Rev. Sean Parker-Dennison
Preached many times
Keith says, “Here is a version of the “coming out” sermon I’ve been preaching since 1997. Almost word-for-word the same sermon and almost entirely received the same way, over 22 years later.”
To invoke Love
Is to ask for a hug from a thunderstorm,
spill tea in the lap of the infinite trickster,
To invoke Love
Is to never know if it will come softly, with the nuzzle of a beloved dog comforting a disappointed child,
Or pounce right on your chest with the strength of a lioness protecting her cub, her pride, her homeland.
To invoke Love
is to take the risk of inviting chaos to visit the spaces we have spent so much time making tidy,
to watch as the breath of life fills the curtains and scatters everything we have only just folded and put away.
To invoke Love
Is to allow for the possibility that our words and our actions might become so empowered that we can no longer
Believe in apathy, or take the self-righteous path of believing that we are impotent, or that nothing can change.
To invoke Love
Is to play the fool, the one more concerned with loving than with appearances or reputation, the one who is ready and willing to be vulnerable, to abandon anything that gets in Love’s way, the one who has chosen Love over fear.
To invoke Love
is to be ready to become Love. Here. Now. In everything we do. Are you ready?
READING from To Know as We are Known: a Spirituality of Education by Parker Palmer
The goal of a knowledge arising from love is the reunification and reconstruction of broken selves and worlds.
This love is not a soft and sentimental virtue, not a fuzzy feeling of romance.
The love of which spiritual tradition speaks is a tough love, the connective tissue of reality.
The act of knowing is an act of love: the act of entertaining and embracing the reality of the other, of allowing the other to enter and embrace our own.
Here is the insight most central to spiritual experience:
we are known in detail and depth by the love that created and sustains us, known as members of a community that depends on us and on which we depend.
SHARING The Integrity of the In-Between
I remember when I was about seven years old and a new family moved into the house across the street. I could see they had a child about my age, and I was full of questions and full of hope that this new child and I would become best friends. I wanted to run across the street and bombard the new family with questions. Who are you? Where are you from? What was it like there? What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?
At the same time, I was far too shy, and far too well raised to indulge that impulse. I knew I would have to wait, to let the new family settle in and reveal themselves to me and to the neighborhood at their own pace. Still, my curiosity was so strong it was almost painful. It took what seemed like ages, but eventually, the new family did come over, and their daughter, Sara, and I did become best friends.
As we begin this process of getting to know each other, Interim Minister and congregation, I’m happy to tell you that I have learned a few things since I was seven. One of them is that if I want to get to know someone, there are much better ways to do it than to mount my own personal inquisition. In fact, one of the best ways I’ve found to get to know folks is to open myself up and tell my own story.
Now for anyone, telling his or her story is a risky thing. That’s why my mother taught me to be patient and let the family across the street do it at their own pace. A person’s story is unique and telling it makes them a bit vulnerable. It took me quite a few years to risk telling my story for the first time, and even longer to tell it from the pulpit. But once I took that risk, I discovered some wonderful things.
When I allowed myself to be known, I could finally trust that what Parker Palmer said was true:
Here is the insight most central to spiritual experience: we are known in detail and depth by the love that created and sustains us…known as members of a community that depends on us, and on which we depend.
I no longer had to be alone, afraid, or isolated. That was true in a spiritual sense for me, but it was also true in a practical sense. The other wonder that happened when I began to tell my story is that others began to tell me theirs. And the depth and breadth of my community grew.
I’ve come to understand that one of the best things I can do — one of the foundational acts of ministry I can offer to other Unitarian Universalists is to tell my story. Of course, I can’t tell you the whole story — that would take hours and we’d all end up pretty hungry and cranky. But I can tell you the part that is a bit unusual, and that has taught me the most and both literally and spiritually made me who I am today:
I am transgender.
People began using the word “transgender” only a decade or two ago, mostly in private or in academic and medical settings. In that way, it is still a relatively new term and its meaning isn’t always clear — not even among those of us the word is used to describe.
In my case, it means two things: that I was born female and now am male, and that I honor that journey by being honest and claiming my experience as both a woman for thirty years and now a man for thirteen. That is not true for every transgender person. Many of my transgender friends feel that they were always one gender, and that they are changing or have changed their bodies to make them fit with the gender they have always known themselves to be. That is their journey.
