted and killed in the streets of Chicago. If you lived your life on the run, where would you go to hide? Where would you be safe from violence? Where could you go that doesn’t place your survival in one person’s hands? Where would you turn for hope?

In school I learned that the “Night of Long Knives” was a landmark moment in the rise of the Third Reich. Common estimates are that between 50 & 1000 members of the Nazi Party’s paramilitary wing were killed in a coordinated purge. The lesson here that I learned in school was that legitimized political assassinations set legal precedents for later coordinated purges. I wasn’t taught in school that homosexuals were specifically eliminated and used as propaganda to justify the purge. I wasn’t taught that this was connected to the famous book burning photos. I wasn’t taught that the records from the Institute were used to build the lists of homosexuals to be assassinated.

We live in a country where the police have fewer consequences for casual murder than the children our military arms and sends around the world. This past September an intoxicated woman entered her neighbor’s apartment and shot him dead on his own sofa. She used the firearm issued to her as a police officer, claimed self-defense, and was released on bail an hour after eventually being arrested. Half of the nation accepted that her victim was dangerous and deserved to die; he was watching football at home. This past May, a transgender woman in ICE custody was beaten, starved, and denied medical care. She died in custody and nobody has spent an hour in jail for that without receiving full pay and benefits. People used to make postcards of their attendance at a lynching. Today people take videos and show it off to the world. We already live in a country where transgender people officially don’t exist. We have always been a country that relies on extra-judicial killings as a means of enforcing order.

I would like this church to become a sanctuary. Not a part of a greater interfaith movement. I want Unitarian Universalism to be a sanctuary in deed as much as in word. I want Unitarian Universalism to take on the risk of helping society’s most vulnerable. I want Unitarian Universalism to lead instead of reconcile. I want Unitarian Universalism to need no argument to claim that we value the inherent worth and dignity of each human. I want it to be plainly obvious from our behavior.

Individual action can’t keep us safe. Individuals can’t afford the personal cost and liability of hiding us in attics. Private homes aren’t sanctuaries, in an actual crisis they would become solitary confinement. Rented apartments aren’t sanctuaries, access isn’t controlled by the person who lives there. Underemployed people aren’t sanctuaries, they can’t always pay for food and medical care for themselves much less a secret refugee. Vocal support isn’t a sanctuary, it attracts attention. Banners hung proudly aren’t sanctuary, they absolve the bystander while repelling the fugitive.

Don’t commit to saying our names once we are dead. Don’t tell us to Rest in Power. Don’t represent us while there are justice points to be scored and then silence us when we speak for ourselves. Don’t believe in the inherent dignity and worth of each human, act on it.

Jan 13, 2019 @Second Unitarian Church of Chicago