On the Willows

[This sermon was offered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Winston-Salem, March 19, 2017] Reference text: Psalm 137

In the Christian church, it is the season of Lent. From Ash Wednesday to Easter morning, we move near a more inward contemplation of God, of our missteps, our distracted failures to listen deeply, even in our longing. We linger in the desert of our private prayers, withdrawing from outer world to inner world—choosing to enter the wilderness place with our understanding of God, searching our hearts, removing barriers, seeking a deeper sense of ourselves in reflection with the Holy.

As a transgender person of faith, I often feel as if I am in a perpetual season of Lent, as if the daily conditions of marginalization require me to make time and space for spiritual respite and reflection—or risk coming a bit unhinged. We are, after all, people living in a very real and oppressive exile. An ancient people, spanning globe and history in continuous transit across culture and experience, ours is an ongoing story of persecution and survival, exploitation and resilient persistence, attempted erasure and celebratory thriving.

Increasingly, it seems as if all the means ever employed against us — legally, religiously, socially and culturally — have melded into one big gear-grinding, speeding force of moving metal. We scarcely jump to one side of the street before the thing turns again, barreling toward us like a heat-seeking missile on wheels. It is staggering at times how efficiently the tools of racism, misogyny, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, classism, nationalism and religious intolerance have become so cleanly cobbled together toward the disenfranchisement of so many. As it has been, so it is now, we gender-expansive folks are caught in the machinery of oppression. These forces have always been with us in the unholy triad of white supremacy, colonialism and market capitalism, but the organized combination of them continues to reach new and more troubling efficacy. Daily, now, the more of these markers a person carries on their skin, the harder it is to safely leave the house, let alone cross the street.

And, yet, here we are. Here, we survive and persist.

Like our Psalm-writing Hebrew cousins, we know a little something about exile. More, we live under the constant criminalization of our bodies and our self-understanding. This is bad enough. But we are also equally subjected to the double-edged sword of criminalization and exploitation… discrimination and commodification… exclusion and exotification. You may have noticed, transgender folks are the hip thing these days. Trans characters show up in movies and television shows with fairly regular frequency now—some of them far from favorable: think “Silence of the Lambs” or “The Assignment.” Those of us who are visually pleasing and look like “regular” folks show up on the covers of magazines. We have become entertainment. Our lives and our personal stories have become commodities. Even as we live in the fringe-lands of our own Babylon, we are bodied-story-bearers whose suffering is lifted up as profit-making grist for a cultural voyeurism that never tires of heart strings-tugging dramatic tales. In less than nine months, a national press released two books of trans theology, written by white, cisgender, heterosexual women in a stunning display of dominant culture privilege: that they appoint themselves the right to speak for us and about us, and propose to comfort us and clarify our faith for us. We are free-market material for folks who reap social and economic benefits we, ourselves, do not share: namely, the privilege of speaking for ourselves, being compensated fairly for our work, or even having access to compensated work in the first place.

But, really, shouldn’t we be grateful? After all, don’t we all—transgender and other folks alike—really just want to be seen and heard? If so, shouldn’t we celebrate any opportunity to have the songs of our Zion-displacement sung aloud? Perhaps.

I don’t know: to be honest with you, these kinds of questions keep me up at night. What I do know is this: we are a people wedged between the proverbial rock and the hard place. If we do not make ourselves visible, if we do not tell our stories and offer up our insights, if we do not teach others about the nature of our self-understanding, then we won’t be heard at all… and nothing will ever change for the better. And, if we do not, on some level, embrace others who co-opt our stories for their own profit, we risk never being asked to tell them ourselves. Without allies, we are even more alone and more in danger. Still, we are at the mercy of the whims of dominant culture curiosity and lust for entertainment.

Thankfully, for old justice-working, rabble-rousing preacher types like me, there are folks like yourselves who actually invite us in and listen to us when we show up. There are places of safety like this where we can openly share and question and struggle. Nonetheless, the questions remain: how do we sing our deeply felt songs of faith in a land of exile? More, how do we have any faith at all when places of worship are often the houses of our tormentors…and not houses of refuge? Or, perhaps more pointedly asked: how do we transform forums of entertainment into forums that highlight our resilience? How do turn exploitation into celebration? How might we transform spaces of exoticising curiosity into forums that shine a light on our bravery and resilience? How do we engage others in ways that invite them to see the underlying systemic problems without seeming merely angry and wounded and fearful?

