Many of us know what the letters in “LGBTQ+” stand for, but what do we know about the experiences behind those letters? Join us for a special Pride service where the conversation begins.
Pride is Many Colors
by Chelsea Musson
This week marks the beginning of Pride Month, and for the next few weeks, we’ll be seeing flags and rainbows everywhere. For those of us that live as part of that rainbow all year ‘round, this time of year can bring about many different feelings: it can be exciting and liberating, it can be inspiring, and it can also be intimidating, especially for those who haven’t yet come out publicly.
In order to reflect this diversity of experience, instead of one big sermon today, you’ll be hearing three shorter ones; each one from a different perspective, with a different focus, because honoring pride month means honoring the many different things it means to many different people.
One of the beautiful things about this diversity within the LGBT+ community can also be one of the most challenging: everyone in the community isn’t always in agreement. Unlike the strawman of a unified “gay agenda”, the real community houses many different mindsets and perspectives, and one of the most obvious examples of this is our language. There are many different terms with small nuances of difference, as well as disagreement about when it is and isn’t appropriate to use similar terms. This can be especially confusing to people outside the community who aren’t immersed in these conversations the same way LGBT+ people usually are, and it makes it very easy to make mistakes.
One example of this is the word “queer”. It began as a slur, and then was eventually reclaimed by people in the LGBT+ community. Today, organizations focused on LGBT justice issues often have “queer” in their name, and the academic study of sexual and gender minorities is referred to as “Queer studies,” but if you were to poll everyone in the LGBT+ community, you would find a wide range of opinions on its use.
Personally, I love the word queer. It’s the word I use for myself, how I describe my identity to others, and also how I refer to the whole community. It’s the only word that functions as an umbrella term for all gender and sexual minorities, since “gay” only covers a small subset of people in the queer community. I love the word queer because it asks nothing of me; there’s nothing to justify or explain, I don’t need to divulge private information about my sex life, I don’t need to have all the answers, I can simply be whoever I am, and feel however I feel, and queer still fits perfectly.
However, my fondness for the term doesn’t negate other people’s negative feelings about it. Someone who had that word flung at them while they were being harassed or abused is going to have a different emotional response to it, and that’s okay. This diversity of thought is the reason why it can be a fraught word for people outside the community to use. It’s also why one queer person can’t give an ally blanket permission to use that (or any) word; no single person can stand in for the diversity of the entire queer community.
Queer isn’t the only word that people are divided about. There are quite a few words with debated definitions, or debates about the appropriate context for its use. This is because language is subjective; ask a group of 20 people to define basically any word, and you’ll get 20 slightly different answers. When you add to that our ever-expanding knowledge of human sexuality and gender, all the forgotten or erased history we’re rediscovering and the new breakthroughs we’re learning, you’re left with a complicated and inconsistent knowledge base spread out over the entire community.
Identity is also something extremely personal, where someone’s internal experience is much more important than how others perceive it, which can make it easy for others to mislabel. Regardless of how many times we tell people not to judge a book by its cover, we are all subject to that bias and we make assumptions about people’s sexuality based on who we see them involved with, and we make assumptions about their gender based on what they wear, just like we make assumptions about how much money someone makes based on the kind of car they drive. In order to truly understand someone else’s identity, we have to prioritize their understanding over our own perceptions, which can be especially difficult without practice. But, since someone’s internal experience is impossible to perceive, all we can do is listen and trust what they tell us.
This is why it’s not uncommon for people in the queer community to have two different answers on hand to explain their identity: a short answer, often a set of labels, that can give a general idea of the important points, and a longer answer that allows for the nuances of individual experience but needs a whole conversation and a good listener to be worth getting into.
One of the happy side effects of this complicated, subjective way of approaching language, is that most people understand that it’s impossible to do the right thing in every situation – not least because what’s right will change a lot depending on the situation. The only way to learn the right thing in a particular context is to ask, whether that’s by asking someone you know personally, or turning to the vast knowledge of the internet. The queer people I have the good fortune to know are overwhelmingly patient and understanding, happy to extend good grace and the benefit of the doubt to anyone who’s making a good faith effort to be respectful and understanding. The most important thing to do is just to listen when someone tells you who they are, past your assumptions based on their label, and accept wholeheartedly that they know best for themselves.
Also, as people learn and grow, their understanding of who they are and how they fit into society will naturally change. Having outdated information isn’t embarrassing; it just requires adjustment. Sometimes this is as commonplace as someone growing into a new identity as a parent after having a child, and sometimes it’s someone growing into a more nuanced understanding of their own sexuality, or deeper understanding of their gender identity. When we accept that people change and it’s okay not to know all the answers, we honor that important third principle and allow space for both ourselves and others to engage in lifelong growth.
