Service: “Dimensions of Queer” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
I inherited part of Davina’s library, after she took her own life some three years ago now. She wasn’t around All Souls that much in the time after I arrived here; I met her, but I never got to know her, or to hear her story as she herself would have told it. That’s a pity, because judging by the books she acquired for the seminary classes that she took, and the papers that she wrote, I’m inclined to think that she and I had a number of ideas in common. At least about the enterprise of religion, and the purpose of the church. Davina started life as a boy, and later a man. She was part of the first generation for whom sexual reassignment surgery was not a wildly experimental gamble, but a fairly well-understood procedure, at least medically. As far as I know, this congregation was always supportive of the way she chose to present herself; after all, if the integrity of your chosen identity isn’t accepted in a UU church, you would have to take all our proclamations about diversity and freedom and radical hospitality with a huge questions mark.
We may never know, if Davina in fact was challenged by the ignorance of some individual members, as she struggled to live out the truth she experienced about herself. But it seems as though, publically at least, we were a fairly safe space for her. She was clear that she wanted her memorial service to be held here. She left detailed instructions, a playlist of songs she wanted us to listen to while remembering her – and a message to be read to us. In that letter, she told us how much she had come to regret having that surgery years before. Not because she wanted to return to life as a cultural male; she did not want that. What she wanted, what she tried to make us understand in her final words, was a world that would have accepted her in the ambiguity of her wholeness. A world where she would not have had to surgically jump out of one box and into another, because those were the only two choices available to her. A world that would not have persuaded her that her uneasiness with her own gender identity was her problem, that she and a surgeon could fix, rather than our problem, with the way we construct a binary division between male and female, and then force all of reality to choose up sides.
The trail of our progress in learning to understand what might constitute equity in matters of gender expression and human sexuality is strewn with tragedies like this. We are only beginning to grasp the fluidity of individual experience, over against the rigidity of our cultural categories and the expectations that we place upon each other, and on ourselves. We have made some progress, in that many of us have succeeded in wrapping our minds around the possibility that people of the same gender identity might experience sexual and romantic attraction, leading to enduring and loving life partnerships, toward each other. We have begun to challenge the notions that virginity, chastity, and sexual exclusivity are the highest ethical achievements, particularly for women, while sexual exploitation and violence are inevitable habits in men. We have had to bring both reasoning and compassion to bear upon the unexamined assumptions that we absorbed from the social norms in which we were raised, even those who were aware at some level that our very own identity might not be a good fit with those implicit structures. It is sometimes easier in our own minds, to physically change the shape of our bodies, than it is to rethink categories as fundamental as the dichotomy between masculine and feminine.
During the early years of my work in our ministry, the UUA struggled to become actually inclusive of women in leadership roles, and of gay and lesbian people as fully part of our congregations, and fully recognized as leaders and ministers. Our denominational offices invited congregations to participate in programs of learning and sharing that helped make it possible to see beyond categorical thinking limited by conventional cultural notions, and truly consider calling a minister who didn’t fit the traditional model of a straight male. That process of education had a direct impact on how welcoming we were able to be; to our support for GLBT rights and marriage equality, to the gay and lesbian members already in our churches to be open about who they were, and to the generation of gay and lesbian ministers who were called by congregations in full awareness of their identities. And nothing bad happened because of that welcome.
Today, even as the forces of reaction seek to pull our nation backwards, we are asked to take another set of forward steps. We are asked to renew our commitment to this work of inclusion, and to refocus on those letters beyond G and L. We are asked to check ourselves, to wonder about what it is like to be in our UU communities as a bi-sexual or transsexual person, or as someone who does not fully identify with either of the options in the larger society’s division of genders. I cannot speak from firsthand experience of any of these identities; I’m a straight, cis-gender woman in a forty-plus year marriage who has always been happy to define myself and be seen as female. But that’s okay; those of us who hold the privilege of conventional identity cannot relegate all the work of advocating inclusion to the folks who don’t operate out of that advantage; we need to be about the business of listening, centering, and amplifying those historically silenced voices. So what I want to do this morning is not to put words into anyone’s mouth, or speak on behalf of those whose stories are their own to tell. Rather, I want to invite all of us to look again, or perhaps for the first time, at our preconceptions, and how we might shift our thinking and our feeling responses to move a little more toward inclusion. As we have noted before, this congregation will probably never be a perfectly safe space – I’m not persuaded that such a thing exists, really – but we can make it a space for growing brave, where we practice moving beyond our comfort zones, and meeting and knowing each other in ever more deeply true ways.
