Saturday, March 14, 2015

Killing with Kindness: The Meaning Behind the Words

Through my work in campus ministry I am blessed with wonderful opportunities to listen to students from a wide variety of backgrounds explore the possibilities faith and religion have in their lives. As an openly transgender Christian I am also invited to participate in on-campus conversations about the effects of identity erasure, oppression and transphobia. These discussions are both liberating and painful. There is a remarkable sensation of belonging and community as the pain of bias is divided among a crowd. Yet this release is tempered by hurt, as the reminders of past harm blur with the sharp reminder that forces of oppression are still very active within the world and within our church today.

When I listen to the students describe the anti-trans statements they’ve* heard, the loss they experience when they are told they don’t belong, and reflect on my own experiences of being misgendered at church I’ve detected a common theme. The vast majority of the time the intention behind the comments that are most devastating is innocent. People say things in an effort to build bridges without realizing the devastating effects their statements have on the human being in front of them. As such I’d like to look at the hidden meaning behind the most common things I am told in the Episcopal Church when I invite people to share in my genderful experience by using my pronouns, they/them/theirs. 

·         Silence/ Continuing to Use the Wrong Pronouns

 Effect: This is by far the most common reaction I have encountered, along with being the most painful. Silence constructs a fortified wall, leaving me with the expectation that my efforts to connect will be treated as a painful intrusion. When the pleas for my dignity to be honored fall on deaf ears I am left in isolation, with the God gift of my identity recast as a limitation. The continued use of the incorrect pronouns for an individual adds razor wire to the barrier between us, as it sets up the person using the wrong pronouns as a judge to whom I must justify my existence. 

Try Instead: “Thank you”. When someone tells you their pronouns they have invited you to share in their journey, to be a part of their life. If someone corrects your use of their pronouns it is your responsibility to act on it. By restating your sentence and incorporating the right pronouns you will demonstrate that you have heard them and respect them as another human being. 

Best Option: Be preemptive. When introducing yourself offer your pronouns, even if you feel they are obvious.  The phrase “Hi I’m so & so and I use _____ pronouns” goes a long way toward creating a space where all of God’s children can share who they are.  
·         “You’ll need to be patient with me.”

Effect: This situation furthers a power dynamic which disenfranchises the transgender individual. Rather than building a relationship it strips the transgender person of their right to be uncomfortable or hurt when they are misgendered. After this statement has been made anything the transgender person does or says to reflect their discomfort can (and often has) been used as proof of their “impatience”. 

Try Instead: “Please correct me if I make a mistake”. This statement works toward building a relationship and acknowledging one’s discomfort and fear about making a mistake without making the other person responsible for your discomfort. It also creates a space for deeper conversation about why a particular word or phrasing was painful.

Best Option: You do not need to wait until you meet someone who uses gender neutral pronouns to add them to your vocabulary. Imagine conversations with and about transgender people using a variety of pronouns, write stories (they can be silly) using characters with different pronouns. You can also start using the singular “they” to smooth out your speech instead of the clunky (and erasing phrase) “he or she”. The opportunities to integrate gender affirming language are numerous.

·         “You’re the first person I’ve met that ____________” / “This is such a new concept”

Effect: This statement clearly marks the individual being spoken to as different and unexpected. It creates an environment where the person this is addressed to should expect to be misunderstood, misgendered and mistreated because the speaker “can’t be expected to know any better”. It also has the effect of tokenizing the transgender individual, putting them in a place where they are responsible for representing the entire trans* community, an impossible task.

Try Instead: “It’s wonderful to meet you” or “I’m glad you’re here”. Remember you are always meeting an individual, a human being, made in the image of God, who has a story to tell that goes far deeper than their gender.

Best Option: Seek out and learn the stories of gender non-conforming individuals throughout history. While our particular understanding of gender identity is new, there is a rich tradition of gender non-conforming individuals in the Bible and throughout time. I encourage you to take some time to reflect on the lives of Georgia Black, Jim McHarris, and the many others who demonstrate gender diversity is anything but a new concept.

·         “You’re so courageous”

Effect: This compliment always makes me uneasy. When I am thanked for my “courage” I am reminded that I am presently denied the privilege of simply living my life. Because my gender is not sanctioned by society my every breath and action is often interpreted through the lens of activism. Thus I view courage as the default position to stay alive rather than a virtue I’ve chose to nourish. When people focus on thanking me for my courage, they are reinforcing an expectation that my life is centered around my gender, rather than allowing me to bring the rest of my identity to our common work.

Try Instead: “Thank you for your openness”, “It’s an honor to know you”. Focus on compliments that remind the person you are speaking to that you see them as more than a gender or a fight for inclusion.

Best Option: Take steps to ensure that transgender people in your church and community are not expected to be courageous.  Simple things like ensure there are gender-inclusive restrooms, being proactive about using people’s pronouns and lobbying for gender identity protections in law and practice go a long way in ensuring the burden of courage doesn’t fall only on those who are transgender.

·         “I’m doing so much better at remembering your pronouns”

Effect: This statement only serves as a reminder that who I am is perceived as an inconvenience or a burden.  It reinforces the false idea that some pronouns are “natural” and thus easy to remember and others are something that requires a significant amount of effort. 

Try Instead: “Have I said anything that hurt you lately?” This creates a space for the person to be honest about how they are experiencing their interactions with you.

Best Option:  Be mindful of how privilege affects expectations. Using a person’s correct pronouns is a mark of basic decency, not an act of kindness you should expect recognition for.  When someone draws attention to the effort they are putting into being inclusive they eradicate the welcome as the person they are speaking to is reminded of their outsider status.

The “Try Instead” steps I’ve listed above are part of the very minimum steps required to be welcoming of the children of God in all their miraculous genders and experiences. Anything less than this serves as a reminder that the existence of certain people is treated as an inconvenience. When people hear the bold phrases, at coffee hour, in the sermon, or in meetings, we often hear that we, by inconveniencing the church with our presence, are through our very being are inconveniencing God. That message is one I find irreconcilable with the Gospel. As such I challenge all of us to listen and to grow together, reflecting on the effect of our words that linger after our intentions fade. I ask this so that together we may come to see that through Christ’s boundary breaking presence in the Eucharist and the transforming power of God working through the Holy Spirit we, a disparate body of many genders, are being bound together into one body, one church.

*Throughout this post I will use the singular they to reference an individual of any gender identity, unless specific pronouns are called for.

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