Trans Identities

This the text of the second half of a joint sermon given by The Reverend Gail Seavey (not included) and myself at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville on September 27th, 2015.

Trans Identities


Listen to the Entire Sermon (including Rev. Gail Seavey’s beginning half):

Trans Identities

So one of my biggest encounters with my lizard brain — at least the one that had the most outward effect — is the story of how I came to shave my head.

A couple of years ago, I was a full time seminary student with two part time jobs. At the time I worked with a lot of vets who had maintained their military buzz cuts, and one day I found myself thinking, “Oh, how I wish I could do that.”

And then it hit me — I CAN do that, if I’m willing to deal with the cultural reaction. My life had gotten stretched so thin, my choices so limited and my time so precious, that I chose to create an outward appearance that was a honest manifestation of my inward being, despite the inevitable blowback I knew would come.

Strangers would call me “dyke” — as if that’s a bad thing — but still an assumption based solely on appearance. At my multifaith seminary, many thought I’d converted to Buddhism. Regardless of how positive or negative the reaction was, however, not a day went by that I wasn’t asked why I had shaved my head, while men walked by with shaved heads that no one noticed.

The absolutely hardest reaction has been the folks who think I’m sick, that I must have cancer. Because in their reading of what women should and shouldn’t look like, only women who have cancer shave their heads. And yet, this assumption that they put on me comes from their sense of connection, their overwhelming desire to reach out and help someone in need. They are my best teachers when it comes to navigating the art of identity, because they constantly remind me that cultural readings are about humanity, and that while the EFFECT of categories and labels are often harmful, the INTENT is not always about harm. And the more we are each willing to create our outsides to match our insides, the better we understand how make sure the effects our actions have on others matches our intentions.

It also works in reverse. While my INTENT in shaving my head was personal, was self-ish, the EFFECT has been to chip away at cultural assumptions about women’s appearance just by walking out my front door.

Now, I want to be clear — the creative act of shaving my head had, still has, a LOT of privilege holding it up. I’m white, which unfortunately our current culture pervasively makes “the norm” to the extreme detriment of people of colour. I have reliable access to clean clothes in good repair. I’m taller and heavier than most people, which makes me less likely to be physically attacked. When people do lash out at me because my identity art, my holy act of creation, makes their lizard brain anxious, they use words. The various ways in which my body has privilege protects me in a way that is denied to trans persons, especially trans persons of colour, when they act to bring their inner and outer selves into harmony.

All I had to do was buy a $20 electric razor. Those who wish to transition, to bring their inward self and outward self into right relationship, face huge costs in terms of money, time, and emotional bandwidth. Surgery can cost thousands. Hormone regimens can, too, and under our healthcare system are a lifelong cost. Legal fees pile up. Even the price of transitioning an entire wardrobe can be cost prohibitive. And transitioning itself, this holy, creative act, can often lead to losing the job that was paying for the transition, because firing someone for being trans is legal in most of our country.

And those who live as trans, regardless of how they choose to transition, often find themselves at the mercy of a world built upon the fallacy of binary gender being inextricable from one’s sex assigned at birth.

Just a few days ago, Shadi Petosky, was detained by TSA agents at the Orlando airport because a body scanner only has two settings — male and female — and her penis showed up as an “anomaly.” They held her against her will, causing her to miss her flight. American Airlines charged her full price to rebook her ticket, almost a thousand dollars, and she was denied her new boarding pass until a police officer ordered them to print it for her.

And every time I revisit this story, as I’ve followed how both the TSA and American Airlines are attempting to publicly gaslight Ms. Petosky despite her photographic evidence of what happened, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude to that police officer. It’s a sign, for me, that change has already taken root in our culture, as the trans community has, historically, had as much to fear from police and other first responders who were supposed to protect them as the ones attacking them.

Our call to worship spoke of those among us who are hurt and afraid, those who come with hope and anticipation, those who seek to learn, all a part of this family. Reverend Gail spoke to us about the concept of tribe, of the fundamental idea of a community that keeps its members safe. Through our new member celebration this morning we are reminded that we are, indeed a tribe.

The trans community lives in fear of poverty, abuse, violence. These things happen to our members and friends, to their loved ones. Out there, beyond these walls, more often than not they have to choose between being seen, or being safe. In here, as part of our community, we see them. We see you. You are us. What happens to you, happens to us. We cannot be whole until you are whole.

