Caitlyn Jenner, a stranger among us.
Exodus 23:9- “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourself been strangers in the land of Egypt.” This commandment guides us in the ways of empathy. So how do we become open, curious, kind and empathetic to those who we see as strange and who are different from us? We remember what it has been like for ourselves to be on the outside, scared and alone. We’ve all been the stranger at some point in our lives, and so it was with the Israelites. God calls each of us to treat those “other” than us — you know, those “freaks” — with consideration, dignity, and respect.
I use the word “freak” because often times that’s how people view the “T” in LGBTQ. I’ve seen the look in the faces of some of those whom I’ve come out to — the shock, the distancing. And while they might have found a way to stomach that I could love another woman, they can’t seem to wrap their mind around a person being born with male genitals having never felt like a man, identifying as a woman. And visa versa, a person born with female genitals, feeling much more like a man.
Speaking of definitions…
Gender Identity: Is a person’s sense of their gender. The feeling of being a man, or a woman. For example; I feel female in the deepest places of myself and when I think about myself think in terms of “her”.
Gender Expression: Is the way we express, or make clear our gender identity (masculinity, or femininity). Many times we do this in the kind of clothing we wear and pronouns used in talking about ourselves. For example; my gender expression is female so I’m not going to grow a beard, but I also like wearing baseball hats.
Sexual Identity/Orientation: Is how we think about ourselves in who we are romantically, or sexually attracted to. For example; I am a woman who is sexually attracted to women and so my sexual orientation/identity is lesbian.
Transgender: A person’s gender identity does not match their assigned sex at birth. For example; my sisters story of being assigned a male gender at birth, but the gender identity of male does not match her sense of herself. She feels and experiences herself as very much female, even though she has the physical body of male.
I want to point out one quick thing here; they are people who are transgender, not transgendered. I was actually taught that in a most gracious way by a trans person I knew. You see, no one can be “ed”. I’m not lesbianed, you’re not straighted, and neither is a transgender person. They are people, nouns, not verbs. And certainly not “freaks.” In fact, all of us can grow tremendously from truly considering and listening to those who are transgender. Even someone like myself who might be considered an expert on the LGBTQ community has much to learn. The absolute best way to learn is by getting to know someone personally. Let yourself open your heart and life and build a relationship with someone who is other than you. It’s been humbling, but wonderful for me.
So if I don’t think people who are transgender are freaks, what do I think of them? To start I must go to my own family. In my life I’ve had two younger brothers. One whom I shared the same parents with and the other came from close family friends. My family was close with another family at church even before I, or him were born. They moved away before having children and so I didn’t connect with them much until I went away to a college near their home in the mid-west. They quickly became my family; my home away from home and one of their sons became my brother. I grew close with the whole family, but especially with my new found brother—we had a special bond; neither of us could imagine that some day we would share such a place of understanding as in our sexual orientations as we eventually both come out as gay.
I liked having two brothers; in fact my “new” brother even performed a beautiful poem he had written for my wife and I for our wedding. So when he called to say he was transgender…. it rocked me. Of course I loved him, supported him and wanted him to be happy, but I didn’t know how to make the transition of starting to call him, “her.” I was confused at how to relate to this new person and I felt a bit awkward in it. Not to mention it was completely unfamiliar to call her by another name – not the one I had known my whole life. I had so much anxiety that I would hurt her by accident. Before picking up the phone to call her, I would remind myself to call her by her selected name and to use female pronouns. I’m not very good at change, just ask my wife and she could give a list of all the ways I rebel and pretty much fall apart when change comes my way; so for this to change was challenging for me, but I was determined because of my love for her. Seeing her for the first time after her coming out I had lots of questions. Would she be the person I’ve grown to care about? What would we talk about? What will she look like, I wondered? What if I have feelings, or thoughts I feel ashamed of? But when I saw her, and I know this will feel anticlimactic, it felt so much simpler than all of that. Of course the first few minutes of conversation I didn’t hear much of what she said, I was taking-in the newness. I was processing that this person before me was the same and yet different. There have been times when I have missed the brother I had previously known, but that’s in a small proportion to the gratitude, admiration and love I have for my sister now. The simplicity that I found as we shared lunch that day and on the days since is that she is still herself – in fact she is a better version of herself. I hadn’t realized how much she had held back and parts that had been wounded because of the holding back. But it’s been amazing to witness the fullness of personhood that has come about as she’s allowed herself to live into who she fully is. She is strong, she is beautiful and she is my sister.
