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Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The Transfiguration of the Church

I was at the last General Convention of The Episcopal Church when the resolutions concerning non-discrimination of transgender people easily passed both houses.

I knew it would happen and yet I was stunned.

It wasn't that the resolutions passed. The logic was undeniable, no matter how you felt about the matter - right, wrong, or as some admitted, confused.

If you can't discriminate against someone because of their gender or race or age or sexual orientation or whatever peculiar or particular human condition you might have that isn't part of the "norm" (whatever that is), then it made sense to add "gender identity or expression" to the list.

That's not what was so stunning to me.

What blew me away was that this movement for liberation had not, as yet, claimed any martyrs in The Episcopal Church.

Every liberation movement - especially in The Episcopal Church - has had its martyrs.

In The Episcopal Church, the Civil Rights Movement gave us people like Jonathan Daniels (who was shot and killed), William Stringfellow, Bob Castle, and Malcolm Boyd. 

The Movement to Ordain Women gave The Episcopal Church the women known as Philadelphia Eleven and the Washington Four and the trials of Bill Wendt and Peter Beebe. 

The LGBT Movement in The Episcopal Church gave us Ellen Barrett, Robert Williams, Barry Stopfel, Walter Righter, and Gene Robinson, among many others.

In each of these movements, there were people who took risks and sacrificed themselves for the movement for liberation and equality and justice. Some went to jail, others compromised their career. And, for their efforts, they garnered a certain measure of notoriety and, as is said in the vernacular, "press".

Which, I hate to say, is a critically important component of the momentum of liberation movements.

That has not been so with the Transgender Movement.

That's not to say that Transgender Episcopalians have not taken risks and sacrificed themselves for the movement for liberation and equality and justice.  Their individual stories of transformation within their families and communities of faith are inspiring and amazing.

You can listen to some of them in the documentary Voices of Witness: Out of the Box.

That's not it.

It's just that they haven't had anyone who has gained any notoriety and press for his/her efforts.

That is, not until this past week.

On February 26th, Bishop Larry Benfield of Arkansas dissolved the relationship between the Rev. Gwen Fry, a transgender priest, and Grace Episcopal Church in Pine Bluff.

The Rev. Fry, whose name given at birth was 'Greg', had informed the congregation on Sunday, that she was in transition and had invited them to make the journey with her.

You can read all the backing and forthing of announcements and statements from the bishop and the priest as well as statements of support from IntegrityUSA.

Episcopal Cafe has them all here.

There are also links to "conservative"/ "orthodox" sites with cruel and horrid articles and comments about this event, but I won't send you there. It's embarrassing to see people who purport to be uber-Christians behave in this manner; that is, when it doesn't induce nausea and vomiting. 

Here's the thing: While the General Convention resolutions to change canon law and provide transgender equality gave Gwen some cover with her bishop when she came out to him, the reality is that, in the trenches of parish life, those canons and resolutions do not have any traction. 

Yet. 

But, it has begun.  

Yes, there is a Transgender person who is the Executive Director of IntegrityUSA. Vivian Taylor is doing a magnificent job.  She gets 'press' all the time.  We've come a long, long way from just adding the "T" and stirring well into the alphabet-soup of being Queer. 

I don't make the rules about these things, but it seems to me that, before any movement of liberation is considered legitimate in the church - especially The Episcopal Church - blood must be spilled on the altar.  There has to be a martyr. 

The Rev'd Gwen Fry now has the dubious distinction of that identity. 

There will be others. 

Before this is over - or, as this really begins - rest assured, there will be others. 

That's the bad news. There is good news. Several pieces of it, in fact.

Martyrs may be wounded - even mortally - but they give life to the movement they represent.  Indeed, the movement gets new life and becomes even more difficult to deny or deflect or destroy.

Yes, Gwen lost her job. That's not necessarily a bad thing.  She had just come out to her bishop and community of faith. Transitioning takes some time. She - and her family, her wife and her daughter, as well as her friends and her community - are going to need that time. 

Gwen will come back to parish ministry changed. She will be stronger and more spiritually centered and secure.  So will her relationship with her family, and they will change as well. That will make her even more desirable as a parish priest in many spiritually mature communities of faith.

That's another thing I want to say about this event: No one 'comes out' alone. Neither does anyone transition alone. It feels like that. God, it can feel heart-breakingly lonely and alone. But, it's not.

