The “He” and “She” of it All


To say that we all, each of us, have inherent worth and dignity…to say that…is necessary but it is somehow not quite sufficient. To say that we are all children of God…it is not enough. Because we are a part, an embodiment, an expression of a creation which we know to be holy, sacred somehow. Each of us. Exactly as we are. In our similarity and in our difference. We are part of the stuff of life. Born in mystery. Returning to mystery in the end. Not shaped to suit any simple category. Not suited to fulfill any merely human mandate.

From the Book of Genesis, KJV:

“Male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam, …” (Genesis 5:2)

Called their name Adam? That’s wrong? Right? Bad grammar.

“Their,” the pronoun, is plural. And Adam is singular… Should be their nameS or his name. One or the other. The folks who edited the King James should have known better. They should have gotten the pronouns right.

The New Revised Standard Edition (Remember that the Bible was not written in English and that there are many translations.)… The NRSV translates Adam in this verse as Humankind…”Male and female he created them…and named them humankind.”

Much more acceptable to those of us who care about gender equity, of course, or good grammar. But the result is dozens of notes, in tiny type, at the bottom of the pages trying to make clear when Adam is being used as the name of the first male gendered human and when Adam is being used to describe humankind, both male and female…man in the species sense…man as used in the King’s English.

The pronouns and plurals in Genesis have been troubling folks for a very long time.

It didn’t start out as a fight. It was 1966. I was 20, just back from my second year at college, and my mother and I had just watched a report of the controversy about whether the term “man” included “women.” Women’s empowerment was in the air and at school, I had been taken to task for my very male language by female friends. And I had seen the light.

It didn’t start out as a fight but when I shared my new insight that the word “man” could never hold women’s identity and experience…my mother went ballistic. Well, we both did.

Her commitment to the King’s English did not have room for any new found impulse to gender equity. My late adolescence certainty did not have any room for…well…much of anything from my mother, to be honest.

She had devoted much of her life to trying to come as close to the ideal normative educational and professional presentation…that ideal represented her best hope of both success and also of safety for a Black single Mom. Using the King’s English was not an option for her. It was a life commitment.

I thought we were having a disagreement about pronouns and plurals. But my mother was defending one of the fundamental tools she had used to keep us safe.

Pronouns and plurals can be very important.

The conversation in progressive and especially activist circles today has travelled far from those conversations of my youth. Today there is real question about the adequacy of that male/female binary to reflect enough real lived experience to be helpful. The notion that those two broad categories of human experience can hold us all is being questioned.

An openness has been created in which more specific human experience can be expressed and validated and lived out.

Anatomy, it turns out, is just not that clear cut. There are individuals born every day whose primary sexual equipment is unclear. The standard approach of the medical community in those cases, used to be when the baby is held up and the doctor cannot say with certainty that “It’s a girl” or “It’s a boy”…the standard approach used to be for the doctor to guess because either that male or that female box had to be checked on the birth certificate. Too often the infant would be rushed into surgery to make the plumbing conform more closely to some ideal of normal. Today, most often, a long and difficult conversation with the parents ensues

The gender binary would try to erase the reality of these individuals, who today are called intersexual.

Biological sex has never been just male and female.

When you add gender to the equation, that binary system fits even less well.

Gender is your internal sense of being a man, a woman, neither of these or both. It is an inner sense of identity…which can be at odds with the biological “equipment.”

Add gender expression…how you present your femininity or masculinity…your gendered self to the world, and that gender binary just doesn’t come close to describing all of us.

Rev. Meg Barnhouse tells the story of leaving a congregation where she had preached to discover that her rental car had a flat tire. She writes:

“A dapper man with a red-gold mustache, blue eyes and wearing a lovely suit held both my hands and told me he would be delighted to change the tire for us. He went out with my partner to get started.

When I got out there he (we’ll call him Craig) was kneeling on the ground placing the jack under the car. A very tall young woman (we’ll call her Lou) was giving him instructions on where to put it. …’You seem to know a lot about this,’ I said to Lou.

‘Back in Tennessee I got my mechanic’s certification,’ she said. ‘It was bad there because no one understood what I was going through. …Finding this church saved my life.’

I realized she was talking about a life back home where people would have looked at her and seen a man. The other woman standing with us was going through the same transformation. The four of us stood and watched Craig change the tire…He was glowing, changing that tire, while we admired his efforts.

A woman came out of the church. Seeing us standing there, she called out to me: ‘Oh, you talk a good game about women’s empowerment’ –…and there you are, four women watching one man change a tire.’

The five of us glanced at her and smiled. What she was looking at was actually more complicated than one could gracefully explain.

My partner was still smiling when we got in the car, having given the very happy Craig a round of applause.

‘Here is what you don’t know,’ she said. ‘Craig told me it had always been one of his fantasies to change a tire heroically in front of a crowd of appreciative women. We made his fantasy come true.’

‘[And that woman who shouted at us] also didn’t know that Craig used to be a woman, himself.’”

The gender binary has no chance of holding that story.

How many of you have been at a meeting where you have been asked to identify “your pronouns” as part of your introduction? Quite a few.

