Category Archives: Transgender

Exhausted With a Nagging Pain in the Heart

I woke up early this morning. I tried to go back to sleep for about an hour, but couldn’t manage it, though I am exhausted. All morning I’ve been yawning and my eyes feel like someone scrubbed them with hot desert sand, but I cannot sleep. I cannot find a way to unclench myself, to relax, to surrender.

Fear.

That’s not all. There is this nagging pain in my chest. Not the kind that makes you think, “heart attack!” but the kind that feels like there is a big soft lump wedged between my ribcage and my skin. It is a lump of tears that will not come, that I am afraid will come. Not the pretty trickle of a tear from the corner of an eye, but big, messy, ugly sobs with tears that run and puddle and soak the shirt and leave stains that don’t easily wash away.

Lamentation.

Fear and Lamentation have been my companions since yesterday morning when Chelsea Manning announced her new name and revealed her true self to the world. There was not even a full second to digest the news and wish her well before the first attack was unleashed. It was a relatively small one, just a slight pause and pointed emphasis on the word “her.” Just a pause and inflection that clearly  said, “I have to use this pronoun now, but I am only doing it because I’ve been told to.”

But now, twenty-four hours later, I am exhausted from carrying the sadness, physically worn from the way my body tightens and cringes as I read the increasingly ugly attacks. This morning, the lump of tears grew harder and more angry as I read that media outlet after media outlet is refusing to use feminine pronouns for Ms. Manning.

The New York Times has stated that they intend to change to feminine pronouns gradually because they don’t want to confuse their readers, even though it seems that making the change and being consistent from now on would be less confusing. NPR has announced it knows Ms. Manning’s gender better than she does herself. They have stated they won’t honor her identity until she is “physically female.” Ironic, since while she is imprisoned, she will not be given access to the medical care and treatment she needs to do that. Less reputable “news” sources will undoubtedly bring up her transgender identity for years–maybe forever–as “evidence” that Ms. Manning is “unstable” or “dishonest” or “lacks integrity.”

After sixteen years, I am just deeply tired of the dismissal and judgement and hatred. Even more, I am tired of watching my trans* siblings–especially my sisters of color–being dragged through hell in the media and on the streets. I am tired of watching us die, sometimes in brutal moments of extreme violence and sometimes the death-of-a-thousand-cuts of having our truth, our being, our bodies, and our lives devalued and ridiculed.

Today, I will do my best to carry on–to attend to my personal and professional responsibilities, meet deadlines, care for the people in my congregation–while bent under the weight of Fear and Lamentation, companions that I did not choose and only want to leave me–and all of us–alone.

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Neil Gaiman’s Beautiful Lie

Neil Gaiman’s latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is about many things. It is about childhood and magic and knowing and secrets and remembering. It is a story, but it is also about stories. It is these things—all set in the landscape of Gaiman’s childhood—and something more:  a strange but familiar dance between sweetness and sorrow, revelation and obfuscation, the need to remember and the fate that eventually, we all forget.

When I first began to write I was told by a wise poet friend that it was okay and even necessary, to lie. “All storytellers lie,” he said, “We lie to tell the truth.”  I realized then, and again when reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane, that the most powerful truths must be wrapped carefully in lies or we would not survive knowing them.

Gaiman’s book is this kind of lie.

That is why, for only the second time in my life, I find myself unable to write a simple book review. I cannot parse the plot for you or analyze the prose or even tell you in any straightforward way about what The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about. Instead, I can only return a truth for a truth, a story for a story, a lie for a lie.

 Once upon a time there was a little girl who had whole worlds inside her. Though she knew many things, she was a child and for that reason alone was assumed to know nothing at all. Every moment of every day she was taught unimportant things. She was taught how to behave. She was taught what to think. She was taught what to believe. She was taught that the worlds inside her were make-believe and could never be true.

 She was given a name, a role, and a set of rules. She was told that the name, the role and the rules were the only thing that mattered, the only things that were true. She learned to hide what she knew, and as she did, she became sullen and sad as her heart dried out and crumbled, bit by bit.

 When her heart was still supple and whole, she could see that kind Mr. Shellabarger who lived next door was not just an old man who loved his garden. And his wife, Alice, was not just an old woman who stayed hidden in the house because a disease made her tremble, but was the very same Alice who once fell through the looking glass. The girl knew that the reason Mr. Shellabarger sprayed his apple trees with garlic rather than poison pesticides was that he did not want to hurt the March Hare or Cheshire Cat that occasionally sat in the big tree with the hole halfway between its roots and low branches.

 When the girl’s father would complain that Mr. Shellabarger was making the whole neighborhood smell like an Italian restaurant with his backward ways and overgrown garden, she tried to explain that only magic could make the little grapes taste exactly like beads of honey and sunlight, but her words only made her father’s anger change course, aimed at the little girl instead.  She smelled the bitterness in his breath as he screamed that she was stupid and read too many books and didn’t know the difference between stories and lies. As his anger coldly coalesced, he promised to throw away all her books and never, ever allow her see the inside of a library again.

