This essay appears as part of “We’re Right Here: Transgender and Nonbinary Unitarian Universalist Leaders” in the Summer 2019 edition, developed in collaboration with TRUUsT and edited by the Rev. Theresa I. Soto.
By almost any standard, I have been transgender for a long time. I came out in 1996, while still in seminary. The good people of Starr King School for the Ministry marked my transition with a naming ceremony on May 1, 1997. I wrote my first article about transgender issues in Unitarian Universalism over twenty years ago. That piece was a response to an article by a cis gay man who wrote about the amazing progress we were making as a movement toward LGBT rights and justice. My article questioned the premise that we had made much progress when it came to the “B” and the “T.” The words “bisexual” and “transgender” were included in our acronyms, but transgender and/or bisexual people were not part of our sexuality education, our congregations, our leadership, or our clergy. We were beginners, but we were acting like experts.
Imagine my surprise when the article “ After L, G, and B” was published in the Spring 2019 issue of UU World. Here is an article telling a story of transgender people and issues. But this time, instead of reporting on the amazing work of the transgender people in our Association, the author is a cisgender (non-trans) person who speaks of her difficulties coming to terms with trans people in her family’s life. The article then goes on to speak of trans experience in general, citing statistics and information that, at best, are outdated. At a time when there are nearly seventy members of TRUUsT (a support and advocacy organization for transgender and nonbinary religious leaders in Unitarian Universalism), the article centers the voice and perspective of a cisgender person—and not just any cisgender person: a beginner, who doesn’t have the knowledge, relationships, or resources to sort the helpful information from the harmful.
It turns out there was a lot of harmful information in the article. As transgender and nonbinary people began to respond, the list of problems grew and grew. As it did, I began to notice that one deep assumption connected each mistake to the next: the assumption that we are just beginners at all this “trans stuff.” And as I heard people respond with, “But it’s all so new . . . how can you expect us to get it right?” and “Don’t shame people for not knowing better,” I remembered when I’d heard it before.
I’ve heard it when someone asked that others stop relying on words and metaphors that exclude disabled people. I’ve heard it when white UUs have been asked to practice decentering whiteness and include voices and practices that honor black people, indigenous people, and/or people of color. I’ve heard it when discussing the possibility of updating a reading that was written before inclusive language became standard. I’ve heard it when I ask my mother again, after twenty-two years, to call me by my name and use my correct pronoun. Whenever I or any of my friends and beloveds ask for real change that challenges the norms and traditions of Unitarian Universalist culture, I hear the refrain: “We are new at this! It is too hard! It disrupts everything and makes me uncomfortable!”
As I look out at the world and wonder about Unitarian Universalism’s place in it, I am more and more convinced that we must stop excusing ourselves from the world- and life-changing work of justice by claiming that we don’t know what to do because we are beginners. There is no excuse for refusing to learn, when there are teachers all around us. The person saying, “Hey, call me by my name and, yes, my pronoun is they,” is your teacher. The person saying, “It’s not good enough to quote all white men in your sermon,” is your teacher. The person saying, “I can’t get into your building and, when I do, you ignore me,” is your teacher. The person saying, “It’s not about your comfort,” is your teacher.
The teachers and the lessons have been here for decades. It’s time to learn.