Some of the ways in which we do this are simple, practical shifts in how we talk. Changing old habits of thinking probably happens as much from the practices that we make an effort to do, as from any new information or ideas that we get. One step is to stop using binaries, which make it sound like there are only two kinds of people in the world. Ladies and gentlemen; brothers and sisters; boys and girls, mothers and fathers. Every time we unthinkingly use these kinds of phrases, people that we know and love feel erased by our culture. People like Audrey, the amazingly articulate, bowtie wearing young person we saw on the video earlier. Perhaps some day, Audrey will want to change her body – or her pronouns; I’ll get to that in a moment – but right now Audrey is fine with the way her body is. She just doesn’t find selfhood reflected in either of the standard genders of our culture. And why should that be a forced choice? Why shouldn’t we be fine with Audrey just the way she is; why should we divide everybody up into sons and daughters, and leave Audrey and those who identify likewise, out of the picture? It’s amazing how the language of even our very liberal religious heritage invites us to do this constantly. So Anthony and I, and our readers and our choir members, are going to be trying to pay attention to our language, so that we don’t make people invisible with binary exclusive language any more. We won’t always catch it, even with our best efforts, so I invite you to help us out; all of you. When you hear us talk, or read, or sing in a way that makes queer people disappear, remind us. And maybe pay a little attention to your own vocabulary too.
Another way that our dominant culture makes gender non-conforming people invisible is when we fail to respect the pronouns that people prefer to be used about themselves. It’s easy to assume that you know that someone wants to be referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she’, because we learn from the time we are little children to recognize the social clues of gender identity, and to display them about ourselves. But this is exactly the automatic response that makes anyone who doesn’t fit into that conventional binary disappear from our awareness. It is a courtesy of recognition when we let people know for sure the pronouns that each of us wants to use, and when we comply with what others have told us about themselves. Some people choose not to be confined by the traditional options, and ask to be referred to as “they.” As awkward as that can feel at times, try imagining if everyone who didn’t know you well and care deeply about you, constantly referred to you with the ‘wrong’ pronouns. To me, that sounds exhausting, like the constant drip of water that over time wears away the stone. It is precisely by taking the awkwardness of that unfamiliar practice upon ourselves when someone asks, that we create a more welcoming congregation for everyone.
The implicit binary assumption also shapes our expectations around romantic and sexual attraction. In this respect, it is probably easier to wrap your mind around a person who experiences attraction to other people of their own gender, and not to those of the opposite, because that is just the reverse of what is already ingrained in our social structures. At least that person still fits into a certain kind of expected category. But there are many other ways of perceiving and expressing both one’s sexuality and one’s relational yearnings. The famous science fiction author Octavia Butler attended several gatherings at the Gay and Lesbian student group while she was in college, to explore whether being lesbian might explain her feelings that didn’t seem to fit the standard pattern. She was well received, but soon concluded, “Nope; that’s not me either. I’m just a hermit.” Other people find that they can be attracted toward partners of either traditional gender; other factors are more significant to them than that particular facet of identity. That does not make them either inadequately gay, or inadequately straight; it’s just another way of being in the world. The point is, not to assume the reality of how someone else sees themselves, but to be ready to receive and honor what they tell us about themselves, even when it doesn’t fit into our accustomed ways of dividing things up into what we think we already understand.
A quarter of a century ago, this congregation undertook a process of self-assessment and learning that earned us the designation of Welcoming Congregation from our national Association. This year, a new taskforce will be exploring how we can renew that commitment, and broaden that inclusive welcome even further. It is forever a work in progress, and we need your help – your insight, your experiences, your reminders, your openness to new ideas and understandings, to new compassion for those who have so long been discounted and made invisible in our unexamined assumptions.
Every time I pick up one of the books that was once Davina’s, I am haunted by her final message. Gender confirmation surgery is a life-changing, and life-giving option for some people, and blessed be for that. But why should we not, in the end, build a world where you don’t have to take a knife to your body as the only way to fit into other people’s expectations, to be taken seriously, or even seen? Why should this kind of arbitrary conformity be the price of inclusion? It begins, as always, right here; in our own minds and hearts, in our own covenant of community, in our own collective practice of welcome and inclusion. Memory and promise, my friends; the memory of Davina, the promise of Audrey, and of all our queer, beautiful children; the mission of creating change toward a just and compassionate society. Come; we have a world to build together. Come.