And the more we all choose to embrace the holy act of creating ourselves, of being identity artists, the safer we can make it for those around us. Embracing my role as an identity artist might have made living in this world just a little bit easier for someone else who doesn’t conform to expectations.

Wholeness is a constant creative process. We are not sculptures carved in stone. We are living beings, with thoughts and feelings and ideas that change with every encounter. We are all creative people, built on a relationship between the inside and the outside, energy going back and forth, growing, evolving.

How can we see you the way you need to be seen?

How can we help you feel safe?

What is your next holy act of creation?

What kind of tribe will we, together, create, and re-create, every day anew?


Honest Work

This is the text of a sermon given at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville on September 6th, 2015.

Honest Work


Listen to the sermon:

Honest Work

So I have this friend, Allison, we’ve been friends since 2nd grade. We’ve watched each other grow up. She found her calling as a jeweller, and she’s really good at it, and she amazes me with what she can do — it starts in her brain as an image, and then she takes that image and figures out what raw materials she needs to make it a reality, and then she uses her hands and eyes to craft the most beautiful things to put on our beautiful bodies. And that’s what I love about her work — she doesn’t just make things for their own sake, but in her vision she sees how they will interact with necks and wrists and fingers in movement. She sees how everything interconnects, that we are bodies in motion, and she crafts things that honour those connections, that understanding that we aren’t static beings. We exist in relationships, we exist to create.

Now, I can’t do what she does. I have zero sense of design or spatial architecture. Josh can tell you about how I made him layout the photos for my final project in Vocational Praxis, or the boxes full of unused scrapbooking supplies in our home. But, what Allison and I do have in common is cutting stones.

I believe that the purpose of religious leadership is to help people into the best version of themselves — to enable them to find wholeness of mind, body, and spirit. And my favourite metaphor these days is that of a gem cutter. The raw material, the stone, can be used in any number of industrial efforts as nothing more than a means to an end, one part in the unthinking machine. The raw material is left undeveloped, becomes invisible. The stone has the potential to be beautiful in its own right, bringing energy into its facets and then reflecting it back out in new ways, but first it must be shaped in order to maximize its potential. And cutting a stone into a gem is delicate, difficult work that must be done with extreme care… or else the stone will lose more of itself than it needs to. Sometimes, it can even shatter under the pressure.

One of the fabulous things I learned about in seminary is something called transformational leadership, which is when we use our abilities to help others realize their abilities. It requires recognizing that others’ interests, motives, and needs are as valid as our own. Once we understand this, we realize how difficult it actually is to come together and work for a common future, for a common good, for a better world for everyone — even moreso for UUs, because we don’t even have the requirement of shared beliefs or creeds as a starting place. Some people mistake our seven principles for those things, but they’re calls to action, an ethical test of the strength of our covenants. Those seven principles ask us to stay at the table even when it’s harder to stick around than to leave.

So, here we are with all this raw material that we’re supposed to make into US — how do we fashion ourselves into precious gems? Well, I’m a UU, so I don’t have any answers, just more questions.

How do the multitude of our personal beliefs, our individual spiritual journeys, the billions of choices we make, work to manifest a world that recognizes the inherent worth and dignity of every person? How do we make justice, equity, and compassion a reality for everyone? How do we fit ourselves into the interdependent web that connects us with Syrian refugees dying in our oceans, that connects us with the construction workers treated like slaves in our own community? It’s the honest work, the hard work, of Unitarian Universalists to look at the patterns of our lives and identify what makes us tick, how we have each been shaped, by the things we consider important. For me, there’s been two primary elements: the stories we tell and the relationships we build.

I was pretty young when I first learned about all the texts that didn’t make it into the “official” Christian Bible. Not only did this discovery instill in me a lifelong obsession with fantastic words like “codex”, but I became fascinated with the exclusionary nature of history and its editors. When I found The Other Bible on the shelf in some enormous chain bookstore years later, it was the perfect gift to me from the universe. There, in one book, were selections from the Jewish Pseudepigraphia, Kabbalah, Haggadah, Midrash, Christian Apocrypha, and Gnostic scriptures, and that was only the tip of the iceberg. I had proof, there in my hands, that there was more to the idea of sacred scripture than the book in the pews at my friends’ churches, and that divine inspiration was not limited to those few pages. Humans had decided what was relevant centuries ago, and so, therefore, could humans continue to decide what will be relevant to them in the here and now.

When did you first encounter the idea that some people choose to tell certain stories over others?

