God is Trans – Sermon July 15 2018

First Reading – From William Ellery Channing’s Likeness to God

Second Reading – God Says Yes to Me by Kaylin Haught 

Sermon – God is Trans 

A couple of weeks ago, I got into a fight with a stranger on Facebook. It’s not a usual thing, I swear.  It’s never worth it, I know.

But the post – it crossed a line. It wasn’t just wrong, or offensive. It was life-threatening.

A friend from high school posted a video titled: Pediatrician shuts down leftists on puberty blockers.

The pediatrician, it turns out, was the President of the American College of Pediatricians – which in case you don’t know it, is a small group of doctors who left the mainstream American Academy of Pediatricians because they didn’t agree that gay parents aren’t a health threat to their adopted children.

In the video, this “expert” describes how boys are boys, and girls are girls – it’s determined by biology, because science.  She shows a lot of science-y videos that “prove” that doing anything to mess with biology, especially in terms of children and youth who identify as trans –was equivalent to child abuse and/or mutilation.

“This is the sort of video that contributes to the high suicide rate for trans people. I know you care about people and science. [she is a nurse]  But this isn’t caring, or science.”

I even included helpful links to some articles from Scientific American.

She never responded.

What I got instead was Random Other Guy.  You know Random Other Guy.

His post was basically: She’s a pediatrician. What’s not science about it?  “The articles you shared seem pretty ‘convenient.’”

I was like…..so….Scientific American is not science any more?

I wish I could say that at this point, I let it go.

thumb image

“This is not a trend, or just about some random desire for so-called progress. Unless you mean progress in our compassion.” And then I took it up a notch.

“You seem to be confusing gender and sex. Sex is biological. It’s about parts and chromosomes. Even there, the existence of intersex people disproves the idea of a strict binary.  But then, gender.  Gender is about the combination of our relationship with our body, along with our identity – as in, our internal experience, and also our expression – like, how we present ourselves.  These three things together are our gender – and each of them have all sorts of variations and combinations in people – whether you want them to or not. Having particular biological sex parts really has no automatic predictor in terms of a person’s gender identity.  There are trends, of course, but even then, there’s a lot of diversity.”

I had a lot to say…..as did he.

He acknowledged that gay people were fine, and even could, from his perspective, marry.

But that all this that I was describing was simply nonsense.  Non-factual. Non-rational….

The argument went on for a week, or so. Which in Facebook terms is like….10 years.

Never too rough.  But also, I know you’re shocked, but….neither of us converted the other

Eventually I had to just stop. Heart emoji.  Praying hands emoji.

I’ve thought about the exchange a lot since then. Mostly because it made me realize how much I’ve forgotten.  I forgot how deeply entrenched ideas about gender are, how pervasively they impact our world – how we see ourselves, and others, how everything fits together – and how unconscious this can be.

How hard it is to undo these ideas. I forgot that other people – most people have not had years of dialogue and education – workshops and movies on gender, college and graduate school classes….let alone personal relationships with people all across the gender spectrum.

I forgot that most people have not known children and teenagers personally who have struggled with their gender, and whose only path away from suicide was to come out and to find acceptance, including parents and doctors willing to help them align their bodies with their inner realities.

I forgot how obvious it can seem that boys are boys and girls are girls – and how anything else would seem like…. nonsense.

And, most of all I forgot that back when I knew that friend from high school, I might’ve totally agreed with that guy.

See, I grew up in a small town in a remote corner of Washington state.  I grew up Catholic.  Surrounded by loggers, and mill workers, and fishermen. People with really strong ideas about gender.

And, also, in my small town every year, starting from when I was 13 – we hosted a big conference for what I understood then as cross-dressing men.

Now I realize it was much more broadly for people who had been assigned male at birth and yet were in some way or another gender-transgressive – cross-dressers, drag queens, trans women, and everything beyond or in between.

There were workshops around fashion, and make up, and also support groups.  We always knew it was coming because the local paper would run a front page story about it.

It was held at the restaurant and hotel owned by one of my parents’ good friends, the restaurant where I waited tables through high school and some of college.

Sometimes for date nights, my parents would go with their friends to dinner there just with the hopes of spotting a glimpse of people attending the conference.  It was the thing to do each time they were in town. Remember….small town.

They were strange, and fascinating.

Why did they do it? What did it mean? Did they want to be women? Did their wives know?

We did not lack compassion, my town.  Not really.  They were welcomed back every year – and they are still coming, every year.  We weren’t cruel, not overtly.  But we were – confused.

Which is actually an entirely appropriate place to be, most of the time, when it comes to gender.  Gender is confusing.  Gender norms and expectations attempt to stabilize and make rational and predictable what is in reality most often fluid, complex, highly personal, and often, yes – strange.

