Passing By

“Be You As Passersby…”
                                                                               Jesus of Nazareth, The Gospel of Thomas

This idea of seeking to move in the world as one who passes by has significance for me in many ways. Not the least of these is the implication that we can adopt of way of being that is non-intrusive, but leaves some impression; that we can simply be present, go about what is in front of us, and interact with others and the world by just being who we are while also being mindful of all the other qualities of being implied by the idea of passing by—kindness, doing no harm, walking lightly and leaving a tender footprint, to say the least. I am fully aware that this is one of those things a person practices and likely never masters. And, practice makes progress. I am, however, also aware that for trans* folks, like myself, there are other nuances of meaning inherent in and implied by being as a passerby.

I learn things about this fact each day; in sometimes subtle, sometimes staggering ways, on a daily basis, I learn about being a trans-passerby as I approach the anniversary of a year on testosterone and interact with others as a familiar stranger.

Recently, I entered into a clinical pastoral education (CPE) program which is required training for chaplaincy. I was accepted into the program—as I was into Divinity school—with full disclosure that I am in active transition. Thus, I began training with my supervisors and administrators knowing who I am. Given that I live in the buckle of the Bible Belt, and that the hospital is a Baptist institution, I expected that whether or not to be out among my peers would be something I would assess as I went along. Of course, it was for me a foregone conclusion that who I am as a person, as a trans-man, as a social activist, etc. had no place in the rooms with patients—for me, it is a professional truism that we can be who we are, be present and effective and still be appropriate in regard to self-disclosure. People do not need to know everything about us. Familiar stranger. Passerby. Basically, the same thing. And, as my mother used to say, being honest doesn’t mean telling everything you know. In general, although I am out pretty much everywhere else as an aspect of both my general way of being in the world and my justice work, I am good with knowing when to be safe over when to make a statement. But I still had some fairly practical concerns going into the program.

Being less than a year into hormone therapy when I began the program made me a little nervous about how effectively—or ineffectively—I would pass with persons I encountered as a chaplain. While I still do not have a lot of noticeable facial hair, I do have some things in my favor when it comes to passing effectively. I never really had a feminine body structure, so as things square up and firm up, I appear more obviously male every day. I have dropped from a tenor to a baritone. And, while I am small in stature, I am athletically built and have always had a bit of a swagger. The flat top helps too. Although I have to shave daily now, a more noticeable five-o’clock shadow would be helpful. And, even though I have never been crazy about the idea of going stealth, I could not help but be aware that the program was providing me with an interesting experiment in passing that I was actually curious about and interested in exploring. I am so out in my personal, daily life that I often don’t even consider or pay attention to whether or not I am passing. At the same time, I am always aware of the affirmations I get out in the world. Every “thank you, sir,” registers with me. Each “how-can-I-help-you, sir” feels like a glass of spring water after a long day’s work. Paradoxically, while I am aware of these milestones, I am also aware it is all so much deeper and more layered than outward passing—particularly since I do not see myself as male in the traditional sense. I am not seeking to be something I am not. I am a trans-man. I am simply working to align my presentation more coherently with my inward experience while also working to address all sorts of limiting and dehumanizing binaries. I am simply one of many walking reminders there are limitless ways to be human. It is an intriguing place to be, this continued walking between worlds.

Once I and my peers were a few days into the program, I was keenly aware that I was in the presence of conservative backgrounds and theologies that amounted to a kind of recapitulation of the forces of oppression and suffering I experienced in the world and the church. After our first small group supervision experience, I was pretty clear there was no way they were getting anything but the surface of my story. Part of the power of good CPE programs is the level of personal evaluation and exploration that occurs in the context of learning to appropriately and effectively make use of the self as a tool for providing spiritual care. It is like a deeper version of the healer-know-thyself kind of training I—and many others—got as therapists and counselors. Thus, the group supervision and individual supervision are important and formative tools—if, that is, they are truly a safe place to be. The last thing I felt in my group was safe. So, initially, I adopted a true passerby stance. I gave them just enough to try to be useful to the group and support my own growth, but nothing more. I was present, attentive, offered feedback, and offered just enough self to gain and contribute. I did so warmly and kindly. But that was all.

