This, friends is deeply personal, and my story. I speak for myself alone.
I wear a tie to church every Sunday, these days. I do so because I want to bring my whole complicated self to this place I call church. I am complicated. My gender, my family, my politics, my soul. All complicated. The tie is an expression of my gender as a butch woman. It is a transgressive act, a disruptive one. It forces people who look at me to think differently, to question assumptions. I feel strong and emotionally bigger when I have a tie on (I speak only for myself here, I completely get that Femmes, other Butches and all sorts of people express themselves and feel strong in lots of different clothes).
It is not always a safe choice. It hasn’t been safe at church. I was once asked by a fellow congregant if I was wearing a costume because I was wearing a tie.
I passed that off, told it as a joke to other butch women who got it.
It was real harm, however.
It was also real harm when a visiting minister used a tie as a metaphor for his traditionalism, and erased me, and my partner, from the conversation.
Homiletics is the structure of a sermon or homily, the length, and the delivery-the rhetorical devices used in religious public speaking. It is also the analysis or study of sermons.
The visiting preacher included, early in his sermon, a comparison of his congregation with ours. Formerly, our congregation was a bastion of traditional Christianity and his was a vanguard of transcendental thought. Now, those roles are reversed. Our congregation is one of the more cutting edge, the more radical (said with a hint of judgment, even disdain), and his is more traditional. And then this happened:
“I mean, I am the only one wearing a tie in here. [Pause] Well, the only man.”
“NOT TRUE. NOT TRUE AT ALL,” I said from the chairs. More than one person laughed, and one person clapped.
“Right,” he said. “That makes me feel better.”
What he intended, with his homiletics, was to insert a self-deprecating joke pointing out how traditional he was by wearing a tie in church on a Sunday. His impact, however was very, very different.
- Opening my Heart
I don’t, as a general rule, trust men. I set the bar very high, and need to see a lot of effort from men in regard to their own misogyny and toxic masculinity as well as how they aspire to be my ally.
I am working, very hard, on becoming more open, willing to take a risk with my heart and lift the curtain more readily. This is hard for me, and comes with a cost. I am working through this with the guidance of the senior minister of my congregation as well as a mentor with the UUSC (Unitarian Universalist Service Committee). They are supportive, understanding and also pushy. I need that. I am trying.
My heart was open on Sunday. I was taking the risk to hear this sermon, really listen. And then, I was unseen, unheard and dismissed. By the white cis man in the pulpit.
And not just some random white cis man in the pulpit. This man was, in his own words, is a “very, very big fish” in the UU pond. Just the day before, he had spoken about his discomfort with the new seating arrangement at UUA board meetings, which had been designed to decentralize power at the table. This white cis man had been invited to preach to us.
- “I am going to sit at the welcome table one day…”
There is a hymn, often sung in our church, called “I Am Going to Sit at The Welcome Table Someday”, from the McCombs, Mississippi Freedom School, written in 1964. It is a wonderful song to hear, and to sing.
Who is welcome at this man’s table? He may say I am, but his actions show me differently. I know that I am not. Or maybe I would be, if I didn’t bring my whole complicated self. I have to decide if the seat at the welcome table is worth abandoning the parts of me that he cannot, or will not, see. The parts of me that make him uncomfortable, or even angry. That is not, then, a welcome table.
- Being Seen Matters
The day after this event at church, Attorney General Loretta Lynch responded to the governor of North Carolina’s insistence on keeping their unnecessary and hateful bathroom bill, requiring people to use the bathroom that corresponds to the sex assigned on their birth certificates. She also included a special note for the transgender community:
WE SEE YOU.
Those three words are so important. There are only a handful of people I have known in my life who have seen my full complicated self and have said, “You are welcome, here, with me.” Being seen is about not having to edit oneself to fit somewhere. I don’t have to be less of me to be with those people.
I don’t want to — and will not — leave my tie, my female masculinity, at the door when I come into church. When I sit in the chairs, listening and trying to take in the sermon to deepen my faith and spiritual practice, I want to be my whole, complicated self.
If I am not, if I have to safeguard those vulnerable parts of me, those pieces that might make the person down the aisle, or the person in the pulpit, uncomfortable or angry, I don’t receive the sermon. I don’t take anything away from that except hurt, and more scars and less trust. Again.
I want, need and deserve to be fully seen and heard in church.
- Faux-apologies, and Taking Care
After the service, I was sitting in the hallway waiting for my family to be ready to leave and the visiting minister passed me. He interrupted what I was doing to tell me I had a nice tie and thank me for speaking up. I had nothing to offer him. I was angry, and I was trying to just notice that (“Oh, how curious,” I said to myself.), and not verbally throttle him, this guest in our congregation. I was only minorly successful at concealing the hostility I felt. I spat words at him and didn’t give an inch. I saw my partner coming toward us, but holding back. He walked away from me and quickly apologized to her as she tried to walk past him.
Let me make this very, very clear, for future reference. If you cause me harm, I will not make any effort to make you feel better about it. If you say or do things that prop up the white cis heteropatriarchy, especially those parts that benefit you, I will not pat your hand and say, “That’s okay.” If your expectation is absolution, you are not anyone’s ally.
Instead, acknowledge what you did without any expectation of me. I don’t owe you a relationship in order for you to not feel guilty.
- Love abides.
I love church, I am a proud church lady, albeit a masculine one. I love church, warts and all. I want to make it better. I want to close the gaps in understanding and care. I am keenly aware of the loudness of those who said nothing on Sunday and in the days since. I have taken comfort in the many who do see (most of) me there, and several of them spoke to me after services on Sunday. One even said, directly, “I see you.” I am eternally grateful for that love. But I am not satisfied.