One of the works I found most relevant to me was The Song of the Lioness quartet of novels by Tamora Pierce. I wish I could tell you how I first found them, as their profound effect on me is worthy of a great beginning. But they have become so steeped into my formation as a person that I can’t even remember how old I was when I read them for the first time, or what the context of my life was. All I know is that I must have been old enough to have an allowance and to walk around the YA section of a bookstore. The story of Alanna: her quest for knighthood, her struggle with her femininity, her profound faith, her bodily awakening, her growth as a healer without losing her strength as a warrior — it spoke to me at every level of my being. Her coming of age is intricately tied into a plot of power and ethics that literally tears the land apart and costs her some of her dearest companions, and yet she uses the whole of her life experience: love, training, trust, faith, friendship, and scholarship, to fulfill her sworn duty to her king, her country, and her Goddess. I still reread these books at least once a year.

Who is the character you return to, over and over again, to remember the very first person you wanted to be as you grew up?

I could go on and on about the stunning work of art and collaboration that is The West Wing, including the faults that it retains as part of its manifest humanity of a particular time and place. What got to me was how those characters are, without a doubt, some of the most privileged, educated people in their universe. And yet, they live their lives for something larger than themselves, humbled at every turn by the immensity of the call to justice and democracy. They come from different faiths — some none at all — and they still always believe in the mission and in each other. This show told me it was possible to both have privilege and strive for humility at the same time; in the words of the Hebrew prophet Micah: to do justice, to love steadfastly, and to walk humbly.

What have you watched, or read, or heard in your life that made you realize what gifts and privileges you had to make the world a better place?

Then, there was The Vicar of Dibley. This is when I learned how profoundly representation matters. I have felt the call to ministry for most of my life, but I never saw anyone who looked like me, or talked like me, or thought like me, in ministry. Not in my friends’ churches growing up here in Nashville. Not in my books, my music, on my screen. They were male, and only used limited scripture, and pop culture taught me they all party poopers. I was one of the teenagers in Footloose, not the bible-thumping father. And then, there was Geraldine Granger, the Vicar of Dibley. She is written and presented as a woman who navigates the delicate road between respecting tradition and keeping religion relevant. She pastors to the village in her care with love and compassion at the same time she pushes them to be better people. And the show was not afraid to remind us that she also makes mistakes. She actively resists the idea that she cannot be a minister because she a woman. She is both human and holy, always seeking to be better, and she changed how I saw myself.

What story in your life made you see yourself differently, made you ask, “What if?”

Even with that shift in my self-perspective, though, I knew I could never limit myself to just Hebrew and Christian scriptures enough to be a traditional Christian, so I tried other ways to reach people through stories. I wrote a few songs, a movie. Eventually I realized I didn’t have the patience for the “Hollywood” side of screenwriting. Executives were more concerned with the fact that I was a woman than whether or not my years as a devoted geek meant I could actually write a sci-fi thriller that would appeal to teenage boys. During the last writers’ guild strike, I faded away and couldn’t bring myself to go back.

And this is where the relationships come in. Without relationships, life cannot fully call us to where we belong. Relationships are how I realized I am a Unitarian Universalist.

A long, long time ago, my mother attended the Quaker meeting here. The youth consisted of me, another girl my age, and a toddler. The lay leaders didn’t really know what to do with us, but bless them, because at least they knew they had to do something. One day, they brought me and Valerie, the other tweener, to the day activities of a local UU youth con. Now, to understand the importance of this event, you need to know that the school I went to here in Nashville was small and sustained itself on the immaturity of mean girls. Now, full disclosure, I’m Facebooks friends with most of them now, and we’ve all grown up into much better people than we were. But I came to that youth con over twenty years ago expecting yet another day of trying, and failing, to be seen and heard.

And then, the most amazing thing happened. They welcomed me. And I don’t mean instant friendship based on common interests, like me and Allison. What made this so amazing was that I wasn’t like them, and it didn’t matter. It was just so natural to them to include me. And I carried that with me for the next twenty years, tucked away, until my first child was on the way. And I remembered those youth, and I wanted my kid to be just like them. So we joined a UU congregation.

Of course I had finally found a religious home that agreed with me about variety of human experiences and the inspiration we draw from everything around us. But by then, I had internalized so many things that I thought I couldn’t do. I had a mortgage to pay, a kid and a spouse to feed and clothe, and at that point in my life, even if I had finally found my religious home, my call to ministry was much more of a daydream than a possible reality.