In the meantime, each day I found myself walking into patient rooms and into clinical situations that both affirmed me, this new role I am leaning into, and pushed me to stretch and grow. I walk into the everyday mundane, into the tragic, the awful, the places of loss and places of life abundant in the midst of pain and uncertainty, and I meet the Holy there with all its many faces. I am a passerby, walking in the tents of the Holy One. In each of these situations, every day so far, I not only pass effectively, I am welcomed and quite often embraced by the people I encounter. Marvelous things occur in the sacred space between us. My decision to be silent in group supervision, however, meant that the only place I could share that and process it in meaningful ways was in individual supervision. The group was not getting to hear what it is like for me, nor were they getting to participate with me in lessons I was getting about passing by, about being the familiar stranger. Walking into my fears, taking a breath and being present, really accepting and meeting people where they are, affects how I am received; I am growing less anxious about how I will be received as I seek to meet the other wherever he/she takes us. I find myself in rooms with people who, prior to transition, would have reacted to me as a dyke [a butch, a queer, possible a gay man] and tossed me out on my ass, likely quoting me scripture on my way out of the room. I am learning to simply be with them, without anxious trepidation, and extend to them the thing that I once sought from them: an open, warm, recognition of them as people in Creator’s vast continuum of persons and engage a high positive regard for them in the process. I am learning in new ways, at deeper levels a significant thing I have in many ways always known—that there are infinite ways in which the Holy appears in the spaces between us and changes us. Not sharing these things was becoming limiting for me. And, it was becoming tedious for me to wonder whether or not my peers got wind of the very public things I do or saw a newspaper or talked to clergy at one of the events at which I spoke, or if, by whatever other means, they discovered who I am.

Naturally, as things often happen in the benevolent universe, a situation came up in group and I found myself making the decision to disclose aspects of my story I had chosen to leave out: I told them I had been born female and was in my first year of transition from female to male. I told them how young I was when I began to express my gender dysphoria. And, I conveyed to them the highlights of the response I received—the telling me who and what I was, the medication that dulled my young brain, and the messages I got about telling anyone how I felt and what I thought. I told them about all the years and memories I lost because of the trauma and the medication. And, I introduced them to the psychosocial issues of living in an embodiment where the inside doesn’t match the outside. I did this because I thought it might provide another useful context to the struggles another member was having with unresolved anger and all the feelings underneath that he was, as yet, unable to identify, explore and work through.

We have reasons for doing so when we tell out stories in an environment we perceive as less than friendly to them. We have ideas about what we think is the point or the usefulness of the story. Sometimes, we are aware of something leading us out on the limb, but we still tend to think we know why we are telling what we tell. That is all well and good. Often, we are mistaken. Or, at least, we are not aware of all the reasons we crawled out onto the limb we are not sure will hold us. Isn’t this what happens when we meet with others in the context of providing counsel to them? Perhaps, this is worth considering.

Interestingly, and somehow not surprisingly, the person I had hoped to help did not really seem to be moved in a helpful direction. However, others were. Deeply so, in fact. I was amazed by the help the boxed up version of my story gave to others. And, it was indeed quite nice to find that none of them even suspected. One of my peers [a woman who I really like and respect] actually said, “I got nothing from you but male…I thought, at times, you are an odd little man, but I never would have known.” My response, as we laughed heartily, was to affirm that I am an odd little man! Their seeing me, really seeing me, was a gift. I was even more struck by what I gained from telling my story. The gift for me was not what I expected—it may not be what you, my reader, might expect. While I received an enormous amount of love, affirmation, and expression of understanding at levels I would not have expected, my real gift was much more significant.

I am a believer that our lives are lived, overlapping and expanding stories that meet and engage the stories of others. When we tell out stories, when we live them fully and let them speak, we tell not only our own story, but the story of all of us as a humans engaged in the ever-evolving and revealing human condition. Our lived and shared stories are the means by which we move the individual and particular into the universal, and back again to the particular in ways that grow and enrich us, deepen our understanding of each other and ourselves, and deepen our relationships. When tell our stories and hear the stories of others, the circles widen—we can no longer see the other as fully other. On a spiritual level, when we tell our stories—each of us, bare and open—we not only tell the stories of all of us and each of us, we also tell the greater story of the Creator’s self-revelation to all of us. Because of my beliefs about the power of our stories, of our lives as lived stories, I do the work that I do. I speak wherever I am asked to speak. I engage in justice work. I stand up and step out. I believe in telling my story. But, in group the day I told my story, I learned something important about telling our stories…and about my own tender places, my own places of hesitation and lack of trust in the process.

It is one thing to tell my story where I have been invited. It is one thing, as well, to tell it by expression in my daily life by simply being who I am without apology as well as without making an issue of it. My daily life, like the daily lives of so many of us, requires a certain amount of courage and fortitude…if not outright stubbornness. And, it requires some level of trust that we will be okay. But, telling my story to people who I fully expect to not receive it or me in a positive way is really where the trust in the process lies. It is the place where the real lessons are. It is the place where the Holy lives and moves and has its being among us—that place of stepping into the arms of the thing we are sure will bite us, the thing that just might destroy us, doing it in the midst of the fear, and finding not the teeth that bite us, but the embrace that saves us. I am learning, it would seem, quite a lot about being a passerby.


About liammichael

I am a gender theorist, theological activist, writer, trans activist-advocate, and educator. I also work directly with trans and LGBTQ persons through workshops, support activities, and community-building. My work is informed and shaped by a deep concern for addressing the intersecting layers of disenfranchisement and oppression which stymie our efforts to create a just and meaningful common good. I work with, consult with, educate, train public sector groups, secular groups, and faith groups seeking to be affirming, accommodating, and celebratory of trans/non-binary and gender non-conforming persons. This space is a small part of the work.
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