I dressed .so. carefully.

I love those special things that happily get caught in your head, forcing you to ruminate on them, flip them over, dissect them, observe them from every angle. They make me happy, they make me feel engaged. Sometimes it’s something quick that enters, excites you for awhile, and is replaced by something else. But sometimes it’s something that won’t leave your mind for weeks or months; not that it is at the forefront constantly, but it pops up enough that it’s certainly not been filed away in the dusty cabinet in your mind labeled “stuff that was cool one time” alongside your Troll Doll collection from 3rd grade and mediocre date memories.

One of those things for me is Rev. Gail Geisenhainer’s sermon from the 2006 General Assembly. You should go listen to it. It’s totally worth it.

I have listened to it no less than a dozen times, probably more. I really like it. I first read it almost a year ago, somebody linked to it online, but I didn’t put some stuff together then.

But then a friend had me sit down and watch it.

She was talking about my church.

She was talking about my people.

Not in some weird metaphorical sense – she was literally talking about the church I attended and the people I attended with.

And, in the totally metaphorical sense, she was talking about me.

So I went. Oh mama I went alright. And I dressed so carefully for my first Sunday visit. I spiked my short hair straight up into the air. I dug out my heaviest, oldest, work boots, the ones with the chainsaw cut in the toe that exposed steel. I got out my torn bluejeans and my leather jacket with all the fringe. There would not be one shred of ambiguity this Sunday.”

The first Sunday service I attended at that church I, too, dressed carefully. I wore my MEN’S dress shoes thankyouverymuch, a pair of MEN’S dress pants thankyouvermuch, a MEN’S button-up thankyouverymuch, a black sweater, my short hair combed very carefully.

I looked like a miniature Mr. Rogers.

Perfect.

“Those people would embrace me in my full amazon glory or they could fry ice.  On my way in I carefully arranged my outfit to highlight the rock hard chip I carried on my shoulder.  Bundled up every shred of pain and hurt and betrayal that I had harbored and nurtured and carried with me from every other religious experience.  I lumbered into that tiny meeting house on the coast of Maine.”

(I also made two friends go with me. It didn’t even require that much threatening or begging.)

Additionally, I had something that Rev. Gail didn’t have available to her at the time: I had the INTERNET. I spent HOURS between the first event at the church I attended (the prior Wednesday there was a special Standing on the Side of Love service about the loss of Question 1 – the minister had hugged me afterward and invited me to come the next Sunday, which is why I was even contemplating this all in the first place) and that Sunday service on the UUA website. Not in an effort to learn more, but in an effort to talk myself out of something I was positive was going to be a mistake.

There simply HAD to be something wrong with this denomination.  But I could not find a thing except for one guy in Canada who protests some UU church and posts his incoherent ramblings to his blog.  Alright then.

“All blanking churches are the same” I informed him “they say they’re open but they don’t want queer folk.  To heck with you, and your church.” Was Rev. Gail’s opinion on the matter before her first service.  A sentiment I had expressed more than a few times.

Sure, they had rainbow stuff all over their website, but that probably didn’t mean anything. Sure, they SAID they were cool with queer people, but that probably just meant that they liked assimilationist gay families. Sure sure sure, that was all fine and stuff, but let’s see how you deal with transgender people.

“Now I expected the little gray haired ladies in the foyer to step back in fear.  That would, in fact, have been familiar at that point in my life.  Instead those ladies stepped forward as I entered.”

Pretty much the same way they handled Rev. Gail. They stepped forward. Handed me an order of service. Asked me to make a nametag. Called me “dea-uh.”

I took the sharpie, carefully wrote “Andrew” in big, bold letters. Take THAT!

“Nice to meet you.”

“They offered me a bulletin and a newsletter and they invited me to stay for coffee.  It was so… odd.  They never even flinched!  ‘Stay for coffee, dea-uh.’  ‘I stayed for coffee.  I stayed for Unitarian Universalism.’”

Damn. Being wrong is always hard.

There were still fumbles and awkward moments. I’m really bad about offering up my pronouns, and rarely correct people. But enough people there already knew me that it was mostly OK. And the minister was kind of blatantly queer, which made me feel really comfortable.

I kept rallying against it, though. I couldn’t like CHURCH! It was… CHURCH! Eventually, I was sure, I’d learn something about the denomination that I hated and then I could leave, feeling all manner of superior.

“This was the mid 1980s.  During the worship service on my second or third Sunday there a woman stood during joys and concerns to announce that all homosexuals had AIDS, all homosexuals were deviants who could not be trusted with kids, health, or civil society.  All homosexuals should be quarantined, packed off to work camps to provide useful labor for society and keep their filthy lifestyle and deadly diseases to themselves.”

And eventually the congregation did something that made me really upset. That made me question this whole church thing. They got rid of our minister with almost no explanation, a minister who had brought me into this religion, showed me church could be a good thing. But it was more the glib attitude of a few members about how they’d never really liked her. I was so angry. I cried a lot. At the church and at myself. I swore up down and sideways that I was never going back.

“I left that week immediately after the service.  What about next Sunday.  Would I go back?  Why on earth would I go back?  Going back would be well, you fill in the word.”

But that sermon kept coming back to me. Her experience with the woman who said hateful things during Joys and Sorrows, a story I had heard for at least a half dozen people by the time I heard her tell it. How something bad had happened and she stayed with the church because, “that’s not how human change works” she says. Immediacy and spontaneity are “not how human change works, not the pace of human learning, nor the pace of effective world change.”

Sometimes I just want the UUA to change, right now, to suit all the people they are not effectively serving. But that isn’t how it works, and intellectually, as an organizer and an activist and as a student I know that. Emotionally I like to pretend it isn’t true, but intellectually I know it is.

My posts here often seem negative, or like I’m complaining. I’m making an effort to change that. But things aren’t perfect, and it is when flaws or different opinions are pointed out that people can gain a different perspective. I WANT things to change NOW. Intellectually I know that that isn’t going to happen, but I can still want it.

All italicized quotes from Rev. Gail Geisenhainer’s 2006 General Assembly Sermon.  Which, again, you should all totally go listen to.

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5 Responses to “I dressed .so. carefully.”

  1. Beautiful, vulnerable, real post, Andy.

  2. Andrew, thank you for the careful use of my sermon. And THANK YOU for engaging the deep work of social change…, for staying in the struggle even after the allies break your heart…, for surviving. Thank you. I join you in the wanting. 😀

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful response, Gail! Moreover, thanks for your powerful sermon, for realizing your call, and for taking those brave footsteps in the path of those before you so that the path for me was even more defined and accessible.

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