This weekend finds me at the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference. I arrived with my wife, who is a trans woman, yesterday afternoon. We attended one workshop yesterday before we checked in to our hotel to rest. Today we plan to spend the day here, participating in workshops and exploring the exhibits, before we start heading south again in the evening.
Ironically, I sit in the Community Space to write this, and I am the only person in the room. Kristin and I split up for our workshops today, she to explore her journey and options, and I to learn more about what it is to be married to a trans person and to be a trans ally. I know that these will teach us a lot, and I look forward to sharing experiences during our return trip.
We arrived this morning, about 15 minutes before the workshops were scheduled to begin, and I picked up a healthy breakfast – ha! – from Cake Life: a bottle of water and a peanut butter stripe brownie. Hey! It has plenty of protein! And it tasted AMAZING. Then I headed to my first choice, which was a Shabbos… but I was unable to find it, and I found myself relieved. I realized, as I sat in the hallway, that I needed some time to process even the little I had taken in already. So here I sit, alone in the quiet Community Space, and this is exactly what I needed.
The experience so far has been fascinating. It started at the registration table, where everyone is asked to make a name tag: first name only, with your preferred pronouns. Pronouns trip me up ALL the time, and I often feel defensive when I have unknowingly used the non-preferred pronoun and offended them inadvertently. And honestly, do we really need gendered pronouns? Does it matter that “Jack placed HIS books in HIS backpack” or is it more important that “JACK PLACED the BOOKS IN jack’s BACKPACK”? I’m not saying that pronouns aren’t a good and important thing, just that a person is a person – what is the point of differentiating gender? I have not done a study, but I would bet money that the occurrence of sentences that require gender for clarity are less than 5% of everything we say or write.
The demographic form at registration asked a number of questions. What is your trans identity (or are you a cisgender person)? How do you describe your sexual orientation? What is your race? I kept circling the option just above “Other.” I’m cis. I’m straight. I’m white. I’m a spouse.
I had feared having reactions and responses to people here, betraying with facial expression or looking at someone just a little too long. I don’t want to cause hurt, distress, or offense to the participants here, each of whom is infinitely precious, infinitely beloved, God’s child, Christ’s sibling, made in the image and likeness of God. Most of us have learned from birth that boys are boys and girls are girls, and that is just the way it is. We don’t learn that there is a spectrum between macho-men and girly-girls, a range of gender identity that encompasses some who are labeled non-binary and others who prefer to choose no gender at all. We are taught that boys have penises and girls have vaginas, and that’s the way God made us, and that’s just the way it is. Unless we have some experience with a person who is somehow “other,” we have no idea that it’s even possible for “others” to exist.
Most of us are innocently ignorant, learning from our culture that boys are boys and girls are girls, that penis-bearers must be masculine and non-penis-bearer must be feminine, and that we cross those lines at our peril. And, to be quite honest, the first questions we have about a trans person are those very basic ones: “What, you’re a woman? But you have a penis! Wait, are you going to have The Surgery?” (It’s always The Surgery – even for me – as if there were only one procedure that magically assigns penis-appropriate-genitals, gives or takes breasts, and sculpts the face and body into a form that Women Look Like or Men Look Like.) So we end up blurting out these offensive questions about people’s private parts, because we are ignorant of what it means to be transgender or non-binary. And if you’ve blurted out one of these when a trans person is just having a bad day, you’re likely to get an earful of exactly why that is an offensive question and that it isn’t their job to educate the entire damned world what “trans” means.
The workshop we attended yesterday afternoon was a presentation from a surgeon in North Carolina who specializes in procedures for trans persons. She spoke very frankly about body parts, even showing photos, and repeated a number of times: it is your body; it is your choice; it’s all about how you want to look and feel; it is not my place to prevent you from making these choices, unless you want something that is medically problematic. Near the end of the workshop, one participant asked about the possibility of procedures that aren’t typical for trans persons, who are generally interested in breast reduction or augmentation, genital reassignment surgery, and other cosmetic procedures to feminize or masculize (is that a word?). The person gave an example: what if someone wants to remove just one breast? Would the doctor be willing to do this? Would there be legal or insurance implications? I wanted to applaud when the surgeon responded that there is absolutely no medical reason, and probably no legal reason, that such a procedure should not be performed. It’s your body, she repeated, your choice. It’s what you want to achieve.
So I have seen quite a variety of shapes and sizes. I have seen men of short stature, who have rounder hips than you might expect on a man. I have seen greatly tall women, with muscular limbs and small breasts. I have seen one very tall person who looks like an older gentleman with mustache and beard, who walks with a long, strong, masculine stride… who wears flowing skirts and dresses, and who looks completely comfortable and confident in their appearance and presentation. It makes me smile to see him, and I’d like to meet him and shake hands, but I fear that would be creepy and inappropriate. And I don’t want to offend anyone here, because the trans family has become my family. The trans community has become my community, even though I have only the Significant Other Membership and not the Full Trans Person Membership. :-)
I have seen a gorgeous array of hair colors, including blue and green and pink and teal and purple. I’ve seen all sorts of tattoos and piercings. I think that these become a form of self-expression — especially for young persons? — where perhaps it is unsafe to express oneself through clothing and hairstyle and other qualities we use to distinguish each other by gender. And I’ve noticed some who (I believe) fall closer to the middle of that range, those who are non-binary trans. Remember Pat on Saturday Night Live? This character is probably non-binary trans – having some aspects of both genders, but not embracing either completely.
Now I sit in the Community Space, and four other people have joined the room, having separate conversations. It’s almost time for the next workshops, so I will find my next room and head that way soon…. until I next need some quiet space to process.
I invite you to pray today for all whose perception of identify and self fall outside the norms of their culture. Pray for trans men and for trans women. Pray for non-binary trans persons. Pray for those who feel awkward and uncomfortable, not knowing whether they are trans or gay or autistic or whatever kind of “other” they might be. Pray for those who support and care for the “others” among us, for surgeons and doctors, for counselors of every kind, for clergy persons, for spouses and significant others, for parents and siblings, for friends. And pray for all of us who—in innocent ignorance or in appalling hate and indifference—anger and offend the “others” around us. And pray that every person, male or female or non-binary, know in the deepest part of their self that they are loved, infinitely and perfectly, that they are a child of the God who made all that is, made with great affection to bear God’s image and likeness to the world.