Spouses. Children. Parents. Family members. Friends. Communities. Churches. 

Everyone - Every. One. - goes through their own process of transition. 

Every. One. Comes Out. 

Some do it better than others. Some do it with grace and style. Others do it in pain and agony. 

But, when someone you know and love transitions, everyone they know transitions. 

When someone you know and love comes out, everyone they know comes out. 

They may not do it with the person who is transitioning and coming out. They may be totally antagonistic to the person who is transitioning and resistant to coming out. But, they are, nonetheless, like it or not, transitioning and coming out. 

So, please keep Gwen in your prayers - YES! - but also hold her wife, Lisa and their daughter in your prayers. Pray also for their families and friends. And, of your mercy and kindness, pray for their communities of faith, for the diocese of Arkansas and for their bishop. 

Everyone is transitioning. Everyone is coming out. Each in their own way. 

Along the way, they will make mistakes. Pronouns will be confused, misused and abused - or, used awkwardly. Very awkwardly. Names will switch from Greg to Gwen and back again. Even Gwen will do that. Faces will grow red with embarrassment. 

The PC police will get on their high horse and lecture and judge about not judging, because, you know, they are only being "prophetic" or "righteously angry".

The important thing to remember is that we're all human. The person who is transitioning as well as everyone else. 

Here's a link to a handy-dandy little resource called "How to Respect a Transgender Person" which provides some eduction, practical advice and instruction. 

Just know that you will probably make a mistake. Or two. Or, three.  God knows, I have. Probably will again. And, I have to say that, every time I have, I have been treated with such compassion and kindness and generosity of spirit by the transpeople I've known that it makes me want to do better next time. It makes me want to be a better person.

I think that an open mind and an open heart will carry you far as you transition with a person who is transitioning in terms of their gender identity / expression. 

This is a watershed moment in The Episcopal Church. We are going deeper in our spiritual journey as a people of faith. We are delving into what I think of as "the original sin" of The Garden: Sexism. 

Transgender people open and expose stereotypes and gender roles assigned by culture, some of which are buried so deeply in our subconscious that, when we see them laid bare, it makes us so uncomfortable and embarrassed that we squirm.

Transgender people, male to female or female to male, will lead cisgender people to the intersection of gender and sexuality, where, I think, all our images of God are tied and tangled in confusing knots of myth and culture and projection. 

Like it or not, ready or not, we're all beginning to transition. 

We are on holy ground.

As individuals and as a church, we'll be changed and transformed and never again be the same. 


In Matthew's version of the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus (Chapter 17), the disciples fall on their faces when they hear a voice from heaven say, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

Jesus said to the disciples, “Get up! Don’t be afraid.”   

And, when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

In the process of transition, we will all have times when the truth we discover or uncover will make us fall flat on our faces. 

Transgender. Intersex. Cisgender. We'll all do it.

But, when we get up and allow perfect love to cast our fear, we will see no one except Jesus.  

That, at least, is my prayer.  

13 comments:

Kay & Sarah said...

As Sarah began her transition, she invited me to a transgender support group she attended in Tallahassee, FL. I went. I was a little anxious. I was scared that if I messed up with the pronouns the group would chastise me. I did mess up with the pronouns and smacked myself on the head and said, "when will I ever get it right??" The leader of the group smiled at me kindly and said, "you have as long to get the pronouns right as you have known the person." That immediately put me at ease. Transgender folks are the kindest most compassionate group of people I have ever known.

We know Gwen and Lisa and the same compassionate spirit resides with them. They have our prayers and support as they travel forward on this journey. Maya Angelou says, "there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you." My hope is that being able to tell the story for Gwen and Lisa will begin to diminish that agony.

Thank you, Elizabeth, for your part in telling this story. I am grateful for those who told some of the stories through Voices and Witness: Out of the Box, especially the director, Louise Brooks. The more stories of transgender people are told the less the agony will be for them and their family and friends as the transition begins in their lives.

Gwen Fry said...

Thank you Elizabeth.
- The Rev. Gwen Fry

Kay & Sarah said...

Yes, people will make mistakes with pronouns, so the advice I will give is this: To the transitioning person, your family and friends have the same number of years that they have known you to remember to call you by your new name. Some will come around sooner, so be patient with them.

