Genderqueer Guide to Being Free

I didn’t know, really, what “genderqueer” meant when I decided to send Lou a message on OKCupid. Or at least, I didn’t understand its importance. It was just one word among many, displayed prominently in the sidebar along with zodiac sign (Capricorn), religious views (agnostic), age (36) and ethnicity (other) as I looked for more interesting information. I wanted to see how this person used words, how they saw the world, what made them excited to get up in the morning. I wanted to see what made them laugh.

But it was Lou’s eyes that made me click “send” on that message, the crinkle-cornered, playful eyes that seemed to dance even on the static and brightly-lit laptop screen. Yes, I thought – I want to know this person.

I want to see what makes their eyes sparkle.

The first time I saw Lou’s eyes get playful in person was when I called Freud an “a**hole” as we sat sipping beers on a Saturday afternoon, about a week after I sent the message. Yes, on our first date, I told this psychodynamically-trained clinical psychologist that I thought the founder of their life’s work was a jerk. “But brilliant,” I added right after, clearing my throat. “Of course.”

(As it turned out, Lou had a few insights to offer about my life’s work, as well. Christian churches, after all, are unfortunately not well-known for their ability to understand, accept, or even make space for people who identify outside of the gender binary. And while I’ve blissfully spent most of my life outside of conservative theological circles, Lou was born and raised in Missionary Baptist churches.)

So I didn’t really know what the “genderqueer” label was about. I never asked, either. Maybe I didn’t want to seem stupid. Maybe I didn’t care. Maybe I was scared about what it would mean for me, a lesbian, to be involved with someone didn’t identify as a woman. But it didn’t really matter that I didn’t ask. I learned anyway, by being present.

I learned by listening. I learned by drying tears shed over feeling constantly misunderstood and unseen by a society engineered for men or women but nobody in between. I learned by witnessing the rage as battles were waged against insurance companies trying to wiggle out of providing coverage for top surgery. I learned by spending evenings together in the kitchen, stirring soup and baking bread. I learned by falling asleep together at night, the soft hum of the air conditioner barely masking the noise of the streets below, Lou’s arms wrapped around me.

It was several months into our relationship before Lou changed their pronouns. When we met, Lou explained that no pronouns really felt right, so “she/her” seemed easiest. But after several months, Lou told me it wasn’t feeling right anymore, and so they wanted to switch to “they/them.” When I asked what changed, they explained that our relationship – in which they felt that I so clearly understood them as who they were, which is male and female and neither and both – was freeing them to really rest in their identity in a new way. And that is the truth – neither male nor female exactly fits Lou. I love that about them, the same way I love their playful eyes, their commitment to their vocation as a psychologist, and the way they always know which direction is north, even in the middle of the desert (how do you KNOW that???)

Love frees us, and guides us to more freedom.

And who isn’t male and female and neither and both, anyway? Even the Christian Bible, that book so often (wrongly) used to justify and enforce strict gender-binary rules, has a little verse claiming that “In Christ there is no male and female.” Is anyone wholly boy or man? Is anyone wholly girl or woman? This is a question Lou and I have talked about at length: what does it mean to be cisgender, anyway?

That’s the curious thing: being in such close relationship and proximity to someone who identifies outside the gender binary allows space for others – me, in this account – to begin to step out of the gender binary as well, to touch those spaces inside of me that lay dormant. As time goes on, I feel less and less “woman,” and more and more…. me.

Love frees us, and guides us to more freedom.

“What a loss for the Church,” I murmured to myself after hearing Lou’s story with Christianity for the first time, mulling over the many ways the Church opts to be its own worst enemy. As a pastor myself, I can tell you that Lou is pretty much our dream congregant. They wanted to be a missionary when they were a teenager; thus, when they finally came out in their early 20s, they didn’t leave the church (even though the church left them) – they started a new church. Even now, having stepped away from organized religion, they maintain their zeal for caring for those who suffer. The church lost out on Lou – and so many others – because it has refused to make room for those whose gender does not fit into a small box.

What I was surprised to learn was that Lou lost out, too. As it turns out, Lou rather enjoys exploring spirituality, even if traditional “church” is often hard. The church has been such a source of rejection and pain for so many LGBTQ persons, but trans* people in particular. The truth is that even though I am a pastor, I am so glad that Lou had the courage to leave their childhood religion behind. Having no religion is infinitely better than harmful religion.

But then it occurred to me: what if the church could not only be not harmful, but maybe even helpful, when people have suffered spiritual trauma as a result of gender discrimination? What if we could actually make things better, not worse?

I don’t know why it surprised me, but it did: research shows that trans* people who are involved with a supportive religious community face much less risk for depression, anxiety and suicide. In short, the church’s exclusion of trans/GNC persons hurts the church, but it hurts trans* people even more. The risks for trans* people in our society are massive, and when the church refuses to embrace our trans* siblings and learn from them, it is opting to turn its back on people for whom it could actually make a difference.

And people it could learn from. Do you know what I learned the most from Lou, my genderqueer partner, lover, and friend? I learned what it means to have the courage to live into who you really are – Christians would say, to live into your baptism – even when society does not make a category for you. I learned about ferocious love that refuses to be denied. I learned what it looks like for someone to hold onto their understanding of the Divine even when all they are told is that the Divine doesn’t want them as they are. I learned what it means to take the risk of listening to yourself, to that still, small voice inside of you, and trust it to lead you to the next step, even when you can’t see the end of the road. I’ve learned how to be a better human being.

Come join us at General Seminary for our one-day conference to learn more along with me as we listen to many voices involved with this important work across the disciplinary spectrum… Lou’s voice, of course, included.

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