So even when I had stuff of a religion clearly telling me I could, in fact, take up this call, it was the people who showed me the way to do it. The deeper I threw myself into congregational life the more I heard from those around me that I should consider ministry.

And the most important thing I take away from this revelation at that point in my life, is how important it is to have relationships that not only teach you about yourself, that show you where your facets should go, but that also steady your hand when you have to make those cuts into your stone. People who are willing to give of themselves to make sure you have the right tools for success. The only reason I am here today is because I have the privilege of people in my life who believe in me, who are willing to keep a roof over our heads and put food in our fridge. You all were my first choice for a teaching congregation, but without the coincidence of my family also living here, there was no way I could have moved here, and survived, for an entire year.

How many others have let their call fade into a daydream because they don’t have the resources to take that leap? For whatever reason, they don’t see themselves in the stories in their lives. They are tied by circumstance to a particular job, a particular location, a particular path, because the consequences of failure would have a much worse effect on them and their loved ones than the slim chance of success.

Our first principle calls us to not only make manifest people’s inherent dignity, but also their worth. Our seventh principle calls us to always remember our interconnectedness, not just with the ecology of the planet, but also with each other. The Unitarian Universalist youth of Nashville taught me that. I can’t remember any of their faces, or their names, but they left an indelible mark on my being, and my ability to realize the fullness of that being. So how do we honour that legacy, and fulfill the call to action our principles demand of us? In true UU fashion, I believe the answer is found in questions we can ask others in addition to ourselves:

What do you love?

What do you need?

How can I help?


Invocation Nashville Labor Day Parade 2015

Community, ingathering, is one of the most powerful forces in the world. Today we have gathered as a community to celebrate the contributions of the labor force, and how they have given strength and prosperity to the well-being of our country.

We have also gathered to remember that our work as a community is not finished. That as we celebrate victories already won in our past, there are still battles yet to be fought for justice, equity, and dignity.

As we walk today, let us put our minds to the steps of our feet, building a new path into a better world.

A world where all workers are valued.

A world where those who risk life and limb are protected.

A world where those who clean houses are also able to buy houses to live in.

A world where those who grow food can also afford to eat their fill.

A world where those who build hospitals can use them when they are sick or injured.

A world where those who build hotels can take time to rest with their families.

A world where those who serve and care for others are, themselves, also served and cared for.

As we walk together today, remember that we can build that world, step by step by step.

Amen & Blessed Be


Small Group: Vocation


First UU Church of Nashville Covenant Group Session Plan #138
Meghann Robern, Intern Minister and CG Facilitator

September Worship Theme: Vocation/Self-Awareness/Self-Reflection

All the readings and quotes for this session plan are from Becoming: A Spiritual Guide for Navigating Adulthood, edited by Kayla Parker.

Opening Words: “Labyrinth,” by Rev. Leslie Takahashi

Walk the maze
within your heart: guide your steps into its questioning curves.
This labyrinth is a puzzle leading you deeper into your own truths.
Listen in the twists and turns.
Listen in the openness within all searching.
Listen: a wisdom within you calls to a wisdom beyond you and in that dialogue lies peace.

Chalice Lighting and Covenant

Check-In and Sharing


“I used to think that finding my purpose meant finding a tiny intersection point between my passion and the world’s need. Then I took faith that the world needed passionate people–as Howard Thurman says, ‘people who have come alive.’

“But the greatest learning has come from feeling my fears, my losses, my dreams, and even my quest to ‘find me,’ transformed through the experience of finding and feeling we. Discovering my identity as one who is loved and loves passionately–this has been to come alive.

“What do I want to do with my life? . . . Embrace it.” — David Ruffin

What do the people in your life love about you? Do you agree with how they see you? What do those things tell you about yourself?What are the people, places, things, ideas, that you love the most? Do you feel comfortable expressing those loves, passions, dreams in your life as you live it now? Why or why not? How do the relationships in your life enhance or hinder how you express yourself?

Do you feel that you have “come alive”?

Closing Check-Out and Chalice Extinguishing

Closing Words: “Living Waters,” by Stephen Shick

We float on a sea
hidden beneath dry surfaces
covered by stones.

Isn’t this why we drink and dive so deeply
go down to the sea in ships
risk drowning, again and again?

Isn’t this why Moses parted the waters
to begin his journey?

Why Jesus crossed the waters
to comfort and challenge us?

We were born in water.
We float free in water.
We are washed clean by water.

Isn’t this why we long to find our inward sea?
To help us wash clean the world?