Remembering and Imagining (Or…Looking Forward From Philadelphia)

When I was growing up in the 1960s, it was a particularly difficult time to be a child discerning a gender-identity different from one’s gender assigned at birth. In a time where everything our culture saw as normal and “just the way things are,” was being challenged—from whether war is ever just to the question of race and civil rights; from the nature and legitimacy of the “lesser sex” (women) to reproductive rights, naming only a few—those of us who questioned our gender were not well-received.

Like many of my generation, and those who went before us, I’ve spent a lifetime learning this: it takes a lifetime to become, fully, the person one has always been. The work of becoming is never one-and-done. And, ultimately, none of us does it alone.

Things are better now than they were then. But not by a lot. There is much work to be done.  This past week, I hit the road again, joining partners, colleagues and accomplices in the work at Philadelphia Trans Health Conference.

There, I found moments of the kind of world we can create, in the now, as we imagine and work for a society where we all, finally, are liberated, valued, free to be and have dignified, meaningful place in a common world. The work is difficult and slow going. Sometimes, it’s hard to hang on to the reason we do this work: the belief that we really can, together, change our troubled world.

Not every moment—or hour—was perfect. But there were moments, gifts perhaps, that rekindled my hope—a hope, lately, profoundly threatened. These moments are reminders: if we are willing to practice what we hope for, we can create and model the world we imagine, even as we work for and dream it.

The gift of collaboration:
when we mentally and emotionally commit to fostering collaborative spaces and projects;
when we set aside our fragile egos;
when we let go of the need to be the expert and embrace our unknowing;
when we set aside pent-up anger, acknowledge our fears, and embrace relational engagement;
when we place our shared vision above our personal attachments, we really can work together, learn from one another, contribute, grow, dare be changed, and create momentary revolutionary spaces. Those spaces, nurtured, can be transformed into lasting ways of being and acting in the world. Perhaps, then, moments can become hours; hours, days; days a new, just and life-giving cohabitation on a shared earth.

In these times, we don’t need more protective isolationism and fearful retreat into silos of safety and irrelevance. Now, we need visionary co-conspirators actively engaged in radical, revolutionary belief in the sanctity of all human life, love of mercy, and the doing of justice.

The gift of bravery:
            Believe it or not, bravery is contagious.
In world burning with a sweltering climate of hate, intolerance, violent aggression, and religious condemnation of trans/gender-expansive persons; in a world of heightened racism, classism, misogyny, anti-immigrant sentiments, and nationalism; it takes a fair amount of bravery just to leave the house—more, even, to do so expressing one’s gender self-understanding. It takes still more courage to gather, by the thousands, in a public building, daring to hold communities of support, learning, sharing, and change-making together. This, alone, is powerful.

But…when courageous, authentic presence is met with embracing the risky activities of listening to one another, holding dialogue, risking ourselves, and regarding disagreement and difference with grace and respect, seemingly small sparks of willingness can become flames that burn bright enough, long enough, to fight the fires of hatred with the fires of love, mercy, compassion and communal concern.
Bravery is contagious. Stand close; lean into risky, messy relational connection. Catch the fire.

The gift of remembering:
            As trans and gender-expansive persons, we live in a constancy of tensions. There are many: visibility against danger; invisibility against commodification and exploitation; isolation against tokenization; loneliness against rejection for coming out; the list goes on. Remembering, too, is set in tensions: desire to remember as part of self-understanding against things we’d rather forget; the work of remembrance in healing against those memories that are lost to us; the need of remembering our fallen while working for the living; remembering our profound resilience while striving for fuller, healthier lives that look to and imagine our future.

When we choose to come together in shared, supportive, risk-taking space, we can discover so much more than we can alone. And, we can be reminded that, ultimately, remembering is good.

Our past—personal and collective—is always with us. It shapes our present and informs our future. When we are held in community, we can remember in transformative ways. And, perhaps, we can be re-membered—put together and renewed in self-understanding; repositioned, given a sense of place and belonging, with ourselves and others.

And, finally, the gift of imagining:
            All our work for change, to my mind, is the work of imagining. So also, the work of healing; the work of community-building; the work of relationship-building.
Essentially, simply being trans is about imagining. We dare to live in the raw material of our bodies and lives, look deeply, sense and feel our way, and imagine bursting forth into the selfhood already present within us—then, we dare to make that personhood manifest. When we come together, opening the flood gates on all our vision-crafting, we can envision a way forward that leaves no one behind. That leaves no one unseen, un-cared for, un-imagined.

All these gifts of gathering came together for me in one poignant, amazing event.

Every year at the conference, there is a track for kids and adolescents. Many are trans in some sense of emerging self-understanding; some, the children of trans folks. They range in ages, races, ethnicities, family configurations, and personalities. This, alone, is a powerful thing.

In the afternoon of the last day, I was taking stroll through the vendor tables. Suddenly, there was the sound of noise-makers, laughing, and all manner of merry-making. People began clapping and cheering. I turned around to see what was going on.
There, marching through the hallway, was a parade of children—glorious, gender-expansive, beautiful children, accompanied by youth and adults who had been working with them. They waved rainbow and trans pride flags. Some were wearing rainbow tutus or hats. As they marched through the conference center hallways, everyone stopped, took notice, and celebrated them.

A joyful, affirming roar of clapping and cheers filled the building.

I watched them pass, remembering my own troubled becoming, aware of the gaps in my own memory. I breathed in their imagining made marvelous among us. For a moment, I imagined a world full of these children, perhaps growing to raise their own children, affirming them to be whoever is bursting forth within them. I envisioned what it must be like to be one of those children—to receive the collaborative gifts of those working with and caring for them, to receive being seen and celebrated by hundreds of trans and gender-diverse folks, queer folks, and allies. I reveled in their bravery. I remembered those whose courage and persistence brought us all to such a day. With the clapping of my hands, the cheers I shouted, I gave thanks.

Through trailing tears, and an uncharacteristically broad smile, I gave thanks for those children. As they moved into another hallway, met by more cheers and clapping, I gratefully wiped my eyes, and I noticed I was not alone.


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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