We apply and enforce these boxes and categories…….Like activist/comedian and TED Talk presenter Sam Killerman describes:  We’re taught that “Boys are aggressive, impetuous, good at math, love the color blue. They get dirty, rough house, play sports, not house.  Boys can grow up and be whatever they want. There is no bar too high, or goal too far away, unless they want to be a nurse, ‘cuz that’s just gay.  Girls are passive, docile, natural caretakers, love the color pink, born to be good bakers.  They hate bugs, love hugs, and are better at vacuuming rugs.  Girls grow up to be moms, leave the other jobs to dads. Unless they want to be a teacher, a nurse, a receptionist, or a clerk. Two options to describe every person in this world,  7 billion individual identities, simplified into two.”

Gender is the original polarizing force!

Not only do we learn these categories and assumptions, we become recruited into the enforcement squad – usually without our explicit consent or even total awareness.

For example, my almost-13-year-old daughter is really into make-up.  And babies.  She loves babies.  Well, a couple of years ago she told us she was really into soccer, too.  And we were like, ha. You know there’s no make up there, right?

abby wambach GIF

We signed her up but were pretty sure she’d hate it….and she proved us wrong at every turn.  It turns out she is really into soccer – especially the part where she can aggressively steal the ball from other girls and kick

it really hard down to the other end of the field.

It is absurd that it would come as a surprise in any way that a person can both love make up and want to destroy their opponent.  After all I know – the gender-binary should be obliterated in my mind….

Except that this whole time there has also always been this other campaign directed at me – and all of us – all the time.  This campaign to harden the categories, to keep the separation, to widen the divide.  Advertising, literature, movies, messages from church and my family, doctors, therapists – from school – children can be the most serious in their gender-policing! – questions from friends and strangers, helpful advice in parenting books and from fellow parents.

It’s like, the water we all swim in.

So that today, even as the theory and the personal stories around gender as a spectrum have exploded into the mainstream, that default of the old images – just will not go away.

And suddenly I’m a front-line recruit to the gender binary police force. We all are.

And this is where we come to God. Because God – works the same way. Or rather, images of God work the same way.

45 years ago Mary Daly, in her groundbreaking book – Beyond God the Father described how “the biblical and popular images of God as a great patriarch in heaven, rewarding and punishing according to his mysterious and seemingly arbitrary will, has dominated the imagination of millions over thousands of years.”

(It is the water we swim in.)

Daly goes on to describe the life-destroying consequences of this default-image of God as Father.

Image result for mary daly if god is male then male is god

In 1997 Bill Jones picked up similar themes in his book, Is God a White Racist? But just around the violent consequences of having imaged God as white –  another under-explored default.

How we image God always has huge consequences.

“We” – as in, our society, our culture – and also “we” – our Unitarian Universalist faith, and we in this congregation, and also we, as in us, individually, personally – as in those sub-conscious, implicit, default images that come to mind without even thinking about it.

And by “God,” I mean: the ultimate, the infinite, the big everything of everything past, present, future – noun, and verb.  The big connecting force that we don’t have words for.

This is theology – literally, God-Talk.  To put words on things there aren’t words for.  To attempt to understand something that is by-definition impossible to understand.

How we image God always has huge consequences. Even for those of us who trend more atheistic, for two major reasons.  First, because – just like with gender, our subconscious images dictate our thinking and our choices more than we often realize.   So that when things fall apart in our own lives – or when the world around us feels impossibly broken and heart-wrenching – that is, when we get to asking the big questions of why, and how, and where we can find hope, or help now – we can end up inadvertently relying on outdated, oppressive – and worst of all empty image of God – that is, empty, unhelpful notions of ultimate meaning, and purpose. And in these times, we all need access to help that feels actually helpful, tools that actually equip us to keep moving forward, keep living.

And secondly, because none of us can escape these waters. We who live in the US in 2018.  Whether we choose to engage in the conversation or not, let alone whether or not we “believe” in these notions of God – we all live with the emotional, social, and legal fall out of how God is being imagined and languaged today. All of us.

Which is why I’ve always been an advocate for atheists becoming the most fluent in God-talk.  To think of God-talk as the ultimate humanist project. Because despite the sometimes-needy portrayals of God in the Hebrew Bible, God talk is not actually for God.

God – whatever God is – doesn’t need our God talk. God-talk is for, and even I’d say – about humans.

This is in many ways, what William Ellery Channing,  the sometimes-noted Father of Unitarianism (the water we all swim in), was after in his sermon, “Likeness to God.”

