When I talk about gendered language I’m not only referring to calling a crowd of people “guys” or a waiter addressing a table of people as “ladies.” Those instances hardly make a dent any longer. What really gets to me is specifically gendered language in places where we are supposed to know better or, at least, supposed to be working on it. Gendered language that people think is inclusive without really looking into it.
You know, like church? Our churches. Our Unitarian Universalist faith communities that we are so, rightfully, proud of. The churches where so many of us have “gender identity and expression” in our mission statements and have supported transgender rights legislation from city-wide right up to the national level, and where we stress over and over that all are welcome. We ask you to come as you are and then, if you’re somewhere outside the gender binary, you’re ignored.
Transgender identities can be complicated and confusing and often they get oversimplified in an effort to give a quick explanation to somebody. Phrases like “born in the wrong body” and “really a boy/girl” are used to sum up all that is the trans experience. Those phrases do work for a lot of people who identify as trans; there are some people who truly have known since they were very small children that they are definitely the “other” gender than the one they were assigned. There are also quite a lot of folks out there for whom there is no “other” gender. They know they aren’t male but they aren’t totally female, either. I talked about this life in the middle-ground of gender before.
When an assembled body of people is referred to as “ladies and gentleman,” or “men and women” or anything along those lines there is a group of people you’re ignoring. When you sing “brothers and sisters” or “oh, fathers/mothers let’s go down,” or do a reading that calls on “men” to do one thing while “women” do another you are ignoring all of the “me’s” out there. You’re ignoring my existence. I don’t think it’s intentional but I do think it’s something that needs to change.
Today this came up during a service that was supposed to pay homage to the Iowa Sisterhood and the Bread and Roses strike. That’s great! There are women out there who have made amazing contributions to our world; women who have banded together and created real, valuable change. It is necessary that we recognize their perseverance to succeed in a world that did not want to include them. It is necessary to see their successes as one step in a more gender-inclusive world. But, when we celebrate these successes, can we please not do it in a way that makes those of us who are neither men nor women invisible? We need to take the spirit of their message, or the essence of what they were seeking, and expand that beyond the binary we’ve been taught. These women were fighting against a world that tried, and often succeeded, in making them invisible. Trans people are doing the same thing, but with smaller numbers and a less united “what we’re fighting for” message in many cases.
In the UU world trans people are accepted on paper and, often, if they fit in enough with one of two genders they are welcomed in practice (for the most part). There are a lot of trans people I know who would be perfectly fine standing and claiming their identity as female or male, and that’s great, and I’m thrilled those people are supported by their communities.
I am not male. I am not female. I use the pronouns he/him/his because they force people to recognize me as not-a-female. If there was a more readily accepted and useable gender neutral example I’d happily adopt it. But there’s not, so I don’t. But just because those are the pronouns I use does not mean I’m your “brother” or a “man” or one of the “guys.” There is no side for me to pick in these songs, or these readings, or rituals. There’s no “middle” or “other” so I’m left out entirely.
So what do I think you should you do? Just recognize our experience.
How? Oh I’m SO glad you asked!
- Look at a reading and see if you feel comfortable adapting it to make it more inclusive. If you can’t change the words then make an acknowledgement that it’s not entirely inclusive. “Though the author refers to “women and men” we take this reading in the spirit of affirming all genders.”
- Look for hymns that affirm all people, and adapt if necessary. One of my favorite replacements for the phrase “brothers and sisters” is “siblings in spirit.” This, too, is a quick fix. “In the chorus of ‘We’ll Build a Land’ we will sing “siblings in spirit” rather than “brothers and sisters” to better welcome all into our worship.”
- Remember trans folks on Mother’s/Father’s Day. Many trans people have interesting and complicated relationships with parenting, whether or not they are parents themselves. Again, you don’t have to do away with services, just an affirmation is fine. You don’t get something pre-scripted here; I’d prefer you wrote it yourself, from your heart.
- It’s okay to mess up; it’s not okay to pretend you didn’t mess up. Acknowledge and learn from criticism, complaints, hurt feelings, and difficult feedback.
- Don’t ask men to sing one part and women to sing another. I don’t care if it messes with your choir director’s mind. Find another way to classify voices. “Higher voices, sing __, lower voices, sing __.”
- Lastly, stop referring to the kids as “boys and girls.” There are miniature versions of me, too. We get just as annoyed and we’re often less articulate when we’re smaller. Call them children, call them kids, call them young people.
Email me if you want to hash something out privately. Andy.Leigh.Coate-at-gmail-dot-com.
We’ll build a land where siblings in spirit united by God may then create peace… see, totally works.
Thanks to Rev. Sean Dennison and others for help in sussing this out in my mind.