This is one of the reasons why I perked up when I heard about Bruce Jenner coming out as transgender. Not that all trans people are the same, but because I felt a connection to this story, the journey. After his interview with Diane Sawyer I quickly Googled images, looking for photos of Bruce as a woman. There was something that I desperately wanted to connect with, an image to integrate the idea of him being a her. The transition felt hard to do in my mind without an image. But alas there was nothing on Google that really helped. However I quickly became glad that there wasn’t a physical image available because what I realized is that it gave me time to think of her in deeper terms than just her physical appearance. She was a woman no matter what she looked like and I needed to figure out a way to integrate that into my mind. It was actually kind of a deep process and I’m grateful for where it took me. To a deeper place of connecting with what gender truly is, beyond appearance. It wasn’t too long after this that Vanity Fair came out with their cover story on Caitlyn Jenner and it took my breath away! She is beautiful and so very herself. I cried.
So why are so many Christians, conservatives and people treating transgender issues and people who are trans, like Caitlyn Jenner, like my sister and those who reach out to me for support in therapy with violence, with such distain and lack of common decency? I see and hear stories of people yelling violent slurs, posting hateful comments and purposefully calling them the wrong pronoun simply to de-humanize and shame them. It’s times like this that I find myself going to stories like Sodom and Gomorrah.
I won’t go into the theology and exegete the passage found in Genesis, actually Daniel Helminiak does a wonderful job of this and you can see a summary of his work here. What Helminiak and many others have discovered when looking at the language, historical context, literary context of the story within scripture, as well as comparison with other passages found in the Bible that discuss the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is that this story is actually about the need for radical hospitality. In other words, caring for the needs of, being generous with, and behaving kindly towards those we see as foreign to us. And when I say “foreign” I don’t mean those people sitting at the table next to you at IHOP who are visiting from Germany. I mean foreign like those who are so different from you that you get a twinge of anxiety thinking about it.
You see, the men of Sodom felt this way about the visitors. They wanted to keep their power, wealth and prestige and felt angry and anxious when considering someone from the outside. Because of this, they intended to ridicule, harm with violent acts and shame the visitors. Yes, the way they were going to do this was by raping them through anal sex, but that’s not the point of the story. Anal sex was the vehicle of violence they chose. A violence just like those who drive by and yell profanity and scary threats to my little sister (who is trans) when she’s riding her bike, churches who turn away a person who is transgender from taking communion, police officers who beat up a person who is trans for “resisting” arrest, or news casters who attempt to belittle and shame Caitlyn Jenner by calling her “him” on purpose. What is the difference between all of this and what occurred in Sodom? There are also people in the Church, Christian communities, and political powers who use violence, manipulation, pressure and fear to make the visitors (the other) they encounter feel scared and unwelcome. Sound like anyone you know? If you plan on voting for someone who calls themselves a Christian, but belittles people who are transgender and makes fun of their “way of being”, you can be sure that there is nothing less Christ-like than that.
When I think about stories of church members doing forceful exorcisms, even ministers trying to do this to other ministers who identify as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth, even kicking them out of the denomination when after the exorcism or “deep inner healing prayer”, they report still having gender identity issues. Those who picket funerals of service members with signs that say, “Fags are going to Hell”, or pastors unwilling to baptize a dying baby because her parents are two gay men. The church leader who loses her job because she comes out as a lesbian, or the junior high student being asked to never return to youth group because he’s too flamboyant, or a minister refusing to perform a funeral for someone because they were gay, or, or, or.
I want you to know these are not stories I’ve made up; these are actual stories of real people. And I could go on, but alas my heart can’t bear the heartache. Even as I write it, I see the faces of those harmed by such experiences and I see the look of devastation, exhaustion and sadness and I ache.
God isn’t just asking us to feed those who are hungry who happen to knock on our doors, God is calling us to a radical kind of love, care and way of being with the other. We are being called to see and hear of Caitlyn Jenner’s story and ask how we can affirm her humanness, personhood and beauty. We are being called to notice when someone is transgender and be willing to ask them with openness what their preferred pronoun is and call them by it, even if we disagree with their decision. We are being called to provide churches where every single person no matter what their sexual orientation, or gender identity is can go, receive the blood and wine, serve, become members at and have a safe place to worship God in. I dream of a world where Caitlyn Jenner, my sister and all those I’ve had the privilege of working with will feel safe walking down the street, loved as a child of God and beautiful just as they are.