 His anger and his promise lasted for two full weeks and by the time those two weeks had passed her heart was mud, cracked and parched from a terrible drought.  When she was allowed to return to books, she found that she had grown afraid of stories that helped her know true things, and instead read books about rocks and birds and girls who did not go down rabbit holes but wanted to wear pretty dresses and get properly married to please their fathers.

Her heart continued to crumble and it took many years of wishing to be someone else before she remembered that she could, indeed, become. Long after her father left and married the Red Queen (who was not the Queen of Hearts) she dared to begin to live her true life. And though she grew up to be a man whose heart was sometimes dry and dusty at the edges, he still reads books that remind him of being the little girl waiting to see a Cheshire smile in Mr. Shellabarger’s garden.

I am not sure if this blog is dead…

Somehow, I lost the inspiration to write here. I’m not sure why. Most of my online presence now is on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.  The thought of writing a post here feels like writing essays—-so many words–and that just seems dull. I’ve gotten used to the shorter formats and love the challenge of distilling my thoughts into 140 characters or an image. I save my long form thoughts for sermons in my beautiful congregation.

I also have a secret project. It’s secret because some might find it too edgy, even offensive. Mostly because it does not avoid “the F word.” In fact, it reclaims it with some joy and abandon. It is also an intentional effort to create a space that celebrates the intersections of art, spiritual community, and resistance.  And to bring the joy and pain and chaos and mess of those things together, hoping to find something beautiful and relevant there.

If you promise not to get angry about the language or the unapologetic interruption of oppression, or offended by  the celebration of all things embodied (including all kinds of bodies, tattoos, sex…) then come to The Cabaret.

On Not Being Someone's Tragedy

So I woke up yesterday with the title of this post in my mind. I think I’d dreamed of writing it–a brilliant, succinct, powerful statement about not accepting the role of the “tragic tranny” that shows up so many places in the media.  For all that my life has had its rotten lows, I have to say that over all, I feel tremendously blessed.

My friend Fred says that the media’s only job is to deliver eyeballs–to make people read or watch or otherwise pay attention for a segment of time.  Those eyeballs are measured and quantified, and the people that deliver the most eyeballs get the big contracts, the big awards, and the big bucks in their paychecks. They get contracts with advertisers and the narcissistic attention of others in the media.  In this environment, the stories that get people’s attention  are stories of tragedy or triumph: rife with conflict, contradiction, controversy, and/or colorful language.

That’s why it’s hard to get the point across that transgender people are pretty dang normal. It doesn’t capture people’s attention nearly as well as headlines about the tragedy of ruined lives or the triumph of a transgender person who manages to succeed at something in spite of their “condition.”  Transgender people being normal just isn’t a very compelling story.

One of the hard things about being transgender is the insistent way that people tell me again and again, “You are SO BRAVE!” Am I? Only as brave as anyone else who chooses life in this complicated world. Does it take courage to be out? Only as much as it takes anyone to live with integrity, telling the truth about who they are.  Am I super strong? No. Fearless? Certainly not.  Daring? Only so far as it was daring to choose life.  My friend Barb calls it “courage of necessity.” That’s what it felt like at the time. If I wanted to live I had to find a way through.

It’s funny. I’m not anyone’s tragedy. But neither am I a hero. I’m just a human being who is doing what it takes to make sense of my life and identity. It’s been thirteen years since I made the decision to live honestly. I don’t regret a single day. Not the good ones, not the hard ones.  I love my life, even though it’s mostly pretty average.  I walk my dogs. I commute.  I play. I do my job.  I watch TV. I get involved in a few issues I care deeply about.  It’s a good life, but it’s no more heroic, no more tragic, than any other.

Leaving a Trace of Whimsy

So, I’ve chosen to do something that is intentionally and completely just for me.  As I mentioned briefly before, I am enrolled in the Interplay Life Practice Program this spring.  It’s something that I think would surprise people who don’t know me well or who only see the public persona of “minister.”

Interplay touches some very important parts of my life and passion. I identified as a dancer before anything else I can remember.  I started dance classes when I was just about four years old and immediately fell in love with ballet.  Dance class was a place where I was allowed to be strong, beautiful, graceful, committed, disciplined, and it was all suffused with joy.  Flying through the air in a tour-jete or leaping in a grand jete was like flying under my own power.