In progressive and especially activist circles, this is becoming more and more common. And the younger the people you are with, the more likely you will be asked to name your pronouns.

Our own youth group has added pronouns to their normal check-in …every week. I’m told there was no disagreement when this was requested by one member. It was just not a big deal.

Let me use myself as an example:

If I were introducing myself, I would say: I am Bill. I am a cisgender male and my pronouns are he, him and his. Cisgender male…probably another new term to some…that means that my body and my other gender markers (beard, etc) match my gender identity, my sense of self. My pronouns reflect that consonance. He, him, his.

Oh, I’m also straight. That is my sexual orientation. That reflects who I am sexually and romantically attracted to. Different and unconnected to my gender identity. And it is not normally part of introductions. TMI. Too much information.

Is this complicated enough, yet?

For some folks, their bodies and their gender identities and gender expression don’t line up like mine do.

I have a transgender colleague, a trans-man who kept his original name…Barb. Barb now looks like a man, with all the secondary male markers…beard and so on…and uses masculine pronouns. Barb…he…

It took me a long time to be able to say that…Barb, he…without having to think it through. I’ve known Barb…him…for a long time and want to use the language that works for him. I’m not resistant to it. But it took a while for it to feel natural.

Others of my friends describe their experience as neither male nor female, at least exclusively. Some describe themselves as gender-fluid or a-gender (having no gender) or gender-queer. Many of these folks would ask that “they” and “them” be used as “their” pronouns. Jim…they. They are coming to the meeting…meaning only Jim.

Are you following me so far? Yes, you can be referring to a single individual and have plural pronouns (they and them) be the right ones to use. Just like the King James…

New pieces of language are being created…ze/zm/zer…that some folks prefer…avoids the traditional association with the gender binary language altogether.

I must confess that this is still new enough to me that when I am talking with a person who uses non-traditional pronouns, I often get it wrong.

But the children that we dedicated this morning will grow up in a world that is more open and more accepting of their real lived experience…whatever that may be…

That movement is in progress…despite the rear guard action being waged from Washington and in many other places.

Despite my discomfort and my mistakes along the way, I have to keep reminding myself that people should be able to define and describe their own experience. For us this is a theological imperative.

I have to keep reminding myself that forcing people into categories and language that doesn’t fit them is always wrong…always a violation. I have to remind myself that affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person requires listening to those individual persons and what they need to be comfortable in conversation with me or at home in this church…whether that means using new or different pronouns or changing the signs on those restrooms.

And it requires remembering that those who do not fit that rigid gender binary are still much at risk.

Tomorrow is the Transgender Day of Remembrance, when the transgender individuals who have died as a result of their identity are named and remembered.

The documented number of lives lost to anti-trans violence is rising. This year the highest number ever recorded by the Human Rights Campaign.

The 2015 US Transgender Survey, the largest ever with almost 28,000 participants, presents a picture of some progress in safety and support for trans individuals, particularly from family members and co-workers. Even in politics. An out Trans woman was just elected to the legislature in Virginia… Virginia. But that survey also presents an on-going reality of risk.

The murders continue.

Jaquarrius Holland was an 18 year old transgender woman living in Monroe, LA who was murdered on February 19. She was shot following a verbal altercation.

Jaquarrius had struggled to find steady employment and affordable housing. She often stayed with friends. One friend said of Holland: “I’ve struggled with accepting myself and being who I am, and Jaquarrius always helped me with that.”

We remember Jaquarrius Holland and all those who have died because of who they are.

UU Minister Sunshine Jeremiah Wolf, who is transgender, offers this reflection:

“The earth is filled with magnificent diversity of which I am a small piece. May I remember I am a part of the spectacular beauty of a diverse world dependent on that diversity—my existence—for its survival.

When I feel invisible, may I have the strength to shout joyous gratitude from the rooftops for all who have seen me.

When I feel seen, may I see others in need.
When I am secure, may I rise up for the security of others.”

May I rise up for the security of others.

Jaquarrius Holland was a transwoman of color. Of the 25 reported murders of transgender individuals so far this year, most, a significant majority, have been trans women of color.

Intersectionality it is called. The interplay of our various identities. It is such a long and bookish word. But intersectionality is not theoretical. It is very human and very real.

We talk a lot about the culture of white supremacy these days.

But that culture is also a patriarchal culture and an Anglo culture and an able-bodied culture and a hetero culture and a gender binary culture. It is a culture that invests such energy in keeping people in their boxes and in their binaries. It is one culture. It is of a piece. And for a variety of reasons, it is a culture that is deeply fearful of difference and of the complexity of real lived human experience.

This is a religious community and it is appropriate for us to name and to mourn violent death. Recognizing the Transgender Day of Remembrance is a religious act for us.

And this is a liberal religious community which is also called to search for solutions and look for ways we can move away from the violence and toward the Beloved Community.

And so we also celebrate the beauty, the uniqueness and the holiness of each life.

We are beginning to understand that the Beloved Community calls us to know all of our identities and construct a welcome table at which we can all be seated, where we can all be nourished and supported.

May we remember that each of our bodies and each of our spirits is an expression of a creation that is holy; each one of us is the embodiment of love.