Sunday, November 20, 2011

Remembering and Giving Thanks

I write these words on Transgender Day of Remembrance, an international event to remember our trans neighbors who have been the victim of homicide. Four days from now Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving. These two days may seem to have little in common, but for me they are intertwined.

You see, as a privileged, straight man I live in a world where I am often blind to just how deep those privileges run. There is nothing about my gender or sexual orientation that costs me a relationship, an employment opportunity, or the freedom of movement. I live with unfair advantages that were handed to me at birth by sheer happenstance.

To be privileged and advantaged is dangerous, however. It is dangerous to one’s soul to live in such a cocoon, never noticing the price the disadvantaged pay just to be in this world. A soul becomes tough and brittle if it turns a blind eye to the unjust suffering around it. For that reason I will be forever grateful to my transgender friends who I have met over the years, first as a minister, and now as a counselor. Their lives are an inspiration that have helped save my soul.

I am thankful for Rosemary (all the names in this column have been changed) who I first met as Ben. Ben was married and knew that transitioning would be hard on his wife and adult son. He also knew that Ben was a lie, and that Rosemary had to live if there was to be any hope in the future. I admire how hard Rosemary worked to help her family understand what was happening, but even more, I learned from Rosemary that sometimes we have to do things even those closest to us will never understand or support.

I am grateful for my friend, John, who transitioned years before I met him and passes so well no one suspects he was a woman for the first half of his life. This ability to pass effortlessly, though, does not mean John has turned his back on his previous life. He isn’t interested in claiming the title “male” just because society is willing to grant it to him. John is comfortable living with a sense of gender that is bigger than the two options of male or female, and his ability to see beyond an either/or construct of gender helps me see that is a false choice in many areas of my own life.

I marvel at Leslie and her decision to transition from male to female at an age when most people are planning for their retirement. It feels cliche to say it, but Leslie does demonstrate that it is never too late to change your life. As my own advancing years begin to announce themselves in many unwelcome ways, Leslie inspires me to consider that the last half of life could actually hold the greatest challenges and opportunities.

I smile when I think of Cynthia, a college student from a very conservative family. Cynthia loves her family deeply and has tried for years to help them see that her male, biological body has never told the truth about who she is. Their religious objections to her decision to transition have been hard for Cynthia, but those objections have neither dissuaded her nor caused her to reject her family. She lives in the noble tension of following her truth and giving those around her the space to come along at their own pace.

I also smile when I think of Jason, another college student who is transitioning after a lifetime of knowing the dresses his mother tried to put on him never really fit. Jason is a deeply spiritual and artistic person whose faith is a great motivator in driving him toward his truth, and whose art is an outlet to share that truth with the world.

Transgender Day of Remembrance is a time to pause and consider those transgender individuals who lost their lives simply because they had the courage to live openly in the world. In thinking of the friends who have been taken from us, however, I find it natural to remember those who are still with us.

This Thanksgiving I give thanks for Rosemary, John, Leslie, Cynthia, and Jason. My life is better because of them, and my soul is softer and deeper because it has been touched by them.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Resisting the Fixers

A counseling client of mine blurted out in a session one day, “I am not a problem to be fixed! I am not a problem to be fixed!!” I could not have agreed more.

This bright, accomplished woman had spent weeks describing the cruel voices from her past that had convinced her that she was fundamentally flawed. She felt broken under the weight of those condemnations. But suddenly, in a moment of clarity, she recognized that she was a human being with problems, not the problem itself. I wanted to jump up and applaud for her.

There are many forces in this world trying to convince us that we are the problem. We are broken and need to be fixed like a tire that has blown out. Some people seek the fix through religion. Others through therapy. There are lots of fixers in the world eager to start tinkering away on us.

But what if that whole paradigm is wrong? What if the problem isn’t that our souls are weighted with sin, or our bodies laden with lust, or our minds crippled with illness, or our very DNA corrupted with defective genes? What if the problem is that we keep listening to the voices that insist we are broken in the first place?

Those voices come in many different shapes and sizes. Parental voices of shame. Societal voices saying that if we are not normative there is something deviant about us. Scientific voices identifying the myriad of ways our bodies and minds are diseased. Religious voices insisting on our original sinfulness. This last one is particularly interesting to me as a former pastor.

Christianity has played an unfortunate role in undergirding the sense that people are flawed from birth. That seems odd considering Genesis 1 begins with these familiar words: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.”

Thus begin the six days of creation. One of the things you may remember about this first creation story is that at the very end, God sees everything that has been created and declares it good. This seems right to us. You take a look at the finished product before you evaluate its goodness. Yet, that’s not the total story of the creation account. On the first day, the very first day, when the text says God speaks light into existence, a kind of blessing is also spoken. “And God saw that the light was good.” Before the earth, and the sea, and the sky, and the vegetation, and the creatures were ever created, God says this is good. This is a kind of blessing, a declaration of the innate goodness of this new beginning.

It is interesting that a religious tradition whose scriptures describe on page one the innate goodness of the creation became so fixated on teaching the innate corruption of it. So much damage has come from insisting that people are inherently corrupt.

The voices pointing out the “problems” of the LGBTQ community are loud and persistent. The religious voices shouting “abomination.” The political voices shouting “you are a threat to traditional marriage.” Even the scientific voices shouting “we used to think you were mentally ill, but now we changed our mind.” Is it any wonder that many gay and transgender individuals have internalized these voices and carry within themselves the belief they are broken?

It takes great strength and much support to resist the voices who insist on fixing those parts of us that are actually quite healthy. In fact, I often think the best thing I can do for people who come to me for counseling is not fix or heal them (powers that I don’t have), but help them rediscover their specific gifts and strengths.

We all have problems. Some of those problems are serious and we need help in dealing with them. But it is important to remember the insight of my client who shouted that day, “I am not a problem to be fixed!” There is a difference between people and problems. Once we figure that out, all kinds of possibilities arise.


About Me

former pastor who is now a pastoral counselor and consultant (; married with two teenagers; progressive in my politics and theology