My journey has been to wrestle with living with what Rita Nakashima Brock calls “interstitial integrity.” She describes this kind of integrity from her experience as a multi-racial woman. She says:
Interstitial life often feels like a process of being torn among several different worlds that refuse to get along. It can, in its transcendence, however, feel as if one is following the rhythms of a migrating bird. The bird cannot rest long in one place, but it finds nourishment and strength to fly on. This refusal to rest in one place, to reject a narrowing of who we are by either/or decisions, or to be placed always on the periphery, is interstitial integrity. Interstitial refers to the places in between, which are real places, like the strong connective tissue between organs in the body that link the parts. This interstitiality is a form of integrity…. Integrity has to do with moments of entireness, of having no part taken away or wanting. Integrity is closely related to integration, to acts of connecting many disparate things by holding them together. Integr(ity)ation is ongoing renewal and restoration, learning how to live in the tensions of holding together all the complex parts of who we are.[i]
This is the heart of what it means for you to know me and my story. My life is a journey toward the integrity and wholeness of who I am and a journey that lets me see into two worlds. I am a transgender man.
I began this story in small-town Iowa, where I was born and raised. My family was a troubled and a difficult place to be. I sometimes describe myself as a poet in a house where there were no books. Truthfully, gender was not an issue most of the time. I ignored it as much as I was able and played along when I absolutely had to. I was uncomfortable with what I experienced as the trappings of girlhood — the pink and the frills and the frustrating inaction of it — but I was sure all girls hated those things.
I spent thirty years in Iowa, trying hard to fit in. I never quite succeeded, but I did build a lot of wonderful friendships (most of them in the UU fellowship there) with people who accepted me as a rather masculine woman who was raising a young son as a single mom.
I was twenty-nine years old when I was first questioned gender. I read Leslie Feinberg’s novel Stone Butch Blues, and found myself emotionally drawn to the main character, Jess. I was captivated by the story of Jess’ choice to live in the world as a man, even though the story was incredibly painful. Even through the tragedies of Jess’ life, I couldn’t help but see the possibilities for me. For the first time, I knew it possible to change my gender.
Later that year, Feinberg’s second book, Transgender Warriors was published by Beacon Press. I asked the friend who was coming to Iowa to help my son and me move to California to start seminary to bring a copy along. We read it aloud to each other in the moving truck and during the four-day trek to Berkeley, I came to realize that the stories in the book were my story. I saw my face in the portraits Feinberg had gathered and I saw my questions, my feelings, and my struggle in the stories of other transgender people. I began to ask myself who I was, deep in the center of my being.
It was a shock to notice that deep down I felt more like a teenage boy than a grown woman. I had spent years trying on the different female identities that were open to me but none of them fit, leaving me stuck. I had tried to be a fundamentalist Christian vision of a woman; I had tried to be a good radical feminist, I had tried to be a good mother, I had tried to be a good lesbian, and I had tried to make up my own definition of “woman” and live that. But reading the stories of other transgender people made me realize that what I had always wanted to be when I grew up was a man. I was shocked and scared by the intensity of that desire.
One night shortly after we had settled into our new Berkeley apartment, I had a dream. It was a dream I’d had many times before in which I was trying to catch a glimpse of my reflection in a mirror, but no matter how I twisted and turned, I could not see my face. I would cry and struggle to stretch and contort myself into some position where I could see myself, but I always failed. But this time, in the dream, I heard a voice say, “Move the mirror.” So I reached out and grabbed the mirror and turned it completely around. There, in what should have been the useless back of the mirror I could see my face, tear-streaked and undeniably male.
That was a hard dream — hard because it called me to make a decision about my life. Was I going to stay inside the little box marked “F” for female at my birth, or was I going to live what felt true and real for me? Was I going to choose to live with integrity?
The most difficult part of that decision, aside from dealing with all the feelings it evoked in the people I loved, was the sense that I had to choose male or female. I had spent thirty years as a woman, six of them as a mother, and now I felt I was supposed to deny all of that and live as another kind of creature — a man. All or nothing. The little box marked “F” or the one marked “M.”
My life does not fit those boxes. My gender is not that simple. As hard as I have tried to choose one over the other, what is true for me is that I am both. It is more comfortable and more authentic for me to move through the world as a man. In my deepest knowing of myself, a male face, a male body, and a male identity feel true. When I think of myself or describe myself, it is as a man.