There’s no finish line, no “perfect ally” prize to collect once we do a certain number of things right. Being part of the queer community, interacting with the queer community, it teaches us about honoring diversity and inclusion, not because it teaches us the right answers, but because we learn to ask the right questions, and more importantly, how to listen to the answers.
by Rowan Fixemer
Hi. My name is Rowan Fixemer, and at this time, my pronouns are they/them. I’m here to offer a peek into what the process of gender transition can mean to a person who is at the precipice of this journey. Gender transition is a lengthy, difficult, yet life-affirming process where people match their bodies and lives to their correct gender. Today, I’ll tell you about facing transition through my perspective as someone who is at the beginning of this journey.
At this time, I identify as nonbinary. In my case, “nonbinary” means that I feel more male than female, but I don’t know if I’ll ever feel totally male. That remains to be seen. Being called a woman has always made me uncomfortable. When I was in high school, I loved the word “androgynous,” but it only explained my aesthetic, not my feelings. In my mid-20s, I learned that people who were born as girls—today, we say assigned female at birth—can transition, like Chaz Bono. I knew that people born as boys could get surgeries, but I didn’t know that it could go the other way. I filed that information away, because I still wanted to fit society’s norms, even though I felt butch in a heterosexual marriage.
The Choice to Transition
A few years ago, I learned about being nonbinary, and things made more sense. I learned that many nonbinary people choose not to undertake medical transition, but many do. In my case I’m going to physically transition.
The choice to transition can be excruciating. I know people who lost access to their kids, lost jobs, and whose marriages fell apart. And yet, every single one of these people chose identity over security. It’s not as simple as that, though. Some people must choose security over identity, which has lifelong consequences to their mental and emotional wellbeing. There are reasons the suicide rate is high among trans people. On the other hand, there are many trans people whose lives have considerably improved after transition. Learning about people’s experiences has given me perspective as I look ahead toward my own transition.
I have a safe, fairly comfortable life. My husband and I will have our 22nd anniversary on June 19th. We have three children, 3 cats, a mortgage, and van payments. I have been a stay-at-home parent for almost 19 years. One would think that even if I question my gender, there is little advantage to pursuing transition. And yet, I’ve been facing this reality for a while. Although, I’m lucky enough to be more secure than many who transition, it scares me. I have lots of support, but I see and hear the stories about the horrible things that can happen to trans people. Perhaps it would help to have more positive stories in the news as well.
Why I Didn’t Fit
Sometimes, people ask what makes me question my gender. This is a private subject, but there are things I don’t mind sharing. I do have dysphoria, but not severe, like so many trans people. My voice never sounded right, although voice coaching has helped. I’ve always hated looking in the mirror because I my face never looked right. It finally hit me that it’s because I do have a feminine face, and I don’t like it. My musculature has never felt or looked right either. I sometimes get a mental picture of looking like my dad did when he was my age, with his nicely-defined muscles for somebody who didn’t work out.
While I have a lot of stereotypically feminine interests, I also enjoy activities that are stereotypically masculine, like riding at the BMX bike track, where I broke my wrist two weeks ago. I’ve also played hockey, bowled, tried softball, and so on. As a teenager, I wanted to play sports with boys but knew better than to ask. I was also set on becoming an Indiana State Trooper, like my grandpa. People will say that lots of cisgender girls and women go through the same things, but this is not the same, at least not for me. When you couple these feelings with some of the other body dysphoria that I won’t go into, it adds up: I am not a woman.
When I first identified as nonbinary, I told myself that I was not interested in any sort of transition. As I settled more into acceptance of my identity, though, I began to realize that social and medical transition might be right for me.
The decision to transition isn’t easy. Given my low social risk factor, one would think that I don’t have much to lose. However, I worry for my kids. People in the community will find out, so there is a chance that my kids could face backlash. On the other hand, choosing to pursue who I am shows my children the importance of being your authentic self. If I’m ashamed of a part of who I am or feel like I have to hide that, then what message does that send to my kids?
Medical transition is the other big issue. It starts with hormone treatment—testosterone – also called “T.” The most obvious effects will be a lowering of my voice, the eventual growth of facial hair, and potential balding, as well as hair everywhere else. There is fat redistribution and an increase in muscle mass. All of this takes place over many years and is called “second puberty.” Eventually, strangers will see me as a man. Some of these changes are reversible, but most are not. If I were to detransition, my face and muscles would go back, my voice would stay lower, and I’d be stuck with the hair situation.
Another factor is my household. The kids and my husband are supportive. Something we have to face, however, is that he’ll be seen as a gay man. Everyone who transitions is faced with redefining their sexual orientation, as are any romantic partners they have. It can be an uncomfortable conversation.
As “safe” as my path appears, transitioning can be dangerous. Some transgender minors are sent to “conversion therapy” (an abhorrent horror show that is now outlawed in several states) or kicked out of their homes. Some transgender adults lose everything, including their own lives. Fortunately, more social acceptance is helping to reduce the number of sad outcomes.
