Queering Gender

I was only seven, and already I got that it made no sense. I was only seven, and already I got that it made no sense.
More than anything that year, I wanted to carry the cross up the center aisle, or at least a candle – I wanted to go in front of the priest, and behind the lay leader,I just wanted to be there, walking in that processional that opened Sunday mass. I wanted to wear the white robe, and the rope around my waist, and I wanted to sit beside the priest, up there in the special seat. I wanted to help swing the silver container back and forth, you know that one that makes everything smell holy, like Jesus after the Magi visited.  It didn’t have to be Sunday. I would’ve settled for a weekday mass.

But it didn’t matter, there was no day of the week when girls could be altar boys.  Boys – those stinky, greasy, goof-offs, none of whom could recite the rosary by heart.  Boys got to sit in the special seat.  Boys got to open the book of prayers, and see up close the flat stale wafer turning magically into Jesus’ body.  Boys could be altar boys, not girls….

No matter how many books I read, or extra classes I took or how well I demonstrated my serious devotion and heart of service – there was nothing I could do about it.  Because I was a girl.

Being the proto-feminist and proto-Unitarian Universalist that I was, I decided to write a letter to the person I figured was in charge of such decisions, my Archbishop. I explained in rational, reasonable terms just how ridiculous these rules were, and how capable I was. I left out the part about the boys being stinky.

I guess I didn’t really think he’d write back – which, he didn’t.  And I didn’t really think he’d change the rules (I was a senior in high school when that happened).  I wrote to him because I wanted him to know that someone was paying attention. Someone saw the truth.  Even if it was a seven year old in a small town in rural Washington, I wanted him to know that someone realized, these rules made no sense.   We could do so much better.

We learn gender early, and then throughout our lives.  We learn the rules – religious and relational, professional and proper.  We learn how gender goes along with sex – sex parts, I mean, though the other, too.  Gender is not the same as anatomy, but we learn it “should” be, it “normally” is.

Boys have a penis; girls have a vagina – and boys and girls each have roles, and behaviors, and outfits to go along with these parts.

I was probably 12 or 13 when I realized, I was too big for a girl, and I don’t just mean my body. I took up too much space, talked too loudly, wanted to win too badly, enjoyed it too much when I did.  Like the mom from our reading describes – up to a certain point, a girl who has some “boy” qualities is acceptable, appreciated even, but there’s a line.  No one told me that I’d crossed it, but I knew.

For most of us, and for much of our lives, these sorts of gender-learning moments remain subconscious.  We learn gender mostly by osmosis, it seeps in, without us even realizing, like race, and class, and all sorts of other cultural norms. We don’t realize how much we’re learning and teaching and reinforcing and performing, until we’re all experts in a language that doesn’t yet have words, hardly even knowing what we know.

If you came of age sometime after 1990, we’ve come to the point in the sermon you’ve likely been anticipating ever since you heard I’d be preaching on gender.  The part where I talk about Judith Butler.

The rest of you, depending on just how engaged you are in gender theory or feminist philosophy, may not have realized just how inevitable it was that at some point I’d say the name, Judith Butler.

She is the author of the book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, which was published in 1990, and almost immediately altered the whole conversation around gender and gender identity – so much so that it would be downright negligent to preach a sermon called “queering gender” that didn’t at least mention her and her work.
Gender Trouble is an incredibly dense and gorgeous piece of academic writing that I’m going to try to sum up in three short bullets: 1) Gender isn’t a fixed binary set at birth, it’s a continuum, and may or may not correspond to your biological sex;2) Gender isn’t something you are, it’s something you do – gender is “performative”; and finally3) The habitual way we perform gender in turn creates expectations and sets and re-sets norms around gender.  To put it another way, gender is culturally/socially constructed.
Judith Butler was on my mind when I first started watching the TV Series Mad Men, which tells the story of ad executives in New York in the 1960s.  And by ad executives, I mean ad men, thus the wordplay in the title.  The whole first season, I was sure that it had to be exaggerated – overly performed. Gender roles couldn’t ever have been that prescribed and pronounced…could they?

