Monday, March 4, 2013

My Leadership Conference

Recently I was selected by my Unitarian Universalist church to attend a week-long leadership conference. "Leadership?" I thought. "What does that have to do with me?" But I was, of course, flattered and I decided to go and see what it was like.

They sent us an online questionnaire to fill out: what church I belong to, am I a vegetarian, etc. They also asked me my gender. This was a bit of a problem. I suspected that they would be assigning people roommates of the same gender. And the thing is: I identify as a trans man. If I put "male" as my gender they would expect me to share a room with some guy I've never met, and that made me nervous. If I put "female" . . . well, that wasn't happening.

Fortunately, the conference organizers had set up a blank field where I could fill in my gender. I wasn't being forced to choose "male" or "female." So I wrote in "transgender." And I thought to myself, "that might cause some confusion."

A week later I got a call from one of the conference organizers. I understood her to say that no one else who had ever attended this conference had ever specified a gender that was something other than "male" or "female." She was not sure where to put me. She was very polite and kept repeating that they just wanted to do whatever it would take to make me feel comfortable. But the sad truth is that she was making me feel very uncomfortable.

I want to make it absolutely clear that I don't blame her. It's not her fault that she had never had to deal with this issue before. It's not her fault that there was no policy in place. It's not her fault, because none of us really know what gender non-conformity means or how to handle it. I blame society. Nonetheless, it was an unpleasant experience for me. To use the terminology we were taught at this leadership conference: she was feeling anxiety because of a disruption in homeostasis, and her anxiety infected me.

She was very polite and I was polite too. I said "I want to thank you and the other conference organizers for setting up the questionnaire so that people could fill in their own gender." I am sincerely grateful for that, because if I'd been forced to select "male" or "female" things would have been even worse. She told me they had set it up that way on purpose because they wanted to be mindful and considerate of non-gender-conforming people. However,  it did occur to me after I'd gotten off the phone with her that, although they had set the form up that way, they obviously hadn't made any plan for what to do if someone actually took advantage of the opportunity they'd been given to list a non-standard gender. They had decided it was a good idea in theory. But in practice . . . they hadn't really come to terms with it.

She and I discussed the various options. In the interests of brevity I won't list them all - you can probably figure out what they were. We ended the conversation with her promising to find a solution. I closed my phone and then started freaking out. She had said that she didn't know where to put me. She had sounded kind of unsure about the whole situation. I had no idea what was going to happen.

The days went by and the time for the conference approached. I didn't hear back from her and I was scared to call her. In the most fearful part of my mind I fully expected to show up at the conference and be told, "Sorry, we don't have accommodations for you, you can't stay here. And I don't know how you're going to get back to the airport." You may think that sounds crazy. But discrimination and prejudice against trans people are still rampant in our society, even in Unitarian Universalist churches. And it wouldn't even take outright prejudice. Discomfort and fear of change cause many well-intentioned people to fail in their attempts to be inclusive. (Of course, my own insecurities about whether I was "qualified" to attend this Leadership Conference also came into play.)

The conference started on Sunday. On Saturday the thought occurred to me: "If they assign two men or two women to a room, then that assumes they have an even number of men and women. But sometimes they must have a person left over." That made me feel better. I was the person left over. I felt like I had a right to bring my transgender self to the conference after all. Although I didn't know if the person assigning bedrooms had thought of this.

The big day came and I arrived at the conference. They had put me in a single room which shared a bathroom with another person. (In fact, this person and I came together, from the same church. But we didn't know each other at all and I hadn't felt comfortable asking if they would share a room with me.) That problem was solved. Now I got to move onto the second problem.

Here's the deal: I'm an effeminate trans man. I have not yet resorted to hormones or surgery in order to "pass." This means that people get my gender wrong all the time. In my congregation people mostly get it right now. And they respect me enough to have selected me to attend this leadership conference, so I'm pretty comfortable with them. Now I was faced with a new group of people and I had forgotten what that was like. Suddenly I remembered the days when I wanted to write my gender pronoun on my forehead. The worst part is when someone is paying you a compliment but they get your gender wrong. So you have to simultaneously feel flattered, cringe, and tell yourself that they didn't intend to upset you.

So. There I was at the leadership conference, feeling uncertain of my qualifications as a "leader." I'm sure many of my fellow attendees felt the same way. I have the impression that some of us were new to our leadership roles - and even the people who had more experience were being faced with new concepts, which some of them found challenging. I believe the conference organizers wanted to create an experience that was both challenging and rewarding. The term "boot camp" was used more than once. For me it was extremely rewarding and extremely challenging. But I had an extra challenge.

And to make matters worse, these are Unitarian Universalists. They practice a liberal faith. They believe in social justice. They're constantly talking about "the beloved community." It's hard for me to believe in the beloved community when it just got done telling me "We're not sure if we have a place for you to stay." And although I know that people don't mean to hurt my feelings by getting my gender wrong, it still hurts.