There are two stories of my time as a dancer that illustrate the passionate love I had for what I loved to call “the dance.”  The first one happened [edit: I’l have to tell you the second one later, this got way longer than I meant it to be] when I was eight or nine and Up With People came through our small Iowa town.  My dad was a radio guy and his station was sponsoring the show, so I was allowed backstage during the day before the performances. I got to watch full rehearsals, but I also stumbled upon a ballet class being held for the performers.  It was in the gymnasium, and I’d snuck up to the balcony.  But when the class started the music and the instructor’s voice leading the students through plies, adagio, and then the leaps eventually drew me out of the shadows and the teacher noticed me, up in the balcony, dancing along.  He invited me down to participate in the class.  I began dancing along, doing whatever the class did. It only took a few minutes for me to let go of my shy self-consciousness and begin to dance for the joy of it.

At some point–I’d really lost track of time–the instructor suddenly yelled “Stop! Stop! Everybody just stop!”  I was surprised and a little scared.  Then he turned to me and asked me gently if I would continue dancing for the class.  My self-consciousness returned immediately and I shook my head “no” in panic.  He said, “Really, it’s okay. I’ll dance with you. There is something I want the class to see.”  And so we danced, this grown-up man and me, side by side.  Again, my shyness slid away and I danced with joy.  Eventually, the music ended and the instructor thanked me for the dance.  Then he turned to his students and said, “I wanted you to watch because I wanted you to see for yourselves what dance looks like when it is danced from the heart. This child has all the passion you lack.”

I remember being embarrassed then, because being used as an example for the purpose of reprimand was a bit scary for a child in a room full of adults.  But I remember being proud too.  And I remember knowing that he was right–it wasn’t that I was technically perfect or even that I danced better than anyone else in the room–after all, I was a child.  But I truly danced for the joy of it.  And during the hard times in my life, I danced the pain of it.  I may have been a geeky, unpopular kid, but I could dance!  My family may have been full of pain and conflict, but I could go to my room, put Rampal on my record player and dance. For years, dance was the center of my life and when I was dancing, I was unafraid.  When I was dancing, I was happy.

But when I was twelve, things changed.  My parents divorced. My body began to change and I was overwhelmed by experiences of its vulnerability to abuse, sexism, teasing…it wasn’t safe.  My mom and I moved to a new town where I was treated cruelly by the kids that had lived there their whole lives.  A relative began systematically abusing me emotionally and sexually.  The demands of my life and the fact that we lived in a very small town made dance classes impossible for a year.  When I could finally return to the studio and dance again, it wasn’t the same at all.  My body’s angles and balance had changed. I hadn’t practiced for over a year. Gender was being enforced in new ways and ballet seemed suddenly to be about who was prettiest.  It didn’t matter that I was strong or that I danced with my whole heart. When my left hip and knee turned in pathetically while doing a plie in the fourth position, I quit.  I simply walked away from the barre and never went back.  It was over. There was no more joy.

I was twelve then. I’m forty-four now.  For the thirty-two years in-between I almost never danced.  The one exception was in seminary, when I took my first Interplay classes and touched a tiny bit of that joy again and the miracle of my body’s knowing.  It was that class that made it clear to me that I needed to transition.  Listening to my body in that class, I heard its knowing of itself as a transgender man’s body.  I started hormones that June.  During that second adolescence I was just as shy and self-conscious as I was the first time.  I experienced too, the vulnerability of being transgender in this culture–not so long after I transitioned, Matthew Shepard was murdered and I felt in my body the danger of being a gender transgressor.  The only song in my head for months was Melissa Etheridge:

“Scarecrow”

Showers of your crimson blood
Seep into a nation calling up a flood
Of narrow minds who legislate
Thinly veiled intolerance
Bigotry and hate

But they tortured and burned you
They beat you and they tied you
They left you cold and breathing
For love they crucified you

I can’t forget hard as I try
This silhouette against the sky

Scarecrow crying
Waiting to die wondering why
Scarecrow trying
Angels will hold carry your soul away…

And so I did not dance. I learned other ways of touching joy, of knowing myself, of channeling the pain and passion of my life. I became a preacher.  I wrote poetry. I painted.  I took photographs. I began blogging.  But I did not dance.

And then, my last ministry ended abruptly and painfully.  I was blessed to be held together by my partner and the grace of the universe as new opportunities began to unfold.  I found myself heading back to the Bay Area–to Oakland, no less–where Interplay has its headquarters, the Interplayce.  And I remembered.  I remembered that Interplay was healing, powerful, and deep down fun.  And so I made a commitment to go back.  I sent a few emails so that I couldn’t back out and run away.  And a few weeks ago I did it. I went to a class, and then another.  I admitted that I was considering the Life Practice program and the idea was met with pure enthusiasm.

And so I am now a dancer again.  A dancer and singer and storyteller and PLAYer.  And my body had a pretty wonderful secret to tell me, “The joy wasn’t buried very far under the surface.  It’s right there. You can have it again.” And I do.  As weird as I know I must look–an overweight, forty-four year old guy spinning and swinging and playing–I have my joy back.  I don’t care how it looks. A part of me has come home.  Laugh if you want–I am.  Laughing and laughing at this absurd little dance that is my sweet, sweet life.