Sarah Riggle

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hi, Kay - I must say that I agree with you about the kindness and compassion of trans folk. The compassion and wisdom simply blow me away. And yes, we must keep telling these stories. If you and/or Sarah want a place to tell your story, I'm happy to host it on this blog. It's an important part of our healing.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Gwen - You honor me with your presence here. May God continue to bless you with strength and courage and perseverance for the journey. You know you and your family have our prayers.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hi, Sarah - Thanks so much for that advice about the pronouns. I'm definitely going to repeat it as often as I can. It's really true - if I've no known the person before transition, I have a much less difficult time with pronouns. I also think, as Kay says, it has the effect of relaxing you so you're not so worried about making a mistake and, if you're not so worried about making a mistake, you're less apt to make one.

So, thanks for your compassion and generosity of spirit. As I said, it really does make me want to be a better person.

Matthew said...

I especially liked these sentences:

"Transgender people open and expose stereotypes and gender roles assigned by culture, some of which are buried so deeply in our subconscious that, when we see them laid bare, it makes us so uncomfortable and embarrassed that we squirm.

Transgender people, male to female or female to male, will lead cisgender people to the intersection of gender and sexuality, where, I think, all our images of God are tied and tangled in confusing knots of myth and culture and projection."

Although I am not transgender I have had my sex mistaken more times than I can recall. It always stuns me how people look at a person for 1 second and decide they need to determine which sex they are (to use pronouns instead of "you") and how often they get it wrong, at least in the case of me. I end up humiliated, they are mortified at having assumed the wrong one -- how do we call of the game? Why can't we stop doing this? Just last week I was called "ma'am" on the phone. I am hopeful that transgender people will help us get beyond that because merely being gay has not stopped most people from needing to decide what sex I am.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - My beloved lost all of her hair a few years ago. Sometimes, when we're at a busy diner or in a supermarket, the wait staff or person at the cash register will look up quickly and say, "Sir". She always, always, always, calmly but firmly and without any animosity or anger, says, "Ma'am." They get flustered and humiliated and she just lets them squirm.

Eventually, things may change. Or, not. That's not the point. The point is that when that stuff happens, we need to gently, calmly, but firmly let folks know that a mistake has been made.

That's my take, anyway.

Myriam0815 said...

You have said it, Elizabeth, and you have said it well. This is what Love looks like. This is Community.

Gwen and her family are remarkable Works of Love.

it's margaret said...

Gwen, thank you for your witness to us all.

Elizabeth, thank you for this post.

This very morning, I have just returned from Thailand, helping my sister through surgery as part of her transition. I have been so very blessed to be part of this journey, and humbled by the work I discovered I still had to do --watching my sister bloom has been the greatest blessing of all.

After her surgery, my sister wept in her hospital bed --tears of joy, yes. But also with some sadness --for all those whom she loves and misses that refused to accompany her in the journey --members of our own family. Your story, Gwen, was with us there in Thailand --your loss acknowledged. Your courage noted. Your family and friends prayed for. And prayers offered for the community you served.

Pronouns are merely the tip of the iceberg in the shift of consciousness that happens --acknowledging pronouns is like Peter saying 'hey, let's pitch a tent here so we can remember and stay here.' There is So. Much. More.

So, all I can say is, thank you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Myriam - It takes a great deal of spiritual maturity to look upon the cross and see love, but that's the shape of love, nonetheless.

I am so grateful for those like Gwen and her family who are willing to make public their sacrifice. We are blessed.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, Margaret - When I was in Thailand, I met several Americans and Western Europeans who were coming there for GRS. The procedure has been done there for many, many years, there's no judgment from the medical staff who have a completely different perspective on gender, and the cost is so much less than anywhere else in the world yet the physicians and surgeons are all top shelf and the hospitals are whistle clean.

My prayers are with you and your sister, my dear. It's an amazing journey and we are so privileged to be part of it in whatever way we can or are allowed.

At some point, I hope your sister gets to talk with Cameron Partridge - a F2M transperson who is an Episcopal Priest and scholar and campus chaplain at Harvard and BU.

He has amazing things to say about the scars from his mastectomy and hysterectomy, comparing that with the wounds in the side of Jesus into which Thomas was invited to put his hands so he would believe. I'm not doing it any justice here but it's very powerful stuff.

My prayers are with you and your beloved and your sibling.

Martie Collins said...

Is everything OK? It's been awhile since your last post.