I also believe in social justice, but my primary social justice struggle consists of getting my fellow UUs to accept me as a human being and hopefully gain some small understanding of what it's like to be trans. So often, UUs and other liberals focus on the social ills that need to be fixed out there. The idea that we might have issues right here doesn't sit well with some people. I also feel like many liberals enjoy talking about the perfect world we will have someday, when all these problems are solved. I can't afford to wait for that day to come. Instead of a world that is perfect someday, I need a world that is more bearable right now.

I know that none of us are perfect. The truth is that even trans people don't always get along with other trans people and the trans community itself is far from perfect. Maybe it's because I've been a loner most of my life, but I'm not really sold on the whole community thing. For me it's like "eating healthy and exercising." It's good for me, it makes me feel better, but it doesn't come naturally to me and it's always a bit of a chore. (As it happens, eating healthily and exercising is easy for me. But I hear other people complain about it.)

Bernice Johnson Reagon once described the difference between being in your community (or your home) and working outside of your community (coalition):
It is very important not to confuse them—home and coalition. . . . Coalition work is not work done in your home. Coalition work has to be done in the streets. And it is some of the most dangerous work you can do. And you shouldn’t look for comfort. . . . In a coalition you have to give, and it is different from your home. You can’t stay there all the time. You go to the coalition for a few hours and then you go back and take your bottle wherever it is, and then you go back and coalesce some more.
This UU community is not my home. It is a coalition. It is outside of my comfort zone much of the time. I think Unitarian Universalists understand on some level that this is a coalition. We know that we comprise a vast diversity of religious beliefs and identities of all kinds. But many of us seem to be hoping it can also be a home. That's tricky.

People like me have to step up, be open about our gender identity, and work with people in these communities who have either no idea or bad ideas about what it means to be trans. Otherwise things will never get better. But it's hard. (Not as hard as it used to be, though. . . . I couldn't do this without the work already done by all the people who came before me.) For the foreseeable future I'm committed to my church community, which requires that I be willing to struggle. It's not always easy and it's rarely comforting.

The conference lasted for 5 days and gradually things got better. I met someone else who was openly trans (they had left their gender field blank.) I explicitly said "I identify as transgender" to a small group of people at the breakfast table and apparently the news circulated. By the end of the week some people were referring to me with the correct pronoun and I felt much better.

I also had some great conversations with people (misgendered or not) and overall I had a wonderful time. We all said we were having a wonderful time. But part of me was separate from the experience we were all having.

On the website for this leadership conference is a quote from one Rev. Frank Thomas:
Leadership is the spiritual process of discerning what one believes (clarity), acting on that belief in the public arena (decisiveness), and standing behind that action (responsibility) despite the varied responses of people (courage).
When I read that I thought, "As a trans person I know exactly what that's like." By coming out I achieved clarity (including the painful realization that I'd been lying to myself for 30 years.) I acted with decisiveness and took responsibility (which involved putting my life on the line.) And every day that I face the world as a gender-non-conforming person I show courage. It's hard. I was pleased to learn that these qualities (which every LGBT person must possess) are "leadership" qualities. It will be interesting to see what I do with them outside of my personal life. I'm looking forward to the discovery.

I don't believe in the "beloved community." But I'm willing to act as if I do believe. Because I can see that the alternative would only make things worse.


  1. Thanks for sharing this.

    At SUULE, I came directly from NC Comedy Arts Festival, where for reasons of economy, four of us shared a room, two women and two men (one man straight, one gay). It might have helped that we knew each other and trusted each other, but I sensed no tension at all.

    This was a first for me, but it turns out, with a bathroom separated by a door from the bedroom, it was not at all difficult to maintain privacy.

    In any case, I would have welcomed you as a room mate, and I am confident there are many other men who would have felt the same.

    How would the SUULE folks avoid assigning you to a room with someone who would find this awkward? Would it be pandering to prejudice and fear to even put a question about this on the registration form?

    I know you didn't sign up to be a missionary or crusader when you began to come to terms with your gender identity, but the fact that you can't always pass through life without revealing your status means that you are confronting (and often defeating) prejudice just by being who you are. It may be that you are one of those who has "greatness thrust upon them."

    I send you much love.

  2. Thanks Walter. I think it does make a big difference if the roommates know each other.

    My personal opinion is that two (or more) people who identify as "non-gender-conforming" should be given a room together, and if there is only one such person they can either get a single room or make arrangements to share with a friend. I don't think it would be advisable to put a question such as "are you willing to room with a gender-non-conforming person?" on the registration form.

    I consider myself very fortunate to be living at a time when our society is more accepting of transgender and gender-non-conforming people than it has ever been before. (Maybe it's not such a big freaking deal after all.)