With more compassion and open hearts, transitioning can be made easier as trans people are welcomed into their communities. Today, I am using my own story as an example of somebody who has a low risk profile and still carries a lot of trepidation. Imagine somebody who has higher risk but feels that need so intensely that they fly in the face of that risk and embrace who they are no matter the consequences. That’s a heck of a lot more bravery than I will ever possess. I will do all I can to be here for them. I hope you will too.
The Orange Shoes
by Susan Goldberg
This and last year are lacking in the usual community festivities of June, as Pride month is tempered by the restrictions of the pandemic. But I want to explore the parade tradition, as we will soon be able to fully celebrate again, and possibly even have an Elgin parade in October.
Several years ago, one of my straight girlfriends asked me, “Why pride? What’s the point of a pride parade, when everyone looks and acts so ridiculous?”
I had never really asked that question myself, and I took a minute to think about it … and realized it’s a two-part question.
First part … why pride? That’s simple. Pride is the flip side of shame. And like most minority groups, gays, lesbians and the rest of us in the LGBTAQ culture have experienced plenty of shame by the mainstream folks who also happen to be our parents, teachers, community leaders, our psychologists, our priests, and people passing us in the street.
And why does it look ridiculous? Because it’s a parade, silly! It’s a day to be joyful and sassy. To say … you can’t control me. Lighten up! Have some fun! Laugh a little!
Although the Pride holiday focuses on the GLBT community, I think it’s a good day to recognize and honor and advocate for people who face discrimination everywhere.
One of the Unitarian ministers I met when I was at ICUU leadership training in Transylvania was recently the victim, together with his partner, of a hate crime in London. The reason given by the perpetrator for the beating was orange shoes. The shoes were too loud. Too Orange. Too gay. So Rev. Julian Smith and his husband Andrew Leonard were beaten by some guy who didn’t like Andrew’s orange shoes.
So, that’s another reason we parade. Because we won’t let hate crimes and intimidation tactics defeat us. We will put the orange shoes back on and we will march.
Discriminated Against People
If you look up the term “discriminated against people” several lists will pop up from several sources. I’ve synthesized them, so they’re in no particular order and don’t represent just one region or category. So here goes.
A list of the most discriminated against groups in the world today:
- Indians and Pakistanis in sub-Sahara Africa
- Muslims in China
- Catholics in the USA
- Jews in Palestine
- Palestinians in Israel
- Handicapped and crippled people
- Native Americans
- Women and girls of Muslim countries
- The poor and homeless
- Mixed race people
- Overweight people
- People with dwarfism
- Transgender people
- And old people.
I’m sure if looked there would be more.
Remember high school?
When I was in high school, everybody was labeled by type.
- And one girl called Lurch.
Lurch was named after a TV character, a tall cadaverous mumbling monster.
Karen was her name. She was an awkwardly tall girl with thick glasses. Although teased incessantly, she never sulked. She had a smile for everyone and although she seemed practically friendless, she was friendly. I’m ashamed to remember it, to remember how cruel we were in our middle class parochial high school. Every morning started out with a prayer over the PA system, and every Friday there was a chapel service in the gym. Required attendance. With some bully always sitting next to Karen.
No teachers stepped up. We were left to ourselves.
The point is, anyone at any given time can become a discriminated against person.
And once you’ve felt the sting of being the outsider, the laughed at and ridiculed person, or worse, the person who has been physically attacked or experienced violence or vandalism or been let go from a job or dumped by a friend because of race religion or sexual identity, or killed or left for dead, you know the pain of all those people on that too long list.
UUs and Pride
We are religious liberals gathered in this room today, and we know that discrimination goes against our very nature. We covenant with each other to be a loving community.
Three of our principles :
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations and
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part…
All point to one same thing: pride. Pride of being a person on the planet, no matter the skin you came in. So be proud, whether you’re gay or not, be proud of yourself and the person sitting beside you and all the people you’ll ever meet.
We did not come out of the closet in mothballs. We did not come out of the closet to be kept wrapped in plastic garment bags or brown paper. We came out with our sequins, our feathers and furs, our platform shoes, our beads and leopard print pants, our tutus and crowns. We came out with the same celebratory accessories that you see at every other parade, some of them based in religious traditions, parades for football, Christmas, Easter, Founding days, Mardi Gras, Halloween, and Royal and state events. It’s our Independence Day. We are going to dress up. We are going to dance, sing, wave at the crowds, blow kisses, give free hugs, smile at strangers, and share a trust between people. We will put on the orange shoes. We will look at all of us and each other in the eyes and share a moment of humanity that says “We are equal.” And we mean to make that moment last. Gays, straights, indifferents, undecideds, we are all friends and family. I’m proud of that. I’m proud of all of us.