I asked this question out loud to my mother in law one day, because I knew she had watched it, and she was a young adult in the 60s, she was like, oh yeah. It was just like that.
My mouth dropped.
That’s for real? Men said that stuff to women, and it was ok?
She said, we didn’t really even think about it.

From my perspective, you know, someone who was 7 in 1983 and appalled that girls couldn’t be altar boys….there is no way that being a girl or a woman in the way Mad Men prescribes could happen “without even thinking about it.”   It would take a LOT of performance, like, Oscar-level.

But incredibly, for many of those growing up in the 50s and 60s, they didn’t really think about it.

And that’s one of the amazing tricks about gender – it’s so culturally prescribed, and profoundly variable based on the where and the when – and yet somehow it gets conveyed to us as if it is eternal and biologically pre-destined.  Like the air we breathe.
This is what Butler means by gender being “performative,”not that we consciously “perform” gender. But more, that we are trained, and re-trained, consciously and subconsciously, what it means to be a boy, or a girl – so much that we don’t even totally realize it’s happening.  Or at least, many of us don’t.
The late great peace activist, Dr. Vincent Harding, one of my professors in seminary, used to look over a room of predominantly white students and invite them to think about race.  Not someone else’s race, but their own.  He’d ask them to think about those moments when they first learned “race.”   The rules around race – who hangs out with whom, and why, and assumptions about behaviors, and roles.
For the people of color in the room, the stories were easy, and life-long.  For the white folks, it took a while. To push through what had been a “given” for most of their lives – the privilege of not having to think about race.

But soon enough, it happened.  Stories started to spill out.  Stories of little children realizing they couldn’t, shouldn’t be friends with that child.  Sneers both obvious and subtle from grandparents, neighbors, the tv news.  People were able to trace their lives by these stories – even white people: eager, open-hearted children becoming rule-bound, race-bound, rigid, fixed; and then as adults, attempting to unlearn, relearn, break open once again.

Our stories of learning gender aren’t exactly the same as race – but there’s a parallel.  Because for some of us, like my mother in law, we hardly think about it – there’s enough synergy in our genuine sense of self and what is culturally prescribed to keep these “lessons” subconscious.

But then for others of us, the rules of gender are a daily awareness of being at best, as Sean said last week – a gender spy.  Of course some spies pass more easily as natives than others, Some of us must learn to live in bodies that are not so easily disguised and therefore, dangerous.

Between these two ends of the spectrum, there’s all sorts of in between, and also variations across all of our lifetimes.  Most of us will have at least one experience when gender is barely a consideration, and at least another where gender and gender norms hit us and our spirit like a brick wall, stopping us in our tracks – Too often, we don’t do what I did as a 7 year old and think that the rule itself makes no sense, but rather more like what I did at 12– we think we must be the problem.

It isn’t until we are offered a whole new story – a new paradigm of possibility for gender expression, for life liberation – if by then our hearts aren’t too closed up in closets of shame, then we start to imagine it isn’t something in us that’s broken or bent, but that as Butler said, gender is much more complicated, that is to say, beautiful, and need not be restricted by labels, or boxes, pronouns or prior performance.  I was 18 when I first saw her, I said something embarrassing, something she’d tease me about endlessly for the next 23 years, and probably longer, we’ll see.  I didn’t know what to make of her, with her androgynous features, her intensity, and her girlfriend.  It was 1993, but I hadn’t read Judith Butler yet, I was just trying to wake up, trying to become, trying to tell the truth.

Except I didn’t even know what the truth was, which is not to say, it already existed, and I just had to do my best Christopher Columbus impression, and “discover” it.  That’s not how self-hood works, at least not in my observation, or experience.   The journey of self-discovery is not just a journey to understand, but also one that creates, so that when you go looking for your true self, it’s already changed, simply by your beginning.