It was the early 19th century in New England, and Calvinism was all the rage. Humans were worthless worms, incapable of change – goodness was in God, and God only.  By God’s grace some humans were saved, but that had nothing to do with human effort, or human choice.  Humans were uniformly, eternally wicked.

So Channing, from his pulpit in 1828, was like that is ridiculous.  Except the 8500 word version.

His argument was primarily an epistemological one – the question of how we know what we know – as in, how do we know what we know about God, and how do we know what we know about humans? Channing basically drew a line from one of these to the other, God-Humans, saying  “Whence do we derive our knowledge of the attributes and perfections which constitute the Supreme Being? We derive them from our own souls.”

He was saying: what we know about God we know because of what we know in ourselves. Which means, we cannot describe God as good without it being a reflection of the goodness in ourselves. If we claim God to be good, then we must also affirm ourselves as good.

Though Channing’s preaching led to the official start of Unitarianism, he was not the first in our tradition to critique traditional theological claims – we trace our story through the great many individuals and communities who have historically as Rebecca Parker describes: “dissented from notions of God as a controlling and wrathful deity who demands obedience,” and those who “let go of dogmas that didn’t make rational sense; and critiqued views of God that sanction unjust social arrangements – such as the paternalistic old white man in the clouds who reinforces white male dominance.”

In place of these life-demeaning images and ideas, our religious tradition has attempted to offer alternatives – ones that seek to offer what the gospel of John describes as the point:  abundant life, for all.

Which is why – the first time I heard the saying “God is Trans,” I reacted with a mix of both delight, and disappointment.

Image result for united church of christ god is transgender

Disappointment, because: Why didn’t we come up with that? I mean – I know why – we take ourselves out of the conversation all the time.  We are afraid to do such direct God-talk in public in case we’d fail to convey our atheist welcome.  But the conversation goes on….this humanist conversation whose consequences play out with humans. It goes on.  Without us.

But then mostly…delight.

God. Is. Transgender.  Yessssss Yes yes.  It’s such a fabulous Unitarian Universalist notion.

For God to be affirmed as something that everyone wants to nail down and categorize, but that actually cannot be categorized – to say that no, God is actually infinitely complex, transgressive, often confusing, and even troubling – sometimes on purpose.

For God to be that which refuses polarization, over-generalization – and for the divine image to be centered with the queer, the outcast – to affirm the trans experience as beautiful, holy, sacred – as ultimate – especially today.

It feels liberating, life-saving.

One of the first things our President did, as he took office, was to re-instate a transgender military ban and rescind Title IX protections for transgender students in public schools. And one time – he says it was just a joke.  But he said – about the Vice President, when it comes to people who are trans – or actually any members of the queer community – “he wants to hang them all.”

That the past three years have been the deadliest on record for trans people should be no surprise, to any of us.

To imagine that this is where God is – in a time such as this. To proclaim boldly that God is Trans – is radical, liberating, and life-saving.

Even more, to allow this image of God as trans to challenge us to go further – in our imaginations around gender, and God, to push ourselves to expand the internal unconscious message for both – to change out this water we’ve been swimming in (I thought, maybe this is what we should actually mean when we say we’ll drain the swamp?), to refuse to be drafted to either the gender- or God-norms enforcement squad….

But instead to offer – with some intention – an alternative, a life-giving theology that welcomes the fullest possible spectrum of humanity, and of divinity – and to maintain what Albert Einstein called a “holy curiosity” for all that remains mysterious and out of our view, and out of our control…it feels liberating, life-saving, and most of all, it is who we are.

This is our tradition, our story, our faith, our practice, and it is our calling as Unitarian Universalists today.

And so let us proclaim, boldly, joyfully, with courageous love, and as Unitarian Universalists:

God is Trans.


About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley is relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy of pop culture (reflected in this blog by random posts on Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Scandal, Orphan Black, or the latest Marvel movie). She has an audacious ambition for the liberal church, believing in its capacity to transform lives and our world by way of hyper-local relationships and partnerships that inspire the unleashing of courageous love. She's all in on adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, and finds solace in the trails in and around Fort Collins Colorado where she serves with the brilliant Rev. Sean Neil-Barron as one of the ministers of the Foothills Unitarian Church. She and her amazing partner of over 20 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (14) and Josef (12) who both relish and resent being PKs, and who keep her grounded, frustrated, inspired, and humbled, everyday. She is basically obsessed with her puppy, a large sized mutt, Charlie.
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1 Response to God is Trans – Sermon July 15 2018

  1. Mary Pat Aukema says:

    It is my wish that this sermon never goes away….so I am printing it out. I hope others do as well. Nothing is perfect, but this comes close.


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