These questions consume not only my meager musings, but the ponderings of an entire movement. And there are some things I have come to know are true: that the answers are not simple; that even as we wrestle with them in collective yearning for liberation, we do so privately as well. In this, I am also keenly aware that my position as a white, male-blending person living in a whiteness-valuing, market driven culture gives me, both, some mediation of my suffering and some responsibility for being vocal about that—but more, it means that no matter how much folks may want me to do so, I cannot speak for an entire population; I can only speak from my own perspectives, intellectual investigation and experience. And, I am responsible for naming those factors that mediate my experience. Doing so puts me on the road to being a better ally…as we are all allies, one to another.

So, things being as they are, so layered and complicated: how do we sing the songs of our faith in a land of exile?

For me, the most fundamental answer lies in being clear about my faith in the first place. This means doing the work—intellectually, experientially, and spiritually—to develop my own intentional and practical theology. It means freeing my sense of the Holy One from the doctrinal errors and hatefulness that frame our faith systems. It means not relying on the permission-granting efforts of straight, cisgender theologians to frame my faith for me; rather, it means claiming the power to that for myself and for my community not merely through intellectual process, but through the experience-informed, in my bones, search for faith that moves in and through my reading of scripture—Christian, Hebrew or otherwise. It means liberating those texts from the violence done to them by self-serving human agendas. But mostly, being a person of faith in religious systems that negate and demean my existence means I remember the very thing the psalm-singing Hebrew people learned:

That God is most decidedly NOT a manifestation of the people who claim to be people of God. God is not the church, writ large…although Sacred Speaking sometimes shows up there. And God is not the empire that co-opts faith for persecution. God is the force of Spirit Abiding that lives in all of us, even and especially, in me and my kin. God is the Holy One of my ancestors present in rock and stream, irises and black-capped chick-a-dees. God is the One who abides with us and still speaks to and through us all—who speaks to me in my discernment, study, and good sense through other spiritual seekers, and more, through my own experiential awareness of divine presence…and this same God with many names will still be speaking in human lives, across time and space, long after I am gone.

These are the psalms I will sing—songs of the Sacred Thriving shot-through all things and abiding everywhere. And I will sing the story of Adam: the original earth being, at first undifferentiated, self-contained, and self-sufficient, our intersex common ancestor whom God split open and divided for the sake of essential, deep relationality…each always containing something of the other, ever-connecting us and reminding us we all are one…for it is not good that the Adam should be alone! Self-sufficiency is not the way. Relationship is the way of the cosmos…and, more, all genders are not only possible and valid but exist, inherently, within us all.

I will sing the story of Joseph, the vision-dreaming, gender-bending fellow keeping time with the women, cooking, tending hearth and kin, wearing his ketonet passim—his princess dress—bestowed on him by his father who saw him and valued him for who he was. I will tell of the brothers who betrayed him and how that betrayal made him an alien in a foreign land, uniquely positioned to save the people from famine.

I will sing of the Ethiopian eunuch, Eved Melek, servant of the King, who freed the prophet Jeremiah from the muddy cistern where he had been left to die—making it possible for him to save the King during the siege of Jerusalem. I will lift up songs telling of the other Ethiopian eunuch Philip baptized outside Jerusalem, who went home and founded the church in Ethiopia.

I will raise my voice in celebration of the lives of gender-expansive people, across time and culture, who lived resilient lives of courage and resistance even in struggle: like Petric Smith, a transman and civil rights worker who risked his life to testify against his own uncle and the KKK in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church in Alabama. And Leslie Feinberg, working-class Jew, transgender theorist, writer and activist who produced the first, deeply researched, comprehensive history of gender variance, giving us all a sense of ourselves as an ancient and vibrant people. I will sing the stories of Sylvia Rivera, Marsha Johnson and Miss Major whose fight for transgender rights gave us the Stonewall rebellion and sparked the gay rights movement. If I forget them, ever, let my right hand wither. If I speak the names of our dead without first caring for the living, let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth.

So, I will raise my voice, as honestly and authentically as I can, to tell my own story as it intersects the lives of others whose testimony, courage, and work for justice inspire me every day. I will transform the land of exile by standing on the holy ground of my ancestors to proclaim the reality of my faith—the truth I learn daily, the indwelling psalm the Holy sings to me in my own seeking and in people like you, in places like these:
that we all, indeed, are one, though wonderfully not the same, that in all our longing and in all our struggling, the thing that gives our lives meaning and has the potential to save us all is the act of planting our feet, deeply, in the soil of relationship in which we are formed…rooting our tender lives in ethic of love expressed among us through our willingness to keep showing up, rather than languish in the comfort of our own keep; to come to and stay at the communal table, share our stories, wrestle with our questions, seek answers together and learn to love more deeply because we are willing to seek a little of ourselves in each other.



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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