I cannot choose one side of myself over the other. To choose would be to willingly let some part of myself wither and die. To deny that I live in a body that was born female, and that I lived as a woman for thirty years would be just as painful as it was living in denial of my knowledge of myself as a man.
In the process of figuring this out I called on a lot of resources. I learned a lot about transgender history. I learned that in the past, one couldn’t get through the medical system’s scrutiny unless he or she created something called a “plausible history.” A plausible history for me would have been a story I created about my life as a little boy, a teen, and a young man. In short, it would have been a lie. But I didn’t do this to live a lie! I did this to tell the truth about who I am.
When Rita Nakashima Brock wrote of interstitial integrity, she showed me she understands something that is vital to me. She understands how it feels when the categories are too small and too unimaginative to hold her life. And she names interstitial integrity as an act of resistance — a liberatory act — in a world that seeks to confine us all to an oversimplified view of what it is to be human.
There are many reasons this society wants us to be completely quantifiable. For the marketplace and statistical analysis, it would be so much easier if we were digital — every detail of our lives reducible to a one or a zero, an “M” or an “F” — an us or a them. For us to be really good consumers of this culture, we need to be willing to make ourselves small enough to fit into the boxes on all the forms.
It is useful for people who value profits and efficiency and the bottom line to have boxes and categories in which to place us. But human beings and our lives are so much more than that. When Rita Nakashima Brock notices and lets us know that…”the places in-between… are real places” she reminds us of the beauty, the strength and the utter necessity of all that lies between the little boxes of this culture.
Interstitial integrity is the heart of my story. The muscles, sinews, ligaments, and fibers that hold us together are the strength and real substance of the body. Without them we would be piles of bones. It is an act of courage and an act of liberation to remember all of ourselves. Re-membering means being conscious of all the parts of ourselves that are too complex, too messy, too solid to be held by imaginary boxes. Reclaiming these parts of ourselves is the work of integrity, and integrity is one of the things we as individuals, and as a society, need most.
One doesn’t have to be transgender to know how it feels to be crushed into a role or a box that is uncomfortable and painful. This is the heart of every social justice movement. Women know how it feels to be defined in ways that do not hold their strength and value. Anyone whose skin is not white knows how it feels to be limited by others’ definitions of their place and power in the world. Gay, lesbian and bisexual people know how it is to be made small by prejudice and defined by only one small part of their whole being. All of us know. Even straight, white, men with healthy bodies and strong minds know the pain of being judged and limited by other people’s assumptions.
One doesn’t even have to be struggling with issues of identity to understand how it feels to be in-between. We all experience in-between times. Times when we are not sure we fit in one place or another. Times when change catches us by surprise, and we are left a little shocked and a little disoriented. These are in-between times, and they can be difficult, and yet, in-between places and times are also incredibly beautiful. They are full of possibility, and creative energy. They are places and times in which we get to make new choices about our lives. We can recreate ourselves, renewing our vision and our hope.
When I try to express the power and beauty of the in-between I am inspired by the brilliance and beauty of sunrise, and the quiet stillness of sunset. In these times between night and day, our vision adjusts, we take time to prepare for what lies ahead, and we enjoy the beauty of what is. Twilight is a real time, a beautiful time, and a necessary time. I don’t believe any of us would rather that night suddenly turned to full day, as if someone flipped a giant switch. The shock and the glare would be too much.
There is something special and needed about the in-between. When I look at the world and see evil, it is so often in the form of enforced duality. We are “us.” They are “them.” Men are from Mars. Women are from Venus. White people are one way; people of color, another. When I imagine a world where justice flows down like water, I see that flood washing away the categories, and leaving us all in the messy middle, together, as human beings. In one of my favorite readings from our hymnal, Judy Chicago imagined it this way:
And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another’s will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the Earth’s abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life’s creatures
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the Earth
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.
May it be so. May we be the ones that make it so. Amen, Ashé, and Blessed Be.[ii]
[i] Brock, Rita Nakashima. (1998). “Interstitial Integrity,” in Introduction to Christian Theology: Contemporary North American Perspectives, ed. Roger A. Badham Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 190.
[ii] Chicago, Judy (1974-79). The Dinner Party, art installation housed at the Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation. Also, #464 in Singing the Living Tradition.