The woman I met my freshman year in college – I didn’t even know that women could look or act like she did, not on purpose….it was like my brain exploded, and I was both terrified, and thrilled. My mom, bless her heart, used to ask me if my friend wanted to be a man, or to look like a man – “was she the man?” I used to get so irritated at her. But really, it is confusing – once gender gets “troubled,” once the lines are blurred – and in the past few decades, gender has been incredibly troubled, or queered, if you will.
I think about Mad Men, or watch the early 20th century women’s fashion scene in Wonder Woman (go see it, it’s fabulous), and then compare it to our world today…it’s amazing how much has changed.

You may have seen the Time Magazine cover story in March that explored how children and youth in the US today are claiming a great variety of labels to describe their gender – beyond male, or female, or even “trans”.  There’s also agender, gender fluid, gender queer, two-spirit, non-binary…. Just this past week, the state of Oregon officially added a third gender option for drivers’ licenses so that you can register as male, female, or non-binary – which is nothing compared to the gender options on Facebook – 50, last I checked.

The article in Time arrived a couple months after an even more in-depth consideration of gender printed in National Geographic and titled, “Gender Revolution.”  The cover shows a girl-presenting kid, maybe 9 or 10, whose story mirrors the story Marlo Mack tells about in her podcast How to Be a Girl.  A kid who feels not like a boy who likes “girl” things, but says insistently, I am a girl.

In our own congregation, we have had at least three of our youth come out as trans, and you’ll see the gender queer display in the foyer features one of our members, Kindra.
As National Geographic editor Susan Goldberg says, “everywhere we look, in the US and around the globe, individuals and organizations are fighting to redefine traditional gender roles, [and many people are] reject[ing] binary boy-girl labels [to] find their true identity elsewhere on a gender spectrum.”

While I certainly agree with her, what I appreciate most about Goldberg’s description is the word “fighting.”  Much has changed.  Gender has become in many ways less prescriptive and restrictive, but gender justice remains an active question, an ongoing struggle – a fight.

As a personal example, while I’m grateful to be serving in a denomination where women can process up the aisle…maybe not with a cross…we are in fact the only denomination in the US with majority female ministers.  It is not a simple thing to be a female-identified clergy person.  I am always aware that most of the world, even in our progressive community – holds an explicit or implicit understanding that ministers are male.  Not that many people say it of course – only a few have been so bold to remind me that although I’m a fine minister, and they like me, they just really prefer a man.

You may have noticed that on most days, I don’t try to fool you – as I told one member who asked me my first year why I always wear dresses – I like to push on the boundaries of what a minister looks like, and to be clear that not only can a minister be female, but also femme.

Last week Sean said that his goal was like Harvey Milk – to recruit you – and I’m no less evangelical in my aim.  Because it is a fight.  In fact, with the rise of Donald Trump, the forces of sexism, and misogyny, and gender policing have received a boost of renewed legitimacy. Which sounds like it’s a problem for women, but seriously, doesn’t it seem like the box for “acceptable male behaviors” just keeps getting smaller and smaller? It’s a problem for all of us.  And Time magazine covers not withstanding, check the statistics and stories about the violence, harassment and likelihood of suicide for gender non-conforming people and you’ll quickly realize that for many of our neighbors, it’s not simply a fun Sunday morning exercise to play with gender, it’s dangerous, and even life-threatening.

Which is why it’s time that we who affirm the inherent worth of all people, the inherent beauty of all gender expressions, and the free and ongoing search for our truest selves – it’s time for us to rise up, and like I try to do with ministerial expectations…. push back.  It’s time for us to remember, and share our stories where we learned gender, policed gender, struggled or rejoiced with gender; it’s time to come out about the ways we long to break gender norms in big or small ways; and it’s time to listen to all the kids out there writing letters and living lives trying to say once and for all: these rules make no sense.   Let us be the people that make space for us all to be free.

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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