Oh, and our homework was to accept the gift of a green feather–meant to remind us to leave a trace of whimsy everywhere we go. Not a bad assignment.

Common Ground

Today I had the honor of speaking at the Common Ground March and Rally supporting Equality Utah’s legislative agenda for full human and civil rights for all Utahns, including bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender folks.  Here’s a video of the March arriving at the Capitol: (I’m not in it because I’m behind the camera.) You can find the text of my remarks below the video, and I’ll link to news coverage as it becomes available.

Best sign: “Life is not a test of your ability to win, but your capability to love.”

Remarks for the Rally for the Common Ground Inititative
January 24, 2009
Rev. Sean Parker Dennison

I am a religious leader, a minister. I am also a transgender man. To many, those two things seem to be at odds. But for me, they are deeply intertwined. My faith is at the heart of my story and at the heart of why I am here, looking for common ground with others in protecting the civil and human rights of people like me.

When I transitioned almost 12 years ago, it was not something I did in spite of my faith, it was something I did because of my faith. My faith told me to strive for honesty, wholeness, and health for myself and for all human beings. When I found that the word “transgender” described me, and that transgender people had a history and community, I knew that I could no longer live a lie. I knew that my faith called me to live with both integrity and joy, and that meant living honestly as a transgender man. I prayed, I sought the counsel of wise leaders, I weighed the risks, and I transitioned. I knew that God wanted me to live, and to live abundantly.

When I say that I weighed the risks, I mean that I had to think about many things: Transgender people are at least 10 times more likely to be murdered than other people; there are only a handful of transgender people who have been able to find employment in my field—ministry in liberal congregations and many who have found no work at all; transgender people are routinely unable to get housing; and there are ongoing and severe issues in getting any, let alone adequate health care. And many transgender people are killed each year just for who they are. I’ve been lucky so far—I have a place to live, a job, medical insurance and one understanding doctor, and thus far—my life. But the reason I am here today is that at any minute, I could still lose any of them. No one should have to rely on luck for these things. Like every other American, we should be able to rely on the rule of law, the rights that are enshrined for all citizens in our constitution.

Those are the self-interested reasons for me being here. But I have better reasons. I am here, first and foremost, as a person of faith who knows that every human being is a child of God and deserves to be treated as a precious part of the human family. I am here because I believe that all faith traditions—even the most conservative—share a message of compassion and justice for all people. Every major religious tradition includes commands (not suggestions!) to care for the weak, the downtrodden, the widow and the orphan. That is the common ground on which we stand, and from which we can move forward together.

Of course, when I tell you that, I am simply preaching to the choir. So let me speak directly to those who are not here, who don’t know what to think, who worry that to support this initiative would mean giving up something of their belief in order or morality. To them I say:

Supporting this initiative does not require you to say that being gay is okay. It requires you to say that discrimination, hatred, and prejudice are wrong. It requires you gather your moral courage and say, “I will stand for justice for all because I know that every child of God, while imperfect, is precious. I will take my stand on the side of Love, because God is Love.”

To take this stand may well be a risk, but you have always known that your faith will require you to take risks. To take this stand my well make you unpopular, but those who have stood up for what is right have often been unpopular. You may risk the comfort of fitting in, of avoiding conflict, of remaining silent. But in return, you will know that you chose to stand up and say no to hatred, to discrimination, and to prejudice. You will know that you chose love over fear.

My friends, I believe that this great state is full of people who know that prejudice and discrimination are wrong. I believe that there are politicians in this statehouse who know that the ideals of democracy –the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—are vital to the health of this state and the kind of people we want to be. I believe that the era of discrimination, hatred, and prejudice is coming to a close.

It is my great hope that Utah will take the opportunity to surprise the world by leading the way. We have a chance, by adopting these statutes that make up the Common Ground initiative, to tell the world that here in Utah, we have grown to understand that the law is not a tool to be used to punish, but an instrument to protect our commitment to justice, to liberty, and to the ever-present, all-encompassing presence of Love. Let us show the world that we in Utah have found common ground on which to stand: a commitment to peace, hope, faith, and justice for all. That is my hope and my prayer. May it be so. Amen.

Here’s the story by Channel 2. It’s short but mentions the results of recent poling. I appear briefly.

KSL (Channel 5) does a much better story. I wasn’t on the earlier version, but do appear in this one.

Fox 13 does a great job and even does a sort of plug for contacting your legislator.

The Salt Lake Tribune’s online piece. (Slightly different from what ran in the paper.)

The Deseret News who published the quote I’d hoped they would.

Nothing on ABC 4’s site yet, though I did see it run on the 5pm news.