Note: This post should not be read as referring to any specific congregation, organization, office, or person within Unitarian Universalism. It is not intended to be blaming but, rather, to express my experience so far within Unitarian Universalism. I am grateful to every congregation where I have found a home since I came into our faith. That said, if we remain silent on the work that needs to be done, it will never be started.
This week, I attended the second retreat of TRUUsT (Transgender Religious professional Unitarian Universalists Together) at Innisbrook Golf and Spa Resort in Palm Harbor, Florida, where I was honored to be in community with around thirty fellow transgender, genderqueer, and other gender non-conforming ministers, religious educators, and other UU lay and ordained professionals from all over the United States and Canada in an environment of love, support, and acceptance. Reflecting on our time together, our association has a long way to go in truly celebrating trans* religious professionals rather than merely tolerating us.
I don’t intend to recount anyone else’s story in this post as it’s not mine to tell, although I do hope to collect some of those stories in the near future with permission. What I can reflect on is my own experience in Unitarian Universalism.
I left the Christianity of my youth largely because of its inability to find any room for a queer person like me within its beliefs. The God of my youth was largely intolerant, angry, and vengeful, and my deepest felt identities conflicted with the person my church told me I should be. This eventually lead to a spiritual exile where I doubted that religion was of any use to me.
Deep down, I yearned for a religious home where I could explore my beliefs while being celebrated for who I was. I found that place within our faith tradition, and even felt an old call to minister return. I believed I was home, and, for a time, I was. My sexuality and eclectic take on religion were not questioned or discriminated against, and I finally found the freedom to be me.
My journey was not over, though (is it ever, really?). It was within our walls I discovered what it meant to be genderqueer, and soon reconciled deep, internalized conflict over my assigned gender with the realization I need not force myself to be something I’ve never felt. It made so much sense: I didn’t have to choose between the male and female boxes. A rich variety of options are available, maybe as many as there are people.
I’ve begun my gender journey slowly, knowing that, after living three decades as a cisgender male, it would be very hard for people to get used to the new, authentic me. In the meantime, my gender identity has asked me to reimagine what it means to be a UU.
What does it mean to me to be a genderqueer Unitarian Universalist? It means I believe our faith tradition has the potential to radically transform our faith to be a place where people who don’t fit neatly within the traditional societal boxes can find not merely tolerance, or even acceptance, but celebration of the unique gifts and perspectives I and other trans* and genderqueer people bring to the world. It means we recognize the common humanity within each of us, and aren’t held back by our own limited experience or the fear that our neighbors won’t understand, and we affirm such uniqueness by opening ourselves up to new possibilities for existence.
When we boil it down, this is what most of us who converted to Unitarian Universalism were seeking: a place where we need not live within the narrow boxes society tells us we must exist in, whether that be a theological, sexuality, gender identity, or lifestyle box. I believe this is the great strength of our faith: to act as a container where the boxes can be opened and critically examined for the sham they often are.
Sadly, I believe many of our congregations, as well as the movement in general, have failed to live up to our ideals when it comes to folks with non-traditional gender identities and expressions. This shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does; after all, we all operate within a cultrual system that does not recognize any genders beyond those contructed from hormones and genitals. As a result, we’ve often allowed fear of the unknown and misunderstanding to guide our action rather than the radical love our faith, at its best, is capable of. Rather than learning about what we don’t understand, we lash out against it, time and time again reliving the scripts of professionalism, respectability politics, cissexism, trans-misogyny, and the gender binary.
This week had an unexpected influence on me, though. Despite the pain I have experienced from disappointed expectations and hopes, it’s also allowed me to see that there is joy to be found, and I love our association all the more for it. Yes, I minister within a very imperfect system, one that may never completely live up to its potential, but I also recognize that most people really are doing the best they can given the system they are in. And maybe, just maybe, together, we will one day shift the cultural landscape in North America that oppresses so many.
I am called to be be a minister. I find spiritual home within Unitarian Universalism. I’m also genderqueer. I do not believe these things are necessarily in conflict, and I want to challenge all of us to build Beloved Community where everyone can find true welcome.